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Karl Korsch

Dave Renton

IN ORDER to understand the quality of Karl Korsch’s Marxism, it is necessary to grasp the "Marxism" that he was rejecting. Korsch first joined the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the years immediately prior to the first world war. At the time, the organisation was the foremost section of the Second International, the worldwide federation of socialist organisations. With its formal stress on the need for a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, the Social Democratic Party was the custodian of orthodox Marxism within the International as a whole. The SPD had over one hundred thousand members and printed one hundred daily newspapers, it organised one million supporters in trade unions and was the second largest party in the German parliament. The dominant figure within the theoretical life of the SPD was Karl Kautsky, the so-called "pope of Marxism". Kautsky was a figure of enormous stature; close to Frederick Engels, he was given the responsibility of publishing many of Marx’s original manuscripts after Engels’ death. Respected by all wings of the Socialist International, it was Kautsky who was seen to have defended Marxism against the attacks of the revisionists, notably Eduard Bernstein, who campaigned for the German Social Democratic Party to convert itself into an explicitly reformist organisation.

Although in his debate with Bernstein, Karl Kautsky appeared to be the champion of the classical Marxist tradition, beneath the surface Kautsky’s Marxism was seriously flawed. According to him, Marx had demonstrated that history was a succession of different societies. Within each society production grew until it could grow no further. At that moment there was a revolution and a new form of society came into being. In Kautsky’s writing and in the Marxism of the Second International, there was very little role for human agency. Societies grew and declined, almost independent of what people did to organise against them. It followed that the task for revolutionaries was simply to wait until capitalism finally collapsed.

When challenged, the Marxists of the Second International were keen to insist that they did see a relationship between long-term economic factors and short-term human decisions. Georgi Plekhanov devoted his pamphlet, The Role of the Individual in History, to an analysis of this very question. He insisted that human decisions mattered, and that there was a unity between structure and agency. It was only "in the last analysis", he suggested, that "everything depends upon the course of social development and on the relation of social forces". Karl Kautsky claimed to agree with Plekhanov, that there was a role for individuals. He was scathing towards those who saw his Marxism as a form of determinism:

"Strangely enough there are still people who believe that Marx taught that historical development proceeds by itself, without any help at all from men. Even among socialists, this astonishing conception of Marxism is not rare.... Of course, Marx never taught this nonsense. It is absurd to present the theory of class struggle as a theory of inactivity."1

When it came to abstract theorising, Kautsky did defend ideas of human agency. However, when it came to applying theory to the pressing questions of every day life, Karl Kautsky’s Marxism worked, in practice, in exactly this reductionist way that he claimed to reject. Time and again, Kautsky argued that the victory of socialism was inevitable. It followed from this premise that it would be wrong for the SPD to engage in any hasty actions. Thus, when the left wing of the SPD argued that German socialists should copy the revolutionary general strike which had taken place in Russia in 1905, Kautsky responded by arguing that the pace of events could not be rushed. Calling for patience and moderation, and working in alliance with the leaders of the trade unions, and with Bernstein and the revisionists, Kautsky presided over the growing bureaucratisation of the SPD.

Such Marxism was decisively tested in 1914, at the outbreak of the first world war. Kautsky, along with all the orthodox leaders of the Second International, supported his own nation and his own capitalist class in the slaughter. The evolutionary and fatalistic Marxism of the Second International meant that he did not have the politics to oppose the war.2

Korsch and the revolutionary 1920s
Karl Korsch was a member of a revolutionary generation that rejected the deterministic Marxism of the Second International. Active in the years immediately following the Russian Revolution, such Marxists as Korsch, Georg Lukács and Antonio Gramsci were educated by the rise of the anti-war movement. They witnessed the great breakthrough of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917, and the forward wave of working class struggle that continued from 1917 until the final defeat of the German revolution in the winter of 1923.

It was clear at the time that the Russian revolution opened up the future for a whole new way of using Marxism. Although most of his philosophical work was not published in western Europe until much later, the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin came to the conclusion that the only way to restore the revolutionary content of Marxism was through examining Marxism’s origins in Hegelian dialectics. Lenin insisted that there was a unity between the crude philosophy of Second International Marxism and its reformist politics, and he also argued that a study of dialectics must be at the heart of any restored and revolutionary Marxism. As he wrote, at the time, "It is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital and especially its first chapter without having thoroughly studies and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently half a century later, none of the Marxists understood Marx."3

Within the generation that came to Marxism in the 1920s, Korsch was one of the standard bearers of Marxist philosophy. At the level of theory, and without access to Lenin’s philosophical works, he came to remarkably similar conclusions. In terms of his political practice, Korsch adopted a number of positions, ranging from Fabianism to ultra-leftism, and stood only briefly at the centre of the Marxist tradition. However, his enduring works, notably Marxism and Philosophy (1923), insisted that the purpose of Marxism was to enable a workers’ movement to seize power. To a later generation of Marxists, many of Korsch’s formulations may seem faulty, but nobody could question his commitment to the idea that workers can run the world. Within Marxist theory, Korsch’s generation of dissident Marxists did develop new insights, hostile to the ossified and fatalistic Marxism of the pre-1914 Second International. However, the degeneration of the Russian Revolution combined with the revival of Social Democracy to remove the space for such creative Marxism. Gramsci was jailed by Mussolini’s fascist regime, and only released to die. Members of the Frankfurt School drifted into reformism or academia. Lukács was unable to separate himself from Stalinism. Karl Korsch was a "left Communist", in the style of the Dutch astronomer Pannekoek, or the Italian revolutionary Amadeo Bordiga.

