||This article needs additional citations for verification. (March 2010)|
|Born||15 August, 1886
|Died||21 October 1961
Belmont, Massachusetts, USA
|Main interests||Politics, Economics, Law|
Karl Korsch (August 15, 1886 - October 21, 1961) was a German-born Marxist theoretician. Along with György Lukács, Korsch is considered to be one of the major figures responsible for laying the foundation for Western Marxism in the 1920s.
Karl Korsch was born in the small farming village of Tostedt (near Hamburg) to Carl August Korsch and his wife Therese on August 15, 1886. Although Carl August worked as a secretary in a city hall bureau, in his private life, he was deeply devoted to studying and writing about the philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. As an intellectual who wanted more for himself as well as for his children, Karl’s father made the decision to relocate his family west to a village just outside of Meiningen in 1898. The move not only allowed Carl August to obtain employment at a local bank (where he eventually rose to become bank vice president), it also gave his children the opportunity to receive a better education. Indeed, Karl was an excellent student during his years of schooling in Meiningen.
Beginning in 1906, Korsch successively attended universities in Munich, Geneva, and Berlin, studying various subjects in preparation for a more concentrated study in law. In 1908, Korsch entered the University of Jena (incidentally, the same university that awarded Karl Marx his doctorate in philosophy in 1841) to begin working on his law degree. When he was not occupied with his studies, Korsch was extremely active in the Freie Studenten, a left-of-center student group which pushed for further liberalization at the University. Korsch also found time to become editor of the student newspaper, to which he also contributed articles. In addition, Korsch organized and participated in lectures that featured prominent socialist speakers such as Edward Bernstein and Karl Liebknecht. Surprisingly, all of these extracurricular activities did not have a detrimental effect on Korsch’s academic performance because he managed to graduate from the University of Jena’s law school with the highest honors in 1911. It was around this time that Korsch met Hedda Gagliardi, whom he would marry in 1913.
A grant afforded Korsch the opportunity to travel to England in 1912, where he and Hedda soon became a members of the Fabian Society. However, Korsch’s involvement in the Fabian Society came to an end with the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Although opposed to the war from the start, Korsch nevertheless made the decision to return to his native country and enlist in German Army. Initially assigned the rank of lieutenant, Korsch was quickly demoted to sergeant for refusing to obey orders during the German Army’s invasion of neutral Belgium. These disciplinary measures did little to shake Korsch of his pacifist views, which he exhibited by refusing to carry a weapon into battle. Despite his iconoclasm, Korsch was decorated several times during his military service and was even re-promoted to the rank of captain. More importantly, Korsch’s strong moral conviction and reputation for bravery helped him garner the respect of many of the men in his company. This company would later establish a soldiers’ soviet in response to the widespread unrest that began to sweep through the German military in 1917. Korsch was elected by his fellow soldiers to serve as one of this soviet’s delegates.
From 1917 to 1933 he was active in leftwing politics in Germany, leaving on the night of the Reichstag fire. After a brief stay in England and Denmark, he and his wife settled in the USA in 1936, teaching at Tulane University, New Orleans, and working at the International Institute for Social Research, New York.
Karl Korsch died in Belmont, Massachusetts on October 21, 1961.
Korsch studied in London between 1912 and 1914, becoming a member of the Fabian Society. In 1913 he married Hedda Gagliardi, a grandchild of feminist Hedwig Dohm, who would be closely involved in his theoretical work. Hedda Korsch from 1916 was a teacher at the free school Wickersdorf. Korsch's wartime experiences in Germany radicalised him, especially the ferment within the leftwing parties of Germany following the Russian Revolution. Korsch focused his studies and writings on working-out a replacement economic system for workers' councils to implement across Germany, published under the title What is Socialization? in March 1919. Korsch joined the German Communist Party in 1920. He became Communist Minister of Justice in the regional Thuringian government in October 1923.
Korsch attributed the failure of the German revolution to the lack of ideological preparation and leadership of the working class. Accordingly, he turned his focus to developing workers' organisations into bodies subjectively capable of realizing revolutionary opportunities. In contrast to what seemed to him a materialist fatalism, he thought it would be possible to galvanize workers' organisations into bolder political action if more effort was put into educating workers in the deeper theory of Marxism.
