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.
In the course of sustaining the conclusion that capitalism has run out of progressive capacity, Mészáros makes some particularly interesting comments on the impact of technology in capitalism. A mechanical Marxist approach would be to assert the transition to socialism will occur when the technological forces of production have made a society of abundance possible. However, this cannot ever be the case within capitalism, since it produces scarcity as a condition of its continued existence. Technology, its development and its impact, is therefore always contradictory, in that on the one hand it promises improvement, new and better forms of prosperity, but in practice it must always create new forms of scarcity. As a result it appears as if the possibility of a society based upon abundance is an ever-receding prospect (pp.76-7). Moreover, our liberation from capitalism will not come from the arrival of any particular technology. Within capitalism, any new technology will produce its own deleterious effects (socially and ecologically), reinforcing the existing system and working against any of its potentially-liberating aspects. This dialectical understanding of technology and society underlines the point that the abolition of capitalism by social revolution is not an inevitability. We face the prospect of socialism or barbarism, and as Mészáros insists, that barbarism has an increasingly ecological dimension.
The role of technology is also of conceptual importance in the book’s pervasive concern with the problem of base and superstructure. One of the most serious errors that has undermined Marxist thought is the conflation of the social forces of production with technology. The assumption that follows is that at the determining core of the ‘base’ is technology as such, whether the iron plough or the computer chip. A society’s social structures then simply unfold naturally from the technological premise. Once again, Mészáros’ concern is that without a properly dialectical understanding of base and superstructure, the dialectic of structure and history cannot itself be understood, and bourgeois thinking wins through again.
Some have argued that the ‘base and superstructure’ metaphor is so hopelessly compromised by reductive and mechanical interpretations, that it would be best abandoned altogether. Mészáros’ discussion here is a good antidote to that intellectual counsel of despair, showing the real dialectic involved in the model, while noting that the paired concepts must not be understood as literally as mechanical interpretations tend to do; they are only ‘similes’ (p.54). Thus also, Mészáros exposes the limitations of the standard formula that seeks to rescue the mechanical reading, where the superstructure is said to react back upon the base, or some ‘reciprocal action’ is envisaged.
One clarification that ought really to be held in mind is that while the dialectic of ‘social being’ and ‘social consciousness’ parallels ‘base and superstructure’, these two oppositions should not be conflated (pp.112-13). Otherwise, some of the crudest parodies of Marxism result, whereby ‘thoughts’ as such are somehow ‘superstructural’ alongside, say, universities and monarchies. In fact, ‘social consciousness’ is crucial in the real social relations that constitute the economy itself. The publications of a Lévi-Strauss or a Mészáros, unimaginable in their present form without the whole historical complex of academic institutions, are superstructural. Also classically superstructural is the state, which, however, does not merely ‘react back’ upon the base, but under capitalism is fundamental to the whole system’s ability to reproduce itself. The nature of the state is constituted by the base, but thereby it is deeply entangled in maintaining particular social relations (pp.180-4, 218-20). Here is where the architectural resonances of ‘structure’ obscure the dialectic Mészáros is pursuing.
A mechanical understanding of base and superstructure can lead to an appearance that the Marxist approach to history has serious limits. For example, it can appear unable to analyse pre-capitalist societies effectively, where it is sometimes held that the superstructure dominates the base and not the other way round. In refutation, Mészáros develops a detailed argument demonstrating how superstructural ‘law’ emerges from ‘customs’ and ‘traditions’ which themselves help to constitute the social metabolism (pp.116-17).
This argument, developed from an extended passage in Marx on the genesis of rent (Capital, vol.3, pp.773-4, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1959), is a formal analysis of how a society transforms itself from an egalitarian, customary society, to one with class, property and law. The lack of historical specifics in Mészáros’ argument here should not imply to the reader that the analysis could not be born out in a real case. The perception, that custom constitutes part of the relations of production in a society without a class-based superstructure, is a powerful one. It could, for example, be used to explain the re-establishment of class societies in northern Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire. The imposition of Christian belief and custom was not some independently ‘superstructural’ intervention which transformed society by itself. Rather it constituted the means by which class and property were intruded into those customary relations of production in post-Roman societies, which had, at least partly, reverted to egalitarian and communal forms.
The conversion of barbarian kings to Christianity was not a series of unaccountable individual movements of conscience. It was instead the more predictable discovery on the part of warrior elites that they could turn the precarious and partial domination of their localised societies into a fully-expressed class system, with the help of the social institutions which came with the new religion. A society, with customs congealing through constant reproduction (p.116), is ripe for a transformation into a law-based class society. Yet this is no mechanical process, as it implies the activity of various social agencies attempting to turn the contradictions of their society this way or that.
Pre-capitalist societies often can appear dominated by superstitions and magical belief, in a way that suggests to some that ‘superstructural’ elements, that is to say belief systems, form and rule society. One can then rail against religion, abstractly understood, as being the entity that held (and holds) societies back from the advances gained by bourgeois rationality. However, once these ‘superstitions’ are understood as expressions of the social consciousness that regulated peasant relations, the harvest and the general rhythms of agriculture, for example, then they can be understood in terms of the social antagonisms and solidarities they really were. ‘Ideas’, abstracted from the social relations whence they arise, are not capable of moving history, or changing structures. However a social consciousness embedded in certain specific social relations can do so. It is this dialectic that Marx had in mind when he wrote that ‘theory itself becomes a material force when it has seized the masses’, in coming to his understanding of the revolutionary potential of the proletariat.
