Part 5: Understanding the Decadence of Capitalism

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Understanding the Decadence of Capitalism, Part 5

In the fifth article in this series (see International Review Nos. 48, 49 & 50 and 54), we are returning to the critique or rejection of the notion of decadence by a series of groups in the proletarian political milieu (the Internationalist Communist Party (Programma, Bordigist) or ICP, the Groupe Communiste Internationaliste (GCI), A Contre Courant (a recent split from the GCI), Communisme ou Civilisation (CoC), and in part the External Fraction of the ICC (EFICC) [1]. We will demonstrate that these critiques in reality hide a rejection of the marxist conception of historical evolution which is the foundation of the necessity of communism, and so weaken the necessary historical dimension in the proletariat’s coming to consciousness, or else in cases like the GCI end up presenting the revolution as the old utopia of the anarchists.


“The decadentist vision corresponds not to the proletarian, but to the bourgeois evolutionist viewpoint” (Le Communiste, (LC) no. 23). The GCI does not stop at throwing out the very idea of a decadence of the capitalist mode of production (see our previous articles [2]), it generalises its refusal to the whole of human history. This group thus departs from the analysis of Marx, for whom each mode of production goes through a phase where the new relations of production act as a spur on the development of the productive forces, and a phase where these relationships are a hindrance to their growth: “At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or – what is but a legal expression for the same thing – with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution.” (Marx, Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, in Selected Works).

The better to reject any idea of a decadent phase, the GCI also rejects its corollary: the very existence of an ascendant phase. In the name of the defence of the exploited classes, the GCI takes up the moralistic vision of the anarchists who, arguing from the development of exploitation, throughout history, refuse to recognise the progressive role of the development of the productive forces: “For those of us who take as a starting point the vision of the whole historic arc from primitive communism to integral communism, it is on the contrary a question of seeing how the forced march of progress and civilisation has each time meant more exploitation, the production of surplus labour, in fact the real affirmation of barbarism by the increasingly totalitarian domination of value” (LC no. 23). Like Proudhon, the GCI sees in misery only misery, without seeing its revolutionary side. Considering, with Marx the succession of the “Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production... as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society” (Preface...), demonstrating the progressive role of past exploiting classes, comes down in the end to defending the latter against the exploited classes.... And so Marx becomes the worst of counter-revolutionaries, emphasizing as he does throughout the Communist Manifesto the role of the bourgeoisie in its ascendant phase: “The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.... It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic Cathedrals... The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together” (Communist Manifesto in Selected Works).


It will do the GCI no good to cover itself with Bordiga’s authority to hide its evolution towards anarchism: “The marxist vision [of historical development, ed.] can be represented as so many branches, or curves all rising to summits which are followed by a violent and sudden, almost vertical collapse; when they have reached the bottom, a new social regime appears, a new rising historical branch” (Bordiga, “Proceedings of the Rome meeting, 1951”; published in Invariance no. 4). This is a rotten branch for several reasons, as we will demonstrate.

Bordiga wrote this text against those within the PCInt who still defended the gains of the International Communist Left. The birth of the Bordigist current in 1951 corresponded to the elimination within the PCInt of the remnants of the political positions defended by the Italian Fraction of the ICL from 1926 to 1945 [3]. All the Fraction’s analyses and political positions revolved around the understanding that capitalism had entered its decadent phase since 1914: “Today, in the extreme phase of capitalist decadence, there is no longer any territory left for the bourgeois mode of production to conquer, since it has reached its final stage and the backward countries can only be industrialised by the proletariat in struggle for communist society (...) The progressive accumulation of capitalist surplus value takes this contrast (between paid and stolen labour) to its extreme when the productive forces, overflowing the framework of bourgeois production, come up against the historic limits of the field of distribution and realisation of capitalist products”. (Extracts from the Manifesto and Resolution on the constitution of an International Bureau by the Fractions of the International Communist Left, in Octobre no. 1, February 1938) [4].

