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Karl Korsch's challenge to Marxism (2003)


The events of Karl Korsch's life can be told briefly.  Born in Northern Germany in 1886, he was attracted to the ideas of student radicalism, and spent the period before the First World War arguing for a revival of Germany on the basis of liberalism, democracy and respect for other nations.  He was a diligent student, and rapidly obtained a doctorate in law.  In his early twenties, Korsch's ideas moved to the left and he joined the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), yet his progress was slow: he continued to identify with the party's centre or right wing.  Between 1910 and 1914, Korsch lived in England, where he joined the ultra-moderate Fabian Society.  Korsch served under arms, was promoted, and was again radicalised by the war.  He joined the Independent Socialist Party (USPD).  He agued for the control of industry by workers' councils; and yet this idea was never fully developed, it did not become the heart of his politics, as it did for Gramsci at this time and others later.  As events progressed the USPD split, and Korsch followed a minority of his comrades into the German Communist Party (KPD) in 1920.  A talented, articulate figure when such men were rare, he was brought rapidly into the leading circles of the party.  In 1923, he became minister of justice for the regional parliament in Thuringia.  He was elected to the German parliament.  He participated in the attempted revolution of October 1923, which petered out for lack of leadership, or any sort of plan.

            For most of the rest of his life, the German workers movement was in retreat, and Korsch's career reflects the same sense of isolation from any mass movement.  The KPD shifted briefly to the left, then to the right, then left again, purging its previous leaders at each stage.  In 1924, Korsch's first significant book Marxism and Philosophy was criticised by the leadership of the Communist International.  Korsch attempted to rally an international Communist opposition, linking up with the Italian Left Communist Amadeo Bordiga.  Korsch was expelled from the Communist Party in 1926, and lost his seat in the German Parliament two years later.  He attempted to influence the movement through friendship with prominent figures on the international left, including Bertholt Brecht.  He continued to write essays for the magazines of the outside left (Council Correspondence, Partisan Review, Modern Quarterly, New Essays and Living Marxism) and a biography of Karl Marx in 1938.  Korsch continued to publish until the early 1950s, but his work suffers from its evident sense of frustration.  The world was being divided into blocs by the Cold War, and Korsch saw little space in which any authentic left could flourish.  He died in 1961. 

            This summary does little justice to the range of Korsch's activities, nor indeed to the originality of his ideas.  Karl Korsch was faced with dilemmas which have troubled the left ever since, and he attempted as honestly as he could to map out a path for the rebirth of libertarian socialism.  Whether or not we accept his answers, they encourage us to think about forces that remain too often the same today.

In the 1920s, for example, Korsch attempted to understand what it was that had led to his expulsion from the Communist Party.  Rightly, he diagnosed the problem as something more than a failure of justice in his own single case.  He detected a lack of independent spirit, a too-strong subservience to a leadership appointed by Moscow.  Korsch went further, indeed, and insisted that the problem lay with the Leninist conception of organisation, which the German Communists had inherited from Moscow.  He saw strong parallels with the flawed, non-revolutionary 'Marxism' of the pre-1914 German socialists.  Democratic centralism had the tendency, he argued, to subject the mass always to the vagaries of the leader. 

            In the 1920s and early 1930s, Korsch identified Stalinism or 'state capitalism' as the source of the problem.  One article described the governing philosophy of the Soviet Union 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 movement of the proletarian class.'  If the Russian ruling class was oppressing its workers at home, could it play a progressive role abroad?  Korsch was critical of other figures on the left such as Leon Trotsky, who argued that the Soviet Union could be rescue by a process of reform without revolution.  In contrast to such writers, Korsch maintained that the Stalinist counter-revolution was maintained by a global process of anti-socialism, rooted in the hegemony of heavy industry.  In the same way that nineteenth century mechanism resulted in capitalism, so the accumulation of capital and the formation of giant trust in the twentieth century resulted in new oligarchies, based on extreme anti-working class reaction.

