State support for the workers?


Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 45

The first premise to the rules of the First International, written by Marx in 1864 as the first clause, was that ‘the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves . . .’

In 1882 Engels in London wrote to the German socialist August Bebel:

‘The development of the proletariat proceeds everywhere amidst internal struggles and France, which is now forming a workers’ party for the first time, is no exception. We in Germany have got beyond the first phase of the internal struggle, other phases still lie before us. Unity is quite a good thing so long as it is possible, but there are things which stand higher than unity. And when, like Marx and myself, one has fought harder all one’s life long against the alleged Socialists than against anyone else (for we only regarded the bourgeoisie as a class and hardly ever involved ourselves in conflicts with individual bourgeois), one cannot greatly grieve that the inevitable struggle has broken out.’

One such famous internal struggle was against the draft programme of the United Workers’ Party of Germany. The Critique of the Gotha Programme is a document based on a letter by Marx written in early May 1875 to the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany (SDAP), with whom he and Engels were in close association. 

The Critique, published after his death, was among Marx’s last major writings and is named after the proposed platform for the new united party to be created at the forthcoming congress, to take place in the town of Gotha. At the congress, the SDAP (“Eisenachers”, based in Eisenach) planned to unite with the General German Workers’ Association (ADAV), followers of the deceased Ferdinand Lassalle.

The Eisenachers sent the draft programme for the united party to Marx for comment. He found it negatively influenced by Lassalle, whom Marx regarded as an opportunist, and Marx’s response offers perhaps his last extended summary on programmatic strategy.

In a letter to Wilhelm Bracke, Marx states that “After the Unity Congress has been held, Engels and I will publish a short statement to the effect that our position is altogether remote from the said programme of principle and that we have nothing to do with it.’  Describing it as a ‘thoroughly objectionable programme that demoralises the Party’, he vowed not to ‘give [it] recognition, even by diplomatic silence.’ 

The document discusses numerous questions but it is particularly useful in presenting Marx’s views on strategy before working class conquest of political power, including the two questions at issue in our latest posts – on the cooperative movement and the role of the state.

It should be noted that Marx was not against socialist unity but did not support the abandonment of political principle in order to achieve it:

‘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.’

Marx prefaced these remarks by saying that ‘every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes’, and he undoubtedly saw the cooperative movement as involving just such steps.  Following the experience of the Paris Commune just a few years before he had also learned lessons from the real movement of the working class in relation to the role of the state.

The offending paragraph of the proposed united German Party stated:

‘The German Workers’ party, in order to pave the way to the solution of the social question, demands the establishment of producers’ co-operative societies with state aid under the democratic control of the toiling people. The producers’ co-operative societies are to be called into being for industry and agriculture on such a scale that the socialist organization of the total labour will arise from them.”

Marx notes sarcastically that:

‘Instead of arising from the revolutionary process of transformation of society, the “socialist organisation of the total labour” “arises” from “state aid”; that the state gives to the producers’ co-operative societies and which the state, not the workers, “calls into being”. It is worthy of Lassalle’s imagination that with state loans one can build a new society just as well as a new railway!’

He goes on, quoting the programme’s own words:

‘Second, “democratic” means in German “Volksherrschaftlich” [by the rule of the people] But what does “control by the rule of the people of the toiling people” mean? And particularly in the case of a toiling people which, through these demands that it puts to the state, expresses its full consciousness that it neither rules nor is ripe for ruling! . . .  The chief offense does not lie in having inscribed this specific nostrum in the program, but in taking, in general, a retrograde step from the standpoint of a class movement to that of a sectarian movement.’

The socialist scholar Hal Draper has argued that ‘Marx’s objection to the “state aid” nostrum was not to “state aid” per se but to its place in the programme.’  What it had become in the hands of their ex-leader Lassalle was ‘a universal panacea’ and substitute for a rounded programme because the programme had no other socialist plank within it.  The state-aid plank was already in the existing Eisenachers’ programme but only as one of many measures.  On its own the demand was acceptable as part of a larger strategy as Engels argued:

‘that the universal panacea of state aid should be, if not entirely relinquished, at any rate recognised . . . as a subordinate transitional measure, one among and alongside of many other possible ones.’

