Head and Hand

Alfred Sohn-Rethel's 'Intellectual and Manual Labour', recently republished, is an influential account of the way in which human beings built a society where one class plans, and another toils.

Marxism delights in navigating capitalism’s manifold contradictions—use value and exchange value, forces and relations of production, essence and appearance, wage-labour and capital—but one particular contradiction often gets neglected from this panoply: that between intellectual and manual labour.

A notable exception is Harry Braverman, whose Labor and Monopoly Capital argues for the centrality of this growing schism in the face of the post-war period’s world-economic shifts. Writing in the midst of the West’s ‘scientific-technical revolution’, Braverman insisted that the job-specific knowledge available to assembly line workers in legacy industries was not so much increasing as evaporating. He attributed this to the subordination of science to industry as well as an advanced technical division of labour, which breaks down once-skilled mechanical work into a series of rote and repetitive actions. The labouring process thus becomes streamlined: not only are wages and job training investments lowered, so too is worker autonomy.

The outcome is a polarisation in the workplace between conception and execution. Control over the manufacturing process becomes the propriety of a managerial class, as a full comprehension of the labouring process becomes their purview absolutely. Each task on the shop floor can be minutely measured, calculated, designed, and dictated. Such micromanagement of labourers by non-labourers characterised the early-twentieth century field of scientific management, introduced by Fredrick Winslow Taylor, the man credited with the discovery that worker control is best exercised not through discipline but through administration. The post-war scientific-technical revolution, for Braverman, therefore amounted to an elephantine accumulation of knowledge by one party through the dispossession of another, a scenario in which one group plans while another merely performs.

Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s Intellectual and Manual Labour, newly republished by Historical Materialism, converges with—and even utilises—Braverman’s analysis of these transformations. But Sohn-Rethel roots this split much further back in history – his essential argument is that all aspects of capitalist modernity are predicated upon it; in fact, its foundations reveal the whole structure of thinking and knowing of western civilisation, echoed throughout the latter’s scientific and philosophical tradition from Parmenides’ cosmology and Plato’s realm of forms to Descartes’ cogito ergo sum and Kant’s transcendental subject.

Intellectual and Manual Labour is the magnum opus of Sohn-Rethel, a French-born German thinker who had a significant impact on the Frankfurt School – especially Theodor Adorno, but also Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch. Sohn-Rethel had published a mere three papers in his lifetime prior to the age of 70 when, after nearly twenty years spent scandalising orthodox Marxists with the manuscript, he managed to get Intellectual and Manual Labour printed by Suhrkamp after receiving a favourable citation in Adorno’s Negative Dialectics. As Chris O’Kane states in his introduction to the new edition, it was at Adorno’s funeral that Sohn-Rethel finally secured the book contract. Once published it made waves, earning him a guest professorship at the University of Bremen and a lasting influence in heterodox Marxist circles.

In Sohn-Rethel’s text, the fundamental core of the schism between intellectual and manual labour is shown to be commodity exchange. For him, the formal properties of the commodity, as elaborated by Marx in Capital, derive from the modern subject’s orientation towards the empirical world. In the act of exchange, each agent’s actions are emptied of the qualitative particularities of both objects; while their minds are preoccupied by the use-value of the other person’s object, their actions are motivated by its exchange-value — self-expressed as their own object’s equivalence in price.

Through the necessity of exchange in a society of private producers, every commodity’s origin in the metabolic interaction of human labour with the natural world is obscured; each becomes a quantifiable instantiation of the abstract and intangible substance of value. The commodity’s form of appearance—its fetishism—is not simply a crude illusion, a riddle to be solved through analytical demystification. It is rather inexorable, a requisite form of false consciousness in a mode of production whose preconditions for survival are mediated by their value-form. That is why Sohn-Rethel calls it a ‘real abstraction’: two parties realise a theoretical abstraction practically, neither consciously aware of what is taking place.

Through the real abstraction of commodity exchange—the ‘social synthesis’ of modern society—an experiential separation of subject and object occurs, that, for Sohn-Rethel, articulates a whole structure of experience. That experience entails the extraction of knowledge from the direct production process, culminating in the abstract universals essential to scientific management and industrial engineering that govern that process and debase it into a series of fragmentary regimented tasks. Sohn-Rethel seeks to connect the categories of the capitalist commodity-form to those of the bourgeois ‘thought-form’, expanding the Marxian critique of political economy into a critique of reified consciousness. It is the process of real abstraction that creates the conditions of possibility for the split between intellectual and manual labour.

