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Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness reviewed in International Socialism

Philosophical arabesques

Issue: 133, Posted: 9 January 12

Ross Speer

István Mészáros, Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness, volume 1: The Social Determination of Method (Monthly Review Press, 2010), £20, and Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness, volume 2: The Dialectic of Structure and History (Monthly Review Press, 2011), £20

Karl Marx wrote, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” With this in mind, István Mészáros uses this two-volume work to locate the philosophy and political economy of the past few centuries within the capitalist mode of production. Capitalist relations of production produce ideological imperatives that are expressed by bourgeois intellectuals, who Marx called the “hired prize fighters” of the bourgeoisie.

Chris Harman once wrote, “Marxism’s capacity to provide a non-contradictory worldview means it can also grasp the partial truths to be found in previous theories, and show why they end up in contradiction and falsity.” Mészáros produces a wide-ranging critique of bourgeois thought beginning from the position that the intellectual products of the capitalist mode of production are “firmly anchored to the need to articulate and defend determinate social interests”. They are not thoughts suspended in thin air but instead are directly related to the development of the means of production.

Mészáros is keen to point out the necessity of the resulting superstructural forms, that is, the “legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic” dimensions of society, for the continued existence and reproduction of the ruling class. There is clear emphasis here on the way the superstructure reacts back on the economic base of capitalism, preventing historical materialism from collapsing into crude economic determinism. For Mészáros, the superstructure is not a “reflection” of the base: “The dialectic is either everywhere or nowhere,” he writes.

Mészáros identifies a number of themes common to the partial societal view that is bourgeois philosophy. The most important is the tendency to universalise and eternalise contemporary social relations. He sees “the suppression of historical temporality” as “the most powerful methodological device in the arsenal of the ruling ideology”, highlighting the manner in which “the very idea of ‘making history’ is discarded, with undisguised contempt for all those who might still entertain it, since the only history that should be contemplated is the one already made, which is supposed to remain with us to the end of time”. Existing society is presented as unsurpassable; humans are denied the agency to shape the future of the societies in which they live. For Marx, by contrast, “every aspect of social life had to be explained in terms of its historical genesis and transformations”. In its drive to universalise and totalise itself, capital cannot tolerate the presence of alternatives. The “historical genesis” of social relations is obscured and thus any attempts at realistic transformation are rendered as utopian fantasies….

Read the entire review in International Socialism

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