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International Socialism, Winter 1964/5


Erich Gerlach

Karl Korsch’s Undogmatic Marxism


From International Socialism, No.19, Winter 1964/5, pp.22-27.
Translated by Ian H. Birchall.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Russel and Russel have reprinted Karl Korsch’s Karl Marx, which was first published by Chapman & Hall in England in 1938. [1] A review in the Sociological Review of 1939 called the book ‘the Marx study most solidly close to the actual teachings of Marx ... an invaluable help in finding out about Marx, the real Marx as distinct from the figment his disciples made of his doctrine.’

We consider that this judgment remains wholly true, and even today we cannot think of any better and more complete presentation of Marx’s thought than this book, which has the added merit of fulfilling its purpose within 250 pages. However, this essay will not be a review in the normal sense of the word. We would much rather use this reprinting of one of Korsch’s works as an opportunity of drawing the attention of English-speaking socialists to an important German Marxist [2] whose work, because of developments in the working-class movement, has been almost forgotten for a long time. Only in recent years has interest in Korsch once again begun to grow. This is especially tarue for a younger generation of Marxists, who seek in his writings a starting-point for the refutation of dogmatic Marxism, and for the further development of Marx’s teaching into a theory suitable for the modern situation. Korsch has made a great contribution to this ‘new’ Marxism, especially by applying the dialectical method even to Marxism, and by revising and developing Marxist theory by means of its practical application.

1. The ‘Syndicalist’ element in Korsch’s thought

Korsch starts from the total inheritance of the First International. The tragic split of socialism into a ‘syndicalist’ and a ‘social-democratic’ wing did not occur in his case. The emphasis on the positive role of ideas, and on the conscious self-activity of workers, which is expressed by ‘direct action’ and ‘workers’ councils’, continued to be an integral part of his conception of socialism. This view separates him fundamentally from the ‘orthodox Marxists’, who expect the victory of socialism as an inevitable result of an ‘objective development’. In an essay which is remarkable in the context of German ‘Marxist orthodoxy’ he wrote as early as 1912 that the ‘theoretical system’ of socialism revealed a ‘gap’ from the ‘practical point of view: ‘If you ask a socialist what he means by “socialism”, then at best you will get a description of capitalism, and the comment, that “socialism” will destroy this capitalism by the nationalisation of the means of production.’ Socialism was only negatively defined; from a positive point of view the formula was empty. [3]

In this connection he referred to the Syndicalists and the Fabian Society. In Germany too ‘the much simpler demands of syndicalism, which lay much closer to the industrial workers’ would ‘offer a considerable challenge to the reigning dogmas of Marxism.’ [4] The Fabian Society, admittedly, shared with the German Marxists the conviction that socialism would come of itself. However, it added an ‘orientation towards intention.’ It believed that it was necessary to ‘educate everyone for socialism’, if socialism was to ‘advance the ideal of humanity’. Moreover, by studying scientifically the problems of ‘industrial control’, it was helping to develop a ‘positive formula for the construction of socialism.’ [5]

2. Theory and Practice of the ‘Workers’ Council’

Impressed by the revolutionary movements at the end of the First World War, which made clear the connection between Marx’s dialectical view and revolution, Korsch was completely converted to this view. He believed that in the revolutionary period a third conception would grow up alongside ‘orthodox Marxism’ and ‘reformism’, which he called ‘practical socialism’. In agreement with the ‘profoundly comprehended Marx’, this emphasised that the ‘only means to the true fulfilment of the transition to socialist society was the conscious human act’. [6] By connecting the spontaneous, self-conscious activity of the proletariat, as expressed in the workers’ council movement, with the economic demands of socialism, Korsch – like Gramsci at about the same time in Italy – became one of the chief theorists of the ‘workers’ councils’. [6a] On the basis of the principle of workers’ councils he created a theory of socialisation, which combined the syndicalists’ demand for the management of places of work by the workers with the Marxist theory of nationalisation and planning:

‘Any socialisation, which is to fairly serve the interests of the manufacturing class and the working class, must therefore, whatever form it may take in other respects, satisfy this one demand: Participation of the workers in the management of the factory – that is, control of the workers’ own affairs by the workers themselves, and moreover, participation by the workers in deciding the means by which the order for production given by the whole community shall be carried out.’ [7]

His publication What is Socialisation? is today still one of the best German works on the subject. It shows his acquaintance with British ‘industrial unionism’, and creates with the ‘legal form’ of ‘industrial autonomy’ an institution which combines the interest of the whole community with the right of the workers to self-determination, and at the same time, free from Utopian fantasy, takes into account the actual maturity of the workers. In principle it anticipates the Yugoslav attempts at a solution. [8]

3. The first ‘Revival’ of Marxism – as a ‘Philosophy’ of Proletarian Action

The collapse of the workers’ council movement, and the continuing discrepancy between the consciousness of workers and the objective conditions in a situation that was still revolutionary, led Korsch to a fundamental study of the problems of ideology, and together with that, of the problem of organisation, especially of the relation of the revolutionary party to the workers’ council..

In 1919, he considered, nothing had stood in the way of the transition to socialism, but the opportunity had not been taken

‘because there was a complete lack of socio-psychological preconditions for its realisation, that is, there was no consuming faith in the political possibility of a socialist economic system, together with a clear knowledge of the nature of the first steps to be taken.’

The cause was above all the ‘transformation’ of Marxism into ‘a system of scientific knowledge without direct relation to the class-struggle’. Marx’s dialectical view, the convergence of ‘understanding’ and ‘changing’ of reality in ‘revolutionising practice’, had never been understood by the Second International.

In a series of works he now undertook to expound the revolutionary-dialectical aspect of Marxism, especially in Marxism and Philosophy. [9] To elucidate the relation of Marxism to the working-class movement he here, for the first time, applied historical materialism to the history of Marxism, and showed that Marx’s teaching does not stand outside social development, but undergoes constant transformation, development and regression, and that in particular the dialectical concept of the relation of theory and practice is connected with the real revolution. Marx’s teachings had originated in the 1840s as an expression of the striving of a young working-class, which expected the immediate continuation of the bourgeois revolution into a proletarian one. In the following evolutionary age of rapid economic expansion this doctrine could not be taken over in its original form by the working-class movement. With Marx too, there was a shift of emphasis from immediate action to theoretical and scientific analysis. His ‘scientific’ socialism was still, however, ‘a comprehensive theory of social revolution’, and only adapted this to the changed conditions. But the epigones of Marxism had distorted it into a mechanistic theory of development, in which the dialectic was one-sidedly transferred into the objective process. In this ‘stunted’ form Marxism was accepted by the Second International as ‘ideology’. As the revolutionary workers’ movement again grew in strength a third phase of Marxism was ushered in, which was linked to the original form of the doctrine, and was understood by its main representatives (Lenin, Luxemburg) as a revival of Marxism. Korsch associated himself with them in this. But he did not see this ‘revival’ ‘dogmatically’, but as a historically determined ‘further development’.

The failure to understand the role which Marxist theory attributes to consciousness is expressed in the ‘neglect of philosophy’ by the theoreticians of the Second International. In opposing them, Korsch stresses that even ideologies should not be regarded as mere appearance and passive reflections. They have, like all mental ideas, together with which they form the ‘intellectual structure’ of bourgeois society, as much material reality as the economic and political structure of society. [10] All three structures form together the totality of bourgeois society. The proletariat therefore cannot limit itself to economic and political action. It must, moreover, through ‘intellectual action’, ‘criticise in theory’ and ‘revolutionise in practice’ the bourgeois forms of consciousness. In this sense Marxism (as Antiphilosophy) still had in 1923 a ‘philosophical’ character in Korsch’s eyes. ‘Intellectual Action’ is the concrete content of Marx’s ‘transcendance of philosophy’. As such it remains essentially criticism of bourgeois ideology even in its remotest extremities in the exact sciences. Yet it never makes absolute opposition to progress in ‘bourgeois science’. Korsch describes as ‘idiotic’ the view that meaningful new results can be obtained by simply counterposing Marxist sciences to the different specific branches of science, as for example ‘Marxist’ mathematics to mathematics.

