The mountain we must conquer – An interview with István Mészáros

15 04 20 Mészáros O globo

A special interview with István Mészáros.

When the Brazillian edition of his new book, The Mountain We Must Conquer: Reflections On The State, came out, the marxist hungarian philosopher István Mészáros conceded an extensive interview to the journalist Leonardo Cazes for the newspaper O Globo. In it, Mészáros discusses some of the central aspects of the book, such as his conception of the State, democracy and capitalism’s structural crisis, in light of recent protests and political shifts taking place in Europe and around the world. The result however exceeded over three times the space given by the newspaper and was published only partially in February 2015 under the title  “Filósofo István Mészáros analisa ascenção de novos partidos na Europa como Syriza e Podemos“. At Mészáros’ request, Boitempo now presents the full text of the interview, which will enter as a supplementary appendix for the subsequent revised and extended editions of the book. Click here to read the Portuguese version of the interview.


Why do you, in the book’s title, compare the State to a mountain that we must conquer? 

In the most straightforward sense, because the road that we must follow in the interest of survival and advancement is barred by the giant obstacle – many Himalayas on top of one another – represented by the overall decision making power of the state. And we cannot avoid or bypass this mountain. The perilous fact is that a mere handful of nation states have the power to destroy the whole of humanity, jealously guarded by them as their “security” and “self-defence” in their real and potential confrontations with each other. And the overwhelming majority of humanity can do absolutely nothing against that for as long as the states and their necessary rivalry survive. Nothing could be more absurd than that.

The idea that in their attempt to overcome the structurally entrenched inequities and remedy their grievances in a lasting way the people could use “civil society” against the power of the state is extremely naïve, to say the least. Just like the presumption of calling the pathetically limited organizations which depend for their finance and functioning on the resources conceded to them by the state “NGOs”, that is “Non-Governmental Organizations”. Such self-contradictory mythologies cannot offer solutions to our worsening problems. The state is the overall political command structure of the capital system in any one of its known or conceivable form. Under the present conditions it cannot be otherwise. That is because the societal reproductive order of capital is antagonistic to its inner core, and it needs the problematical corrective function of the state in order to turn into a cohesive whole the conflictual constituent parts of the system’s incurable centrifugality. Once upon a time this kind of correction was not only tenable but carried with it an all-conquering historical advancement. Today, however, the once successful corrective functions of the state fail to work enduringly, as the deepening structural crisis of the capital system makes it amply clear. The result is ever greater destructiveness not only in countless wars but even in the domain of nature itself. This is why I argued that Rosa Luxemburg’s famous sentence: “socialism or barbarism,” needs to be modified in our time to “barbarism if we are lucky”.  For the annihilation of humanity is bound to be our fate if we fail to conquer the mountain-size destructive and self-destructive power of the capital system’s state formations.

In today’s world, the nation states seem to have less and less power compared to international financial organizations and even inter-state political organizations such as the European Union. So what is this “State” that we must conquer?

The allegedly less and less power of the nation states is a great exaggeration, voiced by Governments in the interest of justifying their failure to introduce even some of their thoroughly limited and once solemnly promised social reforms. The facts speak otherwise. To give only a few examples: SYRIZA, armed with a large electoral mandate, is today trying to assert Greek interests against IMF and European Union control, and in the United Kingdom the Party that is bound to receive by far the largest percentage of improvement at the May 2015 General Election calls itself UKIP, i.e. “United Kingdom Independence Party”. Moreover, under the impact of UKIP’s growing success in Britain also the governing Conservative Party is threatening to leave the European Union unless its demands for a major change in the country’s national interest are met. Indeed, the break-up of the European Union itself is by no means to be excluded. Even more important in this respect is the vote in Scotland just a few months ago – to the most remarkable degree of 45 percent – in favor of becoming an independent nation state, which they are likely to achieve at the next occasion when they can vote on the issue. At the same time, the Catalan region in Spain is trying to assert its interests in the same sense, as an even more recent vote testifies. In Belgium we have similar contradictions, at times with explosive manifestations, and also in Italy, in the region of the Alto Adige, there is a strong movement pressing for independence. Nor should we forget that in Central Europe the country of Slovakia not so long ago divorced itself from what is now called the Czech Republic.

