Karl Korsch 1930

The Present State of the Problem of ‘Marxism and Philosophy’
– An Anti-Critique

Written: by Karl Korsch in 1930, as a response to criticisms of Marxism and Philosophy;
Source: Marxism and Philosophy. Karl Korsch, translated and with an Introduction by Fred Halliday, Monthly Review Press, 1970;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden for marxists.org, 2004, in its entirety.


Habent sua fata libelli [To each text its own fate]. In 1923 there appeared a work on a ‘problem of the greatest theoretical and practical importance: the relationship between Marxism and Philosophy’. It had a rigorously scientific character, but did not deny that the problem was practically related to the struggles of our age, which were then raging at their fiercest. It was prepared to receive a biased and negative theoretical reception from the tendency which it had attacked in practice. It might, on the other hand, have expected to get a fair and even friendly reception from the tendency whose practical orientation it had represented in theory, and with the tools of theory. The opposite occurred. The evaluation of Marxism and Philosophy by bourgeois philosophy and science evaded its practical premises and consequences, and interpreted its theoretical theses in a unilateral manner. Its representatives were therefore able to adopt a positive attitude towards the theoretical content of a work they had travestied. They did not provide a concrete presentation and criticism of the real theoretical and practical conclusion which all the analyses of the book served to establish and develop. Instead they unilaterally selected what, from the bourgeois point of view, was supposed to be the ‘good’ side of the work — its acknowledgment of intellectual realities. They ignored what was indeed the ‘bad’ side for the bourgeoisie — its call for the total destruction and abolition of these intellectual realities and their material basis: these goals were to be accomplished by a revolutionary class engaged in material and intellectual, practical and theoretical action. Bourgeois critics were thus able to hail a dissociated conclusion of the book as a scientific advance.[1] On the other hand, the authoritative members of the two dominant tendencies of contemporary official ‘Marxism’ sensed at once, with an unerring instinct, that this unassuming little book contained a heretical rejection of certain dogmas. Despite all their apparent disagreements, the two confessions of the old Marxist orthodox church still held these in common. They were therefore quick to denounce the book before their assembled Councils for containing views that were a deviation from accepted doctrine.[2]

At both Party Congresses in 1924 the relevant ideological authorities reacted by condemning Marxism and Philosophy as heretical. What is at once most striking about the critical arguments on which they based this condemnation is the complete identity of their content — a somewhat unexpected one for tendencies whose theory and practice diverge in all other respects. The Social Democrat Wels condemned the views of ‘Professor Korsch’ as a ‘Communist’ heresy, and the Communist Zinoviev condemned them as a ‘Revisionist’ heresy. The difference, however, was merely terminological. In point of fact there is nothing new in the arguments directly or indirectly advanced against my views by Bammel and Luppol, Bukharin and Deborin, Béla Kun and Rudas, Thalheimer and Duncker, or other critics belonging to the communist movement. (Their attacks are connected with the recent inquisition against George Lukács which I will discuss later.) They have merely repeated and developed ancient arguments of that leading representative of the other camp of official Marxism Karl Kautsky, theoretician of the Social Democratic Party. Kautsky wrote a detailed review of my book in the theoretical journal of German Social Democracy.[3] He was under the illusion that in attacking my work he was attacking ‘all the theoreticians of Communism’. The real dividing line in this debate, however, is quite different. A fundamental debate on the general state of modern Marxism has now begun, and there are many indications that despite secondary, transient or trivial conflicts, the real division on all major and decisive questions is between the old Marxist orthodoxy of Kautsky allied to the new Russian or ‘Leninist’ orthodoxy on the one side, and all critical and progressive theoretical tendencies in the proletarian movement today on the other side.

This general situation of contemporary Marxist theory explains why the great majority of my critics were far less concerned with the more limited set of questions defined by the title ‘Marxism and Philosophy’, than with two other problems which the book did not treat thoroughly but only touched upon. The first is the conception of Marxism itself which lies behind all the propositions in my text. The second is the more general problem of the Marxist concept of ideology, or of the relationship between consciousness and being, onto which the specific problem of the relationship between Marxism and Philosophy eventually debouched. On this latter point the theses I put forward in ‘Marxism and Philosophy’ agree in many ways with the propositions, founded on a broader philosophical basis, to be found in the dialectical studies of George Lukács, which appeared about the same time under the title History and Class Consciousness. In a ‘Postscript’ to my work I stated I was fundamentally in agreement with Lukács and postponed any discussion of the specific differences of method and content that remained between us. This was then quite incorrectly taken — especially by Communist critics — as an avowal of complete accord between us. In fact, I myself was not sufficiently aware at the time of the extent to which Lukács and I, despite our many theoretical similarities, did in fact diverge in more than just a few ‘detailed’ points. This is one reason — there are others which this is not the place to discuss — why I did not then respond to the insistent demand of my Communist assailants to ‘differentiate’ my views from those of Lukács. I preferred to allow these critics to go on indiscriminately assimilating the ‘deviations’ of Lukács and myself from the one ‘Marxist-Leninist’ doctrine which alone brings salvation. Today, in this second unaltered edition, I cannot again state that I am in basic agreement with Lukács’s views, as I once did. The other reasons which previously restrained me from any full exposition of our differences have also long since ceased to apply. Nevertheless, I still believe to this day that Lukács and I are objectively on the same side in our critical attitude towards the old Social Democratic Marxist orthodoxy and the new Communist orthodoxy. This is, after all, the central issue.


Marxism and Philosophy advanced a conception of Marxism that was quite undogmatic and anti-dogmatic, historical and critical, and which was therefore materialist in the strictest sense of the word. This conception involved the application of the materialist conception of history to the materialist conception of history itself. The orthodox critics of both old and new schools opposed this. Yet their first dogmatic counter-attack came in the guise of an extremely ‘historical’ and apparently quite ‘undogmatic’ accusation. They charged that my work showed a quite unjustified preference for the ‘primitive’ form in which Marx and Engels had originally founded their new dialectical materialist method, as a revolutionary theory that was directly related to revolutionary practice. I was alleged to have ignored the positive development of their theory by the Marxists of the Second International; and to have also completely overlooked the fact that Marx and Engels themselves had modified their original theory in important ways, so that it was only in a later form that it achieved its full historical elaboration.

