Revolution or War n°22

(September 2022)

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Criticism of The Contribution "Capitalism and Democracy"

In the previous issue of this journal, we published the last part, Capitalism and Democracy [1], of the series of contributions on Communism and Community and Marxism and Knowledge in RoW #19 and 20. It raised a number of criticisms in our ranks which were presented succinctly in the introduction made by the editorial team in RoW #21. We publish here a more argued response.

Criticism of The Contribution Capitalism and Democracy

“I’ve seen a screw machine in London that makes three thousand screws in an hour. If only I could implement that here!”

(The Effingers, a Berlin Saga, Gabriele Tergit)

The contribution Capitalism and Democracy contradicts several points of the platform we have just adopted while calling into question entire passages of K. Marx’s Capital and the political lessons of the Communist Left. The basic political error, undoubtedly due to the initial approach, lies in the parallel and direct link it makes between the passage from formal domination [subsumption [2]] to real domination of capitalism and the development of ’democracy’. Let us quote the most problematic passage:

“The rise of capitalism and the rise of bourgeois democracy are inseparably linked. (…) It is important to distinguish two distinct phases in the history of capitalism. The first phase, which Marx calls the formal domination of capital, and which includes the process of primitive accumulation, refers to the phase in which capital emerges and dissolves the old traditional social relations. To do this, capitalism necessarily takes a rather authoritarian and undemocratic form. Examples include the censitary suffrage in most of the young Western democracies of the 18th and 19th centuries, or the establishment of English workhouses in the same period. But even the Russian Gulag and the Chinese Great Leap Forward appear as equally authoritarian forms of the emergence of national capital. Between primitive European accumulation and the authoritarian regimes of the Eastern bloc in the 20th century, there is in fact more of a difference in form, linked to the different eras, than in substance. Once capitalism enters its phase of real domination (...) it can let go and thus become more and more liberal in the modern sense of the term. If we take our examples mentioned above, England is much more democratic today than it was in the 18th century. Similarly, Russia and China are also much more democratic than they were in the mid-20th century, despite the fact that these are regimes that are considered undemocratic by the West”

Let’s summarize the point. The phase of formal domination would correspond to an “authoritarian and undemocratic” form of the capitalist state, as the example of the United Kingdom in the 18th century and “the censitary suffrage in most of the young Western democracies of the 18th and 19th centuries” attest; but also the Russian gulag or the Maoist great leap forward in China, the first in the 1930s and the second in 1950. In other words, the transition from one form of domination to another would have taken place in the 19th century for England and in the 20th for Russia and China. Moreover, there is only a difference in form between primitive accumulation in Europe, which “appears as ’primitive’ because if forms the pre-history of capital” [3] according to K. Marx, and the Stalinist dictatorships in Russia and China in the 20th century. Finally, the more capital develops, the more it could “let go [and its political apparatus become] more and more liberal in the modern sense of the word” to the point that England would be, according to the contribution, much more democratic today than then.

In The Capital, K. Marx explains that the formal domination of capitalism corresponds to the extraction of absolute surplus-value and to the labor process linked to the manufacture as opposed to the factory and then to large-scale industry; the latter corresponding to the extraction of relative surplus-value and to real domination. “That form of cooperation which is based on division of labor assumes its classical shape in manufacture. As a characteristic form of the capitalist process of production it prevails throughout the manufacturing period properly so-called, which extends, roughly speaking, from the middle of the sixteenth century to the last third of the eighteenth century.” [4] In other words, according to Marx, the transition from formal to real domination takes place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. “At the same time as machine production was becoming more general, in the first decades of the nineteenth century, it [large-scale industry] gradually took over the construction of the machines themselves.” [5] In the same way, since a long time, the Communist Left has revealed that the late USSR and the so-called People Republic of China were only particular forms of the universal tendency to state capitalism, itself being “first and foremost a political response against the proletariat and for the needs of imperialist war” according to our platform; and therefore having nothing to do with the passage to real domination or even less with the primitive accumulation of capital. Finally, “the old, bourgeois, parliamentary democracy” according to Lenin [6] was far from strengthening with the apogee of capitalism, then its phase of historical decline and the development of state capitalism, including in the historical countries of so-called democratic capitalism. On the contrary, it proved to be ever more authoritarian and totalitarian, to the point that as early as 1920, the Communist International affirmed that “the center of gravity of political life has at present been removed finally and completely beyond the bounds of parliament.”

