The theory of decadence is the key to understanding the conditions and principles of the proletarian struggle

Printer-friendly version

The concretisation of historical materialism

The theory of decadence is nothing other than the concretisation of historical materialism in the analysis of the evolution of modes of production. It is thus the indispensable framework for understanding the historical period we are living in. Knowing whether society is still progressing, or whether it has had its day historically, is decisive for grasping what is at stake on the political and socio-economic levels, and acting accordingly. As with all past societies, the ascendant phase of capitalism expressed the historically necessary character of the relations of production it embodies, that is, their vital role in the expansion of society's productive forces. The phase of decadence, by contrast, expresses the transformation of these relations into a growing barrier to this same development. This is one of the main theoretical acquisitions left us by Marx and Engels.

The 20th century was the most murderous in the entire history of humanity, both in the scale, the frequency and length of the wars which took up a large part of it, and in the incomparable breadth of the human catastrophes which it produced: from the greatest famines in history to systematic genocide, taking in economic crises which have shaken the whole planet and hurled tens of millions of proletarians and human beings into abject poverty. There is no comparison between the 19th and 20th centuries. During the Belle Epoque, the bourgeois mode of production reached unprecedented heights: it had united the globe, reaching levels of productivity and technological sophistication which could only have been dreamed about before. Despite the accumulation of tensions in society's foundations, the last 20 years of capitalism's ascendancy (1894-1914) were the most prosperous yet; capitalism seemed invincible and armed conflicts were confined to the peripheries. Unlike the "long 19th century" (as the historian EJ Hobsbawm has described it), which was a period of almost uninterrupted moral, intellectual and material progress, since 1914 there has been a marked regression on all fronts. The increasingly apocalyptic character of economic and social life across the planet, and the threat of self-destruction in an endless series of conflicts and ever more grave ecological catastrophes, are neither a natural fatality, nor the product of simple human madness, nor a characteristic of capitalism since its origins: they are a manifestation of the decadence of the capitalist mode of production which, from being, from the 16th century to the First World War,[1] a powerful factor in economic, social and political development, has become a fetter on all such development and a threat to the very survival of humanity.

Why is humanity faced with the question of survival at the very moment that it has achieved a level of development in the productive forces that would enable it to start moving, for the first time in its history, towards a world without material poverty, towards a unified society capable of basing its activity on the needs, desires and consciousness of mankind? Does the world proletariat really constitute the revolutionary force that can take humanity out of the impasse into which capitalism has led it? Why is it that most of the forms of workers' struggle in our epoch can no longer be those of the last century, such as the fight for gradual reforms through trade unionism, parliamentarism, supporting the constitution of certain nation states or certain progressive fractions of the bourgeoisie? It is impossible to find one's bearings in the current historical situation, still less to play a vanguard role, without having a global, coherent vision which can answer these elementary but crucial questions. Marxism - historical materialism - is the only conception of the world which makes it possible to give such an answer. Its clear and simple response can be summed up in a few words; just like the modes of production which came before it, capitalism is not an eternal system: "Beyond a certain point, the development of the productive forces becomes a barrier to capital, and consequently the relation of capital becomes a barrier to the development of the productive forces of labour. Once this point has been reached, capital, ie wage labour, enters into the same relation to the development of social wealth and the productive forces as the guild system, serfdom and slavery did, and is, as a fetter, necessarily cast off. The last form of servility assumed by human activity, that of wage labour on the one hand and capital on the other, is thereby shed, and this shedding is itself the result of the mode of production corresponding to capital. It is precisely the production process of capital that gives rise to the material and spiritual conditions for the negation of wage labour and capital, which are themselves the negation of earlier forms of unfree social production.

The growing discordance between the productive development of society and the relations of production hitherto characteristic of it, is expressed in acute contradictions, crises, convulsions" ("Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy" [also known as the Grundrisse], Collected Works Vol. 29, 133-4).