It is clear that this raises an issue of really major importance for the historical materialist view of Marxist theory. It concerns the successive phases of development through which Marxism has passed from its original conception up to the situation today, where it is split into different historical versions. It also involves the relationship of these different phases to each other and their significance for the general historical development of theory in the modern working-class movement.

It is perfectly obvious that these different historical phases are bound to be evaluated in quite different ways by each of the dogmatic ‘Marxist’ tendencies which compete with each other in the socialist movement of today and which, even on the theoretical level, clash with greatest bitterness The collapse of the First International in the 1870s prefigured the collapse of the pre-1914 version of the Second International on the outbreak of the World War, in that both produced not one but several different tendencies, all of them invoking Marx and fighting each other for the ‘genuine ring’ — the right to claim the succession of true ‘Marxism’. It is best simply to cut through the Gordian knot of these dogmatic disputes and place oneself on the terrain of a dialectical analysis. This can be expressed symbolically by saying that the real ring has been lost. In other words, dogmatic calculations of how far the different versions of Marxist theory correspond to some abstract canon of ‘pure and unfalsified’ theory should be abandoned. All these earlier and later Marxist ideologies must on the contrary be seen in a historical, materialist and dialectical perspective as products of a historical evolution. The way one defines the different phases of this evolution, and their relations to each other, will depend on the angle from which one starts such an analysis. In my work, there is a discussion of the connection between Marxism and philosophy, and for this purpose I have distinguished three major periods of development through which Marxism has passed since its birth and in each of which its relation to philosophy has changed in a specific way.[4] This particular approach is valid only for the history of Marxism and Philosophy. This is particularly true for the second period I distinguished, which is too undifferentiated for other purposes. I dated this second period from the battle of June 1848 and the subsequent years of the 1850s, which saw an unprecedented new upswing in capitalism and the crushing of all the proletarian organizations and dreams that had arisen in the previous epoch. In my schema, this period lasted up to about the turn of the century.

It would be quite possible to argue that this was too abstract a way of analysing the ties between Marxism and philosophy. For it involved treating an extremely long period as a single unity, and ignoring historical changes within it that were of great importance for the whole history of the workers’ movement. Yet it is undoubtedly true that in the whole of the second half of the nineteenth century there was no such decisive change in the relationship between Marxism and philosophy as that which occurred at the mid-century. For it was then that philosophy expired, affecting the whole of the German bourgeoisie, and in a different way the proletariat as well. However, a full history of the relationship between Marxist theory and philosophy after 1850 would naturally have to make certain other major distinctions in this period, if it were not to be content with tracing only the very general outlines of the process. In this respect my work did leave open a great number of questions. Yet as far as I know they have not been broached by anyone else. For example, in a famous passage at the end of his work Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Friedrich Engels refers in 1888 to the German workers’ movement as the ‘heir of classical German philosophy’. This might have been taken as more than just the first sign of the approaching third phase, when Marxism and philosophy began to interact positively once again. For Engels himself refers in his introduction to ‘a kind of rebirth of classical German philosophy abroad, in England and Scandinavia, and even in Germany itself’ — although this at first only involved the revisionist Kantian Marxists who were applying the bourgeois slogan ‘Back to Kant’ to Marxist theory. I described the dialectical materialist, critical revolutionary theory of Marx and Engels in the 1840s as an ‘anti-philosophy’ which yet in itself remained philosophical. It would be necessary to make a retrospective analysis of the four decades from 1850 to 1890 to show how this ‘anti-philosophy’ later developed in two separate directions. On the one hand, socialist ‘science’ became ‘positive’ and gradually turned away from philosophy altogether. On the other hand, a philosophical development occurred, apparently in conflict with the former but in fact complementary to it. This is first to be found in the late 1850s, in the writings of Marx and Engels themselves, and then later in those of their best disciples — Labriola in Italy and Plekhanov in Russia. Its theoretical character may be defined as a kind of return to Hegel’s philosophy and not just a return to the essentially critical and revolutionary ‘anti-philosophy’ of the Left Hegelians in the Sturm und Drang period of the 1840s.[5]

This philosophical tendency of the later theory of Marx and Engels is not just to be found in the altered attitude to philosophy in Engels’s Feuerbach. It also had definite implications for the further development of Marxist economics: clear signs of this are already present in Marx’s 1859 Critique of Political Economy and in Capital. It had even more evident consequences for Engels’s special topic of the natural sciences: they may be seen in his Dialectics of Nature and Anti-Dühring. Given all this, one can only regard the ‘German workers’ movement’ as the ‘heir of classical German philosophy’ in so far as it ‘absorbed’ Marxist theory as a whole, including its philosophical aspects, with the birth of the Second International.

But these are not the issues raised by those who have criticized the three periods I outlined in the history of Marxism. They have not tried to show that this periodization was useless even for the specific purposes of my investigation. They prefer to accuse me of tending to present the whole history of Marxism after 1850 in a negative light, as a single, linear and univocal process of decay suffered by the original revolutionary theory of Marx and Engels — not only in the domain of the relation of Marxism to philosophy, but in every domain.[6] They love to attack this position, though I have never adopted it. They compete with each other in pointing out the absurdity of a view they themselves have invented and attributed to me; that Marx and Engels were responsible for the degeneration of their own theory. They never tire of proving the undoubtedly positive nature of the process that led from the original revolutionary Communism of the Manifesto to the ‘Marxism of the First International’ and then to the Marxism of Capital and the later writings of Marx and Engels. Having first argued that the later Marx and Engels made a significant contribution to the development of Marxist theory, which no one denies, they end by slipping into a claim that the ‘Marxists of the Second International’ made a ‘positive’ contribution to it too. This is where it becomes obvious that there was a dogmatic preconception behind these attacks from the outset, though they all pretend to be concerned with the historical accuracy of my account of the development of Marxism after 1850. What this really involves is a straightforward dogmatic defence of the traditional and orthodox thesis that the theory of the Second International was basically Marxist all along (according to Kautsky) or at any rate until the ‘original sin’ of 4 August 1914 (according to the Communists).

