The Marxist ideology in Russia - Karl Korsch

Karl Korsch
Karl Korsch

In this text from 1938, Karl Korsch puts forward the notion that Marxism in Russia effectively served as the ideological cloak of capitalist development, but that this was in fact anticipated by theoretical concessions, made by Marx and Engels in the 1870s/1880s, to the ideas held by the Russian populists, the Narodniki.

Submitted by spacious on July 25, 2018

Communism, for us, is not a state of things to be established
nor an ideal to which reality must adapt itself;
we call communism the actual movement
which transforms existing conditions.

- Marx

We have to deal here with an especially pointed example of the striking discrepancy which in one form or another is noticeable in all phases of the historical development of Marxism. It may be characterized as the contradiction between the Marxian ideology on the one hand, and the actual historical movement which, at a given time, is concealed beneath that ideological disguise.

It is now almost a century since a special censor, dispatched from Berlin to supplant the local authorities of Cologne in the difficult task of garroting the "ultra-democratic" paper edited by the 24 year old Karl Marx, reported to the Prussian government that the Rheinische Zeitung might now safely be permitted to continue as the "spiritus rector of the whole undertaking, Dr. Marx," had definitely retired from his job and there was no possibility of a successor capable of keeping up the "odious dignity" hitherto achieved by the paper or of "prosecuting its policy with energy." That advice, however, was not followed by the Prussian authorities who in this matter were directed, as has now become known, by the Russian Tsar Nicholas I whose vice-chancellor, Count de Nesselrode, had just then threatened the Prussian ambassador in Moscow to lay before His Imperial Majesty's eyes "the infamous attack which the Rheinische Zeitung, published at Cologne, had recently made on the Russian cabinet." That happened in Prussia, 1843.

Three decades later, the censorship authorities of tsarist Russia herself permitted the publication in Russia of Marx's work-the first version of Capital ever to appear in another than the German language. The decision was based on this precious argument: "Although the political convictions of the author are entirely socialist and although the whole book is of a definitely socialist character, the manner of its presentation is certainly not such as to make the book open to all, and in addition it is written in a strictly mathematically scientific style so that the committee declares the book to be immune from prosecution."

The tsarist regime which was so eager to suppress even the slightest offence committed in any European country against the Russian supremacy, and so utterly careless as to the dangers implied in Marx's scientific exposure of the capitalistic world as a whole, was in fact never touched by the fierce attacks directed by Marx in all his later career against the "immense and unresisted encroachments of that barbarous power whose head is at St. Petersburg and whose hands are in every cabinet of Europe." Yet it was to succumb to just that apparently altogether remote menace which had invisibly lurked in the Trojan horse inadvertently admitted into the precincts of the Holy Empire. It was finally thrown over by the masses of the Russian workers whose vanguard had learned its revolutionary lesson from that "mathematically scientific" work of a lonely thinker, Das Kapital.

Unlike Western Europe-where the Marxist theory arose in a period when the bourgeois revolution was already approaching its close and Marxism expressed a real and actualized tendency to pass beyond the goals of the bourgeois revolutionary movement, the tendency of the proletarian class - Marxism in Russia was from the beginning nothing more than an ideological form assumed by the material struggle for putting across the capitalist development in a pre-capitalist country. For this purpose Marxism was taken up greedily as the last word of Europe by the entire progressive intelligentsia. Bourgeois society fully developed in Western Europe was here just in its birth pangs. Yet on this new soil the bourgeois principle could not make use, once again, of those historical outworn illusions and self-deceptions with which it had concealed from itself the restricted bourgeois content of its developmental struggles in Its first heroic phase in the West, and had kept its passions to the level of great historical events. For penetration into the East, it needed a new ideological costume. And it was just the Marxist doctrine taken over from the West which seemed to be most able to render the growing bourgeois development in Russia that important historical service. Marxism was far superior, in this respect, to the native Russian creed of the revolutionary Narodniki (populists). While the latter started from the belief that capitalism as existing in the "unholy" countries of the West was impossible in Russia, Marxism, by reason of its own historical origin, presupposed a fully accomplished capitalistic civilization as a necessary historical stage in the process of the ultimate realization of a truly socialistic society.

