A Philosophical Quest for 21st-Century Socialism

Istvan Mészáros, Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness. Volume I: The Social Determination of Method; Volume II: The Dialectic of Structure and History (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010, 2011).

When I reviewed István Mészáros’ Beyond Capital in 1997,1 I called it his chef-d’oeuvre and “the definitive Marxian synthesis for the present moment.” Now, fourteen years on, we have another moment and another massive study by this remarkable man called by Hugo Chávez the “pathfinder” of 21st-century socialism.

The two syntheses are necessarily linked and cover some of the same ground. But they are also quite distinct, and comprise a sequence in which Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness is positioned to carry forward the argument of Beyond Capital. I wrote of the earlier work that it dealt with four major themes:

1. The nature of capital and its distinction from capitalism;
2. An extended theory of structural crisis;
3. A powerful and lengthy critique of some actually existing allegedly post-capitalist societies: the Soviet model as well as the still existent, at least nominally, “market socialism”;
4. A vision of the necessary and sufficient conditions for socialism to become the positive transcendence of capitalism.

Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness deepens the first theme, largely sets the third aside, and dwells on the fourth. The chief reason for this is that the structural crisis of capital (the second theme) has evolved to the point of demanding a deeper and more urgent reflection – hence the new “moment.” The 1990s seemed a time in which to re-evaluate the still-smoking ruins of the Soviet system and ponder the fading claims of social democracy, or as some would have called it, the “Third Way.” The status of the victor, global capitalism, meanwhile, seemed assured and remained so during the expansive ‘90s. Today, the conventional wisdom has been turned upside down: neither traditional socialism nor “Third-Way” social democracy can command the attention of serious people interested in the future of society. In the meantime, the grinding crisis of capital has caused numerous cracks to appear in its system, including those stemming from its ecological crisis featuring aggravated aggression over declining resources and chaotic interactions of pollution, species loss, and increasingly catastrophic climate change. Given the unprecedented state of affairs, it is little wonder that speculation about capital’s collapse is rife, something unthinkable a decade or two ago, when neoliberal hubris and triumphalism stimulated by the passing of the Communist era still reigned. We are in uncharted waters indeed, and the need for a thinker of Mészáros’ stature to resume his project of systematic critique is great.

Mészáros does not see capital’s end as imminent. But nobody is more firmly convinced that it neither has nor deserves a future – and that the moment of its downfall is gathering. Nor is there anyone with a greater polemical gift, presented so fearlessly, to give this point the urgency it deserves. Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness is reminiscent of Mészáros’ The Power of Ideology (1989), a sustained and powerful tirade against the bad faith of intellectuals – I could never again, for example, read Theodor Adorno with the awe demanded by the Academy after perusing Mészáros’ demolition of the celebrated Negative Dialectician. But where the earlier study was, as the title claimed, a study of the ideological justifications comprising capital’s inner walls of defense, the extensive critique here has a larger purpose than the critique of ideology. It is rather the vehicle Mészáros will use to explore the innards of capital itself and to trace the rise of its ascending period and the pitch of the present decline as it heads toward downfall.

Mészáros may have the fervor and moral clarity of the Old Testament prophet hurling imprecations against a wayward Judea; but it is not his business to predict the exact time of the end or even its inevitability, nor will he rest with some variant of the Biblical theme that God is punishing the ruling power like a severe parent chastising a wicked child. No, his project is to lay bare the inner mechanisms by which capital brings doom upon itself so that people may, finally, awaken and rise against it. He knows that capital’s end will be determined by the militancy, faith, perseverance, organization and creativity of those who will it to end. As he sums it up in the Introduction to the first volume, The Social Determination of Method:

…it is indispensable to focus also on those elements of the theories in question (of the various exponents of capital) which must be and can only be “aufgehoben”; that is, dialectically  superseded/preserved by being raised to a historically more advanced level, so as to be put to a socially positive use…. This is particularly important in a period of transition toward a historically viable social order…. [P]roperly engaging with the problems at stake constitutes a contribution to a much needed transition to what Marx called “the new historic form” which appears to be a literally vital defining characteristic of our time…. [T]he long persistent objective challenges calling for historically vital answers are more pressing today than ever before. That is the true measure of the task for the future. (I-23)2

