The study of Capital and the foundations of Communism

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The Backdrop of History

In the previous article in this series (IR73) we saw that Marx and his tendency, having come to terms with the defeat of the 1848 revolutions and the onset of a new period of capitalist growth, embarked upon a project of deep theoretical research aimed at uncovering the real dynamic of the capitalist mode of production, and thus the real basis for its eventual replacement by a communist social order.

As early as 1844, Marx in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, and Engels in his Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, had begun to investigate - and to criticise from a proletarian standpoint - both the economic foundations of capitalist society, and the economic theories of the capitalist class, generally known as 'political economy'. The understanding that communist theory had to be built on the solid ground of an economic analysis of bourgeois society already constituted a decisive break with the utopian conceptions of communism which had been prevalent in the workers' movement hitherto, since it meant that the denunciation of the suffering and alienation brought about by the capitalist system of production was no longer restricted to a purely moral objection to its injustices; rather, the horrors of capitalism were analysed as the inevitable expressions of its economic and social structure, and could therefore only be done away with through the revolutionary struggle of a social class which had a material interest in reorganizing society.

In the years between 1844 and 1848, the 'marxist' fraction developed a clearer understanding of the inner workings of the capitalist system, a more historically dynamic conception which identified capitalism as the last in a long series of class-divided societies, and a system whose fundamental contradictions would eventually lead to its downfall and so pose the necessity and the possibility of the new communist society (see the article in IR72). However, the prime task facing revolutionaries during that phase was to construct a communist political organisation and intervene in the enormous social upheavals which shook Europe in the year 1848. In short, the need for an active political combat took precedence over the work of theoretical elaboration. By contrast, with the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, and the ensuing fight against the activist and immediatist illusions that led to the demise of the Communist League, it became essential to take a step back from pure immediacy and to develop a more profound, long-term view of the destiny of capitalist society.

Political economy - and beyond

For more than a decade, Marx therefore threw himself once again into the vast theoretical project he had set himself in the early 1840s. This was the period where he worked long hours in the British Museum, studying not only the classical political economists but a vast mass of information on the contemporary operations of capitalist society: the factory system, money, credit, international trade; not only the early history of capitalism, but the history of pre-capitalist civilisations and societies as well. The initial aim of this research was the one he had set himself a decade before: to produce a monumental work on 'Economics', which itself would only be part of a more global work dealing, among other things, with more directly political issues and the history of socialist thought. But as Marx wrote in a letter to Wedemeyer (MEW, XXVII, 486), "the stuff I am working on has so many ramifications", that the deadline for the work on Economics receded constantly, first by weeks, then by years; and in fact it was never to be completed: only the first volume of Capital was really finished by Marx. The bulk of the material deriving from this period either had to be completed by Engels and was not published till after Marx's death (the next three volumes of Capital), or, as in the case of the Grundrisse (the 'Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, rough draft'), never passed the stage of a collection of elaborate notebooks that were not available in the west until the 1950s, and were not fully translated into English until 1973. Nevertheless, though this was a period of great poverty and personal hardship for Marx and his family, it was also the most fruitful period in his life as far as the more theoretical side of his work is concerned. And it is no accident that so much of the gigantic output of those years was dedicated to the study of political economy, because this was the key to evolving a really scientific understanding of the structure and movement of the capitalist mode of production.

In its classical form, political economy was one of the most advanced expressions of the revolutionary bourgeoisie:

"Historically, it made its appearance as an integral part of the new science of humanity, created by the bourgeoisie in the course of its revolutionary struggle to install this new socio-economic formation. Political economy was thus the realistic complement to the great philosophical, moral, aesthetic, psychological, juridical and political commotion of the so-called 'Age of Enlightenment' during which the spokesmen of the ascendant class expressed for the first time the new bourgeois consciousness, which corresponded to the intervening changes in the real conditions of existence" (Karl Korsch, Karl Marx, Editions Champ Libre, p103).

