Postone’s “Resolution” of Marx’s Imaginary Contradiction

September 18, 2011 by  

Filed under Philosophy/Organization

Postone sees a contradiction between any account of abstract labor as physiological exertion and the historical specificity of Marx’s value theory. David Adam argues that the supposed contradiction in Marx described by Postone is entirely imaginary, and that only a more straightforward reading of Marx’s account of abstract labor can make sense of Capital.

Postone’s “Resolution” of Marx’s Imaginary Contradiction

On the revision of the concept of “abstract labor”

by David Adam

In his influential book, Time, Labor, and Social Domination, Moishe Postone offers a reinterpretation of key aspects of Marx’s Capital. One of the central categories discussed by Postone is abstract labor. He suggests that we face an interpretive difficulty when dealing with Marx’s account of abstract labor in Capital. Essentially, Postone sees a contradiction between any account of abstract labor as physiological exertion and the historical specificity of Marx’s value theory. This essay will argue that the supposed contradiction in Marx described by Postone is entirely imaginary, and that only a more straightforward reading of Marx’s account of abstract labor can make sense of Capital. In closing, the role of Postone’s treatment of abstract labor within his overall argument will be briefly discussed.

Marx’s “Very Problematic” Account of Abstract Labor

Postone claims that “the definitions [Marx] provides of abstract human labor in Capital, Chapter One, are very problematic. They seem to indicate that it is a biological residue, that it is to be interpreted as the expenditure of human physiological energy.”[1] First, we should look at what Marx says that is so problematic for Postone. A key passage occurs at the very end of the section on “The Dual Character of the Labour Embodied in Commodities,” when Marx summarizes his whole discussion of this theme. Marx writes:

On the one hand, all labour is an expenditure of human labour-power, in the physiological sense, and it is in this quality of being equal, or abstract, human labour that it forms the value of commodities. On the other hand, all labour is an expenditure of human labour-power in a particular form and with a definite aim, and it is in this quality of being concrete useful labour that it produces use-values.[2]

Postone argues that passages like this present abstract labor as a transhistorical category, a characterization that contradicts the historical specificity of value. His way of overcoming this contradiction is to claim that Marx is presenting such passages “as forms of thought characteristic of the society whose underlying social forms are being critically analyzed.” [3] In other words, Marx intended to present “abstract labor” in a mystified form, and his descriptions of abstract labor that have this form should therefore not be taken to reveal the essence of abstract labor, which must be historically specific.

Postone interprets Marx as describing only an appearance: abstract labor  appears to be the historically nonspecific expenditure of human labor-power in a physiological sense. While he tries to cast doubt on a more straightforward reading of Marx’s text, Postone is unable to present any textual evidence that Marx recognized the superficial character of his physiological account of abstract labor.

The “problematic” account of abstract labor is in fact Marx’s only account of abstract labor in Capital. He repeatedly uses his understanding of abstract labor as homogenous human labor to discuss value production and the form of value, and nowhere indicates that this is all a misleading appearance, which would lend credibility to Postone’s interpretation.

Material Wealth and Value

In the section of chapter 1 of Capital on “The Dual Character of the Labour Embodied in Commodities,” Marx uses his “very problematic” understanding of abstract labor to introduce one of the foundational points of Capital, the distinction between material wealth and value. Let us review some of the key points of Marx’s discussion of this distinction, as this discussion is clearly tied to the historical specificity of Marx’s value theory. Using the example of the relation of two commodities, a coat and 10 yards of linen, Marx writes,

The use-values coat and linen are combinations of, on the one hand, productive activity with a definite purpose, and, on the other, cloth and yarn; the values coat and linen, however, are merely congealed quantities of homogenous labour. In the same way, the labour contained in these values does not count by virtue of its productive relation to cloth and yarn, but only as being an expenditure of human labour-power. Tailoring and weaving are the formative elements in the use-values coat and linen, precisely because these two kinds of labour are of different qualities; but only in so far as abstraction is made from their particular qualities, only in so far as both possess the same quality of being human labour, do tailoring and weaving form the substance of the values of the two articles mentioned.[4]

Coats and linen represent values of varying magnitudes, depending on the labor-time socially necessary to produce these commodities. Marx continues, “While, therefore, with reference to use-value, the labour contained in a commodity counts only qualitatively, with reference to value it counts only quantitatively, once it has been reduced to human labour pure and simple.”[5] Marx then gives a clear illustration of the economic importance of this distinction:

