II. Decline of the Capitalist Mode of Production or Decline of Humanity?

Concluding part of The Wandering of Humanity by Jacques Camatte.

Submitted by libcom on July 28, 2005

It has often been thought and written that communism would blossom after the destruction of the capitalist mode of production, which would be undermined by such contradictions that its end would be inevitable. But numerous events of this century have unfortunately brought other possibilities into view : the return to "barbarism," as analyzed by R. Luxemburg and the entire left wing of the German workers' movement, by Adorno and the Frankfurt School; the destruction of the human species, as is evident to each and all today; finally a state of stagnation in which the capitalist mode of production survives by adapting itself to a degenerated humanity which lacks the power to destroy it. In order to understand the failure of a future that was thought inevitable, we must take into account the domestication of human beings implemented by all class societies and mainly by capital, and we must analyze the autonomization of capital.

We do not intend to treat these historical deviations exhaustively in a few pages. By commenting on a passage in Marx's Grundrisse we can show that it is possible to understand the autonomization of capital on the basis of Marx's work, and we can also see the contradictions in Marxist thought and its inability to solve the problem. The passage is from the chapter on the process of circulation. To understand it, we should keep in mind what Marx had said shortly before this passage :

"Circulation time thus appears as a barrier to the productivity of labour = an increase in necessary labour time = a decrease in surplus labour time = a decrease in surplus value = an obstruction, a barrier to the self- realization process [Selbstverwertungsprozess] of capital." [1]

Here Marx makes an extremely important digression :

"There appears here the universalizing tendency of capital, which distinguishes it from all previous stages of production and thus becomes the presupposition of a new mode of production, which is founded not on the development of the forces of production for the purpose of reproducing or at most expanding a given condition, but where the free, unobstructed, progressive and universal development of the forces of production is itself the presupposition of society and hence of its reproduction; where advance beyond the point of departure is the only presupposition." [2]

What makes capital a barrier is not stated here, whereas its revolutionary, positive aspect is emphasized (this aspect is emphasized on many other pages of the Grundrisse, and of Capital) : the tendency toward universal development of the forces of production. However, and this is what interests us here, capital cannot realize this; it will be the task of another, superior mode of production. The future of society here takes the form of an indefinite, cumulative movement.

"This tendency -- which capital possesses, but which at the same time, since capital is a limited form of production, contradicts it and hence drives it towards dissolution -- distinguishes capital from all earlier modes of production, and at the same time contains this element, that capital is posited as a mere point of transition." [3]

Hence capital is driven towards dissolution by this contradiction. It is a pity that Marx did not here mention what he understands by "limited form of production," since this keeps us from "seeing" clearly what he means by contradiction in this specific case. This conditions the understanding of the statement that the capitalist mode of production is a transitory form of production. Even without an explanation of the contradiction, we can understand it as follows : the capitalist mode of production is not eternal -- Marx's polemical argument against the bourgeois ideologues. This is the content of his main statements. But another argument is embedded in the preceding one : the capitalist mode of production is revolutionary and makes possible the passage to another, superior social form where human beings will no longer be dominated by the sphere of necessity (the sphere of the production of material life) and where alienation will cease to exist.

Today, after the blossoming of Marxism as a theory of development, another part of this sentence appears basic : there is a continuum between the two periods. What is a transition if not the opposite of a break ? This continuum consists of the development of the forces of production. From which follows the shameful but real relationship : Marx-Lenin-Stalin ! But this is not our topic. Our aim is to determine what constitutes the productive forces and for whom they exist, according to Marx in the Grundrisse.

"All previous forms of society -- or, what is the same, of the forces of social production -- foundered on the development of wealth." [4]

Wealth resides in the productive forces and in the results of their action. There is a contradiction here which, according to Marx, characterizes the totality of human history : wealth is necessary and therefore sought, but it destroys societies. Societies must therefore oppose its development. This is not the case in the capitalist mode of production (it thus destroys all other social formations), which exalts the productive forces, but for whom ?

