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Leipzig: C. L. Hirschfeld, 1923

August Thalheimer

Platypus Review 48 | July–August 2012


The first English translation of August Thalheimer's 1924 review of Karl Korsch's seminal work, Marxism and Philosophy, appears below. The review originally appeared in the Soviet journal Under the Banner of Marxism (Pod Znamenem Marksizma, 4-5 [1924]: 367–373). For an earlier discussion of Korsch’s book, see Chris Cutrone’s review of the 2008 reprint of Marxism and Philosophy released by Monthly Review Press, in Platypus Review 15 (September 2009), and the original translation of Karl Kautsky's review of Korsch that was published in Platypus Review 43 (February 2012).


THE TASK THAT KARL KORSCH SETS HIMSELF  in the article that comprises the first part of his "Historical-logical Studies on the Question of the Materialist Dialectic," boils down to the elucidation of the problem of the interrelation of Marxism and philosophy.[1] The article begins by pointing out that the importance of this question has not been recognized until the present day, and that this ignorance characterizes the bourgeois school of philosophy as well as circles of Marxist academics. "For professors of philosophy, Marxism was at best a rather minor sub-section within the history of nineteenth-century philosophy, dismissed as 'The Decay of Hegelianism'" (52).

As for the Marxist theoreticians, including also the orthodox ones, they too failed to grasp the importance of the "philosophical side" of their own theory. True, they proceeded from different considerations than the professors of bourgeois philosophy, and even assumed that in this they followed exactly the footsteps of Marx and Engels, because ultimately the latter two would sooner "abolish" than create philosophy. But this attitude of the Marxist theoreticians—the leaders of the Second International—to the problem of philosophy can be considered satisfactory from the viewpoint of Marxism precisely insofar as Feuerbach's attitude to Hegel's philosophy satisfied Marx and Engels. Shoving philosophy unceremoniously aside, the cultivation of a negative attitude toward its problems did not occur without impunity and resulted in such curiosities as the confession of faith by some Marxists in Schopenhauer's philosophy.

In any event, the visible agreement of bourgeois professors and orthodox Marxists of the Second International on this question is a fact. From this viewpoint, in essence, it was no different for either current  which flavor of philosophy was used to "round out" Marxism—Kantianism, Machism, and so on. The latter circumstance permits the author to concentrate all his attention exclusively on the first two perspectives.

In comrade Korsch's presentation of the matter, it is rather easy to show that the purely negative conception of the relation between Marxism and philosophy detected by him in bourgeois scholars as well as in orthodox Marxists, is explained by the "superficial and incomplete analysis of historical and logical development" (57). Because both sides come to similar solutions of the question, starting from different points of departure, the author does not consider it possible to present both points of view at once, preferring to set them out separately. Nevertheless, he declares, and promises further on to demonstrate, that regardless of all differences, they both coincide in one crucial point: precisely in the question of the relation to dialectics. Just as bourgeois philosophy threw dialectics overboard together with Hegel's philosophy, likewise Marxists of the second half of the 19th century no longer understood the original meaning of the dialectical principle, which Marx and Engels brought along from the arsenal of philosophy of their teacher, transferring it to the path of materialism.

To begin with, the author wants to speak "briefly" about the grounds that caused bourgeois philosophy in the second half of the 19th century to increasingly abandon the dialectical perspective, and that rendered them unable to adequately grasp of the original substance of Marxist philosophy and its meaning in the wider course of development of this philosophical idea over a century. It could certainly be said that this misunderstanding of Marxism from the side of bourgeois professors is a product of their class interests, but the author imagines such an interpretation to be slightly simplified; he tries to find another way, by revealing the underlying socio-historical condition that forced the representative bourgeois philosophy to reject the dialectical method. With this incomprehension of Marxist philosophy by the philosophical department of the bourgeoisie, quite eloquently evidenced by the hole in understanding, the blackout of history recorded for the whole period from the beginning of the decay of the Hegelian charm until the epoch named "back to Kant," clearly illustrates the "limitedness" of bourgeois philosophy. This "limitedness" is expressed in three forms, two of which were noted even earlier within the boundaries of bourgeois philosophy itself, and only the third one, which by its very nature could not be overcome by bourgeois-philosophers, being left for the plate of our author. The first must be denoted as the limitation of philosophical arrogance, that is, philosophy overlooks how the ideal content of philosophy can rather easily have its substance also beyond the limits of the latter, in different kinds of science that also have a place in relation precisely to Hegelian philosophy. The second limitation, which reduces even the best German researchers to patriotic myopia, resulted in the fact that they coated over the later history of philosophy in the 19th century, accommodating it within the walls of the walls of the Vaterland, losing sight of the fact that in the 1840-60s, philosophy lived in other countries. And finally, the third limitation ascribed by the same author to bourgeois-philosophy is class shortsightedness, hindering bourgeois science's ability to correctly evaluate its hostility to society and the ability to correctly determine its reflection in theory. If the first two could still be overcome by bourgeois thought (by Dilthey and his school), then the last represents its limit, which already cannot be crossed: Scientific socialism, new revolutionary movement, could be properly understood only by those who stand on the principled new position. The fact is that philosophy cannot stand in judgment of the world as long as it views the world through "ideal-historical development." Philosophy cannot be torn from the general picture of its time because it is not separate from it: Its development runs side by side with the development of society itself. Hegelian philosophy, as also all classical philosophy of German idealism, is none other than the translation of the French Revolution into the language of German speculation. Up until the day that the bourgeois were still revolutionary a class, 1848, they understood this philosophy. "But through the course of historical development, as the bourgeoisie is put in the a position of a class, playing a counter-revolutionary role, it throws away this instrument—the Hegelian dialectic—and with it loses the ability to comprehend in thought the true dialectical interrelation of ideas and real historical developments, above all of philosophy and revolution" (66). But the further inability for the bourgeoisie to play a revolutionary role did not at all mean that in this historical situation there are no more actors in that role, but that every actor still entering the stage of his future is the first act following the first performance of the previous actor. Such was our case as well: Bourgeois revolutionary turned into bourgeois counter-revolutionary, and stepped aside for the revolutionary proletarian. This also provides the key to understanding also those philosophical reversals that shaped the bourgeoisie in the middle of the past century: Counter-revolutionary practice could hardly correspond with a philosophical algebra of revolution and the bourgeoisie fell back to Kant from Hegel.

"This dialectical approach enables us to grasp the four different trends we have mentioned—the revolutionary movement of the bourgeoisie, the idealist philosophy from Kant to Hegel, the revolutionary class movement of the proletariat, and the materialist philosophy of Marxism—as four moments of a single historical process. This allows us to understand the real nature of the new science, theoretically formulated by Marx and Engels, which forms the general expression of the independent revolutionary movement of the proletariat" (68). Now bourgeois thought’s misunderstanding of the philosophy of Marxism becomes entirely understandable: As it cannot realize the practical-revolutionary value of the class movement of the proletariat inside bourgeois society, so it also cannot grasp in the thought of this society the essence of the positions in which this movement finds its theoretical expression in the thought of this society.

Believing that these considerations are enough for elucidating the position of bourgeois philosophy, the author turns to the analysis of positions on the matter in the camp of the Marxists. He begins again by indicating the importance of the problems, drawing a clear analogy between these problems with the problem of Marxism and the State. Marxism "abolishes" the state, and not only in bourgeois form, but every state in general; nevertheless this does not imply the disparaging relation of Marxists to the latter. Similarly, Marx and Engels do not force us to consider the denial by philosophy of scientific socialism to be fictitious. Such solutions to the question would be a "vulgarization" of Marxism. The materialist-dialectical point of view demands the most thorough study of the problem of this "abolition." What might this "abolition" mean? How and when? And for whom is this “abolition”—for all humanity, for the entire proletariat, or only for Marxists? Will philosophy be abolished as a whole, or is it similar to the abolition of the state, seemingly as a sort of period folded in with the phase of the revolutionary process. With such a formulation of the problem, in Korsch's opinion, not only does it raise the problem to its highest meaning, like the problems of state and revolution, but also allows us to understand the neglect of it by the theoreticians of the Second International: After all, in relation to opportunists, not only do they stand being accused by Lenin of forgetting the problem of the state, but also of questions of revolution in general.

It would be superficial to explain this phenomenon through the personal qualities of individual Marxists: The dialectical method allows for the explanation of such facts from the foundation, lying in society itself. In order to illustrate this, the author gives a short essay on the history of Marxism. According to the author, the whole period of Marxism from its beginnings in the year of the "Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right" (1843) down to our own day is divisible into three parts, under the natural boundaries of history of European society of that time. The 1848 revolution is the first such watershed, and as such the first part of the Marxist epoch. The second part deals with the July Proletariat in 1848 until the beginning of our own time, the new conditions of the capitalist society, ending with the re-awakening of the revolutionary movement. The final third of this history of Marxism begins with the 20th century, our day. The first Marxist period coincided with the revolutionary storm of the 1840s, and in its essence reflected the state of this society. Marxism of this period, despite all of its rejections of philosophy, illustrates "theory permeated through and through with philosophical thought of social development seen and comprehended as a living totality; or, more precisely, it is a theory of social revolution, comprehended and practiced as a living totality" (79­–80). The best expression of this first form of Marxist theory appears in the "Communist Manifesto." The second period, in the years of European reaction of the second half of the 19th century, necessarily had to reflect the features of this period of social calm: After all, arguing that a theory could lead an independent existence outside of the actual movement of life meant departing from the dialectical-materialist point of view and stepping into idealism. So it could be stated a priori that the new conditions would be reflected in Marxism, changing its physiognomy, which is exactly what happened, in reality. Even the very theory of Marx and Engels, which "remains a comprehensive integrated theory of social revolution," began changing its forms, switching the focus of attention to its components, the economic, political and other aspects of the whole. Thanks to this, philosophy takes a back seat to the specialist science, political economy. Whereas Marx and Engels allowed political economy in reasonable doses, this did not cause the degeneration of their theory, but their epigones have brought to its extreme in the "unified theory of social revolution turned into a critique of the bourgeois economic system, government, education, religion, art, science and modern culture in general-criticism, without yet taking the next step in its essential revolutionary practice (although it could easily take the step) and mostly changing into reformist tendencies, that do not move away from the grounds of bourgeois state and society” (86). Thus, thanks to this specific historical situation the question of revolution completely lost substance for the reformist-Marxists, and for the orthodox Marxists it represented an “otherworldly” phenomenon, hindering their ability to master the new, revolutionary epoch that commenced at the beginning of the new century. This era has put on the agenda issues of revolution, and thus opened the third period of Marxism, which becomes known, on the initiative of the main instigators of this period—the Russian Bolsheviks—under the name of the period of "Restoration of Marxism." In the third period, restoration of Marxism restores the question of social revolution, and in line with the problem of Marxism and the state stands the problem of Marxism and philosophy. The latter not only has purely theoretical meaning, but implications for full, deep, practical thought, because the question of the philosophy and revolution raises the question of the relationship between revolution and ideology: the question which, when it will rise in its entirety on the day of the social revolution, the proletariat cannot sidestep.

In the last part of his article the author also gives an analysis of the question of the relation of Marxism to philosophy and ideology in general. What is the position of Marxism in relation to philosophy? The widespread opinion claiming this is a nonsensical question, like the question of the relationship of two incomparable, qualitatively different things, is the answer given by the vulgar Marxists. But this solution in no way corresponds to the actual state of affairs. Neither Marx nor Engels ever saw philosophy as nonsense that had no place in their revolutionary practice. On the contrary, they both have always recognized in its character a certain reality, and demanded the accurate accounting of its value as such in the revolutionary practice, not to mention the form of Marxism. Which is why , the theses on Feuerbach, "should be characterized as philosophy, specifically revolutionary philosophy." Thus the "abolition" of philosophy must be understood in the sense that it leaves the scene of human history in that moment when the material conditions collapse, which are one or another form of social conditions. From this it follows that the abstract route, the route of pure scientific critique outside revolutionary struggle for this abolition, does not and cannot exist: "Philosophy cannot be abolished without being realized," the author concludes with Marx's own words.

That is, if I succeeded in reporting correctly, is the content of the article of comrade Korsch. Its particularity, as an individual chapter of a whole work, excludes the possibility of forming a conclusive opinion about the author's views. Nevertheless, an interest in the question raised by it does not allow one to pass over some of the positions, advanced by the author that are deserving of praise in every way for the thoroughness with which the themes are treated, and to a certain extent, justifies my resolve in—perhaps somewhat prematurely—speaking out about them.

First of all, one cannot avoid to calling attention to the fact that comrade Korsch admits a certain—if such an expression be permitted—liberty in handling the term philosophy. It is impossible to say precisely what content is invested in this concept. But it is also difficult to indicate what sort of concept would carry the same character of conventionality, and this would depend to an extent on the person using it, as that which is understood by by the concept of philosophy? Does not philosophy to this day continue to search for its subject? Has it not since olden times wandered through the kingdom of knowledge,  here haughtily laying claim to the royal purple robe as the queen of all sciences, there modestly taking on the job of salesman of any science? And between these two opposed roles of philosophy is their not arranged for her a series of intermediate trades? True, comrade Korsch allows one to understand what he has in mind by philosophy, as the expression of the revolutionary movement or as the comprehensive theory of social revolution. But, after all, one cannot ignore that this is only a figurative expression, and in its precise parts it can escape even the author himself, which, in my opinion, happens in this case. Comrade Korsch asserts that the classical philosophy of German idealism from Kant to Hegel is an expression of the bourgeois revolutionary movement. The year 1848 brought to an end the revolutionary attitudes of the bourgeoisie; the latter outlived them, renounced the philosophical sins of its youth and Hegel's fearless dialectic, whose charm dispersed like smoke, and fell back to Kant. But the philosophy of Kant, according to the author’s own assertion, is a reflection of the revolutionary condition that found its reflection in Hegel as well. Moreover, in fact, the bourgeoisie in the days of its revolutionary youth also took to other forms of philosophy, besides the philosophy of Kant and Hegel. These were not only not idealism, but were also innocent of the field of dialectics. Indeed, French materialism—and it is certainly the form of the philosophy of the revolutionary bourgeoisie—was still sufficiently metaphysical to smooth out the impression or the glimpse of dialectics in Diderot, the dialectics of the brilliant [Claude Adrien] Helvétius, and the still more sketchy dialectics not yet visible in [Léger Marie] Deschamps. I imagine that the explanation of this from the point of view of comrade Korsch will not be very easy, and the difficulty in explaining this is not accidental. The reason for it is the idiosyncratic conception of philosophy (in passing we remark, additionally, that here the conception of dialectics cannot be without fault: The article offers us the possibility of observing the author striving not to lead the latter over the limit of society, showing in this a relation with the point of view of comrade Lukács, finding its expression in the book History and Class Consciousness, which is characterized by a complete rejection of dialectics in nature).

The second thing, which I would not want to overlook in silence, is the somewhat—if one can put it this way—cautious relation to science from the side of comrade Korsch. The opportunists misconstrued Marxism as a scientific critique of the various parts of bourgeois society and thereby took from Marxism its "living spirit" of revolutionary doctrine. Hence the "revolutionary" Marxist lives in fear of science, since the latter can lead to a rupture with revolutionary practice. Because of this, the author does not consider it possible to think the "abolition" of philosophy by Marxism by means of the rejection of philosophy as the singular domain of absolute knowledge, recognizing its ordinary character as the relative knowledge of the sciences. And yet, a different formulation of the question of "abolition" removes the possibility of  understanding the interrelation of Marxism and philosophy completely. Contrariwise, any different conception of philosophy, the recognition of its specificity, which is unknown to science, means a step back to the viewpoint of the—so to speak—pre-Marxist period. After all, what constitutes the conception of philosophy on which Marxism in the end depends? Once we hold for philosophy a specific character of understanding, we recognize for it a specific method of searching truth, a method, unknown to science, providing not comparative scientific knowledge, but the very absolute philosophical truth. And it was exactly against such a conception of philosophy, as a sort of super-science presenting an absolute human truth, that Marxism directed its blows. Marxism "abolished" the philosophy of the all-encompassing, “eliminating every contradiction of metaphysical systems. With such philosophy, as a science of sciences, soaring above all branches of knowledge and connecting them together,”[2] were finished once and for all by Marxism, for  all those who do not want to recognize the mystical ways of knowledge. But by denying the royal throne of philosophy, Marxism likewise excludes the necessity for it to take on the role of hawker of truth manufactured by another, ensuring it an independent place among different sciences. The question about the possibility of a special science is best solved in its procedure of studying a specific object, in its subject. It is precisely in learning the nature of that subject, "the further elaboration in all its details," this science is the task of Marxism in the domain of philosophy. And there is no need to fear the revolutionary purity of Marxism. In this sense philosophy, as nothing but a "guide to activity" cannot be, and therefore its meaning and very possibility are only conceivable through an actual connection to activity. Of course, this guidance is more "pleasant" and useful in its execution, than, let us say, its writing, but this is only in the case where its plan is already at hand. Rejection of action from the revolutionary's side, of course, must be seen as betrayal of revolution, but also the rejection of science of action—and philosophy is that, as well—must also be recognized as disarmament of the revolution.

Finally, I will allow myself to stop before one more specific standpoint of comrade Korsch, his understanding of philosophy as the expression of the revolutionary action. By adhering to his standpoint, he must conclude that the period of social standstill, bringing a corresponding modification in the domain of theory, must inevitably cause the rejection of philosophy, denying it a right to count as something real. That, from his standpoint, conjointly finds its expression in opportunism. Actually, he is not even averse to declaring that the most authentic Marxism also undergoes new transformations that are contingent on changes in the social conditions. The opposite could not be, he concludes, because in the opposite case it would turn out that theory breaks from its own basis and hangs in the air. Therefore he is not inclined to understand Russian Bolshevism as one of the forms of restored revolutionary Marxism. That every practical step brings something new to theory, this is not subject to doubt, because knowledge is always given only in practice; but that every new step forces a review of theory—that is not true. Indeed the value of theory boils down to the fact that, viewing the tendency of development of reality, it anticipates the latter, providing the possibility for error-free activity itself. In this sense Marxism is not at all a reflecting mirror of that reality from which it grew. It only thoroughly and exactly notes the direction of development of this reality, reflects reality in conception, and so itself insures everyone, by seriously grasping it, against the possibility of remaining fools because of ignorance, existing amidst the development of the same reality. Therefore Marxism remains a scientific and practical resource to this day so far as, and as long as, the realization of it by the indicated road of development of reality has not become a fact. And, in this sense, opportunism cannot be understood as a new type of Marxism: for it envisions action as meaning what the word appears to signify rather than the essence of what the expression means itself. From this point of view, furthermore, why opportunism usually begins with a critique of the philosophical part of the Marxist worldview becomes clear. For the activity of this social class, for whom the representative ideology of which is opportunism, needs an entirely different guide than dialectical materialism. This is why the fragile boat of opportunism prefers the quiet backwater of Kantianism to the stormy course of dialectics. |P

Translated from Russian by Alex Gonopolsky and Ross Wolfe.

[1]. "Diese Abhandlung bildet die erste Abteilung einer größeren Schrift: Historisch-logischen Untersuchungen zur Frage der materialistischen Dialektik." Korsch, quoted in Haug (1984).

[2]. Frederick Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, trans. Paul Taylor (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1946 [1886]). Available online at: <>

Book review: Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy (Leipzig: C.L. Hirschfeld, 1923).

Karl Kautsky

Platypus Review 43 | February 2012


Karl Kautsky's 1924 review of Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy appears below in English for the first time.[1] It is hoped that other reviews of Marxism and Philosophy will also be made available in the very near future, not least by leading German communists such as August Thalheimer. Given the highly disputed theoretical legacy of both Kautsky and Korsch, the publication of this review will doubtless add to the debate on the idea of a "coming of age" of Marxism in the late 1860s. For an earlier discussion of Korsch's book, see Chris Cutrone’s review of the 2008 reprint of Marxism and Philosophy released by Monthly Review Press, in Platypus Review 15 (September 2009), available online at </2009/09/03/book-review-karl-korsch-marxism-and-philosophy/>.[2]


Photograph of Karl Kautsky (1854-1938), date unknown, Library of Congress, Bain Collection 

WE FIND THE ENTIRE quintessence of this highly philosophical essay compressed into a small sentence of a footnote, where the author explicitly states: “During the entire (!) second half of the nineteenth century the debasement and impoverishment of the Marxist theory into vulgar-Marxism gradually set in" (28).

We must not assume that this is an incidental slip of the pen. On page 61 Korsch asserts once again:

"We see that the second half of the nineteenth century did not merely vulgarize Marxism.”

The entire work is dedicated to proving that this is really the case. The "debasement and impoverishment" of Marxism set in while Marx and Engels were still alive, during the period in which the first International was founded and Capital was written. Should Marx and Engels themselves bear guilt for this debasement?

Korsch does not quite say this.

He instructs us: In its first epoch, up until the 1848 revolution and its demise, Marxism was a  “theory—saturated through and through with philosophical thought—of social revolution, comprehended and actualized as a living totality” (29-30).

But then came the “practically completely un-revolutionary epoch, which essentially filled the second half of the nineteenth century in Europe” (30). Unfortunately, this also rubbed off on the works published by Marx and Engels in this epoch. However, the change in language that resulted from this did not equally signify a change in their thought.

"It is only to the superficial glance that a pure theory of thought seems to have displaced the practice of the revolutionary will. This revolutionary will is latent, yet present, in every sentence of Marx’s work and erupts again and again in every decisive passage, especially in the first volume of Capital. One need only think of the famous seventh section of Chapter 24 on the historical tendency of capital accumulation." (32).[3]

We “epigones” are not supposed to have paid attention to this subtext of Marx and Engels’s works in the second half of the nineteenth century. Hence our extraordinarily debased and simplified vulgar Marxism (26).

I personally am falsely attributed with deliberately distorting Marx for this purpose. For in my 'Preface' to the reprint of the Inaugural Address of 1864 (1922), I "tellingly" left out a sentence from a letter I quote written by Marx to Engels. This sentence states, “that it will take time before the revival of the movement allows the old boldness of language to be used.”[4]

For Korsch, it was necessary for me to omit this sentence in order to “create the opportunity… to play off the Inaugural Address of 1864, which was given in a more cautious tone, against the fiery-flowing style of the Manifesto of 1847/48 and against the ‘illegal agents of the 3rd International’” (31).

In reality I have not played off the Inaugural Address against the "illegal agents of the Third International." In the ‘Preface’ to which I alluded earlier, I came to speak about this in an entirely different context, namely in relation to a "confidential communication" about Bakunin, which in 1870 Marx addressed to the German party-committee, and in which he exhibited the "old boldness of language" in a completely unhampered manner. Especially today, this communication is of utmost, topical interest.

Marx explained why he held England to be the great lever of proletarian revolution. The English possessed all the material preconditions for the great revolution. What they lacked was “the spirit of generalization,” i.e., a sense for theory, and “revolutionary passion.”

At any rate, I cited these passages extensively in my ‘Preface’ to the Inaugural Address supposedly because I did not want to let Marx's “revolutionary passion" of that time come to light.

Liebknecht, Hepner u.Bebel Leipzig 1872

Wood engraving by Fredrich Waibler depicting the Leipzig high treason trial (1872): Wilhelm Liebknecht stands in the middle whereas Adolf Hepner and August Bebel are shown seated

The "confidential communication" fell into the hands of the Leipzig public prosecutor following a house search, and was used against August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht at their high treason trial in Leipzig. As against Bakuninism, Marx said in the communication, among other things, that the General Council of the International was choosing to put "important and unseen activity in place of the sheer howls of the local crier [Marktschreierei]." From this, the public prosecutor concluded that the General Council was conducting underground, and therefore illegal, work. On this I remark in my 'Preface' that the public prosecutor had falsified things, because here "unseen" work is not in contradiction to legal work, but to loud mouth-ism.

"Illegal, underground work does not however preclude loud mouth-ism, rather it is often closely bound up with it. There are no noisier bawlers than the illegal agents of the Third International."[5]

Does Korsch really believe that I would have lost the opportunity to deride the loud mouth-ism of the Third International if I had shared with my readers the little sentence about the "old boldness of language?"

Indeed, directly after the sentence I cited from my 'Preface' above, are the words: "The Inaugural Address and the Communist Manifesto are born of the same spirit."

In this way I seek to "play off the Inaugural Address of 1864, made in a more cautious tone, against the fiery-flowing style of the Manifesto of 1847/48."

Certainly I noted that, “for all the agreement on the fundamentals,” the Inaugural Address “exhibits an entirely different character than the Communist Manifesto."

This change relates however not only to the "fiery flowing style," as Korsch puts it. That was entirely trivial. As I say in the 'Preface':

"The standpoint Marx took in 1864 was the same as that of 1847. But the situation had completely changed. ... Thus in 1864 Marx deemed it appropriate to speak in a different language than that of seventeen years earlier. In those seventeen years he had learned an enormous amount. This was the period in which Capital was written. Given this, he not only had to change his language, but also many of his views." (‘Preface’, 12-3)

Thus, in 1850 Engels (and probably Marx, too) held the ten-hour day in a capitalist state to be impossible. In the Inaugural Address he observes briefly its deep-reaching effects as that of a recognized institution. Besides the ten-hour day, he praised co-operatives of production, if they were developed at a national level and with national means. Thus there were substantial changes in opinion, not just language. However, Korsch is not concerned with these, but merely with the "fiery-flowing style.”

