Understanding the decadence of capitalism
Correspondence with the International Communist Group (Russia)
We are publishing below a letter received from the Russian group International Communist Union (ICU). Their letter is itself a response to previous correspondence from the ICC; it contains numerous quotes from our letter, which appear in italics.
We apologise that we could not answer quickly enough. We are a very small group, and we have a lot of work, including a large volume of correspondence. And all foreigners don’t write in Russian.
Concerning the platform, there seems to be a high level of agreement with a number of key positions: the perspective of socialism or barbarism, the capitalist nature of the Stalinist regimes, recognition of the proletarian character of the Russian revolution of 1917
It’s not so simple. In the Russian revolution of 1917 two crises were incorporated: the internal crisis, which should have permitted a bourgeois-democratic revolution, and the world crisis, which put on the order of the day an attempt at world socialist revolution. The proletariat of Russia, argued Lenin, was to undertake the initiative in both revolutions: it should head the bourgeois revolution in Russia and, simultaneously, with the help of this revolution, kindle socialist revolution in Europe and in other countries. Therefore we consider it incorrect to broach the question of the nature of the Russian revolution without specifying where these two revolutions derive from: internal or international. But, certainly, in Russia both these revolutions were headed by the proletariat.
What we’re less sure about is whether you agree with the ICC on the historical framework which gives substance and coherence to many of these positions: the conception that capitalism has, since 1914, been a decadent, declining social system.
Certainly, we do not agree. The transition to one higher economic formation is the result of the development of the previous formation, instead of destruction. If the old formation has been exhausted, it constantly derives social crisis and social forces aspiring to proceed to the new formation. This is not happening. Moreover, for many decades capitalism has ensured relative stability of development, during which the revolutionary forces not only did not grow, but on the contrary, broke up. And (capitalism) really develops, not only creating qualitatively new productive forces, but also creating new forms of capitalism. The study of this development can give the answer when there will come a new crisis, such as the crisis of 1914-45, and hence what transitional forms to socialism there should be. The theory of decadence denies the development of capitalism and makes it impossible to study it, leaving us as simple dreamers trusting in the bright future of mankind.
As to destruction, destruction, war, violence etc. are not just integral features of capitalism, but a necessity of its existence. Both in Marx’s time and in the 20th century.
To give a precise illustration of the problem we are raising: in your statement you argue against ‘fronts’ with the bourgeoisie on the grounds that all bourgeois factions are equally reactionary. And we agree. But this position has not always been valid for marxists. While capitalism today is a decadent system, i.e. one in which the social relations have become a permanent fetter on the productive forces and thus on human progress, it has, like previous forms of class exploitation, also known an ascendant period when it represented progress in relation to the previous mode of production. This is why Marx did support certain fractions of the bourgeoisie, whether the northern capitalists against the southern slaveholders in the American civil war, the Risorgimento movement in Italy for national unification against the old feudal classes, and so on. This support was based on the understanding that capitalism had not yet exhausted its historical mission and that the conditions for the world communist revolution had not yet fully matured.
Historically speaking, in relation to the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the proletarian party has considered all fractions of the bourgeoisie to be reactionary. But it is not only when capitalism had historical resources that it was possible to speak about the progressiveness of this or that fraction of the bourgeoisie. It was necessary that the appropriate fraction was capable of carrying out the historical tasks facing it. Thus, for example, the Russian bourgeoisie was not capable of heading the bourgeois revolution, and so was reactionary in 1917, though the bourgeois-democratic transformations of the Russian revolution were certainly progressive. Today we confirm that no fraction of the bourgeoisie is capable of carrying out necessary bourgeois modernisation without world war for the violent association of mankind. For this reason, it is senseless to support any of these fractions. But this does not mean that there are no more bourgeois tasks. The liquidation of national borders and the creation of the world market is only a bourgeois task, but it is impossible here to trust the bourgeoisie, and it is necessary to use the future crisis to ensure that this task is executed by the proletariat and from here proceeds to socialist tasks. To put it briefly, the question of the exhaustion of the historical tasks of capitalism and the question about whether its different fractions are progressive or not, are two different questions. Therefore the proletariat should always take the revolutionary initiative on itself. Including when it is necessary to undertake bourgeois tasks, trying to expand the movement so that it is possible to proceed to socialist tasks. We consider such an approach to be the Marxist one.
In your view, national struggles have been a source of considerable progress, and the demand for national self-determination still has validity, if only for the workers of the more powerful capitalist countries in relation to the countries oppressed by their own imperialism. You then appear to argue that national struggles have lost their progressive character since the advent of “globalisation”. These statements call for a number of comments on our part.
