R. Palme Dutt

The Question of Fascism and Capitalist Decay

Source: The Communist International, Vol. XII, No. 14, July 20, 1935.
Publisher: Workers’ Library Publishers, New York.
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

IN a recent issue of The Communist International Comrade De Leov has raised one or two questions of fascism for discussion in connection with my book on Fascism and Social Revolution. This contribution is very welcome, as these questions need to be more fully discussed. In particular, his contribution raises two questions of interest:

1. The question of capitalist “decay”; the meaning of Lenin’s definition of imperialism as “decaying capitalism”; the role of fascism as a phenomenon of an advanced stage of this process in the period of the general crisis of capitalism; and, in particular, the role of fascism as a retrograde factor in relation to the development of the productive forces.

2. The question of the “inevitability” of the victory of Communism over capitalism and fascism, and the correct understanding of this inevitability is not automatic, not mechanical, but dependent on the human factor.

Both these basic conceptions of my book are brought into question by Comrade De Leov.

It should be explained that the general aim of my book on fascism as to analyze fascism on the basis of the whole present stage of capitalist development, following and carrying forward Lenin’s analysis of imperialism to the present stage, and showing in what sense fascism represents an extreme phenomenon of this process of capitalism in decay, whose guiding laws were already analyzed by Lenin.

For this purpose it was essential to show the increasing intensity of the conflict between the productive forces and the existing social forms of capitalism, which is characteristic of the process of decaying capitalism. The intensification of this conflict to the point of the first world war and the beginning of the world revolution since 1917 constitutes the general crisis of capitalism or the period of capitalist downfall. Within this period fascism represents the desperate attempt of the doomed capitalist class to maintain its power and overcome the contradictions by extreme violent means, and thus to maintain the existing social forms at the expense of the development of the forces of production, in particular: (1) to throttle the class struggle by suppression of all working class organizations; (2) to overcome the economic contradictions by active state intervention, so-called “planning”, subsidies, restrictions of production and trade, etc.; (3) to overcome the inner contradictions of the bourgeoisie by the unification of a single governmental party replacing the older political parties and divisions; (4) to overcome the international contradictions by intensified organization for war and world conquest.

The question now arises: (1) whether it is correct to analyze fascism in this way as an expression of an extreme stage of conflict between the shackling capitalist forms and the productive forces; (2) whether it is correct on this basis to show that the prolonged rule of fascism, if this were possible, if the dialectics of development did not in fact make it impossible, would inevitably mean the downward movement of society, not only culturally, but also materially in the level of technique and production; and whether the first germs of such downward tendencies have not already begun to appear in the development of modern world capitalism, in contrast to the upward movement of the Soviet Union; (3) whether it is correct in consequence to present in the sharpest possible form the “alternatives” confronting present society between the basically downward capitalist line and the upward socialist line, and whether such a presentment of “alternatives” is incompatible with the inevitability of the ultimate victory of Communism.

These are the underlying issues involved in Comrade De Leov’s criticism.

In order to answer these questions it is necessary to take in order the successive stages of the argument.

First, is it correct to state that the policies of fascism (both the policies of the countries of fascist dictatorship, and those policies like the Roosevelt emergency measures, etc., which we describe as “fascist” in character) are, basically and taken as a whole, retrograde in character and in conflict with the development of the productive forces, even though this basic retrograde character does not exclude particular rapid growths oŁ production for temporary phases or in particular branches?

There can be no question that this is correct; since fascism is only a particular form of modern monopoly capitalism under certain conditions, and the whole of monopoly capitalism is in fact a fetter on the development of the productive forces, such that the most general characterization of monopoly capitalism is decaying capitalism, and increasingly decaying capitalism.

“The monopolist form of capital increasingly develops the elements of parasitical degeneration, decay and decline of capitalism. . . . Monopoly capital reveals a tendency to retard the development of the forces of production.” (Program of the Communist International.)

“Like all monopoly, this capitalist monopoly infallibly gives rise to a tendency to stagnation and decay.” (Lenin, Imperialism, Chapter VIII.)

“The basis of the increase in technical decay in the postwar years is the general retarding of the growth of capitalist production.” (Mendelsen, New Material to Lenin’s “Imperialism”—quoted by De Leov.)

All this is familiar and not open to dispute.

Second, is it correct to state that the most modern policies of monopoly capitalism, expressed with especial clearness and sharpness in the policies of fascism (again taken in the widest sense, as above), reveal a strengthening of these decay-tendencies, of tendencies to obstruct and arrest technical progress and the development of the productive forces?

