Marx after Marxism: An interview with Moishe Postone

Originally published in the Platypus Review, issue 3, March 2008

Benjamin Blumberg and Pam C. Nogales C.

Moishe Postone is Professor of History at the University of Chicago, and his seminal book Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory investigates Marx’s categories of commodity, labor, and capital, and the saliency of Marx’s critique of capital in the neoliberal context of the present. Rescuing Marx’s categories from intellectual and political obsolescence, Postone brings them to bear on the global transformations of the past three decades. In the following interview, Postone stresses the importance of an analysis of the history of capital for a progressive anti-capitalist Left today.

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 wide spread 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 eyeopener— 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.

BB: In your work you emphasize Marx’s differentiation between labor as a socially mediating activity, i.e., in its abstract dimension, on the one hand, and on the other, as a way of producing specific and concrete use-values, i.e., participating in the production of particular goods. In your opinion, why is this, for Marx, an important distinction from pre-modern forms of social organization and how does it figure in his theory of Modern capitalist society?

MP: Well, this is one place where I differ from most people that write about Marx. I don’t think that abstract labor is simply an abstraction from labor, i.e., it’s not labor in general, it’s labor acting as a socially mediating activity. I think that is at the heart of Marx’s analysis: Labor is doing something in capitalism that it doesn’t do in other societies. So, it’s both, in Marx’s terms, concrete labor, which is to say, a specific activity that transforms material in a determinate way for a very particular object, as well as abstract labor, that is, a means of acquiring the goods of others. In this regard, it is doing something that labor doesn’t do in any other societies. Out of this very abstract insight, Marx develops the whole dynamic of capitalism. It seems to me that the central issue for Marx is not only that labor is being exploited—labor is exploited in all societies, other than maybe those of hunter-gatherers— but, rather, that the exploitation of labor is effected by structures that labor itself constitutes.

So, for example, if you get rid of aristocrats in a peasant-based society, it’s conceivable that the peasants could own their own plots of land and live off of them. However, if you get rid of the capitalists, you are not getting rid ofcapital. Social domination will continue to exist in that society until the structures that constitute capital are gotten rid of.

PN: How can we account for Marx’s statement that the proletariat is a revolutionary force without falling into a vulgar apprehension of its revolutionary character?

MP: It seems to me that the proletariat is a revolutionary force in several respects. First of all, the interaction of capital and proletariat is essential for the dynamic of the system. The proletariat is not outside of the system, the proletariat is integral to the system. The class opposition between capitalist and proletariat is not intended by Marx as a sociological picture of society, rather, it isolates that which is central to the dynamism of capitalism, which I think is at the heart of Marx’s concerns.

Second, through its actions, the proletariat—and not because it wants to—contributes to the temporal and spatial spread of capital. That is to say, the proletariat is one of the driving forces behind globalization. Nevertheless, one of the differences, for Marx, between the proletariat and other oppressed groups, is that if the proletariat becomes radically dissatisfied with its condition of life, it opens up the possibility of general human emancipation. So it seems to me that one can’t take the theory of the proletariat and just abstract it from the theory of capital, they are very much tied to one another.

BB: I would like to turn to the seminal thinker Georg Lukács, in particular his essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” first let me ask a general question, what do you take to be the most important insight of this essay?

MP: Well, Lukács takes the commodity form and he shows that it is not simply an economic category but that it is the category that can best explain phenomena like those that Weber tried to grapple with through his notion ofrationalization, i.e., the increasing bureaucratization and rationalization of all spheres of life. Lukács takes that notion and provides a historical explanation of the nature of that process by grounding it in the commodity. That opened up a whole universe for me.

Lukács also brilliantly shows that the forms that Marx works out in Capital are simultaneously forms of consciousness as well as forms of social being. In this way Lukács does away with the whole Marxist base-super structure way of thinking about reality and thought. To use slightly different language, a category like commodity is both a social and a cultural category, so that the categories are subjective and objective categories at the same time.

BB: Could you explain your critique of Lukács’s identification of the proletariat as the socio-historical subject?

