The Contemporary Significance of Karl Korsch’s Marxism

Tom Meisenhelder. Nature, Society, and Thought. Volume 14, Issue 3. July 31, 2001.


Much has been written lately about the need to enter a “post-Marxist” era. Most often the argument is that Marxism, perhaps as an intellectual project for understanding capitalism, but certainly as a political project of the working class, has failed. Less dramatically, it sometimes is argued that the theory-praxis unity of classical Marxism has been split, reducing Marxism to a disembodied academic perspective and/or a dogmatic political strategy. The conclusion is then drawn that radical theory and related social movements must move “beyond Marxism.” A glance back at the often overlooked writings of Karl Korsch (1886-1961) can shed illuminating light on the “post-Marxism” argument.

Korsch was a leading figure in the socialist and Communist movements of early twentieth-century Europe who opposed both the social democracy of Kautsky and the Bolshevism of Lenin. Born near Hamburg to middle-class parents, Korsch received a doctorate in law. Although his attraction to socialism came first via the British Fabians, Korsch’s activism began within the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). He became a leader of the SPD’s left-wing faction that finally split to form the German Communist Party in 1920. Within this group, Korsch argued that socialism required both economic planning and democratic rule, as manifested in the workers’ council movement. Korsch’s writings also stressed the role of revolutionary subjectivity and the unity of theory with practice. Although he was an early supporter of the Russian Revolution and some of Lenin’s work, Korsch eventually became quite critical of both. As a result, he was regarded as an “ultra-leftist” and a revisionist idealist within the Communist movement and was condemned (along with Georg Lukacs) by Zinoviev in 1924 and Stalin in 1926. Objecting to the organizational structure of the Moscow-dominated Third International, Korsch continued to argue for workers’ councils and eventually came to believe that the Soviet Union was a dictatorship over the working class. He was expelled from the German Communist party in 1926.

Korsch then wrote and worked as “an independent Marxist,” critical of both Lenin’s identification of party and state as well as Kautsky’s state reformism (Kolakowski 1978, 310). When Hitler came to power, Korsch emigrated to Denmark and then to England; and in 1936 he moved to the United States, where he remained for the rest of his life.

The key to the continuing relevance of Korsch’s body of work is his self-conscious attempt to apply the Marxist historical method to Marxism and his recognition that Marxism itself must change with history. Korsch’s historical analysis of Marxism uncovered two varieties of Marxian thought, one positivist and dogmatic and the other critical and dialectical. Korsch sided with the latter.

Korsch on Marxism

Korsch accepted the “fundamental `historicity’ of all scientific knowledge'” (Ceppa 1975-76, 110), meaning that the truth was a historical fact. Searching for the truth, Marxism is the “science that has the proletarian class as its subject … and the bourgeois mode of production as its object” (108). Marxism is both historical and scientific, both ideology and truth, because its subject and object are historical, while its dialectical method is scientific. Korsch’s understanding of Marxism also emphasized the theory’s relationship to practice and class struggle.

Marxian theory … is a new science of bourgeois society. It appears at a time when within bourgeois society itself, an independent movement of a new social class is opposing the ruling bourgeois class. … It is … not a positive but a critical science. It “specifies” bourgeois society and investigates the tendencies visible in the present development of society, and the way to its imminent practical transformation. Thus it is not only a theory of bourgeois society but, at the same time, a theory of proletarian revolution. (1938, 86)

In Korsch’s view even the dialectic itself had to be understood through the lens of historical specificity. Thus, the Marxist materialist dialectic was distinguished from the original Hegelian idealist dialectic; the latter was a product of the revolutionary bourgeoisie of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while the former corresponded to the emerging proletarian class of the nineteenth century.

Korsch considered Marxism to be the theoretical agency of the proletariat. He famously disagreed with theorists like Lenin and Kautsky, who believed Marxism to be an “objective” science, developed more or less external to the working class and imported into it. Korsch recognized that despite their political differences, Lenin and Kautsky both had deformed Marxism by portraying it as a positive “science” unconnected to the historical proletariat. To the contrary, Korsch argued that Marxism was the theory of the working class, the organized class consciousness of the proletariat. Korsch came to define Marx’s work as an empirical and theoretical analysis of the capitalist economy from the point of view of the workers’ movement at one particular stage in its history (Breines 1972, 101-2). Korsch’s Marxism remained in a dialectical connection with the actually existent working class, changing as its historical circumstances change. In fact, he felt that the nondialectical understanding of Marxism by Lenin and Kautsky turned it into the political ideology of the Bolshevik and social democratic states, respectively. This dogmatic Marxism became an ideology for the development of state capitalism in Russia and passive social democracy in Germany. To the contrary, Korsch believed that Marxism must be the theoretic expression of the workers’ struggle for a stateless and partyless communism (1977d, 211).

