Beyond cooperatives and fair trade: Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program

Black Orchid Collective is doing an ongoing study group on revolutionary theory, history, and biographies. We are taking turns giving presentations on key texts to the rest of the group and to a friend of ours, a worker militant who we organize with.
Recently, we read Karl Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program, his response to less revolutionary German Communists who thought socialism could be gradually legislated into existence.   We also read several essays on the Critique by members of the Marxist Humanist Initiative:

I am uploading the presentation I gave this week on these texts.  Because the Marxist Humanist texts are particularly confusing, I summarized their key points in a lecture and pulled out some key quotes.

At the end of the session, we applied the method we developed through this reading by collectively working out a critique of a modern day  “socialist” program put forward by a member of Progressives for Obama during the election and the 2008 financial crisis.

What’s at Stake with Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program?  Applying lessons from the text for today


Commodity:  something that satisfies human needs or desires that is sold on the market (e.g. cars, clothes, movies, health care services, cleaning services, etc.)

Proudhon: an anarchist thinker and activist in the early 1800s

Why study all of this stuff?

The key point is to develop clarity on how we can transition out of capitalism toward a new society.  As Jaclard, one our authors for today, argues, we need to think about this now, and spread methods for thinking about it among as many oppressed people as possible – people of color, women, workers – so that when a revolutionary situation opens up we will actually be able to build a new society instead of failing like they failed in Russia, China, and elsewhere in the 20th century.

Jaclard worries about

“ a lack of theoretic preparation for the day when the masses can actually abolish capitalism…  I’m especially talking about your average person who wants to see another world, but thinks it can come about, if at all, by voting it in, or doing away with bosses, or paying everyone the same amount, or whatever political, legal, and administrative measures they have been led to believe can accomplish the redistribution of power and wealth and can really make their lives better”

Jaclard argues that the existing Leftist revolutionaries tends to reinforce naive visions of anti-capitalism, instead of providing theoretical clarity.
We can get at Marx’s understanding of how to transition out of capitalism by studying his critique of the Gotha Program which we read last week.   This is part of his much longer argument against socialists who were influenced by the anarchist Proudhon.  Proudhon’s ideas shaped the LaSallean socialists who wrote the Gotha program, so Marx is is attacking them and Proudhon at the same time when he makes is critique .  As Jaclard puts it, Marx:
“demonstrated that their proposals for getting rid of capitalism [would actually] lead to a return to capitalism. He demonstrated over and over that the mode of distribution follows from the mode of production:  distribution cannot act independently nor reverse cause and effect. We have only to look at Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program, his most explicit description of socialist society, to see him exposing, at every turn, the inadequacy of looking outside the mode of production for the path to socialism.”
This is key because Stalin and Mao thought you could just distribute goods more equally and call that “communism” and we saw how that became a disaster.  Marx would have disagreed – he would have said those societies failed to actually attack capitalism at its root – in the work process itself, in production.
So, let’s go over a few common understandings of anti-capitalism out there today, and we’ll see how our authors Weiss and Jaclard use Marx to expose their limitations:
(I) the limits of “fair trade”

Discussion question: Can folks describe what activists usually mean when they talk about “fair trade?”  Think about SLAP and United Students Against Sweatshops

Fair Trade perspectives are similar to the ideas that Proudhon and the Gotha Program were putting forward; Marx attacked them back then and would probably attack them today.
The key point here is that you can’t get equality by simply by making sure that some producers are paid better for their products.  You have to change the way products are produced in the first place and the only way you can do that is if workers take over their work places and start producing goods for use instead of for exchange.  So we should be advocating production for use instead of buying “equal exchange” coffee.  Fair trade, a more humane capitalism, etc. is MORE Utopian, more unrealistic than overthrowing capitalism entirely, especially when capitalism itself is in crisis.
Proudon envisioned a system of fair trade where “one commodity which requires, for instance, four hours to produce will exchange with any other commodity that requires four hours to produce. ”   Marx’s response was that you don’t have to wait for a utopian future to have this “equality”; in fact, that is already how capitalism works.  The values of commodities on the market are set “equally” based on how much time it took to make them.  But this process STILL produces social inequality between the people who produce things.   Some workers end up better off than others in this “equal exchange” marketplace.
Weiss claims this inequality comes from the separation between concrete and abstract labor that Marx talks about in Ch. 1 of Capital.  The value of commodities is based not on how much time specific workers put into making them.  If that were the case, the value of chickens that a Mexican farmer raises by hand would be MORE than the value of chickens that workers raise in a factory farm in North Carolina.  Under capitalism, instead, the value of something is based on how much time it takes for workers in general to make that type of commodity on average.   The mechanical efficiency of the factories in North Carolina lowers the amount of average time it to grow chickens, which lowers the value of the chicken, which means that the farmer who puts more time into growing chickens in Mexico gets paid less – in many cases, not enough to survive.  So under capitalism, all producers are equal, but some are “more equal” than others.
Weiss argues that this inequality can only be overcome when we start producing things to fulfil human needs, instead of producing them to fetch a value on the market.  But this would require doing away with capitalism altogether, through revolution.
I find this section of Weiss’ article to be confusing, because the workers in Mexico AND North Carolina are not paid the full value of the chickens they produce, they are paid a wage in exchange for their labor power, which is something different.   Weiss misses this point.   I think that’s because Weiss is skipping a few steps here in his argument, steps which we need Jaclard’s peice to help us fill in.  Both authors are assuming that their opponents are talking about “fair trade” between worker-run cooperatives, not fair trade between capitalist corporations.  In other words, each author is assuming that his/her opponent is an old school Proudhonist, or the people who wrote the Gotha Programme, or maybe a modern-day anti-globalization activist.  This opponent is saying : “all we need is to set up worker cooperatives around the world and then make sure that the goods they produce are traded fairly.”  Marx is trying to say that they never will be traded fairly.  As long as you have a market, period, you will have inequality built into the very structure of that market.  That inequality emerges out of the very way goods are produced, on the shop floor, in the workplace… so it can’t be legislated away by regulating trade between workplaces.
(II) Problems with the idea of putting “politics is in command”  (Maoism, anarchism, etc.)

