Friday 6 March 2009

The burden of being a real Marxist

The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time: socialism in the twenty-first century, by Istvan Meszaros (Monthly Review Press)

Here’s a good game: in a twist on the usual foil of joining the dots between two unrelated figures, let’s instead play spot the difference between two of apparent similarity. István Mészáros and Frank Furedi, both emigrated from their native Hungary after 1956,  both acquired prestigious professorships in English Universities – in philosophy and sociology - and both are Marxists. That’s the resumes at least; but unlike their biographical similarities, the titles of their most recent books give the game away all too easily. On the one side we have István Mészáros with The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time: Socialism in the 21st Century, and on the other, Frank Furedi with Invitation to Terror: The Expanding Empire of the Unknown. The one hand promises the abstract and grandiose potentialities of the left, invested with Promethean hope; whilst the other offers a reaction to the dreary present. But who is essentially on the right path; whose torch burns brightest; who, to put it starkly, is the ‘real’ Marxist here?

Of course, this is not a review essay comparing Mészáros and Furedi; particularly not because of their shared, and frankly irrelevant, national heritage. We bring Furedi up by way of contrast, to highlight the great enigma at the heart of Mészáros’ polemic. In what way can a Marxist holding faith to the original message of Marx contribute something new theoretically? There are two routes from this conundrum: 1) ground Marx’s theory in contemporary conditions, and hold faith in Marxism as basically correct; in short, admit that reality has failed or history is following some secret tendency to reveal itself in the future. Or 2): try to productively correct Marx, sharpen his critique in light of facts that have come to emerge in the last century or so, and admit that on some points he got it wrong. One or the other has to give: either theory or reality.

The last strand of 20th century Marxism to pursue the latter track – the ‘school’ of Italian operaismo – ultimately ended with the late work of Antonio Negri in which Marxism was eclipsed altogether. Yet rather like the fact that the United States has not declared war since 1941, so-called Marxist scholars very rarely announce their defection from Marxism in explicit terms. ‘Marxists’, such as the aforementioned Negri and Alain Badiou, whose theoretical systems now reject the key tenets of Marxism, still show up in edited volumes of the most important Marxist scholars today. The identity of the ‘real’ Marxist is obviously very far from a cut and dry question.


Mészáros on the credit crunch and the ‘death of Marx’.

Perhaps this all points to the fact that paradoxically the greater burden lies with the Marxist scholar who continues to openly declare his loyalties. As one of those rare theoreticians still falling into category 1), the burden of István Mészáros is to navigate a route that somehow moves the Marxian programme sideways rather than negate its key tenets; and since the major philosophical development since Marx’s era has been in the philosophy of time – Heidegger, Rawls etc. – it is not surprising that this is the dimension in which he should try to laterally reconstitute his brand of Marxism.

Relating to the theme of time, his key points could be surmised as following: that in this period of the historic defeat of the left, bourgeois ideology is attempting to erase historical time in order to close off the alternatives that the 20th century presented to us in crude, unrealised forms. In contradiction to this historical erasure, Mészáros argues that historical time obeys its own logic: uncontainable by the vain efforts of capital to police it into uniformity. And not only that, he imbues the historical time of the present with a particularly acute pressure; the choice for Mészáros is literally socialism or death; a dramatic reconstitution of the world along socialist lines or inevitable barbarism and ecological catastrophe. In this sense he draws a parallel between the labour time extracted from the worker and a more general identity of universal historic time. In regard to the labourer under capitalism, he begins with Marx’s well-known relationship between quantity and quality: ’Time is everything, man is nothing; he is at the most time’s carcase. Quality no longer matters. Quantity alone decides everything; hour for hour; day for day’ (p47).

Although Mészáros is entirely correct to reiterate Marx’s proposition that the aim of socialism, or Communism, should be to create the conditions for humankind to embrace free time for self-realisation and not be forced into alienating work by Capital; nevertheless, this is not where his original contribution lies. Neither does is lie in his defence of the openness of history – another position directly attributable to Marx – but rather his case rests on the increasing pressure of historical time to radically reconstitute global society. Here he is on much more shaky ground; a ground that sadly to say rests on an unspoken reliance on green apocalypticism with its prophecies of ‘irreversible points of no return’ and ‘seven years to save the earth’. This is coupled by the fact that his most concrete examples frequently revert to environmental themes:

‘To take an obvious example, the essential energy requirements of human productive activity have put on the agenda the prospect of using nuclear power plants for this purpose already today…the mind boggling timescale itself of the relevant productive processes and their unavoidable residues – their potentially lethal radiation time counted in many thousands of years, ie. covering the life-time of thousands of generations – appear absolutely prohibitive.’ (p41)

This Rawlsian logic suffers from the exact same problem as that posed by the environmental movement: the precautionary principle, expressed in the use of the word ‘potentially,’ upsets all neat inter-generational trade offs. There is to my knowledge no reason why radioactive waste product stored deep underground should necessarily pose such a risk to future generations that it should keep nuclear power off the table, but ultimately it proves impossible to demonstrate that there is no chance that it ‘potentially’ will not. On its own terms, the precautionary principle becomes an argument that it strictly irrefutable.

