Barbarism on the Horizon:
An Interview With István Mészáros
by Eleonora de Lucena
Mr. István Mészáros, you are coming to visit Brazil to talk about György Lukács. As a profound expert of the work of the philosopher, how do you evaluate the importance of his ideas today?
György Lukács was my great teacher and friend for twenty-two years, until he died in 1971. He started publishing as a politically conscious literary critic almost seventy years earlier, moving toward the discussion of fundamental philosophical issues as time went by. Three of his major works in that field –History and Class Consciousness (1923), The Young Hegel (1948), and The Destruction of Reason (1954) — will always stand the test of time. His historical and aesthetic studies on great German, French, English, Russian, and Hungarian literary figures continue to be most influential in many university departments. Moreover, he is also the author of a monumental aesthetic synthesis which, I am sure, will see the light one day also in Brazil. More fortunately, his equally monumental volumes on the problems of the ontology of social being are being published right now in this country by Boitempo Editorial. They address some vital issues of philosophy which also have far-reaching implications for our everyday life and ongoing struggles. What is less well known about Lukács’s life is that he was directly involved at high levels of political organization between 1919 and 1929. He was Minister of Culture and Education in the short-lived revolutionary government of 1919 in Hungary, which emerged from the great crisis of the First World War. In the Party he belonged to the “Landler Faction” — indeed he was its second in command. This faction — named after Jenö Landler, who was a leading trade unionist before becoming a high-ranking party figure — tried to pursue a broader strategic line, with much greater involvement of the popular masses. Lukács was defeated in direct politics in 1929. However, way back in 1919, in one of his articles (you can find it quoted in my book on Lukács now published by Boitempo), he warned that the communist movement could face a great danger when “the proletariat turns its dictatorship against itself.” He proved to be tragically prophetic in this warning. In any case, in all of his public roles, political as much as theoretical, one can find his great moral stature always in evidence. Nowadays we read so much about corruption in politics. One can also see Lukács’s importance as a positive example, showing that morality and politics not only ought to (as Kant advocated it) but also can go together.
Mr. Lukács and you have both lived lives that unite theory and practice. What is the difference between being a Marxist militant in the 20th century and today?
The painfully obvious big difference today is that the major parties of the Third International, which had a significant organizational force and even electoral influence once upon a time, like the Italian and French Communist Parties, imploded not only in the East but also in the West. Only very small communist parties remained faithful to their erstwhile principles in the West. This implosion happened a long time after Lukács’s death. Naturally, as a militant intellectual for more than fifty years, he would be quite devastated by this development today. But parties are historical creations which respond, in good or bad ways, to changing needs. Marx was active well before the constitution of any major party that later could join the Third International. As to the future, some radically effective parties may well be reconstituted if the conditions significantly change. But the issue itself is much broader. The need to combine theory and practice is not tied to a specific organizational form. In fact one of the most crucial tasks in terms of combining theory and practice is the principled examination of the difficult question of why the implosion of those parties, East and West alike, had actually taken place andhow that historic failure could be remedied in actual historical development.
What does it mean to be a Marxist today?
Much the same as envisaged by Marx in his own days, but of course in the light of the historically changed and changing circumstances. For Marx insisted right from the beginning that, in contrast to the past, a crucial characteristic of the socialist evaluation of the problems that must be confronted is self-critique. To be critical of what we oppose is relatively easy. This is because it is always much easier to say no than to find a positive form through which the necessary changes can be realized. It takes a true sense of proportion: understanding both the negative factors — including the most difficult part, self-critique — and the positive potentialities upon which progress can be made. It is therefore essential to reexamine, with uncompromising self-critique, even the most problematic historical developments of the last century, together with their once cherished expectations, if we want to overcome the contradictions of our side in the future. The pressure of time and the ongoing conflicts of current historical situations tend to divert us from following this course of action. But the orienting principle of combining critique with genuine self-critique will always remain an essential requirement.
After the end of the USSR, many predicted the failure of Marxism. Then, with the economic crisis that started in 2008, many predicted the end of neo-liberalism and the return of Marxist ideas. In your point of view, is Marxism expanding or not?