The complexity of the dialectic between structure and history here highlights why notions that the ‘superstructure’ can ‘react back upon the base’ miss the mark. Left at that, this sort of approach only maintains the mechanical understanding of the metaphor and then undermines Marx’s original analysis. Mészáros’ exploration of base and superstructure is therefore important and fruitful, yet it is certainly not an introductory analysis (a very important discussion that is nonetheless a suitable way into the subject is Franz Jacobowski, Ideology and Superstructure in Historical Materialism.
Mészáros seeks to show how this dialectic unfolds through the way it is embedded in the decline into destructive absurdity of capitalism as a social system. Without the revolutionary logic of this understanding of base and superstructure, history and structure, and one might add, agency and structure, those that Mészáros critiques are led unavoidably into a frozen conception of these categories. Thus they deny history in rejecting the necessity and possibility of revolutionary change.
Hence the closing sections of the book end with critiques of two thinkers whose operating assumptions deny or forego the dialectical insight Mészáros has outlined. Earlier, he points out that structuralist (and post-structuralist) discussions tend to make the mistaken assumption that Marx’s concepts are to be understood as ideal types in the Weberian sense, rather than as historical processes (p.88). That is to say, that ‘class’ exists as an abstract category into which real data can be sorted, rather than that class is a relationship that is formed in time, and emerges through developing patterns of social action.
To perceive Marx’s concepts through fixed categories rather than through their dialectical aspect, argues Mészáros, means that it becomes impossible to envisage revolutionary social change. Structures conceived using ahistorical terms, logically will not be subject to change. Not only does this exclude socialism as a reasonable possibility in practice, it also makes it difficult to deal with history in any satisfactory manner, since revolutionary social change has in fact happened repeatedly in the past (pp.90-1). It may be observed that those who, ultimately, followed Lévi-Strauss’s lead, the postmodernists, did indeed have considerable difficulty in accounting for change in history, and were broadly hostile to it as an intellectual endeavour (see Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (Granta 1997).
It is however possible for a thinker to grasp the importance of history in a way very sympathetic to Marxism, and yet for his social thought to be fatally curtailed by the acceptance of bourgeois methodological premises. This is the judgement on Jean-Paul Sartre, and his two-volume Critique of Dialectical Reason. The posthumously published second volume was ultimately a failure, but for Mészáros a very valuable one. Sartre held to certain premises, such as scarcity being a permanent feature of human history, and retained the atomised individual as the methodological point of reference. These starting points made it impossible for him actually to implement a dialectical approach to history. In particular, the atomistic treatment of individuals, and Sartre’s failure to grasp the mediations that overcome such separations to create organic social entities, leads to his perception of an unbridgeable gap between individual existence and the group or collective. Similarly, the lack of mediation in Sartre’s use of the dialectic means that history cannot form a coherent whole.
This is why the second volume, focused on history itself, was never finished in his lifetime. Sartre thus becomes a case study of an honest, even heroic, attempt to grasp history, philosophically and practically, starting from the methodological assumptions of bourgeois thought. Sartre’s ultimate failure here is therefore the real culmination of Mészáros’ own two volume assault on social philosophy under capitalism. The failure to find a workable dialectic between individual and group, the failure in fact to grasp the reality of the social individual, becomes in the end a failure to grasp history. This is an inherent tendency of all bourgeois social thought, despite early efforts, represented by Vico for example, to grasp historical change. The more that capitalism enters its ‘declining phase’, the more history has to be suppressed, and a gloomy universalism concerning the tragic limitations of human nature must take over.
None of this is merely academic, and Mészáros makes sure to emphasise the unpleasant political consequences of working within the limitations of bourgeois philosophical premises. Sartre’s life was an attempt to make his philosophy and politics come to a fruitful totality, and perhaps this is one reason why he gains Mészáros’ critical admiration. Lévi-Strauss is dealt with much more harshly, evidently due to the reactionary consequences of his conception that historical knowledge is ‘discontinuous and classificatory’. As a consequence of this assumption, Lévi-Strauss is able to make ‘exchange’ a supra-historical category that flattens history and eternalises capitalism. Mészáros likens this move to the ‘characteristic role to which it [the concept of ‘exchange’] is put in the aggressively anti-socialist crusade by Friedrich von Hayek’ (p.406). Lévi-Strauss has other toxic associations also, since his inability to conceive of an end to capitalism means that options to solve the ecological crisis become limited and reactionary. Ultimately, he mixes pure despair for humanity (‘its own worst enemy’) with a Malthusian agenda (p.402).
Without Marx’s historical dialectic as a guide, it becomes impossible to account for historical change itself, and as a result, political action equally becomes impossible. Mészáros, throughout the two volumes of Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness, is scathing about the intellectual passivity of bourgeois thought. Standing in contrast is the dialectical method, which Mészáros offers as a challenging, but revolutionary alternative.
Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).
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