Moving Beyond Capitalism

By Nevin Siders

Motivation to read and study Beyond Capital by István Mészáros

On more than one occasion I’ve heard the story about the morning of July 19, 1979, when the Sandanistas (FSLN) walked into the capital city Managua. They are said to have turned to each other and asked, “Now what do we do?”

They had spent all their ingenuity and energy on the uprising. So when dictator Somoza fled, the FSLN, didn’t yet know how to fill the vacuum. The three recently fused groups shared socialist principles, but were unsure how to implement them in the country that was now in their hands.

Each of the tendencies took guidance from the Paris Commune, as well as the twentieth century revolutions: Russia, China, Vietnam, and especially Cuba and the Grenada on the same Caribbean Sea. The latter’s revolution had occurred only months before. They were also aware of failures like Algeria and Chile where, despite having taken power, the revolutions were turned back. Calling themselves Marxists, the Sandinistas were no doubt concerned about preventing a counterrevolution, or at least minimizing one. The military dimension to overthrowing capitalism is dealt with in the uprising itself, along with preventing said counterrevolution.

History shows the political aspect is controlled from the legislature and judiciary, provided the rebels attend to the alliance between the workers and farmers — urban proletariat and rural proletariat 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 sufficient to ensure a transition toward a socialist economy?
  • Are eliminating income and sales taxes sufficient?
  • Is it enough to nationalize major industries?
  • Is it enough to nationalize industries of renegades and counterrevolutionaries?

These are questions on which the variants of socialism diverge, debating how the Soviet Union came to its end, and whether or not other countries remain socialist, particularly China.

Economist Mészáros grabbed my attention when I read that Venezuela’s president Chávez greatly respected him and, what’s more, founded that country’s communes on these ideas.

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

A Big Book with a Succinct Message

At a few pages shy of a thousand, the task of examining the proposal appears daunting. The first glance at the table of contents doesn’t raise the spirits much, where the appendices show to be only 10 pages long. But we can also set aside the last Part which takes up about a 100 pages, being a collection of essays on related topics. Also, the notes for the other three Parts together account for about another 100. So the length is whittled down a fair bit. So despite the tome’s length, I hope to distill the essence of the proposal into the few paragraphs in this article.

The First and Second Parts review the failure in the Soviet Union’s attempt at building socialism, basing its analysis on the tenets set down by Marx himself in Capital. Mészáros argues that the problems were multiple and mutually reinforcing, mostly revolving around mistakenly not confronting head on Marx’s law of value, nor principles concerning mutual solidarity. Considering that socialism (if ever established) will have an economy of exchange, the task therefore is to leave aside exchange of commodities in a free market, replacing it with an exchange of services.

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.”1

In setting the stage for his proposal, Part 3 begins with whole chapters clarifying why the Soviet Union’s attempt at socialism failed. Unlike Leon Trotsky’s denunciations against political centralization and authoritarianism, this analysis directs its attention to the economic dimension as the underlying cause for having stripped the working class of democracy and autonomy. Mészáros offers lengthy and profound warnings on how capital is able to reestablish itself, especially on p. 616. 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’.”

The continues warning 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.”

Something that appears as a philosopher’s doctrinaire styling on nearly every single page is the phrase “capitalism’s social metabolic order.” Mészáros does not denounce capitalism in general, and goes to lengths to differentiate the person of the capitalist from the concentration of wealth, the capital itself, which constantly drives to person to increase it (or lose it to someone else who will). That continual pressure is what makes the economy operate through multifarious, mutually-reinforcing mechanisms, which construct capitalism’s social metabolic order.

As the author recounted in earlier Parts, capital as such 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. The minimal measures necessary to prevent capital’s restauration are outlined in chapter 17, particularly on pp. 617-622. “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” (italics in original).

After analyzing the USSR’s erroneous economic policies (pp. 630-633), Mészáros arrives at two intertwined conclusions (p. 635) which stress “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 Lenin’s “efficacy of the ‘cultural revolution’ leading toward the ‘growth of co-operation’.”

