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Clarifying and inspiring revolution for 130 years: Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Programme”

Dec 29, 2021

Photo: "Portrait of Karl Marx," by Heinrich Zille. Source: Wikicommons.

Karl Marx never intended to spell out what the communist future would look like or how we would get there. His writing that comes closest to doing this is a short letter he wrote in 1875, given the title Critique of the Gotha Programme. Published 130 years ago—in 1891—by Friedrich Engels, Marx’s lifelong collaborator and comrade, the short and incisive text served to clarify and inspire the working-class struggle for power through a critique of the draft version of the Gotha Programme, a program eventually adopted with a few revisions at the First Congress of the Social Democratic Party of Germany in the city of Gotha in 1875. The program brought together the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany and the General Association of German Workers. The latter was founded by Ferdinand Lassalle, whose ideas strongly influenced the new party’s platform.

Lassalle and Marx became friends and comrades through their participation in the 1848 democratic revolutions throughout Europe. Marx first organized for the revolution in Brussels but was banished to Germany, where Lassalle lived, and where Marx continued to agitate and organize. Lassalle was imprisoned for inciting violence and served six months in prison. Years later, in 1864, when he was only 39, having been deprived of the chance to marry a woman he loved, Lassalle challenged the man to whom the woman’s father married her, a Romanian prince, to a duel. Lassalle was killed.

In his preface to the 1888 English edition of The Communist Manifesto, Engels wrote in a footnote that “Lassalle personally, to us, always acknowledged himself to be a disciple of Marx” who “stood on the ground of the Manifesto,” although in the last two years of his life his “public agitation… did not go beyond demanding cooperative workshops supported by state credit” [1].

The Gotha Programme was a compromise between the followers of Lassalle and Marx. Marx wrote his critique in preparation for the Congress, and it circulated widely amongst Party members, especially those coming from the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany. Marx addressed it to his allies in an effort to convince them not to compromise with the reformist ideas of Lassalle. In 1875, Engels wrote a letter to August Bebel, who for most of his life was a Marxist. Engels wrote that he and Marx were only aware of the unification efforts through public papers and that the “programme has certainly astonished us not a little” [2].

Engels published The Critique of the Gotha Programme in 1891, after Marx’s death and the same year the Erfurt Programme replaced the Gotha Programme. Although the Erfurt Programme was more revolutionary in content than the earlier one, the Party apparatus was still dominated by what we’d now refer to as social democrats and adherents to other non-revolutionary variants of socialism.

It is important to read the text for what it was: a critique, a commentary written in conversation with the socialist movement at a certain juncture in history. At the same time, the short Critique (of an even shorter program itself) has a long legacy with lasting impacts on the world socialist and then communist movements. Given the attention Lenin gave to the text and to Marx and Engels’ letters about it in his State and Revolution, we can see that the Critique provided some theoretical groundwork for the revolutionary Marxism of the Third International to split with the reformism and national chauvinism of the Second International [3].

Background of the Critique: Marx’s analysis of capitalism, the state, and revolution

After the 1848 revolutions some—or actually most—people in the movement and in the Communist League believed there would be an immediate resurgence of struggle after the counterrevolution prevailed. Marx and Engels disagreed. They forecast—correctly—that a reactionary period was settling in for some time. As a result, they believed that the immediate tasks of the communist movement should emphasize revolutionary education and theory. Marx and Engels were able to convince the Communist League’s branch in London of their conviction, although the League would dissolve in 1852.

In accordance with the new tasks for the new period, Marx turned his attention to the study of political economy, a study in which he had not systematically engaged yet. This work was ironically facilitated after the German authorities put Marx on trial several times, in each of which he was acquitted. They kicked him out of Germany in 1849. Marx first tried going back to Paris, but the authorities said he was too dangerous. So Marx ended up in London, where he spent the rest of his life.

Marx’s studies of political economy culminated in the 1867 publication of the first volume of Capital–Marx’s most developed analysis of capitalist production–where he articulated the theory of value and surplus value. Marx was working on other volumes at the time, although the workers’ movement forced him to turn his attention elsewhere. Particularly relevant to the Critique was the experience of the Paris Commune. His study of the Commune was published in 1871 as The Civil War in France, and was one of Marx’s most developed analyses of the state and the revolutionary process.

