Karl Korsch 1922

Introduction to the
Critique of the Gotha Programme

Written: by Karl Korsch in 1922;
Source: Marxism and Philosophy. Karl Korsch, translated by Fred Halliday, Monthly Review Press, 1970;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden for marxists.org, 2004;
Proofed and corrected: by Chris Clayton 2006.

1. The Outward History of the Letter on the Gotha Programme

Next to the Communist Manifesto of 1847-8 and the ‘General Introduction’ to the Critique of Political Economy of 1857, the Critique of the Gotha Programme of 1875 is, of all Karl Marx’s shorter works, the most complete, lucid and forceful expression of the bases and consequences of his economic and social theory.[1] But for this very reason, like the two others, it is not among the master’s most easily comprehensible works. One obvious reason for this is that it is not written as a unified presentation, but is made up of loosely assembled ‘marginal notes’[2] on individual paragraphs of a draft programme that itself was not structured in a rigorously logical way. To understand the content even of specific sections, the reader must know certain things in advance if he is to be able to grasp the rich and profound contents of the work in full. He must know something about certain historical facts and their general context, and also the theoretical meaning of certain concepts within the Marxist system. Otherwise what may happen is what occurred to those to whom Marx originally sent his letter in 1875. They totally failed to understand the theoretical and practical importance of Marx’s critique and consequently they were in no position to undertake any essential changes in the draft Programme on the basis of it. As a result, the definitive version of the Programme adopted by the Gotha Party Congress in the same month, May 1875, varied so little from the draft which Marx criticized that not one of his criticisms ceased to apply to it. The recipients of the letter did not even understand the minor points he made. This is shown, for example, by the fact that they even failed to cross out ‘the regulation of prison labour’, although Marx criticized it at the end of his text as a ‘petty demand in a general worker’s programme’. They did not even improve it in the way Marx suggested. Yet this, as Marx justly commented, was ‘the least one might have expected from socialists’. This demand remained in the Programme as one of the ‘eight’ immediate demands of the united German working class, which is really as if a newly founded revolutionary party had called for the ‘abolition of the dog tax’. Marx’s letter met with little real understanding among even the best representatives of Marxism in Germany itself, and anyone who wants to get a clearer idea of this need only read the lengthy account of the events surrounding the Programme given by August Bebel in his memoirs.[3] Bebel’s self-satisfied conclusion is as follows; ‘One can see that it was no easy thing to reach agreement with the two old men [Marx and Engels] in London. What on our part was a clever calculation and an adroit tactic was seen by them as weakness and irresponsible complacency. In the end the main point was achieved: the unification. This logically contained within itself its own further development. As before and afterwards, those friends of ours, our enemies, made sure this was so.’ The only thing right about these comforting reflections of the old party leader is in the last sentence; as had happened so often before in the history of the socialist movement, it was the enemies of socialism who did all they could to make up for the lack of principle of its friends. In the end this historical compensation reconciled even Marx and Engels, to some extent, with this ‘extremely disorganized, confused, fragmented, illogical and disreputable Programme’. This is stated explicitly in a final ‘Letter on the Programme’ written on 12 October 1875 by Engels to August Bebel, in his and Marx’s name.[4] In this letter Engels begins by restating the theoretical condemnation he and Marx had already expressed. The Programme would have doubtless made a ‘laughing stock’ of the party if there ‘had been a single critical mind in the bourgeois press’ able to point out the ‘contradictions and economic howlers’ it contained. Engels goes on to say that ‘instead of this, the donkeys of the bourgeois papers took this programme quite seriously and read into it what it does not contain. They interpreted it in a communist way, and the workers appear to be doing the same. It is this circumstance alone that made it possible for Marx and myself not to dissociate ourselves publicly from such a programme. As long as our opponents, and likewise the workers, view the programme as embodying our intentions we may allow ourselves to keep quiet about it.’

This is how Marx’s critique of the Programme drafted for Gotha became, unwittingly, a critique of the Programme adopted in Gotha. Hence the reader who wants to get a general view of the object of Marx’s criticism in order to understand Marx’s notes can do this just as well by reading the finally adopted version of the Programme as by reading the preliminary draft Programme criticized by Marx himself. The two have exactly the same substantive content, and wherever there is a reference to the words of the draft, Marx himself quotes them in the Critique.

2. The Revival of the Workers’ Movement, 1849-75

In the 1860s, after a long period in which the workers’ movement of emancipation of 1848-9 had first been bloodily suppressed and then lulled, there were at last signs of a ‘reawakening of the working classes in the most industrialized countries of Europe’. As a result the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International) was founded in London on 28 September 1864 with Karl Marx as a leading participant; it lasted till 1874-6. In the Inaugural Address Marx prepared for the founding of the I.W.A. there is the following picture, concise and rich, of the general character of the ‘post-revolutionary’ epoch between 1848 and the formation of the First International.

