In MR Conversations: Beyond Leviathan, Monthly Review’s Editor, John Bellamy Foster, and Hungarian Sociologist Attila Melegh, come together to discuss István Mészáros’ final work, Beyond Leviathan—one of the few books in the last fifty years to return to one of the deepest and most radical notions at the roots of Marxian thought, that is, the nature of the State and the necessity of its eradication.
NOTE: The below includes archival audio tape from a talk Mészáros gave at the Brecht Forum on April 3, 1997 that has barely been heard by any other than those present that day — until now.
From the Introduction to Beyond Leviathan
by John Bellamy Foster
ON SEPTEMBER 19, 2012, ISTVÁN MÉSZÁROS WROTE TO ME, “There is one more book I would very much like to write, and I am working on it as much as my strength permits. This is, as you know, my long-standing project on the state of which some partial results have been incorporated into my books, including Beyond Capital and Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness. Probably six to nine months will be still dedicated to the strictly preparatory stage, but I hope that in July next year when you come to England I can show you something.” Three years later, on October 10, 2015, he indicated: “I have the complete framework of the entire large book on the state worked out, after ten years of preparatory writing. (Some of it you saw in my big volume of files.)” It consisted at this point of “almost 200 little ‘articles,’ ” running from several hundred to a few thousand words in length. This book-length, handwritten manuscript, or what he called the “second version” of his work on the state, provided an extraordinarily detailed theoretical analysis of the problem of the state, stretching over the entire history of political theory from Plato and Aristotle to the present. This second-version draft was to be succeeded, in his plan, by a “third version,” which was to be the final draft of his book, Beyond Leviathan: Critique of the State.
In the preface to Beyond Leviathan Mészáros points out that “All of the major theories of the state have been produced in historical periods of great turmoil, from Plato, Aristotle and Augustine through Machiavelli and Hobbes, all the way to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and G. W. F. Hegel, as well as, of course, to Marx, V. I. Lenin, and their comrades like Rosa Luxemburg and Antonio Gramsci” (44). In all the important theories of the state, prior to historical materialism, however, the modern forms of which were written in the ascending phases of bourgeois development, the goal was some kind of corrective adjustment—no matter how radical-seeming in their particular historical contexts—of the existing “command structure [superimposed] on societal decision-making.” This applied also to the great utopian theories of the state. In contrast, the “Marxian-inspired” approach to the state represented a sharp break with all that had come before, in its insistence on the necessity for “the ‘withering away of the state’—or the total eradication of the state—from the modality of social reproduction.” This is because it was impossible to go “beyond capital” (and beyond its basis in alienated labor and class) without also going beyond the state, as a form of “expropriation of humanity’s overall decision-making process” (45). Merely overthrowing the capitalist state was never enough because it could be restored; what was needed was its eradication (144). It was this challenge of developing a full-edged Critique of the State, exploring the entire history of state theory, in order to delineate the origins, development, and eventual demise of the state as a form of society’s inescapable need for an overall command structure, that forms the structure of Beyond Leviathan.
It is crucial to understand how radically Mészáros’s critique of the state, viewed in this way, differs from liberal theories of the state, as well as from more critical/social-democratic approaches struggling to operate within the parameters established by the hegemonic liberal- democratic theory….
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. The liberal approach focused on a “Theory of Law, represented as the Theory (or Philosophy) of the State.” This was manifested in idealized form in so-called representative democracy backed by legal rights—albeit rights that were constantly transgressed insofar as they contravened the modalities of capital (198). This hegemonic liberal view normally avoided the whole question of “might is right” as practiced by capitalist society, including its political command system in the state. Or else it sought, in contradictory fashion, to attempt to legitimate the existing state and its frequent “emergency” transgressions of its own rules, as in Max Weber’s claim that the state is the entity with a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (9:3/10:1).20 At all times liberal theories of the state, in the period of the descending phase of capital, sought to disguise or downplay the reality of class, thereby putting any realistic approach to the state permanently out of reach….
Indeed, Mészáros contended that behind the endless disquisitions on the various rights, laws, and institutions of the hegemonic state form was the poverty of the contemporary liberal-democratic conception of the state itself, which was incapable of answering, except in the most circular, ahistorical, contradictory, and self-legitimating ways, the question “What Is the State?” (202–04).21 In this respect, the great theories of the bourgeois state, developed during the ascending phase of capitalism, most importantly Hobbes’s Leviathan and Hegel’s The Philosophy of Right, stood far above all other liberal theories of the state, in their power and profundity (187).
