Karl Korsch’s philosophical writings

Commentary by Ralph Dumain

Karl Korsch: Marxism and Philosophy, 1923


I am far more familiar with Lukács, the other essential figure of that time period. Both were denounced in the Comintern, by Rudas and Zinoviev. Korsch’s argument is more streamlined and apparently less heterodox than Lukács’ collection of essays, History and Class Consciousness, which is quite thematically complex. However, Lukács’ lost manuscript, in which he defends himself, is mostly lucid and quite revealing of what was at stake in the controversy: Tailism and the Dialectic. Like Lukács, Korsch is also rehabilitating Hegel. First, Korsch states that both Marxists and anti-Marxists effectively buried philosophy, and Hegel along with it, such that there is a big hole in the history of philosophy between the eclipse of Hegelianism and the rise of neo-Kantianism. Philosophy should be judged on the level of theory rather than on accusations of being bourgeois. Also, Kant and Hegel had a much more political role for their philosophy, referring to the French Revolution, than philosophers have had since the mid-19th century. Bourgeois philosophical progress essentially ends in the mid-19th century, as does the revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie in practice.  Bourgeois historians are silent about the relationship between German idealism and Marxism. These four dimensions of development—philosophical and social, bourgeois and proletarian—all form a unified historical process. (At p. 47)

In footnotes on pp. 50-51 Korsch contrasts the difference between Hegel and Engels regarding the status of philosophy and the special sciences though their positions might seem the same. Engels’ statement about the disappearance of parts of philosophy being absorbed into the special sciences is not what it seems. Has the abolition of philosophy really been accomplished? If not, what then is the relationship of Marxism to philosophy? Referencing Lenin, Korsch asks: “if there is a definite connection between the abolition of the State and the abolition of philosophy, is there also a connection between the neglect of these two problems by the Marxists of the Second International?” (52)


Why did vulgar Marxism go wrong?

Korsch divides Marxism into three periods:

(1) 1843 to defeat of the 1848 revolution: theory of social development as a totality, permeated with philosophy despite disclaimers.

(2) To end of 19th century: revolutionary movement stagnated, therefore theory became autonomous, though this is not dialectical. Component elements of social totality separated out. Links maintained though in Marx and Engels, political economy gains greater precision. Theory and practice maintained, i.e. ‘revolutionary will’. With others, separate branches of knowledge emerged, and Marxism became autonomous and scientific, e.g. Hilferding (Marxism a value-free science). Thus vulgar Marxism and reformism. 2nd International minimization of philosophy = loss of revolutionary character of the movement.

(3) 20th century: Apparent revival of revolutionary Marxism, e.g. Lenin's State and Revolution. Marx and Engels had declared philosophy ‘abolished’ but they did not mean it be replaced by positive sciences.

The real contradiction between Marx’s scientific socialism and all bourgeois philosophy and sciences consists entirely in the fact that scientific socialism is the theoretical expression of a revolutionary process, which will end with the total abolition of these bourgeois philosophies and sciences, together with the abolition of the material relations that find their ideological expression in them. [p. 69]

What was so controversial about this that would incite the Comintern’s condemnation? The main philosophical thread here is the notion of the abolition of philosophy, which maybe is somewhat unorthodox in Korsch’s conception, but not conspicuously astray. Is it the Hegelianism? Korsch is touching here on the notion of praxis, though he uses the concept in a particular way. How does his notion differ from that of Lukács’, if it does? Others have claimed that in 1848 philosophy came to an end—C.L.R. James, for example. I am not particularly impressed thus far, in any case.


To pick up with p. 70:

The scientific theory of Marxism must become again what it was for the authors of the Communist Manifesto—not as a simple return but as a dialectical development: a theory of social revolution that comprises all areas of society as a totality. Therefore we must solve in a dialectically materialist fashion not only ‘the question of the relationship of the State to social revolution and of social revolution to the State’ (Lenin), but also the ‘question of the relationship of ideology to social revolution and of social revolution to ideology’.

Marxists have eclipsed any notion of a relationship between philosophy and revolution.  There are also the vulgar bourgeois conceptions that religion and philosophy will either be suppressed or just disappear. In opposition to all that, Korsch insists that ideological systems must be grasped as realities. Marx and Engels did this in the 1840s (e.g., Marx criticized both the theoretically and practically oriented parties.)

