Istvan Mészáros has undertaken the rather monumental task of providing a Marxist critique of the state in his book, Beyond Leviathan. It is his last will and testament, coming out posthumously. He meant for it to accompany his previous book, Beyond Capital. The people at the Monthly Review pitch the volume as the first “all-embracing Marxian theory of the state.” The focus is on Marx’s notion of “the withering away of the state.” The book is divided into three main parts: (1) “From Relative to Absolute Limits: Historical Anachronism of the State”; (2) “The Mountain We Must Conquer: Reflections on the State”; and (3) “Ancient and Modern Utopias.” Among the appendices can be found a culmination of sorts, where he addresses “How Could the State ‘Wither Away’”?
Estella Schmid of Peace in Kurdistan was adamant that Mészáros’s book is relevant for my work on struggles for self-determination in the 21st century. We can understand why this is so, since our articulation of self-determination as people power, or radical democracy against the state, seeks to affect a synthesis of sorts between Marxism and anarchism. For our work, the main inspirations have included the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish freedom movement, Abdullah Öcalan, as well as Murray Bookchin, Frantz Fanon, and Rosa Luxemburg. The path that we are blazing is intended in an ecumenical vein. We hope to help open up multiple lanes by which different traditions on the anti-capitalist left can converge in favor of an agenda for self-determination, or people power, understood as the most viable and desirable alternative to the negative dialectic of tyranny and chaos in which the world seems thoroughly enveloped and effectively submerged.
Mészáros engages with a broad swath of Western political philosophy on the nature of the state, including extended discussions of both Hobbes and Hegel, among many others. He is adamant about the need to transcend the state in order to transcend the capitalist form. His discussion is quite relevant, shedding light on many of the challenges involved with democratic confederalizing attempts to escape the confines of capitalist modernity, conceived as the world system of the capitalist nation-state.
What does it mean to “transcend the state”? In his reflections on the Paris Commune, Marx wrote about “smashing” the state. Lenin would pick up on this felicitous turn of phrase in his marvelous pamphlet on State and Revolution, written a few months before coming to power to pursue quite opposite ends. Öcalan takes up the criticism of Marxism-Leninism along the lines that this tradition allegedly failed to dismantle the capitalist state, while instead building regimes of state capitalism. The proper conceptualization of state communist regimes is of course a matter of much dispute, dating at least back to the time of Trotsky in exile. Öcalan argues that the Soviet model could never escape the logic of capital, that it was forced to pursue a path of state capitalist developmental dictatorship, exercised in the name of the proletariat, over the people.
In a nutshell, the democratic centralist creed facilitated the dictatorship of the party over the people, and within the party, to the dictatorship of the Central Committee over the party, and within the Central Committee, to the dictatorship of the Secretary General over the Committee. This hyper-centralization of power is most certainly inimical to the dynamic anticipated by Marx, who believed that socialist revolution would lead to the withering away of the state, albeit after a transitional period of dictatorship of the proletariat. Indeed, even here, Marx stipulated that the decentralizing and radically democratizing aims and aspirations of the Communards in Paris was the closest embodiment to the dictatorship of the proletariat that the world had ever seen.
If the trajectory of the state communist regimes thus contradicted the expectations of Marx, who had foreseen a decentralizing dynamic leading towards the effective withering away of the state, this most unfortunate unfolding of events has much to do with the fact that the Bolshevik revolution failed to spread to the capitalist core, that it did not trigger the long prophesied global revolution, but instead facilitated the consolidation of imperialist reaction, an all-out assault by the capitalist powers and a concerted effort to snuff out the revolutionary flame. The dictatorships of the Communist parties in pursuit of developmentalist goals effectively pushed into the distant horizon the transition from socialism to communism, while in the present bringing about a veritable concatenation of centralizing state power. This is one of the main paradoxes around which Mészáros’s critique of the state revolves. In the process, he lays bare the preconditions for a social order characterized by “substantive equality” and “substantive democracy,” highlighting the imperative to smash the bureaucratic apparatus of the state, in order to bring about a fundamental revolution in social relations.
Mészáros’s theoretical efforts allow for an effective rapprochement, even synthesis, between Marxism and anarchism. It is for this reason that we empathize quite strongly with his project. For it is our conviction that his critique of Marxism-Leninism opens vistas and facilitates convergences among different, too often antagonistic, factions of the anti-capitalist left.
The anti-capitalist left must unite to form a democratic confederalizing people power agenda. And that agenda must include a full-fledged assault on state power, alongside and in tandem with a thoroughgoing critique of capital, in order to articulate what self-determination in the twenty-first century effectively requires.
Social-democratic reformism remains a blight on the revolutionary prospects for the left. Even as the center collapses, and the rise of neo-fascism rears its ugly head, many on the left continue to cling onto rearguard, essentially defensive postures in relation to the welfare state. Such defensive postures amount to most dangerous detours that hinder the urgent task of reigniting the revolutionary imagination. Because, indeed, a veritable revolution in consciousness is required if we are to hold the world leaders to even a modicum of democratic accountability and to thus veer clear of the precipice to which the social order would appear to be currently catapulting us towards. And so we come back again and again to the theme of the dire need for a revolution in consciousness.
There have been glimpses of hope, even amidst the overall calamitous trajectory of the forces at the helm of “capitalist modernity.” Rojava for sure, and perhaps the Zapatistas as well, both prefigure the democratic confederal alternative, and such an alternative has the possibility to spread rapidly across much of the African continent, which could radically change the geopolitical balance, but this is highly speculative, perhaps reflective of wishful thinking. Still, given the stakes of the global struggle to reign in the ecocidal and genocidal tyranny of the ruling class, it deserves to be attempted. This is where the Grassroots Liberation Movement comes into play, as an organic bearer of the Öcalanist creed amidst Fanonian conditions of neocolonial Africa. Only time will tell if such attempts bear fruit, but it would appear that the exercise of community empowerment tends to strengthen the capacity of the people to govern themselves. Moreover, those who are destined to bring this alternative to the world’s attention, would seem to be the indigenous peoples, in alliance with the urban lumpenproletariat of the postcolonial slum. These are the groups with nothing to lose but their chains. They are ready for revolution, since they are dying every day.
Power to the people, no delay, requires perhaps mutiny within the coercive apparatus. And at the ideological level, defections from the disgusting dominant social order into the camp of resistance can be expected to increase. Those who are farsighted can see that a truly calamitous future awaits. And so, as the denouement approaches, many organic intellectuals of the capitalist order can be expected to defect. In my own case, the fact that I am a product of upward social mobility rendered me somehow alienated from the ruling class milieus in which I was educated. If my father gained access to the middle class through incorporation into the war machine, my ancestors were nevertheless toiling workers, on both sides of my family, I come from rednecks and oakies. I take it as a moral obligation to have a reckoning with the sins of my ancestors, but also seek to redeem the essential dignity of the struggles they faced for more livable lives. In the name of the democratic and Christian ideals in which I was inculcated from a very early age, we can find a rich repertoire for critiquing the existing state. The same goes for basically any rich cultural tradition. This is why I argue for an ecumenical, democratic-confederal agenda, which could promote liberationist interpretations of different cultural traditions. The critique of the state and of capital must proceed, hand in hand with the reconstruction of dominant social imaginaries, towards revolutionary internationalist hopes for the arrival of the reign of the truth, of freedom, of equality, of democracy. The stakes could hardly be higher. The hopes and dreams for real equality and freedom fought by all the generations would seem to hang in the balance.
Dr. Thomas Jeffrey Miley
Lecturer of Political Sociology
Fellow of Darwin College
The University of Cambridge