The Historical Challenges Facing the Socialist Movement

26 March, 2021 — Monthly Review Press

by  and 

István Mészáros

Translation of Introduction to the Latin American Edition of a Beyond Capital

Preface to the English Edition

On February 16, 2015, István Mészáros sent me a letter addressing the history of the Latin American Spanish edition of Beyond Capital and its reception by President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, along with a narrative of the origins of his close friendship with Chávez. In that letter, he explained that Vadell Hermanos, the publisher of the Spanish edition, had “asked me to write a special Introduction for the Latin American edition in Spanish, and I completed this special introduction—nearly 10,000 words, not published in English—in January 2000.” The entire book incorporating this special introduction was published by Vadell Hermanos in 2001, followed by the Brazilian Portuguese translation in 2002.

Mészáros clearly considered his January 2000 special introduction to Beyond Capital on “The Historical Challenges Facing the Socialist Movement” to be a major work in itself. It was originally written in English and translated into Spanish, but no English version survived, either in Mészáros’s own papers or in the papers of Eduardo Gasca, the translator of the Latin American Spanish-language edition. Due to the importance of this work, Brian M. Napoletano and Pedro Urquijo of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (Morelia) took up the task of translating the Spanish-language manuscript back into English. It is presented here in the English language for the first time.

—John Bellamy Foster, March 8, 2021

Introduction to the Latin American Edition of a Beyond Capital

(Translated from the Spanish by Brian M. Napoletano and Pedro Urquijo)

We are living in a time of unprecedented historical crisis, which affects all forms of the capital system, not just capitalism. It is easy to understand, then, that the only thing that could produce a viable solution to the contradictions that we have to face would be a radical socialist alternative to capital’s mode of social metabolic control. This requires a hegemonic alternative that is not confined to the constraints of the existing order by remaining dependent on the object of its negation, as has happened in the past. Although we must be alert to the immense challenges that appear on the horizon and confront them with all the means at our disposal, negations for their own sake are not enough. It is also necessary to clearly formulate the positive alternative that could be embodied in a radically reconstituted socialist movement. This is because the feasibility of success retains a vital dependence on the chosen objective of transformative action, if we are to define it as going positively beyond capital, and not simply negatively as the overthrow of capitalism. At the very least, the painful lessons of the collapse of so-called “really existing socialism” should make this clear: it was a prisoner, throughout its history, of its negative determinations.

1. The Generalized Defensiveness of Labor

The constitution, urgently needed, of the radical alternative to capital’s mode of social metabolic reproduction cannot take place without a critical reevaluation of the past. It is necessary to examine the failure of the historical left to fulfill the expectations optimistically formulated by Karl Marx when he posited, back in 1847, the labor union “association” and the consequent political development of the working class as parallel to the industrial development of the various capitalist countries. As he put it:

the degree to which combination has developed in any country clearly marks the rank it occupies in the hierarchy of the world market. England, whose industry has attained the highest degree of development, has the biggest and best organised combinations. In England they have not stopped at partial combinations…[they] went on simultaneously with the political struggles of the workers, who now constitute a large political party, under the name of Chartists.1

And Marx expected the process to continue so that: “the working class, in the course of its development, will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so-called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society.”2

Nevertheless, in the historical development of the working class, fragmentation and sectoralism were not limited to the “partial associations” and the various unions that emerged from them.3 Inevitably, fragmentation affected every aspect of the socialist movement, including its political dimension. So much so, in fact, that a century and a half later, it still represents an immense problem that will have to be resolved sometime in the hopefully not-too-distant future.

The labor movement could not avoid being sectoral and fragmented in its beginnings. It was not simply a matter of subjectively adopting the wrong strategy, as is often claimed, but a matter of objective determinations. This is because the “plurality of capitals” could not and cannot be overcome within the framework of the social metabolic order of capital, despite the overwhelming tendency toward monopolistic concentration and centralization—as well as transnational development, but precisely in its transnational (and not genuinely multinational) character, fragmented by necessity—of globalizing capital. At the same time, the “plurality of labor” also cannot be suppressed on the basis of the social metabolic reproduction of capital, regardless of the effort to turn labor from the structurally irreconcilable antagonist of capital into its uniformly submissive servant. Such attempts range from the mystifying and absurd propaganda of “people’s capitalism” in the form of shareholding, to the all-encompassing direct political extraction of surplus labor by the postcapitalist personifications of capital who sought to legitimize themselves through their spurious pretense of constituting the embodiment of the “true interests” of the working class.

