April , 2020

People Aur Politics

A liberation zone for democratic rights, multiculturalism, international brotherhood and peace.

what is socialism from below 1). SOCIALISM'S CRISIS TODAY is a crisis in the meaning of ...
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari
  As Gaddafi's forces were being destroyed in battles that pitted British weapons against other British ...
Tom Hiddleston and Rachel Weisz in Terence Davies
Middle East strife: King Hamad (left) with Saudi King Abdullah Photo: GETTY How refreshing to see ...
April 26, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Investig’Action   — A common feature in every ...
Fred Leplat argues that socialists cannot be neutral or ambivalent about Bashar al-Assad’s bloody dictatorship.  A ...
At the most recent Labour Party conference party leader Ed Miliband caused a certain amount ...
London DIPLOMACY is dead. Effective diplomacy — the kind that produced Nixon’s breakthrough with China, an end ...
Technocapitalism: A Critical Perspective on Technological Innovation and Corporatism Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2012. 230pp., £29.95 ...
Reading Poulantzas Merlin Press Ltd, London, 2011. 300pp., £18.95/ $29.95 pb   Reviewed by James Parisot James Parisot is ...

Archive for January, 2018

Hal Draper’s contribution to revolutionary Marxism-Joel Geier

Posted by admin On January - 29 - 2018 Comments Off on Hal Draper’s contribution to revolutionary Marxism-Joel Geier

Fifty-one years ago the Berkeley Independent Socialist Club published Hal Draper’s The Two Souls ofSocialism.1 Of the hundreds of radical pamphlets published in the 1960s, Two Souls has had perhaps the longest-lasting impact. Appearing at a time when various forms of top-down versions of socialism—social democracy, Stalinism, and Maoism—were in vogue, its emphasis on workers’ self-emancipation set it clearly apart. Moreover, Draper did not merely reintroduce genuine Marxism to a new generation; in its originality and clarity, Two Souls—and the subsequent work that elaborated in detail on his arguments—presented a different way of looking at the world, at socialism, and at competing ideologies.

Traditional interpretations maintained that the essential divisions in the socialist movement were between reform and revolution, pacifism versus violence, and democracy versus authoritarianism. Two Souls took a somewhat different angle, namely, that “throughout the history of socialist movements and ideas, the fundamental divide is between Socialism-From-Above and Socialism-From-Below,”2 thus introducing the vocabulary, narrative, and ideas of socialism from below as the contemporary representation of revolutionary Marxism.

The unifying feature of the many varieties of socialism from above, Draper argued, is distrust or opposition to the working-class’s potential to recreate society based on its own initiative. Socialism from above, Draper specified, is the idea that socialism “must be handed down to the grateful masses in one form or another, by a ruling elite not subject to their control in fact.”3 Distrust of the mass’s ability to rule and denial of democratic control from below are the core tenets of the many variants of socialism from above that have dominated the history of the socialist movement.

The heart of socialism from below is the understanding that “socialism can be realized only through the self-emancipation of activated masses in motion, reaching out for freedom with their own hands, mobilized ‘from below’ in a struggle to take charge of their own destiny, as actors (not merely subjects) on the stage of history.”4 These few words summarize what Draper would later work for decades to restore and defend as the heart of revolutionary Marxism in his analysis of the entire body of Marx’s political writings, as presented in numerous articles, as well as in his indispensable, magnificent multivolume series, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution (KMTR).

A major thesis of Two Souls was that social democracy and Stalinism, the two major self-styled socialisms from above, despite their real and obvious differences, both identify socialism with the statification of the economy, and both reject workers’ democratic rule as the foundation of socialism. Long before Stalinism, Eduard Bernstein, the theoretical father of social-democratic reformism, was the first to revise Marxism to eliminate working-class self-emancipation from its essence, substituting “superior educated” parliamentary representatives for the “uninformed masses” as the agency for socialism. Social democracy and Stalinism, whose advocates strongly denied their similarities, were the dominant radical ideologies that divided the socialist movement during Draper’s political life, which was split between those who supported “democratic” Washington or “socialist” Moscow. These constrained political choices debilitated the working-class movement long before the wrecking operations of neoliberal capitalism began.

Draper’s other major insight in Two Souls was to show how Marx closely linked revolutionary democracy and revolutionary socialism. Draper traced Marx’s path as “the first socialist thinker and leader who came to socialism through the struggle for liberal democracy,” beginning political life as a “radical democratic extremist,” defending all democratic rights throughout his life, and insisting that democracy meant control from below. Before Marx, “Nowhere did the line of the Socialist Idea intersect with the line of Democracy-from-Below,”5 joining collectivism with democracy. Draper demonstrated that only proletarian socialism could merge collectivism with democracy. Without this fusion of revolutionary democracy and revolutionary socialism, he argued, all other radical variants eventually veer off into some form of socialism from above.

Yet Draper showed that Marx was not so naïve as to think that workers could at any moment run society. To do so, they would have to transform their consciousness and themselves through struggle. As Marx argued to the Communist League in 1850,

We say to the workers: “You will have to go through 15 or 20 or 50 years of civil wars and international wars, not only in order to change extant conditions, but also in order to change yourselves and render yourselves fit for political domination”; you on the other hand say to the workers: “We must attain to power at once, or else we may just as well go to sleep.”6

“This is Marx’s program for the working-class movement,” wrote Draper, “as against those who say the workers can take power any Sunday, and those who say never.”7

Two Souls then applies these insights by contrasting the theory and practice of different, important socialists from above and below. Draper showed that the fathers of anarchism, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin, were not the libertarians they are claimed to be but authoritarian opponents of all democracy, including a workers’ state. Proudhon, for example, opposed the right to strike. Draper exposed the German Social Democrats Ferdinand Lassalle, and Eduard Bernstein, the English Fabians, and the American nationalist Edward Bellamy—state socialists, revisionists, and would-be reformists—as glorifiers of the existing state and its bureaucracy with its lack of democratic control from below. He contrasted them with contemporary revolutionary champions of workers’ control: William Morris, Rosa Luxemburg, and Eugene Debs, among others. Draper later expanded the pamphlet’s short historical overview of socialism from above with greater depth in the “Critique of Other Socialisms” section of his KMTR.8

Two Souls was a transformative text for those socialists attempting to uphold and revive genuine Marxism in a period dominated by variants of socialism from above. Its introduction defined the political identity of the Independent Socialist Clubs, founded by Draper (along with this author) in Berkeley in 1964. Draper’s ideas were also shared by the International Socialists (IS) in Britain and the International Socialist tendency, a collection of small left organizations internationally, committed to opposing both US imperialism and Stalinism, and that were closely connected to the IS in the UK. Two Souls continues to inform the politics of the International Socialist Organization.

Though Two Souls gained some notoriety on the left, most of Draper’s valuable contributions to Marxism are almost unknown, invisible to today’s radicals. And yet, Draper was arguably the most important American author and defender of international socialist politics in the last half of the twentieth century. Draper’s substantial theoretical innovations came in the period when Marxism was also being distorted beyond recognition by academic reinterpretations that considered Marxism as a form of “class reductionism.”

Draper was resolute in keeping revolutionary ideas alive in those hollow years. Much as Lenin had done in his work State and Revolution, Draper worked to bring Marx’s views—as Marx himself expressed them—to light, to free them from the distortions of “friends” as well as enemies.

The aim of this essay is to introduce to the newly emerging socialist movement Draper’s central role as the Marxist navigator of late-twentieth-century American socialism, free of all the distortions of socialism from above. In that spirit, this article will present a short survey of his work in the context of his political activity.

Along with Engels, Draper believed that Marx’s “real mission in life was to contribute…to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat . . . to make [it] conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation.”9

Born Harold Dubinksy in Brooklyn in 1914, the son of Jewish parents who emigrated from Ukraine, Draper joined the youth organization of the Socialist Party, the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), when he was a teenager, becoming one of the outstanding socialist student leaders of the 1930s in the student antiwar strikes and in the American Student Union.10 His major achievement in the 1930s was winning the YPSL to the Trotskyist Fourth International—the association of international organizations and parties adhering to the politics of Leon Trotsky, the exiled leader of the Russian revolution who had broken with Russia’s rising bureaucratic state under Stalin. As Draper reported in the September 1937 issue of Socialist Appeal, “The Young People’s Socialist League became the first organization of the Second International to go over to the banner of the Fourth Internationalist movement by action of its 9th National Convention.”11 It was unfortunately, an unmatched record; no other Second International organization ever followed. As a Trotskyist, Draper took part in the US Socialist Workers’ Party founding convention in 1937–38.

But the Fourth International soon revealed that it was unprepared for the eruption of Russian imperialism and the spread of Stalinism beyond Russia. In August 1939, Stalin and Hitler signed a neutrality pact in which they agreed to militarily carve up Poland between them. With crucial German support, Russia occupied Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and parts of Finland and Romania. In return, the Russians provided the Nazis with secure borders to successfully fight a one-front war in the West, which led to the conquest of Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Holland, and France.

The Trotskyist movement maintained that since nationalized property was a conquest of the revolution, Russia remained a workers’ state in spite of the fact that workers were not in control. On these grounds, they supported the Russians in this war of foreign conquest and occupation, calling upon the workers of the invaded countries to assist the Russian army. They claimed that doing so was “defending Russia from imperialist attack.”

Draper was part of a group of SWP leaders that included Max Shachtman, James Burnham, and Martin Abern who refused to support the Soviet invasion and occupation of Eastern European states, and concluded that Russia under Stalin had developed into a new form of class society. The dissidents in 1940 raised a slogan that summarized their opposition to all sides in the war as imperialist, and which would be their signature banner for decades: “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but for the Third Camp of International Socialism.”12 Draper, who as head of the YPSL had led most of its members into the SWP, now as national secretary of the YPSL Fourth International led 90 percent of its members into the new Trotskyist opposition as the movement split over World War II.

