Review:Communism Has Not Yet Begun
by
Claude Bitot


Against the fallacious equation of communism with what was going on in the Eastern Bloc, against all forms of indeterminism ("we don't know where we're going", "there are no more perspectives"),Claude Bitot (CB) has written a Marxist analysis about the evolution of human society and the perspective of communist revolution in his book Communism has not yet begun, recently published by Spartacus (Paris, 1995). His goal is ambitious. He starts out by re-examining the origin of the idea of socialism (which he traces back to early Christianity) and ends with the tasks of the period of transition to communism and the basic principles of future communism; along the way he analyses the development of Marxist theory and the events of 1848, 1871, the revolutionary wave of 1917-23, the two world wars and the post-war period. Such an effort must be applauded. With this book, CB brings a Marxist view of history, written in a clear and precise language, within everybody's reach. He reminds us that the capitalist mode of production is not eternal; that the proletarian revolution and the communism to which it can give birth are real possibilities today.

But there are also points on which his and our analyses clash, which we want to highlight in this article. Not to denigrate his book but, on the contrary, to stimulate the reader to read it himself and to contribute to the discussion of the fundamental questions it raises.

We won't say much on the first three chapters, which deal with the history of the workers movement before the First World War. We agree with CB's analyses that the objective conditions for a socialist revolution were not yet present in this period. So we also agree with his critical analysis of the revolutionary attempts in this period (1848, 1871) and of the theories defended by revolutionaries such as Marx and Engels.

Our disagreements concern his analysis of the 20th century. CB defends a number of hypotheses which are wrong in our eyes. His central hypothesis is that the absence of a victorious communist revolution until now is not due to a lack of maturation of the subjective conditions (class consciousness) as such, but to a lack of maturation of the objective conditions (economic conditions). In his view, capitalism enjoyed vigourous economic growth up to the 1970s, and only recently (since 1974-75) has it entered a phase of irreversible historic crisis, the necessary condition for the emergence of the revolution. From this hypothesis a number of others flow concerning the interpretation of the main events of this century. First, on the historic analysis of the evolution of the capitalist system. CB rejects the concept of decadence, of a periodisation in the life of capitalism. Instead, he sees a progressive development of capitalism until the '70s, when, in his view, a catastrophic crisis begins. A second hypothesis concerns the world wars, which are not seen as moments of crisis of a system which has become an obstacle to humanity's development, but as mere moments of crisis of growth of the system. A third hypothesis concerns the revolutionary movements at the beginning of this century. Since for CB, the objective conditions were still immature, he sees the Russian revolution as voluntarist and utopian: there was no international revolutionary wave, at best, only a revolutionary surge in a few countries. For the same reason, he denies that a real International or a real party could exist at the time.

This overview shows that CB attempts no less than a complete reinterpretation of the history of the 20th century, which departs radically from the analyses of Marxists until now, in particular from those of the Italian and German/Dutch communist left (which are never quoted in this book). By no means do we have the idea that all the answers to today's questions have already been given by the theoreticians of the past. To the contrary, many times IP has insisted on the need to continue the theoretical work of the communist left - in particular on state capitalism, decadence, the evolution of capitalism since the Second World War. In short, we share CB's desire for theoretical renewal, but we strongly disagree with his answers to the questions of the current period. We want to comment in particular on three important points: the analysis of the development of capitalism, the analysis of the world wars and the analysis of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23.

1. DECADENCE OR FINAL HISTORIC CRISIS OF CAPITALISM?

The book is based on the idea that history is strictly economically determined. CB is right to insist that the succession of modes of production, from primitive communism to capitalism, was directed by the development of the productive forces; and that the ideas advocating communism, (more or less) emerged all through history (such as Babeuf's "Conspiracy for Equality" in 1796) but could not be realised. However, it seems a mistake to us to conclude from this that, if the proletariat has so far not succeeded in making its revolution, this is only due to a lack of maturation of economic development. For us, the passage of capitalism to communism is different from the transitions between earlier mode of productions, because the proletariat can in no way build up economic power within capitalist society. Therefore, for the first time in history, the subjective factor - that is, the consciousness of people of the necessity and possibility of the revolution - becomes decisive. And the development of this consciousness is not a mere mechanic reaction to the state of development of the productive forces; there is a time-gap between the levels of their development and the consciousness that people have of them. The maturity of the objective conditions of the revolution (development of the productive forces) and the maturity of the subjective conditions (development of class consciousness) are not the same, even if they are closely related.

How does CB support his theory that the capitalist systen has developed continuously throughout the 20th Century, and that this development made the proletarian revolution impossible? He insists heavily on the fact that the productive forces continued to grow and that the world wars accelerated their development in a powerful way. This proves in his view that the concept of decadence, defended by the ICC (1) as well as IP, is a mistake. But his argument is based on a false premiss: the idea that there is an absolute limit, a point beyond which capitalism can no longer develop its productive forces. As long as this point is not reached, CB thinks all is well for capitalism. He thinks this point was reached in 1974-75, after which the system entered its final crisis. But there is no such absolute ceiling for the development of the productive forces. Capitalism is based on the constant development of value. Short of a revolution, capitalism will continue to develop its productive forces. But the quantitative development of the productive forces in this century does, in itself, not say much about the state of health of the system. In our view, the concept of decadence cannot be solely defined with purely quantitative criteria such as a halt or slowdown of the development of the productive forces. More decisive is the fact that, since the beginning of this century, this development cannot be unilaterally characterized as progress for humankind (2) . On one hand, the continuous evolution of labor productivity means a reduction of necessary labor, which makes the passage to a communist society ever more possible. On the other, a growing part of social production is devoted to commodities that are useless (advertisement, gadgets of the consumer society) or potentially harmful for mankind. (all sorts of arms). On the basis of this criterion, the beginning of the 20th century must be seen as a major turning point in the evolution of the capitalist system. The development of the productive forces which took place since then was accompanied with devalorisations and unprecedented destruction of capital, wether through the two world wars, the development of a permanent and growing arms sector since the second world war, the many conflicts which the world has seen since then, or the collapse of the "Third World" and the Eastern Bloc in recent decades. More and more, the development of the productive forces goes hand in hand with the development of misery for the human species. The turning point, in our view, is not 1974-75, as CB thinks, but the beginning of this century.

His analysis of the crisis of 1929 is a good illustration of the confusion to which CB's premises lead. For him, the crisis of 1929 is caused by the fact that the markets were, until then, mostly limited to Deptartment I (means of production), while the commodities of Department II (means of consumption) were going mostly to the bourgeois class. According to him, the crisis was overcome thanks to the development of mass consumption, made possible by increased productivity. Not a word about the role of public works or the development of arms production (not exactly Department II!) in the absorbtion of the crisis of 1929! Nevertheless, it was in the first place through these public works and later through arms production, that the economic machine was relaunched before the second world war. These artificial markets, created by the capitalist states themselves induced growth, essentially in the means of production (Department I) rather than means of consumption (Department II). "It's guns or butter ", Goering said. So it's not clear which "increase of mass consumption" CB has in mind... It's significant that CB at no point in his lengthy book discusses the impact of the reconstruction and of war, the development of a permanent and growing arms industry after World War Two, or the survival of the capitalist system.

More generally, it seems absurd to explain the crisis, which is a crisis of profit, as resulting form a lack of consumption by the working masses. The source of profit is surplus labor - that is the difference between the value of the wages paid to the workers and the value of their work contained in the commodities they produced. The abilityto realise profit, to valorise capital, is limited by two factors. First, the rise of the organic composition of capital (the ratio machinery/human labor in production) means that commodities contain even less human labor and therefore less potential profit. Second, to transform the surplus value, which these commodities contain, into profit, they must be sold ("Export or die" was the war cry of all governments before World War Two). To develop the consumption capacity of the working class by increasing its wages, means only to increase the paid labor (wages) at the expense of the unpaid labor (profit). It's hard to see how this could resolve the crisis of profit.

Furthermore, CB contradicts himself: elsewhere he writes that the catastrophic crisis of capitalism (beginning in 1974-75) is a crisis of profitability, caused by the fact that the rise of productivity can no longer compensate for the rise of wages. In other words, the working class now consumes too much!. If the current crisis were caused by an exceedingly high wage-level, it's hard to see what's so catastrophic about it. It would suffice to lower wages and cut employment (which the bourgeoisie has indeed done continuously since the 1970s) to resolve it.

2. CRISIS-WAR-RECONSTRUCTION CYCLE OR THIRTY YEARS WAR?

This brings us to the second thesis of CB, on the causes of world wars. Since CB denies that the capitalist system has been in a crisis of profit since the beginning of this century, he also denies that the world wars are resulting from the rivalries between the big powers, fighting for the conquest of new markets. So he needed another explanation of these major events of the 20th century. He found it in the work of a bourgeois historian, A. Mayer, who claimed, in his book La persistance de l'Ancien Regime: l'Europe de 1848 a la Grande Guerre(3), that the two world wars were actually "the thirty years war" of the 20th century. By this, Mayer, and with him CB, means that these wars were provoked by retrograde layers (nobility, high clergy) who wanted to put a brake to the development of capitalism to preserve their own, privileged position, but who were eventually swept away. The crushing of these retrograde layers is supposedly the key to the spectacular development of capitalism after the second world war. CB wholy swallows this theory, which he finds "suggestive and coherent". Well, not in our eyes.

Marxism has always explained society's great events on the basis of the developments of the productive forces and not on the base of the mindset of individuals, as reactionary as they may be. The immense capitalist and imperialist expansion which took place before 1914, and its repercussions on the economies of the great industrial nations, are simply ignored in Mayer's theory. It is as if the economic antagonisms between the great powers, their struggles to get control over markets, the alliances they formed, never existed. CB doesn't see that, at the stage which capitalism had reached, expansion beyond national borders, imperialism and growing military expenditures, form an inseparable whole which hallmarked a new historic period for capitalism.(4)

Instead of a materialist analysis, CB gives us a view of history that seems to come straight out a novel, in which the first half of the 20th century is described as an "eclipse" in the brilliant development of bourgeois society, and fascism as a semi-feudal, archaic "regressive force". Instead of defending the need for a revolutionary, proletarian perspective against the two-pronged enemy fascism/democracy, CB, from these premisses, concludes that democracy was the lesser evil: "In fact, the retrograde forces, by hindering capitalism's march towards real domination, only pushed back the socialist perspective, and, at the same time, gave a new legitimacy to bourgeois democracy. Fascism's worst product is anti-fascism, Bordiga could say, because the effect of fascism was indeed to turn the proletariat away from its struggle against capitalism and bourgeois democracy, to come to their defense. This said, was there any other solution? No, because fascism's appearance on history's stage as a retrograde movement, meant that history did not yet raise the question of the the supression of capitalism. Otherwise, the left of the workers movement would have won."

CB also rejects the idea of capitalism being in the grip, since the beginning of this century, of a cycle of "crisis-war-reconstruction". In the last 15 years "there was no trace of a course towards war", he writes. The fact that Russia has, for now, thrown in the towel in the fight for world hegemony, seems to confirm his position. But the fact that the antagonism between the US and the USSR has not lead to a third world war, does not mean that capitalism has no longer any need for wars as a temporary way out of its contradictions. The reasons why the USSR couldn't launch a military attack against its enemy bloc were essentially economic (the weakness of its capital led, amongst other things, to an incapacity to keep up with the nuclear arms race), and social (the proletariat remained combative). In this situation Russia, the economically weaker competitor, was forced to withdraw from the race before it could fire the first shot. Consequently, the US could establish its hegemony over the whole of the planet without having to fight a war. It would be a mistake however, to conclude from this that from now on, world war is no longer a part of the capitalist picture, as CB seems to think. It is possible that the current American hegemony is only temporary and that, in the future, the economic rivalries between the great powers would lead to military conflicts. Why otherwise would the different bourgeoisies continue to develop and accumulate the most sophisticated weapons?

3. 1917-23: A REAL OR VIRTUAL REVOLUTIONARY WAVE?

The third key point on which CB's positions and ours diverge concerns the revolutionary movements in the early part of this century. Following the logic of his idea that capitalism was then still in the midst of its development, CB affirms that the proletariat, in Russia as well as in the rest of Europe, was not ready for revolution. This for two reasons: it did not constitute the immense majority of the population, given the weight of the large middle and peasant layers, which were only definitely proletarised after 1945; and it was "bourgeoisified", that is, it identified with a system of values and ideological representations that belonged to the ruling class. The take-over of power by the proletariat in Russia in 1917 is then seen as "utopian and voluntaristic" and the existence of a revolutionary wave in other European countries denied. At most, CB admits that there was a "revolutionary push" in Germany. He calls the Third International an artificial construction, which became rapidly clear, from its third congress on.

But CB's thesis leaves more questions hanging than it pretends to answer. What was to be done in Russia? To wait for the objective conditions to mature, and to denounce the workers's and Bolsheviks's attempt to force the course of history? That is untenable. This thesis is but an attempt to rationalize the defeat of the revolutionary wave of the beginning of this century. We must distinguish two questions here. First: were the conditions that make the revolution possible present on an international level? Our answer is yes. The succession of insurrectional movements in different countries testify to it. They clearly worried the bourgeoisie, as shown by the blockade of Russia, the conclusion of a cease-fire with Germany in 1918 and the occupation of the important proletarian centres. Second: were these conditions more or less favorable to the rvolution's victory? With hindsight, we can see a whole series of unfavorable factors which weighed heavily in the outcome of the revolutionary wave. The arguments advanced by CB (numerical weakness of the proletariat and insufficient separation from bourgeois ideology) certainly are amongst them, as are many others (such as the fact that the revolutionary wave emerged after a war, which imposed a division between winners and losers, and the lack of experience of the proletariat with the new strategies of the bourgeoisie). In this sense, we can agree with CB that today, in certain aspects, the conditions are more favorable for the victory of a revolutionary movement. Indeed today, the proletariat has experienced all the characteristics of a developed society, it has lost its trust in all bourgeois forces, including those of the left, and it is not defeated by a world war.

4. CONCLUSIONS

His determinist analysis is at the same time the strength and the weakness of this essay. Its strength, because it allows him to say that capitalism isn't eternal, that the perspective isn't generalized chaos, that the communist revolution is a real possibility. Its weakness, because it tightly links the emergence of the communist revolution to the presence of economic conditions and does not recognize the enormous, primordial weight of class consciousness in the genesis of the revolution. One last example to illustrate this. CB thinks that the reason why the revolution hasn't yet broken out since the beginning of the final historic crisis, is that the attacks on the working class have not yet been sufficiently strong; that all the necessary conditions will be assembled when the absolute pauperisation of the working class reaches the depths of the worst conditions of the 19th century. But that's a mechanistic vision. Indeed, one could just as well reason that, if the working class of the major countries would allow the bourgeoisie to lower its standard of living to the level of the 19th century, it would mean that it's thoroughly dominated by its enemy class. In the revolutionary process, there is no "level X" of crisis and austerity measures that guarantees the unleashing of a revolutionary process on an international level.

CB's logic at first seems flawless and coherent. Yet on several points, it doesn't square with reality. His hyper-determinism cannot explain the major events of this century: the world wars, the military buildİup, the exponential growth of fictitious capital (barely mentioned in this book), the revolutionary upheavals. He can only integrate these events in his analysis by putting them between parentheses (the first half of the 20th century, eclipse in the development of capitalism) or by denying them (the Russian revolution) or by robbing them of their historical significance. That is the main flaw of this book.

This said, it must be recognized that this book tries to fill a real gap. No Marxist theory has yet succeeded to explain the evolution of capitalism in the 20th century in a clear, understandable and solidly founded way. The theory of Rosa Luxemburg, according to which the existence of extra-capitalist markets is the indispensable condition for the survival of the capitalist system, is clearly unable to explain the persistence of this system during this century. It's clear to us that we must be able to explain, within the context of the theory on ascendancy and decadence, the profound transformation which the capitalist system underwent during the last decades, notably by using the concept of the passage from formal to real domination. So, while we disagree with some of CB's theories, we certainly share his concern for breaking with dogmas and actively researching new explanatory hypotheses.

Adele


Claude Bitot replied to this review in the followinng issue of IP


NOTES

1. See their pamphlet The Decadence of Capitalism.
2. See the article "The Development of the productive forces and the decadence of capitalism" in this issue.
3. Published in Collection Champs, Editions Flammarion, Paris.
4. See for instance F. Sternberg, The Conflict of the Century and H. Claude, From the Crisis to the Second World War.

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