Intellectuals and Social Being

On Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s reissued Intellectual and Manual Labour and science as constitutive force

It is not possible to grasp contemporary social life without taking into account the vast transformations in society and technology that have occurred across the last several generations. Some are obvious, having unmistakable impacts in most aspects of life: the internet, for example, which has opened new possibilities for sociality and communications, not to mention business. While locking many of the older generations out of the new daily necessities—such as internet banking—this transformation is taken for granted by younger generations. These and many other transformations, especially since the Second World War—think of nuclear energy and nuclear warfare as well as the electronics that undergird computerisation, among other things—profoundly shape our world today. At the centre of these transformations are certain technological revolutions. We can focus on their generational impacts, but more crucial here, in this discussion of the work of German economist and philosopher Alfred Sohn-Rethel, is to focus on where those technological revolutions come from and what they mean as a set of related developments in social life.

While largely taken for granted now, these technological revolutions, with some precursors but only fully fledged today, were not historically familiar forms of technological development. They did not emerge from intelligent thinking by practical inventors, for instance. Rather, they are developments incubated within institutions that were, by and large, not directly associated with the practical transformation of everyday life and economy: the universities and related research centres. These settings provide a form of institutional organisation for intellectuals, including scientists, and their relationship to both the economy and the life-world has radically changed. Something has happened within intellectuality itself that gives it a direct entry point into the transformation of the material world.

This is a development that is to the side of how Marxist insights have been taken up, that is, especially through the political-economic account of distributional inequality via binary, conflicting social classes. The famous, and deeply resonant theme for all modern people of Marx’s phrase ‘all that is solid melts into air’ captures the association of capitalism with social transformation. Here, however, the kind of transformation being conjured up refers to the transformation of the means of production—those technologies and other means that feed productivity—as set within a process of class control. The idea of class controls that enable a selection of technical transformations, however, leaves unexplored the source of transformation itself. In other words, transformation—scientific transformation, technological revolution—is in Marxism and derived left positions not, as such, given a social account. Might transformations in science and technology contain their own momentum? Can they alter how class is experienced and the forms class takes? Is it possible that over time they introduce basic change into the larger society without directly challenging the underlying class structure? What are their powers and scope in shaping experience?

Such questions lie at the centre of the preoccupations of Arena editors over many years. The growing importance of intellectual training and its implications for persons generally, not primarily for the industrial working classes; the growing importance to capitalism of intellectual practices; and what their meanings for social life and future prospects might be—these have gone through various phases of development in Arena’s body of social theory. Even new forms of contradiction, from the viewpoint of the social whole, have been elaborated within this approach.

The recent republication of Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s classic work Intellectual and Manual Labour invites a consideration of some of these changes that have impacted on the relevance of the Marxist account for social analysis over a century or so. Sohn-Rethel argues that practical Marxism, with its emphasis upon class exploitation and class division, has done Marx a disservice. While of great significance, practical Marxism has nevertheless taken up only one aspect of Marx’s account, and in so doing it reduces its meanings. Counter-intuitively, Sohn-Rethel’s focus is on social practices in scientific and technological development that are unifying rather than conflictual. He is concerned with how society is significantly composed of what he calls shared universals across society, such as science, intellectuality and epistemology, or where and how knowledge is achieved. 

This concern with abstract universals can easily be misleading. Sohn-Rethel was very much preoccupied with the issues of his day. Experiencing the disaster of the First World War and its aftermath, which, especially, saw the failure of the German working-class revolution and the unravelling of German society generally, he was seeking to understand how this had happened against the backdrop of the class account of social prospects developed by Marx. After all, among many other things, this was a failure that opened the door to the rise of the Nazis in Germany leading to the destruction of the strongest working-class movement in Europe.

Rather than seeing this failure as a contingent event that worked out badly for Marxist movements, Sohn-Rethel sees it as a crisis of practical theory: a failure of one side of Marxist thought. He is basically arguing that an account grounded in the production process as it is in Marxism, seen in terms of competing social classes, leaves the productive forces as a kind of ‘black box’ that is taken for granted and in itself has no social basis. The increasing reliance on science in economic life has progressively transformed the productive forces. The reliance upon a notion of ‘scientific revolutions’ as explanation for the transformation of the productive forces is not a fully material account of what has happened. The question is: how is this scientific revolution a social phenomenon, not merely the expression of class interest?

