The terrorist attacks which killed more than 6,000 people in the United States on 11th September, like the new war which has followed them, are a new and tragic illustration of the barbarism into which capitalism is plunging. As we explain in the article in this Review, “New York and the world over: capitalism spreads death”, this barbarity is an expression of the fact that capitalism, which entered its period of decadence with the outbreak of World War I, has for more than a decade suffered a further aggravation of this decadence whose main characteristic is the decomposition of society. Our organisation has highlighted this new phase of capitalism’s decadence since the end of the 1980s (see our first article on the question, “The decomposition of capitalism”, in International Review n°57, 2nd quarter 1989). In 1990, just after the collapse of the Eastern bloc, we made our analysis more systematic in the “Theses” published in International Review n°62. This is the document that we are reprinting here. We believe that it is more current than ever. In particular, it provides a framework for understanding the growing use of terrorism in inter-state conflicts around the world, and the rise of despair, nihilism, and religious obscurantism so strikingly illustrated by the attacks on the World Trade Center. It also deals with the fact that the different expressions of decomposition today are an important obstacle to the development of working class consciousness. We can see this today, in the way that the bourgeoisie, especially in the US but in other countries as well, is using the emotion and the fear provoked by the attacks in New York to muzzle the working class in the name of “national unity”.
The collapse of the Eastern imperialist bloc has brought us a new confirmation of capitalism’s entry into a new phase in its period of decadence: the phase of general social decomposition. Even before the events in the East, the ICC had already highlighted this historical phenomenon (see in particular International Review n°57). These events, and the world’s entry into a period of unprecedented instability, oblige revolutionaries to pay extreme attention to the analysis of this phenomenon, its causes and its implications, and to point out what is at stake in this new historical situation.
1) All previous modes of production have undergone a phase of ascendancy and decadence. For marxism, the first period corresponds to the compatibility between the relations of production, and the level of development of society’s productive forces; the second expresses the fact that the relations of production have become too narrow to contain this development. Contrary to the aberrations put forward by the Bordigists, capitalism is no exception to this rule. Since the beginning of this century, and especially since World War I, revolutionaries have demonstrated that this mode of production has, in its turn, entered its phase of decadence. However, it would be wrong to be satisfied with stating that capitalism is simply following in the path of previous modes of production. It is also important to underline the fundamental differences between the decadence of capitalism and that of past societies. In reality, capitalism’s decadence, as we have known it since the beginning of the 20th century, appears as the period of “ultra-decadence” (if we can put it like this). Compared to the decadence of previous societies (feudalism and Asiatic despotism), it is placed at a quite different level, since:
- capitalism is the first society in history which exists on a world scale, which has subjected the entire planet to its own laws; consequently, its decadence marks the whole of human society;
- whereas in past societies, the new productive relations which were to supersede the old were able to develop alongside the latter, within society – which to a certain extent limited the effects and the degree of social decadence – communist society, which alone can follow capitalism, cannot develop at all within it; the regeneration of society is thus completely impossible without the violent overthrow of the bourgeois class and the eradication of capitalist relations of production;
- the historic crisis of the economy which lies at the origin of capitalism’s decadence does not spring from a problem of under-production, as was the case in previous societies, but on the contrary from a problem of over-production; this has the effect (due in particular to the monstrous contrast between the productive forces’ enormous potential and the atrocious misery existing throughout the world) of plunging society into a depth of barbarity, characteristic of any decadent society, greater than any in the past;
- with the historic tendency towards state capitalism, the extreme over-development of the state typical of periods of decadence has reached its most complete form: the all but total absorption of civil society by the monster of the state;
- although previous periods of decadence have been marked by military conflict, these were out of all proportion to the world wars which have already twice ravaged capitalist society.
In the final analysis, the difference between the extent and depth of capitalist decadence and those of previous societies cannot be reduced to a mere question of quantity. This quantity itself expresses a new and different quality. The decadence of capitalism:
- is the decadence of the last class society, the last society based on the exploitation of man by man, and the last to be subjected to scarcity and the constraints of the economy;
- and is the first to menace humanity’s very survival, the first which could destroy the human race.
