2 - The theory of decadence at the heart of historical materialism, part ii

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Battaglia Comunista abandons the marxist concept of decadence, part i

In the previous issue of the International Review (n°118), we recalled at length, and with the support of passages from their major writings, how Marx and Engels defined the notions of the ascendance and decadence of a mode of production. We saw that the notion of decadence lies at the very heart of historical materialism in the analysis of the succession of different modes of production. In a forthcoming article, we will also demonstrate that this concept was central to the political programmes of the 2nd and 3rd Internationals, and of the marxist left that emerged from them, in which the groups of the Communist Left today have their origins.

We have begun the publication of a new series of articles,[1] on “The theory of decadence at the heart of historical materialism”, in response both to perfectly legitimate questions on the subject and, above all, the confusions which are being put about by those who have given in to the pressure of bourgeois ideology and abandoned this basic tenet of marxism. The article published by Battaglia Comunista and blushingly titled “For a definition of the concept of decadence”[2] is a prime example. We have already had the occasion to criticise some of its main ideas.[3] However, the publicity given to this article, its translation into three languages, the fact that it has opened a discussion within the IBRP on the question of decadence, and the introduction that the CWO has published in its own review,[4] prompt us to return to the subject and to respond more thoroughly to it.

According to Battaglia, two reasons make it necessary to “define the notion of decadence”:

· firstly, to remove certain ambiguities in the currently accepted definition of capitalism's decadence, the most serious of these being a view of the disappearance of capitalism as something “economically ineluctable and socially predetermined” (Revolutionary Perspectives n°32), in other words a “fatalist” view of capitalism’s death;

· secondly, to establish the idea that, as long as the proletariat has not overthrown capitalism, “the economic system reproduces itself, posing, once more and at a higher level, all of its contradictions, without creating in this way the conditions for its own self-destruction” (ibid). The idea of decadence thus supposedly “makes no sense if it is used to refer to the mode of production’s capacity for survival” (Internationalist Communist n°21).

We challenge the idea that marxism contains the slightest ambiguity which might lead one to a fatalist vision of capitalism's death, and thence to the idea that, under the pressure of ever more overwhelming contradictions, the system would simply retire from the historical stage. For marxism, on the contrary, in the absence of a “revolutionary reconstitution of society at large” the outcome could only be “the common ruin of the contending classes” (Communist Manifesto), in other words the disappearance of society itself. As we intend to demonstrate, the only ambiguity exists in the ideas of Battaglia Comunista. We should point out that Battaglia involuntarily acts as spokesman for all the bourgeois ideologues who claim that marxism is “fatalist”, and who emphasise the role of “human will” in the unfolding of history. Battaglia does not, of course, call marxism into question. On the contrary, in the name of marxism (or at least, of its own version of marxism), it sets out to refute as “fatalist” a conception which, in reality, as we saw in the previous article, lies at marxism's very heart.

As for the second reason that Battaglia gives for defining the notion of decadence, this is completely contrary to marxism, for which capitalism “demonstrates again that it is becoming senile and that it is more and more outlived”,[5] it becomes a “regressive social system”,[6]it checks the development of productivity”.[7]

Its methodological errors lead Battaglia into the worst kind of aberration: “Even in the progressive phase (...) crises and wars arrived punctually, just like the attacks on the conditions of labour-power”.[8] Battaglia thus ends up adopting the old bourgeois banalities, which minimise the qualitative extensions of these scourges during the barbaric 20th century, on the grounds that war and poverty have always existed. In so doing, Battaglia ends up pretending that the main expressions of capitalism's decadence simply do not exist.

According to Battaglia then, there are not two fundamental phases in the evolution of the capitalist mode of production, but successive periods of ascendancy and decadence which follow the major phases of the evolution of the rate of profit.

Using this approach, the wars of the decadent period – which are one of the expressions of the system's mortal crisis, and which are a growing threat to humanity's survival – take on the role of “the regulation of relations between the sections of international capital” (ibid.). This inability to understand reality is a major factor in a serious under-estimation of the gravity of the world situation. The IBRP is thus increasingly at odds with reality, which can only compromise its ability to understand the world, whose analysis is a part of its intervention in the working class. It diminishes the impact of this intervention by basing it on lame and unconvincing arguments.

Did Marx and Engels have a fatalist vision of capitalism's decadence?

