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The quintessence of Marxism: A popular presentation

Karl Korsch

Platypus Review 152 | December 2022-January 2023

Karl Korsch’s “The Quintessence of Marxism” (1922), a text made reference to by Korsch in his “Introduction to the Critique of the Gotha Program” (1922), appears to have been translated into English only once: serialized in the pages of the Australian Workers’ Weekly, the official organ of the Australian Communist Party, across seven issues in July and August of 1924.[1] The translation was prepared by Guido Baracchi, a founder of that Party and a labor movement activist, whose biography, Communism: A Love Story (2007) was written by Jeff Sparrow. Baracchi originally presented his translation with a foreword, retained here, that situates the text within Korsch’s pedagogical project. This historic document has been newly transcribed for publication in the Platypus Review by Natalya Antonova, Shane Hopkinson, and Liam Kenny.

Guido Baracchi’s foreword

Karl Korsch, one of the foremost educationalists of the Communist Party of Germany, tells us, in the German preface to his “Quintessence,” (published in 1922), that the immediate purpose of this pamphlet is to serve as a basis for study-classes on the most important lessons of scientific Socialism or Communism. For this purpose, he advises the distribution of the material over at least six lessons of two hours each, in such a way that the first three parts (questions 1–23) are despatched in the first three lessons. Three lessons are then still left for the more difficult inquiries of the remaining parts (questions 24–37).

A further purpose of the “Quintessence” is stated by Korsch to be the assistance of beginners, who are unable to attend classes independently to penetrate the heart of the Marxian system. He says that one who has impressed upon his mind the contents of this pamphlet, and supplemented the knowledge thus gained by repeated reading of the shorter writings of Marx and Engels named in Nos. 1–6 of the Literature Index, will be sufficiently prepared to begin an independent study of Marx’s principal work, Capital.

A "Quintessence" of Marxism must, in the most highly condensed form, yet have in itself all the essential content of this doctrine. With regard to the economic theories, Korsch claims to have attained this fully in the present pamphlet. On the other hand, he admits having presented the general social theory of Marxism only in barest outline. For its more detailed and authentical presentation, he refers the reader to his pamphlet "Essential Points of the Materialist Conception of History," which is not yet available in English. Several works mentioned in the Literature Index are likewise still unavailable in English, although the translator hopes to remedy this defect in part at an early date. Meanwhile, in the accessible literature mentioned, the student will find enough to engage his attention.

The following translation of the "Quintessence" is accordingly offered to Australian readers in the hope that it may serve both the purposes for which its author intended it.

— The Translator.

Literature for a First Introduction

  1. ENGELS, Principles of Communism.
  2. MARX AND ENGELS, Communist Manifesto.
  3. ENGELS, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific.
  4. MARX, Wage Labor and Capital.
  5. MARX, Value, Price and Profit.
  6. MARX, Criticism of the Gotha Programme.
  7. LUXEMBURG, The Accumulation of Capital. An anti-Critique (pp. 7 – 21).
  8. LENIN, Imperialism as the Last Stage of Capitalism.
  9. LENIN, State and Revolution.
  10. VARGA, The Economic-Political Problems of Proletarian Dictatorship.
  11. BORCHARDT, Basic Concepts of Political Economy according to Marx.
  12. KORSCH, What is Socialisation?


1. What is Communism?

Communism is a scientific theory and a social and political movement, based on this scientific theory.

Supplement: 1. The scientific theory of Socialism or Communism founded by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (Marxism), comprises (a) the theory of the ends of Communism and of the means for the attainment of these ends; (b) the scientific insight into the necessity of these ends and means.

2. Communism is, however, not only a scientific doctrine (theory), but also action in accordance with this doctrine (practice). The Communists, who have the scientific theory of “Marxism” in common with the other socialist parties, distinguish themselves from these through the circumstance that, practically, they act most resolutely in accordance with this theory (cf. Communist Manifesto, Part II, paragraph 6).

2. What end does Communism pursue?

The freeing of the proletariat, through the transformation of the existing state and social order into “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (cf. Engels, Principles of Communism, Question I: “What is Communism? Answer: Communism is the theory of the conditions of the freeing of the Proletariat,” and Communist Manifesto, Part II, final paragraph).

3. From what “unfreedom” can Communism liberate the Proletariat in a Democratic Republic?

There are two forms of unfreedom: the political unfreedom of the citizens in the not yet democratic state, and the social unfreedom of the workers in the not yet Communist society. The democratic-republican state gives to its citizens only political freedom, but does not do away with the social unfreedom (oppression and exploitation) of the workers in capitalist society.

