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

Kevin B. Anderson

On the fascist threat, the war in Ukraine, and Marx’s vision of communism. Based upon a presentation to the July 2022 Convention of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization — Editors

What We Face in the World Situation

When we met in Convention two years ago, Donald Trump was still president of the US, a fact that certainly underlined the global fascist threat, while at the same time, the international Black Lives Matter uprising was at its zenith and the Sanders campaign had just swept across the US, laying bare another type of contradiction within capitalism, that of class. Both of these movements pointed toward a different future. The Covid-19 pandemic was raging with no end in sight and the global economy was plunging, with the deepest effects in the poorer countries of the Global South. A few months later, the US masses, their minds focused by BLM, turned in the face of all kinds of threats and chaos to vote Trump out of office. The result, however, was meager, the “centrist” but really right-of-center by historical standards Biden administration.

Two years later, the world has changed in dramatic ways. The most reactionary US Supreme Court in a century has overturned abortion rights. Trumpist fascists remain a huge threat in the US, still retaining a mass base even after they lurched further to the Right with a coup attempt on January 6, 2021. This threat has persisted in no small part because of the pusillanimity of Joe Biden and his ilk. In France too, while neofascists did not gain state power, they came alarmingly close to doing so in the 2022 presidential elections, and the country ended up with a counterpart to Biden, Emmanuel Macron, for five more years (see Karel Ludenhoff, “The French Presidential Election: Another Five Years of Macron,” International Marxist-Humanist, May 4, 2022 https://imhojournal.org/articles/the-french-presidential-election-another-five-years-of-macron/ ).  In a number of other countries, from India to Tunisia to Turkey, rightwing authoritarians gained or consolidated their power, with the UK also experiencing its most rightwing government in decades.  Thus, we can still speak of a global fascist threat, with no end in sight.

But the biggest and most dramatic change has emerged from Putin’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. With the 2003 US imperialist invasion of Iraq as a precedent, Putin swept into a sovereign, independent country in an act of aggression of a type and scale that has not been seen in Europe since World War II. This invasion has already upended the global political order that emerged in the wake of neoliberalism and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1991, moving global politics into uncharted waters even as the US and Russia each retain – and threaten to use if “necessary” – the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals. In response to Russia’s invasion, which soon bogged down, the US and NATO took advantage of the situation to launch the biggest military build-up since the Cold War, while at the same time, officially neutral Sweden and Finland applied to become outright members of NATO.

China for its part has responded by siding with Russia, creating the possibility of a type of Sino-Russian alliance not seen since the 1960s, but with China by now the world’s second economic power. Nothing better symbolizes this new – and dangerous — world division than the fact that  the same week in June saw the summit of the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa – held virtually from China (June 23) and the summits of the G-7 in Germany (June 26) and of NATO in Spain (June 29). The BRICS conference took place despite the most severe US-NATO-Japanese sanctions on Russia, whose economy, including its world-class armaments industry, have withstood those sanctions better than many expected. BRICS may also expand to include other countries like Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia. This does not mean that China is totally at one with Russia though, as seen in the supposedly unapproved and quickly scrubbed remarks in May on a state-owned TV station by Gao Yusheng, former Chinese Ambassador to Ukraine. Gao predicted, “It is only a question of time before Russia is defeated definitively” (Nathalie Guibert, “Premières leçons militaires de l’échec russe en Ukraine pour Pékin,” Le Monde, May 16, 2022). China is of course worried about US/NATO sanctions too, at a time when its own economy has slowed due to Covid and also faces a gigantic real estate bubble.

