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The New International, September 1944

Committee Abroad of the IKD

Capitalist Barbarism or Socialism

On the Development of Declining Capitalism, and
On the Situation, Tasks and Perspectives of the Labor Movement



From The New International, Vol. X No. 9, September 1944, pp. 275–284.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The following work on the development taking place in declining capitalism and its significance for the labor movement was written between the end of May and the beginning of September 1943. The presentation revolves around certain opinions that we have of the essence of imperialism, and which (for the purpose of speedy mutual understanding among us and because everything must be given a name) we have called for the past twelve years “the theory of the retrogressive movement.” By this we mean: In the last stage of imperialism, the economy, the politics and so forth of bourgeois society develop backward in a peculiar manner. The course, the results, the perspectives of this “backward development” – these are the themes with which we deal.

Originally, this presentation was directly bound up with the discussion over the so-called “national question.” Two years ago (in the December 1942 issue) our Three Theses appeared in the Fourth International. Comrade Max Shachtman referred repeatedly to these Three Theses in The New International (they were reprinted here in London too by the then still “unofficial” group of the Workers International League). When they were finally published in the Fourth International (they actually date back to October 19, 1941) they were accompanied by a criticism of Comrades Morrow and Morrison. In his article, Comrade Morrow explicitly called upon us to answer his criticism and to think out our position “to its ultimate implication.” Although belatedly, as a result of unfavorable conditions, we fulfilled his request gladly. In this sense, consequently, our work had its origin in the request of Comrade Morrow. After its completion, however, we abbreviated it considerably and eliminated the entire polemic for the most variegated reasons (obstacles placed in the way of its translation, difficulties encountered in publication, daily increasing gulf between the criticism and the reply, etc.). In so far as certain objections are still dealt with in general, they are of an anonymous, general, illustrative, and not particularly polemical nature. In brief: we confine ourselves here to presenting our position as a whole as well as we can. The entire document should be considered simply as an essay, such as may be written at any time in the interests of theoretical orientation.

That the questions dealt with here are of the greatest importance for the socialist movement, is beyond doubt. Naturally: we lay claim neither to the perfection of the presentation, nor to having proclaimed “unassailable truths.” Our views may be wrong, mistakes of fact may have occurred, etc. But on this score, we can be instructed only if we submit to open criticism. In this respect, a few words remain to be said:

Thirteen months – the period between the termination and the publication of our work – are a long time. The leadership of the Socialist Workers Party could not be persuaded in this period to assist us and to take over its publication. For our part, we have no intention of breaking out into loud complaints about the “bureaucratism” of the Socialist Workers Party leadership. Rather, we are of this opinion: Bureaucratism is always the symptom of a great political weakness and can be overcome only politically. Events are placing on the order of the day political decisions of the greatest purport. Whoever wants to remain behind must take the consequences upon his own shoulders. The SWP leadership’s superciliousness toward the stepchildren of the movement in Europe who are weighed down by “defeat”, is no proof of its ability to endure the trial by fire. In any case: we have no more time to lose and we hand this work over to The New International all the more gladly because Max Shachtman was practically the only American comrade who (a) recognized the importance for the International of the questions raised in the Three Theses as far back as the time when they were written down (that is, in the autumn of 1941); and (b) pursued these questions energetically and worked out what is in our opinion a correct position. And that is all that is involved.

September 1944

(International Communists of Germany)

I – Declining Capitalism or ...?

Imperialism is declining, disintegrating, rotting, agonizing capitalism. The purely verbal acknowledgment of this definition is general. If, however, it is taken for what it is, that is, as a declaration that is concrete, well defined in content and weighty in consequences, substantial difficulties are most often immediately encountered. The commonest objection that is then raised against a formula like “retrogressive development of economy,” sounds something like this: “Retrogressive development is nonsense – the development goes further and thereby creates ever new forms.”

Stagnation or Retrogression

The thoughtlessness that dominates this argument is obvious. Nobody of course conceives of the retrogressive development as a “dissolution” of capitalism into pre-capitalist forms of production. But taking this for granted, the mere assumption of a stagnation already embraces within itself a retrogression. With the famous grain of salt of the ancients, Marxists should speak of the “retrogressive development of capitalist economy” if only because the decay of capitalism in no wise takes place “without rule or regulation,” but is subject to the same laws that were immanent in its rise as well as in its highest development.

As a matter of fact, every organism, upon reaching maturity, brings along with it out of its midst also those conditions that disintegrate it, that bring about its decay and putrefaction, and “redevelop” it more and more toward its original state. In the course of this process, to be sure, it marks out again more plainly certain features; and while, on the one hand, these features had never left it, on the other hand they were more characteristic of the period of its birth, or its early age or childhood. Such features (nothing more) sometimes even go back into the distant past, and that means here: to overcome economic forms. This is provided for by the mere fact that there never were and never will be any pure economic forms in general and “pure” capitalism in particular. Just from the impossibility of pure economic forms the two laws arise that regulate everything else and which decisively influence both the rise and decline of capitalism. We refer to (a) the law of uneven and (b) of combined development. For the moment, it suffices to say: It is unmistakable and most significant for capitalism that the violent-catastrophic character of the period of its origin predominates in it almost exclusively again in the period of its decay.

The Question of the Quality of the New Forms

In view of the neglect of economic questions, this point is important enough to circle around a little closer.

Lenin’s definition of imperialism is affirmed; the “over-ripeness” of capitalism is spoken of in a thousand articles and resolutions; documents are sworn by in which (written by Trotsky) may be read: “Capitalism has ceased to increase the material wealth of humanity”; “after the seizure of power, the proletariat will have to pay for the work of economic destruction of capitalism,” etc. This and much more already enjoys the status of the commonplace and – therewith everything apparently seems to be in the best of order. For when the attempt is made not to leave the “work of destruction” simply to itself but to grasp it as a retrogressive development or “retrogressive movement,” you run right into the pedantic-schoolmasterly forefinger in the shape of the “ever new forms.”

