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Social Structure & Forms of Consciousness Vol. II reviewed on Counterfire

Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness, Volume II



The concluding volume of Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness is an important defence of the Marxist dialectical method applied to history, showing that only this approach leads to revolutionary possibilities.

István Mészáros, Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness, volume 2: The Dialectic of Structure and History (Monthly Review Press 2011), 509pp.

It is a necessary starting point for any serious social analysis to be able to contrast the froth of events and personalities, things the pure empiricist would present as being merely ‘the facts’, with more meaningful structures which shape and guide individuals and events. Yet, while a necessary concept, the word ‘structure’ itself carries unhelpful associations. A structure suggests permanent and unmovable objects, rather than the constantly shifting social relations that are renewed and remade in cycles.

Structure calls to mind most concretely the great infrastructures of a society, its buildings, its roads, earthworks, canals or railways. And these certainly can have a long-lived and persistent impact upon social change. Yet human society is always in flux, and every relationship that constitutes it must be renewed and remade, whether on a generational, yearly or even daily basis. What then are ‘social structures’? They can partake of fairly permanent things. A network of roads is not just something that the state renews as it becomes potholed, but a structure around which much else that is a long term resource has been built. In Britain there are a fair number of main roads that go back thousands of years, even to long before the Roman era. So, society can be built around long-lived ‘structures’ of this kind, and yet change out of all recognition.

Another way to conceptualise structure is to remove it from the physical arena altogether and to find it expressed in the binaries of language and culture. This was the approach of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose ‘structuralism’ has been enormously influential over the last fifty years, spawning various schools of ‘structuralist’ Marxism, ‘post-structuralism’ and kindred approaches. If to reduce structure to the physical realm represents one unfruitful extreme, the Lévi-Strauss position could be said to represent the other pole. Early on in this second volume of Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness, István Mészáros makes clear that his concluding critique of Lévi-Strauss, and by implication all those whose thought is built upon his, is a major aspect of the work (p.12).

The central aspect of Mészáros’ argument is the impossibility of understanding structure except through history. Furthermore, the denial of history (which is more or less explicit in structuralism and its progeny) is the necessary result of a failure to understand the dialectic of structure and history. Associated with this problem are a whole range of issues, first of all of course, the use of the Marxist concept of base and superstructure. There are also such matters as the relationship between individual and society, as exemplified, in a problematic sense, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s attempts to reconcile existentialism and Marxism. While both Sartre’s and Lévi-Strauss’ work is seen ultimately in terms of failure, Sartre is regarded with considerable respect. In contrast, Mészáros has little patience with Lévi-Strauss, for whom history in itself was a problem.

Lévi-Strauss complained that historical knowledge is, of its very nature, ‘discontinuous and classificatory’ so that ‘alleged historical continuity is secured only by dint of fraudulent outlines’ (quoted at p.12 from The Savage Mind, all italics Lévi-Strauss). The ‘fraudulent outlines’ would be any attempt to move beyond ‘cataloguing the elements of any structure whatever’ in order to grasp the moving totality of history. Thus, Mészáros objects to this ‘mechanical reductivist’ approach to history, arguing that it makes it impossible to explain any social change whatsoever. Indeed, Lévi-Strauss seems to be saying that all that historical knowledge can achieve is to assign bits of data into pre-existing categories, perhaps with such labels as ‘class’, ‘hierarchy’ or ‘religion’. An understanding of how societies create their own structures in the course of social activity is impossible within the terms laid down by Lévi-Strauss. This refusal of any attempt at a dialectical analysis of society in history means that, for Mészáros, the concept of structure itself is reduced to ‘an equally mechanical definition’ (p.13).

Without this dialectic of structure and history, the book’s subtitle, it is impossible to explain social development, and social thought is reduced to an ahistorical game of static and mechanistic categories. The book ranges over a great deal of philosophical ground, but Mészáros returns frequently to the underlying perception that in an age where capitalism is in its ‘descending phase of development’, social and philosophical thought that retains basic bourgeois assumptions (explored in full in the first volume), are going to have to deny the real import of history. Thus the familiar attempts to claim that capitalism simply reflects the laws of nature, or at least of human nature, become ever more strident. Here, Mészáros catches Friedrich Hayek in an obvious irrationality: ‘He insists that “the creation of wealth … cannot be explained by a chain of cause and effect” ’ (p.18). This really is to shroud capital in its own ahistorical mythology.

Mészáros’ case is that capitalism can no longer provide any positive development for humanity. Worse, its contradictions have reached such a destructive and irrational impasse that we are fast approaching the point where capitalism must cede to another social system of production, or, failing that, humanity will be plunged into a very grim ecological crisis. Consciously or unconsciously, thinkers who remain bound within the assumptions of the capitalist social system must deny the real substance of historical change to avoid perceiving these consequences….

Read the entire review on Counterfire

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