4. In what does the social unfreedom (oppression and exploitation) of the workers (proletarians) consist in capitalist society?

The bourgeois freedoms (e.g., freedom of trade, free access to education, free franchise, etc.) are of small avail to the proletarian — because, in capitalist society, he is hindered from their utilization by his class position.

Illustration: 1. “The law forbids all, with equal majesty, the rich, as well as the poor, to sleep under the bridge!” (Anatole France).
2. Constitution of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, Chapter 5, Nos. 13–17.

5. On what is the class character of the capitalist social order based?

It has its roots in the capitalist economic order, which (according to the “materialist conception of history and society” of Karl Marx) forms the foundation of the entire social order.

6. How, according to the materialist conception of society, are the different component parts of human society related to one another?

Graphic Representation of Human Society:



Ideas in the minds of men.
Law, Morality, Customs.
Church, School, Free Association.
Family, State.

Economic Order (Economy).

7. On what is the class character of the capitalist economic order based?

On the antithesis between the capitalists, who possess the means of production (“ground and soil, pits and mines, raw materials, tools, machines, means of communication.,” etc.) and the proletarians, who are excluded from possession of the means of production.

8. How is it that the capitalist class can oppress and exploit the proletarian class?

Marx answers: “From the dependence of labor upon nature it results that the man who owns nothing but his labor-power must, in all states of society and civilisation, be the slave of those persons who have acquired possession of the material objects without which labor is impossible. The dispossessed can only work, and therefore, can only live, upon sufferance.” (“Criticism of the Gotha Programme”).

Illustration: Comparison of the worker, who sells his labor-power for wages, with the peasant or craftsman of the Middle Ages, who used his labor-power productively, and sold or consumed his products. Both live “by their labor.”

9. In what forms is the oppression and exploitation of the working class by the capitalist class accomplished?

The answer follows from the Marxian theory of Value and Surplus Value.

[The above matter is being used by Comrade Baracchi in his Economic class held in the Communist Hall every Wednesday evening. The matter will ultimately be published in pamphlet form and will be of great service in assisting to train young students. – Ed.]


10. How do the use-value and the exchange-value of a product differ from one another?

The use-value (the utility) of the product exists for him who wants to have it for himself; the exchange-value (selling value) for him who does not want to have it for himself (e.g., a castor-oil manufacturer). The use-values of products are not strictly measurable; their exchange-values are always strictly measurable (value measure: “money”). Every article produced must, if, as a commodity, it is to have an exchange-value, have some use-value; but, in this connection, the magnitude of the exchange-value does not depend on the degree of the use-value.

11. With which value is the capitalist economic order concerned?

With “exchange-value” (selling value).

Goods are almost all produced for exchange (sale), therefore as “commodities” for the “market” (trade); they “circulate” as “commodities” before they are utilized and consumed as “articles of use” (means of circulation: “money”). The “labor-power” of the proletarian is, in the capitalist economic order, also sold as a “commodity” by its natural possessor on the “labor-market,” before it is used and consumed by its purchaser, the capitalist, in his factory.

(All this is different in the Communist planful economy according to needs!)

12. How great is the “value” (exchange-value) of commodities in the capitalist economy?

According to the theory of value of Marx, all commodities have in relation to each other so much the greater “value,” the more “socially necessary labor” has to be expended on their production.

Supplement: The reasons why the prices actually paid do not, as a rule, correspond to this value-relation of the commodities, will be given later.

13. According to this measure, how great is the “value” (exchange-value) which the commodity “labor-power” possesses for its seller and buyer on the “labor-market”?

Labor-power is, as a commodity, “worth” so much, as socially necessary labor has to be expended in order to produce such a labor-power ready for use. This labor is performed in the industries whose products enter into the consumption of the working class (e.g., industries producing means of life, including agriculture, the clothing industry and the building industry). It is paid with the wages, which the seller of the commodity labor-power, the worker, receives from its purchaser, the capitalist, and hands on to the sellers of the products consumed by himself and his family.

Illustration: One may so imagine the matter, as if human labor-power were produced in definite industries (industries supplying means of life, etc.) like a machine. The employer, who wants to use a labor-power in his factory, buys it directly from the free laborer himself, but indirectly from those undertakings in which the means of life, etc., for the workers are produced, and, therewith, also the finished labor-powers themselves.


Example: A flannel factory with a working capital of 5,500,000 marks.

14. Of what do the “outlays” of the “undertaker” consist, on the opening of the factory and in the first year of business?                                 