This is certainly correct in the light of the facts of modern world capitalism; and no particular examples of acceleration in this or that branch or for particular short-lived phases can contradict this general law of the dominant character of modern capitalism as being constituted by the increasing tendencies to decay, degeneration and decline, and not by the tendencies to new advance, ever greater expansion and new blooming, as in the Social-Democratic theories. Both tendencies can be traced in particular phases and situation; but the tendencies to decay, the retrograde tendencies continually grow stronger than before, and the tendenceis to advance grow weaker than before. (“The monopolist form of capital increasingly develops the elements of parasitical degeneration, decay and decline of capitalism”—C. I. Program.)[1] And fascism is precisely a sharp and intensified expression of this process, and a direct factor in carrying it forward.

In order to see more clearly the character and significance of this process, compare the elements of “decay” noted by Lenin twenty years ago, on the basis of the facts of imperialism before the World War, and the enormous further development of these elements of decay today. Lenin noted as particular evidence of decay:

1. Parasitism and the growth of the rentier and “rentier-State”;

2. The beginning of “the economic possibility of slowing down technical progress”, as instanced in trusts buying up inventions in order to suppress them.

Today after twenty years we are able to note as further features carrying this process forward:

1. Large-scale state-organized destruction of the productive forces and restriction of production;

2. Increased resistance to technical development and non-utilization of inventions, except in the military sphere, developing even into a widespread ideological hostility to inventions beginning to find expression in governmental, scientific, business and economic circles;

3. Development of the anti-scientific and anti-cultural campaign, cutting down of education, burning of books—also a form of destruction of the productive forces;

4. Chronic large-scale mass unemployment of a type previously unknown—again a deterioration and destruction of the productive forces;

5. Devotion of an increasing proportion of the productive forces to non-productive purposes connected with war preparation.

All these phenomena of present day capitalism, which receive their sharpest expression in fascism, are of the greatest significance for the process of increasing decay that is taking place.

Against this picture of present day capitalism in increasing decay, with fascism as at once an expression of this process and an accelerating factor, Comrade De Leov’s sole counter-argument from the world of facts—that Italian Fascism after thirteen years has not shattered Italian economy—is hardly an adequate argument or on the level of the real issues, any more than, for example, the old Social-Democratic argument of American prosperity in the nineteen-twenties “disproved” the general crisis of capitalism, or the fact that Hitler-Germany has entered its third year with a diminished unemployment “disproves” the thesis of the Communist International that Hitler is leading Germany to economic catastrophe.

Comrade De Leov quotes the Italian example in order to show—what is not in dispute—that fascism represents the policy of large-scale capital, and not the revolt of petty bourgeois policies against largescale capital, that the petty bourgeois propaganda of fascist ideology against large-scale capital is only demagogy, contrary to the practice. This is elementary, and is already pointed out a score of times in my book, where the petty bourgeois propaganda against large-scale capital and advanced technique is constantly referred to with sneers as “infantile propaganda” (p. 50), exploited by finance capital to “befog” the masses, and exactly contrary to the practice. Comrade De Leov, however, in his anxiety to expose this “infantile propaganda”, fails to see the deeper issue raised in my book, which is a more serious and difficult issue, viz., in what direction the policy of large-scale capital is developing under the conditions of increasing decay, how the ever larger-scale potential productive forces beat against the barriers of the restricted monopolist areas (example from the technical journal, the Automobile Engineer, on the impossibility of using economically some of the most advanced high-production machinery save in the Soviet Union), how the consequent intensified conflict to enlarge the monopolist areas leads to actual increased restriction and limitation, and how in this way the policies of large-scale capital, in spite of themselves, begin to show the first signs of undermining the basis of large-scale technique, thus carrying to a still further stage the process of decay. Germs of this process—only germs so far, but very significant germs-can be traced in the example already quoted from the Automobile Engineer (pp. 1-3), in the gigantic organized restriction schemes without parallel in previous economic history (pp. 43-48), in the experimental anti-machine legislation in certain non-strategic industries in fascist Germany (cigarmaking and glass-blowing, pp. 52-53), in the Philadelphia substitution of hand labor for machinery (only municipal, p. 52), in the American drive to subsistence agriculture, in the British unemployed centers for teaching skilled industrial workers handicraft, and in the British drive to settle the surplus city workers in small-scale agriculture. All these decay-symptoms are drawn from the objective realities of the present day policies of imperialism, and not from the petty bourgeois “infantile propaganda” which Comrade De Leov appears to see alone as the problem.