Draper was part of the opposition team developing the new position that, under Stalinism, the bureaucracy had emerged as a collectivized ruling class. The Trotskyist majority argued that since the invading Russian army was nationalizing property, destroying the capitalist class, and setting up social systems identical to those of the “Russian workers’ state,” it was carrying out the socialist revolution from above through “bureaucratic, military means.” The opposition, which soon left the SWP to form the Workers’ Party (WP), insisted that, while bourgeois revolutions were often carried out from above, there was no such thing as a socialist revolution from above: the socialist revolution, in Marx’s words, could only be achieved through the self-emancipation of the proletariat.13

The WP restored the theory that workers’ democracy is central to socialism by reexamining what constitutes a workers’ state when property is nationalized. When property is nationalized, they concluded, the question becomes: Who owns and controls the state that is the repository of nationalized property? Workers’ democracy is not an added extra but an essential element; socialism cannot exist without workers’ control of nationalized property, the economy, and the state. In Marx’s words, it is “the raising of the working class to [the] position of ruling class, to win the battle for democracy” that defines a workers’ state. When the working class has no power, there is no workers’ state; those who have power, the bureaucracy, are actually the ruling class.

These ideas, which overcame confusion that arose during the process of degeneration of the Russian Revolution, were first developed in the Workers’ Party under the collective leadership of Max Shachtman, Martin Abern, C. L. R. James, Joseph Carter, Ernest Rice McKinney, Albert Glotzer, Raya Dunayevskaya, Irving Howe, Julius Jacobson, and many other veteran Trotskyists. Draper’s collaboration was essential in developing these positions; he spent the rest of his life elaborating upon them. Most of his work cannot be separated from the collective contribution of the WP and its successors.14

Draper was a shipyard worker in San Pedro, California, and a rank-and-file trade union militant during World War II. He took an active part in the finest moment of the WP’s history: its class-struggle approach to antiwar work. That work created rank-and-file groups in major industrial unions in opposition to the pro-war no-strike pledge and class collaboration with the War Labor Board—a pledge signed by the trade-union bureaucracy and supported by the social democrats and Stalinists. In the ensuing great wildcat-strike wave of the war years, the WP was the only radical group willing and able to provide direction and leadership.

When Draper was laid off from the shipyards, he became a full-time organizer for the Los Angeles branch of the WP. His proudest achievement as branch organizer was coordinating trade union work and leading opposition to racism and to fascists through direct working-class mass mobilization, without calling upon the state to ban free speech.

In his article “Free Speech and Political Struggle,” he drew upon these lessons to answer similar questions that arose in the 1960s and are relevant today in the fight against the right wing. “Revolutionary socialists,” he argued, “want to push to the limit . . . the fullest democratic involvement of the great mass of the people . . . all the way [without which] no progressive social transformation is possible.” But he did not reduce all social struggles (strikes, wars, revolutions, etc.) to questions of free speech. “Only juridical cretins can believe that all social struggles are resolved by any kind of speech, free or otherwise…. [S]ocial struggles are decided by the contest of power.”15

In 1948, Draper was called back to New York to help stabilize the WP as editor of the New International, the group’s theoretical monthly. In 1949, the WP reorganized itself as the Independent Socialist League (ISL)—concluding that its size did not warrant calling itself a “party”—with Draper as the editor of its newspaper, Labor Action. For the next eight years, he was pivotal in holding the ISL together by almost singlehandedly putting out a lively newsweekly. At times he wrote entire issues under pen names (Philip Coben, Bernard Cramer, Paul Temple, and H. Spector) to disguise that this stimulating newspaper was the work of one person. A major benefit of Labor Action was its role in educating the Socialist Youth League (later the Young Socialist League), aligned with the ISL—the sole non-Stalinist socialist youth organization of the period. This small youth renewal maintained the continuity of revolutionary socialism, playing an outsized role in the new civil rights movement, and producing a remarkable number of radical leaders of the 1960s as well as cadres for both the future International Socialists (IS) and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

Draper’s journalism in the years of reaction strengthened the ISL’s political outlook and international influence, despite its ongoing decline. Labor Action was distinguished by its defense of civil liberties against the anti-Communist witch hunts, championing the emerging civil rights movement, defense of the labor movement, implacable hostility to all imperialism, and support of class struggle and revolt everywhere it appeared. While Labor Action is archived in the Marxists Internet Archive (marxists.org), the lack of an index means that the vast majority of Draper’s writings are not readily accessible.16

At the end of the 1940s, Draper directed the ISL’s attempt to deal with the postwar reality that had destroyed its prewar Trotskyist perspective that the end of the war would result in socialist revolution in the capitalist countries and that Stalinism could not survive the war. The ISL dropped the revolutionary dogma that capitalism was no longer capable of expanding, and introduced the “permanent war economy” theory as a starting point to explain the postwar boom.17

The expansion of Stalinism led many ex-radicals, like George Orwell and Hannah Arendt, to support the West, with theories that Stalinism atomized the working class, rendering it incapable of resistance, thus ending class struggle and history. Draper and Shachtman argued instead that Stalinism’s class and national contradictions showed it would be an unstable, short-lived system. Their position was soon confirmed by the Titoist Yugoslav Communist split with Moscow and by working-class revolts in East Germany, Poland, and Hungary, about which Draper wrote extensively.18 But political clarity was not enough to overcome demoralization as revolutionary prospects faded. Cold War McCarthyism hit the working-class left, and the WP went into a long, drawn-out political and organizational decline.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Draper was the most prominent American advocate of third-camp socialism. His was a heroic but losing fight against the drift of the socialist movement toward accommodating and capitulating to Washington or Moscow. He wrote a stream of exposés of the ruling class’s actions, maneuvers, dynamics, policies, and aims for world domination. Some of his strongest polemics were against his former comrades of the WP/ISL, led by Max Shachtman and later Michael Harrington, as they integrated into the pro-Western camp. In 1961, for example, he published a pamphlet that included a speech that Shachtman had delivered to the SP supporting the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, along with his own critique of Shachtman’s arguments.19 Draper’s writings from this period left a strong anti-imperialist heritage for his comrades in the International Socialists to build upon, particularly when they were isolated on the left (as when they publicly opposed Israel’s 1967 War) or faced apologetics for the foreign policies of so-called “progressive” ruling classes.

Only a few of Draper’s antiwar articles are easily available. One collection, America as Overlord,20 begins with “Behind Yalta: The Truth About the War,” a superb exposé that took up the entire April 4, 1955, issue of Labor Action.21 It examined the just-released papers of the February 1945 Yalta Conference, in which the “three great democrats,” Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, met to celebrate their approaching victory by dividing Europe as the spoils of war. As Churchill claims to have said to Stalin at Yalta: “Don’t let us get at cross purposes in small ways. So far as Britain and Russia are concerned, how would it do for you to have 90 percent predominance in Romania, for us to have 90 percent of the say in Greece, and go fifty-fifty about Yugoslavia?”22 Draper’s study of the Yalta papers highlighted the imperialist deals that World War II was really about; the contempt that the Big Three had for less powerful nations, including their allies; and the unfolding imperialist rivalries between the three that were to become harbingers of the Cold War. Draper revealed that, at Yalta, the rivalry between Britain and the United States was greater than that between either of them and Russia. Neither the Americans nor the British understood the profound change in the imperialist balance of forces that was shortly to become apparent, beginning the next round of imperialist competition between America and the USSR.

Imperialist crimes examined

In the 1950s Draper focused on the major imperialist crimes of the period (Korea, Suez, Algeria, Hungary), but he also wrote on imperialist outrages others neglected, with essays on America’s role in Guatemala, Okinawa, Samoa, and Guam. The highlight of the collection in America as Overlord are bookend pieces on distinct phases of American imperialism. In the essay “America as Arbiter,” Draper examines the Suez crisis to probe the changes in relations between the United States and the other capitalist powers that resulted from World War II. He defines this new phase of imperialism in the role of the United States as organizer of world capitalism, the superpower that acts as “mediator and arbiter” of its imperialist camp—one that, to be sure, had its own interests within that camp, but had to reconcile the interests of the conflicting capitalist powers into one camp under its domination. Draper connects this to the feudal relation—not of master and serf but of overlord and vassal—and probes the contradictions of this new role as policeman, dominator, organizer, and arbiter for global capitalism.23

The book ends with a wonderful essay that is still relevant as a guide on how to support progressive wars, despite their limitations. “The ABC of National Liberation Movements” was written in 1968, after a massive military action by the forces of the National Liberation Front throughout Vietnam (the Tet offensive), to change the position of the Independent Socialist Clubs.24 Draper argues in an introductory note that Tet revealed that the “war in Vietnam was not primarily a civil war between two Vietnamese sides, one of which (the old reactionary side) was being supported by the imported arms of western imperialists. The Tet offensive showed conclusively that the overwhelming majority of the Vietnamese supported the NLF either actively or passively.”

Despite the NLF’s Stalinist politics, which the ISC continued to oppose, it was necessary to support the NLF’s victory as a struggle for self-determination against foreign imperialist aggression. Draper described the historical support of the Marxist movement for genuine wars of national liberation or for democratic rights, despite the undemocratic character and reactionary politics of the class and/or political forces leading them. In doing so, he draws out the distinction between political and military support—“military support” being the Marxist term for supporting the victory of one side without providing political support for its leadership. He then explains the application of this revolutionary policy in previous wars, in a survey that includes China under Chiang Kai-shek against Japanese attack; Yugoslavia under Marshal Tito against a potential Russian invasion; and Ethiopia under Haile Selassie against Mussolini’s Italy, among others. Though written contemporaneously to address a needed adjustment to a political line, it remains a powerful education on Marxist war policy.

The other volume of Draper’s 1950s antiwar essays is War and Revolution: Lenin and the Myth of Revolutionary Defeatism.25 This book is a primer on all aspects of antiwar methodology. Draper addressed the confused thinking within the socialist movement as it attempted to maintain Lenin’s slogan that he issued with the outbreak of World War I of “revolutionary defeatism.” In normal language, calling for the defeat of one side in a conflict implies that you support the victory of the other side. Most revolutionaries thought that if you were not for defeat, then somehow you were for the defense. But as Draper said, “This defeatism of Lenin’s sought to combine some variety of ‘defeat of your own government’ with the antiwar policy of opposition to both war camps.” The murkiness of the position became obvious during World War II for socialists who did not support the Allied war but were not calling for the defeat of the United States by Nazi Germany.

