Power, Politics, and Personification

Toward a Critique of Postone’s Theory of Antisemitism

Neil Levi

This essay offers an immanent critique of Moishe Postone’s theory of antisemitism, arguably among the most influential such theory of the past forty years.[1] Postone’s entire oeuvre is dedicated to the proposition that power in capitalist societies does not reside with agents but in a system of abstract domination. He explains modern antisemitism as what happens when people do not recognize the abstract nature of that system and instead hold that there must be someone—the Jews—in charge of things, responsible for all they fear and suffer. This phenomenon he proposes we understand as a form of fetishised anticapitalism.


This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the double-volume Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism special issue of Historical Materialism. Further additions will still be made before then. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months. We ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.All Illustrations are by Natalia Podpora.


At the broadest level, what follows is simply an examination of what Postone means by each of the terms of his theory—modern, antisemitism, fetishised, anti-capitalism—and the implications of his particular understanding and uses of each. I contend that Postone’s theory rests on a complex, often ambiguous set of conceptual constructions. I begin with his definitions. While Postone sometimes distinguishes antisemitism among racisms, his theory rests on a categorical distinction of antisemitismfrom racism. This distinction, I suggest, makes it difficult for him to explain satisfactorily the political structure of right-wing and particularly National Socialist antisemitism. Instead, Postone focuses on the historical-epistemological: he wants to say that antisemitism is a matter of how some people think about and explain the world, but more, it is a matter of how the worldappears to them. The second part of this essay examines how he tries to make that case. Postone appeals directly to ‘Marx’s concept of the fetish’[2] but his own version of the fetish differs significantly from Marx’s. I suggest that the changes he rings on fetishism bring his conception of it closer to the structure of projection. This prepares the ground for the analogies Postone draws between the antisemitic image of Jewish power and the ‘abstract dimension of the value form’. But Postone needs more than an analogy. His observation that the Jews personify certain aspects of capitalist modernity is compelling, but he cannot convincingly explain personification as the direct result of how capitalism appears. For that he needs a different mode of explanation and a different conceptual apparatus.

I then turn to the thread that runs through practically all Postone’s writing on antisemitism. Postone develops his theory from an account of what he calls the ‘qualitative specificity’ of modern antisemitism, which is in turn derived from the singular features of the Nazi extermination of Europe’s Jews (extermination is in turn distinguished from mass murder and genocide).[3] Having staked so much on specificity Postone nevertheless argues that in the postwar period the same fetishised misrecognition and ‘pattern’ of thought is directed by left-wing ‘neo-anti-imperialism’ at quite different kinds of object—the US, Israel, and Zionism.[4] I argue that Postone’s own strictness about definitions mean he cannot collapse ‘neo-anti-imperialism’ into National Socialism, and show that Postone’s most rigorous formulations acknowledge key distinctions between modern antisemitism proper and its purported descendants.

In the final part of the essay, I argue that Postone’s notion of anti-capitalism contains a crucial ambiguity: sometimes it refers to explicit, conscious opposition to certain aspects of capitalism, which are mistakenly taken for all of capitalism; sometimes it refers to an implicit,unconscious opposition to all of capitalismand its social, political, and historical consequences. This becomes most evident when we consider one of Postone’s key claims: that his theory marks an advance on previous theories of antisemitism because his alone explains how the Jews were seen as the power behind both capitalism and communism. Pivotal in his framing of the question, communism disappears from his answer—and along with it, a fuller account of the political dimensions of modern antisemitism.Had Postone paid more attention to the distinction between the two forms of anti-capitalism, he would, I suggest, have found himself compelled to give a richer theoretical account of the place of abstraction in the distinctively political subjectivity and threat that obsess the right-wing variant of modern antisemitism. That task might, in turn, have drawn his attention toward contemporary Islamophobia, rather than (or as well as) criticism of the US, as significantly redolent of—while far from identical with—crucial aspects of the modern antisemitic imaginary.

The most obvious reason to grapple with Postone now lies in the profoundly fraught place of antisemitism in the contemporary political climate. On the one hand, there are myriad indications of antisemitism’s resurgence. Think, to take only the most obvious examples, of the spread of the fantasy of the Great Replacement, invoked by a distressing number of perpetrators of mass shootings as well as the white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville in August 2017; the January 6, 2021 rioters’ displays of neo-Nazi symbols and antisemitic slogans; statistics suggesting a significant rise in antisemitic incidents; and the emergence of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Such events and phenomena make Postone’s observation that modern antisemitism ‘becomes virulent during structural, political, and cultural crisis’ seem all too timely, the search for answers all the more pressing.[5]

On the other hand, the very definition and extension of the concept of antisemitism has become a site of intense political contestation. Legal and cultural conflicts over the IHRA and BDS are only the most pointed instances of a broader and hardly symmetrical struggle over criticism of the state of Israel. It is in this respect that a certain reading of Postone has been incontestably influential on the German left, particularly for the Anti-Germans. Recent German laws and cultural controversies indicate that the views of the Anti-Germans have attained a certain cultural and political hegemony in the very nation their name claims to denounce.

My engagement with Postone seeks to clarify and parse the terms of the explanation he offers for why and how antisemitism emerges, and to respond to certain widespread interpretations and uses of his ideas. These goals distinguish my approach from other recent criticism of Postone. Both Karl Reitter and Michael Sommer take Postone to task for his use of the conceptual opposition of the abstract and concrete, and both are scathing on what they think Postone gets wrong about Marx and about German antisemitism. These are powerful, often convincing essays that share some points of overlap with mine (for example, Sommer too is struck by Postone’s use of analogy). They remain, however, largely external and polemical. One can imagine them leaving Postone unmoved since in Time, Labor, and Social Domination he provides, as it were, his own Marx, reinterpreted and critically reconstructed. Asking if his theory can satisfy its own criteria might provide both a sterner test and a more useful one, offering not only a critique but also a possible reconstruction of Postone himself. I continue to find some of Postone’s questions and observations about the structure of the modern antisemitic imaginary worth serious consideration. What I wrestle with here is how he arrives at his answers.


Postone assumes that if you want to understand the singular fate of Europe’s Jews you need to examine the distinctive features of the kind of prejudice directed toward them and derive your explanation from those features. Having identified the key distinguishing features of antisemitism, antisemitism then becomes, for the purposes of Postone’s theory and for many who follow him, exclusively identified with those distinguishing features. But the distinguishing features are not necessarily the only relevant features. Focusing exclusively on distinguishing features not only has unintended ideological consequences but weakens both the historical explanation of antisemitism and our ability to understand how it might manifest in the present.

Postone sets out to capture what he called modern antisemitism’s ‘qualitative specificity’, a specificity that is manifest in turn in the historical distinctiveness of the Nazi extermination of the Jews.[6] He locates the distinctiveness of antisemitism in the ‘degree’ and ‘quality of power attributed to the Jews’. Where the power attributed to racial others is, for Postone, ‘usually concrete—material or sexual—the power of the oppressed (as repressed) of the “Untermenschen”’ the power attributed to the Jews by modern antisemitism is ‘mysteriously intangible, abstract and universal;[7] and where all other powers attributed to racial others is potential, Jewish power is believed to be real and dangerous.[8] Moreover, according to Postone:

This power does not usually appear as such, but must find a concrete vessel, a carrier, a mode of expression. Because this power is not bound concretely, is not “rooted,” it is of staggering intensity and is extremely difficult to check. It stands behind phenomena, but is not identical with them. Its source is therefore hidden—conspiratorial. The Jews represent an immensely powerful, intangible, international conspiracy.[9]

Postone rests his theory on a crucial analogy: the properties of the power attributed to the Jews—abstractness, intangibility, universality, mobility, not appearing directly but finding a concrete carrier— are, he says, ‘all [also] characteristics of the value dimension of the social forms analyzed by Marx’.[10] Postone argues that for the modern antisemitic imagination the Jews personify ‘the intangible, destructive, immensely powerful international domination of capital [as a social form].[11] Modern antisemitism needs to be understood as a ‘particularly pernicious fetish form’ that ‘becomes virulent during structural, political, and cultural crisis’.[12] It ‘revolts against history as constituted by capitalism, misrecognized as a Jewish conspiracy’.[13] This is the core of Postone’s theory, which does not seem to change significantly over time. Postone’s later writings will, however, make much of two further, related claims: first, that as a revolt against capitalism, antisemitism can appear ‘antihegemonic and anti-global’ and ‘hence emancipatory’[14]; second, that the Jews are seen as opposed to all of human existence. Postone refers to ‘modern anti-Semitism’s central element—the idea of the Jews as a world historical threat to life’.[15] He observes that ‘[a]ntisemitism then, does not treat the Jews as members of a racially inferior group who should be kept in their place (violently if necessary) but as constituting an evil destructive power – an antirace opposed to humanity. Within this Manichean worldview the struggle against the Jews is a struggle for human emancipation. Freeing the world involves freeing it from the Jews. Extermination (which should not be conflated with mass murder) is a logical consequence of this Weltanschauung’.[16]

