Karl Marx. “Critique of the Gotha Programme.” Karl Marx & Frederick Engels Collected Works, Vol. 24, International Publishers, 1989, pp. 75-99.
The Paris Commune of 1871, which lasted two months, from March 26-May 30, 1871, signified the first successful, though short-lived, workers’ revolution in history. In the aftermath of the Commune’s bloody defeat, revolutionary communists and socialists of all stripes sought to draw what lessons they could from what was simultaneously a great victory for the working class as well as a demoralizing setback.
Two general outcomes resulted from this situation.
First, the longstanding disagreements and the deepening rift between various groups within the working-class movement, most notably those between anarchists and the rest of the movement’s socialists and communists, and the consequent degeneration of their already strained unity (such as it was), ultimately led to their splitting up into rival factions. This sectarianism was most visibly evident in the splitting up of the First International in 1872 into two separate, rival “internationals” before their eventual dissolution just a few years later.
Second, apart from the split with the anarchists, still other longstanding disagreements and rifts within the working-class movement, coupled with their recent setbacks, compelled the more theoretically advanced sections of the remainder of the working-class movement to confront and struggle against the various doubts and questions raised from their own quarter as to the revolutionary principles and strategy of the working-class movement. More importantly than answering mere doubts and questions, however, the more advanced elements of the working-class movement also confronted and struggled against the various alternatives proposed – all of which, in the last analysis, generally represented various forms of strategic and theoretical retreat.
In some instances, the urge to retreat and to revise the international and revolutionary character of the working-class movement had to do with a certain skepticism as to the prospects of carrying out a successful revolution against the state. In other cases, it had to do with an insufficient knowledge and understanding of revolutionary theory. And in other cases still, it had to do with the competing class interests and loyalties represented by those who sought to revise the international and revolutionary characteristics out of the general program of the working-class movement. Thus, even among the communists and socialists who remained nominally united after their break with the anarchists, the onset of revisionism intensified existing divisions and created new ones within the working-class movement.
Such is the context in which the Gotha Congress was held.
Between May 22-27, 1875, two different factions within the German working-class movement came together to form a single unified party, the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany (SAPD) – the earliest incarnation of what survives today as the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).
On one side, the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany (SDAP), a socialist party founded in Eisenach, Germany in 1869 and led by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht (both personal friends of Karl Marx). The “Eisenachers,” as they were commonly known, were essentially the first mass party to base its program and principles on those of the First International. In this respect, the Eisenachers represented a more or less revolutionary trend in the German working-class movement.
On the other side, the General German Workers’ Association (ADAV), a party that had been founded several years earlier, on May 23, 1863, by Ferdinand Lassalle. For their part, the “Lassalleans,” as they were commonly known, were socialist-idealists who rejected the principles upheld by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, rejected revolution, and held that the working class could only come to power by means of the existing political processes of the state (namely, through elections and the establishment of universal suffrage). In this respect, the Lassalleans represented an opportunist, reformist trend in the German working-class movement.
The unification of these two parties, these two trends within the German working-class movement, at the Gotha Congress produced a draft program that would be strongly criticized by both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In fact, the depth and severity of Marx’s criticism in particular is the primary reason anybody remembers the program at all today. For in the course of criticizing the Gotha program, Marx penned some of the most theoretically important and historically consequential passages in Marxist thought – passages that not only introduced some of the most crucial concepts in all of Marxism (e.g., the distinction between socialism and communism as lower and higher phases during the transition from capitalist to communist society; and the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat as the defining characteristic of the transitional period of socialism), but which Lenin would later use to fully flesh out a Marxist theory of the state.
The main body of what would come to be known as the Critique of the Gotha Programme is a manuscript written by Marx between April and May 1875 under the title Marginal Notes on the Programme of the German Workers’ Party. (The draft program had been published on March 7, 1875 in both the Eisenachers’ organ, Der Volksstaat, as well as the Lassalleans’ organ, Neuer Social-Demokrat. This draft program would go on to be approved with only slight changes at the Gotha Congress of May 22-27, 1875.) This manuscript along with a letter from Karl Marx to Wilhelm Bracke were sent to the leadership of the Eisenachers on May 5, 1875. Also closely associated with the Critique is a letter sent by Friedrich Engels to August Bebel and written between March 18 and 28, 1875. The Critique of the Gotha Programme, which included Marx’s letter to Bracke, was first published by Engels, who also wrote a Foreword for the occasion, in 1891 in Die Neue Zeit, the theoretical organ of the German Social-Democrats. August Bebel would later publish the March 18-28, 1875 letter he received from Engels in 1911.