In exploring the history of this slogan in Lenin’s work, Draper discovered that it originated in the Russo-Japanese War, when he supported the defeat of Russia and the victory of “progressive” Japan; this was prior to his understanding of modern imperialism. Lenin later argued that the defeat slogan applied only to reactionary tsarist Russia, not to other countries. But the German Social Democratic Party used precisely that argument to justify its social-patriotic line for supporting Germany against Russia in World War I. Lenin’s slogan became more confusing when socialists attempted to apply it to all countries in an inter-imperialist war such as World War I, calling for the defeat of all while disclaiming victory for any. Lenin justified his position by arguing that calling for defeat would facilitate revolution—it was a way to cut against any concession to ones “own” government’s patriotism. But revolution should not be equated with defeat, nor does defeat necessarily facilitate revolution—it can just as easily facilitate reaction. Lenin had firsthand experience of that danger in the Russian Revolution. The plots of General Kornilov, Alexander Kerensky (president of the provisional government), and others were designed to produce military setbacks—the surrender of Petrograd, and even Russia’s defeat by Germany as a lesser evil—in order to facilitate the victory of the counterrevolution.

Draper sympathetically contrasted the views of leading anti-war internationalists like Luxemburg and Trotsky, who were against both imperialist camps; but in opposing the military victory of their own government, they did not counterpose a desire for its military defeat. Draper’s investigation showed that Lenin abandoned revolutionary defeatism in 1916, didn’t raise it during the Russian Revolution, and never repeated it. The position did not appear in any early Comintern documents.

Zinoviev revived “revolutionary defeatism” in the fight against the Left Opposition to magnify historical differences between Trotsky and Lenin. It was incorporated into the program at the Sixth Comintern Congress of 1928. Defeatism became integrated into the revolutionary canon as the only consistent antiwar policy. Draper’s intellectual courage and principled scholarship caused him to challenge existing revolutionary dogma and examine every aspect of Lenin’s views and contradictions on the question, rejecting defeatism as the one unsound aspect of Lenin’s war policy.

These essays are a remarkable training in socialist scholarship. They show how Marxists can have an open, inquisitive, critical attitude to our theoretical heritage, preserving its essence while overcoming errors. It is one of Draper’s finest contributions to Marxist policy as well as revolutionary functioning. These two books are among the few readily available articles from Draper’s many writings in the 1950s.26

Into the library

Despite Draper’s effort to hold the ISL together through its publications, in 1958 Max Shachtman convinced the organization to dissolve into the Socialist Party. Draper, in his unsuccessful opposition, saw this as an enormous capitulation to right-wing social-democratic politics. In its aftermath he stopped being a full-timer, went to library school, and moved to Berkeley, California, where he worked part-time in the university library. His activity shifted from journalism to theoretical essays, including works that would later become incorporated into Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution. Among those essays are “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat in Marx and Engels,” “Marx and Engels On Women’s Liberation,” “The Death of the State in Marx and Engels,” and “The Principle of Self-Emancipation in Marx and Engels.”27

All of these titles reference both Marx and Engels; Draper was the strongest fighter against the “persistent effort to put a wall between them . . . eliminating Engels from the picture has a massively crippling effect on any attempt to understand Marx.” He defended Marx and Engels as a partnership, referring to them as “The Firm”—a collaboration with an agreed-upon division of labor. It’s a recurring staple in academic Marxism that the two held different views and that, on at least some questions, Engels didn’t understand Marxism. Draper argues that if Engels got it wrong and Marx thought that he and Engels had the exact same views, “obviously, Marx did not understand Marxism either; only the mythologists do.” To attempt to separate the work of their collaboration, Draper maintained, is to create a hole in the Marxist canon, and “the bigger the vacuum that can be created in the Marx canon the more easily can the empty spaces be filled in freehand and at will by anyone who cares to spin a fantasy of their own about Marxism.”28

In the 1960s, Draper, more than any other radical from the 1930s, was able to make the leap into the new radicalism—as a participant, an interpreter, and a defender of the emerging New Left movements. To start, he was instrumental in the split with the Shachtmanites as they moved to support the Democratic Party and American imperialism, a split that led to the formation of the Berkeley Independent Socialist Club (ISC), forerunner of the International Socialists. He initially opposed a membership organization, but without convincing him, the ISC would not have been founded; he was its theoretical and political leader. It was through the ISC and its cadres that Draper would have his greatest impact on the radicalization of the 1960s.

Auspiciously, the ISC was formed the same night as the Free Speech Movement (FSM), in which Draper and the ISC had important roles. Present at the ISC’s invitation-only inaugural meeting were Mario Savio and Jack Weinberg, shortly to become the two major leaders of the FSM, and this author. These three attended the ISC’s first public meeting, where Draper spoke on “Clark Kerr’s Vision of the University.” The next day Weinberg was arrested at the Campus Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) table and placed in a police car, which provoked the now-famous sit-down around the car. The police car became the stage for a speak-out in which both Savio and Weinberg carried Draper’s ideas of the preceding night into the new movement. The following week, the ISC published those ideas as a pamphlet called The Mind of Clark Kerr, His View of the University Factory,29 which became the “bible” of the FSM—the framework of ideas for which it fought against Kerr’s model of the university. Kerr, then president of the University of California system, saw the university as a “knowledge factory,” integrated with and subservient to industry and business, with himself as the “captain of the bureaucracy” and students as raw material to become technicians and middle managers for capitalism. It was, Kerr said, the “wave of the future” and it would be pointless to try to fight it—or so he thought until the captains of business ordered their hired hand in the bureaucracy to shut down the Berkeley civil rights movement, unleashing the FSM.

Draper was a frequent, powerful speaker at FSM rallies, interpreting the dynamics of the social and political forces in California that stood lined up against the students in the battle of Berkeley. He connected with and understood the impulses and consciousness moving the new generation of radicals. Kerr saw Draper as his main intellectual opponent, referring to him as “the chief guru of the FSM.”30 Many of Draper’s ideas were expressed by Mario Savio, including in his famous speech on stopping the machine by putting your bodies on the gears. Draper wrote the classic history of the FSM: Berkeley, The New Student Revolt.31 His series of articles in New Politics marked his role as the intellectual defender of the New Left against its old-left critics.32

The FSM was a link in the radical chain, the bridge between the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement, the catalyst in the creation of the mass student left that played a leading role in the antiwar and other social movements. The American war in Vietnam took off a few months after the FSM was founded, in March 1965. Opposition emerged with a series of teach-ins that began at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and spread throughout the country. In Berkeley, as a result of the FSM, the thirty-six-hour Vietnam Day teach-in was the largest in the country, drawing 30,000 people. Draper, as representative of the ISC, was asked to debate a leading peace activist, Robert Pickus, on immediate withdrawal versus negotiations now. Draper boldly proclaimed that people who proposed negotiations shared the American imperialist mentality, assuming that the United States had a right to negotiate the fate of another country. Second, he asserted that promoting negotiations was a pro-war position of “war now, peace later.”33 The United States would continue to wage war while it negotiated to achieve its goals, and if the Vietnamese did not capitulate to US demands, war would be prolonged. Negotiations were thus a liberal cover to justify the continuation of war. Using his impressive knowledge of foreign policy, Draper won the debate and the Berkeley student movement to the position of immediate withdrawal. From there the call for immediate withdrawal gained credibility and spread nationally. This would have occurred in time without Draper’s efforts, but he certainly helped speed up the process.

In 1967, Draper wrote an article for the first issue of the Independent Socialist (later renamed Workers’ Power) called “Who Will Be the Lesser Evil in ’68?” 34 After Two Souls, it is the most quoted and best known of Draper’s writings. It makes an unforgettable argument against voting for the Democratic Party as a lesser evil by showing how that dynamic has helped propel all politics further to the right. Draper reasoned “that you can’t fight the victory of the rightmost forces by sacrificing your own independent strength to support elements just the next step away from them.” Even when there really is a lesser evil, supporting it undercuts prospects for fighting the Right, and usually results in getting both the lesser and the greater evil—as liberal and conservative policies often converge to serve the needs of capitalism. In posing the question of whether to vote for the Democrats as the lesser evil, “it is the question that is the disaster, not the answer. In setups where the choice is between one capitalist politician and another, the defeat comes in accepting the limitations of this choice.”

In 1968, the ISC was the architect of the California Peace and Freedom Party (PFP), which registered 120,000 people into a new, independent political party committed to Black liberation and opposition to the war. The PFP formed an alliance with the Black Panther Party (BPP), and Draper played a major role in organizing the campaign to run Eldridge Cleaver of the BPP as the PFP’s presidential nominee. Cleaver’s politics, however, were unstable; he made rapid moves to ally first with the politics of counterculture “yippies,” and then those of guerrilla warfare. This led to a disastrous campaign and damaged hopes that the PFP would be the springboard for independent political action. It was to be the last major movement activism he engaged in. The collapse of the New Left and student movements in the next two years was another demoralizing element.

In 1971, Draper led a small split from the International Socialists. The new perspective he outlined was that the road to a revolutionary party was not through traditional socialist organization, though this was still the future goal. Two of Draper’s essays now popular on the internet, “A New Beginning” and “Anatomy of the Micro-sect,” summarize his new position.35 Although they are the weakest of Draper’s published works, they found significant support among radicals who were disillusioned with revolutionary organization and open to viewing the decline of the Left during a reactionary period as due to subjective weakness in left organizations, including real sectarianism that existed at the time among competing small organizations making wildly unrealistic claims as to their own capacity to lead the masses.

Draper proposed creating a political center, principally defined as a publication center, as an alternative to what he rejected as the “sect” road, a membership organization based on a well-defined program. In a series of essays, Draper, known for being extraordinarily meticulous in his scholarship, strangely presents embarrassingly superficial historical narratives to back up his new views. He makes the sweeping claim, without evidence, that no sect has ever succeeded in producing a revolutionary party, ignoring the emergence of the European socialist movement. Bolshevism, he asserts, was in essence Lenin’s political center, focused on the publication Iskra. This has some validity for the period leading up to 1903 and the formation of the relatively small Bolshevik faction. The subsequent emergence of Bolshevism as a mass party with its underground illegal organization, shop organization, factory-cell structure, district committees, and cadres is ignored, replaced by Draper’s bizarre, unsubstantiated claims that the Bolsheviks remained a faction, was not a membership organization, and was a broad party.

