On a day this week, the 21st October, 1961, the German Marxist “heretic” and theoretician Karl Korsch died in Belmont, Massachusetts, USA
On a day this week, the 21st October, 1961, the German Marxist “heretic” and theoretician Karl Korsch died in Belmont, Massachusetts, USA. In one of his last (1950) political and theoretical statements, ‘Ten Theses on Marxism Today’ he wrote:
- 1. It no longer makes sense to ask to what extent the teaching of Marx and Engels is, today, theoretically acceptable and practically applicable.
- Today, all attempts to re-establish the Marxist doctrine as a whole in its original function as a theory of the working classes social revolution are reactionary utopias.
Born on 15 August, 1886 in Todstedt, near Hamburg, Korsch came from a middle class family whose father had a lifelong interest in the philosophy of Leibnitz (1646-1716). Hedda Korsch later said of Karl’s father:
“He was very interested in philosophy and wrote an enormous unpublished volume on the development of Leibnitz’s theories of monads. He tried to put the whole of the cosmos into this philosophical system. It was his life’s work and purely theoretical.”
By the turn of the century the family were living in Meiningen, in Thuringia, where Korsch attended the local secondary school and where his educational opportunities improved. A serious student, Korsch was to study law, economics and philosophy in the universities of Munich, Berlin, Geneva and Jena securing his doctorate in Law ‘summa cum laude superato’ in 1911 at Jena where Marx had received his own (in philosophy) in 1841. Jena was also to stimulate his thoughts on social change resulting from the athmosphere created by the University and the local Zeiss Works’ efforts at social reform.
At this time Korsch also got involved with the “Free Student Movement’ (the Freie Studentenschaft) “which was opposed to the reactionary and nationalist student fraternities (Verbindungen) and aimed to establish contacts between the academic world and the socialist movement. ” (Fred Halliday)
“They came into existence around 1900 and they were in outspoken opposition to traditional German codes of behavior. I do not think that they had any more specific political content, except that they aspired towards an individualistic freedom. They had a slight tendency towards the left of centre, but they were certainly not socialist.”
“He was also a convinced socialist by the time of his last year in school. He looked around to see if there were any socialists among his school-mates, but he did not find any. He read a lot. I do not know when he first read Marx but I am inclined to think it was at school, because when he was a student he was an outspoken socialist — by conviction, although not a member of any organization. He never joined the SPD, although he had friends in the SPD especially in Jena. He wanted the Freie Studenten to meet workers and socialists and he arranged discussion evenings through a friend of his, Heidemann, whose father was an SPD member of the local parliament in Mecklenburg. The evenings were arranged like a dinner where men and women sit next to each other — in this case workers and students sat alternately.”
Korsch spent 1912 to 1914 in England where he joined the Fabian society and witnessed and was impressed by the work and organisation of the syndicalist movement. He also wrote articles on the Fabians for the Journal ‘Der Tat’, praising the Fabian plans to reorganise society on socialist principles including, at that time, plans for the state control of industry.
“In his early years, he believed that these emphasized the positive content and actively democratic aspects of socialism, by contrast with the orthodox Marxism of the Second International which he thought defined itself merely negatively as the abolition of the capitalist mode of production.”
“There is little doubt from a close reading of Korsch’s early essays that he was heavily influenced by Fabian ideas. Although he was soon to turn from their reformism and idealism to marxian revolutionary materialism, the Fabian spirit of practical political activism was to long remain a feature of Korsch’s theory and practice.”
Returning to Germany at the outbreak of war he enlisted in the army and distinguished himself by never carrying a weapon into combat, despite which he was decorated twice. “Because he was against the war he never carried a rifle or a sabre. He used to point out that it made no difference, since you were just as safe with or without a weapon: the point was that you were safe neither way. He personally was not going to kill people, but he considered it his mission to bring as many men from his unit home alive as he could.” (Hedda Korsch)
However, she tells us: “Korsch had been in despair for the last six months of the war….One grenade had hit his company and the first platoon had been wiped out to the last man. Later he told me that he had fallen into paroxysms of crying and then had got drunk because it was more than he could take. Nearly all the people he had started out with in 1914 were dead and he was desperate because of the massacres. But when the ‘November Revolution’ came he revived and hoped that a better Germany could be built.”
