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István Mészéros

Marxism Today
An Interview with Istvan Meszaros

/stwin Meszaros left Hungary after the Soviet invasion of
1956. He recently retiredfrom a Chair in Philosophy at the
University of Sussex. He established his reputation in the
English-speaking world with his widely translated Marx’s
Theory ofAlienation (1970), which was awarded the / saac
Deutscher Memorial Prize. His work has been particularly
well-received in Latin America; and The Power of Ideology, his most recently published work, was highly acclaimed both in Britain and abroad.

Meszaros’s thought is characterised by afiercely combative Marxism, and a socialist commitment undiminished
by recent events. He is currently developing some original
ideas about the theory and practice of the transition to
socialism. His forthcoming book – Beyond Capital: Towards a Theory of Transition – will be published by The
Merlin Press next spring.

RP: How did you get interested in Marxism?

Meszaros: Amazingly by picking up books in a bookshop,
fairly small things like The 18th Brumaire, Communist
Manifesto, and so on, brochures which one could buy for
pennies, and then later Engels ‘ s Anti -D iihring , and later still
I got to Marx’ s major works. At the same time I got
interested in Lukacs. I found a book of his about Hungarian
literature, which I knew; I liked it so much that a week ortwo
later, after reading it, I sold all my precious possessions, like
my penknife and fountain pen, to buy his very expensive
books. I was about 15 or 16 at the time. After reading those,
that was when I decided I wanted to work with him at the
University in Budapest.

RP: What was it like when you met him? Was he
interesting as a man, or as a colleague?

had a very small seminar only. This went on for two years
and in 1951 things had become very dangerous even for
him. There was a time when Fadeyev, who was a very old
adversary of Lukacs’s, attacked him in the Soviet Union,
and at that point he feared that he might be arrested.

RP: Can I ask you what sort of personal impression
Lukacs made on you? What was it like to encounter him
as a human being?

Meszaros: In this period I got to know him very well, very
closely, and I liked not only his intellectual way of approaching problems but also his sense of humour. He had a
wonderful sense of irony and I can illustrate it with a story.

He told me once that he was in hospital with a stomach
complaint, for general investigative tests, and the professor
who conducted these investigations, these medical tests,
when he saw the X -rays, became very excited and said ‘This
is wonderful, this is an extraordinarily rare condition, I must
show these to my students at the University’, and Lukacs
remarked, ‘At last I have become teaching material’; because,
in the period between 1949 and the mid-‘ 50s, his books
were banned, they were taken out of public libraries and so
on, people couldn’t even have access to them. This shows
he always had a. nice story if he wanted to illustrate something. Like on the question of what should be the role of the
writer, the intellectual in general: should it be tied to the
Party in the way in which the politicians and the ideologues
of the Party maintained it should? Lukacs’ s position was no,
it shouldn’t. This is the difference between the foot soldier
of the army and the partisan, the guerrilla fighter. The role
of the partisan is to act autonomously. The overall aim and
objective may be identical, to win the war, but the way in
which one can do it is quite radically different. He was a
good man, a man of tremendous moral integrity and a good

Meszaros: Very interesting. I started the University in

RP: What was it like in ’56 generally, in the University,
in the Petoti circle, and all this ferment?

September 1949, and attacks on Lukacs had started in July
1949 and they were very savage attacks. I almost got
expelled from University because of my frequenting his
seminars. In fact at that time the attacks on Lukacs were so
savage his Institute was almost completely deserted, so he

Meszaros: As you can imagine it was very dramatic because
it was coming out of a period in ’55 when Rakosi and
company tried to clamp down, quite savagely really, on
whatever opposition was coming forward. The Hungarian

Radical Philosophy 62, Autumn 1992


Writers’ Association was a very influential body that was in
the forefront of debates and moving against Rakosi and his
clique. In that way it was even anticipating what happened
at the 20th Congress in Russia; and as you know in October
’56 that’s when Rakosi was eventually spirited away: I
mean he wanted to refuse to go, and the Russians simply had
to drag him away from the country. But then they imposed
Erno Gero who was very much a Stalinist himself. Then of
course events unfolded. ’56 October 23rd was the uprising,
and November 4th the second Russian intervention, and
that put an end to a period of great expectations and hopes
in the PetOfi circle. The PetOfi circle grew step by step and
when Rakosi authorised it, he made the cynical remark,
‘Well we’ll let them talk and then we hit them on the head.’

