State and philosophy
Mike Macnair reviews Beyond Leviathan: critique of the state by István Mészáros (edited by John Bellamy Foster, Monthly Review Press, 2022, pp482, £18.76)
Authors are not always well served by the rapid posthumous publication of their unfinished work. English legal writer and judge Jeffrey Gilbert (1674-1726) through his will left his manuscripts on trust to prevent publication - unsuccessfully. The unfinished quality of the resulting books is all too obvious.1
Closer to our present concerns, Friedrich Engels’ decision to publish Karl Marx’s Capital volumes 2 and 3 - and his successor Karl Kautsky’s publication of Marx’s Theories of surplus value - produced a ‘flattened’ version of Marx’s theory, in spite of Engels’s own insistence in his supplement to Capital volume 3 that the work was unfinished.2 This flattened version obscured for around a century something that became clear from later 20th century research in, and publications of, those of Marx’s manuscripts that Engels and Kautsky had not published. That is, that Marx thought major additional work was needed to complete Capital - both on the mathematical tools he had used in the 1860s drafts, which Engels and Kautsky edited, as is reflected in Marx’s ‘Mathematical manuscripts’, and on the questions of land value and rents, as is reflected in Marx’s notes on pre-capitalist production forms.3 It is possible that it might have been better to have left Capital vol 1 and Marx’s other published work on political economy to stand on its own feet until the context of the unpublished drafts could be more clearly understood.
Unlike Jeffrey Gilbert, István Mészáros positively wanted his unfinished work on the state published. Indeed, Beyond Leviathan contains substantial elements already published, partly of work produced a considerable time ago, partly of texts written as part of the Beyond Leviathan project and published as lectures or essays as fragmentary components of this project. The result is that the book is both fragmentary and repetitive, so that the argument is hard to follow. Mészáros has never been an easy writer, but Beyond Leviathan’s character makes it seriously difficult to get clear what the argument of the completed project would have been.
The underlying general point is clear enough - in parallel with the argument of Mészáros’s 1995 Beyond capital, that the USSR and similar entities got beyond capitalism but not beyond capital as such - Beyond Leviathan argues for the necessity to overcome state power, and for the Marxist claim that the state must be made to wither away.
The book as published contains an introduction by John Bellamy Foster (pp7-37); a preface by Mészáros (pp41-54); and three parts on Mészáros’s argument: Part I, ‘From relative to absolute limits: the historical anachronism of the state’ (pp55-163); Part II, ‘The mountain we must conquer: reflections on the state’ (pp165-260) and Part III, ‘Ancient and modern utopias’ (pp261-367); and a series of appendices, largely consisting of previously published work that Mészáros had asked to be included in the book (pp369-437); followed by endnotes and an index.
Part I in essence recapitulates arguments Mészáros had already made in Beyond capital for the proposition that capital (considered as the principle of a social order) had not reached its limits at the time when Marx was writing, or at the time of World War I and the Russian Revolution, but has now done so. These arguments are here applied to the state as such. In spite of its great antiquity - Mészáros carries the state as far back as Plato (c420s - c340s BCE), though not as far back as third-millennium BCE Mesopotamia or early dynastic Egypt - the state’s time is now coming to an end.
This is so, at the end of the day, because the state “cannot be other than Leviathan in imposing its structurally entrenched power on overall societal decision-making” and in the light of “the now readily available powers of total destruction, a way must be found to extricate humanity from the ever more dangerous - potentially, in a literal sense, self-annihilating - decision-making practices of the Leviathan state” (preface, p41). The “Leviathan” is, of course, Thomas Hobbes’s theory of the state as the monopolist of violence, to which the subject population necessarily surrender all the rights they would possess in a ‘state of nature’. Mészáros argues that the state entails “a twofold antagonism: the internal and the external. The latter is oriented to outward domination, which would be inconceivable without securing through the primary internal class-domination the required stability capable of yielding outward conquests” (p63). A global coercive state (as in the fantasies of the UN as a sovereign) would be impossible, because the state is founded on its internal coercive structure and the subordination of the large majority (pp71-74); and Adam Smith’s and Immanuel Kant’s ideas of formal equality allowing a regime of peace were illusions.
Chapter 2, ‘Freedom is parasitic on equality’, and chapter 3, ‘From primitive to substantive equality - via slavery’, move into the philosophical critique of Hegel before returning to a section on “capital’s insuperable inter-state antagonisms” as per Lenin (pp115-20). Chapters 4 and 5, ‘Capital’s deepening structural crisis and the state’ and ‘Capital’s historic circle is closing’, deploy issues of the ecological crisis and the war threat, but substantially offer critique of Sartre and of the idea of “advanced capitalism”.