The great clarity and acuteness with which the reality of the ‘intellectual sphere’ is examined from the Marxist materialist point of view in Marxism and Philosophy makes this work one of the classical writings of Marxism. Yet the emphasis on the abidingly philosophical character of Marx’s teaching was not Korsch’s last word.

4. The ‘Revolutionary Party’

The ‘practical’ aspect of the ‘theoretical’ revival of Marxism was the revolutionary party, which fought on the economic, political and ‘intellectual’ fronts. In the debate about ks structure Korsch at that time supported Lenin against the overemphasis on spontaneity among the followers of Rosa Luxemburg. When revolution is on the agenda, ‘the party becomes the visible form of thought corresponding to the relation of the classes’. Lenin understood ‘human political activity and practice as such in their objective reality’. [11] In Rosa Luxemburg, however, human practice had ‘not yet become fully materialist’. While she reproached Lenin with still keeping a ‘relic of subjectivism’, she had remained an idealistic dialectician. Korsch was, however, never a supporter of the dictatorship of a party organisation. For him, the party was still a means of realising the direct democracy of workers’ councils. Workers’ councils must be ceaselessly propogated. After the victory, their essence would be fulfilled in the State organisation. [12] With the subsidence of the revolutionary wave, of which the last high-point was the German crisis of 1923, however, it became clear that his concept of a revolutionary mass-party was not identical with the Bolshevik principle of a dirigiste party organisation. Korsch had originally opposed the unification of the ‘Independent Social Democratic Party’ (USPD) with the German Communist Party (KPD). In particular, he rejected the demand in the ‘Moscow 21-point programme’ for the creation of a ‘parallel illegal organisational machine’ alongside the Party organisation. He saw in this a starting-point for the degeneration of the revolutionary mass-movement into an organisation isolated from the class. [13]

Moreover, Russian policy was now coming more and more into conflict with the ideas of a Left Marxism appropriate to conditions in Western Europe. In Russia, the specific necessities of the post-revolutionary State came into the foreground. In numerous essays Korsch – anticipating the later critics of Stalinism by years – showed how Marxism was deformed in Russia into an ideology which justified the building of a modern industrial society by an all-powerful party. What was happening in Russia was not an incorrect socialist policy, but the expression of historical developments which could no longer be brought into line with the interests of the Western European workers’ movements. And so, although he did not retract his support for the Russian Revolution of 1917, he concluded that Western European socialism could not continue to be so closely linked to the Soviet Union.

At the beginning of 1925 he was removed from the editorship of die theoretical organ of the KPD, Die Internationale, and in 1926 he was excluded from the KPD as one of the leaders of the ‘resolute Left’. Korsch defended his views in the magazine Kommunistische Politik which he published from 1926 to 1927. Since at this time he was still counting on a renewal of the revolutionary wave, he called for the orientation of the workers towards the capture of political power. But the attempt to create a Marxist workers’ party independent of Moscow failed.

5. The theoretical ‘further development’ of Marxism as the critical social science of the proletariat

By the end of the 1920s it was clear that the ‘revived’ Marxism had been accepted by only a minority of the working-class, and only for a short time. The revolutionary situation had not led to the ‘identity’ of the ‘objective process’ and ‘subjective consciousness’ in the ‘self-conscious action’ of the proletariat. Many Marxists – including some, like the Hungarians Fogarasi and Revai, who had aligned themselves with Marxism and Philosophy – now made the party, instead of the class, the true ‘subject’ of the historical process, and so reverted to the ideological positions of Orthodox Marxism; they used Marxism on the one hand as a dogmatic justification of the practice of the party, and on the other hand made it into the ‘total world view’ of the proletariat. Korsch too, after the collapse of the ‘practical’ aspect of his book, had to look afresh at the problem of the relation of Marxist theory to the real workers’ movement. For him, Marxism was the theory, and the mode of action, of the workers’ movement. It must not be diverted from this, ks true purpose. In Marxism and Philosophy he had shown the dialectic of Marxism thus understood in relation to the workers’ movement. If the ‘further development’ of Marxism in the new situation was not possible through ‘transformation’ into the ‘revolutionary practice’ of the working class, then it could continue only through its progress as ‘theory’ and its application as ‘criticism’. Just as for Marx and Engels after the end of the 1848 Revolution, so now too for Korsch the theoretical and scientific side of the doctrine now had to come into the foreground in place of the ‘philosophical’ and activist aspect.

