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Intellectual and Manual Labour

(New Left Books 1973). But also read Macciocchi’s
own contributions to this important and exciting
book. Althusser on intellectuals: ‘It is extremely
difficult for specialists and other bourgeois and
petty-bourgeois “intellectuals” (including students).

For a mere education of their consciousness is not
enough, nor a mere reading of Capital. They must
also make a real rupture, a real revolution in their
consciousness, in order to move from their necessarily bourgeois or petty-bourgeois class instinct to
proletarian class positions. It is extremely
difficult. but not absolutely impossible ••• A
proletarian class position is more than a mere
proletarian ‘class instinct! It is the consciousness and practice which conform with the objective
reality of the proletarian class struggle. Class
instinct is subjective and spontaneous. Class
position is objective and rational. To arrive at
proletarian class positions, the class instinct of
proletarians only needs to be educated;the class
instinct of the petty-bourgeoisie, and hence of
intellectuals, has, on the contrary, to be revolutionized. This education and this revolution are,
in the last analysis, determined by proletarian
class struggle conducted on the basis of the principles of Marxist-Leninist theory’.

(Lenin and Philosophy).)£ one thing we Can be sure.

It is not the
intellectuals, not even the philosophers, who make

Inlelleclual and
lDanual labou:r
An attempt at a materialistic theory

Alfred Sohn-Rethel
Scientists learn from experiment, provided that they
do not carry this out by trial and error, but as the
test of a theoretically well-founded hypothesis.

Mankind could learn from its great social revolutions
if it knew the hypotheses to which they were to be
read as experiments. Marx’s attempt to make
historical understanding scientific had such an aim
in mind.

The French revolution of 1789 had liqUidated
the social antagonism which it understood, the
antagonism between high and low, aristocrats and
commoners, but it had fallen into an antagonism which
it did not understand, the one between rich and poor,
capital and labour. The thinkers of the French
revolution had been untried in historical thinking
as the awareness of history only arose in the wake of
the revolution.

It led in fairly close stages from
the still unhistorical thought of Kant to Hegel’s
undertaking to make the whole of philosophy a field
of historical or ‘dialectical’ thinking. Marx took
up the attempt but transfol~ed it from speculation
to science, to materialism.

It is a fair description
of his intent to say that historical materialism was
elaborated as the science of class society and of
the class struggle so that mankind should be spared
a repetition of the kind of experience which the
Jacobin revolution had produced.

When the collapse of Tsarist Russia created a
revolutionary situation the Bolsheviks seized upon it
in full confidence of their historical understanding
as founded on the Marxist science. The revolution of
1917 liquidated the social antagonism which they
understood, the one between private capi tal and labour,
but failed to create the conditions of a classless
society. The outcane of the Soviet development has
been a new class society characterised by the class
rule of bureaucratism.

In discussing this result we have a choice.


We can either argue that the Russian revolution was
not a suitable experiment on which to test the
validity of Marx’s theory that ‘the bourgeois
relations of production are the last antagonistic
form of the social process of production,2 and that,
therefore, the Russian experiment is not conclusive.

Or we can declare ourselves satisfied that the
result is at least sufficiently conclusive to send us
back to look into our hypothesis again. This second
one is the choice argued in the present article. We
hold on to the standpoint of historical materialism
as founded by Marx, but we believe that Marx’s
theory of class society has an essential deficiency.

Our reading of the new class society which has
emerged in the Soviet orbit, the rule of bureaucracy over labour, is that it is conditioned in an
essential, although not readily apparent way by the
existing divisions of intellectual and manual labour.

The antithesis between mental and manual labour must
be counted among the fundamental traits of all forms
of class society. Marx saw the importance of this
phenomenon, but he has not given us the means to
understand it. We believe that without such understanding our knowledge of the fundamentals of class
society is not suffiCiently complete to allow us to
aim at its abolition.

By what causality is the division of mental and
manual labour connected with the social class
division? This is the question which the enquiry in
the following pages purports to answer.

It is also
one of the central questions involved in the developments in China. The Cultural Revolution there is
devoted to the effort of forestalling the new social
class divisions which have emerged in the Soviet orbit. The systematic narrowing and eventual closing of
the gap between intellectual and manual labour is .

recognised in China as one of the essential prerequisites for the achievement of a classless
society. Therefore, our analysis in these pages is
intended as a theoretical enquiry serving that
revolutionary practice.

The success or failure of the Cultural Revolution is gauged in China by the transformation of the
superstructure that is achieved. How do we have to
draw the confines of the superstructure as seen from
the angle of. the division of head and hand? Above
all, does science form part of it, or does it not?

Where Marx discusses the phenomenon of the superstructure, in the exposition already quoted, he gives
an enumeration of ‘ideological forms’, but he does
not mention science. Wherever he mentions science,
in Capital or elsewhere, he seems to treat it as a
given entity. There is no pronouncement, to my
knowledge, in all Marx’s and Engels’s writings,
where the genesis of scientific thinking and the
position of science relative to the material base,
or to the ideological superstructure, is explained.

Engels’s discussion of matters of science is on a
different level and does not reach up to this

But can our understanding of the superstructure, and indeed of the base, be sound without
a historical materialist understanding of the
phenomenon of science? Can our historical material
ism itself be sound if we are left to remain idealists
as regards the theory of science and of logic?

To explore the roots of the division of mental
and manual labour demands a historical materialist
enquiry undertaken on independent systematic

such an enquiry cannot be grafted on to
Marx’s economic theory.

It implies the critique of
philosophical epistemology and occupies a place
alongside the critique of political economy. An
enquiry of this kind may seem a wearisome and timeconsuming task compared with the burning urgency of
contemporary concerns. But the uncertainties felt
in the face of these, not infrequently leading to
the doubting of Marxism altogether, may well be due
to the fact that our theory does not reach deep enough
and our theoretical equipment is antiquated. The new
social divisions connected with the antithesis
between mental and physical labour are everywhere, in
the advanced capitalist as well as in the Soviet
world, gaining an impact rivalling, if not indeed

exceeding, the importance of the more familiar
issues of economic exploitation. The forging of an
equipment better fitted to keep pace with modern
developments would be worth a special effort.

this article we shall have to confine ourselves to
the bare essentials of the theory and will have to
telescope even these in places.