"Those thinkers of antiquity who were possessed of consciousness therefore directly denounced wealth as the dissolution of the community [Gemeinwesen]. The feudal system, for its part, foundered on urban industry, trade, modern agriculture (even as a result of individual inventions like gunpowder and the printing press). With the development of wealth -- and hence also new powers and expanded intercourse on the part of individuals -- the economic conditions on which the community [Gemeinwesen] rested were dissolved, along with the political relations of the various constituents of the community which corresponded to those conditions : religion, in which it was viewed in idealized form (and both [religion and political relations] rested in turn on a given relation to nature, into which all productive force resolves itself); the character, outlook, etc. of the individuals. The development of science alone -- i.e. the most solid form of wealth, both its product and its producer -- was sufficient to dissolve these communities. But the development of science, this ideal and at the same time practical wealth, is only one aspect, one form in which the development of the human productive forces, i.e. of wealth, appears. Considered ideally, the dissolution of a given form of consciousness sufficed to kill a whole epoch. In reality, this barrier to consciousness corresponds to a definite degree of development of the forces of material production and hence of wealth. True, there was not only a development on the old basis, but also a development of this basis itself." [5]

For Marx, the productive forces are human (from the human being) and they are for the human being, for the individual. Science as a productive force (thus also wealth, as was already shown in the 1844 Manuscripts and in The German Ideology) is determined by the development of these forces and corresponds to the appearance of a large number of externalizations, a greater possibility to appropriate nature. Even if it takes an ambiguous form, the blossoming of the human being is possible; it is the moment when, in the development of the dominant class, individuals can find a model of a fuller life. For Marx, the capitalist mode of production, by pushing the development of productive forces, makes possible a liberating autonomization of the individual. This is its most important revolutionary aspect.

"The highest development of this basis itself (the flower into which it transforms itself; but it is always this basis, this plant as flower; hence wilting after the flowering and as a consequence of the flowering) is the point at which it is itself worked out, developed, into the form in which it is compatible with the highest development of the forces of production, hence also the richest development of the individuals. As soon as this point is reached, the further development appears as decay, and the new development begins from a new basis." [6]

There is decay because the development of individuals is blocked. It is not possible to use this sentence to support the theory of the decline of the capitalist mode of production [7] since it would have to be stated that the decline started, not at the beginning of this century, but minimally in the middle of the previous century; or else it would have to be shown that the decline of individuals is simultaneously the decline of capital, which contradicts what can be observed; Marx himself repeatedly explained that the development of capital was accompanied by the destruction of human beings and of nature.

When did the development of productive forces accompany the development of individuals in different societies ? When was the capitalist mode of production revolutionary for itself and for human beings ? Do the productive forces advance continually, in spite of moments when individuals decay ? Marx said : ". . . the further development appears as decay. . ." Do the productive forces stagnate; does the capitalist mode of production decay ? [8]

The remainder of Marx's digression confirms that the decay refers to human beings. Individuals blossom when the productive forces allow them to develop, when the evolution of one parallels the evolution of the other. By means of a comparison with the pre-capitalist period, Marx shows that capital is not hostile to wealth but, on the contrary, takes up its production. Thus it takes up the development of productive forces. Previously the development of human beings, of their community, was opposed to the development of wealth; now there is something like symbiosis between them. For this to happen, a certain mutation was necessary : capital had to destroy the limited character of the individual; this is another aspect of its revolutionary character.

"We saw earlier that property in the conditions of production was posited as identical with a limited, definite form of the community [Gemeinwesen] , hence of the individual with the characteristics -- limited characteristics and limited development of his productive forces -- required to form such a community [Gemeinwesen] . This presupposition was itself in turn the result of a limited historic stage of the development of the productive forces, of wealth as well as the mode of creating it. The purpose of the community [Gemeinwesen] , of the individual -- as well as the condition of production -- is the reproduction of these specific conditions of production and of the individuals, both singly and in their social groupings and relations -- as living carriers of these conditions. Capital posits the production of wealth itself and hence the universal development of the productive forces, the constant overthrow of its prevailing presuppositions, as the presupposition of its reproduction. Value excludes no use value; i.e. includes no particular kind of consumption etc., of intercourse etc. as absolute condition; and likewise every degree of the development of the social forces of production, of intercourse, of knowledge etc. appears to it only as a barrier which it strives to overpower." [9]

