Wolff on Postone: A Review of Time, Labor, and Social Domination (1995)

Moishe Postone and Richard D. Wolff

The prominent left-wing economist Richard D. Wolff offers a short review of Moishe Postone's Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx's Critical Theory (1993), first published in the Social Forces quarterly.

Submitted by nukedtoronto on August 2, 2023

The USSR’s disintegration broke the hegemony of its “official” Marxism. That version, which Postone rejects as “traditional Marxism,” held sway not only inside the USSR and Communist Party circles elsewhere; it was also the accepted interpretation among most anti-Soviet Marxists, non-Marxists, and anti-Marxists as well. Only now, with the USSR vanished, can Marxists and others freely rediscover the formerly marginalized and repressed, yet remarkably rich and diverse social theories and philosophies labelled “Marxism.”

Of course, some scholars knew about and studied some of those unofficial Marxist theories (in Postone’s case, the Frankfurt School theories of Adorno, Horkheimer, et al.). Thus, his book can build from those theories to show the impressive resilience of Marxism in generating new critical theories of both 1990s capitalism and of the “actually existing socialism” that passed with the USSR. Postone presents a “reformulation” of Marxism that “is more adequate” to the specific conditions of late twentieth century capitalism such as the turn away from statist forms of capitalism and the development of new social movements (environmentalism, feminism).

Postone makes special use of Marx’s Grundrisse, the remarkable collection of detailed notebooks he prepared before writing Capital. Postone rethinks the centrality of the categories of labor, commodity, and time in Marx’s work and also critically engages Habermas. One of his major themes finds the central contradiction of capitalism — and hence a lever for its historical supersession — lying in the core of its particular system of production. That core entails systemic social alienation and forms of social domination that were overcome neither by “actually existing socialism” (as claimed in traditional Marxism) nor by contemporary capitalism. He shows persuasively how traditional Marxism’s obsessive focus on markets and private property mistook those contingent aspects of capitalism for its actual core, which Postone locates inside the production processes themselves.

This volume is a serious, well-reasoned, scholarly demonstration of how timely, vital, and provocative the newly flowering currents of Marxist theory can be for all who are interested today in critical social theory. At the same time, it has some serious flaws; two, in particular, deserve mention.

The text reads as though Postone, Habermas, and the Frankfurt School comprise the only tendency within Marxism that has offered a systematic reformulation of its basic categories with such goals as providing a distinctly Marxist critique of “actually existing socialism” — as actually a kind of capitalism — overcoming transhistorical categories, rejecting determinist models of social change, and so on. But that is not the case. To take the most important example from among the several new kinds of Marxism now proliferating, there are well-developed postmodern Marxist theories. From Althusser in the 1960s and 1970s to the pages of the U.S. journal, Rethinking Marxism, since 1988, new kinds of postmodern Marxist theories offer interpretations that challenge both traditional Marxism and Postone’s alternative. His book should not have been written as if they did not exist. Secondly, his treatment of Marxist economics ignores recent debates about the multiple, incompatible concepts of class within Marxism (as matters of property, power, or surplus labor), yet the debates affect several of his key arguments.

Perhaps Postone’s valuable book should be read as part of a new phase of Marxist theorizing in which emerging tendencies do not yet debate and build on one another. Their main focus is still on defining themselves in relation to the tradition from which they come and which they are taking in productive, new directions.