Abstraction other than by Thought

The essential theoretical difference between Marxist
thinking and all other standpoints ultimately centres
upon a contrasting conception of form, and that means
also of abstraction.

If we assume, in common with
all accepted philosophical thinking, past and present,
that abstraction is the work of thought and of thought
only, there is no possibility of steering clear of
idealism. On the basis of this assumption it is
impossible to redeem the essential historical materialist belief that ‘it is men’s social existence that
determines their consciousness’.

The difference between distinct modes of consciousness resides in the concepts peculiar to them.

Therefore if we are to account for a given mode of
consciousness from the underlying social base, it is
concepts that we must derive from that base. And
derivation, here, means formal as well as material
derivation, derivation of a specific concept from the
abstraction of which it is the result. If a particular concept is believed to be ‘determined’ by a
particular social base, then the abstraction
producing the concept must be believed to be part of
this social base. Unless we can attach this precise
significance to it, historical materialism is robbed
of the meaning on which its revolutionary consequences
hang, and it will dwindle into a matter for social
psychologists and empirical SOCiologists to disembody between them.

The derivation of a concept
from its roots in social existence is truly Marxist
only if it can take the place of a ‘deduction’ in the
sense of the-Kantian Analytic.

In the social
derivation of ~ concept, historical materialism
includes what empirical sociology excludes: the form
that makes it a concept.

The crucial question therefore is: Can there be
abstraction other than by thought? No modern thinker
except Marx has answered this question in the
affirmative. He is the only one who has specified
which spatio-temporal process it i,s that has abstractive force.

Thereby the materialistic thesis that
conceptual form is a historical product, has become
a scientific proposition. Marx’s answer is contained
in’his analysis of the commodity in the two opening
chapters of Capital.

Hence the singular importance
that attaches to these chapters.

The Marxian answer
is the discovery of what he terms the ‘commodity
abstraction’ which he shows to be the source of the
abstract key concept of political eC9nomy, the concept
of value, or the ‘value abstraction,’ , as it is also

Commodity abstraction is a process which takes
place, not in the minds of people, but in their
social existence, a process of action, not of thought.

This action is the action of commodity exchange.

The historical fact that this action produces the
‘value abstraction’ is unknown to the agents. ‘They
do not know it. But they do i t ‘ .

It happens ‘behind
their back’. Thus, the Marxian analysis shows the
Social process of commodity exchange to be a spatiotemporal reality in history which has of itself
abstractive force.

The category of value which it
produces is a socially valid concept with no
existence elsewhere than in people’s minds.

exists in their minds but it does not spring from
their minds.

It represents the case of an ideal
abstraction springing from a real abstraction. On
this discovery hinges the entire Marxian ‘critique of
political economy’. For the critique that applies
to value extends further to all other basic categories
of bourgeous economic ‘::hinking (such as capital,
interest, profit, wage, rent, etc). Revealing the
determination of these categories from social
existence, Marx is able to expose the truth which is

hidden by these same categories when they are
accepted at their’ fetishistic face value as pure
ideal abstraction.

Owing to the fact that Marx’s discovery of real
abstraction is given in reference only to matters of
political economy and not to the theory of knowledge,
the epistemological and fundamental significance of
the discovery fails, in the whole of Capital, to
become explicit. This becomes different, of course,
when the Marxian proposition is made as the basis for
a study of the division of intellectual and manual
labour. We maintain that the root~ of the cle~r-cut
division of head and hand and indeed of the conceptual formation of purely intellectual work are to be
found in the commodity abstraction. Our contention
is, in other words, that the Marxian proposition
asserting the existence of a process of real abstraction operating in social existen~e can be borne
out as a propos~tion of epistemology.

The difference between our subject matter and
that of Marx entails a difference in the starting
point of the analysis. While Marx starts with
exchange-value and use-value as the two essential
aspects of every commodity, we start from the two
activities which give rise to these aspects, the
activities of exchange and of use. Accordingly I
shall abandon the Marxian term ‘commodity abstraction’ and speak of exchange abstraction instead.

This will secure complete independence for our undertaking, so that it may be judged entirely on its
own intrinsic merits without leaning on Marx’s


Analysis of the Exchange Abstraction

Commodity exchange is abstract because it excludes
use. During the time that a commodity is subject to
a transaction of exchange it must remain exempt from

But while exchange banishes use from the actions
of people, it does not banish it from their minds.

The minds of the exchanging agents must be occupied
with the purposes which prompt them to perform their
deal of exchange. Therefore, while it is necessary
that their action of exchange should be abstr~ct from
use, there is also a necessity that their minds
should not be.

The action alone is abstract. The
abstractness of their action of exchange will, as a
consequence, escape the minds of the people performing

In exchange the action and the thought of
people part company.

Our task is, first of all, an analysis of the
exchange abstraction in itself. This may demand some
time and patience, but the phenomenon to be analysed
is so clear and elementary that, with sufficient
care, reliable results should be obtainable. The
task is helped by the fact that we analyse, not the
minds of the commodity owners engaged in exchange,
but their action. How the form of their action
will then indirectly affect their mode of thinking, in
other words, how the exchange abstraction may
‘determine their consciousness’, will occupy us in
the second place.

(a) Exchange abstraction and social synthesis
In a society based on private property the social
nexus depends on exchange only, a special action,
unique among all others. While other actions are
engaged with things in the sense of changing them
materially and changing ourselves in. the process,
exchange is nothing but a mutual property transfer.

It is concerned with a change of the social status of
the commodities, their status as owned property. To
make this change of ownership possible and allow it .

its own rules, the material status of the commodities
must be assumed to remain unchanged while the
transaction is performed. The change it performs
is 9amprehensible only in social terms; regarded as
a purely natural event, it makes no sense. 3 While a
commodity is on offer at a set price, for instance,
~o physical change at all, either man-made or caused
by nature, is expected to take place in its body.