The sectoral and fragmented character of the labor movement was combined with its defensive articulation. Primitive unionism—from which political parties later emerged—represented the centralization of the sectorality of authoritarian tendencies, and with it the transfer of decision-making power from the local “associations” to the union centers, and subsequently to the political parties. Thus, the primitive trade union movement as a whole was already inevitably sectoral and defensive. Certainly, due to the internal logic of the development of that movement, the centralization of sectoralitybrought with it the consolidation of defensiveness, if we take into account the sporadic attacks with which local associations could inflict serious injuries on local antagonistic forces of capital. (The Luddites, their distant relatives, tried to do the same in a destructive, and therefore quickly nonviable, form more generally.) The consolidation of defensiveness thus represented a paradoxical historical advance, because through its primitive unions, labor also became the interlocutor of capital, without ceasing to objectively constitute its structural antagonist.

From this new position of generalized defensiveness of labor, certain advantages could be derived, under favorable conditions, for some sectors of labor. This was possible to the extent that the corresponding constituents of capital could accede, on a national scale, in tune with the dynamics of the potential expansion and accumulation of capital, to the demands made on them by the defensively articulated labor movement—a movement that operated within the structural premises of the capital system, as a legally constituted and regulated interlocutor by the state. The development of the “Welfare State” constituted the culminating manifestation of that logic, viable in a very limited number of countries. It was limited both in terms of the favorable conditions for the problem-free expansion of capital in the countries involved, as the precondition for the emergence of the Welfare State, and in terms of its time scale, which is marked in the end by the pressure of the “radical right” for a total liquidation of the Welfare State during the last three decades, as a result of the structural crisis of the capital system as a whole.

With the constitution of the political labor parties—under the form of the separation of the “industrial arm” of labor (the unions) from its “political arm” (the social-democratic and vanguard parties)—the defensiveness of the movement was further strengthened. For both types of parties appropriated the exclusive right to any general decision-making, which was already foreshadowed in the centralized sectorality of the trade union movements themselves. That defensiveness was further worsened by the mode of operation adopted by the political parties, which obtained certain successes at the cost of derailing and diverting the socialist movement from its original objectives, because in the capitalist parliamentary framework, in exchange for the acceptance by capital of the legitimacy of the political labor parties, it became practically illegal to employ the “industrial arm” for political purposes. This represented a seriously constraining condition that the labor parties accepted, thereby condemning the immense combative potential of labor, with material roots and potentially also very effective politically, to total impotence. To act in such a way was extremely problematic since capital, thanks to its structurally assured supremacy, continued to be the extraparliamentary force par excellence that could dominate parliament at its leisure from the outside. Nor was it possible to consider that the situation was any better for labor in postcapitalist societies, for Joseph Stalin degraded the unions to the point of constituting what he called the “transmission belts” of official propaganda, simultaneously exempting the postcapitalist political form of authoritarian decision-making from any possibility of control by the working-class base. Understandably, then, in view of our unhappy historical experience with both major types of political parties, there can be no hope of a radical rearticulation of the socialist movement if there is no total combination of the “industrial arm” of labor with its “political arm”: on the one hand, conferring meaningful decision-making power to the trade unions (thus encouraging them to be directly political) and, on the other hand, making the political parties themselves defiantly active in industrial conflicts as the intransigent antagonists of capital, assuming responsibility for their struggle inside and outside of parliament.

Throughout its long history, the labor movement continued to be sectoral and defensive. In truth, these two defining characteristics constituted an authentic vicious circle. Labor, in its internally divided and often shattered plurality, could not break out of its paralyzing sectoral constraints, dependent on the plurality of capitals, because as a general movement it was defensively articulated. And vice-versa, it could not overcome the serious limitations of its necessary defensiveness toward capital, because up to the present it had continued to be sectoral in its industrial articulation and political organization. At the same time, to further close the vicious circle, the defensive role assumed by labor gave a curious form of legitimacy to capital’s mode of social metabolic control. By omission, the defensive posture of labor explicitly or tacitly permitted the established socioeconomic and political order to be treated as the necessary framework of, and the continuous prerequisite for, what could be considered “realistically feasible” in terms of the demands to be made, while at the same time demarcating the only legitimate way to resolve conflicts that would arise from the conflicting claims of the interlocutors. This amounted to a kind of self-censorship, to the delight of the avid personifications of capital. It represented a numbing self-censorship, which resulted in a strategic inactivity that continues to paralyze even the most radical remnants of the historic organized left today, not to mention its once genuinely reformist but now fully tamed and integrated constituents.

