Few words arouse such controversy as “civilization,” which calls to mind the self-appointed mission civilisatrice undertaken by great colonial empires of Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The word’s origins, however, prove far more benign. Etymologically the word derives from the Latin civilis, denoting a higher degree of urbanity and politesse. It is thus historically tied to the sporadic growth of cities, population centers separate from the countryside which often doubled as the seat of political power. Amadeo Bordiga had this in mind when he briefly sketched the meaning of civilization in his polemical letter to the post-Trotskyist group Socialisme ou Barbarie, “Doctrine of the Body Possessed by the Devil” (1951), initially defining civilization by way of contrast. “Barbarism is the opposite of civilization and also of bureaucracy,” wrote Bordiga. “Our barbarian ancestors, lucky them, did not have organizational apparatuses based (old Engels!) on two elements: a defined ruling class as well as a defined territory. Under barbaric conditions there were clans and tribes but not the civitas, meaning city as well as state. Civilization is the opposite of barbarism and means state organization, therefore necessarily bureaucracy; this is what Marxism says.” Henri Lefebvre, a French dissident Marxist, located “the political city at the point of origin on the space-time axis of total urbanization, populated primarily by priests, warriors, princes, ‘nobles,’ and military leaders, but also administrators and scribes.” (The Urban Revolution, pg. 8). Later the political city was supplanted by the mercantile city in Lefebvre’s schema, and this in turn was supplanted by the industrial city.
All this squared neatly with the Marxist classics, as Bordiga alluded to above. Friedrich Engels claimed in his work on Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) that “the fixation of the antithesis between town and country as the basis of the entire social division of labor [is one of the] marks of civilization” (MECW 26, pg. 275). Karl Marx jotted down in one of many barely-legible polyglot scribblings that “about 850 BC civilization began unter the Asiatic Greeks.” Commenting on John Lubbock’s 1870 The Origin of Civilization and Lewis Morgan’s 1877 Ancient Society: Research in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization, Marx noted the historic passage from gentility to civility: “Griechische society first comes under notice around time of… legislation of Cleisthenes, vorgehend Übergang von gentile in political (or civil) Organisation… Er hätte sagen sollen dass political hier Sinn des Aristoteles hat = städtisch und politisches animal = Stadtbürger, ζῷον πολιτικόν. Der Township, mit der fixed property it contained und people who inhabited for the time being, was to become the unit of organization; gentilis transformed into civis” (Ethnographic Notebooks, pgs. 196-197). Vere Gordon Childe, like Lefebvre, considered civilization the result of an urban revolution, calling the very notion of prebourgeois “civilization” a contradictio in adjecto. “There was never such a thing as neolithic civilization,” argued Childe (Man Makes Himself, pg. 65). Lefebvre, for his part, maintained that “cities have always been a place of civilization.” In another text, he continued: “By excluding the urban from groups, classes, and individuals, one also excludes them from civilization, if not society itself” (Writings on Cities, pg. 195).
While the word is rooted in these ancient Latin words, “civilization” as a neologism dates only from around the age of Enlightenment. The timing of its coinage is no mere coincidence. “Civilization” is an invention of the bourgeois epoch. Like “society,” it is a concept of the Third Estate, as Adorno liked to point out. Émile Benveniste, a French semiotician, discovered the term first appeared in print in a 1757 book by the Marquis de Mirabeau. In its post-1765 usage, Benveniste observed that “civilisation meant the original, collective process that made humanity emerge from barbarity, and this use was even then leading to the definition of civilisation as a state of civilized society.” From there the concept was imported to Britain by Scottish Enlightenment philosophers like Ferguson, Millar, and Smith, likely through their contact with the physiocrats Quesnay, Necker, and Turgot in France. Anticipating Sigmund Freud’s later conceit that the civilization of society resembles the maturation of the individual, Ferguson in his Essay on the History of Civil Society postulated: “Not only does the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to civilization.” See Freud in his Civilization and Its Discontents: “The development of civilization is a special process comparable to the normal growth of individuals.” Millar and Smith each felt civilization was marked by a complex division of labor, wherein “the human mind can be fully cultivated and expanded; man thereby rises to the highest pitch of civilization and refinement.” Once again, this lined up with the earlier gloss on the word provided by Victor Riqueti, alias Mirabeau. “If I was to ask most people of what civilization consists,’ he began, ‘they would reply, “the civilization of a people is a softening of its manners, an urbanity, politeness and a spreading of knowledge so that the observation of decencies takes the place of laws of detail.”