For over forty years, therefore, the work of these dissident and non-Stalinist Marxists was obscured. It was only in the 1960s and 1970s that numbers of Marxists began to look again at these writers in any systematic way. By the late 1970s, four of Korsch’s books were available in English translations.4 Since then, however, and in a period of economic and political defeats for the working class movement, interest in Korsch has waned. Other Marxists from his generation, including Walter Benjamin and Bertholt Brecht, remain fashionable, because elements of what they wrote have been taken up by depressed and retreating former Marxists. Karl Korsch, by contrast, was explicitly committed to revolutionary change, and the academic Marxists have found it harder to claim his mantle. At this moment, therefore, when the international working class movement is beginning to wake from its slumber, it is appropriate to look again at the work of this neglected Marxist.

How Korsch became a Marxist
Karl Korsch was born in 1886 in Tostedt, near Hamburg in Germany. His father was a successful bank clerk and later a bank manager. Korsch went to school in Thuringia, and to university in Munich, Berlin, Geneva and Jena. Like Walter Benjamin, his first political experiences came as a member of the "Free Student Movement", a broad, liberal and idealist organisation committed to the idea of transforming education in the interest of students. In 1910, Korsch obtained a doctorate in law. About this time, he joined the SPD; although he was not yet an active member. Between 1912 and 1914, Korsch continued his studies in London, where he joined the Fabian Society. At this time, the Fabians distinguished themselves from their competitors on the left by their stress on the values of "ideas", "will", "humanity", which were counterposed to the lifeless, dry-as-dust economics of Marxism. Korsch preferred this mix to the orthodox Marxism of the SPD. The vague and idealistic nature of Korsch’s pre-war socialism can be seen in an article he wrote, on "The Fabian Society" (1912), in which he declared his admiration for the Fabian emphasis on "The very important orientation on the will. The practical will: to ensure that in the inevitable transformation of human economy, human culture, the ideal of humanity is also advanced."5

On the outbreak of war, in August 1914, Karl Korsch returned to Germany. He claimed to have served in the war, while openly expressing his opposition to it. For this, he was demoted from the rank of reserve lieutenant to corporal. Korsch boasted that he never carried a rifle or sabre. Somehow he survived the hostility of his own commanding officers, and was twice decorated with the Iron Cross, for acts of bravery under fire. In 1917, Korsch joined the Independent German Socialist Party (USPD). There is no evidence that Korsch was active in the soldiers’ councils, or the uprising in Berlin in 1919. However, he did take part in the 1918 Commission on the Socialisation of Industry. His experiences from this period were written up in one pamphlet, What Is Socialisation? (1920), and a book, Labour Law For Factory Councils (1920).

The Workers’ Councils were the great achievement of the revolutionary wave of 1917-21. In Russia, during the 1917 revolution, the councils were known as soviets, and were the means by which workers were able to control their workplace. Meeting in each area and every city, the councils represented a form of workers’ democracy, controlled from the bottom up. During the surge of unrest following 1917, workers’ councils were formed in almost every country in Europe, from the shipyards of western Scotland to the armaments factories of central Italy. In Germany, the councils were undermined by workers’ continuing support for the SPD, which determined that the councils should not play the role they had in Russia. Despite this, councils grew during the revolution and certainly opened up the possibility of workers’ power.

Perhaps because Karl Korsch was a witness to the movement and not an active participant, his views on factory councils are difficult to pin down. At first, they read like the work of a Fabian or a Guild Socialist, supporting these councils within the framework of a capitalist economy. Later, Korsch took a very different view, and came close to identifying these workers’ councils as the means to abolish capitalism and the way to achieve socialism. The new tone of his writing can be seen in an important article he wrote, "The Question of Socialisation – Before and After the Revolution" (1920). In this piece he criticised both the Fabian view that socialism equals more co-operatives, and the traditional SPD view that socialism equals nationalisation and greater state ownership: "Today, with the hour of socialism at hand, it is evident that none of these forms will, without far-reaching restructuring, be able adequately to realise that speedy ’socialisation’ of the totality of economic life which is demanded so forcefully by the mass of the working population...."6 If workers did not take the whole economy, then socialisation would not last. If they did not take power themselves, then it would not be socialism. What was needed, Korsch argued, was workers’ control, producers taking over the whole economy from below.

Although Korsch’s new enthusiasm for workers’ councils was a massive step forward from his earlier ideal of a reformed capitalism, his vision remained flawed. The experience of the councils did act as a bridge, over which Karl Korsch travelled closer towards classical Marxism. Yet Korsch failed to draw the conclusions that were reached by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, that the councils were primarily a site of struggle and that a party was needed to revolutionise the soviets, if they were to live up to their potential. Korsch’s continuing enthusiasm for workers’ councils was still in many ways a proletarian constitution-mongering (indeed he called for a "proletarian constitution of labour"), in which workers’ councils could act as a corrective, and not as an antidote, to surviving capitalist management.

Marxism and Philosophy
Following the decision of a majority of the USPD, Karl Korsch joined the German Communist Party (KPD) in 1920. His wife Hedda suggests that Korsch had doubts about joining the KPD and about the need for a centralised working class party: "In everything ... he was in favour of decentralisation." More recently, Douglas Kellner has demonstrated that Korsch was a loyal member of the KPD, and a keen supporter of democratic centralism at least until 1925.7 Whether or not Korsch then felt a fear of organisation, the next six years of his life when he was a member of a revolutionary party were certainly his most creative period, the point at which he formulated his own distinctive variety of Marxism.

