‘Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness, Volume II: The Dialectic of Structure and History’ reviewed by Tony Mckenna

Reviewed by Tony McKenna

About the reviewer

Tony is a novelist and philosopher, author of Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist …


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.’

In exemplifying such an approach Mészáros draws upon Marx’s attitude to the classic political economists. He quotes Marx in the Afterword to the second German edition to Capital, who writes – ‘In France and in England the bourgeoisie had conquered political power. Thenceforth, the class struggle, practically as well as theoretically, took on more and more outspoken and threatening forms. It sounded the knell of scientific bourgeois economy. It was thenceforth no longer a question, whether this theorem or that theorem was true, but whether it was useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, politically dangerous or not.’ (quoted 17)

In its ‘revolutionary’ phase Capitalism must seek to supersede the post feudal regimes both in theory and practice. Revolutionary struggle is expressed theoretically and directed and concentrated therein. Political economy provides one attempt to rationalise and sanctify the need of the bourgeoisie to initiate a new historical moment based on a more advanced set of property relations, over and against the fixed, ossified post-feudal monarchies which were themselves choking the very possibility of development. But when the bourgeoisie’s great historic task is ‘conquered’, its ideological articulations are very swiftly narrowed, for they are no longer concerned with deciphering a creative and revolutionary transformation, but are instead reduced to the immediate and pressing requirement to defend the gains the bourgeoisie has won – i.e. to protect the status quo, and to inure it against any new ‘revolutionary transformation’ – something which can now only materialise in the form of the forces below.

In illustrating the consequences of this for theory Mészáros provides us with a telling contrast between the great eighteenth century political economist Adam Smith and the ‘pseudo-scientific’ twentieth century economist F.A Hayek. Hayek’s ‘pseudo-scientific and often even openly irrational capital-apologetics’ occur not simply because he happened to be a repellent and obsequious ideologue thoroughly enthralled to the spectre of power, but also because ‘what has changed since Adam Smith is not the orienting standpoint and the class allegiance of the theoreticians in question but the historical ground of the standpoint itself from which their conceptions arise, in accordance with the change from the ascending to the descending phase.’ (18)

It is the ‘ground’ or the structures of social existence and their historical interrelation which, in the last analysis, provides the decisive impulse for thought, even though such structures are mediated through a myriad of conscious forms which inevitably refract back, impacting upon and altering the ‘historical ground’ from which they arise. In considering the fundamental structures of social existence in their historical determinations and showing their dialectical interrelationship with consciousness as ‘totality’ Mészáros displays the highest level of theoretical acumen. In demonstrating how Smith and Hayek’s thought is, in the last analysis, shaped by the interplay of forces at the level of social existence, Mészáros is drawing attention to what Marx described as ‘practical abstraction’ though nowadays is more commonly referred to as ‘real abstraction.’

Mészáros contrasts ‘practical abstraction’ with Weber’s ‘ideal type’ in a particularly fruitful section. The ‘ideal type’, Mészáros notes, contains an almost platonic element. He quotes Worsley who says in his book, The Three Worlds, ‘Ideal types are all abstractions, perfect models which rarely occur in reality.’ (88) The ‘ideal type’ is a construction elaborated in thought, designed to provide the archetype toward which all real world developments tend, though seldom realise. The ‘ideal type’ is, therefore, an untrammelled logical-postulate which throws into relief the express deviations the forms of reality actually take. This is, of course, very different from the Marxist approach in which categories ‘express the forms of being, the characteristics of existence.’ (90) Mészáros cites Marx and his description of Adam Smith’s great achievement in conceptualising labour in its general form. Marx writes:

It was an immense step forward for Adam Smith to throw out every limiting specification of wealth-creating activity – not only manufacturing, or commercial or agricultural labour, but one as well as the others. With the abstract universality of wealth-creating activity we now have the universality of the object defined as wealth, the product as such or again labor as such … Indifference towards specific labour corresponds to a form of society in which individuals can with ease transfer from one labor to another, and where the specific kind is a matter of chance for them, hence of indifference. Not only the category, labor, but labor in reality has here become the means of creating wealth in general. (91)

In other words, Mészáros explains, ‘the general category of labor’ is not simply a ‘mental abstraction’ nor a ‘stipulated model’ which is used to describe real world ‘deviations’ but rather ‘a highly significant “practical abstraction” brought within the compass of theoretical consciousness by the objective logic of the advancing productive developments themselves.’ (91)

Smith and Hayek are considered in another vein too. Though they are separated by the fact that each represents a different historical phase in the development of capitalism, Mészáros argues that there is an underlying identity in their difference, for – their particular theoretical peccadilloes notwithstanding – they are nevertheless both ideological representatives of one and the same class. Both of them, albeit in very different ways, use their theories to reveal the ‘eternal present’ of the bourgeois epoch, and this, for Mészáros, is the fundamental feature of bourgeois thought more generally. Hayek is unsubtle and belligerent in his defence of the capitalist mode of production as the only mode feasible for human beings, crudely stipulating that any theory which favours ‘production for use, not for profit’ (18) is simply base socialism and, as a result, we are treated to the supreme historical irony of Hayek dismissing Aristotle as an ‘ignorant socialist.’ (19)

