Karl Korsch's Marxismus und Philosophie

August Thalheimer, “Book Review: Karl Korsch, Marxismus und Philosophie

Leipzig: C. L. Hirschfeld, 1923

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Image: Cover to the first edition of Korsch’s
Marxismus und Philosophie (1923)

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Platypus Review 48 | July–August 2012

The first English translation of August Thalheimer’s 1924 review of Karl Korsch’s seminal work, Marxism and Philosophy, appears below. The review originally appeared in the Soviet journal Under the Banner of Marxism(Pod Znamenem Marksizma, 4-5 [1924]: 367–373). For an earlier discussion of Korsch’s book, see Chris Cutrone’s review of the 2008 reprint of Marxism and Philosophy released by Monthly Review Press, in Platypus Review 15 (September 2009), and the original translation of Karl Katusky’s review of Korsch that was published in Platypus Review 43 (February 2012).

Reposted from The Platypus Review.

The task that Karl Korsch sets himself in the article comprising the first part of his “Historical-logical Studies on the Question of the Materialist Dialectic,” boils down to the elucidation of the problem of the interrelation of Marxism and philosophy.[1] The article begins by pointing out that the importance of this question has not been recognized until the present day, and that this ignorance characterizes the bourgeois school of philosophy as well as circles of Marxist academics. “For professors of philosophy, Marxism was at best a rather minor sub-section within the history of nineteenth-century philosophy, dismissed as ‘The Decay of Hegelianism’” (52).

As for the Marxist theoreticians, including also the orthodox ones, they too failed to grasp the importance of the “philosophical side” of their own theory. True, they proceeded from different considerations than the professors of bourgeois philosophy, and even assumed that in this they followed exactly the footsteps of Marx and Engels, because ultimately the latter two would sooner “abolish” than create philosophy. But this attitude of the Marxist theoreticians — the leaders of the Second International — to the problem of philosophy can be considered satisfactory from the viewpoint of Marxism precisely insofar as Feuerbach’s attitude to Hegel’s philosophy satisfied Marx and Engels. Shoving philosophy unceremoniously aside, the cultivation of a negative attitude toward its problems did not occur without impunity and resulted in such curiosities as the confession of faith by some Marxists in Schopenhauer’s philosophy.

In any event, the visible agreement of bourgeois professors and orthodox Marxists of the Second International on this question is a fact. From this viewpoint, in essence, it was no different for either current  which flavor of philosophy was used to “round out” Marxism — Kantianism, Machism, and so on. The latter circumstance permits the author to concentrate all his attention exclusively on the first two perspectives.

In comrade Korsch’s presentation of the matter, it is rather easy to show that the purely negative conception of the relation between Marxism and philosophy detected by him in bourgeois scholars as well as in orthodox Marxists, is explained by the “superficial and incomplete analysis of historical and logical development” (57). Because both sides come to similar solutions of the question, starting from different points of departure, the author does not consider it possible to present both points of view at once, preferring to set them out separately. Nevertheless, he declares, and promises further on to demonstrate, that regardless of all differences, they both coincide in one crucial point: precisely in the question of the relation to dialectics. Just as bourgeois philosophy threw dialectics overboard together with Hegel’s philosophy, likewise Marxists of the second half of the 19th century no longer understood the original meaning of the dialectical principle, which Marx and Engels brought along from the arsenal of philosophy of their teacher, transferring it to the path of materialism.

August Thalheimer (left) and Karl Korsch (right)

August Thalheimer (left) and Karl Korsch (right)