In itself, an increase in the quantity of use-values constitutes an increase in material wealth. Two coats will clothe two men, one coat will only clothe one man, etc. Nevertheless, an increase in the amount of material wealth may correspond to a simultaneous fall in the magnitude of its value. This contradictory movement arises out of the twofold character of labour.[6]

The dual character of labor in Capital clearly grounds the important distinction between material wealth and value. Postone recognizes this, and in fact puts great emphasis on this point: “The difference between material wealth and value is central to the Marxian critique of capitalism. It is rooted, according to Marx, in the double character of labor in that social formation.”[7] The problem this recognition poses for the coherence of Postone’s interpretation of Marx is formidable. Marx is repeatedly using his “very problematic” conception of abstract labor to express the distinction between material wealth and value, which Postone recognizes to be of great importance. The very clear description of abstract labor as “expenditure of human labour-power, in the physiological sense,” which we have already quoted, in fact occurs at the end of the discussion we have just reviewed. As Postone emphasizes, the production of use-values, and thus the material form of wealth, is historically nonspecific. By contrast, it is only in a particular form of society—a capitalist society—that alongside this form of wealth, we recognize the social dominance of an abstract, value form of wealth. What Marx is doing, in the discussion reviewed above, is grounding the dynamics of a capitalist society in a form of wealth that is historically specific. He clearly does this, however, using a definition of abstract labor that Postone claims is inadequate to this task.

A Social Substance

As we have seen, Postone holds that the historical specificity of Marx’s theory of value becomes problematic  in light of his descriptions of abstract labor. He indicates that Marx contradicted his physiological description of abstract labor at least once. After citing Marx’s “problematic” descriptions of abstract labor, Postone writes, “Yet, at the same time, Marx clearly states that we are dealing with a social category. He refers to abstract human labor, which constitutes the value dimension of commodities, as their ‘social substance, which is common to them all.’”[8]

Postone is referring to the passage in which Marx introduces the category of abstract labor, a passage well worth addressing. To put the passage in context, Marx has just outlined the sense in which commodities do not fortuitously exchange in various proportions with each other, but are treated as having an intrinsic value. Before specifying the “substance” of this intrinsic value, Marx returns to the commodity as such and abstracts from the characteristics of a commodity that make it a use-value. In abstracting from these characteristics, the commodity can be seen as merely the product of human labor. Marx continues this process of abstraction:

With the disappearance of the useful character of the products of labour, the useful character of the kinds of labour embodied in them also disappears; this in turn entails the disappearance of the different concrete forms of labour. They can no longer be distinguished, but are all together reduced to the same kind of labour, human labour in the abstract. Let us now look at the residue of the products of labour. There is nothing left of them in each case but the same phantom-like objectivity; they are merely congealed quantities of homogenous human labour, i.e. of human labour-power expended without regard to the form of its expenditure. All these things now tell us is that human labour-power has been expended to produce them, human labour is accumulated in them. As crystals of this social substance, which is common to them all, they are values—commodity values.[9]

In context, Postone’s evidence is singularly unimpressive. The passage as a whole is consistent with Marx’s physiological description of abstract labor, and the phrase “social substance” can readily be interpreted in a manner consistent with everything else Marx says about abstract labor. The abstract, general category does not draw its significance from any particular labor or the physical character of its product, but from what is common to all social labors. The category of abstract labor necessarily relates the labor expended on one commodity to the labor expended on the whole world of commodities as labor of the same quality, and it is as such that it is quantitatively evaluated. On the next page of Capital, for example, Marx writes that with regard to value, the total labor-power of society counts “as one homogeneous mass of human labour-power, although composed of innumerable individual units of labour-power.”[10] In this sense, the labor that forms the values of commodities can be termed a “social substance.” It does not derive its significance from any form of labor looked at in isolation. The category of concrete labor, by contrast, does not imply any relation of social commensurability with all other labors.

Postone opposes Marx’s physiological description of abstract labor to the historical specificity of his value theory. He finds it problematic that Marx describes abstract labor in ahistorical terms, referring to a quality of labor (that of being human labor) that does not directly separate capitalist from non-capitalist labor. The most consistent interpretation of Marx simply does not occur to Postone: that this abstract, general quality of labor simply does not acquire the same social significance in non-capitalist societies. Labor does not have a dual, divided character in such societies, since tailoring or weaving’s quality of being human labor in the abstract would not have any independent significance.