Both authors’  basic point here is that you can’t just decide to change the economy by political force (by passing a law to set prices, etc. or by simply smashing corporate control).   If you do that without building a new economy based on workers’ control, it just leads to bankruptcy, a black market, or forcing people to produce at gunpoint like in Russia.  If you want political change, you need to make fundamental changes in the economy itself – in other words you have to replace capitalism with a new mode of production, which no existing socialist society ever managed to do.  That’s what we need to figure out how to do if we want to seriously end capitalism in the future.
Jaclard explains what’s at stake here:
“we are battling prevailing Left concepts about how to change society from capitalism to socialism, concepts which rely first and foremost on political change: typically, first you change people’s consciousness, then you seize power by overthrowing the state and corporations, then you vote in (or impose) new economic and personal codes of conduct, and proceed to set up methods to distribute resources and goods fairly, to plan what to produce, protect the environment, etc. We get this sort of scenario from everyone from vanguardists to anarchists.
In fact, as the process of achieving a socialist society is commonly discussed, it seems we only need the will to have one, and the political power to enforce our will. In this scenario, it is assumed that politics is in the driver’s seat, able to override all existing economic relations and bad human relations as well…
I argue that Marx’s philosophy entails a different anticipation of what is crucial to socialism. For Marx, capitalism’s laws drive politics, not the other way around, and those laws must be smashed completely in order to begin to build a new society. Only a change in the mode of production will enable a new society to emerge and to be sustainable. While a break with the operation of law of value will not automatically ensure that all aspects of society will be made anew, it is an essential part of the process. It can create the material and social basis for women, for example, to continue their struggles until their ideas of liberation are fully developed and realized.”
Note: this idea of “politics in command” is a popular Maoist slogan; the authors are taking subtle aim at modern day Maoists.   Mao thought that he could just change the economy if the party willed it hard enough.  That’s why he thought he could force China through an industrial revolution in 5 years during the Great Leap forward.  This lead to nothing but famine and massive speed up to the point of exhaustion for China’s workers.
(III) The problem with reducing Marx’s “transitional Communism” to some sort of half-assed Proudhonian “transitional society” which will never ever “wither away” because it is basically capitalist. (Maoism, Stalinism)

As we’ve seen, Marx strongly criticized Proudhon’s understanding of socialism.   Proudhon wanted to get rid of money but to keep commodity production, in other words he wanted  to keep a market economy where producers make goods in order to sell them.  He just wanted people to exchange goods directly with each other instead of  using money.   He didn’t understand that commodity production basically creates money.  For Marx, the “root of all evil” is not money, it is production for exchange on the market instead of for human use.   Therefore, Marx replies that you can’t get rid of money without getting rid of commodity production altogether.
The reasons why money emerges out of commodity production come from Ch. 1 of capital, but they are too detailed to go into here.  The basic point we can draw from this section has to do with Marx’s method:  you can’t just get rid of one piece of capitalism, you have to get rid of the whole thing.   The Soviet Union and China were not true  Communist countries.  They tried to get rid of only one part of capitalism – private property.  This left the rest of the capitalist system going.
However, a lot of Marxists misunderstand this point, and they basically make it seem like Marx comes to the same conclusions at Proudhon eventually.  The classic dogmatic Marxist position is that society goes through stages – 1) capitalism 2) socialism, 3) communism.  The assumption is that the second one involves a “transitional society” based on some sort of better distribution of goods under a “transitional state” that will eventually wither away.  Minus the “transitional state” , the economics of the socialist societies many Marxist advocate are not that different from the Proudhonist economics that Marx himself criticized.
Adrew Kliman is very critical of this whole idea of a “transitional society”; he argues that for Marx, “socialism” is just the first stage of communism, it is not a separate intermediate period that gradually shifts into a distant Communist future.  Every time Marxists have tried to create socialism, it doesn’t wither away into Communism, it regenerates capitalism.  One of the reasons why, is Marxists confuse what Marx meant by “socialism”. Instead of seeing it as the first steps of Communism breaking out of capitalism, they see it as a distribution scheme similar to Proudhon’s schemes.
Marx describes this “first stage of Communism” in the Critique of the Gotha Program:
“[T]he individual producer receives back from society…exactly what he gives to it…He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor…and with this certificate he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor costs. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.”
Weiss explains how it is different than Proudhonian socialism:
The difference is that, here, labor is “directly” or “immediately” social. Unlike in the formulations of Proudhon and unlike in our own commodity-producing society, where the exchange of equivalents exists only in the average, here there would actually be an exchange of equivalents in the individual case. So here, right from the beginning, Marx is telling us that the law of value will not hold.
To break this down, I’ll return to the comparison/ contrast exercise I suggested last week: looking at how you would “shop” or receive consumer goods under capitalism, under the system advocated by Marx’s opponents, and under Marx’s socialism.
1) In a capitalist society you are not paid the full value of your labor. You are just paid a wage – money, which you then go to buy things which are not worth the full value of the labor time you put in at work.  Everyone’s wages are unequal.
2) in a Proudhonist society, or in a society based on the Gotha program, you would work at a cooperative where you are paid the full value of your labor.  You would then go to another cooperative with a certificate representing the value of your labor and could get some stuff you need that is worth that value.  The problem is the value of your labor would still be set by the market based on average, or socially necessary labor time needed to produce the goods your cooperative makes.  If you make chicken and it’s a bad year for the chicken market you could still starve to death even if there are abundant food supplies just a few miles away.   Also, the chicken farmers in North Carolina would be able to buy more stuff with their certificates then the chicken farmers in Mexico.  So Proudhon’s anarchism or LaSalle’s Gotha Program actually PRESERVE inequality between different parts of the global working class and don’t ensure the abolition of poverty!
3) In Marx’s “socialism” or, “first stage of communism”, you would also work at a worker-run cooperative.  You would also receive a certificate you would use to go exchange for goods you need.  But that certificate would entitle you to a certain amount of goods based on how much time YOU as an individual actually worked, not just how much time it takes the “average” worker to do your job.  So that means workers in the Mexican chicken farmer’s council and workers in the North Carolina chicken farmers’ council would be able to get exactly the same amount of goods per hour of labor they work.
This can happen, because under socialism workers are producing for human use, not exchange.  The socially necessary labor time needed to produce goods is no longer their determinant of value on the market.  As a result, there really is no “market” anymore.
As Jaclard puts it,
“the individuals contribution to society is no longer assessed in terms of the number of products she produces or their value….What the producer contributes to society is now, as he goes on to say, her ‘individual quantum of labor’–the actual amount of work she does.”
Marx’s vision of socialism starts to actually bring equality within the working class, for example, between the North Carolina and the Mexican workers. This is how it paves the way for full Communism; it builds trust, toward the point where everyone would trust each other enough to basically work for free and give away the products of our labor to each other based on folks’ needs.   Proudhon and LaSalles theories, and the Gotha program, do not further this equality, which could be why Marx rejected them as possible “transitional” steps toward Communism.
Kliman warns that the “equality” between the Mexican and North Carolinian worker cant’ just be declared, it needs to be created in actual social reality:
Marx did not spell out what must be changed in order for directly social labor to be a sustainable reality.  But one thing is certain. Just as the dogma that labor is directly social, and therefore equal, “does not become true because a bank believes in it and conducts its operations [accordingly],” it does not become true because the Central Committee of the Party or the federation of workers’ councils believes in it and conducts its operations accordingly. The equality of labors is not something one can impose by fiat, passing a law, or agreeing to count all labor equally. Again, lasting changes in the political realm must be grounded in changes in the mode of production, not the reverse.  If the economic relations are such that different labors aren’t actually equal, counting them as equal will be a principle at loggerheads with practice.  For instance, if we “declare” that the labor of a surgeon and a nurse’s aide are equal, it is almost inevitable that a black market for surgical services will quickly emerge.  Either that, or “we’ll” have to enforce the equality through military-state power that has no prospect of withering away. So the issue is not whether we count different labors equally-politics is not in command, despite what Mao said-but whether the social relations are such that different labors actually count equally.  The task is to work out what such social relations are, and what is required to make them real.
iv)  problems with workers cooperatives