To begin with, the author wants to speak “briefly” about the grounds that caused bourgeois philosophy in the second half of the 19th century to increasingly abandon the dialectical perspective, and that rendered them unable to adequately grasp of the original substance of Marxist philosophy and its meaning in the wider course of development of this philosophical idea over a century. It could certainly be said that this misunderstanding of Marxism from the side of bourgeois professors is a product of their class interests, but the author imagines such an interpretation to be slightly simplified; he tries to find another way, by revealing the underlying socio-historical condition that forced the representative bourgeois philosophy to reject the dialectical method. With this incomprehension of Marxist philosophy by the philosophical department of the bourgeoisie, quite eloquently evidenced by the hole in understanding, the blackout of history recorded for the whole period from the beginning of the decay of the Hegelian charm until the epoch named “back to Kant,” clearly illustrates the “limitedness” of bourgeois philosophy. This “limitedness” is expressed in three forms, two of which were noted even earlier within the boundaries of bourgeois philosophy itself, and only the third one, which by its very nature could not be overcome by bourgeois-philosophers, being left for the plate of our author. The first must be denoted as the limitation of philosophical arrogance, that is, philosophy overlooks how the ideal content of philosophy can rather easily have its substance also beyond the limits of the latter, in different kinds of science that also have a place in relation precisely to Hegelian philosophy. The second limitation, which reduces even the best German researchers to patriotic myopia, resulted in the fact that they coated over the later history of philosophy in the 19th century, accommodating it within the walls of the walls of the Vaterland, losing sight of the fact that in the 1840-60s, philosophy lived in other countries. And finally, the third limitation ascribed by the same author to bourgeois-philosophy is class shortsightedness, hindering bourgeois science’s ability to correctly evaluate its hostility to society and the ability to correctly determine its reflection in theory. If the first two could still be overcome by bourgeois thought (by Dilthey and his school), then the last represents its limit, which already cannot be crossed: Scientific socialism, new revolutionary movement, could be properly understood only by those who stand on the principled new position. The fact is that philosophy cannot stand in judgment of the world as long as it views the world through “ideal-historical development.” Philosophy cannot be torn from the general picture of its time because it is not separate from it: Its development runs side by side with the development of society itself. Hegelian philosophy, as also all classical philosophy of German Idealism, is none other than the translation of the French Revolution into the language of German speculation. Up until the day that the bourgeois were still revolutionary a class, 1848, they understood this philosophy. “But through the course of historical development, as the bourgeoisie is put in the a position of a class, playing a counter-revolutionary role, it throws away this instrument — the Hegelian dialectic — and with it loses the ability to comprehend in thought the true dialectical interrelation of ideas and real historical developments, above all of philosophy and revolution” (66). But the further inability for the bourgeoisie to play a revolutionary role did not at all mean that in this historical situation there are no more actors in that role, but that every actor still entering the stage of his future is the first act following the first performance of the previous actor. Such was our case as well: Bourgeois revolutionary turned into bourgeois counter-revolutionary, and stepped aside for the revolutionary proletarian. This also provides the key to understanding also those philosophical reversals that shaped the bourgeoisie in the middle of the past century: Counter-revolutionary practice could hardly correspond with a philosophical algebra of revolution [paraphrasing Herzen], and the bourgeoisie fell back to Kant from Hegel.

“This dialectical approach enables us to grasp the four different trends we have mentioned — the revolutionary movement of the bourgeoisie, the idealist philosophy from Kant to Hegel, the revolutionary class movement of the proletariat, and the materialist philosophy of Marxism — as four moments of a single historical process. This allows us to understand the real nature of the new science, theoretically formulated by Marx and Engels, which forms the general expression of the independent revolutionary movement of the proletariat” (68). Now bourgeois thought’s misunderstanding of the philosophy of Marxism becomes entirely understandable: As it cannot realize the practical-revolutionary value of the class movement of the proletariat inside bourgeois society, so it also cannot grasp in the thought of this society the essence of the positions in which this movement finds its theoretical expression in the thought of this society.

