Karl Korsch 1924

On Materialist Dialectic

First published: in Internationale, 1924
Translated by Karl-Heinz Otto
Source: Class Against Class;
Transcribed: by Zdravko Saveski, for marxists.org 2009.

Vladimir Ilich Lenin declared two years ago in his article "Under the Banner of Marxism," published in issue no. 21 of the journal Communist International, that one of the two great tasks which communism must deal with in the field of ideology is "to organize a systematic study of Hegel’s dialectic from a materialist standpoint; that is to say, the dialectic which Marx so successfully employed in a concrete manner not only in Capital but also in his historical and political works." Lenin then did not share the great anxiety that someone just might "via the idealist philosophy of neo-Hegelianism" smuggle "ideological byways" into Marxist-communist theory-an anxiety which is commonly voiced today by many of our leading comrades as soon as anyone at any time tries to undertake a practical attempt to engage himself in this program of Lenin's. A few examples might prove this contention: when a year ago, for the first time in 80 years, the Meiner Publishing Company published an edition of the larger Hegelian Logic, a formal warning appeared in the Red Flag, May 20, 1923, of the danger this new Hegel would pose to all those who, in studying Hegel's dialectic, "lacked a critical knowledge of the whole history of philosophy and moreover an accurate familiarity with the main results and methods of the natural sciences since Hegel's time". Eight days later, in the Red Flag of May 27, 1923, another representative of the faction then practically and theoretically dominant in the KPD formally condemned Georg Lukacs for his attempt, by way of a collection of essays, to "provide the beginning or even just the occasion for a genuinely profitable discussion of dialectical method." The scientific journal of the German party, the Internationale, completely ignored the whole book by Lukacs for reasons of simplicity. Bela Kun, in his essay on "The Propagation of Leninism" in the latest issue (no. 33) of the Communist International, not only draws attention to deviations already current but moreover observes that "some Communist publicists, as yet without a political name, could deviate in the near future into revisionist bylaws, departing from orthodox Marxism." (!)

After these examples, of which there are many, one might suggest that the detailed demand-which Lenin raised earlier and lastly in the essay of 1922-that in our work of Communist enlightenment we must organize a systematic study from a materialist standpoint, not only of the dialectical method of Marx and Engels but also of "Hegel's dialectic," did not meet with very much understanding in the leading theoretical circles of the Comintern, and still less among the theoreticians of the German Communist party. When we look for the causes of this phenomenon we must make distinctions. To one faction (typified by Bukharin's book The Theory of Historical Materialism) the whole of "philosophy" has fundamentally already reached a point that in reality it was to reach only in the second phase of Communist society after the full victory of the proletarian revolution, viz. the transcended standpoint of an unenlightened past. These comrades believe that the question of "scientific" method is solved once and for all in the empirical methods of the natural sciences and the corresponding positive-historical method of the social sciences. Little do they realize that just this method, which was the war-cry under which the burgher class undertook its struggle for power from the beginning, is also today still the specific bourgeois method of scientific research, which, it is true, is sometimes theoretically renounced by the representatives of modern bourgeois science in the present period of the decline of bourgeois society, but which in practice will be clung to.

To the other faction this matter is more complicated. Here people see a "danger" in a however "materialistically" turned occupation with Hegel’s dialectical method for the reason that they know only too well this danger from their own experience, and indeed secretly become its victims as often as they are exposed to it. This perhaps somewhat bold sounding assertion will not only be illustrated but proven outright by the example of a little article, "On the Matter of Dialectic," by A. Thalheimer, published in International S, no. 9 (May 1923), and at the same time also in the information sheets of the Communist Academy in Moscow. In this article, Comrade Thalheirner links up with Franz Mehring's thesis-which I share and hold tenable-that from the Marxist dialectical-materialist standpoint it is no longer practical and factually not even possible to deal with this "materialist dialectical" method separated from a concrete "matter." Comrade Thalheimer declares that although Mehring's rejection of an abstract treatment of the dialectical method represents as such a correct nucleus, it nevertheless "oversteps its goal." To work out a dialectic is "an urgent necessity," inter alia, because "in the most progressive parts of the world proletariat the need arises to create a comprehensive and orderly world-view (!), something that lies beyond the practical demands of the struggle and the building of socialism," and this, furthermore, contains within itself "the demand for a dialectic." Comrade Thalheimer then goes on that in composing such a dialectic one ought to critically link up with Hegel "not only in relation to the method, but also to the matter." The genial progressiveness of Hegel is his demand that "the inner, all-embracing systematic connection of all categories of thinking be revealed." This task would apply equally to the materialist dialectic. Hegel's method need only be turned over; by which a materialist dialectic would emerge that would determine not reality by thought but rather thought by reality.

We believe that in all their brevity these words of Comrade Thalheimer prove conclusively that he is altogether incapable of imagining the dialectical method in any other way than an Hegelian-idealist one. Nevertheless far be it from us to say that Comrade Thalheimer is an idealist dialectician. We have stated elsewhere ("Lenin and the Comintern") that Comrade Thalheimer avows an apparently materialistic-dialectical method in a later essay which is in reality not dialectical at all but is pure positivism. We can here supplement this statement by saying that as far as Comrade Thalheimer is a dialectician he is an idealist dialectician and conceives the dialectical method in no other than its Hegelian-idealist form. And the proof thereof we wish to arrive at positively by stating what in our conception constitutes the essence of materialist dialectic, that is, Hegel’s dialectic applied materialistically by Marx and Lenin. In doing so, we connect with the results of our earlier published investigations on the relation of Marxism and Philosophy.

