Karl Korsch: His Contribution to Revolutionary Marxism

By Paul Mattick

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Revolt Library Anarchism Karl Korsch: His Contribution to Revolutionary Marxism

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(1904 - 1981)

Paul Mattick Sr. (March 13, 1904 – February 7, 1981) was a Marxist political writer and social revolutionary, whose thought can be placed within the council communist and left communist traditions. Throughout his life, Mattick continually criticized Bolshevism, Vladimir Lenin and Leninist organizational methods, describing their political legacy as "serving as a mere ideology to justify the rise of modified capitalist (state-capitalist) systems, which were [...] controlled by way of an authoritarian state". (From: Wikipedia.org.)

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Karl Korsch: His Contribution to Revolutionary Marxism

Source: Anti-Bolshevik Communism Paul Mattick, published by Merlin Press, 1978;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden, for marxists.org 2003;
Proofread: by Chris Clayton 2006.

Karl Korsch was born in 1886 in Tostedt in the Luneburger Heath and died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1961. The son of a middle-class family, he attended the Gymnasium in Meiningen and studied law, economics, sociology and philosophy in Jena, Munich, Berlin and Geneva. Becoming a Doctor Juris of the University of Jena in 1911, he spent the years from 1912 to 1914 in Great Britain in the study and practice of English and International Law. The First World War brought him back to Germany and into the German Army for the next four years. Twice wounded, demoted and promoted according to the shifting political scene, he expressed his own anti-war attitude by entering the Independent Socialist Party of Germany.

While studying law, Karl Korsch recognized the need to proceed to its underlying material base, to the study of society. A socialist before the war, he became a revolutionary socialist during the debacle. With the merger of the Independent Socialists with the Communist Party in 1921, Korsch became a communist representative in the Thuringian Diet, a Minister of justice in the short-lived Labor Government of the State of Thuringia and, finally, from 1924 to 1928, a member of the German Reichstag. During this period he wrote extensively on the current political and theoretical issues that agitated the radical postwar labor movement. He became the editor of the theoretical organ of the Communist Party, Die Internationale, and soon thereafter edited and wrote for the oppositional paper, Kommunistische Politik.

Dissatisfaction with the increasingly opportunistic course of the Communist International after 1921, and an acquaintance with, and understanding of Marxian theory superior to that of most of the prominent party theoreticians brought Korsch into early conflict with the official bolshevik party-ideology and led to a parting of ways in 1926. He now became the spokesman of the radical left-wing of the Communist Party (Entschiedene Linke) which was still within the party but, because of the character of this organization, was already regarded as an enemy of the Third International. After 1928 Korsch continued his political activity outside any definite organizational frame. He went on to write for publications accessible to him, prepared a new edition of the first volume of Marx’s Capital, traveled and lectured in various countries, and wrote a study of Karl Marx for a British publisher’s series dealing with modern sociologists.[1]

With Hitler’s coming to power in 1933, Korsch was forced to leave Germany. He went to England, for a short period to Denmark and then emigrated, in 1936, to the United States. Aside from a teaching engagement in New Orleans, he spent his American years in the pursuit of Marxian theory. As in Germany, so in America, his main influence was that of the educator, of the Lehrer, as he was respectfully considered by his friends. An encyclopedic knowledge and keenness of mind destined him for this particular role even though he would have preferred to be in the ‘midst of things’, in the actual struggles for the welfare and emancipation of the working class, with which he identified himself. The quality of his mind and his moral integrity set him apart, and excluded him from the opportunistic hustle for positions and prominence characteristic of both the academic world and the official labor movement. That his death remained almost unnoticed may be regarded as a final validation of his conviction that revolutionary Marxism can only exist in conjunction with a revolutionary movement of the working population.

A Critic of Kautsky

The impact of the First World War, and even more, the Russian Revolution brought the long-existing crisis of Marxism and the Western labor movements into violent eruption. Although split on theoretical lines into a so-called ‘revisionist’ wing, headed by Eduard Bernstein, and an ‘orthodox’ wing, represented by Karl Kautsky, the war revealed that both these social-democratic tendencies covered an identical reformistic, class-collaborationist and social-patriotic activity. The marginal left-wing elements of the international socialist movement and their most vocal representatives, Lenin in Russia and Rosa Luxemburg in Germany, ceased to operate within the shadow of Marxian ‘orthodoxy’ by demanding a renewal of the long-lost unity of socialist theory and practice.

