MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms




To supersede, put an end to, but simultaneously maintain, preserve

Philosophical Notebooks

For example, in the history of philosophy a certain idea is dominant in a certain period; after a time, the idea fades in its significance, or a principle is found to be false, or the problem is resolved and attention focussed on new problems. The idea of sublation is that the old idea or principle is not simply disproved and disposed of but is contained in the new higher principle that has replaced it. As another example, in our childhood we wrestle with certain problems which are forgotten by the time we are adults, but in fact it is those struggles which have formed us into the adult that we now are, which is no longer troubled by those same problems. Thus: “To supersede, put an end to, but simultaneously maintain, preserve”

Sublation, a translation of the German word aufheben, is a key concept of dialectics.

Further Reading: Hegel in the Shorter Logic.



“Subject” refers to the person or entity carrying out and responsible for an action, rather than the object which is being acted upon. The term is often used as a synonym for “human being”, or the consciousness of a human being. In the context of history, “subject” means the agent of history, the people who are the conscious architects of events, rather than their unconscious tools.

The “subject-object” problem, or the separation of subject and object is often taken as a fundamental problem of Western thinking, ever since Descartes invented the “Cartesian divide” as an epistemological problem. For dialectics, subject and object can only be understood as opposite aspects of the subject-object relation and thus inseparably part of the same relation.

It was Kant who defined the “Subject” in ethical terms, as the moral agent, having freedom and subject to moral laws. Hegel further developed the concept to overcome the division between the individual “Subject” or person and the corporate or collective “Subject,” by means of an understanding of “Subject” as a self-conscious system of activity, in which the Individual, Universal and Particular aspects are coordinated. Historically, the individual subject only gradually distinguishes herself from the social subject of which she is a part. See “Subjectivity.”

“Subject” can also be used to mean that which is being discussed (as in “subject matter”), or “suffering” some effect or obligation, as in “subject to abuse” or “King Henry’s subjects”. Thus, in different contexts, the word can take on diametrically opposite meanings.

Etymology: The etymology of the word “subject” shows how it made its passage from the passive to the active voice.

The earliest recorded use of the word was in 1315 as an adjective meaning “bound to a superior by some obligation” and in 1340 the word was used as a noun to mean a person under the dominion of a Monarch, as in “a subject of King Henry.”

In 1374, Chaucer used the word in the sense of “subject matter” about which different things could be said, and in 1380 the word was used to refer to the substance to which attributes (in the Aristotlean sense) adhered. In this sense, the word has been generalised from being “subject” to an obligation to being “subject” to any kind of attachment or property.

In 1551, “subject” was used in the sense of something to which properties could be attributed, and In 1603, Shakespeare used the word in the sense of a thing having a real independent existence, and therefore properties inhered in it, and to which attributes could be contingently attached. By 1638 it had taken on the modern meaning of the word “subject” in grammar, as opposed to “predicate” which expresses properties of the subject. The subject is then the “do-er” of the verb, and we can see the beginnings of a move from the passive carrier of attributes and obligations to the do-er of actions.

With René Descartes in 1638, as the Latin subjectum, the word then came to mean a fully conscious thinking “subject,” in particular the mind or ego, as the subject in which all ideas inhere, and to which all representation and operations are to be attributed. In other words, the thinking and cognising agent. With Descartes, the word did not have an ethical connotation however, but is understood epistemologically.

With Kant, the meaning of the word stabilised in its modern philosophical meaning as the moral agent:

“A person is a subject who is capable of having his actions imputed to him. Moral personality is, therefore, nothing but the freedom of a rational being under moral laws; and it is to be distinguished from psychological freedom as the mere faculty by which we become conscious of ourselves in different states of the identity of our existence. Hence it follows that a person is properly subject to no other laws than those he lays down for himself, either alone or in conjunction with others.” [Introduction to the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785]

With Hegel, the word takes on the broader meaning, not restricted to the individual ego or person, but rather the self-conscious, self-legislating social actor which is both corporate and individual, including for example, states, families and individuals — provided they are legally free agents (in his day, excluding women and children, for example).

Further Reading: Object and Subject;


Subject of Labour
aka Object of Labour

What labour is applied to (for example: labor, raw materials). Subject/object of Labour is one of the Means of Production.

