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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/notes on Feb. 15 reading Korsch "Marxism and Philosophy" (1923)

notes on Feb. 15 reading Korsch "Marxism and Philosophy" (1923)

" '[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."

"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."

-- Karl Korsch, "Marxism and Philosophy" (1923)

This work by Karl Korsch, published in the same year as Lukacs's book History and Class Consciousness, similarly takes up the theme of the neglected Hegelian dimensions of Marx's thought.

Ironically, while Lukacs's work uses history in its title and Korsch's essay invokes the theme of philosophy, Korsch's treatment is more historical and Lukacs's more philosophical.

I'd like to call attention in particular to one extended passage from early in Korsch's text to illustrate this:

"In the normal presentations of the history of the nineteenth-century philosophy which emanate from bourgeois authors, there is a gap at a specific point which can only be overcome in a highly artificial manner, if at all. These historians want to present the development of philosophical thought in a totally ideological and hopelessly undialectical way, as a pure process of the 'history of ideas'. It is therefore impossible to see how they can find a rational explanation for the fact that by the 1850s Hegel's grandiose philosophy had virtually no followers left in Germany and was totally misunderstood soon afterwards, whereas as late as the 1830s even its greatest enemies (Schopenhauer or Herbart) were unable to escape its overpowering intellectual influence. Most of them did not even try to provide such an explanation, but were instead content to note in their annals the disputes following Hegel's death under the utterly negative rubric of 'The Decay of Hegelianism'. Yet the content of these disputes was very significant and they were also, by today's standards, of an extremely high formal philosophical level. They took place between the various tendencies of Hegel's school, the Right, the Centre and the different tendencies of the Left, especially Strauss, Bauer, Feuerbach, Marx and Engels. To close this period, these historians of philosophy simply set a kind of absolute 'end' to the Hegelian philosophic movement. They then begin the 1860s with the return to Kant (Helmholtz, Zeller, Liebmann, Lange) which appears as a new epoch of philosophical development, without any direct connection to anything else. This kind of history of philosophy has three great limitations, two of which can be revealed by a critical revision that itself remains more or less completely within the realm of the history of ideas. Indeed, in recent years more thorough philosophers, especially Dilthey and his school, have considerably expanded the limited perspective of normal histories of philosophy in these two respects. These two limits can therefore be regarded as having been overcome in principle, although in practice they have survived to this day and will presumably continue to do so for a very long time. The third limit, however, cannot in any way be surpassed from within the realm of the history of ideas; consequently it has not yet been overcome even in principle by contemporary bourgeois historians of philosophy.

"The first of these three limits in the bourgeois history of philosophy during the second half of the nineteenth century can be characterised as a 'purely philosophical' one. The ideologues of the time did not see that the 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. The second limit is a 'local' one, and was most typical of German professors of philosophy in the second half of the last century: these worthy Germans ignored the fact that there were other philosophers beyond the boundaries of Germany. Hence, with a few exceptions, they quite failed to see that the Hegelian system, although pronounced dead in Germany for decades, had continued to flourish in several foreign countries, not only in its content but also as a system and a method. In the development of the history of philosophy over recent decades, these first two limits to its perspective have in principle been overcome, and the picture painted above of the standard histories of philosophy since 1850 has of late undergone considerable improvement. However, bourgeois philosophers and historians are quite unable to overcome a third limitation on their historical outlook, because this would entail these 'bourgeois' philosophers and historians of philosophy abandoning the bourgeois class standpoint which constitutes the most essential a priori of their entire historical and philosophical science. For what appears as the purely 'ideal' development of philosophy in the nineteenth century can in fact only be fully and essentially grasped by relating it to the concrete historical development of bourgeois society as a whole. It is precisely this relation that bourgeois historians of philosophy, at their present stage of development, are incapable of studying scrupulously and impartially.

"This explains why right up to the present day certain phases of the general development of philosophy in the nineteenth century have had to remain 'transcendent' for these bourgeois historians of philosophy. It also explains why there are still certain curious 'blank patches' on the maps of contemporary bourgeois histories of philosophy (already described in connection with the 'end' of the Hegelian movement in the 1840s and the empty space after it, before the 'reawakening' of philosophy in the 1860s). It also becomes intelligible why bourgeois histories of philosophy today no longer have any coherent grasp even of a period of German philosophy whose concrete essence they previously had succeeded in understanding. In other words, neither the development of philosophical thought after Hegel, nor the preceding evolution of philosophy from Kant to Hegel, can be understood as a mere chain of ideas. Any attempt to understand the full nature and meaning of this whole later period -- normally referred to in history books as the epoch of 'German idealism' -- will fail hopelessly so long as certain connections that are vital for its whole form and course are not registered, or are registered only superficially or belatedly. These are the connections between the 'intellectual movement' of the period and the 'revolutionary movement' that was contemporary with it."

