Book Reviews

Real Abstraction and the Real Break between Marx and Hegel

Un parricidio compiuto. Il confronto finale di Marx con Hegel: Finelli, Roberto: 9788816412866: Books

A Review of Un parricidio compiuto by Roberto Finelli

Panagiotis Sotiris

Hellenic Open University, Greece


Roberto Finelli, (2014) Un parricidio compiuto. Il confronto finale di Marx con Hegel, Milan: Jaca Book.


This book represents one of the most coherent versions of Roberto Finelli’s argument in regard to his reading of what constitutes the originality of Karl Marx’s mature theory and, in particular, his insistence that what designates the differentia specifica of Marx’s mature thinking is not a theory of dialectical contradictions but, rather, a theory ofreal abstractions.

In a certain way, this book is the continuation of Failed Parricide, his work of 2004 (published in English in 2016 as part of the Brill/Historical Materialism Book Series), In that book, Finelli characterised the relationship between Hegel and the young Marx in the following manner:

The underlying thesis of my reconstruction breaks the order and the progressive dimensions of such deductions and proposes an interpretation of the relationship between Hegel and the early Marx as characterised by a permanent and structural subordination of the young revolutionary intellectual to the great philosopher from Stuttgart. This subordination lasts for a long time, for a whole period of Marx’s life; when denied and repressed, it became the origin of many hasty and not very rigorous aspects of Marx’s first theoretical paradigm.Finelli 2016, p. xi.

For Finelli, there are two fundamental contradictory tendencies running through Marx’s theoretical laboratory:

The first tendency, perceptively defined by Giovanni Gentile at the end of the nineteenth century, is that of a philosophy of praxis founded upon a subject of an idealistic type, a subject that moves through history by means of the negation, and then the negation of the negation, of its originary fullness. This is a philosophy of history where a subject necessarily loses and alienates itself through labour; but, equally necessarily, and in accordance with a predefined result, it reconciles itself with itself and with its irreducible and irrepressible essence. This theory of praxis generates a paradigm that reduces reality in its entirety to labour. It represents a substantial anti-naturalism, or rather, the valorisation of nature only to the extent that it is elevated and inscribed in the horizon of the historicity of human beings. It thus produces the simplistic vision of symbolic and political superstructures as mere reflections of the productive structure.

The second tendency, which effectively coexists with the first, is instead a sociology of modernity alone, and, thus, not extended to the entire history of humanity, as in the case of historical materialism. It is based upon capital as a principle of totality. In other words, capital is considered as a vector of the universalisation and assimilation of the whole, which progressively transforms, throughout its history, every element of prior reality and civilisation. Presupposed [presupposto] elements are transformed into elements posited [posto] by its logic, into products of its accumulation. At the same time, as a totalizing principle of social integration, it is, precisely in its nature as an element producing material goods that satisfy human needs, a producer of relations between human beings and of the whole process of decomposition of a social ensemble into classes and orders, as well as a producer of the symbolic imaginary and theoretical rationalisations of the various social actors, by means of a singular relation of dissimulation between content and surface.Finelli 2016, p. xiii.

Un parricidio compiuto [An Accomplished Parricide] represents therefore Finelli’s attempt to show how in Marx’s mature work we can find both this logic of the presupposed–posited and this conception of real abstraction.

Both books are, for Finelli, part of a trilogy which was concluded in 2018 with his Per un nuovo materialismo. Presupposti antropologici ed etico-politici [For a New Materialism: Anthropological and Ethico-political Presuppositions]. Finelli insists that in contrast

to traditional interpretations of social contradiction and of human alienation, I have tried to read the new technological era of modern society beginning with the digital revolution as one characterised by the radical colonisation of the world of the concrete on the part of the world of the abstract, which leaves only a surface outline of the former, generating phenomena of a profound mystification and ideological dissimulation through the forms and effects of such surfaces.Finelli 2018, p. 13.

Finelli opposes his conception to two traditions. One the one hand there is the way that post-operaismo read Marx’s passage on the General Intellect from theGrundrisse, since, for Finelli, with the digital revolution, the process of capitalist valorisation only assumes the ‘semblance of a labour process instituted on the basis of the creativity and of the spontaneity of the subjective mind’.Finelli 2018, p. 14. On the other hand, he attempts a reading of human emancipation through Freud which he opposes to that of the Frankfurt School. By means of a complex reading of Freud, Spinoza, and Freud through Spinoza, as a way to rethink the very relation between mind and body, along with the emphasis on Marx as a theorist of real abstraction, Finelli attempts to offer a view of contemporary capitalist societies that are marked not only by exploitation and accumulation but also (and mainly) by a certain ‘emptying’ and ‘surfacialisation’. To that he opposes a conception of emancipation with a strong anthropological and ethical accent, what he describes as an anthropology of recognition:

