Let’s Ask Karl Marx! A Few questions on Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program

Lalan Kishor Singh

Summary: A response by a worker activist in Nagpur, India to Peter Hudis’s Introduction to the 2022 PM Press edition of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program – Editors

1. How do we understand what is happening all over the world in the name of Karl Marx? What do we see all around us? In America the Trotskyists are busy forming one organization after another. If an organization fails to take off for whatever reasons, they form another in its place or along with it, as if they have opened a “cottage industry” (in the words of Peter Hudis) for manufacturing organizations! Similarly in India, we come across members of organizations who were in a “Revolutionary Platform” to begin with, had formed a “Party” next and then a “Council” and finally a “People’s Parliament,” and are now contemplating forming a “Party” all over again. It appears as if they have opened a laboratory to form “New Organizations” in the name of Marxism! On the other hand, when we look at “Communist China” we find workers are struggling for the recognition of their own unions and are being harassed for not fulfilling the target of production set by the management! We certainly did not expect the workers to be in such a bad condition in a “Communist Country”! It is sad indeed that in all those countries that had/have declared themselves to be “Socialist” or “Communist,” Democracy of any kind has remained conspicuously absent. In all these countries, workers continue to be severely exploited and suppressed at the altar of State-controlled production.

2. The three main Communist Parties in India, CPI, CP (M), and CPI (M-L) consider their own ideologies as supreme and therefore others as insignificant. It is evident today that all these “parties” have been converted into sects unto themselves. We had written an open letter to “Marxists” in 2018 and had sent it to one of our “Marxist” friends. Meeting him we discussed the letter. He said that the said letter was addressed to “Marxists” and not to the “Marxist-Leninist” he considers himself to be and hence he did not consider it necessary to respond. This shows that all trends belonging to post-Marx Marxism (i.e., Marxist-Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, Trotskyism etc.) are very different from that of Marx.

3. Otherwise, how is it that whereas Marx and his Philosophy are one, organizations existing in his name can be counted in hundreds if not more? It is clear that most of these organizations have failed to grasp Marx’s Philosophy in its totality but have taken bits and pieces from it to suit their own purposes and present their own interpretation of it as the most “scientific.” However, when it comes to us, how do we know what is true and what is false in these interpretations? For this, surely we have to go back to Marx’s Philosophy and inquire from Marx himself.

4. In 1875 in Germany the followers of Ferdinand Lassalle and the Eisenach group met in a united congress for the first time in the city of Gotha to form an independent workers organization. This organization eventually became the largest socialist organization in Germany as well as in Europe. They adopted a program in this congress which is famously known as the Gotha Program. However, when a copy of it reached Marx, he could see a lots of flaws in it. Marx criticized the draft sharply through marginal notes, simultaneously providing guidelines for a future society known as Communism, which would be realized as the end result of the ongoing class struggle between Labor and Capital. In these marginal notes on the Gotha Program Marx brings forward the weak points of the program. Marx had critiqued other Socialist and Communist trends as early as 1848 in the Communist Manifesto. Critiquing one such trend, the utopian socialists, Marx had said in the Communist Manifesto: “They want to improve the condition of every member of society even that of the most favored. Hence, they appeal to society at large, without distinction of class; nay, by preference to the ruling class…. Hence, they reject all political, and especially all revolutionary action; they wish to attain their ends by peaceful means, and endeavor, by small experiments, necessarily doomed to failure, and by force of example, to pave the way for the new social Gospel” (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 6, p. 515).

5. In 1875, the two factions of German workers’ parties united into the Socialist Workers Party of Germany at Gotha and projected Socialism as their aim. However, Marx did not consider their Program to be Socialist or Communist in any sense of the term. Many of the proposals in the Gotha Program were in fact taken from the Communist Manifesto as well as the Rules of the First International and presented in distorted form, which was exposed by Marx in his critique. Although Critique of the Gotha Program is a critique of the Socialist Workers Party of Germany, Marx did not mention the word Socialism even once in it. Marx uses the word “Communism” instead. In fact, Marx makes no distinction between Socialism and Communism. For him the two words are synonymous. Marx talks about two phases of Communism in his Critique of the Gotha Program: the lower phase of Communism and the higher phase of Communism. According to Marx, products are not exchanged in the first phase of Communism. In other words, commodity production comes to an end. With the end of “Abstract Labor,” “Value” production comes to an end. Along with classes, the State too comes to an end, the State which Proudhon had described as “heartless, authoritarian, murderous, insensitive, looter, pretentious and heinous.” The wage system also comes to an end in the first phase of Communism and the workers no longer remain wage laborers. They are transformed into Producers.

6. Marx discusses all these aspects in his Critique of the Gotha Program. During the first phase of Communism, since a definite quantity of labor time is exchanged with the consumer goods equivalent to the same quantity of labor time, an individual producer would get back from society, after social deductions have been made, the same amount of compensation that he/she has contributed to society. According to Marx, this principle of “equal compensation” is based on the bourgeois principle of “equal right,” which can only come to an end on reaching the higher phase of Communism where “real labor time” no longer remains the measure of social relations. It is only in the higher phase of Communism that it becomes possible for every human being to contribute to society according to his/her ability and to get back from society according to his/her needs.

7. Marx is not providing a utopian vision of the future society in his Critique of the Gotha Program. On the contrary, he is treating the existing bourgeois mode of production as the basis of the future society. Since the distinctive feature of capitalism is commodity production and the exchange of products through the medium of money, wherein Value is produced through the Abstract and Indirectly Social Labor; the only way to end Value Production and consequently Capitalism would be to replace abstract, indirect social labor by concrete, direct social labor. Thus, the Communist Mode of Production is born out of the womb of Capitalism.