The real difficulties of building revolutionary organization evaporate when all that is needed is a publication produced by a small number of self-selected editors, without the messy problems of a membership, democratic input, control, or correction. Draper criticizes the failures of sects, while ignoring the inability of political centers such as Monthly Review, the National Guardian, and Dissent, to be the road to creating a mass party. He ignores the history of his own political centers that were no more successful. Labor Action could not stop the disintegration of the ISL. The Independent Socialist Committee of 1963, which Draper chaired, attempted to maintain loose ties with left-wingers through pamphlets, publications, and correspondence, and was a miserable flop until the ISC launched as a membership organization. The Center for Socialist History has issued some good publications, but that’s its limit.

The best ideas cannot substitute for organization. The most tragic example is that of Leon Trotsky acting as a fantastic political center in 1930s Germany. Trotsky’s writings on fascism and how to fight it are among the greatest works of Marxist analysis, and they had mass readership and popular support. But they could not be translated into action, as the miniscule size of the Trotskyist organization made it impossible for Trotsky’s views to become a material factor in the fight against fascism. Draper’s ideas, as this essay maintains, are vital in the fight for socialist revolution. But they can only be realized if they are debated and deployed by revolutionary fighters, cadres, and rank-and-file workers trained in organizations based on those political ideas.

In the last twenty years of his life, Draper made his last great contribution to the socialist movement by delivering the fullest explanation of revolutionary Marxism ever to appear in print, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution (KMTR).36KMTR, four massive volumes that total more than 3,000 pages, provides the foundation for the entire structure of the politics of socialism from below. It integrates the interconnected political questions that Marx worked on throughout his life: class, the proletariat, the bourgeoisie, and other classes; self-emancipation; the class nature of the state; state bureaucracy; revolution; Bonapartism; the dictatorship of the proletariat; and other political tendencies. Its amazing scholarship was an inspired advance in Marxist literature and theory. As Paul Sweezy of Monthly Review stated, “It will remain an indispensable source for all serious students of Marxian ideas . . . there is nothing in the existing literature which is even remotely comparable to it.” It is an all-encompassing but, as Robert Heilbroner wrote in the New York Review of Books, “extraordinarily stimulating work, written in a fresh, open, often amusing style.” 37 It is the outcome of Draper’s talents as a highly readable, clear, engaging, and witty writer. His brilliant intellect, sharp, analytical mind, and extraordinary capacity for hard work shine through each volume. Draper taught himself German as he was writing the book to better understand Marx’s words, nuances, meanings, and to retranslate passages where Marx had been misinterpreted by inaccurate or clumsy translations.

Draper’s self-imposed mission in KMTR is to allow Marx to speak for himself, to restore Marx’s thought—not as others have interpreted it but as Marx himself saw it. It is, in its copious citation of Marx’s ideas, Marx’s own “meaning of Marxism.” Draper does this not through selective clippings, quotations, or articles, but through systematically engaging with Marx’s entire corpus. Draper restricts his study to Marx the political man, not Marx the philosopher, economist, or theorist of historical materialism. His anchor begins with Engels’s characterization that “above all else Marx was a proletarian revolutionist,” and the first volume begins with a new explanation of how Marx became a Marxist. Draper focuses not on the traditional narrative of Marx’s philosophical development—from the Young Hegelians to Feuerbach, and beyond—but rather on Marx’s political emancipation from Hegel’s political philosophy on the state, bureaucracy, and private property. For Hegel the state (including the absolutist, authoritarian, monarchical Prussian state) is eternal; it embodies the just relationship of harmony among society’s elements and is the realization of freedom. The state bureaucracy was thus the “universal class,” representing the interests of all of society.38 Marx’s rejection of the existing state and its institutions and bureaucracy led him on a journey “from a radical-democratic liberal to revolutionary-democratic communist,” from democratic extremist defender of the free press and all democratic rights to finding that those goals were best realized in the proletariat, in socialism, and—crucially—in the principle of proletarian self-emancipation, the foundation of revolutionary socialism from below.

Draper’s first volume, State and Bureaucracy, is not a “short course” introduction with a few maxims and quotations on the relation of the state to the ruling class. It explores Marx’s realization that the state and the bureaucracy exist to defend private property, which led him to become a Marxist. Throughout his life he continued to refine his ideas on these questions. Draper explores all of Marx’s rich, highly complex explorations of the nature of the state and its bureaucracy in ever-changing class societies, in different historical situations, with the developments of classes and their separate layers, and in terms of the relationship between base and superstructure. The emphasis is on the capitalist state and the peculiarities of the capitalist class, which give rise to the “political ineptitude” of the bourgeoisie as a governing class. This is truer for the bourgeoisie than for any previous ruling class because, under capitalism more than any other class society, economics and politics are separated. As Draper remarks, rule by a capitalist class was

profusely crisscrossed internally with competing and conflicting interest groups, each at the other’s throat . . . competing national groups (countries) are split by regional group interests, different industrial interests. Antagonisms within an industry, rivalry between producers of consumers and producers goods, light and heavy industry . . . internally, [made] capitalism . . . a snake-pit. By comparison, the incessant feuding of medieval barons was a marshmallow-throwing contest.39

The bourgeoisie remains the ruling class as long as the social relations of capitalist production are maintained, but the different permutations of this dynamic and its relation to the political state vary widely, as Marx explored and Draper detailed amply.

To present Marx’s views faithfully, Draper asserts, requires an “excavation.” Draper models his methodology on Lenin’s State and Revolution, which Lenin described as an engagement “in excavations, as it were, to bring undistorted Marxism to the knowledge of the mass of the people.”40 Even Lenin, Marx’s greatest disciple, was for most of his political life unaware of Marx’s real views on the state. Most of Marx’s collected work had not been printed, and Lenin accepted prevailing Second International doctrine, which held that the institutions and bureaucracy of the state could be used for socialist construction, and that only anarchists call for the destruction of the existing class state. Lenin had to do a personal as well as a political excavation. He dug up all of Marx’s then-extant printed work about the state in order to wipe away the reformist gloss that the Second International had overlaid onto Marx’s views and restore Marx’s revolutionary opposition to the existing state, representing his views on a workers’ state and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Draper made that his model for KMTR: it is a personal as well as a political restoration project for all of Marx’s political views, not just one, and to uncover and clear away not just social-democratic falsifications but also more recent distortions imposed on Marxism as a result of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution.

Draper submits that, in the process of degeneration and Stalinist counterrevolution, it was not only the institutions of proletarian rule (soviets, trade unions, the Bolshevik Party, etc.) that degenerated; ideas did as well. Principles became distorted as necessary measures to defend the revolution against imperialist invasion and counterrevolution, and were turned into virtues. Draper argues that, had the German Revolution been successful, these distortions—which Lenin recognized as retreats from socialism—might have been thrown out the window. But the German Revolution failed, and these distorted ideas were then accepted and passed on as the norms of Marxism: “The distortions became principles.”41 One example is Trotsky’s conclusion that “the dictatorship of the proletariat found its distorted but indubitable expression as the dictatorship of the bureaucracy.”42 This idea, from the greatest fighter against the rising bureaucracy, had no relation to anything in Marx’s thinking but shows how ideas accepted as Marxist theory became damaged as a result of the Russian degeneration.

The second volume, The Politics of Social Class, is groundbreaking: there has been nothing approaching it in the Marxist literature for the past 150 years. Draper proceeds from the understanding that “class dynamics is the foundation of all of Marx’s politics.” He examines the anatomy of all the social classes of modern society and their interrelations with the working class. There are individual sections that pore over Marx’s assessments of the bourgeoisie, petit-bourgeoisie, peasantry, and intellectuals, and their politics and role in revolution. These in-depth sections, with their 700 pages of complex and sophisticated delineation of class composition, class struggle, class structure, and the relation of different classes to politics and revolution, are indispensable political guides. In particular, a discussion on Marx’s and Engels’s conclusions on class forces in the 1848 revolution shows that they were the basis for the theory of permanent revolution, on which Trotsky later elaborated.43

Draper’s approach to social class is also borrowed from Lenin: “Marxism is the theory and practice of proletarian revolution.” The key word is proletarian, and the focus is on what distinguishes the proletariat in its revolution. Marx states that the working-class movement, unlike the movements of all previous revolutionary classes, which had been minority class movements, is “the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.”44

Working-class revolution is different from all previous revolutions because the proletariat is a propertyless class; it does not, nor can it, own property. The bourgeoisie, the previous revolutionary class, was able to build its economic power under feudalism, then politically supplant the old, decaying feudal ruling class through bourgeois revolutions. However, Marx says, that it is impossible for the propertyless proletariat to develop its economic powers under capitalism. Proletarian revolution can only succeed by conquering political power, “to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.”45 Political power then starts the process of economic transformation to socialism. And, as Draper stresses, the proletariat must do that very rapidly once it takes power; otherwise, it will be defeated by the rooted power of the capitalist class and its institutions. Nationalized property does not create a workers’ state, but a workers’ state nationalizes property. Proletarian revolution is a reversal of previous revolutionary patterns: the conquest of political power must come first, and success occurs if and when the political revolution leads to an economic and social revolution. The proletariat’s inability to own property circumscribes its only way to rule democratically and collectively, without which it cannot be a ruling class. To emancipate itself, it is forced to liberate all humanity, which is what makes the proletariat the “universal class” in Marxist theory.46

Democratic collectivism is the introduction of proletarian democracy. Yet, Draper clarifies, when most people discuss democracy they mean bourgeois democracy. Working-class and bourgeois democracy overlap in such matters as rights to free speech, free press, free assembly, the right to organize opposition, and so on. Marx defends all bourgeois democratic rights, but states that under bourgeois democracy they are at best limited and distorted and often little more than a “democratic swindle.” The model country of the democratic swindle, Marx says, is the United States, where democratic rights are used to convince the working class to cooperate in their own exploitation. Democracy has to be separated from its bourgeois shell. The basic element of proletarian democracy is democratic control from below; but it is necessary to create a new, more democratic form of state in which control can actually come from below.47 As Engels stated in an 1891 postscript to Marx’s Civil War in France, “Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the phrase: dictatorship of the proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat.”48 In short, the workers’ dictatorship consisted of organs of direct democracy (workers’ councils, soviets, factory committees, trade unions, workers’ militias, etc.) controlled by the working class from below.

