Part 1: The rise and decadence of capitalism

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Understanding the Decadence of Capitalism, Part 1

The increasingly apocalyptic character of social life all over the planet is neither a natural inevitability nor the product of so-called ‘human folly’, nor is it a characteristic of capitalism since its beginnings. It is an expression of the decadence of the capitalist mode of production which, having been from the 16th century to the beginning of the 20th century a powerful factor in economic and social development, has transformed itself – by becoming locked up in its own contradictions – into a more and more powerful barrier to the continuation of this development.

Through this polemic with a group, the GCI[1], which claims to be marxist but which violently rejects the idea of ‘decadence’, we are aiming to reaffirm the foundation of the analysis of the decadence of capitalism and its burning relevance in the mid-1980s, when the world proletariat is once again raising its head and preparing to engage in decisive battles for its emancipation.

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Why is humanity in the process of posing the question of whether it’s about to destroy itself in a growing barbarism, at a time when it has reached a level in the development of the productive forces which would allow it to move towards the realisation of a society without material scarcity, a unified society capable of modelling its life in accordance with its needs, its consciousness, its desires, for the first time in history?

Thus the proletariat, the world working class, constitute the revolutionary force capable of taking humanity out of the impasse in which capitalism has trapped it? And why can the forms of the proletarian struggle in our epoch no longer be those of the last century (trade unionism, parliamentarism, struggle for reforms, etc)? It’s impossible to keep one’s bearings in the present historic situation, let alone play a guiding, vanguard role in workers’ struggles, without having a global, coherent vision which enables one to respond to these elementary but crucial questions.

Marxism – historical materialism – is the only conception of the world that makes this possible. Its clear and simple response can be summarised in a few words : like the other modes of production which preceded it (primitive communism, oriental despotism, slavery, feudalism), capitalism is not an eternal system.

The appearance of capitalism, then its domination of the world, were the product of a whole evolution of humanity and of the development of the productive forces: as Marx put it, the hand mill corresponded to slavery, the water mill to feudalism, the steam-mill to capitalism. But at a certain degree in their development,  the capitalist relations of production were in their turn transformed into an obstacle to the development of the productive forces. From that point, humanity has been the prisoner of a totality of social relations which have become obsolete, unsuitable, condemned to a growing ‘barbarism’ in all areas of social life. The succession of crises, world wars, reconstructions, crises over the past 80 years is the clearest manifestation of this. This is the decadence of capitalism. From this point on the only way out is the utter destruction of these social relationships through a revolution which only the proletariat can lead, because it is the only class which is really antagonistic to capital; a revolution which can result in a communist society because capitalism has, for the first time in history, created the material means to realise it.

As long as capitalism played a historically progressive role in the development of the productive forces, proletarian struggles could not result in a victorious worldwide revolution, but they could, through trade unionism and parliamentarism, obtain real reforms and lasting improvements in the living conditions of the exploited class. At the point where the capitalist system entered into its decadent phase, the world communist revolution became a necessity and a possibility, and this completely changed the proletariat’s forms of combat, even on the level of the struggle for immediate demands, (the mass strike).

Since the days of the Communist International, founded on the crest of the international revolutionary wave which put an end to the first world war, this analysis of capitalism’s entry into its decadent phase has become the common patrimony of the communist currents which, thanks to this ‘historical compass’, have managed to remain on a coherent and intransigent class terrain. The ICC has merely taken up and developed this patrimony as transmitted and enriched by the work of the German Left, the Italian Left (Bilan) in the ‘30s, then by the Gauche Communiste de France (Internationalisme) in the ‘40s.[2]

Today, at a time when, under the pressure of an unprecedented economic crisis which, for more than 15 years, has been accelerating the manifestations of decadence and exacerbating class antagonisms, the world proletariat has returned to the path of struggle, is confronting a thousand difficulties and a thousand weapons of the ruling class, but with an international simultaneity never before seen – at such a time, it is crucial that revolutionary organisations are equal to their tasks.

Because we are heading towards decisive struggles, it is more than ever indispensable that the proletariat reappropriates its own conception of the world, as elaborated over nearly two centuries of workers’ struggles and of theoretical elaboration by political organisations.

