Section one. The revolution and capitalism's prospects. The war of 1914 and its interpretations - Claude Bitot

Section one. The revolution and capitalism's prospects. The war of 1914 and its interpretations - Claude Bitot

First published in 1995 in France: Section One, “The Historical Balance Sheet” includes chapters on: communist movements throughout history; Marx and Engels and communism; “Real” vs. “Formal” domination of capital and the importance of this distinction for understanding the failure of the old workers movements (capitalism was not “obsolete” prior to 1945). Section Two, “Perspectives”, contains an extensive discussion of: the economic roots of capitalism’s current crisis (the “final stage of its cycle”); the communist revolution; and socialism.

The Revolution and Capitalism’s Prospects

The War of 1914 and Its Interpretations

As we have seen, for the revolutionary Marxists of the first decade of the twentieth century, the road to revolution was open. Thus, at the First Congress of the Communist International capitalism was declared dead and at the Fourth Congress (November 1922) it was still being maintained that “[w]hat capitalism is experiencing today is nothing but its death throes”. Seventy years later, capitalism is still there. It must be undergoing particularly long-lasting “death throes”.... It is not hard to recognize the fact that the predictions of the Marxists have been belied by the facts. History has not confirmed their analysis from the early 1900s. It followed a different course. Which course did it follow?

It can be said with certainty that modern history began with the war of 1914. That conflagration marked the end of a whole era, one that had witnessed a relatively peaceful development of capitalism. The socialist movement had seen it coming for a long time. Starting in the late 1800s, it had debated the topic in its congresses. It professed to confront the issue head-on. Everyone knows what happened. But what was the meaning, for the socialist movement, of this risk of conflict that hovered over European society? If we consult the analyses of the most extreme left, the stage characterized by the acute contradictions that plagued capitalism could only lead to generalized war. Lenin called this phenomenon “imperialist war”. For Rosa Luxemburg as well, although her theory of imperialism differed from Lenin’s, imperialism was the final stage of capitalism, because she viewed it as deriving from the internal difficulties of capital accumulation: capitalism, having exhausted its “internal markets”, was obliged, in order to find solvent buyers, to conquer “exotic”, “extra-capitalist” markets. Thus we see colonial expansion, the quest for “zones of influence” leading to the division of the world and the obligatory clash of the great capitalist powers, each of them seeking, by means of violence, to seize the markets of their rivals, the whole process culminating in a generalized war among imperialist blocs. Lenin, although disagreeing with this theory of capital accumulation elaborated by Rosa Luxemburg, reached the same conclusion. The war would indeed be a “war of banditry” started by the trusts, monopolies and magnates of international finance, whose interests clashed with respect to colonial markets, zones of influence, and reserves of raw materials. A new sharing out of the world was therefore necessary, each trying to push aside its competitors by direct means, and even to purely and simply eliminate them as economic powers, invading their territories in order to transform them into subject countries, industrially dismantled, reduced to an agrarian status and compelled to slavery. In short, the wolves were devouring each other. Capitalism degenerated into a free-for-all in the paroxysm of the imperialist war. As for the peoples, they were the victims of the crash of such a system, in the grips of its death agony, prisoners of increasingly violent convulsions. Rosa Luxemburg concluded that from that point forward the alternative posed was “socialism or barbarism”: either the end of civilization through a series of destructive wars, or “the conscious struggle of the international proletariat” for socialism. For Lenin, although certain fractions of the working class, the famous “labor aristocracy”, had supported the war, this did not obviate the fact that the order of the day was the replacement of such an exhausted capitalist system, which was wearing itself out in a morbid and senseless fit of madness: “Imperialism is the eve of the socialist revolution”, he wrote.1

A theory is not valid, especially if it lays claim to the title of scientific Marxism, unless it is based on a certain number of solid facts. Capitalism, it was said, led to war because its possibilities of expansion had reached their limits. In other words, this means that prior to the war it was already a prisoner of serious and characteristic economic convulsions. Was this the true visage of capitalism during those years? In fact, between 1894 and 1914, the growth rate per decade was 23.8% in England, 15.7% in France, 32.9% in Germany, and 44.7% in the United States.2 Furthermore, during those years a “second industrial revolution” had taken place, that of electricity, oil and chemicals, with their diverse applications in production. On the eve of 1914, capitalism was therefore not collapsing. Another sign of its expansion was the tendency for prices to rise: in England, from a base index of 83 in 1896, prices surpassed 116; in France, they rose from 82 to 116; in Germany, from 82 to 115; in the United States, from 75 to 112.3 The alleged saturation of markets as the cause of the war is not confirmed because prices, instead of collapsing, as was supposed to have happened, were on the rise. Another factor to take into account: the role that finance capital had played in promoting the war. Here, too, nothing is obvious. In reality, it turned out that the business climate in the City was much more pacifist than the British government. Worldwide financial collaboration was the rule between England and Germany; this was likewise the case with regard to France and Germany. It is an established fact that during the Agadir Affair (1911) the financial milieu played the part of peacemakers between the contending nations. Generally speaking, it could be maintained that finance capitalism, due to its cosmopolitanism and the interpenetration of its capitals, tended to create the closest bonds between capitalist countries, as their common interests were more numerous than their divergent interests. The financial causes of the war are thus far from proven.

“If Statesmen and peoples had acted according to economic rationality, the War of 1914 would never have taken place”, wrote the liberal Raymond Aron.4 This is not false. As an expanding economic system, capitalism did not need a war, which does not mean, viewed from another angle, that it had nothing at stake in the war of 1914, as we shall see below.

We shall now address the topic of imperialism, which was, according to Lenin, the “highest” stage of capitalism and the direct cause of the war. “Imperialism is essentially a traditional phenomenon”, Raymond Aron writes. This is not false, either. Under the slave system, there were Athenian, Roman and Arab imperialisms. During the Feudal era in the West, under the guise of a “holy war” and “crusades against the infidels”, a Christian imperialism arose. Under the pre-bourgeois reigns of the Spanish, French, English and Russian absolute monarchies, North and South America, India and part of Asia were colonized. In the 19th century, this imperialist trend only continued with the colonization of China and Africa. Imperialism would obviously constitute an important factor in the primitive accumulation of capital, as well as an abundant source of raw materials that would, so to speak, allow a free lunch to industrial production and manufacture in the great capitalist metropolises. But it would be false, as it seems Lenin did, to reduce capitalism to a system of pillage as a result of these facts. What characterizes capitalism most of all, as Marx has described it, is the creation of wealth by means of the exploitation of wage labor and the rational utilization of science and technology. Likewise, by presenting the war, as Lenin did, as a result of this pillage, as a “war of bandits” who were fighting over the colonial booty like a gang of pirates, is too one-sided; such war goals cannot characterize capitalism in its “highest stage”, since they were already present during the pre-capitalist stage that was confronted, from the 16th to the 18th centuries, by France, Spain and the Netherlands. “It was not over colonial conflicts that the nations went to war, but over conflicts of nationalities in the Balkans”, Aron wrote. This is true with regard to colonial conflicts, but what about the conflicts between nationalities? It is easy to reply that they were nothing but the detonator, and not the bomb itself. Trotsky, who was in Vienna in August 1914, recalls: “All the European capitals were having equally ‘wonderful’ days in August. They were all entirely ‘transformed’ for the business of mutual extermination. The patriotic enthusiasm of the masses in Austria-Hungary seemed especially surprising. What was it that drew to the square in front of the War Ministry the Viennese bootmaker’s apprentice, Pospischil, half German, half Czech; or our greengrocer, Frau Maresch; or the cabman Frankl? What sort of an idea? The national idea? But Austria-Hungary was the very negation of any national idea. No, the moving force was something else.”5 “Nationalism”, after all, has a broad back. Was it not instead a pure pretext? Trotsky explains this enthusiasm on the part of the masses for war by the monotony of their existence; this is why “the alarm of mobilization breaks into their lives like a promise; the familiar and long-hated is overthrown, and the new and unusual reigns in its place”. But how can one explain the fact that the societies of that time harbored such a nuisance that would then provoke such a fever for war? “Like revolution, war forces life, from top to bottom, away from the beaten track”, Trotsky added. In this case, if there was such a thirst for adventure, why didn’t the people prefer revolution instead of war? Class war instead of war between the nations? Trotsky’s explanation of the war is of a psychological, or one could even say “existential” nature, but it is better than Lenin’s, who proffered economic explanations. This explanation, however, begs to be linked to a much more extensive domain. And which one is that?

In his book, The Persistence of the Old Regime, the historian Arno Mayer6 also addressed this question concerning the origin of the war. The subject of his essay is actually the pre-war period. His central thesis is as follows: generally, historians, including Marxists, have overestimated the development and spread of industrial capitalism during that era. Along with this incorrect assessment, they overestimated the hegemony, both political and cultural, of a bourgeoisie that was, in fact, self-effacing and even resigned before the old aristocratic ruling classes that still occupied the upper echelon in Europe. The latter had adapted to capitalism (or at least to a certain kind of capitalism, as we shall see below) and still retained, except in France, their ruling positions in society, imposing their conservative and regressive points of view: this is what Arno Mayer referred to as “the persistence of the old regime”. However, since they did perceive the advance of the modern capitalist world, and with it, the specter of socialism (whose threat they exaggerated for the purpose of more effectively exorcising the threat posed by modernity), they did not hesitate to provoke a European conflagration. And then, in July 1914, Mayer writes, “the governors of the major powers, all but a few of them thoroughly nobilitarian, marched over the precipice of war with their eyes wide open, with calculating heads, and exempt from mass pressures. Along the way not a single major actor panicked or was motivated by narrow personal, bureaucratic, and partisan concerns. Among the switchmen of war there were no petty improvisers, no romantic dilettantes, no reckless adventurers. Whatever the profile of their populist helpers or harassers, they were men of high social standing, education and wealth, determined to maintain or recapture an idealized world of yesterday. But these politician-statesmen and generals also knew that to achieve their project they would have to resort to force and violence. Under the aegis of the scepter and the miter, the old elites, unrestrained by the bourgeoisie, systematically prepared their drive for retrogression, to be executed with what they considered irresistible armies. They, the horsemen of the apocalypse, were ready to crash into the past not only with swords and cavalry charges but also with the artillery and railroads of the modern world that besieged them.”

“For its own reasons and interests the capitalist bourgeoisie, symbiotically linked to the old elites, was ready and willing, if not eager, to serve as quartermaster for this perilous enterprise. The magnates of movable wealth calculated that the requisites of warfare would intensify the ancien régime’s need for the ‘economic services of capitalism’. Like their senior partners, the bourgeoisie did not shy away from what they too knew would be absolute war, confident that it would be a forcing house for the expansion of industry, finance, and commerce and an improvement of their status and power. As for the industrial workers, they were too weak and too well integrated into nation and society to resist impressment, though theirs was the only class in which there was any marked disposition to do so.”

