The Development of the Productive Forces
and the Decadence of Capitalism

The "Three Stages of the Concept of Decadence," written by Mac Intosh in the last issue of Internationalist Perspective questioned one of the bases of the theoretical baggage of the Communist Left, and of groups such as the International Communist Current (ICC). In effect, the concept of decadence(1) constitutes the framework for the platform of the ICC, from which we have come. Even if we have deepened our own conception of decadence, that concept continues to play an important role for us. Mac Intosh is correct to insist that Marxism is alien to any form of dogma, of eternal truth, and that every progammatic element, even one as important as the concept of the decadence of capitalism, must be subject to critique and confrontation as historical reality changes. He is also right to suggest that the theory of decadence, as it has been developed by the ICC is insufficient, and requires a thorough critical re-examination. However, I don't believe that the elements of the critique of the ICC's conception contained in his text are convincing. Mac Intosh makes two basic criticisms in his text: on one hand, a critique of productivism; on the other hand, a critique of the ICC's concept of decadence as a definitive slackening in the growth of the productive forces. These two criticisms are based on a recognition of real problems; but not being situated in an adequate framework, they do not appear to me to provide an adequate and coherent critique of the conception of the ICC, nor a coherent framework for a new understanding of the world. In my view, the elements for a more general, and a more adequate, theory of historical development must be sought elsewhere.


Mac Intosh first criticizes the conception of the ICC for being "hopelessly, and inextricably entangled with the productivism that is capital's Trojan horse within the camp of Marxism. This productivism makes the development of technology and the productive forces the very standard of historical and social progress; within its theoretical purview, as long as a mode of production assures technological development it must be judged to be historically progressive."(2) Nobody can contest the fact that productivism has had a devastating impact within Marxism, and even more, that it has only too rarely been subjected to revolutionary Marxist critique. The accumulation of capital in Russia under Stalin was undertaken in the name of the "necessary development of the productive forces." Trotsky himself, at the time in opposition to Stalin, glorified this development of the productive forces in Russia, seeing in it the proof of the superiority of "socialism" over capitalism. Only a few groups of the Communist Left denounced this productivism as alien to Marxism. As an ideology glorifying the growth of the scale of production, and of the productivity of labor, productivism is the ideological expression of capital par excellence; the justification of its historic programme of the enlarged production of exchange value.

However, the critique of productivism cannot be made from a moral and abstract point of view, where it runs the risk of rejecting the development of the productive forces brought about by capitalism and the societies which have preceded it, and of simply turning its back on real history. This critique can only be made from an historical materialist point of view. In revealing the historical laws of motion which preside over the development of the productive forces, Marx provided all the elements necessary for a rational critique of productivism. If the development of the productive forces has been a fundamental law of all historical human societies until the present day, it is because humanity has not had the means to assure the full satisfaction of all human needs. This development objectively brings about the conditions for the passage of man from the reign of necessity to that of freedom; and it can only be accomplished under the antagonistic form of the division into social classes, which also results from the incapacity of humanity to assure the full satisfaction of the needs of all. Capital is merely the apogee of this historic process; it is the extreme form of this imperative for the development of the productive forces based on the accumulation of generalized competition. The outcome of this historic process is communism, which brings about the passage of humanity to the reign of freedom. The meaning of communism is, therefore, no longer the quantitative development of the productive forces, but the liberation, the blooming, of the productive forces developed by previous societies. Even if a development - quantitative, but above all qualitative - of the productive forces is still the order of the day during the period of transition from capitalism to communism, which will be accomplished following the revolutionary seizure of power by the proletariat, it must be subject to the progressive realization of the satisfaction of human needs, the basis of the new society.(3)

In explaining this trajectory, Marxism demarcates itself both from a productivist glorification of the growth of the productive forces, and from the romantic yearning for a pre-technological world. The development of the productive forces is a factor of progress to the extent to which it brings humanity to the point where this development will cease to be a blind necessity. The historic "mission" of capital consists precisely in this development of the productive forces which is the condition for the emergence of a new society. And this "mission" will only be completed when capital demonstrates its incapacity to continue to pursue it, thereby precipitating its revolutionary transformation by the proletariat. If the decadence of an historical social form has any meaning, it can only be the expression of its incapacity to continue its progressive "mission" of the development of the productive forces. Therefore, one cannot reproach the ICC, any more than Trotsky or the Communist Left of the past, for basing its conception of the decadence of capitalism on this materialist criterion, which finds its justification in the whole Marxist analysis of historical development. To reproach capital with developing the productive forces too much is tantamount to reproaching its very existence. That can only lead to a moralistic position divorced from the development of history.

It is quite another thing to determine when this historical "mission" reaches its conclusion. Is it completed when all growth in the scale of production becomes impossible? What precise content does one give to this term "development of the productive forces?" What are the implications for the period of transition from capitalism to communism? It is over such questions that debates and divergences within the revolutionary movement have arisen, and will arise, and productivist interpretations can appear, as in the case of Trotsky's position on accumulation in Russia, to which we have already referred.


In its fundamental texts on the decadence of capitalism, in particular in the texts of R.V. republished in its pamphlet The Decadence of Capitalism the ICC demarcates itself from Trotsky's position equating the decadence of capitalism with a pure and simple halt in the growth of the productive forces, and develops its own vision of decadence as expressing instead a definitive slackening in the growth of the productive forces. For the ICC, decadent capitalism continues to experience a growth of the productive forces, though the rhythm of this growth is modified. Mac Intosh pretends to refute this position by citing figures for industrial production which demonstrate an undeniable growth in the course of this century. There is absolutely nothing new in this argument - many other groups have previously made it - and it is completely misplaced. The answer to this argument is already contained in the ICC's own pamphlet. One can believe the answer to be insufficient, but one cannot content oneself with remaking the same argument and conclude that it refutes the position of the ICC.

This argument is based on a confusion between speed and acceleration, between growth and rate of growth, between arithmetric and geometric or exponential growth, which engenders what I will call the mystification of numbers. Just as in mechanics the deceleration of a body does not prevent it from continuing to move (unless it strikes an obstacle), so the slackening of growth does not prevent growth from continuing to occur. Now the figures cited by Mac Intosh only demonstrate one thing: that growth has occurred. But the analogy with mechanics stops there. Biological and derivative systems - and capital is one - possess the general characteristic of growth in a multiplicative manner, such that at a constant rate per unit of mass - or of capital - the speed with which the system as a whole grows does not cease to grow with the growth of the former. This property of geometric or exponential growth makes any comparison of absolute figures misleading. What counts is not the absolute growth, but the rate of growth; a slow rate of growth translates into a strong absolute growth over a sufficiently long term.

Let's take the figures cited by Mac Intosh. According to the source which he cites, world industrial production went from 100.0 in 1900 to 3041.6 in 1980, or a growth by a factor of 30 in 80 years. In appearance, in absolute terms, it is a question of vigorous growth. However, one can easily calculate that in fact this merely corresponds to an average rate of growth of 4.36% per year, which is anything but spectacular in comparison with the rate of growth attained by capital in certain phases of strong growth. What is even more interesting is the way in which absolute growth varies with the rate of growth. Because of the multiplicative character of growth, a slight modification of the rate translates into a considerable variation of absolute growth over the long term. Thus, if industrial production had known an average rate of growth double the rate observed, or 8.72% - which is still modest enough - it would have attained a level of 80,441 in 1980, beginning from a reference point of 100.0 in 1900. A rate multiplied by 2 translates in this case into a growth 26 times greater after 80 years. In his text on decadence, R.V. takes as his point of reference for the rate of growth possible for developed capitalism, the rate of growth achieved by the US during World War II. In the space of five years, from 1939 to 1944, the industrial production of the US (benefiting from the expansion of the market for armaments) went from an index of 109 to 235, or a rate of growth of 16.6% per year. If that growth rate had been achieved by capital on a world scale throughout this century, industrial production would have risen from 100.0 in 1900 to 21,790.231 in 1980, or 7,164 times greater than the level of 3041.6 actually reached!

These figures could - with good reason - be criticized for their speculative nature; but that is not really the issue. What is important in these figures, on the one hand, is that they clearly show the pointlessness of merely registering a growth in the level of industrial production in the course of the present century, and on the other hand, that they provide us with an insight into the extent of the waste of productive forces on the part of capital - despite the growth that has been achieved. In the absence of the massive destruction of capital engendered by crises, wars, and the generalized unproductive consumption of production under the form of armaments expenditures and other state expenses, production today would not be two or three times, but really hundreds or thousands of times, greater than it is. In indicating what might have been, these figures show - at least on average - more of a brake on growth than the opposite. More fundamentally, we can see that the simple figures for production are totally incapable of indicating the real development of the productive forces of humanity on the historical plane, because they do not take into account the nature of the development achieved. Quite apart from the question of figures, Mac Intosh's critique is also logically incoherent. In effect, Mac Intosh characterizes the decadence of capitalism as "a phase of value production in which there is a constant and violent devaluation and destruction of capital. The very devastating economic crises which have been a hallmark of decadent capitalism are temporarily overcome precisely through the frenzied development of the productive forces, and unprecedented technological innovation."(4) Although this passage contains several confused or mistaken formulations (5), it correctly puts the emphasis on the devaluation and the massive destruction of capital which characterize the decadence of capitalism. But the logical consequence of such phenomena is precisely a long term brake on the growth of the productive forces! In effect, if there is destruction of capital, the long term growth can only be slower than if capital was not destroyed. It is true that the massive destruction of capital often constitutes a stimulus to the development of the remaining capital, and to technological innovations. But this development, and these innovations, are in no way in contradiction with the long term slackening of the growth of the productive forces about which the pamphlet of the ICC speaks.

Here, we reach the heart of the problem: without being false, the notion of a slackening of the growth of the productive forces articulated by the ICC is nonetheless insufficient and inadequate to characterize the decadence of capitalism, or that of past societies. It focuses on surface phenomena, to what is apparent, though really only the result of a contradictory internal dynamic of capital. As I have emphasized above, the slackening of growth is only true for the medium or long term. It is only the consequence of a dynamic of growth and simultaneous or successive destruction of capital, which expresses the contradictions of the latter. For Marx:

In that celebrated passage, Marx speaks of conflict and fetters, terms which express the contradictions into which society is plunged, and not a simple slackening of growth, a more quantative, and descriptive, term introduced by the ICC. It is this conflict between the productive forces and the relations of production, this explosion of the internal contradictions of society, which characterizes the phase of decadence of a social form.

The insufficiency of the notion of a slackening of growth is patent in the immediatist application which the ICC generally makes of it. What is only the long term result of a contradictory process of growth and destruction, becomes for the ICC an essential feature discernable at every point and at all times. Throughout its history, the ICC has not failed to deny or minimize any form of growth on the part of capital, or any technological innovations, as in the case of the computer and micro-chip revolution of the past two decades. A prisoner of appearances, the ICC only sees in reality a permanent stagnation, the final theoretical expression of which is its recent theory of "social decomposition" as the final stage of capitalism.(7)

Perhaps Mac Intosh wants to say precisely that in his text. But in criticizing the ICC on the quantitative and phenomenological terrain that it has adopted, he is trapped on the very terrain that he sought to put in question. And on that terrain he has lost from the outset, because it is not there that the problem is to be found.


In this debate, until now we have ignored an essential question, one which is only too rarely discussed in the revolutionary milieu: what is meant by the development of the productive forces? The term is always used as if everyone knew what exactly was at stake. However, the issue is more complex and ambiguous than it appears at first. The problem is raised by the distinction which Mac Intosh hopes to establish in his text between the "development of the powers of the human species" and the "development of the productive forces," a term too tainted by productivism in his view. For me, that distinction only adds one more layer of confusion to the problem, and distances itself from the Marxist conception which I have cited above. For Marx, the capacity of humanity to emancipate itself from the reign of necessity rests precisely on its capacity to assure a sufficient level of material production to achieve abundance for all. Ergo, the "powers" of the human species - on the economic plane - is tantamount to the productive forces of which they dispose.

But Mac Intosh is right to raise the problem of the nature of the development of the productive forces brought about by decadent capitalism. The mere extension of the scale of production is incapable of accounting for the historical development of the productive forces, because a great part of production under decadent capitalism is devoted to the production of the means of destruction (armaments) and the unproductive consumption of the tentacular state. This growing part of world production does not count as a productive force if one looks at it from the historical perspective of the material conditions of the communist society to come. It only serves the reactionary goal of the perpetuation of the capitalist order, and would at best count as a productive force destroyed, and indeed as a destructive force (which is clearly the case with armaments). This once again shows the incapacity of the mere figures for the growth of industrial production to mean the development of the productive forces on an historical level.

A better way to measure the historical development of the productive forces consists in linking it to the final goal: the liberation of humanity from the reign of necessity, and the achievement of "the free development of each" in communist society. To achieve that goal, one must "reduce the necessary labor of society to a minimum." (8) The level of development of the productive forces would then be more adequately measured by the extent to which humanity approached that goal, that is to say, by the reduction of the necessary labor of society. On that plane, the evolution of capitalism in this century is much more contradictory than its evolution in the nineteenth century. Then, the development of the productive forces led to a reduction of necessary labor time in process of production, and in the general process of the reproduction of society. It is that reduction of necessary labor time which made it possible for capital to grant reductions in the working day to the proletariat without jeopardizing its profit. In the twentieth century, necessary labor time has continued to fall as a result of the considerable increase of the productivity of labor in the process of production. But at the same time, the growing levy on surplus™value on the part of the state so as to maintain capitalist social order (support for the state apparatus, armaments, and other unproductive expenditures) have kept the labor time necessary to the reproduction of society at a high level. In other words, in the immediate process of production, workers do not only work to assure the reproduction of their labor power and for the accumulation of capital, but also, more and more, to assure the perpetuation of the prevailing social order. This considerable increase in the labor necessary to the preservation of the capitalist social order, as well as the historic tendency for the rate of profit to fall (which leads to pressure to increase the absolute and relative surplus value extracted from living labor) have prevented any substantial reduction of the working day of the proletariat in the course of the twentieth century, despite enormous gains in the productivity of labor.

This contradictory evolution perfectly reveals the growing fetter which capital represents for the development of society, the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production which Marx elucidated. The incessant technological progress accomplished by capital continues to raise the productivity of labor, to reduce necessary labor in production, and as a result to potentially to bring humanity nearer to the goal of communism. But, at the same time, that increase in productivity is negated by the preservation of the capitalist order, which thereby demonstrates its reactionary nature in the present epoch. The development of the productive forces brought about by capitalism today is accompanied at the same time by a perpetual regression. That development therefore has ceased to constitute an historic justification for the perpetuation of capital. From the moment when the elimination of capitalism and the advent of communism are placed on the historical agenda, the development of the productive forces brought about by capital loses its value, or even becomes destructive, in terms of the needs of humanity. The continuation of the blind development of abstract wealth, represented by exchange value, is increasingly divorced from the satisfaction of human needs. Instead of bringing about a substantial reduction of the duration of labor, the increase in the productivity of labor leads to the expulsion from production of an ever growing mass of workers globally, and when the political situation is propitious, to their pure and simple massacre in local or world wars as barbarous as they are absurd. The accumulation of capital is increasingly in open conflict with the long term preservation of the biosphere, and of its enormous biological diversity, to which humans have always been, and will remain, integrally linked. The historical progress of humanity today no longer occurs through the blind development of the productive forces such as it has been brought about by capital, by rather by their conscious development, oriented towards the satisfaction of human needs, so as to reach the higher stage "where the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all".(9)

M. Lazare


1. "The World As We See It: Reference Points," Internationalist Perspective (IP) 27.
2. IP 28, p.16.
3. See, on this point, our text "Economic Aspects of the Transition from Capitalism to Communism," IP, No.27.
4. IP, 28, p.19.
5. Firstly, if the decadence of capitalism is characterized by a permanent devaluation and destruction of capital under the form of unproductive expenses and local wars, this devaluation and this destruction are not quantatatively constant; phases of massive destruction (world wars in particular) alternate with phases of robust enough growth (periods of reconstruction in particular). Secondly, it is not the frenzied develoment of the productive forces and technological innovations which make it possible to overcome economic crises. On the contrary, it is these very phenomena which hurl capital into crisis by lowering the rate of profit, and exacerbating overproduction. It is the devaluation and destruction of capital which makes it possible to temporarally overcome crises, and begin a new cycle of growth and technological innovation. Thirdly, the technological innovations achieved in the twentieth century are not"unprecedented" in the sense in which those achieved in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries were no less fundamental
6. "Preface to The Critique of Political Economy" in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works (Moscow - Progress Publishers, 1969), vol. 1, pp.503-504.
7. See our texts "Theory of Decomposition Or Decomposition of Theory?" and "Understanding the Real Changes in the World Situation" in IP, No.24 and 26.
8. See Karl Marx, The Grundrisse.
9. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto.

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