More than ever, it is indispensable that the proletariat understands that the present acceleration of barbarism, the uninterrupted exacerbation of exploitation, are not ‘naturally’ pre-destined, but are the consequences of the capitalist economic and social laws which still rule over the world even though they have been historically obsolete since the beginning of the century.

More than ever, it is indispensable that the working class understands that the forms of struggle it learned last century (the struggle for reforms, support for the constitution of big nation states – poles of accumulation for a developing capitalism), while they had a meaning when the bourgeoisie was still developing historically and could tolerate the existence of an organised proletariat within society, can in decadent capitalism only lead it into an impasse.

More than ever, it is crucial that the proletariat understands that the communist revolution is not a dream, a utopia, but a necessity and a possibility which has its scientific foundations in the understanding of the decadence of the dominant mode of production, a decadence which is accelerating in front of its eyes.

“There can be no revolutionary movement without revolutionary theory” as Lenin said. This idea has to be reaffirmed all the more today when the ruling class no longer defends itself on the ideological level through elaborating new theories with a minimum of consistency, but through a sort of ‘nihilism’ of consciousness, the rejection of any theory as ‘ideological fanaticism’. Taking advantage of the exploited class’ justifiable distrust towards the theories of the ‘left’ which, from social democracy to Stalinism, have been used for decades as instruments of the counter-revolution; incapable of finding any future to offer in a decomposing social reality, the ruling class has nothing to offer except ‘ostrich politics’: not to think, resignation, fatalism.

When the bourgeoisie was a historically revolutionary class it gave rise to men like Hegel who opened doors essential to understanding the evolution of humanity; when it stabilised its power in the second half of the 19th century, it regressed to positivist conceptions like those of Auguste Compte. Today, it no longer even produces philosophers who lay any claim to an understanding of history. The dominant ideology is nothingness, the negation of consciousness.

But just as this negation of consciousness is the expression of decadence which in turn becomes an instrument for the defence of the ruling class, so for the revolutionary class a consciousness of its historic being is a vital instrument for its struggle.

THE ‘ANTI-DECADENTISTS’

What pre-occupies is here is that this tendency towards the nihilism of consciousness also manifests itself in proletarian political groups... often, paradoxically, in the ones with theoretical pretensions.

Thus, at the end of 1985, the GCI published in no. 23 of its organ Le Communiste an article whose content is illustrated perfectly by the second part of its title: ‘Theories of Decadence; Decadence of Theory’. This text, written in a pretentious language with a marxist ring, citing Marx and Engels left and right, claims to destroy what it call the ‘decadentist theories”, whose defenders it ranges alongside “all the reactionary Jakals moaning about the ‘decadence of the west’ from the Jehovah’s Witnesses to the ‘New Philosophers’, and from the Europeo-Centrist Neo-Nazis to the Moonies.”

This text achieves the feat of concentrating in 15 pages the main incomprehensions which you find in the history of the workers’ movement concerning the historic evolution of capitalism and the objective bases for the emergence of a communist society. The result is a soup which is as pedantic as it is uncooked, and which mixes together all the themes that Marx fought so hard against – those of Utopian socialism, of anarchism... and, in modern times, the Bordigist theory from the ‘50s about the ‘invariance of marxism and the continuous development of capitalism since 1848!

Our aim here will be to expose the main aberrations in this document, not so much for the GCI in itself, whose involution towards incoherence is of strictly limited interest, but because its defence of certain class positions, its radical language and its theoretical pretensions can sow illusions among new elements looking for something coherent – among others, those who come out of anarchism[3].

This will enable us to reaffirm some basic elements in the marxist analysis of the evolution of societies, and thus to show what is meant by the decadence of capitalism.

IS THERE SUCH A THING AS HISTORICAL EVOLUTION? WAS THERE AN ASCENDANT PHASE OF CAPITALISM?