Like to so many others at the time, the First World War was to prove traumatic and also serve as a stimulus to link in to the radical organising on the Left that was to result in the Russian Revolution of 1917 (“The Russian Revolution had a big influence on him and we all thought that it was the beginning of a new epoch.” Hedda Korsch says) and the failed German Revolutions shortly after. In 1917 Korsch was to join the USPD (Independent German Socialist Party) which had split from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) to the left. When the USPD itself split in 1920, Korsch went with the majority faction into the German Communist Party (the KPD).
“His main reservation about the 21 points (the Twenty-one Points which formed the Leninist conditions for membership of the Communist International) concerned the centralized discipline from Moscow, the degree of dependence on the Russian Party that they implied. In everything — as he had been with the students — he was in favour of decentralization, and he was by now very much convinced by the principle of workers’ soviets.”
Paul Mattick, (1904–1981) a friend of Korsch since 1935, in a 1962 analysis of Korsch’s contribution to revolutionary marxism writes:
“The impact of the First World War, and even more, the Russian Revolution brought the long-existing crisis of Marxism and the Western labour 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…from 1922 to 1925, Korsch wrote a series of essays against Kautsky’s ‘orthodoxy’ and urged restoration of Marxism’s revolutionary content…”
November 1918 saw the Kaiser overthrown and the Weimar Republic declared. Shortly afterwards what was called ‘the Spartacist rising’ took place in Berlin (in January 1919) and the Munich Soviet Republic was declared in April 1919. Both were ruthlessly suppressed by the social democrats with the murder of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebnecht and Eugen Leviné among thousands of workers and revolutionaries. Nevertheless from Korsch’s point of view:
“…for two years there was an active and widespread movement for workers’ councils inspired by a varied set of Marxist and anarcho-syndicalist ideas. Korsch participated actively in this movement which he believed to be realizing many of the ideas he had developed in pre-war London. He was a member of the Berlin Socialization Committee and contributed to the revolutionary magazine Arbeiterrat.
His writings on workers’ councils over this period fall into two phases: between 1918 and 1920 they reflected the immediacy and optimism of the movement; between 1920 and 1922 they expressed its decline in activity and the need for more critical reflection…” Halliday writes in his 1970 Introduction to the reprint of Marxism and Philosophy.
March 1919: Korsch publishes ‘What is Socialization?’ addresing the question of how Germany could be made socialist: “In this work Korsch is concerned not only to provide the positive content he felt was absent from pre-war socialism, but also to attack the reformist and social-democratic concepts of ‘nationalization’ and ‘workers’ participation’ then prevalent in Germany, which served to deflect the councils’ movement from its revolutionary aims.” (Halliday)
In ‘What is Socialization?’ Korsch “…suggested a combination of workers’ autonomy in industry with centralised planning via political institutions, a combination, in brief, of syndicalist and socialist ideas. It was by a system of workers’ councils, operating on the factory level and in political life, that both self-determination and social regulation were to be realised.” (Paul Mattick)
Karl Korsch (What Is Socialization? A Program of Practical Socialism):
“The socialization demanded by socialism signifies a new regulation of production with the goal of replacing the private capitalist economy by a socialist communal economy. Its first phases consists of the socialization (Vergesellschaftung) of the means of production and the resulting emancipation of labor. Its second phase consists of the socialization of labor.”
“The radical wing of the German socialist movement in the 1918 revolution and its aftermath demanded a total reconstruction of society on the basis of a system of workers’ councils (on the pattern of the Russian Soviets), designed to bring all economic and political power into the hands of the working class.”
