Karl Korsch 1933

Some Fundamental Presuppositions for a Materialist Discussion of Crisis Theory

First Published: in Proletarier #1, 1933
Translated by Karl-Heinz Otto and Andrew Giles-Peters
Source: Class Against Class;
Transcribed: by Zdravko Saveski, for marxists.org 2009;


A great shortcoming of the form in which the discussion of crises took place hitherto, especially m the circles of the left and far-left wings of the workers movement, was to be found in their search for a "revolutionary" crisis theory per se, just as in the middle ages one searched for the philosopher’s stone. Historical examples, however, can demonstrate quite easily that possession of such a supposedly highly revolutionary crisis theory says little about the actual level of class consciousness and revolutionary preparedness for action of a group or individual believing in the theory, thus it is well known that for thirty years, from 1891 to 1921, the Social Democratic party of Germany had in the crisis section of the Erfurt program an especially revolutionary crisis theory which even today can hardly be improved on in respect of radical clarity. The Erfurt program was not satisfied with tracing crises back to the "planlessness" or so-called anarchy of the present capitalist mode of production-as its first draft which was criticized by Engels still had done and as is likewise today the case with the 1925 Heidelberg program accepted by the SPD. Neither was it satisfied with lamenting the “ruin of broad sections of the people” or the aggravation of the torment of the unemployed proletariat caused by these crises, Rather it explained the crises as a phenomenon "founded on the nature of the capitalist mode of production" which cannot be "overcome" through some "planned economy" reforms of the capitalist mode of Production but can only be superseded through the revolutionary cancellation (Aufhebung) of this whole mode of production. The Erfurt program recorded as the most significant effect of crises the fact that it is the crisis which "further widens the chasm between the proprietors and the propertyless workers," It asserted moreover with distinct clarity despite the "revisionist" tendencies already emerging then-that the crises thus described "will ever widen in extent and destructiveness will raise general insecurity to a normal condition of society and furnish the proof that the forces of production have outgrown contemporary society and that private ownership of the means of production has become no longer compatible with their efficient application and full development."

This contradiction between theory and practice becomes still more drastic when we cast our eyes towards some well-known individual crisis theorists of pre-war Social Democracy. There is the subsequent arch-reformist Heinrich Cunow who in 1898 in the Neue Zeit founded the first explicit collapse and catastrophe theory. It was none other than Karl Kautsky who in July, 1906, in the preface to the fifth edition of Engels' Utopian and Scientific Socialism announced the directly imminent "death crisis" of the capitalist system which "this time has no chance ever again to be softened by a new era of prosperity on a capitalist basis!" In the controversy over crisis and collapse theory arising since 1913 from Rosa Luxemburg's book on The Accumulation of Capital we find from the beginning reformists and revolutionaries on both sides (among the followers inter alia Paul Lensch, among the opponents Lenin and Pannekoek) , and even the two most important present day epigones of Luxemburgian theory, Fritz Sternberg and Henryk Grossman, can hardly be described as especially determined and efficacious representatives of a practical revolutionary politics.

In the immediate post-war period the apparently unavoidable and already commencing collapse of the capitalist system on a world scale awoke unfounded illusions among a wide section of revolutionaries. At this time, the then "left Communist" theoretician Bukharin had already collated fantasies for a new scientific theory of this supposed capitalist destruction of the world in his notorious Economics of the transition period. But the revolutionary practitioner Lenin coined the revolutionary phrase - later to be repeated by his followers ad infinitum under quite different conditions, but during the conditions prevailing then revolutionary in its effect - that "there is no such thing as a situation with no way out for capitalism."


The various crisis theories that have hitherto emerged in the worker's movement are in reality much less of an indication of the revolutionary class consciousness and capability for action achieved by their originators and followers than a passive and belated reflection of the objective reality of the ongoing crisis like total condition of the capitalist mode of production or even of only a temporary economic crisis. One could from this viewpoint represent the whole historical development of socialist crisis theories from Fourier and Sismondi to the various subsequent temporal phases of Marx-Engels and the later Marxists (and the crisis theories of the Marx epigones up to Sternberg and Grossman, Lederer and Naphtali), right into their ultimate theoretical details, as merely a passive reflection of the respective previous objective economic development. From the same viewpoint one could also, beyond the framework of crisis theories, represent all the important struggles over direction which have arisen within the socialist movement during the last fifty years as mere consequences and reflexes of the immediately preceding conjuncture within the capitalist crisis cycle.

