Has Capitalism entered its Decadence since 1914?

The Falsehoods of the International Communist Current (ICC) — A Critique

The following contribution challenges a fundamental programmatic position shared by several groups of the contemporary communist Left, in continuity with the beginnings of the III. (or Communist) International, namely that capitalism has entered its phase of decline as an historical mode of production since the outbreak of World War 1. It does so following the method that Marx applied in his (unfinished) magnum opus ‘Capital’, comparing the evolution of capitalism before and since 1914 at the hand of documented empirical data. These are summarized in a series of graphs and contrasted with the affirmations by one of the most outspoken protagonists of this position.

 

Contents:

  1.  A Brake on the Productive Forces since 1914 – or their Acceleration?

    1. Historical materialism

    2. A brake on the absolute production of wealth since 1914?

    3. A brake on the relative production (per inhabitant) of wealth since 1914?

    4. A brake on the population since 1914?

    5. Production versus distribution of wealth

    6. The distribution of incomes before and after 1914

    7. Life expectancy and the body length of inhabitants before and after 1914

    8. The development of the working class since 1914

  2. A Halt to Real and Sustainable Reforms after 1914 – or their Accentuation?

    1. Real wages and working time before and after 1914

    2. The rate of exploitation of the wage earners before and after 1914

    3. Unemployment before and after 1914

    4. On the nature and function of the Trade Unions since 1914

 

Introduction

Formally the ICC defends a series of pertinent political positions like the capitalist nature of all countries that have pretended to be ‘socialist’ – or still do so; the institutional integration of so-called “left” organizations, including the trade unions; the outdated character of “revolutionary parliamentarism”; self-management as self-exploitation of the waged workers, etc.

  1. However, the theoretic framework that supports them is completely obsolete, because it frontally contradicts the facts; it is anachronistic according to historical materialism and beyond the Marxist critique of political economy. It results in a sum of explanations without objective foundations; in reality idealist ones.

  2. As a consequence, it implies dangerous political aberrations, for instance on the immediate struggles and the so-called impossibility to obtain real and sustainable reforms since 1914; (1) the impossibility of real national developments in the 20th Century; an idealist conception of human nature and morals; (2) productivist visions of historical materialism; (3) not taking into account objective divisions within the working class, whose origins are not specific of class societies (like for example gender); an idealized vision of the first societies…

  3. Consequently, this theoretical framework has to be replaced by a corpus with really scientific foundations, one that establishes a new coherent whole in which material reality and theory are conjugated and respond to one another.

  4. This implies to amend certain basic positions of the ICC (4) in the light of the evolution of Capitalism, like on the national question, or the place occupied by the reformist forces since the First World War and the defeat of the insurrectional movements from 1917 to 1923.

  5. Moreover, two positions of the ICC are only stated without really being defended by it, like the non-substitution of the workers’ councils by the party, and the respect of non-violence when deciding on divergences within the working class.

  6. Finally, numerous questions are either absent from its basic corpus or are only marginally treated, albeit they are crucial: gender, human nature, the relationship with nature, new technologies, the changes in the composition of the proletariat, the period of transition, ecology, etc.

Our objective here is not to develop all these points, that will be treated in subsequent contributions, but only to treat the first one, in order to demonstrate the incoherence of its basic credo – the decadence of capitalism since 1914 – in its version inherited from the Gauche Communiste de France (5) since the Second World War, and which, essentially, has not changed one iota. Well, this framework, which at the time already was shaky on many points, is totally outdated today.

C.Mcl., August 14, 2019

Source: Les impostures du CCI (Courant Communiste International)

Translation: H.C., September 2020. Reviewed by the author.

Latest corrections: 17 November 2020.

 

 

I. A Brake on the Productive Forces since 1914 – or their Acceleration?

(Click below on page 2)

 


Notes

1 Cf. C.Mcl., How to understand ‘May 1968’ in France? (Abridged version, September 23, 2018, also in ‘A Free Retriever’s Digest’ Vol.2#5, October – November 2018). The full version appeared in French on May 11, 2018 at the ‘Controverses’ website: Mai 68 : la signification des luttes de 1966 à 1972, and in ‘Controverses’ no. 5, May 2018.

2 Cf. C. Mcl., Morale et matérialisme historique – Ière partie (‘Controverses’ no. 2, September 2009); currently only available in French.

3 Cf. Matérialisme historique et dialectique – La société se complexifie-t-elle au cours du temps? in Controverses No. 5, May 2018 (“Historical and dialectical materialism – Does Society become more complex over time?”); currently only available in French.

8 thoughts on “Has Capitalism entered its Decadence since 1914?”