There are three reasons why we can speak of a surpassal of the philosophical standpoint. First, Marx’s theoretical standpoint here is not just partially opposed to the consequences of all existing German philosophy, but is in total opposition to its premises; (for both Marx and Engels this philosophy was always more than sufficiently represented by Hegel). Second, Marx is opposed not just to philosophy, which is only the head or ideal elaboration of the existing world, but to this world as a totality. Third, and most importantly, this opposition is not just theoretical but is also practical and active. ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, our task is to change it’, announces the last of the Theses on Feuerbach. Nevertheless, this general surpassal of the purely philosophical standpoint still incorporates a philosophical character. This becomes clear, once one realises how little this new proletarian science differs from previous philosophy in its theoretical character, even though Marx substitutes it for bourgeois idealist philosophy as a system radically distinct in its orientation and aims. German idealism had constantly tended, even on the theoretical level, to be more than just a theory or philosophy. [Pp. 74-5]

They were dialecticians before they were materialists, and their materialism has been misunderstood. Even with the shift of emphasis, they continued to confront ideologies, as social forces. And they fought not only against idealism as they had done previously, but against bourgeois, vulgar materialism. Several citations are given, most prominently this one from Capital:

It is in fact much easier to uncover the earthly kernel within nebulous religious ideas, through analysis, than it is to do the opposite, to see how these heavenly forms develop out of actual concrete relations. The latter is the only materialist and therefore scientific method.

(Korsch in a footnote also cites The German Ideology, which at that time had not been published in full. He also cites his 1922 “Kernpunkte der materialistischen geschichtsauffassung” [key points of the materialistic conception of history].)

Marx and Engels applied this same perspective to all ideological phenomena and opposed ignoring the importance of the state and political action in favor of pure economics, for example (pace the syndicalists). This as well as the intellectual struggle are often overlooked. (The Second International was also deficient here, e.g. with respect to the revolutionary transition.) In sum, Korsch argues against reductionism in understanding the so-called superstructures. Korsch details how Marx and Engels evolved on this score.

Yet even this deeper and more radical version of Marx’s revolutionary critique of society never ceases to be a critique of the whole of bourgeois society and so of all its forms of consciousness. It may seem as if Marx and Engels were later to criticise philosophy only in an occasional and haphazard manner. In fact, far from neglecting the subject, they actually developed their critique of it in a more profound and radical direction. For proof, it is only necessary to re-establish the full revolutionary meaning of Marx’s critique of political economy, as against certain mistaken ideas about it which are common today. This may also serve to clarify both its place in the whole system of Marx’s critique of society, and its relation to his critique of ideologies like philosophy. [85-6]


For the coincidence of consciousness and reality characterises every dialectic, including Marx’s dialectical materialism. Its consequence is that the material relations of production of the capitalist epoch only are what they are in combination with the forms in which they are reflected in the pre-scientific and bourgeois-scientific consciousness of the period; and they could not subsist in reality without these forms of consciousness. Setting aside any philosophical considerations, it is therefore clear that without this coincidence of consciousness and reality, a critique of political economy could never have become the major component of a theory of social revolution. The converse follows. Those Marxist theoreticians for whom Marxism was no longer essentially a theory of social revolution could see no need for this dialectical conception of the coincidence of reality and consciousness: it was bound to appear to them as theoretically false and unscientific. [88-9]

Examples of what this view opposes are cited in the text and in footnotes. So, I will pause for the moment at p. 93. Note that all along, with some comments on minor imprecisions in certain quoted remarks, Korsch not only defends Marx but also Engels and ‘dialectical materialism’—rather a different picture from the way the ‘Engels betrayed Marx’ school would eventually shake out. Korsch’s perspective at this point should not be considered particularly controversial, I would think, to have the Comintern condemn it, but it highlights essentially the dialectical concept of praxis, as also Lukács did (the subject-object dialectic, really the key to their Hegelianism), which at least implicitly at this moment constituted a challenge to ‘Marxism’ as a science as it had been conceived.


PP. 92-3:

The method of Marx and Engels is not that of an abstract materialism, but of a dialectical materialism: it is therefore the only scientific method. For Marxism, pre-scientific, extra-scientific and scientific consciousness no longer exist over and against the natural and (above all) social-historical world. They exist within this world as a real and objective component of it, if also an ‘ideal’ one. This is the first specific difference between the materialist dialectic of Marx and Engels, and Hegel’s idealist dialectic.