He buys:

A piece of land with empty factory buildings

Weaving-looms and other inventory

Yarn and other raw materials and stock

He pays in this year of business in wages and

Accordingly, he has "invested" in the factory







15. How high are the actual “costs” for a year’s product?

For raw materials and stock

For wages and salaries

“Writings off” for wear and tear of buildings and machines

Sum of the actual costs               






16. What would the undertaker say if the sold product really brought in only the costs?

He would say: “I have made nothing.”

Supplement: He would even say: “I have lost —” and would mean by that the “interest” which, if he had borrowed the money he would have had to pay to the moneylender (e.g., the bank), and which, even now, he puts down, as his own banker on his own account. The reasons why the capitalist “undertaker” must reckon the payment of interest on his money invested in his own factory along with the “capitalist costs of production” of his annual product will be given later.

17. Would the undertaker be satisfied if, in addition, the sold product brought in his wages (i.e., the return for his activity in directing the factory)?

The answer follows, if one imagines the undertaking transformed into a joint-stock company with a share-capital of 5,500,000 marks. Then the directors’ salaries, also, are put in the “wages and salaries account.” But the capitalist undertaker — that is, here, the shareholders — would still ask: “Where is our dividend?”

18. In reality, what does the sold product normally bring in?

In the capitalist economy, the sold product brings in, under normal conditions, more than the costs — e.g., instead of 3,200,000 marks, actually 5,200,000 marks; i.e., besides the “costs” a “balance” of 2,000,000 marks. The total value-sum which the capitalist has “invested” in the factory has, therefore, increased in one year from 5,500,000 marks to 2,300,000 marks plus 5,200,000 marks, equal to 7,500,000 marks. The capital has put on “surplus-value” to the extent of 2,000,000 marks.

19. Whence is the “surplus-value” accruing to the capital derived?

Not from advantageous purchase and sale (utilisation of the “conjuncture,” profiteering and the like). All this explains only accidental extra-profits of individual capitalists, and such gains (trade profits) as are made through the turnover of finished products (commodities). But it does not explain the profits which, under normal conditions, are made through the actual capitalist production of the goods. These normal profits, which the capitalist undertaker makes in production, are due rather to the circumstance that the finished product is worth more than the sum of all the productive elements purchased by the capitalist for his production (raw materials, etc., plus wages — according to Marx: consumed dead and living capital: c plus v).

Illustration: Comparison of the profits which a factory-owner can make by reselling his raw materials, selling up his machines, etc., and the profits which he makes in consequence of the productive working up of these raw materials by machines and workers.

20. How does the “surplus-value” of the product arise in production?

Through the productive labor of all the workers participant in its production.

Supplement: Socially regarded, this surplus value is solely created neither by the capitalist nor by the workers of his factory, nor by both together. Besides the replacement of the productively consumed values (raw materials, etc., plus labor-power equal to c plus v), “free” surplus-value (s) is created rather by the labor performed in this factory, under the social conditions created by the simultaneous activity of many other factories. Over this product, standing at society’s disposal gratis, of the natural force, “human labor-power applied to objective means of production,” the totality would, in the Communist society, dispose directly and through its thereto appointed organs. In the capitalist society the entire product of a factory, and therefore the “surplus-value” contained in it also, belongs to the capitalist undertaker as his private property, over which he can dispose alone and according to his pleasure.

21. By what means, then, does the capitalist acquire the surplus-value?

Not through compulsion — as the State acquires something through taxation (e.g., 10 percent deduction from wages and salaries). [A tax actually in operation in Germany at the time of writing – G.B.]

Not through cheating either — e.g., underpayment of the suppliers of the raw materials or underpayment of the workers.

Rather is everything in the normal capitalist economy and society “free” and “just.” On an average, the capitalist pays even the worker the full value of the “commodity labor-power.” Only by way of exception is labor-power in single factories, branches of industry (e.g., home work), countries (e.g., overseas colonies), continually bought below its value. Through this “spoliation” of human labor-power capitalist extra-gains, super-profits, arise, but not the normal capitalist “surplus-value.” The capitalist acquires this through the legitimate use of the labor-power bought and paid for by him.

22. How is the contradiction to be explained, that the capitalist pays at its full value for everything which he buys for production, and yet draws from production a “surplus value”?

