Karl Korsch


Korsch was born in Tostedt, near Hamburg
-History:The first historic name for the city was, according to Claudius Ptolemy's reports, Treva.But the city takes its modern name, Hamburg, from the first permanent building on the site, a castle whose construction was ordered by the Emperor Charlemagne in AD 808...

, to Carl August Korsch, a secretary at the cantonal court and his wife Therese. In 1898 the family moved to Meiningen
Meiningen is a town in Germany - located in the southern part of the state of Thuringia and is the district seat of Schmalkalden-Meiningen. It is situated on the river Werra....

, Thuringia
The Free State of Thuringia is a state of Germany, located in the central part of the country.It has an area of and 2.29 million inhabitants, making it the sixth smallest by area and the fifth smallest by population of Germany's sixteen states....

 and Korsch senior attained the position of a managing clerk in a bank. Karl then attended the local grammar school, Bernhardinum.

He attended universities at Munich
Munich The city's motto is "" . Before 2006, it was "Weltstadt mit Herz" . Its native name, , is derived from the Old High German Munichen, meaning "by the monks' place". The city's name derives from the monks of the Benedictine order who founded the city; hence the monk depicted on the city's coat...

, Berlin
Berlin is the capital city of Germany and is one of the 16 states of Germany. With a population of 3.45 million people, Berlin is Germany's largest city. It is the second most populous city proper and the seventh most populous urban area in the European Union...

, Geneva
Geneva In the national languages of Switzerland the city is known as Genf , Ginevra and Genevra is the second-most-populous city in Switzerland and is the most populous city of Romandie, the French-speaking part of Switzerland...

 and Jena
Jena is a university city in central Germany on the river Saale. It has a population of approx. 103,000 and is the second largest city in the federal state of Thuringia, after Erfurt.-History:Jena was first mentioned in an 1182 document...

, studying law, economics and philosophy. He acquired a Doctorate at Jena in 1910. From 1917 to 1933 he was active in leftwing politics in Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

, leaving on the night of the Reichstag fire
Reichstag fire
The Reichstag fire was an arson attack on the Reichstag building in Berlin on 27 February 1933. The event is seen as pivotal in the establishment of Nazi Germany....

. After a brief stay in England and Denmark, he and his wife settled in the USA in 1936, teaching at Tulane University, New Orleans, and working at the International Institute for Social Research
Institute for Social Research
The Institute for Social Research is a research organization for sociology and continental philosophy, best known as the institutional home of the Frankfurt School and critical theory....

, New York
New York
New York is a state in the Northeastern region of the United States. It is the nation's third most populous state. New York is bordered by New Jersey and Pennsylvania to the south, and by Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont to the east...


He died in Belmont, Massachusetts
Belmont, Massachusetts
Belmont is a town in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. The population was 24,729 at the 2010 census.- History :Belmont was founded on March 18, 1859 by former citizens of, and land from the bordering towns of Watertown, to the south; Waltham, to the west; and Arlington, then...

 in 1961.

Political development

Korsch studied in London between 1912 and 1914, becoming a member of the Fabian Society
Fabian Society
The Fabian Society is a British socialist movement, whose purpose is to advance the principles of democratic socialism via gradualist and reformist, rather than revolutionary, means. It is best known for its initial ground-breaking work beginning late in the 19th century and continuing up to World...

. In 1913 he married Hedda Gagliardi, a grandchild of feminist Hedwig Dohm
Hedwig Dohm
Marianne Adelaide Hedwig Dohm born Schlesinger, later Schleh was a German feminist, and author. She was one of the first feminist thinkers to see gender roles as a result of socialization and not biological determinism.-Family:She was born in Berlin to Jewish parents, as a daughter of Wilhelmine...

, who would be closely involved in his theoretical work. Hedda Korsch from 1916 was a teacher at the free school Wickersdorf. Korsch's wartime experiences in Germany radicalised him, especially the ferment within the leftwing parties of Germany following the Russian Revolution
Russian Revolution of 1917
The Russian Revolution is the collective term for a series of revolutions in Russia in 1917, which destroyed the Tsarist autocracy and led to the creation of the Soviet Union. The Tsar was deposed and replaced by a provisional government in the first revolution of February 1917...

. Uprisings such as that of the Spartacists in Berlin in January 1919, and the Bavarian Soviet Republic
Bavarian Soviet Republic
The Bavarian Soviet Republic, also known as the Munich Soviet Republic was, as part of the German Revolution of 1918–1919, the short-lived attempt to establish a socialist state in form of a council republic in the Free State of Bavaria. It sought independence from the also recently proclaimed...

 in April 1919, made revolution seem imminent to many in Europe. Korsch focused his studies and writings on working-out a replacement economic system for workers' councils to implement across Germany, published under the title What is Socialization? in March 1919. Korsch joined the German Communist Party in 1920. He became Communist Minister of Justice in the regional Thuringian government in October 1923.

