Top Menu

Dear Reader, we make this and other articles available for free online to serve those unable to afford or access the print edition of Monthly Review. If you read the magazine online and can afford a print subscription, we hope you will consider purchasing one. Please visit the MR store for subscription options. Thank you very much. —Eds.

The Dialectic of Structure and History: An Introduction

István Mészáros left his native Hungary after the Soviet invasion of 1956. He is professor emeritus at the University of Sussex, where he held the Chair of Philosophy for fifteen years. His book, Marx’s Theory of Alienation, was awarded the Issac Deutscher Prize in 1970. He is also author of Beyond Capital, Socialism or Barbarism, The Structural Crisis of Capital, The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time, and Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness (two volumes)—all published by Monthly Review Press. This article is the introduction to volume 2 of Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness (Monthly Review Press, 2011).

The investigation of the dialectical relationship between structure and history is essential for a proper understanding of the nature and the defining characteristics of any social formation in which sustainable solutions are being sought to the encountered problems. This is particularly important in the case of capital’s social formation, with its inexorable tendency toward an all-embracing, structurally embedded determination of all aspects of societal reproduction and the—feasible for the first time ever—global domination implicit in that form of development. It is therefore by no means accidental that, in the interest of the required structural change, Marx had to focus critical attention on the concept of social structure, in the historical period of crises and revolutionary explosions of the 1840s when he articulated his own—radically new—conception of history.

In his first great synthesizing work, the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx put into relief that, in the course of modern historical development, natural science, through its close integration with the material practices of capitalist industrial production, had become in an alienated form the basis of social life; a circumstance considered by Marx “a priori a lie.”1 In his view this had to be rectified by extricating science itself from its alienating integument. At the same time science had to be retained, in a qualitatively modified form, remade as “the science of man”2—in its inseparability from “the science of history”—the enriching and gratifying basis of actual human life. But to achieve this fundamental transformation, it was absolutely necessary to understand and lay bare the deep-seated structural determinations through which the creative potentiality of human labor, including the scientific endeavor of the social individuals, had been subjugated by the alienating imperatives of fetishistic/uncontrollable capital-expansion and accumulation.

For this reason the category of social structure had to acquire a seminal importance in the Marxian vision in a completely tangible form. Contrary to the speculative philosophical approaches to these problems dominant at the time, there could be nothing mysterious about the required analysis of the social structure. Nor could political vested interests be allowed to obfuscate the issues at stake in the interest of speculatively transubstantiated state-apologetics.

As far back as 1845 Marx forcefully underscored, in his contribution to the book written with Engels, The German Ideology, that, in the envisaged theoretical analysis, all of the relevant factors were amenable to empirical observation and rational assessment. For the overall conceptual framework of explanation had to be made fully intelligible on the basis of the ongoing practices of societal reproduction in which the particular human beings happened to be constantly engaged in their daily life. In this sense Marx insisted that the only valid theoretical investigation was a type capable of bringing to the fore, “without any mystification and speculation the connection of the social and political structure with production. The social structure and the state are constantly evolving out of the life-process of definite individuals.”3

This demystifying theoretical approach, which concerned not only the conditions of Marx’s own time but had a general validity as a structurally anchored historical explanation for the past as well as for the future, served a radical emancipatory purpose under the circumstances of the revolutionary explosions of the 1840s. And it continues to have a vital emancipatory mandate ever since that time.

By focusing attention on the actual life-process of the social individuals who were engaged in capitalistically alienating industrial production, it became possible to perceive, in Marx’s words, “the necessity, and at the same time the condition, of a transformation both of industry and the social structure.”4 That is to say, it became possible to see both the necessity of a profound transformation itself and the objective nature of the conditions that had to be changed. And the latter corresponded to the structurally determined characteristics of social life, highlighting at the same time the deepening severity of the crisis itself. For it was the innermost structural determination of these objective conditions themselves that called for the tangible and far-reaching practical leverage indicated by Marx. Due to the inherent characteristics of the encountered problems, the required leverage for successfully overcoming the historical crisis could not be other than the radical transformation of industry and the social structure.

This is why, in Marx’s view, a change in the political circumstances alone could not match the magnitude of the historic task. What was really needed was nothing less than a qualitative structural change capable of embracing the fundamental modality of societal reproduction in its entirety. Naturally, that kind of change had to include the political domain, with all of its general legislative as well as more limited local regulatory institutions. But it could not be confined to the political field. For, in their traditional way, even the greatest political upheavals of the past tended to change only the ruling personnel of society while leaving the exploitative structural framework of material and cultural reproduction in its hierarchical class articulation standing.

Thus, according to the Marxian conception, the “social and political structure” had to be transformed in its integrality, and such transformation had to be accomplished by the social individuals referred to in our last quotation from The German Ideology. As Marx also made it very clear in another work written in the same period of revolutionary upheavals, the historic task had to be accomplished by the social individuals by restructuring “from top to bottom the conditions of their industrial and political existence, and consequently their whole manner of being.”5

The question of social structure cannot be put in its correct perspective without a multifaceted dialectical assessment of the complex factors and determinations involved. For the plain truth of the matter is that, in any particular type of humanity’s reproductive order, the social structure is unthinkable without its properly articulated historical dimension; and vice versa, there can be no real understanding of the historical movement itself without grasping at the same time the corresponding material structural determinations in their specificity.