Thus, the order of composition is as follows: Engels’s March 18-28, 1875 letter to August Bebel in response to the March 7 publication of the unity draft program; Marx’s April-May, 1875 manuscript critiquing the program along with his May 5, 1875 letter to Wilhelm Bracke; Engels’s 1891 Foreword. These documents comprise the text we generally think of as the Critique of the Gotha Programme.
With regards to the Lassalleans’ contributions to the program, Engels laid out five main points of criticism:
- The Lassallean proposition that “in relation to the working class all other classes are only one reactionary mass” rests upon a “historically false” class analysis.
- The program more or less rejects the principle of working-class internationalism, a rejection made all the more egregious by the fact the Eisenachers had previously “upheld that principle in the most laudable manner.”
- The Lassallean doctrine of the “iron law of wages” is “based on a completely outmoded economic view.”
- The program’s “one and only social demand” reduces socialism to the Lassallean demand for “state aid.”
- The program makes “absolutely no mention of the organisation of the working class as a class through the medium of trade unions.”
With regards to the Eisenachers’ contributions to the program, Engels points out that the Eisenachers’ concessions were made in order “to oblige the Lassalleans,” who, in return, conceded only “[t]hat a host of somewhat muddled and purely democratic demands should figure in the programme, some of them being of a purely fashionable nature.”
Marx echoed and expanded upon these criticisms in his Marginal Notes, demonstrating in short order not only that the Lassalleans had managed to confuse and muddle the whole program, but also that the Lassalleans hadn’t even fully understood the goals towards which they claimed the Gotha Program would advance the working-class movement.
Thus, in the course of criticizing the conception of “‘distribution’ which the program, under Lassallean influence, alone has in view in its narrow fashion – namely, to that part of the means of consumption which is divided among the individual producers of the co-operative society,” Marx famously delivered his whirlwind summation of distribution and exchange in socialist society, the distinction between lower and higher phases of communist society, and the differences of principle governing distribution and exchange in each phase.
Later, in another famous passage, Marx briefly summed up the changes the state will undergo during the period of the revolutionary transformation of capitalist society into communist society. Implicitly building upon his earlier distinction between socialism and communism as the lower and higher phases of communist society, respectively, Marx famously explained:
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.
What’s often forgotten, however, are Marx’s conclusions regarding the general tendency among “vulgar socialists” to focus on distribution and exchange at the expense of production, as well as the more specific role of the Lassalleans in this instance:
Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of non-workers in the form of capital and land ownership, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labour power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically. If the material conditions of production are the collective property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. The vulgar socialists (and from them in turn a section of the Democrats) have taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?
In other words, Lassalleanism represented an attempt to divert the focus of the German working-class movement away from the collectivization of the material conditions of production, which Marx points out would result in “a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one,” and instead towards “the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production.” Thus – as with the rejection of the principle of working-class internationalism, the rejection of Marx’s more advanced and scientific economic views in favor of outmoded views about the so-called “iron law of wages,” and the tacit rejection of the organization of the working class as a class through the medium of trade unions – all revolutionary socialist content present in the 1869 Eisenach Program had been revised so as to become sterile reformism in the 1875 Gotha Program. As such, the evident influence of Lassalleanism throughout the Gotha Program represented nothing less than the dragging back of the more advanced Eisenachers and, thus, a retreat (an unnecessary one, at that) by the vanguard of the working-class movement.
Having concluded that “the programme is no good, even apart from its sanctification of the Lassallean articles of faith,” and aware their opponents in the working-class movement, particularly the anarchists, would likely try to assign him and Engels full responsibility for the Gotha Program, Marx wrote to Bracke: “[I]t is my duty not to give recognition, even by diplomatic silence, to what in my opinion is a thoroughly objectionable programme that demoralises the Party.”