As for the GCI’s other references, they speak for themselves: “La Gauche Internationaliste”, a modernist group that emerged from the decomposition of maoism, since disappeared, and “Socialisme ou Barbarie”, a group which never really managed to break with Trotskyism and which throughout its life fought against those who kept up the work of the Italian Fraction: the Gauche Communiste de France” [5].


Bordiga breaks on three levels with the conceptions of marxism, as we intend to demonstrate on the basis of examples taken from historical reality itself. This reality is a violent disavowal of the viewpoint developed by Bordiga, but it fully confirms the theses of Marx.

The necessity of a period of transition

No society in the past has disappeared following a “sudden and violent collapse”. The graph No.1 showing the evolution of world population (see below) is a masterly confirmation, on the one hand of the succession of different modes of production (primitive, Asiatic, antique, feudal and capitalist), on the other of the slow movement of each mode of production’s ascendance and decadence, and finally of the long transition between them. We are far removed here from Bordiga’s “branches, or curves all rising of summits which are followed by a violent and sudden, almost vertical collapse” [6].


Graph 1


SOURCE: Essai sur l’evolution du nombre des hommes,  JN Biraben, in Population no. 1, 1979. This graph is the most recent and most coherent reconstitution of the evolution of the world population. We have inserted subdivisions in this curve to distinguish clearly the different phases of each mode of production. Given the low level of development of their productive forces, past societies’ demographic evolution was closely linked to the fluctuations in agriculture, which was their major productive activity. Changes in population are thus a good indicator of major economic tendencies and fluctuations in the development of the productive forces. For the societies that preceded feudalism, we can see a direct link between agricultural production and population movement. In the decadence of feudalism, however, the population curve, after falling, then continued to grow. This is due to the rise of capitalism (16th Century), which by increasing the productivity of labour broke this link. In fact, if we consider strictly feudal production in isolation, we note stagnation from the 14th to the 18th Century.


Recent reconstitutions of economic history provide us with precious indications that confirm this overall evolution:

FEUDALISM. After a transition lasting seven centuries (from 300 to 1000 AD), during which the new feudal class and its new relations of production (serfdom) took root, the ascendant phase developed from 1000 AD to the 14th Century. “...Towards the end of the first millennium, the forces of production differed very little from those of antiquity (...) From the 10th to the 13th Century the development of every branch of society was fed by the agricultural revolution (...) a new farming system whose productive capacity was the double of the old (...) This is why cereal production grew in relation to demographic growth until the 14th Century (...)” At this time, feudalism enters into decadence until the 18th Century. “Conversely, agricultural and demographic growth came to a halt at the end of the 13th Century (...) We therefore suppose that already by the end of the 13th Century, medieval agriculture had reached a technical level in general equivalent to that of the early 18th” (quotes from: Agnes Geshard, La Societe Medievale and Guy Antonetti, L’Economie Feodale). Within this decadence, from the 16th Century on, began the transition to capitalism.

ANTIQUITY. The case of antiquity is too well known for us to linger on it; everyone has heard of the decadence of Rome at least once in his life. The growing needs of the empire, demographic pressure and the management of an increasingly large territorial area forced Rome to go beyond the limits allowed by its relations of production. Private ownership of land and the low productivity of slavery obliged Rome to pillage grain to feed itself, and to import slaves to work the land. At a certain stage of its expansion, Rome could no longer feed itself: conquests were increasingly far a field and difficult to keep hold of, and slaves became expensive (a slave’s price increased tenfold between 50 and 150 AD). To overcome slavery’s low productivity required other, more productive relations of production. But these could only come about through a social revolution, by the old ruling class linked to the old productive relations losing power. This is why, on top of the blockage of the economy, the ruling class blocked the development of the productive forces in order to preserve its political dominance. In the absence of technological innovation (i.e. an increase in the productivity of labour), agriculture was subjected to the law of falling output, famine developed, the birth-rate fell, the population declined; Rome was in its decadence. The graph (no.2) below is interesting in that it illustrates clearly the way in which the relations of production held back the development of the productive forces: we can see that the decline in scientific discovery precedes the drop in population.

