An Interview with Moishe Postone: Marx, Capitalism, and the Possibility of Activism Today

By Jonathan Cook, Benjamin Andrew, and Phedias Christodoulides

Moishe Postone is the Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of the College in History, Co-Director of the Center for Jewish Studies, as well as Co-Editor of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory. He received a Doctorate of Philosophy in political science/sociology from Goethe University in Frankfurt in 1983. He focuses on Modern European intellectual history, with a special emphasis on critical social theories and self-reflexive theories of historical context. He also looks at modern anti-Semitism, post-war Germany, and the global transformations of the past three decades in relation to an understanding of the historical trajectory of the twentieth century. His publications include Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (1993), History and Heteronomy: Critical Essays (2009), Marx Reloaded: Repensar la teoría crítica del capitalism (2007), and Deutschland, die Linke und der Holocaust— Politische Interventionen (2005).


Jonathan Cook: We wanted to begin … by asking how you first encountered Marx, and what led to your interest in him, and how did that develop?

Moishe Postone: I was a student, a very long time ago, in the fabled sixties, and like many students of that generation, I was in some general ways politically progressive. There was a strange—retrospectively very strange— sense of optimism, that was fairly broad and that perhaps was associated with the election of John Kennedy, which seem to have changed the general atmosphere in the country, on the one hand, and the civil rights movement, on the other. Many of us strongly felt that segregation and racism were not just wrong, but were on the losing end of history. That, in a sense, went along with a kind of optimism. … Probably that optimism was also, without us thinking about it, conditioned by the fact that during that period of time … saw the highest levels of productivity growth and the highest levels of wage growth in the history of capitalism. Nothing that Silicon Valley has developed has come close to matching those productivity growths of the fifties and sixties. I think a lot of people implicitly considered that development as open-ended. Finally, there was this sense that capitalism had been tamed, or was in the process of being tamed, that the Soviet-Union was opening up. There was a lot of talk about convergence between the two. At least for someone like me, Marxism had little appeal. The debates between the Stalinists and the Trotskyists in the C-Shop (the old C-Shop, which is now the bagel place [on the UChicago campus]) were  of little interest. They were of little interest because they seemed to have little relevance at that point. I think that may have been a fairly general feeling.

But then, I discovered the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, as did many, which had a major impact on me, because up to that point, I had thought of Marx’s works, partially because of Marxism, as a very dry-as-dust economistic theory that posited that people acted in their own interest—sort of a left-wing political economy (which it remains for a lot of Marxists). Then, in reading manuscripts by the young Marx, including the “Theses on Feuerbach” and the “German Ideology,” … [I realized] he was a different thinker, a completely different thinker, who could have contemporary relevance. By the late sixties, I felt everything was falling apart (seriously falling apart, I mean you felt social disintegration). For me, a lot of the movements of that moment that considered themselves revolutionary were a symptom of social disintegration rather than representing anything really new. And that could be seen by how small they were. And the smaller they were, the more avant-gardistic they became, and then the more some turned to what they called armed struggle in the name of the masses with whom they have absolutely no connection.