So… are we in a new world of fascism, war, and imperialist realignment, with all popular movements on the defensive or in retreat?  Not so fast. The same period has also seen, among other things, the unexpected, massive, and surprisingly effective Ukrainian resistance in the face of the Russian invasion. Because of this, it is wrong to subsume the Ukraine events under the framework of an inter-imperialist rivalry pitting NATO and Japan against Russia and its allies, for this would fall into a type of objectivist Marxism that ignores the subjective drive of all human beings for freedom and autonomy. First, Ukraine exhibits a dimension of anti-colonial, national liberation, or at least national independence, part of a decades-long struggle, including in the face of a genocidal famine inflicted by Stalin in the course of a state-capitalist version of the “primitive accumulation of capital.” As Lenin argued in 1917 in his greatest work, State and Revolution, we need to reckon – given the tendency of abstract revolutionism on the part of some Marxists — with “the plain fact that the national question was not yet a thing of the past” (CW 25, p. 452). And when Russia proclaims that it was Ukraine’s expressed desire to join NATO that broke up the post-1991 world order, the Ukrainians reply that they gave up their nuclear weapons in the 1990s – the only country besides Mandela’s South Africa to do so – because Russia and other neighboring countries guaranteed their borders as an independent country, also in the 1990s. Clearly, both NATO and Russia are to blame. Second, Ukraine embodies the defense of the democratic republic – with all its flaws — in the face of authoritarianism, in this case vs. Putin’s increasingly repressive regime that he seeks to expand outside the borders that Russia itself agreed to in the 1990s. Thus, as Lenin also notes in State and Revolution, even amid pages and pages of attacks on the state and on statist socialists: While all states are by definition apparatuses for class domination, it is nonetheless true that the very structure of a “democratic republic” creates a situation that “vastly assists the proletariat in its struggle” (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 25, p. 459).

Three other places in the world illustrate this kind of subjective factor, sometimes more clearly. One is the upsurge by young workers at Starbucks and Amazon in the US, beginning in fall 2021, on which we’ll hear a subreport at this gathering. Another is the unfolding electoral victories of the left and of women fighting for abortion rights across South America, a region that has long faced the brutal, aggressive reach of US imperialism, and on which we’ll hear another subreport. A third factor to note in this context is the contradictory character of the year 2022 in France, which saw not only a neofascist surge, but also a level of strength on the left not seen in over a decade in the parliamentary elections.

But will these new emancipatory impulses be strong enough to counter the threats of war, imperialism, and fascism at a global level? This we cannot answer definitively, in one sense because we are ourselves part of the answer. For we are a small revolutionary organization of a type that has existed since Marx’s day, rooted in a theory of liberation and seeking also to develop analyses and actions that will help guide the struggles of the masses for liberation and specifically, toward the creation of a truly humanist alternative to capitalism. Concentrating all our minds on this for three days is the goal of this Convention.


Notes on the Fascist Threat

I would like to offer some thoughts on the nature of the fascist threat facing us. Twenty-first century US fascism lacks a party militia like the Black Shirts, but does not lack armed cadres; it’s just that politics today is more horizontalist, more decentralized, even on the right.  Thus, Trump can simply name people as his enemies, and there are those who’ll go after them.  At the same time, many features of the current fascism are not entirely new.

What kind of ideology does fascism put forward? From its origins, fascist ideology is rather eclectic, lacking the logical coherence of liberalism, the traditionalist right, or of Stalinism. And while fascists usually love modern technology, they also tap into nostalgia for traditional and thought-to-be outmoded forms of thought and action. Thus, modern US fascism has no trouble supporting Confederate flags and statues even though it does not want exactly to restore an order in which many of its members would be very subordinate poor whites under a tiny political hierarchy of slaveowners. And French fascism does not explicitly favor restoration of the empire, but it nonetheless appeals to the resentments of whites with nostalgia for that empire and for France’s past “glory.”  From Mussolini, who projected himself as a new Caesar, to Trump, fascists espouse the notion of making their nation “great” again. For this reason, movements for the tearing down of statues, the removal of names of notorious racists or colonialists from campus buildings and other places of honor, or teaching the true history of race and colonialism in the schools, are indeed serious struggles that undermine an important part of ideological basis of fascism. These actions are therefore not merely symbolic as crude materialists sometimes say.

That said, removing statues or curricular changes do not directly affect the material conditions that underlie the growth of fascism: stagnant economies, declining standards of living, increased precarity, etc.  These motivate whole sectors of society to become alienated from the system, and sometimes, to find solutions that explain their situation as due to supposed advances gained by oppressed groups like racial minorities, women, and LGBTQ people, or the loss of colonies or international influence.