Folowing the subsequent failure of the German Revolutions across the country and the unfolding events in the Soviet Union, Korsch began his criticism of orthodox Marxism – (“It was obvious that the organisational 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. ” Paul Mattick) – which would result in his expulsion from the Party and his unique status as an ‘outsider’ within the Left for the rest of his life. At this time his work significantly concerned itself with the practical problems involved in the creation of the socialist society. These involved 2 major concerns (“two seemingly conflicting basic demands”) as Douglas Kellner in his essay on Korsch, points out:
1: What will replace the anarchy of the Free Market and how: the planned economy…
2: Control from below / workers’ democracy: to serve in the liberation of labour and “a life more worthy of human beings”.
Addressing these fundamental contradictions in the reorganisation of society, socially planned production would still need to be developed through workers councils. Kellner points out that this view of the councils critiques both State Socialism (from above) and the Syndicalist Movement (from below) which focus on the individual as the unit of production and consumption.
Karl Korsch (‘Ten Theses on Marxism Today’):
- 3. Though basically ambiguous, there are, however, important aspects of Marxian teaching which in their changing function and applying to different locations have until today retained their effectiveness. Also, the impetus generated by the praxis of the old Marxist labor movement has been presently incorporated into the practical struggles of peoples – and classes.
- 4. The first step in re-establishing a revolutionary theory and practice consists in breaking with that Marxism which claims to monopolize revolutionary initiative as well as theoretical and practical direction.
In the meantime he worked at producing brochures, tracts and pamphlets for the movement. In 1922 he wrote ‘Elements of the Materialist Conception of History’ (Kernpunkte der materialistischen Geschichtsauffassung) on the relationship of theory to practice within the revolutionary movement, “…in an essay that anticipated many of the themes of ‘Marxism and Philosophy’. It then went on to illustrate various key Marxist concepts, like ‘class struggle’ and ‘the dialectic’, by a wide use of quotations, not only from Marx, Engels and Lenin, but also from the Gospels, Shakespeare, Hegel, Goethe and Schiller”, ‘Quintessenz des Marxismus’ sets out basic principles of Marxism in the form of thirty-seven questions and answers and finally, an edition of Marx’s ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, “…with a political introduction stressing the relevance of Marx’s text to the immediate question then facing the workers’ movement, the seizure of state power.” (Halliday)
In 1923, as well as being one of the more prominent members of the German KPD (“…then the major Communist Party in the world outside the USSR.”) Korsch‘s major work Marxism and Philosophy, (“…an attempt to re-establish the historic character of Marxism as the heir to Hegel. It commences with a quote from Vladimir Lenin’s On the Significance of Militant Materialism: “We must organize a systematic study of the Hegelian dialectic from a materialist standpoint.” Wikipedia) – his ‘revolution in philosophy’ – was published, confronting the current situation facing the marxist movement… “a novel and highly controversial attempt to apply Marx’s materialist method to the history of Marxist theory itself.” The work was not well received: “The immediate response of both Social Democrat and Communist spokesmen to Marxism and Philosophy was unequivocally hostile” (Halliday); Zinovievs criticism from the Fifth World Congress of the Comintern in 1924, (at which Korsch was a KPD delegate) perhaps being the most famous:
“If we get a few more of these professors spinning out their theories, we shall be lost. We cannot tolerate such theoretical revisionism of this kind in our Communist International.”
In that same year, 1923, having been elected to the Thuringian Parliament in October, he became Communist Minister of Justice in the Thuringian government.
“The Party was preparing for an armed insurrection and Korsch took the ministry on party instructions to facilitate the seizure of arms and the overthrow of the state apparatus when the revolution began. However the planned rising was cancelled, and when a local insurrection erupted in Hamburg it was successfully suppressed by the army.” Halliday writes…
“Korsch was forced into clandestinity and I was arrested, but four months later there was an amnesty, after the Thuringian government had been dissolved…In 1924 new elections took place under emergency regulations and the Berlin regime made sure that no socialist or communist government was formed. Indeed Thuringia later acquired one of the first Nazi governments of any region in Germany which then banned Karl from lecturing at Jena university. But in 1924 he was re-elected to the Landtag, and was also elected to the Reichstag, so we moved to Berlin.”