Kautsky is the clearest example of orthodox Marxist prejudices about the real historical development of Marxism. For him, it is not only the theoretical metamorphoses of the different Marxist tendencies of the Second International, but the ‘extension of Marxism undertaken by Marx and Engels with the Inaugural Address of 1864 and concluded with Engels’s introduction to the new edition of Marx’s Class Struggles in France in 1895’ which ‘broadened’ Marxism from a theory of proletarian revolution into a ‘theory valid not only for revolutionary phases but also for non-revolutionary periods’. At this stage, Kautsky had only robbed Marxist theory of its essentially revolutionary character: he still, however, professed to regard it as a ‘theory of class struggle’. Later he went much further. His most recent major work, The Materialist Conception of History, eliminates any essential connection between Marxist theory and proletarian struggle whatever. His whole protest against my alleged ‘charge’ that Marx and Engels impoverished and banalized Marxism is merely a cover for a scholastic and dogmatic attempt to base his own betrayal of Marxism on the ‘authority’ of Marx and Engels. He and others once made a pretence of accepting Marxist theory, but have long since denatured it out of recognition, and have now abandoned the last remnants of it.

Yet it is exactly here that the theoretical solidarity of the new Communists with the old Marxist orthodoxy of Social Democracy emerges. Communist critics like Bammel argue that in my work ‘concepts like “the Marxism of the Second International” are obscured by an excessively abstract and schematized problematic’. This accusation conceals a dogmatic attempt to defend the ‘Marxism of the Second International’ whose spiritual legacy Lenin and his companions never abandoned, in spite of some things they said in the heat of battle. As Communist ‘theoreticians’ tend to do in such cases, Bammel avoids taking any responsibility himself for trying to rescue the honour of Second International Marxism. Instead he hides in Lenin’s ample shadow. He tries to explain to the reader what he means by attacking the allegedly ‘abstract and schematic’ way in which Marxism and Philosophy obscures the ‘Marxism of the Second International’, and he does this in standard scholastic fashion by quoting a sentence of Lenin in which he once acknowledged the ‘historical contribution of the Second International’ to advancing the modern workers’ movement.[7] Lenin was a great tactician and he made this remark in a highly complex tactical situation, when he was referring to the International’s practical contribution and not to its theoretical one. But Bammel stops short of his intention of extending Lenin’s praise of the good aspects of Social Democratic practice to Social Democratic theory. Instead of drawing this clear conclusion, he mumbles in ‘an excessively abstract and obscure way’ something to the effect that ‘it would not be difficult to show that it would be quite possible to say somewhat the same thing about the theoretical foundation of Marxism’.

Since Marxism and Philosophy I have written a study elsewhere of the real historical nature of the ‘Marxism of the Second International’. What happened was that the socialist movement reawoke and grew stronger as historical conditions changed over the last third of the nineteenth century; yet contrary to what is supposed, it never adopted Marxism as a total system.’ According to the ideology of the orthodox Marxists and of their opponents, who share much the same dogmatic ground, it is to be believed that the whole of Marxism was adopted in both theory and practice. In fact all that was even theoretically adopted were some isolated economic, political and social ‘theories’, extracted from the general context of revolutionary Marxism. Their general meaning had thereby been altered; and their specific content usually truncated and falsified. The endless asseverations of the rigorously ‘Marxist’ character of the programme and theory of the movement do not date from the period in which the practice of the new Social Democratic workers’ movement approximated most to the revolutionary and class-combative character of Marxist theory. In this early period the ‘two old men in London’, and after Marx’s death in 1883, Friedrich Engels alone, were directly involved in the movement. Paradoxically, these asseverations date from a later period when certain other tendencies were gaining ground in both trade union and political practice, which were ultimately to find their ideological expression in ‘revisionism’. In fact, at the time when the practice of the movement was most revolutionary, its theory was essentially ‘populist’ and democratic (under the influence of Lassalle and Dühring) and only sporadically ‘Marxist’.’ This was the result of the impact of the periods of economic crisis and depression in the 1870s the political and social reaction following the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871, the Anti-socialist laws in Germany, the defeat of the growing socialist movement in Austria in 1884 and the violent suppression of the movement for an eight-hour day in America in 1886. However, the 1890s saw a new industrial boom in Europe, especially in Germany, and therewith the first signs appeared of a ‘more democratic’ use of state power on the continent of Europe. This process included the French amnesty for the Communards in 188o, and the lapsing of the anti-socialist laws in Germany in 1890. In this new practical context, formal avowals of the Marxist system as a whole emerged as a kind of theoretical defence and metaphysical consolation. In this sense, one can actually invert the generally accepted relationship between Kautskyian ‘Marxism’ and Bernsteinian ‘revisionism’, and define Kautsky’s orthodox Marxism as the theoretical obverse and symmetrical complement of Bernstein’s revisionism.[10]