Due deference to the new forms. They have their place and their significance. The question is, what position do they occupy and whether they can alter the situation. Were the latter the case, then everything would be very simple.

“As is known,” however, the advance of Marxism over bourgeois science is based precisely upon first disregarding apparent or real exceptions from the rule, upon considering the process as a whole, and only then showing how the observed deviations are nevertheless subject to the fundamental laws.

What is taking place before our very eyes and slipping into “ever new forms” is nothing but the “daily practice” (if you please) of the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation that Marx described. All that must be remembered is that this description, like all schematic illustrations, represents the so-to-speak “ideal” and not the real course of development. In reality, Marxism, in conformance with the dialectical method, is a doctrine of quality which explains the development as well as the decay of the capitalist mode of production by its internal contradictions, and in doing so endeavors constantly to fix the point where the quantitative growth of a phenomenon becomes decisive for the appraisal of the situation as a whole, that is, where quantity turns into quality.

Negative Definition

This other quality does not necessarily have to be of a “positive” nature. [1] If we come, in the investigation of a given organism – in our case, of imperialism – to the conclusion, anticipated in general by Marx and concretely drawn at least by all Marxists, that monopoly has become a fetter on the mode of production which bloomed with it and under it, that, therefore, the “productive forces have ceased to grow” (Trotsky), then we are obviously confronted with a turn of things on the “negative” or declining side. To put it differently: The definitive disintegration, putrefaction, stunting or “retrogressive development” of the organisms starts at the very moment when they have passed their highest degree of maturity. The antagonism inherent in them then experiences its uttermost accentuation and must destroy them.

Applied to capitalism this means: If in its “transformation period” it cannot be delivered at the right time from its antagonism and carried over into socialism, then its further existence may be considered and evaluated singly and exclusively from the standpoint of its inner decomposition. And what is then to be studied, and provided with practical conclusions, are only the forms in which the decomposition is carried through and consummated, despite the frequently contrary appearances. [2]

This argument has at least a glimmer of justification in so far as the decline, just like the rise, is not at every given moment a transparent, rectilinear, uninterrupted process, but a complicated, contradictory, relapsing and skipping process. Examined more closely. It stands exposed, however, as a tactically modified attempt to be inconsistent and to save the “development in ever new forms” through a corruption of the dialectic. For, however much every advance can even must be regarded as a retrogression in another connection, and in the same way every retrogression also as an advance, all this tells us very little about the self-movement of a thing itself. There is certainly more genuine dialectics than is dreamed of in the “common sense” in the person of a Burnham, in an ordinary sentence like: “With his conception, Man takes the first step to his grave.” Such general knowledge has practical value precisely because it gives us a better approach to the essence of the becoming of Man (birth, maturity and death). However, anyone who is incapable of going beyond “outline knowledge” and keeping in strict touch with every step to the grave that only makes up Man as a whole – who does not understand how to concentrate upon the thing itself, upon the given stage of its development and its quality (embryo, child, youth, man, grayhead, grayhead turned child again, etc.), will also grope in the dark with respect to the tendency of his future development. He may succeed in making his way through daily life with great effort and difficulty and with much routine – but faced with essential questions, he will remain just as helpless as the “common” Burnham.

Retrogressive Development and Two Objections

In point of fact, there will be a great difference of conceptions, depending on whether the theory of imperialism as capitalism in decline is made one’s firm foundation, or one simply does without foundations altogether.

We proceed resolutely from the self-decomposition of monopoly capitalism and arrive first of all at the recognition of those economically and politically equally important phenomena of decay that were already enumerated (even if far from completely) in the Three Theses. To illustrate our position, let us take the following sentences from the first thesis:

“The prisons; new ghettos; the labor, forced labor, concentration and war-prisoners’ camps are not only transitional political-military establishments, they are just as much forms of an exploitation which accompanies the economic development toward a modern slave state and is intended as the permanent fate of a considerable percentage of mankind ... The economic ruin is accompanied by a callous destruction of human lives and values and a migration of peoples of colossal extent. ‘Resettlements,’ transfer of workers, etc., which amounts to hundreds of thousands, follow the movement of armies of millions ... So mechanization with progressing capitalist application leads itself ad absurdum. The methods of destruction which are supposed to solve the crisis and lead to a solution, force production of further means of destruction and cause tremendous economic disproportions which subject the whole world. England and America answer German expansion with a rearming which is to surpass any previously known and again set back the production of consumption goods ... Uneven development is recapitulated in the whole world and along with it, agricultural production decreases constantly.”

Among this and other descriptions, it then says explicitly: “... All this is the result of a process which began a long time ago and only increases in intensity in the present war. Far from being ‘planned organization,’ this process follows laws of compulsion and seeks to break through by force, where it cannot shake off, the competition on the international scale.”

First Objection

Against this, one can raise two objections, the treatment of which carries us a step further even though they rest upon well known quibbling. The first objection refers to the expression “slave state.” We are given lectures on the Egyptian slave state, which go right over our heads for the sufficient reason that, in distinction from the Egyptian and other slave states, we talk about the modern slave state. However, we will make a preliminary concession. Cross out the words “modern slave state” and simply read: “... forms of an exploitation which accompanies the economic development and is intended as the permanent fate of a considerable percentage of mankind.”

What has been altered by this manipulation? Nothing! A designation, for which one may find a better, has disappeared – what it was meant to describe has remained. Here, too, the inherent difficulty will be overcome only if we think back upon the impossibility of pure economic forms. The minute the proletarian (for that matter, not he alone), who is rightly characterized under capitalism too as a “wage slave,” loses his right to strike, his freedom of movement and all political rights, he ceases to be the classic “free” proletarian whom rising capitalism required for its development and whom it “established” with the crudest methods of violence in numbers sufficient to its purpose. Putrefying capitalism, although it continues to remain capitalism, nevertheless strengthens in its decline all the features which make up its “impurity” and point back toward its early stages. It transforms itself, the state and the proletarians to a substantial degree, that is, capitalism turns from progression to regression, the state becomes totalitarian, the proletarian a modern slave.