Part II consists of a set of lectures on the state, which Mészáros gave at four universities in Brazil in November 2013. These begin in substance with the evolution of politics away from liberalism in the early 21st century (chapters 6 and 7), before moving to Marx on the withering away of the state and the Critique of the Gotha programme (chapter 8), a criticism of Italian centre-left jurisprude Norberto Bobbio (1909-2004) (chapter 9), of Max Weber (1864-1920) and of English political science professor Ernest Barker (1874-1960) (chapter 10); of Benthamite positivist jurisprude John Austin (1790-1859) (chapter 11) and a return to Hegel (chapter 12), before coming back, again, to Marx and the essential role of material equality in overcoming the currently failing state order (chapters 13 and 14).
Part III moves abruptly backwards in history. Chapter 15 is addressed to questions of inequality and the state in Plato’s Republic and Laws. Chapter 16 addresses Aristotle (384-322 BCE), and to some extent to medieval Christian thought. Chapter 17 considers Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) as belonging in the world of “primitive accumulation of capital” discussed in the historical part of Marx’s Capital vol 1; chapter 18 turns to Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639) and Giambatista Vico (1668-1744); chapter 19 to Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (posthumously published in 1629), James Harrington’s Oceana (1656), Tom Paine’s The rights of man (1791) and the early 19th century ‘utopian socialists’, Charles Fourier (1737-1809), Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) and Robert Owen (1771-1858). This is, it should be apparent, not a chronological account of utopian thought (partly because the national overrides the chronology, as in the treatment of Vico before Bacon). Chapter 20 was apparently intended to move to the German, being an account of Christian Thomasius (1655-1728), as discussed by Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) in an appendix to his 1961 book Natural law and human dignity.4 The editors show in a footnote that the original title of the chapter was ‘From Kant and Lessing to Thomasius and Bloch’s principle of hope’ (p361).
Appendix 1 gives us Mészáros’s draft chapter structure (pp371-72). Bellamy Foster tells us in the introduction that there is a further manuscript which will appear is a more ‘drafty’ form than the present book, under the title Critique of Leviathan: reflections on the state (pp8, 37). In the chapter structure this would have been two volumes, the second of which, ‘The harsh reality’, appears to be ‘more of the same’ (Hobbes, religion, enlightenment thought, Hegel, liberalism and utilitarianism). The third volume, titled ‘The necessary alternative’, looks from the chapter outline as though it might have more of substance to say. The projected chapter 9 on imperialism and global wars is unlikely to add much, nor is the projected chapter 10 on ‘Lenin’s state and revolution in its global setting - and in ours’, given what Mészáros already wrote in Beyond capital about the limits of 1917 as a guide to action.
The projected chapter 11, ‘The moment of truth: the structural crisis of politics and its state-oriented denial’, looks as if it would be merely more arguments for rejection of political action. Chapter 12, ‘The critical alternative: radical restructuring of the social metabolism on the ground of substantive equality’, if it exists in the draft, will give us a clearer idea of Mészáros’s positive orientation. Something is indicated by the subheads of the ‘Conclusion: paths of transition’, which consist of ‘1. Pensioning off hydra altogether: the role of critical jurisprudence; 2. Articulating global extra-parliamentary mass action; 3. Contestable values and viable decision-making: the constitution of solidarity in the global household.’ For what it is worth, this skeleton looks like a recipe for a variant form of John Holloway’s “change the world without taking power”.5
To engage substantively with Mészáros’s positive argument will thus have to wait for the publication of the draft of the second half of the project. It is, however, possible to comment on one aspect of it, which is “the role of critical jurisprudence” in the projected chapter 12, since this appears sporadically throughout the present book and is in effect discussed in appendix 2, ‘Historical boundaries of the legal and political superstructure’ (pp373-85), which originated in a 1987 collection of essays for the sociologist, Tom Bottomore.6 Mészáros’s account of law here has the valuable aspect of seeing customs and traditions at the base of law, and emphasising that customs and traditions continue to play an important role in regulating productive activities and human social intercourse.
But it does not really grapple with the question of what is socially required to transition from customs and traditions to ‘explicit law’. This is - as is demonstrated by medieval Iceland, Ireland and Wales - not the formal state, which was exceptionally weak in all three cases, but lawyers as a specialist group funded somehow by the society (usually, of course, by the members of the ruling, property-owning class). Without the specialist group, there cannot be sufficiently stable understandings of the rules for the dynamics of ‘formal law’ to exist.
