When was the crisis of capitalism? The legacy of the 1960s New Left


by Chris Cutrone

Lenin stated, infamously perhaps, that Marxists aimed to overcome capitalism “on the basis of capitalism itself.” This was in the context of horrors of not only industrial exploitation but also and especially of war: WWI. Lenin was not, as he might be mistaken to be, merely advocating so-called “war communism” or statist capitalism.[1] No. Lenin recognized state capitalism as the advancing of the contradiction of capitalism. By contrast, after Lenin, there was state capitalism, but no active political consciousness of its contradiction. This affected the Left as it developed — degenerated — subsequently.[2]

The question is, when was the definitive crisis of capitalism, after which it could be plausibly asserted that the world suffered from the overripeness for change? Was it in 1968, as the New Left supposed? Or was it much earlier, in WWI, as Marxists such as Lenin thought?

Moishe Postone is arguably the — by far — most important interpreter of Marx to come out of the generation of the 1960s-70s “New Left.” Contributing to that generation’s “return to Marx,” motivated by the widespread discontents and political crisis of the 1960s, and finding increased purchase in the economic crisis and downturn of the ’70s, Postone’s work on Marx participated in the shaping of the self-understanding of the transition from what has been called the “Keynesian-Fordist” synthesis of predominant modes of capitalism in the mid-20th century to its neoliberal form starting in the 1970s. If Postone, as well as others of the New Left generation, found neoliberalism to be the travesty of the emancipatory aspirations of the 1960s, where does this leave his work today? For Postone’s work was very much of its moment, the 1960s-70s. It recalls an earlier era.

A full generation has passed since Postone’s initial works,[3] and 20 years since publication of his book Time, Labor and Social Domination (1993): younger readers of Marx who encounter Postone’s interpretation are likely to have been born after Postone’s formulations were written and published. The recent economic crisis, the still on-going “Great Recession,” has prompted a renewed “return to Marx” moment that has reached back to the prior generation’s return to Marx in the 1960s-70s. The most perspicacious of young would-be Marxisants have discovered Postone’s work, and have begun to try to make sense of the present in Postone’s terms.

Such belated recognition of Postone’s work is well and long-deserved and can only be welcomed by anyone interested in Marx’s distinctive and indeed sui generis approach to the problem of capitalism.

Postone’s specific contribution was to focus attention to Marx’s critique of the relation between abstract labor and abstract time in the self-contradiction of value in capital. This allowed Postone to recognize how Marx grasped the accumulation of history in capital, the antagonism between “dead labor” and “living labor” in the ongoing reproduction of capital and of the social relations of the exchange of labor in the commodity form of value.

Much of the basis for resistance to Postone’s critical insights into Marx’s approach to capitalism, largely of a political character, has since fallen away. This centered on the question of “proletarian-transcending” vs. “proletarian-constituting” politics and the problem of the “ontology of labor.” At the same time, however, the political assumption for Postone’s work — the possibility of transcending the politics of labor — has become eroded and undermined along with the basis for resistance to it: Postone’s object of critique in recovering Marx in the 1960s-70s has largely if not entirely disappeared. Most importantly, the political prognosis that motivated Postone was falsified by subsequent history: Postone’s work was not able to help clarify the New Left moment to itself because the New Left failed in its aspirations. It did not help to transcend capitalism.


Liberal and statist periods of capitalism — individualist and collectivist discontents

The failure of the New Left is a deeply obscure problem because its success wears the mask of failure and its failure wears the mask of success: the New Left failed precisely where it thought it succeeded; and succeeded precisely where it thought it failed. But neither its failure nor its success had anything to do with being part of the history of the Left but rather with its furnishing the ideological consciousness for a renewed Right.

For instance, where the New Left thought it transformed with greater freedom a diversely heterogeneous multiplicity of socio-cultural practices, relations and identities, for instance, of “race, gender and sexuality,” as against what it supposed was a stultifying, oppressive and even genocidal homogenizing social conformism rooted in industrial-capitalist labor, in fact it smoothed the way towards even more widespread and deeper social participation in the capitalist labor process on a global scale that has not made corporations and governments more responsible to their constituencies but rather more intractably elusive as targets of political action.