Some of these issues came up when a few of us went to a Seattle Solidarity Network discussion group.  We were reading an anarcho-syndicalist piece that advocated workers take over their factories and each factory would be run as a separate cooperative in a decentralized way.  I was wondering: how do we prevent a market emerging between these factories where the workers have to impose speed up on themselves in order to produce fast enough to satisfy market forces?  It seems like an entirely new, and viable economic mode of production needs to be created from below, we can’t just “seize and transform” capitalist workplaces.   Syndicalist perspectives of local cooperatives trading with each other don’t seem to  answer this question.
As Jaclard puts it,
Workers’ control of the planning process is not sufficient by itself….. The issue is not who is in control, but what is. As Dunayevskaya wrote in Marxism and Freedom (p. 136):
“… Marx, throughout CAPITAL, insists that either you have the self-activity of the workers, the plan of freely associated labor, or you have the hierarchic structure of relations in the factory and the despotic Plan [of capital].  There is no in-between.
“The only possibility of avoiding capitalist crises is the abrogation of the law of value. That is to say, planning must be done according to the needs of the productive system as a human system. A system where human needs are not governed by the necessity to pay the laborer at minimum and to extract the maximum abstract labor for the purpose of keeping the productive system, as far as possible, within the lawless laws of the world market, dominated by the law of value.”
Otherwise, society remains under the despotic plan of capital – even if workers’ faces rather than corporate managers’ faces serve as the new personifications of capital. A cooperative must still buy its inputs and sell its outputs on the world market, competing with every other producer of the same product. It cannot decide to pay much more nor to greatly change conditions of work to implement more humane ones, without putting itself out of business. As long as capitalism exists, the world market will exist, and thus the law of value will exist.  In other words, what will exist is the need to compete effectively, to produce as much as possible as cheaply as possible.  There cannot be socialism in one country, much less in a single cooperative or network of cooperatives.  Even if the members of a cooperative or network of cooperatives are nominally their own bosses, it follows from the continued existence of the value relation that, as Marx put it in his discussion of the fetishism of the commodity, “the process of production has mastery over [human beings], instead of the opposite.” (Capital, Vol. I, Peguin/Vintage ed.,p. 175)

About mamos206

Mamos is my pen name. My writings can be found at these sites, along with the thoughts of friends I collaborate with:
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19 Responses to Beyond cooperatives and fair trade: Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program

  1. Hi Black Orchid,

    We are happy to see you discussing this subject–all too rare on the Left–and including our writings. We hope to continue a dialogue with you and will write something substantive soon. I am just writing this note to let your readers know that the correct name of our organization is Marxist-Humanist Initiative (I wish we had the money to be an institute!) and the website is Also, you’ve mis-spelled Andrew Kliman and Seth Weiss’ names. Our e-mail is Pls send yours if you want to correspond privately.

    Best wishes for your project.
    Anne Jaclard

  2. mamos206 says:

    Hi Anne,
    Thanks for the greetings and for the insightful writings! We would love to be in dialogue. Our group just started – in fact, you are the first person to comment on our blog – but we have been involved over the years in other projects locally and nationally. Some of us used to be in the group Unity and Struggle which is strongly influenced by the Johnson Forrest Tendency and some of the ideas of Marxist Humanism.

    Sorry about the typos. I’ll go back through and change those. Thanks for the heads up.

    peace and solidarity,

  3. mamos206 says:

    I made those changes. Sorry everyone for the formatting errors. I’ve tried to fix the formatting several times and the line breaks keep disappearing. We’re still trying to figure out the technical details here as we get up and running, it’ll smooth out over time.

  4. Jeremy says:

    Congratulations on the new group and the new website!

    I’m beyond excited to read your thinking and engage with you all as fellow Seattle revolutionary types. My response to this first post is forthcoming, I hope.

