Polemic with Aufheben: An attack on the theory of decadence is an attack on Marxism

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The Aufheben review has published, in its second issue, and article that claims that: “The theory of capitalist decline or the decadence of capitalism hinders the project of abolishing that system.” The ICC is targeted in particular, since our organisation bases its defence of the interests of the working class in present day conditions on the understanding that capitalism is in its decadent phase.

But before we look more closely into their arguments, who are Aufheben?

At first sight it would seem that a political review claiming to offer revolutionary perspectives and calling itself ‘Aufheben’ was joking, making a Monty Pythonesque satire on the esoteric language of left-wing politics. Why in the first place use a German word which means ‘to go beyond by preserving and destroying’ for the title of a magazine for an English-speaking audience? An equivalent English word already exists: sublation. But why, more importantly, call a review claiming to be for the communist revolution by the word for such a general dialectical conception unless one deliberately wanted to be obscure? The communist revolution isn’t the only case where the new that replaces the old maintains and takes forward the content of the latter. A (very pretentious) magazine on say agriculture could also take the name Aufheben or sublation: a stalk of barley, for example, dies when its grains of barley have ripened and can germinate into new plants.

What does the dialectical process of sublation, which governs the evolution of many phenomena in nature and society, tell us concretely about the socialist revolution, its specific conditions, its protagonists and their respective interests? Not much: dialectics is not a shortcut to omniscience. The manner in which dialectical laws operate can only be uncovered by real investigation and experience. According to the dialectical philosopher Hegel, “the truth is always concrete”.

The Aufheben review however only defines itself by its name: it has no statement of class principles to delineate its intended contribution to the revolutionary movement.

Judging by the obscurantist name, Aufheben either want to amuse[1] us or confuse us.

Unfortunately, it would seem to be the latter.

What Aufheben wants to teach us

According to Aufheben the theory of capitalist decadence hinders the revolutionary overthrow of this social order because it is a “fatalist”, “economistic” theory, born with the 2nd International (1889 – 1914), which has reduced the role of the “revolutionary subject” to one of passively and contemplatively carrying out a sentence already issued in advance. In supposedly adopting this interpretation of Marxism, the ICC is consigned to the same camp as the Trotskyists. Aufheben on the other hand wants to find the elements for the “concrete development of the revolutionary subject” in an eclectic mix of Marxism and anarchism. In the post-war period, their attention is drawn to currents like Socialisme ou Barbarie, the Situationist International and the autonomists – in a word to modernist currents who already claimed to have ‘aufhebened’ Marxism with its economic objectivism.

What concerns Aufheben is not so much whether capitalism is decadent or not, whether it does indeed contain a motor of self-destruction, but the “fatalist” and “determinist” nature of the theory itself. It challenges not the correspondence of theory to reality but rather its “objectivism”. This interest in theory for theory’s sake, in a word academicism, is a fitting concern for a review called Aufheben.

The theory of decadence is intrinsic to Marxism

According to Aufheben then, the understanding that capitalism is necessarily finite is only the ‘Second International’ version of Marxism: “The theory of the decline of capitalism is an interpretation of Marx’s insight that capitalism is a transitory system, an interpretation that turns the notion of a particular dynamic development into a mechanistic and determinist theory of inevitable collapse”.

Just as Aufheben don’t know how to find the word ‘sublation’ in a dictionary, they don’t seem able to look up ‘transitory’. It means ‘not permanent, lasting only a short time’. If capitalism is transitory, then it must at some point inevitably disappear. And understanding the transitory nature of capitalism was more than an insight on Marx’s part; it was the fruit of more than two decades of scientific labour. It wasn’t the product of academia but of a revolutionary working class outlook which already outlined the basic dynamic of historical change. Historical materialism is the method of understanding the change from one form of society to another, of the coming into being and passing away of all modes of production. The need to grasp the specific ways these laws expressed themselves within capitalism was the driving force behind the writing of Capital.

In the Communist Manifesto, written in early 1848 at the request of the Communist League nearly twenty years before even the 1st International in 1864, we read these classic lines of Marxism: “The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by the enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means by which crises are prevented.”