Yet in order to render the rising bourgeois society in Russia such ideological mid-wife service, the Marxist doctrine required a few modifications even in its purely theoretical contents. This is the basic reason for the considerable theoretical concessions, otherwise hard to explain, which Marx and Engels in the 70s and 80s made to the set of ideas, essentially quite irreconcilable with their theory, that up to then had been held by the Russian populists. The final and most comprehensive form of those concessions is contained in the well-known oracular statement of the Foreword to the Russian translation of the Communist Manifesto (1882):

The object of the Communist Manifesto was to proclaim an inevitably impending dissolution of present-day bourgeois property. In Russia, however, we find by the side of the capitalist order which is developing with feverish haste and by the side of bourgeois landed property which is as yet in the process of formation, the larger half of the land owned by the peasants in common.

Thus arises the question. Can the Russian peasant community in which the primitive common ownership of the soil subsists, although in a stage of already far advanced disintegration, be immediately transformed into a higher and communistic form of landed property, or must it previously go through the same process of dissociation which is represented in the historical development of the West?

The only possible answer to this question at the present time is the following:-If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a workers' revolution in the West so that the two supplement each other, then the present-day Russian system of common ownership can serve as a starting point of a communistic development.

In these sentences, and in numerous similar utterances occurring in their correspondence, in the letters to the Russian populist writer Nikolai Danielson, in the letter to Vera Zasulitch, and in Marx's reply to a fatalistic interpretation of his theory of necessary historical stages by the Russian critic, Michaelovski, there is already anticipated in a way the whole of the later development of Russian Marxism and thus also the ever widening gap between its ideology and the actual historical content of the movement. It is true that Marx and Engels qualified their acknowledgement of the intrinsic socialist possibilities of existing pre-capitalistic conditions in Russia by the cautious proviso that it was only together with a workers' revolution in the West that the Russian Revolution might skip the capitalist stage and pass from the prevailing semi-patriarchal and feudal conditions directly to socialist conditions. (The same proviso was later repeated by Lenin.) It is also true that this condition was not fulfilled (neither then nor after October, 1917) and that, on the contrary, the Russian peasant community to which Marx as late as 1882 attributed such a powerful future role, was shortly afterwards completely wiped out of existence. Yet it cannot be denied that even such apparently anti- Marxian slogans as the recent Stalinist "theory" of building up socialism in one country, misusing Marxism as an ideological cloak for a development which in its actual tendency is capitalistic, can appeal not only to the precedent set by the orthodox Marxist Lenin, but even to Marx and Engels themselves. They, too, had been quite prepared, under certain historical conditions, to remold their critico-materialistic "Marxist" theory into a mere ideological adornment of a revolutionary movement which claimed to be socialistic in its ultimate tendency, but which in its actual process was inevitably subject to all sorts of bourgeois limitations. There is only this difference, and a remarkable difference indeed, that Marx, Engels and Lenin did so in order to promote a future revolutionary movement while Stalin definitely applied the "Marxist" ideology for the defence of a non-socialistic status quo, and as a weapon against every tendency of revolutionary realization.

And so began - actually during the life-time and with the conscious and active collaboration of Marx and Engels-that particular historical change of function through which Marxism, adopted as a ready-made doctrine by the Russian revolutionists, was in the further development transformed from a theoretical tool of a proletarian socialist revolution into a mere ideological disguise of a bourgeois-capitalist development. As we have seen, that change of function implied from the very outset a certain transformation of the doctrine itself which in this case was achieved through a mutual interpenetration and fusion of the traditional populist creed and the newly adopted Marxist ideological elements. Though that transformation of the Marxist theory was at first admitted by Marx and Engels (as they imagined) as a transitory step only, to be retraced by the imminent "workers' revolution in the West," it soon turned out to have been in fact the first step toward the permanent transformation of their revolutionary Marxist theory into a mere revolutionary myth which could at the utmost work as an inspiration for the first stages of a beginning revolution but in its final outcome was bound to act as a brake upon the real revolutionary development rather than as its furtherance.