Putinism also fits many of the categories ascribed to fascism, save having a real mass movement. Recall that Putin began his career in the late 1990s with a brutal military crackdown on Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim land that had fought back hard – and sometimes with gratuitous violence — against Russian domination. His solution: whipping up Islamophobia while levelling their capital, Grozny. In those days, Putin was on more or less the same page as the “West” because he framed this as attacking Muslim “terrorism.” It’s also telling that in his Ukraine invasion speech of February 24, Putin gave the Bosnia/Kosova war of the 1990s as his “first” example of the West’s aggression at a time when Russia was weakened: “First a bloody military operation was waged against Belgrade [in 1999], without the UN Security Council’s sanction but with combat aircraft and missiles used in the heart of Europe.” (Max Fisher, “Putin’s Case for War, Annotated,” New York Times, Feb. 25, 2022). This is, to say the least, one-sided, as genocidal Serbian nationalist militias, backed up by Belgrade, had devastated Bosnia and Kosova for eight years, at a cost of hundreds of thousands killed and many more tortured, raped, or displaced. Compared to this, the NATO bombings of Belgrade were a mere pin-prick designed in the end to force Bosnia to accept a rotten compromise denying them real national liberation as the best result their US “allies” could offer them. Digging deeper into his Belgrade remark, one finds here a support on Putin’s part for the very type of militias he’s been using in eastern Ukraine, who’ve set up Stalino-fascist “people’s republics” in the Donbass region. This is the very region that Putin is now attempting to conquer fully, in order to claim a victory from his disastrous invasion.

It’s also telling that Putin explicitly attacked Lenin, Bolshevism, and communism in his big speech February 21, a few days before the invasion. There, he complained in language that could have been used by a White Russian fascist of the 1930s, “that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia.” (“Address by the President of the Russian Federation” of Feb. 22, 2022 http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67828 ). Putin expressed this more explicitly a few years ago, in 2016, when he opined that Lenin had placed a “time bomb” under the Russian state due to a nationalities policy “based on total equality along with the right of each to secede” and that this helped bring on the collapse of the USSR. (Isabelle Mandraud, “Une ‘bombe à retardement’ nommé Lénine,” Le Monde, February 4, 2016). But today, Putin condemns not only Lenin on national liberation, but also Lenin, Marxism, and the Russian Revolution tout court. In one sense, this is simply an expression of reactionary Slavophile romanticism going back to the nineteenth century, as seen in his veneration of the Orthodox Church or the reactionary writer Solzhenitsyn, for long a hero in the West as well. But what does it mean to mourn past Russian glory, to attack Lenin and Marxism, to speak of wiping whole nations off the map, and to do so with a modern military, police, and propaganda apparatus? Combined with a gesture toward Slavophilism, is this not a modern Russian fascism emerging right before our eyes? And does this not amount to the same thing as “Make America Great Again”?

The deepest roots of fascism lie in the crisis of capitalism as a whole, whether in the 1930s or today. Therefore, calls to preserve “our democracy” in the US as it existed before the Great Recession or Trump hardly go deep enough and can even be counterproductive. Such calls do not motivate the most oppressed sectors of the working people – Blacks, Latinx, Native American in the US, or similar sectors elsewhere – who have faced the police and prison systems of “our democracy” for centuries. For do not a vast portion of the police, prison guards, sheriffs, etc., already have a fascist mentality and don’t they already engage in fascistic practices against oppressed minorities?  Thus, really destroying fascism would mean wiping out already existing fascist enclaves and the racist, capitalist system that produced them. Hence, the importance of slogans like abolition of the police.

At the same time, and this is sometimes a hard contradiction to grasp, it is important to distinguish between a democratic republic like the ones that still exists in the US, France, or Ukraine and outright fascism. Thus, we should not rush to label the contemporary US as already fascist, though January 6 was proof of a real threat from that direction. As Trotsky wrote in a 1932 article addressed to the German workers, especially those under the influence of the “vulgar radicalism” of a Stalinist ideology that placed social democrats at the same level as fascists,

“To insist that fascism is already here, or to deny the very possibility of its coming to power – amounts politically to the same thing. By ignoring the specific nature of fascism, the will to fight against it becomes inevitably paralyzed.” (“What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat,” The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p. 192).

We have plenty of this kind of abstract revolutionism on the left today, people who see no difference between the neoliberal capitalism of Biden or Macron and fascism. For an example of a dialectical view of this and many other issues, let us go back to Marx, to his careful parsing of a socialist program that was put forward long before Stalinism, yet which contains many of the seeds that led to Stalinism and to its utterly wrong analysis of fascism. Specifically, seeds planted in the Gotha Program played no small role in blocking the type of unity – in a real united front that did not conceal political differences — among the German working class and other social forces that might have developed enough strength to stop Hitler from coming to power.