Marxism, right from the beginning, predicted not an unending series of crises, but a trajectory towards collapse. In fact, Marx and Engels overestimated the speed with which capitalism would break down, and even believed the system was in decline while it was going through its most vigorous growth. It took several decades of capitalist development, the growth of imperialism, the experience of the working class and the theoretical research of the Marxist revolutionaries to really clarify the form in which capitalist decline would take place. This only shows that Marxism is not a set of holy truths, but a method for understanding reality from the working class viewpoint, which is inevitably enriched by the experience of the proletarian struggle, and the comprehension of that struggle.

The discovery of historic necessity is intrinsic to Marxism, and is in no way simply one interpretation of it by the Second International. It is the fundamental contribution of Marxism to the workers’ movement and is inseparable from it. The recognition of laws which govern historical development and thus the conditions for the proletarian revolution is the key feature which distinguishes Marxism from all the varieties of anarchism and utopianism.

Thus, when Aufheben attacks the theory of capitalist decadence as “mechanical”, “fatalist”, or “contemplative” it is really attacking Marxism itself. It is also, despite its name, attacking the dialectical conception of change, according to which every phenomenon or complex of phenomena necessarily contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

Of course, this dialectical conception doesn’t in itself prove the decline of capitalism. This has to be shown by real analytical work, and our recently expanded pamphlet on the decadence of capitalism is a contribution to this. Unfortunately, Aufheben themselves don’t raise themselves to this level of debate.

Marxism or Anarchism?

Aufheben don’t make any secret of their attack on Marxism. But, like many modernists engaged in this activity, they present their attack as a generous attempt to improve Marxism with what are really lethal doses of anarchism: “Marxism developed theory, anarchists have maintained the need for revolutionary practice”.

Perhaps Aufheben do just want us to have a good laugh after all.

Look at the history of the workers’ movement. Who, but the Marxists, with their respect for economic objectivity, insisted that the working class struggle for higher wages was a vital necessity – not only for defence but for taking the offensive against capitalism? Who, by contrast, counselled against this struggle in the name of socialism as an abstract ideal? The utopians, and the Proudhonist forerunners of anarchism.

Who was at the heart of the 1st International, an organisation which acted as a beacon for proletarians both in their economic struggles and when they ‘stormed heaven’ during the Paris Commune? Marx and Engels. Who intrigued with a secret organisation against this workers’ International? Bakunin and his anarchist followers. Who, on the basis that the working class could develop its strength within a still-expanding capitalism, supported the trade union struggle for social reforms by sending its representatives to parliament? The Marxists of the 2nd International. Who, on the other hand, in the name of the revolutionary phraseology, rejected this work in favour of terrorism and putschism? The anarchists.

Who was able to understand the new historical conditions opened up by the 1st World War, and to offer the only way out of imperialist slaughter, through socialist revolution? The ‘contemplative’ Marxists of the 2nd International: the Bolsheviks and Spartacists, Lenin and Trotsky, Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Who, on the other hand, confronted these same conditions in a later period of workers’ defeat, capitulated in front of triumphant reaction and even joined a capitalist government which shot down workers? The anarchists of the Spanish CNT.

Who finally drew the lessons of this defeat, and elaborated the principles for workers’ struggle in the new period (the reactionary nature of trade unionism and national liberation struggles, the lessons of the Russian Revolution, the role of soviets and the party, etc.)? The anarchist and modernist inspirers of Aufheben? Please, no more jokes. It was the ‘fatalist’, ‘mechanical’, ‘determinist’, ‘contemplative’ Marxists of the German and Italian Lefts.

It is not too difficult to see that Marxists have been practically decisive in the development of the revolutionary movement, and thus the concrete, rather than the phraseological struggle for communism. Marxism has no pretensions for infallibility: Marxist organisations have degenerated, but we always find that those who uncovered the reasons for their degeneration depended on the Marxist method and the rejection of the advice of anarchism.

Conversely, those anarchists who have participated on the side of the working class during imperialist wars and revolutions and during economic struggles have not done so because of anarchism but in spite of it.