Nature is supposed to be at a standstill, so to speak,



while exchange holds sway.

Where production has become private production,
consumption private consumption, that is to say, where
practically all use of commodities has become activity
in private, as distinct from activity in common, the
socialising function becomes the speciality of

It is this function which demands, as a
postulate, the standstill of material change in the
commodities and the separation of exchange from use.

In other words, its social function is the cause of
the abstractness of exchange. Therefore, an analysis
of the exchange abstraction amounts to an enquiry into
the way in which a society based on commodity production is enabled to form a functioning totality, that
is, to be a society at all.

If this analysis should
bring to light a recognisable identity of the traits
of the exchange abstraction with the basic logical
forms of intellectual labour (including science) as
something separate from manual labour, then this
would obviously have far-reaching epistemological

We shall therefore carry out our analysis of
the exchange abstraction in answer to the question:

How is it possible for commodity exchange to serve as
a means of social synthesis?

The term ‘social synt~esis’, here, is used as a
synonym of ‘social nexus’ but given preference to it
for three reasons. The first is that no adjective
can be formed from the word ‘nexus’.

In German the
term would be Vergesellschafftung , for which there
is unfortunately no English translation; the word
denotes the formative process of society. The second
reason is the use of ‘synthesis’ in speaking of
‘synthetic’ materials as against ‘natural’ ones. Marx
calls primitive tribal societies ‘natural communities’

(naturwuchsige Gemeinwesen,) based on systems of
consanguinity (Nabelschnur ihres natfirlichen
Gattungszusammenhangs). By contrast, exchange society,
with its nexus entirely man-made (into which nature
does not enter), could appropriately be called
‘synthetic society’, the first, indeed, of all man’s
synthetic products (and the deepseated condition of
all further ones). The third reason is the reference
of the term to Kant’s phantasmagorical construction
of a ‘transcendental synthesis a priori’ as the
normative and/or genetiC root of our theoretical
faculties ‘VerstandesvermBgens~. Our use of the word
‘synthesis’ suggests an argument that the effective
genetiC (i.e. historical) and normative root of our
purely intellectual faculties is the social synthesis
by means of commodity exchange. Our question regarding the possibility of the latter would thus supersede and preserve (aufheben in the Hege1ian sense)
the leading questions of Kantian epistemology. In
this way, our analysis of the exchange abstraction
could be read as a ‘critique of philosophical epistemology’ (as founded by Kant) akin to Marx’s ‘critique
of political economy’ (as founded by Adam smith).

Both A. Smith in his wealth of Nations (1776) and
Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), argued
the perfect normalcy of bourgeois society, the one on
the ground that it was in the nature of human labour
to produce ‘value’, the other on the basis that it was
in the nature of the human mind to do intellectual
labour (by a faculty a priori) as something separate
from manual labour.

OUr enquiry, then, is devoted to establishing
the socially synthetic function of commodity exchange.

(b) Practical solipsism
At first glance it appears paradoxical that commodity
exchange should indeed be capable of serving as the
means of SOCial synthesis in a SOCiety divided by
the rule of private property. For commodity exchange
is itself a relationship entirely ruled by the
principles of private property. A deal of commodity
exchange, say, by process of barter, is an exercise
in mutual exclusion of o~lership between the contracting parties in regard to ~wo lots of commodities.

commodi ty exchange is a r’.::llationship of appropriation,
regulated by reCiprocation. Every move in the contest, every proposition made by one party and



countered by the other, actuates the prinCiple:

mine – ergo not thinej thine – ergo not mine. What
is reciprocated is the exclusion of ownership. The
agreement upon which the parties settle signifies a
delimitation of their separate realms of property at
this particular, and accidental, point of contact.

Thus, there seems to be nothing but segregation at
work ~n the exchange between the owners.

How, then,
does this relationship effect a SOCial synthesis?

Reference to the division of labour and the fact
of the mutual dependence of people for the use-values
they reqUire, does not help to answer this question.

This dependence remains in full force throughout every
slump of the modern exchange society. The slump is
caused by a breakdown in the eXChange nexus, and the
facts of the material interdependence of all the
divided parts of the society have no force to knit
them together again. A commodity prod~Fing society
is a nexus, not by division of labour, but by
exchange, and the conditions that make the nexus
possible have to be found in exchange and nowhere
else. Thus we resume the question where we left it:

Where there is nothing but segregation at work between
the commodity owners, how Can exchange operate the
SOCial synthesis?

The term ‘social synthesis’ should not mislead
us into believing that the synthetic capacity of exchange represents some compensating virtue counterbalancing its segregating effects. Such a reconciling virtue making for social harmony is a romantic
illusion. The SOCially synthetic function of exchange
acts through the underlying implications of the
segregation itself. The segregation operates the
synthesis, the synthesis the segregation. This, of
course, is nothing new, but the point is to see
exactly how the contradiction works. For this
purpose we have to pursue the segregation right into
the subjectivity of the exchanging owners.

Commodity exchange impels solipsism. Solipsism,
the doctrine that solus ipse (‘1 alone’) exist, is
only a philosophical formulation of the regulative
principle of exchange. What the commodity owners do
in an exchange relation is practical solipsism irrespective of what they think and say about it.

The practical solipsism of commodi ty-exchal1.ging
owners is nothing but the practice of private property
as a basis of social relations. And private property
is a basis of social relations not by the choice of
people but by the material necessity of the stage of
development of their productive forces.

Essentially, commodity exchange is, as Marx
says, a relation between strangers (ein VerhMltnis
wechselseitiger Fremdheit) j it opposes people to each
other as strangers. All that matters in it is that,
in the end, two lots of commodities change hands
between their owners. The outcome is a change of
ownership, a change in the commodities, not materially,
but an equally factual one, in their social status
as owned property.

