Preface to the Russian edition of The Decadence of Capitalism

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The publication of the ICC's pamphlet The Decadence of Capitalism is testimony to the re-emergence of revolutionary elements in a country where a once-great proletarian political tradition was buried under the terrible weight of the Stalinist counter-revolution. The ICC is well aware that without this rebirth, the translation of our pamphlet into Russian would not have been possible; we offer it therefore as a contribution to the clarification of communist positions in the debates now going on both within the Russian milieu itself, and between this milieu and the international expressions of authentic communism.

The introduction to the previous editions of this pamphlet already contains a history of the concept of decadence within the marxist movement, showing that from Marx to the Communist International and the left fractions that reacted to the latter's degeneration and demise, this notion was not based on a purely moral or cultural critique of capitalist society, as in the vulgar interpretation of "decadence" as a term of disapproval for various forms of art, fashion, or social mores. On the contrary, the marxist notion of decadence flows ineluctably from the very premises of historical materialism, and provides the granite foundation for demonstrating not only that capitalism has been in historical decline as a mode of production since the early part of the 20th century, but also that this period has also placed the proletarian revolution on the agenda of history. In this preface to the Russian edition we want to concentrate on the enormous contribution that the practical experience of the Russian working class, and the theoretical endeavours of its revolutionary minorities, has made to the concept of capitalist decadence.

We aim to be brief here, and therefore will present this contribution in the form of a chronology. Other documents - to be written perhaps by Russian comrades themselves - can explore this issue in greater depth. But this format will also be useful for highlighting the most important steps of the process through which the Russian section of the workers' movement added to the sum of understanding of the world proletariat as a whole.

1903: The split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party is not merely about how to organise a workers' party under the repressive conditions of Tsarism. In a sense, despite its backwardness, Russia, with its highly concentrated proletariat and its inability to encompass the worker's movement within a legal and democratic framework, anticipates the totalitarian conditions that will face the world working class in the approaching epoch of proletarian revolution, where the working class will no longer be granted the room to maintain permanent mass organisations. Thus when Lenin rejects the Menshevik conception of a 'broad' workers' party and insists on the need for a disciplined party of revolutionary militants committed to a clear programme, he is anticipating the form of party organisation required for an epoch in which the direct struggle for revolution has superseded the fight for reforms within the bourgeois order.

1905: "The present Russian revolution stands at a point of the historical path which is already over the summit, which is on the other side of the culminating point of capitalist society" (Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, The political Party and the Trade Unions). With its mass strikes and its discovery of the soviet form of organisation, the proletariat of Russia announces the approach of the new epoch, in which the old trade unionist methods will have become obsolete. While it is Rosa Luxemburg who most incisively demonstrates the dynamics of the mass strike, the left wing of Russian social democracy also begins to draw out the principal lessons of the 1905 events: Lenin - as opposed to the 'super-Leninists', whose first response to the soviets was to call on them to dissolve into the party - outlines the dialectical relationship between the organisation of the revolutionary minority, the party, and the soviet as a general organ of the whole class capable of forming the basis of a revolutionary dictatorship. Trotsky is even more aware of the importance of the soviet as a form of organisation suited for the mass strike and the struggle for proletarian power. And in his theory of permanent revolution, he inches towards the conclusion that historical evolution has already by-passed the possibility of a bourgeois revolution in backward countries like Russia: henceforward, any real revolution will have to be led by the working class, adopt socialist goals, and extend onto the international arena.

1914-16: Of all the proletarian currents opposed to the world imperialist war, it is the Bolsheviks around Lenin who are the most lucid. Rejecting the arguments of the social chauvinists who use the letter of Marx to kill the spirit, Lenin shows that there is nothing national, democratic, or progressive about this slaughter, and raises the slogan "turn the imperialist war into a civil war". The war, in sum, has opened up a new epoch in which the proletarian revolution is no longer a distant prospect, but has been placed directly onto the agenda of history. In his Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism, he describes imperialist capitalism as a system in decay. At the same time, Bukharin's book Imperialism and World Economy demonstrates that capitalism's plunge into militarism is the result of the creation of a world economy, which has laid down the objective requisites of a higher mode of production but now stands as a blood-soaked obstacle to its realisation. This thesis parallels Rosa Luxemburg's analysis of the historical limitations of the capitalist system, The Accumulation of Capital, which is a fundamental reference point for this pamphlet. Bukharin, like Luxemburg, also recognises that in a world order carved up by the imperialist giants, struggles for 'national liberation' have lost all meaning. Finally, Bukharin's work shows a grasp of the form that this new capitalist world economy will take: a deadly struggle between huge 'state capitalist trusts'. It is an anticipation that the statified form that capital has adopted during the war will be its classic method of organisation throughout its era of decay.

1917: the Russian proletariat again proves the unity of theory and practise by rebelling against the imperialist war, overthrowing Czarism, organising in soviets and moving towards the revolutionary seizure of power. Faced with the Bolshevik 'old guard' who cling to outdated formulae inherited from a previous period, Lenin writes the April Theses, in which he states that the goal of the proletariat in Russia is not some hybrid 'democratic revolution' but the proletarian insurrection as the first step towards the worldwide socialist revolution. Again, the October revolution is the practical verification of the marxist method embodied in the April Theses, which had been decried as ' anarchist' by 'orthodox marxists' who failed to see that a new period had opened up.

