Decadence of capitalism part XIII: rejection and regressions

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In the previous article in this series, we noted that among the new revolutionary groups which emerged out of the world-wide revival of class struggle in the late 60s, the “theory of decadence”, which had been defended by an intransigent minority despite the apparent triumph of capitalism evidenced by the post-war boom, gained a number of new adherents, providing a coherent historical framework for the revolutionary positions which this new generation had initially come to in a more or less intuitive manner: opposition to trade unions and reformism, rejection of national liberation struggles and of alliances with the bourgeoisie, recognition of the so-called “socialist” states as a form of state capitalism, and so on.

Given that, in the late 60s and early 70s, the open economic crisis of capitalism was only just beginning, and since, over the past four decades, the insoluble nature of this crisis has become increasingly evident, you might have expected that a majority of those attracted towards internationalism over those decades would have been rather easily convinced that capitalism was indeed an obsolete, decaying social system. In reality, not only has this not been the case, but - and this is particularly true with the new generations of revolutionaries which started to appear on the scene during the first decade of the 21st century – one could even speak of a persistent rejection of the theory of decadence, and at the same time a real tendency for many who had previously been convinced of the concept to put it into question and even to jettison it openly.

The attractions of anarchism

With regard to the rejection of the theory by the newer generations of revolutionaries, we are talking to a large extent about internationalist elements influenced by various forms of anarchism. Anarchism has enjoyed a major resurgence during the 2000s in particular and it is not difficult to see why it has such an attraction for young comrades who are eager to fight against capitalism but deeply critical of the “official” left, for a considerable part of which the collapse of “really existing socialism” in the eastern bloc has been such a debacle. Thus the new generation often turns to anarchism as a current which seems not to have betrayed the working class like the social democratic, Stalinist and Trotskyist traditions.

It would take an article in itself to analyse why, especially in the central capitalist countries, so many of the new generation have been drawn towards different brands of anarchism rather than towards the communist left, which is certainly the most coherent of all the political currents which remained loyal to proletarian principles after the terrible defeats of the period from the 1920s to the end of the 1960s. A key element is certainly the problem of the organisation of revolutionaries – the “party question” – which has always been a bone of contention between marxists and the revolutionary strands of anarchism. But our main focus here is the specific question of capitalism’s decadence. Why do the majority of the anarchists, including those who genuinely oppose reformist practices and see the need for international revolution, reject this idea so vehemently?

It’s true that some of the best elements in the anarchist current have not always had this reaction. In a previous article in this series we saw how anarchist comrades like Maximoff, faced with the world-wide economic crisis and the push towards a second imperialist world war, had no difficulty in explaining these phenomena as expressions of a social relation which had become a fetter on human progress, of a mode of production in decline.

But these views were always in a minority within the anarchist movement. At a deeper level, while many anarchists are happy to acknowledge Marx’s unique contribution to our understanding of political economy, they have had a much harder idea with the historical methodology which underlay Marx’s critique of capital. Ever since Bakunin, there has been a strong tendency among anarchists to see “historical materialism” (or, as some prefer, the materialist approach to history) as a form of rigid determinism which underestimates and depreciates the subjective element of revolution. Bakunin in particular saw it as a pretext for an essentially reformist practice on the part of the “Marx Party”, which argued at that time that since capitalism had not yet exhausted its historical usefulness for mankind, the communist revolution was not yet on the immediate agenda, and the working class had to focus on building up its resources and its self-confidence within the confines of bourgeois society: this was the basis for its advocacy of trade union work and the formation of workers’ parties which would, among other activities, contest bourgeois elections. For Bakunin, capitalism was always ripe for revolution. And by extension, if the marxists of the present historical epoch conclude that the old tactics are no longer valid, this is often derided by present-day anarchists as a retrospective justification for Marx’s errors, a way of avoiding the uncomfortable conclusion that the anarchists were right all along.  

We are only touching the surface here. We will come back later to the more sophisticated version of this argument presented by the Aufheben group, whose series criticising the notion of decadence has been seen as definitive by so many in the libertarian communist milieu. But there are other elements to consider in the present generation’s rejection of what for us is the theoretical cornerstone of a revolutionary platform today, and they are less specific to the tradition of anarchism.

The paradox we face is the following: while for us capitalism seems to be becoming more and more rotten, to the point where we can speak of the terminal phase of its decline, for many others capitalism’s success in prolonging this process of decay offers evidence that the very concept of decline has been refuted.  In other words: the more a long senile capitalism approaches its catastrophic end, the more some revolutionaries see capitalism as being capable of almost endless rejuvenation.

It is tempting to apply a little psychology here. We have already noted[1] that the prospect of its own demise is an element in the bourgeoisie’s rejection not only of marxism but even of its own efforts at a scientific understanding of the problem of value, once it became clear that such an understanding meant recognising that capitalism could only be a transient system, condemned to perish by its own inherent contradictions. It would be surprising if this ideology of denial did not affect even those who are attempting to break from the bourgeois world-view. Indeed, since the bourgeoisie’s flight from reality grows increasingly desperate the closer it comes to its actual demise, we would expect to see this defence-mechanism permeating every layer of society, including the working class and its revolutionary minorities. After all, what could be more terrifying, more conducive to the reaction of running away or burying your head in the sand, than the real possibility of a dying capitalism crushing us all in the throes of its final agony?     

