Reification of People and the Fetishism of Commodities

Com. Carter is horror-struck when Com. Johnson says that under capitalism machines exploit labor. “Capital is then a material thing which exploits labor” (p. 13). Instead of analyzing the capitalist labor process and thus discovering how a material thing becomes an exploiting force, Carter accuses Johnson of having fallen victim to the fetishism of commodities, and indignantly reminds him that for Marxists capital is not a thing but a social relation of production established by the instrumentality of things. What Carter does not perceive is that the thing, means of production, has become the social relation, capital, because of what Marx calls “the contradiction between the personification of objects and the representation of persons by things.”[1]

The focal point of Marx’s analysis of capitalist society is his critique of capitalist production. The ideology which flows from this historic mode of production is enveloped in the perverted relation of dead to living labor. Marx pointed out that the very simple relation—capital uses labor—expresses “the personification of things and the reification of people.” [2] That is to say, the means of production become capital and are personified as capitalists at the same time that the workers become reified, that is, their labor becomes objectified into the property of others.

Marx’s critique of capitalist society, based primarily on this inverted relation of dead to living labor at the point of production, extends also to the surface of society (the market), where the social relation between people assumes “the fantastic form of a relation between things.”[3] This is the fetishism of commodities. Com. Carter sees only that. But he is blind to the inverted relation of dead and living labor. This relation, without which Marx’s political economy is vitiated, never gets one single line in all Carter’s theorizing. He thus bungles both of Marx’s theses. Had Carter kept in his mind Marx’s plan for Volume I [of Capital], this would have become clear to him.

In Part I of Volume I Marx deals with capitalist wealth as it appears to be: “an immense accumulation of commodities.”[4] Because he deals only with the appearance, or what Marx calls the phenomena, of capitalism, he does not here analyze the class relationship under capitalism. Here our capitalist is still only Mr. Moneybags, who has bought a commodity, labor power. That is why, in “The Fetishism of Commodities,” Marx uses the words, “social relation,” or “personal relation,” not capitalist relation. In the market, then, where rule “Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham,”[5] where the cardinal tie between men is exchange, the social relation between them appears as a relation between things. Marx advisedly does not analyze the class relationship until after Mr. Moneybags has left the market and gone into the factory, where his capital can expand and he becomes a real capitalist, that is, where the class relationship is created.

Marx proceeds to analyze the capitalist mode of production. Now that the worker is in the factory, the “social relation” becomes a production relation.

By virtue of that fact his relationship to the boss is very clear; it in no sense assumes the fantastic form of a relation between things. On the contrary, there the worker overestimates the capitalist’s might. He thinks that the capitalist alone is responsible for his plight instead of seeing the cause in the mode of production which the capitalist represents. There the worker personifies things: the means of production used as capital become the capitalists. We are here confronted with what Marx called “the personification of things and the reification of people.” Marx was most emphatic in laying bare this “reification of people” because that is the very heart of his critique of political economy. He grasped this very early. “When one speaks of private property,” wrote the young Marx in 1844, “one thinks of something outside of man. When one speaks of labor, one has to do immediately with man himself. The new formulation of the question already involves its solution.”

Production and Distribution, Or “Production taken as a Whole”?

Carter has discovered that Johnson “by sleight-of-hand has passed from the notion of Capitalism to the Notion of the ‘strict process’ of Capitalist production. … [C]apitalism is not and cannot be confined to a ‘strict process of production’ or reduced to this by any ever-wonderful miracles” (p. 14).

Our theoretician is anxious to show us that his hand is on the pulse of life, and not on Hegel’s Logic. He is eager to demonstrate his opposition to any such “sleight-of-hand” as Johnson practices. Hence he clearly distinguishes his conception of the strict process of production from that of Johnson:

“Without the preliminary social distribution of the material factors of production, without the preliminary process of circulation in which the products are sold and profits are once again converted into capital, the immediate process of production is a meaningless abstraction; a complete impossibility” (p. 15).

Insofar as distribution, both of the means of consumption and of the elements of production, is concerned, there is no ambiguity whatever about Marx’s emphasis that production is the determining factor from which a certain type of distribution flowed. He went to great length to argue against those who thought that either distribution or conquest was a determining factor. He demonstrated how even the Mongol devastation of Russia logically flowed from the Mongol Method of Production.[6]

Insofar as social distribution, or circulation of the aggregate capital is concerned, Marx was equally emphatic as to which is the determining factor and which the subordinate. Let us follow Marx. Volume I [of Capital] is subtitled: The Process of Capitalist Production; Volume II: The Process of Capitalist Circulation; and Volume III: The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole. It is clear that capitalism there is not the process of production and the process of circulation, as if each is an equally important movement of the development of capitalist society. Rather the summation of the analysis of capitalism is the process of capitalist production “taken as a whole.” That is so because circulation or social distribution is but the other side of the same coin, production.

Marx tells us that Volume III deals with:

“The Movements of Capitalist Production As a Whole . . . (which) approach step by step that form which they assume on the surface of society in their mutual interactions, in competition and in the ordinary consciousness of the human agencies in this process.”[7]

Here Carter always remains. Here, then, we learn that commodities sell, not at value, but at price of production; that surplus value is not an abstraction, congealed unpaid labor, but that it has the concrete form of profit, rent and interest; that capital is not only a social relation of production, but has the bodily form of money-capital. Here we study the role of credit and even learn about gambling and swindling.