Thus the reality is not the elimination of nation state aspirations but an overheating cauldron of perilous contradictions and antagonisms on a variety of levels, ubiquitously asserting themselves among the given and aspiring nation states and even within the framework of the state formations invented as the projected solution of past inter-state antagonisms, like the – far from unified – European Union. The chronic insolubility of the underlying problems presents great dangers for the very survival of humanity. Just in relation to our own days, should we perhaps blindly ignore the fact that the U.S.A. is threatening to arm the Ukraine nation state against Russia, with incalculably serious potential consequences? Where are now the heady days when world political leaders were loudly trumpeting “the end of the cold war”? And, well beyond the U.S. / Russia confrontation, what should we think about the antagonism on our not too distant horizon between the U.S.A. and China – the most powerful nation states – for the planet’s highly contested material resources? An antagonism manifest already in a limited way but with an undeniable tendency to intensify. The rival nation states are totally incapable to offer any solution to these antagonisms, and no international financial organization, nor the wishfully devised inter-state political organizations can even scratch the surface of such grave problems.

The overwhelming historical failure of capital was – and remains – its inability to constitute the state of the capital system as a whole, while irresistibly asserting the imperatives of its system as the material structural determination of societal reproduction on a global scale. This is a massive contradiction. Inter-state antagonisms on a potentially all-destructive scale – as presaged last century by two world wars still without the now fully developed weapons of total self-destruction – are the necessary consequence of that contradiction. Accordingly, the state that we must conquer in the interest of humanity’s survival is the state as we know it, namely the state in general in its existing reality, as articulated in the course of history, and capable of asserting itself only in its antagonistic modality both internally and in its international relations.

You pointed out that the state as we know is founded in a given capitalist social metabolic order. We need to take the state to remake this order? Or just the transformation of society will create the conditions for the transformation of the state?

The state as such cannot remake capital’s social reproductive order because it is an integral part of it. The great challenge for our historical time is the necessary eradication of capital from our social metabolic order. And that is inconceivable without eradicating at the same time also the state formations of capital as historically constituted in conjunction with the system’s material reproductive dimension and inseparable from it.

The fact that the state as the necessary corrective to capital’s incurable centrifugality can superimpose itself on the systemically harmful conflictual constituent parts of the given social order does not mean that the state can impose anything arbitrarily fancied by the political personifications of capital. On the contrary, corrective state-imposition is objectively mandated by the self-expansionary imperative of capital’s material reproductive order. An order utterly incapable of recognizing any limit to its self-expansionary interest, generating thereby a fateful contradiction. The ultimate untenability of this contradiction is revealed by the fact that what is internally – within the given national framework – a self-expansionary requirement and achievement, in its international drive becomes most problematical and potentially even all-destructive. The repressive reality of monopolictic imperialism and its wars is not intelligible without this perverse self-expansionary dynamism instituted by the most powerful states.

Thus the way in which overall decision making in the social metabolic process has to be radically altered requires the elimination of the just mentioned fateful contradiction between the system’s internal dynamics of productive reproduction and the repressive international drive inseparable from it, as experienced in capital’s social order safeguarded and legitimated by the state.

Some intellectuals see the financial crisis started in 2008 as a crisis of capitalism. To save the banks, there was a gigantic debt of states. This capitalist crisis is also a crisis of the state?

Undoubtedly, the crisis we are talking about is also the profound crisis of the state. The deceptive – and self-deceiving – appearance and illusion that is now promoted by the defenders of the system is that the state successfully resolved this crisis by pouring astronomical funds of trillions of Dollars into bankrupt capital’s bottomless hole. But where do the astronomical trillions come from? The state as the inventor of those funds is not the producer of any funds, even if it can pretend to be their sovereign dispenser with its more or less openly cynical devices of “quantitative easing” etc. However, the unpalatable truth is that the overwhelming majority of states in the present world are bankrupt – to the tune of 57 trillion Dollars according to the latest figures –, no matter how well they might be able to camouflage their bankruptcy “ex officio”.