Korsch’s study of Marxism resulted in a conception of the three historical “stages of Marxism” corresponding to the history of the workers’ movement (1971). Stage one, from 1843 to 1848, represents the so-called “early Marx” and a revolutionary historical period. The second stage entered the twentieth century with a relatively quiet working class and an unfortunate separation of Marxist theory from actual revolutionary practice, creating “dogmatic Marxism.” This period was defined by Kautsky and the social democracy of the Second International. Marxism’s third stage came with the attempts to reconnect Marxist theory and working class revolution. However, too often this attempt was characterized by the imposition of a dogmatic Marxism into the economic and political struggles of workers. This produced distortions such as those becoming visible in postrevolutionary Russia, where the state and party were taking control of the workers.

A second aspect of Korsch’s understanding of Marxism gave special emphasis to the importance of the “social and cultural superstructure.” This point of view derives directly from Korsch’s conception of the theory-practice dialectic and the idea that Marxism must develop as the historical consciousness of the working class. Korsch’s point is that the subjective dimension of history and society should not be excluded from Marxist theory. He adopted the idea that capitalist society was a relational totality composed of both “base” and “superstructure” (1938, 81). This model distinguished Korsch’s critical Marxism from other brands of Marxism, such as that proposed by Kautsky, that stressed the economic base in general and the forces of production in particular.

Korsch saw that the relations of production cannot be understood apart from their cultural, political, and ideological aspects and connections. Ideology should be seen as a material force in society and consciousness as a part of being. For instance, when Korsch analyzed modern corporate capitalism and fascism, he emphasized that in both cases capital’s power stems in part from its control over the “means of mental production” through the media. He also argued that superstructural factors are key in the process of revolutionary struggle. While Kautsky stressed that material conditions had to be right for a revolution to succeed, Korsch focused on the need for “revolutionary consciousness” (Breines 1972, 68). He proposed that “revolutionary fantasy” and belief play a crucial role in the class struggle (Kellner 1977, 16-17).

Korsch’s Critical Marxism

Taking these emphases together, we see that Korsch, along with Lukacs and Gramsci, is one of the founders of critical Marxism. Korsch understood the failure of socialism in Europe to be the product of a lag in the consciousness of a proletariat encompassed by bourgeois ideology and a dogmatic Marxism vested in the nineteenth century. This explanation led Korsch to consider the centrality of ideological struggles to revolutionary movements. He proposed that revolutionary organizations must conceptualize, imagine, and enact a postcapitalist society. Marxism must include specific proposals about how communism and socialism would be organized.

Korsch strongly believed that Marxist theory must design constructions of the socialist future derived from the “creative fantasy” and “faith” of revolutionary practice. These plans for socialism had to be material and exacting in order for theory to become a revolutionary force. Objecting to the passivity and reformism of Kautsky, Korsch argued that socialism did not emerge from the capitalist collapse in Europe in 1918 because

a decisive belief in the immediate capacity for realization of the socialistic economic system that could have carried the masses onward was nowhere to be found. (1977a, 127-28)

Theory had failed to take ideological struggle seriously. It failed to develop “concepts of action” and a decisive belief in the real possibility of socialism.

Korsch also critiqued Marxian crisis theory, arguing against the notion that capitalism must experience a final economic collapse. History reveals, he claimed, that capitalism experiences a continuing but unpredictable series of crises. Revolution required that the working class be subjectively prepared for the possibility of radical social change. Korsch noted that Lenin began to develop such a critical-revolutionary Marxism, but failed in the task by restoring Marxism rather than developing it (1977c, 187-93). In the last analysis, he argued, Lenin’s work returned to the political thinking of the nineteenth century, complete with a prioritizing of bourgeois forms of political struggle focused on the party and the state. Overemphasizing the role of the state in revolutionary communism, Lenin pushed back the real liberation of the working class to at best the “second stage” of a revolution, supposedly under the direction of a party acting in part as a substitute for class-conscious workers.

Writing in a more positive vein, Korsch uncovered three general principles he felt were crucial to a critical Marxism that could express the revolutionary consciousness of the working class. These are the principle of historical specificity, the principle of change and transition, and the principle of revolutionary practice (1938). The first of these is the belief that Marxism must always conceive of social processes as occurring in a specific historical context and that Marxism is a theory of capitalism rather than a general science of society and nature. He believed it was wrong to attempt to apply Marxism blindly to societies on a trajectory different from that of European capitalism. The second refers to the idea that Marxism is especially alert to those factors in capitalism that lead to social change. Korsch saw Marxism as a living critical theory of capitalist society that holds important practical significance for the working-class movement. The third principle is that Marxism is a theory of revolutionary practice that expresses the interest of the working class. This last principle announced that revolution must be the self-conscious work of the workers themselves. Contrary to the Marxism of Lenin and Kautsky, according to which the party’s possession of truth enabled it to educate and lead ordinary workers, Korsch grounded Marxism in the historical experience of the working class. Marxism was a theory for a “bottom-up” revolutionary movement.

In his construction of a critical Marxism, Korsch was traveling along a path that also carried Antonio Gramsci. Like Gramsci, Korsch accepted the view that science and Marxism were contained in history. From this position, both men derived a similar critique of dogmatic Marxism as fatalistic and too impressed with the causal role of the development of the forces of production. Gramsci also emphasized subjectivity and the significance of culture as an arena of class struggle. Finally both men were active in the workers’ council movements of their time. Gramsci and Korsch agreed that workers councils could become a new form of social organization that was more revolutionary and political than trade unions and that pointed to a new form of future communist society.

