Decadence of capitalism


For the proletarian revolution to go beyond being a mere hope or historical potentiality or perspective and become a concrete possibility, it had to become an objective necessity for the development of humanity. This has in fact been the historic situation since the First World War: this war marked the end of the ascendant phase of the capitalist mode of production, a phase which began in the sixteenth century and which reached its zenith at the end of the nineteenth century. The new phase which followed was that of the decadence of capitalism.

Once more on decadence: What does it mean to say that capitalism is a historically transitory system?

In a previous article about a discussion on libcom we commented on the fact that some comrades appear to reject the concept of decadence even though they agree that capitalism is a historically transitory system. An example of this line of argument is a 1993 text by the UK-based journal Aufheben which claims that: “The theory of the decline of capitalism is an interpretation of the meaning of Marx's insight that capitalism is a transitory system, an interpretation that turns the notion of a particular dynamic of development into a mechanistic and determinist theory of inevitable collapse

100 years of capitalist decadence

In the 200,000 years of its existence, the human species has made astonishing strides in its productive capacity, its technique, its mastery of the laws of nature, and its culture. In the 10,000 years between the Neolithic Revolution and the present day, the pace of its progress has quickened. Yet humanity's progress has never been a smooth and peacful process; on the contrary, each step forward has been achieved through the clash of opposing classes, opposing class interests. Opening up a new perspective has never been possible without the revolutionary overthrow of the old order and the old classes which block the path the the future.

The old order reaches a point where its continued existence is no longer compatible with human progress. At this point, the violence inherent in all exploiting societies turns inward against itself; it no longer plays any progressive role but on the contrary becomes purely destructive. Society enters a period of decadence and violence which can only be brought to an end by the revolutionary overthrow of the old order and the creation of a new.

This revolutionary overthrow is not inevitably victorious. At such moments humanity finds itself at a crossroads: either the creation of a new society on the ruins of the old, or the common ruin of the contending social classes.

For a century now, humanity has stood at just such a crossroads in its history.

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Decadence of capitalism (vii): Rosa Luxemburg and the limits to capitalist expansion

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.

Decadence of capitalism (vi): The theory of capitalist decline and the struggle against revisionism

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 decadence of capitalism (v): The mortal contradictions of bourgeois society

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.

Decadence of capitalism (iv): From capitalism to the end of prehistory

In 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".

Decadence of capitalism (iii): Ascent and decline in previous modes of production

"In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society".

This brief passage, spanning virtually the whole of written history, could give rise to several books worth of interpretation...

Decadence of capitalism (ii): What scientific method do we need to understand the present social order...?

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 barbarism.

Decadence of capitalism (i): Revolution has been necessary and possible for a century

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...

The theory of decadence is the key to understanding the conditions and principles of the proletarian struggle

The theory of decadence is nothing other than the concretisation of historical materialism in the analysis of the evolution of modes of production. It is thus the indispensable framework for understanding the historical period we are living in. Knowing whether society is still progressing, or whether it has had its day historically, is decisive for grasping what is at stake on the political and socio-economic levels, and acting accordingly.

“International Conference of revolutionary Marxism” in Korea

In October 2006, the Korean group "Socialist Political Alliance" called a conference in the towns of Seoul and Ulsan under the title "International Conference of revolutionary Marxism" , with the explicit purpose of reinforcing the presence of Left Communist positions within the Korean working class and its political minorities.

The conference in Korea was the first of its kind in the history of the workers' movement of that country and indeed in the whole of East Asia. That such a conference should be called today, in a country still divided by the consequences of the imperialist war launched more than 50 years ago, is an event of the greatest importance. It opens a perspective for the development of the international unity of the workers' movement between East and West for the first time since the brief experience of the Third International. However modestly, it heralds the appearance on the historical stage of the proletariat of the East.

Polemic with Aufheben: An attack on the theory of decadence is an attack on Marxism

The Aufheben review has published, in its second issue, and article that claims that: “The theory of capitalist decline or the decadence of capitalism hinders the project of abolishing that system.” The ICC is targeted in particular, since our organisation bases its defence of the interests of the working class in present day conditions on the understanding that capitalism is in its decadent phase.

The proletarian struggle under decadence

  The following text is a contribution to the under­standing of the differing nature of the struggle of the proletariat under the ascendent and decadents epochs of capitalism. Although it’s presented in a somewhat unusual manner, we felt it was necessary to show the characteristics of the two epochs side by side, in order to highlight both the unity that exist within each of the two periods, and the often con­siderable differences between the expressions of the two epochs (The features of the ascendant period are dealt with in the left—hand column of each page, the features of decadence on the right).