The modern slave is much less different politically from the slave of antiquity than appears at first glance. Deprived of his political rights, robbed of his possibilities of organization, the lash-turned-revolver at his back, chained to a prescribed place, he no longer appears as the free seller of his labor power (this becomes increasingly the exception to the former rule), he is either barracked or subjected to direct state exploitation on a mass scale (and only because this is the case can the phenomenon of the modern slave tell us something about the character of the state and the economic development), or else “placed at the disposal” of private exploitation under state compulsion and at compulsory rates set by the state.

What is involved is an inescapable consequence of the whole preceding development. Do not imagine that this “feature of enslavement” that long ago established itself in Europe will simply come to a halt before the gates of the U.S.A. The virginal American workers (and again, not they alone!) have already lost a great deal – they should be taught that within the framework of the general retrogression they are nevertheless being shoved along the solid, well grooved European roads. In other words: the development toward the modern slave state is a world phenomenon which arises out of capitalist putrefaction. You can call this phenomenon whatever you judge best – but that will definitely not rid you of the matter itself.

Second Objection

An attempt to get rid of it nevertheless is constituted by the second objection, which is directed against the economic-political significance of the concentration camps, the forced-labor camps, the war-prisoners’ camps, etc., themselves. The existence, and even the “significance,” of these phenomena cannot be denied. But they are treated as what they are not only transitional political-military establishments, simply measures and institutions for war preparation. They have nothing to do with economic development – at most only as war preparation. The contention that they are intended as the permanent fate of a considerable percentage of mankind, is ridiculous. As usual, an “exception” is discovered, which, in the imagination of the naive annuls all. The alleged exception is the word “war prisoners.” Because there were already war prisoners in the previous war; because they were drawn into work at that time too; because the war-prisoners’ camps were nevertheless dissolved at the end of the war and the prisoners sent home ... therefore we are refuted, and the contention of exploitive forms as concomitants of the development to the modern slave state, including the contention of its “durability,” is absurd.

The story of the war prisoners is, to be sure, one which is liquidated by itself by showing that it does not terminate at the point where the schoolbooks give no further answer. We have seen how the development to the modern slave state takes place also quite independently of the particular phenomenal forms out of which we adduced it (as conspicuously concrete proof). In exactly the same way, the special forms of exploitation and enslavement exist now quite independently of whether we were mistaken about the “war prisoners” or not.

Cross out the war prisoners. What has been altered by this manipulation? Nothing! One of the forms has disappeared – the phenomenon and its significance for the “enslavement” remains.

It is known that the German “economic miracle” (primarily the elimination of unemployment) was accomplished as a preparation for the Second Imperialist World War, by means of the extension and construction of the so-called industry of destruction. It is known that America, in the course of the same endeavors since its entry into the war, has almost succeeded in making unemployment “disappear.” But on the one side, much too little attention is paid to the importance of the r61e that the German camp-system played precisely in the matter of eliminating unemployment. On the other hand, however, it would be a crass blunder to regard the German camp-system as a specifically German affair. On the contrary! Germany had many models (in Italy, in the Balkans, in Russia) for the modern methods of oppression and exploitation. It is a question of forms, appearing after the First World War and taking on an ever greater mass character, which have spread throughout the earth and like everything else only increases in the present war (as for example, in America, where the measures taken against the Japanese appear as a direct consequence of the war).

We live in the epoch of imperialism, which is, par définition, the epoch of wars, revolutions and (unfortunately also) counter-revolutions. We can explain absolutely nothing and only move in the familiar “vicious circle,” if we deny the “permanent” character of the camp-system, as well as its growing significance as a future form of exploitation, and depict is as a measure taken for the preparation of the war or else as a purely war measure in general.

A fine circle indeed: to refer to the war for the measures, and to the measures for the war! It follows from the mere definition of imperialism why counter-revolution and war become ever more exclusively the “normal state” of humanity, the further the putrefaction goes as a consequence of revolutionary weakness. Right after the First World War, which speeded the general breakthrough of the “great sickness,” imperialism reproduced and increased everything that could be explained up to then as mere war measures or as occasional, isolated political measures.

The social antagonisms are always operative, the war is always their consequence; hence, measures and their abolition, pressure and counter-pressure, follow in constant succession. However, it is only imperialism that brings both measures and pressures into a special system (fascism as an international phenomenon belongs under this heading) and inundates the earth more and more with “phenomena” such as concentration camps, political prisons, solitary prisons, labor service, forced labor, forced migrations, punitive expeditions against workers and peasants, mass executions, extermination of all (and therefore also of bourgeois) opposition, eradication of all rights, bureaucratic command and bureaucratic arbitrariness, spydom and stoolpigeonry, police-military surveillance of the people, etc., ad infinitum. These phenomena may be distributed in accordance with the state of the (always uneven) development or the national coloration of the different countries – they are nevertheless omnipresent, and short of the socialist revolution they can no longer be conceived of as non-existent in the life of the modern nations. What were formerly “measures” or isolated cases, now become lasting institutions and mass phenomena. They are equally significant from the political and economic, the social and military standpoints, and can be separated from each other, at most, in the “mind,” but not any longer in the reality.

It is a veritable transformation of quantity into quality that has occurred. For just as the war becomes the “mode of existence” of the peoples and is ever more total, universal and intensive, so naturally also do the measures that prepare it, the consequences that accompany it, the far-reaching changes that it produces. “With reasoned understanding and understanding reason,” it will therefore be necessary also to count precisely the war-prisoners’ camps among those institutions that are becoming permanent and whose economic significance has been transformed profoundly in comparison with the First World War. The war prisoners nowadays are put at the service of the total warfare in an entirely different manner than in the previous World War, when they were almost exclusively employed for mere auxiliary services.

