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You are here: Platypus /Karl Korsch 1923: the problem of Marxism and philosophy

Karl Korsch 1923: the problem of Marxism and philosophy

Jensen Suther and Thodoris Velissaris

Platypus Review 131 | November 2020

Preface

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, there have been two major attempts within the philosophical tradition to leave that tradition behind, with each reflecting a distinct understanding of philosophy itself. In the comprehensive introduction to Sein und Zeit (1927), Martin Heidegger announces his intention to “destroy” the history of Western philosophy and to thereby uncover a primordial insight, untainted by the subsequent “metaphysics of the subject,” into the question of the meaning of being. As Heidegger describes this enterprise: “We understand this task as one in which by taking the question of Being as our clue, we are to destroy the traditional content of ancient ontology until we arrive at those primordial experiences in which we achieved our first ways of determining the nature of Being.”[1]

The second most influential attempt to leave philosophy behind was that of Ludwig Wittgenstein in his posthumous work the Philosophical Investigations (1953). Philosophy arises, for Wittgenstein, when we misunderstand our language or are “gripped” by a distorted picture of the world, which gives rise to conceptual problems we think we need to solve. “The real discovery,” he remarks, “is the one that enables me to break off philosophizing when I want to — the one that gives philosophy peace.”[2] In the earlier Tractatus (1921), Wittgenstein had established the proposition as the basic unit of thought and as the limit of the world, what can be thought: “all that is the case.”The later Wittgenstein does not so much overcome the positivism of his earlier text; he rather establishes a therapeutic procedure for exorcizing the thought that it could be any other way. To achieve “peace” philosophically is to learn to recognize that philosophy has nothing to say: we understand all that needs to be understood in ordinary language and practice.

These conceptions of philosophy are in many ways opposed: whereas Wittgenstein follows the general analytic trend of focusing on the clarification of concepts and the propositional form of thought, Heidegger concerns himself with the history of philosophy in order to roll it back and construct a new system on primordial foundations. But despite these differences, they share a desire to overcome philosophy — to return to everyday practice, in Wittgenstein’s case, and to the “clearing of Being” in Heidegger’s. This desire was not new. It had a precedent in nineteenth-century thinkers like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. But its most important precedent was not in a philosopher: it was in Marx.

Yet Marx’s critique of philosophy was bound up with the political project of “realizing” it. Shortly after Hegel’s death in 1831, Marx undertook a critique of the Hegelian philosophy of freedom, which recognized in modern civil society the culmination of human history. Philosophy, for Hegel, was the consciousness of freedom in modernity. Rather than simply rejecting Hegel, however, Marx saw what his great teacher could not: the undermining of bourgeois freedom by capitalist production. This necessitated a new understanding of philosophy: not as the consciousness of freedom but as the consciousness of the task of freedom, as represented by the movement for socialism. Heidegger and Wittgenstein represent late attempts, long after Marx, to “abolish philosophy without realizing it.” Following the collapse of revolutionary socialism in the early 1920s, philosophy had lost its critical object and had nowhere left to turn. Having lost its bearings, it fixed its gaze on the distant past (Heidegger) and on an immutable present, “all that is the case” (Wittgenstein). As Adorno argues in a meditation on the historical antinomy of logical positivism and ontology, both schools are manifestations of resignation.[3] To Adorno’s diagnosis we would add: their attempts to liquidate philosophy reflect its historical helplessness, its despair in the absence of concrete possibilities for change.

“If philosophy is still necessary,” Adorno writes in the same context, “it is so only in the way it has been from time immemorial: as critique.”[4] The historical and political content of Marx’s Hegelian thought derives from its critique of the state, what Hegel called “the precise object of world history in general.”[5] It is well known that in crucial respects the Marxist critique of philosophy parallels its critique of the state. In this article, we will seek to better understand this critical “parallelism” as well as the role played by philosophy in Marx’s critical theory of capitalism. To think seriously about the question of philosophy and the state in the Marxist tradition necessitates an engagement with Marx’s most important philosophical influence: Hegel. To raise the question of Marx’s Hegelianism, we will take as our starting point the groundbreaking essay by Karl Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923),[6] in which it is Korsch’s ambition to do for philosophy what Lenin did for the state in State and Revolution, as part of his effort to reclaim Marxism as a truly revolutionary theory of social change.

Few contemporary thinkers have done more to emphasize the importance of Karl Korsch’s intervention and of the question of Marxism and philosophy than Chris Cutrone, who has sought to defend the necessity of an Hegelian approach to Marxism in numerous articles. Nevertheless, in a recent piece on the “Ends of Philosophy,” Cutrone falls below his own best insights in claiming that philosophy is just one specialization among others: “Doctors and lawyers practice activities that define being [the traditional object of metaphysics — J.S., T.V.] in different ways, and are hence ethically bound in different ways. Among scientists, Biology has a different epistemology from Physics: there are different methods because there are different objects. There is no ‘philosophy’ that could or should encompass them all.”[7] This not only conflicts with Kant’s original attempt to provide a “metaphysics of morals” and a metaphysical foundation for the sciences. It also conflicts with Hegel’s “encyclopedic” conception of philosophy as the “science of the sciences” and as the understanding of all disciplinary activity as distinctly rational activity.