MP: Lukács posits the proletariat as the Subject of history, and I think this is a mistake. A lot of people confuse subject and agency. When using the term “Subject,” Lukács is thinking of Hegel’s notion of the identical subject-object that, in a sense, generates the dynamic of history. Lukács takes the idea of the Geist and essentially says that Hegel was right, except that he presented his insight in an idealist fashion. The Subject does exist; however, it’s the proletariat. The proletariat becomes, in this sense, the representative of humanity as a whole. I found it very telling, however, that in Capital when Marx does use Hegel’s language referring to the Geist he doesn’t refer to the proletariat, he refers to the category of capital. This made a lot of sense to me, because the existence of an ongoing historical dynamic signifies that people aren’t real agents. If people were real agents, there wouldn’t be a dynamic. That you can plot an ongoing temporal pattern means that there are constraints on agency. It seems to me that by calling capital the Subject, Marx argues for the conditions of possibility that humans can become the subjects of their own history, but that’s with a small “s.” Then there wouldn’t be this ongoing dynamic, necessarily. Rather, change and development would be more the result, presumably, of political decision making. So right now humans make history, but, as it were, behind their own back, i.e., they make history by creating structures that compel them to act in certain ways.

For Lukács, the proletariat is the Subject, which implies that it should realize itself (he is very much a Hegelian) whereas if Marx says capital is the Subject, the goal would be to do away with the Subject, to free humanity from an ongoing dynamic that it constitutes, rather than to realize the Subject.

PN: It has been our experience that “reification” is commonly understood as the mechanization of human life, expressing the loss of the qualitative dimension of human experience. In other words, reification is understood solely as an expression of unfreedom in capitalist society. However, the passage below, from “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” suggests to us that, for Lukács, the reification of the driving societal principle is also the site for class consciousness, in other words, that transformations in the objective dimension of the working class can only be grasped in reified form.

The class meaning of these changes [i.e., the thoroughgoing capitalist rationalization of society as a whole] lies precisely in the fact that the bourgeoisie regularly transforms each new qualitative gain back onto the quantitative level of yet another rational calculation. Whereas for the proletariat, the ‘same’ development has a different class meaning: it means the abolition of the isolated individual, it means that the workers can become conscious of the social character of labor, it means that the abstract, universal form of the societal principle as it is manifested can be increasingly concretised and overcome. . . . (1) For the proletariat however, this ability to go beyond the immediate in search for the ‘remoter’ factors means the transformation of the objective nature of the objects of action. (2)

The passage above seems to imply that for Lukács class consciousness is not imminent to the experiential dimension of labor, i.e., that a Leftist politics is not an immediate product of concrete labor, rather, class consciousness emerges out of the dissolution of this immediacy. From this, we take Lukács to mean that reification is double-sided, in that it is both the ground for a potential overcoming of the societal principle under capital, and an expression of unfreedom. It’s both.

BB: In other words, reification is not really a structure that has to be done away with so that outlets of freedom and action can emerge, but it’s actually the site, the location, from which action is possible in capitalist modernity.

PN: That said, in what way does a one-sided appropriation of Lukács’s category lose hold of its critical purchase?

MP: Well, this is a nice reading…I’m not sure it’s Lukács. But that may be beside the point. If you read that longer quote, “the bourgeoisie regularly transforms each new qualitative gain back onto the quantitative level of yet another rational calculation,” for Lukács that’s reification. What you’ve done here is taken the notion of reification and you’ve come to something I actually would be very sympathetic to, which is the idea that capitalism isconstitutive as well constraining. It opens possibilities as well as closes them. Capitalism itself is double-sided. I’m not sure whether Lukács really has that, but that’s neither here nor there.

Lukács emphasizes the abolition of the isolated individual, and this is important for me. There is a sense in Lukács that the proletariat doing proletarian labor could exist in a free society, and I don’t think this is the case for Marx. Marx’s idea of the social individual is a very different one than simply the opposition of the isolated individual and the collectivity. For Marx the social individual is a person who may be working individually, but their individual work depends on, and is an expression of, the wealth of society as a whole. This is opposed to, let’s say, proletarian labor, which increasingly, as it becomes deskilled, becomes a condition of the enormous wealth of society, but is in a sense, its opposite on the level of the work itself. “The richer the society, the poorer the worker.” Marx is trying to imagine a situation in which the wealth of the whole and the wealth of each—wealth in the sense of capacities and the ability to act on those capacities—are congruent with one another. I am not sure Lukács has that conception… I’m not sure.