In the light of this real historical situation, the complaints of orthodox Marxist critics against my work are not only unjustified but null and void. I am alleged to have a predilection for the ‘primitive’ form of the first historical version of the theory of Marx and Engels, and to have disregarded its positive development by Marx and Engels themselves , and by other Marxists in the second half of the nineteenth century. It is claimed that the ‘Marxism of the Second International’ represents an advance on original Marxist theory. Yet in fact it was a new historical form of proletarian class theory, which emerged from the altered practical context of the class struggle in a new historical epoch. Its relationship to the earlier or later versions of the theory of Marx and Engels is very different from, and essentially more complex than, the way it is presented by those who talk of a positive development, or conversely of a formal stagnation or regression and decay of Marx’s theory in the ‘Marxism of the Second International’. Marxism is therefore in no way a socialist theory that has been ‘superseded’ by the present outlook of the workers’ movement, as Kautsky maintains (formally he refers only to its earlier version, the ‘primitive Marxism of the Communist Manifesto’, but actually he includes all the later components of Marx and Engels’s theory as well). Nor is Marxism what it was claimed to be by the representatives of the revolutionary tendency within orthodox Social Democratic Marxism at the start of the third period towards 1900 or what some Marxists still consider it to be. It is not a theory that has miraculously anticipated the future development of the workers’ movement for a long time to come. Consequently it cannot be said that the subsequent practical progress of the proletariat has, as it were, lagged behind its own theory or that it will only gradually come to occupy the framework allotted to it by this theory.” When the SPD became a ‘Marxist’ party (a process completed with the Erfurt Programme written by Kautsky and Bernstein in 1891) a gap developed between its highly articulated revolutionary ‘Marxist’ theory and a practice that was far behind this revolutionary theory; in some respects it directly contradicted it. This gap was in fact obvious, and it later came to be felt more and more acutely by all the vital forces in the Party (whether on the Left or Right) and its existence was denied only by the orthodox Marxists of the Centre. This gap can easily be explained by the fact that in this historical phase ‘Marxism’, while formally accepted by the workers’ movement, was from the start not a true theory, in the sense of being ‘nothing other than a general expression of the real historical movement’ (Marx). On the contrary it was always an ideology that had been adopted ‘from outside’ in a pre-established form.

In this situation such ‘orthodox Marxists’ as Kautsky and Lenin made a permanent virtue out of a temporary necessity. They energetically defended the idea that socialism can only be brought to the workers ‘from outside’, by bourgeois intellectuals who are allied to the workers’ movement.[12] This was also true of Left radicals like Rosa Luxemburg who talked of the ‘stagnation of Marxism’ and explained it by contrasting Marx to the proletariat: the one had creative power because he was armed with all the resources of a bourgeois education, while the other remains tied to ‘the social conditions of existence in our society’, which will continue unaltered throughout the capitalist epoch.[13] The truth is that a historical fact provides a materialist explanation of this apparent contradiction between theory and practice in the ‘Marxist’ Second International, and a rational solution for all the mysteries which the orthodox Marxists of that time devised to explain it. The fact is this. The workers’ movement at that time formally adopted ‘Marxism’ as its ideology; yet although its effective practice was now on a broader basis than before, it had in no way reached the heights of general and theoretical achievement earlier attained by the revolutionary movement and proletarian class struggle on a narrower basis. This height was attained during the final phase of the firs major capitalist cycle that came to an end towards 1850. At that time, the workers’ movement had achieved a peak of development. But it then came to a temporary yet complete halt, and only revived slowly, as conditions changed. Marx and Engels had initially conceived their revolutionary theory in direct relation to the practical revolutionary movement, but when this died down they could only continue their work as theory. It is true that this later development of Marxist theory was never just the production of ‘purely theoretical’ study; it was always a theoretical reflection of the latest practical experiences of the class struggle which was reawakening in various ways. Nevertheless it is clear that the theory of Marx and Engels was progressing towards an ever higher level of theoretical perfection although it was no longer directly related to the practice of the worker’s movement. Thus two processes unfolded side by side in relative independence of each other. One was the development under novel conditions of the old theory which had arisen in a previous historical epoch. The other was the new practice of the workers’ movement. It is this which explains the literally ‘anachronistic’ height which Marxist theory reached and surpassed in this period, generally and philosophically, in the work of Marx, Engels and some of their disciples. This is also why it was wholly impossible for this highly elaborate Marxist theory to be effectively and not just formally assimilated by the proletarian movement, whose practice reawakened during the last third of the nineteenth century.[14]


Orthodox Marxists, whether Social Democrats or Communists, have a second major criticism. This concerns my thesis in Marxism and Philosophy that there needs to be a new appraisal of the relation between philosophy and Marxism in the third phase of the development of Marxism which began at the turn of the century. In the period before this, various trends within Marxism had neglected and minimized the revolutionary philosophical content of the teaching of Marx and Engels — a neglect which took various forms but had a common outcome. By contrast, Marxism and Philosophy aimed to re-emphasize this philosophical side of Marxism. In doing so it stood opposed to all those groups within German and international Marxism which had earlier appeared as consciously Kantian, Machian or other philosophical ‘revisions’ of Marxism. The most prominent of these trends, which developed among the dominant centrist group within Orthodox Marxist Social Democracy, came more and more to adopt an anti-philosophical, scientifico-positivist conception of Marxism. Even such orthodox revolutionaries as Franz Mehring paid tribute to this view by endorsing its disdain for all philosophical ‘fantasies’. Nevertheless, it soon became clear that my conception of the revolutionary tasks of philosophy today was if possible even more antagonistic to a third trend. This was a tendency which had mainly emerged from the two factions of Russian Marxism and was now chiefly represented by the theoreticians of the new Bolshevik ‘Marxism-Leninism’.

Both Georg Lukács’s studies on dialectical materialism and the first edition of my own work appeared in 1923. As soon as they became known, they were attacked with extraordinary hostility by the Party press in Russia and everywhere else. This was mainly due to the fact that the leadership of the Russian Party, under the slogan of ‘propagating Leninism’, had by then begun their campaign to ‘Bolshevize’ the ideology of all the non-Russian Parties that belonged to the Communist International.[15] This coincided with a sharpening of the struggle among Lenin’s successors for the legacy of Leninism (which had begun during his lifetime), and with the events of October and November 1923 in Germany which constituted a major defeat for the political practice of international Communism in the West. The central element of this ‘Bolshevized’ ideology was a strictly philosophical ideology that claimed to restore the true unfalsified philosophy of Marx. On this basis, it aimed to combat all other philosophical tendencies within the workers’ movement.