Even if the idea of a rational system was rendered obsolete by subsequent history, we must critically sustain the ideal of an “absolute” standpoint — of a true comprehension of ourselves as the agents of history and change and of society itself in its potential rationality. Otherwise, we risk contradicting the Marxian view that philosophy is the self-conscious recognition of the truth of society, of what society ought to be, and thus of society as totality, which must be transformed not piecemeal but as a whole, in all its aspects. Cutrone misses that philosophy — as the standpoint of totality, reason, and freedom — is not reducible to its institutional manifestations, and thus he accommodates to the prevailing academic division of labor. In conflating the general aspiration to unity in philosophy with the “unitary metaphysics […] dominating [society] under capitalism: the bourgeois right of labor,” Cutrone betrays the Hegelianism he has so admirably striven to keep alive.[8] To quote Adorno against one of his most attentive students: “Philosophy must not bargain away anything of the emphatic concept of truth,”[9] its recognition of the absolute, self-determining power of reason, which underlies all theoretical and practical endeavors — including, most exemplarily, Marxism itself.

This returns us to the question of the practical stakes of Korsch’s intervention. In State and Revolution, Lenin chastised both ultra-leftists and reformists for their shared neglect of the problem of the state — the revolutionary problem par excellence: “Problems of revolution in general hardly concerned them,” he noted.[10] Karl Korsch fully accepted Lenin’s assessment and extended his analysis to philosophy: the orthodox Marxists of the Second International neglected both the problem of the state and the problem of philosophy because for them the “problems of revolution had ceased (…) to exist as problems of the real world”.[11] Nevertheless, retreading the Marxist debate on philosophy and the state might appear as an untimely academic exercise. As Korsch himself noted, there is a temptation to espouse a theory of social revolution “in the shape of pure-theory”: “wholly abstract” and with “no practical consequences.”[12] The risk of such formalism should be taken seriously, but it is also vital to recollect and further clarify the way revolutionary Marxism understood and addressed the issue of the state in the past, so as to hold open the possibility of a renewal of a genuinely emancipatory politics.

The task we have set ourselves is thus to specify through Korsch the sui generis character of Marxism as a theory of the relation between theory and praxis. On the one hand, it is necessary to understand the motivations of the Marxist critique of philosophy and Marx’s call for its eventual overcoming. On the other hand, to prevent the liquidation of the historical dialectic that Marx’s critique can at times seem to risk, it will be just as necessary to demonstrate the irreducibility of Hegelian “logic,” which is — we will suggest — the condition for any possible critical theory. In a second article, to be published at a later date, we will address in detail the parallel problem raised above of the Marxian critique of the state, which can only be fully understood in light of Marx’s critique of philosophy. That is, how we understand what is to be done depends on how we understand who historically we are and have become under the proletarianized conditions of capitalist bourgeois society. This last requires a theoretical grasp of capitalist society as a historical totality. In Part II, we will ask what that theoretical grasp entails in practice, on the level of politics and the state.

Karl Korsch

Whither Philosophy?

On the eve of a world-historical revolution, Marx and Engels dealt with the problem of philosophy and the state with profound critical insight. In the Manifesto of the Communist Party,philosophy and religion are recognized as thought-forms that, common to all historical societies, manifest their class character: “Whatever form [philosophy and religion] may have taken, one fact is common to all past ages, viz., the exploitation of one part of society by the other.”[13] Descartes’ cogito, to take an example, codifies theoretically the nascent bourgeois culture of individual freedom; the indubitability of the “I think” and skepticism about other minds has the distrustful operators of a market economy as its material precondition.[14] The function of philosophy is to transmute historical relations of domination into eternal verities, a priori truths, and Marx and Engels were adamant that “Communism abolishes eternal truths.”[15]

If philosophy is the theoretical reflection of class society and hence the distorted effort to articulate the rationality of the world, then the state, in turn, is the practical, political expression of antagonistic class relations, as well as the distorted symptom of the need to realize the “general interest” of society. In bourgeois modernity, the state is proclaimed as the institutional form of the will of the people, masking not only the division of “the people” into disparate classes and the power differential between them but also the self-contradiction and disintegration of labor itself under capitalist conditions. Hence Marx and Engels’ claim that the proletarian movement for socialism would not constitute philosophy and the state on a new basis but aim to make a break with both philosophy and the state, with "eternal truths" and "political power, properly so-called, [as] the organized power of one class for oppressing another."[16] Marx and Engels maintained a critical stance towards philosophy and politics until the end, grasping them not as optional activities incidental to society but as the essential theoretical and practical forms of its reproduction. In a nutshell, proletarian revolution — “the most radical rupture with traditional property relations, the most radical rupture with traditional ideas” — would entail the abolition of philosophy and the withering away of the state.[17] Both philosophy and “politics proper” were necessary but contradictory attempts to ensure the reproduction of antagonistic society — to promote consciousness of its necessity (philosophy) and to produce conformity through enforcement of its laws (the state).

The historical rise of bourgeois society — later undermined by the proletarianization of labor following the Industrial Revolution and the permanent unemployment that turned workers against each other — was marked by philosophy’s conciliatory recognition of itself as its own time grasped in thought. Through Hegel, German Idealism became the theoretical organ for the self-comprehension of bourgeois modernity. The necessary task of philosophy, for Hegel, was to enable modern society to take itself to be rational and free, through the much-vaunted “absolute knowing” of the philosopher. But as Marx would show, if German thought had attained in theory what other nations had attained in practice, on the level of the state, then “the status quo of German political science [i.e. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right] expresses the imperfection of the modern state itself, the degeneracy of its flesh.”[18] Marx’s critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right doubles as an articulation of the practical demand that the modern state be overcome, while the critique of the bourgeois state is in turn held to necessitate the abolition of — contemplative, detached, conciliatory — philosophy.

