The decomposition of capitalism

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The decomposition of capitalism
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On the indignation thread there's a misrepresentation in relation to my position on decomposition - I don't put one forward there - so I want to clarify the issue here as much as I can. I looked for a thread on decomposition specifically to add on to, I even considered "What are the most effective anti-wrinkle skin maintenance sytems for women over 40" (50 reads!), but it didn't seem appropriate. Although there are many issues that overlap and involve issues on the indignation thread, I think that are many questions on that thread already and therefore it may be useful  to start a new thread here on decomposition.

My positon is simply that of support for the text "Decomposition, Final Phase of the Decadence of Capitalism" in the International Review number 62 (Third quarter, 1990). Capitalism is the first really global society that subjects all the planet to its own laws and the consequence of these laws of this last class society. And this last class society is the first to posit the ability and the means to destroy the entire human race. Decomposition, and its elements, has affected all declining class societies but it is the new quality of capitalist decomposition, the accumulation of all its contradictions, that poses a threat to the survival of humanity. Decomposition is a synthesis of decadence at a new level and there is no escape from it and no possible perspective, except a destructive one, within it for the future of mankind.

Over twenty years since the text was written, 40 years of economic crisis, and we've not seen world war nor revolution as decomposition militates against both "solutions", both outcomes. Within this phase of capitalism it's even more important for revolutionary minorities to highlight the dangers of decomposition to the working class which, as the text puts it: "... leads to social dislocation and putrefaction to the void" which is ultimately the same fate as world war, nuclear fall-out, epidemics, generalisation of small wars and so on. And also, as poiint 8 of the ICC's resolution on the international situation for the 20th Congress makes clear, the threat that decomposition, which has its roots in the decadence and economic contradictions poses through the environmental degradation of the planet is also a very real threat to humanity and another example of how decomposing capitalism expresses no other perspective than destruction. Again from the text is the vital need for the proletariat and its minorities to "grasp the full extent of the deadly threat decomposition represents for society as a whole". Decomposition, unlike decadence, is not a necessary precondition for proletarian revolution. On the contrary it can compromise the communist perspective through, amongst others, its attacks on proletarian consciousness which is not at all immune from its effects. In the face of this revolutionaries clearly can't put forward the necessity for the proletariat to have confidence in its own strengths, solidarity and struggles for a future without having themselves confidence in their own class. That seems to me a fundamental requisite.

One of the serious dangers to the proletariat  during the period of capitalism's crisis and decomposition is that of the lumpenisation of the unemployed. However, since the text was written (1990), I think that what we've seen on the streets around the world in significant numbers is that rather than major expressions of lumpenisation there have and are significant numbers of the unemployed and potential unemployed (schoolchildren, students, along with unemployed youth) demonstrating and protesting against capitalism. These numbers have mobilised themselves all over the planet and they represent, in the first instance, a significant antidote to the poisoning effects of the decomposition of thought. One of the most expressive elements of decomposition was the collapse of the eastern bloc. Leaving aside for the moment the aspect of the imperialist consequences of this, the "victory of capitalism" and the "Russia = communism", even in the death throes of the Soviet bloc, was and still is, and will continue to be used to hammer the consciousness of the proletariat. But against this, the Russian bloc has gone and there are limitations to the playing of this card particularly as capitalism in its "victory" is exposed as hollow sham. And we are beginning to see elements of protests and class struggle re-emerging today in countries of the ex-Eastern Bloc which are now less prone to the lies around the superiority of the "capitalist west". Nationalism and a hankering after the past are real dangers in these countries but overall I think that there are more of a unification for potential conditions of struggle, which is again the real antidote to the poison of decomposition.

For other groups the ICC's concept of decomposition is an unwelcome "innovation" - as if marxism has ever stood still. I've not seen any critique of the analysis of decomposition that has any substance rather than secondary points which seem to me to be made with the idea of distinguishing these groups or individuals from the ICC in order to defend their own corner. Rather than strictly economic criteria for war, the ICT must, at least privately, see the spread of imperialist chaos, instability and irrationality underlined by the analysis of decomposition. Some of its own texts can't help to describe it (without mentioning the word) and how could it be avoided when its expressions are there, confirmed, validated day in and day out throughout the Middle East, Africa and so on. There is an economic "rationale" to al-Qaeda on the ground - these are capitalist gangsters after all. But the spread of jihadism, irrationality and madness throughout the Middle East and Africa (and back to the metropoles) is there for all to see. Who would have believed that after Afghanistan and Iraq the west would do exactly the same thing in Libya? But they did and it's totally irrational. They are also, though in slightly different circumstances, doing the same in Syria through their de facto, and open, backing of irrational force that will come back to bite them. We have the nuclear question with the Koreas and, in the face the lies about a nuclear-free Middle East, there is  the news that nuclear bombs are there in Pakistan ready to be shipped to Saudi Arabia for use against Iran. The "War on Terror" itself has done nothing but spread terror, terrorism and chaos throughout.

In Africa, the old Cold War forces of Renamo in Mozabique and Unita in Angola have reappeared in military confrontations at different levels. The north of Africa sinks into chaos and instability with China fishing in these murky waters. Chinese and Zimbabwean troops are patrolling together and Chinese counter-terrorism "expertise" is on the ground in South Africa and Nigeria with its militatry attaches in Cameroon. Israel, India and Turkey have military forces in different parts of Africa, with Britain having brigades in northern Africa, southern and western Africa. France is militarily involved in Chad, Djibouti, the Ivory Coast, Gabon and Mali, while the US has a substantial military presence in Mali, Chad, Mauritania, Niger, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal and around the Horn of Africa with its Africa Command. All of them contributing to the growing chaos and instability.

