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Thread: The anti-philosophical Marxism of Karl Korsch

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    Leon Freeman
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    Default The anti-philosophical Marxism of Karl Korsch

    Review by Paul Le Blanc

    Korsch is often identified, with Georg Lukács and Antonio Gramsci, as a foundational trio of what has been called “Western Marxism.”1 As was the case with Lukács and Gramsci, he blended G. W. F. Hegel’s dialectical philosophy with the revolutionary approach of Marx and Lenin, and was also a prominent figure in the early Communist movement, with a sophisticated orientation incompatible with the dogmatic rigidities of Stalinism. Korsch’s works do not compare well, however, with the richer and more substantial output of the other two. In the movement’s early heroic years, all three were leading figures in their respective Communist parties (Hungary, Italy, and—in Korsch’s case—Germany), yet Korsch was far less of a political leader, less consistent, and in some ways less durable than either Gramsci or Lukács. “Whatever Korsch’s merits as a Marxist,” David Renton has noted, “Lukács was more successful in bringing his theory and practice together.” The same is certainly true of Gramsci.2
    Yet there is an irony here, grounded in Korsch’s understanding of the eleventh of Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845): “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.” Korsch suggests Marxism is best seen as “anti-philosophy.” This poses a challenge. Alex Callincos also comments that Marx and Engels saw this as asserting “their final and irrevocable departure from speculation’s realm of shades for the firmer ground of empirical science, whose premises are not the abstractions of philosophy, but ‘the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions of their life’”—although he adds, “it is one of the many paradoxes of Marxism’s history that this parting of the ways between philosophy and historical materialism seems never to have been finally accomplished.” This raises the obvious question of whether Marx and Engels actually, seriously meant what Callinicos and Korsch say they meant. Helena Sheehan argues, to the contrary, that “The pronouncements of Marx and Engels on the ‘end of philosophy’ ran counter to the basic truth of their thinking on the status of philosophy.”11 Different Marxists have certainly done different things with all of this. As Marxist philosopher Roy Edgley once summed it up:

    Either there is a distinctive Marxist philosophy that opposes bourgeois philosophy, perhaps as Marxist social science opposes the bourgeois social sciences. Or there is a philosophy in Marxism that is not distinctively Marxist, a philosophy Marxism shares with bourgeois social thought, the opposition being between Marxist and bourgeois theory being at a scientific level. Or there is no such thing as a philosophy of any kind in Marxism because Marxism opposes bourgeois philosophy by opposing philosophy as such.12
    Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy appears to articulate the third of these positions. Marx and Engels, Korsch tells us, were not attempting to create some new socialist or communist philosophy. “They rather saw the task of their ‘scientific socialism’ as that of definitively overcoming and superseding the form and content, not only of all previous bourgeois idealist philosophy, but thereby of philosophy altogether.” This approach is maintained in Karl Marx: “Marx’s materialist science, being a strictly empirical investigation into definite historical forms of society, does not need a philosophical support. The only reason why, from a certain point in their development, the materialist philosophers Marx and Engels turned their backs on every philosophy, even materialist philosophy . . . is the fact that they wanted to go one step further and outbid the materialism of philosophy by a directly materialist science and practice.”13
    A similar irony is related to the fact that his 1938 work was part of a prestigious series entitled “Modern Sociologists” (also including volumes on Auguste Comte, Edward B. Tylor, Vilfredo Pareto, Thorstein Veblen)—and yet Korsch took the same stance toward this discipline as he did toward philosophy, distinguished only by being even more dismissive:

    If we think of the Sociology begun by Comte and in fact first named by him, we shall not find any affinity or link between it and Marxism. Marx and Engels, with all their keen desire to extend and enhance the knowledge of society, paid no attention to either the name or contents of that ostensibly new approach to the social studies. . . . The science of socialism as formulated by Marx, owed nothing to this “sociology” of the 19th and 20th centuries, which originated with Comte and was propagated by Mill and Spencer. . . . Bourgeois sociologists refer to the revolutionary socialist science of the proletariat as an “unscientific mixture of theory and politics.” Socialists, on the other hand, dismiss the whole bourgeois sociology as mere “ideology.” [S]ociology as a special branch of learning . . . represents nothing more than an escape from the practical, and therefore also theoretical, tasks of the present historical epoch. Marx’s new socialist and proletarian science, which, in a changed historical situation, further developed the revolutionary theory of the classical founders of the doctrine of society, is the genuine social science of our time.14
    In exploring more deeply the meaning of these critical remarks, it may be helpful to define terms. “Philosophy” is commonly defined as the study of general and fundamental problems concerning existence, knowledge, values, reason, etc., so it would seem that Marxism itself is inseparable from—not some kind of “advance beyond”—such stuff. “Sociology” is, likewise, commonly defined as precisely the sort of thing that Marxism does: the study of society, including its origins, development, organization, as well as the existence, the interaction, and clashes between social groups, also involving attention to matters having to do with social stability and social change.

    But Korsch insisted that both philosophy and sociology as we know them (as well as all the other social sciences, in fact what he sweepingly terms “the positive sciences”) represent “bourgeois ideology.” Not only have they developed within bourgeois society, but they are saturated with positive assumptions regarding the capitalist status quo, which is seen as representing “the natural order of things,” in fact reflecting biases that favor its perpetuation.
    We will want to return to this understanding of “bourgeois ideology” shortly, but the point is that Korsch’s terminology can sometimes pose challenges and misunderstandings. “Korsch declared that the revolutionary process was a total attack on bourgeois society that brought the abolition not only of its philosophy but of all of its sciences,” as Helena Sheehan sums it up, adding the perturbed complaint: “Just how the new revolutionary man, endowed with mystical proletarian class consciousness, was to come to terms with the natural world without the positive sciences and without philosophical interpretations of the results of positive sciences was something that was never quite explained.” The shrewd ex-Marxist philosopher Leszek Kolakowski comments that for Korsch, Marxism “is neither a science nor a philosophy, but a theoretical and practical critique of existing society” which is “‘subordinated’ to revolutionary aims”—the overthrow of capitalism by the organized working class, and its replacement with socialism. Or as Korsch himself emphasizes, Marxism “is not only a theory of bourgeois society but, at the same time, a theory of the proletarian revolution.”15
    In justice to Korsch, however, he himself offers formulations that seem consistent with the understanding of Mills. “Marx’s materialist research, while not for a moment abandoning its character of a strictly theoretical science,” he writes in Karl Marx, “yet consciously assumes its particular function within the whole of a movement striving to transform existing society, and thus constitutes itself as a necessary part of the revolutionary action of the modern proletariat.” Similarly, in Marxism and Philosophy (in a manner seemingly inconsistent with other formulations) he refers to “the independent essence of Marxist philosophy,” and to “the revolutionary materialistic dialectic, which is the philosophy of the working class.”17

    Theoretically close to Korsch in this period, Sidney Hook expressed the central thrust of Korsch’s (and his own) Marxism this way:

    If a man’s life has any connection with his thought, then Marx’s revolutionary activity should provide the clue to the central purpose of his thinking. Whatever Marxism might mean to his disciples, there can be no question but that for Marx it meant the theory and practice of the proletarian revolution. Every one of his doctrines was a generalization of an historic experience in the class struggle or a proposed solution of some problem in that struggle. . . . If Marxism is the theory and practice of social revolution in capitalist society, then its first consideration must be a persistent and critical survey of all the social and political factors, which affect the possibilities of successful political action.18
    It might be argued, however, that the insight in this assertion needs to be balanced with another, one that will help revolutionaries avoid a potential debilitating rigidity. It might go against the grain of Korsch’s schema to posit an objective reality whose complex and fluid dimensions can be perceived by various approaches—not simply the “revolutionary proletarian” standpoint associated with Korsch’s understanding of Marx. But cutting one’s self, or one’s Marxism, off from these other approaches in a self-contained grandeur—convinced of the inherent incorrectness of those not sharing one’s distinctive revolutionary outlook—could pave the way for a failure to understand important aspects of reality’s complex totality.
    Link: http://isreview.org/issue/104/anti-p...sm-karl-korsch