As such, political economy had been capable, up to a certain point, of analysing the real movement of bourgeois society: of seeing it as a totality rather than a sum of fragments, and of grasping its underlying relations instead of being deceived by surface phenomena. In particular, the work of Adam Smith and David Ricardo had come close to laying bare the secret at the very heart of the system: the origin and significance of value, the 'worth' of commodities. Championing the 'productive classes' of society against the increasingly parasitic and idle nobility, these economists of the English school were able to see that the value of a commodity was essentially determined by the amount of human labour embodied within it. But again, only up to a point. Since it expressed the viewpoint of the new exploiting class, bourgeois political economy inevitably had to mystify reality, to conceal the exploitative nature of the new mode of production. And this tendency to apologise for the new order came to the fore the more bourgeois society revealed its inbuilt contradictions, above all the social contradiction between capital and labour, and the economic contradictions that periodically plunged the system into crisis. Already during the 1820s and 30s, both the class struggle of the workers, and the crisis of overproduction, had made a definite appearance on the historical scene. Between Adam Smith and Ricardo there is already a "reduction in the theoretical vista and the beginnings of a final sclerosis" (Korsch, op cit, p 106), since the latter is less concerned with examining the system as a totality. But later economic 'theorists' of the bourgeoisie are less and less able to contribute anything useful to the understanding of their own economy. This degenerative process has, as with all aspects of bourgeois thought, reached its apogee in the decadent period of capitalism. For most schools of economists today, the idea that human labour has something to do with value is dismissed as a laughable anachronism; it goes without saying, however, that these same economists are utterly baffled by the increasingly evident breakdown of the modern world economy.

Marx took the same approach to classical political economy as he did to Hegel's philosophy: by treating it from the proletarian and revolutionary standpoint, he was able to assimilate its most important contributions while going beyond its limits. He was thus able to demonstrate:

 - that although this primary fact is veiled in the capitalist production process, in contrast to previous class societies, capitalism is nonetheless a system of class exploitation and can be nothing else. This was the essential message of his conception of surplus value;

 - that capitalism, despite its incredibly expansive character, its drive to submit the entire planet to its laws, was no less a historically transient mode of production than Roman slavery or mediaeval feudalism; that a society based on universal commodity production was inevitably condemned, by the very logic of its inner workings, to ultimate decline and collapse;

 - that communism, therefore, was a material possibility brought about by the unprecedented development of the productive forces by capitalism itself; it was also a necessity if humanity was to escape the devastating consequences of capitalism's economic contradictions.

But if the core of Marx's work during this period is the study, sometimes in the most astonishing detail, of the laws of capital, the work as a whole was not restricted to this. Marx had inherited from Hegel the understanding that the particular and the concrete - in this case capitalism - could only be understood in its historical totality, that is, against the vast backdrop of all the forms of human society since the earliest days of the species. In the 1844 EPM Marx had said that communism was the "solution to the riddle of history". Communism is the immediate heir of capitalism; but just as the individual child is also a product of all the generations that have gone before him, so it can be said that "the entire movement of history is the act of genesis" of communist society (ibid). This is why a good deal of Marx's writings about capital also contain long excursions both into 'anthropological' questions - questions about the characteristics of man in general - and into the modes of production that preceded bourgeois society. This is particularly true of the Grundrisse; on one level a 'rough draft' of Capital, it is also a prologue to a more wide-ranging inquiry in which Marx deals at length not only with the critique of political economy as such, but also with some of the anthropological or 'philosophical' issues raised in the 1844 EPM, most notably the relationship between man and nature, and the problem of alienation. It also contains Marx's most elaborate presentation of the various pre-capitalist modes of production. But all these issues also find their way into Capital, particularly the first volume, if in a more distilled and concentrated form.

Before turning, therefore, to Marx's analysis of capitalist society in particular, we intend to look at the more general and historical themes that he deals with in the Grundrisse and Capital, since they are no less essential to Marx's understanding of the perspective and physiognomy of communism. 

