A Non-Dogmatic Approach to Marxism

Karl Korsch

This article was published in the US magazine Politics, May 1946. We are obliged to Mike Jones for providing us with a copy. (A useful overview of Korsch’s political and philosophical thought by Dave Renton [‘Karl Korsch’] can be found in What Next? No.16.)

THE DOCUMENTS here assembled are not meant as a contribution to the discussion for or against Marxism that has been conducted in this magazine for so many months. There is no use in discussing controversial points in any social theory (not even in that social theory which is commonly described as religion) unless such discussion is part of an existing social struggle. There must be several possibilities of action for the party, group, or class to which the social theory in question refers. The difference may concern social aims, tactics, forms of organization, or the definition of the enemy, of allies, neutrals, or the master plan (if any) to be based on one or another way of judging a given social situation or development. Yet the result of any such materialist discussion must in all cases "make a difference" in respect to the actual behavior not of an individual nor of a small group of people, but of a veritable collectivity, a social mass. In this materialistic sense, it is not even sure that the particular social theory called Marxism has ever been the subject of a discussion in this country.

Various people have been asked from time to time why they are, or why they are not, Marxists, just as they might have been asked why they believe, or do not believe, in God, in science, or morality; in race, class, democracy, victory, peace, or the impending destruction of all civilization by the atom bomb. There has also been some philological and interpretative effort spent on settling the question of "what Marx really meant". Last but not least, there has been far too much of that most senseless of all discussions which aimed at deciding which particular shade of the theories of Marx, Engels and the several generations of their disciples up to Lenin, Stalin, or, let us says Leontov, represents the most orthodox version of the Marxist doctrine. Or, one step higher, which of the various methods used at different times by Hegel, Marx, and the Marxists truly deserves to be called the genuine "dialectical" method.

As against that altogether dogmatic approach which had already sterilized the revolutionary Marxist theory in all but a few phases of its century-long development in Europe, and by which the attempted extension of Marxism to the US has been blighted from the very beginning, it is here proposed to revindicate the critical, pragmatic, and activistic 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.

The documents reprinted below result in part from an earlier attempt at reemphasizing just this element of the Marxist theory – an attempt that was made by the present writer and a group of associates in Germany in the early thirties and which was then temporarily interrupted by the anti-Marxist violence of the Hitler government. Of the four documents two date still farther back to similar attempts that had been made in 1894 and 1902 by such non-dogmatic Marxists as Lenin and Georges Sorel. They were used as models and as points of departure by the group of 1931 when it started on its new attempt at de-dogmatizing and reactivating the Marxian theory.

The Lenin piece of 1894 (Document III) was directed against a book in which the economic and sociological theories of the famous Narodniki theorist, Mikhailovski, had been critically attacked by the then "Marxist" (later, bourgeois) writer, Peter Struve. Of this important work of Lenin, unfortunately only a small part has appeared in English (Selected Works of Lenin, vol.I) and that part does not include the chapter from which we have taken the piece printed below. The particular interest of our document lies in the fact that just on that occasion Lenin, himself a materialist critic of the idealist "subjectivism" of the Narodniki, found himself in a position in which be had to extend his materialist criticism, with equal fervor, to the abstract and lifeless "objectivism" of Struve. In order to make Lenin’s argument fully understandable, we quote the sentence of Struve which aroused Lenin’s ire. Struve had found fault with Mikhailovski’s opinion that there are "no unsurmountable historical tendencies which serve as starting points as well as obligatory limits to the purposive activity of the individual and the social groups". Lenin is quick in discovering the non-revolutionary implications of this Struvean comment on Mikhailovski. "This", says Lenin, "is the language of an objectivist, and not that of a Marxist (materialist)." And from this point of departure, Lenin embarks on his demonstration of the important differences which separate the principles of the "Objectivists" on the one hand, from those of the "Marxists" (materialists) on the other hand.