Critique of the Gotha Program and the Alternative to Capitalism

Because Marx presents his points dialogically in the Critique of the Gotha Program, the conceptual framework he is using is not always obvious. Therefore, it might help to place what he writes on the alternative to capitalism on a trajectory. Doing so leads to three postcapitalist processes, the transitional period, the first phase of communism, and the second phase of communism.  In Marx, these seemed to amount to three different stages, although of course more as a concept than a schema, let alone an exact prediction of future events.  Still, it could be considered a rough outline of the process of arriving at communism and its full development.


Stage 1: The “Transitional Period”

It should be noted that getting to a transitional period beyond capitalism, or even starting to go beyond capitalism, is no easy task. It is in fact a rare opportunity that has occurred very few times in modern history. But on the day when we experience another truly anti-capitalist revolution, or one trying to move in that direction after having overthrown an old regime, we will have to confront these issues.  Knowing in advance what Marx thought about these issues, and attempting to grasp them with the kind of dialectical clarity he employed in his arguments, will surely clear our own heads as we struggle on and dream of a liberated future. Marx’s concepts can also serve as an inspiration to revolutionary activists, who too often get discouraged in the face of the power of the system, or who grasp at straws by either exaggerating their successes or latching themselves opportunistically onto forces that oppose the dominant capitalist powers but have their own agendas equally inimical to genuine human liberation.

Assuming we’ve gotten to the point of overthrowing capitalism, a big achievement indeed, Marx then takes us to what he calls a “transitional period,” which he describes in the following brief passage. This is the entirety of what he writes on this subject in the Critique of the Gotha Program:

“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” (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, trans. and annotated by Kevin B. Anderson and Karel Ludenhoff, with an introduction by Peter Hudis, Oakland: PM Press, 2022, p. 68-69, hereafter CGP).

Here, Marx makes clear that (1) the state still exists and (2) it is a transitional form of society.  Therefore, it is neither communism nor socialism (Marx uses these words interchangeably) but a stage “between capitalist and communist society.”  It also should be noted that this is a revolutionary dictatorship of (not over) the proletariat.

Because the word dictatorship has taken on an entirely negative meaning for over 100 years, the term “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat” needs to be unpacked to grasp the contemporary relevance of Marx’s transitional period. In Marx’s own usage – not that of the regimes that used the term while usurping his legacy, beginning with Stalin’s Russia — “dictatorship of the proletariat” is usually thought to refer to social phenomena like the revolutionary working-class direct democracy of the Paris Commune of 1871. As Engels wrote in his 1891 introduction to Marx’s Civil War in France, his comrade’s classic analysis of the Commune, “do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat” (MECW 27: 191). The Commune was organized on a neighborhood basis at a time when most of the wealthier classes had fled the city or were holed up in their homes in fear of the masses, and it dispensed with a regular army or a police force in favor of a self-mobilized and armed working-class citizenry. This left the working people of Paris — factory workers, artisans, female laborers involved in domestic labor and service occupations, etc. – in charge, but excluding the small stratum of bourgeois or landowners who were either hiding out or had fled.  It was not yet communism because, for example, wage labor still existed, as attested in the its famous provision that officials should earn no more than a worker’s wage.

The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat also describes a key aspect of the situation in Russia after the first revolution of 1917, when what has been called “dual power” existed. One type of power centered on the provisional government, which included a parliament composed of both liberals and socialists, and state institutions like the military command. A second type of power centered on the deeper “soviet” or council democracy of the factory workers, rank-and-file soldiers and sailors, and increasingly, peasants in the villages. This soviet power was no mere enclave but a real, nationwide power center in a pre-revolutionary situation. These soviets exercised essentially a veto power over the parliament and the military command. Because this second form of power, the soviets, was a participatory democracy rooted in the daily participation of the working people, it was actually more representative, even though factory owners, military brass, and the like did not have votes there. As Trotsky shows in his History of the Russian Revolution, when the revolutionary left in Russia began to use the slogan “all power to the soviets” in spring and summer 1917, they were calling for the second half of this dual power to take full power, in order to give workers control of the factories, to end the war, to enact land reform in the villages, and the like. This would in fact have excluded some from voting, until capitalism could be abolished. Therefore, capitalists and big landowners would be disenfranchised, as they were neither peasants nor part of the working people. Later on, if communism were achieved, these dominant classes would no longer exist, their members having become just human beings like everyone else in a classless society. But because a far wider section of the masses than under a normal democratic republic like the US or France today would be involved in direct self-rule, soviet-type power under a dictatorship of the proletariat would in fact be far more democratic than a bourgeois democratic republic, even though a few people would be temporarily excluded from the vote. (Recall something a bit similar during Radical Reconstruction, the unfinished bourgeois revolution in the US where former Confederate officers and officials were barred from voting and running for office.) One could in fact say that what was often called council communism and what is today called grassroots democracy, are not incompatible with Marx’s notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat. That said, I am not suggesting that we start using the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” at the top of our banners, as the term “dictatorship” has taken on too much baggage since the twentieth century. But I do think it’s important to unpack Marx’s term, usurped as it was after his death.

