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In Search of Method in the Age of Transition

István Mészáros.  Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness, Volume I: The Social Determination of Method.  Monthly Review Press, 2010.  463 pp.

It is always infuriating to read in any mainstream publication the typical smug commentary on some erstwhile left-academic who had come to reject the ‘determinism’ of Marx’s theory of history.  It is one of the pleasures of reading Mészáros, Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness, to find a whole range of the sanctified figures of bourgeois thought being given a thorough critique for their determinism, and for their denial of the possibility of human freedom, in the programmatic insistence that capitalism defines the limits of the possible.  It is not Marx that is the determinist, but these writers who project their own determinism upon his thought.

The standard complaint is that the individual, the atomised starting point for bourgeois ideology, is somehow reduced by the admission of the social as the determining context.  The fact that the ‘social’ is the creation of other human agencies does not appear to occur to the shivering capitalist intellect, so fearful of having its individual property taken away by the inhuman mob.  To reveal, as Mészáros does, the hidden social determination of the very premises of philosophy and social theory in the capitalist age, is therefore a project of the highest importance.

Given serious thought it is surely impossible not to admit that an individual’s consciousness is determined socially, is bound by social-historical time and place, or, most simply expressed, by an individual’s social experience.  Language, the basis of thought, is a social medium.  The individualist, Robinson Crusoe premise of philosophical thinking is an abject mistake, and yet it is a pervasive starting point for western philosophy in the modern era.

Individual thought, however brilliantly individual it might be, is entirely bound up with the constraints and possibilities of its time.  The left-wing American scientist Stephen Jay Gould provided any number of demonstrations of this principle in his many essays on scientists of the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.  Often Gould’s prime concern was to disabuse his readership of the notion of the outstanding individual ‘just looking at the evidence’ and heroically ignoring the prejudices of his time.  On the contrary, Gould demonstrated in essay after essay how particular scientists were right for the wrong reasons, wrong for the right reasons, and always were both enabled and handicapped by the technology available, by the understanding available through existing social ideologies, in short by their whole social interactions.  Thought does not leap splendidly from objective evidence to discovery via pure reason, but is socially mediated.  In one brilliant example Gould showed how the lack of the most basic computer technology deprived one biologist of the very metaphor he needed to break out of his conceptual problem (Gould, pp.139-151).

There is nothing reductive, or deterministic, about this view of human life and human thought; it is only to take seriously the reality of the social human being.  Yet bourgeois thought habitually denies a clear understanding of thought as a social and material activity in time, that is in history, because to perceive it would be to admit that capitalist social relations are bounded and limited by their historical development.  Again, to concede this would be to allow that present economic relations, present forms of power are not natural and for all time.  Admitting the historicity of the capitalist market, and the particularity of typical forms of thinking in a capitalist society, is far too threatening to anyone committed to their power and status, or even to their desired status, in existing society.  Certain assumptions then become unassailable, even unspoken, habits of thought.  In this context, even for the critically inclined, it becomes tremendously difficult to break from the ruling thoughts of the age.  In short, bourgeois thinking infects the whole range of philosophical thinkers since the eighteenth century.

The introduction therefore outlines Mészáros’ conviction that ‘the representative figures of capital’s social horizon must conceptualize everything in a determinate way’ since to do otherwise would be to presuppose the possibility of a ‘radically different mode of production and distribution’ (p. 12).  Despite all the various schools of philosophical, social and historical thought over the last few centuries, certain fundamental assumptions and procedures unite them.  The differences are born of different answers to, or often enough attempts to evade, the contradictions entailed in taking the existence of capitalism as the limiting feature of thought.  Thus there is a series of methodological characteristics of bourgeois philosophy outlined here.  The role these play in the whole range of significant thinkers is elaborated throughout most of the rest of the book.  It should be emphasised that this analysis never entails a mechanical approach to the figures in question; it does not need to simplify or flatten individual cases in the way that the standard critique of Marxism says it must.

The seven points of bourgeois methodology begin with the primacy of science, the shortest of the discussions, but arguably fundamental to the way in which the ‘thoughts of the ruling class’ become the common sense of the age.  Few of the rest are quite as immediately familiar as this example.  Nonetheless, each takes what, on reflection, are not just aspects of formal philosophical thought, but find definite echoes in ‘common sense’ itself.  Mészáros notes where many of these premises were initially emancipating in their impact.  Yet their reversal into ideological fetters also can be seen as early as the ahistorical assumptions of political economy which Marx was to critique so effectively.

To elaborate on one issue, Mészáros tracks the consequences of methodological individualism, or the ‘standpoint of isolated individuality‘ (p. 13).  The consequence of this assumption is the inability to perceive any collective subject at work in history.  For bourgeois thinking any collective term is merely a generalisation of however many discrete atoms of reality.  The collective term is always a fudge, a more or less misleading representation of empirical reality.  Mészáros argues that the collective subject, understood dialectically, is necessary to a genuine understanding of history.  Denying the reality of the collective subject leads to a whole series of problems in thinker after thinker: so mystifications are invoked, such as the ‘cunning of reason’ or the ‘hidden hand of the market’ to explain historical and social processes (p.106).