Certainly, the correct analysis of these symptoms within the total process of world capitalist development raises many difficulties, of which the present writer is strongly aware. If the process of capitalist decay were a simple straight line, there would be no need of Marxist science to discern the inner tendencies, which would be obvious to the empirical observer. But Comrade De Leov appears to overlook these new problems of interest in the most recent developments of imperialism, which require further analysis, and remains rather on the level of simply exposing the petty bourgeois “infantile propaganda” of fascist demagogy, a question which has already been settled and hardly requires further discussion. Lenin noted the tendencies of decay as the main, decisive, defining characteristic of monopoly capitalism, and added the proviso that this decay should not be misunderstood as “excluding” the “possibility of rapid growth” of particular “branches of production”, “strata of the bourgeoisie” or “individual countries”. Comrade De Leov places in the forefront the proviso with regard to the “possibility of rapid growth” within the general process of decay, but fails to give equal attention to he main definition and to consider carefully the significance of Lenin’s denoting the decay-tendencies as the “distinctive characteristics” of monopoly capitalism. If, then, we wish to carry forward Lenin’s analysis of imperialism today on the basis of twenty years’ further working out of its inner tendencies, we need to look first and foremost for the stage reached in the further working out of what Lenin designated as the “distinctive characteristics” of imperialism—the tendencies to decay.

We come now to the third question which follows from the other two. If these signs of increasing tendencies to decay are seen in present day capitalism, and are most strongly expressed in fascism, is it correct and permissible, for purposes of theoretical analysis, not as prediction, to prolong hypothetically the line of these decay-tendencies, in order to show where they would reach, if continued unbroken in a straight line, that is, if the dialectics of development and struggle did not in fact make such ultimate working out impossible?

On one condition this is not only permissible, but is of the greatest importance for our agitation and propaganda, in order to awaken realization to the significance of these decay-tendencies and the urgent necessity of the socialist revolution. The one condition is that the real dialectics of the situation must be simultaneously shown, the real counter-forces of the increasing contradictions generated by this development, which make inevitable the real ultimate outcome to be, not the indefinite prolongation of the capitalist decay, but the victory of the socialist revolution.

Is this condition carried out in my book? Yes. In every case of the theoretical analysis of the line of the decay-tendencies, to show the meaning of that line and where it is tending, it is again and again pointed out to weariness that such an analysis is hypothetical, in order to awaken realization of the meaning of these tendencies, and that the actual dialectical process will necessarily lead to a different outcome. This is particularly the case with the tenth chapter, on “The Essence of Fascism—the Organization of Social Decay”, which is the main chapter dealing with this analysis and which is covered with warning sentences to show the abstract hypothetical character of such an analysis and to guard against misunderstanding. These repeated warning sentences are overlooked by Comrade De Leov.[2]

It is in this chapter that occurs the quotation of an imaginative picture of capitalist society falling into extreme decay and break-up from the petty bourgeois Socialist, Scott Nearing, whose theories are criticized elsewhere in the book. This picture is expressly declared to be undialectical and impossible of realization; but it is quoted as a valuable stimulus to imaginative realization of where the line of imperialist decay would ultimately reach, if it had free run, if it did not meet with resistance, and what would therefore constitute the only “alternative” to the socialist revolution (to this question of presentment of the issue in the form of “alternatives” we shall return in a moment). Comrade De Leov finds this use of a basically incorrect imaginative picture by a petty bourgeois Socialist impermissible. For answer on this point, reference may be made to Lenin’s use in his Imperialism (Chapter VIII) of a basically incorrect imaginative hypothetical picture by the “Social Liberal” Hobson, whose theories are criticized elsewhere in his book. Hobson draws in very graphic terms a hypothetical future picture of a Western Europe turned completely parasitic, after the fashion of the Riviera, with only wealthy rentiers, their professional retainers and tradesmen, personal servants and workers in light industry and transport, while all heavy industry and food production would have been transferred to the colonies; “the main arterial industries would have disappeared, the staple foods and manufactures flowing in as tribute from Asia and Africa”. The picture is of course basically incorrect, and only of value for theoretical analysis in hypothetical form to show the significance of the tendency of parasitism, if worked out to its logical extreme. What is the comment of Lenin on this picture which he quotes at length? Does he denounce the basically false assumptions underlying this hypothetical “picture of the future” from the Social Liberal Hobson, proclaim its impossibility, insist on the inevitability of Socialism, etc.? On the contrary, he says quite simply:

“Hobson is quite right. If the forces of imperialism do not meet with resistance, they will lead to what he has described.”