    Any sense of what you’re reading next so I could potentially read along/read ahead?

    • jomo206 says:

      Jeremy! Good to see you on the blog:)
      We are reading Communist Manifesto next and then Black Radical, a biography.
      Would love to engage with you!

  5. Pingback: Marx’s “Wage Labor and Capital”, Part I | Black Orchid Collective

  6. Jeremy says:

    This is an interesting presentation, Mamos, with a lot of great points and intriguing questions. The readings that you’re referencing are also interesting. I think Marx is really useful on topics like this, and I like the conclusions that you’re drawing out for the present day.

    Just a few questions and comments, written hastily as I rush out the door:

    1) Aside from the questions of transition that Jaclard critiques in that piece, what do you all think of the vision of Participatory Economics as an anti-capitalist system? If you don’t like it, what are other institutional visions of actually maintaining a global communist mode of production which is not rooted in a State plan and which is not syndicalist?

    2) I’m having difficulty understanding what the strategy for revolution is in all of this. I can understand the critique of having “transitional societies” that maintain the market system even under ostensible workers control, which then degenerate back into capitalism. Okay, I agree with that critique. But then what is the actual strategy for achieving a rapid, global revolution that results in an immediate transition into both workers control and market abolition, with a mode of production rooted in human need? If, as some of these pieces suggest, the whole mode of production needs to be smashed globally and super fast, with a danger of rapid regeneration of capitalism, I feel like that leaves us at a huge loss strategically. Seriously, when are conditions that perfect ever going to come about? I think we do need strategies that can account for revolutions in single countries, transitional strategies, etc. No, they aren’t ideal and the dangers are high, but I think it’s irresponsible for revolutionaries to dismiss them out of hand when our strategic toolbox is already so lacking. It worries me that the strategic implications of these pieces are circular: “if we truly wish to smash capitalism totally, then it is imperative that we smash capitalism totally.”

    3)I think you too easily dismiss the syndicalist position. Who says that worker controlled organizations have to exchange their commodities in a market? As far as I know, the anarcho-syndicalist position is that the economy is worker controlled and planned by nested workers federations. That is neither a market nor a Statist mode of production. Though I’m more a parecon person than a syndicalist (based on Albert and Hahnel’s earlier Unorthodox Marxism and not the more recent watered down stuff), I think you’re creating some straw positions in here. Similarly with some Proudhon references, to whatever extent they conflate his ideas with anarchism. I understand that the Gotha programme was influenced by Proudhon, but currently I don’t know a single anarchist who takes Proudhon very seriously. Another example of a straw position is that I don’t actually think a lot of thoughtful anarchists do put “politics in command,” as much as is implied in these pieces. But maybe I misunderstand.

    However, yeah, I really agree with most of the points in the presentation. Where I get stuck (and where I think Bakunin got stuck back in the day, even though he agreed with Marxist political-economic critiques) is in those questions of strategy. I am so thankful that you all are talking about this, doing these readings, and asking these questions. They really help me think, both when I do and don’t agree.

    • mamos206 says:

      Hi Jeremy, thanks for your thoughtful questions. This is exactly the kind of conversation I was hoping this post would spark – sorting out the convergences and divergences between libertarian/ autonomist Marxism and social anarchism.

      Here are my responses. This is extremely long, largely because your questions are some of the most serious theoretical challenges I’ve thought through recently, so I am kind of “thinking out loud here”, pushing myself to develop new perspectives.

      1) I am not that familiar with Participatory Economics (PareCon), so I can’t speak to it too much right yet. I know the Marxist Humanist pieces make a strong critique of it, and initially I uncritically carried that critique over into my presentation. Doing presentations like this always poses a tension between attempting to explain what a text is saying, and criticizing it. I think my presentation aired too much in the first direction, blending my voice too much with the Marxist Humanist authors’ voices. They have a serious critique of PareCon along the following lines: it does not include any theory of capitalist crisis, it assumes endless capitalist expansion. So the task of revolutionaries then is not to engage in revolutionary struggle that can explode the contradictions of capital and start implementing communism… instead, the task of revolutionaries becomes to engineer a series of evolutionary reformist measures that gradually legislate a transitional society into being. To me that sounds very similar to revolutionary Marxist criticisms of the 2nd international Marxists, who made similar assumptions and came to similar reformist conclusions. Lenin, Luxemburg, the Marxist “ultra-left” (Council Communists, etc.) all had to break with this logic to engage in the insurrectionary strikes and uprisings that marked the 1917-1919 period. To me this question of crisis seems like a done deal today. The 1990s question of whether capitalism had truly entered a new period of unquestionable stability seems to have been resolved by history already. Capitalism clearly IS in crisis, and even if its internal economic contradictions don’t lead it into deeper crisis (though I think they probably will), the ecological crisis is starting to kick into high gear, posing the alternative as either communism or social breakdown. The question now is one of survival: can we overthrow the system, and if not how can we survive if it collapses before the working class makes a revolution? To the extent that ParEcon theorists do in fact lack such an understanding of capitalist crisis, I would disagree them . But I’m not familiar enough with Parecon to say for sure.

      In our study group, Fray argued that PareCon’s vision for the future is not all that different from what Andrew Kliman’s piece presents as Marx’s initial stages of communism. She said Parecon is based on production for use, not for exchange, and that in a PareCon society, a workers’ access to consumer goods would be based on her own contribution of concrete labor to society, not on the market value of her labor power or the market value of the commodity she produces. If so, then that’s a good thing, and maybe the Marxist Humanist writers are making a straw-man argument. If it is not true, I’d like to hear from the Marxist Humanist folks why it is not. Regardless, I imagine both the Marxist Humanist writers and myself might have other differences with PareCon.