The adoption of a party program is no trivial matter. Once adopted, any amendments or changes to that program should only be made if, and only if, they help the party continue to advance, preferably beyond the aims and horizon originally outlined in the program. The problem, of course, was that the Eisenachers’ acceptance of the Gotha Program would necessarily represent an amendment, a change, to the 1869 Eisenach Program. As far as Marx and Engels were concerned, the Eisenach Program represented the staking out of a certain position, and from that position there were only two possible alternatives: either advance or retreat. As Engels had explained in his letter to Bebel:
Generally speaking, less importance attaches to the official programme of a party than to what it does. But a new programme is after all a banner planted in public, and the outside world judges the party by it. Hence, whatever happens there should be no going-back, as there is here, on the Eisenach programme.
Marx echoed this sentiment in his letter to Bracke:
Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes. If, therefore, it was not possible – and the conditions of the item did not permit it – to go beyond the Eisenach programme, one should simply have concluded an agreement for action against the common enemy. But by drawing up a programme of principles (instead of postponing this until it has been prepared for by a considerable period of common activity) one sets up before the whole world landmarks by which it measures the level of the Party movement.
Not only did the Gotha Program not go beyond the Eisenach Program; it represented, as Engels described it in his Foreword, a “decidedly retrograde step.” As Engels pointed out in his letter to Bebel: “It should further be considered what the workers of other countries will think of this programme; what impression will be created by this genuflection on the part of the entire German socialist proletariat before Lassalleanism.”
Indeed, as Engels noted, these concessions, especially on the principle of working-class internationalism, on the part of the German working-class movement in particular would have a certain and potentially detrimental influence over the rest of the international working-class movement:
The German workers’ position in the van [or the forefront] of the European movement rests essentially on their genuinely international attitude during the [recent Franco-Prussian War]; no other proletariat would have behaved so well. And now this principle is to be denied by them at a moment when, everywhere abroad, workers are stressing it all the more by reason of the efforts made by governments to suppress every attempt at its practical application in an organisation!
Later in the same letter, Engels further warned what might happen in the event of a future split within the newly formed unity party:
[W]e shall emerge from the split weaker and the Lassalleans stronger; our party will have lost its political virginity and will never again be able to come out whole-heartedly against the Lassallean maxims which for a time it inscribed on its own banner; and then, should the Lassalleans again declare themselves to be the sole and most genuine workers’ party and our people to be bourgeois, the programme would be there to prove it. All the socialist measures in it are theirs, and our party has introduced nothing save the demands of that petty-bourgeois democracy which it has itself described in that same programme as part of the “reactionary mass”!
While Marx and Engels generally supported a unification of the German working-class movement, they didn’t at all support unprincipled unification. As far as Marx and Engels were concerned, such unification, while obviously desirable, should nonetheless ultimately depend upon the willingness of the Lassalleans to stop their sectarian behavior towards the Eisenachers, give up their erroneous doctrines, and adopt the 1869 program of the Eisenachers or some improved version thereof. “Our party,” Engels wrote in his letter to Bebel, “has absolutely nothing to learn from the Lassalleans in the theoretical sphere, i.e. the crux of the matter where the programme is concerned, but the Lassalleans doubtless have something to learn from the party.”
Moreover, both Marx and Engels expressed their view that the primary reason the Lassalleans had proffered conciliation with the Eisenachers at all was the former’s generally negative perception among the working-class, with Engels warning in his letter to Bebel that “it behoves us to make the most of that dilemma and insist on every conceivable guarantee that might prevent these people from restoring, at our party’s expense, their shattered reputation in general working-class opinion.”
Later, in his letter to Bracke, Marx echoed this concern, writing, “The Lassallean leaders came because circumstances forced them to.” Marx would go on to conclude, “One knows that the mere fact of unification is satisfying to the workers, but it is a mistake to believe that this momentary success is not bought too dearly.”
In other words, the fallout from compromising principle for the sake of unity, from taking a step backwards, would do more harm to the advanced elements of the working-class movement (in this case, the Eisenachers) than to those elements of the working-class movement that were still relatively backward (in this case, the Lassalleans). Put another way, a step backward is only a step backward for those who have already advanced beyond a certain point; but for those who have yet to advance beyond a certain point, what might represent a step backward for others who are more advanced may not, in fact, represent any change or movement at all.
Thus, whatever allure the Eisenachers may have felt towards unprincipled unity with the Lassalleans, whatever advantages and benefits they may have hoped to gain for the working-class movement through such a merger, that unification actually represented little more than (to borrow a phrase from the English punk band, Crass) “poison in a pretty pill.”