It is a spectacle worth noting, the way this historical process of ideological adaptation of the Marxist doctrine has been worked out during the following decades by the different schools of the Russian revolutionaries themselves. It may be safely said that in those violent debates on the perspective of the capitalist development in Russia which were waged in the closely restricted circles of the Russian Marxists at home and in emigration from the 90's to the outbreak of the war and to the overthrow of the tsarist government in 1917, and which have found their most important theoretical expression in the principal economic work of Lenin, The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899), the true content of the original Marxian theory as a theoretical form of an independent proletarian and strictly socialist movement was, in fact, no longer represented by either side, This is certainly true with regard to the so-called legal Marxists who in their "scientific" exposition of the objective aspect of the Marxist doctrine boasted of a particularly unadulterated "purity," but abundantly made up for that doctrinal righteousness by utterly abandoning all practical consequences of the Marxist principles which might possibly pass beyond the restricted bourgeois goals. Nor was the whole of the revolutionary Marxian theory represented by other currents which during that period sought to combine in one form or another a recognition of the transitory necessity of capitalist development in Russia with an anticipated ultimate struggle against the future conditions of society which were to be created by that very development. Here belongs the above-mentioned learned populist writer Nikolai Danielson, the Russian translator of Das Kapital, who in the early 90's, under the direct influence of the Marxian doctrine, made the transition from the orthodox populist belief in the absolute impossibility of capitalism in Russia to the Marxistically revised populist theory of the impossibility of a normal and organic development of capitalism in Russia. Here belongs too, the lusty materialistic opponent of populist "idealism," the orthodox Marxist Lenin, and his followers who, in the later period, after their break with the Western-minded "Mensheviks" claimed to be in their theory as well as in their practice the only true inheritors of the entire revolutionary contents of Marx's theory as revived and restituted in the doctrine of Bolshevist Marxism.

When from our present vantage point reached by historical experience we look back at the heated theoretical disputes of that earlier phase there seems to be a quite obvious relationship between the populist theory of the "impossibility of a normal and organic development of capitalism in Russia" (as represented by the Marxian Narodnik Nikolai Danielson and combated at the time by the Marxists of all shades, the "legal" as well as the "revolutionary," the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks) on one side, and the two mutually opposed theories which in a recent phase of the development of Russian Marxism faced each other in the form of a ruling "Stalinism" and an oppositional "Trotskyism." Paradoxically enough, both the prevailing "national-socialist" theory of Stalin as to the possibility of building up socialism in one country, and the apparently diametrically opposed "internationalist" thesis, set up by Trotsky, of the inevitability of a "permanent" revolution-that is, of a revolution passing beyond the bourgeois revolutionary goals simultaneously on the Russian and on the European (or the world-wide) scale-rest on the common ideological basis of a neo-Narodnik belief in the absence or impossibility of a "normal and organic" development of capitalism in Russia.

Both Trotsky and Stalin base their versions of the Marxist ideology on the authority of Lenin. Indeed, even the most orthodox of the orthodox Marxists who had fought a bitter struggle both against the Narodnikism of Nikolai Danielson and against the Parvus-Trotskyist theory of the "permanent revolution" before October, 1917, and who, in the same way, had most consistently opposed after October the then prevailing tendency to glorify the meager achievements of the later so-called war-communism of 1918-20, concluded that life-long fight for critico-revolutionary realism by upholding at a decisive moment the neo-populist concept of a home-made Russian socialism against the actually prevailing conditions. Within a few weeks those who had opposed the socialistic idealization of the first years and who at the first announcement of the NEP of 1921 had still quite soberly declared this "new economic policy of a worker's and peasant's state" to be a necessary step backward from the further-going attempts of war-communism, discovered the socialistic nature of state capitalism and a cooperatively tinged yet essentially bourgeois economy, Thus, it was not the Leninist epigone Stalin but the orthodox Marxist Lenin who, at that historical turning-point of the revolutionary development when the hitherto undecided practical tendencies of the Russian Revolution were "seriously and for a long time" directed to the restoration of a non-socialistic economy, at the same time added what he then deemed to be an indispensable ideological supplement to that final restriction of its practical aims. It was the orthodox Marxist Lenin who in opposition to all his earlier declarations first set up the new Marxist myth of the inherently socialist character of the Soviet state and of the thereby basically guaranteed possibility of a complete realization of socialist society in an isolated Soviet Russia.