Many years ago, in an article written in 1987 and first published in 1989 in Brazil, in Ensaio, I quoted from the authoritative London Financial Times the Federal Reserve Governor of the U.S. at the time, Robert Heller, claiming that the $188 billion annual U.S. balance of trade deficit then represented “a healthy continuation of the current economic expansion”. And I commented with these words:  “If $188 billion balance of trade deficit, coupled with astronomical budgetary deficits, can be considered the healthy continuation of economic expansion, one shudders to think what will the unhealthy conditions of the economy look like when we reach it.” By now we are much nearer to it. So the answer is clear enough already, indicating the catastrophic indebtedness and veiled bankruptcy of the most powerful capitalist economy, the U.S., counted now on its own in not far from twenty trillions dollars, and inexorably increasing. This happens to be the case, no matter how melodiously the Federal Reserve Governors can sing their tune about the claimed “healthy continuation of expansion”.

In the book, you seem to believe that the so-called “withering away of the state” is inevitable. What makes you believe that?

In this matter there can be no question of inevitability. Saying that the “withering away of the state” is necessary only means that it is a vital condition required for solving the problems at stake. But it makes no claim that the indicated requirement will be inevitably realized. On the contrary, by underlying the danger that the sate, with its overwhelming power of destruction, can put a catastrophic end to all transformatory and emancipatory effort, it counters all illusion of so-called “historical inevitability”.

There can be no such thing as “historical inevitab lity” in the direction of the future. History is open-ended, for the better or worse. Highlighting the requirement of the state’s “withering away” was meant in the first place in order to counter the wishful/anarchistic illusion that the “overthrow of the state” can solve the disputed problem. The state as such cannot be “overthrown”, in view of its deep-seated social metabolic embeddedness. The Private Capitalist property relations of a given state can be overthrown, but that is no solution by itself. For everything that can be “overthrown” can also be restored, and indeed had been, as the fate of Gorbachev’s “Perestroika” amply demonstrated it. Capital, Labor, and the State as such are deeply intertwined in the organic whole of the historically constituted social metabolism. None of them can be overthrown on their own, nor indeed “reconstituted” separately.

To make the required change calls for the radical transformation of the social reproductive metabolism in its entirety and in all of its deeply interconnected constituent parts. And that can only be successfully done in tune with the changed historical circumstances, within the limited framework of our planetary household. This is the meaning of the socialist alternative to capital’s by now perilously overstretched and dangerously wasteful social metabolic order. And such alternative is not a question of “inevitability”. Inevitability must be left to the law of gravity whereby the stones dropped by Galileo from the leaning tower of Pisa were bound to reach the ground with certainty. This is why I wrote in the Conclusion of my book that “what the socialist alternative appeals to is the tangible requirement of historical sustainability. And that is also offered as the criterion and measure of its feasible success.  …  It is defined in terms of historical viability and practical sustainability, or not, as the case might be.”

One of the main criticisms made against Marxist conception of history is that it is supposedly too teleological. Wouldn’t this view of the inevitability of the State’s collapse be somewhat teleological?

Only the mechanical dogmatic Marxists would argue in such terms. Marx never did. After all, he wrote seven decades before Rosa Luxemburg’s “socialism or barbarism” that the advocated alternative was required by human beings “in order to save their very existence”. In other words, if a thinker clearly asserts that the ongoing self-destructive human action – which arises from the inner antagonisms and dangerous contradictions of the given social reproductive system, established by human beings themselves – can put an end to historical development, that is the opposite of believing in a mysterious teleology of historical inevitability, not its advocacy.

In any case, it is always much easier to indicate the increasing likelihood of a collapse or implosion than to project in concrete terms even the bare outlines of a feasible positive outcome. For the latter depends on a great multiplicity of interacting factors, set in motion by more or less conscious human efforts confronting one another under bewilderingly complicated historical circumstances and shifting relation of forces. This is why the development of social consciousness within the framework of rival value systems, together with their educational requirements, is so important. It would be nothing more than self-defeating illusion to expect the positive outcome to appear through the fictitious supra-human agency of some pre-existent quasi-Messianic historical teleology.

You are quite critical of “representative democracy”, but do not show enthusiasm for the so-called “direct democracy”. Instead, you propose a “substantive democracy”. What are the bases and how would such substantive democracy work?

