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

Forward to part 46

1 thought on “State support for the workers?

  1. Its useful to read in conjunction, Lenin’s State and Revolution, and in particular, Lenin’s assessment of the agreement of Marx and Engels with Proudhon and Bakunin on the need to smash the existing state, not to merely try to perfect it or capture it, which is what flows from the ideas of Lassalle, and of much of the Second International, ideas which also flowed into the Third International, and have been adopted by those who now claim adherence to some or other variant of the Fourth.

    On that point Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky were agreed, and their ideas have been bowdlerised ever since. Where they disagreed with the Anarchists was in relation to the role of the WORKERS state. For them such a state is necessary as a transitional form to beat down the slaveholders revolt of the bourgeoisie and to mobilise that state’s resources to support he proletariat now as ruling class, but that assumes that the proletariat has already become ruling class, and this new kind of state, a semi-state, is the product of it, not the means of bringing it about.

    It is a semi state, because MELT see it as arising on the same basis as the Paris Commune, i.e. no longer a body standing above society, but a body synonymous with society, i.e. with the proletariat as ruling class, it is symbolised by the Commune State as taking the form of an executive and legislative body, rather than a parliamentary body. Its why one of the first demands, and acts put forward by Marx and Engels, and described by Lenin is the disbandment of the bodies of armed men, the police and standing army, and their replacement by a citizen’s militia (at a time when the proletariat was still a minority and they saw it as inevitable that it would have to ally with the peasants and petty-bourgeoisie). As Lenin says the mark of the bourgeois opportunist was their refusal to support such demands. We see the same thing today with the demands to defund the police, and the resistance to such demands by the bourgeois opportunists in the workers’ movement.

    The same idea was reflected in Engels “The Prussian Military Question” where he says that the demand for universal military conscription is the inevitable corollary to universal suffrage, being the means by which the populace enforce their democratic decisions arms in hand. These are measures that the proletariat adopts as it grows into the role of ruling class within bourgeois society alongside he changing and developing socialised forms of property, be it the cooperatives or the joint stock companies that the workers must increasingly demand control over, and, thereby over society itself. It is he creation of an alternative and different form of state representing the class interests of the workers, and comes increasingly into opposition to the bourgeoisie and its state, a pre-revolutionary condition of dual power.

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