Karl Korsch 1931

The Crisis of Marxism

First Published: in Die materialistische Geschichtsauffassung, 1971
Translated by Otto Koester
Source: libcom.org;
Transcribed: by Zdravko Saveski, for marxists.org 2012;


Marxism today is in the midst of an historical and theoretical crisis. It is not simply a crisis within the Marxist movement, but a crisis of Marxism itself.

This crisis reveals itself externally in the complete collapse of the dominant position - partially illusory, but also partially real - that Marxism held during the pre-World War I era in the European working class movement. It reveals itself internally in the transformation of Marxist theory and practice, a transformation which is most immediately apparent in Marxists' altered position vis-à-vis their own national state as well as with respect to the bourgeois system of national states as a whole. It is deceptive and even false to see the theoretical origins of the present crisis as resulting either from a perversion or an oversimplification of Marx's and Engels' revolutionary theory at the hands of their successors. It is equally misleading to juxtapose this degenerated, falsified Marxism to the "pure theory" of Marx and Engels themselves. In the final analysis, today's crisis is the crisis of Marx's and Engels' theory as well. The ideological and doctrinaire separation of "pure theory" from the real historical movement, as well as the further development of theory, is itself an expression of the present crisis.


The form of Marxism which is currently entering a critical stage was a product of the second half of the nineteenth century. It was created from elements of a theory which was itself formulated under earlier historical conditions, conditions that differed fundamentally from those of the late nineteenth century. These elements were actively incorporated into the working class movement at a time when European capitalism was not yet fully developed. And here is the genesis for the separation of theory from practice inherent in the entire history of Marxism. From its very beginning, this theory is never the "general expression of existing class struggles." Rather, it is the composite result of the class struggles of a previous historical era, and it consequently lacks any real relation to contemporary class struggles emerging as a result of wholly new conditions.

In the course of historical development, this separation of theory from practice has widened rather than narrowed.

The three contemporary forms of Marxism -"revisionism," "orthodoxy" and the periodic efforts to "restore" original revolutionary Marxism in its pure form - are all based upon this separation. In the final analysis, it is also the source of the present crisis.


After 1850 the altered historical conditions of the new capitalist epoch and of the working class movement itself prevented the further development of a living Marxist theory within the unfolding praxis of the workers' movement.

By the year 1850 the first great cycle in the historical development of capitalism had come to a close. During this cycle and on the basis of its limited capacity at that time, capitalism had completed all stages of its development to the point where the class-conscious sector of the proletariat was in a position to place social revolution on the historical agenda. Thus, on the limited economic basis of that period, the class movement of the proletariat had reached a relatively high level of development. This development found practical expression in the revolutionary struggles of that period, and theoretical expression in the early formulations of the so-called utopian socialists concerning the content of proletarian class consciousness and the goals of the proletarian revolution.

It was during this time and in the later development of their theories, which resulted from the experiences of this period, that Marx and Engels arrived at their twofold theoretical achievement. On the one hand, they criticized all aspects of the existing class society (economic basis and superstructure) from the newly acquired perspective of the proletariat. In so doing, they appropriated unaltered the content of this new proletarian class consciousness directly from the reality of existing class struggles and as it was formulated theoretically by the utopian socialists. Simultaneously, however, they criticized the practice of the proletarian movement as well as the theories of the utopian socialists. Drawing upon the highest achievements of bourgeois science, they were able to conceptualize for the proletarian class the real developmental laws of the existing capitalist society and hence, at the same time, the real conditions for revolutionary class actions.

After 1850 and on an expanded basis (geographical, technological, organizational), capitalism began a new historical cycle of its development. Under these altered conditions, it was no longer possible for the proletariat to draw directly upon Marxist theory in its original form, a theory which had assumed its revolutionary character under the conditions of a past historical epoch. During the 1870s - a period of crisis and depression which was particularly conducive to the development of class consciousness - the working class was able to adopt this theory in a formal way. Yet even then it was unable to appropriate completely its revolutionary content-either practically or theoretically.


The Marxist theory appropriated by the European workers' movement in the second half of the nineteenth century had partially altered its original revolutionary character during the reception process itself.

The materialist view of history grew out of a revolutionary period prior to 1850 as an integral part of the subjective action of a revolutionary class, which continually criticizes in theory and overthrows in practice the false illusions and transient appearances of all existing social relationships. In the succeeding period, it developed into a purely abstract and passive theory dealing with the objective course of social development as determined by external laws.

