‘Why I am a Marxist’ by Karl Korsch from Modern Quarterly. Vol. 9 No. 4. April, 1935.
Instead of discussing Marxism in general I propose to deal at once with some of the most effective points of Marxist theory and practice. Only such an approach conforms with the principle of Marxian thought. For the Marxist, there is no such thing as ‘Marxism’ in general any more than there is a ‘democracy’ in general, a ‘dictatorship’ in general or a ‘state’ in general. There is only a bourgeois state, a proletarian dictatorship or a fascist dictatorship, etc. And even these exist only at determinate stages of historical development, with corresponding historical characteristics, mainly economic, but conditioned also in part by geographical, traditional, and other factors. With the deferent levels of historical development, with the different environments of geographical distribution, with the well-known differences of creed and tendency among the various Marxist schools, there exist, both nationally and internationally, very different theoretical systems and practical movements which go by the name of Marxism. Instead of discussing the whole body of theoretical principles, points of view in analysis, methods of procedure, historical knowledge, and rules of practice which Marx and the Marxists for more than eighty years have derived from the experience of proletarian class struggles and welded together into a united revolutionary theory and movement, I shall, therefore, try to single out those specific attitudes, propositions, and tendencies which can be usefully adopted as the guide to our thoughts and action today, here and now, under the given conditions which prevail in the year 1935 in Europe, in the US & in China, Japan, India, and in the new world of the USSR In this way the question ‘Why I am a Marxist’ arises, primarily, for the proletariat, or rather the most developed and energetic sections of the proletarian class. It can be asked, also, for sections of the population which, like the declining strata of the middle-classes, the newly arisen group of managerial employees, the peasants and farmers, etc do not belong either to the ruling capitalist or to the proletarian class so-called but may associate themselves with the proletariat for the purpose of a common struggle. The question may even be raised for such parts of the bourgeoisie proper, whose very life is threatened by ‘monopoly capitalism’ or ‘Fascism’, and it certainly arises for the bourgeois ideological who, under the pressure of the calculative strains of declining capitalist society, are individually making their way toward the proletariat (scholars, artists, engineers, etc).
I shall now enumerate what seems to me the most essential points of Marxism in a condensed form:
- All the propositions of Marxism, including those that are apparently general, are specific.
- Marxism is not positive but critical.
- Its subject-matter is not existing capitalist society in its affirmative state, but declining capitalist society as revealed in the demonstrably operative tendencies of its breaking-up and decay.
- Its primary purpose is not contemplative enjoyment of the existing world but its active transformation (praktische Umwaelzung).
None of these characters of Marxism has been adequately recognised or applied by the majority of Marxists. Again and again so-called ‘orthodox’ Marxists have relapsed into the ‘abstract’ and ‘metaphysical’ way of thinking which Marx himself – after Hegel – had most emphatically denied, and which indeed has been utterly refuted by the whole evolution of modern thought during the last hundred years. Thus, e.g. a recent English Marxist has once more tried to ‘save’ Marxism from the charges made by Bernstein and others to the elect that the course of modern history deviates from the scheme of development laid down by Marx, with the miserable evasion that Marx attempted to discover ‘the general laws of social changed not only from the study of society in the nineteenth century, but also from a study of social development from the beginnings of human society’, and that it is therefore ‘quite possible’ that his conclusions are ‘as true of the twentieth century as they were of the period in which he arrived at them’. It is evident that such a defence destroys the true content of Marxian theory more effectively than the attacks made by any revisionist. Nevertheless this was the only answer given within the last thirty years by traditional Marxist ‘orthodoxy’ to the charges raised by the reformists that one or another part of Marxism was out of date.
