Notes on Decadence theory

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Mar 21 2007 18:29
Notes on Decadence theory

Following the discusion on Trotsky, I thought I would post this. The third part has some relevance to the question as it concerns the idea of a continuity in the Marxist movement as the ICC see it. I would like to stress that this in no way represent the position of the EKS, but is a doccument in an intenal discusion written by myself:

Devrim wrote:
Some notes on the discussion on the ‘Theory of Decadence’

1) To me one of the problems with the Theory of Decadence is one of the problems of Marxism as a whole. As Marx wrote “the dominant ideas of a given time period are the ideas of the ruling class”. It would be strange to consider that Marx was immune to this dominant ideology also. I think that Marx was particularly influenced by the prevailing 19th century ideology of progress.

This is one of the things that led Marx to believe that society would automatically go through a series of stages until it arrived at the ‘highest stage’ of communism. I think that Luxembourg saw the reality of the modern period much more clearly when she stated that “ We will have either socialism, or barbarism”. There is no automatic tendency for society to progress. Of course, I am not accusing the ICC, or even Marx of believing in this as I have stated it. I think though that this idea has some reflections in their theory:

a)The idea that each successive form of society develops the productive forces to its limit before it is replaced is something that I see as a direct result of this ‘progressivist’ ideology. This idea is also tied in directly with the ICC’s theory of decadence. They state that capitalism becomes decadent because it can no longer develop the productive forces. Now, although there is some truth in this assertion, namely that the physical limits placed upon the expansion of capital had been reached, which led rival imperialisms into direct confrontation in the First World War, it seems to me to be a very strange way of looking at the situation. Surely for communists it is important to look from the position of the working class. I feel that this progressivist ideology fails to do that, which leads me directly to my next point.

b)The idea that it was the task of the working class to support capitalisms development of the productive forces is again something where I see the ‘progressivist’ ideology coming to the fore. Even if it were true that society did develop in these stages, it would not necessarily be true that the task of the working class was to side with capital in developing these forces. To me a very clear example of this is the expansion of capital in America. Engles wrote on the Mexican-American War “And will Bakunin accuse the Americans of a "war of conquest", which, although it deals with a severe blow to his theory based on "justice and humanity", was nevertheless waged wholly and solely in the interest of civilization? Or is it perhaps unfortunate that splendid California has been taken away from the lazy Mexicans, who could not do anything with it? That the energetic Yankees by rapid exploitation of the California gold mines will increase the means of circulation, in a few years will concentrate a dense population and extensive trade at the most suitable places on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, create large cities, open up communications by steamship, construct a railway from New York to San Francisco, for the first time really open the Pacific Ocean to civilization, and for the third time in history give the world trade a new direction? The "independence" of a few Spanish Californians and Texans may suffer because of it, in someplaces "justice" and other moral principles may be violated; but what does that matter to such facts of world-historic significance?” It would also be possible to quote Marx writing on the American Civil War, but I think that this quote demonstrates the nature of the position very well. Communist opposition to wars of capitalist expansion should not have rested on moral principles of ‘independence’, or ‘justice’, but on the fact that the interests of the working class did not involve them dying in wars to fuel the motor of capitalist expansion. Marx supported the North in the civil war. What practical consequences would this have had for communists operating on the ground at the time? New York for example saw massive anti-conscription riots. Would it have been the task of the communists to condemn the rioters, and act as recruiting sergeants for American capital, all in the interests of the expansion of productive forces of course? I think that alongside the ideology of ‘progressivism’, the fact that Marx, and Engels did not experience the expansion of capital as the working class did is also partly responsible for these positions. Even if we accept the theory of decadence, and as I have stated before all left communists have a theory of decadence, it does not logically follow that we see the task of the working class in the ascendant period to struggle for the development of productive forces. The task of the working class, even in its infancy, has always been to fight for its own interests.

2) The theory of decadence looks to economic developments within society in order to show that we are in a revolutionary period. It states that capitalism has developed to the point where it is a global system, and therefore the revolutionary period is open. Again, I think that this is a perspective that looks at the development of capital from an academic view point, and not from the position of the working class. The revolutionary period opens in 1905 with the mass strike, and creation of soviets in Russia. The working class itself showed that the era of revolutions had opened. Of course, this movement does not stand outside of history. The war between Russia, and Japan, which set the tone for the mass strike is a direct result of the saturation of markets, and the fact that capital is forced deeper, and deeper into war, as its crisis deepens, is obviously of relevance to the issue. It is, however, the working class itself, not the theorists of socialism which opens the new period.

3) The continuity, which the ICC claims runs through the Marxist movement, “The ICC thus traces its origins to the successive contributions of the Communist League of Marx and Engels (1847-52), the three Internationals (the International Workingmen’s Association, 1864-72, the Socialist International, 1889-1914, the Communist International, 1919-28), the left fractions which detached themselves from the degenerating Third International in the years 1920-30, in particular the German, Dutch and Italian Lefts.”, is in my opinion an attempt to link the communists of today directly with Marx in a sort of apostlistic succession. The programme of the communists today is not a result of a direct progressive development of the ideas of Marx from the IWMA through the Second International, to the Communist International, and its left fractions. Rather it is a result of a break with the traditions of the ‘old workers’ movement’. Social democracy was not a revolutionary current until 1914, and while it is true that those who were clearest in their break with social democracy came from the ‘Marxist’ tradition, there were also healthy reactions within anarchism to the incorporation of the old workers’ organizations into the state, (e.g. the Friends of Durutti in Spain, and the APCF in Britain). Communist theory is not some holy dogma, which is handed down some line of succession, but something that springs directly from the experience of the class. Even though anarcho-syndicalism is in some ways the other side of the social democratic coin in other ways it showed a healthy reaction to the ‘parliamentary cretinism’ of the second international. The revolutionary minorities within the workers movement were attempting to come to terms with the new period which had opened in 1905. The important thing is not the line of continuity stretching from the Second International, but the rupture with social democratic ideology. Some, for example Lenin, and Trotsky, could not make that break, and ended up siding with capital against the working class. Others like the ‘Fraction’ made the break very late, and although they were eventually one of the most clear groupings, and were clear on some questions very early on they were also certainly very confused on issues such as the nature of the Soviet Union for a very long time. The communist left today derives its positions directly from the experience of the class. The fact that those positions in the twenties, and thirties were expressed mostly clearly by those who had come out of the Second International does not make the communist left the logical progression of the social democratic movement, rather it is in fact its antithesis.

Devrim

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Mar 21 2007 20:00

Hi

You asked for my comments and because I can't resist giving my opinion on anything wink here you go. I want to say right away that this is a very rich text with many important questions and many (like the American Civil War) can't possibly be done proper justice here. So, here are my immediate thoughts broken down by relevant section:

1) I think your reading of Marx is too determinist here. Marx realised the possibility that revolutionary periods could end in common ruin, rather than an automatic progression. I don't think he saw an automatic trend from ancient -> feudalism for example. Feudalism was not born from a true revolutionary conquest of the roman empire but from its complete collapse. It's true he saw capitalism as a progressive force in many ways, but this was largely confirmed by historical reality.

With regard to workers fighting for their own interests, I don't think Marx can be accused of ignoring this. And regarding the American civil war, this wasn't so much a battle between two capitalist states but a class war between a the pseudo-feudal south and more developed north. Should workers not have joined the fight against the church and the monarchy in Britain, or against absolutism on the continent? Although the Civil War was dreadful it's nowhere near on the scale of the World Wars as I'm sure you'd agree. The victory of the North also expanded the proletariat massively by abolishing slavery. The other question is, given the lack of development of even the western world at that time would a truly world wide human community have been possible? Could capitalism have fed the entire planet? If the answer is no, then communist revolution cannot be on the agenda and thus its futile for workers to expect it to happen immediately.

This doesn't preclude workers struggling for their own interests but those interests are not necessarily exactly the same as they would be in decadence. Was it not in workers interests to gather their black brothers in the South under their banner? Did not the war, in some sense, serve both workers and capital? Just as the growth of education, etc. served the interests of both classes, even if workers had to fight tooth and nail for it?