Draper wrote a whole volume on the dictatorship of the proletariat devoted to dispelling forever the slanders against Marxism on this issue.49 It is questionable whether there will ever be another inquiry on the topic in this depth, and anyone who writes on the subject in the future will have to deal with Draper’s volume to be taken seriously. To undo the damage done to Marx, Draper examines the meaning of the term dictatorship over the centuries, its currency in Marx’s time, and how it has no relation to the modern usage of dictatorship: an individual dictator, a party dictatorship, a military regime, or a repressive “barracks communism.” Draper explores every instance of Marx’s use of the term dictatorship of the proletariat and finds that it is always a dictatorship of a class: that is, dominating society by setting up class institutions of power and class rule. In Marx’s day, dictatorship of the bourgeoisie just meant the rule and dominance of capitalism over the institutions, laws, and ruling ideas of capitalist society. Draper shows that Marx uses the term dictatorship of the proletariat interchangeably with proletarian power, with proletarian political rule, with workers’ democracy, with workers’ state—the term had no other meaning for Marx, nor should it for socialists.

Class dynamics—the raising of the working class to the position of ruling class—are the substance of all of Marx and Engels’s socialist politics. The proletariat, the state, revolution, and the dictatorship of the proletariat form a unity, and that unity is the self-organization and self-emancipation of the working class. The working class, to emancipate itself, has to become fit to rule through revolutionary activity. It cannot be free to rule until it liberates itself of all capitalist ideas and politics. For Marx, this begins with independent working-class organization to carry through these struggles, to raise the consciousness, confidence, and combativity of the working class. Through this process workers become fit to rule. The school of revolutionary politics goes only through working-class organization, independent of the ruling class.

Draper, the most important American Marxist theorist of the latter half of the twentieth century, dedicated his life’s work and the enormous effort of KMTR to helping revive Marx’s proletarian revolutionary ideas because of their historic mission of working-class self-emancipation. His writings have much in them to educate a new generation of revolutionaries. But they will only come fully into their own when Marx’s does, when a revival of class struggle produces a working class that is conscious of its real position. To succeed, cadres will have to be educated and trained in the politics of socialism from below, merging with the vanguard of the working class in creating a revolutionary leadership dedicated to the self-emancipation of the working class as the road to the future socialist society.

Hal Draper’s “The Two Souls of Socialism” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1966/twosouls/) was published in New Politics (Winter, 1966), 57–84. It was also issued as a pamphlet by the Independent Socialist Clubs. The version on Marxists.org cited here is from the pamphlet published in 1970 by the International Socialists. According to Draper’s introduction, this was a rewritten and expanded version of an earlier article, “Socialism from Below as the Meaning of Socialism,” in Anvil (Winter 1960), the magazine of the Young Peoples Socialist League. This earlier version was also reprinted in the British magazine International Socialism 11 (Winter, 1962).
Ibid., 4.
Ibid., 9.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Meeting of the Central Authority,” Collected Works, Vol. 10 (New York: International Publishers, 1978), 626.
Draper, “Two Souls.”
Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol. IV, Critique of Other Socialisms, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990).
Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 24, 468.
Hal Draper, “The Student Movement of the Thirties,” https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/….
Hal Draper, “Left Wing Carries YPSL Convention,” 1937, https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/….
The original 1940 slogan was “Neither London-Paris nor Berlin-Moscow.” As World War II unfolded, it changed to “Neither London, Washington, Moscow nor Berlin, Tokyo, Rome.’” When the Cold War started in 1946, it took the familiar form used for decades: “Neither Washington nor Moscow.”
An analysis of Russia as a new class society can be found, for example, in Max Shachtman, “Is Russia a Workers’ State?” New International, Vol. VI, No. 10, December 1940, at https://www.marxists.org/archive/shachtm….
I discuss the split in Joel Geier, “War and Revolutionary Socialism: The Second World War and the Origins of International Socialism,” at http://wearemany.org/a/2014/06/war-and-r….
Hal Draper, “Free Speech and Political Struggle,” Independent Socialist 4 (April 1968), https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/ne….
The Labor Action archive can be found here: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/ne….
See, for example, T. N. Vance, “The Permanent War Economy, Part I,” New International, Vol. 17, No. 1, January–February 1951, https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/wr….
Draper’s and Shachtman’s articles on Tito are in the August, September, October, and November 1948 issues of New International, https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/ne….
Max Shachtman and Hal Draper, Two Views on the Cuban Invasion: A discussion pamphlet (Oakland, 1961), https://archive.org/details/TwoViewsOfTh… Hal Draper, “Notes on India-China Border War,” 1962, in possession of author. Excerpts of it appeared under the title “Defensism or Defeatism,” in International Socialism 13 (Summer 1963), https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/ne….
Hal Draper, America as Overlord (Alameda, CA: Center for Socialist History, 2011). The issue of Labor Action devoted to Yalta, https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/ne….
Ibid., 1–54.
Winston Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy: The Second World War, Vol. 6 (New York: Rosetta Books, 2002), 227.
Ibid., 55–67.
Ibid., 145–63. https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/….
Hal Draper, War and Revolution: Lenin and the Myth of Revolutionary Defeatism (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1996).
America as Overlord and some other writings by Draper are available from the Center for Socialist History: http://csh.gn.apc.org/.
The four essays were published in New Politics 1, no. 4 (Summer 1962); International Socialism 44 (July–August 1970); and Socialist Register 1970 and 1971. All are at marxists.org/draper.
Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol. I, State and Bureaucracy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977), 23–26.
Hal Draper, The Mind of Clark Kerr (Berkeley: Independent Socialist Club, 1964), https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/….
Clark Kerr, “Fall of 1964 at Berkeley: Confrontation Yields to Reconciliation,” in Robert Cohen and Reginald E. Zelnik, The Free Speech Movement, Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 391.
Hal Draper, Berkeley: The New Student Revolt (New York: Grove Press, 1965), https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/….
Hal Draper, “FSM: Freedom Fighters or Misguided Rebels?” New Politics IV, no. 1 (Winter 1965); Hal Draper: “In Defense of the ‘New Radicals’,” New Politics IV, nos. 3 (Summer 1965) and 4 (Fall 1965), http://www.unz.org/Pub/NewPolitics-1965q….
Quoted in James Petras preface to We Accuse, A powerful statement of the new political anger in America, as revealed in the speeches given at the 36-hour “Vietnam Day” protest in Berkeley, California (Berkeley and San Francisco: Diablo Press, 1965), 3.
Hal Draper, “Who’s Going to Be the Lesser Evil in ’68?” Independent Socialist 1, no. 1, https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/….
Hal Draper, “Toward A New Beginning—On Another Road; The Alternative to the Micro-Sect,” 1971, https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/… Hal Draper, “Anatomy of the Micro-Sect,” 1973, https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/….
Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution: Vol I, State and Bureaucracy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977); Vol II, The Politics of Social Classes (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978); Vol. III, The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1986); Vol. IV, Critique of Other Socialisms (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990).
Draper, KMTR, Vol. I. The Sweezy and Heilbroner blurbs are on the back cover.
Ibid., 32–34, 77–95.
Ibid., 323.
Ibid., 20–21.
Hal Draper, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat from Marx to Lenin (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1987), 99–101.
Leon Trotsky, “The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism,” 1935, https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky….
Draper, KMTR, Vol. II, 201–87.
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto in The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History’s Most Important Political Document, Phil Gasper, ed. (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), 55.
Ibid., 69.
Draper, KMTR, Vol. II, 40–55, 70–80; Draper, KMTR, Vol. I, 141–47.
Draper, KMTR, Vol. I, 38–52, 282–97, 302–10.
Engels quouted in KMTR, Vol. III, 317.
Draper, KMTR, Vol. III.
Search form Search

Issue #71
May 2010
The education shock doctrine
Issue contents
Top story
The education “shock doctrine”
Adam Sanchez
Letter from the editor
The right on the defensive
Lance Selfa
Prescribing aspirin for cancer
Helen Redmond
Contradictions of the economic recovery
Joel Geier
Obama’s neoliberal agenda for education
Gillian Russom
The case against charter schools
Gillian Russom
Bhumkal: Walking with the Comrades
Arundhati Roy
The unemployed movements of the 1930s
Danny Lucia
Critical Thinking
Obama’s imperial war
Phil Gasper
Revolutionary betrayed
Tom Twiss and Paul Le Blanc review Trotsky: A Biography by Robert Service
Defector from the school reform consensus
Jeff Bale reviews The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch
The fight for civil rights up North
Sherry Wolf reviews Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North by Thomas J. Sugrue
The next debt bubble
Petrino DiLeo reviews The Buyout of America: How Private Equity will Cause the Next Great Credit Crisis by Josh Kosman
Native Americans in the Civil War
Martin Smith reviews Race and Radicalism in the Union Army by Mark A. Lause
Eyewitness to revolution
Dennis Kosuth reviews The Year that Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall by Michael Meyer
Women in the American gulag
Lee Wengraf reviews Interrupted Life: Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States edited by Rickie Solinger, Paula Johnson, Martha Raimon, Tina Reynolds and Ruby Tapia
The myth of “heterosexual Africa”
Matt Swagler reviews Heterosexual Africa?: The History of an Idea from the Age of Exploration to the Age of AIDS by Marc Epprecht
Real data on same-sex marriage
Ragina Johnson reviews When Gay People Get Married: What Happens When Societies Legalize Same-sex Marriage by M. V. Lee Badgett

Home Issues Subscribe Donate About Submissions
The International Socialist Review is published quarterly by the Center for Economic Research and Social Change

Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

Karl Korsch’s Philosophical Bolshevism-Doug Enaa Greene  

Posted by admin On January - 25 - 2018 Comments Off on Karl Korsch’s Philosophical Bolshevism-Doug Enaa Greene  


When Karl Korsch is remembered, he is generally alongside Georg Lukács and Antonio Gramsci as one of the founders of “Western Marxism”. Western Marxism is typically viewed as a diverse trend that focuses more on issues of culture and ideology instead of political economy, and eschews political engagement. It is certainly the case that most of what we understand by Western Marxism, notably the Frankfurt School, falls under that broad definition.

After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Korsch believed that Marxism needed to be restored as a revolutionary philosophy. Korsch wrote his most famous work, Marxism and Philosophy, in 1923 when he was a leader in the Communist Party of Germany. Far from being a Western Marxist, Korsch like Gramsci and Lukács, is better characterized as a “Philosophical Bolshevik” who was committed to the theory and practice of socialist revolution.

