Writing, craft and method: Postone’s Notes on the German Reaction to ‘Holocaust’

Anti-Semitism and National Socialism: Notes on the German Reaction to “Holocaust” (PDF)

I have read Moishe Postone’s article a number of times. Today, I sent it to a friend with the following message:

A bit off the wall, but I’ve attached one of my favourite articles. There’s probably a time and a place to read it and it may not be now. When it was first pointed out to me, I just didn’t get the significance of the argument, and very importantly, the *method* of argument. Having read it a few times now, I think it’s the work of genius.

In a profound and sophisticated way, it takes a general response to the film, ‘Holocaust’, and uses that moment in German popular culture to elaborate a critique of capitalism which offers an explanation for anti-semitism. The way Postone, the author, unravels his argument not only provides a superb discussion about the essence of capitalism vs its manifest form in anti-semitism, but also provides a structure for the critique of other manifest forms of capitalism. e.g. higher education, or whatever.

The article I am currently writing has been through four different drafts, each no less unsatisfactory as the last. As it currently stands, the article is much too long and in my historical discussion, I have so far been unable to move away from simply offering information (events, people, places), rather than an adequate explanation. This is a point that Postone makes about the media’s response to the film, Holocaust (1978).

The weaknesses of the understanding of anti-Semitism outlined above emerged with particular clarity in the discussions on the “Holocaust” film held after each showing on West German television. The panel members were at their best when presenting information: conditions in the concentration camps; the activities of the Einsatzgruppen and their composition (police as well as SS units); the mass murder of Gypsies; and the material difficulties and extent of Jewish resistance. They were at a loss, however, when they attempted to explain the extermination of European Jewry. (p. 98)

Working on the fifth draft of my paper, I have returned to Postone’s article once again to remind myself of his method here, which is one of the rare times (the only time?) that he has systematically applied his reading of Marx’s critique of capitalism to a historical event. Here, I want to examine the structure of his article in sufficient detail so as to borrow this methodological approach in my own article on the history of hacker culture and higher education.

The article is formally structured in five parts, which can be summarised as follows:

  1. A general introduction, providing context to the film and the popular reaction in West Germany, pointing out the weaknesses of that response. (97)
  2. A critical summary of the German New Left’s response to Nazism, National Socialism and the Holocaust. Argues that the past has been repressed. (100)
  3. The main body of his argument. Argues against a functionalist explanation of the Holocaust e.g. anti-Semitism as a form of prejudice, xenophobia and racism. Argues the need for “qualitative specificity” rather than generalised explanations (105). Distinguishes between anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish prejudice and Nazism. Begins to introduce the concept of abstraction. Argues that modern anti-Semitism attributes an “intangible, abstract and universal” power to the Jews (106). Aims to unite a socio-historical analysis of Nazism with an examination of anti-Semitism i.e. the concrete and abstract; a “historical-epistemological frame of reference.” Sets up objective in his own method: an explanation of anti-Semitism “in terms of socio-historical epistemology.” (107) Offers summary of where he is taking the argument: “a careful examination of the modern anti-Semitic worldview reveals that it is a form of thought in which the rapid development of industrial capitalism with all of its social ramifications is personified and identified as the Jew… In other words, the abstract domination of capital, which – particularly with rapid industrialisation – caught people up in a web of dynamic forces they could not understand, became perceived as the domination of International Jewry.” (107) Returns his argument to the distinction between substance and form, essence and abstraction: “the distinction between what modern capitalism is and the way it appears.” (108) Compares abstract attributes of anti-Semitism to characteristics of the value form as analysed by Marx: value and use-value. Moves into a “brief analysis of the way in which capitalist social relations present themselves” (109). Proceeds with a discussion of the commodity form, the dialectic of its double character: money/value and commodity/use-value. Elaborates theory of commodity fetishism and extends it to epistemology (cf. Sohn-Rethel?). Substantiates this theoretical discussion with brief indication of historical examples. Leads to argument that the Jews became the personifications of capital rather than merely representations of it; the “biologisation of capitalism”. The ‘anti-capitalism’ of National Socialism was expressed as anti-Semitism. “The overcoming of capitalism and its negative social effects became associated with the overcoming of the Jews.” (112)
  4. A very brief section discussing “why the biological interpretation of the abstract dimension of capitalism found its focus in the Jews.” (112) Offers historical explanation but focuses on the dialectic between the state and civil society –  the individual as citizen and person, as an abstraction and as a concrete human being. “The only group in Europe which fulfilled the determination of citizenship as a pure political abstraction, were the Jews following their political emancipation. They were Germans or French citizens but not really Germans or Frenchmen. They were of the nation abstractly, but rarely concretely… In a period when the concrete became glorified against the abstract, against ‘capitalism’ and the bourgeois state, this became a fatal association.” (113)
  5. The final section concludes the article by summarising how “modern anti-Semitism… is a particularly pernicious fetish form.” (113)  There is a very striking paragraph which argues that just as the capitalist factory is where value is produced, the extermination camp is its grotesque negation. “Auschwitz was a factory to ‘destroy value,’ i.e. to destroy the personifications of the abstract. “Its organization was that of a fiendish industrial process, the aim of which was to “liberate” the concrete from the abstract. The first step was to dehumanize, that is, to rip the “mask” of humanity away and reveal the Jews for what “they really are” – “Musselmanner,” shadows, ciphers, abstractions. The second step was then to eradicate that abstractness, to transform it into smoke, trying in the process to wrest away the last remnants of the concrete material “use-value”: clothes, gold, hair, soap.” (114) Finally, Postone ends by looking forward and cautioning the Left against pursuing

Any “anti-capitalism” which seeks the immediate negation of the abstract and glorifies the concrete – instead of practically and theoretically considering what the historical overcoming of both could mean – can, at best, be socially and politically impotent in the face of capital. At worst it can be dangerous, even if the needs it expresses could be interpreted as emancipatory.

The article warrants a very close reading – much closer than I have offered here, where I am more interested in understanding how Postone makes his argument, than what his specific object of investigation is.

In summary, the articles proceeds as follows: introduction > critical review > development of theoretical argument grounded by historical example > broad justification for preceding argument > conclusion and way forward. Section three is clearly the most substantive section and in essence it employs Marx’s examination of commodity fetishism and his labour theory of value in Capital Vol. 1, Chapter 1, to provide the analytical tools for a socio-historical and epistemological explanation of the Holocaust.

4 thoughts on “Writing, craft and method: Postone’s Notes on the German Reaction to ‘Holocaust’

  1. The one piece I’d add to section 3 is how the “anti-capital” approach of the Nazis valorized the concrete over the abstract; I think you capture this in different ways by talking about value/use value, abstraction etc. But it, along with the “double character” and “qualitative specificity” are the turns I think Postone makes in this article to bring the theoretical and historically specific together. Thanks so much for pointing me to this article again; it really did help me make more sense of what I was fumbling with in my comments to Mike the other day. Cheers, Scott

    1. Yes, I think you’re absolutely right, Scott, this is a key turn. As an act of ‘anti-capitalism’, their “one-sided attack on the abstract” (112) misunderstands the antinomy or the ‘double character’ of capital and leads to a valorisation of the concrete, material aspects of capital, such as industry and technology. In this way, National Socialism is close to State Communism, which likewise valorised industry and technology but, more specifically, valorised labour in the concrete form of the worker. In this way, it connects with the argument that Postone makes in his later 1993 book, that Marx’s critique of capital is a critique of labour in both its concrete and abstract forms, rather than a critique from the fetishised standpoint of labour. To be effectively anti-capitalist, both sides of the value form must be recognised and the double character itself overcome.

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