Karl Korsch 1924

Lenin and the Comintern

First Published: in Internationale, 1924
Translated by Roy Jameson
Source: Class Against Class;
Transcribed: by Zdravko Saveski, for marxists.org 2009;


The first item on the agenda of the Fifth World Congress of the Communist International reads: "Lenin and the Comintern. On the Basic Principles and Propaganda of Leninism." This indicates not only a commitment by the Congress to the spirit of Leninism and a widely perceivable declaration of the will of the participants to solve all questions which stand before them in the spirit of true Leninism. This does not merely indicate that particular problems which have entered into the focal point of the struggle in the last year of the Communist International in Central and Western Europe, and which appear later on in the agenda, should be taken care of from the beginning before the analysis of the economic situation which fills out its second item. Certainly the most important task of the present developmental period of the Communist International, among all of the tasks of the Central and West European and American Communists, consists in the task assigned us by Lenin: "conquering the majority of the most important strata of the working classes." Moreover, this task which is not yet resolved can only be truly solved in the spirit of Leninism: that is, concretely in the spirit of those "consequences" which Lenin derived in a most impressive manner at the end of his classic writing on Radicalism-the infantile sickness of communism-out of the history of the Russian Bolsheviks and out of the experiences of the European parties. "The main task of contemporary communism in Western Europe and America" lies today, in the year 1924, just as Lenin expressed it four years ago, after three years of the so-called united front tactics, now even more obviously than then, in "finding, feeling, and realizing the concrete plan of the not yet entirely revolutionary measures and methods which will lead the masses to a real, decisive, last great revolutionary struggle." But the solution of this practical main task of the Leninists is relevant to an entire row of items on the agenda, and no single one in particular, and only in this sense does it also serve all other tasks with this first item, which speaks of the "Fundamentals and Propaganda of Leninism." It comes down to the following: Today the entire Comintern, after the shattering event of the death of its great founder and leader, V. I. Lenin, can now first show, and must, that it is able and willing to take on the inheritance of Lenin, both theoretically and ideologically, to preserve, to enliven, and to further develop in the present situation the "spirit" of Lenin in its theory and praxis as historical reality, as Leninism. Thus in this manner the Comintern must replace the dead Lenin in his theoretical ideological function through a large powerful collective of living Leninists.[1]

In setting "Lenin and the Comintern" on the agenda of the Fifth World Congress, the executive committee has declared before the entire world that towards the fulfillment of this great task-a wholly colossal task that has never before in world history been set before a party in this form-not only the natural main inheritors of Lenin, the Russian Bolshevik party, but all the other sections of our great Communist party, the Communist International, should theoretically and practically work together. And the Congress itself will have to take the first important steps down this path; its task will be, clearly and completely and in detail, to formulate the slogans of the "Propaganda of Leninism" (which in the agenda are only indeterminately indicated) in a manner valid for the entire Comintern; to point each section of the International to the particularly important individual tasks according to their situation and their state of development, and to determine the larger guiding principles by which the solution of all these tasks is to be carried out.

But the importance of the first item on the agenda of the Fifth World Congress extends much further. One should make clear to oneself that with the closer determination of the manifold partial tasks out of which the "Propaganda of Leninism" is composed, the Congress will have taken a position with regard to the question of "Leninism" only according to the, if we may express it so, technical side, Obviously, this technical side of the question also has an inordinately large importance: The "Propaganda of Leninism" constitutes an important part of the great Communist total task of the "Organization of the Revolution." And, of course the fulfillment of precisely this propagandistic task shows itself to be in those sections of the Communist International which have not yet won state power (that is, therefore, in all European and American sections already under legal, but probably at first under illegal conditions) inordinately more difficult than in the proletarian Soviet Union. In those lands it will therefore, for the most part, have to take on entirely different forms-exactly conforming to the particular situation of each land - which by all means need a more precise explication and determination through the highest organ of the Communist International, the world Congress, But these more or less technical questions comprise in no way the kernel of the matter.

In reality the method of the Bolshevik theory as such is placed on the agenda by the inclusion of the question, "Lenin and the Comintern, On the Fundamentals and the Propaganda of Leninism." Through the clarification of the “Basic Principles of Leninism," and the development of a system of Leninistic propaganda based on these principles in all sections of the Communist International, the entire Comintern should be smelted ideologically into one firm unity, on the common basis of the revolutionary Marxian method in that form which the theoretician of Bolshevism Lenin, "restored" it and oppose it to the falsification and confusions of the so-called Marxists of the united Second International. The third item of the agenda, the Program of the Communist International, as well as the method of our revolutionary Bolshevist theory, is placed before debate in the question of "Leninism."