The following chapter presents a call and rationale for passing over from labor’s defensive organization to launching that offensive which can initiate the battle for socialism. Section 18.2 (pp. 680-694) takes up capital’s structural crisis, which sets the boundaries and forms for how working class unity may be achieved so as to prepare for that uprising we all desire (Section 18.3.1, pp. 694-696). The overarching dimensions of the problem of transforming society are addressed in section 18.3.4 (pp. 702-703).

The next-to-last chapter, number 19, confronts the challenge of displacing and replacing capital’s law of value so as to place the working class in a position to build a communal system. Marx’s four main characteristics for building a communal mode of interchange as set down in Grundrisse are featured on p. 757:

  • The working person’s life activity as a meaningful link to general production
  • Social products are inherently communal
  • All members of society participate fully in consumption
  • Planned organization of labor, not to create material objects as commodities, but rather to attend social needs

What this reader understands as the kernel of Mészáros’s proposal is presented 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 explained in section 19.3), and the concerns about quality (which is the theme of section 19.5).

Chapter 20 is the final one, taking up again the issue of how to guarantee the irreversibility of socialist transformation. The way to supersede a “antagonistic/adversarial relationship in labor process under hierarchical structural domination” is to overcome the “transcendence of fetishism of commodity” (pp. 799-801). The warning against so-called “market socialism” is given a strong foundation in section 20.4 (pp. 823-836), interwoven with democratic yet responsible decision-making as the way to surmount capital’s alienation is the concluding topic in Section 20.5 (pp. 836-845).

Further Comments

Before closing, I offer a handful of observations on other topics.

First, the reader may have noticed this article skipped over Part 2. It presents a study of capital’s ceaseless drive to constantly increase wastefulness, running the gamut from the excessive packaging on every little piece of merchandise we buy daily, up to the proverbial military-industrial complex with its astronomical sums wasted on useless nuclear bombs. This line of argument is frankly fascinating and worthy of further research, yet remains marginal to this article’s focus on socialist transformation toward building a just society. A sequel to this article may deal with that intricate topic.

Another matter of concern for non-Stalinists, be they Trotskyists, Castroists (if such a tendency exists), Guevarists, Chavists, and others is whether or not to embrace Mészáros’s line of argument. In the same way that Joseph Hanson shook the Fourth International a bit by claiming the Cuban Revolution was not led by Trotskyists, yet nonetheless merited respect for having stepped aside from Stalinism, he concluded by arguing for openness to non-Stalinists in an inclusive attitude.

This tome has a mere handful of references to Trotsky as a person and his denouncement of Soviet authoritarianism, and surprisingly not a single word on experiments other than the Warsaw Pact countries — China, Vietnam, Cuba, and Yugoslavia are beyond its scope (the Boliviarian revolution in Venezuela had just begun at the time of publishing). Yet little textual analysis is needed to find parallels with Trotsky and Trotskyism; the phrases denouncing Stalinism are too similar to be any coincidence by such an erudite scholar as Mészáros.

More surprising, then, is the lack of any indication that Mészáros was familiar with Guevara’s critique of how Yugoslavia’s workplaces may well have constituted producer cooperatives, yet nonetheless operated by selling commodities in a free marketplace, therefore in the long term being forced to apply the law of value and eventually be forced to treat their members as alienated employees who had little decision-making power over production and even be subject to layoffs and worse. The norms in setting aside a command economy so as to establish socialist accountancy, in Section 20.3 (p. 805-823) are surprisingly similar to Ernesto Guevara’s planned economy proposals as recapitulated by Carlos Tablada. Given that the Cuban leadership grappled with and published Tablada’s profound analysis on the matter in the eighties, the lack of any mention in this encyclopedic study is astounding.

In its aesthetic dimension, the book would have benefitted by a summary of the cardinal conclusions, or better yet an abbreviated version of fifty pages or so which would make it accessible to activists and others who are uninterested in, and others who are repulsed by, the multisyllabic jargon so characteristic of philosophical writings.

Conclusion: Well Worth the Effort!

Readers who have read all the way through this article will not be surprised by the conclusion that this work is enthralling and well worth the effort. The publisher’s ad and its link are below so they may purchase and read it for themselves. As the excerpts cited above show, the text was written in British English, even though the publisher is in New York.

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

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About the author

Nevin Siders


Nevin is a friend of CORS.