Marx also writes that in this “transitional” form “the state” would still exist, as he says explicitly. He does not go into detail about this either, but we can presume that, for example, a military organization would be required to defend the new society, or that it would have to use other forms of coercion against its hardened opponents, etc.  But the state would be on its way out, as society transitions beyond capitalism, just as capitalist social relations would also be waning.

Despite the fact that his State and Revolution rediscovered and publicized the fact that Marx opposed the state as much as capital by analyzing the Critique of the Gotha Program, giving needed attention to this important and neglected text, Lenin also threw us a curve by failing to distinguish between the transitional phase, which he called “socialism,” and Marx first phase of communism. This led to a re-insertion of the state, even after Lenin had echoed Marx in calling for smashing the state.

Marx concludes that the Paris Commune was “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of Labor” (MECW 22: 334).  It was not yet that emancipation though. That would need actual communism, not just an important transition in that direction as appeared in Paris in 1871.


Stage 2. The First Phase of Communism

The actual emancipation of labor is the key to what I’m calling the second stage on the road away from capitalism, and what Marx calls the first phase of communism. As Marx conceptualized it in the Critique of the Gotha Program, beyond these transitional forms like the Paris Commune lay this first phase of communism, where the state would have disappeared and people were working together cooperatively in a non-hierarchical fashion.  As Marx writes in seven short paragraphs, this first phase of communism would nonetheless constitute a decisive break with the capitalist past, not as a transition but as an arrived-at liberated society. Unlike workers coops of today, however, which are also democratic and usually non-hierarchical, the capital relation itself would have disappeared and the working people would no longer be having their very lives strangled by value production under the relentless rule – dare I say dictatorship? – of socially necessary labor time. Among other things, they would be producing use values rather than the exchange values and surplus value that permeate a capitalist system:

“Within a cooperatively organized society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labor expended on the products appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labor no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of total labor” (CGP, p. 57).

As Peter Hudis emphasizes in his introduction to our new edition of the Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx elaborated his vision of communism in many contexts over the decades, but the Critique of the Gotha Program is where he clearly delineated phase one and phase two of communism.  In this first phase of communism, working people would receive remuneration — not wages, since under communism value production and capital would have ceased to exist. This remuneration would be based upon the “duration or intensity” of their labor (CGP, p. 58). To be sure, social classes would have disappeared as well at this stage, for this form of communism “recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else” (CGP, p. 58). And, along with that, the end of the hierarchical division of labor is also implied.

On the negative side, the cooperants are nonetheless to receive unequal remuneration, albeit not nearly so as before under the capitalist wage and profit system. This is a temporary but necessary carryover of some aspects of capitalist relations. Society could not go at one fell swoop to a purer form of communism because law or “right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and the cultural development conditioned by it” (CGP, p. 59).  This was due to the fact that, as Marx writes, this “first phase of communism… has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society” (CGP, p. 59). Undoubtedly, these “birth pangs” refer to all the upheavals necessary to get to this point, from mobilizing for revolution in the first place to navigating through the transitional society discussed above in order to get to the point where capital and class have both been abolished, as well as the state.

Marx’s first phase of communism in the Critique of the Gotha Program exhibits strong similarities to the new society as outlined in the fetishism section of chapter one of Capital, where he writes, emphasizing the collective ownership of the means of production by a free association: “Let us finally imagine, for a change, an association of free human beings, working with the means of production held in common” (Marx, Capital, Vol. I, trans. Ben Fowkes, London: NLB, 1976, p. 171, trans. slightly altered to remove gendered pronouns not found in the original). At the level of production too, which runs deeper than common ownership, ultimately a merely juridical relation, society is based upon “production by freely associated human beings and stands under their conscious and planned control” (Capital, p. 173). This seems to be a form of communism, though Marx does not use the term here. Importantly, as in the second phase of communism in the Critique of the Gotha Program, he adds concerning remuneration that each worker in the free association, “the share of each producer [worker] in the means of subsistence is determined by his labor time” (Capital, p. 172).


