Jewish studies speaker criticizes progressives

Internationally recognized scholar Moishe Postone led a workshop at Portland State Wednesday, offering an analysis of his belief that there is a resurgence of anti-Semitism in the modern-day Middle East and that United States progressives dismiss acts of terrorism as reactions rather than unprovoked actions.

Based on his recent paper in the journal Public Culture, which he characterized as an “article as political intervention,” the workshop, “History and Helplessness,” elaborated on his belief that there is a developing resurgence of anti-Semitism in the Middle East, which Postone said goes beyond a hostility to Israeli foreign policy.

Postone said anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are becoming more prominent, including the widely held belief in the Middle East that Jewish people plotted the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He said that the U.S. progressive movement has developed related “misrecognitions” in its understanding of the Sept. 11 attacks.

According to Postone, American progressives have a tendency to view the United States as the embodiment of global capitalism, rather than one major player among several in an international economic system. He said U.S. progressives frequently dismiss terrorism as a reaction to U.S. foreign policy.

“The left understands the 9/11 violence as reaction, rather than an action,” Postone said. “In their view, the U.S. is the only actor in the world. There is no engagement with the politics of the actors.”

Postone said American progressives also fail to recognize other global forces of capitalism like the European Union. He said that left-leaning U.S. citizens, in their admiration for comparatively progressive European social and environmental policies, are often blind to the growing capitalistic domination of the E.U.

Based on his understanding of European history, Postone warned that the world may be experiencing a transition period into an era of global competition between large regional economic powers like China, India, the E.U. and the United States. Postone said the struggle between the United States and many of the states of the European Union over the war in Iraq could be “the beginnings of an intercapitalist [imperial] rivalry on a global scale.”

Postone, a history professor at the University of Chicago, specializes in modern European intellectual history, social theory, 20th-century Germany, anti-Semitism and contemporary global transformations. He has written or co-edited five books and authored 11 articles in English, German and French.

Portland State English Professor Lee Medovoi, coordinator of the Portland Center for Cultural Studies who hosted Postone, said Postone is an important intellectual figure in the evolving understanding of Marxist theory.

“We’re bringing him out because he does a brilliant job of bringing Marx’s analysis of capitalism to bear on the broader trajectories of 20th century and contemporary history,” Medovoi said.

Postone also held a lecture in Smith Memorial Student Union Tuesday, where he argued that the anti-Semitism cultivated by the Nazi regime, and carried out through a program of extermination, was historically unique in the 20th century, signifying it as different from “traditional” European anti-Jewish sentiment of centuries past. According to Postone, what made the Nazi regime’s anti-Semitism so persuasive to Germans in the 1930s was that it made Jewish people the abstracted embodiment of the dehumanizing forces of capitalism.

“Modern anti-Semitism accords the Jews enormous power,” Postone said. “Modern anti-Semitism, then, is a revolt against history as constituted by capitalism, misrecognized as a Jewish conspiracy. That conspiracy must be destroyed if the world is to be saved.”