Korsch, Karl

Korsch, Karl
   One of the most significant Marxist thinkers of the 20th century, Karl Korsch emphasized the Hegelian aspects of Karl Marx’s thought and put forward a strong critique of orthodox Marxism and Stalinism. His book Marxism and Philosophy (1923) stands as one of the key texts in the Marxist canon. Korsch was born in Todstedt, Germany, and he studied law, economics and philosophy at the Universities of Munich, Berlin, Geneva and Jena, gaining his doctorate from the last of these in 1910. Despite opposing the war he served in the German army during World War I and was twice awarded the Iron Cross. In 1919 he became a lecturer at Jena University, a post he held until the Nazis came to power and he left the country for Denmark before moving on to the United States in 1936. Here he lived until his death in 1961, spending the years 1945–1950 working at the International Institute of Social Research (Frankfurt School). Although an academic, Korsch was also politically active. He joined the Fabians in 1912 while staying in London, became a member of the anti-war independent German Socialist Party (USPD) in 1917, and was a founding member of the German Communist Party (KPD) in 1921. He also supported the Spartacists’ uprising in Berlin in 1919 and the attempt to set up a Soviet Republic in Munich in the same year. In 1923 he was elected to the Thuringian Parliament and became minister of justice in the short-lived revolutionary government of Thuringia. The following year he was a delegate to the Fifth World Congress of the Comintern where he was criticized for his unorthodox Marxism. In 1926 he was expelled from the KPD for his continuing dissent from the party line and his anti-Stalinism.
   In terms of his political thought Korsch emphasized the dialectical category of “totality,” i.e., the idea that everything is interconnected and forms an indissoluble whole. In particular, Korsch highlighted the unity of theory and practice in Marxism, a unity neglected by the orthodox Marxism of the Second International and prominent Marxists such as Karl Kautsky. Kautsky and his followers stressed the objective, deterministic side of Marxism and neglected the subjective, activist dimension, taking refuge instead in a theory separated from practice. In his Marxism and Philosophy Korsch analyzed Marxism itself on the basis of Marxist principles, and suggested it had evolved through three distinct stages, each corresponding to phases of development of the workers’ movement and consciousness. The first stage, 1843–1848, was expressed in the early writings of Marx and reflected the beginnings of the class struggle. It was dominated by philosophy and a stress on the subjective. The second stage, 1848–1900, saw Marxism develop theoretically, though separated into economics, politics and ideology, and now dominated by a stress on science and the objective. This phase saw a tendency toward “vulgar Marxism” that propounded crude laws of history and lost touch with the class struggle and the revolutionary essence of Marxism. The third phase, from 1900 onwards, saw a shift from economic determinism to class struggle again, a reassertion of the unity of theory and practice. For Korsch, Kautsky, and for that matter Vladimir Ilich Lenin, fell into the one-sidedness of the second stage of Marxism, separating subject and object, theory and practice, by their treatment of Marxism as pure science rather than as a reflection of the class consciousness of the workers. He even came to view Leninism as linked to the despotism characteristic of the Soviet Union, and he saw the Soviet state as closer to the totalitarian states of fascism than to Marxism.
   By the time of his Why I Am A Marxist (1935) and Karl Marx (1938) Korsch had become increasingly critical of orthodox Marxism, and he sought to outline a revised Marxism stating its most important principles “in the light of recent historical events and of the new theoretical needs which have arisen.” The key elements he identified were Marxism’s historical specificity—it was a specific analysis of a specific historical period, not a set of general laws or tenets— and its critical and practical character.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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