Engels had also predicted the risk of a European war; a war “in which fifteen to twenty million armed men would slaughter one another and devastate Europe as it has never been devastated before”.7 He also thought that such a war would originate from aristocratic reaction and that its principle focus would be Russia: “. . . protected by its geographical position and by its economic situation against the more disastrous consequences of a series of defeats—Russia alone could find it in its interests to unleash such a terrible war”. In 1886, he predicted, “[T]he time will come when the incompatibility of Russian and Austrian interests will break out into the open. It will then be impossible to avoid war, it will become generalized”.8 In fact, it was not only from reactionary Russia that the war would come, but from all the European countries that threw themselves into the fray with equal ardor. Meanwhile, we shall note that Engels did not predict that the war would be the result of the exacerbated economic contradictions of capitalism. Arno Mayer, by pointing out that the war of 1914 was more of a reaction to capitalism on the part of the forces of the Ancient Regime, who had been buried a little too soon, than it was a manifestation of capitalism (although capitalism also had some interest in the war), is more or less in agreement with Engels. This explanation merits closer consideration for further insights.

The Formal and the Real Domination of Capital

Mayer’s theory is that on the eve of the First World War the belligerent nations were in the midst of an economically transitory stage: a highly industrialized, monopolistic and financial capitalism has made a breakthrough, but it was “in its earliest stage rather than its peak or its last stage”, because “the new capitalism had not, however, replaced the old at the turn of the 20th century”. The latter, rooted in agriculture, manufacturing and small-scale commerce, was still dominant.9 This transitional stage between the “new” and the “old” capitalism, which began during the 1880s, could be considered as a stage that heralded the step from the formal domination to the real domination of capital. In order to clarify our theme, we think this would be a good time to recall the major features of this formulation, which Marx uses in an unpublished chapter of Capital.10

Formal domination corresponds to the first stage of capitalism. This was when the peasant, who had until then been a freeholder or a serf, became a day laborer, and produced for a capitalist farmer, and when the artisan of the ancient guilds became a wage laborer working for a manufacturer. But why was it called “formal” domination? “I designate as the formal submission of labor to capital that form which is based on absolute surplus value, because it is only formally distinguished from prior modes of production, upon the basis of which it spontaneously arose (or was introduced).” What Marx meant to say was that, compared to the types of exploitation known as slavery and serfdom, “the only thing that changed was the coercion applied or the method employed to appropriate surplus labor”: instead of being obtained by means of violence or patriarchal subordination, as was the case in the past, this kind of coercion is carried out in a way that is “purely economic, and voluntary in appearance only”. Once this system was established, with the capitalist relation of exploitation the worker is compelled to submit if he does not want to die of hunger, but in other respects, he is free to choose. Beyond the domain of this new relation of force for the purpose of appropriating surplus labor by prolonging the working day to its maximum limits (what Marx called the production of “absolute” surplus value), nothing changed in relation to the past, at least at the beginning: “At first, there was no innovation in the mode of production itself: the work was conducted in exactly the same way as before, except now it is subordinated to capital.” This did, however, result in a higher productivity of labor. Its intensity increased because, unlike the slave who only worked under the sway of fear, “the free worker, on the other hand, is driven by his needs. The consciousness (or rather, the idea) of being determined solely by oneself, of being free, as well as the sense (feeling) of the responsibility that corresponds with that consciousness, makes him a much better worker, because, like every seller of commodities, he is responsible for the commodity he supplies and is obliged to supply a certain quantity of it, at the risk of being supplanted by the other sellers of the same commodity”. This formal domination is found under the form that Marx calls “simple cooperation”. Later it would undergo further extension with the stage of manufacture, in which the division of labor was further developed.

Marx employed the term “real submission of labor to capital” to refer to the period when, having prolonged the working day to its maximum, capital, in order to extract even more surplus value, reduces the time of the labor necessary for the reproduction of the worker’s labor power. Thus, in a working day of, let us say, twelve hours, instead of working six hours to reproduce his labor power as before, the worker will now work five hours; this difference of one hour is what Marx called “relative” surplus value. But in order for such an abbreviation of the labor time necessary for the reproduction of labor power to take place, machinery must be introduced on a large scale, which allows the augmentation of the productivity of labor. From this time forward, the production process is transformed: “The real submission of labor to capital,” Marx writes, “is accompanied by a complete revolution (which continues and is constantly renewed: see The Communist Manifesto) in the mode of production, of the productivity of labor and of the relations between capitalists and workers.” Henceforth, the means of production, ceaselessly revolutionized, spread constantly and tend to concentrate in large industrial enterprises. With the accompanying application of the sciences and technology to production, this meant “the maximum of products with the minimum of time, or in other words, the cheapest commodities possible”; this is the “specifically capitalist mode of production”.

The formal and the real domination of capital must be understood as the two historical stages of capitalism. If one were to provide a date for the passage from the former to the latter stage, it is clear that England, with the first industrial revolution, entered this stage before all the other countries. It would not be until the second industrial revolution of the 1880s, however, that the real domination of capital began to really assume its characteristic form in Europe. And this brings us to Arno Mayer, who comments upon this transition between what he calls the “old capitalism” (that of formal domination) and the “new capitalism” (that of real domination).

Marx examined these two stages in their strictly economic aspect. But he did not extend his analysis further, which could easily be done. This passage to the real domination of capital is not just a transformation in the mode of production, but is also necessarily accompanied by a disturbance in society. The latter, under the formal domination of capital, continued to follow its traditional ways for the most part. Such a form of domination, because it was strictly “formal”, did not affect society’s basic configuration. Its social elements had to adapt to the latter, but they did not have to radically alter their own status. Thus, the former serf owners only had to transform themselves into landowners who provided employment to a form of labor that would henceforth be wage labor (this is how Mayer accounts for the continuation of the preeminence of the landed nobility in Europe). The former craftsmen of the guilds, now working in capitalist enterprises, continued for the most part to work in the same way as before, as machine technology had not yet radically transformed their work routines or threatened to render their skills superfluous. This is why society as a whole still preserved a rural aspect that, if not artisanal, was at least characterized by manufacture rather than by large industry. Similarly, to a great extent the old mentalities, customs and traditions of the Old Regime survived in both the ruled and the ruling classes.

With the introduction of the real domination of capital, the scene changed. This is when capitalism really began to come into its own. It industrialized, modernized and utterly transformed the urbanized, concentrated and massified landscape. From that time forward, there would be a tendency for the machine to replace the skilled worker, the industrial factory to replace the workshop, the city to replace the country, the industrialist to replace the landlord, and the mechanical, rapid, mobile, changing universe to replace the traditional, slow, and repetitive universe; that was when the exclusive reign of the economy began and when everything that still possessed any sacred quality began to be subject to doubt: Work, Nature, Ideas, Politics....

During the era of the first industrial revolution in England, The Communist Manifesto had already called attention to such a transformation in 1848: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

The impact of the second industrial revolution, which began in the 1880s, would be more violent. To illustrate our proposition, we shall cite an author like Charles Péguy, a great enemy of the “modern world” (we translate: a great enemy of the real domination of capital that was at that time beginning to take off). He precisely dated the advent of this world, in France, to 1881. Why that date? Because, as we are told by Daniel Halevy, one of his biographers, “that was when the great provincial Catholic families were defeated and the republicans began to impose their laws”.11 What does that mean? For Péguy, the Republic was beautiful and desirable when it was “the object of a mystique (…), a system of government of the Old Regime based on honor and upon the honor inhering to the mere fact of being a government of the old France”.12 The Republic based on honor, on a mystique, could still command some respect.... From the moment, however, when it began to be demystified and abandoned the luminous realm it once occupied—hell and damnation! It is disillusionment: “In their hands the Republic has become an object of modern politics, and generally of a lowly politics and system of government based on the satisfaction of the most base appetites and the most sordid interests.” In other words, as long as the domination of capital was still only formal, the Republic was acceptable, it was even worthy of respect, like the thirty or forty monarchs who ruled France.... One can recognize continuity, since a “system of the Old Regime” is associated with “the old France”. But the real domination of capital it becomes odious, revealing itself for what it really is: a simple political superstructure of capitalism. He has the same appreciation for the bourgeoisie: “Therefore it cannot be repeated too often. All evil has come from the bourgeoisie. All aberration, all crime. It is the bourgeoisie that has infected the people. And it has infected it precisely with the bourgeois and capitalist spirit.”13 This assessment corroborates our own analysis of the ideological integration of the proletariat at the end of the 19th century, discussed above. But we shall see where Péguy draws the line: “I am referring expressly to the capitalist bourgeoisie and the big bourgeoisie. The working bourgeoisie (there we are!), the small bourgeoisie (better yet!) have become the most unhappy of all social classes, the only one that really works today (the workers, for their part, carry out “sabotage”...), the only one that, as a result, has preserved intact the virtues of work and their reward is to be the only class that really lives in poverty. It is the only one that has held out, and one can ask oneself what miracle accounts for this; it is the only one that has persisted, and if there is a restoration it will be because it will have preserved the law.” Thus, just like the Republic, long live the bourgeoisie as long as it is evolving within the formal domination of capital; then it was respectable, “hard-working”, and if by chance it manages to survive, then it will be the source of a rebirth—“a restoration”. Down with the bourgeoisie of the “modern world”, however, which is vile, base, composed of speculators, which does not want to work.... Years of disillusionment, loss of the belief in progress, a sense of “decadence”, such is the overall tone of an era that also saw the spectacular debut of electricity and petrochemicals, with their diverse industrial applications. Which did not prevent the rise of a certain distrust among men, a heedless opposition and, finally, open hostility: “The modern world degrades. That is its specialty,” exclaims Péguy.14 This is because “modern world is not only in opposition to the Old Regime of France, it is in opposition to, and in contradiction of, all the old cultures in their entirety, and all the old regimes at the same time, everything that is culture, everything urban. For it is the first time in the history of the world that a whole world lives and prospers, it appears to prosper, against all culture”.15

The radical novelty of such a world is that it appears as a break with everything that humanity had previously known. The real domination of capital emerges, relegating its completely formal domination to the past, where it joins “all the old worlds” that preserved room for freedom, often working gratuitously for glory, honor and faith. From now on, capital tends to become the only captain on the ship and carries out a totalitarian seizure of all aspects of life, with King Money and Emperor Profit.

A world of maximum alienation, because from then on it did not just affect the workers who, since the beginnings of the 19th century, had been dragged, together with their wives and children, to the factories of Manchester or Lyon, but it also affected the immense traditional middle classes, with all those “hard-working bourgeoisie”, along with the entire surviving peasantry and, more to the point, with the descendants of the feudal nobility who had been transformed into bourgeois landlords. The real domination of capital threatened not only their interests, but also clashed head-on with their customs, obsessions, ideas and dreams. For them a whole world was fading away and another one, never before seen, was preparing to replace it, one that seemed to be strange, uncertain and disturbing. How would these people react? What kind of revolt would they be able to unleash? What form would their rejection of the modern world assume, regardless of whether it takes an unconscious or conscious form?

