Interview with Moishe Postone: “Critique and Dogmatism”

Portrait of Professor Moishe Postone for the 2009 Graduate professor awards
(Photo by: Beth Rooney/ for the Chicago Chronicle)

Note from LeftEast editors: We re-publish this article, originally published by antidotezine.com on 22.03.2018 – on the occasions of the seven-year anniversary of the Syrian uprisings as well as the passing of the great scholar and political theorist Moishe Postone. The interview (conducted in 2011 by Slovenian then-doctoral student Anej Korsika), was first published in English on Korsika’s blog in 2015.

Anej Korsika: In the beginning of 2011, I spent three months at the University of Chicago, studying under the supervision of professor Moishe Postone, my foreign doctoral adviser. As time passes, one’s outlook and theoretical perspective inevitably changes—many of the views I held at the time are now different, or gone. Nonetheless, professor Postone still remains a source of great inspiration.

I used the opportunity of my time there to conduct an interview with professor Postone, which was then published in the [University of Ljubljana] student newspaper Tribuna, of which I was an editor. The interview was never published in its original, i.e. in English. For someone that is already well acquainted with the work of Postone, it probably won’t be that interesting. For everyone else, I do believe it will be of value, especially as an entry point into his theory.

Anej Korsika: In your groundbreaking monograph Time, Labor and Social Domination, you provide us with an in-depth rereading of Marx’s critique of political economy. Could you reflect on the evolution of your thought—on the events and theoretical traditions at the University of Chicago (and later on in Frankfurt) that motivated you to devote yourself to this seminal project?

Moishe Postone: When I was a student at the University of Chicago, I was caught between two interests and intentions, theoretically. Although I regarded myself very much as a person of the left, it seemed to me that Marxism had too much in common with positivism, on the one hand, and nineteenth century notions of progress, on the other. I was much more impressed at the time by conservative critiques of modernity. I thought they grasped problems of modernity more fully than did Marxism. That was in part because we had, at Chicago at the time, many émigré scholars who had fled Nazi Germany. They brought with them a whole range of intellectual discourses criticizing various forms of positivism from various directions, which I found very powerful.

I began to shift my attitude towards Marx when I became aware of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, which was strongly received in the United States in the mid 1960s. At that point I held onto the notion that there was a young, very interesting Marx, and an older Marx, who, unfortunately, had become a Victorian, having spent too many hours in the British Museum.

A further change for me was related to a large sit-in at the University of Chicago in 1969. After the sit-in, students who had participated broke up into a number of different reading groups. Two main ones that I remember were “Youth as a Class” (I definitely wasn’t part of that one), and “Hegel and Marx.” It was then that I first discovered Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, which had been completely unknown here. It wasn’t completely translated into English until 1971. Even though since then I have become much more critical of Lukács, reading him was a real revelation. His insight that the Marxian categories are not categories of an economic base that are merely reflected in consciousness, but are really forms of social being that are at the same time social and cultural, objective and subjective, struck me as enormously powerful and satisfying. It allowed one to deal with thought in a way that was both adequate to the thought and yet allowed it to be contextualized, in a non-functionalist non-instrumental fashion. I found that remarkably illuminating.

Image via Scriboman

At roughly the same time, I read an article by Martin Nicolaus, “The Unknown Marx,” which was an introduction to the Grundrisse, which Nicolaus was translating. I found it absolutely fascinating! It seemed to me that the scheme I had walked around with—which distinguished a young philosophic Marx and an old scientistic Marx—was exploded by the Grundrisse. Consequently I decided to write a dissertation on it. One of my dissertation advisers, Gerhard Meyer, a German émigré and political economist who was familiar with the Frankfurt School, suggested I spend some time in Germany. My research was not archival—nevertheless he argued I would benefit a great deal from the level of discussion in Germany, which was much higher than in the United States. This is why I went to Frankfurt.

AK: One of the cornerstones of your reinterpretation is the notion of traditional Marxism. What are the main characteristics of this line of thought?

MP: Let me begin to address this question by describing what I mean by traditional Marxism. I don’t mean a specific identifiable tendency within Marxist thought, such as Second-International Marxism or Bolshevism. What I do mean is an understanding of Marx whereby labor is not only exploited in capitalism but constitutes the standpoint from which the society (capitalism) is criticized. Capitalism is understood essentially in terms of the market and private property; its overcoming is thus seen in terms of the overcoming of the exploitation of labor and the coming into its own of labor. It seems to me that this is the very core of traditional Marxism. This description encompasses a very broad range of theories that differ from one another in significant ways. Nevertheless, by creating this category I attempted to specify more precisely what I was trying to do with Marx, and how it differed from that broad range of theories, including the Frankfurt school.