After the failure of the revolutions of 1848, all party organizations and party journals of the working class were, on the continent, crushed by the iron hand of force ‘the most advanced sons of labour fled in despair to the Transatlantic Republic’ and the short-lived dreams of emancipation vanished before an epoch of industrial fever’ moral degeneration and political reaction. The defeat of the continental working classes’ owing partly to the diplomacy of the English government’ then as now in fraternal solidarity with the cabinet of St Petersburg, soon spread its contagious effects to this side of the channel. While the rout of their continental brethren unmanned the English working classes, and broke their faith in their own cause, it restored to the landlord and the capitalist their somewhat shaken confidence. They insolently withdrew concessions already advertised. The discoveries of new goldlands led to an immense exodus, leaving an irrevocable void in the ranks of the British proletariat. Others of its formerly active members were caught by the temporary bribe of greater work and wages, and turned into loyal workers. All the efforts made to sustain or remodel the Chartist Movement failed quite unambiguously. The press organs of the working class died one by one of the apathy of the masses, and, in point of fact, never before did the English working class seem so thoroughly reconciled to a state of political nullity. If then’ there had been no solidarity of action between the British and continental working classes, there was, at all events, a solidarity of defeat.

When, after such a period of defeat, the first hopes were aroused once again, Marx and Engels eagerly seized the first occasion ‘to do significantly practical and theoretical work’ once again on a wider scale within the movement of proletarian emancipation. Nevertheless they were clear that it was not yet possible at this stage to use the ‘old audacity of language’ employed in the Communist Manifesto of 1847-8. The task was rather to have a position which was resolute, substantive and did not compromise on any question of principle, but to make it politically effective in a form that was broad and cautious, and did not exclude any sympathetic collaborators. With this in mind Marx wrote the Inaugural Address and the Provisional Statutes of the I.W.A. which were later adopted by the Geneva Congress in 1866 with few alterations.[5] The reader will see that, apart from the vacuous final section which Marx only added reluctantly and under the pressure of necessity, this declaration of principles expressed in substance the basic ideas and conclusions of communism just as accurately as the verbally much more passionate and stormy Manifesto of the Communist League.

As for the decade between 1864 and 1874, Marx and Engels reckoned that the working masses of Europe had acquired a greater ‘awareness of the real preconditions of emancipating the workers’. Engels gave the following picture of the importance of this period in his 1890 preface to the Communist Manifesto:

When the working class of Europe had again gathered sufficient strength for a new onslaught upon the power of the ruling classes, the International Workingmen’s Association came into being. Its aim was to weld together into one huge army the whole militant working class of Europe and America. Therefore it could not set out from the principles laid down in the Manifesto. It was bound to have a programme which would not shut the door on the English trade unions’ the French’ Belgian, Italian and Spanish Proudhonists and the German Lassalleans. This programme — the preamble to the Statutes of the International was drawn up by Marx with a master hand, acknowledged even by Bakunin and the anarchists. For the ultimate triumph of the ideas set forth in the Manifesto, Marx relied solely and exclusively upon the intellectual development of the working class, as it necessarily had to ensue from united action and discussion. The events and vicissitudes in the struggle against capital ‘the defeats even more than the successes’ could not but demonstrate to the fighters the inadequacy hitherto of their universal panaceas and make their minds more receptive to a thorough understanding of the true conditions for the emancipation of the workers. And Marx was right. The working class of 1874, at the dissolution of the International, was altogether different from that of 1864, at its foundation. Proudhonism in the Latin countries and Lassalleanism in Germany were dying out, and even the arch-conservative English trade unions were gradually approaching the point where in 1887 the chairman of their Swansea Congress could say in their name: ‘Continental Socialism has lost its terrors for us.’ Yet by 1887 Continental Socialism was almost exclusively the theory heralded in the Manifesto.[6]

In the middle of the 1870s, then, Marx and Engels thought it was far more possible than they had ten years earlier for the socialist and communist movement in the advanced countries to return to the ‘old audacity’ of the 1847-8 Manifesto by exhibiting a ‘declaration of principles’. In any case, they thought that the movement had developed to an extent that any retreat from what was said in 1864 must appear to be an unforgivable crime against the future of the workers’ movement. Thus Marx himself says in the note accompanying his Critique of the Gotha Programme:[7] there was no need to make a ‘declaration of principles’ when conditions did not allow it, but when conditions had progressed so much since 1864, it was utterly impermissible to ‘demoralize’ the party with a shallow and unprincipled programme.

This illustrates some of Marx’s preoccupations when writing the Critique of the Gotha Programme. He demanded from the ‘Declaration of Principles’ of the most advanced Socialist Democratic party as a minimum the same level of principle and concrete demands as he himself had been able to insert into another declaration of principles, ten years earlier. This had been drafted under much less favourable circumstances and was designed for the common programme of the various socialist, half-socialist and quarter-socialist tendencies in Europe and America. Wherever the Gotha Programme failed to meet this minimum condition, Marx considers it to have fallen below the level already reached by the movement. Hence, even if it appeared to suit the state of the Party in Germany, it was bound to harm the future historical development of the movement.

