Against Phrase-Mongering: Reading “The Critique of the Gotha Program, Part 1″ by Marx, Part 1

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.

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About El Mono Liso

Por una civilización de la pobreza.

Posted on December 21, 2011, in Marxism and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Quick note in response to this:

    “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.”

    Marx seems to be focussing in on how distribution of the products of labor is a proxy for a deeper problem, namely the problem of Capitalist production itself.

  2. I would agree. The problems of capitalist production contain all the seeds that undo the promise of the liberal revolutions that actually made capitalism possible. Missing this often misses the point and is why syndicalism or Proudhon market socialism doesn’t work as for liberation ultimately. Until you deal with production, you can’t undo the system. However, the mechanism for undoing that production lie within capitalism itself, right? That would be why the capitalist transition was necessary?

  3. Yeah. You need to change the mode of production and exchange to obtain communist social relations. Common ownership of the collective product of labour is fundamental and combined with distribution of wealth (after deductions for health, education and welfare, replacing means of production and reserves) on the basis of how much the producer puts into the social store of goods and services in the lower phase of communism, as it has just issued from the womb of Capital. Later, distribution is carried out purely on the basis of need. Wage-labour and therefore, Capital is abolished when socialism is established.

  1. Pingback: Reading “The Critique of the Gotha Program, Part 1″ by Marx, Part 2 « The Loyal Opposition to Modernity:

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