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Comments on Chris Cutrone’s review of Marxism and Philosophy by Karl Korsch

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.”


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