Mészáros concentrates on the consequences of the individualist premise for philosophers, but his analysis of the problem reveals the roots of a whole host of more prosaic ‘common sense’ arguments.  The tendencies of popular, and even academic, analysis to attribute to collective groups, nations for example, attributes which belong to individuals is a case in point.  The tired trope comparing household finances to that of a state is another piece of fatuous reasoning that appears to be common sense, yet is born of the failure in bourgeois thought to treat the collective as a real subject.  The individual and the nation, the household and the state are different levels of analysis, and the rules that apply to one level cannot be applied to the other.  A collective like the nation cannot be analysed either as if it behaved like an individual, nor simply as a collection of many individual parts, yet both rhetorical habits can be found over and again in the comment pages of serious newspapers.  So, despite protestations to the contrary, writers are trapped by the individualist assumption.  Lacking a real understanding of the collective as a subject, bourgeois thought is reduced, at its highest and lowest levels, to substituting the individual subject for the missing collective one.

The book in effect presents a number of case studies on particular thinkers.  One example is the discussion of Hannah Arendt in the chapter on the ‘Rise and Fall of Historical Temporality’.  While Arendt was a critical writer, Mészáros shows that she accepted certain premises which trapped her thinking within the bounds of bourgeois thought.  The horizon of the possible becomes limited to capitalism.  Thus the possibility of democratic control of production is ruled out of consideration before her analysis begins.  Arendt is further taken to task for a relativistic argument concerning the meaning of history, leading to pessimism about knowledge itself, and is shown to be caricaturing Marx’s understanding of the manner in which humanity makes its own history (pp. 123-5).  The decay of bourgeois thought is exemplified here in Arendt’s treatment of Descartes, which for Mészáros is as distorted as her treatment of Marx.  Descartes’ principle of doubt was a point of departure ‘which in its explicitly stated positive aspirations aims at the constitution of secure knowledge‘ (p.122).  The problem is not just at the level of epistemology and history.  Philosophical despair at the possibility of knowledge becomes practical despair at the possibility of changing the world.  Arendt stands here therefore as an exemplum of a whole range of twentieth-century schools of thought.

It is in this way that the capitalist system is upheld intellectually; it becomes the unquestioned common sense even in the otherwise most profound or incisive figures.  The consequence is not simply the denial of the possibility of socialism, but a deep seated scepticism and philosophical pessimism.  Unable to see a way out of capitalism, having accepted capitalist relations as the very premise of thought, it is not only Arendt who became deeply pessimistic about the possibility of historical knowledge as such.

At the beginning of the capitalist period it was possible for bourgeois thought to apprehend history, as in Vico for example, but quickly the historical nature of capitalism became a danger to the coherence of capitalism itself, and historicity had to be suppressed, starting with political economy.

A pessimistic historical methodology can be seen to have become general in the historiography of certainly the past few decades.  Indeed a radical scepticism about historical knowledge is an intrinsic part of the postmodernist school of history and theory.  A consequence of many post-structuralist approaches to history is an inability to explain, or indeed to recognise, historical change itself.  Mészáros refers scathingly to such thinking at a number of points, and indeed condemns some of the earlier figures at the root of postmodernism and post-structuralism, such as Levi-Strauss, whom he startlingly dubs as ‘vacuous’ (p. 414).  Some of the problems of attempting to deal with the whole range of philosophical and social thought of the bourgeois era in a single book is revealed here, since a Claude Levi-Strauss, or indeed a Foucault, certainly deserves a longer dissection and critique than the brief dismissals here.  Nonetheless, you could argue that Mészáros has provided the tools for others to critique particular writers in detail; he has outlined a method for dissecting the contradictions and evasions of bourgeois thought.

Along the way there are some very complex arguments about particular thinkers that develop first in one section, then are returned to in another.  The seven methodological problems do after all overlap in particular figures and are bound up together.  Some larger conclusions therefore begin to appear as the work draws onward.  Something of a concluding thought on Hegel comes in the seventh chapter.  There Mészáros is able to argue that he is finally forced into metaphysics, and away from materialism, because only in metaphysics could the great philosopher resolve crucial contradictions while leaving the founding assumptions of bourgeois society intact (p.216).

The seven chapters on methodological premises completed, Mészáros adds a very long final chapter on method in the age of transition, an attempt to elaborate a programme for a methodology which would break through the limits of the thinking discussed thus far.  There is much a great value here, but it is arguably the less successful portion of the book.  Mészáros’ own teacher, Georg Lukács becomes important in the argument at this point and in fact is subject to stringent criticism.  The charge is that ultimately Lukács himself collapses into forms of thought that trap him within the methodological assumptions of capitalism.  It would seem to be the height of temerity to question Mészáros over his interpretation of Lukács, but whether the criticism is really deserved seems questionable.