Karl Korsch (‘Ten Theses on Marxism Today’):
- 5. Marx is today only one among the numerous precursors, founders and developers of the socialist movement of the working class. No less important are the so-called Utopian Socialists from Thomas More to the present. No less important are the great rivals of Marx, such as Blanqui, and his sworn enemies, such as Proudhon and Bakunin. No less important, in the final result, are the more recent developments such as German revisionism, French syndicalism, and Russian Bolshevism.
- 6. The following points are particularly critical for Marxism: (a) its dependence on the underdeveloped economic and political conditions in Germany and all the other countries of central and eastern Europe where it was to have political relevance; (b) its unconditional adherence to the political forms of the bourgeois revolution; (c) the unconditional acceptance of the advanced economic conditions of England as a model for the future development of all countries and as objective preconditions for the transition to socialism; to which one should add; (d) the consequences of its repeated desperate and contradictory attempts to break out of these conditions.
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, (Lenin) having been almost incapacitated by illness since late 1921, died at his Gorki home on 21 January 1924 and the turmoil within the soviet communist leadership intensified. From 1924 to 1929 the German Communist Party began to be reorganised along “Stalinist lines” and the purges began:
“…he himself opposed their obedience to the Russian Party, and in particular the official view that capitalism had achieved a temporary stabilization and that a revolution was no longer immediately possible. As a delegate to the Fifth World Congress of the Comintern he was not only attacked for his views on philosophy by Zinoviev but was also assailed by Bukharin for printing an article in Die Internationale that was critical of Bukharin and the theory of the labour aristocracy…”
“He was growing increasingly concerned about developments in Russia and especially so after the death of Lenin. He had always had doubts, of course. But in Thuringia the KPD was strong and large, and the local comrades were very good people, willing to sacrifice personal comfort, money, time, jobs, for the class struggle. There were lots of meetings and commissions and all that. Then directives began to come more and more from Moscow, saying what was to be discussed at meetings and what resolutions were to be put to them. Whereas during the early 1920s, the rank-and-file felt that they themselves forged their actions, the international leadership now began to interfere and direct everything. But Karl still thought that the KPD was the only party that still tried to fight in any way. There was no question of the Social-Democrats doing that. So he stayed in the party although he realized quite early on that he would be expelled. He went to the Fifth Congress of the Comintern in Moscow in 1924 and there he had a feeling that he was in danger. Some comrades warned him that he might be intercepted because he was under strong suspicion for deviations and seditious talk against the Soviet leadership. He left before he was scheduled to depart and formed no real impressions of the Soviet Union while he was there; he was completely wrapped up in the conference itself.”
Korsch‘s criticism of internal party policy and the soviet leadership increased while at the same time avoiding Trotsky’s Left Opposition. (“Trotsky laid less emphasis than Korsch on the need for consciousness among workers and laid more emphasis on the question of party leadership,” Hedda Korsch.) Eventually by 1926 “…denounced by Zinoviev as ‘an insane petty bourgeois’, Korsch was given an ultimatum to relinquish his Reichstag seat or face expulsion from the KPD. He refused to comply with this and was expelled in April 1926.” He would remain on as a deputy for 2 years but by 1928 “Korsch’s period as a member of a political organization was over” (Halliday).
“No attempt was made by Korsch or his new friends in the so-called ultra-left communist groupings to advocate the capture or the reform of the organisations 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 realised 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.”
He continued to write and lecture and it was in this period (1926-1928) that his relationship with Bertolt Brecht began…
“Brecht entered Marxist study groups at this time, (1926) including one run by Marxist heretic Karl Korsch. The man who he later referred to as “My Marxist Teacher” was one of the first Marxist intellectuals to be thrown out of the Communist Party for “deviationism.” Korsch also developed a strong early critique of Leninism and then Stalinism…Brecht’s specific version of Marxism was highly influenced by his “teacher” Karl Korsch and…Korsch’s version of Marxism shaped Brecht’s aesthetic theory and practice.”
