Discussion Contributions on the Question of Capitalism’s Decadence

Decline and Senility of Capitalism with Marx, Engels and Communism

A critical recapitulation and determination of capitalism’s historical phase

Let’s take some quotes from Marx and Engels, in which illusions, self-criticism and errors are revealed:

  • In the ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’ (1848), Marx and Engels assert that capitalism would have fulfilled its historical mission and that the times would be ripe for the transition to communism:

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.” (1)

  • Later Marx and Engels admitted to having made a premature diagnosis. They wrote in 1850:

Given this general prosperity, wherein the productive forces of bourgeois society are developing as luxuriantly as it is possible for them to do within bourgeois relationships, a real revolution is out of the question. Such a revolution is possible only in periods when both of these factors — the modern forces of production and the bourgeois forms of production — come into opposition with each other.” (2)

  • In Marx’s letter to Engels from October 8, 1858, he maintained that the socialist revolution was ripe on the European continent, but not yet for the rest of the world, which he considered still to be in an ascending capitalist phase:

The proper task of bourgeois society is the creation of the world market, at least in outline, and of the production based on that market. Since the world is round, the colonisation of California and Australia and the opening up of China and Japan would seem to have completed this process. For us, the difficult question is this: on the Continent revolution is imminent and will, moreover, instantly assume a socialist character. Will it not necessarily be crushed in this little corner of the earth, since the movement of bourgeois society is still, in the ascendant over a far greater area? (3)

  • In the preface written in 1895 for the re-edition of Marx’s book ‘The Class Struggles in France from 1848 to 1850’, Engels states:

“History has proved us wrong and all others who thought similarly. It has made clear that the status of economic development on the Continent was then by no means ripe for the abolition of capitalist production; it has proved this by the economic revolution which, since 1848, has affected the entire Continent and has introduced large industry in France, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and, more recently, in Russia, but which has made of Germany an industrial country of the first rank – all this upon a capitalist basis that, in 1848, thus was still very much capable of expansion.” (4)

  • In ‘Capital’, Marx argues:

Here the capitalist mode of production is beset with another contradiction. Its historical mission is unconstrained development in geometrical progression of the productivity of human labour. It goes back on its mission whenever, as here, it checks the development of productivity. It thus [only] demonstrates again that it is becoming senile and that it is more and more outlived.” (5)

  • In 1881, again Marx, in the second draft of his letter to Vera Zassoulitch, considers that capitalism in the West has already passed the peak of its development, heading for its phase of decadence:

[(…) the capitalist system is past its prime in the West, approaching the time when it will be no more than a social regime a regressive form an ‘archaic’ formation, (…)]” (6)

The consideration that capitalism was senile or had passed its peak in the West cannot be corroborated. Not in the West, still less in the world, as we have shown in: Critique of the theories of the decadence of Capitalism. The maturation process of Capitalism, revolutionary necessities and positions’ (7)

Facts are stubborn and any survival of errors and unfounded illusions encourages inadequacy, confusion and distortion. Communist critique must go to the roots, it must not fear its own consequences, and it must be based on the lucid capture and adequate explanation of the material historical characteristics, movements and tendencies of capitalism. In this sense, we affirm and develop our positions as follows in our book: ‘Where we are in the history of capitalism. Towards the Decline of Capitalism, but not yet in it’. (8)

We maintain that capitalism, in the development of its period of maturity, at present shows contradictory tendencies and expressions that indicate that it is approaching its apogee, but has not yet reached it. Obviously, we cannot say how long this process will take. At times the capacity for development of the characteristics and key elements of the capitalist force is slowed down, its inherent consequences accumulate and generate enormous problems and suffering; there are numerous tensions, debt continues inflating, etc.; but such tendencies have not yet placed it at the beginning of its historical and social decadence, toward its irreversible suppression, since forces and conditions exist that, through new crises and devaluation catastrophes, let emerge non-exhausted potentialities. We will probably see this in a few years, given that economic crises have an incubation period. Likewise, there are possibilities for the emergence of new poles and the contradictory development of the existing ones, which will compensate for the deficiencies shown by the older poles. This is significant and important.

We cannot specify in advance how much time is left before capitalism enters its decadence. Nor can we specify exactly when a Third World War may take place or how many crises will occur until this arrives, if a communist world revolution does not first win. No one can do that.

That is why we concentrate on evaluating the fundamental conditions, characteristics, dynamics and contradictions of these processes. In this text we do so on decadence. For capitalism, the difficulties in its process of extended reproduction do not yet mark a tendency toward historical and economic regression, but toward an advance in its maturation with increasing difficulties, obviously toward its apogee and the beginning of its period of decadence. Capitalist relations have not yet become an insurmountable barrier to the development of the productive forces, wage labor and capital. The essential figures and tendencies that we expose are eloquent. We will show some significant ones later.

In the decadent period the relationship between its “credit” and its “debit” is definitively and irreversibly altered, between its dynamism of growth as a system developing the productive forces among periods and expressions of devaluation, and an increase of general exhaustion of such dynamism, which accumulates historically, and renders it incapable of continuing as before. In this way, such periods of quantitative and qualitative devaluation will increase, which not only generates brutal tensions and contradictions that tend to concentrate the two essential poles of society and their confrontations ever more, and to centralize capital’s power of command; but which also diminishes its general capacities for growth and produces more negative than positive results, from the point of view of the generation of its key elements, and generates more economic and social degradation than surplus value and social consensus. As Marx saw in the Grundrisse: The growing incompatibility between the productive development of society and its hitherto existing relations of production expresses itself in bitter contradictions, crises, spasms. The violent destruction of capital not by relations external to it, but rather as a condition of its self-preservation, is the most striking form in which advice is given it to be gone and to give room to a higher state of social production. (9) We do not know when this will happen, we study the tendencies of historical development critically. We have already formulated what fundamental characteristics will determine the subsequent period. They are set out and developed at length in our aforementioned book (see footnote 7).

A pertinent formulation is that during the decadence of capitalism, growth is fundamentally and characteristically circumstantial, that there is no historically increasing development, unlike in its phase of emergence, its initial ascendancy and maturity. For example, in our book we affirm:

« Decadence is not an absolute incapacity to develop, nor periods of strong sterilization and suppression of capitals, nor destruction upon destruction, nor the preeminence of generalized and total destruction of capitals. It is a situation in which we find above all in the accounting box “credit” that which previously was to be found in the “debit” box. It is a process departing from moments and conditions in which capitalism cannot develop the growth of labor productivity at an intense and increasing rhythm, which generates strong economic, social and political-military crises… given that competition and plunder are increasing and intensifying historically, and therefore the inter-imperialist struggles are frequent and very hard. Decadence means meager and ailing development, the exhaustion of the vitality of capitalism. It is there that the social and economic reorganization on a communist basis, on “work, knowledge and associated enjoyment” will appear as a broadly felt, ever more imperative and urgent, need. As a result of a historical necessity and of an economic determinism expressed in the contradictions of the world capitalist system. And therefore it will be expressed in a decline of the capacity of the States and the forces of capital to contain the class struggle, and in an incentive to the constitution of the proletariat as an independent class, and therefore as a party opposed to all defenders of value and merchandise. This situation begins, fluctuates, and develops in such a way that it shows (tendentially and in reality) not to be a passing phenomenon. It is not simply a hard crisis lasting years. Nor is it a chronic crisis, because there are elements of development after the collapses, and a certain level of accumulation, but slowed down, fluctuating downwards, with enormous difficulty to reverse the process. It is at this time that the relations of production constitute a most powerful barrier to the development of the productive forces. The number of wage-earners stops growing historically and, in the same way as with the accumulation of capital, there are cyclical fluctuations, but the process continues downwards. The system is more concentrated in terms of wealth, political power and capacity for repressive, mixed and antisocial action, but it cannot create a growing network of proletarians, improve certain conditions of life, allow vital standards that, although deteriorated, affect important detachments of workers. Likewise, technification will make it difficult for millions and millions of workers to find an easy way out of the international labor market.

This process may fluctuate, but if it tends to fall repeatedly, without the perspective of a reversal and an increasing reconstitution, we are in the development of decadence. Inter-capitalist wars can destroy capital and operate as purifying additions to the effects of economic crises. If, by means of these wars, or with them as an important element (let us take the first and second “World Wars” as a case in point), capital regains a growing rate of accumulation and surpasses levels prior to its appearance, we cannot affirm that the system is in decline. Decadence is not the appearance and accumulation of major catastrophic effects, which capitalist civilization has generated since its inception. It is the inability to maintain the pace of international growth, and a marked decline over time. It is senescence, a phase of life where death is near. And for this death the proletarian revolution is necessary. » 

Now let’s go deeper, and remember that:

“Science is not so much concerned with facts as with the explanations of facts, not with matter but with forces.” (10)

In this sense, today it is up to us to demonstrate how such tensions and evidence of limitation are not merely characteristic of an intermediate period of maturation, but bring us historically closer to its apogee and the opening of its period of decadence. The contradictory and partly limiting forces that have been observed today, especially after the crisis that began at the end of 2007, for us are indications thereof, but not of the onset of decadence, nor are they necessarily a “historical warning” that it is imminent. In Marxist communism, capitalism has often been seen on the verge of death… and yet this “vision” was later proven to be mistaken, with negative political and action implications.

Aníbal & materia, May 22, 2020.

Source: Decadencia y senilidad del capitalismo en Marx, Engels y el comunismo; published in French and Spanish. 

Last edited: March 23, 2021.

 

Notes:

1 Manifesto of the Communist Party, Chapter I. Bourgeois and Proletarians.

2 Karl Marx, The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850 (Part IV), first in: Neue Rheinische Zeitung Politisch-Ökonomische Revue, Issue No. 5-6 (End of November 1850).

3 Marx To Engels In Manchester, London, Friday, [8 October] 1858 (MECW Volume 40, p. 345)

4 F. Engels, 1895, Introduction to Marx’s ‘Class Struggles in France, 1848 – 1850’. [The translation at marxists.org has here been revised from the German (MEW 22)]

5 K. Marx, Capital Vol. III, Part III (The Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall), Chapter 15: Exposition of the Internal Contradictions of the Law, IV. Supplementary Remarks.

6 K. Marx, Letter to Vera Zasulich, February/March 1881; The ‘Second’ Draft.

9 Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Notebook VII – The Chapter on Capital; 3rd section [Capital as Fructiferous. Transformation of Surplus Value into Profit].

1 thought on “Discussion Contributions on the Question of Capitalism’s Decadence”

  1. A first reply to Fredo
    We welcome the foregoing exposition of his point of view by Fredo, partly on our request, and the first English translation of Pannekoek’s 1916 article on “the economic necessity of imperialism”, by a joint effort, as contributions to the discussion on these pages apropos of C.Mcl.’s analysis and critiques of certain conceptions of capitalism’s decadence.
    In the first place, they clarify what is meant by the rather sibylline and defiant comments we initially received from Fredo, together with a historic text that, to our knowledge, has hitherto remained unknown to readers outside of the Dutch language area.
    Having said this, we think this contribution, in a way, “surpasses” any controversy about the precise criteria and characteristics of capitalism’s decadence, and thereby supersedes the question this discussion has departed from: whether the First World War (1914 – 1918) can and must be seen as its first and irreversible historic manifestation, as its author considers any “theory of decadence (…) not only contrary to reality but (..) also to the theoretical foundations of Marxism”.
    On our part, we think the comrade is profoundly mistaken in this respect and, as a consequence, takes a departure by himself from the “theoretical foundations of Marxism” he intends to defend. To substantiate this, our first reply consists in recalling these foundations by means of some extracts from the ‘Anti-Dühring’ that, in our opinion, quite explicitly show that the founders of ‘historical materialism’ indeed considered the course of any historical mode of production as characterized by an ascending and a descending branch (see Classics of Marxism – Famous Quotes and Extracts on this site). We think this provides at least one instance, and not a minor one, that “proves [the comrade] wrong”.
    Far from considering this primordial issue, or indeed Fredo’s other and very interesting considerations and objections, as being exhausted, we reflect on a more elaborate reply.
    Henry Cinnamon, May 2021.

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