If Aufheben still want to tell us that Marxism failed in the last revolutionary wave, we would have to tell them that it is they who are the real fatalists: ‘if it didn’t succeed it is because it was destined not to’. But Marxism is not fatalistic. If the collapse of capitalism was inevitable, the successful intervention of the working class is not. The victory of the latter depends upon conscious action: above all on the conviction that in the event of defeat barbarism is unavoidable.

Freedom and Necessity

What Aufheben wants to do is not supplement Marxist theory with anarchist practice, but undermine the former with a bluff characteristic of anarchist ‘theory’.

According to Aufheben, the theory of capitalist decadence (i.e. Marxism) reduces “ … revolutionary political activity to a reaction to an inevitable movement.” It “ … involves an essentially contemplative stance before the objectivity of capitalism …”. Its consequence is that “socialism is seen not as the free creation of the proletariat but as the natural result of economic development”.

Those unfamiliar with Marxism could quite easily be bamboozled by these arguments, particularly as they tend to regurgitate today’s official media diet which links Marxism with exactly those unappealing qualities. Who but a social democratic or Stalinist monk would choose grim historic necessity over free creativity, or prefer contemplation to activity?

But the alternatives posed by Aufheben are completely false: freedom does not lie in any imaginary independence from necessity, but in the recognition of necessity and action based on this recognition. Freedom and necessity are not mutually exclusive, they are opposites which interpenetrate. How they do so again has to be discovered concretely. Likewise, the relationship between the theory and practice, subject and object, consciousness and being. In framing the problem this way we are only following in the footsteps of Marx and Engels … and Hegel, who, as Engels said was the first to understand the real relationship between freedom and necessity.

Those, like Aufheben and their anarchist and modernist forebears, who want to completely oppose one to the other, and thus parade as free, rebellious spirits, are the most likely to become the playthings of historical and economic laws which they don’t want to understand, and thus, despite all protestations to the contrary, subordinate themselves to blind fate, either by acting at the wrong moment or by contemplating when they should be resisting, all the while mechanically and abstractly repeating the virtues of freedom, creativity, and practice.

Socialism and the struggle for socialism, by contrast, is precisely characterised by historic necessity and the recognition of it. Socialism means the destruction of national frontiers, of the market, of commodity production, social classes and the state, because production can no longer develop within these fetters without dragging society into oblivion. Socialism means the free association of the producers and thus the unleashing of human creativity and passion. Because a few talented geniuses like Aufheben tell us that it should be? No, because an immense historical and social development demands it.

The more the working class understands its objective existence within capitalism, the more able it will be to freely determine its own destiny.

The Revolutionary Subject

Aufheben prattles on about the “concrete development of the revolutionary subject” in opposition to the “focus on the objective contradictions of the system”. But who is this revolutionary subject? Aufheben, in its own imagination of course, denies the concrete development of the working class through the 2nd International, Bolshevism, the 3rd International and the communist left, which broke from the latter. It likewise dismisses the debate in the 2nd International between the revolutionaries and the reformists in the following terms: “What actually needed arguing was that the debate over whether the problems of capitalism could be resolved within capitalism or only by a socialist planned economy was missing the point. These problems are not our problems. Our problem is that of not controlling our lives and activity.”

Who is the ‘us’ which is not concerned whether or not capitalism will drag the world into barbarism? Doesn’t the working class have a ‘problem’ if there is no solution to mass unemployment, destitution and war within capitalism? Doesn’t the working class feel these problems at the same time that it senses it has no control over events? So who is Aufheben talking about? Perhaps itself: a few intellectuals whose only problem is they have no control over the confusion in their own brains? In order to even begin to talk about a revolutionary subject one has to return again to … historic necessity.

The problem of ‘not controlling our lives’ is a very old one, and a very general one. It is endemic in all class societies. It is specific neither to this society, not even to the oppressed classes in general: the lives of the ruling classes have always been subject to historical and economic laws which they can’t control. If we say that the ruling classes identify with this order of things because it guarantees their power and privileges, it only means that we need other criteria than a sense of loss of control over life to understand who is the subject of revolutionary change – in any period of history let alone ours.