To the extent that the defensive position of the “rational partner” of capital—whose rationality was defined a priori as that which could fit within the premises and practical restrictions of the dominant order—could produce labor-related profits, the self-proclaimed legitimacy of the general political regulatory framework remained fundamentally unquestioned. However, once capital, under pressure of its structural crisis, was no longer able to concede anything meaningful to its “rational partner,” but, on the contrary, also had to withdraw its past concessions and relentlessly attack the very foundations of the Welfare State as well as labor’s protective/defensive legal safeguards through a set of “democratically enacted” authoritarian antiunion laws, the established political order had to lose its legitimacy and at the same time expose the complete unsustainability of labor’s defensive stance.

The “crisis of politics,” which cannot be denied today even by the system’s worst apologists—although, of course, they try to confine it to the sphere of political manipulation and its aberrant consensus, in the spirit of New Labour’s “Third Way”—represents a profound crisis of legitimacy of the established social metabolic mode of reproduction and its overall framework of political control. This is what has brought about the historical actuality of the socialist offensive, although the pursuit of its own “line of least resistance” by labor continues to favor for the moment the maintenance of the existing order, despite the increasingly obvious inability of that order to “deliver the goods”—even in the capitalistically more advanced countries—as the once overwhelmingly accepted foundation of its legitimacy.4 Today, “New Labour,” in all its European variants, is the facilitator of the “delivery of the goods” only for the entrenched interests of capital, be it the field of finance capital—cynically defended by the Tony Blair government even in conflict with some of its European colleagues—or some of its quasi-monopoly industrial and commercial sectors. At the same time, in order to defend the system under the conditions of the increasingly narrow margins of capital’s reproductive viability, the interests of the working class are completely ignored, facilitating also in this respect the vital interests of capital by retaining all the authoritarian antilabor legislation of the recent past, and supporting with all the power of the state the onslaught of capital toward the massive precarization of labor, as a cynically deceptive “solution” to the problem of unemployment.5 That is why the need for a socialist offensive cannot be removed from the historical agenda by any given or conceivable variant of a defensive posture of labor.

It should come as no surprise that under the present conditions of crisis, the siren song of Keynesianism is once again heard as a remedy full of good wishes, which appeals to the spirit of the old “expansionist consensus” in the service of “development.” Today, however, that song can only sound like something very muted, that emerges through a long blunt pipe from the bottom of a very deep Keynesian tomb. For the kind of consensus cultivated by the existing varieties of accommodative labor must actually make digestible the structural failure of capital expansion and accumulation, in stark contrast to the conditions that once allowed Keynesian policies to prevail during a very limited historical period. Luigi Vinci, a prominent theorist of the Italian Rifondazione movement, rightly pointed out that today the proper self-definition and autonomous organizational viability of radical socialist forces is “often strongly hampered by a vague and optimistic left Keynesianism in which the central position is occupied by the magic word ‘development.’”6 A notion of “development” that even at the height of the Keynesian expansion could not bring the socialist alternative one inch closer, because it always took for granted the necessary practical premises of capital as the guiding framework of its own strategy, firmly under the conscious restrictions of the “line of least resistance.”

It should also be noted that Keynesianism is by its very nature circumstantial. Since it operates within the structural parameters of capital, it cannot avoid being conjunctural, regardless of whether the prevailing circumstances favor a juncture of much or little extension. Keynesianism, even in its “Keynesian left” variety, is necessarily situated within, and constrained by, the “stop-and-go logic” of capital. Even in the best of cases, Keynesianism cannot represent more than the “go” phase of an expansionist cycle, which sooner or later will be stopped by the “stop” phase. In its origins, Keynesianism tried to offer an alternative to the “stop-and-go logic” by managing both phases in a “balanced” manner. However, it did not succeed, and instead became tied to the unilateral “go” phase, due to the very nature of its capitalist state-oriented regulatory framework. The unusual length of the postwar Keynesian expansion—but even this, significantly, confined to a handful of capitalistically advanced countries—was largely due to the favorable conditions of postwar reconstruction and the dominant position assumed therein by the overwhelmingly state-financed military-industrial complex.