Therefore the stakes of the future will be played out on the existential plane along with the social one, on the level of the control of the mind. The question of the school – namely that of the formation of the social mind – will be like as never before the key for the configuration of the time to come. In contrast to the society of knowledge that is coming nearer, and the obscurantism of the coming Middle Ages […], with its scission between on the one hand the proprietors and managers of information code and, on the other, an intellectual labour without access keys – with its own scission between a supranational bourgeoisie, consuming the same refined lifestyle and luxury goods of high quality, and the enormous mass of populations restrained in a reproduction of life at the lowest level of quality and culture – it is worth reaffirming the Gramscian thesis of a possible revolution only as the outcome of an intellectual and moral reform. And it is worth saying that that the first principle of such a reform, of such a utopia against the miseries of the present, could only be, along with the other grand principle of the reduction of the working day […,] a school that is an institution of knowledge to the extent that it is at the same time an institution of recognition.

            In conclusion, the hope is obviously that the anthropology of recognition that was proposed in these pages will be of some worth, in any way, to the political and ethical discussion on these terms and to the cultural and social opposition against the impending new Middle Ages.Finelli 2018, pp. 226–7.

Presentation of the Book

Finelli sets the tone of his argument by insisting on the opposition between the Marxism of the contradiction where the working class represents the opposition to capitalism, and the Marxism of real abstraction and the logic of the presupposed–posited. Finelli admits that capitalism is based on a class relation, but he insists that this does not necessarily lead to an inherently revolutionary capacity on the part of the proletariat, although this does not preclude the possibility of discussing the question of social emancipation, albeit on a different basis.

The emergence of the Marxism of real abstraction represents, for Finelli, Marx’s second and final parricide in regard to Hegel, in contrast to the failed parricide of the works of the young Marx.

For Finelli, historical materialism was, in fact, a paradigm that Marx superseded. Marx and Engels begin with a conception of ‘non-philosophy’,Finelli 2014, p. 55. based on the ontological primacy of praxis and a theory of the succession of modes of production. In contrast, real abstraction presents a different paradigm. This is why he moves to the notion of abstraction in Hegel, which was Hegel’s way not only to answer the question of how to make one out of many, but also of how modern society produces impersonality. According to Finelli, for Hegel, abstraction is (a) a pathological and aporetic function of knowledge, (b) a function of production of social reality, (c) a function of ideological production, and (d) a function of bürgerliche Gesellschaft and its particular nexuses of socialisation.Finelli 2014, p. 89.

According to Finelli, the young Marx’s critique in the 1844 Manuscripts is marked by a particularly anthropological orientation, one marked by a transition from the ‘anthropo-theo-logical’ character of Feuerbach’s humanism towards a ‘creative Prometheanism of homo faber’,Finelli 2014, p. 99. a conception that marks the limits of the young Marx’s critique of Adam Smith. The move towards a new science of history is in fact a philosophy of history based on the centrality of the division of labour.Finelli 2014, p. 107.

However, ‘historical materialism’ does not represent the only problematic of Marx. In Finelli’s reading, ‘historical materialism’ remains a philosophy of history with a strong metaphysical element. Finelli insists that another problematic emerges in Capital. The transition from the problematic of historical materialism towards the new one emerging inCapital, a transition already evident in theGrundrisse (where Finelli identifies the move from abstraction as something happening in the mind to abstraction as something happening related to praxis),Finelli 2014, p. 125. is based precisely on this importance of real abstraction. In Marx the crucial dialectical dualism is between the abstract and the concrete, which Finelli contrasts to the dialectical relation between Being and Nothing in Hegel. It is the duality between the world of the concrete, of use-values, and the world of the abstract, of exchange-values. What is more important is that this real abstraction has nothing to with logical abstraction: ‘the real abstraction of exchange-value should not be confused with alogical abstraction.Finelli 2014, p. 132. Moreover, as Finelli has repeatedly suggested, we have here the logic of abstraction–emptying out, in the sense that the abstract occupies and invades the concrete, filling it according to the exigencies of its expansive reproductive logic. It is by means of this process that capital emerges as a subject of socialisation, albeit a ‘subject which is not a person’.Finelli 2014, p. 138.

