1 - The theory of decadence lies at the heart of historical materialism, part i

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From Marx to the communist left

We are beginning a new series devoted to the theory of decadence.[1] For some time now, various criticisms of this concept have been piling up. To a large extent they have been the work of academic or parasitic grouplets. Others, however, express real incomprehension inside the revolutionary milieu,[2] or come from searching elements who are posing genuine questions about the evolution of capitalism on a historic scale. We have already replied to the bulk of these criticisms.[3] Today, however, we are seeing a change in their nature. They are no longer questions, misunderstandings or doubts; they no longer simply put certain aspects into question. Rather, we are seeing a total rejection, a type of criticism which amounts to an excommunication from marxism.

However, the theory of decadence is simply the concretisation of historical materialism in the analysis of the evolution of modes of production. It is thus the indispensable framework for understanding the historical period we are living in. Knowing whether society is still progressing, or whether it has had its day historically, is decisive for grasping what is at stake on the political and socio-economic levels, and acting accordingly. As with all past societies, the ascendant phase of capitalism expressed the historically necessary character of the relations of production it embodies, that is, their vital role in the expansion of society’s productive forces. The phase of decadence, by contrast, expresses the transformation of these relations into a growing barrier to this same development. This is one of the main theoretical acquisitions left us by Marx and Engels.

The 20th century was the most murderous in the entire history of humanity, both in the scale, the frequency and length of the wars which took up a large part of it, and in the incomparable breadth of the human catastrophes which it produced: from the greatest famines in history to systematic genocide, taking in economic crises which have shaken the whole planet and hurled tens of millions of proletarians and human beings into abject poverty. There is no comparison between the 19th and 20th centuries. During the Belle Epoque, the bourgeois mode of production reached unprecedented heights: it had united the globe, reaching levels of productivity and technological sophistication which could only have been dreamed about before. Despite the accumulation of tensions in society's foundations, the last 20 years of capitalism's ascendancy (1894-1914) were the most prosperous yet; capitalism seemed invincible and armed conflicts were confined to the peripheries. Unlike the “long 19th century”, which was a period of almost uninterrupted moral, intellectual and material progress, since 1914 there has been a marked regression on all fronts. The increasingly apocalyptic character of economic and social life across the planet, and the threat of self-destruction in an endless series of conflicts and ever more grave ecological catastrophes, are neither a natural fatality, nor the product of simple human madness, nor a characteristic of capitalism since its origins: they are a manifestation of the decadence of the capitalist mode of production which, from being, from the 16th century to the First World War,[4] a powerful factor in economic, social and political development, has become a fetter on all such development and a threat to the very survival of humanity.

Why is humanity faced with the question of survival at the very moment that it has achieved a level of development in the productive forces that would enable it to start moving, for the first time in its history, towards a world without material poverty, towards a unified society capable of basing its activity on the needs, desires and consciousness of mankind? Does the world proletariat really constitute the revolutionary force that can take humanity out of the impasse into which capitalism has led it? Why is it that most of the forms of workers’ struggle in our epoch can no longer be those of the last century, such as the fight for gradual reforms through trade unionism, parliamentarism, supporting the constitution of certain nation states or certain progressive fractions of the bourgeoisie? It is impossible to find one's bearings in the current historical situation, still less to play a vanguard role, without having a global, coherent vision which can answer these elementary but crucial questions. Marxism – historical materialism – is the only conception of the world which makes it possible to give such an answer. Its clear and simple response can be summed up in a few words; just like the modes of production which came before it, capitalism is not an eternal system: “Beyond a certain point, the development of the productive forces becomes a barrier to capital, and consequently the relation of capital becomes a barrier to the development of the productive forces of labour. Once this point has been reached, capital, ie wage labour, enters into the same relation to the development of social wealth and the productive forces as the guild system, serfdom and slavery did, and is, as a fetter, necessarily cast off. The last form of servility assumed by human activity, that of wage labour on the one hand and capital on the other, is thereby shed, and this shedding is itself the result of the mode of production corresponding to capital. It is precisely the production process of capital that gives rise to the material and spiritual conditions for the negation of wage labour and capital, which are themselves the negation of earlier forms of unfree social production.

The growing discordance between the productive development of society and the relations of production hitherto characteristic of it, is expressed in acute contradictions, crises, convulsions” (“Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy” [also known as the Grundrisse], Collected Works Vol. 29, 133-4).

As long as capitalism fulfilled a historically progressive role and the proletariat was not sufficiently developed, proletarian struggles could not result in a triumphant world revolution; they did however allow the proletariat to recognise itself and assert itself as a class through the trade union and parliamentary struggle for real reforms and lasting improvements in its living conditions. From the moment when the capitalist system entered into decadence, the world communist revolution became a possibility and a necessity. The forms of the proletarian struggle were radically overturned; even on the immediate level, defensive struggles could no longer be expressed, either in form or content, through the means of struggle forged last century such as trade unionism and parliamentary representation for workers’ political organisations.

Brought into being by the revolutionary movements which put an end to the First World War, the Communist International was founded in 1919 around the recognition that the bourgeoisie was no longer a historically progressive class: “II – The period of the decadence of capitalism. After analysing the world economic situation, the Third Congress has noted with the greatest precision that capitalism, having completed its mission of developing the productive forces, has fallen into the most implacable contradiction with the needs not only of present historical evolution, but also with the most elementary requirements of human existence. This fundamental contradiction is both particularly reflected in the last imperialist war, and was further deepened by the war, which shook the whole system of production and circulation to its foundations. Capitalism has outlived itself, and has entered the phase where the destructive action of its unleashed forces ruins and paralyses the creative economic conquests already achieved by the proletariat in the chains of capitalist slavery (...) Capitalism today is going through nothing less than its death agony”.[5] From then on, the understanding that the First World War marked the entry of the capitalist system into its decadent phase has been the common patrimony of the majority of the groups of the communist left who, thanks to this historical compass, have been able to remain on an intransigent and coherent class terrain. The ICC has only taken up and developed the heritage transmitted and enriched by the German and Dutch lefts in the 1930s and 40s and then by the Gauche Communiste de France in the 1940s and 50s.

Decisive class combats are on the horizon. It is therefore more than ever vital for the proletariat to re-appropriate its own conception of the world, which has been developed over nearly two centuries of workers’ struggles and theoretical elaboration by its political organisations. More than ever, the proletariat must understand that the present acceleration of barbarism and the uninterrupted increase in its exploitation are not a fact of nature, but are the result of the economic and social laws of capital which continue to rule the world even though they have been historically obsolete since the beginning of the 20th century. It is more vital than ever for the working class to understand that while the forms of struggle it learned in the 19th century (minimum programme of struggle for reforms, support for progressive fractions of the bourgeoisie etc) had a sense in the period of capitalism’s ascent when it could “tolerate” the existence of an organised proletariat within society, these same forms can only lead it into an impasse in the period of decadence. More than ever, it is vital for the proletariat to understand that the communist revolution is not an idle dream, a utopia, but a necessity and a possibility which have their scientific foundations in an understanding of the decadence of the capitalist mode of production.