In this sense, history and structure in the human context are always deeply intertwined. In other words, there can be no structure of relevance abstracted from history, in its dynamic course of unfolding, in any conceivable social formation, nor history as such without the associated structures that bear the essential defining characteristics of the determinate social formation in question.

Ignoring, for whatever reason, the substantive dialectical interrelatedness of structure and history carries with it harmful consequences for theory. For an undialectical approach can only result either in a philosophically irrelevant anecdotal depiction of historical events and personalities, by presenting some chronological sequence of “before and after” as its assumed self-justification for “story-telling,” or in a mechanical cult of “structuralism.”

The first defect is well illustrated by the fact that already Aristotle ranked historical writing known to him as philosophically inferior to poetry and tragedy, in view of the anecdotal particularism of such storytelling accounts of events and circumstances,6 in tune with the original Greek term of history—“istor”—which means “eye-witness.” As to the structuralist violation of the dialectical interconnection between structure and history, and its replacement by a positivistically oriented mechanical reductionism, the once highly influential work of Claude Lévi-Strauss offers us a prominent example, as we shall see in considerable detail in the final chapter of the present study.7 At this point a single quotation—from one of his most celebrated books—should suffice to make clear the anti-historical as well as anti-dialectical approach adopted to these problems by Claude Lévi-Strauss:

History is a discontinuous set composed of domains of history, each of which is defined by a characteristic frequency and by a differential coding of before and after.…The discontinuous and classificatory nature of historical knowledge emerges clearly.…In a system of this type, alleged historical continuity is secured only by dint of fraudulent outlines.…We need only recognize that history is a method with no distinct object corresponding to it to reject the equivalence between the notion of history and the notion of humanity which some have tried to foist on us with the unavowed aim of making historicity the last refuge of a transcendental humanism: as if men could regain the illusion of liberty on the plane of the “we” merely by giving up the “I”s that are too obviously wanting in consistency. In fact history is tied neither to man nor to any particular object. It consists wholly in its method, which experience proves to be indispensable for cataloguing the elements of any structure whatever, human or non-human, in their entirety.8

Thus the profound dialectical relationship between continuity and discontinuity in historical development is tellingly rejected by Lévi-Strauss—a rejection, moreover, even insultingly underlined by accusing those who uphold the dialectical character of this relationship as being guilty of presenting “fraudulent outlines”—in order to enable himself to confine the allegedly “objectless method” of history itself, in a mechanical reductivist fashion, to the subsidiary role of “cataloguing the elements of any structure whatever.” In this way the literally vital objective determinations of actually existing history are completely obliterated.

However, paradoxically for Claude Lévi-Strauss himself, as a result of his adoption of a mechanical reductivist approach to history, “human or non-human,” also his key concept of structure—amounting to no more than an equally mechanical definition of structure as what is supposed to be “catalogued” in the form of its positivistically dissectable and cataloguable elements—is deprived of any real explanatory significance in relation to social development. And all this is done, according to Lévi-Strauss and his followers,9 at the peak of the structuralist influence in Western Europe and in the United States, in the name of the most fashionable “anti-ideological scientific rigour.”

To be sure, the general orientation of the various “post-structuralist” and “postmodernist” approaches by no means could be considered any better. They all share an extremely skeptical attitude to history and a complete disregard for objective dialectical relations and determinations. At times this attitude produces utterly mystifying pronouncements, bordering on vacuous sophistry. Thus the leading theoretician of “postmodernity,” Jean-François Lyotard—a repenter who once belonged to a left political group in France assembled around the periodical called Socialisme ou Barbarie—offers this kind of programmatic definition: “What, then, is the postmodern? It is undoubtedly a part of the modern.…A work can become modern only if it is first postmodern. Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant.”10 In the same sense, Lyotard’s anti-dialectical programmatic counter-position of the parts (the metaphorically eulogized “little narratives” or “petit récits”)11 to the whole (the a prioristically rejected “grand narratives”) is no less incoherent and no less capitulatory.

The issue we are concerned with here—that is, the profound dialectical interrelationship between structure and history—is not only theoretical, let alone purely academic. Its great relevance arises from the far-reaching practical implications of this relationship for the much needed emancipatory intervention of committed human beings in the unfolding trends of historical development. For without understanding the true character of the hierarchically articulated structural determinations of capital’s increasingly more destructive societal reproductive order, with its organic system in which the parts sustain the whole, and vice versa, in their now paralyzing circular reciprocity, there can be no significant improvement in the time still available to us.

The Marxian revolutionary science, addressing the difficult problems of how to secure an all-embracing structural change—feasible by firmly grasping the strategically vital objective leverages of material and cultural transformation—was formulated precisely for that purpose. Conservative anti-historical and anti-dialectical structuralist discourse, à la Lévi-Strauss, about “cataloguing” the dubiously identified constituents of the existent and its mythologized past, coupled with utterly pessimistic laments about “humanity as its own worst enemy” while exempting from blame the destructive forces and institutions of capitalist social and political development, is diametrically opposed to that. The same goes for the conservative postmodern chatter and prattle about the “little narratives,” devised in order to be able arrogantly to dismiss not only by implication but even explicitly in Lyotard’s words “the great narratives of emancipation,”12 so as to break with all progressive tradition in the historical past.

The deepest meaning of the Marxian conception is the passionate advocacy of a structural change to be accomplished in a global epochal sense directly affecting the whole of humanity. Without focusing on this dimension of Marx’s work, neither the central message nor the animating spirit of his approach is comprehensible.