Volume I may be regarded, therefore, as a kind of case-book of intellectual pathology structured around a series of chapter-length dissections of the necrotic tissues of thought that evades, denies, or mystifies the central insight advanced by Marx – that everything in capitalist society is configured around the domination of labor, thereby causing a fundamental split that breaks down any effort to assert a universal process. Since asserting universality is what the leading intellectuals of the Western tradition in modernity try to do, they end up caught in one hopeless contradiction after another. This applies to the principal thinkers of the early modern period, especially Hegel – for Mészáros, the king-pin of Western thought – the great dialectical thinker who time and again violated his own principles of dialectics;3 it obtains as well for Kant and Adam Smith, who were at least capable of making powerful generalizations because their work, like that of Hegel, belongs to capital’s ascending phase. And it applies to the intellectual stars of more recent times, when capital’s decline exposes deep fissures in their works, until this eventuates in the barrens of post-structuralism and post-modernity, where the claim of universality is simply abandoned and left to rot. His accounting is of how brilliant minds “actively make their own  …illusions, which happen to be ideologically most convenient illusions, corresponding to the vantage point of capital’s social metabolic order” (I-17) – and, it goes without saying, are duly rewarded for their effort, as Milton put it in Paradise Lost, “to justify the ways of God to man.”

It is an impressive catalogue, unfolding chapter by chapter. Mészáros’ first target is the fetish of Science, in which the mastery of man over nature stands in for the mastery of man over man, with examples from Descartes to Max Weber and Karl Mannheim. Second, he critiques the tendency toward “formalism,” a generator of reification that turns direct human relations into abstractions, for example, in the false equalization of people before the commodity; or in crudities of bourgeois “common sense” that mystify Human Nature by raising vulgar cost-benefit analysis to a canonical principle of thought. Mészáros sees through the pomposity of Edmund Husserl grinding out scientistic nonsense such as “rigorous phenomenal reductionism”; nor is he satisfied with the efforts of his admired Jean-Paul Sartre, who blocks his own powerful Critique of Dialectical Reason by reifying the formal structures of history.4

Third, we have the “standpoint of isolated individuality,” that club with which bourgeois ideologues beat anyone who dares insinuate that collective and communal life – such as is crushed by capital in all but a few instances of intentional or religious communities – is essential for human existence. Here the nub is the elevation of the “Ego,” repository of isolated individuality and the cornerstone of capital’s personhood, into a self-subsisting human essence.

Fourth, Mészáros dissects the preoccupation with “negativity,” behind which he identifies (with a characteristically difficult phrase) the “circular presupposition and glorification of the false positivity of the existent” (I-94). Again Hegel is singled out, for failing to see negativity in historical-materialist terms, which allows him thereby to mystify the positive side of things. Mészáros traces this in the lineage from Hegel to Heidegger and, beyond, to the emancipatory thought of Sartre and Marcuse. The net effect is a return to Kant and the conjoined “tendency to disregard the key role of socially effective mediation in bringing about the necessary structural change” (I-97). He finds that philosophers who dwell on unmediated negation are destined for political futility and despair – a misfortune such as befell Sartre and Marcuse, the outstanding philosopher-radicals of the middle third of the 20th century.

Fifth, we have distortions in historical temporality, a verdict that depends on whether the instance occurs before or after Marx. Pre-Marxian formulations, as in the case of Giambattista Vico, could generate works of genius, albeit attenuated by a lack of theoretical development. As for post-Marxist historiography, he takes up the case of Hannah Arendt, darling of liberal academia, and is properly scathing in his assessment. Arendt’s distorted vision of a “totally unrecognizable Marx” blatantly valorizes a bourgeois society of isolated individuals and dismisses the inconvenient truth of Marx with the claims that in “classless society the best mankind can do with history is to forget the whole unhappy affair” (I-131f).