Philosophical Bonapartism

The importance of Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy lies in its recognition of the persistence of philosophy following the failed revolutions of 1848 as a symptom of the continuing need for critical consciousness of capitalist contradiction. Marxism, Korsch contends, is “self-critical,” a thought-form that not only grasps the material conditions for its own possibility but also strives to transform them — and to abolish itself in the process. It is in this sense that Korsch attempts to draw a parallel between philosophy and the state, which both must wither away.

In the aftermath of the “Year of Revolution” (1848), capitalism fully emerged “for itself” both as a political and economic system of class domination and — through the work of Marx and Engels and the workers’ movement for socialism — as the overt object of social critique and revolutionary praxis. “After every revolution marking a progressive phase in the class struggle,” Marx writes, “the purely repressive character of the State power stands out in bolder and bolder relief.”[19] Democracy was achieved but under capitalism, upending liberal expectations by not overcoming despotism but repeating it with a difference, in the form of class rule. The concept at the heart of Marx’s attempt to theorize the capitalist fate of the bourgeois state is that of Bonapartism. The peculiar characteristic of this new form, Marx writes, is that “under the second Bonaparte (…) the state seems to have made itself completely independent” from society.[20] Capitalism proves to be not just another system for the exploitation of one social group by another but, even more importantly, a system of generalized social domination, under which no one — not even the beneficiaries — are truly free. Bonapartism is the political expression of this universal unfreedom, securing the supremacy of capital over labor by placing them both under the yoke of the state.  As Marx writes, “In reality, it was the only form of government possible at a time when the bourgeoisie had already lost, and the working class had not yet acquired, the faculty of ruling the nation.”[21] 

Following Marx, Korsch upheld this perspective and broadened it to encompass philosophy after 1848, in what we could perhaps call “Bonapartism in philosophy”: “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.”[22] The disintegration of Hegelian thought into Left and Right schools can itself be grasped as the key manifestation of philosophical Bonapartism: Absolute Knowing understood solely as the viewing platform of the professional philosopher, rather than as the self-knowledge of the proletarian masses in their struggle for revolutionary change.

After the failure of the workers’ revolutionary attempt to establish a “social republic” in 1848, the state and philosophy returned in a dystopian form, reflecting the domination of society by capital in both its theoretical and practical aspects. As Chris Cutrone has formulated the problem, “‘Bonapartism in philosophy’ thus expressed a new, late found need in capitalism, to free society. We look to “philosophers” to do our thinking for us the same way we look to authoritarian leaders politically.”[23]

Bonapartism, in both its philosophical and political dimensions, must itself be understood dialectically. While it marks a profound regression, Bonapartism also expresses a need for leadership both philosophically and politically. A need for a theoretical arm of the revolution capable of empowering the masses to grasp their historical situation. And a need for political leaders who do not rule on behalf of society but work to guide its self-transformation.

The mediated autonomy of politics and philosophy and their significance

In contrast to vulgar Marxism and materialism, Korsch explains how for Marx “superstructural” phenomena like politics and philosophy cannot simply be reduced to the economic “base” of society. That is, the legal, juridical, and philosophical aspects of bourgeois ideology cannot be understood in strictly functionalist terms as reflections of the material interests of the ruling class. As Korsch notes concerning philosophy in particular, “We must not be content to explain [the content of philosophy] directly and immediately by its ‘earthly kernel’ (namely class consciousness and the economic interests which it conceals ‘in the last instance’).”[24] Rather, bourgeois philosophy articulates the aspiration to universal (even if still alienated) freedom in modernity and thus reflects the structure of capitalist society as a whole. It is, accordingly, an indirect expression of the material interests of the ruling class, insofar as it is essential to the self- reproduction of bourgeois society.

Korsch emphasizes that not just politics but also philosophy is constitutive of social reality. While economic theory appears to simply “reflect” a given, existing object, philosophy seems to have no object at all, to be a mere figment of the mind or the projection of “autonomous essences.” But on the Marxist view articulated by Korsch, no theoretical representations of reality have independent, pre-existing objects which they simply reflect; rather, economics, politics, and philosophy are essential to the constitution of their object, the capitalist mode of production. Bourgeois economics, for example, “belongs with the material relations of production to bourgeois society as a totality.” The theoretical consciousness embodied in the writings of Smith and Ricardo (and later, in a degenerated form, Mill and Malthus) not only expresses in thought the self-contradiction of bourgeois society as capital but also abets its practical reproduction: it sustains the appearance of capital as unchanging nature.

Accordingly, both the spiritual and the economic structure of bourgeois society “must be subjected to the revolutionary social criticism of scientific socialism, which embraces the whole social reality.” Both aspects, Korsch continues, “must be criticized in theory and overthrown in practice, together with the economic, legal and political structures of society and at the same time as them.”[25] From the Marxist perspective, theories are realities, a vital part of the self-determination of the social whole, and Marxism itself is not exempt. That is, philosophy makes explicit and conceptualizes the self-understanding of historical society, which has implications for what, practically, must be done. The Marxist critique of Hegelian philosophy is thus already a practical intervention, inasmuch as it entails a new revolutionary praxis of theory, committed to articulating and realizing society’s own demand for self-transformation. By the same token, the revolutionary movement for socialism is itself an intervention in theory, embodying an understanding of capitalist modernity not — as in Hegel — as an integral whole but rather as a perennial crisis in need of a radical resolution. Korsch’s historicization of Marxism itself addresses this crisis — by pointing to the necessity of their own overcoming, as theoretical forms specific to capitalism.