Marxist economy was originally formulated as a radical critique of bourgeois political economy, a critique which was to have found both theoretical and practical culmination in a real revolution. This original schema was later changed by Marx and altered even more by Engels. Today the apologists as well as the critics of Marxism view Marxist economics as little more than a scientific system in which all economic phenomena of bourgeois society are deduced theoretically from an uncritical, axiomatic concept of "value." Marx's revolutionary critique of political economy aimed at the theoretical and practical sublation (Aufhebung) of fetishism. But fetishism has become the idol of Marxist scientific economists and a thorn in the side of bourgeois and reformist critics of Marxism.

Having been absorbed by the modern working class as mere ideology, Marxist science completely ceased developing as a living theory after the death of Marx, Engels and the first generation of their direct disciples. During this period the leading representatives of revolutionary principles in the Marxist parties were forced to fight a defensive battle against the increasingly dominant trend towards reformist theory and practice. At the same time, they opposed any attempts to revitalize the theoretical expression of proletarian class struggle. Confronted with the threat of bourgeois falsifications of traditional Marxist theory, they tended to view their own stagnation as the lesser of two evils. (See Rosa Luxemburg's article "Stillstand und Fortschritt im Marxismus" ["Stagnation and Progress within Marxism"].) At this time the most important impetus for further developing the theory of proletarian class struggle came from three different directions, each of which consciously and unconsciously stood opposed to orthodox Marxist theory. These three were: unionist reformism, revolutionary syndicalism and Leninist Bolshevism. Despite vast differences, all three shared one common tendency. In one way or another, each attempted to make the subjective action of the working class rather than the objective development of capitalism the main focus of socialist theory. In this regard, all three appear as progressive tendencies within the development of the working class movement and simultaneously as the forerunners of that proletarian class theory and practice which was to develop on a new historical basis.


From this overview of the historical origins and determinants of the current Marxist crisis, several conclusions emerge which point to ways for overcoming it.

None of the current trends in Marxism stands as an adequate theoretical expression for the continued practical needs of the proletarian class struggle-a struggle which, despite occasional defeat, remains revolutionary in its means and its goals. Certainly so-called "orthodox Marxism" provides the least adequate solution. Of all the contemporary forms of Marxism, this is the most damaging to the progressive development of the proletarian class. After having long since stagnated into ideology, "orthodox Marxism" collapsed as such (Kautsky) in its final phase. Today it is nothing but a hindrance blocking the development of the theory and practice of the proletarian class struggle.

The two other trends which are continuations of pre-World War I Marxism are a different matter. From the perspective of the revolutionary proletariat, neither the reformist state socialism of the social democratic parties nor communist anti-imperialism can be written off simply as reactionary movements. The relationship of today's proletariat to the social democratic parties and the Communist Party is virtually identical to the relationship of the proletarian class as a whole to the theory and practice of the radical, progressive bourgeois party at that time in history when the European bourgeois class was still relatively progressive.

It is an irrevocable fact of history that during and immediately after World War I, the once revolutionary and anti-statist ideology of social democratic Marxism as it existed in the most powerful core nations of international capitalism - the so-called imperialist nations - was transformed into reformist state socialism. This is analogous to the transformation of revolutionary, anti-statist Christianity into the official religion of the Roman state during the early Middle Ages.

On the other hand, there are the struggles taking place in the marginal areas of the international capitalist system, where capitalism has not yet developed locally. The repressed and exploited classes of these areas appear to be developing theories in their current struggles which are contiguous with so-called Communism. These theories cannot take up and continue old Marxism for two reasons: first, the older theory is based on the triumph of capitalism over pre-capitalist socio-economic formations and the advantageous relationship of this stage of history to the proletarian class struggle; and secondly, old Marxism proceeds from the immediate, positive relationship of the bourgeois to the proletarian revolution. In these marginal areas the relationship of the struggles of the proletarian class to those of the indigenous and foreign bourgeoisie is different-not fundamentally, but in its immediate form. These movements cannot seek connections with reformism, since it is inseparably tied to the expansionist and colonialist policies of the core nations of the world capitalist system today. However, they will find in Leninist Bolshevism and Communism a form of Marxist ideology which is strongly anti-imperialist. It could be used as a transitional ideology for their own anti-imperialist class struggle. Such a process would again be analogous to the spread of Christianity among the barbarians outside the territories of the Roman Empire.


Marxism as an historical phenomenon is a thing of the past. It grew out of the revolutionary class struggles of the first half of the nineteenth century, only to be maintained and re-shaped in the second half of the nineteenth century as the revolutionary ideology of a working class which had not yet regained its revolutionary force. Yet in a more fundamental historical sense, the theory of proletarian revolution, which will develop anew in the next period of history, will be an historical continuation of Marxism. In their revolutionary theory, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels gave the first great summarization of proletarian ideas, in the first revolutionary period of the proletarian class struggle. This theory remains for all time the classical expression of the new revolutionary consciousness of the proletarian class fighting for its own liberation.


[1] #5 missing in their original, presumed buried within #4.