Few on the avowed “Left” today would claim that there has been greater progress against capitalism let alone towards socialism since the 1960s: whatever the “balance sheet” of “gains and losses” in the past generation, the scale tilts ineluctably in the direction of loss. Still, the idea that “we know better now,” as an accomplishment of and development beyond the New Left, is unfortunately prevalent.

But every generation thinks it improves upon previous ones. It is this assumption of progress that is perhaps the most pernicious of ideological phenomena of consciousness.

The metaphysics of consciousness — the fact that consciousness transcends its concrete empirical moment in time and space — means that history does not constitute merely a factual record of events, but rather that purported historical “causality” is grasped only according to changes in “theoretical” perspectives on our on-going practices and their reproduction in society. #quote: History is not merely a set of accumulated effects but a development of consciousness — or at least should be, according to Hegel.[4] The question is whether and how the development of social practices has facilitated or rather hindered and retarded — perhaps even blocked — the further development of consciousness.

So, what kind of consciousness is provided by Moishe Postone’s work, and how has this been grasped by Postone’s followers? What does this tell us about the history from the formative moment of Postone’s consciousness to the present?


The 1960s New Left moment

It is necessary to characterize the moment of the 1960s New Left. What kind of an opportunity was that moment?

The 1960s saw the deepening crisis of the Keynesian-Fordist liberal social-democratic “welfare state.” In the United States, which set the pattern for the rest of the world, the New Deal political coalition of the leading Democratic Party became unraveled. First, the Civil Rights Movement undermined the Democrats in the South, the so-called “Dixiecrats.” Then, the U.S. military involvement in Vietnam undermined the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The Civil Rights Movement offered to go “part of the way with LBJ” in the election of 1964, in hopes of trading a quieting of protest against the U.S. anti-Communist war in Southeast Asia for LBJ’s support for Civil Rights legislation. Johnson’s reelection raised the prospects of a crisis in the Democratic Party, which was seen as an opportunity for its transformation. Bayard Rustin wrote that it was necessary to move the Civil Rights Movement “From Protest to Politics” in order to remake the Democrats into a party of blacks and labor, building upon the labor unions’ support for both the Civil Rights Movement and the new Students for a Democratic Society that emerged from the Civil Rights and student Free Speech Movements of the late 1950s – early ’60s. This didn’t happen, but rather the Republicans’ “Southern Strategy” first floated in the 1964 election but fully realized in 1968 moved the southern Democratic voters to the Republicans’ camp. The tide change in U.S. politics is illustrated by the contrast between the 1952 and 1968 Presidential elections: Where the Democrats lost to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, Adlai Stevenson winning only states in the Deep South; in 1968 the South provided the base for Republican Richard Nixon’s victory. What Rustin’s plan would have meant was a rejuvenation of the New Deal Coalition under changed conditions. It failed.

The Democrats, who had been the majority party since 1932, went on the defensive, however holding onto Congressional majorities all the way up to the 1994 “Republican Revolution” led by Newt Gingrich. Since the 1930s, the Republicans were the party of opposition, which is still the case today in 2014. The Democrats have remained most often the majority party in Congress. The Republicans have never enjoyed the sustained occupation of the Presidency and majority in Congress that the Democrats have enjoyed more or less consistently since the 1930s. This character of ruling-class politics in the U.S. has meant certain conditions for any purported “Left.”

In the 1960s, being on the “Left” politically meant opposing an overwhelming Democratic majority government, and moreover one which claimed to be in the interest of working-class and minority people. The 1930s New Deal Coalition saw an uneasy alliance of white working class people including in the South with ethnic minority constituencies in the Northern cities, cities which exploded in the 1960s. For instance, it was only in the 1930s that blacks began voting in large numbers for Democrats, having supported Republicans since the Civil War and Reconstruction. Blacks were integrated into the Democrats’ New Deal Coalition as yet another Northern urban ethnic constituency vote: Adam Clayton Powell personified this politics. There was the Great Migration of blacks out of the South to the North from the period of WWI through WWII and the unionization of blacks through the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO) in the 1930s Great Depression-era radicalization as well as in the war industries of the 1940s.