… I moved in a different direction. I discovered an article, I think [in] 1967, by Martin Nicolaus, who was translating the Grundrisse. It drew attention to that manuscript, which was written by Marx as preparatory to Capital, and that previously was little known. And I found it really fascinating, because it seemed to suggest, (although I think Nicolaus himself didn’t), … that Marx’s mature works, the Critique of Political Economy, were informed by the same sorts of concerns that he expressed in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. I thought this was intellectually and politically very exciting. … I taught for a few years and then went to Frankfurt to write a dissertation on Marx. Frankfurt was a place where you didn’t have to hide the fact that you were reading Marx. It was simply accepted, and not only in study groups outside of the academy, but inside the academy. This was after the death of Adorno, but the effects of Horkheimer and Adorno were still very strong, which meant that the intellectual left in Frankfurt was different than in most other German cities, and certainly than in the United States. And so, in that sense, I felt at home there. Yet there were also political things I did not like at all. On the one hand, I liked the fact that [in] Frankfurt, as opposed to Berlin, for example, organized Stalinist, Troskyist and Maoist groups were quite weak. On the one hand, there was the development in Frankfurt of what was called the Spontis, the Spontaneous Left, with strong nati-hierarchical and culturally experiential tendencies; on the other hand some in this milieu were quite susceptible to the allure of the urban guerillas, the RAF … and other groups that you probably haven’t heard of, such as the Revolutionary Cells: There  Spring 2017 31 were quite a few of them. I was and am very opposed to that conception of politics. Many political struggles in Frankfurt were about those issues. In the meantime, I was spending a lot of time reading Marx, who, I concluded, was a much more significant thinker—much more—than he had been given credit for being and was not just a young German Romantic who became a stodgy Victorian political economist.

Benjamin Andrew: Terrific … I think we should move on to the next question, although it’s related I think. So, Marx and Engels, and many Marxists afterwards, have characterized Marxist theory as being scientific and something beyond philosophy, and Marx himself explicitly differentiated himself from philosophers, and there’s the famous quote where he says that “they have only interpreted the world, while the point is to change it.” So, today—and [especially] today when taught in an academic setting— Marx is often presented as just one more philosopher or thinker. … How would you characterize the relationship of Marx with philosophy, and what, if anything, differentiates his theory from philosophy?

MP: Well in terms of that — even that’s an improvement in the American academy. In my generation, I don’t think anyone in most philosophy departments would come near Marx. He just wasn’t taught. It was taboo. The first course I took on Marx directly … was [with] Hannah Arendt [who] gave a seminar on the first volume of Capital. I didn’t agree with her, but, nevertheless, this broke a taboo. It made it respectable.

…The most frequent take on Marx, not just among philosophers, is that Marx synthesized German philosophy, British political economy, and French radical politics—French socialism. And I think that sells him short. What he did was develop a theory that provided a critique of political economy, of philosophy, and of French radical thinking. Now what I mean by that—and now we’re moving a little bit onto philosophical terrain—is that Marx attempts to develop an approach that can render political economy plausible as a form of thought, Hegel’s philosophy as a form of thought, Proudhon’s socialism as a form of thought. That is, there’s a very strong social theory of knowledge that’s implicit in the categories of Marx’s mature critical theory. Now, unfortunately—especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, also among Marxists—Marx is seen as a theorist, a critical economist, who proves the centrality of exploitation and the irrationalisty of the market. And I think that is a very bad reading. But it’s kind of understandable because if you just glance at Capital that’s what Capital seems to be. I am teaching Capital right now—we’re on Volume III— and it’s an immensely difficult text, because it isn’t what it appears to be, and very self-consciously deal with the differences between the underlying reality of social forms and their forms of appearance. One has to really work through it, and you can no more cherry-pick sections than you could just dive in and take five pages of Hegel’s Phenomenology, and say, ‘this is Hegel.’ But at least with Hegel most people have the modesty to realize that it’s a difficult philosophical work and that, to understand what he’s trying to do in the Phenomenology you have to understand the unfolding of the argument. Most people don’t seem to realize that Marx is doing something similar in Capital.

The word science, of course, is Wissenschaft, and it doesn’t mean what the Anglo-Saxons mean by science. It is the science of logic—that’s Hegel. Now Hegel is not a bench scientist and this notion of science is fundamentally different than a positivist notion of science. [And thus] the idea of scientific socialism, which after all was much more Engel’s pet-baby, (and what we call Marxism is really Engels—almost nobody read Marx. They read The Communist Manifesto and then they read Engels. And Engels is very different than Marx. … Even though he was his best friend and tremendously helpful to Marx, Engels incorporates a notion of the progress of history, that Marx does not have in Capital. … What we call Marxism really should really be called Engelsianism—the kind of materialism involved, the understanding of history, the focus on interests, rather than forms of thought).

