Rejecting the notion of Decadence, Part 2

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IR78, 3rd quarter 1994

Rejecting the notion of Decadence demobilises the Proletariat in the face of War

The Bordigist current is undoubtedly part of the proletarian camp. On a certain number of essential questions it defends the principles of the Communist Left, which led the fight against the degeneration of the 3rd International in the 20s and which, after its exclusion from the latter, continued the battle in the terrible conditions of the counter-revolution for the defence of the historic interests of the working class. This is particularly true concerning the question of the imperialist war. In the first part of this article, we have brought this out concerning one organisation of this current: that which publishes Il Comunista in Italy and the review Programme Communiste (PC) in France. We have however shown, through the writings of this organisation, how ignorance by the Bordigist current of the notion of the decadence of capitalism can lead to theoretical aberrations on the question of imperialist war. But the most serious theoretical error of the Bordigist groups is that they lead to a political disarmament of the working class. That is what we are going to show in this second part.


At the end of the first part of this article we cited a sentence of the PCI in PC nº92, which is particularly significant of this organisation’s dangerous vision:

It flows from this [war as a manifestation of economic rationality] that inter-imperialist struggle and the confrontation between rival powers could never lead to the destruction of the planet, because this struggle derives not from excessive greed but from the necessity to escape overproduction. When the excess has been destroyed, the war machine stops, whatever the destructive potential of the weapons used, because at that point the causes of the war have also disappeared

Such a vision, which puts on the same level the wars of the last century, which had, effectively, an economic rationality, and those of this century, which have lost such rationality, flows directly from the incapacity of part of the Bordigist current to understand the fact that capitalism, as the Communist International said, has entered into its period of decadence since World War I. However, it is important to come back to this vision because it not only turns its back on the real history of the World Wars, but completely demobilises the working class.

Bordigist imagination and real history.

It is not true that the two World Wars ended when the economic causes which engendered them had disappeared. It is obviously necessary to agree on the real economic causes of the war. But, even from the point of view of the PCI that the objective of the war was to destroy enough constant capital to allow a sufficient rate of profit to recover, one can note that real history is in contradiction with the imaginary conception of this organisation.

If we take the case of World War I, to affirm such a thing is a shameful betrayal of the fight by Lenin and the internationalists throughout the war (less so when its a question of a crass ignorance of these historical facts). In fact, the resolution adopted at the 1907 congress of the 2nd International (Stuttgart Congress), with an amendment presented by Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, and the Manifesto adopted by the Basle Congress in 1912, made it very clear that Lenin led the struggle, from August 1914, for revolutionaries “to use the economic and political crisis created by the war with all their strength to profoundly agitate the popular layers and precipitate the fall of capitalist domination” (Resolution of the Stuttgart Congress). He did not say to the workers: “the imperialist war will end in any case when the economic causes which engendered it are exhausted”. On the contrary, he showed that the only means of putting an end to the imperialist war, before it led to a catastrophic hecatomb for the proletariat and for the whole of civilisation, consisted in the transformation of the imperialist war into a civil war. Obviously PC takes up this slogan, and approves the policy of the internationalists throughout this war. But at the same time, it is not capable of understanding that the scenario that it presents of the end of the generalised imperialist war was not realised in 1917-18. On the contrary, the 1st World War ended, very rapidly, in November 1918, because the strongest proletariat in the world, that of Germany, had risen against it and was taking the road of revolution as the Russian proletariat had done one year before. The facts are eloquent: on the 9th November 1918, after several months of workers’ strikes throughout Germany, navy sailors based at Kiel mutinied against their officers, while an insurrectional mood developed within the proletariat; on the 11th November the German authorities signed an armistice with the countries of the Entente. The bourgeoisie had learned very well the lesson of Russia a year before when the decision of the provisional government, emerging from the revolution of February 1917, to continue the war constituted the principal factor in mobilising the proletariat toward the October Revolution and soviet power. Thus, history has proved correct the vision defended by Lenin and the Bolsheviks: it is the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat that has put an end to the imperialist war and not some destruction of excess commodities.