Postone’s notion of particularly modern antisemitism rests on a claim about both its historical singularity—something new breaks through in the Nazi extermination—and its historical continuity, since modern antisemitism’s ‘emergence presupposed’ and shares the distinctive features oflongue durée antisemitism.[17] The examples Postone gives of the distinctive ‘degree of power attributed to the Jews’ are worth closer attention. He lists: ‘to kill God, unleash the Bubonic Plague, and, more recently, introduce capitalism and socialism’.[18] One of these things is not like the others. In the first two the Jews do not simply possess a particular kind of power but use it to kill, first the Christian divinity, then the Christian community. ‘Introducing’ capitalism and socialism is not of the same order unless it too is perceived as a mortal threat to some form of life.

In other words, I think Postone under-interprets his historical examples. Their common features become more conspicuous if you consider the list’s most surprising omission: the blood libel. The blood libel refers to the fantasy, originating in Western Europe in the thirteenth century, that Jews murdered Christian children and used their blood to make unleavened bread for Passover. The historian Gavin Langmuir argues that by virtue of itshostile attribution to Jews of unreal characteristics and actions that no one has ever observed, the blood libel marks the historical origin of antisemitism proper, as opposed to anti-Jewish prejudice.[19] In the fantasy of the blood libel, the Jews, perhaps unusually, do not necessarily possess any more power than anyone else, but use what capacities they do have to carry out acts that reveal a dedication to inhuman laws, rituals, and practices that present a mortal threat to the security and reproduction of the Christian community. This makes clearer what Postone’s other examples oflongue durée antisemitism already show: that antisemitism is not just a theory of how much power the Jews have, but always also a theory of what the Jewsdo, what those actions reveal about who they are, and why action must be taken against them.

Let’s also note, in passing, that the form this threat takes is not arbitrary, but bears a significant relationship to both Jewish and Christian religious practice. As Langmuir points out, the blood libel transforms the rituals of Passover into an inverted form of the Eucharist. It develops, he says, at precisely the moment the Christian Church in Western Europe is debating the ontological status of the Eucharist: are Christians consuming the real body and blood of Christ? The blood libel, for Langmuir, displaces and resolves these questions for the source community, by imagining that even the Jews, who officially do not recognise Christ’s resurrection, show through their actions that they ultimately believe in it. It takes something real—the Passover Seder—and uses it as a surface on which a fantasy solution to problems and anxieties specific to the Christian community’s own, related practice can be made ‘visible’.

Postone uses these distinctive features to shear antisemitism off from racism. To be sure, Postone is sometimes ambiguous on the relationship between the two. In the early essays he distinguishes the kind of power attributed to the Jews from that of ‘other forms of racism’, suggesting antisemitism too is a form of racism. In 2003 he acknowledges that ‘racist and biologistic thinking’ ‘obviously was a very important dimension of antisemitism’, even as he immediately qualifies that ‘it alone also cannot account for the possibility of a program of total extermination’.[20] Yet precisely because such thinking cannot account for that possibility, modern antisemitism is ultimately categorically distinguished from what Postone calls ‘racism in general’ which he thinks always focuses on the concrete, physical, sexual properties of the other.[21]  It’s an oddly unhistorical and undialectical claim. Modern antisemitism can’t adequately be understood if it is categorically distinguished from racism. It’s not just that the distinction requires us to bracket the Nazi preoccupation with ‘racial science’ and the modern antisemitic obsession with Jewish bodies and sexuality. Most importantly, racist, biologistic thinking and classification are how Jews and others were identified as subject to separation, exclusion, dehumanisation, and elimination. In bracketing the question of racism, Postone has no way to explain how modern antisemites defined who was—and thus who would die as—a Jew.

The distinction between antisemitism and racism also takes no account of the range of projections and fantasies that racists have had about other peoples. The settler colonial fantasy of the Yellow Peril, even if it does not posit a conspiracy pulling the strings of world history, nevertheless imagines the Chinese to represent tremendous invisible power and danger. Iyko Day, drawing on Postone, observes that the ‘attributes of “abstractness, intangibility, universality, [and] mobility” that are associated with Jews are striking in their resonance with characteristic forms of Asian racialization in North America’.[22] Anti-Black racism may have sought to reduce Black people to their bodies, but it has also long interpreted those bodies as indices of a psyche, a culture, and a relationship to the world, as as J. Lorand Matory’s reflections on the historical origins of the concept of thefetish reveal. Postone teaches us to be critical of simplistic oppositions of the abstract and concrete, but there are moments when he seems unwittingly to reproduce them himself.

Too categorical a distinction between antisemitism and racism also makes it much harder to grasp how integrally modern antisemitism is related to other forms of modern racism. Proponents of the right-wing variant of modern antisemitism believe the Jews to use their power to bring about the destruction of white European races through cultural and sexual mixing. National Socialists in the interwar period claimed that the presence of Black soldiers, African art, and American jazz were all part of a Jewish program of what is often delicately translated as the ‘negroidisation’ of German culture. Contemporary antisemites appeal to the myth of the ‘Great Replacement’: in the US context Robert Bowers’ mass murder at the Tree of Life synagogue as a response to the HIAS support of Muslim immigration, and the Charlottesville white supremacists’ chant of ‘Jews will not replace us’ as they sought to keep standing statues commemorating the Confederacy’s defence of slavery are the best-known examples.

Postone believes that the modern antisemitic ‘struggle’ is in the name of ‘human emancipation’. But reactionary antisemites, both modern and contemporary, regard leftist projects of emancipating all of humanity aspart of the danger represented by the Jews. National Socialists sought the emancipation ofspecific peoples—the race, the nation, theVolk—from Jewish domination, in order to be freethemselves to dominate, colonise, and exploit others—principally Slavic peoples.[23] Contemporary right-wing antisemites do not anticipate a war of all against the Jews that will result in the emancipation of humanity, but a war of peoples, civilisations, races. Emancipation is not the goal for these modern antisemites; it’s a step to regain or maintain domination. The place of the concept of emancipation in the antisemitic imaginary needs to be thought relationally; we need to know who is to be emancipated and who isn’t, as well as what those who are emancipated will be freed to do and to whom.

Ironically, there are other contexts in which Postone himself poses just these questions. Consider his reflections on how to evaluate the use of political violence by anti-colonial social movements, where he proposes

a fundamental difference between movements that do not target civilians randomly (such as the Viet Minh and Viet Cong and the ANC) and those that do (such as the IRA, al-Qaeda, and Hamas). This difference is […] profoundly political; a relation exists between the form of violence and the form of politics. […][T]he sort of future society and polity implicitly expressed by the political praxis of militant social movements that distinguish military from civilian targets differs from that implied by the praxis of movements that make no such distinction. The latter tend to be concerned with identity. In the broadest sense they are radically nationalist, operating on the basis of a friend/foe distinction that essentializes a civilian population as the enemy and closes off the possibility of future coexistence.[24]

Postone’s account of the IRA, al-Qaeda, and Hamas is, needless to say, congruent with the actions of National Socialism. Postone might have responded that the homology between National Socialism and identitarian anti-colonial social movements is precisely his point; mine is that such a homology refutes the idea that modern antisemitism strives for human emancipation.


The deeper reason Postone overlooks in his theory of antisemitism political structures he sees clearly in other contexts resides in his use of the concept of fetishism. Postone sees modern antisemitism as a worldview with a political, agentive interpretation of what are, properly understood, abstract historical processes: it mistakes structure for agency, economics for politics. These are, for Postone, cognitive errors produced by the way capitalism ‘appears’. He thus removes modern antisemitism from the realm of politics and locates it in the realm of perception. But his conception of the antisemite’s fetishism is idiosyncratic. Where Marx’s conception of fetishism is dialectical (social relations between things, thingly relations between people). Postone’s, in contrast, is dualistic, its basic premise, apparently building on Marx’s analysis of the relative and equivalent forms of value, externalization. Moreover, for Postone, fetishism is fundamentally a matter of perception and belief, and, most importantly, a perception ofwhat is and is not capitalist. It through an account of how capitalism presents itself as capitalism that Postone wants to explain the structure of antisemitic misrecognition.