2) Elements of decomposition are to be found in all decadent societies: the dislocation of the social body, the rot of its political, economic, and ideological structures etc. The same has been true of capitalism since the beginning of its decadent period. However, just as we need to establish the distinction between capitalist decadence and those of previous societies, so it is vital to highlight the fundamental distinction between the elements of decomposition which have infected capitalism since the beginning of the century and the generalised decomposition which is infecting the system today, and which can only get worse. Here again, quite apart from the strictly quantitative aspect, the phenomenon of social decomposition has today reached such a breadth and depth that it has taken on a new and unique quality, revealing decadent capitalism’s entry into a new and final phase of its history: the phase where decomposition becomes a decisive, if not the decisive factor in social evolution.
In this sense it would be wrong to identify decadence and decomposition. While the phase of decomposition is inconceivable outside decadence, we can perfectly well conceive of a period of decadence which does not necessarily lead to a phase of decomposition.
3) In fact, just as capitalism itself traverses different historic periods – birth, ascendancy, decadence – so each of these periods itself consists of several distinct phases. For example, capitalism’s ascendant period can be divided into the successive phases of the free market, shareholding, monopoly, financial capital, colonial conquest, and the establishment of the world market. In the same way, the decadent period also has its history: imperialism, world wars, state capitalism, permanent crisis, and today, decomposition. These are different and successive aspects of the life of capitalism, each one characteristic of a specific phase, although they may have pre-dated it, and/or continued to exist after it. For example, although wage labour existed already under feudalism, or even asiatic despotism (just as slavery and serfdom survived under capitalism), it is only under capitalism that wage labour has reached a dominant position within society. Similarly, while imperialism existed during capitalism’s ascendant period, it is only in the decadent period that it became predominant within society and in international relations, to the point where revolutionaries of the period identified it with the decadence of capitalism itself.
The phase of capitalist society’s decomposition is thus not simply the chronological continuation of those characterised by state capitalism and the permanent crisis. To the extent that contradictions and expressions of decadent capitalism that mark its successive phases do not disappear with time, but continue and deepen, the phase of decomposition appears as the result of an accumulation of all the characteristics of a moribund system, completing the 75-year death agony of a historically condemned mode of production. Concretely, not only do the imperialist nature of all states, the threat of world war, the absorption of civil society by the state Moloch, and the permanent crisis of the capitalist economy all continue during the phase of decomposition, they reach a synthesis and an ultimate conclusion within it. Decomposition is thus the result:
- of the duration (70 years, ie longer than the industrial revolution) of the decadence of a system one of whose major characteristics is the extraordinary speed with which it transforms society (10 years in the life of capitalism are the equivalent of 100 years of Asiatic despotism);
- and of the accumulation of contradictions which this decadence has unleashed.
It constitutes the final point of convergence for all the fantastic convulsions which have shaken society and the different classes within it since the beginning of the century, in an infernal cycle of crisis-war-reconstruction-new crisis:
- two imperialist massacres which have bled white most of the world’s major countries, and which have dealt the whole of humanity blows of unprecedented brutality;
- a revolutionary wave which made the world bourgeoisie tremble, and which died in the most atrocious form of counter-revolution (Stalinism and fascism) as well as the most cynical (“democracy” and anti-fascism);
- the periodic return of an absolute pauperisation, and a degree of poverty for the working masses which had seemed banished;
- the development of the most widespread and deadly famines in human history;
- the capitalist economy’s 20 year dive into a new open crisis, without the bourgeois being able to take it to its logical conclusion (which of course is not a solution) – world war – due to their inability to control the working class.
4) This last point is precisely the new, specific, and unprecedented element which in the last instance has determined decadent capitalism’s entry into a new phase of its own history: decomposition. The open crisis which developed at the end of the l960’s, as a result of the end of the post-World War II reconstruction period, opened the way once again to the historic alternative: world war or generalised class confrontations leading to the proletarian revolution. Unlike the open crisis of the 1930’s, the present crisis has developed at a time when the working class is no longer weighed down by the counter-revolution. With its historic resurgence from 1968 onwards, the class has proven that the bourgeoisie did not have its hands free to unleash a Third World War. At the same time, although the proletariat has been strong enough to prevent this from happening, it is still unable to overthrow capitalism, since:
- the crisis is developing at a much slower rhythm than in the past;
- the development of its consciousness and of its political organisations has been set back by the break in organic continuity with the organisations of the past, itself a result of the depth and duration of the counter-revolution.