AK: Instead of trying to locate where the project of actually existing socialism went wrong and what could have been done better, you argue that these systems were never outside the capitalist social formation—rather representing a specific historical moment in the development of capitalism. Can we therefore speak of social democracy in the West and socialist regimes in the East as two different expressions of the same historical social formation?

MP: Yes, and I think the further away we will get from them, the more they will seem similar. I do not mean it in a political sense, that the one is just the same as the other. There are very significant differences—particularly in the experiences of the people on the ground. I am not trying to deny that. However, if one moves to a higher level of abstraction, it seems to me that social democracy and the communist command economies really were part of the same historical epoch of capitalism. They developed at roughly the same time, they reached their high point at roughly the same time, and they entered into crisis and declined in the late sixties and early seventies. Although many people believe the Soviet Union’s crisis began in the 1980s, I think it was earlier that the statist forms of economy run up against certain limits they couldn’t overcome. I don’t feel yet in a position to specify these limits; most of the existing studies of the historical limits of the postwar configuration focus solely on the West and its Fordist/Keynesian configuration. I am interested in a theory that could encompass and analyze the Soviet Union as well.

Retrospectively, one of the differences between the Soviet model and social democracy was the radical national (state) ownership entailed by actually existing socialism. This was perhaps the only way, during a certain epoch of capital’s development, that a peripheral nation was able to develop national capital. That is, what was developed was national capital, not socialism. Perhaps socialism could have come into being had the revolution been worldwide, but it seems to me that the corollary of “socialism in one country” is really nationalism in one country. This also deeply affected the consciousness of the left, which, at least in its orthodox communist form, became a curious sort of nationalist movement—one relating to a nation that is elsewhere.

AK: Your theory of antisemitism and National Socialism as a peculiar and fetishized type of anti-capitalism develops a radically new perspective on the catastrophe of the Holocaust. What was actually trying to be eliminated in the death camps and what can we make of contemporary forms of antisemitism?

MP: For those of your readers that aren’t familiar with my work: I distinguish between antisemitism and other forms of racism. I argue that there is a deep misunderstanding about antisemitism in its modern form. Modern antisemitism is not really the theory of the inferiority of Jews; it is a theory of the power of Jews. I have argued that, as such, it is a fetishized form of anti-capitalism. That is, the sense of the loss of control that people have over their lives (which is real) becomes attributed not to the abstract structures of capital, which are very difficult to apprehend, but to a Jewish conspiracy. That is, the structures are accorded agency. I think this helps illuminate the Nazi program of extermination.

Although this might not make any difference to the victims, I would distinguish between extermination and mass murder. In Poland, for example, the Nazis murdered thousands and thousands of people, but mainly intellectuals and other leaders of society (such as priests) around whom Polish national consciousness and resistance could coalesce. They killed the intellectuals and the priests in order to enslave the rest of the population. They didn’t want to enslave the Jews, they wanted to exterminate them. There was a misunderstanding of this on the part of many Jews. In the ghetto of Łódź, for example, many Jews worked in factories that were important for the Wehrmacht. They were certain that because they were doing important work for the German army, they would be spared. They expressed a form of rationality—that you don’t kill your own productive force. They were wrong.

I am suggesting that this is because—within the framework of this worldview—the Jews are seen as the embodiment of evil, rather than as inferior. Because they are seen as posing such a threat, they have to be eliminated. In my understanding, antisemitism therefore is a reactionary populist form of anti-capitalism. It is and has been deeply misunderstood by much leftwing thought.

AK: Perhaps we can continue this line of thought, especially regarding the article “History and Helplessness,” which you wrote as a reflection on the war in Iraq, especially concerning the certain paralysis the left has found itself in.

MP: The issues are complicated, and a lot of people are angry at me because of the article. I thought that the reactions to the war in Iraq indicated a lack of orientation on the part of the left. What I mean is that—at the very least—the left should have problematized the situation as a dilemma: An imperial power was invading a country controlled by a brutal fascistic dictatorship. The reactions on the part of much of the left indicated that opposition to the United States is seen as a sufficient criterion for being on the left. It is as if people have never heard of the era of fascist “anti-imperialism” in the 1930s and 1940s. Japan, Germany and fascist movements everywhere were very much opposed to the United States. There existed a fascist form of “anti-imperialism.” This has been elided from historical consciousness.