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    Senior Voting Member Rosa Lichtenstein's Avatar
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    Default Re: The anti-philosophical Marxism of Karl Korsch

    Unfortunately for Le Blanc and Professor Edgley, who had this to say:

    Either there is a distinctive Marxist philosophy that opposes bourgeois philosophy, perhaps as Marxist social science opposes the bourgeois social sciences. Or there is a philosophy in Marxism that is not distinctively Marxist, a philosophy Marxism shares with bourgeois social thought, the opposition being between Marxist and bourgeois theory being at a scientific level. Or there is no such thing as a philosophy of any kind in Marxism because Marxism opposes bourgeois philosophy by opposing philosophy as such.
    Marx had already abandoned philosophy, root-and-branch, by the late 1840s:

    "Feuerbach's great achievement is.... The proof that philosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thought and expounded by thought, i.e., another form and manner of existence of the estrangement of the essence of man; hence equally to be condemned...." [Marx (1975b), p.381. Bold emphases added.]
    "One has to 'leave philosophy aside'..., one has to leap out of it and devote oneself like an ordinary man to the study of actuality, for which there exists also an enormous amount of literary material, unknown, of course, to the philosophers.... Philosophy and the study of the actual world have the same relation to one another as onanism [masturbation -- RL] and sexual love." [Marx and Engels (1976), p.236. Bold emphasis added.]
    "It can be seen how subjectivism and objectivism, spiritualism and materialism, activity and passivity, lose their antithetical character, and hence their existence as such antitheses, only in the social condition; it can be seen how the resolution of the theoretical antitheses themselves is possible only in a practical way, only through the practical energy of man, and how their resolution is for that reason by no means only a problem of knowledge, but a real problem of life, a problem which philosophy was unable to solve precisely because it treated it as a purely theoretical problem." [Marx (1975b), p.354. Bold added.]
    "One of the most difficult tasks confronting philosophers is to descend from the world of thought to the actual world. Language is the immediate actuality of thought. Just as philosophers have given thought an independent existence, so they were bound to make language into an independent realm. This is the secret of philosophical language, in which thoughts in the form of words have their own content. The problem of descending from the world of thoughts to the actual world is turned into the problem of descending from language to life.

    "We have shown that thoughts and ideas acquire an independent existence in consequence of the personal circumstances and relations of individuals acquiring independent existence. We have shown that exclusive, systematic occupation with these thoughts on the part of ideologists and philosophers, and hence the systematisation of these thoughts, is a consequence of division of labour, and that, in particular, German philosophy is a consequence of German petty-bourgeois conditions. The philosophers have only to dissolve their language into the ordinary language, from which it is abstracted, in order to recognise it, as the distorted language of the actual world, and to realise that neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own, that they are only manifestations of actual life." [Marx and Engels (1970), p.118. Bold emphases alone added.]
    "If from real apples, pears, strawberries and almonds I form the general idea 'Fruit', if I go further and imagine that my abstract idea 'Fruit', derived from real fruit, is an entity existing outside me, is indeed the true essence of the pear, the apple, etc., then -- in the language of speculative philosophy -- I am declaring that 'Fruit' is the 'Substance' of the pear, the apple, the almond, etc. I am saying, therefore, that to be an apple is not essential to the apple; that what is essential to these things is not their real existence, perceptible to the senses, but the essence that I have abstracted from them and then foisted on them, the essence of my idea -- 'Fruit'…. Particular real fruits are no more than semblances whose true essence is 'the substance' -- 'Fruit'….

    "Having reduced the different real fruits to the one 'fruit' of abstraction -- 'the Fruit', speculation must, in order to attain some semblance of real content, try somehow to find its way back from 'the Fruit', from the Substance to the diverse, ordinary real fruits, the pear, the apple, the almond etc. It is as hard to produce real fruits from the abstract idea 'the Fruit' as it is easy to produce this abstract idea from real fruits. Indeed, it is impossible to arrive at the opposite of an abstraction without relinquishing the abstraction….