As long as capitalism fulfilled a historically progressive role and the proletariat was not sufficiently developed, proletarian struggles could not result in a triumphant world revolution; they did however allow the proletariat to recognise itself and assert itself as a class through the trade union and parliamentary struggle for real reforms and lasting improvements in its living conditions. From the moment when the capitalist system entered into decadence, the world communist revolution became a possibility and a necessity. The forms of the proletarian struggle were radically overturned; even on the immediate level, defensive struggles could no longer be expressed, either in form or content, through the means of struggle forged last century such as trade unionism and parliamentary representation for workers' political organisations.

Brought into being by the revolutionary movements which put an end to the First World War, the Communist International was founded in 1919 around the recognition that the bourgeoisie was no longer a historically progressive class: "2. THE PERIOD OF CAPITALIST DECLINE. On the basis of its assessment of the world economic situation the Third Congress was able to declare with complete certainty that 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. Obsolete capitalism has reached the stage where the destruction that results from its unbridled power is crippling and ruining the economic achievements that have been built up by the proletariat, despite the fetters of capitalist slavery... What capitalism is passing through today is nothing other than its death throes" (‘Theses on Comintern Tactics' in Theses, resolutions and manifestos of the first four Congresses of the Third International, Hessel, p388-9)

From then on, the understanding that the First World War marked the entry of the capitalist system into its decadent phase has been the common patrimony of the majority of the groups of the communist left who, thanks to this historical compass, have been able to remain on an intransigent and coherent class terrain. The ICC has only taken up and developed the heritage transmitted and enriched by the Italian, German and Dutch lefts in the 1930s and 40s and then by the Gauche Communiste de France in the 1940s and 50s.

Decisive class combats are on the horizon. It is therefore more than ever vital for the proletariat to re-appropriate its own conception of the world, which has been developed over nearly two centuries of workers' struggles and theoretical elaboration by its political organisations. More than ever, the proletariat must understand that the present acceleration of barbarism and the uninterrupted increase in its exploitation are not a fact of nature, but are the result of the economic and social laws of capital which continue to rule the world even though they have been historically obsolete since the beginning of the 20th century. It is more vital than ever for the working class to understand that while the forms of struggle it learned in the 19th century (minimum programme of struggle for reforms, support for progressive fractions of the bourgeoisie etc) had a sense in the period of capitalism's ascent when it could "tolerate" the existence of an organised proletariat within society, these same forms can only lead it into an impasse in the period of decadence. More than ever, it is vital for the proletariat to understand that the communist revolution is not an idle dream, a utopia, but a necessity and a possibility which have their scientific foundations in an understanding of the decadence of the capitalist mode of production.

The decadence of capitalism

As a result of historical evolution, labour power becomes a commodity

Under capitalism, labour power has become a commodity:

"In ancient times, we see the exploitation of surplus labour by those who do not work. Slavery in antiquity, serfdom in the Middle Ages, both depend on a certain level of productivity being reached, on the ability of one individual's labour to support several individuals. Each is a different expression of the way in which one social class profits from this productivity by living on the labour of another class. In this sense, the slave of Antiquity and the medieval serf are the direct ancestors of today's wage worker. But neither in Antiquity nor in the Middle Ages had labour power become a commodity, despite its productivity and the fact that it is exploited (...)

The sale of labour power as a commodity implies a whole series of specific historical and social relations. The appearance on the market of the commodity 'labour power' means:

  1. that the worker is free as an individual;
  2. that he is separated from the means of production, and that the latter are brought together under the ownership of those who do not work;
  3. that labour productivity has reached a high level, in other words that it can provide surplus labour;
  4. that the market economy has become dominant, in other words that the creation of surplus labour in the form of commodities is the aim of the purchase of labour power" (Rosa Luxemburg, Introduction to political economy,[2] Chapter V, "Wage Labour").