It didn’t quite work out like that because this talking
generated an enormous popular echo and some of the
meetings, especially towards the end, were attended by 56,000 people.

RP: Did Lukacs show any reluctance to take a job with
the Nagy Government or was he pleased to do that?

Meszaros: He took a job with the N agy Government,
making it clear that he would do it strictly for a very limited
period until things worked out and then he would return to
writing, because he was extremely keen to write not only his
Aesthetics but also the Ethics which in the end turned out to
be his Ontology of Social Being. He was always dreaming
about writing an ethical work which in the end he could not

RP: Why did you go into exile? Was it in accordance
with Lukacs’s advice?

Meszaros: Neither on his advice or against it. At the time
when I decided Lukacs was under arrest, but I decided re all y
a bit earlier, at the time of the second Russian intervention,
because I became convinced that there was no hope for
socialist transformation in Hungary. They repressed what
was actually far from being counter-revolutionary. It was a
very promising upheaval to start something new, and in no
time at all workers’ councils were constituted all over the
country; the question of turning towards the capitalists was
never envisaged.

RP: You have written a lot on Lukacs. How would you
sum up his historical significance? What’s his importance
for Marxism?

Meszaros: I consider it very great. He’s one of the outstanding philosophical figures of this century and he was a
highly successful and important philosopher before he even
embraced Marxism. He has written a number of works
which no Marxist can ignore and it goes beyond that,
because he has in some way theorised the historical experience of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. That is
probably his most important achievement as a thinker.

While I don’t think that History and Class Consciousness is
his best book, it doesn’t mean that in its own place it’s not
an immensely important, and representative, book in which


this experience, this historical experience, has been representatively theorised.

RP: Do you think there is any influence from Simmel in
History and Class Consciousness?

Meszaros: A bit of influence from Simmel, more from
Weber, and of course more than anything else from Hegel.

Under the circumstances it enabled him to work out a
historical view of what was going on and how to in a sense
pull ourselves up by our bootstraps – a revolution which
aimed to be a socialist revolution when the relation of forces
was extremely in favour of the other side.

RP: If that isn’t his best book which is his best book?

Meszaros: There are several. For instance The Young Hegel
is an outstanding work. I remember when I was appointed
in St Andrews, and T. M. Knox, who was at that time the
Vice-Chancellor of St Andrews University, to my astonishment (he was a good Hegelian and certainly Marxism
didn’t taint him in the slightest) said to me that he learnt
more from Lukacs’s The Young Hegel than from all the
other books on Hegel put together. It was quite a compliment from a great Hegel scholar.

RP: Some people argue that at an intellectual level,
because of Hegel’s stress on reconciling one to the
present, this admiration for Hegel represents Lukacs’s
reconciliation with Stalinism.

Meszaros: I think that would be a very simplifying way of
putting it because he was not – as documented through his
own history, his own development – he was not at all
reconciled with Stalinism. If you like he survived Stalinism,
that is something quite different. But precisely the book,
TheY oung Hegel, shows that it is nonsense to say that he
simply reconciled himself with Stalinism, because that
book was written explicitly against a Stalinist line on Hegel.

Stalin’s line on Hegel was that it is an aristocratic reaction
against the French Revolution, and Lukacs demonstrates
that it is an enthusiastic embracing of the French Revolution. In fact there couldn’t be even a dream of publishing it
in the Soviet Union at the time when Stalin’s line prevailed
against Hegel.

RP: Was it first published in Hungary then?

Meszaros: It was published in Austria, that’s where it was
published, in Vienna in ’47 and much later on in Germany
and also in Hungary. You know he told me the story that in
1941 at the outbreak of the War he was living in a big
tenement. The caretaker of that tenement house once stopped
him because the Central Committee of the Soviet Party
passed a resolution against Hegel, and when you pass a
resolution every Party cell has to debate that resolution. The
caretaker’s Party cell duly debated it and, knowing that
Lukacs was a professor, he stopped him after this discussion
at the door and said ‘This Hegel, this wretched Hegel, he
should be shot forthwith’, to which Lukacs replied in his
Radical Philosophy 62, Autumn 1992



rather angelic way: ‘That would be a little difficult because
he has been dead for 110 years.’ The fact that the Central
Committee of the Soviet Party had nothing better to do at the
outbreak of the War than to pass a resolution against Hegel
gives the lie to ‘Lukacs’s accommodation with Stalinism’.