Finally, to come to the question of “inevitability”. Since the victory of Communism is inevitable, how is it possible to present the issue confronting mankind today as if it were a question of two “alternatives”, as if there were two alternative paths before society to choose from, “Either . . . Or”, “Either the downward capitailst line or the upward socialist line”, “Either to throttle still further the productive forces or to release them”, “Either down to destruction with capitalism or forward with socialism”, etc., etc.?

Here is a dilemma for the formal logician to break his head on, but it ought not to cause difficulty to a dialectician.

It is the very heart of the revolutionary Marxist understanding of inevitability that it has nothing in common with the mechanical fatalism of which our opponents incorrectly accuse us. The inevitability of revolutionary Marxism is realized in practice through living human wills given social conditions, consciously reacting to those conditions, and consciously choosing their line between alternative possibilities seen by them within the given conditions. “Man makes his own history, but not out of the whole cloth.”

We are able scientifically to predict the inevitable outcome, because we are able to analyze the social conditions governing the consciousness, and the line of development of those social conditions. We are able to analyze the growth of contradictions, and the consequent accumulation of forces generating ever greater revolutionary consciousness and will of the exploited majority, until they become strong enough to overcome all obstacles and conquer. We are able with scientific precision to lay down the certainty that every failure, every choosing of an incorrect path, can only be temporary, because the outcome can in no wise solve the contradictions generating the revolutionary consciousness and will, and these contradictions therefore can only lead to renewed and intensified struggle, up to final victory. This process is inevitable. (But what of the difficulty, asks Comrade De Leov, that, if the ultimate working out of the process of capitalst decay to its logical—not dialectical—conclusion would mean the increasing destruction of the productive forces, then this would mean the destruction of the premises for the proletarian victory and for Communism? The answer is the same in principle as with regard to the theory of ultra-imperialism; hypothetically, logically, the extreme prolongation of the line of capitalist decay would lead to this conclusion; but in reality the increasing contradictions generated by this process will lead to the victory of the world revolution before any such stage can be reached).

But the human consciousness of the participants in this inevitable process is not the consciousness of automatic cogs in a predetermined mechanism. It is the consciousness of living active human beings, revolting against intolerable evils, deliberately with thought and passion choosing an alternative, doing and daring all to achieve a new world, and ready to give their lives in the fight because of their intense desire by such action to help to make the achievement of the goal possible. This fighting revolutionary consciousness is by no means bowing to an inevitable outcome, but is most actively seeking to tip the balance and make certain by action the victory of one alternative and the defeat of another alternative. Every revolutionary worth his salt acts in every stage of the fight as if the whole future of the revolution depended on his action. And in presenting the issues of the present stage to the masses today we present them not at all as placid inevitabilities to contemplate like the movement of the stars, but as gigantic issues of fight with the whole future of humanity at stake, calling for the utmost determination, courage, sacrifice and invincible will to conquer.

This is the essence of the revolutionary Marxist understanding of inevitability, and is one of the central issues of division between Bolshevism and Menshevism.

It is precisely the passive Menshevik Social-Democratic view which seen the historical process as an automatic mechanical inevitability, independent of human will and action, i.e., of human conscious choice between alternatives, as itself a historical factor, which is incapable of seeing the enormous creative power of the masses in action to change the course of history, which sneers at the urgency and insistence typified in Lenin’s declaration that “delay means death”, and thus inevitably leads to passivity and impotence in the name of a philistine distortion of Marxism. This outlook is dangerous and needs to be actively fought. The alternative error, of too sharply presenting the alternatives in order to awaken revolutionary consciousness and will and determination to fight and conquer and prevent the victory of the class enemy, is by comparison less dangerous, so long as the theoretical foundations of the inevitable ultimate victory of Communism are correctly understood.


1. Care should be taken to distinguish this analysis of the increasing tendencies to decay in modern capitalism from the theory of “permanent crisis” which Comrade De Leov incorrectly attributes to me through a misapprehension. He bases this charge on a passage, written in 1933, which, in accordance with international analysis at that time, ascribes the upward movement of 1933 to factors of war preparation, inflation and emergency state measures of a war type. But delays in publication till the summer of 1934 (which enabled certain new sections to be added without changing the other older material) led to this passage appearing at a time when Comrade Stalin’s definition of the “peculiar type of depression” had given the correct analysis. This passage has of course been corrected in subsequent editions.

2. It is, however, true that the expression “final alternative” on pp. 228-9 is open to misunderstanding, as Comrade De Leov’s criticism has shown, although the context should have made the line of the thought clear (i.e., that it is the logical “final alternative” which the supporter of the existing decaying order and opponent of revolution is thereby choosing as his preference).