Stage 3: The Second or Higher Phase of Communism

Beyond this would come the ultimate stage, which is also the second phase of communism, where duration and intensity of labor would no longer determine the remuneration of the cooperants, but society as a free association would be based upon new principles. The actual passage on the higher phase of communism is just a single sentence, albeit a long Germanic one:

“In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and thereby also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime desire and necessity; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly, only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be completely transcended and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!” (CGP, p. 59)

Marx packs a lot into this sentence, which he does not elaborate in detail, perhaps because he considers these points to a great extent already agreed upon by his comrades.  But let’s unpack it a bit.  One thing to note is economic development, wherein “the productive forces have also increased” and “all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly,” thus establishing the abundant material basis for communism that would not be one of shared poverty (CGP, p. 59).

The post-Marx Marxists loved to emphasize this kind of thing, and it is indeed important, but fewer of them emphasized a second issue, at least not until the 1844 Manuscripts began to be discussed widely after World War II.  Part of this second issue revolves around Marx’s concern with the transcendence of alienated labor, rooted not only in economic exploitation but also in the dehumanizing character of work itself as a lived experience. Hence, he also writes that under this second phase of communism, “the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and thereby also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished” (CGP, p. 59). This profound revolution in our conditions of life and labor would mean an exit not only from capitalist alienated labor, but also from hierarchical divisions of labor that have existed since the birth of class societies 5,000 years ago.  But that is not all Marx develops on this second point.  A related issue, mentioned already under the transcendence of the division between mental and manual labor, is “the all-round development of the individual” (CGP, p. 59). Again, this is something post-Marx Marxists, in their emphasis on the social, on the collective, have often ignored, failing to note how Marx regarded capitalist production as a site where the worker was robbed of all individuality, becoming a cog in the machine. And need I even mention that this kind of social individuality, as espoused by Marx as a linchpin of communism, as in what Hegel called “an individuality…purified of all that interferes with its universalism,” stands diametrically opposes to the atomistic, selfish individualism of homo economicus under capitalism? (cited in Dunayevskaya, Marxism and Freedom, p. 39; see also Hegel, Philosophy of Mind/Spirit, paragraph 481).

In the sentence’s concluding words, Marx provides the ringing slogan that emerges from all of this, but only after centuries of struggle against capital, after victorious revolutions, after transitional periods between capitalism and communism, after the first phase of communism is itself completed and transcended, and the second one allowed to develop for a while: “only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be completely transcended and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!” Or as we prefer to phrase it today, removing the nineteenth century gendered language: from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs.

The Disappearance of the State in the Critique of the Gotha Program

Although a transitional society rather than a communist one, the Paris Commune moved to destroy the state as well as capital.  But in both of Marx’s two phases of communism, the state has already completely disappeared. Other than in the brief paragraph on the transitional society, the state is not even mentioned in any but a negative sense in the entire Critique of the Gotha Program.  In his principal reference to the state, Marx writes:

“What transformation will the body politic [Staatswesen] undergo in communist society? In other words, what social functions analogous to present state functions [Staatsfunktionen] will remain at that juncture?” (CGP, p. 68).

Here, Marx speaks of functions analogous to those of the state, but not to the existence of the state as such under communism. He does so after having discussed the two phases of communism, as recounted above. Getting this passage right is one of the achievements of our new translation, first discovered by Hudis in the course of writing his introduction. Here, our new translation overturns earlier ones that rendered Staatswesen incorrectly as “state” and thus smuggled the state back into Marx’s notion of communism.  As we indicate in a translator’s note:

“All previous English translations have rendered this word as ‘state’ here and in the next sentence. However, the actual word Marx uses, Staatswesen (not Staat), refers to something far less definite, to the ‘body politic’ (the political body of society) as we have rendered it here. Staatswesen could also be translated as ‘state functions’ or very literally as ‘essence/underlying nature’ of the state. In any case, it is something less definite or specific than ‘state’.” (CGP, p. 51).