The 2nd World War, contrary to the First (and to the expectations of many revolutionaries) did not open the way to a new revolutionary wave. And it was unfortunately not the action of the proletariat that put an end to it. However, that doesn’t mean that it fulfilled the abstract schema of PC. If one studies seriously the historical facts, and takes off the deforming spectacles of ‘invariant’ Bordigist dogma, one can easily see that the end of the war had nothing to do with some ‘sufficient destruction of surplus’. In reality the imperialist war ended with the complete destruction of the military potential of the vanquished and by the occupation of their territory by the victors. The most explicit case was Germany once again. If the Allies took the trouble to occupy every inch of German territory, dividing it into four military zones, this was not for economic but social reasons: the bourgeoisie remembered the 1st World War. It knew that it could not count on a defeated government to guarantee social order in the enormous proletarian concentrations in Germany. According to PC itself (we can once more note its incoherence):

During the 3 years from 45-48 a serious economic crisis hit all the European countries affected by the war [well! this was where the most constant capital was destroyed]  (...) One can see that the post-war stagnation affected victors and vanquished alike. But armed with the experience of the period after World War I, the world bourgeoisie knew that this stagnation could give rise to explosions of class struggle and revolution. That’s why the post-war economic depression was also the period of the massive military occupation of Europe. This occupation only began to be reduced, in the western sector, from 1949, when the spectre of ‘social disorder’ became remote” (PC Nº 91, p43).

In reality, in the name of ‘marxism’ and even of the ‘dialectic’, PC gives us a mechanistic, vulgar-materialist vision of the process of the beginning and the end of world imperialist war.

A schematic vision of the beginning of imperialist war

For marxism the economic infrastructures of society in the last analysis determine its superstructures. Moreover all historical facts that affect the political, military or social scene have economic roots. However, it is once more ‘in the last analysis’ that this economic determination plays its role, in a dialectical, not a mechanical, way. There is, particularly at the beginning of capitalism, an economic origin to war. But the link between economic factors and war has always been mediated by a series of historical, political, and diplomatic factors, which allow the bourgeoisie to mask the real nature of war from the proletariat. That is already valid for the last century, when war had a certain economic rationality for capital. The Franco-Prussian war of 1870 was an example.

On the Prussian side this war had no immediate economic goal (even if, obviously, the victor allowed himself the luxury of imposing a price of 6 million gold francs in exchange for the departure of his occupation troops). Fundamentally the war of 1870 allowed Prussia to create German unity around itself (after it had beaten its Austrian rival for such a role at the battle of Sadowa in 1866). The annexation of Alsace-Lorraine had no decisive economic interest, but constituted the wedding present for the different German political entities. And it was through this political unity that the capitalist nation could develop impetuously to become, and remain, the first economic power of Europe.

On the French side the choice made by Napoleon III to go to war was still more remote from a direct economic determination. Fundamentally, as Marx showed, it was a question of the monarch launching a ‘dynastic’ war which would permit the Second Empire, if victorious, to root itself more firmly at the head of the French bourgeoisie (which in its great majority, whether royalist or republican, was not over-fond of ‘Badinguet’ as Napoleon was known) and to allow Napoleon’s son to succeed him. That is why Thiers, representing the most clear-sighted of the capitalist class, was ferociously opposed to this war.

When one examines the causes of the 1st World War, one can equally note how far the economic factor, which is obviously fundamental, acts indirectly. We cannot, in the context of this article, develop on all the imperialist ambitions of the different protagonists of this war (at the beginning of the century revolutionaries devoted many pamphlets to this question). Suffice it to say that for the two principal countries of the Entente, Great Britain and France, the fundamental stakes was the preservation of their colonial empires against the ambitions of Germany, whose growing power and industrial muscle had practically no colonial outlets. That is why in the final analysis, the war was for Germany (which played the role of aggressor in the conflict) a struggle for a re-division of markets at the time when the latter were already in the hands of the older powers. The economic crisis which began to develop in 1913 was obviously an important factor which worsened imperialist rivalries that broke out on the 4th August 1914, but it would be totally false to pretend (which no marxist did at the time) that the crisis had reached such a level that capital could do nothing else than unleash the World War with its immense destruction, in order to overcome it.


