Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program”: Four Points

Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program was based on a letter he wrote in 1875 and was published in 1891.

By the mid-1870s reformist or moderate Continental socialist parties and leaders had risen to challenge the views of Marx in significant ways. In Germany, in 1875 there was founded the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany, which became the modern Social Democratic Party of Germany, and it adopted a moderate program that Marx opposed.

I want to focus on four points that interest me: (1) Marx’s attitude to the transitional communist state, (2) the labour of children, (3) universal education, and (4) religion.

Towards the end of the Critique of the Gotha Program Marx states frankly his opposition to democracy and his vision of the state in the transitional communist society:
“What, then, is the change which the institution of the State will undergo in a communistic society? In other words, what social functions, analogous ‘to the present functions of the State, will remain there? This question can be answered only by proceeding scientifically; the problem is not brought one flea’s leap nearer its solution by a thousand combinations of the word ‘people’ with the word ‘State.’

Between the capitalist and the communist systems of society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. This corresponds to a political transition period, whose State can be nothing else but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. But the platform [sc. of the German Social Democrats] applies neither to the latter, nor to the future State organization of communist society. Its political demands contain nothing but the old democratic litany that the whole world knows: ‘universal suffrage,’ ‘direct legislation,’ ‘administration of justice by the people,’ ‘arming of the nation,’ etc. They are a mere echo of the middle-class People’s Party, of the League for Freedom and Peace; they are all demands that, so far as they are not of an exaggerated phantastic conception, are realized now. Only the State, in which they are found, is not situated within the boundary lines of the German Empire, but in Switzerland, the United States, etc. This sort of ‘Future State’ is present State, though existing outside the limits of the German Empire.” (Marx 1922 [1891]: 47–48).
It should be quite clear that Marx envisages an authoritarian system here, and that he was an enemy of peaceful democratic reform through elections and political movements. Until the end of his life he was an advocate of violent revolution, and even endorsed the violence of the Russian revolutionary movement in his last years (Sperber 2014: 537). These are all clear reasons why Marx was, quite simply, an extremist and an enemy of democratic, constitutional government, and why it is absurd to deny that his ideology bears a real responsibility for the horrors of 20th-century authoritarian communist governments where his ideas on the “dictatorship of the proletariat” were put into effect.

Also, in the passage above, Marx makes the bizarre attempt to argue that universal suffrage had been implemented in the capitalist world, merely because some few nations had it.

Then there is Marx’s attitude to child labour:
‘Prohibition of child labor’! Here it was absolutely necessary to state the age limit.

General prohibition of the labor of children is irreconcilable with the existence of large industry, and is therefore an empty, pious wish. The introduction of the same—if possible—would be reactionary
, since, with a rigid regulation of the working time according to the different age periods and the other precautionary measures for the protection of children, an early combining of productive labor with instruction is one of the mightiest means of the transformation of present-day society.” (Marx 1922 [1891]: 47–48).
So the general prohibition of child labour was for Marx an “empty, pious wish” and “reactionary” – a truly astonishing datum and piece of hypocrisy given that in The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels demanded an end to “the exploitation of children by their parents” (Marx and Engels 1985 [1888]: 100). Also astonishing is Marx’s statement that the “general prohibition of the labor of children is irreconcilable with the existence of large industry” – a manifestly untrue proposition. It is not as though Marx was making the usual exceptions that one finds even today: that children may work occasionally in some reasonably light way in a family business, as long as it does not interfere with their education or is deemed exploitative. No, for Marx, it is apparently acceptable in large industry.

Finally, Marx even opposed free and universal education supervised by the state in his Critique of the Gotha Program (Sperber 2014: 527):
“‘Public education by the State’ is entirely to be rejected. To determine by a general law the means for maintaining public schools, qualifications of the teaching staff, branches of instruction, etc., and, as happens in the instance of the United States, supervision of these legal requirements by government inspectors to see that they are fulfilled, is an altogether different thing from appointing the State as educator of the people. Moreover, the government and the church must equally be excluded from any influence upon the school. But in the Prussian-German Empire the case is just the other way about; there is just the State which needs a very severe education by the people. One does not help his case any with the lame excuse that he has in mind a ‘future State’; we have seen what the outcome of that has been.” (Marx 1922 [1891]: 52).
On the one hand, Marx seems to endorse state-supported education as in the United States, but then opposes state “influence” on the school, even though it is obvious that one is committed to the latter if one supports the former. What Marx presumably objected to is crude government propaganda or indoctrination in schools, which is highly paradoxical because that is precisely what happened in modern communist states.