How the analysis I mention above would have become impossible if I had quoted the sentence about the “old boldness of language” remains Korsch's secret.

What merely appears to him as the moderation of fiery-flowing style, is what, in his analysis, the "epigones" have turned into a full "deformation" of Marxism, about which Marx and Engels themselves would have been highly indignant. The regression becomes clearly visible if we compare Marx’s statutes of the First International to the programs of the Socialist Parties of Central and Western Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century, and especially to that of the German Social Democratic Party, the leading Marxist Party in Europe.[6] It is well known how bitterly critical Marx and Engels were of the fact that German Social Democracy made almost entirely reformist demands in the political as well as the cultural and ideological fields in their Gotha (1875) and Erfurt (1891) programmes (36).

Yet this fact does not actually appear to be "well known." To me, at least, it is entirely new. I am surprised to learn that in 1875 German Social Democracy was "the leading Marxist party in Europe." Before Korsch, party history had accepted that in 1875 there was no Marxist party in the whole of Europe. The first socialist journals that stood on Marxist ground (not counting those published by Marx himself), the Zurich "Sozialdemokrat" and the Stuttgart "Neue Zeit," were only founded during the anti-Socialist laws (1878-1890).

Only with the existence of both of these publications can we speak of a Marxist school. It took some time before this school made the majority of the party a Marxist one. The Erfurt programme evinced this progress.

Here too it is in no way “well known” to me, that Engels had spoken of the Erfurt programme in a "bitterly critical" way. Korsch of course points to Engels's "Comments on the Erfurt draft programme." But Korsch's glowing hatred of the "debasement" and "simplification" of Marxism unfortunately prevented him from reading these comments closely, otherwise he would have noticed that they are not directed at my draft,[7] which then was accepted by the congress, but at a previous one. Not only did Engels not reject my draft, he even recommended its adoption.

The other big socialist party in "Central and Western Europe," whose founding Marx and Engels were still alive to see, was the French Labor Party of the Marxists Lafargue and Guesde. Its program was written by Marx himself (1880). This does not seem to be "well known" to Korsch either, otherwise he would hardly have dared to state that, when comparing the socialist party programs of Western and Central Europe with the statues of the International, the "deformation" of Marxism by its "epigones" clearly comes to light.

Korsch follows the same method of writing party history in his entire work. Thus he notes on page 6:

"Most of the philosophizing Marxists (Kantian, Dietzgenist, and Machian Marxists) have since then (since 1914) proven in word and deed that, not only in their philosophy, but, as a necessary consequence, in their political theory and practise as well, they have in reality not been able to detach themselves from the standpoint of bourgeois society."

The "bourgeois-reformist character of Kantian-Marxism" appears so obvious to Korsch that he considers it unnecessary to put forward any evidence. Back in 1908 Lenin had already said everything necessary about Mach, and the fact that Dietzgen must lead to bourgeois-reformist thinking is proved by his son. Thus the Machian Fritz Adler, and even Max Adler, who sympathises with Bolshevism on many points, are "bourgeois-reformists." Korsch skips any evidence for this. However, the fact that the elder Dietzgen, the contemporary of Marx and Engels, produced nothing but bourgeois-reformism will very much astonish those of his followers, who in the Netherlands are amongst the most radical communists.

Following these achievements in the field of party history, one can imagine the faithfulness with which Korsch depicts the views of the "vulgar-Marxists," who are condemned by him lock and barrel. One small example will suffice.

With utmost assurance, Korsch claims that the "Marxist epigones" explained the materialist conception of history in a way in which only real facts are behind economic views, but behind other social forms of consciousness there is not much, or nothing at all.

"Many vulgar-Marxists to this day have never, even in theory, admitted that intellectual life and forms of social consciousness are comparable realities. Quoting certain statements by Marx, and especially Engels, they simply explain away the intellectual (ideological) structures of society as a mere pseudo-reality that only exists in the minds of ideologues as error, imagination, and illusion, devoid of a genuine object … This can be formulated concisely, with only a slight caricature, by saying that for vulgar-Marxism there are three degrees of reality: First, the economy, which in the last instance is the only objective and totally non-ideological reality; Second, Law and the State, which are already somewhat less real because they are clad in ideology, and third, pure ideology, which is objectless and totally unreal ('utter nonsense')." (54-5)

He is quite right: utter nonsense. Korsch places this phrase in quotation marks, as though he were quoting a "vulgar-Marxist". Unfortunately, he forgets to even point out from whom amongst us he has discovered this “utter nonsense.” Following the method so beloved to him, he also considers this point of view to be so "well known" that it requires no evidence.

He repeatedly chafes at Rudolph Hilferding, whose Finance Capital he also counts amongst the products of "debased," "simplified," "reformist" Marxism.

Hilferding differentiates very well between the method of Marxism and its results. He notes how, today, these results lead to socialism; therefore this method is rejected by the champions of the establishment.

“Only in this sense is it (Marxism) the science of the proletariat and the opponent of bourgeois political economy, since it holds unflinchingly to the claim made by every science about the objective universality of its conclusions.”

Korsch counts Hilferding’s very important sentence amongst the pernicious "deformations" of Marxism. How can a class fighter lay claim "to universal validity" (here, meaning standing above classes) for his theorem? At best he may do so out of "practical-tactical considerations for the benefit of the proletarian class" (Footnote, p. 34).

Thus proletarian science, as understood by Korsch, is not only characterized by the fact that it looks at the world from the proletarian point of view, but also that it lays no claim to the universal validity of its propositions. They are only to be correct for the proletariat! We may at best claim their universal validity for the purpose of agitation!

For Korsch, Marxism is nothing but a theory of social revolution. (62) In reality, one of Marxism’s most outstanding characteristics is the conviction that the social revolution is only possible under certain conditions, thus only in certain countries and times. The communist sect, to which Korsch belongs (the German Communist Party, or KPD–BL), has entirely forgotten this. For them, the social revolution is always possible, everywhere, under all conditions.

Were Bolshevism not of this out-and-out un-Marxist point of view, it would be impossible to say that Marxism is one with the social revolution. In what way shall the materialist conception of history only hold true for the social revolution? Was this conception of history not won through examining previous history, all of which comes before the social revolution? And will it not also apply to the time after the social revolution, when there is no longer a proletariat?

It is thus entirely absurd to claim that it stands in contradiction to the theory of class struggle, if Marxism claims the universal validity of its theorem also for the other classes, not just for the proletariat, and that Marxism is limited to the stage of the social revolution.

However, Korsch has compelling proof of just how ruinous the proposition of the universal validity of Marxist theory is. For him, whoever accepts the universal validity of Marxism, opens the way for those, who draw anti-socialist consequences from the Marxist method.

"Hilferding can see from the example of such Marxists as Paul Lensch, that this sort of ‘scientific science' (!) certainly also allows itself to be used ‘quite well' against socialism" (note 34).

Again, this argument shows Korsch to be a great expert on party history. To other people it is "well known" that, until 1914, Lensch was not Hilferding's most faithful follower, but Rosa Luxemburg's—the same Luxemburg whom Korsch on page 39 celebrates as the one who had regenerated Marxist theory and theoretically destroyed vulgar-Marxism in Germany.

Even the most revolutionary views do not provide a safeguard against renegacy— not even Korsch’s.

And there are a few parallels between Korsch and Lensch. Both share, for example, an enthusiasm for dictatorship. However, they do not agree on who that dictator is: one prefers Hugo Stinnes, the other Lenin. But the antagonism between both dictators is diminishing from day to day, the Stinnes-ists and the Leninists are already doing fairly good business with each other and their rapprochement is promoted in no small part by their hatred of their common enemy: "vulgar-Marxism."

Yet this is not to say that Lensch’s and Korsch’s views on dictatorship are entirely the same. In this respect, Korsch succeeded in taking the crown and outbidding both Stinnes and Lenin—even Mussolini! Thus he explains at the end of his work:

"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 (are both of these actions not intellectual as well, or does Korsch consider politics as unthinking action? Kautsky). On the contrary it (intellectual action) must be carried through to the end in theory and practice, as revolutionary scientific criticism and agitating work before the seizure of state power by the proletariat, and as scientific organization and ideological dictatorship after the seizure of state power" (70).

Dictatorship in the realm of ideas—until now this had not occurred to anyone, not even [Comintern leader Grigory] Zinoviev or [Cheka founder Felix] Dzerzhinsky! Deep insight is shown by the fact that Korsch only deems scientific critique necessary up to the seizure of state power by the "revolutionary proletariat", that is, by him and his friends.

Afterwards it becomes frowned upon. The critique, which is leveled against him, is a crime worthy of death. Woe the vulgar-Marxists after the seizure of state power by the communists, namely after the installment of "ideological dictatorship"![8]

Unfortunately we do not find out what this ideological dictatorship will look like. Perhaps all of the country’s thought-apparatuses should be expropriated and placed at the disposal of the dictator, whose directives they will have to follow?

It is clear what we "vulgar-Marxists" think about this. Korsch himself asserts that, according to his understanding of vulgar-Marxism, all higher ideology is "utter nonsense." So he will have to admit that dictatorship in ideology for us can be nothing but the height of nonsense.

However, there is a deeper meaning to the childish game presented to us by the communist "theoretician." It encompasses a series of absurdities, all of which are caused by him. But he shares the crux of his outlook in common with the entire communist doctrine. All theoreticians of communism delight in drawing on primitive Marxism, on the early works, which Marx and Engels wrote before they turned thirty, up until the revolution of 1848 and its aftermath of 1849 and 1850. Apart from a few isolated sentences, the communist theoreticians have little use for Marx and Engels’s later works, especially Capital. That is not a coincidence. In the early works we already see the paws of the Marxist lions, the greatness of their method. But these works arrive at a number of conclusions, at individual views and demands, which Marx and Engels themselves later deemed out of date. It is precisely these obsolete findings that particularly enrapture Bolshevism, and which it holds up as true Marxism against the later "debased," "simplified," "deformed" Marxism “of the second half of the nineteenth century.”

When Marx and Engels wrote their first works, they stood before a Germany that was economically backward, like Russia today, and was not yet politically able to overcome absolutism. This is also like Russia today, where an absolutist regime still enslaves the masses, even though this regime was briefly interrupted, and even though this absolutism today assumes a different form. No wonder that the products of revolutionary German thought of the 1840s particularly encourage a party, which arose as a revolutionary party in absolutist Russia, and which wants to continue to live up to its revolutionary birth certificate at least in theory, even though in practice it became unfaithful to this a long time ago.

Thus, after the revolution, Marx came to England, the classical land of capitalism, became familiar with its capitalist mechanism in detail, and observed the effects of a free press and public mass organizations of the proletariat. The awakening of the workers and the weakening of the absolutist governments in continental Europe, especially in Germany and France, suggested to him the attempt to graft the mass organizations and the fight for the rights they needed with the International, and to bring these into close contact with the English workers’ movement in order to prepare the workers’ struggle for political power. When finally, from 1870, a new France and a new Germany emerged, in which the rise of the working class and its conquest of political rights became irresistible, Marx, and with him Engels, perfected the Marxist method and expanded their theory of class struggle in a way that made it applicable not only to the stage of revolution, but also for non-revolutionary times. This expansion of theory above and beyond the Communist Manifesto was initiated by the Inaugural Address (1864) and concluded with Engels's Preface to the re-publication of Marx's Class Struggles in France (1895).

This expansion of theory naturally claims universal validity for all countries. Yet precisely from the Marxist point of view it is understandable that for those Russian socialists who, like the Mensheviks, took as their starting point Marxism as a whole, did not deal merely in the obsolete aspects of primitive Marxism. This theoretical superiority became an element of practical weakness against those socialists who adapted the West European conceptions of socialism to Russia’s unique character and thus created a national-Russian socialism, like Herzen and Bakunin, and, following them, the populists and social-revolutionaries. In a relentless struggle against these elements, the Mensheviks brought Marxism to the Russian proletariat. But it was not the Mensheviks that were the beneficiaries of the fruits of their arduous labor, but the Bolsheviks. As long as the main focus of Bolshevism remained in exile, it was affected by the theoretical superiority of Menshevism, from which it sprang. The stronger the position of the Bolshevik organization in Russia, the more it succumbed to the influence of the Russian milieu, and the more it sought to adapt Marxist theory, whose popularity it exploited, to the specifically Russian practical needs of the moment, to incorporate ever more Bakuninist traits into it. Marxism after the Inaugural Address was badly suited to this, even for the most experienced Talmudists. More suitable propositions in the early Marxist works had to therefore be discovered.

Thus from the obvious fact that, in many respects, Marxism of the second half of the nineteenth century has a different character than that of its first years, a preference for primitive Marxism emerges in opposition to the later, more mature Marxism.

To be sure, this conception can indeed not lay claim to universal validity, but for Russia it becomes psychologically understandable.

However, whoever accepts it in Germany, and even exaggerates it to a point where primitive Marxism is the only true Marxism, and the more developed Marxism, signifies a debasement and impoverishment, only shows his intellectual dependency and uncritical reliance on foreign models from a backward milieu, his incomprehension of the conditions of proletarian class struggle in more developed capitalist countries, and his own boyish callowness. |P

Translated from German by Ben Lewis

[1]. Kautsky's review was first published in Die Gesellschaft: Internationale Revue für Sozialismus und Politik (Berlin: Dietz, 1924), 306-314.

[2]. See also David Black’s response to Cutrone in Platypus Review 18 (December 2009), online at </2009/12/06/comments-on-chris-cutrone%E2%80%99s-review-of-marxism-and-philosophy-by-karl-korsch/>, and Cutrone’s subsequent comments in Platypus Review 20 (February 2010), online at </2010/02/26/rejoinder-to-david-black-on-karl-korschs-marxism-and-philosophy/>.

[3]. Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970), available online at>.

[4]. Marx to Engels, 4 November 1864,>.

[5]. Karl Kautsky, Preface to Friedrich Engels, Die Inauguraladresse der Internationalen Arbeiterassoziation , ed. Kautsky (Stuttgart, 1922), 11.

[6]. The phrase ‘leading Marxist party in Europe’ does not appear in the translated version on the Marxist Internet Archive.

[7]. Kautsky is formally correct on the history here. Yet he actually dodges the main issue at hand. Engels's main objection to the draft of the Erfurt programme was that it did not clearly state the aim of German Social Democracy: the democratic republic. This democratic republic was conceived as the culmination of the political demands of the minimum program
and thus the "form" of working class rule, or the dictatorship of the proletariat. The fact remains that Kautsky's own draft did not address this central point either. For a discussion of Kautsky's changing conception of working class rule throughout his career, see Lewis, Ben, 'Kautsky: from Erfurt to Charlottenburg' in Weekly Worker 889 (Online at <>).

[8]. Korsch attempts to deal with this apparent “misunderstanding” in a 1930 article written in response to Kautsky and other critics of his Marxism and Philosophy. Entitled “The Present State of the Problem of Marxism and Philosophy – An Anti-Critique”, it can also be accessed on the Marxists’ Internet Archive: <>.[[8]] 

Third Annual Platypus International Convention

Opening plenary

Chris Cutrone, Andrew Feenberg, Richard Westerman, and Nicholas Brown

Platypus Review 37 | July 2011

[Article PDF]  [Review PDF]  [Audio Recording]

The opening plenary of the third annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, held April 29–May 1, 2011 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, was a panel discussion between Nicholas Brown of the University of Illinois at Chicago, Chris Cutrone of Platypus, Andrew Feenberg of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, and Richard Westerman of the University of Chicago. The panelists were asked to address the following: “Recently, the New Left Review published a translated conversation between the critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer causing more than a few murmurs and gasps. In the course of their conversation, Adorno comments that he had always wanted to ‘develop a theory that remains faithful to Marx, Engels and Lenin, while keeping up with culture at its most advanced.’ Adorno, it seems, was a Leninist. As surprising as this evidence might have been to some, is it not more shocking that Adorno’s politics, and the politics of Critical Theory, have remained taboo for so long? Was it really necessary to wait until Adorno and Horkheimer admitted their politics in print to understand that their primary preoccupation was with maintaining Marxism’s relation to bourgeois critical philosophy (Kant and Hegel)? This panel proposes to state the question as directly as possible and to simply ask: How did the practice and theory of Marxism, from Marx to Lenin, make possible and necessary the politics of Critical Theory?” The full audio recording of the event is available at the above link.

Opening remarks

Waiting for history: Horkheimer and Adorno’s theatre of the absurd

Andrew Feenberg

IN 2010 the New Left Review (NLR 65) translated a dialogue between Horkheimer and Adorno on “a new manifesto.”[1] This dialogue, which took place in 1956, is only understandable against the background of Marx and Lukács’s interpretation of the theory-practice relation. In this talk I will try to explain how that background blocks the production of the manifesto and reduces discussion of it to absurdity. But first, let me show how Horkheimer and Adorno set up the problem.

Their dialogue is a strange document. The pretension to update the Communist Manifesto written by Marx and Engels in 1848 is astonishing, particularly given the silliness of much of their talk. For example, what are we to make of the first exchanges on the misplaced love of work, which then devolve into a conversation about the anal sounds emitted by a motorcycle? The dialogue returns constantly to the question of what to say in a time when nothing can be done. The communist movement is dead, killed off by its own grotesque success in Russia and China. Western societies are better than the Marxist alternative that nevertheless symbolically represents an emancipated future. Horkheimer is convinced that the world is mad and that even Adorno’s modest hope that things might work out someday stinks of theology. Horkheimer remarks, “We probably have to start from the position of saying to ourselves that even if the party no longer exists, the fact that we are here still has a certain value.” In sum, the only evidence that something better is possible is the fact that they are sitting there talking about the possibility of something better.

Horkheimer asks, in this situation, “In whose interest do we write?” “People might say that our views are just all talk, our own perceptions. To whom shall we say these things?” He continues, “We have to actualize the loss of the party by saying, in effect, that we are just as bad [off] as before but that we are playing on the instrument the way it has to be played today.” And Adorno replies, cogently and rather comically, “There is something seductive about that idea—but what is the instrument?” Although Adorno remarks tentatively at one point that he has “the feeling that what we are doing is not without its effect,” Horkheimer is more skeptical. He says, “My instinct is to say nothing if there is nothing I can do.” And he goes on to discuss the tone and content of the manifesto in such a way as to reduce it to absurdity: “We want the preservation for the future of everything that has been achieved in America today, such as the reliability of the legal systems, the drugstores, etc. This must be made quite clear whenever we speak about such matters.” Adorno replies, “That includes getting rid of TV programmes when they are rubbish.” Contradicting himself, Horkheimer concludes the recorded discussion with the grim words, “Because we are still permitted to live, we are under an obligation to do something.”

In 1955, shortly before this exchange occurred, Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot. The speculations of Vladimir and Estragon anticipate Max and Teddie’s absurdist dialogue. Vladimir says, for instance: “Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed….But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!”[2]

This introduction to the discussion of Horkheimer and Adorno’s text may seem unfair. Do they deserve my mockery? “Yes and no,” to quote Horkheimer. In one sense their text is already self-mocking. The lighthearted tone of many of the exchanges shows them to be well aware of the literal impossibility of carrying out their project. Horkheimer claims that the tone in which the manifesto is written must somehow overcome its futility in the present period when it can have no practical effect. Something similar takes place in the dialogue. The tone reveals what cannot be explained adequately about the contradiction between the existential situation of the speakers and their project. But they do try their best to make the contradiction explicit.

The obstacle is their conception of the relation of theory to practice. Adorno points out that Marx and Hegel reject abstract ideals and reconstruct the concept of the ideal as the next historical step. This means that theory must be tied to practice, to real historical forces. As Horkheimer later says: “Reality should be measured against criteria whose capacity for fulfillment can be demonstrated in a number of already existing, concrete developments in historical reality” (55).

But, Adorno argues, Marx and Hegel did not live in a world like ours in which the unwillingness to take the next step blocks the actual realization of utopia. Under these conditions, the temptation to utopian speculation returns, but the pressure to meet the Hegelian-Marxist historical desideratum blocks the further progress of thought. Horkheimer concludes that, “the idea of practice must shine through in everything we write” without any compromise or concession to the actual historical situation, a seemingly impossible demand. This yields what he calls “a curious waiting process,” which Adorno defines as, “in the best case…theory as a message in a bottle” (56, 58).

What is most peculiar about this exchange is the refusal of these two philosophers to derive a critical standard from philosophical reflection once history can no longer supply it. This is what Habermas would do later: admit the breakdown of the Hegelian-Marxist historical approach and establish a properly philosophical basis for critique. If no “next step” lights the way, perhaps ethics can do the job in its place. But Horkheimer and Adorno insist on the importance of situating their thought historically both in terms of their own position and the absence of a party and a movement. As Horkheimer notes, “We have to think of our own form of existence as the measure of what we think.” How can critique negate the given society since that society is the critic’s sole existential support? The critic is the highest cultural product of the society. In the absence of any realistic alternative his capacity to negate the society justifies it. He can neither escape from history into the transcendental, as Habermas would have it, nor can he rest his historical case on the progressive movement of history. No wonder the dialogue wavers between the comic and the portentous.

How did Marxism end up in such a bind? As I mentioned at the outset, I believe this question leads back to Marx and Lukács. Lukács’s important book History and Class Consciousness contained the most influential reflection on the relation of theory and practice in the Marxist tradition. He renewed the Hegelian-Marxist historical critique of abstract ideals that underlies the dilemma at the heart of the dialogue. This text was known to Horkheimer and Adorno and its impact on their own reflections is obvious.

Lukács introduces the problem of theory and practice through a critique of an early text in which Marx demands that theory “seize the masses.” But, Lukács argues, if theory seizes the masses it stands in an external relation to their own needs and intentions. It would be a mere accident if the masses accomplished theoretical goals. Rather, theory must be rooted in the needs and intentions of the masses if it is to be really and truly the theory of their movement and not an alien imposition.

Lukács takes up this theme at a more abstract level in his critique of Kantian ethics. In Lukács’s terms, the antinomy of theory and practice is an example of the more general antinomy of value and fact, “ought” and “is.” These antinomies arise from a formalistic concept of reason in terms of which theory and practice are alien to each other. This concept of reason fails to discover in the given facts of social life those potentialities and tendencies leading to a rational end. Instead, the given is conceived as fundamentally irrational, as the merely empirical, factual residue of the process of formal abstraction in which rational laws are constructed. Lukács explains, “Precisely in the pure, classical expression it received in the philosophy of Kant it remains true that the ‘ought’ presupposes an existing reality to which the category of ‘ought’ remains inapplicable in principle.”[3] This is the dilemma of bourgeois thought: political rationality presupposes as its material substratum an irrational social existence hostile to rational principles. The rational realm of citizenship, illuminated by moral obligation, stands in stark contradiction to the crude world of civil society, based on animal need and the struggle for existence.

But, if this is true of bourgeois theory, what of the theory of the proletarian movement? Is Marxism just a disguised ethical exigency opposed to the natural tendencies of the species? This is the flaw of heroic versions of communism, which oppose morality to life. Demanding sacrifice for the party, the next generation, and the “worker,” conforms precisely to the bourgeois pattern Lukács criticizes. This is not Marx. Starting from the Hegelian critique of abstract ethics, the early Marx arrived at a general concept of revolutionary theory as the “reflection” of life in thought.

There is for example a letter to Ruge in which Marx writes: “Until now the philosophers had the solution to all riddles in their desks, and the stupid outside world simply had to open its mouth so that the roasted pigeons of absolute science might fly into it.” Instead, philosophy must proceed from actual struggles in which the living contradiction of ideal and real appears. The new philosopher must “explain to the world its own acts,” showing that actual struggles contain a transcending content that can be linked to the concept of a rational social life. “We simply show it [the world] why it struggles in reality, and the consciousness of this is something which it is compelled to acquire, even if it does not want to.” “The critic,” Marx concludes, “therefore can start with any form of theoretical and practical consciousness and develop the true actuality out of the forms inherent in existing actuality as its ought-to-be and goal.” This is what Horkheimer meant by his remark that society must be measured against “concrete developments in historical reality.” As Marx writes elsewhere, “It is not enough that thought should seek to realize itself; reality must also strive toward thought.”

Marx’s later writings are ambiguous, conserving only traces of this reflexive theory of consciousness, as for example in this brief passage in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Just as little must one imagine that the democratic representatives are indeed all shopkeepers or enthusiastic champions of shopkeepers. . . . What makes them representatives of the petty bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drives the latter practically. This is, in general, the relationship between the political and literary representatives of a class and the class they represent.[4]

This passage invites revision to say that the proletariat too confronts “problems” that are “solved” theoretically by Marxism in a way that reflects the similar practical solution to which its life circumstances drive the class. Unfortunately, the later Marx did not make such an application of this suggestive remark. Instead, he proposed the historical materialist theory of the “determination of thought by being.” This deterministic language leaves open the question of the relation of Marxist theory to proletarian class consciousness.

