At first glance, Karl Marx’s critique of religion appears to be a critique of abstractions as spectres to be exorcised. The young Marx, at least, is often assumed to have the same secularizing position as his contemporaries: like Bruno Bauer, the state needs emancipation from its theological supplements; like Ludwig Feuerbach, “God” is the outward projection of humanity’s own “species-being.” On this reading, Marx sees abstractions as mystifications, spiritualizing what are in fact empirical conditions of social life and laboring.
When Marx’s “criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth” in its full depth in Capital, we might thus anticipate concrete laboring practices and material wealth (use-value) to constitute the standpoint of critique. From this lens, the real working class and the stuff of the world would be supposed to best proffer normative standards for revolutionary action. While partisans of the concrete bring social practice into view, this “traditional Marxist interpretation,” in Moishe Postone’s rendering, does not depart from nominalist traditions whose rejection of universals have long undergirded the “reproach of abstraction.” Nor does it address Marx’s more abiding concern: the empiricist presupposition of religion as a problem of thought ends up being as mediated by phantoms as its theological object of critique.
Marx’s conceptual breakthrough—to address, as we will see, abstractions as “real”—desediments the classical theological mediation of heaven and earth: Christ’s attempt to resolve, in his very body, the practical question of how to make an abstract, unknowable God meaningful with respect to the cosmos and its creatures. The history of Christian thought is a history of working through the incarnation’s bringing-together of opposites, from the supersessionist association of Christianity with spirit and Judaism with flesh to controversies about the nature of the eucharist, the use of icons, and the relationship between inward, spiritual faith and outward, material actions.
Sylvia Wynter describes humanism as the great “counterrevolution” against theocentrism, a revolt against groundless religious abstractions and a call to “bring these events back to serving the logic of human purposes rather than the reverse” (21). If this revolt is “partial,” in Wynter’s estimation, it is because the human’s new “bio-ontological form” retains contradictions already apparent in God’s abstract character (36). Across classical political economy, the “abstract state” and “abstract labor” enforce a theodicy of man that reoccupies what was once the realm of the fallen and the damned with unruly subjects, uninhabitable lands, and embodied scarcity. Blackness both takes on the lowest attributes in newly emergent racial hierarchies (rebellious, overpopulated, impoverished) and serves as the invisible outside (the not-human) necessary to the composition of “abstract man” (for Wynter, “overrepresented as if human”). This two-step process, between blackness being both persistently bottom-rung and a negative presupposition outside all measure, I postulate below to be coordinated by the “abstract slave.”
To believe Marx is saying the “economic” ultimately underlies any overview of intellectual history is to be only partially right. A hallmark of Marx’s critique of religion is that we cannot shear spiritualized epiphenomena from the world — in order to understand immaterial abstractions such as ‘man’ or ‘labor,’ we have to grasp the material conditions that produce their distinctly abstract qualities. In this way Marx introduces to the world of critical theorizing what Alfred Sohn-Rethel identifies as a “real abstraction,” “an abstraction other than that of thought” (14-16). Before these abstractions occur in the mind, they are sustained through social practice (for Sohn-Rethel, in commodity exchange). The substance of real abstractions cannot be empirically deciphered nor can they be brought to an altar, confessional, or laboratory. Real abstractions instead point to the “supra-sensible” (Capital 165) conditions that Marx traces between time, money, labor, and wealth, and which through a “social synthesis” (Sohn-Rethel) proceed “behind the backs of the producers” (Capital 135).
Capitalism is peculiarly primed to generate social abstractions. Labor, for example, appears as a “point of departure” for the political economist. It might seem intuitively plausible to say that labor is “an immeasurably ancient relation valid in all forms of society,” but for Marx, labor also only “achieves practical truth as an abstraction only as a category of the most modern society” (Grundrisse 105). Where the tailor previously engaged in “sewing,” laborers now bring to market the abstract power to “labor.” The exchange of coats and houses in a capitalist wage context confers upon them a common substance—abstract labor—whose expression in the form of money ends up constituting social feedback loops that demand we continue to sell our labor, for it is all we have. Although now seemingly disconnected as subjects, Marx reads our social relations as densely mediated by the demands of “value,” whose threads, unlike the slave “held by chains,” are invisiblized (Capital 716). This mediation secures the capitalist character of “abstract domination,” a type of violence that humans collectively enact against themselves and that remains distinctly difficult to detect and undo.