For the proletariat, the result was to introduce a new quality to its destitution, compared to previous epochs:

"The primitive tribe is hungry, occasionally or often, when natural conditions are unfavourable to it; its destitution is that of society as a whole, it was unthinkable that some its members could be destitute while others were rich; inasmuch as the means of life were available for the whole of society, they were equally to all of its members. The same is true of antique and oriental slavery. However pressured and exploited the Egyptian public slave or the Greek private slave, however great a gap between his meagre living conditions and the opulence of his master, his conditions as a slave nonetheless ensured his existence. Slaves were not left to die of hunger, just as nobody left their horse or their cattle to die of hunger. The same is true of medieval serfdom: the whole system of feudal dependence where the peasant was attached to the land and where everyone was either the master or the servant of other men, or both at once, attributed to each individual a determined place within society. However pressured were the serfs, no lord had the right to chase them from the land and therefore to deprive them of their means of existence. Feudal relations obliged the lord to help the peasants in the case of catastrophes, fires, floods, hail, etc. It is only at the end of the Middle Ages, when feudalism begins to collapse and modern capitalism makes its appearance, that the situation changes.


capitalist commodity production is the first form of economy in human history where the absence of work and of the means of existence for a large and growing part of the population, and the poverty of another, also growing, part are not only the consequence but also a necessity and the condition for the existence of the economy." (Rosa Luxemburg, op.cit.).

Capitalism creates the conditions for communism

The Communist Manifesto emphasises the eminently revolutionary role played by the bourgeoisie, as it swept away all the old limited forms of society, and replaced them by the most dynamic and expansionist mode of production ever seen; a mode of production which, by conquering and unifying the entire planet, and by setting in motion in enormous productive forces, laid the foundations for a higher form of society which will at last be able to do away with class antagonisms.

Communism has thus becomes a material possibility thanks to the unprecedented development of the productive forces by capitalism itself.

The society based on the universal production of commodities is inevitably condemned, by the logic of its own internal functioning, to decline and in the end to collapse. In the Manifesto, the internal contradictions which will lead to capitalism's fall were already identified:

"Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. For many a decade past, the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the rovolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeoisie and its rule. It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put on trial, each time more threateningly, the existence of the entire bourgeois society. In these crises a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity - the epidemic of overproduction. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce." (Manifesto of the Communist Party in Marx: the revolutions of 1848, Pelican Marx Library, p72-73)

Marx's work in the years after he wrote the Manifesto was to look more closely at the relationship between the extraction and the realisation of surplus value, and at the periodic crises of overproduction which, every ten years or so, shook capitalist society to its foundations. In unveiling the secret of surplus value, he showed that capitalism is marked by profound contradictions which will inevitably lead to its decline and final collapse. These contradictions are based on the very nature of wage labour:

  • the crisis of overproduction: under capitalism, the majority of the population is, by the very nature of surplus value, made up of over-producers and under-consumers. Capitalism is unable to realise all the value that is produced within the closed circuit of its own relations of production;
  • the tendency of the rate of profit to fall: only human labour power can create new value; however, competition constantly obliges capitalism to reduce the quantity of living labour in relation to dead labour (machines, raw materials), which exerts a downward pressure on the rate of profit.

Despite its incredibly expansionist nature and the dynamic by which it subjects the whole planet to its laws, capitalism is - like Roman slave society or medieval feudalism - a historically transitory mode of production. At the end of this vast historical movement, like all modes of production that preceded it, capitalism is therefore condemned to disappear not because of its moral bankruptcy but because its internal contradictions compel it to destroy itself, and because it has produced within itself a class able to replace it by a higher form of social organisation.

Capitalism's contradictions also pointed to their solution: communism. A society plunged into chaos by the domination of commodity relationships can only be superseded by a society which abolishes wage labour and production for exchange, the society of "producers freely associated" for the satisfaction of human needs, where the relationships between human beings will be no longer obscure, but simple and clear.