By the mid-1960s, LBJ, who was far more supportive of Civil Rights demands than JFK had been, while dramatically escalating the war in Vietnam, was opposed by the emergent New Left as a “fascist” — a representative of the authoritarian state that seemed to stand in the way of social change rather than as its instrument. The Civil Rights Movement’s pressure on the Democratic Party (seen in the Mississippi Freedom Democrats’ protest at the 1964 national convention) was met by the military risk to the state in the Cold War running hot in Southeast Asia.

A note on the Vietnam War: The U.S. proceeded through the Korean War and into the Vietnam War with the attempt to sustain and mobilize the United Nations of WWII, turning from opposition to fascism to opposing Communist “totalitarianism:” the U.S. prosecuted both the Korean War and increasingly in the 1960s the Vietnam War as extensions of strategies pursued in WWII and its immediate aftermath. The Greek Civil War set the pattern for counterinsurgency in the post-WWII world. Already in Korea the U.S. and its allies pursued counterinsurgency and not only a conventional military war. In Vietnam, counterinsurgency gave way to conventional warfare with the bombing campaigns initiated by LBJ and pursued further by Nixon succeeding him. The form of warfare pursued placed certain pressures on the Keynesian-Fordist social-democratic “welfare state” administered by the U.S. Democratic Party’s New Deal Coalition. Those pressures were political and socio-cultural as well as economic: such pressures were political-economic and social-political in character, setting the stage for the New Left.

The U.S. New Deal Coalition’s alliance of labor with the “welfare state” set the pattern throughout the world in the Cold War era, both in advanced capitalist countries and in newly independent post-colonial states. Its unraveling also set the historical political pattern, for student and worker discontent, in the 1960s. Moreover, discontent with the conservatism of the Soviet-bloc by the end of the 1950s meant an identification of the New Deal Coalition and the social-democratic “welfare state” with Stalinism in “state capitalism” and “state socialism,” both regarded as politically compromised obstacles to new upsurges “from below” in the 1960s. Political problems of both capitalism and socialism were thus identified with the state.


The political defections identified with the crisis of the Democrats’ New Deal Coalition involved not only the disaffection of blacks and other workers, especially among younger people, but also intellectuals of the establishment. There was a crisis in the ideological edifice of the post-WWII state. For instance, “neo-conservatism” was a phenomenon of the loss of confidence in the Democrats’ successful prosecution of the Cold War, both at home and abroad. Many former supporters of and even ideologues for the Democrats provided the brain-trust for the Republicans taking political advantage of this crisis. For instance, there was former Frankfurt School assistant Daniel Bell, who first supported and then opposed the Democrats on grounds of non-ideological technocracy.

Thus discontents with the post-WWII state were far-ranging and even endemic by the 1960s, reaching both down among those marginalized at the bottom of society and up into top echelons of governmental power.

In France, May 1968 was a deep crisis of the post-WWII Gaullist state. It began as a student protest against gender segregation of student dormitories — against the educational institutional repression of sex — and grew into a student and working class mass mobilization against the state. It was rightly regarded as a potential revolutionary situation. But it failed politically. Many on the French New Left became a New Right.

Moishe Postone characterized this as a crisis of “new social movements” expressing discontents with “state capitalism” as a historical formation. That formation could trace it roots, prior to the 1940s and WWII and the Great Depression of the ’30s, back to WWI and perhaps even further, back to the late 19th century transformations that took place after the economic crisis of 1873, such as the post-Civil War and Reconstruction “imperial Presidency” in the U.S., Bismarckian policies in Germany, state-sponsored capitalist development in Meiji Restoration Japan, among other phenomena.


1968 and 1917

Postone attributes “state capitalism” to the crisis of WWI and the Russian Revolution of 1917 and characterizes Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks as unwitting instruments of state capitalism. In this view, in certain respects common with and descending from the Frankfurt School of the 1930s, Lassallean social democracy, fascism, Lenin’s Bolshevism as well as ostensible “Leninism” (meaning Stalinism), Keynesianism (FDR New Deal-ism), all participated in the turn from 19th century liberal laissez-faire capitalism to 20th century state capitalism, which went into crisis by the time of the 1960s New Left.