Korsch was quickly brought into the leadership of the KPD. In 1923, he was elected to the state parliament in Thuringia, and in October 1923 he became Minister of Justice in the coalition SPD-KPD government in Thuringia. At the time, the two parties had different ideas of what this coalition represented. For the SPD, this workers’ government removed the need for any deepening of the revolution. For the KPD, it was a coalition which would lead to socialism – although how it would make the transition was not fully worked out. Korsch, himself, was seen by members of the Communist Party as a military figure, a former officer, the man responsible for preparing at least the defence of the Thuringian government, and potentially the insurrection which was expected to break out in October 1923, on the sixth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. As it happened, the call to arms never came. When a local rising did break out in Hamburg, the army successfully put it down.

For most of this time, Karl Korsch was writing quite ordinary Marxist texts, short pamphlets, introductions and reviews outlining the basic concepts of Marxism. Where his originality came was in his treatment of the Marxism of the Second International, as it culminated in the works of the KPD’s rival, the SPD. He followed Lenin in arguing that the SPD’s Marxism was a crude and reformist deviation from Marx. In 1922, Korsch took part in an important Marxist "work week" in Ilmenau, Thuringia.8 The organisational nucleus of this working group was to become the Frankfurt School, while the manuscripts of Korsch’s lectures were published as Marxism and Philosophy (1923). This pamphlet is very much Karl Korsch’s enduring success.

One of the first arguments in Marxism and Philosophy is that Marxism itself must be understood historically. This idea, that scientific socialism has its own history, is one of Korsch’s original and enduring insights. He argued that Marxism originated in the writings of Marx and Engels as a rejection of Hegel and his idealist philosophy. From the 1840s onwards, it had developed in different ways. The Marxism of the Second International, Korsch argued, was a degeneration, inferior to classical Marxism in two main respects. First, not only Eduard Bernstein and the revisionists, but also Kautsky, Plekhanov, Rudolf Hilferding, Jean Jaurès and the other leading figures had all neglected the problem of the state. While formally pledging themselves to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, the leaders of the official socialist parties had become reformists. In their day to day practice they accepted and defended the capitalist state:

"[Bernstein’s] Revisionism appears as an attempt to express in the form of a coherent theory the reformist character acquired by the economic struggles of the trade unions, and the political struggles of the working class parties .... With all their orthodox obsession with the abstract letter of Marxist theory [even Bernstein’s opponents, Kautsky and the orthodox Marxists within the Second International] were unable to preserve its original revolutionary character. Their scientific socialism had inevitably ceased to be a theory of social revolution."9

The second source of the degeneration of Marxism, Karl Korsch argued, was a neglect of philosophy. In criticising the Marxism of the Second International, Korsch reminded his readers of Lenin’s call to arms: "We must organise a systematic study of the Hegelian dialectic from a materialist standpoint." For Karl Korsch, one of the key components of dialectics was its emphasis on totality. Karl Marx himself had always stressed the totality of the world, it was his later followers who had cut Marx’s theory into slices. Marxism, he argued, was incompatible with the idea of separate branches of knowledge:

"Despite all their theoretical and methodological avowals of historical materialism, [the Marxists of the Second International] in fact divided the theory of social revolution into fragments .... Later Marxists came to regard scientific socialism more and more as a set of purely scientific observations, without any immediate connection to the political or other practices of class struggle.... A unified general theory of social revolution was changed into criticisms of the bourgeois economic order, of the bourgeois state, of the bourgeois state of education, of bourgeois religion, art, science and culture."

Marxism was a form of revolutionary action, in which theoretical discussion and practice had again to be combined. Thus Korsch saw himself as reuniting the theory of Marxism to a revolutionary purpose, meeting (like Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin) the "practical needs of the new revolutionary stage of proletarian class struggle".10

For Korsch, the unity of theory and practice was to be achieved concretely, by human action. Thus, in Marxism and Philosophy, he placed great emphasis on the importance of consciousness. Karl Korsch stressed that ideologies should not be regarded as mere peripheral consequences of economic facts. The "intellectual reality" of bourgeois society had as much importance as the economic and social structures on which it was founded. Ideas, politics and economics formed together the totality of bourgeois society. It followed that there was a role for "intellectual action". If the working class was to "revolutionise in practice", then there was also a need to "criticise in theory".

In arguing in defence of revolutionary Marxism, Karl Korsch emphasised that Marx’s message represented the negation of philosophy. This was a claim that Marx and Engels had themselves both made, from 1845 onwards. Thus Marx wrote, in the Theses on Feuerbach: "Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it." Frederick Engels developed this idea, arguing that as Marxism had made philosophy obsolete in the realm of history, so all that remained for it to do was to speculate in the laws of pure thought. Engels also pointed out that as German capitalism grew in strength, so the capitalist class was less and less interested in philosophy, leaving the working class as the sole heirs of Hegelian philosophy.

Korsch defended and deepened this conception of Marxism as anti-philosophy, in three ways. His first argument was that bourgeois philosophy had reached its highest point in the writings of Hegel. Marx, by standing Hegel on his head, had broken with philosophy. Korsch’s second argument was that Marxism was a criticism of all aspects of the capitalism world, and bourgeois philosophy was included among the ideas that Marx rejected. His third argument was that philosophy merely reflected the world, while Marxism sought its transformation. This stress on practice meant that Marxism was the negation of philosophy.

