Part 2: Understanding the political implications of capitalist decadence

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Understanding the Decadence of Capitalism, Part 2

Trade unionism, parliamentarism, mass parties, the struggle for social reforms, support for struggles to form new states... these are no longer valid forms of struggle for the working class. The reality of the open crisis shaking capitalism, the experience of social struggles which this crisis has engendered, is making this more and more clear to hundreds of millions of workers all over the world. But why were these forms of struggle, which were so important for the workers’ movement last century, transformed into what they are today? It’s not enough to be ‘against’. In order to have a solid intervention in the class struggle, to be able to combat the disorientation which bourgeois ideology always imposes, we also have to know why we are against.

Today, either out of ignorance, or in order to make life easier, certain groups who have arrived at the conclusion that trade unionism, parliamentarism, etc, have a bourgeois nature try to respond to this problem by resorting to anarchist or utopian conceptions, couched in a marxist language to make them seem more serious. Among these is the Groupe Communiste Internationaliste[1]. For the GCI, capitalism hasn’t changed since its origins. The same goes for the proletariat’s forms of struggle. As for the programme formulated by revolutionary organisations, why change it? This is the theory of ‘invariance’. For these sirens of eternal revolt, trade union and parliamentary struggles,  the fight for reforms, have always been, since their inception, what they are today – ways of integrating the proletariat into capitalism. The analysis of the existence of two phases in the history of capitalism, to which correspond different forms of struggle, is nothing but an invention of the 1930s whose aim is to “betray the historic programme”, a programme which can be summarised by the quasi-eternal truth: “violent and world-wide revolution.” This is how they formulate all this: “This theorisation about the opening of a new capitalist phase, the phase of decline, thus makes it possible ‘a posteriori’ to maintain a formal coherence between the ‘acquisitions of the workers’ movement of the last century’ (in other words the bourgeois ‘acquisitions’ of social democracy: trade unionism, parliamentarism, nationalism, pacifism, the ‘struggle for reforms’, the struggle for the conquest of the state, the rejection of revolutionary action...) and, because of the ‘change of period’ (the classic justification for all the revisions and betrayals of the historic programme), the appearance of ‘new tactics’ suited to this ‘new phase’, going from the Stalinists’ defence of the ‘socialist fatherland’, to Trotsky’s transitional programme’ to the rejection of the union ‘form’ to the benefit of that of the ‘ultra-left’ councils (see Pannekoek, The Workers’ Councils). All regard the past in an a-critical manner, particularly social-democratic reformism, justified by the sleight of hand because it was situated in the ‘ascendant phase of capitalism’... “As for the communists, they are once more the iguanodons of history [2], those for whom nothing fundamental has changed, those for whom the ‘old methods’ of direct struggle, class against class, of violent and world-wide revolution, of internationalism and the dictatorship of the proletariat remain – yesterday, today and tomorrow – valid.” (Le Communiste no. 23) The GCI goes on: “The very origin of the decadentist theories (theories of a ‘change in period’ and the opening of a ‘new phase of capitalism, that of its decline’ ...) lies, ‘bizarrely’, in the ‘30s, theorised as much by the Stalinists (Varga) as by the Trotskyists (Trotsky himself) and certain social democrats (Hilferding, Sternberg) and academics (Grossman). It was thus following the defeat of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23 that certain products of the victory of the counter-revolution began to theorise a ‘long period’ of stagnation and ‘decline’ ”. It’s not easy to pack so many absurdities into so few lines. Let’s leave aside the analysis which the GCI often resorts to and which add nothing to the debate except to show the superficiality of its own reasoning. To put into the same sack the internationalist communist left (Pannekoek) and Stalinism (Varga) because both talked about the decadence of capitalism is as stupid as identifying revolution with counter-revolution because they both have something to do with the class struggle.


