Reification cannot replace politics of change and justice

  • 5th June, 2023

(MainsGS1:Salient features of Indian Society, Diversity of India.)


  • Reification is the turning of an abstract, intangible idea into a fixed belief. 
  • It occurs when people start believing in the concreteness of a concept, when in actuality the concept exists in an amorphous abstract form, and is mostly the result of socio-economic processes.


  • The most influential work on reification was developed in History and Class Consciousness by the Hungarian Marxist thinker Georg Lukacs (1923), wherein the idea was used to explain the growing hold of technocratic, bureaucratic and capitalist relations on the legal system in the early twentieth century. 
  • That is, a belief system or social relations created out of larger capitalist frameworks was being normalised as common, concrete and inevitable. 
  • The reified individual, that is the worker, then becomes an automaton working aimlessly bound within a normalised socio-legal set up of capitalist society. 
  • Reification is a very specific kind of alienation, whereby one gets isolated from the very spirit of the human mind which is boundless. 
  • In other words, reification leads to a very limited and restrictive mind, resulting in extremely constricted political growth, or none at all.
  • The only way the working class can break out of this framework is through de-reification, which is essentially a realisation of ‘self-consciousness’ or in other words class consciousness.

Potential to transform society:

  • Andrew Feenberg (2015) in his paper ‘Lukács’s Theory of Reification and Contemporary Social Movements, Rethinking Marxism’ explains that class consciousness occurs when the reified individual comes to terms with the conflict between labour and life. 
  • Since this individual is irreducible to the economy — an economy dominated by capitalist modes of production — he will eventually confront capitalist social reality in order to be aware of class struggle. 
  • And it is this self-realisation of his mechanical existence, bound by capitalist laws, that will lead to his de-reification as a worker. 
  • He will then acknowledge his existence as part of the working class which has a revolutionary potential to transform society.

Forgetfulness of recognition:

  • Axel Honneth (2008) in his work Reification-A New Look at an Old idea, states that reification cannot be understood through economic totality alone as argued by Lukacs. 
  • The horrors brought upon by sexism, racism, fascism and closer home, the ubiquitous caste system, operate with or without the overarching capitalist social reality. 
  • Therefore, Honneth argues that reification is the resultant outcome of the ‘forgetfulness of recognition’. 
  • To put it simply, the lack of recognition from other individuals affects one’s ‘self’, resulting in the formation of a reified individual. Thus reification, in the Honnethian scheme of things, is essentially a misrecognition or the devaluation of an individual.
  • However, this idea of ‘primacy of recognition’ has been roundly criticised by the likes of Judith Butler among others. 
  • While the juxtaposing of reification within the larger politics of recognition may or may not have takers, it certainly offers a very rich and insightful angle to the subject.

Caste paradox:

  • The idea of reification is essentially treating abstract concepts as real through the ideological hegemony of the socially and economically dominant sector.
  • In India, the dominant precondition of social relations continues to be caste and it is strictly followed in most familial rituals, especially in marriages signifying the endogamous nature of caste groups. 
  • Another defining criterion to understand caste is the graded hierarchy inbuilt within the caste system, whereby caste groups are pegged one over another in the ‘ascending scale of reverence’ and the ‘descending scale of contempt’. 
  • This means that individuals belonging to varied caste groups have graded privileges as they go up the caste order, and are at a disadvantage when they go down the caste hierarchy. 
  • One has to deal with the corresponding caste privileges and disadvantages which were predetermined by the accident of birth.
  • However, marginalised masses at the periphery of the caste order mobilise around their caste location to counter upper caste hegemony.


  • The struggles against the caste order have often been launched through an assertion of caste wherein lower caste solidarity counters upper caste hegemony.
  • This is the reification which is deeply wired in the very sociology of the country and such an assertion forms the very basis of lower caste politics.
  • While the recognitory and assertive aspect of identity politics is emancipatory, it reinforces caste. 
  • The reified individual fighting caste hegemony remains limited in contributing to the annihilation of caste, thus, reification cannot replace a truly revolutionary politics of change and justice.

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