ICC public meeting, London 10 October 2015
World wars, capitalism’s decline, and the internationalist response
Summary of presentations and discussion
The morning session began with a showing of two videos:
- A short extract from an interview with a 96 year-old veteran who movingly described his experience as a POW in Dresden on the night of the bombing and powerfully denounced the democratic Allied leaders who ordered it;
- The film recently added to the ICC website: WW2. Fascism – alibi for democratic terror.
A short presentation then made the following points to focus discussion on the question of war and decadence:
- Like World War 1, World War 2 was a product of capitalist decadence and a continuation of the struggle between the major imperialist powers to re-divide the world. The bourgeoisie also learned the lesson of WW1 and deliberately targeted the working class.
- WW2 was a new twist in a spiral of descent of capitalism deeper into barbarism; genocide was not a preserve of the Nazis.
- Wars in decadence reveal the increasing irrationality of capitalism which can only increase as it spirals into barbarism. Capitalism in its phase of decomposition threatens the future of humanity.
The discussion immediately focused on the post-war reconstruction, raising more general questions about wars, decadence and growth: WW2 gave capitalism a new lease of life, but does this refute the concept of decadence? Capitalism today seems to be at a new impasse but it also seems more in control and more difficult to destroy...
In response it was emphasised that the post-war reconstruction needs to be seen in the context of the destruction of WW2, which destroyed decades of human labour. More generally, our understanding of decadence is that capitalist relations become a fetter on the productive forces; not that they stop growing altogether. The real question is whether growth constitutes a progressive factor for humanity or a regressive one. Capital can only ensure growth by destroying itself, increasingly threatening humanity and the planet. Capitalism has already created the conditions for communism and is now eroding these conditions; this is why it is decadent. Marx talks about a whole epoch of wars and crises; Luxemburg talks about a period of a long agony of decline.
For the comrade from the CWO there was a problem with the use of the concept of decadence by the ICC, which kept being redefined until it became a moral view. The Third International was clearly wrong to announce in 1919 that capitalism was in its death throes. Capitalism has found answers to its problems and has continued to grow, especially in the period from the 1950s to the 1970s. Capitalism can only survive by cannibalising itself to increase the rate of profit; world wars have become the equivalent of the economic crises of the 19th century. But it is not true to say that it faces insuperable barriers. Marx says that no social formation will disappear before all the productive forces of which it is capable have been developed; we can still see capitalism is finding ways around its problems, eg. the Internet, cheapening of labour power, exploitation of China, South America, etc. In the immediate period after 1914 it was still possible to talk about curtailing the life of this system but it is now 100 years since the revolutionary wave and we have to query this.
In answer to the CWO, it was argued that the legacy of the Third International is not so easily dismissed; it’s true that capitalism will not simply disappear and will only be definitively ended by the revolution of the working class, but this was also the understanding of the International, which announced the beginning of a whole epoch of wars and revolutions; it’s true that there has only been one revolutionary wave and many wars, but this does nullify their perspective.
Today’s revolutionary movement historically came out of the struggles after May ’68 which signalled an end to the post-war boom. In fact the boom itself appears as an exception; for the majority of decadence we’ve seen war, stagnation, crisis. But the ICC has now recognised that we were wrong to expect that the re-opening of the crisis would lead to a revolutionary outbreak. We were over-optimistic. But it’s only since the end of the 80s that we’ve seen apparently difficult to explain growth, particularly of China and India. It’s this growth that revolutionaries have been slower to understand and to explain in the wider context of decadence. Capitalism may appear to be getting stronger today because we are not seeing mass movements of the working class, but the fact that the working class has failed to destroy decadent capitalism during the last 100 years does not invalidate the concept of decadence.
The CWO comrade felt that there was a tendency to deny growth in decadence, but insisted that it was a fact, for example there is more steel being produced than ever. He went on to say that for the system to reconstitute itself after a phase of open crisis, capital needs total world war to destroy constant capital. The opening up of India and China created 2 billion new workers, bringing with them very little constant capital, which provided a basis for accumulation up to 2007. Now we are now seeing tremendous signs of crisis: negative interest rates, quantitative easing, lowering of wages and conditions. But this has only had modest results for the bourgeoisie, putting war or revolution on the agenda.
The rest of the morning session developed various points about growth and decadence:
- On the post-war reconstruction, the bourgeoisie learned from the economic crisis after WW1 and especially the Great Depression, which was an affirmation that decadence is associated with economic crisis;
- Part of capitalism’s ‘solution’ to the crisis of the 1930s was precisely the build-up to WW2; the production of armaments is another factor in ‘growth’ during decadence.
- The transformation of the productive forces since 1914 has been enormous (eg. Taylorism and Fordism which are still relevant in the age of robotics). For us the problem is the antithesis of the relations of production and the productive forces; if the productive forces were already too great in 1914 they are even more so now.
- There is a real problem in understanding growth in decadence because we only have the bourgeoisie’s own figures, which have to be evaluated critically. ‘Growth’ includes the effects of waste, repression, war and decay…
There was also a discussion about the ideological mystification of WW2 as a ‘Good War’, which the film addressed, and is still strong today. WW2 is not questioned in the same way as WW1. Unlike previous wars, the anti-fascism of WW2 is still necessary for bourgeois propaganda - even though it was not used as a rationale at the time.