In what capacity, we ask, do the
commodities change hands? In what form, precisely,
are commodities exchangeable between separate owners?

(c) The Form of Exchangeability of Commodities
Commodities are exchangeable between their private
owners precisely in the capacity in which they are the
objects of a mutual exclusion of ownership on the part
of their owners. This capacity should, plainly, be
the one that makes it impossible for a commodity to
be owned simultaneously by two people in separate
ownership. The answer seems too simple and too trite
to put down on paper: it is that every commodity is
one as against the rivalling claims of two owners
wanting to own it.


However, we have to be careful how we define this

Is it really the commodity that is one?

The feature in question does not, of course, require
the indivisibility of the commodity as a body. Goods
traded as materials, for instance, are divisible down
to any fraction of a quantity. The reason why a given
object cannot be separately owned by different people
has nothing to do with the nature of the objectj i t
is neither its physical oneness or indivisibility nor

its uniqueness in kind, its irreplaceability. If we
probe into the matter with sufficient care it is not
difficult to see that it is not the oneness of the
ccmmodities at all that is important, but the uniqueness of their existence – the fact that the commodity
is not, like its use-value, the exclusive private
datum of a solipsistic self, but belongs to a single
world which is common to all the private selves.

Although the perception of a thing is as multiple as
the people perceiving it, its existence is one. If
the existence of an object were divisible, the object
could indeed be owned simultaneously by separate
owners. Each owner could not only experience the
world as his ‘private datum’ but own it as his
exclusive property. Everybody could own the world
as Robinson Crusoe does his island. We therefore
state: that which constitutes the form of eXChangeability of commodities is the singleness of their

For many readers, this statement will not at
first be easily acceptable. But it must be understooQ
that this is not a psychological analysis of what
gges on in the minds of the exchanging owners. We do
not say that the form of exchangeability ever occupies
the attention of an exchanging agent, absorbed as he
is with his business in hand. If it affects his
consciousness at all, it can only be in a roundabout
and indirect manner and then it will not in the least
be recognisable in its origin. Our analysis is
concerned with the necessary formal structure which
makes commodity exchange the social inter-relationship
that it is.

The form of exchangeability of commodities has
its paramount importance in the socially synthetic
function it imparts to commodity exchange. At the
stage of development where commodity exchange becomes
the dominating form of the social nexus – a stage
first reached in Ionia in the 7th century BC – the
form of exchangeability is given separate expression
in the shape of coined money. The oneness of existence that is part of its functional properties
conveys to the institution of money its essential
unity. There can be only one money in the world.

There can be different currencies, of course, but so
long as these do effective monetary service within
their own orbit, they must be interchangeable at
definite rates.

(d) The Postulate of Equality in Exchange
The form of exchangeability of the commodities is not
the whole exchange abstraction but only one element
of it. The other constituent elements are: the
postulate of the exchange equation and what I shall
call ‘the pattern of the exchange abstraction’.

Exchange contains a postulate of the equality
of the two lots of commodities eXChanged. How do we
have to define this equality? The equality is not
the identity of the commodities since difierent
commodities are exchanged for each other. Nor are
they equal in the evaluation of the agents,
as it would reduce their action to an absur~ity if
they did not see an advantage to themselves in performing it. Moreover, evaluations are comparable
only within one person’s consciousness, between
persons they are incomparable. But the essence of
this postulate of equality in exchange is precisely
that it cuts across the gap of experience that
separates the exchanging owners. The postulate of
equality in exchange does not spring from their
experience at all. It attaches to the peculiar
inter-relation between them and is not based on any
measure applicable to the c~odities as such. It is
the act of exchange which, by the fact of its
performance, so to speak, equates the two lots of
different things. The act results from a barter in
which each of the agents haggles for ‘more’ to take
and ‘less’ to give. True, commodities are traded in
lots measured in dimensional qualtities of tons or
gallons or acres etc. But the comparatives of ‘more’

and ‘less’ used in a d~al of exchange do not imply a
quantitative comparison between, say, tons of coal
and reams of paper, or of acres of land and yards of

linen. The inter-relational equation posited by an
act of exchange leaves all dimensional measurements
behind and establishes a sphere of non-dimensional
quantity. This is the pure or abstract quality of
cardinal numbers, with nothinq to define it but the
relation of greater than (»ur smaller than«)or equal
(=) some other
quantity as such.

In other
wares, the postulate of the eXChange equation
abstracts quantity in a manner which constitutes the
foundation of free mathematical reasoning.

The contradiction between the postulated equality
and the empirical difference of the commodities is
such that it could not be handled without the invention of the term ‘value’ so that the equality can
be denoted as ‘equivalence’ related to exchange. But
‘value’ does not create the equality, it only applies
to its post festum. The term by itself, as value in
exchange, has no thought content of it~ own, no
definable logical substance. It simply articulates
social relations uniformly by quantitative differentiation of things according to the facts of
exchange •.

The ‘pattern of the exchange abstraction’

describes the act of exchange as such, that is, of
the action of transfer of the commodities between
their owners as a result of an agreement to exchange.

It was stressed earlier that the exchange abstraction
springs from the fact that the action of exchange
effects a -change only of the social status of the
commodities as owned property and postulates that,
while it lasts (and even while it is being negotiated) ,
the material status of the commodities remain unaltered. The pattern of the act of exchange is
therefore describable in these terms: abstract movement through abstract (and continuous) time and space
of abstract substances which thereby suffer no
material change and allow for none but quantitative
differentiation (which makes the pattern amenable
to mathematical treatment).

