For a Non-productivist Understanding of Capitalist Decadence

The concept of capitalist decadence as a significant component of revolutionary theory has recently come under increasing attack in the proletarian political milieu.

Aufheben's critique seems to have acquired a steadily growing influence, while the concept of decadence is currently being re-assessed within the IBRP. The critique developed by the CDP has directly challenged the theory defended by the ICC. (1) Even within Internationalist Perspective (IP), having critiqued and rejected the ICC’s theory, the concept has recently been questioned as to its theoretical significance, partly as a result of the increasing theoretical (and political) significance within IP of the concept/theory of the real domination of capital. Of course, many in the milieu never defended the idea of capitalist decadence. Instead of retreating into a defensive posture, these developments should be welcomed as a healthy challenge to put forward a clearer, more coherent and further developed conception and theorization of decadence and its place in revolutionary theory today. At the same time, we need to acknowledge the positive theoretical contributions developed during the debate on decadence which occurred in IP in the years 1995-98 (cf. nos. 28, 29, 32-33, and 34).

If the transition from the formal to the real domination of capital (over labor, and ultimately, over all of society) is becoming the principal factor in IP’s theoretical explanation of the moving of the class lines in the years leading up to WWI to exclude trade unionism, parliamentarism, and national liberation struggles, then what significance (if any) should we ascribe to the theory of the decadence of capitalism? If the transition to real domination explains the actual movement of the class lines in relation to the forms of struggle referred to, if it explains capital’s tendency to integrate such previously independent organs of practice into its sphere of control and domination – primarily through the ‘intermediary’ of the capitalist state – what it does not explain is the radical change in orientation or direction of such organs and practices circa 1914.

Such a radical change it was that in the space of a few years, these organs and practices went from apparent defenders of the interests of the entire working class and (in the case of national liberation struggles) oppressed peasant masses throughout the world, to arch-enemies of those same interests in the name of the defense of the national interest within the context of modern inter-imperialist (world) war and global economic crisis. (2) This radical change needs to be explained, and the theory of transition to real domination by itself is insufficient for that. Only a theory of capitalist decadence, of a periodisation of the history of capitalism between an early period of ascendance and unfettered growth, and a later period of decline and permanent crisis, can adequately explain this radical shift. In a few short years, all middle (neutral) ground between the global domination and mass destruction of modern capitalism and the revolutionary struggle of the world working class was eliminated. As Rosa Luxemburg (one of the first Marxists to develop a theory of capitalist decadence) presciently predicted, from hence-forth the prospect for humankind was socialism or barbarism. In short, then, without a theory of the decadence of capitalism, revolutionaries are incapable of explaining the urgency of the need for autonomous revolutionary struggle by the working class since 1914.

However, the problem for revolutionaries today is that all of the existing theories of capitalist decadence have been demonstrated to be inadequate. Luxemburg’s theory, based on the saturation of pre-capitalist markets, and the theory of Grossman and Mattick, based solely on the tendency for the average rate of profit to fall, have both been shown insufficient to explain the reality of the course of decadent capitalism through the 20th century. In his series of texts on Marxist crisis theory in the pages of IP, Sander has both critiqued these previous theories and put forward the bases of an improved, dual-component theory, based on the work of Marx. While I consider this work to be an important step forward in the theorization of the permanent crisis of capitalism, it is still widely ignored or misunderstood within the revolutionary milieu. In this text I will not be concerned with the critique of such ‘classical’ theories of decadence; I begin from the assumption that such critique has already been accomplished. My concern here is more with what decadence itself is considered to involve, the content or meaning of the concept.

What do we mean when we say that capitalism at some date becomes decadent? What is it about capitalism at a certain point in its historical development that it enters into a period of decline, of decay, of permanent crisis? Virtually all Marxists who have defended the thesis of capitalist decadence have made reference to Marx’s famous passage from the Preface to his Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, viz. that “[a]t a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or – what is but a legal expression for the same thing – with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution.” From this, the conclusion is invariably drawn by all such Marxists that capitalist decadence consists in the productive forces being fettered (constrained, blocked, slowed, etc.) by the capitalist relations of production. To question Marx on this matter would appear to be unthinkable … as long as one considers oneself to be a Marxist.