In this situation, where society’s two decisive – and antagonistic – classes confront each other without either being able to impose its own definitive response, history nonetheless does not just come to a stop. Still less for capitalism than for preceding social forms, is a “freeze” or a “stagnation” of social life possible. As a crisis-ridden capitalism’s contradictions can only get deeper, the bourgeoisie’s inability to offer the slightest perspective for society as a whole, and the proletariat’s inability, for the moment, openly to set forward its own can only lead to a situation of generalised decomposition. Capitalism is rotting on its feet.
5) In fact, no mode of production can live, develop, maintain itself on a viable basis and ensure social cohesion, if it is unable to present a perspective for the whole of the society which it dominates. And this is especially true of capitalism, which is the most dynamic mode of production in history. When capitalist relations of production provided an appropriate framework for the development of the productive forces, then the perspective of the historic progress of capitalist society merged with that of humanity as a whole. In these circumstances, and despite class antagonisms or rivalries between fractions (especially national fractions) of the ruling class, the whole of social life could develop free from the threat of major convulsions. When the relations of production become a hindrance for the development of the productive forces, they become barriers to social development, so determining society’s entry into a period of decadence; the result is the appearance of the kind of convulsions we have witnessed over the last 75 years. In this framework, the kind of perspective that capitalism could offer society was obviously contained in the specific limits made possible by decadence:
- the “sacred union”, the mobilisation of all economic, political, and military forces around the national state for the “defence of the fatherland”, of “civilisation”, etc;
- the “union of democrats” and “defenders of civilisation” against the “hydra of Bolshevik barbarism”;
- economic mobilisation to rebuild the ruins of war;
- ideological, political, economic, and military mobilisation for the conquest of “lebensraum”, or against the “fascist menace”.
Needless to say, none of these perspectives offered any kind of “solution” to the contradictions of capitalism. However, for the bourgeoisie they all had the advantage of containing a “realistic” objective: either the preservation of its system from the threat from its class enemy, the proletariat, the direct preparation and unleashing of world war, or the post-war economic recovery. By contrast, in a historical situation where the working class is not yet capable of entering the combat for its own, and the only “realistic” perspective – the communist revolution – but where the ruling class is not able either to put forward the slightest perspective of its own, even in the short term, the latter’s previous ability during the period of decadence to limit and control the phenomenon of decomposition cannot help but collapse under the repeated blows of the crisis. This is why today’s situation of open crisis is radically different from its predecessor of the 1930’s. The fact that the latter did not lead to a phase of decomposition is not simply due to the fact that it only lasted 10 years, whereas today’s crisis has already lasted 20, but above all to the bourgeoisie’s ability to put forward an “answer”. Certainly, this “answer” was incredibly brutal, suicidal even, bringing in its wake the greatest catastrophe of human history; nonetheless, in the absence of any significant response from the proletariat, this was the pole around which the bourgeoisie was able to organise society’s productive, political, and ideological apparatus. Today, by contrast, precisely because for 20 years the proletariat has been able to keep this kind of “answer” at bay, the bourgeoisie is totally incapable of mobilising society’s different components, including within the ruling class, around any common objective other than a step by step, but doomed, resistance to the advancing crisis.
6) Thus, even if the phase of decomposition appears as the conclusion, the synthesis of all the successive contradictions and expressions of capitalist decadence:
- it falls entirely within the cycle of crisis-war-reconstruction-renewed crisis;
- it wallows in the militarist orgy typical of all periods of decadence, and which for 20 years has been a prime aggravating factor of the open crisis;
- it is the result of the bourgeoisie’s ability (acquired after the crisis of the 1930’s) to slow down the rhythm, in particular thanks to state capitalist measures taken at the bloc level;
- it is also the result of the ruling class’ experience, gained during two world wars, which prevents it from embarking on the adventure of a worldwide imperialist confrontation without the proletariat’s active political participation;
- finally, it is the result of the ability of today’s working class to spring the traps of the counter-revolutionary period, but also of the class’ political immaturity, inherited from this same counter-revolution.