II – The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation
in Putrefying Capitalism

The next step in the elucidation of our position consists in the treatment of a point which plays an enormous role in the Three Theses as the “quintessence” of our conception. This point is theoretically anchored in the question of capitalist accumulation. It will permit the basic tendency to appear clearly and so bring the “retrogressive development” and feature of enslavement into the right light.

In this, we simply assume that the more specific problem of accumulation has been clarified. The dispute over this problem has, it is true, continued unabated since the appearance of Rosa Luxemburg’s book, but for Marxists there is good reason for this (regardless of the absolute necessity of participating in the discussion). It is a complex problem for all its simplicity, and the conscious and unconscious lackeys of the bourgeoisie (the Stalinists included) have been hard at work to muddle it up. We will yet strike the trail of the mystery when we turn to the “historical tendency of capitalist accumulation” described by Marx, and follow it concretely.

Marx’s Presentation of the Question

In the famous, and therefore all the less understood, passage on the subject, Marx says:

“As soon as ... the capitalist mode of production stands on its own feet ... the further expropriation of private proprietors takes a new form. That which is now to be expropriated is no longer the laborer working for himself, but the capitalist exploiting many laborers. This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalist production itself, by the centralization of capital. One capitalist always kills many ... Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital ... grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor at least reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.

As always with Marx, these apparently “abstract” sentences push forward a tremendous concrete content, and are formed by an incomparable genius which, on the one hand, applies the definition of the tendency vaguely enough in order to be able to encompass all “unforeseen” intermediate links [3], but, on the other hand, definite enough to exclude radically any other development but the one given. The center of gravity of the investigation lies, with Marx, in the following assertion: “Capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation.”

Marx rightly sought to fix the “knell of capitalist private property” naturally, and placed the negation at the point where, in his own words, a handful of usurpers confront the masses of the people. And in the historical reality, the development has indeed long ago reached the point where not only does one capitalist kill off many, but where the point of negation “ideally” defined in Marx’s analysis likewise finds practical confirmation in the victory of the Russian Revolution.

The question arises: What happens if, in this stage of monopoly-capitalistic maturity, the world revolution is crushed or – regardless of what the reasons for it – cannot be accomplished? Does the development stand still then, or does it proceed in undefined directions?

The mere putting of this question is sufficient to show the absurdity of all attempts to resist the conception of the “retrogressive movement.” For it is then that the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation forces its way through in a new stage of development (which Marx was neither required to foresee nor to take into consideration in the theoretical analysis) with an even greater brutality and intensity which makes everything that went before it look like mere prelude, because everything that hitherto hampered its “blindly operating average” is now trampled under foot by a bourgeoisie conscious of its mortal peril.

In considering this new stage – it is the stage of imperialist putrefaction and agony that generally preoccupies us – we can less than ever overlook the fact that Marx traced the collapse of the capitalist mode of production to accumulation itself, by demonstrating that it is this accumulation that constantly narrows the living space of capitalism out of its own self (independently of the question of the extension of the market). It is therefore no foreign force that devours capitalism, but (to use a term from Hegel) “its own nature.”

Only when this is grasped and held to firmly can the most common mistake be avoided, which rests upon a complete misunderstanding of Marxism, and which consists in conceiving the negation of capitalism only as the task of the proletarian revolution (although it is “generated” by it, to be sure). The creation of an industrial proletariat by capitalism, called upon to overturn it, is certainly part of the material premises, though which and with which the capitalist mode of production also generates its own negation. But this is only one side of the question. The expropriation of the capitalists that accomplishes itself through the interplay of the immanent laws of capitalist production; the monopoly of capital as a fetter on this mode of production, which flourished with it and under it; the natural necessity of the process of its own negation, etc. – these are the other sides, which must be understood entirely in the material sense as just so many premises of the self-negation.

This means: capitalism generates its material negation even if the proletarian revolution fails to take place. It is precisely this deepest aspect of the nature of capitalism (with the grasping of which we have also caught up with the mystery, revealed by Marx, of the specific problem of accumulation) that puts the proletarian class before the categorical imperative: Accomplish the revolution – or suffer the penalty of ruin! It is not arbitrariness, but an all-embracing perception that makes Marx emphasize in this passage, next to the growth of misery and exploitation, the growth of oppression, slavery, degradation.

Self-Negation in the Historical Reality

In the historical reality, the material self-abolition of capitalism is already prepared for concretely by that new form of the expropriation of the private proprietors which has as its content the centralization of capital and the killing off of the many capitalists by the few. Marx’s presentation can now be resumed from the start and followed up in correspondence with the new stage of development. Then it must be said:

As soon as this process of transformation has sufficiently decomposed monopoly capitalism in depth and scope (and that has been taking place from the outbreak of the First Imperialist World War up to the Second), the further expropriation of the private proprietors once more takes on a new form. What is now to be expropriated is no longer the capitalist exploiting many workers, but the nation exploited by a handful of monopolists. This expropriation is accomplished by the interplay of the immanent laws of monopoly-capitalist development itself, by the centralization of the most important industries in the highly-capitalist countries. One capitalist nation kills off many. Hand in hand with this centralization or the expropriation of many nations by the few, the state-compulsory-regulated form of the labor process develops on a constantly growing scale, so does the conscious technical application of science for the purpose of limiting and destroying certain branches of production in favor of others, the planfully contracted exploitation of the earth (in the first place, by the devaluation, effected by the progress of science, of such sources of raw materials, and the industries based upon them, that make up the wealth of other nations; in the second place, by contracting, shutting down and destroying precisely those branches of production that threaten the maintenance of monopoly on this level at home and abroad); the limitation of means of work that can be employed only in common, only to means of work permitted by the state; the economizing of all means of production for the production of means of destruction, defense and domination; the swallowing-up of all peoples in the net of capitalist decomposition; and therewith the internationally destructive character of imperialist rule.