I myself was against the war, but not on the terms that were widespread. I found it significant that, to the best of my knowledge, none of the giant rallies against the war in Iraq ever featured an Iraqi oppositional figure, a leftist, someone who would be critical of both the Americans and, especially, the Ba’ath regime. Instead, everything was presented in black and white terms, structured by a reified form of anti-Americanism. For me this was an indication of a certain bankrupt anti-imperialism. What I wrote in that article is that, however naive one may think of them today, the mass movements against the American war in Vietnam were different. Many were driven by the idea that the Vietnamese were building something progressive, which the Americans sought to prevent. Anti-Americanism here was tied to the support for a more progressive order, socialism.

Regardless of whether one thinks this was justified at the time or not, this motif has dropped out completely, especially with regard to Middle East. I find it pitiful that some on the left seek to tie the critique of Mubarak’s regime to anti-Americanism, by referring to Mubarak as an American puppet. The Americans, however, did not create the regime. Mubarak inherited it from Sadat, who inherited it from Nasser. The left has tended to exclude actually existing Arab nationalist regimes from its critical purview, which I believe has had negative consequences for the left. That—to the dismay of many progressives in the Middle East—some people on the left are aligning themselves with reactionary forces such as Hezbollah and Hamas indicates the degree to which the left has lost its moral and political compass.

AK: As opposed to authors of traditional Marxism basically arguing that labor needs to be liberated from capital, your approach emphasizes that labor itself is the central problem, being a specific historical category.

MP: Let me begin through the side door. One of the things I found very eye-opening about the Grundrisse, to go back to the beginning of our interview, was that Marx was not simply interested in the end of exploitation of proletarian labor but rather in the abolition of this labor. Most interpretations of surplus value missed this point. The idea that Marx was interested in the self-abolition of the proletariat, and not in its realization, led me to begin rethinking Marx fundamentally. The deeper I explored his works, the more I realized that he did not treat the category of labor simply as an activity that mediates human interaction with nature (the way Habermas takes it). Rather, for Marx, labor in capitalism is unique inasmuch as it constitutes a very peculiar form of social mediation that is abstract, intangible, universal, and beyond of control of the people who create it. So in a sense, Marx’s analysis of labor in his mature works represents a working out of the idea of alienation from his early works.

I think that has enormous implications, because it means that Marx’s notion of praxis is fundamentally different from the currently common understandings of praxis in terms of immediacy. Such understandings tend to recapitulate the antinomy of structure versus agency. For Marx, however, praxis is bound to historically unique forms of social mediation that generate what frequently are considered structures. This complex configuration goes beyond the opposition between structuralism and post-structuralism.

It also sheds a new light on the problematic of history. Capital, for Marx, is what he calls self-valorizing value; it is a dynamic category. I would suggest that a theory of capital is a theory of the existence of the historical logic. From the standpoint of Marx’s analysis, Hegel’s notion of the unfolding of human history is a projection onto humanity of what is actually valid for capitalism. Nietzsche and thinkers who follow him focus on the contingency of history. They do so because they are aware of the fact that the idea of logic to history really signifies a form of heteronomy. In order to save the possibility of agency, however, they deny the kind of real constraints on agency that the logic of capital actually represents. They declare it non-existent. As a result, the workings of capital are obscured.

In the name of empowering people, then, it disempowers them because it obfuscates the logic of capital. What Marx does with his concept of capital is to makes history—in the sense of the unfolding of a historical logic—historically specific. Because it is historically specific, it has a beginning and it might have an end. This is different from Hegel. The notion of contradiction in Marx drives this dynamic, but also points beyond it. Of course, I try to reformulate this contradiction: it’s not between capital and labor (labor being a form of capital in Marx’s analysis), but between the potential that capital generates and the inability of capital to let that potential be realized. The contradiction is temporal.

AK: What is your understanding of the notion of the proletariat that Lukács identified with subject-object of history? Because nowadays it seems that the notion is being seen as anachronistic, and various other concepts—such as cognitive labor—are taking place. Furthermore, how shall we understand class struggle without falling into historical regressions?

