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Marx Myths and Legends. Paresh Chattopadhyay

A Manifesto of Emancipation:
Marx’s “Marginal Notes to the Programme of the German Workers’ Party”
after One hundred and twenty-five years

An earlier version of the paper was presented at “Marxism 2000,” University of Massachusetts at Amherst, September 21-24, 2000. Amended by the author for inclusion in “Marx Myths and Legends.”

Marx’s “Marginal Notes” of 1875 or what he called in a letter (to Bracke, May 5, 1875), a “long scrap of paper,” was a purely occasional text which its author felt compelled to compose, in order to underline what he thought to be the serious shortcomings in a workers’ programme. However, the document could perhaps be considered kind of a second “Communist Manifesto,” authored by Marx alone this time of course. Both of them concern party organisation — the Communist League and the German Workers’ Party. The second document was enriched by Marx’s great theoretical breakthroughs as well as by his involvement in the new forms of working class struggles as manifested above all in the work of the First International and the Paris Commune, posterior to the “Communist Manifesto.” Given the necessarily limited scope of this second document, compared with the first, its focus is also relatively circumscribed, being confined to the critique of the specific points in the Programme that Marx found unacceptable. Nevertheless, in spite of the narrowness of scope and the resulting selective character of the themes involved, this document contains, drawing on the author’s whole life’s work, a condensed discussion of the most essential elements of the capitalist mode of production, its revolutionary transformation into its opposite and a rough portrayal, in a few bold strokes, of what Marx had called in Capital the “union of free individuals” destined to succeed the existing social order.

In this paper we propose to concentrate mostly on the economic aspects of this document. As in the Gothakritik labour is the central theme around which Marx’s arguments revolve, we start with Marx’s critique of the conception of labour as it appears in the Programme. Next we pass on to Marx’s very brief discussion of the Lassallean notion of wage labour which of course is the essence of the capitalist mode of production. Then we propose to treat Marx’s portrayal of the future society centered basically on the problem of allocation-distribution of the society’s total product. We conclude by stressing the immensely emancipatory character of the document. As we go along we will seek to dispel a number of misunderstandings — even among Marx’s professed followers — concerning Marx’s categories of labour, value and state, all appearing in the “Critique.”

Labour and Division of Labour

The Gothakritik starts with the Programme’s assertion that labour is the source of all wealth and all culture. Marx underlines à contrario that labour is not the source of all material wealth and that nature also is a source. This idea of wealth as the conjoint product of human labour and nature is a continuing idea of the Marxian “Critique of Political Economy” from its very inception. In his Parisian manuscripts of 1844 Marx refers to nature as the “non-organic life” of the human and the human as “a part of nature.” “The labourer can create nothing [. . .]

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