Weimar’s Marxist Heretic

Reading Karl Korsch Today

January 14, 2022

Karl Korsch stood out as one of the most original revolutionary Marxists of Weimar’s leftist intelligentsia; he was Weimar’s Marxist heretic. The Weimar scene was rich and teeming with intellectual creativity “a dance on the edge of a volcano” Peter Gay wrote in his history of the Weimar years.1Gay, Peter (1968): Weimar Culture, the Outsider as Insider. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Preface. The leftist intelligentsia grouped together a diverse motley of scientists associated with Einstein’s breakthroughs, philosophers trying to figure out where they stood in relation to Hegel, Marx and modern logic, playwrights like Brecht producing a critique of capitalism through the alienation-effect, novelists like Alfred Döblin capturing the tense experience of Weimar Berlin, educational reformers experimenting with novel ways of learning, socialists and anarchists debating exactly how to take the workers’ movement forward, and so many strategies challenging Stalinism and attempting to avert the looming dangers of fascism.

Before turning to Korsch’s classic text Marxism and Philosophy, first a brief biographical outline. Korsch himself was born in Tostedt (1886), studied law and philosophy, joined in Jena’s democratic student movement, the London Fabian Society and the German Social Democratic Party’s right-wing before the outbreak of the First World War. He radicalised leftwards under the impact of the brutality of the front, participated in the workers’ and soldiers’ councils in the early phase of the German Revolution of 1918, wrote extensively on socialisation, and joined the Independent Socialist Party of Germany. In that formation he partook in the counter-mobilisations against the Kapp Putsch, defended the merger with the German Communist Party, took up a ministerial post in the Thuringian government at the time of the failed October uprising and subsequently became the earliest and most consistent of anti-Stalinists on the German left. He was far more than a philosopher – he was a philosophical-political agent of the highest order. Hitler’s ascension to power forced Korsch to flee Germany. After staying briefly in England, Denmark, Sweden and France, he finally made his way to the United States where he spent his last years before his death in Belmont, Massachusetts (1961).

Marxism and Philosophy

Though Marxism and Philosophy was an early, first, and in no way the last word about Marxism and philosophy, it remains a classic worth reading today. At the time of its publication in 1923, Marxism and Philosophy was a significant innovation in that it understood Marxism itself not as a relativistic-historicism, nor a value-less scientific theory unrelated to the revolutionary class struggles, nor an economically reductionist explanation of history, but as a scientific theory of social revolution. It is a gripping short essay, its length masking the deceptive sophistication of its content. Korsch intervened into his historical conjuncture with the demand that revolutionary Marxism articulate at the theoretical, philosophical and scientific level the pathbreaking content of Marx’s “scientific socialism”. The essay showed why Marxists ought to take philosophical questions seriously; it was part of Korsch’s attempt to resolve the theoretical slips in Marxism’s relation to philosophy after the crisis of the Second International (when they voted for the war credits) and the Russian Revolution. Many Marxists of the Second International, though not all, had been a bit too slapdash in their approach to philosophy, impoverishing their own Marxism with admixtures of bourgeois theories. Marxism and Philosophy is a fine attempt to systematically grasp the revolution in philosophy inaugurated by Marx’s critique of political economy, which Korsch thought was a decisive scientific breakthrough that needed to better guide Marxist political formations.

Marxism and Philosophy attempted answers to some decisive questions: why had most Marxists of the Second International failed to correctly appreciate the relationship between Marxism and philosophy? What implications did this lapse have for their practice? What were the limits of bourgeois philosophy? What antagonistic yet productive role did a bourgeois philosopher like Hegel have in the constitution of Marx’s materialist dialectic? What was the nature of Marx’s new materialism? What was the relation between philosophy, revolution and the state? What was the relation between Marx’s early philosophy and his later scientific critique of political economy? What was the role of ideology in social revolution? In what sense is the revolutionary materialist dialectic a philosophy of the working class? What did Marx mean when he wrote that philosophers had only interpreted the world, but the point was to change it?

With this set of questions, Korsch gave voice to core themes that would feature in later debates over Marxism and philosophy throughout the twentieth century and beyond. Even if future answers would shift and differ from Korsch’s own, he set a topography of questions and described a terrain that so many are still attempting to traverse. In that sense, Korsch renewed theoretical reflection within Marxism itself, and this alone was a great merit.