The aim of this new series of articles on the theory of decadence will be to respond to all the objections raised against it. These objections are an obstacle in the way of the new revolutionary forces moving towards the positions of the communist left; they are also undermining political clarity among the groups of the revolutionary milieu.

From Marx to the communist left

In the first article in this series we will thus begin by reiterating – against those who claim that the concept and even the term decadence are absent from or are accorded no scientific value in the works of Marx and Engels – that this theory is nothing less than the core of historical materialism. We will show that this theoretical framework, as well as the term “decadence”, are indeed amply present throughout their work. Behind this critique or abandonment of the notion of decadence what is at stake is a rejection of the very core of marxism. It is perfectly understandable that the forces of the bourgeoisie should oppose the idea that their system is in decadence. The problem is that at the very time when it is vital to show the real dangers facing the working class and humanity, currents which claim to be marxist are rejecting the very tools supplied by the marxist method to grasp reality.[6]

The theory of decadence in the work of the founders of historical materialism

Contrary to what is generally asserted, the main discoveries in the work of Marx and Engels are not the existence of classes, or of the class struggle, or the labour theory of value, or surplus value. All these concepts had already been advanced by historians and economists at a time when the bourgeoisie was still a revolutionary class fighting against feudal resistance. The fundamentally new element in the work of Marx and Engels resides in their analysis of the historical character of the division into classes, of the dynamic underlying the succession of modes of production; this is what led them to understand the transitory nature of the capitalist mode of production and the necessity for the dictatorship of the proletariat as an intermediate phase towards a classless society. In other words, what constitutes the core of their discoveries is none other than historical materialism: “Now as for myself, I do not claim to have discovered either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle between the classes, as had bourgeois economists their economic anatomy. My own contribution was 1. to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production; 2. that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; 3. that this dictatorship itself constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.” (Marx to J. Weydemeyer, March 5th, 1852, Collected Works, vol.39, p.62-5, our emphasis).

According to our critics, the notion of decadence is not at all marxist and is not even to be found in the work of Marx and Engels. A simple reading of the latter's main texts shows on the contrary that this notion is indeed at the very heart of historical materialism. To the point, indeed, that for Engels, in his Anti-Dühring[7] written in 1877, the most essential thing that Fourier and historical materialism have in common, is none other than the notion of the ascendancy and decadence of a mode of production, which are valid for the whole of human history: “But Fourier is at his greatest in his conception of the history of society (...) Fourier, as we see, uses the dialectic method in the same masterly way as his contemporary, Hegel. Using these same dialectics, he argues against the talk about illimitable human perfectibility, that every historical phase has its period of ascent and also its period of descent, and he applies this observation to the future of the whole human race” (Anti-Dühring, 1877, Socialism I, Collected Works Vol.25, p.248, our emphasis).

It is perhaps in the passage from the Outline of a Critique of Political Economy, quoted in the opening section above, that Marx gives the clearest definition of what lies behind this notion of a phase of decadence. He identifies this phase as particular step in the life of a mode of production – “Beyond a certain point” – when the social relations of production become an obstacle for the development of the productive forces – “the relation of capital becomes a barrier to the development of the productive forces of labour”. Once economic development has reached this point, the persistence of these social relations of production – wage labour, serfdom, slavery – form a fundamental barrier to the development of the productive forces. This is the basic mechanism in the evolution of all modes of production: “Once this point has been reached, capital, ie wage labour, enters into the same relation to the development of social wealth and the productive forces as the guild system, serfdom and slavery did, and is, as a fetter, necessarily cast off. Marx defines the characteristics of this very precisely “The growing discordance between the productive development of society and the relations of production hitherto characteristic of it, is expressed in acute contradictions, crises, convulsions”. This general theoretical definition of decadence would be used by Marx and Engels as an “operational scientific concept” in the concrete analysis of the evolution of modes of production.

The concept of decadence in the analysis of previous modes of production

Having devoted a good part of their energies to decoding the mechanisms and contradictions of capitalism, it was logical for Marx and Engels to make a substantial study of its birth within the entrails of feudalism. Thus in 1884 Engels produced a complement to his study The Peasant War in Germany, the aim of which was to provide the overall historical framework of the period in which the events he had analysed took place. He entitled this complement very explicitly “On the decline of feudalism and the emergence of national states”. Here are some highly significant extracts: “While the wild battles of the ruling feudal nobility filled the Middle Ages with their clamour, the quiet work of the oppressed classes had undermined the feudal system throughout Western Europe, had created conditions in which less and less room remained for the feudal lord (…) While the nobility became increasingly superfluous and an ever greater obstacle to development, the burghers of the towns became the class that embodied the further development of production and trade, of culture and of the social and political institutions.

All these advances in production and exchange were, in point of fact, by today’s standards, of a very limited nature. Production remained enthralled in the form of pure guild crafts, thus itself still retaining a feudal character; trade remained within the limits of European waters, and did not extend any further than the coastal towns of the Lavant, where the products of the Far East were acquired by exchange. But small scale and limited though the trades – and hence the trading burghers – remained, they were sufficient to overthrow feudal society, and at least they continued to move forward, whereas the nobility stagnated. (...) In the fifteenth century the feudal system was thus in utter decline throughout Western Europe (...) But everywhere – in the towns and in the country alike – there had been an increase in the elements among the population whose chief demand was to put an end to the constant, senseless warring, to the feuds between the feudal lords which made internal war permanent even when there was a foreign enemy on their native soil (...)

We have seen how the feudal nobility started to become superfluous in economic terms, indeed a hindrance, in the society of the later Middle Ages – how it already stood in the way, politically, of the development of the towns and the national state which was then only possible in a monarchist form. In spite of all this, it had been sustained by the fact that it had hitherto possessed a monopoly over the bearing of arms: without it no wars could be waged, no battles fought. This too was to change; the last step would be taken to make it clear to the feudal nobles that the period in which they had ruled society and the state was now over, that they were no longer of any use in their capacity as knights – not even on the battlefield” (Collected Works, Vol.26, p 556 – 562, our emphasis).