This passage has momentous consequences. There is no reference to the proletariat; it is the revolutionary role of capital to overthrow the prevailing presuppositions. Marx had already said this, in a more striking manner:

"It is destructive towards all of this, and constantly revolutionizes it, tearing down all the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, the all-sided development of production, and the exploitation and exchange of natural and mental forces." [10]

We are forced to take a new approach toward the manner in which Marx situated the proletarian class in the context of the continual upheaval carried out by the capitalist mode of production. What is immediately evident is that the capitalist mode of production is revolutionary in relation to the destruction of ancient social relations, and that the proletariat is defined as revolutionary in relation to capital. But it is at this point that the problem begins : capitalism is revolutionary because it develops the productive forces; the proletariat cannot be revolutionary if, after its revolution, it develops or allows a different development of the productive forces. How can we tangibly distinguish the revolutionary role of one from that of the other ? How can we justify the destruction of the capitalist mode of production by the proletariat ? This cannot be done in a narrowly economic context. Marx never faced this problem because he was absolutely certain that the proletarians would rise against capital. But we have to confront this problem if we are going to emerge from the impasse created by our acceptance of the theory according to which the production relations come into conflict with the development of the productive forces (forces which were postulated to exist for the human being, since if this were not the case, why would human beings rebel ?) If the productive forces do not exist for human beings but for capital, and if they conflict with production relations, then this means that these relations do not provide the proper structure to the capitalist mode of production, and therefore there can be revolution which is not for human beings (for example, the general phenomenon which is called fascism). Consequently capital escapes. In the passage we are examining, Marx makes a remarkable statement about the domination of capital :

"Its own presupposition -- value -- is posited as product, not as a loftier presupposition hovering over production." [11]

Capital dominates value. Since labor is the substance of value, it follows that capital dominates human beings. Marx refers only indirectly to the presupposition which is also a product : wage labor, namely the existence of a labor force which makes valorization possible :

"The barrier to capital is that this entire development proceeds in a contradictory way, and that the working-out of the productive forces, of general wealth etc., knowledge etc., appears in such a way that the working individual alienates himself [sich entaussert]; relates to the conditions brought out of him by his labor as those not of his own but of an alien wealth and of his own poverty." [12]

How can this be a limit for capital ? One might suppose that under-consumption by the workers causes crises, and the final crisis. This is one possibility; at least it appears that way at certain times. Marx always refused to ground a theory of crises on this point, but this did not keep him from mentioning this under-consumption. For Marx capital has a barrier because it despoils the working individual. We should keep in mind that he is arguing against apologists for capital and wants to show that the capitalist mode of production is not eternal and does not achieve human emancipation. Yet in the course of his analysis he points to the possibility for capital to escape from human conditions. We perceive that it is not the productive forces that become autonomous, but capital, since at a given moment the productive forces become "a barrier which it strives to overpower." This takes place as follows : the productive forces are no longer productive forces of human beings but of capital; they are for capital. [13]

The despoliation (alienation) of the working individual cannot be a barrier for capital, unless Marx means barrier in the sense of a weakness; such a weakness would make capitalism inferior to other modes of production, particularly if we contrast this weakness to the enormous development of productive forces which it impels. In Marx's work there is an ambiguity about the subject to which the productive forces refer : are they for the human being or for capital ? This ambiguity grounds two interpretations of Marx. The ethical interpretation (see especially Rubel) emphasizes the extent to which Marx denounces the destruction of the human being by capital, and vigorously insists that the capitalist mode of production can only be a transitory stage. The interpretation of Althusser and his school holds that Marx does not succeed in eliminating the human being from his economic analyses, which reflects his inability to abandon ideological discourse, from which follows Althusser's problem of correctly locating the epistemological break.