Whereas ‘revisionism’, because of its total rejection of Marxism, was no problem for the radical socialist, Kautsky’s ‘orthodoxy’ required a two-fold struggle against social-democracy and its apparent justification in Marxist terms. ‘Back to Marx’ became the slogan of this struggle in order to utilize socialism’s radical tradition for the new endeavors of a revitalized labor movement. But ‘What is Marxism’ was also pertinent since both the disciples and the enemies of Kautsky’s ‘orthodoxy’ appealed to the work of Marx. And how far, and in what respect, was the Marxism of Marx’s time relevant under the changed conditions of the new century? The revolutionary conditions in the wake of the war brought with them a new interest in Marxian theory.

From 1922 to 1925, Korsch wrote a series of essays[2] against Kautsky’s ‘orthodoxy’ and urged restoration of Marxism’s revolutionary content. Korsch returned to a systematic, critical analysis[3] of ‘doctrinaire Marxism’ on the publication of Kautsky’s The Materialistic Conception of History in which the author himself abandoned his earlier ‘orthodox’ point of view. Although Kautsky’s terminology remained largely unchanged, his interpretation of the Marxian text now openly aided the revisionist emasculation of the socialist movement. His ideas with regard to development, society, the state, the class struggle and revolution, as Korsch pointed out, served the bourgeoisie rather than the working class. This found its definite theoretical expression in Kautsky’s attempt to represent the materialist conception of history as an independent ‘science’ which was not necessarily associated with the proletarian class struggle. For Korsch this implied the transformation of Marxism into a mere ideology which, by not recognizing its own preconditions, imagines itself as a ‘pure science’.

It was in this ideological form that the dialectical materialism of Marx came to dominate the socialist movement, and it was in this form that it lost its revolutionary meaning. Notwithstanding the designation ‘scientific socialism’ as against the utopian socialists, Marxism, according to Korsch, is not a ‘science’ and cannot become a ‘science’ in the bourgeois sense of the term. Marx’s Capital, for instance, is not political economy but the ‘critique of political economy’ from the standpoint of the proletariat. Likewise, with regard to all other aspects of the Marxian system, it is concerned not with supplanting bourgeois philosophy, history or sociology with a new philosophy, history or sociology, but with the criticism of the whole of bourgeois theory and practice. It has no intention of becoming a ‘pure science’ but uncovers the ‘impure’ ideological and class-conditioned character of bourgeois science and philosophy.

In his youth Marx accepted a philosophical standpoint which he himself, in a later-developed terminology, characterized as an ideological position from which he had to free himself. From ideological criticism he proceeded to the ‘criticism of ideology’ and from there to the ‘critique’ of political economy. The materialistic conception of history, i.e. Marx’s proposition that “the economic structure of society constitutes a real foundation on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness”, was gained not from a scientific or philosophical attempt to discover ‘general laws of social change’ but from the materialistic criticism of bourgeois society and its ideology.

Marxism, in Korsch’s view, constitutes neither a positive materialistic philosophy nor a positive science; and all its propositions are specific, historical and concrete, including those that are apparently universal. Even the dialectical philosophy of Hegel, the criticism of which formed the starting point of Marx’s own development, cannot properly be understood except in connection with social revolution and not then as a philosophy of revolution in general, but only as the conceptual expression of the bourgeois revolution. As such it does not reflect the entire process of this revolution, but only its closing phase, as indicated by its reconciliation with the immediately-given reality.

With the revolutionary process a thing of the past, the dialectical relationship between the real development and the development of ideas lost its meaning for the bourgeoisie; not so, however, for the proletarian class subjected to their rule and exploitation. Just as bourgeois theory cannot transcend the social practice of bourgeois society, except in idealist-ideological fashion, so it could not go beyond, but only away from Hegel’s philosophy. It could not discover the rational kernel within its mystifying hull, nor subject it to a materialistic critique which would lay bare, with prevailing class relations, the historical limitations of bourgeois society.

This was possible only from the standpoint of the proletariat, from its actual opposition to bourgeois class society. The dialectical point of view, then, involved the whole historical process which started with the bourgeois revolution and culminated in the idealistic philosophy of Hegel, only to bring forth the revolutionary movement of the working class and its theoretical expression in Marxism. This was not the theory of a proletarian movement that had developed on its own basis, but a theory that had just emerged from the bourgeois revolution and which, therefore, in content and form, still carried the birthmarks of bourgeois-revolutionary theory.