For other reasons there is a tendency for the specific character of Marxism to be forgotten by the citizens of the Marxist Soviet State today who emphasize the general and universal validity of the fundamental Marxist propositions in order to canonize the doctrines underlying the present consolation of their state. Thus, one of the minor ideological of present-day Stalinism, L Rudas, is trying to call into question in the name of Marxism the historical progress which was won by Marx ninety years ago when he accomplished the transposition (Umstuelpung) of the Hegelian idealistic dialectic into his materialistic dialectic. On the basis of a citation from Lenin which was used in an entirely different connection against the mechanistic materialism of Bukharin and which means something quite different from what Rudas says it means, the latter transforms the historical contradiction between ‘productive forces’, and ‘productive relations’ into a ‘supra-historic’ principle which will still apply in the remote future of the fully developed classless society. In the theory of Marx three fundamental oppositions are grasped as aspects of the concrete historical unity of the practical revolutionary movement. These are, in economics, the contradiction between ‘productive forces’ and ‘productive relations’; in history, the struggle between social classes; in logical thinking, the opposition between thesis and antithesis. Of these three equally historical aspects of the revolutionary principle revealed by Marx in the very nature of capitalist society, Rudas, in his supra-historical transfiguration of the wholly historic conception of Marx, drops the middle term, regards the living convict of the fighting classes as a mere ‘expression’ or result of a transitory historical form of the underlying essential contradiction, and retains as the sole foundation of the ‘materialistic dialectic’, now inflated into an eternal law of cosmic development, the opposition between ‘productive forces’, and ‘productive relations’. In so doing he reaches the absurd conclusion that in present-day Soviet economy, the fundamental contradiction of capitalist society exists in ‘inverse’ form. In Russian he says, productive forces no longer rebel against axed productive relations but rather it as the relative backwardness of the productive forces in relation to the already achieved productive relations which ‘drives forward the Soviet Union in an unprecedently rapid tempo of development’.
The contention set forth in my edition of Marx’s Capital that all the propositions contained in this work, and especially those concerning ‘primitive accumulation’ as treated in the last chapter of the book, represent only an historical outline of the rise and development of capitalism in Western Europe and shave universal validity beyond that only in the same way in which every thorough empirical knowledge of natural and historical form applies to more than the individual case considered, was unanimously rejected by spokesmen of both fractions of German and Russian orthodox Marxism. As a matter of fact, this contention of mine only repeats and emphasizes a principle which Marx himself fifty years ago had explicitly expressed in setting right the idealistic Russian sociologist, Mikhailovsky, on his misconception of the method of Capital. It is, indeed, a necessary implication of the fundamental principle of empirical research which at our present time is only denied by some inveterate metaphysicians. Compared to the renaissance of this pseudo-philosophical dialectic in the writings of ‘modern’ Marxists, as exemplified in Rudas, how sober, clear and definite was the standpoint adopted by such old revolutionary Marxists R Luxemburg, and Franz Mehring who saw that the principle of materialistic dialectic as embodied in Marxian economics, means nothing more than the specify relation of all economic terms and propositions to historically determined objects.
All the hotly disputed questions in the field of historical materialism – questions which when phrased in their general form are just as insoluble and just as meaningless as the well-known scholastic disputes about the priority of the hen or the egg – lose their mysterious and sterile character when they are expressed in a concrete, historical and specific manner. For example, Frederick Engels in his well-known letters on historical materialism, written after the death of Marx, out of undue consideration for the criticism of one-sidedness levelled by burgeons and would-be Marxist critics against Marx’s proposition that ‘the economic structure of society constitutes the real foundation on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness’, actually modified Marx’s doctrine. He unwisely conceded that to a large extent so-called ‘reactions’ (Ruckwurkungen) might take place between the superstructure and the basis, between ideological development and economic and political development, thereby introducing completely unnecessary confusion into the foundations of the new revolutionary principle. For without an exact quantitative determination of ‘how much’ action and reaction takes place, without an exact indication of the conditions under which one or the other occurs, the whole Marxian theory of historical development of society, as interpreted by Engels, becomes useless even as a working hypothesis. As stated, it affords not the slightest clue as to whether one is to seek for the cause of any change in social life in the action (Wirkung) of the base upon the superstructure or in the reaction (Ruckwirkung) of the superstructure upon the base. And the logic of the matter is not affected by such verbal evasions as ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ factors, or by the classification of causes into ‘proximate’, ‘mediate’, and ‘ultimate’, ie those which prove decisive ‘in the last analysis’. The entire problem disappears just as soon as we substitute for the general question of the elect of ‘economics as such’, upon ‘politics as such’, or ‘law, art and culture as such’, and vice versa, a detailed description of the despite relations which exist between definite economic phenomena on a despite historical level of development and despite phenomena which appear simultaneously or subsequently every other sold of political, juristic and intellectual development.
According to Marx, this is the way in which the problem is to be settled. His posthumously published outline of a general introduction to his Critique of Political Economy – despite its sketchiness – is a clear and highly significant statement of the whole complex of problems. Most of the objections raised later against his materialistic principle are anticipated and answered. This is particularly true of the very subtle problem of the funereal relation between the development of material production and artistic creation which is evidenced in the well-known fact that ‘certain periods of the highest development of an stand in no direct relation to the general development of society nor to the material basis of its organisation’. Marx shows the two-fold respect in which this unequal development takes despite historical form – ‘the relationship between different forms of art within the domains of art itself’ as well as the ‘relationships between the whole field of art and the whole of social development’. The difficulty consists only in the general way these contradictions are expressed. Just as soon as they are made specific and concrete, they are therewith clarified.