Evidently the global epochal orientation of the structural change advocated by Marx, with its stress on the great urgency of the tasks to be confronted by the social individuals, due to the danger of humanity’s self-destruction, could only arise at a determinate point in historical time. Every social formation known to human beings has its inexorable historic limits. And despite all idealization of capitalism by the classical political economists of the eighteenth century as “the natural system of perfect liberty and justice”—not to mention the theories propounded by the later defenders of even the worst contradictions of this mode of production—the capital system can be no exception to such limitations.

The radical novelty of Marx’s conception was made possible at a time when the objective need for an epochal change from capital’s social order, to one qualitatively different in all of its fundamental determinations as a mode of humanity’s social metabolic control appeared with its peremptory finality on the historical agenda—with the onset of the capital system’s descending phase of development. This fateful reversal of capital’s historically unprecedented, and in many ways highly positive, advancement in societal reproduction coincided with the period of crises and revolutionary explosions to which Marx himself was a profoundly insightful witness. Due to this radical historic change, the capital system became alterable ever since that time only in some partial respects, no matter how extensive in scale, but not in its overall perspective, despite the grotesquely self-serving propaganda slogan of “people’s capitalism” proclaimed by the beneficiaries of the ruling order.

As we constantly witness, “globalization” is mystifyingly depicted in our time by the vested interests of the entrenched powers as an unproblematical extension of the capital system’s viability into the timeless future. As if “globalization” was a totally new characteristic of our own days, representing the happily eternalizable climax and the absolute positive fulfillment of capital’s societal reproductive destination. However, the inconvenient truth of the matter is that the Marxian critical vision was inherently global almost from the beginning, and decidedly so from the years 1843-44 onward, forcefully indicating at the same time the irreversibility of capital’s descending phase of development.

The onset of the descending phase carried with it grave implications pointing in their overall historic sense toward humanity’s destruction unless a radically new mode of societal reproductive control could be instituted in place of the existing order. This painful truth objectively appeared on the historical horizon as an epochal irreversibility around the middle of the nineteenth century, even if, in some parts of the planet, the ascendancy of capital was still far from its conclusion, as explicitly acknowledged later by Marx himself.13

The new historic phase conceptualized by Marx represented a fundamental contrast to capital’s ascending systemic phase of development. For capital’s triumphantly advancing phase, opened up in the first decades of the sixteenth century, resulted—notwithstanding its alienating impact on all aspects of human life—in the greatest productive accomplishment in all history. Disconcertingly, however, in the course of the final decades of the ascending phase of development, a capitalistically insuperable problem had arisen that could only worsen as time went by. Namely, the growth of a crisis-producing destructiveness—understood with all of its perilous implications by Marx himself more deeply, well before anyone else14—foreshadowing the implosion of capital’s reproductive order. An implosion not through some natural calamity but under the weight of its own insoluble systemic contradictions and explosive antagonisms at the height of capital’s societal dominance and global encroachment.

This contradictory inner determination carried with it, as the ultimate horizon of the descending systemic phase, the irreversible maturation of the historic limits of by far the most powerful societal reproductive order known in history. In other words, this grave historical maturation of capital’s absolute structural limits was foreshadowing not simply yet another periodic crisis and corresponding hardship, as the recurrent normality of capital, but the total destruction of humanity, as farsightedly anticipated by Marx. This is why he wrote in The German Ideology, in his own version of the stark alternative of “socialism or barbarism” well over half a century before Rosa Luxemburg’s famous warning, that

in the development of productive forces there comes a stage when productive forces and means of intercourse are brought into being which, under the existing relations, only cause mischief, and are no longer productive but destructive forces.15 Thus things have now come to such a pass that the individuals must appropriate the existing totality of productive forces, not only to achieve self-activity, but, also, merely to safeguard their very existence.16

Moreover, parallel to this qualitative change from the ascending to the descending historic phase, also the theoretical evaluation of the problems at stake as formulated from capital’s vantage point was fundamentally changing. Thus in contrast to “the anatomy of civil society”17 depicted in the “scientific bourgeois economy” by the great representatives of classical political economy in the eighteenth and in the first third of the nineteenth century, and generously praised for their “genuine scientific research” by Marx, the uncritical defense of the capital system became the deplorable general rule.

This change in attitude and perspective was fully in tune with the need ideologically to rationalize and attenuate the systemic contradictions that erupted and intensified at the onset of capital’s descending phase of development. Accordingly, the theoretical transformation for much the worse was characterized by Marx in his “Afterword to the Second German Edition” of Capital with these words:

Political Economy can remain a science only so long as the class struggle is latent or manifests itself only in isolated and sporadic phenomena. [However] in France and in England the bourgeoisie had conquered political power. Thenceforth, the class struggle, practically as well as theoretically, took on more and more outspoken and threatening forms. It sounded the knell of scientific bourgeois economy. It was thenceforth no longer a question, whether this theorem or that theorem was true, but whether it was useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, politically dangerous or not. In place of disinterested inquirers, there were hired prize fighters; in place of genuine scientific research the bad conscience and the evil intent of apologetics.18

It is enough to compare in this sense the writings of F.A. Hayek with the work of Adam Smith to see the devastating intellectual consequences of switching in the descending phase of the capital system’s development from the scholarly concern with the requirements of truth to the glorification of what is “useful and expedient to capital.” We find a crass hostility to anything to do even with the mention of a less obscurantist position displayed in a most pronounced way in the Austrian economist’s writings. It is particularly clear in Hayek’s blindly pursued crusade against the ideas of socialism, denounced by the author of The Road to Serfdom and The Fatal Conceit—as well as by his equally reactionary Austrian and other stable mates—as politically dangerous to capital.