3. Marx and Lassalle

One can acquire a deeper understanding of the basic propositions of the Critique by looking into the historical and intellectual relations and conflicts between those two world-historical personalities, Marx and Lassalle. The reader must learn to see Marx’s letter in terms of the great dispute between Lassalle and Marx, i.e. between an already developed and philosophically idealist German socialism and an international Marxist communism that was still in the initial process of developing on a far mightier scale. It was the circumstances surrounding the Gotha Unification Congress that served as the external reason for Marx’s conviction that it was necessary to have such a dispute at this time. We know that at Gotha the former Lassalleans (the Allgemeine Deutsche Arbeiterverein) and the former Eisenachers (the Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands) came together to form the unified Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands. Up to then, the Eisenacher tendency appeared to be the Marxist one, owing to historical and partly personal and contingent factors which one can study in Mehring’s biography of Marx or in his history of German Social Democracy. At the same time it must be rather surprising to see how partisanly Marx in his Critique of the Gotha Programme attributes every single defect and mistake in the unified German Party’s programme to the ‘Lassalleanist’ tendency. This is especially surprising if one recalls his tolerance and patience towards the totally uncommunist principles of many sections of the International Workingmen’s Association, which he formed and led. Lassalle, moreover, had been dead for more than a decade. He had not even been alive when the I.W.A. was set up in 1864. Also, it is evident from their theoretical writings and by their practical positions on many questions, and emerges particularly clearly from Mehring’s neutral account, that the Lassalleaner were in many ways better ‘Marxists’ than the Eisenacher. In some of its formulations of principle, the Eisenach Programme of 1869 had formally followed the International’s Statutes but in others it followed ‘Lassallean’ principles as much as the Gotha Programme itself. Marx appears to go too far in his criticism of the corrupting and demoralizing influence of Lassalleanism in the draft Programme. To gain a full understanding of the real meaning and of the theoretical and historical justification for this, one must go deeper and realize that Marx was a thinker and politician who was highly conscious of his historical responsibilities and was ‘working for the world’. In dealing with the draft Programme he was not backing the ‘Eisenach’ tendency in German Social Democracy against the ‘Lassalleans’. Rather, he was trying to fight and demolish the Lassallean spirit which was much more influential than the Marxist spirit among both the Eisenachers and the Lassalleaner. Karl Marx wrote the greater part of his letter against the ‘living Lassalle’. He was trying, retrospectively and definitively, to demolish Lassalle’s conception of society, which was based on a philosophy of Right and of the State, and therefore on ‘idealism’. His aim is to replace it, theoretically and practically, with the ‘materialist’ conception of history founded on the economy. This was the outlook which for over thirty years, in alliance with the few who really understood him, he had struggled and laboured to advance. One can say that from 1843 (when he attained his decisive ‘materialist’ outlook in the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right) all Marx’s writings and actions were fundamentally contributions to the advance of this materialist outlook and practice, against the ever-growing army of its opponents both within and without the walls of the proletarian camp. We know only too well now that this struggle is as necessary today as it was fifty or eighty years ago. The irony of history has willed it that the numerically strongest socialist tendency in Germany, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), has just formally abandoned Marxism, in its new Görlitz Programme of 23 September 1921. In its place the SPD has once again written on its banners the slogans of Lassalle which Marx tried to annihilate in his critique of the Gotha Programme. Of course, all it has repeated are the words of Lassalle, since the German Social Democratic Party of 1921, which rejects Marxism, has as little to do with the spirit of Lassalle as with that of Marx. In Lassalle’s great speech of 1862 (what is called the ‘Workers’ Programme’) On the Especial Connection of the Present Historical Period with the Idea of the Working Class there are many formulations which conflict with the Görlitz Programme of 1921. Among these is the clear statement that ‘the period of history which began in spring 1848 will not produce a state, whether of a monarchic or republican form, which expresses or maintains the political domination of the Third Estate. At the same time, the reference to Lassalle by the defenders of the Görlitz Programme still has a certain significance. If we said this was 1862 and not 1923, we might still regard this programme of a ‘party of the working people’ as a product of Lassallean doctrine. In one and the same breath, it describes the class struggle to liberate the proletariat as a ‘historical necessity’ and as an ‘ethical demand’; and it declares its intention to struggle for ‘the popular will organized in a free people’s state’ to dominate the economy and society. Such a programme could only properly be called Lassallean, however, if something very different were said ‘in private’. For everything Lassalle ever wrote or said about ‘universal suffrage’ and related matters is put in a totally different light by what he once said, in true bourgeois style, to a close circle of confidants. ‘Whenever I say “universal suffrage” you must understand me to mean 9 ‘revolution”, and only “revolution”.’ However true this may be, we do not, unfortunately, have among us the ‘living Lassalle’ to contradict the ‘dead’ Braun, Cunow, Kampffmeyer and their companions. Lassalle’s revolutionary slogans of 1862 have been criminally misused to justify and embellish a completely non-revolutionary and anti-revolutionary, petty bourgeois and utterly hopeless programme of utopian reform. Lassalle only survives in printed form and in literature, but he is far less able to combat these caricatures than another more powerful opponent of them who survives in the same form, Karl Marx.