Document IV tries to bring out more distinctly the non-dogmatic character of Lenin’s antithesis to Struve’s objectivistic version of the traditional Marxist doctrine. For this purpose and for a series of further experiments in loosening up and de-dogmatizing certain parts of the Marxist theory, the group of 1931 made use of the similar experiment made by Sorel in 1902. According to Sorel, the six theses reproduced in Document II below result from a process of "extracting the strictly scientific elements of history from the theory of historical materialism". In this critical reformulation of historical materialism by one of the most scientific and most pragmatically minded interpreters of Marxism in modem times, the least important point is, in the view of the writer, Sorel’s special emphasis on the role of legal concepts and the legal profession. What really matters is the attempt to clarify the various concatenations that exist between the general terms of the materialist theory and of which the law and its professional exploiters seem to he only one of a number of possible illustrations. Most important, however, is the form in which Sorel has changed into a positive inspiration for unfettered scientific research what till then must have seemed to many historians a somewhat authoritarian laying down of the rules of writing history. (A different impression might have been derived, perhaps, from a closer acquaintance with the remarkably free application that had been made of the new "critical and materialist method" by Marx himself. Yet the new weapon of the revolutionary class struggle had already lost much of its critical edge in the hands of the first generation of the Marxist scholars at the time of Sorel’s writing. And it is no secret that since then revolutionary Marxism has lost out completely against the "stabilizing" influences that were expressed theoretically in the growth of the old and the new Marx orthodoxy – from Kautsky to Stalin. So the Sorelian operation has to he performed once more.)

Finally, we have added a document which is meant to do for the famous "dialectical method" what Sorel and Lenin did for historical materialism. The theses On Hegel and Revolution translated in Document I were first written in German for the centenary of Hegel’s death, in 1931. As will be seen, they approach from a totally opposite direction the whole tangle of difficulties which beset the problem of the Hegelian dialectic and its (modified or unmodified) use by Marx and Engels. Dialectics is here considered not as a kind of super-logic, that is, not as a set of rules to be applied by individual thinkers in the process of thinking just like ordinary logic, and distinguished from the latter only in the sense in which so-called "higher" mathematics is distinguished from those simpler and, in fact, long outdated rules which are taught as "elementary mathematics" in our schools today. It is treated rather as a number of characteristic phenomena that can be observed from without in the sequence and development of thoughts in a given historical period.

The first "non-dogmatic" result of this changed approach is that a man does not become a revolutionary by studying dialectics but, on the contrary, the revolutionary change in human society affects among other things also the way in which the people of a particular period tend to produce and to exchange their thoughts. Materialist dialectics, then, is the historical investigation of the manner in which in a given revolutionary period, and during the different phases of that period, particular social classes, groups, individuals form and accept new words and ideas. It deals with the often unusual and remarkable forms in which they connect their own and other people’s thoughts and cooperate in disintegrating the existing closed systems of knowledge and in replacing them by other and more flexible systems or, in the most favorable case, by no system at all but by a new and completely unfettered movement of free thought passing rapidly through the changing phases of a more or less continuous or discontinuous development.

Secondly, it appears by implication (from theses II and III) that there is no reason to boast of the fact that both Marx and Lenin, after a first violent criticism and repudiation of the old Hegelian "dialectic", have returned at a later stage, in a mood of disenchantment and partial frustration, to a very little qualified acceptance of that same philosophical method that, at its best, had reflected the bourgeois revolution of an earlier period. Here as in many other respects, the unfettered development of the Marxian theory does not point backwards to old bourgeois philosophies and ideas, but forward to a non-dogmatic and non-authoritarian, scientific and activistic use of the Marxian as well as all other theoretical formulations of the collective experience of the working class.



Theses on Hegel and Revolution

(by K.K., 1931)

I. The Hegelian philosophy and its dialectical method can not be understood without taking into account its relationship to revolution.

  1. It originated historically from a revolutionary movement.
  2. It fulfilled the task of giving to that movement its conceptual expression.
  3. Dialectical thought is revolutionary even in its form:
    a) turning away from the immediately given – radical break with the hitherto existing – "standing on the head" – new beginning;
    b) principle of contradiction and negation;
    c) principle of permanent change and development – of the "qualitative leap".
  4. Once the revolutionary task is out of the way and the new society fully established, the revolutionary dialectical method inevitably disappears from its philosophy and science.

II. The Hegelian philosophy and its dialectical method can not be criticized without taking into account its relationship to the particular historical conditions of the revolutionary movement of the time.

  1. It is a philosophy not of revolution in general, but of the bourgeois revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries.
  2. Even as a philosophy of the bourgeois revolution, it does not reflect the entire process of that revolution, but only its concluding phase. It is thus a philosophy not of the revolution, but of the restoration. This twofold historical nature of the Hegelian dialectic appears formally in a twofold limitation of its revolutionary character.
    a) The Hegelian dialectic though dissolving all pre-existing fixations, results in the end in a new fixation; it becomes an absolute itself and, at the same time, "absolutizes" the whole dogmatic content of the Hegelian philosophical system that had been based on it.
    b) The revolutionary point of the dialectical approach is ultimately bent back to the "circle", that is, to a conceptual reinstatement of the immediately given reality, to a reconciliation with that reality, and to a glorification of existing conditions.

