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The Fetish: Marx and the Aufhebung of Religion

For Marx, the Aufhebung of religion – that is, the end and transformation of religion – takes place with an unexpected idea. This is the fetish (and not opium as one might expect). In Marx’s hands, the core meaning of the fetish is a transferral of properties and power. Human beings transfer properties to an object, which then seems to gain life, power and the ability to affect those human beings.

I draw this material from a lecture I have written specifically for Chinese audiences in a number of different places. It explores what the Aufhebung of religion means in the work of Marx.

For Marx, the Aufhebung of religion – that is, the end and transformation of religion – takes place with an unexpected idea. This is the fetish (and not opium as one might expect). In Marx’s hands, the core meaning of the fetish is a transferral of properties and power. Human beings transfer properties to an object, which then seems to gain life, power and the ability to affect those human beings. Meanwhile, human beings lose their powers in the process. This is the core meaning of the fetish, although Marx gives this fruitful idea many new twists.

But how is this an Aufhebung of religion? In order to understand that, we need to consider some of the different forms the fetish takes in Marx’s thought. He studied the fetish for over forty years (from the early 1840s to the early 1880s), but its origins lie in the study of religion. Marx first encountered the fetish when he read Charles de Brosses’s work in his early twenties, called The Cult of Divine Fetishes.[1] In this book, de Brosses attempted to study ancient religion – especially that of Egypt – in terms of the fetish. The word ‘fetish’ was by this time well-established, although it had been invented in the fifteenth century by the Portuguese when they encountered African societies as they sailed down the African coast in search of a new way to ‘the East’. Here they encountered people who used small objects that they believed had extra powers, especially in any social interaction. They usually wore them on their bodies, like an amulet. They felt you could not meet people, particularly important people and foreigners, without the fetish present. The Portuguese also had to use these objects when they met the Africans – for trade, for food, for anything they needed for their ships. But how should they describe these objects? They coined the new word, fetish.[2]

From this specific religious origin, the word ‘fetish’ became a general category to describe so-called ‘primitive’ religion. Marx took up this idea and began to develop it for his own thought, giving it many dialectical twists. Throughout this process, he never forgot the religious dimension of the term, although that too was transformed in his thought. Let me give a few examples before dealing with the important use of the fetish in his theory of capitalism.

To begin with, Marx saw the potential of the fetish for his lost treatise On Christian Art.[3] From what we can glean from his other writings at the time, Marx sought to show how the religious and fetishistic art of Asia and Greece led to Christian art. He was particularly interested in the Romantics, attempting to show how Christian art was still deeply influenced by the fetish. He had also begun at this point to disagree with Ludwig Feuerbach’s idea that religion is the projection of the best of human beings onto the gods they create. Instead, religious projection is a response to alienated social conditions.[4]

Yet these arguments were only the first stage of Marx’s development of the fetish. He would also use the idea for polemical purposes, but above all for his economic arguments. These include the categories of money, labour, commodities and capitalism itself. Thus, money may be seen as a mediator between two or more unlike things, just as Jesus Christ becomes the ideal mediator between God and human beings. As human beings do before Christ, so also must we bow before money, its pursuit becomes out goal in life, and it mediates between objects and us. Marx observes: ‘Hence man becomes the poorer as man, i.e., separated from this mediator, the richer this mediator becomes’.[5]Once again, the fetish undergoes transformation, now in terms of labour. Here, the more the worker puts into the product he or she is making, the less the worker becomes. The product becomes alien and independent at the expense of the worker.[6]

By now, we are drawing near to his arguments in the three volumes of Capital, where the fetish undergoes its most significant transformation. The most famous section concerning the fetish appears in the first volume: ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof’.[7] Here Marx argues that the commodity-form functions like a fetish: ‘it is a definite social relationship between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of the relation between things’.[8] Notice carefully the shift that has taken place in his the development of the fetish. Now it is not the objects themselves that gain extra powers, but the relationships between them. Thus, the relations between objects, between the commodities produced, begin to look like relations between human beings. These commodities relate to one another in the same way as human social relations. However, in that process human social relations are also transformed, for they begin to look like relations between objects. The idea of the fetish has taken on yet another dimension, focusing on relations. In this discussion, Marx makes it quite clear that he draws the idea of the fetish from religion, but why does he do so? The secret lies in the tension between real and imaginary, or real and unreal. At one level, the fact that commodities relate to another like living beings is imaginary and unreal. They are not living creatures but objects produced by human hands. They only appear to relate to one another as though they were human beings. At another level, this transferal of powers is very real. Human beings do lose something in the process, becoming slaves to production and the market, slaves to the commodities they produce. And the commodities on the market do have a life of their own, with their own properties. Marx would come to call this property surplus value.

So Marx needs an idea that expresses this tension between real and unreal, and the fetish provides it for him. At one moment, he coins a new term to describe this dual nature of fetishes. They are ‘objective thought forms’ [objektive Gedankenformen].[9] That is, they are forms of thought that have concrete, real existence. For this reason, Marx can write that workers perceive their relations and those of commodities as ‘what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things’.[10] The mystical transference of the fetish, now applied to commodity relations, is very real indeed.