4. The Materialist and Ideological Conceptions of History

The central target of all Marx’s criticisms of the Gotha Programme is the Lassallean and Social Democratic conception of the State and of society, which is thoroughly ideological. At the time it was still held by most German Social Democrats and it was very clearly articulated in the draft Programme. This was a fateful time for the socialist movement. The most numerous socialist workers’ party which the world has so far seen was coming into existence. For Marx it was once again necessary to protest — in an unequivocally vigorous way, as always, against opportunism — at a draft Programme which contained the characteristic ideological errors of Lassallean socialism, scientifically long outdated and now merely heated up again. In doing so, Marx had to affirm the validity in all its rigour and results of the basic ‘materialist’ principle of which he had summed up some decades before in the following pregnant passage: ‘Legal relations as well as forms of the state are to be grasped neither from themselves nor from the so-called general development of the human mind, but rather have their roots in the material conditions of life, the sum total of which Hegel, following the example of the Englishmen and Frenchmen of the eighteenth century, combined under the name of “civil society”. However, the anatomy of civil society is to be sought in political economy.’[8] In direct contradiction to this materialist and economic conception of Marx, the Gotha Programme in its very first sentence accepts the thoroughly ideological position of Lassalle, according to which the claim of all members of society to the product of their labour should be based on the idea of ‘equal right’. Founded on this lofty principle, it proceeds consistently in section 11 to demand a ‘free State’ in which ‘all social and political inequality’ is overcome, and ends by making only one socio-economic demand — the establishment of producers’ co-operatives ‘with State aid’. The draft (and the definitive version of the Programme) add to this no less than seven purely political and bourgeois-democratic demands. According to Engels every one of these ‘directly and literally coincides with the Programme of the People’s Party and the petty bourgeois democracy’.[9] The one instance of ‘internationalism’ is an abstract, ideological-political profession of the idea of the ‘international brotherhood of peoples’ (changed in the final version to the ‘brotherhood of men’).

Karl Marx had devoted his whole life to transforming socialism from a theoretical ideology and practical utopia into a realistic and material science and practice. It is not surprising that a programme like this deeply disappointed and dismayed him. This is why the whole letter on the Programme became one blazing indictment of what he explicitly stated to be a ‘thoroughly objectionable programme, which would demoralize the Party’ in everything it said. The theory and practice of scientific socialism is materialist. The draft Programme is Lassallean — that is, ideological and utopia. Even if one were able and willing to ignore this, ‘the Programme is worthless’ taken in and for itself. Marx therefore holds it to be his ‘duty’ ‘not to accept’ such a theoretically and practically unprincipled Programme ‘by a diplomatic silence’. He ‘comments on’ it and ‘criticizes’ it with the greatest thoroughness.

5. The Dialectical Method

The form in which Marx carried out his decision to criticize the Programme is extremely suggestive of his whole intellectual formation. It shows particularly clearly the enormous superiority of the ‘materialist’ method. Marx also applied this method to the production of theoretical ideas and it is often referred to as the ‘dialectical’ method, a formulation retained by Marx and Engels.[10] According to Marx’s basic materialist conception, intellectual production like any other production requires a specific, concrete raw material to be transformed into thought. Thinking which just produces abstract thoughts ‘in general’ is quite fruitless. Even in thinking, the only way to produce a real ‘material’ product of thought is by applying the power of thought to a material of thought which can be worked on by it. This means that Marx did not proceed to criticize the Gotha Programme by revealing the false and superficial general principle that clearly underlies all its particular sentences and demands, and then simply counterpose the truer and deeper principle of his materialism to it, in an equally general form. He proceeds inversely, by criticizing in the greatest detail each individual passage in the Programme. This is a highly skilful work of intellectual production. Its individual propositions might sometimes appear at first sight to be arbitrary or hair-splitting; but on closer inspection they always turn out to be important and necessary steps within the whole process of the argument. Marx takes what at first appear to be quite harmless passages from the draft, and extracts from them all the fundamental vagueness, the timid indecision, the wordy nullity and futility contained within them. This reveals most clearly, but in a mediate way, the abysmal falsity of the basic principle underlying all these passages. This means that the fundamental conflict between the Marxist — materialist and the Lassallean — ideological conceptions of history is never stated in a general form anywhere in the letter, although from the start it governs every particular statement in it. It runs like a red thread through all the specific ‘marginal notes’ binding them into a tight-knit unity, and is clearly visible everywhere to those familiar with it. Karl Marx was a positive dialectician and revolutionary and the magnificent character of his spirit is very evident in the Critique: he never allows his critical work to become a mere negation of the errors and superficialities analysed in his letter, he always goes on to expound or briefly indicate the positive and true concepts which should replace the error and illusion he criticizes. He is not content to criticize and refute the parts of the Programme which are the results of a false and superficial principle. This refutation always yields a positive development of conclusions drawn from the deeper and truer materialist position which he advances in its place. It is through this positive development that the process comes to an end in a way that the ‘materialist dialectician’ finds really satisfying.

