Crises of Capitalism and Revolutionary Situation

Elif Çağlı

2 November 2003

Crises Do Not Lead Capitalism to a Spontaneous Collapse

Capitalist economy inherently contains seeds of crisis. However, it would be utterly erroneous to argue that crises will spontaneously lead capitalism to its destruction. Unless it is overthrown through a revolution of the working class, it can continue to exist, going through new periods of booms and crises. Some assert that the ongoing crisis will mark the end of capitalism. This idea was also put forward during previous crises. While it seems very difficult for capitalism to overcome the deep crisis it is currently engulfed in, and moreover that capitalism becomes weaker with time in terms of overcoming its crises, it would be erroneous to link the collapse of capitalism with the prophecy of a final crisis. An example of this misconception was also seen in the Comintern debates of the early 1920s, where some participants argued that capitalism would collapse as a result of the accumulation of its internal contradictions that originate merely from its economic workings. As pointed out by Lenin and Trotsky, there is no such thing as a final crisis that will lead capitalism to a spontaneous collapse. Unless overthrown through the revolutionary struggle of the working class, the ruling class would find a way to survive their system at the expense of causing most destructive disasters for human societies.

It is obvious that, with the beginning of the age of imperialism capitalist mode of production became a world system in the real sense of the word, which also meant it has now entered an epoch of decay compared to its earlier periods of great leap forward. This fact was also stressed by Lenin. However, to conceive this historical contrast between the two epochs should not be taken as something absolute and stretched out beyond what it really means. For instance, “decaying capitalism” and “moribund capitalism”, expressions used by Lenin to characterise the age of imperialism, should not be taken to mean that capitalism is sliding into a spontaneous collapse since it became unable to develop productive forces further. Rather, they underline the fact that the internal contradictions of capitalism have become overripe and begun to decay, with the exploitation of the world at the hands of monopolies acquiring a parasitic and decaying character.

As is the case with Britain, where capitalism first developed and grew old, financial oligarchy lives increasingly on “clipping coupons”, and this tendency manifests itself through devastating stagnations, wars and resultant destruction of productive forces. Lenin criticised those who interpreted these basic characteristics of the age of imperialism as a cessation of economic growth. “It would be a mistake to believe that this tendency to decay precludes the rapid growth of capitalism. ... On the whole, capitalism is growing far more rapidly than before...”[1] Likewise, during the Comintern debates of the early 1920s, which revolved around “the epoch of collapse of capitalism”, Trotsky pointed out that the term “collapse” should not be misunderstood, emphasising that if the balance of power and political conditions shifted in favour of capitalism despite the Russian Revolution, capitalism would be able to enter a phase of upswing and develop productive forces.

In comparison with preceding modes of production, capitalism has a much more dynamic character. However, development capacity of the capitalist mode of production can be evaluated not only in comparison with the past, but also, and more importantly, in comparison with the future. The point to be emphasized here is that the contradiction under capitalism between the social character of productive forces and the private character of appropriation has long reached a level of maturity. The current level of development of productive forces necessitates overcoming two main obstacles, namely, the private ownership of the means of production and the nation-state, and thus, building socialism. That the capitalist system continues to exist despite all these impediments means that social production is conducted in a very contradictory and inefficient way when compared to the alternative offered by socialism, posing the threat of destruction to environment and humanity. The term “decaying capitalism” is, in fact, the expression of this reality.

One can also interpret this reality as a historical crisis of the capitalist system. This interpretation explains that the Great October Revolution opened up the epoch of transition from capitalism to socialism, as Lenin once pointed out, and that the capitalist system has historically outlived its time. But it is never right to attach any different significance to this fact and conceive it as a permanent crisis as suggested by the Stalinist conception, or as that this time capitalism is in a final crisis where there is no way out. As Marx remarked, permanent crises do not exist. The assertion that the victory of the Russian Revolution commenced the period of a general crisis of capitalism in the sense of a permanent crisis, is a product of the Stalinist distortion of Lenin’s views on the imperialist age, and it is totally erroneous. The Stalinist stereotype of general crisis stands in sharp contrast to what happened since the Second World War. It is clearly evident that, by liquidating the October Revolution, Stalinism provided the capitalist system with a great sigh of relief, and that the capitalist system did not collapse as a result of its economic crises, and that the bureaucratic dictatorships, which talked of a general crisis of capitalism for decades, vanished.

In fact the real situation of the capitalist system is related to its historical evolution. What history has taught us about the past modes of production is that, along with periods of upswing, there are also periods of downswing wherein they become unable to further develop productive forces. Capitalist mode of production is not immune from this law of history. The historical mission of the capitalist mode of production is unconstrained development in geometrical progression of the productivity of human labour. But as surfaced during recurring and ever-deepening crises, it betrays this mission as it prevents the development of the productivity. In Marx’s words, it thus demonstrates again that it is becoming senile and that it is more and more outlived.[2]

Capitalism will not collapse spontaneously as a result of its internal contradictions. However, as the capitalist mode of production develops and spreads across the world, growing mature and even becoming senile, the levers allowing it to overcome crises gradually erode, losing their functions. Having fulfilled its historic mission of developing productive forces over a whole historical period, capitalism has long exhausted its developing potential, which was by no means absolute or infinite. As it suffers severe spasms due to over-production crises that gradually become more profound, the capitalist mode of production is at variance with the current level of the productive forces. Today, socialism represents the most burning necessity for humanity, for it is the only way to meet the needs of society in an egalitarian, just, balanced way that is compatible with both the human nature and the environment. In today’s world, on the one hand we have destruction, hunger and mass unemployment imposed by the irrational reality of capitalism, and on the other hand stands the prospect of a classless society that will satisfy both the needs and the souls of its members. This is precisely the reality that we experience today, a reality that we try to express through a concise aphorism: either socialism or extermination! Socialism is by no means a utopia today. Rather, it is an actual alternative that can easily be put into practice through the struggle of millions of workers and toilers across the world.

[1] Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, p.47.

[2] Marx, Capital, Vol. 3, p.178.