“Abolish the Present State of Things”: The Programmatic Basis of Alternatives to Capitalism

Ricado Jacobs

Summary: Based upon remarks to a March 2023 conference on the new edition of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program — Editors

I. Introduction

What is the present state of things?

In Capital Vol. I, Marx makes an observation that encapsulates the current state of things:

Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker.[1]

In response to the undermining of the life of (racialized) laboring classes and ecological destruction by the capitalist mode of production, the real movement of working people is  putting both anti – neoliberal and anti-capitalist alternatives on the political horizon. This should compel us to examine the anticipatory character of struggles within global capitalism that are not socialist but socialist in tendency.

The new translation of the Critique of the Gotha Program is a timely contribution in this age of planetary crisis. As the introduction suggests, anti-capitalist alternatives are under-theorized, despite being put on the agenda by the contemporary wave of social struggles.


II. Political Programs and Political demands: ‘Rectification and Rearticulation’[2]

The Critique of the Gotha Program does not suggest a repudiation of political programs and political demands. It is precisely the opposite. It presents us with a method and a philosophical basis to critique left political programs and demands, their political grammar, and alternatives to capitalism. Independent political programs, coupled with political demands to transcend capitalism, are a necessity at this political conjuncture.

Precisely what is a political program and what purpose does it serve? In his letter to Wilhelm Bracke, Marx makes two important points. Firstly, that a political program is a guidepost and a set of principles, combined with political demands in the struggle to transcend capitalism. As he states in the Critique:

But by drawing up a program of principles (instead of postponing this until they’ve been prepared for by a considerable period of common activity) one sets up before the whole world guideposts by which to measure the party’s level of progress (Page 48).

This is a clear expression of the programmatic basis of principled struggle independent of the influences of the bourgeois, whether global or national.

Secondly the Critique provides tools to evaluate or measure political programs based on a scientific method, on the level of progress of working people’s organization – or as he put it – the party’s level of progress. This moves us away from a static, hierarchical, and linear conceptualization of political programs so we can objectively speak to the conditions to transcend capitalism.


The Real Movement (Class Struggle)

The third component in relation to programs is what Marx already expresses in the German Ideology, where communism is seem as the real movement that will abolish the present state of things[3]. In his letter to Bracke Marx rearticulates this point:

Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programs… (page 48).

What does this precisely mean for us today? It is only through practical political activity or, as Luca Basso argues, “working in common” (class struggle), that ideas/theory of political programs become a material force or transcend what is contained in political programs. It was through the real movement that the dictatorship of the proletariat was given concrete form, first in the Paris Commune and later in the emergence of Russian soviets through the action of the oppressed and exploited classes. The real movement (class struggle), political programs and political demands should be developed and read side by side or as a dialectical unity. The real movement can advance, concretize and in certain moments transcend what is contained in programs. In equal measure the real movement can also trail behind the advances contained within the program.  It is in this context that political demands and the programmatic basis of struggle should be projected and infused within the real movement, subject to a continuous process of evaluation and critique. This takes us to another component of the Critique of the Gotha Programme, that is the global,  international dimension of struggles.


III. Internationalism and Global Dimensions of Struggle

 The national dimension of struggle is self-evident as Marx argues in the Critique:

…to be able to fight at all, the working class must organize itself at home as a class and that its own country is the immediate arena of its struggle insofar as its class struggle is national, not in substance but, as the Communist Manifesto states, “in form” (page 62).

However, capitalism is a global phenomenon, and in Marx’s time the German bourgeoisie were already integrated into the world market through trade and international geopolitical expansion. In this regard a “commitment to internationalism of the program and…[the] international activity of the working classes” (page 63) becomes central precisely because of the logic of global capitalism. The international dimension of working people’s struggles should be tied to the national dimension of struggle.  This is becoming ever more salient in the context of the ever-increasing expansion of surplus populations migrating to the advance capitalist countries and within different spaces within the global south. A critical component often neglected by leftist organizations is their inability to incorporate migrants into their organizations on a principled basis as opposed to struggle for their rights like latter day missionaries.[4]

An international platform for struggle is important while also recognizing the different national contexts, dimensions of struggles and class composition of the working people, which in turn directs us to the national and international dimensions of socialism/communism. This is important in working out or thinking about the self-government of working people.


IV. The Real Movement: Self-Government of Working People

As the post-script to the Critique, written by historian Peter Linebaugh, asks: what are the real movements in the 21st century? Or to put it differently, who are the social forces (exploited and oppressed classes) who will abolish the present state of things and what form it will take? What type of organization is necessary?

For Linebaugh, these will include indigenous people, women, oppressed and people of color. It is these social forces that will concretize or give expression to new forms of organization, class struggle and, in practice, to the actual possible forms of how to transcend capitalism, through independent self-activity.

Late Marx devoted considerable time to investigating examples of the working people acting in common setting in motion new forms of organization and self- government. While alternatives will emerge from within capitalism, the present is also a reflection of an incomplete past which can serve as a guide to the type of self-organization on broader scale is possible. This calls for a careful critical examination of the historical forms, without falling into essentializing or romanticizing the past, that either preceded capitalism or coexisted side by side or within the capitalist mode of production.

Global capitalism is the dominant temporality or mode of production that is internally differentiated, with its own specificity in different spatial locales, determined by social and class struggles with uneven outcome. In the global south there is the tendency towards generalized proletarianization that gives rise to a proletariat within or outside of capitalist production with a section migrating outside of its national boundaries, e.g. landless peasants[5]. These two dominant temporal class tendencies can be expressed through multiple determinants, obscuring the class nature of indigenous struggles against dispossession, Black communities’ resistance against police brutality and gender struggles. All these can be located within the interconnection of exploitation and oppression produced by the logic of global capitalism.