These long developments by Engels are particularly interesting in the sense that they take us back both to the process of the “decadence of feudalism” and at the same time to the “rise of the bourgeoisie” and the transition to capitalism. In a few phrases they announce the four main features of any period of decadence of a mode of production and of transition to another:

a) The slow and gradual emergence of a new revolutionary class which is the bearer of new social relations of production within the old declining society: “While the nobility became increasingly superfluous and an ever greater obstacle to development, the burghers of the towns became the class that embodied the further development of production and trade, of culture and of the scoail and political institutions”. The bourgeoisie represented the new, the nobility stood for the Ancien Regime; it was only once its economic power had been somewhat consolidated within the feudal mode of production that the bourgeoisie would feel strong enough to dispute power with the aristocracy. Let’s note in passing that this formally refutes the Bordigist version of history, a particularly deformed vision of historical materialism which postulates that each mode of production experiences one perpetually ascendant movement which only a brutal event (revolution? crisis?) suddenly drags to the ground, almost vertically. At the end of this “redemptive” catastrophe, a new social regime emerges from the bottom of the abyss: “the marxist vision can be represented as a series of branches, of curves ascending to the summit and then succeeded by a violent, sudden, almost vertical fall; and, at the end of this fall, a new social regime arises” (Bordiga, Rome meeting of 1951, published in Invariance n°4).[8]

b) The dialectic between old and new at the level of the infrastructure: “All these advances in production and exchange were, in point of fact, by today’s standards, of a very limited nature. Production remained enthralled in the form of pure guild crafts, thus itself still retaining a feudal character; trade remained within the limits of European waters, and did not extend any further than the coastal towns of the Lavant, where the products of the Far east were acquired by exchange. But small scale and limited though the trades – and hence the trading burghers – remained, they were sufficient to overthrow feudal society, and at least they continued to move forward, whereas the nobility stagnated. (...) In the fifteenth century the feudal system was thus in utter decline throughout Western Europe”. However limited (“small scale”) the material progress made by the bourgeoisie, they were still enough to overturn a “stagnant” feudal society which was “thus in utter decline throughout Western Europe”, as Engels said. This also formally refutes another totally absurd, invented theory which holds that feudalism dies out because it was faced by a more effective mode of production which had, so to speak, outrun it in a race:

- “We have seen, in the preceding pages, that there are various ways a given mode of production can disappear (…) It can also be broken through from within by a rising form of production, to the point where the quantitative movement becomes a qualitative leap and the new form overturns the old one. This was the case with feudalism which gave birth to the capitalist mode of production” (Revue Internationale du Mouvement Communiste – RIMC);[9]

- “Feudalism disappeared due to the success of the market economy. Unlike slavery, it did not disappear because of a lack of productivity. On the contrary: the birth and development of capitalist production was made possible by the increasing productivity of feudal agriculture, which made the mass of peasants superfluous and enabled them to become proletarians and create enough surplus value to feed the growing population of the towns. Capitalism replaced feudalism not because the productivity of the latter became stagnant, but because it was inferior to the productivity of capitalist production” (Internationalist Perspectives, “16 theses on the history and state of the capitalist economy”).[10]

Marx, by contrast, speaks clearly about “the guilds and the fetters they laid on the free development of production” , about “feudal lordship and its revolting prerogatives”: “The industrial capitalists, these new potentates, had on their part not only to disgrace the guild masters of handicrafts, but also the feudal lords, the possessors of the sources of wealth. In this respect, their conquest of social power appears as the fruit of a victorious struggle both against feudal lordship and its revolting prerogatives, and against the guilds and the fetters they laid on the free development of production and the free exploitation of man by man” (Capital Vol. 1, Abstract of Chapter 26: The Secret of Primitive Accumulation. Lawrence and Wishart edition, p.669).

The analysis made by the founders of historical materialism, amply confirmed on the empirical level by historical studies,[11] is diametrically opposite to the ramblings of those who reject the theory of decadence. The analysis of the decadence of feudalism and the transition to capitalism was clearly enunciated in the Communist Manifesto when Marx tells us that “modern bourgeois society (…) has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society”; that world trade and colonial markets have given “an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development.

The feudal system of industry, in which industrial production was monopolized by closed guilds, now no longer suffices for the growing wants of the new markets… We see then: the means of production and of exchange, on whose foundation the bourgeoisie built itself up, were generated in feudal society. At a certain stage in the development of these means of production and of exchange, the conditions under which feudal society produced and exchanged, the feudal organization 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” (Collected Works, Vol. 6, p.485 – 489). For those who know how to read, Marx is very clear: he talks about a “tottering feudal society”. Why was feudalism in decadence? Because “the feudal relations of property became no longer compatible with the already developed productive forces; they became so many fetters”. It is within this feudal society in ruin that the transition to capitalism was to begin “modern bourgeois society… has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society”. Marx again developed this analysis in the Critique of Political Economy: “Only in the period of the decline and fall of the feudal system, but where it still struggles internally – as in England in the fourteenth and first half of the fifteenth centuries – is there a golden age for labour in the process of becoming emancipated”.[12] In order to characterise feudal decadence, which went from the beginning of the 14th century to the 18th century, Marx and Engels used numerous terms which admit of no ambiguity to anyone with a minimum of political honesty: “the feudal system was thus in utter decline throughout Western Europe”, “the nobility stagnated”, “the ruins of feudal society”, “tottering feudal society”, “the feudal relations of property (...) became so many fetters”, “the guilds and the fetters they laid on the free development of production”.[13]

c) The development of conflicts between different fractions of the ruling class: “While the wild battles of the ruling feudal nobility filled the Middle Ages with their clamour (...) the constant, senseless warring, (…) the feuds between the feudal lords which made internal war permanent even when there was a foreign enemy on their native soil”. What it could no longer procure through its economic and political domination over the peasantry, the feudal nobility tried to get hold of through violence. Confronted with growing difficulties in extracting enough surplus labour through feudal rents, the nobility began to tear itself apart in endless conflicts which had no other consequences than to ruin themselves and to ruin society as a whole. The Hundred Years War, which halved Europe's population, and the incessant monarchical wars, are the most striking examples.

d) The development of struggles by the exploited class: “the quiet work of the oppressed classes had undermined the feudal system throughout Western Europe, had created conditions in which less and less room remained for the feudal lord”. In the domain of social relations, the decadence of a mode of production takes the form of a quantitative and qualitative development of struggles between antagonistic classes: the struggle of the exploited class, which feels its misery all the more when exploitation is pushed to the limit by a desperate ruling class; struggles of the class which is the bearer of the new society and which comes up against the forces of the old social order (in past societies, this was always a new exploiting class; under capitalism, the proletariat is both the exploited class and the revolutionary class).

These long quotes about the end of the feudal mode of production and the transition to capitalism already fully demonstrate that the concept of decadence was not only theoretically defined by Marx and Engels, but that it was an operational scientific concept which they used to uncover the dynamic of the succession of modes of production which they had studied. It was thus perfectly logical for them to use this concept when they looked at primitive, Asiatic or ancient societies. Thus when they analysed the evolution of the slave mode of production, Max and Engels highlighted, in The German Ideology (1845-46) the general characteristics of decadence in this system: “The last centuries of the declining Roman Empire and its conquest by the barbarians destroyed a number of productive forces; agriculture had declined, industry had decayed for want of a market, trade had died out or been violently interrupted, the rural and urban population had decreased.” (The German Ideology, Part I: Feuerbach, Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook. Collected Works Vol.5 ,p.34, our emphasis). Similarly, in the analysis of primitive societies, we find the very core of Marx and Engels’ definition of the decadence of a mode of production: “The history of the decline of primitive communities …has still to be written. All we have so far are some rather meagre outlines… (secondly), the causes of their decline stem from economic facts which prevented them from passing a certain stage of development.” (First Draft of Letter To Vera Zasulich, 1881, Collected Works, Vol.24, p.358-359).