On the face of it, Postone offers a compelling observation that’s perfectly in keeping with the concept of fetishism: the antisemite ascribes to the Jew quasi-magical powers that are in fact socially produced. Etienne Balibar parses Marxian fetishism as not a false perception, but rather the way in which reality cannot but appear.[25] When Postone interprets Marx, he also construes fetishism in terms of appearance. In Time, Labor, and Social Domination he sees fetishism where social relations in capitalism appear ‘objective’ and ‘transhistorical’,[26] where social actors are ‘bound to the mystified forms of appearance of capitalism’s essence’.[27] But if for Marx, fetishism requires the invisibility of labour, for Postone it means making too much of it, failing to understand its historicity: ‘The appearance of labor’s mediational character in capitalism as physiological labor is the fundamental core of the fetish of capitalism’: ‘because the underlying relations of capitalism are mediated by labor, hence are objectified, they appear not to be historically specific and social but transhistorically valid and ontologically grounded forms’.[28]

In order to explain how Jews are seen to personify capitalism, Postone appeals to ‘the way in which capitalist social relations present themselves’.[29] Heposits that the ‘dialectical tension of value and use value in the commodity’ must be ‘materially externalized in the value form, where it appears "doubled" as money (the manifest form of value) and the commodity (the manifest form of use-value).’[30] For Postone, then, fetishism does not arise from commodities possessing both use value and value, but rather from a structural disavowal of that fact, which in turn requires an externalization of the disavowed element: ‘The effect of this externalization is that the commodity, although it is a social form expressing both value and use-value, appears to contain only the latter, i.e., appears as purely material and "thingly"; money, on the other hand, then appears to be the sole repository of value, i.e., as the manifestation of the purely abstract, rather than as the externalized manifest form of the value dimension of the commodity itself.’[31] Thus Postone holds that commodity fetishism producesa dualistic conception of capitalism instead of a properly dialectical one, so that ‘capitalist social relations do not appear as such and, moreover, present themselves antinomically, as the opposition of the abstract and concrete’.[32] ‘And, moreover’: the claim about antinomic presentation is crucial. Postone will even refer to an ‘antinomic fetish’.[33] This presentation leads to a fundamental misrecognition of capitalism, seeing only the abstract dimension as capitalist and producing forms of anti-capitalism that ‘tend to perceive capitalism, and that which is specific to that social formation, only in terms of the manifestations of the abstract dimension of the antinomy. The existent concrete dimension is then positively opposed to it as the “natural” or ontologically human, which stands outside of the specificity of capitalist society’.[34]

This splitting, disavowal, and externalization strike me as resembling nothing so much as psychic projection. While hardly qualitatively specific to it, such projection is a fundamental operation of the antisemitic imaginary. That does not mean that it cannot also govern the logic of how things appear under capitalism, but it does suggest that the analogy Postone discovers between the commodity fetish and the distinctive powers the antisemite attributes to the Jews are significantly prepared by his revision of Marx. This may also help us grasp how Postone comes to mediate the psychoanalytic and the historico-epistemological levels of explanation in subsequent moments of his argument.

Postone appears to hold that just as the commodity is a use value that must have a corresponding externalised material manifestation of its exchange value (money), so too must every apparent concrete use value have its corresponding externalization, and that the Jews are one such externalization, or perhaps the limit case thereof. That may sound strange, but how else to read the following, from his 1986 essay ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism’?

Certain forms of anti-capitalist discontent became directed against the manifest abstract dimension of capital personified in the form of the Jews, not because the Jews were consciously identified with the value dimension, but because, given the antinomy of the abstract and concrete dimensions, capitalism appeared that way. … The overcoming of capitalism and its negative social effects became associated with the overcoming of the Jews.[35]

This complex formulation is crucial to Postone’s theory. It is both a claim about how capitalism appears andwhat appears to be capitalism. Postone seems to be claiming that capitalism presented itself in such a way that itactually appeared to be personified by the Jews, even if it did so at some level other than that of conscious awareness. I think Postone eventually recognised how strange a claim this was, how much it seemed to justify the antisemitic worldview (we can’t help it, that’s how the world looks!) and therefore modified it accordingly. Thus in his 2003 ‘The Holocaust and the Trajectory of the Twentieth Century’ he retains the opening assertion about the Jews personifying the manifest abstract dimension of capitalism, but says anti-capitalist discontent was directed against the Jews ‘not because the Jews were consciously identified with the value dimension, but because, given the antinomy of the abstract and concrete dimensions, capitalism appeared only in its abstract guise, which was identified with the Jews.’[36] Capitalism appears personified in the form of the Jews becomes capitalism appears as its abstract dimension, which was identified with (presumably still not consciously) the Jews. Crucially, the antisemitic element is no longer intrinsically connected to how capitalism appears. The identification of the Jews with the abstract dimension of capitalism is not now a matter of how capitalism appears, but of whatever operations produce that identification. This is more plausible—and concedes far less to the antisemitic worldview—but it does so at a cost, since the revised formulation no longer claims to directly explain in terms of fetishism how the Jews come to personify capitalism.

This explanatory gap draws attention to a perhaps more obvious lacuna in Postone’s account. Postone wants to say that the antisemite too is fooled by appearances, seeing labour as useful, concrete, and thingly, while seeing money, finance, and interest as abstract. But his theory also rests on the premise that the power attributed to the Jews isinvisible: mobile, and abstract, never appearing directly. So while modern antisemitism might rest on a fetishised misrecognition of capitalist relations, on Postone’s own account the antisemite cannot simply be someone who mistakes appearance for reality; they must be someone whobelieves—like Postone’s Marxian social theorist—that how things appear is not how things really are, and who therefore seeks atheory that answers the question of what or who is behind the incomprehensible web of dynamic forces that transform and upend their lives. The identification of the abstract dimension of capitalism with the Jew might be something thatemerges from a kind of fetishism of the concrete and tangible, but even for Postoneit cannot ultimately be fetishism as such, cannot be the result of how things cannot but appear, since the antisemitic theory always requires a further interpretive step that some make and others do not. There are antisemites, but not everyone is an antisemite. There’s nothing socially necessary about theidentification of a particular group of people with particular features of capitalist economic relations. Indeed, though I won’t pursue the thought here, Postone’s appeal to the history that modern antisemitism ‘builds on’ implicitly concedes that there is also no modern antisemitism without the production, circulation, and reception of ideas, rumours, and theories that predate and can’t be explained solely by those relations—the realm that Ernst Bloch, among others, insisted was decisive also for the understanding of fascism. We might also recall that when Postone first proposed his theory, it was presented as an effort ‘to elucidate a historical-epistemological frame of reference within which further psychological specifications can take place’.[37] The concept of personification might mark the place where the historical-epistemological frame of reference begins to require such specifications.

The enemy embodies our own question. Carl Schmitt put this phrase to work in his own way, and we can use in ours. Every critical theory of antisemitism is a theory of the enemy, where your own question concerns what you think most contributes to the catastrophes of modernity in general and the Nazi Judeocide in particular.[38] For Zygmunt Bauman, theorist of liquid modernity, the antisemite could not bear what didn't fit into established categories. Theodor Adorno’s antisemite projected and could neither recognise nor reflect on the fact that he was projecting. These are theories in which antisemites are enemies who act where they should reflect, react when they should think.[39]

For Postone, the antisemite is not the one who does not think, but the one who thinks too much, from false premises and in an erroneous direction. We might say that Postone’s antisemite is a bad social theorist, someone with the wrong account of the right thing. This is Postone’s variation on the notion of antisemitism as the socialism of fools. Yes, capitalism is the problem, but you need to know what capitalism is—and according to Postone, because of how it appears to you, you probably don’t. The real danger, for him, is to think that you’re on the side of the oppressed, that there is a class to be emancipated and a class to emancipate them from—a distraction, for him, from doing away with an entire system of social relations. For Postone, the enemy is the one who thinks there’s an enemy; the one who thinks solving the problem of capitalism’s domination of life on this planet is a matter of distinguishing friend from foe, knowingwho the oppressed and the oppressors are. His frequent references to the Manicheanism of the antisemitic imagination should be understood in this context. In part that’s because he thinks capitalism is a matter of abstract structures of domination that weall need to be liberated from, and in part that’s because he, like many thinkers associated withWertkritik and the New Marx Reading, thinks that under capitalism, if you are someone who thinks there’s an enemy, a personification of capitalism’s evils, that enemy will inevitably and unavoidably tend to be the Jews. Antisemitism thus, for these writers, warrants special political and interpretive attention that other racisms without such profound relations to capitalism do not.

