Vol. XLIII No. 06 February 10, 2019

Critique of the Gotha Programme 30

WHILE working for the implementation of the general task of building proletarian political parties on the basis of the internationalist ideas of Marxism, Marx and Engels at the same time stressed the importance of taking into account the distinctive features of the development of each country, the difficulties and obstacles that confront the working class movement in its progress.

By the end of the 1870s, revolutionary working class parties had sprung up in quite a few countries: in Austria in 1874, in Denmark in 1876,  and in Belgium and Spain in 1879. The workers of England founded their own party in 1881, and those of Poland and Italy in 1882. All these young parties, established on the basis of scientific Communism, sought and received Marx’s and Engels’ assistance.




In countries where capitalism was poorly developed, such as Spain, Switzerland and Italy, the establishment of mass proletarian parties was obstructed by anarchist elements. Marx criticised anarchism in the Italian Socialist Press, where his article, “Indifference in Political Matters”, and Engels’ “On Authority” were published.

The founders of Marxism showed the real meaning of the anarchist idea of “refraining from politics”: the anarchists, who profess to be ultra-revolutionaries, in reality doom the working class to inaction and demoralisation. Their rejection of political action and class struggle and their denial of the need to set up proletarian parties actually perpetuates capitalism.

In England, Marx could directly observe the development of the working class movement. His name and works were widely known in the country.

Marx and Engels sought to give every possible assistance to the French Socialists in buildings up an independent revolutionary party of the working class. They published articles in the French Press criticising the petty- bourgeois belief that the capitalist State was capable of radically changing the social foundations of society.

At the request of Jules Guesde, the leader of the French Workers’ Party, Marx helped draft the programme of the Party, which was adopted at the Party’s Congress at the Le Havre in 1880. That was a major step forward in the propagation of Marxism in France

Marx retained the closest ties with the German working class movement. After 1871, the centre of the working class movement had shifted from France to Germany. The end of the feudal division of Germany made possible the rapid growth of industry and with it the proletariat, which led to the development of the working class movement.




There were two Socialist Parties in Germany : the Eisenachers (the Social Democratic Workers’ Party founded at Eisenach by a Workers’ Congress in 1869, known also as the Eisenach Party), and the Lassallean General Association of German workers.

Marx cooperated actively with the leadership of the Eisenach Party, which was guided in its activity by leaders like Wilhelm Liebknecht, August Bebel and others. Analysing the conditions of the class struggle in Germany, Marx called the Eisenachers’ attention to the fact that the caste of militarists—Junkers, who had joined forces with German big capital, was a strong adversary of working class, and that the interests of the latter and of all working people called for a resolute struggle against militarism and the arbitrary practices of the police.

Marx patiently explained to the German Social-Democrats the need to fight for a German democratic republic and for democratic rights for the people and against the ruling classes’ intention to turn Germany into a strong-hold of reaction and militarism.

Marx paid great attention to the fight for the unity of the working class. In Germany where the Eisenachers and Lassalleans still marched separately, it was especially necessary to overcome the split in the ranks of the working class. Without the unity of the working class, all the peace-loving and democratic forces could not be gathered round the proletariat, and the class interests of the workers could not be successfully defended. Only a united working class could offer resistance to the Junkers and militarists and finally defeat them.

Marx noted with satisfaction that influence of the Social Democratic Worker’s Party was growing quickly among the German workers. That was due above all to the Party’s courageous stand against militarism. A section of the Lassallean leaders sought in vain to perpetuate the split among the workers. In the Lassallean General Association of German Workers, the view increasingly prevailed that the workers had to act in united and closed ranks to be victorious.

The leaders of the Social-Democratic Workers’ Party had often extended a fraternal hand. Marx energetically supported their efforts to achieve joint actions, but at the same time Warned against ideological concessions. In three decades of political struggle he had learnt from experience that the unity of the working class can only be implanted on a revolutionary basis.

At the request of Liebknecht, Marx visited Leipzig at the end of September 1874. Marx informed himself about the situation of the working class in Germany and reported on the bad experience he had with Lassalle and those who had inherited his mantle. With great emphasis he urged Liebknecht not to make concessions to Lassalleanism under any circumstances. He held that every retreat before opportunism would sooner or later bear bitter fruit for the working class.




After his return to London, Marx saw reports in the German Press that representative of the Eisench and Lassallean movements had conferred in February 1875 to prepare a draft programme and rules, but the contents of the draft programme were not known to him. It was only after March 7 that Marx and Engels had the opportunity to read the draft programme in a newspaper!

