This is revolutionary and critical. Yet, Korsch’s attention to Hegel’s dialectic and its relation to Marx has too often incorrectly read Korsch as a simple Hegelian-Marxist, i.e., of having simply superimposed Hegel’s genius if idealist-bourgeois-ethical-statist philosophy onto Marx’s materialist-proletarian-anti-statist thought. This view, however, is incorrect because Korsch was most concerned with the specific differences between what can be thought of as Hegel’s bourgeois dialectic and Marx’s proletarian dialectic. From the bourgeois standpoint, Korsch wrote, “the ‘idealist dialectic’ of Hegel, which finds its ideal conclusion in the idea of the bourgeois state, must be the only possible and thinkable form of dialectic”.7Korsch, Karl (1923) The Marxist Dialectic.
We can and should re-center this triple validity, of first, an anti-dogmatic conception of Marxism that is second, a theory of changing consciousness in and through social revolution based third, on the latter’s critical and revolutionary rejection of the existing modern bourgeois state. Take out any one of these positions and Marxism loses something essential. It risks becoming a conservative, ideal scholasticism unable to understand its own theory and history. Dogmatism flows from refusing the reflexive self-application, idealism and a perspective of socialism reminiscent of gastric upset more than complete liberation flows from imagining social relations transformed while consciousness remains unaltered, and conservativism flows from surrendering revolutionary orientation in acceptance of the existing modern bourgeois state instead of a perspective of its withering away.
The liberation of each as a precondition for the liberation of all
Korsch defended a liberatory Marxism of a specific kind, one that placed the liberation of each as the precondition for the liberation of all in the context of an emergent process of class struggle. In other words, Korsch was highly attentive to the texture of uniqueness communist liberation occasions. At a time, like ours, when the fascist right falsely claims the monopoly on bourgeois individual freedom, which amounts to a buying and selling right, good for commodities while bodies pile high from plagues, Korsch’s arguments strongly resonate. Beyond these murderous and degrading notions of human freedom, Korsch’s liberatory perspective is well-suited to our time, because it is based on working class solidarity and revolution.
Korsch’s specifically communist approach to individual liberation is not merely posited, but earned by relying on two key commitments. First, the plasticity of liberation, in terms of the new possible social relations which revolution opens, and second the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which, given the ring of “dictatorship” in modern ears, will require some explanation.
Revolutions are creative, they break down reified social relations, and inaugurate a liberated plasticity in the forms of social life. Because they break the hold of social domination in all of its mechanisms and effects, from the workplace, the schoolyard, the prison, the family and the state machine, we can become far freer to individuate beyond the false promises afforded by capitalist societies. In capitalist societies, individual freedom is the correlate of commodity fetishism, an ideological fiction of freedom in a context where workers sell their labour power to employers, entering into unfree mechanisms of bourgeois domination.
Inaugurating a liberated plasticity of social forms was a central commitment for Korsch in his book Karl Marx, and it is worth marking the timelessness of how social revolutions produce ruptures “from a rigid system of long-established and repressive social relations to a flexible system of new and more plastic forms of social life as yet in the process of formation, with plenty of room for further development of the productive forces and for new forms of human activity.”8Korsch, Karl (2016) Karl Marx. Leiden: Brill, p. 154. Every thoroughgoing upheaval, from the Paris Commune’s radical clubs and the Russian Revolution to the squares and workplaces of twenty-first century’s revolutions from Egypt, Sudan and Myanmar, have given us a glimpse of how a transition, perilous and necessary as it is, from repressive social relations to human liberation might just be made to endure. They all, without exception, and no matter the thoroughgoing nature of their defeats, involve the overturning of the rigid relations of everyday life under capitalism.
Even in the glimpses afforded by failures we can see how various surfaces of domination can crack, opening a breach in the forms of domination, revealing a hitherto unprecedented prospect for a liberated plasticity of social life. By opening up historical possibilities for those who dare to struggle, even the beginnings of social revolutions are more than just promises or signposts: they are themselves radical inaugurating events of liberation. Alone, however, as so many recent examples show us, they are insufficient.
