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

This text is an answer to the criticism Korsch received from "orthodox" "Marxists" on the publication of his Marxism and Philosophy - both of the Leninist variety and the "western" variety who believed they had "broken" with "soviet Marxism".

Submitted by libcom on July 24, 2005

Since Marxism and Philosophy I have written a study elsewhere of the real historical nature of the "Marxism of the Second International". What happened was that the socialist movement reawoke and grew stronger as historical conditions changed over the last third of the nineteenth century; yet contrary to what is supposed, it never adopted Marxism as a total system. According to the ideology of the orthodox Marxists and of their opponents, who share much the same dogmatic ground, it is to be believed that the whole of Marxism was adopted in both theory and practice. In fact all that was even theoretically adopted were some isolated economic, political and social "theories," extracted from the general context of revolutionary Marxism. Their general meaning had thereby been altered, and their specific content usually truncated and falsified. The endless asseverations of the rigorously "Marxist" character of the program and theory of the movement do not date from the period in which the practice of the new Social Democratic workers' movement approximated most to the revolutionary and class-combative character of Marxist theory. In this early period the "two old men in London, " and after Marx's death in 1883, Friedrich Engels alone, were directly involved in the movement. Paradoxically, these asseverations date from a later period when certain other tendencies were gaining ground in both trade union and political practice, which were ultimately to find their ideological expression in "revisionism. " In fact, at the time when the practice of the movement was most revolutionary, its theory was essentially "populist" and democratic (under the influence of Lassalle and Duhring) and only sporadically "Marxist. " This was the result of the impact of the periods of economic crisis and depression in the 1870s, the political and social reaction following the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871 , the anti-socialist laws in Germany, the defeat of the growing socialist movement in Austria in 1884 and the violent suppression of the movement for an eight-hour day in America in 1886. However, the l 890s saw a new in- dustrial boom in Europe, especially in Germany, and therewith the first signs appeared of a a "more democratic" use of state power on the continent of Europe. This process included the French amnesty for the Communards in 1880, and the lapsing of the antisocialist laws in Germany in 1890. In this new practical context, formal avowals of the Marxist system as a whole emerged as a kind of theoretical defense and metaphysical consolation. In this sense, one can actually invert the generally accepted relationship between Kautskyian "Marxism" and Bernsteinian "revisionism," and define Kautsky's orthodox Marxism as the theoretical obverse and symmetrical complement of Bernstein's revisionism.

In the light of this real historical situation, the complaints of orthodox Marxist critics against my work are not only unjustified but null and void. I am alleged to have a predilection for the "primitive" form of the first historical version of the theory of Marx and Engels, and to have disregarded its positive development by Marx and Engels themselves, and by other Marxists in the second half of the nineteenth century. It is claimed that the "Marxism of the Second international" represents an advance on original Marxist theory. Yet in fact it was a new historical form of proletarian class theory, which emerged from the altered practical context of the class struggle in a new historical epoch.Its relationship to the earlier or later versions of the theory of Marx and Engels is very different from, and essentially more complex than, the way it is presented by those who talk of a positive development, or conversely of f ormal stagnation or regression and decay of Marx's theory in the "Marxism of the Second international." Marxism is therefore in no way a socialist theory that has been "superseded" by the present outlook of the workers' movement, as Kautsky maintains (formally he refers only to its earlier version, the "primitive Marxism of the Communist Manifesto, " but actually he includes all the later components of Marx and Engels's theory as well). Nor is Marxism what it was claimed to be by the representatives of the revolutionary tendency within orthodox Social Democratic Marxism at the start of the third period toward 1900, or what some Marxists still consider it to be. It is not a theory that has miraculously anticipated the future development of the workers' movement for a long time to come. Consequently it cannot be said that the subsequent practical progress of the proletariat has, as it were, lagged behind its own theory or that it will only gradually come to occupy the framework allotted to it by this theory. When the SPD became a "Marxist" party (a process completed with the Erfurt Programme written by Kautsky and Bernstein in l 89l ) a gap developed between its highly articulated revolutionary "Marxist" theory and a practice that was far behind this revolutionary theory; in some respects it directly contradicted it, This gap was in fact obvious, and it later came to be felt more and more acutely by all the vital forces in the party (whether on the Left or Right) and its existence was denied only by the orthodox Marxists of the Center. This gap can easily be explained by the fact that in this historical phase "Marxism, " while formally accepted by the workers' movement, was from the start not a true theory, in the sense of being "nothing other than a general expression of the real historical movement" (Marx). On the contrary it was always an ideology that had been adopted "from outside" in a preestablished form.