At the end of Marxism and Philosophy, Korsch offered up the possibility of a world in which philosophy had ceased to exist:

"Bourgeois consciousness necessarily sees itself as apart from the world and independent of it as pure critical philosophy and impartial science, just as the bourgeois State and bourgeois Law appear to be above society. This consciousness must be philosophically fought by the revolutionary materialistic dialectic, which is the philosophy of the working class. This struggle will only end when the whole of existing society and its economic basis have been totally overthrown in practice, and this consciousness has been totally surpassed and abolished in theory. ’Philosophy cannot be abolished without being realised’."11

Philosophy could be overthrown – but only through the successful achievement of a socialist society, through workers’ revolution.

Three Essays on Marxism
Following the defeat of the German revolution in October 1923, the KPD briefly shifted to the left under the leadership of Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow. Fischer and Maslow had already been among the leadership of the party in 1923, at which time they had supported calls for a revolution, but from an ultra-left and unrealistic perspective, in which the revolution was always imminent – were it not for the timidity of their own party. After the October crisis had passed, and with the support of Zinoviev and the leadership of the Communist International, they maintained that Germany would soon enter another period of crisis, which meant that there was an urgent need to prepare for an imminent further insurrection. In this ultra-left climate, Karl Korsch became one of the party’s leading spokesmen and editor of its theoretical journal Die Internationale. He also became a Communist deputy in the German parliament, the Reichstag.

However, the KPD was out of step with the international leadership of the Communist movement, which was itself then convinced that the world was entering a new period of stability. In 1924, Marxism and Philosophy was condemned at the fifth world congress of the Communist International. This was the first congress of the International since Lenin’s death, and the movement was already coming to be distorted by a series of bureaucratic lurches, which would pave the way for Stalinism. There, Zinoviev accused Korsch, and others including Georg Lukács, of "revisionism" and "idealism". Korsch’s book was portrayed as the counterpart in philosophy of the ultra-left political leadership of Fischer and Maslow within the KPD. In response to these criticisms, Korsch himself briefly attempted to form an international Communist opposition, with the support of the Italian left Amadeo Bordiga. Korsch’s group organised as a faction, the "Resolute Lefts" (Entschiedene Linke), within the Communist International and the KPD. Korsch was himself expelled from the KPD in April 1926. His party continued to exist until 1928, which was also the year that Korsch lost his seat in the Reichstag.

Detached from any significant Marxist party, Karl Korsch had first of all to find a milieu in which to operate. He took part in a Marxist discussion circle, involving himself, his wife, Georg Lukács and Bertholt Brecht, amongst others.12 In 1929, he wrote an important critique of Karl Kautsky’s The Materialist Conception of History. The next year, Korsch wrote a long article, "The Present State of the Problem of ’Marxism and Philosophy’" (1930) defending the arguments of Marxism and Philosophy, which is published at the end of the English edition of the earlier book. Here, he extended his earlier idea that Marxism is a historical science, and that Marxism itself should be understood historically. In particular, he argued that the history of Marxism should be understood as the unfolding of three successive stages.

From 1843 to 1848, according to Korsch, Marxism as a theory based itself on the open class struggle of the proletariat. This, then, was the moment at which Marxism first approached its height. After the defeat of the revolutions of 1848, however, it was clear that the capitalist system was secured for a generation. In this climate, Marxism could only survive by describing itself as a humanist and positivist science, identifying itself as a form of general truth. In the third phase, from 1900, there was a revival of working class confidence, which was originally manifested in the growth of Bolshevism and syndicalism. These restored the subjective quality of Marxism, as a philosophy of working class revolution and paved the way for a more complete and truly revolutionary theory.13

The argument that Marxism has its own history reminds us that socialism is based on a living tradition. In many ways, the history of Marxism is a story of growth and development. As capitalism has evolved, so Marxists have come to a richer understanding of the dynamics at the heart of the system. On the other hand, the Marxist tradition is also a story of reversal and defeat. The impact of Second International Marxism was to convert revolutionary socialism into a new variety of reformism. Later, the victory of Stalin meant the defeat of the revolution in Russia, and the rise of a new reductionist and reformist Marxism on a world-wide scale. Korsch did not succeed in formulating an adequate history of Marxism, but such a project is valid, and Korsch was the among the first to advocate it.

In 1933, Korsch was forced into exile. He settled in Britain and then America. Throughout the period of his exile, Korsch saw his main task as being to defend the ideas he had already elaborated in the 1920s. Three of his essays from this period, "Leading Principles of Marxism: A Restatement’ (1937), "Introduction to Capital" (1932), and "Why I am a Marxist’ (1935) are available in an English edition, Three Essays on Marxism. The most important of these essays is "Why I am a Marxist", which was originally published in the journal Modern Quarterly. It was part of a symposium, with Alexander Goldenweiser, George Santayana and H.G. Wells explaining why they were not Marxists, and Korsch and Harold Laski (on behalf of the British Labour Party!) explaining why they were. The great theme of this essay, as of Korsch’s work, generally, is that Marxism is a world-view which sets out to change the world. Thus Korsch summarises Marxism in four statements:

"1. All the propositions of Marxism, including those that are apparently general, are specific.