This is the question Lukács addressed. He needed to show that Marxism was not related in a merely accidental manner to the thought and action of proletarians, that it is not a scientific “consciousness from without,” for which the proletariat would serve as a “passive, material basis,” but that it was essentially rooted in the life of the class. His misunderstood theories of reification and class consciousness relate to the form in which the social world is given immediately to the consciousness of all members of a capitalist society. Lukács writes that “in capitalist society reality is—immediately—the same for both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.” And again: “The proletariat shares with the bourgeoisie the reification of every aspect of its life.” However, the experience of reification differs depending on class situation. It is interesting that Lukács cites as evidence for this one of the few Marxian passages on alienation to which he had access. “The property-owning class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-alienation. But the former feels at home in this self-alienation and feels itself confirmed by it; it recognizes alienation as its own instrument and in it possesses the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels itself destroyed by this alienation and sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.”

Bourgeois and proletarians experience the “same” alienation, Marx claims, but from different vantage points. Similarly, Lukács remarks that where the capitalist perceives lengthening the work day as a matter of increasing the quantity of labor power purchased at a given price, for the worker this “quantity changes into quality.” The worker goes beyond the reified quantitative determinants immediately given in the reified form of objectivity of his labor because he cannot ignore the real qualitative degradation of life and health associated with them. Thus, “the quantitative differences in exploitation which appear to the capitalist in the form of quantitative determinants of the objects of his calculation, must appear to the worker as the decisive, qualitative categories of his whole physical, mental and moral existence.”

The proletariat sees beyond immediacy in the act of becoming (socially) self-conscious. This self-consciousness penetrates beneath the reified form of its objects to their “reality.” This more or less spontaneous critique of reification gives rise to everyday practices that can be developed into the basis of a revolutionary movement by union and party organizations.

Lukács thus claims that the workers’ response to the reification of experience under capitalism is the foundation on which Marxist dialectics arise. In a sense one could say that Marxism and the proletariat share a similar “method,” demystifying the reified appearances each in its own way—the one at the level of theory, the other at the levels of consciousness and practice. Where the theory shows the relativity of the reified appearances to deeper social structures, workers live that relativity in resisting the imposition of the reified capitalist economic forms on their own lives. Both theory and practice lead to a critique of the economic and epistemological premises of capitalism. As Marx himself writes in Capital, “So far as such criticism represents a class, it can only represent the class whose vocation in history is the overthrow of the capitalist mode of production and the final abolition of all classes—the proletariat.”

Marx and Lukács established the methodological horizon of Marxism for the Frankfurt School. This is the background against which Horkheimer and Adorno discuss their new manifesto. They accept the critique of pure theory; but now that the proletariat no longer supports a transcending critique of society, any concession to practice drags theory back into the realm of everyday political wheeling and dealing or, worse yet, into complicity with the murder of millions by totalitarian communist regimes. As Adorno remarks, “What is the meaning of practice if there is no longer a party? In that case doesn’t practice mean either reformism or quietism?”

There appears to be no way out of the trap set by the tension between norm and history, now that the revolution has failed. To return to the “roasted pigeons of absolute science,” that is, to some sort of utopian or transcendental thinking, is now impossible. But there is no way to anticipate the “next step” of history toward a better world. Horkheimer poses the dilemma in two contradictory propositions, saying, on the one hand, “Our thoughts are no longer a function of the proletariat,” and, on the other hand, that “Theory is theory in the authentic sense only where it serves practice. Theory that wishes to be sufficient unto itself is bad theory.”

Is there no alternative within the Marxist framework? In fact there is an excluded alternative occasionally evoked in the course of the dialogue. This alternative, referred to derisively is Marcuse, who hovers like Banquo’s ghost over the conversation. Adorno comes closest to articulating this position and is pulled back by Horkheimer each time. At one point he remarks, “I cannot imagine a world intensified to the point of insanity without objective oppositional forces being unleashed” (42). This will turn out to be the thesis Marcuse hints at in One-Dimensional Man and develops in An Essay on Liberation. But Horkheimer rejects this view as overly optimistic. A bit later Adorno refuses to accept that human nature is inherently evil. “People only become Khrushchevs because they keep getting hit over the head” (44). But again Horkheimer rejects the hope of a less repressive future and even ridicules Marcuse by claiming he expects a Russian Bonaparte to save the day and make everything right.

What are we to make of this ghostly presence of a Marcusean alternative? It seems to me that these remarks already anticipate and condemn Marcuse’s openness to the return of the movement in the form of the New Left. Where Horkheimer and Adorno ultimately rejected the New Left, Marcuse took the Hegelian-Marxian- Lukácsian plunge back into history. Adorno was sympathetic to the movement at first but eventually condemned what he called its “pseudo-activism.” Marcuse was well aware that the New Left was no equivalent to Marx’s proletariat, but he tried to find in it a hint of those “objective oppositional forces” of which Adorno spoke in 1956. In this way theory might be related once again to practice without concession to existing society, although also with no certainty of success.

Marcuse’s important innovation was to recognize the prefigurative force of the New Left without identifying it as a new agent of revolution. We still live under the horizon of progressive politics established by the New Left; its issues are still ours although of course transformed in many ways by time. But the most significant impact of the New Left is on our identity as leftists. The New Left invented a non-sectarian form of progressive opposition that defines the stance of most people on the Left today.

Much to Marcuse’s surprise, on his 80th birthday, Beckett published a short poem as a tribute to him. The poem recognizes the obstinacy required by the seemingly impossible demands of the Frankfurt School’s stance toward history. Here is the poem:

pas à pas
nulle part
nul seul
ne sait comment
petits pas
nulle part

step by step
not a single one
knows how
tiny steps

Lukács’s party and social praxis

Richard Westerman

THE FOUNDATIONAL TEXTS of Critical Theory, Georg Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness [HCC] and Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy, were the products of a crisis in European Marxism. Both published in 1923, they represented a response to both failed and successful revolutions: whilst the Bolsheviks had taken control of Russia despite its relative underdevelopment, Communist governments in Hungary and Germany had rapidly been toppled due to a lack of popular support. Notably, both Lukács and Korsch had served in these governments—Lukács himself on the front lines with the Hungarian Red Army. Though memorably condemned as “Marxism of the Professors” by the nascent Soviet orthodoxy, the deeply philosophical readings of Marx that Korsch and Lukács developed were very much the product of their personal involvement in and response to practical revolutionary situations.

The fact that these books were written, as Lukács observed, as “attempts, arising out of actual work for the party, to clarify the theoretical problems of the revolutionary movement” is usually forgotten.[5] This is evident in the reception of the concept of reification. Loosely, reification describes a social pathology in which individuals understand society and social relations through fixed, unalterable laws, with the result that they feel isolated and unable to change society. It is usually—wrongly—assumed that Lukács’s solution is an updated version of German Idealism, according to which the proletariat suddenly realizes that it is the creator of this objective world, and so spontaneously reappropriates its creation to free itself. As a result, Lukács’s account of the role of the party in the final essay of HCC is read through this misinterpretation of reification, and he is accused of paving the way for a centralized state controlled by an authoritarian party. On this standard interpretation, Lukács apparently believes that because the proletariat hadn’t realized that it was the subject of history, the revolutionary party simply needed to act for them. He is seen as endorsing a Blanquist party that would deteriorate into post-revolutionary dictatorship.

Surprisingly few of Lukács’s interpreters have recognized that he actually envisages a much more democratic party. The central reason for this common misrepresentation is a failure to understand adequately what Lukács means by his central concept of reification, and the way it shapes his theory of party organization. Most interpretations of Lukács think reification is a mistake made by a thinking subject—even if the mistake is attributed to social reasons. The party would then try to correct this mistake. Reification does not, however, describe an epistemology; from the outset, it describes a type of praxis. Lukács’s party isn’t there to play the role of a wise leader to guide the proletariat—it’s there to provide a locus for genuinely dereified, and thus dereifying praxis. Rather than a Blanquist cadre of professional revolutionaries, Lukács’s party is essentially a more institutionalized version of Rosa Luxemburg’s Mass Strike.

I am going to start by tracing the roots of the problem Lukács is trying to solve to Marx’s critique of the distinction between state and civil society in “On The Jewish Question” [OJQ], and showing how this problem clearly could not be solved by a vanguardist party. I’ll then consider Lukács’s own position: I’ll argue that his vision of the party sits somewhere between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, in that he sees the formal organization provided by the party as essential for real proletarian class consciousness. Finally, I’ll suggest a few ways in which this might provide a model for the sort of democratic activity that might provide a counterweight to existing social and political structures.

Marx’s OJQ, written in response to Bruno Bauer’s pamphlet on the question of full Jewish emancipation within the German state, radically reinterprets the meaning of social freedom. Arguing that the secularization of the state would only mean the reproduction of religious division at the level of society, Marx questioned the Hegelian division of state and civil society. Civil society, for Hegel, was the realm of particular satisfaction and immediate social unity: the individual was tied to other individuals through an economic system of needs, rationalized through social institutions built on this basic necessity. In contrast, the state was the realm of rational freedom, in which citizens were united as rational universal individuals. For Marx, this was an alienated form of freedom: first, it meant that political forms seemed to come from an impersonal universal force of reason, rather than free human action; second, it treated the categories of social existence as invariable, necessary, and open only to knowledge, not change. Marx proposed, therefore, that we bring heaven down to earth and make society itself into the realm of freedom by transforming social relations themselves. Real freedom thus means collective control over such relations.

It’s this sort of freedom that Lukács sees in party activity. But I think it should be obvious at once why a party that sought to carry out revolution on behalf of the proletariat would be unable to realize it. Such a party would reduce the working class to the role of spectators, just as unfree as before. In fact, Lukács is extremely clear in his rejection of such a top-down party, and it’s hard to see how an honest and rigorous reading could come up with any other conclusion. He states explicitly that “even in theory, the communist party does not act on behalf of the proletariat,”[6] lest it reduce the masses to “a merely observing, contemplative” attitude that leads to “the voluntaristic overestimation of the active significance of the individual (the leader) and the fatalistic underestimation of the significance of the class (the masses).”[7] And he repeatedly uses the word “reification” to caution against fixing any one organizational form and insulating it from criticism or change by the masses. Lukács could not be more clear: a top-down, proto-Stalinist party would represent a return to the lack of freedom of capitalist society.

Lukács draws heavily on Rosa Luxemburg, which was perhaps rather an unusual tactic in 1922, when the success of the Bolsheviks seemed to indicate a clear victory for Lenin’s idea of a disciplined cadre of revolutionaries. The mass strike in which she vested such hopes was supposed to bring about the spontaneous development of class consciousness by forcing all strata of the working class into organizing themselves. Luxemburg’s party plays a very secondary role, little more than a sort of secretarial role in fact, and certainly not any kind of leadership.

Nevertheless, Lukács also repeatedly praises Luxemburg for her insights. He explicitly endorses her criticisms of Western European parties who underestimated mass action, and thought only an educated party was ready to assume leadership.[8] However, he suggests that she makes the opposite mistake, and criticizes her for “underplaying of the role of the party in the revolution.”[9] As we’ve seen, he doesn’t think this role entails “leadership” in a conventional sense, so to understand what Lukács means, we need to look a little more closely at his definition of reification.

Most interpretations of Lukács take reification to be an epistemological error. The problem they think Lukács identifies is that the categories that capitalist society is construed in are too abstract and formal. As a result, they think his project is to replace such categories with more substantial ones that “accurately” reflect the qualitative underlying reality. Unfortunately, this interpretation doesn’t withstand a close reading of the text.[10] Reification—Verdinglichung, “thingification”—doesn’t refer to a problem of abstraction, of quantity opposed to a qualitative substrate—but rather to the undialectical ossification of forms as things that cannot be changed. This is clear enough in the central essay of the book, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.” Here, Lukács presents an interpretation of what he calls “bourgeois” philosophy, the classical German thought of Kant, Fichte, and Hegel. He identifies the epistemological preoccupation of such philosophy: it starts from the separation of subject and object; therefore, its central question is, How far can our knowledge and its forms match up with a reality that is external to consciousness? This epistemological standpoint, Lukács argues, reduces us to mere spectators of society: we think it is only possible to grasp it through predetermined forms. Lukács’s problem with this isn’t that the forms are wrong – rather, it’s the very attempt to separate subject, object, and consciousness from one another. We can see what Lukács means by “reification” in the more detail in the way he talks about the party.

In the first place, Lukács’s party essentially serves as the institutional form of proletarian class consciousness. Without a party, such consciousness would be formless and immediate; the proletariat needs to give an institutional form to its self-consciousness in order to understand itself properly. The party, therefore, is the form that the revolutionary proletariat gives itself. The leading sections of the working class organize themselves in a party. As Lukács puts it, “the organizational independence of the communist party is necessary, in order that the proletariat can see its own class consciousness, as a historical form … so that, for the whole class, its own existence as a class can be raised to the level of consciousness.”[11] Whereas a Blanquist party would be there to tell the workers what to think, the Lukácsian party embodies the proletariat in its organizational forms. Moreover, these forms aren’t just a representation of what is already there – a more or less accurate representation of an underlying substrate of labor or essence. Rather, Lukács states that the party is the proletariat’s “act of self-conscious becoming.” It’s only by taking on form for itself that the proletariat really becomes a class.

Furthermore, the close ties Lukács establishes between form and existence indicate how reification could return as a problem in the organization of the party. Though tactical concerns play some role in organization, this should not result in the imposition of certain forms in the name of exigency. Rather, what’s crucial is that forms come from the self-organization of the proletariat. “The emergence of the communist party,” as he says, “can only be the consciously-performed work of the class-conscious workers.”[12] As a result, organization is not a once-and-for-all action: Lukács is not trying to replace one set of (abstract, quantifiable, capitalist) forms with other, more “authentic,” or “qualitative” forms. To do this would be, he suggests, to risk the return of reification—which he identifies with the organizational structures of party leadership. For Lukács, it’s not so much what the party does that matters, but more the opportunities it affords proletarians to become actively involved in shaping the forms of their existence. He writes, “insofar as the communist party becomes a world of activity for every one of its members, it can overcome the contemplativity of bourgeois man.”[13]

Lukács identifies the party as the practical overcoming of reification. “Organization is the form of mediation between theory and practice.”[14] Like Luxemburg, he rejects a Blanquist party that takes control on behalf of the workers. But he goes beyond Luxemburg in his insistence on some kind of fluid institutional form for proletarian consciousness, without which it would be vague and ineffective. Dereification, therefore, is necessarily practical—it means deliberate engagement in practices that give form to one’s own existence. The party is practical consciousness, the embodiment of such forms in a way that allows for their transformation.

Although Lukács’s account rests very specifically on the conditions of the industrial working classes and the phenomenological construction of proletarian self-consciousness, I think his fundamental concept of dereified praxis can help inform progressive democratic organization more generally. Even within current social and political forms, the idea of reification can be used to critique universalist discourses of rights, starting from a fixed standpoint that makes it impossible to negotiate the boundaries of citizenship or group membership in any substantial way. More radically, though, Lukács’s party provides a model for broad-based social action. Democratization would, for Lukács, entail much more comprehensive involvement in forming our social relations than just reformation of legal and political categories. We should understand social forms through the idea of practices—that is, structured, repeatable interactions that acquire a certain significance or meaning within the totality of a culture. It is these practices that become reified. Rather than seeing them as things that we do, things that are recharged with meaning only because we continue to practice them, we wrongly treat them as fixed and immutable. Social practices can seem almost divinely sanctioned. Alternatively, we might come up with a supposedly scientific theory that explains such practices in terms of an eternal, unchangeable human nature that inevitably develops into specific social forms. We seem only able to interact in these ways.

Dereification would entail a deliberate transformation of these practices: we should, Lukács would argue, treat our practices as things we can adapt to circumstances. We cannot recreate social forms at will out of nothing—but at the same time, by recognizing that forms as practices are things we do, we can open them to steady transformation. At the suggestion of Sourayan Mookerjea, I’d like to point to the alter-globalization example, as a model. Alter-globalists welcome the growth of global interaction and cooperation that current development has generated. However, they reject neo-liberal ideas that such development can only take place in one way, determined by scientifically-knowable economic processes. Alter-globalization therefore tries to develop alternative social practices, orienting itself towards positive redefinition of social interaction, not the unthinking rejection of internationalism.

Lukács’s model of the party also indicates ways such activity needs to be carried out: it must be a grassroots movement with a deliberate orientation towards the problem of its own organization. That is, emancipatory movements shouldn’t view themselves as instrumentally-oriented towards attaining a particular end; rather, they need to devote much of their energy to themselves, and to shaping the ways in which they hold together as organizations. In doing so, they afford their members an opportunity for the very sort of dereified praxis that Lukács aspires to.

To sum up: Lukács’s understanding of the revolutionary Party aims to fulfill some of the emancipatory goals of Marx’s OJQ. Rather than a centralized cadre of professional vanguardists, Lukács’s party is shaped by Luxemburgian aspirations of grassroots self-organization. By interpreting the party as the conscious form of social relations, Lukács indicates the importance of some objective presentation of our practices, if we are to understand our social existence properly. But he also suggests a new definition of praxis. The very act of self-organization, or of consciously modifying the practices that make up our social and cultural totality is, for Lukács, the essence of revolutionary praxis. If we accept certain ways of interacting as eternal and unchangeable, we succumb to reification. Only by constantly struggling against the ossification of our practices into unchangeable forms can we hope to be emancipated.

Adorno’s “Leninism”

Chris Cutrone

THE POLITICAL ORIGINS of Frankfurt School Critical Theory have remained opaque, for several reasons, not least the taciturn character of the major writings of its figures. The motivation for such reticence on the part of these theorists is itself what requires explanation: why they engaged in self-censorship and the encryption of their ideas, and consigned themselves to writing “messages in a bottle” without immediate or definite addressee. As Horkheimer put it, the danger was in speaking like an “oracle;” he asked simply, “To whom shall we say these things?”[15] It was not simply due to American exile in the Nazi era or post-World War II Cold War exigency. Some of their ideas were expressed explicitly enough. Rather, the collapse of the Marxist Left in which the Critical Theorists’ thought had been formed, in the wake of the October 1917 Revolution in Russia and the German Revolution and civil war of 1918–19, deeply affected their perspective on political possibilities in their historical moment. The question is, in what way was this Marxism?

A series of conversations between Horkheimer and Adorno from 1956, at the height of the Cold War, provide insight into their thinking and how they understood their situation in the trajectory of Marxism in the 20th century. Selections from the transcript were recently published in the New Left Review (2010), under the title “Towards a New Manifesto?” The German publication of the complete transcript, in Horkheimer’s collected works, is under the title “Discussion about Theory and Praxis,” and their discussion was indeed in consideration of rewriting the Communist Manifesto in light of intervening history. Within a few years of this, Adorno began but abandoned work on a critique of the German Social-Democratic Party’s Godesberg Programme, which officially renounced Marxism in 1959, on the model of Marx’s celebrated critique of the Gotha Programme that had founded the SPD in 1875. So, especially Adorno, but also Horkheimer, had been deeply concerned with the question of continuing the project of Marxism well after World War II. In the series of conversations between them, Adorno expressed his interest in rewriting the Communist Manifesto along what he called “strictly Leninist” lines, to which Horkheimer did not object, but only pointed out that such a document, calling for what he called the “re-establishment of a socialist party,” “could not appear in Russia, while in the United States and Germany it would be worthless.” Nonetheless, Horkheimer felt it was necessary to show “why one can be a communist and yet despise the Russians.” As Horkheimer put it, simply, “Theory is, as it were, one of humanity’s tools” (57). Thus, they tasked themselves to try to continue Marxism, if only as “theory.”

Now, it is precisely the supposed turning away from political practice and retreat into theory that many commentators have characterized as the Frankfurters’ abandonment of Marxism. For instance, Martin Jay, in The Dialectical Imagination, or Phil Slater, in his book offering a “Marxist interpretation” of the Frankfurt School, characterized matters in such terms: Marxism could not be supposed to exist as mere theory, but had to be tied to practice. But this was not a problem new to the Frankfurt Institute in exile, that is, after being forced to abandon their work in collaboration with the Soviet Marx-Engels Institute, for example, which was as much due to Stalinism as Nazism. Rather, it pointed back to what Karl Korsch, a foundational figure for the Institute, wrote in 1923: that the crisis of Marxism, that is, the problems that had already manifested in the era of the Second International in the late 19th century (the so-called “Revisionist Dispute”), and developed and culminated in its collapse and division in World War I and the revolutions that followed, meant that the “umbilical cord” between theory and practice had been already “broken.” Marxism stood in need of a transformation, in both theory and practice, but this transformation could only happen as a function of not only practice but also theory. They suffered the same fate. For Korsch in 1923, as well as for Georg Lukács in this same period, in writings seminal for the Frankfurt School Critical Theorists, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg were exemplary of the attempt to rearticulate Marxist theory and practice. Lenin in particular, as Lukács characterized him, the “theoretician of practice,” provided a key, indeed the crucial figure, in political action and theoretical self-understanding, of the problem Marxism faced at that historical moment. As Adorno remarks, “I have always wanted to . . . develop a theory that remains faithful to Marx, Engels and Lenin” (59). So, the question becomes, “faithful” in what way?

Several statements in two writings by Horkheimer and Adorno’s colleague, Herbert Marcuse, his “33 Theses” from 1947, and his book Soviet Marxism from 1958, can help shed light on the orientation of the members of the Frankfurt School towards the prior politics of “communism,” specifically of Lenin. Additionally, several letters from Adorno to Horkheimer and Benjamin in the late 1930s explicate Adorno’s positive attitude towards Lenin. Finally, writings from Adorno’s last year, 1969, the “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” and “Resignation,” restated and further specified the content of his “Leninism” in light of his critique of the 1960s New Left. The challenge is to recognize the content of such “Leninism” that might otherwise appear obscure or idiosyncratic, but actually points back to the politics of the early 20th century that was formative of Adorno and his cohort. Then, the question becomes, what was the significance of such a perspective in the later period of Adorno’s life? How did such “Leninism” retain purchase under changed conditions, such that Adorno could bring it to bear, critically, up to the end of his life? Furthermore, what could Adorno’s perspective on “Leninism” reveal about Lenin himself? Why and how did Adorno remain a Marxist, and how did Lenin figure in this?

One clear explanation for Adorno’s “Leninism” was the importance of consciousness in Adorno’s estimation of potential for emancipatory social transformation. For instance, in a letter to Horkheimer critical of Erich Fromm’s more humane approach to Freudian psychoanalysis, Adorno wrote that Fromm demonstrated “a mixture of social democracy and anarchism . . . [and] a severe lack of . . . dialectics . . . [in] the concept of authority, without which, after all, neither Lenin’s [vanguard] nor dictatorship can be conceived of. I would strongly advise him to read Lenin.” Adorno thought that Fromm thus threatened to deploy something of what he called the “trick used by bourgeois individualists against Marx,” and wrote to Horkheimer that he considered this to be a “real threat to the line . . . which [our] journal takes.”[16]

But the political role of an intellectual, theoretically informed “vanguard” is liable to the common criticism of Leninism’s tendency towards an oppressive domination over rather than critical facilitation of social emancipation. A more complicated apprehension of the role of consciousness in the historical transformation of society can be found in Adorno’s correspondence on Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in 1936. There, Adorno commended Benjamin’s work for providing an account of the relationship of intellectuals to workers along the lines of Lenin. As Adorno put it in his letter to Benjamin,

The proletariat . . . is itself a product of bourgeois society. . . . [T]he actual consciousness of actual workers . . . [has] absolutely no advantage over the bourgeois except . . . interest in the revolution, but otherwise bear[s] all the marks of mutilation of the typical bourgeois character. . . . We maintain our solidarity with the proletariat instead of making of our own necessity a virtue of the proletariat, as we are always tempted to do—the proletariat which itself experiences the same necessity and needs us for knowledge as much as we need the proletariat to make the revolution. I am convinced that the further development of the . . . debate you have so magnificently inaugurated . . . depends essentially on a true accounting of the relationship of the intellectuals to the working class. . . . [Your essay is] among the profoundest and most powerful statements of political theory that I have encountered since I read [Lenin’s] The State and Revolution.[17]

Adorno likely had in mind as well Lenin’s What is to be Done? or “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder. In the former, Lenin (in)famously distinguished between “trade union” and “socialist consciousness.” But in the latter work, Lenin described the persistent “bourgeois” social conditions of intellectual work per se that would long survive the proletarian socialist revolution, indeed (reiterating from What is to be Done?) that workers became thoroughly “bourgeois” by virtue of the very activity of intellectual work (such as in journalism or art production), including and perhaps especially in their activity as Communist Party political cadre. For Lenin, workers’ political revolution meant governing what would remain an essentially bourgeois society. The revolution would make the workers for the first time, so to speak, entirely bourgeois, which was the precondition of their leading society beyond bourgeois conditions.[18] It was a moment, the next necessary step, in the workers’ self-overcoming, in the emancipatory transformation of society in, through and beyond capital. Marxism was not extrinsic but intrinsic to this process, as the workers’ movement itself was. As Adorno put it to Horkheimer, “It could be said that Marx and Hegel taught that there are no ideals in the abstract, but that the ideal always lies in the next step, that the entire thing cannot be grasped directly but only indirectly by means of the next step” (54). Lukács had mentioned this about Lenin, in a footnote to his 1923 essay in History and Class Consciousness, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” that,

Lenin’s achievement is that he rediscovered this side of Marxism that points the way to an understanding of its practical core. His constantly reiterated warning to seize the “next link” in the chain with all one’s might, that link on which the fate of the totality depends in that one moment, his dismissal of all utopian demands, i.e. his “relativism” and his “Realpolitik:” all these things are nothing less than the practical realisation of the young Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach.[19]

This was not fully achieved in the revolution that began to unfold from 1917 to 1919 in Russia, Germany, Hungary, and Italy, but was cut short of attaining the politics of the socialist transformation of society. Thirty years later, in the context of the dawning Cold War following the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, Marcuse’s “33 Theses” tried to take stock of the legacy of the crisis of Marxism and the failure of the revolution:

[Thesis 3:] [T]o uphold without compromise orthodox Marxist theory . . . [i]n the face of political reality . . . would be powerless, abstract and unpolitical, but when the political reality as a whole is false, the unpolitical position may be the only political truth. . . .