6. The Critique of Marxist Ideologies

In a definitive critique of Kautsky’s Materialist View of History which had appeared in 1927, Korsch showed that in its final phase of development Kautsky’s thought had totally reverted to the positions of the liberal bourgeoisie. [14] In this context he developed at the same tune the outlines of a historical materialist approach to the ‘ideologisation’ of theory, which he also applied to Marx’s system. The ideological acceptance of Marxism in the stunted form of an undialectical, pseudo-revolutionary theory of development by the parties of the Second International had at first had an ‘overwhelmingly positive aspect’. Marxism in its authentic form could not be taken over by the workers’ movement, which had been developing afresh under altered and non-revolutionary conditions since the 1860s, and it could not fulfil its functions both as an ideological bond and as a means of advancing class consciousness – functions that Marxism could and did fulfil in the form of the ‘Orthodox Marxism’ of the Second International, insofar as the latter was ‘progressive’. But yet at that time an ideology more appropriate to the real practice of workers’ movement had been possible. In the crisis after the First World War the ‘negative aspect’ of the purely ideological acceptance of Marxist theory had predominated, and had had disastrous results. In the left wing of the workers’ movement it had led to a false estimation of the real level of maturity of the proletariat, and hence to incorrect practice, which had had harmful consequences for the further course of the development. Kautsky’s thought gave an example of the fact ‘that the dialectic, which describes the relation between the material forces of production and the social relations of production in general, and shows that always at a certain stage in their development the material forces of production come into contradiction with the existing relations of production’ should also be applied to the ‘relation between the contemporary ideologically fixed form of revolutionary theory, and the progressing practice of the class movement’. Above all, however, Korsch analysed Soviet Marxism [15] and its philosophical basis, Lenin’s Materialism and Empiriocriticism. The ‘revival’ of Marxism by the Russian Communists had derived, not from Marx, but from the orthodox Marxism of the Second International. In Russia, Marxism had a completely different function. It was the ideology with which a political and bureaucratic leading clique was achieving the industrialisation and modernisation of a backward country, and on which it based its claim to lead.

Of all interpretations of Marxism (Korsch also studied Guesdism and English ‘Syndicalism’) Antonio Labriola’s came nearest to the theoretical needs of the Revolution of the industrial proletariat. In his writings the higher level of the workers’ movement in France and Italy was precipitated. The dependence of German orthodox Marxism on Plekhanov meant ‘the dependence on the backward East with its bourgeois revolutionary content’, and it was a ‘retreat from the theoretical and practical needs of the industrial proletariat’.

7. Historical materialist criticism of the Marxist system

From the late 1920s onward, Korsch began to draw from a historical materialist consideration of the Marxist system critical conclusions which limited its application. [16] they referred to the Marxist theory of Revolution and to the dialectical method.

‘The attempt made by the founders of scientific socialism to salvage the high art of dialectical thinking by transplanting it from the German idealist philosophy to the materialist conception of nature and history, from the bourgeois to the proletarian theory of revolution, appears, both historically and theoretically, as a transitory step only. What has been achieved is a theory not of the proletarian revolution developing on its own basis, but of a proletarian revolution that has just emerged from the bourgeois revolution, a theory which therefore in every respect, in content and in method, is still tainted with the birthmarks of Jacobinism, that is, of the revolutionary theory of the bourgeoisie.’ [17]

