Karl Korsch | Wikipedia audio article


Karl Korsch (German: [kɔɐ̯ʃ]; August 15,
1886 – October 21, 1961) was a German Marxist theoretician. Along with György Lukács,
Korsch is considered to be one of the major figures responsible for laying the groundwork
for Western Marxism in the 1920s.==Early years==
Karl Korsch was born in the small rural village of Tostedt (near Hamburg) to Carl August Korsch
and his wife Therese on August 15, 1886. Although Karl’s father worked as a secretary in a
city hall bureau, he was deeply devoted to studying the philosophy of Leibniz in his
private life. Always longing for something more urban and intellectual, Carl August made
the decision to relocate his family west to a village just outside Meiningen when Karl
was eleven years old. The move not only allowed the elder Korsch to obtain employment at a
local bank (where he eventually rose to the position of vice president), it also gave
his children the opportunity to receive a better education. Karl, who showed great intellectual
promise at a young age, excelled as a student during his years of schooling at Meiningen.
Beginning in 1906, Korsch successively attended universities in Munich, Geneva, and Berlin,
studying various subjects in preparation for a more concentrated study in the field of
law. Korsch then 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
in 1908. 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
of the school’s code of behavior. 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 Eduard Bernstein and Karl
Liebknecht. The extent of his extracurricular activities did not seem to have the slightest
detrimental effect on Korsch’s academic performance since he managed to graduate aa doctor of
law from the University of Jena’s law school with the highest honors in 1910; his thesis
title was Die Anwendung der Beweislastregeln im Zivilprozess und das qualifizierte Geständnis.
It was around this time that Korsch met Hedda Gagliardi, whom he would eventually marry
in 1913.==First World War==
Korsch received a grant in 1912 to travel to England and work on translating and writing
a commentary to a legal text by Sir Ernest Schuster. During this time, Korsch became
a member of the Fabian Society, a reformist socialist organization. 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 Wickersdorf Free
School Community. Korsch’s stay in England came to an end in the summer of 1914 when
he received orders to report to his military regiment at Meiningen for maneuvers. Despite
being opposed to a war that he knew was on the horizon, Korsch nevertheless made the
decision to return to his native country because in the words of his wife: “He wanted to
be with the masses, and they would be in the army.” At the start of the war, Korsch initially
held the rank of lieutenant but was quickly demoted to sergeant for daring to voice his
objections to the German Army’s invasion of neutral Belgium. However, these disciplinary
measures did little to shake Korsch of his pacifist convictions; throughout the war,
he refused to carry any sort of weapon into battle. According to Hedda Korsch, Karl’s
rationale for going into combat unarmed was “that it made no difference, since you were
just as safe with or without a weapon: the point was that you were safe neither way.”
Instead of fighting, Korsch made it his personal mission to save as many lives as he could.
As the conflict wore on, Korsch was decorated several times and was even re-promoted to
the rank of captain. More important than these official accolades, Korsch’s strong moral
character and reputation for bravery under fire helped him garner the respect of many
of the men in his company. In 1917 he joined the Independent Social Democratic Party of
Germany (USPD), which had broken away from the Social Democratic Party of Germany over
the later’s support for the war. When widespread unrest began to sweep through the German military
in 1917, this company established a soldiers’ soviet with Korsch being elected by his fellow
soldiers to serve as one of this soviet’s delegates. This “red company” was one of the
last to be demobilized, a process which occurred in January 1919.==Political activism in Germany, 1917–1933
==Korsch’s wartime experiences in Germany had
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 was part of the USPD faction which joined
the German Communist Party in 1920. This was despite his misgivings about the twenty-one
Conditions required for adherence to the Comintern. 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 1926 he formed the Entschiedene Linke (Determined Left) with Ernst Schwarz. It initially attracted
7,000 members, before joining the Communist Workers Party of Germany in June 1927.==Exile==
Having been active in leftwing politics in Germany from 1917–1933, he left on 27 February,
1933, the night of the Reichstag fire. At first he stayed in England and Denmark.===The deaths of Dora Fabian and Mathilde
Wurm===The bodies of Dora Fabian and Mathilde Wurm
were found in a locked bedroom in London on 4 April 1935. In the subsequent coroner’s
inquest Korsch was to play a significant role. Fabian had been working with Anton Ganz to
investigate the activities of Hans Wesemann, a former Social Democrat journalist who had
become a Nazi agent. In fact Korsch had attended an interview with Ganz at which Inspector
Jempson of the Special Branch had been present, but without Korsch being aware of his identity.
Korsch later claimed that Ganz had encouraged him to reveal his revolutionary sentiments
in front of the policeman and suggested that this was a factor in the expulsion of Korsch
from Britain a few months later.===Life in the United States===
In 1936 he settled in the United States with his wife, teaching at Tulane University, New
Orleans, and working at the International Institute for Social Research, New York City.
Korsch died in Belmont, Massachusetts on October 21, 1961.
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.”==Philosophy==
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 left-wing figures, including Karl Kautsky and Grigory Zinoviev. Zinoviev famously said
of Korsch and his fellow critic 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.==Influence==
Korsch’s critique was not accepted into Marxist–Leninist 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.==Works==
1932: ‘Geleitwort zu Kapital’. Berlin (‘Introduction to Capital’); reprinted 1971 in Three Essays
on Marxism. 1935: ‘Why I am a Marxist’. In: Modern Quarterly,
Vol. IX no. 2, April 1935, p. 88 – 95 (part of a symposium with other contributions Why
I am Not a Marxist by Alexander Goldenweiser, George Santayana and H. G. Wells, and Why
I am a Marxist by Harold Laski); reprinted 1971 in Three Essays on Marxism.
1937: ‘Leading principles of Marxism: a Restatement’. In: Marxist Quarterly (published by the American
Marxist Association), Vol 1/3, Oct-Dec 1937, p. 356 – 378; reprinted 1971 in Three Essays
on Marxism. 1938: Karl Marx, London: Chapman & Hall / New
York: John Wiley & Sons. Originally published as part of a series “Modern Sociologists”.
Reissued 1963. Published in original German version 1967. Translated in Italian, French,
Spanish and Greek. Many times reissued. 1971: Three essays on Marxism, introduction
by Paul Breines, New York: Monthly Review Press (This contains the essays ‘Why I am
a Marxist’, ‘Introduction to Capital’ and ‘Leading Principles of Marxism: a Restatement’).
Also published in London 1971 by Pluto Press. Marxism and philosophy, London: NLB, 1972.
Revolutionary Theory, edited by Douglas Kellner, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977 (A
good collection, with a 60-page introductory essay on Korsch’s life and work by Kellner).
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.A Gesamtausgabe (Complete Works) in German is edited by Offizin Verlag,
Hanover, Germany.==References====External links==
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)

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