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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.
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 influential relations with big business.
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 first year at Heidelberg University in 1917.
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 1923-4, and Naples: philosophy of the broken recorded his fascination with the relaxed Neopolitan attitude to technology. Between 1924 and 1927 he remained in Italy, "mainly in Capri, where Benjamin and Bloch were staying", meeting Adorno and Kracauer also at Capri in 1924. He stayed in contact with different 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. 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 Mitteleuropäischer 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.
For a long time after the Second World War Sohn-Rethel was not really able to continue his theoretical work. He 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 Sohn-Rethel was appointed Professor for Social Philosophy at Bremen University. He died in Bremen in 1990.
Sohn-Rethel's lifelong project was the combination of the epistemology of Kant with Marx's critique of political economy. When people exchange commodities they abstract from the specific goods. Only the value of these goods is important. This abstraction is called 'real abstraction' because it takes place without conscious effort; 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 Kant's 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-Rethel's work on the nature of 'real abstraction' has been amplified 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-Rethel's idea of commodity occurs in Slavoj Zizek's work The Sublime Object of Ideology.
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 first-hand knowledge gained from his time at the MWT. He insisted on the difference between different factions of capitalists, the more prospering industries close to Brüning 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 Farben in 1932 paved the way for the dictatorship, according to Sohn-Rethel.
- Intellectual and manual labour : a critique of epistemology, Atlantic Highlands, N.J : Humanities Press, 1977
- Economy and class structure of German fascism, London, CSE Books, 1978
- Alfred Sohn-Rethel, 'Preface', Intellectual and Manual Labour
- The Ideal of the Broken-Down: On the Neapolitan Approach to Things Technical
- Von der Analytik des Wirtschaftcns zur Theorie der Volkswirtschaft: Methodologische Untersuchung mit besonderem Bezug auf die Theorie Schumpeters, 1928. Published 1936.