Karl Korsch 1938

Karl Marx

Source: Bureau of Public Secrets;

Karl Korsch’s Karl Marx was originally written in English and published in London in 1938. The book was reissued in 1963, but has been out of print for decades. Ken Knabb corrected obvious typographical errors and occasionally added or deleted a comma where this seemed necessary for clarity, but otherwise left the British spelling and Korsch’s sometimes slightly awkward English style and terminology as in the original edition. In the interest of online readability he omitted the hundreds of footnotes. A few of them include substantive remarks, but the great majority are merely page references to original German editions that would be of no interest to most readers.



Part I: Society

1. Marxism and Sociology
2. The Principle of Historical Specification
3. The Principle of Historical Specification (continued)
4. The Principle of Change
5. The Principle of Criticism
6. A New Type of Generalization
7. Practical Implications

Part II: Political Economy

1. Marxism and Political Economy
2. From Political Economy to “Economics”
3. From Political Economy to Marxian Critique of Political Economy
4. Scientific versus Philosophical Criticism of Political Economy
5. Two Aspects of Revolutionary Materialism in Marx’s Economic Theory
6. Economic Theory of Capital
7. The Fetishism of Commodities
8. The “Social Contract”
9. The Law of Value
10. Common Misunderstandings of the Marxian Doctrine of Value and Surplus Value
11. Ultimate Aims of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy

Part III: History

1. The Materialistic Conception of History
2. The Genesis of Historical Materialism
3. The Materialistic Scheme of Society
4. Nature and Society
5. Productive Forces and Production-Relations
6. Basis and Superstructure
7. Conclusions


Karl Marx was born in Trier in 1818 and died as a political exile in London, 1883. When he had completed his studies at the Universities of Bonn and Berlin, and served his first political apprenticeship as an editor of the Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne, 1842-43, he found himself cut off from almost every link with his native country. His father had died in 1838, he had “fallen out with his family” since 1842, and all the plans for his future had collapsed under the blows of the Christian-Romantic reaction which set in with the accession of King Frederick William IV in 1840. “In Germany there is now nothing I can do,” Marx wrote to Ruge in January 1843. “In Germany one can only be false to oneself.” Thus, in the autumn of 1843, after marrying the woman he had wooed for seven years, he went to Paris and, when expelled from France in 1845, turned to Belgium where he stayed until the revolution of 1848 made possible a short return to political activity in his own country, as an editor of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 1848-49. After that, expelled from Germany, France, Belgium, he spent the remaining three decades of his life in the great refuge of revolutionary exiles from all European countries which in those times was London. He tried in vain to earn a living for his growing family by journalistic work and was saved from starvation only by the untiring services of his lifelong friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels, who devoted the next eighteen years of his life to the hateful drudgery of “doggish commerce,” mainly to help his friend to complete his great scientific work, Capital. When finally he was able to retire from business with enough money to secure freedom from financial worries both for himself and Marx, it was almost too late. Though the main results of Marx’s ever widening and deepening studies had taken final shape in the first volume published in 1867, the remaining parts of Capital were never completed. The incessant struggles and miseries inseparable from the life of an inflexible political emigrant had by 1873 finally worn out even that tremendous mental productivity which had been embodied in Marx, although he went on for a further decade to pile up excerpts and notes for the future completion of his work and now and then displayed the full vigour of the old days in such fully matured pieces of workmanship as the Marginal Notes to the Gotha programme of the German workers’ party in 1875 and the recently published critical notes on the economic work of Adolf Wagner dated 1881-82.

Nor must we forget what Engels most aptly said at the funeral of his friend in 1883, that the man of science was “not even half the man,” but that this man Marx was “above all a revolutionary.” Of his two outstanding works, the Communist Manifesto and Capital, the one was published at the eve of the revolution of 1848 as the working programme of the first international party of the militant vanguard of the proletariat. The other coincided with the beginning of the recovery of western Europe from that protracted depression and stagnation of all progressive forces which had followed upon the bloody defeat of the insurrectionary workers of Paris in June 1848 and the ensuing failure of the European revolution of 1848-50 – a period most clearly characterized by the anti-democratic and anti-socialistic totalitarian regime of the third Napoleon in France 1850-70. Marx’s theoretical exposition of the bourgeois world in Capital coincided, moreover, with his actual participation in the first open and comprehensive experiment in working-class unity, the International Working Men’s Association inaugurated in 1864. Thus Marx’s revolutionary theory and practice formed at all times an inseparable whole, and this whole is what is living today of Marx. His real aim, even in this strictly theoretical work, was to cooperate in one way or another in the historical struggle of the modern proletariat, to whom he was the first to give a scientific knowledge of its class position and its class needs, a true and materialistic knowledge of the conditions necessary for its own emancipation and thus, at the same time, for the further development of the social life of mankind.