Finally, with the decadence of the Asiatic mode of production,[14] this is what Marx says in Capital when he compares the stagnation of Asiatic societies with the transition to capitalism in Europe: “Usury has a revolutionary effect in all pre-capitalist modes of production only in so far as it destroys and dissolves those forms of property on whose solid foundation and continual reproduction in the same form the political organization is based. Under Asian forms, usury can continue a long time, without producing anything more than economic decay and political corruption. Only where and when the other prerequisites of capitalist production are present does usury become one of the means assisting in establishment of the new mode of production by ruining the feudal lord and small-scale producer, on the one hand, and centralizing the conditions of labour into capital, on the other.” (Capital Vol. III Part V, Division of Profit into Interest and Profit of Enterprise. Interest-Bearing Capital, Chapter 36. Pre-Capitalist Relationships. Lawrence and Wishart edition, p.597).

The approach to the decadence of capitalism in Marx and Engels

There are those, who know perfectly well that Marx and Engels made abundant use of the concept of decadence for the modes of production that preceded capitalism, and yet who claim that “Marx only gave capitalism a progressive definition in the historic phase in which it eliminated the economic world of feudalism, engendering a vigorous period of development of the productive forces which had been inhibited by the previous economic form; but he did not go any further forward in a definition of decadence except for a one-off in his famous introduction to the Critique of Political Economy” (Prometeo n°8, December 2003). Nothing could be less true! Throughout their lives Marx and Engels analysed the evolution of capitalism and constantly tried to determine the criteria for the moment of its entry into decadence.

Thus, as early as the Communist Manifesto, they thought that capitalism had accomplished its historic mission and that the time was ripe for the passage to communism: “The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them (…) Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society”.[15]

We know that Marx and Engels later recognised that their diagnosis had been premature. Thus at the end of 1850 Marx wrote:While this general prosperity lasts, enabling the productive forces of bourgeois society to develop to the full extent possible within the bourgeois system, there can be no question of a real revolution. Such a revolution is only possible at a time when two factors come into conflict: the modern productive forces and the bourgeois forms of production (...) A new revolution is only possible as a result of a new crisis; but it will come, just as surely as the crisis itself” (Neue Rheinische Zeitung, May-October 1850).

And in a very interesting letter to Engels, dated 8th October 1858, Marx went into the qualitative criteria for determining the passage to the phase of the decadence, ie “the creation of the world market, at least in outline, and of the production based on that market”. In his opinion, these two criteria had been met for Europe – in 1858 he thought that the time for socialist revolution was ripe on the continent – but not yet for the rest of the globe where he still considered capitalism to be in its ascendant phase: “The proper task of bourgeois society is the creation of the world market, at least in outline, and of the production based on that market. Since the world is round, the colonisation of California and Australia and the opening up of China and Japan would seem to have completed this process. For us, the difficult question is this: on the Continent revolution is imminent and will, moreover, instantly assume a socialist character. Will it not necessarily be crushed in this little corner of the earth, since the movement of bourgeois society is still, in the ascendant over a far greater area?” (Correspondence, Marx To Engels in Manchester, 8 October 1858).

In Capital, Marx said that capitalism “thus demonstrates again that it is becoming senile and that it is more and more outlived” (Capital Vol. 3, Part 3: The Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall, Chapter 15: Exposition of the Internal Contradictions of the Law). And again in 1881, in the second draft of his letter to Vera Zasulitch, Marx argues that capitalism had entered its decadent phase in the West: “the capitalist system is past its prime in the West, approaching the time when it will be no more than a regressive social regime” (cited in Shanin, Late Marx and the Russian Road, RKP, p103). Again, for those who know how to read and have a basic degree of political honesty, the terms Marx uses to speak about the decadence of capitalism are unambiguous: period of senility, regressive social system, fetter on the development of the productive forces, system which has “more and more outlived” itself, etc.

Finally, Engels concluded this inquiry in 1895: “History has proved us, and all who thought like us, wrong. It has made it clear that the state of economic development on the Continent at that time was not, by a long way, ripe for the removal of capitalist production; it has proved this by the economic revolution which, since 1848, has seized the whole of the Continent (…) this only proves, once and for all, how impossible it was in 1848 to win social reconstruction by a simple surprise attack” (The Class Struggles In France, Introduction by Engels, 1895). In the words of Marx and Engels themselves, that “proves once and for all” the stupidity of the endless pages produced by parasitic elements about the possibility of the communist revolution from 1848 onwards: “We have on several occasions defended the thesis that communism has been possible since 1848” (Robin Goodfellow, ‘Communism as a historic necessity’, 1/2/04[16]). Stupidities unfortunately shared to a large extent by the Bordigists of the PCI, who in a very bad polemic reproach us for affirming, along with Marx and Engels, that “the conditions for the overthrow of a social form do not exist at the moment of its apogee”, claiming that this “throws into the dustbin a century of the existence and struggle of the proletariat and its party (…) all of a sudden neither the birth of communist theory, nor the meaning and lessons or the revolutions of the 19th century, can be understood” (PCI pamphlet n°29, Le Courant Communiste Internationale: a contre-courant du marxisme et de la lutte de classe).

Why is this argument totally inept? Because at the moment that Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto, there were indeed periodic slow-downs in growth, taking the form of cyclical crises, and in examining these crises, they were able to analyses all the expressions of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism. But these “revolts of the productive forces against modern relations of production” were simply youthful revolts. The outcome of these regular explosions was the strengthening of the system which, in a vigorous phase of growth, was able to rid itself of its childhood clothes and the last feudal obstacles in its path. In 1850, only 10% of the world population was integrated into capitalist social relations. The system of wage labour had its whole future in front of it. Marx and Engels had the brilliant perspicacity to see in capitalism’s crises of growth the essence of all its crises and thus to predict a future of profound convulsions. If they were able to do this, it is because, from its birth, a social form carries within itself in germ all the contradictions which will lead to its demise. But as long as these contradictions had not developed to the point where they became a permanent barrier to growth, they constituted the very motor of this growth. The sudden slow-downs in the capitalist economy in the 19th century were not at all like these permanent and growing barriers. Thus, taking forward Marx’s intuition about when capitalism would enter into decadence – with “the creation of the world market, at least in outline, and of the production based on that market” – Rosa Luxemburg was able to draw out the dynamic and the moment: “we have behind us the, so to speak, previous youthful crises which followed these periodic developments. On the other hand, we still have not progressed to that degree of development and exhaustion of the world market which would produce the fatal, periodic collision of the forces of production with the limits of the market, which is the actual capitalist crisis of old age (…) If the world market has now more or less filled out, and can no longer be enlarged by sudden extensions; and if, at the same time, the productivity of labour strides relentlessly forward, then in more or less time the periodic conflict of the forces of production with the limits of exchange will begin, and will repeat itself more sharply and more stormily” (Social Reform or Revolution, 1899; the second part of the quote is from the 1908 edition).