This phase of decomposition is fundamentally determined by unprecedented and unexpected historical conditions: a situation of temporary “social stalemate” due to the mutual “neutralisation” of the two fundamental classes, each preventing the other from providing a definitive response to the capitalist crisis. The expressions of this decomposition, the conditions of its evolution and its implications can only be examined by putting this factor in the forefront.
7) If we consider decomposition’s essential characteristics, as they appear today, we can in fact note that this absence of perspective is their common denominator:
- the proliferation of famines in the “Third World” countries, alongside the destruction of agricultural produce and the enforced non-cultivation of large tracts of farming land;
- the transformation of the “Third World” into a vast slum, where hundreds of millions of human beings survive like rats in the sewers;
- the development of the same phenomenon in the heart of the major cities in the “advanced” countries, where the number of homeless and destitute has grown constantly, to the point where in some districts life expectancy is lower than in the backward countries;
- the recent proliferation of ‘accidental’ catastrophes (air crashes, trains and subways becoming mobile coffins, not only in backward countries like India or the USSR, but at the hear of western cities like Paris and London);
- the increasingly devastating effects, on the human, social, and economic levels, of “natural” disasters (floods, droughts, earthquakes, hurricanes), against which mankind seems ever more helpless, while technology advances and makes available all the means of protection necessary (dykes, irrigation systems, earthquake- or storm-resistant buildings, etc), and the factories that build them are closed and their workers laid off;
- the degradation of the environment, which is reaching staggering dimensions (undrinkable water, dead rivers, sewage-infested oceans, untreatable air in the cities, tens of thousands of square kilometers contaminated by radioactivity in the Ukraine and Byelorussia) and menaces the equilibrium of the entire planet with the destruction of the Amazon rain-forest (the lungs of the earth), the “greenhouse effect”, and the destruction of the ozone layer;
- the scale and the proliferation of all these economic and social calamities, which spring generally speaking from the decadence of the system itself, reveals the fact that this system is trapped in a complete dead-end, and has no future to propose to the greater part of the world population other than a growing and unimaginable barbarity. This is a system where economic policy, research, investment are all conducted to the detriment of humanity’s future, and even to the detriment of the system itself.
8) But the signs of society’s total lack of perspectives today are still more evident on the political and ideological level. We only need to consider:
- the incredible, and prosperous, corruption of the political apparatus, the deluge of scandals in most countries, as in Japan (where it is more and more difficult to distinguish the government apparatus from gangland), in Spain (where the right hand man of the socialist government is implicated), or in Belgium, Italy, and France (where the parliamentary deputies have just declared an amnesty to cover their own misdemeanors);
- the development of terrorism, or the seizure of hostages, as methods of warfare between states, to the detriment of the “laws” that capitalism established in the past to “regulate” the conflicts between different ruling class factions;
- the constant increase in criminality, insecurity, and urban violence, as well as the fact that more and more children are falling prey to this violence and to prostitution;
- the development of nihilism, despair, and suicide amongst young people (expressed for example in the punk slogan “no future” and the urban riots in Britain), and of the hatred and xenophobia infecting the “skinheads” and “hooligans” who take the opportunity of sporting events to terrorise the population at large;
- the tidal waves of drug addiction, which has now become a mass phenomenon and a powerful element in the corruption of states and financial organisms; sparing no corner of the planet, especially prevalent among young people, it is less and less a flight into fantasy and illusion, but rather ever closer to madness and suicide;
- the profusion of sects, the renewal of the religious spirit including in the advanced countries, the rejection of rational, coherent thought even amongst certain “scientists”; a phenomenon which dominates the media with their idiotic shows and mind-numbing advertising;
- the invasion of the same media by the spectacle of violence, horror, blood, massacres, even in programmes designed for children;
- the vacuity and venality of all “artistic” production: literature, music, painting, architecture, are unable to express anything but anxiety, despair, the breakdown of coherent thought, the void;
- the attitude of “every man for himself”, marginalisation, the atomisation of the individual, the destruction of family relationships, the exclusion of old people from social life, the annihilation of love and affection and its replacement by pornography, commercialised sport ruled by the media, these mass gatherings of young people in a state of collective hysteria that passes for song and dance, a sinister substitute for completely non-existent solidarity and social ties.