Anti-philosophy?

The recognition by Marxism of the mediated autonomy and reality of philosophy does not mean that Marxism is itself a philosophy or that it offers a philosophy of its own. Korsch is explicit that Marxism is not “a nation-founding Hercules,”[26] and this is valid not only for philosophy but other forms of ideology as well. It was not by mistake that Marx subtitled Das Kapital “a critique of political economy” rather than “a political economy.” As in the tradition inaugurated by Kant, critique here does not mean “criticism” but rather consists in the articulation of the conditions of possibility of phenomena in crisis (for Kant, the crisis of the very lawfulness of nature itself, in light of Humean scepticism). In Marx, critique is no longer the self-delimitation of pure reason (Kant) or the self-justification of bourgeois rationality (Hegel) but the articulation of modern reason’s own non-actuality — its self-contradiction. Marx’s critique of political economy shows that for capitalist bourgeois society to functionally reproduce itself it must go beyond itself, through the process of revolutionary transformation already under way.

This has led some commentators to believe that Korsch perceives Marxism as anti-philosophical.[27] And it is true that, for Korsch, Marx and Engels “saw the task of their 'scientific socialism' as that of definitively overcoming and superseding the form and content, not only of all previous bourgeois idealist philosophy, but thereby of philosophy altogether.”[28] Yet Korsch takes care to show that Marxism is not just the abstract negation or rejection of philosophy but — at least in part — a philosophical critique of philosophy: “(Bourgeois) consciousness must be philosophically fought by the revolutionary materialistic dialectic, which is the philosophy of the working class.”[29]That is, Korsch argues that the materialist dialectic intervenes not by constructing a new system but by rethinking the task of the philosophical system, its social function.

This “fighting” philosophical spirit is analogous to the spirit of Marx and Engels’ critique of democracy in the Communist Manifesto: “We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy.”[30] The point here is not to win the battle for formal democracy itself as an end goal but the battle of democracy, as the political form of class domination. Likewise, Korsch demonstrates how important it is to win the battle of philosophy — not as the end goal but as a means to the final end of freedom.

As Korsch reminds us, the young Marx “made it quite explicit that the practically oriented political party in Germany at the time, which rejected all philosophy, was making as big a mistake as the theoretically oriented political party, which failed to condemn philosophy as such.”[31] In the one case, the party sought to “abolish” German philosophy without realizing it. The party thereby deprived itself of any capacity to critically reflect on what would count as true democracy or a rational state. In the other case, the party sought to realize philosophy without abolishing it. It failed to recognize the contemplative and conformist character of the Hegelian “science of right” and to criticize its affirmation of the bourgeois state as the highest actuality of freedom.

It is not just that Marxism for Korsch is not lacking philosophical content; it also carries an “essentially new philosophical content.”[32] This is, to reiterate, distinct from building a new philosophy. The “new philosophical content” is not a positive doctrine or a new “philosophical outlook.” It is a content derived through the Hegelian procedure of determinate negation: the purpose of Marx and Engels’ polemics against philosophical questions “is only to enlighten or annihilate their opponents (such as Proudhon, Lassalle and Dühring); it is no longer intended to ‘clarify their own position.’”[33] In other words, Marx and Engels proceed immanently, developing their premises on the basis of the socialist theorists’ own miscomprehensions. In this manner, their philosophical program consists in the self-clarification of the theoretical wing of the movement for socialism.

By the same token, the grammar of the idea of a “philosophical critique of philosophy” presupposes the persistence of philosophy in a higher form. Even the critique and overcoming of “philosophy as such” remains wed to the logic of philosophical critique. While Hegel’s science of right must be overcome in the name of its fulfillment (the realization of the ideal of social freedom it proclaims), Hegel’s logical point — not fully appreciated by Korsch — that the achievement of freedom requires the scientific self-comprehension of society is indispensable. In turn, the Science of Logic argues that freedom must be understood not as a contingent feature of the human will or as an abstract ideal but rather as the condition for the intelligibility of action and cognition — including the activity of historical self-transformation itself. In other words, Hegel himself makes explicit the implicit logic — irreducibly philosophical in nature — that governs Korsch’s own thought, indeed, any thought at all.

Marx (and) the philosopher

At this juncture, it is worth recalling the key differences between Marxism and the philosophy that preceded it. Korsch reminds us that for Marx philosophy completed itself with Hegel.[34] Hence the distinction between Marx and the philosophers is better grasped if we focus on the contrast between Marxism and German Idealism — especially Hegel. Not only is philosophy proper for Marx synonymous with Hegel, but also for Korsch there is continuity and an “essential and necessary relation between German Idealism and Marxism.”[35] Korsch follows this logic to its extreme conclusion and claims that it is absurd “for a leading Marxist theoretician to be a follower of Arthur Schopenhauer in his private philosophical life.”[36] This is to say that philosophical orientation has practical implications. While having the correct theoretical standpoint is not sufficient to yield an emancipatory practice, practice itself will eventually pay the price for any deficiencies in theory. The Schopenhauerian commitment to rending the “veil of Maya” and to willing one’s own will into oblivion does not just sit uneasily with the Marxian demand for the revolutionary constitution of both the individual and collective will. It contradicts it.

