Theorising the future society: The Critique of the Gotha Programme

Issue: 179

Tony Phillips

A review of Critique of the Gotha Programme, Karl Marx (translated by Kevin B Anderson and Karel Ludenhof) (PM Press, 2022), £15.99

The need for the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by a socialist society based on human need and preservation of the environment has never been greater or more urgent.1 Yet, following Karl Marx, the founder of the ­revolutionary socialist tradition, socialists tend to avoid speculation about the details of what such a future society would look like, arguing that the ­working class will make those decisions in the process of emancipating itself from the chains of capitalism. One exception to this tendency in Marx’s work is the essay known as the Critique of the Gotha Programme, which he wrote in 1875, although it was never published during his lifetime. This key work has just been republished in a new translation that corrects important errors in the previous English-language versions. The new volume also includes an introduction by Marxist philosopher Peter Hudis as well as the document that prompted Marx’s critique: the draft political programme of the Socialist Workers Party of Germany’s (SDAP; Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands), which was subsequently adopted at the organisation’s initial conference in the city of Gotha in central Germany.2

Ferdinand Lassalle and the roots of reformism

The Gotha Congress brought together the SDAP with the other main ­socialist party in Germany at the time, the General German Workers’ Association (ADAV; Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein), which was loyal to the ideas of Ferdinand Lassalle. Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels had fallen out with Lassalle as a result of his belief that the Prussian state could be used to win reforms for workers and his attempts to do secret deals with the reactionary minister-president of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck (who went on to become the first chancellor of the new German Empire after its unification in 1871). Lassalle had initially been an ally and friend of Marx, but he then revealed increasingly dictatorial tendencies. He wanted to establish himself as the unchallenged, unelected leader of the German workers’ movement.

Even more concerning to Marx and Engels was Lassalle’s support for the right-wing Prussian state against the liberal bourgeoisie. Prior to the creation of the German Empire, the country was split into over 20 distinct states. Lassalle supported the unification of Germany under the leadership of the aristocratic Junker landowning class in Prussia rather than the liberal bourgeoisie in the rest of the country. This bourgeoisie favoured a pan-German federation instead of a unified state dominated by Prussia. In 1863, Lassalle wrote secretly to Bismarck boasting of his dictatorial control over the ADAV and proposing that his party would support Wilhelm II, the Prussian king, if he agreed to transform Prussia into a “social and revolutionary people’s kingdom”.3 Lassallean support for the Bismarck regime became more overt under Jean Baptista von Schweitzer, who succeeded Lassalle as leader after his death in 1864. This caused Marx and Engels to break publicly with the ADAV.4 Their supporters left the ADAV in 1867 following a party conference in Eisenach, earning themselves the popular nickname “the Eisenachers”.

Led by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht, the Eisenachers founded the SDAP in 1869. Liebknecht (the father of Karl Liebknecht, who would found the Communist Party of Germany in 1918) and Bebel appeared to follow the ideas of Marx and Engels. However, to Marx and Engel’s fury, Liebknecht and Bebel agreed to a merger with the Lassalleans in 1875 without telling them, as well as agreeing to a joint programme that made major concessions to Lassalle’s prototypical form of reformism. In a letter to Bebel, Engels complained, “The whole thing is untidy, confused, disconnected, illogical and discreditable”.5 It was clear that Liebknecht and Bebel saw working-class unity and the fight for reforms in the short term as much more important than the development of theoretical clarity about the struggle for the apparently distant prospect of socialist revolution.

Marx wrote to Wilhelm Bracke, another SDAP leader, “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.” Nonetheless, he never changed his view that the merger was a huge mistake. His letter to Bracke continued: “If, therefore, it was not possible…to go beyond the Eisenach Programme, one should simply have concluded an agreement for action against the common enemy”.6 He wrote the Critique as notes in the margin of the draft Gotha Programme, setting out his strong disagreements with the document. He then sent this to the leaders of the SDAP, including Bebel and Liebknecht, along with a copy of the new French-language edition of his great work, Capital. The Critique was only published after Marx’s death, and nearly two decades after it was written, under pressure from Engels at the time of a debate on a new party programme, which was agreed at the 1891 party congress at Erfurt. By this time, the SDAP had been renamed the Social Democratic Party (SPD; Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands).

With the benefit of hindsight, it is plain to see that the roots of the later reformism of the SPD went back a long way—particularly the belief that the capitalist state could be used to win pro-worker reforms. When it was finally published in 1891, the SPD Reichstag fraction publicly distanced itself from the Critique and actually wanted to censor the issue of the SPD’s journal, Die Neue Zeit, in which it was printed because it exposed their growing reformism. Still, the publication of the Critique was welcomed by many activists. Although the Erfurt Programme, drafted by Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein, was a marked improvement on the Gotha Programme, it remained unclear about the nature of socialist revolution and the need to destroy the capitalist state.7 Moreover, the theoretical section of the Erfurt Programme remained a dead letter in practice. By the early 20th century, the SPD was essentially practising reformism while merely paying lip-service to revolutionary Marxism.