  1. We received the following reply from the author to the three foregoing comments:
    (November 15, 2020)

    Thank you for critical reading of my contributions. They are welcome. Here are some quick comments to clarify some topics. Hoping that my poor English doesn’t create more misunderstandings.

    My critical contribution begins by reaffirming the relevance of the Marxist concepts of ascendancy and obsolescence for understanding the evolution of modes of production. What I question is the diagnosis of obsolescence of capitalism from 1914.

    This diagnosis synthesized the most coherent analysis of capitalism at the time and had to be defended in the historical context of the two world wars. More, as Link writes (but for certain elements of this theory only), this analysis could still be defended until the years 1960 and even 1970. Half a century later, to maintain this analysis reveals a denial of reality.

    So I also agree with Link when he writes that “Luxemburg, Lenin, Bukharin and others are I think to be applauded for their efforts at the start of the 20th century to understand how capitalism was changing at that time. With hindsight we can say they all got some things right and some things wrong”. Indeed, all these revolutionaries brought essential clarifications on the functioning of capitalism. A new coherent and superior synthesis is to be developed from some of their respective contributions.

    Personally, I agree with Pannekoek’s premonitory analysis in 1945 which situates the advent of capitalism’s obsolescence when the latter will have integrated China and India (and more generally the Asian continent) in its accumulation dynamic : « But the earth is a globe, of limited extent. The discovery of its finite size accompanied the rise of capitalism four centuries ago, the realization of its finite size now marks the end of capitalism. The population to be subjected is limited. The hundreds of millions crowding the fertile plains of China and India once drawn within the confines of capitalism, its chief work is accomplished. Then no large human masses remain as objects for subjection. Surely there remain vast wild areas to be converted into realms of human culture; but their exploitation demands conscious collaboration of organized humanity ; the rough rapine methods of capitalism—the fertility destroying “rape of the earth”—are of no avail there. Then its further expansion is checked. Not as a sudden impediment, but gradually, as a growing difficulty of selling products and investing capital. Then the pace of development slackens, production slows up, unemployment waxes a sneaking disease. Then the mutual fight of the capitalists for world domination becomes fiercer, with new world wars impending. So there can hardly be any doubt that an unlimited expansion of capitalism offering lasting life possibilities for the population, is excluded by its inner economic character. And that the time will come that the evil of depression, the calamities of unemployment, the terrors of war, grow ever stronger. Then the working class, if not yet revolting, must rise and fight. Then the workers must choose between inertly succumbing and actively fighting to win freedom. Then they will have to take up their task of creating a better world out of the chaos of decaying capitalism.” Workers Councils.

    I think we are living today this process described by Pannekoek : capitalism is slowly entering its period of obsolescence with the beginning of the decline of economic growth in China since 2013 and the rise of a new imperialist bipolarization between this country and the United States, a bipolarization which contains the danger of a third world war if the proletariat does not manage to stop the armed wing of the bourgeoisie. I therefore agree with Fredocorvo on the general meaning of his remarks on imperialist wars in capitalism. I just haven’t touched on this yet, that’s the downside of presenting a ‘work in progress’.

    Just because we reject the diagnosis of obsolescence in 1914 does not mean we reject the concept of obsolescence. Likewise, it is not because we reject the diagnosis of obsolescence in 1914 that we deny that the First World War represented an important stage in the life of capitalism. So I agree with Link when he writes “… the point is that a significant change in capitalism development took place”.

    Moreover, this important step has fundamental political implications. So, I agree with the political positions defended by the communist left, but these positions do not need the idea of ​​”decadence in 1914″ to be defended! I contend that the positions of the communist left are becoming inconsistent and untenable with the theory of the ​​”decadence in 1914″‘. They must be explained on the basis of a coherent analysis of the evolution of real capitalism and not from an ideal schema: this is the whole point of the work on 250 years of capitalism. Moreover, many historical or current groups of the communist left do not need the theory of the ​​”decadence in 1914″ to defend the lessons drawn by this political current. The theory of the “decline in 1914” is an obstacle to a good understanding of the world and of the historical and immediate interests of the working class. I have shown it concerning the development of capitalism (chapter 1) and concerning the evolution of the conditions of the working class (chapter 2), I have also just demonstrated it on the national question (chapter 3, only in French for the moment ).

    Finally, I agree with the passages of Grossman and Marx cited by Link … but they in no way demonstrate the ‘decadence in 1914’ since Grossman writes that “accumulation proceeds at an accelerated tempo” and that Marx writes “a large capital with a small rate of profit accumulates faster than a small capital with a large rate of profit ‘”. “Accelerated tempo” and “accumulates faster”, if words have a meaning, it’s very different from “… a fetter on the growth of productive forces …” (Link) !!!!