[Thesis 32:] [T]he political workers’ party remains the necessary subject of revolution. In the original Marxist conception, the party does not play a decisive role. Marx assumed that the proletariat is driven to revolutionary action on its own, based on the knowledge of its own interests, as soon as revolutionary conditions are present. . . . [But subsequent] development has confirmed the correctness of the Leninist conception of the vanguard party as the subject of the revolution. It is true that the communist parties today are not this subject, but it is just as true that only they can become it. Only in the theories of the communist parties is the memory of the revolutionary tradition alive, which can become the memory of the revolutionary goal again. . . .

[Thesis 33:] The political task then would consist in reconstructing revolutionary theory.[20]

As Marcuse put it in 1958, in Soviet Marxism,

During the Revolution, it became clear to what degree Lenin had succeeded in basing his strategy on the actual class interests and aspirations of the workers and peasants. . . . Then, from 1923 on, the decisions of the leadership increasingly dissociated from the class interests of the proletariat. The former no longer presuppose the proletariat as a revolutionary agent but rather are imposed upon the proletariat and the rest of the underlying population.[21]

Adorno’s commentary in conversation with Horkheimer in 1956, in a passage not included in the New Left Review translation, titled “Individualism,” addressed what he called the problem of subjectivity as socially constituted, which he thought Lenin had addressed more rigorously than Marx. Adorno said that,

Marx was too harmless; he probably imagined quite naïvely that human beings are basically the same in all essentials and will remain so. It would be a good idea, therefore, to deprive them of their second nature. He was not concerned with their subjectivity; he probably didn’t look into that too closely. The idea that human beings are the products of society down to their innermost core is an idea that he would have rejected as milieu theory. Lenin was the first person to assert this.[22]

What this meant for Adorno was that the struggle to overcome the domination of society by capital was something more and other than the class struggle of the workers against the capitalists. It was not merely a matter of their exploitation. For it was not the case that social subjects were products of their class position so much as bourgeois society under capital determined all of its subjects in a historical nexus of unfreedom. Rather, class position was an expression of the structure of this universal unfreedom. As Horkheimer wrote, in “The Little Man and the Philosophy of Freedom,”

In socialism, freedom is to become a reality. But because the present system is called “free” and considered liberal, it is not terribly clear what this may mean. . . .

The businessman is subject to laws that neither he nor anyone else nor any power with such a mandate created with purpose and deliberation. They are laws which the big capitalists and perhaps he himself skillfully make use of but whose existence must be accepted as a fact. Boom, bust, inflation, wars and even the qualities of things and human beings the present society demands are a function of such laws, of the anonymous social reality. . . .

Bourgeois thought views this reality as superhuman. It fetishizes the social process. . . .

[T]he error is not that people do not recognize the subject but that the subject does not exist. Everything therefore depends on creating the free subject that consciously shapes social life. And this subject is nothing other than the rationally organized socialist society which regulates its own existence. . . . But for the little man who is turned down when he asks for a job because objective conditions make it impossible, it is most important that their origin be brought to the light of day so that they do not continue being unfavorable to him. Not only his own lack of freedom but that of others as well spells his doom. His interest lies in the Marxist clarification of the concept of freedom.[23]

Such a clarification of what would constitute a progressive-emancipatory approach to the problem of capital was cut short by the course of Marxism in the 20th century. It thus also became increasingly difficult to “bring to the light of day” the “origins” of persistent social conditions of unfreedom. In many respects, the crisis of Marxism had been exacerbated but not overcome as a function of the post-World War I revolutionary aftermath. This involved a deepening of the crisis of humanity: the Frankfurt Institute Critical Theorists were well aware that fascism as a historical phenomenon was due to the failure of Marxism. Fascism was the ill-begotten offspring of the history of Marxism itself.

A decade after 1917, Horkheimer wrote, in a passage titled “Indications,” that,

The moral character of a person can be infallibly inferred from his response to certain questions. . . . In 1930 the attitude toward Russia casts light on people’s thinking. It is extremely difficult to say what conditions are like there. I do not claim to know where the country is going; there is undoubtedly much misery. . . . The senseless injustice of the imperialist world can certainly not be explained by technological inadequacy. Anyone who has the eyes to see will view events in Russia as the continuing painful attempt to overcome this terrible social injustice. At the very least, he will ask with a throbbing heart whether it is still under way. If appearances were to be against it, he will cling to this hope like the cancer patient to the questionable report that a cure for his illness may have been found.

When Kant received the first news of the French Revolution, he is said to have changed the direction of his customary stroll from then on.[24]

Despite what occurred in the unfolding of developments in 20th century history, Horkheimer and Adorno never reversed course. Are we yet ready to receive their messages in a bottle?


Nicholas Brown: It does seem to me that these three papers are essentially raising the same question—though not explicitly. So that is the one I am going to ask. I confess I never finished the Adorno-Horkheimer dialogue, precisely because of the Beckettian flavor. They are obviously dealing with an impossibility there, which is how are you going to maintain fidelity to Lenin without a party, without a viable party to affiliate with or without a concept of party that is operative. Of course the question then becomes: What is to be done when there’s nothing to be done?

There is a tragic version of this in Negative Dialectics, where Adorno knowingly throws in his lot with the Stoics and frames his own position as essentially a stoic position, knowing better than, or as well as, anyone that the entire ethical force of the Phenomenology of Spirit, which Marx inherits, is the impossibility or the complicity of the stoic position.

The self-effacement of their language is similar to what in the Phenomenology of Spirit is the unhappy consciousness—which oscillates precisely for the same reason as Adorno. Because their unhappy consciousness is incapable, in the words of Chris quoting Lukács, of seizing the next link; because there is no next link—which is again the problem of the party.

So that brings us to the question of the “party” in Lukács. My question for Andrew is, What do we do—what is to be done—without a party? You seem to suggest that Marcuse offers an answer.

Richard shows that, for Lukács, “the party” is not so much a thing, necessarily, as it is a concept. The party is that thing that mediates between the subject in history. The moment we deny epistemology, the moment we deny ontology, the moment we deny Kant, the moment we deny representation, both as a philosophical and a political concept, we are in this Hegelian universe and there becomes an obligation to find “the party,” “the next link,” or “a mediation.” It is that obligation that Adorno finds himself unable to fulfill. That is both the comedy and the tragedy of Adorno. So my question for you is the same: What does the philosophical concept of the party look like today? Your answer is a sort of autonomist, Negrian answer, which seems to be me to be an unsatisfactory solution, since Hegel is waiting for Hardt and Negri as well. That the subject is a fiction but nonetheless a fiction that is necessary—rather like a party is necessary.

And so, Chris, it seems that in Marx, in Lukács, and certainly in Adorno and Marcuse, there is an unresolved tension between the notion of universal unfreedom and the notion of exploitation. The latter, within our present moment has to do with fragility and who is and who is not protected from the winds of history, which is not quite the same question as universal unfreedom and disalienation. The notion of disalienation, the romantic side of eruptions in Marx, in Lukács, and in the Frankfurt school, seem to be what needs to be abandoned in favor of the more hard-headed emphasis on exploitation. If, for the Frankfurt School, the ideal was the next step or link in the chain, what does the Hegelian idea mean in the present?

AF: What I like about Marcuse is that he was able to separate two things, which for Marx, Lukács, and Lenin were essentially connected. One of those things was the subject of revolution and the other was the force able to dereify at least some portion of the social reality. In the classical Marxist conception, it’s the workers who dereify, by their refusal to submit passively to the forms in which their lives are cast, and it’s also the workers who are going to create the new society. What Marcuse realized was that you could have one without the other. You could have dereifying gestures, express solidarity with them, and articulate them theoretically without any confidence at all that those making such gestures were capable of overthrowing the society and creating a new society. After the events of May 1968 in France, it was clear that that a historically new type of opposition had arisen, so I think he was right to try and join Marx’s theory to that opposition. I think that is still a significant alternative to the despair of Adorno and Horkheimer or, on the other side, to the attempts to revive a traditional Marxist proletarian party.

RW: My answer to “what is to be done” is that it’s not really our place to say. I think that would be Lukács’s response. I think the party, or any form of organization, rather than being viewed as the instrument, is more to be seen as the way in which the multiplicity of wills become, not necessarily one, but at least learn to think of themselves as united. Not so much for the specific decisions by which they come to practical action, but more about the self-organization, the institutional forms they give themselves.
I think Lukács’s critique of Hegel and, indeed, bourgeois philosophy in general, stems from the idea of a subject; the idea that we should conceive of action as a subject acting on a world and recognizing himself. What he sees in the party is the entity, if I can use such an ontologically reifying term, the entity that is a subject in so far as it manifests itself objectively through its organizational forms. That is slightly different from conceiving the party as the agent.

CC: What we are discussing is political form. In other words, the party is a form. What we are talking about is the party as mediation: the mediation of theory and practice, a mediation of subject and object positions.

On the notion of the Hegelian ideal as the next step for Horkheimer and Adorno, I would offer something speculatively, not literally: Andrew noted the fundamental ambiguity of the late Marx with respect to the way he conceived philosophy as a young man. But I would argue that the question of mediation recurs. The critique of political economy is not merely an analysis of “bourgeois” forms, but rather an analysis and critique of the incipient consciousness of the workers’ movement. The workers’ movement inherited political economy, bourgeois critical consciousness, but only when the thought of the bourgeoisie itself had grown vulgar. Marx commends Adam Smith for being willing to present society as self-contradictory. So I would situate the question of what is the next step with respect to the question of the critique of capital. How then would one rearticulate Marx’s own political praxis with his theoretical critique of capital, which is the Hegelian attempt to raise social form to the level of self-consciousness, for working class militants, who were coming up against certain very determinate obstacles in their political practice in the wake of the revolutions of 1848. There was a “meeting,” if you will, to put it back in Adorno’s more traditional terms, of the intellectuals and the workers, around the question of what is the purchase of the critique of capital.

Post-60s, there was a return to Marx: there was a return to the Hegelian Marxism with respect to the critique of capital. If we describe ourselves as intellectuals, then the very point would be to ask, “How can these ideas find traction?” Korsch says that the crisis of Marxism threatens to break the umbilical cord between theory and practice; this means that these are two separate things. I would stress mediation in the concept of form, over the liquidation of theory and practice in the concept of form or party.

Q & A

If we as Marxists, communists, or would be radicals/revolutionaries, are not in a position to speak, then we should ask: What would be required to transform ourselves into those that could speak? How can we write like Lenin and Mao? I was struck by the Adorno-Horkheimer dialogue; Horkheimer was certainly not alone in attributing the deaths in the Great Leap Forward to Mao and Stalin. What if instead of putting their messages in a bottle, Horkheimer and Adorno had sent their messages to China, and hadn’t prematurely written off that actual revolution?

RW: There isn’t a prohibition on “speaking” as such. But it depends on whether we’re speaking ex cathedra or from within something else. I agree with Habermas in his insistence that when we’re talking about these things we have to participate on an equal level with everyone else. A danger that Lenin himself noted, in those final furious letters demanding that the party should stay as far away as possible from the soviets, was that in all likelihood honest workers and peasants would be either intimidated or look in awe at the wise men from Moscow. What we should do to be able to speak, then, is deny who we are, if anything. I think that is always the danger for anyone speaking with any badge of authority. It leads to this kind of intellectual leadership problem where precisely the freedom that people like Marx envisage is sidelined.

AF: I disagree! There are no ignorant peasants any more. Those who are the most vociferous in opposing any intellectual authority are themselves intellectuals. So, that’s just another theory! I don’t know that there is a problem, really; it’s more a question of, “Is there anyone who is willing to listen?” rather than, “Are we oppressive in putting forward our views?” That’s my conclusion, from having participated in the good old days, in many struggles over this question of authority.

CC: In terms of the self-transformation of intellectuals, it isn’t a problem of who’s speaking, but rather of what’s being said. I would introduce another kind of Leninist category, namely, “tailism.” There is a problem of articulating historical consciousness and empirical realities. I want to return to an issue that was raised by both Andrew and Richard that I thought was very helpful with respect to reification. What Lukács meant by reification was the Second International, the socialist workers’ movement, as it had been constituted in that historical juncture. And this is why he was sympathetic to Luxemburg, because Luxemburg critiques that party form in the Mass Strike pamphlet, in which she argues that social democracy had become an impediment or obstacle to the workers’ movement in, I would say, a subject-object dialectic: the workers’ movement generated itself historically into an object of self-critique.

Now, why Horkheimer’s afraid of China is the apparent “revolutionary” success of what he and Adorno considered to be counter-revolution, namely, Stalinism. Having lived through the 30s and the transformation of Marxism in Stalinism, to see Stalinism flourish as the Marxism of the post-World War II period, they could only regard as a sign of the regression of Marxism itself. Now, why didn’t they send their “messages in a bottle” to intellectuals in China? Because it would have been a sure-fire way of getting those Chinese intellectuals executed on the spot. We could read their statements as evincing an anti-Chinese bias prime facie. But there is a dialectic there. As Horkheimer says, well, what about the fact that 20 million Chinese are going to die, but after that there won’t be any more starving Chinese? He asks what do we make of that? What Horkheimer and Adorno had in mind is that, had the success of the revolution that had opened in 1917 spread to Germany, had it spread beyond, a revolution in China as took place in 1949, with all the sacrifices and the calamities that it entailed, would have been unnecessary. This was their image of emancipation; their concern was that the conditions of barbarism were being confused for the struggle for emancipation.

NB: On the space of intellectuals, when there is a mass movement, the situation of the intellectual is both much easier and much more difficult. It is easy because you know what to do but the project of transformation that you’re talking about is hard. The problem we’re facing is a different one, which is that there is no mass movement. And to the extent that there is one, it’s a totally corrupt, right-wing one.

Adorno very clearly throws in his lot with the West, so it’s not a matter of getting Adorno to actual Chinese dissidents, it’s a matter of the question: Did Adorno have to, that clearly, throw his lot in with the West and so clearly server links with actual existing socialism? That question is a little less clear-cut than whether it would have been beneficial to have Chinese dissidents parroting the Adornian line.

Kant demanded that we think politically, in that we are forced to comment on society as members of that same society; we are obligated to contribute to the development of society. Lukács saw that only through the party can society continue developing, therefore the question of individual responsibility in history seems somewhat misplaced. It is only the party that, having the ability to shape history, is obligated to think about history. Can it be that this is what motivates Lenin and Luxemburg when talking about the party? That is, when Luxemburg worries about the vote in the Reichstag about the war credits, the concern is about the decline of the party and the need to reconfigure the party to affect history?

RW: I disagree. Lukács doesn’t think that the party can change history, it is the class that can change history. The party brings the class about. The party might be the starting point but it’s emphatically not the end-point. To say the party changes history directly would give it the kind of heroic role that, I think, Lukács is trying to avoid.

CC: I would say that the political party, or the agency of political mediation, can’t, itself, emancipate society. However, it can certainly block that emancipation, and so be thought of negatively. The importance of the party hinges on the issue of historical consciousness. So where I’m more in sympathy with Luxemburg’s critique of the SPD in its political collapse is her charge that the party is responsible for history, negatively. She is saying that the party has been part of bringing history to this point of crisis, and it is the party that is tasked with self-overcoming in its form of mediating political agency.

First: I find the Lenin described—mediated through Adorno and Lukács—completely unrecognizable from the Lenin of the collected works. But what I recognize as being described as Lenin in Adorno and Lukács is the resolution of the Second and Third Congresses of the Comintern on the role of the political party in the proletarian revolution. Does this not encapsulate a false history of the Bolshevik party? A history of the Bolshevik party that projects back the character which the Bolshevik party assumed between 1918 and 1921, under the civil war conditions, onto the pre-history of the Bolshevik party before 1917?

Second: For Marx and Engels, consistently, from the 1840s through to Engels’s death, with a brief interlude in the period in the First International when they were in alliance with the Proudhonists, the issue as stated in the 1871 Hague Congress Resolution what that, “the working class cannot act except by forming itself into a political party.” How do the attempts to make Marx more Hegelian satisfactorily account for this political aspect of Marx and Engels’s interventions?

CC: Maybe the difference that you see between the Lenin that you would recognize and the Lenin of official Comintern Leninism is the difference that you then raise between Marx himself, in his own political practice, or Marx and Engels, and the sort of Hegelianized Marx that you find in Lukács and Adorno.

Lenin has a specific contribution in the history of Marxism that can’t be ignored, namely that he’s the great schismatic of Marxism, he divided Marxism.[25] That is precisely what esteems him in Adorno’s eyes. His is not a minority vanguard view; it is about politics in the working class. What Lenin introduces in the Second International is the idea of competing working class parties that all claim to be anti-capitalist, revolutionary, and Marxist. The crisis of Marxism refers to the political controversies within Marxism. To deny that is to say that politics is only “the workers vs. the capitalists” and not an intra-working class phenomenon. The Kautskyan party, the “one class, one party” idea, that vis-à-vis the capitalists the workers are of one interest, and the attempt to be the “party of the whole class,” denies that the content of political emancipation can be disputed among the workers and among Marxists of different parties.

AF: It seems to me that the position Lenin took could not be easily explained or justified in terms of Marxist theory, and that what someone like Lukács was engaged in doing in 1923, or Gramsci in the Prison Notebooks, was an attempt to ground that practice in Marxist theory by finding the missing link. There are many different statements in Lenin, in his early work, that don’t add up to a theory of what he was doing. But he knew what he was doing, and it had a significance historically, as Chris has just explained. So the question could be asked separately from the historical facts of whether Lenin was doing the right things in terms of Marx’s theory. Lukács recognized that Lenin had done something historically important and tried to figure out how to revise or interpret the theory in such a way that it could encompass what he had done. Lukács did make an important advance theoretically in terms of understanding how there could be a connection between the working class, Marxist theory, and the political parties that represent workers; how there could be a connection grounded in an ontological relation, a relation to reality that would be shared at different levels, in different ways, between these different instances of the movement. That is a very important theoretical idea, which I don’t think you can find in Marx or Engels or in Lenin, but is necessary to make sense of what happened, historically.

RW: Lukács is very clear that he wants the party, ultimately, to grow into a mass-based movement. But in the interim, he explicitly states in the essay on party organization, every different school, every different take on the very question of what the party should do needs to give itself organizational forms. He’s all for a broad, pluralist sprouting of different practices, which, I think, undermines the idea of a single, concentrated, vanguardist party. This might risk radical sectarianism, but at least it avoids reification, from Lukács’s perspective.

NB: Whether Lukács and Adorno got Lenin right, is not the same question and is usefully distinct from the question of whether Lenin was politically useful, and what is to be done today. On the Hegelianization of Marx, you can’t “Hegelianize” Marx, because Marx is more Hegelian than Hegel!

I take it that the primary thrust of the argument that Adorno is a Leninist is to enlist the Leninist Adorno in the project of reconstituting the Left. What is the utility of Adorno as Leninist?

CC: Adorno enlisted himself to the Leninist project. He says so: “I want to be faithful to Lenin.” What is the content of that? He said this when 99.99% of Leninists in the world would not have accepted that Adorno was being faithful to Lenin in any way. So I would turn the issue around and say that I am interested in the Lenin that becomes visible through Adorno. When Adorno says “a strictly Leninist manifesto,” it’s not that this is against Luxemburg. It’s the Lukácsian attempt to grasp what the Second International radicals had in common. Why did Luxemburg call herself a Bolshevik? She wrote an essay in the last months of her life titled “What is German Bolshevism?” In other words, “This is what we want. Why are we with the Bolsheviks?” Hers was comradely criticism—that’s the point. So I am interested in how this history of Marxism looks, specifically through Adorno’s eyes, through Lukács’s eyes, through Korsch’s eyes; we would be remiss to ignore the insights that they had into that history.

AF: At this moment in history, we know so little about the forces of opposition, their potential, and where they’re going to come from next, that we won’t have the theoretical basis and the basis in practical experience that the socialist movement had at the time when these parties were formed and developed. Under present conditions, we need to try and find sources of opposition and tensions around the reifying power of the institutions wherever they appear, even if they don’t look or appear to be political. We would prematurely close things down trying to have a theory and a party that was trying to direct struggles.

CC: What is meant by the party? On the one hand, the formation of a party of a recognizable type from history, at the present moment, would foreclose possibilities. On the other hand, I have my own reservations about the Hardt-Negri moment that we’re in with respect to movementism, which sees the party as the road to Stalinism. If we say that the earlier socialist movement had an accumulated historical experience, then we have to say that, for a generation, we’ve been denied that. So we’re left saying, “OK, something like a party?” to expand the notion of “form.” What Richard is pointing to, in terms of the concept of form, is very important. The danger is in applying it too broadly, in what I raised earlier as tailism, as a justification for what we’re already doing. That’s a danger that I would resist at one end. At the other end, I agree that it would be precipitous and still-born to try to implement a party in a historical-model kind of way.

RW: The institutional memory of a party is crucial; I think that its absence has led to a disastrous collapse in progressive thought. I stressed the Luxemburgian elements in Lukács, earlier. This is where Lukács critiques Luxemburg, rightly, because a party can form this institutional memory.

To address Andrew: we don’t really know what forces there are there. The act of forming or supporting the formation of parties is one of the ways we can find out. I refer back to what I said earlier about Lukács and his insistence that every position should try and develop its own organizational forms. That’s how we get to know. If we treat it as a purely sociological question, I think we risk falling back into the same reified standpoint of just collecting facts, rather than engaging in practice. Encouraging the development of parties, of institutional forms in various ways, is a way in which those oppositional forces can really come to be. Without that, the forces wind up less coherent and less aware of their opposition.

Without a push for the formation of a party, without a strong stance on a need for leadership, how can we apply these various theories practically to the working class? The conditions that existed in the 50s, 30s, or 20s are not what we have today. Without a party, without leadership, what hope do we have?

RW: I’d hesitate with that phrasing; it is dangerous to talk about applying theories to the working class. The leadership issue strikes at that. It was alluded to before, but I think the Tea Party is quite successful, for all of its obvious incoherencies and absurdities, precisely because of its lack of a leader and the dispensability of their totemic figures. There are voices, but there is no one leader, so there are a number of different Tea Parties. One of the reasons it’s so successful is that it is widespread, diffuse, and decentralized.

AF: Of course if we had a party that had authority and that was listened to, we’d be in much better shape. But how do you get there?

CC: What works for the Right cannot work for the Left. There’s a fundamental difference between the Right and the Left—that the Right thrives on incoherence in a way that the Left cannot. I would also say rather polemically, or in a jaundiced fashion, that the Tea Parties are the true children of the New Left.

The idea of theoretical leadership, in the sense of theory that is applied, is precisely something that the Marxist tradition wanted to overcome. That is what they understood as a “bourgeois” notion of theory or epistemology. Going all the way back to Kant, however, there was already the idea of a self-conscious practice: it’s not about the abstract application of theory to practice. Already with Kant—and there’s a continuity, I think, between Kant and Hegel and Marx—the point is to try to raise existing practices to self-consciousness. This is quite different from crafting a theory and applying it to reality.

Concluding remarks

AF: I think that the Left still lives under the horizon of demands and dissatisfactions that emerged in the 1960s and 70s. Movements like environmentalist movements, feminist movements, many other kinds of protest that have emerged in remote areas of society, such as medicine, come under the kinds of categories elaborated in the New Left to articulate these new kinds of dissatisfactions. That is the contribution that Marcuse made; Adorno and Horkheimer did not contribute to that because they viewed the New Left as a rather minor blip on the horizon. And I’m actually extremely puzzled by the eclipse of Marcuse’s thought on the Left and the rise of this new vision of the Frankfurt School as Benjamin, Adorno, and Horkheimer. To me, it signifies a certain lack of political seriousness that people pass over the only one who actually engaged with the kind of leftism that we are capable of today.

