This article is contributed by a close sympathiser who has participated in a number of recent online debates about the question of capitalist decadence.
The ICC has commented more than once on the persistent tendency in the proletarian milieu – especially that part influenced by anarchism – to reject the Marxist theory of capitalist decadence.
Since the main conclusion we draw from this theory is that capitalism today is a socially regressive system, and that its overthrow is therefore both possible and necessary for humanity, you might be forgiven for thinking there would be some common ground on this; especially today, with the daily images of millions of people desperately trying to flee the barbaric wars of capitalism in the Middle East; wars which increasingly reveal the lack of any rational economic motive even from the point of view of imperialism...
Instead, if a recent online discussion on libcom’s forum is anything to go by, at least some in this milieu display outright hostility to the whole Marxist theory of decadence, arguing that it is at best unnecessary to explain capitalism as a historically transitory mode of production, and at worst a purely ideological construct or pseudo-religious belief.
This goes to prove that ‘decadence-denial’ is a real phenomenon in the proletarian milieu today.
Online discussions certainly have their weaknesses and this one generated as much heat as light at times, so rather than go back over ‘who said what’ instead we want to focus on what seem to us to be the key questions to address: to re-state, as clearly and simply as we can, the Marxist position on these questions; to briefly look at the arguments of the ‘deniers’, and pose some key questions for them to answer, so at the very least we can identify common ground where it exists and try to avoid false arguments in the future.
1. What method do we use to understand changes in capitalism?
From the beginning of the discussion, the onus was firmly placed on the supporters of “decadence theory” to prove that capitalism has been decadent since 1914.
But before we can answer that we have to decide what theory we’re going to use to determine it; after all, as Einstein said: it is the theory which decides what we can observe.
Our starting point is the Marxist method of understanding history, and like all scientific methods it must be firmly based on the verified discoveries of those who have gone before.
Capitalism is a historically transitory system
Contrary to popular belief, the main discoveries of the Marxist movement are not the existence of classes or of the struggle between them, or even of the labour theory of value; all of these concepts had already been advanced by bourgeois historians and economists at a time when the bourgeoisie was still a revolutionary class struggling against decaying feudalism.
The first key development in the work of Marx and Engels is that the existence of classes and of the struggle between them is merely a historical phase in the development of the productive forces; capitalism is only the last in a whole succession of modes of production which creates the conditions for its own abolition and – after a successful proletarian revolution – for the abolition of all classes and the creation of a communist society.
This is in a nutshell is the materialist conception of history and the core of historical materialism, which is simply the method we use as Marxists to understand the laws involved in this coming into being and passing away of successive modes of production and to analyse the change from one to another.
The fatal contradictions of capitalism
The second key development in the work of Marx and Engels is the discovery of the specific way these laws express themselves within capitalism. Based on their theoretical framework, Marx and Engels were able to identify, even in the crises of youthful capitalism when it was still expanding rapidly across the planet, the seeds of the fatal contradictions that would eventually create the conditions for its abolition:
“The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by the enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means by which crises are prevented.” (Communist Manifesto)
As a dynamic mode of production driven solely by the extraction of profit, capitalism has a built-in tendency to produce too many commodities relative not to social need but the purchasing power of society. It must therefore seek ever-larger outlets for its products, extending its market across the whole world. But as it extends its mode of production throughout the world it progressively reduces the outlets it needs to grow. The trajectory of capitalism is therefore inexorably towards “more extensive and more destructive crises” which it is increasingly unable to prevent.
At several times during the 19th century Marx and Engels overestimated the speed of capitalism’s trajectory and even thought capitalism was entering into its final crisis. But they were able to revise their perspective and clarify their framework for understanding how and why capitalism would prove to be historically transitory. As long as it had not definitively reached the limits of its progressive expansion a world revolution of the proletariat was not yet possible. Only when the further development of the productive forces came into conflict with bourgeois relations of production (ie. with wage labour, capital and the nation state), would the conditions for capitalism’s abolition exist. When this point was finally reached a whole era of social revolution would be opened, characterised by acute contradictions, crises and convulsions.
Decadence at the heart of historical materialism
It still took several more decades of capitalist development, and in particular the rise of imperialism, to clarify exactly how capitalism’s era of crises, convulsions and class struggles would finally be ushered in. But we can see from the theoretical framework developed by the Marxist movement in the 19th century that “decadence theory” is simply the concretisation of historical materialism in the analysis of capitalism as a historically transitory mode of production. It is therefore indispensable for understanding the historical period we are living in, and how to act as revolutionaries.
