IBRP debates decadence: The need for a historical framework

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In Revolutionary Perspectives no. 32 the Communist Workers' Organisation (CWO) introduce a "contribution to the debate on capitalist decadence", 'For a definition of the concept of decadence' written by one of the comrades of Battaglia Comunista. We welcome this debate first of all because of the importance of subject; as the CWO state in their introduction, "The notion of decadence is a part of Marx's analysis of modes of production." It is not just any part of Marx's analysis, but the basis of scientific socialism, as they showed in RP 21 (original series, November 83): "Marxism, unlike anarchism, has always recognised that before communism can be established capitalism must itself destroy feudal systems of production and create both an international proletariat and advanced means of production. In doing this capitalism is creating both the basis for communism and the class able to bring it into being�We therefore maintain, as did Marx, that capitalism has been a historically progressive mode of production� We regard history as a complex of processes in which opposites are struggling against each other. The dynamic of history is located in these struggles and their progress is the progress of history� The development of the struggles engendered by these contradictions leads to a historical period in which capitalism can be considered to be progressive and on in which its further development turns it into a barrier. We quote again from the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy. 'At a certain stage of their development the material productive forces of society come into contradiction with the existing productive relationships, or, what is but a legal expression for these, with the property relationships within which they have moved before. From being forms of development of the productive forces these relationships are transferred into their fetters. Then an epoch of social revolution opens.' �This is a dialectical understanding of the process of development, not a mechanical one. The very idea of decadence, which we describe as a period in which the material pre-requisites for communism exist but the revolution has not been made (since the subjective consciousness is absent), is a notion which would be nonsense to a mechanical materialist since he sees causality as working directly from material conditions".

Furthermore, after quoting the very same passage from Marx's 'Preface to the Critique of Political Economy', the introduction to the latest article points out that "At the time of the formation of the Comintern in 1919, it appeared that the epoch of revolution had been reached and its founding conference declared this". In other words, the recognition that capitalism had reached its decadent phase underpinned the founding of the Third International: "capitalism had fulfilled its mission of developing the productive forces and had reached a stage of irreconcilable contradiction with the requirements not only of modern historical development, but also of the most elementary conditions of human existence. This fundamental contradiction was reflected in the recent imperialist war, and further sharpened by the great damage the war inflicted on the conditions of production and distribution �" ('Theses on Comintern tactics' Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, Hessel).

Yet the CWO now write that "85 years later this at least appears questionable. Within the 20th century capitalist property relations have, despite the unprecedented destruction and suffering caused by two world wars, enabled the productive forces to develop to levels never previously seen, and have brought hundreds and hundreds of millions of new workers into the ranks of the proletariat". It is certainly true that the theory that capitalism has become a fetter on the productive forces and entered an 'epoch of social revolution' must be tested against reality. Testing theory against reality was the approach of the Communist Left which had to subject all the positions of the Comintern to the most rigorous criticism in opposing its degeneration. In this sense we can take inspiration from Bilan which in 1933 in its first issue wrote that "it calls on all revolutionaries to subject the positions it now defends to the verification of events, as well as the political positions contained in its basic documents" (The Italian Communist Left, ICC pamphlet). However, to successfully re-examine a key position such as the question of whether capitalism has an ascendant and a decadent phase, and whether the latter was reflected in and announced by the First World War, we must be very careful to do so in the historical framework of marxism. It was the theoretical solidity of the framework in which the Italian Left subjected its positions to the verification of events that allowed it to survive and provide the heritage which all the organisations of the proletarian political milieu reclaim today, whatever differences we may have. The importance of this method is perhaps most clearly highlighted by the fact that it was the Italian Left that provides the methodology for our understanding of many questions today, even when the German Left had profound insights into questions such as the trade unions or state capitalism much earlier.