Man, nature, and alienation

We have already (see IR 70) mentioned that there is a school of thought, and it sometimes includes genuine followers of Marx, according to which Marx's mature work demonstrates his loss of interest in, or even repudiation of, certain lines of inquiry which he had developed in his earlier work, particularly the 1844 or 'Paris' EPM: the question of man's "species being", the relationship between man and nature, and the problem of alienation. The argument is that such conceptions are tied to the 'Feuerbachian', humanistic, and even utopian view of communism which Marx held prior to the definitive development of the theory of historical materialism. While we don't deny that there are certain 'philosophical' hangovers in his Paris period, we have already argued (IR 69) that Marx's adherence to the communist movement was conditioned upon the adoption of a position that took him beyond the utopian socialists and onto a proletarian and materialist standpoint. The concept of man, of his "species being", in the EPM is not at all the same as Feuerbach's "dumb genus" criticised in the Theses on Feuerbach. It is not an abstract, individualized religion of humanity, but already a conception of social man, of man as the being who makes himself through collective labour. And when we turn to the Grundrisse and Capital, we find that this definition is deepened and clarified rather than rejected. Certainly, in the Theses on Feuerbach, Marx categorically rejects any idea of a static human essence and insists that "the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations". But this does not mean that man 'as such' is a non-reality or that he is an empty page that is moulded entirely and absolutely by each particular form of social organisation. Such a view would make it impossible for historical materialism to approach human history as a totality; you would end up with a series of fragmented shots of each type of society, with nothing to connect them into an overall picture. The approach taken to this question in the Grundrisse and Capital is very far from this sociological reductionism; instead it is founded upon the vision of man as a species whose unique characteristic is its capacity to transform itself and its environment through the labour process and through history.

The 'anthropological' question, the question of generic man, of what distinguishes man from the other animal species, is taken up in the first volume of Capital. It begins with a definition of labour, because it is through labour that man makes himself. The labour process is "the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, and therefore is independent of every social phase of that existence, or rather, is common to every such phase" (part III, chap VII, p 179, 'The labour process'). "Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material reactions between himself and nature. He opposes himself to nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of the body, in order to appropriate nature's productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal ... We presuppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement" (ibid, p 174).

In the Grundrisse, the social character of this "exclusively human" form of activity is also stressed: "The fact that this need on the part of one can be satisfied by the product of the other, and vice versa, and that the one is capable of producing the object of the need of the other, and that each confronts the other as owner of the object of the other's need, this proves that each of them reaches beyond his own particular need etc as a human being, and that they relate to one another as human beings; that their common species-being is acknowledged by all. It does not happen elsewhere - that elephants produce for tigers, or animals for other animals..." (Grundrisse, Pelican Marx Library, 1973, p243). These definitions of man as the animal which alone possesses a self-conscious and purposive life-activity, who produces universally rather than one-sidedly, are strikingly similar to the formulations contained in the EPM [1].

Again, as in the EPM, these definitions assume that man is part of nature: in the above passage from Capital, man is "one of nature's own forces", while the Grundrisse uses exactly the same terminology as the Paris texts: nature is man's "real body" (p 542). But where the later works represent an advance over the earlier one is in their deeper insight into the historical evolution of the relationship between man and the rest of nature:

"It is not the unity of living and active humanity with the natural, inorganic conditions of their metabolic exchange with nature, and hence their appropriation of nature, which requires explanation or is the result of a historic process, but rather the separation between these inorganic conditions of human existence and this active existence, a separation which is completely posited only in the relation of wage labour and capital" (Grundrisse, p 489)

This process of separation between man and nature is viewed in a profoundly dialectical manner by Marx.