Following the European discovery and conquest of the New World, maritime commerce expanded as cities again came to dominate the countryside. Seigneurial virtues like courage, magnanimity, and noblesse oblige gave way to entrepreneurial virtues such as cunning, austerity, and philanthropy. Contracts took the place of oaths. Norbert Elias has forcefully argued that certain conventions from prebourgeois European court life (manners, etiquette, dress codes, behavioral norms) were carried into bourgeois society out of the collapse of the feudal order. Although moral philosophers like Hume and Smith did much to displace aristocratic selflessness with bourgeois self-love, these courtly vestiges in civic life account for the high premium placed on “courtesy” [courtoisie, cortesia] as well as “civility” [civilité, civiltà, Zivilität] among representatives of the rising middle class. Yet this legacy passed down from medieval court society was only part of what Elias called “the civilizing process.” More broadly, the process entailed a transition from external restraints imposed from without to internal restraints imposed from within; one of the defining features of civilization for Elias was precisely this new regime of self-restraint. Some have suspected a similarity between Elias’ notion of civilized “restraint” and Michel Foucault’s concept of “discipline” through correct training, but this similarity is only apparent. Elias’ concept of self-restraint for Elias has far more in common with Freud’s psychoanalytic category of repression. Apart from these aristocratic frills and ruffles adorning bourgeois civilization, there were several forms of self-restraint peculiar to the modern world. As Elias was quick to acknowledge, these usually had to do with vocational norms or expectations associated with the workplace, rather than the banquet hall, the baronial court, or the curia regis. The primary locus of modern civilization would thus seem to reside in labor.
Jean Starobinski, the Swiss philologist and literary critic, definitively showed that “the word civilization, which denotes a process, entered the history of ideas at the same time as the modern sense of the word progress.” Denis Diderot, Marx’s favorite political author, was already using the term in exactly this sense around 1775, declaring that “civilization follows from the inclination which leads every man to improve his situation.” Lucien Febvre of the Annales school of historiography wrote in his 1930 essay “Civilization: Evolution of a Word and a Group of Ideas” François Guizot,
“The idea of progress, of development, appears to me the fundamental idea contained in the word, civilization. What is this progress? what this development? Herein is the greatest difficulty of all. The etymology of the word would seem to answer in a clear and satisfactory manner: it says that it is the perfecting of civil life, the development of society, properly so called, of the relations of men among themselves.”
Freud, Future of an Illusion: “Human civilization [Kultur], by which I mean all those respects in which human life has raised itself above its animal status and differs from the life of beasts — and I scorn to distinguish between civilization and culture — presents, as we know, two aspects to the observer.” Pg. 2.
Marx, Grundrisse: “all the progress of civilization, or in other words every increase in the powers of social production [gesellschaftische Produktivkräfte], if you like, in the productive powers of labor itself — such as results from science, inventions, division, and combination of labor, improved means of communication, creation of the world market, machinery etc. — enriches not the worker but rather capital; hence it only magnifies again the power dominating over labor; increases only the productive power of capital.” (Pg. 308)
Spengler, Decline of the West: “the period of Civilization is that of the victory of city over country, whereby it frees itself from the grip of the ground, but to its own ultimate ruin” (Volume 2, Pg. 107)
“The word ‘Capital’ signifies the center of this thought — not the aggregate of values, but that which keeps them in movement as such. Capitalism comes into existence only with the world-city existence of a Civilization.” (Volume 2, pg. 493)
Humboldt: “In every survey of world history there is a progress… With the rise of man, the seed of civilization is also planted, and grows as his existence evolves. This humanization we can perceive in advancing stages.” On Language (1835)
Gilles Dauvé, “Crisis of Civilization”
Capitalism is driven on by a social and productive dynamism, and by an unheard-of regenerative ability, but it has this weakness: by its very strength, by the human energy and the technical power it sets into motion, it wears out what it exploits, and its productive intensity is only paralleled by its destructive potential, as proved by the first civilization crisis it went through in the twentieth century.