With the bureaucratic state, but without the lawyers as an independent group funded by a property-owning class - as with the nomenklatura regimes of the USSR and 1948-till-Deng Xiaoping China - the dynamics of formal law also do not exist, since the paper rules are invariably disregarded in favour of the interests of the patron-client networks, of which the litigants and the judge are part. This was a feudal feature of the dynamics of the bureaucratic regimes, though judges under feudalism dealt with many routine cases that did not immediately engage the interests of patron-client networks, so that formal law could be more than the very empty shell it was in the USSR.
The problem this poses for Mészáros’s conception is that he imagines a ‘law’ which can exist as law without the lawyers as a specialist group, and hence a ‘law’ which can be counterposed to the lawlessness of the state (eg, pp172-74, 207-11 and elsewhere); and hence the celebration of Bloch’s ‘human dignity’ reading of Thomasius (chapter 20). This latter was a leftwing part of the general German revival of ‘natural law theory’ in the wake of the role of legal positivism in disarming opposition to Hitler.
But we can see what has become of the image of global legality and ‘human rights’ as an alternative to the lawlessness of the “North Atlantic empire”: it becomes merely a leftist support for the routine sale of justice by the lawyers and the suppression of political democracy in the workers’ movement as much as in the state.7
This is not to say that the left and the workers’ movement should not make proposals for legal change. But the point here is that - as appears in the Marx texts discussed by Mészáros in appendix 4, “How could the state wither away” (pp392-437), extracted from Beyond capital - Marx understood that the problem was for the working class to take the lead in the society and to propose alternative modes of decision-making for the whole of society: those of democratic republicanism. And this implies the opposite of the anti-parliamentarism of Bakunin and his followers, but on the contrary the workers ‘constituting themselves into a political party’ in order to exploit as far as possible every tiny contradiction and crack in the fortifications of capital’s control of the political process, so as to undermine the political authority8 of the capitalists’ constitutional order and promote the idea of a regime of a self-government.
Hillel Ticktin in his obituary of Mészáros in this paper remarked that Mészáros, though sharply critical of the bureaucratic regimes (he was an exile after the 1956 Hungarian revolution), “lacked a theoretically developed view of Stalinism” and “did not analyse in terms of the importance of real control from below, except in a somewhat arcane way”.9 The focus on ‘substantive equality’ in Beyond Leviathan, without a clear explanation of what this implies, is a feature of the same phenomenon.
Mészáros’s fundamental points - that without the overthrow of the capitalist state order the world will go down to destruction in a generalised nuclear exchange, and that the overthrow of the capitalist state order requires us to aim for the supersession of the state order as such - are profoundly true. But this book lacks a clear sense of the role of class in the problem of human emancipation. And, because it fails to confront the issue of the managerial bureaucracy of the workers’ movement directly and seek its unambiguous subordination, its aim of general emancipation can never return to the concrete.
M Macnair, ‘Sir Jeffrey Gilbert and his treatises’ Journal of Legal History vol 15, pp252-68 (1994). M Lobban, introduction to Sir Jeffrey Gilbert on property and contract London 2019 Vol 134, pp xc-cxii.↩︎
Cf K Marx Mathematical manuscripts Calcutta 1994; L Krader (ed) The ethnological notebooks of Karl Marx Amsterdam 1974.↩︎
E Bloch Naturrecht und meschliche Würde Frankfurt 1961; English edition translated by DJ Schmidt (Cambridge Mass 1987). See appendix pp281-316.↩︎
On Holloway, cf M Macnair, ‘Closed Marxism’ Weekly Worker May 26 2016: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1108/closed-marxism.↩︎
‘Customs, tradition, legality: a key problem in the dialectic of base and superstructure’ in W Outhwaite and MJ Mulkay (eds) Social theory and social criticism: essays for Tom Bottomore Hoboken, New Jersey 1987, pp53-82. In this book it is extracted from Mészáros’s 2011 The dialectic of structure and history.↩︎
See, for example, my articles, ‘The war and the law’ Weekly Worker September 25 2003: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/497/the-war-and-the-law; ‘Human rights illusions’, July 29 2021: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1358/human-rights-illusions; ‘Spin, traps and rights’, January 27 2022: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1380/spin-traps-and-rights.↩︎
Max Weber’s “legitimacy” - a question-begging concept.↩︎
‘A Marxist philosopher’ Weekly Worker October 5 2017: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1173/a-marxist-philosopher.↩︎