Neither Marx nor Engels denied the historical connection between their materialistic theories and bourgeois philosophy, which also connects the bourgeois with the proletarian revolution. But this connection does not imply, so Korsch relates in Marxism and Philosophy, that socialist theory in its further independent development retains its philosophical character, nor that the Jacobinism of bourgeois-revolutionary theory remains an aspect of the proletarian revolution. In fact, Marx and Engels ceased to consider their materialistic position as a philosophical one and spoke of the end of all philosophy. But what they meant thereby, according to Korsch, was not a mere preference for the various positive sciences to philosophy. Rather, their own materialistic position was the theoretical expression of an actually-occurring revolutionary process which would abolish bourgeois science and philosophy by abolishing the material conditions and social relations which found their ideological expression in bourgeois science and philosophy.

Although one of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach states that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”, this change itself is both theoretical and practical. In Korsch’s interpretation it is thus impossible to ignore philosophy and equally impossible to remove the philosophical elements of Marxism. The struggle against bourgeois society is also a philosophical struggle, even if the revolutionary philosophy has no other function than that of partaking in the changing of the existing world. Korsch held that Marx’s materialism, in contradistinction to Feuerbach’s abstract natural materialism was and has always remained a historical, dialectical materialism, i.e. a materialism incorporating, comprehending and altering the totality of the historically-given social conditions. The relative neglect of philosophy on the part of the mature Marx does not affect his recognition that ideology and philosophy are real social forces which must be overcome both on their own grounds and by a change in the conditions that they relate to.

The Russian Revolution and its Aftermath

Karl Korsch’s fresh concern with the relation between Marxism and philosophy sprang not from a specific interest in philosophy but rather from the need and desire to free the prevailing Marxism from its ideological and dogmatic encumbrances. It was a theoretical consequence of the new revolutionary trend released by war and revolution; for Marxism, which illuminates the dialectical relationship between social consciousness and its material base, is applicable to Marxism itself and to the labor movement. There was nothing surprising in the fact that the Marxism of 1848 and the Communist Manifesto was something other than the Marxist movement which developed together with an expanding capitalism — in a non-revolutionary period of long duration which came to its temporary end only with the revolutionary upheavals of the First World War. Marxist ‘revisionism’ was merely the theory of a non-revolutionary practice and Marxist ‘orthodoxy’ was a theory divorced from all practice, which thus served as an indirect, ideological support of bourgeois reformism.

The new revolutionary movement initiated by the Russian Revolution saw itself restoring original Marxism. In Korsch’s view, this could only be an apparent and ideological restoration which would not eliminate the need for a further development of Marxist theory and practice in accordance with the specific historical situation in which the revolutionary movement found itself. Yet as a first attempt to combat the non-revolutionary and therefore counter-revolutionary practice of the reformist movement, the Marxism of Marx was an advance by raising anew the questions of revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The revolutionary movement fought under the slogan, ‘All Power to the Workers’ Councils’. However vague the ideas behind the slogan, it expressed the revolutionary will of the class-conscious proletariat to end capitalist society. Even if, with regard to Russia, there existed from the very beginning a wide and apparently unbridgeable gap between the soviet idea and the possibility of its realization, this was no reason not to attempt a revolutionary solution in nations more fortunate in this respect. If the proletarian revolution in the West should succeed it would, perhaps, provide the very conditions for a socialist development in industrially less-advanced nations. Like all revolutionaries of the time, Korsch sided with the Bolshevik Revolution by siding with the revolutionary workers in Germany and elsewhere.

By 1921, however, the postwar revolutionary wave began to subside and with it the hope for world revolution. Counter-revolution in the West was bound to affect the character of the Russian Revolution whose national restrictions, whatever its early international aspirations, limited its revolutionary potentialities and turned it, finally, into one particular aspect of the international counter-revolution. The bolshevik regime in Russia could maintain itself only by doing concretely what it was ideologically obliged to deny, namely, to expand and extend the capitalist mode of production. Since this had not been the original goal of bolshevism, the goal itself now stood revealed as a mere ideological one, unrelated to the country’s economic structure and to the class forces within it, and as such it continued to exist. Marxism as ideology served the non-Marxian practice of transforming Russia into a modern capitalist state.