It is important to keep in mind that Sohn-Rethel is not claiming that Marx wholly ignores such universals. On the contrary, the early chapters of Marx’s Capital address the commodity abstraction (an emanation from markets), which is universal in its impact on social life. In Marx’s own account, though, its significance is implied rather than elaborated, and this is one reason why it is largely dismissed or brushed aside in political economy as inappropriate. Many find it a mysterious moment in Marx’s overall account of capitalism. It is certainly true that the main focus of Capital lies elsewhere: how political economy works, practices and social structures in the foreground, as it were, in order to make sense of how class division unfolds and is reinforced. While it can be shown that such universals have an impact on his practical accounts, nevertheless the overall impact of the Marxist frame at work in Capital is reductive, with serious implications over time.

Historical materialism always seeks to give a social context to popular ideas: consciousness is socially rooted, and in the political economy account therefore slated home to economy and to class, in one way or another. Marx makes many references to how ideas are related to a social basis, but Sohn-Rethel regards it of great significance that science escapes this focus.  Elaborating no social basis for scientific ideas allows them to stand alone as essentials to be simply taken for granted, their source and social formation unquestioned. If the phenomena of consciousness are time-bound by being related to social contexts, Sohn-Rethel asks, how it is that logic, mathematics and science are ‘ruled by timeless standards’? Or to put it around the other way, how might philosophy and science be understood to be bounded by time via particular types of sociality? This is essential for a socially material approach. For Sohn-Rethel, this is also a key question related to the prospect for socialism. He asks: how can there be a socialism if science and technology are not subservient to the needs of society, if they are not brought down to earth? In his view, if science cannot be given a materialist account this will lead to a technocratic society, by which he means that technology, not society, will rule.

To take up these matters Sohn-Rethel relies on a key distinction in Marx between ‘societies of production’ and ‘societies of appropriation’. Communal societies illustrate societies of production; this is where a whole society produces for itself, as in many pre-industrial cultures.  Societies of appropriation, on the other hand, are class societies, where one class appropriates and exploits the other. Societies of appropriation are commodity societies, where the market stands apart as a universal from the social classes and facilitates the appropriation process so that exploitation—mired in an inescapable brutality of various types—is muted or made opaque. In this way, such exploitation is legitimised. Crucially, this standing apart is achieved by means of abstraction separated from the production process. This reality of the market is itself a material force, a real abstract material force, contrary to Louis Althusser, who viewed the commodity abstraction as merely a metaphor. This observation allows Sohn-Rethel to refer to abstraction as a process other than by thought. While abstraction facilitates class division and allows the productive process to be pursued by individuals who are mediated by markets, it also facilitates a social synthesis. That is to say, the market is universalist, not class divided. The market is a universal material force that facilitates social unity despite the reality also of class division. 

It is this real abstraction of the market that in history is the social basis of social relations that are not primarily entities of class division: crucially, the relations of intellectuality—philosophy, mathematics and universalistic science. However, these social relations are not experienced as such. They assert their powers in action rather than in conscious awareness. This universalist material force is also time-based. It is a product of the market that emerged in antiquity, especially in ancient Greece, where universalist philosophy also famously emerged. In other words, the market is a social basis of all commodity societies, which are held together, integrated, in ways necessarily different to other social forms, such as Marx’s ‘societies of production’.

This approach allows Sohn-Rethel to draw conclusions about the nature of commodity societies, intellectuality, and science in particular. ‘(T)he abstractness operating in exchange…does…find an identical expression, namely the abstract intellect, or the so-called “pure understanding” [this is] the cognitive source of scientific knowledge.’

(U)naffected are the forms of consciousness which are part of the economic life of society and all those mental forms residing under the name of ‘ideologies’. These do not concern our present study, which is to be understood as an attempt purely at a critique of idealistic epistemology, complementary to Marx’s critique of political economy, but based on a systematic foundation of its own.

