Karl Korsch and Marxism

Paulo Pasta, Untitled, 2013 Oil On Canvas, 50 x 40 cm


Commentary on Paul Mattick's Book

The collection of texts by Paul Mattick, Karl Korsch and Marxism constitutes an opportune gateway to know, with rigor and depth, the work of one of the greatest Marxist theorists, although little studied and little read in Brazil: Karl Korsch. After all, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the launch of Marxism and philosophy, a renewed interest in his work and contribution to Marxist theory begins.

Paul Mattick (1904 – 1981) was one of the main representatives of council communism, a current of Marxism that sought to rescue and update the revolutionary character of this theory based on the experiences of workers' councils (Soviets) (POZZOLI, 2020; MAIA, 2015). He dedicated his life to the workers' cause from an early age, embarking and participating directly in the German Revolution at the age of 14, as a member of the youth organization of the Spartacus League (animated, mainly by Rosa Luxemburgo and Karl Liebknecht) and later as a member of the KAPD (Communist Workers Party of Germany) (VALADAS, 2010).

With the end of the revolutionary process and the generalized increase in repression, he migrated to the USA and, alongside his militancy in the American labor movement, began a deep research, outside the university, on the writings of Marx and Marxism. In a short time, he became an important authority on several themes surrounding Marxist reflections: the cyclical nature of capital accumulation crises, the critical analysis of Keynesianism, the relationship between intellectuals and the labor movement, etc. In addition, he became known as a profound critic of Leninism and academic Marxism, producing extensive analyzes of several world-renowned intellectuals considered Marxists, such as Herbert Marcuse, Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Karl Kaustky, among others. others.

Paul Mattick, however, is less known for one of his main contributions to the history of Marxist thought: his voracious commitment to continuing the councilist tradition and the well-deserved recognition of its representatives when writing about them and their works. Hence, Paul Mattick has texts that summarize the life and work of almost all council communists (Anton Pannekoek, Otto Ruhle, Karl Korsch, etc.) and reviews of their main published books.

Such an undertaking took place not only because of the value that Paul Mattick attributes to this tradition, but because he was also one of the longest-lived members of this Marxist current, producing until the 1980s, while most councilors had their production ceased between the end of from the 1940s to the beginning of the 1960s. It is in the wake of this universe of contributions that this set of texts by Paul Mattick on Karl Korsch is inserted, also considered another representative of council communism (even if he joined late, compared to the too much).[I]

Karl Korsch is one of the most important Marxists of the XNUMXth century. His theoretical contribution, which involves, at the same time, the ability to explain the main constitutive elements of Marx's theory and an analytical contribution to deepen and develop Marxism itself, attests to our initial statement. His fundamental concern was always to reflect Marxism as a weapon that would contribute to the self-liberation of the proletariat.

Therefore, Marxism was conceived by Karl Korsch as a theoretical expression of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat. Such a definition, which links being (proletariat) and consciousness (Marxism), points to the revolutionary and anti-dogmatic character of this theory. It is from this perspective that Karl Korsch, throughout his career, always sought to avoid the determinist and non-revolutionary readings that many so-called Marxists held in his time. Paul Mattick, as a good connoisseur of Karl Korsch's work, highlights these contributions and makes these elements the guiding principle of his analysis of Korschian texts.

The book Karl Korsch and Marxism is a collection of three essays written by Paul Mattick on the life and work of Karl Korsch. As far as we know, this is the first collection that brings together all these texts in just one edition, which already demonstrates a merit for the organizers and editors of the work in Brazil, and which can be replicated in eventual new editions in other countries.

The first essay, “Marx according to Korsch” originally appeared in the April 1939 issue of the political magazine Living Marxism, it is a review of one of the main and most significant works of Karl Korsch, his book Karl Marx, first published in English, in November 1938, in the collection Modern Sociologists. Despite the production context of this work by Karl Korsch, [ii] Paul Mattick shows that even though it is a dense and abstract book, the book is a useful theoretical tool for the aspirations of the working class in its struggle for self-liberation, as it deals with the main themes worked on by Marx throughout his intellectual development from three analytical axes: bourgeois society, political economy and history.

Based on this proposal, Karl Korsch discusses Marx's theory, historical materialism and its analytical concepts (method of production, production relation, society, surplus value, etc.), its method of analysis and its analytical categories ( historical specificity, totality, etc.). For Mattick, the best discussion of Korsch's book and his greatest contribution is the second part of the book that deals with the critique of political economy, especially the chapters devoted to commodity fetishism and the law of value.

Paul Mattick thus sums up his assessment of this question: “Marx's critique of Political Economy was not, as is often assumed, a superior development of bourgeois economics, but the theory of impending revolution. The differences between classical and Marxist economic concepts are demonstrated in an illuminating way” (MATTICK, 2020, p. 26-27).