On the one hand, it is the awakening of man's "slumbering powers", the power to transform himself and the world around him. This is a general characteristic of the labour process: history as the gradual, if uneven, development of humanity's productive capacities. But this development was always held back in the social formations that preceded capital, where the limitations of a natural economy also kept man limited to the cycles of nature. Capitalism, by contrast, creates a wholly new potential for overcoming this subordination:

"Hence the great civilising influence of capital; its production of a stage of society in comparison to which all earlier ones appear as mere local developments of humanity and as nature-idolatry. For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognised as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production. In accord with this tendency, capital drives beyond national barriers and prejudices as much as beyond nature-worship, as well as all traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old ways of life. It is destructive towards all of this, and constantly revolutionizes it, tearing down all the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, the all-sided development of production, and the exploitation and exchange of natural and mental forces " (Grundrisse, p 409-10).

On the other hand, capital's conquest of nature, its reduction of nature to a mere object, has the most contradictory consequences. As the last passage continues:

"But from the fact that capital posits every limit as a barrier and hence gets ideally beyond it, it does not by any means follow that it has really overcome it, and since every such barrier contradicts its character, its production moves in contradictions which are constantly overcome but just as constantly posited. Furthermore. The universality towards which it irresistibly strives encounters barriers in its own nature, which will, at a certain stage of its development, allow it to be recognised as being itself the greatest barrier to this tendency, and hence will drive towards its own suspension".

Having lived through 80 years of capitalist decadence, of an epoch in which capital has definitely become the greatest barrier to its own expansion, we can appreciate the full validity of Marx's prognosis here. The greater capitalism's development of the productive forces, the more universal its reign over the planet, the greater and more destructive are the crises and catastrophes that it brings in its wake: not only the directly economic, social and poetical crises, but also the 'ecological' crises which signify the threat of a complete break-down of man's "metabolic exchange with nature".

We can see plainly that, contrary to many would-be radical critics of marxism, Marx's recognition of capital's "civilising influence" was never an apologia for capital. The historical process in which man has separated himself from the rest of nature is also the chronicle of man's self-estrangement, and this has reached its apogee, or nadir, in bourgeois society, in the wage labour relation which the Grundrisse defines as "the most extreme form of alienation" (p 515). It's this which can indeed often make it seem as though capitalist 'progress', which ruthlessly subordinates all human needs to the ceaseless expansion of production, is more like a regression in comparison to previous epochs:

"Thus the old view, in which the human being appears as the aim of production, regardless of his limited national, religious, political character, seems to be very lofty when contrasted to the modern world, where production appears as the aim of mankind and wealth as the aim of production ... In bourgeois economics - and in the epoch of production to which it corresponds - this complete working out of the human content appears as a complete emptying out, this universal objectification as total alienation, and the tearing-down of all limited, one-sided aims as sacrifice of the human end-in-itself to an entirely external end" (Grundrisse, p 487-8). 

And yet this final triumph of alienation also means the advent of the conditions for the full realisation of humanity's creative powers, freed both from the inhumanity of capital and the restrictive limitations of pre-capitalist social relations:

"In fact, however, when the limited bourgeois form is stripped away, what is wealth other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces etc....? The full development of human mastery over the forces of nature, those of so-called nature as well as of humanity's own nature? The absolute working out of his creative potentialities, with no presupposition other than the previous historic development, which makes this totality of development, ie the development of all human powers as such the end in itself, not as measured on a predetermined yardstick? Where he does not reproduce himself in one specificity, but produces his totality? Strives not to remain something he has become, but is in the absolute movement of becoming?" (ibid).

This dialectical view of history  remains a puzzle and a scandal to all defenders of the bourgeois standpoint, which is forever stuck in an 'either-or' dilemma between a blanket apology for 'progress' and a nostalgic longing for an idealized past:

"In earlier stages of development the single individual seems to be developed more fully, because he has not yet worked out his relationships in their fullness, or erected them as independent social powers and relations opposite himself. It is as ridiculous to yearn for a return to this original fullness as it is to believe that with this complete emptiness history has come to a standstill. The bourgeois viewpoint has never advanced beyond this antithesis between itself and this romantic viewpoint, and therefore the latter will accompany it as its legitimate antithesis up to its blessed end" (Grundrisse p 162).

