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An invaluable warning against the State as a neutral tool (Beyond Leviathian reviewed by ‘Counterfire’)

Beyond Leviathan:
Critique of the State
By István Mészáros
edited by John Bellamy Foster
512 pages / $34 paper / 978-1-58367-949-4

Reviewed by Dominic Alexander for Counterfire

The state and capitalism are bound up inextricably one with the other. Far from being an expression of naturally occurring human economic relations, as its apologists regularly assume, capitalism could never have come into being without the pre-existence of a state able to enforce relations of class domination. To move beyond capitalist relations of production, Istvan Mészáros argues in this posthumously published work, Beyond Leviathan, we must equally transcend the state itself.

Mészáros wants us to take seriously the goal of the ‘withering away of the state’, not as a distant, theoretical endpoint, but as essential to the success of the socialist project. This is not in any way to be mistaken for an anarchist position where the simple abolition of the state would suffice (p.404). This is made clear at various points, but particularly when discussing the abolition of the wages system: ‘Just like the state, it can only be transcended through the radical restructuring of all those social structures and processes through which it necessarily articulates itself’ (p.429).

The state cannot be ‘reformed’ since it is not, despite what liberal theory would insist, a neutral institution. The state historically developed in order to enshrine class power, and so traps us ‘within the paralyzing confines of the hierarchical and antagonistic framework of the political/military domain’. This can only be broken through a ‘radical transformation’ in ‘our social metabolism’, that is in the relations of production of capitalism. New social relations, based on collective working-class organisation, would be required to frustrate capitalism’s ability to reproduce society in its own image, what Mészáros calls its ‘social metabolism’ (p.42).

Such a revolutionary change at the base of society would both enable and require ‘a radical social transformation that would deeply affect our modality of decision-making as much as in the elementary constitutive cells … of our societal reproductive order as it would at the most comprehensive level of global interdependencies’. That is to say, a socialist transformation of the state would require the democratisation of the workplace as a prerequisite for eliminating imperialist conflicts and power relations at the international level. Equally, only the end of imperialist conflict would enable the transformation of economic life to be realised:

‘In other words, the structural imperatives of going Beyond Capital as the material reproductive force of society and going Beyond Leviathan as the political/military overall decision -maker are inseparable’ (p.42).

Dialectics of transformation

It is important to remember that Mészáros’s frame is at a certain level of historical abstraction, rather than being a blueprint for how revolutionary transformation could occur in practice. If the task, put in these terms, seems daunting, it can also be pointed out that for capitalism to replace earlier ‘social metabolisms’ or modes of production, a similarly dialectical process did also occur, transforming social relations from top and bottom simultaneously.

Our society may seem saturated through with all the poisons of capital’s ‘social metabolism’. In fact, however, as Marx saw a century and a half ago, capitalism produces its own gravedigger. This is not just about the existence of the working class itself, but about how capitalism increasingly socialises production, with concentrations of ever larger entities and complexes, that can only really be managed collectively. The age of independent, petty production is long over. There is already, across the world, the potential for a very different ‘social metabolism’, but it is, as yet, stifled within the carapace of market competition and speculation, and the drive towards profit-making. Every tendency that Marx saw as objectively pushing society towards a transformation beyond capitalism has only grown massively in scale since his time.

Mészáros warns against imagining that one can transform either the state or the economy apart from each other. Similarly, he warns against falling either into the deterministic trap of imagining that the revolutionary transformation will occur by itself, or the equally dangerous voluntaristic error of imagining that revolutionary will on its own can overcome material obstacles.

The key to Mészáros’s thinking in all these arguments is the Hegelian logical concept of Aufhebung, usually translated in English as ‘sublation’. This is the dialectical synthesis in which something is not merely negated, or overthrown in the case of the state, but in being negated is retained in a transformed fashion. Thus the state, and the relations of production that sustain it and are sustained by it, can neither be simply overthrown or adapted to our purposes. They must be sublated into something else entirely, proletarian democracy.

In Marxism, the opposites of free will and determinism are also ‘sublated’, in the understanding that humanity makes its own history, not just as it pleases, but according to the possibilities inherent in existing material conditions. We are neither just driven blindly by forces beyond our control, neither are we able to transcend our material circumstances by an idealist effort of will. The climate crisis cannot be solved merely by an appeal for a ‘new mindset’, such as we constantly hear from liberal environmentalists. The material conditions in the relations of production need to be created that would sustain a different way of being and thinking.

