Real abstraction: On the use and abuse of an idea

The Charnel-House

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The Marxian notion of “real abstraction” has garnered a great deal of attention in leftist theoretical circles of late, with somewhat mixed results. It was first formulated and treated systematically by Alfred Sohn-Rethel, an economist associated with the Frankfurt School of social theory. Helmut Reichelt has pointed out, however, that the term was used prior in a couple instances by the German sociologist Georg Simmel (Reichelt, “Marx’s Critique of Economic Categories,” pg. 4). Notably, Simmel’s usage occurs in connection with the “abstract value” represented and measured by money, as that which converts qualitatively incommensurable items into quantitatively commensurable commodities. He writes that “not only the study of the economy [economics] but the economy itself is constituted by a real abstraction from the comprehensive reality of valuations” (Simmel, The Philosophy of Money, pg. 78).

With Sohn-Rethel, the exposition of the concept is much more thoroughgoing. According to the definition…

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