The essence of Marx’s critique

The real dynamics of capitalism and the role of the state in the revolutionary struggle for communism are at the heart of Marx and Engels’ criticisms. At the same time, it’s important to remember that Marx was writing to comrades in the German Party (not for the public) and it was a highly contextual intervention. The essence of the Critique revolves around the program’s interrelated misconceptions of 1) labor, classes, and wages; 2) the state’s role in the emancipation of the working class; and 3) the revolutionary transition from capitalism to communism. In this section, we highlight some of the most relevant insights that emerge from the text.

The program did not comply with Marx’s theory of value [4]. The draft and final version of the Gotha Programme demanded the “equitable distribution” of the “total labour” of society. There’s no acknowledgement of the fact that what is produced has to be divided between replacing “the means of production used up,” investments in expanding productive capacities, and the creation of a reserve of surpluses for an “insurance fund.” Moreover, society’s products have to fund administration, common “needs, such as schools, health services,” as well as “those unable to work” [5]. The demand is thus utopian in that it supposes a communist society based “on its own foundations” rather than on the actual foundations on which it emerges: capitalism [6].

Rather than “equal distribution” there will, under socialism–the first stage of communism–be unequal distribution because socialism inherits inequalities from capitalism that can’t be wished away. In the first stage of communism–socialism, material goods are not distributed evenly. There is still the distinction between the wages of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labor. Only “in a higher phase of communist society” can “society inscribe on its banners: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” [7]!

The Program proclaimed that all classes besides the working class “are only one reactionary mass” and ignored the existence of other classes, such as landlords, the self-employed, peasants, and the middle classes [8]. With the continued concentration of capital, these classes are largely proletarianized, giving them a revolutionary potential dismissed in the Gotha Programme. At the same time, the program declared that its utopian demands would be achieved by the “democratic control” of “state aid,” which would establish “the free basis of the state” [9]. This free basis includes a number of democratic demands like universal suffrage, free and compulsory schooling, and a progressive income tax.

Marx asks: “Free state – What is this” [10]? The state isn’t free-floating or neutral, but is rooted in the capitalist mode of production. The experience of the Paris Commune, in particular, showed that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes” [11]. Instead, the struggle for communism entails a “period of revolutionary transformation,” to which “there corresponds… also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat” [12]. Marx insists on the necessary struggle for the working and oppressed to conquer state power to repress the former ruling classes.

Although “the free basis of the state” in the draft was replaced with “the state,” the essence remained unchanged because the state was seen as a neutral vehicle to be used to replace capitalism with socialism.

Later developments and political consequences of Marx’s critique

Because this was a founding program based on principles rather than strategies, Marx and Engels worried about its impact on the Party and the workers’ movement as a whole. In their correspondence on the unification congress, both insisted that “every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes” [13]. What matters more than what the Party says is what the Party does. For example, even though the final program addressed Marx’s criticism of the implicit nationalism in the draft–which didn’t include “a word… about the international functions of the German working class!”–the Party’s later support for World War I would make their chauvinism clear [14].

The critique was a key resource for Lenin’s study and publication of The State and Revolution. Lenin expanded on the transition between the first and second stages of communism and justified the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Lenin writes that “the first phase of communism cannot yet produce justice and equality; differences, and unjust differences, in wealth will still exist, but the exploitation of man will have become impossible” [15]. This, Lenin writes, guards against idealism insofar as “we must not think that having overthrown capitalism people will at once learn to work for society without any rules of law. Besides, the abolition of capitalism does not immediately create the economic prerequisites for such a change” [16]. The dictatorship of the proletariat is essential in consolidating this phase and guiding society towards the next phase, in which there’s “no need for society, in distributing the products, to regulate the quantity to be received by each; each will take freely ‘according to his needs’” [17].

