Towards a Radical Social Transformation

ROSA LUXEMBURG talked about the striking dilemma that we face, namely, “socialism or barbarism”. Meszaros has taken Luxemburg’s theme and written this book as “The now fully operative third and potentially deadliest phase of global hegemonic imperialism, corresponding to the profound structural crisis of the capital system as a whole casts the darkest possible shadow on the future, in case the historical challenges facing the socialist movement fail to be successfully met in the time still within our reach. This is why the century in front of us is bound to be the century of “socialism or barbarism.” Meszaros is a Marxist intellectual and the author of the widely acclaimed Beyond Capital.

Socialism or Barbarism: From the “American Century” to the Crossroads
Istvan Meszaros, Monthly Review Press, 2001, New York, NY, pgs. 126.

The view that resonates throughout the book is that the last century is being named as “the American century” and “This view is voiced as if the October Revolution of 1917, or the Chinese and Cuban Revolutions and the colonial liberation struggles in the following decades had never taken place.” The book is divided into two parts. The first part is an essay on socialism and barbarism, which is subdivided into four chapters. The second part is an interview published in Naghd (Critique), a Persian quarterly journal.

In Capital: The Living Contradiction, Meszaros elaborates on the contradictions of capital. The contradictions of the capital system “can only be more or less successfully managed for some time but never definitely overcome”. Some of the principal contradictions are: production and its control, production and circulation, development and underdevelopment, and growth of output at all cost and the concomitant environmental destruction. These contradictions are intricately intertwined and “At the roots of all of them we find the irreconcilable antagonism between capital and labour, always necessarily assuming the form of the structural/hierarchical subordination of labour to capital, no matter how elaborate and mystifying the attempts aimed at camouflaging this structural subordination.”

Meszaros asserts that the conditions for the working classes in the most advanced countries have become worse in the last few decades because of capital’s narrowing margins and of its ongoing transnational globalization. This devastating trend of chronic unemployment will affect the working classes with increasing severity, “For the end of capital’s historical ascendancy also brought with it a downward equalization of the differential rate of exploitation.” In Britain, according to recent statistics, one in three children live in poverty, and in the last twenty years, this number has tripled. In the United States, as per recent statistics, the richest one percent of the population earns as much as the bottom forty percent (i.e. 100 million people!). This number has doubled since 1977.

The capitalist global system succeeded in creating enclaves of capitalism, with more or less non-capitalist hinterland, writes Meszaros. India and China are mentioned as examples. As Meszaros does not elaborate enough on the example of India, it is not clear what he really means by it. India does not really qualify as a “non-capitalist hinterland”, although, it might have had a different form of capitalism, post independence, but it was certainly not ‘non-capitalist’.

“The potentially deadliest phase of imperialism,” takes the reader on a quick passage through twentieth century imperialist history. This journey is characterized by the rise of USA as the dominant imperialist power. The USA has been the aggressor not only in Philippines and Vietnam but also in several countries of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. A development that is causing major concern in the US ruling circles is the forecast that by 2020 China’s economy alone would be three times that of the USA’s. As of now the US juggernaut is moving on with its imperialist agenda. The foot soldiers accompanying the juggernaut these days are local assistants like Turkey. The Economist magazine hopes that India might serve this role for the USA as “the armies of allied countries whose people do not mind their soldiers doing the face-to-face work [i.e. dying] may come to the rescue”. Recent moves by the Indian rulers can definitely corroborate this wish.

Meszaros in “historical challenges facing the socialist movement,” quotes an Italian leftist on the proper self-definition and autonomous organizational viability of the radical socialist forces. This self-definition and viability is “often badly hindered by a vague and optimistic left-Keynesianism in which the central position is occupied by the magic word ‘development’”. Therefore, if ‘development’ is the focus of a socialist movement it will dilute the struggle for creating an alternative system. Thwarting the myth of ‘world government’, Meszaros argues “The idea of a viable world government implies as its necessary material base the elimination of all significant material antagonisms from the global constitution of the capital system.” This according to Meszaros is a “veritable contradiction in terms.”

The interview in the second part complements the rest of the book. In response to a question that Marx’s theory is vulnerable, Meszaros explains that the Marxian framework is always in need of renewal. Marx was writing in the mid to late nineteenth century and conditions have changed immeasurably since then. “Marx knew of only one form in which capital was personified: the private capitalist, whether a single individual or combination of shareholders. But we have seen several different forms”. However, Marx discourse is so profound that, even in the nineteenth century, “he was already aware of the ecological problem i.e. the problems of ecology under the rule of capital and the dangers implicit in it for human survival. In fact he was the first to conceptualize it.”

Meszaros’s comment on the post-industrial society, is “We will always be industrial. The idea that the ‘information revolution’ will render all industrial work completely superfluous will never be more than a self-serving propagandist fantasy. Characteristically, at the same time that the champions of capital-apologetics were talking about the ‘post-industrial’ paradise, they were also approvingly talking about transferring the ‘smoke-stack industries’ to India, or to China.” Not only has the poisonous smoke stack industry moved to Bhopal but also caused the worst industrial disaster in the history of mankind.

So, what is Meszaros’s concept of revolution? “Revolution, cannot simply be a question of ‘overthrowing.’ Anything that can be overthrown can only be a very partial aspect of the social revolution.” The capitalist state can be overthrown, however, the state as such cannot be overthrown. This brings us to Marx’s concept of “withering away of the state,” as the state cannot just be wished away after the overthrow of the capitalist state. Thus an alternative organic system has to “replace capital’s organic system in which the parts support the whole because the parts also reciprocally support each other.” The abolition or overthrow of the capitalist state still remains the necessary first step in front of us. Let us continue to struggle towards the first step and beyond for the radical transformation of the Indian society.

– Pratyush Bharti