The GCI is not modest. Like Duhring who claimed to be transforming science, the GCI transforms marxism. It wants to be marxist, but only on the condition that it can reject into the camp of the “reactionary jackals” all those who since the 2nd International have enriched marxism by analysing the causes and the evolution of the decadence of capitalism... and, as we shall see, by ignoring or totally altering the work of Marx himself.

The great discover of the GCI, the one which puts the Bolsheviks, the Spartacists, the German Left in the KAPD, the Italian Left in Bilan at the same level as the Moonies – since all of them shared and elaborated the analysis of the decadence of capitalism – the GCI’s great truth amounts to this: there is no decadence of capitalism because there never was an ascendant ‘progressive’ phase of capitalism. There is no barbarism of decadence because capitalism has always been barbaric.

Well, well: and what about the pre-marxist socialists and their anarchist descendants, who never understood the point of spending one’s time reflecting on the laws of historical evolution, since it was enough to ‘rebel’, and communism had always been on the historical agenda : was it not these currents who said exactly the same thing against marxism?

But let’s take a closer look at the GCI’s main arguments:

“Nearly all the groups who today claim to defend the communist perspective adhere to the decadentist vision, not only of the capitalist mode of production but of the whole succession of class societies (the cycle of value), and this thanks to numerous ‘theories’ going from the ‘saturation of the markets’ to ‘Imperialism Highest Stage of Capitalism’, from the ‘third age of capitalism’ to ‘real domination’, from the ‘halt in the development of the productive forces’ to the ‘falling rate of profit’...What interests us here initially is the common content of all these theories: the moralising and civilising vision they involve,” (‘Theories of Decadence: Decadence No less of Theory’, Le Communiste 23, November 1985).

In what way does saying that capitalist relations of production became at a given moment a barrier to the development of the productive forces express a “moralising and civilising conception,”? Because this implies that there was a time when this wasn’t the case and when these relations constituted a progression, a step forward in history. In other words, that there was an ‘ascendant’ phase of capitalism. Now, for the GCI, this progress was merely the reinforcement of exploitation.

“We have to see how the forced march of progress and civilisation has always meant more exploitation, the production of surplus labour (and for capitalism alone the transformation of this surplus labour into surplus value; in other words, the real affirmation of barbarism through the increasingly totalitarian domination of value,” (ibid: the GCI uses the term ‘barbarism’ here without knowing what it means we’ll return to this). That capitalism has always been a system of exploitation – the most complete and pitiless of all – is neither false nor new, but to leave things here is to join up with the idealist vision – ‘moral’ in the true sense – according to which only those things which immediately advance ‘social justice’ count as progress in history. It certainly does not explain why affirming that the emergence of this mode of exploitation marked a historical progression is proof of a ‘moralising and civilising vision’. The GCI then explains that:

“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)...” (ibid).

At the beginning of its text, in large letters, the GCI has this ambitious sub-heading: “First contribution: methodology.” The morsel we’ve just cited is only a taste of what it offers us in this domain.

“The bourgeoisie,” the GCI says, “presents the capitalist mode of production as the final and highest incarnation of Civilisation and Progress.” There it concludes that “the evolutionist vision corresponds to the ‘capitalist social being’.”

This is well below the most stupid syllogism. With a ‘methodology’ like this, why not think that the ‘fixist’ theories (‘nothing new under the sun’) correspond to the ‘social being of the proletariat’? The bourgeoisie said that the world moves and that history evolves. The GCI deduced that because it’s the bourgeoisie which said this, it must be false: thus, the world does not evolve. However aberrant this may seem, this is what the GCI’s ‘method’ leads to, as we shall see later on with regard to its vision of ‘invariance’.

Marxism obviously rejects the idea that capitalism represents the culmination of human evolution. But it does not at all reject the idea that human history has followed an evolution which can be rationally explained and whose laws can be discovered. In their day Marx and Engels recognised the scientific merit of Darwin and always laid claim to the rational kernel of the Hegelian dialectic (Malthus, whom the GCI throws in here, has nothing to do with this). They were able to see in these efforts to define an evolution, a dynamic vision of history, the expression of the bourgeois struggle to defend its power against feudal reaction, with all the advances and limitations involved in this. This is how Engels talks about Darwin in Anti-Duhring:

“In this connection Darwin must be named before all others. He dealt the metaphysical conception of nature the heaviest blow by his proof that all organic beings, plants, animals and man himself, are the products of a process of evolution going on through millions of years,” (Chapter 1)

And about Hegel:

“From this point of view the history of mankind no longer appeared as a wild whirl of senseless deeds of violence, all equally condemnable at the judgement of mature philosophic reason and which are best forgotten as quickly as possible, but as the process of evolution of man himself,” (ibid).

