The decadence of capitalism: introduction to the Russian edition

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We are publishing here the introduction to the Russian edition of the ICC's pamphlet The Decadence of Capitalism, which has recently appeared thanks to the efforts of comrades in the newly emerging proletarian milieu in Russia. Our introduction focuses on the specific contribution of the workers' movement in Russia to our understanding of capitalism's decline. This is particularly apt because we have found that the concept or definition of capitalist decadence has been a major issue in our discussions with the various groups and individuals who make up the Russian milieu.

As we have explained in a number of texts, we consider that the notion that all hitherto existing forms of class society have been through epochs of ascent and decay is absolutely fundamental to the materialist conception of history. As Marx put it in his famous Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, at a given stage of its development, a mode of production enters an epoch of social revolution when its social-economic relations turn from forms of development into fetters on further progress. And we adhere to the conclusion of the Communist International, and the German and Italian Left fractions, that for capitalism the epoch of its "inner disintegration", of imperialist wars and proletarian revolutions, was inaugurated by the outbreak of the first world war in 1914 and fully confirmed by the great international revolutionary wave which arose in opposition to the imperialist war.

It's true that not all the historical currents of the communist left have continued this tradition. Both the Bordigist and councilist offspring of the Italian and German-Dutch lefts respectively have put the concept of decadence into question, both in their own ways arguing that capitalism could still undergo a youthful development in the former colonial regions, or that since the crises of capitalism remain cyclical in nature, there is perhaps a difference in quantity, but not in quality, between the upheavals these crises brought about in the period prior to 1914, and the catastrophes provoked in the ensuing period. We will find that such views appear to have a considerable influence on the new groups in Russia. Nevertheless, we would argue that these positions represent a regression in clarity, and that the groups who most faithfully continue the programmatic advances of the communist left have based their positions on the recognition that capitalism is a system in decay.

The intimate connection between historical materialism and the theory of decadence is also implicitly recognised in the ideological offensive against marxism which capitalism has been mounting since the collapse of the eastern bloc at the end of the 1980s. This offensive has been conducted largely through the campaign about "globalisation". According to this (admittedly vague and ambiguous) idea, capitalism only became a truly global system with the advent of the Reaganite "free trade" policies of the 80s, with the rapid increase in global communication brought about by the triumph of the microchip, and above all with the collapse of the eastern bloc which supposedly removed the last "non-capitalist" regions from the planet's economic topography. Those who adhere to this idea may praise or condemn the effects of globalisation, but at its heart is the belief that capitalism has entered a new epoch, a new kind of ascendancy, which belies the old fashioned marxist theory of capitalism as a system in decline. It is an outlook particularly antagonistic to that tradition within the communist left which draws its analyses from the theories of Luxemburg and Bukharin, who at the time of the first world war were arguing that capitalism was entering its period of decline precisely because it had become a global system, a veritable world economy. It is in equally stark contrast to the ICC's analysis of the period opened up by the collapse of the eastern bloc, which we have characterised not as a new phase of capitalist ascent but as the final and most dangerous phase of its decline -the phase of decomposition, in which the alternative between socialism and barbarism is more and more becoming a daily reality.

Alongside this more general ideological assault, conducted by a host of ideologues from right wing 'neo-liberals' to the more radical-sounding gurus of the "anti-globalisation" protests, the theory of decadence has been under attack from a myriad of groups who claim to be advocates of communism, but who either inhabit the murky swamp between the left wing of capital and the proletarian milieu, or belong to the area of political parasitism. We already noted this phenomenon in the late 80s, prompting us to publish a series of articles under the heading 'Understanding the decadence of capitalism'. Here we responded in particular to the innovations and inventions of parasitic groups such as the Groupe Communiste Internationaliste, Internationalist Perspectives, and others. These were groups who had arisen from splits within the ICC; and although there were other reasons behind the splits, it was noticeable that in the theoretical revisions these groups embarked upon in order to establish their political distance from the ICC, the theory of decadence was one of the first to be ditched - openly in the case of the GCI which adopted a semi-Bordigist method, and more insidiously with Internationalist Perspective, who first began to dilute and confuse the notion of decadence with learned expositions about the transition from the formal to the real domination of capital, and then turned on the heritage of the communist left by accusing its theory of decadence of being essentially mechanistic and "productionist". In the mid-90s, the "Paris Social Circle", also made up of elements who had left the ICC and fallen into parasitism, went in exactly the same direction. Its protagonists had begun by calling into question the ICC's conception of decomposition; it didn't take them very long to conclude that the real theoretical issue wasn't decomposition but decadence. And the latest addition to the parasitic pantheon - the "Internal Fraction of the ICC" - appears to be hurrying along the same road, since it is already openly scornful of the concept of decomposition.

