Karl Korsch 1923

The Marxist Dialectic

First published: in Imprekorr, 1923
Translated by Karl-Heinz Otto
Source: Class Against Class
Transcribed: by Zdravko Saveski, for marxists.org 2009.

The immense significance of Marx's theoretical achievement for the practice of proletarian class struggle is that he concisely fused together for the first time the total content of those new viewpoints transgressing bourgeois horizons, and that he also formally conceptualized them into a solid unity, into the living totality of a scientific system. These new ideas arose by necessity in the consciousness of the proletarian class from its social conditions. Karl Marx did not create the proletarian class movement (as some bourgeois devil-worshippers imagine in all seriousness). Nor did he create proletarian class consciousness. Rather, he created the theoretical-scientific expression adequate to the new content of consciousness of the proletarian class, and thereby at the same time elevated this proletarian class consciousness to a higher level of its being.

The transformation of the "natural" class viewpoint of the proletariat into theoretical concepts and propositions, and the powerful synthesis of all these theoretical propositions into the system of "scientific socialism" is not to be regarded as a mere passive "reflex" of the real historical movement of the proletariat. On the contrary, this transformation forms an essential component of the real historical process. The historical movement of the proletariat could neither become "independent" nor "unified" without the development of an independent and unified proletarian class consciousness. Just as the politically and economically mature, nationally and internationally organized proletarian class movement distinguishes itself from the, at first, dispersed and unorganized stirrings and spasms of the proletariat, so too "scientific socialism" distinguishes itself as the "organized class consciousness" of the proletariat from those dispersed and formless feelings and views in which proletarian class consciousness finds its first immature expression. Therefore, from a practical point of view, the theoretical evolution of socialism towards a science, as expressed by Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto and in Capital, appears as a quite necessary element within that great historical developmental process in which the proletarian class movement gradually moved away from the bourgeois revolutionary movement of the "third estate" and constituted itself as an independent and unified class. Only by taking the form of a strict "science" could this complex of proletarian class views, contained in "modern socialism," radically purify itself from the bourgeois views with which from its origin it was inextricably connected. And only by becoming a "science" could socialism actually fulfill the task which Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had set for it: to be the "theoretical expression" of revolutionary proletarian class action which is to ascertain the historical conditions and nature of this revolutionary proletarian class action, thereby "bringing that class which is called to action, and is today suppressed, to a consciousness of the conditions and nature of its own action."

While in the foregoing exposition we have characterized the practical meaning of the scientific form of modern or Marxian socialism we have at the same time also described the meaning of the dialectical method which Karl Marx applied. For as certainly as the content of scientific Socialism was in existence as an unformed viewpoint (proletarian class viewpoint) before its scientific formulation, just as certainly is the scientific form in which this content lies before us in the works of Marx and Engels. Thus "scientific socialism" properly so-called is quite essentially the product of the application of that mode of thought which Marx and Engels designated as their "dialectical method." And it is not the case, as some contemporary "Marxists" might like to imagine, that by virtue of historical accident those scientific propositions which Karl Marx produced by the application of his "dialectical method" could today be separated at will from that method and simply reproduced. Nor is it the case that this method is out of date because of the progress of the sciences. Nor is its replacement by another method today not only possible but rather even necessary! Whoever speaks in these terms has not comprehended the most important aspects of the Marxist dialectic. How could one otherwise come to the thought that today-as at a time of increased class struggle in all spheres of social, thus also so-called intellectual, life -that method could be abandoned "which is intrinsically critical and revolutionary." Karl Marx and Frederick Engels simultaneously opposed the new method of proletarian science to the "metaphysical mode of thought" ("that specific weakness of thought of the last century") and to all earlier forms of "dialectic" (in particular the idealistic dialectic of Fichte-Schelling-Hegel).

Only those who completely overlook that Marx's "proletarian dialectic" differs essentially from every other (metaphysical and dialectical) mode of thought, and represents that specific mode of thought in which alone the new content of the proletarian class views formed in the proletarian class struggle can find a theoretical-scientific expression corresponding to its true being; only those could get the idea that this dialectical mode of thought, as it represents "only the form" of scientific socialism, consequently would also be "something peripheral and indifferent to the matter," so much so that the same material content of thought could be as well or even better expressed in another form. It is something quite similar when certain contemporary "Marxists" put forward the notion that the proletariat could wage its practical struggle against the bourgeois economic, social and political order in other "forms" than the barbaric uncivilized form of revolutionary class struggle. Or when the same people fool themselves and others by saying that the proletariat could achieve its positive task, the realization of Communist society, by means other than the dictatorship of the proletariat, for example, by means of the bourgeois state and bourgeois democracy. Karl Marx, who already in an early work had written the proposition, "Form has no value if it is not the form of its content," himself thought about these things quite differently. Later Marx always emphasized anew that the real understanding of historico-social development (i.e., consciously revolutionary understanding that is at the same time positive and negative) -this understanding, which constituted the specific essence of "scientific" socialism, can only be brought about by the conscious application of the dialectical method. Of course, this new, or "proletarian," dialectic on which the scientific form of Marxism is founded differs in the extreme, not only from the ordinary, narrow-minded metaphysical way of thinking. For, it is also "quite different" in its fundamental position from the bourgeois dialectic which found its most comprehensive form in the German philosopher Hegel, and in a definite sense it is even its "direct opposite." It is impracticable and superfluous at this point to enter more deeply into the manifold consequences of these differences and contrasts.