Let’s begin with what is a vulgar lie – or, at best, the expression of the crassest ignorance about the history of the workers’ movement:  according to the GCI, it was ‘bizarrely’ in the ‘30s, ‘a posteriori’, that the theory of the decadence of capitalism was invented. Anyone who knows even a little bit about the history of the workers’ movement, and particularly the combat against reformism waged by the revolutionary left within the social democracy and the Second International, knows that this simply isn’t true. In the article ‘Understanding the Decadence of Capitalism’, (International Review 48), we showed at length how the idea that there are two phases in capitalism – an ‘ascendant’ phase in which capitalist relations of production stimulate the global and economic development  of society, and a ‘decadent’ phase in which these relations are transformed into a fetter on this development opening up an ‘epoch of revolution’ – is at the heart of the materialist conception of history as defined by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto and subsequently. We showed how the founders of scientific socialism were obliged to fight against all the utopian and anarchist currents who wilfully ignored such a distinction of historic phases and who saw the communist revolution as an eternal ideal which could be realised at any time, and not as a social transformation which could only be made historically necessary and possible by the evolution of the productive forces and their entering into contradiction with capitalist relations of production. But Marx and Engels had to fight above all against those who didn’t see that capitalism was still in its ascendant phase. Towards the end of the century, the left in the Second International - in particular through Rosa Luxemburg - had to fight against the opposite tendency, that of the reformists who denied that capitalism was moving towards its decadent phase. Thus in 1898 Rosa Luxemburg wrote in Reform or Revolution: “Once industrial development has attained its highest possible point and capitalism has entered its descending phase on the world market, the trade union struggle will become doubly difficult. In the first place, the objective conjuncture of the market will be less favourable to the sellers of labour power, because the demand for labour power will decrease at a slower rate and labour supply more rapidly than is the case at present. In the second place, the capitalists themselves, in order to make up for losses suffered on the world market, will make even greater efforts than at present to reduce the part of the total product going to the workers...The situation in England already offers us a picture of the beginning of the second stage of trade union development. Trade union action is reduced of necessity to the simple defence of already realised gains, and even that is becoming more and more difficult,” (p. 30, Merlin Press edition). Contrary to what the GCI claims, it was not ‘a posteriori’; it wasn’t after the first imperialist world butchery had brought irrefutable proof that capitalism had entered its decadent phase that these lines were written. It was fifteen years before that. And Rosa Luxemburg had begun to see clearly the political consequences – here at the level of trade unionism – that such a change of phase would have for the workers’ movement. The GCI claims that it was “following the defeat of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23 that certain products of the victory of the counter-revolution began to theorise a ‘long period’ of stagnation and ‘decline’.” Is the GCI not aware that, in the very heart of this revolutionary wave, the Third International was founded on the basis of the analysis that capitalism had entered a new phase: “A new epoch is born. The epoch of the disintegration of capitalism, of its inner collapse. The epoch of the communist revolution of the proletariat,” (Manifesto of the Communist International). And it was within this International that the Communist Left in its turn waged its struggle against the majority tendencies which didn’t see all the political consequences this new historic period would have for the forms of proletarian struggle. This, for example, is how the KAPD, the German communist left in 1921, expressed it at the Third Congress of the CI: “To push the proletariat to take part in elections in the period of the decadence of capitalism means fuelling the illusion that the crisis can be overcome by parliamentary means.” Finally, in the ‘30s, it was not only the “products of the victory of the counter-revolution” but the proletarian vanguards who – with the aim of drawing out the lessons of the great revolutionary wave – “theorised a ‘long period’ of stagnation and ‘decline’.” Thus Bilan, the review  which regrouped the elements of the communist left of Italy, Belgium and France, wrote in 1934: “Capitalist society, owing to the sharpened character of the contradictions inherent in its system, can no longer carry out its historic mission: developing the productive forces and the productivity of labour in a continuous and progressive manner. The clash between the productive forces and their private appropriation, once sporadic, has become permanent. Capitalism has entered into its general crisis of decomposition.” (Mitchell, Bilan 11, Sept. ’34) [3].  The GCI is either ignorant of or is falsifying the history of the revolutionary movement. In either case its affirmations about the “very origin of the decadentist theories” are, enough to show the vacuity of its arguments and the lack of seriousness in its approach.