It is not difficult to
recognise in this pattern the foundation of mechanistic thinking, whether it take the shape of conceptUal constructions of the universe as a whole, as,
for instance, in Descartes but also in’Democritus,
or whether it serves to define the minimum physical
event as in Galileo’s and Newton’s principle” of
inertia or ‘first law of motion,.4
On the other hand, if, in the formulation of the
‘pattern’, we replace the words ‘abstract substances’

by ‘pieces of money’ (i.e. coins, or notes, or
cheques), we obtain a description of transactions of
exchange, that is, of part or all of the circulation
of money in an exchange society. In this altered
version, the pattern describes the essential socially
synthetiC role of money, whereby acts of exchange
form the chain of a social nexus uncontrolled by its
participants and ruled by economic law. S If we ~ow
asked the question, which of the two fODnulations of
the ‘pattern’ is the correct one in terms of che
analysis of the exchange abstraction, the answer must
be: the first one, of course. The exchange abstraction is the result of action and its reference is to
action. The exchange abstraction must be incorporated
in things, and, if given separate representation, the
representation takes the shape of coins or notes of
noney. But the formal analysis of the abstraction
contains no reference to ‘coins’, not even to the
term ‘value’. On the other hand, the things that
became the carriers of the exchange abstraction, and
of its socially synthetic function, thereby acquire
that peculiar quality to which Marx gave the overall
name of the ‘fetish character,.6
To avoid confUSion, a reminder is perhaps
required at this point of the fact that we are not
conaerned here with the analysis of thought and
thought processes in philosophy or science, but purely
with an analysis of commodity exchange. In the course
of this analysis we have found commodity exchange to
possess an abstractive force and to contain forms
which have always been believed by the philosophers
to be the exclusive prerogative of thought, or of
that ill-defined mental capacity called ‘intellect’.

Thus we have confirmed the surmise, voiced earlier,
that this analysis would carry ‘far-reaching epistem-


ological significance’. The significance is that a
close analysis of commodity exchange, with regard to
its socially synthetic capacity, lends reality to the
Kantian speculation of a ‘transcendental synthesis
a priori’. But instead of proving that this synthesis
is a property of the mind and thereby implying the
timeless necessity of a division between head and
hand, we find that ‘the transcendental synthesis’ has
the historical, spatio-temporal reality of the social
exchange process, in other words, that it is the
‘commodity abstraction’ discovered by Marx. Far from
proving the normalcy of bourgeois society, the realisation of the true nature of the ‘transcendental
synthesis’ opens up the perspective of a future
historical liquidation of the division of head and
hand and of the social class divisions which it


Independent intellectual labour

The truth which our discussion has so far served to
establish is that the exchange abstraction is not
thought, but has the form of thought. This statement
holds the key to the genetic form explanation of
intellectual labour as divided from, and independent
of, manual labour. The forms which make up the conceptual equipment of the theoretical intellect are
not derivative, not superstructural; they are an
integral part of the social base in the Marxian sense
of this term. They are the constituents of the
commodity form.

They are ‘a priori principles’ in a
truer and more distinctive sense than the one understood even by Kant himself who, after all, attributes
their source only to the mind. They are in the nature
of principles because of the normative character
they derive from the fact that they answer to
postulates; the postulates of exchangeability, of the
exchange equation, of the material immutability of
commodities in exchange. None of these are facts,
all of them are non-empirical. How then Can they be
principles of knowledge and carry objective validity?

How can they, in other words, serve as the logical
basis of intellectual labour as divided from manual

The terms of the exchange abstraction are readily
intelligible to people engaged in exchange. But they
are not intelligible to my dog, whom I take with me
when I go to the butcher. He is very knowledgeable
about his master and his habits, about the accent of
everybody around, and about the use of meat, besides
other important things.

But the sense of the exchange
abstraction and of the things I hand to the butcher’

before we can go home with the meat, escapes him.

These terms spring from social reality, are of the
human mind only. How can they be of use, then, in
regard to the world as known to my dog, the world of
nature which is also mine?

First of all, to what extent are these terms
creations of the exchange abstraction and to what
extent are they not? To start with the ‘pattern’;
movement as such, time and space, and that which
corresponds to the notion of ‘substance’ are not
by exchange. They are elementary features of nature.

All that the exchange abstraction does is what its
name says, it abstracts them. The same goes for the
oneness of existence.

The only creation is the
postulate of equation and the logic of free mathematical reasoning.

The explanation of the objective validity of the
term of the exchange abstraction as the epistemological basis of science lies in the paradoxical fact
that an action of purely social, non-physical significance (into which Nature does not enter)’ is itself
a physical event. Exchange and use exclude one
another in place and time because (i) exchange
concerns the social status, not the material nature
of the commodities, and because (ii) poth actions
are on a par as ·regards their reality as physical,
spatio-temporal events. Thus the physical reality of
the act of purchase is a very peculiar one. While
it is undoubtedly a physical, spatio-temporal event,
the ‘physis’ of the event is one of purely social
make, devoid of sense reality and strictly amenable


to mathematicaL treatment.

It occurs in emphatic
exclusion of any event in the natural physis of its
objects, structured though it is in its elementary

Seen as a physical event, it can only be
described as the absolute minimum or the abstract
residue of what constitutes a physical event, since
it occurs as a physical event in the absence of
physical change, as part of a purely social physis as
against natural physis, as Nature in the abstract
against Nature in the concrete, Nature in pure thought
which in the human mind – the mind of a Greek philosopher, or of a mediaeval universalist, or of a
Galilean scientist – encounters real Nature, the Nature
of sense reality, and does so in complete adequacy of
the basic terms. These terms bear no trace of any
historical or geographical specificity, show nothing
but timeless universality, yet they are found only in
the mind of a citizen of a society based on commodity
production. To such a mind the world is – as an
epistemologi~al potentiality – objectively knowable
in mathematical terms in conformity with the exchange
abstraction, and more precisely, in conformity with
what we called ‘the pattern of the exchange abstraction’ which, in the seventeenth century, found
definition as inertial motion. 7
The division between intellectual and manual
labour is tied up with the contrast between socialised
mental labour and individual manual labour. By his
socialised thinking the intellectual worker acts as
plenipotentiary of society. His individual work is
done for the whole of society. It has universality.

The manual worker Cannot do likewise.

His labour is
individual in its scope as well as in its performance.