In this sense, the article reproduced in RP 32 does not provide a framework for testing the theoretical framework of decadence against the events of the last century because it does not return to the key programmatic and theoretical texts that have to be re-evaluated. The IBRP's (note 1) Platform recognises the same key change in period as the Comintern and the ICC, although they, like Lenin, talk of imperialism rather than decadence: "The 1st World War, the product of competition between the capitalist states, marked a definitive turning point in capitalism's development. It showed that the process of capital concentration and centralisation had reached such proportions that henceforward the cyclical crises which had always been an intrinsic part of the process of capital accumulation would be global crises, resolvable only by world war. In short, it confirmed that capitalism had entered a new historical era, the era of imperialism �The opening of capitalism's imperialist epoch, with its infernal cycle of global war - reconstruction - crisis, also put the possibility of a higher form of civilisation (communism) on the historical agenda." Yet the new article makes no reference to this. In order for the IBRP debate on this question, one in which other organisations will obviously intervene, to have a positive influence on the development of class consciousness, it will be necessary to base it on the existing theoretical framework. (Note 2)

The theory of decadence is scientific

The introduction to 'For a Definition of the Concept of Decadence' states: "The CWO has previously argued that it was not the absence of growth of the productive forces, but the overheads associated with such growth which needed to be considered when assessing decadence. Such an argument, while recognising massive growth of the productive forces, opens the door to a subjective assessment of the overheads which have allowed such growth to occur." This self-criticism by the CWO seems inappropriate. It is not clear if this introduction is using the term 'overheads' in the same sense as it was used in 1983 in RP 21: "From the First World War the capitalist system, because of the development of its internal contradictions, was unable to develop the productive forces without tremendous overheads; namely, the devaluation of capital by world wars", or in a more economic sense. In any case the introduction to The Economic Foundations of Capitalist Decadence (CWO pamphlet no 1, published in 1985) makes clear that "For revolutionaries a scientific understanding of the dynamic of the capitalist economy is not an academic exercise. It is essential for clarifying our perspectives and organisational tasks." The effort to do this is clear in the pamphlet and it is certainly not merely a 'subjective assessment'. We entirely agree with the CWO of 1983 that it is not necessary to show a complete halt to the development of the productive forces to argue that capitalism is decadent. Was it subjective to point out that "Given the high organic composition of the most advanced states, it is impossible that the so-called Third World countries could compete on the world market independently of the imperialist powers" (CWO pamphlet no 1)? This can be tested against reality, and we find that the IBRP were able to answer the mystifications about the Chinese economy in Internationalist Communist 22 by showing that what passes for miraculous growth is nothing but "An enormous mass of goods with a low technological content which are competitive only and exclusively because of Chinese workers' low wages." Was it a mere 'subjective assessment' that led the CWO to study and describe the growth of state intervention in the economy as a world wide tendency since World War I? It certainly is not subjectivism for the CWO pamphlet to show "Since 1914 imperialist war has stretched in an almost unbroken chain� In three of the least militaristic states, Britain, France and the USSR, arms expenditure rose by 144%, 142% and 103% respectively between 1937 and 1939" (CWO pamphlet no 1). It was perfectly correct to show that this is "waste production", not because we - "subjectively" - don't like getting killed, but because weapons can only destroy and not enter a new cycle of production as capital.

However, we wonder what the CWO mean by a "subjective assessment" that they criticise here. It would be wrong to give the impression that subjectivity is in contradiction to materialism. The subjective conditions are just as essential for the revolution as the objective conditions of decadence.

The analysis in the pamphlet is materialist, and based on the study of the marxist analyses of the development of capitalism through ascendancy and the development of imperialism. The fact that the ICC disagrees with the CWO's explanation of the crisis from the point of view of the analysis of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, which is incomplete without an understanding of the question of the market, does not change that. The relationship between the theoretical understanding of the economic foundations of capitalist decadence and political positions is not a simple one. A coherent understanding of economic foundations will make our understanding of decadence and the political conclusions that derive from it much stronger, but errors at this level do not necessarily lead to general political errors. This is illustrated when the CWO say: "In this ascendant period of capitalism it was possible for new independent capitalist nations to emerge and thus widen the basis for the creation of the working class, the future gravediggers of capitalism. However since the opening of the present imperialist phase of domination of the planet no such independent capitalist formation is possible. It was Luxemburg, not Lenin, who grasped this reality better despite her erroneous analysis of the roots of imperialism" (in their pamphlet Socialism or Barbarism). The ICC support Luxemburg's analysis, the IBRP believe it erroneous, but both agreed that capitalism is no longer ascendant and has entered its imperialist phase where national liberation is impossible.

However, as the IBRP debate the concept of decadence it will be important for them to heed the warning the CWO gave in The Economic Foundations of Capitalist Decadence "we shall see how the tendency towards equalisation of profit rates, along with the tendential fall in the rate of profit, allows us to understand the salient features of capitalist development, both in its period of growth and in its period of decline. But we must always remember that, 'It is the nature of the rate of profit, and of economic laws in general, [that], none of them has any reality except as an approximation, tendency, average, and not as an immediate reality.' (Engels to Schmidt)" To look for 'proof' of decadence in the statistics churned out by the bourgeoisie would be to misinterpret the marxist method; on the contrary, the statistics have to be analysed with our theoretical framework.

