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A destroyer of vulgar-Marxism

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 <>.[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, and Cutrone’s subsequent comments in Platypus Review 20 (February 2010), online at <>.

[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]]