The second, necessary element of liberation involves the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat. At first glance and by virtue of the word dictatorship, the idea may seem to cut against notions of liberation. Still, it is actually essential for human liberation, because without it, the plasticity of liberation is defeated, left unrealised. The dictatorship of the proletariat is simply a concept to think working class political rule.
What is more, Korsch made his proposal for the dictatorship of the proletariat at a time when Stalinist Russia deformed any idea that the working class, in all of its diversity, could run society. Korsch explained that a dictatorship of the proletariat did not rule over the proletariat but is of the proletariat; it is a class dictatorship, not a dictatorship of the party or party leadership. It is essential because a revolutionary dictatorship is a decisive moment in a broader process of undoing and dismantling the contradictions of class domination, creating the conditions of possibility for a withering away of the state apparatus and the bourgeois division of labour.
Korsch explained how he understood the concept, and though his focus was on the intellectual side of liberation, the point can be understood to include the manifold liberatory practices of human life:
From the very first day, this genuine proletarian dictatorship will be distinguished from every false imitation of it by its creation of the conditions of intellectual liberation not only for ‘all’ workers but for ‘each individual’ worker. Despite the alleged ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom of thought’ in bourgeois society, this liberation has never been enjoyed anywhere by the wage slaves who suffer its physical and spiritual oppression. This is what concretely defines the Marxist concept of the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat … Socialism, both in its ends and in its means, is a struggle to realize liberation.9Korsch, Karl (2012) Marxism and Philosophy. London: Verso, p. 256. My translation slightly modified.
With the plasticity invoked by the social revolution and the guarantee of liberation secured by the proletarian dictatorship’s reliance on and reproduction through intellectual liberation, Korsch’s specifically communist commitments become clear. Because the dictatorship of the proletariat is concretized in the relations appropriate to the liberation of each singular worker as distinct from the abstract freedom of all, the liberation of each worker is a contributing factor to the revolutionary dictatorship itself. Such an arrangement is indeed one of the highest political forms working class solidarity can historically achieve. Korsch’s communist concept of liberation was of a radically modernist kind because he argued that a classless society is based on liberated subjectivities, which does not go backwards to traditional forms of personal dependency, but forwards to the liberation of each singular worker.
To read Korsch today, the heretical and anti-dogmatic Marxist he was, is to grapple with an author who tried to weave Marx’s materialist-scientific inquiries into an ever more complex world. Yet Korsch was no mere Marxologist. He developed his philosophy while committing himself to the playful and creative political experiments that class struggles inevitably produce. And he maintained this commitment against all the defeats struggles entailed: the consolidation of Stalinism, Hitler’s crushing of the German workers’ movement, and Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War. The very intensity and the outer edges of the limits of these struggles allowed Korsch to develop the idea that the liberation of each becomes visible in the textures of revolutionary unfolding history, not in some infinitely deferred later point. With eyes deep in the clearness of the freest flowing spring, Korsch staked out his liberatory perspectives for the communist society of the future in the following way:
When labour will have developed from being a means of living to a spontaneous activity of man and, along with a development of all creative powers of the human individual the productive forces of society will also have increased; not until all springs of cooperative wealth are in full flow – not until then will the inhuman sacrifice of the present for the future of society become superfluous and the single track idea of ‘progress’ branch out into the universal development of free individuals in a free society. Not until then will the modern working class, by its conscious action, realise the old dream of the oppressed classes of all times which, as far back as Aristotle, had been a mythical expression for the real goal of the revolutionary self-emancipation of the helot-class.10Korsch, Karl (2016) Karl Marx. Leiden: Brill, p. 150.
It is, perhaps, a good but dark time to read authors like Korsch who articulated something timeless about revolutionary Marxism, for timeliness in the service of human liberation requires an absolute commitment to the reflexive, conscious, open-ended, and proletarian self-determination through and of liberatory struggle.