Communist Party of Australia

We acknowledge the Sovereignty of the First Nations’ Peoples.


Journal of the Communist Party of Australia


The contradictions of capitalism

Contribution by Rolf Priemer, spokesperson of the German Communist Party

Humanity no doubt is today confronting problems that had not posed themselves during the time that the economic and political theory of Marxism-Leninism was being elaborated by Marx, Engels, Lenin and the Third International.

Scientific and technological development has been accelerating at a pace that could not have been predicted 100 or even 50 years ago.

On the one hand, the means of creating social wealth for the kind of life worthy of humans have expanded to an unanticipated level. External conditions have been created that could allow human beings to lead a self-determined life, to satisfy their needs, and to unfold their talents. This is the positive side of the scientific and technological revolution.

At the same time, this development has brought with it increasing specialisation of the production process and requires an ever growing bureaucratic structure for organisation of the highly specialised division of labour in production.

As a result, alienation of labour (as well as suppression, rather than unfolding, of human talents) and estrangement of the individual have intensified and became more unfathomable.

The activity of the individual is very broadly uncoupled from the social effects of this activity. The social processes are no longer immediately observable as a whole and can no longer be made comprehensible in a simple graphic way.

As production, reproduction, and the use of leisure time interpenetrate, they appear accidental, chaotic, and guided by innumerable individual acts of will, thus giving rise to the illusion of freedom and realisation of personality.

But this appearance is deceptive. The principle of realisation of capitalist profit makes human beings mere cogs in the system of production.

Within capitalism there is an inversion in that the interests of capital are functionally put above the interests of humanity – and consequently the relations of production, the real purpose of which, after all, is to satisfy the needs of human beings, actually become an aim in itself in that the needs of human beings are subordinated to it.

This inversion of the human meaning of production is the structural contradiction that resides in each class society and to the highest degree in the capitalist one.

Capitalism has no strategy for doing away with the mass of misery in the poor countries of the Third World, but has strategies for reproducing the contradiction between exploiters and exploited on the national terrain of each country.

The shamelessness with which the bourgeois politicians present the so-called two-thirds-society as an acceptable model for the coming decades demonstrates the unreadiness of capitalism to guarantee everyone a proportionate share in the social wealth, even in their own countries.

A society in which a human being is only a functioning element in the relations of production will deal with the threat to the environmental conditions for human survival not for the sake of human beings, but only within the framework of preserving the economically necessary conditions in which human beings function as consumers – in whatever way they are made to fit into the system.

Peace remains – as we have seen since 1945 – only because war with a global political goal cannot be limited regionally, although the military plans of NATO already envisage the possibility of an armed conflict in Europe and capitalist countries try their test wars without reluctance, where they think it necessary to enforce their particular interests.

The root contradiction of all previous societies consists in the fact that the social wealth produced by the people – goods, services, social safeguards and cultural values – is not returned to the people in any just measure. Instead, the owners of the productive forces skim off a profit, which they are then able to use to increase profits further.

During the development phase of capitalism, the profit motive was a decisive factor for technological, and hence social, progress. But now the accumulation of capital has become independent of people, made people dependent, and turned the goal of production into its opposite.

In life, when we have to make a decision, we consider the question of its meaning. But the dominant answer of bourgeois philosophy since neo-Kantianism, and especially since the theoretical concepts of Max Weber, is that factual knowledge and value judgements have to be kept strictly separate.

Preferences as to value were to be free decision of the subject (even if conditioned possibly by a cultural framework), but they could not be resolved according to scientific criteria; it was to be left to each individual to decide what to strive for. Accordingly there would also have to be a politically respected pluralism of values, a laissez-faire of goals, which are achieved by means of power or through a majority.

From this freedom to set private and arbitrary goals above the general well-being results the chaos of bourgeois society, in which economic misery alone asserts itself. Together with greater wealth, even more power is produced.

Wars, ecological crises, misery in the Third World, and unemployment are engendered by it. People are reduced to impersonal machines of production lacking freedom of decision over what is happening to them or to the products they make. Even their free time is cut out from them.

Cultural deprivation, resignation, demoralisation, consumption of drugs and criminality are the consequences. The Marxist theory of society has correctly referred to a general crisis of capitalism.

But this characterisation of our epoch should not have been allowed to obscure the fact that capitalism can do well during its general crisis. For a type of society that arose out of a basic contradiction, crisis is its normal form of existence. This type of society reproduces itself through crisis as an organism – although at the expense of the majority of people.

This strength of capitalism, that in its competition with the socialist countries it was able to force onto them its laws of crisis (arms race, impoverishment of others economically weaker) was for too long underestimated by the political leaders and theorists of the socialist states and the Communist parties. Wishful thinking was superimposed on the historical-materialist analysis of the systems.

In fact, capitalism succeeded in imposing on the whole world, including the former socialist countries, the consequences of the forms of capitalist production.

Capitalism armed, so socialism also had to arm to meet the threat. But military production suits the capitalist system because it serves capital accumulation; for socialism it is hostile to the system because it squanders social wealth. Thus socialism suffered more from the arms race.

Capitalism satisfied its growing energy needs with quickly available nuclear energy. So socialism had to build nuclear power plants in order to avoid an energy deficit.

Capitalism worked with environmentally damaging technologies for the sake of accelerating growth, and socialism went along as best it could in order to maintain its level of productivity within the competition between the systems.

Examples like this should make it clear how absurd it is to assert that capitalists are arming, endangering the environment, and so forth but that socialists should do better. The world is indivisible, and the stronger system forces certain attitudes on the weaker one.