RW: I’d also like to conclude by responding to the “lack of political seriousness.” The reason for people like Adorno and Benjamin coming back is that much of the academic reception has been done in literature departments or it’s been done through cultural studies. I think the reason is precisely that there is a lack of direct engagement and direct activity. The importance of engagement and some form of practice, with some degree of leadership that one attributes to it—a theoretical form of praxis—is the crucial thing, I think.

CC: I would end with a bid to take Adorno seriously as a political thinker and not just as a literary figure. Certainly, he does say, “Music and art are what I know and so they are what I write about.” But he was being a bit falsely modest. His work made a very strong intervention in German sociology, introducing both American empirical sociological technique and the Durkheimian approach, as opposed to a Weberian approach, to the question of modernity and capital. In his correspondence with Marcuse in 1969, in which there was bitterness around the controversy stirred up by the New Left, Adorno says to Marcuse: “Look, it’s the Institute. It’s the same Institute. It’s our old Institute.” And Marcuse responds: “How could you possibly claim that the Institute in the 60s in the Federal Republic of Germany is what it was in the 30s?” To this Adorno could only say, “What about my books?” In other words, “What about the books that the Institute’s existence has allowed me to write?” That is, Adorno was a lone champion of Hegelian Marxism within German sociology and philosophy, as such his works are powerful statements about, and try to keep alive, the kind of insights that had been gained by the earlier Marxist tradition of Lukács and Korsch in the aftermath of the crisis of Marxism and the revolutions of the early twentieth century.

So I would defend Adorno against his devotees. The Adorno that flies in the humanities is a sanitized Adorno, a depoliticized Adorno, an Adorno with the Marxism screened out, or the Marxism turned into an ethical critique of society. Whereas I think Adorno has a lot more to say about the problem of theory and practice that is politically important. |P

Transcribed by Gabriel Gaster

Andrew Feenberg

[1] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “Towards a New Manifesto?” trans. Rodney Livingstone, New Left Review 65 (September–October 2010). Hereafter cited within the text.

[2] Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (New York: Grove Press, 1954), 51.

[3] Georg Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971 [1923]), 160.

[4] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, trans. Saul K. Padover. Originally published in 1852. Available online at <>.


Richard Westerman

[5] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971 [1923]), xli.

[6] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, ii.505: “Auch theoretisch handelt die kommunistische Partei nicht stellvertretend für das Proletariat.”

[7] Ibid., ii.496: “die voluntaristische Überschätzung der aktiven Bedeutung des Individuums (des Führers) und die fatalistische Unterschätzung der Bedeutung der Klasse (der Masse).”

[8] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 297-8.

[9] Ibid., 275.

[10] See, for example, Andrew Arato and Paul Breines, The Young Lukács and the Origins of Western Marxism (New York: Seabury, 1979).

[11] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, ii.504: “die organisatorische Selbständigkeit der kommunistischen Partei ist notwendig, damit das Proletariat sein eigenes Klassenbewußtsein, als geschichtliche Gestalt, unmittelbar erblicken könne; . . . damit für die ganze Klasse das eigene Dasein als Klasse ins Bewußtsein gehoben werde.”

[12] Ibid., ii.517: “das Entstehen der kommunistischen Partei nur das bewußt getane Werk der klassenbewußten Arbeiter sein kann.”

[13] Ibid., ii.515: “indem die kommunistische Partei zu einer Welt der Tätigkeit für jades ihrer Mitglieder wird, kann sie die Zuschauerrolle des bürgerlichen Menschen . . . wirklich überwinden.”

[14] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 299.


Chris Cutrone

[15] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “Towards a New Manifesto,” trans. Rodney Livingstone, New Left Review 65 (September–October 2010): 46. Hereafter cited within the text.

[16] Adorno to Horkheimer, March 21, 1936, quoted in Rolf Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance, trans. Michael Robertson (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994 [1986]), 266. Moreover, Adorno wrote that, “If one is concerned to achieve what might be possible with human beings, it is extremely difficult to remain friendly towards real people…a pretext for approving of precisely that element in people by which they prove themselves to be not merely their own victims but virtually their own hangmen.” See Adorno to Horkheimer, June 2, 1941, quoted in Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School, 268.

[17] Theodor W. Adorno, “Correspondence with Benjamin,” New Left Review I/81 (September-October 1973): 66-68.

[18] As Lenin wrote in “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder: “The most shameless careerism . . . and vulgar petty-bourgeois conservatism are all unquestionably common and prevalent features engendered everywhere by capitalism, not only outside but also within the working-class movement. . . . [T]he overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the conquest of political power by the proletariat — [creates] these very same difficulties on a still larger, an infinitely larger scale.” Available online at <>.

[19] Georg Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971 [1923]), 221n60.

[20] Herbert Marcuse, “33 Theses,” in Technology, War, and Fascism, ed. Douglas Kellner (New York: Routledge, 1998), 217, 226–227.

[21] Herbert Marcuse, Soviet Marxism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), 149.

[22] Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, “Diskussion über Theorie und Praxis” (1956), in Max Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 19, Nachträge, Verzeichnisse und Register (Frankfurt: S. Fischer, 1996), 71, quoted in Detlev Claussen, Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 233.

[23] Max Horkheimer, Dawn and Decline, Notes 1926-31 and 1950-69, trans. Michael Shaw (New York: Seabury, 1978), 50–52.

[24] Ibid., 72-73.

[25] See Chris Cutrone, “Lenin’s liberalism,” Platypus Review 36 (June 2011).

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 36 | June 2011

[Article PDF]  [Review PDF]  [Audio Recording]

At the 2011 Left Forum, held at Pace University in NYC between March 18-21 , Platypus hosted a conversation on “Lenin’s Marxism.” Panelists Chris Cutrone of Platypus, Paul LeBlanc of the International Socialist Organization, and Lars T. Lih, the author of Lenin Reconsidered: “What is to be Done” in Context were asked to address, “What was distinctive about Vladimir Lenin’s Marxism? What was its relationship to the other forms of Marxism and Marxists of his era? Was Lenin orthodox or heterodox? Was there a “unity” to Lenin’s political thought, as Georg Lukács argued, or do his major works—What is to Be Done? (1902), Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), The State and Revolution (1917), “Left-Wing Communism:” An Infantile Disorder? (1920)—express distinctive and even contradictory phases in Lenin’s political development? How did Lenin’s Marxism overcome—or not —other competing forms of Marxism? How should we understand Lenin’s historical contribution to Marxism, today?” An audio recording of the event is available at the above link. Our last issue (PR #35) included opening remarks by Paul LeBlanc, what follows below are Chris Cutrone’s opening remarks.


Lenin’s Marxist politics has been profoundly misconstrued and distorted, both positively and negatively, as supposedly having wanted to strip capitalist society of its deceptive veneer and assert the unadorned proletariat as the be-all and end-all of “socialist” society. Certainly not merely the later Stalinist history of the Soviet Union, but also practices of the Soviet state under Lenin’s leadership in the Civil War, so-called “War Communism,” and the Red Terror, lent themselves to a belief in Lenin as a ruthless destroyer of “bourgeois” conditions of life. But, then, what are we to make, for instance, of Lenin’s pamphlets on The State and Revolution and “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder? For they emphasized both the necessary persistence of “bourgeois right” among the workers in the long transition from socialism to communism, requiring the continuation of state mediation, and the fact that Marxists had understood their effort as trying to overcome capital “on the basis of capitalism” itself. A prime example of Lenin’s insistence on the mediation of politics in society was his opposition to Trotsky’s recommendation that labor unions be militarized and subsumed under the state. Lenin wanted to preserve, rather, the important non-identity of class, party, and state in the Soviet “workers’ state,” which he recognized as necessarily carrying on, for the foreseeable future, “state capitalism” (characterized by “bureaucratic deformations” due to Russian conditions). Lenin thus wanted to preserve the possibility of politics within the working class, a theme that reached back to his first major pamphlet, What is to be Done? Lenin’s “last struggle”[1] was to prevent the strangling of politics in the Soviet state, a danger he regarded not merely in terms of Stalin’s leadership, but the condition of the Bolsheviks more generally. For instance, Lenin critically noted Trotsky’s predilection for “administrative” solutions.

Georg Lukács, Karl Korsch, and Theodor Adorno, teasing out a “Hegelian” dimension to Lenin’s Marxism, derived from Lenin’s theoretical writings and political practice an elaboration of the Marxist theory of social mediation in capital, through the politics of proletarian socialism, that sought to recover Lenin from a bad utopian perspective of the desire to do away with politics altogether. Rather, such Marxist critical theory following Lenin understood overcoming the “alienation” and “reification” of capital as providing the possibility for the true practice of politics, a neglected but vital contribution Lenin made to the development of Marxism. Lenin did not attempt to destroy modern forms of political mediation, but rather to achieve the true mediation of theory and practice, in politics freed from society dominated by capital. This was the content of Lenin’s liberalism, his “dialectical” Marxist attempt, not to negate, but rather to fulfill the desiderata of bourgeois society, which capital had come to block, and which could only be worked through “immanently.”

The controversy about Lenin

Lenin is the most controversial figure in the history of Marxism, and perhaps one of the most controversial figures in all of history. As such, he is an impossible figure for sober consideration, without polemic. Nevertheless, it has become impossible, also, after Lenin, to consider Marxism without reference to him. Broadly, Marxism is divided into avowedly “Leninist” and “anti-Leninist” tendencies. In what ways was Lenin either an advance or a calamity for Marxism? But there is another way of approaching Lenin, which is as an expression of the historical crisis of Marxism. In other words, Lenin as a historical figure is unavoidably significant as manifesting a crisis of Marxism. The question is how Lenin provided the basis for advancing that crisis, how the polarization around Lenin could provide the basis for advancing the potential transformation of Marxism, in terms of resolving certain problems. What is clear from the various ways that Lenin is usually approached is that the necessity for such transformation and advance of Marxism has been expressed only in distorted ways. For instance, the question of Marxist “orthodoxy” hinders the proper evaluation of Lenin. There was a fundamental ambiguity in the way Marxism addressed its own historical crisis, in the question of fidelity to and revision of Marx, for instance in the so-called “Revisionist Dispute” of the late 19th century. Lenin was a leading anti-revisionist or “orthodox” Marxist. This was also true of other Second International radical Marxists, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky. In what ways did these figures, and above all Lenin, think that being true to Marx was required for the advancement and transformation of Marxism?

The Frankfurt School Critical Theorist Theodor Adorno, in his 1966 book Negative Dialectics, wrote of the degeneration of Marxism due to “dogmatization and thought-taboos.” There is no other figure in the history of Marxism who has been subject to such “dogmatization and thought-taboos” as much as Lenin. For Adorno, figures in the history of Marxism such as Lenin or Luxemburg or Kautsky should not be approached in terms merely of their theoretical perspectives or practical actions they took or advocated, but rather in their relation of theory and practice, or, why they thought they did what they did when they did so. As Adorno put it, theory and practice have a changing relation that “fluctuates” historically.[2]


Lenin: history not linear but spiral

Lenin, among other Marxists, thought that the political party served an important function with regard to consciousness, and wrote in What is to be Done? of the key “importance of the theoretical struggle” in forming such a party. Lenin thought that theory was not simply a matter of generalization from experience in terms of trial and error, as in traditional (pre-Kantian) epistemology, but, importantly, in the Hegelian “dialectical” sense of history: this is how Lenin understood “theory.” As Lenin put it, history did not advance in a line but rather in “spirals,” through repetitions and regressions, and not simple linear “progress.” In this respect, the past could be an advance on the present, or, the present could seek to attain moments of the past, but under changed conditions. And such changed conditions were themselves not to be regarded simply as “progressive.” Rather, there was an important ambivalence to history, in that it exhibited both progress and regress. In his 1915 Granat Encyclopedia entry on Karl Marx, describing “dialectics” from a Marxian perspective, Lenin wrote,

In our times, the idea of development, of evolution, has almost completely penetrated social consciousness, only in other ways, and not through Hegelian philosophy. Still, this idea, as formulated by Marx and Engels on the basis of Hegel’s philosophy, is far more comprehensive and far richer in content than the current idea of evolution is. A development that repeats, as it were, stages that have already been passed, but repeats them in a different way, on a higher basis (“the negation of the negation”), a development, so to speak, that proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes, and revolutions; “breaks in continuity”; the transformation of quantity into quality; inner impulses towards development, imparted by the contradiction and conflict of the various forces and tendencies acting on a given body, or within a given phenomenon, or within a given society; the interdependence and the closest and indissoluble connection between all aspects of any phenomenon (history constantly revealing ever new aspects), a connection that provides a uniform, and universal process of motion, one that follows definite laws—these are some of the features of dialectics as a doctrine of development that is richer than the conventional one.[3]

With Marxism, the “crisis” of bourgeois society was recognized. The crisis of bourgeois society circa 1848 was what Marx called “capital,” a provocative characterization. The spiral development through which Lenin, among other Second International radicals such as Luxemburg and Trotsky, thought that history in the modern era had regressed through the “progress” since Marx and Engels’s time in 1848, the moment of the Communist Manifesto, showed how and why the subsequent development of Marxism sought to re-attain 1848. Was history since 1848 progress or regress? In a certain sense, it was both. In this history, bourgeois society appeared to both fulfill and negate itself. In other words, bourgeois society had become more itself than ever; in other respects, however, it grew distant from its earlier achievements and even undermined them. (For instance, the recrudescence of slave labor in the decades leading up to the U.S. Civil War.) The Second International radicals thus sought to return to the original potential of bourgeois society in its first moment of crisis, circa 1848. As Karl Kraus put it, in a way that registered deeply with Walter Benjamin and Adorno, “Origin is the goal.”[4] Even though the crisis of capital or bourgeois society grew, the question was whether the crisis advanced. The Second International radicals recognized that while the crisis of capital, in Marx’s sense, grows, the crisis must be made to advance, as history does not progress automatically. It was in this sense that there was, potentially, a return of the 1848 moment in the development of Marxism itself, which was the attempt to make the growing crisis—what Luxemburg and Lenin called “imperialism,” and what Lenin termed capitalism’s “highest stage”—a historical advance.

The paradox of such development and transformation of Marxism itself through the return to the past moment of potential and resultant “crisis” was expressed well by Karl Korsch, who wrote, in his 1923 essay on “Marxism and Philosophy,”

[The] transformation and development of Marxist theory has been effected under the peculiar ideological guise of a return to the pure teaching of original or true Marxism. Yet it is easy to understand both the reasons for this guise and the real character of the process which is concealed by it. What theoreticians like Rosa Luxemburg in Germany and Lenin in Russia have done, and are doing, in the field of Marxist theory is to liberate it from the inhibiting traditions of [Social Democracy]. They thereby answer the practical needs of the new revolutionary stage of proletarian class struggle, for these traditions weighed “like a nightmare” on the brain of the working masses whose objectively revolutionary socioeconomic position no longer corresponded to these [earlier] evolutionary doctrines. The apparent revival of original Marxist theory in the Third International is simply a result of the fact that in a new revolutionary period not only the workers’ movement itself, but the theoretical conceptions of communists which express it, must assume an explicitly revolutionary form. This is why large sections of the Marxist system, which seemed virtually forgotten in the final decades of the nineteenth century, have now come to life again.[5]

So, what were these “revolutionary” aspects of Marxism that were recovered in the course of the “crisis of Marxism” (Korsch’s phrase), and how did Lenin help recover them?

Lenin and the political party

Lenin made a portentous but indicative remark in the first footnote to his book What is to be Done?, in which he stated that,

Incidentally, in the history of modern socialism [there] is a phenomenon… in its way very consoling, namely . . . the strife of the various trends within the socialist movement…. [In] the[se] disputes between Lassalleans and Eisenachers, between Guesdists and Possibilists, between Fabians and Social-Democrats, and between Narodnaya Volya adherents and Social-Democrats… really [an] international battle with socialist opportunism, [will] international revolutionary Social-Democracy… perhaps become sufficiently strengthened to put an end to the political reaction that has long reigned in Europe?[6]

In other words, could working through the issue of opportunist-reformist “revisionism” within Marxism be the means for overcoming capital? This would appear to be the self-centrality of Marxism taken to its fullest flower. But there was a rationale to this. Not only did Lenin (subsequent to What is to be Done?) want the Mensheviks thrown out of Russian Social Democracy (Lenin agreed with the Mensheviks on excluding the so-called “economistic” tendencies of Marxism and the Jewish Bund workers’ organizations), but a seldom remarked fact was that Luxemburg, too, wanted the reformist Revisionists thrown out of the German Social Democratic Party (Kautsky waffled on the issue). Lenin and Luxemburg wanted to split the Second International from its reformists (or, “opportunists”).

Lenin not only thought that splits, that is, political divisions, in the Left or the workers’ movement were possible and desirable, but also necessary. The only differences Lenin had with figures such as Luxemburg or Kautsky were over particular concrete instances in which such splits did or could or should have occurred. For instance, Luxemburg thought that the split in Russian Social Democracy in 1903 was premature and so did not concur with Lenin and the Bolsheviks on its benefits. And, importantly, the question was not merely over whether a political split could or should take place, but how, and, also, when. Politics was a historical phenomenon.

There is the specific question of the “party” as a form of politics. Marx and Engels had written in the Communist Manifesto that, “The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties.” So, this would appear to present a problem in the case of Lenin, who is notorious for the “party question.” But it poses a problem for the question of Marxism in general, for Marxism confronted other, opposed, political tendencies in the working class, for instance anarchism in the First International. What had changed between Marx and Engels’s time and Lenin’s?

As Marxists, Lenin and Luxemburg considered themselves to be vying for leadership of the social democratic workers’ movement and its political party; they didn’t simply identify with either the party or the movement, both of which originated independently of them. Both the workers’ movement and the social-democratic party would have existed without Marxism. For them, the party was an instrument, as was the workers’ movement itself. In responding to Eduard Bernstein’s remark that the “movement is everything, the goal nothing,” Luxemburg went so far as to say that without the goal of socialism the workers’ movement was nothing, or perhaps even worse than nothing, in that it exacerbated the problem of capitalism, for instance giving rise to the “imperialist” form of capitalism in the late 19th century. How were the social-democratic movement and its political parties understood by Marxists? For considering this, it is necessary to note well Marx’s critique of the Gotha Programme that had founded the German SPD and Engels’s subsequent critique of the Erfurt Programme that had made Marxism the official perspective of the Social Democratic Party. They critiqued these programmes because that’s what Marxists do: critique. No matter what had been written in these programmes, it was certain to elicit critiques from Marx and Engels.

The Marxists, that is, Marx and Engels, seem to have reluctantly gone along with the formation of a permanent party of social democracy, but not without serious reservations and caveats. The endorsement of party politics was provisional and conditional. For instance, in 1917, Lenin himself threatened to quit the Bolshevik party. Lenin thought that he could quit the party and continue to lead the revolution, that he would quit the party in order to lead the revolution.

Luxemburg’s biographer, British political scientist J.P. Nettl, traced the question of the social-democratic party to a set of problematic conceptions, all of which were challenged in practice and theory by the radical Left in the Second International, in figures such as Luxemburg and Lenin. The party could be conceived as an interest-aggregator and pressure-group on the state, advancing the interests of the working class. Or it could be conceived, as it was most overtly by its leadership, under its organizational leader August Bebel and its leading theorist Karl Kautsky, as a “state within the state,” or what Nettl termed an “inheritor party,” aiming to take power.[7] Involved in the latter was a theory not only of revolution but also of socialism, both of which were problematical. Specifically troublesome was the idea of building up the working class’s own organization within capitalism so that when its final crisis came, political power would fall into the hands of the social democrats, who had organized the working class in anticipation of such an eventuality. But these were conceptions that were challenged and critiqued, not only by later radicals such as Luxemburg and Lenin, but also by Marx and Engels themselves. Marxists such as Marx and Engels and Lenin and Luxemburg were, rightly, deeply suspicious of the social-democratic party as a permanent political institution of the working class.

The problem of party-politics

To situate this discussion properly, it is important to return to the classical liberal scorn for political parties. There was no term of political contempt greater than “party man,” or “partisan” politics, which violated not only the value of individuals thinking for themselves but also, perhaps more importantly, the very notion of politics in the liberal-democratic conception, especially with regard to the distinction between the state and civil society. Whereas the state was compulsory, civil society institutions were voluntary. While political parties, as forms of association, could be considered civil society organizations, the articulation of such formations with political power in the state struck classical liberal thinkers as particularly dangerous. Hegel, for one, explicitly preferred hereditary monarchy over democracy as a form of executive authority, precisely because it was free of such a problem. For Hegel, civil society would remain more free under a monarchy than under democracy, in which he thought political authority could be distorted by private interests. The danger lay in the potential for a civil society group to capture state power in its narrow, private interests. Moreover, in the classical liberal tradition, the idea of the professional “politician” was severely objectionable; rather, state-political figures rose through other civil society institutions, as entrepreneurs, professors, priests, etc., and only reluctantly took on the duty of public office: “It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.”

This problem of modern politics and its forms recurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to thinkers such as Robert Michels, a student and associate of Max Weber, similarly concerned with the problem of modern “bureaucracy,” who, in a landmark study, compared the German SPD to the Democratic Party in the U.S., specifically with regard to the issue of the “party machine,” with its “ward bosses,” or machine-party politics, and the resulting tendency towards what Michels called “oligarchy.” Michels had been a member of the SPD, in its radical wing, until 1907. (Michels, who also studied the Socialist Party in Italy, went on to join Italian fascism under the former Socialist Benito Mussolini, because he thought fascism was a solution to the problem of “bureaucracy,” but that’s another story.) So the problem of party-politics was a well-known issue in Lenin’s time. For Second International radical Marxists such as Luxemburg and Lenin, the workers’ social-democratic party was not to be an interest-aggregator and permanent political institution of social power like the Democratic Party in the U.S. (which ultimately became the party of the labor unions). What, then, was the function of the social-democratic party, for figures such as Lenin and Luxemburg?

Obviously, Lenin’s concerns with politics were not the same as those of liberals, who sought to prevent the ossification of political authority from stymieing the dynamism of civil society in capitalism. For Lenin’s concern was above all with revolution, that is, fundamental social transformation. But was the issue of politics thus so different in Lenin’s case? This raises the important issue of how social revolution and transformation were related to “politics,” in the modern sense. That is, whether Lenin was interested in the “end” of politics as conceived in liberalism and practiced under capitalism, or instead concerned with overcoming the obstacle to the practice of politics that capitalism had become. How was overcoming the social problem capitalism had become a new beginning for the true practice of politics? In this sense, it is important to address how political mediation was brought into being but ultimately shaped and distorted by the modern society of capital, especially after the Industrial Revolution.

“Politics” is a modern phenomenon. Modern politics is conditioned by the crisis of capital in modern history. Traditional civilization, prior to the bourgeois, capitalist epoch, was subject to crises that could only be considered natural or divine in origin. Modern society is subject, for Marxists (as well as for liberals), rather, to human-made crisis thus potentially subject to politics. Bourgeois politics indeed responds to the permanent crisis of capitalism—in a sense, that’s all it does—but in inadequate terms, naturalizing aspects of capitalism that should be regarded as changeable, but can only be so regarded, for Marxists, as radically and consistently changeable, from a proletarian or working-class socialist perspective. Thus, modern politics has been haunted by the “specter of communism,” or socialism. As Marx put it, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “Every demand of the simplest bourgeois financial reform, of the most ordinary liberalism, of the most formal republicanism, of the most insipid democracy, is . . . stigmatized as ‘socialism.’”[8]

Furthermore, the concrete meaning of socialism or communism is subject to change. For Marxists, the demand for socialism in the 19th century was itself an engine of capitalist development, historically. The story of socialism, then, is bound up with the development of capital, and the question of whether and how its crisis was growing and advancing.

Moreover, the question of party-politics per se is a post-1848 phenomenon, in which modern socialism was bound up. In other words, the crisis of bourgeois society in capital after the Industrial Revolution and the failure of the “social republic” in 1848, was the crisis of bourgeois society as liberal. The rise of party-politics was thus a feature of the growing authoritarianism of bourgeois society, or, the failure of liberalism. As such, socialism needed to take up the problems of bourgeois society in capital that liberalism had failed to anticipate or adequately meet, or, to take up the cause of liberalism that bourgeois politics had dropped in the post-1848 world. For Marx, the problem was found most saliently in Louis Bonaparte’s popular authoritarianism against the liberals in Second Republic France, culminating in the coup d’état and establishment of the Second Empire. As Marx put it, the capitalists were no longer and the workers not yet able, politically, to master the bourgeois society of capital. Party-politics was thus bound up with the historical phenomenon of Bonapartism.