What Marx is arguing, is is that forms of thought – including philosophy, are embedded socially and historically. There is no such thing as a philosophy that is independent of its context. There is no trans-historical truth that is independent of context. However, this is also not a catch-ascatch-can relativism; either a form of thought is adequate to its context or it is not. And that requires concepts that are adequate to their object and are reflexive. That is, Marx was proposing a critical theory that also sought to ground its own possibility in its context. This is the opposite of what most people think with regard to the term “scientific..” …

JC: What is your opinion, then, of [more] modern attempts to re-read Marx, specifically I am thinking of the French tradition, especially—you mentioned at the beginning of the interview [America in the 60s]—at the same time in France, I thought of the student protests of ‘68, the attempt to sort of take up in Marx at least the revolutionary tradition, [which] signals to different epistemological modes outside the current one, at least glimpses, signals towards it. What would be your take on so-called Continental adaptations of Marx? Do these adaptations and readings of Marx attempt to get beyond just a reading of class struggle, or do they fail on their attempt to read more into it? I’m thinking of the work of Deleuze and Guattari as one example.

MP: Yes, but I wouldn’t equate French with Continental. I think that’s a serious mistake. I think that the Germans are not structuralists and not post-structuralists, and unfortunately very little German thought, other than Habermas, has crossed the Atlantic in recent decades. There is a lot of German thought that is much more deeply rooted in Capital than you would know from reading Habermas and his students like Axel Honneth.

The emancipatory moment of ’68 disappears very quickly in France, as it does in the United States. It stays for longer in the parts of the Continent you didn’t mention, Italy and Germany. It stays much longer there, and not only because the Italians have a large and important Communist Party, but also all of the left-wing groups, the autonomists and journals like Il Manifesto. I happen to think that many of the groups who reappropriated Marx ran up against a conceptual crisis. I think underneath many of these efforts was an attempt in a sophisticated way to still retain the primacy of the proletariat. There are, however important thinkers who do not. The two who come to mind, forgetting about with any criticisms I may have, are Marcuse and the Frenchman you didn’t mention, who is very heterodox in all regards, and that’s André Gorz, especially in his work, Farewell to the Proletariat, which is one of his more controversial books. And I think that this focus on the proletariat proved historically to be a losing proposition. It’s rooted in an earlier form of capitalism. The industrial proletariat’s been in crisis since the early 1970s. Certainly retrospectively, one can see that. The absence of a progressive response to that socio-economic development has helped generate the kinds of hideous populisms that have infected the globe. I don’t think these are academic questions, I think these are academic—theoretical-political questions, just as I think the side-lining of Marx is also political, even if it isn’t as political as it was when Marx was not mentioned at all. Now at least there is a certain degree of politeness, you are not punished for being interested in Marx. But I think that there is a politics there with which I disagree. But then again, I disagree with the politics of the Marxism against which this is also directed.

JC: That’s very interesting, especially this discussion of the proletariat becoming irrelevant, about the focus on the proletariat being a much earlier possibility when discussing capitalism, at least in terms of modern contemporary capitalism – and this might tie into Mezzadra. What do you see as the, sort of, the possibility of the space of resistance to capitalism; is there still a space of resistance and what would that look like, if it’s no longer a question of the proletariat?