Graph 2

SOURCE : Julian Simon, The effects of population on nutrition and economic well-being,  in Hunger and History.

This graph shows, on the one hand the evolution of the population (in millions of inhabitants, 2nd scale on the left), on the other its growth rate (in percentages, 1st scale on the left), and finally the number of scientific discoveries (scale on the right).

ASIATIC SOCIETY. An analogous phenomenon develops within societies dominated by Asiatic relations of production [7]. Most of them disappeared between 1000 and 500 BC (see population curve). Their decadence appears in the incessant wars between kingdoms trying to compensate through pillage for internal blockages of production, constant peasant revolts and the gigantic development of unproductive state expenditure. Political blockages and rivalries within the ruling caste exhausted society’s resources in endless conflicts, and the limits of the empires’ geographical expansion reveals that the maximum development compatible with the relations of production had been reached.

PRIMITIVE SOCIETIES. Similarly, class society could only emerge from the decadence of primitive society, as Marx said: “The history of the decadence of primitive societies (...) has still to be written. Up to now we have had nothing but meagre sketches (...). Secondly, the causes of their decadence spring from economic facts that prevented them going beyond a certain degree of development (...) When reading the history of primitive societies as written by the bourgeois, one must be on one’s guard” (Letter to Vera Zassoulitch). “During the Palaeolithic period which preceded the Neolithic, population growth extremely slow (0.01% to 0.03% per year); nonetheless, this enabled the population to reach a figure of between 9 and 15 million (about 8000 BC).  These figures are certainly very low, but in the context of a hunter-gatherer society, they had reached a level where continued population growth would be impossible WITHOUT A RADICAL MODIFICATION OF THE ECONOMY (...) According to Hussan’s estimations (1981), the optimum world population in a society based on hunting and gathering would be about 8.6 millions” (P. Bairoch, De Jericho a Mexico).

Conditions for the emergence of a new revolutionary class and new social productive relations.

Decreeing, as Bordiga does, the non-existence of a phase of decadence in a society means that the passage to a new mode of production becomes impossible. Its necessity is a painful childbirth in the face of the blockage of the old mode of production. Why would men suddenly want to produce differently, if the society in which they were living were still ascendant and productive? Why, to satisfy what needs – let’s stay materialist after all – should part of society develop new more productive relations of production if the old ones are still performing? “, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself” (Marx, Preface..., op. cit.).

The power of the dominant class and its attachment to its privileges are powerful factors in preserving a social form. A class’ power is at its greatest at the apogee of its mode of production, and only a long decadence can erode its power and call into question the legitimacy of its domination. When a social class has exhausted its historic role, this does not appear overnight within the social consciousness, and even if it did the old ruling class would not simply leave the way free for the new. It will defend its power by arms and repression right to the end. The old mode of production will only be abandoned after decades of famine, epidemics, war and anarchy: 700 years for slavery, 400 for feudalism. All the social relationships under which men have lived for centuries are not superseded overnight. Only such events can get the better of centuries-old customs, ideas and traditions. Collective consciousness always lags behind the objective reality in which it lives.

A new mode of production can only emerge if a new class exists as the bearer of the new more productive social relations of production, and only a period of decadence can create the conditions for its development. Moreover, and at the same time, the exploited class’ discontent must also ripen over a long period of time. Only decades of famine and humiliation will push the exploited to revolt alongside the new ruling class against the old.

The development of new, more productive, social relations of production is a long process, on the one hand because men never abandon a tool until it has proved itself worthless, and the other because they are born into a hostile environment, subjected to the matrix and the repression of the old mode of production.

The castes of societies belonging to the Asiatic mode of production could only develop out of the disintegration of primitive communism’s ‘egalitarian’ social relations of production.

The class of great slave-holding landowners was born in the decadence of the Asiatic mode of production: concretely, in Rome, out of the combat between the new force constituted by the landowners who appropriated the land as private property, and the princely caste of Etruscan royal society which still lived from tribute extorted from groups of village societies whose production was still dominated by communal relationships inherited from post-neolithic society.