In contrast, the fact that the corrective/countervailing “stop” phase had to acquire the exceptionally severe and insensitive form of “neoliberalism” (and “monetarism” as its pseudo-objective ideological rationalization)—already under the Labour government of Harold Wilson, which was financially/monetarily presided over by Denis Healy as Minister of Finance—was due to the unfolding of the structural crisis of capital, which encompassed a complete historical epoch. This is what explains the exceptional duration of the neoliberal “stop” phase, up to now much more prolonged than the postwar Keynesian “go” phase, still without an end in sight, perpetuated under the watchful eye of conservative and Labour governments alike. In other words, both the antilabor severity and the frightening duration of the neoliberal “stop” phase, together with the fact that neoliberalism is practiced by governments that were supposed to be on opposite sides of the parliamentary political divide, are only really understandable as manifestations of the structural crisis of capital. The fact that the brutal longevity of the neoliberal phase is ideologically rationalized by some labor theorists as “the long downward cycle” of normal capitalist development, which will most certainly be followed by another “long expansionist cycle,” only underscores the total inability of reformist “strategic thinking” to grasp the nature of the development trends at work. All the more so because the savagery of neoliberalism continues on its path, without being challenged by the accommodating workforce, and even as the years are already passing for which the advent of the fanciful notion of the “long positive cycle” was predicted, as capital’s labor apologists theorized.

Thus, given the structural crisis of the capital system, even if a turnaround could bring back, for a moment, some form of Keynesian state financial management, this could only be for an extremely limited duration, due to the absence of the material conditions that would favor its extension for a longer time even in the dominant capitalist countries. Even more importantly, this limited economic renaissance could offer nothing to the realization of a radical socialist alternative. For it would be absolutely impossible to build a viable strategic alternative to the capitalist mode of social metabolic control in a form internally articulated in the management of the system; a form that needs the expansion and healthy accumulation of capital as the necessary precondition of its own mode of operation.

2. The Necessity of Reconstituting the Unity of the Material Reproductive and Political Spheres

As we know, the sectoral limitations and defensiveness of labor could not be overcome through union centralization and movement politics. This historical failure is strongly underscored today by the transnational globalization of capital for which labor seems to have no response.

It needs to be remembered here that over the course of the last century and a half, no fewer than four Internationals have been founded in an attempt to create the required international unity of labor. However, none of the four have come close to their goals, much less to fulfilling them. It is not possible to make this comprehensible in terms simply of personal betrayals that, while correct in personal terms, continue to sidestep the issue and overlook the compelling objective determinations that we must keep in mind if we are to remedy the situation in the future. Otherwise, why circumstances actually favored such derailments and betrayals over a long historical period remains unexplained.

The fundamental problem is that the sectoral plurality of labor is closely linked to the conflicting plurality of capitals structured hierarchically, both within each particular country and on a global scale. If it were not for this, it would be much easier to conceive of the successful constitution of the international unity of labor against unified or unifiable capital. However, given the necessarily hierarchical/conflictive articulation of the capital system, with its incorrigibly inequitable internal and international order, the global unity of capital—which in principle could be easily opposed by the corresponding international unity of labor—is not feasible. The much-deplored historical fact that in great international conflicts the working classes of the various countries aligned themselves with the exploiters of the world, instead of turning their weapons against their own ruling classes, as the socialists invited them to do, finds the material foundation of its explanation in the contradictory relationship of power to which we refer here, and cannot be reduced to the question of “ideological clarity.” For the same reason, those who expect radical change in this regard on the basis of the unification of globalizing capital and its “global governance”—which would be combatively confronted by united labor on the international plane and with full class consciousness—are condemned to disappointment. Capital will not condescend and do labor that “favor,” for the simple reason that it cannot.

The hierarchical/conflictive articulation of capital continues to be the general structuring principle of the system, no matter how large, indeed how gigantic, its constituent units may be. This is due to the intrinsic nature of the system’s decision-making processes. Given the irreconcilable structural antagonism between capital and labor, the latter can be categorically excluded from all meaningful decision-making. This may be the case not only at the most inclusive level, but even in the constitutive “microcosms,” in the particular productive units. For it is not possible for capital, as alienated decision-making power, to function without making its decisions absolutely unquestionable (by the labor force in the particular workshops, or by rival production complexes at the intermediate level, in a given country, or even at the most encompassing level, by the command staff in charge of the other units in international competition). That is why the decision-making mode of capital—in all the known and feasible varieties of the capital system—must be a head-to-toe authoritarian form of management of the various enterprises. Understandably, then, everything that is said about labor “sharing power” or “participating” in the decision-making processes of capital belongs to the realm of pure fiction, if not the deliberate cynical camouflage of the real state of affairs.