As it moved westwards, this Marxist-Leninist philosophy encountered the works of Lukács, myself and other ‘Western’ Communists which formed an antagonistic philosophical tendency within the Communist International itself. This then led to the first real and direct philosophical discussion between the two revolutionary trends that had developed within the pre-war Social Democratic International. These were united only superficially in the Communist International, although their disagreements had hitherto been confined to political and tactical questions.[16] For certain historical reasons to be mentioned below, this philosophical discussion was only a weak echo of the political and tactical disputes that the two sides had conducted so fiercely some years before. It was soon obscured by the factional disputes that from 1925 onwards emerged in the Russian Party and which were then fought out mote and more fiercely in all the other Communist Parties. In spite of this, the discussion did have a certain importance for a time within the overall development. For it was a first attempt to break through what a Russian critic, who was extremely well informed on the theoretical situation on both sides, called the ,mutual impenetrability’ that had hitherto prevailed between the ideological positions of Russian and of Western Communism.[17]

Let us sum up this philosophical dispute of 1924 in the ideological form that it took in the minds of those who participated in it. It was a dispute between, on the one hand, the Leninist interpretation of Marx and Engels’s materialism[18] which had already been formally canonized in Russia and, on the other hand, what were alleged to be views that ‘deviated’ from this canon in the direction of idealism, of Kant’s critical epistemology and of Hegel’s idealist dialectic. These were the views of George Lukács; and a number of other theoreticians in the German and Hungarian Communist Parties who were regarded with varying degrees of justice as his supporters.[19]

In the case of Marxism and Philosophy, this accusation of an ‘idealist deviation’ was partially based on attributions to the author of views which he had never expressed in his work: in some cases he had explicitly rejected them, as in the case of his alleged denial of the ‘dialectics of nature’.[20] However, attacks were also directed at views that really did occur in Marxism and Philosophy, and especially against its repeated dialectical rejection of ‘naive realism’. The latter included both ‘so-called sound common sense, the worst metaphysician’, and the normal ‘positivist science’ of bourgeois society; it also included the sad heir of positivism today, namely, a vulgar-marxism that is devoid of any philosophical perspective. For all these ‘draw a sharp line of division between consciousness and its object’ and ‘treat consciousness as something given, something fundamentally contrasted to Being and Nature’ (as Engels pointed out against Dühring as early as 1878).

Because I then believed that this view was self-evident to any materialist dialectician or revolutionary Marxist, I assumed rather than spelt out this critique of a primitive, pre-dialectical and even pre-transcendental conception of the relation between consciousness and being. But without realizing it I had hit on the very key to the ‘philosophical’ outlook which was then due to be dispensed from Moscow to the whole of the Western Communist world. Indeed it formed the basis of the new orthodox theory, so-called ‘Marxism-Leninism’. The professional exponents of the new Russian ‘Marxism-Leninism’ then replied to this supposedly ‘idealist’ attack by repeating the ABC of the ‘materialist’ alphabet they had learnt by heart.[21] This they did with a naivete that can only appear as a ,state of philosophical innocence’ to corrupt ‘Westerners’.

I think that the specifically theoretical debate with Lenin’s materialist philosophy, which Lenin’s epigones have followed to the letter despite grotesque inconsistencies and crying contradictions in it, is itself of secondary importance. This is because when he was alive Lenin himself did not base this philosophy on any essentially theoretical formulation. Instead, he defended it on practical and political grounds as the only philosophy that was ‘beneficial’ to the revolutionary proletariat. He contrasted it with ‘harmful’ systems derived from Kantian, Machian and other idealist philosophies. This attitude is clearly expressed in his intimate correspondence on ‘philosophical’ questions with Maxim Gorki in the years following the first Russian Revolution of 1905. Though they were personal friends, they disagreed philosophically and Lenin tried again and again to persuade Gorky that ‘a member of the party has the duty to oppose a particular theory if he is convinced that it is completely incorrect and harmful’, and that the most important thing to do in the case of such an ‘absolutely unavoidable struggle’ is ‘to ensure that the essential practical work of the party is not impaired’.[22] Similarly the real importance of Lenin’s major philosophical work does not lie in the philosophical arguments he uses to combat and ‘refute’ the various idealist tendencies in modern bourgeois philosophy; of these Kantianism had influenced the revisionist tendency within the socialist movement of the period, while Machian ‘empirio-criticism’ had influenced the centrist tendency. The real importance of Lenin’s work rests in the extreme rigour with which he tried in practice to combat and destroy these contemporary philosophical trends. He regarded them as ideologies that were incorrect from the standpoint of party work.

One vital point must be made here.[23] The author of this supposed restoration of the true materialist philosophy of Marx was quite clear about the kind of theoretical work Marx and Engels had carried out after finishing once and for all with the idealism of Hegel and the Hegelians in the 1840s:[24] ‘They limited themselves in the field of epistemology to correcting the mistakes of Feuerbach, to mocking at the banalities of Dühring, to criticizing the mistakes of Buchner, and to emphasizing dialectics — which is what these authors, who were very popular in working-class circles, lacked most of all.’ ‘Marx, Engels and Dietzgen did not bother about the basic truths of materialism. These were being hawked around the world by dozens of pedlars. They concentrated on preventing these basic truths from being vulgarized and simplified too far, from leading to intellectual stagnation (“materialism below, idealism above”), and on preventing the valuable fruit of the idealist system, Hegel’s dialectic, from being forgotten. These were the gems which idiots like Buchner, Dühring and co. (as well as Leclair, Mach, Avenarius, etc.) were unable to extract from the dungheap of absolute idealism.’ To put it briefly: a result of the way existing historical conditions affected the philosophical work of Marx and Engels was that ,they tended rather to distance themselves from vulgarizations of basic materialist truths than to defend these truths themselves’. Similarly, in their political work ‘they tended more to distance themselves from vulgar versions of the basic demands of political democracy than actually to defend these basic demands’. Lenin, however, argues that present historical conditions are, in this respect, completely different. He and all other revolutionary Marxists and materialists must now make it a leading priority to defend, not basic democratic political demands, but the ‘basic truths of philosophical materialism’ against their modern opponents in the bourgeois camp and their agents in the proletarian camp itself. These truths must be deliberately linked to the revolutionary bourgeois materialism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and spread among the millions and millions of peasants and other backward masses throughout Russia, Asia and the whole world.[25]