Characteristically, Hayek’s pseudo-scientific and often even openly irrational capital-apologetics is most eager to do away with causal explanations altogether. He insists that “the creation of wealth…cannot be explained by a chain of cause and effect.”19 And in a telling summation of his aggressively capital-apologetic position, Hayek pontificates that “mysterious money and the financial institutions based on it”20 must be exempt from all criticism, adding in the spirit of his obsessive condemnation of the spectre of socialism, which he claims to have discovered as far back as the time of Ancient Greece, that “the high-minded socialist slogan, ‘Production for use, not for profit,’ which we find in one form or another from Aristotle to Bertrand Russell, from Albert Einstein to Archbishop Camara of Brazil (and often, since Aristotle, with the addition that these profits are made ‘at the expense of others’), betrays ignorance of how productive capacity is multiplied by different individuals.”21

The severity of these problems is underlined not simply by the apologetic character of the economic theories dominant in capital’s descending phase of development but by the objective reason why the formulation and the highly promoted practical implementation of such theories has become the deplorable general rule. What has fundamentally changed since Adam Smith is not the orienting standpoint and the class allegiance of the theoreticians in question but the historical ground of the standpoint itself from which their conceptions arise, in accordance with the change from the ascending to the descending phase.

Adam Smith, who conceptualized the world from the vantage point of capital, was no less committed to advocating the viability of the capital system than F.A. Hayek. The big difference is that, in Adam Smith’s age, capital’s social metabolic order in the ascendant represented the most advanced form of societal reproduction feasible to humankind. Also, the class struggle itself, on the side of, or against, labor’s qualitatively different hegemonic alternative order to the capitalist modality of social metabolic control, was in Adam Smith’s age still “latent or manifested itself only in isolated and sporadic phenomena.”

By contrast, in Hayek’s time the growing destructiveness of capital’s socioeconomic system, due to its irreversible descending phase of development, together with the eruption of its antagonistic inner contradictions in the form of even two devastating global wars in the twentieth century, could be denied—again from capital’s vantage point, but this time with a really “Fatal Conceit” capable of dismissing no less a thinker than Aristotle as an “ignorant socialist”—only in the service of the crudest and most belligerent form of capital-apologetics. Given this fundamental change in the objective historical ground of capital’s vantage point from the ascending to the descending phase, the need for a structural change in a global epochal sense—to be accomplished by the social individuals “not only to achieve self-activity, but, also, merely to safeguard their very existence,” as spelled out in the dramatic alternative between “socialism or barbarism,” could not be removed from the historical agenda.

Perhaps the most effective way of postponing the historical “moment of truth” and thereby prolonging the dominance of capital over human life, despite its growing destructiveness and deepening structural crisis, is the hybridization of capitalism. This hybridization in capitalistically advanced countries assumes the form of the massive injection of public funds into the revitalization of the pretendedly “free market” capitalist enterprises by the direct involvement of the capitalist state. This trend has been demonstrated already at the time of the—subsequently quite easily reversible—“nationalization” of large scale capitalist bankruptcy in several vital economic sectors of Great Britain in 1945 by the Attlee government of the “old” Labour Party, and not by “New Labour.” A necessary postwar rescue operation of British capitalism was characteristically misrepresented as a genuine socialist achievement.22

This kind of operation is carried out in order to defend and secure the continuing viability of the established reproductive order, thanks to a great variety of system-apologetic—and in that sense politically motivated—direct economic contributions by the state (from the funds of general taxation, of course), about which Adam Smith could not even dream. They range from the astronomical magnitude of the resources put at the disposal of the military/industrial complex on an ongoing basis to the trillions of dollars of financial rescue funds given to private capitalist banks and insurance companies not only in 2008 and 2009 but also in 2010, accepting liability to the tune of 90 percent for their future losses.

In historical terms this is a relatively recent phenomenon in the development of capitalism. Its potential extent and significance were still very far from evident in Marx’s lifetime. For “in the nineteenth century the possibilities of adjustment for capital as a ‘hybrid’ system of control—which became fully visible only in the twentieth century—were as yet hidden from theoretical scrutiny.”23

To be sure, this systemic hybridization is by now overwhelmingly important in prolonging the lifespan of the capital system. However, its modality of direct state involvement in “saving the system”24—through the transfer of immense public funds and even the full-scale “nationalization” of ever more serious capitalist bankruptcy—has its own limits and far-reaching implications for future development, and therefore it should not be imagined as a permanent structural remedy.

