Past Decline and Beyond—an Introduction

Submitted by redtwister on December 9, 2005

You must be ready to
abandon all convictions as soon as they do not anymore correspond to the given

Karl Korsch

Marx did not produce any
specific theory of crisis. However, the phenomenon of crisis is one immanent
moment of his general theoretical-practical project on capitalism and its
. In relation to this a specific theory of crisis would be a
contradiction in terms. What Marx, as a revolutionary and a critic,
intended to show was that and how capitalism was a historically transitory
social system, with a logical ending with communism as a possibility,
and how this possibility of revolution/transcendence lies within this very
capitalist system, in the proletariat. Viewed abstractly, however, you can focus
and emphasize one aspect of capitalism as a social mode of reproduction, that could provide us with a theory of crisis.
But with the fetish character of such a theory, we must stress that »crisis is
not economic, but it present itself as such»
(Holloway, Open Marxism, Vol. II); what it expresses is the instability
of capitalism as an antagonistic relation of classes. What we in the following
intend to do is to criticize the hitherto theories of crisis and collapse in
the workers’ movement by trying to derive their limits and errors from the
times, the social historical contexts, for which they were the dominating
theoretical expressions. However, their limitations was primarily not, as you
may sometimes be lead to believe, that these theorists were intellectual weak,
malicious or anything else on the level of ideas. They are rather the
theoretical expressions of the limits of an era, a cycle of class struggle, and
by so socially and historically conditioned (including by way of ideas). Thus,
the level of ideas is not autonomous from the material conditions that produce
these ideas. By this also ideas and consciousness are active moments of the
production of those state of affairs usually
considered as objective. This is how subjective errors today may lead to
objective facts tomorrow, and thereby the need for
revolutionary theory. The dialectical relation between subject and object,
theory and praxis, thus mean that you start from the point of view of totality.
And since these poles are not externally related but mutually affect each other
internally in an intricate interaction, you must seriously consider the issue
of production of theory and consciousness, because we can not separate the
subject from the object and vice versa. No theory can explain the real
state of affairs or give us the fundamental and invariable »theory of crisis» that will explain everything. Since society is the
product of social relations, in continuous movement, the only permanence is
human praxis. The raison d’être of communists, however, is not to
interpret but to change the world; that is why the aim of communist theory is
the fact that it describes that it actually are we – the proletariat – that
through our constitutive praxis who are producing the totality of capitalism
and that it is this fact that makes it appear as beyond our reach, but at the
same time and therefore possible for us to transcend.

Marx was no new political economist, but was producing a radical – i.e. he
derived the problems he aimed to solve to their roots, »man himself»
critique of political economy qua economy. The bourgeois
economy starts from, and thereby takes for granted, what is to be explained,
that is the human alienating praxis. The categories of the bourgeois
economy are those categories expressing the »deranged forms»
of the process of production in capitalism. However, these are not just any
produced categories to deliberately obscure the capitalist process of
production as a process of exploitation, but »objective forms of thought», i. e. expressing
something that really is happening, for this process.

The theory of decline or the decline of theory?

The main part of this issue
is the text »Decadence: The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory?», which we have translated from the UK journal Aufheben. This text is important, not because it gives closed answers on how to interpret the
world, but because it forces us to question a whole line of ingrained
theoretical perspectives.

Aufheben criticize in the opening part all those theories that give the
working class a passive or merely reactive role in the transition from
capitalism to socialism/communism. Aufheben trace the theory of the
natural decline of capitalism to Engels and the orthodoxy
of the 2nd International. In the International one tendency stood for a theory
of capitalism almost by itself – thanks to a growing organic composition of
capital and increased planning – should grow into socialism. The role of the
workers’ parties was therefore merely to take over the state apparatuses to,
when the time was ripe, finish the transition.

Against this stood a tendency that meant that capitalism, again due to its own
immanent development, would be hit by crisis. At this moment the working class
would act, forced by an objective necessity, and socialism be introduced. The common denominator of the two perspectives
was that the working class was not given any active role in the development of
capital. The movement of capital and the class struggle was seen as two
separate things, only forced together in the very moment of transition.