All these signs of the social putrefaction which is invading every pore of human society on a scale never seen before, can only express one thing: not only the dislocation of bourgeois society, but the destruction of the very principle of collective life in a society devoid of the slightest project or perspective, even in the short term, and however illusory.
9) Amongst the major characteristics of capitalist society’s decomposition, we should emphasise the bourgeoisie’s growing difficulty in controlling the evolution of the political situation. Obviously, this is a result of the ruling class’ increasing loss of control over its economic apparatus, the infrastructure of society. The historic dead-end in which the capitalist mode of production finds itself trapped, the successive failures of the bourgeoisie’s different policies, the permanent flight into debt as a condition for the survival of the world economy, cannot but effect the political apparatus which is itself incapable of imposing on society, and especially on the working class, the “discipline” and acquiescence necessary to mobilise all its strength for a new world war, which is the only historic “response” that the bourgeoisie has to give. The absence of any perspective (other than day-to-day stop-gap measures to prop up the economy) around which it could mobilise as a class, and at the same time the fact that the proletariat does not yet threaten its own survival, creates within the ruling class, and especially within its political apparatus, a growing tendency towards indiscipline and an attitude of “every man for himself”. This phenomenon in particular allows us to explain the collapse of Stalinism and the entire Eastern imperialist bloc. Overrall, this collapse is a consequence of the capitalist world economic crisis; nor should we forget to take account in our analyses of the specificities of the Stalinist regimes as a result of their origins (see our ‘Theses on the economic and political crisis in the USSR and the Eastern bloc countries’ in International Review n°60). However, we cannot fully understand this unprecedented collapse from within of an entire imperialist bloc, in the absence of either world war or revolution, without incorporating into the analytical framework this other unprecedented element: society’s entry into the phase of decomposition that we can see today. The extreme centralisation and complete statification of the economy, the confusion between the economic and political apparatus, the permanent and large-scale cheating with the law of value, the mobilisation of all economic resources around war production, all characteristic of the Stalinist regimes, were well adapted to a context of imperialist war (these regimes emerged victorious from World War II). But they have been brutally confronted with their own limitations as the bourgeoisie has been compelled for years to confront a continually worsening economic crisis without being able to unleash this same imperialist war. In particular, the “don’t give a damn” attitude which has developed in the absence of any market sanction (and which the reestablishment of the market aims to eliminate) would have been inconceivable during the war, when the prime concern of the workers, and indeed of those in charge of the economy, was the gun they had pointed at their heads. The spectacle which the USSR and its satellites are offering us today, of a complete rout within the state apparatus itself, and the ruling class’ loss of control over its own political strategy is in reality only the caricature (due to the specificities of the Stalinist regimes) of a much more general phenomenon affecting the whole world ruling class, and which is specific to the phase of decomposition.
10) This general tendency for the bourgeoisie to lose control of its own policies was one of the primary factors in the Eastern bloc’s collapse; this collapse can only accentuate the tendency:
- because of the resulting aggravation of the economic crisis;
- because of the disintegration of the Western bloc which is implied by the disappearance of its rival;
- because the temporary disappearance of the perspective of world war will exacerbate the rivalries between different bourgeois factions (between national factions especially, but also between cliques within national states).
Such a destabilisation of bourgeois political life is illustrated, for example, by the alarm of the bourgeoisie’s more stable fractions at the possibility of contamination by the chaos developing within the countries of the ex-Eastern bloc, and which could eventually make it incapable of reorganising the world in two imperialist blocs. The aggravation of the economic crisis necessarily sharpens inter-state imperialist rivalries. The exacerbation of military confrontations between states is thus implicit in the present situation. By contrast, the formation of a new economic, political and military structure regrouping these different states presupposes a discipline amongst them, which the phenomenon of decomposition will make more and more problematic. The decomposition of capital is already partly responsible for the disappearance of the system of blocs inherited from World War II. By preventing the formation of a new system of blocs, it may well not only reduce the likelihood of world war, but eliminate this perspective altogether.