Battaglia begins its article with the claim that the concept of decadence contains ambiguities and that the first of these lies in a fatalist view of the end of capitalism: “The ambiguity lies in the fact that decadence, or the progressive decline of the capitalist mode of production, proceeds from a kind of ineluctable process of self-destruction whose causes are traceable to the essential aspect of its own being (...) the disappearance and destruction of the capitalist economic form is an historically given event, economically ineluctable and socially predetermined. This, as well as being an infantile and idealistic approach, ends up by having negative repercussions politically, creating the hypothesis that, to see the death of capitalism, it is sufficient to sit on the banks of the river, or, at most, in crisis situations (and only then), it is enough to create the subjective instruments of the class struggle as the last impulse to a process which is otherwise irreversible. Nothing is more false” (ibid.). Let us say straight away that this ambiguity exists only in Battaglia's head. Marx and Engels, who were the first to develop this notion of decadence and to put it to extensive use, were in no way fatalists. For the founders of marxism, there is no ineluctable and automatic mechanism behind the succession of modes of production; socio-economic contradictions are settled by the class struggle, which constitutes the motive force of history. To paraphrase Marx, men make their own history, but within predetermined historical conditions: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” (The 18[th] Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, 1852, Chapter 1).[9] As Rosa Luxemburg put it: “Scientific socialism has taught us to comprehend the objective laws of historical development. Men do not make history according to their own free will. But they make history nonetheless. Proletarian action is dependent upon the degree of maturity in social development. However, social development is not independent of the proletariat but is equally its driving force and cause, its effect and consequence. Proletarian action participates in history. And while we can as little skip a stage of historical development as escape our shadow, we can certainly accelerate or retard history” (The Junius pamphlet, 1915, Chapter 1).[10]

An old ruling class never abdicates power, it defends it to the limit by force of arms. The notion of decadence thus contains no ambiguity as to the possibility of an “ineluctable process of self-destruction”. However much an old mode of production may have disintegrated on the economic, social, and political levels, if no new social force has emerged from within the old society, or if it has been unable to develop sufficient strength to overthrow the old ruling class, then there can be no death of the existing society, or construction of the new. The power of the ruling class and its attachment to its privileges are significant factors in the survival of a social form. The decadence of a mode of production creates the possibility and the necessity of its overthrow, but not the automatic emergence of the new society.

There is therefore no “fatalist ambiguity” in the marxist analysis of the succession of modes of production, as Battaglia leaves us to understand. Marx even points out that, if the outcome of the class struggle is not settled by the victory of a new class, bringing with it new relations of production, then the period of a mode of production's decadence can mutate into a period of generalised decomposition. This historical possibility is developed at the very outset of the Communist Manifesto, where Marx, after declaring that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”,[11] continues with an “either... or” to illustrate the two possible alternative outcomes to class contradictions: “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes”. There are many historical examples of civilisations which have undergone such a stalemate in the class struggle, condemning them to “the common ruin of the contending classes”, and therefore to stagnation, collapse, or even a return to previous stages of development.

Battaglia's anathemas, according to which the concepts of decadence and decomposition are “foreign to the method and arsenal of political economy” (Internationalist Communist n°21), are thus nothing short of ridiculous. The militants of this organisation would do better to return to their classics, beginning with the Manifesto and Capital where the two notions have an important place (see International Review n°118). Some groups or individuals may have developed incomprehensions or opportunist deviations around the notion of decadence – and the “fatalist” vision is certainly one of them. This is another question. But the method which consists of discrediting the notion of decadence by attributing to it the errors which others have committed in its name is the same as that used by the anarchists to discredit the notions of the party or the dictatorship of the proletariat on the basis of the crimes of Stalinism. Another question is the frequent impatience, or the optimism, of many revolutionaries, Marx amongst them. How many times has capitalism not been prematurely buried in the texts of the workers' movement! This was the case notably for the Communist International and its affiliated parties, including the Italian Communist Party (whether the Bordigists like it or not): “Capitalism's crisis is still open, and will inevitably deepen until capitalism dies” (Lyon Theses, 1926).[12] This understandable and minor sin, which should nonetheless be avoided as much as possible, is only a danger if revolutionaries prove unable to recognise their mistakes when the balance of forces between the classes is reversed.

A conception of historical materialism completely opposed to marxism

In its struggle against the “fatalism” which is supposedly intrinsic to the marxist idea of decadence, Battaglia unveils its own vision of historical materialism: “The contradictory aspect of capitalist production, the crises which are derived from this, the repetition of the process of accumulation which is momentarily interrupted but which receives new blood through the destruction of excess capital and means of production, do not automatically lead to its destruction. Either the subjective factor intervenes, which has in the class struggle its material fulcrum and in the crises its economically determinant premise, or the economic system reproduces itself, posing, once more and at a higher level, all of its contradictions, without creating in this way the conditions for its own self-destruction”. For Battaglia then, as long at has not been destroyed by the class struggle, capitalism continues to “receive new blood through the destruction of excess capital and means of production”, and so “the economic system reproduces itself, posing, once more and at a higher level, all of its contradictions”. Battaglia here is at the antipodes of Marx's view of the decadence of a mode of production, and of capitalism in particular: “Beyond a certain point, the development of the productive force becomes a barrier for capital; in other words, the capitalist system becomes an obstacle for the expansion of the productive forces of labour”.[13] In his second draft of a letter to Vera Zassoulitch, Marx considered that “the capitalist system is past its prime in the West, approaching the time when it will be no more than a regressive social regime” (cited in Shanin, Late Marx and the Russian Road, RKP, p103), and in Capital he tells us that capitalism “is becoming senile and that it is more and more outlived” (see above). The terms that Marx uses to describe the decadence of capitalism are unambiguous: “senile”, “regressive social regime”, “an obstacle for the expansion of the productive forces of labour”, etc. And yet Battaglia can still say that “decadence (...) is meaningless when we refer to the ability of a mode of production to survive” (Internationalist Communist n°21).