Neo-Anti-Imperialism: The Second Analogy

Those who hold that contemporary capitalism inevitably produces antisemitism also cast a suspicious eye on any anti-capitalism that does not recognise capitalism as abstract domination and instead identifies it as the work of specific political actors. They see such arguments as inevitably lapsing into antisemitism, either directly or structurally. But they also invite or risk a very particular kind of argumentative slippage: if modern antisemitism is fetishised anti-capitalism, will all arguments that come to be identified as fetishised anti-capitalism be read as structurally antisemitic?

These questions go to the heart of what Postone believes his theory of antisemitism provides: not just an explanation of the distinctiveness of what broke through in the Nazi extermination of Europe’s Jews but also a counter-intuitive account of where this form of fetishised anti-capitalism can be found today. In all of his essays on antisemitism Postone claims that the inheritor of this fetishised worldview is, ironically, the anti-imperialism of the left. Left and right critiques of hegemony reveal, he says, ‘similar fetishized understandings of the world’.[40]‘At the heart of this neo-anti-imperialism is a fetishistic understanding of global development—that is, a concretistic understanding of abstract historical processes in political and agentive terms. The abstract and dynamic domination of capital has become fetishized on the global level as that of the United States, or, in some variants, as that of the United States and Israel. […] in many respects, this worldview recapitulates one of a century ago in which the subject positions of the United States and Israel were occupied by Britain and the Jews’.[41] Postone often remarks that if antisemitism was for August Bebel the socialism of fools, ‘[g]iven its subsequent development, it could also have been called the anti-imperialism of fools’[42]: ‘with the fading of a conceptual horizon of possible fundamental transformation the concretistic anti-imperialism of the New Left (fused with a concretistic form of antiglobalisation) began increasingly to recapitulate earlier antisemitic motifs’.[43] Contemporary anti-Zionism (which Postone reads as anti-imperialist) represents ‘a classically antisemitic version of anti- Zionism, of Israel and the Jews as constituting a powerful global demonic power’. [44] These motifs are symptoms of the left’s impoverished political imagination: ‘Emancipation no longer is imagined as the constitution of a new form of social life but in terms of the eradication of the sources of global evil – “Zionism” and the United States’.[45]

Postone’s claim that emancipation is only imagined as the destruction of the US and Zionism offers an astonishingly reductive view of the political imagination and motivations of the contemporary left. But of more interest than his sweeping generalisations are Postone’s substantive theoretical claims. If earlier I claimed that Postone’s theory of antisemitism rests on a crucial analogy, now we see it rests on two crucial analogies: first, the properties attributed to the Jews by modern antisemitism are the same as the properties of the abstract dimension of the value form; second, the kind of fetishised anti-capitalism that Postone sees as essential to National Socialism’s modern antisemitism can also be found on the ‘neo-anti-imperialist left’.

Are they really, even for Postone, the same kinds of fetishism? Are they really the same kinds of anti-capitalism? One sign that they are not is the basic methodological question Postone’s second analogy raises: how can he move from such a specific claim about the distinctive, even unique features of antisemitism to a comparison with such qualitatively different phenomena? In his second analogy there is nothing close to the specific account of the form of power Jews are imagined to wield. Nor could there be: whereas the power attributed to the Jews is, by Postone’s own definition, invisible, mysterious, and requiring a material carrier, nation states like the US, Britain, Israel, exercise hard and soft power visibly and directly, generally by means that are explicitly identified as their own, be they military, political, economic, or cultural. The second analogy omits the fundamentaltertium comparationis of the first. This is not to deny that the US and Israelare sometimes imagined to exert their power in precisely the way that the antisemite imagines the Jews to exert theirs, most notably when the Mossad is held to be responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001. But such theories are, unsurprisingly, not just structurally but often substantively antisemitic: those who subscribe to this theory also believe that no Jews showed up for work at the World Trade Centre that day. In any event, such conspiracies theories do not seem to be what Postone has in mind. His concern is, rather, with the rhetoric and ideology, sympathies and antipathies of leftist social movements writ large, their psychoanalytic roots and their geopolitical implications.

By necessity, then, Postone takes a different path with this iteration of his theory than with modern antisemitism proper. As with modern antisemitism, he says fetishistic anti-capitalist critics of these nation states are in the thrall of a kind of Manicheanism or metaphysical demonization: the fantasy that there is one source of all the world’s problems and that the path to emancipation lies in eliminating it. Postone is particularly preoccupied by the perception of one nation state or ideology as the sole political actor on the world stage (‘[w]ithin this schema, there is only one actor in the world: the United States’[46]), to whose actions all other nations and other social groups can only react. This, he thinks, is the source of left apologism for identitarian anti-colonial social movements; his criteria for the evaluation of the use of political violence, which I discussed earlier, emerge in response to it. Also intrinsically connected to the Manichean vision of fetishised anti-capitalism is what he sees as an excessive affective investment in the conflicts in which that nation is involved. The connection to any Marxian notion of fetishism is, at this point in his argument, quite tenuous; it’s perhaps not an accident that Postone tends to address this investment in psychoanalytic terms.

While Postone wants to show that anti-imperialist criticism of the US and Israel ‘ironically recapitulates’[47] the ideology of a previous century ‘in which the subject positions occupied today by the United States and Israel in some forms of “antiglobalization” were occupied by Britain and the Jews,’ ultimately he cannot want toconflate such criticism with antisemitism, cannot help but distinguish between criticism of nation states and antisemitic fantasies about the Jews. This distinction seems to be registered in his remark on—what else?—’the conflation of British and, then, American hegemony with that of global capital, as well as the personification of the latter as the Jews’.[48] Note the terminological shift: not every conflation is a personification, let alone proof of antisemitism. This makes sense. If Postone had claimed that there was no difference between what’s directed at the US and Israel by anti-imperialists and what’s directed at the Jews by antisemites, how could he have explained the coexistence of different fetishised anti-capitalisms? There can only be so many sole political actors on the world stage at once, only so many single sources of global evil. Here it’s salient to recall that Postone’s theory was developed in a period when explicit antisemitism seemed a marginal, historically residual phenomenon. There is less reason to seek out coded expressions of structural antisemitism when the thing itself is on display for all to see.

Postone’s writing about this second analogy wrestles with how to think the relationship between structure and agency. On the one hand, he observes that capitalist social relations lead to domination by systems without agents, and yet many people search for agents to hold responsible, sometimes blaming the Jews or powerful nation states, for the consequences of the abstract historical processes. On the other hand, precisely because they are so aware of relations of domination, many on the left do not want to hold those they see as dominated responsible for their actions, preferring to see them as conditioned, even determined by those relations of domination, reacting rather than acting. Postone wants to correct both tendencies. As a result, his work can mirror the errors that concern him: he urges us not to blame the US or Israel for what capitalism does to all of us, but also not to blame imperialism when anti-colonialist groups commit acts of political violence, thus seeming to replace one apologetic ideology with another. Indeed, these kinds of arguments can make his work attractive to those who wish to condemn any criticism of the US and Israel as inevitably antisemitic and any contextual explanation of the actions of militant anti-colonial organisations as exculpatory. Yet while Postone draws parallels between the modern antisemitism of National Socialism and the neo-anti-imperialism of the left in some limited and sometimes flawed ways, he is nevertheless far more historically and conceptually nuanced in his critique of anti-imperialism, and far less inclined to be recruited for the defence of particular nation states, than those who cite him as an authority—particularly those writers affiliated with the ‘anti-German’ school—might lead one to believe.[49]

Postone’s extension of the claim about fetishised anti-capitalism from the Jews to nation states and nationalist ideologies has been taken to suggest that there is something antisemitic about any criticism of these nation states, his criticism of certain strands of anti-imperialist thought and action as a dismissal of anti-imperialist thought as such. But Postone rejects both views. His main criticism of the left was that by uncritically supporting anti-colonial movements and taking anti-imperialist positions it unwittingly became the dupe of what he didn’t hesitate to call imperialist rivalries. To be the duped in this way meant, for him, to fail to recognize when opposing the actions of one imperial nation drew you into the trap of uncritically supporting the interests of another. From Postone’s perspective the second Gulf War was an attempt to obstruct European and Chinese interests in the region, which made him wary of anti-war protests.[50] But it should also be clear that he would have had no truck with a dismissiveness of the very notion of imperialism that fell into this same uncritical trap. What do you gain by replacing the US or Israel with Iran as the sole source of global evil?[51] His despair about the direction of the left needs, in the final analysis, to be read as an expression of his persistent hope for a revival of a critical internationalism and leftist universalism that would overcome the dualisms of concrete and abstract, particular and universal.[52]