The soil (and this, economically speaking, includes water) in the virgin state in which it supplies man with necessaries or the means of subsistence ready to hand, exists independently of him, and is the universal subject of human labour. All those things which labour merely separates from immediate connexion with their environment, are subjects of labour spontaneously provided by Nature. Such are fish which we catch and take from their element, water, timber which we fell in the virgin forest, and ores which we extract from their veins. If, on the other hand, the subject of labour has, so to say, been filtered through previous labour, we call it raw material; such is ore already extracted and ready for washing. All raw material is the subject of labour, but not every subject of labour is raw material: it can only become so, after it has undergone some alteration by means of labour.

Karl Marx
Capital: The Labour-Process And The Process Of Producing Surplus-Value

See also: Labour and Means of Production



Relating to the mind, or point of view of the subject and not the nature of the object itself.

See also: Objective


Subjective Idealism

Those forms of Idealism which place an absolute barrier between thought and matter (the world outside of thought), either questioning the possibility of objective knowledge, as in the case of Scepticism, or rejecting it altogether.

Further Reading: Hegel's contrast of subjective idealism and Absolute (i.e objective) idealism.


Subjective Logic

Objective Logic is the genesis of the Notion, and Subjective Logic, deals with the development of the Notion.

Objective Logic for example deals with how a new principle or social movement comes into being, passes through various contradictory forms and utlimately attains self-consciousness. While subjective logic deals with how a new principle develops, merging with other principles and developing into a whole science. In the life of social movements, the subjective logic deals with the internal life of an organisation or movement, the maturation and development of its program and ultimate dissolution into the general life of society.

Hegel describes the first part of this process as objective because as the movement first develops it lacks self-consciousness, it evolves much as an objective process, without any plan or program; in the second part of the process, we are dealing with a self-conscious process, such as a movement organised around a principle with its own program and aims, or a science whose founding principle has been enunciated and established, and is only “working out the details”.

Further Reading: Hegel’s essay on The Notion in General.



Subjectivism refers to extreme emphasis on the significance of the individual subject in cognition (as for example in the Second Positivism). In Ethics, subjectivism claims that no moral truths are possible, they are entirely relative to the person.

Dialectics combines subjectivism and objectivism for a complete understanding of the universe, emphasising for example the role of the individual in making history, while emphasising the role of society in influencing the individual.



Subjectivity means the coincidence of knowledge (or awareness, consciousness), agency (moral responsibility, efficacy) and identity (self-sconsciousness).

“Subjectivity” is used often nowadays to simply mean someone’s “state of mind,” accessible only to a person themselves, and inaccessible to anyone else. Although it is self-evident that you cannot experience someone else’s experience, Marxists do not use the word in this sense. In the first place there are always ways in which someone else’s state of mind can be perceptible to others and it privacy is purely relative; secondly, the supposed absolutely personal experience is inevitably tied up with a relation to cultural and material entities which are shared with others (language, images, material objects), and such “subjectivity” is inconceivable independently of active relations to such objects. (See Mikhailov’s Riddle of the Self on this)

Contrary to individualism and bourgeois psychology, subjectivity cannot be viewed as something existing solely within the internal and inaccessible recesses of individuals, but is rather an aspect of a social activity in which three relations – knowledge, agency and identity – coincide.

(1) Knowledge means a person or group of people’s ability to coordinate their activity effectively in relation to culturally and historically meaningful objects which are apprehended as ideals (See Ilyenkov’s Concept of the Ideal on this).

(2) Agency means a person or group’s understanding itself as the morally responsible actor in respect of an process or activity. This concept of agency known to structuralism is limited to the sense in which an organism is the agency for a disease it carries. Because subjectivity entails the coincidence of agency, knowledge (or consciousness) and identity, it means that the person or group, whether intentionally or not, is the morally responsible party in relation to some process, a relation unknown to structuralism.

(3) Identity means that a person or group knows itself as the knowing agent of some process or activity, including “corporate” personalities or entities with which people identify themselves. This aspect of subjectivity is often understood in terms of narratives, discourses, roles and “subject positions.” Identity includes the aspect of subjectivity by which the conscious agent has continuity through time. Subjectivity thus includes class consciousness, national identity and so on, where subjectivity inheres not just in individuals but in social formations such as classes and nations.

However, membership of a category or possession of an attribute (e.g., being a woman or being white, etc.) constitutes subjectivity only potentially or “in-itself.”

See the Marxism and Psychology Section.