With the constantly declining number of monopoly-capitalist nations, which usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this transformation process, there grows further the mass of misery, of oppression, of bondage, of deprivation, of exploitation, which are joined by the wiping out of political freedom, physical extirpation, subjugation and enslavement. The industrial monopoly of a few countries becomes the direct source of destruction of the mode of production, which flourished with it and under it. The masses of the people in these countries, like the masses of the other peoples, are violently thrust back by it into those conditions from which the development of capitalism once redeemed them (in great part by the use of violence): out of slavery, bondage, lack of national independence, industrial dependency and backwardness, into industrial backwardness and dependency, lack of national independence, bondage and slavery.

The rebellion of the working class, which has been hurled back by the mechanism of imperialism into a state of unorganization, dismembered, atomized, split up, counterposed to each other in its various strata, politically demoralized internationally isolated and controlled (and whose organizations have been eviscerated, corrupted, paralyzed, decimated with the aid of their imperialistically-degenerated leadership, and which are finally smashed and extirpated along with every kind of bourgeois organization and opposition), likewise assumes a new form under the new conditions. It becomes more comprehensive and general; it finds a mighty prop in the rebellion of the peoples and nations who are suppressed, thrust back, oppressed, enslaved and levelled through the monopoly of the few nations, but by the same token also united against this monopoly and schooled by its mechanism; and it restores the shredded internationalism of the movement upon a more universal plane. Still more: it prepares the ground for the “classic ideal” of the labor movement, for the accomplishment of the proletarian revolution as a simultaneous world-revolution. The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labor reaches a point where they invade the foundations of the capitalist mode of production itself, where the capacity of accumulation collides with its internal limits and convulses the whole social structure from top to bottom. They become incompatible with the co-existence of developed capitalist nations. They burst their international integument and prepare a further step in the material self-abolition of capitalism by “transplanting” the important industries of the subjugated nations to the subjugating “motherland” and converting capitalist nations of the “hinterland” in a colonial and semi-colonial sense. The knell of monopoly-capitalist private property sounds. The monopolistic expropriators are expropriated. The capitalist mode of production begets its own negation with the inexorability of a process in nature, even if the socialist revolution fails to come.

Next Perspectives

This is the deepest essence of the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation. It is from this essence alone that the alternative is derived: socialist revolution or barbarism. The end of all civilization is no puerile bugaboo; it is a scientific prognosis which has already assumed terrible reality and yet is merely at its inception. With every passing day it will only become a more terrible reality, for (once more to summarize in Marx’s way): the transformation of capitalist nations into industrially dependent countries, into colonies and semi-colonies, is of course a process that is incomparably more violent, sanguinary, cruel, destructive and difficult than the transformation of liberal capitalism into imperialism. It is a process that appears before us as the horrible battle for self-preservation of a society doomed to death, and harks back in reverse order to the end of the Middle Ages, the epoch of “primitive accumulation,” the Thirty Years’ War, the bourgeois revolutions, etc. In those days it was a question of smashing an outlived economic form and of winning the independence of nations – now it is a question of abolishing independence and of shifting society back to the barbarism of the Middle Ages.

It is not for nothing that the Three Theses begin and end with the assurance: “This is a war of long duration, which must completely destroy all human culture, if the rebellion of the masses does not end it.” The socialist revolution has always been placed before the proletariat as a task whose solution was to save humanity from ruin. As a result of the “halfway measures, weaknesses, paltriness of its first attempts” (Marx), impeded in its course, the socialist revolution receded before the counter-revolution and therewith did its share in paving the road for the putrefaction of society. But with the accentuation of the problem, and the international collapse of capitalism, there is also once more a sharpening of the conditions which contain within themselves the solution. Putrefying capitalism is counterposing itself to the entire world. It simplifies the problem of the proletarian revolution by its accentuation: it now appears as the saving solution, which is the direct task of humanity itself.

The war has “in ever-increasing tempo changed the economic, political and social face of the earth.” Thus the Three Theses. Profound convulsions follow profound changes. Woe to those who remain stuck in traditionalistic half-way measures, weaknesses, paltriness and who understand the living spirit of the times as if it were (in Goethe’s words) miserable “Gentlemen’s own spirit, in which the times are reflected as in a mirror.” For the last time, guided by Marx: There it is a question of the expropriation of the monopolists of many nations by the few monopolists in the “usurper nations”; here it is a question of the expropriation of a few monopolists in the usurper nations by the masses of the people from India to America, from Africa to Norway, from Australia to Germany, from China to the Balkans, from Russia to England ...

III – The Economic-Political Background
of the Retrogressive Movement

In so far as we have followed the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation in decadent capitalism, we have also already described a part of the “retrogressive movement,” which is theoretically founded on the knowledge that the development of capitalism, on the grounds presented (the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production), inevitably returns to its points of departure. That is, despite all the alterations of the foundations, and the preservation of the connection with what has already been achieved, these foundations narrow. And from the attained (through which the whole process receives its peculiar lawfulness and its specific stamp) it must nevertheless create condition’s in economics, politics, social relations, etc., which are like the conditions of the epoch of the origins of capitalism, at first in a highly condensed form, only to assume in its further development ever more explicit, ever more general, ever more backward-reaching features. The theory of the retrogressive movement is therefore no more than the theoretical grasp of the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production at the point of transformation into their opposite, in the reversal determined by its contents, in which they become concretely demonstrable laws of its collapse independent of the proletarian revolution.