Early life

Korsch was born on August 15, 1886 in Tostdedt, Germany into an upwardly mobile family. His father, Carl August, was a farmer who became a bank clerk and eventually, a bank manager. The elder Korsch wanted his children, especially the intellectually gifted Karl, to receive the best education available. From 1906 onward, Korsch attended universities in Munich, Geneva and Berlin. In 1908, he entered the University of Jena, studying law at his father’s insistence as opposed to his preferred field of philosophy. Despite receiving high marks on his law exams in 1910, Korsch never took up legal practice.

It was during his student years that Korsch first became interested in politics. He joined the Free Student Movement – a liberal student group fighting to reform the education system. Korsch became a leading member of the Free Student Movement, organizing lectures and writing for its journals. During his travels across Germany, Korsch came into contact with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and heard speeches by both Eduard Bernstein and Karl Liebknecht (spokespeople for the right and left-wings of the party, respectively).

Even though he joined the SPD in 1910, his politics were still in flux and more aligned with the Bernstein wing of social democracy. In 1912, Korsch received a grant to travel to Great Britain to work on translating a legal text by Ernest Schuster. While in Britain, he joined the Fabian Society, which was a middle class reformist socialist organization. Korsch was attracted to what he termed the Fabians’ concern with “the practical will” and democratic means to achieve socialism.

In 1914, Korsch returned to Germany at the beginning of World War I and was summoned to join the army. Korsch was opposed to the war, resulting in a demotion from lieutenant to corporal. He refused to carry a weapon into battle, seeing as his main duty to ensure the survival of as many men as possible. Ironically, Korsch was twice decorated with the Iron Cross for bravery and promoted to the rank of captain.

Worker councils

The experience of industrial slaughter in World War I not only radicalized Korsch but large swaths of the German army. In 1918, revolting workers and soldiers brought down the German Empire. A bourgeois republic was formed by the moderate SPD, but the existence of councils modeled on Russian Soviets raised the specter of a communist-led revolution. The SPD became the managers of the new Weimar Republic and were determined to contain the far left by any means necessary. By early 1919, there was open fighting between revolutionary workers and SPD-led death squads in Berlin and Bavaria.

There is no evidence that Korsch took part in the soldiers’ councils or street-fighting. However, the council movement made a great impression on him and he was involved in the Commission on the Socialization of Industry. He wrote a pamphlet What Is Socialisation? (1920), and a book, Labour Law For Factory Councils (1920). Korsch’s theory of socialism attempted to combine syndicalist demands for worker control with the need for nationalizations and a coordinated central plan. In these works, Korsch sketched out a more radical version of his “practical socialism” that was opposed to both orthodox social democracy and revisionism. He said:

Differing from the majority of present-day ‘Marxists’ and in conformity with the deeper understanding of Marx, ‘practical socialism’ stresses the insight that the only means to the real completion of the transition to the socialist organization of society is conscious human activity (Marx’s ‘revolutionary praxis’).[1]

For Korsch, the existence of worker councils raised the burning question of revolutionary praxis, or the unity of theory and practice. This question would be a central concern throughout Korsch’s political life.

Despite his concern with praxis, Korsch said little on the political role of the councils. He saw them mainly as economic institutions, similarly to the Austro-Marxists. Nor did Korsch consider the need for a new form of state power as Lenin did.

Korsch’s grand plans for the councils came to naught as German capitalism stabilized and the revolutionary wave ebbed. Korsch attempted to analyze the reasons for the failure of the German Revolution to achieve socialism. According to him, there was a gap between immature working class consciousness and mature objective conditions:

In the fateful months after November 1918, when the organized political power of the bourgeoisie was smashed and outwardly there was nothing else in the way of the transition from capitalism to socialism, the great chance was never seized because the socio-psychological preconditions for its seizure were lacking. For there was nowhere to be found any decisive belief in the immediate realizability of a socialist economic system, which could have swept the masses along with it and provided a clear knowledge of the nature of the first steps to be taken.[2]

Korsch’s reflections led him to ask what the necessary political and ideological prerequisites for socialism were. He found the answers in Bolshevism. Very swiftly, Korsch moved from the SPD to the more left-wing Independent Social Democratic Party and finally into the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in 1920. As a KPD member, Korsch took an active role as a writer and political leader. In 1923, he served as the KPD’s Minister of Justice in the Thuringian government in preparation for the abortive revolution that autumn.

Marxism and Philosophy

Korsch’s Bolshevism gave him the tools to answer the question of how the SPD had failed in its mission of providing political and ideological leadership to the working class. According to Korsch, the SPD’s failure extended to the whole Second International. His answer was contained in his 1923 work, Marxism and Philosophy, which was a detailed examination on the meaning of Marxism.

In Marxism and Philosophy, Korsch defended Marxism’s debt to Hegelian philosophy. The work begins 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”. According to Korsch, Hegel’s dialectic represented the culmination of the Enlightenment philosophy and expressed the heroic epoch of the revolutionary bourgeoisie. Classical German philosophers like Hegel were fully aware of the connection between their intellectual work and the bourgeois revolution in France. As he said in 1931: “The Hegelian philosophy and its dialectical method cannot be understood without taking into account its relationship to revolution.”[3] By the middle of the nineteenth century, the bourgeoisie had lost its revolutionary character, meaning they “lost the ability to comprehend in thought the true dialectical interrelation of ideas and real historical developments, above all of philosophy and revolution.”[4] The bourgeoisie could no longer critically examine the world without providing ammunition to the proletariat. Now the bourgeoisie transformed philosophy, economics, and history into vulgar apologetics for capitalism.

The decline of the revolutionary character of the bourgeoisie coincided with the rise of a new universal revolutionary class – the working class. In the 1840s, Marxism arose as a theoretical expression of the working class movement. Marx and Engels expected the forthcoming communist revolution to be a continuation of the bourgeois one, meaning it was necessary for the proletariat to utilize the bourgeoisie’s philosophical weapons, notably Hegelianism: “Instead of making an exit, classical German philosophy, the ideological expression of the revolutionary movement of the bourgeoisie, made a transition to a new science which henceforward appeared in the history of ideas as the general expression of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat: the theory of ‘scientific socialism’ first founded and formulated by Marx and Engels in the 1840s.”[5] Korsch was stating that at the heart of the revolutionary politics of Marxism lay the revolutionary philosophy of Hegelianism. His argument on the importance of philosophy for Marxism ran contrary to both bourgeois and Marxist commentators.

What exactly did Hegelian dialectics provide to Marxism to make it a revolutionary philosophy? For Korsch, one of the key aspects of the dialectic was totality, meaning that Marxism comprehended reality as a united whole as opposed to breaking it down into separate and isolated branches of knowledge (political economy, philosophy, history, etc.). Korsch argued that Marxism

is a theory of social development seen and comprehended as a living totality; or, more precisely, it is a theory of social revolution comprehended and practiced as a living totality. At this stage there is no question whatsoever of dividing the economic, political and intellectual moments of this totality into separate branches of knowledge, even while every concrete peculiarity of each separate moment is comprehended, analyzed and criticized with historical fidelity.[6]

It followed that Marxism was not just an integral worldview, but its theoretical conclusions must be fused with the revolutionary practice of the proletariat.

If Marxist theory was just as important as practice, then revolutionaries could not avoid questions of politics, ideology and the state since “theoretical vagueness and disarray can seriously impede a prompt and energetic approach to problems that then arise in the ideological field.”[7] Korsch was arguing for a new view of ideology (and philosophy) in contrast to the SPD. In general, the Second International did not value ideological struggle. They viewed ideology as false consciousness manipulated by the ruling class, which would vanish after the revolution. By contrast, Korsch maintained that ideology and philosophy must be treated as material realities just as important as political and economic struggles.

As he said: “Marx and Engels began their whole revolutionary activity by struggling against the reality of philosophy; and it will be shown that, although later they did radically alter their view of how philosophical ideology was related to other forms within ideology as a whole, they always treated ideologies – including philosophy – as concrete realities and not as empty fantasies.”[8] Korsch believed that Marxism must not be reduced to economic struggles and the working class must fight against rival ideologies and philosophies in order to revolutionize their consciousness.

This raised the question of how had Marxism changed from its original mission? Here, Korsch argued that Marxism itself must be understood historically. In one of his original insights, he applied historical materialism to the theory of historical materialism itself. He argued that Marxism does not stand still like a Platonic dream outside of history, but has its own history and development that he divided into three distinct periods. The first phase extends from the birth of Marxism in 1843 to the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848. During that period, Marxism was the theory and practice of proletarian revolution. The second period began after the defeat of the 1848 revolutions. Marx and Engels maintained scientific socialism as a comprehensive theory of social revolution, but they shifted from political action to scientific and theoretical analysis. During a period of relative political calm in the last part of the 19th century, the Second International, distorted and fragmented Marxism into separate spheres of knowledge. They changed Marx’s science of society into a series of mechanical and fatalistic laws with little practical application. The degeneration of Marxism affected not only revisionists like Eduard Bernstein, but their orthodox opponents such as Karl Kautsky, Georgi Plekhanov, and Jules Guesde.

According to Korsch, the revisionists wanted to ‘update’ Marxism and align it with the existing reformist practices of the trade unions and working class parties. The revisionists did this by gutting Marxism of its revolutionary philosophy of Hegelian dialectics. Korsch acknowledges that orthodox Marxists rejected revisionism, but in the “shape of pure theory. This theory was wholly abstract and had no practical consequences – it merely sought to reject the new reformist theories, in which the real character of the historical movement was then expressed as un-Marxist.”[9]

However, orthodox Marxism was completely unable to cope with the practical questions of revolutionary struggle such as the state and politics. Revisionism at the very least “possessed a theory of the relationship of the ‘working people’ to the state, although this theory was in no way a Marxist one.”[10] In the end, despite the fierce polemics between the orthodox Marxists and the revisionists, they ended up in the same place as witnessed by their support for the bourgeoisie in World War I: “It was the historical fate of the Marx-orthodoxy that its opponents, while repulsing the attacks of the ‘revisionists’ ultimately arrived, on all important issues, at the same standpoint as that taken by their adversaries.”[11]

The degeneration of Marxism coincided with the third period that marked its restoration as a theory of proletarian revolution. This renaissance of Marxism was represented by the names of Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. As part of the renaissance of Marxism inaugurated by the Bolshevik Revolution, Korsch believed that philosophy, the state and ideology needed to be restored to their proper place because they were now practical questions in the struggle for power. Korsch praised Lenin’s State and Revolution as “an early indication that the internal connection of theory and practice within revolutionary Marxism had been consciously re-established.”[12]

Despite the title, Marxism and Philosophy was very much a work of anti-philosophy. One: Korsch argued that Hegel represented the highest point of bourgeois philosophy, but by turning Hegel on his head, Marx had surpassed him. Secondly, Marxism as a total system rejected all aspects of bourgeois society, including its philosophy. As evidenced by the closing lines of Marxism and Philosophy, Korsch believed that the proletarian revolution would be the realization of Hegelian philosophy. Lastly, in line with Marx’s “Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach,” Korsch argued that Marxism with its focus on revolutionary action, not speculation and reflection was the negation of philosophy.

