In 1857 the two German socialist parties, one following Marx and the other Ferdinand Lasalle, joined to form one organisation. This took place at a congress held at Gotha, and they went on to issue the Gotha Programme. Any idea that this foretold the end of dissension among socialists was quickly put down; Marx responded with a fierce attack upon both the Programme and Lasssalle. It set out his conception of future social development, and included the following statement:
A general prohibition of child labour is incompatible with the existence of large-scale industry and hence an empty, pious wish. Its realisation – if it were possible – would be reactionary, since with a strict regulation of the working time according to the different age groups and other safety measures for the protection of children, an early combination of productive labour with education is one of the most potent means for the transformation of present day society.
Surprising as it is to find Karl Marx supporting child labour, we must also note his qualifications. He sees it as a way of speeding the revolution and, even so, it is to be suited to their capacities and combined with education. He does not say whether it would continue under communism. The quotation would not justify the conclusion that he favoured the exploitation of children.
The point we want to make concerns that first sentence, the assertion that a general prohibition of child labour is incompatible with the existence of large-scale industy. The industry we have today operates on a scale vastly larger than anything Marx knew, and the countries where it most dominates are those where child labour is most generally prohibited. In this instance Marx badly misjudged the system he claimed to understand.
A general prohibition of child labour is not incompatible with large-scale industry. Capitalism has realised a wish that Marx condemned as merely empty and pious. Evidently, the system possesses greater flexibility than his theory allowed for; we have still to find out where its limits lie.
from Ideological Commentary 64, June 1994.