It is to question Marx on this matter that I wish to do here … while still considering myself to be Marxist. First off, though, I need to make clear that I see two (very different) possible interpretations of what Marx meant by "the development of the productive forces" in the passage just quoted. (3) The 'standard' interpretation, made by all of the revolutionaries and groups referred to above, is what I call the productivist version. It understands by "development of the productive forces" only quantitative increase in productive capacity. "Development" is understood as genesis or bringing into existence only. Productivity, as an empirically verifiable quality of the productive forces is the key. The other interpretation understands by "development of the productive forces" their actual implementation, utilization, or application, as opposed to their genesis. In this sense, their development is fettered if their full utilization or implementation in practice is blocked. New productive forces may have been brought into being (by the decadent society), but they haven't been really developed in the sense of being fully utilized to the benefit of society. This interpretation will be elaborated below with the aid of a few key quotes from Marx.

The way the passage quoted above from the Preface is worded, it is difficult to argue against the productivist interpretation of it; especially when one considers the famous sentence (which comes a little after the one quoted above) that "[n]o social order disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed ...." The wording does seem to me to definitely reinforce the productivist interpretation of the earlier sentence (the "fetters" one). However, there is some powerful evidence to be found for the alternative interpretation of what Marx's view really was in the Communist Manifesto (CM). In fact, in the section entitled "Bourgeois and Proletarians", Marx and Engels discuss the same themes at one point, and even use the word "fetters" (or "fettered") three times! And it is clear to me that their view there was NOT productivist.

First, though, the productivist interpretation directly contradicts another position that I would argue is fairly basic to Marxism, viz that "[t]he bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production ...." If decadence means that the productive forces cease to develop -- in a quantitative, productivist sense of "develop" -- then it would also have to mean, for Marx, that the bourgeoisie ceases to exist, and that capitalism collapses of its own accord. Of course, some decadence theorists have indeed held this view, but I think it safe to say that this view is highly untenable at this point in history.

Now to Marx (and Engels) on the conflict between forces and relations of production from the CM.

Then, two paragraphs later, they deal with 19th century bourgoeis society, in which, "[f]or many a decade past, the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeoisie and of its rule." This revolt is not that of variable capital, of the working class. Rather, Marx had the periodic "commercial crises" of his day in mind, in which there exists the "epidemic of overproduction." Marx reasons: "[t]he productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful [emphasis by ER] for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and as soon as they overcome these fetters they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them."

Another quotation from Marx, from the Grundrisse (written just prior to the Preface), further supports the non-productivist interpretation: "On the one side, then, it [i.e. capital] calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labor time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labor time as the measuring rod for the giant forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value." (4) This confining of productive forces within the existing relations of production must be understood as the latter fettering the former.

These quotations seem to me to clearly militate against the productivist interpretation of Marx's position (or expression of it) concerning capitalist production relations at a certain stage fettering the development of the forces of production. Rather, they suggest the alternative interpretation, which is that the enormously powerful productive forces capitalism develops (without respite) are "fettered" by the capitalist relations of production in the sense that capitalism is incapable of fully utlizing or employing or taking advantage of these forces, of their enormous capacity to produce. Capitalist relations of production become incompatible with these productive forces it has itself developed (brought into being), creating the need for a new social formation, and new relations of production, relations which will be compatible with such productive forces.

This interpretation of Marx's position I find to be far more compatible with the rest of Marx's theory and political/historical perspective than the productivist interpretation developed by Trotsky, Bilan, the GCF, ICC and IBRP. While there are bases for both productivist and non-productivist interpretations in the works of Marx, the latter makes far more sense in light of the rest of Marx's theoretical work.