6. From Marx to Lenin

It is, of course, these positive developments which are the most important and concretely significant parts of the Critique for the theory and practice of contemporary Marxism. For the Critique does not just contain a set of Marx’s discoveries assembled in highly concise and compelling formulas, yet available elsewhere. We find here Marx’s own systematic application of his basic materialist principle to a set of major social problems on which he nowhere else spoke with equal clarity and at such length. Above all, Marx here fundamentally clarifies the real theoretical and practical relationship between the present and future ‘society’ and the (present and future) ‘State’, in contradistinction to Lassalle’s ideology of Right and of the State. There is no need to indicate how enormously important the Gotha Programme is in this respect today. The reader can find a critical evaluation and elaboration, in the finest Marxist spirit, of all the relevant passages from the Critique of the Gotha Programme in the fifth chapter of that classical work on the theory and practice of the Marxist conception of the State, Lenin’s State and Revolution. In twenty highly concentrated pages, Lenin discusses the problem of the relationship of society and the State, and the related questions of the transition from capitalism to communism, the different forms of democracy and dictatorship, and their supersession by the gradual emergence of a future communist society. This communist society develops from capitalist society and will, for a long time, be defined and its ‘free development’ hindered by the latter’s traditions and forms. All that Lenin said in this connection appears quite explicitly as a consistent development of the basic insights that Marx first developed on these issues in his letter on the Gotha Programme in 1875. Marx, at the height of his powers, wrote in sharp opposition to the Lassallean and German Social Democratic, ideological and utopian, conception of that State, which has predominated in the European and American workers’ movement to this day. The practical politics of a real Marxist is only the continuation by other means of his theoretical work of science and propaganda.[11] Thus, in a certain sense, the whole great world-historical event of the proletarian revolution in Russia after 1917 is but a continuation into practical reality of the fundamental materialist principle of the development of history and society. It was the theoretical realization of this principle for which Marx fought and worked in all his writings, but most decisively of all in the Critique of the Gotha Programme.

7. The Structure of the Letter

Corresponding to the divisions in the draft Programme under criticism (which only differs from the final version in a few details), Marx’s Critique falls into four sections, or, if one takes the initial formulations of the fourth section on the concept of the ‘free state’ as an independent part, five sections.[12] Section IV.B consists of the draft’s immediate political and cultural demands. Marx’s critique of these demands is extremely clear and thorough; it needs no elaboration here as it will be immediately comprehensible to the reader. A further study of this part of the Marxist-Communist critique of the Social Democratic Party’s Programme would include, first of all, Engels’s letter ‘On the Critique of the Social Democratic Draft Programme of 1891 (the Erfurt Programme)’, which was first published in Neue Zeit (1901) and in a certain sense continues the joint critique by Marx and Engels of the draft Gotha Programme.[13] What Marx and Engels would have said about the 1921 Görlitz Programme of the German Social Democrats can be left to the imagination of the reader, alerted by studying this text. Anyone who wants a more precise guidance can read the relevant writings of Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, Trostky and Radek.

The section of the letter that is basic to all the others is the comprehensive first section. Under numbers 1 and 2 and with the short section II, it contains a highly concentrated account of Marxist political economy. Under number 3 and with section III it serves to prepare for the important statements of section IV of the relationship of society and the State, now and in the future. In our own time Lenin has developed these ideas in both theory and practice. Finally, under numbers 4 and 5, there are some very important remarks, particularly pertinent today, on the historical relationship of the proletariat to the other classes in the different phases of the development of capitalist society, on the necessarily international content of the workers’ movement, and above all on the international tasks of the German working class. These form a development of analyses in the Communist Manifesto.

Sections I and II of the Critique make an important though brief contribution to clarifying the basic concepts and theses of Marxist political economy, and it is naturally both impossible and unnecessary to discuss them once again in this short treatment. The reader who still has difficulty with these sections of the Critique is referred to my recently published Quintessenz des Marxismus. There he will find, in an extremely short and precise form, thirty-seven questions and answers which explain all the basic concepts and theories of Marxist economics as well as the most essential theses of the Marxist theory of society. Having done so, he will be ready to understand those parts of the Critique which are hard to comprehend without some knowledge of Marxist concepts and their place within the whole economic and social theory of Marxism. To this very day these are still catastrophically misunderstood even by good followers of Marx.