Interrelationships affected by the exchange relation act through abstract forms (of commodity relations), not through the directly engaged psychology of the individuals involved. It is the form that moulds psychological mechanisms. While, thus, producers directly engage with nature, intellectuals and scientists engage indirectly through mathematical forms of a ‘pure’ nature, one ‘unmistakably at odds with the nature experienced by man in the labour process’.                 

From here, Sohn-Rethel can speak of an abstract nature ‘devoid of all sense reality [that] admits only…quantitative differentiation’.

The form elements of the exchange abstraction are of such fundamental caliber—abstract time and space, abstract matter, quantity as a mathematical abstraction, abstract motion, etc…[and] make up between them a kind of abstract framework into which all observable phenomena are bound to fit.

This relationship between the class-based productive sphere and the universalist commodity-based intellectual/scientific sphere—the former grounded in the practices of actual production, the latter ‘grounded’ in real abstraction—has been the basis of commodity societies since ancient Greece. This division of mental and manual labour only moved into another relation with the emergence of monopoly capitalism and profound changes in ‘science and technology whereby there is a transformation of the productive forces into those [shaped by] atomic physics and of electronics’. For Sohn-Rethel, then, the modern sciences have bridged the relation of practical production and abstract intellectual forms by their entry directly into practical production.

This general approach of Sohn-Rethel, especially his emphasis on real abstraction, throws light upon the role of intellectuality in commodity societies and, contrary to Marx, gives significant focus to the distinctive social role of intellectuals in the social life of those societies. Other themes in his work, however, have become quite dated, for example, his work on Taylorism and the prospects of automation, real practices today that are not given the broad interpretation they deserve. And there is a noted lack of development in respect of the meanings and effects of intellectual practices since the emergence of atomic physics, or the unconstrained assault on practical nature that has unfolded since the Second World War.

This latter theme has long been a point where socialism and capitalism agree. While there have always been deep differences here about the significance of who controls the means of production, the continued expansion of the means of production is a shared assumption of both approaches. It is not only climate change that has intervened on this question. The broader environmental questions of resources use and destruction of the natural world has ruled a line through this expansive, common concept, that deep assumption of modernity that continues to carry both capitalism and conventional socialism towards existential disaster.

Social abstraction and techno-science

Sohn-Rethel’s identification of intellectuality as a material process, a real abstraction, establishes a potential transition in the practical understanding of capitalism and socialism. This was not due merely to a change of concepts and conceptual frameworks. The timing of Sohn-Rethel’s work was also critical because it coincided with a practical transition in capitalism itself, one that demands new thinking about the components of contemporary society, with potentially different emphases for practical action.

It is striking that within Marxist political economy, Sohn-Rethel’s reconstruction has always struggled to gain recognition. It was even resisted by some left publishers who felt the work strayed too far from what was acceptable within the politics of the Left. While Sohn-Rethel didn’t see it this way, a practically focused class-based politics with ingrained ideas has little room for ideas about intellectuality and the scientific revolutions of the twentieth century. The response of Antonio Negri, who viewed Sohn-Rethel’s work as typical of German left-pessimism after the destruction of the workers’ movement in the 1920s, is illustrative. Is it pessimism at work or is it recognition of a major shift in the social composition that must now be taken into account? If this is a question to be answered by history, that Sohn-Rethel’s book is being republished now could in itself constitute recognition that his emphasis on the importance of intellectuals in productive life has gained further significance since the time of his writing.

The Arena project views Sohn-Rethel’s work on intellectual and mental labour as an important step, a crucial transition, in coming to terms with social phenomena yet to be fully comprehended by a practically oriented Marxism. Sohn-Rethel ends with the emergence of electronics and atomic physics as the moment in science that creates the setting for monopoly capitalism in the world of capital. Geoff Sharp, founding editor of Arena,who was influenced by Sohn-Rethel, argues for a much broader transformation of materialist thinking and practice, developing, in the early 1960s, an account of the emergence of a new social agent in a transforming social structure: the intellectually trained.