It is clear that Lenin is not primarily concerned with the theoretical problem of whether the materialist philosophy he propounds is true or untrue. He is concerned with the practical question of its use for the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat, or — in countries where capitalism is not fully developed — of the proletariat and other oppressed classes. Lenin’s ‘philosophical’ standpoint basically appears, therefore, to be a specific, if disguised version of the position which in a different form had already been discussed in the first edition of Marxism and Philosophy. This position was strongly criticized by Marx as a young man when he wrote of the ‘practically-oriented political party which imagines that it can supersede philosophy (in practice) without realizing it (in theory)’. Lenin decides philosophical questions only on the basis of non-philosophical considerations and results. He does not judge them on the basis of their theoretical and philosophical content as well. In so doing he commits the same mistakes as according to Marx the ‘practically-oriented political party in Germany’ committed. The latter believed it was accomplishing its justified aim of the ‘negation of all philosophy’ (in Lenin, of all idealist philosophy) because ‘it turns its back on philosophy, looks in the other direction and mutters irritable and banal remarks about it’.[26]

Any discussion of Lenin’s position on philosophy and ideology must pose one initial question on which a judgement of Lenin’s specific ‘materialist philosophy’ has to depend. According to a principle established by Lenin himself, this question is a historical one. Lenin argued that there had been a change in the whole intellectual climate which made it necessary when dealing with dialectical materialism to stress materialism against certain fashionable tendencies in bourgeois philosophy, rather than to stress dialectics against the vulgar, pre-dialectical and in some cases explicitly undialectical and anti-dialectical materialism of bourgeois science. The question is whether there had been such a change. What I have written elsewhere shows that I do not think this is really the case. There are some superficial aspects of contemporary bourgeois philosophy and science which appear to contradict this, and there certainly are some trends which genuinely do so. Nevertheless the dominant basic trend in contemporary bourgeois philosophy, natural science and humanities is the same as it was sixty or seventy years ago. It is inspired not by an idealist outlook but by a materialist outlook that is coloured by the natural sciences.[27] Lenin’s position, which disputes this, is in close ideological relation to his politico-economic theory of ‘imperialism’. Both have their material roots in the specific economic and social situation of Russia and the specific practical and theoretical political tasks that seemed, and for a short period really were, necessary to accomplish the Russian Revolution. This means that the ‘Leninist’ theory is not theoretically capable of answering the practical needs of the international class struggle in the present period. Consequently, Lenin’s materialist philosophy, which forms the ideological basis of this theory, cannot constitute the revolutionary proletarian philosophy that will answer the needs of today.

The theoretical character of Lenin’s materialist philosophy also corresponds to this historical and practical situation. Like Plekhanov, his philosophical master, and L. Axelrod-Orthodox, the latter’s other philosophical pupil, Lenin wanted very seriously to be a Marxist while remaining a Hegelian. He thereby flouted the dialectical materialist outlook that Marx and Engels founded at the start of their revolutionary development. This outlook was by its very nature unavoidably 9 philosophical’, but it pointed towards the complete supersession of philosophy; and it left one single revolutionary task in the philosophical field, which was to develop this outlook by taking it to a higher level of elaboration. Lenin regards the transition from Hegel’s idealist dialectic to Marx and Engels’s dialectical materialism as nothing more than an exchange: the idealist outlook that lies at the basis of Hegel’s dialectical method is replaced by a new philosophical outlook that is no longer ‘idealist’ but ‘materialist’. He seems to be unaware that such a ‘materialist inversion’ of Hegel’s idealist philosophy involves at the most a merely terminological change whereby the Absolute instead of being called ‘Spirit’ is called ‘Matter’. There is, however, an even more serious vice in Lenin’s materialism. For he is not only annuls Marx and Engels’s materialist inversion of the Hegelian dialectic; he drags the whole debate between materialism and idealism back to a historical stage which German idealism from Kant to Hegel had already surpassed. The dissolution of the metaphysical systems of Leibniz and Wolff began with Kant’s transcendental philosophy and ended with Hegel’s dialectic. Thereafter the ‘Absolute’ was definitively excluded from the being of both ‘spirit’ and ‘matter’, and was transferred into the dialectical movement of the ‘idea’. The materialist inversion by Marx and Engels of Hegel’s idealist dialectic merely consisted in freeing this dialectic from its final mystifying shell. The real movement of history was discovered beneath the dialectical ‘self-movement of the idea’, and this revolutionary movement of history was proclaimed to be the only ‘Absolute’ remaining.[28] Lenin, however, goes back to the absolute polarities of ‘thought’ and ‘being’, ‘spirit’ and ‘matter’, which had formed the basis of the philosophical, and even some of the religious, disputes that had divided the two currents of the Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.[29] Hegel, of course, had already surpassed these dialectically.