Here we want to take issue with the notion put forward in the discussion article that "the concept of decadence solely concerns the progressive difficulties which the valorisation process of capital encounters stemming from the principal contradiction expressed in the relation between capital and labour-power�" (our emphasis). This would tend to divorce the economic foundations from all other aspects of society. Decadence has arisen because capitalism has become a fetter on the productive forces, and this necessarily affects not just the economy but every aspect of society including the superstructure. This is why it forms a cornerstone of our political positions.

The importance of the framework of decadence for our politics

As we have already seen, the IBRP Platform bases itself on the understanding that "capitalism had entered a new historical era, the era of imperialism" from the First World War and that this "also put the possibility of a higher form of civilisation (communism) on the historical agenda". This understanding informs many important positions for both the ICC and the CWO/IBRP. For instance, having noted that "The most telling reason, however, for the failure of any underdeveloped economy in the twentieth century to establish a firm industrial base is the domination of the world market by capitals of a high organic composition" (pamphlet no 1) they also understand "Establishing local bourgeoisies in new states around the world does not do the things which it did in the 19th Century. It fails to centralise and unify the nation, to capitalise agriculture and put local capital on a firm foundation. The states remain vassals of imperialism just as if their formal independence did not exist, and such development as does occur, occurs as a result of the demands of imperialism" (RP 21, 1983).

The same is true of the understanding of the role of the unions: "The trades unions have never been revolutionary. They began life as workers in specific trades came together to fight for better conditions. Initially banned and attacked by the full force of the capitalist state the unions gradually won legal recognition through the sacrifices and solidarity of the working class. Under imperialism they have tended to become part of the capitalist state's planning apparatus� Those who argue that all we need to do is change the trades union leadership in order to change the unions don't understand that it is the function of the unions today rather than their leadership which determines their reactionary policies" (Socialism or Barbarism). "If, in the period of capitalism's ascendancy there existed objective conditions and leeway to justify the union's specific task of making contractual demands, that leeway has been progressively reduced in the imperialist monopoly epoch - to the point of having been annulled by today's general economic crisis" (Internationalist Communist 16).

The recognition of the general tendency towards state capitalism is also based on the understanding of decadence: "The rise of global capital means the end of laissez-faire or classical capitalism. The accumulation of capital after World War One could only take place on the basis of constant and growing state intervention in each national economy and gradual absorption of civil society by the state - hence the existence of the permanent tendency towards state capitalism throughout the world" (pamphlet no 1).

And after revolutionaries in the Second International worked so hard to get social democratic deputies in parliament, this tactic could no longer play the same role in the new period: "As Lenin made clear, the realisation of the will of workers could only be achieved by revolution, the installation of the dictatorship of the proletariat (meaning nothing more than the working class 'organised as the ruling class' in opposition to the capitalist class�) and proletarian democracy. Nothing could be done to realise the historical tasks of the working class by the use of bourgeois democracy as proposed by the official parties of that time. If the working class was to retreat back into the 'pig-sty of bourgeois parliamentarism', then the working class would put itself back into servitude under its class enemy. In short, the new phase of imperialism had demonstrated that capitalism was now in decay. The proletarian revolution was on the agenda" (RP 12, present series, 1998)

In order for the debate on the 'definition' of the 'concept of decadence' to be fruitful it will be necessary for the comrades in the IBRP to discuss the question starting from their basic programmatic texts and the classics of marxism. This will provide the framework to analyse events, and not be blown all over the place by them. This alone will allow this debate to test the concept of decadence, and the political conclusions that flow from it, against the actual evolution of bourgeois society in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Alex, 2/10.04.


1. International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party, encompassing the Communist Workers' Organisation, publishing Revolutionary Perspectives and the Partito Cominista Internazionalista publishing Battaglia Comunista and Prometeo. The IBRP also publishes Internationalist Communist. See http://www.ibrp.org.

2. See 'The theory of decadence lies at the heart of historical materialism' in International Review 118, in which the ICC examines the way this question has been developed by marxism historically, and our series 'Understanding the decadence of capitalism' in IR 48, 49, 50, 54, 55, 56, 58 and 60.