Capitalism, the Tradition of the Communist Left, and the Need for a Renaissance of Marxism


Beneath the surface of rapid technological development and growth of the productive forces, together with a globalization that has spread capitalist relations of production to the farthest corners of the world, the face of capitalism in the first decade of the twenty-first century confirms Marx’s vision of the catastrophism and retrogression of the capitalist mode of production in its decadent phase.

Perhaps never before has the rate of exploitation of the working class been as great as it is today, while at the same time the relative wages of the working class, in the most industrialized countries, shrinks, and even its nominal wages stagnate or decline. At the same time, in the industrializing countries, the rapidly growing working class experiences forms of exploitation and surplus-value extraction reminiscent of the early stages of the industrial revolution in the West, with its “Satanic mills.” And, in both the capitalist metropoles, and in the so-called Third World, a vast surplus population, ekes out a marginal existence. In the industrialized metropoles, that surplus population has been expelled from the factories by the ever-rising organic composition of capital and new labor processes. In much of the Third World it has been expelled from the land by the competition of agribusiness in the West, free trade globally, and ecological catastrophe. This human mass inhabits the ghettoes of the urban centers in the industrialized countries and the shanty towns surrounding the cities of the Third World. While this surplus population has nothing but its labor power to sell, no matter how low its wages might be it is a multitude that capital cannot even exploit; for which capital in this epoch has no use – a mass which constitutes an enormous burden on capital as long as it is permitted to exist.

At the same time, so long as technological and scientific development is yoked to the operation of the capitalist law of value, indeed a manifestation of it, that very development produces ecological destruction on a scale that now threatens the metabolism between humankind and nature upon which the life of our species depends. The globalization of the capitalist economy, the exponential growth of this surplus population, together with the ecological devastation, especially in the Southern hemisphere, has generated a veritable migration of peoples on an unprecedented scale, provoking tension and hostility between native born and immigrant workers in both the most industrialized countries, and in many of the poorest too. The catastrophes produced by capital also generate irresistible tendencies towards war and the destruction not just of capital values and fixed capital but especially of living labor as well. Indeed, war in the epoch of decadent capitalism entails the extermination of the civilian population and not just the slaughter of enemy combatants. This is both the result of the enormous technological and scientific development of weaponry, but especially of the role of nationalism and the social identities based on birth (biology), on who one is (race, ethnicity, religion), and not on what one does (class), through which capital and its state bind the population, and especially the working class, to its rule. Thus, capitalist war today, whether inter-imperialist, colonial, or a so-called national liberation struggle, fundamentally entails the mass murder, “ethnic cleansing” and genocide of its enemies, of those designated as the Other. This particular catastrophe of decadent capitalism is today apparent from Chechnya to Darfur, from Palestine to Iraq, from Tibet to Sumatra, and it casts its grim shadow over potential conflicts between the US and China or the US and Iran, to take but two examples; it will only grow as long as the capitalist state is based on the nation, with its attendant xenophobia, and until the working class can abolish the law of value globally.

Confronted by what it saw as the onset of capitalist decadence, the communist left, in the course of the first inter-imperialist world war, then in the course of the revolutionary upheavals that followed, then in the dark period of counter-revolution and the triumph of Stalinism, the “midnight of the century,” and finally in the midst of the carnage of the second inter-imperialist world war, had the political merit of clearly and unequivocally drawing the class lines that separated the working class from capital, revolution from counter-revolution. The German-Dutch left, the Italian left slightly later, and some elements coming from Trotskyism in the course of the Second World War, recognized that Stalinism and its consolidation in Russia, constituted the definitive triumph of the counter-revolution, of capitalism and imperialism on the death-bed of the October revolution, and that the subsequent establishment of Stalinist regimes in North Korea, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Cuba constituted new victories for capitalism, new defeats for the working class. Indeed, for the communist left, with the decadence of capitalism, the national question has also become a class line, with support for nationalist movements and national liberation struggles anywhere in the world constituting support for the forces of capital and reaction, inasmuch as it blocks the development of internationalism, which alone permits the exploited to define their own class terrain. Parliamentarism, participation in elections for capitalist governments, and support for unions, in the phase of capitalist decadence, also constitutes a class line for revolutionaries, inasmuch as both elections and unions have become some of the most important means by which the capitalist state controls the working class, and prevents the development of class struggles that can escape its authority and threaten its power.

Within the international revolutionary milieu today, however, there is a clear separation between those groups that believe the class lines established by the communist left more than a half century ago are basically sufficient to constitute a revolutionary organization today, that the face and structure of capitalism has remained largely the same since 1945, and those groups – Internationalist Perspective amongst them – who believe that the analyses of capitalist decadence, and of the trajectory of the capitalist mode of production, put forward by the communist left in the 1930’s and 1940’s, are theoretically inadequate in the present epoch, because of the significant changes that capital has undergone.

For Internationalist Perspective, the claim defended, for example, by the ICC, that the decadence of capitalism is characterized by a halt, or even by a slackening, in the growth of the productive forces has been refuted by the very trajectory of capital since 1945. So too the ICC’s claim that no new imperialist powers, no contender states that could possibly challenge the dominant imperialist powers, even regionally, can emerge from national liberation struggles or the development of capitalism on a national basis – a claim refuted by the development of China, India, or Brazil, for example, over the past several decades. And so too, with the claim of the IBRP that the “real” basis for the decadence of capitalism and for its crisis tendencies lies exclusively in the tendential fall in the rate of profit. What all of those claims fail to grasp, in our view, is the transformations within the capitalist mode of production over the past half century or more; transformations that have modified the prevailing structures of capital, and which must be grasped by revolutionaries if they are to be able to intervene in the class struggles to come.

However indebted to the tradition of the communist left we may be, the development and transformations of capital itself require new theoretical efforts by revolutionaries, if they are to have a political impact in the present epoch. Moreover, it is not only the theoretical arsenal of the communist left that is inadequate today. There are also theoretical gaps and lacunae in the works of Marx himself, problems that Marx never resolved, issues arising from the fact that no one in the 19th century could have grasped all the implications of the operation of the capitalist law of value; foreseen all the developments and transformations that the capitalist mode of production would have undergone in the course of a century and a half. What is needed, then, in the view of Internationalist Perspective, is a veritable renaissance of Marxism, which is today no less important than the ability to defend the class line.

What, then, are the transformations within the capitalist mode of production of which we speak, the changes in the structures of capital to which we point? We want to briefly indicate some of the most important of them, not because Internationalist Perspective has theoretically resolved these questions – we have not – but because we grasp their importance and see the theoretical work necessary to their resolution as a primary activity of revolutionaries at the present time.

The distinction between use value and exchange value, between concrete and abstract labor, upon which Marx focused in Capital, volume I, is integrally linked to the distinction between material wealth on the one hand, and value on the other. Capital was born and flourished because the creation of material wealth depended on, and was facilitated by, the creation of value: the value form provided the optimal conditions for the growth of the material wealth of humankind, notwithstanding the brutal exploitation to which the proletariat was subjected. In the ascendant phase of capitalism, notwithstanding its periodic and often devastating economic crises, the growth of material wealth went hand in hand with the growth of value. Such is no longer the case, as Marx himself anticipated. One hallmark of the decadence of capitalism is that it is increasingly difficult to contain the creation of material wealth within the framework of value production. The growth of the productive forces must still take the form of exchange value, but there is now a rapidly growing disjunction between the technical possibilities for the creation of material wealth and the capitalist imperative that that wealth be contained in the form of value; that it be measured in the socially necessary labor time of the worker. For IP, it is because of this contradiction between the potential for the creation of material wealth and the constraints of the value form, that the possibility for communism, for a human Gemeinwesen, assumes a realistic form.

Traditional Marxism, the Marxism of the Second and the Third Internationals, was predicated on the “neutrality” of technology; on the view that the same technology that was linked to the development of the productive forces under capitalism could, once freed of its capitalist framework, serve the working class and socialism. However, for IP neither science nor technology is neutral: modern science and technology are shaped and indelibly stamped by capital and value, inseparable from the abstraction, homogeneity, and quantification that is integral to value and the social relations that it generates. Only a new science and technology, that liberates itself from its links to the value form, will be adequate to the human Gemeinwesen that is the only alternative to the barbarism of capital.

The trajectory of capitalism has entailed a transition from the formal to the real domination of capital, from the formal to the real subsumption of labor to capital. This process is not simply a transition from the extraction of absolute surplus-value to the extraction of relative surplus-value, a process that has been taking place virtually since the inception of the capitalist mode of production, notwithstanding the fact that capital never dispenses altogether with the extraction of absolute surplus-value. Instead, the transition from formal to real domination is marked by the extension of the specifically capitalist form of the exploitation of labor, the extension of the law of value, first to every aspect of the labor process, to every facet of the economy, and then to every domain or sphere of social existence. The real domination of capital, then, entails the penetration of the law of value into life outside of the traditional domain of work, and even outside of the site where surplus-value has traditionally been extracted from living labor, the factory, first into the scientific laboratory, the educational institution, and then into the leisure activity of the worker, the arts, “spiritual,” sexual, family and private life, all domains where the penetration of the law of value is a phenomenon largely of the past half century.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the real domination of capital, one that traditional Marxism has almost completely overlooked, but which is crucial to the understanding of the possibilities for, and obstacles to, the development of class consciousness, is how the law of value shapes the subjectivity of the human being, its mode of subjectification. Capital, then molds the very affects, emotions, and habits of the person, and specifically of the worker. A capitalist social formation produces a disciplined labor force, without which the accumulation process cannot occur; however, it also generates resistance on the part of the working class to that discipline and control. Living labor is not just the source of surplus-value; it is also the site of the development of a class consciousness that both fuels and shapes that resistance. One issue with which IP is now concerned is how the reified existence of the working class, its reduction to a thing for the extraction of surplus-value, can become the site of an irruption of class consciousness. We reject the idea that a cataclysmic economic crisis, produced by the internal contradictions of the capitalist accumulation process, will be sufficient to automatically produce that class consciousness, either through the intervention of the Party or spontaneously, as traditional Marxism and the communist left have believed. The historical experience of the working class in the twentieth century demonstrates that a catastrophic economic crisis – which we think is inherent in the operation of the capitalist law of value – can produce fascism, nationalism, popular fronts, and other reactionary ideologies, thereby mobilizing the workers behind their own ruling class, as occurred in the 1930’s, for example.

The development of a revolutionary class consciousness, then, is a possibility that has its source in the actual social relations through which the working class is subjected to capital, and is subjectified. While living labor must be subjected to the rule of capital in order to produce surplus-value, that same task requires living labor to also be a source of creativity and innovation, and therefore also a potential source of resistance. It is in that sense that living labor, as opposed to dead labor (machines and technology), has the potential to challenge and to explode the social relations of production through which it has been constituted. Here the role of organized revolutionary minorities, both in their theoretical activity and in their actual intervention in the unfolding of the class struggle can play a vital role. With respect to the development of class consciousness, IP rejects both the spontaneism that minimizes the role of revolutionary theory, and the residues of Leninism that are to be found those groups that derive from the Italian left. Indeed, even when such groups, the ICC and the IBRP, for example, claim to reject Leninism, they impose a discipline on their members that stifles debate and which in actuality sees differences on theory or practice as a sign of weakness. For IP, the existence of disagreements within the group, of theoretical divergences, and the debate through which such divergences are resolved, are the signs of the health of the revolutionary organization, not of its weakness. Like capitalism, revolutionary theory is in constant development, and theoretical debate is the means through which it progresses. That debate and its results, then, need to be infused into the actual intervention of the revolutionary organization in the class struggle. While the precise nature and extent of that intervention is determined by the development of the struggles themselves, without that intervention even the best revolutionary theory is useless.

The end of the 1970’s and the beginning of the 1980’s witnessed another significant transformation internal to the capitalist mode of production: the end of the Fordist epoch, that had begun in the 1920’s, and the transition to a post-Fordist epoch of production. The mass worker of the Fordist epoch, concentrated in huge factory complexes, has been increasingly – particularly in the most industrially advanced sites of production – replaced by workers, fewer in number, who can set in motion the fixed capital, the machines and technology, upon which the most modern labor processes today depend. These developments constitute a re-composition of the working class that has dramatically transformed the landscape of capitalism, the implications of which are having profound effects on the nature of class struggle. Such post-Fordist workers are engaged in a production process that focuses on the manipulation and processing of information, the coordination of networks of communication, the control of cutting edge technologies and forms of cooperation, and are the bearers of the knowledge that has become central to the act of production; they are integral components of what Marx termed the “collective laborer” [Gesamtarbeiter], from whom surplus-value is extracted, material wealth created, even as it is the potential bearer of class consciousness and the revolutionary subject in the epoch of the real domination of capital. The existence of this collective laborer is separable from the dead labor congealed in fixed capital, technology, and machines; it is rather the contemporary form of living labor, the veritable source of the surplus-value that is the focal point of the valorization process of capital, as well as the production of material wealth. For IP, traditional Marxism has failed to grapple with the complex issues arising from the transition from the formal to the real domination of capital, the re-composition of the working class, and the appearance of the collective laborer.

Finally, as IP understands a mode of production, the state cannot be reduced to a simple apparatus of coercion or a mere tool or instrument in the hands of the dominant faction of the ruling class. Rather, the state, beyond its coercive functions, is the center of a network of technologies and institutions through which the overall capitalist economy and valorization process is managed, through which the population, and especially the collective laborer, is controlled, and through which the re-production of the dominant social relations is assured. Such complex “tasks” cannot be reduced to coercion or to the machinations of a particular faction of capital. Indeed, one of the tasks of a renaissance of Marxism is the theorization of state capitalism, for which the communist left tradition has provided only the broadest of outlines.

Internationalist Perspective focuses on the vast transformations that the capitalist mode of production has undergone over the past half-century, and the gaps and lacunae in traditional Marxism (including the Marxism of the communist left), to highlight and accentuate the enormous theoretical tasks with which revolutionaries are confronted today. No mere re-assertion of the class lines is sufficient today to constitute a revolutionary program, and no intervention that is not solidly based upon a renaissance of Marxist theory can constitute a revolutionary practice.

Internationalist Perspective


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