Believing that these considerations are enough for elucidating the position of bourgeois philosophy, the author turns to the analysis of positions on the matter in the camp of the Marxists. He begins again by indicating the importance of the problems, drawing a clear analogy between these problems with the problem of Marxism and the State. Marxism “abolishes” the state, and not only in bourgeois form, but every state in general; nevertheless this does not imply the disparaging relation of Marxists to the latter. Similarly, Marx and Engels do not force us to consider the denial by philosophy of scientific socialism to be fictitious. Such solutions to the question would be a “vulgarization” of Marxism. The materialist-dialectical point of view demands the most thorough study of the problem of this “abolition.” What might this “abolition” mean? How and when? And for whom is this “abolition” — for all humanity, for the entire proletariat, or only for Marxists? Will philosophy be abolished as a whole, or is it similar to the abolition of the state, seemingly as a sort of period folded in with the phase of the revolutionary process. With such a formulation of the problem, in Korsch’s opinion, not only does it raise the problem to its highest meaning, like the problems of state and revolution, but also allows us to understand the neglect of it by the theoreticians of the Second International: After all, in relation to opportunists, not only do they stand being accused by Lenin of forgetting the problem of the state, but also of questions of revolution in general.

It would be superficial to explain this phenomenon through the personal qualities of individual Marxists: The dialectical method allows for the explanation of such facts from the foundation, lying in society itself. In order to illustrate this, the author gives a short essay on the history of Marxism. According to the author, the whole period of Marxism from its beginnings in the year of the “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (1843) down to our own day is divisible into three parts, under the natural boundaries of history of European society of that time. The 1848 revolution is the first such watershed, and as such the first part of the Marxist epoch. The second part deals with the July Proletariat in 1848 until the beginning of our own time, the new conditions of the capitalist society, ending with the re-awakening of the revolutionary movement. The final third of this history of Marxism begins with the 20th century, our day. The first Marxist period coincided with the revolutionary storm of the 1840s, and in its essence reflected the state of this society. Marxism of this period, despite all of its rejections of philosophy, illustrates “theory permeated through and through with philosophical thought of social development seen and comprehended as a living totality; or, more precisely, it is a theory of social revolution, comprehended and practiced as a living totality” (79­–80). The best expression of this first form of Marxist theory appears in the “Communist Manifesto.” The second period, in the years of European reaction of the second half of the 19th century, necessarily had to reflect the features of this period of social calm: After all, arguing that a theory could lead an independent existence outside of the actual movement of life meant departing from the dialectical-materialist point of view and stepping into idealism. So it could be stated a priori that the new conditions would be reflected in Marxism, changing its physiognomy, which is exactly what happened, in reality. Even the very theory of Marx and Engels, which “remains a comprehensive integrated theory of social revolution,” began changing its forms, switching the focus of attention to its components, the economic, political and other aspects of the whole. Thanks to this, philosophy takes a back seat to the specialist science, political economy. Whereas Marx and Engels allowed political economy in reasonable doses, this did not cause the degeneration of their theory, but their epigones have brought to its extreme in the “unified theory of social revolution turned into a critique of the bourgeois economic system, government, education, religion, art, science and modern culture in general-criticism, without yet taking the next step in its essential revolutionary practice (although it could easily take the step) and mostly changing into reformist tendencies, that do not move away from the grounds of bourgeois state and society” (86). Thus, thanks to this specific historical situation the question of revolution completely lost substance for the reformist-Marxists, and for the orthodox Marxists it represented an “otherworldly” phenomenon, hindering their ability to master the new, revolutionary epoch that commenced at the beginning of the new century. This era has put on the agenda issues of revolution, and thus opened the third period of Marxism, which becomes known, on the initiative of the main instigators of this period — the Russian Bolsheviks — under the name of the period of “Restoration of Marxism.” In the third period, restoration of Marxism restores the question of social revolution, and in line with the problem of Marxism and the state stands the problem of Marxism and philosophy. The latter not only has purely theoretical meaning, but implications for full, deep, practical thought, because the question of the philosophy and revolution raises the question of the relationship between revolution and ideology: the question which, when it will rise in its entirety on the day of the social revolution, the proletariat cannot sidestep.

