Whether you agree with this rehashing of revolutions, most every Freep-reading rebel will agree that these and others struggled ferociously to prevent turning back to capitalism.

It’s all so easy to romanticize the uprising against that gray sense of isolation and helplessness we all feel every day. (New Moon on Monday by Duran Duran jumps to my own mind. No doubt each Free Press’s rebel has a favorite!)

But we mustn’t forget Rosa Luxemburg’s warning about how innocents confuse the two: the day of the uprising is what will be celebrated on anniversaries, but the revolution to change society down to its roots takes a long time, most likely many generations. It’s one thing to pick up the reins when a government collapses, but transforming society down to its roots is a much deeper and complex matter. What comes first? Do we take office to change the laws, or remodel society to the point that laws have to be changed to catch up with a new reality, some combination of the two, or something else entirely?

The Paris Commune lasted three months in 1871, not long enough to change French laws, but heroic enough for “communism” to take its name for its banner. Uprisings on the tail of the First World War in Germany, Hungary, and other places likewise did not last long enough to change national laws. Russia’s was the only revolution in those years that endured long enough to change national laws. The aftermath of the Second World War led to uprisings in China, central Europe, and Korea which were able to consolidate themselves legally. Cuba and Vietnam were able to rewrite their constitutions, but so many other mid-twentieth century uprisings did not: Algeria, Grenada, Nicaragua, Burkino Faso, and so on. Twenty-first century socialism, also known as Latin America’s pink tide, was careful to rewrite constitutions in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

Whether you agree with this rehashing of revolutions, most every Freep-reading rebel will agree that these and others struggled ferociously to prevent turning back to capitalism. Why is it so hard?!? The book by Mészáros proposes an explanation and way out. This economist first grabbed my attention when I read that president Hugo Chávez founded Venezuela’s communes on these proposals. As the thirtieth anniversary of its publication approaches, it’s high time it be given the due it deserves.

His lifework is titled Beyond Capital with a double meaning, pointing on one hand to an analysis which furthers Marx’s Capital, and on the other hand the goal of putting an end to capital’s domination over our contemporary society — appropriately called capitalism.

A Big Book with a Succinct Message

As related above, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries showed the political revolution is handled from the legislature and judiciary, provided the rebels give life to the alliance between the workers and farmworkers — along with small farmers and business owners. Passing laws that abolish servitude and declare equality, first and foremost between the sexes, are crucial measures.

    • Yet are these measures sufficient to ensure a transition toward a fair and equal economy?
    • Or is eliminating income and sales taxes sufficient?
    • Is it enough to nationalize all major industries?
    • Or is it enough to nationalize only the industries of unpatriotic renegades and counterrevolutionaries?

These and related questions are those which anarchy and socialism diverge over, as do those diverse variants of socialism (Lasalle, Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Guevara…). They lead to those eternal debates over how and why the Soviet Union came to its end, and whether or not other countries remain socialist, particularly China, Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia. I hope to distill the essence of the proposal into the few pages in this article, which will serve us as guide to evaluating the specific cases.

The chore is not as daunting as it first appears, looking at book nearly a thousand pages long. We can start by setting aside the last 100 pages that reprint essays on related topics, and the notes altogether account for about another 100. So the length is whittled down a fair bit. Despite the thickness of 800 pages, I’m confident the essence of the proposal can be distilled into this magazine length article.

In the first of the three Parts Mészáros reviews the Soviet Union’s failure in attempting to build socialism, basing its analysis on tenets set down by Marx himself in Capital. He argues that the problems were multiple and mutually reinforcing, mostly having to do with not confronting Marx’s “law of value” head on.

Let’s recall that “The labor theory of value (LTV) is a theory of value that argues that the economic value of a good or service is determined by the total amount of ‘socially necessary labor’ required to produce it. The LTV is usually associated with Marxian economics, although it originally appeared in the theories of earlier classical economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and later in anarchist economics.” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_theory_of_value)

That famous labor theory of value is how the present day society of capitalism works. Wealth did not necessarily operate in that manner in previous forms of society, nor should it be allowed to dominate over future societies either. Mészáros recounts how capital (accumulations of wealth that are compelled to expand) existed before contemporary society was established, and is likewise capable of outliving it. This is why measures must be taken on all fronts to prevent its resurgence — not only via political and legal codes, but economic measures must be enforced even more conscientiously and strenuously.

Being a lifeless, inanimate object, wealth blindly and relentlessly expands wherever it may be, including in unwary post-capitalist societies: “Capital is bound to reassert its power and find the new forms of personification [new forms of legal ownership] required for keeping recalcitrant labour under the control of an ‘alien will’” (p. 616).

The warning continues on the following page with the admonition, “The question of irreversibility [of socialist transformation]… is not simply a matter of instituting political and military guaranties capable of withstanding concerted capitalist assaults. The political defence of the socialist revolution is, of course, always important. But no political and military force alone is capable of resisting the internal disintegrative and restoratory power of postcapitalist capital in the absence of profound positive transformations in the social metabolic order itself.”

The measures necessary to prevent capital’s restauration are then outlined in chapter 17: “The changes required in production and distribution amount to the total eradication of capital from the social metabolism as command over labour — which in its turn is inconceivable without irreversibly superseding the alienated objectification of labour under all its aspects, including the political state — and the simultaneous prevention of personification of both capital and labour” — underlining here Marx’s explanation of how “capital gives rise to the capitalist.”

Mészáros thus arrives at two intertwined conclusions (p. 635), stressing “the need for…instituting a transitional state form capable not only of matching and overcoming the power of capital, parallel to the transfer of the traditional state functions to the social body,” which must be linked to “efficacy of the cultural revolution leading toward the growth of co-operation.”

That is why Mészáros also condemns the USSR and the Warsaw Pact countries (called in those years “eastern Europe”) for having set basic humanistic principles of mutual solidarity apart from economic planning. More just societies in the future must put respect for instinctive human solidarity in the center of their economic plans, because it is the major underpinning for overcoming individualization and that abominable feeling of gray isolation known as “alienation.” Exchanging services allows each person to take pride in their contribution to society, feeling in their bones the improvement to livelihood.

What I take to be the kernel of Mészáros’s proposal is laid out on pp. 759-763: “the historically novel character of the communal system defines itself through its practical orientation towards the exchange of activities, and not simply of products.” Taking responsibility leads to issues of control over broader decision-making — which ameliorates capitalism’s pervasive sense of alienation, as well as the concerns about quality.

In a nutshell, worldwide socialism (if ever established) will have an economy of exchange, Mészáros asserts that the task therefore is to suppress exchange of commodities in a free market, replacing it with an exchange of services, thereby restoring pride in workmanship as intertwined with caring for others as the best way to care for oneself.

Conclusion: Well Worth the Effort!

Readers who have slogged through this article will not be surprised by the conclusion that this work is enthralling and well worth the effort. The publisher’s link is below so they may purchase and read it for themselves.

The second Part of the book contains a fascinating and well argued analysis of why capital – and thereby all society – is impelled to greater and greater waste, everything from the excessive wrappings on the smallest of snacks to the immense boondoggles of useless nuclear doomsday weapons. It’s a topic worthy of a further article.

a previous version of this article published by Central Ohio Revolutionary Socialists reviews Mészáros’s views on Trotskyism. The link is below.

As the excerpts cited show, the text was written in British English, even though the publisher is in New York. Italics in the quotes are in the original texts.

Beyond Capital: Toward a Theory of Transition, István Mészáros, 1995, Monthly Review Press

Moving Beyond Capitalism, The Columbus Worker