Karl Korsch

Remarks on the Theses Regarding the Next World Crisis, Second World War and the World Revolution


Published: in International Council Correspondence Vol. 1, no.8, May 1935, pp 13-22.
Source: Antonie Pannekoek Archives
Transcribed: by Graham Dyer

In analyzing these theses, one will do well to leave out entirely the first three paragraphs (i.e. Theses 1 and 2, the first paragraph of Thesis 3). They contain in part unsupported assertions (the ‘likely’ coinciding of the next world crisis with the second world war), in part subjective experiences of the author (his ‘shock’ at noting that the forces of revolution previously assembled are used up), in part an enumeration of the points to be clarified and defined in the Theses themselves. It is not until we come to the last sentence of this section (“We have mostly contented ourselves with explaining the causes of capitalist wars”, etc.) that we get something which serves as a real introduction to the analysis of the World War beginning immediately thereafter.

With this omission, the structure of the Theses becomes quite clear. In the first part (remainder of Thesis 3) is discussed the pre-history and history of the present crisis period setting in with the World War; in the second part (Theses 4 and 5) the further development after the “transition from the acute crisis into the depression” and the prospects for the next world crisis coinciding with the second world war. Thereupon follows as third part (Thesis 6) the exposition of the “satisfactions” and “difficulties” arising from the new state of affairs and the tendencies revealed therein for the workers’ world revolution, together with a backward glance at the “sluggishness which settled over the labor movement” prior to the present state of affairs, the cause of that sluggishness and the now visible overcoming of those causes.

This general glance of itself brings out a peculiarity of these Theses. The present world economic crisis which has lasted since 1929 and which at least in some respects has kept on growing deeper and sharper, and in a certain sense even the “present” in general, in this analysis of the total situation of the labor movement of our time is quite left out of consideration. It is not with relation to this present-day crisis, but with relation to “the post-war crises”, or the “great world crises of the present time”, of which therefore the present crisis forms only a special example, that it is stated (in next to the last paragraph of Thesis 3) that in them, to be sure, there came to light, on the one hand the fettering character of the national-state social system resting on wage-labor and capital, but that on the other hand the effort to bind the productive forces once more to the production relation wage-labor and capital and to the capitalistic process of accumulation and to fit them into the framework of the national state was “attended with success.” Likewise in the last paragraph of Thesis 3, the “post-war crises (1921, 1929)” are, to be sure, on the one hand (in connection with the “present depression period”, following, in the cycle of the “'long wave”, upon the “upgrade period 1895-1913”) denoted as “crises of the system”, but on the other hand the idea of final crisis which such an expression seems to imply is forthwith dismissed by way of the following “expectation” that “the next world crisis will have the same character.” In the next sentence (Thesis 4) the “acute crisis” has already become no more than a thing of the past, from which the transition into the “depression period”, with a “breathing spell” following at the latest within a few years, is said to be already accomplished.

In the same way, everything that is said in these Theses regarding the situation, tasks, prospects and difficulties of the labor movement of our time is nowhere related to the present, but to the “next world crisis”, the “second world war”, (closing sentence of Thesis 5), and the therewith approaching “second world-revolutionary situation” (closing sentence of Thesis 6). The Theses deal, that is, practically not at all with the actual present, which is passed over as quite uncertain and undeterminable, but with a future computed, without any apparent basis, with complete certainty in terms of years: “There are no grounds by which we could be induced not to count upon the next world crisis around 1940 as upon a certain anticipation and to take our measures accordingly”. In reality, the author of the Theses could say at most, in view of his previous very general disquisitions, that if we have special positive grounds for anticipating the world crisis “around 1940”, no counter-reasons come forth from the presently visible general tendencies of economic development. But even apart from such special defects in the formulation and support of individual assertions, this actual disregard of the real present and fictitious actualization of a “likely” revolutionary situation in the future is a blow at the very foundations of these Theses as regards their materialistic-practical character. The place of such a character is taken, on the one hand, by pure idealism and idealistic subjectivism, which sets its standpoint “over against” objective reality, and on the other hand, as the unavoidable polar supplement, by that pseudo-materialistic objectivism which speaks of the necessity of given historical processes in a too general manner, without “thereby” determining its standpoint.