Our position on the decadence of capitalism is not our own invention. Based on the fundamentals of the historical materialist method (in particular when Marx talks about “epochs of social revolution” in his Preface to the Critique of Political Economy), it was concretised for the majority of revolutionary marxists by the outbreak of the First World War, which showed that capitalism had already “globalised” itself to the point where it could no longer overcome its inner contradictions except through imperialist war and self-cannibalisation. This was the position of the Communist International at its founding congress, although the CI was not able to draw all the consequences for this as regards the national question: the theses of the second congress still saw a “revolutionary” role of some kind for the bourgeoisie of the colonial regimes. But the left fractions of the CI were later on able to take this analysis to its conclusion, particularly following the disastrous results of the CI’s policies during the revolutionary wave of 1917-27. For the Italian left in the 1930s, for example, the experience of China in 1927 was decisive. It showed that all factions of the bourgeoisie, no matter how “anti-imperialist” they claimed to be, were equally counter-revolutionary, equally compelled to massacre the proletariat when it struggled for its own interests, as in the Shanghai uprising of 1927. For the Italian left this experience proved that the theses on the national question from the second congress had to be rejected. Moreover, this was a confirmation of the correctness of Rosa Luxemburg’s views on the national question as against those of Lenin: for Luxemburg, it had already become clear during the First World War that all states were inevitably part of the world imperialist system.
All the questions here are jumbled together. The Comintern politics of Stalin and Bukharin during the Chinese revolution of 1925-27 is completely different from the politics of Lenin and the Bolsheviks which determined the first years of the Comintern. You again argue that if there are bourgeois tasks, we should support this or that bourgeois fraction. The Mensheviks and the Stalinists said the same. The method of Marx and Lenin consists in not refusing the tasks of the moment when all fractions of the bourgeoisie are equally reactionary, and in carrying out these tasks by the method of the proletarian revolution, trying to execute bourgeois tasks to the maximum depth and proceeding to the socialist tasks. The Chinese revolution has shown the correctness of this approach, instead of the correctness of the left. All the same the bourgeois revolution did win in China, though leaving enormous numbers of victims. This revolution has made it possible to create the most numerous proletariat in the world and powerful, quickly developing productive forces. The same result was given also by tens of other revolutions in the countries of the east. We see no sense in denying their historically progressive role: due to them our revolution has a strong class basis in many countries of the world, which in 1914 were almost completely agricultural.
What has changed from the time of the beginning of “globalisation”? The opportunity of the national revolution has disappeared. You say that capitalism has always had a global character. Yes, this has been the case since its origins, with the period of great geographic expansion. But the level of this “globalisation” was qualitatively different. Till the 1980s the national revolutions could still ensure the growth of the productive forces, therefore they should still have been supported, trying, if possible, to transfer management of them into the hands of the revolutionary proletariat. It was because there was an objective opportunity for national development, due to the efforts of the national state. Now this historical stage for national development is finally exhausted. This concerns all states, including the advanced ones. The reforms by Reagan or Thatcher, which in the 1950s and 60s would have resulted in terrible crises, have now given relative and temporary, but positive results. For these reforms included their countries in the “globalization” of the economy (in the modern sense of this word).
Now the national struggle has lost its progressive character, because historical national tasks have exhausted themselves – the national state, even if the revolution will win under the direction of proletariat, cannot ensure further development. This again does not mean that everywhere bourgeois tasks have disappeared. There are still countries with feudal vestiges, there is still national oppression. But the national revolution cannot bring even their temporary solution. The proletariat of the backward countries should aspire to begin the chapter of revolutions in the countries, but now these revolutions (unlike in the 1950s and 60s) cannot basically lead to any results (even from the bourgeois point of view) if they do not result directly in the international proletarian revolution. For this reason we say that with the beginning of globalisation national revolutions have lost their progressive meaning.
As to support for movements of national independence, the unique sense here, both yesterday, and today, is to pull the struggle against national oppression from the hands of the bourgeoisie and to transfer it into the hands of proletariat. To transform independence movements into part of the world socialist revolution. It cannot be done by refusing to recognize the right of nations to self-determination, i.e. by not recognizing the necessity of finishing the historical tasks of the bourgeoisie. Otherwise, we shall leave the national proletariat under the direction of the national bourgeoisie. This Leninist approach has resulted in vast interest in Marxism on the part of a huge quantity of the inhabitants of the backward countries precisely because it could correctly pose the national question. And it was not the fault of Bolshevism, that the leadership of the Comintern was taken over by the Stalinist bureaucracy. Only the revolution in the west could have prevented this, but this did not happen because at that time capitalism still had historical opportunities. Through two world wars it temporarily got round its contradictions.
