Is capitalism "moribund"?
Louis N Proyect
lnp3 at columbia.edu
Thu Jul 27 17:06:29 MDT 1995
Lenin was a politician, not an economist. All his efforts were directed
toward overthrowing capitalism. When he wrote about economics, as
he did in the case of "Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism", it
was to further the goal of revolution and not to construct an abstract
historiography of the development of capitalism.
He drew mostly from the writings of two major leftist economists of
his age, Hilferding and Bukharin, but also combed through 148 books
and 232 articles looking for insights on imperialism.
Howie is correct in citing the passage which includes the word
"moribund". What this reflects is the very great influence Lenin's
contemporary Hilferding had on him. What Lenin saw in this
particular view of imperialism was a modern version of the feudal
aristocracy, a class superfluous to production, lacking energy or ideas,
whose grip on power rested on its ability to establish political
hegemony as a function of its monopolistic practices internationally.
Too crude an interpretation of "Imperialism the Highest Stage of
Imperialism" would led one to a conclusion that the fall of capitalism
We must balance Lenin's insights against the insights contained in
"The Communist Manifesto". Marx pointed out that "the bourgeoisie
cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of
production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the
whole relations of society." This is no less true in the 20th century as
was in the 19th century. Look at the maniacal drive to "get rich" in
China to see how dynamic--and destructive--the capitalist system is.
Too crude an interpretation of "The Communist Manifesto" would led
one to the conclusion that the bourgeoisie can still play a progressive
The most important thing we can take away from Lenin's writings is
the lesson that the imperialist bourgeoisie can no longer play any kind
of progressive role. Something changed in the late 1800's when
colonial empires were being consolidated. No longer would a national
bourgeoisie fight to challenge the landed aristocracy and create a
modern democratic republic. It was content to allow the Junkers to
rule as they did in Germany, or the Czarist nobility in Russia. It would
be up to the working-class to create a democratic republic. This is the
major difference between the period described by Marx which
culminates in the early to mid 18th century and the period studied by
Lenin which culminated in World War I.
In actually, much of the politics of the 20th century left has
represented to some extent adaptations to a crude understanding of
these 2 key works.
The Social Democracy, most notably, has given up on the idea of
overthrowing the capitalist class. Politicians like Mitterand will always
look for the silver lining in capitalist property relations. This mistaken
confidence in the bourgeoisie also cropped up in the CPUSA during
the Browder regime, when the "popular front" was at its apex. He said
"communism is Twentieth Century Americanism" and sought to
identify himself as the heir of Jefferson and Lincoln. A rude shock
awaited the Communist Party in a few short years.
There are also simplistic understandings of Lenin's seemingly
ultimatistic stance. Trotskyite sects at all times and all places in
history have been predicting the imminent fall of capitalism. They
completely fail to see the dynamic aspect described in "The
Communist Manifesto". When I was in Kansas City in 1977 working
as a spot-welder in a steel mill, I would stare at the party newspaper
dumbfoundedly each week, trying to figure out where "this deepest
crisis of capitalism in the twentieth century" was located. Certainly not
in my plant.
The CPUSA has not been immune to this type of apocalyptic belief.
The "third period" in the early 1930's--before Roosevelt and Stalin
started looking googly-eyed at each other--was marked by an ultraleft
underestimation of the power and resiliency of the imperialist
bourgeoisie and overconfidence in the revolutionary possibilities in the
What should be our approach to this question of the "moribundness" of
capitalism? We have to combine the insights of "Imperialism the
Highest Stage of Capitalism" and "The Communist Manifesto"
dialectically. We must never kid ourselves into thinking the revolution
is around the corner. Neither must we abandon the stance promoted in
the pages of Lenin's work: the bourgeoisie with its wars, its
depressions, its colonialism and its repression must be expropriated as
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