11) However, the possibility of such a change in capitalism’s overall perspective as a result of the fundamental transformation that decomposition has introduced into social life, in no way alters the ultimate that this system reserves for humanity should the proletariat prove incapable of overthrowing it. Marx and Engels were already able to set out the general historical perspective for society in the form: “socialism or barbarism”. Since then, the development of capitalism has made this judgment more precise, and more serious, in the successive shape of:
- war or revolution”, which was the formulation adopted by the revolutionaries before World War I, and which was one of the foundations of the Communist International;
- “communist revolution or the destruction of humanity” was the formulation imposed after World War II by the appearance of nuclear weapons.
Today, with the disappearance of the Eastern bloc, this terrifying prospect remains entirely valid. But today, we have to clarify the fact that the destruction of humanity may come about as a result of either imperialist world war, or the decomposition of society.
We cannot consider this decomposition as a return to the past. Although it may provoke the resurgence of aspects typical of capitalism’s past, in particular its ascendant period, eg:
- the fact that the world is no longer divided into imperialist blocs;
- the resulting fact that struggles between nations (whose present aggravation, especially in the old Eastern bloc, is certainly an expression of decomposition) can no longer be considered as episodes in the confrontation between the two blocs;
This decomposition does not lead back to a previous form of capitalism’s life. Capitalism is like a person in “second childhood”. The loss of certain traits acquired with maturity, and the return of those typical of childhood (fragility, dependence, weakness of reasoning), is not accompanied by a return to childhood vitality. Human civilisation today is losing some of its gains (eg mastery over nature); this does not mean that it has recovered the capacity for progress and conquest which characterised ascendant capitalism especially. The course of history cannot be turned back: as its name suggests, decomposition leads to social dislocation and putrefaction, to the void. Left to its own devices, it will lead humanity to the same fate as world war. In the end, it is all the same whether we are wiped out in a rain of thermonuclear bombs, or by pollution, radio-activity from nuclear power stations, famine, epidemics, and the massacres of innumerable small wars (where nuclear weapons might also be used). The only difference between these two forms of annihilation lies in that one is quick, while the other would be slower, and would consequently provoke still more suffering.
12) It is vital that the proletariat, and the revolutionaries within it, grasp the full extent of the deadly threat that decomposition represents for society as a whole. At a moment when pacifist illusions are likely to develop, as the possibility of world war recedes, we must fight with the utmost energy any tendency within the working class to seek for consolation, and to hide from the extreme gravity of the world situation. In particular, it would be both false and dangerous to consider that because decomposition is a reality, it is also a necessity in the path towards revolution.
We must take care not to confuse reality and necessity. Engels sharply criticised Hegel’s formulation, “Everything that is rational is real, and everything that is real is rational”, rejecting the second half of this formulation and giving the example of the monarchy in Germany, which was real but not in the least rational (we could also apply Engels’ reasoning today to the monarchies of Britain, Holland, Belgium, etc). Decomposition is a fact, a reality today. This does not in the least prove its necessity for the proletarian revolution. Such an approach would call into question the revolution of October 1917, and the whole revolutionary wave that succeeded it, which both took place outside the period of capital’s decomposition. In fact, the imperious need to establish a clear distinction between the decadence of capitalism and this specific, final, phase of decadence arises from this question of reality and necessity: capitalism’s decadence was necessary for the proletariat to be able to overthrow the system; by contrast, the appearance of this specific phase of decomposition as a result of the continuation of the decadent period without its leading to a proletarian revolution, is in no way a necessary stage for the proletariat on the road towards its emancipation.
In this sense, the phase of decomposition resembles that of the imperialist war. The war of 1914 was a fundamental fact, and the revolutionaries and the working class of the epoch obviously had to take account of it; however, this in no way implies that it was a necessary condition for the revolution. Only the Bordigists put forward this idea. The ICC has already shown that war is far from being a particularly favorable condition for the outbreak of the international revolution. And to settle the question, we need only consider the perspective of a Third World War.