One the questions referred to here and there in the ICC's analysis of decadence and decomposition is the development of the "fortress state" and, latterly, "fortress Europe" or "fortress USA" which are significant elements of decomposition itself in the sense of keeping out migrants - many of whom are fleeing the poverty, misery and wars directly generated by the countries that they are coming to. In this respect there is a good piece in the Guardian on Tuesday by Joe Henley about the proliferation of walls. They are being built in unprecedented numbers and these are very suggestive of the descent into capitalist decomposition. As the article says, the rise of civilisation, of class society, has been accompanied by the building of some famous walls: Jericho ten thousand years ago, who walls according to the song came tumbling down after Joshua "fit" the battle; the Great Wall of China well over two thousand years ago, which, apparantly, you can't see from space; and the 19 centuries-old Hadrian's Wall which kept in as many elements of barbarians as it kept out. But, leaving aside the fall of the Berlin Wall and the mind-numbing noise around that, the article reports that 6000 miles of walls have gone up in the last decade alone - a real expression of capitalist decomposition. Walls of steel, concrete, watchtowers, armed guards, barbed wire, razor wire, check-points springing up everywhere suggesting every man for himself at the level of the state. From Belfast to Homs, the Mexico-US border (with recent suggestions from the US for a wall along the US/Canada border basically for the same reason as its Mexican one); India-Pakistan, Greece and Turkey, Egypt and Israel, the West Bank and Israel and walls put up in Southern Turkey recently to divide up continuing anti-war, anti-regime protests. Walls to divide migrants from indiginous, black v white, religion against religion, imperialism against imperialism, walls against "terrorism". And, paradoxically, as these walls and fortresses develop as an expression of decomposition, so does the breakdown of borders from the same expression, the increase of gangs, gangsters and warlordism, particularly where the working class is weaker or almost non-existent.

That's some elements of the position that I defend on decomposition and I think that it is very important for the ICC to put this position forward to the working class. Not to demoralise it but to show the potential dangers to its struggle and the scope that its struggles have to take.

I am sorry, Baboon, if I

I am sorry, Baboon, if I "misrepresented" your views on decomposition in the other thread.I assure you this wasn't intentional. I went back and looked at what you wrote there to see how I could have possibly thought you might be agreeing with Link that there were elements of immediatism in the ICC's analysis of decomposition. I think it was because, the way I read it, you seemed to be making a link between an immediatist idea that the revolution was just around the corner and an accompanying idea that "time was running out" (I assume on the possibility for revolution?). 

All of this seems to only demand a better theorization of decomposition. What is it and what is it not?, etc. Perhaps, it is not the idea of decomposition itself that is immediatist, but a certain "catastrophist" understanding of it. Of course, this kind of catastophism, where each specific crisis heralds something like the apocalypse, does seem to come up quite a bit in the ICC's writings.

There is also an argument that is often made that catastrophism is not really the best motivator for class consciousness and actually only causes people to cling to their illusions even harder--which I suppose is one way that real decomposition hinders the development of consciousness. Its also another reason why we have to make a distinction between things like social decomposition and the economic crisis, the idea of capitalist "collapse" etc.

Thanks for the clarification

Thanks for the clarification jk - I do see your point and this is important for the whole discussion on the indignation thread.

jk I do see the point that

jk I do see the point that you are making but in order to explore this avenue a little further could you give some concrete examples of of ICC texts where you say that the immediatist understanding of decomposition leads to a "king of catastrophism where each specific crisis heralds something like the apocalypse (which) does seem to come up quite a lot in the ICC's writings". Some specific examples would be good.

jk, I asked for specific

jk, I asked for specific examples of the ICC's "catastrophism" where you say that for the group"each specific crisis heralds something like the apocolypse" and that this "comes up quite a bit" from the ICC and is not positive for the class struggle. If it "comes up quite a bit" there shouldn't be much problem in providing concrete examples. The trouble is that these sort of assertions left at that are extremely  nebulous at best. I'm not at all saying that this is your position but assertions like these before have generally been a front for hidden political differences which are impossible - because they are hiding behind a false, apparantly "constructive" position - to discuss or clarify. The idea of the ICC's "catastrophism" has been around a long time and is linked to ideas about the ICC's lack of "accessibility", its "language", its ability to "connect" with the working class - all positions which in my opinion show at best a rather mechanical relationship of revolutionaries to the working class. When in the past the ICC, responding to such assertions,  has said, yes, we want to be more accessible, improve our language and connection to the working class, help us - no answers, no concrete examples are ever forthcoming.

In the early days of the ICC's albeit sometimes clumsy intervention on libcom, the accusation of its "catastrophism" was bandied about and linked by anarchism and the like as a weapon: "doom-mongers", "a religious sect", "over-the-top" analysis, anything to isolate the ICC from its class in this forum while portraying it as a closed in sect with weird and over-dramatic language.

Slothjabber above, quite rightly became upset and outraged by the images of fleeing migrants drowning off Lampedusa. But this incident is one of thousands going on every day under capitalism and the vast majority of them are hidden from our view. There's a whole "war on terror" going on across vast swathes of the Middle East and Africa conducted by our own governments most of which we know nothing about. There are semi-permanent catastrophies everywhere and they are growing in number and scale. If capitalism decomposition does turn into a generalised and irreversible slide into full-blown barbarism then I don't think that words like "catastrophy" or "apocolypse" would really do it justice.

Some concrete examples and analysis of the ICC's supposed catastrophism would help to take the discussion forward.

On the level of economic

On the level of economic analysis, catastrophism is easily found: "At the end of 2011 we saw not only the debt crisis of the banks and assurances, but also the growing implication of the sovereign debts of states. It is legitimate to ask who is going to go down first? A big private bank and thus the whole world banking system? A new state like Italy or France? The eurozone? The dollar?"

Or this: "The experience of the last few months is highly instructive: the governments of the world, of all types and colours, armed with their legions of financial gurus and experts, have tried all kinds of potions to ‘get out of the crisis'. We can say without hesitation that they are all doomed to fail."

Or this: "But we know that after more than a hundred year of catastrophes and convulsions, all the economic policies that state capitalism has used to solve its problems have not only failed, but have made the problems worse."