This structurally determined inability to share power explains why the wide-ranging monopolistic developments in the twentieth century had to assume the form of takeovers—“hostile” or “non-hostile” (today omnipresent on a frightening scale), but invariably takeovers, in which one of the participants involved ends up victorious, even if the ideological rationalization of the process is disguised as a “happy marriage of equals.”7 The same inability explains, more significantly for our time, the important fact that the ongoing globalization of capital produced and continues to produce giant transnational corporations, but not genuine multinationals, despite the ideologically much needed convenience of the latter. No doubt in the future there will be many attempts to rectify this situation through the creation and operation of appropriate multinational companies. However, the underlying problem is doomed to remain with us even in that circumstance, because the future “shared directives” of genuine multinationals can only function in the absence of significant conflicts of interest between the particular national constituents of the multinationals in question. Once such conflicts arise, the previous “harmoniously collaborative shared directives” become untenable and the overall decision-making process must be reversed to the usual head-to-toe authoritarian variant, under the overwhelming weight of the stronger member. For this problem is inseparable from the relationship of individual national capitals to their own labor force, which always remains structurally antagonistic/conflicting. Accordingly, in a situation of major conflict, no particular national capital can afford—or allow itself—to be disadvantaged by decisions that would favor a rival labor force, and by implication its own antagonist in the rival national capital. The illusorily projected “world government” under the rule of capital would become feasible only if a viable solution to that problem could be found. But no government, much less a “world government,” is feasible without a well-established and efficiently functioning material base. The idea of a viable world government would imply as its obligatory material basis the elimination of all significant material antagonisms in the global constitution of the system, and consequently the harmonious management of social metabolic reproduction by an unchallenged global monopoly, encompassing all facets of societal reproduction with the happy collaboration of the global labor force—a real incongruence—or the totally authoritarian and, whenever necessary, extremely violent domination of the world as a whole by a hegemonic imperialist country on a permanent basis: a way of running the world order equally absurd and unsustainable. Only a genuine socialist social metabolic mode of reproduction can offer a genuine alternative to those nightmarish solutions.

Another vital determination that we have to face, as disturbing as it may be, concerns the nature of the political sphere and the parties within it. The centralization of labor’s sectorality—a sectorality that was expected to be remedied by its political parties—was largely due to the obligatory mode of operation of the political parties themselves, in their inevitable opposition to their political adversary within the capitalist state, representative of the general structure of capital’s political command. Thus, all labor’s political parties, including Leninist ones, had to make their own political dimension the all-encompassing political one, in order to reflect in their own mode of articulation the underlying political structure (the bureaucratized capitalist state) to which they were subject. What was problematic in all this was that the successful and politically obligatory reflection of the political structuring principle of the adversary could not bring about the practicable vision of an alternative way of controlling the system. Labor’s political parties could not elaborate a viable alternative because in their negating function they focused exclusively on the political dimension of the adversary, and thus continued to be totally dependent on the object of their negation.

The missing vital dimension, which political parties as such cannot provide, was capital not as the political commander (that aspect was undoubtedly addressed) but as the social metabolic regulator of the process of material reproduction, which ultimately determines the political dimension as well, but many other things besides that. This unique correlation in the capital system between the political dimension and the material reproductive dimension is what explains why, in times of great socioeconomic and political crises, we are witnessing periodic changes from the parliamentary democratic articulation of politics to its variants of extreme authoritarianism, when the social metabolic processes in turbulence require and permit such shifts, and, in due course, a return to the political framework regulated by the formal democratic rules of adversity, on the social metabolic foundation of newly reconstituted and consolidated capital.

Since capital is truly in control of all vital aspects of social metabolism, it can afford to define the sphere of separately constituted political legitimacy as a strictly formal matter, and thereby exclude a priori the possibility of being legitimately challenged in its substantive sphere of socioeconomic reproductive functioning. By conforming to these determinations, labor as an antagonist of really existing capital cannot but be condemned to permanent impotence. The postcapitalist historical experience tells us a very sad cautionary tale about this, which has to do with its misguided way of diagnosing and addressing the fundamental problems of the negated social order.

The capital system is constructed with incorrigibly centrifugal constituents, complemented as its cohesive dimension under capitalism not only by the thoughtless subjugating power of the “invisible hand”, but also by the legal and political functions of the modern state. The failure of postcapitalist societies was their attempt to address the problem of how to remedy—through internal restructuring and the institution of substantive democratic control—the adversarial character and concomitant centrifugal mode of operation of particular reproductive and distributive units. The elimination of the private capitalist personifications of capital could not therefore fulfill its role, not even as the first step on the road to the promised socialist transformation. For the adversarial and centrifugal nature of the negated system was in fact preserved by the imposition of centralized political control at the expense of labor. Indeed, the social metabolic system became more uncontrollable than ever as a result of the failure to productively replace the “invisible hand” of the old reproductive order with the voluntarist authoritarianism of the new “visible” personifications of postcapitalist capital.