Jacobinism in the working-class movement was typical of economically and politically underdeveloped countries (Germany in 1848, Russia in 1900). It led to an over-emphasis on the party and the State. An autonomous proletarian movement would have to free itself from these forms. Even the ‘Commune’ was still a form of organisation belonging to the bourgeois revolution. [18] Marx had already indicated in the Geneva Trade Union Resolution that in the Socialist Revolution there would be an appropriate role for trade unions. They had to ‘become focal points of the organisation of the working-class, just as the mediaeval municipalities and communities had been for the bourgeoisie’. Korsch therefore followed with great interest all independent action of the working-class, above all Spanish syndicalism, which was the only mass movement still existing in Europe, in which class consciousness in the Marxist sense was alive. In the same context, he translated and wrote a commentary on Bakunin’s State and Anarchy. The collectivisation in Catalonia in 1936 was for him an example of free action by the working class.

Korsch was of the opinion that the new forms of organisation could only be developed in relation to the practice of the class struggle. Its principle was realised in the ‘workers’ council’ which was at one and the same time an ‘organ of management’, and a ‘self-educating group’, a term used by the psychologist Lewien, a friend of Korsch. It was different with the ‘theoretical’ means. Korsch saw in the philosophically speculative elements contained in Marxism – a legacy of Hegelian philosophy– a starting-point for the dogmatic paralysis of the doctrine. ‘Philosophical’ thought judges by the notion. As long as the notions correspond to reality, it does not need to come into contradiction with ‘scientific’ thought. But since the defeat of the Western European Revolution, and the advent of the Soviet system and of State-manipulated monopoly capitalism, the original ‘notion’ of capitalism no longer corresponded to reality. Therefore Korsch now wanted to use the dialectical method only as a strictly empirical scientific method [19], as it had always been in Marx in content, though admittedly not in form.

’Marx’s materialistic science, being a strictly empirical investigation into definite forms of society does not need a philosophical support.’ [20]

8. The second ‘revival’ of Marxism

This second revival of Marxism, which derives from the method of the mature Marx, just as Marxism and Philosophy derives from the writings of the 1840s, was set out as a complete presentation of the Marxist system in Karl Marx (German manuscript 1934, revised English edition 1938). [21] The dialectical theory of knowledge is here transformed into a more refined empirical, scientific method, broadened by the notion of experience as action; the ‘identity of subject and object’ is transformed into the empiricism of the thinking and acting subject, which is conscious of itself as a historical product in the context of a definite stage of social development. [22] The basic methodological concepts are the ‘principles’ of ‘historical specification’, of ‘real social change’, of ‘revolutionary criticism’, and a ‘rational type of generalisation’, in which the ’General’ keeps its historical specific character even in its notional form.

Marxism thus understood stands in a positive relation to the methods of investigation of the modern natural sciences, which, however, cannot be transferred ‘ready-made’ to the social sciences.

‘Marx developed specific methods of social research, a Novum Organum which would permit the investigator in this newly opened field ... to determine “with the precision of natural science” the real subject-matter hidden behind the interminable confusion of “ideological” disguises.’ [23]

9. Practice as the Criterion of Truth

But even as an empirical science, Marxism does not try to be ‘above values’, but to serve the practical aims of the class struggle.

‘Practical intervention into the historical process (is) the great purpose, which is served by every concept, every theoretical formulation of Marxism.’ [24]

‘It is here proposed to revindicate the critical, pragmatic and activist element which for all this has never been entirely eliminated from the social theory of Marx and which during the few short phases of its predominance has made that theory a most efficient weapon of the proletarian class struggle.’ [25]