To be fair, the first example is actually relatively unusual in that we actually made some broad predictions (none of which have come even remotely close to being true). The second two are far more common - that there is no solution to the crisis. This obviously depends greatly on how your define "crisis" and "solution" but the impression given is that any economic improvement is impossible - clearly not true.

In fact, over the past 5 years and on a global level, the world bourgeoisie has prevented the collapse of the banking system, prevented a contraction anywhere near the scale of the great depression and even managed a return to growth even if the situation remains fragile. So it's quite obvious the attempts to contain the crisis were not "doomed to fail" as we thought.

Given that we often use this sort of language, it's hardly suprising that we are sometimes perceived as "catastrophist" and I think there is certainly a catastrophist current in the organisation. That doesn't mean everything we say is catastrophist, of course: we also often say that the system isn't just going to collapse in on itself (see the latest Resolution for example).

Leaving aside the question of methodology on economic questions (although I think there is a problem here), there is quite clearly a problem of expression.

Ironically, I think the theory of decomposition is actually anti-catastrophist. It's very premise - stalemate in the class struggle - precludes the "catastrophic" outcomes of revolution, counter-revolution and world war. It emphasises the risk of the slow bleeding out of society of any capacity to build a better world. A horrifyingly grim future if fully realised, but not catastrophist.



Demogorgon wrote:

Ironically, I think the theory of decomposition is actually anti-catastrophist. It's very premise - stalemate in the class struggle - precludes the "catastrophic" outcomes of revolution, counter-revolution and world war. It emphasises the risk of the slow bleeding out of society of any capacity to build a better world. A horrifyingly grim future if fully realised, but not catastrophist.

That’s a good point, Demo. I’m not sure I see the irony though.

I don’t disagree that there is a tendency for our analysis to avoid talking about temporary recoveries or the appearance of growth, despite the fact that our understanding of decadence should not make us in any way afraid to confront these. But I have to say that I don’t find your examples of ‘catastrophism’ convincing.

The statements you quote from the ICC surely remain absolutely valid as a perspective for the future? None of the symptoms of the crisis described have gone away, nor have they been in any way ‘solved’ by the bourgeoisie.

I can’t believe you’re arguing that the potions of the bourgeoisie’s gurus are not doomed to fail? Or that all the policies of state capitalism have not, in the long run, only made the problems worse? What would be the implications of arguing this?


I don't see any

I don't see any "catastrophism" in the three examples above. The first is speculation which, as Demo says, is very rarely expressed by the ICC. The second two I broadly agree with and these two latter examples in general not only apply to the future but give/gave a framework to the 2007/8 economic collapse which came about from the extension of credit and debt. When I say the 2007/8 economic collapse, I don't mean that all economic activity of  capitalism abruptly ceased at that time. My understanding of the ICC's position following this collapse was that the bourgeoisie wouldn't allow its system to fall down like a pack of cards for all the reasons to do with the differences from the 1930's, state capitalism, intelligence in times of crisis, etc. I'm not privy to the internal  discussions of the ICC but II thought that quite clear in the writings of the ICC.

"The statements you quote

"The statements you quote from the ICC surely remain absolutely valid as a perspective for the future? None of the symptoms of the crisis described have gone away, nor have they been in any way ‘solved’ by the bourgeoisie."

This is exactly what I mean by poor expression. I already pointed out that interpretation of those passages depends on how you define crisis. It can mean many things, but usually in marxism it means something along these lines:

  • The classical empirical definition: a suspension of capital accumulation, decline in output, etc. aka depression, aka recession.
  • The crisis-tendency: the fact that crisis is an integral part of the accumulation cycle, a necessary expression of the contradictions of capitalism and also their resolution (both continued accumulation and crisis are always temporary conditions - this was true in ascendency as well as today).
  • The historic crisis of decadence which is characterised by the tendency for both state-capitalism and war to become components of the accumulation cycle.

All of these are valid but the problem is that we use the term crisis in all sorts of ways and we're often very unclear about exactly how we're using the term. Worse, I think we often conflate these different meanings even in our own theoretical understanding.

The statement "there is no solution to the crisis" thus has a different meaning depending on which meaning of crisis you're actually employing.

It is patently not true with the regard to the first definition. In the most recent crisis, as I said before they've prevented the rout of the global banking system. They've unlocked the credit markets. They've prevented hyper-inflation. They've even managed a return to growth in some countries and while I don't have specific figures to hand, I'd bet my shirt the world economy is bigger today than it was just before the 2007 crisis hit. It's not true for all countries, of course, and certainly not the UK but globally I'd bet that's the case and if it isn't yet, I'm pretty certain it will be at some point in the future. By any reasonable assessment they've succeeded in overcoming the crisis. We may not like this but the facts are there.

And, in fact, to date, every single crisis in capitalism's history has been overcome, regardless of the horrific costs (including world wars if you still accept the original position of the ICC regarding crisis-war-reconstruction, etc.).

If we're talking about the crisis-tendency, we're on firmer ground. In this sense, crisis is as integral to capitalism as accumulation and cannot be overcome without an end to capitalist social relationships. But if that is what is meant, then we should be saying something like "no matter what they do, there will always be another crisis".

Nor can the historic crisis of decadence be overcome. The omnipresence of the state which, to varying degrees of course, has taken on the role of the market in implementing the accumulation cycle, especially the crisis element. By this I mean that whereas in the past, the market would attack workers "naturally" by eliminating the weaker capitals, lowering wages and increasing the reserve army of the unemployed, today it's the state that guides capitalist policy concerning working conditions, pay, etc. through all sorts of mechanisms. For example, the current amputation of the welfare state is a state-led attack on the social wage, lowering the overall wage bill. Similarly, the maintenance of moderate inflation that is eroding wages is a state policy with similar, deliberate aims.

The problem is that this remains really quite opaque to those unused to the subtleties of Marxist theory, let alone the specifics of the ICC's theoretical framework. I think this is also a problem sometimes within the organisation as well - in fact, I know it is because I've certainly been guilty of this kind of conflation of terms myself.