Importantly, the construction of communist society is a possibility without guarantees. “By what stages, by means of what practical measures humanity will proceed to this supreme aim,” Lenin insists, “we do not and cannot know” [18].

Marx’s emphasis on the importance of the proletarian dictatorship in the transition between capitalism and communism in the Critique is echoed in W.E.B. Du Bois’ classic, Black Reconstruction in America. Du Bois initially titled one chapter, “the dictatorship of the Black proletariat in South Carolina.” In a 1934 letter to his publisher (in which he admits he only has a few of Lenin’s works), Du Bois defends the title in response to objections from others, noting that “in 1867, there were distinct evidences of a determination on the part of the [B]lack laborers to tax property and administer the state primarily for the benefit of labor.” The title was important, he insisted, because it “revolutionizes our attitude toward Reconstruction” [19].

While the title was eventually changed to “the Black proletariat in South Carolina,” the book still speaks of the struggle between the dictatorship of capital and labor. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Du Bois laments how the reunited U.S. “delivered the lands into the hands of an organized monarchy of finance while it overthrew the attempt at a dictatorship of labor in the South” [20]. In chapter 14 of the book, Du Bois argues that “in the South universal suffrage could not function without personal freedom, land and education, and until these institutions were real and effective, only a benevolent dictatorship in the ultimate interests of labor, Black and white, could establish democracy” [21]. For Du Bois, as for Marx, reconstruction was a struggle over state power, over how and in whose interests the state would be used. In the vision of united labor’s dictatorship, “unjust differences” would still exist, and the dictatorship was necessary for creating the conditions for real equality.

Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme was an internal response to debates and figures that belong to a different era, and Marx didn’t write it as a blueprint or roadmap for communism. Yet it remains a rich resource for our own struggles and agitation, for winning workers over to Marxism rather than liberalism, and for clarifying the socialist program in the U.S. Over the last 130 years, the struggle has persisted between reformists, who falsely claim that the capitalist state can be adjusted to serve the interests of the working class, and revolutionary communists, who insist that fundamental change is only possible when the working class smashes the state apparatus of the bourgeoisie and constructs its own workers’ state through the dictatorship of the proletariat.


[1] Engels, Friedrich. (1888/1967). “Preface to the German edition of 1883,” in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The communist manifesto (New York: Penguin), 200.
[2] Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. (1891/1966). “Appendix I: From the correspondence of Marx and Engels concerning the Gotha Programme,” in Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, ed. C.P. Dutt (New York: International Publishers), 27.
[3] For the historical impact of The state and revolution, see Becker, Brian. (2018). “How “The state and revolution” changed history.” Liberation School, September 30. Available here.
[4] See Ford, Derek and Mazda Majidi. (2021). “Surplus value is the class struggle: An introduction,” Liberation School, March 30. Available here; and Majidi, Mazda. (2021). “Relative surplus value: The class struggle intensifies.” Liberation School, 18 August. Available here.
[5] Marx, Karl. (1891/1966). Critique of The Gotha Programme, ed. C.P. Pruitt (New York: International Publishers), 7.
[6] Ibid., 8.
[7] Ibid., 10
[8] “Programme of the German Workers’ Party: Draft,” in Critique of the Gotha Programme, 89.
[9] Ibid., 90.
[10] Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, 17.
[11] Marx, Karl. (1871/1966). The civil war in France (Peking: Foreign Languages Press), 64.
[12] Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, 18.
[13] Marx and Engels, “Appendix I,” 34.
[14] Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, 13.
[15] Lenin, V.I. (1918/1964). “The state and revolution,” in Lenin: Collected works (vol. 25): June-September 1917, ed. S. Apresyan and J. Riordan (Moscow: Progress Publishers), 471.
[16] Ibid., 472.
[17] Ibid., 474.
[18] Ibid., 477.
[19] Du Bois, W.E.B. (1934). “Letter from W.E.B. Du Bois to Ben Stolberg, October 1.” W.E.B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries,1, 2.
[20] Du Bois, W.E.B. (1935). Black reconstruction in America: An essay toward a history of the part which Black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America, 1860-1880 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company), 580.
[21] Ibid., 585.