What is problematical in his horizon in that period is that
basically he accepted the vision of socialism in a single
country. This he maintained to the end of his life, and of
course in as much as that was Stalin’s political line you have
a commonality.

wrote to me that he couldn’t proceed because it became
necessary to write a long introduction. At that time he called
it an introduction on social ontology, and that long introduction turned out to be a very nearly 3000-page work
which is full of references to an Ethics to be written. He
continued to dream about writing that Ethics but for that it
would have been necessary to undertake a radical critique of
the whole social and economic framework in which politics
functioned, which of course he could not do. You have to
see the historical limits under which thinkers have to
operate. You can’t jump out of that, and certainly he
couldn’t, and it would be very naive to say that this work on
democratisation solves the problem in that respect. It came
unfortunately too late for him. Today he could do both.

RP: You met Sartre in 1957. Why did you decide to write
a book on him?

Meszaros: I always felt that Marxists owed a great debt to

RP: You recently wrote a critical article on Lukacs
about his inadequacies on the theory of value (in Critique 23, 1991). I have just read Lukacs’s Process of
Democratisation which he wrote in 1968, which is generally good, but has this incredibly wrong theory of value
where he simply identifies value with labour, and surplus value with surplus labour. I was very surprised.

Meszaros: That is very problematical, in fact it’s totally
unacceptable. And also there you find that the idea of
socialism in one country is still haunting him in the background. That is where you have the historical limits of
Lukacs who was very much in that vision of what happened
after the Revolution, that’s what he identified himself with.

I remember when he was not even a quarter of the way
through his Aesthetics he was dreaming about writing the
Ethics. That’s what he had wanted to write since 1910 or
thereabouts. I was very sceptical. I said to him he would
never be able to write it because it is impossible to write a
systematic work on ethics without a radical critique of
politics. There is no ethical work in the history of philosophy
from Aristotle to Hegel which doesn’t go hand-in-hand with
an equivalent theorisation of politics, and under the conditions of Stalinism, in whatever form, even the form of socalled de-Stalinisation, politics remained a taboo. It was
always handed down from above and therefore it was
impossible under the circumstances to undertake that radical
critique of politics which is necessary, and I said to him that
under those circumstances he could only write about the
most abstract dimensions and abstract problems of ethics
because there is an inherent and integral relationship between
ethics and politics. That’s what happened because years
later when I asked him how the Ethics was proceeding he
Radical Philosophy 62, Autumn 1992

Sartre because we live in an age in which the power of
capital is overbearing, where, significantly, the most commonplace platitude of politicians is that ‘there is no alternative’ – whether you think of ‘Tina’, Mrs Thatcher, ‘there
is no alternative’, or Gorbachev who endlessly repeated the
same until he had to find out, like Mrs Thatcher, that after
all there had to be an alternative to both of them. But it goes
on and on and, if you look around and think of how
Conservative or Labour politicians talk, they always talk
about ‘there is no alternative’, and the underlying pressures
are felt everywhere. Sartre was a man who always preached
the diametrical opposite: there is an alternative, there must
be an alternative; you as an individual have to rebel against
this power, this monstrous power of capital. Marxists on the
whole failed to voice that side. I don’t say that you have to
become therefore an existentialist or a politically-committed
existentialist in order to face it, but there is no one in the last
fifty years of philosophy and literature who tried to hammer
it home with such single-mindedness and determination as
Sartre did: the necessity that there has to be a rebellion
against this wisdom of ‘there is no alternative’ and there has
to be an individual participation in it. I don’t embrace his
ideas but I embrace the aim. How you realise that aim is up
to you in the context of your own approach, but the aim is
something without which we won’t get anywhere.

Sartre today in France is a very embarrassing person
even to mention. Why? Because what happened is that in the
name of Privatism and Individualism they have totally sold
out to the powers of repression, a capitulation to the forces
of ‘there is no alternative’, and that’s why Sartre is a terrible
reminder. When you also look into the background of the
people we are talking about, post-modernists of a great
variety, they very often were politically engaged people.