Undoubtedly, Marx’s object is capitalist society, and his value theory is not transhistorical in applicability. This is precisely why Marx emphasizes the historical character of the reduction of diverse forms of labor to human labor in the abstract. In other words, he emphasizes the fact that this reduction is no mere mental exercise. As he wrote in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, abstraction from the concrete character of labor is an “abstraction which is made every day in the social process of production.”[11] This interpretation, according to which the abstract, physiological character of labor becomes the specific social character of labor in a capitalist society, is crucially supported by key passages in Capital. When discussing the general form of value, Marx states that this form makes plain that, within the world of commodity production, “the general human character of labour forms its specific social character.”[12] Likewise, in the section on the fetishism of the commodity, Marx writes that with commodity production, “the specific social character of private labours carried on independently of each other consists in their equality as human labour.”[13]

While elaborating his highly implausible interpretation that Marx purposefully presented the category of abstract labor in a mystified form, Postone does not even stop to consider the interpretation of Marx sketched above. “If . . . the category of abstract human labor is a social determination, it cannot be a physiological category,” writes Postone. Since value is a historically specific form of wealth, he explains, “its ‘social substance’ could not be a transhistorical, natural residue, common to labor in all social formations.”[14] No reasoning whatsoever is given for these assertions. Yet, since Marx does ground the historically specific value-character of the products of labor in a social abstraction from concrete particularity (a concreteness that is, in itself, historically nonspecific), and Postone is ostensibly offering an interpretation of Marx, this part of his argument stands in need of some sort of justification. Marx, for example, writes that

the basis of value is the fact that human beings relate to each other’s labour as equal, and general, and in this form social, labour. This is an abstraction, like all human thought, and social relations only exist among human beings to the extent that they think, and possess this power of abstraction from sensuous individuality and contingency.[15]

The Value Form

Marx’s concept of abstract labor figures prominently in his discussion of the form of value and money. Marx’s analysis is here most noticeably dissimilar from that of conventional bourgeois economics, yet Marx nowhere suggests that his initial discussion of the dual character of labor needs to be modified in any way.  In fact, it forms a solid foundation for what comes later, as Marx delves into the social reduction of various labors to human labor in the abstract in great detail.  In his discussion of the “peculiarities” of the equivalent form of value, he describes the second peculiarity as the fact that concrete labor “becomes the form of manifestation” of abstract human labor.[16]

The relative form of value is represented by the commodity seeking another commodity to exchange with on the market. The other commodity, with which the first commodity is compared, is said to be in the equivalent form. The commodity in the relative form expresses its value through the body of the commodity in the equivalent form. Marx writes,

The body of the commodity, which serves as the equivalent, always figures as the embodiment of abstract human labour, and is always the product of some specific useful and concrete labour. … In order to express the fact that, for instance, weaving creates the value of linen through its general property of being human labour rather than its concrete form as weaving, we contrast it with the concrete labour which produces the equivalent of the linen, namely tailoring. Tailoring is now seen as the tangible form of realization of abstract human labour.[17]

In his appendix on the value-form, published in the first German edition of Capital, Marx elaborates on this basic “inversion”:

Within the value-relation and the value-expression included in it, the abstractly general counts not as a property of the concrete, sensibly real; but on the contrary the sensibly-concrete counts as the mere form of appearance or definite form of realization of the abstractly general. . . . This inversion by which the sensibly-concrete counts only as the form of appearance of the abstractly general and not, on the contrary, the abstractly general as property of the concrete, characterizes the expression of value. At the same time, it makes understanding it difficult. If I say: Roman Law and German Law are both laws, that is obvious. But if I say: Law, this abstraction realizes itself in Roman Law and German Law, in these concrete laws, the interconnection becomes mystical.[18]

This passage highlights how the concrete labor realized in a commodity is socially recognized as a mere form of appearance of a certain quantity of abstract labor. Just as when Marx describes weaving as having a “general property of being human labour,” Marx here describes abstract labor as an “abstractly general” determination of the real labor performed in production, a general “property” of that labor in the sense that being a form of law is a property of Roman law. This is a rather significant problem for Postone’s interpretation of Marx, as Marx’s whole description of this inversion of the particular and the general rests on his “physiological” generalization of human labor in the abstract.

