The Tyranny of Time: Moishe Postone’s Immanent Critique

by Avery Minnelli

I am of the opinion that there is no such thing as a “neutral” or “objective” reading of a given political text or thinker.1 If a reading presents itself as such, there is likely a hidden agenda veiled behind an appeal to authority (e.g. “Well, Lenin clearly agrees with me here, and Lenin was right, so, ipso facto, I am right”). With the understanding that interpretations are by necessity selective and purposeful, I approached Moishe Postone’s Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (1993), henceforth TLSD, with an open mind. Of primary interest to me would be the usefulness and insight of Postone’s interpretation as such rather than how closely it reflects Marx’s own views.

The late Moishe Postone (1942-2018) was inspired to write TLSD after a deep study of Marx’s Grundrisse. Postone believed that its loose structure could provide insight into Marx’s thinking that may have been more concealed in the three volumes of Capital. Postone’s argument rests primarily on the Grundrisse as well as Capital; he makes little mention of Marx’s political works, and Engels is nearly absent from the text.2 In TLSD, Postone set as his project a reinterpretation of Marx in contradistinction to what Postone termed “traditional Marxism,” which he believed could not account for the developments in postliberal capitalism in the twentieth century. Traditional Marxism, for Postone, cannot be equated with “official communism,” whether that be of the Second International or of the Soviet Union. It is a far broader category; Postone argues that even the Frankfurt School were unable to fully escape the limits of traditional Marxism, despite what he calls their “pessimistic turn.” In his analysis, traditional Marxism is any interpretation of Marx’s theory that fails to properly historicize labor’s unique role of social mediation within capitalism. More specifically, Postone rejects a “critique of capitalism from the standpoint of labor” in favor of a “critique of labor in capitalism” (emphasis mine).3

From this fundamental distinction, Postone builds his argument, reconstructing the Marxian categories of the commodity, labor, capital, and even time. Postone’s perspective is that of an immanent critique in that he builds his critique of capitalism not as a transhistorical positive science, but rather as arising from the contradictions of modern society itself. This, he argues, is how Marx built his own critique of political economy.4 This epistemological stance distinguishes Postone from much of the official communist movement and its notion of “immortal science.” To me, his position stands in contrast specifically with that of Louis Althusser, who argued against historicism in favor of Marxism as a transhistorical, universally valid science. Epistemology is not a major focus of TLSD but it plays a key role in setting up Postone’s argument:

One of the most powerful aspects of Marx’s critique of political economy is the way it locates itself as a historically determinate aspect of that which it examines rather than as a transhistorically valid positive science that constitutes a historically unique (hence, spurious) exception standing above the interaction of social forms and forms of consciousness it analyzes. This critique does not adopt a standpoint outside of its object and is, therefore, self-reflexive and epis­temologically consistent.5

In his reconstruction of the Marxian critique of political economy, Postone emphasizes that capitalism cannot be reduced to private property and the market, which he considers to be relations of distribution. According to Postone, a critique of capitalism cannot be a critique of bourgeois appropriation from the standpoint of a “neutral” industrial mode of production. Instead, the mode of production itself, specifically large-scale industrial production and its implied division of labor, is itself constitutive of capitalism. For Postone, the appropriation of the means of production by the working class (or more likely, by the State) is insufficient to overcome capitalism; capital functions on a much more fundamental, structural level of abstract domination.

Postone’s conception of capitalism departs from that of traditional Marxism by conceiving of capitalism as an abstract structure of domination. He locates the fundamental contradiction of capitalism not between bourgeois appropriation and industrial production, but rather between value and material wealth. For Postone, the form that social wealth takes on under capitalism (the value-form) is as such because of labor’s unique role in capitalist society as social mediation. Capitalism, then, entails the centrality of social mediation by labor. What this means concretely is that direct labor (specifically abstract labor, to which I will return later) is the central component of the capitalist productive process.

Note, Postone rejects any notion of labor being “entitled to all it creates” or “the source of all wealth.” He does not believe that labor is the transhistorical core of all societies. Labor, instead, is the source of value; but this only holds under capitalism. Further, for Postone, there is no transhistorical notion of value that holds for all history that happens to under capitalism be determined by labor. This fundamental distinction between value (measured by abstract labor-time and unique to capitalism) and material wealth is, according to Postone, what distinguishes Marx’s historically contingent theory of value to Ricardo’s ahistorical one. For Marx, then, there is no “value” outside the capitalist mode of production.

Part I of the text sets up Postone’s argument, uncovers presuppositions of traditional Marxism, and outlines the limitations of traditional Marxism, including Critical Theory. In Part II, Postone structures his reinterpretation of Marxian categories around the fundamental distinction between value and material wealth. He starts with an investigation of abstract labor and abstract time and concludes with a criticism of Habermas. Part III includes Postone’s theory of capital and the historical dynamic of capitalist production.