Hence they transcend both the limitations of Hegel and of traditional materialism:

These forms can only be abolished in thought and consciousness by a simultaneous practico-objective overthrow of the material relations of production themselves, which have hitherto been comprehended through these forms. This is also true of the highest forms of social consciousness, such as religion, and of medium levels of social being and consciousness, such as the family. [93]

Here, several well-known quotes are adduced. And so on till the conclusion of the essay, reiterating its main theme.

So, this seems far less challenging to orthodoxy than does Lukács. Although there are criticisms of prior Marxism (but none of the USSR), there is little here I can see as an overt threat to the Comintern, though I can see that implicitly the praxis philosophy therein presents a challenge. From our present vantage point all this should be obvious, as much of ‘heterodox’ Marxism has plowed this same ground, from the Johnson-Forest Tendency to the Yugoslav Praxis School.

Note that the printed book also contains:

Introduction by Fred Halliday
The Present State of the Problem of Marxism and Philosophy: An Anti-critique, 1930
Introduction to Critique of Gotha Programme, 1922
The Marxism of the First International, 1924

Also, the footnotes in the published book are absent in the linked online text.

I will proceed to the other overtly philosophical writings in the Marxist Internet Archive (MIA) I will have to read, particularly the overtly philosophical ones, though they are not cleanly separable from Korsch’s political writings.


Postscript: related essays

A Non-Dogmatic Approach to Marxism, 1946

Korsch aims to recoup the activist side of Marxism eclipsed by its theoretical occlusion by the Marxist parties in Europe and missing in the United States. To this end he includes fragments by Sorel (1902) and Lenin (1894), and his own statements Theses on Hegel and Revolution (1931) and On an Activistic Form of Materialism and on the Class and Partisan Character of Science (1931).

 The Marxist Dialectic, 1923

This is substantially identical to Marxism and Philosophy, with an additional emphasis on the inseparability of form and content, and insistence on the inseparability of any moment of philosophy from the sociopolitical conditions of its genesis, be it that of bourgeois or proletarian revolutions. This implies that while the Marxian dialectical method is no way obsolete, it is not simply an abstract doctrine or world-view that indifferently applies to any phenomenon that may be fed into it. Korsch outlines the only possible paths open to the bourgeois idealist dialectic in the wake of its last revolutionist, Hegel. Is this strict view of materialist dialectic as not comprising an autonomous philosophy what bothered the Comintern ideologues? I suppose one way of looking at this question would be what dialectical materialism is held to be and to what areas it is to be applied as a world view, e.g. the always controversial dialectics of nature.

On Materialist Dialectic,1924

While Lenin recommended the study of Hegel’s dialectic, leaders of the Comintern treat it like a terrible contagion, and condemned Lukács. On the other hand, there is the Bukharin faction that believes only in science. Thalheimer’s “On the Matter of Dialectic” shows he wants to have it both ways, one of which is acknowledging a need for a general world-view for the proletariat, vs. the opposite position (Korsch’s), and even to just “invert” Hegel’s dialectic. Thalheimer manifests the inability to conceive of anything other than an idealistic dialectic. Korsch references the limitations of bourgeois political economy, and Marx did not simply invert their theories. So, perhaps Korsch’s aversion to system-building put off the orthodox Marxists?

The Present State of the Problem of Marxism and Philosophy: An Anti-critique, 1930

This was written as a response to criticisms of Marxism and Philosophy. It was favorably received and misrepresented by bourgeois reviewers. It was predictably attacked by the two factions of official Marxism (Wels and Kautsky of the Social Democratic Party, Zinoviev of the Comintern), on the same conceptual grounds. Their concern was only peripherally addressed to ‘philosophy’ but targeted to the conceptions of Marxism itself and of ideology. Korsch expressed himself as basically but not totally in agreement with Lukács, also under attack. Korsch now recognizes more serious disagreements with Lukács, which he let pass at the time.

Korsch’s “conception involved the application of the materialist conception of history to the materialist conception of history itself” and was opposed by both ‘orthodox’ Marxist factions, each with their own vested dogmas.

