Karl Korsch 1939

State and Counterrevolution

First Published: in Modern Quarterly, 1939
Source: Class Against Class;
Transcribed: by Zdravko Saveski, for marxists.org 2009;


More than any preceding period of recent history, and on a much vaster scale, our period is a time not of revolution but of counter revolution. This is true whether we define this comparatively new term as a conscious counter-action against a preceding revolutionary process or whether we describe it as do some Italians and their ideological forerunners in pre-war France, as an essentially "preventive revolution." It is counter-action of the united capitalist class against all that remains today of the results of that first great insurrection of the proletarian forces of war-torn Europe which culminated in the Russian October of 1917. At the same time it embodies a series of "preventive" measures of the ruling minority against such new revolutionary dangers as have been most conspicuously revealed by recent events in France and Spain and which are actually contained in the whole European situation, be it in "red" Soviet Russia or fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, or any of the old "democratic" countries.

The heightened consciousness of the counter revolutionary drive, in contrast to the merely conservative and reactionary tendencies, desires more than the curtailment of the workers' resistance to increasing suppression and pauperization. The common goal of such figureheads of the present-day European politics as Hitler, Mussolini, Daladier, and Chamberlain is the creation of conditions which will make impossible any independent movement of the European working class for a long time to come.

To attain this goal the leading statesmen in the so-called democratic countries of Europe are prepared to break every hallowed tradition and to abandon every cherished "idea" of the past. To this objective they will sacrifice not only, as they always have done, the freedom and welfare of their peoples, but even part of the privileges hitherto enjoyed by their own class. They are even willing to surrender some of the material and ideal advantages of their traditional positions, including personal dignity, in order to participate as minor partners in the benefits expected from the increased exploitation forced upon the workers by the new counterrevolutionary forms of complete political, social, and cultural enslavement.


The foregoing description deals with the general aspects of the present-day European counterrevolution as they have developed after the crushing defeat of every attempt to extend the Revolution of 1917 and thus to furnish the new proletarian society in Russia with a suitable parallel environment in other European and extra-European countries. All but the most wilfully blinded partisans of the Communist party recognize the fact that for a considerable time even the new workers' state emerging from the first proletarian victory in Soviet Russia has ceased to possess an unequivocally revolutionary character. By a historical process which I shall tentatively describe as a gradual "degeneration," the Russian state has abandoned more and more its original revolutionary and proletarian features. Through the comprehensiveness of its anti-democratic and totalitarian development it has often anticipated the so-called fascist characteristics of the openly counterrevolutionary states of Europe and Asia. Even today the punishments meted out in Russia for the smallest deviations from the prescribed patterns of conduct and opinion exceed in violence the measures applied against nonconformity either in fascist Italy or in Nazi Germany. On the international scene the new Russian commonwealth has increasingly participated in the game of imperialistic politics, in military alliances with certain groups of bourgeois states against other groups of bourgeois states, and contributed its full share to what in the highly deceptive language of modern bourgeois diplomacy is called a furtherance of "peace," "collective security," and "non-intervention." Thus the leading bureaucracy of the so-called workers' state has become irretrievably enmeshed in the counterrevolutionary as peers of present-day European politics.

Under the widely changed conditions of the class struggle today what Lenin wrote in the opening paragraphs of his pamphlet on the "State and Revolution" in August, 1917, concerning the increased importance of the question of the state both in theory and from the point of view of practical politics takes on renewed importance. The imperialist war and its aftermath have greatly accelerated and intensified both the transformation of monopoly capitalism into state-monopoly capitalism and the monstrous oppression of the laboring masses by the state which becomes increasingly intertwined with the all-powerful capitalist combines. The apparently transitory and war-conditioned effects of this post-war development have become enduring and indeed normal features of present-day capitalism as a whole. There is no doubt today of the permanent nature of the process described by Lenin twenty years ago by which "the foremost countries are being converted into military convict labor prisons for the workers."

Yet under the conditions of an existing counterrevolution it is by no means sufficient at the present time merely to repeat those powerful statements of which Lenin in 1917 elaborated the revolutionary Marxian theory of the state and the relation of the proletarian revolution to the state. It is strange that the Trotskyites should refer today to "Lenin's magnificent formulation" as a work written on the eve of October "in order to explain to the masses not merely of Russia but of the world and for the future (as a guide if the Bolsheviks that time fall in achieving their aims) the meaning of workers' democracy." This was never the aim of that translator into action of the traditional Marxian theory. When the outbreak of the political crisis "intervened" with the conclusion of his theoretical work he cheerfully added to his pamphlet the exultant remark that "it is more pleasant and useful to go through the 'experience of the revolution' than to write about it."