Given all this it is hardly surprising that we are considered sometimes to have a "catastrophist" vision. When challenged, we try to be a bit more nuanced about it, but it doesn't alter the fact that in March 2012 we were predicting a global economic meltdown which never materialised. I can see only three ways of interpeting this fact:

  • there is a catrastophist element to our framework which is expressed in these articles
  • there is an insufficient assimilation of the ICC's method within the organisation itself, so that the articles express a catastrophism that isn't a real expression of our theoretical position
  • we're so bad at writing that the catastrophism is a result of really badly explained positions.

Either way, it's a pretty serious problem.

"I don't see any

"I don't see any "catastrophism" in the three examples above."

You really think that saying the economy will never recover, which is how those sorts of statements can easily be interpeted, isn't catastrophist? I remember when I first read the ICC (during the Asian Crisis), that's definitely what I thought they meant. I was genuinely shocked when a comrade told me actually this isn't capitalism's final crisis.

"The first is speculation which, as Demo says, is very rarely expressed by the ICC. The second two I broadly agree with and these two latter examples in general not only apply to the future but give/gave a framework to the 2007/8 economic collapse which came about from the extension of credit and debt."

See my post above.

"When I say the 2007/8 economic collapse, I don't mean that all economic activity of  capitalism abruptly ceased at that time."

Then don't use words like collapse which suggest a complete implosion, in the manner of a building collapsing. Or if you must, qualify it as a "slow collapse" which then gives it a more historic sense. But the world economy didn't collapse in 2007-8 in any sense of the word. It could be argued that the banking sector nearly collapsed ... but nearly isn't the same as did.

"My understanding of the ICC's position following this collapse was that the bourgeoisie wouldn't allow its system to fall down like a pack of cards for all the reasons to do with the differences from the 1930's, state capitalism, intelligence in times of crisis, etc."

My point is that we give the appearance of saying different things and thus having a contradictory position. I don't dispute at all that your statement above is one of the things we say - it's just that we sometimes say other things that aren't always quite so sensible. I don't see a problem in acknowledging this.

I remember myself, writing a few years ago (and before joining the ICC I think, but I'd have to check), for an article which argued that the great recession would end in a profound reconfiguration of capitalism. Five years on, what's striking at the moment is how little has actually changed particularly on the terrain of ideology and economic policy. Oh well, live and learn.


At the most general level, marxism is a theory of capitalist catastrophe, an explanation of why capitalism is a doomed system, whether its doom is more like a suicide which brings everything else down with it, or a justified execution by the working class. The theory of decadence is based on the notion that capitalism's existence becomes increasingly incompatible with the survival of humanity, that it will drag humanity through a mounting level of catastrophe.  This is what distinguishes marxism from all forms of gradualism and reformism. 

If we are to use catastrophism in a more limited sense, that of telescoping the historic collapse of the system into an overnight implosion, then we would have to admit that most revolutionarry currents have at some time fallen into the notion that capitalism has already run up against a brick wall and the revolutionary crisis is very close. The idea appears in the Communist Manifesto even if it is in contradiction with many other passages which argue that capitalism is still dynamic, that there are still national tasks, etc. During the revolutionary wave, this kind of catastrophism was pretty widespread but was perhaps theorised most overtly by elements in the German left. Against thie background I would agree that the ICC - despite many counter-arguments - has itself sometimes fallen into this form of immediatism. We can say the same about our analyses of the class struggle, as baboon points out. We are impatient for the end of the system and we know that in the long run there is no way out for capitalism, but this does not yet mean that it can't continue to buy time. But I don't think that it's wrong to say that in the long run all these escapes do make the situation worse.  

examples for Baboon

Quote from: The 80s: years of truth

International Review on January 1, 1980 - 19:19

‘In the decade beginning today, the historical alternative will be decided: either the proleta­riat will continue its offensive, continue to paralyze the murderous arm of capitalism in its death throes and gather its forces to destroy the system, or else it will let itself be trapped, worn out, demoralized by speeches and repression and then the way will be open for a new holo­caust which risks the elimination of all human society.

If the seventies were years of illusion both for the bourgeoisie and the proletariat; because the reality of the world will be revealed in its true colors, because the future of humanity will in large part be decided, the eighties will be the years of truth.’

Quotes from:  Understanding the decomposition of capitalism: Marxism at the roots of the concept of capitalism's decomposition

International Review on April 1, 2004 - 17:59

‘the phase of decomposition which opened up in the 80s appeared “as the result of an accumulation of all the characteristics of a moribund system, completing the 75-year death agony of a historically condemned mode of production.’

‘Thus the elements of decomposition which, as we have seen, accompany the whole of capitalist decadence, cannot be put on the same level, quantitatively and qualitatively, as those that appeared after the 1980s. Decomposition is not simply a “new phase” succeeding the others within the period of decadence (imperialism, world wars, state capitalism) but is the final phase of the system.

This phenomenon of generalised decomposition, of the putrefaction of society is caused by the fact that the contradictions of capitalism can only worsen, the bourgeoisie being incapable of offering the least perspective to the whole of society and the proletariat unable to affirm its own perspective in an immediate way.’

In this situation, where society’s two decisive - and antagonistic - classes confront each other without either being able to impose its own definitive response, history nonetheless does not just come to a stop. Still less for capitalism than for preceding social forms, is a “freeze” or a “stagnation” of social life possible. As a crisis-ridden capitalism’s contradictions can only get deeper, the bourgeoisie’s inability to offer the slightest perspective for society as a whole, and the proletariat’s inability, for the moment, openly to set forward its own can only lead to a situation of generalised decomposition. Capitalism is rotting on its feet

Quotes from: Decomposition, final phase of the decadence of capitalism

International Review on October 17, 2009 - 02:32

‘The collapse of the Eastern imperialist bloc has brought us a new confirmation of capitalism's entry into a new phase in its period of decadence: the phase of general social decomposition.’