Marx’s Critique dissects every line of the brief and woolly Gotha Programme. He was incensed that his supporters had put their names to a document that owed more to the Lassalle than to revolutionary communism. For Marx and Engels, the concessions to Lassallean ideas were totally unnecessary at a time when the growing influence of the Eisenachers within the working class had forced the Lassalleans to consider unity. The concessions made by Liebknecht and Bebel would only strengthen the Lassalleans in the unified party, making it harder for the Marxists to criticise them.

Critiquing the Gotha Programme

The Gotha Programme opens with a clause that includes the claim, “The proceeds of labour belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society”.8 Marx takes issue with this notion of the individuals in a workers’ society being given the “full product” of their labour. He argues that, in a communist society, individual workers will in fact not receive goods equivalent to their labour since any wealth produced above that required for subsistence will be needed for the collective needs of society such as healthcare, education, cultural activity and the renewal of the means of production. Moreover, he argues that, at least in the initial stages of a post-capitalist society, workers would still need to be incentivised to work by being paid for the number of hours that they labour.

However, for Marx, what he calls “abstract labour”—the value-producing labour carried out under capitalism—will no longer exist in the future socialist society. Labour will no longer create “value”; only use-values will be produced. Therefore, remuneration for the labour expended on the creation of use-values will be determined by the actual hours worked to produce them rather than, as is the case under capitalism, their “socially necessary labour time” as validated by market exchange. In a capitalist economy, the process of production and exploitation reduces labour power to a commodity to be bought and sold, but Marx envisages that the wages system will cease to exist in what he refers to as the “lower and higher stages of communism”:

Within a cooperatively organised society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products. Just as little does the labour expended on the products appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labour no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of the total labour.9

So, in the early stages of a socialist society, there will still be a direct exchange of working hours for access to the products of labour—these ­products will not be merely shared equally among the entire population. As Hudis points out in his introduction, in a passage describing this arrangement, previous English ­translations inaccurately translated the German word “Wert” as “value”, referring to an “exchange involving equal value”. Yet, for Marx, value is specific to capitalism; it is the seemingly inherent quality of commodities that is in fact a product of their exchange on the market. Hence, when using “Wert” in this sentence, Marx meant “worth” rather than “value”. Hudis argues that this use of the word has a far more general meaning, akin to “use-value”.10 Value is an essential feature of capitalism, but Marx asserts that it will not exist in a future socialist society

Right at the start of his Critique, Marx points out that, contrary to the Gotha Programme’s claim, human labour is not the only source of material wealth. Humanity is dependent on nature as well as its own labour to produce use-values, even if the Gotha Programme, in Marx’s words, “falsely ascribes supernatural creative power to labour”.11

Marx also attacks the inclusion of a reference to the “iron law of wages” in the Gotha Programme, an abandonment of the Marxist theory of wages. Echoing today’s capitalist wage-spiral theories, this Lassallean idea suggested that wages inevitably fall to the minimum level necessary for the subsistence of workers. Trade union struggles to raise pay are therefore futile because the capitalists will simply increase prices to compensate for higher wages. This supposed law was refuted by Marx, who described it as a vulgar application of Thomas Malthus’s reactionary theory that population inevitably outstrips the supply of food, thus rendering improvement of social conditions impossible.12 As Marx puts it, “If this theory is correct, then…I cannot abolish the law even if I abolished wage labour a hundred times over, because the law governs not only the system of wage labour, but every social system”.13 The capitalists are constantly trying to boost their profits by driving down the real value of wages in various ways, but workers can and do fight back to secure their share of the wealth they produce, as we can see today with the resurgence of industrial militancy in Britain. For the Lassalleans, the “iron law” was simply a theoretical justification for their abstention from trade union activity and their opposition to strikes. It was thus a major barrier to the appeal of the new party to militant workers. The Eisenachers’ support for workers’ industrial struggles was a major factor in their growth in the early 1870s, but the Gotha Programme contained no mention of strikes and only one brief reference to unions.

Marx then turns to what he calls the “democratic”, constitutional section of the Gotha Programme, pointing out that none of its demands go beyond the limits of capitalist democracy. He argues that the document’s references to “the free state”, for which it claims to strive, are a contradiction in terms: “Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed on society into one completely subordinated to it”.14 The Programme also demands “the ­establishment of producers’ cooperatives with state aid”.15 Marx responds by suggesting that, in any genuinely socialist programme, this could “only mean…working to overthrow the present conditions of production”.16 Cooperatives only have value for revolutionaries insofar as they are independently created by workers and lay the basis for a challenge to private control over the economy by the capitalist class. The demand for state aid—loans from the government to enable the workers to set up cooperatives and take over production—reflected the Lassallean belief that reforms for workers could only be delivered from above by the German state machine. Marx rejected this logic, ­advocating ­workers’ waging their own struggles and ultimately carrying through a ­revolution to smash the capitalist state.