Put simply, Postone does not reject all criticism of the US and Israel as fetishised; instead, he rejects specifically fetishised criticism. In the same essays in which he denounces the collapse of the leftist political imagination into demonization, he nevertheless makes it clear that he thinks it is completely legitimate, even necessary, to criticise nation states forwhat they actually do. In his 2006 ‘History and Helplessness’ he no sooner notes the conflation of‘[t]he abstract and dynamic domination of capital’ with that of the US than he observes that ‘It goes without saying that the disastrous, imperial, and imperious character of the Bush administration has helped mightily in this conflation’.[53] In his 2017 ‘The Dualisms of Capitalist Modernity’ Postone does not object to ‘support for the Palestinian struggle for self- determination and criticisms of Israeli policies and institutions’ and remarks that ‘Israeli policies and actions can certainly account for very strong anti-Israel sentiments’. In the same essay he distinguishes ‘a reified conflation of the abstract and dynamic domination of global capital with the United States – or at times the United States and Israel’ from ‘a fundamental critique of American (or Israeli) policies and actions’.[54]

Postone insists on the importance of the distinction between the policies and actions of a global capitalist power and the abstract and dynamic domination of global capitalism itself. The problem is that he says little about just how to make that distinction. What do we do and say when the abstract and dynamic domination of global capital and the interests of particular nation states coincide? It is not an accident that Postone’s fetishistic anti-capitalists conflated Britain with capitalism a century ago, but eventually shifted their attention to the US. One of the purposes of the concepts of imperialism and colonialism is to allow us to describe, theorise, and parse the economic, political, cultural, and psychic effects of this coincidence.

Here it’s important to observe that Postone did not reject anti-imperialist and anti-colonial thought as such. If, as he says, antisemitism is the anti-imperialism of fools, then he must think there are other kinds of anti-imperialism, for those of us who do not want to be fools. Postone calls the Bush administration ‘imperialist’ and doesn't pause to qualify his use of the term. Rather than arguing, as Werner Bonefeld and others have, that the dialectically necessary corollary of anti-imperialism is support for national liberation movements, regardless of their politics, Postone historicises anti-imperialist thought, mourning what he sees as its contraction from an initial emancipatory universalist orientation into a narrower, identitarian concern with ‘resistance’ that he sees emerging in the wake of the collapse of the Fordist synthesis in the early 1970s.[55] None of this is to deny Postone’s often bilious critique of neo-anti-imperialism; it is, however, to suggest that he did not respond to what he saw as neo-anti-imperialism’s reifying and fetishised tendencies by reifying and fetishising anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism in turn.

Communism and Latent Anti-Capitalism

Postone’s argument about neo-anti-imperialism relies on anti-imperialism’s manifest anti-capitalism: the anti-imperialist opposes what is arguably a stage, expression, or instrument of capitalism itself. But to provide the kind of explanation he seeks, Postone’s argument about the paradigmatic case of modern antisemitism, the Nazi extermination of Europe’s Jews, rests on modern antisemitism’slatent anti-capitalism. These arguments operate at different explanatory levels. The appeal to latent anti-capitalism—the fetishistic anti-capitalist’s unconscious response to history as constituted by capitalism—is how Postone circumvents the distinctively political attributes of the modern antisemitic imaginary. If he’d given a more complex and mediated account, on his own terms, of the role that political, rather than economic, abstraction played in the antisemitic imaginary, particularly itsanti-communism, he would have been compelled to rethink his theory of how the modern antisemitic imaginary manifests itself in the present.

Postone asserts that one of the key distinguishing features of his theory of antisemitism, what distinguishes it from the work of predecessors such as Max Horkheimer, is that it explains how Jews could be held responsible for both capitalismand communism: ‘The problem with theories […]  which concentrate on the identification of the Jews with money and the sphere of circulation, is that they cannot account for the notion that the Jews constitute the power behind social democracy and communism’.[56] Postone observes, as we saw, that the Jews are believed to orchestrate ‘the range of social restructuring and dislocation resulting from rapid industrializationwith all its social ramifications’ including ‘the emergence of a large, increasingly organized proletariat’.[57] But his theoretical claim is that the Jews personify or are otherwise somehow identified with the abstract dimension of capitalism (money, banks, finance, circulation), misrecognised as capitalism as such. Or perhaps not. Here too Postone equivocates: ‘Capital itself—or what is understood as the negative aspect of capitalism—is understood only in terms of the manifest form of its abstract dimension: finance and interest capital’[58]. Capital itself, or just what is understood as the negative aspect? If just the negative aspect, in what sense are we still talking about anti-capitalism? Either way, modern antisemitism becomes fetishised anti-capitalism, with no reference to communism, let alone the phantasm of Judeo-Bolshevism. On the one hand, then, Postone says that modern antisemitism is an anti-capitalism that only understands half of what capitalism is. On the other hand, he says it is an anti-capitalism that includes both capitalismand its social, historical, and political consequences, ‘history as constituted by capitalism’,including the revolutionary effort to overthrow capitalism itself. How do ‘history as constituted by capitalism’ and ‘the social consequences of capitalism’, presumably including communism, come to be understood as identical with capitalism itself? The risk of conceptual conflation and confusion is all too apparent. It is as if the antisemite is both abad social theorist whose beliefs and actions express a fetishised misrecognition of capitalismand anexcellent social theorist, able—if this is what Postone has in mind—unconsciously to trace the political abstraction upon which communist revolution is predicated back to the abstract logic of exchange, even as he misrecognises that source as a Jewish conspiracy.

The Jews come to personify the abstract dimension of capitalist social relations, which is held to be the ultimate source of all abstraction in the modern world, including those forms of political abstraction that are trying to overcome capitalist social relations. This profound ambiguity in the theory makes it hard to decide what, if anything, would count as evidence against it. Postone draws attention to the manifest content of modern antisemitism, with a Nazi poster of Germany‘represented as a strong, honest worker—threatened in the West by a fat, plutocratic John Bull and in the East by a brutal, barbaric Bolshevik Commissar’, both of whom are puppets, with the strings held by ‘“the Jew”’, holding an emblematic place in his thought,[59] but also appears to want us to see its latent content as confirming the theory insofar as anti-communist rhetoric and action can be regarded as in some sense the product of capitalist abstraction. Or so I assume: Postone never spells out why antisemites hold the Jews responsible for both capitalism and communism. A theory in which modern antisemitism is presented as a form of anti-capitalism in which capitalism includes communism but excludes labour, commodities, factories, and technology needs to offer more of an explanation.

That Postone himself does not do so is especially frustrating given the centrality of National Socialism to his theory, his claim to have explained the ‘intrinsic connection’ between National Socialism and modern antisemitism.[60] (Here we might ask ourselves why Postone does not simply speak in the plural, of modern antisemitisms? Could it not be the case that the manifestations of antisemitism one finds on the left and the right have significantly different structures and emerge from different forms of anti-capitalism?) Focusing on the distinguishing features of modern antisemitism precisely in order to explain the historical singularity of the Nazi extermination demands reckoning far more directly with anti-Marxism and anti-communism. Simply put, Nazism was far more consistently and systematically anti-communist than anti-capitalist in ideology and action. The intellectual historian Ishay Landa, offering his own response to Postone, documents how rife Hitler’sMein Kampf is with references to Marxism, how few the references to capital and international finance. Landa reminds us that there was no Nazi program for the elimination of finance or ‘parasitic’ capital, just their appropriation, and that Nazi economist Gottfried Feder, whose distinction between creative and parasitic capitalism is frequently cited as proof of Nazism’s fetishised anti-capitalism, had been marginalised by the party by the mid 1930s.[61] Indeed, one might wonder why someone who distinguishes between good and bad forms of capitalism is considered anti-capitalist at all if the creative capitalists he praises are, even on his own terms, still capitalists. As we’ve seen, Postone builds this ambiguity into his theory without discussing its implications.