In 1972, as part of my critique of Max Weber’s definition of capitalism I stressed that

it is quite inaccurate to describe capitalism in general as characterized by the “investment of private capital.” Such a characterization is valid only of a determinate historical phase of capitalistic development, and by no means as an “ideal type” in its Weberian sense. By stressing the investment of private capital Weber uncritically champions the subjective standpoint of the individual capitalist, disregarding at the same time one of the most important objective trends of development of the capitalist mode of production, namely, the ever-increasing involvement of state-capital in the continued reproduction of the capitalist system. In principle the outer limit of this development is nothing less than the transformation of the prevailing form of capitalism into an all-comprehensive system of state-capitalism, which theoretically implies the complete abolition of the specific phase of capitalism idealized by Weber. But precisely because of such implications, this crucial trend of development must be excluded from the ideological framework of Weber’s “ideal type.”25

Naturally, this trend of ever greater direct involvement by the state in the transfer of public funds for the purpose of prolonging the reproductive viability of the capital system is totally misrepresented by the “hired prizefighters” and propagandists of the established order.

In some parts of Britain, as in Northern Ireland for instance, the—capitalistically managed and exploited—share of the “public sector” in administrative, health and educational employment, and other economic activity by now exceeds 71 percent, and the overall national average is approaching 50 percent. Yet the actual state of affairs that prevails in undeniable forms of greatly increasing hybridization is described, with characteristic neoliberal distortion and hypocrisy, as “rolling back the boundaries of the state,” as well as with variants of the same misrepresentation, like “the retreat of the state.”

In this way, just like The Economist, another prominently class-conscious press organ of the international bourgeoisie, the London-based Financial Times advocates a new “Beveridge moment,” in obvious reference to Lord Beveridge, an influential Liberal politician who, toward the end of the Second World War, theorized the welfare state in his book, programmatically titled Full Employment in a Free World. And this is how the editors of the Financial Times formulate the problem of the so-called “retreat of the state” in their lead article, under the present conditions of an extremely serious global economic crisis, in the midst of the campaign for British parliamentary elections, when it is already anticipated that the “national debt” will exceed well over £1.5 trillion (approximately 2.4 trillion dollars at the current rate of exchange) in four to five years:

Public wages, pensions and jobs must be cut. So must services. The Budget ought to spell out how that pain would be distributed were Labour to be returned to office.…The government is right not to cut too much too fast, but that is no excuse not to plan.…Labour’s deliberate vagueness is forcing what should be a deep debate about the role of the state—a Beveridge moment—into shallow waters.…Whoever wins this election will oversee the retreat of the state.26

Thus the real meaning of the “retreat of the state”—or, for that matter, of the cynical neoliberal slogan of “rolling back the boundaries of the state,” propagandized everywhere for a very long time—is the editorially camouflaged but totally self-serving advocacy of “planning” (and, in this revealing sense, the ideological champions of the “free market” are even in favor of “planning”) how to transfer the financial benefits released by drastically cutting “public wages, pensions and jobs” as well as social “services” into the bottomless pockets of the ever more dangerously bankrupt capitalist enterprise. In other words, the new “Beveridge moment” advocated by the lead writers of the Financial Times means, in reality, the savagely “planned” liquidation of the remnants of the welfare state by the capitalist state itself.27 This is done, of course, for the “good cause of saving the system” by securing, through massive state involvement, to the tune of literally astronomical sums, the slipping viability of capital’s reproductive order in the descending historic phase of its systemic development, indelibly marked by the deepening structural crisis.

However, the kind of class-conscious editorializing we can read in The Economist and in the Financial Times is only a mixture of quixotism and hypocrisy. The combination of these two ingredients is well illustrated by the fact that, on the same page of the Financial Times, dated March 23, 2010, printed in the immediately adjoining column of the paper to the quoted editorial, an article criticizes the Labour Government’s “Strategic Investment Fund,” which has been recently announced as the by no means negligible sum of £950 million, listing from it several items amounting to nearly half a billion.

The criticism expressed in this article is not directed at all against the yet again increasing state handouts to private capitalist enterprise—and in that sense there can be no question of “the retreat of the state.” On the contrary, the state is always most welcome to continue with its generous handouts. The “criticism” is directed only against the name of the announced Fund, which, in the journalist’s view, should be called “Strategic Reelection Fund.”28 Thus the author of this article did not want to question the essentials without which the system fully supported by him could not survive at all; he simply wanted to make what he thought to be a witty electioneering point.

The simultaneously hypocritical and quixotic character of arguing in the editorial article in favor of “the retreat of the state” is revealed by the fact that, at the present historic phase of capitalist development, it is really unthinkable to cut out the great variety of the public sector economy and corresponding employment expenditure that the editors of the Financial Times would like to see in the interest of strengthening the shaky private capitalist productive and financial system. For the systemic hybridization in the last hundred years had assumed such proportions—now amounting to nearly 50 percent of the total in the capitalistically advanced countries, as mentioned before, despite all protests by various conservative political forces (including “New Labor”) against it—that the now “planned” savage intervention in favor of abolishing this trend is bound to fail again. These self-righteous “sound capitalist bookkeeping” protests are monotonously combined with repeated failed promises to “redress the balance in favor of the private sector.” All they are likely to achieve is the imposition of increasing hardship on the masses of the people but not the abolition of the contradictory trend of systemic hybridization itself.

