István Mészáros and the Dialectic

March 19, 2012


by Eugene Walker

István Mészáros, Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness. Volume I, The Social Determination of Method. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010.

Global depression conditions have once again brought to the fore capitalism’s grave contradictions, and with it, new interest in the work of Karl Marx. This is not alone a theoretical question. The massive protests in Greece, Spain, Italy and England, as well as the Occupy Wall Street protests across the U.S., have meant that activists have been questioning the system, protesting against the cutbacks in social services, the massive unemployment, the growing inequality everywhere. TINA, “there is no alternative,” has become a bankrupt expression while the ideas of Marx, if not front and center, have entered the discussion.

Which Marx is being explored and debated? After the distorted practices of what passed for Marxism for much of the 20th century, this is no minor point. One needs to return to Marx’s ideas in and of themselves, crucially their re-creation for our specific moment, especially after the collapse of so-called Communism.

Here the labors of István Mészáros have a particular relevance. His Beyond Capital (1995) was an important critical study of the social metabolic form of capital as elucidated by Marx. As well, it showed that the deeply contradictory efforts of 20th century revolutions in the name of communism failed to move beyond capital. One could take issue with Mészáros’ refusal to designate such societies as state-capitalist, but his return to Marx’s analysis of capital and capitalism was a contribution in the last decade of the 20th century.

However, Mészáros’ study came with a most peculiar philosophic framework–Hegel as the defender of “universal permanent capital.” His focus was primarily on Hegel’s political philosophy in Philosophy of Right. He recognized Marx’s indebtedness to the Hegelian dialectic, but subordinated that to Marx’s comment: “Hegel’s standpoint is that of modern political economy” (“Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic”).

In The Social Determination of Method, Vol. I of Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness, Mészáros focuses on the Hegelian dialectic itself, directly attacking how Hegel uses a number of philosophic categories: measure, mediation, negation in relation to Spinoza, object-subject identity, the Absolute Idea. What is at the center of Mészáros’ critique of Hegel’s development of these philosophic categories is his full-blown attack on the heart of the Hegelian dialectic: “negation of the negation,” or second negativity. He is determined to demonstrate that the Hegelian dialectic itself is conciliatory to bourgeois society, and not a radical rupture in the manner of Marx. Let’s examine his claim.


At first negation, we find the source of Hegel’s praise for Spinoza: “Determinateness is negation–this is the Absolute principle of Spinoza’s philosophy, and this true and simple insight is the foundation of the absolute unity of Substance.” In the same moment, Hegel critiques the limitation of Spinoza’s insight for stopping at absolute substance: “But Spinoza does not pass on beyond negation as determinateness or quality to a recognition of it as absolute, that is, self-negating negation…. Therefore, Substance lacks the principle of personality” (Science of Logic, Vol. 2: 168).

Hegel’s point was that the dialectic is not alone negation, but negation of the negation; not alone substance but Subject, including “personality”; that dialectics is movement and self-movement. Negation of the negation contains the positive emerging from within the negation.

Rather than seeking to grasp both Hegel’s appreciation and critique of Spinoza, Mészáros makes a caricature of Hegel’s commentaries, quoting tiny phrases: “negatively self-negating negation,” “circle of circles,” and “return to the beginning,” that are meaningless without context and serious examination. Hegel’s initial praise of Spinoza is, in Mészáros’ view, related to the fact that “Spinoza sums up in a most striking fashion the inescapable negativity of the philosophical conceptions which are representative of capital’s social formation.”

To Mészáros, the Hegelian dialectic contains no movement to potentially transcend capital: “The Hegelian conceptualization of the world from the standpoint of political economy” (77) is the one and only truth. As a result, there is no serious exploration of Hegel’s dialectic of second negativity, only ridicule of isolated expressions in a manner that borders on cynicism.


