Horror of war and defeat of revolution forced a rethink

Marxism and philosophy: A matter of Korsch

Far from making a fetish of the ‘revolutionary moment’, Karl Korsch’s seminal Marxism and philosophy is focused on preparation for revolution, writes Lawrence Parker

In the ‘Kautsky and the myths of Manchesterism’ introduction to the recent Karl Kautsky on colonialism pamphlet, Mike Macnair writes: “In The proletarian revolution and the renegade Kautsky, Lenin referred casually to Kautsky’s ‘substitution of eclecticism and sophistry for dialectics. Kautsky is a past master at this sort of substitution’. Through this route the idea entered post-1918 communist discourse: notably in Trotsky, but also in philosophers of left communism [such as] Korsch and the young Lukács ...”

He adds: “... the critique of Kautsky as an undialectical thinker is closely associated with a politics of fetishism of the revolutionary moment at the expense of the gradual phase of the preparation for revolution; hence with fetishism of the mass strike and of ‘direct action’; and with a voluntarist conception, in which the revolutionary will to action substitutes for the maturity of the objective political conditions for revolution.”1

Macnair tidies up the inexact formulation in his first quote by tying in the “young” (37 years young!) Lukács to History and class consciousness (1922) and Korsch to Marxism and philosophy (1923).

As I have expressed previously, History and class consciousness cannot be strictly associated with the voluntarist theory of the mass strike, as this work showed a clear movement away from such conceptions toward what I call the baroque theory of ‘Leninism’, underpinned by a motion into state ideological representation (from which, nevertheless, useful concepts can, from time to time, be salvaged).2 Some of this motion can be seen in the career of Korsch in the Comintern, and Marxism and philosophy, like History and class consciousness, cannot be considered as anything other than transitional.

Lukács and Korsch

Of course, Macnair is not the first to attempt to weld together the works of Lukács and Korsch in the early 1920s. Korsch himself in an ‘Afterword instead of a foreword’ to Marxism and philosophy said: “So far as I have been able to establish, I am happily in fundamental agreement with the themes of the author [Lukács], which relate in many ways to the question raised in this work, if based on a broader philosophical foundation. In so far as there are still differences of opinion between us on particular issues of substance and method, I reserve a more comprehensive position for a later discussion.”3

Years later, Lukács remarked that in the 1920s he, Korsch and Gramsci were attempting “in our different ways to come to grips with the problem of social necessity and the mechanistic interpretation of it that was the heritage of the Second International”.4 More famously (or infamously), Zinoviev ignorantly attacked Lukács and Korsch at the 5th Congress of the Comintern in 1924, as impudent ‘professors’, while Soviet philosopher Abram Deborin treated Korsch as a ‘disciple’ of Lukács.

My introduction to Lukács, Korsch and Franz Jakubowski (whose 1936 work, Ideology and superstructure in historical materialism, owed an obvious debt to Lukács and Korsch) came in the late 1980s from the Revolutionary Communist Party/Living Marxism group. These works were not introduced to us as adjuncts of mass strike/mass action theory, but rather as counterpoints to a post-war Marxism that had become ossified and wrapped around with dogma. The other thing notable about the RCP (compared with organisations such as the Socialist Workers Party and Workers Power, for example, which did hinge on mass strike/mass action theories) was the relative stress placed on ideology and the manner in which a relative lack of ideological preparation was seen to warp traditional far-left strategies, which made thinkers such as Korsch fairly obvious bedfellows. This stress was, of course, completely warped itself by being turned into the shibboleth of a dead-end sect and suggested that the RCP ultimately had many more things in common with other ‘new left’ advocates of Lukács and Korsch than it would have admitted at the time.

With the exception of those from Lukács and Korsch themselves, none of these narratives involving the conjoining of these two thinkers have very much to recommend them. Yet, Lukács and Korsch in their early-to-mid-1920s modes, despite obvious differences and emphases, clearly belong together. This is not due to any of the discredited reasoning of the ‘new left’ or Macnair’s latter-day critique (which essentially feed off each other into a circular logic); rather it is due to the concrete historical circumstances of the time: the failure of the post-war offensive against capitalism in countries such as Hungary and Germany; the collapse of ultra-leftism (at least in ideological terms); the search for an explanation for these twin failures; and the Comintern’s shift toward the united front. Leftism and voluntarism had run into a brick wall and this pushed Lukács and Korsch into intellectual motion.