Let’s now deal with the GCI’s argument that to talk about a change in the proletariat’s methods of struggle means “betraying the historic programme.” The programme of a political movement is constituted by defining the totality of means and ends which this movement proposes. In this sense the communist programme contains elements which have indeed been permanent since the Communist Manifesto, published at the time of the 1848 revolutions which for the first time saw the proletariat appearing on the scene of history as a distinct political force. This is the case for example when it comes to defining the general goal – the world communist revolution – or the fundamental means for attaining this goal: the class struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat. But the communist programme isn’t just this. It also contains the immediate goals, the concrete means, the forms of organisation necessary to attain the final goal. These concrete elements are directly determined by the concrete historical situation in which the struggle of the proletariat takes place. As Rosa Luxemburg put it in Reform or Revolution: “In a word, democracy is indispensable not because it renders superfluous the conquest of political power by the proletariat, but because it renders this conquest of power both necessary and possible. When Engels, in his preface to the Class Struggles in France, revised the tactics of the modern labour movement and urged the legal struggle as opposed to the barricades, he did not have in mind – this comes out of every line in the preface – the question of a definitive conquest of political power, but the contemporary daily struggle. He did not have in mind the attitude that the proletariat must take toward the capitalist state at the time of its seizure of power, but the attitude of the proletariat while in the bounds of the capitalist state. Engels was giving directions to the proletariat oppressed, and not to the proletariat victorious.” (ibid, p. 79-80). For the GCI, the communist programme ignores all this and limits itself to the single war cry: ‘make the world revolution everywhere and at all times.’ Reduced to that, the programme could be deemed invariant, but it would no longer be a programme, merely a declaration of intent. As for its practical application, if this ‘programme’ could have one, it would mean sending the workers to the final confrontation whatever the historic conditions and the balance of class forces. In other words, it’s the road to massacre. Mark himself had to fight these kinds of tendencies within the Communist League: “Whereas we say to the workers: you have to go through fifteen, twenty, fifty years of civil wars and international wars, not only  to transform the conditions, but to transform yourselves, you, on the other hand, say to them: either we take power straight away, or we might as well go to sleep,” (Marx, speaking against the Willich/Schapper tendency in the Communist League; proceedings of the central committee session of September 1850, cited in Nicolaievski, Marx, Man and Fighter, chap XV). A programme which doesn’t seek to define the specificities of each historical situation and the proletarian activity which corresponds to it – such a programme is no use at all. Furthermore, the communist programme is constantly being enriched by the practice of the class. Questions as crucial as the impossibility of the class taking over the bourgeois state, or the proletariat’s forms of organisation and struggle for the revolution, have resulted in modifications in the communist programme following experiences like those of the Paris Commune of 1871 or of the Russian revolution of 1905. To refuse to modify the programme, to enrich it in connection with the evolution of objective conditions and the practical experience of the class is not to ‘remain loyal’ to the programme but to destroy it by turning it into tablets of law. Communists are not dinosaurs and this programme is not a fossil. Knowing how to modify and enrich the communist programme, as the most consistent revolutionaries have always done in order to be able to respond to each general historical situation and integrate the results of revolutionary praxis – that’s not ‘betraying the programme’, it’s the only serious attitude, the only one that can ensure that the programme remains a real weapon of the class[4].