On the other hand, Landa notes, Marxism represented much that the Nazis actively opposed: emancipation and equality, revolt and revolution, the undoing of hierarchies, abolition of national borders, and dismantling of regimes of accumulation. Enzo Traverso offers a telling example in this context. In The Origins of Nazi Violence, he observes that the ‘contamination of political propaganda [about ‘Jewish Bolshevism’] by medical and epidemiological language was matched by a massive adoption of political metaphors on the part of scientists’ who called cancerous cells ‘anarchists’, ‘Bolsheviks’, and ‘breeding grounds of chaos and revolt’.[62] Despite the economic crisis of the early 1920s, there was no comparable adoption of financial metaphors, no Nazi obsession with cancer spreading and weakening the human body in the way rampant hyperinflation had weakened the German body politic. The line from ideology to action is correspondingly far more direct in the National Socialists’ anti-communism than in their ostensible anti-capitalism. It was communists and Soviet commissars, not bankers, who were sent to the camps along with Jews, Roma and Sinti, and homosexuals; Soviet soldiers, not those of the US and Britain, who, like Jews and Poles, were shot en masse without regard for international rules of war.[63]

To be sure, Postone acknowledged in his 1980 essay that National Socialism‘was virulently anti-Marxist and that the Nazis destroyed the organizations of the German working class’.[64] Yet he remained committed to seeing National Socialism as fetishising and glorifying labour. National Socialism and ‘traditional Marxism’ had, he thought, at least that much in common. This apparent affinity, however, obscures more than it reveals. Right-wing fetishisations of the worker need to be understood as propagandistic efforts to contain the revolutionary potential of the emancipation of labour. G. M. Tamás argues that interwar European fascism has to be grasped as a project to destroy the workers’ movement and prevent the rise of socialism in Europe, a project that was, he observes, completely successful.[65] Jordy Rosenberg recalls Ernst Bloch’s reading of fascism as absorbing and mimicking ‘the “libidinal surplus” of revolutionary communism’.[66] Postone might have parsed, rather than conflated, the distinct roles that ideas of labour and the worker played in the communist and fascist imaginaries and realities. But doing so might in turn have undermined his efforts to align modern antisemitism with his chief theoretical enemy, namely, the post-1967 anti-imperialist left.

We might, then, ask if Postone has things back to front, if the modern antisemite does not oppose communism as an abstract, levelling product of the abstract dimension of capitalism, but opposes capitalism only insofar as it produces undesirable political effects. National Socialists did not genuinely wish to abolish realms of economic life they saw as dominated by the Jews in order to emancipate humanity from them; they wished to control them themselves. The right-wing antisemite’s obsession is not with the abstract dimension of value misrecognised as all of capitalism, but with whatever social forces—be it money or an organised proletariat—threatens to undermine the sovereignty and integrity of the political entity with which he identifies: be it his nation, his race, Europe, or Christendom. He is not an anti-communist because he’s ‘really’ an anti-capitalist. He’s really, and far more decidedly, an anti-communist. Contemporary antisemites obsess over George Soros not just because he is a billionaire but because he uses his wealth to promote particular political goals. There are, after all, billionaires that antisemites admire, whose money they have no compunction about accepting in the furtherance of their aims. It was not concrete use value that the Nazis were after when they extracted gold from the corpses of Jews.[67]

The Nazi variant of modern antisemitism saw the Jews as the power behind both communism and capitalism. I have speculated that Postone might be taken to imply that the antisemite unconsciously understands the political abstraction of communism to emerge from the abstract dimensions of the value form, that this is what it means for the antisemite to hold the Jews responsible for ‘history as constituted by capitalism’. Here we must acknowledge that Postone does in fact see political abstraction as a ‘fatal’ addition to the association of Jews with economic abstraction—a necessary supplement for the Nazi extermination to take place. Yet despite the importance of anti-communism to the Nazi antisemitic imaginary he does not take the path we might have expected him to. It is here that we see most clearly the gap between the direction Postone takes his theory and where I think his own framing of the problem of antisemitism ought to have led him. Focusing on the contradictions he sees as distinctive of the European nation state, Postone construes that political abstraction solely in terms, once again, of the ‘double character’ of the commodity form, the externalised opposition between the abstract and the concrete that he sees reproduced in the divisions between state and civil society, citizen and person, equality before the law and concrete belonging (although Postone does not use the word belonging). Postone’s account is, I think, too dependent on a rather unmediated application of that opposition to the political realm. Most importantly, it leaves out too much of what qualitatively distinguishes the antisemitic image of Jewish political subjectivity, positing Jewish abstraction as the absence of shared, purportedly concrete attributes rather than as itself a concrete characteristic, a substantive relationship to a specific form of abstraction.

For Postone, the tension between abstract and concrete in the political sphere meant that (only?) in Europe:

the notion of the nation as a purely political entity, abstracted from the substantiality of civil society, was never fully realized. The nation was not only a political entity, it was also concrete, determined by a common language, history, traditions and religion. In this sense, 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 German or French citizens, but not really Germans or Frenchmen. They were of the nation abstractly, butrarely concretely. They were, in addition, citizens of most European countries. Thequality of abstractness,characteristic not only of the value dimension in its immediacy, but also, mediately, of the bourgeois state and law, became closely identified with the Jews. In a period when the concrete became glorified against the abstract, against "capitalism" and the bourgeois state,this became a fatal association. The Jews were rootless, international and abstract. (My emphases)[68]

Postone undoubtedly captures an important element of how Jews were seen in early twentieth-century Europe. One thinks, in particular, of the identification of Jews with the Weimar Republic. Nevertheless, however much Postone might have remained attached to this passage, which appears in his 1980 essay ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism’ and completely unchanged in ‘The Holocaust and the Trajectory of the Twentieth Century’ from 2003, it is a strange argument. The kind of political abstraction he describes is purely formal, a matter of lack of concrete properties; beyond the invocation of a familiar stereotype about the Jews there’s no explanation of how such abstraction, in conjunction with the value dimension, represents the sort of danger that would make it a ‘fatal association’. Postone also does not acknowledge that what’s presented as national concreteness is a myth, sincemodern European national identities, not least those of Germany and France, did not rest on real concrete commonalities but were established by paving over sharp regional differences of language, history, tradition, and religion, so that the figure of the Jew might have been a useful surface onto which to displace and project such contradictions and tensions (just as anxieties about the Eucharist had been onto the Passover).[69] Nor, conversely, does he mention that in just this context the Jews were seen as too concrete as well as too abstract: the historical Jewish Question asked if Jews were able to separate, that is,abstract themselves from their own religious, communal bonds and ritual observances in order to join the imaginary community of the nation state; nor that, in the twentieth century, those Jews whodid meet the criteria Postone lays out for concrete national personhood—those who spoke the language, celebrated the traditions, served in the military, had families that had lived in the land for generations, had even converted to Christianity—werestill not regarded by antisemites as genuine Frenchmen, Germans, and so on. The term missing from Postone’s list is once more revealing and decisive: there is no mention ofrace as a criterion for concrete national personhood. Why not?Finally, there’s no explicit articulation of how Jews were identified with communism, nor recognition that making such a connection would trouble the connection of Jews to ‘bourgeois state and law’. Even if some on the far right, then as now, saw bourgeois political institutions as merely a cover for incipient socialism and communism, making such a connection between such institutions and these political consequences of capitalism requires us to explain how an apparently formal abstraction contains something far more threatening to the survival of a particular vision of the nation state.

In this context we might also note that where Postone tends to see law as emblematic of externalised abstraction, the historian Johann Chapoutot shows that for the Nazis the Aryan/Jewish, concrete/abstract distinctions cut through the concept of law itself. Chapoutot’s analyses of Nazi legal theories confirm Postone’s sense of the importance of the abstract/concrete distinction for National Socialist antisemitism. But they also show once more than the relevant notion of abstraction is profoundly racial. Nazis believe that abstract laws were the legacy of a ‘counter-race’ who, by dint of their heterogeneous racial constitution and Eastern, Asiatic ancestry, lacked the spontaneity, autonomy, and connection to nature of the Germanic race, which, by contrast, possessed an instinctive, expressive relation to its own self-generated laws.[70] 

Communist political abstraction might emerge out of capitalism, but fetishised opposition to it as a component of an imagined international Jewish conspiracy does not constitute fetishised anti-capitalism in the same sense as opposition to the US or Israel might. Imperialism isn’t ‘history as constituted by capitalism’ in the same way as communism and social democracy are. To subordinate modern antisemitism’s anti-communism to a form of anti-capitalism ends up conflating what gives rise to the object of hostility with the object itself. Postone’s solution to the problem of how to explain the apparent paradoxes of the antisemitic imagination ultimately begs the question, restating the problem as if it were the answer.