These few reminders of the marxist definition of decadence will let the reader judge for himself the difference between the historical and materialist vision of capitalism's decadence developed by Marx, and Battaglia's own special viewpoint where, while capitalism certainly undergoes crises and growing contradictions,[14] it is continually renewed (unless the class struggle intervenes), “receives new blood”, and “reproduces itself, posing, once more and at a higher level, all of its contradictions”. It is true that Battaglia has the excuse of not knowing that Marx wrote about decadence – “To the extent that the word itself never appears in the three volumes constituting Capital” (Internationalist Communist n°21, p23) – and that Marx only mentions the idea of decadence once in his entire work: “Marx limited himself to giving a definition of capitalism as progressive only in the historical phase in which it eliminated the economic world of feudalism, proposing itself as a powerful means of development of the productive forces inhibited by the preceding economic form, but he never went beyond this in the definition of decadence except for the famous introduction to A contribution to the critique of political economy”.[15] In our opinion, rather than pronouncing grandiloquent excommunications aimed at the notions of decadence and decomposition, supposedly foreign to marxism, Battaglia would do better to consider what Marx had to say about Weitling: “Ignorance is not an argument”. Then they might go back to their classics, and in particular to Capital, which they apparently consider as their bible.[16] For our part, we refer the reader to the description of Marx's concept of decadence in International Review n°118.

Marxist method reduced to the study of specific economic mechanisms

The process of decadence as Marx defines it goes far beyond a mere “coherent economic explanation”: it corresponds, first and foremost, to the historical obsolescence of the social relations of production (wage labour, serfdom, slavery, tribalism, etc.) at the basis of different modes of production (capitalism, feudalism, slave-owning societies, the Asiatic mode of production, etc.). The entry into a period of decadence means that the very foundations of a mode of production are in crisis. The secret, the hidden foundation of a mode of production, is “The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of direct producers”. “Upon this (...) is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up out of the production relations themselves”, and it is this that “reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure”.[17] Marx could not be more explicit: “The essential difference between the various economic forms of society, between, for instance, a society based on slave-labour, and one based on wage-labour, lies only in the mode in which this surplus-labour is in each case extracted from the actual producer, the labourer”.[18] The social relations of production are thus much more than mere “economic mechanisms”: they are above all social relations between classes since they give material form to the different forms historically taken by the extortion of surplus labour (wages, slavery, serfdom, tribute, etc.). When a mode of production enters into decadence, it means that these specific relations between classes are in crisis, have become historically inappropriate. This is the very heart of historical materialism, in a world quite unknown to Battaglia, obsessed as they are with their “coherent economic explanation”.

As Battaglia puts it, “Nor is the evolutionary theory valid, according to which capitalism is historically characterised by a progressive phase and a decadent one, if no coherent economic explanation is given (...) The investigation of decadence either individuates these mechanisms which regulate the deceleration of the valorisation process of capital, with all the consequences which that brings with it, or it remains within a false perspective, which prophesises in vain (...) But the listing of these economic and social phenomena, once they have been identified and described, cannot, by itself, be considered as a demonstration of the decadent phase of capitalism. These are only the symptoms, and the primary cause which brings them into existence is to be identified in the law of the profit crisis” (Revolutionary Perspectives n°32, our emphasis). On the one hand, the implication here is that there exists today no coherent economic explanation of decadence, while on the other Battaglia decrees peremptorily that those phenomena which, classically, have been used to characterise the decadence of a mode of production, are irrelevant.

Before we consider a particular economic explanation, we should point out that the notion of decadence means that the social relations of production have become too narrow to contain the continued development of the productive forces, and that this collision between the social relations of production and the productive forces affects every aspect of society. The marxist analysis of decadence does not refer to a quantitative economic level of any kind, determined outside the social and political mechanisms of a given social form. On the contrary, it refers to the qualitative level of the relation that ties the relations of production themselves to the development of the productive forces: “At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or - this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms - with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto (...) Then begins an era of social revolution”.[19] The era of the old society's decadence opens, not with the blockage of the development of the productive forces, but with the definitive and irreparable “conflict”. Marx is precise as to the criteria: “From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters”. To be rigorous, we should take this to mean that a society never expires until the development of the productive forces has begun to be definitively hindered by the existing relations of production. Decadence can be defined as a series of dysfunctions, whose effects accumulate from the moment that the system has exhausted its capacity for development. From the marxist viewpoint, the period of a society's decadence is characterised, not by a complete and permanent halt in the growth of the productive forces, but by quantitative and qualitative upheavals caused by this constant conflict between obsolete relations of production and the development of the productive forces.