This kind of materialism is derived from a metaphysical idea of Being that is absolute and given; and despite all its formal claims to the contrary it is no longer fully dialectical let alone dialectically materialist. Lenin and his followers unilaterally transfer the dialectic into Object, Nature and History and they present knowledge merely as the passive mirror and reflection of this objective Being in the subjective Consciousness. In so doing they destroy both the dialectical interrelation of being and consciousness and, as a necessary consequence, the dialectical interrelation of theory and practice. They thereby manage to pay an involuntary tribute to the ‘Kantianism’ that they attack so much. Not content with this, they have abandoned the question of the relationship between the totality of historical being and all historically prevalent forms of consciousness. This was first posed by Hegel’s dialectic and was then given a more comprehensive elaboration by the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels. Lenin and those like him have revised it in a retrograde way by replacing it with the much narrower epistemological or ‘gnoseological’ question of the relationship between the subject and object of knowledge. Nor is this all. They present knowledge as a fundamentally harmonious evolutionary progress and an infinite progression towards absolute truth. Their presentation of the relationship between theory and practice in general, and in particular within the revolutionary movement itself, is a complete abandonment of Marx’s dialectical materialism and a retreat to a totally abstract opposition of pure theory, which discovers truths, to pure practice, which applies these laboriously discovered truths to reality. ‘The real unity of theory and practice is achieved by changing reality in practice, through the revolutionary movement based on the laws of objective development discovered by theory’ — these are the words of one of Lenin’s philosophical interpreters, and he has not departed one iota from the teachings of the master. With them, the grandiose dialectical materialist unity of Marx’s revolutionary practice collapses into a dualism comparable to that of the most typical bourgeois idealists.[30]

There is another inevitable consequence of this displacement of the accent from the dialectic to materialism. It prevents materialist philosophy from contributing to the further development of the empirical sciences of nature and society. In the dialectic method and content are inseparably linked. in a famous passage Marx says that ‘form has no value when it is not the form of its content’.[31] It is therefore completely against the spirit of the dialectic, and especially of the materialist dialectic, to counterpose the dialectical materialist ‘method’ to the substantive results achieved by applying it to philosophy and the sciences. This procedure has become very fashionable in Western Marxism. Nevertheless, behind this exaggeration there lies a correct insight — namely, that dialectical materialism influenced the progress of the empirical study of nature and society in the second half of the nineteenth century above all because of its method.[32]

When the revolutionary movement and its practice came to a halt in the 1850s, there inevitably developed an increasing gap between the evolution of philosophy and that of the positive sciences, between the evolution of theory and that of practice: this has already been explained in Marxism and Philosophy. The result was that for a long period the new revolutionary conceptions of Marx and Engels survived and developed mainly through their application as a dialectical materialist method to the empirical sciences of society and nature. It is in this period that one finds statements, especially by the later Engels, formally proclaiming individual sciences to be independent of ‘all philosophy’, and asserting that philosophy has been ‘driven from nature and from history’ into the only field of activity left to it: ‘the theory of thought and its laws — formal logic and dialectics’. In reality, this meant that Engels reduced so-called ‘philosophy’ from an individual science above others, to an empirical science among others.[33] Lenin’s later positions might appear at first glance to be like that of Engels, but they are in actual fact as distinct as night and day. Engels considered that it was the crucial task of the materialist dialectic to ‘rescue the conscious dialectic from German idealism and to incorporate it in the materialist conception of nature and of history’.[34] Lenin’s procedure is the inverse. For him the major task is to uphold and defend the materialist position which no one has ever seriously thought of questioning. Engels goes on to make a statement that is in keeping with the progress and development of the sciences; he says that modern materialism whether applied to nature or history ‘is in both cases essentially dialectical and does not in addition need a philosophy which stands above the other branches of knowledge’. Lenin, however, insistently carps at ‘philosophical deviations’ that he has discerned not only among political friends or enemies, or philosophical ideologues, but even among the most creative natural scientists.[35] His ‘materialist philosophy’ becomes a kind of supreme judicial authority for evaluating the findings of individual sciences, past, present or future.[36] This materialist ‘philosophical’ domination covers all the sciences, whether of nature or society, as well as all other cultural developments in literature, drama, plastic arts and so on; and Lenin’s epigones have taken it to the most absurd lengths. This has resulted in a specific kind of ideological dictatorship which oscillates between revolutionary progress and the blackest reaction. Under the slogan of what is called ‘Marxism-Leninism’, this dictatorship is applied in Russia today to the whole intellectual life not only of the ruling Party, but of the working-class in general. There are now attempts to extend it from Russia to all the Communist Parties in the West, and in the rest of the world. These attempts, however, have precisely shown the inevitable limits to any such artificial extension of this ideological dictatorship into the international arena outside Russia, where it no longer receives the direct coercive support of the State. The Draft Programme of the Communist International, of the Fifth Comintern Congress of 1924, called for a ‘rigorous struggle against idealist philosophy and against all philosophies other than dialectical materialism’, whereas at the Sixth Congress, held four years later, the version of the Programme that was finally adopted spoke in a much more general way of the struggle against ‘all manifestations of a bourgeois outlook’. It no longer described ‘the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels’ as a materialist philosophy, but only as a ‘revolutionary method (!) for understanding reality with the aim of its revolutionary overthrow’.[37]


It is only recently that ‘Marxist-Leninist’ ideology has made such claims outside Russia, and the change in Comintern policy I have mentioned may indicate that these claims are now going to be abandoned. Nevertheless, the deeper problem of Lenin’s ‘materialist philosophy’ and of Marxism-Leninism has not been resolved. The problem of Marxism and Philosophy must be reopened, together with the broader issue of the relation between the ideology and the practice of the revolutionary workers’ movement. This poses a concrete task in relation to Communist ‘Marxism-Leninism’. A materialist, that is a historical, critical and undogmatic analysis has already been made of the character of the ‘Kautskyian’ orthodox Marxism of the Second International. This must now be unflinchingly extended to the ‘Leninist’ orthodox Marxism of the Third International; and it must be applied to the whole history of Russian Marxism and its relation to international Marxism. For the ‘Marxism-Leninism’ of today is only the latest offshoot of this history. It is not possible to provide a more concrete elaboration here. One can only indicate a very general outline of such a materialist account of the real history of Marxism in Russia and elsewhere. Even so it yields a sobering conclusion. Russian Marxism, which was if possible even more ‘orthodox’ than German Marxism, had throughout its history an even more ideological character and if possible was in even greater conflict with the concrete historical movement of which it was the ideology.