You are right, one must be careful about hastily drawing sanguine conclusions in either direction. They are often generated by wishful thinking, rather than historical evidence. The collapse of Gorbachev’s government did not solve any of the problems in question in the USSR. The senseless “end-of-history” fantasy of Fukuyama does not make the slightest difference. Nor is it possible to dismiss neo-liberalism simply on the ground that its aggressively promoted triumphalist ideas and policies are not only dangerously irrational — in view of their attitude to war — but in their day-dreaming advocacy of “liberal imperialism” today rather absurd. For under certain conditions even dangerous absurdities can command massive support, as we know from history. The real question is what are the underlying forces and determinations which make people follow blind alleys in opposite directions. The change in mood which puts Marx’s Capital on fashionable coffee tables — not for study, of course, but for show, as what they call a “conversation piece” — does not mean that Marxist ideas are now advancing worldwide. The deepening crisis we are experiencing in our time is of course undeniable, generating worldwide protest. But finding sustainable solutions to the causes which tend to erupt everywhere requires the elaboration of appropriate strategies and also corresponding forms of organization which could match the magnitude of the problems at stake.
And how about conservative ideas? Are they gaining more adherents or not?
At one level, they are undoubtedly gaining more adherents, even if not on the ground of sustainable conservative ideas. Not changing is often much easier than changing a formerly established mode of behavior. It is the actual historical situation which induces people to go in one direction rather than the other on the ground of being more or less favorable to the chosen way. But the question remains: is the adopted course really tenable? There is a well-known law of physics, in the field of electricity, which says that the electric current follows “the line of least resistance.” This is also true about the situation of many social conflicts which decide, even if only temporarily, in which direction a given problem is settled for the time being, depending on the relation of forces (i.e. the strength of the resistance to the current situation) and on the realizability of suitable alternatives. The long-term viability of one adopted course rather than another is by no means a guarantee of the best outcome. Often the opposite is the case. In our historical situation, the viable long-term answers would require incomparably greater effort than trying to follow the “course that worked in the past” instead of facing the challenge and burden of a radical structural change. But the problems are enormous, and the interplay of social forces is always incomparably more complex than the direction of electric currents. For it is very doubtful that the “well-tried” conservative line of least resistance could work even in the medium run, let alone in the long run.
What would be a good definition of the current historical period?
This is the most important question in our historical period in which crises manifest on different planes of our social life. For if we are concerned with envisaging a historically sustainable solution to our grave problems, then the understanding of the real nature of the contradictions in question is essential. Epochal conflicts and antagonisms are amenable only to epochal solutions. It is very confused to talk about capitalism as a “world system.” Capitalism covers only a limited period of the capital system. It is the latter that constitutes the real world system, extendable well beyond the historical sustainability of capitalism itself. Capitalism as a mode of societal reproduction is characterized by the overwhelmingly economic extraction of surplus labor as surplus value. However, there are also other ways of securing capital accumulation, like the already known modality of political extraction of surplus labor, as was done in the USSR and elsewhere in the past. In this sense, it is important to notice the fundamental difference between the traditional cyclical/conjunctural crises of the past, belonging to the normality of capitalism, and the structural crisis of the capital system as a whole, which defines the current historical period. This is why I always tried to stress that our structural crisis — which can be dated approximately to the late 1960s and has been deepening since that time — needs structural change for its feasible lasting solution. And that certainly cannot be accomplished on the “line of least resistance.”
What are the three most important figures of the 21st century so far?
As we know, the 21st century is still very young and many surprises are still in store. But the political figure who made the greatest impact in the unfolding history of the 21st century — an impact which is bound to last and to be even extended — was the late President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez Frias, who died in March 2013. Of course, Fidel Castro was also still very active in the first half of this decade, but the roots of his major historical impact go back to the late 1950s. On the conservative side, if he was still alive, I would not hesitate to name General de Gaulle. No one matches his historic stature on the conservative side so far in this century.
And how about the most surprising event so far?
It is probably the speed with which China succeeded in catching up with the US economy, reaching now the point when overtaking the US as the “engine of the world” (as they complacently call it) is considered to be only a matter of a few years. It was foreseeable for a very long time that one day this will happen, given the immense size of the Chinese population and the annual rate of growth in the economy. But many experts were putting the date of its happening several decades further ahead in the future. However, it would be very naïve to imagine that China can remain immune to the structural crisis of the capital system, just because its financial balance sheet is incomparably healthier than that of the US. Even the Chinese surplus — trillions of dollars — could evaporate overnight in the midst of a turmoil in the not-too-distant future. The structural crisis, by its very nature, is bound to affect the whole of humanity. No country could possibly claim immunity to that, not even China.