The notion of decadence in Marx’s Capital

We saw above that Marx and Engels made abundant use of the notion of decadence in their main writings on historical materialism and the critique of political economy (the German Ideology, Communist Manifesto, Anti-Dühring, Critique of Political Economy, the post-face to The Peasant War in Germany), but also in a number of letters and prefaces. What about the book that the IBRP considers to be Marx’s masterpiece? They claim that the term decadence “never appears in the three volumes of Capital”.[17] Apparently the IBRP has not read Capital very well because in all the parts where Marx deals either with the birth or the end of capitalism, the notion of decadence is indeed present!

Thus in the pages of Capital Marx confirms his analysis of the decadence of feudalism and within the latter, the transition to capitalism: “The economic structure of capitalistic society has grown out of the economic structure of feudal society. The dissolution of the latter set free the elements of the former (…) Although we come across the first beginnings of capitalist production as early as the 14th or 15th century, sporadically, in certain towns of the Mediterranean, the capitalistic era dates from the 16th century. Wherever it appears, the abolition of serfdom has been long effected, and the highest development of the Middle Ages, the existence of sovereign towns, has long been on the wane (...) The prelude of the revolution that laid the foundation of the capitalist mode of production, was played in the last third of the 15th, and the first decade of the 16th century” (Capital, Vol 1, Lawrence and Wishart edition, p. 668-9 and 672). Similarly, when Marx looks at capitalism’s insurmountable contradictions and when he envisages its replacement by communism, he indeed talks of “capitalism becoming senile”: "Here the capitalist mode of production is beset with another contradiction Its historical mission is unconstrained development in geometrical progression of the productivity of human labour. It goes back on its mission whenever, as here, it checks the development of productivity. It thus demonstrates again that it is becoming senile and that it is more and more outlived" (Marx, Capital, Vol III, Part III, Chapter 15, Exposition of the internal contradictions of the law, our emphasis).[18]

Let us note in passing that Marx envisages the period of capitalism’s senility as a phase where it has more and more “outlived itself”, where it becomes an obstacle to the development of productivity. This once again gives the lie to another theory invented wholesale by the group Internationalist Perspectives, according to which the decadence of capitalism (but also of feudalism, see above) is characterised by a full development of the productive forces and of the productivity of labour![19]

Finally, in another passage from Capital, Marx recalls the general process of the succession of historical modes of production: “But each specific historical form of this process further develops its material foundations and social forms. Whenever a certain stage of maturity has been reached, the specific historical form is discarded and makes way for a higher one. The moment of arrival of such a crisis is disclosed by the depth and breadth attained by the contradictions and antagonisms between the distribution relations, and thus the specific historical form of their corresponding production relations, on the one hand, and the productive forces, the production powers and the development of their agencies, on the other hand. A conflict then ensues between the material development of production and its social form” (Marx, Capital, Vol III, Part VI, Chapter 51 “Distribution Relations and Production Relations”).[20]

Here he takes up the terminology he used in the Critique of Political Economy which we will examine below. But first let us just point out that what is true for Capital is also true for the various preparatory works for it, where the notion of decadence is amply present.[21] The best advice we can give the IBRP is to go back to school and learn how to read.

The notion of decadence as defined by Marx in the Critique of Political Economy

This is how Marx summarises the main results of his research in 1859 in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy: “The general conclusion at which I arrived and which, once reached, became the guiding principle of my studies, can be summarised as follows.

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.

The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

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. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production.

No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the tasks itself arises only when the material conditions of its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.

In broad outlines Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society. The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production — antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonisms, but of one arising form the social conditions of life of the individuals; at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism. This social formation brings, therefore, the prehistory of society to a close” (our emphasis).

Our critics have the habitual dishonesty of avoiding the question of decadence by systematically transforming and reinterpreting the writings of Marx and Engels. This is especially the case with this extract from the Critique of Political Economy, which they claim – wrongly as we have already seen to be the only place where Marx talks about decadence! Thus for the IBRP, Marx, in this passage, is talking, not about two clearly distinct phases in the historical evolution of the capitalist mode of production, but about the recurrent phenomenon of the economic crisis: “It’s the same when the defenders of this analysis [of decadence -ed] are pushed to cite the other phrase by Marx, according to which, at a certain level of the development of capitalism, the productive forces enter into contradiction with the relations of production, thus developing the process of decadence. The fact is that the expression in question relates to the phenomenon of the general crisis and the break in the relationship between the economic structure and the ideological superstructures which can generate class episodes heading in a revolutionary direction, and not to the question under discussion” Prometeo n°8, December 2003).

In itself, the quote from Marx leaves no room for ambiguity. It is clear, limpid, and follows the same logic as all the other extracts referred to in this article. From his letter to J Wedemeyer, we know how much Marx saw historical materialism as his real theoretical contribution, and when he summarises “the general conclusion at which I arrived and which, once reached, became the guiding principle of my studies”, he is talking precisely about the evolution of modes of production, their dynamics and contradictions articulated around the dialectical relation between the social relations of production and the productive forces. In a few phrases, Marx sums up the whole arc of human evolution: “In broad outlines Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society. The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production (…) This social formation brings, therefore, the prehistory of society to a close”. Nowhere, contrary to the IBRP’s claims, does Marx invoke recurrent cycles of crises, periodic collisions between the productive forces and the social relations of production, or periods of changes in the rate of profit; Marx is working on another scale, on the grand scale of the evolution of modes of production, of historical “epochs”. In this extract, like all the others we have cited, Marx clearly defines two broad phases in the historical evolution of a mode of production: an ascendant phase where the social relations of production push forward and facilitate the development of the productive forces, and a decadent phases in which “from forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters”. Marx makes it clear that this change takes place at a precise moment – “at a certain stage of their development” and does not speak at all about “recurrent and ever-increasing collisions” as in the IBRP’s improper interpretation. Furthermore, on several occasions in Capital Marx uses formulae that are identical to those in the Critique of Political Economy; and when he refers to the historically limited character of capitalism, he talks about two distinct phases in its evolution: “capitalist production meets in the development of its productive forces a barrier which has nothing to do with the production of wealth as such; and this peculiar barrier testifies to the limitations and to the merely historical, transitory character of the capitalist mode of production; testifies that for the production of wealth, it is not an absolute mode, moreover, that at a certain stage it rather conflicts with its further development” (Capital, Vol III, Part III, Chapter 15, op.cit.), or again when he argues that capitalism “demonstrates again that it is becoming senile and that it is more and more outlived” (op cit).

We can forgive the IBRP for having some trouble in understanding Marx’s Critique of Political Economy – anyone can make a mistake. But when errors are repeated, even when it comes to quotes from what the IBRP sees as its Bible (Capital), this is more than a one-off failing.

As for our parasitic critics, they like to go in for long syntactical dissections. For RIMC, “the ICC takes the trouble to underline the phrase ‘So begins’, no doubt in order to put the accent, like the good gradualists they are, on the progressive character of the movement which it thinks it has identified. But we could just as well underline the words ‘social revolution’, which signifies precisely the opposite, since a revolution is the violent overturning of the existing order, in other words, a brutal and qualitative break in the ordering of things and events” (RIMC, ‘Dialectique’, op cit). Again, for anyone who can read, Marx talks about the opening of an “epoch of social revolution” (an “epoch” is a whole period in which a new order of things is established) and he argues that this change can last some time since he tells us that “With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed”. Farewell to the “sudden, violent, almost vertical fall, and, in the end, a new social regime arises”, Bordiga’s phrase repeated by the RIMC! Unlike the latter, Marx does not confuse a “change in the economic foundations” and a political revolution. The first slowly unfolds within the old society; the second is briefer, more circumscribed in time, although it can also stretch out for some time since the overthrow of the political power of an old ruling class by a new ruling class usually takes place after numerous aborted attempts, which may include temporary restorations after short-lived victories.