Will the Fifth World Congress be able to solve this immensely important, but at the same time immensely difficult task? Will it be able to formulate the methodological fundamentals of Leninism so sharply and correctly that a methodical and systematic Leninistic propaganda can be constructed on this basis? Will the process of ideological unification within the Communist International have progressed enough to allow all sections and groups of the Comintern to unite in a commitment to one theoretical method which in its essential features is identical for all?

Here immense difficulties arise which nearly exclude a radical solution of the task. On the one hand, we cannot yet at all speak of a unitary commitment in the various sections of the Communist International, and particularly in the German Communist party, to "Leninism" as "the" sole valid method of Marxian theory. On the other hand, in relation to the question, in what the essence of "Leninism" as a method consists, (even among those who count themselves as Leninist), there exist presently several views which depart from one another in essential features. A large number of leading and other Marxian theoreticians who belong to the organization of the Communist International and are prepared in their practical politics to act "according to Lenin," soundly reject in theory the principle of the method of Lenin as "the" restored method of "scientific Marxism." They recognize the Leninist method as one method of orientation, sufficient for the practical-political purposes of the proletarian class struggle in the present period (that is, in a period which in international scope and in European and American national scope, does not yet represent the period of the seizure of political power) - but do not recognize it as the most concrete and truest method of materialistic dialectics, as the restored method of revolutionary Marxism. For them the valid method is either the method of the founder of the German Communist party, Rosa Luxemburg, or they declare the Leninist as well as the Luxemburgian method to be one-sided, and want to recognize only the method applied by Karl Marx in his scientific period of maturity as the true Marxian method. It is not possible in this short essay to even begin a thorough debate with these absolute opponents of the Leninist method (as one, or "the" method of scientific Marxism). This task shall be taken up in the following issues of this journal in the collective work of as large a circle of Communist theoreticians as possible. For the present we suffice ourselves with the observation that the political praxis of Bolshevism and the restored form of revolutionary Marxian theory (by Lenin) builds such an indivisible cohesive whole that we are not able to see how, for example, one can bring it about to take, in regard to the role of the Communist party for the proletarian revolution, as "practical politician," the Communist standpoint on the resolution of the Second World Congress, and simultaneously as "scientific Marxist" to comprehend the relationship between the economic development and the proletarian class struggle in the specific Luxumburgian form of the dialectical materialist method. It seems to us that solely from the standpoint of the wholly "materialistic" materialism of Marx, "restored" by Lenin and advanced one step further, which also comprehends human sensuous activity and praxis as such in its objectifying reality, can the Bolshevist version of the "role of the party" be recognized. On the other hand, from the standpoint of the Luxemburgian dialectic, which on its practical side is not nearly so "materialistic" a dialectic as the Leninist one, there is always a painful remnant of "subjectivism," as regards the Leninist account of the role of the party. But be this as it may, so much seems clear: a resolution on the "Basic principles of Leninism," and a system of "Leninist Propaganda," which could be collectively agreed upon at the Fifth World Congress by Luxemburgian and Leninistic Marxists (to this must be added, thirdly, those Marxists who recognize neither the Luxernburgian further development nor the Leninistic restoration of the Marxian method as genuine and complete Marxism) would unavoidably remain just as unsatisfactory as a Communist program overwhelmingly agreed upon by these same theoreticians for the entire Communist International. The complete clarification of the relation between the Luxemburgian and the Leninistic methods of Marxian theory comprises the indispensable presuppositions for the determination of the "Basic Principles and Propaganda of Leninism."

Irrespective of the conflict between the Luxemburgians and the Leninists, there exists no general agreement today on the question of the essence of Leninism as a theoretical method; or stronger, this agreement exists today even less than previously. And it is also entirely understandable that, at a time when as the consequence of an acute crisis the most important questions of Bolshevik praxis have become the object of a bitter factional controversy, the question of the theoretical method of Leninism has also to be pulled into the maelstrom of the struggle, for the methodological consciousness of a Marxian-Communist party does not stand outside of, or in any sense above, the praxis of the party, but rather builds an important constituent of this revolutionary praxis itself. We should therefore not wonder that we find again in the presently undertaken attempts at a determination of the methods of Leninist dialectics-undertaken by various sides-all the factions which today also practically oppose one another in the struggle over tactics and other practical-political questions inside the Comintern. Particularly interesting in this regard is an essay by the comrade Thalheimer, "On the Application of the Materialistic Dialectic by Lenin in Some Questions of the Proletarian Revolution," which appeared in volumes 1/2 of the new Communist journal Arbeiterliteratur.