Lenin and the crisis of Marxism

The period of close collaboration between Luxemburg and Lenin around the 1905 Russian Revolution saw Luxemburg leveling a critique of the relation that had developed between the social-democratic party and the labor unions in her pamphlet on The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions. (Also, during this time Luxemburg wrote a defense of Lenin against the Menshevik charge of “Blanquism,” which she called “pedantic,” and thought said more of the reformist opportunism of those leveling the charge against Lenin than about its target.[9]) In her Mass Strike pamphlet, Luxemburg delineated specific and non-identical roles for the various elements she mentioned in her title, that is to say, general strike committees, political parties, and labor unions (not mentioned specifically were the “soviets,” or workers’ councils). In this sense, the “mass strike” was for Luxemburg a symptom of the historical development and crisis of social democracy itself. This made it a political and not merely tactical issue. That is, for Luxemburg, the mass strike was a phenomenon of how social democracy had developed its political parties and labor unions, and what new historical necessities had thus been brought into being. Luxemburg’s pamphlet was, above all, a critique of the social-democratic party, which she regarded as a historical symptom. This was prefigured in Luxemburg’s earlier pamphlet on Reform or Revolution?, where she addressed the question of the raison d’être of the social-democratic movement (the combination of political party and labor unions).

From this perspective of regarding the history of the workers’ movement and Marxism itself as intrinsic to the history of capitalism, then, it becomes possible to make sense of Lenin’s further articulations of politics in his later works, The State and Revolution and “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, as well as in the political disputes that attended the young Soviet state that had issued from the Russian Revolution and had endured the Civil War and stabilization of international capitalism in the aftermath of WWI. Lenin maintained a strictly minimal conception of the state, restricting it to the monopoly of authority for the exercise of force, precisely in order to avoid an all-encompassing conception of the state as the be-all and end-all of politics. Similarly, Lenin deemed “infantile” the impatience of supposed radicals with existing forms of political mediation, such as parliaments, stating unequivocally that while Marxism may have “theoretically” surpassed a liberal conception of the state, this had not yet been achieved “politically,” that is, in practice. In response to Trotsky’s recommendation that labor unions be militarized in the Soviet state, Lenin maintained that unions needed to remain independent not only of the state, but also of the Communist Party itself. The workers needed the ability, according to Lenin, of asserting their rights against the party and the state. Lenin recognized the necessity of an articulated non-identity of state, political parties, and other voluntary civil society institutions such as labor unions. This was grounded in Lenin’s perspective that capitalist social relations could not be abolished in one stroke through political revolution, that, even though the state had been “smashed,” it was reconstituted, not on the basis of a new social principle, but on the continuation of what Lenin called “bourgeois right,” long after the political overthrow and even social elimination of a separate capitalist class. “Bourgeois right” persisted precisely among the workers (and other previously subordinate members of society) and so necessarily governed their social relations, necessitating a state that could thus only “wither away.” Politics could be only slowly transformed.

Finally, there is the question of Adorno’s continued adherence to Lenin, despite what at first glance may appear to be some jarring contradictions with respect to Lenin’s own perspective and political practice. For instance, in a late essay from 1969, “Critique,” Adorno praised the U.S. Constitutional system of “divisions of powers” and “checks and balances” as essential to preserving the critical function of reason in the exercise of political authority.[10] But this was an example for Adorno, and not necessarily to be hypostatized as such. The making common of executive and legislative authority in the “soviet” system of “workers’ councils” was understood by Lenin, as Adorno well knew, to coexist with separate civil society organizations such as political parties, labor unions and other voluntary groups, and so did not necessarily and certainly did not intentionally violate the critical role of political mediation at various levels of society.

It has been a fundamental mistake to conflate and confuse Lenin’s model of party politics for a form of state in pursuing socialism. Lenin presupposed their important non-identity. The party was meant to be one element among many mediating factors in society and politics. Moreover, Lenin’s party was meant to be one among many parties, including multiple parties of the working class, vying for its adherence, and even multiple “Marxist” parties, differing in their relation of theory and practice, or means and ends.

By contrast, there was nothing so repressive and authoritarian as the Kautskyan (or Bebelian) social-democratic “party of the whole class” (or, the “one class, one party” model of social democracy, that is, that since the capitalists are of one interest in confronting the workers, the workers need to be unified against the capitalists). The social-democratic party, after all, waged the counterrevolution against Lenin and Luxemburg.

Lenin preserved politics by splitting Marxism. For this, Lenin has never been forgiven. But, precisely for this, Lenin needs to be remembered. |P

[1]. Moshe Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005).

[2]. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973), 143.

[3]. Lenin, Karl Marx: A Brief Biographical Sketch with an Exposition of Marxism, II. “The Marxist Doctrine,” in Lenin, Collected Works vol. 21 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974). Originally published in 1915. Available on-line at: <>.

[4]. Cited by Benjamin in “On the Concept of History,” Selected Writings vol. 4 1938–40 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2003), 395.

[5]. Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy,” in Marxism and Philosophy, ed. and trans. Fred Halliday (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008), 67–68.

[6]. Lenin, What Is to Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement (1902), available on-line at: <>.

[7]. Peter Nettl, "The German Social Democratic Party 1890-1914 as Political Model," Past and Present 30 (April 1965).

[8]. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in Robert Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader 2nd edition (New York: Norton, 1978), 602.

[9]. Rosa Luxemburg, "Blanquism and Social Democracy" (1906). Available on-line at:

[10]. Adorno, "Critique," Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

Book review: Gillian Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology. London: Verso, 2009.

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 21 | March 2010


GILLIAN ROSE’S MAGNUM OPUS was her second book, Hegel Contra Sociology (1981).[1] Preceding this was The Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno (1978), a work which charted Rose’s approach to the relation of Marxism to Hegel in Hegel Contra Sociology.[2] Alongside her monograph on Adorno, Rose published two incisively critical reviews of the reception of Adorno’s work.[3] Rose thus established herself early on as an important interrogator of Adorno’s thought and Frankfurt School Critical Theory more generally, and of their problematic reception.

Gillian-Rose-233x300 (1)

Gillian Rose (1947–1995), professor and philosopher.

In her review of Negative Dialectics, Rose noted, “Anyone who is involved in the possibility of Marxism as a mode of cognition sui generis . . . must read Adorno’s book.”[4] As she wrote in her review of contemporaneous studies on the Frankfurt School,

Both the books reviewed here indict the Frankfurt School for betraying a Marxist canon; yet they neither make any case for the importance of the School nor do they acknowledge the question central to that body of work: the possibility and desirability of defining such a canon.  As a result both books overlook the relation of the Frankfurt School to Marx for which they are searching. . . .  They have taken the writings [of Horkheimer, Benjamin and Adorno] literally but not seriously enough.  The more general consequences of this approach are also considerable: it obscures instead of illuminating the large and significant differences within Marxism.[5]

Rose’s critique can be said of virtually all the reception of Frankfurt School Critical Theory.

Rose followed her work on Adorno with Hegel Contra Sociology.  The book’s original dust jacket featured a blurb by Anthony Giddens, Rose’s mentor and the doyen of sociology, who called it “a very unusual piece of work . . . whose significance will take some time to sink in.”  As Rose put it in The Melancholy Science, Adorno and other thinkers in Frankfurt School Critical Theory sought to answer for their generation the question Marx posed (in the 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts), “How do we now stand as regards the Hegelian dialectic?”[6] For Rose, this question remained a standing one.  Hence, Rose’s work on the problem of “Hegelian Marxism” comprised an important critique of the Left of her time that has only increased in resonance since then.

Rose sought to recover Hegel from readings informed by 20th century neo-Kantian influences, and from what she saw as the failure to fully grasp Hegel’s critique of Kant.  Where Kant could be seen as the bourgeois philosopher par excellence, Rose took Hegel to be his most important and unsurpassed critic.  Hegel provided Rose with the standard for critical thinking on social modernity, whose threshold she found nearly all others to fall below, including thinkers she otherwise respected such as Adorno and Marx.

Rose read Marx as an important disciple of Hegel who, to her mind, nevertheless, misapprehended key aspects of Hegel’s thought.  According to Rose, this left Marxism at the mercy of prevailing Kantian preoccupations.  As she put it, “When Marx is not self-conscious about his relation to Hegel’s philosophy . . . [he] captures what Hegel means by actuality or spirit.  But when Marx desires to dissociate himself from Hegel’s actuality . . . he relies on and affirms abstract dichotomies between being and consciousness, theory and practice, etc.” (230–231).  In offering this Hegelian critique of Marx and Marxism, however, Rose actually fulfilled an important desideratum of Adorno’s Marxist critical theory, which was to attend to what was “not yet subsumed,” or, how a regression of Marxism could be met by a critique from the standpoint of what “remained” from Hegel.

In his deliberate recovery of what Rose characterized as Marx’s “capturing” of Hegel’s “actuality or spirit,” Adorno was preceded by the “Hegelian Marxists” Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch.  The “regressive” reading proposed by Adorno[7] that could answer Rose would involve reading Adorno as presupposing Lukács and Korsch, who presupposed the revolutionary Marxism of Lenin and Luxemburg, who presupposed Marx, who presupposed Hegel.  Similarly, Adorno characterized Hegel as “Kant come into his own.”[8] From Adorno’s perspective, the Marxists did not need to rewrite Marx, nor did Marx need to rewrite Hegel.  For Adorno the recovery of Marx by the Marxists — and of Hegel by Marx — was a matter of further specification and not simple “progress.”  This involved problematization, perhaps, but not overcoming in the sense of leaving behind.[9] Marx did not seek to overcome Hegel, but rather was tasked to advance and fulfill his concerns.  This comports well with Rose’s approach to Hegel, which she in fact took over, however unconsciously, from her prior study of Adorno, failing to follow what Adorno assumed about Marxism in this regard.

Two parts of Hegel Contra Sociology frame its overall discussion of the challenge Hegel’s thought presents to the critical theory of society: a section in the introductory chapter on what Rose calls the “Neo-Kantian Marxism” of Lukács and Adorno and the concluding section on “The Culture and Fate of Marxism.”  The arguments condensed in these two sections of Rose’s book comprise one of the most interesting and challenging critiques of Marxism.  However, Rose’s misunderstanding of Marxism limits the direction and reach of the rousing call with which she concluded her book: “This critique of Marxism itself yields the project of a critical Marxism. . . .  [P]resentation of the contradictory relations between Capital and culture is the only way to link the analysis of the economy to comprehension of the conditions for revolutionary practice” (235).  Yet Rose’s critique of Marxism, especially of Lukács and Adorno, and of Marx himself, misses its mark.

One problem regarding Rose’s critique of Marxism is precisely her focus on Marxism as a specifically “philosophical” problem, as a problem more of thought than of action.  As Lukács’s contemporary Karl Korsch pointed out in “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923), by the late 19th century historians such as Dilthey had observed that “ideas contained in a philosophy can live on not only in philosophies, but equally well in positive sciences and social practice, and that this process precisely began on a large scale with Hegel’s philosophy.”[10] For Korsch, this meant that “philosophical” problems in the Hegelian sense were not matters of theory but practice.  From a Marxian perspective, however, it is precisely the problem of capitalist society that is posed at the level of practice.  Korsch went on to argue that “what appears as the purely ‘ideal’ development of philosophy in the 19th century can in fact only be fully and essentially grasped by relating it to the concrete historical development of bourgeois society as a whole.”[11] Korsch’s great insight, shared by Lukács, took this perspective from Luxemburg and Lenin, who grasped how the history of Marxism was a key part, indeed the crucial aspect, of this development, at the time of their writing in the first years of the 20th century.[12]

The most commented-upon essay of Lukács’s collection History and Class Consciousness (1923) is “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” written specifically as the centerpiece of the book, but drawing upon arguments made in the book’s other essays.  Like many readers of Lukács, Rose focused her critique in particular on Lukács’s argument in the second part of his “Reification” essay, “The Antinomies of Bourgeois Thought,” neglecting that its “epistemological” investigation of philosophy is only one moment in a greater argument, which culminates in the most lengthy and difficult third part of Lukács’s essay, “The Standpoint of the Proletariat.”  But it is in this part of the essay that Lukács addressed how the Marxist social-democratic workers’ movement was an intrinsic part of what Korsch had called the “concrete historical development of bourgeois society as a whole,” in which its “philosophical” problem lived.  The “philosophical” problem Korsch and Lukács sought to address was the “dialectic” of the political practice of the working class, how it actually produced and did not merely respond to the contradictions and potentially revolutionary crisis of capitalist society.  It is because of Rose’s failure to grasp this point that her criticism of Marx, Lukács, and Adorno amounts to nothing more than an unwitting recapitulation of Lukács’s own critique of what he called “vulgar Marxism,” and what Adorno called “positivism” or “identity thinking.”  Lukács and Adorno, following Lenin and Luxemburg, attempted to effect a return to what Korsch called “Marx’s Marxism.”

In examining Rose’s critique of Lukács, Adorno, and Marx, and in responding to Rose’s Hegelian interrogation of their supposed deficits, it becomes possible to recover what is important about and unifies their thought.  Rose’s questions about Marxism are those that any Marxian approach must answer to demonstrate its necessity — its “improved version,” as Lukács put it, of the “Hegelian original” dialectic.[13]

The problem of Marxism as Hegelian “science”

In the final section of Hegel Contra Sociology, in the conclusion of the chapter “With What Must the Science End?” titled “The Culture and Fate of Marxism,” Rose addresses Marx directly.  Here, Rose states that,

Marx did not appreciate the politics of Hegel’s presentation, the politics of a phenomenology [logic of appearance] which aims to re-form consciousness . . . [and] acknowledges the actuality which determines the formation of consciousness. . . .  Marx’s notion of political education was less systematic than [Hegel’s]. (232–233)

One issue of great import for Rose’s critique of Marxism is the status of Hegel’s philosophy as “speculative.”  As Rose wrote,

Marx’s reading of Hegel overlooks the discourse or logic of the speculative proposition.  He refuses to see the lack of identity in Hegel’s thought, and therefore tries to establish his own discourse of lack of identity using the ordinary proposition.  But instead of producing a logic or discourse of lack of identity he produced an ambiguous dichotomy of activity/nature which relies on a natural beginning and an utopian end. (231)

Rose explicated this “lack of identity in Hegel’s thought” as follows:

Hegel knew that his thought would be misunderstood if it were read as [a] series of ordinary propositions which affirm an identity between a fixed subject and contingent accidents, but he also knew that, like any thinker, he had to present his thought in propositional form.  He thus proposed . . . a “speculative proposition.” . . .  To read a proposition “speculatively” means that the identity which is affirmed between subject and predicate is seen equally to affirm a lack of identity between subject and predicate. . . .  From this perspective the “subject” is not fixed: . . .  Only when the lack of identity between subject and predicate has been experienced, can their identity be grasped. . . .  Thus it cannot be said, as Marx, for example, said [in his Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right” (1843)], that the speculative proposition turns the predicate into the subject and therefore hypostatizes predicates, just like the ordinary proposition hypostatizes the subject. . . . [Hegel’s] speculative proposition is fundamentally opposed to [this] kind of formal identity. (51–53)

Rose may be correct about Marx’s 1843 critique of Hegel.  She severely critiqued Marx’s 1845 “Theses on Feuerbach” on the same score (230).  What this overlooks is Marx’s understanding of the historical difference between his time and Hegel’s.  Consequently, it neglects Marx’s differing conception of “alienation” as a function of the Industrial Revolution, in which the meaning of the categories of bourgeois society, of the commodity form of labor, had become reversed.

Rose’s failure to register the change in meaning of “alienation” for Marx compromised her reading of Lukács:

[M]aking a distinction between underlying process and resultant objectifications[,] Lukács was able to avoid the conventional Marxist treatment of capitalist social forms as mere “superstructure” or “epiphenomena;” legal, bureaucratic and cultural forms have the same status as the commodity form.  Lukács made it clear that “reification” is the specific capitalist form of objectification.  It determines the structure of all the capitalist social forms. . . .  [T]he process-like essence (the mode of production) attains a validity from the standpoint of the totality. . . .  [Lukács’s approach] turned . . . away from a logic of identity in the direction of a theory of historical mediation.  The advantage of this approach was that Lukács opened new areas of social life to Marxist analysis and critique. . . .  The disadvantage was that Lukács omitted many details of Marx’s theory of value. . . .  As a result “reification” and “mediation” become a kind of shorthand instead of a sustained theory.  A further disadvantage is that the sociology of reification can only be completed by a speculative sociology of the proletariat as the subject-object of history. (30–31)

However, for Lukács the proletariat is not a Hegelian subject-object of history but a Marxian one.[14] Lukács did not affirm history as the given situation of the possibility of freedom in the way Hegel did.  Rather, following Marx, Lukács treated historical structure as a problem to be overcome.  History was not to be grasped as necessary, as Hegel affirmed against his contemporaries’ Romantic despair at modernity.  Rose mistakenly took Lukács’s critique of capital to be Romantic, subject to the aporiae Hegel had characterized in the “unhappy consciousness.”  Rose therefore misinterpreted Lukács’s revolutionism as a matter of “will”:[15]

Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness is an attempt to give [Marx’s] Capital a phenomenological form: to read Marx’s analysis of capital as the potential consciousness of a universal class.  But Lukács’s emphasis on change in consciousness as per se revolutionary, separate from the analysis of change in capitalism, gives his appeal to the proletariat or the party the status of an appeal to a . . . will. (233)

Nonetheless, Rose found aspects of Lukács’s understanding of Marx compelling, in a “Hegelian” sense:

The question of the relation between Capital and politics is thus not an abstract question about the relation between theory and practice, but a phenomenological question about the relationship between acknowledgement of actuality and the possibility of change.  This is why the theory of commodity fetishism, the presentation of a contradiction between substance and subject, remains more impressive than any abstract statements about the relation between theory and practice or between capitalist crisis and the formation of revolutionary consciousness.  It acknowledges actuality and its misrepresentation as consciousness. (233)

What is missing from Rose’s critique of Lukács, however, is how he offered a dialectical argument, precisely through forms of misrecognition (“misrepresentation”).[16]

This is why the theory of commodity fetishism has become central to the neo-Marxist theory of domination, aesthetics, and ideology.  The theory of commodity fetishism is the most speculative moment in Marx’s exposition of capital.  It comes nearest to demonstrating in the historically specific case of commodity producing society how substance is ((mis-)represented as) subject, how necessary illusion arises out of productive activity. (232)

However, the contradiction of capital is not merely between “substance and subject,” but rather a self-contradictory social substance, value, which gives rise to a self-contradictory subject.[17]

Rose’s critique of the “sociological” Marxism of Lukács and Adorno

Rose’s misconstrual of the status of proletarian social revolution in the self-understanding of Marxism led her to regard Lukács and Adorno’s work as “theoretical” in the restricted sense of mere analysis.  Rose denied the dialectical status of Lukács and Adorno’s thought by neglecting the question of how a Marxian approach, from Lukács and Adorno’s perspective, considered the workers’ movement for emancipation as itself symptomatic of capital.  Following Marx, Lukács and Adorno regarded Marxism as the organized historical self-consciousness of the social politics of the working class that potentially points beyond capital.[18] Rose limited Lukács and Adorno’s concerns regarding “misrecognition,” characterizing their work as “sociological”:

The thought of Lukács and Adorno represent two of the most original and important attempts . . . [at] an Hegelian Marxism, but it constitutes a neo-Kantian Marxism. . . .  They turned the neo-Kantian paradigm into a Marxist sociology of cultural forms . . . with a selective generalization of Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. (29)

But, according to Rose, this “sociological” analysis of the commodity form remained outside its object:

In the essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” in History and Class Consciousness, Lukács generalizes Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism by making a distinction between the total process of production, “real life-processes,” and the resultant objectifications of social forms.  This notion of “objectification” has more in common with the neo-Kantian notion of the objectification of specific object-domains than with an “Hegelian” conflating of objectification, human praxis in general, with alienation, its form in capitalist society. (30)

Rose thought that Lukács thus undermined his own account of potential transformation: “Lukács’s very success in demonstrating the prevalence of reification . . . meant that he could only appeal to the proletariat to overcome reification by apostrophes to the unity of theory and practice, or by introducing the party as deus ex machina” (31).  In this respect, Rose failed to note how Lukács, and Adorno following him, had deeply internalized the Hegelian problematic of Marxism, how Marxism was not the (mis)application but the reconstruction of the Hegelian dialectic under the changed social-historical conditions of capital.  For Rose, Lukács’s concept of “reification” was too negative regarding the “totality” of capital, which she thought threatened to render capital non-dialectical, and its emancipatory transformation inconceivable.  But Rose’s perspective remains that of Hegel — pre-industrial capital.

Hegel contra sociology — the “culture” and “fate” of Marxism

Just before she died in 1995, Rose wrote a new Preface for a reprint of Hegel Contra Sociology, which states that,

The speculative exposition of Hegel in this book still provides the basis for a unique engagement with post-Hegelian thought, especially postmodernity, with its roots in Heideggerianism. . . .  [T]he experience of negativity, the existential drama, is discovered at the heart of Hegelian rationalism. . . .  Instead of working with the general question of the dominance of Western metaphysics, the dilemma of addressing modern ethics and politics without arrogating the authority under question is seen as the ineluctable difficulty in Hegel. . . .  This book, therefore, remains the core of the project to demonstrate a nonfoundational and radical Hegel, which overcomes the opposition between nihilism and rationalism.  It provides the possibility for renewal of critical thought in the intellectual difficulty of our time. (viii)

Since the time of Rose’s book, with the passage of Marxist politics into history, the “intellectual difficulty” in renewing critical thought has only gotten worse.  “Postmodernity” has not meant the eclipse or end, but rather the unproblematic triumph, of “Western metaphysics” — in the exhaustion of “postmodernism.”[19] Consideration of the problem Rose addressed in terms of the Hegelian roots of Marxism, the immanent critique of capitalist modernity, remains the “possibility” if not the “actuality” of our time.  Only by facing it squarely can we avoid sharing in Marxism’s “fate” as a “culture.”  For this “fate,” the devolution into “culture,” or what Rose called “pre-bourgeois society” (234), threatens not merely a form of politics on the Left, but humanity: it represents the failure to attain let alone transcend the threshold of Hegelian modernity, whose concern Rose recovered. |P

[1]. Gillian Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology (London: Verso, 2009).  Originally published by Athlone Press, London in 1981.

[2]. Rose, The Melancholy Science (London: Macmillan, 1978).

[3]. See Rose’s review of the English translation of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics (1973) in The American Political Science Review 70.2 (June, 1976), 598–599; and of Susan Buck-Morss’s The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt Institute (1977) and Zoltán Tar’s The Frankfurt School: The Critical Theories of Horkheimer and Adorno (1977) in History and Theory 18.1 (February, 1979), 126–135.

[4]. Rose, Review of Negative Dialectics, 599.

[5]. Rose, Review of The Origin of Negative Dialectics and The Frankfurt School, 126, 135.

[6]. Rose, The Melancholy Science, 2.

[7]. See, for instance, Adorno, “Progress” (1962), and “Critique” (1969), in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 143–160 and 281–288.

[8]. Adorno, “Aspects of Hegel’s Philosophy,” in Hegel: Three Studies, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), 6.

[9]. See Georg Lukács, Preface (1922), History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (1923), trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971):

The author of these pages . . . believes that today it is of practical importance to return in this respect to the traditions of Marx-interpretation founded by Engels (who regarded the “German workers’ movement” as the “heir to classical German philosophy”), and by Plekhanov.  He believes that all good Marxists should form, in Lenin’s words “a kind of society of the materialist friends of the Hegelian dialectic.” But Hegel’s position today is the reverse of Marx’s own.  The problem with Marx is precisely to take his method and his system as we find them and to demonstrate that they form a coherent unity that must be preserved.  The opposite is true of Hegel.  The task he imposes is to separate out from the complex web of ideas with its sometimes glaring contradictions all the seminal elements of his thought and rescue them as a vital intellectual force for the present. (xlv)

[10]. Karl Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923), in Marxism and Philosophy trans. Fred Halliday (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970 and 2008), 39.

[11]. Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy,” 40.

[12]. See, for instance: Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution? (1900), in which Luxemburg pointed out that all reforms aimed at ameliorating the crisis of capital actually exacerbated it; Vladimir Lenin, What is to be Done? (1902), in which Lenin supposed that overcoming reformist “revisionism” in international (Marxist) social democracy would amount to and be the express means for overcoming capitalism; and Leon Trotsky, Results and Prospects (1906), in which Trotsky pointed out that the various “prerequisites of socialism” not only developed historically independently but also, significantly, antagonistically.  In The State and Revolution (1917), Lenin, following Marx, critiqued anarchism for calling for the “abolition” of the state and not recognizing that the necessity of the state could only “wither away” as a function of the gradual overcoming of “bourgeois right” whose prevalence would persist in the revolutionary socialist “workers’ state” long after the overthrow of the bourgeoisie: the state would continue as a symptom of capitalist social relations without capitalists per se.  In Literature and Revolution (1924), Trotsky pointed out that, as symptomatic products of present society, the cultural and even political expressions of the revolution could not themselves embody the principles of an emancipated society but could, at best, only open the way to them.  For Lukács and Korsch (and Benjamin and Adorno following them — see Benjamin’s 1934 essay on “The Author as Producer,” in Reflections, trans. Edmund Jephcott [New York: Schocken, 1986], 220–238), such arguments demonstrated a dialectical approach to Marxism itself on the part of its most thoughtful actors.