Paul Mattick is less positive in his 1964 essay on Korsch:
“Brecht referred to Korsch and to Fritz Stemberg as his Marxist teachers. But their teaching was obviously lost on the pupil, who remained a Stalinist with bourgeois inclinations until his death. However, there were some results of the Korsch-Brecht ‘collaboration’, for instance, Brecht’s attempt (in rather questionable taste) to modernise and re-write the Communist Manifesto in hexametric form.”
The Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz) passed in both the Reichstag and Reichsrat on 24 March 1933, gave the Chancellor Adolf Hitler the power to enact laws without the involvement of the Reichstag. It was to “follow on the heels of the Reichstag Fire Decree, which abolished most civil liberties and transferred state powers to the Reich government.” The combined effect of the two laws was to transform Hitler’s government into a de facto legal dictatorship. Like Brecht and Walter Benjamin and many others, Korsch was now forced to flee Germany in the months following the Reichstag Fire of February 1933.
“I remember the last lecture he gave, on the night of 28 February 1933. We were all in the cafe afterwards when the news came that the Reichstag was burning. Quite a few of the participants did not go home that night. Others went home and were arrested. The law on political reliability of civil servants was passed in April, and Korsch and I were thereby deprived of our salaries. I was dismissed on 1 May and our bank account was confiscated. So we were without a penny and I went to Sweden to work. At first he remained in Berlin, not sleeping at home and trying to organise underground anti-Hitler activities. So many people still thought that it could not last and in the spring he and a former student of mine organized quite a large meeting in a forest outside Berlin attended by representatives of very different groups including Christians, trades unions, Communists, Social Democrats, and other scattered groups like the Gesellschaft für Aesthetische Kultur. They held a large conference, one of the largest that was ever organized without detection under Hitler. They tried to evolve ways of fighting from within Germany, but most of them were soon caught and imprisoned or killed. Korsch was not caught and he remained until late autumn of 1933 when it became impossible to sleep even in the sheds of workers’ allotments. He was by then a liability on his friends. Brecht had invited him to Denmark, so he went and stayed with him.”
Following his exile Korsch continued his theoretical work, publishing in 1938, ‘Karl Marx’ – “an analysis of Marx’s mature theory rather than a biography” (Halliday).
“By the time he wrote Karl Marx, the balance of class forces had completely changed. The working class was very much on the defensive: fascism had been victorious in a number of European countries, and threatened to exterminate the working-class movement in the remaining ‘democracies’. The Marxist movement lay almost entirely under the dead hand of Stalinism. Outside this, it survived in small groups which had little contact with the working-class movement and within which the level of theoretical debate was extremely low compared with the previous period. Although Karl Marx was not written with the polemical intention of Marxism and Philosophy, it does represent an interesting interpretation of Marxism which, because of the prevailing situation, was hardly discussed at the time.”
Between 1933 and 1936 he lived in Denmark where he continued his relationship with Brecht:
“Brecht and Korsch disagreed politically, but Brecht once wrote to Korsch that ‘we have long disagreed in our evaluation of the USSR, but I almost believe that your position on the USSR is not the only one which can be derived from your scientific discoveries’. When Korsch appears in Brecht’s Me Ti: Buch der Wendungen, thinly disguised as Ko and Ka-osh, the main topic of discussion between the two is Stalinism.”
Karl Korsch (‘Ten Theses on Marxism Today’):
- 7. The results of these conditions are: (a) the overestimation of the state as the decisive instrument of social revolution; (b) the mystical identification of the development of the capitalist economy with the social revolution of the working class; (c) the subsequent ambiguous development of this first form of the Marxian theory of revolution by the artificial grafting onto it of a theory of the communist revolution in two phases; this theory, directed on the one hand against Blanqui, and on the other against Bakunin, whisks away from the present movement the real emancipation of the working class and puts it back into the indefinite future.