Now these contradictions again accrue, but to understand why they will result in new crisis, it is necessary to study the development of capitalism, instead of just repeating the incantation that it is decadent and decomposed. In Russia the latter thesis causes especially malicious sneers after decades in which the Stalinists have gone on about “rotting” capitalism.
Supporting one nation against another always meant supporting one imperialist constellation against another, and all the national liberation wars of the 20s century have reinforced this view. What the Italian left made absolutely explicit was that this also applied to colonial bourgeoisies, to capitalist factions seeking to establish a new ‘independent’ state: they could only hope to attain their ends by subordinating themselves to the imperialist powers which had already divided up the planet. As you say in your platform, the 20th century has been one of incessant imperialist wars for the domination of the planet: for us, this is both the surest confirmation that capitalism is a senile and reactionary world order, and that all forms of “national” struggle are entirely integrated into the global imperialist game.
Once again: 1) “continuous wars “ are the constant companion of capitalism at any stage, that is why they cannot be the proof either of its progressiveness, nor its decline; 2) the growth of productive forces and a numerous proletariat in the Third World has unequivocally shown the progressive character of national revolutions up to the mid-1970s; 3) the purpose of support for national movements was not “support of one nation against another”, but drawing the workers towards the party of revolution.
Luxemburg also made a very rigorous critique of the slogan of “national self-determination” even before the First World War, arguing that it was an illusion of bourgeois democracy – in any capitalist state, it is not the “people” or the “nation” who are “self-determined” but the capitalist class alone. Marx and Engels made no secret of the fact that when they called for national independence, it was to further and support the development of the capitalist mode of production in a period in which capitalism still had a progressive role to play.
We also, as well as Marx, do not hide the fact that the progressive character of the national revolutions only makes sense from the point of view of the development of capitalism.
With brotherly congratulations
ICU, 20th February 2002
In a series we wrote in the late 1980s and early 90s in defence of the idea that capitalism is a social system in decline, we noted that “the more capitalism sinks into decadence, the more it exhibits its advanced decomposition, the more the bourgeoisie needs to deny reality and promise the world a bright future under the sun of capital. This is the essence of the present campaigns in response to the very visible collapse of Stalinism: the only hope, the only future, is capitalism” (“The real domination’ of capital, and the real confusions of the proletarian milieu”, International Review n°60, winter 1990).
There is nothing surprising in the bourgeoisie being in denial about the inevitable demise of its social system; indeed, the closer its death approaches, the more you would expect it to run away from the truth and retreat into fantasy. It is after all an exploiting class, and no exploiting class has been able to face the truth that it is an exploiting class, still less that its days are historically numbered. And if any of its representatives do finally admit to its oncoming doom, none of them can envisage a human world beyond the rule of capital without clutching at visions of a mythical past or a messianic future.
Of course one would expect better from those who claim to speak for the exploited proletariat and to be looking ahead to a communist revolution. But we should never underestimate the ideological power of the dominant system, its capacity to derail and distort any striving for a clear and lucid understanding of the real situation and prospects of the current world order. There are just too many examples of those who have lost sight of the fundamental theoretical premises of the communist movement since Marx and Engels first framed them in scientific terms; who have lost confidence in the proposition that capitalism, like all the other systems of exploitation that came before it, is but a passing phase in mankind’s historical evolution, doomed to extinction by its own inherent contradictions. This is the phenomenon we observed in the 80s and – as we noted in the first part of this article in IR 111 we are seeing it even more explicitly today. The more rotten capitalism has become, the more it passes from simple decline to outright disintegration, the more we are seeing those in and around the revolutionary movement running hither and thither, desperately seeking some ‘new’ discovery that will hide the awful truth. Capitalism decomposing? No, no, it’s recomposing! Capitalism at an impasse? But what about…the internet, globalisation, Asian dragons…..?
This is the general atmosphere of confusion in which the new proletarian currents in Russia and the ex-USSR are emerging; as we pointed out in the previous article, despite their differences, all of them seem to have difficulty in accepting the conclusion upon which the Communist International was founded and which provided the groundrock for the work of the communist left: that world capitalism has been in historical decline or decadence since the first world war.