8. Two Difficult Questions: The Iron Law of Wages and Producers’ Co-operatives with State Aid

Of all the difficult passages in the Critique that are liable to be misunderstood, there are only two that need some further discussion, in that I think that they are the most difficult ones for beginners. These are the statements in sections II and III on the so-called ‘iron law of wages’ and ‘producers’ co-operatives with State aid’. It is on these points that there has frequently been great misunderstanding of Marx’s strong criticism of the Gotha Programme, and a tendency to see in it an ‘excessive’ expression of Marx’s specifically personal animosity towards Lassalle. There can be no dispute about the personally bitter tone in which Marx and Engels attacked Lassalle at this time, but their expressions are the result of an ineluctable and concrete necessity. For it is precisely where the. formulations and demands of materialist-communist Marxism and ideological-socialist Lassalleanism are externally so close that their inner contradiction is so much greater. To ignore this contradiction is very dangerous, if the scientific insights finally attained by Marx are to be preserved and developed.

We begin with the law of wages. First, let us mention Marx’s critical remark in his letter that ‘proceeds of labour’ is a ‘loose’ (i.e. imprecise) idea which ‘Lassalle has put in the place of definite economic concepts’. The ‘definite economic concepts’ Marx talks of here are obviously those of his theory of value and surplus value, and in particular a scientific discovery that is basic for any understanding of Marxist communism, but which is regarded today as ‘meaningless’ by all his opponents and even by some of his followers. This discovery is that wages are not, as the bourgeois economists would have it, the value (or price) of labour but only ‘a masked form of the value or price of labour power’, which is sold on the labour market as a commodity before it is employed productively (as labour) in the capitalist’s enterprise. I have explained the theoretical basis of these concepts and phrases elsewhere, in my Quintessenz des Marxismus. But what is only discussed theoretically there can be seen applied in an immensely important and practical way in the Critique itself. It is not without justification, nor out of blind hostility to Lassalle and his followers, that Karl Marx lays such emphatic stress on these key aspects of his theory of surplus value and fights Lassalle’s slogan ‘the iron law of wages’ with such merciless vigour. At first sight there would appear to be no real contradiction between what Marx and Lassalle say. Even the Communist Manifesto did state that the ‘costs’ which the worker causes the capitalists ‘are almost entirely confined to the means of subsistence that he requires for his maintenance and for the propagation of his race’.[14] This obviously means what the bourgeois economists Malthus and Ricardo first expressed and was later called ‘the iron law of wages’. Hence the reason why the Critique of the Gotha Programme vigorously attacks Lassalle’s ‘iron law of wages’ is the deeper understanding of the whole structure of capitalist society and of the laws of historical development which scientific Marxism derives from its key concept of ‘surplus value’. The idea that wages are the value of labour power and not of labour is not merely intended (as some people have thought) to enable Marxist economic theory and science to have a clearer and simpler conceptual structure. On the contrary this discovery contains the nucleus of the true essence of class contradictions within capitalist society. It provides a systematic explanation of the material reasons why these class contradictions arose and why they have developed and sharpened in spite of a continuing rise in the productive power of social labour. It also explains why this very rise in productivity eventually creates the ‘material’ possibility and necessity of a complete abolition of class contradictions in a communist society. By contrast, the theory of the ‘iron law of wages’ is based partly on natural science and partly on the philosophy of Right. It can neither explain the real social origin of class contradictions nor is it able, except on ethical and idealist grounds, to argue for the necessity of a real ‘supersession’ of this law and with it of the ‘curse’ it imposes on the working class. (This is why Lassalle’s dogma, now adopted by the bourgeois economists, is such a danger to the proletariat’s struggle for emancipation.) Once this important connection is realized, the full import of the striking comparison made at the end of section III immediately becomes comprehensible. There Marx says that to base the workers’ struggle for emancipation on Lassalle’s ‘iron law of wages’ would be like basing a slave rebellion on the undernourishment involved in the slave system.

