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Karl Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program (April/May 1875)

When the two wings of the German Social Democratic movement fused at the Gotha Congress in 1875, forming the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany, Karl Marx (1818-1883) strongly opposed the new program. In the “marginal notes” [Randglossen] to the Gotha program, reproduced below, he explained his objections, criticizing the influence of the late Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864) and his followers on the new party. Marx’s critique was written in April and May 1875, before the Gotha congress was actually held (May 22-27, 1875). Marx asked that his views be distributed among a number of sympathetic socialist leaders, but some of these were unable to participate in the congress because they were in prison. The final program contained many points that Marx considered inopportune (or worse). Even Marx’s followers did not consider it helpful to publish his devastating critique until 1891.

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[ . . . ]

I come now to the democratic section.

A. “The free basis of the state.”

First of all, according to II, the German Workers’ party strives for “the free state.” Free state – what is this?

It is by no means the aim of the workers, who have got rid of the narrow mentality of humble subjects, to set the state free. In the German Empire, the “state” is almost as “free” as in Russia. 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.

And what of the riotous misuse which the program makes of the words “present-day state,” “present-day society,” and of the still more riotous misconception it creates in regard to the state to which it addresses its demands?

“Present-day society” is capitalist society, which exists in all civilized countries, more or less free from medieval admixture, more or less modified by the particular historical development of each country, more or less developed. On the other hand, the “present-day state” changes with a country’s frontier. It is different in the Prusso-German Empire from what it is in Switzerland, and different in England from what it is in the United States. The “present-day state” is therefore a fiction.

Nevertheless, the different states of the different civilized countries, in spite of their motley diversity of form, all have this in common: that they are based on modern bourgeois society, only one more or less capitalistically developed. They have, therefore, also certain essential characteristics in common. In this sense, it is possible to speak of the “present-day state” in contrast with the future, in which its present root, bourgeois society, will have died off.

The question then arises: What transformation will the state undergo in communist society? In other words, what social functions will remain in existence there that are analogous to present state functions? This question can only be answered scientifically, and one does not get a flea-hop nearer to the problem by a thousand-fold combination of the word ‘people’ with the word ‘state.’

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