Most interpreters end their investigation of the fetish at this point, but this is a mistake. The fetishism of commodities is only the first step in Capital. In the later volumes and in the fascinating economic notes that provide the background to that work, Marx applies the fetish to more and more features of capitalism. These include labour power, use value, exchange value, social forms of labour, capitalist, land, interest, wages, circulation, profit – until they all face the labourer as alien realities that rule his life; they ‘stand on their hind legs vis-à-vis the worker and confront him as “capital”’.[11] Marx is moving ever closer to his full transformation of the idea of the fetish. The next step is to determine three key dimensions of that fetishism of capitalism. These are capital, land and labour, which he calls the ‘trinity formula’.[12] Yet within the three, one of them dominates – capital. Labour functions as part of capital, and land is dependent on capital, at the same time that it inhibits the full development of capital. So now we have one central location in which the fetish appears, in capital. But what is the true fetish of capital? It is the belief that money simply produces money. No longer are production, land, labour and commodities needed; all we need is money, since it produces more money all by itself. Marx has already described here what is now called the ‘financialisation of the market’, in which you can speculate on the stock exchange, or more simply gain interest from a bank. In order to describe this core feature of capital, Marx coins a new term, ‘capital-fetish’ [kapitalfetisch].[13]

At this moment, the full Aufhebung of religion has been realised in Marx’s work. At the heart of his analysis of capitalism is the idea of the fetish. It has been deeply and dialectically transformed, coming a long way from his initial discovery of the idea in the early 1840s. Yet he maintained an interest in the fetish almost to the moment of his death and even beyond the massive and unfinished project of Capital. So we find that in The Ethnological Notebooks of the early 1880s,[14] Marx returns once again to the religious meaning of fetishism in anthropological literature. It is as though he is returning to his first moment of discovery, reminding himself of the power of an idea that he was to transform, to perform such a thoroughgoing Aufhebung, in his study of capitalism.


[1] Charles de Brosses, Du culte des dieux fétiches ou Parallèle de l’ancienne religion de l’Égypte  (Paris1760). See Marx’s notes in Karl Marx, “Exzerpte aus Charles de Brosses: Ueber den Dienst der Fetischengötter,” in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe, vol. 4:1, 321-322 (Berlin: Dietz, 1842 [1976]). Marx read the book in German translation.

[2] The word comes from the English translation of the pidgin Fetisso, which comes from the Portuguese feitiço. In the late European Middle Ages, Fetisso designated ‘magical practices’ or ‘witchcraft’. However, efforts have been made to derive the word from Latin fatum, signifying both fate and charm (de Brosses), factitius, linking the magic arts and the work of art (Edward Tylor) or facere, designating the false representation of things sacred, beautiful, or enchanting. See William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, I,” Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 9(1985): 5; William Pietz and Emily Apter, Fetishism as Cultural Discourse  (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 3-4.

[3] For efforts to discern Marx’s argument in this lost work, see Mikhail Lifshitz, The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx, trans. Ralph B. Winn (New York: Pluto, 1973 [1933]); Margaret A. Rose, Marx’s Lost Aesthetic: Karl Marx and the Visual Arts  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 61-62; Roland Boer, Criticism of Earth: On Marx, Engels and Theology  (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 61-68, 179-181.

[4] We see this idea expressed in its succinct form in the fourth thesis on Feuerbach. Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach (original version),” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 5, 3-5 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1845 [1976]).

[5] Karl Marx, “Comments on James Mill, Élémens d’économie politique,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 3, 211-228 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1844 [1975]), 212.

[6] Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” 272.

[7] Karl Marx, “Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 35 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1867 [1996]), 81-94.

[8] Marx, “Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I,” 83.

[9] Karl Marx, “Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Erster Band Buch I: Der Produktionsprozeß des Kapitals,” in Marx Engels Werke, vol. 23 (Berlin: Dietz, 1867 [1972]), 90. I am indebted to Jan Rehmann for this insight.

[10] Marx, “Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I,” 84.

[11] Karl Marx, “Economic Manuscripts of 1861-63 (Conclusion): A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 34 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1861-3 [1994]), 457-458.

[12] Karl Marx, “Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. III,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 37 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1894 [1998]), 801-818.

[13] Karl Marx, “Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Dritter Band Buch III. Der Gesamtprozeß der kapitalistischen Produktion,” in Marx Engels Werke, vol. 25 (Berlin: Dietz, 1894 [1973]), 412. In this light, he writes: ‘The relations of capital assume their most external and most fetish-like form [fetischartigste Form in interest-bearing capital’ Marx, “Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. III,” 388.

[14] Karl Marx, The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx, ed. Lawrence Krader (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1880-82 [1972]).

One thought on “The Fetish: Marx and the Aufhebung of Religion

  1. End in what sense? End as in ultimate consequence and goal, or end as in terminal destruction? The human capacity for idolatry, for magical thinking and anthropomorphism may have as its worst and most powerful outcome the fetishistic summoning of Capital into hegemonic, tyrannical being. However surely that is not the goal or purpose of religion, especially the Biblical faiths, which aim at the re-humanisation of humanity and the de-throning of the pretender Mammon and the restoration to power of creation’s true king.

    Alternatively, the triumph of Capital in a very real sense kills religion, and is the true ally and inspiration of anti-theism. both dialectical-materialist and ordinary materialist. To overthrow Capital is to overthrow materialism and obey God, to destroy theism is to worship and empower Capital.

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