    All his life, Marx searched for statistical data and gathered it preciously. In his books, he often greets and thanks the authors who have published interesting statistics. He defended and demanded the need for official statistics. He who cherished the hope of putting his major work in equation and graph, he would have been delighted to have the historical database provided by the Bank of England: “I submitted here to Moore [The translator of the Communist Manifesto in English] a story with which I have tussled around privately for a long time (…) you know the tables where prices, discount rates, etc., etc. are represented in their fluctuations during the year, etc. by zigzag curves that go up and down. I have tried several times – to analyze the crises -, to calculate these ups and downs as irregular curves, and I have believed it possible (I still believe it is possible, with sufficiently studied material) to determine the essential laws of the crises mathematically from there. Moore, as said, takes the case as not feasible until further notice, and I have decided to give it up for the time being” (Letter from Marx to Engels of May 31, 1873). I invite Link to go to the source of the data and he will find that this is remarkable work by the best economic historians and having been the subject of numerous scientific publications. Marx would have been delighted to be able to have such statistics in order to be able to empirically validate his major work Capital. Indeed, these statistics allow us to empirically validate Marx’s reasoning over the long term since they date back to 1760, or even more so for some of them.

    Regarding your question about the representativeness of the GB, it is legitimate, but I have not yet come across conflicting data from other countries. Thus, the observed trend is the same in France from 1895 until today : here is the source (the rate of surplus value is called the “margin rate” in this graph). In Spain, the rate of surplus value decreases from 1954 to 1980, it then goes up but does not exceed its 1954 level (the source is here)! In the United States, the rate of surplus value hovers around the index 100 over half a century between 1951 and 2001, etc.

    Personally, I would be more wary of organizations (ICC is a case in point) that state so-called ‘truths’ without providing any empirical evidence, and when numbers contradict ICC claims, ICC discredits numbers that disturb them! This is the ICC ‘scientific method’, a real sham.

    Regarding the tasks at hand in the current period, as this is another topic of discussion, I refer to the text I wrote on this subject: It’s midnight in the Communist Left.

    C.Mcl.

  2. With this answer F.C. makes the following remark about the way Pannekoek is interpreted, an interpretation with far-reaching consequences:

    C.Mcl. ignores the fact that in “De economische noodzakelijkheid van het imperialisme” part V, p. 280 (never translated from Dutch), Pannekoek assumes that capitalism comes to an end when it can no longer draw on an industrial reserve army. Consequently, C.Mcl has not examined this, whereas there are indications that the part of the population expropriated from its means of subsistence, but which cannot be included in the capitalist production process, is increasing in certain regions and possibly worldwide, rather than decreasing. See for further explanation in “When in China a butterfly flaps its wings”: Instead of a Foreword on Controversies. [The postscript is available there in pdf]

    Fredo Corvo, 16-11-2020

  3. Comments in relation to what you have read from Fredo Corvo and C.Mcl.

    – The decline of an economic and social formation such as the capitalist one occurs when its historical trends of growth and its catastrophic consequences pile up in a context of serious problems to maintain or continue its accumulation. This leads to strong devaluation crises, inducing even greater difficulties. In other words, a general trend that is different from and contrary to that which characterizes its historical rise, with its dynamics of economic development (the latter has been the subject of several studies). The upward trend of the economy is intrinsically contradictory, is not permanent and necessarily generates partial crises and general crises of capitalism.

    – Capitalism does not collapse or die decadently on its own, communist revolution is necessary.
    – Capitalism integrated areas such as India and China, develops them and does not go into decay. That should make one think critically.
    – There is no permanent crisis or permanent world war. There are localized wars, multiple wars, two world wars, new economic crises periodically. The cycle is not “crisis-war-reconstruction-new crisis-war”…etc. World wars do not happen cyclically to every crisis, and local wars have not been the key to get out of economic crises, but the dynamics of devaluation of capital, expressed in the destruction, partial sterilization and degradation of capital.
    – Capitalism is approaching the apogee of its historical period of ascendancy, and its decline has not yet been generated. The consequences of capitalism are serious, for the proletarian class and natural ecosystems, and it is accumulating at various levels, which is important in this sense.
    – There is no third world war, despite the numerous inter-imperialist conflicts and tensions, because the dynamics of deterrence and the level reached by inter-imperialist antagonisms hinder it.
    The class struggle is not at a level that allows it to be avoided, which is evident if one understands the facts and the operative dynamics, contrary to the simple doctrinaire and ultra-left fantasies that abound. The contradictions will have to be much more complicated and intense, both quantitatively and qualitatively, if World War III is to take place despite these military deterrents.
    – We have devoted considerable time and effort to addressing these issues in the Inter-rev forum and in the books of the Inter-rev editions.

    Aníbal

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