Karl Korsch 1940

The Fascist Counter-revolution

First Published: in Living Marxism, Volume 5, Number 2, Fall 1940, pp. 29-37
Source: Class Against Class;
Transcribed: by Zdravko Saveski, for marxists.org 2009;

What hope have we revolutionary Marxists, remnants of a past epoch, inheritors of its most advanced theories, illusions, ideologies-what hope have we left for a revolutionary turn of the sweeping counterrevolutionary movement of victorious fascism? The fate of France has finally proved that the old Marxist slogan of "world revolution" has in our epoch assumed a new meaning. We find ourselves today in the midst not of a socialist and proletarian but of an ultra-imperialistic and fascist world revolution. Just as in the preceding epoch every major defeat-the defeat of France in 1871, that of Russia, Germany, Hungary in 1905, 1917, 1918-resulted in a genuine revolution, so in our time each defeated country resorts to a fascist counterrevolution. Moreover, present-day war itself has become a revolutionary process, a civil war with an unmistakably predominant counterrevolutionary tendency. Just as in a horse race we do not know which horse will win but we do know that it will be a horse, so in the present war the victory of either party will result in a further gigantic step toward the fascization of Europe, if not of the whole European, American, Asiatic world of tomorrow.


There seem to be two easy ways for the "orthodox" Marxist of today to handle this difficult problem. Well-trained in Hegelian philosophical thought, he might say that all that is, is reasonable, and that, by one of those dialectical shifts in which history rejoices, socialism has been fulfilled by the social revolution implied in the victory of fascism. Thus Hegel himself at first followed the rising star of the French Revolution, later embraced the cause of Napoleon, and ended by acclaiming the Prussian state that emerged from the anti-Napoleonic wars of 1812-1815 as the fulfilment of the philosophical "idea" and as the "state of reason" corresponding to the given stage of its historical development.

Or, for that matter, our orthodox Marxist might not be willing, for the present, to go so far as to acknowledge the fascist allies of Stalin as the genuine promoters of socialism in our time. He would then content himself with feeling that the victory of fascism, planned economy, state capitalism, and the weeding out of all ideas and institutions of traditional "bourgeois democracy" will bring us to the very threshold of the genuine social revolution and proletarian dictatorship - just as, according to the teachings of the early church, the ultimate coming of Christ will be immediately preceded by the coming of the Anti-Christ who will be so much like Christ in his appearance and in his actions that the faithful will have considerable difficulty in seeing the difference.

In so reasoning, our orthodox Marxist would not only conform with the church but would also keep well in line with the precedents set by the earlier socialists and "revolutionary" Marxists themselves. It was not only the moderately progressive bourgeois ex-minister Guizot who was deceived by the revolutionary trimmings of Louis Napoleon's coup d'etat of 1851 and, when he heard the news burst out into the alarmed cry, "This is the complete and final triumph of socialism." Even the leading representative of French socialism, P. J. Proudhon, was taken in by the violently anti-bourgeois attitude displayed by the revolutionary imperialist, and he devoted a famous pamphlet to the thesis that the coup d'etat of the Second of December did in fact "demonstrate the social revolution."[1]

Indeed, in many ways that counterrevolutionary aftermath of 1848 is comparable to the infinitely more serious and more extended counterrevolutionary movement through which European society is passing today after the experience of the Russian, the German, and the other European revolutions which followed in the wake of the First World War. Every party and every political tendency had to go through a certain period of bewilderment until it had adapted itself to a totally changed situation. Marx himself, although he utterly despised the imperialist adventurer because of his personal inadequacy, was inclined to believe in the revolutionary significance of the counterrevolutionary coup. He described the historical outcome of the two years of revolutionary defeat from 1848 to 1849 by the paradoxical statement that "this time the advance of the revolutionary movement did not effect itself through its immediate tragicomic achievements but, the other way round, through the creation of a united and powerful counterrevolution, through the creation of an antagonist by opposing whom the party of revolt will reach its real revolutionary maturity." And even after the fateful event he most emphatically restated his conviction that "the destruction of the parliamentary republic contains the germs of the triumph of the proletarian revolution." This is exactly what the German Communists and their Russian masters said 80 years later when they welcomed the advent of Nazism in Germany as a "victory of revolutionary communism."