Feudalism was born from the decadence of Rome. The new social relations of production – Serfdom – began to take root on the empire’s edges. The Roman masters freed their slaves; the latter could then cultivate a piece of land and possess their own means of production, in return for a fraction of their harvest.

The bourgeoisie was born out of the decadence of feudalism, as Marx said: “...the means of production and exchange which served as a basis for the formation of the bourgeoisie were created in feudal society [we are a long way, here, from Bordiga’s abrupt, vertical collapse at the bottom of which a new social regime appears]. Modern bourgeois society... has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society (...) They [i.e. world trade and colonial markets] gave... to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development. The feudal system of no longer sufficed for the growing wants of the new markets (...) At a certain stage in the development of these means of production and 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 property 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” (Communist Manifesto) “...the capitalist era only dates from the 16th Century. Wherever it blossomed, the abolition of serfdom was already a long-established fact, and that glory of the Middle Ages, the sovereign town, was already in decadence (...) Capital’s modern history dates from the creation of trade and the markets of the old world and the new in the 16th century” (Marx, Capital). The rule of the sovereign towns lies in feudalism’s full ascendancy (11th to 14th centuries). Capitalism is born within the decadence of feudalism (14th to 18th centuries), at the moment of the 16th century’s great discoveries.

It took two centuries of Roman decadence for the new relations of production to emerge in primitive form at the periphery of the empire, and another four to six centuries for them to emerge and become generalised. It took two centuries of feudal decadence for capitalism to emerge, and another three centuries before it became generalised. We are thus an equally long way from the GCI’s principal, devoid of any theoretical or historical foundation, which in order to deny capitalism’s ascendant phase, postulates the idea that capitalism from birth is “directly and invariably universal (...) Thus capital itself poses all its presuppositions, it is itself auto-presupposition of its world domination, as soon as it appears as a mode of production it poses en bloc and world wide its universal character...” (LC, no. 23).  In this way, the GCI eliminates with a stroke of the pen the existence of extra-capitalist markets. Since it postulates the “full and complete existence of the world market as a presupposition of the appearance of the capitalist mode of production (...), exchange between capitalist and extra-capitalist production is meaningless...”.

The decades taken by the bourgeoisie to develop, and to extricate itself from the too narrow social relationships of feudalism are simply rubbed off the page of history; as indeed are pages where Marx describes the long and difficult process of capital’s primitive accumulation: “Modern industry has established the world market (...) This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry [where in Marx are we to find the “presupposition of the world market?] (...) We see therefore how the modern bourgeoisie is itself the product of a long course of development, of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and exchange”  (Communist Manifesto).

How can we take seriously a “group” which invents and rewrites history according to its own whims?

The consciousness of the political necessity of the destruction of capitalism can only spring from its historic crisis, not from a mere crisis of growth or restructuring. The proletariat will only be able to understand and take the full measure of the enormity of its task when it confronts today’s alternative: socialism or barbarism, the communist revolution or generalising imperialist war from which humanity will never recover. To deny decadence is to diminish communism’s necessity, and to weaken the histories dimension in the proletariat’s coming to consciousness. If capitalism were developing  “ least twice as fast as in its ascendant phase” as the GCI claims [8], then the revolution would be still less possible today than it was yesterday; it would become a far-off anarchist utopia. This is what the GCI is proposing to the working class today.


Our critics like to mix us up with Trotskyism. “Such a conception [i.e. decadence] could perhaps be explained in the inter-war period, when capitalist production did indeed stagnate. This was the period when Trotsky could declare at the beginning of the Transitional Programme that ‘humanity’s productive forces have ceased to grow. New inventions and new technical progress do not lead to an increase in material wealth’. This was also the epoch when certain left currents (the Gauche Communiste) based an analysis of the decadence of the capitalist mode of production on Luxemburgist theses, considering that surplus-value had ceased to increase” (CoC no. 22). “For the Trotskyist decadentists, the productive forces have stopped growing, since 1914 as far as capitalism is concerned (...) the conception of decadence is closely linked to that of the degeneration of the working class nature of the USSR, so dear both to Stalinists and Trotskyists” (LC no. 23).