But the problem is more complex than this. For one thing, it is connected to the manner in which the crisis has evolved in the past 40 years, which has made it much harder to diagnose the real severity of capitalism’s fatal disease. 

As we noted, the first decades after 1914 offered strong evidence that the system was in decline. It was not until the post-war boom had really got underway, in the 50s and 60s, that a number of elements in the proletarian political movement began to voice profound doubts about the notion that capitalism had reached its epoch of decadence. The return of the crisis – and of the class struggle – at the end of the 1960s made it possible to see the transient nature of the boom and rediscover the foundations of Marx’s critique of political economy. But while in essence this approach has been vindicated by the “permanent” nature of the crisis since the end of the 60s and, above all, by the more recent explosion of all the contradictions that have been building up over this period (the “debt crisis”), the length of the crisis is also testament to capitalism’s extraordinary capacity to adapt and survive, even if it has meant flouting its own laws and piling up even more devastating problems for itself in the long term. The ICC has certainly, on occasions, underestimated this capacity: some of our articles on the crisis in the 80s – a decade where brutal mass unemployment had once again become part of daily life - did not really foresee the “boom” (or rather booms, since there were numerous recessions as well) in the 90s and 2000s, and we certainly did not foresee the possibility of a country like China industrialising itself at the frantic pace we have seen during the 2000s. For a generation reared in these conditions, where rampant and unabashed consumerism in the advanced countries made the consumer society of the 50s and 60s seem quaint by comparison, it is understandable that talk of capitalism’s decline should be seen as somewhat old hat. The official ideology of the 90s and well into the 2000s was that capitalism had triumphed all along the way and that neo-liberalism and globalisation were opening the door to a new and indeed unprecedented era of prosperity. In Britain, for example, the economic mouthpiece of the Blair government, Gordon Brown, claimed in his 2005 budget speech that the UK was experiencing its most sustained period of economic growth since records began in 1701. Little wonder that “radical” versions of these ideas should be taken up even among those arguing for revolution. After all, the ruling class itself continues to dispute about whether it had finally done away with the cycle of “boom and bust”. This problematic has been echoed by many “pro-revolutionaries”, who can cite Marx on the periodic crises of the 19th century and explain that while there may still be periodic crises, each one would serve to clear out the economy’s dead wood and bring about a new spurt of growth. 

Regressions from the coherence of the Italian left

This was all very understandable, but it was perhaps less forgivable in the ranks of the communist left, who had already acquired some education about the diseased basis of capitalist growth in the epoch of its decline. And yet ever since the 70s, we have seen a series of defections from the theory of decadence in the ranks of the communist left, and the ICC in particular, often accompanying quite severe organisational crises.

This is not the place to analyse the origins of these crises. We can say that crises in political organisations of the proletariat are an inevitable part of their lives, as a glance at the history of the Bolshevik party or the Italian and German left will quickly confirm. Revolutionary organisations are part of the working class, and this is a class that is constantly subjected to the immense pressure of the dominant ideology. The “vanguard” cannot escape this pressure and is obliged to engage in a permanent combat against it. Organisational crises generally occur at the point where a part or whole of the organisation is confronted with – or succumbing to - a particularly acute dose of the dominant ideology. Very often these convulsions are initiated or exacerbated by the necessity to confront new situations or by wider crises in society.

The crises in the ICC have nearly always been centred around questions of organisation and political behaviour. But it is also noticeable that virtually all of the most important splits in our ranks have called into question our view of the historic epoch as well.  

The GCI: is progress a bourgeois myth?

In 1987, in International Review n° 48, we began the publication of a new series entitled “Understanding the decadence of capitalism”. This was in response to a growing body of evidence that elements in or around the revolutionary movement were having second thoughts about the concept of decadence. The first three articles in the series[2] were a response to the positions of the Groupe Communiste Internationaliste, which had originated as the result of a split with the ICC at the end of the 70s. At least some of the elements who initially formed the GCI had seen themselves as continuators of the work of the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left, opposing what they saw as the councilist deviations of the ICC.  But following further splits within the GCI itself the group evolved towards what the IR articles described as “anarcho-punk Bordigism”: a strange combination of concepts drawn from Bordigism, such as the “invariance” of marxism, and a regression towards the voluntarist outlook of a Bakunin. Both these elements led the GCI to vehemently oppose the idea that capitalism had been through an ascendant and a decadent phase, principally in the article “’Theories of decadence or decadence of theory?”  Le Communiste n° 23, 1985.

The IR articles refuted a number of the charges levelled by the GCI. It attacked the GCI’s gross sectarianism which threw proletarian groups who argue that capitalism is decadent into the same sack as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Moonies and neo-nazis; they exposed their ignorant claim that the concept of decadence arose after the defeat of the 1917-23 revolutionary wave when “certain products of the victory of the counter-revolution began to theorise a ‘long period’ of stagnation and ‘decline”; above all they show that what underlies the GCI’s “anti-decadentism” is an abandonment of the materialist analysis of history in favour of  anarchist idealism.