Under these circumstances it was no surprise that Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy should disturb not only Kautsky and his disciples but the bolshevik ideologists as well. To apply the materialist conception of history to Marxism itself was to unmask the differences between the theory and practice of the whole of the existing socialist movement. The quickly-established common front against Korsch’s work revealed that the Leninist movement was still part and parcel of Kautsky’s ‘orthodoxy’. And just as Kautsky’s ideological adherence to the ‘final aims’ of socialism only served Bernstein’s ‘aimless’ reformism, so Lenin’s dogmatism could only function as the false consciousness of a counter-revolutionary practice.

Ideologists of the Third International declared Marxism and Philosophy a ‘revisionist heresy’. Since they accepted Lenin’s and Kautsky’s ‘orthodoxy’ as Marxism they were of course right. The debate[4] around Korsch’s work, which was apparently strictly theoretical, soon took on a more political character. Communist strategy in the postwar world, which embraced participation in socialist governments where possible and revolutionary uprisings when opportune, suffered a decisive defeat in the German political occurrences of 1923. This led to new internal crises in the communist movement. There were right and ultra-right, left and ultra-left tendencies, all vying for control of the various national organizations and of the Third International. Deviations from the official, even though shifting, party-line by one or another group, were attacked not only as tactical differences but as digressions from Marxism itself. Korsch’s criticism of communist policies after the 1923 events was considered a consequence of the ‘heretical’ position displayed in Marxism and Philosophy. But not before 1926 were Korsch and his group actually expelled.

From the vantage point of 1926 the revolutionary upheavals of the First World War appeared as feeble as they actually had been. But capitalism was far from being stabilized and a new revolutionary wave remained a possibility. To prepare for it required, in Korsch’s view[5], a sharpening, not a softening, of the class struggle and a greater determination to win political power. But while the possibility of a new rising was not excluded, the counter-revolution gained strength. All the anti-communist forces from the reactionary Right to the reformist Left combined against a revolutionary solution of the existing crisis conditions. They found in the bolshevik need to maintain and consolidate the party’s power in Russia and in the world at large an undesired but effective ally. The international communist movement became a political instrument of the Russian state and thus ceased being a revolutionary force in the Marxian sense. To subordinate international communism to Russia’s national needs, so it appeared to Korsch, was to repeat the performance of the Second International on the eve of the First World War — sacrificing proletarian internationalism to national imperialism.

It now no longer made sense to criticize bolshevik policy in detail, for what determined this policy was not a mistaken reading of the real situation with respect to proletarian aspirations, or the absence of such aspirations; nor was it determined by a wrong theory which could be corrected by way of discussion. Rather, it found its direct source in the specific and concrete needs of the Russian state, its economy, its national interests, and in those of its new ruling class, the bolshevik decision-makers and their large bureaucratic retinue. Proletarian communism had to dissociate itself from Russia and the Third International as, previously, it had to break away from social-reformism and the Second International. With this, of course, and for the time being, proletarian communism itself was doomed. The combined ideological and actual powers of traditional capitalism, its social-reformist supporters, and Russia’s state-capitalism in Marxian disguise were more than enough to destroy a revolutionary minority not yet able to acknowledge defeat.

No attempt was made by Korsch or his new friends in the so-called ultra-left communist groupings[6] to advocate the capture or the reform of the organizations of the Third International, or to line up with one or the other of the bolshevik factions fighting for control of the Russian state-apparatus in support of one or another tactical move to safeguard the bolshevik regime. What was important to Korsch, however, was an emerging proletarian opposition to the new bolshevik state-capitalist, or state-socialist, form of capital production. As regards Russia, it was the workers opposition, known under the name of one of its founders, Sapronov, with which Korsch established contact because it stressed the class character of the proletarian struggle against the Russian Communist Party. This group realized that its fight had to be waged outside the party, among the workers generally. But along with all other oppositional groups, the workers opposition, too, fell victim to the rising Stalinist terror.

Proletarian Self-determination

What the Second International failed to complete, namely, transforming the labor movement into organizations controlling the workers, was now completed by the Third International. Proletarian self-determination would have to assert itself against all existing labor organizations whether of an economic or a political character. The traditional political party of bourgeois democracy, as well as tradeunionism in its craft or industrial form, were now manipulative instruments in the hands of huge labor bureaucracies that identified their special interests with the social status quo, or were becoming government institutions of control and dependence. It was obvious that the organizational forms in which Marx and Engels, under entirely different conditions, had set their hopes for the development of proletarian class consciousness, could no longer be regarded as emancipatory forces. Rather, they had become new and additional forms of proletarian enslavement. However reluctantly — due to the absence of new and more adequate organizational forms of proletarian class struggle — Korsch now came to recognize that the ending of capitalism presupposes and involves ending traditional labor organizations. In so far as these organizations still enjoyed approbation by workers, this itself indicated to what extent proletarian class consciousness was lacking.