It is sufficient for our purposes that these differences and contrasts that we have pointed out lead us back without exception to Marx's "proletarian" dialectic as just that form in which the revolutionary class movement of the proletariat finds its appropriate theoretical expression. If one has understood this, or has just the faintest notion of the connection, one can comprehend immediately a whole series of phenomena otherwise difficult to grasp. One understands why the bourgeoisie of today has so completely forgotten the times when it had to fight as the "third estate" a tough and heroically ever-increasing class struggle against the feudal economic order and its political-ideological superstructure (aristocracy and church), and when its spokesman, the Abbe Sieyes, hurled against the ruling social order the quite "dialectical" outburst: "What is the third estate? Everything. What is it in the existing order? Nothing. What does it demand? To be something." Since the feudal state has fallen and the bourgeois class has become not only something in the bourgeois state, but everything, there are only two positions in question on the problem of dialectics for the bourgeoisie today. Either the dialectic is a standpoint today completely out-of-date, only historically respectable as a kind of lofty madness of philosophical thought transcending its natural barriers, to which a realistic man and good burgher ought under no circumstances be a party. Or the dialectical movement must even today, and for all the future, make a halt at that absolute end point at which the last revolutionary philosopher of the bourgeois class, the philosopher Hegel, once made it come to halt. It must in its concepts not cross those borders which bourgeois society likewise cannot cross without negating itself. Its last word, the great all-embracing synthesis, in which all opposites are dissolved, or can be dissolved, is the state. Opposite this bourgeois state, which in its complete development exemplifies the complete fulfillment of all bourgeois interests and is therefore also the final goal of the bourgeois class struggle, there is consequently no other dialectical antithesis to bourgeois consciousness, no irreconcilable opposite. Whoever may yet oppose this absolute fulfillment of the bourgeois idea in practice and theory departs from the hallowed circle of the bourgeois world; he puts himself outside bourgeois law, outside bourgeois freedom and bourgeois peace, and therefore also outside of all bourgeois philosophy and science. One understands why as far as concerns this bourgeois standpoint, which ordains contemporary bourgeois society as the sole thinkable and possible form of social life for humanity, the "idealist dialectic" of Hegel, which finds its ideal conclusion in the idea of the bourgeois state, must be the only possible and thinkable form of dialectic. Yet likewise, and understandably so, this "idealist dialectic" of the bourgeoisie is no longer of value to that other class within contemporary bourgeois society which is driven directly to rebellion against this whole bourgeois world and its bourgeois state by "absolutely compelling need which can no longer be denied or disguised-the practical expression of necessity." In its whole material conditions of life, in its whole material being, this class already truly expresses the formal antithesis, the absolute opposition to this bourgeois society and its bourgeois state. For this class, created within bourgeois society through the inner mechanism of development of private property itself, "through an independent and unconscious development by the very nature of the matter proceeded against its will" -for this class, the revolutionary aim and actions are "obviously and irrevocably indicated by its own conditions of life as well as by the whole organization of contemporary bourgeois society." The value of a new revolutionary dialectic that is no longer bourgeois-idealist, but is rather proletarian-materialist follows therefore with equal necessity from this social life-situation. Because the "idealist dialectic" of the bourgeoisie transcends the material opposites of "wealth" and "poverty" existing in bourgeois society only "in the idea," namely in the idea of a pure, democratic, bourgeois state, these "ideally" transcended oppositions continue to exist unresolved in "material" social reality where they even continually increase in extent and severity. In contrast thereto stands the essence of the new "materialist dialectic" of the proletariat which really abolishes the material opposition between bourgeois wealth ("capital") and proletarian misery through the supersession of this bourgeois class society and its bourgeois class state by the material reality of the classless Communist society. The materialist dialectic therefore forms the necessary methodological foundation for "scientific socialism" as the "theoretical expression" of the proletarian class's historical struggle for liberation.