While the connection between such hitherto always too isolatedly regarded phenomena as world crisis, war and revolution, or Capital and State, in modern monopoly-capitalist society, has been demonstrated in these Theses with much force from the objective side and represented in striking and sometimes new and original formulations, the practical task springing from this objective connection for the working class has been proclaimed only in abstract manner. The author contents himself in this respect with the simple repetition of the one phrase, “world revolution”, which now, however, from this subjective side, remains quite indeterminate and without content. We learn from him positively only one thing, namely, that as a revolutionary activity of the workers in the present epoch nothing less can avail “us” than this “world-revolutionary action of the working class”, to be carried out directly and as a whole, and the organizational and ideational preparedness directed immediately to this goal (Theses 2,3,4,6). It is only this direct “world revolution”, he says, which at all deserves the name of a “working-class revolution”. When “anything less is attempted” - as already shown by the movement in the period following the late war and which in victory and defeat failed as revolution – “the class, as an army of millions, simply ceases to function in its history-making role”. Every revolution which either at its very beginning or in its further course is limited to a single country is said to contain unavoidably “the element of counter-revolution”, and this holds in particular of the “Russian” revolution of 1917. (Beside this one, the author of the Theses is aware of still others, a whole “series” of national political revolutions flowing from the post-war crisis and for the “victory” of which the preceding “sluggishness which had settled over the labor movement” had formed the precondition. What other victorious national revolutions are meant by this does not become clear). The attempt of Trotskism to set in place of the real world revolution its mere “ideological camouflage” by interpreting the series of national revolutions of the present period as the ‘permanent revolution’ is expressly waved aside. And all those “proletarian-revolutionary under-currents” which in the previous period “transcended” the limited character of the then labor movement, “tied up with social-reformist and (onIy) political-revolutionary tasks”, are denoted without exception as mere “utopian” tendencies which leave unchanged the actually intra-capitalist wage-worker movements of that time, but were able to furnish them “merely a further ideological supplement”. So that the “workers’ world revolution” proclaimed in these Theses remains a pure dream of the future (Zukunftmusik) for which in the past and present, apart from a few attempts undertaken at the end of the “first world war” but in the meanwhile completely exhausted and ‘decayed’ (among them particularly the ‘heroic’ attempt of the Russian October revolutionists to push forward their Russian revolution as the incipient world revolution), in the actual movement and development of the working class there is still no real beginning. Though in Thesis 2, after the constatation of the used-up character of all the “energies of revolution assembled in the revolutionary cycle of 1850-1917”, we at first still have a reference to certain, though ‘weak’ new beginnings, still at the end of the Theses it is expressly stated that “the revolutionary actions of the working class must, on the whole, begin all over again from the beginning”. This state of affairs is, to be sure, on the one hand denoted as a ‘difficulty’ (the only “genuine difficulty of the new situation”), but on the other hand also celebrated as the final “severing of the umbilical cord between bourgeois and proletarian revolution” and hence as a “gratifying state of affairs for the worker revolutionists”. The workers - we might briefly express the sense of this closing part of the Theses - at that zero point of their revolutionary action at which they have now finally arrived, have “at least won the negative freedom for their own enormous ends”.