Today the whole situation has profoundly altered. There is no point in continuing in the unreal ideological sphere, the materialistic and entirely practical philosophy of the revolutionary state as worked out by Marx and restated by Lenin. We might as well philosophize with Plato on the most perfect form of the ideal state and the extent to which the counterrevolutionary empire of Hitler is the true earthly fulfillment of Plato's lofty dream of the transition from debased democracy to "the noble tyranny, from all preceding forms different, the fourth and last disease of the state.”

It was very well for the Russian proletariat and its Bolshevik leaders in 1917 to "go through the experience" of the developing revolution rather than to philosophize about it. But the Russian and non-Russian workers today cannot confine themselves to experiencing the steadily advancing counterrevolution without making every effort to interpret its significance. By a careful examination of the past they must find out both the objective and the subjective causes for the victory of fascist state capitalism. They must closely watch its unfolding in order to discover the old and new forms of contradiction and antagonism appearing in that development. Finally they must find out a practical way to resist, as a class, the further encroachments of the counterrevolution and later to pass from an active resistance to an even more active counteroffensive in order to overthrow both the particular state capitalist form recently adopted and the general principle of exploitation inherent in all old and new forms of bourgeois society and its state power.

Thus, what is needed first of all is a comprehensive analysis of the new phases which the general theory of the state assumes in face of an existing counter-revolution. There is no doubt that this particular task has been hitherto almost entirely neglected. This is true in spite of the tremendous work done in the field by Marx, Engels, and their most consistent followers up to Luxemburg, Lenin, and Trotsky on the one hand, and by Bakunin, Proudhon, and the later spokesmen of revolutionary anarchism and syndicalism on the other.


Of course, there would be no need for a specific investigation into the counterrevolutionary state if the sweeping generalizations of the anarchists, that every state at all times, including the workers' state resulting f ram a proletarian revolution, is by its very nature opposed to the proletarian aims, is accepted. Yet this abstract principle did not prevent the great proletarian thinker, Proudhon, from acclaiming the coup d'etat of December 2, 1851, as a historical victory of the social revolution.

In looking back upon that first historical appearance of quasi-fascist counterrevolution following the failure of the French revolution of 1848, there appears a striking resemblance between the recent utterances of Some assuredly progressive and revolutionary writers on Hitler and Mussolini and the first reactions of practically all progressive schools, not excluding Marx and Engels, to the coup d'etat of Louis Napoleon in 1851. Just as on the news of the coup d'etat the moderate bourgeois progressive ex-minister, Guizot, burst out into the alarmed cry, "This is the perfect and final triumph of socialism," so Proudhon philosophized about the "Revolution sociale demontree pal' le coup d' etat du 2 decembre.”[1]

Even Marx, although he was aware of the personal unfitness of Louis Bonaparte for the quasi-revolutionary role usurped by him for a short time, indulged in the same self-deception. Witness his paradoxical statement that this time "revolutionary progress made headway not through its immediate tragi-comic achievements, but on the contrary through the creation of a powerful, united counterrevolution, through the creation of an opponent, by fighting whom the party of revolt first ripened into a real revolutionary party."

There is, indeed, only a small step from this Marxian (and for that matter, Guizotian and Proudhonian) self-deception to the remarkable illusions after Hitler's accession to power in 1933, which possessed the German Communists and their Russian masters. They welcomed the victory of an acknowledged fascism over what they had until then described as a disguised but even more hateful form of "social fascism," that is, the political rule of the Social Democratic party in post-war Germany. They predicted a speedy collapse of the new counterrevolutionary government which would be superseded by a proletarian revolution and thus hailed their own defeat and, incidentally, the lasting defeat of all progressive tendencies in Germany and, indeed, all over Europe, as a "victory of communism."


It seems to the writer that the apparent unawareness of the particular nature of counterrevolutionary events shown on those two occasions by the older and newer schools of the Marxists is not a mere personal accident. It is rather bound up, in a hidden way, with the whole historical character of the Marxian theory of the proletarian revolution which, in many respects, still carries the birthmarks of bourgeois revolutionary theory, of Jacobinism and Blanquism.[2] This applies particularly to the political aspects of the Marxian theory, to the Marxian doctrines of the so-called permanent revolution and the "dictatorship of the proletariat," and to Lenin's doctrine of the leadership of the revolutionary political party before, during, and after the conquest of the bourgeois state, as embodied in the "Guiding Principles on the Rule of the Communist Party" adopted by the second Communist World Congress of 1920.