It is possible to get out of this ambiguity. If capital succeeds in overcoming this barrier, it achieves full autonomy. This is why Marx postulates that capital must abolish itself; this abolition follows from the fact that it cannot develop the productive forces for human beings while it makes possible a universal, varied development which can only be realized by a superior mode of production. This contains a contradiction : capital escapes from the grasp of human beings, but it must perish because it cannot develop human productive forces. This also contradicts Marx's analysis of the destruction of human beings by capital. How can destroyed human beings rebel ? We can, if we avoid these contradictions, consider Marx a prophet of the decline of capital, but then we will not be able to understand his work or the present situation. The end of Marx's digression clarifies these contradictions.

"But this antithetical form is itself fleeting, and produces the real conditions of its own suspension. The result is : the tendentially and potentially general development of the forces of production -- of wealth as such -- as a basis; likewise, the universality of intercourse, hence the world market as a basis. The basis as the possibility of the universal development of the individual, and the real development of the individuals from this basis as a constant suspension of its barrier, which is recognized as a barrier, not taken for a sacred limit. Not an ideal or imagined universality of the individual, but the universality of his real and ideal relations. Hence also the grasping of his own history as a process, and the recognition of nature (equally present as practical power over nature) as his real body. The process of development itself posited and known as the presupposition of the same. For this, however, necessary above all that the full development of the forces of production has become the condition of production; and not that specific conditions of production are posited as a limit to the development of the productive forces." [14]

If this process is to concern individuals, capital has to be destroyed and the productive forces have to be for human beings. In the article, "La KAPD et le mouvement proletarien," [15] we referred to this passage to indicate that the human being is a possibility, giving a foundation to the statement : the revolution must be human. This is in no way a discourse on the human being conceived as invariant in every attribute, a conception which would merely be a restatement of the immutability of human nature. But we have to point out that this is still insufficient, since the development of productive forces which, according to Marx, will take place in a superior mode of production, is precisely the same development presently carried out by capital. The limit of Marx is that he conceived communism as a new mode of production where productive forces blossom. These forces are undoubtedly important, but their existence at a certain level does not adequately define communism.

For Marx, capital overcomes its contradictions by engulfing them and by mystifying reality. It can only apparently overcome its narrow base, its limited nature which resides in the exchange of capital-money against labor force. Capital must inevitably come into conflict with this presupposition; thus Marx speaks of the opposition between private appropriation and socialization of production. Private appropriation of what ? Of surplus value, which presupposes the proletarian, and thus the wage relation. But the entire development of capital (and Marx's own explanations are a precious aid in understanding it) makes the mystification effective, making capital independent of human beings, thus enabling it to avoid the conflict with its presupposition. One might say that the conflict nevertheless persists, as a result of the total process : socialization. This is true. But the socialization of production and of human activity, the universal development of the productive forces and thus the destruction of the limited character of the human being -- all this was only a possible ground for communism; it did not pose communism automatically. Furthermore, the action of capital tends constantly to destroy communism, or at least to inhibit its emergence and realization. To transform this possible ground into reality, human intervention is necessary. But Marx himself showed that capitalist production integrates the proletariat. How could the destruction of human beings and of nature fail to have repercussions on the ability of human beings to resist capital and, a fortiori, to rebel ?

Some will think we are attributing to Marx a position which is convenient to us. We will cite an extraordinary passage :

"What precisely distinguishes capital from the master-servant relation is that the worker confronts [capital] as consumer and possessor of exchange values, and that in the form of the possessor of money, in the form of money he becomes a simple center of circulation -- one of its infinitely many centers, in which his specificity as worker is extinguished." [16]

One of the modalities of the re-absorbtion of the revolutionary power of the proletariat has been to perfect its character as consumer, thus catching it in the mesh of capital. The proletariat ceases to be the class that negates; after the formation of the working class it dissolves into the social body. Marx anticipates the poets of the "consumer society" and, as in other instances, he explains a phenomenon which is observed only later and then falsely, if only in terms of the name given to it.