The philosophy of the state

Liberal thinking constantly oscillates between the poles of determinism and voluntaristic idealism, on the one hand tending to be supine towards the dominant economic structures and imperatives of capitalism, and yet seeking to square the resulting social contradictions by flights into abstract, voluntarist idealism. The argument of Beyond Leviathan is directed broadly towards the problems and contradictions of liberal thinking about the state, which derive from the main lines of Western philosophy since Plato and Aristotle. Liberal or modern bourgeois philosophy, from its inceptions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, failed to escape the obfuscations and evasions of the traditions of political philosophy that went before it. Bellamy Foster, the editor of Beyond Leviathan, summarises one key theme:

‘Liberal-democratic approaches to the state, associating it with the rule of law (and right), failed to acknowledge the state’s own lawlessness, that is, the frequent transgressions of its own rules, in a situation in which there was no higher authority’ (pp.11-12).

Liberal theory at once affirms an idealised set of legal rights while ignoring that they are ‘constantly transgressed insofar as they contravened the modalities of capital’. It is forced to deny both historicity and class ‘thereby putting any realistic approach to the state permanently out of reach’ (p.12).

The problem that runs through the philosophy of the state, for Mészáros, is the denials involved in justifying the class-based state on the basis of its universality. The claim to universality is needed to justify the state’s persistence over time, and the changes of personnel, while avoiding admitting its foundation in class power. The philosophical problem is cast as a problem of how the state as an institution can establish continuity across ‘the unavoidable periodic upheavals and the ensuing reversals’ that are inevitable ‘under the conditions of antagonistic [class-based] material and cultural interchanges’.

Hence Plato invented the ‘Nocturnal Council’ of guardians, to be rigorously selected according to education and virtue to ensure the necessary continuity in its universality. However, Plato never defined his ‘single central concept’ that would bind his system together and provide for the ‘law’s irreversibility’, a lacuna which is ‘a constantly recurring rather problematical feature of state theories … to our own days’ (p.45).

Mészáros points out that ‘the demand for equality’, although arriving in its ‘most dramatic form’ at the time of the French Revolution, in fact ‘goes back in history to countless centuries’ earlier ages’. Hence, he explains how Aristotle in the fourth century BCE ‘had to dismiss such [a] demand with scathing remarks’. At the foundation of his political philosophy is the ‘staggering irrationality’ of designating slaves as ‘talking tools’ (p.99).

Unpicking Aristotle’s torturous attempts to justify the existence of masters and slaves, Mészáros shows how the philosopher had to search for some ‘common interest’ that binds the pairing. Aristotle’s foundational failure to do this only ‘reveals a perversely transfigured class interest that we find throughout history camouflaged even in the writings of some of the greatest philosophers’ (p.299).

Aristotle’s attitude towards slaves is usually dismissed as just a symptom of the philosopher’s time, but for Mészáros it is deeply symptomatic of the ‘iniquitous metabolic regulatory conditions’, i.e. class society, that ‘can pervert that shared fundamental natural equity’ and turn it into an ‘outrageously conceptualized’ picture of the exploited class (p.100). Indeed, the arguments in Plato and Aristotle spin around the problems of equality and justice until ‘the role of “justice” becomes the categorical denial of justice’ (p.304). Of course, bourgeois philosophy can only casually dismiss Aristotle’s conception of natural slavery as a trivial reflection of his times, because it too is beholden to the project of legitimating a class bound society and state system.

Hegel’s greatness and failure

In contrast to Aristotle, Hegel had to come up with a ‘much more sophisticated justification of the unjustifiable’ due to the much greater degree to which the French Revolution had put the demand ‘for materially substantive equality’ on ‘the historical stage’. Hegel pivoted towards the historical unfolding of ‘Freedom’, only through which was he able to dismiss ‘with undisguised contempt’ the drive towards equality as ‘the folly of the Understanding’ in contrast to the ‘idealized domain of Reason itself’ (p.100). The class character of Hegel’s philosophy is here underlined by the strains in his logic. His appeals to ‘Nature’ to dismiss equality sits oddly in his thinking, as this material explanation has to be ‘integrated into a monumental idealist philosophical conception, together with the “World Spirit”’ (p.270).

Nevertheless, it is this dismissal of substantive equality that drives Hegel’s philosophy into idealism, as a way of avoiding class realities. Marx famously found Hegel standing on his head, philosophically speaking, and this is why. The problem also leads, for Mészáros, to Hegel’s acceptance of the antagonistic state system, ‘firmly asserting not only the de facto necessity of wars but also their positive commendability.’ Thus in the Philosophy of Right, through ‘the necessity of purifying war’ the ‘“ethical health of the peoples is preserved”’ (p.101).