[13]. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, xlvi.  Citing Lukács in her review of Buck-Morss and Tar on the Frankfurt School, Rose posed the problem of Marxism this way:

The reception of the Frankfurt School in the English-speaking world to date displays a paradox.  Frequently, the Frankfurt School inspires dogmatic historiography although it represents a tradition which is attractive and important precisely because of its rejection of dogmatic or “orthodox” Marxism.  This tradition in German Marxism has its origin in Lukács’s most un-Hegelian injunction to take Marxism as a “method” — a method which would remain valid even if “every one of Marx’s individual theses” were proved wrong.  One can indeed speculate whether philosophers like Bloch, Benjamin, Horkheimer, and Adorno would have become Marxists if Lukács had not pronounced thus.  For other Marxists this position spells scientific “suicide.” (Rose, Review of The Origin of Negative Dialectics and The Frankfurt School, 126.)

Nevertheless, Rose used a passage from Lukács’s 1924 book in eulogy, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought as the epigraph for her essay: “[T]he dialectic is not a finished theory to be applied mechanically to all the phenomena of life but only exists as theory in and through this application” (126).  Critically, Rose asked only that Lukács’s own work — and that of other “Hegelian” Marxists — remain true to this observation.

[14]. See Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” 171–175:

The class meaning of [the thoroughgoing capitalist rationalization of society] lies precisely in the fact that the bourgeoisie regularly transforms each new qualitative gain back onto the quantitative level of yet another rational calculation.  Whereas for the proletariat, the “same” development has a different class meaning: it means the abolition of the isolated individual, it means that the workers can become conscious of the social character of labor, it means that the abstract, universal form of the societal principle as it is manifested can be increasingly concretized and overcome. . . .  For the proletariat however, this ability to go beyond the immediate in search for the “remoter” factors means the transformation of the objective nature of the objects of action.

The “objective nature of the objects of action” includes that of the working class itself.

[15]. Such misapprehension of revolutionary Marxism as voluntarism has been commonplace.  Rosa Luxemburg’s biographer, the political scientist J. P. Nettl, in the essay “The German Social Democratic Party 1890–1914 as Political Model” (in Past and Present 30 [April 1965], 65–95), addressed this issue as follows:

Rosa Luxemburg was emphatically not an anarchist and went out of her way to distinguish between “revolutionary gymnastic,” which was “conjured out of the air at will,” and her own policy (see her 1906 pamphlet on The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions). . . .  [Later Communist historians have burdened her] with the concept of spontaneity. . . .  [But her’s] was a dynamic, dialectic doctrine; organization and action revived each other and made each other grow. . . .  It may well be that there were underlying similarities to anarchism, insofar as any doctrine of action resembles any other.  A wind of action and movement was blowing strongly around the edges of European culture at the time, both in art and literature as well as in the more political context of Sorel and the Italian Futurists. . . .  [But] most important of all, Rosa Luxemburg specifically drew on a Russian experience [of the 1905 Revolution] which differed sharply from the intellectual individualism of Bakunin, [Domela-]Nieuwenhuis and contemporary anarchism.  She always emphasized self-discipline as an adjunct to action — the opposite of the doctrine of self-liberation which the Anarchists shared with other European action philosophies. (88–89)
The German Left evolved a special theory of action. . . .  Where the German Left emphasized action against organization, Lenin preached organization as a means to action.  But action was common to both — and it was this emphasis on action which finally brought the German Left and the Russian Bolsheviks into the same camp in spite of so many serious disagreements.  In her review of the Bolshevik revolution, written in September 1918, Rosa Luxemburg singled out this commitment to action for particular praise.  Here she saw a strong sympathetic echo to her own ideas, and analyzed it precisely in her own terms:

“With . . . the seizure of power and the carrying forward of the revolution the Bolsheviks have solved the famous question of a ‘popular majority’ which has so long oppressed the German Social Democrats . . . not through a majority to a revolutionary tactic, but through a revolutionary tactic to a majority” (The Russian Revolution)

With action as the cause and not the consequence of mass support, she saw the Bolsheviks applying her ideas in practice — and incidentally provides us with clear evidence as to what she meant when she spoke of majority and masses.  In spite of other severe criticisms of Bolshevik policy, it was this solution of the problem by the Bolsheviks which definitely ensured them the support of the German Left. (91–92)
The possibilities adumbrated by modern sociology have not yet been adequately exploited in the study of political organizations, dynamics, relationships.  Especially the dynamics; most pictures of change are “moving pictures,” which means that they are no more than “a composition of immobilities . . . a position, then a new position, etc., ad infinitum” (Henri Bergson).  The problem troubled Talcott Parsons among others, just as it long ago troubled Rosa Luxemburg. (95)

This was what Lukács, following Lenin and Luxemburg, meant by the problem of “reification.”

[16]. As Lukács put it in the Preface (1922) to History and Class Consciousness,

I should perhaps point out to the reader unfamiliar with dialectics one difficulty inherent in the nature of dialectical method relating to the definition of concepts and terminology.  It is of the essence of dialectical method that concepts which are false in their abstract one-sidedness are later transcended (zur Aufhebung gelangen).  The process of transcendence makes it inevitable that we should operate with these one-sided, abstract and false concepts.  These concepts acquire their true meaning less by definition than by their function as aspects that are then transcended in the totality.  Moreover, it is even more difficult to establish fixed meanings for concepts in Marx’s improved version of the dialectic than in the Hegelian original.  For if concepts are only the intellectual forms of historical realities then these forms, one-sided, abstract and false as they are, belong to the true unity as genuine aspects of it.  Hegel’s statements about this problem of terminology in the preface to the Phenomenology are thus even more true than Hegel himself realized when he said: “Just as the expressions ‘unity of subject and object’, of ‘finite and infinite’, of ‘being and thought’, etc., have the drawback that ‘object’ and ‘subject’ bear the same meaning as when they exist outside that unity, so that within the unity they mean something other than is implied by their expression: so, too, falsehood is not, qua false, any longer a moment of truth.”  In the pure historicization of the dialectic this statement receives yet another twist: in so far as the “false” is an aspect of the “true” it is both “false” and “non-false.”  When the professional demolishers of Marx criticize his “lack of conceptual rigor” and his use of “image” rather than “definitions,” etc., they cut as sorry a figure as did Schopenhauer when he tried to expose Hegel’s “logical howlers” in his Hegel critique.  All that is proved is their total inability to grasp even the ABC of the dialectical method.  The logical conclusion for the dialectician to draw from this failure is not that he is faced with a conflict between different scientific methods, but that he is in the presence of a social phenomenon and that by conceiving it as a socio-historical phenomenon he can at once refute it and transcend it dialectically. (xlvi–xlvii)

For Lukács, the self-contradictory nature of the workers’ movement was itself a “socio-historical phenomenon” that had brought forth a revolutionary crisis at the time of Lukács’s writing: from a Marxian perspective, the working class and its politics were the most important phenomena and objects of critique to be overcome in capitalist society.

[17]. See Moishe Postone, Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[18]. See Adorno, “Reflections on Class Theory” (1942), in Can One Live After Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 93–110:

According to [Marxian] theory, history is the history of class struggles.  But the concept of class is bound up with the emergence of the proletariat. . . .  By extending the concept of class to prehistory, theory denounces not just the bourgeois . . . [but] turns against prehistory itself. . . .  By exposing the historical necessity that had brought capitalism into being, [the critique of] political economy became the critique of history as a whole. . . .  All history is the history of class struggles because it was always the same thing, namely, prehistory. (93–94)

This means, however, that the dehumanization is also its opposite. . . .  Only when the victims completely assume the features of the ruling civilization will they be capable of wresting them from the dominant power. (110)

This follows from Lukács’s conception of proletarian socialism as the “completion” of reification (“Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness):

The danger to which the proletariat has been exposed since its appearance on the historical stage was that it might remain imprisoned in its immediacy together with the bourgeoisie.  With the growth of social democracy this threat acquired a real political organisation which artificially cancels out the mediations so laboriously won and forces the proletariat back into its immediate existence where it is merely a component of capitalist society and not at the same time the motor that drives it to its doom and destruction. (196)

[E]ven the objects in the very centre of the dialectical process [i.e., the political forms of the workers’ movement itself] can only slough off their reified form after a laborious process.  A process in which the seizure of power by the proletariat and even the organisation of the state and the economy on socialist lines are only stages.  They are, of course, extremely important stages, but they do not mean that the ultimate objective has been achieved.  And it even appears as if the decisive crisis-period of capitalism may be characterized by the tendency to intensify reification, to bring it to a head. (208)

[19]. Rose’s term for the post-1960s “New Left” historical situation is “Heideggerian postmodernity.”  Robert Pippin, as a fellow “Hegelian,” in his brief response to the Critical Inquiry journal’s symposium on “The Future of Criticism,” titled “Critical Inquiry and Critical Theory: A Short History of Nonbeing” (Critical Inquiry 30.2 [Winter 2004], 424–428), has characterized this similarly, as follows:

[T]he level of discussion and awareness of this issue, in its historical dimensions (with respect both to the history of critical theory and the history of modernization) has regressed. . . .  [T]he problem with contemporary critical theory is that it has become insufficiently critical. . . .  [T]here is also a historical cost for the neglect or underattention or lack of resolution of this core critical problem: repetition. . . .  It may seem extreme to claim — well, to claim at all that such repetition exists (that postmodernism, say, is an instance of such repetition) — and also to claim that it is tied somehow to the dim understanding we have of the post-Kantian situation. . . .  [T]hat is what I wanted to suggest.  I’m not sure it will get us anywhere.  Philosophy rarely does.  Perhaps it exists to remind us that we haven’t gotten anywhere. (427–428)

Heidegger himself anticipated this result in his “Overcoming Metaphysics” (1936–46), in The End of Philosophy, ed. and trans. Joan Stambaugh (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003): “The still hidden truth of Being is withheld from metaphysical humanity.  The laboring animal is left to the giddy whirl of its products so that it may tear itself to pieces and annihilate itself in empty nothingness” (87).  Elsewhere, in “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking” (1964), in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), Heidegger acknowledged Marx’s place in this process: “With the reversal of metaphysics which was already accomplished by Karl Marx, the most extreme possibility of philosophy is attained” (433).

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 20 | February 2010


DAVID BLACK’S VALUABLE COMMENTS and further historical exposition (in Platypus Review 18, December 2009) of my review of Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy (Platypus Review 15, September 2009) have at their core an issue with Korsch’s account of the different historical phases of the question of “philosophy” for Marx and Marxism. Black questions Korsch’s differentiation of Marx’s relationship to philosophy into three distinct periods: pre-1848, circa 1848, and post-1848. But attempting to defeat Korsch’s historical account of such changes in Marx’s approaches to relating theory and practice means avoiding Korsch’s principal point. It also means defending Marx on mistaken ground. Black considers that Korsch’s periodization—his recognition of changes—opens the door to criticizing Marx for inconsistency in his relation of theory to practice. But that is not so.


Police photo of Vladimir Il’ich Lenin, taken after his arrest in 1895 for participation in the St. Petersberg Union of Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class.

What makes Korsch’s essay “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923) important, to Benjamin and Adorno’s work for instance, and what relates it intrinsically to Lukács’s contemporaneous treatment of the question of the “Hegelian” dimension of Marxism in History and Class Consciousness, is Korsch’s discovery of the historically changing relation of theory and practice, and the self-consciousness of this problem, in the history of Marxism. This meant that the matter was, from a Marxian perspective, as Adorno put it in Negative Dialectics, “not settled once and for all, but fluctuates historically.”[1] Indeed, as Adorno put it in a late essay,

If, to make an exception for once, one risks what is called a grand perspective, beyond the historical differences in which the concepts of theory and praxis have their life, one discovers the infinitely progressive aspect of the separation of theory and praxis, which was deplored by the Romantics and denounced by the Socialists in their wake—except for the mature Marx.[2]

However one may wish to question the nuances of Korsch’s specific historiographic periodization of the problem of Marxism as that of the relation of theory and practice, both during Marx’s lifetime and after, this should not be with an eye to either disputing or defending Marx or a Marxian approach’s consistency on the matter. One may perhaps attempt a more fine-grained approach to the historical “fluctuations” of what Adorno called the “constitutive” and indeed “progressive” aspect of the “separation of theory and praxis.” Korsch’s point in the 1923 “Marxism and Philosophy,” followed by Benjamin and Adorno, was that we must attend to this “separation,” or, as Adorno put it, “non-identity,” if we are to have a properly Marxian self-consciousness of the problem of “Marxism” in theory and practice. For this problem of the separation of theory and practice is not to be deplored, but calls for critical awareness. Marx was consistent in his own awareness of the relation of theory and practice. This meant that at different times Marx found them related in different ways.

By contrast, what has waylaid the sectarian “Marxist Left” has been the freezing of the theory-practice problem, which then continued to elude a progressive-emancipatory solution at any given moment. Particular historical moments in the theory-practice problem have become dogmatized by various sects, thus dooming them to irrelevance. So generations of ostensibly revolutionary “Marxists” have failed to heed the nature of Rosa Luxemburg’s praise of Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks in the October Revolution:

All of us are subject to the laws of history....The Bolsheviks have shown that they are capable of everything that a genuine revolutionary party can contribute within the limits of historical possibilities....What is in order is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, the kernel from the accidental excrescencies in the politics of the Bolsheviks. In the present period, when we face decisive final struggles in all the world, the most important problem of socialism was and is the burning question of our time. It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: “I have dared!” This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realization of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labor in the entire world....And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to “Bolshevism.”[3]

The Bolshevik Revolution was not itself the achievement of socialism and the overcoming of capitalism, but it did nevertheless squarely address itself to the problem of grasping history so as to make possible revolutionary practice. The Bolsheviks recognized, in other words, that we are tasked, by the very nature of capital, in Marx’s sense, to struggle within and through the separation of theory and practice. The Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 was the occasion and context for Korsch’s rumination on the theory and practice of Marxism in his seminal 1923 essay on “Marxism and Philosophy.”

In the extended aftermath of the failed revolution of 1917–19, the crisis of the Stalinization of Third International Communism and the looming political victory of fascism, Horkheimer, in an aphorism titled “A Discussion About Revolution,” addressed himself to the same subject Luxemburg and Korsch had discussed, from the other side of historical experience:

[A] proletarian party cannot be made the object of contemplative criticism....Bourgeois criticism of the proletarian struggle is a logical impossibility....At times such as the present, revolutionary belief may not really be compatible with great clear-sightedness about the realities.[4]

This is because, for Horkheimer, from a Marxian “proletarian” perspective, as opposed to a (historically) “bourgeois” one (including that of pre- or non-Marxian “socialism”), the problem is not a matter of formulating a correct theory and then implementing it in practice. It is rather a question of what Lukács called “historical consciousness.” We should note well how Horkheimer posed the theory-practice problem here, as the contradiction between “revolutionary belief” and “clear-sightedness about the realities.”

Horkheimer elaborated further that proletarian revolutionary politics cannot be conceived on the model of capitalist enterprise, and not only for socioeconomic class-hierarchical reasons, but rather because of the differing relation of theory and practice in the two instances; it is the absence of any “historical consciousness” of the theory and practice problem that makes “bourgeois criticism of the proletarian struggle” a logical “impossibility.” As Lukács put it, in “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” (1923), “a radical change in outlook is not feasible on the soil of bourgeois society.” Rather, one must radically deepen—render “dialectical”—the outlook of the present historical moment. The point is that a Marxian perspective can find—and indeed has often found—itself far removed from the practical politics and (entirely “bourgeois”) ideological consciousness of the working class. This has not invalidated Marxism, but rather called for a further Marxian critical reflection on its own condition.

In a letter of February 22, 1881 to the Dutch anarchist Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, Marx wrote,

It is my conviction that the critical juncture for a new International Working Men’s Association has not yet arrived and for that reason I regard all workers’ congresses or socialist congresses, in so far as they are not directly related to the conditions existing in this or that particular nation, as not merely useless but actually harmful. They will always ineffectually end in endlessly repeated general banalities.[5]

How much more is this criticism applicable to the “Left” today! But, more directly, what it points to is that Marx recognized no fixed relation of theory and practice that he pursued throughout his life. Instead, he very self-consciously exercised judgment respecting the changing relation of theory and practice, and considered this consciousness the hallmark of his politics. Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) excoriated “bourgeois” democratic politics, including that of contemporary socialists, for its inability to simultaneously learn from history and face the challenge of the new.[6] How else could one judge that a moment has “not yet arrived” while calling for something other than “endlessly repeated banalities?”

Marx had a critical theory of the relation of theory and practice—recognizing it as a historically specific and not merely “philosophical” problem, or, a problem that called for the critical theory of the philosophy of history—and a political practice of the relation of theory and practice. There is not simply a theoretical or practical problem, but also and more profoundly a problem of relating theory and practice.

We are neither going to think our way out ahead of time, nor somehow work our way through, in the process of acting. We do not need to dissolve the theory-practice distinction that seems to paralyze us, but rather achieve both good theory and good practice in the struggle to relate them properly. It is not a matter of finding either a correct theory or correct practice, but of trying to judge and affect their changing relation and recognizing this as a problem of history.

Marx overcame the political pitfalls and historical blindness of his “revolutionary” contemporaries, such as the pre-Marxian socialism of Proudhon et al. leading to 1848, anarchism in the First International, and the Lassallean trend of the German Social-Democratic Party. It is significant that Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875) critiqued the residual Lassallean politics of the Social Democrats for being to the Right of the liberals on international free trade, etc., thus exposing the problem of this first “Marxist” party from the outset.[7]

Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky, following Marx, recovered and struggled through the problem of theory and practice for their time, precipitating a crisis in Marxism, and thus advancing it. They overcame the “vulgar Marxist” ossification of theory and practice in the Second International, as Korsch and Lukács explained. It meant the Marxist critique of Marxism, or, an emancipatory critique of emancipatory politics—a Left critique of the Left. This is not a finished task. We need to attain this ability again, for our time. |P

[1]. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1983), 143.

[2]. Adorno, “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis,” in Critical Models, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 266. This essay, a “dialectical epilegomenon” to his book Negative Dialectics that Adorno said intended to bring together “philosophical speculation and drastic experience” (Critical Models, 126), was one of the last writings he finished for publication before he died in 1969. It reflected his dispute with fellow Frankfurt School critical theorist Hebert Marcuse over the student protests of the Vietnam War (see Adorno and Marcuse, “Correspondence on the German Student Movement,” trans. Esther Leslie, New Left Review I/233, Jan.–Feb. 1999, 123–136). As Adorno put it in his May 5, 1969 letter to Marcuse, "[T]here are moments in which theory is pushed on further by practice. But such a situation neither exists objectively today, nor does the barren and brutal practicism that confronts us here have the slightest thing to do with theory anyhow" (“Correspondence,” 127).

[3]. Rosa Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution,” in The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), 80.

[4]. Max Horkheimer, Dawn and Decline, trans. Michael Shaw (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), 40–41.

[5]. Karl Marx to Domela Nieuwenhuis, 22 February 1881, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Selected Correspondence, 1846-1895, trans. Dona Torr (New York: International Publishers, 1942), 387, <>.

[6]. As Luxemburg put it in 1915 in The Crisis of German Social Democracy (aka The Junius Pamphlet, available online at <>),

Marx says [in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)]: “[T]he democrat (that is, the petty bourgeois revolutionary) [comes] out of the most shameful defeats as unmarked as he naively went into them; he comes away with the newly gained conviction that he must be victorious, not that he or his party ought to give up the old principles, but that conditions ought to accommodate him.” The modern proletariat comes out of historical tests differently. Its tasks and its errors are both gigantic: no prescription, no schema valid for every case, no infallible leader to show it the path to follow. Historical experience is its only school mistress. Its thorny way to self-emancipation is paved not only with immeasurable suffering but also with countless errors. The aim of its journey—its emancipation depends on this—is whether the proletariat can learn from its own errors. Self-criticism, remorseless, cruel, and going to the core of things is the life’s breath and light of the proletarian movement. The fall of the socialist proletariat in the present world war [WWI] is unprecedented. It is a misfortune for humanity. But socialism will be lost only if the international proletariat fails to measure the depth of this fall, if it refuses to learn from it.

[7]. Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program,” in Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 533–534, <>. Marx wrote, "In fact, the internationalism of the program stands even infinitely below that of the Free Trade party. The latter also asserts that the result of its efforts will be 'the international brotherhood of peoples.' But it also does something to make trade international...The international activity of the working classes does not in any way depend on the existence of the International Working Men’s Association."

David Black

Platypus Review 18 | December 2009


[Philosophy] is the scientific expression of a certain fundamental human attitude… toward being and beings in general, and through which a historical-social situation often can express itself more clearly and deeply than in the reified, practical spheres of life.

— Herbert Marcuse[1]

CHRIS CUTRONE WRITES, “What the usual interpretive emphasis on Lukács occludes is that the Frankfurt School writers grappled not only with the problem of Stalinism but with that of ‘anti-Stalinism’ as well.”[2] This statement is well founded, considering how Korsch’s troubled relationship with Adorno and Horkheimer was paralleled by Sohn-Rethel’s with those two during the same period; not to mention the later dialogues Dunayevskaya had with Marcuse and Fromm.

On the key question of “nonidentity” versus the “identity of effective theory and practice,” Cutrone says that, for the earlier Korsch, “constitutive non-identity” was “expressed symptomatically, in the subsistence of ‘philosophy’ as a distinct activity in the historical epoch of Marxism.” This was because it expressed a “genuine historical need… to transcend and supersede philosophy”; a “recognition of the actuality of the symptom of philosophical thinking, of the mutually constitutive separation of theory and practice.”[3] Cutrone relates this to Adorno’s reiteration almost half a century later in Negative Dialectics of Korsch’s statement in Marxism and Philosophy that “Philosophy cannot be abolished without being realized.” Cutrone says that “This side of emancipation, ‘theoretical’ self-reflection, thought’s reflecting on its own conditions of possibility, remains necessary, precisely because it expresses an unresolved social-historical problem.” He adds that the later Korsch, “by assuming the identity of theory and practice, or of social being and consciousness in the workers’ movement… sought their ‘reconciliation,’ instead of discerning and critically grasping their persistent antagonism, as would necessarily be articulated in any purported politics of emancipation.”[4]

The later Korsch’s abandonment of the theory and practice problem, which I will come to later, is however already present in the earlier writings, which raises the question, What remains that is of value in Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy? In that work Korsch quotes Engels’s notorious statement about Marx’s philosophy: “That which survives independently of all earlier philosophies is the science of thought and its laws—formal logic and dialectics. Everything else is subsumed in the positive science of nature and history.”[5] (However, Korsch did make one criticism of Engels, that “In Hegel’s terms he retreats from the heights of the Concept [Notion] to its threshold to the categories of reacting and mutual interaction.”)[6] But if “Marxism” is “superseded and annihilated as a philosophical object,” then it might also be superseded as a “positive science” of society if its historical practice can be can be shown to have “failed,” and if the determinations based on its methodology can be “falsified” according to positivist method. This annihilation of Marxism as a “philosophical object” seems to me the basis for Korsch’s eventual downgrading of Marx to just another theoretician, no more important than Thomas More or Mikhail Bukunin.

But the important issue is the “problem of the philosophy of revolution, or of the ‘theory of social revolution’” for both Hegel and Marx, which Cutrone spells out as follows: “How is it possible, if however problematic, to be a self-conscious agent of change, if what is being transformed includes oneself, or, more precisely, an agency that transforms conditions both for one’s practical grounding and for one’s theoretical self-understanding in the process of acting?”

This question, as well as addressing the problem of consciousness for the proletariat, also conjures up the self-consciousness of Marx the Philosopher, as a self-described “disciple” of Hegel who, in Capital, did not so much “apply” the Hegelian dialectic as recreate it. Korsch describes Marx’s pre-1848 period as characterized by “a critique of philosophy calling for its simultaneous realization and self-abolition,” and describes the circa-1848 period as “the sublimation of philosophy in revolution.”[7] Following this is the “curious blank spot or gap in the history of philosophy from the 1840s–60s, the period of Marxism’s emergence”; then there is everything in “Marxism” up to 1917.

Taking off from Raya Dunayevskaya’s unfinished critique of Korsch,[8] I have in my own research found the tripartite division Korsch applies to the history of “Marxism” to be highly questionable. As Cutrone points out, Korsch’s 1923 work was accomplished without benefit of Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts or the Grundrisse, or Lenin’s 1914 Hegel Notebooks. One might add that Korsch also did not have full knowledge of the debates within the Communist League in the early 1850s, now well documented.