Aside from this basic question of the coherence of Marx’s account, it is highly improbable that this “abstractly general” conception is only presented as a form of thought characteristic of capitalist society, as Postone suggests, since Marx is here investigating the basis for such fetishistic forms of thought. Marx specifically claims that people are generally not conscious of the way in which their social practices entail the equation of various labors as human labor in the abstract.[19] Furthermore, Marx employs exactly the same conception of abstract labor when criticizing the failings of a bourgeois form of thought (classical political economy) in Theories of Surplus Value:

Ricardo does not sufficiently differentiate between labour insofar as it is represented in use-values or in exchange-value. Labour as the foundation of value is not any particular labour, with particular qualities. Ricardo continuously confuses the labour which is represented in use-value and that which is represented in exchange-value. It is true that the latter species of labour is only the former species expressed in an abstract form.[20]

This understanding of abstract labor, as an “abstractly general” determination of actual labor, grounds Marx’s theorization of money. The vivid description of the inverted character of value-relations quoted above is quite similar to Marx’s description of the general form of value in the first German edition of Capital. The general form of value describes how a commodity can relate to the world of commodities as equivalent, and supplies the basic framework for the money-form, the culmination of Marx’s discussion of the form of value. Marx writes of the equivalent commodity of the general form, “It is as if alongside and external to lions, tigers, rabbits, and all other actual animals, which form when grouped together the various kinds, species, subspecies, families etc. of the animal kingdom, there existed also in addition the animal, the individual incarnation of the entire animal kingdom.”[21] Here we see the same inversion of the particular and the general determinations of the commodity. As one commodity is set apart from all other commodities as equivalent, it comes to represent “the visible incarnation, the social chrysalis state, of all human labour.” [22]

Just as the specific products of human labor count only as expressions of human labor in general, so human labor in general seems to take on a specific form in money. All commodities, despite their various concrete forms, must, as values—as congealed quantities of abstract labor—measure themselves against the universal incarnation of abstract labor, the animal, or money. This is, after all, the purpose for which they were produced in the first place. Money comes to represent the totality of abstract labor in a capitalist economy, embodying the total indifference to concrete use-values that is intrinsic to the dynamic of capital. Just as we saw that Marx uses his “very problematic” understanding of abstract labor in distinguishing material wealth and value, here too, in analyzing the nature of money, Marx is similarly unconcerned with improving upon his supposedly problematic “initial determinations” of abstract labor.[23]

Postone offers a supposedly improved definition of abstract labor. In fact, he passes it off as Marx’s own understanding of the term. “The function of labor as a socially mediating activity is what [Marx] terms ‘abstract labor,’” writes Postone.[24] This essential truth of the category is supposedly dialectically unfolded by Marx, but obviously not explicitly stated.

There is nothing wrong with claiming that Marx held abstract labor to have a socially mediating function. But this is not exactly what Postone is saying. He is careful not to describe abstract labor as a general determination of actual labor, but rather as a function of labor; thus value is described as an objectification of a function of labor.[25] This allows Postone to characterize abstract labor as an altogether historically specific category, yet it is not really labor that he is describing at all, but rather a mere function of labor.

Naturally, this new and improved definition of abstract labor does not square with Marx’s use of the term, either at the start of Capital, or long after his initial descriptions. For example, in chapter 8 of Capital, Marx writes,

On the one hand, it is by virtue of its general character as expenditure of human labour-power in the abstract that spinning adds new value to the values of the cotton and the spindle; and on the other hand, it is by virtue of its special character as a concrete, useful process that the same labour of spinning both transfers the values of the means of production to the product and preserves them in the product. Hence a twofold result emerges within the same period of time.[26]

This passage is noteworthy in that it highlights the sense in which the same labor (spinning) is both abstract and concrete, and how– as abstract or concrete labor–the production process fulfills different functions. But this labor (spinning), which occurs in real time, cannot be said to add value to the product insofar as it is a function of labor. This would be quite senseless.

The Historical Dimension

Postone’s “improvement” on Marx seems to represent a makeshift solution to an imagined problem, namely the supposed contradiction between Marx’s descriptions of abstract labor and the historical specificity of his analysis. In reality, there is no specific interpretive difficulty posed by Marx’s characterization of abstract labor as physiological, general human labor. The historical character of Marx’s analysis requires only that labor has not developed a dual character in pre-capitalist societies, and therefore that the category of “abstract labor” is largely irrelevant to the social practices of such societies. Abstract labor as such can be said to be historically nonspecific, but it is only in a capitalist society that this general category acquires real significance. In this particular sense, abstract labor is a historical category. When Marx was developing the concept of abstract labor in the Grundrisse, this is basically how he described its historical dimension.