Against this assertion there is first to be objected that as a matter of fact it is not true. When the Theses state, among other things, that now none of their old dilapidated and bankrupt leaders can no longer presume to whisper to the workers what their “historical mission” is, the sad reality shows rather the contrary. They can so presume, they can do it and they do actually do it, and the workers also listen to them, not only in England and other extra-German countries, but also in Germany, and again today more than in the first period after the unresisting capitulation of both the old social-democratic-communist party leaderships before the Hitlerian “national and socialist revolution”. Secondly, however, this “negative freedom” of the workers from all the influences through which they have hitherto been “diverted” from their own ex hypothesi “enormous” (i.e. still completely undefined and unformed) ends - such freedom would be at the same time their “freedom” from their whole previous history, inclusive of all the fighting experiences won in this history, and the reversion of the working class out of that determinateness which it has won in its previous development to the initial state (given through their mere economic existence as a suppressed and exploited class within capitalist society) of the “class in itself”. It is impossible to conceive how it could pass over all at once and without a new “drawing back before the undefined enormousness of its own tasks” out of this condition of an absolute freedom, i.e. of an absolute nothingness, through the mere “approach of the second world war” and the “second world-revolutionary situation” to which it gives rise, to that highest reality and determinateness of a direct and total truly proletarian, truly class-befitting, truly world-embracing genuine workers’ revolution for which alone, in the view of the author of these Theses, the throwing in of the proletarian forces, after the bitter experiences of the past, is still at all worthwhile and without the full attainment of which any new militant activity of the workers must lead merely to another and still worse decline into sluggishness. As a matter of fact, it is not the rousing call to action (that is to say, to the directly world-revolutionary action of the workers in connection with the next world-war crisis “around 1940”) but the fearful punishment set on the failure to follow this last warning - it is this punishment which forms the real content of the prospects expressed in these Theses. The author says in effect: there is offered to the workers once more - at a period now lying only a few years in the future - that incomparable opportunity of which they failed to make full use at the end of the “first world war”. "In the second world war it will become evident that there is only one convincing program: the world order of labor, and that the emancipation of the workers is the precondition for its actualization. If the workers then fail, however, to win their freedom, then the new means of mastery which the ruling class today has constructed on a national scale will be extended by it internationally on ruins and blood and the productive forces subjected to a still sharper discipline. That will be the essence of the new “world-revolutionary struggles”. Here in the very formulation it remains undecided whether, after all, these new “world-revolutionary struggles” of the near future as well will not in their actual result lead rather to the “international extension” of the “new (fascist) means of mastery” than to the “emancipation of the workers” and rather to a “still sharper (fascist) discipline” than to the “free unfoldment of the productive forces”.

At this place we come up against a point from which it becomes imperative to attack not only the subjectively practical content of these Theses, but at the same time their theoretically objective content; that is, the theoretical analysis which they give of the historical development, and of the objective developmental tendencies coming to light therein. The question arises whether there is not concealed even in the objective combination of world crisis, war and revolution, as it is given in these Theses twice (once retrospectively for the first world-war crisis 1913-1919, the other time prospectively for the impending new world-war crisis of a near future), some capitulation or other before the violent attack of the capitalist-fascist opponent, an attack which at the present moment is obviously felt as over-powerful. With such capitulations, defeatist states of mind and prison ideologies the entire European labor movement is teeming today, and even the revolutionary tendency within the labor movement shows some of the same affliction.