Secondly, according to Marx the very nature of the bourgeois mode of production is in reality transitory, the very structure of which takes it towards a higher form of co-operative mode of production, i.e., Socialism. However, this does not mean that this process is automatic. Elsewhere Marx says: “…Without revolution socialism cannot be viable. It needs this political act to the extent that it needs destruction and dissolution. However, where its organizing activity begins, where its aims and soul stand out, socialism throws away its political cover” (Early Writings, 1975: 420). Thus, according to Marx, Revolution is not merely a destructive phenomenon but is simultaneously a constructive one as well. Revolution for Marx is not merely an event (seizure of power) but is an epochal phenomenon.

The only objective of Capitalism being endless expansion of “Value Production,” it forces humanity to “produce for the sake of production”. But at the same time, this system of production develops Productive Forces and creates those material conditions which provide a real basis for a higher form of society, a society wherein free development of each individual becomes possible.

8. Marx has talked about a “transition period” between Capitalism and Communism which is the period of the revolutionary transformation of Capitalism into Communism. Marx designates it as the political transition period, which is a period of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Although in the Critique of the Gotha Program Marx does not discuss the nature of the social relations during the transition period, his concept of the “transition period” can serve as a parameter to understand the revolutions of the twentieth century– as to their true nature. In his introduction to the 2022 edition, “The Alternative to Capitalism in Marx’s Critique of Gotha Program,” Peter Hudis has pointed out that the history of the revolutions of the last 100 years is a history of a series of flawed concepts of an alternative to capitalism.

We ought to examine the self-declared successful socialist revolutions of the 20th century from the following perspective: Was it the working class that seized power in these revolutions and was it a Dictatorship of Proletariat that was established in the aftermath of these insurrections? If indeed they were Dictatorships of the Proletariat, what went wrong due to which a new form of Capitalism and not Socialism came into existence? If, on the other hand, these regimes were not DPs then Dictatorship of which class or classes were they?  Did the working class really lead these revolutions or were they led by forces other than the working class, with the working class merely following them? In short which class led these failed “socialist revolutions” of 20th century?

Through the concept of “transition period,” Marx has provided indicators for grasping the situation during and in the aftermath of the seizure of power, thus providing an idea as to which direction these societies were moving in.

9. In the first chapter of volume 1 of Capital under the title, “The Fetishism of the Commodity and the Secret Thereof,” Marx depicts the postcapitalist society thusly: “Let us now picture to ourselves, by way of change, a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with means of production in common, in which the labor power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labor power of the community…. The total product of our community is a social product. One portion serves as fresh means of production and remains social. But another portion is consumed by the members as means of subsistence. A distribution of this portion amongst them is consequently necessary. This mode of distribution will vary with the productive organization of the community, and the degree of historical development attained by the producers” (Marx, Capital, 2016, Page, 40 – see also Capital, Fowkes translation, Penguin Books, 1977, pp. 171-72). This description of the post-capitalist society in Marx’s Capital accurately depicts the “first phase of communism” found in the Critique of the Gotha Program.

Marx talks about production and distribution according to human needs in the higher phase of Communism. In this higher phase the slavish subordination to the division of labor comes to an end. In this full- fledged Communist society everyone contributes according to his/her ability and gets back from society according to their needs.

10. Peter Hudis, an American Marxist-Humanist and a member of IMHO has provided a detailed analysis of all these issues in his Introduction, The Alternative to Capitalism in Marx’s Critique of Gotha Program.” In this Introduction, Hudis writes: “New passions and forces for liberation continuously arise, posing new questions and challenges of their own. This is especially seen in the array of new social movements and freedom struggles in recent years, by women, Blacks, Latinx, and other national minorities, and of LGBTQ. Many within these struggles are reaching for a vision of a new society that transcends the limits of both existing capitalism and the so-called ‘Socialist’ and ‘Communist’ regimes of the past. Yet too few theorists and activists are working to provide such a vision. Herein lies our crisis: just when we need an alternative that can speak to masses of people the most, we possess it the least” (2022 PM Press edition, p. 2). A little further in the same Introduction, Hudis writes: “We are aware that we can’t live by the truths of a different era. We face problems that Marx didn’t envision or face. But we are also aware that no thinker developed a more far-reaching and dialectical criticism of capitalism. This is because a positive vision of the future was immanent in his negative critique” (2022 PM Press edition, p. 3).

In essence, Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program is no different from his critique of Capitalism. Capital is self-expanding value and the specific characteristic of Capital is that within it labor acquires the form of Value. Within Capitalism labor is compelled to operate by an abstract time-determination which is beyond the control of workers. This in reality is the basis of bourgeois class exploitation and destruction of nature. Hence it is only by eliminating “Value Production” that the transition of Capitalism into Communism becomes possible, a new society wherein each individual contributes to society according to his/her ability and gets back from society according to the quantity of labor contributed in the first phase and according to needs in the higher phase.

However, a few questions arise from Marx’s Critique of Gotha Program and Hudis’s introduction to it that we think deserve to be discussed at the national as well as international level. These discussions, we believe, will help us move forward on our journey towards Communism by providing further clarification on these issues.

For example, the following questions may be asked:

  1. When the State comes to an end in Communist Society, how would its positive tasks (i.e., fulfillment of all human needs and individual freedom) be performed?
  2. How should the socio-economic relations be organized after the seizure of power by the working class?
  3. If the first phase of Communism is defective and if according to Marx this new society is tainted with the birthmarks of capitalism (having been born from the womb of capitalism) will there not remain the danger of sliding back to capitalism?
  4. What will be the nature of the socio-economic system and the nature of the society during the “transitional period” between Capitalism and Communism? Will the domination of Capital continue to operate even under the hegemony of the working class (D.P.) during this period?

Let us then begin with Marx’s Method based on his Philosophy in order find a way out of capitalism!


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