Here is what Marx wrote in the “Introduction” to the Grundrisse:

It was an immense step forward for Adam Smith to throw out every limiting specification of wealth-creating activity—not only manufacturing, or commercial or agricultural labour, but one as well as the others, labour in general. With the abstract universality of wealth-creating activity we now have the universality of the object defined as wealth, the product as such or again labour as such, but labour as past, objectified labour. How difficult and great was this transition may be seen from how Adam Smith himself from time to time still falls back into the Physiocratic system. Now, it might seem that all that had been achieved thereby was to discover the abstract expression for the simplest and most ancient relation in which human beings—in whatever form of society—play the role of producers. This is correct in one respect. Not in another. Indifference towards any specific kind of labour presupposes a very developed totality of real kinds of labour, of which no single one is any longer predominant. … Not only the category, labour, but labour in reality has here become the means of creating wealth in general, and has ceased to be organically linked with particular individuals in any specific form.[27]

The development of the concept of abstract labor is in part a development of classical political economy, and in part a key aspect of the critique of classical political economy. While classical political economy was eventually able to “throw out every limiting specification of wealth-creating activity,” it did not clearly grasp the historical specificity of its categories, nor was it able to clearly distinguish the dual character of labor in a capitalist society. Nonetheless, this movement away from the Physiocratic system, for example, which focused on agriculture as the source of value, is clearly identified by Marx with a movement toward the theorization of “abstract labor.” In Theories of Surplus Value, Marx also addresses this theme:

As agricultural labour thus forms the natural basis (on this, see an earlier notebook) not only for surplus-labour in its own sphere, but also for the independent existence of all other branches of labour, and therefore also for the surplus-value created in them, it is clear that it was bound to be considered the creator of surplus-value, so long as the substance of value was regarded as definite, concrete labour, and not abstract labour with its measure, labour-time.[28]

Marx is here not claiming that classical political economy grasped the distinction between concrete and abstract labor. Rather, classical political economy intuitively abstracted from the concrete character of labor when discussing value, but not self-consciously or consistently.

Another key theme of the passage from the Grundrisse is the identification of the social character of labor with subjective indifference toward the concrete character of labor. This implies that the abstraction from the concrete character of labor acquires a distinct social reality, which is developed most fully in an advanced capitalist economy. This is key to understanding the historical situation Marx is describing. He writes that labor in reality, as a mere means of creating wealth, “has ceased to be organically linked with particular individuals in any specific form,” as had been the case before monetary exchange successfully broke down such barriers. Another passage from the Grundrisse dealing with these themes links the “indifference” of the worker to the form of his or her labor to the indifference of capital to the concrete form of the wealth it produces:

The last point to which attention is still to be drawn in the relation of labour to capital is this, that as the use value which confronts money posited as capital, labour is not this or another labour, but labour pure and simple, abstract labour; absolutely indifferent to its particular specificity, but capable of all specificities. Of course, the particularity of labour must correspond to the particular substance of which a given capital consists; but since capital as such is indifferent to every particularity of its substance, and exists not only as the totality of the same but also as the abstraction from all its particularities, the labour which confronts it likewise subjectively has the same totality and abstraction in itself. For example, in guild and craft labour, where capital itself still has a limited form, and is still entirely immersed in a particular substance, hence is not yet capital as such, labour, too, appears as still immersed in its particular specificity: not in the totality and abstraction of labour as such, in which it confronts capital. That is to say that labour is of course in each single case a specific labour, but capital can come into relation with every specific labour; it confronts the totality of all labours [potentially], and the particular one it confronts at a given time is an accidental matter.[29]

We can see that the sense in which the category of “abstract labor” can be termed historical rests precisely on its purely physiological character. Abstraction from the concrete character of labor characterizes the alienated relationship of the wage-laborer to capital. Labor is treated as merely physiological expenditure, as capital is indifferent to the concrete character of the labor process. Labor itself represents only a monetary investment for capital, or money in its process of increase. As Marx put it in the Grundrisse: “Money is originally the representative of all values; in practice this situation is inverted, and all real products and labours become the representatives of money.”[30] This inversion is germane to our discussion of abstract labor. Here we see how total abstraction from the concrete character of labor represents a real historical development. Marx’s development of the concept of abstract labor in the Grundrisse shows, just as Capital shows, that the historical dimension of Marx’s treatment of abstract labor rests on—and in no way contradicts—his understanding of abstract labor as the expenditure of human labor pure and simple. This renders Postone’s interpretation entirely unconvincing.

