(Caricature depicting Postone on the left,
next to Karl Marx and Karl Liebknecht)
Yesterday morning I saw it announced across social media and on several sites, namely by Zer0 Books and Shades Magazine, that my former teacher Moishe Postone has died. I had known from friends close to his family that he was very ill, and heard they were taking him off life support this last weekend. So when news circulated that he had left us, I assumed it was fact and wrote the short tribute published here. Later, a fellow student of Moishe, Istvan Adorjan, contacted me to say the reports were false, and that he was still clinging to life (though probably not for much longer). Obviously, I did not intend to mislead anyone by passing along this information, since I believed it to be true, much less disrespect him or his loved ones.
As soon as I learned of the mistake, I tried to publicize as far as possible that Moishe was still alive. Many others had by then written premature obituaries, including Peter Frase of Jacobin, though he likewise went on to correct it. For some reason, Sebastian Budgen of Verso and Historical Materialism began alleging that that I’d invented the malicious rumor Moishe was dead, despite the fact Budgen had widely shared the false reports of his passing across multiple platforms hours before I even saw anything about it. Ironically, Budgen only learned Moishe was still alive at that point thanks to Brendan McGeever’s crosspost of my note. Nevertheless, he fulminated that I ought to be boycotted like “apartheid South Africa or Zionist Israel” (I can only imagine what Moishe would have said about that).
That the sad occasion of Moishe’s passing would be used by Budgen to perpetuate his silly beef with me is of course petty beyond belief, but it is not surprising, just as little as it should surprise anyone that sycophants hoping to get published by him would kiss his ass all over that status update. Regardless, I intend to dedicate the remainder of this post to the memory of Postone, without worrying about what these idiots might say. Jennifer Moran, a family friend, contacted me a couple hours ago to tell me she had just received a pastoral notice from the synagogue that the funeral will be held at Rodfei Zadek tomorrow. Goodbye, Moishe. You will be missed immensely.
When I attended his lectures on Capital almost ten years ago he was undergoing treatment for cancer, which was subsequently in remission. Apparently it came back. Still, if you haven’t read his groundbreaking contributions to the reinterpretation of Marx’s mature critique, you should do so without delay. His works in English and German can be downloaded below.
- with Helmut Reinicke, “On Nicolaus’ Introduction to the Grundrisse” (1974)
- “Review of Helmut Reinicke’s Revolt im bürgerliche Erbe: Gebrauchswert und Mikrologie” (1976)
- “Necessity, Labor-Time, and Social Domination” (1978)
- with Barbara Brick, “Critical Pessimism and the Limits of Traditional Marxism” (1982)
- mit Barbara Brick, „Kritischer Pessimismus und die Grenzen des traditionellen Marxismus” (1982)
- “Jean Cohen on Marxian Critical Theory” (1985)
- “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism: Notes on the German Reaction to Holocaust” (1986)
- „Nationalsozialismus und Antisemitismus: Ein theoretischer Versuch“ (1991)
- Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (1993)
- “Deconstruction as Social Critique: Derrida’s Specters of Marx” (1998)
- “Contemporary Historical Transformations: Beyond Postindustrial Theory and Neo-Marxism” (1999)
- “Lukács and the Dialectical Critique of Capitalism” (2003)
- with Eric L. Santner (eds.), Catastrophe and Meaning: The Holocaust and the Twentieth Century (2003)
- “Critical Social Theory and the Contemporary World” (2005)
- „Geschichte und Ohnmacht“ (2005)
- “Critique, State, and Economy” (2006)
- “Rethinking Capital in Light of the Grundrisse” (2008)
- “Labor and the Logic of Abstraction: An Interview with Timothy Brennan” (2009)
- History and Heteronomy: Critical Essays (2009)
- “Zionism, Antisemitism, and the Left: An Interview with Martin Thomas” (2010)
- “Critique and Dogmatism” (2011)
- with Harry Hartoonian, “Exigency of Time: A Conversation” (2012)
- “Antisemitism and Reactionary Anticapitalism” (2016)
- “That Capital Has Limits does Not Mean that It Will Collapse: An Interview with Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza” (2016)
- “Critical Theory and the Historical Transformations of Capitalist Modernity” (2017)
An interview with Postone, published almost exactly ten years ago, can be read following a photograph showing him visiting the grave of the Frankfurt School critical theorist Herbert Marcuse. For worthwhile critical engagements with Postone’s Time, Labor, and Social Domination, see Loren Goldner’s appreciative “Critique of Pure Theory: Moishe Postone’s Dialectic of the Abstract and Abstract” (2003), Michael Heinrich’s somewhat captious “Too Much Production: Postone’s New Interpretation of Marx’s Theory Provides a Categorical Critique with Deficits” (2004), Chris Arthur’s “Subject and Counter-Subject” (2004), Slavoj Žižek’s sustained reading of it in Living in the End Times (2009), and Chris Cutrone’s “When was the Crisis of Capitalism? Moishe Postone and the Legacy of the 1960s New Left” (2014).
