Moishe Postone, leading interpreter of Marx and scholar of European intellectual history, 1942-2018

Prof. Moishe Postone, a scholar of 19th- and 20th-century European intellectual history and one of the world’s leading interpreters of Karl Marx, passed away on March 19. He was 75.  

Part of the University of Chicago faculty for more than three decades, Postone, SB’63, AM’67, taught generations of undergraduates through the Core sequence on Self, Culture and Society. The Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of History and the College, he was also a faculty member in the Center for Jewish Studies and co-director of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory.

Postone was called one of the most important commentators of Marx to come out of the “New Left” generation of the late 1960s. A scholar focused on capitalism, modern anti-Semitism and questions around memory and identity in postwar Germany, his 1993 opus Time, Labor and Social Domination is still widely read, debated and discussed in the field.

“Moishe Postone’s scholarship on Marx’s critique of political economy had a transformational impact on the field of late-20th-century Marxist studies,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “He was an ideal scholar-teacher and critical intellectual in the great Chicago tradition of liberal education, and his impact will long be felt on the intellectual personalities and personal lives of the thousands of students who had the privilege to work with him.”

Postone said his first awakening to the world of social thought came as a UChicago undergraduate, when he was exposed to the works of Marx as a biochemistry student. As a grad student, Postone participated in a 1969 student sit-in at the University’s Administration Building; in its aftermath, he led one of two student study groups seeking to understand the historical moment through social theory. After receiving his PhD from the Goethe-Universität in Germany, Postone returned to Chicago, working with the Center for Transcultural Studies before joining the University of Chicago as an instructor in 1987, where he would remain for the rest of his career.  

“As a scholar, teacher, advisor, mentor and colleague, his service to the University and to many disciplines—history, sociology, political science, Jewish studies and Germanic languages and literatures, to name but a few—is a remarkable testament to a career of service to peers and students alike,” said Amanda Woodward, the William S. Gray Distinguished Service Professor of Psychology and interim dean of the Division of Social Sciences at UChicago.

Postone’s research revolved around a reinterpretation of Marx and his theories of labor. His work sought to place Marx’s work in context with the great social upheavals of the 20th century, and how the succeeding generations had interpreted it. He was also particularly interested in understanding 20th-century anti-Semitism through the lens of capitalism and its reactionary social movements, such as the rise of national socialism that preceded the Holocaust.

“Moishe Postone was an internationally recognized historian and practitioner of critical theory; his reinterpretations of Marx’s thinking—both in his published work and in his graduate colloquia—were insightful and influential,” said Prof. Emilio Kourí, who chairs UChicago’s Department of History. “A gifted teacher, he trained generations of scholars in European intellectual history.”

For more nearly three decades, Postone also chaired the Core sequence on Self, Culture and Society—one of the four general education social science tracks that undergraduates are required to take at the University of Chicago. “His leadership of that course played a very influential role in the modern history of the College,” Boyer said. “Moishe was a remarkable, charismatic teacher who believed deeply in the fundamental importance of Chicago’s traditions of general education.”

In 1999 he won a Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. “I do not want students writing papers just for me, their teacher, but to take responsibility for communicating what they think,” he told the University of Chicago Chronicle at the time.

He continued to teach, write and organize as he battled cancer; in 2016, Postone delivered the Vienna Prize Lecture at the International Research Center for Cultural Studies in Vienna, and delivered a keynote address on right-wing populism at the Vienna Humanities Festival this past autumn.

A University memorial service is being planned for the spring.