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.
When an entire era comes to an end, the moment arrives for drawing up a balance sheet. With the events in the East, the slate is wiped clean: the former USSR no longer proclaims to uphold communism and Marxism. What lesson is to be learned from this?
For the ruling ideology this rupture signifies “the end of communism”; it died in 1991. A question arises, however: did the ex-USSR demonstrate that it was communist, that is—if such a word has any meaning—classless, Stateless, without wage labor, creating a human community in which the free development of each is the precondition for the free development of all? The fact that exploitation, oppression, corruption, privilege and a host of other alienations held sway in the former USSR proves that there was not a trace of communism there. This proclaimed demise of communism is therefore without any basis: something that does not exist cannot die.
In fact, from its inception, the former USSR was not and could not be communist because the material preconditions for communism were by no means established in that economically backward and semi-feudal country, as the most elementary Marxist analysis demonstrates. The Bolsheviks of 1917 knew this, but counted on a revolution in the more advanced countries of the West, especially in Germany, that would have allowed soviet Russia to accelerate its passage through the capitalist stage and thus to achieve a relatively quick transition to socialism. But such a revolution in the West, one that would have followed up on the 1917 Russian revolution: was it possible? The Bolsheviks’ error was to think it was possible. Besides a few revolutionary tremors in Germany that were quickly crushed, nothing of the kind took place, world capitalism exercised firm control over the situation and was by no means in its death throes as superficial diagnoses maintained. In these circumstances of isolation, in a backward country devastated by the civil war provoked by the Entente, the Russian revolution could not make much progress. The best thing that could have happened would have been for it to be liquidated by an unadorned, straightforward counterrevolution: then, at least, everything would have been clear. Instead, however, the worst-case scenario was realized: it degenerated; it rotted in place and, in its putrefaction, became the Stalinist imposture of “socialism” in Russia. This was an enormous mystification because, given the country’s backward state, the only possibility was, in fact, the development of capitalism. Since, however, the 1917 revolution had eliminated the private bourgeoisie, what kind of capitalism could have been created? The only practical solution was State capitalism: the exploitation of the workers on the basis of an economy planned and directed by a State bourgeoisie (recruited from the ranks of the ruling party’s apparatus) which, under the aegis of “building socialism” (for the purpose of the State’s takeover of the economy), was given the task of catching up to (by means of forced march development and utilizing all possible coercive measures) and even surpassing western capitalism. After some successes with regard to industrialization, which allowed illusions to flourish (Russia was then spoken of as the “world’s number two industrial power”), such projects began to fail in every sector. State capitalism was in fact revealed to be, in its competition with the private capitalism of the West, much less effective than had been previously believed. Its crisis began in the late 1950s, leading to chaos, irresponsibility, low labor productivity and, finally, economic stagnation. From then on, its leaders could only do one thing: renounce that kind of capitalism by attempts to transform it into a “market economy” of the western type. This simultaneously led them to free themselves from the label of “communism” which had served as camouflage. The failure in question therefore has nothing to do with the emancipatory movement originally implied by communism; it was merely the breakdown of a certain kind of capitalism—State capitalism—which thereby revealed all its limitations.
At this stage, it is easy to draw up a balance sheet. It is a very good thing that this sort of communism should disappear, even if we still have to put up with the noisy repetition of all the announcements of the end of “seventy years of communism”: the capitalist order’s interest in preserving such a fiction is too obvious to provoke surprise.
The balance sheet, however, does not end there. If the communism whose end has been proclaimed never really existed, the question of why that is so still remains: was history mature enough for real communism to triumph?
By managing to survive until now, capitalism has proven that history was not mature enough for communism to triumph. “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed,” as Marx wrote in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy. If we follow this postulate of historical materialism it is clear that if capitalism has not been replaced by communism this is because capitalism still had its raison d’être, it had not become historically obsolete. It is useless to decree that capitalism, as of a certain date, was “in its death throes” or “senile”, while by continuing its forward progress it proves just the opposite and demonstrates that, despite all possible criticisms, it is a system that is all that it can be, and is far from being “decadent”. For it to be otherwise, it would have to have come up against insuperable obstacles, which would have entangled it in insoluble contradictions, indicating its historical limits and the need for communism in order to resolve them. Instead, it is still an expanding system on a global scale, and all its crises, in the final analysis, have merely been growing pains.
