Andy Blunden. March 2005

Moishe Postone on the Subject in Marx’s Capital

Review: Time, Labor, and social domination. A reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory, by Moishe Postone 1993

This book was written 12 years ago. Much has happened since, and I don’t know what Postone’s thinking may be today. The book’s chosen protagonist is a “traditional Marxism” which looks more like a pre-Marxist popular socialism, and yet:

Within this framework, which I have termed “traditional Marxism,” there have been extremely important theoretical and political differences: for example, deterministic theories as opposed to attempts to treat social subjectivity and class struggle as integral aspects of the history of capitalism; council communists versus party communists; “scientific” theories versus those seeking in various ways to synthesise Marxism and psychoanalysis, or to develop a critical theory of culture or of everyday life. ... p. 10.

So one might suppose that this book marks the beginning of Postone’s investigations, perhaps after a period of absorption in “actually existing socialism.” Nevertheless, I will address myself to the contents of the book as written.

Postone gives us a good explanation of the notion of “immanent critique,” so far as it goes, but evidently makes a radical break from it himself. Firstly, having convincingly explained how Marx’s presentation of the categories of capital should be understood as specific to the historical epoch he lived in, Postone makes no effort to address the period that he, Postone, lives in, and makes only very occasional and incidental references to the fact that capitalism has since gone through at least several transformations since 1867. Secondly, criticising those who critique from the standpoint of labor, Postone chooses to critique from the standpoint of his imagination: from the standpoint of what “could be” rather than from any standpoint within really existing capitalism – a truly mind-numbing conclusion to draw from a study of Marx’s Capital. Thirdly, despite the fact that Marx never used the term “subject” in the sense of historical or social agent, and far less “identical subject-object” (except on a couple of occasions when ridiculing Hegel) and never described the proletariat as the “(Capital-S) Subject of history,” Postone goes on to claim that Marx “identifies Hegel’s identical subject-object with the proletariat.” [p. 74]

Now, Subject is indeed a category which can legitimately be imputed to Marx, even though he never used the term, but one must take care not to impute to Marx such weird and quasi-religious ideas as the proletariat as identical subject-object.

Interestingly however, while Postone is pleased to have proved that the proletariat cannot be deemed to be such an agent of history, and claims Marx as his authority for this as well, Postone arrives at no historical agency whatever. He talks of a “postcapitalist society” in which bureaucratic administration has been replaced by a “a political public sphere.” Postone correctly says that capitalism cannot spontaneously pass over into a postcapitalist society, but fails to give even a hint of what agency might bring this about, other than “what could be.”

Postone gives a passably good presentation of the relation of Hegel’s dialectic to the form of exposition of Capital, but having brought out how central is the commodity relation to capitalism, he never looks further into the commodity relation.. He thereafter refers to this relation only under the title of “value.” He calls for the abolition of “value” (by whom or how is left to the imagination) but makes absolutely zero effort to investigate the commodity relation or how it might have changed over the 140 years since Capital was written.

Such an exercise would be interesting, because Postone is quite content to leave the definition of the proletariat at wage-labour, and build the central plank of his work around time, but does not notice that, increasingly, this definition has turned out to be historically limited and specific. The key and essential fact constituting the proletariat, it seems to me, is lack of access to and control over their means of production, together with, obviously, that their labour expands capital. Nowadays, workers increasingly fight for the right to wages, and capitalists do what they can to distance themselves both from production as such and wage labour.

Postone seems to have accepted the tenet of his “traditional Marxism” that the commodity relation belongs to the sphere of distribution, and hasn’t noticed that it has utterly penetrated the sphere of production, the sphere within which, as he says, Marx locates the contradictions of capital.

According to Postone, “an identical subject-object (capital) exists as a totalising historical Subject” (or rather Postone imputes this idea to Marx). Thus we have two totalising identical historical Subject-objects! This Subject (capital) is alienated historical time.

It is interesting to me that Postone has trouble locating a subject outside of his imagination for the overthrow of capital, but regards capital as a subject, an identical subject-object, to boot, while down-playing notions of “class” which could at least have given some meaning to the notion of capital as Subject. One can only assume that Postone does not rank subjectivity very highly. Capital is a subject, but it can be overthrown without the activity of any subject outside Postone’s imagination?

Overcoming alienation ... involves the abolition of the self-grounding, self-moving Subject (capital) and of the form of labor that constitutes and is constituted by structures of alienation; this would allow humanity to appropriate what had been constituted in alienated form. Overcoming the historical Subject would allow people, for the first time, to become the subjects of their own social practices. p. 224.

In my opinion, this is the basis for a religion, not a social revolution.