Re: [OPE-L] The ideology of capitalist decline and decadence

From: Jerry Levy (Gerald_A_Levy@MSN.COM)
Date: Tue Mar 14 2006 - 07:35:16 EST

Hi Jurriaan,

Just briefly -- a couple of points.

> An indication of how communists understood decadence in the 1930s can be
> gleaned from Christopher Caudwell's "Studies in a Dying Culture" (some
> bits of it here Gyorgy Lukacs
> also refers to it in several writings (e.g.
< ).
> It was a kind of "conception of the epoch" people had - not entirely
> unreasonably, given two world wars, numerous smaller-scale wars, and great
> social havoc. Maybe difficult to understand in retrospect, but at the time
> it seemed very real.

I agree with you completely here: the belief  by Trotsky that capitalism
was in the throes  of its "death agony" also has to be contextualized
historically.  Yes, I think that was a not unreasonable belief in 1938.
But,  _our_ perspective has to take into account what has happened
historically since that time.  We can not allow the rhetoric of decadence
to get in the way of analysis simply because we like its prose.

> In reality, possibly the biggest crisis of our time is the growth of a
> rheumy conservatism and diminished expectations of life, whereas the task
> of
> a revolutionary or a radical thinker is to make "the impossible possible",
> to expand or widen the realm of human possibilities, to inspire confidence
> in the ability of self-acting individuals to change their world. If people
> are too afraid or overloaded to dare to do anything, speak out, be
> adventurous, join together etc. they cannot change society for the better,
> can they. You might laugh at me, with my humdrum petty existence, for
> saying  this, but at least I'm not afraid to moot the idea.

I'm not laughing.  Indeed, I think your comments speak to an issue at hand.

Let us return to what we referred to as  "the ideology of capitalist decline
and  decadence."  One such narrative (which I am embellishing for dramatic
effect) might go something like the following:

In the epoch of capitalist decay,  economic crises will become more frequent
and intense.  Then, comes the economic collapse.  What happens after the
collapse,  after the economic breakdown?  Why, the "revolutionary moment",
of course. The working class and the wretched of the Earth will rise up in
revolt:  like a scene from the film "Network", everyone will put their heads
out the  window and scream "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it
anymore!"  Then they will rush to the streets, shout "Karl Marx was
right!", and burst into song --  "The Internationale", of course.   The
expropriators will be expropriated!, Red Butterflies will Flap their Wings,
and  (after a brief  transitional  period) everyone will live happily ever
after.  The End.

There are, of course, many problems with such a narrative.  One problem
is the lack of any conception of how workers' consciousness changes.  You
are right, Jurriaan: the self-confidence of the working class is vitally
important to any prospect for revolution.  As anyone who is an activist
should know, workers gain self-confidence as a consequence of victories,
not defeats.  Victories -- even small ones -- tell them that they can win
and  therefore encourage them onward to greater challenges.  It is therefore
not some kind of automatic response to economic crisis which creates
revolutionary action.  Revolutions are made by those who know that they
_do_  have something which can be lost -- contrary to the assertion in
_The Communist Manifesto_ (another example of  excellent prose but
inadequate analysis).  They know that their lives and the lives of loved
ones  and communities can be lost.  They have everything to lose and
everything to gain.  They will risk all only when they believe they can win.

It's hard to say what is the basis for the mythology that has developed
about revolutions.  Revolutionaries -- perhaps Marxists most of all, but
including anarchists -- tend to be hopeless romantics!  Hence, our
narratives about Crisis & Revolution tend also to be Romantic.  Like
others I'm a romantic in some senses as well,  but I think what is needed
for both theory and praxis is clarity and alertness and patience and
resoluteness and determination, and *humility*.  There's a lot that we
don't know and we shouldn't be afraid to say that.  Instead of thinking
that we have all of the answers, we have to realize that a lot of the
answers will only emerge in the course of class (and other) struggles.

In solidarity, Jerry

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