Whenever Marx tries to determine the criteria for capitalism's entry into its decadent period, he never gives any precise economic explanation, but only at most this or that general criterion in coherence with his analysis of crises; he proceeds more by historical comparisons and analogies (see our article in the previous issue of this Review). It may not make Battaglia happy, but Marx did not need the national statistics or the economic reconstructions of profitability that Battaglia uses[20] to pronounce on capitalism's maturity or obsolescence. The same is true for the other modes of production; Marx and Engels used very little in the way of precise economic mechanisms to explain their entry into decadence. They characterised these historical turning points on the basis of unequivocal qualitative criteria: the appearance of an overall process hindering the development of the productive forces, a qualitative development of conflicts within the ruling class, and between the ruling class and the exploited classes, the hypertrophy of the state apparatus, the emergence of a new revolutionary class bearing new social relations of production and driving a period of transition that heralded revolutionary upheavals, etc. (see our article in the previous issue).

This was also the method adopted by the Communist International, which did not need to wait for the discovery of all the components of a “coherent economic explanation” to identify the opening of the period of capitalism's decadence with the outbreak of World War I.[21] The war, and a whole series of other qualitative criteria on other levels (social, economic, and political), allowed the CI to see that capitalism had completed its historical mission. The whole communist movement agreed on this general diagnosis, even though there were major disagreements as to its economic causes and its political implications. The economic explanations varied between those put forward by Rosa Luxemburg on the basis of the saturation of world markets,[22] and Lenin's explanation on the basis of his arguments developed in Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism.[23] And yet all, Lenin first amongst them, were convinced that the “epoch of the progressive bourgeoisie” had ended, and that the world had entered “the epoch of the reactionary obsolete bourgeoisie”.[24] Indeed the differences were such in the analyses of the economic causes of decadence that Lenin, although profoundly convinced of the fact, nonetheless defended the idea that “On the whole, capitalism is growing far more rapidly than before”.[25] Trotsky, working from the same theoretical basis as Lenin, concluded shortly afterwards that the development of the productive forces had come to a halt, while the Italian Left considered that “The 1914-18 war marked the extreme point in the phase of expansion of the capitalist regime (...) In the ultimate phase of capitalism, that of its decline, historical evolution will be settled fundamentally by the class struggle” (Manifesto of the “Bureau international des Fractions de la Gauche communiste”, Octobre n°3, April 1938).

It might seem illogical to identify the decadence of a mode of production on the basis of its expressions, and not on the basis of a study of its economic foundations, as Battaglia would like, since the former are no more “in the last instance” than a product of the latter. This is, however, the way in which revolutionaries – including Marx and Engels – have worked in the past, not because it is generally easier to recognise the superstructural expressions of a phase of decadence, but because this is where the first expressions appear historically. Before it appears on the quantitative economic level as a hindrance to the development of the productive forces, the decadence of capitalism appears above all as a qualitative phenomenon on the social, political, and ideological levels, through the aggravation of conflicts in the ruling class leading to the First World War; through the betrayal of the Social-Democracy, and the unions' passage into the capitalist camp; through the eruption of a proletariat capable of overthrowing bourgeois rule and establishing the first measures of working class social control. On the basis of these characteristics, revolutionaries at the beginning of the 20th century identified capitalism's entry into decadence. Nor did Marx wait for the “coherent economic explanations” contained in Capital to pass sentence on the historically obsolete nature of capitalism in the Communist Manifesto: “The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered (...) The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them (...) Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society”.

Battaglia thus refuses to define the decadence of a mode of production according to the method adopted by our predecessors, starting with Marx and Engels. Apparently under the impression that they are more marxist than Marx, they think that they can set up as materialists by endlessly repeating that the concept of decadence must be economically defined if it is not to be rendered null and void. In doing so, Battaglia demonstrates that its materialism is of the most vulgar kind, as Engels would have told them, in the same vein as he wrote, in a letter to J Bloch: “According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure - political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas - also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (...), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary (...) Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree (...) Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis-à-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction (...) Unfortunately, however, it happens only too often that people think they have fully understood a new theory and can apply it without more ado from the moment they have assimilated its main principles, and even those not always correctly”.[26] Whether it be in defining decadence, explaining the causes of wars, analysing the balance of class forces or the present evolution of the capitalist economy, vulgar materialism is Battaglia's trademark.[27] And let it be said in passing, that Battaglia's plea for a “coherent economic explanation” of capitalism's decadence hardly does justice to all those revolutionaries who have already proposed one, from Rosa Luxemburg, to the Italian Fraction,[28] to the ICC, and even to the CWO whose first pamphlet is titled The economic foundations of decadence! It is characteristic of marxism to take as a starting-point the previous theoretical gains of the workers' movement, to deepen them, or to criticise them and propose alternatives... But marxist method is not Battaglia's strong suit: thinking that revolutionary coherence starts with themselves, they prefer to reinvent everything from scratch.