‘The course of history cannot be turned back: as its name suggests, decomposition leads to social dislocation and putrefaction, to the void. Left to its own devices, it will lead humanity to the same fate as world war.’

‘Just as the unleashing of the imperialist war at the heart of the "civilized" world was "a bloodletting which [may have] mortally weakened the European workers' movement" …. so the decomposition of society, which can only get worse, may in the years to come cut down the best forces of the proletariat and definitively compromise the perspective of communism. This is because, as capitalism rots, the resulting poison infects all the elements of society, including the proletariat.

I thought I should come in

I thought I should come in here as I was partly responsible for prompting Baboon to open this thread.  I would say I read his text in the previous stream and took the same meaning as JK did –  ie that he was like me, suggestion some immediatist problems in the analysis of the current situation 

As I have said before I do agree with the tenor and direction taken by the 20th congress statement on the int sit and feel that  it is a rational and thoughtful attempt to analysis this conjuncture in the class struggle.   I would further add that I recognise I am absolutely dependent on the likes of the ICC and CWO for the collective capacity to put such things together and do appreciate the effort and the contribution these make.  All I can offer is honestly when I don’t understand or don’t agree.

Baboon asked for quotes and the ones I have used are clear statements and from key sections of the texts identified.  I am sure they have debated over and over again in the meantime so I apologise for that but clearly the discussion is ongoing. 

Firstly, the Years of Truth, over 30 years old now, and I do not understand how any analysis (with hindsight of the 80s and later years) can support this view of the current period drawn up in 1980.   The 80s were important in quite specific ways but it was rather immediatist back then to suggest back then that the next few years would determine the future of mankind.

The theory of the Period of Decomposition from 1990s  onwards itself implicitly rejects that concept because now it is the lack of world imperialist war that is threatening the future of mankind.  So there is a new immediate threat.  Or is it?  I accept that the theory aims to analyse the features of a new period in decadence, what I do question is what appears as the idea that this is the final crisis because the stalemate between classes allows decay to go beyond the point of no return.  The theses does not mean an immediate threat as such, but it does say there are no more phases or stages in the evolution of decadence.  The final crisis is a very definitive statement whatever its length.   

This theory also appears to rule out the appearance of a new imperialist blocs through the strengthening of the bourgeoisie, but apparently not the strengthening of the wc to attempt a revolution.   I understand the idea of a stalemate in class struggle but not the idea that class struggle has come to an end because only one class is capable of impacting upon social development.

A further problem is that the texts on Decomposition ask revolutionaries to put a brave face on things and keep positive in face of the proletariat but actually says that without wc struggle capitalism will keep on decomposing beyond the point of no return.

Is not jk’s question highly appropriate in this context therefore.  If you consider the current period as decomposition that threatens the ability of wc to make a revolution, then what factors do you use to judge that process especially if such a stage being reached?

My questions relate more not to the attempt to analysis periods which is clearly important,  but to a certain content that seems to overdramatise possibilities as thought this is necessary to be able to condemn capitalism and what it is doing to society.

I agree there's a real issue

There is clearly a real issue here. But I have to say, I read Demo’s examples of ‘catastrophism’ and found very little to disagree with despite some undoubted rhetorical excesses. 

I was even more mystified by Link’s examples. Exactly which statements are patently wrong, what exactly do they prove?

I know the ICC’s analysis of the ‘Years of Truth’ gets a bad press these days. It turned out wrong because it didn’t anticipate the collapse of the Russian bloc, the fall of the wall and the entry of capitalism into its final phase of decomposition. Who did?

But as a warning about the historic stakes involved in workers' struggles, it still seems remarkably prescient: the risk in the present period is still “the elimination of all human society” even if it isn’t from a third world war.

I agree with Demo that we need to be more precise in our use of the term ‘crisis’. But I think the substantive issue goes back to the previous thread on our understanding of decadence, and our ability to analyse examples of relative growth within capitalism’s historic crisis. There were some very rich contributions on that thread that maybe we should revisit.

I agree with Alf that the issue is not so much a supposed tendency towards so-called ‘catastrophism’ but an undeniable tendency towards immediatism, which can only be redressed by deepening our theoretical understanding of the meaning of decadence. Only then can we properly understand the significance of the appearance of crises (and growth) within decadence.

But also, just to turn this around, I think there is a certain tendency in comrades’ contributions to underestimate the seriousness of the current situation: yes it’s true the bourgeoisie has so far managed to prevent the rout of the global banking system following the ‘financial crash’ of 2008. But does this mean it has succeeded in overcoming this crisis, as Demo suggests? Has it found a solution to the most recent crisis? Not yet it hasn’t.  

Crisis vs. Chronic

MH wrote:

But also, just to turn this around, I think there is a certain tendency in comrades’ contributions to underestimate the seriousness of the current situation: yes it’s true the bourgeoisie has so far managed to prevent the rout of the global banking system following the ‘financial crash’ of 2008. But does this mean it has succeeded in overcoming this crisis, as Demo suggests? Has it found a solution to the most recent crisis? Not yet it hasn’t.  

Herein is precisely the problem. We have been saying this exact same thing for much of the past three decades. Go back and look at the ICC press from the early 90s and you can find this exact same rhetoric--"they may have prevented the complete meltdown of the system, but they can't find a long term solution to the crisis." This was right before the massive growth of the 90s and the early 2000's. Yes, we always said this was "fake" debt-fueled growth, but it was growth nonetheless, wasn't it?

I agree with Demo that there are real issues with how we conceive of and employ concepts like "crisis," "collapse," etc. and we do not fully understand how these things intersect with decomposition. I think that Demo is right that the entire idea of decomposition should mitigate against notions of collapse and final crisis, but these ideas still crop up.

The origin of the term "crisis" is medical isn't it?--to distinguish between an immediate threat to a patient's life ("i.e. "hypertensive crisis") and a more chronic condition of bad health that does not immediately pose demise--("chronic hypertension"). We seem to have difficulty distinguishing crises from the chronic accumulation problems of decadent capitalism. Can something that lasts for 50 years really be called a "crisis" or is it just a new state of affairs?