This ambiguous attitude of Proudhon and Marx toward counterrevolution was repeated ten years later by Ferdinand Lassalle, a close theoretical disciple of Marx and at that time the foremost leader of the growing socialist movement in Germany. He was prepared to cooperate with Bismarck at the time when that unscrupulous statesman was toying with the idea of bribing the workers into acceptance of his imperialistic plans by an apparent adoption of the universal franchise and some other ideas borrowed from the 1848 revolution and the Second Empire. Lasalle did not live to see Bismarck at the end of the 70's, when he had subdued the liberals and the ultra-montane Catholic party, revert to his old dream of enforcing a kind of "tory-socialism" based on a ruthless persecution and suppression of all genuine socialist workers' movements.

There is no need to discuss the wholesale conversion of internationalists into nationalists and proletarian Social Democrats into bourgeois democratic parliamentarians during and after the First World War. Even such former Marxists as Paul Lensch accepted the war of the Kaiser as a realistic fulfilment of the dreams of a socialist revolution, and the about-face of the socialists they themselves glorified as a "revolutionization of the revolutionaries." There was a "national-bolshevist" fraction of the German Communist party long before there was a Hitlerian National Socialist Party. Nor does the military alliance that was concluded "seriously and for a long time" between Stalin and Hitler in August 1939, contain any novelty for those who have followed the historical development of the relations between Soviet Russia and imperial, republican, and Hitlerian Germany throughout the last twenty years. The Moscow treaty of 1939 had been preceded by the treaties of Rapallo in 1920 and of Berlin in 1926. Mussolini had already for several years openly proclaimed his new fascist credo when Lenin was scolding the Italian Communists for their failure to enlist that invaluable dynamic personality in the service of their revolutionary cause. As early as 1917, during the peace negotiations in Brest Litovsk, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht had been aware of the dreadful danger that was threatening the proletarian revolution from that side. They had said in so many words that "Russian socialism based on reactionary Prussian bayonets would be the worst that still could happen to the revolutionary workers' movement."

It appears from this historical record that there is indeed something basically wrong with the traditional Marxian theory of the social revolution and with its practical application. There is no doubt, today less than at any former time in history, that the Marxian analysis of the working of the capitalist mode of production and of its historical development is fundamentally correct. Yet it seems that the Marxian theory in its hitherto accepted form is unable to deal with the new problems that arise in the course of a not merely occasional and temporary but deep-rooted, comprehensive, and enduring counterrevolutionary development.


The main deficiency of the Marxian concept of the counterrevolution is that Marx did not, and from the viewpoint of his historical experience could not, conceive of the counterrevolution as a normal phase of social development. Like the bourgeois liberals he thought of the counterrevolution as an "abnormal" temporary disturbance of a normally progressive development. (In the same manner, pacifists to the present day think of war as an abnormal interruption of the normal state of peace, and physicians and psychiatrists until recently thought of disease and more especially the diseases of the mind as an abnormal state of the organism.) There is, however, between the Marxian approach and that of the typical bourgeois liberal this important difference: they start from a totally different idea about just what is a normal condition. The bourgeois liberal regards existing conditions or at least their basic features as the normal state of things, and any radical change as its abnormal interruption. It does not matter to him whether that disturbance of existing normal conditions results from a genuinely progressive movement or from a reactionary attempt to borrow revolution's thunder for the purpose of a counterrevolutionary aggression. He is afraid of the counterrevolution just as much as of the revolution and just because of its resemblance to a genuine revolution. That is why Guizot called the coup d'etat "the complete and final triumph of the socialist revolution" and why, for that matter, Hermann Rauschning today describes the advent of Hitlerism as a "revolt of nihilism."