Crises are part of capitalism. What is the balance of this latest crisis, which erupted five years ago? Who won and who lost?
Part of capitalism? Yes and no! Yes in the limited sense that the financial crisis erupted with dramatic intensity in the most powerful capitalist countries of the world, which like to call themselves “advanced capitalism.” But so much of their “advancement” is built not only on (past and present) exploitative privileges in their relations of power (political as well as economic) vis-à-vis the so-called “Third World,” but also on the catastrophic indebtedness of their economic reality. I wrote in 1987, in an article published in Brazil in 1989, that “the real debt problem” is not — as was claimed at the time — the debt in Latin America, but the insoluble debt of the United States which is bound to end with a colossal US default and corresponding magnitude of economic earthquake for the entire world. Two years ago, when I last lectured in Brazil, I pointed out that the US debt is counted in the astronomical sum of 14.5 trillion dollars, anticipating its inexorable increase. Today we are moving toward 17 trillion dollars, and we go on, and on, and on. Anybody who can imagine that this is sustainable in the future, or that it is not going to affect everybody in the world when the process of inexorably growing indebtedness is bound to lead to a paralyzing halt, must live on a different planet.
Is capitalism strengthened or weakened by the crisis?
Traditional cyclical/conjunctural crises used to strengthen capitalism in the past, since they weeded out unviable capitalist enterprises and thereby actively promoted what Schumpeter idealizingly called “creative destruction.” The problems are much more serious today, because the structural crisis affects even the most fundamental dimension of humanity’s social metabolic control, including nature, in a perilous way. Thus talking about “creative destruction” under the present conditions is utterly self-complacent. Instead, it is much more accurate to describe what is happening today as destructive production.
The crisis provoked policy changes in many countries. It is possible to discern a general movement, more to the right or to the left?
For the time being, more to the right than to the left. All governments of the capitalistically advanced countries — and by no means only them — adopted policies which try to remedy the problems through “austerity” and cuts in real wages as well as in the already precarious standard of living of those who are often described as “the under-privileged.” And the “line of least resistance” helps the extension, or at least the toleration, of the dominant conservative institutional responses to the crisis. But it is very doubtful that such policies, which now tend to favor the right, can produce lasting remedies.
As you predicted, poverty has increased in recent years, even in the core countries of capitalism. In the US, inequality increased. In the UK there is a movement to give food to the poor — something that had not happened since the Second World War.
What is wrong with capitalism? Is it possible that capitalism can no longer generate enough growth for humanity?
Food parcels given to the very poor are not the only visible signs of this aspect of the crisis, nor are they confined among the capitalistically advanced to the UK. I wrote in Para além do Capital (published in English in 1995 under the name Beyond Capital) about the coming soup kitchens. In the last two or three years we could see them on our television screens on a major scale also in the most “advanced” (and privileged) country: the USA. Certainly there is something deeply wrong — and totally unsustainable — with the way in which growth is pursued under capitalism. For some forms — by their nature cancerous — of growth are prohibitive even in terms of the elementary conditions of sustainable ecology,because they are blatant manifestations of “destructive production.” At the same time so much is squandered as “profitable waste,” while countless millions now even in the most capitalistically advanced countries have to endure extreme hardship. A few days ago the former Prime Minister of Britain, John Major, was complaining that this winter so many people in Britain have to “choose between food and heating.” I quoted him in 1992, at the time still Prime Minister, when he was asserting with utmost self-complacency: “socialism is dead, capitalism works.” And I added, “we must ask: capitalism worksfor whom and for how long?” The choice between heating and eating, which he is now forced to acknowledge, is not exactly a proof of how well “capitalism works.” In reality the only meaningful growth is what responds to human need. Destructive growth, including the vast military-industrial complex — call it “creative destruction” — can demonstrate only failure. The only historically sustainable growth for the future ahead of us is what provides both the goods in response to human need and the resources to those who need them.