For those revolutionaries that around WWI broke with the reformism of the 2nd
International it became a dogma that capitalism saw itself in its period of
decline and that its final crisis was near at hand. Obviously the communist
lefts were different from the Leninists by giving the working class an
autonomous and driving role in the revolution, but neither of them saw the
connection between the acts of the working class and the capitalist crisis.

During the long lasting post-WWII boom the theories of decline faced their own
crisis, since it became absurd to stress the objective decline of capitalism in
an era when the reality gave proof of the opposite. At the same time these
theories appeared passivating since the class
struggle was not given any decisive role during periods of upswing.

Aufheben stresses the importance of groups such as Socialisme
ou Barbarie, the Situationist International
and first and foremost the
Operaist/Autonomist current
in the break with the
orthodox perspectives and to once again stress class struggle as the central
issue both for the understanding of capitalism and the possibility to beat it. Especially
Autonomist Marxism stressed the working class as the motor of the development
of capital and produced a theory where the crisis was seen as a result of the
struggle of the working class. This current also
showed that technology and the labor process was everything but neutral, as
results of class struggle.

However, there were some problems also with this perspective. How could you
explain a period such as the present, when the struggle of the working class
obviously is at a very low level, at the same time as capital has forced
through a whole series of restructuring of the organization of labor,
technology, transport and the organization of the world market, labor laws and
the relations to state apparatuses, and so on? Also the Autonomist perspective
seems reductionist.

Aufheben shows that S ou B, the Situationists and Autonomist Marxism were
necessary antecedents for going beyond the objectivist notion of capital of the
orthodoxy, but also show the weaknesses of these groups. The article raises a
number of issues: How to interpret the relation between labor and capital,
between subject and object? How to interpret the movements and crisis of
capital and class struggle? How can a transition to communism become possible?
The article provides no immediate answers, but has inspired us to an intense
discussion on these issues, that has lead us to try to
formulate a provisional answer:

Capital is labor is capital

In one and the same process
alienation and reification is produced, the worker as worker and capital as
capital. Capital is fundamentally labor1: passed alienated labor
that has been turned against the worker in the form of means of production and
goods, and living labor that produce new alienated labor. At one and the same
time the worker exists as one part of capital, as Marx stresses in the Grundrisse,

It is clear ... that the
worker cannot become rich in this exchange, since, in exchange for his
labor capacity as a fixed, available magnitude, he surrenders its creative
, like Esau his birthright for a mess of pottage. Rather, he
necessarily impoverishes himself ... because the creative power of his labor
establishes itself as the power of capital, as an alien power confronting
him. He divests himself of labor as the force productive of wealth;
capital appropriates it, as such. The separation between labor and property in
the product of labor, between labor and wealth, is thus posited in this act
of exchange itself. What appears paradoxical as result is already
contained in the presupposition. ... Thus the productivity of his labor, his
labor in general, in so far as it is not a capacity but a motion, real
labor, comes to confront the worker as an alien power; capital,
inversely, realizes itself through the appropriation of alien labor. ... Therefore,
those who demonstrate that the productive force ascribed to capital is a displacement,
a transposition of the productive force of labor, forget precisely that
capital itself is essentially this displacement, this transposition, and
that wage labor as such presupposes capital, so that, from its standpoint as
well, capital is this transubstantiation; the necessary process of
positing its own powers as alien to the worker.2

Thus the relation of labor
and capital is not external. It is not about a war between two parties, who can
conquer new areas from each other. On the contrary, the essence of capital is
the relation between labor and capital, which means that capital in itself is
class struggle.

For the worker the process of production means alienation. The worker is
separated from the use-value of her own creative capacity, just as from the
fruits of her labor. Instead, labor for the worker becomes a commodity, whose
usefulness is only its exchange-value. Through alienation capital at the same
time appears as an external power, a separate object, a »sensuous
super-sensuous thing», with its own natural logic. Also
the produced goods appear as things with no relation to the human relations by
which they have been produced.

For the worker, dead labor becomes an alien power in a twofold way. On the one
hand the worker produces the means of production and continuously refine them
and thus produces her own insubordination and exploitation, on the other hand
the worker produces the means of subsistence, the exchange-values, in a growing
amount and variation, and thus impose labor on herself
(by way of the need for use-values increases). Both alienation and the reified
world, where capital appear as of objective nature and the goods as extra-human
things, has its origin in the moment of production, only then to cross the
capitalist society as a whole.