BB: In some ways I think that the second quote does bring into the field certain issues with the projection of proletariat labor continuing… It depends on interpretation I suppose, because he says, “for the proletariat however, this ability to go beyond the immediate, ” which is enabled through a process of reification, “in search of the ‘remoter’ factors means the transformation of the objective nature of the objects of action,” now, if “object” is solely taken to mean the material product of concrete labor, it would be against Lukács’s sense of the commodity, by which, as we’ve already established, he means both a category of subjectivity and objectivity, so the object of action is also the proletariat itself.

MP: Yes, but you’ll notice in the last third of Lukács’s essay, which is about revolutionary consciousness, there is no discussion at all of the development of capital. Everything is the subjective development of the proletariat as it comes to self-consciousness. That process is not presented as historical. What is changing in terms of capital—other than crises—is bracketed. There is a dialectic of identity whereby awareness that one is an object generates the possibility of becoming a subject. For me, in a funny way, in the third part of the reification essay history comes to a standstill, and history becomes the subjective history of the Spirit, i.e., the proletariat becoming aware of itself as a Subject, not just object. But there is very little—there’s nothing—on the conditions of possibility for the abolition of proletariat labor. None. There is no discussion of that at all. So, history freezes in the last third of the essay.

PN: Is it possible to struggle to overcome capitalism other than through necessary forms of misrecognition that this organization of social life generates? In other words: If consciousness in capitalist modernity is rooted in phenomenal forms that are the necessary expressions of a deep structure which they simultaneously mask, then how can mass-based Left-wing anti-capitalist politics be founded on anything other than progressive forms of misrecognition, i.e., as opposed to reactionary forms of misrecognition, ranging from populist critiques of finance capital, to chauvinist critiques of globalization, to localist or isolationist critiques of centralized political and economic power?

MP: That’s a good question. I don’t have an easy answer, so maybe I’ll start by being very modest. It seems to me that the first question isn’t, “what is correct consciousness?”, but, rather, “what is not adequate?” That in itself would help any anti-capitalist movement immeasurably. To the degree to which movements are blind to the larger context of which they are a part, they necessarily are going to generate consequences that are undesirable for them as well.

Let me give you an example from liberal politics. I was thinking of this recently. After 1968 when Hubert Humphrey, who had been Lyndon Johnson’s vice-president, was basically given the throne, the progressive base of the Democratic Party—who where very much opposed to this kind of machine politics—attempted to institute a more democratic process of the selection of the candidate for the party. It was then that the primaries really came into their own—you had primaries before, but they weren’t nearly as important. The problem is that in a situation like the American one, where you do not have government financing of elections, primaries simply meant that only people who have a lot of money have any chance. The consequences of this push by the progressive base of the Democratic party were profoundly anti-democratic, in many respects machine politics were more democratic. So what you have now is a bunch of millionaires running in all the primaries, or people who spend all of their time getting money from millionaires. Now, there was nothing the matter with the idea of wanting, within the liberal framework, to have a more democratic process to choose candidates. The context was such however, that the reforms that they suggested rendered the process more susceptible to non-democratic influence. The gap between intention and consequence that results from a blindness to context could be extended to many parts of the Left, of course.

PN: You give specific attention to the rise and fall of the Soviet Union in your work with reference to the “temporal structuring and restructuring of capitalism in the 20th century.” Now, I understood “temporal structuring and restructuring” as an indication of how the political dimension mediates the temporal dynamic of capital, affecting the way that capitalism appears subsequently. In this sense, both forms of state-centrism, the Western Fordist-Keynesian synthesis and the Soviet Union, may in fact look the same because they were both, in one way or another, responding to a crisis in capital. Could you speak about the character of this political mediation?