This ‘pragmatic’ point of view, which makes practicality the criterion for theory, is, however, not sufficient. To it must be added the criterion of truth. In particular Korsch stressed this against Sorel and Lenin, who, like him, emphasised the active side of Marxism, and also, as has been seen above, in the critique of Kautsky. Sorel’s attempt to keep the class-struggle alive by means of an irrational theory had made the proletariat receptive to the myth of fascism. Lenin’s division of theories into those that were harmful to the proletariat and those that were useful to it was partly responsible for the paralysis of Marxism in the Soviet Union. The proletariat could not disregard the scientific differentiation between correct and false theories. It would pay for such a disregard with defeat. Korsch warns us not to ‘adhere too strictly to the words of Marx, who often used his terms only figuratively, for instance in describing the relations between “basis” and “superstructure” as a “correspondence”.’ [26] Marx presented the history of society both as the development of the productive forces, and also as the history of class struggles. But the class struggle must not be understood as merely as an outward manifestation of a basically timeless general dialectic of the productive forces. We are here concerned with two equally fundamental forms, ‘which are worked out in an objective and simultaneously subjective materialistic theory for the use of the investigator and which at the same time are meant to be applied by the proletarian class in its practical struggle’. The Marxist concepts are not new dogmatic chains. ‘They are an undogmatic guide for scientific research and revolutionary action.’ [27]

The dominant role which the economic factor plays in Marx’s new science is not in contradiction to this. It is not economic determinism, but follows from the methodological premise that ‘when we have examined the bourgeois mode of production and its historical changes, we have thereby examined everything of the structure and development of present-day society which can be the subject-matter of a strictly empirical science.’ [28] The phenomena of the ‘superstructure’, on the other hand, become less and less accessible to a precise scientific investigation, the further they are removed from the economic ‘base’, and eventually they can no longer be treated ‘positively’, and ‘theoretically’, but only ‘critically’ in the closest relation to the task of the class struggle.

From this standpoint, it is no longer possible to interpret Marxism as the anticipated consciousness of the proletariat, and to deduce from the dialectic the necessity of the victory of socialism. It is only a revolutionary science of society, still linked to the practical action of the working class, which the workers can use for theoretical analysis and for practical action. This theory can be ‘proved’ only by practice, ie by the victory of the working class.

‘The social revolution of the proletariat is an action of men united in a definite social class and engaged in war against other social classes, with all the chances and all the risks attached to such real practical effort.’ [29]

It cannot, however, be disproved by a temporary defeat, or by an abatement of revolutionary activity in a period of capitalist expansion. Korsch was of the opinion that Marx’s basic analysis of society was true. Since the working class was constantly growing – although in a different form than in the nineteenth century – a new upsurge of the workers’ movement was as inevitable as the persistence of contradictions within the capitalist system. He did not however expect that the future workers’ movement would be a Marxist one in the old sense.

10. Limits of the Relevance of Marxism to a future Workers’ Movement

Korsch explained in detail in the Zürich Ten Theses on Marxism the role which he allotted to Marxism in the future workers’ movement. [30] Here he made a radical break with the belief that Marxism as ‘real thought’ could once again become the theory of the proletariat.

‘All attempts to restore Marxist theory to its original function as the theory of the social revolution [are] reactionary Utopias.’

‘The first step towards the rebuilding of a revolutionary movement’ must consist of ‘breaking the monopolistic claim of Marxism ... to theoretical and practical leadership’. In a modern view Marx was ‘only one among many forerunners, founders and developers of the socialist movement of the working-class’.

Just as important were the so-called ‘Utopian socialists’ from More to the present day ... ‘such great rivals as Blanqui ... such sworn enemies as Proudhon and Bakunin’, as well as ‘such later developments as those of German revisionism, French syndicalism and Russian Bolshevism’. Korsch’s basic objections to Marxism are:

  1. its dependence on the underdeveloped economic and political conditions in the countries where it achieved influence.
  2. its adherence to the political forms of the bourgeois revolution.
  3. the unconditional acceptance of English conditions as a model for future developments and objective preconditions for the transition to socialism.
  4. the overemphasis on the State.
  5. the mystical identification of the development of capitalism with the social revolution of the working class.
  6. the ‘two-phase theory of socialism’, which postpones the real emancipation of the working class into a remote future.

But these conceptions, inadequate from the point of view of the movement to emancipate the proletariat, are the foundation for the ‘new form’ in which Marxism was transferred to Russia and Asia.

‘Thereby it was changed from a revolutionary theory into a pure ideology, which could be made useful both for the purposes of the colonial revolution and for the industrialisation of underdeveloped countries.’