We might even ask whether this ‘pressure of time’ really represents a genuine ‘pressure’ founded on real social identities and empirical realities, or instead acts as a short-circuit for a left that has run out of patience with reconstructing and reimagining its own political project? There seems to be little evidence that the world is in fact becoming more barbaric and genocidal as he claims. We might even be a little surprised to hear such a claim after emerging from the 20th century, which by all counts was the bloodiest in human history. Again, it seems that Mészáros takes a shortcut that steamrollers over the very historical realities he claims to reinstate to defend the Marxist, emancipatory project. When he talks about the need for socialism to abolish antagonism, the like of which promoted the adversarial logic of the 20th century, he seems to entirely miss the point that the ideological challenge to capitalism from the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917; to the reactionary Nazi ‘revolution’ of 1933; to the anti-imperialist revolutions throughout the Third World etc., were part and parcel – if not the cause itself – of the century’s bloodletting.

Which is not to say that such a perspective should enamour socialists of the 21st century with violent confrontation, but rather we should acknowledge that there is an irrepressible identity between challenging the system and violence. On this point, we may also understand the role allocated by Mészáros’ ‘pressure of time’ in that it inverts the teleological logic of right-Marxism – the quietism of Kautsky and his ilk that would sit on their hands until the days of Kingdom Come – by placing the emphasis not on waiting for history to unfold to the inevitable socialist transformation, but rather to claim that historical time itself will force the revolution upon us in the near term. To this aim he often leans on overblown rhetoric, such as in regard to the 150 anniversary of the Communist Manifesto: ’The question is: has humanity got another 150 years to go? Certainly not if the capital system survives!’ (p84).

The critique so far should not however detract from the core of solid Marxist arguments in his work. In a way, the apocalyptic speculations about the ’potentially deadliest phase of imperialism’ to come and the ecological catastrophe Capital cannot avert, seem rather like appendages to the more considered core of his analysis; strategic additions to disguise the fact that he is a man in a hurry; wanting others too to hurry in the reestablishment of the socialist project. To this end he draws a historical demarcation between our time and Marx’s:

’…Marx could not anticipate in 1851, when he wrote these lines, that the unavoidable imperative of “Here is Rhodes, leap here!” would arise under the conditions of a grave social and historical emergency, when the threat to humanity’s potential self-destruction would be clearly on the horizon.’ (p253)

Even if we reject such hyperbole, his core Marxist argument is sound: ie. that capitalism is undergoing a structural crisis to which no mollification in the form of Keynesianism or progressive reform can help. This crisis is manifest in the problem of employment: in the mature, capitalist economies ever-increasing unemployment is skilfully hidden by underemployment and government measures to take more people off the unemployment register. The result is the increasing casualisation of the work force, part-time positions and temporary contracts; all of which conspire to hide the defeat of labour by capital. In contrast to the modernist promise of more free time for all, the no-work utopia as some put it, he argues capital simply cannot work according to such principles and as such has redistributed the gains of technical efficiency not by reducing working hours across the spectrum of labour, but by making vast numbers unemployed and using this structural antagonism to extract longer working hours out of the employed and suppress wages in order to extract the maximum labour-surplus. This totally unoriginal Marxist insight ironically ends up as the most bold and refreshing analysis in the entire book!

Nevertheless, there is one unspoken, yet critical, aspect of Marxian thought that is entirely absent from his analysis of our situation today: class. Nowhere do we find any mention of the class forces that Marx perceived as the dialectical-historical motor of change. Of course, this is not surprising considering the seeming death of overt class antagonism in Western societies. Indeed, Mészáros argues at one point that the difference between Marx’s time and ours is that whereas proletarianisation was once just a phenomena that coincided with the working class, today all classes – excepting an aloof elite – have been proletarianised by Capital.

However, here we have an example of the old glass half full, glass half empty problem; others could argue equally strongly that it is the working class that has become embourgeoised by Capital, rather than vice-versa. Either way, the important dimension of change that Mészáros leaves unexplored is that the dialectical relationship of classes is no longer a driving force; and without which there remains an aporetic relationship between the Marxist analysis of the problems of contemporary society and the Marxist response of how to incite the forces that will provoke change. This remains an unresolved problem for Marxists of all persuasions. Because unlike for post-Marxists like Ernesto Laclau – and more generally the anti-globalisation movement – for whom our situation coincides neatly with their belief in the transformative power of populism (the masses against an elite); for Marxists railing against an elite, although it has its place, does not threaten the systemic relations of society.

The outstanding question Mészáros’ analysis leaves unanswered is thus one that should trouble us all. Without overt class forces, how do we reignite the Communist project? Is the answer to embrace the atomised society and persuade individuals one by one? Or is the answer to analyse the situation afresh and reconstitute new lines of antagonism in society? Or maybe the answer is that class forces never really died in the first place, and like a dormant volcano that everyone smugly convinces themselves has extinguished itself forever, perhaps it has the potential to erupt once more into the historical fabric?

Whatever the answer, let us say that there is an entirely defensible impulse in Mészáros’ shrill calls for action, even if we will have to go beyond him to find the route to socialism he so warmly envisages. The unspoken assumption that structures his work – the death of class politics – is shared with fellow Hungarian-Marxist Frank Furedi. But whereas Furedi may be correct in some aspects of his analysis, abandoning the path of revolutionary Marxism, even if it can only continue at our current historical conjunction as a form of speculative utopianism, cannot in any way constitute a defensible Marxist position. On the other hand, Mészáros is moving on the right direction, even if for the last stretch of the journey he has taken the wrong road.

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