What is the grand result of learning all the facts of life? In order to get at the real cause of crisis Marx has to make an abstraction of “the bogus transactions and speculations which the credit system favors.”[8] In order to ascertain the cause which will doom capitalist production, we revert to the law which dominates over production, the law of value and hence of surplus value:

“In order to produce the same rate of profit when the constant capital set in motion by one laborer increases ten-fold, the surplus labor time would have to increase ten-fold, and soon the total labor time, and finally the full 24 hours a day would not suffice even if wholly appropriated by Capital.”[9]

Marx thus brings us back and “confines” us to the strict process of production and to that supreme commodity, labor power.

Compare this with Carter who never leaves the surface of society even when he thinks he is in the inner abode of production:

“…in the immediate process of production of commodities, the capitalists may not be found physically present; in such cases they are represented by the managers, foremen, etc.” (p. 14).

And this is supposed to teach Johnson that if the “capitalists are nowhere,” they are represented by managers, foremen, etc.!

Value and Profits

In Carter’s thought-formations the appearance and the essence are always identical. His failure to understand the quotation on pages 1028-9 [p. 1022] of Volume III is a good example. Let us examine the structure of the chapter, “Conditions of Distribution and Production,” in which this quotation appears. Marx shows, first, how the condition of distribution appears to “the ordinary mind.”[10] He then counterposes “the scientific analysis.”[11] Marx completes the part regarding the condition of distribution with the conclusion that the condition of distribution “is merely the expression of this historically determined condition of production.”[12]

Thereupon, without restating his method or treatment, he reverts to the appearance of the condition of production to the ordinary mind: “And now let us take profit. … It is a relation which dominates reproduction.”[13] Marx analyzes this concept of the ordinary mind by saying that profit “appears here as the main factor, not of the distribution of production, but of their production itself.”[14] But, Marx continues, that is not true at all. To the scientific mind profit arises “primarily from the development of capital as a self-expanding value, creating surplus value.”

Carter is blind to all this. He is certain that he has not used the quotation out of context. To “prove” his point, he quotes “supporting evidence” from Marx’s analysis of the thing which worries Ricardo, “the fact that the rate of profit, the stimulating principle of capitalist production” is declining. Once again Carter has picked the wrong quotation. A few lines further he could have read that this characterization of profit is from “a bourgeois point of view, within the confines of capitalist understanding.”[15]

Marx has stated thus the theory of the law of the declining rate of profit: “The fall in the rate of profit therefore expresses the falling relation of surplus value itself to the total capital.”[16] Bourgeois economists do not understand this law. They are, however, struck with the expression of this law, the manner in which it asserts itself: the declining rate of profit. Marx considers it significant that a bourgeois economist is worried about this law because thereby Ricardo reveals that he “vaguely feels” that “something deeper” than the declining rate of profit is hidden in the decline itself. That something deeper is the fear that the bourgeois mode of production is not an absolute but a historically transitory mode of social production. Marx could not prove this to a bourgeois economist by lecturing to him on the historical development of labor. But because the same point was brought home to him “in a purely economic way, that is from a bourgeois point of view,” he shows the first signs of understanding: confusion and worry.

Had Carter not used “The Language of the capitalists,”[17] he would have understood the quotation on page 1028 [p. 1022] and would have realized as well the scientific reason why Marx refused to analyze profits in Volume I where he analyzed “pure” capitalism, stripped of all its phenomenal and confusing forms:

“We shall show in Book III that the rate of profit is no mystery so soon as we know the laws of surplus value. If we reverse the process we cannot comprehend either the one or the other.”[18]

Com. Carter has reversed the process and hence has understood neither the one nor the other. He may, if he wishes, repeat that the scale of production is determined by what profit the capitalist thinks he may get (p. 15). However, I underlined for his benefit that Marx considers such language to be the “language of the capitalists.” Carter’s theorizing is a vulgarization of Marxism. Because we live in a bourgeois world and are bound by a thousand threads to bourgeois concepts, language which is “within the confines of capitalist understanding” is easy for the simple-minded to grasp. That is why pseudo-Marxism always “seems to make sense.”


1. Capital, I, p. 128; p. 209.

2. Archives of Marx-Engels, p. 159 [Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, “Alienated Labor,” Russian edition].

3. Capital, I, p. 83; p. 165.

4. Ibid., p. 41; p. 127.

5. Ibid., p. 195; p. 280.

6. Critique of Political Economy, p. 288.

7. Capital, III, p. 38; p. 117.

8. Ibid., p. 568; p. 615.

9. Ibid., p. 468; p. 523.

10. Ibid., p. 1022; p. 1017.

11. Ibid., p. 1023; p. 1018.

12. Ibid., pp. 1028-9; p. 1022.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid., p. 304; p. 368.

16. Ibid., p. 250; p. 320.

17. Ibid., p. 303, my emphasis; p. 367.

18. Capital, I, p. 239, footnote; p.324.