2. Marxism is not positive but critical.

3. Its subject-matter is not existing capitalist society in its affirmative state, but declining capitalist society as revealed in the demonstrably operative tendencies of its break up and decay.

4. Its primary purpose is not contemplative enjoyment of the existing world but its active transformation."

Karl Korsch insisted that Marxism was a philosophy of practice. He was dismissive of those who used Marxist ideas simply as a set of tools to understand the world: "Marxist ’theory’ does not strive to achieve objective knowledge of reality out of an independent, theoretical interest. It is driven to acquire this knowledge by the practical necessities of struggle, and can neglect it only by running the heavy risk of failing to achieve its goal, at the price and defeat of the proletarian movement which it represents." Korsch argued that the only purpose of Marxist theory was to act on the immediate world of late capitalism. It followed that any attempt to understand any other world was flawed. Not just mere theoretical reflection, but any theorising about any other moment in time, was hostile to the revolutionary spirit of Marxism: "And just because [Marxist theory] never loses sight of its practical purpose, it eschews every attempt to force all experience into the design of a monistic construction of the universe in order to build a unified system of knowledge."14

It is appropriate at this stage to raise one important point which Korsch himself did not deal with satisfactorily. His argument is that Marxism, as a theory of knowledge, is relativistic. According to Karl Korsch, Marxists understand everything simply from the vantage point of the working class. If this is correct, however, then why should anyone be a Marxist? Why should a Marxist explanation be better than any other? One answer, which Korsch rejects, is that Marxist explanations are objective: they explain the world. It is possible to imagine an exchange, in which (say) a Tory would argue that unemployment was caused by working class laziness. You would expect a Marxist to reject this view, and argue instead that unemployment is caused by capitalist crisis. To which the Tory would respond, "prove it". Using Karl Korsch’s Marxism, it would be appropriate for a Marxist to reply: "My theory embodies the historic situation of the working class, therefore it must be right." To win the argument, however, the socialist would need to do something different, they would have to demonstrate that unemployment does go up and down according to the fluctuations of the business cycle and the falling rate of profit. They would need to show that their explanation fits the facts of the outside world.

For Marx himself, as for Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, Marxism was both a science to understand the world and also a weapon to change it. Karl Korsch rejected this synthesis, in preference for a Marxism that was only a means to effect change. Korsch wanted to rebuild a tradition of resolute Marxism, but he separated Marx’s revolutionary politics from any concern with objective reality. Becoming arbitrary and ultra-left, Korsch’s Marxism was separated from a mass audience, and in this way his revolutionary vision was hollowed out and lost. Thus Karl Korsch’s Marxism offered a limited and incomplete defence of revolutionary socialism.

State capitalism
As a member of the KPD, Korsch was very much on the side of Bolshevik orthodoxy. His 1924 speech, "Lenin and the Comintern", was an argument for Leninism as the only adequate base on which revolutionary politics could be built. Following his expulsion from the KPD, though, Korsch was increasingly critical of events in Russia. In 1926, he spoke in the German Reichstag against the Russo-German "friendship treaty", calling for a renewal of Leninist politics, against the current regime. By 1927, Korsch had turned his back on democratic centralism, blaming Lenin for the degeneration of the revolution.15 A 1932 article, "The Marxist Ideology in Russia" is noteworthy in that it describes the Soviet Union as "state capitalist", describing the governing ideology of Russia as "a mere ideological justification of what in its actual tendency is a capitalist state and thus, inevitably, a state based on the suppression of the progressive revolutionary class".16 The article goes on to compare Stalinism and Social Democracy, with Korsch insisting that both of these ideologies aimed at the stabilisation of capital. His arguments were not filled out with historical details, and remain abstract and insufficient, but this remains the high-point in Korsch’s independent analysis of the Russian defeat. After 1932, Korsch increasingly felt that there was little point attacking the Soviet Union. "Everything that the workers are told about the state-capitalist continuation", he wrote in 1935, "comes either from the mouths of their old well-known enemies, capitalists, fascists, and social democrats, or it unavoidably remains vague, abstract, incomprehensible, and unsympathetic." By 1947, Korsch had come to a pessimistic conclusion, telling Brecht that "Russian imperialism is better for the world than Yankee imperialism and there is hardly a third chance".17

Karl Marx
Karl Korsch’s last major work was a biography, Karl Marx (1938). The theme running through the book was taken from Engels’s famous speech at Marx’s graveside: Karl Marx was "above all else a revolutionary". This applies to everything Marx wrote, even his mature economic manuscripts. Thus, according to Korsch, "Marx’s approach to Political Economy was from the outset that of a critical and revolutionary student of society rather than that of an economist". Hence the title of Marx’s famous pamphlet, "A Critique of Political Economy".18 Although he was undoubtedly correct to signal Marx’s break with bourgeois economics, Korsch failed to notice that this insight would go against his earlier argument that Marxism became solidly reformist after 1848 (indeed this omission was typical of the man’s work: Korsch’s Marxism was persistently marked by grand philosophical statements which lacked a basis in detailed, living history).

