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

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Tue Mar 14 2006 - 09:31:51 EST

Hi Paolo,

Yes, of course, Loren's writings are relevant.  Years of reading messages
forwarded from the "prudent bear" forecasting gloom and doom for capital
was the context for many of my comments in this thread.  Ar some point --
years on, in this case -- you have to ask for 'success criteria' to
be identified.

The article you are referring to is "COMMUNISM IS THE MATERIAL HUMAN

Here's the section I _think_ you are referring to ....


The Lenin-Trotsky tradition divides the history of capitalism into two
phases, separated by World War I, inaugurating the "epoch of imperialist
decay". The theoretical sources of this theory come from the "monopoly
capital" discussion prior to World War I: Hobson, Hilferding, Lenin. It
was popularized for an epoch by Lenin's Imperialism. Capitalism in the
heyday of the Second International looked different from the system
described in Marx (it is important to remember that Vols. 2 and 3 only
became available in the 1880's and 1890's; most socialist militants'
relation to "Marxist economics" has come from Vol. I and more
realistically from popular pamphlets like "Wages, Prices and Profits".)
Capitalism seemed to be moving away from a "competitive" or
"laissez-faire"' phase to a phase of cartels, monopolies, imperialism
state guidance, the emergence of finance capital, arms races, colonial
land grabs: all the elements Hilferding called "organized capitalism"
circa. 1910. World War I marked the turning point. The Russian Revolution
showed that, in Lenin's phrase, "the proletarian revolution lurks behind
every strike", and the 1917-1921 period very nearly seemed to confirm
that. Then came, after an ephemeral stabilization, 1929, world depression,
fascism, Stalinism, and World War II, followed in turn by incessant wars
of national liberation. Who, in 1950, could deny that this was the "epoch
of imperialist decay"? These very real phenomenon cemented a whole world
view, first codified in the early years of the Comintern: the continuity
with the Kautskyian vulgar Marxism of the pre-1914 period, the "monopoly
capital" characterization of the epoch, most ably expressed by Bukharin,
Trotsky's theories of permanent revolution and combined and uneven
development, and the Congress' characterization of the epoch as that of
"imperialist decay". This, at least, was condensed expression of that
heritage as it was recaptured in the best attempts of the late 60's and
early 70's to relink with the revolutionary potential of the
German-Polish-Russian corridor of 1905 and 1917-1921. This periodization
of modern history allowed one to see the world "from Moscow in 1920" and
this, again, made the unraveling of the history of the Russian Revolution
and of the Comintern from 1917 to 1928 so central and so apparently full
of implications. In that history was the philosopher's stone, whether
Trotskyist, Schachtmanite, or ultra-leftist. This was the viewpoint of
those who, into the mid-1970's, had no illusions about Social Democracy,
Stalinism, or Third World Bonapartism, i.e who opposed them from the
vantage point of revolutionary workers' democracy of the soviet/worker
council variety. On one level, this seemed a perfectly coherent
explanation of the world into the mid-1970's. Had not the highest
expression of the revolutionary workers' movement taken place in Germany
and Russia? Had not everything since been disaster and bureaucratic
nightmare? Bordiga anticipated this attitude when he wrote, sometime in
the 1950's, that "just because social evolution in one zone (by which he
meant Europe and the U.S.) has come to the next to the last phase does not
mean that what happens on the rest of the planet is socially of no
interest". For this world view, (shared in that period by the author) what
was happening on the rest of the planet was precisely socially of no
interest. Who could seriously propose China or North Korea or Albania, or
the national liberation movements and their states, as models for American
or European workers? But such a view, while correct, was not adequate.

Because it ignored two realities already well underway in the mid- I
970's: the double movement of Third World industrialization and
technology-intensive ("high tech") development in the advanced sector that
were about to crash down around the Western working class movement, upon
which the whole earlier perspective rested. In 1970, in the midst of
Stalinist, Maoist and Third World euphoria over peasant-bureaucratic
revolutions, it was right and revolutionary to look to the Western working
class as the only class that could actually end class society. It was
necessary to reject that Third Worldist hogwash then, as it is necessary
to reject its (quite enfeebled) remnants today. But what has changed since
then is of course that de-industrialization in the West and
industrialization in the Third World (two sides of the same coin) have
created real workers' movements in the Third World itself, South Korea
being the most recent important instance. Into the mid-70's the world
looked pretty much like what could be extrapolated from the early, heroic
Comintern view sketched above. The countries that were the core of world
industry in 1914 (Western Europe, the U.S. and Japan), were still the
core. In terms of the earlier discussion, if a country had not been
"internally reorganized" by the 1860's it wasn't going to be in the
"industrial club" in 1914 and still wouldn't be circa 1975. Further, the
percentage of workers in manufacture in the advanced industrial counties,
which had peaked at circa 45% in Germany and England circa 1900-1914, was
still close to that figure for the advanced capitalist zone as a whole in
the early 70's. What had changed in the interim? Clearly, the advanced
capitalist world had gone from a (very rough) breakdown of its work force,
in 1900-1914 of 45% in industry, 45% in agriculture, 10% in white-collar
services, to 40-45% in industry, 5-10% in agriculture, and 40-45% in
white-collar services (not to mention the creation of a large arms sector
that had only barely come into existence around the turn of the century).
What did this indicate? It indicated that the "story" of capitalist
development was as follows. In 1815-1914 the phase of "classic" or
"competitive" capitalism, the system had primarily transformed peasants
into workers, at lest in England, the U.S., France and Germany. In the
post-1914 period (in reality beginning circa 1890) the new phase of
"organized" capitalism, "monopoly" capitalism, the "epoch of imperialist
decay" continued to deplete the rural populations of the Western world
(and Latin America, the Caribbean, southern Europe and Africa), but to
accomplish what? Instead of continuing to expand the industrial work
force, it used the greatly increased productivity of a stagnant percentage
of the work force to support an ever-growing white collar "service sector"
(and arms production). But to return to the basic theme, Communist Parties
start to erode and be super by integrated Social Democratic type parties
precisely when the agrarian population of the country in question is
reduced to a trivial (5-10%) of the work force. This is what has happened,
for example, in France and Spain in the last 15 years.

This is what has not happened in Portugal, precisely because small
producer agriculture remains a very significant percentage of the
Portuguese work force. This is the backdrop to the transformation of the
PCI. It is what happened long ago in northern Europe and the United
States. It is, finally, the strict parallel to the problems encountered in
Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union when the "extensive" phase of
accumulation is completed and it is time to move to the intensive phase
which the West arrived at through the crisis of 1914-1945. In short, from
enlightened absolutism in the 17th century to Communist Parties in the
20th century, the problematic is that of the extensive phase of
accumulation - the transformation of peasants into workers. The ultimate
implication of this is that a society is only fully capitalist when a
trivial percentage of the work force is employed in agriculture, i.e. that
a society is only fully capitalist when it has moved from the
extensive/formal to the intensive/real phase of accumulation. This means,
in short, that neither Europe nor the United States in 1900 were as
capitalist as the socialist movement thought they were, and that the
classical workers' movement, in its mainstream, was first and foremost a
movement to propel capitalism into its intensive phase.

In sum, capitalism means first of all the agrarian revolution.

The agrarian question has had multiple meanings in the history of the
international left. It has arisen in connection with the peasant
revolutions that accompanied the French and Russian revolutions; the
capitalization of agriculture in the U.S. South through the Civil War; the
agrarian depression after 1873; the emptying of the European countrysides
after World War II. Undoubtedly, these are seriously distinct phenomena
that should not be lumped together cavalierly. But let us focus on
intensive accumulation linked to the reduction of the agrarian workforce
to 5-10% percent of the population as the definition of a "fully
capitalist" society. A fully capitalist agriculture is an American-style
mechanized agriculture. The "agrarian question" in this sense, was not
solved in France in 1789 but in 1945-1973. The connection between
agriculture and intensive accumulation in industry is the reduction of the
cost of food as a percentage of the worker's bill of consumption, creating
buying power for the consumer durables (such as the automobile) at the
center of 20th century mass production.

Let us summarize, and then return, one more time to Bordiga and the
neo-Bordigists. Vulgar Marxism was an ideology of the Central and Eastern
European intelligentsia linked to the workers' movement in a battle to
complete the bourgeois revolution (Second and Third International
Marxism). Its parallel to pre-Kantian, pre-1789 bourgeois materialism is
not the result of an "error" ("they had the wrong ideas") but a precise
expression of the real content of the movement that developed it. That
content makes sense ultimately in the framework of a periodization of
capitalist history that complements the Lenin/Trotsky "epoch of
imperialist decay" with the concepts of extensive/formal domination and
intensive/real accumulation. The whole Lenin/Hilferding 2nd International
theory of "organized capitalism" and "monopoly capitalism" is then, an
occultation of the transition from extensive to intensive. The "official
Marxist" outlook, therefore is the outlook of a nascent state elite, in or
out of power, whose movement results in another form of capitalism (real
domination) and calls it "socialism". What is compelling about such an
analysis is that it avoids moralizing and offers a "sociological"
explanation for an "epistemology". Once again it means that this social
stratum that held an Aufklaerung form of materialism because it was a
proto-state civil service in a development regime, and that its economics,
codified in the Leninist theory of imperialism, were also the economics of
that stratum. It is not real Marxism, because it tends to replace analyses
of relations and forces of production with (ultimately Duehringian)
analyses of "force". From Lenin and Bukharin via Baren and Sweezy to
Bettleheim and Amin to Pol Pot (recognizing tremendous discontinuity and
degeneration but also continuity) the 'monopoly capital" theory is the
theory of state bureaucrats. It is fundamentally anti-working class. It
sees the Western working class's reformism as the expression of super
profits' from imperialism, and it obscures the difference of interests
between the state bureaucratic elite and the peasant and working classes
in the underdeveloped countries where it holds power.

The French neo-Bordigists, specifically Camatte, showed that it was in
Russia above all that Marxism, in phases, was transformed from a theory of
the "material human community", a real movement that is "born" from mature
capitalism into something that is "built" in backward proto-capitalism.
This is seen by the contrast between the "Marxist position" on the Russian
question developed by Marx in 1878-1883 and the Bolshevik polemic with the
last phase of Populism in the 1890's. Whatever Marx may have entertained
in his study of the Russian commune as the possible base for an immediate
"leap" to communism, he never would have written, as Trotsky wrote in
1936, that "socialism now confronts capitalism in tons of steel and
concrete". This is not to say that there is no basis for this productivist
discourse in Marx's work; it is simply to say that the gulf that separates
Marx from all 2nd, 3rd (and 4th) International Marxism is precisely that
he is beyond "pre-Kantian" materialism and way beyond "monopoly capital"
economics that both express a state civil service view of the world. In
the battle between Lenin and the Populists in the 1890's, the battle to
introduce this truncated 2nd International "Marxism" into Russia, the
whole pre-1883 dimension of the Marxist analysis of the "Russian
question", unearthed by Bordiga, was totally lost in a productivist
chorus. The linear, mechanistic affirmation of "progress" that is the core
of Enlightenment historical thought, which was taken over into a "stage"
theory of history by vulgar Marxism, has no feel for the Russian agrarian
commune, as Marx did. The Gemeinwesen (material human community) telos of
communism is suppressed for productivism. Once in power, the Bolsheviks
took the reproduction schema and categories of Vol. I of Capital and
translated them into their manuals for economic planning without noticing
that this was a "Ricardian" description of capitalism which Marx
undermines in Vol. III. This paved the way for the "steeleater" ideology
of the Stalinist planners after 1928. There is already a world between
Marx and the 2nd International, and later the Bolsheviks, expressed in
"philosophy" and in "economics", and these differences express different
"social epistemologies" rooted in the outlooks of two different classes,
the working class and the state civil service. It is in this sense that it
is meaningful to say that the best of German Social Democracy and Russian
Bolshevism are hopelessly entwined with the state. A renewal of
revolutionary vision can no longer identify them as direct heirs, but as a
detour whereby Marxism fused with a statist discourse foreign to itself.

We, in the West today, unlike the revolutionaries of 1910, live in a
totally capitalist world. There is no capitalization of agriculture to
accomplish, no peasant' question for the workers' movement. At the same
time, in the midst of a deepening world economic crisis of 1930's
proportions, all the old revolutionary visions have evaporated , and the
sense of what a positive world beyond capitalism would look like is less
clear than ever. (Recent history provides many examples of negative
alternatives.) Yet, when we understand that much of what is collapsing
today is ultimately the legacy of the Enlightened absolutist state and its
modern extensions, we can see that many of the conceptual tools in use
until quite recently were tools for the completion of the bourgeois
revolution, developed by movements ultimately headed by state civil
servants, real or potential. By freeing Marxism of this statist legacy we
can at last start to understand the world from the vantage point of "the
real movement unfolding before our eyes" (Communist Manifesto).

Text from the Break Their Haughty Power web site at

Is this what you had in mind?

In solidarity, Jerry

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