If from this critical point of view one examines the objective theoretical content of the present Theses, at first everything appears here in the best, revolutionary order. It is a revolutionary attack on the enemy position, and no capitulation, when the “immemorial (?) alternation of war and peace” - which apparently (not, as stated in the Theses with a too far-going adaptation to the opponent’s ideas, “in itself” ) “goes on in other connections”- is recognized as “involved in the industrial cycle” and modern “industrial warfare” is recognized as a special form of capitalist crisis. To be sure, this new and revolutionary insight is presupposed in the Theses as a directly obvious state of affairs rather than supported and proved, and the characterization of war as a form of capitalist crisis which in its very course becomes intensified once more to crisis still contains in this unmediated form a metaphorical and mystifying character. The equating of war to crisis loses, however, even this final remnant of apparent mystification when one adds the plain and in no sense metaphorical observation that the special mode of production of modern war - a mode of production which does not produce products and means of production, but destruction and means of destruction - represents nothing more than a normal manifestation of capitalist production. The capitalist mode of production has constantly contained and contains in itself at all its stages of development both kinds of production, that of the creation and that of the destruction of products. Both form inseparable components of capitalist production in its specific social form as “commodity production”, that is, as production not simply of products, but of products as commodities, and this historical mode of production is not complete until we have both together. What comes up newly today is simply this, that now even certain formal distinctions which hitherto have ever existed between the two phenomenal forms of capitalist production (the so-called normal production for peace, and the other - in reality no less normal - production for war and in war) are being more and more eradicated through a process of mutual assimilation and that thereby the inner identity of these two equally legitimate branches of capitalist production is made manifest. In an epoch when a part of the “normal” production in peace-times consists in the conscious and “planful” mass destruction of products, means of production, productive forces and producers, when at the same time the relative weight of the so-called “war industry” even in peace exceeds by far and in rapidly increasing measure that of any other single branch of production, and each special branch of production in its turn is treated potentially even in peace and on the approach of war then also actually as a mere subordinate department of the one unified war industry, - in such conditions it appears only logical that war itself, which according to aim and mode of existence is no longer to be distinguished from war industry and peace industry, should finally no longer be distinguished from these other branches of capitalist commodity production, even in thought. If one has taken this step, then that paradoxical sentence in which war itself is regarded as a mere special form of the crises unavoidably occurring periodically in the course of capitalist production, that is, as a crisis which in another, .more direct and more simple manner, “performs the special work of any crisis, destruction of value which cannot be turned to account” - this sentence of the Theses thus becomes not only understandable as a plain, matter-of-fact observation. Rather it also becomes clear forthwith why in the process of war now going on even in the forms of capitalist production “the presupposition of crisis is set once more within the crisis”, in that the “over-production” occurring in every crisis occurs here also in the form of a “production intensified beyond its own measure” - production of materials of destruction and of destruction itself. This intensification of the crisis to a new crisis occurring in the crisis itself is in fact the unavoidable tendency breaking through in war and peace, a tendency which came clearly to light in the late World War and which by reason of the further development of the capitalist forms of production (in their now recognized double mode of existence as genuine forms of production and forms of destruction, both of which under capitalistic relations combine to form an indivisible whole and of which only the two together represent the concrete reality of capitalist commodity production) has kept on growing stronger and must continue to grow still stronger in the future. The present development of the capitalist mode of production is thus heading, in one and the same process, both toward the new crisis and the new war, and toward the combining of both in a new world-war crisis though which, for the class of real producers uniformly suppressed and exploited in war and peace, the presuppositions for a new world-revolutionary situation are from the objective side being actually fulfilled. The masterly (in spite of its brevity) clarification of this objectively revolutionary situation is tantamount to a genuine, and in its consequences for the preparation and carrying out of the revolutionary struggle of the workers, also practically important further development of our insight into proletarian revolution.

And it is likewise a revolutionary attack on the enemy position, and no capitulation, when in the Theses the line of separation sharply drawn by the old Marxist theory between economics and politics, Capital and State, is in tendency blotted out and the “State” converted from the merely ‘ideational’ to the actual “Total Capitalist”, and the automatic subject “Capital” with the sponsor “State” as special organ is smelted to a “unified total-subject Capital”. The struggle against the capitalist state has today, as a matter of fact, become in a quite different, more direct manner a component of the revolutionary proletarian class struggle against capitalist mastery than it was in the earlier period when the socialist labor movement actually (as admirably represented in the Theses) continually moved about within the (on both sides unsatisfying) contradiction of social reform and (only) political revolution and consequently the workers were unable on either field to arrive at the full concrete reality of their social-revolutionary struggle. It is also a revolutionary criticism which strikes at the heart not only of the present-day enemy, but also of the earlier and present-day false friends of the labor movement, when it is stated in the Theses that through the seizure of power by the Hitlerian National Socialism “the political revolution and the only possible social reform against the workers has won” simultaneously and hence at the same time the (in result) counter-revolutionary character of both these ostensibly progressive goals of the now surpassed forms of the labor movement has become manifest.