Sixth, Mészáros considers the question of the dualisms and dichotomies that suffuse capitalist society, ranging from the notions of fact and value, to those of use and exchange, or quality and quantity, or abstract and concrete, theory and practice, subject and object, and more – that is, all those dimensions of the bourgeois universe that are made to stand in for its fundamental antagonisms and which remain “thoroughly unintelligible” (I-186) unless seen in relation to the deep and abiding fractures of capitalist society – an insight forbidden by the dominant ideological powers. The basic structural antagonisms between capital and labor, therefore, are both disguised and sustained by a fog of false choices and false divisions, often celebrated under the rubric of “diversity.”

Seventh and last in this rogue’s gallery of bourgeois mystification, we find the mangling of “unity” and “universality,” or as Mészáros puts it in a characteristically thorny subheading, “The Incorrigible Circularity and Ultimate Failure of Individualistic Mediation” (I-205). It is impossible, he writes, to squeeze the desired “unity” and “universality” out of the fragmented multiplicity of isolated individualities” (I-206), though this has not discouraged an endless stream of ersatz thinkers from trying to do so.

The Marxian Reorientation of Method

The critique of bourgeois philosophy clears the ground for positive achievement. As stated at the beginning of the final, and book-length, chapter of the first volume, and into the second volume, The Dialectic of Structure and History, the paramount need is to appropriate a “qualitatively different, non-antagonistic way of mediating the social metabolism.” Crucially, this now extends into the domain of nature, heretofore a relatively neglected dimension, but one whose importance “cannot be over-stated. For if it proves impossible … to elaborate a non-antagonistic mode of mediating the relationship between humanity and nature as well as among the individuals themselves, that would make the feasibility of instituting a genuine socialist productive order itself rather bleak” (I-280, italics added). This is a major break with the history of socialism, and to a degree, with Beyond Capital itself, which sounded the theme, but not with such weight.5 All of which is fitting given the darkening clouds of ecological collapse appearing between the publication of the two works. Mészáros states the reason for the break with admirable clarity: it is that the “productive processes of capital’s destructive production are actively engaged already today in inflicting irreversible damage on nature itself, undermining therefore the elementary conditions of humankind” (I-279).

This is an essential insight. The question remains, however, of how well it is developed. In presenting one of his basic categories, that of the “primary and second order mediations,” for example, Mészáros does not mention the human relationship to nature in any concrete sense among the second-order mediations, those which “must be ruthlessly imposed on society in the interests of capital accumulation …no matter how destructive might be the consequences, including the potential destruction of humankind itself” (I-397). The second-order mediations are prime battlegrounds of the struggle for socialism. He writes about one of them – the nuclear family – as a major field of contestation but does not bring his lens to bear on the gender questions embedded in this, through which we would find a grounding in the sensuous body participating in the physical, natural world, inasmuch as the patriarchal family carries forth the pathological splitting of civilization, whereby the male represents what is truly human while women represent nature and mediate nature to the man. The other secondary mediations – alienated means of production, money, fetishisms, the control over labor, the capitalist state, and the world market – are also essential zones of struggle, but they are rendered even more abstractly distant from the relationship to nature in Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness. We are hard-pressed, therefore, to get a grip on what a non-antagonistic relationship to nature may be. I shall return to this question, after summarizing Mészáros’ principal advance in socialist praxis.

This is a valorization of the “communal system of both production and consumption” (I-296; see also I-333f, 342, 346). He sees this as consistently advocated by Marx himself (as on p. 171 of the Grundrisse), implying a redefinition of the socialist path, now to consist of an exchange of activities and not of products. The concept requires a thorough transformation of production and a downgrading of the importance of money, along with a vision of going radically beyond capital and its organization of labor. Mészáros penetrates deeply into the subjection of labor by its own fetishized production, in a brilliant passage elaborating on Marx:

[W]ithout understanding the precise nature of the capital system’s objective circularity – through which living labour becomes capital and as personified capital confronts as well as dominates labour – there can be no escape from the vicious circle of capital’s expanded self-reproduction. For the power dominating labour is the circularly transformed power of labour itself, assuming a “stunted/travestied form” and asserting itself in the mind-boggling “fetishistic situation when the product is the proprietor of the producer.” (I-328f, quoting Marx)

