The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time

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István Mészáros, Monthly Review Press, £16.95

Since 1971 István Mészáros has been centrally concerned to explain and combat what he calls the "global structural crisis of capital". His attempt to understand this phenomenon informed the publication of two important books, The Power of Ideology and Beyond Capital. These works were written from a classical Marxist perspective and were intended to renew Marxist ideas in the modern context. And, whatever their faults, they show the continuing vitality of Marx's revolutionary theory. Beyond Capital especially is an incredibly impressive work, although at almost 1,000 closely typed and philosophically dense pages it is not the easiest of reads.

The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time by contrast is a much more user friendly book. As John Bellamy Foster writes in the foreword, it is perhaps best read as a more accessible complement, introduction or afterword to Beyond Capital. As such, although some parts of this book assume a more than passing knowledge of a number of the great names of social, political and economic theory, its attempt to provide a readable extension and application of classical Marxism to the contemporary world means it deserves attention.

The central message of this book is that Margaret Thatcher's old mantra that "there is no alternative", which has been taken up and embraced not only by New Labour but by neoliberal politicians the world over, is a lie.

Mészáros confronts the common sense assumption that capitalism and antagonistic individualism are natural and that, consequently, realistic politics must be limited by the parameters of what can be done within the system. He shows not only that capitalism is a product of human history, but also that it generates a series of fundamental problems which ensure that it has no long-term viability.

As a result, although "capital has the upper hand everywhere" far from it being able to overcome these contradictions it can only "fiddle with effects and surface manifestations" in a way that "continues to generate them on an ever increasing scale".

If the present economic crisis tends to confirm this general perspective, these recurrent and systemic problems ensure that however many times the left suffer defeats, socialism can never be completely wiped from the political agenda. Nevertheless, Mészáros has no truck with the idea that socialism will inevitably follow from the crisis of capitalism. He simply points to the increasingly obvious fact that capitalism cannot continue on its destructive path indefinitely.

Moreover, he shows that socialism is not merely an abstract dream of a better world. Rather, because capitalism creates a class for whom solidarity becomes a basic need, the rule of capital brings in its train transformations which make a socialist alternative to modern antagonistic individualism both desirable and possible. Like Rosa Luxemburg, therefore, Mészáros believes that the long-term choice for humanity is between socialism or barbarism, and that because "the long run is becoming ever shorter...our responsibility is to do something before we run out of time".

This sense of political urgency infuses the entire book. Mészáros compares capital's relentless drive for growth with a cancer. He insists that we have reached a point at which some form of radical treatment is absolutely necessary. Concretely, capitalism's essence as a system of growth for growth's sake means that despite the greater potential for free time which increased labour productivity should entail, capitalism forces us to work longer and harder while simultaneously eating into the free time we have outside of work. This free time becomes increasingly commercialised and reduces us to the status of consumers.

If this erosion of free time is one consequence of the power of capital, another is the developing environmental crisis. Mészáros shows it is no mere product of industrialisation, but is a more specific consequence of the system's need to "grow inexorably or perish". And if the dehumanisation of free time and the destruction of nature are two sides of capitalist alienation, so long as we confront this world as atomised individuals nothing seems more realistic than the idea that this is a natural system.

Hope in such a situation takes the form of the spontaneous collectivist movements against the consequences of the rule of capital. One aspect of the structural crisis of capitalism is the massive levels of unemployment experienced even before the present recession. Commenting on the demand for a 35 hour week in this situation, Mészáros argues that, whatever its limitations, this and similar demands cannot be sustained by traditional forms of trade unionism which hoped to benefit from capitalist growth.

He argues that what is necessary today is a more directly political and indeed socialist form of trade unionism - one that is linked to a revolutionary strategy that overcomes the opposition between Luxemburg and Lenin. Such a strategy, by overcoming the reformist separation between politics and economics, can challenge the logic of capital in the here and now in a way that points beyond it to a real socialist alternative.