‘Marxism and the Present Task of the Proletarian Class Struggle’ by Karl Korsch from Living Marxism. Vol. 4 No. 4. August, 1938.

‘Marxism and the Present Task of the Proletarian Class Struggle’ by Karl Korsch from Living Marxism. Vol. 4 No. 4. August, 1938.

Let the dead bury their dead.
The proletarian revolution must
at last arrive at its own content.


Of Karl Marx may be said what Geoffroy St. Hilaire said of Darwin that it was his fate and his glory to have had only forerunners before him and only disciples after him. Of course, there stood at his side a congenial life-long friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels. There were in the next generation the theoretical standard-bearers of the “revisionist” and the “orthodox” wings of the German Marxist party, Bernstein and Kautsky and, besides these pseudo-savants, such real scholars of Marxism as Antonio Labriola the Italian, Georges Sorel in France, and the Russian philosopher Plekhanov. There came at a later stage an apparently full restoration of the long forgotten revolutionary elements of the Marxian thought by Rosa Luxemburg in Germany and by Lenin in Russia.

During the same period Marxism was embraced by millions of workers throughout the world as a guide for their practical action. There was an imposing succession of organizations, from the secret Communist League of 1848 and the Working Men’s International Association of 1864 to the rise of powerful Social Democratic parties on a national scale in all important European countries and to an ultimate coordination of their scanty international activities in the so-called Second International of the pre-war period which after its collapse found its eventual resurrection in the shape of a militant Communist party on a world-wide scale.

Yet there was, during all this time, no corresponding internal growth of the Marxian theory itself beyond those powerful ideas which had been contained within the first scheme of the new revolutionary science as devised by Marx.

Very few Marxists up to the end of the nineteenth century did so much as find anything wrong with this state of affairs. Even when the first attacks of the so-called revolutionists brought about what a radical bourgeois socialist, the later first president of the Czechoslovak republic, Th. G. Mazaryk, then called a philosophical and scientific “crisis of Marxism,” the Marxists regarded the condition existing within their own camp as a mere struggle between an “orthodox” Marxist faith and a deplorable “heresy.” The ideological character of this wholesale identification of an established doctrine with the revolutionary struggle of the working class is further enhanced by the fact that the leading representatives of the Marxian orthodoxy of the time, including Kautsky in Germany and Lenin in Russia, persistently denied the very possibility that a true revolutionary consciousness could ever originate with the workers themselves. The revolutionary political alms, according to them, had to be introduced into the economic class struggle of the workers “from without” i.e. by the theoretical endeavors of radical bourgeois thinkers “equipped with all the culture of the age, such as Lassalle, Marx, and Engels. Thus, the identity of a bourgeois-bred doctrine with all present and future truly revolutionary struggles of the proletarian class assumed the character of a veritable miracle. Even those most radical Marxists who came nearest to the recognition of a spontaneous development of the proletarian class struggle beyond the restricted aim pursued by the leading bureaucracies of the existing Social Democratic parties and trade unions, never dreamt of denying this pre-established harmony between the Marxist doctrine and the actual proletarian movement. As Rosa Luxemburg said in 1903, and the Bolshevik Rjazanov repeated m 1928, “every new and higher stage of the proletarian class struggle can borrow from the inexhaustible arsenal of the Marxist theory ever-new weapons as needed by that new stage of the emancipatory fight of the working class.”

It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the more general aspects of this peculiar theory of the Marxists concerning the origin and development of their own revolutionary doctrine, a theory which in the last analysis amounts to a denial of the possibility of an independent proletarian class culture. We refer to it in our present context only as one of the many contradictions to be swallowed by those who in striking contrast to the critical and materialistic principle of Marx dealt with “Marxism” as an essentially completed, and now unchangeable, doctrine.

A further difficulty of this quasi-religious attitude towards Marxism arises from the fact that the Marxian theory was never adopted as a whole by any socialist group or party. “Orthodox” Marxism was at no time more than a formal attitude by which the leading group of the German Social Democratic party in the pre-war period concealed from themselves the ever-continuing deterioration of their own formerly revolutionary practice. It was only this difference of procedure which separated what distinguished “orthodox” form from an openly revisionistic form of adapting the traditional Marxist doctrine to the new “needs” of the workers’ movement arising from the changed conditions of the new historical period.

When amidst the storm and stress of the revolutionary struggle of 1917, in view of a “clearly maturing international proletarian revolution,” Lenin set himself the task to restate the Marxian theory of the state and the tasks of the proletariat in the revolution, he no longer contented himself with mere ideological defense of an assumedly existing orthodox interpretation of the Marxist theory. He started from the premise that revolutionary Marxism had been totally destroyed and abandoned both by the opportunist minority and by the outspoken social-chauvinist majority of all Marxist parties and trade unions of the late Second International. He openly announced that Marxism was dead and proclaimed an integral “restoration” of revolutionary Marxism.