Manifestations of proletarian independence through direct actions for working class objectives, however fleeting and localized at first, Korsch now perceived as so many signs pointing to a revival of proletarian class consciousness within the totalitarian expansion of authoritarian controls over always larger spheres of the social life. Where independent working class actions were still to be found, revolutionary Marxism was not dead. Not ideological adherence to Marxist doctrine but actions by the working class on its own behalf was the decisive point for the rebirth of a revolutionary movement. This type of action was to some extent still the practice in the anarcho-syndicalist movement. Korsch turned to the anarchists without giving up his Marxist conceptions; not to the petty-bourgeois anarchists of laissez faire ideology, but to the anarchist workers and poor peasants of Spain who had not yet succumbed to the international counter-revolution which now counted among its symbols the name of Marx as well.

Anarchism found its place in Marxist doctrine, if only, as is sometimes claimed, to pacify the anarchist elements who shared in the formation of the First International. The anarchist emphasis on freedom and spontaneity, on self-determination, and, therefore, decentralization, on action rather than ideology, on solidarity more than on economic interest were precisely the qualities that had been lost to the socialist movement in its rise to political influence and power in the expanding capitalist nations. It did not matter to Korsch whether his anarchistically-biased interpretation of revolutionary Marxism was true to Marx or not. What mattered, under the conditions of twentieth-century capitalism, was to recapture these anarchist attitudes in order to have a labor movement at all. There was the closest connection, Korsch pointed out, between Russian totalitarianism and Lenin’s conviction that working class spontaneity had to be feared, not fostered — that it was the function of non-proletarian layers of society — the intelligentsia — to carry revolutionary awareness into the masses, which were unable to become class conscious on their own accord. But Lenin only spelled out, and adapted to Russian conditions, what had since been long, if silently, accepted in the socialist movement, i.e. the rule of the organization over the organized and the control of the organization by its leading hierarchy.

The Bourgeois and the Proletarian Revolutions

The ideas of the bourgeois revolution — freedom and independence, reason and democracy — could not be realized in bourgeois class society. Marx’s critique of political economy was thus at once a program of proletarian revolution towards the abolition of social class relations. It did not matter that the larger part of the world had still to experience, or found itself, in the throes of bourgeois revolutions. Where such revolutions had been successful they also created their own negation in the aspirations of the industrial proletariat. The bourgeois revolution was not the end but the beginning of a social revolution ‘in permanence’, that is, until it ceased to be an instrument of social development in the classless society. How long this process would take was not predictable. This depended on the growth of class awareness and the intensity of the actual struggles of the proletariat. Yet the existence of such awareness, and proletarian struggles for working class objectives even within the confines of the bourgeois revolution, justified the prediction of a proletarian revolution as the final product of capitalist development.

Meanwhile, however, the world belonged to the bourgeoisie and the revolutionary functions of the proletariat, with respect to both theory and practice, were strictly and exclusively critical — critical even of the shortcomings of the bourgeois revolution, for capitalism was considered the pre-condition of socialism. But the development of capitalism was hastened and its life-span shortened by the simultaneous growth of working class initiative and proletarian class actions. Whenever it was necessary to support bourgeois revolutions, it was only to gain a starting point for the proletarian revolution. And to do so without merely serving the bourgeoisie required a persistent and clear class consciousness which did not lose sight of the socialist goal. That Marx himself aided and abetted bourgeois movements of a national and democratic nature did not contradict his theory of proletarian revolution but merely indicated the still-existing gap between the bourgeois and the proletarian revolution, between the creation and the emancipation of the working class.

The failure of the revolutions of 1848 and the consequent capital development under counter-revolutionary auspices did not prevent the rise of the labor movement. This movement, which originated within the bourgeois revolution, adapted itself to the non-revolutionary conditions resulting from a compromise of the emerging capitalist class with the still semi-feudal state. But even in countries where the government was only the executive of the ruling capitalist class, the developing labor movement did not display a revolutionary character in accordance with Marx’s expectations. The political program of the Marx of 1848 had no real bearing upon capital-labor relations in an advanced bourgeois society. It made room for a social-reformist program embellished with Marxian ideology wherever the traditions of 1848 were honored.