Battaglia rejects the major expressions of decadence

After casting doubt on the value of the (supposedly “fatalist”) concept of decadence, after peremptorily declaring that there is no coherent economic explanation of decadence, and that without it the concept is worthless, and after redefining the marxist method, Battaglia goes on to reject its main expressions: “it is absolutely insufficient to refer to the fact that, in the decadent phase, economic crises and war, like the attacks on the world of labour-power, occur with a constant and devastating rhythm. Even in the progressive phase (...) crises and wars arrived punctually, just like the attacks on the conditions of labour-power. An explicit example of this is given by the wars between the great colonial powers at the end of the 18th century and over the whole of the 19th century, up to the outbreak of the First World War. The example could be extended by listing the social attacks and the frequent military attacks on class revolts and insurrections, which played themselves out in the same period” (Revolutionary Perspectives, n°32). In other words, all the wars and crises since the beginning of the 20th century don't mean anything – they've always existed!

With incredible carelessness as to both marxism and plain historical reality, Battaglia simply throws overboard all the theoretical gains of the past workers' movement. What does Battaglia tell us? That wars and social struggles have always existed – which is blindingly obvious – but what conclusion do they draw from this? That there is consequently no qualitative break in the history of capitalism – and that is just plain blind!

When they deny any qualitative break in the development of a mode of production, Battaglia rejects Marx's and Engels' analysis, dividing the existence of each mode of production into two qualitatively different phases. For anyone who knows how to read, the language used by Marx and Engels demonstrates without the slightest ambiguity that there are two distinct historic periods within a mode of production: "dependent upon the degree of maturity in social development", "At a certain stage of their development", "the capitalist system is past its prime in the West, approaching the time when it will be no more than a regressive social regime", capitalism “demonstrates again that it is becoming senile and that it is more and more outlived”, etc. In the first article in this series, we have also seen that Marx and Engels identified a decadent phase for each mode of production that they defined (primitive communism, the Asiatic mode of production, slavery, feudalism and capitalism), and that they considered this phase as qualitatively different from the one that preceded it. In an article on the feudal mode of production, entitled “The decadence of feudalism and the rise of the bourgeoisie”, Engels demonstrates the power of historical materialism by defining feudal decadence through its major expressions: stagnating productive forces, a hypertrophied (monarchical) state, the qualitative development of conflicts within the ruling class, and between the ruling class and the exploited classes, the emergence of a transition between the old and the new social relations of production, etc. The same is true for Marx's definition of capitalism's decadence, that is to say a period where “The growing discordance between the productive development of society and the relations of production hitherto characteristic of it, is expressed in acute contradictions, crises, convulsions”,[29] and he considers these conflicts, crises, and convulsions as qualitatively different from the preceding period, since he uses terms such as “regressive social regime", “becoming senile”, etc.

Only a minimum of historical knowledge is necessary to understand the absurdity of Battaglia's assertion that there is no qualitative break between ascendancy and decadence, expressed in their crises, wars, and social struggles.

1 – Throughout capitalism's ascendant phase, its economic crises certainly grew in both depth and extent. But you have to have Battaglia's nerve (or ignorance) to believe that the enormous crisis of the 1930s can be seen as merely in a continuum with the crises of the 19th century! To start with, Battaglia simply forgets the way that the revolutionaries of the time analysed the relative diminution of the crises of the last twenty years (1894-1914) of capitalism's ascendant period (which encouraged the growth of reformism): According to the Communist International, “The two decades preceding the [First World] War were the epoch of an exceptionally powerful capitalist ascension. The periods of prosperity were marked by their intensity and long duration, the periods of depression, of crisis, were marked by their brevity”;[30] this hardly coincides with Battaglia's “theory” of the continuous aggravation of economic crises. Moreover, a truly remarkable dose of bad faith is needed to avoid seeing that the crisis of the 1930s is out of all proportion compared to those of the 19th century, both in terms of its duration (some ten years), its depth (halving of industrial production), and its extent (more international than ever). More fundamentally, whereas the crises during capitalism's ascendancy were resolved through increased production and an extension of the world market, the crisis of the 1930s was never overcome, and ended only with World War II. Battaglia confuses here the heartbeats of a growing organism, and the death rattles of one in its last agony. As for the present crisis, it has lasted for thirty years, and the worst is still to come.

2 – As far as social conflicts are concerned, it is certainly true that the whole ascendant period witnessed increasing tensions between the classes, culminating in general political strikes (for universal suffrage and the eight-hour day) and in the mass strike of 1905 in Russia. But one would have to be blind not to see that the revolutionary movements between 1917 and 1923 are of a different order altogether. These are no longer local or national movements, or even insurrections, but a six-year international wave whose duration has nothing in common with the movements of the 19th century. There is also a vital qualitative difference: these movements were not, for the most part, economic but directly revolutionary, posing the problem, not of reform, but of the seizure of power.