The War of 1914 as the Outbreak of a Great Crisis of Growth of Bourgeois Civilization

In his introduction to The Persistence of the Old Regime, Mayer writes: “This book is intended as a contribution to the discussion of the causa causans and inner nature of Europe’s recent ‘sea of troubles’. It starts with the premise that the World War of 1939-1945 was umbilically tied to the Great War of 1914-1918, and that these two conflicts were nothing less than the Thirty Years’ War of the general crisis of the twentieth century. The second premise is that the Great War of 1914, or the first and protogenic phase of this general crisis, was an outgrowth of the latter-day remobilization of Europe’s anciens régimes. Though losing ground to the forces of industrial capitalism, the forces of the old order were still sufficiently willful and powerful to resist and slow down the course of history, if necessary by recourse to violence. The Great War was an expression of the decline and fall of the old order fighting to prolong its life rather than of the explosive rise of industrial capitalism bent on imposing its primacy. Throughout Europe the strains of protracted warfare finally, as of 1917, shook and cracked the foundations of the embattled old order, which had been its incubator. Even so, except in Russia, where the most unreconstructed of the old regimes came crashing down, after 1918-1919, the forces of perseverance recovered sufficiently to aggravate Europe’s general crisis, sponsor fascism, and contribute to the resumption of total war in 1939.” (Mayer, op. cit., pp. 3-4.)

One cannot judge an era by its own image of itself, Marx said. Historical understanding must not be sought in what its actors think, express, or imagine. What counts is what they really do or, better yet, what they will do. One will then see that the goals they pursue and the ideas they proclaim usually have nothing to do with their real conduct. Thus, with respect to the war of 1914, the announced goals—or rather, those secretly pursued by the various great powers—do not tell us very much, because none of them would ever be realized. Instead, an understanding of the war of 1914 as the outbreak of a new “thirty years’ war” that would end in 1945, the two dates being indissolubly linked by the explosion of fascism that struck Europe at that time, would seem to be suggested, from a point of view based on an objective understanding of the facts. 1914 marked the beginning of a crisis (which had been incubating for a long time) of bourgeois civilization that, in its forward march, had come into conflict with retrograde social forces that were moving in an opposite direction and that had to be defeated. It was a critical stage of its development that must be understood in connection with the shock of modernity, the step from the formal domination to the real domination of capital that we discussed above. This having been established, all that remains for us is to review the film of the events: these prove that it was a crisis of growth affecting bourgeois civilization.

The Victory of the “War Party”

By the late 1890s a “war party” had crystallized in every one of the nations that would later join the fray. The aristocratic forces evoked by Mayer put all their weight into the balance, especially in central and Eastern Europe, with the Hohenzollerns, the Hapsburgs, and the Romanovs, who had preserved their powers in their respective States. There was also an important social mass, of the lowest social background, composed of petit bourgeois of the cities and the countryside, who were also losers in the modern world. There were even some fractions of that “hard-working bourgeoisie” referred to by Péguy, connected with the simply formal domination of capital, who were threatened with disappearance as a result of the growing concentration of capitalism.

For all of these forces only a war, a war such as had never been seen before, could achieve their supreme goal: to carry out a vast operation of destruction of this modern world that was squeezing them and eliminating them, free to utilize that world’s technological means of destruction for this purpose: one does not make war on this world with sabers and swords, but with its own weapons, turning them against it. In order to achieve this objective, a sacred cause was invented: the fatherland.... For them, it became a sublime ideal that must be jealously and exclusively defended against the other competing nationalisms, so that dying for the fatherland became the “most beautiful fate”.... In reality, viewed objectively, this “patriotism” is nothing but a pure pretext to go to war. Militarism is its true passion, and war, conceived as “a great renewal” and “hygiene for life” (Marinetti) is its true philosophy. The war was an attempt to keep “bourgeois decadence” at bay. Allow us to translate: to prevent the rise of capitalism to its real domination. “Two accidents alone, it seems, would be able to stop this movement [towards decadence—Tr. Note]: a great foreign war, which might renew lost energies, and which in any case would doubtless bring into power men with the will to govern; or a great extension of proletarian violence, which would make the revolutionary reality evident to the middle class, and would disgust them with the humanitarian platitudes with which Jaurès lulls them to sleep”, Georges Sorel coldly observes.16 War between States or between classes, it did not matter to Sorel, what mattered was that there would be “a good war”, transforming violence into an end in itself. “It is not the good cause that makes the good war, it is the good war that makes the good cause”, Nietzsche had already prophetically announced. And, once again, one must not shrink from using any means: make use of all the resources that modern capitalism possesses for fighting this generalized war. The time of the little wars with their small-time demands and limited objectives has come to an end, from now on the magnificent goal is to escape from the “crisis of civilization” that brings the real domination of capital and, at the same time, to stop the wheels of history.

Against them, however, is arrayed the peace party. Here are all the social forces that seek to accelerate the advent of the real domination of capital: the big entrepreneurial bourgeoisie, the new middle classes that modern capitalism was just then causing to sprout up in its wake (white collar employees, technicians, functionaries), as well as the working class, which was tending to become bourgeoisified.17 For all these classes, capitalism must be allowed to develop freely and in peace, so that it can show all its economic power. Its highest aim is to bring about “a great democratic and liberal consensus” that includes all classes. But if this consensus benefited from wide support on the left (the socialist parties were becoming more reformist and showed tendencies towards greater integration), it failed to attract the right: the classes still clinging to the formal domination of capital, referred to above, failed to see any advantage in such a proposal and voiced their opposition. This was made by possible by the fact that the progress of the modernization of capital was still too slow, and its growth too feeble, thus allowing the reactionary sectors time to organize and ultimately to impose their point of view.

In 1914 the war party was victorious, and even dragged along in its wake those who had been advocates of peace. This is demonstrated by the spectacular about-face, at the last minute, of the socialist parties that, in an act of self-renunciation, voted for war credits and also succumbed to “La fleur au fusil” [“the flower in the rifle”]. The war party therefore won all along the line. The only force that was susceptible to appeals to prevent the war, the socialist workers movement, ultimately surrendered and participated in this instance of collective hysteria that seized all the major European population centers. As for what they did, to take only a few examples, the old Marxist leader Jules Guesde, who was the sworn enemy of all bourgeois ministerialism, became a Minister of War; the former extremist G. Hervé, who had boasted prior to the war of having planted the tricolor in a dung heap, transformed his journal The Social War into a patriotic broadsheet called Victory after the declaration of war. “Patriotism”? This was the ideological crucible that would be the melting pot of all energies. The fatherland would be the sacred cause for everybody. For the socialists, who had not failed to read in the Communist Manifesto that the proletarians have no fatherland, it became harder to practice what they preached! The “fatherland”: what a great alibi! “Defense of the fatherland”: what a great story! It thus seemed to be the case that all the belligerent countries, in their generalized paranoia, felt themselves to be under attack.... The rest was taken care of by the subtle game of alliances between nations, and war was inevitable, echoing an unconscious impulse. Throughout this entire history, no one ever manipulated anyone else. There was no “super-bourgeoisie” (as was imagined by a certain kind of vulgar Marxism) that, knowing perfectly well what it was doing, “dragooned” the masses into the war. It was the masses that made history, not a small gang of manipulators who are always ready to spread the notion that they are omniscient and omnipotent and who can only be raised up on a pedestal by exaggerating their role. There are only moments when history, instead of advancing forward, goes backward. At that fateful moment in August 1914, it was the whole weight of the backward force that was being exerted, even on the backs of those who claimed, with socialism, to incarnate, at least verbally, a new awakening. This is why they too were blown away like chaff by this tumultuous storm.

The War Solved Nothing: The Rise of Fascism

After 1917, the war ran out of steam. Mutinies occurred, while the incidence of desertion increased and a pacifist spirit was beginning to spread. This exhaustion was due to the vast hecatombs the war had produced.18 These had their effect and dissuaded the combatants from thinking that “a decisive breach” would lead to victory. From then on, they felt more like “sacrificial victims”, these men who were sent to butchery in repeated assaults that were condemned in advance to failure. An undercurrent of resentment developed among them against the home-front warriors, while they were destined to death. This wave of discontent, whose source was the especially terrible course the war had taken, allowed the peace party, crushed and annihilated in 1914, to re-arise and regain its momentum. It did not lack arguments to prove the absurd side of the war. Its continuation could only result in yet greater massacres. Why go on killing each other? Why not make peace instead? The peace of the “heroes”, who would be coming back home. It was this outlook that began to gain a foothold and became a cause for concern on the part of the general staffs. The latter finally had to yield in 1918, imposing the peace party’s solution.19 Basically, however, nothing was settled. All the problems posed prior to 1914 remained unresolved. It is true of course that at first sight it could seem that the war had helped to get the wheels of history turning, by overthrowing the old monarchies of Germany, Austria and Russia at the end of the war. In the first two countries bourgeois republics were installed, and in Russia there was even an attempt to create a workers republic. But this advance was minimal and fragile, as the unfolding of events would soon demonstrate. The regressive forces had not capitulated. They had only suffered a temporary setback and were preparing a new assault. In fact, a new reactionary impulse arose in the years immediately following the war that would, twenty years later, conquer Europe: fascism.

It was in Italy that this movement was born and took form in 1919. The fascist movement (but not its ideas, as we shall see below) was a product of the war. One could even say that it was born in the trenches. A veterans’ organization formed in Italy in 1919, the Arditi, enrolled soldiers who had distinguished themselves for their heroism in battle and who, once they had returned to civilian life, felt frustrated, having acquired a taste for violence. Dressed in black, combat daggers on their belts, the skull and crossbones for their flag, they were ready-made for folklore. Once demobilized, they became members of an underclass who were ready for all kinds of adventures as long as they obtained their share of excitement. This movement also included some renegades from revolutionary syndicalism or socialism (like Mussolini) who, for their part, were influenced by a confused mixture of Sorel, Nietzsche and Pareto. There were also a few “futurists” (like Marinetti) who esthetically celebrated virility, violence and action for action’s sake. The program of these “fascists” is an amorphous ideological farrago that combined nationalist, socialist, anti-clerical and republican demands. Short on ideas, fascism was for the most part a disturbance from the extreme right; provocateurs, men of action and non-conformists who more or less just wanted to thrash the bourgeoisie. Nothing to write home about! If fascism had been nothing more than this, it is obvious that it would only have represented some minor postwar rubble that would soon be cleaned up. But having originated in the war, the fascist movement, although quite incoherent, was given a big promotion. The war had left a bitter taste in the mouths of many combat veterans. It appeared to them as a confused, obscure, and in short, an unfinished conflict. “Their” war had been whisked away, “their” victory was stolen from them, and they felt a lot of bitterness along with a thirst for revenge. The war party had not given up. For it, the war had to be resumed and fought to the end, so that a verdict without appeal could be pronounced. It was this spirit that animated the formation of numerous organizations of combat veterans after the war. Already in 1919, in Germany, the Freikorps (among whose ranks many future Nazis were to be found) had gained fame in its battles against the Spartacist revolutionaries and in 1920, with the Kapp Putsch, they tried to overthrow the fragile bourgeois Weimar republic. The movement of the fasci di combattimento, in Italy, was therefore not an isolated phenomenon. It corresponded to a tendency that was on the increase. Fascism would later look for its recruits in France and Germany, in the Croix de Feu (Cross of Fire) and the Stahlhelm (Steel Helmet), among other groups, embracing an entire fervently nationalist current.