The discussion continued after lunch and further developed points about growth and decadence.
In summary, there has been growth in decadence but it has been much lower than capitalism claims. In decadence growth has been the result of state capitalism, epitomised by Keynesianism. In the 19th century if the economy declined, the bourgeoisie cut state expenditure but in the 20th it’s the opposite. Laissez-faire no longer works.
The ICC has revised some of its ideas about decadence, for example, the notion of a kind of automatic cycle of ‘crisis, war and reconstruction’; there was no real crisis before WW1, in fact a boom, and the boom that followed World War Two could not be explained simply by the reconstruction of war-shattered economies.
The example of China is an expression of the historic crisis of the system; the relative stagnation of the west is concomitant to the rise of China. That doesn’t mean that the rapid pace of growth in China is not real, and it needs to be explained theoretically. But this growth, based on brutal levels of exploitation, the devastation of nature and China’s increasing role as a player in the imperialist free for all, does not constitute a factor of progress for mankind.
Human labour in decadence becomes increasingly unproductive and unrelated to any real need (eg. advertising, call centres, arms production etc). The present use of technology is of no real use to humanity but on the contrary works against it, and the revolution in the west will have to involve the working class resurrecting productive industries or looking for new ways to produce things for human needs.
In conclusion, firstly it was noted firstly that no-one had defended the idea of WW2 as a “good” war.
Different points of view on the question of decadence had been expressed, eg. on what we still defend from the perspectives of the Third International. The economic growth in China is something we still need to study. Similarly, the causes of the post-war boom are a discussion that continues.
We also need to look at the level of the capitalist crisis in relation to the level of the class struggle and the state of the working class. This poses some basic questions, for example about the role of revolutionaries and this was the subject of our second presentation.
The presentation closely followed the article 1915, 1945: the Development of Internationalist Opposition to Imperialist War (see World Revolution No371).
The discussion tended to concentrate on:
- Themes developed in the morning session around aspects of the decadence of capitalism, and in particular the attitude of the Third Communist International to the period opening up in front of the proletariat (the period of ‘wars and revolutions’);
- The period of internationalist opposition to the 2nd World War, in particular aspects of the formation of the Partito Comunista Internazionalista (PCInt) in Italy in 1943; the split in this organisation in 1952 and the lessons to be drawn. Plus, briefly, the role of the Party;
- A question relating to fascism/anti-fascism and Isis (Daesh/Isil) v ‘lesser evils’ was also raised.
1: Was the 3rd Communist International correct in its 1919 assessment of the epoch opened up by WW1 as that of ‘Wars and Revolutions’? The comrade from the ICT had earlier said subsequent history called this into question. All agreed there had been plenty of wars but only one international revolutionary wave (1917-1923). So what was the balance sheet? For the ICC and sympathisers the CI had been correct in its characterisation: the new epoch was indeed that of the decadence of capitalism. 100 years was not a long time in the decadence of any class society and it was no surprise that the proletariat, lacking an economic base within capitalism, found difficulty in demonstrating its revolutionary nature. As for capital, its trajectory of two world wars, the continuing wars of decomposition (Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq x 2, Libya, Syria, etc); two major economic crises, plus the development of state capitalism, the integration of organs like the unions and the use of former workers’ parties to control the class, etc, clearly show a society in ossification, confirming the perspective of socialism or barbarism. This perspective is not contradicted by apparent bursts of growth – or, rather, what the ruling class includes as a measure of economic activity, including the production of the means of destruction, waste production like advertising, etc, etc - all financed by historically unprecedented levels of global debt. Such diseased reproduction (not to mention the environmental degradation) coupled with quasi-constant war is decadence.
At a time when many in the proletarian political milieu were abandoning or denying decadence, where did the ICT – which had once published a discussion paper refuting the concept – stand? Decadence was not a prominent, unifying factor linking the political positions printed on its publications today! The ICT comrade replied that the organisation saw decadence as a reality, but one rooted in the process of capital accumulation and its blockages, rather than in a ‘moral’ sense like the ICC. For its part, the ICC confirmed that decadence was indeed rooted in the inherent contradictions between society’s growing productive capacities and the way capitalism was organised – its relations of production. The tendency for dead labour to dominate living; of the rate of profit to fall – as well as the relative saturation of markets and a growing difficulty of the valorisation of capital – was indeed the basis of decadence. However, decadence had its own history and (increasingly irrational) dynamic which amounted to more than an economic base but which permeated every aspect of social life.
2: Decadence above all means war, but what of the response of proletariat and its political minorities? Superficially, the periods following the outbreak of WW1 and WW2 were similar: disarray within the proletariat and a corresponding confusion in the ranks of its parties and minorities. But in reality, the two moments in history held within themselves different perspectives (see Presentation).
In this context, argued the ICC, the declaration of a ‘Party’ (the Partito Comunista Internazionalista – PCInt) by comrades in Italy in 1943 was an error which has profound repercussions for how revolutionaries understand the questions of where we are in history and how we organise today.