Formal and Real Domination According to The Modernist Group Invariance

For anyone who has read, or taken a look at, the journal Invariance [7] of the 1960s-1970s, the parallel between its theorization of the formal and real domination of capitalism and the approach of the contribution Capitalism and Democracy is striking. The difference is that the former goes much further in its political implications. Let’s stop there for a moment.

What does Invariance say? In its 1969 Working Theses [8] on The Communist Revolution, Invariance relies on the distinction between the two phases of formal and real domination to establish the passage from one to the other in the 20th century: “during the period which goes from 1870 to 1914 (...) capitalism extends to the whole planet, but it is mostly a simple formal domination. (...) When the war of 1914 broke out, a period of profound crisis for the capitalist mode of production began. It is the period of its metamorphosis, from its form of formal domination to the real one.” This metamorphosis extends until 1945: “It is only by ensuring its absolute domination over the proletariat that capitalism achieves its real domination. This is what happened during the two world wars.” So we are far, very far, from what The Capital puts forwards. And close, very close, to what the contribution Capitalism and Democracy advances.

In fact, Invariance makes a sleight of hand by taking up concepts used in The Capital while substituting another theoretical and historical content. The Capital merely studies the process of the capitalist mode of production and, in the distinction between formal and real domination, the technical process of labor, which allows us to understand the difference between the extraction of absolute and relative surplus-value and how the productivity of labor will explode with large-scale industry up to the present days, making communist society not only possible but indispensable. “Intrinsically, it is not a question of higher or lower degree of development of the social antagonisms that spring from the natural laws of capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves…” K. Marx underlines in the Preface of the first edition, describing his work. For its part, Invariance extends “the real domination of capital (...) to the subordination of all social or political components to capital”, this being realized “on the society” at the “higher or lower degree of development of the social antagonisms”; contrary to The Capital therefore. In so doing, it reduces all the phenomena more or less linked to the development of state capitalism since 1914 for the purposes of the world war to the passage from the formal to the real domination of capitalism. Now, the generalized imperialist war is the highest expression of the economic crisis in the so-called period of decline or decadence of capitalism and of its historical impasse. It does not express any still progressive or historically necessary period of capitalism such as the transition to the real domination of capitalism would be, and was in its time.

“… It is clear that the transition from the manufactory to the factory is particularly important when we deal with the development of capitalism. Whoever confuses these two stages deprives himself of the possibility of understanding the transforming, progressive role of capitalism.” [9]

And it is precisely here, politically, where Invariance’s modernist revisionism falls off the political mask. The passage from formal domination to “real domination over society” is used as a theoretical justification to grant a progressive character to Mao Tse Tung’s Chinese great leap forward and to... Stalinism and Fascism: “Fascism, Nazism, the New Deal, Francoism, Salazarism, as well as Stalinism, have a fundamental role in the establishment of the real domination of capital over society.”; or “the crisis of 1913 was linked to the transformation of capital, to its passage – on a social scale – from formal domination to real domination; the political form of the latter being fascism.” [10] Fascism, Nazism, American New Deal and Stalinism are no longer expressions and diverse actors – all counter-revolutionary – of the universal tendency to state capitalism for the needs of generalized imperialist war, and against the revolutionary proletariat; but expressions and actors of the progressive passage towards the real domination of capital. From there to support them as progressive, there is only a door to cross and that Invariance has left wide open. And that it crosses cheerfully, at least in the support of the struggles of national liberation: “After 1945 (...) it was the grandiose struggle of the so-called colored peoples against Western capitalism. (...) First there was the great revolutionary wave in Asia, then in Africa.” (Working Theses)

In the end, Invariance has the “merit” of not denying that it openly questions Marx, who “did not produce an explanation of real domination.” [11] At least this is clear to all.