What the GCI really rejects in the concept of decadence is the notion that capitalism was once an ascendant system, was still capable of playing a progressive role for humanity: in fact, the GCI, rejects the very notion of historical progress. For them, this is mere ideology, justifying capitalism’s “civilising” mission: “The bourgeoisie presents all the modes of production which preceded it as ‘barbarous’ and ‘savage’ and, as historical evolution moves on, they become progressively ‘civilised’. The capitalist mode of production, of course, is the final and highest incarnation of Civilisation and Progress. The evolutionist vision thus corresponds to the ‘capitalist social being’, and it’s not for nothing that this vision has been applied to all the sciences (ie all the partial interpretations of reality from the bourgeois point of view): the science of nature (Darwin), demography (Malthus), Logical history, philosophy (Hegel)...”[3]

But because the bourgeoisie has a certain vision of progress, where everything culminates in the rule of capital, it does not follow that all concepts of progress are false: this is precisely why Marx did not reject the discoveries of Darwin but saw them – correctly interpreted, using a dialectical rather than a linear vision  - as an additional argument in favour of his view of history.

Neither does the marxist view of historical progress mean that its adherents line themselves up with the ruling class, as the GCI claims: “The decadentists are thus pro-slavery up till a certain date, pro-feudal up till another until 1914! Thus, because of their cult of progress, they are at every step opposed to the class war waged by the exploited, opposed to the communist movements which had the misfortune of breaking out in the ‘wrong’ period…”[4] The 19th century marxist movement, while generally recognising that capitalism had not yet created the conditions of the communist revolution, still saw its role as intransigently defending the class interests of the proletariat within bourgeois society, and “retrospectively” it saw the absolutely vital importance of the revolts of the exploited in previous class societies, even while recognising that these revolts could not have resulted in a communist society.

This superficial radicalism of the GCI is frequently found among those who openly espouse anarchism, and indeed has sometimes provided them with a more “sophisticated” and semi-marxist justification for holding on to their old prejudices. While the latter might acknowledge certain of Marx’s theoretical contributions (critique of political economy, concept of alienation etc), they simply can’t abide his actual political practice, which meant building workers’ parties that participated in parliament, developing the trade unions and even in some cases supporting bourgeois national movements. All these practices (with the possible exception of developing the trade unions) were bourgeois (or authoritarian) then and they are bourgeois (or authoritarian) now.

In fact, however, this blanket rejection of a whole section of the past workers’ movement is no guarantee for a genuinely radical position today. As the second article in the series concludes: “for marxists the forms of the proletarian struggle depend on the objective conditions in which it is taking place and not on the abstract principles of eternal revolt. Only by basing yourself on an objective analysis of the balance of class forces, seen within its historical dynamic, can you judge the validity of a strategy or form of struggle. Without this materialist basis, any position you take up on the means of the proletarian struggle is built on sand; it opens the door to disorientation as soon as the superficial forms of eternal revolt – violence, anti-legalism – appear on the scene”. As proof it cites the GCI’s flirtation with the Shining Path in Peru – an ideological stance it has repeated in its more recent pronouncements on the jihadi violence in Iraq.[5]

 IP:  the charge of “productivism”

The series we published in the 80s also contained a response to another group that had emerged from a split in the ICC in 1985: the External Fraction of the ICC, which published the review Internationalist Perspective. The EFICC, falsely claiming that it had been expelled from the ICC and devoting a large part of its early polemics to proving the ICC’s degeneration and even its Stalinism, had begun life with the declared intention of defending the ICC’s platform from the ICC itself – hence the name of the group. However, before long, it began to question more and more of the ICC’s basic political framework, and central to this was our approach to the problem of decadence. The name “EFICC” was eventually dropped and the group adopted the title of its publication. Unlike the GCI, however, IP has never declared that it rejects the very notions of the ascendancy and decadence of capitalism: its stated aim was to deepen and clarify these concepts. This is certainly a laudable project in itself. The problem for us is that its theoretical innovations add little that is genuinely deep and serve mainly to dilute the basic analysis.

On the one hand, IP began more and more to develop a “parallel” periodisation of capitalism, based on what it defined as the transition from the formal domination to the real domination of capital, which in IP’s version more or less corresponds to the same historical time frame as the “traditional” shift into the period of decline in the first part of the 20th century. In IP’s view, the increasing global penetration of the law of value into all areas of social and economic life constitutes the real domination of capital, and it is this which provides us with a key to understanding the class lines which the ICC previously based on the notion of decadence: the bankruptcy of trade union work, of parliamentarism and support for national liberation, and so on.

It is certainly true that the actual emergence of capitalism as a world economy, its effective “domination” of the globe, corresponds to the opening of the period of decadence; and that, as IP also point out, this period has indeed seen the increasing penetration of the law of value into virtually every corner of human activity. But as we argued in our article in IR 60,[6] IP’s definition of the transition from formal to real domination takes a concept elaborated by Marx and stretches it beyond the specific meaning he gave to it. For Marx the transition in question was rooted in the change from the period of manufacturing – where artisan labour was grouped together by individual capitalists, without really altering the old methods of production – to the factory system proper, based on the collective labourer. In essence this change had already taken place in Marx’s day, even when capitalism only “dominated” a small part of the planet: its future expansion was to be based directly on the “real domination” of the process of production. Our article thus found more consistency in the Bordigists of Communisme ou Civilisation who argued that communism had been possible since 1848 because for them this marked the actual transition to real domination.