      In terms of alternatives to PareCon, I also can’t answer this question now because I haven’t studied this question enough. In Black Orchid Collective we are planning on reading a series of revolutionary programs at some point this year, ranging from Parecon to Trotsky’s Transitional Program, to various programs groups have put out for the first “100 days” of the revolution. We will at some point probably attempt to write our own program for our historical moment. With all of this, I agree with Marx we can’t draw blueprints for the new society because it will be created in messy and contradictory ways through the self-activity of millions of workers. But since we as workers may end up being part of that, it’s crucial to prepare a bit and to think about how we would propose organizing society in the absence of a state and a capitalist market.

      2) I do agree we are never going to have a perfect moment where we can smash global capitalism and replace it with a new society rapidly enough to ensure that there will be no possibility of a capitalist counter-offensive anywhere in the world. Revolutions don’t work that way, they often are 5 steps forward 3 steps backwards – there are victories and there are defeats, there is liberation in one area and reaction in another, leading to civil war, etc…. there is a need to build what Gramsci called a “war of position”, engaging in a stalemate with capital which holds back the capitalist offensive enough and opens up space for our side to build up its fighting capacity to eventually break through the lines. It can’t just be all forward movement, all insurrection, all the time. That leads to a kind of “insurrectionist”/ or “occupy everything, demand nothing” perspective.

      The “occupy everything” folks are very influenced by Marxist ideas such as the critique of the Gotha Program. They draw from the French ultra-Left and the idea of communization – the idea that we need to create elements of communism now, right here in the struggle, instead of socially engineering a transition process. We are going to read some of this literature later on in our study group. I think these folks are right that the struggle now needs to open up elements of communism… we need to be porous and open to breaks and ruptures where we as working people surprise oursevles, rise up, and start to build a new society. If we just get drowned in the daily routine of nuts and bolts local organizing around small winnable demands then we risk missing these moments or being unprepared for them when they break out.

      But this focus on embracing ruptures of communization needs to be coupled with that self-conscious long term project of bringing these elements together through a war of position that can grow a counter-hegemonic block. That means we can’t just occupy a building or intersection or factory or country and create communism inside of it, we need to think about a longer-term “art of insurrection” type perspective where each act of communization links up with other acts and expands outwards.

      There are real possibilities of defeats and setbacks. Maybe at certain points all we will be able to achieve for the moment is a transitional society that is not yet full Communism. But what I think we need to get out of our minds is the idea that we can or should socially engineer such a “transitional socialist society” or “transitional workers’ state” as the first step in a master-plan for gradual social change. We also need to avoid the idea that we should engineer it as part of mater plan full of stages of orderly insurrection that follow one after another (“okay folks make sure this month’s revolution is a bourgeois democratic revolution because we need to get that done first before we go on to make a communist one a couple decades from now.”). Instead of this kind of stagist approach, we should be using a Marxist method, which involves always looking at the concrete material situation we are in, and the concrete self-activity of working class people acting together to transform that situation. That, instead of a party line, should illuminate what is possible and what isn’t. The next step in a revolutionary process should be based on this, not some dogmatic Marxist “plan” for how to transition out of capitalism. I think as revolutionaries and as workers we should try to push the transformation as far as we can instead of purposefully constraining our actions and those of other workers in order to complete a step-by-step transformation process. If we get pushed back by objective or subjective limitations, then we will end up with a “transitional society” instead of communism. Then we’d have to fight any tendencies to restore capitalism, and would have to keep advocating strategies of struggle that develop working class confidence and self-activity to make the leap into communism. If we fail at that, we’ll end up with capitalist restoration – but unlike many “Leninists” and social democrats we will not have helped install that restoration through a rigid and dogmatic assistance that it was “too soon” to go beyond socialism into communism.

      I don’t think it is wise to envision a transition process based on socialism in one country. Global capitalism is already penetrating every part of the globe and is developing a truly global production process, which means that I don’t think it’s even possible for workers in one country to launch a sustained insurrection against local capital without very soon taking on global capital. This does seem to close down the possibilities of revolution. But at the same time, the same global production process links workers together and makes it more possible for us to do the kind of international solidarity necessary to expand local insurrections into more generalized ones. Look how fast the Tunisian revolution ricocheted through the Middle East. We are lacking organizations with that kind of global perspective and global reach though, and this is what we need to build. Look how fast the Egyptian revolution got co-opted into a local nationalist revolution against one dictator instead of taking its role as the vanguard of the international class struggle (perhaps the workers who keep striking against the will of the nationalist generals will still have the last word).

      Both capitalism and resistance to it develop internationally in combined and uneven ways. Certainly, some sections of the global working class will be more revolutionary then others. They should not hold back and wait. They should definitely attempt to challenge capitalist power, and if possible seize power (meaning smash the bourgeois state), while reaching out for international support. We do need to imagine ways of defending partially liberated zones from capitalist encirclement and re-colonization. This is different I think than a vision of national liberation based on seizing the national state and turning it into a state that militarily safeguards “socialism in one country.” It is also different from a secessionist vision or a vision of resilient communities or localized tribes or temporary autonomous zones where folks try to establish a new society only among those willing to do so now, separating from everyone else. That kind of vision I think will lead to military and political defeat by the centralized state. It also encourages fascist potentials by developing an anti-cosmopolitan suspicion of anyone “not from here,” or of “socialism for our kind only.”

      I do think there is a role for cooperatives, and self-managed workplaces, even under a market system. This is not socialism or a transitional society, it is still capitalism, but it is part of the class struggle under and against capitalism, and it’s just as important as, for example, building militant workers’ organizations to fight for better working conditions. While calling for the state to legislate cooperatives from above is wrong for all the reasons the Gotha program was wrong, I do agree with Marx’s caveat, which is that when workers create co-operatives themselves, from below, it can be a positive part of the class struggle. It can develop folks’ skills for running production democratically in a future communist society, it can introduce limited but tantalizing aspects of communist social relations which will keep us hungry for more, and it can give workers’ the confidence necessary to seize the main capitalist industries and transform them. We will fight harder, stronger, and smarter when we have a real meaningful community to fight for.