In contrast to the development of “really existing socialism,” what is required as a vital condition for success is the progressive reacquisition of alienated political—and not just political—decision-making power by individuals in their transition to a genuine socialist society. Without the reacquisition of those powers, neither the new mode of political control of society as a whole by individuals nor indeed the non-adversarial, and therefore cohesive/plannable day-to-day operation of particular productive and distributive units by their autonomous associate producers, can be conceived.

The reconstitution of the unity of the material reproductive and political sphere is the essential defining characteristic of the socialist mode of social metabolic control. Creating the necessary mediations that lead in that direction is something that cannot be left to some remote future. It is here that the defensive articulation and sectoral centralization of the socialist movement in the twentieth century demonstrates its true anachronism and historical unsustainability. Limiting the encompassing dimension of the radical hegemonic alternative to capital’s mode of social metabolic control to the political sphere can never produce a successful outcome. However, as things stand today, the inability to address the vital social metabolic dimension continues to be characteristic of labor’s organized political representations. It is this that represents the greatest historical challenge for the future.

3. Four Strategic Considerations

The ability to respond to this challenge through a radically rearticulated socialist movement is indicated by four important considerations. The first is negative. It arises from the constantly aggravated contradictions of the existing order that underscore the emptiness of the apologetic projections of its absolute permanence. For the destructiveness can be carried very far, as we know perfectly well from our ever-worsening conditions of existence, but not forever. The defenders of the system acclaim the ongoing globalization as the solution to their problems. In reality, however, it mobilizes forces that highlight not only the system’s uncontrollability by rational design but also its own inability to perform its control functions as the condition of its existence and legitimacy.

The second consideration indicates the possibility—but only the possibility—of a positive change in the situation. However, this possibility is very real because the capital-labor relationship is not symmetrical. That means, in the most important aspect, that while the dependence of capital on labor is absolute—since capital is absolutely nothing without the labor it permanently exploits—the dependence of labor on capital is relative, historically created, and historically transcendable. In other words: labor is not condemned to remain permanently locked in the vicious circle of capital.

The third consideration is equally important. It concerns an important historical change in the confrontation between capital and labor, which brings with it the need to seek a very different way of asserting the vital interests of the “associated producers.” This is in total contrast to the reformist past that has led the movement into a blind alley, at the same time liquidating even the most limited concessions that were extracted from capital in the past. Thus, for the first time in history, it has become practically unsustainable to maintain the mystifying gap between immediate goals and overall strategic objectives, which made the pursuit of the reformist dead-end so dominant in the labor movement. As a result, the question of the real control of an alternative social metabolic order has appeared on the historical agenda, regardless of how unfavorable the conditions for its realization may be at the moment.

And finally, as a necessary corollary to the last point, the question of substantive equality has also surfaced, in contrast to the formal equality and the very pronounced substantive hierarchical inequality of capital’s decision-making processes, as well as the way they were reflected and reproduced in the failed postcapitalist historical experience. Because the alternative socialist way of controlling a non-adversarial and genuinely plannable social metabolic order—something absolutely essential for the future—is inconceivable without substantive equality as its structuring and regulatory principle.

4. A Radically Reconstituted Socialist Movement

In an interview with Radical Philosophy in April 1992, I expressed my conviction that:

the future of socialism will be decided in the United States, however pessimistic this may sound. I try to hint at this in the last section of The Power of Ideology where I discuss the problem of universality.8 Socialism either can assert itself universally and in such a way that it embraces all those areas, including the most developed capitalist areas of the world, or it won’t succeed.9

In the same interview, I also emphasized that the social and intellectual ferment in Latin America promises more for the future than we can find at the moment in the capitalistically advanced countries. This is understandably so, because the need for radical change is exerting much greater pressure in Latin America than in Europe and the United States, and the once-promised solutions of “modernization” and “development” have proven to be nothing more than an ever-receding light in an ever-lengthening tunnel. Thus, while it remains true that socialism must be qualified as a universally viable approach, encompassing also the most developed capitalist areas of the world, we cannot consider this problem in terms of a time sequence in which a future social revolution in the United States must take precedence over everything else. Nothing of the sort. Given the massive inertia generated by capital’s vested interests in the capitalistically advanced countries, along with the consensual complicity of reformist laborism there, a social revolt that lights the fuse is much more likely to occur in Latin America than in the United States, with far-reaching implications for the rest of the world.

