June 26, 2012
Book Review: István Mészáros, “The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time”
If Hungarian Marxist philosopher Istvan Meszaros is indeed Hugo Chavez’s favorite theorist, as implied by the book cover, the President of Venezuela must be a patient man indeed. The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time appears to present Meszaros’ philosophy of history, and because of the high regard he is held in by many (as shown also by the enthusiastic introduction from John Bellamy Foster), this seems promising enough. But in reality, the book is a mere collection of essays, articles, and occasional pieces, by and large on the same topic. As a result, the argument, the content and even the quotations are extremely repetitive, an effect which is worsened by Meszaros’ ineptly abstract, obscurantist writing style. When all is said and done, The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time introduces few new ideas to the body of socialist theorizing about the historical course of capitalism and the transition to socialism.
Meszaros’ specific ideas are best summarized so: the unique nature of capitalism is not just its manner of production, but also its time accountancy, i.e. its subjection of all human activity to the ‘count’ of socially necessary labor time, and the implication that this time accountancy is a historically closed system. It expands only quantitatively, and does so in this way or that, sometimes with ‘reforms’, sometimes with laissez-faire, sometimes with state support and initiative, sometimes with the ‘free market’; but under all circumstances is the only measure of its progress the accumulation of dead labor time to dominate the living workers. Meszaros identifies, quite rightly, the failure of the Soviet system of planning as the failure to overcome this time accounting and thereby the system of accumulation for its own sake, rather than for the production of use values in a ‘sustainable’ way. The latter is important, because Meszaros refutes the closed historical reading of capitalism that corresponds ideologically to its time accountancy: instead of Whiggish histories and the right-Hegelian ‘end of history’ of Francis Fukuyama and Thomas Friedman, for Meszaros the reality of the future is a choice between socialism and barbarism. This updated version of Castoriadis focuses on the possibility of catastrophe, perhaps Marx’s “mutual ruin of the contending classes”: the possibilities of human destruction through ecological collapse or through nuclear war. The former is hardly unique to Meszaros among contemporary Marxists, but his emphasis on the latter is more original – there is no reason to believe we are any less likely to suffer destructive nuclear war now than during the Cold War, as imperialism not only continues, but intensifies with the slow decline of the hegemonic power.
That said, for the most part the work has little new to offer. There are the usual refutations of ‘free market’ economics, of the ideological notion that ‘there is no alternative’, the usual genuflections towards the importance of democracy, sustainability and changes in consciousness: all that avails us very little in the abstract. One chapter is purportedly dedicated to outlining principles for socialist reconstruction of society, but in fact does very little of that, by remaining (as is too often the case with Marxist political theory) on the level of generalities and largely ethical claims. And Meszaros himself rightly attacks the likes of Stiglitz for failing to transcend that level! The author recurrently makes use of his two core concepts, the need of socialism for ‘substantive equality’, and the distinction between ‘capital’ as the movement of the economy and ‘capitalism’ as the entirety of society. Neither concept however is explained or defined with meaningful precision in this work; perhaps one must refer back to his magnum opus, Beyond Capital, to understand the use of this work. For the most part, the work does not go beyond what are now well-established lines of critique, and which themselves are often just workings out in the current period of Marx & Engels’ original concepts. The degree of repetition and the annoyingly obtuse style therefore particularly tax the reader’s patience.
It is high time that Marxist writing on history and political theory goes beyond the level of a repetition of moves, beyond the purely negative work of refuting neoliberalism, critiquing inequality, and such more. For example, nowhere is Meszaros’ concept of substantive equality related to the general understanding that Marxism is, as theory, a philosophy of freedom and emancipation, not of abstract equality; while at the same time, no appeal is made to the strong scientific body of evidence on the negative social and health effects of social inequality. By sticking to generalities and repetitions of well-established post-1989 Marxist ideas, works like this threaten to be ‘neither meat nor fish’. They lack sufficient engagement with contemporary research to be scientific contributions, but are too general-theoretical and not sufficiently creative to be of political use. And that is unfortunate.