The “value” which the commodity labor-power has for its seller, the worker, and for its buyer, the capitalist, on the labor-market, is determined solely by the quantity of social labor that is necessary in order to produce such a labor-power ready for use (cf. Question 13). The use-value (the utility) which the actually employed labor-power has for its user, the capitalist in his factory, is, however, something quite different from the exchange-value (selling value), which, as a commodity, it had on the labor-market (cf. Question 10). Through the use of the labor-power in the factory new value is created, and, indeed, so much the more, the more that products are turned out by it; i.e., the longer and more intensively that the labor-power is productively used. The capitalists, who, as the possessors of the means of production (factories), are the only ones who can exploit the “use-value” of human labor-power to their advantage utilise this, their social position of privilege, to “earn” for themselves the difference, created by the productivity of labor-power, between the commodity-value of the raw materials, the labor-power, etc., on the one hand, and the commodity-value of the finished products on the other. In this way arises the accretion to capitalist property, the “surplus-value.”

23. In what, then does the oppression and exploitation of the wage-workers consist in the capitalist factory?

The “human labor-power” indispensable for all production (making of articles of use), belongs during the labor-process no more to its natural bearers, the workers, but to the capitalist undertaker. The latter can use it longer and more intensively than would be necessary for the reproduction of the values productively consumed through its use (raw materials, etc., plus labor-power). The former consequently perform, e.g., in eight hours’ labor-time, besides, perhaps, the four hours of “necessary labor,” another four hours of “surplus-labor.” The “surplus- product” produced by this “surplus-labor” contains the “surplus-value.” Surplus-product and surplus-value are, therefore, so much the greater, the more “surplus-labor” is performed; i.e., (1) the longer the working-day, as a whole, lasts, and the more intensively the work is carried on (“absolute surplus-value”); (2) the smaller the fraction of the working-day is, which is necessary for the replacement of the values (raw materials, etc., plus labor-power) productively consumed (“relative surplus-value”).

For the capitalist, who employs their labor-power in his factory, the workers must, by reason of the “free labor-contract” entered into, perform this “surplus-labor” gratis. In that consists their “exploitation.” In order to get as much surplus-labor as possible out of “his workers,” the capitalist “employer” subjects, for the whole of the labor-time, the workers employed by him in his factory to a labor-discipline as strict as possible. Since the workers, if they want to work, are compelled to bind themselves, through the “free labor-contract,” to the observance of such directions given by a capitalist undertaker in his private interest, insofar they lose, for the duration of the labor-time, their personal freedom. In that consists their “oppression” (cf. Question 8).


24. Why does the question of the distribution of the surplus value require special examination?

Subjectively, for the individual capitalists, the capitalist economy is, indeed, only a realisation of their private capital; objectively, socially considered, however, it represents at the same time a production, through division of labor, of articles of use. All products are turned out by factories which, juristically, indeed, appear to belong solely to a more or less large number of private owners (single proprietors, firms, joint-stock companies, etc.); which, however, economically, socially regarded, are entirely dependent on one another: in order to be able to continue the realisation of their capital, the individual capitalist producers must constantly come on the market as buyers and sellers (i.e., exchange their products with one another). In competing with one another, they influence one another mutually. They therefore stand in definite social relations to one another, even if they do not know it or wish it, from which the individual cannot withdraw. This social character of the capitalist mode of production stipulates, also, a social form of distribution of the surplus value. If, therefore, for the sake of simplicity, we have assumed hitherto (in Part III) that the individual undertakers could appropriate, directly and without deduction, the surplus value created in their factories, so that each undertaker realises just so much gain (“profit”) as “surplus value” is created in his factory, we must now establish the fact that, through this assumption, only the relation between the entire capitalist class (the “collective capitalist”) and the entire working class (the “collective worker”) is truly characterised.

On the other hand, the measure of participation of each individual undertaker into total social surplus-value is, in the capitalist society, regulated independently of precisely how much surplus-value has been produced in his factory. And, moreover, they take part in the distribution of the surplus value, besides the actual capitalist undertakers (possessors of factories), all other members of the capitalist class also.

In place of the direct appropriation of the “surplus value” created by the surplus labor of their workers, on the part of individual private owners of actual means of production (factories), we have, therefore, in the first instance, an (invisible!) appropriation of the total social surplus value by the social collective capitalist (the capitalist class as possessor of the total social capital). The single fractions of the total social surplus value created by the total social labor are then allotted among the different members in different forms, and, in consequence, manifest themselves as capitalist “profit” or as other capitalist “income,” frequently in quite other places than the “profit and loss account” of the particular factory in which they were produced.

Illustration: Today, for example, the surplus value created by the surplus labor of the railway workers manifests itself as profit of the coal and iron producers. [Another specifically German illustration – G.B.]

Marx says: “The capitalists (i.e., here, the members of the capitalist class) participate in the surplus value like the shareholders of a company, according to the magnitude of their proprietary share (in the total social capital).”