But not as the strategy as a whole, which would make the working class dependent on state support: in effect with the same sort of result as today’s demands for widespread ‘public ownership’ and ‘nationalisation’; plus much of the approach to state redistribution of income. 

Draper turns the issue into an aspect of Marx’s support for reforms but not for reformism; a question of what place reforms have in the programme, and not of reforms being assigned a certain all-encompassing role as the be-all and end-all.  He also notes that holding up this single point in the programme is sectarian – holding aloft a particular demand that differentiates the Party from the working class movement.  An approach that does not seek to marry the understanding of socialists to the real struggles of the working class and its organisations.

Marx goes on to say in his Critique:

‘That the workers desire to establish the conditions for co-operative production on a social scale, and first of all on a national scale, in their own country, only means that they are working to revolutionize the present conditions of production, and it has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with state aid. But as far as the present co-operative societies are concerned, they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers and not proteges either of the governments or of the bourgeois.’

So, it is not the case that the Party’s support for workers’ cooperatives could routinely and always supplement support with calls for state assistance, rather in the way that today nationalisation is often accompanied with the call for ‘workers’ control’; but that such state support can be acceptable and may not on its own invalidate the workers’ efforts.  However – ‘they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers.’

This need for independence of the workers from the state is highlighted in the following section of the Gotha Critique, beginning by him quoting the programme that ‘according to [section] II, the German Workers’ the party strives for “the free state.” 

Marx says of this that:

‘Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it; and today, too, the forms of state are more free or less free to the extent that they restrict the “freedom of the state.”

‘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.’

This reminds us of Engels’ remark in an earlier post that the state represents society and the conclusion we drew that ‘In each case the state represented those classes that owned and controlled the means of production (at least of the social surplus), so that the capitalist state defends the ownership of the means of production of the capitalist class.  The analogous role of the workers’ state is not to direct and manage its own ownership of the means of production but to defend the ownership by the working class of the means of production.’

For Marx ‘the whole programme, for all its democratic clang, is tainted through and through by the Lassallean sect’s servile belief in the state . . .’

The Critique of the Gotha Programme, published after his death, was among Marx’s last major writings but at the time German socialist Wilhelm Liebknecht, who supported the unity initiative, attempted to censor his criticism.  Only in 1891, after threats by Engels, was the Critique published.  Much of today’s Marxist movement gives every indication that this censorship was, in fact, successful.

Back to part 44

The role of the workers’ state

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 44

In the previous post we noted that state ownership appeared an inevitable progression of the capitalist mode of production and could be read as a tendency to complete its development, with ‘the partial recognition of the social character of the productive forces forced upon the capitalists themselves. Taking over of the great institutions for production and communication, first by joint-stock companies, later in by trusts, then by the State. (All quotations from Engels’ Socialism Utopian and Scientific)

Such an outcome would not be socialism as some political tendencies might suggest with their programmes for widespread nationalisation: ‘the transformation, either into joint-stock companies, or into state ownership, does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces.’ 

The state guarantees (including ownership in many cases) of the financial system after the financial crash in 2008 illustrated almost perfectly the growing role of the state in supporting the whole constitution of the existing mode of production.  The world-wide assumption of guarantees of employment and business survival during the Covid-19 pandemic has confirmed this.  It is unfortunate that rather than highlight this, much of the left has called for even greater state intervention, further sowing illusions in its potentially progressive role.

So, if Engels made it clear that capitalist state ownership is not socialism, a second question was nevertheless raised: is ownership by a workers’ state socialist even if ownership by the capitalist state is not?

Engels says: ‘Whilst the capitalist mode of production more and more completely transforms the great majority of the population into proletarians, it creates the power which, under penalty of its own destruction, is forced to accomplish this revolution. Whilst it forces on more and more of the transformation of the vast means of production, already socialized, into State property, it shows itself the way to accomplishing this revolution. The proletariat seizes political power and turns the means of production into State property.’

So, it would appear that the seizure of the means of production by the workers’ state constitutes the decisive opening of the road to socialism, and some form of state socialism may indeed be the genuine article. (Although the wording here is rather peculiar, for while capitalism more and more transforms the ‘vast means of production . . . into state property’ the proletariat through its revolution is to turn it ‘into state property’–to complete the transformation?)