If a manual task is of more than individual scope,
say, the building of an irrigation dam in ancient
Egypt, or of a temple on the Acropolis, or of an
Austin Mini at Longbridge, it must be done by an
association of workers co-operating in numbers. But
any odd individual doing intellectual work of
universal style can rise to the comic-opera confrontation of Man face to face with Nature, to the tune of
traditional epistemology.

What, then, is the root of these fetishistic
concepts of the ‘subject of cognition’, the ‘universal’, the ‘mind’, of ‘Nature’ from which Man withdraws
himself so as to make it the pure ‘object world’, and
other concepts of this kind that provide the furniture
of the world inhabited by pure intellects? The
explanation lies in the fact, which we repeat, that
the categories of the independent intellect are the
socially synthetic functions by which a commodityproducing society forms a coherent nexus. Therefore,
any individual who thinks in these terms, thinks for
society, and only for this reason is his thinking
endowed with intellectual independence and rationality.

But the independent intellect does not present itself
on this background.

It only presents itself without
its background: it is, by its root, cut off from its

The forms which the exchange abstraction offers
to consciousness for relfexion are in the shape of
pure universals of the highest possible grade of
abstraction. Together with the entire empirical
reality of use, all trace of their origin is effaced
from these universals. They bear no mark of any
particular place, no sign of a particular time.

Nor is an awareness of the,root of the abstraction
possible at its point of origin, i.e., in the practice
of exchange, where people are, and must be, absorbed
with their existential iSBues.

Thus it is an accurate description to say that
the independent intellect is cut off from its root,
at the root, and by its very nature. What the
thinkers then seek by way of explanation of the
forms they contemplate, has always already happened
behind their backs. And they cannot step out of their
light to see it. What they reap as a result is the
curse of the insoluble dichotomies of philosophical
thinking. The ideality of thinking is torn from the
reality of the phenomena to which it refers, the norm
from the fact, essence from existence, the mind from
the body, etc. 8
While the abstracted forms, on the normative use

of which independent intellectual labour is founded,
are the direct ones of the commodity form itself,
the consciousness of these forms is indirect. How,
when, and where such consciousness arises is a matter
for historical enquiries to explore and lies outside
the scope of this article. 9 We are here exclusively
concerned with establishing some of the essential
principles involved in a materialistic understanding
of the modes of thinking in historical times. ID
‘Theoretical reason contains no ground from which
to infer to the existence of another being’, says
Kant and by this statement gives a measure of the
social blindness with which the independent intellect
is struck. But the statement also points to the
aptitude of the same intellect for knowledge of
nature, getting the benefit of ob~ectivity from the
effacement of society from its mind.

In his ‘theoretical reason’ Man does indeed stand face to face
with Nature as a mere object world. This object
world is a universe of recurrent events for which the
pattern of the exchange equation provides the

In classical bourgeois science the
causality of recurrent events is what is meant by
‘laws of nature’. Knowledge of nature must have this
form in order to suit the requirements of capitalist
production which, in its technological condition,
constitutes in the majority of cases a large-scale
replica of a successful laboratory experiment.

Science as founded upon the exchange abstraction
provides, we see, for the vital necessities of this
society vis-a-vis nature; i t is an indispensable
intellectual accessory to the development of the
productive forces in modern times. By its intellectual character and independence from manual labour it
serves, at the same time, as the intellectual
accessory needed by capital for its class rule over
labour. Only when this link up of its roa~erial and
its class function is understood, does the historical
phenomenon and the objective truth of science
become comprehensible.

The idea of the truth emerges in history as the
possession of false consciousness.

The independent
intellect arises as socialised thinking divided from
individualised labour.

It can neither prevent nor
remedy man’s loss of control over the social process
incurred on consequence of commodity production. On
the contrary, it is the very corollary of a blind
society. Society as ruled by economic law and by the
emergence of independent thinking are both effects
of the same cause. They are linked, not only in time,
but causally. The rationality of the independent
intellect can never be more than ‘the indispensable
light to enable man to live in a world plunged in
darkness.” Only a very few philosophers were
sufficiently aware of this condition to conceive of
reason as a capacity for changing the darkness into
daylight. Hegel was foremost among them, but even
he failed to realise that what was needed was “to
change the world~.,ll Not until manual labour
becomes socialised on a par with thinking, so that
they can be consciously joined on a common basis of
universality, can man’s division of head and hand
and the attending class divisions be ended.


Social nexus and Production

Commodity exchange is a relationship of appropriation
and stands in contrast to production. When commodity
exchange becomes the vehicle of the social nexus,
society functions as a society of appropriation, where
even production has to take place in accordance with
the rules of appropriation if it is to take place at
all. A society of appropriation can also be based on
unilateral appropriation as it was in the ancient
oriental and again in the feudal systems of ‘direct
lordship and bondage’ (Marx). The alternative would
be a society of production where the social nexus is
based on the practice of production, on its ‘labour
process’ in the Marxian sense of this term. This is
how the difference between class society and classless
society should be defined on the basis of the
£oregoing theory. tie!:”€ ±he distinction between class

society and classless society is understood in terms
of the relationship of head and hand, their division
or their unity. Where the social nexus is a process
different and separate from the labour process of
production, we have of necessity a division between
intellectual and manual labour. Where those two
processes are one, we have the possibility of a social
unity of head and hand. Where we have a division of
mental and manual labour which is no longer a
necessity because the possibility of unity exists,
there we have modern bureaucratic class rule. These
are viewpoints for communist thinking on a Marxist
basis which should be followed through historically,
although this can be done only briefly here.

First of all, it must be stated that no human
labour can take place without a degree of unity of
head and hand. This, of course, is an individual,
not a social, unity of head and hand. ,~t can vary in
degree. Artisans are individual producers who perform the manufacture of some product as a one-man
process (or as if by a one-man process). Up to the
beginning of modern capitalism this was the normal
mode in most fields of manufacture and agriculture,
and this type of production, closely akin to artistic
work, is entirely dependent on the unity, i.e.

individual unity, of head and hand. Where the producer
is the possessor of his tools and essential conditions
of work, the unity of head and hand is his own. Where
this kind of work is done by slaves, as it was in
antiquity, the unity of head and hand may have to
rely on another person designing and directing the
work. This does not make for a division of head and
hand, but for a division between art and production,
again as in antiquity.