Paul Mattick, in continuing his review, however, does not uncritically praise Korsch's work, in spite of the personal bond between both and the political and intellectual collaboration from the counselor current that the two represented, especially from the second half of the 30s. He makes a strong criticism of Korsch especially in his strange late defense of Lenin in one of the chapters of the book, since, since the late 20s, Korsch had already started his criticism of Lenin and Leninism.[iii]

The second essay, “Karl Korsch: brief intellectual biography”, the most extensive of all in the collection, was originally written in 1962, a few months after Korsch's death, with the original title of Karl Korsch: His Contribution to Revolutionary Marxism in the political magazine Controversy and republished in the collection Anti-Bolshevik Communism, in 1978 by Merlin Press. Paul Mattick, in this essay, brings an overview of Korsch's biographical trajectory, highlighting his main activities and changes in his troubled life.[iv] Subsequently, he discusses the main themes worked on by Korsch throughout his political and intellectual clashes: criticism of Kautskyism, the question of the Russian revolution and its contradictions, proletarian self-determination as a precondition to the revolutionary process, the differences between proletarian revolution and bourgeois revolution , the critique of political economy and, finally, the relationship between Marxism and philosophy.

Paul Mattick, in this text, proves to be a profound connoisseur of Korsch's work, in addition to avoiding commonplaces and hasty or distorted readings of Korschian texts, especially about his supposed approach to anarchism in defending anarcho-syndicalism regarding the Spanish Revolution in second half of the 30s, abandoning his previous Marxist propositions.[v] Paul Mattick thus rehabilitates the revolutionary character of Korsch's work and reaffirms his conviction in Marxist theory in an antidogmatic and radical way.

The last essay, “Karl Korsch's Marxism”, was originally published in 1964, for issue no. 53 of Survey magazine (The Marxism of Karl Korsch), can be considered a deepening of the issue of Marxism worked in a synthetic way in the previous essay. In it, Paul Mattick analyzes Korsch's conception of Marxism and the ruthless criticism deferred by the latter to what he called pseudo-Marxism. He states, from the beginning, that Korsch always called himself a Marxist throughout his life and emphasized the non-dogmatic character of this theory: “His work shows a critical attitude towards Marx and the Marxists, but in the sense of strengthening, not weakening, the Marxist movement. He understood this movement strictly as the proletarian class struggle for the abolition of capitalist society, and Marxist theory only had meaning for him as an indivisible and essential part of this social transformation” (MATTICK, 2021, p. 77-78).

From this angle, Korsch's interpreter highlights that Marxism could only be fully understood with its essential link with the proletariat. For Korsch, the analysis of Marxism can only be done in a concrete and satisfactory way if its own theoretical and methodological tools are used and applied to themselves.[vi] It is from this principle that he conceptualizes Marxism, points out its historical development and its link with society.

The Korschian definition of Marxism is presented in his work Marxism and philosophy (1977), placing it as a “theoretical expression of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat”[vii] – a definition that he takes forward throughout his works, unlike, for example, György Lukács who carried out self-criticism to History and class consciousness. Karl Korsch elaborates this definition considering the approach taken in the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels (2010), especially when these authors discuss the relationship between the communists and the labor movement.[viii]

Such a discussion and conception of Marxism leads Korsch to fight what he called pseudo-Marxism. Paul Mattick satisfactorily also captures this important element of Korsch's discussions: “Korsch found that this Marxism had degenerated into a mere system of knowledge and was no longer the consistency of a revolutionary practice ready to realize its revolutionary aim. It was therefore necessary to rebuild the active and revolutionary side of Marxism […] It was in this spirit that Korsch embarked on the reinterpretation of Marxist theory in opposition to the “orthodox” and “revisionist” wings of Second International Marxism” (MATTICK, 2020, p. 82-83).

At first, before the consolidation of Bolshevik power in Russia, Karl Korsch dealt his blows only to the Second International, but later he included, in his formulation of pseudo-Marxism, the ideologues of the Third International, such as Lenin and the supporters of Leninism: “Korsch , therefore, argued that it was necessary to dissociate proletarian communism from Bolshevism and the Third International, just as it was previously necessary to discard the reformism of the Second International” (MATTICK, 2020, p. 91-92). This is not the place to fully develop this discussion, but these elements already point to the way in which Paul Mattick reinforces the idea that Korsch dedicated a large part of his work to freeing Marxism from all kinds of dogma or counterrevolutionary influences.

In summary, the discussions presented in the set of these essays by Paul Mattick, now gathered in one work, demonstrate the strength and relevance of Korsch's thought for all who seek to renew Marxism and rescue its revolutionary character. That's why Karl Korsch and Marxism it becomes essential reading for those who want to know, with rigor, the work of Karl Korsch.

*Gabriel Teles is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of São Paulo (USP).