No value judgement is implied here. We do not oppose civilized people to savages (even noble ones) or barbarians. We do not celebrate “great civilizations” which would have been witness to the progress of mankind. On the other hand, we do not use the word in the derogatory sense it has with writers like Charles Fourier, who called “civilization” a modern society plagued by poverty, trade, competition and the factory system. Neither do we refer to those huge geohistorical sociocultural constructs known as Western, Judeo-Christian, Chinese, or Islamic civilizations.
The civilization we speak of does not replace the notion of mode of production. It merely emphasizes the scope and depth of a world system that tends to be universal, and is also capable of disrupting and then reshaping all kinds of societies and ways of life. The hold of wage-labor and commodity over our life gives them a reality and dynamics that were unknown in the past. Capitalism today is the only all-encompassing network of social relationships able to expand geographically and, with the respective differences being considered, to impact on Jakarta as well as Vilnius. The spread of a world capitalist way of life is visible in similar consumer habits (McDonald’s) and architecture (skyscrapers), but has its deep cause in the dominance of value-production, of productivity, of the capital-wage labor couple.
The identity of capital and civilization
“Capital is only another name for civilization.” Marx quoted this dictum by John Wade repeatedly in the economic manuscripts, and with approval each time. Another quotation was usually situated nearby, this one by the Swiss Sismondian Antoine-Elisée Cherbuliez, whose writings on political economy Marx generally held in high esteem: “The capitalist is the social man par excellence; he represents civilization.” His reason for citing these remarks is opaque. Often they just hang there, like epigraphs awaiting excogitation. Reminders are attached: “Wade’s explanation of capital. Labor mere agency of capital… Civilization, together with my remarks about it” (Grundrisse, pg. 584). A clue is contained in another section of the Grundrisse, with suggestive allusions to free time: “Since all free time is time for free development, the capitalist usurps free time created by the workers for society, i.e. civilization, and Wade is again correct in this sense, insofar as he posits capital = civilization” (Grundrisse, pg. 34). Echoing this in his notebooks from 1861-1863, Marx later wrote that “surplus labor is on the one hand the basis of society’s free time, and on the other hand, by virtue of this, the material basis of its whole development and of civilization in general. Insofar as it is capital’s compulsion which enforces on the great mass of society this labor over and above its immediate needs, capital creates civilization, and performs a sociohistoric function.” Lenin similarly stressed the “luxury” generated by labor under capitalism: “The proletariat showed by deeds that modern civilization owes its existence to it and to it alone, that its labor creates wealth and luxury.”
Despite its uniform pattern, capitalism maps unevenly onto preexisting cultures, producing multiform results. While this does entail peripheral variations on the central theme of capitalist production — which is, as always, the antagonism between labor and capital in the constitution of value — this surface heterogeneity belies a fundamental homogeneity. Marx called this “the great civilizing influence of capital, its production of a stage of society in comparison to which all earlier ones appear as mere local developments of humanity and as nature-idolatry.” “For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility,” he continued. “Capital drives beyond national barriers and prejudices as much as beyond nature worship, as well as traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old ways of life. It is destructive towards all of this, constantly revolutionizes it, tearing down the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, …and the exploitation and exchange of natural and mental forces.” (Grundrisse, pgs. 409-410). All parochial relations brought into its fold are either swiftly dissolved or irrevocably modified. “It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production,” wrote Marx and Engels in the Manifesto, “introducing what it calls civilization into their midst — in a word, it creates a world after its own image.”