It is the purpose of this book to restate the most important principles and contents of Marx’s social science in the light of recent historical events and of the new theoretical needs which have arisen under the impact of those events. In so doing we shall deal throughout with the original ideas of Marx himself rather than with their subsequent developments brought about by the various “orthodox” and “revisionist,” dogmatic and critical, radical and moderate schools of the Marxists on the one hand, and their more or less violent critics and opponents on the other hand. There is today a struggle about Marx carried on in practically all countries of the civilized world – from Soviet Russia where Marxism has become the official philosophy of the State, to the Fascist and semi-Fascist countries of central and southern Europe, South America, and Eastern Asia, where they are at present prosecuted and exterminated. Between those two extremes there lies the land of the as yet undecided fight between the so-called “Marxist” and so-called “anti-Marxist” ideas, and thus the only part of the world where it is still possible today to discuss with relative freedom the true significance of those genuine principles of Marx which in the meantime have been adapted by friends and foes to an astonishing variety of political purposes which appear from the review of the various historical phases of the Marxist thought. There are more problems involved in this apparent cleavage between the Marxian ideology and its historical realization than can be tackled in a small book. The reader is referred in this respect to the author’s previous writings on the subject quoted in the bibliography annexed to this book.

To increase the utility of this presentation of the Marxian theory an attempt has been made to keep the single chapters as far as possible independent. Thus a reader not acquainted with the daring abstractions of classical economic science, may leap over the somewhat difficult second chapter of the first part and read it later in connection with the second part, while a philosophically unprepared reader might reserve the highly general statements of II, 4, on the development of Marx from Philosophy to Science until he has studied the same problem in the more specific form in which it is presented in II, 7. In the same way many other cross-links connect the three parts of the book which, generally speaking, do not deal with independent branches of a compound system but rather with the various aspects of one social, economic, and historical theory.

With Marx and Engels, as indeed with most writers on the field of social, historical, political thought, books have not only a history of their own, but those histories of books – their times and conditions of birth, their addressees, their very titles, and their further adventures in new editions, translations, etc.– form an inseparable part of the history of the theories themselves. It is, therefore, a deplorable fact that hitherto not only the bourgeois critics of the so-called “Marxian contradictions” but even the most faithful adherents of Marx’s materialistic science should have quoted his divers theoretical statements without reference to time, addressees, and other historical indices necessary for their materialistic interpretation. This “orthodox” procedure of quoting Marx’s (or even Marx’s and Engels’s) statements quite in the abstract, just as the schoolmen quoted the words of Aristotle or the Bible, is quite inadequate for a theoretical study of a given social theory from an historical and materialistic standpoint. We have, therefore, even refrained from imitating the example set by modern scientific works in which every item is quoted by its number only and all other information relegated to an annexed bibliography. We have rather put up with that apparent clumsiness which is unavoidably bound up with an immediate supply of all necessary information on the historical circumstances of each quotation. For the same reason we have made only a scanty use of abbreviations and even translated for further clarity the non-English titles of all books quoted in the text and footnotes. The original titles of books so quoted, as well as all other information not immediately required for the full understanding of the current text, and a detailed explanation of all abbreviations are given in the usual manner in the annexed bibliography.

As to terminology, the reader will find some unusual terms, or usual terms applied with a somewhat modified meaning. This was unavoidable in a book that had to deal with Hegelian and Marxian terms which can by no means be translated into conventional English. We have not availed ourselves of all the liberties which were declared necessary in an article contributed by Engels to the November 1885 issue of The Commonwealth. We have refrained from linguistic innovations as far as possible and even from coining new English terms corresponding to the many new-coined German terms used by Hegel, Marx, and present-day Marxists. However, we have followed the advice of Engels to risk a heresy rather than to render the difficult German words and phrases by more or less indefinite terms which do not grate upon our ears but obscure the meaning of Marx. Thus, for example, we speak of “production-relations” rather than “relationships,” and in dealing with the first and foremost principle of Marx’s materialistic method the term of “specification” is used without quotes although we are aware that this term means something more here than it connotes in everyday language. All such terms have been fully explained at their first occurrence and even several times whenever this seemed necessary for a full understanding of the argument.