From this point of view it becomes possible to approach, in a rational manner, those vexing problems which, during the last twenty years, have over and over again assailed and tormented the best Marxian revolutionaries who had become aware of the striking contradictions between the uninterrupted existence of the so-called proletarian dictatorship and the increasing suppression of all proletarian and socialist, nay even of the most modest democratic and progressive tendencies, in Soviet Russia:

How did it happen that the workers' state emerging from the 1917 revolution in Russia was slowly and without any "Thermidor" or "Brumaire" transformed from an instrument of the proletarian revolution into an instrument of the present-day European counterrevolution? What is the reason for the particularly close resemblance between the Communist dictatorship in Russia and its nominal opponents, the fascist dictatorships in Italy and Germany?


Within the limit of a short article I cannot deal in detail with the factual side of this historical development. I merely wish to trace that uncanny ambiguity by which a revolutionary dictatorship contained, as it were, from the very beginning its possible future transformation into a counterrevolutionary state, and a corresponding ambiguity in the revolutionary Marxian theory itself. If the political concepts of Marxism were derived from the great tradition of the bourgeois revolution, if the umbilical cord between Marxism and Jacobinism was never cut, it seems less paradoxical that the revolutionary Marxist state in its present development should reflect that great historical process of decay by which today the leading sections of the bourgeoisie in every country of Europe abandon their previous political ideals. It ceases to be inconceivable that the Russian state in its present structure should act as a powerful lever in the fascization of Europe.

Nevertheless, this inherent ambiguity of the political doctrines of Marx contains in itself nothing more than an abstract possibility of that radical degradation. Just as the proletarian revolution, according to the materialistic principle of Marx, is not exclusively or primarily a consciously willed action of isolated groups, of parties or even "classes," so the present capitalistic counterrevolution is primarily the result of an objective economic development of society-though, of course, neither a revolutionary nor a counter revolutionary action will necessarily spring from the mere fact that it has become economically feasible. Thus, the real source of the actual transition of the revolutionary workers' state in Russia into its present counterrevolutionary condition cannot be found in any particularities of its political form, be it the principle of "revolutionary dictatorship" itself or, for that matter, the dictatorship of a (single) party as opposed to a dictatorship of the revolutionary Soviets or of the proletarian "class" as a whole. We must rather look for the causes of this gradual metamorphosis of the political superstructure in the underlying economic development of the class forces,

There is, according to this materialistic view, little wonder in the fact that the Russian workers' state could not maintain its original proletarian revolutionary character when, after the frustration of all revolutionary movements outside Russia, it was reduced to a mere driving-belt, transmitting the curbing and destructive effects of capitalist world economy to the exceedingly small beginnings of a true socialist economy built up in Soviet Russia during the years 1918-1919, called the period of "War Communism." The really remarkable fact consists in the circumstance that just those new assumedly anti-bourgeois features of the Russian state which had been devised as a means to defend the proletarian content of the revolutionary society should have served (along with the "new" counterrevolutionary states shaped on the very model of the Russian "dictatorship") as an instrument not only of the reversal of revolutionary transformation of the whole traditional framework of European capitalist society. "Though this be madness, yet there's method in it."

To solve this bewildering problem by sober materialistic research is one of the main tasks of a Marxian analysis. In attempting this task we may expect with Hobbes (when in his Behemoth he retraced the course of the English revolution and counterrevolution of 1640-1660) that we too, looking back as from Devil's Mountain upon the historical development of the last twenty years, shall have "a prospect of all kinds of injustice, and of all kinds of folly, that the world could afford, and how they were produced by their damn hypocrisy and self-conceit, where of the one is double iniquity and other double folly"; but at the same time a full insight into the actions which then took place and into "their causes, pretensions, justice, order, artifice and event."


[1] Title of a comprehensive pamphlet written by Proudhon at the time and contained in Oeuvres Completes VII, Paris, 1868.

[2] See the author's discussion of "Unitarian versus Federal Principles in the French Revolution," in Archiv für die Geschichte des Sozialismus XV, Leipzig, 1930; two essays on "Revolutionary Commune," in Die Aktion XIX & XXI, Berlin, 1929-31; "Theses on Hegel" and "Theses on the fascist state" in Gegner, Berlin, 1932; and the pertinent passages in a recent book Kart Marx, London &New York, 1938.