Mészáros seeks to bolster his critical reading of the Hegelian dialectic with an examination of paragraphs of the Absolute Idea chapter of the Science of Logic. Mészáros asserts that Hegel is not interested in removal of contradictions but only in their reconciliatory preservation; that Hegel’s use of the negative as mediator is a hopeless task because real extremes and opposites cannot be mediated; that absolute negativity and absolute mediation based on subjectivity are brought in as merely semantic solutions that solve nothing. However, Mészáros’ analysis seems colored by his determination to take every philosophic category of Hegel and look for the hidden political root of “universal permanent capital.” Hegel almost becomes reduced to an ideologue.

On one occasion, Mészáros strings together isolated sentences to make his point. His reductive view of the Hegelian dialectic reaches an absurd level when the rich, complex dialogue of the 20-page Absolute Idea chapter of Science of Logic is dismissed in four isolated sentences quoted from various pages. This is supposedly to demonstrate that the Absolute Idea chapter is part of “determinations and contradictions of capital’s constraining horizon…reproduced in [Hegel’s] philosophy at the highest level of abstraction” (72).

Most telling of Mészáros’ critiques is his failure to fully grasp Hegel’s concept of “negation of the negation.” At times he characterizes it as “pseudo-positivity of apologetic inversion,” or “a formula problematically extended far beyond its validity.” Mészáros does recognize the need not just for negation, the negation of capitalism, but the necessity for posing the positive: “In order to succeed in the envisaged historic sense, the socialist approach must define itself in inherently positive terms. Marx made this absolutely clear when he insisted that ‘Socialism is man’s positive self-consciousness‘” (391).

But for Mészáros, “negation of the negation” relies only on negativity and thus positive self-consciousness cannot emerge from it. He rejects a reading of negation of the negation as containing a positive within the negative, which we can “translate” in revolutionary terms as the destruction of the old, capitalism (first negation), and the construction of the new, the creation of a humanistic socialist society (negation of the negation), which moves beyond a dependence on the old and emerges on its own ground.

Marx did not view negation of the negation in such a narrow, undialectical manner. In “Critique of Hegelian Dialectic” he wrote: “communism is humanism mediated with itself through the supersession of private property. Only through the supersession of this mediation–which is itself, however, a necessary premise–does positively self-deriving humanism, positive humanism, come into being.” This is second negation, self-negating negation, that is far from only a return to the old or reconciliation, or a simple wishing away of all the real contradictions. Marx discerned the methodology for this within the Hegelian dialectic. It became one of the keys for his conceptualizing and practicing the overcoming of the world’s real, concrete contradictions in a manner that expressed an emerging new Humanism.

If Mészáros wants to criticize Hegel for his abstractions, for his reconciliatory political writings, well and good. But when he claims that the dialectic itself only has this reconciliatory end as its foundation, not only is he flying in the face of Marx’s view, but, most crucially, he has cut himself off from the philosophic construction that can most profoundly assist us in the destruction of capital and the creation of a humanist, socialist, future society.


Mészáros’ reductive view of negation of the negation is one with his dismissal of the Absolute Idea in Hegel: “The fundamental methodological orienting principle of the Hegelian philosophy, centered on the Absolute Idea, is inseparable from its deeply reconciliatory ideological orientation” (305). What is most problematic here is Mészáros’ attempt to conflate the revolutionary dialectic of Science of Logic (as well as Hegel’sPhenomenology of Spirit and Philosophy of Spirit) with Hegel’s reactionary writings on the state, etc., and thus to define the Hegelian dialectic as at heart reconciliatory and apologetic for capital:

[E]ven a great philosophical genius, Hegel, who identified himself with capital’s standpoint of political economy, had to terminate history in the present: by postulating colonially dominant Europe as “absolutely the end of history” in his own version of the perfect “organic system” corresponding to the historically objectified, and fully realized, eternal present of the Absolute Idea.

While Marx did not extensively comment on the totality of Hegel’s Absolutes, he did explore Absolute Knowledge in Phenomenology, and never dismissed the Absolutes in the manner Mészáros does. What is at issue is not alone theoretical. It is whether Hegel’s Absolutes have crucial points of departure for a theory of transition, for the overcoming of capital today, in the first decades of the 21st century. This is what Mészáros has cut himself off from, even as he profoundly critiques the persistence and death logic of capital, and the failures of what he terms post-capitalist capital societies.