Smith, of course, is much more principled but nevertheless he too ultimately asserts the eternal character of the capitalist mode of production. Smith manages to vindicate the ‘eternal present’ of the capitalist epoch because, at the level of method, he ‘treats labor and the division of labor as human natural force in general, ahistorically linking the latter to capital and rent’ (277). Mészáros cites Marx on the same issue who says that for Smith `labor is in principle the source of value only in so far as in the division of labor the surplus appears as just as much a gift of nature’ which allows him to conceive ‘capital’ not in its historically specific form of ‘wage labour’ as ‘exchange value’ but rather in the supra historical guise of ‘human natural force in general.’ (277)

Many of the classical German philosophers accomplish similar transformations in their respective field. Mészáros cites Kant who argues – ‘Man is an animal who, if he lives among others of his kind, needs a master for … even though as a rational being he desires a law which would provide limits for the freedom of all, his egotistic animal inclination misguides him into excluding himself where he can.’ (248) Here, again, a historically specific form is transubstantiated into a supra-historical truth via the postulation of some ‘natural’ state, and Mészáros comments on this with great philosophical alacrity, declaring that it ‘takes the form of irresponsibly relativizing the absolute – the inescapable natural substratum of human existence itself-for the sake of absolutizing the relative. That is, for the sake of absolutizing the capital system’s historically attained, and historically anachronistic, ever more destructive, societal reproductive order.’ (332) Mészáros is ruthlessly logical in his exposition and, in my opinion, entirely correct in his categorisation of this essential aspect of bourgeois thought.

It is, however, the final aspect of Mészáros’ project which runs into difficulties; that is, with the characterisation of the ‘ascending’ and ‘descending’ phases of capitalism. As we have already seen Mészáros, proceeding from Marx’s comments regarding the ‘knell of scientific bourgeois economy’, argues that the descending phase is initiated at around the time the bourgeoisie conquers political power in parts of Western Europe. However there are other important considerations. Both Trotsky and Lukács saw the Paris revolution of 1848 as a critical turning point in the development of capitalism. Lukács regarded the significant and historic re-alignment of the bourgeoisie with the feudal reactionary forces it had previously attacked, as a key historical shift which would provide the basis for a more sophisticated form of philosophical irrationalism à la Nietzsche.

Trotsky, in part, drew on the same historic shift when formulating his theory of ‘combined and uneven development’ and its sibling – the theory of ‘permanent revolution.’ In addition any theorisation of an ‘ascending’ and ‘descending’ phase of capitalism, from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, should take into account capitalism’s world dominance achieved in the late nineteeth or early twentieth century, which meant there were no remaining non capitalist territories to exploit. Consequently a key pressure valve on the system was removed, whereupon the possibility for a global war rapidly built and built. And last but not least Lenin’s seminal characterisation of ‘imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism’ – the subordination of industrial capital to finance which ‘creates the epoch of monopolies’ – this too should also play a part in any attempt to trace the trajectory of the capitalist epoch.

Mészáros is, of course, highly aware of all of these moments. On page 498 he references ‘an irreversible trend of development from the limited local and partial toward the all embracing global and universalizable … the pervasive reality of imperialism … is not intelligible at all without the monopolistic trends of economic development with which political and military imperialism is combined.’ On page 351 he writes `the activation of capital’s absolute limits, under the conditions of the systems global encroachment, directly engenders the very survival of the human species.’ But in other places he describes the ‘descending’ phase as already ‘irreversible’ ‘from the years 1843-44 onwards.’ (16)

The problem is not that Mészáros does not register these various other ‘moments’ but more that he doesn’t attempt to examine them systematically and draw them into a necessary interrelation. Hence his categorisations of ‘ascending’ and ‘descending’ sometimes feel inconsistent and ultimately he abandons more immanent structural-historical categories in favour of external ones, so now the descending phase of capitalism is categorised by, among other things ‘the ecological crisis’. But the ecological crisis, if it is assumed to be man-made, has no place in such a theorisation. China, it might be argued, has experienced in recent decades a super-accelerated ‘primitive accumulation’ and, in this regard, might be said to be in an ‘ascending’ phase but yet it is also one of the worst environmental polluters. The environmental crisis, if described as a man-made phenomenon, is an expression of a quantitative increase in the level of technology, rather than a qualitative shift in the structures and forms of social existence. In other words, Mészáros here falls foul of the technological determinism he so eloquently refuted.

Nevertheless this is in many ways an excellent book written by a master in the field. Mészáros’ defence of base/superstructure is the best I have come across and changed my own perspective on the issue, for which I am grateful. However his account of the ascending and descending phases of capitalism feels incomplete in as much as it seems to raise more questions than it answers.

4 December 2011

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