If I were asked to sum up the significance of István Mészáros for our time, I would have to follow President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela in referring to him as the “Pathfinder of Socialism.”1 His work, in such writings as Marx’s Theory of Alienation (1970), The Power of Ideology (1989), Beyond Capital (1995), The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time (2008), The Structural Crisis of Capital (2009), and Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness (forthcoming, 2010), provides a strategic vision of the building of socialism, the absence of which, for many decades, constituted one of the principal weaknesses of the anti-capitalist movement, worldwide. For Mészáros, “the structural crisis of capital” arises, not simply from the fact that the system is now face to face for the first time with its own “absolute limits,” but also from the reality that the necessary conditions of a mass-based, hegemonic socialist alternative are emerging, providing the bases of a new revolutionary situation, globally. The depth and breadth of his critique of the capital system—extending to post-capitalist regimes such as the Soviet Union—offers a powerful set of insights into the historical necessity of socialism, and this in turn informs his critique of capital itself, constituting a single strategic argument. As Chávez has stated, the importance of Mészáros’s magnum opus Beyond Capital is to be found in its subtitle: “Toward a Theory of Transition.” “It is a theoretical effort,” said Chávez, “because Karl Marx did not develop a theory of transition.”2
The immediate context in which Mészáros’s Structural Crisis of Capital appears is what is commonly and euphemistically known as the Great Recession, or the immense financial and economic crisis in which we are now engulfed, manifesting itself on a scale not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.3 Mészáros begins and ends his book with the current economic malaise. But he explains this as part of a wider disjuncture stretching back to the early 1970s.4 This structural crisis cannot be seen simply in narrow economic terms. Rather, it also encompasses the global ecological crisis; what Mészáros calls “the potentially deadliest form of global hegemonic imperialism” (179); and the manifold social and cultural contradictions emanating from the hierarchical power relations of the prevailing order. “The epochal structural crisis of the capital system,” moreover, transcends all merely “cyclic and conjunctural economic crises…affecting all conceivable forms of the capital system as such, not only capitalism,” asserting itself through the activation of “the absolute limits of capital as a mode of social metabolic reproduction.” This poses dangers “incomparably more severe than even the Great World Economic Crisis of 1929-1933,” due to the “truly global character” of the world crisis this time around (172).
So dialectically interconnected, in Mészáros’s conception, are capital’s deepening structural crisis and the imperative of a genuine socialist transition that it is impossible to address the former without also addressing the latter. His critique of capital (as opposed to capitalism) is equally a critique of the early “socialist” (or post-capitalist) experiments which, in failing to eradicate the capital relation in its entirety, but merely mediating this via the state, ended up in a historical dead end—while nevertheless illuminating the path that the socialism of the twenty-first century must take. In Mészáros’s analysis, this path can be summed up as: “substantive equality,” “self-critique,” and communal self-organization of productive relations, which, taken together, define a sustainable socialist society.5
Mészáros strongly counsels against the defensive, purely economistic orientation of laborist and social democratic movements, which, faced with the default of capital, do everything they can to bail it out and restore the very economic power that keeps them and the entire working class in subservience. Rather, it is essential, he argues, to take full offensive advantage of the current weakness of capital as a system of social metabolic reproduction to alter the rules of the game fundamentally and irrevocably by political means. Opposing those who claim that the working class has been integrated into the system, he makes it clear that this is a systemic impossibility even in the wealthiest capitalist states, and at most extends to the trade union leadership (190-95). The working class remains everywhere an alienated power, the indispensable agent of potential revolutionary change. Still, in responding to the question of whether such a revolutionary transformation will actually take place, Mészáros answers bluntly: “It depends” (187). Genuine human emancipation, altering society “from top to bottom,” in Marx’s terms, can only be brought about through unrelenting struggle; hence it is a contingent aspect of history (85).
The structural crisis of capital, described in this book, has been worsening for decades and has now reached a point where it has taken on real urgency in every region of the globe. Critics of the system can therefore no longer hide behind the comforting illusion that socialism will eventually arise of its own accord, or that the world can afford to wait. In this respect, Chávez (quoted in Chapter Five, “Bolívar and Chávez”) declared before the World Social Forum in Caracas in January 2006 that to limit anti-systemic activities to an annual
touristic/folkloric encounter would be terrible, because we would be simply wasting time, and we have no time to waste. I believe that it is not given to us to speak in terms of future centuries…we have no time to waste; the challenge is to save the conditions of life on this planet, to save the human species, to change the course of history, to change the world (136).
The out-of-control destruction that now characterizes the capital system on a world scale, and imperils all life on the planet, has its dialectical antithesis in the potential for an acceleration of history, through the activation of a genuine, mass-based revolutionary struggle for substantive equality. The conservative nineteenth-century cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt, looking back on an earlier era of revolution, once described a “historical crisis” as a time in which
a crisis in the whole state of things is produced, involving whole epochs and all or many peoples of the same civilization….The historical process is suddenly accelerated in terrifying fashion. Developments which otherwise take centuries seem to flit by like phantoms in months or weeks, and are fulfilled.6
Today the structural crisis of capital provides the historical setting for a new revolutionary movement for social emancipation in which developments normally taking centuries would flit by like phantoms in decades or even a few years. But the force for such necessary, vital change remains with the people themselves, and rests on humanity’s willingness to constitute itself as both subject and object of history, through the collective struggle to create a just and sustainable world. This, Mészáros insists, constitutes the unprecedented challenge and burden of our historical time.
- ↩ Chávez first called Mészáros “Pathfinder” (Señalador de caminos)—referring to his role in illuminating the transition to socialism—in an inscription that he wrote in a copy of Simon Rodriguez’s Collected Works, which he gave to Mészáros at a dinner in the Miraflores Palace on September 10, 2001. On the same occasion they discussed Mészáros’s Beyond Capital, with Chávez exhibiting the copious notes he had made in his copy.
- ↩ Hugo Chávez, AloPresidente, May 3, 2009.
- ↩ On the economic crisis itself, see John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009); also pp. 181–85 of this book.
- ↩ The fact that Mészáros understood this from the start as “the structural crisis of capital,” and not merely a conjectural economic crisis, can be seen by looking at Chapter 3 of this book, “The Necessity of Social Control,” originally delivered as a lecture in January 1971, on his receipt of the Issac Deutscher Prize for his Marx’s Theory of Alienation.
- ↩ In addition to the present book, see István Mészáros, “The Communal System and the Principle of Self-Critique,” Monthly Review 59, no. 10 (March 2008), 33–56.
- ↩ Jacob Burckhardt, Reflections on History (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1979), 213, 224.