Marx’s support of bourgeois revolutions was not a tactical move to gain control of these revolutions and to transform them into proletarian revolutions and socialism, but was a real support of an upcoming class which, by its emergence, gave rise also to its counterpart, the proletarian class, and thus assured a new revolution by virtue of its own success. This support was bound to the conditions of continental Europe in 1848 and had no meaning outside these conditions. The Marx of Capital and of the First International no longer saw the working class as the spearhead of the bourgeois revolution but saw it as exclusively concerned with its own working class aims in its struggle against the bourgeoisie, which was no longer in opposition, but in control, of the feudal residue.

This was apparently not true for Russia. Here the social conditions seemed analogous to those prevailing in Western Europe in 1848. Both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat faced not only the semi-feudal conditions of Czarism but also the non-socialistic aspirations of the peasant masses. A social revolution was nonetheless at hand. But it was neither a proletarian revolution in the Marxian sense, nor a bourgeois revolution in the tradition of the French Revolution. Although it contained elements of both, it was, first of all, a peasant revolution in a nation capitalistically-backward but already under the control of the capitalist world market and thus embroiled in and partaking of all the capitalistic and imperialistic, as well as the socialistic activities and upheavals that constitute national and international politics.

Although Lenin conceived of the expected Russian Revolution as bourgeois-democratic, the actual revolution of 1917 was termed ‘proletarian’ because the bolsheviks succeeded in gaining control over the state; and the bolsheviks were a Marxist party. The slowly-established totalitarian rule of the party over the whole of society was presented as the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ even though the proletariat as a dominant class had first to be created by the forced transformation of backward Russia into a modern industrial state. The interval between the outbreak of revolution and the taking of power by the bolsheviks was viewed as the transition from the bourgeois-democratic to the proletarian revolution or, rather, as the compression of bourgeois and proletarian into one revolution, that is, as the elimination of a whole social developmental stage by political means, the creation of the proletariat and of the pre-conditions of socialism not through capitalist class relations but by way of Marxist ideology and the direct power of the state. This was an entirely non-Marxian position which, however, could be justified by conceiving the Russian Revolution not as a national affair but as part of a world-revolutionary process which, if successful, would embrace the less-developed regions of the world together with the socialist countries, just as previously, capitalism had brought all nations, despite all their variations, into a capitalistically-determined world economy.

So long, then, as there existed the possibility of its westward extension, the Leninist attempt to drive the Russian Revolution beyond its objective limitations was in conformity with the requirements of a Western proletarian revolution. Without this revolution, however, this was no longer true. But movements of the scope of the bolshevik revolution may be destroyed but they cannot be re-called. Once in power, this power has to be secured at all costs, for the alternative is not retreat but death. And staying in power was to accept the Marxist truth that social productive forces determine social production relations and therewith political superstructures, not vice versa. What in other nations had been accomplished by the bourgeoisie had now to be done by the Russian Marxists, i.e. the creation of capital by way of ‘primitive accumulation’ and the exploitation of the proletariat. That this was done without giving up the Marxist ideology is nothing to be wondered at, for in capitalism, too, the ruling ideology does not reflect actually-existing conditions. It is the function of ideologies to cover up and to justify an unpalatable social practice.

The purpose of this digression is to condense Korsch’s ideas and attitudes laid down in a number of articles on the relationship between the Russian, the bourgeois, and the proletarian revolution. Just as Marx had to adjust himself to the reality of the bourgeois revolution and its aftermath, even though he saw capitalism as only an intermediary stage in a revolutionary process which would find its solution in socialism, so Korsch, and everyone else, had to take a stand on the questions posed by the bolshevik revolution and by its peculiarly non-Marxian character. So long as conditions made it possible to hope for a revolution in the West — a period coinciding with the so-called ‘heroic’ period of the Russian Revolution, with war-communism and civil-war — the stand to take was obvious. To oppose the bolshevik regime under then-existing circumstances was to join the counter-revolution not only in Russia but everywhere. Whatever the mental reservations, the support of the Russian Revolution was a necessity for the German revolutionists. Only when the bolsheviks themselves turned against their own and the revolutionists of the West — and indirectly but effectively sued for peace with the capitalist world — was it possible to turn against the bolshevik regime without simultaneously aiding international counter-revolution.