“The spirit of the combat veteran” is then, a keystone in the birth and rise of fascism because the latter is nothing but a resumption of the activity of the prewar anti-modernist forces, who hoped that the war would stop capitalism from making the transformation to its real domination, as we have mentioned. This did not happen, but these forces did not surrender. They were still alive throughout Europe and would find in fascism an excellent means of reigniting the flame and preserving the sacred fire that animated them. In fact, fascism would not have to invent anything that was really ideologically new. It was enough for it to associate its movement with all the great reactionary themes of the prewar era, modernizing them just a little, in order to be recognized as their legitimate heir. Here we shall address the nature and the content of fascism. This task has given rise to a multitude of interpretations. It is not our intention to discuss all of them. We will look at only two: one, liberal bourgeois, and the other, self-styled Marxist.

Fascism: A “Revolutionary Movement”?

As a movement, fascism was born in 1919, but it can be correctly maintained that all of its ideological ingredients already existed in the 1890s. With regard to which, a historian like Sternhell writes: “The word did not exist then, but the phenomenon was already there.”20 For Sternhell, France was the “intellectual laboratory” where fascism was essentially conceived, with Barrès, Drumont, Le Bon, Sorel, Berth and Vacher de Lapouge, for whom “national socialism”, “corporativism”, “biological determinism”, anti-Semitism and anti-democratism held no secrets. “In the fascism of the interwar period, in Mussolini’s regime as in all other western European Fascist movements, there was not a single major idea that had not come to fruition in the quarter of a century preceding August 1914.”21

It can be traced back that far. There was a pre-fascism that began to gain fame, especially in France, at the time of the rise of Boulangism (1886-1890), from the Dreyfus case, as well as in some currents such as Paul Déroulède’s Ligue des Patriotes, Pierre Bietry’s Yellow Socialism and Action Française.

What can be said of this whole milieu except that it is the advance guard of the entire reactionary, bourgeois and petit bourgeois tendency that we discussed above, which was opposed to the modernist domination of capital and dreamed of enclosing the latter within strict hierarchical and juridical relations thanks to which an “honest” capital-labor collaboration will be established, eliminating both the class struggle as well as “savage” capitalism. This describes a perfectly petit bourgeois reformism, one that does not want to abolish capitalism, but to “limit” it. From there, the only remaining task for its ideologues was to cook up a suitable program. Due to its collaborationist aspirations and its social concerns, this milieu called itself “socialist”, but further qualified as “national socialist”, that is, opposed to the internationalist socialism of the workers movement that, in the eyes of the fascists, was merely a reflection of the cosmopolitan tendencies of big capital, which they hated. Fascism also took on the modern machine age, which eliminated traditional crafts. It therefore condemned “industrialism” and the “alleged modern progress” (Barrès). What they called “socialism” did not consist in the abolition of private property but in dividing industrial property into smaller portions, as had been done with agricultural property. Finally, they dreamed of a “strong State” that would guarantee this ideal of small business owners, small-scale producers and minor stockholders who participate in the “fruits of enterprise”, and who will no longer be proletarians but “collaborators”. As a result, modern bourgeois political democracy did not enjoy the favor of the fascists, because it is the reign of the “plutocrats”, the magnates of high finance and the parties, which are just so many “corrupt” cliques. It would thus be anti-parliamentarian in politics, even though it was trying to replace political democracy with social democracy: in the workplace, in the new corporativist system in which the owners and the workers will be fraternally associated....

What took place, then, was an ideological crystallization of those social forces that were opposed to the real domination of capital and were trying to restrict the latter to its formal stage of domination, and who were attempting to regroup and refresh their forces. The historian Zeev Sternhell carried out a revealing analysis of this fascist current that existed before before the war of 1914. Below we shall examine his analysis of the emergence of that current.

For him—and here is where you have to begin to pay attention—the birth of the fascist ideology was “the direct result of a very specific revision of Marxism (. . .). It was the French and Italian Sorelians, the theoreticians of revolutionary syndicalism, who made this new and original revision of Marxism”.22 The purpose of this maneuver soon becomes clear: ideologically, fascism therefore derives from Marxism—since it is a “very specific revision” of the latter—and, more generally, from the workers movement—since this “revision” was the work of “theoreticians of revolutionary syndicalism” whom Sternhell refers to as “the French and Italian Sorelians”.

First of all, we shall draw attention to a few holes in his argument. Where did the “revisionist” Sorel come from? From Marxism, like Bernstein? Not at all! Even if it did occur to Sorel to call himself a “Marxist” (but if we had to take everyone who did likewise seriously....), it was always from his own “Sorelian” point of view, that is, an idealist, non-determinist, pragmatic, irrationalist, moralist, and voluntarist point of view, and was intended to be that way. Therefore he could not have “revised” Marxism and the connection that Sternhell attempted to establish between the latter and fascism makes almost no sense right from the start. When Sternhell makes Sorel and the “Sorelians” the “theoreticians of revolutionary syndicalism”, however, we have to take a much closer look. Sorel’s “great book”, Reflections on Violence, was never on the reading list of the syndicalist militants, but was read by the Italian fascists and the Spanish Falangists. In fact, Sternhell skillfully finds two or three Italian former revolutionary syndicalists who turned to fascism, in such a way as to render plausible the idea that the latter arose ideologically from the workers movement via its revolutionary syndicalist fraction. In short, Sternhell “arranged matters”, or in other words, falsified. But that is not the most important issue. It is what Sternhell is trying to achieve with this; that is what is interesting. If fascism is an “anti-materialist and anti-rationalist revision of Marxism” that derived from the “theoreticians of revolutionary syndicalism” of the Sorel type, what is its content? Fascism was “not a reactionary or an antirevolutionary movement in the Maurrassian sense of the term. Fascism presented itself as a revolution of another kind”,23 Sternhell explains. For, as he maintains, it was obvious that since the turn of the century Marxism as a revolutionary theory of the proletariat had failed, overcome by the right wing revisionism of Bernstein. As a result, if one still wanted to be revolutionary, all you had to do was to revise Marxism in order to produce a new theory—fascism—that would eternally carry on, although in a different manner, the revolutionary, that is, anti-bourgeois, struggle.... Put another way, fascism took over from an exhausted Marxism and took its turn in the assault on the liberal and democratic society, although conceived as a revolution of “another kind”. Which kind? Sternhell responds: it “sought to destroy the existing political order and to uproot its theoretical and moral foundations but that at the same time wished to preserve all the achievements of modern technology. It was to take place within the framework of the industrial society, fully exploiting the power that was in it. The Fascist revolution sought to change the nature of the relationships between the individual and the collectivity without destroying the impetus of economic activity—the profit motive, or its foundation—private property, or its necessary framework—the market economy. This was one aspect of the novelty of fascism: the Fascist revolution was supported by an economy determined by the laws of the market”.24

This, then, is what Sternhell calls the “Fascist revolution”: in the most generous interpretation, a vague reform of capital! It is pure fakery to speak of a “revolution” with such a program, that is, an “anti-bourgeois” project that does not threaten either profit or private property or the market, in other words, the essentials of capitalism.

This does not fluster Sternhell; quite the contrary: affecting to see in fascism a “revolutionary movement”, a “revolutionary right”, a “radical current” that split from Marxism, he simultaneously discredits any really revolutionary critique of bourgeois liberalism, of which he is evidently a passionate supporter in its “enlightened left” version. In this manner he devalues the idea of revolution, and is ready at the same time to become an accomplice of the fascists who pretended that their movement was revolutionary, and is also fully prepared to give fascism a facelift, presenting it as a struggle against “the alienation of the individual in a free market economy”.25 Such is the degree of mercenary confusionism that Sternhell reached. In fact, this interpretation of fascism is a perverse manifestation of the ideological counterrevolution currently being orchestrated by bourgeois liberalism, whose declared goal is “the end of history”: when they talk about the “fascist revolution”, they are attempting to cause people to think that everything connected with the word revolutionary must be viewed with suspicion, that fascism and communism are ultimately the two faces of the same opposition (the former being derived from the latter) to “democracy” (not to mention “bourgeois democracy”), and that they both must therefore be thrown into the same bag! Fascism was in fact a reactionary movement, a residue, in the final analysis, of the Middle Ages. A somewhat modernized Middle Ages, of course, which had adapted to the formal domination of capital, but one that was nonetheless a retrograde manifestation that opposed capital’s real domination not with the intention of going beyond it (communism) but of preventing it from developing to maturity (fascism), insofar as it is viewed as a revolution.... Fascism was, so to speak, a reactionary anti-capitalism, and even acknowledging the fact that, in accordance with Sternhell’s claim, it did not completely turn its back on capitalist progress, it was nevertheless reactionary insofar as it rejected the latter’s consequences—ideological, cultural, political—and sought instead to create “integral” and “organic” “community” inspired by the past, which conforms with Mayer’s description of Nazism as “symbolic bric-a-brac culled from Germany’s remote ages.”26 This archaism was in total contradiction of the modern development of capital, since developed capitalism implies a particular27 superstructure—political, juridical, and ideological—that constitutes bourgeois democracy. This is the source of fascism’s incoherence, wanting to enclose capitalism within obsolete and dead historical forms. This is the source of its inadequacy vis-à-vis the modern world, attempting to reawaken an idyllic community of nation, race and even religion that would ensure the perpetuation of the “sacred values” of work (while man’s replacement by machinery is constantly accelerating), family (while, with modern life, what is being imposed is the atomized “individual” walled up within his “ego”) and fatherland (while capitalism is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan and global). And this is the source, ultimately, of its defeat and final downfall in 1945.

Fascism was not a revolution but, in its purest manifestations, a revolt against the real domination of capital in its political and ideological aspects. What does this mean? It means that one can indeed by very rebellious (being revolutionary is another matter) and reactionary at the same time. Already during the time of the first industrial revolution, the “feudal socialism” referred to by the Communist Manifesto corresponded to this kind of revolt: “at times, by its bitter, witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart’s core; but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history.” Stopping the forward rush of history—such was also the grandiose project of the first—prematurely—fascist generation, whose literary representatives were Barrès, Maurras, Péguy and Drumont (who were also occasionally capable of “bitter, witty and incisive” criticism of bourgeois modernity), who proclaimed, with the assistance of a few philosophers and sociologists like Sorel and Le Bon (although the latter were even more disturbing with their “mass psychology” and the theory of violence as “myth”), the great revolt of the middle classes they recognized in fascism. It was an emotional and irrational revolt, an attempt to prevent their inevitable decline. At first it was a tragi-comedy (the 1922 March on Rome), later it became more insidious (the burning of the Reichstag in 193328), only to finally plunge, making its failure obvious, into active and hyperdestructive nihilism (Auschwitz, 1941-1945). This revolt would take power in a whole series of countries, and not just minor ones: Italy in 1922, Germany in 1933, France in 1940 (there, of course, due to defeat); in the meanwhile, Austria, Portugal, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Spain had also all succumbed to one degree or another. In short, all of Europe, except for England in the west and Russia in the east, had gone fascist or semi-fascist. How did this happen?

Fascism: “An Expression of Big Capital”?