We have not separated the basic theorem for a single instant from the combined and uneven development. Hence, we have always conceived the retrogressive movement as being uneven and combined. Hence, we have made the proletarian revolution, as a factor which is both objective and subjective, both positive and negative (necessarily releasing the counter-revolution, if it stops half-way) a part of the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production itself. Hence, we have fixed the beginning of the retrogressive movement quite concretely in the Russia of the victorious October revolution. Hence, we have incorporated the victorious October revolution in the retrogression, considering it in its inner contradiction as an isolated revolution, in its counter-revolutionary transformation. Hence, we have explained the collapse of capitalism independently of the proletarian revolution as only a theoretical independence, which appears in its historical form as dependence upon the revolution. (To define it even more exactly: the capitalist mode of production breaks down independently of its overthrow by the revolution, but the revolution enters as an integral part in the historical process of its collapse.)

The bewilderment which in our experience usually overwhelms the reader confronted with such unusual formulations ordinarily resolves itself into positive understanding upon more detailed observation.

Basic Development of Capitalist Development

Historically, capitalist development begins with the compact unevenness which contains all the economic, social and political formations from primitive communism to feudalism, both in independently preserved and combined forms, and which capitalism now continues to preserve in part, and in part develop unevenly and in a combined form. Broadly speaking, capitalist development itself proceeded on these existing foundations from the West to the East, from England through France to Germany and Russia; just as in general the capitalist mode of production subjugated the world from Europe, and its destiny was decided in Europe.

For, what takes place outside of Europe, say, in America and Japan – is no more than a vastly-dimensioned epilogue of a drama which in its main outlines has been finished. The epilogue introduces no really original feature, not a single essential alteration, in the picture. It does not even reach the level of the new technological revolution in Germany; it imitates it; it only sets its seal upon the real drama and introduces itself from the beginning as a mixture of the most extreme unevenness and the most extreme combination, of the most extreme backwardness and the most extreme technical progress [4], of skyscrapers and caves, of high capitalism and semi or complete feudalism, of man’s devastation of nature and of national parks, of “complete” democracy and disfranchisement in practice, of agriculture and industry, of science and superstition, of swindling and bigotry, etc. – a mixture that, with all its social and political peculiarities (Negro question, etc.), had disappeared from the life of the advanced capitalist countries of Europe, except for comparatively trivial remnants, and which was once again reinforced in all Europe only after the great crisis of the system emanating from America.

The rest of the world, its largest part by population and area, was never “capitalist.” It was subjugated to the rule of capitalism as a colony or half-colony but was never able to taste the blessings of an independent industrial development – or was forcibly repressed in this development (e.g., India by England). The further we go from the dominating advanced capitalist countries of England and Germany, and the especially favored countries like France, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark and Norway, the greater grows the universally persisting “impurity” (combination) or the mixture especially characteristic of America and Japan with its political-social infirmities, vanishing in ever greater backwardness and finally purely pre-capitalist conditions.

The Role of the Undeveloped Countries

Political development, the development of bourgeois freedom (democracy) and of the labor movement naturally reflects everywhere the economic situation. The more undeveloped the country, the less the bourgeois tasks (agrarian reform, etc.) are solved – the greater the lack of political freedom, the more the semi-legality or illegality of the labor movement, the more the medieval forms of rule. In Spain, Italy, throughout the Balkans, etc., the labor movement does not emerge from semi-legality or illegality at all, or else only for the short span of the revolutionary assault which is paid for by intensifying misery. But all these countries are in no way decisive for the development. Their significance is episodic and is absorbed in larger processes (e.g., Poland and Czechoslovakia as independent political miscarriages by the grace of imperialism in its weaker hours after the First World War). Or they have more significance as “objects” in the very early capitalist efforts criss-crossing with the still earlier “bequeathed” efforts to hinder the independent development of such countries and keep them down (here again Poland, Czechoslovakia, Balkans, etc.). On the basis of the attained imperialist decay which excludes any higher development on this basis all these countries furnish the political vanguard fight for imperialist political reaction, corresponding to their position and significance as the rearguard (the retarded) of capitalist development itself. As we have repeatedly shown, the whole development preserves during its rise a complete connection with all the past (from the most primitive forms of society through slavery and feudalism) and it preserves during its decline the same connection with what is already achieved (which is why the assertion that nobody has conceived of the retrogression as the dissolution of capitalism into pre-capitalist forms of production, must be understood only as a denial of an absolute dissolution). The law that no connection can ever go lost is a general dialectical law of every development in general, which progresses through quantitative and qualitative increase (alternatively and simultaneously) and under certain conditions turns into its previous opposite.

Historical Limits of Capitalism

Thus imperialism finds already at hand the political prototype for rule over large masses in those places where its inner ability to disturb the economic “sleep of the world” has ceased to exist. We do not need to go far to seek this prototype. It is already there in the sphere of interests of British imperialism, in those parts of India which British imperialism could never actually subjugate, being restricted not least of all by the instinctive fear of unfettering forces which would prepare a premature end for it. Here England and the other imperialisms have nothing to seek economically or something only very immediately. Here (and in other areas of the world) nothing has changed economically-qualitatively, and the old political forms remain which correspond to economic conditions of a thousand years ago. Nevertheless, these areas provide the general background for the retrogressive movement. They are the historical limits in which the inner limit of the capacity to accumulate, growing out of its own essence, runs its course and manifests itself, precisely historically, concretely and actually, as the inability to colonize the world thoroughly. As we have seen, the historical tendency of-capitalist accumulation is the executer of the breakdown of the capitalist mode of production, which it carries out in historically concrete ways long before the abstract-theoretically conceivable extension of capitalism all over the world is reached. Thus these “untouched” areas are a symbol of the future of capitalist humanity. They are the reverse image of capitalist development which must lead to the same putrefaction in the forms of private property, if humanity does not find the way out through the abolition of private property which capitalism has for the first time made possible.