Political theology intimately understands that given reality teems with forms of life that remain opaque to us. If Marx’s “finer science of invisibilities” brings to life what economists cannot see (the commodity-form’s nested abstractions), political theology already approaches social forms like the state as spiritualized. In approximating the dialectic of the concrete and the abstract, it is no surprise, then, that Marx repeatedly entreats readers to “take flight into the misty realm of religion” (Capital 165). While Marx’s sense of ‘religion’ seems limited to a demystifying analogy, we could hypothetically turn the tables on Marx: would a “critique of political theology” along the lines of a “critique of political economy” refigure the presumptive relationship between the two? Would the story of so-called secularization envelop that of primitive accumulation; would religious iconography displace or reconfigure the commodity-form? Such questions might answer, along the way, how to grasp the endurance, transmutation, and reoccupation of religious abstractions with respect to the social forms that arguably structure their emergence.
Even though Marx thinks deeply about the histories of states and kings and cosmographies, it is worth noting that his method begins with the least presupposed abstraction—the elemental immediacy of the commodity—in order to then unravel its “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (Capital 163). To follow such a method in our hypothetical “critique of political theology,” we might be tempted to first conjure a host of equivalent theological elementals (the gift, the sacramental community, etc.). But to begin with homologous objects is to put the cart before the horse of critical method; doing so without working through a systemic reconstruction of the universe of political theology will, in Marx’s view, yield a “chaotic conception of the whole” (Grundrisse 100) with only symptomatic explanatory power. Then again, to write a “critique of political theology” along strict Marxist protocols may mean, in the end, not only reinscribing Marx’s “scientifically correct method,” but also, more strangely still, re-writing Capital and its “rich totality of many determinations and relations” (Grundrisse 100). If Marx long engaged in “the critique of the critique of religion” (Toscano), perhaps Capital already accounts for the inherited tensions embedded in secularization, such that political theology would be redundant to (because already synthenized within) the critical presentation of capital.
While the tools Marx developed were meant to be adequate to capitalist social forms, the mature Marx’s disinterest in staging a rapprochement between religious and real abstractions doesn’t rule out reading his early work as an excavation of the production of a separable religion—“religion as such”—as an expression of the state form. But even reading his “On The Jewish Question” or The German Ideology backwards from the lessons of Capital, it seems unlikely that a critique of political theological abstractions would bring about a constitutively new understanding of the material life of social relations and the forms of faith that undergird them. At most, following Marx and “rising from the abstract to the concrete,” as his famous methodological procedure goes (Grundrisse 101), could substantiate glimmers hinted at already in Marx’s scattered references to the “religion of everyday life,” those habits and practices that supplement the disenchantment with and impoverishment of the world (already the preoccupation of the Frankfurt School). Reading a critical religious theory of real abstraction alongside the critique of political economy would constitute but an appendix (albiet an instructive one!) to Marx’s mature work.
Instead, we might discern a “symptomatic mismatch” between the critique of political economies and theologies. In capitalism, it is the thing which believes — the practice of exchanging commodities and labor with money and back again carries with it capitalist abstractions regardless of our pious or profane relation to capitalism. In political theology, however, it is the quality of belief itself, with its legitimating features, pleasures, doubts, and politics, that forms the cornerstone of critical attention. Faith here represents a different sort of worldly opening. Although abstract logic is now associated with a purely formal exercise, scholastic theologians approached syllogisms and analogies as tools of divine reason and paths towards revelation. Only through the nominalist critique that pried apart objects from thought would enough of a practical split between the abstract and concrete be generalizable for “real abstraction” to become a useful reflexive category.
Wynter’s “sociogenetic principle” enters a conversation with abstraction that traverses political theology and critical theory by understanding race as their (not-so) vanishing mediator. Her reading of Marx expands from the yet unpublished “Black Metamorphosis” to an explicit redefinition of “Marx’s class struggle in the terms of a ‘politics of being.’” Here, the survival of nominalism in the biological concept of species-being is just one index of “the genetic status-organizing principle of which the phenomenon that we have come to know as ‘race’, is the expression.” As the “zero-degree signifier” for the reoccupation of “being” by race, “blackness” does not so much represent an abstraction in Wynter’s layered writing as it does an indeterminacy internal to social forms expressed in perverted form in the abstract human (indexed by the laborer and the believer) and abstract slave (the thing which believes for us).
