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