When Korsch makes a critical treatment of this altered function of Marxism, it does not mean that he rejects the revolutionary movements in Russia or in Asia, Africa and Latin America from the point of view of authentic Marxism. He is only criticising the attempt to give the same theoretical form to these movements, and to the drive for emancipation of the workers, which is not identical to them, and thereby to allow the suppression of the theoretical and practical peculiarities of the latter movement. Korsch demands a ‘pluralist’ materialism, which achieves the unity of theory and practice for each historical moment and place.

The still uncompleted ‘counter-revolutionary’ epoch, and the non-existence of a revolutionary workers’ movement are reflected in the Ten Theses by an abstract treatment of the socialist revolution. Korsch confines himself to the assertion that

‘the control by the workers over the production of their own lives will not be achieved by their inserting themselves into the positions abandoned by the self-destroying so-called free competition of the monopolistic owners of the means of production ... it can result only from a planned intervention by all the classes now excluded from it into production which today is already everywhere tending to be regulated monopolistically and in a planned fashion.’

Altogether the Zürich Theses are an extreme form of his critical position towards Marxism. We have letters dating from 1956, in which he speaks of his plan for the theoretical revival of the ‘Ideas of Marx’, ‘which today appear destroyed along with the end of the Marx-Lenin-Stalin era.’ Thus he put great hopes in the ‘fundamental transformation’ not only in the Russian, Polish, Hungarian and Jugoslav, but also in the Asiatic [31] and African developments, which were ‘still far from being complete.’

’Together with the leader (Stalin), his band of hooligans too has been destroyed, and everything that they created will collapse very quickly, and at an increasingly fast rate.’

However, the Theses declare correctly that Korsch does not wish to base future socialist theory on a ‘revival’ of Marxism, but on the application to the new historical development of Marxist method shorn of all its philosophically speculative elements. For Korsch, the possibility of a revolutionary socialist workers’ movement was implied by the existence of capitalism. The workers’ movement would not take over its concrete goals and organisational methods from the workers’ movement of a past epoch, but would rather begin from relations as transformed by State-manipulated monopoly capitalism. By his critical study of previous socialist practice, Korsch has made two important contributions to this new workers’ movement: the insight, that the ‘self-activity’ of the working-class is the inevitable precondition of its emancipation, however great the ‘contradictions’ of capitalism may be; and the completely undogmatic empirical and dialectical method, which is open to all scientific progress and all new social developments, and which, moreover constantly examines its own stand-point to avoid becoming ‘statified’.

‘We must be ready to sacrifice all convictions, if they no longer correspond to modern conditions’, Korsch said in 1950 in Hanover, when he spoke – for the last time – to German union officials. This is also his legacy to the younger generation of revolutionary Marxists.


1. Karl Marx by Karl Korsch, Russel & Russel, New York 1963, 4 dollars.

2. Brief Biography; born 1886 in Tostedt; 1911 graduation as Doctor of Law; 1912-1914 period of study in England (he was a member of the Fabian Society, and was stimulated by Industrial Unionism and Guild Socialism); 1914-1918 officer at the front (opposed the war, but did not refuse military service, because it would have been interpreted as cowardice by the workers, but never carried a weapon, even at the front); 1919 joined the USPD (Independent Socialist Party of Germany) and was inaugurated as a lecturer in the Faculty of Law at Jena; 1921 joined the KPD (German Communist Party) with the majority grouping from the USPD; 1923 Minister in the Social Democrat-Communist Coalition Government in Thüringen; 1924-1928 member of the Reichstag; 1926 expelled from the KPD; 1933 left Germany; 1961 died in the USA. Korsch was a close friend of Bertold Brecht. The decisive influence he exercised on the latter’s thought and work can be seen from their correspondence, which has only recently been made available. Brecht’s Marxism is that of Korsch, not that of the ‘Communist Party’.

