Growth as decay

Printer-friendly version

A reader wrote:

“How can the ICC maintain that capitalism is a decadent system since 1914 when there has been such enormous growth in the capitalist system since then?”

We have been asked this question many times, in different ways: what about the enormous growth after World War Two? What about the enormous growth of China in the last few decades? Doesn’t all this argue against the idea that capitalism is a system in decline, in decay, in decadence?

We think that these questions are wrongly posed, but that it is important to answer them precisely because they are posed so often and so widely.

In order to do this, let’s look at a rather significant passage in Marx’s Grundrisse[1]:

“… Thus, while capital must on one side strive to tear down every spatial barrier to intercourse, i.e. to exchange, and conquer the whole earth for its market, it strives on the other side to annihilate this space with time, i.e. to reduce to a minimum the time spent in motion from one place to another. The more developed the capital, therefore, the more extensive the market over which it circulates, which forms the spatial orbit of its circulation, the more does it strive simultaneously for an even greater extension of the market and for greater annihilation of space by time…..There appears here the universalising tendency of capital, which distinguishes it from all previous stages of production. Although limited by its very nature, it strives towards the universal development of the forces of production, and thus becomes the presupposition of a new mode of production, which is founded not on the development of the forces of production for the purpose of reproducing or at most expanding a given condition, but where the free, unobstructed, progressive and universal development of the forces of production is itself the presupposition of society and hence of its reproduction; where advance beyond the point of departure is the only presupposition. This tendency – which capital possesses, but which at the same time, since capital is a limited form of production, contradicts it and hence drives it towards dissolution – distinguishes capital from all earlier modes of production, and at the same time contains this element, that capital is posited as a mere point of transition”

This passage can of course be interpreted in different ways, and the Grundrisse was anything but a finished work. But in our view, this is a magnificent anticipation of the point at which capitalism becomes a decadent system. First, Marx insists on the drive of capital to conquer the entire planet, and it does so through a formidable development of the productive forces, in this case its increasing capacity to transport goods as fast as possible from one end of the Earth to the other. This dynamism, this potential for very rapid extension and technological development, distinguishes capital from previous modes of production, which tended to be more static and more isolated to particular regions of the globe. This universalising tendency of capital also necessarily creates a world proletariat, an international revolutionary class, and is thus a vital precondition if human society is to attain a qualitatively new stage in its history. As Marx puts it in a different section of the same chapter of Grundrisse:

It will be shown later that the most extreme form of alienation, wherein labour appears in the relation of capital and wage labour, and labour, productive activity appears in relation to its own conditions and its own product, is a necessary point of transition – and therefore already contains in itself, in a still only inverted form, turned on its head, the dissolution of all limited presuppositions of production, and moreover creates and produces the unconditional presuppositions of production, and therewith the full material conditions for the total, universal development of the productive forces of the individual.”[2]

Thus, for Marx, in so far as capital develops the productive forces to the point where global communist production and distribution becomes possible, its supplanting of previous modes of production, though brutal and ruthless, can be seen as the mark of an ascending or progressive social system. But once it reaches this point, the further “development of the productive forces” must take on an entirely different meaning, in which wealth is no longer measured in stolen time, but in free time; no longer in monetary terms, or the piling up constant capital, or the abstractions of “value”, but as the development of the creative capacities of each individual in association with others.

But this is not just a question of looking at the history of capital beyond a certain point and lamenting that things could have been so much better. Marx also argues that this culminating moment is precisely the point at which the contradictory manner in which capital universalises itself “drives it towards dissolution”. Historical evolution since the beginning of the 20th century has made it clearer what form this process of “dissolution” takes: from this point onwards, capital could no longer continue to develop the forces of production without unleashing a spiral of destruction, a succession of world economic crises, global wars, and, as has become increasingly evident over the last few decades, the devastation of the natural environment. We can even say that as long as capital continues to grow, to accumulate, in an epoch where it has become obsolete, the more this very growth increases the danger that it will destroy humanity and end any possibility of a communist future. This is evident when we look at the perfection of military production which has become such a central part of the capitalist economy in the last century and more. It is equally obvious when we see the ecological consequences of capitalist expansion into the very last corners of the planet. We also need to recognise that the very means used to continue growth in an era in which the economic crisis has tended to become permanent attest to the obsolescence of the system. This is the case in particular with the resort to gargantuan infusions of debt to create a kind of artificial market. Capital grows by flouting its own laws.

This is what we think Marx is getting at when he continues the first passage we cited by stating: “The highest development of this basis itself (the flower into which it transforms itself; but it is always this basis, this plant as flower; hence wilting after the flowering and as consequence of the flowering) is the point at which it is itself worked out, developed, into the form in which it is compatible with the highest development of the forces of production, hence also the richest development of the individuals. As soon as this point is reached, the further development appears as decay, and the new development begins from a new basis”.