The preceding observations do not lead to a fatalistic conception (this time negative), such as : whatever we do, there's no way out; it's too late; or any other mindless defeatism which would generate a sickening patch-work reformism. First we have to draw the lesson. Capital has run away from human and natural barriers; human beings have been domesticated : this is their decadence. The revolutionary solution cannot be found in the context of a dialectic of productive forces where the individual would be an element of the contradiction. Present day scientific analyses of capital proclaim a complete disregard for human beings who, for some, are nothing but a residue without consistency. This means that the discourse of science is the discourse of capital, or that science is possible only after the destruction of human beings; it is a discourse on the pathology of the human being. Thus it is insane to ground the hope of liberation on science. The position is all the more insane where, as with Althusser, it cannot make its own break, liquidate its "archeology," since it remains faithful to a proletariat -- a proletariat which in this conception is merely an object of capital, an element of the structure. But this inefficient, destroyed human being is the individual produced by class societies. And on this we agree : the human being is dead. The only possibility for another human being to appear is our struggle against our domestication, our emergence from it. Humanism and scientism (and the followers of "ethical science" Ã la Monod are the most absolute slaves of capital) are two expressions of the domestication of humanity. All those who nurse the illusion of the decadence of capital revive ancient humanist conceptions or give birth to new scientific myths. They remain impermeable to the revolutionary phenomenon running through our world.

Until now all sides have argued as if human beings remained unchanged in different class societies and under the domination of capital. This is why the role of the social context was emphasized (man, who was fundamentally good, was seen to be modified positively or negatively by the social context) by the materialist philosophers of the 18th century, while Marxists emphasized the role of an environment conditioned by the development of productive forces. Change was not denied, and after Marx it was repeated that history was a continual transformation of human nature. Nevertheless it was held explicitly or implicitly that an irreducible element continued to allow human beings to revolt against the oppression of capital. And capitalism itself was described in a Manichean manner : on one side the positive pole, the proletariat, the liberating class; on the other the negative pole, capital. Capital was affirmed as necessary and as having revolutionized the life of human beings, but it was described as an absolute evil in relation to the good, the proletariat. The phenomenon which emerges today does not in the least destroy the negative evaluation of capital, but forces us to generalize it to the class which was once antagonistic to it and carried within itself all the positive elements of human development and today of humanity itself. This phenomenon is the recomposition of a community and of human beings by capital, reflecting human community like a mirror. The theory of the looking glass could only arise when the human being became a tautology, a reflection of capital. Within the world of the despotism of capital (this is how society appears as of today), neither a good nor an evil can be distinguished. Everything can be condemned. Negating forces can only arise outside of capital. Since capital has absorbed all the old contradictions, the revolutionary movement has to reject the entire product of the development of class societies. This is the crux of its struggle against domestication, against the decadence of the human species. This is the essential moment of the process of formation of revolutionaries, absolutely necessary for the production of revolution.

Jacques Camatte May, 1973


[1] Marx, Grundrisse, London : Pelican, 1973, p. 539.

[2] Ibid., p. 540.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., pp. 540-541.

[6] Ibid., p. 541.

[7] As is done by Victor in Révolution Internationale No. 7, série 1, p. 4 of the article "Volontarisme et confusion."

[8] Various authors have spoken of stagnation and declining production between the two world wars. Bordiga always rejected the theory of the decline of the capitalist mode of production as a gradualist deformation of Marx's theory (see "Le renversement de la praxis dans la théorie marxiste," in Invariance No. 4, série 1.

[9] Marx, Grundrisse, p. 541.

[10] Ibid., p. 410.

[11] Ibid., P. 541.

[12] Ibid.

[13] This is what Marx shows when he analyzes fixed capital in the Grundrisse, and also in Book I of Capital "where he analyzes the transformation of the work process into a process of production of capital (see also Un chapitre inédit du Capital, Paris : Ed. 10/18, 1971).

[14] Marx, Grundrisse, pp. 541-542.

[15] Invariance, Série II, No. 1.

[16] Marx, Grundrisse, pp. 420-421.