Although Marxism could elucidate conditions such as existed in pre-bolshevik Russia and other capitalistically backward countries, it could not provide a program of social reconstruction for their revolutionary movements. Its relevance was restricted to the proletarian revolution in capitalistically-advanced nations and here the revolution did not stir; where it did, it failed. But where a social revolution succeeded, though it was not of a proletarian character, it took its ideology from Marxism, for the idea of revolution was irretrievably associated with Marxian socialism. It thus became necessary to dissociate these revolutions from proletarian socialism and to that end circumscribe the true and limited meaning of Marxian doctrine.

Marxist Political Economy

All Marxist propositions, Korsch pointed out, “represent only an historical outline of the rise and development of capitalism in Western Europe and have universal validity beyond that only in the same way in which every thorough empirical knowledge of natural and historical[7] form applies to more than the individual case considered. Marxism operates thus on “two levels of generality; as a general law of historical development in the form of so-called historical materialism, and as a particular law of development of the present-day capitalist mode of production and of the bourgeois society originating from it.”[8] And here it is not concerned with the “existing capitalist society in its affirmative state, but with the declining capitalist society as revealed in the demonstrably operative tendencies of its breaking-up and decay.”[9]

By being an effective critique of political economy, Marx’s Capital was, of course, also a contribution to economic science. But in the light of historical materialism, political economy is not only a theoretical system of propositions, either false or true, but embodies a piece of historical reality, i.e. the totality and history of bourgeois society. Because this totality forms the subject matter of Capital, it is as much an historical and sociological as an economic theory.

Being subordinated to the competitive market mechanism and the exploitative capital-labor relations, the science of bourgeois economy has only descriptive and ideological functions. No matter how hard it may strive for practical applicability, its very structure as an ‘independent’ science deprives it of success. Despite its socio-economic character Marxist theory does not intend to enrich economic science but wants to destroy it through the destruction of the social relations which this science tries to justify and defend. Marxism wants to understand capitalist economy only in so far as such understanding aids in the destruction of capitalism; it is never ‘operational’ in the bourgeois sense of the term. Neither can this economic science “which the proletarian class inherited from the bourgeoisie, by a mere elimination of its inherent bourgeois bias and a consistent working out of its premises, be transformed into a theoretical weapon for the proletarian revolution”.[10] To end the exploitation of labor “one must not apply a different interpretation of bourgeois economics but rather, through a real change in society, bring about a practical situation in which its economic laws will cease to hold good and thus the science of economics will become void of content and ultimately vanish altogether”.[11]

According to Korsch, Marx’s economic analysis applies solely to bourgeois conditions. Capital production is not a relation between men and nature, “but a relation between men and men based on a relation between men and nature”. Marx’s economic and social research, which ultimately transcended all phases and forms of bourgeois economy, proved “the most general ideas and principles of Political Economy to be mere fetishes disguising actual social relations, prevailing between individuals and classes within a definite historical epoch of the socioeconomic formation”. [12] There was no way to reach the classless society short of overcoming the fetishistic social relation of capitalist production and a truly socialist society could not be based on the ‘law of value’. Korsch’s precise delineation of Marx’s social and economic theories opposes attempts to look upon Marxism as a mere phase in an unbroken continuity of economic theory, as well as endeavors to utilize ‘Marxian economics’ for socialism.

Marxian ‘Philosophy’

The principle of specification applies equally well to Marxian ‘philosophy’. Notwithstanding Marx’s unquestioned acceptance of the genetic priority of external nature to all historical and human events, Marxism, according to Korsch, is primarily interested only in the phenomena and inter-relation of historical and social life — where it can enter as a practical, influential force. The inflation of dialectical materialism into an eternal law of cosmic development, which Friedrich Engels initiated and Lenin completed, is entirely foreign to Marxism. But the fact that it was introduced by Engels indicates the early transformation of the theory of proletarian revolution into a Weltanschauung independent of the proletarian class struggle. In this ideological form it could be used for other than strictly proletarian purposes and was so used by Lenin and the ‘intelligentsia’ in their struggle to modernize Russian society.