These parasitic groups function as the direct conduit of the bourgeoisie's ideological campaigns into the proletarian milieu. The success of these campaigns can be judged precisely by the number of former communists who have fallen for the propaganda about the bright new prospects for capitalism's growth. But lest it should be thought that the ICC alone has suffered from the pressure of the dominant ideology in this area, consider the case of the IBRP, which has almost uncritically integrated the notion of globalisation into its theoretical framework, while simultaneously downgrading the importance of decadence. In a text published on the IBRP website 'Reflections on the crises in the ICC', there is a similar logic to that of some of the ex-ICC 'thinkers': not only is decomposition a false idea, the concept of decadence doesn't explain that much either: "Let's go back to the founding concept of decadence. Let's stress that it only has a meaning if you are referring to the general state of society; it has no meaning when you are referring to the mode of production's capacity to survive. In other words, we can only talk about decadence if you understand by that a presumed growing inability of capitalism to proceed from one cycle of accumulation to another. We can also consider as a phenomenon of 'decadence' the shortening of the ascending phases of accumulation, but the experience of the last cycle shows that this brevity of the ascending phase doesn't necessarily mean the acceleration of the complete cycle of accumulation/crisis/war/new accumulation. What role then does the concept of decadence play at the level of the militant critique of political economy, i.e. of the profound analysis of the phenomena and dynamics of capitalism in the period we are living through? None. To the point where the word itself never appears in the three volumes which compose Capital".

This passage is somewhat buried in a text which hasn't appeared in any of the IBRP's journals, but it is the clearest expression yet of a definite tendency in the IBRP's thinking over the last few years. We have come a long way indeed from the times when the comrades of the CWO argued that the concept of decadence was the cornerstone of their political positions. We shall have occasion to return to this passage and its implications.

The Russian milieu and the concept of capitalist decadence

Given that the more 'established' groups of the communist left in the west have been subjected to such extreme pressures, it is hardly surprising that the concept of decadence should cause so many difficulties for the groups of the newly-emerging milieu in Russia, where the tradition of the communist left has been almost completely obliterated by the direct presence of the Stalinist counter-revolution.

The ICC has already published a good deal of its correspondence with the individuals and groups in this milieu, and a large part of it has been devoted to the question of decadence. Thus, in IR 101 we published an article 'Proletarian Revolution: the agenda of history since the beginning of the 20th century'. This was our answer to correspondence from comrade S in Moldovia, a member of the Revolutionary Proletarian Collectivist Group, which has now merged with another group to form the Communist Marxist Leninist Party. The principles of the RPCG, which we understand have been adopted by the new group, do define capitalism as a decadent system, but appear to date the onset of this decadence very late in the 20th century, since they argue that communism has not been a material possibility since the global development of microprocessors. Similarly, while their principles argue for the "negation of slogan 'right of nations to self-determination', which lost any progressive character in modern epoch of decline and decadence of capitalist society" and the "recognition of the imperialist character of all 'inter-national' conflicts in the modern epoch of the decadence of capitalism", it remains unclear at what point national conflicts lost their progressive character (1); and even today it appears possible for the proletariat to support certain national movements: "support for movements of petty bourgeois and semi-proletarian classes of oppressed nations, movements which appear under slogans of 'national liberation', only to the degree that such movements are uncontrolled by the exploiting classes and objectively undermine all (including their own national) exploiters' statehood".