25. In what forms do the individual members of the capitalist class obtain their share of the total social surplus value?

In the different forms of “capital-profit,” and, in addition to that, in the form of an ostensible labor-income (return for “unproductive” activities and services).

26. What are the most important forms in which capital-profit appears?

The most important is the undertaker’s profit, which falls to the possessors of the actual capitalist undertakings. Next to that stand interest and ground-rent, as the second most important forms. “Interest” is drawn by the possessors of money-capital, who lend it out; “ground rent” by the possessors of ground and soil, who rent or lease it.

Illustration: In our example, let the undertaker himself have put up only a part (500,000 mks) of his working capital (5,500,000 mks). Let him have borrowed 3,000,000 mks, and rented a piece of land with buildings (worth 2,000,000 mks). Let him have sold his annual product (value 5,200,000 mks) not directly to its final purchasers, but to a middleman, who has paid him 4,700,000 mks for it. Then the excess (2,000,000 mks) realised over and above the actual costs by the sale of the annual product, divides itself (at 10 per cent, rate of interest) [That is, 10 per cent, interest, and rent equal to 10 per cent on 2,000,000 mks – G.B.] into four parts: 300,000 mks go as “interest” to the moneylender; 200,000 mks as rental (“ground rent”) to the owner of the piece of land; 500,000 mks as (gross) profit to the middleman; only the remainder (1,000,000 mks) is left to the undertaker as “undertaker’s profit”; from this he deducts another 50,000 mks as “payment of interest” on his “own” money-capital of 500,000 mks put by him into his factory (herewith cf. Question 16).

27. In what forms do those members of the capitalist class who are not participant in “capital-profit” in any form, obtain their share of the total social surplus value?

Participant in the surplus value are, in the capitalist society, besides the drawers of capital-profit (Question 26), all those sections that perform no “productive” labor (king, cleric, professor, prostitute, soldier, etc.). These sections pursue an activity which may be strenuous and, in some cases, even necessary, or useful for the maintenance and further development of human society, but is, in the economic sense of the word, no productive labor (i.e., labor creating economic values). Accordingly, they, too, live on the “surplus value” produced by the surplus-labor of the “productive” workers.

The forms in which these sections get their share of the surplus value conveyed to them, are extremely numerous.

Illustration: Money-capitalists, landowners, undertakers, pay taxes to the State out of their profit; the workers also pay direct and indirect taxes out of their wages. The State pays its officials. Capitalists, workers, officials, pay for a great number of unproductive activities and services (parson, professor, etc.) out of their income.

28. In what relation do the individual undertakers stand to one another within the capitalist economy?

In a two-sided relationship. In the capitalist exchange-economy based on division of labor, each individual undertaker must at the same time appear directly or indirectly as the buyer of the products of an unlimited number of other undertakings, and as the seller of his own products to an unlimited number of other undertakings. No one can produce without purchasing raw materials, machines, etc., as well as, indirectly, through the payment of his workers, means of life, etc. The undertakers trafficking in exchange therefore approach one another, on the one hand, indeed, with opposing interests, since each desires to buy as cheaply as possible from the others, and to sell as dearly as possible to the others. On the other hand, however, they also support each other mutually; none of them can realise his profit without, at the same time, directly or indirectly helping to realise the profits of all the others, since, in the capitalist “costs of production” of each single undertaking, the profits of numerous other undertakings must always be partially contained.

Similarly, in the capitalist competitive economy, the individual undertakers stand in a competitive struggle against one another, since each seeks to sell the commodity produced by him cheaper than the other producers of the same commodity. By this, however, they also promote indirectly their common interest: by developing the productive power of labor through technical and organisational improvements they diminish the “value” of all commodities, including the commodity “labor-power,” and increase thereby the “relative surplus-value” (cf. Question 23).