Korsch’s biography of Marx was divided into three sections: first, Korsch described Marx as a social scientist, then as the critic of political economy, last as the founder of a new way of understanding history. The first section, on social science, made the general point that Marx was not a sociologist. He was not interested in drawing up general rules about the nature of all societies. According to Korsch, the distinctive feature of Marx’s analysis of society was his stress on the "specific" character of different societies: "Marx is aware of the fact that the only positive way of comprehending the general concept, or the ’law’ of a particular historical form of society, is through its actual historical change."19 The second section, on political economy, interpreted Marx’s critique of capitalism as a historical model, which opens the possibility of other histories: "Political Economy ... is transformed from an absolute and timeless science into one which is historically and socially conditioned."20 The most powerful parts of this book came in the third section, on Marxism and history. Here, Korsch restated Marx’s metaphor of base and superstructure, the idea that human beings are themselves products of the material world. The section ended with an appeal to readers, to understand Marxism not as set of rules to be learned, but as a living tradition and as a guide to action: "The Marxian concepts ... are not new dogmatic fetters or pre-established points which must be gone through in a particular order in any "materialistic" investigation. They are an undogmatic guide for scientific research and revolutionary action. The proof of the pudding is in the eating."21

From 1936, Korsch lived in the USA, where he held a number of university positions. For a time, he worked together with Karl Lewin, one of the founders of social psychology.22 After 1938, the major source of Korsch’s ideas is a series of articles he wrote in English for various left journals, including Partisan Review, Modern Quarterly, New Essays and Living Marxism. The last two of these were edited by Paul Mattick, an ultra-left and an admirer of Pannekoek. The most interesting of Korsch’s late articles is probably "The World Historians", a long article Korsch wrote on Marxism and the theory of history. As late as 1945, Korsch could still talk of "the ray of hope that the living thought of Karl Marx still holds for tormented humanity".23

From 1945 onwards, however, Karl Korsch grew increasingly pessimistic. In 1950, Korsch gave a lecture series across Europe, the heart of which was later published as "Ten Theses on Marxism Today". In these lectures Korsch combined valid criticisms of the role of the state and capitalism in the Soviet Union, with a doubt as to the future of Marxism: "the first step in re-establishing revolutionary theory and practice consists in breaking with that Marxism which claims to monopolise revolutionary initiative as well as theoretical and practical direction."24 In exile in the 1950s, Korsch fell into despair, breaking his connection with Marxism. Fortunately, few of his writings from that period made their way into print. In 1956, Korsch learned that he was suffering from a serious brain disease, and in 1961 he died.

Karl Korsch’s undogmatic Marxism
Different writers disagree when it comes to evaluating Karl Korsch’s contribution to Marxist theory. The most sympathetic, the German Marxist Erich Gerlach, describes Korsch’s biography of Marx as "the Marx study most close to the actual teachings of Marx". According to Fred Halliday of the New Left Review, Korsch was "one of the most interesting and original, if erratic, Marxist theorists in the West during the 1920s and 1930s". Patrick Goode (Korsch’s biographer) also emphasises what he sees as "the positive side of Korsch’s Marxism", which makes it superior to most varieties of academic Marxism. Less flatteringly, Douglas Kellner (another academic biographer) suggests that Korsch combined a theoretical stress on the need for activity with actual passivity, while Perry Anderson describes Korsch as one of the founders of Western Marxism, an academic and pessimistic step backwards from the classical Marxist tradition.25 In a cutting phrase, Douglas Kellner describes Karl Korsch as, "the secretary to the movement of world history". Meanwhile Leszek Kolakowski, the East European dissident, argues that Korsch never made up his mind as to whether Marxism was a science or just the expression of the interests of the working class. Because Korsch never resolved this problem, so Kolakowski argues, his work is a failure. Helena Sheehan discusses Korsch in the context of the debate over the dialectics of nature. She quotes the verdict of Korsch’s great friend Brecht: "Korsch is only a guest in the house of the proletariat. His bags are packed and always ready to leave."26

If Korsch himself had been asked what his lasting contribution to Marxist theory had been, it is likely that he would have pointed to his success in persuading Marxists to discuss again the question of philosophy. Korsch had his own idea of the fight that he should wage, and that was the struggle against what he described as "Hegel amnesia". The Marxists of the Second International had forgotten their dialectics, without it they had lapsed into opportunism and reformism. With dialectics restored, Marxism would again represent the unity of theory and practice, it would again be a weapon for the working class as it sought to transform the world.

The most striking way in which Karl Korsch actually distinguished himself from the other Marxists of the 1920s and 1930s was, however, in his stress on the "specific" nature of Marxism. For Korsch, Marxism was first and above all else a revolutionary critique of capitalism. Marxism was not a utopian vision of a future for humanity, it was simply the science of the working class under late capitalism. This approach is especially clear in his biography of Marx, in which Korsch argued that such a specific interpretation of Marxism, as a critique of late capitalism, is the only way to restore Marxism as a message of hope: "The principle of historical specification, besides its original significance as an improved method of sociological analysis and research, becomes of first-rate importance as a polemical weapon in the practical struggle waged against the existing conditions of society."27 One critic of this approach was Karl Kautsky, in the mid-1920s still one of the main theorists of German Social Democracy. Kautsky was very hostile to Korsch’s claims to be defending the unity of Marxist theory and practice:

"For Korsch, Marxism is nothing but a theory of social revolution. In reality, one of the most outstanding characteristics of Marxism is the conviction that the social revolution is only possible under certain circumstances, and this only in certain times and countries. The communist sect to which Korsch belongs has quite forgotten this. For them, the social revolution is always possible, everywhere, under all circumstances."28

Kautsky’s comments do raise a real problem in Korsch’s Marxism. If Korsch was right and Marxism should be understood as being "just" the appropriate theory of the working class under late capitalism; then did that not limit the scope of Marxism?

