WeeklyWorker

10.02.2022
Characterising anti‑Semitism as a “foreshortened anti‑capitalism” leaves no place for the pro-capitalist anti-Semitism of the first half of the 20th century

Abstraction and obfuscation

Paul Demarty reviews 'Anti-Postone', an essay written by Michael Sommer and translated by Maciej Zurowski (Cosmonaut Press, 2021, pp124, £11.99)

This short book, presenting in English for the first time a critique of the Marxisant theory of anti-Semitism propounded by Moishe Postone, may appear a rather niche product, but has significance far beyond its straightforward purview.

Michael Sommer’s essay, originally published in German as ‘Falsch aber wirkungsvoll’ (‘Wrong, but effective’), is one artefact of an extensive debate in German on Postone’s work. Postone was so influential on the German scene, especially in its anti-fascist autonomist subculture, that he was sometimes considered an honorary German; but his epigones, mostly drawn from the notorious anti-German school, would hardly have considered that an honourable designation. Postone himself was a Canadian, and - though a participant in the American new left - more or less functioned as an academic, teaching at the University of Chicago.

Chicago is an institution not conventionally thought of as a good home for a Marxist academic. It is essentially the mother church of American neoliberal thought. It gave its name to the ‘Chicago boys’ - the economists who advised Augusto Pinochet on the ‘liberalisation’ of the Chilean economy coterminous with his furious and appalling purges of the left. Readers of Sommer’s text, however, will get a ready sense of how Postone fitted the place like a glove.

Value

Sommer begins with an account of the Blockupy anti-capitalist protest in Frankfurt in May 2013. It was a standard leftwing event of the era, in this case focussed on the economic punishment being inflicted on peripheral European economies at the time. “Break the rule of banks and corporations!” went the slogan - a little banal, you might think, but no worse than that. Yet there were those on the left who hated the implication. Sommer quotes a panel on a Hamburg radio debate:

The anti-bank critics, one of the panellists argued, were all in agreement that “the money lender … confronting ordinary craftsmen and honest workers who build the industry and represent the concrete” is the “enemy of all that is decent … the wicked banker, the wicked money lender, and ultimately the wicked Jew who embodies all these things - that’s what it always boils down to in the end” (p3).

The giveaway word here is “concrete”. It is the opposition of the abstract to the concrete that founds Postone’s theory of modern anti-Semitism, and is thereby taken up by anti-German activists and writers as a cudgel against the left. Postone’s account characterises capitalism as a system which replaces traditional forms of economic dependence, with the rule of value as an abstraction over economic activity. So far, so (roughly) Marxist - but, for all the ambition of Marx’s political economy, the conclusion drawn by Postone is far stronger. Capitalism thereby becomes a system of completely impersonal, abstract domination. This “form of power that does not manifest itself directly … seeks a concrete carrier”.

For Postone, it is pertinent that mobility, intangibility and so forth associated with ‘Jewish’ economic activity by anti-Semites are precisely those features associated with the “abstract ‘value dimension’ of capitalism”. Anti-Semitism emerges as a “foreshortened anti-capitalism” by “concretising the abstract”, and projecting the impersonal, intangible, abstract features of capitalism onto the Jew as a scapegoat. The logical culmination of all this is Auschwitz, rather gnomically described as “a factory to destroy value” (pp10-13).

Sommer offers two essential lines of critique here. One - which appears towards the end of the essay - is straightforwardly historical. Postone’s account requires an incredibly partial view of the content of anti-Semitism:

The Postoneans only see the elegant, civilized “Jud’ Süß” who dupes dumb peasants with his arithmetic tricks. The dirty, beast-like “eternal Jew” who transmits diseases and lives in a “bug-ridden hole” is missing from their theory of anti-Semitism, as is the “black-haired Jewish youth” - the sex offender who “lies in wait” for the unsuspicious German girl in order to take her honour (pp50‑51).

Characterising anti-Semitism as a “foreshortened anti-capitalism” meanwhile leaves us no place for the pro-capitalist anti-Semitic writings available in the first half of the 20th century, quoted at some length here. There is certainly an opposition presented between ‘productive’ industrial capital and usury, but this is typically an argument in favour of the industrial bourgeoisie that decries its subjection to the demands of the socialist working class as just one more plot of the Jewish puppet-master (pp43-51). (In his introduction, Mike Macnair traces the lineage of this idea further back, to the creation of Catholic social teaching in the 1880s as an alternative to social democracy, and further still to 18th century Tory hostility to naturalisation of wealthy Jews in this country - pp xxi-xxii).