The advocacy of something like direct democracy by Rousseau, embraced by the early phase of the French Revolution, had a historical precedence over representative democracy. The latter had been devised more like a counter-move than a self-originating and in that way sustainable form of political control. After all, we should not forget that the great liberal/utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham started his intellectual carrier as an opponent of the American Revolution, in the heat of that revolution itself. Representative democracy had been conveniently adopted by many Parliaments but produced very limited results. It is a form of control very problematical even in its own terms of reference and claimed achievements. Hegel’s criticism of it was very much to the point when he wrote in his Philosophy of History that in such form of political administration “The Few assume to be the Deputies, but they are often only the despoilers of the Many”. He could also point out that the Many are not simply the “Many” but simultaneously also the “All”. Thus even if the Many could be truly represented by their temporarily dominant Party, that would still leave so many of the “All” outside in the cold, in the name of what Hegel considered the tyranny of the majority over the minority. But of course he could not go beyond that, given his own class horizon and economic conception, adapted from Adam Smith’s political economy with its capital-oriented blessing and curse rolled into one.

Despite its relative merits over representative democracy, the idea of direct democracy is also very problematical. For by envisaging itself as the alternative to representative democracy in the political domain it is still far removed from even beginning to realize the great historic task of the radical transformation of the social metabolism in its entirety. By no means surprisingly, even its extremely limited institutional counter-example demanding “recallable delegates” as against the “representative deputies” now elected to the political body, proved to be totally incompatible, over the past two centuries, with the established social reproductive order. Also the once sincerely meant suggestion about giving nothing more in pay to such delegates than to the factory workers came to absolutely nothing, although Lenin himself passionately advocated it in his State and Revolution and also after the successful October Revolution. In western capitalist societies we have heard a great deal about the proposed virtue of having workers, or even some workers’ councils, rightfully participating in the decision making of their enterprises, as an element of direct democracy, expecting from it a major transformation of society as a whole in due course. This is like the fox in the fairy tale at the foot of the tree telling the crow who has a big chunk of cheese in his mouth how beautifully he can sing, and asking the crow to do so in the hope that he drops the cheese. But the crow is not a fool to accommodate the fox and remain hungry. The question of substantive democracy is a matter of the vital decision making processes in all domains and at all levels of the societal reproduction process, on the basis of substantive equality. And that requires the radical alteration of the social metabolism as a whole, superseding its alienated character and the alienating superimposition of overall political decision making by the state over society. That is the only sense in which substantive democracy can acquire and maintain its meaning.

In Europe, Asia and Latin America, the streets were filled by protests against the established power, whether dictatorships or democracies. How do you evaluate these movements? They can be the engine of a fundamental change of capitalist society?

There can be no doubt about it, we have been witnessing the most remarkable protest demonstrations all over the world in the last few years. At the same time, since the demands of the people involved in these massive protests have not been met, there can be very little doubt that they will reappear all over the world and even intensify if continued to be frustrated. However, it would be unwise to jump to optimistic conclusion in view of the immense size of these world-wide protest movements. Thus, it would be far too premature to see in them already the engine of a fundamental change of capitalist society. These protest movements are certainly the harbingers of a necessary fundamental change. The magnitude of the fundamental change required is indicated not only by the world-wide mass demonstrations that say unmistakeably “no” to the perpetuation  of their manifold grievances, but also by the subsequent expression of sympathy and solidarity by masses of those who were not yet in the streets. A word of caution is nevertheless required because it is always easier to say “no” to the hurtful existent than to elaborate the positive alternative to it. If our criterion and measure of the required alternative is historical sustainability, that applies also to the emerging mass protest movements. They have appeared all over the world on the whole spontaneously and in a great variety of forms directly related to the multiplicity of their particular grievances. At some point in the future, however, they must cohere into a historically sustainable force if they are to become what you rightly describe as an “engine of a fundamental change of capitalist society”. One can only hope that such strategic cohesion unfolds sooner rather than later, let alone after it becomes too late.

Europe has witnessed the rise of new left parties, often classified as “radical”. SYRIZA won the elections in Greece and PODEMOS is the second political force in Spain. How do you see these new parties? What kinds of changes are possible within current structures?