Put another way, as crucial as is what Mészáros identifies as the “Marxian Reorientation of Method”–as opposed to all the methods that he importantly critiques in Social Determination of Method as pre-Marx in the era of capital–Mészáros has not fully grasped Marx’s method because he minimizes and fails to fully explicate Marx’s indebtedness to and revolutionizing of the Hegelian dialectic.

He is not open to the possibility of returning to the Hegelian dialectic in and for itself for our day. His view is that after Marx’s settling accounts with the Hegelian dialectic, there is no need to return to Hegel, no need for Hegel’s dialectic as a way to critique bourgeois society, in either its classic form or its so-called socialist form. Unlike Marx, Mészáros chooses not to use the Hegelian dialectic against Hegel’s political conclusions, against his false positivism.

We are not arguing the Absolute Idea contains the key for overcoming capital. One needs Marx and the revolutionary subjectivity of masses in motion. But that too does not alone solve the problem. The question is whether a return to the Hegelian dialectic in and of itself, and not alone via Marx, can assist us at the present moment. Mészáros does not believe so, and ar­gues that an active rejection of the Hegelian dialectic in the Absolute Idea can help us clear away mystifying, obscuring debris.


Can we have a more illuminating way to explore “negation of the negation” and the Absolutes of Hegel than Mészáros offers? In a vastly different interpretation, Raya Dunayevskaya, the founder of Marxist-Humanism, saw Hegel’s Absolute Idea not as an apologia for capital, but rather as ground upon which to create new beginnings–“Absolute Negativity as New Beginning”–for social transformation. In her 1961 “Rough Notes onScience of Logic” she wrote:

[I]n reaching this final chapter, the Absolute Idea, [Hegel] is through with all which we would politically describe as “taking over”; that is to say, capitalism will develop all technology so perfectly for us that all the proletariat will have to do will be to “take over.” As we reject this concept politically, Hegel rejects it philosophically. He has now so absorbed all the other systems that, far from taking over, he is first going back to a totally new beginning.

The challenge she saw was the need to discern and concretize that dialectic within humanity’s struggle for freedom. For decades, Dunayevskaya labored on “the specific of self-liberation” in the world of here and now. Three strands were crucial: (1) Marx’s dialectic of revolution in permanence in the entire body of his writings from the 1840s to the 1880s, was both a transcendence and a revolutionary appropriation of the Hegelian dialectic. (2) She sought out the revolutionary human subjectivity of her day, what she expressed as the movement from practice that is a form of theory, and which she saw in the action and thought of workers, women, Black masses­ and other minorities, and youth. (3) She returned to the Hegelian dialectic in and of itself, to his Absolutes rooted in negation of the negation. She found there a new philosophic moment. For her,Absolute Negativity as New Beginning became the universal that determined her philosophic-political-organizational labors.

The contrast with Mészáros’ view could not be sharper: Where he finds only “universal permanent capital” in Hegel’s dialectic, Dunayevskaya found a vantage-point for comprehending the totality of Marx’s “new continent of thought and revolution.” Where Mészáros fails to see the Hegelian “negation of the negation” as expressing a positive reaching for the future, she found the needed “translation” of revolution’s dual rhythm, the destruction of the old and the creation of the new. Where Mészáros dismisses Absolute Idea as only the “fully realized, eternal present,” Dunayevskaya grasped Absolute Idea as “free creative power,” enabling “the unity of the theoretical and the practical idea,” the preparation for “the drive to transform reality itself” (Dunayevskaya, “Absolute Negativity as New Beginning,” Chapter 1, Philosophy and Revolution).

Today’s activist generation needs to view the totality of Marx, particularly his dialectical roots in Hegel. For this, Mészáros’ recent writings, despite their many brilliant insights, create unfortunate barriers.

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