This horrifying denouement in the unfolding of Reason serves ultimately to support Hegel’s discovery of the state bureaucracy as the universal class, which brings his dialectical philosophy of history to a close. However, as Mészáros points out, neither an appeal to Kant’s ‘otherworldly “intelligible regime”’ nor Hegel’s ‘ethical state’ can rescue these philosophers’ constructions in a world of ‘interminable destructive and self-destructive wars’. In the idealist philosophers, the ‘identification of Freedom and Reason had to be circular because they had to cover and “supersede” [Aufhebung] the ground of their socially unmentionable antagonistic determinations’ (p.107). Hegel’s attempts to justify war involve a ‘stunted dialectic’ and a ‘most peculiar philosophical deduction’, as his thinking labours under the strain (p.248).

This is to say that in accepting as a given the requirements of class society, Kant and Hegel both doomed their philosophical systems to failure. Marx, of course, would find instead that it is the working class and its mission to realise substantive equality which truly represents the universal class, ending the philosophical evasions and denials from the ancient Greeks through to Hegel. The philosophical project thus becomes a practical one to make real the promises of historical development to find a developed, non-antagonistic world system, which can do away with the violence required to maintain class society both within and between states.

Historical limits of bourgeois state theory

The historicity of the state, and the failure of most philosophers to consider that dimension in any way, is a persistent thread throughout Beyond Leviathan. Of Aristotle it is observed that in his cyclical scheme of the various constitutions through which the Greek polis passed, he was unable to offer any explanation for those changes (p.87). For Mészáros, it is not until the era of the rise of capitalism and the bourgeoisie that its material historical development becomes an acknowledged issue in the philosophy of the state: ‘For a very long time it seemed to be workable to dismiss opposition to social antagonism, provided that the authoritarian imposition of order could prevail’ (p.74).

It is, of course, precisely because the old feudal order was giving way to the modern capitalist state that bourgeois philosophy could make the advances that it did. Rousseau deserves mention as one who insisted that ‘Liberty could not be sustained on its own, against those who were ignoring the demand for social equality.’ However, his ‘General Will’ as a solution to ‘antagonistic destructiveness’ depended upon a social ‘middle condition’ of petty bourgeois property owners that capitalism would necessarily destroy (pp.77-8).

Kant struggled to solve the problems of ‘social explosion and military violence’ with an attempt to see a plan in ‘Nature’, in his words, ‘to produce harmony from the disharmony of men even against their will’ (p.79). Along with Hegel’s ‘cunning of Reason’, all these philosophers were taking inspiration from the capitalist market: Adam Smith’s ‘hidden hand’, which brings harmony out of the chaos of competition. However, Kant’s vision of ‘Eternal Peace’ ended up as a ‘noble but totally utopian scheme of things’ (p.80). The realities of capitalist conflicts prevented any arrival at a solution.

It is the seventeenth-century English philosopher Hobbes, whose theory of the state, Leviathan, gifts Mészáros the title of the present book, and Hegel, working at the time of the French Revolution, who he regards ‘as the unrivalled peaks of the bourgeois theorizations of the state’ (p.187). The ‘substantive theoretical assessment of the vital issues … of their own epoch’ of Hobbes and Hegel, are in stark contrast to ‘the self-deluding disorientation of even some relatively progressive liberal-democratic’ figures of the era of world wars and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Capitalism as a social system in its ‘descending’ phase cannot match the relative clear-sightedness of its thinking in its ‘ascending’ phase. The argument is that any human progress to be made must be done so in spite of capitalism, or by breaking through its boundaries, and therefore liberal thinking about the state must now be essentially obfuscating.

Mészáros does not at all exempt the ‘socialist’ states from condemnation in these terms. The Russian revolution did not, in the end, rid the country of ‘the continued rule of the capital system’s metabolic order’. The return of capitalism in Russia could happen as ‘they did not have to restore the capital system itself because they had it already’ (p.145). Mészáros does not seem here to be quite endorsing a view that Stalinist Russia was a state-capitalist system; in appendix four, originally published separately, he names the regime as ‘post-capitalist’ (pp.432-3). Nonetheless, the lesson is clear that socialist revolution must entail a true Aufhebung of the capitalist state, and to realise a genuinely democratic economic, as well as political, regime.

Beyond Leviathan was intended as only the first volume of three in a full length ‘Critique of the State’. This opening volume was left unfinished, although almost all of what was intended is present, or rounded out with the four appendices added to the text. As a history and critique of the philosophy of the state, it provides sharp and fruitful insights which illuminate much of the falsity and evasions present in standard political discourse. As a warning that the state cannot be considered a neutral tool for the building of socialism, it is invaluable.

Read the review at Counterfire


Beyond Leviathan: Critique of the State

Beyond Leviathan: Critique of the State, by István Mészáros. Buy now at Monthly Review Press.

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