Where, on the other hand, the work done by an
individual is, in terms of use-value, incomplete and
dependent on functional co-operation with others, the
final product is no longer the work of an individual
unity of head and hand even though the part-functions
supplied by the co-operating individuals require a
degree of such unity on the part of the latter.

Where such co-operation comes about by the individuals
acting on their own volition and on the basis of
common owners~ip of the means of production, we have
the case of ~ social nexus based on productton.”
Where this nexus comprises the totality or neartotality of social production, as it did in primitive
tribal society at a very low stage of development of
the productive forces, this constitutes a case of the
social unity of head and hand and a case of communism.

Where the same kind of nexus, however, comprises
only parts of the social production and those parts
are made into a coherent whole only by the activity
of non-producers, we have one of the many and varied
cases of mixed kinds of social formation which occupy
the historical stage between the end of primitive
tribal communism and the beginning of classical
antiquity, including the Neolithic and the Bronze

In the Bronze Ages, for instance, the whole of
primary production still depended on collective cooperation and the social unity of head and hand, but
superimposed on this there was a social nexus based
on appropriation of the surplus from primary production, and devoted to the creation and running of
secondary industries and of trade carried on to cover
the needs of the latter. This nexus brought forth
the initial forms of intellectual labour as something
separate from manual labour. They are forms of
intellectual labour which show similarities as well
as differences compared with the independent intellect
subsequently arising in ancient Greece, similarities
and differences that must be correlated with the
similarities and differences in the formal structures
of appropriation (one-sided as against reciprocal in
parts) and its socially synthetic function (partial ,~
as against total). Only iron-age technology allowed
for the break-up of primary production into private
peasant agriculture, and for a social nexus finally
based totally on reCiprocal appropriation. Here, as
we have seen, we have the birth of a monetary economy
and the independent intellect.

European history proper begin~ with individual
production and with the producers oeilLg in possession


of their instruments and basic conditions of production·, therefore with peasant and artisan production
based on an individual unity of head and hand. But
superimposed on this, and based on nominal property
in land, was the feudal order of appropriation which,
as Marx convincingly argues,12 had to be unilateral
and based on political, not economic, coercion. This
feudal nexus makes for the intellectual activity of
scholars and literature within the ruling classes
(consisting entirely of non-producers) and divided,
not from manual labour, but from the producing classes.

OUt of the feudal order grew in time an
astounding expansion of international as well as local
commerce, with results which in less than two centuries
had entirely changed the existing practice of production. By the tasks now facing them, the individual
producers were not only outclassed economically, but
also non-plussed intellectually. At the level of the
individual unity of head and hand, there could be no
solution of the problems involved in the technique
and effects of fire-arms, in the rebuilding of towns
and harbours, the re-casting of mines and arsenals,
etc etc.

Brunelleschi, the craftsman-architect,
consulting the scholar and mathematician Toscanolli
(on problems relating to the construction of the
cathedral dome in Florence early in the 15th
century) bridged the medieval gap between producers
and scholars and with it, pari passu, opened up a
new gap within production itself. Two hundred years
later, in the achievements of Galileo, the process
of transition, which had led by way of the rise and
flowering of Renaissance art, was in essence completed.

With the foundation of the mathematical and
experimental method of modern science the modern
bourgeois division between intellectual and manual
labour had come into being.

Classical physics – if by this name we designate
Galilean/Newtonian science – supplies exact knowledge
of recurrent events in social terms, terms, that is,
reaching far beyond the organic limitations of man’s
physical capacities. 1 3 It is formulated in abstract,
mathematical concepts going beyond all sense perception.

When it was founded in the first third of the
17th century, it answered questions which transcended
the individual unity of head and hand – questions
which Leonardo, Piero della Francesca, Dtirer, among
others, had groped for – and it contained potential
answers to questions which were as yet far from being
asked. For production was then only beginning to be
capitalist, only beginning, that is, to be on a social
scale, employing human labour in a co-operative
form. 14 But there is no intermediate scale of logic
between the individual unity of head and hand and
the social, i.e. ‘universal’, logic of abstract
quantifying science, except the practical experimenting of artists and craftsmen turned (pre-scientific)

This practical empirical science was
sufficient for solving most technological problems of
capitalist production for a further two hundred years.

Not until the last third of the 19th century did
capitalist industry achieve a sufficient scale of
socialisation of labour in its productive processes
to enable it to utilise the services which modern
science was capable of proQiding.

However, where will progress in the socialisation
of labour lead mankind? Could it reach a stage where
it would be complete and where it would, therefore,
be on a level with the universality of science, that
is, the universality of the socialised intellect
which has hitherto had to be divided from manual
labour socialised on too low a scale? This would
open the prospect of a disappearance of the division
between intellectual and manual labour because they
could (potentially) be united on a common social
scale, the scale of potential universal man which
loaned in the vision of the early Marx as he tried
to fathom the meaning of communism. At the time
this was perhaps utopian. But if our analyses in the
foregoing pages have any truth, they afford us a
definition of the underlying material pre-requisite
of canmunism: It is a structure of production such
that it yields the principles of a social nexus.

case can be made that such a structure of production


is in existence now.


A revised and much expanded version of the
argument of this essay can be found in the author’s
published book Geistige und K~rperliche



cf. Preface of A Contribution to the Critique of
Political Economy of 1859. Sel. Wks. I, p357.


‘In stark contrast to the palpable materiality of
the canmodities as physical bodies not an atom of
Nature enters into their composition as values’

(my translation, S-R). Marx, Capital, I, p14,

(Marx-Engels Werke)

‘Motion is the mode of existence of matter.