Abstract labor, for Postone, is a category unique to the capitalist mode of production. It is not a transhistorical notion of “labor in general”:

Capitalism, according to Marx, is characterized by the fact that its fundamental social relations are constituted by labor. Labor in capitalism objectifies itself not only in material products–which is the case in all social formations–but in objectified social relations as well. By virtue of its double character, it constitutes as a totality an objective, quasi-natural societal sphere that cannot be reduced to the sum of direct social relations and, as we shall see, stands opposed to the aggregate of individuals and groups as an abstract Other. In other words, the double character of commodity-determined labor is such that the sphere of labor in capitalism mediates relations that, in other formations, exist as a sphere of overt social interaction. It thereby constitutes a quasi-objective social sphere.6

Postone’s analysis of abstract labor, and his call to abolish rather than affirm it, is not based on a utopian notion that a post-capitalist society will require no concrete human activity. Rather, Postone’s argument is a critique of labor in capitalism as a form of social mediation. To abolish abstract labor, then, means to abolish the distinction between “work” and “not work.” This very distinction between private and public spheres of life hinges on another social category unique to capitalism: abstract time.

Postone’s analysis of time is perhaps his most original, and hence most interesting, contribution to the Marxian critique. Postone distinguishes between two types of time–abstract time and concrete time. Concrete time is measured based on events such as sunrises and sunsets, crop seasons, etc. This type of time can be either cyclical or progressive. But in either case, time is a dependent variable measured in terms of events. For example, the original notion of a twelve-hour day and night was not conceived of in terms of uniform sixty-minute hours. Instead, each period of light or darkness was divided into twelve equal parts, which would grow and shrink with the seasons.

In contrast to concrete time, abstract time is an independent variable; events are measured in terms of time instead of the other way around. Abstract time is “uniform, continuous, homogenous, ‘empty’ time.”7 Abstract time, according to Postone’s historical analysis, only came to be in the late Middle Ages in Europe. He argues that “the historical origins of the conception of abstract time should be seen in terms of the constitution of the social reality of such time with the spread of the commodity-determined form of social relations.”8 In other words, there was no need for the notion of abstract time until there arose a mode of production based on the value-form as the embodiment of uniform, socially necessary labor-time. Postone rejects the idea that the creation of abstract time can be solely attributed to the invention of the clock. He argues this by noting that when the clock was introduced in China, it did not bear much significance in the organization of social life.

Under capitalism, abstract time is complemented by what Postone calls historical time. Historical time is a specific form of concrete time that describes the increasing levels of productivity in capitalism. The dialectic between abstract and historical time then captures the dynamism of capitalism that Postone calls “transformation and reconstitution.” This is the dynamic in which increased levels of productivity temporarily increase value produced (transformation) but then become the new baseline of socially necessary labor-time, thus maintaining value generated per unit time as a constant (reconstitution). For Postone, this trend in which value measured in abstract labor-time remains constant but the material wealth generated per time increases denotes the fundamental dynamism of History under capitalism. One way to visualize this interplay between abstract and historical time is that historical time is the vantage point through which we see labor-time become “more compact” in terms of productivity:

Historical time, in this interpretation, is not an abstract continuum within which events take place and whose flow is apparently independent of human activity; rather, it is the movement of time, as opposed to the movement in time. The social totality’s dynamic expressed by historical time is a constituted and constituting process of social development and transformation that is directional and whose flow, ultimately rooted in the duality of the social relations mediated by labor, is a function of social practice.9

The section on abstract time is the most historically grounded passage in the book; the rest remains mostly in the realm of abstract philosophy and textual exegesis. The greatest shortcoming of TLSD is then, coincidentally, its biggest source of inspiration. Postone operates at such a high level of theoretical abstraction that the implications and applications of his argument are at times hard to imagine. When I finished all 400 pages of the volume, I was left wanting more. Postone hinted at implications of his theory in such diverse topics as ecology, “actually existing socialism”, and modern social movements. However, he did not dive into many of these more concrete topics in any detail (one of his favorite phrases in the book was “I cannot address/elaborate…”) Michael Heinrich criticized Postone for not adequately addressing the sphere of circulation or the State, arguing that for all his historicism Postone actually adopted transhistorical notions of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy.’ Heinrich’s critique is reasonable and well worth reading, but in a sense is criticizing Postone essentially for what he chose as his project.

What this shortcoming means is that the task is left to us to utilize Postone’s perspective in our own investigations, not as an a priori theoretical framework, but as an alternative perspective that may inspire creativity and yield interesting insights. Perhaps most profoundly, Postone’s argument provides a powerful alternative to “productivist” interpretations of Marxism that merely critique private property and the market and in doing so affirm uncritically industrial production, “growth”, and proletariat.