What marxism rejects in Hegel’s vision is its still idealist character (history as no more than the realisation of the Idea of history), its bourgeois limitations (the capitalist state as the incarnation of Reason), and quite clearly not the idea that there is a historical evolution which goes through necessary stages. On the contrary, Marx had the merit of discovering the guiding thread to the evolution of human societies and of founding the necessity for communism on this basis:

“In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production...

“In broad outline we can designate the Asiatic, the ancient, the feudal, and the modern bourgeois modes of production as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society. The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production... With this social formation, therefore, the prehistory of human society comes to an end.” (Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy).

HAS COMMUNISM ALWAYS BEEN ON THE AGENDA OF HISTORY?

In its ‘anti-decadentist’ delirium, the GCI considers that those who today defend the analysis of the decadence of capitalism only talk about the decline of capitalism in our epoch in order to be ‘pro-capitalist’ ... a century ago! 

“The decadentists are thus pro-slavery up till a certain date, pro-feudal up till another ...pro-capitalist 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,” (ibid).

With a great air of radicalism, the GCI does no more than revive the idealist vision which holds that communism has been on the agenda at any moment.

We won’t enter here into the question of the specificities of the proletarian combat during the ascendant phase of capitalism, but why is it that the Communist Manifesto says :

“In the beginning... the proletarians do not yet combat their own enemies, but the enemies of their enemies – the residues of absolute monarchy, the great landowners, the non-industrial bourgeoisie, the petty-bourgeoisie."

Why and how did workers’ struggles in the phase that followed take on the objective of the conquest of reforms and the “wider and wider union of the workers”? Why were trade unionism, mass parties, social democracy at the end of the 19th century proletarian instruments...? In another article, devoted specifically to the question of the proletarian nature of social democracy, we will examine all these forms of struggle which the GCI is incapable of understanding and rejects as bourgeois a century afterwards.

For the moment, what’s most important, what has to be understood first, is the marxist conception of history and the conditions for the communist revolution.

Marx, the marxists, have never restricted themselves to saying that capitalism is a system of exploitation which had to be destroyed and which never should have existed, since communism is possible at any moment. It was on this question that marxism constituted a break with ‘utopian’ or ‘sentimental’ socialism; it was on this question that the break took place between marxism and anarchism. The question was also the object of the debate between Marx and Weitling in 1846 which resulted in the constitution of the first marxist political organisation: the Communist League. For Weitling: “either humanity is, necessarily, always, ripe for the revolution or it will never be,” (cited by Nicolaievski, Marx : Man and Fighter,  chapter X).

It was this same problem that was at the basis of the divergence between Marx/Engels and the Willich/Schapper tendency inside the Communist League in 1850. As Marx put it:

“For the critical conception, the minority substitutes a dogmatic conception, for the materialist conception, it substitutes on idealist conception. Instead of real conditions, it considers mere will to be the motor of the revolution,” (Proceedings of the session of the central committee, 15 Sept 1850, cited in Nicolaievski, chapter XV).

What the GCI is rejecting is the conception of historical materialism, of scientific socialism. This is how Engels in Anti-Duhring dealt with a fundamental aspect of the conditions for communism:

“The separation of society into an exploiting and an exploited class, a ruling and an oppressed class, was the necessary consequence of the deficient and restricted development of production in former times. So long as the total social labour only yields a produce which but slightly exceeds that barely necessary for the existence of all; so long, therefore, as labour engages all or almost all the times of the great majority of the members of society – so long, of necessity, this society is divided into classes.. But if, upon this showing, division into classes has a certain historical justification, it has this only for a given period, only under given social conditions. It was based upon the insufficiency of production. It will be swept away by the complete development of modern productive forces,” (Part III, Chapter 2).