During the last years of his life, Marx devoted a large part of his intellectual energy to the study of archaic societies. The publication of Morgan's Ancient society and the questions posed to him by the Russian workers' movement on the perspectives for the revolution in Russia, led him to undertake an intensive study which has come down to us in the form of his very incomplete but nonetheless extremely important Ethnographic notes. The same study also underpinned Engels' great anthropological work, The origins of the family, private property and the state.

For Marx and Engels, Morgan's work on the American Indians was a striking confirmation of their ideas about primitive communism: contrary to the conventional bourgeois conception that private property, social hierarchy, and the inequality of the sexes were inherent to human nature, Morgan's study revealed that the more primitive was a social formation, the more property was held in common, the more also the process of decision-making was collective and the more relationships between men and women were based on mutual respect.

Marxist approach to primitive society was founded on his materialist method which considered that the historical evolution of societies is determined, in the last instance, by changes in their economic infrastructure. These changes brought about the end of the primitive community and opened the way to the appearance of more developed social forms. But his vision of historical progress was radically opposed to the trivial bourgeois evolutionism which imagined a purely linear ascension from darkness into light, an ascension whose culmination is of course the brilliant splendour of bourgeois civilisation. Marx's viewpoint was profoundly dialectical: far from rejecting primitive communism as subhuman, his Notes express a profound respect for the qualities of the tribal community: its ability to govern itself, its powers of imagination and artistic creation, its sexual equality. The inevitable limitations of primitive society - in particular, restrictions imposed on individuals and the division of humanity in the tribal units - were necessarily overcomes by historical progress. But the positive side of these societies was lost during this process and would have to be restored at a higher level in the communist future.

The discovery that human beings had lived for hundreds of thousands of years in a society without classes and without a state was to become a powerful instrument in the hands of the workers' movement and served to counterbalance all those proclamations according to which the love of private property and the need for hierarchy are an intrinsic part of human nature.

The imperialist phase, capitalism's apogee and prelude to its decadence

When the Communist Manifesto was written, the cyclical crises of overproduction could still be overcome "by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones": capitalism still had before it a long phase of expansion.

During the 1870s and 1880s a new phase in capitalism's life opened up. The capitalist system entered its last phase of expansion and world conquest, no longer through the class struggle of emerging bourgeoisie seeking to establish viable national states, but through the method of imperialism and colonial conquest. During the last three decades of the 19th century almost the entire planet was conquered and shared out between the great imperialist powers.

With the appearance of the first signs of capitalism's decadent phase - growing tensions between the great powers and incessant conflicts on the periphery - as Engels was to write in 1891 with remarkable prescience: "All the above was said with the reservation that Germany will be able to pursue its economic and political development in peace. A war would change all that. And war is liable to break out at any moment. Everyone knows what war means today. It would be Russia and France on one side; Germany, Austria and perhaps Italy on the other" ('Socialism in Germany' 1891, in Marx and Engels Collected Works vol 27 p241) "But if war is to break out nevertheless, one thing is certain. This war, in which fifteen to twenty million armed men would slaughter one another and devastate Europe as it has never been devastated before - this war would either lead to the immediate triumph of socialism, or it would lead to such an upheaval in the old order of things, it would leave behind it everywhere such a heap of ruins, that the old capitalist society would become more impossible than ever..." (p245).

Before the outbreak of social disaster of World War I, many influential voices within the workers movement tried to convince the working class that capitalism could be transformed peacefully through reforms.

Fortunately at the time, the Marxist left was able to see through the apparently robust health of capitalism as expressed in its economic statistics. In reality, when the war broke out, capitalism was at the height of its economic prosperity and it was by walking in Engels' footsteps that the Marxist left was able to undertake an implacable struggle against the reformists within the social democracy, and to take account of the exacerbating contradictions of the system.

The understanding of the phase of imperialism and of capitalist decadence was to be developed by Marx's successors, and notably by Rosa Luxemburg.