But there was another prong to IP’s questioning of the concept of decadence it had inherited from the ICC: the charge of “productivism”: In one of the earliest salvos, Macintosh claimed that all the groups of the communist left from Bilan to existing groups like the ICC and IBRP suffered from this malady: they were  "hopelessly, and inextricably entangled with the productivism that is capital's Trojan horse within the camp of Marxism. This productivism makes the development of technology and the productive forces the very standard of historical and social progress; within its theoretical purview, as long as a mode of production assures technological development it must be judged to be historically progressive”.[7] The ICC’s pamphlet The Decadence of Capitalism[8] came in for particular criticism. Rejecting Trotsky’s idea, expressed in the 1938 programmatic document The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, that mankind’s productive forces had actually ceased to grow, our pamphlet defined decadence as a period in which the relations of production act as a fetter on the development of the productive forces but not an absolute barrier, and conducted a thought experiment to show how much capitalism might have developed had it not been held back by its in-built limitations. 

Macintosh honed in on this passage and countered it with various figures which for him indicated such fearsome rates of growth in the epoch of decadence that any notion of decadence as a slackening of the development of the productive forces would have to be replaced by a notion which saw that it was precisely the growth of the system which was so profoundly anti-human – as witness, for example, the deepening ecological crisis.

Articles written by other members of IP continued in the same vein, for example, “For a non-productivist understanding of decadence” by E.R. in IP 44.[9] However, there had already been a rather penetrating reply to Macintosh’s text by M Lazare in IP 29.[10] Leaving aside its occasional caricature of the ICC’s alleged caricatures, this article shows quite well how Macintosh’s critique of productivism was still somewhat caught in a productivist logic.[11] First, it challenged Macintosh’s use of figures, which purport to show us that capitalism had grown by a factor of 30 in the 80 years since 1900. ML pointed out that this figure looks much less impressive when it is broken down to an annual rate, giving us average growth of 4.36% per year. But, more importantly, he argues that if we are talking quantitatively, then despite the impressive growth rates that capital in decline has been capable of displaying, when we look at the gigantic waste of productive forces entailed by bureaucracy, arms, war, advertising, finance, a host of useless “services” and recurring or quasi-permanent economic crisis, the “actual” expansion of real productive activity would have been far, far greater. In this sense the notion of capital as a fetter which holds back but does not totally block the development of the forces of production, even in capitalist terms, remains essentially valid. As Marx put it, capital is the living contradiction, and “the real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself.”[12]

However, and again quite rightly, ML does not leave the argument there. The question of the “quality” of the development of the productive forces in decadence is posed immediately you bring factors like waste and war into the equation. Contrary to certain of ML’s insinuations, the ICC view of decadence has never been purely quantitative, but has always focused on the social and human “cost” of the prolonged survival of the system. Above all, there is nothing in our view of decadence which excludes the idea, also brought in by ML, that we need to have a much deeper concept of what the development of productive forces actually means. Productive forces are not inherently capital, a delusion fostered both by the primitivists who see technological development itself as the source of all our woes, and the Stalinists who measured the progress towards communism in tons of cement and steel. At root, mankind’s “productive forces” are his powers of creation, and the movement towards communism can only be measured by the degree to which humanity’s creative capacities have been liberated. The accumulation of capital  -“production for production’s sake” - was once a step towards this, but once it has laid down the prerequisites of a world communist society, it ceases to play any further progressive role. In this sense, far from being ruled by a productivist vision, the Italian communist left were among the first to criticise it openly, since they rejected Trotsky’s hymns to the miracles of socialist production in Stalin’s USSR, and insisted that the interests of the working class (even in a “proletarian state”) were necessarily antagonistic to the demands of accumulation (ML also notes this, contrary to Macintosh’s accusations against the left communist tradition)

For Marx, and for us, capital’s “progressive mission” can be gauged by the degree to which it contributes towards freeing man’s creative powers in a society where the measure of wealth is no longer labour time but free time. Capitalism constituted an unavoidable step towards this horizon, but its decadence is signalled precisely by the fact that this potential can now only be realised by abolishing the laws of capital.

It is crucial to envisage this problem in its full historical dimension, one that embraces the future as well as the past. Capital’s attempts to maintain accumulation in the straitjacket imposed by its global limitations creates a situation where not only is humanity’s potential being held back – its very survival is under threat as contradictions in the capitalist social relation express themselves more and more violently, pushing society towards ruin. This is surely what Marx hints at in the Grundrisse when he talks about development as decay.[13]

A current illustration: China, whose dizzying rates of growth have so besotted many of the former stalwarts of decadence theory. Has Chinese capital developed the productive forces? In its own terms, yes, but what is the global and historic context in which this is taking place? It’s certainly true that the expansion of Chinese capital has increased the size of the global industrial proletariat, but this has come about through a vast process of de-industrialisation in west, which has meant the loss of many key sectors of the working class in the original countries of capital, along with a great deal of their traditions of struggle. At the same time, the ecological costs of the Chinese “miracle” are gigantic. The raw materials needed for Chinese industrial growth result in the accelerated pillaging of the world’s resources and the resulting production brings with it a grave increase in global pollution. At the economic level, China is entirely dependent on the consumer markets of the west. Both with regard to the internal market, and to exports, the longer-term prospects of the Chinese economy are not at all positive, just like those of Europe and the US. The only difference is that China is beginning from a higher point of departure.[14] But its advantages, or at least some of them, could be lost if it in turn falls victim to a series of bankruptcies.[15] Sooner or later China can only become part of the recessionary dynamic of the world economy.