The tradition of classical Marxism has been to defend Marxism not only as a means of working class revolution, but also as a way to make sense of the world. There is a unity between Marxism as a weapon and Marxism as a science. Marx’s early writings predate the rise of the working class as a mature and global force and are founded on a historical analysis of pre-capitalist, as well as capitalist societies. In the same way, Marx argues that because the working class under capitalism is the majority and inherits the enormous scientific advances that have taken place under capitalist society, so the proletariat is the first class that in the act of liberating itself, can also liberate all society. Unlike previous oppressed classes, the working class is engaged in collective production. In the past, oppressor classes could divide peasants by offering them land; under capitalism, however, the working class can win its liberation only as a united, collective force. The working class is the first class capable of achieving universal human liberation.

For this reason, Kautsky was correct to argue that Marxist theory will still be valid (but in a different way) after the working class has taken power and when the working class, as an exploited class under capitalism, has ceased to exist. If Kautsky’s Marxism was the theoretical expression of a reformist compromise in the interests of the bureaucratic structures of the SPD, Karl Korsch’s Marxism fitted the perspective of an activist at the moment of capitalism’s crisis; it tied Marxist theory to the class struggle and to the need for revolution. Yet it presented Marxism as being simply the consciousness of the working class at the moment of revolution, and there was very little sense in Korsch of the historical traditions which the working class inherits, including the experience of working class struggle, the ebbs and the flows, from whose memory the Marxist party can be built.

Korsch’s stress on the specificity of Marxism led him to all manner of uneven conclusions. He argued that Marxism had nothing to say about science, and argued that there was no dialectic in nature. This argument was not in itself unusual, but Korsch defended it by making the extraordinary claim that there could be a Marxist understanding of science, only in so far as "nature" was the product of capitalist society. Therefore, as an example of the way that changes of quantity became changes of quality, he gave the case of trees bending towards human light. For other writers, the point of the debate was to consider what shaped a world without class society, a world indeed without human beings. In Korsch’s version, nature was only of interest in so far as it was capitalist nature, which does make you wonder whether he had understood the terms of the debate!29 Karl Korsch also insisted that there was no such thing as a Marxist theory of human nature, because even to stress, as Frederick Engels had, that tools and labour played a role in the early development of mankind was to revert to "a secularised form of those older theories which derived the same facts from the command of God".30

Even at its best, Karl Korsch’s Marxism was remarkably abstract. Korsch would invoke categories, such as "theory", "practice", or "philosophy", without giving them any concrete meaning. Thus, while accepting the materialist argument that human beings are the product of their conditions, Korsch refused to say which conditions were important and how they worked. Although Korsch formally argued that Marxism only had meaning as the tool to achieve a working class revolution, his failure to describe workers or the significance of their fight meant that this was a very Hegelian, impractical and philosophical justification of Marxism. At its worst, Korsch’s Marxism suffered from a glaring omission. There was almost no sense at all in his writings of the unevenness of working class consciousness. He assumed that it was always the early 1920s, that the majority of workers were always revolutionary. There was very little sign that Korsch understood how to organise the minority of workers who did consider themselves Marxists. Somehow that would simply happen. Likewise, Korsch never argued that the party could act as the embodiment of the unity between theory and practice. That task would be left to individuals.

It is useful to compare Karl Korsch with his contemporary, Georg Lukács. Like Korsch, Lukács stressed the need for a dialectical Marxism and the need to link Marxist theory to Marxist practice. Like his friend Korsch, Lukács developed as a Marxist writer. He went through an early ultra-left period, before moving towards the heart of the classical Marxism tradition, as he assimilated the lessons of the Russian Revolution. This stage in Lukács’ development was expressed in an important book, History and Class Consciousness.31 Unlike Korsch, Lukács seriously understood the need to build a revolutionary party, and this explains his decision to join the Hungarian Communist Party following the Russian revolution. As it happened, Lukács’s tragedy was to remain in this party, even after the Communist Party had degenerated. His refusal to break with Stalinism in the 1930s meant that he was compelled to act as the mouthpiece of Stalinism. But, again, Lukács did take part in the Hungarian rising of 1956 and joined the short-lived Imre Nagy government, risking far more than other prominent Marxists who had compromised more decisively with Stalinism. There are at least three ways, therefore, in which Lukács’s Marxism is superior to Korsch’s. First, Lukács was not satisfied to limit himself to writing about philosophy. In a number of works, he attempted to marry his philosophical insights to detailed historical examples, against which his theories could be tested.32 Second, Lukács had a far more urgent sense of the difficulties of revolution, and hence the need to build a revolutionary party. This point suggests the third way in which Lukács’s Marxism was superior, Lukács came far closer to expressing the unity between ideas and action. Whatever Korsch’s merits as a Marxist, Lukács was more successful in bringing his theory and practice together as one.

I have argued that Korsch’s Marxism fails. Because there was no sense of objective reality in his writing, so his philosophical categories remained abstract and empty of meaning. Thus he failed to achieve the task he set himself of reuniting theory and practice. For all its strengths, Korsch’s Marxism was a recipe for passivity. Having said that, it would be better to remember Korsch for the goals he set himself than for what he failed to do. Brought up at a time when official Marxism seemed sterile, empty and reductionist, he attempted to translate the workers’ struggles of 1918-23 into revolutionary theory. Karl Korsch was absolutely right to insist that Marxism must be revolutionary, or it is nothing; but Korsch was wrong when he limited Marxism to a critique of existing society. Marxism is a means to revolution, and it is also a vision of how a different society could work. Despite its weaknesses, Karl Korsch’s work reminds us that there is still a world to be won.


