Marx and Engels on program and left unity

Marx and Engels on program and left unity

I largely agree with Peter Boyle's argument in his article "Let's focus on what to do, not on identity" (Alliance Voices, vol. 7).

Peter says: "If you look at the socialist movement today you see many small groups trying to prove that they are the 'real' revolutionary socialists or the 'real' Marxists....

"Despite the fact that all these groups are against capitalism, all arguing for total system change, all advocating a socialist alternative based on a democratically run society based [on] communal ownership of its main assets, all identifying the working class as the main agent for social change, they all focus on this or that defining programmatic difference they have with every other socialist group."

Karl Marx said: "Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programs." (letter to Bracke, May 6, 1875; in Marx and Engels Selected Works, vol. 3, p. 11; Progress Publishers, Moscow 1970)

Similarly, Engels said: "In general, the official program of a party is of less importance than what the party does." (letter to Bebel, MESW, p. 35)

This does not mean that Marx and Engels thought program was unimportant. Marx's comment cited above appears in a covering letter to his well-known Critique of the Gotha Program. Marx thought it important to criticise mistakes in a program.

The Gotha program was intended as the program for a united German socialist party. Marx and Engels were in favour of steps toward unity, but felt it was premature to adopt a common program, given the extent of the differences. Marx recommended postponing the drafting of a common program "until it has been prepared for by a considerable period of common activity". (MESW, p. 11; his advice was not followed and the Gotha program was adopted at the unity congress).

Today in Australia we have "a dozen programs", but the socialist movement remains weak. The existence of "a dozen programs", each held by a particular socialist group, is part of the problem

We need to unite the left. Already there is a fair degree of "common activity" in various campaigns. Different left groups participate in the same demonstrations (for indigenous rights, gay rights, refugee rights, etc.) and on the same workers' picket lines. But cooperation is often undermined by organisational rivalries, which are justified by citing programmatic differences. We need to focus on what we have in common, which is more important than what divides us. Persuading the members of other left groups of this is not easy, but it is something we should aim to do.

There is one point in Peter's article which I slightly disagree with. I think that in his reference to the debate between Marx and Guesde, Peter misinterprets Guesde's position. Peter says:

"Marx reacted firmly in the 1880s when leaders of the French socialists criticised the program of practical struggle he helped draw up for their organisation as being 'reformist'.

"Marx included in this program demands that were achievable within the framework of capitalism but the French socialist Jules Guesde argued that socialists should reject these reforms in order to 'free the proletariat of its last reformist illusions'.

"Marx countered that this was 'revolutionary phrase-mongering' and famously added that, if this sort of politics represented Marxism, then 'what is certain is that I myself am not a Marxist'."

I have not read what Guesde actually said, so it is a bit risky to comment. But judging by the summary given in the Marxist internet archive article that Peter quotes (, it does not seem as if Guesde argued that socialists should reject reforms. Rather he said that the bourgeoisie would reject the reforms put forward by socialists in their election campaign, and this rejection would free workers from reformist illusions (including illusions in the bourgeois-reformist Radical Party). It appears that Guesde saw no point in waging a persistent struggle to force the bourgeoisie to grant these reforms. Instead he thought socialists should use the bourgeoisie's rejection of these demands as an argument for the need for a workers revolution (a "workers '89", i.e., a working class version of the 1789 French revolution).

Marx by contrast saw the struggle for these "immediate demands" as a part of the preparation for an eventual workers' revolution.