Finelli insists that, in Marx’s conceptualisation of the passage from money to capital, one can discern as model the Hegelian passage from Sein toWesen, but we should treat this ‘as analogy and not as homology’.Finelli 2014, p. 158. Finelli insists that, when the mature Marx discusses labour-power, two different conceptions of negation emerge, one that is more historical and one that is more logical. However, in contrast to Hegel, Marx moves beyond the limits of the Hegelian dialectic: ‘it is only the historical negation that constructs the foundation of the defining conceptual negation.’Finelli 2014, p. 161.

For Finelli Capital represents Marx’s second and final patricide of Hegel. The birth of the Marxian science inCapital is the passage from labour to labour-force. However, the crucial aspect is the shift in the theoretical treatment of the notion of the division of labour, a shift from the conception one can find in Adam Smith or in Hegel to the one that emerges inCapital. This leads to an opposition between a division of labour based on the market and money and one based on machinery/technology. It is the second one that represents the specifically capitalist division of labour. However, Finelli insists that Marx moves beyond thinking the mechanisation of production simply on the basis of the division of labour as Hegel did. In this sense, the abstraction expressed in the notion of value is based upon command and control of the production process by capital.Finelli 2014, p. 177. This conception is based on a very attentive reading of Marx’s 1861–3 Manuscript and, in particular, the part referring to machinery. In this reading, the machine emerges as a form of production that is at the same time ‘economic and anthropological’.Finelli 2014, p. 184 Moreover, according to Finelli, Marx moves beyond the paradigm of the division of labour towards that of the abstraction of labour. In this perspective manufacture represents the division of labour, whereas big industry represents the abstraction of labour. The abandonment of the paradigm of Teilung der Arbeit points to the passage from philosophy of praxis, to historical materialism and to a science of capitalism. This shift in the definition and meaning of labour from the ‘anthropological generality of essence’ towards the ‘naturalistic generalityFinelli 2014, p. 194 of historical development in the works on the critique of political economy is, for Finelli, a very crucial conceptual shift in Marx, despite the appearance of continuity. Consequently, in capitalist society, concrete labour is mediated by abstract labour, based on control and command of the labour-power, and labour in general is mediated by general or abstract labour.Finelli 2014, p. 195. In this sense, there is a shift in Marx from the duality labour/alienated labour to the duality labour/abstract labour. In such a perspective, the relation between interiority and exteriority of reality, essence and phenomena, is not based on negation/contradiction/alienation but on processes of real abstraction.

Abstraction does not signify a negation of a ‘universal essence of the human being’. It does not signify ‘de-qualification, degradation and alienation of a supposedly elevated and original creative capacity’. Abstraction signifies an ‘emptying out from the interior and an overdetermination from the exterior’.Finelli 2014, p. 198 Real abstraction is the composition of two processes: of the emptying-out of the concrete by the abstract and of the dissimulation of the abstract by means of the concrete. Abstract labour becomes not only a principle of valorisation but also a principle of socialisation.

Consequently, the circle presupposed–posited in Capital is both logical and ontological. Moreover, this conceptualisation of the abstraction in Marx as a real abstraction, as a ‘practically real’ abstraction, suggests, for Finelli, the paradigm-shift in Marx’s thinking of historicity: not the linear and progressive time of historical materialism based on the accumulation of productive forces but ‘the historical time of the abstract and the complex systematicity of the present that interweaves and constructs as a time from which to start, in order to understand both the present and the past’.Finelli 2014, p. 210.

Finelli then makes a detour in the history of philosophy in order to revisit the history of the emergence of a dialectical conception of truth, from German Idealism to Marx, suggesting that is it necessary to start from Leibniz, thus suggesting a Leibniz–Fichte–Hegel–Marx sequence. This enables Finelli to substantiate his position on the difference between Hegel and Marx and what he describes as the second parricide, based on the opposition between the Hegelian negation and the Marxian real abstraction, which is, at the same time, ‘production of reality and representative dissimulation of reality’.Finelli 2014, p. 239. This also enables Finelli to distinguish his conceptualisation of real abstraction from both a theory of alienation and a theory of fetishism, insisting that, with regard to the latter, Marx remains within the limits of a problematic that can be found also in Hegel. Moreover, to make this opposition between negation and abstraction clearer, Finelli includes a typology of the signification of negation in Hegel.

Finelli then moves to the importance of the ‘transformation problem’ as a way to envisage the ‘misadventures of the impersonal’Finelli 2014, p. 273. from Adam Smith to Marx. He begins with how the market as an invention of modernity was theorised in Adam Smith, who conceptualised the emergence of the modern market as based on the enormous development of the division and specialisation of labour, but also in the context of Newton’s doctrine of universal gravitation, which proved a means by which to think of the market as a terrain where various elements gravitate towards their natural equilibria.