Formal and Real Domination According to The Capital

In the limits of our critique, we cannot make an a minima presentation of the description that K. Marx makes in The Capital of the passage from manufacture to factory, and then to large-scale industry [12]. We just want to insist here on the revolutions in the technical process of labour that took place with the introduction of the machine tool, and thus the development of the factory and then of large-scale industry, in order to understand whether the process leading to the passage from formal domination to real domination must necessarily be repeated identically and autonomously according to the countries in question, depending on their accession to the nation-state and to the parliamentary bourgeois democracy that classically accompanies it. This is what Invariance and the contribution Capitalism and Democracy advance by presenting Stalinism in Russia in the 1930s and the Great Leap Forward in China as moments of the transition to the real domination of capital.

As we have already mentioned, K. Marx “contents himself” – if one may say so – to make “the analysis of a process of production into its particular phases” [13], its technical process. In manufacturing, “handicraft [of the self-employed worker, the craftsman] remains the basis. (...) The skill of the craftsman remains the foundation of the manufacture.” [14] The tool remains there in the service of the worker whereas it is the worker who puts himself in the service of the machine in the large-scale industry which, by means of the machine-tool, revolutionizes the technical process of labour. “Steam and machinery revolutionised industrial production. The place of manufacture was taken by the giant, Modern Industry.” (Communist Manifesto) From then on, “capital threw itself with all its might, and in full awareness of the situation, into the production of relative surplus-value, by speeding up the development of the machine system.” [15]

Insofar as The Capital mentions the transition from one domination to another only in Western Europe and provides examples almost exclusively from England, it is tempting to believe that the transition from manufacture to large-scale industry in the first half of the 19th century concerns only this country, or even part of Western Europe, where the revolutionary bourgeoisie succeeded in creating the nation-state and thus a national market against the resistance and opposition of the feudal aristocracy. The new capitalist nations constituted afterwards would then have had to go through the same successive process of “domestic industry-manufacture-factory-large scale industry”. This mechanical, non-dialectical, scheme is already contradicted by the particular cases of Germany and Italy, whose constitution as a nation-state, accompanied by parliamentary democratic regimes, although headed by an emperor and a king, dates from 1870. “The forms in which Italian industry will appear are of the great monopoly; the improvements that had required long years in other countries will transplant themselves directly to Italy.” [16] In other words, the development of industrial capitalism in Italy is made directly from the modern process of work, from large-scale industry, through the introduction of the machine tool existing on the universal market. The real domination of capital and the extraction of relative surplus value are already a reality in Italy, even if manufacturing and formal domination are still widespread in the country. [17] If we remain faithful to the definition of the formal and real domination of capitalism put forward in The Capital, which is limited to the labor process, as opposed to that of Invariance, which extends “over the whole of society”, then it is clear that the capitalist development of China takes place from the outset under the same conditions, those of large-scale industry and the labor process that goes with it. In China, “after the revolution of 1911, the trade union movement developed rapidly. Alongside the old guilds of craftsmen and apprentices, the first workers’ unions were formed in some industrial centers. But it was above all the world war that, with the decrease in imports, caused the development of indigenous industry and, as a result, an increase in the working class.” [18]

Formal and Real Domination in Russia According to Lenin

For Invariance, “Lenin’s time [in 1916 when he published Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism] was the one of the transition to the real domination of capital” in Russia. In The Development of Capitalism in Russia, written in 1899, Lenin succeeds brilliantly in declining the teachings of The Capital on the transition from the formal to the real domination of capital to the development of capitalism in Russia.

“So long as capitalism in Russia did not organise large-scale machine industry, and in those industries in which it has not done so yet, we see almost complete stagnation in technique, we see the employment of the same hand-loom and the same watermill or windmill that were used in production centuries ago. On the other hand, in industries subordinated to the factory we observe a complete technical revolution and extremely rapid progress in the methods of machine production.” [19]

He already rejects there the thesis which will become thereafter that of the Mensheviks and Plekhanov in particular, according to which the proletariat in Russia could only support the bourgeoisie for the needs of the bourgeois revolution. But above all, he affirms that the transition to large-scale industry has already been accomplished in Russia in spite of the historical backwardness of Russian capitalism:

“This picture clearly shows, on the one hand, that commodity circulation and, hence, commodity production are firmly implanted in Russia. Russia is a capitalist country. On the other hand, it follows from this that Russia is still very backward, as compared with other capitalist countries (…). The complete separation of industry from agriculture is effected only by large-scale machine industry. The Russian facts fully confirm this thesis, [we underline] which was established by the author of Capital for other countries, but which is usually ignored by the Narodnik economists.” [20]

The result is that, according to Lenin himself, Russia is a fully-fledged capitalist country, which does not detract from its historical backwardness, where large-scale industry is decisive, even if it is a ’minority’, and the real domination of capital has already been achieved several decades before the Russian Revolution and the 1930s; this is the very decade where Capitalism and Democracy sets out the emergence of [Russian] national capital.”

Real Domination of Capital and “Democracy”

The contribution Capitalism and Democracy differs on one point from Invariance’s theses: on the question of democracy. Indeed, and contrary to the latter, it argues that with the real domination definitively established, capitalism “can let go and thus become more and more liberal in the modern sense of the term” to the point that “England is much more democratic today than it was in the 18th century.” We have seen that the real domination of capitalism and the development of ’bourgeois democracy’ were not directly linked, one not automatically determining the other. In this sense, if the hypothesis of a more accomplished bourgeois democracy were valid for today’s England, it would have nothing to do with a phenomenon, the transition to real domination, that dates back almost two centuries now in this case. But for all that, is bourgeois democracy more effective, ’less authoritarian’ to use the terms, today than in the past, than in the 19th century? This position openly contradicts the point of our platform on The Parliamentary and Electoral Mystification:

“With the entry of the system into its phase of increasing domination of state capitalism for the needs of generalized imperialist war, the parliament ceases to be an organ in which the different bourgeois fractions debate and settle their differences, which could leave space for the other classes. With the imperialist war and faced with the revolutionary threat of the proletariat, the executive definitively takes precedence over the legislative, the governments over the parliaments, which are now only recording chambers for government decisions.”

Besides this contradiction with our platform, which should be argued, the text suffers from its initial approach. It addresses the question of democracy in itself. The first paragraph even explicitly claims this abstract methodological approach: “we will attempt in this contribution to analyze democracy in itself, without any other adjective.” The addition, often, not always, of the classist qualifier of bourgeois to democracy does not succeed in modifying the angle adopted from the start and the method it induces. Hence, for example, formulas at the same time a-classist and a-historical on ’democracy’ presented several times as only conservative or only guarantor of the social order: “democracy is the political form par excellence of social conservation”, “The dynamism of democracy aims above all at socio-political conservation, at maintaining the strict political status quo”… If this is the case, it is difficult to understand why both Marx and Lenin, to name but two, supported democratic movement and even ’revolution’, especially in Germany and Russia, including against the bourgeoisie when it was unable to take the lead and assume this struggle: “The proletariat must carry to completion the democratic revolution, by allying to itself the mass of the peasantry in order to crush by force the resistance of the autocracy and to paralyse the instability of the bourgeoisie.” [21](Lenin)

Historically, the process leading to the advent of bourgeois democracy was not directly and mechanically linked to the economic development of national capital. It was the product... of the class struggle, itself determined in the last instance by the development of capitalism. It resulted from the ability, or not, of the bourgeoisie to wage its own class struggle against the remnants of feudalism and for the establishment of a bourgeois state apparatus, of which democracy and parliament in particular were the classical attributes. These were the most appropriate tools for the bourgeoisie to manage and settle its disputes, mainly between its commercial, industrial and financial fractions. The fact that suffrage was not universal, remained censal, does not change the degree of ’democracy’ for the bourgeoisie itself. But in arguing that England is more democratic today than it was at the beginning of the 20th century, the contribution relies on the fact that the vote is now universal. It is thus a victim of the democratic mystification of decadent capitalism. The fact that the vote is today universal does not reinforce the more democratic or liberal character of the capitalist state, but on the contrary the mystifying character that has become dominant of parliament and elections against the proletariat.

