100 years of capitalist decadence

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For a century now, humanity has stood at a crossroads in its history. Already in the 19th century the working class starkly outlined this historical watershed in the expression: "socialism or barbarism". The lucid marxist analysis revealed and expressed in this slogan cannot however be reduced to an empty slogan. Hence we want here to insist briefly on its historical importance and depth.

When we look at the human species' distant, obscure beginnings, we cannot help but be astounded at the immense steps forward that have marked mankind's emergence from the animal realm and marked its development since then: language, dance, art, architecture, the production of an immense wealth of material goods, and the ability to create a wealth and diversity of cultural, moral, and intellectual needs – all this represents a historical acceleration which takes the breath away.

Yet, when we focus our attention on the different epochs of human history, we must also acknowledge that mankind's development has never been a smooth progression. Still less has this been the case since the emergence of class society and the first great civilisations, all of which have long disappeared: only a very few of them have been able to transform themselves into something new. History reveals to us many epochs of cultural regression, the loss of skills and knowledge, generally accompanied by moral stultification and a brutalisation of human relationships.

The foundation of man's progress lies in his ability to transform nature with a view to the satisfaction of his own needs, and in the first place of his material needs, through the improvement and development of his tools and techniques – what Marx called "the productive forces". Fundamentally, it is the degree of development of these productive forces, and of the division of labour that they imply, which determine the way that society is organised to put them into operation: the "relations of production". When the framework provided by these relations allows the development of the productive forces, then society flourishes, not just on the material but also on the moral and cultural levels. But when the relations of production become a barrier to the continued development of the productive forces, then society undergoes repeated and worsening convulsions: it is threatened with a return to barbarism. To take just one historical example: one of the pillars of the Roman Empire was the exploitation of slave labour, especially in agriculture. The appearance of new farming techniques which could not be put into operation by producers whose status was lower than cattle was one of the causes of the Empire's decadence and final collapse.

The steps forward achieved by human culture,1 from the Neolithic revolution to the Renaissance, the emergence of humanism, and the Russian revolution, appear to us today as a grandiose prelude to the world revolution. These giant strides of human culture have always been the product of long periods of struggle, where new social relationships overcame and replaced the old. Today, they carry us towards a new leap forward: socialism, the first conscious and worldwide socialisation of the human species! Marxism, the theory that the proletariat adopted to light the way in its struggle against capitalism, is able to study this history with lucidity, free from mystification, and to recognise its major tendencies. This has nothing to do with crystal-ball gazing. We cannot predict when, or even whether, the world revolution will take place. What we can do is to understand in depth – and defend against all comers, including the incomprehension of some revolutionaries – the immense historical importance of capitalism's entry into its decadence. For 100 years, we have been faced with an alternative which can be summed up thus: either we succeed with the next social and cultural leap forward to socialism, or we fall back into barbarism.

The gravity of this alternative is greater than ever before in history, because today the growth in the contradictions between the productive forces and the relations of production has reached a point where it threatens humanity not just with social and cultural decline, but with complete destruction. For the first time in history, a mode of production's decadence is a menace for the very survival of the human species. Yet at the same time, it bears with it immense, historic possibilities for its future development: the beginning of humanity's truly conscious history.

The capitalist model of socialisation is the most successful in human history. Capitalism has absorbed – when it has not simply destroyed – all previous social and cultural milieux, and has for the first time created a worldwide human society. Its basic form of exploitation is wage labour, which makes possible the appropriation and the accumulation of surplus labour, as well as the unpaid appropriation of the enormous productive capacity created by associated, socialised labour. This is what explains the unparalleled technical and scientific explosion which is part and parcel of capitalism's rise. But one of capitalist socialisation's specificities is that it is carried out unconsciously. It is determined by laws which – although they are the expression of given human social relationships based on the exchange of labour power for wages, between the producers and the owners of the means of production – appear to be "natural" and "unchangeable", and so beyond the reach of human will. In this mystified – reified – view of reality, where human beings and the relations between them have become mere objects, the enormous increase in material resources and productive power appears as the product of capital rather than of human labour. Capitalism set out to conquer the world, but it turns out that the world is round. A world market has been created (on the ruins of alternative forms of production, like the textiles of China, India, or the Ottoman Empire for example). The success of the capitalist mode of production is a progressive step in human history; nonetheless for the vast majority of the population at the heart of capitalism the industrial revolution meant the destruction of previous ways of life and ferocious exploitation, while in much of the rest of the world it meant famine, epidemics and slavery. Capitalism is undoubtedly the most modern form of exploitation, but in the end it is every bit as parasitic as its predecessors. To keep the machine of accumulation going, capitalist socialisation demands ever more raw material and markets, and must constantly dispose of a reserve of human beings forced to sell their labour power to survive. This is why its victory over previous modes of production meant the ruin and starvation of the previous producers.