The 20th century: the century of wars and revolutions

Although the Marxist left was far from being united on the fundamental reasons that had led capitalism to World War I - and a qualitatively and quantitatively new phenomenon in social life - it was nonetheless able to agree on its immediate cause: this was a war between great imperialist powers to divide up the world between them. Obviously those who were the most interested in a new division of the world, and were ready to go to war for it, were the least well endowed in colonies: Germany in particular. The others (Britain, France) were equally ready for war to avoid losing their colonial empires.

As an international wave of indignation against the barbarism of World War I was transformed into a world revolutionary wave which could put on the historical agenda the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the creation of a communist society, there were those within the workers' movement who took refuge in "Marxist orthodoxy" to decree that the seizure of power by the working class in Russia was premature because it had not yet been preceded by the political seizure of power by the bourgeoisie. This polarisation on the supposed immaturity of revolutionary conditions in Russia was not only completely mistaken as to the development of industry and the working class in that country, but above all completely missed the fundamental point that conditions were ripe for a worldwide revolution.

Carried by the wave of revolutionary movements which had put an end to World War I, the foundation of the Communist International in 1919 was based, as we have seen above, on the understanding that the historically progressive role of the bourgeoisie had come to an end.

The fact that the revolution was defeated in no way indicates that the objective conditions for revolution were not yet ready in this period. Not only were the preconditions for a society of abundance already present thanks to the development of productive forces but the working class had already demonstrated, in 1905 in Russia and in several industrialised countries from 1917 onwards, its ability to overthrow the bourgeoisie and set up its own political power world wide.

This defeat, due fundamentally to the defeat of the revolution in Germany, in fact expresses the immaturity of the subjective conditions for the revolution, in particular the continued illusions of a large part of the German proletariat in the Social Democracy despite the latter's betrayal during the war.

The economic foundations of capitalist decadence

The world war, the first brutal manifestation of capitalism's entry into its decadent phase, was obviously not unconnected with the contradictions which had developed within society's economic foundations. Indeed it is a pure product of these contradictions.

A) the underlying economic causes of wars in the decadent period

As we have already pointed out, Marx had demonstrated both the absolute necessity for capitalism to realise a part of its surplus value in exchange with the non-capitalist world, and the fact that this necessity is a result of the mode of appropriation of surplus value which is specific to capitalism: wage labour. It is this that forces the capitalist to reduce the workers' wages to the minimum possible, such that the latter are unable to buy commodities which are not strictly necessary for the reproduction of their labour power, and therefore to constitute a factor in enlarging the solvent market within capitalism. Whence the necessity for capitalism constantly to search for outlets outside the sphere of its own relations of production:

"Secondly he overlooks the fact that the output level is by no means arbitrarily chosen, but the more capitalist production develops, the more it is forced to produce on a scale which has nothing to do with the immediate demand but depends on a constant expansion of the world market. He has recourse to Say's trite assumption, that the capitalist produces not for the sake of profit, surplus-value, but produces use-value directly for consumption - for his own consumption. He overlooks the fact that the commodity has to be converted into money. The demand of the workers does not suffice, since profit arises precisely from the fact that the demand of the workers is smaller than the value of their produce, and that it [profit] is all the greater the smaller, relatively, is this demand. The demand of the capitalists among themselves is equally insufficient." (Theories of Surplus Value part 2, 'Ricardo's theory of profit - (e) Ricardo's explanation for the fall in the rate of profit and its connection with his theory of rent', p468).

The necessity for global capitalism to exchange with the extra-capitalist world affects each capitalist power with more or less force, and pushes each to try to acquire its own colonial empire in order to avoid dependence on other great powers for access to such a market. As a result, even before World War I, the world and colonial markets had all come under the domination of the great economic powers. From then on a country could only acquire new colonies at the expense of its rivals.