As we said in the last article, we are going to focus on the arguments of the comrades of the International Communist Union in this discussion. This is how they explain their arguments against the notion of decadence:
“The transition to one higher economic formation is the result of the development of the previous formation, instead of destruction. If the old formation has been exhausted, it constantly derivates social crisis and social forces aspiring to proceed to the new formation. It does not occur. Moreover, for many decades capitalism has ensured relative stability of development, during which the revolutionary forces not only did not grow, but on the contrary, broke up…And (capitalism) really develops, not only creating qualitatively new productive forces, but also creating new forms of capitalism. The study of this development can give the answer when there will come a new crisis, such as the crisis of 1914-45, and hence what transitional forms to socialism there should be. The theory of decadence denies the development of capitalism and makes it impossible to study it, leaving us as simple dreamers trusting in the bright future of mankind” (letter to the ICC, 20th February 2002).
No doubt the comrades have in mind here the arguments of Marx in his famous Preface to the Critique of Political Economy where he deals with the material conditions for the transition from one mode of production to another, saying that “No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed and new, higher relations of productions never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself”.1
Naturally we adhere to Marx’s arguments here, but we don’t think he meant them to imply that a new society could not emerge out of the old until the very last technical or economic innovation had been developed. Such a vision might have seemed compatible with previous modes of production where technical discovery took place at a very slow pace; it would hardly be possible under capitalism which cannot live without constantly, indeed daily, developing its technological infrastructure. The problem here is that the ICU seem to refer to this passage without assimilating the preceding part, where Marx outlines the preconditions for the opening up of a period of social revolution, which is the key to our understanding of capitalism’s decadence, its epoch of wars and revolutions as the CI put it. We are referring to the passage where Marx says that “at a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces come into 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 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”.
Forms of development become fetters; in the dynamic view which is proper to marxism, this does not mean that society comes to a complete halt but that its continued development becomes increasingly irrational and catastrophic for humanity. And indeed we have on many occasions clearly rejected the view that decadence means a complete halt in the productive forces. The first time was in our pamphlet The Decadence of Capitalism, originally written in the early 1970s, where an entire section is devoted to precisely this point. Refuting Trotsky’s assertion in the 1930s that “the productive forces of humanity have ceased to grow” we affirmed that “according to the marxist view, the period of a society’s decadence cannot be characterised by a total and permanent halt in the growth of the productive forces but by the definitive slackening of this growth. Absolute halts in the growth of the productive forces do, in fact, appear during the phases of decadence. But these stoppages appear only momentarily in the capitalist system because the economy cannot function without a constantly increasing accumulation of capital. They are the violent convulsions which regularly accompany the progression of decadence (…)
From an economic standpoint, what characterises the decadence of a given social form is therefore:
- an actual slowing down of the growth of productive forces, which would have been technically and objectively possible without the obstacle of the relations of production. This slow-down must have an inevitable and irreversible character. It must be caused specifically by the perpetuation of the relations of production which hold the society together. The discrepancy between actual development and possible development of the productive forces can only widen. This discrepancy appears increasingly clearly to the social classes;
- the appearance of increasingly profound and widespread crises. These crises create the subjective conditions necessary for the social revolution. In the course of these crises the power of the ruling class is profoundly weakened, and through the objective intensification of the necessity for its intervention, the revolutionary class finds the preliminary bases for its strength and unity”.2
Elsewhere (“The study of capital and the foundations of communism”, International Review n°75), we pointed out that our conception was no different from that of Marx in the Grundrisse, where he writes:
“Considered ideally, the dissolution of a given form of consciousness sufficed to kill a whole epoch. In reality, this barrier to consciousness corresponds to a definite degree of development of the forces of material production and hence of wealth. True, there was not only a development on the old basis, but also a development of this basis itself. The highest development of this basis itself (the flower into which it transforms itself; but it is always this basis, this plant as flower; hence wilting after the flowering and as a consequence of the flowering) is the point at which it is itself worked out, developed, into the form in which it is compatible with the highest development of the forces of production, hence also the richest development of individuals. As soon as this point is reached, the further development appears as decay, and the new development begins from a new basis” (emphasis in the original).
More than any previous social system, capitalism is synonymous with “economic growth”, but contrary to the quack-doctors of the bourgeoisie growth and progress are not the same: capitalism’s growth in its epoch of decay is more akin to that of a malignant tumour than that of a healthy body progressing from infancy to adulthood.
