Book Review by Dan Mayer, February 2010
István Mészáros, Bookmarks, £9.99
In this timely polemic, Mészáros argues that the working class movement urgently needs to stop looking to parliament as the centre of social change.
This short book is not an empirical study of our corrupt elected representatives - Mészáros looks deeper than that with a philosophical argument. Starting from the logic of Marx's Capital, and building on his own Beyond Capital, Mészáros argues that it could not be any other way.
Real power lies outside parliament: the army, the civil service and the corporations. So the struggle to defeat capitalism must primarily take place beyond parliament.
Mészáros really comes into his own when he describes the negative ideological impact of parliament. Because it enshrines a separation between the political and the economic spheres, parliament encourages the passivity of the working class: without politics, protests against economic conditions (like long hours and low wages) cannot challenge the fact that workers have no control over the wealth we produce. If parliament has no say in economics, we can do no better than New Labour.
Mészáros argues that our movement doesn't just need to have an extra-parliamentary wing (while using parliamentary opportunities whenever possible) but that it must be focused on workers' struggle at the point of production. This is how the real nature of production becomes clear to people, and the only sort of struggle that prefigures a socialist society, where the producers of wealth take democratic control over it.
In the second half of the book Mészáros develops these arguments. He argues that the time has come to move onto the offensive. Capitalism has always had crises but since the 1970s these crises have become structural rather than cyclical, and a period of system-wide expansion is unlikely.
Some may quibble with the distinction between structural and cyclical crises, but it would be hard to disagree with the thrust of the argument. Capitalism is coming into conflict with its own limits in a period of recurrent economic, military and environmental crises.
Whatever our day to day problems, the left needs to take a long-term view and start acting as though our time has come. We need a revolutionary movement to struggle in the workplace, one that does not shy away from talking about the need to smash the state.
This book does not make for light reading and the language can be difficult, but this is because it is packed full of thought-provoking philosophical insights.
This is not just a welcome intervention in the debate about the role of parliament; it also provides an intriguing glimpse into the mind of one of the world's leading Marxist philosophers.