Thus although the world war was not a direct consequence of an economic crisis caused by capitalism's insurmountable economic contradictions, it was nonetheless their product in the last instance. The same is true of World War II and of the wars which have followed.

As capitalism plunged further into its own contradictions, a qualitative modification took place in the nature of these wars themselves as they became increasingly irrational from the economic point of view.

This economic irrationality existed already in World War I, in as much as, far from allowing capitalism to develop, it brought capitalism's development to a brutal halt. The economies of most of the combatant countries, in whichever camp they fought, were also hard hit by the war. Only the United States came out an overall winner.

After World War I, the economic objectives of war - in other words seizing the markets of one's rivals - tended to give way to purely strategic considerations aimed at maintaining or improving the balance of power in one's own favour. The example of today's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is a striking illustration, since the control of oil is also here fundamentally a strategic motive not an economic one.

At the global level therefore, it is the absence of any way out economically which pushes each state into the flight towards militarism and war.

B) the crisis of 1929 and the 1930s and the explosion of structural mass unemployment

The history of capitalism is the history of its conquest of the planet. This development is inextricably tied to the development of trade with extra-capitalist economy, and to the latter's integration into capitalist relations of production:

"The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians' intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce whiat it calls civilization into their midst, ie, to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image." ('Bourgeois and Proletarians', The manifesto of the Communist Party, in Marx: the Revolutions of 1848, Pelican Marx Library, p71).

The result of this movement is the diminution of the extent of extra-capitalist markets, without any diminution in capitalism's need for their existence to absorb part of its production in order to be able to continue accumulating in "normal" conditions.

The crisis of 1929 was the first direct expression, at a strictly economic level, of the insurmountable contradictions of decadent capitalism. Just like the cyclical crises of the ascendant phase, it was a crisis of overproduction. But unlike the former, it could not be resolved by the opening of new markets which would provide a lasting basis for new growth. It was the expression of the global and growing tendency towards the saturation of extra-capitalist markets relative to capitalism's need to realise surplus value in order to fuel new cycles of accumulation.

The slight improvement in the economic situation during the 1930s was in fact a product of state capitalist measures aimed at controlling the economy, and transforming it to meet the needs of military production in the new world war to come. Far from offering a solution to capitalism's insurmountable contradictions, such measures could do no more than hold them off for a time.

World War I had already forced capitalism to adopt a number of state capitalist measures. Once the conflict ended however the bourgeoisie still laboured under the illusion that it could return to its pre-war golden age. In the years that followed, this tendency towards the state's domination of the whole of social and economic life (state capitalism) has become irreversible.

The crisis of 1929 opened a period of permanent economic crisis, broken only by the atypical years of prosperity that followed World War II. It was marked in particular by the development of structural mass unemployment, which was only temporarily absorbed by the policies of public works and arms production during the 1930s, by the war during 1939-45, and then by the relatively short-lived period of reconstruction that followed World War II.

Both quantitatively and qualitatively, unemployment since 1929 has differed from that of the 20th century, when the unemployed formed an industrial reserve army necessary for capital. It is the expression of the permanent crisis of overproduction affecting the world economy. In a context where the world economy has not enough room to develop, each national capital and each individual capitalist is forced to reduce its workforce as much as possible in order to remain competitive. This expression of permanent overproduction reveals the full extent of capitalism's contradictions, on two levels:

  • In order to maintain social stability, the bourgeoisie is forced to introduce unemployment benefits, especially in those countries where the proletariat is most concentrated and most experienced; this is completely unproductive expenditure which weighs heavily on the economy.
  • By expelling from the productive process the only value-creating productive force, the proletariat, the bourgeoisie constantly weakens the foundations of a system based on the exploitation of the working class.

The post-1945 period of reconstruction: a new lease of life for capitalism, or the reaction of a diseased social body?