Equally complex and at first sight obscure motives lie behind Marx’s furious and relentless attack in section III on the one socio-economic demand the Gotha Programme makes — the demand for ‘establishing producers’ co-operatives with State aid’. Here, as with the iron law of wages, Marx’s fierce attack is not really against the call for producers’ cooperatives as such, but only against the particular role that they play in Lassalle’s system. In fact, ten years earlier Marx had actually included ‘the establishment of producers’ associations and other institutions of use to the working class’ among the practical demands of the I.W.A. statues, and in his Inaugural Address he hailed the co-operative movement, along with the ten-hour day, as ‘up to now the greatest victories of the political economy of labour over the political economy of property’. At that time he even emphatically demanded the ‘development of co-operative labour on a national scale’, aided by ‘the means of the State’. Here, too, there would superficially appear to be no real conflict between Marx’s position and the demand made by the draft Gotha Programme. In fact, however, this example of Marx’s anger is a vivid expression of a deep and substantive difference between his outlook and that of Lassalle. For Marx was only too well aware of the real nature of this scheme (amply demonstrated in any event by the rest of the Programme). The plan for associations of co-operatives conceived in the 1860s along ‘Lassallean’ lines (whatever Lassalle himself may originally have said when first advancing this demand) relied much more on State aid than on the creation of a co-operative economy itself. Its real aim was to use aid to the producers’ associations to change the ‘limited bourgeois state’ into a ‘socialist state that would fulfil the ethical idea of freedom’ — instead of seeking the necessary material preconditions for attaining a socialist society in the predominance of the political economy of the working class over the political economy of property (which may be furthered, among other things, by producers’ cooperatives). This was a flagrant violation of a major principle in the I.W.A. Declaration of Principles which stated that ‘the economic emancipation of the working class is the principle aim, which every political movement must serve to advance’. Marx in section III of the Critique seeks to demolish the key concept of ‘co-operatives based on State credit’ as a regression into crude ideological and utopian errors. (This idea has recently found its worthy successors in the equally empty notions of many German socialists about ‘socialization’ or ‘seizing real values’.) Marx reaffirms against these illusions the true materialist and revolutionary meaning of the words ‘producers’ associations on a national scale’ by saying: ‘That the workers desire to establish the conditions for co-operative production on a social scale, and first of all on a national scale, in their own country, only means that they are working to revolutionize the present conditions of production, and it has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with State aid’.

9. The Kernel of the Critique

In this passage Karl Marx developed the implications of his strictly materialist position with reference only to ‘producers’ associations with State aid’. But these are not merely of historical importance. On the contrary, his principle can be applied to the latest efforts of the workers’ struggle for emancipation — for example, to the ‘socializations’ of 1918-20 and to the ‘acquisition of real values’ of 1921-2. The principle Marx establishes can therefore still serve today as a touchstone for distinguishing the different positions adopted on these questions. In fact, it will become even more important in the course of future developments, as the major tactical questions of the social revolution, and the even greater practical tasks of the long transitional period between capitalism and communism, gradually approach nearer to reality. This is the most outstanding aspect of the Critique today: more than any other writing of Marx and Engels, it gives us a reliable key for solving the great political and social problems which the working class is now called upon to master. This is at once the most difficult and finest period of its historical development. The great transition from the capitalist to the communist socioeconomic order is no longer to be accomplished merely in imagination, but in the hard reality of life. Even the Communist Manifesto, otherwise the richest source for the Marxist position on all issues beyond purely economic problems, is in this respect somewhat inadequate. There is the well-known list of the ten transitional demands, intended only for the most initial period of the revolution, and a very abstract and philosophically worded definition of the final aim of communism.[16] Apart from this, there is only the repeated statement that in all revolutionary movements communists have emphasized the ‘property issue’ as the ‘fundamental question’ (this naturally includes a long period after the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat). This emphasis on the ‘property issue’ can be interpreted in two ways. It can be seen either as a juridical problem of distribution which is capable of solution through changes in the form of the State, or ‘materialistically’ as a social problem of production which can only be solved by overthrowing the economic structure of society. It is precisely by means of a thorough clarification of these two interpretations that Marx, in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, sets out the total contradiction between the ideological state socialism of Lassalle and his own materialist communism. As he never tires of saying, the Lassalleans do not have communist society as their final aim, but only a dreary middle position. It is true that the latter will have overcome private ownership of the means of production and related ‘inequalities’ and ‘injustices’ in the distribution of goods. But in every other respect — economically, ethically and spiritually — it will still bear the stamp of the old capitalist society of today. Specifically, bourgeois Law and the bourgeois State will not have been totally superseded as the forgotten ideas of a barbarous prehistory. Marx himself, of course, was fully conscious of the fact that the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat, and the abolition of private capitalist ownership of the means of production, would not in itself suffice to create a mature communist society ‘freely’ developing to unimagined heights by virtue of its inherent laws. Indeed, he consciously demonstrated this ‘materialist insight’ in his letter on the Gotha Programme. For ‘between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of one into the other’. The communal socio-economic order created after the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat will be ‘a communist society not as it has developed on its own foundations, but on the contrary as it has emerged from capitalist society’. Consequently for a long time thereafter it still remains subject to the natural laws of capitalist society, which are alien and contrary to its novel character and limit and hinder its free development.

