A Tribute to Moishe Postone, 1942 – 2018

Moishe Postone speaking at the launch of Critical Historical Studies, 2015. Image: Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory


Moishe Postone was an intellectual historian, critical theorist and political economist who was the Thomas E. Donnelly Professor at the University of Chicago. He was renowned for his reinterpretation of Marx’s theory of value, outlined in his landmark tome, Time, Labour and Social Domination (1996). He passed away on March 19, 2018. Former student and KR editor Rebecca Liu reflects on his teachings and influence here.

My fourth year at the University of Chicago was full of personal missteps and questionable decisions typical of any 20-year-old who has not enough responsibilities and has had too much free time. Asking Moishe Postone whether he could supervise my thesis was one of the rare exceptions in a year otherwise marked by poor judgement. His contributions to Marxist scholarship are vast and noted. Take his his contention that Kapital was never merely ‘a critique of capital from the standpoint of labour’, but rather ‘a critique of capital from the standpoint of labour in capitalism’ (in plain English, this means that the revolution should not aim for the glorification of labour per se, contrary to the many Soviet realist paintings of sanctified peasants on tractors, but should rather bring about the very eradication of labour as it currently exists under capitalism itself; or in yet plainer terms, fuck work!). And yet, this intellectual might was matched by a far subtler — but just as important — dedication and engagement in his teaching.

A bachelor’s thesis is a 20,000-word effort often produced in the last year of university, written under the careful supervision of an academic. By the time we were encouraged to contact potential supervisors at the end of third year, I had known of Moishe Postone as a distant but towering intellectual giant, who mostly taught graduate students while also directing the undergraduate ‘‘Self, Culture, and Society’ social theory stream from afar. I suspected that taking his supervision would entail too painful a blow to my precarious and delicate self-regard, which was then disproportionately built on presumptions about my sizeable intellect, combined with a basic self-involved inability to accept criticism.

‘He really is the best person to work with considering your interests’, my graduate tutor told me when I voiced my hesitations. In spite of all my intellectual posturing, I felt like a fraud. People who get to work with Moishe Postone, I told myself, were blue-blooded white men with deep familial credentials with the Euro-American literati, and a congenital ability to spout off all variants of Marxist theory at the bat of an eyelid. Where did I — a twenty-year-old girl of first-generation immigrants, who couldn’t even spell, or even pronounce, over half the names of various white European men attached to the canon of critical theory — figure in this unfortunate but inevitable march of the Academy to reproduce its filial intellectual elite?

And yet I found no such hubris or haughtiness in our office hours. Yes, there was a certain gravitas to Postone’s character that, combined with his candour, could be intimidating and even devastating. ‘No. This is not what she means’, he once wrote in the sidelines to a paragraph in which I discussed Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’, causing a sense of consternation and hurt in me that far outstripped anything that could be produced by a boy turning me down. ‘What are you really trying to say?’, he said another time, in a particularly difficult office hours appointment held mid-year. With three months to go before the submission date, I had a half-baked argument, a collection of words that said nothing and went nowhere in particular, and no sense of what I was doing.

The stakes in these small conflicts were never about the satisfaction of his ego, but rather the integrity and clarity of the work at hand, and my own intellectual growth. I never felt condescended to, or demeaned, but rather treated as a fellow traveller. There was also praise, as powerful as it was crisply delivered. His comments that ‘this is intelligent’, ‘this is interesting’, and suggestions to pursue PhD programmes, remain front and centre in my ‘why you should believe in yourself’ mental pantheon, which I have ceaselessly plumbed and milked in my many breakdowns due to imposter syndrome — or just the inevitable difficulties of life — since.

There’s much to be said and celebrated about the greatness of his intellectual legacy; and yet, the past few months have spoken to pitfalls of celebrating ‘great men’ on the sheer basis of their academic and cultural contributions. In Postone’s case, he was not only great in the hackneyed sense, but also in the more heartening sense. It is easy for a celebrated philosopher to dismiss the musings of an undergraduate, to despise the ‘mandatory office hours’ system and the face-to-face engagement with students it requires — lesser men have done as much. Yet he treated me with a startlingly uncomplicated degree of respect, even going as far as to suggest that the supervision was a mutually educational project for us both.

‘If you ever get in and run out of things to talk about’, a fellow undergraduate advised me, ‘just start talking about trains. He loves trains.’ Indeed he did. He also loved food — he occasionally went on tangents reminiscing in painstaking detail about this transformative meal he once had in Tokyo; why goose meat is better than turkey meat (and therefore, Thanksgiving is a mediocre holiday). There were meditations on the history of Hyde Park — ‘it was very bohemian. There was East Village in New York; Berkeley, and Hyde Park’. ‘I’m not sure how I feel about artists, actually. Especially when they’re not good’, I said tentatively. ‘Yes, they’re obnoxious’.

My thesis was on the nature of political violence, taking as its major starting point Merleau-Ponty’s little known book Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem, a book that I picked up — and then kept without asking — in my college dormitory at the end of my first year. In working with Postone about postwar France Marxist philosophers, our conversations often turned to the state and situation of the Left today. The more fundamentalist edges of my studenty leftism were refined, sharpened down — or, even defiantly left in tact — through our discussions. One of the first essays he pointed me to was History and Helplessness, a formative essay on my own thinking about the blinkers hampering the contemporary Left. Political fidelity was never the goal in these discussions — ‘you know you don’t have to just nod’.  The real lesson was the importance of continuing to honestly and carefully critique the world around you — extending your critical eye, especially to the practices and beliefs in your own camp.

In one session, he asked me about my plans for the future. ‘I don’t know’, I said, ‘I think my parents probably want me to, maybe work in a bank or something.’ I then admitted that I had some vague ambitions to go into academia, ‘maybe in something critical theory-related’. He remained devastatingly honest: ‘PhD students are in trouble’ before softening his tone; ‘but you have to do something that grabs you’. It is a principle that I try to apply to my life every day, though there is a certain degree of irony to be found in how, through his guidance, I have been able to see with far greater insight the structural forces around me that continue to inhibit, suppress, and foreclose the possibilities of genuine emancipatory humanistic life. Yet, there may be a way out. Once, after a fairly depressing talk about the potency of contemporary capital, I asked him what the Left needs to do against this all-powerful beast: ‘Organise’.

Rebecca Liu is an editor for the King's Review. She holds an MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual History from the University of Cambridge and tweets at @becbecliuliu