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Moishe Postone
Born17 April 1942
Died19 March 2018 (age 75)
Other namesMorris Postone
Academic background
Alma materGoethe University Frankfurt
ThesisThe Present as Necessity[1] (1983)
Doctoral advisorIring Fetscher, Heinz Steinert [de], Albrecht Wellmer[1]
InfluencesG.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx, György Lukács, Isaak Illich Rubin, Theodor W. Adorno, Alfred Sohn-Rethel
Academic work
DisciplineHistory, sociology
Sub-discipline20th-century German history,[2] modern European intellectual history, social theory
School or traditionCritical theory
InstitutionsUniversity of Chicago
Doctoral studentsCatherine Chatterley, Loïc Wacquant, Chris Cutrone[1]
Notable worksTime, Labor and Social Domination (1993)
InfluencedMartin Hägglund,[3] Gáspár Miklós Tamás

Moishe Postone (17 April 1942 – 19 March 2018) was a Canadian historian and social theorist. He was a professor of history at the University of Chicago, where he was part of the Committee on Jewish Studies.

Life and career

Postone was born on 17 April 1942, the son of a Canadian rabbi. He received his PhD from University of Frankfurt in 1983.[2][4]

His research interests included modern European intellectual history; social theory, especially critical theories of modernity; 20th-century Germany; antisemitism;[5] and contemporary global transformations. He was co-editor with Craig Calhoun and Edward LiPuma of Bourdieu: Critical Perspectives and author of Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx's Critical Theory. He was also co-editor with Eric Santner of Catastrophe and Meaning: The Holocaust and the Twentieth Century, a collection of essays that consider the meaning of the Holocaust in twentieth-century history and its influence on historical practice. Postone's work has had a large influence on the anti-Germans.[citation needed]

He was originally denied tenure by the University of Chicago's sociology department, sparking a great deal of public resentment from graduate students whom he had been involved in teaching. He was later granted tenure by the history department.[citation needed]

Postone was the Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of Modern History and co-director of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory.

Postone died on 19 March 2018.[2][6][7]

Capitalism as a historical specificity

A heterodox Marxist

In 1978, Postone started a critical analysis on Marx's theory of value.[8] However, his most distinguished main work, Time, Labor and Social Domination, was published in 1993 (translated into French in 2009 and Japanese in 2012).

In his works he proposed a fundamental reinterpretation of Karl Marx's critique of political economy, focusing on Marx's original concepts value, capital and labour. Inspired by heterodox Marxist thinkers such as Isaak Rubin and Roman Rosdolsky, and certain authors of the Frankfurt School, for example Alfred Sohn-Rethel, he demonstrated that the assumptions of the "pessimistic turn" of Horkheimer were historically rather than theoretically founded. Postone interpreted critical writings on Marx's critique of political economy, especially in its Capital 1 edition, and Grundrisse, as the development of a social-mediational theory of value.

Marx's Capital: a critique immanent to its purpose

Postone thought that in writing the Grundrisse Marx concludes that adequate critical theory must be completely immanent to its purpose. The criticism cannot be taken from a point of view external to its object, but must appear in the mode of presentation itself. Das Kapital is so structured with a surface level immanent to political economics discourse and a deeper layer that grounds this discourse, which makes it particularly difficult to interpret. Because of the inherent nature of the format Marx uses, the object of the critique of Marx has often been taken as the standpoint of this criticism. For example, not only is the category of exchange value historically specific to the capitalist period, but value's basis, the capitalist form of wage labour, must also be historically specific, and does not apply conceptually to other periods. The methodological sections of the Grundrisse clarify not only Marx's presentation, but other sections make explicit that the categories of capital such as value and exchange-labour, are historically specific to the capitalist social formation. The labour theory of value is not a theory of the material wealth created by labour but is in a parallel manner also seen when looked at transhistorically as "human metabolism with nature." Precisely because it is not structured immanently, the Grundrisse provides a key to read Capital.

Against the traditional critique of capital from the standpoint of labour

Starting in this demonstration of the historically specific character of what Marx critiques, Postone provided a new critical theory that attacks the form of labour specific to the capitalist social formation. In non-capitalist societies, work is distributed by overt social relations. An individual acquires goods produced by others through the medium of undisguised social relations. Work activities derive their meaning and are determined by personal relationships, openly social and qualitatively specific (differentiated by social group, social status, the wide range of customs, traditional ties, etc.). But in a capitalist social formation, the objectification of labour is the means by which goods produced by others is acquired; the purpose of work is to acquire other products so someone other than producer uses the product (as well as its value). It is in this sense that a product is a commodity. It is both use-value for each other and medium of exchange for the producer; on one hand, it is a specific type of work that produces goods individuals to others; but on the other hand, the work, regardless of its specific content, is the producer of means to acquire the products of others. This feature of the work, which is specific to the social life in capitalism, is the basis of modern socialization, called "abstract labour". In the functioning of these new social relationships, labour under capitalism is no longer an external activity to capitalism but the foundation of capitalism, and so it is the labour that must be abolished.