Also to be noted here is that in the second of these sentences, which begins with the clause, “in other words,” Marx seems to use the term “functions analogous to present state functions [Staatsfunktionen]” as a synonym for “body politic” or Staatswesen. This second sentence strengthens the case that Marx is not referring to the continued existence of a state under communism, but instead to how some of the “functions” of this prior but now obsolete institution would be carried out under communism.

What are those functions “analogous to present state functions” but not the same thing as under the state? These would include, among others, coordinating our cooperative control of the means of production, provisions for emergencies like warehouses for food and medical supplies, stimulation of socially beneficial forms of scientific research and cultural innovation, as well as the organization of healthcare, education, dispute resolution, defense against violence and aggressive behavior, a transport system, and care for children, the elderly and the infirm. But communist society would not need a state apparatus governing the population to carry these out, let alone a centralized one with a legal monopoly of violence based upon police and military forces, to carry these out.

At another juncture in the Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx vehemently attacks the espousal of a “free state and a socialist society” as outlined in the Gotha Program of German socialist unity that is the subject of his critique. He ironizes that the autocratic German state of his time was “almost as ‘free’ as in Russia,” adding that in reality, “Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it; and also today, the state formations [Staatsformen] are freer or less free to the extent that they restrict the ‘freedom of the state’” (CGP, p. 67). He adds in summary form: “But the whole program, despite its ring of democracy, is tainted through and through by the Lassallean sect’s servile belief in the state” (CGP, p. 71).  Here, he is talking not of communism but of how to express the goals of the struggle for liberation while we are still under capitalism.


Marx even objects to education under state administration as an immediate goal to be fought for under capitalism: “‘Elementary education by the state’ is altogether objectionable. Defining by a general law the expenditures on the elementary schools, the qualifications of the teaching staff, the branches of instruction, etc., and, as is done in the United States, supervising the fulfillment of these legal specifications by state inspectors, is a very different thing from appointing the state as the educator of the people! Government and church should instead be equally excluded from any influence on the schools” (CGP, p. 71; we singled out this passage in our joint article on the LA Teachers strike 2019, in material originally drafted by Ndindi Kitonga https://imhojournal.org/articles/la-strike-self-mobilization-of-teachers-and-communities/).


The Critique of the Gotha Program: Revolutionary Organizational/Political Strategies and Forms and Their Underlying Philosophy Under Capitalism

A larger context for Marx’s vehement attacks on the statism of the Gotha Program is its roots in the socialism of Ferdinand Lassalle, whose followers controlled a somewhat larger socialist group in Germany with which Marx’s comrades were about to join with this program of socialist unity.  In Germany, the Lassalleans helped create on the left what is today sometimes called a democratic deficit, in which their anti-capitalist politics was so narrow that they failed sufficiently to oppose the aristocracy and the militarized state, or worse.

One of these organizational/political issues concerned the state and the landowning classes of the time. Marx objected to the sentence: “In present-day society, the instruments of labor are the monopoly of the capitalist class; the corresponding subjection of the working class is the cause of all forms of misery and servitude” (CGP, p. 54). He responds: “In present-day society, the instruments of labor are the monopoly of the landowners (the monopoly of property in land is the very basis of the monopoly of capital) and the capitalists” (CGP, p. 54). Marx adds this context: “The improvement was introduced because Lassalle, for reasons now generally known, attacked only the capitalist class and not the landowners” (CGP, p. 54). Overall, the Lassalleans strongly opposed the bourgeoisie, i.e., the big capitalists, especially the manufacturing class, but did not really target what was at that time the stronger part of ruling classes of the German Empire, the aristocratic class of landowners, who controlled the state administration and the armed forces. Even in Britain, the most capitalist nation of the time, Marx always made a point of attacking both landlords and capitalists, seeing the former as the most reactionary class whose sons predominated in the officer corps and whose members controlled much of the state apparatus as a whole.  This was one of the reasons why he gave great importance to the ways in which an agrarian revolution in Ireland – the big British landowners often owned estates in Ireland as well as Britain — could intersect with a British workers’ uprising in order to develop enough strength to really bring down the whole system.  In fact, the landowning classes, which usually backed monarchical anti-republican forms of government, were an even greater obstacle to socialism than the industrial bourgeoisie.