3 – Finally, as far as war is concerned, the contrast is still more striking. During the 19th century, the function of war was to assure each capitalist nation the unity (wars of national unification) and/or the territorial expansion (colonial wars) necessary to its development. In this sense, despite the disasters that it brought in its wake, war was a moment in capitalism's progressive advance; its cost was simply a necessary expense in the widening of the market and therefore of production. This is why Marx considered certain wars to be progressive. The wars of this period were generally: a) limited to two or three contiguous countries; b) of short duration; c) caused little damage; d) fought between standing armies which mobilised only a small part of the economy or of the population; e) undertaken for rational prospects of economic gain. For both victors and vanquished, they determined a new economic expansion. The Franco-Prussian war (1870) is a typical example: it was a decisive step in the formation of the German nation, in other words it laid the foundations for a formidable expansion of the productive forces and formation of the largest sector of Europe's industrial proletariat. Moreover, the war lasted less than a year and caused relatively few casualties, nor did it constitute a serious handicap for the defeated country. During the ascendant period, wars are essentially the product of an expanding system: a) 1790-1815, wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic empire (which contributed to the overthrow of feudal power throughout Europe); b) 1850-1873, Crimean War, the American Civil War, wars for national unification (Germany, Italy), Mexican and Franco-Prussian wars; c) 1895-1913 Spanish-American, Russo-Japanese, and Balkan wars. By 1914, there had been no major war for a century. Most of the wars between the great powers had been relatively short, lasting months or even weeks (war between Prussia and Austria in 1866). Between 1871 and 1914, no European power had been invaded. There had never been a world war. Between 1815 and 1914, no war between the great powers had been fought outside their neighbouring region. All this changed in 1914, which inaugurated an age of slaughter.[31]

In the period of decadence, by contrast, wars are the product of a system whose dynamic leads only to a dead-end. In a period where there can no longer be any question of the formation of truly independent nation-states, all wars are imperialist. The wars between the great powers: a) tend to become world wars because their roots lie in the contraction of the world market relative to the requirements of capital accumulation; b) their duration is far longer; c) they are immensely destructive; d) they mobilise the entire world economy, and the whole population of the belligerent countries; e) from the viewpoint of global capital, they lose any progressive economic function and become wholly irrational. They are no longer elements in the development of the productive forces, but of their destruction. They are no longer moments in the expansion of the mode or production, they are the convulsions of a dying system. In the past, wars ended with a clear winner and the outcome of the war did not prejudice the future development of the protagonists, whereas in the two world wars, both victors and vanquished emerged exhausted from the war, to the profit of a third gangster, the United States. The victors were unable to force the vanquished to pay war reparations (contrary to the huge ransom in gold paid by France to Prussia after 1870). This shows how, in the period of decadence, the expansion of one power can only be on the ruins of others. Previously, military power guaranteed the conquest of economic positions. Today, the economy is increasingly at the service of military strategy. The division of the world into rival imperialisms, and the resulting military conflicts between them, have become permanent aspects of capitalism's existence. This was the analysis of our predecessors of the Italian Left: “Since the opening of the imperialist phase of capitalism at the beginning of the century, evolution oscillates between imperialist war and proletarian revolution. In the epoch of capitalist growth, wars opened the way for the expansion of the productive forces through the destruction of outmoded relations of production. In the phase of capitalist decadence, wars have no other function than the destruction of excess wealth...” (“Resolution on the formation of the International Bureau of the Fractions of the Communist Left”, in Octobre n°1, February 1938, p5). Battaglia today rejects this analysis, and yet still claims to be the heir of the Italian Left.

All this is contained in the analyses of the revolutionaries of the previous century,[32] and Battaglia only makes itself ridiculous in trying to ignore our predecessors with a sarcastic question: “And when, according to this mode of posing the question, did the transition from the progressive to the decadent phase occur? At the end of the 19th century? After the First World War? After the Second?”. They know – or they should know – perfectly well that for the whole communist movement, including for their fellow founder of the IBRP, the Communist Workers Organisation, World War I signs capitalism's entry into decadence: “At the time of the formation of the Comintern in 1919, it appeared that the epoch of revolution had been reached and its founding conference declared this”.[33]

In this article, we have tried to show that there is nothing fatalist about the marxist vision of capitalism's decadence, and that the history of capitalism is not an endless repetition of cycles. In the next article, we will continue our critique of Battaglia, above all to point out the implications of abandoning the notion of decadence on the level of the proletariat's political struggle.



[1]See also the previous series “Understanding decadence”, published in International Review n°48-50, 54-56, 58, 60.

[2]Published in Italian in Prometeo n°8, Series VI (December 2003), and in English in Revolutionary Perspectives n°32, third series, summer 2004. A French version is available on the IBRP web site. Other references to the theory of decadence can be found in the article “Comments on the latest crisis of the ICC”, in Internationalist Communist n°21.

[3]See International Review n°111, 115, and especially n°118.