Philosophical

Sommer, however, also directly attacks Postone’s use of the terms ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ in his analysis, and it is here that his critique is most useful, since it touches not only the core of what is wrong with Postone’s account of anti-Semitism, but also undermines his whole theoretical edifice, and moreover leaves many other philosophically extravagant interpretations of Marxism with real questions to answer as well. Sommer establishes, briefly, the role of ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ in Marx’s political economy, and what emerges is a distinction that would feel familiar to anyone with a modest acquaintance with the western philosophical tradition.

Abstraction, in its etymological roots, means ‘to take out of’, and this is how we would normally use the word in philosophical discourse. To treat X in abstraction from Y is to treat it as though Y does not exist for illustrative purposes. Our account of X is abstract insofar as it does not account for the whole world of relations into which X is really inserted, including Y (and Z and so on). For example, when we investigate the speed with which bodies fall to earth as an effect of the law of gravity, we abstract from air resistance - which of course alters the observable behaviour of falling bodies in real, concrete life. Likewise, Marx starts from extremely abstract determinations, but with the aim of “rising to the concrete”: that is, of specifying in as full and rich a manner as is practicable the operation in detail of capitalism and the potential mechanisms of its overthrow.

Postone, however, treats ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ as discrete “forms of appearance” of capital, and since these forms of appearance are necessarily generated by the fetishism of commodities, they really are properly predicated of capital. The concrete is the use-value, the commodity’s ‘thingliness’, and the abstract is its value in the sphere of exchange and circulation. I will not attempt to summarise Sommer’s argument in detail here, but he makes a good case that - far from being a profound and difficult scientific insight - Postone’s distinction adds up to a method of “free association of concepts”.

Where does this “free association” lead? At best, merely to obfuscation - in the sort of philosophical discourse under discussion here, ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ have fairly definite meanings, and redoubling them to refer to specific ideological illusions cannot but lead to confusion when the terms are already used by Marx in the ‘ordinary’ philosophical sense. There is a worse confusion that can be introduced - the idea that capital, or value, or whatever, is really abstract, is founded on a “real abstraction”, under which name the idea has far wider currency than Postone’s work. There is a temptation among Hegelian Marxists to build yet another vast system of unfolding moments and categories; but Hegel knew what the abstract and concrete were, and his use of those words in the exposition of the Phenomenology or Logic is akin to Marx rather than the prophets of the ‘real abstraction’.

The results of this kind of reasoning are laid out by Sommer in lengthy and absurd quotations from various anti-German luminaries. Any concrete expression of displeasure at the ruination of daily social life by the rule of capital is, inevitably, ‘foreshortened’ into something incipiently or structurally anti-Semitic - that is what it always boils down to in the end. It is necessary, therefore, to side with banks and giant corporations to prevent some dreadful revenge against the ‘abstract’ on the model of Auschwitz.

Self-hatred

Sommer correctly identifies this as a descendant of impossibilist ultra-leftism, quoting Max Horkheimer: “be mistrustful of the person who says that unless everyone is helped, it’s no use” - such people “hide behind a theory to excuse their failure to do their duty in a concrete [sic! - PD] case”. The Postonian ‘anti-fascists’ improve on such behaviour, Sommer sardonically concludes, by “‘in a concrete case’ defend[ing] capital and denounc[ing] anyone who protests against the corporations as a Nazi” (pp59-60). The story of Postone’s theory and its reception in Germany, then, becomes a pathological case of a familiar phenomenon - the ultra-leftist critique of Marxism can very rapidly phase into a rightwing critique. Jürgen Elsässer, one of the founding anti-Germans, eventually found his way to the far-right ‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicisation of the Occident’ (Pegida); but he was doing nothing more spectacular than that vociferously leftist socialist, Benito Mussolini, had done a century earlier.