In reality, the war could very well have broken out in 1912, during the Balkan crisis. But at this very moment, the Socialist International had mobilised itself and the working masses against the threat of war, notably at the Basle Congress. The bourgeoisie had to halt its advance along the road to generalised confrontation. By contrast, in 1914, the principal reason why the bourgeoisie could begin the World War did not lie in the level reached by the crisis of overproduction, which was far from the level reached today for example. It lay in the fact that the proletariat pacified by the idea that war no longer threatened and more generally by reformist ideology (propagated by the right wing of the socialist parties which in most cases was the leadership) made no serious mobilisation against the threat which increased sharply after the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 20th June 1914. For a month and a half, the bourgeoisie of the principal countries had plenty of time to verify that their hands were free to unleash the massacre. In particular, in Germany as much as in France, the governments directly contacted the leaders of the socialist parties who assured them of their loyalty and of their capacity to drag the workers toward the butchery. We are not inventing anything: these facts were put forward and denounced at the time by revolutionaries like Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin.

Concerning the 2nd World War, one can also show how, after the economic crisis of 1929, all the elements which would end up in the outbreak of war in September 1939 fell into place: the arrival of Hitler to power in 1933, the rise to power in 1936 of the ‘popular fronts’ in France and Spain, the civil war in the latter from July of the same year. The fact that the open crisis of the capitalist economy would finally end in imperialist war was moreover seen very clearly by the bourgeois leaders. Cordell Hull, close collaborator of the American president Roosevelt, declared: “When goods circulate, soldiers don’t advance”. Hitler on the eve of the war said clearly that Germanymust export or die”. However, one cannot account for the moment when war broke out uniquely according to PC:

After 29, the attempt was made to overcome the crisis in the USA by a kind of ‘new model of development’. The state intervened in a massive way in the economy... and launched gigantic plans for public investment. We know today that all that only had secondary effects on the economy, which in 37-38 sank once again into crisis: only the rearmament credits in 38 could spark a ‘vigorous’ recovery and attain historic levels of production. But public indebtedness and the production of armaments could only provide a break, it could not eliminate the tendency to crisis. Let us note that in 39 the war broke out to avoid the descent into a still more ruinous crisis... The crisis before the war lasted 3 years and was followed after 33 by a recovery which led directly to the war” (PC Nº90, p29). This explanation is not false in itself, even though one must reject the idea that the war would be less ruinous than the crisis: one only has to look at the state of Europe after the 2nd World War to see that such an affirmation is not serious. By contrast, such an explanation becomes false if one attempts to understand from it alone why the war broke out in 1939 and not at the beginning of the 30s, when the world and particularly Germany and the United States sank into the deepest recession in history.

To show the incredible schematism of the PC’s analysis, it is enough to cite the following passage:

The development of the imperialist economy at a certain moment ‘made’ the war. And while it is true that the military confrontation temporarily resolved the problems posed by the crisis, it is necessary to underline however that the military confrontation did not flow from the recession but from the artificial recovery that followed it. Drugged by the intervention of the state, financed by public debt (military industry for a good part), production recovered; but the immediate consequence was the saturation of an already water-logged world market, reproduction under a more acute form of inter-imperialist confrontation and thus war. At this moment the states threw themselves at each other, they made war because of the threat from bulldozers, combine-harvesters and any other pacific machines that one can imagine...The power to launch the war did not come from the barrel of a gun but from the mass of unsold commodities” (PC Nº91, p37)