Thus fetishism, derived from the structural domination of labor, rules over the panoply of failed thought explored in Mészáros’ journey through bourgeois intellectual desolation. It can only be overcome and supplanted through the “communal-organic” system of freely associated labor and its exchange of activities. This is the fundamental conclusion of Volume One, spelled out in its 172-page final chapter. It stands as an opening of a dramatic and radical path toward a socialism for this century. But we are not even halfway through! For a second volume looms ahead, extending 505 pages onward. One picks it up looking for the further development of these ideas, especially the suggestion of a non-antagonistic relationship to nature, the importance of which cannot be overstated according to Mészáros.

However, although there are magnificent passages in the second volume – in particular, an extended and brilliant discussion of the Base-Superstructure problem – these only glance off the question of our relationship to nature. It must be said that Mészáros swerves away from his own prescription, leaving a feeling of incompletion about the work as a whole as well as a lack of clarity about the relationship between the first and second volumes – which it may be added, is nowhere spelled out, not even in the introductions to each. Indeed, the second volume, though titled The Dialectic of Structure and History, has a certain shapelessness to its own structure. I would suggest that this is not happenstance but stems from something amiss with Mészáros’ fundamental conception of the humanity/nature boundary.

Mészáros often criticizes the common bourgeois trope of naturalizing history – for example, he writes about David Ricardo: “Again, the historically specific is turned into the allegedly ‘natural’ and thereby that which is in reality transient is given the status of a natural necessity” (II-278). However, if bourgeois thought uncritically naturalizes history, we can also say that socialist thought is prone to historicizing nature, seeing it as more or less purely instrumental to human purposes. In this respect socialism reflects the civilization from which it arises – that of the West, within which both capitalism and anti-capitalism have germinated – and where nature tends to remains radically Other, and subject to humanity’s lordship.

Marx himself wavered about this point, although he came closer, especially in his early phase, than any philosopher of the early modern tradition to grasping it. From the Manuscripts to Capital, however, we see a subtle yet profound shift: in the earlier work, “humanism” and “naturalism” are seen as mutually constitutive; whereas the notion of labor in the mature masterwork holds Man to be entirely active, and Nature as entirely passive, indeed as inert substance.6

The tendency has continued within Marxism. Some foolish Marxists claim that in all essential features, nature is a historical product of humanity. Others take a more nuanced view. Nevertheless, taken all in all, the humanity/nature interface remains inadequately theorized in the Marxian tradition. This observation unfortunately applies in the work at hand to the great contemporary Marxist, István Mészáros.

The problem can be seen from the perspective both of what Mészáros writes about and of what he excludes. The great preponderance of the thinkers considered in these pages are of European origin, especially from the High Germanic tradition that peaks in Hegel and spills over onto post-Hegelian thought – in other words, from the fountainhead of humanity’s distorted relationship to nature. To be sure, there have been many contrary voices from within European tradition to contest this. But none of these get considered by Mészáros, including Friedrich Schelling, Hegel’s university roommate and later antagonist, who expressly tried to develop the category of Nature within German Idealism and was marginalized as a result.7 More generally, we note the absence of three kinds of voices that remain unheard:

  • Women
  • Non-Western thought
  • Excluded currents of Western thought – besides Schelling, certain subterranean currents within Marx and Marxism.

From these categories arise in various and combined ways the insights that humanity and nature share a common being. Logically associated with this is the insight that nature, like humanity, manifests actively formative potentials. And associated with this is the dictum that one needs to proceed with great care when speaking of the human relationship with nature, whether the boundary condition is framed as a question of splitting, or as one of differentiation. That is, can we speak at all of being outside nature, as though we emerge from its womb and then leave it behind to look back at it; or are we always within it, as a part is always subsumed within a whole, and as we are always rooted in our material flesh in contact with the whole physical universe? Nature, however difficult to define, always retains an overriding characteristic: that it cannot be put on a list, or itemized – or, as in the folly of so-called ecological economics, given a price tag, with reliably ruinous results.8 It is not, in a word, our “environment,” unless it be degraded as such. And so the matter of antagonism in the human relation to nature needs to be approached in terms of recognition – of nature in ourselves and ourselves in nature.