One also gets the sense that there would be no freedom of religion in Marx’s communist paradise:
“‘Freedom of conscience’! If one at this juncture of the ‘Kultur kampf’ (the struggle of the liberal bourgeoisie against clerical political influence in the State) desired to bring home to liberalism its old slogans, that could really only be done in this form: ‘Everyone must be permitted to satisfy his religious. . . . . needs. . . . . . without the Prussian police poking its nose into them.’ But in that case the Labor Party would have to declare its consciousness that ‘bourgeois freedom of conscience’ is nothing else than toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, and that it, moreover, was striving to free the conscience from the religious superstition. But one does not like to rise above the bourgeois level.” (Marx 1922 [1891]: 53).
All in all, Marx’s communist state sounds very much like a blueprint for tyranny and oppression, and the blood-soaked history of modern communism that tried to put it into effect is hardly surprising.

Marx, Karl. 1922. “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” in Marx and Daniel de Leon, Critique of the Gotha Programme and Did Marx Err?. National Executive Committee, Socialist Labor Party, New York.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1985 [1888]. The Communist Manifesto (trans. S. Moore). Penguin Books, London.

Sperber, Jonathan. 2014. Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York.


  1. Your reading remains quite uncharitable!

    It should be quite clear that Marx’s envisages an authoritarian system here.

    Only if you ignore context. To modern sensibilities "dictatorship of the proletariat" is a striking phrase, but bear in mind that by the same analysis, we were then and still are now living under a "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie." It's a question of which class is dominant, not rank authoritarianism.

    So the general prohibition of child labour was for Marx an “empty, pious wish” and “reactionary” – a truly astonishing datum and piece of hypocrisy given that in The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels demanded an end to “the exploitation of children by their parents”.

    That demand never went away. But the education/labor question is linked, in his view (see, e.g., section 4 of this). Marx had a particular view of education as something integrated (google "polytechnical education") wherein intellectual ends are linked to practical, physical, and technological ones (and certainly not in overwhelming quantities!), with the ultimate aim of developing well-rounded people without the overspecialization/deskilling that capitalism promotes to turn people into mere instruments. Plenty of room for debate, but once again not nearly so monstrous as you'd make it seem.

    Lastly, given your own evocation of religion to attack your opponents, one would think you'd be into the secular themes.

    Consider this often-butchered passage: "Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people."

    That is, it's a medicine for people with no recourse. Marx's idea is that if you remove the material conditions that create the desperation and suffering from which people seek refuge in religion, then religion itself fades from the fore. We've seen as much in recent history, with the growth of secularism corresponding to affluence. No suppression or abridgment of freedom required.

    1. " To modern sensibilities "dictatorship of the proletariat" is a striking phrase, but bear in mind that by the same analysis, we were then and still are now living under a "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie."

      So let me get this straight: you think Marx's "dictatorship of the proletariat" was supposed to be -- even in his mind -- a system of democracy, constitutional government, with regular elections, open to all political parties, civil liberties, no arbitrary arrests, and freedom of religion and association?

      You're telling me it was a modern liberal democracy? You need your bloody head examined.

    2. Once again, exquisite rudeness. Where did you say you went to finishing school again? May want to ask for a refund.

      You have not quite got it straight, either; the goal would not be a "liberal" (which is quite bound up in the capitalist project) democracy, but a radical one.

      The specific form of this can vary. Just as there are many styles of governance that can represent bourgeois interests (from an inclusive parliamentarian system such as that in, say, Holland, to any of the fascist regimes the world saw in the 20th century), there are many kinds of institutional arrangements that would constitute a proletarian government. These two contrasting dictatorships merely characterize the dominant productive relations being expressed at the political level.