Essentially, Mészáros accepts the accusation that Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness (HCC) fell into idealist errors, taking his cue from Lukács’ own self-criticism in the 1967 preface.  The case against the young Lukács, who retracted the positions of HCC in the face of Stalinist criticism in the late 1920s, should surely receive careful scrutiny at least, but the charges are made with little discussion.  In HCC, it is claimed, alienation and objectification are conflated and that as a result ‘we must also accept the fateful insuperability of the capital system as such’ (p.408).  Briefly, objectification is an aspect of the process whereby human labour transforms the world; labour becomes objectified in the material which is worked.  This is clearly positive.  Alienation in contrast is the condition under capitalism whereby labour is separated from the object it produces, and labour’s subjectivity is thus denied.

Now it may be the case that Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who is an additional target in this passage of Mészáros, misunderstands Lukács and takes his argument in an idealist direction (p. 407).  However, without further discussion the same cannot be established for the original argument in HCC.  In fact the problem can be reduced to a lack of clarity in Lukács on the two sides of what he refers to as objectification, writing when the key texts of Marx on alienation were not available, (Rees, pp. 249-50).  Despite Lukács self-criticism at various points in his life, HCC does clearly deploy a positive understanding of objectification alongside a concept of alienation.  The problem is really one of vocabulary rather than concept.

Mészáros’ criticism of HCC becomes both puzzling and worrying at points.  HCC is contrasted with ‘the major positive achievements of Lukács’ post-1930 books’ (p.407), and yet none of these later superior works are specified.  One such is The Historical Novel (Merlin Press 1962), which, in my view, is turgid and dogmatic in comparison with HCC.  However the substantial philosophical claim is that:

Without drawing a firm line of demarcation between alienation and objectification — not by romantically denying that alienation is a form of objectification but by clearly identifying the social and historical specificity of its character — the question of restitutingthe power of decision making to the real producing subject and thereby envisaging the conscious controlof the historical process cannot even be raised, let alone turned into reality.  (pp. 406-7)

This restoration of labour as the subject of history is certainly central to Marxism, but arguably this is precisely what Lukács in the period of HCC was actually able to grasp in a way that was not possible later under Stalinist influence.  In the essay ‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat’, there is the ‘proposition that the proletariat is the identical subject-object of the historical process, i.e. the first subject of history that is (objectively) capable of an adequate social consciousness’ (Lukács, HCC, p. 199).  That is to say, the proletariat is the universal class; by virtue of its objective position in history, it has the potential to develop the class consciousness through which humanity can collectively, self-consciously, make its own history for the first time.

However this is the really key criticism Mészáros has of HCC.  He takes the formulation of the proletariat as the ‘identical subject-object of the historical process’ to be a Hegelian mystification, (p. 312).  That is to say, this is the aspect of Hegel’s dialectic where, unable to reconcile contradictions in existing relations, he reconciles them by means of a mystical unity, thus avoiding the need to change the world.  Again the degree to which Mészáros is really criticising various ‘Western Marxist’ interpretations of Lukács, or Lukács himself, is at least debateable.  Certainly it seems the latter intended nothing mystical by the formulation.  He did not mean that the proletariat will develop the consciousness necessary to fulfilling this ‘subject-object’ potential in history.  That depends upon, among other things, the role of the party, to which Lukács devotes considerable practical discussion in these writings.  An idealist dialectic surely would not have led into a consideration of the party and organisation as HCC does.

Moreover, there is no evidence that Mészáros has taken on board the discovery of Lukács, A Defence of History and Class Consciousness, (DHCC) in which he originally defended himself against Stalinist accusations that he had slipped into Hegelian idealist error (see DHCC, pp. 60-3, 65-8, and 73-4 for some passages particularly relevant to the issue).  Of key importance is that Lukács here underlines the argument that the theory of class consciousness leads directly to the centrality of Lenin’s conception of the revolutionary party.  Rejecting one at the very least raises problems about the conception of the other.

The critique of Lukács does not occupy a large section of Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness, but it does recur regularly, indicating its pivotal importance.  The positions taken by Mészáros on these issues go some way, in the view of this reviewer, to explaining the relatively arid and even frustrating nature of the long final chapter of the book.  Despite the title, ‘Method in a Historical Epoch of Transition’, the discussion here does not seem to elaborate a revolutionary methodology, such as Lukács did offer, and the critique of bourgeois thinking seems to retread paths already gone over earlier in the book.

I do not wish to end in criticism, however, since the better part of this book contains both invaluable critique of particular figures and a framework for understanding the problems of philosophy in the capitalist age.  Most figures receive very sharp treatment, but as a result mystifications and evasions are indeed stripped away.  In contrast, revolutionary Marxist thought is revealed as an answer to the conundrums bourgeois philosophy cannot solve.


This article was first published in Counterfire on 3 February 2011; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.




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