The political significance of these criticisms

As far as the parasitic grouplets are concerned, their essential function is to cloud political clarity, to set Marx against the communist left and thus to create a barrier between the new searching elements and the revolutionary groups. With them things are clear. We only have to show how central was the theory of decadence in the work of Marx and Engels to annihilate all their claims that this is “a theory which deviates totally from the communist programme (…) such a method of analysis has nothing to do with communist theory (…) from the point of view of historical materialism the concept of decadence has no coherence. It is not part of the theoretical arsenal of the communist programme. As such it has to be totally rejected (…) No doubt the ICC will use this quote (from Marx’s first draft letter to Vera Zasulitch) since it uses the word ‘decadence’ twice, which is rare in Marx, for whom the term had no scientific value”. (RIMC, ‘Dialectique’, op cit). Such assertions are totally absurd. Motivated by a parasitic, anti-ICC concern, the only thing these allegations have in common is to exclude the concept of decadence from the work of Marx and Engels. Thus for Aufheben,[22]the theory of capitalist decline appeared for the first time in the Second International”, whereas for the RIMC (‘Dialectique’) it was born after the First World War: “the goal of this work is to make a global and definitive critique of the concept of ‘decadence’ which, as one of its major deviations born after the first post-war period, poisons communist theory and because of its obviously ideological character hinders any scientific work aimed at restoring communist theory”. Finally, for Internationalist Perspectives (“Towards a new theory of the decadence of capitalism”), Trotsky was the inventor of this concept: “the concept of the decadence of capitalism arose in the Third International, where it was developed in particular by Trotsky…”. Who can understand this? If there is one thing that must be obvious by now to the reader who has looked at the extracts from Marx and Engels used in this article, it is that the notion of decadence has its real origins precisely there, in their historical materialist method. Not only is this notion right at the heart of historical materialism and is defined very precisely at the theoretical and conceptual level, but it is also used as an operational scientific tool in the concrete analysis of the evolution of different modes of production. And if so many organisations of the workers’ movement have developed the notion of decadence, as the writings of the parasitic groups recognise despite themselves, it is simply because this notion is at the heart of marxism!

The Bordigists of the PCI have never accepted the analysis of decadence developed by the Italian Communist Left in exile between 1928 and 1945,[23] despite their claim of historical continuity with it. Bordigism’s act of birth in 1952 was marked by the rejection of the concept;[24] while Battaglia Comunista[25] maintained the principal acquisitions of the Italian left on this point, the elements around Bordiga moved away from them when they founded the Parti Communiste Internationale. Despite, this major theoretical regression, the PCI has nevertheless always remained in the internationalist camp of the communist left. It has always been rooted in historical materialism and in fact, whatever its level of awareness, has always defended the broad lines of the analysis of decadence! To prove this, we need only cite its own basic positions on the back of all its publications: “Imperialist world wars show that capitalism’s crisis of disintegration is inevitable owing to the fact that it has entered definitively into the period in which its expansion no longer historically exalts the growth of the productive forces, but ties their accumulation to repeated and growing destructions” (basically, the ICC says nothing different!).[26] We can cite a number of passages from their own texts where the very notion of the decadence of capitalism is recognised implicitly or explicitly: “while we insist on the cyclical nature of the crises and catastrophes of world capitalism, that in no way affects the general definition of its present stage, a stage of decadence in which ‘the objective premises for the proletarian revolution are not only ripe, but overripe’ as Trotsky put it” (Programme Communiste no. 81). And yet today, in its pamphlet criticising our positions, it tries over several pages to make a (very bad) polemic against the concept of decadence, without realising that it is once again contradicting itself: “because since 1914 the revolution and only the revolution has everywhere and always been on the agenda, i.e that the objective conditions are present everywhere, it is impossible to explain the absence of this revolution except by resorting to subjective factors: what’s lacking for the revolution to break out is only the consciousness of the proletariat. This is a deformed echo of the false positions of the great Trotsky at the end the 1930s. Trotsky also thought that the productive forces had reached the maximum possible under the capitalist regime and that consequently the objective conditions for the revolution were ripe (and that they had even begun to be ‘over-ripe’): the only obstacle was therefore to be found at the level of the subjective conditions” (PCI pamphlet no. 29). The mysteries of invariance!

As for Battaglia Comunista, it has to be said, despite its claims of continuity with the positions of the Italian Fraction of the International Communist Left,[27] that it is heading back to its Bordigist roots. Having rejected the positions of Bordiga in 1952 and having re-appropriated certain lessons from the Italian left in exile, today its explicit abandonment of the theory of decadence, developed precisely by the Fraction,[28] takes Battaglia back to the sides of the Parti Communiste Internationale. It’s a return to sources, since both in the founding platform of 1946 and the platform of 1952, the notion of decadence is absent. The political vagueness of these two programmatic documents when it comes to understanding the period opened by the First World War has always been the matrix of the weaknesses and oscillations of Battaglia Comunista in the defence of class positions.

Finally, this examination has also allowed us to see that the writings of the founding fathers of marxism are very far from the different versions of historical materialism defended by all our critics. We are waiting for them to demonstrate, with the aid of the writings of Marx and Engels as we have done in this article with the concept of decadence, the validity of their own vision of the succession of modes of production! In the meantime, their rather grandiose pretensions to being experts in marxism make us smile a bit; knowing the works of Marx and Engels, we are assured of never losing our sense of humour.

When flattery takes the place of a political line

For page after page the IFICC[29] claims that it is fighting against a supposed degeneration of our organisation, focusing on our analysis of the balance of class forces, our orientation for intervention in the class struggle, our theory of the decomposition of capitalism, our attitude towards the regroupment of revolutionaries, our internal functioning, etc. It argues that the ICC is in its death agony and that now the IBRP represents the pole of clarification and regroupment: “With the opening of the course towards opportunism, sectarianism and defeatism by the official ICC, the IBRP is now at the centre of the dynamic towards the construction of the party”. This declaration of love is even accompanied by a pure and simple political alignment on the positions of the IBRP: “We are conscious that divergences exist between this organisation and ourselves, particular, on questions of methods of analysis more than on political positions” (Bulletin n°23). With a stroke of the pen, the IFICC, valiant defender of the orthodoxy of the ICC’s platform, eliminates all the important political divergences between the ICC and the IBRP. But there’s something even more significant. At a time when something which is at the very heart of the ICC platform – the question of decadence – has for two years been more or less openly put into question by the IBRP,[30] and has been subjected to a very dishonest critique by the PCI (Programme Communiste), the IFICC finds nothing better to do than keep quiet in all languages and even to regret that we are taking up the defence of the analytical framework of decadence against the deviations of the PCI and the IBRP: “This is how they put into question the proletarian character of this organisation and of the IBRP by rejecting both of them to the margins of the proletarian camp (see International Review n°115)” (presentation to the IFICC Bulletin n°22)!