From Marx to the 3rd International, the problematic of decadence has become a central question within the marxist current. With the degeneration of the 1917-23 revolutionary wave, and of its political organisations, there began a long night of 50 years for the workers’ movement, which led Victor Serge to say that it was “midnight in the century”. Since then, the contributions on this question have been concentrated in the left groups that emerged in the combat against the degeneration of the 3rd International, and which included the International Left Opposition led by Trotsky until 1939 [9]. These groups certainly had difficulties with a lot of questions. We are not Bordigists to consider old texts as untouchable tables of law. Nonetheless, and despite some mistakes, these groups did have the merit of developing revolutionary theory within a marxist framework, which is more than can be said for our critics who reject this framework merely after glancing at post-1945 growth rates. The former have left us a fertile framework of understanding, even with its imperfections; the latter would take us into a dead-end, or into anarchism.

But since they will use anything they can lay their hands on, the GCI and CoC wrongly attribute to us the conception developed by the trotskyist “4th International”. However, if we take a closer look, it is CoC and the GCI who merely produce pale copies of the positions of Mandel & Co. Certain trotskyists have long since abandoned the sentence pronounced by Trotsky in the Transitional Programme, to go back to that of Lenin for whom “On the whole, capitalism is developing infinitely faster than before”. For Mandel, “ is not therefore the decline of the productive forces, but an exacerbated parasitism and increased waste accompanying growth, and taking control of it (...). The most damaging form of waste inherent in capitalism’s senility is henceforth the misuse of the productive forces;” the system’s rottenness is demonstrated by “...the pitiful results compared with the possibilities of the third technological revolution and automation (...). Measured in relation to these possibilities, the waste of potential and real productive forces has grown immeasurably. In this sense, - but only on the basis of this kind of definition – Lenin’s description of imperialism as ‘the capitalist mode of production’s phase of generalised decay’ remains justified”.  For Mandel, capitalism has three phases: “...the capitalism of free competition from Waterloo to Sedan, the epoch of classical capitalism up to the inter-war period, and the senility of capitalism today”, and, so he tells us, “in absolute value, the productive forces have grown more rapidly during the epoch of capitalism’s senility than previously”.  This is fine company that the GCI and CoC are keeping. Further on, Mandel explicitly reinterprets Marx’s definition of the decadence of a mode of production in the Preface: “It is all the more obvious that Marx is not referring here to the fall of capitalism, but to the fall of all class society. He would certainly not have had the idea of characterising the period preceding the victory of modern history’s bourgeois revolutions (the Netherlands in the 16th, the English in the 17th, and the American and the great French revolutions in the 18th centuries) as a phase of stagnation or even diminution of the productive forces” (Le troisieme age du capitalism).

What are we get out of this inextricable mess? A pure and simple negation of the marxist conception of historical evolution. The decline of a mode of production is no longer the result of a blockage of the productive forces by the relations of production, i.e. of the gap between potential and real growth, but, says Mandel, is defined as the difference between what is technically possible under a socialist mode of production and actual growth, between an economy of automation and abundance and today’s growth, which is “infinitely faster than before”, but oh!, so “wasteful” and “misused”. Defining capitalism’s rottenness by demonstrating the superiority of socialism demonstrates nothing at all, and certainly does not answer the question of why, when and how, a society enters into decline. But Mandel gets around this question, by denying decadence, like our critics. Thus he claims that the period from the 16th to the 18th century is not one of decadence of the feudal mode of production and of transition to capitalism, but of full-blown growth, which allows him to attribute to Marx a conception that is the contrary to everything he ever wrote on the subject. Mandel adds together two opposite dynamics, in a period where two different modes of production are intertwined: the decline of feudalism from the 14th to the 18th centuries, bringing in its wake famines, epidemics, wars and agricultural crisis, and the transition to capitalism which is bringing a new dynamic to production (the merchant and artisan classes...).

Graph 3


Source: WW Rostow, The world economy, history and prospect, University of Texas Press, 1978.