III. 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.


Theses on the Materialistic Conception of History

(Submitted to the 1902 Convention of the Societé Française de Philosophie, by Georges Sorel)

1. For investigating a period (of history) it is of great advantage to find out how society is divided in classes; the latter are distinguished by the essential legal concepts connected with the way in which incomes are formed in each group.

2. It is advisable to dismiss all atomistic explanations; it is not worth while to inquire how the links between individual psychologies are formed. What can be observed directly, are those links themselves, that which refers to the masses. The thoughts and activities of individuals are fully understandable only by their connection with the movements of the masses.

3. Much light is thrown on history if one is able to clarify the concatenation between the system of productive forces, the organization of labor, and the social relations that rule production.

4. Religious and philosophical doctrines have traditional sources; yet in spite of their tendency to organize themselves in systems totally closed to all outside influences, they are usually somehow connected with the social conditions of the period. From this viewpoint, they appear as mental reflections of the conditions of life and often as attempts to explain history by a doctrine of faith.

5. The history of a doctrine will he fully clarified only when it can be connected with the history of a social group that makes it its task to develop and apply that particular doctrine (influence of the legal profession).

6. Assuming that revolutions do not have the effect to make possible a greater extension of the productive forces that are obstructed in their development by an outdated legislation, it is still of the greatest importance to examine a social transformation from this point of view and to investigate how the legal ideas are transformed under the pressure of a universally felt need for economic emancipation.


Materialism Versus Objectivism

(by Lenin, 1894)

The objectivist speaks of the necessity of the given historical process; the materialist (Marxist) determines exactly the given economic form of society and the antagonistic relations arising from it. The objectivist, in proving the necessity of a given series of facts, always runs the risk to get into the position of an apologist of those facts; the materialist reveals the antagonisms of classes and thereby determines his own position. The objectivist speaks of "unsurmountable historical tendencies"; the materialist speaks of the class which "directs" the given economic order and thus, at the same time, brings forth one form or another of resistance by the other classes. Thus, the materialist is, on the one hand, more consistent than the objectivist and reaches a more thorough and more comprehensive objectivism. He is not satisfied with pointing to the necessity of the process, but clearly states the economic form of society underlying the content of just that process, and the particular class determining just that necessity. In our case, for example, the materialist would not content himself with referring to "unsurmountable historical tendencies"; he would point to the existence of certain classes which determine the content of the given order and exclude any possibility of a solution but by the action of the producers themselves. On the other hand, the materialist principle implies, as it were, the element of party, by committing itself, in the evaluation of any event, to a direct and open acceptance of the position of a particular social group.


On an Activistic Form of Materialism and on the Class and Partisan Character of Science

(by K.K., 1931)

1. There is little use in confronting the subjectivist doctrine of the decisive role of the individual in the historical process with another and equally abstract doctrine that speaks of the necessity of a given historical process. It is more useful to explore, as precisely as possible, the antagonistic relations that arise from the material conditions of production of a given economic form of society for the social groups participating in it.

2. Much light is thrown on history by countering every alleged necessity of a historical process with the following questions: a) necessary by the action of which classes? b) which modifications will be necessary in the action of the classes faced by the alleged historical necessity?

3. In the investigation of the antagonistic relations existing between the various classes and class fractions of an economic form of society, it is advisable to consider not only the material but also the ideological forms in which such antagonistic relations occur within the given economic form of society.

4. The content of a doctrine (theoretical system, any set of sentences and operational rules used for the statement and application of a theory or belief) cannot he clarified so long as it is not connected with the content of a given economic form of society and with the material interests of definite classes of that society.

5. There is no need to assume that the objectivity of a doctrine will be impaired by its methodical connection with the material interests and practical activities of definite classes.

6. Whenever a doctrine is not connected with the material interests of a definite class by its own proponents, one will often be justified in assuming that the proponents of such doctrine aim at defending by it the interests of the ruling classes of the society in question. In these cases the theoretical uncovering of the class function of a given doctrine is equivalent to a practical adoption of the cause of the classes oppressed in that society.

7. From this state of affairs, and from its theoretical recognition, springs the objective and subjective partisan nature of science.