Notes on re-reading Postone III: What Is Traditional Marxism?

I found Postone’s chapter on Traditional Marxism odd for several reasons that mainly have to do with how he defines Traditional Marxism, where he defines it and how he addresses Marx’s relation to Ricardo.

In using the term Traditional Marxism Postone is attempting to group a disparate number of Marxian thinkers under the paradigm of Traditional Marxism. He argues this can be done because they all share the presupposition that Marx’s critique of political economy proceeds from the standpoint of labour. I’ve noted my problems with this idea elsewhere. Here I’ll just signal that I think the examples Postone uses to prove his claim about Traditional Marxism are unrepresentative. This is because his most in depth analysis focuses on Marxian thinkers from the mid-20th century:  Sweezy, Dobb, Mandel and Vygodski. This is followed by shorter examples of Robinson, Grossman, Lange, Mattick, Hilferding and Helmut Reichelt of all people. Now I realize Postone isn’t a political scientist but it seems to me that: (1) the term Traditional Marxism invokes the Marxian thinkers prior to the mid-20th century who established the paradigm other value-form theorists refer to as ‘Worldview Marxism’ or ‘Left-Ricardianism.’ Oddly there is no discussion in Postone of Engels, Bernstein or the 2nd international that you find in Coletti, Arthur etc. This means that (2) even if Postone’s claim about ‘Traditional Marxism’ is true that his sample does not represent the historically pervasiveness he is trying to establish, undercutting his assertion that essentially all heretofore types of Marxism are ‘Traditional Marxism.”

The issue of where he defines Traditional Marxism has to do with what I noted before about what I see as an odd choice about how the book is structured– Postone’s criticism of Traditional Marxism comes before he lays out his interpretation of Marxism. This means that his all important claim about the standpoint of labour is not established. Instead it is asserted on the basis of a number of repetitive claims Postone makes which he states will be substantiated later. It seems to me that this means you sort of have to take Postone’s word on the standpoint of labour claim through out his criticisms of Traditional Marxism and critical theory. The result is that he criticizes a vast array of Marxian thinkers on the basis a few mid-20th Century Marxian thinkers and contrasts them with an interpretation of Marx that has not been properly laid out.

In addition the moves that Postone does make to lay out his interpretation of Marx, whilst important and interesting, lack context. This is particularly the case with his handling of Marx’s relation to Ricardo. Postone is right to argue that Marx did not have a Ricardian labour theory of value. However, his treatment of this issue eschews scholarly practice. Postone makes one reference to one of a number of scholars–Backhaus– that have provided a more systematic analysis of the differences between Ricardo and Marx.  This makes Postone’s analysis seem more groundbreaking than it was in 1993. It also makes him seem more exceptional when contrasted with the paradigm of ‘Traditional Marxism’ he is criticizing. (He also leaves the question unanswered of why Reichelt can be a Traditional Marxist when it seems that Backhaus is the only person except Postone who has pointed out that Marx differs from Ricardo.)

Finally, Postone’s discussion of Marx, Lukacs and Hegel is interesting. It strikes me as the most original part of the chapter. I also think Lukacs is exemplary of Postone’s claim about the standpoint of labour. ( A more extended discussion of this relationship was published as a separate article). I think he is right to point out the differences between Lukacs’ Hegelian-Marxism and Marx. But I would argue that Postone’s interpretation of Marx’s relation to Hegel is also very Lukasian. Despite the important difference Postone argues exists between Lukacs’ standpoint of labour and Marx, it still seems to me that Postone’s conception of capital as a dialectical social totality whose laws of motion are described using terms such as ‘mediation’, ‘dynamic’ etc. has a strong resemblance to Lukacs. I think this tends to invert the way Marx used Hegel in particular places to describe the peculiar social character of capitalist valorization he tries to explain in detail in volumes 1-3 of Capital and substitute it with the use of several Hegelian terms such as ‘mediation’ and ‘totality’ to describe the entirety of Marx’s analysis. Whilst this is understandably fine if you are undertaking a philosophical study of Marx and Hegel I think it hampers an incisive analysis of capital society.


About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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3 Responses to Notes on re-reading Postone III: What Is Traditional Marxism?

  1. Yes, I also think that Lukacs is both exemplary of what Postone is attempting to critique as “Traditional Marxism” and that he si both closer to Lukács then one would, on first reading, believe.

    But I was curious about this throwaway line: “Now, I realize Postone isn’t a political scientist but it seems to me that”. How would or wouldn’t the discipline come into it?

    Finally… I wanna with you a Merry Christmas, I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas, etc., etc.


    • HR says:

      Hi Carlos, What you rightly call a throwaway line was meant to signal that Postone’s particular examples of ‘traditional marxism’ would not meet the sample criteria of those using a political science methodology and would be deemed ungeneralizable. Rather than signalling any statement about disciplinary discourse the statement comes out of my experience in the field.

  2. Ross Wolfe says:

    Postone is certainly very close to Lukacs, and his view is in fact complementary to Lukacs’ (whether or not Postone is prepared to admit it). This is because labor and capital, while antithetical, are mutually constitutive. Capital is presently the actual subject of history, albeit an unconscious one. The proletariat is the potential subject of history, “the self-consciousness of the commodity form” as Lukacs once put it, but in order to realize itself, it must lay hold of this fact in consciousness.

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