Undeveloped Countries as Precursors of Fascism

Against this general background of the retrogressive movement (its historical pivot in the framework of uneven developments) its concrete forms stand out all the more distinctly, the closer we move from the prototype of economic-political petrifaction, to the highly capitalist countries. In the colonies and semi-colonies there persist the direct and indirect methods of suppression, or methods of suppression combined with the “primitive” forms of rule (they are strengthened according to need and often relaxed under pressure of the conditions, but never altered) which capitalism introduced there from the beginning for the purpose of petrifaction. Back from the colonies, the undeveloped capitalist countries, on the basis of the existing “mixture” and of what has been achieved at any given time, carry on the already defined vanguard actions for the form of rule which corresponds best to declining capitalism. Each in its way in a blind alley, each with its peculiar conditions, economically disintegrating, they seek to carry through the putrefaction and recast the feudal-monarchical system with or without royal approval, support and toleration, into open military dictatorship, into semi and wholly fascist systems.

All the Balkans, Hungary, Poland, the Baltic countries and Spain are overlaid with such dictatorial systems. The noble “democracy” of Masaryk keeps to an intermediate course, living on Allied help and the suppression of the national minorities, until these minorities, like those in the Saar region, throw themselves in desperation into the arms of German fascism and the rest of Czechoslovakia can be annexed. In this way, profound devastations are heralded, forcing the ruling classes to “overcome” the economic hopelessness by political measures which in their turn are again directed to the transformation of social and economic life, i.e., which allow of no other way out save by the road back.

The Position of Italy

In the chain of these countries, a country like Italy assumes a position highly characteristic of the lawful consequences of the retrogressive movement. It was the earliest precursor of capitalist production (which first became definitive and world-transforming in England) and then was thrown back by the further development and transformed into the eternal imperialist camp-follower. Too important to content itself with the pretensions of small nations, too insignificant to realize greater pretensions, this neck of land sticking out of the south of Europe leans like the index on the scales to the momentarily stronger with the purpose of getting an appropriate share of the booty. Always disappointed, always deprived of the fruits of its efforts, always the betrayer betrayed, always hurled back, Italy, like no other European great power, was the first to face the decadent capitalism in the imperialist era of the post-war period. In this situation it again assumed among the great European powers the position of precursor of a development which this time flowed in the opposite direction, clearly backward, into the past. That is, Italy inaugurated the narrower or special retrogressive movement and typified the political system, which is on the one hand, the political expression of economic decline in the advanced capitalist countries themselves; on the other hand, again, the special form of rule which imperialism now needs above all also for the solution of the actual imperialist problems. However, the second imperialist war did not yet stand in the foreground but rather the social question which rose up before the ruling classes in a series of revolutionary uprisings and heralded the “natural end” of capitalism. It is the social question whose counter-revolutionary “solution” forms the retrogressive movement in its lawfulness down to the last detail.

IV – Fundamental Moments in the Transition
to the Retrogressive Movement

In order to be able really to understand the whole process, a simultaneousness of thought must be presupposed which is guaranteed only by the dialectic and the ability obtained thereby to see everything at any given moment and yet to select, to abstract and yet to generalize. In the preceding sections, we have practiced this kind of thinking, and we now add the attempt to sketch a simultaneous picture: The development in the period of rising capitalism and of imperialism “in its prime” is concretely formed by three basic moments.

Division of the World

First, by the necessity to divide the world among the capitalist nations. In this again, uneven and combined development plays the major role and gains for the stronger or especially favored nations (e.g., Holland) an appropriate cut. The division obviously does not proceed without force; in addition to colonial conquest and the economic arm of competition, the competition with arms appears from the beginning, asserting itself in a series of wars and building up the relation of the stronger nations among each other and toward the weaker nations. But, in this whole period, which lasts to the first imperialist war, there is a growth of the productive forces which increase the material wealth and the line of ascent is, on the whole maintained.

“Regulation” of the Labor Movement

The second moment is the necessity of holding down and rendering innocuous the proletariat and its movement produced by capitalism as the living negation of itself. In the ascending period this is achieved not so much by force but rather through a system of “accommodations” (concession, social legislation) and by material and ideological corruption which, on the whole, advance capitalism, for up to a certain point the labor movement is as necessary for its development as national independence and political freedom. As soon as the bourgeoisie, with the help of the proletariat, has attained enough freedom of movement for itself and for the development of free competition, the problem is restricted more to liquidating the aspirations to political independence and to power of the labor movement, and to confining the matter within administrative-trade-union limits.

In England, the question was resolved more easily because of the material wealth of the Empire, i.e., by virtue of the politically-corrupting participation of broad sections of the workers in the so-called surplus profit: present and future seem equally assured, and exert a debilitating political effect.

In France the situation was likewise stabilized, after the war with the stronger rival Germany, and the heroic intermezzo of the Paris Commune, on the basis of agriculture and the luxury industries which opened up a broad perspective and also infected the labor movement with petty bourgeois “ideal of the coupon-clipper.” Socialism in France is more a rhetorical threat (the prevailing syndicalism) than a politically organized power.

In Germany, on the other hand, the problem was already more difficult, and there, after overcoming the initial obstacles on both sides (founding years and anti-socialist law), it was mastered by virtue of the imperialist perspective that appeared at the time, mastered mainly ideologically, with the help of revisionism. German revisionism was predominantly a post-dated note on what was current exchange in England. The corrupting kernel of this ideology was: capitalism will grow and with it the power of the labor movement, which, in the person of its leadership (for the most part also already materially corrupted), will grow into the state and conquer it peaceably (guarantee: freedom of suffrage). It was the invasion of petty bourgeois thinking into the labor movement and, as such, a typical reflexion in the heads of the labor leaders of young German imperialism at its optimistic beginnings.

German revisionism was the theoretical culmination and systematization of all other “methods of paralysis,” done with German thoroughness and joyfully greeted internationally as the “supplementary” method for the “regulation” of the labor movement. Everywhere it found its corresponding expression: In Russian in “economism,” in France in Millerand’s “ministerialism,” in England among the Fabians, who, with deeper significance, called themselves a “society.” [5] But only in Germany did it have a decisive and fatal function. In Russia, neither the one nor the other method caught on. There all relations were so sharp that the revolutionary method of the proletariat could rout all other forces from the field and make the solution of the problem impossible for the ruling classes.

