The capitalist mode of production: A century of decline

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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; and when the population doesn’t die at the hand of the state, it does so in the murderous terrorist attacks that are becoming more and more numerous, or from diseases once believed to have disappeared, but which now return to decimate the poverty-stricken masses who cannot afford even the simplest treatments; and the terrible events in southeast Asia at the end of 2004 are there to remind us of the equally devastating consequences of the so-called natural and ecological catastrophes that are always down to negligence by capitalism when not the direct result of capitalist production itself.

Faced with this permanent spiral of destruction, we don’t stop hearing about the well being of the economy, prosperity and progress. But where is the progress in war that, almost everywhere, decimates populations and destroys towns, fields, forests? Where is the well being when thousands of human beings starve everyday? Where is the prosperity when no worker on this earth can any longer know what his future holds, whether he will be able to feed himself and his family?

Faced with this colossal paradox, people inevitably ask questions. Why does a society that is supposed to progress, to bring ever more goods and security, provide humanity with the exact opposite? Why is this so? Is it inevitable? Is it a temporary circumstance that will disappear of its own accord? And if it continues, where is it leading? Can we escape it?

The bourgeoisie has some answers: we are assured either that these problems are the result of the maliciousness, the nastiness, which is at the core of the human race; or that they can be blamed on a lack of democracy, hatred, transient economic difficulties due to poor regulation of financial flows, the increase in the price of raw materials on the markets, the immoral greed of speculators. Put briefly, nothing serious, in any case nothing that can’t be mastered by the famous international community.

All of this clashes with the reality of the situation, since we have been hearing arguments of this kind for a long time and the situation does nothing but deteriorate. To take just one example: the peace and prosperity we were promised at the time of the collapse of the eastern Bloc, which up until then had played the role of the villain. Since then, the complete opposite has occurred: there has never been more barbarism and destitution in the world.

Why, then, such a disaster after all of the progress that humanity has achieved? Why so much poverty even though there seems to be so much wealth to exploit?

In fact, these explanations, deliberately or not, skirt around the only reality which allows us to understand why, on all levels, this modern world, one that appears so potentially prosperous, drags us into chaos and destruction. This reality is that of the economic crisis. Certainly, the bourgeoisie cannot always hide the economic difficulties of its system and, from time to time, it is obliged to admit that there is a crisis. However, when we, marxist revolutionaries, speak of crisis today, it is not on the same basis. Certainly, crisis is inherent in capitalism; it has been a feature of capitalism since its birth. But today the crisis is different: it is insurmountable; it reveals the bankruptcy of the capitalist system.

We can say this, not from knowledge developed through a superficial, or even a detailed, observation of the state of the planet but because when we speak of crisis today, we rely on the totality of the marxist analysis of the development of capitalism that the workers’ movement has developed. We affirm on that basis that capitalism entered its phase of decadence almost a century ago and that in this phase, in contrast to the phase of ascendance, the capitalist crisis becomes insurmountable; that the only result of this will be the destruction of humanity and of all its achievements made during the course of history – unless the working class is able to overcome the mortal contradictions of capitalism in the struggle for the construction of a new society.

For marxists it is in this sense that decadence is the fundamental framework for analysing the world situation. Without this framework it is impossible not only to understand the reality of the contemporary world but also to draw up a realistic perspective. Far from leading us into demoralisation, or to the impression that there is no future, to a kind of fatalism where we can only ‘Look After Number One’, the marxist theory of decadence is the foundation of the communist perspective, which is not a simple matter of willpower but is built upon a complete method for analysing the development of human societies: historical materialism. On this basis we can understand why, although this barbarism is inevitable for capitalism, it is not inevitable for humanity, which could, through the struggle of the working class, transcend this situation and establish a new society.

It is within this framework that we hope to tackle the question of decadence.

What is decadence?

We haven’t the time here to explain the marxist theory of decadence in detail or with the preciseness it deserves. That is not the purpose of this text. We have written a lot on this issue in the International Review and in pamphlets, and we will write more. Decadence is neither an invention of the ICC nor its discovery. On the contrary, it is a concept at the heart of the marxist analysis of the development of human societies, at the centre of historical materialism. From the beginning, Marx and Engels established that the analysis of the economic development of humanity was the key to understanding the development of contemporary society. Through their research the two founders of marxism discovered that human society organises itself around production, the first and central activity of man. Thus the organisation of the means of production delineates the social relations.