As hotly disputed as my contention concerning the specific, historical and concrete character of all propositions, laws and principles of Marxian theory, including those that are apparently universal, is my second contention that Marxism is essentially critical, not positive. The Marxian theory constitutes neither a positive materialistic philosophy nor a positive science. From beginning to end, it is a theoretical as well as a practical critique of existing society. Of course the word ‘critique’ (Kritik) must be understood in the comprehensive and yet precise sense in which it was used in the pre-revolutionary forties of the last century by all left Hegelians, including Marx and Engels. It must not be confused with the connotation of the contemporary term ‘criticism’. ‘Critique’ is to be understood not in a merely idealistic sense but as a materialistic critique. It includes from the point of view of the object an empirical investigation, ‘conducted with the precision of natural science’, of all its relations and development, and from the point of view of the subject an account, of how the impotent wishes, intuitions and demands of individual subjects develop into an historically effective class power leading to ‘revolutionary practice’ (praxis). This critical tendency which plays such a predominant role in all of the writings of Marx and Engels up to 1848 is still alive in the later phases of development of Marxian theory. The economic work of their later period is much more closely related to their previous philosophical and sociological writings than orthodox Marxist economists are inclined to admit, This appears from the very titles of their later and earlier books. The first momentous work which was undertaken by both friends in common as early as 1846 to present the opposition of their political and philosophical views to those of contemporary left- Hegelian idealism, carried the title Critique of German Ideology. And in 1859, when Marx published the first part of his planned comprehensive economic work, as if to emphasize its critical character, he entitled it A Critique of Political Economy. This was retained as a subtitle of his chief work, Capital, A Critique of Political Economy. Latter day ‘orthodox’ Marxists either forgot or denied the supremacy of the critical tendency in Marxism. At best they regarded it as of purely extrinsic significance and quite irrelevant to the ‘scientific’ character of the Marxist propositions especially in the field which according to them was the basic science of Marxism, viz., economics.
The crassest expression which this revision took is to be found in the well known Finanzkapital of the Austrian Marxist, Rudolf Hilferding which deals with the economic theory of Marxism as a mere phase in the unbroken continuity of economic theory, entirely separated from. the Socialist aims and, indeed, with no implications for practice. After having formally stated that the economic as well as the political theory of Marxism is ‘free from judgements of value’, the author points out that ‘it is, therefore, false to conceive, as is widely done, intra et extra muros, that Marxism and Socialism are as such identical. For logically, regarded as a scientific system and apart from its historical elect, Marxism is only a theory of the laws of movement of society formulated in general terms by the Marxian conception of history, the Marxian economics applying in particular to the period of commodity- producing society. But insight into the validity of Marxism which includes insight into the necessity of Socialism is by no means a matter of value judgements and just as little an indication to practical procedure. For it is one thing to recognise a necessity, and another thing to work for this necessity. It is quite possible for someone convinced of the final victory of Socialism to fight against it.
It is true that this superficial pseudo-scientific interpretation of orthodox Marxism has been opposed more or less electively by contemporary Marxian theories. While in Germany the critical, ie revolutionary, principle of Marxism was openly attacked by the Bernstein revisionists and only half-heartedly defended by such ‘orthodoxists’ as Kautsky and Hilferding, in France the short-lived movement of ‘Revolutionary Syndicalism’, as expounded by Georges Sorel, tried hard to revive just this aspect of Marxian thought as one of the basic elements of a new revolutionary theory of proletarian class war. And a more elective step in the same direction was taken by Lenin who applied the revolutionary principle of Marxism to the practice of the Russian Revolution, and at the same time achieved a hardly less important result within the theoretical held by restoring some of the most powerful revolutionary teachings of Marx.