Needless to say, Korsch’s contention that Marxism is an anti-philosophy remains contested. Helena Sheehan states in her work, Marxism and the Philosophy of Science 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.”[13] If we follow Sheehan, then Marxism is not an anti-philosophy, but is concerned with the same problems as philosophy, such as knowledge, the tools of reason and existence. If Marxism is the theory and practice of social revolution, as Korsch claimed, then it needs to provide a critical analysis of the world and the possibilities for successful political action derived from materialist dialectics. As Sheehan says: “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.”[14]

Korsch himself was inconsistent on the philosophical status of Marxism. In Marxism and Philosophy, he referred at times to the “independent essence of Marxist philosophy” and to “the revolutionary materialistic dialectic, which is the philosophy of the working class.”[15] Indeed, Korsch’s arguments affirming the philosophical character of Marxism are actually in line with his Leninism. After all, it was Lenin who said, “without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.”[16] For Marx and Lenin, in order for the working class to change the world, it was necessary to know the conditions that made revolution possible by using the tools of philosophy.

The response

Shortly after the publication of Marxism and Philosophy, Korsch was criticized by major figures of both social democracy (Kautsky) and the Communist International (Gregory Zinoviev). Kautsky’s criticism basically restated the orthodox Marxist position and condemned Bolshevism. While Kautsky was largely unfair, he did make a substantive criticism of Korsch, whom he claimed limited Marxism to a philosophy of action:

For Korsch, Marxism is nothing but a theory of social revolution. In reality, one of the most outstanding characteristics of Marxism is the conviction that the social revolution is only possible under certain circumstances, and this only in certain times and countries. The communist sect to which Korsch belongs has quite forgotten this. For them, the social revolution is always possible, everywhere, under all circumstances.[17]

Indeed, there is a certain voluntaristic strain in Korsch’s work that sees the final collapse of capitalism at hand and the working class ready to man the barricades. Despite Kautsky’s right-wing critique of Marxism and Philosophy, he was correct to point out that Korsch failed to include an adequate grounding of Marxism as a science of society or to identify the objective conditions needed for revolution.

Criticism from the Comintern was far less substantive. Zinoviev condemned both Korsch and Lukács at the Fifth Congress in 1924 as idealists, revisionists and ultra-leftists. Zinoviev’s demagogic attacks on Korsch were joined by other orthodox Communists. While Lukács eventually made his peace with the Comintern, Korsch refused to remain silent and continued to defend the theses of Marxism and Philosophy.

However, a new Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy was taking hold in the Comintern and the KPD that didn’t leave room for “heretics” such as Korsch. Korsch found himself allied with “ultra-leftists” like Amadeo Bordiga and was expelled from the KPD in 1926. He remained politically active in small left Communist groups until leaving Germany after Hitler came to power.


Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy was released almost simultaneously with Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness in 1923. There was a great deal of convergence between Lukács and Korsch. Both were revolutionaries inspired by the Russian Revolution and reached similar conclusions independently about recovering the Hegelian heritage of Marxism that was buried by the Second International. They also saw the importance of Marxism as an integral worldview of theory and practice. Naturally, Zinoviev took aim at the two as a common threat.

Korsch himself recognized his basic agreement with Lukács, writing in an afterward to Marxism and Philosophy: “So far as I have been able to establish, I am happily in fundamental agreement with the themes of the author (Lukács), which relate in many ways to the question raised in this work, if based on a broader philosophical foundation. In so far as there are still differences of opinion between us on particular issues of substance and method, I reserve a more comprehensive position for a later discussion.”[18]

Both Korsch and Lukács believed that totality is a key concept of Marxism. For Lukács, totality is a central organizing principle of Marxism:

It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois thought, but the point of view of totality. The category of totality… is the essence of the method which Marx took over from Hegel and brilliantly transformed into the foundations of a wholly new science.[19]

In Marxism and Philosophy, Korsch wrote on totality in terms that Lukács would not have had trouble agreeing with:

There is one unified historical process of historical development in which an ‘autonomous’ proletarian class movement emerges from the revolutionary movement of the third estate, and the new materialist theory of Marxism ‘autonomously’ confronts bourgeois idealist philosophy. All these processes affect each other reciprocally. The emergence of Marxist theory is, in Hegelian-Marxist terms, only the ‘other side’ of the emergence of the real proletarian movement; it is both sides together that comprise the concrete totality of the historical process.[20]

In his 1923 work, “The Marxist Dialectic,” Korsch argues that knowledge of the totality allows Marxists to see the seeds for future revolutionary transformation:

The immense significance of Marx’s theoretical achievement for the practice of proletarian class struggle is that he concisely fused together for the first time the total content of those new viewpoints transgressing bourgeois horizons, and that he also formally conceptualized them into a solid unity, into the living totality of a scientific system. These new ideas arose by necessity in the consciousness of the proletarian class from its social conditions. Karl Marx did not create the proletarian class movement (as some bourgeois devil-worshippers imagine in all seriousness). Nor did he create proletarian class consciousness. Rather, he created the theoretical-scientific expression adequate to the new content of consciousness of the proletarian class, and thereby at the same time elevated this proletarian class consciousness to a higher level of its being.[21]

When Marxism changed socialism into a science (with knowledge of the historical totality), it became the “’theoretical expression” of working class and allowed “that class which is called to action, and is today suppressed, to a consciousness of the conditions and nature of its own action.”[22] Knowledge of totality needed to be combined with the practice of the working class, or theory and practice needed to be merged.

However, Korsch and Lukács diverged on significant points. For one, Korsch did not adopt Lukács’ understanding of the proletariat as the identical subject-object of history. Despite Korsch’s inconsistency on the status of Marxism as a philosophy, he had a clearer grasp of its dialectical methodology than Lukács. In “What is Orthodox Marxism” the opening of chapter of History and Class Consciousness, Lukács stated:

Let us assume for the sake of argument that recent research had disproved once and for all every one of Marx’s individual theses. Even if this were to be proved, every serious ‘orthodox’ Marxist would still be able to accept all such modern findings without reservation and hence dismiss all of Marx’s theses in toto-without having to renounce his orthodoxy for a single moment. Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method.[23]

Lukács argument shows a remarkable indifference to whether a method should be adopted that only gives the wrong answers. Korsch argues against Lukács’ formalistic approach by stating that the dialectic cannot be divorced from the content it studies. It is the concrete application of the dialectic that counts:

From the outset, Marx and Engels had to clarify their position only with regard to the first, Hegelian method…Their only problem was how to change the Hegelian dialectic from a method proper to a superficially idealist, but secretly materialist conception of the world, into the guiding principle of an explicitly materialist view of history and society. Hegel had already taught that a philosophico-scientific method was not a mere form of thought which could be applied indiscriminately to any content. It was rather ‘the structure of the whole presented in its pure essence’. Marx made the same point in an early writing: ‘Form has no value if it is not the form of its content.'[24]

Lastly, Lukács possesses a more coherent view of both ideology and the revolutionary party than Korsch. The key to Lukács’ understanding of ideology was his theory of reification (prefiguring Marx’s theory of alienation). Lukács defines reification as “a relation between people [that] takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity’, an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.”[25] Thus, things are inverted and workers don’t see the social relations of capital and labor (between people); instead they see society as governed by the domination of commodities and their mysterious laws. Under conditions of capitalist reification, where commodities, profits, exchange and markets are hegemonic, they take on a life of their own and govern all aspects of society.

This produces uneven consciousness in the working class with advanced, intermediate and backward elements. This is a historical result of capitalist development:

For there are not merely national and “social” stages involved but there are also gradations within the class consciousness of workers in the same strata. The separation of economics from politics is the most revealing and also the most important instance of this. It appears that some sections of the proletariat have quite the right instincts as far as the economic struggle goes and can even raise them to the level of class consciousness….These gradations are, then, on the one hand, objective historical necessities, nuances in the objective possibilities of consciousness (such as the relative cohesiveness of politics and economics in comparison to cultural questions). On the other hand, where consciousness already exists as an objective possibility, they indicate degrees of distance between the psychological class consciousness and the adequate understanding of the total situation. These gradations, however, can no longer be referred back to socioeconomic causes. The objective theory of class consciousness is the theory of its objective possibility.[26]

In order for the proletariat to overcome reification and uneven consciousness, Lukács argues that a revolutionary party must act as a mediator by drawing together the advanced sections of the working class (who have differing and uneven levels of consciousness), forge a united opposition to its opponents, draw together and make conscious the history of its struggle, and formulate the strategy and tactics that will serve its long-term interests. The party is not only a teacher, but must dialectically play the role of pupil by listening to and learning from the masses. There is no sense of the uneven consciousness of the working class in Korsch. Rather, the proletariat is presented as a largely abstract group. Lukács had a far clearer grasp of the material and ideological reality of the working class and the need for a party to overcome these difficulties than Korsch.

Lenin and the retreat from Hegel

In the 1930s, after his expulsion from the KPD, Korsch still defended the central arguments of Marxism and Philosophy against his social democratic and Communist critics with the important exception that he was now anti-Leninist. Korsch now believed that Lenin did not represent a break with the Second International; rather there was theoretical affinity between the two:

the real division on all major and decisive questions is between the old Marxist orthodoxy of Kautsky allied to the new Russian or ‘Leninist’ orthodoxy on the one side, and all critical and progressive theoretical tendencies in the proletarian movement today on the other side.[27]

Lenin had only attacked the social democrats in the heat of battle, but had not abandoned their fundamental premises. For Korsch, Lenin was mainly a practical politician, unconcerned with questions of materialism or dialectics.