3. See The Socialist formula and the organisation of the economy, in Die Tat 1912.

4. See Note 3 above.

5. See The Fabian Society, in Die Tat 1912.

6. See Basic Principles of Socialisation, in Die Tat 1920.

6a. In this connection we should mention a letter written by Brecht to Korsch in 1941, which is also interesting for the light it casts on Brecht’s opinions: ‘I should expect to learn a great deal from a historical study of the relation of the workers’ councils to the parties; the specific reasons – the historical reasons – for the failure of the councils would interest me enormously ... I can’t think of anyone but you who could make such a study.’

7. See Socialisation and the Workers’ Movement, in Freies Deutschland 1919.

8. See What is Socialisation? and The socialist and sydicalist programmes for Socialisation, in Der Sozialist 1919.

9. Leipzig 1923, 2nd edition, 1930.

10. The ‘material reality’ of thought has an interesting basis in modern Information Theory. According to this the world can be described in terms of three categories: Matter, Energy and Information.

11. See Lenin and the Comintern, in Die Internationale 1924

12. See review of George Lukacs’ Lenin.

13. In a review of the book by Valtin, Out of the Night, he wrote later on this point: The members of the USPD did not understand what they had decided when they accepted this point at the party congress in Halle. Because of their most recent experience – they had built up the workers’ councils illegally during the first World War – they believed such an organisation was necessary. ‘They were for this reason unable to listen to the warnings of the left-radical communists, who, adhering to the tradition of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, emphasised the spontaneity of revolutionary mass action from the bottom up as against the supremacy of an uncontrolled leadership from the top down. They did not, and from their historical experience could not, anticipate the fact that from then on a steadily increasing part, and ultimately all their organisation and politics, tactics and strategies, their choice of allies and foes, their theoretical convictions, languages and mores, in fact the whole of their behaviour – would depend on secret orders received from often suspicious agents of unknown superiors without the slightest possibility of influence or control on the part of the members.’ See Revolution for What, in Living Marxism 1941.

14. See Karl Korsch The materialist conception of history, 1929.

15. See especially the 2nd edition of Marxism and Philosophy, 1930.

16. ‘For me Marx is essentially a transitional phenomenon, and the year 1850 is the turning-point between bourgeois and proletarian revolution. But of course the bourgeois movement had a continuation after 1850, and this even extended within the proletarian movement; and also, of course, the workers’ movement had origins before 1850, even within the bourgeois movement. The most important question is that of the distinction between the two, and the dividing line runs through the middle of Marx’s work. Obviously, Marxism is a transitional form of the elaboration of the beginnings of proletarian consciousness (together with a quantitatively much larger content of bourgeois consciousness) ... the ideas of the proletariat are predominantly based on natural rights, and at best are a negation of bourgeois ideas, together with chiliastic dreams of the future.’ (Unpublished letter of 1929.)

17. See Hegel and the Revolution, in Gegner 1932 (English translation by Korsch).

18. See Revolutionary Commune, in Aktion, 1929-1931.

19. In a lecture on Empiricism in Hegel in 1931, Korsch once more came to terms with the Hegelian method. He showed that this was not fundamentally different from the axiomatic practice of modern science, and that in Hegel too every dialectically deduced conceptual definition must be founded on a reference to the corresponding empirical appearance, and that there is no ‘dialectical concept of truth’ which is analogous to formal logic.

20. See Karl Marx, p.169.

21. See also Leading Principles of Marxism, Marxist Quarterly 1937, and Why I am a Marxist, Modern Monthly, 1935.

22. See Karl Marx, German version.

23. Karl Marx, p.231.

24. See Karl Marx, German edition.

25. See A Non-Dogmatic Approach to Marxism, Politics, 1946.

26. See Karl Marx, p.228.

27. See Karl Marx, p.229.

28. See Karl Marx, p.234.

29. See Karl Marx, p.210.

30. A conclusive judgement will be possible only when his literary remains, very carefully collected by Frau Hedda Korsch, have been evaluated. The Ten Theses were published in Arguments, Paris 1959.

31. Long before the victory of the Chinese Revolution he indicated, in a work intended to serve as an introduction to a selection of the writings of Mao Tse-Tung, that the latter’s thought was an important theoretical and practical development of Marxism.

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