1. G. Plekhanov, The Role of the Individual in History (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1951 edn), p.54; K. Kautsky, The Materialist Conception of History, (Yale: Yale University Press, 1988 edn), p.482.

2. J. Rees, The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition (London: Routledge, 1998), pp.135-43.

3. P. Goode, Karl Korsch: A Study in Western Marxism (London: Macmillan, 1979), pp.70-1. Korsch was familiar with Lenin’s, "On the Significance of Militant Materialism" (1922), which is quoted in K. Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy (London: Pluto, 1970 edn), p.9. However, the Philosophical Notebooks, Lenin’s most important philosophical work, were not published until after his death. They can be read today in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 38 (Moscow and London: Progress Publishers and Lawrence and Wishart, 1976 edn). "On the Significance of Militant Materialism" is located in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 36 (Moscow and London: Progress Publishers and Lawrence and Wishart, 1966 edn), pp.227-36.

4. E. Gerlach, "Karl Korsch’s Undogmatic Marxism", International Socialism 19 (1963), pp.22-7; Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy; K. Korsch, Three Essays on Marxism (London: Pluto, 1971); D. Kellner (ed), Karl Korsch: Revolutionary Theory (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977); K. Korsch, Karl Marx (New York: Humanities Press, 1963 edn).

5. Goode, Karl Korsch, p.11.

6. For a fuller treatment of Korsch’s views on factory councils, Goode, Karl Korsch, pp.58-9; Kellner, Karl Korsch, pp.18-24.

7. H. Korsch, "Memories of Karl Korsch", New Left Review 76 (1972), pp.34-46; Kellner, Karl Korsch, pp.40-8.

8. M. Jay, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research 1923-1950 (London and Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1973).

9. Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, pp.58-9.

10. Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, pp.54-60.

11. Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, pp.84-5; F. Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (Peking: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1976 edn); there is also a useful discussion of Marxism as a negation of philosophy in T. Eagleton, Marx and Freedom (London: Phoenix, 1998), pp.3-16.

12. Korsch was especially close to Brecht, and travelled with him in exile. Bertholt Brecht in turn seems to have relied on Korsch (or as Brecht called him, "the Professor") for advice on matters of Marxist theory. Even Brecht, however, recognised Karl Korsch’s habits of abstraction and academic reasoning. Indeed, Bertholt Brecht gave his friend a curiously double-handed congratulation, on reading Korsch’s Karl Marx in 1938. "Up until [now]", Brecht wrote, "I think your Marxism was largely a product of the history of ideas. Now it springs from reality." Brecht’s point, that Korsch possessed an abstract and idealistic Marxism, remained true even after 1938. For Korsch’s influence on Brecht, B. Brecht, Letters (London: Methuen, 1990), pp.133, 145-6, 153, 165-7, 238, 296, 352, here 296.

13. K. Korsch, "The Present State of the Problem of ’Marxism and Philosophy’", in Marxism and Philosophy, pp.89-128.

14. Korsch, Three Essays, pp.61, 68.

15. Goode, Karl Korsch, p.111.

16. Kellner, Karl Korsch, pp.163.

17. Kellner, Karl Korsch, pp.147, 166.

18. Korsch, Karl Marx, p.110.

19. Korsch, Karl Marx, p.79.

20. Korsch, Karl Marx, p.136.

21. Korsch, Karl Marx, p.229.

22. M. van Elteren, "Karl Korsch and Lewinian Social Psychology: Failure of a Project", History of the Human Sciences 5/2 (1992), pp.33-62; the results of the research are published as K. Korsch and K. Lewin, "Mathematical Constructs in Psychology and Sociology", Journal of Unified Sciences 9 (1939).

23. K. Korsch, "Human Nature: The Marxian View", Journal of Philosophy 42/26 (1945), pp.712-8, p.718; K. Korsch, "The World Historians", Partisan Review 9/5 (1942), pp.354-371. There is a full list of these articles in the bibliography in Goode, Karl Korsch, pp.218-28.

24. K. Korsch, "Ten Theses on Marxism Today (1950)", Telos 26 (1975-6), pp.40-1.

25. Gerlach, pp.22-7; F. Halliday, "Karl Korsch: an Introduction", in Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, pp.7-23, p.22; Goode, Karl Korsch, pp.186-7; P. Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London: New Left Books, 1976), pp.29-30, 49-50.

26. D. Kellner, "Korsch’s Revolutionary Historicism", Telos 26 (1975-6), pp.170-193; L. Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, Its Origins, Growth and Dissolution: Volume 3: The Breakdown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp.308-23; H. Sheehan, Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History: Volume 1: The First 100 Years (New Jersey and London: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp.255-73, p.273.

27. Korsch, Karl Marx, p.38

28. Goode, Karl Korsch, p.82.

29. Goode, Karl Korsch, p.147.

30. Korsch, Karl Marx, p.197.

31. G. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness (London: Merlin, 1971 edn); also, for an analysis of Lukács’s Marxism as it developed over time, Rees, Algebra of Revolution, pp.202-61.

32. Including G. Lukács, The Historical Novel (Boston, 1963); and G. Lukács, The Destruction Of Reason (London: Merlin, 1980).