1919: the formation in Moscow of the Communist International as a key instrument for the worldwide extension of the proletarian revolution. The platform of the CI is founded on the recognition that "a new epoch is born. The epoch of capitalism's decay, its internal disintegration, the epoch of the proletarian communist revolution" and that consequently the old minimum programme of reforms is out of date, as well as the social democratic methods used to achieve them. From now on the notion of the decadence of capitalism has become a fundamental plank of the communist programme.

1920-27: the failure of the revolution to spread leads to the bureaucratisation of the Russian state and of the Bolshevik party which has mistakenly fused with it. A process of internal counter-revolution has opened up, culminating in the triumph of Stalinism before the end of the decade. But the degeneration of the Bolshevik party, and the CI which it dominates, is resisted by the communist left in countries such as Germany, Italy, and Russia itself. The left denounces the tendency to revert back to old social democratic practises like parliamentarism, or to seek alliances with the former socialist parties which have already passed over to the bourgeois camp. In Russia, for example, Miasnikov's Workers' Group, formed in 1923, is particularly clear in its repudiation of the CI's tactic of the United Front, while simultaneously castigating the proletariat's loss of political control over the 'soviet' state. As Stalin's faction consolidates its victory, the Russian left communists are among the first to realise that Stalinism represents the bourgeois counter-revolution, and that capitalist social relations can persist even in a fully statified economy.

1928-45: The Stalinist terror exterminates or exiles a whole generation of revolutionaries. The political voice of the Russian working class is silenced for decades, and the work of drawing the lessons of this defeat, and of analysing the nature and characteristics of the Stalinist regime, is taken up by the left communists in Europe and America. It is no easy task, and scores have to be settled with many erroneous theories, such as Trotsky's notion of the 'degenerated workers' state', before the essentials are fully grasped: that the Stalinist regime of integral state capitalism, with its totalitarian political apparatus and its economy geared to war, is above all a product of capitalist decadence, since capitalism in this epoch is a system that lives by war, and that relies on the state to prevent its simmering economic and social contradictions from reaching an explosive outcome. Against all the illusions that Stalinist state capitalism represents a way of overcoming these contradictions, or even a progressive development for capital, the communist left points out the terrible social costs of Stalinist industrialisation in the 1930s, showing that it is laying the basis for new and even more destructive imperialist conflicts. The USSR's ravenous participation in the second world carve-up confirms the left's argument that the Stalinist regime has its own imperialist appetites, and thus its refusal of any concessions to the Trotskyist call for the "defence of the USSR against imperialist attack".

1945-89: The Soviet Union becomes the leader of one of the two imperialist blocs whose rivalries dominate the international situation for four decades. But as we show in our theses on the economic and political crisis in the eastern bloc, included as an appendix to this pamphlet, the Stalinist bloc is far less economically developed than its western rival, is weighed down by a vast military sector, and is too rigid in its political and economic structures to adapt to the demands of the world capitalist market. In the late sixties the economic crisis of world capitalism, which had been masked by the period of post-war reconstruction, once again resurfaces, raining continuous blows on the USSR and its satellites. Unable to carry through any economic or political 'reforms' without putting its whole edifice into question, unable to mobilise for war because it cannot rely on the loyalty of its own proletariat (a fact vividly demonstrated by the mass strike in Poland in 1980), the entire Stalinist building implodes under the weight of its contradictions. But contrary to all the lying propaganda about the collapse of Communism, this is the collapse of a particularly weak segment of the capitalist world economy, which as a whole has no way out of its historic crisis.

1989- : the collapse of the Russian bloc leads to the rapid disappearance of the western bloc, which has no 'common enemy' to hold it together. This enormous shift in the world situation marks the entry of decadent capitalism into a new and final phase - the phase of decomposition, whose principal features are elaborated in the theses which are also appended to the present work. Suffice it to say here that the situation of Russia since the break-up of the Soviet Union reveals all the features of this new phase: at the international level, the replacement of the old bipolar imperialist rivalries with a chaotic struggle of each against all, in which Russia continues to defend its imperialist ambitions, albeit less 'exalted' ones than before; internally, in a tendency towards the further break up of the territorial integrity of Russia though nationalist rebellions and murderous wars like the current one in Chechnya; economically, through a total lack of financial stability together with soaring inflation and unemployment; socially through an accelerating decay of the infrastructure, spiralling pollution, growing levels of mental illness and drug addiction, and the proliferation of criminal gangs at every level, including the highest rungs of the state.

This process of inner disintegration is such that many in Russia already grow nostalgic for the 'good old days' of Stalinism. But there can be no going back: capitalism in all countries is a system in mortal crisis, which is starkly posing mankind with the choice between a plunge into barbarism or the communist world revolution. The reappearance of revolutionary elements in Russia today is clear evidence that the second alternative has not been buried by the relentless advance of the first.

We have tried to show in this preface that the concept of capitalist decadence is by no means 'foreign' to the authentic workers' movement in Russia; like the notion of communism itself, it is now the task of the new generation of revolutionaries in Russia to rescue the theory from its Stalinist kidnappers and thus to help return it to the working class in Russia and the rest of the world.

International Communist Current, February 2001

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