The crisis increased unemployment in many regions and rocked the welfare state in Europe. Multitudes took to the streets to protest in Spain, Portugal, France, England, Greece, etc. In the US, the Occupy Wall Street disappeared. What should be the result of these movements? Is there any connection among them? Are leftwing parties benefiting from these movements or not?
In contrast to its propagandistic idealization, the welfare state in actuality was always limited to a mere handful of capitalist countries, and even there it was built on very shaky foundations. It could never be extended to the rest of the world, despite the uncritical promotion of “modernization theories of development,” which were always structured in the contradictory framework of the capital system. The real long-term trend of development pointed in the opposite direction to the idealized welfare state. The objectively identifiable trend was characterized by me already in 1970 as the “downward equalization of the differential rate of exploitation.” This includes the striking differences in hourly wage levels for workers for exactly the same work in the same transnational corporations (e.g. on the assembly lines of the Ford motor car company) in “metropolitan” as opposed to “peripheral” countries. And the trend continues to assert itself, being still very far from its necessary extension. Protests in many capitalist countries are understandable and are bound to intensify in the future. They arise from the ground of this important long-term socioeconomic trend of perverse “equalization.” Understandably, the parties operating within the framework of parliamentary politics cannot benefit from them, because they themselves tend to accommodate their objectives to the constraining limits from which the negative consequences for the welfare state necessarily follow.
Lukács saw unions as the most important organization of civil society. In your view, is it still valid?
Lukács’s views on this subject were rightly influenced by his aforementioned comrade and friend, Jenö Landler, who was a leading union militant before becoming the head of the same party faction in which Lukács also played a leading role. Lukács is right about the continuing importance of unions, with one major qualification. For what cannot be stressed enough is that the potentiality of trade unions has been (and continues to be) very badly affected by the division of the organized working-class movement into the so-called “industrial arm” (trade unions) and the “political arm” (parties) of labor. The positive potentiality of unions cannot be realized until this harmful division, which damages both of them, is significantly remedied.
What about the so-called Arab Spring? Has it ended? No link between the movements in the Arab world and Europe? Some see a new conflict in the region. Does that make sense?
The impact of the Arab Spring tended to be greatly exaggerated at the time when we witnessed the first dramatic events, and then quite unreasonably it was minimized when the mass demonstrations in North Africa receded. Yet, none of the underlying problems has been resolved so far in a single one of the countries concerned. Thus the protests are bound to continue in the future, focusing also on some grave economic contradictions (which resulted in food riots in the past, reluctantly acknowledged even by prominent establishment journals, like The Economist in London), not only on the political and military dimension. The upheavals will continue, whatever the name of the season attached to them in the media. Also, it should not be forgotten that some European countries once had massive colonial interests in North Africa and in the Middle East, and there are attempts to revive them, quite visible also today. No one should imagine that imperialism has been consigned to the past.
Brazil is also in a phase of many protests. How do you analyze this process? Is there a connection to what is happening in the rest of the world?
It is impossible today to find any part of the world in which there are no serious social protests. They also seem to focus on many different issues, creating the superficial impression that there is no connection among them. But that is also a self-deception. Often in the past many of these protests were dismissed as “single-issue movements,” with no implication to the overall health and stability of the established social order. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is true that the great variety of protests we witness today in different parts of the world does not fit into the channels and modes of action of traditional politics. But it would be foolish to take that as evidence of their irrelevance. On the contrary, they point to the much deeper grounds of the accumulating problems and contradictions. At the moment nostrategic coalescence is visible. Their general characteristic seems to be that they are probing the constraints and searching for more effective ways of articulating their concerns. We are witnessing an unfolding process. Its significance is likely to have great consequences in the future.
In these manifestations around the world, some see US action aiming to destabilize governments. Does that make any sense?
That is a great oversimplification. The US is undoubtedly in the forefront of the international conflicts and conflagrations, as the overwhelmingly dominant power of global hegemonic imperialism. But the issues go much deeper than what could be settled by “destabilizing governments.” In some limited cases that can happen and indeed can be successfully pursued by the most extreme forces within the overall decision-making organs of the US administration. Yet, there are limits to everything, even to the most sanguine neo-liberal and neo-con adventurism.
How does the Internet change the political struggle today?