13) In fact, we must be especially clear on the danger of decomposition for the proletariat’s ability to raise itself to the level of its historic task. Just as the unleashing of the imperialist war at the heart of the “civilised” world was “a bloodletting which [may have] mortally weakened the European workers’ movement”, which “threatened to bury the perspectives for socialism under the ruins piled up by imperialist barbarism” by “cutting down on the battlefield (…) the best forces (…) of international socialism, the vanguard troops of the whole world proletariat” (Rosa Luxemburg, The crisis in Social-Democracy), so the decomposition of society, which can only get worse, may in the years to come cut down the best forces of the proletariat and definitively compromise the perspective of communism. This is because, as capitalism rots, the resulting poison infects all the elements of society, including the proletariat.
In particular, although the weakening grip of bourgeois ideology as a result of capitalism’s entry into decadence was one of the conditions for revolution, the decomposition of the same ideology as it is developing appears essentially as an obstacle to the development of proletarian consciousness.
Clearly, ideological decomposition affects first and foremost the capitalist class itself, and by contagion the petty bourgeois strata who have no autonomy as a class. We can even say that the latter identify especially closely with this decomposition in that their own specific future, without any future as a class, fits perfectly with the major cause of this ideological decomposition: the absence of any immediate perspective for society as a whole. Only the proletariat bears within it a perspective for humanity. In this sense, the greatest capacity for resistance to this decomposition lies within its ranks. However, this does not mean that the proletariat is immune, particularly since it lives alongside the petty bourgeoisie which is one of the major carriers of the infection. The different elements which constitute the strength of the working class directly confront the various facets of this ideological decomposition:
- solidarity and collective action are faced with the atomisation of “look out for number one”;
- the need for organisation confronts social decomposition, the disintegration of the relationships which form the basis for all social life;
- the proletariat’s confidence in the future and in its own strength is constantly sapped by the all-pervasive despair and nihilism within society;
- consciousness, lucidity, coherent and unified thought, the taste for theory, have a hard time making headway in the midst of the flight into illusions, drugs, sects, mysticism, the rejection or destruction of thought which are characteristic of our epoch.
14) Clearly, one factor that aggravates this situation is the fact that a large proportion of young working class generations are subjected to the full weight of unemployment even before they hove had the opportunity to experience in the workplace, in the company of comrades in work and struggle, the collective life of the working class. In fact, although unemployment (which is a direct result of the economic crisis) is not in itself an expression of decomposition, its effects make it an important element of this decomposition. While in general terms it may help to reveal capitalism’s inability to secure a future for the workers, it is nonetheless today a powerful factor in the “lumpenisation” of certain sectors of the class, especially of young workers, which therefore weakens the class’ present and future political capacities. Throughout the 1980’s, which have witnessed a considerable increase in unemployment, this situation has been expressed in the absence of any important movements or attempts at organisation by unemployed workers. The fact that during the 1930’s, in the midst of the counterrevolution, the proletariat, especially in the United States, was able to adopt these forms of struggle, well illustrates by contrast the weight of unemployment on the development of proletarian consciousness, as a result of decomposition.
15) However, it is not only through unemployment that decomposition has weighed on the development of proletarian consciousness. Even if we leave aside the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the death agony of Stalinism (which are expressions of the phase of decomposition and which have provoked a significant retreat in class consciousness), we must consider that the difficulty the working class has had in putting forward the perspective of the unification of the struggle – despite the fact that this same question was contained in the dynamic of its combat against capital’s increasingly frontal attacks – is in large measure a result of the pressure created by decomposition. In particular, the proletariat’s hesitation in raising its struggle to a higher level, although it was already a general characteristic of the movement of the class struggle when Marx analysed it in the 18th Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte, has nonetheless been heightened by this lack of self-confidence and confidence in the future which decomposition creates within the class. In particular, the ideology of “look after number one”, especially strong in the present period, has increased the success of the sectionalist traps that the bourgeois has laid for the workers’ struggles in recent years.