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. 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. 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 has 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 first major capitalist cycle that came to an end toward 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 theoryof Marx and Engels was progressing toward an ever higher level of theoretical perfection although it was no longer directly related to the practiceof 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 Any discussion of Lenin's position on philosophy and ideology must pose one initial question on which a judgment of Lenin's specific "materialist philosophy" has to depend. According to a principle established by Lenin himself, this question is a historical one. Lenin argued that there had been a change in the whole intellectual climate which made it necessary when dealing with dialectical materialism to stress materialism against certain fashionable tendencies in bourgeois philosophy, rather than to stress dialectics against the vulgar, pre-dialectical and in some cases explicitly undialectical and antidialectical materialism of bourgeois science. The question is whether there had been such a change. What I have written elsewhere shows that I do not think this is really the case. There are some superficial aspects of contemporary bourgeois philosophy and science which appear to contradict this, and there certainly are some lends which genuinely do so. Nevertheless the dominant basic trend in contemporary bourgeois philosophy, natural science and humanities is the same as it was sixty or seventy years ago. It is inspired not by an idealist outlook but by a materialist outlook that is colored by the natural sciences. Lenin's position, which disputes this, is in close ideological relation to his politicoeconomic theory of "imperialism." Both have their material roots in the specific economic and social situation of Russia and the specific practical and theoretical political tasks that seemed, and for a short period really were, necessary to accomplish the Russian Revolution. This means that the "Leninist" theory is not theoretically capable of answering the practical needs of the international class struggle in the present period. Consequently, Lenin's materialist philosophy, which forms the ideological basis of this theory, cannot constitute the revolutionary proletarian philosophy that will answer the needs of today.

The theoretical character of Lenin s materialist philosophy also corresponds to this historical and practical situation. Like Plekhanov, his philosophical master, and L. Axelrod-Orthodox, the latter's other philosophical pupil, Lenin wanted very seriously to be a Marxist while re- maining a Hegelian. He thereby flouted the dialectical materialist outlook that Marx and Engels founded at the start of their revolutionary development. This outlook was by its very nature unavoidably "philosophical," but it pointed toward the complete supersession of philosophy; and it left one single revolutionary task in the philosophical field, which was to develop this outlook by taking it to a higher level of elaboration. Lenin regards the transition from Hegel's idealist dialectic to Marx and Engels's dialectical materialism as nothing more than an exchange,the idealist outlook that lies at the basis of Hegel's dialectical method is replaced by a new philosophical outlook that is no longer "idealist" but "materialist. " He seems to be unaware that such a"'materialist inversion" of Hegel's idealist philosophy involves at the most a merely terminological change whereby the Absolute instead of being called "spirit" is called "Matter." There is, however, an even more serious vice in Lenin's materialism. For he not only annuls Marx and Engels's materialist inversion of the Hegelian dialectic; he drags the whole debate between materialism and idealism back to a historical stage which German idealism from Kazt to Hegel had already surpassed. The dissolution of the metaphysical system of Leibniz and Wolff began with Kant' s transcendental philosophy, and ended with Hegel's dialectic. Thereafter the "Absolute" was definitively excluded from the being of both "spirit" and "matter, " and was transferred into the dialectical movement of the "idea." The materialist inversion by Marx and Engels of Hegel's idealist dialectic merely consisted in freeing this dialectic from its final mystifying shell. The real movement of history was discovered beneath the dialectical "self-movement of the idea, " and this revolutionary movement of history was proclaimed to be the only "Absolute" remaining. Lenin, however, goes back to the absolute polarities of "thought" and "being, " 'spirit" and "matter," which so had formed the basis of the philosophical, and even some of the religious, disputes that had divided the two currents of the Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Hegel, of course, had already surpassed these dialectically.