Such a vision makes a complete abstraction of the concrete conditions through which the economic crisis ended up in war. For PC things are reduced to the mechanism: recession, ‘drugged’ recession, war. Nothing else. One can already note that this schema could not be applied at all to the 1st World War. But, concerning the second, PC doesn’t rely on the form taken by the drugged recovery in Germany after 1933: that of a colossal rearmament effort by the Nazi regime, nor on the significance of the coming to power of this regime itself. Moreover PC doesn’t examine in the least the significance of the coming to power of the Popular Front in France, for example. Finally the events on the international scene as important as the Italian expedition of 1935 against Abyssinia, the war in Spain in 1936, the war between Japan and China a year later are ignored. In reality, no war can be waged with combine-harvesters. Whatever the pressure exercised by the crisis, war can only break out if the military, diplomatic, political and social conditions have been prepared and are mature. The history of the 30s is precisely that of these preparations. Without going over in detail here what we have already developed in other issues of this Review we can only say that one of the functions of the Nazi regime was to drive the reconstitution of German military potential on a grand scale and “at a rhythm which surprised even the generals[1]. The clauses of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles had previously kept this potential in check. In France too, the Popular Front had been responsible for re-launching the armament effort on a scale unknown since the 1st World War. Moreover, the wars mentioned above took place within the perspective of military and diplomatic preparations for the generalised confrontation. The war in Spain must be mentioned particularly. It was the terrain where the two Axis powers, Italy and Germany, not only tested their weapons for the war to come but also reinforced their alliance in view of the latter. But not only that: the war in Spain perfected the physical and political crushing of the world proletariat after the revolutionary wave which had begun in 1917 in Russia and finished in China in 1927. Between 1936 and 1939 it was not only the proletariat of Spain that was defeated, firstly by the Popular Front, then by Franco. The Spanish war had been one of the essential means by which the bourgeoisie of the democratic countries, particularly in Europe, glued the workers to anti-fascist ideology, which allowed them to be used once more as cannon fodder in the 2nd World War. Thus the acceptance of the imperialist war by the workers of the fascist and Nazi regimes as a result of terror was obtained in the other countries in the name of the ‘defence of democracy’ with the active participation, obviously, of the left parties of capital, the ‘socialists, and ‘communists’.

The mechanical schema that led to the outbreak of the 2nd World War, according to PC, coincides with reality. But one can only understand the latter by looking at the specific conditions of this period and not from this single schema. In particular, as far as both Germany, but also countries like France and Great Britain were concerned (with a certain delay for other countries however) the armament effort was one of the causes of the recovery after the depression of 1929. But that was only possible because the principle capitalist states had considerably reduced their military capacity following the 1st World War because the main preoccupation of the world bourgeoisie was to face up to the revolutionary wave of the proletariat. In addition, bolstered by the experience of the 1st World War the bourgeoisie knew very well that it could only launch the imperialist war with the precondition of a totally submissive proletariat in order to avoid a revolutionary resurgence of the latter during the war.

Thus PC method consists in establishing as a historical law a schema that can only be applied once in history (since we have already seen that did not even apply before the First World War). To be valid in the present period the historical conditions of today would have to be fundamentally the same as those of the 30s. This is far from the case: never have armaments been so developed and the proletariat has not suffered a profound defeat as it did during the 20s. On the contrary since the end of the 60s, it has emerged from the profound counter-revolution, which had weighed on it since the beginning of the 30s.

The consequences of the schematic vision of Programme Communiste

PC’s schematic vision ends up in a particularly dangerous analysis of the present period. It is true that from time to time, in its study, PC seems to discover a slightly more marxist conception of the process that leads to World War. For example:

For such masses of human beings to be sent to the slaughter, the populations must be prepared in time for the war: and for them to stand up to the effects of all-out war, this work of preparation must be followed by a work of constant mobilisation of the energy and consciousness of the nation, of all the nation, in favour of war (...) Without the cohesion of the whole social body, without the solidarity of every class in a war for which their own existence and hopes must be sacrificed, even the troops of the best armies are condemned to disintegrate under the blow of the privations and daily horrors of the conflict” (PC Nº91, p41).