But we shall expand our balance sheet yet again. Things could have been different if one single condition had been met: if the proletariat were to have succeeded in abbreviating capitalism’s historic career. This was the perspective of Marx, Engels, and the revolutionary vanguards that succeeded them. They thought that if the proletariat became conscious and therefore organized, a way would have been found to do away with capitalism without having to wait for the latter to proceed to the conclusion of its historical possibilities for expansion. But for this to take place it was imperative that the proletariat should become ideologically advanced enough to measure up to the demands of such a project. According to Engels: “The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organization, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for [with body and soul]. The history of the last fifty years has taught us that.” (“Introduction” to The Class Struggles in France, 1895).
In fact, these conditions, which would have made it possible to bring about the end of capitalism at an earlier time, were never realized. After 1872, the failure of the attempt to organize the proletariat in a vast international workers organization, as well as the increasingly reformist direction taken by the Second International, founded in 1889, which by adapting to capitalism instead of fighting it, became a left faction of bourgeois democracy, provide testimony to this fact. The death knell of that attempt was to be finally dealt by the collapse in 1914 of almost the entire organized workers movement of Europe due to the latter’s support for the Civil Truce during the war. The Russian revolution of 1917 would, it is true, give life to an illusion for a while: the illusion that the war would give rise to a revolution in Europe. In fact, October 1917 was nothing more than a “lucky shot” in a backward country in particular circumstances, but totally incapable of being reproduced in the more advanced countries, as was demonstrated by the crushing defeat of the Spartacist minority in Germany (1918-1919), when the overwhelming majority of the proletariat sided with the reformist social democracy. As for the Third International founded in 1919, it would also be a failure, as it was rapidly transformed into the docile tool of Stalinist Russia’s State capitalism. In short, far from being a revolutionary springboard, the war turned out to be nothing but a worm-eaten plank. What was the meaning of the war? It was interpreted as the sign of a faltering capitalism that would open up the objective road to the world revolution. That was an error. So history then turned in a very different direction: the war corresponded not to the progress of the system towards its final crisis, but towards a crisis of growth which tended, if not to the system’s regression, at least to prevent it from carrying on with its forward progress. Out of fear of being swallowed by this increasingly modern capitalism, numerous reactionary social forces, under various pretexts, lined up behind the war; these included the immense traditional middle classes, rural populations, the aristocratic classes of the old regime which, in numerous European countries, were predominant, and even certain fractions of the bourgeoisie; with the war they hoped to create a completely reactionary climate that would favor their interests, and thus, under the pretext of “defending the endangered fatherland”, to engineer a return to the past that worked to their benefit. In such a context, in which history seemed to go backward, the socialist revolution was going utterly against the current and had no chance of success. And in fact, not unlike the “revolutionary wave” that was supposed to bring capitalism to an end after the war, fascism arose in the early 1920s, which was nothing but another manifestation of that species of right wing anti-capitalism that had appeared previously, a fascism which would quickly go on to conquer almost all of Europe and drag it, under the ideological flags of militarism, nationalism, anti-semitism and anti-communism, into a yet more devastating and murderous war than the first world war, amidst a climate of fanaticism and extreme mental confusion. Finally, however, those who emerged victorious from what was in fact a new “Thirty Years War” were modern capitalism and bourgeois democracy. In short, this great crisis, which some have interpreted as an irreversible stage of capitalism’s decadence, was instead a means for capitalism to free itself from the archaisms that hindered it and thus to complete the step leading from its still formal domination in many respects to its real domination in every respect: henceforth it could accede to its completely modern condition and, consolidated and stabilized, engage in a vigorous economic expansion, as manifested in its postwar “thirty glorious years” stage.