- 8. This is the point for insertion of the Leninist or Bolshevik development; and it is in this new form that Marxism has been transferred to Russia and Asia. Thereby Marxism has been changed; from a revolutionary theory it has become an ideology. This ideology could be and has been used for a variety of different goals.
In 1936 Korsch emigrates to the USA. He was 50 years old. This later period of his life, alongside his tenuous connection to the Frankfurt School and despite the perception that he had become disillusioned with Marxism, Korsch continued to write, mostly essays: Leading Principles of Marxism: A Restatement, (1937); The Passing of Marxian Orthodoxy, (1937); The Marxist Ideology in Russia, (1938); Lenin as Philosopher, (1938); Economics and Politics in Revolutionary Spain, (1938); Marxism and the Present Task of the Proletarian Class Struggle, (1938); Collectivization in Spain, (1939); State and Counterrevolution, (1939); The Fascist Counterrevolution, (1940); The Workers’ Fight against Fascism, (1941); Britain And The War Aims Of The Working Class, (1941); A Non-Dogmatic Approach to Marxism, (1946); And, finally, his Ten Theses on Marxism Today, in 1950.
“In 1936 he went to America, and when he first arrived he kept an open mind about possible developments here. But that did not last long because he soon saw the direction in which things were going. On the other hand he saw that the forces moving within U.S. capitalism were so different and so strong that one could not predict their direction with great exactitude. Upheavals might happen here, he thought, but the situation was so bad that the only way in which things would change would be for them to get worse. He did not engage in any major political activity in the U.S., although he was occasionally invited to lecture to small political groups and used to speak at military schools during the war. His chief activity in the USA was writing.”
From 1943-1945 he taught sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans. From 1945 until 1950 he worked with the International Institute of Social Research, New York.
In a letter to Brecht from Boston, April 18, 1947, Korsch writes:
“Meanwhile it has become quite clear to me that on the world wide scale we are entering an era of regression. The retrogression in intellectual and cultural matters can be traced almost from day to day. It is also useless to point to the continuing “progress” of technology… In this general retrogression I have also decided to take a step backwards and also begin anew with Marx…”
“By the early fifties, however, Korsch was evidently afflicted by the isolation of his position and by an increasing pessimism. In exile, cut off from any direct relationship to political struggle, and writing at the height of the Cold War, he fell into despair, reneging any connection with Marxism. However, after 1953 his hopes for change in the Soviet Union revived, and his later years were marked by an increasing interest in the colonial world. Before the victory of the Chinese Revolution, he wrote an introduction to a planned volume of Mao Tse-Tung’s essays, stressing their theoretical originality, and he had an optimistic perspective on developments in Asia and Africa.”
“In his last years he was pessimistic about the fate of the world revolutionary movement and completely so about the Soviet Union. He had no hope, even after the death of Stalin. He did not live long enough in good health (i.e. up to 1957) to form much of an opinion about the Chinese revolution, although he was very interested in what was happening in China and had been an old foe of Chiang Kai-shek long ago in Germany. On his last trip to Europe he visited Yugoslavia and was favourably impressed; but he thought the country was extremely primitive and wondered how far it could go and how it might change in the process. His main hope lay with the colonial nations — he thought they would become more and more important and Europe would become less so.”
Karl Korsch (‘Ten Theses on Marxism Today’):
- 9. It is from this viewpoint that one comes to judge in a critical spirit the two Russian revolutions of 1917 and 1928, and it is from this viewpoint that one must determine the functions fulfilled by Marxism today in Asia and on a world scale.
- 10. The control of the workers over the production of their own lives will not come from their occupying the positions, on the international and world markets, abandoned by the self-destroying and so-called free competition of the monopolistic owners of the means of production. This control can only result from a planned intervention by all the classes today excluded from it into a production which today is already tending in every way to be regulated in a monopolistic and planned fashion.
In 1956, the year Brecht died and Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to crush the Hungarian Revolution, Karl Korsch made a last trip to Europe and in the same year there began his long, fatal illness.
