Korsch on Marx on Gotha on Co-operatives

From Karl Korsch’s Introduction to the Critique of the Gotha Programme (1922)

“Equally complex and at first sight obscure motives lie behind Marx’s furious and relentless attack in section III on the one socio-economic demand the Gotha Programme makes — the demand for ‘establishing producers’ co-operatives with State aid’. Here, as with the iron law of wages, Marx’s fierce attack is not really against the call for producers’ cooperatives as such, but only against the particular role that they play in Lassalle’s system. In fact, ten years earlier Marx had actually included ‘the establishment of producers’ associations and other institutions of use to the working class’ among the practical demands of the I.W.A. statues, and in his Inaugural Address he hailed the co-operative movement, along with the ten-hour day, as ‘up to now the greatest victories of the political economy of labour over the political economy of property’. At that time he even emphatically demanded the ‘development of co-operative labour on a national scale’, aided by ‘the means of the State’. Here, too, there would superficially appear to be no real conflict between Marx’s position and the demand made by the draft Gotha Programme. In fact, however, this example of Marx’s anger is a vivid expression of a deep and substantive difference between his outlook and that of Lassalle. For Marx was only too well aware of the real nature of this scheme (amply demonstrated in any event by the rest of the Programme). The plan for associations of co-operatives conceived in the 1860s along ‘Lassallean’ lines (whatever Lassalle himself may originally have said when first advancing this demand) relied much more on State aid than on the creation of a co-operative economy itself. Its real aim was to use aid to the producers’ associations to change the ‘limited bourgeois state’ into a ‘socialist state that would fulfil the ethical idea of freedom’ — instead of seeking the necessary material preconditions for attaining a socialist society in the predominance of the political economy of the working class over the political economy of property (which may be furthered, among other things, by producers’ cooperatives). This was a flagrant violation of a major principle in the I.W.A. Declaration of Principles which stated that ‘the economic emancipation of the working class is the principle aim, which every political movement must serve to advance’. Marx in section III of the Critique seeks to demolish the key concept of ‘co-operatives based on State credit’ as a regression into crude ideological and utopian errors. (This idea has recently found its worthy successors in the equally empty notions of many German socialists about ‘socialization’ or ‘seizing real values’.) Marx reaffirms against these illusions the true materialist and revolutionary meaning of the words ‘producers’ associations on a national scale’ by saying: ‘That the workers desire to establish the conditions for co-operative production on a social scale, and first of all on a national scale, in their own country, only means that they are working to revolutionize the present conditions of production, and it has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with State aid’.”

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