29. In what relation do the capitalist undertakers stand to the remaining sections of the capitalist class?

Likewise in a two-sided one. On the one hand, the share of the undertakers in the total surplus-value is curtailed by all the amounts which, in the form of interest, ground-rent, payment of economically unproductive activities, fall to those belonging to other capitalist sections. In given circumstances, certain antagonisms follow from this between the different capitalist sections (e.g., finance and industrial capital). The undertakers active in the sphere of production appear as those who must “pull the chestnuts out of the fire” for others. On the other hand, the “success” of the particular function which the actual “undertakers” perform in the interest of the entire capitalist class (i.e., the use of labor-power for the production of surplus-value), is manifestly completely dependent on the simultaneous activity of all the other functionaries of capitalist society (trade capital, finance capital, king, priest, professor, etc.). The correct view of the whole relationship of the different capitalist sections to one another is, therefore, the following: the actual means of production, upon the exclusive possession of which the whole power and entire income of all capitalist sections in the last resort rests, are not, in the capitalist society, by nature divided up among the individual "capitalists," so that each single capitalist would possess and use for himself alone a definite portion of actual means of production. Rather are the entire means of production the common property of all members of the capitalist class, who, in different forms, participate, through "division of labor," in collective action for the maintenance and further development of the capitalist economy and society (cf. Korsch, “Socialisation,” No. 5) [Not yet translated from the German – G.B.].[2]Accordingly, with just as much right as one can say: “The capitalists possess the means of production, they are therefore in the position to appropriate the surplus value,” one can also put forward the reverse proposition: “The capitalists are in the position to appropriate the surplus-value, they therefore possess the means of production.” Marx says: “To be a capitalist, is to have not only a purely personal, but a social status in production” (Communist Manifesto, Part II., paragraph 18).

Illustration: Comparison of the capitalist undertakers with the military leaders of the “front line,” where, by “bringing their forces into play,” “territory is won” — or with suction pumps, which cannot hold for themselves the water drawn by them from the well, but must pass it on to the smaller and larger basins lying behind them.

30. What relationship exists between the private interest of each individual capitalist and the social collective interest?

Likewise a two-sided one. While each individual capitalist looks after his private interest, at the same time all together serve, within certain limits, the social collective interest: by production of commodities for which a demand exists, they fulfill certain social requirements. While they employ the greater part of the money realised by the sale of their commodities for the replacement of their old as well as for the formation of new working capital, socially regarded, they effect, at the same time, the “reproduction” and “accumulation” of the total social capital. While they seek, by supplying cheaper or better commodities, to hit their competitors, they introduce technical and organisational improvements into production and thereby contribute to the further development of the productive power of social labor (cf. Question 28).

All these harmonies between the private interest of the individual capitalists and the social collective interest, exist, however, only within certain limits. In the competitive struggle of the capitalist profit-economy, the individual capitalist cannot be primarily concerned with how many useful products are in all produced through the use of the various means of production and labor-powers, but rather with what amount of money-value falls to him as his private share in the distribution of the total social income. Where the interest of the individual capitalists, in a realisation of their private capital-property as advantageous (profitable) as possible, no longer harmonises with the interest of the totality in an employment of all existing means of production and labor-powers as fruitful (productive) as possible, the capitalist mode of production and social order becomes, from a lever of economic and social progress, a fetter: it then prevents both the most productive possible use of the means of production and labor-powers existing at the time, and also the further development of the productive power of social labor.

This antagonism between the private interest in profitableness and the social interest in productivity comes out especially clearly in the two-sidedness of the concepts “capital” and “value.” From the standpoint of the individual capitalist not only actual “means of production,” through employment of which actual articles of use can be produced (cf. Question 7) appear as “capital,” but every possession through which he is put in the position to appropriate a definite part of the total social income. For example a sum of money (in paper notes), a war-loan bond, a right to the exploitation of any natural or artificial monopoly (turnpike right, bridge toll, natural and artificial waterways, railway traffic). According to the Marxist conception, on the other hand, all these possessions are only “fictitious” (unreal) capital, since, from the standpoint of society, only the actual means of production can be regarded as “real” capital.

For the same reasons, there also arise in the capitalist society the deviations of prices from values mentioned in Question 12. In the capitalist “price” of commodities, not only their “real value” (the social labor embodied in them) manifests itself, but also their “fictitious value,” which they appear to have for the reason that, in the distribution of the total social income, their possession brings an advantage to their possessor. For example, unworked ground and soil, as well as share rights in any fictitious capital, have, from the standpoint of society, no real “value,” are, however, in the capitalist society, a profitable possession for their possessor.

(A good presentation of the two-sidedness of the capitalist economy is given by G. Charasoff: “Karl Marx on Human and Capitalist Economy” — Ladyschnikow Publishing House, Berlin, 1909)[3] [Not yet translated from the German – G.B.]


31. On what is the Communists’ conviction of the inevitability of the downfall of the capitalist economic and social order founded?

On historical facts. The historical development, particularly of the last 100 years, teaches that —

(1) The already (Questions 28–30) pointed out inner contradictions and two-sidednesses of the capitalist economic and social order have, in the course of time, not become softened but sharpened; and that —

(2) The antithesis between the exploiting capitalist class and the exploited wage working class (Questions 2–8) has also become ever greater.