[4]The Communist Workers Organisation was a co-founder, with Battaglia Comunista, of the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party (IBRP). In its introduction to the article from Prometeo, the CWO writes: “We are publishing below a text from one of the comrades of Battaglia Comunista which is a contribution to the debate on capitalist decadence. The notion of decadence is a part of Marx's analysis of modes of production. The clearest expression of this is given in the famous preface to A critique of political economy in which Marx states: “At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production or – what is but a legal expression of the same thing – with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution”. At the time of the formation of the Comintern in 1919, it appeared that the epoch of revolution had been reached and its founding conference declared this. 85 years later this at least appears questionable. Within the 20th century capitalist property relations have, despite the unprecedented destruction and suffering caused by two world wars, enabled the productive forces to develop to levels never previously seen, and have brought hundreds and hundreds of millions of new workers into the ranks of the proletariat. Can it be argued that under these circumstances these relations are a fetter to the productive forces in the general sense outlined by Marx? The CWO has previously argued that it was not the absence of growth of the productive forces, but the overheads associated with such growth which needed to be considered, when assessing decadence. Such an argument, while recognising massive growth of the productive forces, opens the door to a subjective assessment of the overheads which have allowed such growth to occur. The text below argues for a scientific approach to the question namely an economic definition of decadence. We hope to publish further texts on this issue in future” (Revolutionary Perspectives n°32, our emphasis). We will return later in this series to the arguments that the CWO puts forward to challenge the notion of decadence as defined by Marx: the dynamic of the development of the productive forces, the numerical growth of the working class, and the significance of the two world wars. For now, the publication of this introduction is enough to give our readers an idea of the evolution of the thinking of the CWO, which in the past has always made the marxist definition of decadence one of the central planks in its platform. Indeed, the CWO's first pamphlet was entitled The economic foundations of capitalist decadence. Are we to understand today that the economic foundations of this pamphlet were not scientific?

[5]Marx, Capital, Vol. III, Part III, Chapter 15, “Exposition of the internal contradictions of the law”

[6]Marx, letter to Vera Zassoulitch, 1881

[7]Capital, op. cit.

[8]Revolutionary Perspectives n°32, op. cit.

[12] These Theses were published in Paris by the “Imprimerie spéciale de la Librairie du Travail” under the title Plate-forme de la Gauche. Another French translation is available from Editions Programme Communiste: “The crisis of capitalism remains open and its continued aggravation is inevitable”, published in the anthology n°7 of texts of the Parti Communiste International entitled Défense de la continuité du programme communiste.

[13] Grundrisse, La Pléiade – Economie, tome II, p272-273 (our translation from the French).

[14] We should point out to the reader, that not even Battaglia is sure of this! Apparently, they are not even certain that capitalism suffers from growing crises and contradictions: “The shortening of the upswing phase of accumulation might also be considered an aspect of ‘decadence’, but the experience of the last cycle shows that the shortening of the ascendant phase does not necessarily entail the acceleration of the total cycle of accumulation, crisis/war, new accumulation” (Internationalist Communist n°21).

[15] Revolutionary Perspectives n°32

[16] In Internationalist Communist n°21, the IBRP said that it was “distributing an international document/manifesto (…) [which] besides being an urgent call for the international party, this aims to be a serious invitation to all those claiming to be the class vanguard”. If the IBRP really want to be taken seriously, then they might start by understanding the foundations of historical materialism and conducting polemics on the basis of real political arguments, instead of talking to themselves and launching anathemas whose origin lies in an access of typically Bordigist megalomania of imagining themselves the only guardians of marxist truth and the world's only pole of revolutionary regroupment.

[17] Capital, vol III, part VI

[18]Capital, vol I, Part III

[20]In simple terms, the concept of decadence solely concerns the progressive difficulties in the valorisation process of capital (...) The ever-growing difficulties in the valorisation process of capital have as their presupposition the tendential fall in the average rate of profit (...) Even at the end of the 60s, according to statistics released by international economic organisations like the IMF, the World Bank and even the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and present in the research of economists of the Marxist area like Ochoa and Mosley, profit rates in the USA were 35% lower than they were in the 50s...” (Revolutionary Perspectives n°32).

[21]The Period of Capitalist Decline: On the basis of its assessment of the world economic situation the Third Congress was able to declare with complete certainty that capitalism had fulfilled its mission of developing the productive forces and had reached a stage of irreconcilable contradiction with the requirements not only of modern historical development, but also of the most elementary conditions of human existence. This fundamental contradiction was reflected in the recent imperialist war, and further sharpened by the great damage the war inflicted on the conditions of production and distribution. Obsolete capitalism has reached the stage where the destruction that results from its unbridled power is crippling and ruining the economic achievements that have been built up by the proletariat, despite the fetters of capitalist slavery (...) What capitalism is passing through today is nothing other than its death throes” (Fourth Congress of the Communist International, Theses on Comintern Tactics, 5 December 1922).

[22]“The historic decline of capitalism begins when there is a relative saturation of pre-capitalist markets, since capitalism is the first mode of production which is unable to exist by itself, which needs other economic systems to serve it as a mediation and breeding ground. Although it tends to become universal, and therefore because of this tendency, it must be overthrown, because it is by essence incapable of becoming a universal form of production” (Luxemburg, The accumulation of capital).