For the ICT, the need for the proletarian party is a constant and in Italy 1943 there was a massive development of strikes and struggles during and against the war. With the Communist Party banned since the mid-1920s, but with militants now returning to Italy, there was thus a real need for intervention, leadership and political direction to avoid the trap of fascism/anti-fascism. The real question here was why did the ‘French’ fraction of the international communist left (fore-runners of the ICC) not contribute to this process?
In answer the ICC agreed that the main axes of the interventions of revolutionaries in Italy at the time were correct but the perspective was deeply flawed. It’s not a question of a constant need for a party, any more than the constant need for communism or revolution. The question was of the material conditions and the subjective balance of class forces. And neither favoured the creation of the party in ’43. The party is not the product of a balance of force in one country but at an international level. The period from the 20s to the 40s saw a growing theoretical confusion in the ranks of communists, a betrayal of principles and a diminution of their numbers. The task of the hour was not just intervention and certainly not the voluntarist declaration of a party but the preservation of previous theoretical acquisitions and the development of new appreciations: the work of a fraction acting as a bridge from the International of yesterday to that of tomorrow.
The mistake that was the formation of the PCInt in ’43 was revealed very quickly: the initial influx of thousands of militants – some of them very ill-informed about what the party actually stood for; the opportunist integration, without any real calling into question of their past errors, of elements who had previously been excluded from the Fraction, like the minority which went to Spain to fight in the POUM militias and Vercesi, who had organised an anti-fascist coalition of Italians in Belgium at the end of the war; the more or less rapid decline in numbers from many thousands to a few hundred, a split in the ‘Party’ in 1952, an absence of international echo, and a tendency to abandon previous clarity on questions like work with the Partisans, national liberation and the class nature of trade unions. It took a great deal of strength and courage for the ‘French’ fraction to insist against the tide that this was still a period of counter-revolution, not a period of revolution like that following WW1, with all that this implied for the work of revolutionaries.
In fact, misjudging the period is a constant problem for revolutionaries. The PCInt in 43; the left communists of in France in 52 who wrongly thought a new world war was imminent and dispersed; the slowness of the PCInt/Battaglia Communista to recognise the recovery of class struggle after 1968; the foreshortened perspectives of many ICC comrades who tended to think that the rapid evolution of both the crisis and the class struggle meant ‘revolution in our time’; while the CWO in the 1980s thought that unless the workers made a revolution, another world war was imminent, betraying a misunderstanding of both the immediate period and the course of history. The ability of capital to adapt, to subdue, to persist, albeit in ever-more life-threatening forms, has in general been underestimated.
A further area of disagreement between the ICT and ICC concerned the role of the party. Did it take power ‘on behalf’ of the workers or not? The ICT insisted that this was not the case – “we would criticise the Bolsheviks for degrading work of soviets till they were empty shells and the state was run by the party” - but said the ICC held a ‘propagandist’ view of the party’s role, while the ICT saw it had a place in organising the revolution. However, the ICC had moved closer to the ICT’s conception since various splits had removed councilist elements from its ranks, the ICT believed.
The ICC acknowledged that its birth following 1968 was marked by many illusions of the time and difficulties in understanding the role and importance of centralised organisation – problems which persist. However, the ICC said the ICT’s vision on the role of the party remained ambiguous in the literature of the ICT and that the concept of the party taking power was once defended by the CWO. In addition, the federalist approach to party work of the ICT was contrasted to the internationalist development of the ICC – a method which must organisationally prefigure any party. The prospect of future joint work between the two organisations was raised but not developed.
3: Finally if, as had been said, that ‘anti-ISIS’, was the new ‘anti-fascism’, what was the internationalist response to ISIS today?
An ICC comrade replied that in every war the proletariat was subjected to propaganda insisting that it was necessary to fight the ‘barbarism’ of the enemy, that ‘the other side’ must be defeated to preserve freedom. In WW1 there was German propaganda against the ‘knout of backward Czarism’; in Britain and France, agitation against ‘German militarism’, etc. Today, we’re being told that ISIS is a nasty, revolting, regressive faction in the Middle East – not the only one, to be sure, but one worse than all the rest and against whom we must ally with anyone in order to rid society of this aberrant scourge. Here lies the comparison to anti-fascism.
So the main role of revolutionaries today is their theoretical understanding, the clarity they can shine, on this question: the method they use. If we’re talking about capitalism being a decadent social system, there isn’t going to be one faction better than another, or one which we can support. We must insist ISIS and other such groups are products of the decomposition of capitalist social relations, a creation of barbarous capital itself. They came out of the war in Afghanistan, before the collapse of the Russian bloc, because they were being used by the West as proxy weapons to fight the Russians. These groups have gone on from there to develop a dynamic of their own. So we don’t have a particular strategy for fighting ISIS or similar phenomena but use our theoretical tools to analyse them, to understand them from a proletarian point of view, to ask who is putting out propaganda for or against them and why; to accelerate a consciousness of what these things represent and to analyse them to permit a greater understanding of the totality of capitalism and what each fragment represents.