They charged that my work showed a quite unjustified preference for the ‘primitive’ form in which Marx and Engels had originally founded their new dialectical materialist method, as a revolutionary theory that was directly related to revolutionary practice. I was alleged to have ignored the positive development of their theory by the Marxists of the Second International; and to have also completely overlooked the fact that Marx and Engels themselves had modified their original theory in important ways, so that it was only in a later form that it achieved its full historical elaboration.

Korsch distinguished three periods in the development of Marxism, valid only for what is discussed in his book. Perhaps the treatment of the second period was too abstract and underdifferentiated, but no one else has improved on an analysis of this period. At the end of Ludwig Feuerbach, Engels points to the proletariat as the inheritors of classical German philosophy. Korsch characterized the philosophy of Marx and Engels as an anti-philosophy, philosophical in spite of itself. From 1850 to 1890 this developed in two separate directions—positive ‘socialist’ science, and on the other hand the writings of Marx and Engels and then later Labriola and Plekhanov, a sort of return to Hegel but not to ‘anti-philosophy’. The German proletarian movement inherited Marx’s political economy and Engels’ works on the natural sciences. Korsch’s attackers though, fixate on something Korsch never attacked: they “prefer to accuse me of tending to present the whole history of Marxism after 1850 in a negative light, as a single, linear and univocal process of decay suffered by the original revolutionary theory of Marx and Engels — not only in the domain of the relation of Marxism to philosophy, but in every domain.” Both factions defend the Marxism of the 2nd International. Kautsky, who himself gutted the revolutionary connection, claims that Marx and Engels “‘broadened’ Marxism from a theory of proletarian revolution into a ‘theory valid not only for revolutionary phases but also for non-revolutionary periods’.” One Bammel, on ‘behalf’ (posthumously) of Lenin, defends the honor of the 2nd International. But in his study of the ‘Marxism of the Second International’ Korsch argued that it never adopted Marxism as a total system despite its claims. It came closest in the difficult conditions of the 1880s, but under the relaxed conditions of the 1890s inched towards revisionism. The criticism of both orthodox camps come to nothing.

Korsch summarizes the actual development thusly:

In this situation such ‘orthodox Marxists’ as Kautsky and Lenin made a permanent virtue out of a temporary necessity. They energetically defended the idea that socialism can only be brought to the workers ‘from outside’, by bourgeois intellectuals who are allied to the workers’ movement.[12] This was also true of Left radicals like Rosa Luxemburg who talked of the ‘stagnation of Marxism’ and explained it by contrasting Marx to the proletariat: the one had creative power because he was armed with all the resources of a bourgeois education, while the other remains tied to ‘the social conditions of existence in our society’, which will continue unaltered throughout the capitalist epoch.[13] The truth is that a historical fact provides a materialist explanation of this apparent contradiction between theory and practice in the ‘Marxist’ Second International, and a rational solution for all the mysteries which the orthodox Marxists of that time devised to explain it. The fact is this. The workers’ movement at that time formally adopted ‘Marxism’ as its ideology; yet although its effective practice was now on a broader basis than before, it had in no way reached the heights of general and theoretical achievement earlier attained by the revolutionary movement and proletarian class struggle on a narrower basis. This height was attained during the final phase of the firs major capitalist cycle that came to an end towards 1850. At that time, the workers’ movement had achieved a peak of development. But it then came to a temporary yet complete halt, and only revived slowly, as conditions changed. Marx and Engels had initially conceived their revolutionary theory in direct relation to the practical revolutionary movement, but when this died down they could only continue their work as theory. It is true that this later development of Marxist theory was never just the production of ‘purely theoretical’ study; it was always a theoretical reflection of the latest practical experiences of the class struggle which was reawakening in various ways. Nevertheless it is clear that the theory of Marx and Engels was progressing towards an ever higher level of theoretical perfection although it was no longer directly related to the practice of the worker’s movement. Thus two processes unfolded side by side in relative independence of each other. One was the development under novel conditions of the old theory which had arisen in a previous historical epoch . The other was the new practice of the workers’ movement. It is this which explains the literally ‘anachronistic’ height which Marxist theory reached and surpassed in this period, generally and philosophically, in the work of Marx, Engels and some of their disciples. This is also why it was wholly impossible for this highly elaborate Marxist theory to be effectively and not just formally assimilated by the proletarian movement, whose practice reawakened during the last third of the nineteenth century.