In the last part of his article the author also gives an analysis of the question of the relation of Marxism to philosophy and ideology in general. What is the position of Marxism in relation to philosophy? The widespread opinion claiming this is a nonsensical question, like the question of the relationship of two incomparable, qualitatively different things, is the answer given by the vulgar Marxists. But this solution in no way corresponds to the actual state of affairs. Neither Marx nor Engels ever saw philosophy as nonsense that had no place in their revolutionary practice. On the contrary, they both have always recognized in its character a certain reality, and demanded the accurate accounting of its value as such in the revolutionary practice, not to mention the form of Marxism. Which is why the Theses on Feuerbach, “should be characterized as philosophy, specifically revolutionary philosophy.” Thus the “abolition” of philosophy must be understood in the sense that it leaves the scene of human history in that moment when the material conditions collapse, which are one or another form of social conditions. From this it follows that the abstract route, the route of pure scientific critique outside revolutionary struggle for this abolition, does not and cannot exist: “Philosophy cannot be abolished without being realized,” the author concludes with Marx’s own words.

That is, if I succeeded in reporting correctly, is the content of the article of comrade Korsch. Its particularity, as an individual chapter of a whole work, excludes the possibility of forming a conclusive opinion about the author’s views. Nevertheless, an interest in the question raised by it does not allow one to pass over some of the positions, advanced by the author that are deserving of praise in every way for the thoroughness with which the themes are treated, and to a certain extent, justifies my resolve in — perhaps somewhat prematurely — speaking out about them.

First of all, one cannot avoid to calling attention to the fact that comrade Korsch admits a certain liberty — if such an expression be permitted — in handling the term philosophy. It is impossible to say precisely what content is invested in this concept. But it is also difficult to indicate what sort of concept would carry the same character of conventionality, and this would depend to an extent on the person using it, as that which is understood by by the concept of philosophy? Does not philosophy to this day continue to search for its subject? Has it not since olden times wandered through the kingdom of knowledge,  here haughtily laying claim to the royal purple robe as the queen of all sciences, there modestly taking on the job of salesman of any science? And between these two opposed roles of philosophy is their not arranged for her a series of intermediate trades? True, comrade Korsch allows one to understand what he has in mind by philosophy, as the expression of the revolutionary movement or as the comprehensive theory of social revolution. But, after all, one cannot ignore that this is only a figurative expression, and in its precise parts it can escape even the author himself, which, in my opinion, happens in this case. Comrade Korsch asserts that the classical philosophy of German idealism from Kant to Hegel is an expression of the bourgeois revolutionary movement. The year 1848 brought to an end the revolutionary attitudes of the bourgeoisie; the latter outlived them, renounced the philosophical sins of its youth and Hegel’s fearless dialectic, whose charm dispersed like smoke, and fell back to Kant. But the philosophy of Kant, according to the author’s own assertion, is a reflection of the revolutionary condition that found its reflection in Hegel as well. Moreover, in fact, the bourgeoisie in the days of its revolutionary youth also took to other forms of philosophy, besides the philosophy of Kant and Hegel. These were not only not idealism, but were also innocent of the field of dialectics. Indeed, French materialism — and it is certainly the form of the philosophy of the revolutionary bourgeoisie — was still sufficiently metaphysical to smooth out the impression or the glimpse of dialectics in Diderot, the dialectics of the brilliant [Claude Adrien] Helvétius, and the still more sketchy dialectics not yet visible in [Léger Marie] Deschamps. I imagine that the explanation of this from the point of view of comrade Korsch will not be very easy, and the difficulty in explaining this is not accidental. The reason for it is the idiosyncratic conception of philosophy (in passing we remark, additionally, that here the conception of dialectics cannot be without fault: The article offers us the possibility of observing the author striving not to lead the latter over the limit of society, showing in this a relation with the point of view of comrade Lukács, finding its expression in the book History and Class Consciousness, which is characterized by a complete rejection of dialectics in nature).

