The Catastrophic Failure of the Theory of “Catastrophism” (Part 5)



Excurse: The Theory of “Long Waves” and Dialectical Materialism




At this point we wish to make a brief note about a kind of criticism against PO’s “catastrophism” which we consider as misplaced. It seems to us that some critics are “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”, as the old German saying goes. They oppose PO’s insistence on the permanent and uninterrupted decline of capitalism by emphasizing its cyclical nature. However, by doing so, they ignore the long-term trend of capitalism in the imperialist epoch. They rather end up in a mechanistic schema of regular alternating periods of ups and downs. Various economists – both bourgeois as well as some Marxists – have used such a scheme to support the so-called theory of “long waves”.


While here is not the place for an extended critique of the theory of long waves, we wish to make a few remarks. [1] We consider such ones as important as an accurate critique of the wrong conception of PO must be based on a clear Marxist basis and not on mechanistic, undialectical revisionism.


The long waves theory was first developed by Professor Nikolai Dmitrievich Kondratiev, whose background was the petty bourgeois current of Russian Social Revolutionaries. [2] It was taken up and further developed in different ways both by bourgeois theorists and various post-war theoreticians of Marxism. The most well-known theorist of the long waves in the centrist “Trotskyist” camp is the late Ernest Mandel who was leader of the biggest revisionist post-war currents claiming to constitute the Fourth International. [3]


The theory of long waves divides the capitalist epoch into two types of alternating period — the so-called long waves of upturn and downturn. These each last 20-25 years, in which a decisive factor is the period of depreciation of the relevant technology. In this way Kondratieff explains the 50-year cycle as due to the lifespan of fixed capital.


Mandel then tried to combine this Kondratiev techno-fetishist schematism with Marxism, in that he gave a central role to technological innovation and sought to connect this to the development of the rate of profit. But he remains within the bounds of the schematism of the 20-25 year-long wave motion.


As we outlined above, our critique of the long waves theory has nothing to do with rejecting the historical subdivision of capitalism into segments. However, we reject the long waves theory as un-Marxist, firstly because it ignores the primary significance of the relevant epoch of capitalism for the specific character of a given period within such epoch (as the epoch of up-and-coming free competition capitalism of the 19th century or the epoch of declining monopoly capitalism since the beginning of the 20th century).


Secondly, and related to this, such a periodization of the history of capitalism has a schematic and unhistorical character. The long waves theory is a one-dimensional theory which can only see the world economy in terms of the simple parameters of up- and downturn periods. In the final analysis, it reproduces a bourgeois image of history of eternal repetition in the form of upward and downward motion of the economy. Through this lack of dialectics it is completely unfitted to grasp the many dimensions of complex capitalist reality. Trotsky rightly rejected this simple reduction of the economy to upward and downward movements and developed a model which takes various types of trend as a point of departure.


Thirdly, Kondratieff is wrong to grant a decisive role to technological development. Why should completely different technologies — from the steam engine, via the telegraph and the railways, to the computer — all result in the same time span of 20-25 years for a cycle?! What secret mechanism lies hidden here?!


Fourthly, the schematism of the theory of long waves leads to an undialectical objectivism. If history knows only 20-25 year-long, alternating expanding and contacting waves, what remains for Marxists of the decisive role of the subjective factor, of the class struggle of the proletariat and the intervention of the revolutionary party? Mandel tries to get out of this with a trick, by attributing the switch from a long upward to downward wave to causes inherent (“endogenous”) to capitalism; the switch from long downward to a long upward wave, he puts down, however, to events in the class struggle (“exogenous” causes). This now makes the whole theory completely inconsistent and absurd – why, despite these different causes, do all periods last 20-25 years?!.