Korsch on Practice

The conflict with Leninism and Social Democracy was defined and continued by Korsch’s support of, and involvement in, movements for workers’ councils and council communism. Intellectually, Korsch combined his critical Marxism with the ideas of Sorel, Bakunin, and others to criticize the unfortunate “statism” of texts by Lenin and Kautsky and the political strategy of the socialist parties. He realized that the tendency for Marxists like Lenin and Kautsky to emphasize the role of a strong state in postcapitalist society was based on some of Marx’s own writings, but he felt they refused to see those writings within the historical context of nineteenth-century capitalist society. While classical Marxism contained a recognition of the administrative necessity of the state, Korsch suggested that Lenin performed a positivist reading of Marx that directly led to a distorted statist form of the so-called “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Recognizing that Marxism, as a product of the bourgeois historical period, contained a tendency to overestimate the role of the state in socialism, Korsch argued instead that

the essential final goal of proletarian class struggle is not any one state, however “democratic,” “communal,” or even “council-like,” but is rather the classless and stateless Communist society whose comprehensive form is not any longer some kind of political power but is “that association in that the free development of every person is the condition for the free development of all.” (1977d, 211)

Korsch’s position seemed to be that while the creation of the democratic state was the realization of the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie, the workers’ councils were the realization of the class consciousness of the proletariat. While social democratic and bourgeois unions settled for legal recognition by the state, revolutionary workers’ councils sought to replace the state. With legalization, even strikes lost their revolutionary character as they accepted the lawful limitations that come with state authorization. Indeed most previous workers’ councils experiments failed as revolutionary models because they did not challenge the state. To be instruments of revolutionary change, councils must involve complete, unhindered self-management, going beyond bourgeois political forms and transforming the relations of production themselves. Korsch proposed a nonstatist model of communism. Korsch’s communism was based in a definition of the “socialization of the means of production” that brought together both administrative planning and “bottom-up” democracy. He also recognized that workers’ and consumers’ councils must be integrated through some form of central planning lest local desires grounded in individual councils ignore societal needs. He believed that this balance could be achieved through democratic workers’ and consumers’ councils guided by a developing socialist consciousness. The latter would be in part the product a new socialist educational system combining learning and production in educational cooperatives (Kellner 1977, 9-18). Korsch’s study of the Paris Commune, the early Soviets, and Spanish anarchists’ collectives convinced him that workers’ councils could be the organization that informed a future communist society.

Korsch’s ideas about a future communist society came from his observation of the council communism movement in Europe during and after World War I. For instance, in Germany the defeat of World War I brought a spontaneous rebellion in several cities grounded in the creative work of workers’ councils. Begun perhaps by mutinies in the military and general strikes, councils declared a short-lived republic and established a federated organization in 1918. Similar events took place in Italy and a decade or so later in Spain. Though these projects failed, they established the possibility that democratic councils could be a transition to a council communism based in worker self-management, a federated system of worker and community councils, and bottom-up democracy.


Korsch’s theoretical work has a lot to offer contemporary radical theory. It allows a response to the “post-Marxism” argument that finds the alternative to orthodox dogmatism, whether social democratic or Leninist, within Marxism itself. Looking at Korsch’s work generates the conclusion that what is needed is not going beyond Marxism but a return to Marx and the application of Marx’s ideas to Marxist theory. Korsch’s work points out that Marxist theory is not limited to its dogmatic interpretation and provides a variety of radical left theory that is neither Bolshevik nor Menshevik.

Perhaps the most significant of the errors of dogmatic Marxism is its neglect of the subjective, its refusal to see the crucial importance of ideology and ideological struggle. Korsch argued that revolution would be preceded by the creation of the belief that socialism and communism are possible. Theory must enable a “revolutionary fantasy” by designing realistic models of how a communist or socialist society would work.

Korsch also recognized that the means often determines the end. A nondemocratic party or state-centered strategy of transition tends toward a nondemocratic future society. He questioned the socialist movement’s reliance on the state and feared that the supposedly transitional role of the state would instead become more or less permanent. As Kolakowski put it, Korsch argued that the result would be not a dictatorship of the proletariat but a dictatorship over the proletariat (1978, 310). Instead Korsch proposed a future society based in democratic worker and consumer councils, or “council communism.” He developed an image of a society based in both economic planning and real democracy.

In addition, Korsch argued that workers’ councils must have both political and economic functions (Kellner 1977, 18-19). They must be political and economic bodies. If they only function economically, they will fail to be revolutionary organs since they operate within the coercive and legal apparatus of the state. It is important, he argued, for councils to end capitalism’s artificial separation of the political and the economic by organizing together relations of production in the work place and relations of consumption in the community. Neither social democratic nor Leninist, council communism presents a model of a participatory workers’ democracy that remains relevant today.