According to the German Ideology:

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.

It is here that the uninterrupted or permanent class struggle and revolution becomes central, particularly during the period of transition. As Marx states in the Critique:

Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat (page 69).

This phase does not mean the end of class struggle but its intensification, that will require ‘rearticulation and rectification’ of self-government by the real movement. The political transition is not a static linear transition but one marked by interruption, explosions, and contestation or, as Luca Basso stresses, the working people acting in common, constructing new social relations.

This brings us to another aspect emanating from the real movement of people. That is putting the agrarian question in the 21st century on the agenda.[6] It is the agrarian oppressed and exploited classes that are compelling us to rethink the agrarian question and pose ecosocialism as a new social question and component of national and global liberation.[7] To neglect agrarian classes in motion and the agrarian question can have dire political consequences, because these social struggles have both emancipatory and reactionary possibilities. These classes with sections of the proletariat in conjunction with the bourgeois, can become the gravediggers of anti-capitalist left forces or they can become a material force to transcend the capitalist mode of production.


V. The Agrarian Question and Working People Acting in Common

Kevin B Anderson in his review of the implications of class formation and revolutionary subjects in the new translation of the Critique highlights Marx’s critique of the “Lassallean party’s rather abstract workerism or class reductionism”[8],  that is salient to a discussion of the agrarian and national problem today. This has resulted in the dominant tendency of viewing the countryside and the peasantry as politically backward or a “reactionary mass” where their destruction is a positive outcome so that the only true revolutionary subject can arise. In this regard many progressive thinkers have welcomed the death of the peasantry. No greater a figure than Eric Hobsbawm in his book ‘Age of Extremes’, often quoted, proclaimed[9]:

…the most dramatic and far-reaching social change of the second half of this century, and the one which cuts us off for ever from the world of the past

This Lassallean perspective is still permeating much of the discussion of the peasantry and critical agrarian studies today, that can be characterized as the Lassalle–Kautsky perspective of the agrarian question in the twenty first century. Karl Kautsky and many following in his footsteps posited that the agrarian question was about “whether, and how, capital is seizing hold of agriculture, revolutionising it, making old forms of production and property untenable and creating the necessity for new ones.”[10] The Critique allows us to reexamine the philosophical and political basis of the agrarian question, particular in the context of the planetary ecological crisis and the real movement to ‘abolish the present state of things.’

The real existing agrarian struggles open up new fields of possibilities and point us to alternative trajectories of agrarian transformation beyond capitalism. As community activist  Nonhle Mbutuma, of the Xolobeni, one of the communal areas of South Africa, puts it:

We believe that we know who we are because of the land. We believe that once you have lost the land, you have lost your identity,” …We also believe that it is our right to live in a healthy environment …. To make all these things happen, we believe that women must be a part of decision making. There should be no discrimination in terms of gender. If we do that, we are going to build a healthy nation.” (Xolobeni resident and Amadiba Crisis Committee Member, 2017)[11]



[1] Marx, Karl. 1976. Capital. Vol. 1. London: Penguin Books, page 637.

[2] See Luca Basso. 2016. Marx and the Common: From Capital to The Late Writings, for the notion of  the continual rectification and rearticulation of Marx’s position and ideas .

[3] Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 2010. Marx Engels Collected Works 1845-47. Volume 5. Lawrence & Wishart Electric Book. Page 49

[4] In South Africa the socialist organization, the African People’s Democratic Union of Southern Africa (APDUSA) is an example both organizationally and in their political practice.

[5] The revolutionary thinker I.B Tabata in the 1950’s stressed the importance of migrant labor from the countryside maintaining a peasant outlook. See I.B. Tabata 2014, The Dynamics of Revolution in South Africa: Speeches and Writings of I.B. Tabata.

[6] Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 2010. Marx Engels Collected Works 1851-53. Volume 11. Lawrence & Wishart Electronic Book. Page 107. The original quote reads “On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, criticise themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltrinesses of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again, more gigantic, before them, and recoil again and again from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims, until a situation has been created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out: Hie Rhodus, hie salta! Here is the rose, here dance!”

[7] As Peter Hudis (2023) in the introduction of the new translation of the Critique of the Gotha Program states “New passions and forces for liberation continuously arise, posing new questions and challenges of their own. Archie Mafeje (1991) in his book The Theory and Ethnography of African Social Formations: The Case of the Interlacustrine Kingdoms states “social scientific questions are put on the agenda by current social struggles.” Page 2.

[8] Kevin B Anderson (2023). Lessons from Marx’s Classic Work, Critique of the Gotha Program, as Seen in Our New Translation — and in Light of What Faces Us Today.  https://imhojournal.org/articles/lessons-from-marxs-classic-work-critique-of-the-gotha-program-as-seen-in-our-new-translation-and-in-light-of-what-faces-us-today/

[9] Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914 -1991, quoted in Henry Bernstein (2009) ‘The Peasantry’ In Global Capitalism: Who, Where and Why?

[10] Karl Kautsky (1899) 1988. The Agrarian Question in Two Volumes. Volume 1. Page 12.

[11] https://www.cidse.org/2017/11/27/xolobeni-community-and-the-struggle-for-consent/#:~:text=%E2%80%9CWe%20believe%20that%20we%20know,Committee%20and%20resident%20of%20Xolobeni.



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