Marx was shocked. The draft programme was not a step forward from the Eisenach programme of 1869; on the contrary, it was a great step backwards. It was not only that the effectiveness of the programme was marred by various vulgar-democratic, petty bourgeois phrases; more important, Liebknecht and other leaders of the Eisenach group had made unpardonable concessions to Lassallean ideas long since refuted in practice.

Engels undertook the job of sending Bebel a detailed letter setting forth his and Marx’s viewpoint on the unification and its programmatic basis, and explaining they could not give their agreement to the compromise programme. The letter had not yet been mailed before a message come from Bracke, on his own and Bebel’s behalf, sounding an alarm and calling for help.




In response to this appeal, Marx worked through the programme point by point and wrote a detailed critique, Marginal Notes on the Programme of the German Workers’ Party. These Notes, which latter became known as Critique of the Gotha Programme, he sent in the form of a circular letter to Bracke, Liebknecht and other German party leaders at the beginning of May, as a last-minute warning against the catastrophic consequences of such a compromise.

Marx’s notes on the programme were so rich in new theoretical ideas that his critique itself took on the character of a programme with outstanding significance. The Marginal Notes became one of the most important documents of Marxism, alongside the Manifesto of the Communist Party and Capital.

Marx’s immediate purpose was to show the leaders of the Eisenach Party what theoretical conclusions had to be drawn from the Paris Commune for the class struggle in Prussian-German Reich. The Social-Democratic Workers’ Party had unreservedly defended, and proclaimed its solidarity with, the dictatorship of the proletariat set up by the Paris Commune. But it was not yet fully aware of all the important lessons for its own strategy and tactics that had emerged from the experiences of the Communards.

As an example, the leaders of the Eisenach party still talked as if Socialism could be introduced in a democratic republic following the overthrow of the Bismarck regime. This false perspective was also present in the draft programme.




Marx contradicted this “democratic belief in miracles” and explained to his friends and pupils in the German workers’ movement the basic difference between the democratic republic—which was all that was demanded in the draft programme—and the dictatorship of the proletariat. He, of course, completely supported the battle of the Eisenach followers for a democratic German republic.

But one had to recognise that Socialism could not be introduced within the framework of an essentially bourgeois republic. “Between Capitalism and Communist Society,” Marx wrote in his programmatic letter, “lies the period of the transformation of the one into the other. This is also a political transition period in which the State can be nothing else but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”

He told the German workers’ leaders unmistakably that the revolutionary German workers’ movement must work for the bourgeois-democratic republic, because without it the proletariat would not be able to arm itself for the final struggle to achieve power itself. But the democratic State would also remain a bourgeois State, an exploitative system. The proletariat therefore had to continue the class struggle until the creation of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Only with its assistance could Socialism be constructed. The struggle of the revolutionary workers’ movement for a democracy was a part of its struggle for Socialism. Both were interwoven, but they were not identical. It was dangerous and catastrophic for the working class to entertain illusions that Socialism could be brought about without the proletarian revolution, without the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Marx also attacked other Lassallean dogmas in the draft programme. He dismissed out of hand the narrow, sectarian approach to the peasants and the petty-bourgeois strata, and warned against underestimating proletarian internationalism. He called upon the Party to follow a wise, elastic policy of alliance and to have a firm internationalist position. Both were indispensable in order to bring together all the available forces against Prussian militarism.

Marx strongly criticised the attempts of leaders of the Eisenach  party to “purchase” the unity of the workers’ movement with concessions to bourgeois (Lassallean) ideology. At all times an opponent of commerce in principles in every form, Marx was certain, on the basis of his many years of experience, that the working class could overcome the split in its ranks only through unity of action in the struggle. The workers convinced themselves in joint struggle that the split in their ranks at all times favoured only the exploiters and oppressors, but that unity in their ranks multiplied the strength of the working class and other democrats many times. They learnt in the common struggle, step by step, that the proletariat, in order to conquer, needed a revolutionary workers’ policy, the theoretical basis of which was scientific Communism.




The significance of Marx’s critique of the draft programme went far beyond mere assistance to the German workers’ movement during the period of its unification. His description of mankind’s road to socialism in the Marginal Notes impressively demonstrated his insight into the development of society.

Free of all utopian wishes, Marx showed why the advance to Communism will develop in two phases. After the overthrow of bourgeois rule, the proletariat would abolish the exploitation of man by man, but it would not yet be possible to satisfy all the needs of citizens. The satisfaction of these needs, in this phase of development, would therefore have to be based on the principle of one’s work. Only through the constantly  more rapid growth of the productive forces and the development of the new Socialist man, for whom work was the highest necessity of life would the preconditions for the second phase of Communist society be created. In this second phase the ruling principle would be: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”