Who in the world was István Mészáros, and why is he essential for 21st-century socialists?




A Political Education Snippet

A book review of The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time by István Mészáros, Monthly Review Press

Mészáros was a Hungarian Marxist philosopher who participated in the 1956 revolt against an autocratic Soviet-style state. He was exiled to Italy and then England, where he continued to teach, write and study Marxism. A mentor to Hugo Chavez, he helped develop the bottom-up aspect of the Venezuelan revolution. For more information, please start with István Mészáros (philosopher) – Wikipedia.

Why read Mészáros? He provides analytical tools that explain key issues facing socialists today. These include:

  • Social Metabolism – the way a society reproduces itself: This concept accounts for how ideologies of domination/subordination recreate toxic relationships and undermine anti-capitalist movements. And that these must be replaced by a socialist metabolism.
  • Critique of Soviet-style Socialism: Meszaros shows that Soviet-style socialism was still part of the capital system because it was based on the alienation of labor.
  • Planetary crisis: The growing environmental catastrophe is unavoidable within the capital system because the nature of capital is to expand continuously.
  • Bottom-up and top-down: For socialism to succeed, we must change society from the bottom-up (social movements that create a socialist metabolism) and the top-down (gaining political power).

Social Metabolism
An organism stays alive by reproducing its constituent parts. Our bodies consume food, water, and oxygen to nourish or grow new skin, muscle, and every type of cell that keeps us alive. A society also metabolizes raw materials to reproduce elemental components. Babies are produced and raised to become productive members of the system, either workers or managers who extract surplus value. DNA guides the reproduction of vital cellular roles. Ideology is the DNA that reproduces members of a social system. Ideology infuses and utilizes cultural and psychological patterns to recreate the systems of domination, subordination, and cooperation that maintain a capitalist society.

Class societies are founded on domination and expropriation of the surplus produced. Capitalism took expropriation to another level. Under previous forms of production, the workers often owned the pitchforks and plows or hammers and anvils they used daily. In general, they determined what they were producing, even if their role was determined by birth. Peasants worked the land they grew up on, four or five days on the lord’s land and one or two on their own. Craft workers similarly gave a portion of their labor to the overlords. Capitalism revolutionized production by reinvesting in new technologies. And it grabbed ownership of the means of production. It also took ownership of the production process, both what to produce and how. It captured the surplus and alienated both the tools and the fruits of labor from the producers.

Collaboration is essential for social systems. Capitalism developed specialization and cooperation into a global system of socialized labor while grabbing unimaginable wealth. While capitalists try to control the forms of collaboration, working people use cooperative methods to fight for their rights. Workers created unions, cooperatives, and political organizations since the French Revolution of 1789. Capitalists responded with new ways to set people against each other such as extreme individualism in the form of male supremacy and racism. In response, movements for freedom, equality, and community, such as the anti-racism, LGBTQ, and women’s movements, have shaken the ideological foundations of capitalism by creating the elements of a new social metabolism.

The strength of this new life was seen in the global wave of anti-racism after the murder of George Floyd. There is much work still needed to build a new culture and psychology based on liberty, equality, and community. But this brand new form of social life is being created across the world. Examples can be seen in countries worldwide, from the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement to the Rojava revolution in Syria to the abolitionist movement in the US.

Critique of Soviet-style Socialism
According to Mészáros, the essence of the capital system is the alienation of labor by expropriating surplus value. In other words, the value created by labor is taken away from the producers, who are given no say in how their products are used. During the 20th Century, Communist-led revolutions seized state power and used it to expropriate the expropriators.

But instead of building a socialist metabolism, or way of life, from the bottom up, they imposed centralized, autocratic control of surplus value. Mészáros’ analysis is that the Soviet system was a post-capitalist experiment in controlling capital, but it was still a capital system.