But their engagement was skin-deep. Some ofthese people,
around ’68, were more Maoist than the extreme Maoists in
China, and now they have embraced the Right in a most
enthusiastic way; or they were in the ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ group and have become the peddlers of the most
stupid platitudes of post-modernity. What these people


have lost is their frame of reference. In France intellectual
life used to be dominated in one way or another by the
Communist Party. That goes also for Sartre who tried
criticising it from outside and pushing it in a direction which
he embraced until he had to come to the conclusion that
‘work in collaboration with the Communist Party is both
necessary and impossible’ , which is a terrible, bitter dilemma.

He said this at the time of the Algerian War when the role
of the Communist Party was absolutely disgraceful. That’s
what made it necessary, because you need a movement to
oppose the repressive force of the State; and impossible,
because look what that movement is like. What happened,
of course, was the disintegration of the Communist Party
like several other parties of the Third International in the last
two decades. And with the sinking of this big ship in relation
to which all these intellectuals defined themselves in one
way or another, here are these intellectuals left behind; the
ship has disappeared and they find themselves in their selfinflated rubber dinghies throwing darts at each other. Not a
very reassuring sight; and they are not going to get out of it
by simply fantasising about some individuality which doesn’t
exist; because true individuality is inconceivable without a
community with which you relate yourself and define

work of his theory. The framework of Marxian theory
remains the overall horizon also of our activity, our orientation, because it embraces the whole epoch, this epoch of
capital in crisis and the necessity of finding a way out of it.

However, historical circumstances change and some of the
things about which I wrote in The Power of Ideology show
that he had to take short-cuts. For well over ten years I have
tried to draw attention to this passage in which Marx talks
about this little corner of the world. Europe is after all only
a little corner of the world. What is it for us socialists, what
is the meaning of it, that capital on a much larger terrain, the
rest of the world, not this little corner of the world, is in its
ascendancy? He decided to put that on the side and proceed
from the horizon and perspective of the little corner of the
world which Europe was. And that was a conscious choice
for him.

RP: You have lived in various countries. Why did you
settle in England? Surely English culture is not very
congenial to your kind of thought?

Meszaros: Well, I beg to differ because I had actually quite
a long relationship to English-speaking culture way before
I left Hungary. I had been a great admirer of a certain line
of thought from Hobbes to the great figures of the English
and Scottish Enlightenment and these really meant a hell of
a lot to me, because they had a great message for the future
and have to be an integral part of your own work. Another
reason was that I was always a great admirer of English and
Scottish poetry from Shakespeare to the present. And the
third reason which I found equally important is that I always
thought of England as the country of the Industrial Revolution which went with a working class with tremendously
deep roots, and that remains despite everything. I think you
have to relate yourself to something; political and social
commitment cannot be in thin air or in a vacuum. I am
deeply committed to the working class, and that is how I
think of the future intellectually. Theoretically there must
be points of reference; there cannot be social transformation
without an agency and the only agency conceivable under
the present condition to take us out of this mess is LabourLabour in the sense Marx was talking about and which we
have to rediscover for ourselves under our present conditions.

RP: Your most recent book is The Power ofIdeology. The
last part has some interesting criticisms of Marx. What
do we have to rethink in Marx’s legacy?

Meszaros: Well, we have to relate him to his time which
does not mean we have to in any way abandon the frame-


RP: In recent papers on socialist transformation, you
have introduced an important distinction between capital and capitalism. Can you explain this distinction and
its significance for socialist struggle?

Meszaros: Well, in fact this distinction goes back to Marx
himself. I pointed out several times that Marx didn’t entitle
his main work ‘capitalism’ but Das Kapital, Capital, and I
also underlined that the subtitle of Volume One was
mistranslated under Engels’s supervision, as ‘the capitalist
production process’, when in fact it is ‘the production
process of capital’ , which has a radically different meaning.

What is at stake of course here is that the object, the target,
of socialist transformation is overcoming the power of
capital. Capitalism is a relatively easy object in this enterprise because you can in a sense abolish capitalism through
revolutionary upheaval and intervention at the level of
politics, the expropriation of the capitalist. You have put an
end to capitalism but you have not even touched the power
of capital when you have done it. Capital is not dependent
on the power of capitalism and this is important also in the
sense that capital precedes capitalism by thousands of
years. Capital can survive capitalism hopefully not by
thousands of years, but when capitalism is overthrown in a
limited area, the power of capital continues even if it is in a
hybrid form.