But neither Sorel, the Syndicalist, nor Lenin, the Communist, utilized the full force and impact of the original Marxian ‘critique’. Sorel’s irrationality device by which he transformed several important Marxian doctrines into ‘myths’, despite his intentions, led to a kind of ‘debunking’ of these doctrines in so far as their practical bearing upon the revolutionary proletarian class-struggle was concerned, and ideologically prepared the way for the Fascism of Mussolini. Lenin’s somewhat crude division of the propositions of philosophy, economics, etc into those which are ‘useful, or ‘harmful’ to the proletariat (a result of his too exclusive concern with the immediate present elects of accepting or denying them, and his too little consideration of their possible future and ultimate effects) introduced that coagulation of Marxist theory, that decline and, in part, a distortion of revolutionary Marxism, which renders it very difficult for present-day Soviet-Marxism to make any headway outside the boundaries of its own authoritarian domain. As a matter of fact the revolutionary proletariat cannot, in its practical fight, dispense with the distinction between true and false scientist propositions. Just as the capitalist as a practical man, ‘though he does not always consider what he says outside of his business yet in his business knows what he is about’ (Marx), and just as the technician in constructing an engine must have exact knowledge of at least some physical laws, so must the proletariat possess a sufficiently true knowledge in economic, political and other objective matters in order to carry the revolutionary class struggle to a successful consummation. In this sense and within these limits the critical principle of materialistic, revolutionary Marxism includes strict, empirically verifiable knowledge ‘marked by all the precision of natural science’, of the economic laws of the movement & development of capitalist society & the proletarian class struggle.
Marxist ‘theory’ does not strive to achieve objective knowledge of reality out of an independent, theoretical interest. It is driven to acquire this knowledge by the practical necessities of struggle, and can neglect it only by running the heavy risk of failing to achieve its goal, at the price of the defeat and eclipse of the proletarian movement which it represents. And just because it never loses sight of its practical purpose, it eschews every attempt to force all experience into the design of a monistic construction of the universe in order to build a united system of knowledge. Marxist theory is not interested in everything, nor is it interested to the same degree in all the objects of its interests. Its only concern is with those things which have some bearing upon its objectives, and with everything and every aspect of every- thing the more so as this particular thing or this particular aspect of a thing is related to its practical purposes.
Marxism, notwithstanding its unquestioned acceptance of the genetic priority (priorität) of external nature to all historical and human events, is primarily interested only in the phenomena and interrelations of historical and social life. That is to say, it is primarily interested only in what, relative to the dimensions of cosmic development, occurs within a short period of time and in whose development it can enter as a practical, influential force. The failure to see this on the part of certain orthodox Communist party Marxists accounts for their strenuous attempts to claim the same superiority undoubtedly possessed by Marxian theory in the field of sociology, for those rather primitive and backward opinions which to this very day are retained by Marxian theorists in the held of natural science. By these unnecessary encroachments the Marxian theory is exposed to that well-known contempt which is bestowed on its ‘scientific’ character even by those contemporary natural scientists who as a whole are not unfriendly to Socialism. However, a less ‘philosophical’ and more progressive scientific interpretation of the very concept of the Marxian ‘synthesis of sciences’ has just begun to manifest itself among the more intelligent and responsible representatives of the contemporary Leninist-Marxist theory of sciences whose utterances are about as different from those of Rudas and Co as the utterances of the Russian Soviet Government are from those of the non-Russian sections of the Communist International. Thus, for example, Professor V Asmus in his programmatic article emphasizes that in addition to the ‘objective and methodological community’ of history and natural sciences there exists at the same time the ‘peculiarity of the social-historical sciences which do not allow in principle the identification of their problems and methods with those of the natural sciences’.
Even within the sphere of historical-social activity, Marxist research is in the main interested only in the particular mode of production underlying the present epoch of ‘social-economic formation’ (ökonomische Gesellschatsformation), ie the system of capitalist commodity-production as the basis of the modern ‘bourgeois society’ (bürgerliche Gesellschaft) regarded in the process of its actual historical development. In its inquiry into this specific sociological system it proceeds, on the one hand, more thoroughly than any other sociological theory in that it concerns itself preferably with economic foundations. On the other hand, it does not concern itself with all of the economical and sociological aspects of bourgeois society equally. It pays particular attention to the discrepancies, flaws, shortcomings, and maladjustments in its structure. It is not the so-called normal functioning of bourgeois society which concerns Marxism but rather what appears in its eyes as the really normal situation of this particular social system, viz the crisis. The Marxian critique of bourgeois economy and of the social system based upon it culminates in a critical analysis of its Krisenhaftigkeit, that is to say of the ever-growing tendency of the capitalist mode of production to assume all the characteristics of actual crisis even within the ascendant or recovery phases, indeed, through all the phases of the periodic cycle through which modern industry runs, and whose crowning point is the universal crisis. An astonishing blindness to this basic orientation of Marxist economics which is so clearly expressed everywhere in Marx’s writings, has led some recent English Marxists to discover a ‘lacuna of some importance’ in Marx’s work, in his failure to establish the economic necessity of recovery from crises after he had demonstrated the necessity of their rise.