Postone’s critique of the affirmation of industrial production and labor has important implications. Postone argues contra Lukács that in fact the proletariat is not the revolutionary Subject; instead, the simultaneous subject-object of History is actually capital itself.10 I do not have much an opinion on this debate, but the implications of Postone’s argument are clear: that capital is an abstract structure of domination that cannot be overcome simply by the affirmation of the working class:

The material foundation of a classless society, according to Marx’s exposition in the Grundrisse, is a form of production in which the surplus product no longer is created primarily by direct human labor. According to this approach, the crucial question of socialism is not whether a capitalist class exists but whether a proletariat still exists.11

Postone’s analysis, then, reaches deeper than overt class domination into the “domination of people by their labor.”12 He argues that “class conflict is a driving force of historical development in capitalism only because it is structured by, and embedded in, the social forms of the commodity and capital.”13 Postone expands his argument even further, going as far as to say that

Marx’s presentation does not support the idea that the struggle between capitalists and workers is one between the dominant class of capitalist society and the class that embodies socialism–and that such struggle therefore points beyond capitalism… Marx’s analysis of the trajectory of the capitalist process of production does not point toward the possible future affirmation of the proletariat and the labor it performs. On the contrary, it points toward the possible abolition of that labor.14

I am still unsure what to think of Postone’s point here. I feel that, at any rate, it does not at all negate the need for proletarian organization, self-activity, and, eventually, a proletarian class rule. I do not take Postone’s point to be prescriptive or programmatic, i.e. “if only Stalin had abolished the proletariat rather than affirmed it.” I take it more to be a reconceptualization of an historical process and a warning about the limitations of collective or state-led administration of capital accumulation.

However, even if it is not prescriptive, this framework may help us understand 20th century “actually existing socialism.” This topic is one that I am still forming views on (or, rather, re-forming), but Postone’s framework roughly aligns with my own provisional views on the topic. The USSR, for example, had no discernable bourgeoisie or ruling class, in my estimation. However, in the 1930s there was rapid industrialization, the estrangement of millions of peasants from their land, and the formation of an industrial proletariat. This process was guided by forced collectivization, internal passports, laws against absenteeism, and a general regime of labor discipline. This, to me, is state-led primary accumulation characterized by extensive (rather than intensive) growth. While the USSR was an interesting (and even, in many ways, wildly successful!) experiment in working towards a post-capitalist society, what I see as its historical trajectory is essentially a transition from semi-feudalism to fully developed capitalism. This is not to write of the Soviet Union in a moralistic sense, but despite it having no bourgeoisie, I think it is overly simplistic to categorize such a society as communism of any type or stage.

Postone’s reinterpretation of class struggle may also give us a way out of the debates around intersectionality and “identity politics.” Postone argues that Marx’s “argument does not imply that other social strata or groupings–for example, those organized around religious, ethnic, national or gender issues (and which only sometimes can be understood in class terms)–play no important roles historically and politically.”15 In a sense, Postone’s rejection of the “affirmation of labor” is a critique of an identity politic around class. The notion that capital itself rather than the proletariat is the subject-object of History, then, may be fruitful in conceptualizing the role of identities such as blackness16 that, contrary to what class reductionists argue, can generate important struggles against capitalist domination.

Postone’s critique of productivist interpretations of Marxism in particular has wide-reaching implications for many contemporary debates on such questions as ecology, degrowth, planning, and Indigenous rights. The idea that private property and the market are simply a “fetter” on industrial growth to me is incompatible with an ecologically-minded socialist project. Postone criticizes both productivist and romantic critiques of industry and technology as such. Neither he nor I are arguing for “primitivism,” but rather against an uncritical (and often modernist) embrace of productivity and “growth” for its own sake.17 On this topic, the distinction between a critique of private appropriation from the standpoint of industrial labor and a critique of that very labor itself as constitutive of the capitalist mode of production is crucial in understanding the dangers of unfettered development.