Radical Philosophy 62, Autumn 1992


The Soviet Union was not capitalist, not even state
capitalist. But the Soviet system was very much dominated
by the power of capital: the division of labour remained
intact, the hierarchical command structure of capital remained. Capital is a command system whose mode of
functioning is accumulation-oriented, and the accumulation
can be secured in a number of different ways. In the Soviet
Union surplus labour was extracted in a political way and
this is what came into crisis in recent years. The politically
regulated extraction of surplus labour became untenable for
a variety of reasons. The political control of labour power
is not what you might consider an ideal or optimal way of
controlling the labour process. Under capitalism in the West
what we have is an economically regulated extraction of
surplus labour and surplus value. In the Soviet system this
was done in a very improper fashion from the point of view
of productivity because labour retained a hell of a lot of
power in the form of negative acts, defiance, sabotage,
moonlighting, etc., through which one could not even
dream of achieving the kind of productivity which is feasible elsewhere, and which undermined the raison d’ erre of
this system under Stalin and his successors – politically
forced accumulation. The accumulation part of it became
stuck and that is why the whole system had to collapse. I
published in Italy a long essay in Spring of 1982, in which
I explicitly stated that, whereas the old US policies for the
military-political rollback of capitalism were not likely to
succeed, what was happening in Eastern Europe is likely to
lead to the restoration of capitalism. I also found for the
same reason the idea of market socialism a contradiction in
terms, because it would, in a wishful concept, want to wed
the two modalities: of the economic extraction of surplus
labour with the politically regulated extraction – so that was
why it was always a non-starter really.

What is absolutely crucial is to recognise that capital is
a metabolic system, a social-economic metabolic system of
control. You can overthrow the capitalist but the factory
system remains, the division oflabour remains, nothing has
changed in the metabolic functions of society. Indeed,
sooner or later you find the need for reassigning those forms
of control to personalities, and that’s how the bureaucracy
comes into existence. The bureaucracy is a function of this
command structure under the changed circumstances where
in the absence of the private capitalist you have to find an
equivalent to that control. I think this is a very important
conclusion, because very often the notion of bureaucracy is
pushed forward as a kind of mythical, explanatory framework, and it doesn’t explain anything. The bureaucracy
itself needs explanation. How come that this bureaucracy
arises? When you use it as a kind of deus ex machina that
explains everything in terms of bureaucracy, if you get rid
of bureaucracy then everything will be all right. But you
don’t get rid of bureaucracy unless you attack the social
economic foundation and devise an alternative way of
regulating the metabolic process of society in such a way
that the power of capital at first is curtailed and is of course
in the end done away with altogether. Capital is a controlling force, you cannot control capital, you can do away with
it only through the transformation of the whole complex of
metabolic relationships of society, you cannot just fiddle

Radical Philosophy 62, Autumn 1992

with it. It either controls you or you do away with it, there
is no half-way house between, and that’s why the idea of
market socialism could not conceivably function from the
very beginning. There is no social production system which
can function without incentives, and who are the people to
whom these incentives have to be related? Not abstract
collective entities but individuals. So if people as individuals
are not interested, not involved in the production process, in
the regulation of the social metabolic process, then sooner
or later they assume a negative or even an actively hostile
attitude towards it.

RP: Are we talking about moral or material incentives?

Meszaros: It can be both. The opposition between moral
and material incentives is often a very rhetorical one, an
abstract and rhetorical one, because, if the results of this
intervention and participation in the social processes is a
better production, an increasing productivity, activation of
the potentialities of the individuals involved, then it becomes a material incentive. But in as much as they are in
control of their own life processes, it is also a moral
incentive, so the two go hand-in-hand. Material and moral
incentives have to go hand-in-hand. It is a question of
control of the processes of this social economic system in
which the activation of the repressed potential of the people
is also an incentive. Material incentives in our society as
presented to us always divide people against one another.

You can see this everywhere, in every profession, teaching,
university, every walk of life: the incentives work on the
presumption that we can divide people from one another in
order to control them better; that’s the whole process. Now
if you then reverse this relationship and say that people are
in control of what they are involved in, then the divisiveness
doesn’t work any longer because they are not the suffering
subjects of that sort of system. So material incentives and
moral incentives can also be egalitarian in character. That is
the tragedy of the Soviet-type development. When they talk
about the collapse of socialism in relation to that, it’s a
grotesque misrepresentation of the facts, because socialism
was not even started, not even the first steps have been taken
in the direction of a socialist transformation whose target
can only be to overcome the power of capital and to
overcome the social division of labour, to overcome the
power of the state which is also a common structure regulating the lives of the people from above.