If class struggle can be traced back to the very essence of capitalism, it
becomes obvious that class struggle can not be anything external in relation to
a capital that is following its own laws independently. At the same time it
becomes obvious that capital is not something that is passively reacting upon
the struggles of the workers. Capital, the relation of capital, i. e. the antagonistic relation of classes, is thus a »contradiction-in-process».

Competition between different capitals forces every individual capital to
continuously valorise itself to survive. Competition forces the capitalist to
change production to the disadvantage of the working class, reduce variable
capital, increase the rate of exploitation, gain
market shares and so on. Every capital thus fights its own workers, not only
reactively but from self-interest, which forces the workers to respond. Through
competition, and the following class struggle, capital changes its own
composition and thus the class composition.

From the point of view of the working class a continuous struggle is at the
same time fought, consciously or unconsciously, to reduce work, to get as much
as possible from the created values and, as endurable as possible, a fair
situation during work. This struggle, at the centre of valorisation, obviously
forces capital to act. The individual capitalist can not give in to the demands
of the working class if he is to survive. The struggle of the working class
changes in this way both its own composition and that of capital,
and thus in turn the class composition. Both the working class and capital are
at the same time active and reactive.

The key is to view competition between different capitals as the main mediation
between the »objective» laws of capital and the
struggle it wage against the working class. It is mainly through the individual
capitals that changes in technology and the organisation of labor are brought
about, the technical class composition changes and efforts to increase
intensity and exploitation are made. However, this is obviously not the only mediation,
and capital also act collectively through pressure groups, states and so on,
and can have well enough worked through strategies on this level. However,
these are never fundamentally stabile and capital is never totally united –
since these efforts to secure the survival of total capital (both against the
working class and the competition between different capitals) often contradict
the interests of individual capitals. Capital can never produce a stable world
structure, since »all that is solid melts into air»,
even the very monuments of capital itself.

The capitalist crisis must be understood as a dialectic relation between class
struggle and competition between capitals. Both factors are always
inter-connected. On the one hand the struggle of the workers may halt the
valorisation of capital at the same time as the costs of variable capital
increases (if productivity decreases due to resistance from the workers and
that wages increases). Obviously this leads to a form of crisis for the
individual capital which one way or the other must act. If a wave of struggles
affects capital as a whole this also leads to affects on the fall of the rate
of profit, with problems for capital in general.

On the other hand capital must check on a fall in the rate of profit due to
competition between capitals through an increase in productivity, i.e. the rate
of exploitation, and keep wages down (to reduce the variable capital part and
increase surplus-value). If the working class through its struggles succeeds in
sabotage such efforts, the fall of the rate of profit fastens, and thereby the

However, there is no reason to believe that capitalism will face its total
crisis or absolute decline. Even when some parts of the system are in crisis
others have shown to be well off, and after a massive destruction of capital –
eventually including large scale war – the deepest depression has been turned
into a period of growth.

Transcendence, or transition problems

Another issue that is not
obvious either is the link between crisis, the end of capitalism and the
transition to communism. As Aufheben show the revolutionaries of the
20th Century saw crisis as a precondition for socialism, and many expected
capitalism to enter some form of final crisis. In »Whither the world» (by Troploin) that we published in our last issue, Dauvé & Nesic reverse this
perspective and say instead that the preconditions for revolution are best
during the upswing of a well-being capitalism . Their idea is that if the
possibilities of reforms are tried, but capitalism still can not fulfil the
needs of people, the force to abandon the system is greater.

In history we have seen revolutionary movements both in situations of crisis:
post-wars, the collapse of state apparatuses, and so on, and in relatively
well-being periods such as France in 1968 and Italy in 1969 as typical examples. The
way we see it, there is no need to categorically tie oneself neither to upswing
nor decline. For us, the central issue is that communism is not the goal for capitalism, it is not naturally following the development of
capitalism, but is a radical brake with capitalism. Communism is a possibility
that demands human activity, and nothing that emerges

The contradiction of capital is at one and the same time the contradiction of
the workers, since they are at the same time labor-power and working class –
class-in-itself, for-itself, and against-itself! As labor-power the
workers are part of capital, with the interest of something/someone to sell
their labor-power to, with interests to defend within the process of labor
(job-security, better conditions, higher wages, etc.) and with institutions
such as parties and unions – the labor/workers’ movement – to defend these
interests. As labor-power the worker has an interest in keeping capital, that
labor is done within fair forms, that wages are paid
with regularity. As working class, however, there is the interest to abolish
alienation, escape the role as alienated labor-power and to stop being a
worker. These tendencies are often present at the same time, in the same
struggles. The revolutionary process is not the affirmation of the worker, but
the negation of the entire labor/capital relation.