[23]From all that has been said in this book on the economic essence of imperialism, it follows that we must define it as capitalism in transition, or, more precisely, as moribund capitalism (...) It is precisely the parasitism and decay of capitalism, characteristic of its highest historical stage of development, i.e., imperialism (...) Imperialism is the eve of the social revolution of the proletariat. This has been confirmed since 1917 on a world-wide scale” (Chapter X and Preface to the French and German editions)

[24]The Russian social-chauvinists (headed by Plekhanov), refer to Marx’s tactics in the war of 1870; the German (of the type of Lensch, David and Co.) to Engels’ statement in 1891 that in the event of war against Russia and France together, it would be the duty of the German Socialists to defend their fatherland (...) All these references are outrageous distortions of the views of Marx and Engels in the interest of the bourgeoisie and the opportunists (...) Whoever refers today to Marx’s attitude towards the wars of the epoch of the progressive bourgeoisie and forgets Marx’s statement that “the workers have no fatherland”, a statement that applies precisely to the epoch of the reactionary, obsolete bourgeoisie, to the epoch of the socialist revolution. shamelessly distorts Marx and substitute, the bourgeois for the socialist point of view” (Socialism and war, Chapter 1).

[25]It would be a mistake to believe that this tendency to decay precludes the rapid growth of capitalism. It does not. In the epoch of imperialism, certain branches of industry, certain strata of the bourgeoisie and certain countries betray, to a greater or lesser degree, now one and now another of these tendencies. On the whole, capitalism is growing far more rapidly than before; but this growth is not only becoming more and more uneven in general, its unevenness also manifests itself, in particular, in the decay of the countries which are richest in capital (Britain)” (Lenin, Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism).

[26]Engels to Bloch, September 21, 1890.

[27]For these questions, see our critique of Battaglia Comunista's political positions in the pages of n°36 of this Review: “The 1980s are not the 1930s”; n°41 “What method for understanding the class struggle?”; n°50 “Reply to Battaglia on the historic course”; n°79 “The IBRP's conception of the decadence of capitalism and the question of war”; n°82 “Reply to the IBRP: the nature of imperialist war”; n°83 “Reply to the IBRP: theories of the historic crisis of capitalism”; n°86 “Behind the 'globalisation' of the economy, the aggravation of the capitalist crisis”; n°108 “Polemic with the IBRP: the war in Afghanistan, strategy or oil profits?”.

[28]“Crises et cycles dans l'économie du capitalisme agonisant”, published in Bilan n°10-11, 1934, and reprinted in International Review n°102-103.

[29]“Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy”, Collected Works Vol. 29, 133-4

[30]Communist International, Theses of the Third World Congress On the International Situation.

[31]This was predicted by Engels well before the end of the 19th century: “Friedrich Engels once said: 'Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism'. What does 'regression into barbarism' mean to our lofty European civilization? Until now, we have all probably read and repeated these words thoughtlessly, without suspecting their fearsome seriousness. A look around us at this moment shows what the regression of bourgeois society into barbarism means. This world war is a regression into barbarism. The triumph of imperialism leads to the annihilation of civilization. At first, this happens sporadically for the duration of a modern war, but then when the period of unlimited wars begins it progresses toward its inevitable consequences. Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilisation as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration - a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism, that means the conscious active struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method of war. This is a dilemma of world history, an either/or; the scales are wavering before the decision of the class-conscious proletariat. The future of civilisation and humanity depends on whether or not the proletariat resolves manfully to throw its revolutionary broadsword into the scales” (Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius pamphlet).

[32]A new system has been born. Ours is the epoch of the breakdown of capital, its internal disintegration, the epoch of the Communist revolution of the proletariat” (Platform of the Communist International, adopted by the First Congress in 1919). “Theoretically clear communism, on the other hand, will correctly estimate the character of the present epoch: highest stage of capitalism; imperialist self-negation and self-destruction; uninterrupted growth of civil war, etc.” (Theses on the Communist Parties and Parliamentarism, Second Congress of the International, 1921). “The Third (Communist) International was formed at a moment when the imperialist slaughter of 1914-1918, in which the imperialist bourgeoisie of the various countries sacrificed twenty million men, had come to an end. Remember the imperialist war! This is the first appeal of the Communist International to every toiler wherever he may live and whatever language he may speak. Remember that owing to the existence of the capitalist system a small group of imperialists had the opportunity during four long years of compelling the workers of various countries to cut each other’s throats. Remember that this imperialist war had reduced Europe and the whole world to a state of extreme destitution and starvation. Remember that unless the capitalist system is overthrown a repetition of this criminal war is not only possible but is inevitable (...) The Communist International considers the dictatorship of the proletariat an essential means for the liberation of humanity from the horrors of capitalism” (Statutes of the CI, adopted at the Second Congress).

[33]The CWO's introduction to Battaglia's article in Revolutionary Perspectives n°32.


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