Comrade Thalheimer wants to explicate the Leninist method, which according to him is nothing but the same Marxist method of materialist dialectics which Lenin applied with the same boldness and with the same foresight and exactness as Marx himself. He shall do this by the development of three particular questions: the question of proletarian dictatorship; the agrarian question, and the question of the nationalist and imperialist wars. The section on the question of the dictatorship ends with the statement that Lenin characterized the Soviet form of the state not as "the finally discovered political form" of the dictatorship of the working class, but rather only as "a new type" of state in which the possibility of deviating "species, varieties, forms" of this type is contained. The section on the agrarian question explains that Lenin, by his treatment of this question, has given "a particularly instructive and exact application of the materialist-dialectical method." (This application consists, according to Thalheimer's portrayal, in the fact that Lenin, in order to save the kernel of the matter of the proletarian revolution-that is, the transfer of the political power to the proletariat-allowed to let fall all "rigid" demands of the previous Bolshevist agrarian program and trust that in the course of "life" everything else would find itself "by itself" "as the result of the power of example, as the result of practical considerations.") In the third and last section Comrade Thalheimer characterizes Lenin's treatment of the national question as "a true model of concrete dialectical analysis." For Lenin, on the one hand, critically destroyed the falsifications of social patriotism, and on the other hand also stressed that under certain conditions even in Europe during the World War the transformation of the imperialist war into a nationalist war would be to be sure, "not probable" but was certainly nonetheless "theoretically not impossible."

It lies far from us to want to stand back even by one hair's breadth from the admiration with which Comrade Thalheimer appraises Lenin's solution to these three important and difficult questions. We must, however, very seriously raise this question: To what extent has Lenin in his treatment of these questions as portrayed by Comrade Thalheimer given such "particularly" instructive and exact model examples of the application of the materialist method of Marxism? In what, for example, consists the particularly instructive and exact use of the materialist dialectical method in the Leninist approach to the agrarian question? Karl Marx also, as is known, recognized the capability of the revolutionary class, as soon as they had raised themselves, "to find immediately in their own situation the content and the material of their revolutionary activity: to strike down enemies, to seize measures given by the need of war, to carry forward the consequences of their own deeds. They set no theoretical undertakings above their own tasks" (Class Struggles in France, Dietzsche edition, p. 31). The theoreticians and practitioners of the Russian Revolution could trust in the middle of the struggle to the immanent, unconscious and natural dialectic with the same right which permeates in "life" and in the revolutionary class struggle as a part of this life "from itself." But does he apply the dialectical method here, precisely where he (to speak with Marx) "denies theoretical undertakings"? Does he apply the dialectic thereby in a "particularly instructive" and "particularly exact" form?

We suggest, rather, that to the contrary, precisely the position is reached where the highly developed materialist dialectic, which according to its conception of the historical process of the proletarian revolution should be fully comprehended, reaches its limit, where the concrete historical process in its material living reality, to be sure, proceeds dialectically but at a certain point in the course of its process cannot be grasped by the dialectician, It belongs to the requirements of an exact theory of the Marxian method not to ignore the existence of this limit; but it is already too much when one wants precisely to see in this the actual kernel of the "materialist dialectics" of Marx and Lenin. Similarly, although in another way, Comrade Thalheimer constructs his two other chosen examples of Lenin's application of the Marxian method in a way which certainly belong to a true materialism, and in no sense to any metaphysical methodology, but nonetheless, for heaven's sake, does not make up the innermost essence of this dialectical materialist method, the main feature and the kernel of materialism, of Marxism and Leninism generally. And to this distortion of the essence of the Marxist-Leninist method, which he accomplishes concretely in his three examples, he further adds, in the introduction and in scattered remarks in his essay, an equally contorted general theory of the essence of this method. He exaggerates the Marxian basic principle that the truth is always concrete into the caricature that the results of materialist dialectical thought in Lenin as well as Marx could not at all, never, and in no form generally be valid beyond the momentary realm of experience out of which it is derived and for which it is determined-as if Marx (e.g, in his letter to Michailowski) and Lenin (e.g., in the introduction to "Radicalism," which has the subtitle: "In what form can one speak of the international importance of the Russian Revolution?") had not very exactly distinguished between those results of their materialist dialectical research which have such general importance and those which do not. What then is a "materialistic-dialectical" method worth which gives us nothing more than that which in some sense reaches out beyond the already known present experience? Or further, as Thalheimer expresses it, brings forth nothing more than historical results, on the one side theoretical reflections (!), analysis of a particular time, on the other only guidelines for the struggle of the proletariat, "likewise in a particular time"?