MP: I think that class struggle is an intrinsic dimension of capital. It is an ongoing struggle that is built into the structures of capital. For a while people thought that with the success of social democratic forms after World War II, class struggle was a thing of the past. It isn’t. Since the unraveling of the Fordist/Keynsian synthesis, the weight is now on the other side and the working class is being crushed.

However, there is a difference between saying that class struggle is part and parcel of capitalism and saying that it points beyond capitalism in the sense that the abolition of capital will be the victory of the proletariat. I think there is a great deal of difficulty conceptualizing the necessity of supporting the working class, on the one hand, while realizing that an anti-capitalist movement has to go beyond the working class.

Working class movements have been enormously important in various ways, the most obvious one being that they have helped humanize capitalism while developing forms of mass political and social agency. Whether or not people have the sorts of safety nets that social democracy developed really does make a difference in the way people live. Nevertheless, although working class movements humanized capital a great deal, they also were part of the motor of the development of capital itself. In Marx’s analysis of the struggle for the ten-hour working day, for example, the victory of the working class leads to what he called relative surplus value, which is a much more dynamic form of capital. So there is a complicated dynamic relationship between capital and labor movements; it is a mistake to look at it only statically and then simply declare that the workers ended up just reinforcing capital. In such a perspective, capital and workers are taken as out of space and time.

Nevertheless, I think we are faced with a crisis that is outside the field of vision of people who criticize me as having left the working class behind. Capital itself is diminishing the size of the working class and we are getting an increasing surplus population. More orthodox Marxists used to assume that the working class would just continue to grow. Even today some people are saying that although the size of the working class is declining in the United States, it is growing in China. However, my understanding is that working class numbers have remained static in the past ten years in China as well.

If this is a case, then it is incorrect to assume that the decline of the industrial proletariat in the West is matched by a corresponding growth of the working class in former Third World countries such as China. What is happening cannot fully be understood as the export of jobs. The main factor is the capitalist use of technology and processes of rationalization, which are wiping out many jobs. I think we are in a race against time and I don’t think anyone has a worked-out political vision of getting beyond the system based on proletarian labor.

AK: Let’s conclude with some questions dealing with the contemporary political situation. First of all, what is your perspective on China as an emerging global power, especially in the sense of those authors that argue we are dealing with yet another new type of capitalism?

MP: It is a very interesting form because it opened itself to global capital. This was the difference between Deng Xiaoping and Gorbachev. Gorbachev wanted political reform but the Soviet Union was collapsing economically. Deng on the other hand developed economic reforms that drew in gigantic amounts of capital to China, while maintaining political control. It is a curious kind of mixed form. My understanding is that more than fifty percent of Chinese companies are owned by foreign capital, something that would have been completely unthinkable just a generation or two ago. I don’t think the Chinese party considers this to be a threat anymore. It would have been a threat earlier, because it would have prevented the development of national capital. Now the Chinese don’t think it does. Perhaps the formation of a national economy by the Party was an important historical precondition for this newer development, which I regard as very much a part of the neoliberal epoch.

But China is also very much a rising hegemon; I don’t think there is any question about that—and I think this has become a factor in American strategic thinking. For example, I would argue that it played a role in the American war in Iraq. The American military thinks that as long as they control the Persian Gulf they can hinder the transformation of a major economic competitor (China) into a military one. I think that the issue of control of the Gulf plays a much more important role in American strategic thinking than you would ever know from reading people like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who seem to view everything in the Middle East through the lens of Israel-Palestine. American policy toward Iraq must be understood against the background of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Earlier, the Americans could count on two major powers in the Gulf, Iran under Shah Reza Pahlavi and Saudi Arabia. The Shah was deposed and the Saudis began to occupy an ambiguous position, given their support for radical Islamist movements. Against this background, I think one of the motives for the invasion of Iraq was to create a client state there. They did so less because they needed the oil directly, but because they wanted to be able to control the flow of oil. At the same time the Chinese, I understand, are building a huge naval base in Pakistan very close to the mouth of the Persian Gulf. So, this kind of large-scale geostrategic thinking is motivating both the Chinese and the Americans. In order to circumvent the Americans, the Chinese are also building pipelines across Asia.

What I find very sad is that once upon a time the left tried to understand global shifts of power.

AK: From 2008 onward, capitalism is facing its greatest historical crisis. Instead of being reaffirmed in its historical argument, it seems the crisis has unmasked all the theoretical poverty and regressions that have accumulated on the left in the last decades. In that light, how do you understand the uprisings in the Arab countries? It seems as if these events were ferociously adopted by the left and served to play a role of smokescreen that would hide the emptiness of the left.