What perspectives can be deduced from such an accounting? It is a historical fact that it was not possible to abbreviate capitalism’s career. It would, however, be an error to conclude from this that capitalism is eternal, “insurmountable and inevitable”, as we are constantly being told today. In the second part of this essay we have attempted, first of all, to understand what is currently called “the crisis”: is it a simple cyclical phenomenon of capitalism, a prelude to a new stage of expansion, or is it a prelude to something else? For us, the fact that “the crisis” has lasted for more than fifteen years, resulting in a diminished rate of growth, a continuously increasing rate of unemployment, a “new poverty” that affects whole sectors of the population and a tendency to undermine the workers’ standard of living, indicate that capitalism has entered a new period that we identify as that of the final stage of its historical cycle; the crisis in question is in fact the result of capitalism’s own development or, if you prefer, a consequence of its success, of its triumphant progress. For it has reached the point where dead capital (machines and infrastructure) has assumed such importance vis-à-vis living capital (labor power) that capital valorization becomes increasingly problematic (with the reduction in the rate of profit brought about by this trend), since the latter has its source in the exploitation of living labor and not in the utilization of machines. Hence the tendency of the diverse capitals to invest less in production so as to take refuge in stock market speculation; hence also the extremely constrained growth which has characterized capitalism since 1975; and the absolute diminution (no longer simply a relative diminution) of the blue collar working class, which produces the bulk of the surplus value and, along with this, the unprecedented increase in the number of unproductive employees, the latter representing between 50% and 60% of the active population of wage workers, which indicates that capitalism is reaching the end of its course and confirms the following analysis of Marx: “The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself. It is that capital and its self-expansion appear as the starting and the closing point....” (Capital, Vol. III, Part 3, Chapter 15). This end is now being historically reached. What is now taking place therefore has nothing to do with a cyclical crisis but corresponds to the beginning of a final crisis of capitalism. It is, of course, true that the latter may still survive for a certain period. It could still revalorize itself (restore its rate of profit) by reducing wages and attacking the “social conquests” of the productive and unproductive workers, since the latter eat up a big share of profits. This is what capital has begun to do, but due to the concomitant reduction in the capacity for consumption the only outcome will be a contraction of the market and thus crises of overproduction that will become more explosive since all economies are already in debt up to their ears, which means that the fountain of credit is exhausted and the markets saturated to their limits.
From that point forward the perspective of communism will eventually prevail, not because it would be a beautiful ideal to realize, but because it will be the only valid economic and social response to the bankruptcy of capitalism. Such a perspective cannot arise in peoples’ consciousness today, as capitalism is still capable of socially buffering its crisis, while not being capable of overcoming it. This does not obviate the fact that, in the face of the factual reality, the old representations are already beginning to collapse. Thus, the belief in a reformed capitalism transmitted by leftist organizations is in free fall. The proof is provided by their decomposition, in the ideological and trade union as well as political dimensions. We are also witnessing a decline of bourgeois democracy, attested by the rise of abstentionism, which indicates that the social consensus is being destroyed. So-called political ecology is nothing but a pallid reformism trying in vain to replace the old variety of reformism.
The national capitalism of the extreme right is hardly more credible: its “protectionist” program would only push capitalism into its final collapse, since the bourgeois economies are now too interconnected for such a “national” solution to be viable. In short, capitalism has no solution for its historical crisis, its only perspective being to prolong its duration so as to delay as long as possible its reaching an explosion point.
As the perspective of communism comes to the fore, the perspective of the revolution will arise, whose purpose will be to seize power from the bourgeoisie, which is necessary for the replacement of capitalism by socialism. What form will this revolution take? Although only a practical movement will be able to provide exact answers, we have made an effort to consider this question in the context of the conditions that will henceforth prevail, those characteristic of capitalism at the end of its historical cycle, which has led us to consider certain conceptions to be obsolete, conceptions that in other times were part of the revolutionary movement and which corresponded to still-immature historical conditions. The same applies to the socialist program, which we have subjected to scrutiny and concerning which we have set forth some broad outlines at the end of this essay.