In reality this new method, created by Comrade Thalheimer and transformed out of the Marxist-Leninist materialist dialectic, has nothing more to do with the materialist dialectics. In his efforts to grasp the materialist methodology of Marx and Lenin totally "materially," as a method of a pure historical science of experience and practice, Comrade Thalheimer has already overstepped the limits of that which one can call materialist dialectics, and has achieved a completely undialectical historicism, positivism, and practicism. While Rosa Luxemburg, as we have indicated above, in her version of human praxis has not wholly become materialistic, and in this one respect has remained a Hegelian dialectician, Comrade Thalheimer, on the contrary, has driven out with the remains of the Hegelian dialectic at the same time everything dialectical in the methodology of Marxian science; the materialist dialectical method of Marx, which essentially is the concrete comprehension of the proletarian revolution as historical process and as a historical action of the proletarian class, transforms itself in Thalheimer into a merely passive, ideological "reflection" of solitary historical factuality’s diverse in time and place.

This theoretical falsification of the essence of the Marxist-Leninist dialectical method leads practically to a devaluation of all the results won by Marx, Engels, Lenin, and others through these methods. And it is fairly easy to see where this tendency towards the devaluation of the results of the Marxist-Leninist research method has come from and where it leads. Let us take the example, repeated a hundred times by Thalheimer that the Soviet state is characterized by Lenin only as a type with possible varieties and species. One can devalue the results of the Marxist-Leninist methodology so much only when one, whether consciously or unconsciously, wants to disengage oneself from these results. The conception of the Soviet state, as only one type of proletarian dictatorship, with a multiplicity of possible forms, makes it possible for the theoretician of "Leninism" to disengage himself from the "rigid" form of the council dictatorship (which is, according to Lenin, capable of further development, but is even so, "the" beginning of "the" socialistic form, of democracy!) and reach the various possible "species, varieties" and degenerations of this "type," for example, the Saxony "workers' government." And likewise with all other "results" of the Marxist and Leninist theory. If they all are purely "historical creations," bound to their particular historical presuppositions, applicable only to the relation of a particular time and land, then it is self-evident that under new relations, against new experiences, and changed political needs all of these previous "results" of Marxism would lose their validity and could and must be replaced by new knowledge and guidelines, in which these new situations now "are reflected" for the "Leninist" application of the materialist dialectic. In transforming the revolutionary dialectical materialism of Marx and Lenin into a no longer dialectical and therefore also no longer revolutionary (and the converse: no longer revolutionary and thus also no longer dialectical), purely historical, empirical science and practice, Comrade Thalheimer posits under the seductive clothing of "Leninism" actually a method which by tendency is opportunistic and reformistic in place of the revolutionary method of Marxism.


We have treated Thalheimer's conception of the Leninist method with such detail not only because Comrade Thalheimer has been named as the second speaker on the "question of the program" at the Fifth World Congress, and thus for that reason will be heard at the Congress with particular attention on the question of the essence of Leninism as methodology. More importantly, it was crucial to show by a typical example, in detail and clearly, that the attempt of a determination of the "Basic Principles of Leninism," and particularly a fixing of the essence of the Leninist method at the Fifth World Congress is hound up not only with great present difficulties, but beyond this also with certain dangers which are all the greater in so far as they remain very much unrecognized and unwatched precisely in this seemingly purely theoretical region, far removed from the practical struggle of the factions. Recently there have been attempts to smuggle in under the revered, revolutionary flag of "Leninism," various revisionistic, reformistic, opportunistic and liquidating contraband in the praxis and the theory of revolutionary communism. And in its innermost foundation the theory of Leninist method which Thalheimer has now formulated signifies only a false theory of a false political praxis. Just as the opportunist and reformist united front tactic is related to the revolutionary method of agitation and mass mobilization applied in Germany since the Leipzig Party Congress, so does the "Leninist" method of Thalheimer and his close comrades relate to the genuine method of revolutionary Leninism, that is to the dialectical method of revolutionary Marxism completed and restored by Lenin. The Fifth World Congress, in the explication of the fundamentals of this position, will have to erect particular protective walls against the rising flood of communist revisionism in the questions of the program and in the question of the Basic Principles of Leninism, just as with all other, immediately practical questions of Communist politics. By the fulfillment of this negative function it can powerfully counteract the threatening collapse of the completed method of revolutionary Marxist science restored by Lenin, which in its essence is nothing other than the theoretical consciousness of the revolutionary actions of the proletarian class. For a positive fixation of the essence of Leninism as method, the present moment in the development of the Comintern is just as little appropriate as for the fixation of a final Communist program, valid for an entire epoch of Communist politics.


[1] More on this can be found in the last section of Zinoviev's essay, "V. I. Lenin--Genius, Teacher, Leader, and Human," nos. 31/32 of KI, and in a special essay by Bela Kun, "The Propaganda of Leninism," in no. 33.