The material conditions for capitalism’s “healthy” development ended at the beginning of the 20th century when it effectively established a world economy and thus laid the essential foundations for the transition to communism. This did not mean that capitalism had rid itself of all remnants of pre-capitalist modes of production and classes, that it had exhausted the last pre-capitalist market, or even that it had effected the final transition from the formal to the real subsumption of labour in every corner of the planet. What it did mean was that henceforward global capitalism could less and less move into what Marx called “the outlying fields” of expansion and was compelled to grow through increasing self-cannibalisation and the cheating of its own natural laws of motion. We have already devoted considerable space to these forms of “development as decay” and will merely summarise here:
- the organisation of gigantic “state capitalist trusts” at the national level, and even at the international level through the formation of imperialist blocs, devoted to the regulation and control of the market, and thus to preventing the “normal” operation of capitalist competition from finding their real level and exploding in gigantic and open crises of overproduction on the model of 1929;
- the resort (largely via the intervention of these state capitalist behemoths) to credit and deficit spending, no longer as a stimulus to the development of new markets but more and more as a replacement for the real market; thus economic growth on an increasingly speculative and artificial basis which paves the way for devastating “adjustments” such as the collapse of the Asian tigers and dragons, or indeed what is now beginning to take place in the USA after the frenzied but drugged growth of the 90s;
- militarism and war as a mode of survival for the system – not only as a further artificial market which actually becomes a mounting burden on the world economy, but as the only means for nation states to defend their national economy at the expense of their rivals. The comrades of the ICU might reply that capitalism has always been a warlike system but as we also explained in an article in our series ‘Understanding the decadence of capitalism’(see in particular part V in IR 54) there is a qualitative difference between the wars of capitalism’s ascendancy - which were generally of short duration, local in scale, involving mainly professional armies and opening up genuinely new possibilities of economic expansion - and the wars of its decline, which have taken on a near permanent character, have been increasingly axed round the indiscriminate slaughter of millions of conscripts and civilians, and have thrown the wealth produced by centuries of labour into a bottomless abyss. Capitalism’s wars once provided the basis for the establishment of a world economy and thus for the transition to communism; but from this point on, far from laying the bases for future social progress they have increasingly threatened the very survival of humanity;
- the gigantic waste of human labour power represented by war and production for war also highlights another aspect of capitalism in its senile phase: the enormous weight of non-productive expenditures and activities, not only through the military sphere, but also through the need to maintain vast apparatuses of bureaucracy, of marketing, and so on. In the official record books of capital, all these spheres are defined as expressions of “growth”, but in reality they are testimony to the degree to which capitalism has become a barrier to the qualitative development of man’s productive powers which have become both necessary and possible in this epoch;
- a further dimension of “development as decay” which was only glimpsed in Marx’s day is the ecological threat that the blind drive to accumulate poses to the very life support system of the planet. Although this question has become increasingly obvious in the last few decades, it is intimately connected to the question of decadence. It is the historical constriction of the world market which has more and more compelled each nation state to pillage or mortgage its natural resources; this process has been building up throughout the 20th century even if it is reaching its paroxysm today; and at the same time a successful proletarian revolution in 1917-23 would not have been faced with the same immense problems now posed by the damage that capitalism’s diseased growth has done to the natural environment. At this level it is immediately obvious that capitalism is the cancer of the planet.
When did the epoch of bourgeois revolutions come to a close?
Following Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune, Lenin considered that 1871 marked the end of the period of bourgeois revolutions in the main centres of world capitalism. At the same time it marked the beginnings of the phase of imperialist expansion from these centres.
During the last third of the 19th century, the marxist movement considered that bourgeois revolutions were still on the agenda in the areas dominated by the colonial powers. This was a perfectly valid approach at the time; but by the end of the century it had become increasingly clear that the very dynamic of imperialist expansion, which required the colonies to develop only to the point that they served as passive markets and sources of raw materials, was inhibiting the emergence of new independent national capitalisms, and thus of a revolutionary bourgeoisie. This question was the subject of particularly fierce debates within the revolutionary movement in Russia; in his writings on the Russian peasant commune, Marx had already expressed the hope that a successful world revolution might spare Russia the necessity to pass through the purgatory of capitalist development. Later on, as it became obvious that imperialist capital was not going to leave Russia to its own devises, the focus of the question shifted to the problem of the inherent weakness of the fledgling Russian bourgeoisie. The Mensheviks, interpreting the marxist method in a very rigid and mechanistic way, argued that the proletariat had to prepare to support the inevitable bourgeois revolution in Russia; the Bolsheviks, on the other hand, recognised that the Russian bourgeoisie lacked the spine to carry out its revolution, and concluded that this task would have to be taken up by the proletariat and the peasantry (the formula of the “democratic dictatorship”). In fact, it was the position of Trotsky which came closer to reality, since it was immediately posed not in “Russian” terms but in a global and historical framework, and it started from the recognition that capitalism as a whole was moving towards the epoch of the world socialist revolution. The working class in power would not be able to stop at the bourgeois tasks of the revolution but would be compelled to make the “revolution in permanence” – to spread the revolution onto the world arena, where it could only take on a socialist character.
