During our our French-language online public meeting in November 2021 on “the aggravation of the decomposition of capitalism, its dangers for humanity and the responsibility of the proletariat”, several participants questioned the validity of the concept of the decomposition of capitalism, developed and defended by the ICC. Through this article, we wish to continue the debate by elaborating on our answers to the objections expressed during this meeting. Without repeating the content of the various interventions verbatim, the main criticisms formulated can be grouped into three points.
Without repeating the content of the various interventions verbatim, the main criticisms formulated can be grouped into three points:
First criticism: an innovation that is not in the marxist tradition. “Since the beginnings of Marxism, nobody before the ICC had developed such a theory of the decomposition of capitalism, neither the Communist League, nor the three Internationals, nor any other organisation, past or present, of the communist Left, and nobody other than the ICC adheres to it today. Why then this innovation in relation to marxism when the framework of the decadence of capitalism is sufficient to explain the present situation?”
Second criticism: an idealistic approach to history. “The ICC argues that the phase of decomposition is the result of a stalemate between the fundamental classes of society, understood as the impossibility for either the bourgeoisie or the proletariat to offer their own response to the historical crisis of capitalism: world war on one hand, world revolution on the other. From this perspective, the proletariat must be sufficiently conscious to prevent the bourgeoisie from unleashing world war, but insufficiently conscious to pose its own perspective of world revolution. The difficulties faced by the proletariat were compounded by the anti-communist campaign unleashed at the time of the collapse of Stalinism, leading to the sinking of capitalism in this phase of decomposition. But isn’t giving such importance to subjective factors in the march of history an idealistic approach to history?”
Third criticism: a phenomenological approach coupled with a tautological vision. “The ICC begins by drawing up a list of disasters occurring in the world and uses this to develop its theory of the decomposition of capitalism by adopting a phenomenological approach; this results in a tautological vision of the current period, in which decomposition is explained by the events and the events are explained by decomposition, which in the end does not explain anything and does not allow for a comprehensive understanding of the situation”.
An innovation that is not in the marxist tradition?
Capitalism, both in its rise and in its decadence, has gone through different distinct historical phases. This is true, for example, of the imperialist phase, which presaged the entry of capitalism into its period of decadence. It was by relying firmly on the scientific method of marxism that the revolutionaries of the time, including Lenin and Luxemburg, were able to identify this new phase in the life of capitalism, even though the concept of imperialism had not been theorised by Marx and Engels.
Indeed, marxism, or the method of scientific socialism, must not be locked into an invariant dogma when it has to understand a reality that is always in movement. Moreover, Marx and Engels themselves always sought to develop, enrich, and even if necessary revise, positions that proved to be insufficient or outdated, as illustrated by their preface to the 1872 German reprint of the Communist Manifesto: “As the Manifesto itself declares, the practical application of these principles depends everywhere and always on the historical conditions of the moment […] In the face of the immense progress of large-scale industry during the last twenty-five years and the parallel development of the party organisation of the working class; in the face of the practical experiences, first of the February revolution, then and above all of the Paris Commune, where, for the first time, the proletariat was able to hold political power in its hands for two months, this programme has lost its topicality in places”.
This was also Luxemburg’s attitude when she fought against the position defended until then by the workers’ movement on the national question: “As she said and demonstrated very clearly, to defend to the letter, in 1890, the support given by Marx to Polish independence in 1848, was not only to refuse to recognise that social reality had changed, but also to transform marxism itself, to turn a living method of investigating reality into a dried-up quasi-religious dogma.” We can also mention all the critical work done by the Communist Left, from the 1920s onwards, on the new problems posed by the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the Communist International, notably on the question of the state in the transitional period and its relationship with the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The real “innovations” (if one may call them that) in relation to marxism are, on the other hand, represented both by the theory of the “invariance of Marxism since 1848”, elaborated by Bordiga in the middle of the counter-revolution, taken up and carried forth by the Bordigists of the International Communist Party (ICP), and by the equivocal attitude of the Damenists of the Internationalist Communist Party (ICP) towards it, and even by the pure and simple rejection by the Bordigists of the notion of the decadence of capitalism, whereas this concept is present from the beginnings of historical materialism!  It is moreover these same “innovations” in relation to marxism that lead these currents of the Communist Left to reject as non-marxist the concept of the decomposition of capitalism.
An idealist approach to history?
At the time of the decadence of feudalism, the bourgeoisie, as the exploiting class with its own means of production and exchange, could rely essentially on its growing economic power in feudal society, on which the alienated consciousness of its class interests was based, to finally conquer political power. In the period of capitalist decadence, the proletariat, as an exploited class possessing nothing but its labour power, cannot count on and rely on any economic power in society; in order to conquer political power, it can only count on the development of its class consciousness and its organisational capacity, the maturation of which therefore constitutes an essential element of the relation of forces between the classes.
Since the objective conditions for the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by communism are fulfilled with the entry of the capitalist mode of production into its period of decadence, the future of the world communist revolution depends exclusively on the subjective conditions, on the deep and wide maturation of the class consciousness of the proletariat. This is why it is essential for the bourgeoisie to constantly attack the consciousness of the working class.
This aspect is particularly illustrated by the events leading up to the outbreak of the First World War. In July 1914, the rival imperialist blocs were ready to confront each other militarily. The only uncertainty left for the bourgeoisie was the attitude of the working class towards the war. Will they allow themselves to be recruited, as cannon fodder no less, behind national flags? This uncertainty was lifted on 4 August 1914 with the betrayal of the opportunist wing of social democracy which definitively passed into the camp of the bourgeoisie by voting for war credits. This act of betrayal was received as a blow to the proletariat’s head, leading to a decline of its class consciousness which was immediately exploited by the bourgeoisie to mobilise the proletarians for the first world imperialist war, with the precious help of the former organisations of the working class which had recently gone over to the class enemy: the social democratic parties and the trade unions.
Thus, it was the blow to the class consciousness of the proletariat that finally allowed the bourgeoisie to launch the First World War in 1914. It was also the weakness of that same class consciousness in the 1980s, compounded by the blow of the anti-communist campaigns that followed the collapse of Stalinism, that prevented the proletariat from putting forward its own historical perspective of world communist revolution and led to decadent capitalism’s entry into its phase of decomposition; in other words, the absence of a perspective for the working class is now tantamount to an absence of perspective for the whole of society. All this illustrates the centrality and determinant character of subjective factors in the period of decadence of capitalism for the future of humanity.
Thus, far from being an idealist approach to history, the importance given to subjective factors in the march of history constitutes a truly dialectical materialist approach to it. For Marx, as for all consistent materialists, class consciousness is a material force. The communist revolution is a revolution in which consciousness plays a central role: “Communism differs from all previous movements in that it overturns the basis of all earlier relations of production and intercourse, and for the first time consciously treats all natural premises as the creatures of hitherto existing men, strips them of their natural character and subjugates them to the power of the united individuals”
A phenomenological approach coupled with a tautological vision?
Decadent feudal society was marked by the occurrence of elements or phenomena of decomposition, of which the atrocities and moral decay that marked the Thirty Years’ War are a perfect illustration. That said, the sinking of feudalism into decadence went hand in hand with the development of capitalism, whose economic dynamism prevented society as a whole from sinking into a phase of decomposition.
The situation is quite different in decadent capitalist society. It does not see the growth of a new exploiting class whose growing economic power would be a counterweight to the inevitable sinking of society into decadence, nor does it see the development of a new mode of production to replace the old one. Why is this so?
Because the new society that must emerge from the ashes of the old society, communism, is the “real movement that abolishes the present state of things”. Communism can only be erected on the basis of the destruction of the old capitalist relations of production. As long as this “movement which abolishes the present state of things” is not realised by the class which is the bearer of a new society, the elements of decomposition which accumulate and amplify as the period of decadence advances will not find any antagonistic force in society which can limit their expression. Without a mode of production capable of taking over from dying capitalism, society begins to rot on its feet.
Armed with this general framework for analysing the decadence of capitalism, we have observed the phenomena that have occurred since the 1980s. However, we have not observed them “in themselves” but by relying firmly on the scientific method of marxism. It was this approach, and not a phenomenological one, that allowed us to identify the break-up of the Eastern bloc as the dissolution of bloc politics, making the march of capitalism towards a new world conflict temporarily and materially impossible. Similarly, it was this framework that allowed us to analyse the collapse of Stalinism as a decisive moment in the evolution of the decomposition of capitalism, which had been advancing throughout the 1980s. The beginning of this new phase emphasised the proletariat’s crucial responsibility for the very future of humanity. In doing so, we adopted the same approach as that of the revolutionaries who faced the phenomenon of the First World War and identified it as marking the opening of an era of “wars and revolutions”, where, as Lenin stated, “the epoch of the progressive bourgeoisie” had given way to “the epoch of the reactionary bourgeoisie”; in other words, as ushering in the period of decadence of capitalism
Contrary to the objections made to us, it is therefore not so much the accumulation of phenomena inseparable from decomposition which gives rise to our understanding of this ultimate phase in the life of capitalism but fundamentally a historical analysis of the relationship between the two basic classes of society. In this, our methodological starting point is in line with marxism, that of relying on the class struggle and its dynamics, on what constitutes the “motor of history” and not on simple “phenomena” accumulated by circumstances.
This approach also allowed us to understand that the decomposition of capitalism was “feeding itself”. This is particularly the case for the phenomenon of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is both a product of the decomposition of capitalism (increased destruction of both the natural planetary environment and the health and medical research systems, generalised “every man for himself” within the world bourgeoisie culminating in the “war of the masks” and the “war of the vaccines”) and also a factor in the acceleration of this same decomposition (further sinking into economic crisis, accelerated flight into debt, increased imperialist tensions). This approach to reality is therefore not tautological but adopts the methodological rigour of dialectical materialism.
We encourage readers to continue their reflection on this subject, in particular by reading our article on the marxist roots of the notion of decomposition, which appeared in the International Review n° 117. But also to write to us to continue the debate.
 Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 1846