This kind of materialism is derived from a metaphysical idea of Being that is absolute and given; and despite all its formal claims to the contrary it is no longer fully dialectical let alone dialectically materialist. Lenin and his followers unilaterally transfer the dialectic into Object, Nature and History and they present knowledge merely as the passive mirror and reflection of this objective Being in the subjective Consciousness. In so doing they destroy both the dialectical interrelation of being and con- sciousness and, as a necessary consequence, the dialectical interrelation of theory and practice.They thereby manage to pay an involuntary tribute to the "Kantianism" that they attack so much. Not content with this, they have abandoned the question of the relationship between the totality of historical being and all historically prevalent forms of consciousness. This was first posed by Hegel's dialectic and was then given a more comprehensive elaboration by the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels.

Lenin and those like him have revised it in a retrograde way by replacing it with the much narrower epistemological or "gnoseological" question of the relationship between the subject and the object of knowledge. Nor is this all. They present knowledge as a fundamentally harmonious evolutionary progress and an infinite progression toward absolute truth. Their j presentation of the relationship between theory and practice in general,and in particular within the revolutionary movement itself, is a complete abandonment of Marx's dialectical materialism and a retreat to a totally abstract opposition of pure theory, which discovers truths, to pure practice, which applies these laboriously discovered truths to reality. "The real unity of theory and practice is achieved by changing reality in practice, through the revolutionary movement based on the laws of objective development discovered by theory" these are the words of one of Lenin's philosophical interpreters, and he has not departed one iota from the teachings of the master. With them, the grandiose dialectical materialist unity of Marx's revolutionary practice collapses into a dualism comparable to that of the most typical bourgeois idealists.

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 it 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.

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: this has already been explained in Marxism and Philosophy. The result was that for a long period the new revolutionary conceptions of Marx and Engels survived and developed mainly through their application as a dialectical materialist method to the empirical sciences of society and nature. It is in this period that one finds statements, especially by the later Engels, formally proclaiming individual sciences to be independent of "all philosophy," and asserting that philosophy has been "driven from nature and from history" into the only field of activity left to it :"the theory of thought and its laws formal logic and dialectics." In reality, this meant that Engels reduced so-called "philosophy" from an individual science above others, to an empirical science among others. Lenin's later positions might appear at first glance to be like that of Engels, but they are in actual fact as distinct as night and day. Engels considered that it was the crucial task of the materialist dialectic to "rescue the conscious dialectic from German idealism and to incorporate it in the materialist conception of nature and of history. " Lenin's procedure is the inverse. For him the major task is to uphold and defend the materialist position which no one has ever seriously thought of questioning. Engels goes on to make a statement that is in keeping with the progress and development of the sciences; he says that modern materialism whether applied to nature or history ais in both cases essentially dialectical and does not in addition need a philosophy which stands above the other branches of knowledge." Lenin, however, insistently carps at "philosophical deviations" that he has discerned not only among political friends or enemies, or philosophical ideologies, but even among the most creative natural scientists. His "materialist philosophy" becomes a kind of supreme judicial authority for evaluating the findings of individual sciences, past, present or future. This materialist "philosophical" domination covers all the sciencess whether of nature or society, as well This as all other cultural developments in literature, drama, plastic arts and so on; and Lenin's epigones have taken it to the most absurd lengths. This has resulted in a specific kind of ideological dictatorship which oscillates between revolutionary progress and the blackest reaction. Under the slogan of what is called "Marxism-leninism, " this dictatorship is applied in Russia today to the whole intellectual life not only of the ruling Party, but of the working-class in general. There are now attempts to extend it from Russia to all the Communist Parties in the West, and in the rest of the world. These attempts, however, have precisely shown the inevitable limits to any such artificial extension of this ideological dictatorship into the international arena outside Russia, where it no longer receives the direct coercive support of the State. The Draft Program of the Communist International, of the Fifth Comintern Congress of 1924, called for a "rigorous struggle against idealist philosophy and against all philosophies other than dialectical materialism," whereas at the Sixth Congress, held four years later, the version of the Program that was finally adopted spoke in a much more general way of the struggle against "all manifestations of a bourgeois outlook. " It no longer described "The dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels' as a materialist philosophy, but only as a "revolutionary method for understanding reality with the aim of its revolutionary overthrow. "