Practical reflexivity

The chief defect of all
hitherto existing materialism ... is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is
conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as
sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively.

Marx, Thesis on Feuerbach

Marx’s theory, and our, has
no object. We do not stand outside and reflect upon some object, but are
situated in this »object». Our theoretical
project, riff-raff, is our »practical reflexivity», to use a
phrase from Gunn in Open Marxism Vol. II, within the social context we
are situated and take practical part in, i. e. the
class struggle of the 21st Century capitalist society. For us theory and praxis
are two moments of the same social, i. e. human,
process, of the same dialectical continuum. In other words, we do not sit in an
ivory tower and contemplate over the struggle that is waged on the ground
below, we are in the middle of this struggle and are thereby forced to reflect
and theorize over it. This we do not do for the imbecile working class
that – we are told – can not develop anything but a trade-unionist 
consciousness (Lenin/Kautsky) and therefore are left
to educated men from the intellectual middle class to get injected
revolutionary consciousness. We do this for ourselves, as parts of the
struggling existence of this very proletariat, i. e.
the »real movement», the »historical movement going on
under our very eyes», but, with this, it is also valid for others in the same
situation. We want to inspire others just like we are being inspired.

However, class consciousness is nothing that is produced homogenously or
automatically; the working class can not mechanically grow into a communist
consciousness. Since it is the working class that is, and makes possible,
capital, a communist consciousness can only emerge when the working class is
questioning itself (as workers, i. e. as
commodities) and thereby capital. Different groups of workers thus obtain,
depending on both subjective and objective factors, different »levels» of consciousness, but since the objective
circumstances produced by the workers, and which they are products of, always
are capitalist circumstances (products of a specific form of subjectivity; that
of »labor-power») class consciousness means that this struggle tries to
destroy and weaken what is producing this objectivity. In this struggle the
working class may realize its situation as a class and its revolutionary
potentials. Class struggle thus produce a form of subjectivity that affect the
objective factors; that is why theory and ideology production is everything but
a contemplative and »intellectual» business that merely observes the world;
quite the opposite it is part of the practical attempts of the revolutionary
movements to tumble capitalism over. The objective circumstances are those
circumstances that try to reduce the class in struggle to variable capital, i. e. labor-power, but the struggle against capitalism
thus gives the working class the possibility to realize that is precisely this
subject that may extinguish the capitalist objectivity. The production of
communist consciousness thus is not autonomous vis à vis the struggles of the
working class; the theoretical critique of work by the Situationists
in the 60’s was only formally separated from
those millions of workers that practically fought work. The revolutionary
minority thus may already today provide its theoretical tools adequate for the
practical class struggle if these tools are the products of praxis. Francois
Martin wrote in his text »The Class Struggle and its Most Characteristic
Aspects in Recent Years» about the organic and
dialectic connection between theory and praxis,

Today revolutionaries will
be forced to oppose capital practically. This is why new theoretical
tasks are necessary. It is not enough to agree on the level of ideas: one must
take positive action, and first of all intervene in present struggles to
support one’s views. Communists do not to build a separate party from the one
which asserts itself in practice in our society; yet they will increasingly
have to support their positions so that the real movement does not waste its
time in useless and false struggles. Organic links (theoretical work for
practical activity) will have to be established among those who think we are
moving towards a conflict between the proletariat and capital.