BB: We would like to begin by asking some questions about your early engagement with Marxism and the impetus for your contribution to it. Very basically, how did you come upon Marx?
MP: I went through various stages. My first encounter was, as is the case with many people, the Communist Manifesto, which I thought was… rousing, and not really relevant. For me, in the 1960s, I thought it was a kind of a feel-good manifesto, not that it had been that in its own time, but that it no longer was really very relevant. Also, hearing the remnants of the old Left that were still around campus — Trotskyists and Stalinists arguing with one another — I thought that most of it was pretty removed from people’s concerns. It had a museum quality to it. So, I considered myself, in some vague sense, critical, or Left, or then the word was “radical,” but not particularly Marxist. I was very interested in issues of socialism, but that isn’t necessarily the same as Marxism.
Then I discovered, as did many in my generation, the 1844 Manuscripts. I thought they were fantastic… At that point, however, I still bought into the notion, very widespread then, that the young Marx really had something to say and that then, alas, he became a Victorian and that his thought became petrified. A turning point for me was an article, “The Unknown Marx,” written by Martin Nicolaus while translating the Grundrisse in 1967. Its hints at the richness of the Grundrisse blew me away.
Another turning point in this direction was a sit-in in the University of Chicago in 1969. Within the sit-in there were intense political arguments, different factions were forming. Progressive Labor (PL) was one. It called itself a Maoist organization, but it was Maoist only in the sense that Mao disagreed with Kruschev’s speech denouncing Stalin, so it was really an unreconstructed Stalinist organization. The other was a group called Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), which tried to take cognizance of the major historical shifts of the late 1960s, and did so by focusing on youth and on race. It eventually split; one wing became the Weathermen. At first friends of mine and myself kind of allied with RYM, against PL — but that’s because PL was just very vulgar and essentially outside of historical time. But the differences I and some friends had on RYM were expressed tellingly after the sit-in. Two study groups emerged out of the sit-in, one was the RYM study group, called “Youth as a Class,” and the other I ran with a friend, called “Hegel and Marx.” We felt that social theory was essential to understanding the historical moment, and that RYM’s emphasis on surface immediacy was disastrous. We read [Georg] Lukács, who also was an eye-opener — the extent to which he took many of the themes of some conservative critics of capitalism — the critique of bureaucratization, of formalism, of the dominant model of science — and embedded them within Marx’s analysis of the commodity form. In a sense this made those conservative critics look a lot more superficial than they had looked beforehand, and deepened and broadened the notion of a Marxian critique. I found it really to be an impressive tour de force. In the meantime I was very unhappy with certain directions that the Left had taken.
BB: To begin with a basic but fundamental question, one that is very important for your work, why is the commodity form the necessary category of departure for Marx in Capital? In other words, why would a category that would appear to be, in certain guises, an economic category be the point of departure for a critique of social modernity capable of grasping social phenomena at an essential level?
MP: I think what Marx is trying to do is delineate a form of social relations that is fundamentally different from that in pre-capitalist societies. He maintains that the social relations that characterize capitalism, that drive capitalism, are historically unique, but don’t appear to be social. So that, for example, although the amazing intrinsic dynamic of capitalist society is historically specific, it is seen as merely a feature of human interaction with nature. I think one of the things that Marx is trying to argue is that what drives the dynamic of capitalist society are these peculiar social forms that become reified.