    "The main interest for the speculative philosopher is therefore to produce the existence of the real ordinary fruits and to say in some mysterious way that there are apples, pears, almonds and raisins. But the apples, pears, almonds and raisins that we rediscover in the speculative world are nothing but semblances of apples, semblances of pears, semblances of almonds and semblances of raisins, for they are moments in the life of 'the Fruit', this abstract creation of the mind, and therefore themselves abstract creations of the mind…. When you return from the abstraction, the supernatural creation of the mind, 'the Fruit', to real natural fruits, you give on the contrary the natural fruits a supernatural significance and transform them into sheer abstractions. Your main interest is then to point out the unity of 'the Fruit' in all the manifestations of its life…that is, to show the mystical interconnection between these fruits, how in each of them 'the Fruit' realizes itself by degrees and necessarily progresses, for instance, from its existence as a raisin to its existence as an almond. Hence the value of the ordinary fruits no longer consists in their natural qualities, but in their speculative quality, which gives each of them a definite place in the life-process of 'the Absolute Fruit'.

    "The ordinary man does not think he is saying anything extraordinary when he states that there are apples and pears. But when the philosopher expresses their existence in the speculative way he says something extraordinary. He performs a miracle by producing the real natural objects, the apple, the pear, etc., out of the unreal creation of the mind 'the Fruit'….

    "It goes without saying that the speculative philosopher accomplishes this continuous creation only by presenting universally known qualities of the apple, the pear, etc., which exist in reality, as determining features invented by him, by giving the names of the real things to what abstract reason alone can create, to abstract formulas of reason, finally, by declaring his own activity, by which he passes from the idea of an apple to the idea of a pear, to be the self-activity of the Absolute Subject, 'the Fruit.'

    "In the speculative way of speaking, this operation is called comprehending Substance as Subject, as an inner process, as an Absolute Person, and this comprehension constitutes the essential character of Hegel's method." [Marx and Engels (1975), pp.72-75. Bold emphasis added.]
    [quote]"The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it." [Theses on Feuerbach.] [/quote[

    So, according to Marx, "philosophy is nothing but religion rendered into thought"; it must, therefore, be "left aside", and one has to "leap out of it and devote oneself like an ordinary man to the study of actuality". That is because Philosophy stands in the same relation to the "study of the actual world" as onanism does to sexual love. Furthermore, Philosophy is based on "distorted language of the actual world", empty abstractions and fabricated concepts. No wonder then that Marx contrasts practicalities (and a desire to change the world) with the pursuit of that empty and pointless ruling-class discipline, Philosophy.

    And we know that Philosophy is a ruling-class form-of-thought, since Marx told us:

    "The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch...." [Marx and Engels (1970), pp.64-65. Bold emphases added.]
    Notice how Marx pointed out that:

    "The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.... Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age...." [Ibid. Bold emphases added.]
    According to Marx, the elite control the production and distribution of ideas -- doctrines that represent and reflect their interests, and which promote their view of the world. Plainly, in order to do this the ruling-class also control education:

    "The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it....The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance." [Ibid.]
    In addition, they, and their ideologues, rule as "thinkers", and they do this in "its whole range" (which, of course, includes Philosophy).

    Indeed, Marx argues that philosophy is in effect an ideological affectation of, or even a weapon used in, the class war:

    "In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or -- this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms -- with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic -- in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production." [Marx (1968), pp.181-82. Bold emphasis added.]
    This helps explain, of course, why Marx thought this entire discipline was based on distorted language and contained little other than empty abstractions and alienated thought-forms -- and, indeed, why he turned his back on it from the late 1840s onward. In fact, after the mid-1840s, there are no positive, and very few even neutral comments about Philosophy in Marx's work (and that includes his letters).

    So, Korsch was right: Marx was an anti-philosopher. Which is all to the good, since it is relatively easy to show that all philosophical theories are incoherent non-sense:

    http://www.anti-dialectics.co.uk/was..._a_leftist.htm

    We don't need a philosophical theory, Historical Materialism, a scientific theory, is all we need.

    -------------------------------

    Exact references can be found here, in the Bibliography:

    http://www.anti-dialectics.co.uk/was..._a_leftist.htm
    The emancipation of the working class will be an act of the workers themselves.

    http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/index.htm

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