Marxism and philosophy



Considerations on the book by Karl Korsch

Marxism and philosophy it was published in 1923. Before acquiring the form of a book, it appeared in the periodical edited by Carl Grünberg, the “Archive of the History of Socialism and the Workers’ Movement”, which became the following year the official organ of the newly installed Institute of Social Research from the University of Frankfurt.

That same year, Georg Lukács published History and class consciousness. The affinity of themes and purposes between the two authors – evident in the block condemnation of both at the V Congress of the Third International – allowed that, decades later, these books were considered the founding marks of Western Marxism (alongside prison notebooks, by Antonio Gramsci, whose writing is later).

As the title indicates, Karl Korsch focuses on the issue, hitherto virtually ignored, of the relationship between Marxism and philosophy. His pioneering approach to the choice and development of the theme allows one to glimpse the dimension of the book's direct and indirect impact. After all, from then on, the theoretical discussion of Marxism – and not only among Western Marxists – became inseparable from philosophical reflection, even within the scope of specific disciplines such as economics or history.

Korsch addresses both sides of the issue, both the place of Marxism in the history of philosophy and the role of philosophy in the genesis and structure of the work of Marx and Engels. His starting point is the observation that Marxism was ignored or little mentioned in philosophy history books. There was a gap in the period stretching between Hegel's death (1831) and philosophical currents after 1850. The Young Hegelians, and Marx among them, were at best designated as examples of the disintegration of Hegel's system.

Korsch attributes this to an inadequacy that is both methodological and ideological. The historiography of ideas fails to perceive the link between thought and social praxis. It is a setback, concomitant with the retreat of the bourgeoisie in the face of social transformation, in the face of the theories of German Idealism that sought to emphasize the connection between philosophy and revolution. From this reasoning he draws a conclusion that will mark an era: “the Marxist system, the theoretical expression of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat, must maintain with the systems of German idealist philosophy, on the ideological plane, the same relations that the revolutionary movement of the proletariat maintains, on the of social and political praxis, with the bourgeois revolutionary movement”.

Through this comparison, Korsch attempts an explanation for the relationship between Marx's doctrine and German Idealism. This philosophical movement was presented by Kautsky and Lenin – in the footsteps of the last Engels – as one of the three sources of Marxism. But none of them managed to develop a systematic theory of Marx's position vis-à-vis Hegel, fulfilling the need to revitalize the dialectic as a method and, at the same time, to point out the difference between its idealist and materialist versions.

The complexity of the problem – still today the subject of polemics and theses in university circles – imposes an additional question: the determination of Marx’s position in relation to his generational companions, the Young Hegelians, which can mean, depending on the path chosen, both a shortcut like an endless road. Korsch's acuity in dealing with these topics is remarkable, especially when one considers that in 1923 both the Manuscripts from 1844, such as notebooks the german ideology in which Marx, in his own words, promoted "a reckoning with his former philosophical conscience".

Without access to these texts, Korsch escapes the risk of sinking in details and nuances, and goes straight to the point. Clarifying Marx's relationship with the German philosophers is essential, but at the same time incomprehensible without first establishing the place of philosophy in Marxist doctrine.

This determination cannot be carried out separately from the elucidation of the theoretical status of Marxism, that is, from the understanding of what Marx means by science. Engels' definition synthesized in the slogan “scientific socialism” only mechanically inverted the weights of the Hegelian hierarchy between science and philosophy. Korsch points out that while Hegel seeks to elevate particular sciences to the level of philosophical reflection, Engels reduces philosophy to a particular science, charged with the study of formal logic and dialectics.

Korsch, however, does not consider that this question, the definition of the theoretical dimension of Marxism, is subject to discussion. It constitutes one of the hallmarks of Marxism's identity, one of the pillars of the structure that allows it to be conceived as a unit that develops over time. But how is it possible to locate an essence there if historically Marxism has presented itself in diverse and even contradictory theoretical and practical guises?

The solution proposed by Korsch is simple and at the same time quite ingenious. First, it chooses and defaults to a particular time, the Communist Party Manifesto (1848), in which Marx presents his doctrine as “theoretical expression of a revolutionary practice”. Then, he reconstitutes the trajectory of Marxism as an account of the variations to which this formula was subjected.

The novelty of the book lies, therefore, in the act of associating the political deviation from the revolutionary directive with changes in the delimitation of the “scientific” status of Marxism. It thus deploys a routine topic in the rhetorical arsenal of currents contrary to social-democratic reformism, replacing, however, the usual moral and voluntarist condemnation with an explanation that is both theoretical and historical.

No The Manifest, the theoretical sphere, conceived as “theory of the social revolution”, is organized as a “living totality”, impossible to be compartmentalized into specific disciplines such as history, economics, politics, cultural studies, etc. In Marx's mature work, the various elements of this whole acquire a certain autonomy, be it the different sciences in relation to each other, or theory vis-à-vis social practice.

In the epigones, however, there was a fragmentation of the “unitary theory of revolution” into “a sum of purely scientific knowledge without any immediate relationship – political or otherwise – with the praxis of class struggle”. A simultaneous unfolding of the prevalence of reformism, expression of the economic claims of the unions and the political line of the Second International. This situation, Korsch assumes, would be remedied by a return movement to the work of Marx, led by Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, to which Marxism and philosophy it only proposes to add some new elements.

The theoretical dimension of the “theory of revolution” manifests itself, therefore, as a determination that conceives “Marxism as a totality”. With this, Korsch presents a compelling explanation for the place of philosophy in Marxist doctrine. It not only constitutes one of the elements to be mobilized in the knowledge of the totality, but the conjugation of the different specific sciences itself requires overcoming the intellectual division of labor, something close to the modality of philosophy that was practiced in the 1920s, before this knowledge followed the augury of Engels and reduce to specialized science.

Based on a new interpretation of both the XI thesis on Feurbach like the Young Hegelian motto “you cannot overcome philosophy without realizing it”, Korsch rehabilitates philosophical criticism – beyond its role in the genesis of Marx's doctrine – as a decisive moment in the class struggle. He considers it essential to expand the economic and political fight by incorporating the cultural dimension. This is one of the many points in common between Korsch, Lukács and Gramsci.

Western Marxism emerged in the midst of a vigorous movement of social transformation, re-presenting Marx's doctrine as a "theory of revolution". Paradoxically, the explanation of the theoretical dimension of this conception, in particular the revaluation of the critique of ideology, transmuted from History and class consciousness in a critique of reification, it involuntarily enabled its procedures to prove to be the most appropriate on the occasion of the stabilization of capitalism and the integration of the proletariat.

*Ricardo Musse He is a professor in the Department of Sociology at USP. He edited, among other books, Contemporary China: six interpretations (Authentic).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews no. 1, second phase, in March 2009.



Karl Korsch. Marxism and philosophy. Rio de Janeiro, Editora UFRJ, 2008, 170 pages.


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