In truth, the issue “concerns the structure of present-day capitalist production as a whole, and not simply one of its branches. Nor could one reasonably expect the state to solve the problem, no matter how much public money is poured down the drain in the course of its revealing rescue operations.…The power of state intervention in the economy—not so long ago still widely believed to be the wonder drug of all conceivable ills and troubles of ‘modern industrial society’—is strictly confined to accelerating the maturation of these contradictions. The larger the dose administered to the convalescing patient, the greater is its dependency on the wonder drug.”29

In this sense, we are confronted here by a fundamental contradiction of the capital system in general. Whichever side of the contradictory determinations is pushed forward by its advocates, it is bound to be countered and nullified by its opposite. Thus, in the long run, on the one side, the astronomical sums required for resourcing the hybridization of the productively most problematical, and financially adventurist and even fraudulent, capital system through the extension of the capitalistically managed “public sector”—now manipulated even in the form of the cynically private-capital-favoring “PPPs,” i.e., “Private-Public Partnerships”30—are bound to be exhausted, and thereby the viability of ever-expanding state handouts is seriously undermined.

At the same time, on the other side of this equation imposed on capital by historical development, the virtuously self-congratulatory advocacy of “living within the available means and resources”—that is, a necessarily diminishing economic activity in tune with the proposed drastic cuts of “public wages, pensions and jobs” as well as social “services” in the interest of reducing the already multi-trillion and all the time still inexorably growing “national debt”—in a societal reproductive system that functions on the basis of its self-mythology of growth: an ultimately self-destructive “growth” that means nothing more than the alienating but absolute necessity of capital expansion and accumulation irrespective of the consequences—a reproductive system of this kind, operating on the basis of such contradictory principles, can only implode.

This is why only a structural change in a global epochal sense can offer any hope of overcoming capital’s systemic contradictions in the historic phase of its structural crisis. An epochally sustainable structural change whose fundamental orienting principle is the creation of a radically different societal reproductive order.

The systemic hybridization we see extended in our time, despite various consensual political attempts aimed at containing it, in tune with the mythology of the superior “private enterprise system” and its “sovereign individual consumers,” is part of a more general and a significantly worsening problem that continued to gather strength in the course of the last hundred years. The underlying causal determination of this problem could be described as the historically narrowing margin of capital’s objectively feasible alternatives for displacing and managing its antagonistic contradictions.

The now painfully obvious three-pronged destructiveness of the capital system—(1) in the military field, with capital’s interminable wars since the onset of monopolistic imperialism in the final decades of the nineteenth century, and its ever more devastating weapons of mass destruction in the last sixty years; (2) through the intensification of capital’s obvious destructive impact on ecology directly affecting and endangering by now the elementary natural foundation of human existence itself; and (3) in the domain of material production and ever-increasing waste, due to the advancement of “destructive production” in place of the once eulogized “creative” or “productive destruction”—is the necessary consequence of this narrowing margin.

Disconcertingly for capital, however, neither the perilously growing destructiveness nor the consensus-generating hybridization of the established antagonistic system—a hybridization that has been used for a long time for the purpose of displacing capital’s antagonisms in the capitalistically most powerful countries, and it will be used in that way for as long as its economic and political viability is not undermined by the intensifying structural crisis—can offer any long-term solution to the objectively narrowing margin.

It is part of the essential defining characteristics of any antagonistic system that it is structurally incapable of resolving its inner contradictions. That is precisely what objectively defines it as an antagonistic system. Accordingly, such a system must institute other ways of dealing with or managing—for as long as it can—its systemic contradictions in the absence of the possibility or viability of solving or resolving them. For a historically viable and sustainable solution would turn the capital system itself into a non-antagonistic way of “doing away with” its de facto structurally entrenched and hierarchically exploitative determinations that, contrary to the wishful projection of “people’s capitalism,” in reality define it as an insuperably antagonistic societal reproductive order. Unsurprisingly, therefore, by far the most favored and ubiquitously promoted ideology of capital-apologetics is precisely the elaborate or blatant denial of even the remote possibility of historically created (and historically supersedable) systemic antagonism, tellingly misrepresented as individual conflict, which is supposed to be determined forever by “human nature itself.”

Nevertheless, such denial of systemic antagonism by the ruling ideology, irrespective of how elaborately camouflaged or cynically blatant it might be, cannot spirit away the underlying problem itself. Indeed, this problem can only grow in severity in the time ahead of us, as it has already done under the historical circumstances of the last few decades, marked by capital’s worsening structural crisis. For there are only two ways in which an antagonistic societal reproductive order can deal with its fundamental systemic contradictions: (1) by temporarily displacing or exporting them; or indeed (2) by imposing them with all means at its disposal on its adversary, including the most violent and destructive ones. In this twofold sense:

  1. By displacing the antagonisms, in whichever way is practicable under the prevailing conditions. As, for instance, in all varieties of exporting the internal contradictions in the form of the well-known British Empire “gunboat diplomacy” of socially mystifying, and chauvinistic consensus-generating imperialist domination, transubstantiated and propagandized as “the white man’s burden.” Or, alternatively, by engaging in the practices of the militarily less obvious but economically/politically more effective post-Second World War “modernizing” global encroachment by “advanced capital” over the less developed areas of the planet31 in agreement with the pretendedly “post-imperialist” ideology—doing so for as long as this displacing/exporting modality of the management of capital’s systemic antagonisms by the internationally for-the-time-being dominant powers (and, of course, only by some of them, at the expense of others) remains feasible;
  2. By ruthlessly imposing on the class adversary the violently repressive imperatives of capital’s intensified class rule in situations of worsening crisis and sharpening class conflict, casting aside—in the name of socially required and “justified” states of emergency—even the pretences of “democracy and the rule of law.” Or, in the case of inter-imperialist systemic confrontations, by imposing on the weaker rivals and state antagonists the “non-negotiable” demands and interests of the most dominant military power or powers—and on the widest scale, with all possible means, including the weapons of a total war—as demonstrated by two world wars in the twentieth century.