We have provided evidence of the incapacity of the proletariat to pose a serious threat to capitalism in the immediate postwar years. This proletarian threat was, a fortiori, nonexistent during the early 1930s, the proletariat having suffered a complete ideological defeat, with the total victory, within its own ranks, of Stalinism and Social Democracy.29 The thesis that holds that fascism was an extreme reaction on the part of capitalism against a dangerous proletariat is therefore rendered almost baseless. While it is true that the fascists warned of the “red” or “Bolshevik” bogeyman, we must not allow this fact to deceive us. Besides the fact that this sort of red scare derives from their blind and visceral anticommunism (since for them communism represents the lowest stage of “decadence”, that is, of the hated modernity), it actually comprised a tactic oriented towards the seizure of power: its purpose was to sway the allegiance of the most conservative elements of the bourgeoisie by convincing them that with the fascists in power order will be established once and for all; this tactic was applied for the first time in Italy with the organization of “punitive expeditions” against the workers organizations.

But the question remains: is this enough to justify the interpretation of fascism as an expression of capitalism at its highest stage of development (that of monopoly and imperialism), which, confronted by the effects of the continuing exacerbation of its contradictions (imperialist wars for control of markets), attempts to contain these contradictions within certain limits by means of a strong and, if necessary, totalitarian State? This thesis appears all the more credible given the fact that in Italy and Germany the milieu of the big bourgeoisie had often given a carte blanche to the fascists, and played the role of financial sponsors. Such an analysis transforms fascism into the culminating point of capitalism, the historical moment when it was obliged to take off the liberal and democratic mask and show itself openly as a dictatorship of big capital. If its rule assumed a barbaric and violent face, this is because it corresponded to the “death throes” or the “decadence” of the capitalist system.

It is indeed true that fascism reached an effective compromise with the bourgeoisie, or at least with broad strata of the latter, and that without their complicity it never would have been able to attain power. The bourgeoisie allowed the fascists to commit their outrages on the streets with total impunity and, in the end, yielded to their pressure, throwing open the doors of power to them without offering any serious resistance. The fascists did, of course, for their part, have to compromise with the bourgeoisie. They never questioned its economic role, even though they did impose social policies on it. They also consented to moderate their anti-capitalist demagogy, which had inspired them more or less during the early days of their movement, and were willing to eliminate from their ranks the most active petit bourgeois fringe elements who were most hostile towards big capital: in 1926, Mussolini excluded the most rebellious squadristi from the fascist party and, in 1934, Hitler, during the “night of the long knives”, liquidated the plebian leaders of the SA (the Sturmabteilung, also known as the “Storm Troopers” or “Brownshirts”).

Are these bones thrown to the bourgeoisie enough, however, to prove that capitalism and fascism are identical? By no means. In fact, it was nothing but a tactic the fascists used to gain power. This was its primary objective: to install its own creatures in the State, take over its apparatus and establish their own institutions. This was fully achieved in Germany, where the Nazi party, with its bureaucracy, its political police and soon its Waffen-SS, was able to become a totalitarian Party-State. An entire gang of petit bourgeois thus reached the summits of the State and wielded enormous power. As for the bourgeoisie, it was sent home: to its business and its commerce, that is, where it could still play a useful role. A question arises, however: why did the bourgeoisie accept its removal from power? Why did it allow the State to be taken over by upstarts like Hitler and Mussolini, who had all the traits of the déclassé and adventurist petit bourgeoisie?

This resignation on the part of the bourgeoisie, who left the Nazis to run the country, can be understood as a last resort to save capitalism, thanks to a dictatorial State. The economic crisis, which began in 1929, had a severe impact on the country, throwing millions of people out of work. The Nazis gained momentum in their quest for power from this crisis. Having said this, was there no other solution than Nazism to manage the crisis? England and the United States suffered just as much from the economic crisis, but “fascism” was never a serious contender for power in those countries. In the United States the bourgeoisie implemented a New Deal, that is, an entire series of reforms that gave capitalism some breathing space, but without requiring the latter to hand over political power to hoodlums who set up a regime of terror. How can this difference in behavior be explained? It is essentially explained by the fact that the German bourgeoisie did not have a solid political culture of governing (and this is also valid for the Italian and Spanish bourgeoisie, while the French bourgeoisie did not yield to fascism until after their defeat in 1940, and even then they remained divided, as one part of it joined the Anglo-American camp). Until 1918, as we have seen, it had deferred to the Junker bureaucracy, that is, an aristocratic element of the Old Regime, with regard to the political leadership of the country, content for its part to devote itself to business, and showing signs of powerful capitalist dynamism, but having resigned its role as ruling class. Until 1929, with the assistance of the social democrats, it managed to hold on to the reins of power, favored by the relative economic prosperity of the 1920s. But when the great crisis of 1929 broke out and brought with it millions of unemployed, and a middle class pushed to the brink, ruined by the crisis and driven to revolt in the streets, this bourgeoisie proved to be incapable of resolute action and abandoned power to the Nazi leaders, contenting itself in exchange with obtaining certain guarantees regarding property rights, profits and the market. Unlike the American, English and even the French bourgeoisie (at least part of which would play the reformist card of the “Popular Front”), it was in no condition to manage the crisis. What lesson should be learned from this?

Take the expression, German Backwardness. Although capitalism had developed with great energy in this country, the political, ideological and cultural superstructures proper to capitalism had not kept pace, and were still dominated by the forces of the Old Regime until 1918, as Mayer has correctly emphasized, and would continue to lag behind when the crisis of 1929 arrived. After that, with an inexperienced bourgeoisie whose democratic culture was underdeveloped, with a petit bourgeoisie ready to explode whose aspirations could only be reactionary, and with a proletariat that in the meantime remained passive, glued to its reformism, all the ingredients were assembled in this country for the rise of an explosive and extremely dangerous form of fascism, despite Germany’s advanced economy and the possession of one of the most highly developed industrial apparatuses in the world: Nazism, the epitome of everything that German society still harbored that was archaic, semi-feudal and imperial with regard to customs and attitudes.

It is therefore by taking account of the role that political and ideological factors can play in particular historical situations that one can understand why the economic crisis in Germany was resolved by means of fascism.30

Without Germany and its economic power, it is likely that the interwar fascist wave would not have gone so far in the regression that characterized it, and would have ended up absorbed due to the simple economic evolution of capitalism. But in the context of a serious economic crisis, fascism found an especially favorable terrain in Germany, where the reactionary forces were not liquidated after the war of 1914 and exploited the crisis to their advantage. Taking power in a country considered to be the second or third largest economic power in the world, fascism went on to display considerable economic force, which was quickly converted into military force at the service of its regressive ideology. It is true that fascism, in confronting the crisis, implemented certain economic and social measures: state intervention and a planned economy, which are reminiscent of those measures taken by the American New Deal, in order to “give work to the German worker”. But we must not allow ourselves to be deceived by these measures and thus to believe that fascism had inaugurated, in its own way, an original and superior form of capitalist management in its modernist stage: these measures were not taken to fix the failing capitalist economy, as was the case with the bourgeois democracies, but to prepare, by means of a war economy, for a new war. This was therefore the essential aspect of the fascist program: resume the First World War and this time fight it to the end. Thus, in a Europe carved up and remodeled by the war, a “New Order” would arise....

What form would this “New Order” have assumed? In his book, La dynamique du capitalisme au XXe siècle (Capitalism’s Dynamic in the 20th Century), Pierre Souyri31 gives us a pretty good idea of what it would have looked like: “If the Axis powers had won, they would have established in the western hemisphere and the Far East a system of servitude that would have been based on the most backward forms of exploitation. The totalitarian States would have not only consolidated the colonial order to their advantage in Africa and Asia, and would have done so in an even more implacable manner, but German imperialism would have implanted this order in the heart of Europe by basing it, at least partially, on the development of forced labor in the framework of the concentration camps. The victory of the fascist States would have implied a reinforcement and extension of the most brutal forms of the exploitation of labor, which would have hindered the progress of and perhaps even rendered impossible the advancement of capital to its present stage. The innovations that raised productivity and cultivated the consumption of the masses have become the motor force and precondition for the accumulation of capital. It is hardly likely that this process would have proceeded as it has if the German and Japanese masters of war had succeeded in forging empires in which the accumulation of capital would have taken place largely on the basis of the arbitrary exploitation of implacably subjugated labor power.”

Forms of exploitation similar to forced labor, slavery and serfdom (for which racism towards the subject populations serves as an alibi), the eastern part of Europe reduced to an agrarian zone, subject to taxation and arbitrarily ordered personal services, at the disposal of the “master race” of the Greater Reich which, in turn, is supposed to last “a thousand years”, all these things do not have much to do with capitalism, but rather with a kind of new Middle Ages, a bombastic reactionary utopia.

While Europe was in the grip of a war resumed by the fascists in 1939, and then fell under their yoke after 1940, the United States finally delivered the decisive response, with the support of its lieutenant, England. Why the United States? Not having existed during the Middle Ages and having rid itself of its pre-bourgeois past during the Civil War (1860-1865) through the victory of the Yankees of the north over the slave owners of the south, the United States was most favorably situated to accept the challenge. The United States constituted the world’s most powerful capitalist society, the most modern with regards to management and organizational methods of the production process. There, the real domination of capital had progressed farther than anywhere else. Objectively (if one would like to go beyond the subjective motivations that inspired the American leaders), it was to play the role of the savior of the capitalist system threatened with regression by fascism that drove the United States to enter the war in 1941. It was motivated by a desire to assure the victory of modern capitalism, this time without any appeal or possible opposition, against the European bourgeoisie who were too attached to their archaisms—this was its real motivation. This explains its feeling of being charged with a “great mission” that would assume the form of a “crusade” against fascism. At the moment when the United States entered the war, fascism lost the game and, in fact, after 1941 proceeded from one defeat to another until its final destruction in 1945. If “big capital” was able to emerge victorious, it was not with fascism, but with American bourgeois democracy!

Victory of the Real Domination of Capital after 1945

It was only after the Second World War that capitalism completed its passage to real domination, and did so with regard to social and cultural factors as well as economic life.

On the economic plane, we have seen that it was during the years 1880-1890 (with the second industrial revolution) that this real domination of capital really took off. It was the time of the scientific organization of labor and the Taylor System, when a much more advanced system of machinery was created. These innovations led to a tenfold multiplication of productive capacities that poured ever-increasing masses of commodities onto the market. There is, however, a limit to the real domination that was then being established. The absorptive capacities of the market are reduced: capitalism essentially finds its markets in Section I of the means of production (machines, plant, infrastructure), while Section II of consumption goods is limited to the luxury consumption of the bourgeoisie and the low wages of the workers, which hardly allows for much of an outlook for the sale of commodities. The increased productivity of labor therefore runs the risk of leading to a catastrophic crisis of overproduction. In fact, this crisis arrived in 1929 and still haunts our memory. Production declined, over a period of three years, by 30-45%, the unemployed numbered in the tens of millions, wages fell by 25-33%, the price index in the United States plummeted from 95.3 in 1929 to 64.8 in 1932, and the GNP fell from 103.8 in 1929 to 55.8 in 1933. What made this crisis different was that, unlike those that preceded it, the economy was not allowed to spontaneously regulate itself: no matter how many productive forces were scrapped, ruined or idled, this “purge” did not work, there was no new start and the crisis only became more profound. What had taken place was a freezing up of the capitalist system.