The stages of communism

The Critique contends that there would be three successive stages in the development of society after workers overthrow capitalism. The first will comprise “a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat”.17 The second will be “the initial phase of communist society…when it has just emerged, after prolonged birth pangs, from capitalist society”.18 A third, higher stage of communism will begin “when society can inscribe on its banners, ‘From each according to his ability, to each according his needs!’”.19

In his introduction, Hudis claims that, contrary to the view of some of his later followers, Marx made no distinction between “socialism” and “communism”.20 It is also important to note that Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” is not the undemocratic rule of a minority, a single party or an individual, but rather a ­situation in which the working class imposes its rule on the old ruling class though mass organisation. Marx was referring to the class content of the revolutionary proletarian “dictatorship”—the fact that it represents the domination of the working class over the defeated capitalist class—rather than the particular form of government this would necessitate. Just such a “dictatorship” existed briefly during the Paris Commune of 1871, when French workers established a revolutionary government on the basis of an advanced form of participatory democracy.

Marx envisions that this workers’ state will wither away by the lower stage of ­communism, in which social classes have been abolished, since the state only exists to enable a ruling class to suppress the classes made up of the direct producers of wealth in a given society. Hudis points out that previous translations incorrectly ­rendered “Staatswesen” (“body politic”) into English as “the state”, which caused confusion among later Marxists about what was meant by the term “dictatorship of the proletariat”.21 In the new version, this is instead translated as “functions of the state”: social functions that might have been managed by the state in the past, but would be carried out collectively by society itself under communism.

Marx did not argue in favour of the inclusion of the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” in the Gotha Programme, probably in order to avoid giving Bismarck and the imperial authorities a pretext to outlaw the new party. At this time, even calling for the creation of a democratic republic was illegal in the German Reich. Three years after the Gotha Congress, the SDAP was made illegal by Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws. Although the SDAP fraction in the imperial parliament, the Reichstag, was able to continue to operate legally, the organisation’s leadership had to work from abroad. The party’s newspaper, Vorwärts (“Forward”), had to be printed in Switzerland and smuggled into Germany. These laws were not repealed until 1890, and the fear of a return to illegality continued to be used as a pretext by the party’s right wing in order to suppress revolutionary ideas.


One issue with this volume is that Hudis’s otherwise useful introduction uses the Critique as a stick with which to beat Lenin. Hudis claims Lenin believed that workers will be waged employees of the state under socialism, contrary to Marx’s arguments in the Critique. Yet, he fails to quote Lenin or provide any other evidence for these assertions. Hudis also anachronistically ascribes the model of the Leninist vanguard party to Lassalle’s dictatorial inner party regime, again without citing any evidence for his claims. All this fits Hudis’s political commitments to the “Marxist humanist” tradition within US Trotskyism, rooted in the work of Marxist philosopher Raya Dunayevskaya, which rejects Leninism.

It would have been helpful for this volume to have also included Engels’s two letters to Bebel from 1875, in which he trenchantly expresses his views on the Gotha Programme. My other gripe is the cost of this thin volume—£15.99 for 99 pages. Marx would not have been impressed.

Despite its small size, the Critique of the Gotha Programme is full of gems of insight and relevance for the later history of the revolutionary movement as well as the world today. For instance, it demonstrates that the classical Marxist tradition as envisioned by its founding fathers had nothing in common with Stalinism and Maoism, which continued the exploitation of the working class, repressing it with the growing power of the state. Measured against Marx’s standards, it is clear that nothing like communism ever existed in Stalin’s Russia or Mao Zedong’s China. Equally, it shows that the classical Marxist tradition has nothing to do with the feeble, easily surrendered reforms accrued by social democracy. The Critique is thus important reading for socialists old and new.

Tony Phillips is a member of the Socialist Workers Party and lives in London.


1 Thanks to Joseph Choonara for his comments on the first draft of this article.

2 Marx, 2022.

3 Lassalle quoted in Draper, 1986, p98.

4 Draper, 1986, p102.

5 Engels, 1975.

6 Marx, 2022, p47-49.

7 See Phillips, 2020.

8 Marx, 2022, p43.

9 Marx, 2022, p57.

10 Marx, 2022, p29.

11 Marx, 2022, p51.

12 See Marx, 1969. See also Luxemburg, 2013, pp288-291.

13 Marx, 2022, p64.

14 Marx, 2022, p67.

15 Marx, 2022, p44.

16 Marx, 2022, p59.

17 Marx, 2022, p68-69.

18 Marx, 2022, p59.

19 Marx, 2022, p59.

20 Marx, 2022, p19.

21 Marx, 2022, p33.


Draper, Hal, 1986, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Volume 3: The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” (Monthly Review).

Engels, Friedrich, 1975 [1875], “Friedrich Engels to August Bebel in Leipzig, 12 October 1875”, in Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels, Selected Correspondence (Progress),

Luxemburg, Rosa, 2013, The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, volume 1: Economic Writings 1 (Verso).

Marx, Karl, 1969 [1865], Value, Price and Profit (International),

Marx, Karl, 2022, Critique of the Gotha Programme (PM Press).

Phillips, Tony, 2020, “What Can We Learn from Kautsky Today?”, International Socialism 167 (summer),