The crisis of modernist state capitalism led, however, not to socialism in Marx’s sense but rather to the neoliberal “postmodernist” turn of capitalism in the 1970s-80s, leading to the present. Postone’s idea was that the 20th century was a “post-bourgeois” form of capitalism. But for the Frankfurt School, it was a form of bourgeois society in extremis: as Adorno put it, “the new is the old in distress.”[5]

There is an important equivocation with respect to the Russian Revolution in Postone’s view. Postone condemns the USSR et al.’s “state capitalism,” as not merely inadequate but also misleading regarding potential possibilities for socialism. But such state capitalism was (and remains) a form of political mediation of the working class to the means of production. Postone, despite his critique of and political opposition to Soviet Communism, addresses the USSR as a progressive development, in ways that Adorno, for instance (or Trotsky in his critique of Stalinism), did not. Rather, the USSR et al. (as well as fascism) could be regarded as a decadent, barbaric form of bourgeois society, rather than as Postone attempted to address it, as “post-bourgeois.” On the other hand, Postone is (retrospectively) opposed to Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks in the October Revolution, whereas Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt School were supportive. Postone treats such support as a combination of theoretical blindness and historical limitation — unripeness of the means as well as the relations of production for socialism. The character of that “progress” — really, regression — of capitalism in the 20th century would be in terms of advancing the contradiction of the commodity form of labor, and how to make sense of and work through that contradiction politically.

The proletariat would need to be constituted politically, subjectively, and not merely “objectively” (economically). The commodity form of the value of labor needs to be constituted through political action, but such action, today, like at any moment since the Industrial Revolution, would manifest the self-contradiction of the commodity form.

The question is, what constitutes a “social relation?” It must be addressed not as a static fact but a developing social activity in history. Postone addresses it economically but not politically. In this he follows Marx’s Capital, which however was left incomplete and hence not mediated “all the way up” to the level of politics — as if Marx never wrote anything else that indicated his politics. Yes, the question is, as Postone puts it, not the existence of a capitalist (that is, private-property-in-the-means-of-production owning) class, but rather the existence of a proletariat, in the sense of a class of people who relate to the means of production through their social activity of wage-labor. That class still exists, “objectively” economically, but the question is, how is it mediated, today, politically?


Do we still live in capitalism?

James Heartfield has pointed out that the present-day “Left” considers such Marxist categories as “class” to be “objective.” This has effaced the purchase of politics regarding capitalism. If the working class has ceased to constitute itself as a class “for itself,” subjectively, then this has affected politics more generally.[6] Moreover, it means that the working class is not even constituted as a class “in itself,” objectively. For Marx, there was a subject-object dialectic at work — in which subjectivity was objectively determined, and objectivity was subjectively determined, in practice — in the working class’s struggle for socialism.

Marx pointed out that after the Industrial Revolution, the working class can only constitute its labor-power as a commodity collectively. Marx also pointed out that the capitalist class is constituted as such, as capitalist, only in opposition to the working class’s collective demands for the value of its labor. This was because, as Postone points out, for Marx, the dynamics of the value of the time of labor has become that of society as a whole. For Marx, the collective bargaining for the value of labor-power measured in time does not take place at the level of trade unions in individual firms or even in industrial unions across entire fields of production, but rather at the societal level in the form of the workers’ political struggle for socialism. Without that struggle for socialism, the working class is not constituted as such, and so neither is the capitalist class. Rather, as Adorno observed in the mid-20th century, society had devolved into a war of “rackets” and had thus ceased to be “society” in the bourgeois sense at all. Politics for Marx was the “class struggle” — the struggle for socialism. Without that, politics itself, as Marx understood it, ceases.

In this sense, we must confront the question of whether we still live in capitalism as Marxists historically understood it. An admirer of Postone, Jamie Merchant of the Permanent Crisis blog, spoke in dialogue with Elmar Flatschart of EXIT! and Alan Milchman of Internationalist Perspective at a Platypus panel discussion on Wertkritik. They stated the following in response to the question that I posed to them:


Neoliberalism might well have obscured the experience of the Fordist era, rendering it more esoteric, but didn’t Fordism, and the nationalism from which it is inseparable, in its own way occlude even deeper issues of capitalism? Elmar [Flatschart], you warn against “privileging” the workers as a revolutionary subject, but you seem to conflate earlier Marxism, in which the proletariat’s role is characterized negatively, with 20th century Stalinism and Social Democracy. What other subject would manifest the self-overcoming capitalism “on the basis of capitalism itself,” as Lenin put it in “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder (1920)?