In all these passages we can see that what applies to the problematic of 'generic man' and his relationship to nature also applies to his concept of alienation: far from abandoning the basic concepts formulated in his earlier work, the 'mature' Marx enriches them by situating them in their overall historical dynamic. And in the second part of this article we will see how, in the descriptions of the future society contained here and there throughout the Grundrisse and Capital, Marx still considers that the overcoming of alienation and the conquest of a really human life-activity remains at the core of the whole communist project.

From the old community to the new

This contradictory 'decline' from the apparently more developed individual of earlier times to the estranged ego of bourgeois society expresses another facet of Marx's historical dialectic: the dissolution of primordial communal forms by the evolution of commodity relations. This is a theme that runs through the whole of the Grundrisse, but it is also summarized in Capital. It is a crucial element in Marx's response to the view of mankind contained in bourgeois political economy, and thus in his adumbration of the communist perspective.

In effect, one of the Grundrisse's persistent criticisms of bourgeois political economy is the way it "mythologically identifies itself with the past" (p 106), turning its own particular categories into absolutes of human existence. This is what is sometimes called the Robinson Crusoe view of history: the isolated individual, not social man, as its starting point; private property as the original and essential form of property; trade, rather than collective labour, as the key to understanding the generation of wealth. Thus, on the very opening page of the Grundrisse, Marx opens fire on such "Robinsonades", and insists that "the more deeply we go back into history, the more does the individual, and hence also the producing individual, appear as dependent, as belonging to a greater whole: in a still quite natural way in the family and in the family expanded into the clan; then later in the various forms of communal society arising out of the antitheses and fusions of the clans. Only in the eighteenth century, in 'civil society', do the various forms of social connectedness confront the individual as a mere means towards his private purposes, as external necessity" (p 84).

Thus, the isolated individual is above all a historical product, and in particular a product of the bourgeois mode of production. The communal forms of property and production were not only the original social forms, in very primitive epochs; they also persist in all the class-divided modes of production which succeeded the dissolution of primitive classless society. This is most obvious in the 'Asiatic' mode of production, in which a central state apparatus appropriates the surplus of village communes who otherwise carry on the immemorial traditions of tribal life -  a fact which Marx takes as "the key to the secret of the unchanging nature of Asiatic societies, an unchanging nature in such striking contrast with the constant dissolution and refounding of Asian states, and the never-ceasing changes of dynasty" (Capital, I, chapter XIV, section 4, p 338). In the Grundrisse, Marx insists on the way that the Asiatic form "hangs on most tenaciously and for the longest time" (p486), a point taken up by Rosa Luxemburg in her Accumulation of Capital, where she shows how difficult it was for capital and commodity relations to drag the base units of these societies away from the security of their communal relations.

In slave and feudal societies, the ancient community was far more thoroughly pulverized by the development of commodity relations and of private property - a fact which goes a long way towards explaining why slavery and feudalism contained the inner dynamic which could permit the emergence of capitalism, whereas capitalism had to be imposed on Asiatic society 'from the outside'. Nevertheless, important remnants of the communal form can be found at the origin of these formations: the Roman city, for example, arises as a community of kinship groups; feudalism arises not only out of the collapse of Roman slave society but also from the specific characteristics of the 'Germanic' tribal commune; and the tradition of common land was held onto by the peasant classes - very often as a motivating theme of their revolts and insurrections - throughout the mediaeval period. The common characteristic of all these social forms is that they were dominated by natural economy: the production of use value took precedence over the production of exchange value, and it is the development of the latter which is the dissolving agent of the old community:

"Monetary greed, or mania for wealth, necessarily brings with it the decline and fall of the ancient communities (Gemeinwesen). Hence it is the antithesis to them. It is itself the community (Gemeinwesen), and can tolerate none other standing above it. But this presupposes the full development of exchange values, hence a corresponding organisation of society" (Grundrisse, p223).