The trouble for the ruling order is that neither the exporting displacement of the capital system’s antagonistic contradictions through capital’s global encroachment, together with its devastating impact by now even on nature, which could be sustained with relative ease for a very long time in the past, nor the violent imposition of the systemic antagonisms on the adversary to be subdued by the ultimate force of a total war is readily feasible in our time. Today there remain no significant areas of the planet to be encroached upon by the dominant capitalist powers. Neither by direct military imperialist invasion nor by newly instituted “modernizing” economic domination. For the global ascendancy of capital described by Marx in his earlier mentioned letter to Engels32 has been historically accomplished. In other words, capital’s global encroachment is now complete, even if not in the idyllic form of “globalization”33 glorified by its professional ideologists and “hired prizefighters.” Capital now dominates and exploits our entire planet in every way it can, in the increasingly unstable form of its three-pronged destructiveness; but it can neither resolve nor suitably displace its structural antagonisms and explosive contradictions in the interest of untroubled capital-expansion and accumulation.

Moreover, capital’s traditional “ultimate solution” of the aggravating problems, through unlimited war waged in the past against the potential or real enemy, has become impracticable, as a result of the invention of the now fully operational weapons of mass destruction that would totally destroy humanity in the event of yet another global war. The continuing partial wars—even when using the callously idealized military strategy of “overwhelming force,” with immense and even more callously named “collateral damage” inflicted on the people, as in Vietnam and elsewhere—can only deepen the capital system’s structural crisis, instead of offering a way out of it in the traditional mould of the imperialist victor and the defeated.

In this way, the narrowing margin of capital’s alternatives for managing its internal antagonisms—which is inseparable from capital’s descending phase of development—carries serious implications for the future. For the sobering truth is—and always remains—that structural problems require structural solutions. And that calls, as we shall see below, for epochally sustainable structural remedies in a genuine socialist spirit, feasible only through the reconstitution of the historical dialectic which has been radically subverted by capital’s antagonisms in the course of the descending phase of its systemic development. That is how capital’s social metabolic order that once achieved by far the greatest productive advancement in history has been turned into its opposite, articulated as by far the most destructive system of structural determinations directly endangering humanity’s survival in our planetary household.

However, notwithstanding all vested interests to the contrary, the irrepressible historical dimension of the established order should not be ignored, and the actual character of the determinations at its roots should not be misconceived. For social structures—even the most powerfully entrenched ones, such as capital’s societal reproductive order—cannot prevail as the “law of gravity” asserting itself in the world of natural necessity. Nor should one imagine historical necessity as the model of the natural law, as capital-apologists like to misrepresent the claimed eternal validity of their own system, while falsely accusing Marx, in his view of the world, of being an “economic determinist.” In Marx’s dialectical conception, the unfolding phases of historical necessity are envisioned as, in due course, necessarily “vanishing necessity,” and the social structures—described by him as “constantly evolving out of the life-process of definite individuals”—are subject to the deepest historical qualifications. This is what the dialectic of structure and history amounts to.

For history and structure, in the human context, are always profoundly intertwined, and history itself is necessarily open-ended. The complexities and contradictions of globalization, unavoidable in our time, cannot alter that. They can only underline the heightened responsibility for confronting the challenges involved, as it is made clear in the present study. Truly, “the stakes are not a row of beans” (“nem babra megy a játék”), as a Hungarian adage appropriately puts it.


