War in the decadence of capitalism - introduction to the series

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Our organisation has undertaken a series of articles on the marxist concept of the decadence of a mode of production, and more particularly of the decadence of the capitalist mode of production. This series is demanded by the need to reaffirm and develop the basic marxist analysis of the evolution of human societies, which is the basis for understanding the possibility and necessity of communism. This is the only analysis which makes it possible to offer a framework which can integrate into a coherent whole all the phenomena in the life of capitalism since the First World War. This series was also made necessary by the criticisms, evasions, and even open abandonment of this analytical framework by different revolutionary groups and elements.

The series began in International Review nº118 with an initial article showing the central place accorded to the theory of decadence in the work of the founders of marxism. After that, given that the confrontation of divergences within the revolutionary milieu – with a view to clarifying them – is a priority for us, we wrote two polemical articles (International Review nº119 and nº 120) which reacted vigorously against the thinly-veiled abandonment of this fundamental Marxist concept by the IBRP.[1] Finally, we continued our series by examining the central place this concept occupied in the organisations of the workers’ movement from Marx’s day to the Third International (IR nº121) as well as in the political positions of the latter at its first two Congresses (IR nº123). Before continuing in a future issue with the discussion on the decadence of capitalism that was held at the Third Congress of the Communist International, we are again undertaking a polemic with the IBRP on the article "The economic role of war in the decadent phase of capitalism" written by the CWO and published in Revolutionary Perspectives nº 37 (November 2005).[2]

In this article the CWO tries to show that there is an economic rationality to war in the sense that the prosperity which follows it is “the economic effect of war is to [devalue capital and] increase profit rates”   and that “world wars have become essential for capitalism’s survival since the start of the 20th century and that they have replaced decennial crises of the 19th century. In order to do this, it bases its analysis of the crisis of capitalism solely on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall which Marx uncovered. In the same article the CWO accuses us of abandoning the materialist method by invoking our refusal to attribute an economic rationality to wars in the decadence of capitalism as well as in our analysis of the present phase of capitalist decomposition.

In our response we propose to consider the following five themes:

1.        We will show that the IBRP has a very partial understanding of Marx’s analysis of the dynamic and contradictions of the capitalist mode of production. We have already amply criticised this approach inherited from Paul Mattick (1904-81),[3] an approach which makes the CWO incapable of going to the roots of the decadence of capitalism, its crises, and in particular the numerous wars which are one of the most significant expressions of the bankruptcy of the system. We intend to deepen this question by showing the basic divergence between the CWO’s analysis and that of Marx, and by bringing out the latter’s views more explicitly.

2.        We will show that there is no mechanical causal link between the economic crisis and war even if the latter is indeed in the last instance an expression of the bankruptcy and of the aggravation of the system’s economic contradictions. We will see that the prosperity that followed the Second World War was not the result of the destruction which took place during the war. We will explain why it is quite false to assimilate the wars of decadence with the ten-year cycle of crises in the 19th century and finally show how the real economic mechanism of war is 180° removed from the speculative meanderings of the CWO

3.        We will examine how this theory of the economic function of  war for the survival of capitalism – as presented by the CWO – has no tradition in the workers’ movement. It actually has its roots in the economistic analyses of the councilist Paul Mattick in his book Marx and Keynes (1969). Even if it’s true that a part of the Italian left was not devoid of ambiguities on this question, it never analysed the role of war in the way the CWO does, i.e. as a veritable fountain of youth that allows the rate of profit to regenerate itself thanks to the destruction of war![4]   

4.        We will theoretically and empirically refute any idea of the rationality of war in the period of the decadence of capitalism. Here it is clear that, since the beginning of the 80s we have re-forged the link with the whole tradition of the workers’ movement which, as we shall see, has always refused to attribute an economic function to wars in the decadence of capitalism.

5.        Finally, we will show that the method of analysis which is at the basis of the idea of the economic necessity of war for the survival of capitalism derives from a vulgar materialism which completely evacuates the dimension of class struggle from any understanding of social evolution. This bastardised version of historical materialism prevents the CWO from understanding the origins of the phase of decomposition of a mode of production as Marx developed the idea.

In conclusion, it will appear clearly that while inter-imperialist war has occupied a central place in the workers’ movement, it is not because of any “economic role in the survival of capitalism” as the IBRP claims but because it marked the opening of the period of decadence for the capitalist mode of production; because it issued a challenge to the workers’ movement, posing a question which has always been at the root of its most important splits – the question of proletarian internationalism; because, owing to the misery it engendered, it led to the outbreak of the first world wide revolutionary wave (1917-23); because it marked a political test for all the communist groups who rejected Stalinism at the time of the Second World War; because imperialist wars represent an immense destruction of the whole patrimony of humanity (its productive forces, its historical and cultural wealth, etc), and notably of its main component: the working class and its avant-garde. In short, if war has been such an important question for the workers’ movement, it was not essentially for any economic reason but above all for social, political and imperialist reasons.




[1] The CWO is, with Battaglia Comunista (BC) one of the two co-founders of the IBRP (International Bureau for the Revolutionary party). Given that they defend the same position regarding the analysis of war, our article will refer to and criticise both organisations.


[2] To get a better idea of these differences, we refer the reader to our articles in the following issues of the IR: IR 12: ‘Some answers from the ICC to the CWO’; IR 13 ‘Marxism and crisis theory’; IR 16 ‘Economic theories’; IR 19 "On imperialism"; IR 22  "Theories of crisis"; IR 82 ‘The IBRP’s conception of decadence and the question of war’’; IR 83 "The nature of imperialist war: reply to the IBRP"; IR 84 "Theories of the historic crisis of capitalism: response to the IBRP"; ‘IR 121  "The descent into the inferno’"


[3] A militant of the Spartacist youth movement from the age of 14, he was the delegate to the to the workers’ councils of the Siemens factories in Berlin during the revolutionary period. In 1920, he left the Communist Party (KPD) and joined the KAPD (the Communist Workers Party of Germany). In 1926 he emigrated to the USA with other comrades, He participated in the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World – see our article in IR nº 124) and later joined a small council communist group which published Living Marxism (1938-41) and New Essays (1942-43), of which he was the editor. He published a number of works, some of which have been published in several languages.


[4]The devaluation of capital during war and its outright destruction creates a situation for the surviving capital where the mass of profit available is at the disposal of a much diminished constant capital. Hence, the profitability of the remaining capital is increased… It is estimated that during the First World War 35% of the accumulated wealth of mankind was destroyed or squandered in four years…. It was on the basis of this devaluation of capital and cheapening of labour power that rates of profit were increased and it was on this that the recovery period up to 1929 was based…. The organic composition of US capital was reduced by 35% during the war and only regained the level of 1940 at the start of the 1960’s. This was largely achieved by devaluation of constant capital… It was this increase in the rate of profit in the post-war period which allowed a new phase of accumulation to start.. The general recovery was based on the increased profit rates brought about by the economic effects of the war. We argue that world wars have become essential for capitalism’s survival since the start of the 20th century”  Revolutionary Perspectives nº 37.