2) Can't see much to disagree with here on the surface but if you look at what the ICC says in its decadent pamphlet it points to the development of the struggles of the exploited classes as a sign of a decadent period. But the cause of decadence, the thing that pushes these struggles, is located in the social relationships of capitalism as a whole. Is not the class struggle driven by a development of society as a whole? Is not the working class one of the productive forces that capitalism can no longer develop or contain? I think the theory of decadence is more nuanced than your text implies here.

3) I think when you talk about "the programme of the communists today is not a result of a direct progressive development of the ideas of Marx ..." etc. you're making the mistake of confusing the method with the conclusions brought about by the application of that method. Marxism supports unionism (critically) in the 19th Century, while rejecting it in the 20th, but this apparent contradiction is only such when you view these positions as dogmas, rather than the application of a consistent method to an evolving situation. The method of examining reality has not changed, but reality itself. The consistency defended by the ICC is precisely this consistency of method, examining society scientifically from the viewpoint of the working class.

I also think the comment about Lenin and Trotsky failing to break from social democracy is only partially true. At the height of the revolutionary period, 1917-1919, they and the Bolshevik current represented the clearest and most determined part of the proletariat on many issues. Their defence of internationalism, the most fundamental class position, was a beacon for the working class. It's true they made many errors which later went on to contribute to (but not cause) the defeat of the revolution, and there was certainly a retreat on many important questions, especially the role of the party.

But by posing the question in this way, you're contradicting your own points earlier about the revolution and class consciousness not being a dogma. Revolutionaries of that period, just like the class as a whole, had no historic experience on which to base their actions. Today, we have decades of union betrayals, of national liberation struggles being transformed into bloodbaths and - more importantly - the experience of the Bolsheviks etc. that show us the validity of the communist left's positions. But they had none of that. As I said on the original Trotsky thread, no group was completely clear on all questions. The ICC's platform for example is a synthesis of many different aspects of the communist left. From the Italian Fraction, it draws its fundamental methodology of organisation and the will to examine reality in a serious, rigorous way. From the German it draws on the theoretical insights towards unionism, the USSR, etc. But more importantly it rejects the confusions of these currents: the dismissal of Russia as a bourgeois revolution by the councillists; the attachment to a dictatorship of the party of the Bordigists. To expect revolutionaries to suddenly develop a precise clear-sighted understanding of the new phase of capitalism is, in fact, to see theory as being purely academic, a simply equation that if you put in the right data, the right answer will come out. In reality, consciousness develops both from the application and predictions of theory but also from historic experience.

Well, that's it! Hopefully this discussion will advance all our understanding of these questions.

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Mar 23 2007 14:48

I think that I will handle your points in separate posts, so here is point one:

Demogorgon303 wrote:
With regard to workers fighting for their own interests, I don't think Marx can be accused of ignoring this. And regarding the American civil war, this wasn't so much a battle between two capitalist states but a class war between a the pseudo-feudal south and more developed north.

I don't think that the workers' experience of it was as a class war. To the working class I would be pretty sure that it appeared as a war between two factions, whether you want to call them capitalist or not is besides the point, opposed to their interests. How was the interest of the working class served by dying for the profits of the Northern capitalists.

Quote:
The victory of the North also expanded the proletariat massively by abolishing slavery. The other question is, given the lack of development of even the western world at that time would a truly world wide human community have been possible? Could capitalism have fed the entire planet? If the answer is no, then communist revolution cannot be on the agenda and thus its futile for workers to expect it to happen immediately.

I don't think that whether communism was on the agenda is a really relevant question. Workers struggle to defend their immediate interests. There is a direct link in today's situation, when all that capital can offer is an ever increasing cycle of war, not to mention the destruction of the environment itself, and communism. This is also related to the fact that capital can not offer any meaningful permanent reforms. However, if we had our time machine, and you went back, and argued that workers should die for the expansion of the proletariat, so that one day it could achieve communism, I would not be surprised if they laughed at you.

Quote:
This doesn't preclude workers struggling for their own interests but those interests are not necessarily exactly the same as they would be in decadence. Was it not in workers interests to gather their black brothers in the South under their banner? Did not the war, in some sense, serve both workers and capital? Just as the growth of education, etc. served the interests of both classes, even if workers had to fight tooth and nail for it?

Again the same point applies. Communism springs from the immediate interests of the working class. One could include the struggle for education within this, but not a struggle to expand capital, and therefore increase the size of the proletariat.

I will come back to part three soon.

Devrim

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Mar 23 2007 17:41

Hi

Before I respond directly to your points, I want to try and clarify exactly what we're discussing and why.

Firstly, I agree with the approach of tackling this question one bit at a time and I even suggest you hold off on critiquing my response to your point 3 until we've both got sick of point 1 wink. This is partly because I think it'll help keep the discussion more focused, but also because I'm too thick to keep up with multiple points! What do you think?

Secondly, with regard to the Civil War, it's perfectly possible for this to be an imperialist war while not challenging the general thesis of capitalism being progressive in this period. For example, the British conquest of India was largely imperialist in my opinion, crushing the indigenous modernisation that had already begun there and setting back the development of the local culture.

It's true Marx supported the North and it's also true that he could have been completely mistaken about the progressive nature of this war, meaning I'm also mistaken! The question is, does this cast doubt on the general characterisation of the period as a whole as progressive or were all wars, colonial conquests and national liberation struggles in this period undiluted imperialism (as they are now)? I'm not adverse to discussing the Civil War but I think it's an idea to understand what we both see as the implications for the victory of one position or another.

That aside, Lay on McDuff!

I think you are mistakenly minimising the question of the class nature of the civil war when you say "I don't think that the workers' experience of it was as a class war. To the working class I would be pretty sure that it appeared as a war between two factions, whether you want to call them capitalist or not is besides the point, opposed to their interests."

Marx, in The Communist Manifesto wrote:
At this stage, the labourers still form an incoherent mass scattered over the whole country, and broken up by their mutual competition. If anywhere they unite to form more compact bodies, this is not yet the consequence of their own active union, but of the union of the bourgeoisie, which class, in order to attain its own political ends, is compelled to set the whole proletariat in motion, and is moreover yet, for a time, able to do so. At this stage, therefore, the proletarians do not fight their enemies, but the enemies of their enemies, the remnants of absolute monarchy, the landowners, the non-industrial bourgeois, the petty bourgeois. Thus, the whole historical movement is concentrated in the hands of the bourgeoisie; every victory so obtained is a victory for the bourgeoisie.

I'm assuming you agree with this method generally because you did not challenge me on my point "Should workers not have joined the fight against the church and the monarchy in Britain, or against absolutism on the continent?" So, the question is had the working class moved beyond the point where it had no choice but to tail-end the bourgeoisie? While workers in North America and many parts of Europe certainly had begun to assert themselves as an autonomous class, it is clear that internationally the proletariat was still in its infancy. Even in the metropoles, the working class was still expanding relative to the population, showing that the development of this productive force was still very much on the historical agenda. The semi-feudal relations in the South were a blockage on the further development of capitalism in this region and this was largely the class conflict behind the war.

I think you make a major methodological mistake when you say "I don't think that whether communism was on the agenda is a really relevant question". It is precisely the development of the productive forces (of which the working class itself forms one component) at a given historical moment that makes communism a possibility or not. If this is not the case, then we are forced to abandon Marx's contribution and retreat to a utopian and/or anarchist position that the revolution is a matter of sheer will. You follow this by saying "Workers struggle to defend their immediate interests". This is true but their struggle is also an historical one and has to be situated in historical terms. In today's epoch, there is no contradiction between the immediate struggle of the working class and its struggle for communism and I agree with your characterisation of this period. But when you compare the two periods, you don't attempt to demonstrate that the two periods are the same in this regard. Instead you say "However, if we had our time machine, and you went back, and argued that workers should die for the expansion of the proletariat, so that one day it could achieve communism, I would not be surprised if they laughed at you."

This argument is weak for two reasons: firstly, when we talk to workers today about the imperative need to create communism they also laugh at us but this doesn't change the correctness of the position. Secondly, workers of the time strongly supported the abolition of slavery. Workers strikes, even in industries like the cotton industry which were being decimated by the North blockade of Southern ports, put enough pressure on the British government to prevent it intervening on the side of the South. Marx's support for the abolitionist North wasn't simply that of an intellectual crying in the wilderness - masses of workers had great sympathy for the struggle even though the war was actually hurting their immediate interests in many ways.

In fact, it was this massive opposition to the South amongst the British and French working class that made it a political liability for the governments of those countries to openly support the South. Lincoln capitalised on this when he made his Emancipation Proclamation, making abolition a war goal in 1862. In other words, the international working class forced the bourgeoisie on all fronts to adopt a more progressive stance concerning this issue. In contradiction to your earlier statements, large contingents of the international working class did see the struggle for abolition as part of the class struggle. Now this doesn't necessarily mean, of itself, that this is correct but combined with the general context of international capitalism I think it offers powerful evidence.

Devrim wrote:
Communism springs from the immediate interests of the working class. One could include the struggle for education within this, but not a struggle to expand capital, and therefore increase the size of the proletariat.

This repeats the same methodological error but ties it in with other struggles like that for education. How does education serve the immediate interests of the class? An educated worker is still an exploited worker. His education only serves him by allowing him to increase his productivity for capitalism, allowing to expand, thus increasing his general standard of living. It has no meaning outside of the context of an expanding capital that is able to provide jobs. In fact, today, we see in the Western countries more workers than ever going to university but it provides no immediate benefit because there are still no jobs to match a massive overproduction of graduates (education in capitalism is a complex subject so this is a very simplified statement, but hopefully you see the point I'm trying to make). To separate reforms from the expansion of capital is to turn them into meaningless abstractions - it is because of capitalism's growing inability to expand (at least not without chronic economic crisis, war, etc.) without demolishing working class living standards that makes the struggle for reforms pointless. It this that unites makes the struggle for communism today an immediate struggle.

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Mar 25 2007 10:22
Demogorgon303 wrote:
Firstly, I agree with the approach of tackling this question one bit at a time and I even suggest you hold off on critiquing my response to your point 3 until we've both got sick of point 1 . This is partly because I think it'll help keep the discussion more focused, but also because I'm too thick to keep up with multiple points! What do you think?

Yes, this idea has some good points. the problem is that the third point is I think of the upmost importance relating to how we view the development of communist theory, and practice, and I think would tend to spill over into the other points. Let us stick with this and give it a go though.

Quote:
It's true Marx supported the North and it's also true that he could have been completely mistaken about the progressive nature of this war, meaning I'm also mistaken! The question is, does this cast doubt on the general characterisation of the period as a whole as progressive or were all wars, colonial conquests and national liberation struggles in this period undiluted imperialism (as they are now)? I'm not adverse to discussing the Civil War but I think it's an idea to understand what we both see as the implications for the victory of one position or another.

Yes, I think that both you and Marx are mistaken here. Your method is right though in suggesting that there are two possibilities, either you, and by implication Marx, are wrong on this particular war, or this casts doubt upon 'the general characterisation of the period as a whole as progressive'. Despite this, I would suggest that there is a third possibility, that even tough capitalism may have been progressive , it was not in the interests of the working class to extend its development, but rather to defend its position within it. It was not in the immediate interests of workers to die in war. the American Civil War also brought massive austerity measures down on the working class just as war does today.

Quote:
So, the question is had the working class moved beyond the point where it had no choice but to tail-end the bourgeoisie?

This question comes to the heart of the discussion. The working class was right to fight alongside the bourgeoisie when it advanced their immediate interests. The reason that it was right was because in advanced their immediate interest, not because the advance of capital laid the material basis for communism.

Quote:
I think you make a major methodological mistake when you say "I don't think that whether communism was on the agenda is a really relevant question". It is precisely the development of the productive forces (of which the working class itself forms one component) at a given historical moment that makes communism a possibility or not. If this is not the case, then we are forced to abandon Marx's contribution and retreat to a utopian and/or anarchist position that the revolution is a matter of sheer will.

I think that there is much of value in Marx. His work is not a religious tome though. There are errors within it. Identifying those errors does not imply an abandonment of Marx's contribution, nor an adoption of utopianism, or anarchism.

Quote:
You follow this by saying "Workers struggle to defend their immediate interests". This is true but their struggle is also an historical one and has to be situated in historical terms. In today's epoch, there is no contradiction between the immediate struggle of the working class and its struggle for communism and I agree with your characterisation of this period. But when you compare the two periods, you don't attempt to demonstrate that the two periods are the same in this regard. Instead you say "However, if we had our time machine, and you went back, and argued that workers should die for the expansion of the proletariat, so that one day it could achieve communism, I would not be surprised if they laughed at you."

My point here is that the working class struggles for its own immediate interests. Today there is no contradiction. In the ascendant period you are suggesting there was. I can agree with that point, but I would say that the working class was still right to struggle for its immediate interests, and not for the development of capital.

Quote:
This argument is weak for two reasons: firstly, when we talk to workers today about the imperative need to create communism they also laugh at us but this doesn't change the correctness of the position.

But as you said before there is no contradiction between the immediate struggle of the working class and its struggle for communism and I agree with your characterisation of this period. There is a difference in periods here. The tactics of the communist movement are in the immediate interests of the working class in every day struggles. The reason that I suggested that workers would have laughed at you is that you would have been arguing against their immediate interest. Today our daily activity in every struggle is directly linked to the struggle for communism (I want to raise another point here, but I will do it on a different thread).

Quote:
Secondly, workers of the time strongly supported the abolition of slavery. Workers strikes, even in industries like the cotton industry which were being decimated by the North blockade of Southern ports, put enough pressure on the British government to prevent it intervening on the side of the South. Marx's support for the abolitionist North wasn't simply that of an intellectual crying in the wilderness - masses of workers had great sympathy for the struggle even though the war was actually hurting their immediate interests in many ways.

There was also opposition to the war on a class basis in the North. Also workers today would be right to strike to stop interventions. That is a class line. There is a difference between this and acting as a recruiting sergeant for the union.

Quote:
In contradiction to your earlier statements, large contingents of the international working class did see the struggle for abolition as part of the class struggle. Now this doesn't necessarily mean, of itself, that this is correct but combined with the general context of international capitalism I think it offers powerful evidence.

I don't argue against the struggle for abolition having been a part of the class struggle. I argue that it was also part of the ideological support for a war, which was fought between two anti-working class factions. As I said above there is a difference from workers striking to stop their own governments intervention, and acting as a recruiting sergeant for the union.

Quote:
This repeats the same methodological error but ties it in with other struggles like that for education. How does education serve the immediate interests of the class? An educated worker is still an exploited worker. His education only serves him by allowing him to increase his productivity for capitalism, allowing to expand, thus increasing his general standard of living. It has no meaning outside of the context of an expanding capital that is able to provide jobs. In fact, today, we see in the Western countries more workers than ever going to university but it provides no immediate benefit because there are still no jobs to match a massive overproduction of graduates (education in capitalism is a complex subject so this is a very simplified statement, but hopefully you see the point I'm trying to make). To separate reforms from the expansion of capital is to turn them into meaningless abstractions - it is because of capitalism's growing inability to expand (at least not without chronic economic crisis, war, etc.) without demolishing working class living standards that makes the struggle for reforms pointless. It this that unites makes the struggle for communism today an immediate struggle.

I agree here. I think that you have misunderstood me. I was talking about the struggle for education in the ascendant period.

Devrim

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Mar 27 2007 19:58

Lots to be said about this, but I will have to come back later. Agree with Demogorgon's defence of Marx's view of history against the charge of 'progressivism' (which I take to mean a bourgeois vision of progress)

Out of a number of strands of discussion that could be fruitful, one is certainly the idea that "communism springs from the immediate interests of the working class". I don't agree. Communism springs from the historic interests of the class, which encompass its immediate interests but are not identical. In fact, for Marx, communism expressed more than the interests of the working class. From the beginning he saw it as the culmination of a much vaster process of human history, going from primitive communism, through the revolts of previous exploited classes and even the contributions of past ruling classes (Greek philosophy, for example).

One of the consequences of posing the problem in this way is the understanding that, from its inception, the working class did not just develop a consciousness of the need to fight for its immediate interests, but a historical vision which tried to take in the distant past and above all the future society. It developed this vision even when the immediate struggle for such a society was not on the agenda - this is precisely what marxism itself emerged from.

By the same token, during the ascendant period the workers' movement (or rather its clearest fractions) was able to analyse those tendencies within capitalism that were creating the necessary preconditions for communism. Whether it was in the fight for economic and political reforms, or in the support given to certain national movements, the starting point, for the marxists, was never just the immediate, but the future - how can this serve the long term interests of the proletariat and create the best possible conditions for the communist revolution? This is not to say that the marxists were always right in the tactical decisions they took, but this is a discussion about their fundamental method.

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Mar 28 2007 08:46
Devrim wrote:
Despite this, I would suggest that there is a third possibility, that even tough capitalism may have been progressive , it was not in the interests of the working class to extend its development, but rather to defend its position within it. It was not in the immediate interests of workers to die in war. the American Civil War also brought massive austerity measures down on the working class just as war does today.

This certainly clarifies your position and brings into stark relief the fundamental disagreements between us here. Alf has already made the point concerning the historic dimension of the working class struggle. This historical vision springs from the proletariat's nature as a revolutionary class.

The unions are a case in point. The bourgeoisie were completely mystified by the appearance of the unions. Workers sacrificed significant portions of their wages to build these organs. They were often imprisoned and killed in defence of their unions. Often the defence of the union was seen as more important than immediate struggles. From a bourgeois point of view, where is the logic in reducing your living standards to build organs (largely ineffectual to start with) that will ... improve your living standards?!

Although the role of the unions today is completely different, in that period the formation of these organs served a long-term goal, just as all the other reforms for which workers bitterly struggled. It sprang from a deep-seated historical dimension to the struggle and not simply a reaction to immediate conditions.

With regard to the Civil War, the workers (if not the bourgeoisie) were on the side of the abolitionists, not the Union in itself. Marx was quite dismissive of Lincoln personally, describing him as an unremarkable man. Further:

Marx in 'A Criticism of American Affairs' 1862 wrote:
At the present moment, when secession’s stocks are rising, the spokesmen of the border states are making even greater claims. However, Lincoln’s appeal to them, in which he threatens them with inundation by the Abolition party, shows that things are taking a revolutionary turn. Lincoln knows what Europe does not know, that it is by no means apathy or giving way under pressure of defeat that causes his demand for 300,000 recruits to meet with such a cold response. New England and the Northwest, which have provided the main body of the army, are determined to force on the government a revolutionary kind of warfare and to inscribe the battle-slogan of “Abolition of Slavery!” on the star-spangled banner. Lincoln yields only hesitantly and uneasily to this pressure from without, but he knows that he cannot resist it for long. Hence his urgent appeal to the border states to renounce the institution of slavery voluntarily and under advantageous contractual conditions. He knows that only the continuance of slavery in the border states has so far left slavery untouched in the South and prohibited the North from applying its great radical remedy. He errs only if he imagines that the “loyal” slaveholders are to be moved by benevolent speeches and rational arguments. They will yield only to force.

It is clear from this that Marx's support is for the radical tendencies in the Union that spring mainly from the most industrialised areas of the US i.e. the most proletarianised. Further in this text, Marx points out other concessions that are being wrung from the ruling class: "Apart from its financial legislation, it [Congress] passed the Homestead Bill, which the Northern masses had long striven for in vain; in accordance with this Bill, part of the state lands is given gratis to the colonists, whether indigenous or new-comers, for cultivation". This esentially forced the return of vast tracts of land to the masses for their free use and the idea of Homesteading is largely what constituted the "Amercian dream" in this epoch.

More importantly, the origins of the American Civil War must be remembered here. The Southern states seceded not because the North threatened to ban slavery. They did so because Lincoln had promised to prevent the spread of slavery. Had the North lost, many class comrades would have found themselves back under the plantation owners heel.

To the working class, slavery is repugnant. In Europe, the proletariat's origins lie in the semi-slavery of the feudal manor, from which it escaped to the cities in spite of the far worse living conditions (initially at least) of the latter. Despite this, Stadtluft macht frei was the motto of the early proletariat, when it wasn't choking on the fumes of industy. This will for freedom, the desire to abolish serfdom and slavery springs from the proletariat's historic nature not simply as a class fighting for its own immediate interests. That desire still exists today, which is why the bourgeoisie is forced to maintain an enormously expensive democratic apparatus and that only the weakest and/or most defeated fractions of the proletariat can be controlled by direct dictatorship (Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany, etc.).

Today, this natural revulsion towards absolutism is used to dragoon the workers into imperialist wars under the banner of "democracy". The difference today is that there is no possibility of a progressive outcome to any of these wars and here I think we agree. But it is a mistake to project modern conditions onto the past. National liberation struggles could be progressive in certain circumstances in this epoch. Unions were important organs for the defence of the working class. And there were certain progressive causes, such as the abolition of slavery, the struggle for the vote, education etc. that ameliorated the condition of the working class within capitalism and began to equip it with the cultural development necessary to its revolutionary future. (Part of capitalism's progressive role is to create the working class and equip it in this manner.)

Devrim wrote:
I think that there is much of value in Marx. His work is not a religious tome though. There are errors within it. Identifying those errors does not imply an abandonment of Marx's contribution, nor an adoption of utopianism, or anarchism.

It's not a question of treating his work "religiously". As I tried to point out earlier, Marx could have been wrong about the Civil War but correct in his overall method. It would be helpful if you could clarify this because you say "That [striking against military intervention] is a class line. There is a difference between this and acting as a recruiting sergeant for the union [Union as in US?]". Although not explicit, this strongly implies that Marx crossed the class line in supporting the Civil War. Is this what you mean?

Do you consider the support for the Civil War a tactical error i.e. do you think that particular war was reactionary and the workers' movement was wrong to support it? Or do you think that all wars in this period were reactionary because (a) all wars are reactionary regardless of the historic period or (b) because capitalism was already decadent at this point in time?

It's more a question that if we're to reject Marx's method, we have to substitute another whether we're consciously aware of this or not. Your method so far appears characterised by:

- a rejection of this historic dimensions of struggle and/or a conflation of this struggle with immediate interests;
- a dismissal of the importance of the historical development of capitalism as a necessary precondition of communism. (e.g. "I don't think that whether communism was on the agenda is a really relevant question.")

These two factors are vital to Marx's method. They form the "scientific" core to what Marx and Engels characterised as "scientific socialism" which progressed beyond a simple moral rejection of capitalism but explained the historical processes which drove the class struggle (this didn't mean rejecting morality per se, but showing its material origins).

Lastly, I think you've misread my point on education. I was trying to demonstrate - against your assertion that the objective possibility of communism (and thus the development of capitalism itself) was irrelevant - that all reforms only have worth if capitalism is expanding. Therefore, the development of capitalism is in the interests of the working class. Today we have to get rid of it because it is no longer developing the productive forces (on of which is the working class itself) to their full extent. It is now a barrier to progress.

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mikail firtinaci
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Mar 31 2007 08:40
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"Lastly, I think you've misread my point on education. I was trying to demonstrate - against your assertion that the objective possibility of communism (and thus the development of capitalism itself) was irrelevant - that all reforms only have worth if capitalism is expanding. Therefore, the development of capitalism is in the interests of the working class. Today we have to get rid of it because it is no longer developing the productive forces (on of which is the working class itself) to their full extent. It is now a barrier to progress."

I fully agree on this and this the basic issue on decadance as you said. However I want to ask something about unions. You have said;

Quote:
The unions are a case in point. The bourgeoisie were completely mystified by the appearance of the unions. Workers sacrificed significant portions of their wages to build these organs. They were often imprisoned and killed in defence of their unions. Often the defence of the union was seen as more important than immediate struggles. From a bourgeois point of view, where is the logic in reducing your living standards to build organs (largely ineffectual to start with) that will ... improve your living standards?!

Although the role of the unions today is completely different, in that period the formation of these organs served a long-term goal, just as all the other reforms for which workers bitterly struggled. It sprang from a deep-seated historical dimension to the struggle and not simply a reaction to immediate conditions.

But there is a problem here I quess. Because in turkey in certain industires -like free trade zones etc. - the main struggles are usually fought for unionisation and boss always responds by sacking the workers who are trying to unionise. The strikes generally begin after that. How can we explain that. I mean I know that these struggles nearly always ending with defeat are nothing but useless for workers since the basic issues for all workişng class is unemployement. However workers are struggling for getting unionised and this is something to be explained. What do you think about this?

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Demogorgon303
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Apr 3 2007 07:29

Hi Mikail

I have no doubt there are many struggles around unionisation in Turkey. In the UK many struggles are also fought around the defence of existing unions. The grip of union ideology on the class should never be underestimated.

Its power springs from exactly the characteristics I pointed out in my previous posts: their history as authentic and essential proletarian organisations. Today this is no longer the case. The fight for unions - just like the fight for reforms, suffrage, etc. - can no longer have any meaning because of decadence. Today, this sort of struggle is representative of a working class still under the grip of bourgeois ideology, a class still unable to fully develop its own consciousness.

The bourgeoisie has done everything in its power to reinforce the unions. Firstly, its counter-revolution annihilated or absorbed most of the revolutionary organisations the working class had created to advance its consciousness. Deprivation of these organs - and more importantly, the discrediting of the very idea of them - has severely retarded the proletariat's ability to develop its consciousness. Secondly, the replacement of these organs with various leftist groups (Trotskyists, Social Democracy, etc.) has allowed the bourgeoisie to continue its assault on consciousness because all these groups defend unionisation to the hilt. These two factors have prevented the working class as a whole from fully reappropriating the bitter lessons learned about the unions and union structures in the decades since WW1.

The unions are further reinforced - especially in repressive regimes - by the fact that they are often persecuted by the state. Workers see organs that claim to defend them being attacked by organs that openly repress them and naturally take the side of the former. But workers in this situation are just as manipulated as those who follow the Maoists in Nepal, or Castro's movement in Cuba, etc. It's only when they begin to struggle directly for their own interests and that the unions and the political currents attached to them attack workers in return that their true function is unmasked.

To sum up then, struggles around unionisation represent a development in militancy but a lack of class consciousness. Without consciousness, militancy is useless and can even be turned against the working class. On the other hand, the fact that workers see there is need to struggle can sometimes open up a real questioning that can develop that consciousness.

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Apr 4 2007 11:47
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To sum up then, struggles around unionisation represent a development in militancy but a lack of class consciousness. Without consciousness, militancy is useless and can even be turned against the working class. On the other hand, the fact that workers see there is need to struggle can sometimes open up a real questioning that can develop that consciousness.

This is the main issue. Mostly leftists who can not think beyond unionisation are organising these campaigns of unionisation and in a way leading workers to defeat. And in a period when in traditional union bastions workers are angry towards unions. However how can communist minorities can intervene is something which we can not answer yet. We are thinking on distrtibuting our bulletin in working class districts for instance. Maybe that might be a way creating the basis of organic relations and discussion for a communist intervention..

What do you think?

Of course I know that this is something outside decadance discussion. However still connected since the intervention in decadance period outside unions is a question to be resolved...

Also a late contibution about Devrim's arguement that if North was proggressive in the Civil War period how can it be explained the riots against recruiment in the north; In one of articles of Loren Goldner I have read that in one of these riots blacks were lynched white workers who do not want to fight for "black's rights". Anyway if the communist aim is not possibly to express itself in a riot or clash it might not be possible to say that the struggle is proletarian.

I think what sums up the workers interests is nothing but communism in one word. Since then the subjective expression of workers demands might be manipulated for nationalistic, so-called "anti-imperialist" inter-classist goals.

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Apr 8 2007 11:01

I'm not sure I'm the best person to speak to about how to intervene anyway, to be honest Mikail. Best to speak to a group like the ICC about that.

Re the workers' riots in the North against the war, I agree that we should be critical of the idea that this was a genuine proletarian response to the war. The fact this particular incident you mention involved the lynching of black people should give us pause for thought!

I agree that the historic goal for the workers movement is communism but the question is how realisable is this at a given point in history. Today, I would argue that the objective conditions for communism are in place, so therefore the primary goal of the proletariat is to struggle for communism. This doesn't preclude immediate defensive struggles, but even the form and content of these struggles tends to take on a revolutionary content when not contained.

In the epoch of the American Civil War, I don't believe the objective conditions for capitalism were in place. There was no true world economy, capitalism was still expanding vigorously, etc. In America, as in parts of Germany, the bourgeoisie was still eliminating the last of the feudal (or quasi-feudal in the US case) structures that were impeding its development. In other words, capitalism was still laying down the objective conditions necessary for communism. In this situation, the working class had a certain, if limited, interest in supporting this process while also vigorously defending its own interests by trying to steer this development in the most progressive path possible.

The long-term interests of the proletariat were undoubtedly served by forcing the issue of the war, not simply about preventing slavery from spreading but to abolish altogether, thus freeing hundreds of thousands of human beings from a particularly repugnant bondage and, just as importantly, by challenging the revolting ideology that reduced hundreds of thousands of human beings to a subhuman status.

It's true that they may well have also been a proletarian reaction against the war, but in the circumstances of the time where could it go? Without a prospect for world revolution its only success would have been in limiting the North's war effort and condemned the masses in the south to slavery and possible even the spread of slavery northwards.

I'm quite aware, of course, that similar arguments are now used to justify proletarians fighting for example in WW2. But this is purely superficial. In WW2 the objective conditions for world revolution were still present. What was missing was the subjective factor. Revolutionaries cannot create the objective conditions for communism, only capitalist development could do that. What they can do is influence the subjective factor, the proletariat's class consiousness and so it was quite proper for revolutionaries to resist the proletariat's enrolment in the Second World Massacre.

I hope that's clarified my position somewhat.

LongJohnSilver
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Apr 21 2007 20:33

I've been thinking about this thread for a while, and wanted to chip in on the subject of the aims of the workers' struggle. I disagree with Devrim's idea that workers always struggle for their "immediate" interests - all the more so since one would have to define what their "immediate" interests are at any time. You could say that it is never in an individual's "immediate interest" to face danger or to be killed - but of course workers do precisely that, as DemoGorgon has mentioned above, in defence of their organisations or in struggle generally. When the Mercedes workers in Bremen in 2004 took part in a solidarity struggle with the workers in Stuttgart, despite the fact that the work lost to Stuttgart was supposed to be transferred to Bremen, were they defending their "immediate interests", for example?
If we look at the question that Devrim has raised about the American Civil War, I don't think that things were as clear-cut as he portrays them. For example, while for the capitalists the war was about the conflict of industrial capital with the backward slave-system of the Southern plantations, for the workers the war was very much about preventing the spread of slavery: the issue that actually led to war was not the abolition of slavery in the South, but whether states newly incorporated into the Union (ie roughly speaking the territories to the West of Missouri) could be slave states or not. It is clear that for the working class as a whole, it was very much in its interests to oppose the spread of slavery, since slave-labour could only be in competition with free labour and force wages down (or even make it impossible for the working class to exist at all in slave states).
Not all workers saw this of course: the New York Draft riots to which I think Devrim is referring were actually very ambiguous affairs. As the brief article in Wikipedia indicates, on the one hand the riots were at least partially manipulated by the Democrats (pro-slavery and anti-war), and were not just an expression of resistance to the war but also of a substantial anti-black racism which tended to be very prevalent among the Irish workers in New York.
We can contrast these riots with the events provoked by the "Cotton Famine" of the I860s in the Manchester region. The Manchester cotton workers were subjected to terrible suffering as a result of the unemployment caused by the Union (ie Northern) blockade of Confederate cotton exports to Britain. And yet, they refused to follow the Southern sympathies of their bosses (which one might think would have been in their "immediate interests") and wholeheartedly supported the struggle against slavery.

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Apr 22 2007 13:03
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I disagree with Devrim's idea that workers always struggle for their "immediate" interests

Me too. In fact they struggle against their immediate interests, led as they are by the braying donkeys of the left who are hungry as ever to analyse our defeats in servitude to their middle class task masters.

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daniel
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Apr 22 2007 22:59

For some reason my dad has a soft spot for Decadence theory. I don't know the ins and out, but it seems a bit barmy to me. could anybody give me a clear, concise intro to decadence theory in laymens terms.

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Apr 23 2007 08:18
daniel wrote:
For some reason my dad has a soft spot for Decadence theory. I don't know the ins and out, but it seems a bit barmy to me. could anybody give me a clear, concise intro to decadence theory in laymens terms.

Unfortunately, decadence can be a rather subtle concept but in the broadest outlines, it basically means that each society has a "sell-by" date. When a new social order appears, it goes through a period of growth. The economy generally functions well, there is a high level of cultural output, philosophy, science and ethics all show progress. Eventually this expansion runs into either external or internal limits. For feudal society this was basically a slowing down of land reclamation, the Roman empire ran into the logistical problems of managing a large slave empire.

When this point is reached the economy begins to falter. A society that once seemed to run itself now needs more and more intervention from the ruling class to keep going. As a result the state expands (absolute monarchy in feudalism, the divine emperor in Rome), trying to hold together a society that more and more tends to tear itself apart. Exploited classes begin to revolt more and more (slave revolts in Rome, Peasant Revolt in Britain). Cultural production and philosophy now tend towards pessimism, "the end of the world is nigh", corruption within the ruling class becomes rampant, war becomes more and more widespread, etc.

For the Marxist Left, capitalism definitively became historically obsolete with onset of WW1. This is not to say that signs of its degeneration hadn't appeared beforehand, with the Long Depression of 1873 – 1896. Just prior to this, the Paris Commune showed that the struggle of the exploited was entering a new phase. But WW1 was the point when it became clear that capitalist society had nothing to offer but barbarism.

For a more in depth study of decadence, try the ICC's pamphlet here. The first three parts are very readable and demonstrate the general concept and how it manifested in previous societies. The bits after are a bit harder as they deal with economics, but well worth the effort.

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daniel
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Apr 23 2007 17:45

Cheers. Seems quite possible. Now could somebody give an equally clear, concise non-jargon filled explanation of why that's barmy?

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Apr 24 2007 06:41
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As a result the state expands (absolute monarchy in feudalism, the divine emperor in Rome), trying to hold together a society that more and more tends to tear itself apart. Exploited classes begin to revolt more and more (slave revolts in Rome, Peasant Revolt in Britain

this is very interesting. I have never thought this way before. Maybe the same can be said about capitalism since -for instance in the case of us.- the state consume the total %45-50 of the GDP.

LongJohnSilver
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Apr 24 2007 19:06
mikail firtinaci wrote:
Maybe the same can be said about capitalism since -for instance in the case of us.- the state consume the total %45-50 of the GDP.

Absolutely true: without going into a long exposition on the subject, if you look at the proportion of GDP accounted for by the state in all the world's major economies it runs to somewhere about 35%-55% depending on the country (Sweden at the high end, the UK more towards the low end, for example, even Thatcher's "extreme" liberalising only reduced the weight of the state by about two percentage points of GDP). This means that the state is the single biggest actor in the economy. In the United States, one of the biggest employers in the country, if not the biggest, is the Pentagon.
In fact, the United States also offers an interesting example of how state control works, and the example is all the better because the USA is supposed to be "ultra-liberal". The example I like to give (but only one of many) is agriculture: the US has an enormously expensive farm price support programme - which also means imposing controls over what is grown. So that in effect there is almost complete state control (enforced by spotter planes) of the country's entire agricultural output - despite the fact the farmers are of course "private" farmers. So the influence of the state in the economy goes far beyond the proportion of GDP that it accounts for.

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Apr 24 2007 19:46

Interesting account demogorgon, but I thought that decadence theory rested heavily on the idea that there was an absolute limitation on further expansion and that we faced a period of crisis and war? That's a bit different from your description.

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Apr 24 2007 20:16
knightrose wrote:
Interesting account demogorgon, but I thought that decadence theory rested heavily on the idea that there was an absolute limitation on further expansion and that we faced a period of crisis and war? That's a bit different from your description.

I was trying to give a very general account of the idea of decadence as requested. I did mention economic crisis and war, though.

As for an "absolute" limit on expansion, we need to be clear what this means. Yes, a decadent society has run into barriers that limit its expansion but this doesn't mean there's not expansion at all. It's true Trotsky thought that decadence did mean a total halt to growth in the productive forces, but as I said on another thread this idea is flawed. The mechanism of accumulation means growth continues: what matters is that a) this growth is limited and unstable as opposed to the ascendent period and b) what capitalism has had to resort to to achieve even this limited growth: unprecedented exploitation of the working class; a century of military barbarism unprecedented in human history; an economy balanced on a mountain of debt that will never be paid off; the expansion of the state to an equally unprecedented degree.

P.S.: LongJohnSilver's account of state control in agriculture is well chosen as an example of the extreme contradictions of modern capitalism: in a world where a good proportion of the population is starving, western states pay farmers not to farm*! Why? To stop prices from collapsing due to overproduction! Absolutely deranged.

*a good example is the Mansholt Plan in the 60s, by which the EC tried to reduce its cultivated land by 5 million hectares - when this failed, they introduced quotas and "set-aside" payments.

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Apr 24 2007 20:55
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P.S.: LongJohnSilver's account of state control in agriculture is well chosen as an example of the extreme contradictions of modern capitalism: in a world where a good proportion of the population is starving, western states pay farmers not to farm*! Why? To stop prices from collapsing due to overproduction! Absolutely deranged.

Not deranged from the point of my weekly shop at Asda. This approach is only a step away from declaring life sacred. Besides, enough is produced. It rots in warehouses awaiting a buyer.

Lurch
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Apr 24 2007 22:45

A serious discussion posed I think in a good manner by Devrim, though I don’t agree with his three main points. To take just a couple of aspects.

In the context of Marx’s ‘support’ for the rising bourgeoisie, Devrim says:

Quote:
“I think that alongside the ideology of ‘progressivism’, the fact that Marx, and Engels did not experience the expansion of capital as the working class did is also partly responsible for these positions.”

I don’t think Marx, Engels and others of their era had too many illusions in the nature of capital or of the bourgeoisie, and in some cases did experience it directly. Marx’s description in Capital of the Highland clearances; Engels’ work on the Condition of the Working Class in England, and many, many other passages give rather a clear indication of this.

A couple of examples:

Quote:
“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation...” (Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist, Part VIII, Capital, Volume 1).

And famously:

Quote:
“If money, according to Augier, ‘comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,’ capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt,” (ibid)

I raise this for two reasons:
- I believe it shows that Marxists understood that ‘progress’ was relative, dialectical and (as others have pointed out on this thread) was mainly measured by the degree to which it laid the basis for communism:
- In pursuit of this end, support at certain moments for this or that dynamic of certain bourgeois tendencies didn’t mean that the working class had to bind itself hand and foot to the ruling class: Marx also lays stress on the need for the workers to form their own organisations, to develop their autonomy as a class.

There was a time in history, IMO, when the push to break down Russian feudalism, or the hold of the English bourgeoisie on Ireland, was not necessarily in contradiction to the development of the working class: on the contrary.

We shouldn’t blame Marx if others, in what Devrim appears to agree is a different phase of history (I would say in capital’s decadent phase), use Marx as a dogma in an attempt to tie workers to the interests of ‘their own’ bourgeoisie, or to justify in this epoch movements of ‘national liberation’.

And Lazy: were you there at the great storming of Primark?

Mike Harman
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Apr 24 2007 22:58
daniel wrote:
Cheers. Seems quite possible. Now could somebody give an equally clear, concise non-jargon filled explanation of why that's barmy?

I don't think anyone argues with the idea that capital's expansion has led to (and been the product of) a lot of barbarism. However I think there are a couple of things that makes Decadence Theory, at least as proposed by the ICC, not very persuasive.

1. The relatively clear date - 1914, when the Socialists in Germany voted for war credits

2. (and most importantly), the idea that during capital's ascendant period, all kinds of things - national liberation, unions, social democracy were fine because they aided the progressive development of capital, but that as soon as capital became decadent (1914) they switched into a weapon of the ruling class. This allows them to excuse all kinds of anti-working class shit from the Second International - especially the Bolsheviks, enabling them to claim that people they claim heritage with were right all the time, even when they were wrong.

I'm paraphrasing obviously, and will probably be told I'm misrepresenting as well.

Now there's people like Loren Goldner, even Bookchin, who I think hold some kind of decadence theory - Goldner with Fictitious Capital and Bookchin with Libertarian Communism or Ecological Collapse (can't remember the specific phraseology). I think those tend to be more about showing the relative youth and fragility of the capitalist system, whereas decadence, to me, seems to be rolled out when ancestors need excuses made for their mistakes.

Mike Harman
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Apr 24 2007 23:00

anyway there's a couple of long threads here from a while ago where this was thrashed out.
http://libcom.org/node/6090
http://libcom.org/node/8114

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Apr 25 2007 08:28

catch

A couple of responsed to your points.

Mike Harman wrote:
The relatively clear date - 1914, when the Socialists in Germany voted for war credits

This miscomprehension is partly the fault of those of us who defend decadence theory for often using a kind of shorthand in talking about 1914. I did say earlier that signs of capitalism's growing difficulty appeared beforehand with the Long Depression, Paris Commune, etc. What the war provided for the revolutionaries of the time was clear, irrefutable evidence that capitalism was no longer offering even the "relative progress" Lurch described above.

It wasn't the voting for war credits that signified decadence, the war itself did that. The credits vote showed the final integration of social democracy into the bourgeoisie, even if this was the culmination of a process that had been going behind the scenes (one which the Marxist Left had resisted, cf Luxemburg's struggle against Bernstein, the Bolsheviks vs Mensheviks, etc.).

Mike Harman wrote:
the idea that during capital's ascendant period, all kinds of things - national liberation, unions, social democracy were fine because they aided the progressive development of capital, but that as soon as capital became decadent (1914) they switched into a weapon of the ruling class. This allows them to excuse all kinds of anti-working class shit from the Second International - especially the Bolsheviks, enabling them to claim that people they claim heritage with were right all the time, even when they were wrong.

This is a more serious misinterpretation. I don't have the slightest qualm about criticising Lenin for being completely wrong about national liberation in his period. National liberation did have a place but it was long gone by his time. The Bolsheviks never understood the role of the unions either, partly because the unions were really undeveloped in Russia. Defending the Bolsheviks as proletarian springs from the fact that they were the only serious group that a) defended internationalism and denounced the war, b) called for world revolution, c) denounced the traitors of social democracy d) called for the soviets to take power. Their errors had serious consequences for the revolution and Left Communists both now and then take them to task for it without hesitation. But, for us, that isn't enough. We seek to understand what led to these errors and learn from them.The problem was the difficulty of understanding the new period, a point on which all revolutionaries hesitated.

Secondly, the defence of unions and social democracy of the period is not because they aided the progressive development of capital, but because they allowed the working class to defend and improve its position within capitalism. If you write off the second international you need to write off many strands of anarchism too, especially on the union question: anarcho-syndicalism (a reaction against beauracratic degeneration) still used the fundamental union form. Some anarchists rejected social democracy but many in Russia (especially Kropotkin) rallied to the Kerensky government. Bakunin propagated a pseudo-socialist pan-Slavism.

I think you're far too simplistic about this issue and confuse defending the core proletarian nature of a current with excusing every single error and mistake a current may make.

Mike Harman
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Apr 25 2007 10:36
Demogorgon303 wrote:
catch

A couple of responsed to your points.

Mike Harman wrote:
The relatively clear date - 1914, when the Socialists in Germany voted for war credits

This miscomprehension is partly the fault of those of us who defend decadence theory for often using a kind of shorthand in talking about 1914. I did say earlier that signs of capitalism's growing difficulty appeared beforehand with the Long Depression, Paris Commune, etc. What the war provided for the revolutionaries of the time was clear, irrefutable evidence that capitalism was no longer offering even the "relative progress" Lurch described above.

Capitalism was fairly young during the Paris Commune, certainly industrial capitalism, it having "difficulty" at various points, no-one disputes, it's the clear upwards and downwards trajectory.

Quote:
It wasn't the voting for war credits that signified decadence, the war itself did that. The credits vote showed the final integration of social democracy into the bourgeoisie, even if this was the culmination of a process that had been going behind the scenes (one which the Marxist Left had resisted, cf Luxemburg's struggle against Bernstein, the Bolsheviks vs Mensheviks, etc.).

But when was Social Democracy ever a positive force? You need to show examples in order to say that it became integrated later. Bakunin was opposed to social democracy long before the Bolsheviks or Luxemburg - both of whom still showed much of it's influence the whole time.

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This is a more serious misinterpretation. I don't have the slightest qualm about criticising Lenin for being completely wrong about national liberation in his period. National liberation did have a place but it was long gone by his time. The Bolsheviks never understood the role of the unions either, partly because the unions were really undeveloped in Russia.

No I think they understood them pretty well, and used them to integrate the factory committees into the State.

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Defending the Bolsheviks as proletarian springs from the fact that they were the only serious group that a) defended internationalism and denounced the war, b) called for world revolution, c) denounced the traitors of social democracy d) called for the soviets to take power.

I don't think they were the only group. Kropotkin caught a lot of flack from anarchists for supporting the war, the Makhnovists were far more about soviet power than the Bolsheviks ever were, and were definitely serious.

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The problem was the difficulty of understanding the new period, a point on which all revolutionaries hesitated.

When you say this, do you mean the revolutionary period, or the decadent period?

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Secondly, the defence of unions and social democracy of the period is not because they aided the progressive development of capital, but because they allowed the working class to defend and improve its position within capitalism.

Sorry but without the checks and balances of unions and social democracy capital would not have developed the productive forces anywhere near as much as it did. Even when they were making clear gains for the working class, they were never anything but within capital and therefore an actor in its progression rather than destruction or supersession.

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If you write off the second international you need to write off many strands of anarchism too

Yes I do. I'd hope that'd be pretty clear by now.

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anarcho-syndicalism (a reaction against beauracratic degeneration) still used the fundamental union form. Some anarchists rejected social democracy but many in Russia (especially Kropotkin) rallied to the Kerensky government. Bakunin propagated a pseudo-socialist pan-Slavism.

Have you ever seen me defend any of these? No. In fact a load of people have slagged me off over the years on here for being too critical of anarcho-syndicalism etc.

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Demogorgon303
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Apr 25 2007 12:00
Mike Harman wrote:
Capitalism was fairly young during the Paris Commune, certainly industrial capitalism, it having "difficulty" at various points, no-one disputes, it's the clear upwards and downwards trajectory.

Well, you can compare wars and crises in the 19th century, to those in the 20th for quite clear examples. Crisis in the former spurred new development. Crisis in the 20th spurred deindustrialisation and financerisation of capital.

Mike Harman wrote:
But when was Social Democracy ever a positive force? You need to show examples in order to say that it became integrated later. Bakunin was opposed to social democracy long before the Bolsheviks or Luxemburg - both of whom still showed much of it's influence the whole time.

The SDP in Germany campaigned for democracy in Germany's autocratic state, etc. as the Chartists had campaigned for suffrage in Britain. They politicised whole generations of workers and were clearly part of a process of the working class organising as a class, just like the unions were. They were also a clear advance on the utopian sects of the early 19th, late 18th century, don't you think?

That's not to say they didn't have serious problems. Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme, and Engels comments on the Efurt Programme outline the critique of the Marxist Left. The point is that it was possible at that time for revolutionaries to act within a reformist movement that was still capable of gaining real reforms for workers in the hope of steering the movement to a revolutionary course - don't forget the 2nd International signed a resolution condemning the 1st World War before the fact and this had tremendous resonance in the working class. The parties that then supported the war betrayed their own declared principles.

The fact that Luxemburg and the Bolsheviks (for all their own weaknesses) were able to break and able to declare for world revolution showed there was a real working class life in the movement. Most of the calls for world revolution came from those who had previously been in the 2nd international.

Mike Harman wrote:
I don't think they were the only group. Kropotkin caught a lot of flack from anarchists for supporting the war, the Makhnovists were far more about soviet power than the Bolsheviks ever were, and were definitely serious.

Kropotkin was merely one of many, showing that the same disease that infected social democracy also infected anarchism. But it seems we agree on this. The Makhnovists were a movement worthy of support (even if they based in the peasantry rather than the working class) and the way that the Bolsheviks stabbed them in the back was disgraceful, but there were authoritarian streaks in Makhnovism which other anarchists of the time didn't fail to point out. They had no problem in removing Bolsheviks from workers Soviets (which were firmly behind the Bolsheviks in the Ukraine for the most part).

Mike Harman wrote:
When you say this, do you mean the revolutionary period, or the decadent period?

Both.

Mike Harman wrote:
Sorry but without the checks and balances of unions and social democracy capital would not have developed the productive forces anywhere near as much as it did. Even when they were making clear gains for the working class, they were never anything but within capital and therefore an actor in its progression rather than destruction or supersession.

I didn't deny this, I merely said that wasn't their raison d'etre, which was to defend workers within capitalism. Most of the improvements that benefitted the working class also benefitted the bourgeoisie in the long term. As was discussed earlier in the thread, the development of capitalism also benefitted the working class. Although there were clear class antagonisms, the expansion of the system was a positive thing for humanity, the "relative progress" Lurch refers to. As long as such progress was possible, workers had an interest in supporting it wherever possible.

It was precisely because these organs were only ever designed to work within capitalism that they become useless once decadence arrives and the imperative for the struggle is to get rid of capitalism. The alternative you seem to present is similar to Devrim - that world revolution was possible at any point, regardless of the development of the productive forces (including the working class itself). Were all the struggles for

Mike Harman wrote:
Have you ever seen me defend any of these? No. In fact a load of people have slagged me off over the years on here for being too critical of anarcho-syndicalism etc.

My apologies, I find it difficult to keep up with everyone's politics on here. embarrassed

If you're against the 2nd International and much of anarchism, unionism, etc. does this mean you're against all the struggles for reforms in the 19th century? The example of education was given earlier, what do you think about that?

LongJohnSilver
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Apr 26 2007 19:40

My problem with Catch's arguments is that they seem rather ahistorical.

Mike Harman wrote:
Without the checks and balances of unions and social democracy capital would not have developed the productive forces anywhere near as much as it did

What does this mean though? If we take a very broad brush view of capitalism in Britain from about 1800 to about 1900, we can see that the trades unions are, at the beginning of the period, organisations like the "Army of Redressors" (otherwise known as the Luddites), who were clandestine, armed, revolutionary, and as much as possible opposed the use of machinery to reduce wages and living standards; or like the "Grand National Consolidated Union" in which Robert Owen worked, which aimed to impose communism through the general strike. At the end of the period, you have the first National Insurance laws of 1911, which were managed by the unions (like the "Retraite Ouvrière et Paysanne" of the same period in France). Up until 1825 in Britain, trades unions were illegal until the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1825. In France, the "Loi Le Chapelier" banning unions was not repealed until 1864. By 1914 they are really integrated into the state to the point of calling for support for World War I (though there were exceptions, like the IWW in the US).
Clearly something happened in this period. What? If you think that "decadence theory" is basically correct, then the logical explanation is based on the idea that historical conditions changed. Would Catch propose an alternative explanation and if so what?
Then there's "1914". Of course, DemoGorgon is quite right: decadence does not "switch on" in 1914, like a light. In fact you can already see the premises of decadence in the increasingly frequent clashes for imperial territory between the great powers, and the beginnings of the integration of the unions in the state. 1905 was also a key date, both because it saw the first major war for specifically imperialist aims (Russo-Japanese war over influence in Korea and China) and also the working class response: the Russian revolution and the soviets (the "finally discovered form of the proletarian dictatorship" as Lenin put it). And the first real crisis that displayed all the characteristics of decadent capitalism occurred not in 1913, but in 1929 - so in fact the watershed between capitalism's ascendancy and decadence is a whole period of about 30 years between 1900 and 1929...

Mike Harman
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Apr 26 2007 21:05
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If we take a very broad brush view of capitalism in Britain from about 1800 to about 1900, we can see that the trades unions are, at the beginning of the period, organisations like the "Army of Redressors" (otherwise known as the Luddites), who were clandestine, armed, revolutionary

Just briefly, in what way is this so different from the unions in for example China, Iran, Iraq, Bangladesh which are either illegal or are subject to mass repression now? Note, I'm not necessarily supporting those unions, but in what way are they integrated into the state in such a qualitatively different way to the way the illegal, armed unions between 1800 and 1900 weren't?

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Clearly something happened in this period. What? If you think that "decadence theory" is basically correct, then the logical explanation is based on the idea that historical conditions changed. Would Catch propose an alternative explanation and if so what?

Clearly historical conditions changed during the 130 year period that you described. Are you going to try to claim that I think they didn't? However I don't think that this means that capitalism was "decadent", there's still plenty of primitive accumulation going on now, and similar processes of industrialisation in China, India etc. to what happened in Britain a century or two earlier, except it's going on at hyper-speed under different circumstances. Capital is still expanding though, still finding (and creating) new markets. It doesn't show any immediate signs of supercession (unlike c.1917-1936) and I'm not convinced even ecological collapse will wipe it out.

I'm not pro-union, I've been very, very critical of the IWW on this forum consistently as well, and I'm no great fan of anarcho-syndicalism, but it's not decadence theory that leads me to these views, it's an analysis of their limitations as forms (and content as well sometimes) in particular historical circumstances. I don't see a need for a meta-narrative from capital's point of view to explain that.

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Demogorgon303
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Apr 27 2007 07:38

Hey catch

Mike Harman wrote:
there's still plenty of primitive accumulation going on now, and similar processes of industrialisation in China, India etc. to what happened in Britain a century or two earlier, except it's going on at hyper-speed under different circumstances

I've emphasised the "different circumstances" as this strikes at the heart of the question. Firstly, I'm not claiming accumulation and the accompanying industrial development doesn't still occur. At first glance, it does seem that China is expanding at "hyper-speed". The latest growth figures are around 11%! The difference between now and the 19th century is that this is not part of the global development of capitalism. Parallel to industrial development in China has been a long period of industrial desertification in the original capitalist heartlands. The actual growth from a global point of view is much less that it would appear.

Secondly, all these goods are confronting a saturated world market. The only reason why manufacturing has taken such a grip in China is because of the absolutely ruthless exploitation of the proletariat there. It's no longer enough for capital to increase the relative exploitation of the working class (which it has done throughout its history), it has to increase its absolute exploitation as well. The Chinese proletariat has been driven into absolute pauperisation by the development there - for all the talk about the emerging middle class, why else do we have immigrants dying on British beaches looking for cockles who send back most of their wages home?!

Organic composition is now so high, production so enormous that this naked exploitation is the only way manufacturing can be even remotely profitable - althought apparently only 10% of companies in China actually make a profit. This is, partly at least, what is meant by decadence. Actual production is now unprofitable for capital. Instead, more and more human energy is being put into finance. There's much more to be said about the cancer of finance capitalism, but sadly this is all I've got time for! (Is that a sigh of relief I hear? wink )

Mike Harman
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Apr 27 2007 08:59
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I've emphasised the "different circumstances" as this strikes at the heart of the question. Firstly, I'm not claiming accumulation and the accompanying industrial development doesn't still occur. At first glance, it does seem that China is expanding at "hyper-speed". The latest growth figures are around 11%! The difference between now and the 19th century is that this is not part of the global development of capitalism. Parallel to industrial development in China has been a long period of industrial desertification in the original capitalist heartlands. The actual growth from a global point of view is much less that it would appear.

Alongside that industrial desertification there's still capital accumulation. It's just that so much of it is in marketing, software, services etc. etc. - whether those are actually productive and create real exchange value is a different question though.

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Secondly, all these goods are confronting a saturated world market. The only reason why manufacturing has taken such a grip in China is because of the absolutely ruthless exploitation of the proletariat there. It's no longer enough for capital to increase the relative exploitation of the working class (which it has done throughout its history), it has to increase its absolute exploitation as well.

Again, I think you're looking at this only from the point of view of capital. Workers in some sectors India are already starting to push up wages, this may well happen in China as well given the number and scale of strikes and protests there. Capital will always push relative and absolute exploitation to the maximum amount it can get away with. It's workers who ultimately determine what that point is, not an objective historical arc.