Time is lifting the fog

Issue: 125

Mark Bergfeld

Istvan Meszaros, The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time—Socialism in the Twenty First Century (Monthly Review Press, 2008), £16.95

Istvan Meszaros’s latest treatise is a mixture of extended essays, lectures and occasional pieces. The analysis ranges from structural unemployment and imperialism to ecological destruction and the crisis of capital. In the light of the current economic crisis, the rising death toll in Afghanistan, the electoral gains of the British National Party and signs of revival of workers’ struggles, Meszaros’s contribution to Marxist thought acquires renewed relevance.

According to Meszaros the “capital system” is rooted in the exploitation of labour power. This has far-reaching consequences for our understanding of time. The “capital system” is the negation of “historical time”. It only acknowledges one particular understanding of time—namely exploitable labour time. Because of this, the capitalist system seems to exist in an eternal present, and socialists have to put forward a far-sighted vision at crucial junctures in history, showing that capitalism is neither absolute nor eternal.

Meszaros seeks to dismantle the visions of history presented by apologists for capital. Figures such as Georg Hegel, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, Francis Fukuyama or Friedrich Hayek each proclaim the end of history. The forms of their arguments differ but their thought remains within the confines of capital. Meszaros challenges their underlying philosophical assumptions, and those of cruder propagandistic slogans such as “there is no alternative to the market” used by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, or Tony Blair’s claim that “we’re all middle class now”.

Under capitalism the past is misrepresented to justify the structural framework of the present and the system’s ideological imperatives. Any long-term perspective is excluded. Capital’s short-termism is best summed up by John Maynard Keynes, who wrote, “In the long-run, we’re all dead.”

Meszaros’s alternative is based on the globally organised “totality of labour”, which he counterposes to the Kantian notion of “asocial sociability” or the “atomised individual”. He does not shy away from making bold and optimistic statements such as “the historical conditions for developing and sustaining an organisationally viable mode of radical international action are much more favourable today than ever before”. But he is also clear that the stakes are extremely high. The capital system is, for him, a particular order of “social metabolic control” that permeates all aspects of society. This means that the choices are no longer simply “socialism or barbarism”, as Rosa Luxemburg put it, but “barbarism if we’re lucky”.

Meszaros’s claim that the ruling class finds itself in disarray in the face of a coming explosion is all the more visionary given that the book was compiled before the collapse of Lehman Brothers. His strategic vision entails going further than fighting against capital’s “destructive production”, as this is solely the negative side of the historic task socialists face today. The left must also put forward an alternative order of social metabolic control rooted in “substantive equality”. Reformist steps will not be sufficient to solve the crisis faced by the system. What is required is “the creative harmonisation of the time of social individuals with the open ended historical time of humanity”. The radical left cannot reduce its struggles to counter-hegemonic projects alone but must have a tangible vision of its own.

Even though he lays out a strategic vision for a reunified global working class movement, his thinking about political strategy remains abstract in places. His merciless criticism of Stalinism is one of the more concrete ways in which he tries to set out a vision for socialism in the 21st century, and he has also sought a dialogue with the organised radical left, for example by speaking at events such as the Marxism festival. But he is ambiguous about how to overcome the demoralisation of the past 20 years. Nonetheless, the book’s central message is both timely and welcome. It is that time itself is lifting the fog of the capital system but that it is up to the “totality of organised labour” to face that challenge.