Elsewhere, in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), Marx dealt with this twin tendency of capital to both create and destroy, or create new conditions by destroying old ones. Later, the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter dubbed this double-edged property of capitalist production “creative destruction.” Polemicizing against Proudhon, who wanted to simply get rid of the bad byproducts of bourgeois society while retaining the good ones, Marx assigned priority to the negative or destructive moment of the value-relation. Famously, he argued that “history progresses according to the bad side” (the left communist group Il Lato Cattivo takes its name from the Italian translation of this passage). Destructiveness, negativity is what drives progress. Read now the following line from Marx’s Grundrisse in light of this: “It is precisely this side of the relation of capital and labor which is an essential civilizing moment, and on which the historic justification, but also the contemporary power of capital rests” (Grundrisse, pg. 287). Marx returns to this motif once more toward the end of volume three of Capital, in chapter on the trinity formula. Just before passing on to his discussion of socialism as the “realm of freedom,” he explained that “one of the civilizing aspects of capital is that it extorts surplus labor in a manner and in conditions that are more advantageous to social relations and to the creation of elements for a new and higher formation than was the case under the earlier forms of slavery, serfdom, etc.” (Capital, Volume 3, pg. 958).
On this last point, Marx announced in an 1867 speech to Polish delegates of the First International in London that “Russia, by the emancipation of the serfs, has entered the family of civilized nations” (MECW 20, pgs. 199-200). Rosa Luxemburg almost five decades later welcomed the 1905 revolution in Russia with similar sentiments: “All lovers of civilization and freedom, that is, the international working class, can rejoice from the bottom of their hearts… For on this day the Russian proletariat burst on the political stage as a class for the first time; for the first time the only power which historically is qualified and able to cast tsarism into the dustbin and to raise the banner of civilization in Russia and everywhere has appeared on the scene of action.” Her comrade August Bebel affirmed that same year that “it is not our object to destroy civilization… We do not wish to throw humanity back into barbarism; on the contrary, we desire to lift the whole of humanity to the highest thinkable plane of civilization.” This simply restated what Wilhelm Liebknecht stated thirteen years prior: “Socialism presupposes modern civilization. It does not run counter in any way — far from being the enemy of civilization, socialism wishes to extend it to all humanity.” Bebel died in 1913 and Liebknecht in 1900, before the wholesale relapse of capitalist society into barbarism, but Karl Liebknecht carried their message forward in an address to workers for May Day 1916. “Let us fight for everything that means the future triumph of the working classes, the future of humanity and civilization,” declared Liebknecht before he was arrested for agitation.
Marx’s identification of capital with civilization, so often overlooked, has given rise to many misunderstandings. Postcolonial theorists such as Edward Said, for example, have taken exception to some of Marx’s journalistic writings on India from the 1850s. “England has to fulfill a double mission in India,” Marx wrote for the New York Tribune, “one destructive, the other regenerative — the annihilation of the Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia. The British were the first conquerors superior, and therefore, inaccessible to Hindu civilization” (MECW 12, pgs. 217-218). On this passage, Said disparagingly remarked that “Marx’s economic analyses are perfectly fitted thus to a standard Orientalist undertaking” (Orientalism, pg. 154). “In article after article he returned with increasing conviction to the idea that even in destroying Asia, Britain was making possible there a real social revolution,” added Said (ibid., pg. 153). Aijaz Ahmad has already highlighted Said’s “anti-Marxism,” as well as his attempt to define “a postmodern kind of anti-colonialism” (In Theory, pg. 222) — in other words, a relativist anti-colonialism. However, it is enough to turn to Marx’s follow-up article on “The Future Results of British Rule in India” to understand the sweeping scope and grandiose scale of the history he sought to articulate. Note his implicit association of civilization with urban centers:
The centralization of capital is essential to the existence of capital as an independent power. The destructive influence of that centralization upon the markets of the world does but reveal, in the most gigantic dimensions, the inherent organic laws of political economy now at work in every civilized town. The bourgeois period of history has to create the material basis of the new world: on the one hand universal intercourse founded upon the mutual dependency of mankind, and the means of that intercourse; on the other hand the development of the productive powers of man and the transformation of material production into a scientific domination of natural agencies. Bourgeois industry and commerce create these material conditions of a new world in the same way as geological revolutions have created the surface of the earth. When a great social revolution shall have mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch — the market of the world and the modern powers of production — and subjected them to the common control of the most advanced peoples, then only will human progress cease to resemble that hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain. (MECW 12, pg. 222)
Sadik Jalal al-’Azm perhaps came closest to grasping this underlying “civilizational” theme in Marx’s theory of capital, even if he did not explicitly name it as such. Capital’s civilizing effect consists precisely in its “development of the productive powers of man” and so forth. In his 1981 review of Said for the Marxist journal Khamsin, “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse,” al-’Azm unequivocally upheld the superiority of British civilization at this historical juncture: “That nineteenth century Europe was superior to Asia and much of the rest of the world in terms of productive capacities, social organization, historical ascendency, military might and scientific and technological development is indisputable as a contingent historical fact,” he asserted. “Orientalism, with its ahistorical bourgeois bent of mind, did its best to eternalize this mutable fact, to turn it into a permanent reality — past, present, and future. Hence Orientalism’s essentialistic ontology of East and West. Marx, like anyone else, knew of the superiority of modern Europe over the Orient. But to accuse a radically historicist thinker such as Marx of turning this contingent fact into a necessary reality for all time is simply absurd.” Al-’Azm went further than this, even, claiming that “the fact that he utilized terms related to or derived from the Orientalist tradition does not turn him into a partisan of the essentialistic ontology of East and West any more than his constant use of pejorative epithets like ‘nigger’ and ‘Jew’ (to describe foes, class enemies, despised persons, and so on) could turn him into a systematic racist and antisemite.”
Kevin Anderson, whose 2010 book Marx at the Margins grapples with postcolonial criticisms leveled at Marx, concedes too much to Said on this matter. “Marx repeatedly extols the beneficial impact of Britain’s ‘higher’ civilization on India’s ‘lower’ one,” Anderson laments. “This problem needs to be acknowledged” (Marx at the Margins, pg. 20). Anderson is far too keen a scholar not to have noticed Marx’s equation of capital and civilization in his mature economic texts, and the greater nuance implied. He thus reluctantly granted the point raised by Spencer Leonard in their 2012 interview, regarding the relationship of these two terms. Leonard contended:
When Marx says England represents a higher civilization [than India], he is not really talking about the “Englishness” of England, much less anything “authentically Western.” Capitalism for Marx is not a superior civilization. Rather, capitalist society is “civilization,” per se, in such a way that the past can only be said to be so by analogy with it. Thus, in the Communist Manifesto, he uses the language of “civilization,” and terms everything else barbaric, as for instance in the passage where he talks about the battering down of Chinese walls by British imports. The issue is the universality of the form realizing itself at the level of world history. So, it seems that when he is using that language, he is talking about a social form, one that just happens to have emerged in Europe.
Though civilization is certainly a loaded term, selections from Engels lend credence to this interpretation of Marx’s view: “Civilization is that stage of development of society at which division of labor, the resulting exchange between individuals, and commodity production reach their full development and revolutionize the whole of hitherto existing society.” Marx in his 1863 economic manuscripts chided the prerevolutionary French author Simon-Nicholas Henri Linguet, who had criticized Voltaire, Rousseau, and the phisolophes, preferring Oriental tributary states to European absolutism. “Linguet is not a socialist,” wrote Marx. “His polemics against the bourgeois-liberal ideals of the Enlighteners, his contemporaries, against the dominion of the bourgeoisie then beginning, are thus given — half-seriously, half-ironically — a reactionary appearance, defending Asiatic despotism against the civilized European forms of despotism; thus he defends slavery against wage-labor.”