RP: You talk about challenging the power of capital and
I wondered if you could say a bit more about the
practical implications, the implications for socialist
struggle of your distinction between capital and capitalism.

Meszaros: First of all the strategy which you have to
envisage has to be spelled out in those terms. Socialists
cannot carry on with the illusion that all you have to do is
abolish private capitalism – because the real problem remains. We are really in a profound historical crisis. This

process of the expansion of capital embracing the globe
itself has been more or less accomplished. What we have
witnessed in the last couple of decades is the structural crisis
of capital. I always maintained that there is a big difference
from the time when Marx talked about crisis in terms of the
crisis that discharges itself in the form of great thunderstorms. Now it doesn’t have to discharge itself in thunderstorms. What is characteristic in the crisis of our time is
precipitations of varying intensity, tending towards a depressed continuum. Recently we started to talk about doubledip recession, soon we will talk about treble-dip recession,
maybe even one day quintuple-dip recession. What I am
saying is that this tendency towards a depressed continuum,
where one recession follows another, is not a condition
which can be maintained indefinitely because at the end it
reactivates capital’s internal explosive contradictions with
a vengeance and there are also some absolute limits which
one has to consider in that respect.

Remember, I am talking about the structural crisis of
capital, which is a much more serious problem than the
crisis of capitalism because one way to get out of the crisis
of capitalism in principle was a state regulation of the
economy, and in some respects on the outer horizon of the
Western capitalist system you can allow for its possibility.

State capitalism can arise when the Western capitalist
system is in deepest trouble, but again I would say it’s not
a tenable solution in the long run because the same kinds of
contradictions are reactivated, namely the contradiction
between the political and the economic extraction of surplus
labour. I’m not talking about fictitious future events – think
of Fascism, think of the Nazi system which attempted this
kind of corporate state regulation of the system in order to
get out of the crisis of German capitalism at that given time
of history . Therefore what we are considering here is that all
those ways of displacing temporarily the internal contradictions of capital are being exhausted. The world as a whole
is very insecure. The overwhelming majority of humanity
lives in the most abominable conditions. Whatever happened to the modernisation of these countries? It has taken
such forms of robbery and extraction and mindless refusal
to consider even the implications for the survival of humanity
– the way in which these territories and the population of
these territories have been treated – that the whole thing has


been totally undermined, and today you find a situation in
which nobody believes any more in the modernisation of
the so-called’ Third World’ . And that is why that depressed
continuum is, in the long run, an untenable situation and for
that reason a social transformation must be feasible. But it
is not feasible through the revitalisation of capital. It can
only be done on the basis of a radical departure from the
logic of this accumulation-orientated mindless destructive

This tremendous crisis I am talking about saw not only
the virtual extinction of the Communist parties, the parties
of the Third International, but also the extinction of the
parties of the Second International. For about a hundred
years those who believed in the virtues of evolutionary
socialism, and reform, were talking about the transformation of society which leads towards socialist relations of
humanity. This has gone totally out of the window even in
terms oftheir own programmes and perspectives. You have
seen recently that the socialist parties of the Second International, and their various associates, have suffered quite
devastating setbacks and defeats in every single country: in
France, in Italy, in Germany, in Belgium and in the
Scandinavian countries, and now recently also in England,
the fourth successive defeat for the Labour Party. It was
quite appropriate that this serial defeat in all these countries
coincided with the celebratory opening of Euro Disneyland
because what these parties themselves have adopted in this
historical period, in their response to the crisis, is some kind
of Mickey Mouse socialism and this Mickey Mouse socialism is totally incapable of intervening in the social
process. That is why it is not accidental that these parties
adopt the wisdom of capital as an irreplaceable system. The
leader of the Labour Party once declared that· the task of
socialists is the better management of capitalism. Now this
kind of preposterous nonsense is in itself a contradiction. It
is a contradiction in terms because it is extremely presumptuous to think that the capitalist system would work better
with a Labourite government. The problems continue to
become more severe, and the political system is incapable
of responding because the political system operates under
the ever narrowing constraints of capital. Capital as such
doesn’t allow any more margin for manoeuvre. The margin
of manoeuvre for political movements and parliamentary
forces was incomparably greater in the ninetenth century or
in the first third of the twentieth century. Britain is already
part of Europe and there is no way in which you can unwind
that process, in the sense that little England will be capable
of solving these problems.