Korsch attributed the failure of the German revolution to the lack of ideological preparation and leadership of the working class. Accordingly, he turned his focus to developing workers' organisations into bodies subjectively capable of realizing revolutionary opportunities. In contrast to what seemed to him a materialist fatalism
Fatalism is a philosophical doctrine emphasizing the subjugation of all events or actions to fate.Fatalism generally refers to several of the following ideas:...

, he thought it would be possible to galvanize workers' organisations into bolder political action if more effort was put into educating workers in the deeper theory of Marxism
Marxism is an economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry that centers upon a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical view of social change, and an analysis and critique of the development of capitalism. Marxism was pioneered in the early to mid 19th...


In 1926 he formed the Entschiedene Linke (Determined Left) with Ernst Schwarz
Ernst Schwarz (politician)
Ernst Schwarz , was a Communist politician.After attending high school, first in his hometown and then in Berlin, Schawrz attended the University of Grenoble, University of Bonn and Berlin, graduating with a doctorate. During the First World War, he briefly served as a soldier...

 in 1926. It initially attracted 7,000 members, before joining the Communist Workers Party of Germany
Communist Workers Party of Germany
The Communist Workers Party of Germany was an anti-parliamentarian and council communist party that was active in Germany during the time of the Weimar Republic. It was founded in April 1920 in Heidelberg as a split from the Communist Party of Germany...

 in June 1927.

In his later work, he rejected orthodox Marxism
Orthodox Marxism
Orthodox Marxism is the term used to describe the version of Marxism which emerged after the death of Karl Marx and acted as the official philosophy of the Second International up to the First World War and of the Third International thereafter...

 as historically outmoded, wanted to adapt revolutionary theory to a new historical situation, and wrote in his Ten Theses (1950) that "the first step in re-establishing a revolutionary theory and practice consists in breaking with that Marxism which claims to monopolize revolutionary initiative[,] as well as theoretical and practical direction" and that "today, all attempts to re-establish the Marxist doctrine[,] as a whole[,] in its original function as a theory of the working classes['] social revolution[,] are reactionary utopias."http://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1950/ten-theses.htm His Ten Theses indicate that Korsch broke not only with orthodox Marxism but Marxism itself, as his friend Paul Mattick
Paul Mattick
Paul Mattick Sr. was a Marxist political writer and social revolutionary, whose thought can be placed within the council communist and left communist traditions...

 writes: "Korsch's criticism of Marxian orthodoxy... finally became a critique of Marxism itself and therewith, of course, self-criticism" and it was "directed against the insufficiency of Marxism, in all its various stages, to serve this revolutionary movement in an unambiguous way."http://www.marxists.org/archive/mattick-paul/1964/korsch.htm


Korsch was especially concerned that Marxist theory was losing its precision and validity - in the words of the day, becoming "vulgarized" - within the upper echelons of the various socialist organizations. His masterwork, Marxism and Philosophy is an attempt to re-establish the historic character of Marxism as the heir to Hegel
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a German philosopher, one of the creators of German Idealism. His historicist and idealist account of reality as a whole revolutionized European philosophy and was an important precursor to Continental philosophy and Marxism.Hegel developed a comprehensive...

. It commences with a quote from Lenin's On the Significance of Militant Materialism: "We must organize a systematic study of the Hegelian dialectic from a materialist standpoint."

In Korsch's formulation, Hegel represented at the level of ideas the real, material progressiveness of the bourgeoisie
In sociology and political science, bourgeoisie describes a range of groups across history. In the Western world, between the late 18th century and the present day, the bourgeoisie is a social class "characterized by their ownership of capital and their related culture." A member of the...

. Alongside the extinction of 'Hegelianism' around 1848, the bourgeoisie lost its claim to that progressive role in society, ceasing to be the universal class
Universal class
Universal class is a category derived from the philosophy of Hegel, redefined and popularized by Karl Marx. In Marxism it denotes that class of people within a stratified society for which, at a given point in history, self interested action coincides with the needs of humanity as a...

. Marx, in taking Hegel and transforming that philosophy into something new, in which the workers would be the progressive class, himself represented the moment at which the revolutionary baton materially passed from bourgeoisie to workers. To Korsch, the central idea of Marxian theory was what he termed "the principle of historical specification". This means to "comprehend all things social in terms of a definite historical epoch". (Korsch, Karl Marx, p. 24) He emphasizes that Marx "deals with all categories of his economic and socio-historical research in that specific form and in that specific connection in which they appear in modern bourgeois society. He does not treat them as eternal categories." (op. cit., p. 29f.)