The theory of decadence at the heart of historical materialism, part V

In the first article in this series, published in International Review n°118, we showed how the theory of decadence is at the very heart of historical materialism in Marx’ and Engels’ analysis of the evolution of modes of production. It is central to the programmatic texts of the organisations of the workers’ movement. In the second article, which appeared in International Review n°121, we saw how the organisations of the workers’ movement from the time of Marx, through the Second International and its marxist left to the Communist International, made this analysis the foundation of their understanding of the evolution of capitalism in order to be able to determine the priorities for the period. In fact, Marx and Engels always stated very clearly that the perspective of the communist revolution depended on the objective, historical and global evolution of capitalism. The Third International, in particular, made this analysis the general framework for its understanding of the new period that opened with the outbreak of World War I. All of the political currents that formed the International, recognised that the first global war marked the beginning of capitalism’s decadent phase. We continue here our historical survey of the main expressions of the workers’ movement by examining more closely the particular political positions of the Communist International on the national, parliamentary and union questions, for which the system’s entry into its phase of decline had important implications.

4 - The theory of decadence at the heart of historical materialism

In the first article in this series, published in International Review n118, we saw how the theory of decadence is at the very heart of historical materialism, of Marx and Engels’ analysis of the evolution of modes of production. Equally, we find the same notion at the centre of the programmatic texts of the organisations of the working class. Furthermore, not resting at merely adopting this foundation-stone of marxism, some of these organisations have developed the analysis and/or its political implications. It’s from this dual point of view that we aim here to briefly review the main political expressions of the workers’ movement. In this first part we will begin with the movement in the days of Marx, the Second International, the marxist lefts which came out of it, and the Communist International at the time it was formed. In the second part, which will appear in a future issue, we will examine more closely the analytical framework for the political positions developed by the Third International and then by the left fractions which emerged from it as it began to degenerate, and from which we draw our political and organisational origins.

Economic crisis: the descent into the abyss

The last recession (2000-2001) dealt a serious blow to all the theoretical flights of fancy that had developed around the supposed "third industrial revolution" based on the micro-processor and new information technologies, just as the collapse on the stock exchange demolished all the blather about a new "ownership capitalism" where wage labourers were to become participating shareholders – the umpteenth version of the worn-out myth of "popular capitalism", whereby each worker is supposed to become a "proprietor" through the ownership of a few shares in "his" company.

The capitalist mode of production: A century of decline

Anyone observing the world can’t help but be struck by the incredible level of chaos that is generated daily across the globe: poverty stretches even to the heart of the most developed countries; there is unemployment on a massive long term scale from which no one is any longer protected; war between states afflicts almost every continent...

3 - The theory of decadence at the heart of historical materialism, part iii

The decadence of capitalism is not the eternal repetition of its contradictions on a growing scale, but poses the question of its survival as a mode of production, according to the terms used by Marx and Engels. By rejecting the concept of decadence as defined by the founders of marxism and subsequently taken up by the organisations of the workers’ movement, some of whom deepened it further, Battaglia Comunista is turning its back on a historical materialist understanding.

Slide into recession means new attacks on living standards

When the CBI announced recently that Britain would escape recession, this was hardly enough to inspire confidence, particularly once we take into account the fact that manufacturing in Britain is in recession, with a 2% slump in output last quarter. This was followed by the news that the US economy is also just staying out of recession but with a growth rate close to zero. It has cut its forecast growth rate severely and its forecast budget surplus by 50%.

Perspective for the 21st Century: communist revolution or the destruction of humanity

A century ago we heard much the same message. In 1898 Ivan Bloch published The War of the Future in St Petersburg. He said that war was bound to become obsolete, as it was too costly, too murderous and so complicated that it was impossible to win. However, such views did not stand uncorrected. In 1901, in exile in Siberia, the revolutionary Leon Trotsky had a more accurate view of what capitalism was, and what it had in store.

Polemic with the CWO: Imperialist conflict or capitalist 'peace'?