To understand how Jews were associated with communism and how communism itself was seen as Jewish requires a different account of political abstraction.The figure of the Jewish Bolshevik does not personify the formal abstraction of the liberal citizen but the passion for abstraction of the fanatic, who, as Alberto Toscano shows, is defined by ‘an enthusiasm for the abstract’.[71] Toscano distinguishes between two European traditions of thought about the fanatic. On the one hand, the prerevolutionary Enlightenment sees the fanatic as the figure of religious irrationalism; on the other, in the wake of the French Revolution, the fanatic becomes identified with the Jacobins, with an excess of reason, a dedication to abstract ideals at the expense of human life. In the notion of the Jewish Bolshevik, we might say, the two traditions converge: the fanatic is both a figure of abstract universal reason and religious mania, of dedication both to metaphysical principles and theological prescriptions, although the former is ultimately understood as a mask for the latter.[72]

This subjectivity is not conceived simply in terms of a lack of certain concrete properties, but assubstantively constituted by a profound attachment to abstract religious and political principles that seek the destruction of the established social, political, economic, racial order. The identification of Jews with political fanaticism has a long history, one in which ideas about Jews and ideas about Muslims are deeply intertwined:James Renton, focusing on the political struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, points out that ‘Christianity’s original fanatic was the Jew’ and that the Jew, like the Muslim, was frequently characterised by irrational religious fervour, dogmatism, and subversion.[73] Conflations of Jewish and Muslim theological-political threats also informed the early modern emergence of the notion of the fanatic as popular term for a single-minded revolutionary theological politics that deployed violence as a preferred political weapon. Gil Hochberg reminds us of ‘nineteenth-century European depictions of Semites – both Jews and Muslims… as devoted monotheistic fanatics controlled by zeal and despotism, and as victims to a submissive mentality that prevents them from acquiring modern rational skills that […] only belong to their Western counterparts, the European Christians, or […] “Aryans.”[74]

The myth of Judeo-Bolshevism emerges from this history. Paul Hanebrink traces it to three ‘pillars of anti-Jewish thought’: the association of Jews and Judaism with heresy, misrule, and social disharmony; longstanding beliefs in an international Jewish conspiracy; and much older fears of Jewish fanaticism.[75] Strikingly, Hanebrink refers to the blood libel as the emblematic instance of the Christian notion of Jewish fanaticism, presumably because it embodies the notion of Jewish subordination to an abstract law utterly incompatible with Christian life. Even the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, although clearly directed specifically at Jews, overlaps with the discourses of Orientalism and Semitism. Hanebrink notes that many counterrevolutionary and conservative writers concerned with Jewish Bolshevism invoked wars against the Ottoman Empire and Islam. Hitler spoke of an ‘Asiatic Jewish flood’. Nor were such ideas restricted to the right: Toscano notes that Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes both identified Bolshevism as a form of Islam.

In his account of political abstraction Postone only looks west. He focuses on the identification of Jews with Western political modernity, and overlooks the entire ideological and discursive ensemble that produces and accompanies the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, which imagined the Jews as Oriental, Asiatic, barbaric enemies of Christian European civilisation. Restricting his view in this way helps prepare the ground for the second analogy— neo-anti-imperialism as a fetishised rejection of liberal democracies in favour of identitarian ethnonationalisms. But it makes it much harder for him to explain the mortal threat represented by Judeo-Bolshevism. Here I wonder if Postone forgets the rupture in the history of antisemitism that makes his own reflections possible: the historical, political, and moral impact of the Holocaust, the establishment of the state of Israel, and the introduction of the now commonplace notion of a ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’ altered—however contingently and reversibly—the cultural and political status of Jews in many parts of the overdeveloped world. These events put an end, in the period Postone wrote, to the kinds of associations that led many to imagine Jews as fanatical avatars of an Asiatic Bolshevism that sought the destruction of Western civilization.[76] But they are important features of modern antisemitism.

If Postone had considered these features, had, as it were, also looked east as well as west, he might have been struck by the ways in which contemporary Islamophobia repeats certain structures and obsessions of modern antisemitism. I’ve touched upon the long history of thinking of Jews and Muslims as theological and political fanatics. Structurally, in both cases—modern antisemitism and contemporary Islamophobia—we see a racialised religion whose adherents are imagined as potentially (immanently) or actually fanatical subjects, dedicated to abstract principles that threaten the sovereignty and integrity of the nation, the people, or civilisation itself. To be clear: by definition, Islamophobia does not display the features Postone says distinguish modern antisemitism. If it did, they wouldn’t be distinguishing features. As a rule, contemporary Islamophobia does not imagine Muslims as the tremendous, invisible conspiratorial power behind both capitalism and communism. But, as the contemporary fantasy of the Great Replacement shows, they are imagined as playing an important political role in how such power is exercised. The material implications of contemporary Islamophobia also recall some of the historical conditions of modern antisemitisms: the myriad forms of state discrimination, surveillance, and persecution that have unfolded in many countries since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Contemporary Islamophobia does not present itself intuitively as a form of ‘fetishized anti-capitalism’, but it is nevertheless a reaction to history as constituted by capitalism, to capitalism’s social consequences. It is the difference in that distinction that I’ve sought to identify and think through here.

Postone’s theory remains of interest because it rests on strong observations about the distinguishing features of modern antisemitism and seeks to explain them in terms of constitutive features of capitalist social relations. But to account for all the phenomena he points to as comprehensively and elegantly as he does he needs to conflate significantly different forms of anti-capitalism and thereby downplay some of the most important features of the specifically political dimensions of antisemitism. Just what it means to call the anti-communism of the antisemite a form of anti-capitalism, he does not say. Where he might have explained how communism’s political abstractions develop out of and turn against the abstract logic of exchange, or reflected more deeply about race and nation, fantasy and projection, he chooses instead to focus on the homologies of abstract and concrete, and on the excesses and failings of criticism of contemporary capitalist nation states. There is no doubt that locating global evil in a single political actor, however we diagnose it, is a serious political mistake, and cannot be a part of any genuinely emancipatory politics. But conflating manifest and latent anti-capitalism can produce its own kinds of political errors and misrecognitions, preventing us from correctly understanding the past and from recognising, understanding, and combating our real enemies in the present.


I would like to thank the editors of Historical Materialism, especially Alberto Toscano, and my three anonymous reviewers, for their generous comments, questions, and suggestions. A special word of gratitude to the editors of this special issue, particularly Sai Englert, for their interest in this piece and their patience with my development of it. Thank you also to Chris Hill, Matan Kaminer, and Michael Rothberg for their comments on the short paper out of which this essay emerged, and for conversations about Postone and related matters as I expanded it.Finally, my thanks to Jonathan Boyarin, and to the other organizers and participants in the March 18, 2018 Cornell University Symposium "Theory and Forgetting: The Jewish Question," where I first had the opportunity to present these ideas.


Balibar, Etienne 2007, The Philosophy of Marx, trans. Chris Turner, New York: Verso.

Bonefeld, Werner 2014, Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy: on Subversion and Negative Reason, New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Chapoutot, Johann 2018, The Law of Blood: Thinking and Acting as a Nazi,translated by Miranda Richmond Mouillot.Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Day, Iyko, 2016. Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Day, Iyko 2020, The Yellow Plague and Romantic Anticapitalism’ Monthly Review Jhttps://monthlyreview.org/2020/07/01/the-yellow-plague-and-romantic-ant…

Hanebrink, Paul 2018, A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, Cambridge MA, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Hochberg, Gil Z., 2016, ‘“Remembering Semitism” or “On the Prospect of Re-Membering the Semites”’, ReOrient 1, 2: 192-223.

Jansen, Yolande and Nasar Meer 2020, Genealogies of ‘Jews’ and ‘Muslims’: social imaginaries in the race–religion nexus’, Patterns of Prejudice 54,1-2: 1-14.

Langmuir, Gavin I. 1996, Toward A Definition of Antisemitism, Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Moses, A. Dirk 2021, The Problems of Genocide: Permanent Security and the Language of Transgression, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Landa, Ishay 2018, Fascism and the Masses: The Revolt Against the Last Humans, 1848–1945, New York: Routledge.

Levi, Neil 2014, Modernist Form and the Myth of Jewification, New York: Fordham University Press.