Korsch then goes on to describe in detail the various vicissitudes of the problem of "philosophy" in the history of Marxism, in Marx and Engels's own works, and then in 2nd Intl. Marxism up to his time, and how they relate to the changing relationship of theory and practice in the political history of Marxism, its purchase in practical politics.

Please note, that, unlike various "New Left" Romantic approaches, the goal is not overcoming the separation or distinction between theory and practice, but rather a matter of grasping how they are related (hence, Korsch's "umbilical cord" metaphor in the epigraph above). The theory-practice distinction/separation was grasped by Korsch (like Lukacs) as indicative of the problem Marx (and Marxism) had sought to address. Marx et al. did not resolve the theory/practice problem but grasped it as symptomatic.

Likewise, Korsch characterizes Marxism as emergent from the ideology of the revolt of the Third Estate, the liberal bourgeois-democratic revolutions, rather than as a break with this.

This is important because it means that the immanent relationship of Marxist socialism to liberalism is akin to the immanent relationship of the proletariat to capitalism, and the problem of philosophy is liked to that of the state: philosophy is not to be "abolished" once and for all, but qualitatively transformed, and the theory-practice problem is not to be overcome all at once but to "wither away." (This is very like Lukacs's understanding of proletarian socialism "completing reification" in order to get beyond it, through it.)

For Korsch, Marx and Engels look forward to the "overcoming" of philosophy, but as a long term qualitative transformation of subjectivity, a transcending of the need to reflect "philosophically." -- This relates to Korsch's note on Dilthey's discovery that "philosophical" categories are not only ones of conscious thought, but also of social and cultural practice.

As Korsch writes in conclusion:

"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. On the contrary it must be carried through to the end in theory and practice, as revolutionary scientific criticism and agitational work before the seizure of state power by the working class, and as scientific organisation and ideological dictatorship after the seizure of state power. If this is valid for intellectual action against the forms of consciousness which define bourgeois society in general, it is especially true of philosophical action. Bourgeois consciousness necessarily sees itself as apart from the world and independent of it, as pure critical philosophy and impartial science, just as the bourgeois State and bourgeois Law appear to be above society. This consciousness must be philosophically fought by the revolutionary materialistic dialectic, which is the philosophy of the working class. This struggle will only end when the whole of existing society and its economic basis have been totally overthrown in practice, and this consciousness has been totally surpassed and abolished in theory. -- 'Philosophy cannot be abolished without being realised.' "

So the problem and important role of consciousness is thus brought to the fore by Korsch, through a rich treatment of the issue of ideology that should follow from our prior discussion of Luxemburg -- and lines up with Lukacs, and Kolakowski and Slaughter -- the long ramifications of the "revisionist debate," for which Ian compiled the quotations for use at the last reading group meeting, on Luxemburg's Reform or Revolution?, and that informed Lenin and Trotsky's point of departure, which we will begin addressing in subsequent meetings, starting with Lenin's What is to be done?, and the issue of "tailism," etc.

The reading of Korsch should be related to Platypus, at the level of what Korsch calls "intellectual action" -- this is our mandate, and it should thus be demystified. But because of the historical juncture at which we find ourselves, it is not the matter of what Korsch calls the "dialectical materialist philosophy of the revolutionary working class," but of the philosophy of the Left, and more specifically the philosophy of the history of the Left, whether we can adequately specify the present problem of consciousness and the relation of theory and practice as it has been given to us by history.

* * *

Another important point in Korsch, regarding Platypus:

"[T]he coincidence of consciousness and reality characterises every dialectic, including Marx's dialectical materialism. Its consequence is that the material relations of production of the capitalist epoch only are what they are in combination with the forms in which they are reflected in the pre-scientific and bourgeois-scientific consciousness of the period; and they could not subsist in reality without these forms of consciousness. Setting aside any philosophical considerations, it is therefore clear that without this coincidence of consciousness and reality, a critique of political economy could never have become the major component of a theory of social revolution. The converse follows. Those Marxist theoreticians for whom Marxism was no longer essentially a theory of social revolution could see no need for this dialectical conception of the coincidence of reality and consciousness: it was bound to appear to them as theoretically false and unscientific."

The latter "Marxist theoreticians" to which Korsch refers are of course the "revisionists," Bernstein (and Kautsky), et al., but could just as easily refer to others -- such as Moishe Postone. For Postone (and certainly for his students) any striving for a Marxian politics will always remain "ungrounded," "voluntaristic," etc.

(Instead, Postone leaves the problem of a Marxian politics vague and unworked-out, and makes the outrageous claim that Marx never elaborated a politics from his insights in Capital, as if Marx's actual politics didn't really count, and as if the latter can be separated from the former!)