The second thing, which I would not want to overlook in silence, is the somewhat — if one can put it this way — cautious relation to science from the side of comrade Korsch. The opportunists misconstrued Marxism as a scientific critique of the various parts of bourgeois society and thereby took from Marxism its “living spirit” of revolutionary doctrine. Hence the “revolutionary” Marxist lives in fear of science, since the latter can lead to a rupture with revolutionary practice. Because of this, the author does not consider it possible to think the “abolition” of philosophy by Marxism by means of the rejection of philosophy as the singular domain of absolute knowledge, recognizing its ordinary character as the relative knowledge of the sciences. And yet, a different formulation of the question of “abolition” removes the possibility of  understanding the interrelation of Marxism and philosophy completely. Contrariwise, any different conception of philosophy, the recognition of its specificity, which is unknown to science, means a step back to the viewpoint of the pre-Marxist period — so to speak. After all, what constitutes the conception of philosophy on which Marxism in the end depends? Once we hold for philosophy a specific character of understanding, we recognize for it a specific method of searching truth, a method, unknown to science, providing not comparative scientific knowledge, but the very absolute philosophical truth. And it was exactly against such a conception of philosophy, as a sort of super-science presenting an absolute human truth, that Marxism directed its blows. Marxism “abolished” the philosophy of the all-encompassing, “eliminating every contradiction of metaphysical systems. With such philosophy, as a science of sciences, soaring above all branches of knowledge and connecting them together,”[2] were finished once and for all by Marxism, for  all those who do not want to recognize the mystical ways of knowledge. But by denying the royal throne of philosophy, Marxism likewise excludes the necessity for it to take on the role of hawker of truth manufactured by another, ensuring it an independent place among different sciences. The question about the possibility of a special science is best solved in its procedure of studying a specific object, in its subject. It is precisely in learning the nature of that subject, “the further elaboration in all its details,” this science is the task of Marxism in the domain of philosophy. And there is no need to fear the revolutionary purity of Marxism. In this sense philosophy, as nothing but a “guide to activity” cannot be, and therefore its meaning and very possibility are only conceivable through an actual connection to activity. Of course, this guidance is more “pleasant” and useful in its execution, than, let us say, its writing, but this is only in the case where its plan is already at hand. Rejection of action from the revolutionary’s side, of course, must be seen as betrayal of revolution, but also the rejection of science of action — and philosophy is that, as well — must also be recognized as disarmament of the revolution.

Finally, I will allow myself to stop before one more specific standpoint of comrade Korsch, his understanding of philosophy as the expression of the revolutionary action. By adhering to his standpoint, he must conclude that the period of social standstill, bringing a corresponding modification in the domain of theory, must inevitably cause the rejection of philosophy, denying it a right to count as something real. That, from his standpoint, conjointly finds its expression in opportunism. Actually, he is not even averse to declaring that the most authentic Marxism also undergoes new transformations that are contingent on changes in the social conditions. The opposite could not be, he concludes, because in the opposite case it would turn out that theory breaks from its own basis and hangs in the air. Therefore he is not inclined to understand Russian Bolshevism as one of the forms of restored revolutionary Marxism. That every practical step brings something new to theory, this is not subject to doubt, because knowledge is always given only in practice; but that every new step forces a review of theory — that is not true. Indeed the value of theory boils down to the fact that, viewing the tendency of development of reality, it anticipates the latter, providing the possibility for error-free activity itself. In this sense Marxism is not at all a reflecting mirror of that reality from which it grew. It only thoroughly and exactly notes the direction of development of this reality, reflects reality in conception, and so itself insures everyone, by seriously grasping it, against the possibility of remaining fools because of ignorance, existing amidst the development of the same reality. Therefore Marxism remains a scientific and practical resource to this day so far as, and as long as, the realization of it by the indicated road of development of reality has not become a fact. And, in this sense, opportunism cannot be understood as a new type of Marxism: for it envisions action as meaning what the word appears to signify rather than the essence of what the expression means itself. From this point of view, furthermore, why opportunism usually begins with a critique of the philosophical part of the Marxist worldview becomes clear. For the activity of this social class, for whom the representative ideology of which is opportunism, needs an entirely different guide than dialectical materialism. This is why the fragile boat of opportunism prefers the quiet backwater of Kantianism to the stormy course of dialectics. |P

Translated from Russian by Alex Gonopolskiy and Ross Wolfe.

1. ”Diese Abhandlung bildet die erste Abteilung einer größeren Schrift: Historisch-logischen Untersuchungen zur Frage der materialistischen Dialektik.” Korsch, quoted in Haug (1984).
2. Frederick Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, trans. Paul Taylor (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1946 [1886]).

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