A lot of noise has been made about the question as to whether the old Engels in the introduction to Marx's essay on class struggles in France had surrendered a part of the revolutionary political basic propositions of original Marxism. One can better pose this question with regard to certain remarks of Engels in the preface to the German edition of the Poverty of Philosophy (1884) (p. xviii) and in a footnote (no. 8) to the third volume of Capital (1894, 11, p. 27). Here there is talk about a recently quite changed character in the cycles of modern industry and about the removal or strong decline of "most of the old crisis-points and circumstances for crisis formation." It is quite possible that these remarks of Engels constituted the first ideological reference point of that theory, seemingly only represented by Bernstein's revisionism at the turn of the century, but today already quite openly represented by all Social Democratic doctrinal experts, which saw the task of the socialist workers' movement no longer as that of exploiting the crisis for increased struggle for the revolutionary overcoming of the capitalist mode of production, but rather as that of weakening down and "subduing" such crisis within the framework of capitalist mode of production. Of course Friedrich Engels was far removed from such conclusions; the replacement of the previous crisis-cycles by a "new form of equilibrium" forecast on the basis of the conditions of the previous two decades he termed, on the contrary, a transition to "chronic stagnation as the normal condition of modern industry." He thereby not only became the direct originator of crisis theory of the 1891 Erfurt program discussed above, but also became the real father of the notion of the so-called death crisis which, as pictured already at the Erfurt congress by Wilhelm Liebknecht, and later by Cunow, Kautsky and many others, was to drive contemporary society with an "iron logic" into a "catastrophe, into its own unavoidable doom."

Things developed differently when the stagnation already declared "chronic" by Engels turned in the mid-nineties into a new immense upswing of the capitalist mode of production. Edward Bernstein then and later said publicly that it was these new economic facts which at this time brought about his fundamental attack on all revolutionary elements of hitherto existing Social Democratic politics and caused him, in particular with regard to crisis theory, to categorically state that due to the latest development of the capitalist system "general business crises after the fashion of earlier ones are now to be regarded as unlikely, at least for a long time."

From Bernstein's remarks, and the theoretical and practical consequences already deduced thereupon by its originator, a straight line leads to the official Social Democrat crisis theory as represented for and by Hilferding and Lederer, Tarnow and Naphtali. I term this fundamental stance of today's Social Democrat crisis theory as the subjective stance in contrast to both of the other two fundamental stances to the crisis problem still to be discussed. The Social Democratic theory states that in modern "organized capitalism," whether actual or "tendential," necessary and unavoidable crises will not occur anymore. The first "scientific" argumentation or proof for this thesis, at first only set up by Bernstein as a factual assertion, is contained in the familiar theory of Hilferding's "Finance Capital." It forecasts the overcoming of capitalist crises by a capitalist "general cartel" to be created by and with the acceptance and support of the working class, which will carry through the planned regulating of bourgeois production, based on capital and wage labour. After the war (1927) Hilferding declared once more expressly that he always had "rejected every economic theory of collapse." The fall of the capitalist system "would not emanate from the intrinsic laws of this system" but would have to be "the conscious deed of the working class."

This "theory" of Hilferding is until this day the basis of not only the Social Democrats-but also that of the Bolshevist-Soviet theoreticians and plan-engineers and others advancing subjective and voluntaristic crisis theories and theories for overcoming such crises. One must not think however, that these theories, modulations of which echoed still some years ago through a whole forest of Social Democrat journals and books, have for their originators and followers been "proven false" by the farts of the existing capitalist reality. Experience has shown that, for instance, Edward Bernstein still adhered to his thesis of crisis-overcoming designed in 1899, when in the following year, 1900, the economist crisis broke out, and a further crisis followed seven years thereafter; and again when seven years later the already then noticeable new crisis was only deferred by the world war only to reoccur once again in 1920-1921 on a world scale, after the first liquidation of the war and its direct results. The Hilferdings and Lederers, Tarnows and Naphtalis will react quite like that, yesterday, today and tomorrow. It is just the characteristic of this kind of crisis theory that they always ideologically reflect the just past phase of the real movement of capitalist economies and place it vis-à-vis the changed present reality as a fixed rigid "theory." Of course there are a host of other excuses, like the explanation of the current world economic crisis as result of wars, as result of reparation and war debts and other "extra-economic" causes. The practical consequences of all of these crisis theories based on this subjective fundamental stance is the complete destruction of all objective bases of the proletarian class movement. The Goerlitz Program of Social Democracy of 1921 has coined already the classical phrase for this position by declaring the class struggle for the liberation of the proletariat as a mere "moral demand."