The other issue is the political effects of "catastrophism." What does this do to the working class' willingness to resist. There are many who argue that in the face of catastrophic predictions people only become more apathetic and depressed rather than gaining a willingness to resist. Of course, this is an attack on some of the basic premises of Marxism that faced with the crisis the working class will discover the communist perspective through its struggle. There are many predictions of doom in the popular culture today: from envrionmental meltdown to the much predicted hyper-inflation crisis. Does this have anything to do with the suppressed levels of struggle we are seeing today?

I agree with much of MH above

I agree with much of MH above and I don't think that post-2008 the ICC should be emphasising capitalism's recovery - I certainly disagreed with Aufhebens 2009 position about capitalism being on the "cusp of an upswing" and think, if revolutionary voices had any echo, that this sort of approach is much more dangerous to the working class that being put off by any supposed catastophism. I think that there are - see the indignation thread - plenty of examples since 2003 particularly, of the proletariat's willingness to resist the attacks of capital .and for all the  talk of any recovery the general condition of the working class and the great mass of humanity has only deteriorated.

I'm not sure about this idea of decomposition mitigating against notions of collapse as if there's a certain stability to it. What it means is that the working class is still in with fighting chance but this is within the framework of an unstable and  final crisis of capitalism - which is what decomposition is.

Good stuff

Another useful thread on the ICC site. Thank you Baboon.

Like MH, I don’t find much in Link’s examples to baulk at. Maybe that’s our problem. I do recall that one of the original ‘90s articles from the ICC on decomposition tended to over-estimate the crisis in Russia, under-estimating the temporary ‘worth’ of its energy supplies (though from global bloc leader USSR, via wars in Chechnya, Georgia, domestic terrorism, the development of gangsterism, etc, etc, to present day Russia, you’d hardly call it a ‘developing’ economy).

I also agree with Demogorgon and JK about the need for precision in our language, whilst recognising that different folk mean different things at different times, while employing the same symbols.

JK has also, in the past, called for a greater use of empirical data, which is a correct approach though again, like language, subject to so many qualifications...

Here’s my contribution on that level:

I tried to post this as a graph but, as Alf has noted on the thread about Internet Discussion, us older folk have difficulties with this stuff. Any help appreciated. Anyway, this link should produce a graph, based on CIA figures (best available) that shows global GDP pretty stagnant over the past 10 years....

Lies, damn lies and statistics. I’m very cautious about the term “growth” regarding the world economy. I do know that if I printed over $3 trillion, and gave half of it to JK (or Demogorgon) and kept half for myself, we might get some economic activity going to show ’healthy growth’. That’s essentially what capitalism has done over the past 4-5 years. And of course, as the original ICC pamphlet ‘The Decadence of Capitalism’ attempted to demonstrate, all ‘growth rates’ should be measured against those between 1860-1914 – ie before capitalism’s decadence put a “fetter” on society’s productive potential.

I also agree with JK that we can’t, won't “frighten” the proletariat into action with catastrophic prognoses.

However, this is not a question of language, or, indeed, ideas, but of material reality. The proletariat’s global situation, in contrast to official figures about the ‘growth’ of the capitalist economy, has indeed been catastrophic over the past 20 years. The question is not growth, or decomposition, but who pays for the continuation of society as it is currently constituted, what are the perspectives, and what is to be done?. In this sense, I think that Marx and the communists have still got it right. Alf (#11) put it well.

further decomposition

MH  says that the years of truth analysis turned out wrong because nobody could anticipate the collapse of the Russian bloc.  I agree with this totally but now im mystified as to why he cannot find fault with the quote I provided.  The 80s were not the final crisis (isn’t that the implication?) and clearly have not determined the historical alternatives offered by capitalism.  Neither have the 90s and 2000s.  Future is still being forged and I would think it best to assume that there will be events still to come that we don’t currently anticipate.  Would you argue with this and if so what specifically?


Demogorgon is correct to say that Decomposition phase is not a catastrophic analysis in the sense that it anticipates a slow deterioration due to  the stalemate.  However the analysis categorically states it is the final phase  and I think (please clarify if im wrong) that no further phase can follow it apart from a period of wc revolution.   Its this that I am questioning and im not sure it’s a language problem at all, it’s a question of clarity in explanation  I am quite happy with long term view of capitalism that are catastrophic, im just not happy with each phase of decadence being labelled the final crisis ‘just’ because its important and we cant see beyond it.  Common sense suggests that if a wc revolutionary period  does emerge it could never have been right either.


If Decomposition said that there is currently a stalemate and the resolution of which would be war or revolution Im not sure I would have any query.  Even agreeing with the lack of drive to war because of the disappearance of one bloc, I am surprised by the ICC being able to categorically state there can be no more world wars.  On what basis is such an analysis possible?  The blocs before neither WW1 nor WW2 were fully formed but finalised with the onset of the war itself.  That’s 2 out of 2 occurences, the oddity is the existence of 2 fixed blocs in the cold war.


So the implication as far as I can see is that wc revolution is still possible and that that is the only way that the stalemate can be broken;  capitalism can attain barbarism but the bourgeoisie can never regain sufficient strength in the class struggle to drive towards world war??  Is this correct please???  If so what are you saying about a class struggle that only one side can now impose its solution on the crisis



I do agree that the stakes are high and that the Bourgeoisie has not solved the economic crisis it faces in the long term sense.  Environment issues become more and more significant for the future of humanity and the weaponry available nowadays still threatens the whole of humanity

cross purposes?

To some extent I feel we are talking at cross-purposes here. Just to be clear, I didn’t mean to be dismissive of Demo’s point about the bourgeoisie finding a solution to the crisis of 2008. Clearly they have been able to stave off total collapse and to some extent stabilise the situation. I’m not trying to deny that. But KT’s point is a good one: they’ve only done this by basically printing money, and this is hardly a solution, in fact it only worsens the situation in the longer term. This is hardly an example of a ‘classical’ crisis in the cycle of accumulation.

