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Alfred Sohn-Rethel

Alfred Sohn-Rethel (4 January 1899 6 April 1990)

was a Marxian economist and philosopher especially interested in epistemology. He also wrote about the relationship between German industry and National Socialism.

made a living teaching French. He joined the Communist

Party and despite his disillusionment he was a member
until 1972. The 1968 movement created a new interest
in his work. At the funeral of Adorno he met the editor
Unseld who encouraged him to crystallize his ideas in his
major work Intellectual and manual labor. In 1978 SohnRethel was appointed Professor for Social Philosophy at
Bremen University. He died in Bremen in 1990.


Born in Neuilly-sur-Seine near Paris, Sohn-Rethel came

from a family of painters and his father was a painter too.
His mother came from the Oppenheim family and had
inuential relations with big business.

2 Theory

As his family did not want him also to become a painter,

he was brought up by his uncle, the steel industrialist Ernst
Poensgen. On Christmas 1915 he expressed a wish for
a copy of Karl Marx Capital as a present. He received
one and studied it intensively. Thrown out of home, he
participated in the anti-war student protest in his rst year
at Heidelberg University in 1917.[1]

Sohn-Rethels lifelong project was the combination of the

epistemology of Kant with Marxs critique of political
economy. When people exchange commodities they abstract from the specic goods. Only the value of these
goods is important. This abstraction is called 'real abstraction' because it takes place without conscious eort;
whether or not anyone is aware of it is of no importance.
Sohn-Rethel believed this type of abstraction to be the
real basis of formal and abstract thinking. All of Kants
categories such as space, time, quality, substance, accident, movement and so forth are implicit in the act of
exchange. Readers of Marx will not be entirely surprised
by such a genealogy, since Marx himself suggested that
the ideas of freedom and equality, at least as we know
them so far, are rooted in the exchange of commodities.
Sohn-Rethels work on the nature of 'real abstraction' has
been amplied and extended by the writers of Arena
(Australian publishing co-operative), especially the notion that a post-marxist social and historical analysis can
be founded on the 'real abstraction' principle. An example of using Sohn-Rethels idea of commodity occurs in
Slavoj Zizeks work The Sublime Object of Ideology.

From 1920 Sohn-Rethel was a friend of the philosopher

Ernst Bloch, and he met Walter Benjamin in 1921. He
came to live in Positano in 192324, and Naples: philosophy of the broken recorded his fascination with the relaxed Neapolitan attitude to technology.[2] Between 1924
and 1927 he remained in Italy, mainly in Capri, where
Benjamin and Bloch were staying,[1] meeting Adorno
and Kracauer also at Capri in 1924. He stayed in contact with dierent members of the Frankfurt School, to
whom his theoretical concerns were close; however, they
never established a close working relationship.
Sohn-Rethel received his doctorate with the Austrian
Marxist Emil Lederer in 1928.[3] In his thesis he criticized the theory of marginal utility as a petitio principii because it implies the notion of number implicitly. Thanks to Poensgen he found a job as research assistant at the Mitteleuropischer Wirtschaftstag (MWT).
The MWT was a lobbying organization of the leading export industries. From 1931 to 1936 he worked 'in the
cave of the lion' and watched and analyzed power politics
from a very close distance. At the same time he had contacts with socialist resistance groups like Neu beginnen or
Der rote Stosstrupp. In 1937 he emigrated via Switzerland
and Paris to England. He wrote economic analyses for a
circle close to Winston Churchill which were used against
Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy.

The second domain where Sohn-Rethel made important

contributions was the study of the economic policies that
favoured the rise of German fascism, much of which is
based on rst-hand knowledge gained from his time at
the MWT. He insisted on the dierence between dierent factions of capitalists, the more prospering industries
close to Brning and the less successful industries close
to the Harzburger Front (Hugenberg, Hitler) namely coal,
construction and steel - with the exception of Krupp. The
endorsement of the compromise between industry and
big agrarians at the shareholders meeting of the IG FarFor a long time after the Second World War Sohn-Rethel ben in 1932 paved the way for the dictatorship, according
was not really able to continue his theoretical work. He to Sohn-Rethel.

Intellectual and manual labour : a critique of epistemology, Atlantic Highlands, N.J : Humanities Press,
Economy and class structure of German fascism,
London, CSE Books, 1978


[1] Alfred Sohn-Rethel, 'Preface', Intellectual and Manual

[2] The Ideal of the Broken-Down: On the Neapolitan Approach to Things Technical
[3] Von der Analytik des Wirtschaftcns zur Theorie der Volkswirtschaft: Methodologische Untersuchung mit besonderem Bezug auf die Theorie Schumpeters, 1928. Published 1936.

External links
Sohn-Rethel, Naples: the philosophy of the broken


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