But even the other fundamental stance to the crisis questions that is almost directly opposed to the one we just investigated-which in the perfection of the almost classical form of the accumulation theory of Rosa Luxemburg has found expression unrivalled by any of the numerous predecessors and successors - can not be recognized as a truly materialist, and, as regards its practical efficiency, revolutionary position on the crisis question. The significance of the theory, as espoused by its followers, lies in Rosa Luxemburg's position of "holding fast to the fundamental thought of 'Capital,' of an absolute economic limit for the continued development of the capitalist mode of production, in conscious contrast to and protest against the attempts of distortion by the New-harmony theoreticians" (Grossman). The stance based on this theory could appropriately be described as an absolute one, I should like to characterize it in contrast to the already discussed "subjective" and the still to be discussed "materialist" stance, as an objective or "objectivist" fundamental stance. It is of no consequence here, from which assumed objective system of laws of the capitalist mechanism of production the objectively guaranteed economic necessity of its imminent collapse is derived in detail. On the other hand, nothing will change the "objectivism" of these theories not even their followers' assurance that they are not at all recommending to the proletariat "a fatalist awaiting of the automatic collapse," but "only" (!) are of the opinion that the revolutionary action of the proletariat "achieves the conditions for successfully defeating the resistances of the dominating class only through the objective tremors of the existing system" (Grossman). Such a theory of all objectively given economic tendency of development whose ultimate goal can be grasped in advance employs pictorial notions rather than unequivocally determined scientific concepts. Furthermore, it is founded inevitably on insufficient induction and appears to me as not suitable for bringing forward that full earnestness of self-disciplined activity of the proletarian class struggling for its own goals, which is as much necessary for the class war of the workers as it is for every other ordinary war.

In contrast to the two fundamental stances so far illustrated, it appears to me that a third fundamental stance to the crisis question is possible and just this one alone deserves the designation of a truly Marxian materialist stance. This position explains the question of the objective necessity or avoidability of capitalist crises as a senseless question in this general form (within the framework, of a practical theory of the revolution of the proletariat). It agrees, with the revolutionary critic of Marx Georges Sorel who will not consider Marx's general tendency of capitalism to catastrophe generated by the insurrection of the working class - colored in a strong idealist-philosophical “dialectical” manner of speech- as a valid scientific prognosis, but merely as a myth whose sole significance is limited to determine the current action of the working class. The materialist stance is, however, not in accord with Sorel when he quite generally wants to limit the function of any future social theory of revolution to form such a myth. The materialist stance rather believes that certain, if only always limited, prognostic statements sufficient for practical action can be made on the basis of always, more exact and thorough empirical investigation of the present capitalist mode of production and its recognizable immanent tendencies of development. The materialist therefore investigates thoroughly the given situation of capitalist production including the contradictions found therein, among which are also the situation, the level of consciousness, the organization, and the readiness for struggle of the working class and all the various levels of the working class in order to determine its action, The most important basic traits of this theoretical and practical materialist fundamental stance have been classically formulated, in general form, without being specially related to the crisis problem, in, the polemic of the year 1894 where the young Lenin attacked the subjectivism of the popular revolutionary Michailowski together With the objectivism of the then leading Marxist theoretician Struve and confronted both with his own activist-materialist standpoint: "When proving the necessity of a given number of facts, the objectivist always runs the risk of assuming the standpoint of an apologist of these facts; the materialist reveals the class contradictions and thereby establishes his standpoint."