It was in this sense that Marx spoke of the ‘wonders’ accomplished by the bourgeoisie and of  ‘the great civilising influence of capital,’:

“It (the bourgeoisie) has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing the Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades,” Communist Manifesto, Bourgeois and Proletarians’).

“Hence the great civilising influence of capital; its production of a stage of society in comparison to which all earlier ones appear as mere local developments of humanity and as nature-idolatory. For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely matter of utility; ceases to be recognised as a power for itself,”  (Grundrisse, ‘The Chapter on Capital’).

If the GCI was consistent, if it had any concern for theoretical coherence, it wouldn’t hesitate to throw into the bourgeois dustbin not only the communist lefts, Trotsky, Lenin, Luxemburg, and the whole 2nd International, but also old Marx and Engels, for being fierce defenders of what it calls ‘evolutionist’ and ‘civilising’ conceptions.

Then perhaps the RAIA group, which has done its own deepening on the ‘Marx-Bakunin’ question, could make it understand that what it defends is none other than the old, insipid refrain of utopianism and anarchism, garnished – for who knows what reason – with a marxist verbiage.

THE DECADENCE OF CAPITALIST : “A PERIOD OF SOCIAL REVOLUTION”

At what point does the communist revolution become a historical possibility? Marx replies:

“At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production in society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or – what is but a legal expression of the same thing – with the property relations within which they had been at work before. From forces of development of the forces of production, these relations turn into their fetters. Then occurs a period of social revolution,” (Preface to a Contribution...)

Marxism doesn’t say that the communist revolution becomes objectively possible at a given day or hour. It determines the general conditions – at the level of what constitutes the skeleton of society, the economy – that characterise a ‘period’, an historical era in which capitalism confronts its own contradictions in a qualitatively different manner, and transforms itself into a fetter on the development of the productive forces.

The principal manifestations of this new historical situation are located at the economic level (economic crisis, slow-down in the growth of the productive forces). But also at the level of other aspects of social life which, in the last instance, are influenced by society’s economic life. Marx talked about:

“...the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophical – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out,” (ibid).

At several points during the second half of the 19th century Marx and Engels believed that capitalism had reached this point, in particular during the various cyclical economic crises which shook the system during this period. But on each occasion they were able to recognise that this was not al all the case. Thus, in 1850, after the economic and social crisis of 1848 had been left behind, Marx wrote:

“While this general prosperity lasts, enabling the productive forces of bourgeois society to develop to the full extent possible within the bourgeois system, there can be no question of a real revolution. Such a revolution is only possible at a time when two factors come into conflict: the modern productive forces and the bourgeois forms of production... A new revolution is only possible as a result of a new crisis; but it will come, just as surely as the crisis itself,” (The Class Struggle In France).

In reality, until the beginning of the 20th century, the crises of capitalism were still crises of growth which were rapidly surmounted by the system. It was only with the first world war that striking and unequivocal symptoms could be seen of capitalism arriving at a point where its internal contradictions had reached a qualitatively different level.

The revolutionary marxists, the left of the 2nd International – the same ones who for years had fought against the revisionist currents (Berstein) who had theorised the idea that capitalism would no longer go through crises and that we could get to socialism through a gradual and peaceful evolution – recognised without hesitation the appearance of a new historical situation: capitalism’s entry into its period of decline.

The outbreak of the Russian Revolution, then the international revolutionary wave which followed it, confirmed the marxist perspective in no uncertain terms. It’s from this analysis that we claim descent today: an analysis which 70 years marked by two world wars, two phases of reconstruction and two periods of world economic crisis (1929-39, 1967-87), 70 years of unprecedented barbarism across the whole planet, have verified in full.

A SENSELESS CRITICISM

In order to reject this analysis, the GCI begins by attributing to the ‘decadentists’ an absurd idea which it simply makes up and then criticises at great length. Before going on to their arguments about ‘invariance’, let’s first of all deal quickly with this pitiful manoeuvre.