      So when I look at something like the Argentinian factory occupations, I don’t celebrate them, like some did, as “the revolution.” I recognize that they did not go far enough because the market was still operating and they never successfully dissolved the state power that enforced those market relations. However, if I were in Argentina I’d still support the occupations and participate in the attempt to build cooperatives out of them, while simultaneously attempting to build revolutionary organization that could help confront state power and could help replace the market with production for use. I would say, “look if we can run a factory then we can figure out how to run the whole economy based on production for use, not for sale.”

      I generally agree with the perspective that the Workers Self Education Project puts forward on this. They argue that we need to create self-governing communities of workers that cooperatively develop and control resources right now, before the revolution, and this will help us develop the community bedrock necessary to sustain current struggles, but it will also give us a sense of what elements of communism look like which can help us make a transition to communism when we make a revolution. I don’t sense they imagine a slow evolutionary process where we build the revolution one commune at a time. It’s more that building communes now can help us to act effectively and decisively when revolutionary ruptures do open up – they will help us make that rapid transition which is so necessary. I think in their own ways, both Gramsci and the anarcho-syndicalists got at aspects of this perspective (despite their flaws). Far from putting politics entirely in command, they recognized that a transformation in economic relationships on the factory floor and in the broader society would be necessary for workers to develop the confidence necessary to eventually seize political power. A counter-hegemonic block of new social relations needs to be consciously built over decades of struggle, it can’t just be created spontaneously overnight during a period of rapid global insurrection. But again, that long-term building itself is not gradual or reformist.. it’s more about building durable fighting institutions which remain open to the events, ruptures, and upsurges of revolution.

      3) On the syndicalist position, I would just say that I disagree with many syndicalists but I could see how people who call themselves syndicalists might very easily come to similar conclusions to what I’m putting forward here, which is why in terms of practical revolutionary struggle I am generally more excited about working with syndicalists than any other political tendency out there (Trotskyists, Maoists, lifestyle anarchists, etc.) I agree with you that not all syndicalists are for separate workers’ cooperatives that compete on the market. Some are, as you say, for an economy that is: “worker controlled and planned by nested workers federations.” If so, that’s not so much different from what I’m fighting for. For me it all comes down to what we mean by “nested workers federations.” If all the power in society rests only with workers’ committees or revolutionary unions on the shop floor of factories who elect delegates to federation meetings, then what about everyone else? Do housewives, unemployed folks, students, elderly people, etc. get a vote? How does society as a whole make sure that the factories produce to serve the needs of society overall, not just the needs of the workers in those particular factories? Shouldn’t workers in coastal areas most rapidly affected by global climate change have a binding say in how rapidly the workers committees in inland coal power plants transition to new types of energy? Shouldn’t they be able to mandate that these workers need to scrap those plants, get means of production from other workers committees, and start building something new? Shouldn’t society as a whole have a right to tell workers who produce nuclear weapons that they need to immediately smash this entire productive apparatus because it is nothing but predatory? What about entire new economic and ecological realms that will require building NEW means of production we can’t even imagine now, rather than just seizing and democratizing the flawed and oppressive productive apparatus built by capitalism? It seems all of these questions drive in the direction of the need for some sort of regional, or international unity when it comes to economic planning. I know Maoists and Stalinists and Larouchites use this as a trump card to say this is why we need an economy planned by the State. In contrast to them, I’m calling for some sort of horizontalist, direct democratic decision making process whereby millions of workers can decide on social priorities and can plan production accordingly through electing recallable delegates to planning bodies…. then it would be up to workers in each factory comittee how they organize the work and carry out this democratic plan (e.g. scheduling who works when, discussing how to improve the production process through experimentation, etc.) You could call this a “federation”, but it is a federation where the federation level decisions are not simply a reflection of the sum total of local decisions but also would in some cases be binding on local decision makers who might disagree (in other words, it would allow the majority of workers in a region to require that a minority do something it might not want to do if it is for the greater good of the whole society). This would need to be checked by making all of the delegates to federation meetings subject to instant recall by local workers’ councils, committees, and assemblies to prevent them from accumulating power and becoming a parliament or a new state bureaucracy.

      I think if you don’t have some sort of unified way for workers democratically communicate and plan the economy as a whole over large areas, how can we be sure that they won’t just end up communicating and planning through basically market mechanisms (or black market mechanisms)? I think it is possible to have this kind of unity and tight knit regional/ international interconnectedness as opposed to localism, while still avoiding a centralized bureaucracy or state.

      Finally, I do think that most anarchists put politics in command too much. They often launch a moral/ political critique of heirarchy and the state primarily, without analyzing how this state is a product of deeper economic forces. Or if they do recognzie that the state serves the rich they make a moral critque of the rich without seriously studying the ways in which capitalism functions (the mechanisms Marx uncovered in his 3 volumes of Capital, which he intended to be a weapon in the hands of workers who wanted to smash these functions).

      You see these problems manifest in the anti-police brutality movement. Anarchists have been circulating pamphlets saying the police are the “absolute enemy.” I agree in the sense that they are absolutely the enemy – there is no such thing as a good police force. However, I don’t think they are the only enemy, or even the primary one… they are simply the defenders of the whole capitalist system, which needs to be systematically dismantled. You won’t be able to get rid of the police without getting rid of capitalist economic and social relations.

      Some anarchists also talk as if street battles can won simply through having more heart, more will, more determination, or the right ideas…. without enough focus on the real material forces at play and the need for systematic planning to win battles (I know that’s vague, but it’s intentional because this is the internet). In any case, I sense some of these folks are operating with an idealist method that puts political ideas way too much in command, and actually reminds me of certain types of Maoist guerilla vangaurdism that these anarchists are usually the first ones to critique. I do think the entire anti-police brutality movement would benefit from focusing more on what it would take to really fight at the point of production, to shut down the economy and freeze up the functions of the state through a general strike…. this is our only hope I think of actually advancing beyond the basic reality that the state can crush us militarily. I am not saying this in opposition to all armed struggle perspectives, only in opposition to those who fetishize the gun – or the rock through the window- as the source of all political power.

