Cooking the Books: Message from Gotha

To prepare his article in the FT Weekend Magazine (20/21 October) on the German Social Democratic Party, Tobias Buck visited the one-time tavern in the town of Gotha where in May 1875 two working-class organisations united to form the Socialist Workers Party of Germany, which later became the SPD. He looked at the programme adopted at the meeting that was on display there, and commented:

‘In economic terms, it is unashamedly socialist, urging the end of wage labour and “the transfer of all productive goods to the commonweal of society.” In political terms, however, it reads like a blueprint for the modern, progressive welfare state that Germany is today.’

This is a shrewd observation as it brings out the division of the programme into what was later called the ‘maximum programme’ (common ownership of the means of production, abolition of the wages system) and the ‘minimum programme’ (social and political reforms to be achieved under capitalism). This division was inherited by all Social Democratic parties modelled on the SPD. It was to be their undoing as it attracted support for the minimum programme rather than for socialism and made them in effect democratic social reform parties.

Marx wasn’t happy with the programme and wrote a paragraph by paragraph criticism of it. These were private notes and were not made public till 1891 as the Critique of the Gotha Programme. Some of his criticisms, though correct, seem a little petty. For instance, he takes the text to task for saying that ‘labour is the source of all wealth’ (whereas ‘nature … is just as much the source as labour’) and for saying that in present-day society ‘the instruments of labour are the monopoly of the capitalist class’ (whereas they are the monopoly of ‘the landowners … and the capitalists).

Other criticisms were more substantial such as his objections to a ‘free state’ as an aim and to the demand for each individual worker to receive the ‘undiminished’ product of their labour.

With regard to the ‘free state’, he explained that the existing state had its roots in capitalist society and could not be made ‘free’ but would die off when capitalism was ended, and said that the question that should have been asked in regard to ‘communist society’ was ‘what social functions will remain in existence there that are analogous to present state functions?’

In his criticism of the demand for the ‘undiminished proceeds of labour’, he pointed out that even ‘within the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production’ there would have to be provision for those too young, too old or unable to work and that this meant that the actual producers could not receive the full product of their labour.

In these answers he also dealt with the more complicated subjects of the ‘revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat’ and labour-time vouchers, both of which have been misunderstood by supporters and opponents alike.

He did not criticise the division of the programme in maximum and minimum sections (in fact he proposed some clarifications to the latter). The main demand of the new party was ‘the establishment of producers co-operative societies with state aid under the democratic control of the toiling people’. Marx’s criticism of this proposal (still in circulation today) was that ‘the workers desire to establish conditions for co-operative production on a social scale’ had ‘nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with state aid.’

One point to note is that while the programme referred to ‘socialist society’ Marx referred to ‘communist society’, further evidence that for him the two terms were interchangeable.