Friday, February 1, 2013

Critique of the Gotha Programme

The Critique of the Gotha Programme (text) was written by Karl Marx in 1875 as a response to a document by the nascent Social Democratic Party of Germany. It was one of Marx's last writings (he died in 1883). The Wikipedia page describes the SPD as "one of the first Marxist-influenced parties in the world." It's difficult to see how that could be true given Marx's deep criticisms of the Gotha Program (which was adopted by the party). It is not until the Gotha Program was eventually replaced by the Erfurt Program (text) in 1891 that the statement on Wikipedia starts to have some truth to it. Engels wrote a critique of the Erfurt Program.

As usual, I've made the text into an e-book:

Wealth, Value and Labour

I remember reading this document ten years ago and being immediately confused by Marx's distinction between wealth and value. I remember Anthony patiently trying to explain it to me. I kind of half got it, but not really. It's taken fifteen years for me to understand the entire scientific critique of political economy that Marx presents. Even a year or two ago I still refused to accept it on scientific grounds. I could not fully grasp the basic distinctions and categories. Turns out that Marx was correct.
Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. The above phrase is to be found in all children's primers and is correct insofar as it is implied that labor is performed with the appurtenant subjects and instruments. But a socialist program cannot allow such bourgeois phrases to pass over in silence the conditions that lone give them meaning.
I'm not alone in my failure to understand Marx's critique. The SPD didn't understand it in 1875. They don't understand it today. Most Marxists don't understand it. To the great misfortune of millions of people, the pre-existing communists of the USSR, China, Cuba, Vietnam, etc. didn't understand it either. Marx is clear, but it is difficult to understand, especially if you grow up in a world almost entirely dominated by the bourgeois mode of production. To make matters worse, there are a lot of people who don't want to understand it or don't want you to understand it.
The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labor; since precisely from the fact that labor depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor. He can only work with their permission, hence live only with their permission.
The only other modern scientific theory that has come under sustained attack is the theory of evolution. That attack, almost entirely by religious forces, continues into the 21st century. Nevertheless, even at its most ferocious, the scale of the attack on evolution barely registers compared to the scale of the attack on the scientific critique of capitalist society.

Higher and lower stages of communism

The Critique of the Gotha Programme gets you thinking about a future communism. One of the notable things Marx discusses is the lower and higher orders of communism. I used to find this splitting of the idea of communism problematic, but I don't think I do anymore. Marx's justification is:
What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.
Lower order communism is best described as "To each according to his contribution."
[...] the individual producer receives back from society — after the deductions have been made — exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labor. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labor time of the individual producer is the part of the social working day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor cost. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.
Marx described higher order communism as:
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!
Of course, money needs to be abolished immediately. However, there is no longer a need for labour vouchers. We have these wonderful machines - computers and the Internet - that we could use to track peoples' contributions and ensure necessities are distributed correctly. The logistics of this isn't trivial; keeping track of billions of people wouldn't be easy. However, Facebook already tracks one billion accounts. It isn't a monumental effort to extend this infrastructure so we could record vital information on the entire population of the planet. A new form of distribution needs to be quickly realised. A disruption to distribution (or a failure to transform existing distribution) is where there is a huge risk to lives from starvation and disease.
If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has 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.
The state

There are some interesting comments on the state in The Critique of the Gotha Programme. Marx is very critical of the idea of the "free state." Engels, in his letter to August Bebel, sums it up really well:
All the palaver about the state ought to be dropped, especially after the Commune, which had ceased to be a state in the true sense of the term. The people’s state has been flung in our teeth ad nauseam by the anarchists, although Marx’s anti-Proudhon piece and after it the Communist Manifesto declare outright that, with the introduction of the socialist order of society, the state will dissolve of itself and disappear. Now, since the state is merely a transitional institution of which use is made in the struggle, in the revolution, to keep down one’s enemies by force, it is utter nonsense to speak of a free people’s state; so long as the proletariat still makes use of the state, it makes use of it, not for the purpose of freedom, but of keeping down its enemies and, as soon as there can be any question of freedom, the state as such ceases to exist. We would therefore suggest that Gemeinwesen ["commonalty"] be universally substituted for state; it is a good old German word that can very well do service for the French “Commune.”
Marx has some good stuff on the state and education:
"Elementary education by the state" is altogether objectionable. Defining by a general law the expenditures on the elementary schools, the qualifications of the teaching staff, the branches of instruction, etc., and, as is done in the United States, supervising the fulfillment of these legal specifications by state inspectors, is a very different thing from appointing the state as the educator of the people!
Ultimately, Marx seals the fate that the SPD succumbed to.
The German Workers' party — at least if it adopts the program — shows that its socialist ideas are not even skin-deep; in that, instead of treating existing society (and this holds good for any future one) as the basis of the existing state (or of the future state in the case of future society), it treats the state rather as an independent entity that possesses its own intellectual, ethical, and libertarian bases.

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