The struggle against the hegemony of capitalism can be carried out only by breaking up its inner contradictions; it is not a struggle between two blocks but a struggle for a change in the world system in which the interests of humanity are sacrificed to the interests of capital accumulation.

It is a struggle within the system, and where socialist states had emerged they constituted bastions of this struggle within the capitalist world system – bastions that were always threatened.

We must understand the international nature of the class struggle as characteristic for our era. Only with such an understanding we can comprehend global problems as global ones and at the same time as the absolute critical point of the class specificity of capitalism.

Global problems cannot be solved either individually or through isolated reforms, even though it is necessary to tackle them instant by instant, and singly, wherever their effects show up.

Piecemeal action, however, the method of bourgeois social sciences and of the mere reformers, is not sufficient. Global problems must be seen in the overall context in which the different circumstances are mutually dependent.

There can be no real solution to environmental questions while the impoverishment of the poor countries is not overcome. But under capitalist conditions of development the impoverishment of the poor countries continues.

There is no permanent guarantee for peace as long as capitalism produces hunger, misery and oppression.

There will be no just distribution of social wealth, and therefore no realisation of human rights, as long as the principal condition of production is the private appropriation of surplus value. Global problems constitute an insoluble complex.

Materialist dialectics is the method that can penetrate this complex to define its contradictions, to restructure its shape and laws of motion, and to design a system in which these contradictions and their self-destructing effects are removed.

The crisis of capitalism consists in the fact that it cannot solve the problems engendered by its mode of production within the framework of its conditions of production.

Socialism should have done it, but it was still too weak to be able to be the dominating voice in the competition of systems.

The weakness of socialism was the strength of capitalism, which of course played on this weakness although at the cost of its inner contradictions.

It must not be the politics of communists to pretend to a strength they do not have – much less, however, to open up to capitalism and to compromise with it out of weakness.

Communist politics are based in the recognition of the contradictions under capitalism; the masses must be made aware of them, their victims must be mobilised, fronts must be established at the boundary positions of these contradictions in order to erect political positions that make it difficult or impossible for the rulers to declare their special interests the uncontested norm.

Struggle for the strengthening of the influence of trade unions, for co-determination, against unemployment. Struggle for humane living and working conditions, against discrimination against women, minorities, and foreigners. Struggle against the curtailment, and for the restoration of democratic rights. Struggle, through citizen initiatives, against arbitrary government officials and companies. Struggle, above all, for the preservation of peace.

In short, struggle for everything humane that is being denied and destroyed by capitalism.

But not simply struggle to alleviate this or that shortcoming here or there, but combined with the explanation that there is a social alternative – a social system: – socialism in which the structural causes that have led to inhumane conditions will be eliminated, an explanation that this alternative is not an utopian dream, but is based on scientific knowledge of history.

The struggle for socialism will also be a struggle for the solution of global problems, and not the reverse and for the solution of global problems we need a Marxist theory.

It was Marx who recognised the historic mission of the working class. Those who do not own means of production also cannot skim off surplus value. Thus they have no private, egoistic interest in exploiting people or nature.

The class interests that they fight for are those of the human species. Workers fight for the emancipation of all people while fighting for their own.

Nothing has changed in this relationship even if the outward conditions of the working class, those who depend on wages, have improved since the time of Marx, and exploitation has become less obvious in the rich industrial countries (thanks to the struggle of working-class organisations).

The crisis phenomena of capitalism that we notice every day despite the glittering supply of goods can only be mastered by doing away with the contradiction which they arise from, the private appropriation of social wealth for increasing accumulation of capital.

The political front that runs through our society remains just as described by Marx: Here the exploited, there the exploiters.

National and global problems, the doing of capitalism, can only be solved by the undoing of capitalism.

Questions of humanity, precisely because they are questions of humanity, are first and foremost the contents of the class struggle. A universal humanism cutting across class lines is a bourgeois illusion, possible only in the mind. Humanism becomes real only in class struggle.

This self-consciousness must be won back by communists, by the whole labour movement. This they can do if they retain their scientific self-understanding, whose foundations were laid by Marx and Engels – not "turn back", but proceed on its basis and analyse the present situation with the conceptual instrumentation with which they are equipped in Marxism-Leninism, so as to be able to guide their activity.

Political action, however, is more than just the conversion of theory into practice. It also involves above all the visualisation of historical experiences, the successes and the failure in our own history.

The international labour movement and the communist parties have a long tradition of class battles, of victories wrested from the bourgeoisie as well as setbacks that threatened defeat.

The construction of socialism and the international struggles of communists took place under extremely difficult conditions, which reproduced themselves in contradictions, mistakes and frightful deformations. But these too belong to our history and must be assimilated into it – not through mourning (as we are advised), but scientifically, with a stern look backward and a resolute look ahead.

On that account alone is the call "Back to Marx" false: Marx, Engels and Lenin are obviously an integral part of our theoretical consciousness, which must be continually tested and renewed.

The history of the Third International, the fight against fascism, the great and victorious liberation movements in the formerly colonial countries: Cuba, Nicaragua, South Africa, for example, and the experiences of the Chilean resistance – these are, too, parts of our identity.

Since the October Revolution there have been political and theoretical developments in Marxism-Leninism, positive and negative, that belong to the reality content of our present day consciousness.

Communists are materialists; they believe that the world is knowable and – in accord with nature – can be shaped in a planned way. Therefore they hazard the hope that people can make the world better. That is why they work for a scientific world view.

This understanding combines with outrage at injustice and the drive to end oppression and exploitation to provide the essential unwavering motive underlying their political activity.

They do not believe in a hereafter or in a fate to which they are subject. They know that if they want to live in a better way, they have to make it happen themselves.

Back to index page