  1. Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (London: Lawrence and Wishart: London, 1959), 110.
  2. Ibid., 111.
  3. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1975), 5:35 (henceforth MECW).
  4. Ibid., 41.
  5. Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1936), 123. Written in the winter of 1846–47, this book was first published in French in 1847.
  6. See Aristotle, Poetics, chapters 8 and 9.
  7. See Section 6.4 in this book (forthcoming).
  8. Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (London: George Weidenfeld and Nicholson Ltd., 1966), 261–62. The French original, La pensée sauvage, was published by Plon, in Paris, in 1962. Lévi-Strauss’s tirades against “transcendental humanism” were later echoed by Louis Althusser and his circle as a key defining characteristic of their “structuralist Marxism,” with its curious “theoretical anti-humanism.”
  9. See the first three pages of Section 6.4 in this book (forthcoming).
  10. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1979), 79.
  11. Ibid., 60.
  12. Lyotard, “Universal History and Cultural Differences,” The Lyotard Reader (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 318.
  13. See in this respect Marx’s seminally important letter to Engels, October 8, 1858.
  14. As his great companion in arms, Engels recognized and highlighted it: “Marx stood higher, saw further, and took a wider and quicker view than all the rest of us.” Engels, “Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Selected Works, vol. 2 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1951), 349.
  15. MECW, 5:52.
  16. Ibid., 5:87.
  17. Marx’s expression used in his “Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” about the major theoretical achievements conceived in the spirit of capital’s standpoint by the outstanding intellectual figures of the bourgeoisie in the ascendant.
  18. Marx, Capital (Moscow: Foreign Language Publishers, 1959), 1:14.
  19. F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: the Errors of Socialism (London: Routledge, 1988), 99.
  20. Ibid., 101. This blatant apologetics of what is “useful and expedient to capital” must be music to the ears of those who could see no reason why we should even try to control the catastrophically dangerous global financial system that now engulfs irresponsibly misappropriated and wasted trillions of dollars in the field of production. Many years ago I quoted from a London Sunday Times article that “to cover some cash shortages General Motors has dipped into its $15 billion pension fund, as it can under American law. But now $8.9 billion of money set aside for pensioners is unfounded.” And I commented in my book Beyond Capital that in this sense “fraudulence is not marginal or exceptional but belongs to the normality of the capital system” (xx). Recently the industrial giant General Motors, once boasting about its own might by saying that its budget exceeded that of the state of Belgium, had to be rescued from its bankruptcy by the state, despite its revealing treatment of its workers’ pension funds, “under American law.”
  21. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit, 104.
  22. This kind of misrepresentation goes back a very long time in history. Engels criticized it in a note attached in 1892 to the English edition of his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific by pointing out; “Of late, since Bismarck went in for State-ownership of industrial establishments, a kind of spurious Socialism has arisen, degenerating, now and again, into something of flunkeyism, that without more ado declares all State-ownership, even of the Bismarckian sort, to be socialistic.” Quoted from Marx & Engels, Selected Works, 2:135.
  23. István Mészáros, Beyond Capital (London: Merlin Press, 1995), xxi.
  24. See the open admission by one of the most obviously class-conscious weekly publications of the international bourgeoisie, The Economist, that the fundamental merit of the trillions of dollars “invested” in the good cause of capitalist bankruptcy during the recent crisis is “saving the system,” as explicitly highlighted with oversized characters on the front cover of its issue dated October 11, 2008.
  25. István Mészáros, “Ideology and Social Science,” paper presented to an Interdisciplinary Seminar of the Division of Social Science at York University, Toronto, January 1972. First published in The Socialist Register, in 1972. Ideology and Social Science republished it in India as a separate volume (New Delhi: Critical Quest, 2010). The quotation is taken from page 10 of this easily accessible recent volume.
  26. “Darling [the name of the British Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer] must give a reality Budget: The UK state will be cut back; Labour must tell us how.” Editorial, Financial Times, March 23, 2010.
  27. This means, of course, the ever more active direct involvement of the state in economic matters, rather than its “retreat.
  28. See Brian Groom, “Call It the Strategic Re-election Fund,” Financial Times, March 23, 2010.
  29. From The Necessity of Social Control, my Isaac Deutscher Memorial lecture delivered at the London School of Economics on January 26, 1971, quoted from page 82 of my book The Structural Crisis of Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).
  30. It transpires, even through The Economist, how absurdly wasteful and mismanaged such “Partnerships” are for generously compensating the shareholders of bankrupt capitalist enterprises, heavily promoted by the “New Labour” government. Thus we read in The Economist on May 15, 2010, under the title: “The Tube upgrade deals. Finis: The end of the line for Britain’s biggest private finance initiative” that “In theory the PPP was meant to harness the efficiency of the private sector and, in return for healthy profits, transfer risks to the firms doing the work. In fact neither Tube Lines nor Metronet could make the deals work. Metronet was badly managed, and risk transfer proved to be a mirage: the firm went bankrupt in 2007 and the government bailed out its creditors to the tune of about £2 billion” (40; the following quotes are ibid.). This kind of arrangement means that in the “Private-Public Partnership” the word “Private” equals “healthy profits,” and the word “Public,” the huge losses (in this particular case nearly $3 billion) transferred to the shoulders of the working classes at the mercy of capitalist bankruptcy eagerly bailed out by the state. Nor is it possible to exempt from responsibility the “impartial consultancy firms” that “expertly” help to justify and impose on society such fictitiously beneficial ventures. Thus “as the partnership was being put together, PricewaterhouseCoopers, a [prominent] consultancy, predicted that the private sector could extract savings of up to 30%, a figure that informed the entire project. But the consultancy ‘published no adequate evidential basis for that figure,’ says Stephen Glaister, an academic who has followed the saga.” And that is by no means the end of the story regarding this system of institutionalized irresponsibility. For “On May 11 Chris Bolt, the PPP’s referee, published a review of Metronet’s old contracts, now also run in-house by TFL [Transport for London]. It was ‘disappointing,’ he said, to note that TFL had changed the way it did the accounts making comparison with Tube Lines, and pre-takeover Metronet impossible.” Accordingly, in full conformity to the usual legally complicitous system of institutionalized irresponsibility, no one can be taken to task for the colossal waste. But who can seriously believe that this system of state-sponsored and catastrophically wasteful irresponsibility in the service of capitalist bankruptcy can be sustained forever?
  31. Also in this respect the historical dimension of the structurally prevailing displacement is obvious. The pretended justification of “modernizing” strategies is provided by the historically acquired (but unmentioned) exploitative privileges of the handful of capitalist countries involved, falsely promising the universal diffusion of the projected “development” in the total absence of any real ground in its support, as for instance in Walt Rostow’s grotesque theory of “takeoff and drive to maturity.” (See his book: The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1960).) Also in the direction of the future, such “developmental theories” become totally vacuous as soon as the privileged “model countries” have to confront their own serious problems in the midst of capital’s structural crisis, despite their accumulated privileges, as they are forced to do in our time.
  32. See n. 13 above.
  33. See Martin Wolf, Why Globalization Works: The Case for the Global Market Economy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).
2011, Volume 63, Issue 01 (May)
Comments are closed.