To Link, on the ‘Years of Truth’; Baboon asked for examples of the ICC’s supposed ‘catastrophism’. As I say, like Alf I’m convinced there is a tendency towards immediatism, which must be overcome, but not of ‘catastrophism’. The ‘Years of Truth’ analysis was a logical conclusion given the conditions at the time. It simply (!) didn’t predict the outcome of this period: stalemate, collapse of the blocs, decomposition… It was wrong but I don’t think it proves your point.

Anyway, I agree with you that we should focus on the 20th Congress Resolution as the most fruitful basis for taking this discussion forward.

Link, the analysis

Link, the analysis underpinning the problems of coherent blocs and the inability of the bourgeosie to unleash a world war is based, as far a I understand it, on two elements, both of which belong to decomposition; one is the undefeated nature of the working class and the unlikeliness of a bourgeoisie able to mobilise its proletariat for war - for which a major, probably unprecedented ideological and material campaign of the bourgeoisie would be necessary - and the second is that the resulting free-for-all from the collapse of the bloc system, the tendency to each-for-themself or the centrifugal tendencies of imperialism in decomposition has undermined any foreseeable bloc "coherence". There are minor blocs, alliances and "co-operations" going on all the time within the bourgeoisie but the premise for two major imperialist blocs is very weak.

I don't think that decomposition is a "win-win" for the working class, a sort of stable stand off. It very much poses the question of "the mutual ruin of contending classes". And, as you say Link, there is also the question of unanticipated events, surprises (the collapse of the eastern bloc was one such big surprise to the bourgeoisie and, incidentally, the intelligent ruling classes of the major capitals were some way behind the analysis of the ICC on this question),  and the "unknown unknowns". These elements are favoured by decomposition, the irrationality that comes from it and the chaos and instability that it provokes.

Despite provoking wars or fighting wars since the collapse of the blocs, unleashing the most terrible destructions, US imperialism has further weakened not least from the consequences of the warfare that it has that it's provoked in order to keep its "allies" on board. Instead there is a tendency for the opposite to happen, for alliances to weaken, for its problems to get stronger despite being the biggest power on earth by far. China is not an effective rival and Russia, although going through a period of some resurgence, is very much "punching above its weight". There are tensions of the US with  "partners" in the Middle East, Saudi, Israel and the Arab Spring, as it applied to imperialist considerations, has further undermined its position (fully backing the Muslim Brotherhoold - under British advice I think - and then doing a U-turn for example). I would have said a month or two ago that a US-led, or inspired, war with Iran was on the cards within a few years at the most. I don't think so now for some of the reasons above.

Ukraine   What's happening



What's happening today in Ukraine is, in my opinion, still indicative of the strength of the blow that the collapse of the eastern bloc, which itself was an expression of capitalism's decomposition, delivered to the working class. There's a thread on libcom about Ukraine the presentation to which gives a solid factual account of the players involved but ends up with a position that suggests that there is something positive to this movement in that youth is on the streets protesting and there are fascists present. Libcom's favourite TV presenter, Paul Mason, has categorised, along with the equally reactionary events in Thailand, Ukraine as part of his "kicking off" movements which, in this case, are perfectly compatible with some of these elements of anarchism that are unable to differentiate clearly between the classes and who do not at all see the proletariat completely drowned by the petty-bourgeoisie in a purely nationalist expression. For the mainstream media in the UK these are "two revolutions" taking place either side of the globe. But in Ukraine and Thailand the proletariat is completely absent and the only strike call in the latter has come the regional authorities of the western pro-EU faction of the Ukrainian bourgeoisie. Just one post on the libcom thread is dismissive - from a proletarian point of view - of this "rehashing of the Cold War" and the overpowering weight of nationalism and the interests of the Ukrainian bourgeoisie.


But, in this long post, which I make no apologies for, I want to look back at the collapse of the eastern bloc, this being entirely in line with the concerns of this thread, and the weight that this event had on the working class.


Above, I say that the ICC was more prescient on this collapse than the intelligence arms of the ruling class of the major powers and I maintain that this was the case. But it was the CWO, as part of the IBRP, that first raised the question of the economic collapse of the USSR and Russia losing its grip on its east European satellites (Workers' Voice number 47), which the ICC initially criticised as a concession to pacifism. However, the ICC quickly retracted this error as it developed the analysis of the collapse of the eastern bloc within the framework of the decomposition of capitalism: "Thus, we should give credit to the CWO as seeing as early as April/May last year (1989, B) that Russia was losing its grip over its east European satellites - a position that we wrongly criticised in WR 125 as a concession to the bourgeoisie's pacifist campaign, since we were late in seeing the real disintegration of the Stalinist system". This clarification, and more besides, in International Review number 61, second quarter 1990, under the title 'The Wind from the East and the Response of Revolutionaries' was also carried in an issue of World Revolution; number 133, April 1990, where it also said in the article 'Polemic with the IBRP - The Insurrection That Never Was', that "The CWO has responded to the historic changes in the east with a good degree of clarity on some of the most fundamental issues" and it continued to develop along these lines seeing the world imperialist order established at Yalta overturned and that the collapse of the USSR was a result of the economic crisis and not the class struggle. But if the CWO was quick off the mark here it's only with the framework of capitalist decomposition that the question can be profoundly deepened . The CWO tended to see eastern Europeans markets opening up to western technology as Russia turned into a European based imperialism. There's also an underestimation in the CWO about the way that workers have been completely dragged onto the terrain of the bourgeoisie and behind the banners of democracy as well as the degree of control that it gave to the Russian bourgeoisie over events. - a "control" virtually non-existent for the ICC. But the CWO had a sound position that was positively illuminating compared to its partner in the IBRP, Battaglia Comunista. BC saw the collapse as "oxygen for capitalism" and had ideas about the eastern bloc countries still being under the Russian boot which went along with a general underestimation of the level of the economic and political collapse that had hit the USSR. From this BC also saw the "resurgence of class struggle" and furthermore, within the moves to democracy in Rumania, described events here as "the first country in the industrialised regions in which the world economic crisis has given rise to a real and authentic popular insurrection..." and then, "...the objective conditions and nearly all the subjective conditions were there for turning the insurrection into a real and authentic social revolution" which is very close to the position of leftism and the bourgeoisie's campaigns throughout the collapse of the bloc about "popular revolutions". The CWO were much more careful here, not least I think from their call for "Revolution Now!" over Poland 1980, which shows that immediatism didn't only affect the ICC within the communist left.