Korsch enumerates three ways in which Marx surpasses the philosophical standpoint: First, Marx’s theoretical standpoint “is not just partially opposed to the consequences of all existing German philosophy, but is in total opposition to its premises”[37] — to the assumption that the task of philosophy is to reconcile reason to bourgeois reality. Second, Marx does not just oppose philosophy alone, “which is only the head or ideal elaboration of the existing world,” but opposes this world as a totality. For Marx, German philosophy must be grasped as the theoretical self-understanding of bourgeois society. As such, it is inseparable from it. Third, and as a consequence, Marx’s opposition to philosophy is not just theoretical but essentially practical. Overcoming its premises will require overcoming in practice the social form that is its foundation.[38]

The necessity of distinguishing Marx from Hegel, then, is not simply a theoretical exercise. For Korsch, it is a practical necessity: from the standpoint of Hegel’s “idealist dialectic,” the bourgeois state constitutes the highest form of human freedom and the “actual” form of society.[39] For Marx, Hegel arrived at this conclusion because he “inserted the world into philosophy far more than he did philosophy into the world.” Turning Hegel’s own “science of right” against itself, Marx would show that Hegel’s philosophical account of the rationality of the bourgeois present is in actuality an unconscious expression of its deepest contradictions. “Given the unbreakable interconnection of all real phenomena in bourgeois society as a whole,” Korsch writes, “its forms of consciousness cannot be abolished through thought alone.” Marx established that “these forms can only be abolished in thought and consciousness by a simultaneous practico-objective overthrow of the material relations of production themselves, which have hitherto been comprehended through these forms.”[40]

Yet Korsch also warns that “it would be a dangerous misunderstanding to think that this means that criticism in practice merely replaces criticism in theory.” The “anti-philosophical abstraction of a pure practice” falls below its own ideal of change by virtue of its failure to theorize what true emancipation would require. As Korsch puts it, “It is not in ‘human practice’ alone, but only [emphasis ours] ‘in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice’ that Marx as a dialectical materialist locates the rational solution of all mysteries that ‘lure theory into mysticism’.”[41] If the new revolutionary science of Marxism was not a new kind of dogmatism, this was not simply because it understood itself as a product of the movement of history but because it also “associated itself consciously with it [emphasis ours].”[42] The self-consciousness of history in practice — this does not just mark the overcoming of Hegel but also the genuine fulfillment of his own requirement, articulated in the Logic, that pure thought “freely release itself” and become actual.[43] Such a “free release” is not the descent from on high of some world-creating neo-Platonic mind but revolutionary practice in light of achieved historical consciousness of freedom.

Was Hegel a philosopher?

But was Hegel truly satisfied with the idea of theoretical comprehension separated from human practice? It is worth first examining how Korsch himself answers this question.

According to Korsch, Hegel understood his own thought in connection with social revolution and the movement of historical reality as a totality — as a whole in which politics, economy, religion, art, and philosophy do not just sit indifferently side-by-side but “hang together” and mutually entail their distinct historical forms:

The greatest thinker produced by bourgeois society in its revolutionary period regarded a ‘revolution in the form of thought’ as an objective component of the total social process of a real revolution […] [His philosophy had the] ability to comprehend in thought the true dialectical interrelation of ideas and   real historical developments, above all of philosophy and revolution.[44]

Hegel’s dialectical method “already shows in its consequences the way beyond bourgeois society,” mirroring the way that the bourgeois revolution itself pointed beyond the limitations of the class society it founded.[45] Hegel grasped the history of philosophy as an expression of the history of society, and he understood his own theoretical comprehension of human freedom not on the model of Cartesian introspection or Spinoza’s geometric proofs, or even Kant’s “critique of pure reason.” Rather, for Hegel, the philosophical consciousness of freedom was a distinctly social-historical achievement, made possible by the revolutionary recognition of the universal right to self-determination in the bourgeois context.

Yet while Korsch acknowledges this, he thinks that Hegel’s understanding of philosophy as “its own epoch comprehended in thought” reflects a “still somewhat mystified” grasp of the “dialectical interrelation of philosophy and reality.” Unlike Marx and Engels, Hegel had not yet discovered the material basis of philosophy not just in the mode of production but in the struggle for freedom each mode of production embodies to varying degrees. For the authors of the Communist Manifesto, theoretical conclusions — including Hegel’s own — must be understood as “general expressions of the real relations of an existing class struggle, of a historical movement that is going on before our eyes.”[46]

Since Hegel only glimpsed the sickly bloom of bourgeois social relations under the influence of the Industrial Revolution, his dialectical method remained in an “undeveloped and partly conscious form.” But was the method wrong, requiring Marx’s famous “inversion” of the dialectic, or did it simply lack specification under the new historical conditions? Korsch admits that Kant and Hegel “had already acquired a certain consciousness of class contradictions.”[47] But it was Marx who brought to full consciousness the relative and historical character of these contradictions, the possibility of their abolition in practice and in theory.