There is also a slightly later shift, related to the subsequent isolation of the Soviet Union, which is the rise of ‘Leninism’ as a state ideological construction, in which both Lukács and Korsch played some role in elaborating. It is this conjuncture and the resulting intellectual movement that should inform the debate around Lukács and Korsch in relation to their most enduring works, not abstract importations about the ‘mass strike’ and suchlike, which, in themselves, rely to some extent on the misunderstandings that the ‘new left’ of the 1960s and 1970s pasted upon this debate (I am taking it for granted that no-one will want to defend Zinoviev’s amateur dramatics of 1924).

Korsch’s early years in the KPD (he joined with the majority faction of the USPD in 1920 when that organisation split) were marked by his espousal of what can be best characterised as council communism, tinged with anarcho-syndicalism. But what is interesting about his writings of this period is that Korsch is clearly seeking a route out of this problematic towards a more directly political theory. Thus, for example, in ‘Labour law for factory councils’ (1922) he characterised such councils as “the most advanced outposts of the proletarian army ... as the real battlefields in an economic or social struggle”, but reminded his readers that this at “the same time necessarily means a political struggle”.5

Korsch was clearly looking away from factory councils as the ultimate source of political authority in the revolution and, far from glorifying this perspective with the tincture of the ‘revolutionary moment’, appeared to draw a set of gradualist political conclusions. “In the epoch politically characterised as the transitional period of the ‘proletarian dictatorship’, a proletarian constitution of labour, resting on the firm foundation of ‘industrial democracy’, and with it a real councils system, will, after long, difficult and ruthless struggles in the whole economy, and in all individual branches of the economy, and in every individual factory, be gradually realised by the state power placed at the service of the proletarian class.”6


Marxism and philosophy can perhaps be best characterised as a brilliant and suggestive polemic on one hand, bolted onto a heavily schematised historical narrative. We should not draw upon Marxism and philosophy, for example, for any summary judgement on Second International Marxism; but, crucially, this does not directly impact on the political conclusions to be drawn from it, which are anchored in the conjuncture of the early 1920s.

Korsch looks at the problem of Marxism and philosophy through the lens of three broad historical periods, through which he sees Marxism travelling since its birth: “The first phase begins around 1843, and corresponds in the history of ideas to the Critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right. It ends with the revolution of 1848 - corresponding to the Communist manifesto. The second phase begins with the bloody suppression of the Parisian proletariat in the battle of June 1848 and the resultant crushing of all the working class’s organisations and dreams of emancipation ... The third phase extends from the start of this [20th] century to the present and into an indefinite future.”7

It was the second phase that impacted upon the “minimisation of philosophical problems by most Marxist theoreticians of the Second International”, and this “was only a partial expression of the loss of the practical, revolutionary character of the Marxist movement, which found its general expression in the simultaneous decay of the living principles of dialectical materialism in the vulgar Marxism of the epigones”.8 Korsch uses the example of Franz Mehring’s rejection of “philosophic fantasies” to illustrate the “generally dominant position on all philosophical problems found among the prominent Marxist theoreticians of the Second International (1889-1914)”.9 According to Korsch, this group “regarded concern with questions that were not even essentially philosophical in the narrower sense, but were only related to the general epistemological and methodological bases of Marxist theory, as at most an utter waste of time and effort”.10

Korsch sees this approach to philosophy as leaving open a dangerous flapping door for the practice of revolutionary politics. “The problem is ... how we should understand the abolition of philosophy, of which Marx and Engels spoke - mainly in the 1840s, but on many later occasions as well. How should this process be accomplished, or has it already been accomplished? By what actions? At what speed? And for whom? Should this abolition of philosophy be regarded as accomplished only for Marxists, or for the whole proletariat, or for the whole of humanity? Or should we see it (like the abolition of the state) as a very long and arduous revolutionary process which unfolds through the most diverse phases. If so, what is the relationship of Marxism to philosophy, so long as this arduous process has not yet attained its final goal, the abolition of philosophy?”11