In his later work, he rejected orthodox Marxism as historically outmoded, wanted to adapt Marxism to a new historical situation, and wrote in his Ten Theses (1950) that "the first step in re-establishing a revolutionary theory and practice consists in breaking with that Marxism which claims to monopolize revolutionary initiative as well as theoretical and practical direction" and that "today, all attempts to re-establish the Marxist doctrine as a whole in its original function as a theory of the working classes social revolution are reactionary utopias."
Korsch was especially concerned that Marxist theory was losing its precision and validity - in the words of the day, becoming "vulgarized" - within the upper echelons of the various socialist organizations. His masterwork, Marxism and Philosophy is an attempt to re-establish the historic character of Marxism as the heir to Hegel. It commences with a quote from Vladimir Lenin's On the Significance of Militant Materialism: "We must organize a systematic study of the Hegelian dialectic from a materialist standpoint."
In Korsch's formulation, Hegel represented at the level of ideas the real, material progressiveness of the bourgeoisie. Alongside the extinction of 'Hegelianism' around 1848, the bourgeoisie lost its claim to that progressive role in society, ceasing to be the universal class. Marx, in taking Hegel and transforming that philosophy into something new, in which the workers would be the progressive class, himself represented the moment at which the revolutionary baton materially passed from bourgeoisie to workers. To Korsch, the central idea of Marxian theory was what he termed "the principle of historical specification". This means to "comprehend all things social in terms of a definite historical epoch". (Korsch, Karl Marx, p. 24) He emphasizes that Marx "deals with all categories of his economic and socio-historical research in that specific form and in that specific connection in which they appear in modern bourgeois society. He does not treat them as eternal categories." (op. cit., p. 29f.)
Korsch's stance had ramifications which were unpalatable to the official Communist Party structure - not least, casting the Party's own ideological weaknesses as the only material explanation for the failure of the revolution. Published in 1923, Marxism and Philosophy was strongly opposed by Party faithful and other leftwing opinionmakers, including Karl Kautsky and Grigory Zinoviev. Zinoviev famously said of Korsch and his fellow critic Georg Lukács, "If we get a few more of these Professors spinning out their theories, we shall be lost". Over the subsequent five years, the German Communist Party gradually purged all such dissenting voices. Korsch survived within a current known as the Resolute Lefts, until his expulsion in April 1926. He remained a communist deputy to the Reichstag.
Korsch's critique was not accepted into Stalinist communist theory. It remained the property of communist dissenters and academics for several decades. Within those currents, particularly in Germany, Britain, Hungary and Italy, his influence varies from group to group, but became more significant with the brief revival of revolutionary politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Korsch taught and befriended Bertolt Brecht, the Marxian playwright, who said he picked Korsch to instruct him in Marxism due to his independence from the Communist Party. He also instructed Felix Weil, the founder of the Institute for Social Research, from which the highly influential Frankfurt School was to emerge. He also influenced the German Marxist historian Arthur Rosenberg. Indirect disciples include Franz Jakubowski and Nildo Viana. Sidney Hook attended Korsch lectures in Berlin in 1928.
- Revolutionary Theory, edited by Douglas Kellner, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1977 (A good collection, with a 60 page introductory essay on Korsch's life and work by Kellner).
- Three essays on Marxism, introduction by Paul Breines, New York : Monthly Review Press, 1971 (This contains the essays Why I am a Marxist, Introduction to Capital and Leading Principles of Marxism: a Restatement).
- Marxism and philosophy, London: NLB 1972
- Ten Theses on Marxism Today, at http://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1950/ten-theses.htm. Published in Telos 26 (Winter 1975-76). New York: Telos Press.
- Karl Marx (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1938)
A Gesamtausgabe (Complete Works) in German is edited by Offizin Verlag, Hanover, Germany.
- Die Entstehung der GIK, 1927-1933, accessed 13 July 2010
- Karl Korsch Libertarian Communist Library
- Karl Korsch Marxist Internet Archive (Biography, interview and photographs)
- Karl Korsch's challenge to Marxism (Commentary)
- Karl Korsch's Marxism (Commentary)
- Mattick, Paul. Karl Korsch: His Contribution to Revolutionary Marxism (Commentary)