MP: I have a slightly different view on the Arab revolutions and uprisings. I think they indicate the degree to which the Western left was absolutely bankrupt in its understanding of the Middle East. It is one thing to be critical of Israeli occupation and Israeli policies and to sympathize with the Palestinian movement for self-determination, which I do. It’s quite another thing to have bought into the Arab nationalist line that the only thing that moved the Arab masses, which was reified as something called the “Arab street,” was Israel-Palestine.

The idea that all the troubles of the Middle East come from the outside, especially as represented by Israel, is an ideology of legitimation for the various authoritarian regimes there. What it indicates is the only problem of the Middle East is Israel. The Western left completely buys into this and is willing to overlook (if they ever knew) the suppression of progressive movements in the Arab world by putatively anti-colonial dictatorships.

I don’t think people seriously looked at Arab nationalism as a formation. By “Arab nationalism” I don’t mean the idea of the right to national self-determination. I mean actually-existing Arab nationalism. I mean the Ba’ath regimes in Syria and Iraq, Nasser/Sadat/Mubarak, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen. They are different from one another, but I think they have a lot in common. They are all completely authoritarian and dependent on secret police. But because they aren’t kings, much of the left takes them to be progressives—progressives who kill their own leftists.

I won’t go into the negative role of the Soviet bloc in promoting this misrecognition. Suffice to say that this affirmation of Arab nationalism as progressive was bound up with the Cold War: Egypt and Syria became client states of the Warsaw Pact. After the defeat of these proxies in 1967, the Soviet Union shifted its weight to Palestinian movements. The Middle East became interpreted by the logic of the Cold War. Among many negative dimensions of this was the effect on intellectuals. Earlier, there were Communist intellectuals like Doris Lessing, who were nationalists of the Soviet Union (Lessing later referred to herself in this context as having been a “useful idiot”). More recently, many Western leftists became Arab nationalists.

One of the things I find very telling about the uprisings in the Arab world today is that Israel-Palestine is not a central issue. This does not mean that people are indifferent to it, but that, contrary to what we have heard for decades about the “Arab Street,” it is not a primary focus of the uprisings. Central is their own misére and this has nothing to do with the Americans. It does have to do with neoliberalism, which has made the political repression intolerable because of the growing economic differentiation that is happening in all of these societies (it’s happening in Israel too). There is a much greater gap between rich and poor. The one thing I am a bit pessimistic about is that I am not sure this can be solved even by a democratic society. That is what I am a little nervous about.

But I think that the Arab revolutions have exposed the anti-imperialist left in the West. It seems to me this underscores that we are witnessing a major crisis of the left. The most serious problem is not simply that the left has become bankrupt, but that it has hidden its bankruptcy from itself, with dogmatism. It has been evident for decades that classical working-class socialism is not the way to the future. For a variety of reasons, I think it has been very difficult for the left to come up with a different view of understanding the world. So, for example, it became very easy and understandable for many, in the face of the current economic crisis, to simply fall back to an anti-finance position. But anti-finance positions neither address the source of the crisis nor do they point toward a solution to the crisis.

I don’t have the solution, but I believe that the left has refused to seriously see how problematic its situation has been since the late sixties. One consequence has been the tendency by many to become dogmatically, furiously anti-imperialistic. This made life considerably easier—all you needed was one criterion: if it is against the United States, we are for it! As a result, much of the left once again got in bed with a number of very unsavory authoritarian regimes. As brutal and horrible as colonialism was, (in Libya, for example, Italians killed huge numbers of people), I don’t think this can serve to justify Gaddafi. The left must get away from this Manichean view, which has served as an ideology of legitimation. I think in Algeria that was clear. Yes, French colonialism was extremely brutal, but the brutal character of the FLN was simply ignored—even during the 1990s, when over 200,000 Algerians were killed in the civil war.

 
LeftEast is a platform that supports free expression in a climate of equally free speech for all persons that want to participate. This is why we shall moderate any comments that engage in discrimination, fighting words, or lead to an obstruction of dialogue and we shall ban the involved user from our community. Unless signed by the editorial board, articles do not necessarily express the opinion of the editorial board as a whole, but are positions within larger debates we would like to bring to the attention of our readers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *