Discussion Contributions on the Question of Capitalism’s Decadence

The Decadence of Capitalism. A Discussion
(Aníbal & materia)

A brief historical overview

A.) Historical materialism posited two great periods in the existence of capitalism, as in any civilization: ascendancy and decadence.

Decadence constitutes a period in which a mode of production and its corresponding social relations, its structural basis, diminish the capacity and strength characteristic of the ascendant period of its historical journey. Thus the contradiction between productive forces and relations of production intensifies and unfolds historically in such a way that it becomes increasingly difficult for capitalism to achieve the levels of accumulation and social cohesion between bourgeoisie and proletariat [that were] characteristic of its historically ascendant period. This necessarily engenders big catastrophic processes of devaluation on a larger scale than in the ascendant period, together with a prodigality of consequences of capitalism that aggravate its difficulties on an international scale and generate enormous contradictory tensions in the system. It thereby favors the worldwide development of class struggles and puts the proletarian forces before the alternative of giving in or not.

Consequently, this manifestation of accumulated tensions favors social revolution, though not exclusively, since it is also clear that such a revolution can emerge before decadence if the necessary conditions are met. Which, up to now, has only prevailed in a limited and punctual manner and, as we know, without a globalised victorious outcome.

Various conclusions are drawn from decadence: passing from gradualist reformist to voluntarist ultra-leftist ones, via those in coherence with a rigorous historical and dialectical materialist conception, that we actually need and expose in an argued and critical way.

B.) The determination of its defining characteristics, and above all the assessment of where capitalism is [situated] in its historical journey, have been two aspects markedly present in the internationalist communist milieu.

C.) The great crisis that began in 1873 caused Engels to hope that the crisis of overproduction would become chronic and thus accelerate the path to the decadence of capitalism, even though periods of limited growth could manifest themselves. The conception took shape that capitalism, corroded by its own contradictions, was systematically impeding the growth of the productive forces and induced its own manifestations of incapacity and disintegration. This position, further accentuated, found its way into the “Erfurt Program” and was subsequently understood as essential in the center and left of the Second International. Around it, there were debates on imperialism, the monopolies and cartels, the crises, the development of foreign trade, the limits of capitalism, etc. Decadence was seen as the terminal phase of an exhausted economic organism falling apart and, by consequence, as increasingly unable to further develop the productive forces.

D.) Kautsky considered that after that crisis capitalism had generated a new prosperity and then again entered into crisis, not precipitating decadence, but inaugurating the First World War in 1914. He did not act to modify the idea of decadent collapse and has subsequently issued centrist criticisms. From this position, the USPD drew reformist conclusions, the proletariat had to sustain an active policy through reforms in order to accelerate the passage to socialism.

In 1892 Kautsky stated in The Erfurt Program in its fundamental part:

“Capitalist society has had its day; its dissolution is now only a question of time; the irresistible economic development leads to the bankruptcy of the capitalist mode of production with the necessity of a natural law. The formation of a new form of society instead of the existing one is no longer simply something desirable, it has become something inevitable.” (1)

E.) The socialist, and later the communist Left held decadentist positions from that war onward, with three different interpretations of imperialism and the collapse of capitalism. Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin and Pannekoek have theorized them in remarkable texts, whose critical study is necessary. Other theories also influenced radical sections of the proletarian movement, such as Henryk Grossmann’s “theory of collapse”, which gave rise to questionings and adhesions that should also be studied in such an evaluative and critical approach. Today, we have a great deal of factual evidence at our disposal and we are able to carry out better examinations. In our case, this research provides the basis for a broad and critical treatment of this question, based on the following consideration: There is no historical evidence that capitalism has gone into decline.

F.) The Communist International and its two most notorious Lefts, the Italian and the German-Dutch, have adopted decadentist approaches. From then on the consideration of whether or not the capitalist system is in decadence is important in the internationalist communist milieu.

G.) During the 20th Century and so far in the 21st Century there have been other theories on the question of decadence, with catastrophist and decadentist approaches also existing in petty-bourgeois leftist milieus.

H.) In the internationalist communist milieu there are different positions: those who maintain the same as the Communist International did, those who have abandoned that and do not affirm anything about a possible future decadence, those who set other dates for the entry into decadence, and those who question that capitalism is in decadence, because we consider that this is fallacious and unconfirmed after a detailed analysis of the international capitalist system.

I.) As far as this current debate is concerned, there is a conception that capitalist decadence is not a framework to be sustained, as it is unnecessary (F.C.); another that situates the entrance into this decadence at the beginning of the 21st Century and questions the analyses that situate it in 1914 (C.Mcl.), and a third one that conceives decadence as a future period to which capitalism must necessarily be heading.

The latter is our position, which considers that capitalism is approaching the zenith of its period of ascendancy, and through which we have deepened the characterization of the conditions and characteristics of such a decadent period, as well as the implications for the class struggle and the international proletarian revolution.

The current debate. The terms in which it is posed and developed

A.) There is a need to clarify whether the cycle of crisis–war–reconstruction–crisis is valid.

Such a cycle is not valid, it does not accord with the facts of the international development of capital. Evidently, the two world wars, the numerous regional or more localized wars, and the extraordinary level of militarism generated by capitalism, show that necessarily such a capitalist development cannot be harmonious and free of intense competition, abundant clashes and proliferation of wars.