So far, the IFICC has managed to write no less than four articles on the subject of the decadence of capitalism (Bulletin n°19 ,20, 22 and 24). These articles are pompously entitled ‘Debate within the proletarian camp’, but the reader will not find the slightest reference to the IBRP’s abandonment of the concept of decadence! He will however find the habitual diatribe against our organisation claiming in the most ridiculous way that we are the ones abandoning the theory of decadence! Not a word on the IBRP which is explicitly putting the theory of decadence into question, and, on the other hand, bitter attacks on the ICC which intransigently defends this concept!

Four months after the publication by the IBRP of a new and long article explaining why it is putting into question the theory of decadence as elaborated by the communist left (Prometeo n°8, December 2003), the IFICC, in the presentation to its Bulletin n°24, April 2004, devotes a single line to applauding this “fundamental contribution”: “We salute the work of the comrades of the PCInt who have shown their concern to clarify the question. No doubt we will have occasion to come back to this”. The article by the IBRP is obviously not seen for what it is – a serious retreat on the programmatic level – but is played up as a contribution to the combat against our supposed political deviations: “the crisis into which the ICC is more and more sinking today is pushing the groups of the proletarian camp to go back over this question of decadence; this expresses their involvement in the combat against the opportunist slide of a group of the proletarian political milieu, their participation in a struggle to save what can be saved from the disaster of the opportunist slide of our organisation. We salute this effort…

When flattery takes the place of a political line, it’s no longer just opportunism, it’s arse-licking. To cover up their behaviour as thugs and informers with a pseudo-political varnish, the IFICC rapidly ‘discovered’ important differences with the ICC, notably by ridding itself of our analysis of the decomposition of capitalism.[31] The IFICC has had to eliminate what is politically most “unpopular” among the groups of the revolutionary milieu in order to approach them and get recognised by them. Thus it bends the knee to those it flatters. But they don’t seem to be taking the bait: “While we don’t exclude the possibility that individuals could come out of the ICC and join our ranks, it is quite impossible for there to arise from within it groups or fractions which, in the debate with their own organisation, arrive en bloc at positions which converge with ours (…) Such a result could only come from a complete questioning, or rather, a break with the practical, political and general programmatic positions of the ICC and not just their modification or improvement” (ICP pamphlet n°29). We couldn’t put it better ourselves! Having rid itself of the theory of decomposition, the IFICC is ready to reduce all the political divergences between the ICC and the IBRP to a few minor questions of “method of analysis”; tomorrow it will be quite prepared to dump the theory of decadence in order to seduce groups hostile to these two concepts, and thus to continue its dirty and thoroughly dishonest work of trying to isolate the ICC from the rest of the groups of the proletarian political milieu.

C. Mcl.

[1] See the preceding series of 8 articles entitled ‘Understanding the decadence of capitalism’ in International Review n°48, 49, 50, 54, 55, 56, 58 and 60.

[2] See our articles in International Review n°77 and 78 on the rejection of the theory of decadence and war by the International Communist Party /Programme Communiste, and the articles in International Review n°79, 82, 83 and 86 on the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party and war, the historic crisis of capitalism and globalisation.

[3] See International Review n°105 and 105 in response to a letter from Australia and n°111 and 112 in response to new revolutionary elements emerging in Russia

[4] Properly speaking from the 16th century up to the bourgeois revolutions in the context of feudal decadence, and from the bourgeois revolutions to 1914 in the context of the ascendant phase of capitalism.

[5] Manifestes, thèses, et résolutions des quatre premiers congrès mondiaux de l'Internationale Communiste 1919-23, Maspero, our translation from the French, our emphasis.

[6] In the article “The economic crisis shows the bankruptcy of capitalist social relations of production” in International Review n°115, we already had occasion to show that the refusal of the IBRP and the PCI (Programme Communiste) to base themselves on his framework of analysis is at the root of their tendency to slide towards leftism and alternative worldism and away from the marxist analysis of the crisis and the social position of the working class.

[7] To those who like to set Marx and against Engels, note the following: “I must note in passing that inasmuch as the mode of outlook expounded in this book was founded and developed in the far greater measure by Marx, and only to an insignificant degree by myself, it was self-understood between us that this exposition of mine should not be issued without his knowledge. I read the whole manuscript to him before it was printed, and the tenth chapter of the part on economics (“From Kritische Geschicte”) was written by Marx but unfortunately had to be shortened somewhat by me for purely external reasons”. (Preface by Engels, to the second edition, 23rd September 1885, Collected Works, Vol. 25, p.9).

[8] For a critique of the Bordigist conception of historical evolution, see our article in International Review n°54, pp 14-19).

[9] “Dialectique des forces productives et des rapports de production dans la theorie communiste” published in the Revue Internationale du Mouvement Commmuniste, written jointly by Communisme ou Civilisation, Communismo L’Union Proletarien and available at the following address: http://membres.lycos.fr/rgood/formprod.htm

[11] See the interesting book by Guy Bois, La grande depression médiévale, XIVe et XV siècle, PUF.

[12] Grundrisse, “Forms which precede capitalist production”. See http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch09.htm#iiie2

[13] Simply recalling the analyses of Marx and Engels is enough to reply to the limitless historical stupidities of parasitic groups like Internationalist Perspectives, Robin Goodfellow (ex-Communisme ou Civilisation and RIMC) etc, who end up affirming the exact opposite of the founders of historical materialism and of undeniable historical facts. We will however take the opportunity to come back in more detail to their meanderings in future articles because, unfortunately, they can have a negative influence on young elements who are not solidly rooted in marxist positions.

[14] This type of mode of production was identified by Marx in Asia, but it was not at all limited to this geographical region. Historically, it corresponds to the megalithic or Egyptian societies, etc, going back to 4000 years BC, the culmination of a slow process of society dividing into classes. The social differentiation which developed with the appearance of an economic surplus and the emergence of material wealth led to a political power in the form of a royal state. Slavery could exist within it, even to a considerable degree (servants, labourers on great public works, etc), but it only rarely dominated agricultural production; it was not yet the dominant form of production. Marx gave it a clear definition in Capital: “Should the direct producers not be confronted by a private landowner, but rather, as in Asia, under direct subordination to a state which stands over them as their landlord and simultaneously as sovereign, then rent and taxes coincide, or rather, there exists no tax which differs from this form of ground-rent. Under such circumstances, there need exist no stronger political or economic pressure than that common to all subjection to that state. The state is then the supreme lord. Sovereignty here consists in the ownership of land concentrated on a national scale” (Vol III, Part VI, “Genesis of Capitalist Ground-Rent”). All these societies disappeared between 1000 and 500 BC. Their decadence was manifested in recurrent peasant revolts, in a gigantic development of unproductive state expenditure and in incessant wars between states trying through plunder to find a solution to internal blockages of production. Endless political conflicts and internecine rivalries within the ruling caste exhausted society’s resources, and the geographical limits to the expansion of empires showed that the maximum degree of development compatible with the relations of production had been reached.