It is high time to dispense with the superficial notion that the transition from the idealist dialectic of Hegel to the materialist dialectic of Marx would be such a simple matter as to he achieved by a mere "overturning," a mere "turning upside down," of a method remaining other' wise unaltered. There are certainly some generally known passages in Marx where he himself characterized in this abstract way the difference of his method from Hegel's as a mere contrast. However, whoever does not determine the meaning of Marx's method from these quotations, but instead delves into Marx's theoretical practice, will soon easily see that this "transition" in method, like all transitions, represents not a mere abstract rotation, but rather has a rich concrete content.

At the same time as classical economics developed the theory of value in the "mystified" and abstract unhistorical form of Ricardo, classical German philosophy also made the attempt, in a likewise mystical and abstract manner, to break through the barriers of bourgeois philosophy. Like Ricardo's theory of value, the "dialectical method" developed at the same time in the revolutionary epoch of bourgeois society, and already shows in its consequences the way beyond bourgeois society (just as the practical revolutionary movement of the bourgeoisie also partly aimed beyond bourgeois society before and until the proletarian revolution movement was to confront it "independently"). But all these perceptions brought forward by bourgeois economics and bourgeois philosophy had yet to remain in the last instance "pure" perceptions, their concepts the "reconstituted being," their theories nothing but passive "reflections" of this being, real "ideologies" in the narrow and more precise sense of this Marxian expression. Bourgeois economics and bourgeois philosophy could well recognize the "contradictions," the "antinomies" of the bourgeois economy and bourgeois thought, and could even illuminate them with the greatest of clarity, yet in the end the contradictions prevailed. It is only the new science of the proletarian class which can break this ban, a science that unlike bourgeois science is no longer just "pure" theoretical science, but is revolutionary practice at the same time. The political economy of Karl Marx and the materialist dialectic of the proletarian class lead in their practical application to a dissolution of these contradictions in the reality of social life, and thereby at the same time in the reality of thought which is a real component of this social reality. It is thus we must understand Karl Marx when he credits proletarian class consciousness and his materialist-dialectical method with a power that the method of bourgeois philosophy never possessed, not even in its last, richest and highest Hegelian development. Just for the proletariat, just for it and only for it, will it be possible, through the development of its class consciousness become practical in tendency, to overcome that fetter of a still remaining "immediacy" or "abstraction" which for all purely perceiving behavior, for Hegel's idealist dialectic as well, clearly remains standing in the final analysis in insuperable "contradictions." It is here, and not in a merely abstract "inversion" or "turning upside down," that lies the revolutionary further development of the idealist dialectic, of classical bourgeois philosophy, into that materialist dialectic which has been theoretically conceptualized by Karl Marx as the method of a new science and practice of the proletarian class, and has been applied in theory and practice alike by Lenin.

When we look at the "transition" from Hegel's bourgeois dialectic to the proletarian dialectic of Marx-Lenin from this historical viewpoint, we immediately grasp the complete absurdity of the notion that an independent "system" of materialist dialectic is possible. Only an idealist dialectician could undertake an attempt to free the totality of forms of thought (determinations of thought, categories)-which are in part consciously applied in our practice, science, and philosophy, and in part move through our minds instinctively and unconsciously-from the material which is the subject of our intuiting, imagining and yearning, and in which they are otherwise shrouded, and then to examine it as a separate material in itself. The last and greatest of the idealist dialecticians, the burgher Hegel, had already partly seen through the "untruth" of this standpoint and had "introduced content into logical reflection (see his preface to the second Lasson edition of the Logic, p. 6). But this abstract method is completely absurd for the materialist dialectician, Apart from its respective concrete historical content a real "materialist" dialectic can state nothing at all about the determinations of thought and the relations between them. Only from the standpoint of the idealist and thus bourgeois dialectic is it possible to fulfill Thalheimer's demand according to which dialectics would have to map out the connection of the determinations of thought as an "inner, all-round, systematic connection of all the categories of thought." Rather, from the standpoint of the materialist dialectic that sentence which Karl Marx once voiced in relation to "economic categories" is to be applied to the connection of categories or determinations of thought in general: they stand to one another not in a connection "in the idea" (for which "washed out notion" Marx thrashed Proudhon!), not in an "inner systematic connection," but even their apparently purely logical and systematic sequence is "determined through the relations which they have to one another m modern bourgeois society." With the alteration of historical reality and practice the determinations of thought and all their connections also alter. To overlook their historical context and to wish to bring the determination of thought and their abstract relations into a system means the surrender of the revolutionary proletarian materialist dialectic in favor of a mode of thought which is only "materialistically" inverted in theory, but which in practical reality remains the old, unchanged, "idealist" dialectic of bourgeois philosophy. The "materialist dialectic" of the proletarian class cannot be taught as a practical "science" with its own particular abstract "material," nor by so-called examples. It can only be applied concretely in the practice of the proletarian revolution and in a theory which is an immanent real component of this revolutionary practice.