One particular passage from Capital brings out the historical dimension of Marx’s treatment of abstract labor very clearly. It occurs in the section on the fetishism of the commodity, where, based on Postone’s analysis, we might expect Marx to reveal the inadequacy of his initial determinations of abstract labor.[31] Nonetheless, in one of Marx’s most explicit discussions of the historical specificity of value relations, he here too relies on his supposedly inadequate account of abstract labor:

This division of the product of labour into a useful thing and a thing possessing value appears in practice only when exchange has already acquired a sufficient extension and importance to allow useful things to be produced for the purpose of being exchanged, so that their character as values has already to be taken into consideration during production. From this moment on, the labour of the individual producer acquires a twofold social character. On the one hand, it must, as a definite useful kind of labour, satisfy a definite social need, and thus maintain its position as an element of the total labour, as a branch of the social division of labour, which originally sprang up spontaneously. On the other hand, it can satisfy the manifold needs of the individual producer himself only in so far as every particular kind of useful private labour can be exchanged with, i.e. counts as the equal of, every other kind of useful private labour. Equality in the full sense between different kinds of labour can be arrived at only if we abstract from their real inequality, if we reduce them to the characteristic they have in common, that of being the expenditure of human labour-power, of human labour in the abstract.[32]

The development of abstract labor as a social aspect of labor is a historical development. Marx describes this development as labor acquiring “a twofold social character.” As he does this, however, he clearly describes the abstract character of labor as something held in common by the multitude of concrete labors.


A major theme of Postone’s book is a critique of traditional Marxism’s affirmation of the working class as the revolutionary subject. As a supposed interpretation of Marx, this notion is completely without merit.  Postone seems to identify the idea of a proletarian revolutionary subject with the Hegelian notion of an “identical subject-object,” and, by contrast, interprets Marx as identifying capital as a “historical Subject in the Hegelian sense.”[33] Postone’s entire philosophic opposition between proletariat-as-subject and capital-as-subject obscures the actual structure of Marx’s argument. Postone makes much of Marx’s discussion of the M-C-M circuit, in which value expansion is the determining factor. Value is thus presented by Marx as the subject of this process, having “acquired the occult ability to add value to itself.”[34] Of course, Marx later identifies the basis for this “occult ability” in the alienation of labor, and specifically reveals that the money with which the capitalist class pays the working class represents the appropriated labor of the latter.[35] Marx does not thereby demonstrate that labor is really the “historical Subject in the Hegelian sense,” but, being aware of the fact that workers are the subjects of the production process in a mundane sense, he is able to describe the command of capital over labor as an inversion of subject and object.[36] Since the working class is the class whose labor is alienated as a power of capital, it is the only class that can overturn the above-mentioned inversion of subject and object through the expropriation of capital, and can thus be termed the revolutionary subject of Marx’s theory.[37]

Postone seems to identify the working class with living labor, and living labor with the transhistorical abstraction of labor. He thus sees an intrinsic connection between the straightforward reading of Marx sketched above, and a deleterious, transhistorical understanding of labor in capitalism. As Postone makes clear, the key to his reinterpretation of Marx is a rejection of what he describes as a critique of capitalism from the standpoint of labor.[38] Postone rejects the reading of Marx that sees him as de-fetishizing value and capital, revealing them to be objectifications of labor.[39] His interpretation of Marx on the topic of abstract labor seems to spring from these broader theoretical concerns. I would suggest that value is characterized by Postone as an objectification of a function of labor so as to avoid tracing value and capital back to living labor, an exercise which Postone sees as presupposing a transhistorical understanding of labor in capitalism. Thus, the category of abstract labor is divorced from the actual labor expended in production. For Marx, of course, labor can be the source of value in a capitalist society, without the implication that labor in any form of society produces value, since the form of value springs from a specific social organization of production, not the nature of the determinants of value.