Relapse into barbarism
After the revolutionary cycle of 1917-1923 drew to a close without spreading westward, the USSR was surrounded, encircled, and besieged. The Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 attempted to transform the world war between nations into an international civil war, the idea being that relatively backward countries like Russia represented the weakest link in the imperialist chain. Everything depended on successful revolution in the advanced capitalist core, however, especially in Germany. Uprisings broke out across Europe, but all of them save the Russian Revolution were eventually crushed. Lenin recognized the desperate situation in which the fledgling Soviet Union now found itself, and framed the possibility of socialism’s victory as resting on civilization. “To ensure our existence until the next military conflict between the most civilized countries of the world and the Orientally backward countries which, however, compromise the majority, this majority must become civilized,” wrote Lenin in 1923. “We, too, lack enough civilization to enable us to pass straight on to socialism, although we do have the political requisites for it [Нам тоже не хватает цивилизации для того, чтобы перейти непосредственно к социализму, хотя мы и имеем для этого политические предпосылки].” Here again civilization signifies a certain level of economic development brought about by capital, which constitutes an objective conditio sine qua non for socialist transition.
Nevertheless, Marx and his followers were never blind to the violence of capitalist accumulation, particularly along its periphery. “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes,” he declared in 1853, “turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked” (MECW 12, pg. 221). Barbarism is in no sense extrinsic to civilization, qua capital. It is an ever-present possibility intrinsic to its development from the start, and exists in dialectical tension with capital’s civilizing qualities. Lenin conceptualized this dialectical tension as “civilized barbarism” in a 1913 article. Discussing the proposal to connect England and France via an underwater tunnel, amidst fears of invasion, he remarked that “the civilized nations have driven themselves into the position of barbarians. Capitalism has brought about a situation in which the bourgeoisie, in order to hoodwink the workers, is compelled to frighten the British people with idiotic tales about ‘invasion,’ …in which a whole group of capitalists who stand to lose ‘good business’ from the tunnel are doing their utmost to wreck this plan and to hold up technical progress. On all sides, at every step one comes across problems which man is quite capable of solving immediately, but capitalism is in the way; capitalist barbarism is stronger than civilization.” As Marx and Engels had before him, Lenin recognized in 1913 that capitalism had actually become an impediment to further progress.
Following Lenin’s lead, Adorno would also write of “civilized barbarism” in his 1951 essay on Kulturkritik: “Were mankind to possess the wealth of goods [produced by capitalism], it would shake off the chains of that civilized barbarism which cultural critics ascribe to the advanced state of the human spirit, rather than to the retarded state of society.” Along with Horkheimer, he endeavored to “the reversion of enlightened civilization to barbarism” (Dialectic of Enlightenment, pg. xvi). Civilization itself, they maintained, had relapsed into a sort of barbaric state.
this was one of Marx’s and Engels’ most original and devastating insights. After all, it was not only civilization that they discerned in liberal bourgeois society. Contained within these very same forms of social organization there also lurked the possibility of a new and untold barbarism. The issue at hand here is the one Adorno and Horkheimer dealt with as Three decades earlier, Engels noticed this tendency of bourgeois society — that is, civilization — to increasingly move to conceal the traces of its own steady barbarization. “[T]he more civilization advances,” he asserted, “the more it is compelled to cover the ills it necessarily creates with the cloak of love, to embellish them, or to deny their existence.”59 But of all the variations on this theme in the annals of Marxist literature, none approaches the poetry of Rosa Luxemburg’s Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis of German Social Democracy:
Friedrich Engels once said, “Capitalist society faces a dilemma, either an advance to socialism or a reversion to barbarism.” What does a “reversion to barbarism” mean at the present stage of European civilization? We have read and repeated these words thoughtlessly without a conception of their terrible import. At this moment one glance about us will show us what a reversion to barbarism in capitalist society means. This world war means a reversion to barbarism…This is the dilemma of world history, its inevitable choice, whose scales are trembling in the balance awaiting the decision of the proletariat. Upon it depends the future of humanity. In this war imperialism has been victorious. Its sword of murder has dashed the scales, with overbearing brutality, down into the abyss of shame and misery.
The naked barbarity that was seen in the trenches of Europe in World War I was simply the homecoming of what post-1848 European liberalism hoped to confine to its colonies. “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes,” commented Marx, in an 1853 article on India, “turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.” Still, this inherent barbarism of bourgeois society did not first show its face in the colonies. It had actually emerged several years prior, as Engels wrote in 1849, in the core of old Europe: “On the one side the revolution, on the other the coalition of all outmoded estate-classes and interests; on the one side civilization, on the other barbarism.”