The critique of productivism may also provide insight on the question of Indigenous rights and various Native American critiques of traditional Marxism.18 To me it is indisputable that the U.S. Marxist left has more or less completely elided Indigenous struggles. To be sure, there are notable exceptions, and basically the entire left vocally supported the struggle at Standing Rock, but the critique of anti-Indigenous domination is notably absent from the core of U.S. Marxist thought of nearly all tendencies and types. Postone characterizes industrial production and its necessary division of labor as inherently capitalist. Note, he does not mean that technology itself is bad or unable to be appropriated in a post-capitalist society. Rather, he is arguing that the industrial labor process itself is constitutive of capitalism and that abolishing property or ownership relations is insufficient in overcoming the regime of capital accumulation. In this sense, if Indigenous communities are uprooted, exploited, and used as waste dumping sites, it does not matter one bit from their perspective whether this is being carried out by private enterprise or a “workers state.”19

Postone’s reinterpretation of Marx, then, may offer us a new conceptual framework to creatively rethink core problems facing the contemporary struggles against capitalism. Against modernist productivism, workerist identitarianism, and narrow conceptions of the domination of labor (not just by capital, but by labor itself), Postone’s framework indicates a way towards post-capitalism that is historically grounded and overcoming of categories of capitalism (industrial production, abstract labor as social mediation) that traditional Marxism often takes for granted:

Thus, Marx’s analysis suggests that the abolition of value would allow for a different mode of technologically advanced production, one not structured intrinsically in the antagonistic way that marks the sphere of production in capitalism; this analysis also suggests the possibility of a more general reshaping and restructuring of the scientific and technical knowledge that has been developed within the context of capitalism’s alienated social forms. More generally, Marx’s critique of capitalism allows for a position that neither affirms scientific and technical knowledge in their existent forms as emancipatory nor implicitly calls for their abstract negation. Rather, by analyzing socially the emancipatory potential of what had been constituted historically in alienated form, the Marxian critique seeks to grasp critically what exists in a way that points beyond it historically.20

Moishe Postone’s immanent critique, like Marx’s, starts from the standpoint of modern society as it exists and the nascent possibilities for a new society that exist within the old. With the growing importance of supply chains and logistics, as well as the growing probability of ecological collapse, Postone’s framework allows us to trace the communist horizon not from the ideas in our heads or an abstract blueprint but from actually existing capitalist society and the possibilities for its overcoming.


  1. (back) Salar Mohandesi interestingly argues in “The Actuality of the Revolution” that “Lenin does not at all compose a faithful, disinterested, or objective intellectual history [in State and Revolution]. Lenin gives a rather biased reading, picking phrases from here and there, offering very liberal interpretations of certain passages, and, to put it bluntly, distorting Marx and Engels almost as much as Bernstein or Kautsky, the figures he attacks in State and Revolution precisely for their own distortions of the pure teachings of Marx and Engels.” Despite this, Mohandesi argues, Lenin’s work was of great import and insight.
  2. (back) The relation between Marx and Engels is a complicated topic that I don’t have much an opinion on. However, we can reason from Engels’ absence that Postone did not consider his contributions to be particularly important in this reinterpretation of Marx.
  3. (back) Postone, Moishe. Time, Labor, and Social Domination p. 5.
  4. (back) Postone distinguishes a critical political economy from a critique of political economy, the latter being historically contingent to capitalism and, Postone argues, Marx’s intention.
  5. (back) Postone, Moishe. Time, Labor, and Social Domination pp. 143-44.
  6. (back) Ibid., p. 157.
  7. (back) Ibid., p. 202.
  8. (back) Ibid.
  9. (back) Ibid., p. 294.
  10. (back) Similarly the Endnotes collective in “LA Theses” asserts that “class consciousness, today, can only be the consciousness of capital.”
  11. (back) Postone, TLSD p. 39.
  12. (back) Ibid., p. 68.
  13. (back) Ibid., p. 319.
  14. (back) Ibid., p. 324.
  15. (back) Ibid., p. 321.
  16. (back) See “Brown v. Ferguson” from Endnotes #4.
  17. (back) To me “primitivism,” while certainly a reactionary (not to mention often misanthropic) worldview, is often used as a bogeyman against any questioning of blind productivism.
  18. (back) See Marxism and Native Americans ed. Ward Churchill.
  19. (back) This is not to say that a socialist state would be just as oppressive in the same ways as private capitalism, but rather to say that an uncritical embrace of growth could plausibly lead to the reproduction of colonial dynamics.
  20. (back) Postone, TLSD p. 364.

3 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Time: Moishe Postone’s Immanent Critique

  1. I really enjoyed this and think it is good and on point — so I looked for something, anything, to pick at as wrong.

    I think you are in trouble here: “I am still unsure what to think of Postone’s point here. I feel that, at any rate, it does not at all negate the need for proletarian organization, self-activity, and, eventually, a proletarian class rule.”

    Very simply put, Marx is consistently clear that proletarians have no class interest. They will never engage in class rule. They are historically exceptional in that the society they will enter has no subordinate class, hence no class at all. They can not organize as oppressors, because they have nobody to oppress.

    The proletariat must, in this line of thinking, abolish itself as a people united by overt and implicit belief in Value. (And, in true dialectical logic, this does not mean that they become Value atheists, either. Rather, they simply sweep the entire question of Value off the table.)


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