Korsch reminds us of Engels’ formulation that “with Hegel philosophy comes to an end (…) He showed us the way out of the labyrinth of systems to real positive knowledge of the world.”[48] Hence, Korsch concludes that “German idealism had constantly tended, even on the theoretical level, to be more than just a theory or philosophy.”[49] The Hegelian dialectic was “superficially idealist, but secretly materialist.” That is, Hegel’s recognition of philosophy as the self-comprehension of society implies that, under contradictory social conditions, the diagnostic power of Hegel’s idealism would have radical practical implications, necessitating more than critique — the transformation of material reality.[50] Korsch counterposes not the Marxian to the Hegelian dialectic but the transcendental to the dialectical (whether idealist or materialist) standpoints. He is explicit that Marxian and Hegelian dialectic are the same in the most consequential respect: “For the coincidence of consciousness and reality characterizes every dialectic, including Marx’s dialectical materialism.”[51] Marx for Korsch was beyond the antinomy between materialism and idealism: the material for critical thought is social actuality, which is shaped in turn by thought, the historical forms of rationality and understanding embodied in our practices.[52] The “matter” of materialism is the life process whereby we sustain the material substrate of society, and as Hegel teaches, that process bears a “conceptual” shape, the shared purpose of producing and reproducing universal freedom.[53] 

Hegel employs philosophy to point beyond a conception of philosophy as the preserve of eternal truth. By the same token, Hegel radicalizes the idea of prima philosophia by demonstrating that the highest first principle or eternal truth is the historicity of truth itself. This is not a paradox but the consistent result of Hegel’s most important work, the Science of Logic, which consists in the determination by thought of the thought of being, or being grasped in the only way it can be: in its intelligibility. This requires that thought also determine the form of thought itself, the very capacity to render being intelligible. In specifying the form of thought, Hegel shows that it must be embodied, living, exemplary of a species-form (Marx’s “species-being”), dependent on social recognition, and historically self-constituting.

It is because we are free that what counts as freedom cannot be decided in advance, derived from our “nature,” or deduced from the structure of pure practical rationality. We alone can determine what would count as realized freedom. To cite one of the key contemporary defenders of the bourgeois tradition, Robert Pippin, “It is precisely because Hegel is insisting so radically on the autonomy of thought that he ends up with this theory of the always situated, or historical, nature of human reflection.”[54] Accordingly, it is Hegel’s logical concept of self-determination that renders intelligible the Marxian conception of freedom as the elimination of class antagonism and the break with both property relations and their philosophical representatives, including Hegel himself.

For Korsch, the most explicitly Hegelian or simply philosophical period in Marx and Engels stretched from 1843-8, when Marxism was a theory “permeated through and through with philosophical thought”; a theory “of social development seen and comprehended as a living totality”; a theory “of social revolution, comprehended and practiced as a living totality.” Korsch contends that this outlook remained unchanged throughout their lives.[55] So long as the thought of totality persists in the idea of a possible self-transformation of the social whole — so long as Marx and Engels hold fast to the notion that there is some way we ought to orient ourselves collectively — Hegel himself persists. His logic renders intelligible the thought of his own overcoming, pointing to a new conception of Hegelian logic itself.

Hegel’s “absolute method” tasks itself with grounding philosophically the idea of thought itself as the thought of things in their actuality (and thus in their potential for change).[56] The logic enables thought to articulate what must be true of any conception of nature and of spirit, in a Philosophy of Nature and a Philosophy of Spirit. Yet Marx shows that absolute method is not just a method of philosophical comprehension; it is above all a method for bringing spirit to consciousness of its own possibilities for change. The Science of Logic is spirit’s self-comprehension of what it would mean to truly comprehend anything — including itself as the purposive process whereby society constitutes and re-constitutes itself over historical time. Yet in achieving such self-insight, spirit does not just “complete philosophy” or construct a consistent system. It commits itself to the “ruthless criticism of everything existing” and the changes in practice such criticism would entail.[57] Hegel’s “science of pure thought” thus becomes the materialist science of socialism, the logic of freedom applied.

Marxist Hegelianism

So, not only does Marxism retain a philosophical content while overcoming philosophy; Hegel himself, as the philosopher par excellence for Marx, completed and surpassed philosophy. The completion of philosophy by Hegel was already its overcoming; hence the abolition of philosophy by Marx could have a philosophical content of its own.  What mediates between Hegel’s claim in the Logic that pure thought cannot remain “locked within itself” and Marx’s claim that philosophy must strike the “virgin soil” of the worker’s movement is the following thought: the consciousness of freedom is not a form of disinterested contemplation (as in Spinoza) but a historical achievement that commits us to realizing freedom in practice.

In Marxism and Philosophy, Korsch touches on this crucial issue and struggles to adequately formulate the “end of philosophy,” in the double sense of its task and its conclusion. As he writes, in a passage worth quoting at length:

At the outset of this investigation we stated that Marx and Engels, the founders of scientific socialism, were far from wanting to construct a new philosophy.   In contrast to bourgeois thinkers, on the other hand, they were both fully    aware of the close historical connection between their materialist theory and bourgeois idealist philosophy. According to Engels, socialism in its content is the product of new conceptions that necessarily arise at a definite stage of social development within the proletariat as a result of its material situation. But it created its own specific scientific form (which distinguishes it from utopian socialism) by its link with German idealism, especially the philosophical system of Hegel. Socialism, which developed from utopia to science, formally emerged from German idealist philosophy. Naturally, this (formal) philosophical origin did not mean that socialism therefore had to remain a philosophy in its independent form and further development. From 1845 onwards, at the latest, Marx and Engels characterised their new materialist and scientific standpoint as no longer philosophical.”[58]

Marxism, therefore, has a philosophical origin, but because of its new historical content — the idea of socialism as realized freedom — it is not still philosophical in form. Marxism does not need to address the distinctly philosophical problem of the “form of form” to which Hegel, in his Science of Logic, provided the ultimate solution. In articulating his notion of the Idea (self-consciousness as the principle of intelligibility of both theory and practice), Hegel “allotted philosophy a task that went beyond the realm of theory and became in a certain sense practical.”[59]  German idealism became practical through its loyalty to theory, and in an analogous manner, Marxism became philosophical through its loyalty to its practical and revolutionary goal.