As against the bourgeois concept, the Marxian theory has a distinct superiority. It understands revolution as a completely normal process. Some of the best Marxists, including Marx himself and Lenin, even said on occasion that revolution is the only normal state of society. So it is, indeed, under those objective historical conditions which are soberly stated by Marx in his preface to the "Critique of Political Economy."

Marx did not, however, apply the same objective and historical principle to the process of counterrevolution, which was known to him only in an undeveloped form. Thus, he did not see, and most people do not see today, that such important counterrevolutionary developments as those of present-day fascism and nazism have, in spite of their violent revolutionary methods, much more in common with evolution than they have with a genuine revolutionary process. It is true that in their talk and propaganda both Hitler and Mussolini have directed their attack mostly against revolutionary Marxism and communism. It is also true that before and after their seizure of state power they made a most violent attempt to weed out every Marxist and Communist tendency in the working classes. Yet this was not the main content of the fascist counterrevolution. In its actual results the fascist attempt to renovate and transform the traditional state of society does not offer an alternative to the radical solution aimed at by the revolutionary Communists. The fascist counterrevolution rather tried to replace the reformist socialist parties and trade unions, and in this it succeeded to a great extent.

The underlying historical law, the law of the fully developed fascist counterrevolution of our time, can be formulated in the following manner: After the complete exhaustion and defeat of the revolutionary forces, the fascist counterrevolution attempts to fulfil, by new revolutionary methods and in widely different form, those social and political tasks which the so-called reformistic parties and trade unions had promised to achieve but in which they could no longer succeed under the given historical conditions.

A revolution does not occur at some arbitrary point of social development but only at a definite stage. "At a certain stage of their development the material productive forces of society come into contradiction with the existing production-relations (or property-relations) within which they hitherto moved. From being forms of development, those relations turn into fetters upon the forces of production. Then a period of social revolution sets in." And again Marx emphasized, and even to a certain extent exaggerated, the objectivistic principle of his materialist theory of revolution according to which "a formation of society never perishes until all the forces of production for which it is wide enough have been developed." All this is true enough as far as it goes. We have all seen how evolutionary socialism reached the end of its rope. We have seen how the old capitalistic system based on free competition and the whole of its vast political and ideological superstructure was faced by chronic depression and decay. There seemed no way open except a wholesale transition to another, more highly developed form of society, to be effected by the social revolution of the proletarian class.

The new historical development during the last twenty years showed, however, that there was yet another course open. The transition to a new type of capitalistic society, that could no longer be achieved by the democratic and peaceful means of traditional socialism and trade unionism, was performed by a counterrevolutionary and anti-proletarian yet objectively progressive and ideologically anti-capitalistic and plebeian movement that had learned to apply to its restricted evolutionary aims the unrestricted methods developed during the preceding revolution. (More particularly, both Hitler and Mussolini had learned much in the school of Russian Bolshevism.) Thus, it appeared that the evolution of capitalistic society had not reached its utter historical limit when the ruling classes and the reformistic socialists-those self-appointed "doctors at the sickbed of capitalism" -reached the limits of their evolutionary possibilities. The phase of peaceful democratic reforms was followed by another evolutionary phase of development-that of the fascist transformation, revolutionary in its political form but evolutionary in its objective social contents.

The decisive reason that the capitalistic formation of society did not perish after the collapse of the First World War is that the workers did not make their revolution. "Fascism," said its closest enemy, "is a counterrevolution against a revolution that never took place." Capitalistic society did not perish, but instead entered a new revolutionary phase under the counterrevolutionary regime of fascism, because it was not destroyed by a successful workers' revolution, and because it had not, in fact, developed all the forces of production. The objective and the subjective premises are equally important for the counterrevolutionary conclusion.