We cannot take up these issues substantively in this limited communication. But their significance to a critique of Mészáros lies in calling attention to his inability to reach beyond the constraints of the Western post-Enlightenment tradition in which nature, deprived of agency, submits to the technical mastery of Man. However problematic the notion of a non-antagonistic relation to nature, a sound methodological principle is to stay with what conduces to mutual recognition and eschew that which blocks mutual recognition. The afflictions of racism and sexism are of the latter type, as recognition of common ground is blocked under the influence of imperialism and patriarchy. Hence the importance of listening to the excluded voices and looking with a cold eye on those who do the excluding.

As we know (or should know), some of the leading figures of mainstream philosophy, including Hegel and Kant, evince shocking degrees of racism, which entails a radical inability to learn from the excluded voice. Mészáros is quite aware of the racism of Hegel and of Hegel’s own inability to comprehend nature (see note 3). But he does not draw the inference that those excluded from full humanity by the great philosopher might have something important to say about a non-antagonistic relationship with nature.

The model of a non-antagonistic relationship with nature does not need to be manufactured out of whole cloth. We begin, rather, by returning to the original ways of humankind and resume where their genius was crushed by empire. Such is the currency of innumerable spiritual traditions throughout the history of the world.9  Mészáros sounds this theme in his second volume when he introduces a category raised by Marx, of “spiritual production” (II-143-47). But he does no more than identify this with “art” and “poetry,” as though what the world regards as intrinsically spiritual, namely, the wealth of religious traditions, is only residual. There being nothing to examine, the category fades away, to vanish from the text.

Mészáros does include Paracelsus, “a great intellectual of the sixteenth century,” in both volumes (I-384; II-465). But it is only to mention him in a sentence or two pertaining to views on work. These are estimable; but they convey no inkling of the principal influence of Paracelsus, which was to give the notion of a vital relationship to nature its philosophical grounding. His politics are worth observing as well: Paracelsus took the side of Münzer and the peasants against Luther in the wars of that century, for the significance of which see Engels’ The Peasant War in Germany. In their early work (e.g. The Holy Family), Marx and Engels needed no help to appreciate his greatness and that of other thinkers like Böhme and Bruno who have become marginalized since the Enlightenment and the rise of capital’s scientific apparatus. Their interest did not wane in later years; indeed, it was stirred when they discovered the “First Peoples” through the work of Lewis Henry Morgan. In the last decade of his life nothing more interested Marx than ethnographic study of those largely forgotten societies for which a relationship to nature characterized by mutual recognition was fundamental. It would have benefited Mészáros to have followed the same line of approach.

The work of three Marxist thinkers would have been useful to Mészáros’ project, though each has experienced a degree of ostracism from the post-Enlightenment tradition. One is Stanley Diamond (1922-1991), who developed an interpretation of Marxist anthropology valorizing the “Primitive” as an ontologically richer and more differentiated mode of being that preserves the mutual recognition of humanity and nature.10 Another is Maria Mies, who has given centrality to the female voice within Marxism.11 In her work, the essential conditions of Mészáros’ vision of socialism are seen on the ground, through the activity of the world’s primary producers, the women of the South.

Most noteworthy, because most directly in the line of Mészáros’ genealogy, is Ernst Bloch. I simply do not understand why this great thinker, who had been a close associate of György Lukács, Mészáros’ mentor, is absent from Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness.12 To my eye this is a serious loss, as Bloch was the only Marxist to substantially advance the philosophy of nature by allying himself with marginalized currents of thought. Bloch also has more interesting things to say about temporality than any other Marxian philosopher; and temporality is a theme that Mészáros struggles with in the closing sections of Volume II. Bloch gives due attention to Hegel, but more to Goethe and the Bible, and he roves all over human creation, from the Talmud to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and from Bach to the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, in exploration of the eternal spiritual flowering of our peculiar species. His goal, a vista of which opens up in works such as The Principle of Hope, is to show how regions of the mind sequestered into daydreams and art can evolve into a “technology of alliance” with the “co-productivity of nature.”13 And his means are aligned with his ends, with a playful curiosity toward the endless wealth of the human imagination opening upon the inner seas of the world. For the principle of hope is needed, too, if we are to achieve a viable world.

