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Interview with Moishe Postone: On Marx, Value, and History - Part 1

I decided to read Marx (years ago) as if I’d never heard of him. Most people, if they read Hegel, don’t think beforehand that they know Hegel (or if they do they’re very foolish). So they read Hegel to try to see what he is arguing. My experience has been that many people read Capital as if they already know what Marx is saying and they just want to see how he says it. So, how does he (in a sense) justify positions he had already expressed, for example, in the Communist Manifesto… And I think that’s a mistake – it’s a serious mistake.

For me personally, the reception of the Grundrisse was extremely important in making clear to me that, whereas in much orthodox Marxism, Marx is understood as a critical political economist, he wrote a critique of political economy. And I think there is a fundamental difference between being a critical political economist and writing a critique of political economy. With the critique of political economy, its central theme is that the commodity form, and therefore value, is historically specific. So, the problem with Adam Smith is not that he didn’t consistently understand that it’s only workers that create the surplus – sometimes he says that, sometimes he has various factors of production – but that Smith didn’t understand that value is historically specific to capitalism.

The dialectic of value and use value has too often been interpreted, even by people like Lukács and to some degree I would say by Adorno… they understand the commodity form as the domination of value over use value. So, in a sense, use-value just has to emerge from under the shell of value. And I think that the dialectic that Marx develops in Capital is much more complicated than that. There is a dialectic of value and use-value and it gives rise to an increasing contradiction between what is and what could be so that the standpoint of the critique is what could be, not the use value that is subsumed by value. People who focus only on the market and private property essentially are not focusing on value or what they think is that value is a category of the market.

When Marx speaks of the historical specificity of value, he is talking about the historical specificity of a form of wealth that is created only by the expenditure of human labour time. The question of the market is a question that he deals with in Volume 2 which has to do with how surplus value is mediated and circulated. That, in Marx’s time, the two were intimately tied together is clear… but the first volume of Capital that depends on the theory of value pointing beyond itself, doesn’t depend on the mode of distribution. It depends on the temporal measure of wealth – and once you have that in place, then I think it becomes understandable why the Soviet Union was not, and could never have been, socialist. And it seems to me that the debate between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks at the beginning of the 20th Century was unfortunate in that it was all placed in terms of class. The Mensheviks didn’t say that you need capitalism to have socialism but that you need Bourgeois domination before you could have proletarian domination. Lenin then argued that the Russian Bourgeoisie were incapable, and at first it seemed he thought that the proletariat would have to accomplish what the Bourgeoisie already accomplished (and then that sort of got lost in the shuffle).

So, it’s a serious mistake to view the Soviet Union as ‘the only problems were political’, bureaucratization, Stalin etc, but that the basis was socialist. The basis was the same as in the West... with the difference that primitive accumulation had to be affected. So, the planning was the planning of primitive accumulationthat’s not a recipe for socialism. Now, if anything, one could argue that the experience of the Soviet Union showed that state control of value production is not an efficient way of distributing value.

What I’m trying to suggest is that the ontologization of labor is a fetish. That is, it is the form in which a historically specific function of labor and capitalism appears to analysis as the expenditure of human energy. But it can’t be that – it can’t be that. Human physiology remains transhistorical, value doesn’t. And I think one of the reasons the book Capital is easy to misunderstand is that whereas in the Grundrisse (because he is writing notes to himself) he will say value is historically specific, in Capital, everything has to be imminent. So it appears transhistorical and it only emerges that it’s not transhistorical once he introduces machinery and large-scale industry.

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