But such completely correct affirmations are in flagrant contradiction with the approach adopted by PC when it tries to predict the years to come. Resting on its schema, recession-drugged recovery-war, PC indulges in studious calculations (which we will spare the reader) to end up with the following conclusion:

We can now refute the thesis of the imminence of the 3rd World War” (PC Nº90, p27). “We can then situate the date of the presumed economic maturity of the conflict around the middle of the first decade of the next millennium (or if one prefers the next century)” (Ibid. p29).

We can note that PC bases such a prediction on the fact that “the process of drugged recovery typical of the war economy, which followed the crisis, has not happened yet, in a situation where the economic situation, which, from one recession to another is still far from exhausting the tendency to depression inaugurated in 74-75” (Ibid).

Now we can obviously show (see all our analyses on the characteristics of the present crisis in this Review) how, for more than a decade, the ‘recoveries’ of the world economy have been perfectly ‘drugged’. But PC says so itself some lines before:

We only want to underline that the world capitalist system has used the same means to prevent the crisis, which it used after the 1929 crash”.

Coherence is not really a strong point of PC and the Bordigists: it is perhaps their conception of the ‘dialectic’, since they flatter themselves with being “experienced in the handling of the dialectic” (PC Nº91, p56) [2].


That being said, beyond the contradictions of PC, it is important to underline the perfectly demobilising character of the predictions with which they amuse themselves with on the date of the next world conflict. Since its foundation the ICC has insisted that once capitalism had exhausted the effects of the reconstruction of the 2nd World War, the historic crisis of the capitalist mode of production broke out once more in the form of open crisis (at the end of 60s, and not in 1974-75 as the Bordigists would like, in order to prove an old ‘prediction’ of Bordiga) the conditions for a new World War were given. It has also demonstrated that the military and diplomatic conditions for such a war were completely mature with the constitution of the two great imperialist blocs around NATO and the Warsaw Pact behind the two principle military powers of the world. The reason why the economic dead-end of world capitalism has not ended up in a new generalised butchery is to be found fundamentally in the fact that the bourgeoisie doesn’t have its hands free on the social terrain. Since the first bites of the crisis the world working class - in France in May 1968, in Italy in the autumn of 1969, and in all the developed countries afterward - raised its head and detached itself from the profound counter-revolution, which it had suffered for four decades. In explaining this, in basing its propaganda on this idea, the ICC (in a very modest way, obviously, corresponding to its actual strength) has helped to re-forge the self-confidence of the working class faced with the bourgeois campaigns, which permanently try to sap this confidence. By contrast, in continuing to propagate the idea that the proletariat was still totally absent from the historical scene (as if it were still ‘midnight in the century’) the Bordigist current made (involuntarily, certainly, but that doesn’t change anything) its small contribution to the bourgeoisie’s campaigns. Worse still, in letting it be thought that, in any case, the material conditions of a 3rd World War were not yet present, it has helped to demobilise the working class against this threat, playing, on a small scale, the role of the reformists on the eve of the 1st World War when they convinced the workers that the war was no longer a threat. Thus it is not only, as we have seen in the first part of this article, in affirming that a 3rd World War would not risk destroying humanity that PC has helped to mask the real stakes of the combat of the working class today, but also in giving credence to the idea that the class struggle has nothing to do with the fact the World War III has not broken out since the 70s.

The collapse of the Eastern Bloc, at the end of the 80s, has momentarily eclipsed the military and diplomatic conditions for a new World War. However, the mistaken vision of PC continues to weaken the political capacities of the proletariat. The disappearance of the blocs has not put an end to military conflicts, far from it. The large and medium powers continue to confront each other in the conflicts of small states and even through ethnic conflicts. The reason why these powers don’t engage more directly on the ground, or why when they do it effectively (like in the Gulf War in 1991) they only send professional soldiers or volunteers, is the fear that to send conscripts, that is workers in uniform, would provoke reactions and a mobilisation of the working class. Thus, at the present time, the fact that the bourgeoisie is not capable of dragging the proletariat behind its war objectives is a factor of first importance limiting the scale of imperialist massacres. And the more the working class develops its struggles, the more the bourgeoisie will be trapped in its disastrous projects. This is what revolutionaries must say to their class to help it become conscious of its real capacities and its responsibilities. Unfortunately, despite its completely valid denunciation of bourgeois lies on imperialist war, and notably of pacifism, this is not done by the Bordigist current, and not by PC in particular.