The third section of the essay is directed to Lukács and the politics of the 3rd International. The attacks on Lukács and Korsch are an outcome of the power struggles within the USSR (where Leninism was congealed as a system) and the Bolshevization of the western Communist parties. Korsch was accused of positions (‘idealist deviations’) which he never expressed, among them notably any denial of the dialectics of nature.

Korsch sees the theoretical debate in which Lenin participated as a secondary matter. “The real importance of Lenin’s work rests in the extreme rigour with which he tried in practice to combat and destroy these contemporary philosophical trends. He regarded them as ideologies that were incorrect from the standpoint of party work. ” This assertion is buttressed by the correspondence between Lenin and Gorki, by other documents, and even by extracts from MAEC. In MAEC Lenin states that ‘Marx, Engels and Dietzgen did not bother about the basic truths of materialism.’ They were concerned with combating vulgarizations of these ideas, of the understanding of political economy and of democracy. Lenin asserts that conditions are different now, and the revolutionary bourgeois materialism of the Enlightenment must be disseminated to the world’s backward workers and peasants. Korsch sees this as deciding philosophical questions on the basis of non-philosophical considerations. Korsch does not agree with Lenin that this was necessary. The global situation (in which the natural sciences dominate) is quite different from the specific Russian situation. Lenin did not look toward the supersession of philosophy as Marx and Engels had done in the 1840s, but instead purveys a materialism that critical idealism had already surpassed. Thus the dialectical interrelation of being and consciousness and the dialectical interrelation of theory and practice are occluded.

The subsequent paragraph comes as a surprise:

There is another inevitable consequence of this displacement of the accent from the dialectic to materialism. It prevents materialist philosophy from contributing to the further development of the empirical sciences of nature and society. In the dialectic method and content are inseparably linked. In a famous passage Marx says that ‘form has no value when it is not the form of its content’. It is therefore completely against the spirit of the dialectic, and especially of the materialist dialectic, to counterpose the dialectical materialist ‘method’ to the substantive results achieved by applying it to philosophy and the sciences. This procedure has become very fashionable in Western Marxism. Nevertheless, behind this exaggeration there lies a correct insight — namely, that dialectical materialism influenced the progress of the empirical study of nature and society in the second half of the nineteenth century above all because of its method.

But this did not last.

When the revolutionary movement and its practice came to a halt in the 1850s, there inevitably developed an increasing gap between the evolution of philosophy and that of the positive sciences, between the evolution of theory and that of practice [....]

Engels reduced philosophy to another empirical science, leaving it only with formal logic and dialectics. Lenin on the other hand put Marxist philosophy above the empirical sciences, and his epigones have taken this to extreme lengths.

Russian Marxism in now in its 3rd phase. (Trotsky [1908] was correct about its first phase.) Korsch now revises his 1923 advocacy of ideological dictatorship.

There are specifics in this essay not found in the preceding ones, which we see extended in 1938 (below). In general, there is not much to be quarreled with in Korsch’s 1923 argument and a fair amount of what he says subsequently makes sense. Perhaps his other theoretical and political writings fill in what seem to be gaps in these philosophical arguments. It is not clear what his differences with Lukács are. It is also not clear what revolutionary politics is supposed to look like, especially in a non-revolutionary period. As for philosophy, restoration of the concept of the subject-object dialectic (praxis) is important, but its specific connection to a specific revolutionary practice is not clear. Clearing away false philosophical ideas that distort an understanding of and are connected with questionable political analysis and practice are key here, but the specifics in any given situation are not clear. It is odd that Korsch would defend the positivists from attacks, as positivism was obviously the dominant trend (opposed by reactionary irrationalism) of the 20th century and led to distortions in every area. Finally the relation between ‘bourgeois’ natural scientific materialism (whose distorting tendencies along with positivism were already opposed by Marx) and revolutionary social theory where the subject-object dialectic enters remains unclear.

Lenin as Philosopher, 1938

When translations of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism appeared in 1927, the revolutionary thrust both in the USSR and the rest of the world was blunted. The working class autodidactic militants faded away, and the Stalinist intellectuals in western Communist Parties, e.g. in Great Britain, as well as other bourgeois intellectuals, were the audience for Lenin’s work.