Murthy, Viren 2020, ‘Moishe Postone’s Historical Time: Capital, the Holocaust, and Jewish Marxism” Critical Historical Studies, 7, 1: 43–62.

Postone, Moishe 1980, ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism: Notes on the German Reaction to "Holocaust"‘, New German Critique,No. 19, Special Issue 1: Germans and Jews: 97-115.

Postone, Moishe 1986, ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism,’ in Germans and Jews since the Holocaust: the changing situation in West Germany ed. Anson Rabinbach and Jack Zipes, New York: Holmes and Meier.

Postone, Moishe 1993, Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Postone, Moishe 2003, ‘The Holocaust and the Trajectory of the Twentieth Century,’ inCatastrophe and Meaning: The Holocaust and the Twentieth Century ed. Moishe Postone and Eric Santner, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Postone, Moishe 2006, ‘History and Helplessness:Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism’, Public Culture 18, 1: 93-110.

Postone, Moishe 2017, ‘The Dualisms of Capitalist Modernity: Reflections on History, the Holocaust, and Antisemitism’, in Jews and Leftist Politics: Judaism, Israel, Antisemitism, and Gender, ed. J. Jacobs, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Reitter, Karl, ‘Marxizing Constructions of Left-Wing Anti-Semitism on the example of Moishe Postone’s “Nazism and Anti-Semitism”’

Renton, James 2018, ‘The figure of the fanatic: a rebel against Christian sovereignty’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 41, 12: 2161-2178.

Rosenberg, Jordy 2018, ‘The Daddy Dialectic’, Los Angeles Review of Bookshttps://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-daddy-dialectic/. Last accessed August 25, 2021.

Slabodsky, Santiago 2014, DeColonial Judaism: triumphal failures of barbaric thinking, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sommer, Michael 2021, Anti-Postone: or, Why Moishe Postone’s Antisemitism Theory is Wrong, but Effective, trans. Maciej Zurowski Cosmonaut Press.

Steinberg, Michael P 2022, ‘The Narcissism of Major Differences: Richard Wagner and the Peculiarities of German Antisemitism’ Social Research: An International Quarterly, 89, 1: 21-46.

Stoetzler, Marcel 2018, ‘Critical Theory and the Critique of Anti-Imperialism’, The Sage Handbook of Frankfurt School Critical Theory London, Sage.

Tamas, G.M., 2019, ‘Was There Fascism in Europe After 1945?’ http://www.stacion.org/en/G-M-Tamas-Was-There-Fascism-in-Europe-After-1945&galery=2Last accessed August 25, 2021.

Toscano, Alberto, 2010, Fanaticism: On the Uses of An Idea, New York: Verso.

Traverso, Enzo, 2003, The Origins of Nazi Violence, trans. Janet Lloyd New York: New Press.

[1] The significance of Postone for the Anti-German movement in particular is widely recognised. See Michael Sommer pp.61-73 for an assortment of examples. Gerhard Hanloser’s books document Postone’s influence on the Anti-Germans. Maciej Zurowski sees Postone’s influence, both manifest and latent, in debates over antisemitism in the British left. See his translator’s introduction to Sommer esp. x to xiii.

For more scholarly engagement with Postone see Werner Bonefeld 2014. esp. p.210 and Lars Rensmann and Samuel Salzborn 2021. Michael Henrich 2004, while clearly distinguishing his views from Postone, shares with Postone a vocabulary and orientation, as does Robert Kurz. Outside the spheres of the New Marx Reading and Wertkritik, Enzo Traverso 2003 p.146 draws on Postone’s account of the Nazi conception of the Jews as abstract; Brendon McGeever 2022 his notion of antisemitism as ‘anti-hegemonic’. For recent scholarly efforts to extend Postone’s theories in directions he did not contemplate, see Day 2016 and 2020 on anti-Asian racism and White 2020 on anti-Black racism respectively.

[2] Postone 1980, p. 108.

[3] Postone 1980, p. 105. Engaging critically with Postone’s claims here would require a separate essayThereing not only a critique but alsod uses of his dieas. m, Postone explains idge.  with the Anti-German movement. oth.] tio e .

[4]For ‘patterns’ see Postone 1986 pp. 306-7.

[5] Postone 1980, p. 113.

[6] Postone 1980, p. 105, Postone’s italics.

[7]Postone 1980, p. 106.

[8]Postone 1980, p. 106.

[9] Postone 1980, p. 106.

[10] Postone 1980, p. 108.

[11]Postone, 2003, p. 93. My emphasis.

[12] Postone 1980, p. 113.

[13] Postone 2003, p. 93.

[14] Postone 2017, p. 48.

[15] Postone 2003, p. 87

[16] Postone 2017, pp. 47-8.

[17]Postone 1980, p. 106.

[18] Postone 1980, p. 106.

[19] Langmuir 1996.

[20] Postone 2003, p. 87.

[21]Postone 1980, p. 98; Postone 2017, p. 44.

[22] Day 2020.

[23] I draw here on Moses 2021, chapter 7.

[24] Postone 2006, 105.

[25] Balibar 2007, p. 60.

[26] Postone 1993, p.137 and p. 146.

[27] Postone 1993, p. 138.

[28] Postone 1993, p. 170

[29]Postone 1980, p. 109.

[30]Postone 1980, p. 109.

[31]Postone 1980, p. 109.

[32] Postone 1980, p. 109.

[33] Postone 1986, p. 311.

[34]Postone 1980, p. 110.

[35]Postone 1986, p. 312. There is an earlier version of this passage in Postone 1980, p.112, which has slightly different syntax and omits the reference to personification.

[36]Postone, 2003, p. 93.

[37] Postone 1980, p. 107

[38] Whether the notion of the antisemite as the other of modernity can be sustained in a time when antisemites appear as cunning, transgressive social media trolls, confident in their knowledge of the Frankfurt School, fluidly drawing out the implications of climate catastrophe in the interests of promoting an identitarian, exclusivist political vision is, of course, an open question, and I will not address it here.

[39] Levi 2014, p. 14 makes a similar suggestion

last accse of Anti-Imperialism, Department at Drew University. domination nan. Cronan maybe most useful for setting up the ques.

[40] Postone 2017, p. 62.

[41] Postone 2006, p. 96.

[42]Postone 2006, p. 99.

[43] Postone 2017, p 62.

[44] Postone 2017, p. 63.

[45] Postone 2017, p. 65.

[46]Postone 2006, p. 97.

[47]Postone 2017, p. 61

[48] Postone 2006, p. 108.

[49] See for example Stoetzler 2018.

[50] Postone 2006 pp. 109-110.

[51] I am thinking here of the writings of Stephan Grigat and Matthias Kuentzel.

[52] Murthy 2020.

[53] Postone 2006 p. 96.

[54] Postone 2017, p. 62.

[55] Postone 2017 p. 60 cf. Bonefeld 2014, p. 197.

[56] “Postone 1980, p. 108. This, by the way, is why to read Postone as arguing that the Jews represent money not only misconstrues his question, but a crucial element of his answer: that the Jew as personification offers an externalization of the abstract historical processes of the valorisation of value that have no other material representation. Cf. White 2020 p. 32.

[57] Postone 1980, p.107.

[58] Postone 1980 p. 110 and Postone 1986, p. 310

[59]Postone 1980, p. 106.

[60] Postone 1980, p. 105.

[61] Landa 2018, chapter 7.

[62] Traverso 2003, p. 106.

[63] Here I draw again on Moses 2021, chapter 7.

[64] Postone 1980, p. 111.

[65] Tamas 2019.

[66] Rosenberg 2018.

[67] Why Postone insists that in Auschwitz the Nazis sought ‘to wrest away [from the Jews] the last remnants of the concrete material “use-value”: clothes, gold, hair, soap’ remains a puzzle. Postone 1980, p. 114 and Postone 1986, p. 313. Postone 2003 p. 95 removes the reference to soap.

[68] “Postone 1980, p. 113 and Postone 2003, p. 94.

[69] Michael P. Steinberg sees German antisemitism in particular as a displacement of intra-Christian conflict. Steinberg 2022.

[70] Chapoutot 2018.

[71] Toscano 2010.

[72] For a similar articulation of this relation, see Levi 2014, pp. 98-99.

[73] Renton 2018, p. 2165.

[74]Hochberg 2016, p. 195.

[75] Hanebrink 2018, pp. 28-31.

[76]Slabodsky 2014 describes this shift and its implications for postcolonial thought.