 Marx, in the late 19th century, saw reasons to hope that capitalist development would not be necessary in Russia because he could see that on a world scale the conditions for communism were already coming together. How much truer is this today?   

Hesitations in the IBRP?

In 2003-4 we began a new series on decadence – in response to a number of new assaults on the concept, but in particular to alarming signs that the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party (now the Internationalist Communist Tendency), which had in general based its political positions on a notion of decadence, was also being influenced by the prevailing “anti-decadentist” pressures.

In a statement “Comments on the latest crisis in the ICC” dated February 2002 and published in Internationalist Communist Review n°21, the concept of decadence is criticised as being “as universal as it is confusing […] alien to the critique of political economy [] foreign to the method and the arsenal of the critique of political economy”. We are also asked “What role then does the concept of decadence play in terms of the militant critique of political economy, i.e. for a deeper analysis of the characteristics and dynamic of capitalism in the period in which we live? None. To the extent that the word itself never appears in the three volumes constituting Capital.[16]

A contribution published in Italian in Prometeo n°8, Series VI (December 2003), and in English in Revolutionary Perspectives n°32, third series, summer 2004,[17] “For a definition of the concept of decadence”, contained a whole series of worrying assertions.

The theory of decadence is apparently seen as leading to a fatalist notion of the trajectory of capitalism and the role of revolutionaries:  “The ambiguity lies in the fact that decadence, or the progressive decline of the capitalist mode of production, proceeds from a kind of ineluctable process of self-destruction whose causes are traceable to the essential aspect of its own being [...] the disappearance and destruction of the capitalist economic form is an historically given event, economically ineluctable and socially predetermined. This, as well as being an infantile and idealistic approach, ends up by having negative repercussions politically, creating the hypothesis that, to see the death of capitalism, it is sufficient to sit on the banks of the river, or, at most, in crisis situations (and only then), it is enough to create the subjective instruments of the class struggle as the last impulse to a process which is otherwise irreversible.” 

 Decadence no longer seems to result in the alternative between socialism and barbarism, since capitalism is endlessly capable of renewing itself: “The contradictory aspect of capitalist production, the crises which are derived from this, the repetition of the process of accumulation which is momentarily interrupted but which receives new blood through the destruction of excess capital and means of production, do not automatically lead to its destruction. Either the subjective factor intervenes, which has in the class struggle its material fulcrum and in the crises its economically determinant premise, or the economic system reproduces itself, posing, once more and at a higher level, all of its contradictions, without creating in this way the conditions for its own self-destruction

As in the 2002 statement, the new article argued that the concept of decadence has little to do with a serious critique of political economy: it could only be considered useful if we can “prove” it economically, by examining the tendencies in the rate of profit: “Nor is the evolutionary theory valid, according to which capitalism is historically characterised by a progressive phase and a decadent one, if no coherent economic explanation is given (...) The investigation of decadence either individuates these mechanisms which regulate the deceleration of the valorisation process of capital, with all the consequences which that brings with it, or it remains within a false perspective, which prophesises in vain (...) But the listing of these economic and social phenomena, once they have been identified and described, cannot, by itself, be considered as a demonstration of the decadent phase of capitalism. These are only the symptoms, and the primary cause which brings them into existence is to be identified in the law of the profit crisis.” 

The two International Review articles written in reply[18] showed that while the Internationalist Communist Party  - Battaglia Comunista, the TCI’s section in Italy, from whom this contribution originated – had always been somewhat inconsistent in its adherence to the notion of decadence, this marked a real regression to the “Bordigist” view which had been one of the elements leading to the 1952 split in the Internationalist Communist Party. Bordiga – whose position was strongly opposed by Damen, as we saw in a previous article in this series[19] -  had claimed that the “theory of the descending curve” was fatalist, while also denying any objective limits to the growth of capital. As for the idea of economically “proving” decadence, the recognition that 1914 opened up a qualitative new phase in the life of capital had been affirmed by marxists like Lenin, Luxemburg and the communist left above all on the basis of social, political and military factors – like any good physician, they had diagnosed the disease from its most evident symptoms, above all world war and world revolution.[20]

We are unclear about how this discussion has been pursued within the ICT following the publication of this article by Battaglia[21]. The fact remains however that both the articles we have mentioned here are a reflection of a more general flight away from the coherence of the Italian left, an expression of this trend within one of the most solid groups of this tradition.

The regression from decadence theory from elements in the communist left may be seen by some as a liberation from a rigid dogmatism and an opening towards theoretical enrichment. But while we are the last to deny the need to elucidate and deepen the whole question of capitalism’s ascent and decline,[22] it seems to us that what we are facing in the main here is a retreat from the clarity of the marxist tradition and a concession to the enormous weight of bourgeois ideology, which is necessarily predicated on faith in the eternal, self-rejuvenating nature of this social order. 