In the April Theses of 1917 Lenin effectively came over to this position, sweeping aside the objections of conservative Bolsheviks (who had in fact been flirting with Menshevism and the bourgeoisie) that he was abandoning the perspective of the “democratic dictatorship”. And in 1919 the Communist International was formed on the basis that capitalism had indeed entered its epoch of decline, the epoch of the world proletarian revolution. But while proclaiming that the emancipation of the colonial masses was now dependent on the success of the world revolution, the CI was not yet able to take this argument to its logical conclusion: that the epoch of national liberation struggles was now at a close, although Rosa Luxemburg and others had already seen it. It was above all the disastrous attempts of the Bolsheviks to forge alliances with the so-called “anti-imperialist” bourgeoisie in such regions as Turkey, the former Tsarist empire, and above all China which enabled the communist left (in particular the Italian Fraction) to question the CI’s theses on the national question, which held out the possibility of temporary alliances between the working class and the colonial bourgeoisie. The left fractions had recognised that each one of these “alliances” ended with the massacre of the working class and the communists at the hand of the colonial bourgeoisie, which in doing so did not hesitate to put itself at the service of one or another gang of imperialists.
The ICU, in their platform, claim that they owe their origins to the work of the left communist fractions who split with the degenerating CI (see World Revolution n°254). But on this question they are with the “official” view of the CI against that the of the left: “The Comintern politics of Stalin and Bukharin during the Chinese revolution of 1925-27 is completely different from the politics of Lenin and the Bolsheviks which determined the first years of the Comintern. You again argue that if there are bourgeois tasks, we should support this or that bourgeois fraction. The Mensheviks and the Stalinists said the same. …the method of Marx and Lenin consists in not refusing the tasks of the moment when all fractions of the bourgeoisie are equally reactionary, and in carrying out these tasks by the method of the proletarian revolution, trying to execute bourgeois tasks to the maximum depth and proceeding to the socialist tasks. The Chinese revolution has shown the correctness of this approach, instead of the correctness of the left. All the same the bourgeois revolution did win in China, though leaving enormous numbers of victims. This revolution has made it possible to create the most numerous proletariat in the world and powerful, quickly developing productive forces. The same result was given also by tens of other revolutions in the countries of the east. We see no sense in denying their historically progressive role: due to them our revolution has a strong class basis in many countries of the world, which in 1914 were almost completely agricultural”.
Of course we agree that Lenin’s position, the position outlined in the theses on the national and colonial question from the Second Congress of the CI in 1920, was by no means the same as Stalin’s in 1927. In particular, the 1920 theses had insisted on the necessity for the proletariat to remain strictly independent even from the “revolutionary nationalist” forces; Stalin called on the insurrectionary Shanghai workers to hand their arms over to the butchers of the Kuomingtang. But as we have shown in our series of articles on the origins of Maoism (International Review n°81, 84, 94), this experience confirmed not only that the Stalin clique had abandoned the proletarian revolution in the interests of the Russian national state; it also finally dashed all hopes of finding a sector of the colonial bourgeoisie which would not prostrate itself at the feet of imperialism, and which would not slaughter the proletariat at the first available opportunity. The “revolutionary nationalist” or “anti-imperialist” sectors of the colonial bourgeoisie simply did not exist. It could not be otherwise in a historical epoch – the decadence of world capitalism – in which there was no longer the slightest coincidence of interests between the two major classes.
The ICU and the “bourgeois revolution” in China
The ICU position on China seems to us to contain a profound ambiguity. On the one hand, they argue that in Russia in 1917 the bourgeoisie was already reactionary, which is why the proletariat had to carry through the tasks of the bourgeois revolution; according to their view, in China and “tens of other” unspecified eastern countries, a successful bourgeois revolution seems to have been carried out. Does this mean that the bourgeoisies in these countries were still progressive after 1917? Or does it mean, in the case of China in particular, that the faction which allegedly carried out the “bourgeois revolution” – Maoism – had something proletarian about it, as the Trotskyists argue? The ICU needs to make their thinking crystal clear on this point.