Setting aside for now the alternative interpretation, I will focus here only on assessing the standard, productivist interpretation of Marx’s position. Why, it needs to be asked, should one – Marx especially – think that capitalist social relations will one day fetter the forces of production? The continued survival of capitalism requires unrelenting growth of capital, perpetual accumulation of exchange-value. Competition serves to facilitate this constant growth. In the era of the transition to the real domination of capital (first over labor, then over society generally), this process is accomplished – as Marx first pointed out – by each individual capitalist attempting to lower the real individual value of his commodities under their social (market) value, thereby enabling him to realize a surplus-profit over and above the average rate of profit. And the only means to do this is to increase the productivity of the means of production at his disposal, in order to lower the labor content of each individual commodity produced; that is, to relentlessly develop the forces of production. Even when capital is in a period of open crisis, when growth is non-existent or negative, competition continues to drive each capitalist to further develop the forces of production in order not to fall behind or risk failure. At the same time, once the development of the productive forces reaches a certain scale and degree of complexity, the state involves itself in the overall task of developing the social productive forces, especially in periods of open crisis. Such state ‘intervention’ is not necessarily a sign of weakness or crisis of capital, although, of course, it could be. Rather, it may simply be a factor of the greatly increasing scale and complexity of the technology involved in the developing productive forces, and, at the same time, of the degree of unification and centralization of the capitalist class of a given nation. Under the conditions of global competition on world markets, which have been in effect since the early years of the twentieth century in all the industrialized sectors of the world economy, all of the states of the most developed countries have increasingly pursued this task. Thus, the history of the last century, of the period since Marx’s death, has demonstrated that capitalist relations of production have done anything but fetter the development of the productive forces.

But that doesn’t mean that the history of the past 90+ years hasn’t been one of historic decline, or of permanent crisis for capitalism. As has previously been argued in the pages of IP, while there may be a contradiction in it, there is certainly no impossibility in a historical reality of both permanent crisis and frenetic development of the productive forces (even considered relative to the rate of their development previously). Such a characterization could well apply to the history of the past century, although it would seem that this view is not very popular within the current revolutionary milieu. The reason for that, I would think, is that it is so widely accepted (as more or less a ‘canon’ of Marxism) that if the productive forces are developing at a ‘healthy’ rate, if they are not fettered, then the social formation and mode of production must be ‘progressive’ and, thus, not in a state of decline or permanent crisis. It is exactly (but not only) this productivist dogma that has allowed Marxism to be tainted by the terror of the Russian counter-revolution, spearheaded (in both practice and theory) first by Trotsky, then Stalin (5), followed by all the various ‘Communist’ regimes around the world during the 1945-90 period. In this ‘orthodox’ Marxist view of historical progress, the forces of production become universally benign, to be unquestioningly supported in the development that they take. Whether it is capitalism or a ‘socialist’ state that is pursuing this development is irrelevant, in this orthodox Marxist view, since the productive forces are neutral, that is, they don’t have either a specifically capitalist or socialist content, and their development is continuous in the course that it takes, first under capitalism, then under a period of socialist transition to communism (and presumably under the latter as well). Therefore, as long as capitalism is able to continue developing the productive forces, it remains a progressive mode of production and the period of revolutionary struggle remains for the future. This dogma forces its adherents to either deny that there has been any significant development of the productive forces over the past century (Trotskyists, the ICC, the CWO – until recently, at least, etc.), or else to defend further capitalist development (especially in the ‘developing world’) as well as ‘reformist’ means of struggle (unionism, parliamentarism, etc.).

I think it is high time to openly challenge this dogma of orthodox Marxism, and at the same time, to acknowledge its source in the work of Marx (and Engels). For the dogmatists of an ‘invariant’ Marxism, this heresy would be enough to count as an outright betrayal and abandonment of Marxism. Such a Marxism I want to have nothing to do with. Marx was not infallible. He was not right about everything that he claimed. Moreover, he himself opposed the establishment of a ‘Marxist’ orthodoxy and of any cult following in which every claim a great thinker ever made is unquestioningly defended. It seems clear to me that Marxism is a whole body of theory (along with a method of investigation/analysis), or even a web of various theories, which form a more or less coherent whole – not to deny that there are some significant gaps in the web. It is the coherence of the whole, and the explanatory and analytic potential of the theory and method, that makes Marxism the foremost theory of the revolutionary proletarian movement. There are various versions or interpretations that ‘Marxism’ can take, other than that of orthodox or traditional Marxism. And I think that the productivist dogma assessed above can be removed from Marxism without taking away from the coherence and explanatory power of it. In fact, I would argue, by excising the productivist dogma, and replacing it with a non-productivist viewpoint, a viewpoint in which the productive forces are not neutral, in which they can actually embody the relations of production of the class society which engendered them, we can develop a superior form of Marxist theory.

I want it to be clear that, of the passage from Marx quoted above, I was only questioning the one specific claim he made, about productive relations fettering the productive forces (in the productivist interpretation). Thus, I do not question his claim that “[a]t a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production ….” (Nor do I question the idea, implicit in the quoted passage, that this conflict contributes to the opening up of a period of revolution.) Even if the relations of production don’t fetter the forces of production, there still can be, and is, I would argue, a real conflict between the forces and relations of production, characteristic of the period of capitalist decadence. What, then, is the nature of this conflict? It is, in fact, the same conflict as that between the production of use-values (real wealth) and the production of exchange-value (capitalist abstract wealth). While the production of use-values increases exponentially, the production of exchange-value declines relatively, as each commodity contains less and less value. It is actually the productive capacity of the productive forces developed which conflicts with the amount of exchange-value realized and realizable by capital, as a totality (which is determined, of course, by the capitalist relations of production). The market barrier to unlimited production and sale (based on effective, productive demand) as a result of the exponential increase in productivity plays a key role here, as productive capacity increasingly outstrips actual productive output, because, as less and less labor-power is required for production, effective demand increasingly falls behind potential supply, limiting the amount of exchange-value that capital can realize. And the non-usage, or even the under-utilization, of existing means of production is a form of devalorization, as part of their value is sterilized.

So what, then, does the decadence of capitalism consist in, if it is not the fettering of the productive forces by the relations of production? My position is that capitalist decadence is simply a matter of a permanent crisis of the continued accumulation of (total) capital. The permanent crisis of capitalism is a crisis of valorization. The problem is not that capital becomes incapable of continuing the development of the productive forces. The problem is, rather, that capital finds it increasingly difficult to continue valorizing itself without destroying part of itself. Of course, both of the two traditional theories of permanent crisis, Luxemburg’s and that of Grossman and Mattick, as well as the one Sander has been developing in the pages of IP, theorize the crisis as one of valorization, of expanded reproduction, or of the continuation of accumulation. The question of the development of the productive forces is really an entirely separate one from that of a permanent economic crisis resulting from the historical development of a mode of production founded on a number of irreconcilable contradictions. None of the defenders of the ‘orthodox’ Marxist conception of capitalist decadence has ever considered it necessary to actually demonstrate just how a permanent crisis of valorization comes to block the development of the productive forces. The reference to the above-quoted passage from Marx is invariably found to suffice in lieu of an actual theoretical explanation.

There is, however, in my opinion, an integral link between the permanent crisis of capitalism and the development of the productive forces. Rather than blocking or fettering their continued development, the relation between the two is such that the forces of production developed within the period of decadence become not only increasingly powerful and potent, but that they become increasingly dangerous, increasingly deadly, increasingly murderous, and this not just ‘incidentally’ or ‘accidentally’, but because capital in permanent crisis increasingly requires forces of destruction rather than forces of production in order to sustain itself. The need for devalorization of capital on a massive scale, which is the fundamental driving force of capitalism in decadence, under conditions of ever-intensifying international competition for global markets and resources, fuels this need for the development of destructive forces and of increasingly destructive productive forces. Such devalorization inevitably requires the mass destruction of capital, fixed, variable, and circulating. At the same time, as the productive forces developed by capital become increasingly powerful and complex, and as the search for i) ways of producing (and transporting) cheaper, ii) new products which will enable the formation of new markets, and iii) rapidly depleting ‘natural resources’ necessary for industrial production – as all of these intensify as a result of the global crisis, the dangers to workers, other people, and the natural environment increase exponentially. This process tends towards capitalism increasingly threatening not only the well-being, but the very survival, of both humankind and the biosphere itself.

The defining feature of capitalist decadence in this view, then, is neither a halting nor a deceleration in the development of the productive forces; it is, rather, the increasingly destructive tendency of the productive forces developed by capital, and not just because these become increasingly powerful. It is not necessarily that all productive forces developed within the period of decadence are destructive or become increasingly destructive. The tendency towards destructiveness applies to the totality of the productive forces developed, not each individual one, but to them all generally. It is thus a general tendency, covering a given period of time, applicable to total global capital.

In the text The Development of the Productive Forces and the Decadence of Capitalism in IP 29, in the final section, M. Lazare raises an important question, one which is rarely, if ever, raised in discussions of the issues concerned in the political milieu. The question is: “… what is meant by the development of the productive forces?” (p. 14) The problem, which was previously raised in a text by Mac Intosh in IP28, is that “…of the nature of the development of the productive forces brought about by decadent capitalism.” (ibid.) Mac Intosh argues that a new, viable conception of capitalist decadence “… must be based on a radical distinction between the development of the emancipatory potential of the human species on the one hand, and the development of technology and the quantitative expansion of the productive forces on the other.” “What is at issue is no reactionary romantic repudiation of technology, but rather an understanding of the inseparability of a certain kind of techno-scientific development from the logic of value production.” (p.18) All of these points raised point to an understanding that a different course of development of the productive forces and technology than that taken under the direction of decadent capitalism is possible. That understanding is clearly consonant with, and should involve, I believe, the point made earlier in this text that the defining feature of decadent capitalism is that the productive forces, which do not cease to rapidly develop, become increasingly destructive for humankind and the biosphere. The idea is that capitalism’s development of the productive forces was historically progressive up to a certain point, because that development contributed to the “development of the emancipatory potential of the human species” (Mac Intosh), or to the “liberation of humanity from the reign of necessity” (M.L.). Since then, capital’s continued development of those forces has been “to the detriment of humanity, in ways which threaten its very existence” (Mac Intosh); that development “is accompanied at the same time by a perpetual regression”, it “even becomes destructive, in terms of the needs of humanity.” (M.L., IP 29, p.15) This, as I have argued, is the central defining feature of the decadent period of capitalism as a historical social formation. Capitalism was historically progressive as long as it contributed to the potential liberation of humankind from the reign of necessity – by developing the productive forces to the point at which scarcity of the material necessities of life for all of the human species is eliminable – while it has been retrogressive or decadent since it has embarked on a (specific) course of development of the productive forces which has, overall (taking all relevant factors into consideration, that is), become increasingly destructive in relation to the needs of humanity.

The underlying assumption here is that – at least at a certain stage in the historical development of technology – different courses of development of the productive forces are possible. This idea is entirely foreign to traditional or orthodox Marxism, with its productivist (and usually economic determinist) basis. For such Marxism, the productive forces developed by capitalism, decadent or otherwise, are neutral (between capitalist and communist deployment of them) because there is only one possible course or trajectory of their development, and thus any development of them at all, whether brought about by capitalism or not, is historically progressive. Examining the level of development and complexity of the technology brought into being under the domination of capital since the beginning of the 20th century (at the latest), it seems obvious (to me, at least) that alternative courses of technological development to the one that has taken place exist. A new form of Marxism, in which productivism and economic determinism are eschewed, would be able to account for this possibility of alternative courses of development. It would also be able to show how a course of economic development radically different from the existing one is possible. This point should not be under-estimated in terms of the concern of the development of a consciousness within the working class of just how radically different from capitalism a new society (communism) can/will be.

Moreover, IP has already developed theoretical tools which can aid in the explanation of how different courses of development of the productive forces are possible. In particular, in developing the theory of the real domination of capital (actually, of the transition from the formal to the real domination of capital, first over labor, then over society as a whole), the point has been made that, in this process of transition to real domination, the law of value comes to penetrate all spheres of social existence including the development of science and technology. In fact, the technology and science involved in the development of the productive forces would have to be one of the first spheres of human activity to be penetrated by the law of value. It is not just that science and technology, as supposedly neutral instrumentalities, come to serve solely capitalist goals. Rather, their very mode of operation and functioning become subsumed under the operation of the law of value. From the viewpoint of Lucaks (who actually argued this about science), their mode of thought becomes reified: they interact with the world they look to understand and transform in a uniformly abstract, fully rationalized, entirely quantified manner, without any reference to the qualitative, sensuous content of the material they concern themselves with. In this way they are perfectly suited to serving the capitalist goal of maximizing productivity and efficiency solely as a means to means to maximizing surplus-value production and accumulation. They are so perfectly suited to serving capitalist goals, Lukacs argues, because this science is a product of the bourgeois enlightenment worldview, a mechanistic materialist determinism, in which everything in the natural (and human) world is potentially subject to quantification and exploitation, with the aid of science and technology, in the service of the accumulation of capital. This is how capitalist social relations can actually be contained within certain productive forces and other technological systems, making those forces and systems inherently capitalist in nature. If they are inherently capitalist in nature, then they aren’t neutral, and a post-capitalist society would have to reject them in favor of productive forces and technologies which have been liberated from the yoke of the law of value. This liberation would have to occur through the conscious, qualitative transformation of the productive forces and technologies developed by capitalism into forces which do not involve the alienation of humans from themselves, each other, and nature. (6)



1. IBRP = the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party, composed principally of the Communist Workers Organisation in the UK and the Internationalist Communist Party in Italy; CDP = the Cercle de Discussion de Paris; ICC = the International Communist Current.
2. I say “apparent” because even though there may have been the beginnings of a separation between such organs and practices and proletarian interests in the years leading up to WWI, all but a handful of Marxist revolutionaries worldwide continued to consider them to be working class or at least non-capitalist in nature. It should be pointed out that revolutionary syndicalists (such as those in the IWW in the US and the CGT in France) were able then to appreciate, at least at an instinctual level, the non-working class nature of such organs and practices.
3. I also need to point out that I am concerned here only with the science and technology involved in production, and not with the working class or labor power, which is also a productive force.
4. Marx, Grundrisse, p. 706 (Vintage, 1973).
5. Both of them in both capacities as leaders of the ‘Soviet’ state and as ideologues of state capitalism, and, at least for Trotsky, with active agreement of Lenin.
6. In this vein, we should recall that Marx himself designated certain forms of production as specifically capitalist in nature, e.g. the factory system based on large-scale industry, such as it existed in the 1860s. (Unfortunately, I have no reference here.) And as Marx saw the development of capitalism moving from a “formally” capitalist mode of production – in which the means of production are neutral between either feudalist or capitalist deployment of them (since they were actually developed under feudalism) – to a “specifically” capitalist mode of production – that is, one in which capital remakes the entire production process, the rest of the economy, and the productive forces themselves, into its own image, its own form and content – he would have seen all development of the productive forces since the 1860s as becoming increasingly specifically capitalist in nature. All development, that is, at least up to a certain point, since he did see the increasing socialization of the means of production as moving in the direction of communism. Also, it isn’t clear (as far as I can tell) whether or not Marx thought that capitalism would be able to develop productive forces which a revolutionary communist movement could deploy without first qualitatively transforming them. Of course, the orthodox interpretation is that he thought it could do so. But my point here is that Marx’s viewpoint was more complex, and more contradictory, than a simple productivism and economic determinism, as assumed by all orthodox versions of Marxism.

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