But that immediately also raises the question, how do we
relate ourselves to the rest of the world? – With what
happened in the East, in the Soviet Union? A new fundamental problem has arisen on the horizon. In the case of
Russia I read recently that, in addition to the 25 billion
dollars which exist in the form of promises from the West,
Russia will need this year alone another 20 billion. Where
are we going to find these billions which Russia needs for
this process when the American debt itself is quite astronomical? The problems of this world are becoming so
intertwined, so enmeshed with one another, that you can’t
think of partial resolutions to them. Fundamental structural

Radical Philosophy 62, Autumn 1992

changes are needed. The two and a half decades of expansion after the Second World War was followed by deepening malaise, the collapse of the earlier cherished strategies,
the end of Keynesianism, the appearance of monetarism,
etc., and all of them leading nowhere. When self-complacent people like John Major say socialism is dead, capitalism works, we must ask: capitalism works for whom andfor
how long? I read recently that the directors of Merrill Lynch
received, one 16.5 million, another 14 million, and another
ten or fifteen of them, 5.5 million dollars each, as annual
remuneration. It works very well for them, but how does it
work for the people in Africa, where you see them every day
on your television screen? – Or in vast areas of Latin
America, or in India, or in Pakistan, or in Bangladesh? I
could continue and name the countries where you are
talking about thousands of millions of people who can
hardly survive.

RP: The agent of change in this situation, the revolutionary subject, is still in your view the working class?

Meszaros: Undoubtedly, there cannot be any other. I remember there was a time when Herbert Marcuse was
dreaming about new social agents, the intellectuals and the
outcasts, but neither of them had the power to implement
change. The intellectuals can play an important role in
defining strategies, but it cannot be that the outcasts are the
force which implements this change. The only force which
can introduce this change and make it work is society’s
producers, who have the repressed energies and potentialities through which all those problems and contradictions
can be solved. The only agency which can rectify this
situation, which can assert itself, and find fulfilment in the
process of asserting itself, is the working class.

RP: What about its form of organisation? Do you think
new forms of organisation are needed? Some people say
the old-style political party is irrelevant.


Meszaros: Yes, I would completely agree with that. The
old-style political party is integrated into the parliamentary
system which itself has outlived its historical relevance. It
was in existence well before the working class appeared on
the historical horizon as a social agency. The working class
had to accommodate itself and constrain itself in accordance
with whatever possibilities that framework provided and
consequently it could produce only defensive organisations.

All organisations of the working class which have been
historically constituted – its political parties and trade
unions have been the most important of them – all of them
were defensive organisations. Now they worked up to a
point and that was why the reformist perspective of evolutionary socialism was successful for so many years,
because partial improvements could be gained. The working-class standards of living in the G7 countries have risen
enormously in this period. When Marx was saying in the
Communist Manifesto that the working class only has chains
to lose, that is certainly not true of the working class of the
Radical Philosophy 62, Autumn 1992

G7 countries today or even yesterday. They have been very
successful in improving their standard of living throughout
this historical period until the last decade or so. What
happened in the last decade or decade and a half was the
coming to the end of this process because capital can no
longer afford to grant benefits and significant gains to the
working classes. Capital never gave anything away. If it
was in tune with its own intemallogic of expansion, selfexpansion, then those gains could be provided. In fact they
became dynamic factors in this self-expansionary process.

That is not the case now. That’s why we are in the situation
that the health service is in crisis, the education system is in
crisis, the welfare state as a whole is in crisis. So the
historical end of this process reopens the question: if the
working class cannot obtain defensive gains any longer,
through what strategies can it transform society?

RP: What I had in mind is more the extra-parliamentary parties like Lenin’s Bolsheviks or the Chinese
Communist Party which succeeded in destroying capitalism. Are they historically outmoded?

Meszaros: Yes, completely. Even those parties remained
constrained by the perspective of parliamentarianism, and
Lenin himself was in favour of these parties operating
within the parliamentary framework. So what is of course
an immense problem for the historical agency of transformation is that capital is, by definition, and very effectively
in its mode of acting and functioning, an extra-parliamentary
force par excellence. And the working class on the other
side has no politically effective extra-parliamentary force.