Capitalism presents itself as the aim and apogee of human development. If we are to believe its ideology, there is nothing beyond capitalism. But this means that capitalist ideology must hide two things: first, that historically capitalism is largely dependent on an environment and relations of production outside itself; second, that capitalist socialisation, like all the social forms that have preceded it, is only a stage in the process of humanity's coming to consciousness. The driving force of capitalist accumulation constantly creates internal contradictions which erupt in crises. During capitalism's ascendant phase, these crises were overcome by the destruction of excess capital and the conquest of new markets. With the new equilibrium thus achieved came a further extension of capitalist social relations – but once the world market had been shared out among the central capitalist powers the limits of this extension were reached. At this point, the great nation states can only pursue their world conquest at each other's expense. Since all the cake has been shared out, each can only increase his share by taking from the others.

The nation states plunge into an arms race and hurl themselves at each others' throats in the First World War. In a world wide slaughter, the productive forces chained in by historically obsolete relations of production are transformed into a destructive force of enormous power. With capitalism's entry into decadence, warfare becomes a matter of equipment, and subjects the best part of production to military needs. The blind machine of annihilation drags the whole world down into the abyss.

Well before 1914, the left wing of the Socialist International, the revolutionary forces around Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, fought with all their strength against the threat of imperialist war. Living marxism – the only real marxism – which is not enclosed in dogmas and formulae supposedly valid for all time, realised that this was not just another war between the nations like those before it, but that it marked the entry of capitalism into its decadent phase. The marxists knew that we were then, as we still are today, at a historical crossroads which threatens for the first time to become a struggle for the very survival of the human species. Capitalism's entry into decadence 100 years ago is irreversible, but this does not mean that the productive forces have come to a halt. In reality, these forces are so enchained and compressed by the logic of capitalist exploitation that society's development is dragged down into an ever more barbaric maelstrom. Only the working class can give history a different direction and build a new society. We have seen just what capitalism's unadulterated brutality is capable of after the defeat of the revolutionary upsurge in the years 1917-23. The course towards a new world war was opened, men reduced to ciphers, shut up in camps destined to murderous exploitation or plain extermination. Stalinist mass murder was surpassed by the annihilating madness of the Nazis; nor did the "civilised" ruling classes intend to miss the festivities of barbarism: the "democratic" atom bombs wiped two Japanese cities from the map and inflicted hideous suffering on the survivors.

The state capitalist machine may have learnt from history to the point of avoiding its own self-destruction – the bourgeois class will not simply commit suicide and abandon the historical stage to the proletariat – but only the return of the working class after 1968 offers any guarantee against a new course towards war. However, if the working class has proven capable of barring the road to a new world holocaust, it has not so far been able to impose its own perspective. In this situation, where neither of its two determining classes are capable of imposing a decisive response to an irreversible and ever deeper economic crisis, society is more and more rotting where it stands; a growing social decomposition makes it ever more difficult for the working class to achieve a clear awareness of its historical perspective – a historical perspective which a century ago was widely shared in the workers' ranks.

One hundred years ago, the working class faced a gigantic historic task, and so it still does today. The class of associated labour as such bears in itself the whole of human history: it is the central class in the struggle for the abolition of classes, and it must rise up against this barbarism. In the struggle against capitalism's nihilistic and amoral barbarity, the working class is the incarnation of a humanity become conscious of itself. It is the productive force of the future still in chains. Within it lies the potential for a new leap forward in human culture.

In the struggle against capitalism's entry into decadence, a whole generation of revolutionaries worldwide stepped forward, to set against capitalism's perverted and reified socialisation the conscious association of the working class, guided by the beacon of the Communist International.

With the Russian revolution, it took in hand the struggle for world revolution. For us today, one hundred years later, this great task of taking up our responsibilities for humanity's future remains an electrifying prospect. Even in the face of general stultification, a moral indignation arises in the heart of the working class, which gives us our bearings today. The working class suffers with the rest of humanity under the burden of decadence. Atomisation and the absence of perspective for the future attack our very identity. In the confrontations to come the working class will show whether it is capable of becoming conscious once again of its historical duty.

In the sweep of history, it is only a short step from moral indignation to the politicisation of an entire generation. A new leap forward in the history of human culture is both possible and vital. This is what living historical experience tells us.


1It should be clear that when we use the term "culture" here, we do so in the scientific sense, englobing the whole production of human society: technical and material of course, but also artistic, organisational, philosophical, moral, etc.


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