The GCI pretends that the analysis of decadence holds that during the ascendant phase of capitalism, the system didn’t have any contradictions; these contradictions only appear during the decadent phase. It thus replies:

“There are not therefore two phases: one in which the class contradiction (in other words, the contradiction between ‘social productive force and relation of production’) do not exist: a progressive phase in which the ‘new’ mode of production develops its civilising benefits without antagonisms... and a phase in which, after this ‘progressive’ development of its benefits, it becomes obsolescent and begins to decline, only at this point involving the emergence of a class antagonism.”

This is what we wrote on this question in our pamphlet, The Decadence of Capitalism:

“Marx and Engels had the genius to extract from the crises of capitalism’s ascendancy the essence of all crises to come. In so doing, they revealed to future generations the bases of capitalism’s most profound convulsions. They were able to do so because from its beginning a social form carries inside itself the seeds of all the contradictions which will carry it to its death.”

The GCI doesn’t know what it’s talking about.

‘INVARIANCE’

Having rejected, with the analysis of the decadence of capitalism, all the consistent marxist currents for over half a century, but afraid of recognising itself as anarchist, the GCI has gone looking in Bordiga’s theories from the ‘50s for a ‘marxist’ justification for its libertarian ramblings: this is the theory of ‘the invariance of the communist programme since 1848’.

The paradox is only an apparent one. Anarchism, which ignores historical evolution in general, can accommodate itself with the Bordigist view which, under the pretext of ‘invariance’, ignores the fundamental changes which marked the evolution of capitalism since its origins.

However, as aberrant as Bordiga’s theory might be, it does at least have the merit of having a certain coherence with the political positions it supports: Bordigism considers that the forms of struggle of the 19th century, such as trade unionism or support for the constitution of new states, are still valid in our epoch. For the GCI, on the other hand, which rejects these forms of struggle, the theory becomes a source of incoherence. It is thus compelled to place 19th century social democracy in the came of the bourgeoisie, and to invent an anti-trade unionist, anti-parliamentarian, anti-social democratic Marx, a bit like Stalinism reinvented the history of the Russian revolution in accordance with the needs of its immediate policy.

But let’s look a bit closer at Bordiga’s critique of the theory of decadence and his analysis of the evolution of capitalism, behind which the GCI tries to hide its regression towards anarchism. [4] Bordiga, whom the GCI cites in the article in question, wrote as follows:

“The theory of the descending curve compares historical development to a sinusoid: every regime, the bourgeois regime for example, begins with a rising phase, reaches a maximum, begins to decline towards a minimum; after this another regime begins its ascent. This is the vision of gradualist reformism: no convulsions, no leap, no jump. The marxist vision can (in the interests of clarity and conciseness) be represented as a number of branches of curves, all ascending until they reach the top (in geometry: the singular point or cusp), after which there comes a sudden and violent fall and, at the bottom, a new social regime arises; we have another historic ascending branch... The current affirmation that capitalism is in its descending branch can only lead to two errors: one fatalist the other gradualist,” (Rome meeting, 1951). Elsewhere Bordiga wrote:  “For Marx, capitalism grows without stopping, beyond all limits,” (Dialogue with the Dead).

Before replying to these fantastic accusations of ‘gradualism’ and ‘fatalism’. let’s briefly confront Bordiga’s vision with reality.

First, an important remark: Bordiga talks about the ascending or descending ‘curve’ of a regime. Let’s make it clear that when marxists talk about an ‘ascendant’ or decadent’ phase, this isn’t a simple matter of a statistical series measuring production in itself. If you want to look at production as an element for determining whether or not a mode of production is in its decadent phase – ie establishing whether or not the relations of production are a fetter on the development of the productive forces – you first have to know what production you’re talking about: the production of arms or of other unproductive goods and services is not a sign of the development of the productive forces, but on the contrary, of their destruction; secondly, it’s not the level of production in itself which is significant, but its rhythm of development, and this not in the absolute, but obviously in relation to the material possibilities acquired by society.