Capitalism is the ownership of the means of production by private individuals or corporations. In the USSR, the one-party state owned all the capital. Workers’ soviets initially seized factories, but soon after the Communist seizure of power, producers lost control of their products and the surplus value they produced. Mészáros argues that the USSR was a post-capitalist society. However, it still relied on the alienation of labor, and was just a new form of the capital system. This alienation of labor led to the reproduction of the anti-democratic, anti-human, and anti-nature essence of the capital system.

The Russian Empire was rich in resources and had a strong state, but capital was at an early stage of development. The Soviet Revolution expropriated land and the means of production and created capital at an unprecedented rate from the twenties into the sixties, except for the war years of 1939-45. But as the state invested large amounts of capital into defense industries, capital growth slowed. Autocratic and hierarchical central planning rewarded meeting goals rather than innovation, leading to false reporting and corruption. The absence of democracy and protection for workers prevented exposure of these problems. And the lack of modern computing and communication systems exacerbated all these problems. Gorbachev and his allies tried to rationalize the Soviet capital system. Instead, the USSR broke apart from internal contradictions and the gravitational pull of the rapid globalization of capitalism.

The USSR developed a new form of ownership of means of production. However, it was still a system based on the alienation of surplus value from the producers. And since its capital was no longer expanding and the state was falling apart, it fell back into private hands, primarily those of opportunist Communist Party members and criminals that seized capital from the erstwhile workers’ state. Multinational financial interests in the United States and Western Europe also swallowed billions of dollars in assets. The point here is not to analyze the downfall of the Soviet system. Instead, it is to understand that economic laws are systemic but subjective.

The Planetary Crisis
Mészáros states that the laws of nature are objective, physical laws. They can’t be changed by human intervention. And humans have learned to use natural laws to transform materials into useful, saleable products. Political and social laws are subjective because human perceptions and actions can alter them. Before capitalism, wealth was used to achieve and maintain social status and political power. Wealth could produce more wealth through conquering new lands or trade, but it could not grow organically. Capitalism was a new economic system that reorganized wealth to create more wealth. So a fundamental law of capital is that it must expand. And in a few centuries, it grew dynamically and transformed the entire planet. The Industrial Revolution and European colonialism created a global economy that extended beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity. The subjective law that capital must grow forever conflicts with the physical laws that rule the atmosphere and our planet. And because it was part of the capital system, the Soviet economic system violated the natural laws just as flagrantly as industrial and neoliberal capitalism.

A socialist economic system would prioritize the planet’s and people’s needs. Unfortunately, the environmental crises won’t wait. Therefore, we must fight to preserve natural ecosystems as part of our urgent agenda. We can also use the environment to organize direct action to stop pollution, demand effective recycling, and ban plastics that have poisoned the land and oceans. In addition, fighting for decolonization supports Indigenous peoples and builds knowledge of living harmoniously with nature instead of antagonistically.

Top-down and Bottom-up
By fighting for working-class issues and creating cooperative metabolism within organizations, we are building a new world from the bottom up. Mészáros describes this by using a metaphor that Marx used, rebuilding the house from the ground to the top floor while the family of humanity is living in it. Those who have remodeled your home know the pleasure and pain of living in a construction zone. But living with and working for a socialist vision makes the pain of living through the decay of capitalism more bearable.

This bottom-up and top-down vision resolves the conflict between the street and the statehouse. It shows us that socialists must work to birth the new world from whatever position they are in. Elected officials must struggle to enact policies that improve workers’ lives, empower people, and rebuild a healthy environment. And they must work cooperatively with social movements in the streets. Movement organizations must bring pressure to keep the electeds accountable. At the same time, they improve their abilities to educate, mobilize, and organize the working class.

Mészáros, like Marx, was involved in critical struggles during his lifetime. He faced Soviet tanks that put down a people’s movement demanding more democracy. He was involved in European labor movements and helped guide the Venezuelan Revolution. And Mészáros was a leader in responding to the fall of the Soviet system and showing it was not a failure of socialism. Instead, he points to a movement that creates change within its members and component systems while fighting for political power to finally replace capitalism.

This is why his books are essential reading for 21st-century socialists.

By Robbie O