Aufheben: It is capital that is “objectivist”, not marxism

As we said at the beginning of this article, this problem – the incapacity to grasp capitalism as a transient form of social organisation which has already proved its obsolescence – is particularly prevalent in the new generation of politicised minorities, who are strongly influenced by anarchism. But anarchism as such has little to offer at the theoretical level, above all when it comes to the critique of political economy, and is usually obliged to borrow from marxism if wants to give the appearance of real depth. To some extent, this has been the role of the Aufheben group in the libertarian communist milieu in Britain and internationally, much of which has eagerly awaited the yearly production of the Aufheben magazine to provide it with weighty analyses of the questions of the hour written from the standpoint of “autonomist marxism”. In particular, the series on decadence[23] has been seen by many as the definitive refutation of this concept of capitalist decline, seen as a heritage of the mechanical marxism of the Second International, an “objectivist” view of the dynamic of capitalism which totally underestimates the subjective dimension of the class struggle.

 “For the left Social-democrats it is seen as essential to insist capitalism is in decay - is approaching its collapse. The meaning of 'marxism' is being inscribed as accepting that capitalism is bankrupt and thus that revolutionary action is necessary. Thus they do engage in revolutionary action, but as we have seen, because the focus is on the objective contradictions of the system with revolutionary subjective action a reaction to it, they do not relate to the true necessary prerequisite of the end of capitalism – the concrete development of the revolutionary subject. It seemed to the more revolutionary members of the movement such as Lenin and Luxemburg that a revolutionary position was a position of belief in breakdown while the theory of breakdown had in fact worked to allow a reformist position at the start of the Second International. The point was that the theory of capitalist decline as a theory of capitalism's collapse from its own objective contradictions involves an essentially contemplative stance before the objectivity of capitalism, while the real requirement for revolution is the breaking of that contemplative attitude.[24]

Aufheben considers that both the Trotskyists and left communists of today are the heirs of this (left) social democratic tradition: “Our criticism is that their theory contemplates the development of capitalism, the practical consequences of which being the fact that the trots move after anything that moves in order to recruit for the final showdown while the left communists stand aloof waiting for the pure example of revolutionary action by the workers. Behind this apparent opposition in ways of relating to struggle, they share a conception of capitalism's collapse, which means that they do not learn from the real movement. Although there is a tendency to slip into pronouncements that socialism is inevitable, in general for the decadence theorists it is that socialism will not come inevitably - we should not all go off to the pub - but capitalism will breakdown. This theory can then accompany the Leninist building of an organisation in the present or else, as with Mattick, it may await that moment of collapse when it becomes possible to create a proper revolutionary organisation. The theory of decay and the Crisis is upheld and understood by the party, the proletariat must put itself behind its banner. That is to say 'we understand History, follow our banner'. The theory of decline fits comfortably with the Leninist theory of consciousness, which of course took much from Kautsky who ended his commentary on the Erfurt Program with the prediction that the middle classes would stream ‘into the Socialist Party and hand in hand with the irresistibly advancing proletariat, follow its banner to victory and triumph’.

As can be seen from this claim that the theory of decadence leads logically to a “Leninist” theory of class consciousness, Aufheben’s general outlook has been influenced by Socialisme ou Barbarie (whose abandonment of the marxist theory of crisis in the 1960s was examined in a previous article in this series[25]) and in particular by Italian autonomism.[26] Both these currents shared a criticism of an “objectivist” reading of Marx, where a focus on the remorseless working out of the economic laws of capital minimises the impact of the class struggle on the organisation of capitalist society and fails to grasp the importance of the subjective experience of the working class in the face of its exploitation. At the same time Aufheben were aware that Marx’s theory of alienation is founded precisely on the subjectivity of the proletariat and criticised Cardan (S ou B’s main theoretician) for erecting a criticism of Marx which failed to take into account this key element of his thought: “S or B's 'fundamental contradiction' does not grasp the full radicality of Marx's critique of alienation. In other words they presented as an innovation what was actually an impoverishment of Marx's critique. [27]

The autonomists also went beyond Cardan’s superficial idea that Marx had written “a monumental work (Capital) from which the class struggle is virtually absent.[28] Harry Cleaver’s book Reading Capital Politically, published in 1979, which explicitly identifies itself with the tradition of “autonomist marxism”, demonstrates very well that in Marx’s approach, capital is defined as a social relation and as such necessarily includes the proletariat’s resistance to exploitation, which in turn modifies capital’s way of organising itself. This was evident, for example, in the struggle for the reduction of the working day and the switch to the extraction of relative surplus value rather than absolute surplus value (during the 19th century), and the system’s growing need for state planning to deal with the proletarian danger (in the 20th century).

This is a valid corrective to a mechanistic “Kautskyite” view which did indeed develop during the period of the Second International, according to which the inexorable laws of capitalist economy will more or less guarantee that power will fall “like a ripe fruit” into the hands of a well-organised social democratic party. Furthermore, as Cleaver also points out, this approach, which really does underestimate the subjective development of class consciousness, is not avoided by a kind of ultra-Leninism which interposes the party as the only true element of subjectivity, as in Trotsky’s famous dictum that “the crisis of humanity is reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership.[29] The party is indeed a subjective factor, but its capacity to grow and influence the class movement depends on a much wider development of proletarian combat and consciousness.