In this light, Marx also singles out the importance of fighting for and within the democratic republic for the emancipation of labor, despite the limitations of that same “democratic republic,” terming it “the last form of the state in bourgeois society that the class struggle has to be fought out to a conclusion” (CGP, p. 70).  This struggle would place socialists in some limited contexts in a temporary alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie. Today, one of these contexts is of course the struggle against the fascist threat represented by Trumpism inside the US, as in the January 6 coup attempt. Another is the struggle by Ukraine to preserve its democratic republic and its national independence in the face of an invasion by an imperialist power seeking to impose an authoritarian and increasingly fascist political system.

A second organizational/political issue concerned the Lassallean party’s rather abstract workerism or class reductionism. This led, for example, to the ridiculous formulation, “Labor is the source of all wealth and all culture,” to which Marx retorted that this ignores “nature, the primary source of all objects and instruments of labor” (CGP, p. 51). This abstract workerism – with some negative ecological implications to boot – led at the economic level to a denial of revolutionary or even progressive potential to any other classes besides the working class: “The emancipation of labor must be the work of the working class, in relation to which all other classes are only one reactionary mass” (CGP, p. 60). This notorious slogan was not only simplistic and sociologically incorrect; it was and has been extremely damaging to the cause of socialism ever since. Marx strongly opposes this kind of sectarianism: “Did we proclaim to the artisans, small manufacturers, etc., and peasants during the last elections: In relation to us, you, together with the bourgeoisie and feudal lords, form one reactionary mass?” (CGP, p. 61).

Most crucial here were the peasants, for as Marx notes concerning class relations in Germany at that time, “the majority of the ‘working people’ in Germany consists of peasants, not proletarians” (CGP, p. 66). Through the German Social Democrats of Karl Kautsky’s day up through Trotsky and the contemporary urban-based progressives of the US, there has been a tendency to portray rural areas, if not as “one reactionary mass,” certainly as not a priority for the left, at least in the more developed countries. This is why it is so important to remember movements like the Yellow Vests of 2018-19 in France, who gave the lie to this prejudice, inherited from Lassalleanism. In addition, while this prejudice was strongly critiqued by Marx in the Critique of the Gotha Program, Lassalleanism became so intertwined with post-Marx Marxism that innumerable critics of Marx, up through postcolonial writers like Edward Said, have wrongly attacked Marx himself for a dismissive, condescending attitude toward the peasantry.

A third organizational/political error in the Lassallean Gotha Program, again one that plagues the left today, was the notion, introduced by the Lassalleans and dominant even now in all forms of the global left, from social democrats to anarchists, is the notion that we need to organize as separate units within the various nation states of the world: “The working class strives for its emancipation first of all within the framework of the present-day national state” (CGP, p. 62).  Marx replies:

“Lassalle, in opposition to the Communist Manifesto and to all earlier socialism, conceived the workers’ movement from the narrowest national standpoint. Here he is being followed, and this after the work of the International!” (CGP, p. 62)

Yet Lassalleanism also prevailed on this point for the coming decades. The Second International was basically a loose federation of national parties. While the Third International started better, though with too much direction from Russia, it was transformed by the late 1920s into an international arm of the Stalinist Russian state. Today, the International Marxist-Humanist Organization strives, albeit on a small scale, toward a different type of truly international organizational structure that roots itself in Marx’s own concept of organization, including that of the First International.

Taking all this together, we can say that Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program bequeaths to us important lessons – though by no means a finished theory — on both the alternative to capitalism and the organizational/strategic forms needed to move toward that alternative as we struggle for a new humanist society from inside the capitalist system. When examined closely, these lessons from Marx cut against the grain of much of the theory and practice of socialism and communism over the past 150 years. But given their failings and the immense challenges facing us today that demand a total rethinking of our premises, it behooves us to go back to the root, to Marx himself.  That is what we have tried to do with our new edition of the Critique of the Gotha Program.


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1 Comment

  1. Lars Adestedt

    The Swedish language lent the world Staatswesen – Sw. statsväsende from German some 300-400 years ago. For me as a Swedish speaker the translation you made of the word would be impossible, The swedish word for Wesen – Sv. väsen can indeed point to something abstract and almost unclear but in the case of compound words as statsväsende it is rather the opposite. When I hear the word I se the conctrete structure of the state as it is right now before me – the administrative, physical and practical realities of the contemporary state. I The same is the case concerning the word väsende in compound with the word for school: skolväsende. The words that make up compound words seldom widen their scope in compound words or phrases. I would be really suprised if what I point to was nor the case for the German Staatswesen to.