MP: I think it’s a wrong question, though everybody asks it. The problem with resistance—the word—is that it’s totally indeterminate. It’s politically and historically indeterminate. Peasants who resist being expropriated are resisting. Does that point to way beyond capitalism? I don’t think so. I’m glad that they’re resisting, but I don’t think so. And for me, the sign of the crisis of the proletariat—let me say, the preconscious sign—was that among so many people on the left, starting in the ‘60s, so many no longer were looking to the proletariat. Instead there was, I think, a frenetic search for another revolutionary Subject, which frequently then was the anticolonial Third World, where I think two things were conflated: anti-colonialism and post-capitalism. They’re not the same thing. … So I think that we have to go beyond resistance to the idea of transformation. I think that Mezzadra is right in one regard: …as value production becomes increasingly anachronistic, capitalism is on a frenetic search for wealth (and value and wealth are not the same thing) through extraction and through debt. But there’s a problem with debt. The problem with debt is that it’s a promissory note. The promissory note (and you’ve always had financialization, but maybe it’s different now, the promissory note presupposes that there’s going to be enough wealth in the future to pay for this. But what happens if that is not the case? So, what you then do is you make debt on debt, and then debt on debt on debt; you have arbitrage, you have leverage, and you have derivatives. The horizon, the wealth that will cover the debt, keeps being pushed further and further away, is the way I read it. And extraction is part of that. I think it’s a different take than Sandro’s. …

Phedias Christodoulides: Given that capital is based on labor, we have to abolish or overcome labor in order to abolish or overcome capitalism. So, you can’t just go beyond capitalism and still keep wage labor…

MP: Right—at least as I understand capitalism and its beyond—which is difficult. It’s difficult to imagine, and something I don’t think anybody including myself has come up with in terms of concrete proposals. But what used to characterize, let me call it ‘progressive thought,’ was an idea of socialism not only as a goal, but also as one that is historically determinate (the difference—to return to the theme above—between “scientific” and “utopian” conceptions of socialism). That is, to be able to understand which kinds of struggles were progressive and which weren’t, the relationship between reform and, if not revolution, at least a future of non-capitalism. Without that as a kind of regulating principle, I think there has been a loss of conceptual and political orientation. And I don’t think the idea of resistance is sufficient, as is also shown by the evanescence of resistance movements in metropolitan areas. It’s really not enough to say ‘It’s okay, they got Bernie Sanders to run.’ And please understand, when I make that comment, it is not to say that, if the Occupy Movement had listened to… me, for example, they wouldn’t have had the wrong line. Rather the evanescence, rather than the harbinger of a new form of politics, is the symptom of a kind of conceptual helplessness. So, part of my work on  Marx is an attempt to reframe the issues. I still think that it is still the most powerful critique of capitalist modernity that we have, one that is by far more sophisticated than Marxism. And I don’t see any other theory that has nearly that rigor, with all due respect to the various French thinkers you mentioned.

JC: What would you say, then, to students who are very interested in continuing an exploration of these topics and want to dedicated themselves to [studying] and attempting to understand more fully responses that can be made to contemporary capitalism. Would you prompt them to study Marx further, study the text and try to begin to work on the conceptual front of transformation as sort of a response—to do that theoretical work you see lacking in Occupy?

MP: I think this is very difficult and one of the reasons why it’s very difficult is because I don’t think there is a master key, and I was about to say that I think different people focus on different levels and areas. I think there’s a great deal of theoretical work to be done, on a very abstract level and that’s where most of my work is, there’s a great deal to be done in just trying to understand the last fifty years, which is also on an intermediate level, and there’s a great deal to be done on an immediate level. However, it’s more difficult in the United States. in my view. The gap between theorists and what are called activist in this country is enormous and it’s depressing. It’s so much greater than it is in most other countries, not just Germany, Italy, and France, but in most other countries. In most other countries, there is much more of a kind of overlap/continuum. It is not that everyone is doing everything—they can’t. There are times when that overlap/continuum breaks—the urban guerrilla was definitely a break with that, but they were so devoid of concepts that I think it’s a historical irony that it turns out, as we now know, that they were manipulated by the GDR secret police. They were clueless, with their anger and their revolutionary romanticism, they were clueless. The secret police are not clueless, especially not in what used to be called the GDR, and certainly not in the successor state to the Soviet Union where the secret police also think very long range, and we’re getting a constitutional crisis because of it. But to come back to this point, there are few places where theory is as confined to the ivory tower as the United States, and there are few places where activists who regard themselves as pragmatic are so impractical because they’re so practical.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s