By the side of these real revolutionary intensifications of the proletarian attack on all the old and new forms of incorporation of the capitalist state and economic power there is, however, in these Theses also a series of formulations through which the one struggle which lies open to the workers in Germany, the struggle against what there today is the only incorporation of the capitalist class rule, is rendered vague and ambiguous. It is a dangerous tendency, in its consequence for the revolutionary unfoldment of the proletarian force of attack in the present historical period of development, when in these Theses the lapidary statement is made that through the new monopolistic forms of State and Capital the task of attaining “at least the highest measure (!) of unfoldment (!) of the transcending (?) productive forces in the given framework” is in the present being fulfilled. Let us recall in this connection also the preceding thesis in which the present world economic crisis was proclaimed as a thing of the past, now overcome, and the transition into the depression with the prospect of a “breathing spell” soon setting in and coming to a close in “the next world crisis” was announced. Let us recall, further, the peculiar form with which, later on in these Theses, there was denoted as another, and in reality perhaps more probable prospect for the international further development of the present world condition, by the side of the complete unfoldment through the proletarian revolution of the productive forces tied up in the inadequate “national” framework, also the merely “still sharper discipline” of these productive forces through the extension of fascist mastery on an international scale as well. It is seen that these three formulations taken together – the crisis, already belonging to the past, the solution of those tasks whose continuing solution according to the Marxist doctrine forms the real material content of the whole world-historical development, but at the present time being accomplished by victorious fascism on a national scale, and in future perhaps to be accomplished by it still further on an international scale - these three formulations result in a way of future historical development on which, between world crisis, world war and world revolution a quite different, exactly opposite form of union may be brought about than the one which the author of these Theses has in his subjective consciousness and would like to proclaim as a fighting slogan for the revolutionary proletariat. In the place of the bursting of the capitalistic fetters and of the unfettered free development of the productive forces, there comes first in the national and thereafter possibly also in the international framework their maximal unfoldment (violently ‘attained’ by victorious fascism without the bursting of their present capitalist form) in the way of a still further sharpened “discipline”. First attacking nationally, and then extending the captured positions on an international scale, Fascism accomplishes its “historical task”, in that it shows to capitalist society, menaced on the one hand by the social revolution, and on the other by its own dissolution, an heroic way out and forces upon it the choice of this heroic way. With this perspective, however, the social revolution of the proletariat is converted from a general necessity of the development of human society into the private affair of an isolated class or even only of an interested band of Jewish or other racially foreign agitators.

The ambiguity brought into the Theses through this formulation regarding the presently given economic possibilities of social development is still further strengthened by way of an equally ambiguous political formula occurring in the same connection: “The state-subject capital seizes the monopoly on class struggle". That may mean, and does in fact mean according to its first and most obvious sense, that the fascist State suppresses the whole previous class struggle of the wage-workers against capital. “The breaking up of all class organs of the workers is its first accomplishment”. To the quite correct observation contained in this first sentence there would only remain to be added, from the standpoint of a clear Marxist conception based on the fact of the class struggle, a further statement throwing light on the point as to what change is experienced, as a result of this “monopolization” through the fascist State, by the other side of the class struggle hitherto carried on under capitalist society, the class struggle of capital against the wage-workers. This statement would have to demonstrate say that the fascist State - bound up in the closest manner with large capital and, though formally set over the individual capitalist, yet in its general material existence unconditionally dependent on capital - continues to carry on, in this other, expanded and sharpened form, “on behalf of the State”, that ‘monopolized’ class struggle against the workers. Finally, from a truly dialectical, i.e. practically materialistic and revolutionary Marxist conception, there would have to be added that the fascist state, by reason of this continuing, expanding and sharpening of the class struggle which it has “monopolized”, is at the same time on its own part exposed to the continued, expanded and sharpened class struggle of the workers. Instead of this class-befitting, dialectical and revolutionary conception, the formula of the “monopolization of the class struggle by the fascist State” is based on a different conception, as the very next following sentences prove. The author of the Theses entertains the idea that in this “monopolization of the class struggle” in its two antagonistic forms as a struggle of wage-labor against capital and of capital against wage labor, the fascist State is, as a matter of fact, at least temporarily and on a national scale being successful: “A ruthless social-pacification action with the aim of the ‘organic’ fitting of that part of capital represented by wage labor into the new State is introduced. At the same time, a far-flung reorganization of the capitalist class is undertaken, in order to adapt it to the special task of political economy in the present period …. In the place of private-economy profitability there arises national-economy profitability. The state-subject capital, organizes the domestic market, regulates (a national general cartel) the prices ….”

