Alfred Sohn-Rethel

Alfred Sohn -Rethel ( born January 4, 1899 in Neuilly -sur -Seine, near Paris, † April 6, 1990 in Bremen) was an economist, Marxist philosopher and economic and industrial sociologist.


Alfred Sohn -Rethel came from a family of painters with upper-class family. He would not be even a painter, he should grow up in a household inartistic - in which the family friendly Düsseldorf steel industrialist Ernst Poensgen - study and later economic or natural sciences. At Christmas 1915, he wished with foster father Poensgen the three volumes of Capital, he actually received and then began to study very thoroughly.

Sohn-Rethel in 1928 received his doctorate in Heidelberg during the Austro-Marxist economist Emil Lederer in economics. In his dissertation he criticizes the theory of marginal utility as a " begging the question ", since this direction requires the number - term implied. His theoretical issues and theoretical approaches as well as his spiritual background have a relationship with the thinking of critical theory. In 1924 he met on the island of Capri Adorno and Kracauer know. Even in Heidelberg he was since 1920 a friend of Ernst Bloch and since 1921 known with Walter Benjamin. From then on, he was all his life in contact with the representatives of the Frankfurt School, especially Adorno. It was concerned about a possible Horkheimer speculative critique of society no solid cooperation.

Through the mediation of Poensgen he arrived in September 1931 to a scientific auxiliary character in the Central European Business Forum ( MWT). The MWT was an association of leading economic enterprises, banks and associations in Germany. There could Sohn-Rethel - for sociologists a rare case - 1931-1936 unrecognized " in the lion's den " and up close, "in the second rank middle ", observe the power-political events and analyze well knowledgeable as differentiated by sector. At the same time he maintained contact with left-socialist resistance groups like " New Start " or " Red shock troops ."

In 1937 he emigrated via Switzerland and Paris to England. There he wrote Economic Policy Analysis for the circle to Churchill who likes briefed on the work of German emigrants in order to be justified against Chamberlain's appeasement policy. In the 1950s he met in Birmingham to classicists and Marxists, George Derwent Thomson know who was his chief interlocutor at this time in theoretical questions. Thomson made ​​him known among other things, with the philosophy of Parmenides. While Thomson the Parmenidean concept of substance ( το εόν ) equated " as a reflection or projection of the substance of the value of the goods ", this concept of being for Sohn-Rethel, the first philosophical category that is originated by the coins, as this is intended as a material constant and unchanging.

After the Second World War he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. Although he was soon disillusioned, given their dogmatism, but kept her until his move to the Federal Republic of Germany in 1972, the loyalty. It was not until late in life he learned his discovery and the findings of the '68 movement. Suhrkamp publisher Siegfried Unseld made ​​on the occasion of the funeral of Adorno 1969, the acquaintance of Sohn-Rethel. Be written on the advise to Sohn-Rethel magnum opus Mental and physical work, with which he was well received in the non-dogmatic part of the student movement. Especially Hans -Jürgen Krahl and Oskar Negt were very impressed by his materialist theory of knowledge. In intercession and mediation of Negt received Sohn-Rethel 1972 to 1976 as a visiting professor at the mathematical department of the University of Bremen. 1978 held a full professorship, which he held until the mid-1980s. In the industrial sociological research of the 1970s and 1980s he had with his Subsumtionstheorem a big impact, especially at the Institute for Social Research ( IfS) and the ISF Munich.

Family of origin

Alfred Sohn -Rethel was both great-grandchildren of the history painter Alfred Rethel (1816-1859) and great-grandson of the painter Karl Ferdinand Sohn (1805-1867) and great-great grandson of the miniature painter August Grahl (1791-1868) and Elisabeth, born Oppenheim ( 1813-1904 ). Sohn-Rethel eponymous father (1875-1958), son of the painter Karl Rudolf son (1845-1908) and the Else Rethel (1853-1933), daughter of Alfred Rethel, can as a painter as well as his brothers also active as a painter Otto ( 1877-1949) and Karl Ernst (1882-1966) style of the traditionalist Paris Salon painting of the 19th century to be assigned. Sohn-Rethel Mother Anna Michels (1874-1957) came from the Jewish home Oppenheim and had relations with influential circles in industry and high finance.


Sohn-Rethel was married in first marriage since 1920 with Tilla Henninger ( 1893-1945 ), they had a daughter Brigit ( 1921-1995 ), who was later married to the British Peter Wright. Tilla Henninger wanted Sohn-Rethel from Switzerland to meet the intermediate French exile, but failed their efforts to obtain a visa. In exile in Britain Sohn-Rethel entered into a marriage with Joan M. Levi, from which the children Ann and Martin come. Joan Levi worked as a nurse at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham in the treatment of cancer diseases. For her sake, he remained in the UK, where he gave private tutoring in French and worked as a teacher. 1984 married Alfred Sohn-Rethel and Bettina Wassmann, a Bremer bookseller and publisher.