Despite the fact that communists
are active parts of the class struggle it would be false and immediately
harmful to see revolutionaries as the leaders of the class struggle or its
substitutes; if communism did not exist as a material movement, communist
theory would not be worth more than metaphysics. Class struggle is a material
movement, a product of capitalism; revolutionaries thus can not voluntarily
produce class struggle or discontent, our task must be to try to radicalize and
develop those struggles and that discontent we ourselves are parts of. Theory
thus must be seen as an attempt to action, an analytical tool and not merely a
neutral picture of reality. Communists are never alone, but feel just as all
other proletarians the practical need to stop being proletarian, and may just
like all other workers become a living and struggling part of the real
movement. Gilles Dauvé (Jean Barrot)
wrote with this in mind in the opening of his »Capitalism and Communism»,

Communism is not a
programme one puts into practice or makes other put into practice, but a social
movement. Those who develop and defend theoretical communism do not have any
advantages over others except a clearer understanding and a more rigorous
expression; like all others who are not especially concerned by theory, they
feel the practical need for communism. They have no privileges whatsoever; they
do not carry the knowledge that will set the revolution in motion; but, on the
other hand, they have no fear of becoming »leaders» by
explaining their positions. The communist revolution, like all other
revolution, is the product of real needs and living conditions. The problem is
to shed light on an existing historical movement.4

The fact that the
revolutionary minority is isolated from other proletarians during
non-revolutionary circumstances, however, is quite normal considering
capitalism itself as division between intellectual and manual labor, theory
and praxis, and different fields of knowledge. The revolutionary movement must
therefore try to make this division of labor weaker, and for the theory to
reach others it must be the product of circumstances others can relate to. The
isolation and separation of the revolutionaries, however, may be made weaker
during an upswing in class struggle, and if the revolutionary minority succeeds
in realizing its philosophy it can become a material force in the struggle
against this class society.

Capitalist language vs an adequate

This theoretical moment
must often be elusive. The bourgeois abstract language is not – thank heavens –
part of our everyday vocabulary and can at best only suggest what
we are looking for; thus we are always obliged to »decipher» it. In our last
issue we – via Dauvé/Nesic – wrote about this: »All
those vocabularies [from economy, philosophy, sociology] (and the visions of
the world they convey) belong to specialized fields of knowledge, all of them
inadequate for human emancipation, and therefore to be superseded. Until then,
we have to compose a ›unitary› critique from them and against them» (To work or not to work? Is that the question?).
However, we do our best to make ourselves as clear as we are capable of and the
subject matter allows us. But, we are writing primarily, except for ourselves,
for those who are willing to learn something new, that
is who also wants to think for themselves.

In relation to this »Decadence» bloc we publish for the first time in Swedish two
contributions to the polemic within the communist left in Europe in the 30’s on
the crisis and decline of capitalism; Karl Korsch’s »On
some principal preconditions for a materialist discussion on the theory of
crisis» and Anton Pannekoek’s »The theory of the
collapse of capitalism», from Proletarier in
1933 and Rätekorrespondenz in 1934.

We also have two book reviews that to a great extent connect to our theme from
#3–4 on the concept of class composition. The first review is on our German
comrades in Kolinko and their workers’ inquiry
from call centres, Hotlines, where we are emphasizing their positive
example of workers’ inquiry in practice. However we observe their somehow »interventionist» position vis à vis the »ordinary» workers at
the call centres, that brings the risk of re-establishing some sort of a
neo-Leninist vanguardism.

The second review is on the American sociologist B. J. Silver’s book Forces of Labor whose underlying thesis, based on the workers’ struggle database World
Labor Group, is the relation between the development, restructuring and
relocation of capital and the development of the struggle and composition of
the working class.

Finally we introduce a new Marx/Engels series with
more or less relevant texts not before translated and published in Swedish. For
our foreign readers we may explain that there has never been a »Complete Works
of Marx and Engels» in Swedish, but more or less only (Moscow) selections. This time we publish M&E’s short Preface to the 2nd Russian edition of the Manifesto from 1882, where the two old beards stresses the communist
potential of the Russian peasant commune even without the consolidation of a
capitalist mode of production on Russian soil. Thrilling
thoughts, indeed, and further proof of these gentlemen not being academic
economists but revolutionary communists.

riff-raff, May 2004


1. C. f.  just for the sake of
clarity Marx in the Grundrisse (Harmonworth 1973) p. 257ff where he is arguing against an unhistorical notion of labor, labor per se, and stresses the
historical specific and determined form (alienated labor, wage labor) »without
which it is not capital».

2. Grundrisse, p. 307f

3. Barrot/Martin, The Eclipse and the Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement, p. 44

4. Ibid, p. 17