It is only recently that "Marxist-Leninist" ideology has made such claims outside Russia, and the change in Comintern policy I have mentioned may indicate that these claims are now going to be abandoned. Nevertheless, the deeper problem of Lenin's "materialist philosophy" and of Marxism-Leninism has not been resolved. The problem of Marxism and Philosophy must be reopened, together with the broader issue of the relation between the ideology and the practice of the revolutionary workers' movement. This poses a concrete task in relation to Communist "Marxism-Leninism. " A materialist, that is a historical, critical and undogmatic analysis has already been made of the character of the "Kautskyian" orthodox Marxism of the Second International. This must now be unflinchingly extended to the "Leninist" orthodox Marxism of the Third international; and it must be applied to the whole history of Russian Marxism and its relation to international Marxism. For the "Marxism-Leninism" of today is only the latest offshoot of this history. It is not possible to provide a more concrete elaboration here. One can only indicate a very general outline of such a materialist account of the real history of Marxism in Russia and elsewhere. Even so it yields a sobering conclusion. Russian Marxism, which was if possible even more "orthodox" than German Marxism, had throughout its history an even more ideological character and if possible was in even greater conflict with the concrete historical movement of which it was the ideology.

Trotsky's perceptive critical analysis of 1908 showed that this was true of the first phase of its history. The Russian intelligentsia had previously been brought up in the Bakuninist "spirit of a simple rejection of capitalist culture," and Marxism served as an ideological instrument to reconcile them to the development of capitalism.

It is also valid for the second phase, which reached its climax in the first Russian Revolution of 1905. At that time all revolutionary Marxists in Russia, not least Lenin and Trotsky, declared themselves to be part of "the flesh and blood" of international socialism and for them this meant orthodox Marxism. On the other side Karl Kautsky and his Neue Zeit were in complete agreement with orthodox Russian Marxism on all theoretical questions. Indeed, as far as the philosophical foundations of its theory were concerned, German orthodox Marxism was more influenced by Russian Marxism than itself influential on it, since the Germans were to a considerable extent under the sway of the Russian theoretician Plekhanov. Thus a great international united front of Marxist orthodoxy was able to sustain itself without major difficulty, because historically it was only necessary for it to exist in the realm of ideology and as ideology.This was true both in the West and in Russia, and in Russia even more than in Central and Western Europe. Russian Marxism is now in its third phase and it still exhibits the same ideological character and the same inevitable concomitant contradiction between a professed "orthodox" theory and the real historical character of the movement. It found its most vivid expression in Lenin's orthodox Marxist theory and his totally unorthodox practice, and it is now caricatured by the glaring contradictions between theory and practice in contemporary "Soviet Marxism."

