This Issue
Current Issue
Next Issue
Back Issues
Marxist Theory
Socialist History
Left Politics
Left Groups
New Interventions
Islamophobia Watch

Subjectivist Marxism and the Status of Philosophy

Jonathan Joseph

DAVE RENTON’S piece on Karl Korsch ("Karl Korsch", What Next? No.16) raises some important questions about Marxism and the role of philosophy which I intend to explore here. Initially I was expecting to find a defence of Korsch’s ideas, but I found myself in broad agreement with the article. In fact my main criticism would be that, having read the discussion of Korsch’s flaws, I am left wondering what is left of Korsch that is worth defending? I can really only find one argument in Dave’s article for defending Korsch – that is, that he remained faithful to some sort of revolutionary politics, defended the Bolshevik revolution and opposed Second International revisionism. Admirable stuff, but not a unique contribution that merits special praise.

I will try and relate some of the criticisms of Korsch to the wider question of subjectivist Marxism and the status of philosophy. Renton begins by stating that in order to understand the quality of Karl Korsch’s Marxism it is necessary to grasp the Marxism that he was rejecting. It is certainly true that Korsch was rejecting some very bad philosophical positions. But this does not guarantee that his own philosophical stance will be any better. In fact, I would argue that Korsch and those he opposes commit similar philosophical errors in that they all allow their philosophical views to undermine their Marxist theoretical approach.

If we look at those that Korsch opposes it is easy to see that they have a very mechanical theory of history, derived from a dialectical schema that imposes itself on the objective world. It is not surprising that most of the mechanical determinists of the Second International became renegades, for their abandonment of revolutionary practice was in keeping with their belief that history was already predetermined. The development of the productive forces became the new historical Geist which would ensure a socialist future, allowing the Second International to get on with the day-to-day business of reformism. As Kautsky most notoriously put it: "Our task is not to organise the revolution, but to organise ourselves for the revolution; it is not to make the revolution, but to take advantage of it."1

Another theorist from the wooden "dialectical materialism" school is Plekhanov, who draws his philosophical schema from the evolutionary theories of Darwin, torn from their specific (natural) context and reapplied to the social domain in a non-emergent way, i.e. in a way that fails to do justice to the specificity of the social as a level with its own emergent laws, properties and dynamics. Plekhanov combines this with an objectified version of the philosophies of Hegel and Feuerbach, drawing heavily on the empirical generalisations of Engels’ philosophical work and the most schematic and mechanical interpretation of Marx’s view of historical development: "Thus, the properties of the geographical environment determine the development of the productive forces, which in its turn determines the development of the economic forces, and therefore all other social relations."2

It is understandable why, in opposing the politics of these Second International renegades, and in opposition to the vulgar Stalinism that followed, theorists like Korsch should emphasise the concept of subjective praxis. Korsch is correct to argue that revisionism is linked to the development of reformist trade unions and political parties, and he rightly suggests that the abstract nature of "vulgar Marxism" reflects the need to separate it from actual struggles. But he is wrong in what he poses as an alternative – that "the Marxist system is the theoretical expression of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat".3 In saying this he is reducing Marxism to the philosophical viewpoint or world-outlook of a subject, the chief error of "historicism".

Renton’s article highlights the relativistic nature of Korsch’s argument that Marxism sees everything from the vantage point of the working class.4 But this is not just one important point that Korsch did not deal with satisfactorily – it is the whole essence of his philosophy. What happens in Korsch is that Marxism ceases to be the scientific study of society, and becomes merely the expression of a social class. Now it may be that the "theoretical expression of the revolutionary proletariat" is a good one, but how do we measure this? What about other revolutionary expressions like anarchism, syndicalism or other types of socialism? What makes Marxism superior to these theories is its ability to explain the actual world. All these other theories have the potential to be the revolutionary expression of the subject, but only Marxism has the ability to adequately explain the object.

Further, the idea that Marxism is simply the expression of the working class presupposes that the revolutionary subject is unified. Again, as Renton points out, a glaring omission in Korsch’s work is the lack of any sense of the unevenness of working class consciousness. He assumed that the majority of workers were always revolutionary and that Marxism was their theory.5 Here Renton compares Korsch to Georg Lukács, someone who did understand that class consciousness is uneven. The problem with Lukács, however, is that his Hegelian philosophy leads him to sees everything in terms of consciousness (uneven or otherwise), which again, like Korsch, ignores the question of objective social structures. For Lukács, any differences in class consciousness would be overcome through a process of self-realisation. What this ignores is the fact that differentiations within the working class are not due to consciousness alone, but are the product of real social relations. Overcoming this objective situation does not depend just on self-realisation, but on the development of concrete relations with the specific structures and generative mechanisms in question.