            The rise of Hitler's Nazis forced Korsch into exile.  It also challenged his basic understanding of the crisis of his times.  At first, Korsch responded to Nazism by maintaining that fascism, reformism and Stalinism all similar origins.  His argument was then that capitalism had entered into a period of crisis.  In such a situation, the working class could either go on the offensive, or into retreat.  By the mid-1920s, the direction was everywhere towards defeat.  In an epoch of counter-revolution, it did not really matter which form of reaction triumphed, provided that its ascendancy was recognised by socialists as a defeat.  In such a situation, he argued, bourgeois democracy could just as easily turn fascist, as fascism itself.  The result, as he described it, was a world in which fascism became the norm: 'The underlying historical law, the law of the fully developed fascist counterrevolution of our time, can be formulated in the following manner: After the complete exhaustion and defeat of the revolutionary forces, the fascist counterrevolution attempts to fulfil, by new and revolutionary methods and in widely different forms, those social and political tasks which the so-called reformistic parties and trade unions had promised to achieve but in which they could no longer succeed under the given historical conditions.'

In exile, Karl Korsch revised his early understanding of fascism.  He now realised that fascism was not simply another reactionary force for crushing the workers, but also a mass movement, which because of its pseudo-revolutionary mask was able to recruit large numbers of ordinary workers and use their energy to do untold damage.  Arguing against positions that he himself had taken in the 1920s, Korsch now accepted that fascism had popular support: 'By feeding upon the failures and omissions of the so-called "system politicians", it enrolled in the long run the support of the nation and in both the economic and political fields solved a number of concrete problems that had been neglected or frustrated by the unsocialist attitudes of the socialists and the undemocratic behaviour of the democrats.'

Elsewhere, Korsch insisted on the contradiction between fascist promises and the results of fascist government, 'Nazism presents the spectacle of a loudly advertised revolutionary action which at the same time attempts to control and to reduce to a minimum, the inevitable results of its own subversive exertions.' This insight meant treating fascism as a single, but contradictory whole.  The emphasis on the tensions within fascism enabled other Marxists to argue that fascism could be stopped, if only the whole socialist movement united against it.  Yet in Korsch's case, this theoretical advance was only reached after its author had lost touch with any mass movement.  Korsch was now correct in his abstract diagnoses, but could not formulate any living suggestions as to what should actually be done.

            Karl Korsch's most important practical contribution was to argue that Marxism (or by implication any movement of working-class revolt) contained only a negative character.  By this he meant that it was ludicrous to use the historical and intellectual tools of left-wing tradition in any purpose other than successful revolution.  The idea of a socialist history, a Marxist theory of the arts, or indeed an anarchist theory of evolution would have seemed to him all equally ludicrous.  The only legitimate reason for being interested in the left was to encourage working-class struggle with the goal of immediately effective insurrection.  Such an idea was encouraged in him by the condition of the German Socialists prior to 1914: when the party had been captured by intellectual leaders, who were learned and sympathetic, but were in no sense revolutionaries.  Korsch's distrust of intellectuals was strengthened by the events of the 1930s.  Prominent writers declared their support for the Soviet Union, and indeed for every popular cause save that of real change.  Korsch was outraged.

            Yet Korsch's rejection of academic literary Marxism suffered similar defects to those that it criticised.  In maintaining that the revolution was always possible, always imminent, he lacked any real sense of the highs and lows of the workers' movement.  That lack of insight in turn deprived him of any sense of the tasks, immediately at hand, which might push forward organisation locally or nationally.  Our brilliant critic of socialist inactivity was in this way a surprisingly poor activist.  He rarely wrote about popular movements.  He took little interest in questions of tactics or organisation.  Korsch's middle-class upbringing isolated him from the workers' movement.  He was cut off by his contempt for reformism from involvement in the easier campaigns for peace or against fascism.  He was separated by the events of German Stalinism from the parties of the left.  There was nowhere for him to go, save to the publishing of books.  Korsch's Marxism became a revolution against the world.

            Yet the task that Korsch set himself, to take forward the ideas of real democracy even during a non-revolutionary epoch, was a brave and necessary work.  Often throughout history, lone individuals have carried the ideas of the revolutionary left.  Once hidden, now open, the ideas have then flourished at times when class struggle has cleared the way.  This has happened in Spain in 1936, in Europe after 1968, and worldwide since the events of Seattle in 1999.  The source of Korsch's isolation was precisely his refusal to compromise, and it is this steadfastness that has made his ideas accessible whenever a desire for real change has grown.