Though space doesn’t allow for a detailed account of each of Korsch’s answers to the questions, I would like to stress Korsch’s analogy of the relation between Marxism and the state on one hand, and Marxism’s relation to philosophy on the other. The parallel between these relations is decisive because it showcases a shared criticism of a mode of philosophical practice that submits to bourgeois domination. Actually, and Korsch is quite explicit about it, Marxism and Philosophy could be read as an intervention doing for philosophy what Lenin’s State and Revolution did for politics and the state. He wrote:

From 1845 onwards, at the latest, Marx and Engels characterised their new materialist and scientific standpoint as no longer philosophical. It should be remembered here that all philosophy was for them equivalent to bourgeois philosophy. But it is precisely the significance of this equation of all philosophy with bourgeois philosophy that needs to be stressed. For it involves much the same relationship as that of Marxism and the State. Marx and Engels not only combated one specific historical form of the State, but historically and materialistically they equated the State as such with the bourgeois State and they therefore declared the abolition of the State to be the political aim of communism. Similarly, they were not just combating specific philosophical systems – they wanted eventually to overcome and supersede philosophy altogether, by scientific socialism.2Korsch, Karl (2012) Marxism and Philosophy. London: Verso, p. 77.

Thus, for Korsch, the political aim of communism was simultaneously the abolition and transcendence of the constrained forms of both philosophical-scientific work and political organisation in modern states that characterised bourgeois social relations and the reproduction of their modes of domination.

Anti-dogmatic Marxism, consciousness and the materialist dialectic

Korsch made three theoretical moves that still retain their validity today. First of all, Korsch applied the materialist conception of history to the history of Marxism itself. This allowed him to adopt a critical view of the efforts by Marxists of the Second and Third Internationals. This was an anti-dogmatic conception of Marxism because it insisted that we tie the theoretical, methodological and systematic forms of thought to historically specific situations and conjunctures of class struggle. To be anti-dogmatic, in Korsch’s sense, is to apply a critical, dialectical and historical conception of Marxism to its own history. That is to say, he insisted on a materialist reading of Marxism, its theories and the political struggles waged in its name.

The consequences of Korsch’s anti-dogmatic commitment to a strictly materialist reading of Marxism have yet to be fully worked out. And this is in part because the historical conjunctures of class struggle are themselves constantly developing. Korsch then provides the intellectual resources to be anti-dogmatic, but consistently Marxist.

Second, Korsch followed Marx in holding that the materialist dialectic was characterised by a “coincidence of consciousness and reality.”3Korsch, Karl (2012) Marxism and Philosophy. London: Verso, p. 134. This conjunction of consciousness and reality was necessary if Marx’s critique of political economy could also, at the same time, motivate socialism itself. The value of this idea can be highlighted if we take rival conceptions. For instance, for Bhaskar Sunkara, “whatever the precise model of socialism after capitalism is, it should be simple and require no massive changes in human consciousness”.4Sunkara issue 235; 2020. Here socialism is held distinct from human consciousness, and is imagined as a set of social changes made possible independent of similar changes in our consciousness.

Korsch has something more subversive and truthful to say. Sunkara’s argument is an example of what Korsch would call a primitive and pre-dialectical statement sacrificing the dialectical coincidence of consciousness and reality, giving a motionless notion of the class struggle. To say that no massive changes in human consciousness are necessary while simultaneously asking for a socialism is an evasion of Marx’s materialism and a disavowal of social revolution. For Korsch, it is no exaggeration to say, without a commitment to the co-determination of consciousness and reality, no successful workers’ revolution is possible, and no mass revolutionary historical transformations are possible. This is because socialism requires the genuine democratic participation of the plural mass of workers over the decision-making, wealth and resources of the world. Such democratic participation would itself rest on and in turn produce radical changes in consciousness. Sunkara’s vision is at best technocratic, offering a top-down transformation of social relations, and at worst a complete disavowal of the revolutionary movement itself.

Third, with Marx’s afterword to the second (1873) German edition of Capital in mind, Korsch distinguished between an idealist-mystified dialectic that conformed to the existing state of things and a materialist-rational, critical and revolutionary, dialectic that, in Marx’s words, “includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up”.5Marx, Karl MECW:35, Capital, p. 20.  The meaning of the negation of an existing state of things – whether they be political regimes or economic relations – invoked in Marx’s quote could be drawn from Goethe’s Faust, when he wrote that a spirit of negation sees to it that “all that comes to be deserves to perish”.6Goethe Faust, Part One. No single outcome of human thought, action, truth, nor even historical systems is absolute; they are all instead subject to transience and transformation.

Socialism requires the genuine democratic participation of the plural mass of workers over the decision-making, wealth and resources of the world. Such democratic participation would itself rest on and in turn produce radical changes in consciousness.

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.

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