There is no doubt that “revolutionary Marxism,” as restored by Lenin, has led the proletarian class to its first historical victory. This fact must be emphasized not only against the pseudo-Marxist detractors of the “barbarous” communism of the Bolsheviks-as against the “refined” and “cultured” socialism of the West. It must be emphasized also against the present beneficiaries of the revolutionary victory of the Russian workers, who have gradually passed from the revolutionary Marxism of the early years to a no longer communist but merely “socialist” and democratic creed called Stalinism. In the same way, on an international scale a mere “anti-fascist” coalition of the united fronts, people’s fronts, and national fronts was gradually substituted for the revolutionary class struggle waged by the proletariat against the whole economic and political regime of the bourgeoisie of the democratic” as well as in the fascist, the “pro-Russian” as well as the anti-Russian, states.

In the face of these later developments of Lenin’s work, it is no longer possible to stick to the idea that the restored old revolutionary principles of Marxism, which during the war and the immediate post-war period had been advocated by Lenin and Trotsky, resulted in a genuine revival of the revolutionary proletarian movement which in the past had been associated with the name of Marx. For a limited period it seemed, indeed, that the true spirit of revolutionary Marxism had gone east. The striking contradictions soon appearing within the policy of the ruling revolutionary party in Soviet Russia, both on the economic and on the political fields, were considered as a mere outcome of the sad fact that the “international proletarian revolution” firmly expected by Lenin and Trotsky did not mature. Yet in the light of later facts there is no doubt that ultimately, Soviet Marxism as a revolutionary proletarian theory and practice has shared the fate of that “orthodox” Marxism of the West from which it had sprung and from which it had split only under the extraordinary conditions of the war and the ensuing revolutionary outbreak in Russia. When finally in 1933, by the unopposed victory of the counterrevolutionary “national socialism,” in the traditional center of revolutionary international socialism, it became manifest that “Marxism did not deliver the goods,” that judgment applied to the Eastern Communist as well as to the Western Social Democratic church of the Marxist faith, and the separate factions were at last united in a common defeat.

In order to make intelligible the true significance and the far reaching further implications of this most important lesson of the recent history of Marxism, we must trace back the duplex character of the “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletarian class” which has become widely conspicuous by recent events both within present-day Stalinist Russia and on an international scale, to an original duplicity appearing in the different aspects of Marx’s own achievements as a proletarian theorist and as a political leader in the revolutionary movement of his time. On the one hand, as early as 1843, he was in close contact with the most advanced manifestations of French socialism and communism. With Engels he founded the Deutsche Arbeiterbildungsverein in Brussels in 1847 and set about to found an international organization of proletarian correspondence committees. Soon afterwards, they both joined the first international organization of the militant proletariat, the Bund der Kommunisten, at whose request they wrote the famous “Manifesto” proclaiming the proletariat as “the only revolutionary class.”

On the other hand, Marx as an editor of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung during the actual revolutionary outbreak of 1848 expressed mainly the most radical demands of the bourgeois democracy. He strove to maintain a united front between the bourgeois revolutionary movement in Germany and the more advanced forms in which a struggle for direct socialist aims was at that time already waged in the more developed industrial countries of the West. He wrote his most brilliant and powerful article in defense of the Paris proletariat after its crushing defeat in June, 1848. But he did not bring forward in his paper the specific claims of the German proletariat until a few weeks before its final suppression by the victorious counterrevolution of 1849. Even then, he stated the workers’ case in a somewhat abstract manner by reproducing in the columns of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung the economic lectures dealing with Wage Labor and Capital which he had given two years before in the Arbeiterbildungsverein at Brussels. Similarly, by his contributions in the 1850’s and 60’s to Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, to the New American Cyclopaedia edited by George Ripley and Charles Dana, to Chartist publications in England, and to German and Austrian newspapers, Marx revealed himself chiefly as a spokesman of the radical democratic policies which, he hoped, would ultimately lead to a war of the democratic West against reactionary tsarist Russia.

An explanation of this apparent dualism is to be found in the Jacobinic pattern of the revolutionary doctrine which Marx and Engels had adopted before the February Revolution of 1848 and to which they remained faithful, on the whole, even after the outcome of that revolution had finally wrecked their former enthusiastic hopes. Although they realized the necessity of adjusting tactics to changed historical conditions, their own theory of revolution, even in its latest and most advanced materialistic form, kept the peculiar character of the transitory period during which the proletarian class was still bound to proceed towards its own social emancipation by passing through the intermediate stage of a preponderantly political revolution.

It is true that the revolutionary political effects of the economic warfare of the trade unions and of the other forms of championing immediate and specific labor interests became increasingly important for Marx during his later years, as attested by his leading role in the organization and direction of the International Working Men’s Association in the 60s and by his contributions to the programs and tactics of the various national parties in the 70s. But it is also true, and is clearly shown by the internecine battles waged within the International by the Marxists against the followers of Proudhon and Bakunin, that Marx and Engels never really abandoned their earlier views on the decisive importance of politics as the only conscious and fully developed form of revolutionary class action. There is only a difference of languages between the cautious enrolment of “political action” as a subordinate means to the ultimate goal of the “economic emancipation of the working class” as contained in the Rules of the IWMA of 1864, and the open proclamation, in the Communist Manifesto of 1848, that “every class struggle is a political struggle” and that the “organization of the proletarians into a class” presupposes their “organization into a political party.” Thus, Marx, from the first to the last, defined his concept of class in ultimately political terms and, in fact though not in words, subordinated the multiple activities exerted by the masses in their daily class struggle to the activities exerted on their behalf by their political leaders.

