The aim of the original article was to respond to the widespread trend among a number of currents in or around the revolutionary movement to reject the notion of capitalist decadence, a foundation stone for the class positions contained in our platform. We pointed out that this tendency has affected elements in the communist left as well as those coming from anarchism or ‘libertarian’ versions of marxism.
Over the past four decades, the insoluble nature of this crisis has become increasingly evident, you might have expected that a majority of those attracted towards internationalism over those decades would have been rather easily convinced that capitalism was indeed an obsolete, decaying social system. In reality, not only has this not been the case, but - and this is particularly true with the new generations of revolutionaries which started to appear on the scene during the first decade of the 21st century – one could even speak of a persistent rejection of the theory of decadence, and at the same time a real tendency for many who had previously been convinced of the concept to put it into question and even to jettison it openly.
While the post war-boom led many to conclude that marxism was obsolete, that capitalism had discovered the secret of eternal youth, and that the working class was no longer a force for revolutionary change, a small minority of revolutionaries, very often working in conditions of almost complete isolation, remained loyal to the fundamental tenets of marxism. One of the most important of these was Paul Mattick in the USA.
The last few articles in this series have demonstrated the high level of agreement among Marxists (and even some anarchists) regarding the historical stage capitalism had reached by the middle of the 20th century. The devastating imperialist war of 1914-18, the international revolutionary wave that came in its wake, and the unprecedented world economic depression which marked the 1930s were all seen as irrefutable evidence that the bourgeois mode of production had entered its epoch of decline, the epoch of the world proletarian revolution. The experience of the second imperialist bloodbath did not call this diagnosis into question...
There was no real recovery of world capitalism after the devastation of the First World War. Most of the economies of Europe stagnated, never really solving the problems posed by the disruption of war and revolution, by outdated plant and massive unemployment. The plight of the once powerful British economy was typified by the situation in 1926 when it resorted to direct wage cuts in a vain attempt to restore its competitive edge on the world market, provoking the 10-day General Strike in solidarity with the miners whose wages and conditions were the central target of the attack.
Theprevious article in this seriesshowed how rapidly the hopes for an immediate revolutionary victory, kindled by the proletarian uprisings of 1917-19 had, a mere two years later, in 1921, given way to a more sober reflection among revolutionaries about the overall course of capitalism’s historical crisis. At the Third Congress of the Communist International, a key question for debate was this: the capitalist system has certainly entered an epoch of decline, but what happens if the proletariat does not immediately respond to the new period by overthrowing the system?
Even though revolutionaries today are far from all sharing the analysis that capitalism entered into its phase of decline with the outbreak of the First World War, this was not the case for those who had to respond to this war and who participated in the revolutionary uprisings that followed. On the contrary, as shown in this article, the majority of marxists shared this point of view. Similarly, for them, understanding the new historic period was indispensable for reinvigorating the communist programme and the tactics that flowed from it.
As we saw in the last article in this series, the central target of the revisionist attack on the revolutionary core of marxism was the latter's theory of the inevitable decline of capitalism, resulting from the irresolvable contradictions built into its relations of production. Eduard Bernstein's brand of revisionism, which Rosa Luxemburg refuted so lucidly in Social Reform or Revolution, was to a large extent based on a series of empirical observations derived from the unprecedented period of expansion and prosperity the most powerful capitalist nations lived through in the last decades of the 19th century.
According to a certain school of academic Marxologists, councilists and anarchists, marxist theory entered a period of sterility after Marx's death in 1883. The social democratic parties and the Second International, in this view, were actually dominated by "Engelsism", an attempt by Marx's second fiddle and his camp-followers to turn Marx's method of investigation into a semi-mechanical system which falsely equates radical social criticism with the approach of the natural sciences.
The Italian left communist Bordiga once described Marx's entire work as "the necrology of capital" - in other words, as a study of the inner contradictions from which bourgeois society could not escape and which would eventually lead to its demise.
Acknowledging the certainty of death is problematic for the human being in general - alone among the animal species, mankind is burdened with the consciousness of the inevitability of death, and the weight of this burden is demonstrated, among other things, by the ubiquity of mythologies about the afterlife in all epochs of history and in all social formations.
preceding articles in this series, we have looked in detail at Marx's summation
of the historical materialist method in the Preface to the Critique of
Political Economy. We have now reached the last section of this summation:
"The bourgeois mode of production is the last
antagonistic form of the social process of production - antagonistic not in the
sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the
individuals' social conditions of existence - but the productive forces
developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution
of this antagonism. The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with
this social formation".
In the first part of this series , we looked at the
pattern of world wars, revolutions, and global economic crises that are the
manifestations of capitalism's entry into its epoch of decline in the early
part of the 20th century, and which have posed mankind with the historic
alternative: the advent of a higher mode of production or a relapse into
In 1915, as the hideous reality of the European war became ever more apparent, Rosa Luxemburg wrote "The crisis of social democracy", a text better known as the "Junius pamphlet" from the pseudonym under which Luxemburg published it. The pamphlet was written in prison and was distributed illegally by the Internationale group which had been formed immediately after the outbreak of the war...