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.

The system managed by the “invisible hand” of the market cannot, we are taught to believe, be altered through human agency because it is natural, universal and extends permanently into both the past and future. Of course, some non-Marxist thinkers deliberately obscure the possibilities of change, but even those who do not are simply unable to perceive any transcendence of capitalism owing to their partial view of society. For this reason Mészáros praises Adam Smith and reserves particular disdain for Friedrich Hayek while being critical of both. Smith deals with capitalism in its ascendant phase, where the system stills acts in a progressive manner, and therefore makes a valuable contribution to the understanding of political economy. Hayek deals with capitalism in its descending phase, when its destructive antagonisms have become clear. What was once a philosophy of progress, whatever its contradictions in hindsight, becomes crude apologetics for a system treading an increasingly thin line between continuance and destruction.

Despite all this, Mészáros is at no point pessimistic, pointing out that no ruling ideology can “be absolutely ruling”. Through criticism of bourgeois intellectuals stretching from John Locke to Hannah Arendt, Mészáros argues that the contradictions and obscuring mythologies of their ideas can become plain for all to see when analysed through the lens of the Marxist method.

Mészáros argues that the “fundamental structural antagonism between capital and labour” is “the greatest historical confrontation of our time”. Human agency is the key, not just in overcoming capitalism, but also in forming the basis for a new society. It is the very ability for people to live “in accordance with their chosen aims and objectives” based on “not simply formal but substantive equality” that defines a socialist society. It is the overcoming of the “stranglehold of exchange-value over humanly adopted and gratifying use-value” that must be realised for this to happen. History, however, remains open-ended. A common theme in Mészáros’s books is the potential for what Marx called the “common ruin of the contending classes”, for instance, through global warming or nuclear war. The urgency that Mészáros writes with is welcome, but it also points to the necessity of producing more accessible texts that can achieve a mass readership among the working class.

Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness is directed at an academic audience and its prose is likely to be offputting to a wider readership. It is, however, worth keeping in mind that this can be an unfortunate necessity when tearing through the various philosophers of capitalism, themselves guilty of presenting a worldview incomprehensible to the average person. Furthermore, Mészáros assumes a good knowledge of philosophy and political economy. He does quote extensively from the relevant texts to assist the reader but Social Structure will prove particularly difficult for those who do not start with at least a passing knowledge of political
philosophy.

Presenting a critique of 400 years of philosophy was never likely to be simple or short. As Marx wrote in Capital, “there is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.” Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness exercises this maxim brilliantly. It may be hard going but nobody will fail to gain a greater understanding of both the shortcomings of bourgeois thought and the necessity for socialism if they persevere through these dense but rewarding books.