The intellectually trained, often squeezed into the category of ‘middle class’ by political economy, differ in basic ways from the working class. By being trained in the academy they are formed in the application of general techniques developed by creative intellectuals. The need for periodic renewal, a characteristic of intellectual training, can only come from a return to the academy in one form or another, which means the intellectually trained must also relinquish the constraints of particular settings. While they are trained, their internalised techniques are defined by their generality and flexibility. Their capacity to stand at a distance from and take hold of situations, analyse them and re-compose them, is distinctive.  Control of such workers requires both control of the person, not so much their labour, and control of the academy. Both the person and the academy are defined by their relative autonomy. While control may be achieved in a given moment, it is never settled; such control is a process defined by contingent uncertainty.

The formation of the intellectually trained in the rational mode within the academy also means that they have to choose how to live and what social structures to support. While today these choices largely support the contemporary social order, not to mention the crushing of the humanities within the academy, the distinctive formation of the intellectually trained allows the possibility of choosing to oppose that order. This is especially the case if the intellectual practices proper within the academy become critical of the dominant social order. The point is that universalistic intellectual practices have concerns broader than those of capitalism or any particular social structure, and ‘service’ is ‘a deeply entrenched value’. While they are at present largely joined with capitalism in the pursuit of ‘development’, this is not a structural given. It is possible to get a partial glimpse of this process today with climate change. The rebellion of climate scientists over climate policy is a rational revolt against the assumptions of a social order in which the scientists, based on evidence, have come to believe that the lives of everyone, not just of the elite or the ruling class, are at risk. While both intellectuals and the intellectually trained do not essentially live by social relations ordered by institutional authority, they can order themselves around rational concerns and become fierce opponents. 

Sharp’s work first addressed a situation of growing cultural and political revolt in the 1960s and 1970s. While this revolt was not sustained in later decades, the growth of intellectual practices in the economy constantly expanded. This was reflected in the enormous growth of the educational sector in ‘advanced’ societies and also in attempts by the social order to clamp down on the freedom of the intellectually trained by reducing the academy to more restricted and narrowly careerist forms of education. This has evolved over time to the point where there is a growing disparity between two different kinds of workers in industry, broadly defined, with the industrial working class in relative decline. This puts a radically different emphasis on the new significance of the sciences in industry as compared with Sohn-Rethel’s work and time. Sohn-Rethel did not go on to explore the implications for the persons of such workers under the new or emerging development. In other words, ultimately, and despite his key conceptual break, he retained an approach somewhat closer to conventional political economy. 

Another expression of this development in thinking is in Arena’s interpretation of science and its relation to industry. Rather than simply refer to the latest developments in science—electronics, atomic physics—Sharp and other Arena editors recognise a generalised transformation that leads to the identification of the high-tech revolution as a much more general category. In particular, this perspective argues that in the twentieth century, science and technology became decisively intertwined after the discoveries of Albert Einstein. Techno-science, practices drawn from abstract ideas, have multiplied in all sectors as capitalism recognised the productive revolution this implied. This led to a vast expansion of educational institutions in society and growing emphasis on intellectual training. Sharp saw this development as epochal: technique in the world was increasingly a product of the academy, of practices derived from complexes of ideas that constituted real lived abstractions, that is, set apart from the productive process itself. This high-tech revolution not only impacts directly on myriad forms of production and services of great variety but also steps outside of conventional economic concerns and turns upon everyday life, even the evolutionary process itself. One could say that when Sharp refers to the relation of abstract ideas to practical transformation as an epochal change, he is suggesting that it generates outcomes that are without historical precedent. Homo sapiens with the help of techno-science begin to imagine it can shape and displace evolution, as illustrated by various contemporary interventions to reconstruct the body, the temptation to use geo-engineering as a response to climate change, and Elon Musk and his followers’ desire and capacity to begin to colonise space.

The idea of ‘constitutive abstraction’ in Sharp’s work reflects the generalised nature of these developments. Here the social relations distinctive to intellectuals are seen to work as extended relations, relations that place a form of absence—of the other—at their heart, with those relations necessarily mediated by technology, whether writing, the printed word, or forms of internet communication and connection. These relations are relatively abstract: in the sense of the real abstraction identified by Sohn-Rethel. Critically, relations of this abstract kind are not easily raised to self-consciousness by intellectuals themselves. Intellectuals typically experience themselves as individuals, often as brilliant, singular individuals, rather than as sharing in the characteristics of their form of apprehending and experiencing the world.