In fact, what this crisis demonstrated was the need to proceed further along the path of the real domination of capital. The old mode of capital accumulation is obsolete. A new one must be found that will support mass consumption, or in other words, the development of Section II of the means of consumption, thereby allowing production as a whole to start again. For this purpose all that needs to be done is to raise wages, but, in conjunction with that, so that profits are not suppressed too much, this increase will be tied to the profits made from the increase in labor productivity: as the real domination of capital is economically based on the extraction of relative surplus value (the more intense the labor, the more surplus value), the profits made from productivity gains will compensate for the rise in wages. This is what Ford already knew from experience in 1920. By raising the wages of his workers from 2 to 3 dollars per day while reducing the length of the working day from 9 to 8 hours, Ford was not providing evidence of his generosity, because he had simultaneously considerably increased the productivity of every worker who worked on the assembly lines of his model factory, and the profits he extracted from that factory fully compensated for the higher wages he had conceded to his workers. It would, however, require the outbreak of the crisis of 1929 to lead the bulk of the bourgeois class to this “new deal”. In the United States, the State, supported by the trade unions, became its sponsor. More or less inspired by Keynes, it became a direct economic agent (through its “make work” programs and its unemployment assistance) in order to raise “general demand” and thus allow a new start for the economy.

While it began in the 1930s, this new mode of capital accumulation really took off after 1945. Capitalism’s “thirty glorious years” were to follow. While economic growth during the 1930s had slowed to a crawl, between 1945 and 1975 a real leap forward would take place which cannot be explained only by reconstruction (which ended after the early 1950s): an average annual growth rate of 5-6%. Based on an index with 1950 as 100, the GNP of Great Britain would reach the respectable figure of 170 in 1972; the United States, 206, that is, it doubled; Italy, France and the Federal Republic of Germany would reach 272, 273 and 336, respectively, or in other words, taken as a whole, they tripled; Japan, for its part, broke all records, reaching as high as 540;32 as for crises, they were limited during this whole period to weak recessions that did not last longer than six to eight months at a time.

If we now turn to what took place on the social plane, here we also notice changes that ensued upon the victory of the real domination of capital.

In 1899, in Social Reform or Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg was not mistaken when she said that reformism, within the framework of capitalism, was an “empty shell”. For the everyday trade union struggle was reduced to the simple defense of wages, but without really improving the conditions of existence of the working class. It was, as Rosa Luxemburg said, a “Labor of Sisyphus”, that is, it always has to begin again, because what capital gives with one hand, it takes away with the other. For his part, Lenin was not wrong either when he reduced the reformist phenomenon to a few workers’ aristocracies. In fact, as we have pointed out above, reformism was more idea than reality. It was more an aspiration that was introduced by the bourgeois masters and repeated by the working class trade union and party leaders than it was a tangible reality: with a few exceptions, there was no social security, no paid vacations, no pensions, hardly any rights to health care, a roof over one’s head, vocational training, or leisure activities; essentially, subsistence wages but working from morning to night.... But the reformist ideology was embedded deeply enough to preserve its appeal: some day the working class will succeed in imposing a whole series of permanent reforms. But when will this still chimerical hope be realized? The revolutionaries told the working class that it was not possible within the framework of capitalism; but were they not themselves, with their fixed idea of the revolution, mad utopians in their confrontation with this omnipotent capitalism that reduced them to preaching in the desert, or else mercilessly crushed them if they tried to implement their plans (as in Paris in 1871 and Berlin in 1919).

It was in 1929 when everything began to change. During the 1930s, social democracy took power in Scandinavia and undertook a whole series of reforms. In France there was the Popular Front, the achievement of the 40-hour workweek and the first paid vacations. In the United States there was the New Deal, accompanied by advances in social policy. In short, the crisis of 1929 led not to a wind of revolt blowing through capitalism, but a wind of reforms. The reason for this is well known: the latter constitute part of the new mode of capital accumulation that we just analyzed above. It would have been otherwise if capitalism were not in a condition to carry out such a step forward. But it had not reached the point where nothing could save it: if such a point were to have arrived, then the socialist revolution would have been in the offing (probably originating in the United States, where capitalism was most highly developed). After 1945, this entire wave of social reform would spread. Capitalism, which had previously been synonymous with poverty and unemployment, underwent a change of face. It became a “welfare” society with almost no unemployment. In its new passion to seduce and to please, it even invented a new term to describe itself: that of the “consumer society”.... It is certainly true that the standard of living of the masses improved. Between 1949 and 1973, real wages rose 2.5% per year in the United States, 2.8% per year in Great Britain and 4% per year in France. While in 1954 only 8% of working class French families owned a car, .8% a television, 3.3% a refrigerator, and 8.5% a washing machine, in 1975 the proportions owning these items rose to 73.6%, 88.8%, 91.3% and 77.1% respectively. In 1950, food accounted for 50% of the consumption bill for wage workers, the balance being devoted to housing and clothing. During the 1960s food expenses amounted to no more than approximately 30% of the household consumption budget, while expenses for health, entertainment and home furnishings continuously increased.33 This clearly indicates that the life of the wage worker was no longer experienced as the implacable exploitation of man by man, but became instead a kind of a golden slavery that was not without its pleasures and amusements.... What this means is that capitalism achieved the material bourgeoisification of the masses for the purpose of keeping them subject to its system and for the obvious end of preserving its social system. Under these conditions, reformism is no longer an “empty shell”, as Rosa Luxemburg called it, but a palpable reality that allows capitalism to tighten the shackles that bind the workers to its system by gilding their chains somewhat, while the workers organizations represent this process as an “acquisition”, as a “great conquest”, when this victory is inscribed only in the logic of capitalist development, that is, of capitalism’s real domination.

More progress: the ever more drastic reduction in the numbers of the members of the traditional intermediate social layers, the small farmers, the small businessmen, the craftsmen. These categories, which had supplied fascism with the bulk of its street fighters, were literally steamrolled economically. Incapable of modernizing their enterprises, they were ruined by the competition of the big retail stores, large-scale agriculture, and mechanized factories, and for the most part fell into the class of wage workers. It was the time of the “rural exodus”, the end of a traditional world that had subsisted for ages. Society assumed a resolutely urban character. In the “new cities” and “peripheral zones”, the new arrivals thronged. This resulted in an augmentation of the working class even if, in parallel with this process, the number of unproductive wage workers also increased in equal measure. This era also marks the end of colonialism, that is, of the old imperialism that had characterized capitalism in the time of its formal domination. This took place not only as a result of the national liberation struggles that broke out all over the world after 1945, but also because of the evolution of capitalism: from this point forward it is capable of imposing its world rule solely by virtue of its economic power (its production capacity) and would increasingly dispense with its old hegemonic military methods, from the time when it seized territories by force and subjected them to pillage. In addition, the most intelligent representatives of the bourgeoisie have understood that colonialism is only an archaism that must be cast aside. Then, the simple play of market forces will suffice to impose the law of the strongest. In this way, the developed capitalist countries, possessing a superior productive apparatus, would be able to continue doing business and the former colonies, the most under-developed countries, incapable of picking up the gauntlet, could only submit. In fact, there is no domain in which the real domination of capital, in its victorious reign, does not have an impact. Thus, let us consider the domain of customs and morality. In other times, under capital’s formal domination, capitalism adopted a puritan morality, a set of values focused on the work ethic, thrift, and the rejection of physical pleasures. These aspects comprised part of the accumulation of capital that was directed towards Section I of the means of production, and only slightly towards the Section representing the means of consumption, disregarding the luxury consumption of a privileged minority. With the new mode of capital accumulation established after 1945, which led to mass consumption, it was inevitable that the old ethic of renunciation, which was now ill-suited to the economic state of society, would be left behind and blown to pieces. This development would culminate in the “contestation” of the 1960s in which an entire generation that had not experienced the privations of the past would go whole hog, refusing to allow themselves to be ruled anymore by codes of conduct from another era. It therefore assumed a libertarian tone, and a “cultural revolution” began that was oriented towards breaking all the old taboos affecting education, sexual morality and gender discrimination. New clothing styles “that liberated the body” and new musical rhythms that stirred the emotions became popular, drugs of greater or lesser potency were taken that permitted one to “express oneself”, and even, for that matter, to get involved in “politics”, criticizing the establishment. In fact, all of this “leftism” had only one result: it helped bourgeois society to reform its old morality, in such a way as to become more hedonist, more “indifferent”, more tolerant, more adapted to the stage of capital’s real domination. And this was largely accomplished. The establishment, demonstrating its modernity, agreed to proceed in the desired direction, and the result was that homosexuality, feminism and even pornography were no longer banned.

Capitalism Was Not Historically Obsolete

“The economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism. Mankind's productive forces stagnate. Already new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth”, Trotsky wrote in 1938 in The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International. In consideration of what has taken place since 1945, we can see just how mistaken such an assertion was. We can also see how false it was to say, as Lenin did in 1916, that capitalism had reached its “highest stage”, and how false it was to maintain, as Rosa Luxemburg did, that capitalism was on a downward slide that was leading it to barbarism. All these assessments have been belied by history. It is undoubtedly true that the Marxists of that era were confronted by a capitalism that found obstacles in its path that were difficult to overcome and therefore seemed to be undergoing eclipse. This is why they were inclined to conclude that capitalism had entered the stage of “death crisis”. But the reality was quite different. Looking back, one can clearly see that what took place between 1914 and 1945 by no means corresponded to an irreversible stage of the collapse of capitalism, but to a crisis of growth affecting the latter which, once overcome, would lead to a new plateau, that of the real domination of capital in all domains. This crisis led to important struggles, to terrible wars, and to ideological confrontations that tore bourgeois society apart and mixed all the populations together, confusing all the classes. This era witnessed a great deal of butchery and organized massacres,34 this enterprise never having known such prosperous times. But all this must not lead us to the conclusion that such phenomena were caused by “madness”. This crisis, which lasted thirty years, was terrible, as the destiny of so many men was directly at stake, and they were subjected to appalling ordeals that they had no choice but to endure. However, if one examines the results, one must acknowledge that this “thirty years” war, which was much more than just the story of a dispute over colonies or of imperialism arranging for a new division of the world (although these aspects were not absent, obviously), was necessary to put the finishing touches on capitalism’s complete birth, and it is pure illusion to think that it could have done without it: capitalism’s development is not peaceful and harmonious, as its trajectory is in its totality part of that prehistory of humanity in which economic and social developments proceed under the sway of violent contradictions, which assume multiple ideological aspects.

Given such a historical course, the revolutionary socialist perspective had absolutely no chance of being implemented.

By attacking modernist capitalism, the reactionary tendencies drove the socialist movement into the clutches of an insoluble dilemma: either defend the bourgeois republic that was under attack from the reactionary forces, but thereby running the risk of losing sight of their class perspective and ultimately of betraying it; or else remain firmly attached to their class position, content to support neither the progressives nor the bourgeois reactionaries, but in this case running the risk of giving the game away to the latter, whose victory would recoil in the face of the socialist perspective.