The tragedy of Cuba—a country that initiated a potentially major transformation in the continent—was that its revolution remained isolated. This was due in large part to the massive intervention of the United States throughout Latin America, from Central America and Bolivia to Peru and Argentina, also working to overthrow the elected government of Brazil by a military dictatorship and installing a genocidal dictator with Augusto Pinochet in Salvador Allende’s Chile. Naturally, this could not solve any of the serious underlying problems but only postpone the moment when it will become inevitable for them to be faced. Today, potentially explosive pressures are visible throughout Latin America, from Mexico and Argentina to Brazil and Venezuela.

Brazil, as the country with the major political and economic weight, has a prominent place in this respect. We witnessed the impact of the 1998–99 Brazilian economic crisis in the United States and Europe, accompanied by frightening headlines in major capitalist newspapers. Headlines ranging from “£2.1 Billion Worth of Shares Vanished” to “Brazil Crisis Gives Frantic Europe a Jolt.”10 Even Henry Kissinger, who, as Richard Nixon’s foreign relations strategist, played a central role in the imposition of Pinochet on the Chilean people, sounded the alarm, saying that, “if Brazil is driven into deep recession, countries such as Argentina and Mexico, heretofore committed to free-market institutions, may be overwhelmed,” concluding, with extreme hypocrisy, that “the immediate challenge is to overcome the crisis in Brazil and preserve the free-market economics and democracy in Latin America. A firm and unambiguous commitment by the industrial democracies, led by the United States, is essential to buttress the necessary Brazilian reform program.”11 Naturally, Kissinger’s concerns had nothing to do with the fate of democracy in Latin America, for which, in his years in power, he abundantly demonstrated aggressive contempt, but rather with the potential repercussions of the Brazilian crisis on the global hegemonic imperialist power; a danger that arises from an area arrogantly defined as the “geopolitical backyard” of the United States.

In Brazil, the radical wing of the working-class movement, both in the unions and in the political parties, played a very important role in putting an end to the U.S.-sponsored military dictatorship. In this way, it also inspired some radical movements in many parts of Latin America, although militants continue to argue that there is still a long way to go before the inherited limitations of the historic organized left can be considered past. What is also important to note is that, despite the disconcerting successes of capital over the past decade in different parts of the world, especially in the former societies of “really existing socialism,” forces working to institutionalize a different social order have found encouraging manifestations in various parts of the U.S. “geopolitical backyard,” from the Zapatistas in Mexico to militants challenging the extremely disadvantageous conditions that now favor the established order in Colombia and other Latin American countries.

Moreover, it is also highly significant that the radical social movements in question want to shake off the organizational limitations of the historical left in order to articulate in action not only the necessary negation of the existing order, but also the positive dimension of a hegemonic alternative. Of course, we are still at a very early stage of these developments. However, to take just two examples, it is possible to point to some not-so-small successes. The first example is that of the Brazilian landless workers’ movement, that of the sem terra, which continues to assert its objectives with great rigor and courage, generating broad resonance in different parts of the world. The second example, although it goes back to 1999, has been reinforced by the overwhelming electoral victory of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and by the even more overwhelming success of the constitutional referendum the following year.12 The people involved in both examples are trying to undertake the immensely difficult task of unifying the material reproductive sphere and the political sphere, and are doing so in different but complementary ways. The first is by opening avenues of penetration into the field of material production, challenging capital’s mode of social metabolic control with the cooperative enterprise of the landless, and thus beginning to affect, indirectly, the political process in Brazil as well. The second, in Venezuela, is heading toward the same end from the opposite direction: using the political leverage of the presidency and the constituent assembly, it tries to introduce much needed changes in the field of material reproduction, as a necessary part of the conceived alternative.

The antagonism and resistance of the established order to the changes attempted by these movements and their allies in other parts of Latin America will inevitably be fierce, and backed by the most reactionary forces of global hegemonic imperialism. At the same time, there can be no doubt that the success of these radical alternative movements will depend to a great extent on international socialist solidarity as well as on their own ability to inspire the traditional organized left in their countries to join them in struggle. For only a radically reconstituted socialist mass movement can meet the great historic challenge that we have to face in the decisive century ahead.