Having made this clear, we can see that when Bordiga affirms that “the marxist vision” (of which he claims to be the ‘invariable’ defender) “can be represented as a number of branches of curves, all ascending till they reach the top... after which there comes a sudden and violent fall,” he comes up with two falsifications.

It’s false to affirm that this is the marxist vision. Marx expressed himself very clearly on the end of feudalism and the birth of capitalism, in a text that is known well enough: The Communist Manifesto:

“...the means of production and of exchange, on whose foundation the bourgeoisie built itself up, were generated in feudal society. At a certain stage in the development of these means of production and of exchange, the conditions under which feudal society produced and exchanged, the feudal  organisation of agriculture and manufacturing industry, in one word, the feudal relations of prosperity, became no longer compatible with the already developed productive forces; they became so many fetters. They had to be burst asunder; they were burst asunder,” (‘Bourgeois and Proletarians’).

This however was a very different situation from the one which accompanies the end of capitalism, since communism can’t begin to be built within the old society. But in the case of feudalism as in that of capitalism, the overturning of the existing social relations is posed when the latter become a “fetter”, when they hold back economic development instead of taking it forward.

It’s also quite false to affirm that history has unfolded through following a schema of a series of ever-ascending branches. Particularly in the case which interests us most – capitalisms.

You’d have to be blinded or dazzled by the immediatist, deceptive propaganda of the decadent bourgeoisie if you can’t see the difference between capitalism since the first world war and 19th century capitalism, or to say that capitalist relations of production are no more a fetter on the development of the productive forces in the 20th century than they were in the 19th.

Economic crises, wars, the weight of unproductive expenditure – all this existed in the 19th century as well as the 20th, but the difference between the two epochs is so great quantitatively that it becomes ‘qualitative’. (The GCI, which uses the word ‘dialectic’ all over its text, must at least have heard of the transformation of quantity into quality).

The blockage on the development of the productive forces represented by the destruction and waste of material and human resources in two world wars is ‘qualitatively’ different from what took place, for example, in the Crimean War (1853-56) or the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). As for economic crises, those of 1929-39 and 1967-87 are hardly comparable to the cyclical crises of the second half of the 19th century, both in their international extent and their duration (see the article ‘The Proletarian Struggle in Decadent Capitalism’ in IR 23, which deals with this specific question). And regarding the weight of unproductive expenditure, its sterilising effect on production is also qualitatively different from what existed in the 19th century.

- the permanent production of arms, scientific research oriented towards military ends, the upkeep of armies (in 1985, the official government figures registered that on a world scale, more than 1.5 million dollars were being spent on military items every minute!);

- unproductive services (banks, insurance, most of the state administration, advertising, etc.).

* * * * *

The GCI cites a few figures on the growth of production in the 19th and 20th century, which are supposed to demonstrate the opposite. We can’t go into details here (see the pamphlet The Decadence of Capitalism). But a few remarks have to be made.

The GCI’s figures compare production between 1950 and 972 with that between 1870 and 1914. This is a fairly crude mystification. You only have to compare what can be compared for the argument to collapse. If instead of considering the above dates, which exclude 1914-1949 from the phase of decadence (ie two world wars and the crisis of the ‘30s!), you compare the period 1840-1914 with 1914-’83, the difference gets annulled... But what’s more, production in the 19th century was basically the production of means of production and of consumption, whereas in the 20th century it includes an ever-growing proportion of means of destruction or other unproductive elements (today there is an accumulated destructive power equivalent to 4 tonnes of dynamite for every human being; and in the ‘accounting’ done by the state, a state functionary is considered to ‘produce’ the equivalent at his wage). Finally, and above all, the comparison between the production actually realised and what could have been done given the level of technique existing in this period is totally ignored.

But apart from the falsifications contained in the assertion that “for Marx, capitalism grows without stopping, beyond all limits”, Bordiga’s view turns its back on the marxist, materialist foundations of the possibility of revolution. If “capitalism grows without stopping, beyond all limits.” why would hundreds of millions of men one day decide to risk their lives in a civil war to replace one system with another? As Engels said:

“So long as a mode of production still describes on ascending curve of development, it is enthusiastically welcomed even by those who come worst off from its corresponding mode of distribution.” (Anti-Duhring, Part 2, ‘Subject Matter and Method’).