On the contrary, the enormous development of capitalism itself so far shows that war must be of enormous catastrophic power when it acquires a global dimension and a powerful dissemination of terrorist warmongering in the struggles of the capitalist states and coalitions. However, war is not a sign of decadence, it has been present throughout the whole journey of capitalism, it increases in power as militarist technology develops. Today it is necessary to understand what tendencies we are confronted with, what their potential and dynamism are and, above all, why a third world war has not [already] broken out, whereas capital has generated notorious general economic crises. For our part the necessary explanations are given. See our article: “Conditions for a third world war. Origins of many confusions”. (2)

B.) Accurate approaches must question whether capital has entered into decadence after incorporating the zone of China and Southeast Asia into the capitalist maelstrom, and must also criticize speculations that capital would not have a reserve army when carrying out such a process. Such a reserve army exists, it is large and internationally spread; and the incorporation of these zones has taken place in a period of capital’s ascendancy, bringing in new lifeblood in a formidable process of proletarianization and capitalization.

We also consider decadentist theories centered on ecological degradation, fossil fuel depletion, or economic automation to be fallacious. Present tendencies and other realities do not allow us to claim that capitalism is collapsing or on the verge of collapse. We know that capitalist reforms are also drivers of catastrophe, of bourgeois exploitation of and domination over the proletarian class, but capitalism still has the capacity to reform while preserving its central core.

C.) A theory of decadence is necessary. The mistakes of the past and the Marxist inadequacies and weaknesses do not permit to avoid such a necessary theory. We also have to insist on the necessary existence of the periodic crises of capitalism, to specify the scientific communist explanation and to carry out a rigorous theorization of the process of accumulation and crisis in the decadence to come.

D.) The idea that decadence does not yet exist, but that it is bound to come under certain conditions, leads to the necessity to specify the strategic and tactical implications.

The revolution is born out of dynamic contradictions in the process of class struggle. Therefore it should not be ruled out that these contradictions may come together before the entry into decadence, although at present it is clear that they have not yet come together and that we are far from it.

Today the conditions of capitalism are not favorable to “old-fashioned” revolutions. As Marx and Engels argued, the proletariat has to go through the painful school of mistakes, doubt, paralyzing fear, relapse into old illusions and new experiences of struggle, in order to transform itself and reach a development of its consciousness and organizational capacity that will enable it to confront capital.

This leads us to consider that the best conditions for a proletarian revolution to emerge and unfold internationally are those of a deepening of decadence, generating significant tensions in sharp reiteration, in such a way as to configure a world situation in which the proletariat has to realize its revolutionary movement with strong massiveness, practical intelligence and theoretical lucidity. If this is not done the danger of catastrophe for the two great classes in conflict is evident, in an environment degraded by the accumulation of numerous consequences of capitalism, social struggles and crises, wars and marked and complex environmental degradation.

We know that the future process cannot be specified in advance in all its details and characteristics, that there can be surprises and that energies and capacities can be awakened in certain segments of the proletarian class in particular places. This cannot be ruled out, but it is certainly not the best condition for an international victory and therefore we must be consistent: to push the struggle as far as possible but not invite to or applaud ill-prepared and scattered confrontations. In short, not to compromise with the suicide of such sectors if such a situation should arise.

E.) Faced with a hypothetical revolutionary process prior to that decadent period, internationalist communists must critically assess its conditions, if they intend to bring about the greatest possible confrontation with capitalism, and not an action that is composed of immature and dispersed movements, which we know are easily defeated head-on, or channeled towards their loss of energy and exhaustion, with the negative consequences that this usually brings for the proletariat, entrenched for many years to come.

It is not a matter of accumulating reforms and waiting, neither of bringing about an acceleration of capitalist development, both economically and politically; nor of course of participating in a world war in favor of a supposedly “less bad” or “favorable” bourgeois side for the future. It is about promoting extreme lucidity in the face of the power and capabilities of capital. It is about avoiding mistakes we know from the past. Mistakes that have been very costly in various fields.

F.) In sum, the experiences of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23 make it advisable to be cautious and avoid engaging in revolutionary processes which do not find adequate conditions and which, when defeated by the counter-revolution, engender a marked weakening of the proletarian milieu, and dispersion, confusion and various opportunisms in the communist milieu. An enemy as formidable as the present forces of capital demands an antagonist proletarian class that constitutes its force with much greater massiveness and lucidity than in those years.

G.) The experience of the USSR demands as well to keep in mind that the substitutionist voluntarism (synthesized in “the dictatorship of the proletariat is the dictatorship of the communist party”) is the expression of a bad, deformed approach of the relations between the communist party and the workers’ councils. It facilitates the passage of the communist vanguard to positions of management of capitalism, degrading communist theory and praxis, and thus compelling those who reject this substitutionism to confront such formerly revolutionary communist forces in such conditions, as was the case with the Russian Bolshevik party, [that became a] vector of capitalist dissemination.

It is therefore necessary to know how to retreat when conditions do not permit the realization of the communist program, its measures and orientations. That is why the KAPDist call to the RCP(b) to get out of government and state control was right, which, as we know, Bolshevism did not heed, thus marking its fatal passage to the anti-proletarian, pro-capitalist and imperialist forces.

H.) It is not true that socialism is formed within capitalism as a defined system that contrasts and competes with capitalism, and little by little gangrenes it until it imposes itself. It is not the same process that happened in feudalism with the historical and economic ascent of capitalist relations.

Capitalism does generate a certain material base that socialism needs, that propitiates abundance and not a society of scarcity.

We do not accept the Leninist schema, which comes from the base of a fallacious and distorted social-democratic legacy. It is mystifying to affirm, with Leninism and Kautskyist ideology, that it is possible to control and direct state capitalism, as the “prelude to socialism”.

→ Continued on the next page with: The likely characteristics of the decadence of capitalism


1 Source: Karl Kautsky, Das Erfurter Programm in seinem grundsätzlichen Theil (1892); IV. Der Zukunftsstaat 6. Der Aufbau des Zukunftsstaates (Dietz Verlag, Berlin 1965).

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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