Wynter’s oeuvre illuminates an immediate overlap between the critique of political economy and Afro-pessimism’s “critique of political ontology,” even as the latter doubles as a critique of the former; putting a stop to the play of abstractions means leaning into the architecture of the abstract (its “abduction schema or morphogenetic fantasy” [Wynter 49]) in order to abolish it. But Afro-pessimism’s development of “a new language of abstraction” requisite to the “horrors” of slavery has generated a curious double disagreement. From historical materialism’s perspective, Afro-pessimism trades in “bad” abstractions; “unmoored from time and space by a ruthless disregard for material historical processes,” its coupling of the “slave and human” in deadly antagonism is represented as a betrayal of historical materialism and recapitulation of Feuerbachian essentialisms. For historians of racial slavery, Afro-pessimism denudes the slave of meaningful qualities to the base abstraction of social death, deadening the experiential livity of enslaved peoples. But what if the collision of race, slavery, and the problem of being is the first time “slavery” (divorced from discrete causes like debt and war) becomes true in practice?
This alternative—the abstract slave and its supra-sensuous reproduction of “the Ultimate Chaos that was the Black” (Wynter 37)—has some advantages when it comes to thinking abstraction. Instead of diagnosing the slave as the opposite of the laborer, with the former representing concrete domination and the latter its abstraction, we can address Marxism’s underdetermination of slavery as a problem for Marx’s critical reach. When slavery is considered (only) a matter of empirical-historical significance, it is impossible to grasp why its organization of “white-over-black” compulsively reappears in scenes of anti-black violence. When abstraction is realized primarily within the purview of capitalism, with Marx writing “individuals are now ruled by abstractions, whereas earlier they depended on one another” (Grundrisse 164), black thought and action become limited to pre-capitalist revolutionary potential. Irreducible to the critique of political economy, the critique of epistemology, or the critique of political theology, Afro-pessimism’s critique of political ontology tarries with excesses encoded in historical representation and their unreflexive abstractions. Here, we might also trace connections between the abstraction of the slave, the availability of abstraction for thought, and the difficulty of abolishing real abstractions. This abstract nexus is at the heart of Afro-Pessimism’s seemingly apocalyptic cry: “slavery must be theorized maximally if its abolition is to reach the proper level. The singularity of slavery is the prerequisite of its universality. Otherwise, we succumb to the forces of mitigation that would transform the world through a coalition of tiny causes.”
Ilyenkov, E.V. The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital. Trans. Sergei Syrovatkin (Dehli: Aakar Books, 2008),
This English translation reflects a circumscribed publication history: Soviet editorial oversight led to delays of Ilyenkov’s major work that, when finally published in Russian in 1960, led to the removal of nearly half the book, including the longer sections on the philosophy of history indicated by planned title The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Thought. Even within these confines, Ilyenkov’s expansive reading of the Marxist method and intellectual surroundings remains an invaluable guide and, with renewed interest in Ilyenkov from ongoing study groups to reissues and edited collections, there is hope that this vital text will be translated in fuller form for the English-speaking public.
Sohn-Rethel, Alfred. Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology. Trans. Martin Sohn-Rethel (Leiden: Brill, 2020)
Having long been out of print, the recent reissue of the 1978 English version (itself an expansion of its German original), with introduction by Chris O’Kane and afterword by Chris Arthur, constitutes something of an event in Marxist circles. Though roundly critiqued for its infidelities to Marx, from its empirical bent to its centrality on exchange (see Moishe Postone, Anslem Jappe, John Milios, and Norbert Trenkle, among others), Sohn-Rethel’s attempt to unite the thought-form and the commodity-form prepared the way for a historical materialist epistemology whose open possibilities continue to inspire.
Toscano, Alberto. “Beyond Abstraction: Marx and the Critique of the Critique of Religion.” Historical Materialism 18, no. 1 (2010): 3–29
Toscano’s mid-2000s intellectual itinerary is responsible for an English-language revitalization of scholarship on “real abstraction.” In this article, Toscano considers the possibilities in Marx’s “critique of the critique of religion” to be “embryonic,” and though he may have overstated the gulf between the young and mature Marx (see, by contrast, Alex Dubilet’s sophisticated and generative return to “On the Jewish Question”), Toscano effectively lays out the differences between reading Marx as a critic of demystification and a critic of the conditions for the constitution of particular social forms.
Wynter, Sylvia. “The Ceremony Must Be Found: After Humanism.” boundary 2 12/13, no. 1 (1984): 19–70
A turning point for Wynter, this wide-ranging essay begins to gather together Wynter’s reflections on the humanist heresy and its transumption of Spirit and Flesh into the orienting logics in which race comes to necessarily appear as “difference” and blackness as “chaos.” The citational web she spins here informed much of her writing to come and provides an instructive lens to reflect on her earlier work on Caribbean culture, culminating in her 2015 callback to this essay in “The Ceremony Found: Towards the Autopoetic Turn/Overturn, its Autonomy of Human Agency and Extraterritoriality of (Self-)Cognition.”