The ideology of globalisation has generated many myths - as much by its ‘opponents’ as by its advocates. In particular there is the idea that multinational corporations are out of the control of nation states and can move capital to wherever they can make the most profit, regardless of the local circumstances. Ralph Nader wants to save capitalism from the big corporations. Noam Chomsky denounces unaccountable private power and the international institutions which impose the ‘Washington consensus’ of ‘neo-liberalism’. The power of ‘international capital’ (which can be used to mean the US, or big corporations, or the biggest powers, or just an abstract ‘evil’) is presented as being so great that it can even overcome the drive of national capitals towards war. In the words of a leftist group, the “pillage” of the poorest countries continues, not in the same way as the 19th century, but with “the urbane international banker replacing the colonial soldier and tax collector” (Workers Liberty, July 2000). To back up this view that the big global corporations now rule the world, it has been said that t has been said that ‘no two countries with a McDonalds have ever gone to war’.

Paddington rail crash: product of capitalist competition

Four days after the Paddington rail crash, the death toll is still uncertain, but will probably be well over 120.

The "public" has grown intelligent about such disasters. Alongside the horror at the carnage in the wrecked carriages, alongside the shock and grief of the bereaved, there has bee the shock and grief of the bereaved, there has been a powerful groundswell of anger. It is widely understood that an event like this cannot be explained away as an "accident". It is widely understood that this is part of a pattern.

Ten years after the fall of stalinism: Communism is the only perspective for humanity

The fall of the Berlin Wall led to a media orgy on a scale not seen before in this century. For 3 days there was an almost uninterrupted flow of images, showing nearly 3 million East Germans crossing the wall and invading the West of the city of Berlin. In this first phase there was no need for propaganda. The images spoke for themselves; the bourgeisie’s message was directly attached to them and hammered home implicitly: "This historic day marks the total and definitive victory of democracy over totalitarianism", "People of the world, rejoice in this glorious day when capitalism has demonstrated its absolute superiority over the socialist regimes".

Economic crisis: the crisis reveals the historic bankruptcy of capitalist productive relations

For more than 2.5 years the bourgeoisie has been announcing a recovery which it has been forced to put off at every quarter. For more than 2.5 years economic performance has fallen systematically below forecasts, forcing the ruling class to revise these downwards. The present recession, beginning in the second half of the year 2000, is already one of the longest since the end of the 1960s. And, although there are some signs of recovery in the United States, this is still far from being the case in Europe or Japan. Moreover, any improvement in United States is essentially the product of some of the most vigorous state intervention in 40 years, and an unprecedented increase in debt, leading to fears that the new speculative bubble in the housing market is about to burst.

Overproduction at the root of capitalism's crisis

The following is part of correspondence that has been continuing for some years.

Dear ICC,

I am perplexed by what seems to be a contradiction in your politics. On the one hand Marxists argue that only communism can release the full potentials of production to meet the needs of the working class of the world, yet argue that there is a glut of markets following capitalist over-production. Of course there is overproduction of some things and under-production of others, but even so, has capitalism already reached its giddy limit of possible production or not? If greater production is still possible within all the evils of capitalism, would it be more persuasive to argue for equitable distribution of the current over-production, to get back by and to the working class what is being withheld from it?

IBRP debates decadence: The need for a historical framework

In Revolutionary Perspectives no. 32 the Communist Workers' Organisation (CWO) introduce a "contribution to the debate on capitalist decadence", 'For a definition of the concept of decadence' written by one of the comrades of Battaglia Comunista. We welcome this debate first of all because of the importance of subject; as the CWO state in their introduction, "The notion of decadence is a part of Marx's analysis of modes of production." It is not just any part of Marx's analysis, but the basis of scientific socialism, as they showed in RP 21 (original series, November 83): "Marxism, unlike anarchism, has always recognised that before communism can be established capitalism must itself destroy feudal systems of production and create both an international proletariat and advanced means of production. In doing this capitalism is creating both the basis for communism and the class able to bring it into being. We therefore maintain, as did Marx, that capitalism has been a historically progressive mode of production. We regard history as a complex of processes in which opposites are struggling against each other. The dynamic of history is located in these struggles and their progress is the progress of history. The development of the struggles engendered by these contradictions leads to a historical period in which capitalism can be considered to be progressive and on in which its further development turns it into a barrier. We quote again from the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy. 'At a certain stage of their development the material productive forces of society come into contradiction with the existing productive relationships, or, what is but a legal expression for these, with the property relationships within which they have moved before. From being forms of development of the productive forces these relationships are transferred into their fetters. Then an epoch of social revolution opens.' This is a dialectical understanding of the process of development, not a mechanical one. The very idea of decadence, which we describe as a period in which the material pre-requisites for communism exist but the revolution has not been made (since the subjective consciousness is absent), is a notion which would be nonsense to a mechanical materialist since he sees causality as working directly from material conditions".


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