The extra-parliamentary force would be the trade unions,
but the trade unions identified themselves with the reformist
parties, and that constrained them. There will be no advance
whatsoever until the working class movement, the socialist
movement, is re-articulated in the form of becoming capable of offensive action, through its appropriate institutions
and through its extra-parliamentary force. The parliament,
if it is to become meaningful at all in the future, has to be
revitalised, and can only be if it acquires an extra-parliamentary force in conjunction with the radical political
movement that can also be active through parliament.

RP: What do you think of the current state of Marxist

Meszaros: I think Marxist philosophy in general finds itself
in a very difficult situation precisely for the reasons we are
talking about, because we are in a major historical crisis,
and disorientation is the rule of the day and what happened
in the East has greatl y affected socialists and Marxists in the
West and understandably so. It has to go through a process
of revaluation and heart searching and redefinition of all
kinds of things. I find the situation in Latin America, for
instance, much more interesting, the kind of intellectual
ferment which is going on there is much more interesting for
the time being than what I could point to here. But I don’t
think this is a permanent condition, and I am the last to
suggest that a radical socialist transformation can come out
of these areas alone. In fact I am paradoxically convinced


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. 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.

The world is one. I always rejected the notion of a ‘third
world’: there is only one world. I am convinced that a
revival of Marxist thought in the future will also come here
in response to the problems and demands of the age espeCially when some of the mystifications of the past are
swept away. For how much longer can people be fooled
with the idea that if they wait long enough then, through
social democratic processes of reform and evolutionary
socialism, one day their problems will be solved? I don’t
think that many people believe this today and there was
plenty of evidence in the elections all over Europe that this
idea has been profoundly discredited. When parliamentary
expectations are bitterly disappointed, people move in the
direction of taking action. We had a very dramatic case in
the recent past with the opposition to the Poll Tax and the
defeat of M argaret Thatcher who was considered permanent,
undefeatable, through that process. And now, after the
British general election, in Scotland people are talking
about direct action, even civil disobedience, in order to
assert what they consider to be their legitimate interest of
securing their own parliament or even their independence.

So these are the kind of social events, social movements, in
relation to which Marxist philosophy, Marxist thought in
general can redefine itself.

RP: Presumably what needs to happen is that the workers
in the United States form links and make common cause
with workers in the ‘Third World’? But how can they?

These workers are to some extent living on a transfer of
value from these same countries.

Meszaros: This is one of the problems and that’s where also
a critique of Marx has to be indicated, because the working
class itself is fragmented, is divided, there are so many

contradictions. In the United States in the last ten years the
standard of living of the working class has gone down. So
we are talking about a process, we are not talking about wish
objects but realities which are happening in our times. In
January 1971 I gave the Isaac Deutscher Memorial Lecture
– The Necessity of Social Control- and I indicated there the
beginning of structural unemployment. Now unemployment
at that time in Britain was well under one million. Today,
even after 23 times of falsifying the true unemployment
figures, it is officially around 2,740,000. And no commitment even from the Labour Party to a return to full employment. That is the measure of the changes that are taking
place. It is a massive contradiction when you declare a very
large portion of the population superfluous. This portion of
the population is not going to remain always meek and
compliant and resigned to the conditions to which it is
condemned. So things are happening, things are changing.

B ut these changes will have to go deeper and I am convinced
that they will.

Interviewed by Chris Arthur and Joseph McCarney
London, April 1992
Books by Istvan Meszaros in English
Marx’s Theory of Alienation, The Merlin Press, London,

Aspects of History and Class Consciousness (ed.),
Routledge, London, 1971.

The Necessity of Social Control, The Merlin Press, London, 1971.

Lukacs’s Concept ofDialectic, The Merlin Press l London,


The Work ofSartre: Searchfor Freedom, Harvester Press,
Brighton, 1979.

Philosophy, Ideology and Social Science, Harvester
Wheatsheaf, Brighton, 1986.

The Power of Ideology, Harvester Wheatsheaf, London,

Beyond Capital, The Merlin Press (forthcoming).

lournal of Edinburgh Conference of Socialist Economists

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ISSSUE ELEVEN (October 1991):

On German Re-Unification Karl Heinz-Roth· An Ode to Scottish Miners Peter Martin •
The Scottish Tradition of ‘Common Sense’ Philosophy Richard Gunn • Opening Speech of the
Edinburgh Unemployed Workers’ Centre lames Kelman· Plus much more •

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Radical Philosophy 62, Autumn 1992

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