"Commodity fetishism"

Postone asserted that the new concept of "commodity fetishism", which has nothing to do with a hoax of consciousness (an inverted representation), is the central part of the intellectual heritage of Marx. "Commodity fetishism" is not a misrepresentation, nor an exaggerated adoration, of goods. The "fetish" instead is to be referred to the structure of the commodity. The subjects are not humans, but it is rather their objectified relationships that are at the heart of socialization under capitalism. Fetishism, Postone noted, must be analyzed "in terms of the structure of social relations constituted by forms of praxis and its seizure by objectifying the category of capital (and hence value). The Subject for Marx, like Hegel is so abstract and can not be identified with any social actor whatsoever."[9] This is the world where abstract labour (which is not immaterial labour) becomes the social bond, social mediation that mediates itself, reducing actual work to a simple expression of abstract labour. Abstract labour is then the source of alienation. The self-moving subject, Geist, is misrecognized in Hegel. It is described by Marx as Capital and its self-valorization. It is not, Postone suggested, similar to György Lukács's use of Hegel, wherein the proletariat are identified as Geist, for the spirit would be labour not emancipation.

Postone attempted to build a radical critique of the commodity, money, value, labour and politics not limited to describing the struggles around management and distribution. Pointing out that the market is a mechanism of distribution, and so secondary to the core of capitalism, allowed Postone to broaden the historical scope of Marx's theory so that it can be applied to the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, the main difference was that instead of a market handling distribution it was planners. The abstract exchange of labour, which is the core of capitalism for Postone, was as it was in the West.

Modern antisemitism and the destruction of the abstract

In his 1980 article "Anti-Semitism and National Socialism", Postone developed new thinking on modern antisemitism, and particularly on National Socialist ideology. Postone saw antisemitism as a major element in the development of a socio-historical theory of consciousness determined by social forms that are subjected to socialization under capitalism. What is said about modern antisemitism may also describe a trend of vulgar anti-capitalism that seeks the personification of the elements of capitalism that are so hated. Postone showed that modern antisemitism is very different from most forms of racism and Christian antisemitism because it casts a huge global invisible power of international Jewry, the idea of a global conspiracy that is intrinsic to modern antisemitism.

Postone analyzed antisemitism against the Marxian notion of the dual character of the commodity category. He observed that the characteristics that antisemitism attributes to Jews are the same as for value: abstraction, invisibility, automation, and impersonal domination. Postone argued that the form of socialization under capitalism (the historically specific function of the spirit of labour under capitalism) makes it possible to separate the concrete (as socially "natural" sound, true, etc.) and the abstract (as socially constructed, historically specific and contingent). This opposition between the concrete and the abstract, determined by social forms, pervades all forms of subjectivity, and thus helps to understand a central feature of the National Socialist ideology, because this ideology was not fundamentally anti-modern. It is true, Postone argued, that Nazism claimed to defend the peasantry and craftsmanship, but it also valued modern technological and industrial production. Nazism was rather a vulgar form of anti-capitalism. The rejection of the bourgeoisie and its values is present in Nazism, but Postone saw Nazi ideology as the affirmation of the concrete dimension of capitalism — which includes technology and industrial production, as well as the peasantry and manual labour — as the heart of a healthy, organic social life. This stood in contrast with the abstract dimension represented by finance capital. The abstract is instead rejected, and it is personified by the Jews. Postone analyzed the figure of the Jew in modern antisemitism as the embodiment of abstract value, and extermination camps as a misbegotten notion of a "factory" to destroy value.


Articles and chapters

See also


  1. ^ a b c "Curriculum Vitae" (PDF). The Department of History. The University of Chicago. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2018-03-19.
  2. ^ a b c "Moishe Postone, Social Theorist, 1942–2018". University of Chicago, Department of History. March 21, 2018. Retrieved 2020-12-06.
  3. ^ "How to be a Marxist".
  4. ^ Sewell, William H. Jr. (Fall 2018). "Remembering Moishe Postone". Critical Historical Studies. 5 (2). Critical Historical Studies, University of Chicago Press, Volume 5, Number 2: 155–164. doi:10.1086/699682. S2CID 149645318. Retrieved 2020-12-06.
  5. ^ Martin Thomas "Zionism, anti-semitism and the left", Solidarity, 3:166, 4 February 2010 (Alliance for Workers' Liberty website, 5 February 2010)
  6. ^ "Funeral Details - Chicago Jewish Funerals". Chicago Jewish Funerals. Retrieved 2018-03-20.
  7. ^ "Moishe Postone (1942-2018)". IWM. 2018-03-20. Retrieved 2018-03-21.
  8. ^ Postone, Moishe (1978). "Necessity, Labor and Time: A Reinterpretation of the Marxian Critique of Capitalism" (PDF). Social Research. 45.
  9. ^ Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx's Critical Theory. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 75–76.