Korsch's stance had ramifications which were unpalatable to the official Communist Party structure - not least, casting the Party's own ideological weaknesses as the only material explanation for the failure of the revolution. Published in 1923, Marxism and Philosophy was strongly opposed by Party faithful and other leftwing opinionmakers, including Karl Kautsky
Karl Kautsky
Karl Johann Kautsky was a Czech-German philosopher, journalist, and Marxist theoretician. Kautsky was recognized as among the most authoritative promulgators of Orthodox Marxism after the death of Friedrich Engels in 1895 until the coming of World War I in 1914 and was called by some the "Pope of...

 and Grigory Zinoviev
Grigory Zinoviev
Grigory Yevseevich Zinoviev , born Ovsei-Gershon Aronovich Radomyslsky Apfelbaum , was a Bolshevik revolutionary and a Soviet Communist politician...

. Zinoviev famously said of Korsch and his fellow critic Georg Lukács
Georg Lukács
György Lukács was a Hungarian Marxist philosopher and literary critic. He is a founder of the tradition of Western Marxism. He contributed the concept of reification to Marxist philosophy and theory and expanded Karl Marx's theory of class consciousness. Lukács' was also an influential literary...

, "If we get a few more of these Professors spinning out their theories, we shall be lost". Over the subsequent five years, the German Communist Party gradually purged all such dissenting voices. Korsch survived within a current known as the Resolute Lefts, until his expulsion in April 1926. He remained a communist deputy to the Reichstag.


Korsch's critique was not accepted into Stalinist communist theory. It remained the property of communist dissenters and academics for several decades. Within those currents, particularly in Germany, Britain, Hungary and Italy, his influence varies from group to group, but became more significant with the brief revival of revolutionary politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Korsch taught and befriended Bertolt Brecht
Bertolt Brecht
Bertolt Brecht was a German poet, playwright, and theatre director.An influential theatre practitioner of the 20th century, Brecht made equally significant contributions to dramaturgy and theatrical production, the latter particularly through the seismic impact of the tours undertaken by the...

, the Marxian playwright, who said he picked Korsch to instruct him in Marxism due to his independence from the Communist Party. He also instructed Felix Weil
Felix Weil
Felix Weil was a Marxist and the original financial provider for the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt am Main, Germany....

, the founder of the Institute for Social Research
Institute for Social Research
The Institute for Social Research is a research organization for sociology and continental philosophy, best known as the institutional home of the Frankfurt School and critical theory....

, from which the highly influential Frankfurt School
Frankfurt School
The Frankfurt School refers to a school of neo-Marxist interdisciplinary social theory, particularly associated with the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt am Main...

 was to emerge. He also influenced the German Marxist historian Arthur Rosenberg
Arthur Rosenberg
Arthur Rosenberg was a German Marxist historian and writer.-Life:Born into a German Jewish middle class family in Berlin in 1889, he excelled at the Gymnasium before studying at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Berlin with Otto Hirschfeld and Eduard Meyer. Soon, he established himself as an...

. Indirect disciples include Franz Jakubowski
Franz Jakubowski
Franz Jakubowski was a Marxist theorist. Born in Poznań, Poland, he grew up in what was then the Free City of Danzig. His father was a doctor. From 1930 to 1933 he studied law in Heidelberg, Berlin, Munich and Breslau, before completing his studies in political science at Basel University...

 and Nildo Viana. Sidney Hook
Sidney Hook
Sidney Hook was an American pragmatic philosopher known for his contributions to public debates.A student of John Dewey, Hook continued to examine the philosophy of history, of education, politics, and of ethics. After embracing Marxism in his youth, Hook was known for his criticisms of...

 attended Korsch lectures in Berlin in 1928.


  • Revolutionary Theory, edited by Douglas Kellner, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1977 (A good collection, with a 60 page introductory essay on Korsch's life and work by Kellner).
  • Three essays on Marxism, introduction by Paul Breines, New York : Monthly Review Press, 1971 (This contains the essays Why I am a Marxist, Introduction to Capital and Leading Principles of Marxism: a Restatement).
  • Marxism and philosophy, London: NLB 1972
  • Ten Theses on Marxism Today, at http://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1950/ten-theses.htm. Published in Telos 26 (Winter 1975-76). New York: Telos Press.
  • Karl Marx (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1938)

A Gesamtausgabe (Complete Works) in German is edited by Offizin Verlag, Hanover, Germany.

External links

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