Extended version of the review published in the magazine Marxist Criticism, No 55.


Paul Mattick. Karl Korsch and Marxism. Goiânia, Edições Enfrentamento, 2020, 106 pages.


FERREIRA, Aline C.; TELES, Gabriel. The Marxist Definition of Marxism in Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch. Free Space Magazine, Goiania, v. 13, no. 25, p. 7-18, Jan./Jun. 2018. Available at: https://redelp.net/revistas/index.php/rel/article/view/798/685. Accessed on: 06 may. 2019.

KELLNER, Douglas. Karl Korsch: revolutionary theory. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977.

KORSCH, Hedda. Memories of Karl Korsch. In: KORSCH, Karl. What is socialization? A program of practical socialism. Buenos Aires: Past and Present, p. 113-129, 1973.

KORSCH, Karl. Marxism and Philosophy. Porto: Edições Afrontamento, 1977.

LUKÁCS, Georg. History and class consciousness. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2012.

MAIA, Lucas. Council Communism and Social Self-Management. Rio de Janeiro: Rizoma Editorial, 2015.

MARX, Karl & ENGELS, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 2010.

POZZOLI, Claudio. Paul Mattick and Council Communism. Goiânia: Coping Editions, 2020.

ROTH, Gary. Marxism in a lost century: a biography of Paul Mattick. Bright, 2014.

VALADAS, Jorge. Paul Mattick (1904 – 1981): The Passion of the Revolution or the Impossible Separation of Thought and Action. IN: MATTICK, Paul. Marx & Keynes: the limits of the mixed economy. Lisbon: Editora Antigona, 2010.


[I] It should be mentioned that Paul Mattick not only wrote about Korsch, but also helped, between the 1960s and 1970s, other intellectuals and activists to compile and republish the work of Karl Korsch in the United States and Europe. Mattick was one of the great articulators and promoters of bibliographic material (letters, drafts, etc.) for Michael Buckmiller (ROTH, 2014), editor of the project Karl Korsch Gesamtausgabe, together with the Amsterdam Institute of Social History (with contributions from Götz Langkau) and the Institute of Political Science at the University of Hanover (represented by Jurgen Seifert). This project, still in progress, aims to bring together Korsch's complete work.

[ii] This context was linked to the formally academic character that the work, due to its scope and external proposal, had.

[iii] The main text demonstrating Korsch's radical rejection of Lenin and Leninism is his "Anti-Criticism" written as a preface to the 2nd edition of his best-known and most famous book, Marxism and philosophy.

[iv] It is important to highlight some inaccuracies in Mattick's Korsch biography. One of them, for example, is his statement that Korsch studied and practiced English and international law when he was in England between 1912 and 1914. In fact, while preparing for the tests required to pursue a legal career in the German State, Korsch is invited to work, in 1912, in England. His job would consist of translating from English into German a new book by the famous English jurist Sir. Simon Shuster, who had also studied for a period at the University of Jena, the institution where Korsch also had his academic training. It was the institution itself that recommended Korsch for this undertaking. Therefore, Korsch did not “study and practice” English and international law, but worked as a translator of a law work, as attested by Kellner (1977) and Hedda Korsch (1973).

[v] “Korsch approached anarchism without abandoning his Marxist conceptions. […] The anarchist emphasis on freedom and spontaneity, on self-determination and therefore on decentralization, on action rather than ideology, on solidarity rather than economic interest, were precisely the qualities that had been lost by the socialist movement with its rise to influence and political power in expanding capitalist nations. It did not matter to Korsch whether his biased 'anarchistic' interpretation of revolutionary Marxism was faithful to Marx or not. What mattered, under the conditions of twentieth-century capitalism, was to recapture these anarchist attitudes to revive the labor movement” (MATTICK, 2020, p. 54-55).

[vi] In his own words: “The only truly 'materialist and therefore scientific' (Marx) method for an investigation of this kind consists rather in applying the dialectical perspective introduced by Hegel and Marx in the study of history, and which, until now, only we applied it to the philosophy of German idealism and the Marxist theory that emerged from it, as well as to its further evolution up to our days” (KORSCH, 1977 p. 90).

[vii] Lukács (2012, p. 66) defines Marxism, as we have already stated in another text (FERREIRA; TELES, 2018) similarly in History and Class Consciousness: “The theory that announces this [ie, that announces the proletariat as advocating the dissolution of the existing world] is not linked to the revolution in a more or less contingent way, by interconnected and 'misinterpreted' relations. It is essentially just the thought expression of the revolutionary process itself.”

[viii] “The theoretical propositions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or principles invented or discovered by this or that world reformer. They are just the general expression of the effective conditions of an existing class struggle, of a historical movement that develops before our eyes” (MARX & ENGELS, 2010, p. 51-52).

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