In any case, let us consider whether what happened in China corresponds to the marxist understanding of a bourgeois revolution. From the latter point of view, the bourgeois revolutions were a factor of historical progress because they cleared away the remnants of the old feudal mode of production and laid the foundations for the future revolution of the proletariat. This process had two basic dimensions:
- at the most material level, the bourgeois revolution threw off the feudal fetters that were blocking the development of the productive forces and the expansion of the world market. The formation of new nation states was an expression of progress in this sense: that they broke out of the limitations of feudal localism and constituted the building blocks of a world economy;
- the development of the productive forces is also, of course the material development of the proletariat, but what was also key to the bourgeois revolutions is that that they created the political framework for the “ideological” development of the working class, its capacity to identify and organise itself as a distinct class within and ultimately against capitalist society.
The so-called Chinese revolution of 1949 does not correspond to either of these aspects. To begin with, it was a product not of an expanding world economy but of one that had reached a historical impasse. This can be seen straight away when we grasp that it was born not out of a struggle against feudalism or Asiatic despotism, but out of a bloody struggle between bourgeois gangs, all of whom were linked to one or other of the great imperialist powers that dominated the globe. The Chinese “revolution” was the fruit of the imperialist conflicts that wracked China in the 30s and above all of their culminating point – the second world imperialist war. This is not altered by the fact that at different moments the contending Chinese factions had different imperialist backers (Maoism, for example, was supported by the US during the second world war, and then by Russia at the start of the “Cold War”). Nor does the fact that China embarked on an “independent” imperialist orientation for a brief period in the 60s prove that there are “young” bourgeoisies which can escape the grip of imperialism in this epoch. Rather the contrary: the fact that even China, with its immense territory and resources, was only able to chart an independent course for a such a brief period amply confirms Rosa Luxemburg’s arguments in the Junius Pamphlet: that in the epoch opened up by the first world war, no nation can “hold aloof” from imperialism because we live in a period in which imperialism’s domination of the entire planet can only be overcome by the world communist revolution.
China’s economic development also contains all the features of “development as decay”: thus it occurs not as part of an expanding world market, but as an attempt at autarkic development in a world economy which has already reached the fundamental limits of its capacity to expand. Hence, as in Stalinist Russia, the huge preponderance of the military sector, of heavy industry at the expense of the production of consumer goods, of a hideously swollen state bureaucracy. Hence also the periodic convulsions such as the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution” in which the ruling class sought to mobilise the population behind campaigns to intensify its exploitation and its ideological submission to the state. These campaigns were a desperate response to the chronic stagnation and backwardness of the economy: witness the state’s demand during the “Great Leap Forward” that pig iron forges be set up in every village, using whatever bits of scrap metal came to hand.
Of course the Chinese working class is bigger today than it was in 1914. But to judge whether this is in itself a factor of progress for mankind we have to look at the situation of the proletariat in global, not national terms. And what we see at this level is that capitalism has proved incapable of integrating the majority of the world population into the working class. As a percentage of the world population, the working class remains in a minority.
Progress for the Chinese proletariat in this past century would have been the success of the world revolution in 1917-27, which would have permitted the balanced and harmonious development of industry and agriculture on a world scale, not the frenzied and historically unnecessary struggle of each national economy to survive on a glutted world market. Instead, the Chinese working class has spent the best part of the century under the odious heel of Stalinism. Far from being the product of a belated bourgeois revolution, Stalinism is the classic expression of the bourgeois counter-revolution, the awful revenge of capital after the proletariat has tried and failed to overthrow its rule. The fact that it based on a total lie – its claim to represent the communist revolution – is in itself a typical expression of a decadent mode of production: in its ascendant, self-confident phase capitalism had no need to garb itself in the clothes of its mortal enemy. Furthermore, this lie has had the most negative effects on the capacity of the working class – on a world scale, and particularly in the countries ruled by Stalinism – to understand the real communist perspective. When we consider as well the terrible toll of repression and massacre that Stalinism has extracted from the working class – the numbers who have perished in Maoism’s prisons and concentration camps is still unknown, but probably runs into the millions - it becomes evident that the so-called “bourgeois revolution” in China has totally failed to deliver what the authentic bourgeois revolutions were able to deliver in the 18th and 19th centuries: a political framework that enabled the proletariat to develop its self-confidence and consciousness of itself as a class. Stalinism has been an unmitigated disaster for the world proletariat; and even in its death throes it continues to poison its consciousness via the bourgeois campaigns that equate the demise of Stalinism with the end of communism. Like all the so-called “national revolutions” of the 20th century, it is testimony to the fact that capitalism is no longer laying down the foundations for communism, but is more and more ripping them apart.