We have just seen that, for Marx, it is only on the basis of specific social relations that labor comes to have a dual character, and must be considered as both concrete and abstract, since its abstract aspect comes to play a distinct social role. We have also seen how the mental abstraction of conceiving of labor merely as a physiological expenditure of energy, regardless of its concrete form, reflects the social relationships of a capitalist economy, where the form in which labor is expended is a matter of indifference. Hopefully, in addition to providing a challenge to the interpretation of Postone, the above discussion gives a general indication of the importance of Marx’s analysis of the twofold character of labor.


[1] Moishe Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003) p. 144.

[2] Karl Marx, Capital: A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1990), p. 137.

[3] Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination, p. 142; Postone’s emphasis.

[4] Marx, Capital, vol. 1, pp.135–6.

[5] Ibid., p. 136.

[6] Ibid., p. 136–7.

[7] Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination, p. 194.

[8] Ibid., p. 145; interior quote is from Marx, with emphasis added by Postone.

[9] Marx, Capital, vol. 1, p. 128.

[10] Ibid., p. 129.

[11] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (New York: International Publishers, 1970), p. 30.

[12] Marx, Capital: vol. I, p. 160.

[13] Ibid., p. 167.

[14] Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination, p. 145.

[15] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, vol. 30 (New York: International Publishers, 1988), p. 232.

[16] Marx, Capital, vol. 1, p. 150.

[17] Ibid..

[18] Karl Marx, “The Value-Form,” Capital & Class, No. 4 (1978), pp. 139–140.

[19] Marx, Capital: vol. 1, pp. 166–7.

[20] Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, Book III (Amherst: Prometheus, 2000) pp. 138–9.

[21] Karl Marx, “The Commodity,” in Value: Studies by Marx (London: New Park Publications, 1976), p. 27.

[22] Marx, Capital: vol. 1, p. 159.

[23] See Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination, p. 142.

[24] Ibid., p. 150.

[25] Ibid., p. 167.

[26] Marx, Capital: vol. 1, pp. 308–9.

[27] Karl Marx, Grundrisse (London: Penguin, 1993), p. 104.

[28] Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, Book 1 (Amherst: Prometheus, 2000), p. 48.

[29] Marx, Grundrisse, pp. 296–7.

[30] Ibid., p. 149.

[31] See Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination, p. 170.

[32] Marx, Capital: vol. 1, p. 166.

[33] Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination, p. 75.

[34] Marx, Capital: vol. 1, p. 255.

[35] Ibid., pp. 712–3, 730.

[36] Ibid., p. 990.

[37] See Ibid., p. 929.

[38] Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination, p. 385.

[39] Ibid., p. 147.


One Comment on "Postone’s “Resolution” of Marx’s Imaginary Contradiction"

  1. Tom Jeannot on Fri, 14th Oct 2011 11:06 pm 

    Thank you, David Adam, for this critique. I hope you won’t mind me being a little breezy and telling a story in reply. I fell behind in my reading of WITH SOBER SENSES until I felt compelled to support the Open Letter to the Editorial Board of RRPE calling for the retraction of Sinha’s review of RMC. That’s when I discovered your essay. I think it’s spot on, but here’s my story for a bit of diversion. Just after TLSD came out, Postone was invited to the first international conference of the Radical Philosophy Association in 1994 (at Drake in Des Moines). This also happened to be where I first seriously encountered Marxist-Humanism. Along with Anne Pomeroy, I had been invited to comment on Postone’s book in an “author-meets-critics” session. Callow country boy that I am, I found TLSD hard to read at first, the room was SRO, and I was skitterish nearly to the point of a panic attack, which I somehow managed to hold at bay. In my comment, I alluded to the first of the two quotations from the GRUNDRISSE you quote in your essay. Postone replied that Marx didn’t mean the same thing there as he meant by “abstract labor” in CAPITAL. I was cowed enough to take it on his authority, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why the meanings were equivocal and it bugged the hell out of me. I assumed it had to be my general thickness and callowness. So later on I asked Patrick Murray to explain it all patiently enough that a dimwit could follow. It was a short conversation because Murray simply answered, “I don’t know.” I planned then and there to write Postone directly about it, but this was another one of those best-lain plans. Peter Hudis happened to be in the crowd that came and when it came time for open discussion, he vigorously challenged Postone on “use-value.” I thought I followed Hudis well enough. It took a long time for me to acquire enough confidence to realize that Postone was just plain wrong about “the immense step forward [of] Adam Smith.”

    Thanks again for your essay.


    Tom Jeannot

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