[15] These same disgruntled characters, in order to limit the significance of this sentence from the Manifesto, like to argue that this extract refers not to the general process of the passage from one mode of production to another but to the periodic return of conjunctural crises of overproduction that open up the possibility of a revolutionary outcome. Nothing could be further from the truth; the context of the extract is unambiguous, coming just after Marx has recalled the historic process of the transition between feudalism and capitalism. Furthermore, the whole argument distorts the objectives of the Manifesto, which was entirely devoted to showing the transitory character of modes of production and thus of capitalism; it did not seek to provide a detailed examination of the functioning of capitalism and its periodic crises, as would be the case with Capital later on.

[16] Or again, the theory of decadence takes “the whole of communist theory to the realm of ideology and utopia since it would be posed outside any material base [in the ascendant phase – ed]. Humanity does not set itself problems which it cannot resolve practically. In these conditions, why lay claim to the positions of Marx and Engels? We would have to make the same criticism of them that they made of the utopian socialists. Scientific socialism would not be a break with utopian socialism but a new episode within the latter” (Robin Goodfellow, http://members.lycos.fr/resdint).

[17]What role then does the concept of decadence play in terms of the militant critique of political economy, ie for a deeper analysis of the characteristics and dynamic of capitalism in the period in which we live? None. To the extent that the word itself never appears in the three volumes constituting Capital. It is not through the concept of decadence that one can explain the mechanics of the crisis…” (“Comments on the Latest Crisis of the ICC”, Internationalist Communist n°21, p.23)

[19]Finally, the propensity of capital to increase productivity, and thereby to develop the productive forces, does not decrease in its decadent phase (...) The existence of capitalism in its decadent phase, tied to the production of surplus value extracted from living capital but faced with the fact that the mass of surplus value tends to diminish as the level of surplus labour increases, forces it to accelerate the development of the productive forces at an increasingly frenetic pace” (Perspective Internationaliste, "Valeur, décadence et technologie, 12 thèses", http://users.skynet.be/ippi/3thdecad.htm, our translation).

[21] "The relations of domination and slavery (...) constitute a necessary ferment for the development and decline of all the original relations of property and production, just as they express their limited nature. For all that, they are reproduced in capital – in a mediated form – and they thus also constitute a ferment for its dissolution and are the emblem of its own limited nature” (Grundrisse, Editions Sociales, 1980, tome I : 438, our translation from the French). Later on, Marx writes: "From an ideal point of view, the dissolution of a given form of consciousness should be enough to kill an entire epoch. From a real point of view, this limit on consciousness corresponds to a given degree of the development of the material productive forces and therefore of wealth. In reality, the development did not take place on the old basis, it was the basis itself that developed. The maximum development of this basis itself (...) is the point where it has itself been elaborated to take the form in which it is compatible with the maximum development of the productive forces, and therefore also with the richest development of the individual. Once this point has been reached, further development appears as a decline and the new development begins on a new basis" (Grundrisse, Editions Sociales, 1980, tome II : 33, our translation from the French). Then again, in 1857, in the Grundrisse Marx speaks of the historical evolution of different modes of production and their ability to understand and criticise themselves in these terms: "The so-called historical presentation of development is founded, as a rule, on the fact that the latest form regards the previous ones as steps leading up to itself, and, since it is only rarely and only under quite specific conditions able to criticize itself—leaving aside, of course, the historical periods which appear to themselves as times of decadence—it always conceives them one-sidedly" (“The method of political economy”, see http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch01.htm#3).

[22] “On decadence: theory of decline or decline of theory” is a text by the British group Aufheben.

[23] See our book The Italian Communist Left.

[24] Read Bordiga’s critical reflections on the theory of decadence, written in 1951: ‘La doctrine du diable au corps’, republished in le Proletaire no. 464 (the PCI’s paper in France); also ‘Le renversement de la praxis dans la theorie marxiste’, republished in Programme Communiste no. 56 (the PCI’s theoretical review in French), as well as the proceedings of the 1951 Rome meeting published in Invariance no. 4

[25] Battaglia Comunista, along with the Communist Workers’ Organisation, is one of the founding organisations of the IBRP.

[26] In a recent pamphlet, entirely devoted to the critique of our positions (‘le Courant Communiste Internationale: a contre courant du marxisme et de la lutte de classe’), the PCI, carried away by its own prose, contradicts its own basic positions by arguing that “the ICC sees a whole series of phenomena such as the necessity for capital to periodically destroy itself as a condition for a new phase of accumulation…for the ICC these phenomena are supposedly new and are interpreted as the manifestations of decadence…and not as the expression of the development and strengthening of the capitalist mode of production “ (page 8). The PCI should tell us yes or no, as its basic statement of positions would seem to indicate, whether “imperialist world wars show that capitalism’s crisis of disintegration is inevitable owing to the fact that it has entered definitively into the period in which its expansion no longer historically exalts the growth of the productive forces, but ties their accumulation to repeated and growing destructions” - or whether, as it argues in its pamphlet “the necessity for capital to periodically destroy itself” is not a “manifestation of decadence” but “the expression of the development and strengthening of the capitalist mode of production”! Apparently programmatic invariance depends on what you happen to be saying at one moment or another!

[27]In conclusion, while the political émigrés, those who took on the entire work of the Left Fraction, did not take the initiative to form the Internationalist Communist Party in 1943, the party was founded on the bases which the Fraction defended from 1927 until the war” (introduction to the political platform of the Internationalist Communist Party, publications of the International Communist Left, 1946)

[28]The historical stakes under decadent capitalism. Since the opening of the imperialist phase of capitalism at the beginning of the present century, evolution has oscillated between imperialist war and proletarian revolution. In the epoch of the growth of capitalism, wars cleared the way for the expansion of the productive forces through destroying obsolete relations of production. In the phase of capitalist decadence, wars have no other function than to carry out the destruction of an excess of wealth…” (Resolution on the constitution of the International Bureau of the Fractions of the Communist Left, Octobre no. 1, February 1938); “the 1914-18 war marked the final end of the phase of expansion of the capitalist regime…In the ultimate phase of capitalism, the phase of decline, it’s the fundamental stakes of the class struggle which determines historical evolution” (Manifesto of the International Bureau of the Fractions of the Communist Left, Octobre no. 3, April 1938).

[29] A so-called “Internal Fraction” of our organisation which regroups a few ex-members whom we had to expel because they behaved like informers (having previously stolen money and material and slandered our organisation). See “The police-like methods of the IFICC” on our website.

[30] We responded as early as October 2002 to the appearance of the first indications that the IBRP was abandoning the notion of decadence (cf International Review nº111). A year later we made a substantial critique in International Review nº115

[31] These elements shared the analysis of decomposition when they were still members of the ICC (see our article “Understanding the decomposition of capitalism” in International Review n°117).