George Lichtheim describes the original insight of Marx’s critical theory in 1843–44 as “the belief that a mere spark of critical self-awareness could ignite a revolutionary tinder heaped up by the inhuman conditions of life imposed on the early proletariat. In enabling the oppressed to attain an adequate consciousness of their true role, critical theory translates itself into revolutionary practice.” Consciousness was able to grasp “the total historical situation in which it is embedded… because at certain privileged moments a ‘revolution in thought’ acquired the character of a material force.”[9]

By 1850, following the defeat of the 1848–49 revolutions, Marx was developing the perspective of “Revolution in Permanence.” Marx argued that, although revolutionary workers parties could and would march with the petty bourgeois radicals against the class enemy, they would have to oppose all attempts by the bourgeois radicals to consolidate their position to the detriment of the workers. Dunayevskaya connects this concept with the “unchained dialectic” and “absolute negativity” of Hegel as appropriated by Marx in 1844. In my book, Helen Macfarlane, I have probed the connection of “Revolution in Permanence” to Blanquism. There was once a widespread myth that Blanqui actually coined the term “Revolution in Permanence.” Although this is long discredited, it is nonetheless true that the Marx–Blanqui relation was important. Blanqui was an implacable materialist, upholding, not the Hegelian dialectic, but the 18th-century French materialism of Holbach as the rightful inheritance of the proletariat, and as that which gave the proletarian body its head. Blanqui also saw revolutionary organization as a science as well as an art, requiring a “natural” hierarchy. But Blanqui was, like Marx, strongly anti-positivist, regarding the Comtean “equilibrium” theory of classes as counter-revolutionary. Sam Bernstein says that, in opposition to positivist equilibrium theory, Blanqui

thought of democracy as a process, with a history and a future. In practice it meant a series of acts which climaxed in what was then designated as the social republic. And being a process, it could neither ignore the past nor be mummified like revolutionary relics…. Democracy, from Blanqui’s viewpoint, had to become socialism, or it would be nothing more than a convenient cover for anyone, even for its enemies when they desire to disguise their intentions.[10]

At the very time Marx was writing about “Revolution in Permanence” in 1850, Louis Blanc, Giuseppe Mazzini, and Arnold Ruge issued a grandiose international program, which they hoped would reignite the defeated revolutions of 1848. Their program rejected “the cold and unfeeling travail of the intellect” in favour of the “instinct of the masses” as “the people in motion.” To Marx’s mind this was tantamount to demanding that the people “have no thought for the morrow and must strike all ideas from the mind” and that “the riddle of the future will be solved by a miracle.”[11] Within the German Communist League, August Willich and Karl Schapper argued that the counterrevolution in Europe would soon force the existing French bourgeois republic to fight against the anciens régimes of Europe and would thus re-open the floodgates of revolution. In practice this would mean the communists and Blanquists finding common cause with the petit-bourgeois democrats and nationalists of Europe, and the setting aside of the communist program of the dictatorship of the proletariat. According to Marx, Willich and Schapper “demanded, if not real conspiracies, at least the appearance of conspiracies, and accordingly favored an alliance with the heroes of the hour.”[12] Marx, who was studying the economic situation in Europe closely, knew that with industry booming, the old order of Europe re-stabilized, and the bourgeoisie newly confident in its ability to rule, Schapper’s perspective was a fantasy. As he said of Schapper’s proposals:

The revolution is not seen as a product of the realities of the situation but as the result of an effort of will. Whereas we say to the workers: you have 15, 20, 50 years of civil war to go through in order to alter the situation and to train yourselves for the exercise of power it is said: we must take power at once, or else we might as well take to our beds. Just as the democrats abused the word “people” so now the word “proletariat” has been used as a mere phrase.[13]

Marx’s position was consistent with what he actually was to do in the following years and decades: writing Capital, building the First International, etc. In 1850 Marx pointed out that, under present conditions in Europe, for the communists to make a revolution out of existing forces in the name of the proletariat they would have to describe the petty-bourgeoisie as proletarian and become their representatives. Schapper, in his reply, did not try to refute Marx’s arguments. Instead he drew a division between the “party of theory” and the “party of action.” Somewhat prefiguring the arguments of the “socialist” dictators of the underdeveloped world of the twentieth-century, Schapper said,

The people who represent the party in principle part company with those who organize the proletariat…. The question at issue is whether we ourselves chop off a few heads right at the start or whether it is our own heads that will fall. In France the workers will come to power and thereby in Germany too. Were this not the case I would indeed take to my bed…. If we come to power we can take such measures as are necessary to ensure the role of the proletariat. I am a fanatical supporter of this view.[14]

As far as Marx was concerned, it was not Schapper’s “hero of the hour,” Louis Blanc, but Auguste Blan­qui who was “true leader of the French proletariat.” Blanqui, in a statement smuggled out of prison, which was circulated by Marx and Engels, accused those in his own organization in favor of accommodation with the bourgeois radicals of “hiding its banner, giving ground to the bourgeois republicans and sacrificing the future for the morbid need of uncertain support in the present.” Blanqui declared, “Ideas are the standard of the masses. We must therefore be clear and blunt, and explain ev­erything on pain of being sorely let down. Secrecy is the preliminary of duplicity, and I shall never be party to it.”[15] None of this figures in Korsch’s potted history of “Marx­ism.” How then do we read Korsch’s 1950 thesis on the points he saw as “particularly critical for Marxism”?

(A) its dependence on the underdeveloped economic and political conditions in Germany and all the other countries of central and eastern Europe where it was to have political relevance; (B) its unconditional adherence to the political forms of the bourgeois revolution; (C) the unconditional acceptance of the advanced economic conditions of England as a model for the future development of all countries and as objective preconditions for the transition to social­ism; to which one should add, (D) the consequences of its repeated desperate and contradictory attempts to break out of these conditions.[16]

As I have indicated, Marx’s critique both of the revo­lutionaries’ failure to read the “economic and political conditions” and contemporary political forms of class collaboration (Blanc), terrorism (Mazzini), and con­spiracy (Schapper—and, implicitly, Blanqui), suggests otherwise. We now know, from Marx’s late writings on Russia, his Ethnological Notebooks, and later editions of Capital, that he did not see the “advanced economic con­ditions of England” as necessarily a “model for the future development of all countries.”[17] Also, it is clear that in the 1850 factional fight in the Communist League Marx was opposed to “desperate and contradictory attempts” by revolutionaries to break out of the social conditions.

As Cutrone points out, according to the later Korsch of the 1930 Anti-Critique, in the mid-19th century “Marx­ism” had grown ideological and even Marx’s Capital ex­pressed a certain “degeneration.” According to Korsch, quoted by Cutrone, “[T]he theory of Marx and Engels was progressing towards an ever higher level of theoretical perfection although it was no longer directly related to the practice of the worker’s movement.”

But inasmuch as “practice” found its representation in the practices of Lassalle, then perhaps it was a case of “so much the worse for the practice.” Marx’s attack on Lassalleanism in the 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program was as realistic and objective as the 1850 critique of Wil­lich/Schapper, except that the Critique was able to offer Capital, vol. I as a “theoretical victory for our party.”

The later Korsch’s opinion of the mature Marx’s work as “anachronistic” jars with his earlier view that Hegel’s concept of the world-as-totality informed Marx’s analysis in Capital, and therefore needed to be reclaimed from the social democrats, for whom it was a theory of ahistori­cal laws governing production, separate from politics. Korsch’s 1922 introduction to Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program sees an affinity between the reformism of Social Democracy and Hegel’s attempt to reconcile labor and society. The Lassalleans and social democrats saw the property issue as a juridical problem of distribu­tion solvable through changes in the form of the state, rather than a social problem of production which could only be solved by overthrowing the economic structure of society. (Korsch argued that, because during the “first phase” of communism bourgeois law and the bourgeois state will not have been totally superseded, the working class would need to control the whole economy, with workers’ councils playing a “constitutional” role to guard against any tendencies in management practices that might lead to capitalist restoration through bureaucracy.) Korsch’s writing on Marx’s 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program is thus a real insight, which indicates to me that the Critique was a continuation of the 1844 Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic.[18]

Oddly, whereas in 1923 Korsch praised Lenin for his Hegelian “critical reflection on the problem of relating theory and practice,” in 1938 he dismissed him for his Hegelianism. In 1922–23 Korsch had recognized that Hegel had regarded “revolution in the form of thought as an objective component of the total social process of a real revolution.” But for Korsch, Hegel, in his quest for reconciliation with the results of the French Revolu­tion, had preserved the position of thought as external to economic reality. By 1938 Korsch was stressing the “bourgeois,” rather than revolutionary character of Hegel’s philosophy. Having broken with Leninism, he dismissed the significance of Lenin’s Hegel Notebooks when they appeared in the 1930s. “Lenin’s apprecia­tion of the ‘intelligent idealism’ of Hegel” came about, Korsch argued, because “the whole circle not only of bourgeois materialist thought but of all bourgeois philo­sophical thought from Holbach to Hegel was actually repeated in the Russian dominated phase of the Marxist movement.”[19] If, as Patrick Goode says, Korsch viewed Leninism as “merely an ideological form assumed by the bourgeois revolution in an underdeveloped country,” then it would not have been surprising to him that Lenin was drawn to Hegel.[20]

Given what Cutrone tells us about the “Leninist” aspect of Horkheimer and Adorno’s agenda, and given Pannekoek’s disregard for the Hegelian dialectic, it is amazing that the later Korsch could seriously expect Horkheimer and Adorno to publish Pannekoek’s critique of Lenin, which contains the following:

The first problem in the science of human knowl­edge, the origin of ideas, was answered by Marx in the demonstration that they are produced by the surrounding world. The second adjoining problem, how the impressions of the surrounding world are transformed into ideas, was answered by Dietzgen… Marx pointed out what the world does to the mind, Dietzgen pointed out what the mind does itself.[21]

Dietzgen, a self-proclaimed “materialist,” had recog­nized that thinking as well as objects could be the object of thought. But in a somewhat neo-Kantian manner, he argued that whilst “our brains do not grasp the things themselves but only the concepts,” the concepts were quite adequate for “practical living” in a rational human society run by the workers.[22] This is another world from Adorno’s Lukácsian view expressed in his letter to Walter Benjamin quoted by Cutrone: “The fetish character of the commodity is not a fact of consciousness; rather it is dialectical, in the eminent sense that it produces con­sciousness…. [P]erfection of the commodity character in a Hegelian self-consciousness inaugurates the explosion of its phantasmagoria.”

As Walter Benjamin said of Dietzgen in his Theses on the Philosophy of History:

Josef Dietzgen announced: “Labor is the savior of modern times…. In the improvement… of labor… consists the wealth, which can now finally fulfill what no redeemer could hitherto achieve.” This vulgar-Marxist concept of what labor is, does not bother to ask the question of how its products affect workers, so long as these are no longer at their disposal. It wishes to perceive only the progression of the exploitation of nature, not the regression of society. It already bears the technocratic traces which would later be found in Fascism.[23]

Cutrone writes,

If Marxism continued to be subject to a “Hegelian dialectic,” thus requiring the “historical material­ist” analysis and explanation that Korsch sought to provide of it, this was because it was not itself the reconciled unity of theory and practice but remained, as theory, the critical reflection on the problem of relating theory and practice—which in turn prompted further theoretical development as well as practical political advances.

Korsch developed this view in 1923 whilst reflecting on the failure of German councilism and the contrast­ing achievements of the Bolsheviks. In other words he saw the connection between the “return” to “commu­nist practice” of Marxism and the reemergence of the Hegelian dialectic. After 1923, sans philosophy, his work regresses—although the influence it had was and is important.[24] |P

[1]. Quoted in Seyla Benhabib, introduction to Hegel’s Ontology and the Theory of Historicity, by Herbert Marcuse (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1989), xviii.

[2]. Chris Cutrone, “Book Review: Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy,” Platypus Review 15 (September 2009)

[3]. Ibid.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels, Collected Works, vol. 25 (Lon­don: Lawrence and Wishart, 1987), 26.

[6]. Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosphy (New York: Monthly Review Press 1970), 40, quoted in Raya Dunayevskaya, The Power of Negativity (Lenham: Lexington Books 2002), 253.

[7]. Karl Korsch, “Ten Theses on Marxism Today,” trans. Andrew Giles-Peters, Telos 26 (Winter 1975–76)

[8]. Dunayevskaya, The Power of Negativity, 249–247.

[9]. George Lichtheim, Lukács (London: Fontana Modern Masters, 1970), 64–5.

[10]. Sam Bernstein, Auguste Blanqui and the Art of Insurrection (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), 227.

[11]. Marx and Engels, CW, vol. 10 (London: Lawrence and Wishart 1978), 529–31, quoted in David Black, Helen Macfarlane: A Feminist, Revolutionary Journalist and Philosopher in Mid-Nineteenth Century England (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2004), 114–5.

[12]. Karl Marx, Herr Vogt (London: New Park, 1982), 28, quoted in ibid., 114.

[13]. Marx and Engels, CW, vol. 10, 626–8, quoted in ibid., 116.

[14]. Marx and Engels, CW, vol. 10, 628–9, quoted in ibid.

[15]. Marx and Engels, CW, vol. 10, 587, quoted in ibid., 117.

[16]. Korsch, “Ten Theses.”

[17]. Raya Dunayevskaya, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humani­ties Press, 1982), 175–91.

[18]. Karl Korsch, introduction to Critique of the Gotha Programme, by Karl Marx, trans. Fred Halliday (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970).

[19]. Karl Korsch, “Lenin’s Philosophy,” appendix to Anton Pan­nekoek, Lenin and Philosophy (London: Merlin, 1975) 114–5.

[20]. Patrick Goode, Karl Korsch: A Study in Western Marxism (Lon­don: Macmillan, 1979), 135, quoted in Kevin B. Anderson, Lenin, Hegel and Western Marxism (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 175–80.

[21]. Pannekoek, Lenin and Philosophy, 35

[22]. Quoted in ibid., 36.

[23]. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” trans. Dennis Redmond.

[24]. I discuss Korsch’s influence on the Situationists in my forth­coming essay, “Critique of the Situationist Dialectic.”

The Decline of the Left in the 20th Century Toward a Theory of Historical Regression Chris Cutrone THE YEAR 1917 is the most enigmatic and hence controversial date in the history of the Left. It is therefore necessarily the focal point for the Platypus philosophy of history of the Left, which seeks to grasp problems in the present as those that had already manifested in the past, but have not yet been overcome. Until we make historical sense of the problems associated with the events and self-conscious actors of 1917, we will be haunted by their legacy. Therefore, whether we are aware of this or not, we are tasked with grappling with 1917, a year marked by the most profound attempt to change the world that has ever taken place.
Chris Cutrone KARL KORSCH'S SEMINAL ESSAY on “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923) is a historical treatment of the problem from Marx and Engels’s time through the 2nd International to the crisis of Marxism and the revolutions of 1917–19 in Russia, Germany and beyond. More specifically, Korsch took up the development and vicissitudes of the relation between theory and practice in the history of Marxism, which he considered the “philosophical” problem of Marxism. Korsch, like Georg Lukács and the thinkers in Frankfurt School critical theory, was inspired by the “subjective” aspect of Marxism exemplified by Lenin's irreducible role in the October Revolution. Korsch was subsequently denounced as a “professor” in the Communist International and quit the movement, embracing council communism and shunning Marxian theory, writing an "Anti-Critique" in 1930 that critiqued Marxism as such, and by 1950 actively seeking to liquidate the difference between Marxian and anarchist approaches. In so doing, Korsch succumbed to what Adorno termed “identity thinking.” By assuming the identity of theory and practice, or of social being and consciousness in the workers’ movement, Korsch abandoned his prior discernment and critical grasp of their persistent antagonism in any purported politics of emancipation.

I am writing with some very brief notes on Adorno's last writings from 1968-69, the "Marginalia to Theory and Praxis," "Resignation," "Late Capitalism or Industrial Society? (AKA "Is Marx Obsolete?")," and the Adorno-Marcuse correspondence of 1969.

The center of Adorno's critique of the 1960s New Left was their romantic opposition to capitalism, found, for example, in their desideratum of the unity of theory and practice. Rather, Adorno asserted the progressive-emancipatory aspect of the separation of theory and practice.

As Adorno put it, in the "Marginalia,"

"If, to make an exception for once, one risks what is called a grand perspective, beyond the historical differences in which the concepts of theory and praxis have their life, one discovers the infinitely progressive aspect of the separation of theory and praxis, which was deplored by the Romantics and denounced by the Socialists in their wake -- except for the mature Marx."

As Korsch put it in our earlier reading, "Marxism and Philosophy" (1923),

"As scientific socialism, the Marxism of Marx and Engels remains the inclusive whole of a theory of social revolution . . . a materialism whose theory comprehended the totality of society and history, and whose practice overthrew it. . . . The difference [now] is that the various components of [what for Marx and Engels was] the unbreakable interconnection of theory and practice are further separated out. . . . The umbilical cord has been broken."

What is important to note in the above passage from Korsch is that the unity of theory and practice is not being asserted as the norm, but rather their interrelation/interconnection, something quite different. The "umbilical cord" becoming "broken" means not that theory and practice have become separated, merely, but that they are no longer being interrelated properly. Theory and practice remain different things.

The following passage from Adorno's Negative Dialectics (1966), from a section titled "Relation to Left-Wing Hegelianism," describes well Adorno's conception of the theory-practice problem as a historical one, in which past moments (in modern history/the history of the Left) have a non-linear relation to the present:

"The objection has been raised that, because of its immanently critical and theoretical character, the turn to [the] nonidentity [of social being and consciousness] is an insignificant nuance of Neo-Hegelianism or of the historically obsolete Hegelian Left -- as if Marxian criticism of philosophy were a dispensation from it. . . . Yet whereas theory succumbed . . . practice became non-conceptual, a piece of the politics it was supposed to lead out of; it became the prey of power. . . . The liquidation of theory by dogmatization and thought taboos contributed to the bad practice. . . . The interrelation of both moments [theory and practice] is not settled once and for all but fluctuates historically. . . . Those who chide theory [for being] anachronistic obey the topos of dismissing, as obsolete, what remains painful [because it was] thwarted. They thus endorse the course of the world -- defying which is the idea of theory alone. . . . If [one] resists oblivion -- if he resists the universally demanded sacrifice of a once-gained freedom of consciousness -- he will not preach a Restoration in the field of intellectual history. The fact that history has rolled over certain positions will be respected as a verdict on their truth content only by those who agree with Schiller that 'world history is the world tribunal'. What has been cast aside but not absorbed theoretically will often yield its truth content only later. It festers as a sore on the prevailing health; this will lead back to it in changed situations."

Korsch's "Marxism and Philosophy" also poses this complex, non-linear historical temporality of the problem of theory and practice:

"'[Humanity] always sets itself only such problems as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely it will always be found that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or are at least understood to be in the process of emergence' [Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)]. This dictum is not affected by the fact that a problem which supersedes present relations may have been formulated in an anterior epoch."

Adorno's point, following Korsch, is that earlier formulations of the problem of emancipatory theory and practice could and indeed did "supersede present relations," or, as Adorno put it elsewhere (in "Sexual Taboos and the Law Today," 1962),

"The theorist who intervenes in practical controversies nowadays discovers on a regular basis and to his shame that whatever ideas he might contribute were expressed long ago -- and usually better the first time around."

Adorno is, in his late writings, continuing the ruminations of Korsch and Lukacs on what Korsch called the "crisis of Marxism" in which the crisis of capital necessarily expressed itself by the time of world war and revolution 1914-19. Precisely what Lukacs and Korsch subsequently forgot, after their seminal writings of 1923 we read, Adorno remembered, that the Marxian project was characterized fundamentally by awareness of the problem of theory and practice. Instead, Korsch and Lukacs later fell victim to what Adorno calls "identity [or "reconciliation"] thinking;" like other "vulgar Marxists" they assumed the coincidence of social being and consciousness, rather than the dialectic of the two.

Adorno's problem is somewhat different from what Korsch and Lukacs sought to address. Whereas they had to contemplate the self-contradictory character of both social being and consciousness under capital, expressed precisely in the attempt to overcome capital in theory and practice, Adorno had to try to address the degradation -- the regression -- of both critical theory and social-political practice.

The dual, simultaneously linear and recursive temporality of capital means that, as Korsch had put it, the development and transformation of the Marxian point of departure necessarily takes the form of a "return to Marx," the attempt to get back to an "original, pure Marxism" (of Marx and Engels themselves). Such "return" is both actual and illusory.

Adorno seeks to address his own return to Marx in ways that are self-conscious of this paradox. Hence, in "Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?," also known as "Is Marx Obsolete?" (1968), Adorno answers that Marx is both permanently relevant this side of emancipation from capital, and obsolete in the sense that the problem of capital necessarily appears differently than it did to Marx. Adorno's point is that it is only via Marx that one can overcome the obsolescence of Marx.

Lukacs had already broached this paradox when he offered that one could potentially disagree with all of Marx's conclusions and still return Marx's "method." But this is a dialectical conception in Lukacs and Adorno because of course method and conclusion cannot really be separated. But they can appear to be separated and opposed, and necessarily so. Means and ends can appear to be at odds. The point is to work through this separation -- not only this, but worked through on the very basis of this separation.

The paradox is that, as Lukacs put it, a "radical change in perspective is not possible on the soil of bourgeois society," or, that, with Marxism, "it would appear that nothing has changed."

All that can be done is to advance the dialectic -- and crisis -- of capital, the degree to which this has been critically recognized. And this must necessarily take the form of advancing the dialectical crisis of Marxism, in both theory and practice.

As Adorno put it, in a 1935 letter to Benjamin,

"The fetish character of the commodity is not a fact of consciousness; rather it is dialectical, in the eminent sense that it produces consciousness. . . . [P]erfection of the commodity character in a Hegelian self-consciousness inaugurates the explosion of its phantasmagoria."

It was precisely this advancement through crisis, through bringing forms of necessary misrecognition to critical self-awareness while advancing their practical problems, that had been taken up by Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky (in the revisionist dispute and the subsequent crisis of war and revolution 1914-19, i.e., in that Luxemburg et al. recognized the revisionist reformism of Bernstein et al. as a necessary outcome of the growth of Marxism as a political movement), that was abdicated and abandoned in the early 20th Century, with social democratic reformism (i.e., the succumbing to the essence of reformist Marxist revisionism even by the stalwarts of "orthodoxy" such as Kautsky), Stalinism (the degeneration of "Leninism" into a variety of the same) and the disintegration of "Trotskyism" in the wake of Trotsky. (Trotsky's "Leninism" amounts to his recognition of the necessity of a split in Marxism as the result of -- as bound up with -- the advancement of Marxism in practical politics and theoretical consciousness.)

Adorno recognized this degradation and disintegration, aborting and avoiding the crisis and potential advancement of Marxism in theory and practice, as a problem of regression.

The crisis of capital has been expressed as the crisis in Marxism. The problem is that the significance of the crisis of Marxism has not been recognized as the necessary form of appearance of the crisis of capital. Instead, Marxism has been either abandoned/rejected -- or "upheld" and banalized -- as if Marxism itself had not become (had not always been) self-contradictory. Marxism, whether as critical theory or practical politics, necessarily becomes "vulgarized" (ceases to be itself) if it is experienced as naïve consciousness rather than being recognized with at least some reflexive self-awareness as a dialectical problem of consciousness.

Adorno ends his final essay, on "Resignation" (1969), with rumination on "thinking." On the one hand, Adorno recognizes that what is thought can be forgotten and lost, and, on the other hand, Adorno recognizes that what was once thought can be thought again, that thought has as its medium the universal, but only in a critical sense. The universal -- capital -- remains to be critically recognized. Hence the thought of its critical recognition remains possible. We can recognize the thought that was once thought. We can read Adorno -- and Benjamin, Lukacs, Korsch, Trotsky, Lenin, Luxemburg and Marx -- and still recognize the problems of our own thinking about the issue of capital. The question is how we explain this continued recognition to ourselves. This prompts the further thought of theory and practice.

But this thought of the relation of theory and practice threatens to fall short if it does not take the form of how Adorno closes his "Marginalia," that "[practice] appears in theory merely, and indeed necessarily, as a blind spot, as an obsession with what it being criticized. . . . This admixture of delusion, however, warns of the excesses in which it incessantly grows."

Marxism is both true and untrue; the question is how one recognizes its truth and untruth, and the necessity of its being both.

Platypus seeks both to refound and continue and to transform Marxian critical theory and political practice through the self-consciousness of the limits and necessity of Marxism as the limits and necessity of capital. We seek, theoretically, to make out the crisis of Marxism as the crisis of capital, in consciousness of capital's emancipatory possibilities, as it was recognized once before, in the revolutionary moment of 1917-19, and, conversely, practically, to make the crisis of capital take the form of the crisis of proletarian socialism, in the social-political practice of capital's emancipatory possibilities, as it had been, however abortively, once or twice before, what Adorno, following Benjamin, Lukacs and Korsch, contemplated about the limits and failure of the revolution of 1917-19, following what Marx had spent the rest of his life -- in theory and practice -- contemplating about 1848.