No doubt the philosophy of Lenin as expressed in that book is infinitely superior, even from a strictly theoretical viewpoint, to those scattered crumbs from the systems of bygone counter-revolutionary philosophers and sociologists that have been formed into the semblance of a philosophical system of fascism by Mussolini, with the help of the former Hegelian philosopher, Gentile, and other intellectual aides-de-campe. It is incomparably superior to that huge mass of trite everyday talk and senseless trash which figure as a politico-philosophical Weltanschauung in the “theoretical” work of Adolf Hitler. Thus the people who could find novelty and wisdom in the ideas of Mussolini and discover sense in the vapourings of the German leader, certainly should not have felt any difficulty in swallowing also that considerable amount of misinterpretation, misunderstanding, and general backwardness which mar the theoretical value of Lenin’s philosophical attempt. Even those few who today are acquainted with the works of the philosophers and scientists discussed by Lenin in 1908 and with the developments of modern science generally might have been able to dig out of this work of Lenin (to speak in the favourite style of its author) that “gem” of clear and persistent revolutionary thought which is “hidden in the rubbish” of unqualified acceptance of the obsolete “materialist” concepts of a past historical epoch and equally unqualified abuse of some of the most genuine attempts of modern scientists to promote the theory of materialism. Nevertheless, the response of the progressive bourgeois intelligentsia at large to the belated propaganda of Lenin’s materialist philosophy must have proved disappointing to the Russians, who had shown on several occasions that they were by no means above desiring some applause for their pet achievements in matters of theory even from such Marxistically “unholy” quarters as the philosophical and scientific circles of Western Europe and America. There was not so much open hostility as indifference and, even more awkward, just among those whose applause would have been most cherished, a kind of polite embarrassment.

Finally, Pannekoek’s Lenin as Philosopher (1938) appeared from the left to challenge Lenin. Korsch salutes Pannekoek for exposing Lenin’s unfair attacks on Mach and Avenarius and for Lenin’s lack of understanding of contemporary physical concepts, and claims that Lenin’s essential weakness is his grounding in an outmoded bourgeois materialism. Lenin sees modern materialism contrasted with traditional materialism as a matter of degree rather than kind.

He never conceived of the difference between the “historical materialism” of Marx and the “previous forms of materialism” as an unbreachable opposition arising from a real conflict of classes. He conceived it rather as a more or less radical expression of one continuous revolutionary movement. Thus Lenin’s “materialistic” criticism of Mach and the Machians, according to Pannekoek, failed even in its purely theoretical purpose mainly because Lenin attacked the later attempts of bourgeois naturalistic materialism not from the viewpoint of the historical materialism of the fully developed proletarian class, but from a proceeding and scientifically less developed phase of bourgeois materialism.

I find this rather peculiar because both positivism (‘Machism’) and its opponents are in this context matters of basic philosophical commitments and the natural sciences and ostensibly have nothing to do with historical materialism and class conflict at all. Korsch does not adduce the particularities of any connection here.

Korsch does not delve into Lenin’s later philosophical notebooks but takes a dim view of them:

The recent publication by the Marx-Engels-Lenin-Institute of Lenin’s philosophical papers dated from 1914 et seq. shows the first germs of that particular significance which during the last phases of Lenin’s activity and after his death the philosophical thought of Hegel assumed in Lenin’s “materialistic philosophy.” A belated revival of the whole of the formerly disowned idealistic dialectics of Hegel served to reconcile the acceptance by the Leninists of old bourgeois materialism with the formal demands of an apparently antibourgeois and proletarian revolutionary tendency. Whilst in the preceding phases historical materialism still had been conceived, though not with sufficient clearness, as different from the “previous forms of materialism” the emphasis was now shifted from “historical” materialism to dialectical materialism or, as Lenin said in his latest contribution to the subject, to “a materialistic application of Hegelian (idealistic) dialectics”. Thus the whole circle not only of bourgeois materialistic thought but of all bourgeois philosophical thought from Holbach to Hegel was actually repeated by the Russian dominated phase of the Marxist movement, which passed from the adoption of 18th century and Feuerbachian materialism by Plekhanov and Lenin in the pre-war period to Lenin’s appreciation of the “intelligent idealism” of Hegel and other bourgeois philosophers of the 19th century as against the “unintelligent materialism” of the earlier 18th century philosophers.

