In Defense of Historical Materialism (Part I)

2. Obsolescence according to Marx, the 3rd International and the Communist Left

Marx and Engels elaborated the materialist and historical conception of the evolution of societies by identifying the dialectic between the social relations of production (1) and the productive forces (2), a dialectic which defines, for all class societies, an ascending phase where these relations energize these forces and a phase of obsolescence where these same relations slow them down.

On four occasions, Marx judges that capitalism has reached its apogee and is entering its phase of obsolescence. The terms he uses to describe this process are unambiguous: “a period of senility”, “a regressive social system”, “an obstacle to the development of the productive forces”, “a system that is more and more surviving”. Here are these four successive observations:

  1. This historical sentence was first pronounced in the Communist Manifesto in 1848: “The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer serve to further (bourgeois civilization and) the bourgeois property relations; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these relations, by which they are fettered (…) The bourgeois relations have become 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.“

  2. Then, in a letter to Engels of October 8, 1858, Marx specifies the qualitative criteria for determining the moment of the apogee of capitalism, namely the creation of “the world market, at least in its broad outlines, and production conditioned by the world market”. In his opinion, these two criteria have already been met for Europe: in 1858, Marx believes that the socialist revolution is ripe on the continent, but not yet for the rest of the globe, which he considers to be still in its ascendant phase: “The proper task of bourgeois society is the creation of the world market, at least in outline, and of a 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. 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 on a much larger terrain?

  3. While writing the manuscripts of his third book on Capital, Marx thought, once again, that capitalism was entering its phase of obsolescence: Here the capitalist mode of production falls into a new contradiction. Its historical profession is the ruthless, geometrically progressive deployment of the productivity of human labor. It becomes unfaithful to this profession as soon as, as here, it hinders the deployment of productivity. In doing so, it only proves anew that it is becoming decrepit and outliving itself more and more.” (3)

  4. Two years before his death, Marx made a similar diagnosis in the second draft of a letter to Vera Zassoulitch: “(…) the capitalist system in the West is fading, and the time is approaching when it will be only an “archaic” formation.” (4)

However, Marx would come back several times to these premature judgments regarding the durability of capitalism and its continued development. Thus he wrote in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, at the end of 1850, that “in the presence of this general prosperity, in which the productive forces of bourgeois society are developing with all the luxuriance that is possible within the bourgeois relations, there can be no question of a real revolution.”

Engels concluded this research in 1895 by openly admitting that History has proved us wrong and all others who thought similarly. It has made clear that the state 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…[…] If even this powerful army of the proletariat has still not reached the goal, if, far from winning the victory by one fell blow, it must slowly advance by hard, tenacious struggle from position to position, this proves once for all how impossible it was in 1848 to bring about the social transformation by simple overpowering.” (5)

In its turn, the Third International decreed the opening of the phase of obsolescence of capitalism, this time following the outbreak of the First World War: On the basis of its assessment of the world economic situation the Third Congress was able to declare with complete certainty that capitalism had fulfilled its mission of developing the productive forces and had reached a stage of irreconcilable contradiction with the requirements not only of modern historical development, but also of the most elementary conditions of human existence. This fundamental contradiction was reflected in the recent imperialist war and further sharpened by the great damage the war inflicted on the conditions of production and distribution. Obsolete capitalism has reached the stage where the destruction that results from its unbridled power is crippling and ruining the economic achievements that have been built up by the proletariat, despite the fetters of capitalist slavery. […] What capitalism is passing through today is nothing other than its death throes.” (6)

The theoretical foundations of this “period of capitalist decline” have never been unanimous: they range from Lenin’s theory of imperialism, to Luxemburg’s saturation of extra-capitalist markets, to Grossman’s and Mattick’s various explanations of the fall in the rate of profit.

But there is something more fundamental: whatever the divergences on its explanatory foundations, if this diagnosis posed more than a century ago constituted the best analytical framework for understanding the evolution of capitalism – at least until the immediate post-World War II period… this was less and less the case afterwards! Indeed, while capitalism has pauperized the colonial world since the industrial revolution by limiting its development to a dozen or so Western countries (to which Japan and Russia will be added later), for some decades already, nearly half the world’s population (especially in Asia) is swept up in the vortex of an enlarged accumulation implying a formidable development of the productive forces (both material and human), as well as real improvements in the living conditions of wage earners. Similarly, while in the developed countries these conditions had remained dramatically low for the vast majority of the population during the 19th Century, as a result of strong social pressures during the 20th Century, capitalism had to concede to this same majority improvements that allowed access to standards of living never imagined in the previous century. This evolution has also created an important middle class that has stabilized the socio-political structures of the capitalist system.

This raises, not two possibilities as Link thinks: “This raises 2 possibilities, either a) decadence has not actually started or alternatively b) that the concept of decadent capitalism needs rethinking”, but six as we started to examine in our study on Capital Accumulation in the 20th Century (7):

  1. Either not adhere to the very concept of obsolescence of capitalism, like the Bordigists and some groups of the German-Dutch left, … which does not prevent them from defending class positions! Indeed, the idea that the obsolescence of capitalism since 1914 would constitute an indispensable framework for defending proletarian positions is a legend peddled by the International Communist Current (ICC) to frighten those who would question this framework of analysis. In reality, there is no difficulty in coherently defending the positions outlined by the Communist Left without having to adhere to the idea of the obsolescence of capitalism since 1914. We underline this on purpose because such fears are frequent among the elements close to this organization which makes this dogma the nodal point of all its positions and analyses: “…recognizing the continued growth of capitalism in decadence should lead to seeing dangerous political aberrations in rejecting reformism, national question, its interpretation of historical materialism and so forth.” (Link). (8)

  2. Either deny this tremendous development of the productive forces in the 20th Century by denying reality and/or disputing empirical data as the International Communist Current did before its 20th Congress in 2013 and as it still largely continues to do today, even if it very partially acknowledges some realities with lip service.

  3. Or invert the definition put forward by Marx in order to evacuate the contradiction, i.e. to affirm that the obsolescence of capitalism would be characterized, not by a brake, but by an unprecedented development of the productive forces, a development so important that it engenders wars and irreparable ecological disasters putting humanity itself in danger. This is the choice made by the group Internationalist Perspective (IP). Without repeating all the arguments of the latter, this approach is very much appreciated by Link: “This is why we have been looking at other views on decadence but we are all critical of the ICC’s approach and have developed ideas which in my opinion are more in line with IP’s as per the text I sent.” Ironically and without acknowledging it, this analysis of IP is widely taken up by the ICC these days… whereas the latter had been strongly critical of this approach until now!

  4. Either abandon the classical explanations of the obsolescence of capitalism, while proposing a theoretical and historical deepening that allows to understand this momentary absence of a brake on the development of the productive forces in the 20th Century. This is the choice we made until 2017-2018, by appropriating the analysis published on ‘Capitalism and Economic Crises’. (9) It is also the choice made by Link, but with completely different arguments that we will discuss in this contribution.

  5. Or have the political courage of Marx and Engels, that is, to recognize one’s error in the face of the formidable development of capitalism, to postpone the advent of obsolescence into the future and to reconsider the dynamics of capitalism since its origins. This is the option we have chosen for the last four or five years, (10) following a series of reflections that we set out in part in this contribution. It is also the choice made by Anibal well before us.

  6. Or, finally, try to marry fire and water by maintaining the diagnosis of a brake on the development of the productive forces on a Luxemburgist basis to explain the obsolescence of capitalism since 1914 (i.e. the insufficiency of pre-capitalist markets) … while trying to explain, in an equally Luxemburgist way, the strong accumulation of capital since then (i.e. the sufficiency of pre-capitalist markets)! It is for this double language that the International Communist Current has recently opted.

The present contribution pursues four objectives:

  1. To reply to options 3 and 4 followed by Link in an attempt to resolve the contradiction between the diagnosis of the obsolescence of capitalism since 1914 and the tremendous development of the productive forces since then;

  2. To refute the confusions on the nature of the changes that occurred to capitalism at the dawn of the 20th Century propagated by the ICC, and which are often resumed in this debate, either in whole or partly;

  3. To clarify our own approach (option 5 above) and answer Link’s questions about the analysis that underlies it;

  4. Finally, to explain the structural reasons why we believe, contrary to Anibal, that capitalism is gradually entering its phase of obsolescence on the threshold of the 21st Century.

Next page: 3. Myths and Reality of

the Changes of Capitalism in 1914


1 These are wage labor in the capitalist mode of production, serfdom in feudalism, slavery in antiquity, tribute in tributary societies (royal, Asian, etc.). They are social relations in that they bring together a dominant class that draws its resources from the productive labor of the dominated classes: surplus value in capitalism, feudal rent, free labor of slaves, tributary taxes. They are relations of production, that is to say social relations under which the essential of the produced wealth is created within each mode of production.

2 Marx defined three components to the productive forces: men, nature and the means of production (machines, sciences, techniques and organization of work).

3 Marx, Capital, Volume III (Hamburg, 1894), Section III, Ch. 15 (MEW Bd. 25, p. 272), and: But each particular historical form of this process [i.e. the labor process] further develops the material foundations and social forms thereof. Having reached a certain stage of maturity, the particular historical form is stripped away and makes way for a higher one. That the moment of such a crisis has come becomes evident as soon as the contradiction and opposition between the relations of distribution, hence also the definite historical form of the relations of production corresponding to them, on the one hand, and the productive forces, the productive capacity and the development of its agents, on the other, gains breadth and depth. A conflict then arises between the material development of production and its social form.” (Ibidem, Section VII, Ch. 51 (MEW Bd. 25, p. 890)

4 Shanin, 1983: Late Marx and the Russian Road. Marx and ‘The Peripheries of Capitalism’, Routledge and Kegan Paul, p.103. [see also the notes to Marx’s “Drafts for a reply to the letter of V.I. Sassulitsch”, February – March 1881, in MEW Bd. 19, p. 384-406 (German)]

5 Engels, 1895: Preface to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850. (MEW Bd. 22, p. 509–527)

6 Extract from the second point of the Theses on Comintern Tactics entitled: The period of capitalist decline. It was voted at its Fourth Congress (1922). Source: Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the first four congresses of the Third International, Ink Links / Pluto Press, London 1983.

7 See: L’accumulation du capital au XXème siècle – I (Version 2 – May 2011; online in French and Spanish).

8 We have extensively deconstructed all the pseudo “arguments” put forward by the ICC to justify its dogma of the entry of capitalism into decadence since 1914 in our article series: The Falsehoods of the International Communist Current (ICC) — A Critique. [English translation on ‘A Free Retriever’s Digest’, Ch. 1-3, version of June 2021]

9 See: M. Roelandts – Dynamiques, contradictions et crises du capitalisme (Cf. ‘Note de lecture in Controverses, November 2010) (French)

10 See also: 250 Years of Modern Capitalism (Ch. 1-3; sources); English translation on ‘A Free Retriever’s Digest’, version of November 2020.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s