 1. Monthly Review, March 1997, 44-54.

2. Unless otherwise stated, all italicizations in quotes are Mészáros’ own.

3. To give an example that will recur later in this review, Mészáros, in criticizing Hegel’s ethnocentricity (endnote 42, I-203), calls attention to a passage in The Philosophy of History, in which the “African Character” is defined by “perfect contempt for humanity . . . the fundamental characteristic of the race.” Hegel continues, “This contrasts with the ‘principle of the North,’ characterized by instinctually correct behavior among us.” Mészáros accurately observes that this dichotomization is “in no way consonant with the spirit of [Hegel’s] own philosophy,” and he goes on to spin out the further lapses in dialectical integrity resulting from efforts to paper over the gaping hole in the theory. He concludes the note by observing that “by having it both ways, (Hegel is) betraying through such eagerness and concomitant philosophical inconsistency his ideological interests.” In the text, he adds a salient observation of particular interest for this study, that Hegel “could not help being hostile even to the mention of the word ‘nature,’ since nature represents . . . the philosophically inferior domain of ‘sensuous determinations.’” (185)

4. Basically, this resulted from Sartre’s inability and/or refusal to grasp the essentials of Marx’s ontology regarding human beings as social animals who collectively produce their world, and for whom, as the Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach puts it, “the self is the ensemble of social relations.” Instead, the profound barrier between the individual and the other developed in Being and Nothingness is transferred into his massive “marxisant” study, Critique of Dialectical Reason, where it prevents the development of a vital collectivity and hence, a viable social alternative to capitalism. The critique of Sartre is the most extended and perhaps the most interesting, insightful and moving of all the portraits dispensed by Mészáros. It combines a sharp critical eye with affection and compassion. For whatever the shortcomings of the great existentialist, these were overridden by the generosity of spirit and courage that accompanied them.

5. Beyond Capital, 685, speaks of the “systematic devastation of nature” without raising this to the level of demanding a radical alteration of our relationship to nature. Nature appears, rather, as one of a string of victims, viz: “Everything must be absolutely subordinated, from nature to all human needs and aspirations.”

6. Joel Kovel, “Marx and Ecology,” Capitalism Nature Socialism, March 2011, 4-17, esp. p. 11.

7. Slavoj Žižek, The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters (Verso, 1996); Arran Gare, “Process Philosophy and the Emergent Theory of Mind: Whitehead, Lloyd Morgan, and Schelling.” Concrescence, Vol, 3 (2002), 1-12.

8. Consider the title of Socialist Register 2007, “Coming to terms with Nature” (eds. Leo Panitch and Colin Leys; New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006), which treats nature as if it were a stranger sitting across a negotiating table from us.

9. Joel Kovel, History and Spirit, 2nd ed., Warner, NH: Glad Day Books, 1998.

10. Stanley Diamond, In Search of the Primitive, (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1974). One should also attend to the work of Diamond’s mentor, Paul Radin, in this connection: Primitive Man as Philosopher (New York: Dover, 1957 [1927]).

11. Maria Mies, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale 2nd ed. (London: Zed, 1998), and (with Virginia Bennholdt-Thomsen) The Subsistence Perspective (London: Zed, 2000).

12. And virtually absent as well in Beyond Capital and The Power of Ideology, in both of which we find only a few fragmentary comments, mainly buried in endnotes, and even then chiefly secondary. One theme is the tension between Bloch and Lukács. This may have something to do with Mészáros’ exclusion of Bloch, though Mészáros is also critical of his former mentor.

13. Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986), 689-90.

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