EF: Marx had a negative notion of class, insofar as he saw it as immanent to capitalism and this is evident in the logical approach of Capital. But then again you already have with Marx, and more so with Engels, this political privileging of class as an emancipatory actor. There were no other questions of oppression, and hence no other emancipatory subjectivities. There is no one subject anymore, and this is what we can learn from the New Left and the postmodern turn.

JM: Yes, Fordism definitely occluded capital in many ways, especially, in the Cold War context, in terms of the role of the nation-state. But my point was that it was a form of society in which the social whole did appear, and so the idea of society had more currency. There was this concern during the Fordist period of the individual being absorbed into the social whole and losing individualism. But this was just the inversion of the cultural logic of neoliberalism. The point is that different periods of accumulation provide different versions of society and apprehension of the “social”; the social form appears in differently mediated ways. Different regimes of accumulation can lead to different perceptions of what society is, which could open up avenues for new forms of politics.[7]

These responses seem rather optimistic, especially regarding the legacy of the 1960s-70s New Left moment, let alone that of 1980s-90s postmodernism. Postone avers that whereas traditional Marxism affirmed and indeed aspired to the social totality of capitalism, true socialism would abolish it. But the question is its transformation — its “sublation” (Aufhebung). If Marxism ever recognized capitalism as a “totality,” it was critically, as a totality of crisis, a total crisis of society, which the struggle for socialism would advance, and not immediately overcome. But the crisis has been occulted, appearing only in disparate phenomena whose interrelatedness remains obscure.

Postone offered the clearest consciousness of the discontents of the 1960s understood as the first opportunity to transcend capitalism, by transcending proletarian-constituting forms of politics. But this was not transcended but rather liquidated without redemption. To transcend proletarian politics, it would be necessary first to constitute it.

We continue to pay the price for past failures of Marxism, which have become naturalized and hypostatized: reified. In this sense, we must still redeem Lenin. We still need to overcome capitalism on the basis of capitalism itself.


End notes:

[1] Lenin wrote that, “The bourgeoisie makes it its business to promote trusts, drive women and children into the factories, subject them to corruption and suffering, condemn them to extreme poverty. We do not ‘demand’ such development, we do not ‘support’ it. We fight it. But how do we fight? We explain that trusts and the employment of women in industry are progressive. We do not want a return to the handicraft system, pre-monopoly capitalism, domestic drudgery for women. Forward through the trusts, etc., and beyond them to socialism!” (The Military Programme of the Proletarian Revolution, 1916/17, available on-line at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/miliprog/ii.htm).

[2] See my “1873-1973: The century of Marxism,” Platypus Review 47 (June 2012), available on-line at: http://platypus1917.org/2012/06/07/1873-1973-the-century-of-marxism.

[3] See Moishe Postone, “Necessity, Labor, and Time: A Reinterpretation of the Marxian Critique of Capitalism,” Social Research 45:4 (Winter 1978).

[4] Hegel, The Philosophy of History.

[5] “Reflections on class theory,” Can One Live after Auschwitz?, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (University of California Press, 2003), 95.

[6] Sp!ked May 9, 2014, available on-line at: http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/the-left-is-over-i-hate-to-say-i-told-you-so/#.U4OXbCgVeSo.

[7] “Marx and ‘Wertkritik’,” Platypus Review 56 (May 2013), available on-line at: http://platypus1917.org/2013/05/01/marx-and-wertkritik/.


[Thank you Chris for this contribution. This essay was originally published in The Platypus Review 70 (October 2014) as “When was the crisis of capitalism? Moishe Postone and the legacy of the 1960s New Left.”]

The writer teaches critical theory at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is the original lead organizer of the Platypus Affiliated Society. His website is The Last Marxist

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