The ultimate effect of this unification would be the gradual conversion of a revolutionary working-class party into a sterile, reformist party of social democrats. And indeed, we can ask ourselves today: What world-historic revolution has the SPD ever carried out, what socialism has it ever led the working-class in building? None.
Thus, the Critique of the Gotha Programme represents one of the strongest (though, certainly not the first) attempts by Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels to combat the pernicious influence of opportunism in the working-class movement.
What is opportunism, and what are its general characteristics and notable features? Essentially, opportunists are always looking for an excuse to turn away from the course of revolution, and to turn toward the course of reform. Opportunism is often recognizable by its substitution of revolutionary politics with evolutionary politics. In the last analysis, opportunism inevitably and objectively takes the form of the so-called “leaders” of the working class deliberately sacrificing the long-term goals and needs of the working-class movement in exchange for short-term, often temporary benefits and gains for themselves or for their parties. As a matter of fact, the supposed victory and security of those benefits and gains are nearly always made contingent upon the working-class movement’s either not going beyond or not making a revolutionary break with bourgeois democracy.
This struggle within the working-class movement against opportunism, as illustrated by the Critique of the Gotha Programme, would not only reemerge but would be refought again and again throughout the history of the development of Marxism.
For example, just fifteen years later, from October 12-18, 1890, this new unity party, the German Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, would hold a congress in Halle, Germany, where they would decide to draft a new program, one that would supercede the Gotha Program. This draft program, published a few months prior to the following year’s party congress in Erfurt, Germany, would come to be known as the Erfurt Program.
On the one hand, the Erfurt Program objectively represented a step forward from the setbacks of the Gotha Program in that the Erfurt Program at least upheld a more Marxist view regarding the interests and struggle of the working class against capitalist exploitation as necessarily involving “the transformation of the capitalist private ownership of the means of production – land and soil, pits and mines, raw materials, tools, machines, means of transportation – into social property and the transformation of the production of goods into socialist production carried on by and for society.” On the other hand, the new draft program still suffered from opportunism in that it still essentially rejected the need for revolution.
Instead, the Erfurt Program framed the struggle of the working class as a struggle for “political rights” (i.e., legal rights). With Karl Marx gone (having died in 1883), the task of combatting the opportunism of this the new draft program fell to his comrade, Friedrich Engels, who wrote in his Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Program of 1891:
The political demands of the draft have one great fault. It lacks precisely what should have been said. If all the 10 demands were granted we should indeed have more diverse means of achieving our main political aim, but the aim itself would in no wise have been achieved.
According to Engels, this opportunism on the part of the SDP largely stemmed from fears regarding the repressive anti-socialist legislation in Germany, which had only recently lapsed in 1890, following Bismarck’s resignation:
Fearing a renewal of the Anti-Socialist Law, or recalling all manner of over-hasty pronouncements made during the reign of that law, they now want the party to find the present legal order in Germany adequate for putting through all party demands by peaceful means.
Shortly thereafter, Engels explained the utter inadequacy of this strategy:
If one thing is certain it is that our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Great French Revolution has already shown. […] But the fact that in Germany it is not permitted to advance even a republican party programme openly, proves how totally mistaken is the belief that a republic, and not only a republic, but also communist society, can be established in a cosy, peaceful way.
Furthermore, as Lenin would later point out in his 1917 work, The State and Revolution, this opportunistic trend didn’t just characterize the SDP, but also the vast majority of the international working-class movement:
[W]hen we recall the importance which the Erfurt Programme acquired for all the Social-Democrats of the world, and that it became the model for the whole Second International, we may say without exaggeration that Engels thereby criticizes the opportunism of the whole Second International.
To take another example, the victory of opportunism and the widespread rejection of the principle of working-class internationalism on the eve of WWI would ultimately bring about the collapse of the Second International. The Bolsheviks, and perhaps most famously Lenin, rejected and struggled against the opportunism and the social-chauvinism of the Second International, insisting on both the revolutionary as well as the international character of the working-class movement.