For the deniers on the other hand, the theory of decadence is at best unnecessary to explain capitalism as a historically transitory mode of production, and at worst ‘teleological’, a purely ideological construct imposed by Marxists, or even a mystical, pseudo-religious belief…
The main argument of the deniers seems to be that capitalism is essentially a cyclical system and that the manifestations of decadence today can therefore be understood as the symptoms of its ‘normal’ functioning. In other words, rather than having any built-in tendency towards increasingly devastating and irresolvable crises, capitalism is in a sort of stasis where each crisis simply irons out temporary problems and results in a new phase of growth.
But it became very clear in the discussion that this disagreement is not about “decadence theory”, or even the history of capitalism: it’s about the whole materialist conception of history as a succession of modes of production which go through a phase of ascent and decline.
2. How do we explain capitalist growth since 1914?
A total halt to the productive forces?
The online discussion was prompted by a question about growth in the so-called ‘developing countries’ in Asia. How can we say that capitalism is ‘decadent’ when there are so many signs that capitalism has continued to grow since 1914?
There are certainly phenomena to be explained – for example the spectacular growth of China since the 1980s – but in general we can say that because capitalism is a global system, it enters into its epoch of decay as a global system and not on a country by country basis; no national economy or region can escape from capitalism’s trajectory.
There is a strong tendency among our critics to see any sign of growth since 1914 as a refutation of decadence and to offer a whole list of new developments to show that capitalism has in fact continued to grow vigorously in its epoch of decay: telecommunications, consumer goods, aviation, computers, data/web services...
But decadence has never meant a total halt to the growth of the productive forces, even in previous modes of production, and capitalism is the first mode of production to be based solely on the extraction of profit; if the growing accumulation of capital cannot be ensured then the whole system would simply grind to a halt.
Is capitalism a socially regressive system?
Flowing from the Marxist theory of capitalism as a historically transitory system, the real question we need to answer is: are the productive forces definitively and irreversibly in conflict with bourgeois relations of production? In other words, does capitalist growth since 1914 demonstrate that it is now a socially regressive system?
At the quantitative level, it is possible to show the braking effect of bourgeois relations of production since 1914 by comparing the growth of industrial production in the period of capitalist decadence with what it would have been without this braking effect. Taking the rate of growth in the last phase of capitalist ascendancy and applying it to the whole of the period of decadence, industrial production in decadence reaches only 60% of what it could have been, although even this is likely to be an overestimation.
But this still doesn’t show the crucial qualitative changes to growth in decadence. Since the conditions for capitalism’s abolition already exist, this growth is increasingly characterised, in Marx’s poetic phrase, as “development as decay”.
Having reached the geographic limits of its expansion, with remaining extra-capitalist markets insufficient for its further progressive growth, capitalism’s hereditary disease of overproduction becomes chronic and irreversible. As Marx forecast in the 1848 Manifesto, it is forced to destroy parts of its own body and adopt a series of increasingly drastic palliatives to prolong its life and ensure growing accumulation.
We can see this process at work since 1914:
- the periodic destruction of the productive forces on an increasing scale through global wars (20 million dead in WW1, 60+ million in WW2);
- the massive increase in the role of the state to shore up the economy against collapse and to control a proletariat which has become a permanent threat;
- the growing burden of unproductive costs (state bureaucracy, arms production, welfare, marketing, etc.);
- the huge growth of debts that realistically can never be repaid.
- systematic attempts to ‘cheat’ the law of value, for example protectionist policies and the massive use of credit to create artificial markets.
So if capitalism in decadence at certain times or in certain areas has still been able to display impressive growth rates, this still disguises the increasingly ‘drugged’ nature of this growth, which is at a mounting cost for the future of humanity and the planet itself, and the gigantic waste of the productive forces entailed in these palliative measures.
In other words, it is the growth of a socially regressive system.
The context for understanding the growth in East Asia
All the palliatives adopted since the entry of capitalism into decadence are now themselves exacerbating its mortal sickness. Capitalism has no choice but to launch a frontal assault on the wages and living conditions of the working class to try to make it pay for its crisis. But even this provides no ‘solution’; on the contrary, it can only reduce demand and intensify its chronic crisis of overproduction.
This is the context in which we must analyse the spectacular development of the East Asian economies since the 1980s, especially China which has managed to achieve the most dramatic growth rates in the entire history of capitalism – even during a period of worsening crisis internationally.