Putting the issue immediately on the historical level, they managed to analyse how the evolution of the means of production and its organisation had influenced social organisation. To summarise as much as possible, it is apparent that the development of the means of production, which is faced with a quantity of needs to satisfy, attains such a level that the organisation of the means becomes obsolete to the aim of production and finally a hindrance. It then becomes necessary to profoundly modify the organisation of production so that the existing means of production can be used to the maximum and continue their development.

This is how Marx, speaking of capitalism, summarised it in the Principles of a Critique of Political Economy:

“Beyond a certain point, the development of the productive forces becomes a barrier for capital; in other terms, the capitalist system becomes an obstacle for the expansion of the productive forces of labour. Having reached this point, capital, or more exactly wage labour, enters into the same relation to the development of social wealth and of productive forces as the system of guilds, serfdom, or slavery, and is necessarily rejected as a fetter. The last form of servitude in human activity - wage labour on one side and capital on the other - is then cast off, and this casting off is itself the result of the mode of production which corresponds to capital. Wage labour and capital, themselves the negation of previous forms of enslaved social production, are in their turn repudiated by the material and intellectual conditions stemming from their own process of production. It is by acute conflicts, crises, and convulsions that the growing incompatibility between the creative development of society and the established relations of production manifests itself”.

This modification does not take place smoothly: social organisation takes shape around production, as we have said, and until today humanity has had to manage conditions of material scarcity. Initially this was a general scarcity, as in primitive societies, then later on it was relative: each producer provides enough for himself and even a little more, but not enough for everyone. From this necessarily arise ownership, property and exploitation. Thus interests and powers crystallise around production. The calling into question of the organisation of production [i.e. the existing society] amounts to calling into question the economic, political and social position of the dominant classes. It is only by a more or less violent, but always radical, break-through that change can take place.

This is why, very succinctly, the evolution of the means of production does not occur in a linear manner and without such breakthroughs, or in a continual ascent. This is why each system of production is succeeded by a phase of decadence, during which the evolution of the means of production comes into insoluble contradiction with its organisation [i.e. existing society], while in society there emerge revolutionary forces opposed to the reactionary classes still attached to their privileged position in society.

A method of production, a way of producing, corresponds in history to a stage of the development of production. In Roman society production was organised between slaves, who worked, and masters, who made them work. This mode of production allowed the development of production until it attained a level that posed a problem: to continue to produce, you needed more slaves, who were in fact prisoners taken during wars; and the geographical limits of war, within the means of that epoch, were starting to be reached. Furthermore, the developments of the techniques of production were demanding more sophisticated forms of labour that slavery could not provide. This example shows that the manner in which production was organised became less and less suited to production itself, and that if the latter were to continue to develop, this mode of organisation, which until then had permitted an unprecedented development, was in the future going to prevent it. It was becoming a hindrance. To each level of production there corresponds a suitable mode of organisation.

This is why the slaves were emancipated and became serfs. In its turn the feudal system permitted the development of production until it attained such a level that society was again faced with an obstacle. It was then that capitalist relations transformed the producer of the Middle Ages into the ‘free’ man selling his labour power to the capitalist. Again, production found an organisation capable of permitting its development: a very rapid development, never seen before, that makes it possible for humanity to leave scarcity behind for the first time.

If the passage from one mode of production to the other does not occur smoothly and in a linear manner, from one ascent to the next as it were, it is because the mode of production finds an expression in a particular social organisation; and within this the dominant class defends its interests tooth and claw against the perspective of the overthrow of the established order. During this time the growing incompatibility between the levels attained by production and the manner in which it is organised gives rise to ever-greater convulsions.

Decadence therefore starts when the relations of production become a hindrance to the development of production. It continues so long as new relations of production have not been established. Decadence is the period of the bankruptcy of the old society.

Capitalism, as we have seen, certainly does not escape this rule. But the decadence of capitalism differs from previous periods of decadence by virtue of the fact that, in the societies of the past, the seeds of the new society already existed and were developing within the old society. Within feudal society, the bourgeoisie conquered economic power little by little and at the same time transformed a good part of production before attaining political power. In capitalism, this process has not taken place. The revolutionary class, the proletariat, cannot institute new relations of production without destroying those which now exist. Therein lies the extreme gravity of capitalist decadence.

