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Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness, Vol. II reviewed in Marx and Philosophy Review of Books

István Mészáros, Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness, Volume II: The Dialectic of Structure and History, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2011. 509pp., $29.95 pb, ISBN 9781583672358

Reviewed by Tony Mckenna, a Hegelian-Marxist philosopher who has written for Critique: Journal of Socialist Theory, Monthly Review and New Left Project among others

Mészáros is a master dialectician. Having been mentored by Lukács, he is one of a few contemporary philosophers to have a viable sense of the depth of connection between Marx and Hegel and his contribution to Marxist thought over many decades has been seminal, earning him a variety of accolades including the Deutscher prize.

His latest book – Social Structures and Forms of Consciousness, Vol. II – has three central motifs. The first is a defence of the Marxian concept of ‘base and superstructure’. Second, Mészáros is committed to show how bourgeois thought involves the endeavour to depict, in one way or another, an ‘eternal present’ – that is, certain qualities of a historically specific capitalism are transfigured by thought and locked in an eternal and ahistorical guise. Finally, Mészáros wants to articulate the trajectory of capitalism in terms of an ‘ascending’ and ‘descending’ phase. It seems to me that the success or failure of this book is bound up with the success or failure to explicate these concerns.

With regards to ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ Mészáros is at pains to express their fluid and dialectical interrelationship. The ‘base/superstructure’ formulation has in Marxist scholarship often tended to yield a technological determinism whereby the ‘base’ is reduced to a narrowly material substrate – the technology of a society and its level of development – which in turn is thought to affect a corresponding level of social consciousness. In attacking such a view Mészáros is drawing heavily on the best traditions of Marxism, especially those which were set out by his mentor in his debate with Bukharin in the 1920s. What both Lukács and Mészáros realise is that ‘technique’ is not synonymous with ‘forces of production’ for the ‘forces of production’ include the productive class itself as well as the technology it utilizes in order to reproduce social existence. Consequently ‘the forces of production’ are, in Marxist terms, also ‘forms of being’ (39) which arise from social-historical development, and are not premised on a historical-technological development in isolation.

‘Technique’ is undoubtedly a vitally important component of the ‘forces of production’ but in conflating the two we create ‘a unilateral determination of the world of ideas by the material world.’ (57) Such a critique is relevant as some Marxists experience in this ‘unilateral determination’ the depth and power of their (non-dialectical) ‘materialism’ over and above ‘idealism’. This approach partly contributes to the scornfully dismissive attitude to Hegel which is prevalent among many Marxists today. But what they in fact do by permitting ‘the mechanical reduction of the base itself to one of its manifold constituents’ (57) is to allow for ‘the disappearance of all the relevant dialectical linkages and the replacement of the concept of social structure by that of the “base” narrowly identified with the fetishistic objectivity of technology.’ (57)

What is required is to maintain a ‘reciprocity’ between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ but we must be aware, Mészáros notes, that this should not take the form of an empty series of unqualified correspondences. Rather ‘reciprocity’ here is qualitatively unequal for the base does have priority of determination in as much as the ‘legal and political superstructure’, ‘ideology’, and ‘culture’ all necessarily rest, in the last analysis, on the ability of society to produce its material pre-requisites; an ability facilitated by ‘the social interchange of the people involved’ (100) as expressed through the ‘historical course of development’. (100) That is why, ultimately – ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.’…

Read the entire review in Marx and Philosophy Review of Books

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