In the end, Mandel’s long wave theory is an eclectic broth, an undialectical, dualistic theory which ignores the deep-seated laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production and underestimates the decisive significance of revolutionary class struggle. While Mandel claims to relate to Trotsky’s conception, in fact, the leader of the Third and Fourth International explicitly rejected Kondratiev’s theory. [4] Furthermore, Kondratiev’s theory of long waves was intensively discussed by Soviet economists in the 1920 and rejected by all of them. [5]


Looking at it from a philosophical point of view, we have to say that the theory of long waves is in fact based on a petty-bourgeois, harmonist theory of equilibrium. It views, in the final analysis, capitalism as a system which basically tends to equilibrium and not towards breakdown. It views gradualist evolution and not revolutionary rupture as the prime feature of our epoch.


But from the point of view of dialectical materialism, it is not the static state which is the main characteristic of life in general and capitalism in particular – it is rather motion. Engels emphasized this point of view very clear in his books dealing with dialectical materialism:


The rock comes to rest, but weathering, the action of the ocean surf, of rivers and glacier action continually destroys the equilibrium. Evaporation and rain, wind, heat, electric and magnetic phenomena offer the same spectacle. Finally, in the living organism we see continual motion of all the smallest particles as well as of the larger organs, resulting in the continual equilibrium of the total organism during normal period of life, which yet always remains in motion, the living unity of motion and equilibrium. All equilibrium is only relative and temporary.[6]


Motion is the mode of existence of matter. Never anywhere has there been matter without motion, nor can there be. Motion in cosmic space, mechanical motion of smaller masses on the various celestial bodies, the vibration of molecules as heat or as electrical or magnetic currents, chemical disintegration and combination, organic life -at each given moment each individual atom of matter in the world is in one or other of these forms of motion , or in several forms at once. All rest, all equilibrium, is only relative, only has meaning in relation to one or other definite form of motion. (...) Matter without motion is just as inconceivable as motion without matter. Motion is therefore as uncreatable and indestructible as matter itself.[7]


It is true that some Marxists try to create a synthesis of motion and equilibrium. But such a synthesis is not dialectical but rather mechanistic too. N. A. Karev, a leading philosopher of the great Deborin school which dominated the philosophical discussions in the young Soviet Union in the 1920s before it was crushed by Stalin, remarked appropriately in a polemic:


Bogdanov’s theory of equilibrium basically rests on the static point of view and not the dynamic one, as it recognizes the moment of static state as determining and not the moment of motion of a given body. The category of ‘moving’ equilibrium does not solve the problem as it view the mobility as a breach of the equilibrium and not the other way round – that the state of equilibrium is a provisional and relative moment of stability within the process of motion. The unity of equilibrium  and motion is here understood by emphasizing the category of equilibrium while dialectic emphasizes the motion of a body, which is always and everywhere inherent to it.[8]




From Economic Crisis to Revolutionary Situation?




The comrades of PO might imagine that because of their “catastrophist” analysis of capitalism they would be better positioned to predict revolutionary situations. But this is not true. While the economic dynamic of capitalism is important for the political development of the bourgeois society and the class struggle, it by no means automatically determines the latter. It would be completely wrong to imagine that a recession in itself provokes an uprising of the class struggle. As we demonstrated in our analyses of the world situation in the past decade, the strongest upswing, until now, of the global class struggle in the time-span of the historic period which started in 2008, did not take place in the mid of the recession 2008/09 but rather in the phase after it (2011-13).


It is not the recession in itself (or the boom) which provokes a revolutionary situation but rather the crisis-ridden instability, the economic, political and social zigzags which lead to sharp ruptures in political life.


Trotsky pointed already out in his speeches and writings for the III. Congress of the Communist International in 1921 that there is no kind of automatism between the economic cycle and the political cycle of the class struggle: “Neither impoverishment nor prosperity as such can lead to revolution. But the alternation of prosperity and impoverishment, the crisis, the uncertainty, the absence of stability – these are the motor factors of revolution.” [9]


Revolutionaries have to take into account the complexity of capitalist society. True, the general line of development of the productive forces is the most important factor determining the “curve of capitalism”. But it is not the only one. And when we have to analyze the factors leading to a revolutionary situation, various other factors have to be taken into account.