China’s growth over the past few decades is a classic illustration of this “development as decay”: managed by a ruthless totalitarian state apparatus; financed by astronomical levels of debt, protected by a vast army and an array of nuclear weapons, building new industrial centres and megacities at a terrible cost to the environment, both local and global: we can confidently say that these are all the hallmarks of a decadent system.

Why 1914 as the definitive turning point? Let’s recall that this is not the ICC’s retrospective conclusion, but the position adopted by the revolutionaries who formed the Communist International, and who recognised that capitalism had indeed entered its epoch of “inner disintegration”, the epoch of wars and revolutions. The 1914-18 war showed that capitalism was being driven inexorably towards imperialist wars of increasing ferocity, confronting humanity with the alternative between socialism and barbarism.  And the response of the international working class from 1917 onwards demonstrated that the new epoch was indeed the epoch of the “communist revolution of the proletariat” (Platform of the Communist International, March 1919).

Again, let’s stress, the war did not signify that capitalism had run out of all further possibilities of expansion. In 1913, in her book The Accumulation of Capital, Rosa Luxemburg pointed out that capital still directly dominated only a small part of the planet, and that objectively speaking there would still be many remnants of the pre-capitalist milieu to absorb and new markets to conquer.  But she also insisted that there is no purely economic collapse of the system. “The more ruthlessly capital sets about the destruction of non-capitalist strata, at home and in the outside world, the more it lowers the standard of living for the workers as a whole, the greater also is the change in the day-to-day history of capital. It becomes a string of political and social disasters and convulsions, and under these conditions, punctuated by periodical economic catastrophes or crises, accumulation can go on no longer. But even before this natural economic impasse of capital’s own creating is properly reached it becomes a necessity for the international working class to revolt against the rule of capital”. (Accumulation of Capital, chapter 32).

In summary: we have always rejected the idea that capitalism can only be in decline or decadence once there has been a complete halt in the development of the productive forces[3]. Even in the descending epochs of slavery and feudalism, there could be significant moments and centres of growth, not least the cancerous growth of the state power, swollen to monstrous proportions in order to attempt to hold down the contradictions tearing society apart. But these remained societies where the crisis of the economy took the form of underproduction, in contrast to capitalism where the crisis appears as a crisis of overproduction (or, what amounts to the same thing in the end, a crisis of overaccumulation). Less than any previous mode of production can capitalism cease “revolutionising” the productive forces. But revolutionaries who lay claim to a scientific method must be capable of recognising the point at which the perspective of communism unites the realms of possibility and of necessity; in other words, when the existing forces of production are turned more and more into forces of destruction[4], and when humanity can only maintain itself if it carries out a fundamental change in the social relations of production, so that the development of the productive forces now coincides with “the total, universal development of the productive forces of the individual.”


Annex on China

China is a very good example of the relative increase in wealth, and of the enormous destructive forces set in motion to achieve this relative wealth.

• China is believed to be “the world’s most prolific executioner” (Amnesty International), executing thousands of people every year. Every year it executes more people than the rest of the world combined.

• It is estimated that there are more than a thousand internment camps in Xinjiang, and that in these camps there are up to 1.5 million people detained and subjected to forced labour.

• The People’s Republic of China is the world’s leading annual emitter of greenhouse gases and mercury. Since 2000, more than 30 million people have died from air pollution in China, according to New Scientist.

• Poverty: 600 million Chinese people still subsist on the equivalent of $5.50 US a day.

• Ruthless exploitation of the workforce: extremely long hours, physical punishment, fines and non-payment of wages are among the abuses suffered by millions of Chinese workers.

• China has a long history of industrial accidents, ranging from factory explosions and mudslides to mine collapses.

A whole article could be added about the huge weight of the military sector in China and the degree which its growth has been fuelled by debt.


[1] Notebook V, the Chapter on Capital. Grundrisse 10 ( p540 in Penguin edition.

[2] Ibid P 515

[3] See in particular the following chapter from our original series on decadence, published in Révolution Internationale in the early 70s and produced in English (and other languages) as a pamphlet: 4. Decadence: A total halt to the productive forces? | International Communist Current (

[4] Here we are only confirming what Marx already anticipated in one of his earliest works, The German Ideology of 1845/6, in a passage summarising the basic conclusions flowing from the materialist conception of history. The first of these conclusions is that “in the development of productive forces there comes a stage when productive forces and means of intercourse are brought into being, which, under the existing relationships, only cause mischief, and are no longer productive but destructive forces (machinery and money); and connected with this a class is called forth, which has to bear all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages, which, ousted from society, is forced into the most decided antagonism to all other classes; a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness, which may, of course, arise among the other classes too through the contemplation of the situation of this class…”.

We do not blame Marx and Engels, in this work as in the Communist Manifesto a few years later, for making the error that this epochal shift had already taken place, that the proletarian revolution was already on the immediate agenda. To a very considerable extent, Marx was able to recognise this error himself in the period of retreat that followed the heroic events of 1848.


Correspondence on the decadence of capitalism