In Hegel, this modern impersonality is theorised as reification. In a certain way, Hegel transforms the depersonalisation of social relations already suggested by Smith by means of a thinking reification. For Finelli, the separation between modern individuality and principles of social integration enables Hegel to introduce the conceptual dualism ‘civil-bourgeois society/political state’, with this conceptualisation of bürgerliche Gesellschaft being the point where Hegel becomes a theorist of modern capitalism.

However, Finelli insists that Marx goes beyond Hegel in passing from the philosophy of history to the science of the historical present, abandoning the paradigm of labour and its division, introducing the category of labour-power and moving to a theory of production based on the use of labour-power and capitalist valorisation.Finelli 2014, p. 303. In this context, the significance of the passage from values to prices is not simply mathematical; it also points to the passage from ‘a society of two classes to a polycentric societywith more classes’,Finelli 2014, p. 309. a society which is more complex and incorporates processes of dissimulation. On the basis of this assumption, Finelli suggests that there are three different theories of ideology in Marx: the first in German Ideology is based on the notion of the division of labour; the second coincides with the theory of fetishism; and the third one emerges along with the circular perspective of the presupposed–posited, although this is not theorised explicitly by Marx. In such a perspective, capital becomes a totalising principle of the three aspects of social (re)production: (a) material production of use-values, (b) production of social relations, and (c) the production of ideas and forms of social consciousness.

Finelli also returns to the debates on the value-form. He opposes the tendency of writers in the Wertform tradition to treat abstraction mainly in the sphere of circulation and the way they distinguish conceptual abstraction and real abstraction. He also points to the limits of the theorisation of reification by Lukács or the Frankfurt School. He also revisits the Italian Marxist tradition and, in particular, Della Volpe and Colletti, but also other important contributions such as those of Moishe Postone and Jacques Bidet.

The conclusion of the book attempts so see the significance of all these for a conceptualisation of emancipation. For Finelli, the Marxism of real abstraction enables a theorisation of contemporary capitalism, both in regard to the aspect of flexible accumulation and in regard to a production of subjectivity that intensifies a perception of fragmented superficiality. In opposition to this, it is possible to rethink the possibility of emancipation as a more profound and rich life, based on the combination of a critique of political economy and a critique of libidinal economy, in the sense of a new materialism that enables us to rethink socialisation as mutual recognition.





It is obvious that we are dealing here with an important contribution. The originality of Finelli’s conceptualisation of a real abstraction based in production (instead of focusing on exchange, as in the case of Sohn-Rethel)Sohn-Rethel 2021. had already been stressed by Alberto Toscano in regard to Finelli’s earlier formulation of his position.Toscano 2008. However, what we have here is more than simply a very elaborate defence of a real-abstraction position. Rather, we are dealing with an effort at a reconstruction of Marx’s philosophy and theory on the basis of the centrality of real abstraction, in a certain way an attempt at a rethinking of a different ‘epistemological break’ or ‘paradigm shift’ within the evolution of Marx’s own thinking, a move away from both a certain conception of ‘historical materialism’, an earlier conception of human essence, and the limits of Hegelian dialectics, a move towards a highly original social theory based on the specificity of capitalist social relations of production. Finelli’s book combines a highly original re-reading of the relation of Marx to Hegel, of the conceptual architecture of Marx’s Capital, of the ways that Marx moved beyond Hegel, along with a theory of real abstraction that is based in capitalist production, enabling a theorisation of the totalising character of capital as a process of production of both social relations and forms of social consciousness. Moreover, this book also has the merit of attempting to offer again a philosophical synthesis on the question of emancipation today, a kind of philosophically inspired elaboration on strategic questions that is often missing from contemporary discussions. One could say that Finelli is reviving a long tradition in Marxism, a tradition of philosophically rethinking the possibility of human emancipation, not hesitating to confront the very possibility of a philosophical synthesis but at the same time avoiding the idealism usually associated with such efforts.




Finelli, Roberto 2014, Un parricidio compiuto. Il confronto finale di Marx con Hegel, Milan: Jaca Book.

Finelli, Roberto 2016, A Failed Parricide: Hegel and the Young Marx, translated by Peter D. Thomas and Nicola Iannelli Popham,Historical Materialism Book Series, Leiden: Brill.

Finelli, Roberto 2018, Per un nuovo materialismo. Presupposti antropologici ed etico-politici, Turin: Rosenberg & Sellier.

Sohn-Rethel, Alfred 2021, Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology, translated by Martin Sohn-Rethel,Historical Materialism Book Series, Leiden: Brill.

Toscano, Alberto 2008, ‘The Open Secret of Real Abstraction’, Rethinking Marxism, 20, 2: 273–87.