This degeneration of the Marxian doctrine to a mere ideological justification of what in its actual tendency is a capitalist state and thus, inevitably, a state based on the suppression of the progressive revolutionary movement of the proletarian class, closes the first phase of the history of the Marxist ideology in Russia. This is at the same time the only phase during which the development of Marxism in Russia seems to show an independent character. Yet it should be pointed out that from a more comprehensive viewpoint, in spite of appearances and of many real differences caused by the specific conditions prevailing at different times in different countries, the historical development of Russian Marxism (inclusive of its last Leninist and Stalinist stages) is essentially the same as that of so-called Western (or Social Democratic) Marxism of which it really was and still is an integrating, though at present outwardly detached, component. Just as Russia never was the unique and holy country as dreamed by the Pan-slavists, and bolshevism never was that crude and backward form of a pseudo-Marxist theory corresponding to the primitive conditions of the tsarist regime as it was represented by the would-be refined Marxists of England, France, and Germany, so the bourgeois degeneration of Marxism in Russia today is in no way essentially different from the outcome of the series of ideological transformations which, during the war and post-war periods and, even more visibly, after the ultimate annihilation of all former Marxist strongholds by the unopposed advent of fascism and nazism, befell the various currents of so-called Western Marxism. Just as the "national socialism" of Herr Hitler and the "corporative state" of Mussolini vie with the "Marxism" of Stalin in an attempt to invade, by the use of a pseudo-socialist ideology, the very brains and souls of their workers as well as their physical and social existence, so does the "democratic" regime of a people's front government presided by the "Marxist" Leon Blum or, for that matter, by Mr. Chautemps himself, differ from the present-day Soviet state not in substance, but only by a less efficient exploitation of the Marxist ideology. Less than at any previous time does Marxism today serve as a theoretical weapon in an independent struggle of the proletariat, for the proletariat, and by the proletariat. All so-called "Marxist" parties, both theoretically and in their actual practice, appear deeply engaged in contributing, as minor partners of the leading bourgeois protagonists, their modest share to the solution of the problem which the American "Marxist," L. R. Boudin, quite recently called "the greatest problem in Marxism-our relation to the internal struggles of capitalist society."



5 years 9 months ago

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Submitted by spacious on July 29, 2018

I posted this because I thought it was interesting that Korsch here suggests a positive link between 1) the transformation of Marxism in Russia into its opposite (from theory of proletarian revolution to ideological tool of capitalist development), and 2) Marx and Engels's own changed positions on Russia and its famous peasant commune, during the 1870s/1880s.

I am not entirely sure as to how Korsch sees the connection between these two, as the article is quite thin on this, but other authors have suggested an opposite linkage between the two moments (for example, Raya Dunayevskaya, Kevin Anderson, Loren Goldner, Franklin Rosemont, Teodor Shanin etc. who all foreground Marx's changing views on Russia and its potential for revolutionary social change) as an important and commendable theoretico-political development (however they characterize the change in relation to Marx's earlier views). It appears Korsch here is as unilinear-minded or stagist as the average Stalinist.

Korsch also doesn't seem to relate the demise of revolutionary possibilities that Marx saw to the destruction of the village communes by Stalin's agricultural collectivization, he rather just notes this destruction as a fact, or as evidence that it was never much to base any revolutionary prospects on.

Another note - as I took this from the Korsch collection made by Doug Kellner, Revolutionary Theory, I changed the name "Nikolai-on" into "Nikolai Danielson" - who was in fact the translator of Capital and also a Narodnik. I am not sure why the published edition says 'Nikolai-on', if anyone knows why, I'm interested to find out.

Mike Harman

5 years 9 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Mike Harman on July 30, 2018


I posted this because I thought it was interesting that Korsch here suggests a positive link between 1) the transformation of Marxism in Russia into its opposite (from theory of proletarian revolution to ideological tool of capitalist development), and 2) Marx and Engels's own changed positions on Russia and its famous peasant commune, during the 1870s/1880s.

I am not entirely sure as to how Korsch sees the connection between these two, as the article is quite thin on this, but other authors have suggested an opposite linkage between the two moments (for example, Raya Dunayevskaya, Kevin Anderson, Loren Goldner, Franklin Rosemont, Teodor Shanin etc. who all foreground Marx's changing views on Russia and its potential for revolutionary social change) as an important and commendable theoretico-political development (however they characterize the change in relation to Marx's earlier views). It appears Korsch here is as unilinear-minded or stagist as the average Stalinist.

I've been thinking about this general issue a lot recently, but hadn't read this by Korsch, thanks for posting it up and agreed Korsch's position is really odd here.

I think it's a real and current problem given the continuing prevalence of 'stagism'.