Renton writes that Korsch’s philosophy has no sense of an objective reality and that his philosophical categories remain abstract and empty of meaning.6 Such a criticism could equally be applied to Lukács and other subjective philosophers. Against such abstractness it is necessary to maintain that transformative activity is not based on overcoming divisions within consciousness, it is about overcoming the stratification of real structures and agents.

Lukács’s philosophy also contains within it a teleological view of history which it shares with the vulgar materialism that it criticises. Both draw on the Hegelian view that history progresses through a number of stages, reaching a culminating point which for Hegel is the self-realisation of spirit, which for the vulgar materialists is the communist society and which for Lukács is the self-realisation of the proletariat. These views are teleological because they maintain that historical development unfolds according to some inherent logic, purpose or design.

If we return to Korsch, it is quite clear that his philosophy contains such a teleology as well: "There is one unified historical process of historical development in which an ‘autonomous’ proletarian class movement emerges from the revolutionary movement of the Third Estate, and the new materialist theory of Marxism ‘automatically’ confronts the bourgeois idealist philosophy."7

And later, that: "The real contradiction between Marx’s scientific socialism and all bourgeois philosophies and sciences consists entirely in the fact that scientific socialism is the theoretical expression of a revolutionary process, which will end with the total abolition of these bourgeois philosophies and sciences, together with the abolition of the material relations that find their ideological expression in them."8

Such views may seem at odds with Korsch’s relativism – or his view that all social theories are subjective expressions of different groups. In fact, the teleological element is designed to shore up the relativistic element. If we cannot assess a theory on the basis of its ability to explain the real world, but assess it according to whether it is the expression of the revolutionary proletariat, then how do we know that this is theory is "correct" and not just one more subjective viewpoint among many? Renton suggests that Korsch’s reply might be along the lines of: "My theory embodies the historic situation of the working class, therefore it must be right."9 Renton calls for demonstration and proof, but this is entirely alien to Hegelian philosophy, for these philosophical schemas, after all, are religions; you either believe in them or you do not.

Inter-subjective Marxists like Korsch and Lukács provide a clear example of the dangers of philosophy intruding upon Marxism. They reject the scientificity of theory in favour of Marxism as an outlook or perspective. Meanwhile they attempt to avoid relativism by fitting this outlook into a historical schema whereby the inter-subjective viewpoint of the class or party finds its messianic confirmation in the historical process. Any claim to realism is lost as reality is reduced to the praxis of agents. Ontology (a theory of reality) remains, but in the form of a praxis-ontology based on the beliefs and actions of social groups. An "epistemic fallacy" is committed whereby the world itself is reduced to the knowledge that agents have of it. As Lukács says, "knowledge of reality can arise only ... from the point of view of the struggle of the proletariat",10 while Gramsci (whose work is nevertheless more complex and contains many tensions) writes that: "Objective always means ‘humanly objective’ which can be held to correspond exactly to ‘historically subjective’: in other words, objective would mean ‘universal subjective’."11

Following Roy Bhaskar, we can say that these theorists embrace a historicism that reduces Marxism to the theoretical expression of the working class, that rubbishes other forms of knowledge (including, often natural science) as bourgeois ideology, and that sees Marxism as a self-sufficient, comprehensive and totalising standpoint.12 This is perfectly expressed in Lukács’s view that "self-knowledge coincides with knowledge of the whole so that the proletariat is at one and the same time the subject and object of its own knowledge".13 Instead of being a science, Marxism becomes a perspective, or in Gramsci’s writing it becomes a particular world-view, a philosophy of praxis. As we have said, this poses the danger of relativism as Marxism is no longer defined in relation to knowledge of the real world, and to avoid this the praxis Marxists require teleology. Henri Lefebvre, himself a praxis Marxist who is concerned to restore practical sensuousness to an account of the world, nevertheless attacks Gramsci for reducing Marxism to the justification of one particular practice – that of the Party – and Lukács for replacing classical philosophy with a philosophy of the proletariat.14

So although this kind of inter-subjective, praxis Marxism sees itself as rebelling against the mechanical viewpoint of "orthodox Marxism" more often than not it imposes its own teleological schema where history becomes the process of confirmation of subjective knowledge or class consciousness. In other words, the praxis Marxists confront objectivist teleology with their own subjectivist teleology. Whether Marxist theory adopts the mechanical, positivistic and determinist evolutionism of orthodox dialectical materialism or whether we accept Korsch’s view that the "emergence of Marxist theory is, in Hegelian-Marxist terms, only the ‘other side’ of the emergence of the real proletarian movement",15 it seems that they share a common philosophical error, which is to impose a philosophical framework onto historical materialism thereby pre-judging and undermining an actual scientific investigation of real historical relations.