A full examination of China’s development is clearly beyond the scope of this article, but based on our theoretical framework for understanding the nature of growth in decadence we are led to conclude that the growth of the East Asian economies is not the indication of a new period of capitalist expansion as in the 19th century, but rather a temporary upturn within a global decline; and in fact we have recently seen China’s growth rates fall to their lowest level for 25 years, leading bourgeois pundits to warn of the shock waves hitting an already weak global economy.
But we should be cautious about making any forecasts. The return of capitalism’s open crisis in the late 1960s dramatically re-affirmed the Communist Left’s analysis of the decadence of capitalism and the inability of the system to overcome its fatal contradictions. But the evolution of the crisis over the last five decades is testament to capitalism’s extraordinary capacity to adapt and survive – even if this can only mean storing up more problems for itself in the longer term. Just as Marx and Engels at times mistakenly believed capitalism was entering into its final crisis, revolutionaries have on occasions underestimated this capacity of capitalism or to foresee the possibility of an under-developed country like China industrialising quite so spectacularly.
We have now passed the milestone of 100 years of capitalist decadence. Despite massive waves of struggles especially in the late 60s and early 1970s, the proletariat has not yet been able to destroy decadent capitalism. But this failure of the working class to meet its ‘appointment with history’, especially in the revolutionary wave of 1917-23, does not in any way invalidate the Marxist theory of capitalist decadence.
Some questions for the ‘deniers’
There seems to be common ground that capitalism today is a socially regressive system – although we probably disagree on whether it was ever progressive in the first place – and that a proletarian revolution is both possible and necessary.
There also appears to be broad agreement that capitalism is a historically transitory system. But it is entirely unclear what theory the deniers use to determine this, given that they appear to reject the whole materialist conception of history as a succession of modes of production which go through a phase of ascent and decline.
- Why is capitalism a historically transitory system?
- And if it is historically transitory, what are the seeds of its destruction, the fatal contradictions that will – at least at some point in its development – lead to its historic crisis?
- And if it has no fatal contradictions – no built-in tendency towards overproduction, for example – why can it not prolong its life indefinitely?
- Are there any limits – geographic or other – to its ability to continue to create new markets for its commodities?
- Are there any final limits to capitalism’s ability to adapt and survive – for example the degradation of the planet to the point where it threatens the survival of humanity?
If there are no limits, then it’s hard to see why capitalism is not, as the bourgeoisie itself proclaims, essentially an eternal system.
So in conclusion we think the onus is on the deniers of decadence to demonstrate how they prove that capitalism is not, as the bourgeoisie argues, the final finished product of the class struggle that contains no fatal contradictions.
For ourselves, having tested all the links of our theoretical framework, we’re confident that the Marxist theory of capitalist decadence remains absolutely valid.
. See ‘Decadence of capitalism part XIII: rejection and regressions’, 2012, https://en.internationalism.org/internationalreview/201206/4981/decadenc....
. https://libcom.org/forums/theory/icc-position-decadence-bourgeoisie-deve.... See also these threads on the ICC website: https://en.internationalism.org/forum/1056/link/13200/issues-decadence-t... https://en.internationalism.org/forum/1056/pierre/13423/how-does-century...
. See ‘The theory of decadence lies at the heart of historical materialism, part 1’, 2004, https://en.internationalism.org/ir/118_decadence_i.html
. ICC note: MH, like the majority of the ICC, defends the particular interpretation of Marx’s crisis theory developed by Rosa Luxemburg and summarised in this paragraph. But accepting that capitalism is decadent does not depend on adherence to Luxemburg’s theory. In particular, within the revolutionary movement and the ICC itself there are those who have focused on the tendency for the rate of profit to fall as the key contradiction that has inaugurated the phase of decline.
. See Marx’s Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/pr.... See also https://en.internationalism.org/ir/134/what-method-to-understand-decadence
. See ‘Understanding capitalism’s decadence, Part 4’, 1988, https://en.internationalism.org/ri/054_decadence_part04.html
. The ICC has published a substantial study of this question for discussion (‘The sources, contradictions and limitations of the growth in Eastern Asia’, https://en.internationalism.org/ir/133/china/part-1.
. See for example, The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-gdp-growth-is-slowest-in-24-years-142....
. Much was made by some in the discussion of an ICC text from 1980 which refers to the ‘impossibility’ of new industrialist nations emerging in decadence. This requires revision in the light of 100 years of decadence. But we can still say the saturation of markets relative to the needs of capitalism to expand makes it extremely difficult for the under-developed nations to raise themselves to the level of the developed economies.