SYRIZA and PODEMOS are good examples of the necessary response to the imposition of cruel austerity measures by the internationally managed financial and state authorities on Greece and Spain, aggravated by the servile submission of their national governments in question. But well beyond these two countries, the dehumanizing austerity measures are becoming visible and intolerable in many parts of the capitalist world, including those countries that once belonged to the handful of privileged “Welfare States”. What makes these parties particularly significant is not only that they have arisen on the long slumbering left but also that in a very short time they succeeded in acquiring a great mass of supporters. In this way they clearly underline the untenability of the established social reproductive order which has to resort to cruel austerity measures even in capitalistically advanced Europe, after promising for so long – and totally in vain – the diffusion of universal welfare everywhere in the world. The hoped for success of the world-wide protest movements mentioned in the last question can be greatly helped by the development of such parties. But also in this respect a strategically viable overall conception elaborated by them, envisaging a historically sustainable alternative to the existing order, remains the necessary requirement.

More than 20 years after the end of the Soviet Union, why do you believe that the socialist alternative is not only possible, but necessary?

In historical terms 20 years is a very short period of time. Especially so when the magnitude of the task presents itself as the need to radically change the social reproductive metabolism as a whole from an order of substantive inequality into one of substantive equality. And the historic challenge for securing an order of substantive equality is not a matter of the last few decades. The demand for it had been eloquently asserted by Babeuf and his Comrades of the “Society of Equals,” not 20 but exactly 220 years ago, when they insisted that “We need not only that equality of rights written into the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen; we want it in our midst, under the roofs of our houses.” Their demand was totally incompatible with capital’s consolidating order, and they were executed for it. But the historic challenge did not die with them, since it involves the whole of humanity. And no partial solution or its failure can eliminate that condition.

The implosion of the Soviet system had its deep-seated ground of determinations. To mention very briefly only two: the explosive contradictions of a multinational empire repressing its national minorities, as inherited from the Tsars, and the wishful proclamation of “socialism in one country”, on the ground of the actually prevailing post-revolutionary capital system. With regard to the first fateful contradiction – whose dangerous reverberations can be heard even today – Lenin advocated for the national minorities the “right of autonomy to the point of secession,” and he sharply criticized Stalin as an arbitrary “national socialist” and a “Great-Russian bully”; whereas Stalin degraded the national minorities to the status of “border regions” required for maintaining “the might of Russia”. As to the second fateful misrepresentation, Stalin and his followers claimed the “full realization of socialism in one country,” in total contradiction with Marx’s view that the alternative social order “is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples all at once and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with them.”

Babeuf and his Comrades appeared tragically early on the historical stage with their radical demand. At that time capital still had the potentiality of world-conquering expansion, even if its mode of operation could never overcome the problematical features of what even its best defenders in the field of political economy described as creative or productive destruction. For destruction was always an integral part of it, in view of the increasing wastefulness inseparable from the inexorable self-expansionary drive even at the ascending phase of capital’s historical development. The greatest and most perilous irony of modern history is that the once championed “productive destruction” has become in the descending phase of capital’s systemic development an ever more untenable destructive production, both in the field of commodity production and in the domain of nature, complemented by the ultimate threat of military destruction in defence of the established order. That is why the socialist alternative is not only possible – in the earlier mentioned sense of its historical sustainability – but also necessary, in the interest of humanity’s survival.


István Mészáros é autor de extensa obra, ganhador de prêmios como o Attila József, em 1951, o Deutscher Memorial Prize, em 1970, e o Premio Libertador al Pensamiento Crítico, em 2008, István Mészáros se afirma como um dos mais importantes pensadores da atualidade. Nasceu no ano de 1930, em Budapeste, Hungria, onde se graduou em filosofia e tornou-se discípulo de György Lukács no Instituto de Estética. Deixou o Leste Europeu após o levante de outubro de 1956 e exilou-se na Itália. Ministrou aulas em diversas universidades, na Europa e na América Latina e recebeu o título de Professor Emérito de Filosofia pela Universidade de Sussex em 1991. Entre seus livros, destacam-se Para além do capital rumo a uma teoria da transição (2002), O desafio e o fardo do tempo histórico (2007) e A crise estrutural do capital (2009), A obra de Sartre, e O conceito de dialética em Lukács todos publicados pela Boitempo. 

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