To return to my initial point, what all these Marxists share is a misunderstanding of the role of philosophy. Against such philosophical schemas we need to conceive of a more humble philosophical project that sees its role as clarifying Marxism rather than orchestrating it. In his early work Roy Bhaskar sets out a conception of philosophy as an underlabourer to the sciences, that does not try to explain the world itself, but tries to assess those theories that do.16 Such a role may be likened to the job of a gardener who engages in acts of weeding, pruning, clearing, watering and replanting. Although this may seem a modest task, it is one that is crucially important and potentially explosive. For while it may be science that attempts to show us how the world is, philosophy can help clarify the method of this science in order for us to see more clearly.

According to this view, therefore, Marxism should be seen as a scientific analysis of society and the only theory capable of explaining the true nature of capitalist social relations. In order to fulfil this role it needs to draw, not on some sort of Marxist philosophy a la Korsch, Lukács or Gramsci, but on an explicitly realist philosophy capable of sustaining an ontological account of the world and maintaining careful scrutiny of the scientific method employed. If we conceive of philosophy as an underlabourer then we see it working alongside Marxism. This relationship must be kept in careful balance. Philosophy should not intrude on Marxism and impose its own schema on our understanding of the world. Only Marxism itself can provide the analysis of the specific features of the social world, for this is the task of science rather than philosophy. However, philosophy can assess the nature of these claims and insist on a scientific framework that is consistent with a realist ontology.

We need a philosophy that comes to Marxism "from outside" in the sense that it is not intrinsically Marxist, but approaches Marxism in a scientific way. By distancing itself from Marxism (by presenting itself as a conceptual analysis) such a philosophy will be better placed to provide a genuinely critical appraisal. This separateness also means that there is no "Marxist" philosophy as such, for Marxism should be defined as a scientific theory of society, while philosophy, it should be maintained, is not a study of society but is a study of science and other cognitive practices, including theories of society (Marxism). The fact that Marxism studies society and philosophy studies Marxism means that philosophy cannot be Marxism even if the strong conceptual aspect of both mean that they are deeply entwined.

Marxism and philosophy are separate in the sense that they are concerned with different types of knowledge. While Marxism produces first-order knowledge of society, philosophy is second-order knowledge in that it is knowledge of this knowledge of society (just as it may also reflect on the knowledge of natural science without itself becoming a natural science). But in commenting on Marxism’s findings, claims, theories and methods, a genuinely realist philosophy does set itself up against other attempts at philosophy. In this sense, we need a philosophy that can act as a complement to Marxism but which rejects the traditional approach of "Marxist philosophy".

Korsch bases his "anti-philosophical" stance on the erroneous view that bourgeois philosophy had achieved its highest point in the writings of Hegel (which is itself a Hegelian view) and that Marx had stood Hegel on his head and broken with philosophy. In actual fact we see that Korsch and Lukács and most of the so-called "dialectical materialists" from the Second International to the present day have not broken from philosophy at all. In fact these "Marxists" are virtually the only people left who actually defend the "bourgeois" philosophy of Hegel (perhaps one of the few examples of where the phrase "negation of the negation" rings true!).

Unlike Korsch, we should truly go beyond the Hegelian view of philosophy. But we cannot afford to be entirely against philosophy – after all, we have to employ an underlabourer to clear up the mess that this lot have left behind.


1. Quoted in M. Salvadori, Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution 1880-1938 (London: Verso, 1990), p.21.

2. G. Plekhanov, Fundamental Problems of Marxism (Moscow: Foreign Languages Press, 1920), p.49.

3. K. Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy (London: New Left Books, 1970), p.42.

4. D. Renton, "Karl Korsch", What Next? No.16, p.36.

5. Renton, p.39.

6. Renton, p.39.

7. Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, p.42.

8. Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, p.62.

9. Renton p.36.

10. G. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness (London: Merlin, 1971), p.21.

11. A. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), p.445.

12. R. Bhaskar, Philosophy and the Idea of Freedom (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), p.172.

13. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, p.20.

14. H. Lefebvre, The Sociology of Marx (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), pp.36-38.

15. Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, p.42.

16. E.g., R. Bhaskar, A Realist Theory of Science (London: Verso, 1997), p.10.