Communists and the national question: no room for ambiguity
According to the ICU, communists could in some sense support national revolutions until the 1980s; now, with the advent of globalisation, this is no longer possible: “What has changed from the time of the beginning of ‘globalisation’? The opportunity of the national revolution has disappeared. Till the 1980s the national revolutions could still ensure the growth of the productive forces, therefore they should still have been supported, trying, if possible, to transfer management of them into the hands of the revolutionary proletariat…Now this historical stage for national development is finally exhausted”.
The first point to be made about this position is that if the communist left had defended it up until the 1980s, there would be no communist left today. Since the death of the Communist International at the end of the 20s, the communist left has been the only political current which has consistently opposed the mobilisation of the proletariat for imperialist war, above all when these wars were justified in the name of some belated bourgeois revolution or the “struggle against imperialism”. From Spain and China in the 30s, through the second world war, and in all the proxy conflicts that characterised the Cold War (Korea, Vietnam, Middle East, etc) the communist left alone has stood for proletarian internationalism, rejecting any support for any nation state or national factions, calling on the working class to defend its autonomous class interests against the appeals to dissolve itself into the war fronts of capital. The terrible consequences of straying from this path were illustrated very graphically by the implosion of the Bordigist current in the early 80s: its ambiguities on the national question opened the door to the penetration of out and out nationalist factions who sought to drag the main Bordigist organisation onto the terrain of support for the PLO and states like Syria in the war in the Middle East. There was resistance to this on the part of the proletarian elements in the organisation, but it paid a terrible price in the loss of militant energies and the further fragmentation of the entire current. Had the nationalists succeeded, they would have ended up annexing this historic offspring of the Italian left to the left wing of capital alongside the Trotskyists and the Stalinists. If the political ancestors of other groups such as the ICC and the IBRP had followed a policy of support for the so-called “national revolutions”, they would have suffered a similar fate, and there would be no left communist current for the newly emerging Russian groups to relate to.
Secondly, it seems to us that, despite the ICU concluding that now at last is the time for a truly independent proletarian position on the national movements, the comrades remain wedded to formulations that are at best ambiguous and at worst can lead to an open betrayal of class principles. Thus, they still talk about the possibility of transferring the national struggle from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat, still cling to the slogan of “national self-determination”: “As to support for movement of national independence, the unique sense here, both yesterday, and today, is to pull the struggle against national oppression from the hands of the bourgeoisie and to transfer it into the hands of proletariat. To transform independence movements into part of the world socialist revolution. It cannot be done by refusing to recognize the right of nations to self-determination, i.e. by not recognizing the necessity of finishing the historical tasks of the bourgeoisie. Otherwise, we shall leave the national proletariat under the direction of the national bourgeoisie”. But the working class cannot take over the national struggle; even to defend its class interests in the most basic and immediate way, it finds itself in opposition to the national bourgeoisie and all its ambitions. Class war and national war are diametric opposites both in their form and content. As for national self-determination, the comrades themselves recognise that this is an impossibility under the conditions of present day capitalism, even if they consider that this has only been the case since the 1980s. They therefore argue in favour of the slogan in similar terms to Lenin - as a means to avoid “antagonising” or offending the proletarians of the backward countries and winning them away from bourgeois influence. But comrades, communism cannot help being offensive to the misguided nationalist sentiments which exist within the working class. By the same token communists should avoid the criticism of religion because many workers are influenced by religious ideology. Of course we don’t go out to provoke or insult workers because they have confused ideas. But as it says in the Communist Manifesto, communists disdain to hide their views. If national liberation and national self-determination are impossible, then we must say so in the clearest possible terms.
The appearance of groups like the ICU is an important gain for the world proletariat. But their ambiguities on the national question are very serious and put into question their capacity to survive as an expression of the proletariat. History has shown that, because it connects to the profound antagonism between the proletariat and imperialist war, ambiguities on the national question above all can easily turn into betraying the internationalist interests of the working class. We therefore urge them to reflect profoundly on all the texts and contributions which the communist left has made on this vital issue.
1For the presentation of this group, we refer our readers to the "Presentation of the Russian edition of the pamphlet on decadence: decadence, a fundamental concept of marxism". See also the ICU’s web site. We have made some minor corrections to the English to improve readability.