Cancelled: Critical Theory, Antisemitism, and Capitalist Modernity

In a departure from their earlier positions, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer treat antisemitism as a fundamental element of a significant historical turn in the late 19th and 20th centuries, one that, for many, entailed an apparent reversal of the Enlightenment. They, however, root this turn in a dialectic of Enlightenment (and civilization) itself. In so doing, Adorno and Horkheimer — like Arendt — treat the problematic of antisemitism as central to a crisis of modernity. Yet, as others have also noted, their dense and complex analysis of antisemitism is problematic. As a theory of a historical crisis, it, arguably, lacks sufficient specificity, which weakens its theoretical adequacy.

While agreeing with their general evaluation of antisemitism as integral to a crisis of modernity, this paper suggests that the problematic character of their analysis is related to the nature of their critique of capitalist modernity. Far from leaving behind a critical theory of capitalism, as many have argued, the analysis presented in Dialectic of Enlightenment is deeply intertwined with a determinate theory of capitalism. A critique of that theory allows for a different, more historically specific theory of antisemitism.

Moishe Postone studied history at the University of Chicago and political science/sociology at the J.W.Goethe-University in Frankfurt, Germany, where he received his Dr.Phil. in 1983. He is the Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of Modern History, the Center for Jewish Studies, and the College at the University of Chicago, as well as the Co-Director of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory and Co-Editor of Critical Historical Studies. His publications include Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (1993) along with many articles on Critical Theory, contemporary capitalism, and antisemitism. He has co-edited Bourdieu: Critical Reflections (1993) and Catastrophe and Meaning: The Twentieth Century and the Holocaust (2003) and is currently working on a book on Marx’s Capital and one on Critical Theory and the twentieth century.