This graph shows the growth of World Industrial Production (WIP) from 1820 to 1983 (continuous line with the index at certain key points shown under the little triangles). The indices are on a logarithmic scale, which allows us to appreciate the growth rates on the more or less steep slopes of the curve. The graph illustrates capitalism’s overall dynamic during its two historic phases. In its ascendancy, growth is continuous with minor fluctuations. Its rhythm is a cycle of crisis / prosperity / lesser crisis / heightened prosperity, etc. In decadence, apart from the overall brake put on the growth of the productive forces by capitalist social relations of production (which produces a differential between potential growth (dotted line: index 2401) and real growth (index 1440)), there are intense and unprecedented fluctuations: two World Wars and the severe slowdown of the last 15 years, or even stagnation during a little under ten years. If we deduct unproductive expenditure from real production, then the braking effect on growth reaches and even exceeds 50% World trade (small crosses) has never undergone such severe contradictions (stagnation from 1913 to 1948, violent restriction during recent years: a zero growth rate is expressed on the graph by a horizontal line), illustrating the constant problem, in decadence, of the lack of solvent markets. The strong growth of world trade between 1948 and 1971 is artificially swollen by taking account of internal trade within multinational companies. This statistical bias represents almost a third (33%) of world trade.

The graph no. 3 above illustrates what we have just been saying (for a detailed commentary, see the previous article in IR no. 54), and demonstrates what should be understood by the decadence of the capitalist mode of production: not collapse or stagnation, as in previous modes of production, but a hindrance of the development of the productive forces by capitalist social relations of production. This is illustrated by the infernal spiral of crisis / war / reconstruction ten-fold crisis / still more violent war drugged reconstruction / etc, into which capitalism is plunging.


[1] For the groups’ references, see the previous article in IR no. 54.

[2] Idem.

[3] The elements who continued, as well as they could, to defend the positions of the Fraction split to create the Internationalist Communist Party (Battaglia Communista), which still exists today. See our pamphlet The Italian Communist Left.

[4] Why the devil does the GCI still dare to trace its origins back to the Italian Fraction? It was they, more than any other group, which developed the analysis of decadence. Why do they not describe the International Communist Left as adepts of Moon or Jehovah’s Witnesses, since the idea of decadence constitutes the backbone of all their political positions as set out in their programmatic texts?

[5] See our pamphlet The Italian Communist Left.

[6] This following graph no. 3 was drawn up from a reconstitution of the evolution of population in 12 regions of the world (China, the Indian sub-continent, South West Asia, Japan, the rest of Asia, Europe, the USSR, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, North America, Central and Southern America, Australasia). All follow, with small differentials in time, the same evolution as overall world figures (a statistical test has been used to measure the significance of the differences between these evolutions, and confirms this parallelism in the evolution of the population in these different regions). We have not the space here to develop all the implications of these figures; it is a point we will come back to later.

[7] These societies (megalithic and Egyptian from 4000 to 500 BC) are the end point of the process of neolithisation, i.e. society’s division into classes. A dominant caste was able to emerge by laying hold of the surplus created by the increase in production. The latter was still in the form of a multitude of village communities producing under communal relations of production. Slavery existed to satisfy the needs of the dominant caste (servants, public works...), but not yet in agricultural production.

[8] This assertion has already been refuted at length in our previous article.

[9] “Has capitalism run its course or not? Is it still able to develop the productive forces in the world and make humanity progress? This question is fundamental. It is of decisive importance for the proletariat (...). If capitalism were to show itself still capable of fulfilling a progressive mission, of enriching peoples and making their labour more productive, this would mean that we, the Communist Party of the USSR, have been too hasty is singing its De Profundis; in other words, that we have taken power to try to bring about socialism too early. For, as Marx explained, no social regime disappears before having exhausted all its latent possibilities (...). But the war of 1914 was not an accident. It was the blind uprising of the forces of production against the forms of capitalism, including the national state. The forces of production created by capitalism could no longer be contained in the framework of capitalism’s social forms” (Trotsky, Europe and America, 1924).