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in psychiatry, a paraphilia (see perversion, sexualperversion, sexual,
in psychology, sexual behavior deemed pathological by its deviation from "normal" sexual desire. The definition of sexual perversion has shifted considerably over time: indeed, it has never been an uncontested category of meaning.
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) in which erotic interest and satisfaction are centered on an inanimate object or a specific, nongenital part of the anatomy. Generally occurring in males, fetishism frequently centers on a garment (e.g., underclothing or high-heeled shoes) or such parts of the body as the foot. In some cases, fetishism becomes severe enough to inspire the fetishist to acquire objects of his desire through theft or assault. In psychoanalysis, a fetish is believed to represent a substitute for male genitalia, which women are imagined to have lost through castration. Although the causes of fetishism are not clearly known, it is generally not considered a serious disorder, unless it is coupled with other psychological disturbances.



(1) The religious worship of a material object—a fetish—alleged to be endowed with supernatural properties.

Fetishism was first encountered by 15th-century Portuguese seafarers among the peoples of West Africa, who worshiped such objects as wooden pillars and stones. The term “fetish” was introduced into learned usage by the French scholar C. de Brosses, who published in 1760 his study of fetishism among the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, On the Cult of Fetish Gods (Russian translation, On fetishism, 1973). The French Enlightenment thinkers regarded fetishism as an archaic form of religion resulting from ignorance (see P. Holbach, The System of Nature, Moscow, 1940, pp. 220–21).

In the Hegelian interpretation, fetishism is a form of primeval and spontaneous religion, or sorcery, whereby man indirectly controls nature through the use of magic—that is, through the fetish—to obtain what he needs (see G. Hegel, Philosophy of Religion, vol. 1, Moscow, 1975, p. 448). According to Hegel, fetishism reflects a transitional stage in man’s relation to the world—from immediate sensory attraction to a labor-mediated relationship, or from worshiping natural objects to investing them with spiritual meaning.

Varying characteristics have been ascribed to fetishism by individual ethnographers: J. Lubbock, for example, interpreted fetishism as based on man’s primitive belief in the possibility of forcing a deity to fulfill his wishes; others, including E. B. Tylor and H. Spencer, regarded fetishism as a form of animism, and fetishes as spirit receptacles.

Fetishism has played a varying role in different peoples’ religious beliefs. The Australian fetishes, called churingas, are symbolical substitutes for totems; the fetishes of the North American Indians are embodiments of the clan’s protectors, while among the peoples of West Africa the fetish protects an individual. Fetishes take different forms: they may be stones, pieces of wood, parts of an animal’s body, or images—that is, idols. The choice of a fetish may be determined by chance or, alternatively, by a priest or sorcerer. There are known instances of familiar treatment of a fetish—it may be fed and caressed for services rendered, or it may be beaten for being remiss or even thrown out and replaced by another one. Fetishism has been preserved in the worship of relics and icons in the Christian religion, the sacred stupas of the Buddhists, and the holy places and sacred “black stone” of the Muslims.


(2) That characteristic process of commodity-capitalist society whereby supernatural properties are ascribed to the products of labor (as in the case of the self-expansion of value)—a process resulting from the objectification of social relations and the personification of objects. Both the structure of fetishistic thinking and the mechanics of fetishistic behavior were clarified by K. Marx in his study of commodity fetishism.

Fetishism is the process of equating the social and cultural functions of an object with the natural properties or innate traits of a thing, a product of human activity, or an individual. In any given case, the specific character of fetishism depends on whether a sociocultural factor is equated, or identified, with the naturalistic essence of a thing, the corporeal substratum of a product of human activity, or the innate properties of an individual.

Marx initially explained fetishism as an early form of religion—“the religion of sensuous desires” (see K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 1, pp. 98, 410)—in which man is the slave of objects and man’s conception of a thing becomes a property of the thing itself. Subsequently, he further developed his socioeconomic theory, the later Marx explored fetishism as a structural element in the social consciousness of antagonistic formations.

Marx regarded fetishism as a common and constant element not only of religion but also of many other forms of consciousness unrelated to religion proper. In the world of religion, “the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into a relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call fetishism” (ibid., vol. 23, p. 82). The attribution of magical, sacramental, or holy properties to objects is inherent not only in religious consciousness but also in the various forms of “secular” consciousness (alchemy, for example, or bourgeois political economy, particularly in its vulgar form). In addition to revealing the structure and varieties of fetishistic consciousness, Marx’ theory showed fetishism to be a socioeconomic function of bourgeois production relations. Fetishism was associated by Marx with the inosculation of the sociocultural functions of a thing and its material substratum. The fetish object, then, is turned into a kind of magic medium that is called upon to ensure the attainment of one’s desire—that is, a product of human activity is turned into something transcendent.

Contemporary Marxist literature emphasizes the methodological importance of the theory of fetishism; it is considered important, first, for the study of fetishism not only as a stage in the development of autochthonous religious cults (in Africa, for example) but also as a vestige surviving in Christianity—as in the work of G. P. Frantsov, B. I. Sharevskaia, and A. F. Anisimov; and second, it is an important tool—as used by S. A. Tokarev—for exposing fetishism as the most common and constant element of religion in general. Marxist historians of religion and ethnographers, as well as Marxist sociologists, draw upon Marx’ theory of fetishism in analyzing the deformative influence of fetishism on scientific principles (as in the confusion of essence and appearance or the utilitarian conception of the scientific ideal), in criticizing the various forms of mass culture and consumerism, and in interpreting the sociopsychological currents manifested in bourgeois society.


(3) In medicine, the sexual perversion in which the subject is sexually attracted to a variety of objects (such as shoes, stockings, or underwear) belonging to the beloved.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Ob ateizme, religii i tserkvi. [Collection.] Moscow, 1971. Pages 458–70.
Marx, K. “Teorii pribavochnoi stoimosti” (vol. 4. of Kapital). In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 26, parts 1–2.
Marx, K. “Kritika politicheskoi ekonomii.” Ibid., vol. 46, parts 1–2.
Kharuzina, V. N. “Zametki po povodu upotrebleniia slova: fetishizm.” Etnograficheskoe obozrenie, 1908, nos. 1–2.
Rubin, I. I. Ocherki po teorii stoimosti Marksa. Moscow-Leningrad, 1929.
Mark, A. Krytyka fetyshyzmu v tvorchosti Marksa. Kharkov, 1931.
Frantsov, G. P. U istokov religii i svobodomysliia. Moscow-Leningrad, 1959.
Tokarev, S. A. Rannie formy religii i ikh razvitie. Moscow, 1964.
Althusser, L., J. Rancière, and P. Macherey. Lire le capital, vol. 1. Paris, 1965.
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