Karl Marx’s essay, “Critique of the Gotha Program,” takes up only 37 of this book’s 99 pages, including footnotes, and is bracketed by Peter Hudis’s introduction and Peter Linebaugh’s afterword, which fill the remaining pages. Hudis both places this obscure essay in the context of Marx’s other writings on labor and corrects prevalent misinterpretations of Marx’s view of the historical trajectory leading (presumably) from capitalism to communism—misinterpretations introduced by Stalin, under whom the Soviet Union largely retained Russia’s pre-existing capitalist system. The other error of Stalin’s Hudis wishes to correct is that Marx did not distinguish between socialism and communism and instead used the words as synonyms throughout his works. That is, socialism is not a step toward communism, as the typically inept Stalin would have it, but is the same thing. Marx’s purpose in writing his critique was to offer a corrective (pre-Stalin) to competing methods for bringing about a communist society, methods, Marx felt, to be no better than what the mass of world societies suffered under capitalism.
Critique of the Gotha Program is perhaps better seen as a negative example of what communism isn’t—that is, although the Gotha Program that Marx criticizes purports to serve communist ends, Marx easily demonstrates that the document’s key terms are ill-founded and defined, representing what communism is not, let alone how it is achieved.
Apart from that, Marx’s Gotha Program critique is a notable forerunner to ecologically minded anti-capitalist screeds: “Labor is not the source of all wealth [contra the Gotha Program’s claims; Marx’s italics]. Nature is just as much the source of use values . . . as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force in nature, human labor power.” By insisting on nature as equal to labor as the source of material wealth, Marx acknowledges nature and its resources as equally alienated by the forces of capitalism.