This appears even mere distinctly in those rare and extraordinary situations in which Marx and Engels during their later years again were called to deal with actual attempts at a European revolution. Witness Marx’s reaction to the revolutionary Commune of the Paris workers in 1871, Witness further Marx’s and Engels’ apparently inconsistent positive attitude toward the entirely idealistic attempts of the revolutionary Narodnaja Volja to enforce by terroristic action the outbreak of “a political and thus also a social revolution” under the backward conditions prevailing in the 70s and 80s in tsarist Russia. As shown in detail in an earlier article (Living Marxism, March 1938), Marx and Engels were not only prepared to regard the approaching revolutionary outbreak in Russia as a signal for a general European revolution of the Jacobin type in which (as Engels told Vera Sassulitch in 1883) “if the year 1789 once comes, the year 1793 will follow.” They actually hailed the Russian and all-European revolution as a workers revolution and the starting point of a Communistic development.

There is then no point in the objection raised by the, Mensheviks and other schools of the traditional Western type of Marxist orthodoxy that the Marxism of Lenin was in fact only the return to an earlier form of the Marxism of Marx which later had been replaced by a more mature and materialistic form. It is quite true that the very similarity between the historical situation arising in Russia in the beginning of the twentieth century and the conditions prevailing in Germany, Austria, and elsewhere at the eve of the European revolution of 1848 explains the otherwise unexplainable fact that the latest phase of the revolutionary movement of our time could have been represented at all under the paradoxical form of an ideological return to the past. Nevertheless, as shown above revolutionary Marxism as “restored” by Lenin did conform, in its purely theoretical contents, much more with the true spirit of all historical phases of the Marxian doctrine than that Social Democratic Marxism of the preceding period which after all, in spite of its loudly professed “orthodoxy,” had never been more than a mutilated and travestied form of the Marxian theory, vulgarizing its real contents, and blunting its revolutionary edge. It is for this very reason that Lenin’s experiment in the “restoration” of revolutionary Marxism confirmed most convincingly the utter futility of any attempt to draw the theory of the revolutionary action of the working class not from its own contents but from any “myth.” It has shown, above all, the ideological perversity of the idea to supplant the existing deficiencies of the present action by an imaginary return to a mythicized past. While such awakening of a dead revolutionary ideology may possibly help for a certain time, as the Russian revolution has shown, to conceal from the makers of the revolutionary “October” the historical limitations of their heroic efforts, it is bound to result ultimately not in finding once more the spirit of that earlier revolutionary movement but only in making its ghost walk again. It has resulted, in our time, in a new and “revolutionary Marxist” form of the suppression and exploitation of the proletarian class in Soviet Russia, and in an equally new and “revolutionary Marxist” form of crushing genuine revolutionary movements in Spain and all over the world.

All this shows clearly that Marxism today could only be “restored” in its original form by its transformation into a mere ideology serving an altogether different purpose and, indeed, a whole scale of changing political purposes. It serves, at this very moment as an ideological screen for the debunking of the hitherto predominant role of the ruling party itself and for the further enhancement of the quasi-fascist personal leadership of Stalin and of his all-adaptable agencies. At the same time, on the international scene, the so-called anti-fascist policy of the “Marxist” Comintern has come to play in the present struggles between the various alliances of capitalist powers exactly the same role as its opposite, the “anticommunist” and “anti-Marxist” international policy of the regimes of Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese warlords.

It should be understood that the whole criticism raised above concerns only the ideological endeavours of the last fifty years to “preserve” or to “restore,” for immediate application, a thoroughly mythicized “revolutionary Marxist doctrine.” Nothing in this article is directed against the scientific results reached by Marx and Engels and a few of their followers on various fields of social research which in many ways hold good to this day. Above all, nothing in this article is directed against what may be called, in a very comprehensive sense, the Marxist, that is, the independent revolutionary movement of the international working class. There seems to be good reason, in the search for what is living or may be recalled to life in the present deathly standstill of the revolutionary workers’ movement, to “return” to that practical and not merely ideological broadmindedness by which the first Marxist (at the same time Proudhonst, Blanquist, Bakuninist, trade-unionist, etc.) International Working Men’s Association welcomed into its ranks all workers who subscribed to the principle of an independent proletarian class struggle. As enunciated in the first of its rules, drawn up by Marx, “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”

Living Marxism was the successor to The International Council Correspondence. The International Council Correspondence was a left/council communist magazine published in Chicago by the United Workers Party, a split from the Proletarian Party. Published monthly from 1934 to 1938 and edited by Paul Mattick, in 1938, it changed its name to Living Marxism and again to New Essays in 1942. Karl Korsch, Anton Pannekoek, Max Nomad, Daniel Guérin, Otto Rühle, Dwight Macdonald and Victor Serge also were contributors.

PDF of full issue: https://files.libcom.org/files/ICC%20Vol%204%20No%204.pdf

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s