The anti-Germans (Elsässer included) originated in the ‘K-Gruppe’ milieu of the 1980s, who combined semi-anarchist lifestylism with trenchant criticism of the traditional left. Sommer rightly notes that the turn to the right exemplified by the anti-German movement results from failure - the idea that a new holocaust could follow the reunification of Germany and the corresponding total identification with the state of Israel came down to the resentment of failure. It was, alas, not unlike the picture painted by Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, quoted by Sommer, that the anti-Semitism of the industrial capitalist is the self-hatred of the parasite: the anti-leftism of the Postonian is the self-hatred of the failed activist.

Postone’s ideas, and the broader ‘realism of the abstract’ school of Marxian theory, exist in a similar liminal zone in social terms to the old K-groups: political organisations committed ‘in theory’ to hyper-revolutionary goals (”full communism now!”), but ‘in practice’ to lifestylism and publishing dense journals on the fringes of academia.

In this respect we should highlight a flaw in Sommer’s account: he dedicates a couple of pages to exonerating Adorno and Horkheimer of the sins of their supposed disciple, Postone (never mind his disciples). His argument is strictly limited, however, to the chapter in their Dialectic of enlightenment addressing anti-Semitism directly. Sommer makes a decent case that their argument avoids the pitfalls of the Postone theory. But critical theory certainly is in the mix when it comes both to the aforementioned despairing impossibilism (see the late Adorno’s infamously poor relations with radical students) and, indeed, the tendentious theory of the ‘real abstraction’ (invented by their associate, Alfred Sohn-Rethel, in 1970). It is in these respects, rather than on the direct matter of anti-Semitism, that Postone and his German followers are indebted to the Frankfurt School.

This is a rather incidental matter, however. The question remains as to the importance of Postone, and therefore of critiques of his work. As noted, his influence on the left was far stronger in Germany than elsewhere, but has tended to grow this century. The Historical Materialism journal conducted a symposium on Postone’s most substantial work, Time, labor and social domination in 2004. A few years later, students of his at Chicago founded the Platypus organisation, which spread to campuses throughout the US and beyond (including, inevitably, Germany, where it recruited mainly among semi-reformed anti-Germans). The various disasters to befall small sectarian left groups in the 2000s and 2010s benefited, among others, the semi-anarchist, theory-obsessed milieu we mentioned above; Postone remains an important reference there. Like the first anti-Germans, we confront a world marked by our failures, and the temptation shall be felt once again to project our guilt onto some outward representative of our shame. Anything could result, except something good.

Then there is the question of anti-Semitism itself. In his translator’s preface, Maciej Zurowski notes that, had Anti-Postone been published in English in 2013, it would have been met with “incredulity”: “German guilt may have been identified as the psychological motivating force, and the notion that ‘this could not happen here’ would have prevailed especially among readers from the UK”. But, of course, we have lived through a sustained witch-hunt that identified all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic as a way to destroy the Labour left. Far from fighting back, the left capitulated, and in any case had long politically disarmed itself through “its unwillingness to challenge the subjective standpoints of professed spokespeople for identity groups”. Solidarity with the victims of scandalous libels was sacrificed in the name of “starting from anti-racism” - that is, refusing to doubt any accusation of racism, no matter how tendentious.

As the witch-hunt proceeded, comrade Zurowski notes, all kinds of people began to recite second- or third-hand Postonite arguments on the inherent connection between anti-Semitism and anti-capitalism. It was never, really, about the Jews, but about keeping the Labour Party as a ‘safe space’ for big donors. Zurowski quotes the Blairite spin-doctor, John McTernan, and the MPs, Luciana Berger, Siobhan McDonagh and Nadia Whittome (the latter of whom even cited Postone explicitly in an article). But he might have mentioned the arch-Eustonite, Nick Cohen, or Brendan O’Neill of Spiked - yet another maximalist-sectarian-turned-rightist - to the same effect.

In short, ‘Marxist’ excuses for demobilising struggle against capitalism are au courant, here as in Germany. All the more reason to expose them as philosophically and historically illiterate; for it is not the commodity form but the fully-determined, concrete reality of capitalism that starves some and works others to death, that poisons ground-water and drives uncounted species to extinction. Sommer’s text serves as a strong critique of certain ideas to the contrary, and a warning of the insanity to which it can lead.

Paul Demarty

paul.demarty@weeklyworker.co.uk

Anti-postone is available on Amazon and the Cosmonaut webstore