….Although highlighting the weaknesses of contemporary liberal theories of the state in this way, Mészáros did not turn for answers either to the Old Left or the New Left, with the result that he “had to follow a lonely road.”28 In the case of the Old Left, his critique of the continuing role of capital in post-revolutionary societies exercised in and through the state, placed him frequently in conflict with Social Marxism, as in the case of the Italian Communist Party. At the same time,he rejected the irrational swings between voluntaristic idealism and pessimistic structuralism (later followed by post-structuralism and postmodernism) of the British New Left. Although closest to the so-called instrumentalist view of the state associated with a figure like Ralph Miliband, Mészáros found such analysis hopelessly inadequate since it did not even begin to approach the question of capital’s order of social metabolic reproduction in which the whole question of the state had to be viewed. Consequently, no treatment can be found in Mészáros’s work of the Marxian debates on the capitalist state of the 1960s–1980s, revolving around the question of the relative autonomy of the state, associated with the work of Nicos Poulantzas and Ralph Miliband, or concerned with Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. In this respect, Mészáros preferred to point to the harsh lessons represented by such political leaders as François Mitterrand and Tony Blair, not to mention Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
The real challenge of a theory of Leviathan had to be seen in terms of the existence of capital as an organic system, in which the various parts reinforced the whole, and thus could only be transcended through the long uphill struggle to create an alternative system of social metabolic reproduction. As Mészáros wrote in an early proposal for Beyond Capital directed to a British publisher, “Perhaps more than anything else, the lack of a comprehensive analysis of postwar developments— social, economic, political and ideological—handicapped the ‘new left’ in its attempts at offering a viable alternative to the traditional forms of political action. Theoretical discussions tended to be fragmentary, partial, and a ected by ephemeral fashions.”29 Refusing the later tendency toward theoretical disarmament on the left in favor of a popular indeterminism, Mészáros rejected all attempts to set aside Marx’s metaphor of base and superstructure. Rather, he adopted a position, akin to that of Raymond Williams, that this relation had to be perceived in a historical and non-deterministic fashion, which recognized nonetheless the materiality of the state.
Since Mészáros was primarily concerned with the problem of the eradication of the state form as crucial to the socialist struggle, he took his inspiration not from the literature of the post–Second World War period, in which the analysis was overwhelmingly about how to carry out struggles within the parameters of the capitalist state, but from the theories aimed at the eventual “withering away” of the state associated with Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme and Lenin’s State and Revolution. Unlike most of the Western left, he was concerned with the conception of the “historical actuality of the socialist offensive” aimed at going beyond capital, beyond Leviathan, and beyond alienated labor.
What was called in socialist discussions “the withering away of the state” was, for Mészáros, “not a ‘romantic faithfulness to Marx’s unrealisable dream,’ as some people try to discredit and dismiss it.” Rather,
In truth the “withering away of the state” refers to nothing mysterious or remote but to a perfectly tangible process which must be initiated right in our own historical time. It means, in plain language, the progressive reacquisition of the alienated powers of political decision-making by the individuals in their enterprise of moving toward a genuine socialist society. Without the requisition of these powers— to which not only the capitalist state but also the paralysing inertia of the structurally well-entrenched material reproductive practices are fundamentally opposed—neither the new mode of political control of society as a whole by its individuals is conceivable, nor indeed the nonadversarial and thereby cohesive and plannable everyday operation of the particular productive and distributive units by the self-managing freely associated producers.
Judged from this standpoint, which denied the permanence of the state—conceived as a form of hierarchical decision-making or command structure imposed through various alienations on the underlying population—a whole new theory of the state in Marxist terms was needed, one that would encompass the origins, development, and eventual eradication of the state. Hence, Mészáros to a considerable extent accepted the claims of Bobbio and others that no fully developed Marxist theory of the state had yet emerged.
Such a theory could only be developed in a meaningful way in historical terms, addressing the major state theories and their underlying material relations from ancient times to the present. The theoretical structure of Beyond Leviathan was therefore concerned with the historic evolution and critique of the state and law, focusing on such key thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Niccoló Machiavelli, Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Tommaso Campanella, Giambattista Vico, James Harrington, Thomas Hobbes, Christian Thomasius, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, François- Noël Babeuf, Thomas Paine, Robert Owen, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Hegel, Henry Maine, Ernst Troeltsch, Otto Gierke, Weber, Barker, Bobbio, and Robert Nozick; together with Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Gramsci, Max Horkheimer, Ernst Bloch, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernesto Cardenal, Chávez, and others. Only in this way was it possible to account for the manner in which the state, civil society, the law, sovereignty, class domination, and power had arisen, along with the forces of resistance that pointed toward (or anticipated) the state’s revolutionary transcendence. No approach that simply began with the contemporary state, or even with the early modern state, was sufficient, since the Leviathan state contained features that tran- scended particular social formations and were inherited in part from previous historical formations. The path to the critique of the state thus passed through Plato’s hydra laws and nocturnal guardians, Aristotle’s treatment of equality, Machiavelli’s Prince, More’s Utopia, Hobbes’s Leviathan, Thomasius’s communal property, Rousseau’s general will, Kant’s perpetual peace, and Hegel’s Recht philosophy.
All of this, though, was an attempt to clarify the historical problem of the state. In contrast to all previous comprehensive theories of the state, Mészáros’s theory was aimed at the withering away of the state as the command center of capital along with the eradication of capital viewed as an absolute necessity, since the question was ultimately one, as Marx had said, of “ruin or revolution.”
The environmental and military cataclysms brought on by today’s Leviathan states are “bound to destroy humanity” eventually if an alternative mode of social metabolic reproduction is not developed (54). There is no choice for humanity, therefore, but to pursue a critique of the state aimed at a revolutionary praxis of going beyond Leviathan….