      I know there are social anarchists, anarchosyndicalists, etc. who would share many of my critiques of the anarchist tendencies I’m criticizing here. But many of them swing the pendulum too far in the other direction and put “economics in command” way too much. They focus too much on the point of production class struggle and abstain too much from political battles like the street mobilizations against police terror. They don’t have a method for integrating the economic and political struggles. I am not saying this to disrespect them. In fact, I don’t think we have fully figured out a method for how to do this either, we’re still learning too, which is what this study group is all about.

      In general, I am not at all trying to pick on anarchists here at all. In fact, for every case of an anarchist putting politics in command too much, I can think of Marxists who have done it 10 times worse, with far greater negative impacts on the movement. After all, the term “politics in command” comes from Mao, not from Bakunin or Kropotkin. Similarly, while I am criticizing other anarchist tendencies for abstaining too much from political struggles, this is something that Marxists tend to do quite a bit as well, which is exactly why Lenin felt the need to write the pamphlet What is to Be Done, criticizing the “economism” he saw running rampant in his own organization. Even more sophisticated Marxists like Gramsci have fallen into this at various points… during the Bienno Rossi in Turin, Gramsci supported the outburst of factory occupations and workers councils but failed to advocate any strategy for confronting state power through armed struggle, and the state eventually invaded the factories and crushed the shop floor insurrections from the outside. This is why I keep insisting that those of us who are focused on shop floor organizing ( whether we are libertarian Marxist or anarchosyndicalists) should not ignore or dismiss the Black Block.

      Finally, I hear you that most anarchists don’t take Prodhon that seriously now. Many of them, I imagine, would agree with Marx’s critique of the Gotha Program.

    • Lake Desire says:

      Mamos most of your comment is over my head but I want to know what you all think of parecon when you read it. I’d love to come to your reading discussions sometime if guests/supporters are allowed.

    • Matt A says:

      I don’t think ANY serious anarchosyndicalists are for worker’s cooperatives that trade commodities in any sense. There are a few isolated individuals, but all the anarchosyndicalist organisations advocate libertarian communism. Libertarian factories did end up behaving like that in revolutionary Barcelona, but that wasn’t the intention.

    • mamos206 says:

      Matt A, that’s good to know. Back when I was more of an anarchist my mentor was an anarchist who argued for workers councils that would trade on the market. He argued that to try to eliminate the market would require too much centralized authority and hence would lead to statism, maybe even Stalinism. I have heard other anarchists argue that the very idea of communism, even stateless communism, is oppressive. I disagree. I’m down with libertarian communism, I would consider myself an anti-state communist, in other words I’m for direct democratic communism. It’s good to know that’s a point of common ground with most anarcho-syndicalist organizations today.

      My other concern about anarcho-syndicalism is that, like traditional Marxism, it tends to focus on waged workers. What about unwaged workers (the unemployed, housewives, prisoners, etc.)? They need to be able to play an equal role in the revolution. A lot of autonomist Marxists like Sylvia Federici have tried to overcome this waged/ non-waged divide, and I’m interested in exploring their work more thoroughly. I like the idea of the city as a “social factory” – where value is produced in various workplaces, neighborhoods, homes, schools, etc…. and the entire social factory needs to mobilize together in collective class struggle, we can’t just focus on large industrial workplaces, though those are of course tactically crucial. I think in practice Seasol embodies this kind of “social factory” perspective, and it overcomes the limitations of older forms of anarcho-syndicalism. Seasol organizes working class people, not just workplaces. In other words, if I lost my job I could still be part of the network, and if I took time off from work to do caring labor taking care of kids at home I could still mobilize the network to fight against my landlord if he tries to screw me over. This is crucial – like you said in that libcom article, what ya’ll have built is well adapted to the precarious state of many workers today, where we rarely stay in one workplace for a long period of time.

    • Scott says:

      Mamos, I think your criticism of syndicalism regarding organizing of production outside of the workplace hits the nail right on the head. I would like to add that the syndicalist model is not only antiquated in this age of globalization, but also even if it were practicable it would be extremely limiting to the individual freedom of the worker. It is antiquated because production today is so mobile, employment so ‘flexible’ and insecure that, especially in the developed world, we no longer have gigantic employers that promise permanent employment at a single workplace or in a single industry to substantial portions of the population over several generations. It is destructive to individual freedom because it requires a worker to put down permanent roots in a given workplace so that he may establish an indigenous power base. (I mean, who wants to be stuck in the same small, crappy workplace for the rest of your life??)

      As opposed to workers taking over a single workplace and establishing their ‘autonomy’, what will have to happen is that workers as a class will have to make wider demands upon the capitalists concerning how production is structured. This way, a worker will be able to move from workplace to workplace, in and out of employment, etc., and find wherever he goes structures put in place by the class for exercising his power against that of the capitalist class. In order to succeed in establishing such structures, it will require a certain amount of leverage, and therefore struggle, in the workplace. But it is more important than ever, especially as real unemployment approaches 25% and will climb further, that workers organize outside the workplace, and be prepared to make political demands. The economic movement goes hand in hand with the political, and neither can succeed without the other. (And, in my opinion, these two won’t be able to grow large enough until we begin to organize serious community institutions among workers.)

      I think the argument over what form worker control of production will ultimately take, how centralized or hierarchical it will be etc., is a waste of intellectual energy. Before the working class can directly administer production on a global scale, its first steps toward this lofty goal will simply be using its economic leverage to force political demands upon the capitalists regarding the structure of global production, freedom of capital flows, social services, environmental regulations etc. (Not quite as exciting as ‘occupying everything and demanding nothing’, is it?) As the power and organization of the working class grows, it will be able to make greater demands, until the tipping point is reached that it is able to simply overthrow the capitalist class, and plan and administer production by itself and for itself. But at each step of the way, the working class will have to figure out what form of organization will be necessary to achieve the next realizable goal. At any given point, one-of-a-kind objective historical circumstances will have to be taken into consideration, and also what organizational forms were already managed to have been built up before the new historical forces came into play. I see no point in telling the workers of the future: no, you mustn’t choose that form, it doesn’t conform to anarchist or Marxist dogma.