Hence Marx’s famous remark in the postface to the second edition of Das Kapital: “My dialectical method is, in its foundations, not only different from the Hegelian, but exactly opposite to it (our emphasis).”[60] Korsch tries to shows that this is not an abstract contrast of a new Marxist philosophical method to the old Hegelian one but rather the expression of the possibility of communism via the proletariat as a new historical phenomenon. As we have emphasized, Marxism aims not at the abstract overcoming of philosophy through criticism alone but, as Korsch states, at the “concrete abolition of philosophy as part of the abolition of bourgeois social reality as a whole, of which it is an ideal component.”[61] Philosophy participates in its own self-transformation through the self-transformation of society.

By the same token, Korsch challenges what he sees as Hegel’s residual idealism, the socially necessary form of appearance of speculative philosophy following its Left Hegelian appropriation in the nineteenth century: “For Hegel, the practical task of the Concept in its ‘thinking activity’ (in other words, philosophy) does not lie in the domain of ordinary ‘practical human and sensuous activity’ (Marx). It is rather ‘to grasp what is, for that which is, is Reason.’”[62] Here Korsch falls below his own best insight, that Reason for Hegel is not only theoretical but also practical. The difference between Marx and Hegel is that the former historically specifies Reason in terms of the capitalist totality — yet in a way already anticipated by Hegel himself. While Hegel conceives philosophy as the contemplative, reconciling activity of an intellectual elite, he understands reason as concrete theoretical-practical activity that can change.

Korsch is explicit that “with the alteration of historical reality and practice the determinations of thought and all their connections also alter.”[63] This idea guides the most standard interpretation of his ideas circa 1923. But as we have already demonstrated, things are not this simple; Korsch is not guilty of what we call ultra-historicism, the view that philosophical concepts are reducible to historical forms of appearance, to the social relations that constitute the conditions for their possibility.  In his polemics against August Thalheimer, Korsch rejects “the caricature that the results of materialist dialectical thought in Lenin as well as Marx could not at all, never, and in no form generally be valid beyond the momentary realm of experience out of which it is derived and for which it is determined.” Marx and Lenin had “distinguished between those results of their materialist dialectical research which have such general importance and those which do not.”[64] Against the “undialectical historicism, positivism, and practicism” of Thalheimer, Korsch upholds a distinctly Marxian form of historical rationalism: the thought that there is only one social form that would redeem history and that would thus constitute its “truth”: communism. Against Thalheimer’s opportunistic affirmation of “diverse” forms of revolutionary transition, Korsch upholds the council dictatorship as “‘the’ beginning of ‘the’ socialistic form, of democracy!” It is a historical invariant of historical materialism that only the dictatorship of the proletariat is the path to freedom. Marxism may seek its own overcoming as the critical theory of capitalism, but as the comprehension of what true freedom would require, Marxism is itself eternal.

To be even more explicit: it will always and forever have been true that capitalism is the self-contradiction of bourgeois society. Marxism is the recognition of that truth, which can be lost and forgotten but never rendered false. This tells us something about what freedom cannot be, under any conditions: namely, capitalist. As Adorno writes, “Dialectical thought cannot accept the traditional distinction between genesis and validity. It cannot endorse the radically psychologistic conception that every kind of truth is reducible to its point of origin, that truth itself is displaced once we have got behind it and uncovered how it has arisen.”[65] Even if Marxism is superseded as a critical theory of society with the supersession of the society that gives rise to Marxian criticism, Marxism will always have been the recognition of an aspect of the true essence of freedom.

This is an Hegelian lesson. Korsch attacks all truths that claim to be immutable. Such “truths” for him are only the weapons of a bourgeoisie that desires nothing more than to perpetuate the capitalist present. But what if Hegel’s immutable truth is simply the permanent possibility of mutation, as well as the possibility of radical change towards full freedom? “The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.”[66] The necessity of Marx lies in his historical recognition of freedom as an unrealized task. Hegelianism persists in the rational comprehension of the practical necessity of Marxism itself. | P


[1] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1962), 44.

[2] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), 57.

[3] See “Why Still Philosophy?” in Theodor Adorno, Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] G.W.F. Hegel, Introduction to the Philosophy of History, trans. Leo Rauch (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1988), 42.

[6] We will refer to other essays by Korsch circa 1923 but not to his work in general, since this is not an article about Korsch but about the key issue of Marxism and philosophy, which his work in the 20s raises. After 1924, Korsch gradually abandoned Marxism in favor of a “materialism” not so different from that of post- and anti-Marxists like Michel Foucault, who celebrated the tailist pursuit of “real, material, everyday struggles” divorced from any broader movement to overcome capitalism as a totality. The importance of Korsch’s work in 1923 — alongside that of Lukács in the same period — lies in its recollection of the potential of the international workers’ movement in 1917.

[7] Chris Cutrone, “Ends of Philosophy,” in Platypus Review 108 (July-August 2018).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Adorno, “Why Still Philosophy?” 7.

[10] Quoted in Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, trans. Fred Halliday (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008), 52.

[11] Ibid., p.66.

[12] Ibid., p.65.

[13] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1978), 489.

[14] For a discussion of the historical conditions of Cartesian thought, see Max Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” in Critical Theory: Selected Essays, ed. M. O’Connell (New York: Continuum Press, 1999), 188-243.

[15] Marx and Engels, “Manifesto,” 489.

[16] Ibid., 490.

[17] Ibid., 489.

[18] Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 60.