Pannekoek acknowledges the tactical necessity of Lenin’s fight against the Russian Machians, a stance that Korsch finds unjustified. Lenin admits to not even examining Bogdanov’s recent writings in the second edition of MAEC in 1920, leaving the fresh condemnations to someone else. Korsch does not defend Bogdanov’s conception of materialism.

This [Lenin’s fundamental] fallacy is that the militant character of a revolutionary materialist theory can and must be maintained against the weakening influences of other apparently hostile theoretical tendencies by any means to the exclusion of modifications made imperative by further scientific criticism and research.

Concluding the same paragraph:

Both in his revolutionary materialist philosophy and m his revolutionary jacobinic politics, Lenin hid from himself the historical truth that his Russian revolution, in spite of a temporary attempt to break through its particular limitations in connection with the simultaneous revolutionary movement of the proletarian class in the West, was bound to remain in fact a belated successor of the great bourgeois revolutions of the past.

In re reception in the circles of the British Communist Party:

It is a long way from Lenin’s violent philosophical attack on Mach and Avenarius’s “idealistic” positivism and empiriocriticism to that refined scientific criticism [of Max Black] of the latest developments within the positivist camp which was published in 1938 in the extremely cultured periodical of the English Communist party.[8] Yet there is underlying this critical attack on the most progressive form of modern positivistic thought the same old Leninist fallacy. The critic carefully avoids committing himself to any school of philosophical thought. He would most likely agree with Ludwig Wittgenstein who in his final phase dealt with all philosophy as a curable disease rather than a series of problems. Yet he bases his whole argument against modern positivism on the assumption that the vigorous fight waged by the old militant positivism against all philosophy was founded on the very fact that this old positivism had started from a distinctly philosophical creed itself. When therefore the latest and in some respects most scientific school of the modern “Logical Positivists” as represented by R. Carnap recently withdrew temporarily from the “philosophical” attempt of constructing “one homogeneous system of laws for the whole of science,” and instead concentrated on the more modest task of establishing a “unity of the language of all science”[9] it would follow from the argument brought forward by their pseudo-Leninist critic that by the same process by which they abandon their former philosophical basis they must necessarily weaken also the crusading ardour of their former anti-philosophical fight. “The positivist who disturbed every philosophical backwater with rude cries of nonsense,” says the critics, “is now reduced to saying, in the mildest and most inoffensive manner, nonsense is my language”. It is easy to see that this argument can be used in a twofold manner, as a theoretical attack against the confusion between philosophy and science underlying the earlier phases of positivism, and as a practical justification for keeping up that philosophical basis in spite of the belated discovery of its scientific unsoundness. However, the whole argument is not founded on any sound logical or empirical reasoning. There is no need either for the modern bourgeois scientist or for the Marxist to stick to an obsolete (positivistic or materialistic) “philosophy” for the purpose of preserving his full and unbroken “militancy” in the fight against that necessarily in all its forms “idealistic” system of ideas which during the last century under the name of “philosophy” has widely (though not completely) replaced medieval religious faith in the ideology of modern society.

Pannekoek is aware that Lenin’s materialism is not the organ of the revolutionary proletariat, ‘no longer essentially anti-capitalistic but only “anti-reactionary” and “anti-fascist”’, tied in essence to the Popular Front and the ‘new class’ intelligentsia.

Presumably Korsch agrees with Pannekoek’s view, as he concludes his essay with it. And from a social point of view he is probably correct. However, what needs to be fleshed out is the unexamined relationship or disjunction between the general philosophy of science (0r general ontology) and historical materialism or if you prefer, the philosophy appropriate to the revolutionary proletariat.

Lukács’ Lost Manuscript Tailism and the Dialectic Reviewed
by R. Dumain

Simple and Higher Categories of the Dialectic
by Georg Lukács

V. I. Lenin: Collected Works, Volume 38: Philosophical Notebooks:
selections from writings of 1914-1916

Intellectual Life in Society, Conventional and Unconventional, & Related Topics:
A Bibliography in Progress: Proletarian Philosophy

Georg Lukács’ The Destruction of Reason: Selected Bibliography

The Philosophy of Theory and Practice: Selected Bibliography

Ideology Study Guide

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Marx and Marxism Web Guide


Lenin as Philosopher: A Critical Examination of the Philosophical Basis of Leninism
by Anton Pannekoek

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