Rochester, England, January 2000

Notes

  1. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 6 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1976), 210.
  2. Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, 212.
  3. The word used in the Spanish translation is parcialidad, but it does not refer in this context to bias or partiality. Rather, it is best understood as referring to the working class as consisting of mutually antagonistic groups. We have selected fragmentation as the best term with which to convey this meaning. —Translators
  4. See chapter 18 of István Mészáros, Beyond Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1995). The study titled “Il rinnovamento del marxismo e l’attualitá storica della offensiva socialistam” Problemi del socialismo, Anno XXIII (January–April 1982): 5–141, contains an earlier version of this article. Problemi del socialismo was a publication funded by Lelio Basso.
  5. In any case, we should not forget that the antilabor legislation in England started under Harold Wilson’s Labour government, with the legislative outburst called “In Place of Strife” (see Mészáros, Beyond Capital, 766) in the initial phase of the structural crisis of capital. It continued under the short-lived government of Edward Heath, and again under the Labour governments of Wilson and James Callaghan, ten years before it received the openly “neoliberal” go-ahead under Margaret Thatcher.
  6. Luigi Vinci, La socialdemocrazia e la sinistra antagonista in Europa (Milan: Edizioni Punto Rosso, 1999), 69. Translated by Brian M. Napoletano and Pedro S. Urquijo.
  7. In the Spanish text, takeover appears in English and it is not clear whether the emphasis was added by the translators to indicate a foreign phrase, or whether Mészáros himself placed the emphasis on the term. —Translators
  8. István Mészáros, The Power of Ideology (New York: New York University Press, 1989), 462–70. The Brazilian edition was published as O poder da ideologia (São Paulo: Editora Ensaio, 1996), 606–16.
  9. István Mészáros, “Marxism Today,” Radical Philosophy 62 (autumn 1992), reprinted in part IV of Beyond Capital. István Mészáros, Beyond Capital (London: Merlin, 1995), 985–86. The emphasis on partial associations was added either by Mészáros or the Spanish translator. —Translators
  10. John Waples, David Smith, and Dominic Rushe, “£2.1 Billion Worth of Shares Vanished,” Sunday Times, October 4, 1998, section 3 (Business), 7; Vincent Boland, “Brazilian Crisis Gives Frantic Europe a Jolt,” Financial Times, January 14, 1999, 41.
  11. Henry Kissinger, “Perils of Globalism,” Washington Post, October 9, 1998. Also available as Henry Kissinger, 144 Cong. Rec., pt. 18 (October 13, 1998), 26073. Of course, the system’s apologists always try to win at any cost, and they try to extract a propaganda victory from even the most obvious crisis. Thus, characteristically, the Daily Telegraph—the same day it published Kissinger’s article—contained an editorial entitled “How Capitalism Works,” in which it offered a transparent ideological rationalization of the crisis by declaring that “capitalism works precisely because it is unstable. A bit like an agile jet fighter that is highly maneuverable because of its instability.”
  12. Four years before Venezuela’s presidential elections, Beyond Capital clearly anticipated the great positive potential of Hugo Chávez Frías’s radical Bolivarian movement even in the electoral arena, in stark contrast to the fashionable notion that only the most moderate “broad electoral alliances” are viable today. See chapter 18, section 18.4.3 of Mészáros, Beyond Capital, 709–12.

About István Mészáros

István Mészáros (1930–2017) was a philosopher and political theorist, and a frequent contributor to Monthly Review. At the time of his death, he was Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Sussex.

About John Bellamy Foster

John Bellamy Foster, professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, is editor of Monthly Review, an independent socialist magazine published monthly in New York City. His research is devoted to critical inquiries into theory and history, focusing primarily on the economic, political and ecological contradictions of capitalism, but also encompassing the wider realm of social theory as a whole. He has published numerous articles and books focusing on the political economy of capitalism and the economic crisis, ecology and the ecological crisis, and Marxist theory: (with Paul Burkett) Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique (2016); The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism: An Elaboration of Marxian Political Economy (New Edition, 2014); (with Robert W. McChesney) The Endless Crisis: How Monopoly-Finance Capital Produces Stagnation and Upheaval from the USA to China (2012); (with Fred Magdoff) What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism: A Citizen’s Guide to Capitalism and the Environment (2011); (with Brett Clark and Richard York) The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (2009); (with Fred Magdoff) The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences (2009); The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet (2009); (with Brett Clark and Richard York) Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism versus Creationism from Antiquity to the Present (2008); Ecology Against Capitalism (2002); Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (2000); (with Frederick H. Buttel and Fred Magdoff) Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment (2000); The Vulnerable Planet: A Short Economic History of the Environment (1999); (with Ellen Meiksins Wood and Robert W. McChesney) Capitalism and the Information Age: The Political Economy of the Global Communication Revolution (1998); (with Ellen Meiksins Wood) In Defense of History: Marxism and the Postmodern Agenda (1997); The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism: An Elaboration of Marxian Political Economy (1986); (with Henryk Szlajfer) The Faltering Economy: The Problem of Accumulation Under Monopoly Capitalism (1984). His work is published in at least twenty-five languages. Visit johnbellamyfoster.org for a collection of most of Foster’s works currently available online.

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