[19] Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, in Karl Marx & Frederick Engels Collected Works, Vol. 22 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1986),329.

[20] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in Karl Marx & Frederick Engels Collected Works, Vol. 11 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1979), 186.

[21] Marx, The Civil War in France, 330.

[22] Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, 97.

[23] Cutrone, “Why still read Lukács? The place of ‘philosophical’ question in Marxism,” Platypus Review 63 (February 2014) <https://platypus1917.org/2014/02/01/why-still-read-lukacs-the-place-of-philosophical-questions-in-marxism/>

[24] Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, 37. See also Marx’s treatment of religion in footnote 4 at Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Books, 1982), 493-94.  

[25] Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, p96-97.

[26] Korsch, Kernpunkte der materialistichen Geschichtsauffassung (Berlin: Frankes Verlag, 1922),8. Our translation.

[27] Paul Le Blanc, “The anti-philosophical Marxism of Karl Korsch,” Review of Karl Marx,by Karl Korsch. International Socialist Review no. 104 (Spring 2017).
<https://isreview.org/issue/104/anti-philosophical-marxism-karl-korsch>

[28] Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, 30-31

[29] Ibid., 97.

[30] Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 490.

[31] Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, 73

[32] Ibid., 47.

[33] Ibid., 48n19.

[34] Ibid., 73: “For both Marx and Engels this philosophy was always more than sufficiently represented by Hegel.”

[35] Ibid., 44: “Instead of making an exit, classical German philosophy, the ideological expression of the revolutionary movement of the bourgeoisie, made a transition to a new science which henceforward appeared in the history of ideas as the general expression of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat: the theory of ‘scientific socialism’ first founded and formulated by Marx and Engels in the 1840s.”

[36] Ibid., 33.  A scandalous example in the history of Marxism is Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, which often falls far below Hegelianism in its formulations. But it is crucial that the philosophical substance of Marxist thinkers not be reduced to any one thought, doctrine, set of doctrines, or text. Despite Lenin’s positivism in the Empirio-Criticism text, his theories of revolutionary action and historical agency are perfectly dialectical. The true philosophical substance of Lenin is to be found not just in his overtly philosophical texts or claims but in his revolutionary thought considered in toto.

[37] Ibid., 74.

[38] Korsch never fails to remind us that “this general surpassal of the purely philosophical standpoint still incorporates a philosophical character” (Ibid., 75).

[39] See Karl Korsch, “The Marxist Dialectic,” trans. Karl-Heinz Otto (1923). Available at
 
<https://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1923/marxist-dialectic.htm>

[40] Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, 93

[41] Ibid., 94.

[42] Ibid., 69.

[43] G.W.F. Hegel, The Science of Logic, trans. George di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 752-53: “[The logical idea] is shut up in pure thought, the science only of the divine concept. Its systematic exposition is of course itself a realization, but one confined within the same sphere. Because the pure idea of cognition is to this extent shut up within subjectivity, it is the impulse to sublate it, and pure truth becomes as final result also the beginning of another sphere and science. It only remains here to indicate this transition […] The transition is to be grasped, therefore, in the sense that the idea freely releases itself.” Translation modified.

[44] Ibid., 41.

[45] Korsch, “On Materialist dialectic,” trans. Karl-Heinz Otto (1924). Available at:
<https://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1924/materialist-dialectic.htm>

[46] Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, 46

[47] Ibid.

[48] Frederick Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, in Karl Marx & Frederick Engels Collected Works, Vol. 26 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990), 362.

[49] Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, 75.

[50] Korsch adds: “Marx made the same point in an early writing: ‘Form has no value if it is not the form of its content’” (Ibid., 90). But what if the content is the notion of form itself? Would this not require a treatise on the form of any form, a science of form, or as Hegel called it, a ‘science of logic’?

[51] Ibid., 88.

[52] As Korsch writes in his introduction to Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program: “According to Marx’s basic materialist conception, intellectual production like any other production requires a specific, concrete raw material to be transformed into thought. Thinking which just produces abstract thoughts ‘in general’ is quite fruitless. Even in thinking, the only way to produce a real ‘material’ product of thought is by applying the power of thought to a material of thought which can be worked on by it” (Ibid., 157).

[53] Korsch even goes so far as to use Hegel to criticize Engels himself, when the latter tries to find a few ultimate formulae of philosophical truth, remarking that Engels “retreats from the height of the concept to its threshold” (Ibid., 79).

[54] Robert Pippin, Idealism as Modernism: Hegelian Variations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 171.

[55] Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, 57.

[56] G.W.F. Hegel, The Science of Logic, 10: “This spiritual movement, which in its simplicity gives itself its determinateness, and in this determinateness gives itself its self-equality — this movement, which is thus the immanent development of the concept, is the absolute method of the concept, the absolute method of cognition and that the same time the immanent soul of the content. — On this self-constructing path alone, I say, is philosophy capable of being objective, demonstrative science.”

[57] Marx, “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 13.

[58] Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, 47

[59] Ibid., 75.

[60] Marx, Capital, 102.

[61] Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, 76.

[62] Ibid., 94.

[63] Korsch, “On Materialist Dialectic.”

[64] Korsch, “Lenin and the Comintern,” trans. Roy Jameson (1924). Available at:
<https://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1924/lenin-comintern.htm>

[65] Theodor Adorno, An Introduction to Dialectics, trans. Nicholas Walker (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017), 190.

[66] Marx’s third thesis on Feuerbach, quoted in Korsch, Kernpunkte der materialistichen Geschichtsauffassung.

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