“His 1950 lecture, entitled 10 Theses on Marxism, is easy to misunderstand and is not a rejection of Marxism. The Theses were not meant for publication although I later allowed them to be printed. The centre of his interest to the very end was Marxism. But he tried to adapt Marxism as he understood it to new developments, particularly in two ways. One was, as I have mentioned, by studies of the colonial world: he thought that early Marxism had for good reason been concentrated on Europe, but that one now had to look further and this concern tied into his interest in the world historians. In his 1946 article on the Philippines he saw pretty clearly the nature of nominal colonial independence. His other major concern at this time was the widening of Marxism to cope with the advances of other sciences. He thought that as capitalist society had developed since Marx’s time, Marxism too should be developed to understand it. His uncompleted text, the ‘Manuscript of Abolitions’ is an attempt to develop a Marxist theory of historical development in terms of the future abolition of the divisions that constitute our society — such as the divisions between different classes, between town and country, between mental and physical labour.”
“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 encyclopaedic 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 labour 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.”
In this week, on this day, October 21, 1961, 55 years ago today, Karl Korsch died in Belmont, a suburb of Boston, in Middlesex County, Massachusetts.
New Left Review wrote in 1972:
“Interest in the theoretical work of Karl Korsch has grown as part of the wider expansion of interest in Marxist theory that has occurred in the past decade. Often assimilated to Lukács, with whom he has definite theoretical affinities, Korsch in many important ways differs from the Hungarian theorist. The most profound difference is the divergent political choice that the two made in the mid-1920s: Lukács remained in general loyal to the Comintern while Korsch broke with the Communist Party. This difference has also affected the later ‘rediscovery’ of these two theorists’ writings. Lukács continued to write and act as a prominent if controversial member of the Hungarian Party and expressed himself on a variety of theoretical and political issues until his death in 1971. Korsch’s later theoretical and political positions are less available and less direct and it is often hard to chart the course that his thinking took, especially after his emigration to the USA in 1936. This relative obscurity of his later work and his death in 1961 before the revived interest in Korsch have also meant that the intellectual and biographical background to his earlier work has been little explored.”
Fred Halliday summarises a central concern of Korsch in the 20’s, a dilemma still haunting the movement for radical change today:
“Korsch’s work on factory councils and its incipient development towards Leninism contrasts with that of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who was engaged in the Turin Soviet movement over the same period. Like Korsch, Gramsci tried to theorize the spontaneous movement of workers’ power released by the 1914–18 war. Both thought that a future revolutionary State could be prefigured by the direct establishment of nuclear proletarian institutions here and now. However, Korsch’s elaborate hypothetical proletarian state in What is Socialization?, like Gramsci’s early work, avoided the central problems of the revolutionary insurrection to overthrow the bourgeois State and the party organization necessary to accomplish it. After the defeat of the councils in 1920, both analysed the causes of this setback, but Gramsci went much further than Korsch in accepting the Leninist theory of the party as the indispensable organization of the proletariat to combat the bourgeois state.”
Of his short 75 years alive Korsch had spent over 27 years in exile yet remains one of the survivors of a period in communist and revolutionary history where many did not, either falling victim to Fascism or the Stalinist purges in the Soviet Union and beyond or disappearing into the silence that now, apparently, as a ‘radical’ consequence of “progress” surrounds and threatens to overwhelm us all…
“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.”
Martin Jay, in his history of the Frankfurt School, notes:
“Within the Marxist camp, Georg Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness and Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy were the most influential stimulants in the early 1920’s to the recovery of the philosophical dimension in Marxism.”