The development of the analysis of the decomposition of capitalism, flux, uncertainty, growing global chaos from the collapse of the eastern bloc demonstrated to me at least, that the ICC was an organisation that, while firmly rooted in the lessons of the past workers' movement was able to very rapidly and profoundly adapt and take on lessons of an entirely new and unprecedented dimension, against the stream and in a relatively short space of time. There were confusions in the ICC, over some elements over the unification of Germany and when some of the Baltic states moved towards the west there were comrades that saw the situation rapidly moving towards war. But the whole discussion within the whole ICC, and its centralisation, allowed, even within unknowns, positions to be deepened and clarified.


The framework for Russia's economic collapse was its imperialist overreach, the Nato offensive against it across the world and right up to the Russian borders and, most importantly, the worsening of the global crisis of capitalism. The weight of this event against the working class can't be overestimated and it persists today. I said above that just before the collapse there were high levels of class struggle in "socialist" Yugoslavia before workers were killing each other under "ethnicities" and there were high levels of class struggle across the USSR just before Russia's collapse particularly from coal miners in Ukraine, Western Siberia and the central Asian republic of Kazakhstan. Other industries became involved, hundreds of thousands were on strike, there were mass meetings and both economic and political demands were put forward by the workers. The earlier perspective of the ICC was of these movements of workers in the east joining up with the struggles of the west but the collapse turned all this on its head and, even with greater numbers of workers subsequently on strike in the east, these had no bearing whatsover on the collapse as the struggle of the class was crushed under its weight. Publications of the ICC said that "History seems to have gone mad"... "the system in the East is collapsing under the same blows of the economic crisis...", it was the expression of the "brutal acceleration of decadence in the 1980's". The ICC also drew heavily on its analysis of state capitalism and its specificities in Russia after its development in Russia after the revolution where the counter-revolution saw the "unnatural" stalinist construction of the economy and, rather perceptively and against what all the main factions of the bourgeoisie were saying, the ICC also saw the "writing on the wall for the East German state" as Hungary opened its borders to Austria allowing floods of east Germans into the west: The West German bourgeoisie did have a programme of unification but the last thing that the expected, as did the British and American ruling class, was a reunified Germany. This wasn't a policy it was thrust upon them. "A period of unprecedented instability and chaos has opened up (mainly in the eastern bloc states, B) and the Yalta division of the world was overturned" and this earthquake in no way meant "a movement towards world war but is the result of the general decomposition of capitalism" (the ICC had developed the concept of capitalism's decomposition shortly before the collapse of the eastern bloc.


This unprecedented event, its "victory to capitalism", the "death of communism" and the wholesale illusions boosted in democracy hit class consciousness across the world. Parts of the ex-USSR were "lebanised", war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan (not settled today), pogroms and uncertainty reigned. There was nothing positive in this for the working class and the proletariat in the east were plunged into confusion and disorientation and in many cases, near starvation and concerns about the next meal. Despite the western bourgeoisie's own confusions, their ideological assault against the working class was unleashed with venom across the globe. The democratic state was immediately strengthened as were their trade unions generally and particularly against previous tendencies of struggle that came up against them. With the fall of the Berlin Wall live scenes of the "collapse of communism" were beamed around the world as people celebrated their "liberation". And it was very much like the campaigns of the bourgeoisie at the end of World War II, the victory of democracy over the evil empire, the "peace dividend", an end to war and a future free from fear. But given the development of technology this campaign was even more deafening and universal. Standing back now it's easy to see that not only did the eastern bloc collapse but brought down with it the coherence of the western bloc, wars proliferated with the utmost barbarity, the "peace dividend" turned out be the development of the means of destruction and global misery and global economic crisis have deepened ever since.


Just like Ukraine today, then millions of workers marched behind democracy (or for the "traditionalists") without putting forwards a single class demand as the "socialist" economies fell into ruination. Stalinism couldn't give up its grip because of its history, because of its rigid inefficiency. For the ICC at the time the break up of the USSR was inevitable because of the acceleration of centrifugal forces that both repression and reform could only accelerate to the point that, within Russia itself, the local Mafia became a force for stability. World Revolution number 134, May 1990, makes the point about the working class being hit with the "full force" of this disintegration and while strikes continued for a while in the east, the working class across the bloc divide were undermined by the campaign around the "death of communism", the proletariat in the ex-USSR were mobilised behind nationalism and the "better world" of democracy. The "response" from the working class to the collapse of the eastern empire was demoralisation, demobilisation behind democracy and "freedom" or being sucked into the movements of one capitalist clique or another.


The consequences of the collapse of the eastern bloc into economic bankruptcy definitively showed, if it was necessary, that there was no mechanical link between the deepening of capitalism's crisis and the development of the class struggle - in fact the historical nature of this economic collapse and the subsequent inter-classist movement completely demobilised the working class and its ramifications continue to this day. Through the 1960's to the 80's, workers in the east, fighting against their own "socialist" regimes, took on the unions as did their comrades in the west. All the potential of this development was crushed by unprecedented events and an equally unprecedented barrage of global propaganda in order to lay the ground for further attacks. The combativity of the class which persisted for a time in the workers of the east was completely drowned in the infection caused by the disintegration of the stalinist regimes. We are also right to stress the toll that this event exerted on the proletariat of the west.