The problem with the 1960s-era recovery of Marxian critical theory, by Postone, Adolph Reed, Fred Halliday (who translated Korsch in 1970) et al. is that they were never able to transcend the problem of how their theoretical "reflection" related to their political action and its self-understanding. They could never see how their intellectual work was itself a political action, but rather always regarded it as "beside" this.

(The only one of the three, Reed, who did attempt political practice, only did so in a cynically opportunist way -- attempting to split/reform the Democratic Party! -- Another character we have read in Platypus, Martin Nicolaus [translator of Marx's Grundrisse], went back on his own realizations in "The Unknown Marx" [1968], where he harshly criticized Baran and Sweezy for their conclusion that the proletariat had ceased to be a potentially revolutionary force, and later joined New Left Maoism! -- Yet another, Juliet Mitchell, whose "Women: the Longest Revolution" [1966] we read, divorced New Left Review's Perry Anderson and retreated into psychoanalysis. I found a very good recent [2006] interview with Mitchell that ought to give us pause, especially as it ends on a very provocative note about the possibility of a "critique of the normative psychosis of the political social world:"

Precisely because these potential recoverers of Marx of the 1960s generation did not seek to do what Marx and the revolutionary Marxists (Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, et al.) did, change the world, they could not help but remain politically aporetic. Politics became for them the great, inapproachable question. In this sense, they fell under the same criticism Luxemburg had made of Bernstein in 1900: they recoiled in fear from the task of trying to change the world. They could never -- they never really tried to -- recognize their own thinking and attempts to influence others as either potentially changing or failing to change the world in the ways they may have (vainly) wished.

Our project, on the other hand, tries precisely to do this; we seek to instill the profound recognition that what we do or don't do (try or fail) will have real consequences -- hence all the (genuine) anxiety and fear that attend our efforts.

* * *

Korsch wrote on what he called (in 1923) "the decisive crisis of Marxism in which we still find ourselves today:"

"[O]ften described by its major representatives as a 'restoration' of Marxism[,] [t]his 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 the Social Democracy of the second period. 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 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."

Our problem in Platypus is that we are living in an entirely inverted historical period to that of the revolutions of 1917-19 and the "decisive crisis of Marxism" of the late 19th-early 20th Century time of the emergence of the revolutionary-radicals from the tutelage of the "orthodox"-"epigones."

This is something Richard will refer to as the "paradox of orthodoxy," that Platypus might be considered "honestly revisionist."

For just as Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky actually revised and developed "Marxism" (against the authoritative "Marxists") in the name of orthodoxy and a "return to Marx," we are also seeking to overcome the limitations of the best of historical Marxism in our remembrance of it.

Korsch wrote of the "fragmented" and "disintegrated" character that the "Marxism" of the epigones exhibited in its "long decay." -- This is similar to how we find Marxism as a historical legacy today.

The difference is that whereas 2nd Intl. Marxism had deteriorated under the dual pressures of the decline of revolutionary possibilities (after 1848, with a slight return in the 1860s culminating with the Paris Commune, as noted by Korsch in the supplemental reading "The Marxism of the 1st International" [1924]) and the rise of reformist ones, today we are facing the results of the far more profound decay and disintegration of the decline of both revolutionary and reformist practical possibilities. We are not in the position of trying to transform a reformist relation of the working class to the society of capital into a revolutionary one, but of trying to provide the intellectual-ideological ground for instigating simultaneously possibilities for reform and revolution.

Recently, I had a discussion with some Platypi in which I said that by the time a reinvigorated workers' movement rebuilt itself to its former relative historical power for achieving reforms it would be necessary to struggle for revolution. -- Well, this is precisely what had occurred by WWI with 2nd Intl. Marxist socialism: the growth of its reformist possibilities is what had in fact produced the development and crisis of imperialism and hence the need for revolution.

The problem is whether the "decisive crisis" has already come and gone, whether the crisis of Marxism of the early 20th Century manifested the highest development, in a practical-political sense, of the crisis of capitalism, and we have been doomed by that history to never again be able to achieve socialism and the potential transition beyond capital. Or does the possibility of our own consciousness express, in however obscure form, a revolutionary possibility that still subsists, "despite everything." Are we (can we become) proof of our own hypothesis that the Marxian departure that points beyond capital yet still remains pertinent and viable? If so, what about the particular characterization of our memory of revolutionary Marxism speaks to the present, what is the relation expressed by our "coincidence of consciousness and reality?" Why has that "which seemed virtually forgotten . . . come to life again" with our project? -- Or has it?

For we are trying to become a factor in history that could be productive of and not merely respond to the crisis of capital. We are trying to turn the permanent crisis of capital that exists latently into a manifest crisis, and the potential resistance we face comes precisely from the unconscious sense that avoiding such a crisis is what humanity seeks to buy at the price of increasing barbarism.