In short, we must look for the section of society which has an economic interest in, and capacity to, transform this society. The working class as the exploited class of this mode of production is the chief victim of the insoluble contradictions of capitalism, and therefore has the most to gain by the overthrow of the latter, as well as the power to do so. At the same time, it has no property interests of its own, and therefore no relations of exploitation and no illusions – either in the past or in the future – to identify with as a conscious class. The working class is for these basic reasons the only possible revolutionary subject in capitalism, the only class that can carry society forward into a new mode of production.

A revolutionary subject can only recognise itself if it recognises historical necessity. Marxism and the working class can only develop in conjunction with each other.

Would-be revolutionaries, who want to reject this objectivity, and assert their own problems while denying those of the outside world, are by definition incapable of playing a revolutionary role. The preoccupation with ‘a lack of control of our lives’ to the exclusion of economic necessity (when they are both insolubly linked) is characteristic not of the working class, but of strata caught between the two main classes in society. It is a preoccupation typical of layers of the population who are drawn to assert their subjective power because they have no stable or significant objective power in society. In particular there are those who, while radicalised by the economic crisis, feel this crisis as a loss of the value of the intellectual or artistic talents by which they make a living. Their idea of revolution is to assert their disappearing subjectivity to the hilt, but their rage against society, which is part of a self-loathing resulting from social impotence, is directed not against the bourgeoisie but also against the working class which ‘materialistically’ and ‘selfishly’ defends its economic interests.

It would seem that Aufheben is dominated exactly by this petit-bourgeois outlook: it sees the world in terms of definite material class interests but only in terms of its precious subjectivity: it opposes the theory of decadence not because it thinks it doesn’t explain the real world, but because this theory denies its ‘freedom’ and ‘creativity’. From such a standpoint it is impossible to identify either the revolutionary class or the bourgeoisie.

Who is the enemy?

For Aufheben, revolutionaries like the Bolsheviks who believed in the collapse of capitalism were the same as those erstwhile reformists who led the working class into the 1st World War and who helped smash the revolutionary wave. The Trotskyists who became chauvinists in the 2nd World War are the same as the antecedents of the ICC who gave their lives for internationalism. Why? Because they all have a conception of capitalist decline. Aufheben, who see the world as a thought process, can’t accept that the class nature of an organisation is decided in practice, above all in periods of war or revolution.

Different classes fashion their ideas to suit their interests. Today this means that the bourgeoisie can hide behind the same theoretical inheritance as its class enemy. Certain political fractions of the bourgeoisie, which call themselves “Marxist”, devote themselves to apologising for and participating in imperialist wars, defending the Labour party and the unions. But only a modernist would put them in the same boat as authentic Marxists and ignore their class differences. The Marxism of the ICC may superficially resemble the “Marxist” verbiage of Trotskyism, even on the question of decadence, but the political practice of Trotskyism is devoted to protecting capitalism, not to overthrowing it.


The theory of decadence, like Marxism itself, is not a guarantee of revolutionary truth in our epoch, but without a growing awareness of it, the working class will not be able to make its revolution. The attempt to undermine the theory, which Aufheben is carrying out in loose conjunction with a whole gaggle of other more or less modernists tendencies (GCI, Wildcat, etc.) is thus a real hindrance to the development of the revolutionary project today. These groups have not gone beyond or ‘sublated’ Marxist theory: they are simply standing in the way of it. And while we are on this subject of sublation we can conclude by saying that if any real effort towards Marxist clarification existed within this group it could only be preserved by the destruction of the confusionist envelope of Aufheben. Their final issue could perhaps use a more well-known German phrase for a title – auf Wiedersehen.

FS, October 1993.

[1] The title of the article in question is ‘Decadence, the theory of decline or the decline of theory’. An attempt at dialectical Hegelian humour, but hardly original. The GCI (Groupe Communiste Internationaliste) launched its attack on the theory some years ago, and their article was called ‘The theory of decadence or the decadence of theory’. More recently, Internationalist Perspective decided to rubbish the ICC’s notion that we have entered into the final phase of decadence, the phase of decomposition. This time the article was wittily entitled the ‘The theory of decomposition or the decomposition of theory”. A case of great minds thinking alike?