Fred Halliday writes, (in July 1970):
“Korsch was one of the most interesting and original, if erratic, Marxist theorists in the West during the twenties and thirties. Among his contemporaries, he had an exceptional knowledge and understanding not only of the writings of Marx and Engels themselves, but also of the classical bourgeois thinkers who preceded them. The key to his fate is provided by his own constant emphasis on the unity of theory and practice, for he himself, and his work, were victims of the Stalinization of the European workers’ movement after Lenin’s death. Refusing to accept the bureaucratized political leadership of the KPD, he lapsed into ultra-leftism and became cut off from the working class; in exile, he ended by abandoning Marxism. His personal trajectory was only one of the many fatal consequences of the defeat of the socialist revolution in Western Europe after the First World War. But it is the re-emergence of revolutionary class politics in the advanced capitalist society of the West today that has revived interest in his work and provides an opportunity for Marxists critically to reassess it.”
Douglas Kellner writes in his Introduction to Korsch’s Revolutionary Theory:
“His essays on the transition to socialism and his critique of both social democratic reformism and soviet state socialism remain provocative contributions. He was one of the first to criticise the repressive turn of the Soviet Union under Stalin and developed a sharp critique of authoritarian communism. He also evolved a critique of Leninism which he believed had become a fetter on the working class movement that had to be removed to make possible a new era of revolution.”
“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.”
There is much to be learnt from the life and work of this theoretician and social philosopher from the margins. His relentless attempt to grapple with the demands of the revolutionary movement in a manner free from dogmatism and open to the relentless fluidity of social conditions and the need for a radical working-class democracy…but more importantly his insight into the need to wage the struggle at the level of ideology and culture is important for our own attempts to carve out the space, in a different era, and under enormously different social conditions, for a culture of liberation:
Halliday writes, in this regard:
“Korsch, on the other hand, went on to develop his theory of the subjective preconditions for revolution by a critique of orthodox Marxism for its failure to provide such a theory. There is however a certain parallel with Gramsci here too. Although Gramsci emphasized the importance of the party more than Korsch, he also stressed the need for struggle in the realm of civil society, in culture and ideology, since the power of the ruling class was protected by its ideological predominance, or hegemony, over all classes of capitalist society. A major task of the proletarian revolution, argue both Korsch and Gramsci, is struggle on the ideological front. For both of them positive intervention in the sphere of ideas had to start with a general critique of fatalistic and mechanist trends in the Marxism of the Second International.”
In a similar vein Paul Mattick, Korsch’s friend and marxist revolutionary, wrote in 1962:
“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….”
We hope that in the work of carving out the space for a culture of liberation in this century there will be a place and a time within which to incorporate and transform the thought of these radical thinkers from a period-of-so-much-potential and where so few survived and at such a cost and with such questionable outcomes…
Korsch ends his text Marxism and Philosophy in 1923 with the statement:
“Bourgeois consciousness necessarily sees itself as apart from the world and independent of it, as pure critical philosophy and impartial science, just as the bourgeois State and bourgeois Law appear to be above society. This consciousness must be philosophically fought by the revolutionary materialistic dialectic, which is the philosophy of the working class. This struggle will only end when the whole of existing society and its economic basis have been totally overthrown in practice, and this consciousness has been totally surpassed and abolished in theory. ‘Philosophy cannot be abolished without being realized.’”
REFERENCES AND SOURCES (Thanks to)
By: uploaded by Lodp (the English language Wikipedia (log)) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, (translation and introduction © Fred Halliday 1970) Verso, 2012
Karl Korsch, Revolutionary Theory, Ed. Douglas Kellner, University of Texas Press, (1977)
Goode, Patrick, Karl Korsch – A Study in Western Marxism, The Macmillan Press, (1979)
Jay, Martin. “The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950.” (1973)
Giles-Peters, A. R. “Karl Korsch A Marxist Friend of Anarchism”, What’s new: 26 April 2015. [Online]. http://raforum.info/spip.php?article4221
Douglas Kellner, Brecht’s Marxist Aesthetic,
Korsch’s work online:
Karl Korsch, A Non-Dogmatic Approach to Marxism,
Paul Mattick, Karl Korsch: His Contribution to Revolutionary Marxism, (1962)
Paul Mattick, The Marxism of Karl Korsch, (1964)
NLR Interview with Hedda Korsch, 1972: Memories of Karl Korsch
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