In Defense of Historical Materialism (Part I)

1. Questioning the Obsolescence of Capitalism

Consistent with his materialist, historical and dialectical analysis, Marx defines the entry of a society into its phase of obsolescence from the moment when its social relations of production become obsolete and slow down the development of the productive forces, whereas these same relations accelerated and generalized them during its ascending phase.

This theoretical corpus, coupled with the devastation wrought by imperialism and the First World War, convinced the communist movement that the capitalist system had run its course. The period of the Thirty Disastrous Years (1914-1945), combining a strong economic slowdown and a procession of wars, crises, revolutions and totalitarianisms, will largely confirm this diagnosis well synthesized by the two slogans of the time: ‘Wars and Revolutions’ and ‘Socialism or Barbarism’.

However, against all odds – Marxists expected a new crisis and a third world war to break out after 1945 – the trajectory of capitalism progressively invalidated this framework of analysis: the productive forces developed strongly throughout the world, as did the standard of living of wage-earners, revolutions hardly multiplied and the third world conflict did not break out for more than three-quarters of a century.

Faced with these facts, some people remain dogmatic in their old analyses, denying or minimizing the changes that have taken place, while others try to bring a new understanding. (1) Like us, Link is one of the latter. The essence of his reflections can be summarized in the following two reflections: “I do not accept that decadence is purely a decline as shown by empirical economic data. It is also political and social, and this is why I would like to understand why you appear to suggest that the world market, imperialism, state capitalism are not signs of decadence.” (Link).

  1. He remains convinced that the changes that occurred in capitalism at the beginning of the 20th Century signal its entry into its phase of obsolescence, but as he recognizes that the productive forces in the 20th Century have developed more rapidly than in the 19th Century, he abandons the traditional Marxist conception according to which the obsolescence of a mode of production manifests itself in its economic infrastructure by a brake on the development of the productive forces. (2) Moreover, like the group Internationalist Perspective (IP), he reverses this definition by affirming that it is no longer the brake but the acceleration of the development of the productive forces that would constitute the reason for the entry into decadence of capitalism. (3)

  2. He then argues that certain superstructural changes that occurred at the time of the First World War in the political, social and imperialist domains, as well as certain economic mechanisms, are sufficient to characterize the change of period. To cite: the constitution of the world market, the advent of state capitalism, indebtedness, world and regional wars, armament, increased exploitation, ideological control of the working class, imperialism, immigration to the central nations… (4)

After recalling what Marx meant by the obsolescence of a mode of production, its identification at the beginning of the 20th Century by the communist movement as well as the range of current debates within the Communist Left on this question, we will explain how this turning point in the evolution of capitalism can no longer be located at the time of the first world war and why we can identify it at the threshold of the 21st Century. We will illustrate the pertinence of historical materialism in the understanding of the evolution of modes of production and will reply to the innovations that Link wants to introduce. Finally, we will clarify what the real changes in capitalism were at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Next page: 2. Obsolescence according to Marx,

the 3rd International and the Communist Left


1 In the former, we can classify the classic groups of the Communist Left like the ICC (International Communist Current) or the ICT (Internationalist Communist Tendency)… and, in the latter, others like IP (Internationalist Perspective, etc.) or sympathizer-dissident individuals (like Link or Anibal).

2 “So, on the basis that capitalism must always continue to accumulate and grow, then perhaps we should not see decadence as an issue of quantitative change, i.e. economic decline, but of qualitative change, i.e. the political and social changes demanded by the change in the economic environment.” (Link).

3 “It is the enormous growth it has achieved so far that is now a threat to humanity and to the natural world. Growth today is more destructive than productive precisely because we can see today the major impacts that this growth is having upon our environment and on humanity.” (Link).

4“As I said previously, I am inclining therefore to a preference for the term obsolete where it can no longer be seen as progressive for humanity and where political changes such as state capitalism, ideological control of the working class, wars of attrition and economic issues such as imperialism, debt, increased exploitation, increased waste production, development of business theories play an increased role.” (Link).

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