Proof: (a) The economic crises periodically recurring since the beginning of the capitalist era.

(b) The insatiable striving of all capitalist nations after new outlets for their goods on the world market.

(c) The capitalist Powers’ antagonisms of interest arising herefrom, and, after complete partition of the world (about 1900), appearing in more acute form, and their results: militarism, imperialism, national wars and world war.

(d) The progressive national and international organisation of the proletariat as a class.

(All further particulars relating to these questions in the Communist Manifesto, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg.)

32. Are there pure economic causes which must, with objective necessity, lead to the downfall of the capitalist economic and social order?

Were the capitalist mode of production to extend itself over the whole world-economy, so that, finally, there were none but capitalists and wage-workers in the entire world, then, to be sure, a moment would have to come when, from pure economic causes, this economy could no longer function. With the mere approach to such a condition, the divergence between the private interests of the individual capitalists and the social collective interest (see Question 30) would become so great that the capitalist mode of production would, as a result, be unable to fulfill its social functions any longer. Since the production of surplus-value and ever more surplus-value forms the inner impelling motive of the entire capitalist production, and the attainment, in the form of profit, of as large a share as possible in this surplus value forms the impelling motive of all the individual capitalist producers, the production of the articles of use necessary for the continued existence and development of society is, in the capitalist society, only carried on at all by the individual capitalists as a process of capital-realisation for the purpose of capital-increase. It is therefore necessary for the continued existence of the capitalist mode of production that a social “surplus-product” be not only produced, but can also be disposed of by the individual capitalists as a commodity. Then only can the capitalist producers realise (turn into money) themselves in the form of “profits” the “surplus-value” contained in the surplus product. Then only can they renew and augment their working capital, therefore continue their production on the same and a larger scale. This realisation of the profit by disposal of the surplus-product as a commodity on the capitalist commodity market becomes, however, always more difficult, the more the capitalists are dependent on selling their wares solely to one another and to their wage-workers. With an approach to this condition, a chronic “over-production” would set in for lack of solvent buyers, the reproduction and accumulation of all the individual capitals would come to a standstill, and, finally, the continued production of goods would, in the capitalist form, become altogether impossible.

Illustration: Bellamy’s “Parable of the Water Tank.” [See next issue of the Workers’ Weekly. — G.B.]

In reality, however, the human society of today is still far removed from consisting of capitalists and wage-workers only. Capitalism has only the tendency to transform the whole world “in its own image”; this tendency can, however, completely realise itself on a world-scale only after a long time. (All further particulars, Communist Manifesto, Part I., paragraphs 28 and 53, and in R. Luxemburg.)

33. What other social forces are there, which can bring about the revolutionising of the capitalist economic and social order and realise Communism?

The class struggle of the proletariat in all its forms, the forcible overthrow of the existing economic and social order, and the dictatorship of the proletariat can begin the realisation of Communism as soon as the development of the productive power of social labor is so far advanced that a Communist economic and social order is economically possible. This condition does not first arise when the continued existence of the capitalist social order has, for purely economic reasons, become altogether impossible, but when the capitalist social order, and capitalist private property in particular, begins to become a real hindrance to the further development of the social productive power. This condition (the “economic ripeness” of society for the transition to the Communist mode of production) has long ago been attained by us. There is, then, still lacking for the realisation of Communism only the complete carrying out of the organisation of the proletariat as a class capable of social and political action; the final proof that it really possesses the requisite “organisational and ideological ripeness” for this, the proletariat can give only by the revolutionary act itself (cf. Communist Manifesto, Part I., paragraph 37 to end of part).

34. Can the shortcomings and contradictions of the capitalist system be mitigated and removed by a better organisation of the capitalist economy and by social-political reforms?

All attempts at a better organisation of the capitalist mode of production and distribution (cartels, syndicates, trusts, State Capitalism, co-operatives, etc.) and at social-political reforms, find, within the capitalist society, an insurmountable barrier in the capitalist profit-interest. They are, in it, practicable only in so far as they do not seriously endanger this profit-interest, upon which, in the last resort, the activity of the entire capitalist economy depends. They can, therefore, only change the forms in which the capitalist private owners conduct their competitive struggle for as large private shares as possible in the result of the common exploitation of the working class; they can, however, never put an end to this competitive struggle itself, or to the antithesis between capitalists and proletarians.

(The best presentation of these relations is given by R. Luxemburg: “Social Reform or Revolution?” (1898-1900).)[4] [Not yet translated from the German. – G.B.]

35. Can the transition from the capitalist to the Communist social order be accomplished gradually, without class struggle, revolution and dictatorship?