Such arguments seem to demonstrate the difficulty of the Russian groups in breaking with Lenin's argument that supporting national liberation movements is a way of opposing your own national bourgeoisie (above all when that national bourgeoisie has a long history of oppressing other national groupings, as in the case of the Tsarist empire). These "Leninist" sentiments are even echoed by the comrades of the Southern Bureau of the Marxist Labour Party, who loudly profess their non-Leninism but who don't hesitate to side with Lenin on this key question: "You have doubtless remarked how little Leninist we are. Nonetheless, we think that Lenin's position was the best on this question. Each nation (attention! Nation not nationality or national or ethnic group. etc?) has a complete right to self-determination within the framework of its ethnico-historic territory, to the point of separation and creation of an independent state" This passage is cited in our article 'The vital role of the left fractions in the marxist tradition' in IR 104, which also responds to many of the MLP's arguments. Similarly, these comrades seem unable to go beyond certain of Lenin's formulations which define the Russian revolution as a dual revolution, part socialist and part bourgeois democratic. They expound this view in a long text translated into English 'The marxist anatomy of October'. The ICC has written a reply to this contribution (see our website?). Our response leans heavily on the arguments of Bilan, which stress that since capitalism must be analysed as a global and historic system, the conditions for the proletarian revolution must necessarily arise internationally in the same period of history, so that it makes no sense to talk about the proletarian revolution being on the agenda in some countries while some hybrid or even bourgeois revolutions are on the agenda in others.

More recently we have published in World Revolution 254 the platform of another new group, the International Communist Union, based in Kirov. In our comments which welcome the appearance of this group, we noted that the ICU's platform appears to be ambiguous, at best, on the problem of decadence and of national struggles, and their reply to our comments have confirmed this assessment. Since we have not replied publicly to this letter, we will begin that task here by presenting the ICU's arguments to the best of our ability. Because of problems of language, it is not always easy for us to follow the argumentation of the ICU comrades. But based on their letter of 20.2.02, we think that they make six key points in reply to our comments:

  • The theory of decadence denies that there has been any development in 20th century capitalism, which plainly is not the case;
  • Capitalism has always lived by violence and destruction, so the world wars of the 20th century do not prove that the system is decadent;
  • In our comments in WR 254 we said that the ICU was inconsistent in denying the decadence of capitalism while at the same time insisting in their platform that all factions of the bourgeoisie are equally reactionary. The comrades reply that even though all bourgeois factions are indeed reactionary, this does not mean that the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution have also become reactionary: "Therefore, for example the Russian bourgeoisie was not capable of leading the bourgeois revolution and so was reactionary in 1917, though the bourgeois democratic transformations of the Russian revolution certainly were progressive". Today, the ICU argue, the bourgeoisie cannot carry through any bourgeois transformations without world war, hence it is senseless to support any bourgeois faction; but this does not mean that there are no longer any bourgeois democratic tasks; it is simply that the proletariat alone is capable of realising them.
  • The "Chinese revolution" provides concrete proof of the possibility of successful and progressive bourgeois revolutions in the 20th century?
  • This period of progressive national bourgeois revolutions came to an end only with the globalisation of capitalism towards the end of the 20th century;
  • Nonetheless the proletariat can still succeed in transforming movements for national independence into struggles for the socialist revolution.

We want to reply to these arguments in depth, and so will return to them in a subsequent article. It will, however, be apparent that whatever differences there may be between the various groups of the Russian milieu, the arguments they put forward are very similar. We thus think that the reply to the ICU should be seen as contribution to the whole of this milieu, as well as to the international debates about the perspectives for world capitalism.


(1) In the article we published in International Review 104, we cite the following passage from comrade S, which appears to confirm that for his group, capitalist decadence, and thus the end of any progressive function for national movements, begins at the end of the 20th century: "Concerning your pamphlet Nation or Class. We agree with your conclusions, but don't agree with part of the motivation and historical analysis. We agree that today, at the end of the 20th century, the slogan the right of nations to self-determination has lost any revolutionary character. It is a bourgeois-democratic slogan. When the epoch of bourgeois revolutions is closed this slogan too is closed for proletarian revolutionaries. But we think that the epoch of bourgeois revolutions closed at the end of the 20th century not at its beginning. In 1915 Lenin was generally correct against Luxemburg, in 1952 Bordiga was generally correct on this question against Damen, but today the situation is reversed. And we consider your position to be completely mistaken that different non-proletarian revolutionary movements of the third world, that had not an iota of socialism but were objectively revolutionary movements, were only tools of Moscow as you wrote about Vietnam for example, rather than objectively progressive bourgeois movements".