Of all the Social Democrats that criticized Rosa Luxemburg’s “Accumulation of Capital,” the most important contribution was that of Otto Bauer (1881-1938). Bauer was a leader of the Austrian Social Democratic Party and became the party’s top leader in 1918.
In order to refute the breakdown theory that Rosa Luxemburg presented in her “Accumulation of Capital,” Bauer developed a diagram of expanded capitalist reproduction that, unlike Marx’s, included a rising organic composition of capital and consequently a falling rate of profit.
Bauer set himself the task of proving that even in the face of a falling rate of profit, expanded reproduction could not only proceed smoothly, it could do so at an accelerating pace. An accelerating rate of accumulation—a rising rate of economic growth—would be necessary if full employment was to be maintained in the face of the rising labor productivity implied in Bauer’s diagram.
Bauer’s diagram of expanded reproduction does illustrate some of the fundamental laws of motion of the capitalist system that Marx’s own diagrams do not. Unlike Marx’s diagrams, Bauer’s diagram includes the rising organic composition of capital, a falling rate of profit, a rising mass of profit, and the faster development of Department I—the department that produces the means of production—relative to Department II—the branch that produces the means of personal consumption.
Bauer’s diagram therefore illustrates some basic laws of motion of the capitalist system that Marx developed only in volume III of “Capital” and therefore, according to Marx’s method of presentation, is unknown in volume II. Not only the quantitative growth of the productive forces but also their qualitative growth are illustrated in Bauer’s diagram of expanded capitalist reproduction.
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Among the assertions of the revisionist movement, led by Eduard Bernstein within the German Social Democratic Party, was their claim that generalized world economic crises were unlikely to recur. Similar claims were made during the 1960s—taken seriously by certain Marxists of those days—as well as during the recent “Great Moderation.”
Bernstein thought that general crises were already a thing of the past in the late 1890s. A little premature to say the least! This was well before such economists as John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman, who according to their followers had discovered the way to abolish capitalist crises without abolishing capitalism itself. It seems that such bourgeois claims—always duly echoed by certain forces in the workers’ and left movements such as Bernstein’s original revisionists—are themselves cyclical.
While Bernstein and other like-minded forces in the old Social Democracy held that capitalist crises were fading away, revolutionists like Rosa Luxemburg put great emphasis on the periodic capitalist economic crises. To the revolutionary wing of the Social Democracy, the recurring capitalist economic crises were a sign of the approaching “breakdown” of capitalism, the very “breakdown” that the revisionists denied. The revisionists pointed to the “fact” that crises were becoming less intense and generalized as a sign that capitalism was adapting itself to the new forces of production that were being created.
Bernstein and his fellow revisionists drew the conclusion that the perspective was not a workers’ revolution that would overthrow the political rule of the capitalist class and then transform the capitalist form of economy into socialism. Instead, the revisionists foresaw a gradual and more or less continuous reform of the existing social order in the interest of the workers.
Or, as Bernstein put it, the movement is everything, the final goal is nothing. From the revisionist perspective, a major future capitalist economic crisis would only get in the way of the struggle for reforms. The different views on capitalist crises and their future among the German Social Democrats of a century ago coincided with the divisions between the revolutionists on the left, the revisionists on the right, and the centrists who wavered between the two.
In the years that followed, and down to our own day, the attitude toward crises and the tendency toward a an economic breakdown of capitalism has continued to divide the left and right wings within the workers’ movement.
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In this series of posts, I have examined the question of whether the capitalist economy experiences cycles that are considerably longer than the industrial cycles of approximately 10 years. It’s been proposed by various economists over the last hundred years that in addition to 10-year industrial cycles and shorter “inventory cycles,” there also exists a “long cycle” of approximately 50 years’ duration.
Over the last several months, I have examined the concrete history of the cycles and crises that have occurred in the global capitalist economy from the crisis of 1847 to the crisis of 2007-09. Over these 161 years, we have seen decades when economic growth surged ahead, and other periods dominated by prolonged depression or stagnation.
Changing patterns of cycles and crises
While industrial cycles of approximately 10 years have been a remarkably persistent feature of capitalism, there have been periods when these cycles have been suppressed by world wars and other periods when we have had only partial cycles.
For example, the two world wars of the 20th century suppressed to a considerable degree the entire process of expanded capitalist reproduction. Since industrial cycles arise within the broader process of the expanded reproduction of capital, wartime suppression of expanded capitalist reproduction suppressed the industrial cycle.
After the super-crisis of 1929-33—itself part of the aftermath of the World War I war economy—there was no complete industrial cycle. The brutal deflationary policy of the Roosevelt administration in 1936-37 prevented the cyclical recovery of 1933-37 developing into a real boom. The war economy of World War II replaced the recovery that followed the 1937-38 recession before it could develop into a boom. Therefore, in the years from the super-crisis of 1929-33 until after World War II we saw only partial industrial cycles.
No full industrial cycle between 1968 and 1982
There was also no complete industrial cycle between 1968 and the beginning of the “Volcker shock” in 1982. During the recessions of 1970 and 1974-75, governments and central banks attempted to force recoveries through deficit spending and monetary expansion. Under the conditions prevailing at that time, these repeated attempts to force a recovery simply led to panicky flights from the dollar and paper currencies in general, causing the recoveries to abort. Full industrial cycles of more or less 10-year duration only reappeared after the Volcker shock of 1979-82.
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