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.’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.
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 : 47–48).
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.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 : 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.
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 : 47–48).
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 : 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 : 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 . The Communist Manifesto (trans. S. Moore). Penguin Books, London.
Sperber, Jonathan. 2014. Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York.