Trotsky’s perceptive critical analysis of 1908 showed that this was true of the first phase of its history. The Russian intelligentsia had previously been brought up in the Bakuninist ‘spirit of a simple rejection of capitalist culture’, and Marxism served as an ideological instrument to reconcile them to the development of capitalism.[38] It is also valid for the second phase, which reached its climax in the first Russian Revolution of 1905. At that time all revolutionary Marxists in Russia, not least Lenin and Trotsky, declared themselves to be part of ‘the flesh and blood’ of international socialism and for them this meant orthodox Marxism. On the other side Karl Kautsky and his Neue Zeit were in complete agreement with orthodox Russian Marxism on all theoretical questions. Indeed, as far as the philosophical foundations of its theory were concerned, German orthodox Marxism was more influenced by Russian Marxism than itself influential on it, since the Germans were to a considerable extent under the sway of the Russian theoretician Plekhanov. Thus a great international united front of Marxist orthodoxy was able to sustain itself without major difficulty, because historically it was only necessary for it to exist in the realm of ideology and as ideology. This was true both in the West and in Russia, and in Russia even more than in Central and Western Europe. Russian Marxism is now in its third phase and it still exhibits the same ideological character and the same inevitable concomitant contradiction between a professed ‘orthodox’ theory and the real historical character of the movement. It found its most vivid expression in Lenin’s orthodox Marxist theory and his totally unorthodox practice;[39] and it is now caricatured by the glaring contradictions between theory and practice in contemporary ‘Soviet Marxism’.

This general character of Russian Marxism has persisted without fundamental change into the ‘Soviet Marxism’ of today. Involuntary confirmation of this is provided by the position of the above-mentioned Schifrin, a political opponent of the ruling Bolshevik Party, on the general philosophical principles of Soviet Marxism. In an article in Die Gesellschaft (IV, 7), he made what looked like a fierce attack on ‘Soviet Marxism’, but from a philosophical point of view this really concealed a defence of it. He claims that Soviet Marxism ‘wants to make a sincere attempt to reinforce Marxism in its most consistent and orthodox form’ against degenerate ‘subjectivist’ and ‘revisionist’ tendencies (e.g. ‘neglect of the master’s most important statements'), that have emerged as a result of the insuperable difficulties that it is facing. The same bias is even clearer in another article of Schifrin in Die Gesellschaft of August 1929. In this, Schifrin discusses the latest work by Karl Kautsky, the leading representative of German orthodox Marxism, and although he is very critical of most of Kautsky’s individual positions, he greets Kautsky’s book warmly as the beginning of a ‘restoration of genuine Marxism’. He assigns Kautsky the ‘ideological mission’ of overcoming the various kinds of ‘subjectivist disintegration of Marxism’ that have recently appeared in the West as well as in ‘Sovietized Russian Marxism’, and of overcoming the ‘ideological crisis’ that this has caused throughout Marxism.[40] The article is particularly clear evidence of the philosophical solidarity of the whole orthodox Marxist movement down to this day. In his critique of contemporary Soviet Marxist ‘Leninism’ and in his attitudes to contemporary ‘Kautskyism’, Schifrin completely fails to see that both of these ideological versions of orthodox Marxism have emerged from the traditions of earlier Russian and international Marxism. Today they only represent evanescent historical forms that date from a previous phase of the workers’ movement. Here, in this assessment of the character of ‘Marxism-Leninism’ and of ‘Soviet Marxism’, one can see the full and fundamental unity of outlook between the old and the new schools of contemporary orthodox Marxism: Social Democracy and Communism. It has been seen how Communist theoreticians reacted to Marxism and Philosophy by defending the positive and progressive character of the Marxism of the Second International. Now, in the periodical of German Social Democracy, one can see a Menshevik theoretician entering the lists to defend the ‘generally valid’ and ‘compelling’ philosophical features of the Marxism of the Third International.

This ends my account of the present state of the problem of Marxism and Philosophy — a problem that since 1923 has been changed in many ways by new theoretical and practical developments. The general outlines of my evolution since then are clear enough, and I have therefore refrained from correcting all the details of what I then said in the light of my present position. In only one respect does it appear to be necessary to make an exception. Marxism and Philosophy argued that during the social revolution a ‘dictatorship’ was necessary not only in the field of politics, but also that of ideology. This led to many misunderstandings, especially in the case of Kautsky. In his review of my book he showed both that lie had misinterpreted my positions and that he had certain illusions about the conditions prevailing in Russia. Thus as late as 1924 he stated that ‘dictatorship in the realm of ideas’ had ‘never occurred to anyone, not even to Zinoviev and Dzherzhinsky’. I now think that the abstract formulation of this demand in my book is genuinely misleading, and I must emphasize that the pursuit of revolutionary struggle by what Marxism and Philosophy called an ‘ideological dictatorship’ is in three respects different from the system of intellectual oppression established in Russia today in the name of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. First of all, it is a dictatorship of the proletariat and not over the proletariat. Secondly, it is a dictatorship of a class and not of a party or party leadership. Thirdly, and most importantly, as a revolutionary dictatorship it is one element only of that radical process of social overthrow which by suppressing classes and class contradictions creates the preconditions for a ‘withering away of the State’, and thereby the end of all ideological constraint. The essential purpose of an ‘ideological dictatorship’ in this sense is to abolish its own material and ideological causes and thereby to make its own existence unnecessary and impossible. From the very first day, this genuine proletarian dictatorship will be distinguished from every false imitation of it by its creation of the conditions of intellectual freedom not only for ‘all’ workers but for ‘each individual’ worker. Despite the alleged ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom of thought’ in bourgeois society, this freedom has never been enjoyed anywhere by the wage slaves who suffer its physical and spiritual oppression. This is what concretely defines the Marxist concept of the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. With it disappears the otherwise apparent contradiction between a call for ‘ideological dictatorship’, and the essentially critical and revolutionary nature of the method and the outlook of Communism. Socialism, both in its ends and in its means, is a struggle to realize freedom.