The Internet certainly helped in the communication and cohesion of protest movements, as evidenced in the recent past. But it should not be forgotten that it has also provided major resources — indeed, given the direct assistance of various capitalist states, much greater resources — to the forces on the other side of the confrontation. But, in any case, on both sides the Internet can provide only subsidiary help, no matter how weighty. The issues themselves can only be resolved on the very ground from which they arise. And that concerns the fundamental structural determinations of our social order.
How do you evaluate today the relationship between capitalism and democracy? Are they incompatible?
Capitalism and democracy are not incompatible, save in situations of extreme crises which bring to the fore the Hitlers and the Pinochets wherever such crises erupt — even in Brazil in the not-so-distant past. The normality of capitalist production is better sustained under formally democratic rules of control and regulation. That is why dictatorial regimes are unsustainable in the long run and they tend to revert, even in Pinochet’s Milton-Friedmanized Chile, to politically more manageable modes of formal democratic regulation in the overall framework of capitalist interchanges.
In the US, the radical right — who do not accept a little reform in the health system that will benefit the poor — led the country to the edge of the abyss. This situation put big business and finance at risk. How to explain this?
The health service in the US is only a part of the recently witnessed crisis. More fundamentally, it is inseparable from the astronomical debt of nearly 17 trillion dollars mentioned earlier. For the moment a partial accommodation has been made between the Democrats and the Republicans, so that the next date for the unsolved trillion-dollar question — namely the very end of 2013, when it is expected to come up again — is not likely to bring an international suspense again. But we can be sure that this issue will return before long, with increasing severity. 17 trillion dollars is so huge that we cannot find in the entire world a carpet big enough under which it could be swept, as is customarily done to postpone the solution of problems.
Is it possible to say that the Democratic Party has gone far to the right and failed to isolate the radical right of the Republican Party?
It is difficult to say which of the two parties is more to the right than the other. But they are both equally wrong in being too far to the right to be able to face the grave problems of their society.
How do you analyze the Obama administration and the state of democracy in the US?
President Obama promised so much that has never materialized under his presidency. It is enough to think of Guantanamo in this respect. But this is not a matter of any particular president. Power structures cannot be understood in personalized terms. We should recall a television interview with former Democratic President Jimmy Carter, who cried, with tears in his eyes, saying that “the president is powerless.” In fact he has accomplished much more since he left the presidency than what he could do during the years of his office. We haven’t seen President Obama crying on television so far. But “there is a first time for everything,” as the famous adage puts it.
The US spies on the whole world. Recently a scheme of American espionage in Brazil, involving interests in oil and minerals, was revealed. What must Brazil do to defend its sovereignty?
This issue borders on insanity. Spying on everybody as a potential enemy, even on heads of state of friendly governments. One could laugh it off if the underlying problem were not so serious. What must be also remembered is that protecting sovereignty cannot be confined to the domain of international law and politics. International law is pathetically weak in this respect, not to mention the institutions charged with its global respect. It is worth recalling the title of a book by a prominent liberal international lawyer, Philippe Sands. It reads Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules. These matters are decided by the actually prevailing power relations. And, of course, the preponderant forces of global capital have the lion’s share in that process of decision making. Sovereignty cannot be protected without attending to that critical side of the problem, inseparable from the preponderant power of the giant corporations of transnational capital.
Is the US power rising or falling?
It would be more accurate to say that it is stationary but still the most dominant. The conditions that make such dominance still prevail are quite tangible, from the US military-industrial complex (warned about by President Eisenhower, unfortunately only in his farewell speech) to the World Bank to the US dollar as the world’s exchange currency. No other country than the US can even dream about imposing a 17-trillion-dollar debt on the rest of the world. But dominance resting on such foundations can only be unstable.
What is your view of China? In China poverty declined. Is there socialism in China?
China’s achievements in the field of production, including the decline of poverty mentioned in your question, has been monumental. But there are very big question marks for the future. Above all: how long can the productive achievements be maintained without inflicting irreparable damage through the gigantic resources required in the domain of ecology? Moreover, how long can the striking inequalities be accepted between the absolutely minimal wage level of the working population and the wealth of the highly privileged? For socialism is quite inconceivable without substantive equality — also in China.
In the past, conflicts inside capitalism resulted in world wars. Is this hypothesis on the horizon?