MP: Yes, they were responses to a crisis. I think one of the reasons why the Soviet model appealed to many people outside of the West, was that the Soviet Union really developed a mode of creating national capital in a context of global capital very different from today. Developing national capital meant creating a proletariat. In a sense, Stalin did in fifteen years what the British did in several centuries. There was immense suffering, and that shouldn’t be ignored. That became the model for China, Vietnam, etc. (Eastern Europe is a slightly different case.) Now, the revolution, as imagined by Trotsky—because it’s Trotsky who really influences Lenin in 1918—entailed the idea of permanent revolution, in that, revolution in the East would spark revolution in the West. But I think Trotsky had no illusions about the Soviet Union being socialist. This was the point of his debate with Stalin. The problem is that both were right. That is, Trotsky was right: there is no such thing as “socialism in one country.” Stalin was right, on the other hand, in claiming that this was the only road that they had open to them once revolution failed in the West, between 1918–1923. Now, did it have to be done with the terror of Stalin? That’s a very complicated question, but there was terror and it was enormous, and we don’t do ourselves a service by neglecting that. In a sense it becomes an active will against history, as wild as claiming that “history is on our side.”

This model of national development ended in the 1970s, and, of course, not just in the Soviet Union. The present moment can be defined as a post-Cold War moment, and this allows the Left to remove an albatross that had been hanging around its neck for a long time. This does not mean that the road to the future is very clear, I think it’s extremely murky right now. I don’t think we are anywhere near a pre-revolutionary, even a pre-pre-revolutionary situation. I think it becomes incumbent on people to think about new forms of internationalism, and to try to tie together, intrinsically, things that were collections of particular interests.

BB: If one accepts the notion that left-wing anti-capitalist politics necessarily has as its aim the abolition of the proletariat—that is, the negation of the structure of alienated social labor bound up with the value form of wealth—what action should one take within the contemporary neoliberal phase of capitalism?

How could the Left reconcile opposition to the present offensive on the working class with the overarching goal of transcending proletarian labor?

MP: The present moment is very bleak, because as you note in this question, and it’s the $64,000 question, it is difficult to talk about the abolition of proletarian labor at a point where the meager achievements of the working class in the 20th century have been rolled back everywhere. I don’t have a simple answer to that. Because it does seem to me that part of what is on the agenda is actually something quite traditional, which is an international movement that is also an international workers’ movement, and I think we are very far away from that. Certainly, to the degree to which working classes are going to compete with one another, it will be their common ruin. We are facing a decline in the standard of living of working classes in the metropoles, there is no question about it, which is pretty bleak, on the one hand.

On the other hand, a great deal of the unemployment has been caused by technological innovations, and not simply by outsourcing. It’s not as if the same number of jobs were simply moved overseas. The problems that we face with the capitalist diminution of proletariat labor on a worldwide scale go hand in hand with the increase of gigantic slum cities, e.g., São Paolo, Mexico City, Lagos. Cities of twenty million people in which eighteen million are slum dwellers, that is, people who have no chance of being sucked up into a burgeoning industrial apparatus.

BB: Are we in danger then of missing a moment in which Marx’s critique of modernity would have a real significance for political action?

In other words, if the global condition sinks further into barbarism, the kind expressed by slum cities, might we—if we don’t seize this moment—end up in a worse situation twenty, thirty years down the line?

MP: I’m sure, but I don’t know what ‘seizing the moment’ at this moment means. I’m very modest at this point. I think that it would help if there was talk about issues that are real. Certain ways of interpreting the world such as, “the world would be a wonderful place if it weren’t for George Bush, or the United States,” are going to lead us nowhere, absolutely nowhere. We have to find our way to new forms of true international solidarity, which is different than anti-Americanism. We live in a moment in which the American state and the American government have become a fetish form. It’s similar to the reactionary anti-capitalists who were anti-British in the late 19th century—you don’t have to be pro-British to know that this was a reification of world capital.

1. Lukács, History and Class Consciousnessp 171, emphasis in original
2. Historyp 175, emphasis in original

A pdf of this interview in English can be found here. This interview can also be found in French here.

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