      As for what Marx envisioned, he was generally circumspect about blueprints and predictions of that sort, particularly in his later years; it's something that's got to be determined in context, by the people who effect it. That said, the goal is indeed democracy -- a better one, since it is well established that what currently passes for it is skewed to a degree that beggars belief. One might go so far as to argue capitalism itself is fundamentally antithetical to democracy across several domains -- the rampant inequality it promotes, the relations of dominance in the workplace that essentially compartmentalize our ability to relate to one another democratically, and even in terms of time; increasingly direct forms of democracy are more time-intensive, which can't fly in a system with no internal drive for reducing working hours (quite the contrary, in fact). As any familiar with the history of democracy can attest, the word has meant different things throughout the ages (see, e.g., Canfora's Democracy in Europe), but the goal is to pursue ever more substantive forms.

      Lastly, nothing about the other characteristics you mention conflict inherently with socialism. Meanwhile, I don't know if you've been following recent events here in the Greatest Democracy Under God, but many of those points you raise (especially arbitrary arrests, civil liberties, freedom etc.) are not going so well and, properly speaking, never have in the first place.

    3. In other words, you have no evidence that Marx's "dictatorship of the proletariat" was anything but an authoritarian regime.

    4. No, it's the other way around. You lack any sort of evidence that Marx proposed an authoritarian regime, save for your *completely ahistorical* misreading.

      Seriously, ten seconds on Google:

      Wikipedia entry!

      "Both Marx and Engels argued that the short-lived Paris Commune, which ran the French capital for over two months before being repressed, was an example of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

      "According to Marxist theory, the existence of any government implies the dictatorship of a social class over another. The dictatorship of the bourgeoisie is thus used as an antonym of the dictatorship of the proletariat.[4]

      Three back-to-back entries in the glossary: Dictatorship, Dictatorship of the Bourgeoisie, Dictatorship of the Proletariat!

      "It was only gradually, during the 1880s, that ‘dictatorship’ came to be routinely used to mean a form of government in contrast to ‘democracy’ and by the 1890s was generally used in that way. Prior to that time, throughout the life-time of Karl Marx for example, it was never associated with any particular form of government, everyone understanding that popular suffrage was as much an instrument of dictatorship as martial law."

      Here's an essay on the subject!

      "The first question is: when it appeared in print in the spring of 1850, what did the phrase mean to Marx and to his contemporaneous readers?

      "The key fact, which was going to bedevil the history of the term, is this: in the middle of the nineteenth century the old word ‘dictatorship’ still meant what it had meant for centuries, and in this meaning it was not a synonym for despotism, tyranny, absolutism, or autocracy, and above all it was not counterposed to democracy."

      Got all that? Bonus: The word "totalitarian" did not even exist yet, only being coined in the early 20th century.

      You need to educate yourself, and by that I do not mean "feed your ravenous confirmation bias." I can't be holding your hand every step of the way.

    5. Engels' begs to differ:

      "A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois? Should we not, on the contrary, reproach it for not having used it freely enough? "

    6. Talking about revolution is very different from talking about a stable social order. Use your brain.

    7. Draper was wrong.


      Online etymology dictionary:

      "late 14c., from Latin dictator, agent noun from dictare (see dictate (v.)). Transferred sense of "one who has absolute power or authority" *in any sphere is from c. 1600.* In Latin use, a dictator was a judge in the Roman republic temporarily invested with absolute power."

      Oxford English Dictionary:

      example from 1874, from J. Morley's 'On Compromise': "Our people..have long ago superseded the barbarous device of dictator and Cæsar by the great art of self-government."

      To quote 'The Princess Bride' on your and Draper's defense: "You keep using that word...I don't think it means what you think it means."

    8. Von Minsky, both of those quotes actually support the arguments you claim they rebut; one references the emergency powers of the Roman republic (also mentioned in Draper), and the other illustrates the gradual shift in colloquial usage at the end of the 19th century referenced in both Draper and the glossary entry I quoted. Please read more carefully!