Such a dilemma was posed in the late 19th century and proceeded to destabilize and divide the socialist movement. Thus, during the rise of Boulangism, France witnessed the coexistence of, on the one hand, the Guesdists who, in 1888, thought that they had to restrict their activities to revolutionary socialist propaganda, “since the Ferryist threat was just as much to be feared as the Boulangist threat”; and, on the other, the reformist “possibilists”, but also the more leftist “Allemanists” (with whom Engels was also in agreement), who on the contrary favored an alliance with the bourgeois republicans against Boulangist reaction. An identical scenario unfolded during the Dreyfus Affair. Lafargue, Guesde, Vaillant and the workers party thought that the polemics unleashed regarding the innocence or guilt of Dreyfus only involved a conflict between two rival fractions of the bourgeoisie; consequently, the proletariat does not have to take sides in this issue. This was the same stance assumed within the international socialist movement by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. On the other hand, Jaurès and his tendency, supported by Kautsky, took up the defense of Dreyfus because, as Jaurès declared, “the bourgeois republic, at the moment when it held its deliberations against the military conspiracy that surrounds it, itself proclaimed that it needed the energy of the socialists”. In Germany, in 1920, when the Kapp Putsch took place, which was intended to overthrow the Weimar republic, the leadership of the Communist Party, at least during the first hours of the coup, proclaimed that it would not lift a finger to defend the republic that massacred the Spartacist insurrectionists a year before. Paul Levi, however, supported by Zinoviev, who was then Executive Secretary of the Communist International, denounced this position as a “crime” and “a stab in the back of the most impressive action undertaken by the German proletariat”. (The disciplined and powerful workers general strike led to the capitulation of the leaders of the coup.) In Italy, in 1922, the young Communist Party, under Bordiga’s leadership, rejected any participation in a political united front with the social democrats for the purpose of fighting fascism, a view that Zinoviev denounced from Moscow as “sectarian” and “leftist”. Later, with the rise of fascism in Europe, the question of whether antifascism must be bourgeois and republican or socialist and proletarian would be posed with particular force in Spain in 1936. The anarchists of the CNT-FAI and the Marxists of the POUM briefly inclined towards the latter position, while the Stalinists and the social democrats chose the former. Finally, and not without some bloody settling of accounts (the May Days of 1937 in Barcelona) it was bourgeois democratic antifascism that emerged victorious, even getting the support of the anarchists. This type of conflict would emerge here and there within the resistance and the guerrilla movement.

We can see that it was the right wing of the workers movement that won the game, and did so at the price of an increasingly close adherence to bourgeois democratic values. In fact, by trying to hinder capitalism’s forward march towards its real domination, the reactionary forces only defeated the socialist perspective and, at the same time, conferred a new legitimacy upon bourgeois democracy. Bordiga was capable of saying that antifascism was the worst product of fascism, because effectively fascism had the effect of detouring the proletariat from its struggle against capitalism and bourgeois democracy for the opposite purpose of finally defending them. Taking this into account, was there another solution? No, because if fascism appeared on the historical scene as a reactionary movement, this meant that history had not posed the problem of capitalism’s supersession: in this case, it is the left wing of the workers movement that was defeated. Evidently, fascism can be seen, as Bordiga viewed it, as not a step backward but as a step forward for capitalism in its latest incarnation. But, as we have already pointed out, apart from the question of whether this appraisal of fascism is incorrect, it is based on a false view of the course of history: fascism cannot be a regression because it is thought that history permanently follows a linear progression. While it may appear that Marx’s “Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy seems to suggest that history incessantly moves forward, modes of production succeeding each other in a continuous ascending series, Marx was only constructing a schematic description that supplies a general connective thread for the purpose of making history intelligible. This having been said, his schema cannot provide an exact account of the stages of stagnation, or even of momentary regression. In this regard Engels, criticizing the German historian Maurer, observed that the latter shared the “enlightened prejudice that since the dark Middle Ages a steady progress to better things must surely have taken place--this prevents him from seeing not only the antagonistic character of real progress, but also the individual retrogressions”.35 Thus, as an example of historical regression, Engels referred to the general reintroduction of serfdom in Germany during the 16th century (whereas serfdom had almost disappeared—“legally or actually”—during the 13th and 14th centuries), which had the effect of holding back Germany’s industrial development for two centuries.

It could also be maintained that bourgeois society, after a brilliant start in the 19th century, would witness a kind of eclipse after 1914, as it was confronted, as we have seen, by regressive forces that had been working since the end of the 19th century. Engels was therefore correct when he taunted the trivial bourgeois philosophy of the Enlightenment for its assertion that history, after the “dark Middle Ages”, was nothing but an uninterrupted succession of advances on the part of reason that endlessly provides further illumination for a humanity thirsting for new knowledge and science, until it reaches, without contradictions, without conflicts, without revolution, a high degree of perfection. In fact, history’s forward progress is much more chaotic. Between 1915 and 1945 a new “thirty years” war took place that devastated Europe and tended to drive it backward. This decline, however, would finally be stopped: bourgeois society, after having traversed a critical stage of its development, emerged stronger than ever. This way of looking at the course of history rejects both the simplistic evolutionist conceptions as well as the decadence theories of capitalism, declaring them to be null and void. The former, incapable of distinguishing partial reversals and phases of stagnation, was handicapped, for example, in its attempts to correctly understand fascism. Instead of seeing it as a variety of reaction, it would see it as an advance on the part of capitalism, or even as the ultimate and most modern and perfect form of its rule, because it is the prisoner of its linear concept of history, “which must” always go forward. Prior to 1914, the official Marxism of the Second International conformed to this concept of the course of history. Socialism, according to the likes of Kautsky and Hilferding, was slowly but surely maturing within capitalism and everything was reduced to “the education and organization of the proletariat” (Kautsky). Hence a certain optimist and quietist concept of history evolved, according to which the latter was subject to continuous progress and socialism would soon be its crowning achievement.

But the outbreak of the war and its terrible consequences would have the effect of throwing a bucket of cold water on this noble optimism. All at once, the tranquil certitude of socialism would give way to an anxious questioning of its role, concerning which Rosa Luxemburg would be the first to proclaim: socialism or barbarism! There was a threat of a “relapse into barbarism” if the proletariat was incapable of reanimating socialism. Later, after the failure of the proletarian revolution in Europe, the victory of Stalinism and the rise of fascism, this problematic would be amplified and transformed into a new view of history: after a certain fateful date (1914, for example), it would henceforth be ordained that capitalism had entered a “decadent” phase, and would no longer be the bearer of anything but wars, terrible catastrophes, barbarism, the collapse of the productive forces and will finally lead to the complete destruction of humanity if the proletariat does not interrupt this descent into hell. Everything therefore depends upon the proletariat, which is burdened with a great responsibility. What a terrible mission it has been entrusted with! Here it is transformed into the Messiah, into a providential class that must save humanity. And what a misfortune it would be if such a “supreme savior” does not appear, since that would mean the final collapse and the end of humanity.... In fact, it is not hard to see that with such a perspective socialism loses any objective basis and any character of necessity, leaving everything subject to the will of the proletariat that, for its part, could take the correct action or remain inert, and the only decisive factor with regard to which way it will go is its “free will”. All of this has hardly anything to do with Marxism, that is, historical materialism. The latter is replaced here with a view of history dear to the “philosophers of freedom” for whom, having posited man as a free subject, socialism is not completely assured. “It will be socialism or barbarism. That is the alternative”, Trotsky proclaimed in 1938, following Rosa Luxemburg.36 This kind of historical indeterminism requires that one strive to the utmost to bring about a situation where the “will” of the proletariat should be set in motion in order to tip the scales to the good side: “The duty of our party is to take every American worker by the shoulders and shake him ten times so that he understands the predicament of the United States.”37 But is ten times enough? Perhaps one hundred times will be necessary, or a thousand or a million times, and who knows whether this will be enough.... Such voluntarism can only lead to a vain activism and is derived from an erroneous analysis. Trotsky thought that capitalism had exhausted its historical possibilities of development and from that point on could only decline, collapsing into “barbarism”; but he simultaneously observed that the proletarians remained inert, so therefore he felt that it was necessary to spread unrest among them. In fact, this was entirely untrue. Capitalism was far from having reached the end of its course; its incredible expansion after 1945 is proof of this.

“If one understands by the term decadent society, a society in which the productive forces stagnate and decline, one in which rationalism and the scientific spirit wither away, submerged by the resurgence of primitive forms of thought, in which creativity is only displayed for the purpose of producing philosophies of desperation or mystical hope, and in which innovation is only deployed in order to produce nothing but cultural extravagances, then to say that capitalism entered into decline in 1914 or 1929 makes no sense. Never before has any society, not even capitalism during the stage of its development that the Marxists call its ascendant phase, ever reached the level that capitalism’s powers of scientific and technological innovation have now attained, or matched its rapid utilization of such innovation to multiply tenfold its productive capacities (. . .). If capitalism had a golden age, it did not take place before 1914. It began after 1945. It was the unexpected offspring of that formidable war.”38 It would be senseless to deny this development and to invent instead a capitalism on its last legs. Capitalism, during this era, was not only not on its last legs, but reached its complete development by bringing about the advancement of its primary productive force, human labor power. To demonstrate this, all that is necessary is to consider the following criterion: the average lifespan has increased to eighty for women and seventy-five for men, implying unprecedented commensurate advances with regard to such varied fields as public health, nutrition, housing and leisure. Thus, despite all the criticisms that can be directed at capitalism, it is nonetheless incumbent on us to recognize that if the workers supported it, and with them their so-called “socialist” or “communist” organizations, this is not because they were “deceived” (which amounts to saying that they were stupid idiots!) but rather because they derived benefits from it, especially those who were old enough to remember the tests and rigors of the past and who, for this very reason, were more advantageously placed to assess the changes that had taken place over the years than the younger generations, who were born sucking on the bottle of the “consumer society”. Such was the secret of the success of capitalism, which, without these developments, would have been put on trial and ultimately would have been rejected and destroyed. That this capitalist progress was limited is only to be expected: a mode of production cannot advance beyond a certain point of development of its productive, and therefore human, forces. That it should have proceeded hand in hand with a bourgeoisification of the workers, is no less unsurprising: in every class society, if there is an elevation of the lower classes, this can only take place under the sway of the values of the ruling class. That after its maximum development, such progress should be destined to decline and then collapse so as to be replaced by a higher stage of progress corresponding to a new mode of production, this is also to be expected. To those who, in the name of an elemental and blind (and in fact non-Marxist) anti-capitalism, might think that we can be counted among the simple apologists for capitalism, we respond: this is not the end of history, and its replacement by socialism is inevitable!