In all previous societies, "exchange value was not the nexus rerum" but existed at their "interstices" (ibid); and so it is only in capitalist society, where exchange value finally seizes hold of the very heart of the production process, that the ancient Gemeinwesen is finally and completely broken down, to the point where communal life is portrayed as the actual opposite of human nature! It is easy to see how this analysis parallels and reinforces Marx's theory of alienation. 

The importance of this theme of the original community in Marx's work is reflected in the amount of time the founders of historical materialism devoted to it. It had already appeared in the German Ideology in the 1840s; Engels, leaning on the ethnographic studies of Morgan, was to take up the same issue in the 1870s, in his Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. At the end of his life Marx was again delving deeply into this issue - the little-explored 'Ethnographic Notebooks' stem from this period. It was an essential component of the marxist response to political economy's assumptions about human nature. Far from being essential and unchanging features of human existence, categories such as private property and exchange value were shown to be transient expressions of particular historical epochs. And while the bourgeoisie tried to portray greed for monetary wealth as something fixed in the fundaments of man's being, Marx's historical researches uncovered the essentially social character of the human species. All these discoveries were obviously a powerful argument for the possibility of communism. 

And yet Marx's approach to this question never slides into a romantic nostalgia for the past. The same dialectic is applied here as to the question of man's relationship to nature, since the two questions are really one: in primitive communist society, the individual is buried in the tribe, as the tribe is buried in nature. These social organisms "are founded on the immature development of man individually, who has not yet severed the umbilical cord that unites him with his fellowmen in a primitive tribal community ... They can arise and exist only when the development of the productive power of labour has not risen beyond a low stage, and when, therefore, the social relations within the sphere of material life, between man and man, and between man and nature, are correspondingly narrow. This narrowness is reflected in the ancient worship of nature, and in other elements of the popular religions" (Capital, Vol 1, chapter I, section 4, p 84).   

Capitalist society, with its mass of atomised individuals separated and alienated from each other by the domination of the commodity, is thus the polar opposite of the primitive community, the result of a long and contradictory historical process leading from one to the other. But this severing of the umbilical cord that originally bound man to the tribe and to nature is a painful necessity if humanity is to at last live in a society which is at once truly communal and truly individual, a society where the conflict between social and individual needs has been overcome.

Ascent and decadence of social formations

The study of previous social formations is only made possible by the emergence of capitalism:

"Bourgeois society is the most developed and the most complex historic organisation of production. The categories which express its relations, the comprehension of its structure, thereby also allows insights into the structure and relations of production  of all the vanished social formations out of whose ruins and elements it built itself up, whose partly still unconquered remnants are carried along with it...." (Grundrisse, Introduction, p105). At the same time, this understanding of social formations becomes, in the hands of the proletariat, a weapon against capital. As Marx puts in Capital Vol 1, "The categories of bourgeois economy ... are forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite, historically determined mode of production, viz, the production of commodities. The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour as long as they take the form of commodities, vanishes therefore as soon as we come to other forms of production" (chapter I, section 4, p 81). In short, capitalism is only one of a series of social formations that have risen and fallen due to discernible economic and social contradictions. Seen in this historical framework, capitalism, the society of universal commodity production, is not the product of nature but is a "definite, historically determined mode of production", destined to disappear no less than Roman slavery or mediaeval feudalism.

The most succinct and well-known presentation of this overall vision of history appears in the Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, published in 1858 [2]. This short text was a summary not only of the work contained in the Grundrisse, but of the foundations of Marx's entire theory of historical materialism. The passage begins with the basic premises of this theory:

"In the social production of their existence, men enter into definite, necessary relations, which are independent of their will, namely, relations of production corresponding to a determinate stage of development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the real foundation on which there arises a legal and political superstructure and to which there correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life processes in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary it is their being that determines their consciousness".