It’s also true that the bourgeoisie is obliged to reckon with the struggle of the working class in its attempts to manage society - not only at the economic level but also at the political and military level. And the ICC’s analyses of the world situation have certainly taken this into account. Several examples can be given: when we interpret the choice of political teams to run the “democratic” state, we always define the class struggle as a central element. This is why during the 1980s we talked about the bourgeoisie’s preference for keeping left parties in opposition to better deal with proletarian reactions to austerity measures. By the same token, the strategy of privatisation not only has an economic function dictated by the abstract laws of the economy (generalising the sanction of the market to every stage of the labour process), but also a social function aimed at fragmenting the proletariat’s response to attacks on its living standards, which are no longer seen as emanating directly from a single boss, the capitalist state. On the more historical plane, we have always maintained that the weight of the class struggle, whether overt or potential, plays a crucial role in determining the “historic course” towards war or revolution. We cite these examples to show that there is no logical link between holding a theory of capitalist decline and denying the factor of class subjectivity in determining the general dynamic of capitalist society.

But the autonomists lost the plot altogether when they concluded that the economic crisis which broke to the surface at the end of the 1960s was itself was a product of the class struggle.  Even if workers’ struggles can at certain moments deepen the bourgeoisie’s economic difficulties and block its “solutions”, we also know only too well that the economic crisis can reach catastrophic proportions in phases when the class struggle is in profound retreat. The Depression of the 1930s provides us with the clearest evidence of this. The view that workers’ struggles provoked the economic crisis had a certain plausibility in the 70s when both phenomena appeared at the same time, but Aufheben themselves are able to see its limitations in the section in the series on decadence which deals with the autonomists: “The class struggle theory of crisis lost its way somewhat in the '80s, for while in the seventies the breaking of capital's objective laws was plain, with capital's partial success the emergent subject was knocked back. It appears that during the '80s we have seen the objective laws of capital given free reign to run amok through our lives. A theory which connected the manifestations of crisis to the concrete behaviours of the class found little offensive struggle to connect to and yet crisis remained. The theory had become less appropriate to the conditions”[30].

So what is left of the equation between decadence theory and “objectivism”? Earlier on we mentioned that Aufheben correctly criticised Cardan for ignoring the real implications of Marx’s theory of alienation. Unfortunately, they commit the same error when they amalgamate the theory of capitalist decline with the “objectivist” vision of capital as nothing more than a machine regulated by its clockwork, inhuman laws. But for marxism, capital is not something hovering above humanity like God; or rather, like God, it is engendered by human activity. But this is an alienated activity, which means that it takes on a life independent of its creators – in the end, both of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, since both are driven by the abstract laws of the market towards an abyss of economic and social disaster.  This objectivism of capital is precisely what the proletarian revolution aims to abolish, not by humanising these laws but replacing them with the conscious subordination of production to human need.

In World Revolution n°168 (October 93)[31] we published an initial response to Aufheben’s articles on decadence. The central argument in the article is that, in attacking the theory of decadence, Aufheben are rejecting Marx’s entire approach to history. In particular, by raising the charge of “objectivism”, they ignore the critical breakthrough made by marxism in rejecting both vulgar materialist and idealist methodologies, and thus in overcoming the dichotomy between the objective and the subjective, between freedom and necessity.[32]

Interestingly, not only did Aufheben’s original articles on decadence recognise the inadequacy of the autonomists’ explanation of the crisis: in a highly critical introduction to the series that accompanies the online version of the series on,[33] they admit that they had failed to grasp precisely this relationship between the objective and the subjective factors in a number of marxist thinkers (including Rosa Luxemburg, who certainly defended the notion of capitalist decline) and accepted that our criticisms of them on this key point had been quite valid. Indeed, they realised after the publication of the third article that the whole series had gone off the rails and for this reason had been abandoned. This self-critique is not particularly well known, while the original series continues to be referenced as a final smack down for decadence theory.

Such self-examination can only be welcome, but we are not convinced that its results have been especially positive. The most obvious indication being that, precisely at a time where the economic impasse facing this system seems more and more obvious, the most recent editions of Aufheben show that the group has been engaging in a mountain of labour to produce a very disappointing molehill: for them, the “debt crisis” which broke out in 2007 is not in the least an expression of an underlying problem in the accumulation process but arises essentially from the errors of the financial sector. What’s more it could quite easily lead to a new and extended “upswing” like the one that supposedly preceded it in the 90s and 2000s.[34] We have not got the space to go further into this article here, but this is beginning to look like anti-decadentism reaching the final phase of its decline.  

A very provisional conclusion

We will end this particular polemic here, but the debate about this whole issue will certainly continue. It has been made increasingly urgent by the fact that for more and more people, above all in the younger generation, are becoming aware that capitalism really does have no future, that the crisis is indeed terminal. This is more and more the question to be debated in the class battles and social revolts that the crisis is provoking all over the globe. It is more than ever vital to provide a clear theoretical framework for understanding the historic nature of the impasse facing the capitalist system, of insisting that this is a mode of production that is out of control and is heading towards self-destruction, and thus of pointing out the impossibility of all reformist solutions aimed at making capital more human or democratic. In short, of demonstrating that the alternative of socialism or barbarism, proclaimed loudly and clearly by revolutionaries in 1914, is more relevant today than ever. Such a call is anything but a plea for passive acceptance of the way society is going. On the contrary it is a demand for the proletariat to act, to become increasingly conscious and to open up the road to a communist future which is possible, necessary, but anything but guaranteed. 

Gerrard 5/12


[3]. Ibid.

[4].  Ibid.