Even in the non-economic spheres of political superstructure and general ideology of modern society, Marxist theory concerns itself primarily with observable rifts and assures, the strained splitting points which reveal to the revolutionary proletariat those crucial places in the social structure where its own practical activity can be most effectively applied.
In our day everything appears to be pregnant with its opposite. Machinery which is endowed with the most remarkable rowers to shorten human labour and render it more productive has produced instead hunger and overwork. The new springs of wealth have become transformed by a peculiar magic formula of destiny into sources of poverty. The conquests of the arts seem to be won at the price of loss of character. To the extent that man controls nature he seems to be controlled by other men or by his own meanness. Even the pure light of science can apparently only shine against the dark background of ignorance. All our discoveries and progress seem to have had no other consequences than to endow material forces with spiritual life and to brutalize human life into a material force. This opposition between modern industry and science on the one hand, and modern poverty and decay on the other, this opposition between the productive forces and the social relations of our time is an obvious, overwhelming, undeniable fact. Some parties may lament it, others may wish to get rid of modern proficiency and therewith of its conflicts. Or they may believe that such a remarkable progress in industry demands for its completion just as remarkable a retrogression in politics.’ (Marx, Speech at 4th Annual celebration of the Chartist People’s Paper)
The specific features of Marxism so far discussed, together with the practical principle, implied in all of them, which commands the Marxists to subordinate all theoretical knowledge to the end of revolutionary action, provide the fundamental characters of the Marxian materialistic dialectic on the basis of which it distinguishes itself from the idealistic dialectic of Hegel. The dialectic of Hegel, the bourgeois philosopher of the restoration, worked out to its finest details by him as an instrument of justification for the existing order with a moderate allowance for a possible ‘reasonable’ progress, was materialistically transformed by Marx after careful critical analysis into a theory, revolutionary not only in content but also in method. As transformed and applied by Marx, dialectic proved that the ‘reasonableness’ of existing reality asserted by Hegel on idealistic grounds had only a transitory rationality, which in the course of its development necessarily resulted in ‘unreasonableness’. This unreasonable state of society will in due course be wholly destroyed by the new proletarian class which, by making the theory its own and using it as a weapon of its ‘revolutionary practice’, is attacking ‘capitalistic unreason’ at its root. Because of this fundamental change in its character and application, Marxian dialectic which, as Marx justly points out, in its ‘mystified’ Hegelian form had become fashionable among bourgeois philosophers, has now become a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors, for ‘it includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking-up; it regards every historically developed social form as in quid movement and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary’.
Just as all the particular critical, activistic, and revolutionary aspects of Marxism have been overlooked by most Marxists, so it has been with the whole character of the Marxian materialistic dialectic. Even the best among them have only partially restored its critical and revolutionary principal. In the face of the universality and thoroughness of the present world crisis and of the increasingly sharper proletarian class struggles which surpass in intensity and extent, all convicts of the earlier phases of capitalist development, our task today is to give our revolutionary Marxian theory corresponding form and expression, and therewith to extend and actualize the revolutionary proletarian fight.
London, October 10, 1934.
Modern Quarterly began in 1923 by V. F. Calverton. Calverton, born George Goetz (1900–1940), a radical writer, literary critic and publisher. Based in Baltimore, Modern Quarterly was an unaligned socialist discussion magazine, and dominated by its editor. Calverton’s interest in and support for Black liberation opened the pages of MQ to a host of the most important Black writers and debates of the 1920s and 30s, enough to make it an important historic US left journal. In addition, MQ covered sexual topics rarely openly discussed as well as the arts and literature, and had considerable attention from left intellectuals in the 1920s and early 1930s. From 1933 until Calverton’s early death from alcoholism in 1940 Modern Quarterly continued as The Modern Monthly. Increasingly involved in bitter polemics with the Communist Party-aligned writers, Modern Monthly became more overtly ‘Anti-Stalinist’ in the mid-1930s Calverton, very much an iconoclast and often accused of dilettantism, also opposed entry into World War Two which put him and his journal at odds with much of left and progressive thinking of the later 1930s, further leading to the journal’s isolation.