History teaches that a ruling and privileged class has, hitherto, never voluntarily surrendered its position of predominance. That this cannot happen, follows also from the materialist conception of history, according to which not the consciousness (ideas, good will, insight) of men determines their existence, but, inversely, their social existence their consciousness (see Question 6).

For the rest, the means by which the class struggle for the realisation of Communism is to be conducted, do not stand fixed schematically once and for all, but must be most closely adapted to the different conditions existing in different countries and at different times.

(Further particulars on this in all the writings and speeches of Lenin.)

36. Is it a certainty that the present struggle of the classes must end in the victory of the proletarian class?

According to the theory of Marx, the class struggle has, in hitherto existing history, each time ended “in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes” (cf. Communist Manifesto, Part I., paragraph 2).

37. What, then, must each individual proletarian and Communist, who has “worked himself up to a theoretical understanding of the whole historical movement,” do for the realisation of Communism?

He must take active part in the class struggle in all its forms, and, in particular, range himself with the Communist Party of his country, in order thereby to become a member of the world-embracing organisation, the “Communist International,” which has begun to lead by deeds the struggle for the realisation of Communism, and to organise on a world-scale.


[Chapter 23 of Edward Bellamy’s Equality (1897). Retold in condensed form by Karl Korsch. — G.B.]

There was once a land, in which all means of subsistence and of comfort were obtained in the form of water. A minority of the people — favored by force, craft and luck — now took possession of the soil and, with it, all sources of water also; the people had now to work for these proprietors, called capitalists, in order to acquire water by which to live. The capitalists ordered a great reservoir to be constructed for the reception of all water which should be taken from the sources already opened up as well as still to be opened up, and only from this tank was water delivered for use. The capitalists further proposed the following regulation of the traffic: for every bucket of water that the people conveyed to this tank — which was called the market — one penny should be paid to it or placed to its credit; for every bucket that it received from the tank, it should pay two pence or have two pence debited against it; the single penny that remained over from the sale of every bucket of water, was to form the profit of the capitalists. The people accepted this contract and fell briskly to work.

Very soon, however, it was confronted by a phenomenon as astounding as it was melancholy. The water rose higher and higher, and finally flowed over the top of the tank. But it was shown by the books of the capitalists that, from a certain point on, the water in the tank increased, without profits for the capitalists having resulted, or their pennies having increased. They now commanded the people to suspend its labor, and at the same time, exhorted it to purchase water diligently, in order that the tank might be more quickly emptied, the profits return, and the labor, the fetching of water, be taken up anew. But the people, since it obtained no work and no pennies, could buy only little water, or none at all. The capitalists, however, said to the lamenting people: we certainly will not give you work and pennies, when there is no sale and your labor brings us no profit! Because of the great glut in water — because of overproduction, as it was called — the people must therefore thirst, and, in part, slowly perish, and lamentation arose throughout the land, that a crisis had broken out.

When the misery and the complaints of the people increased, the capitalists dipped their fingers in the tank and sprinkled drops upon the people. These drops, however, which were called charity, tasted very bitter. Then they set up great baths and fountains, and also made other arrangements for their pleasure, in order to waste the superfluity of water. In consequence of this the crisis ended, and the labor could again be taken up; when, however, the population greatly increased, a crisis again broke out. This repeated itself ever and again. All discoveries and inventions, all advances of the traffic and of skill, might increase and diversify ever so much the luxury of the rich, the people had, nevertheless, for the most part to remain thirsty, and sank again and again into unemployment and misery “because of the great glut in goods” (as was said). To conclude, it has at length arisen, abolished private property in the soil and in the sources of water, and placed this property in the hands of the collectivity or the State; thereby the preposterous and pernicious profit principle and, with this, the forcible limitation of production and all misery have then been eliminated and universal welfare established. |P

[1] Workers’ Weekly issues of 1924: July 11, July 18, July 25, August 1, August 8, August 15, and August 22. Accessed via the National Library of Australia at <>.

[2] Published in 1919. See Karl Korsch, “What is Socialization? A Program of Practical Socialism,” trans. Frankie Denton and Douglas Kellner, New German Critique 6 (Autumn 1975): 60–81.

[3] Georg von Charasoff, Karl Marx über die menschliche und kapitalistiche Wirtschaft: Eine neue Darstellung seiner Lehre (Berlin: Hans Bondy, 1909). (Hans Bondy, rather than Ladyschnikow, appears to be the publisher.)

[4] Rosa Luxemburg, “Reform or Revolution?,”  available online at <>.