In the end, beyond the flirting with the modernist sirens of Invariance, the contribution weakens, to say the least, the overall coherence of our platform and the theoretical basis of most of the class frontiers that are exposed in it: state capitalism as an expression of capitalist decadence; the counterrevolutionary character of Stalinism and national liberation struggles; even, in the name of the progressive character of the transition to real domination, the equally counterrevolutionary character of frontism with bourgeois political forces; and our position on elections and parliament. In particular, the point on The Conditions of Proletarian Struggle Against State Capitalism, based precisely on the development of state capitalism – and not on the transition to real domination achieved “in the last third of the 18th century” – sees its theoretical and principled foundation seriously weakened, at the risk of being nothing more than an abstract declaration of intent and of breaking the indispensable unity between theory, principles and tactics.

RL, July 2022



[2. In the English version, Marx used subsumption in stead of domination. In French, he used domination.

[3. The Capital, Vol.1, chapter 26, The Secret of Primitive Accumulation, Penguin Classics.

[4. Op. Cit, chap. 14, The Division of Labour and Manufacture, I. The Dual Origin of Manufacture.

[5. Op. Cit, chap. 15 Machinery and Large-Scale Industry, I. The Development of Machinery.

[6. Theses on Bourgeois Democracy and The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, 1919, 1st Congress of the International Communist.

[7.Invariance is a French magazine edited by Jacques Camatte, published since 1968. It emerged from the Italian left-communist tradition associated with Amadeo Bordiga and it originally bore the subtitle ’Invariance of the theory of the proletariat’, indicating Bordiga’s notion of the unchanging nature of communist theory. (...) However, around 1972-75 it broke with many of the tenets of Bordigism and Marxism per se, arguing that in the aftermath of May ’68 there was no longer any potential for the working class to escape the domination of capital through revolution.” (Wikipedia)

[8. We translate from French and we refer to Part 4, le développement du capitalisme, of these extremely long theses (

[9. Lenin, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, chap. VII, I. The Scientific Conception of the Factory… (

[11. We cannot mention here all the so-called modernist positions of this group claiming to Marx’s superseding [dépassement] and the disappearance of the proletariat, making that “insofar as one can no longer speak of class, it is no longer possible to speak of party even in its historical sense. It is important to put the community in the foreground. The parties become rackets.”

[12. We refer our readers and comrades to the 4th and 5th sections of volume 1 of The Capital, ’The Production of Relative Surplus Value’ and ’The Production of Absolute and Relative Surplus Value’, Penguin Classics; or simply to the... Manifesto of the Communist Party, which, as early as 1847, already deals with the already accomplished transition from manufacture and to large-scale industry.

[13. Op. Cit, chap. XIV, I. The Dual Origin of Manufacture.

[14. Idem. But, we stick to the French version of the Éditions sociales, which refers explicitly to the manufacture while the English does not.

[15. Op. Cit, chap. 15, III. c) Intensification of Labour.

[16. Bilan #20, Report on The Situation in Italy, 1935, Left Fraction of the CP of Italy, translated from French.

[17. The advent of real domination and relative surplus-value is not contradicted by the maintenance of formal forms of domination and absolute surplus-value. “If we consider the two forms of surplus-value, absolute and relative, separately, we shall see that absolute surplus-value always precedes relative. To these two forms of surplus-value there correspond two separate forms of the subsumption of labour under capital, two distinct forms of capitalist production. And here too one form always precedes the other, although the second form, the more highly developed one, can provide the foundations for the introduction of the first in new branches of industry.” (Results of The Immediate Process of Production, The Real Subsumption of Capital known as Chapitre inédit du capital in French) Even today, in particular in the luxury industry which calls upon the old handicraft of traditional craftsmanship, one can still speak of absolute surplus value, as in the case of the seamstresses of the high fashion houses or of works such as the stonecutters for the renovation of castles or old houses...

[18. Bilan #9, La Chine soviétique, 1934, translated from French. The Manifesto is also clear on this issue as early as 1847 : “The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market (...) has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations. (…) The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls...”

[19. Lenin, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, ch. VII, part XII (

[20. idem. Part V and IX.

[21. Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, 1905, part 12.