For the GCI, the worst crime of the ‘decadentists’ is that they theorise a “formal coherence between the ‘acquisitions’ of the workers’ movement of last century.” And the GCI goes on: “In other words, the bourgeois ‘acquisitions’ of social democracy.” The fundamental danger of the theory of decadence is that it “regards he past in an a-critical manner, particularly social democratic reformism, justified by sleight of hand because it was situated in the ‘ascendant’ phase of capitalism.” For the GCI: “the historic function of social democracy was, directly, not to organise the struggle for the destruction of the system (which is the universal standpoint of the communists), but to organise the mass of workers atomised by the counter-revolution in order to educate them to participate as well as possible in the system of wage slavery,” (Le Communiste 23). In another article we will deal specifically with the class nature of social democracy and of the Second International at the turn of the century. But in order to do this we first have to reply to the absurd simplifications of the GCI according to whom “nothing fundamentally has changed” for the workers’ struggle since its origins. The GCI reproaches social democracy with having organised not the struggle “for the destruction of the system (which is the invariant standpoint of the communists)”, but the trade union and parliamentary struggle for reforms, which has never been anything but a way of getting workers to participate in the system. But to reject trade unionism or parliamentarism solely because they are forms of struggle which don’t immediately result in the “destruction of the system” is to reject them for purely idealist reasons, founded on the wind of eternal ideals and not on the solid ground of the objective conditions of the class struggle. It amounts to seeing the working class only as a revolutionary class, forgetting that in contrast to all past revolutionary classes it is also an exploited class. The struggle for immediate demands and the revolutionary struggle are two moments in the same fight by the working class against capitalism; the destruction of capitalism is nothing other than the defensive struggle against the attacks of capital taken to its final consequences. But these  two moments of the struggle are not identical. Only a totally vacuous view of the proletarian struggle could ignore this dual character. Those who, like the reformists, see the working class only as an exploited class and its struggle as being limited to immediate demands, have a static and historically restricted vision. But those who only see the working class as a revolutionary class and ignore its exploited nature and the fact that every workers’ struggle is also a struggle for immediate demands – such people are talking about a phantom. When revolutionary marxists rejected the trade union or parliamentary form of struggle in the past, it was never in the name of the empty, a-classist radicalism which belongs to anarchism, as expressed for example by Bakunin in his ‘Revolutionary Catechism’ in 1869, when he wrote that the organisation of revolutionaries must devote “all its forces and all its means to aggravating and extending the suffering and misery which must finally push the people into a general uprising”. Anarchism starts from the standpoint of an ideal of abstract ‘revolt’. It has a ‘transcendental disdain’ for the immediate struggles of the working class, as Marx said a propos Proudhon in The Poverty of Philosophy. Marxism starts from the standpoint of a class and its interests, both historic and immediate. When revolutionary marxists came to the conclusion that trade unionism, parliamentarism, the struggle for reforms were no longer valid, it’s not because they were abandoning the struggle for immediate demands, but because they understood that it could no longer be effective by using the old forms. This was the general approach of Rosa Luxemburg when she foresaw that when capitalism entered its “descending phase”, the trade union struggle would become “doubly difficult”, when she noted that at the end of the nineteenth century in the most advanced country, Britain, the trade union movement “is reduced of necessity to the simple defence of already realised gains, and even that is becoming more and more difficult”. This was the approach of the KAPD when it rejected participation in elections not because ‘voting is dirty’ but because parliamentary means have no further use in dealing with the effects of the crisis of capitalism, ie with the impoverishment of the proletariat. As long as the development of capitalism could permit a real and lasting improvement of workers’ living conditions, as long as the state had not yet become a totalitarian power over social life, the immediate struggle could take trade union and parliamentary forms. The objective conditions in which capitalism was reaching its historical highpoint created a sort of economic and political terrain where the immediate interests of the working class could coincide with the necessities of a capitalism expanding on a worldwide scale, and draw real advantages from this. It was the illusion of believing that such a situation could carry on indefinitely which was at the root of the development, within the working class movement, of ‘reformism’ – that bourgeois ideology according to which the communist revolution is impossible and all that can be done is to gradually reform capitalism in the interests of the workers. For marxists, the rejection of the struggle for reforms within capitalism has always been based, in the final analysis, on a recognition of their impossibility. In 1898 Rosa Luxemburg put it as follows: “If our programme contains the formula of the historic development of society from capitalism to socialism, it must also formulate, in all its characteristic fundamentals, all the transitory phases of this development, and it should, consequently, be able to indicate to the proletariat what ought to be its corresponding action at every moment on the road toward socialism.” (Ibid) When capitalism entered its decadent phase, what changed for the workers’ struggle at the level of the objective conditions was the impossibility of obtaining real and lasting improvements. But this didn’t take place in isolation. The decadence of capitalism is also synonymous with state capitalism, with the hypertrophy of the state apparatus, and this entirely alters the proletariat’s conditions of existence. We can’t develop here all the aspects of the profound changes capitalism’s decadence brings to social life in general and the class struggle in particular. We refer the reader to the article ‘The Proletarian Struggle in Decadent Capitalism’ in IR 23. What we have to underline here is the fact that for marxists the forms of the proletarian struggle depend on the objective conditions in which it is taking place and not on the abstract principles of eternal revolt. Only by basing yourself on an objective analysis of the balance of class forces, seen within its historical dynamic, can you judge the validity of a strategy or form of struggle. Without this materialist basis, any position you take up on the means of the proletarian struggle is built on sand; it opens the door to disorientation as soon as the superficial forms of eternal revolt – violence, anti-legalism – appear on the scene. The GCI is a striking example of this. When you don’t understand why certain forms of struggle were valid in ascendant capitalism, you can’t understand why these are no longer so in decadent capitalism. Because its only political criteria are to be against anything that resembles social democracy, because it believes that ‘anti-democracy’ is a sufficient criterion in itself, we find the GCI writing in November 1986 that an organisation like that of the Stalinist guerrillas in Peru, the ‘Shining Path’ , because it’s armed and refused to participate in elections “appears more and more as the only structure capable of providing a coherence to the growing number of direct actions by the proletariat in the towns and the country-side, whereas all the other left groups are objectively united against the interests of the workers in the name of condemning terrorism in general and of defending democracy” (Le Communiste no. 25, our emphasis).  The GCI notes that “all the documents that Shining Path has produced are based on the strictest Stalino-Maoism” and that it considers that in Peru the struggle is “currently at its anti-imperialist and anti-feudal stage”. But this doesn’t prevent the GCI from concluding “We don’t have the elements to consider Shining Path (or the PCP as it defines itself) as a bourgeois organisation in the service of the counter-revolution” (ibid). What the GCI lacks for appreciating the class nature of a political organisation, or any other reality of the class struggle, isn’t ‘elements of information’ but the marxist method, the materialist conception of history – an indispensable element of which is the notion of historic phases of a system, of ascendancy and decadence. RV.

[1] This article follows on from the previous one in the last issue of this Review ’Understanding the Decadence of Capitalism’.

[2] Iguanadon – a dinosaur which lived in the Cretaceous epoch.

[3] In a small note to the article mentioned, the GCI recognises that Luxemburg, Lenin and Bukharin did in fact share the ‘decadentist theories’. But it claims that for them it wasn’t a matter of “defining a phase over seventy years long”. This is another falsification: for the left in the Second International, which founded the Third, the stage which capitalism had entered wasn’t one phase among others, something which could be followed by new ascendant phases. For all of them, the new period was the ‘ultimate phase’, a ‘highest stage’ of capitalism, of which the only outcome for society could be socialism or barbarism.


[4] Against all religious attitudes towards what is the living instrument of a living class we claim continuity with the attitude of Marx and Engels who declared after the Paris Commune that a part of the Communist Manifesto was now obsolete; of Lenin in the April Theses of 1917 when he insisted on the need to rewrite a section of the party’s programme.