The growth rates during the two decades that followed World War II were higher than the best rates achieved during capitalism's ascendancy, and were used as an argument by its supporters to claim that capitalism had definitively overcome its crises. They also engendered considerable scepticism in the revolutionary camp as to the reality of capitalism's decadence.

This was all the more true in that these growth rates were made possible by an equally substantial increase in labour productivity, accompanied to some extent by an improvement in working class living conditions,[3] and although the first signs of capitalism's return to open crisis appeared at the end of the 1960s, the 1970s also experienced relatively high growth rates.

But when we look back on the 20th century as a whole, with the hindsight that our position at the beginning of the 21st century allows us, it is much easier to see that the Reconstruction years are in fact an exception in a period characterised by capitalism"s irreversible slide into crisis.

We should also point out that:

  • Unlike previous society's, and contrary to what Trotsky had believed in the 1930s, capitalism's entry into decadence is marked, not by a halt in the development of the productive forces, but by the presence of a constant fetter on their development. This is essentially because critical technical development is vital to capitalism's existence, as it was not for previous societies, even when the full use of this development is constrained by the inadequacy of the market.
  • A general epoch of decadence is not incompatible with short periods of rising prosperity, as the ruling class tries to hold back the decline in its mode of production through the intervention of the state.

We can give a general explanation here of the economic boom of the Reconstruction period.

Firstly, we need to bear in mind the reality underlying the gross statistics for growth, which include a substantial share of unproductive capital, notably in arms production.

Consequently, although as we have said the bourgeoisie was able to profit from an important increase in labour productivity thanks in large part to state intervention in the national economy, these gains in productivity were in part "lost" to capitalist accumulation due to their sterilisation as unproductive capital.

Secondly, we should highlight the following factors underlying this period of relative prosperity:

  • The impetus given by the reconstruction of Western Europe and Japan, thanks to the essentially imperialist programme of the Marshall Plan.
  • The development of state capitalism within each country, and the adoption of state capitalist measures at the level of the imperialist blocs (IMF, EEC, World Bank, COMECON etc.), made it possible to modulate growing economic contradictions and thus temporarily avoid the sanction of the market.
  • The beginning of a substantial rise in debt.
  • A more efficient exploitation of the remaining extra-capitalist markets. Technical development, the falling costs of communications and transport all facilitated a more intensive penetration of the surviving extra-capitalist markets. In addition, the policy of decolonisation relieved the great powers of a costly burden (the expense of colonial administration and the military presence needed to support it), which made it possible to increase sales to the ex-colonies.

Once the specific factors underlying the economic boom of the Reconstruction period were exhausted, a general rise in debt became an increasingly important palliative to the inadequacy of solvent markets. Far from being a miracle cure for capitalism's contradictions, this could only lead to a long series of bankruptcies among the most indebted states, beginning with a number of African states during the 1970s and spreading to many of the "Tigers" and "Dragons" in 1998. The list of bankrupt states is obviously neither exhaustive nor closed.

The most barbaric century that humanity has ever known

Even the most enthusiastic apologists for the capitalist mode of production are forced to recognise that the 20th century has been one of the darkest that humanity has ever suffered.

Human history is not lacking in cruelty of every kind: tortures, massacres, mass deportation or extermination of whole populations on the basis of religion, language, culture, or race. The obliteration of Carthage by the Roman legions, the invasions of Attila in the mid-5th century, Charlemagne's execution of 4,500 Saxon hostages on a single day in 782, the torture chambers and burnings of the Inquisition, the extermination of the Indians of America, the selling into slavery of millions of Africans between the 16th and 19th centuries: these are just a few examples that any schoolboy can find in his history books. Similarly, human history has already seen other examples of long and tragic periods of decadence and disaster: the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the Hundred Years War between France and England during the Middle Ages, the Thirty Years War which devastated Germany during the 17th century. Yet even if we were to take account of all the catastrophes of this kind which have befallen humanity, we would be hard put to find an equal to the suffering that capitalism has visited on the 20th century:

  • World War I: five million refugees, ten million dead, twice that number injured or mutilated, and an aftermath of disease (the influenza epidemic of 1918) which struck a population weakened by the deprivations of war and killed even more than had the war itself.
  • The terrible civil war unleashed by the bourgeoisie against the Russian revolution between 1918 and 1921: six million dead.
  • More than twenty million dead in the wars that preceded World War II (Sino-Japanese war, Spanish Civil War) and in Stalin's gulag.
  • World War II: 40 million refugees, more than fifty million dead, as many or more injured and mutilated.
  • The "era of peace" which began in 1945 - and which has never, in reality, known a day of peace - counts between 150 and 200 localised wars (including major conflicts such as the Korean and Vietnam wars), with as many deaths or more than those caused by World War II.

Apart from the sheer numbers, there are two particular aspects of the situation today which we should highlight:

  1. The fact that, for the first time in history, the disasters visited on humanity by a historically decadent society cover the entire planet, sparing no corner of it, nor any fraction of our species.
  2. The fact that there has never been such an immense gap between the society that exists, and the possibilities opened up by the development of its historically created wealth.

It is capitalist society that has laid the foundations of this potential wealth through the mastery of science and its extraordinary increase in labour productivity. Thanks to its ferocious exploitation of the working class, capitalism has created the material conditions which allow it to be superseded by a society which will be driven, not by the need for profit and the satisfaction of the needs of a minority, but by the satisfaction of the ever-expanding needs of the whole of humanity. These material conditions have existed since the beginning of the 20th century. Capitalism has completed its historic task of allowing an unprecedented expansion of the productive forces, including the most important of these: the working class. The time has long since come for capitalism to quit the stage of history, like the slave-holding and feudal societies that preceded it. But it cannot disappear by itself: as the Communist Manifesto said in 1848, it is up to the proletariat to execute the sentence of death that history has already pronounced on capitalist society.

The implications of capitalism's decadence

Why is it so important to understand the reality of the decadence of capitalist society? Because the transition from capitalism's ascendant period to its decadence has fundamentally changed the material conditions within which the proletariat struggles. The underlying principles of the proletarian struggle - internationalism, the communist future towards which the struggle tends historically - remain the same; however the concrete manner in which these principles are put into practice by the struggle itself has changed profoundly. The workers' organisation for struggle (the union question, the question of parliamentary activity), their relationship with other classes in society (the national question, the question of so-called "partial struggles") are determined today by the new period in capitalism's history that was opened up by the first world imperialist war of 1914, and by the proletariat's first world assault on power that began in Russia in 1917.[4]

The opening of the decadent phase in capitalism's history has dramatically raised the stakes of the workers' struggles. In the 19th century, workers fought to protect their living conditions and to reduce their exploitation by the capitalist class: today, the workers' struggles in their own defence are the only real barrier against a slide into generalised warfare and barbarism. In the 19th century, workers organised their self-defence within an expanding economic system that could allow them a certain "place" in society: today, every workers' struggle tends immediately to pose the question of power, of the balance of forces not just between the workers and the bosses of this or that enterprise, but between the whole working and capitalist classes.

International Communist Current, October 2006

[1] Properly speaking from the 16th century up to the bourgeois revolutions in the context of feudal decadence, and from the bourgeois revolutions to 1914 in the context of the ascendant phase of capitalism.

[2] Our translation from the French. As far as we know, this book has never been translated into English.

[3] At least in the industrialised countries of the American bloc. It should nonetheless be remembered that this was a period of severe penury in the Eastern bloc countries (workers' revolts in East Germany 1953, in Hungary 1956, and in Poland), not to mention the millions of deaths from famine during China's so-called "Great Leap Forward" (1958-62).

[4] See in particular our article on the understanding of decadence by the Communist International in International Review n°123 (


Heritage of the Communist Left: