Aufheben - Decadence

Introduction to ‘the theory of decline or the decline of theory’

Articles in this series -

The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory - Part 1
The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory - Part 2
The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory - Part 3

‘The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory’ is perhaps one of the more well known and popular of Aufheben’s early articles that are now long out of print. But what was also particularly significant for us, when deciding what to include in the this volume, was that ‘The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory’ was our first attempt, in an extended ‘theoretical’ article, to develop many of the positions, which we had only been able to sketch out in the editorial of the first Aufheben, that define where we were coming from.

Of course since this article was written Aufheben has moved on. Indeed, it must be said that even by the time the third instalment had been eventually written and published it had already become clear to us that, despite its merits, that there were serious shortcomings in ‘The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory’. Rereading this article more than a decade later these shortcomings are all the more glaring. It therefore perhaps behoves us in an introduction such as this to highlight the more salient problems that we now find with this text, and give something of an explanation as to how they arose. But before looking at some of shortcomings of the text itself we shall begin with recalling the political context within which it came to be written.

In our early days we saw ourselves as part of what we then saw as a broadly defined ‘ultra-left’ milieu. At the time, the Anti-Poll Tax movement had produced something of a revival of the ‘ultra-left’ in Britain, which had grown up since the 1960s but which had gone into steep decline following the defeat of the miners strike in 1985. After all, the Anti-Poll Tax movement had seemed to open up the possibility of new forms of ‘unmediated’ class struggle. At the same time, the machinations of the ‘left’, which culminated with Militants threat on TV to ‘name names’ of the Anti-Poll Tax rioters to the police, seemed to both confirm all the old ‘ultra-left’ criticisms of the ‘left-wing of capital’ and re-affirmed the need for a trenchant anti-leftist stance. Despite the reflux that occurred in the aftermath of the Anti-Poll Tax movement, and the dismal failure of the ‘actually existing ultra left’ to get its act together during the Gulf War in 19911, the continued economic crises, the fall of the USSR and the consequent crisis of the left, all seemed provide the opportunity for the development of a revolutionary politics in the longer term.2

As a consequence, what we saw as one of our primary tasks at this time was to facilitate the theoretical and political regroupment of the ‘ultra-left’ milieu. To this end, shortly after Aufheben #1 came out in the Autumn of 1992, we accepted the invitation offered by Wildcat (UK) to hold a public meeting in London to present the arguments that we had put forward in the article ‘EMUs in the Class War’.3 It may have been hoped, if perhaps rather naively, that we may be able to avoid sterile debate around abstract or historical issues, which would have inevitably raised well worn ideological divisions within the milieu, by instead promoting discussion around more current and concrete political and economic concerns surrounding the attempts of the European bourgeoisie to create the European Monetary Union, and the relation this had to the current state of class struggle in both Britain and Europe.

It can’t be said that the meeting was particularly well attended. However, no doubt in order to repel what they saw as the latest ‘modernist grouplet’ that had emerged out of the anarchist ‘swamp’, and which might threaten to undermine their hard-won ‘proletarian’ theoretical positions, the International Communist Current (ICC) came out in force. The concerted response of the massed ranks of the ICC, which positioned themselves along the front row, to the arguments of ‘EMUs in the Class War’ not only served to closed down any serious debate at the meeting, but was perhaps all too predictable.

We were told, in no uncertain terms, that capitalism had become decadent in 1914. Not only this, after nearly eighty years of being decadent, capitalism had become so rotten that it had now entered the final phase of decadence – the ‘phase of decomposition’. It was therefore quite inconceivable that the bourgeoisie would be able go beyond the organisational heights of the nation state, which had been achieved during the ascendant era of capitalism in nineteenth century. In the phase of decomposition there could be no economic or political re-composition of the bourgeoisie, only decomposition. Such decomposition, they said, was readily being confirmed by the then current break up of Yugoslavia. Hence, the attempt to create a European Monetary Union was simply doomed to failure. There was therefore little point in discussing such matters any further than that.

It must be said that at this time the ICC still retained an inordinate influence over us. Although we certainly disagreed with much of what they said, and had certainly become wary of their dogmatic political practice, we still saw the ICC as providing a fixed reference point with which to navigate by, and admired their unbending defence of ‘revolutionary principles’ against the siren voices of ‘leftism’ and ‘reformism’. However, their dogmatic ‘intervention’ in the meeting prompted us to begin reassessing and clarifying our position regarding the ICC and, in particular, their defining doctrine – their theory of decadence.

Yet, as we were to point out in ‘The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory’, the theory of decadence is far from being the sole preserve of the ICC or even, more generally, left-communism. Indeed, a theory of decadence or decline had become the hall-mark of nearly all the various strands of revolutionary Marxism which claimed to defend the Marxist orthodoxy of the Second and Third internationals in the twentieth century against revisionism and reformism. As such, a confrontation with decadence theory seemed to offer an easy way into to a critique of ‘orthodox Marxism’ as whole.4

But why stop there? On the basis of this ‘critique’ it would be possible, or so it seemed, to assess the merits and limits of all those heterodox currents; such as the Socialisme ou Barbarie, the Situationists and the various strands of Autonomia and Autonomist Marxism, that had arisen in opposition to orthodox Marxism in recent decades, and which had been so inspirational for us. The critique of the theory of decadence, therefore, seemed to provide the means of ‘coming to terms’ with all the strands of revolutionary Marxism, which had influenced us in one way or another, in one fowl swoop!

As a result, what had originally been envisaged as fitting comfortably within the confines of an extended Aufheben article threatened to take on the dimensions of a sizable book. This tension between what the article was originally intended to be, and what it ‘could possibly become’, created considerable stresses and strains, both within the argument of the article itself, and within the Aufheben collective. What should have taken only a few months to research and write turned in to what at the time seemed a never ending saga, in which each episode was more excruciating to produce than the one before it.5 Finally, after more than three years, it became necessary to put the article out of its misery and bring the entire exercise to an abrupt halt.6

So how did the stresses and strains involved in the production of the article show up in the actual text of ‘The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory’? We do not propose an exhaustive criticism of the article here. Instead we shall concentrate on a couple of the more salient fissures that were to arise in the text.

The article certainly provides a well researched critical account of the various strands of revolutionary Marxism that emerged in the twentieth century. In doing so it makes what we would still see as important and interesting points. However, once the rather abrupt and unsatisfactory ‘non-conclusion’ is reached it becomes readily apparent that there are serious problems with the overall argument of ‘The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory’.

In order to bring the article to a conclusion it had been necessary to answer what, after all, had been ostensibly the basic question – are the theories of decadence true? Has capitalism entered the era of its decline? But no sooner than we dutifully pose this question then it becomes evident that, after having expended tens of thousands of words, we had not gone very far towards answering it. Having made the rather lame excuse that to answer this question meant addressing Marxism in its entirety, all we were then able to do was to make various points that may have contributed towards formulating such an answer if we had eventually managed to get round to answering it. While these points may have been pertinent to answering the question of whether capitalism is in decline, none of them had been developed very far in the main body of the text.

Once the conclusion is read, it is not hard to realise that the argument of the article had somehow gone off at a tangent at some point and had become hopelessly lost. But to see where we became lost, and the further implications this has for the overall coherence of the article, it is necessary to go back to the very beginning.

In the Introduction it was correctly pointed out that any consideration of the theory of decadence raises a number of other related issues. Some of the issues that were mentioned as examples were either tangential or of a rather technical nature, and, as such, could have been dealt with as and when necessary during the course of the article. However, there were other issues mentioned that were far more fundamental and required discussion at the very outset of the article, or at least needed to be thought through before article was begun.

Unfortunately this was not done. Rather than taking care to prepare the foundations of the arguments to be developed in the article, we hared off into an ill considered critical review of the origins and development of twentieth century Marxism, which had an increasingly tenuous connection with the issue of the theory of decadence. The result of this failure to prepare proper foundations for the article was not only that the article eventually lost its way but that the overall coherence of the article became fatally flawed.

As an illustrative examples of the problems with the article, we shall briefly consider the consequences of the failure to think through the two fundamental issues that were at least mentioned in the introduction – that is ‘the periodising of capitalism’ and the ontological question of the relation of subject and object.

As anyone who has seriously studied history knows, if we are to apprehend the complex movement of real concrete history it is necessary to employ some form of periodisation. Furthermore, if history is not to be seen as merely a chronology of more or less random events, it is necessary to employ such concepts as tendencies, process and development, and in doing so draw upon such biological metaphors such as birth, growth and decline.

Yet, as anyone who has seriously studied history also knows, periodisation, particularly with regard to grand periodisations of an entire social system, is inherently fraught with problems and dangers. Periodisation is necessarily a process of abstraction, in which what are considered the essential tendencies that unify periods and distinguish them from each other are abstracted from complex and contradictory concrete reality. As a result, on closer inspection, any periodisation is liable to come in contradiction both with discontinuities within the designated periods, and continuities that exist across designated periods. The devil, it might be said, is in the detail. Any theory of periodisation must therefore proceed, through both conceptual and empirical research, to account for such contradictory tendencies and phenomena if it is to reproduce the concrete in thought.

But all this requires effort. It is far easier to imbue the designations of periods, which are often quite abstract or even nominal, with a spurious explanatory power, which then obviates the need for any further theoretical development. As a result, theory remains within the comfort zone of abstract generalities – which purport to explain everything in general, but in fact explain nothing in particular. But a theory that remains abstract inevitably declines in to dogma. The ICC’s theory of decadence perhaps being a prime example.

Discussion of such general problems of periodisation, together with a systematic appraisal of other attempts to provide periodisation of the capitalist mode of production in particular, would have provided the foundation for a thorough empirical and conceptual based critique of the theories of capitalist decline.7 It would also have provided the basis for showing how such periodisations can inhibit the development of theory. At least then we could have justified ‘predicate-subject’ reversal of the title.8

In fact, we did not pursue a thorough ‘critique’ of decadence theory very far.9 After all what was the point of taking all the time and trouble hacking off one branch, when, with a well aimed sweep of the axe, the entire tree of ‘orthodox Marxism’, decadent branch and all, could be felled at its ontological roots. Unfortunately, as we shall see, the axe was not that well aimed and we had not taken enough time to sharpen the blade.

As with the issue of periodisation, the ‘ontological’ issues that were to become fundamental to the entire article were neither discussed in the Introduction nor even properly worked out before hand. Who or what was the subject? What was object? And how they were related? These were questions that were simply left to be worked out as we went along.10 This failure to at least think through such ‘ontological’ issues at the very outset was to lead to both serious ambiguities and fatal lapses that were to undermine the coherence of overall argument of the article and open us up to severe but justifiable criticism.

Let us now consider two of the most glaring manifestations of this failure to adequately resolve the ‘ontological’ issues at the outset. We shall begin with one of the more obvious errors that we were to make in our discussion of the origins of orthodox Marxism.

‘An obectivist Marxism’?
Of course, with the rise of Hegelian Marxism it has become commonplace to argue that Marx’s Capital, as its subtitle suggests, was first and foremost an immanent critique of political economy. Through an immanent critique of the reified categories that had been produced and systemised by classical political economy, Marx had sought to show how capital, as the self-expansion of alienated labour, tended to reduce all human agency to its own movement. As a result, capital could be seen to bring about an ‘ontological inversion’, in which capital itself becomes the subject-object of the current historical epoch.

However, in making an immanent critique of political economy Marx had to necessarily develop the reified categories of political economy. In order to show how capital tends to subsume human agency to its own objective laws of motion, it was necessary to show what these objective laws of motion were and how they operated. As such, by logical necessity, class struggle and human subjectivity were, for the most part, provisionally attenuated and closed off within the pages of Capital. As a consequence, if Marx’s Capital is read as a complete and closed text then it may well lend itself to what we may term an ‘objectivist’ or ‘economistic’ reading.

In the prevailing intellectual climate of the late nineteenth century, during which the natural sciences had risen in prestige at the expense of speculative philosophy, it had been very easy for the first generation of Marxists to overlook the form of Capital as a critique of political economy. Instead Capital was usually read in terms of its immediate content as simply a closed and self-sufficient scientific treatise on political economy. It could therefore be said that, just as the natural scientists had discovered the objective laws that governed nature; so Marx could be seen in Capital to have lain bare the essential objective economic laws that ultimately governed capitalist society.

Now it is true that such an ‘objectivist’ reading of Capital could easily lead to a crude economic determinism and, even at times, to a political fatalism. Certainly many who were acquainted with Marx’s Capital in the late nineteenth century drew such conclusions. However, the leading theorists of both the Second and Third Internationals, on the basis of a similar ‘objectivist’ and ‘closed’ readings of Capital, opposed what they saw as the economic determinist vulgarisation of Marxism.

The orthodox theorists could readily accept that Marx’s Capital was a scientific treatise that revealed the operation of the objective laws that ultimately governed capitalist society. However, they could argue that although a natural scientist had to take a contemplative position so as to act as an objective observer in order to understand the natural laws that governed the natural world, once these natural laws were known they could then be harnessed for human purposes. Likewise, once the economic laws of capitalist society were known then they too could be harnessed so as to bring about the socialist transformation of society. Hence, the positive economic science of Marx’s Capital had to be supplemented by, what at an early age would have been termed, the art and science of politics.

Now this answer to the economic determinism of vulgar Marxism betrayed and reinforced an underlying ‘ontological dualism’ within the orthodox Marxism of the time. As has often been pointed, this dualism - which radically separates from the outset the subject from object – can be seen to be the source of many of the theoretical and political problems that were to emerge within Marxist orthodoxy.11

In short then, if we had thought things through we could have said that an ‘objectivist’ and closed reading of Capital led, at least in part, to the problems of ‘ontological dualism’ within orthodox Marxism, which in return led to a dichotomy between political and economic theory. Instead, in our haste to use the stalking horse of the critique of the theory of decline as means to make a critique of ‘orthodox Marxism’ as a whole, our argument becomes confused and ambiguous with dire consequences.

Now it might be reasonably argued that the theories of capitalist decline were rooted in ‘objectivist’ readings of Capital that were inherited from the Second International. But this does not mean that ‘orthodox Marxism’ as whole can simply be reduced to being an ‘objectivist Marxism’. However much Marxists of the time may have thought that capitalism was doomed to breakdown due its own internal and objective laws, few thought that this would be a sufficient condition for the achievement of socialism. Socialism could only be brought about through the conscious will, determination and action of party militants, and ultimately the working class. Even the most committed economic determinist would see the working out of capital’s objective laws ultimately posing a choice, even if it might be a rather apocalyptic choice, between war or revolution; socialism or barbarism?

Of course, we could not ignore this subjective moment in ‘orthodox Marxism’. Indeed, most of the writings of Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg, for example, would have been largely incomprehensible if they were understood to be ‘pure objectivists’, or even simply economic determinists. Not only this, we were at the time certainly familiar with the criticisms of orthodoxy Marxism for being based on an ‘ontological dualism’. After all we had read our Korsch and Lukacs. In fact our account of ‘orthodox Marxism’ we readily drew on such criticisms of dualism.

Yet our hasty conflation of the critique of decadence with the critique of orthodox Marxism meant that at the crucial points where we had to press home our criticisms our argument faltered. If orthodox Marxism is ‘objectivist’ how do we account for this subjectivist moment? Rather than attempting to account for this, we end up dismissing the subjective moment as being somehow non-essential. The theories of both the Second and Third Internationals were reduced to their common economic determinism, which was then juxtaposed to their differing essentially non-theoretical political practice.

But the consequence of this is that when we press home our criticism against orthodox Marxism we lapsed into a crude anarchism – the likes of Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg are denounced as having a mere ‘contemplative’, ‘deterministic’ and even ‘fatalistic’ theory. This lapse was eagerly seized upon and duly ridiculed by the ICC in their response to ‘The Decline of Theory…’. Not only this but this lapse all also allowed them to construe our argument as simply counter-posing the pure self-determining subjectivism of abstract freedom against the objectivism of Marxism - permitting them to give us an elementary lesson in the dialectics of freedom and necessity to boot.

As they say:

According to Aufheben, the theory of capitalist decadence (i.e. Marxism) reduces “ … revolutionary political activity to a reaction to an inevitable movement.” It “involves an essentially contemplative stance before the objectivity of capitalism …”. Its consequence is that “socialism is seen not as the free creation of the proletariat but as the natural result of economic development”.
Those unfamiliar with Marxism could quite easily be bamboozled by these arguments, particularly as they tend to regurgitate today’s official media diet which links Marxism with exactly those unappealing qualities. Who but a social democratic or Stalinist monk would choose grim historic necessity over free creativity, or prefer contemplation to activity?

But the alternatives posed by Aufheben are completely false: freedom does not lie in any imaginary independence from necessity, but in the recognition of necessity and action based on this recognition. Freedom and necessity are not mutually exclusive, they are opposites which interpenetrate. How they do so again has to be discovered concretely. Likewise, the relationship between the theory and practice, subject and object, consciousness and being. In framing the problem this way we are only following in the footsteps of Marx and Engels … and Hegel, who, as Engels said was the first to understand the real relationship between freedom and necessity.12

A subjectivist Marxism?
The critical notion of ‘objective Marxism’, which became pivotal in course of the article, was clearly deficient if not problematic. After all if there was an ‘objectivist Marxism’ did not this imply there was some kind of ‘subjective Marxism’ – whatever that might be? And would not such a ‘subjective Marxism’ be just as much one-sided as an ‘objective Marxism’?

Nevertheless, ‘objective Marxism’ did seem to go some way in capturing what we saw as the more salient failings of traditional Marxism: its productivism, its passive and reactive conception of the working class, its conception of communism and so forth. What is more, although we were shy of using the term ‘subjective Marxism’, what appeared as the unifying feature of most of the heterodox currents that arose in opposition to the official Marxism of the USSR and the Stalinist Communist Parties was the centrality of individual and class subjectivity. Indeed, it had been the emphasis on needs and desires, the centrality of the conscious transformative self-activity of the working class, and the demands for the immediate abolition of wage-labour that had most inspired us about the writings of Socialisme ou Barbarie, the Situationists and the various strands of Autonomia and autonomist Marxism, which we came to consider in the second part of the article.

At the time, we still felt we owed considerable allegiance to such heterodox currents, particular the Autonomists which we saw as giving theoretical expression to the highest point in class struggle in recent times. Certainly our criticisms of these currents in Part Two were superficial and rather muted. We did not for instance examine the periodisations that underlay the theories of these currents; nor did we investigate those instances when such currents themselves flipped over into an economicistic, or even technological determinism.

But perhaps more significantly our criticisms were muted because we all too easily accepted the underlying ‘ontological’ assumptions of such ‘subjectivist’ currents. Thus, in particular, we uncritically accepted the assumption of an already constituted ‘radical proletarian subjectivity’ that somehow existed outside and against capital. It was therefore very easy to overlook how such subjectivist currents glossed over the very real problems of understanding how such ‘radical proletarian subjectivity’ was constituted out of the subjectivity of individual proletarians and through the complex mediations of the relation between capital and labour.

Instead, our overall criticism boiled down to a mere question of emphasis. In correcting the emphasis in ‘orthodox Marxism’ on ‘objectivism’, these currents, in the heat of the working class offensive of the 1960s and 1970s, had bent the stick a little too far the other way. It was now, in more sober times, necessary to ‘somehow’ correct this overcorrection. The failure to develop what this ‘somehow’ was meant that it was easy for us to be accused of having a position of mere mitigation, in which objectivism had to be brought back in for those times when there was a down turn in class struggle.13

However, it should be said that already by the time Part Two of ‘The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory’ was published we were already beginning to move on from the rather confused and ambiguous ‘ontological’ positions of this article, particularly through the development of our critical engagement with Autonomist Marxism.14

It must be admitted that ‘The Theory of Decline and the Decline of Theory’ is ultimately flawed both in its conception and in its execution. Certainly if we were to write it again we would go a very different way about doing it, and it would end up being a very different article. Nevertheless, if the number of comments, translations and reprints are anything to go by, ‘The Theory of Decline’ remains one of our more popular articles. Certainly, if it is read as a work-in-progress, rather than as a definitive statement, or ‘critique’, then ‘The Theory of Decline’ retains considerable merit.

If nothing else ‘The Theory of Decline’ provides a useful and well documented critical introduction to many of the more important strands of revolutionary Marxism. Furthermore, most of the criticisms and comments it presents we would still say are, in themselves, essentially correct.
‘The Theory of Decline and the Decline of Theory’ shows us working through our ideas and tentatively coming to terms with Marxist and other revolutionary currents that influenced us. As such it marks an important, and perhaps revealing, milestone in the development of Aufheben.

Articles in this series -

The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory - Part 1
The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory - Part 2
The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory - Part 3

  • 1. See Lessons from the ‘Struggle against the Gulf War’, in Aufheben no.1, Autumn 1992.
  • 2. With hindsight this revival appears as little more than a brief Indian summer. A subsequent attempt to regroup the ‘ultra left’ milieu around a regular joint bulletin also ran in the sands after Aufheben came under attack from different quarters for attempting, together with Radical Chains, to bridge the river of blood that separated the ultra left from the left since the time of Kronstadt! By the time of the anti-Criminal Justice Bill movement in 1995 it had become clear, at least to most of us in Aufheben, that, however intelligent and well read they were individually and however much their writings might have once inspired us years before, collectively and above all practically the ‘actually existing ultra left’ were worse than useless. It was then that we began to recognise that we had to go beyond the theory and practice of the ‘ultra left’.
  • 3. The practical connections that we had established with Wildcat (UK) during and immediately after the Anti-Poll Tax movement had encouraged us to be far more optimistic about the prospects for a re-groupment of the ‘ultra left’ than we might otherwise have been.
  • 4. Or as it was put in the conclusion to ‘The Theory of Decline or the Decline in Theory’, ‘coming to terms with theories of capitalist decline has involved coming to terms with Marxism’, Aufheben No.4, Summer 1995, p.34.
  • 5. In order to resolve the tension between what the article was originally intended to be and ‘what it could possibly become’ (but which might never be if it was not started), we made what proved to be the fateful decision to publish the article in parts as and when it was written, without a fully worked out plan or even a conclusion. This proved to be merely a temporary palliative.
  • 6. To do this a special commission was established to seize all notes in any way related to the article. All the materials seized, apart from a few sheets which were given a special exemption, were then ceremonially burnt (see photos in Aufheben No.4, Summer 1995, p.30). There was some protest at these draconian measures from certain quarters. It was argued by some that all that was needed was yet more time to ‘finish’ the article. But as we shall argue the article was fundamentally flawed from the beginning and needed to be torn down and re-written. After all, when you have dug yourself in to a hole the first thing to do is stop digging!
  • 7. For a discussion of the various attempts at periodising the capitalist mode of production, see ’The Global Accumulation of capital and the periodisation of the capitalist state form’, by Simon Clarke in Open Marxism, Volume I, edited by Bonefeld, Gunn and Psychopedis, Pluto Press, 1992.
  • 8. The unoriginality of this reversal – the theory of decline: the decline of theory – was to be seized upon by the ICC in their response to the article. Taking this as clear give away that we were merely yet another ‘modernist’ grouping who had read too much of the Situationists, they dismissively write:
    ‘The title of the article in question is ‘Decadence, the theory of decline or the decline of theory’. An attempt at dialectical Hegelian humour, but hardly original. The GCI (Groupe Communiste Internationaliste) launched its attack on the theory some years ago, and their article was called ‘The theory of decadence or the decadence of theory’. More recently, Internationalist Perspective decided to rubbish the ICC’s notion that we have entered into the final phase of decadence, the phase of decomposition. This time the article was wittily entitled the ‘The theory of decomposition or the decomposition of theory’. A case of great minds thinking alike?’ in ‘Polemic with Aufheben: An Attack on Decadence is an attack on Marxism’, World Revolution no 168, October 1993. Available at:
  • 9. ‘Black Wednesday’ in October 1992, which saw the pound evicted from the European Exchange Rate mechanism, seemed to vindicate the ICC’s contention that EMU was doomed to failure. However, with hindsight, ‘Black Wednesday’ also marked the beginning, particularly in the UK, of a new prolonged resurgence in capitalist accumulation that has done more to rebut their theory of decadence than any number of articles we could have written. However, our failure to deal seriously with the general problems of periodisations left us little prepared to deal with other dubious attempts at the periodisation of capitalism. Indeed, in Part Three we flirted with the fallacious attempt to periodise the capitalist mode of production in terms of the transition of formal to real subsumption of labour under capital. This periodisation had become fashionable in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly amongst Francophone ‘ultra-leftists’. This periodisation seemed appealing to us at the time since it seemed to root the history of capitalism in terms of the ‘capital-labour’ relation rather than in the corresponding ‘capital-capital’ relations evident in the traditional Marxists periodisation of a transition from laissez-faire to monopoly capitalism. However, what was later to become clear to us was that the attempt to construct a periodisation of capitalism on the basis of some once and for all transition from formal to real subsumption of labour to capital is both misconceived and untenable.
  • 10. Indeed, it is only with the summary of Part One at the beginning of Part Two that it at all becomes clear that what we saw as the fundamental ‘ontological’ problem with the orthodoxy of the both the second and third internationals was that they were based on an ‘objectivist Marxism’.
  • 11. Perhaps the clearest example of the political implications that could arise from this ‘ontological dualism’ can be seen in Lenin’s What is to be Done? In this work it may be argued that the revolutionary subject is not the proletariat but the professional revolutionaries. Being drawn from mainly from the intelligentsia these revolutionary subjects are assumed to stand apart from the object that is to be transformed – i.e. capitalist society. Once armed with the science of Marxism the professional revolutionaries seek to transform society by harnessing the elemental powers of class struggle by organising and bring consciousness to the working masses from the outside – who, of course, are on their own are deemed only capable of reaching ‘trade union consciousness’.
  • 12. ‘Polemic with Aufheben: An Attack on Decadence is an attack on Marxism’, World Revolution no 168, October 1993. Available at:
    The main thrust of ICC’s polemic was to characterise us as academics who were attempting to poison Marxism with a ‘lethal dose of anarchism’. With much of the beginning of the polemic devoted to the ridiculous argument that because we had a ‘pretentious’ German title we must therefore be armchair academics, it was relatively easy for us at the time to dismiss out of hand their entire criticisms. However, with hindsight it must be admitted that at points in their polemic their arguments are quite sharp and perceptive. They certainly were able to deftly exploit the fact that at the time we had yet to critically rethink many of the notions and formulations that we had inherited from both anarchism and the various heterodox currents of Marxism, particularly with regard to ‘revolutionary subjectivity’.
  • 13. This was one of the more perceptive criticisms put forward by Théorie Communiste (TC) in their introduction to their French translation of ‘The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory’ – an English translation of which was reproduced in Aufheben no.11, 2003. However, Théorie Communiste’s own purported solution to the problem of orthodox Marxism’s dichotomy between the subjective and the objective does not stand up to any close scrutiny. As becomes evident through an examination of both their adoption of a positivist view of history, with its post hoc determinism in which subjective ideas and actions are reduced to their objective results, and with their schematic and structuralist periodisation of capitalism, in which objective material social relations of a period are assumed to be immediately and unequivocally expressed subjectively, Théorie Communiste’s ‘mutual involvement of the subjective and objective’ merely ends up collapsing the subjective into the objective. As a result, far from overcoming the dichotomies of orthodox Marxism, Théorie Communiste ultimately into a fatalistic objectivism – (albeit, perhaps, an objectivism of the ‘totality’ not the ‘economic’). As such, they effectively reproduce, albeit in a more sophisticated and all-encompassing form, the theoretical and political dead end of economistic vulgar Marxism, which as we have pointed out the leading figures of orthodox Marxism overcame more than a hundred years ago.
  • 14. See introduction to the Autonomist articles in this volume.
Aufheben- Decadence.pdf852.83 KB


Joseph Kay
Jun 13 2010 18:12

bump: footnotes now added

Dec 20 2012 16:45

A rather longwinded and overly defensive, but non-the-less useful qualification to this series of articles by Aufheben given their significant influence within the wider 'libertarian' communist milieu.

As often is the case the footnotes are more helpful in positioning their re-consideration of the subject in relation to other periodisation theories and theorists.

Personally I find that the use of an extended analysis based of Marx's distinction between the formal and real subsumption of labour as applied to modern global capitalism to be most helpful. Some of the work around this by 'Internationalist Perspectives' is certainly worth more consideration than Aufheben give it, but as the footnote suggests, an attempt to use this to fix a single point in history for such a transition and the critical determinant of all that follows, irrespective of the uneven development of capitalism, is misplaced (and appears in the case of IP to be partly the result of a retrospective justification for their previous political positions).

Another footnote makes some reasonable criticism of TC's approach to periodisation but can the same be said of 'End Notes' who I understand grew out of thse discussions within Aufheben?

Aug 13 2013 20:04

If I read this intro correctly, it basically says "we thought criticizing the idea of capitalism's objective decline would accomplish more than it actually turned out to accomplish." That makes sense. It doesn't seem to me, though, that the intro says "we were wrong in our criticism of the theory of decline, that theory makes more sense than we thought it did." And I still find these articles convincing as a criticism of the idea of capitalism's objective decline.

Aug 15 2013 15:09

Maybe... but I think there is more to their failure to develop the 'somehow' in the need to correct the overemphasis on 'subjectivism' in some of 'the heterdox currents' that most influenced them or to deal effectively with other periodisation and decadence theories from currents equally critical of much of the 'orthodox marxism' associated with the 2nd and 3rd Internationals. But then I don't claim to have got my head round all these problems either.

Aug 15 2013 20:56

hey Spiky, no disrespect intended but I'm having a really hard time understanding for your first sentence. Can you rephrase it please?

About the overemphasis on subjectivity, I want to think more about that. For now, if I understand what 'objectivism' means in the conversations here, I think it means something like 'over emphasis on structure' (with 'subjectivism' being the flip side, under emphasis on structure). I'm not sure about this but I don't know that theories like 'capitalism is in decline' must necessarily be 'objectivism.' Likewise not all 'objectivism' must require a theory of capitalist decline. Aufheben or anyone may well decide that 'the heterodox currents' are too subjectivist but that doesn't require embracing a theory of decline.

Aug 16 2013 17:06


Might not be the best place for such a discussion and this is really off the top of my head so.....

There is certainly no 'decline' looked at from a purely 'productivist' point of view as obviously capitalist production has continued to expand alongside the geographical and social extension of the 'value form'. I have developed my own 'cliche' which stresses the importance of understanding the development of capitalism in terms of the dynamic interelationship between class struggle and competition between capitals ( companies, conglomerates, co-ops, nation states and blocks etc). It has always seemed to me that the various tendencies in our milieu have rather lurched back and forth (often in response to the high and low points of capitalist economic fortunes) in stressing the level of class struggle as the determinant factor or the 'external' influence of capitalist competition (or ecomomic law). Whilst class struggle is an ever present reality in capitalism, at the most common everyday level in which that takes place it is entirely encompassed within the frame work of capitalism and acts primarily as a factor in capitalist modernisation. Only on a mass collective level is there any potential challenge to the continuance of the system and even here defeat will in turn become another factor in capitalist modernisation. Class struggle and capitalist competition are both 'objective' factors in one sense but then capitalists and workers are conscious beings rather than automatons - or are they? Most of the time our activity, even when expressed as conscious opposition to some aspect of the system or even 'ideologically' to the system as a whole, is shaped by the nature of the system and either serves to enhance it's strength or is otherwise largely peripheral or irrelevant. It seems to me that a genuine shift towards a communist consciousness (as opposed to a sectional or class identity) cannot be built up within the framework of the everyday class struggle. Rather it is likely to happen, if at all, only in response to an extended economic and social crisis which for most of us, even if in our various limited acts of refusal have contributed to it, is experienced as external to us or as result of objective circumstances. This would never be likely if there was no inherent contradiction between capitalism's continued expansion and modernisation and it's destructive tendencies accross the board - economic, social and ecological. Is the attenuation of crisis 'decline' - you could say so - though it might have a hell of a long way to go before anyone could say it was 'terminal'!!

Still working through all this myself really.

Aug 16 2013 18:56

Thanks Spiky. Similar stuff on my mind lately, I want to think more about all this. I don't have anything substantive to add here but I wanted to say I appreciate the conversation.