In Hegel’s system Subjectivity is the first part of The Notion, followed by Objectivity and The Idea. Subjectivity is the first stage of the formation of a concept or self-consciousness, a “negative” of Being, and its parts are Notion, Judgment and Syllogism. The three components of Subjectivity are the Individual (a single person or thing), the Particular (i.e., the finite relation of the individual to others by means of which it relates to the Universal) and the Universal (i.e., the infinite, the cultural-historical objects which carry meaning and form the material basis for ideals). These three notions are related one to another in Judgments, Judgments being joined in turn to form Syllogisms.

According to Hegel, the philosophical standpoint which stops at subjectivity is Subjectivism or Idealism. In Subjectivity, the Notion exists “for itself”, but is yet to overcome, comprehend and merge with the objective world which confronts it and becomes “in-and-for-itself”.

Further Reading: Hegel in the Shorter Logic and Individual, Universal and Particular.


Subsistence Standard

1. (in Russia) The minimum amount of land necessary to feed a peasant family.



Originally “Substance,” from the Latin substantia, meant those entities which are fundamental in a philosophical system, having their own cause within themselves. In contrast to substances are the contingent attributes which a substance may have or not have and remain what it is. It is in this sense that Descartes held that thought and extension were two different substances. The everyday use of substance as a certain kind of “stuff” correctly reflects the naive realist point of view of the world as being made up of different kinds of “stuff.”

“Substance” is particularly associated with the philosophy of Spinoza who utilised the concept of One Substance to overcome Descartes’ dualism. Spinoza failed however to overcome this duality, and Herder subjected Spinoza to criticism, claiming that a dualism of attributes was no improvement over a dualism of substances.

Hegel uses the term “Substance”, sometimes called the totality of “accidents” or “attributes,” to indicate a stage in the development of Actuality.

Further Reading: God, Some Conversations (Herder), Science of Logic, the Shorter Logic and Outline of Logic. See also Kant in the Biographical notes and Ilyenkov's Essay on Substance.


Subsumption, Formal and Real

Subsumption is the process by which the social relations of production penetrate the labour process itself. Marx distinguishes between the “formal” and “real” subsumption of the labour process by capital.

This concept is central to how Marx conceives of how capitalism establishes itself. In the chapter in Capital on “Primitive Accumulation” Marx showed that genuinely capitalist accumulation could only take place on the basis of productive forces and social relations which themselves could only arise on the basis of capital. At first, capital draws into itself an existing labour process – techniques, markets, means of production and workers. This Marx calls “formal” subsumption, under which the whole labour process continues much as before, but by monopolising the means of production, and therefore the workers’ means of subsistence, the capitalist compels the worker to submit to the wage-labour, and by using the existing markets, is able to accumulate capital.

Capitalism as such, however, cannot develop on the limited basis it finds in the already existing forces of production. The pre-requisites for a real capitalist labour process can only be created by capital itself. Thus, capital gradually transforms the social relations and modes of labour until they become thoroughly imbued with the nature and requirements of capital, and the labour process is really subsumed under capital. This is Marx’s solution to the paradox that only capital can create the conditions for capitalist production.

See The Direct Process of Production.


Surplus Value

Surplus-value is the social product which is over and above what is required for the producers to live.

The measure of value is labour time, so surplus value is the accumulated product of the unpaid labour time of the producers. In bourgeois society, surplus value is acquired by the capitalist in the form of profit: the capitalist owns the means of production as Private Property, so the workers have no choice but to sell their labour-power to the capitalists in order to live. The capitalist then owns not only the means of production, and the workers’ labour-power which he has bought to use in production, but the product as well. After paying wages, the capitalist then becomes the owner of the surplus value, over and above the value of the workers’ labour-power.

In all societies in which there is a division of labour, there is a social surplus; what is different about bourgeois society is that surplus value takes the form of capital, and surplus value is in fact the essence of production in capitalism.– Only productive work, i.e., work which creates surplus value, is supported. All “unproductive labour” is eliminated.

The capitalists may increase the amount of surplus value extracted from the working class by two means: (1) by absolute surplus value – extending the working day as long as possible, and (2) by relative surplus value – by cutting wages.

Attempts by individual capitalists to increase their profits by introducing machinery or speeding-up production by technique fail as soon as their competitors copy the new technique and restore their market share. The end effect of these improvements in production may be to increase the productivity of labour, but unless the rate of surplus value is increased proportionately, the rate of profit will actually fall.

Having been accumulated as capital, surplus value must then be distributed to landlords, bankers and other parasites, and expended via taxes on the various expenses of maintaining the social fabic.