Moreover, because Marx’s main interest at the time of his own revolutionary activity was centered on the creation of a political-revolutionary party, Lenin’s emphasis on the party as against the proletariat appeared to be harmonious with revolutionary Marxism. And though Marx spoke of the ultimate destruction of fetishistic capital production by a fully conscious and direct social organization of labor, his pronouncements in this respect remained opaque. They could be understood in various ways, particularly because Marx recognized the transformation from capitalism to socialism not as one revolutionary act but as a revolutionary process which, for some time, would still exhibit many characteristics of bourgeois society. The planned economy controlled from above, the new state-apparatus which realized party dictatorship — all this, when seen as transitory stages towards a stateless and self-determined socialist society, could well appear to conform to Marxian theory. For at this point Marx’s scientific materialism changed into utopian expectations.

The fact that Lenin’s ‘orthodoxy’ and its revolutionary application could be of service to a historically-modified but nevertheless capitalist revolution indicated that the Marxism evolved by Marx and Engels and the early labor movement had not been able to rid itself of its bourgeois inheritance. What in Marxian theory and practice often appeared as anti-bourgeois proved to be assimilable by the capitalist mode of production. What seemed to be a road to socialism led to a new type of capitalism. What in Marxian perspective seemed to transcend capitalism turned out to be a new way of perpetuating the capitalist system of exploitation. Korsch’s criticism of Marxian ‘orthodoxy’, and of Leninism in particular, thus became a criticism of Marxism itself and therewith, of course, a self-criticism.

Generally, the reaction on the part of academic Marxists to the failure of Marxism was to cease being Marxists. Some comforted themselves by seeing in the disappearance of Marxism as a separate school of thought and the incorporation of its assimilable parts into the various bourgeois social sciences a great triumph of Marx’s genius. Others merely declared Marxism passe, along with the laissez faire capitalism and all other aspects of the Victorian age. What they overlooked, of course, as Korsch pointed out, was that the Marxian analysis of the workings of the capitalist mode of production and of its historical development is as pertinent as ever, and that none of the social problems that beset Marx’s world have ceased besetting the world of today and are visibly driving it towards its own destruction. They merely notice that at this juncture there is no evidence of a revolutionary proletariat in the Marxian sense and that, therefore, there will not be such a proletariat tomorrow.

But the proletariat not only exists but increases all over the globe with the capitalistic industrialization of hitherto-under-developed nations. It grows with the further class polarization in the advanced countries in the wake of the relentless and politically-enforced concentration and centralization of capital. Even if, in some countries, and for the time being, the social consequences of this process may still be alleviated by an extraordinary increase of productivity, making for social stability, this increase of productivity is itself limited by prevailing class relations. In brief, all capitalistic contradictions remain intact and require other than capitalistic solutions. All that the present period of counter-revolution proves as far as Korsch was concerned is that the evolution of capitalist society had not reached its utter historical limits when liberal capitalism and reformist socialism reached the limits of their evolutionary possibilities.

For Korsch, all the imperfections of Marx’s revolutionary theory which, in retrospect, are explainable by the circumstances out of which it arose, do not alter the fact that Marxism remains superior to all other social theories even today, despite its apparent failure as a social movement. It is this failure which demands not the rejection of Marxism but a Marxian critique of Marxism, that is, the further proletarisation of the concept of social revolution. There was no doubt in Korsch’s mind, that the period of counter-revolution is historically limited like everything else — that the new social productive forces embodied in a socialist revolution would re-assert themselves and find a revolutionary theory adequate to their practical tasks.


1 Chapman & Hall, 1938

2 Collected under the title Marxismus und Philosophie, Leipzig, 1930. (Marxism and Philosophy, separately, was published first in 1923)

3 Die Materialistische Geschichtsauffassung, Eine Auseinandersetzung mit Karl Kautsky, Leipzig, 1929.

4 The debate included George Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness, 1923, which, like Korsch’s work, was considered an idealist deviation from Marxism.

5 K. Korsch, Der Weg der Komintern, Berlin, 1926.

6 Kommunistische Arbeiter Partei, Allgemeine Arbeiter Union, and the political groups associated with F. Pfempfert, O. Rühle, and the journal Die Aktion.

7 Introduction to Das Kapital, Berlin, 1933, p.33.

8 Ibid.

9 K. Korsch, Why I am a Marxist, Modern Monthly, New York, Vol. IX, No. 2, p.88.

10 K. Korsch, Karl Marx, London, 1938, p.90.

11 Ibid., p.91.

12 Ibid., p.114.

From : Marxists.org


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