Opting for war used to be an integral part of trying to solve the otherwise unmanageable problems among the contending parties under the rule of capital, including all-out war twice experienced in the twentieth century. With the weapons of mass destruction it has become impossible to envisage the compatibility of such “all-out” solutions with the elementary conditions of rationality. But there are representatives of the “radical right” who do not hesitate to “play with fire” and even openly advocate the full legitimacy of playing with fire. Some of them are very high in the established rank of political hierarchy. Thus President Clinton, for instance, declared that “America stands alone as the world’s indispensable nation.” In the same era British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s officially acknowledged guru and Xavier Solana’s foreign policy adviser, Robert Cooper, sang the praises of aggressive “liberal imperialism” in his writings. In the same way, President George W. Bush’s director of policy planning in the State Department,Richard Haass, insists on the need for more aggressive imperialist strategy, writing that “[i]mperial understretch, not overstretch, appears the greater danger of the two,” in the interest of asserting the global hegemony of the United States by whatever means, explicitly even war. Rationality is obviously a great handicap in the pursuit of such strategies. No one can therefore say that the possibility of even a world conflagration can now be excluded from our historical horizon.
Is it possible to say that the US influence in Latin America has declined in the last decade?
Yes, the countries relevant in this respect are listed in your next question. And others may well be added to them in the future.
How do you analyze the experiences of countries like Venezuela (which speaks of 21st century socialism), Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Argentina?
They have embarked on a very difficult road on which, undoubtedly, many obstacles will be erected by the dominant imperial power in the future. The United States openly declared that Latin America was its “backyard,” claiming legitimacy for its domination over it.
How do you evaluate Brazil after ten years of PT governments?
I first visited future President Lula’s office in 1983. At that time I took a picture of the office where one could read the illuminated word:”Tiradentes.” I wondered then, and I continue to wonder even today, how much longer it will take before we can say that the national office of “Tiradentes” has succeeded in pulling out all those infected teeth causing so much pain even in a country with such great resources, in every sense, like Brazil.
What is your view of the relevance of socialist ideas today?
I mentioned earlier that our problems can find only epochally sustainable solutions. Other ways of attending to them can be reversed, as we have actually experience it in the past. Socialist ideas have been defined from the beginning as requiring for their realization a historical epoch, although the immediate problems from which they must start, as their points of departure, are very painful. In other words, they require not only the urgent services of “Tiradentes” but also the prevention of painful infections in the long run. Socialist ideas are therefore more relevant today than ever before.
What countries or parties represent socialism today?
Only some very small parties proclaim today their allegiance to the ideas of socialism. And there are no countries which would even call themselves socialist.
In the past, you used the term “Mickey Mouse socialism” for parties that just toyed with the ideas of socialism. Does this continue to go on?
Not exactly. Mickey Mouse socialism has become even weaker. The Italian Communist Party — once the party of Gramsci and the Third International — at first converted itself into what it called “Democrats of the Left.” And then it found even the word “Left” far too compromising. So it re-baptized itself as the “Party of Democrats.” No more Mickey Mouse. It is more like Popeye who lost all his spinach.
What are your expectations about socialism or communism in the future? It will happen? It’s just an unattainable goal? How about the risk of barbarism?
I wrote in a book [O século XXI: socialismo ou barbárie] published also in Brazil that if I had to modify today Rosa Luxemburg’s famous words about “socialism or barbarism” I would have to add: “Barbarism if we are lucky.” Because the extermination of humanity is the unfolding menace. For as long as we fail to solve our grave problems which extend over all dimension of our existence and relationship to nature, that danger will remain on our horizon.
Where should a Marxist militant be today?
Contribute all he or she can to find the lasting solution of these major problems.
What is your plan for the future?
Carry on working on some long-standing projects which concern all of us.
Rochester, 1 November 2013
István Mészáros is a philosopher. Among his many books are The Work of Sartre: Search for Freedom and the Challenge of History; Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness, Volumes I and II; The Structural Crisis of Capital; The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time; Beyond Capital: Toward a Theory of Transition; and Marx’s Theory of Alienation. The original interview “Chávez e China são os destaques do século 21, diz o filósofo Mészáros” was published inFolha de S.Paulo on 17 November 2013. Translation based on Blog da Boitempo’s.