Throughout the 1980’s, the decomposition of capitalist society has thus put a break on the process of coming to consciousness within the working class. We have already identified other elements which help to slow down this process:
- the slow rhythm of the crisis itself;
- the weakness of the class’ political organisations as a result of the organic break between the formations of the past, and those which re-emerged with the historic recovery in class combat at the end of the 1960’s.
However, it is also necessary to take account of the pressure created by social decomposition. Whereas the passage of time reduces the effects of the first two factors, it increases the weight of the latter. It is thus fundamental to understand that the longer the proletariat takes to overthrow capitalism, the greater will be the dangers and the dangerous effects of decomposition.
16) In fact, we have to highlight the fact that today, contrary to the situation in the 1970’s, time is no longer on the side of the working class. As long as society was threatened with destruction by imperialist war alone, the mere fact of the proletarian struggle was sufficient to bar the way to this destruction. But, unlike imperialist war, which depended on the proletariat’s adherence to the bourgeoisie’s “ideals”, social decomposition can destroy humanity without controlling the working class. For while the workers’ struggles can oppose the collapse of the economy, they are powerless, within this system, to hinder decomposition. Thus, while the threat posed by decomposition may seem more far-off than that of world war (were the conditions for it present, which is not the case today), it is by contrast far more insidious.
The workers’ resistance to the effects of the crisis is no longer enough: only the communist revolution can put an end to the threat of decomposition. Similarly, in the period to come, the proletariat cannot hope to profit from the weakening that decomposition provokes within the bourgeoisie itself. During this period, it must aim to resist the noxious effects of decomposition in its own ranks, counting only on its own strength and on its ability to struggle collectively and in solidarity to defend its interests as an exploited class (although revolutionary propaganda must constantly emphasize the dangers of social decomposition). Only in the revolutionary period, when the proletariat is on the offensive, when it has directly and openly taken up arms for its own historic perspective, will it be able to use certain effects of decomposition, in particular of bourgeois ideology and of the forces of capitalist power, for leverage, and turn them against capital.
17) Understanding the serious threat that the historical phenomenon of decomposition poses for the working class and for the whole of humanity should not lead the class, and especially its revolutionary minorities, to adopt a fatalist attitude. Today, the historical perspective remains completely open. Despite the blow that the Eastern bloc’s collapse has dealt to proletarian consciousness, the class has not suffered any major defeats on the terrain of its struggle. In this sense, its combativity remains virtually intact. Moreover, and this is the element which in the final analysis will determine the outcome of the world situation, the inexorable aggravation of the capitalist crisis constitutes the essential stimulant for the class’ struggle and development of consciousness, the precondition for its ability to resist the poison distilled by the social rot. For while there is no basis for the unification of the class in the partial struggles against the effects of decomposition, nonetheless its struggle against the direct effects of the crisis constitutes the basis for the development of its class strength and unity. This is the case because:
- while the effects of decomposition (eg pollution, drugs, insecurity) hit the different strata of society in much the same way and form a fertile ground for aclassist campaigns and mystifications (ecology, anti-nuclear movements, anti-racist mobilisations, etc), the economic attacks (falling real wages, layoffs, increasing productivity, etc) resulting directly from the crisis hit the proletariat (ie the class that produces surplus value and confronts capitalism on this terrain) directly and specifically;
- unlike social decomposition which essentially effects the superstructure, the economic crisis directly attacks the foundations on which this superstructure rests; in this sense, it lays bare all the barbarity that is battening on society, thus allowing the proletariat to become aware of the need to change the system radically, rather than trying to improve certain aspects of it.
However, the economic crisis cannot by itself resolve all the problems that the proletariat must confront now and still more in the future. The working class will only be able to answer capital’s attacks blow for blow, and finally go onto the offensive and overthrow this barbaric system thanks to:
- an awareness of what is at stake in the present historical situation, and in particular of the mortal danger that social decomposition holds over humanity;
- its determination to continue, develop and unite its class combat;
- its ability to spring the many traps that the bourgeoisie, however decomposed itself, will not fail to set in its path.
Revolutionaries have the responsibility to take an active part in the development of this combat of the proletariat.