Thus Korsch, rather than seeing philosophy as something that can be voluntaristically wished away or destroyed by the ephemeral ‘revolutionary moment’, advocates a need for preparatory intellectual struggle in philosophy, in ideas, in ideology: “To evade a definite stand on these ideological problems of the transition can have disastrous political results in the period after the proletarian seizure of state power, because theoretical vagueness and disarray can seriously impede a prompt and energetic approach to problems that then arise in the ideological field.”12 So the “higher ideologies of the art, religion and philosophy of bourgeois society” need to be “subjected to the revolutionary social criticism of scientific socialism, which embraces the whole of social reality”.13 Korsch adds: “Just as political action is not rendered unnecessary by the economic action of a revolutionary class, so intellectual action is not rendered unnecessary by either political or economic action.”14

The historical schema that underpins Marxism and philosophy relies on a set of very broad, and sometimes questionable, brush strokes. While there is a critique of theorists such as Mehring and Hilferding, his account relies too much on the assumptions about the Second International that have since become widely diffuse dogma on the revolutionary left. Kautsky is mentioned in passing on a few occasions, but Marxism and philosophy offers no clinching proof as to whether or not he is guilty of undialectical thought (Korsch could have done worse than look at the recent essays in the Colonialism pamphlet, which offer some concrete examples of a lapsed dialectic).

In a similar vein, Korsch is confused, like Lukács, as to the exact political physiognomy of the Bolsheviks in the Second International. He cannot be unaware of the solidarity between Lenin and Kautsky up to World War I, but he smuggles away the idea of a principled ‘centre’ as an illusion: “For some decades there had been an apparent crisis in the camp of the social democrat parties and trade unions of the Second International; this took the shape of a conflict between orthodox Marxism and revisionism. But with the emergence of different socialist tendencies over these new questions, it became clear that this apparent crisis was only a provisional and illusory version of a much deeper rift that ran through the orthodox Marxist front itself.”15 With the onset of 1914, this “deeper rift” obviously became manifest, but there is clearly an attempt to ‘read back’ the splits around the war onto the earlier construction of the Second International centre, which Korsch implies was merely tactical. This has become a standard interpretation for wide sections of the contemporary revolutionary left.

While there is certainly room for a very intense scepticism towards Korsch’s reading of the Second International and key organisations such as the SPD, it must be added that he did isolate something of an empirical truth in relation to a tendency inside the SPD to incorporate alien class ideas into its work. For example, Mehring’s above-mentioned rejection of so-called Marxist “philosophical fantasies” led to his incorporation of Kant and Schiller into his aesthetic outlook.16 In the words of Vernon Lidtke, Mehring was part of an SPD view of the world that failed to “develop a special set of socialist or Marxist aesthetic principles”, thus passing up “an opportunity to clarify their relationship to all of the arts”.17

On similar lines, Social Democratic cultural groups such as the Friends of Nature sometimes revolved around a cult of nature;18 while Workers’ Gymnastic Clubs chose the “holy veneration” of nationalist and anti-Semite Friedrich Ludwig Jahn.19 This ‘supplemental’ logic, that Marxism was apparently inoperable in certain societal spheres, was abroad in the SPD and, as an aside, makes the CPGB’s current fetish for the SPD’s cultural organisations something of a dubious preference for ‘mass cultural action’ over preparation for revolution (this can be the only conclusion from reading Lidtke’s careful analysis).


Unlike History and class consciousness, which is much more consciously partyist in its application, Marxism and philosophy has little to say on the party issue and the practical outcome for its programme of ideological struggle. However, it is also clear that it cannot be fitted into the mass action/mass strike schema demanded by Mike Macnair.

Macnair talks about how a “politics of fetishism of the revolutionary moment” comes at the expense of “the gradual phase of the preparation for revolution”. As we have seen above, Korsch was distrustful of this voluntarist revolutionary movement: the abolition of philosophy was not something to be achieved all at once, but as part of an “arduous process”. To neglect ideology and the consequent struggle for ideas (ie, part of the assumptions from proponents of the mass action/mass strike) is an error to be guarded against. Korsch had seen the logic of ‘mass action’ minus preparatory politics unfold in Germany after World War I and it is that history that is informing his conclusions.

In an essay from the early 1920s, he argued: “Thus it is by no means to be traced back to purely external coincidences that in the enormously fateful months after November 1918, as the political power organisations of the bourgeoisie collapsed and nothing external stood in the way of the transition from capitalism to socialism, that great hour had nonetheless to slip by unseized because the social-psychological presuppositions for its utilisation were greatly lacking: a decisive belief in the immediate capacity for realisation of the socialistic economic system which could have carried the masses onward was nowhere to be found, nor was there a clear knowledge of the nature of the first steps to be carried out.”20 Like Lukács, this conclusion is leading Korsch back to a partial reiteration of some of the conclusions of the Second International centre, albeit in an abstracted form and dressed up as something hostile to that tradition.