      I think this is as true for us today at the current stage as it will be for workers at future stages.

  7. Jeremy says:

    Mamos, thank you for your response! For some reason, I always read this page when I’m at work, so I can’t respond with much depth:

    1) I really like you’re thinking about strategy, and you pretty much summarized my approach to what slower struggle, with preparation for ruptures:

    “A counter-hegemonic block of new social relations needs to be consciously built over decades of struggle, it can’t just be created spontaneously overnight during a period of rapid global insurrection. But again, that long-term building itself is not gradual or reformist.. it’s more about building durable fighting institutions which remain open to the events, ruptures, and upsurges of revolution.”

    That’s where I’m at, and I think that’s what social movements and revolutionary organizations should be doing.

    2) I think it’s important to separate ParEcon’s economic vision (that is, it’s proposal for post-revolutionary systems) from the strategies of its advocates. I agree with the critiques of Albert and Hahnel’s strategies. But the actual system–though not perfect–is an attempt to deal with a lot of the issues you mention with syndicalism…participatory planning that involves both workers and community councils, and social decision making about priorities.

    3) I hear you on the appreciation for the strengths and weaknesses on anarchist positions. I agree with your critiques. I have much more to say on this, but maybe for another time.

    Okay, back to work!

  8. Mamos says:

    Cool man, sounds like we’re generally on the same page about this stuff. I am open to the idea of separating Parecon’s program from Albert and Hahnel’s strategy for how to get there. I’m looking forward to reading this literature when we start to get into studying different revolutionary programs.

  9. Katie says:

    I agree that the article by Seth Weiss is confusing. As you suggest, it is important to make a clear distinction between the processes that determine the value of a product on the one hand, and the processes that determine how a worker is compensated for his labor on the other. It is true that, as Weiss says, “the labor of some workers counts more than the labor of other workers in production” in determining the values of products (although market competition continually tends to reduce these differences, even as they are being recreated elsewhere e.g. by technological innovation) – but anyway this doesn’t have anything to do with differences in workers’ wages. The Mexican worker isn’t paid less than the Californian worker because he is less efficient at producing chickens – he is paid less because it is so much cheaper to produce Mexican workers.

    I think there is another problem with Weiss’s analysis when he comes to Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program, and it might help to clarify your discussion if we bring it out. Weiss says that if we can get at the “difference between what Marx is suggesting and the formulations of Proudhon…we will have understood not only Marx’s critique of Proudhon but also have discovered one of the real clues that Marx has left us for figuring out how to transcend capital.” Maybe so, but I don’t think that he quite gets there. Yes, the difference is summarized in Marx’s expression “directly social labor”. But Weiss interprets this to mean that “unlike in the formulations of Proudhon and unlike in our own commodity-producing society, where the exchange of equivalents exists only in the average, here there would actually be an exchange of equivalents in the individual case.” I don’t think this is it. This suggests that someone would be able to exchange their four-hour labor certificate for one chair that I built (it took me that long because I am a slow worker) or for two chairs that someone else built (each one only took her two hours). This is silly – no one would choose my chair.

    In Marx’s scenario, socially necessary labor time would presumably still be crucial to determining the ‘cost’ of the various means of consumption. All chairs of the same kind should cost the same, even if they took different amounts of time to build. What Marx is saying is that all labor will count equally, not in determining the relative cost of individual products, but in determining what the worker receives for his individual labor. The point is that what he receives does not depend on how his particular products measure up against socially necessary labor time. His hour of labor entitles him to an equal share in the total produce of society – his labor is “directly social”. But this doesn’t mean that the idea of socially necessary labor time is somehow abolished, or that there is an “exchange of equivalents in the individual case”. This is sort of a subtle difference, but it is important.

    I’d also like to weigh in on your interesting discussion with Jeremy – I’ll try to do that soon!

  10. db says:

    hey y’all.

    thanks for the discussion.

    i think katie is right, and that without her critique the difference marx is making is pretty incoherent. it is not that their work will be traded, but that in doing work they will be taken care of. this makes much more sense if you build from a place of producers–specifically farmers, including urban farmers–rather than workers per se, as if everyone contributes to the production of food there will be enough! and people like fourier are crucial to articulating this perspective…as are i’d imagine peasant revolutions and uprisings the world over. similarly it is worth noting how this must mean the removal of land from markets, and rent as well, which is an poorly emphasized aspect of capitalist domination, and social ownership cannot be either community nor state ownership, though community ownership provides a much better path.

    and also find that most of the points mamos is saying as typical anarchist or syndacalist positions, though i appreciate the way in which he argues for a more holistic understanding and i couldn’t agree more with the need to not overly center syndacalist strategy…and while i’m a fan of the general strike as a revolutionary moment, and egypt’s neighborhood militias points to the ways in which communities can replace the police in an egalitarian way, i think there are many more direct steps that can be taken re: police brutality in the direction of community-ensured safety and a pushing out of the police than only directing things towards a revolutionary economic strategy.

    finally, with regard to parecon, i think it provides some really concrete good ideas for envisioning worker self-mangement. however, like the gotha program is portrayed above, it envisions reforming existing capitalism rather than reorienting on a new basis–like land mentioned above, or on real re-appropriation–and as such, still doesn’t seem to me to be a real imaginary beyond capitalism on the one hand and a rather uninspiring revolutionary project on the other, a problem that is not only aesthetic but practice as revolutions do not come without incredible efforts.

    again, extremely grateful for all that has been said and whatup from the twin cities, mn!

  11. Katie says:

    In my opinion, the question of cooperatives – their possibilities and limitations within capitalist society, and their role in (or irrelevance to) class struggle – should be approached historically. In fact I think that cooperatives will have a far more central role to play in a worker movement today than they ever have had, or could have had, in the past. I intended to write a comment here about this earlier, but in the course of thinking about it I ended up with an essay, which is now posted here. Among other things, I’ve tried to put Marx’s statements about cooperatives in historical context. If anyone wants to continue this discussion, I’m game!

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