In addition to the development of the productive forces (which, by the way, have to be viewed in their totality, i.e. economy, living conditions of humanity, environment, etc.), [10] one has to analyze the concrete feature of the economic cycle, the contradiction in the political superstructure of capitalism, the state of the class struggle and the relations of forces between the classes as well as within the workers movement. And finally, and most importantly, we have to look at the state of the revolutionary subject: the working class, the workers vanguard and in particular the revolutionary forces. Without such a concrete analysis, it is impossible to understand the conditions for the emergence and nature of a revolutionary situation in a given country.


[1] For a Marxist critique of this theory we refer to Richard Brenner: Globalization and the Myth of the New Long Wave, in: Richard Brenner, Michael Pröbsting, Keith Spencer: The Credit Crunch - A Marxist Analysis, London 2008,

[2] See Nikolai D Kondratieff: Strittige Fragen der Weltwirtschaft und der Krise (1923); in: Ulrich Hedtke: Stalin oder Kondratieff. Endspiel oder Innovation?, Berlin 1990, p 135-196; Nikolai D. Kondratieff: Die langen Wellen der Konjunktur (1926); Nikolai D. Kondratieff: Die Preisdynamik der industriellen und landwirtschaftlichen Waren (Zum Problem der relativen Dynamik und Konjunktur (1928); both in: Die langen Wellen der Konjunktur, Berlin 1972, p 133-256. We are not aware of English language translations of Kondratiev writings. However, there are books which present his ideas in a comprehensive way. See e.g. Vincent Barnett: Kondratiev and the Dynamics of Economic Development. Long Cycles and Industrial Growth in Historical Context, St. Martin's Press, New York 1998; Naum Jasny: Soviet Economists of the Twenties: Names to be Remembered, Cambridge Russian, Cambridge 1972, pp. 158-178.

[3] See Ernest Mandel: Die langen Wellen im Kapitalismus, ISP Verlag, Frankfurt a.M. 1983; Ernest Mandel: Long Waves of Capitalist Development. A Marxist Interpretation, Verso, London 1995; Ernest Mandel: Explaining long waves of capitalist development, in: Futures Volume 13, Issue 4 (August 1981), pp. 332-338; Ernest Mandel: The International Debate on Long Waves of Capitalist Development: An Intermediary Balance Sheet, in: Alfred Kleinknecht, Ernest Mandel, Immanuel Wallerstein (Editors): New Findings in Long-Wave Research, St. Martin's Press, New York 1992, pp. 316-338; see also Richard B. Day: The Theory of the Long Cycle: Kondratiev, Trotsky, Mandel, in: New Left Review I/99, September-October 1976, pp. 67-82

[4] See Leon Trotsky: The Curve of Capitalist Development (1923)

[5] See Richard B. Day: The ‚Crisis’ and the ‚Crash’. Soviet Studies of the West (1917-1939), London 1981, pp. 87-95

[6] Friedrich Engels: Dialectics of Nature, in: MECW Vol. 25, pp. 525-526

[7] Friedrich Engels: Anti-Dühring. Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science, in: MECW Vol. 25, pp. 55-56

[8] N.A. Karew: Die Theorie des Gleichgewichts und der Marxismus (1929); in: Wilhelm Goerdt (Hrsg.): Die Sowjetphilosophie. Wendigkeit und Bestimmtheit. Dokumente, Darmstadt 1967, p. 140f. (our translation).

[9] Leon Trotsky: Summary Speech (Report on the World Economic Crisis and the Tasks of the Comintern, June 24, 1921, Third Congress of the Communist International, in: The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. I, New Park Publications, London 1973, pp. 285-286

[10] See on this chapter “Box: What are productive forces?” in Michael Pröbsting: Imperialism, Globalization and the Decline of Capitalism (2008), Originally published in the Book Richard Brenner, Michael Pröbsting, Keith Spencer: The Credit Crunch - A Marxist Analysis (2008),