Unfinished projects

March 03, 2022 — Asher Wycoff

I just received my copy (hot off the presses) of István Mészáros's Beyond Leviathan, which was originally intended as a mammoth three volume project on theories of the state. Unfortunately, Mészáros died of a stroke shortly after completing (or very nearly completing) the first volume, which is what Monthly Review Press just published. In his introduction, John Bellamy Foster promises that Mészáros's extensive preparatory notes for the remaining two volumes will be collected and published separately within "the next few years." The original plan of the three volume work is included in the appendices.

I have a lot of affection for this kind of ambitious, unfinished project. A favorite example, to remain on the theme of Hungarian Marxists, is Georg Lukács's Ontology of Social Being—whose middle three chapters, being relatively complete, were translated into English by David Fernbach in the late '70s–early '80s. Just these fragments are tremendous accomplishments, less brash than History and Class Consciousness, missing what Marshall Berman memorably called Lukács's "cosmic chutzpah." The concept of proletariat as homogeneous, conscious agent of a world-historical process is specifically repudiated, and classes are theorized much more cautiously and robustly as "heterogeneous complexes" of agents.

Doubtless, this shift is informed by decades of concrete experience of "really existing socialism," and Lukács's own experience being compelled to "self-criticize" for his youthful excesses of Hegelian idealism. His partially completed Ontology is itself an "autocriticism," as Ernest Joós has argued, perhaps internalizing the experience of Stalinism as empirical disconfirmation of proletariat as self-conscious subject-object of world history. Teleological rationale is specifically demoted to the meso-level of organized actors within classes, not classes themselves.

These few, thin English volumes of Lukács's social ontology—on, in order, Hegel, Marx, and Labor—are also appended with the original plan of the work for the entire project. There is a romance of the Great Book captured in such outlines: the romance of the isolated intellect approaching, through its sheer singularity, something totalizing and universal. Like all romantic notions of writing, this is illusory. Nobody writes alone, except in the most superficial and literal sense, and any project that in the writer's original vision holds out the promise of universality or totality very quickly, in the process of writing, reveals itself to be frustratingly partial and narrow. The romance of the Great Book can survive only in the abstract, in the proposal, in the plan of the work before the work is completed, or the spine of the book before the book is read.

tags: diss