All these tasks then according to the statements here quoted from the Theses, are fundamentally being accomplished by the fascist State in exactly the one manner in which they could be accomplished by a revolutionary workers’ state proceeding from a genuine workers’ revolution, insofar as this State should remain limited to the national framework or should later on become so limited. It is expressly declared that between such different forms and degrees of the fusion of State and Capital as on the one hand, “bolshevist state capitalism”, and, on the other, the fascist “systematic intervention” and the national-socialist “economy steering” there is no difference of a fundamental nature. In reality, with this failure to make distinction between historically oppositely directed developments, and with the whole supporting undialectical appraisal of the economic and political possibilities of a fascist or national-socialist State remaining fundamentally in the capitalist framework, the historical accomplishment and capacity of accomplishment, hence also the force of attack and defense of the at present triumphant fascist-national-socialist counter-revolution is monstrously and, for the development of the proletarian counter-movement, damagingly overrated. In order to make clear the measure of this over-rating, we may recall that such a monopoly on the class struggle as, according to these Theses, the Hitlerian National Socialism and the Mussolinian Fascism have today ‘seized’ was not laid claim to even by the revolutionary dictator Lenin for his revolutionary “workers and peasants’ State” in the “war communist” development of the year 1920. In the disputes waged at that time, prior to the transition to “NEP”, regarding the future character of the Soviet-Russian trade unions, the most that Lenin had ventured to suggest was in substance that the trade unions should restrict themselves in future to the ordinary class struggle for the purpose of safeguarding the workers’ direct interests within the framework of the soviet economic and state system and should henceforth renounce the revolutionary intensification of this struggle, now that the further extension of the revolution had become the immediate task of the soviet State. In the later development of Russian state socialism and state capitalism, in the forms of NEP and Neo-Nep, even this right, at first granted by Lenin, to the ordinary class struggle for the workers’ immediate interests was, as we know, again denied to the trade unions. The present-day Stalinist state capitalism has, that is, just as did the dictatorial state of Hitler and Mussolini, completely conferred upon itself this “monopoly of the class struggle”. But neither in the one case nor in the other (and in the latter case, if only because of the incomparably weaker position of these capitalistic counter-revolutionary “dictatorships” as against the claim to profit on the part of private capital - a claim which was never fundamentally or actually broken - much less than in the Lenin-Stalinist dictatorship) has this ideological “monopolization” of the class struggle in the hands of the State even for a time and within the national framework been actually realized. Just as according to the international principle of revolutionary Marxism, proletarian socialism cannot be constructed “in one country” either wholly or in part, either permanently or for a time, so also according to the same principle the class struggle in its two antagonistic manifestations cannot be done away with “in one country” or converted into a simple component of the economic and political ruling functions exercised - without contradiction within the national boundaries - by the State.

To the two tasks of the fascist economic and state power which in these Theses are recognized as capable of accomplishment within the national framework, the author himself sets a limit. In the single place where he thinks “dialectically”, i.e. truly materialistically and practically revolutionarily, he declares that “the state-subject Capital”, in that as a general cartel it regulates the prices, “thereby at the same time (!) sharpens the international competition”. “The international trade policy has become the vital question of States” (‘Twilight of Autarchy’). The new monopolistic forms have therefore not only failed to hold up the cyclical course of world economy; they fail also to withdraw their own sphere of action from the ‘natural law’ of capitalism.

But even apart from the fact that the - here directly geographical - limit set for the accomplishment of the economic and political tasks of the present world development by means of Fascism is later, after all, regarded as not entirely insuperable, but rather that the possibility of its being crossed by a Fascism extending internationally its new means of mastery is expressly admitted, this final introduction of the dialectical manner of looking at things, through which a positive solution of the tasks set by the present development of the productive forces and productive relations is in the fascist framework nationally and internationally precluded, comes much too late. Just as dialectically as the regulating of the domestic market through the fascist state-subject Capital actualizes itself on an international scale as a sharpened competition which very quickly recoils upon the domestic market as well, so the alleged ‘solution’ of the economic and political tasks of Fascism becomes involved in advance, within the production process itself on the purely national scale, and from the first step onward, in ever new and sharper contradictions. At this place it would have been in order to take up a truly Marxist, materialistically practical analysis of the present and future combinations of world crisis, world war and world revolution, and to proclaim the present struggle of the proletariat in each country and on an international scale against the here and now present form of capitalist mastery, and all its expressions, as the single genuine content of the proletarian “world revolution.”


Last updated on: 7.17.2016