Free Competition Among Workers and Capitalists

The third moment is generally determining: Free competition among the capitalists and workers. Competition among the workers is used likewise as a means of paralyzing and splitting the labor movement, but ft is temporarily decreased both by further development (which produces leveling as well as differentiation) and with the aid of trade unions, until it arises in its most horrible form in the world crisis following the First World War, when the million-headed army of the unemployed splits the working class into, so to speak, an active and a passive section. In mass unemployment, competition among workers already assumes the form of a split of society as a whole. For wide layers of the petty bourgeoisie, of the independent artisan, of the intellectuals, etc., are drawn in and confront society threateningly. Out of the declassed elements of the intellectuals, petty bourgeoisie and workers, out of the slum proletariat, fascism recruits the storm troops with which it threatens the demands of the workers, strikes down their movement and stabilizes, organizes and systematizes the decay.

Free competition among the capitalists is likewise temporarily mitigated by the formation of monopolies, i.e., so long as the development progresses upward. But free competition persists beside and above monopoly (nationally and internationally, as on the other hand it is further constituted above and beside free competition out of which it grows).

From the co-existence of free competition and monopoly, from the competition of monopolies among themselves, develop a “series of especially cross and harsh contradictions, frictions and conflicts” (Lenin), which on their part react powerfully upon all social institutions. For the anarchy of social production under the rule of free competition is deepened by the devastating economic disproportions which monopoly creates. The highest expression of such disproportions is the armaments industry whose development becomes compulsory with the development of monopoly because the whole capitalist development, propelled by free competition, drives toward the most violent conflict of monopoly, the imperialist war. The relation of the stronger nations to one another is shifted by the course of industrial development, especially in heavy industry, which becomes obsolete in the “more saturated” countries and therefore makes their industrial basis too weak for their foreign possessions.

The disproportion which arises in this way is extended by the industrial camp-follower of Germany, which utilizes all the advantages of its position, immediately speaks the last word, of preceding industrial development, and, paradoxically, becomes rich and powerful enough as the “armaments factory of the world” to be able to climb up the back of its English competitor equipped with the most modern weapons.

Intervention of the Social Question

The social question, in its modern form, not as bourgeois reform, etc., but as proletarian revolution, is already essentially involved in the constitution of this inherently unavoidable development. England regards the growing power of Germany with mixed feelings, but its forces remain bound by the question which henceforth is a weighty element of its “balance of power” policy. What will the now revolutionary party of the proletariat and the strong German working class, in general, do, if its immediate demands cannot be satisfied and its “taming” is frustrated? The answer is clear, and wisdom of class interests demands that the day of reckoning be postponed to a more favorable time. Growing tolerance of German industrial and military armament is the price which England pays for the taming of the German labor movement.

Meanwhile the disproportions grow in length and breadth throughout the whole world. The industrial and agricultural development in North and South America press down upon the conditions in Europe and deepen the industrial and agricultural antagonisms. The undeveloped and dependent countries, especially the Balkans, groan and ache under a development which makes them the football of imperialist interests and involves them in the armaments race as dependents of the great powers.

All the especially crass and harsh contradictions cut into and cut across the Balkans – all the frictions and conflicts stemming from industrial monopoly with a compactness which has justifiably given them the name “powder keg of Europe.” When the sparks catch fire and England, with the knife at its throat, decides to fight, it is, however, already certain that the German working class will not intervene. This main danger temporarily excluded, the war itself makes the disproportions unadjustable and incurable.

Depending on the social question which rises again revolutionarily as the result of the especially crass contradiction between possible well being and actual destruction, the disproportions become autonomous and drive in the direction of the Second World War which is to solve all of the now intensified problems on which the First World War broke down internally. They bear down again upon the whole of economic life, upon competition among capitalists and workers, and create that situation which splits the population into employed and unemployed (including the rural population and even the peasants). The epoch of war, revolutions and counter-revolutions is opened, the impossibility of capitalist society is proved: Marx’s prophesy has been fulfilled that it will bring itself to the point where it must feed its slaves instead of being fed by them.

[To be continued]


1. The ridiculous representatives of the “theory” of state capitalism in the various emigrant groups are known particularly for their juggling with dialectics and the transformation of quantity into quality. The “transformation” is supposed to show that in countries like Russia and Germany (with some of them the United States, too), an economic form has come into power, a state capitalism which is free from economic crises and subject only to “political” crises, if any, and which is “classless” into the bargain. From their scribblings, which teem with solid thoughtlessness and absurdities, you cannot tell just what quantity is actually supposed to have been transformed into quality. In any case, it was enormously increased confusion that was transformed into the “theoretical” egg-dance and presented precisely these absurdities as the “contradictions” belonging to the dialectic.

2. Misled by the contrary appearance, an opponent may come forward at this point with a “better” argument and declare: The assertion of an “unequivocal” exclusive decomposition is “undialectical.” In retrogression is found also progression, as is demonstrated practically by a whole series of achievements (for example, the synthetics industry).

3. In the first place, all those associated with “state-capitalistic” plunder.

4. It is highly interesting how America also reproduces the European structure. The further one goes from the North to the South the greater the general backwardness, in all its forms and concomitant phenomena.

5. The historical succession and the national peculiarities of revisionism agree exactly with the capitalist development in the four most important countries (England, France. Germany. Russia). In England the Fabian Society was founded, if we are not mistaken, between 1883–85. In England trade unionism is more characteristic of revisionism than the Fabian appendage. Revisionism in England is organic. In France, Millerand became Commerce Minister in 1889. There revisionism is political-practical. In Germany, Bernstein began the revisionist campaign in 1896. There revisionism is theoretical. Then for the first time Russia followed, already under the direct influence of the Bernstein controversy. There revisionism is impossible.

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Last updated on 17 February 2016