Summary

Until now, the capitalist mode of production and, consequently, its bourgeois variety of civilization, have, despite a few periods of regression, expanded to the point where they have invaded the entire planet, although to various degrees. This expansion could still be contested as long as capitalism had only attained formal domination; it therefore appeared, with the publication of the Communist Manifesto in the mid-19th century and the outbreak of the workers revolts of June 1848 and March 1871, not to mention the creation in 1864 of an international association of workers, that capitalism could very well be overthrown in short order. After 1871, however, its real domination began to develop in its more advanced zones, and capitalism went on to undermine the possibility of its revolutionary overturn, gradually integrating the workers movement into its system. From then on, the only serious challenges to its domination would come from still largely pre-capitalist zones (Russia in 1917-1921, Spain 1936-1937). They would be easily neutralized, since the heart of capitalism was unconquerable, as the failure of the western European revolution would prove in 1918-1919. Emerging from 1945, after having been compelled to wage a new “thirty years” war to establish its real domination, capitalism put an end to the struggles of revolutionary classes that more or less characterized its career until then. After that date, the specter of communism that the Manifesto referred to in 1848 effectively disappeared, since the kind of communism that has since prevailed was only a false, Stalinist communism, in fact a military bloc that confronted the western military bloc, and was inscribed in the logic of great power rivalry. In these conditions, capitalism found itself without a real adversary and could then develop, within the framework of its victorious real domination in the highly advanced countries, all its capacities, and not only its productive capacities, but also those affecting the integration of men into its mode of production and its type of civilization, who were transformed into simple cogs of its system, incapable of conceiving of a world other than that of capitalism. The last revolt that would take place, in May 1968, would not come from the working class but from the petit-bourgeois intellectual layers (students, professors, artists), who launched the last battle for honor by opposing the integration of the university, and the world of ideas and the arts in general, into the logic of capital. Twenty-five years after this event it is easy to demonstrate that these layers, like the others before them, have submitted to capitalism, that the university has surrendered, along with artistic creation, to capital’s demands of profit and efficiency. Today we are witnesses of a complete victory of capitalist ideology. Business enterprise, the market and money have become dogmas that no one dares to challenge. In the East, the proletarians, with the end of false communism, only dream of a western-style “consumer” capitalism, while in the South, the semi-proletarians are tempted to emigrate towards the North, which has become for them a sort of compass. As for the intellectuals, as good students of the IMF and the World Bank, they do nothing but recite odes to market democracy while simultaneously proclaiming their anticommunism. Frankly speaking, the real domination of capital has come to be so real that it leads to a totalitarian domination, the immense majority having been domesticated.

Such is the general balance sheet. But what conclusions should be drawn? That capitalism has shut the doors on history, as the song goes? This makes no more sense than the declarations of a certain storefront variety of Marxism regarding the permanent death crisis of capitalism after 1914 and its reduction of its post-1945 expansion to the status of a stage of reconstruction (which in fact ended in 1950) or to an arms economy. Capitalism has until now been an expanding system and it is fitting to recall that statement of Marx’s that we have often quoted, according to which “[n]o social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed”. That defines our terms. But this sentence of Marx’s also means that there is no expanding system that cannot explode at any particular moment. Today capital appears to be victorious, but this moment of its highest triumph—may it not also be its swan song, the beginning of its end? We are told that there are no more enemies, but does this consensus not instead point to an enormous discordance? It is asserted that its liquidation is no longer conceivable, since the struggle against it has failed, but is it not true instead that this struggle has not even begun, because until now it has all been, in the final analysis, nothing but skirmishes and preliminary battles, and the bulk of combat is yet to commence? It will be understood that this balance sheet, once drawn up, will hardly be of any interest if it results in the absence of any revolutionary perspective. This is what the organized spectacle of the system wants to impress upon us. This system, due to its power, propagates the idea that it is indomitable, and seeks to plunge the whole world into pessimism and despair. And it has succeeded in doing so, but it would be stupid to believe that it will be able to do so indefinitely.

  • 1. V. I. Lenin, Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, available at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/pref01.htm
  • 2. Michel Béaud, Histoire du Capitalisme, Ed. du Seuil, Coll. Points, Paris, 1984, p. 183.
  • 3. Ibid., p. 179.
  • 4. Raymond Aron, Peace & War: A Theory of International Relations, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, 2003, p. 275.
  • 5. Leon Trotsky, My Life, Ed. Gallimard, Paris, 1970, p. 272. English translation available at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/mylife/ch18.htm
  • 6. Arno Mayer, The Persistence of the Old Regime, Verso Press, Brooklyn, 2010, pp. 322-323.
  • 7. Frederick Engels, Socialism in Germany, in Marx and Engels, Le Parti de Classe, Ed. Maspero, Paris, 1973, Vol. IV, p. 90. Available in English at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1892/01/socialism-germany.htm
  • 8. Frederick Engels, Letter to Paul Lafargue, in Le Socialiste, November 16, 1880, op. cit., p. 72.
  • 9. Arno Mayer therefore disagrees with Lenin, who maintained that capitalism had reached its “highest stage”. He thus observes that if Germany “had the most extensive sector of large-scale and concentrated industrial and corporate capitalism”, this was due more to “the speed with which it expanded than to its size”. While it is true that, between 1882 and 1907, the number of businesses employing more than 50 wage workers grew from 9,500 to 27,000, and the total number of their employees grew from 1.6 million to approximately 5 million, businesses employing between 1 and 5 wage workers still represented 90% of all production units, and those employing between 6 and 50 wage workers represented 8.7% of all production units, and both of these types together accounted for 52.3% of all workers. Elsewhere in Europe, capitalist production was even less concentrated. In France, in 1913, there were 2 owners for every 5 workers. In Austria, in 1912, 75% of all businesses were small enterprises. In Italy, more than 90% of all enterprises employed fewer than 6 workers. In England, the cradle of capitalism, in order to meet the requirements of machine tool production, 3,500 enterprises employing 600,000 workers were needed. Furthermore, Mayer emphasizes the importance of the agricultural sector that, except for England, still claimed between 40 and 60% of the active population. With the exception of France, the land was often still owned by landowners belonging to the traditional nobility, who monopolized vast domains. Mayer concludes that, “in the early 20th century Europe, except for England, was still predominantly rural and agrarian rather than urban and industrial”. (See Mayer, op. cit., Chapter 1, pp.17-78.)
  • 10. See: Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, tr. Ben Fowkes, Vintage Books, New York, 1977. Appendix: “Results of the Immediate Process of Production” [the so-called unpublished sixth chapter of Capital], pp. 949-1065.
  • 11. Daniel Halévy, Péguy et les Cahiers de la quinzaine, Livre de poche, Pluriel, Paris, 1979, p. 238.
  • 12. Charles Péguy, L’Argent, quoted by D. Halévy, op. cit., p. 240.
  • 13. Charles Péguy, L’Argent, Gallimard, La Pleiade, Paris, 1968, p. 111.
  • 14. Charles Péguy, The Intellectual Party in the Modern World in Relation to the Accidents of Temporal Honours, quoted by D. Halevy, op. cit., p. 213.
  • 15. Charles Péguy, Notre Jeunesse, op. cit., p. 509.
  • 16. Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence, Collier Books, New York, 1961, p. 86.
  • 17. This infuriated Péguy: “As for the workers, they only think about one thing, becoming bourgeoisie. That is even what they call becoming a socialist” (Money). This was not false, but what did Péguy oppose to this desire to become bourgeois? “The good workers of the past”, those of the traditional crafts, those who “jokingly said, to annoy the priests, that to work is to pray, and they did not know how right they were. That gives you some idea of to what extent their work was like praying. And the workshop was like a chapel.... Not making any money, living on nothing, that was happiness”. (Ibid.). A romanticized version of the idealized past: that’s one for the books!
  • 18. “In the First World War, some 10 million men were killed, maimed and wounded in combat alone. There were over 2 million casualties per year, 190,000 per month, and 6,000 per day. The trench warfare on the Western Front was particularly horrifying. In 1916 the Battle of the Somme claimed 500,000 casualties in four months, the battle of Verdun 700,000 in ten months. This immense bloodletting, which contributed to inuring Europe to the mass killings of the future, was not due primarily due to the deadliness of modern weapons such as automatic machine guns or field artillery. Rather, it must be attributed to the zeal with which swarms of officers and men kept ‘going over the top’ in the face of impossible odds. This dutiful self-immolation was a measure of the extent to which, from the outset, the war of 1914 to1918 was a secularized ‘holy war’....”, Mayer wrote [Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? The “Final Solution” in History, Pantheon Books, New York, 1988, p. 4]. The fury of the engagements is well attested: instead of being endured, the war was experienced as a sacred cause, at least at first. Which means that it had all the characteristics of a bourgeois civil war, corresponding to the crisis of civilization that was shaking society.
  • 19. After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, in March 1918, the Eastern Front ceased to exist. In the West, when the combined British and French forces staged their offensive in August 1918, the German troops hardly put up any resistance, and many surrendered without a fight. In other words, the war ground to a halt due to lack of combatants....
  • 20. Zeev Sternhell, Neither Right nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1996, p. 1.
  • 21. Zeev Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1995, p. 6.
  • 22. Ibid., p. 5.
  • 23. Ibid., p. 7.
  • 24. Ibid., p. 7.
  • 25. Ibid., p. 6.
  • 26. Arno Mayer, Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? The “Final Solution” in History, Pantheon Books, New York, 1988, p. 96.
  • 27. “In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.” (Karl Marx, “Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, International Publishers, New York, 1981, p. 20.)
  • 28. There are still unanswered questions about this fire. It was attributed to a Dutch communist, Marinus Van der Lubbe, but it is possible that he was manipulated by the Nazis.
  • 29. Spain, however, preserved a certain revolutionary energy. When the fascist forces, supported by the military, tried to seize power in 1936, they encountered resistance on the part of the workers. The latter (with the C.N.T.-F.A.I. and the P.O.U.M.) even seized power in Catalonia and Aragon, taking the first steps toward a social revolution. Although this revolution would soon be diverted towards simple republican anti-fascism, it must be acknowledged that it was only in Spain that fascism encountered any real opposition.
  • 30. It would be a sign of a vulgar and particularly reductionist Marxism if one were to explain history only by the economy, to the neglect of other political and ideological factors, which in certain circumstances must also be taken into consideration. With regard to this issue, see the letter from Engels to Conrad Schmidt dated August 5, 1890: “Marx and I both share partial responsibility for the fact that young people sometimes concede more importance to the economic side than it really has. Against our enemies, we were obliged to put the emphasis on the principle they denied, and we did not always have the time, the space or the opportunity to make concessions to the other factors that play a reciprocal role in events.” As for the backwardness of German political institutions, Engels did not mince words. Thus, in his Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Program of 1891 (1891), he observed that the Reichstag, as a representative body, was “without effective power” and was nothing but a “fig leaf for absolutism”, that is, for the semi-feudal power that still reigned.
  • 31. Pierre Souyri, La dynamique du capitalisme au XXe siècle, Ed. Payot, Paris, 1983, p. 130.
  • 32. Ibid., p. 42.
  • 33. See: Histoire du XXe siècle (History of the 20th Century), Ed. Hatier, Vol. II, p. 57.
  • 34. It is not a matter of denying, or minimizing, the deadly rampage unleashed against the Jews, especially after 1941. This genocide can largely be explained by the failure, evident as of that date, of the Nazi utopia, which suffered its first serious setbacks on the Eastern Front and plunged into a devastating nihilism. Many Nazi concentration camps were pure and simple extermination sites for the Jews and, as a result, cannot be explained by economic rationality alone. This is a particularly brutal instance of Nazi regression.
  • 35. Letters from Engels to Marx, dated December 15 and 16, 1882, in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Ed. Sociales, Paris, 1954, pp. 299-300. English translations of these letters are available at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1882/letters/82_12_15.htm and http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1882/letters/82_12_16.htm
  • 36. Leon Trotsky, Le programme de transition, Ed. La Brèche, Paris, 1983, p. 75.
  • 37. Ibid., p. 77.
  • 38. Pierre Souyri, La dynamique du capitalisme au XXe siècle, op. cit., p. 135.