This is the materialist conception of history in a nutshell: the movement of history cannot be understood, as it has done hitherto, through the ideas mean have had of themselves, but through studying what underlies these ideas - the processes and social relations through which men produce and reproduce their material life. Having summarized this essential point, Marx then goes on to say:

"At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or - what is merely a legal expression of the same thing - with the property relations within the framework of which they have hitherto operated. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. At that point an era of social revolutions begins. With the change in the economic foundation the whole immense superstructure is more slowly or more rapidly transformed".

It is thus a basic axiom of historical materialism that economic formations (in the same text Marx mentions "the Asian, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production" as "progressive epochs of the socio-economic order") necessarily go through periods of ascent, when their social relations are "forms of development" of the productive forces, and periods of decline or decadence, the "era of social revolution", when these same relations turn into "fetters". Restating this point here may seem banal, but it is necessary to do so because there are many elements in the revolutionary movement who lay claim to the method of historical materialism, and yet argue vehemently against the notion of capitalist decadence as defended by the ICC and other proletarian organisations. Such attitudes can be found both among the Bordigist groups and the heirs of the councilist tradition. The Bordigists in particular may concede that capitalism goes through crises of ever increasing magnitude and destructiveness, but reject our insistence that capitalism definitively entered its own epoch of social revolution in 1914. For them this is an innovation not catered for by the 'invariance' of marxism.

These arguments against decadence are to some extent semantic quibbles. Marx did not generally use the phrase "the decadence of capitalism" because he did not consider that this period had yet begun. It is true that during his political career there were times when he and Engels succumbed to an over-optimism about the imminent possibility of revolution: this was particularly true in 1848 (see the articles in IR 72 and 73). And even after revising this prognosis after the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, the founders of marxism never quite gave up the hope that the new era would dawn while they were still around to see it. But their political practise throughout their lifetimes was fundamentally based on the recognition that the working class was still building up its forces, its identity, its political programme within a bourgeois society that had not yet completed its historical mission.

Nonetheless, Marx does talk about the periods of the decline, decay or dissolution of the modes of production that preceded capitalism, particularly in the Grundrisse [3]. And there is nothing in his work to suggest that capitalism would be different in any fundamental sense - that it would somehow avoid entering its own period of decline. On the contrary, the revolutionaries of the Second International were basing themselves entirely on Marx's method and anticipations when they proclaimed that the first world war had finally and incontestably opened up the "new epoch" of "capitalism's inner disintegration" as the first congress of the Communist International put it in 1919. As we argue in our introduction to the pamphlet The Decadence of Capitalism, all the left communist groups who took up the notion of capitalist decadence, from the KAPD to Bilan and Internationalisme, were merely carrying on this 'classical' tradition. As consistent Marxists, they could do no more or less: historical materialism required them to come to a decision as to when capitalism had become a fetter on humanity's productive forces. The swallowing up of generations of accumulated labour in the holocaust of imperialist war settled the question once and for all.

Some of the arguments against the concept of decadence go a bit further than semantics. They may even base themselves on another passage from the Preface, where Marx says that "a social order never perishes before all the productive forces for which it is broadly sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the womb of the old society". According to the anti-decadentists - especially during the 60s and 70s when the total inability of capitalism to develop the so-called third world was not yet as clear as it is today - you could not say that capitalism was decadent until it had developed its capacities to the last drop of workers' sweat, and there were still areas of the world where it had a prospect of growing. Hence the "youthful capitalisms" of the Bordigists and the many impending "bourgeois revolutions" of the councilists.