As Lenin would later summarize in his 1915 article, “Opportunism, and the Collapse of the Second International”:
Social-chauvinism and opportunism are the same in their political essence; class collaboration, repudiation of the proletarian dictatorship, rejection of revolutionary action, obeisance to bourgeois legality, non-confidence in the proletariat, and confidence in the bourgeoisie. The political ideas are identical, and so is the political content of their tactics. Social-chauvinism is the direct continuation and consummation of Millerandism, Bernsteinism, and British liberal-labour policies, their sum, their total, their highest achievement.
More immediately relevant to our current situation, this opportunist trend persists even today in various forms. In the context of contemporary US politics, the most familiar and easily recognizable example of opportunism is probably that of so-called “democratic socialism,” which is more accurately described as bourgeois social democracy. The most famous proponent of this “democratic socialism” is currently Senator Bernie Sanders. As is so often the case, however, these opportunists can barely bring themselves to denounce capitalism without qualification, let alone call for its overthrow. We might consider this a form of opportunism in the Lassallean tradition.
Indeed, the vision of “socialism” these opportunists typically propose is often indistinguishable from Lassalle’s vision of bourgeois society with more “state aid.” That is to say, the allegedly “socialist” policies that these “democratic socialists” outline are often just variations on, if not exactly the same as, those policies which opportunists have proposed as alternatives to revolution for over a century – policies that at best lead the working-class movement nowhere, but more often than not lead them backwards.
In a broader context, another familiar and easily recognizable example of opportunism is that of SYRIZA (or The Coalition of the Radical Left) in Greece, a left-wing party elected to power on the basis of its nominally and seemingly firm anti-austerity and anti-capitalist platform. Upon coming to power, however, SYRIZA and its two most well-known figures, Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis, began to backslide almost immediately. Putting the question of whether to accept further austerity measures in exchange for an EU bailout to a public referendum, the majority, some 61%, of Greeks voted “No.” Ignoring the outcome of the vote, however, SYRIZA ultimately ended up going along with the very austerity they originally opposed. We might consider this a form of opportunism in the Eisenacher tradition.
Thus, we can see that the struggle against opportunism in the working-class movement is not just some highly technical argument over relatively minor or insignificant points of abstract theory. The struggle against opportunism is a struggle over the concrete advancement of the working-class movement against certain forces and temptations that effectively and simultaneously strive to drag the working-class movement backwards.
This is the context in which we must understand and evaluate the most well-known and oft-cited concepts from the Critique of the Gotha Programme: the description of distribution and exchange in socialist society; the distinction between the period of socialism, as the lower phase of communist society, and the period of communism, as the higher phase of communist society; the different principles governing distribution and exchange during the different periods of the lower and higher phases of communist society; the changes the state will undergo during the period of the revolutionary transformation of capitalist society into communist society; and the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat as the characteristic feature of the political transition period corresponding to socialism.
It’s indeed instructive that when Marx and Engels, and later Lenin, found themselves struggling against opportunism in the working-class movement, these concepts, and not others, were the weapons to which they resorted in those fights. As Lenin argued in The State and Revolution, the difference between the opportunist and the Marxist is the former’s unwillingness to extend their acceptance of the class struggle to the dictatorship of the proletariat:
It is often said and written that the main point in Marx’s theory is the class struggle. But this is wrong. And this wrong notion very often results in an opportunist distortion of Marxism and its falsification in a spirit acceptable to the bourgeoisie. For the theory of the class struggle was created not by Marx, but by the bourgeoisie before Marx, and, generally speaking, it is acceptable to the bourgeoisie. Those who recognize only the class struggle are not yet Marxists; they may be found to be still within the bounds of bourgeois thinking and bourgeois politics. To confine Marxism to the theory of the class struggle means curtailing Marxism, distorting it, reducing it to something acceptable to the bourgeoisie. Only he is a Marxist who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat. That is what constitutes the most profound distinction between the Marxist and the ordinary petty (as well as big) bourgeois. This is the touchstone on which the real understanding and recognition of Marxism should be tested. And it is not surprising that when the history of Europe brought the working class face to face with this question as a practical issue, not only all the opportunists and reformists, but all the Kautskyites (people who vacillate between reformism and Marxism) proved to be miserable philistines and petty-bourgeois democrats repudiating the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Therefore, we must understand these concepts laid out in the Critique of the Gotha Programme not just as concepts and developments in the science of revolution, but also as weapons against opportunism. As such, upholding them is a necessary and vital task in the struggle to advance the international working-class movement against the backwardness of opportunism.