This general character of Russian Marxism has persisted without fundamental change into the "Soviet Marxism" of today. Involuntary confirmation of this is provided by the position of the above-mentioned Schifrin, a political opponent of the ruling Bolshevik Party, on the general philosophical principles of Soviet Marxism. In an article in Die Gesellschaft (IV, 7), he made what looked like a fierce attack on "soviet Marxism," but from a philosophical point of view this really concealed a defense of it. He claims that Soviet Marxism "wants to make a sincere attempt to reinforce Marxism in its most consistent and orthodox form" against degenerate "subjectivist" and "revisionist" tendencies (e.g. "neglect of the master's most important statements"), that have emerged as a result of the insuperable difficulties that it is facing. The same bias is even clearer in another article of Schifrin in Die Gesellschaft of August 1929. In this, Schifrin discusses the latest work by Karl Kautsky, the leading representative of German orthodox Marxism, and although he is very critical of most of Kautsky's individual positions, he greets Kautsky's book warmly as the beginning of a "restoration of genuine Marxism." He assigns Kautsky the "ideological mission" of overcoming the various kinds of "subjectivist disintegration of Marxism" that have recently appeared in the West as well as in "sovietized Russian Marxism," and of overcoming the "ideological crisis" that this has caused throughout Marxism. The article is particularly clear evidence of the philosophical solidarity' of the whole orthodox Marxist movement down to this day. In his critique of contemporary Soviet Marxist "l-eninism" and in his attitudes toward contemporary "Kautskyism," Schifrin completely fails to see that both of these ideological versions of orthodox Marxism have emerged from the traditions of earlier Russian and international Marxism. Today they only represent evanescent historicaal forms that date from a previous phase of the workers' movement.

Hence, in this assessment of the character of Marxism-Leninism and of Soviet Marxism, one can see the full and fundamental unity of outlook between the old and the new schools of contemporary orthodox Marxism: Social Democracy and Communism. It has been seen how Communist theoreticians reacted to Marxism and Philosophy by defending the positive and progressive character of the Marxism of the Second International. Now, in the periodical of German Social Democracy, one can see a Menshevtk theoretician entering the lists to defend the "generally valid" and "compelling" philosophical features of the Marxism of the Third International . This ends my account of the present state of the problem of Marxism and Philosophy-a problem that since 1923 has been changed in many ways by new theoretical and practical developments, The general outlines of my evolution since then are clear enough, and l have therefore refrained from correcting all the details of what I then said in the light of my present position. In only one respect does it appear to be necessary to make an exception. Marxism anti Philosophy argued that during the social revolution a "dictatorship" was necessary not only in the field of politics, but also that of ideology. This led to many misunderstandings, especially in the case of Kautsky. In his review of my book he showed both that he had misinterpreted my positions and that he had certain illusions about the conditions prevailing in Russia. Thus as late as 1924 he stated that "dictatorship in the realm of ideas" had uneven occurred to anyone, not even to Zinoviev and Dzherzhinsky. " Inow think that the abstract formulation of this demand in my book is genuinely misleading, and I must emphasize that the pursuit of revolutionary struggle by what Marxism and Philosophy called an "ideological dictatorship" is in three respects different from the system of intellectual oppression established in Russia today in the name of the "dictatorship of the proletariat." First of all, it is a dictatorship of the proletariat and not over the proletariat. Secondly, it is a dictatorship of a class and not of a party or party leadership. Thirdly, and most importantly, as a revolutionary dictatorship it is one element only of that radical process of social overthrow which by suppressing classes and class contradictions creates the preconditions for a "withering away of the State, " and thereby the end of all ideological constraint. The essential purpose of an '"ideological dictatorship" in this sense is to abolish its own material and ideological causes and thereby to make its own existence unnecessary and impossible. From the very first day, this genuine proletarian dictatorship will be distinguished from every false imitation of it by its creation of the conditions of intellectual freedom not only for "all" workers but for "each individual" worker, Despite the alleged "democracy" and "freedom of thought" in bourgeois society, this freedom has never been enjoyed anywhere by the wage slaves who suffer its physical and spiritual oppression. This is what concretely defines the Marxist concept of the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. With it disappears the otherwise apparent contradiction between a call for "idleological.dictatorship," and the essentially critical and revolutionary nature of the method and the outlook of Communism. Socialism, both in its ends and in its means, is the struggle to realise freedom.