We thus see that, for marxists, decadence is not a moral concept. When bourgeois specialists speak of the decadence of the Roman Empire or the waning of the Middle Ages, they often situate this idea on the moral plane: decadence arises from human greed, from the dissolute morals of our leaders, etc. As marxists we develop the concept of decadence as a rational, materialist concept, that is to say based on the material development of human societies. We do not deny that these periods exhibit evidence of the greed and dissolute morals of the rulers: we know full well that the historical blockage of the development of the productive forces finds its reflection in human society on all levels. And we can easily see the differences in philosophical thought and artistic expression between periods of ascendance and periods of decadence in various social systems, capitalism included. Decadence is not a purely economic theory; Marx, incidentally, never did anything other than write a critique of the economy. But the explanation for social decline must nevertheless be clearly situated on a materialist terrain.

The decadence of capitalism

How does the decadence of capitalism express itself?

When the Communist International spoke of an era of war and revolution it couldn’t have better summarised what the onset of decadent capitalism meant for humanity. Capitalism had, during the course of its ascendance, created the ideal framework for its development, that of the nation. It was on the basis of the nation state that capitalism secured its development and, using it as a starting point, launched its assault on the regions that it turned into colonies. Today the relations of competition exacerbated by the crisis are still based on the nation state. The only solution for the bourgeoisie to its crisis of overproduction is war, which leads to a period of reconstruction that tails off into a new crisis of overproduction.

We can easily situate capitalism’s entry into decadence at the beginning of the 20th century: the First World War, the first in the whole history of humanity, clearly expressed the new situation. The reconstruction that followed it quickly ran into a crisis without precedent, in the thirties, then the Second World War. The cycle, crisis, war, reconstruction, new crisis is apparent, but this is not a cycle of development. On the contrary, it is an infernal spiral that drags everything into its wake. For if capitalism could transcend the crises of overproduction during its ascendant phase, through economic expansion and the growing proletarianisation of the population, today the limits have been reached and the crisis is permanent. The only prospect is war.

Although we are talking about an epoch of war, we are also, as the Communist International stated at its foundation, talking about an epoch of revolution.

Indeed, capitalism’s development gave birth to its gravedigger: the proletariat, the only social force capable of overthrowing capitalism and of bringing about a new society. In attaining its limits, capitalism opens the door to its suppression. The order of the day for the proletariat is henceforth the immense task of founding, on the ruins of capitalism, a new society capable of managing abundance and providing the productive forces with a framework suited to their development.

The communist perspective is not new. The idea of constructing a society without oppression and injustice can be found in antiquity and the Middle Ages. But wanting a better society is not enough to bring it into being. The material conditions have to make this change possible. Equally, the revolt of the downtrodden is not new: by rejecting their conditions Roman slaves provided human history with valuable lessons in how a class struggles. But, these revolts were doomed to failure because the material situation, the level of production, did not permit humanity to go beyond a social structure of class and exploitation: as long as humanity had to manage scarcity, it could not build a just society.

It is capitalism that permits humanity to glimpse this perspective. Henceforth, production has attained a level that permits the suppression of scarcity: prehistory can come to an end. The communist perspective is not an ideal or a utopia, it is a material possibility and, furthermore, it is a necessity in order that the development of production can continue. We say once again: it is necessary to halt capitalism in its destructive spiral, which threatens to return humanity to the primitive era.


This is what makes capitalist decadence different from decadent periods in other epochs: it indicates the end of prehistory, the end of humanity’s long march from scarcity towards abundance. But this goal is not written in stone: the end of prehistory could simply be the end of history if nothing happens to stop the barbarism which is setting the planet alight. Communism is not a certainty: it can only be implemented through the hard struggle of the working class, and the result of this struggle is not known. That is why revolutionaries must be fully armed politically so that they in turn can arm the working class in its struggle against the bourgeoisie and for the construction of a new society.

Decadence is part of this armament. It is a fundamental framework developed by marxism right from its origin. Indeed, Marx and Engels speak of decadence in The German Ideology, written even earlier than the Communist Manifesto. Decadence permeates the whole marxist analysis of the evolution of human societies. By illuminating the succession of periods of ascendance and decadence in history, marxism allows us to understand how humanity was able to organise itself and to progress; why the world is the way it is today; and finally, that it is possible to transcend this situation and build another world. RI

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