[7]. Internationalist Perspective n° 28, autumn 1995

[11]. Macintosh was not the first or last of our former members to be so dazzled by capitalism’s growth rates that they began questioning or abandoning the concept of capitalist decadence. Towards the end of the 90s, in the wake of a serious crisis centred once again on the question of organisation, a number of former members of the ICC constituted the Paris Discussion Circle, among them RV, who wrote the Decadence of Capitalism and the articles responding to the GCI’s critique of “decadentism”. Although the question of decadence had never been a focus of the debates around the internal crisis, the Circle very quickly published a major text rejecting the concept of decadence altogether – its essential argument focusing on the considerable development of the productive forces since 1914 and above all since 1945 (  



[12]. Capital Volume 3, chapter 15 part II.

[13]. On this last point, see our article “The study of Capital and the Grundrisse of communism” from the series Communism is not just a nice idea but a material necessity

[14]. The IMF estimates that “the Chinese economy could see its growth cut in half if the crisis of the eurozone gets worse” (Les Echos.

[15]. To maintain growth rates in spite of the world economy slowing down, China has been betting on its internal market, through local administrations running up mounting debts. But here again there is no miracle in sight. You can’t get into endless debt without creating the risk of bankruptcy, and this certainly applies to the Chinese commercial banks: “to avoid a cascade of defaults on payment (the latter) have put off into the future a large part of the debts of local bodies, or are in the process of doing so” (Les Echos)

[20]. The IR 120 article also exposes the hypocritical claims of a group of elements who really had been excluded from the ICC for their unacceptable behaviour: the “Internal Fraction of the ICC”, who published a fawning article about Battaglia’s contribution. Having attacked the ICC for abandoning the concept of decadence via the theory of decomposition (which has no meaning outside of a concept of decadence) the political project of this “Fraction”– to attack the ICC while flattering the IBRP -  was revealed very clearly in this article.

[21]. It seems that the article from Prometeo 8 was a discussion document and not a statement of position by the IBRP or one of its affiliated groups, which made the title of our response (“Battaglia Comunista abandons the marxist concept of decadence”) somewhat inappropriate

[22]. For example: the debate on the economic basis of the post-war boom (see, and articles in subsequent issues) and the recognition that decadence has a history, leading to the concept of decomposition as the final stage of capitalist decline.

[23]. “Decadence: The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory?, which began with issue n° 2, summer 1993.

[26]. “The rise and fall of Autonomia Operaia”, IR 16:

[28]. Cardan, Modern capitalism and revolution. From the chapter “Political implications of the “classical” theory”.

[29] The Death Agony of Capitalism. See the article in this series in IR 146: “Decadence of Capitalism: For revolutionaries, the Great Depression confirms the obsolescence of capitalism”

[32] . See also the article in this series in International Review n° 141” The theory of capitalist decline and the struggle against revisionism”, which contains a criticism of Aufheben’s notion that decadence theory begins in the Second International.

[33]. In this introduction, Aufheben make it clear that at the beginning of the group, the ICC’s writings had been an important reference point. However, they argue that our dogmatic and sectarian approach to them (for example at a meeting in London about the future of the European Union) convinced them that it was not possible to discuss with us. It is true that the ICC had a sectarian approach to Aufheben to some extent, and this was also reflected in our 1993 article, for example at the end when we say to the group that it would be better if it was to disappear.

[34]. The concluding paragraphs of the article, published in 2011, read: there seems little to suggest we have entered a long downswing, or that capitalism is now mired in stagnation other than the financial crisis itself. Indeed the rapid recovery in profits, and the confidence of much of the bourgeoisie in the long-term prospects of renewed capital accumulation, would seem to suggest otherwise. But if global capitalism is still in the middle of a long upswing, with historically high rates of profits, how are we to explain the unforeseen financial crisis of 2007-08?

“As we have long argued, against the ‘stagnationist’ orthodoxy, ‘upswing’  theory has been correct in grasping that the restructuring of the global accumulation of capital that has occurred in the past decade, particularly the integration into the world economy of China and Asia, has led to the restoration of profit rates and, as a consequence, a sustained economic upswing. But as we now recognise, the problem is that the upswing theory has failed to adequately grasp the importance of the emergence of global banking and finance, and the role this has played in bringing about this restructuring.

“Thus, in order to overcome the limitations of both the ‘stagnationist’ and ‘upswinger’ theories of the crisis it was necessary to examine the relation between the emergence and development of global banking and finance and the global restructuring of real capital accumulation that has occurred over the past thirty years. On the basis of this examination we have been able to conclude that the financial crisis of 2007-8 was caused neither by an accident due to misguided policy, nor a crisis in the financial system that simply reflected an underlying crisis of stagnation of the real accumulation of capital. But instead, the underlying cause of the financial crisis was an oversupply of loanable money-capital within the global banking and financial system that has arisen since the late 1990s. This in turn has been the result of developments in the real accumulation of capital - such as the rise of China, the take off of the ‘new economy’ and the continued liquidation of the ‘old economy’ - that have been central to sustaining the long upturn.

Hence, we might tentatively conclude that the nature and significance of the financial crisis is not that of a decisive turning point leading to an economic downturn or the end of neoliberalism as many have supposed, but more of a point of inflection pointing to a new phase in the long upturn.  The significance of this new phase and the implications it has for the future development of global capitalism and the struggle against it is a question that we have no space to take up here. Aufheben no. 19