From this viewpoint all those comfortable illusions about a hidden revolutionary significance in the temporary victory of the counterrevolution, in which the earlier Marxists so frequently indulged, must be entirely abandoned. If counterrevolution is only extremely and superficially connected with a social revolution by its procedures, but in its actual content is much more closely related to the further evolution of a given social system, and is in fact a particular historical phase of that social evolution, then it can no longer be regarded as a revolution in disguise. There is no reason to hail it either as an immediate prelude to the genuine revolution, or as an intrinsic phase of the revolutionary process itself. It appears as a particular phase of the whole developmental process, not inevitable like revolution yet becoming an inevitable step within the development of a given society under certain historical conditions. It has reached its up-to-now most comprehensive and important form in the present day fascist renovation and transformation of Europe, which in its basic economic aspect appears as a transition from the private and anarchic form of competitive capitalism to a system of planned and organized monopoly capitalism or state capitalism.


It would be the greatest folly and, for people even slightly imbued with the great discoveries of Marx in the field of the social sciences, a total relapse into a pre-materialist and pre-scientific manner of thought if one were to expect that the historical progress from competitive capitalism to planned economy and state capitalism could be repealed by any power in the world. Least of all can fascism be defeated by those people who, after a hundred years of shameless acquiescence in the total abandonment of their original ideals, now hasten to conjure up the infancy of the capitalist age with its belief in liberty, equity, fraternity, and free trade, while at the same time they surreptitiously and inefficiently try to imitate as far as possible fascism's abolition of the last remnants of those early capitalist ideas. They feel a sudden and unexpected urge to celebrate the French Revolution's fourteenth of July and at the same time dream of destroying fascism by adopting fascist methods.

In opposition to the artisan and petty-bourgeois spirit of early utopian socialism, the first word of scientific and proletarian socialism stated that big industry and the machine age had come to stay, that modern industrial workers had to find a cure for the evils of the industrial age on the basis of a further development of the new industrial forces themselves. In the same manner the scientific and proletarian socialists of our time must try to find remedies for the wrongs of monopoly capitalism and fascist dictatorship on the basis of monopoly and state capitalism itself. Neither free trade (that was not so free for the workers after all) nor the other aspects of traditional bourgeois democracy - free discussion and free press and free radio - will ever be restored. They have never existed for the suppressed and exploited class. As far as the workers are concerned, they have only exchanged one form of serfdom for another.

There is no essential difference between the way the New York Times and the Nazi press publish daily "all the news that's fit to print"-under existing conditions of privilege and coercion and hypocrisy. There is no difference in principle between the eighty-odd voices of capitalist mammoth corporations-which, over the American radio, recommend to legions of silent listeners the use of Ex-Lax, Camels, and neighbourhood groceries, along with music, war, baseball and domestic news, and dramatic sketches-and one suave voice of Mr. Goebbels who recommends armaments, race-purity, and worship of the Fuehrer. He too is quite willing to let them have music along with it-plenty of music, sporting news, and all the unpolitical stuff they can take.

This criticism of the inept and sentimental methods of present-day anti-fascism does not imply by any means that the workers should do openly what the bourgeoisie does under the disguise of a so-called antifascist fight: acquiesce in the victory of fascism. The point is to fight fascism not by fascist means but on its own ground. This seems to the present writer to be the rational meaning of what was somewhat mystically described by Alpha in the spring issue of Living Marxism as the specific task of "shock-troops" in the anti-fascist fight. Alpha anticipated that even if the localized war-of-siege waged during the first seven months of the present conflict were to extend into a general fascist world war, this would not be a "total war" and an unrestricted release of the existing powers of production for the purpose of destruction. Rather, it would still remain a monopolistic war in which the existing powers of production (destruction) would be fettered in many ways for the benefit of the monopolistic interests of privileged groups and classes. It would remain that kind of war from fear of the emancipatory effect that a total mobilization of the productive forces, even restricted to the purpose of destruction, would be bound to have for the workers or, under the present-day conditions of totally mechanized warfare, for the shocktroopers who perform the real work of that totally mechanized war.