This is unavoidable for a communist society that has ‘emerged from capitalist society after prolonged travail’. From the superior perspective of Marxist communism, the Lassallean socialism derived from philosophies of Right and the State — and in practice the Social Democratic state socialism of today with its Görlitz Programme derived from Lassalleanism — can thus be judged guilty of criminal folly. The period of transition is necessary and inevitable for historical reasons — Lassallean socialism takes it for an ideal and final state. The reason for this is obvious — it has itself never surpassed the ‘narrow horizon’ of bourgeois conceptions of right, ethics and the State. It maunders in an ideological and utopian fashion about the ideal of a ‘just distribution’ and complete ‘social and political equality’ in a ‘free state’. The primitive idea of freedoms essentially guaranteed by Law and State is annulled precisely by the grandiose final aim of communism, now already visible to us. It will be replaced by future forms of consciousness in the ‘new life’ of the ‘higher phase of communist society’. We, who are still living in the prehistory of human society, can hardly have any realistic picture of what these will be.

Marx and Lenin insist that these high aims cannot he accomplished by pure thought or by some imaginative power impregnating itself in an airy dream world of the spirit. They can only be achieved on the basis of the material development of the forces of production, in the terrestrial and intramundane reality of concrete social life, by means of terrestrial and intramundane actions. For this reason people call them ‘materialists’ and believe that they have said something against them. The bourgeoisie has good material reasons for so doing, which cannot be taken from them by theoretical and immaterial means either. The situation of workers is a very different one. They suffer from the ‘material’ conditions of the present as well as the ‘ideal’ effects of these conditions. They can only be helped ‘ideally’ and ‘materially’ by the complete overthrow of these conditions. No one can or will provide this ‘material’ help for them, except themselves. That is why every worker must in the end become a materialist.


1. Marx wrote the critique of the draft Programme of the Gotha Congress before the Congress itself took place. It was written for his German friends (Bracke, Geib, Auer, Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht) and was not published until 1891 when at Engels’s request it was printed in Neue Zeit as a contribution to the discussion then taking place on the 1891 Erfurt Programme. See Marx and Engels’s letters in Selected Works, V0l. II, pp. 15-1745-8. The full text is in ibid. pp. 18ff.

2. The original German title is Randglossen zum Programm der deutschen Arbeiterpartei (‘Marginal Notes on the Programme of the German Workers’ Party’). [Translator’s note.]

3. August Bebel, My Life (London’ 1912)’ p. 287.

4. Selected Correspondence’ p. 363. Engels’s letter to Bebel of 18-28 March 1875’ in Selected Works, vol. 2, pp. 38ff., sets out in a more accessible form than Marx’s Critique (which was written two months later) the most important critical objections of the two ‘old men’ to the Draft Programme.

5. Selected Works, vol. 1, pp. 377ff.

6. Selected Works’ vol. I’ pp. 30-1.

7. Letter to Bracke, Selected Works, vol. II, p. 16.

8. Selected Works, vol, I, p. 362.

9. Selected Works, vol, II, p. 39.

10. This is discussed in more detail in my forthcoming book, ‘The Philosophical Foundations of Marxism’ [Translator’s note: i.e. Marxism and Philosophy].

11. To gain an emphatic appreciation of this, one should read the famous twelve-line postscript to State and Revolution which Lenin wrote in Petrograd on 30 November 1917, and which ends with this sentence: ‘It is more pleasant and more useful to live through a revolution than to write about it.’

12. The numbering used here is that in Selected Works, vol. II. [Translator’s note.]

13. Selected Correspondence, p. 512.

14. Selected Works, vol. “ p. 40.

15. See Engels’s remark in a footnote to the 1890 Preface to the Communist Manifesto, where he says of the Lassalleans: ‘Lassalle personally, to us, always acknowledged himself to be a “disciple” of Marx, and as such stood, of course, on the ground of the Manifesto. Matters were quite different with regard to those of his followers who did not go beyond his demand for producers’ co-operatives supported by State credits, and who divided the whole working class into supporters of State assistance and supporters of self-assistance.’

16. Selected Works, vol. I, p. 5 4: ‘In place of the old bourgeois society’ with its classes and class antagonisms, ‘we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’ This definition of the communist concept of freedom does go a long way beyond Kant’s categorical imperative, but is still only a simple inversion of the Hegelian concept of freedom, which is most precisely formulated in the following rather complex passage from Hegel: ‘First’ there comes the empty abstraction of a concept of general freedom for all’ distinct from the freedom of each individual. On the other side, arises the same freedom, equally isolated, for the individual. Each posed for itself is an abstraction without reality. But if both are considered as absolutely identical, and posed in terms of this initial and underlying identity, they become something other than the former concepts which have their meaning only through their non-identity, (Wissenschaftliche Behandlungsarten des Naturrechts, Lasson edition, p. 367). Hegel links the freedom of each to the freedom of all’ as something of equal value. But in doing so he regards the freedom of the individual only in terms of the freedom of the whole’ through which it is realized. Marx, by contrast, makes the free development of each the precondition for the correlative freedom of all. In the Communist Manifesto, he was not yet able to express this abstract and philosophical concept of freedom in terrestrial and material terms.