Except Engels immediately goes on to say this:         

‘But, in doing this, it abolishes itself as proletariat, abolishes all class distinction and class antagonisms, abolishes also the State as State. Society, thus far, based upon class antagonisms, had need of the State. That is, of an organization of the particular class which was, pro tempore, the exploiting class, an organization for the purpose of preventing any interference from without with the existing conditions of production, and, therefore, especially, for the purpose of forcibly keeping the exploited classes in the condition of oppression corresponding with the given mode of production (slavery, serfdom, wage-labour).’

‘The State was the official representative of society as a whole; the gathering of it together into a visible embodiment. But, it was this only in so far as it was the State of that class which itself represented, for the time being, society as a whole: in ancient times, the State of slave-owning citizens; in the Middle Ages, the feudal lords; in our own times, the bourgeoisie.’

‘When, at last, it becomes the real representative of the whole of society, it renders itself unnecessary. As soon as there is no longer any social class to be held in subjection; as soon as class rule, and the individual struggle for existence based upon our present anarchy in production, with the collisions and excesses arising from these, are removed, nothing more remains to be repressed, and a special repressive force, a State, is no longer necessary. The first act by virtue of which the State really constitutes itself the representative of the whole of society — the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society — this is, at the same time, its last independent act as a State.’

‘State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The State is not “abolished”. It dies out.  This gives the measure of the value of the phrase: “a free State”, both as to its justifiable use at times by agitators, and as to its ultimate scientific inefficiency; and also of the demands of the so-called anarchists for the abolition of the State out of hand.’

How do we avoid the conclusion that what is being proposed is that upon the socialist political revolution the new workers’ state that has gained ownership and control of the means of production through that revolution begins to disappear?  Does this mean workers should struggle to enormously expand the power and scope of the state only in order for it to then more or less rapidly shrink and disappear?

To jump straight to a conclusion–the alternative is not to demand state ownership under capitalism, or to seek it under a workers’ state, but to struggle for workers’ ownership, that is for cooperative production by the working class and this ownership and control to encompass the whole economy.

It is the workers organised as producers that represents ‘society as a whole’, as required by Engels, and which can ‘openly and directly take possession’ of the productive forces and manage them, not any sort of state.  Even a democratic workers’ state is an organised body of repression separate from the working class; any other definition simply mistakes what a state is.  Whatever legal and administrative arrangements required to maintain the collective ownership of individual productive forces will either require a minimal role for the state or none at all, e.g. to prevent the alienation of particular productive forces owned by the class as a whole.

Capitalism has so developed the intellectual and social powers of the working class that it can direct the economy without capitalists; provided we do not stupidly restrict definition of the working class in such a way that it excludes its most educated layers, for example because they are normally significantly better off in terms of income than many other workers.

If we read Engels he speaks of ‘the State of that class which itself represented, for the time being, society as a whole: in ancient times, the State of slave-owning citizens; in the Middle Ages, the feudal lords; in our own times, the bourgeoisie.’

In each case the state represented those classes that owned and controlled the means of production (at least of the social surplus), so that the capitalist state defends the ownership of the means of production by the capitalist class.  The analogous role of the workers’ state is not to direct and manage its own ownership of the means of production but to defend the ownership by the working class of the means of production.

Only upon these grounds can the class nature of society be radically changed such that, as Engels argued, the working class abolishes itself and all classes and in so doing abolishes the state.  It makes no sense to believe that the state through its ownership of the forces of production will employ its political power to abolish itself, including its direction of society’s productive powers.

Socialism is not the granting of the productive powers of society to the working class by any sort of benevolent state.  In Engels terms, the workers’ state can more and more be the representative of society under socialism to the extent that it disappears, reflecting the disappearance of classes themselves.

The socialist political revolution is the capture of political power by the working class in order to defend, and to extend, its social gains as the rising class in society, with its own ownership and control of society’s productive powers central to this.  The struggle for workers’ cooperatives is the most direct way to make this a reality under capitalism, as both ideological and practical example of the power of the working class to create a new society.

Such a view is consistent with the other expressed views of Marx and Engels, including ‘seizing the means of production by society’, which we shall review in the next post.

Back to part 43

Forward to part 45