The more rounded political outlook of Marxism and philosophy had begun to impact upon Korsch’s political practice. Thus at the Leipzig conference of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in January 1923, he criticised Maslow and Fischer for an undialectical use of the ‘workers’ government’ slogan, in that they were employing it as a pseudonym for the dictatorship of the proletariat; Korsch preferred the position of Brandler, who he thought was using the slogan as a means of preparation for struggle.21

However, this unity with the KPD’s right-centre was unpicked by the farcical episodes surrounding the KPD/SPD coalition workers’ governments in Saxony and Thuringen in October 1923 (Korsch served as justice minister in the latter), which rapidly collapsed when confronted by the Reichswehr. This had a number of outcomes for Korsch, not least a growing sectarianism towards the SPD and support for the KPD’s ‘left’ Maslow-Fischer leadership. Kellner sees Korsch’s adoption of ‘dogmatic Leninism’ as an outgrowth of this period. However, the seeds of some kind of partyism can actually be seen in Marxism and philosophy, but, as with Lukács (in History and class consciousness and Lenin, which are much stronger political documents than anything Korsch ever produced), the form that this took in the mid-1920s, with the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and an ossified Comintern, had to be a baroque one.

It is thus an extreme irony of history that Korsch is remembered as a dissident on the receiving end of Zinoviev’s strictures at the Fifth Congress of the Comintern in July 1924, when he himself was indulging in exactly the same dead rituals of obeisance and control. Thus, in addressing what he saw as the key factors at the congress: “What is at issue here [referring to the agenda] is that the whole Comintern today can and must, after the shattering event of the death of its great founder and leader ... for the first time show that it is capable and willing to accept both theoretically and ideologically the legacy of Lenin.”22 On similar lines, Korsch introduced Stalin’s Lenin und der Leninismus as “a study guide for the beginner in Leninism”.23

It was not until September 1925 at a party conference in Frankfurt that Korsch came out as an oppositionist - as against the new KPD leadership of Thaelmann and Dengler, who argued that KPD politics needed to be aligned with Soviet interests. This would put Korsch on a path that would eventually lead to him being expelled from the KPD in 1926 and espousing politics that could be characterised as ‘left communist’.

To some extent, both Lukács and Korsch have had narratives of tragedy written around them in the early to mid-1920s. However, this narrative is not the one espoused by Mike Macnair; it is simply not an issue of voluntarism, left communism, fetishising the revolutionary moment/mass action and so on. These issues have been imported from other historical junctures in their career to give instrumental sustenance to the attempt to rehabilitate the Second International centre.

No, the tragedy of these figures is that they had begun to think their way out of leftist dead ends and had begun to grow as part of the Comintern. But in the historical juncture of the mid-1920s, with the degeneration of the Soviet Union and the Comintern, embracing ‘partyism’ meant embracing the state ideological representations of ‘Leninism’ then in vogue.


1. M Macnair, ‘Kautsky and the myths of Manchesterism’ - introduction to K Kautsky On colonialism London 2013, pp10-11. Original emphasis unless stated.

2. L Parker, ‘Lukács reloadedWeekly Worker March 7.

3. Cited in F Halliday, ‘Karl Korsch: an introduction’ in K Korsch Marxism and philosophy London 1970, pp13-14.

4. ‘Interview with New Left Review’ in G Lukács Record of a life London 1983, p173.

5. Cited in P Goode Karl Korsch: a study in western Marxism London 1979, p46.

6. Ibid p59.

7. K Korsch op cit p51.

8. Ibid p61.

9. Ibid p31.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid p47.

12. Ibid p63.

13. Ibid p84.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid p49.

16. See G Lukács, ‘“Tendency” or partisanship?’ in Essays on realism London 1980, pp33-34.

17. V Lidtke The alternative culture: socialist labour in imperial Germany Oxford 1985, p143.

18. Ibid p64.

19. Ibid p67.

20. K Korsch, ‘Fundamentals of socialisation’ in D Kellner Karl Korsch: revolutionary theory Texas 1977, p128.

21. P Goode op cit pp98-99.

22. Cited in ibid p103.

23. Cited in ibid.