[Discussion Article] A Libertarian Response to the New Edition of the Critique of the Gotha Program

Tòmas MacAilpein

A Scottish libertarian communist discusses value/nature and the state during the transition to communism — Editors

A new translation of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program (1875) has notes, a long introduction by Peter Hudis, and an afterword by Peter Linebaugh. The Critique is important because, although it’s not a long text, it gives Marx’s most developed views on the transition from capitalism to communism, replacing value production, based on his mature work on Capital and informed by the events of the Paris Commune.

The new translation clarifies that Marx did not talk about a state existing in socialism/capitalism. As Hudis writes: “Marx makes it clear throughout his writings that socialism or communism is incompatible with the state, since the latter is an ‘excrescence’ of class society that is superseded in a postcapitalist society.” This contradicts Lenin’s reading on the Critique in The State and Revolution (1917) – he was, though, the first post-Marx Marxist to genuinely engage with the Critique, and it’s no coincidence that it’s in one of his most “libertarian” texts. Similarly, for Marx there is no difference between socialism and communism, which Lenin claimed, even if it is possible to distinguish a lower and higher phase in terms of distribution.

By critiquing the founding program of the German Social Democratic Party, Marx critiques much of the subsequent politics and theory of the Second International. Unfortunately, so much of it is still relevant to today’s left globally – because the mainstream left is structurally tied to capitalism; it seeks to ameliorate workers’ conditions within the framework of capital and the state, focusing on distribution, nationalization as a goal or definition of socialism, and social change through the state. Here, Marx lays out what anti-capitalism must mean in terms of value theory, and gives a basis for a positive vision of communism that must, however, be developed by mass workers’ movements themselves.

Those of us in the IWW will recognize the words ‘Labor Creates All Wealth’.[1] In the Critique, Marx makes it clear – although it’s already there in Capital – that this is not true. Labor AND nature are the source of wealth, whatever its form. This isn’t a pedantic point but is crucial to understanding how we and social transformation relate to the ecological living systems of which we’re part.

Hudis’s Introduction is excellent in thinking through the Critique for today. I really like the version of Marx that comes out here and elsewhere in his writings. What, then, about the dictatorship of the proletariat? Hudis writes: “Marx did not mean a dictatorship of a party or group lording it over the masses. At the time he wrote the Critique, the term referred to the mass of the oppressed dictating their will against the old ruling classes. It signifies democratic control of society by the ‘immense majority,’ the oppressed, who use political power as a lever to crush any impending counterrevolution, eliminate the political power and property rights of the capitalists, and move on by revolutionizing the social relations of production and reproduction. This has nothing to do with centralizing state power in the hands of the working class upon seizing power. On the contrary, as he specifies in his writings on the Paris Commune, the dictatorship of the proletariat represents the suppression of state power by the organized power of society. He restates this in the Critique: ‘Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it’.”

I can accept all of this – in fact, this sounds very similar to what anarchist communists have written on the revolutionary transition and the need for an organized defense of the revolution – and still ask: where is the state in all of this? Who controls the state and how? How is the state converted into an organ subordinate to society? The answer tends to be “look at the Paris Commune.”

In the Critique itself, Marx states: “Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” A note is given by the editors that, “This has often been thought to refer to the revolutionary working-class direct democracy of the Paris Commune of 1871, at a time when most of the wealthier classes had fled the city.”

The problem with that is that it doesn’t respond to the reflection gained through bitter experience of many of the Communards who went on to become anarchists,[2] nor the important critique made by Kropotkin and others.[3] Basically, for all its strengths, the Paris Commune was still a state form and not up to the task of transitioning to communism or of defending the insurrection.

Matthew Crossin[4] elaborates on this and writes: “Marx wrote his address [The Civil War in France (1871)] with limited information about the realities of the uprising. The more far-reaching measures, such as its radical federalism, the use of recallable mandated delegates, the abolition of police, etc., reflected only the proposals of the most radical Communards — the followers of Proudhon and the collectivist anarchists.”

When we then look at what Marx and Engels wrote following the Commune, during the last days of the International – including in private letters – and Marx with Guesde for the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier (1880), I think it’s fair to say their stance on political organizing remained democratic, yes, but relatively hierarchical, and focused on seizing governmental power – through all means at the proletariat’s disposal including mass suffrage. I agree with Crossin’s conclusion: “[Marx’s] description of [the] ‘transitional’ form was often vague and contradictory, [however] the democratic statism of Marx and Engels remained fundamentally different to the distortions most ‘Marxists’ across the world would come to advocate.” Marx was not a vanguardist like Lenin, and opposed to the much more statist methods of organizing advocated by Lassalle (see Peter Hudis’s interesting chapter on ‘Political Organization’ in The Marx Revival (2020)).[5]

Incidentally, in his inspiring Afterword, Peter Linebaugh refers to Marx’s notes on Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy: “The anarchist Mikhail Bakunin asked, ‘Will perhaps the proletariat as a whole head the government?’ Marx answers, ‘There will in fact be no below then.’ History from below comes to an end just as class rule comes to an end. Class rule over the resisting strata continues ‘until the economic basis that makes the existence of classes possible has been destroyed’.”

This is really confusing and obfuscating.[6] But it boils down to the same assertion made by Marx in the Critique and elsewhere that the resisting proletariat in a transitional period is necessarily a state form – disputed by Bakunin and all libertarian socialists – and this will come to an end when socialism is reached. If there is a state, rather than a new form of directly democratic workers’ power (the Commune as an ideal), this is unlikely to say the least since the former’s existence makes and reproduces political and economic hierarchies, i.e., classes.

The debate continues. But this new translation of The Critique of the Gotha Program should be read by all good communists!

The new translation can be found at PM Press:

Physical: https://pmpress.org.uk/pro…/critique-of-the-gotha-program/

E-Book: https://pmpress.org/index.php?l=product_detail&p=1387



[1] To this day in Industrial Worker magazine the slogan on the masthead is “Labor Produces All Wealth / All Wealth Must Go To Labor.” Marx also questions what the second part of the slogan would mean in practice in the Critique.

[2] For example, Élisée Reclus, Gustave Lefrançais, André Léo, and the Geneva group of Communards. See: John P. Clark, ‘Élisée Reclus: The Making of a Communard’ https://anarchistnews.org/content/%C3%A9lis%C3%A9e-reclus-making-communard

[3] Peter Kropotkin, ‘The Paris Commune’ (1880): https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/kropotkin-peter/1880/paris-commune.htm

[4] Matthew Crossin, Interpreting Marx’s Theory of the State and Opposition to Anarchism https://anarchistworker.substack.com/…/interpreting…

[5] Peter Hudis, ‘Political Organization’ in The Marx Revival (2020) https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=4UHqDwAAQBAJ…

[6] For Marx’s actual (unconvincing) reply to Bakunin: https://www.marxists.org/…/works/1874/04/bakunin-notes.htm


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