Sohn-Rethel life persistently pursued objective was the connection of the epistemology of Immanuel Kant with the " Critique of Political Economy " by Karl Marx a materialist theory of knowledge and criticism. In the " real abstraction of commodity exchange " saw Sohn-Rethel the decisive condition for the acquisition of formal- abstract thinking. All Kantian categories were included immanent for him in exchange of commodities: space, time, quantity, quality, substance, accident, movement, value, etc. According to Sohn-Rethel was the formal- abstract thinking, which first emerged in the form of the Ionic natural philosophy in the cultural history, by the Lydian invention of coinage ( see, inter alia goods shape and form of thought, 1978; money, the face value of the a priori, 1990). The need to abstract the münzgeldvermittelten exchange of commodities of every empirical quality that people have been unconsciously guided to think in formal- abstract categories and forms. His epistemological conception took place in the 1970s and 1980s a lot of attention in Western European intellectuals. In the ancient history, theory Sohn-Rethel is much less received as those of Eric A. Havelock subsequent theories that see in the phonetic alphabet is a major condition of the development of thinking in ancient Greece. Sohn-Rethel approach, however, was taken up by Rudolf Wolfgang Müller in 1977 money and spirit to a differentiated and developed. The English classics scholars Richard Seaford has produced a book entitled " Money and the Early Greek Mind ," in which he positively relates to Sohn-Rethel and Müller. Contrary to Thomson, Sohn-Rethel and Müller, but Tobias Reichardt comes in 2003 in his study of Marx's theory of antiquity to the conclusion that the economy of antiquity could not exceed the limits described by Marx to capitalism.

In sociological terms made ​​him his distinction between time and market economy in the industrial sociology known. True to the Marxian thesis that all economic flows in time, is for him the time economic " theorem of real subsumption " as opposed to a market economy. For the time imperative is confined not only to the economy but universal extend to all social manifestations. Subsumption in the strict sense means " the divorce of the spiritual powers of the production process, from manual labor. " General 'm the category for "the development of the social productive force working through the conscious organization of division of labor and cooperation, and targeted use of science and technology under the control of capital for the production of relative surplus-value. "

In addition, he analyzed economic contexts, in particular in the political rise of the "German fascism " ( Nazism ). Here he laid mainly emphasis on the distinction between the economically prosperous " Bruning camp" ( electrical, chemical, mechanical industry, major banks ) and the loss-making industries (steel, mining, construction and concrete industries - with the exception of Krupp ) which he then assigned the Harzburg Front. Only the consent of the I.G. Color General Council beginning in December 1932 " Agrarkartellierung ", a compromise interest of industry and big landowners, had cleared the program of the path to dictatorship. Sohn-Rethel attacked while also considerations of Eugen narrow creek that had been suggested in 1928 in a lecture that German companies have special problems because of rising fixed costs, which would ultimately make government intervention required. Schmalenbach represented a contradiction between " technical rationality " and " economic rationality " firmly (with Sohn-Rethel then contradiction between " production logic " and "Sales Logic "). Sohn-Rethel concluded from this that there is a lack of a social revolution " no other alternative than the capitalist mode of production irrespective of the market, that is, to produce not more marketable products according to a purely economic necessities continue. This is the economic definition of fascism. "

These hypotheses were partially taken up in the Marxist -oriented historians. The historian Reinhard Neebe criticized, however, in his study of large-scale industry, government and the Nazi Party 1930-1933, Sohn-Rethel would largely overstate the role of the MWT in the early thirties because of his personal involvement awareness. The Bielefeld social historian Hans -Ulrich Wehler judges in his German Social History, the " neo-Marxist debate of the 1960/70s ," in which he also classifies Sohn-Rethel, was " theoretically and empirically provided nothing of stock". In recent work on German economic history during the time of National Socialism Sohn-Rethel is rarely rezipiert.


  • The political bureau of the German heavy industry. In: View of the World 1948 ( 15 ), pp. 20-22, 1948
  • Mental and physical work. On the theory of social synthesis. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1970
  • The social reconsolidation of capitalism. First published anonymously in: German leader letters. No. 72 and 73, Berlin 16th and 20th Sept. 1932 → Online A comment after 38 years. In: Course book. September 21, 1970, P. 17 - 35, 1970 → Neckline: see last paragraph: " The best-informed in Germany " ( version of 19 August 2008 at the Internet Archive )