Given the fact that the 'third world' countries today present us with a horrifying picture of war, famine, disease and disaster, such theories are now largely an embarrassing memory, but there is a basic misunderstanding, an error of method, behind them. To say that a society is in decline is not to say that the productive forces have simply ceased to grow, that they have come to a complete halt. And Marx certainly did not mean to imply that a social system can only give way to another when every single possibility of development has been exhausted. As we can see from the following passage in the Grundrisse, he shows that even in decay a society does not stop moving:

"Considered ideally, the dissolution of a given form of consciousness sufficed to kill a whole epoch. In reality, this barrier to consciousness corresponds to a definite degree of development of the forces of material production and hence of wealth. True, there was not only a development on the old basis, but also a development of this basis itself. The highest development of this basis itself (the flower into which it transforms itself; but it is always this basis, this plant as flower; hence wilting after the flowering and as a consequence of the flowering) is the point at which it is itself worked out, developed, into the form in which it is compatible with the highest development of the forces of production, hence also the richest development of individuals. As soon as this point is reached, the further development appears as decay, and the new development begins from a new basis" (p 541).

The wording is complicated, unpolished: this is very often the problem with reading the Grundrisse. But the conclusion seems limpid enough: the decay of a society is not the end of all movement. Decadence is a movement, but one characterised by a slide towards catastrophe and self-destruction. Can anyone seriously doubt that twentieth century capitalist society, which devotes more productive forces to war and destruction than any previous social formation, and whose continued reproduction is a threat to the continuation of life on Earth, has reached the stage where its "development appears as decay"?

In the second part of this article we will look more closely at the way the 'mature' Marx analysed capitalist social relations, the contradictions inherent in them, and the communist society that was the solution to these contradictions. 




[1] Compare the following passages with the ones cited above: "The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It is not distinct from that activity; it is that activity. Man makes his life activity an object of his will and his consciousness. He has conscious life activity; it is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity directly distinguishes man from animal life activity ..."  And again:

"It is true that animals also produce . They build nests and dwellings, like the bee, the beaver, the ant, etc. But they produce only their own immediate needs or those of their young; they produce one-sidedly, while man produces universally; they produce only when immediate physical need compels them to do so, while man produces even when he is free from physical need and truly produces only in freedom from such need; they produce only themselves, while man reproduces the whole of nature; their products belong immediately to their physical bodies, while man freely confronts his own product. Animals produce only according to the standards and needs of the species to which they belong, while man is capable of producing according to the standards of every species and of applying to each object its inherent standard; hence man also produces in accordance with the laws of beauty" (EPM, chapter on 'Estranged Labour').

We can add that if these distinctions between man and the rest of animal nature are no longer of any relevance to a marxist understanding of history; if the concept of man's species-being is to be discarded, we must also throw the entirety of Freudian psychoanalysis out of the window, since the latter can be summarized as an attempt to understand the ramifications of a contradiction which has, hitherto, characterised the whole of human history: the contradiction, the inner conflict, between man's instinctual life and his conscious activity.

[2] The Critique of Political Economy was published in 1858. Engels had been urging Marx to call a halt to his researches into political economy and start publishing  his findings, but the book was still in many ways premature; it did not measure up to the scale of the project that Marx was undertaking, and in any case Marx changed the final structure of the work when he at last began producing Capital. Thus the Preface, with its brilliant summary of the theory of historical materialism, remains by far the most important part of the book. 

[3] For example: in Grundrisse, p501, Marx says that "the master-servant relation ... forms a necessary ferment for the development and the decline and fall of all original relations of property and of production, just as it also expresses their limited nature. Still, it is reproduced - in mediated form - in capital, and thus likewise forms a ferment of its dissolution and is an emblem of its limitation". In short, the inner dynamic and the basic contradictions of any class society must be located at their core: the relations of exploitation. We will examine how this is the case for the wage labour relation in the second part of this chapter. Elsewhere, Marx stresses the role played by the development of commodity relations in accelerating the decline of previous social formations: "It goes without saying - and shows itself if we go more deeply into the historic epoch under discussion here - that in truth the period of dissolution of the earlier modes of production and modes of the worker's relation to the objective conditions of labour is at the same time a period in which monetary wealth on the one side has already developed to a certain extent, and on the other side grows and expands rapidly through the same circumstances as accelerate the above dissolution" (ibid, p 506).





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