Korsch's challenge to Marxism
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
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.
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.'
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.'
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.