Sohn-Rethel grounds his argument in a survey of the parallel emergence of natural philosophy and the commodity-form. He identifies the kernel of the division between head and hand in the earliest class societies of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, caused by the breakdown of the agricultural and productive practices of Neolithic ‘primitive communism’. Whereas previously stone tool-based alluvial work was organised in a collective, directly social way, the Pharaoh’s usurpation of cultivated lands and cleared river valleys allowed for the mobilisation of his state apparatus as a divine machinery for the appropriation of a surplus. In Sohn-Rethelian terminology, a ‘logic of appropriation’ begins to dominate a ‘logic of production’. Symbolic forms of intellectual labour such as writing, arithmetic, and enumeration develop in tandem, the sole purpose of which is the regulation of manual labour.

But exchange did not internally penetrate these Bronze Age societies. Not until the sixth century bce, on the Ionian side of the Aegean, does appropriation lose its attachment to a sacred and unilateral authority and instead become thrust upon individual producers as a reciprocal compulsion to exchange. With the advent of iron metallurgy, labour in Ancient Greek societies became atomised: the cheapness as well as the increased productive capacity of new metal tools provided an occasion for the relative independence of labour from the collective irrigation economy. As private proprietors were geographically dispersed, their surplus products—supplemented by the pillage and plunder of wealthy Bronze Age territories—found an outlet not in divine tributes but in the open market.

This was followed by the introduction of coined money. The genesis of money—as a general equivalent of all saleable objects—led to complementary generalisations in philosophy and mathematics. Whereas in Egypt the measurement necessary for the construction of temples, pyramids, and dams was performed with a rope, in Greece it was performed with standardised rulers, bolstered by a geometry of ‘pure’ mathematics established over several centuries by Thales, Euclid, and Herodotus. As Egyptian geometrical procedures morphed into Greek geometrical laws, mathematics was elevated to the level of an error-proof concept, and mental and manual labour bifurcated at the level of general social practice, the former presiding over the latter.

Sohn-Rethel charts this up into modernity, through the Industrial Revolution’s dissolution of protected crafts, and finally from commercial to monopoly capitalism. The point of Sohn-Rethel’s overview is not to argue that the modern scientific method is a fabrication, inapplicable beyond capitalism as a social form of organisation. Rather, the intention is to account for the historical emergence of forms of thought, and of how they perpetuate the mode of production in which they are conceived.

The new Historical Materialism edition includes a discussion of the book that took place in Lotta Continua, an Italian leftist journal intimately connected to the student movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Included among the discussion is a piece written by Antonio Negri, which was originally intended to be the preface for the book’s Italian translation. Sohn-Rethel himself rejected Negri’s contribution on the basis that its principal criticism—that the book underemphasises the role of class struggle in the advancement of science—misrepresented the book’s aims and would mislead the reader.

Ironically, Negri’s rejected preface articulates negatively the reasons for Intellectual and Manual Labour’s stubborn persistence in socialist and communist debates; the book endures not in spite of the omission named by Negri but precisely because of it. The fact that the book situates capitalism as a set of self-sustaining abstractions and impersonal compulsions, sedimented in thought and action, has made it enormously influential for the various reinterpretations of Marx carried out in the last thirty years, such as those of the political-economic and cultural theorists associated with the Neue Marx-Lektüre in Germany, and the post-2008 revival of interest in the treatments of Marx by John Holloway, Werner Bonefeld, and the Endnotes journal.

Our society is based around rational principles at the service of increasingly irrational social practices. Work, systematically stripped of its creative and self-determining potential, suffocates the intellectual faculties of those working. That is a constitutive feature of the capitalist mode of production, encrusted in both action and thought.

That this fissure runs so deeply implies that the overcoming of capitalism cannot occur solely through a transformation in the distribution of material wealth from top to bottom. Rather, it requires a radical transformation at the level of daily life, through the abolition of a social synthesis based on exchange. A truly classless, un-alienated society would be created through the re-socialisation of science and technology, unifying head and hand in labour; or, in Sohn-Rethel’s words, ‘man’s historical potentiality of achieving a rational practice and a rational theory combined.’