GRADUALISM AND FATALISM

‘Gradualism’ is the theory that claims that social transformation can and must only come about slowly through a series of small changes: “No convulsions, no leap, no jump,” as Bordiga says. The analysis of decadence says that this is “an epoch of wars and revolutions,” (Manifesto of the Communist International).  Unless you call wars and revolutions painless, gentle change, Bordiga and the GCI are just playing with words.

As far as the accusation of ‘fatalism’, it is no more serious than the preceding one.

Marxism doesn’t say that the revolution is inevitable. It does not deny that will is a factor in history, but shows that it is not enough, that it is realised in a material framework produced by a historical evolution which has to be taken into account if it is to be effective. The importance that marxism ascribes to understanding the ‘real conditions’, the ‘objective conditions’ is not the negation of consciousness and will, but on the contrary the only consistent affirmation of these factors. An obvious proof of this is the importance attributed to communist propaganda and agitation.

There is no inevitable evolution of consciousness in the class. The communist revolution is the first revolution in history in which consciousness really plays a determining role, and it is no more inevitable than the evolution of this consciousness.

On the other hand, economic evolution follows objective laws which, as long as humanity lives in material scarcity, imposes itself on men independent of their will.

In the battle waged by the left in the 2nd International against revisionist theories, the question of the inevitable collapse of the capitalist economy was at the centre of the debate as can be gauged by the importance Rosa Luxemburg gave to this question in Reform or Revolution, a work saluted by the whole left, in Germany as well as Russia (Lenin in particular).

Bordiga’s ‘marxist’ religious orthodoxy ignores Marx and Engels, who wrote without any fear that:

“The universality towards which it irresistibly strives encounters barriers in its own nature, which will, at a certain stage of its development, allow it to be recognised as being itself  the greatest barrier to this tendency, and hence will drive towards its own suspension.” (Marx, Grundrisse, ‘The Chapter on Capital’), and again:

“The capitalist mode of production.... through its own evolution, tends towards the point where it renders itself impossible,” (Engels, Anti-Duhring, Part 2, ‘Subject Matter and Method’).

What marxism insists upon is not that the triumph of the communist revolution is inevitable, but that, if the proletariat is not equal to its historic mission, the future is not a capitalism which “grows without stopping, beyond all limits”, as Bordiga claimed, but Barbarism – real barbarism: the kind which has developed ceaselessly since 1914; the kind whose images include Verdun, Hiroshima, Biafra, the Iran-Iraq war, the last twenty years of uninterrupted increase in unemployment in the industrialised countries, and the threat of a nuclear war that would wipe out the human race.

Socialism or barbarism: to understand that this is the alternative for humanity is to understand the decadence of capitalism.


[1] Groupe Communiste Internationaliste: BP 54, BxL 31, 1060 Bruxelles, Belgium.

[2] For a history of the theoretical elaboration of the concept of the decadence of capitalism, see the introduction to the ICC pamphlet, The Decadence of Capitalism.

[3] Thus we’ve seen a small group in Belgium which is breaking with anarchism and which still has to “deepen the Marx-Bakunin question” as it puts it, judging the theory or decadence from the heights of its ignorance and from its admiring reading of the GCI:

“The theory of the decadence of capitalism! But what kind of devil is this theory? In a few words we can call it the most marvellous and fantastic story since the old Testament!

“According to the prophets of the ICC, capitalism’s life-line is divided into two distinct pieces. At the fatal date of August 8, 1914 (sic) (for the exact hour, please direct your enquiries to the bureau of information!), the capitalist system ceased being in its ‘ascendant phase’ and then entered into the terrible mortal convulsions which the ICC baptises the ‘decadent phase of capitalism’! Clearly, we’re in the presence of a real psychosis here!” (RAIA No3, BP 1724, 1000, Bruxelles).

[4] The GCI doesn’t seem to notice the contradiction when, in the next breath, it takes up a formulation of Bordiga’s and affirms that we have to “consider communism as something that’s already happened”!