Never anywhere has there been matter without
motion, nor can there be. Motion in cosmic
space, mechanical motion of smaller masses on
the celestial bodies, the vibration of molecules as heat or as electrical or magnetic
currents, chemical diSintegration and combination, organic life – at each given moment
each individual atom of matter in the world
is in one or other of these forms of motion,
or in several forms of them at once.’ (F
Engels, Anti-Duhring, Moscow 1969, p75)
‘The theory that the physical world consists
only of matter in motion was the basis of the
accepted theories of sound, heat, light and
electricity.’ (Bertrand Russell, A History of
Western Philosophy, London 1946, p630).

It is worth noting that Galileo in his Discorsi
treats abstract motion on a par with the
logical categories, not an as empirical concept.

Kant defined Nature as ‘the existence of things
in accordance with laws’ (natural laws); the
blind necessity reigning in a fully-fledged
exchange society (which can only be a capitalist
one) could be defined as the existenc~ of ‘human
subjects in accordance with laws (economic laws).


The fact that the a priori categories of science
are by origin the socially synthetic functions
of commodity exchange must not be misunderstood
as meaning that there is any parallelism operating between science and the economy. The use
made of these categories in science has nothing
to do with the economy, either logically or
methodologically. The development of science
follows its own independent prinCiples, even
though the economy throws up many, if not most,
of the tasks which the scientists are engaged in

The categories of the economy and the
categories of science have no term in canmon;
they are totally disparate. A businessman knows
iron by its price, a scientist by its atomic
weight. The activities of the one are not
translatable into the occupations of the other.

This logical inconvertibility of economics and
science is part and parcel of the constitutive
blindness of canmodity prodUCing societies,
societies of appropriation.


B. Hessen in ‘The social and economic roots of
Newton’s Principia’ (Science at the Crossroads,
International Congress of the History of Science
and Technology 1931, 2nd edition Frank Cass
London 1971), stephen F. Mason in ‘Some
historical roots of the scientific revolution’

(Science and Society Summer 1950), and others
have tried to associate the rise of scientific
mechanics in the 17th century with the preoccupation of that age with problems of transportation, on land and on sea. Theirs are the most
interesting studies for the wealth of factual
analyses they bring to bear on the subject, but
their explanatory intentions I regard as misconceived.

In itself transportation is no more
abstract a physical activity than any other

economic practice. What gave its peculiar
abstract connotation to it in that particular
age was the significance it assumed of transportation of commodities and commodity values
(and not, say, of tithe). This aspect, however,
is overlooked by most historians of science.

They do not give sufficient attention to the
social production relations as the determinants
of forms of thought.

It is an illusion to think
that concepts can grow out of physical activiti~s
or ooze out of mechanisms. After all, it is
science that helps to build machines, rather
than the machines hatching out science, even
mechanistic science. Mechanistic thinking flows
from the exchange abstraction and extends to
classical antiquity, which had little to do with
machine construction. But this common basis of
mechanistic thinking allows for vast differences
in significance and specific forms of thinking.

Under conditions of slave labour mechanistic
thought was not required for the sake of production, but there was necessity for it in the
class struggle of the money owning and slaveholding class. It was part of their claim to
rule, that they were the class of the independent


Some of these dichotomies, such as thinking and
being, mind and matter, immanlence and transcendence, still linger in our contemporary materialist thinking as, for instance, in the theories
of reflexion.


A brief sketch of the link can be found in my
article ‘Historical materialist Theory of
Knowledge’ in Marxism Today, April 1965, p120.

But the pioneer work on the historical genesis
of ancient philosophy on a Marxist foundation as
understood in terms of this article in George
Thomson’s book The First Philosophers, London

In a way, my analyses of the commodity
abstraction can be regarded as the systematic
complement to his historical approach (cf.l.c.p.

301) .



One of the most searching attempts known to me
at such understanding is Jean-Toussaint Desanti’s
study of the philosophy of Spinoza·in his
l ‘ Hi’stoire de la Phl1osophie .

(Paris 1956) where he shows the vital connec-,
tion of this philosophy with the role of the .

Bank of Amsterdam and of the party of de Witt
in the l660s and ’70s. At the same time, this
study also illustrates the frustrating limitations
to which such undertakings must be subject in
the absence of a pre-establishment of the
essential categories.



c.f. Marxism Today, April 1965. It should ~
noticed that the order of things in our deduction
in these pages is roughly the reverse from
Hegel’s. The formalism of the subject, with
which we end, is Hegel’s starting point and
the social epoch, from which we start, is the
idealised ending of Hegel’s Philosophy of
History. This reversal is a true expression of
Marx’s ‘turning right side up’ of the Hegelian
dialectic. The systematic sequence of derivation which we have tried to establish, linking
the oneness of the world (in existence) via the
oneness of money to the logical unity of rational
thinking, suggests a natural explanation of
logic by means of historical materialism. Here,
again, Hegel has the reverse: that LogiC becomes


Capital Ill, p.917ff.


See Marx on these organiC limitations in Capital
I, pp.3l8 and 3£9.


‘The simultaneous employment of a large number
of wage-labourers in one· and the same process
•. , forms the starting point of c~pitalist
production •.• co-operation ever constitutes the
fundamental form of the capitalist mode of
production.’ Marx, Capital I, p.326.

Continued from page 19



Leszak Kolakowski, ‘Merleau-ponty and Communist
Terror,’ in
No.4 (September 3, 1970), pp.23-24.

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Newton Garver, ‘What Violence Is’, in Moral
Problems, ed. by James Rachens (New York: Harper
and ROW, Publishers, 1971), pp.242-43.


Ibid., p.242


Kolakowski, op. cit, p.24. I may do Kolakowski
an injustice here.

His remarks are not very
clear. He may still be more of a Marxist than
the above reading would allow.

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Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations (3rd ed.

London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), pp.355-63.

I have criticized Popper’s argument in my ‘On
the Choice Between Reform and Revolution’, op.cit.

pp.32-51. See also Roy Edgley’s convincing
criticism of Popper on this point in his ‘Reason
and Violence’, Radical Philosophy No.4 (1973).

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