To conclude this critique of the analyses of PC on the question of imperialist war, we must return to some ‘arguments’ employed by this review when it tries to stigmatise the positions of the ICC. For PC we are “social-pacifists of the extreme left” on the same level as the Trotskyists (PC Nº92, p61). Our position is “emblematic of the impotent rage of the petit-bourgeoisie” (Ibid. p57). And why, may we ask? Because:

If the outbreak of war definitively excludes the revolution, then peace, this bourgeois peace, becomes despite everything an advantage which the proletariat, while it doesn’t have the force to make the revolution, must protect like the apple of its eye. And here is, in the end, the old ‘struggle for peace’ the name of the revolution. Wasn’t he fundamental axis of the propaganda of the ICC at the time of the Gulf War denunciation of the warmongers of all kinds, and the lamentations on the ‘chaos’, the ‘blood’ and the ‘horrors’ of the war? Certainly war is horrible, but bourgeois peace is too and the ‘peace-mongers’ must be denounced as severely as the ‘war-mongers’; as for the growing ‘chaos’ of the bourgeois world, it can only be welcomed by real communists because it only signifies the approach of the time when revolutionary violence must be opposed to bourgeois violence” (Ibid.).

Sincerely the ‘arguments’ of PC are a little poor, and above all, lies. When revolutionaries at the beginning of century, the Luxemburgs and Lenins, at each congress of International Socialism and in their daily propaganda, put workers on guard against the threat of imperialist war, when they denounced the preparations for the latter, they did not do the same thing as the pacifists and it seems to us that PC still identifies with these revolutionaries. Moreover, when, in the course of the war itself, they stigmatised with all their energy the imperialist bestiality of the ‘war-mongers’ and other ‘social chauvinists’ they didn’t add their voice to that of pacifists like Romain Rolland. It is exactly the same struggle of these revolutionaries that the ICC is demanding, and without the least concessions to pacifist propaganda, which they denounce with the same vigour as war propaganda contrary to what PC pretends (they should read our press a bit better). In reality the fact that PC is obliged to lie on what we really say only shows one thing: the lack of consistency of their own analysis.

To close, we would say to these comrades that it is no use to spend all their energy to predict the date of the future World War to end up in a ‘prediction’ for the period to come which comprises no less than four possible scenarios (see PC Nº 92, p57-60). The proletariat, to arm itself politically, expects clear perspectives from revolutionaries. To trace such a perspective it is not sufficient for the latter to content themselves with the “strict repetition of classical positions” as the PCI wants to do (PC Nº92 p31). While marxism can only rest on a strict respect of proletarian principles, notably in relation to imperialist war, as the ICC believes as much as the PCI, it is not a dead theory, incapable to taking account of different historical circumstances in which the working class develops its struggle, whether for the defence of its immediate interests or for communism (the two are part of the same whole). It must be able, as Lenin said, to “analyse concretely a concrete situation”. Any other analysis is no longer marxism, and is either useless or spreads still more confusion in the ranks of the working class. This is unfortunately the ‘marxism’ that the PCI gives us.


[1] History of international relations Book 6, page 142, by Pierre Renouvin (Paris 1972)

[2] In the domain of the incoherence of the PCI, one could also cite the following: “if peace has reigned until now in the imperialist metropoles, it is precisely because of this domination by the USA and the USSR, and if war is inevitable … it is for the simple reason that forty years of ‘ peace’ have matured the forces that tend to put into question this equilibrium, which emerged from the last world conflict” (PC No. 91, page 47). The PCI should make up its mind once and for all. Why has the war not taken place yet? Because, exclusively, the economic conditions are not yet mature as PC tries to show through many pages, or from the fact that its diplomatic preparations are not yet ready? Understand who can.