Two of Marx's clarifications on Russia:

There are very important points in these:

1. Capital was an analysis of the development of capitalism in Western Europe out of feudalism in Western Europe.

2. While you could apply the method taken in Capital to other regions/societies, it does not follow that all societies in the 18th/19th century were one of either feudalist or capitalist - particularly North America, Africa and Australia (although I'd argue Japan was, even if capitalism was imported during the Meiji restoration by Japan's mostly feudal ruling class at the time and very rapidly imposed). Therefore analysis in Capital and some of the other conclusions Marx draws from it, may or may not apply to anywhere else at the time.

3. 'Historical materialism' then is not supposed to be a schema of feudalism -> capitalism -> communism (this is the conclusion Marx drew about Western Europe), but instead an approach based on understanding historical development, which would have meant examining the history and current organisation of regions outside Western Europe in order to apply it. Marx had not done that until later in life, and when he did, he reached different conclusions.

4. You can see from these letters, that Marx (and Engels says similar things too elsewhere) was very frustrated that his conclusions based on Western Europe were being taken as if they were applicable everywhere else. I think he bears some responsibility for that (i.e. it's easy to read Marx and come away with these conclusions, especially without the benefit of those later letters etc.), but I think it's important both to argue against stagism now (FALC etc.) as well as to bring out the non-stagist writings of Marx (i.e. the idea that some societies could go direct to communism as part of an international revolution is not an 'anarchist' or 'idealist' one, but one that Marx developed in relation to the Russian mir via 'materialism').

Even in Pannekoek's Lenin is Philosopher, and in Gorter's Open Letter to Comrade Lenin, there's this idea/hint that Lenin's ideas while not communist, were appropriate to Russia (presumably because they thought that in Russia what was actually needed was the development of capitalism before you'd have a strong proletariat which could then overthrow capitalism, just that those ideas could not then be imposed on advanced capitalist societies in Western Europe). Not sure myself whether this is a fair assessment of Pannekoek and Gorter - i.e. whether it's a case of their focus in those texts, or due their actual analysis of Russia and international capitalism generally. Since obviously imposing Leninism on other countries via the Third International was very bad as well and their critique of that is useful.

This has some impact on things a lot more recent than the Russian Revolution, for example CLR James' approach to colonialism and national liberation vs. his writing in Facing Reality:

However things like analysis of class composition at various times, something like Wildcat's Global working class - these are very important as well, you don't have to have a stagist approach to history to want to understand how capitalism is and has been developing in the past century and the ways in which this impacts class struggle.


5 years 9 months ago

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Submitted by spacious on August 2, 2018

Thanks for the extra context, Mike Harman.

As you also note, it feels like there might be a relation between this view taken here by Korsch and the ideas of Pannekoek and Gorter that in early 20th century Western Europe, the proletariat was already entirely "on its own", and that there was no possible alliance with the peasantry, because the agricultural population already consisted mainly of capitalist farmers.

However the text here suggests that to Korsch it was proven that even the existence of such an alliance in Russia could not lead to any positive results for communist revolution, and Marx should have known better than to suggest that it might. In retrospect this is true, indeed it didn't turn out that way, and Korsch already knew this in 1938. But either way it seems to be an affirmation by Korsch of a particular hard-core proletariat-centred Marxism as the only possible form, and a rejection of the kind of Leninist adaptation of tactics towards the existence and role of the peasantry, i.e. to the real conditions in Russia at the time. So that's why I said it seems more "stagist" than even Marx's own views, and Korsch doesn't seem to see where those "concessions" would have come from (they were "otherwise so hard to explain" if not as concessions to the future use of Marxism as an ideology of capitalist modernization!).

What seems to be missing in Korsch's account here is taking note of the difference between the transition (in Western Europe) from feudal society to early pioneering capitalism, versus the transition in Russia from a form of communal social relations (or a widespread remnant thereof) to capitalism in the context of already developed capitalism elsewhere. If I understand Marx, this is the difference that made him judge differently the possibilities existing at the time in Russia (and by extension one would assume, in all the other places around the world where older communal social forms still existed, and which Marx studied for that reason).

Btw, I found that Nikolaj-on (or Nikolayon) was a way Nikolai Danielson signed his name under published work, Rosa Luxemburg mentions this in The Accumulation of Capital.

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