2012: Notes on the Critique of the Gotha Program

These are my writing notes for a discussion group on “The Critique of the Gotha Program” by Marx.  Some of this is very intriguing.  I will go through the subject matter piece by piece, and then I will give a run down post on various readings of this critique. A close reading of a critique can become slightly over edge of the precipitous cliff of meta-analysis–given that the critique is itself a close reading of a nearly forgotten text–but it is clear given the Marx’s critique of the Gotha Program.

The first point is something that is often missed, Marx states “Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power.”    We immediately note that this goes against the assumption in most liberal and socialist thinkers that it is labor that defines wealth in so that labor defines value.  This is absolute essential to thought of John Locke as it is to much vulgarization of Marx. The labor theory of value does not postulate that labor is the source of wealth–material reality is the source of wealth–it is the source of value, which is to say, it is the ability to use that wealth.  In fact, this is not just a statement of a problem or source, but of a dialectic, to which Marx makes clear:

“The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labor; since precisely from the fact that labor depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor.”

One can see much of Hegel’s Master/Slave dialectic implied in this critique–not of mere contradiction being reconciled, but clearly of sublation. It is the material conditions of labor to which the capitalist has entitled himself/herself by its use, a use which the capitalists then denies the other in a struggle even though the capitalist not longer is the primary user of those material aims which his/her labor power.  Now this is a pathology hidden in the Lockean mythos–even if we accepted Lockean mythos, this would still be the result. The reality that the nation state was always key to the enclosure of land and that imperialism–in both the mercantile sense and the capitalist sense was actually key to the foundation of capital  through the primitive accumulation of capital.  Still following dialectical logic, the tension and sublation there would be true even if the ideologies myths created in capital were true.

Marx’s next move is interesting: “According to the first proposition, labor was the source of all wealth and all culture; therefore no society is possible without labor. Now we learn, conversely, that no “useful” labor is possible without society.”  Marx does allow for logic to be inverted for means of simple polemic or practical logic.  Marx would have had no tolerance for incoherent sloganeering.  But the next move is practically interesting:

A savage — and man was a savage after he had ceased to be an ape — who kills an animal with a stone, who collects fruit, etc., performs “useful” labor.

So there is slippery modifier, but a modifier about assumptions. Marx does not handle things that seem to clarify but actually mystify.  He has no patience for the non-cognitive phrase.  Of course,  this also seems interesting in light of a regressive romantic tendency in socialism prior to Marx that are reoccurred more prominently as societies operating under capitalism have degenerated.  One can see this nonsense in Zerzan. These sorts of remarks shows how Marx would have had absolutely not patience for that.

I will discuss one more bit of The Critique of the Gotha Program:

Thirdly, the conclusion: “Useful labor is possible only in society and through society, the proceeds of labor belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society.”

A fine conclusion! If useful labor is possible only in society and through society, the proceeds of labor belong to society — and only so much therefrom accrues to the individual worker as is not required to maintain the “condition” of labor, society.

In fact, this proposition has at all times been made use of by the champions of the state of society prevailing at any given time. First comes the claims of the government and everything that sticks to it, since it is the social organ for the maintenance of the social order; then comes the claims of the various kinds of private property, for the various kinds of private property are the foundations of society, etc. One sees that such hollow phrases are the foundations of society, etc. One sees that such hollow phrases can be twisted and turned as desired.

Note again that Marx shows how easily logic that seems to be socialistic can be twisted into new ideas. Hollow phrases cannot be a placeholder for a revolutionary subject–given how much meaningless phrases have emerged from both the liberal, socialist, and anarchist left. Mystification cannot be used against obfuscating tendencies.

Let’s go to the next part of the first section of The Critique of the Gotha Program: 

2. “In present-day society, the instruments of labor are the monopoly of the capitalist class; the resulting dependence of the working class is the cause of misery and servitude in all forms.”

This sentence, borrowed from the Rules of the International, is incorrect in this “improved” edition.

In present-day society, the instruments of labor are the monopoly of the landowners (the monopoly of property in land is even the basis of the monopoly of capital) and the capitalists. In the passage in question, the Rules of the International do not mention either one or the other class of monopolists. They speak of the “monopolizer of the means of labor, that is, the sources of life.” The addition, “sources of life”, makes it sufficiently clear that land is included in the instruments of lab.

One forgets that land-owners, the preoccupation of the American Georgists, is vital. The ownership of land is also a primary function and the ownership of land almost always comes into being by the enclosure by one class on another in a given society. Forgetting this one gets into a new series of problems.  Any platform that obscures this is obscures the primary function of the way most societies actually work.

What is “a fair distribution”?

Do not the bourgeois assert that the present-day distribution is “fair”? And is it not, in fact, the only “fair” distribution on the basis of the present-day mode of production? Are economic relations regulated by legal conceptions, or do not, on the contrary, legal relations arise out of economic ones? Have not also the socialist sectarians the most varied notions about “fair” distribution?

To understand what is implied in this connection by the phrase “fair distribution”, we must take the first paragraph and this one together. The latter presupposes a society wherein the instruments of labor are common property and the total labor is co-operatively regulated, and from the first paragraph we learn that “the proceeds of labor belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society.”

“To all members of society”? To those who do not work as well? What remains then of the “undiminished” proceeds of labor? Only to those members of society who work? What remains then of the “equal right” of all members of society?

Again, we see how the these semi-cognitive and prospective-driven slogans don’t lead anywhere? Reading this one is see the current liberal rallying over a “fair wage” is actually quite deceptive. This rhetoric is easily co-opted by both the generic “right” (GOP, reactionaries, even anti-capitalist reactionaries) and capitalist movement itself.

Another notion we see in that society, even though it is produced from labor, cannot be defined by it.  Society defined by labor will not be able to survive technological removal and reduction of the need of the labor processes.  This is clear and obvious if one looks at the mechanization of the factory, something that was implied in Marx’s even though he was at the beginning of the industrial era.


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