This argument of Alpha’s can be applied more widely and much more convincingly. First of all we can disregard for the moment (although we shall have to return to it at a later stage) the peculiar restriction of the argument to the "shock-troops" and to the conditions of war. The whole traditional distinction between peace and war, production and destruction, has lost in recent times much of that semblance of truth that it had in an earlier period of modern capitalistic society. The history of the last ten years has shown that ever since, in a world drunk with apparent prosperity, the American Kellogg Pact outlawed war, peace has been abolished. From the outset Marxism was comparatively free from that simple-mindedness which believed in an immediate and clear-cut difference between production-for-use and production-for-profit. The only form of production-for-use under existing capitalistic conditions is just the production-for-profit. Productive labor for Marx, as for Smith and Ricardo, is that labor which produces a profit for the capitalist and, incidentally, a thing which may also be useful for human needs. There is no possibility of establishing a further distinction between a "good" and a "bad," a constructive and a destructive usefulness. The Goebbelian defense of the "productivity" of the labor spent on armaments in Germany by referring to the amount of "useful" labor spent in the United States for cosmetics had no novelty for the Marxist. Marx, who described the working class in its revolutionary fight as "the greatest of all productive forces" would not have been afraid to recognize war itself as an act of production, and the destructive forces of modern mechanized warfare as part of the productive forces of modern capitalistic society, such as it is. He, like Alpha, would have recognized the "shock-troops" in their "destructive" activity in war as well as in their productive activity in industry (armament and other industries-war industries all!) as real workers, a revolutionary vanguard of the modern working class. Historically it is a well-established fact that the soldier (the hired mercenary) was the first modern wage-laborer.

Thus, the old Marxian contradiction between the productive forces and the given production relations reappears in the warlike as well as in the peaceful activities of modern fascism. With it there appear again the old contrast between the workers, who as a class are interested in the full application and development of the productive forces, and the privileged classes, the monopolists of the material means of production. More than at any previous time the monopoly of political power reveals itself as the power to rule and control the social process of production. At the same time this means, under present conditions, the power to restrict production-both the production of industry in peace and destructive production in time of war-and to regulate it in the interest of the monopolist class. Even the "national" interest that was supposed to underly the present-day fascist war waged by Hitler and Mussolini is revealed by the war itself and will be revealed much more clearly by the coming peace as being ultimately an interest of the international capitalist and monopolist class. Much more clearly than at the end of the First World War it will appear that this war is waged by both parties-by the attacking fascists as well as by the defending "democrats"-as a united counterrevolutionary struggle against the workers and the soldiers who by their labor in peace and war prepared and fought the truly suicidal war.

What, then, is the hope left for the anti-fascists who are opposing the present European war and who will oppose the coming war of the hemisphere? The answer is that, just as life itself does not stop at the entrance of war, neither does the material work of modern industrial production. Fascists today quite correctly conceive the whole of their economy-that substitute for a genuine socialist economy-in terms of a "war economy" (Wehrwirtschaft). Thus, it is the task of the workers and the soldier to see to it that this job is no longer done within the restrictive rules imposed upon human labor in present-day capitalist, monopolist, and oppressive society. It has to be done in the manner prescribed by the particular instruments used; that is, in the manner prescribed by the productive forces available at the present stage of industrial development. In this manner both the productive and the destructive forces of present-day society-as every worker, every soldier knows-can be used only if they are used against their present monopolistic rulers. Total mobilization of the productive forces presupposes total mobilization of that greatest productive force which is the revolutionary working class itself.


[1] Oeuvres Completes de Proudhon, vol. VIII, Paris, 1868.

[2] First article on Class Struggles in France, Neue Rheinische Zeitung, January, 1850.

[3] The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, February, 1852.

[4] Ignazio Silone, School of Dictators, 1938.

[5] Living Marxism, vol. V, no. I, pp. 44-58.