This account of the social relations of absence contrasts with the social relations that best account for everyday life; that is, where the other is largely physically present in face-to-face or embodied relations. It relies on the range of the tangible, the body and the senses employed in close community—the qualities of sensual interactions that are situated in place and experienced over time. These have typically been a broad form of social relation organised within communities that combine locatedness in place with ties that in one way or another limit or slow up movement. Historically, kinship and intergenerational relationships have provided common means of achieving this.

While this delineation of a contrast in ‘levels’ of social abstraction is a crucial insight into the nature of personal and social formation, of even greater importance is that for both the individual and the social order these more or less abstract forms are combined in everyday life, with different intensities. Intellectuals, for example, internalise face-to-face relations, especially as young people growing up; they retain these internalised relations as they develop abstract interchanges in the academy; they integrate them within the self and as well as within broader sets of intellectual practices. In community life, while face-to-face relations are dominant, more abstract inter-relations are also significant, as illustrated by the role of literature and religion historically, or today, the intellectually trained and their dominance in the mode of education and conjunction with the demands of capital everywhere.

There is another development in the Arena outlook that goes beyond the work of Sohn-Rethel. By formulating a material account of intellectuality in commodity societies, Sohn-Rethel moves beyond conventional political economy, but he does not, and could hardly be expected to, come to terms with the significance of intellectuality in the world today. This isn’t merely a matter of the changing proportions of industrial workers versus the intellectually trained in society. The formulation by Sharp of levels of social abstraction makes it possible to see the different modes of social formation in interrelation. As intellectual practices penetrate and move across the society, the more generalised abstraction is embedded in and appears to enhance all ways of life.

Ways of being human have always been formed within cultures that value the tangible object world, sense experience, the tangible other. What this more generalised social abstraction means for social life is multifaceted. One consequence of great significance is the enhancement of liberatory political movements of many kinds. While liberatory movements are hardly newat the very least Gnostic and Christian liberation has a long history—these movements now spawn wherever one looks. Freedom was once a hard-won political and legal right for individuals against the power of the state. Now, with the undermining of generational face-to-face relations by more socially abstract relations that do not value the presence of the other, liberation takes more radical forms. Facilitated by techno-science, liberation often comes to mean freedom from natural or evolutionary constraints: from the given body, from generational ‘constraints’ (displaced by social media), or even the Earth itself via colonisation of space –a long-held deep orientation of modernity now crudely exemplified by the projects of Elon Musk and others.

For Sharp this profound shift in the balance between face-to-face and more abstract relations tends towards a broad-ranging cultural contradiction, one that begins to erupt across life, and may be seen in the huge range of mental crises related to a lack of grounding in embodied social life and natural world.  It is a crisis that emerges as techno-science joins with capitalism, gains momentum, even dominating capitalism, and begins to reconstruct the world around us in fundamental ways.

Cultural contradiction has multiple effects in the social world. People begin to act against its manifestations in piecemeal ways. Some begin to walk away from contemporary social life, attempting to rebuild their face-to-face relations with others and with nature, as did the counter-culture fifty years ago. Conventional politics fragments and turns upon itself, having lost the stable reference points that were its basis in the past. The whole frame of ‘progress’ and expansion, actively supporting a sense of the future, begins to unravel for growing sections of society, as well as politics. Yet how this challenge will work its way out over the next generation will turn in large part on the response over time of intellectual practice in the academy. Sharp made clear that this would be no easy task:

…any movement towards confronting the new-found merger…of the intellectual practices with the Powers, is a project of unprecedented difficulty. It is a conjunction that may continue to devolve into new forms of tyranny unless the interpretive branch of the intellectual practices can renew its former precedence.

Will intellectual practices continue their implicit cooperation with capital and destroy much of the world of Homo sapiens and other species? Or, can they be harnessed to draw upon their universalist ethical orientation, turn against the seductions of capitalism, and return to and serve the broad community?

Note: Intellectual and Manual Labour, by Alfred Sohn-Rethel, was republished by Brill in 2021; it was originally published in 1978.

About the author

John Hinkson

John Hinkson lectured in the Education Faculty at La Trobe University for many years. He is a longstanding Arena Publications Editor.

More articles by John Hinkson

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