Secondly, there was a Jacobin and authoritarian tendency in Lenin who “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.”[28] Leninism was an example of how the Marxist theory of proletarian revolution still bore the imprint of Jacobinism. Lenin’s overriding pragmatism meant he could justify every twist and turn of the Bolsheviks and make “permanent virtue out of a temporary necessity.”[29] In the USSR, Lenin’s ideology was used by the party to legitimize the development of capitalism as “building socialism.” For Korsch, Leninism was, at the end of the day, a bourgeois and anti-working class ideology that the proletariat needed to break with.

The majority of Korsch’s political views on Lenin are simplistic and easily refuted by serious scholarship, but his severe judgment of Lenin as a philosopher deserves more serious consideration. Is it true that Lenin shared the basic philosophical premises of the Second International? Central to Korsch’s argument is his negative appraisal of Lenin’s 1908 work, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Here, Lenin does display a certain vulgar materialism, but even this needs to be qualified. Lenin defends Engels’ conclusions on eighteenth-century materialism that it was mechanical and anti-dialectical. At another point, Lenin states: “Marx and Engels laid the emphasis in their works rather on dialectical materialism than on dialectical materialism, and insisted on historical materialism rather than on historical materialism.”[30] Korsch could hardly have taken issue with these remarks.

Korsch barely refers to Lenin’s more developed philosophy in the Philosophical Notebooks. Lenin wrote these notebooks during World War I and engaged heavily with Hegel’s work. While Lenin’s Notebooks were not published until 1932, they marked the true beginning of Hegelian Marxism and Philosophical Bolshevism. Lenin’s study of Hegel enabled him to clear away the cobwebs of outmoded thinking and prepare himself for the tasks of proletarian revolution. As Michael Löwy observed: “The study of Hegelian logic was the instrument by means of which Lenin cleared the theoretical road leading to the Finland Station in Petrograd. In March-April 1917, freed from the obstacle represented by pre-dialectical Marxism, Lenin could, under pressure of events . . . , [apply] himself to studying the problem [of revolution] from a practical and, concrete and realistic angle . . .”[31] As we have already mentioned, Lenin’s statements on Hegel in On the Significance of Militant Materialism were known and quoted approvingly by Korsch. Lenin’s recovery of Hegel and the forging of a truly Philosophical Bolshevism was taken up by not simply Korsch, Lukács and Gramsci, but Trotsky and Bukharin in their own philosophical notebooks. Indeed, it was Trotsky who remarked that “Bolshevizing” the Communist parties required “the whole of Hegel and the wisdom of books, and the meaning of all philosophy …”[32]

In Lenin and Philosophy (1938), Korsch does mention Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks, but largely focuses on Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Part of the reason for Korsch’s neglect of Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks is that he had moved away from a revolutionary appreciation of Hegel. Now Hegel is seen more for his bourgeois standpoint than his revolutionary method. Logically, it followed that Lenin’s embrace of Hegel was a sign of Jacobinism and that the Russians were following the path of the French Revolution and capitalist development:

A belated revival of the whole of the formerly disowned idealistic dialectics of Hegel served to reconcile the acceptance by the Leninists of old bourgeois materialism with the formal demands of an apparently antibourgeois and proletarian revolutionary tendency …. Thus the whole circle not only of bourgeois materialistic thought but of all bourgeois philosophical thought from Holbach to Hegel was actually repeated by the Russian dominated phase of the Marxist movement, which passed from the adoption of 18th century and Feuerbachian materialism by Plekhanov and Lenin in the pre-war period to Lenin’s appreciation of the “intelligent idealism” of Hegel and other bourgeois philosophers of the 19th century as against the “unintelligent materialism” of the earlier 18th-century philosophers.[33]

Indeed, Korsch himself had come to reject Hegel’s place in the philosophy of Marxism by the end of the 1930s. In his last major work, Karl Marx (1938), which is an exposition of Marxism, Korsch hardly discusses the dialectic. Korsch refers to Marx’s most Hegelian works, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (published in 1932), noting that they “anticipated all the critical and revolutionary conclusions which were later embodied in Capital.”[34] However the philosophical implication of the 1844 manuscripts, which were in line with Marxism and Philosophy, were largely ignored.

Hegel is valued by Korsch not so much for his dialectical philosophy, but his empirical knowledge of bourgeois society. According to Korsch, Hegel “took both the name and contents of his ‘civil society’ ready-made from the English and French social philosophers, politicians and economists. Behind Hegel, as Marx said, stood the ‘English and French of the 18th century’ with their new discoveries of the structure and movement of society who, in turn, reflected the real historical development which culminated in the Industrial Revolution in England after the middle of the eighteenth century and in the great French Revolution of 1789-1815.”[35]

Korsch’s materialist interpretation of Hegel bore similarities to Lukács, his old philosophical comrade-in-arms. In his Young Hegel, Lukács argued “during one crisis in [Hegel’s] life, at a time when he had become estranged from the ideals of the great contemporary revolution, he found his way out of the labyrinth and back to dialectics with the aid of a compass provided by political economy and in particular the economic condition of England.”[36] Despite their apparent convergence on Hegel and civil society, Korsch and Lukács remained quite divided. Lukács still maintained that the philosophy of Marxism was dialectical materialism, while Korsch’s Karl Marx had a positivistic bias denying that Marxism requires a philosophical basis: “Marx’s materialist science, being a strictly empirical investigation into definite historical forms of society, does not need a philosophical support.”[37] Korsch had come full circle from the champion of Hegelian Marxism to rejecting Hegel for a Marxist empiricism.


After his emigration to the United States in 1936, Korsch largely retreated from political involvement. He spent his time teaching at Tulane University and working at the International Institute for Social Research in New York City. He did maintain a friendly correspondence with the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht and wrote occasional articles on Marxism. The years of isolation took their toll and he appeared to give up on Marxism as a philosophy of revolution. In 1950, Korsch wrote that “all attempts to restore the Marxist doctrine as a whole and in its original function as a theory of the working-class social revolution are reactionary utopias.”[38] Despite this pessimism, this was not Korsch’s final break with Marxism. He saw glimmers of hope in national liberation struggles and planned to write an introduction to an anthology of Mao Zedong’s writings for their creative application of Marxism. It was not to be. In 1956, Korsch learned that he was fatally ill and five years later, he died in Belmont, Massachusetts on October 21, 1961.

At his best, Korsch was a (Anti)Philosophical Bolshevik, who believed that the restoration of Marxism meant recovering its Hegelian roots so it could act as the philosophy of the working class. In our time, when Marxism has been debased both theoretically and practically as a guide to socialist revolution, we should not hesitate to continue Korsch’s mission.


[1] Quoted in Patrick Goode, Karl Korsch: A Study in Western Marxism (New York: Macmillan Press, 1979), 26.

[2] Quoted in Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970), 10.

[3] Karl Korsch, “A Non-Dogmatic Approach to Marxism,” in Karl Korsch: Revolutionary Theory, ed. Douglas Kellner (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977), 277.

[4] Korsch 1970, 43.

[5] Ibid. 44.

[6] Ibid. 57.

[7] Ibid. 71.

[8] Ibid. 72.

[9] Ibid. 65.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Karl Korsch, Karl Marx (Brill: Boston, 2016), 122-123.

[12] Korsch 1970, 68.

[13] Helena Sheehan, Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History (Atlantic: Humanities Press, 1985), 261.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Korsch 1970, 35 and 97.

[16] Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 5, “What is to be Done? Burning Questions for Our Movement,” (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 369. (henceforth LCW)

[17] Quoted in David Renton, Dissident Marxism: Past Voices for Present Times (New York: Zed Books, 2004), 78.

[18] Quoted in Korsch 1970, 15.

[19] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971), 27.

[20] Korsch 1970, 45.

[21] “The Marxist Dialectic” in Kellner 1977, 135-136.

[22] Ibid. 136; Martin Jay, Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 135-137.

[23] Lukács 1971, 1.

[24] Korsch 1970, 90-91.

[25] Lukács 1971, 83.

[26] Ibid. 78-9.

[27] Korsch 1970, 101.

[28] Ibid. 114.

[29] Korsch 1970, 114.

[30] LCW, vol. 14, “Materialism and Empirio-criticism,” 329. I am also drawing on the arguments in Goode 1979, 126-8.

[31] Michael Löwy, On Changing the World: Essays in Political Philosophy, From Karl Marx to Walter Benjamin (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1993), 88.

[32] Leon Trotsky, The Lessons of October (London: Union Books, 1993), 67.

[33] Karl Korsch, “Lenin’s Philosophy,” in Anton Pannekoek, Lenin as Philosopher (London: Merlin, 1975 ), 114-15. See also the discussion in Kevin Anderson, Lenin, Hegel and Western Marxism: A Critical Study (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 178-180.

[34] Korsch 2016, 76-77.

[35] Ibid. 9-10.

[36] Georg Lukács, Young Hegel: Studies in the Relations between Dialectics and Economics (London: Merlin Books, 1975), xxvii.

[37] Korsch 2016, 122.

[38] “Ten Theses on Marxism Today” in Kellner 1977, 281.

Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

Ahmed Shawki: Perspectives for the Left - Socialism 2013 Tsar To Lenin Tariq Ali & Oliver Stone "Untold History of the US" (May, 2013) Marx's Early Writings: Once More Unto the Breach: Video 2 of 2 Marx's Early Writings: Once More Unto the Breach: Video 1 of 2 Marxism & the Legacy of Subaltern Studies Tariq Ali: the crisis in Syria - questions and answers Scotland: Tariq Ali on independence;Dismantling the British State: Strategy, Tactics and Ideology Luxemburg, Lenin, Levi: Rethinking revolutionary history The power of the people Anti Stalin Left . How should socialists organise? Paul Le Blanc, Gilbert Achcar discuss Leninism, left unity, revolutionary parties Is religion good or evil? Michael Lebowitz: Primitive accumulation versus contested reproduction Adam Hanieh: A strategic overview of the struggles in the Middle East Relevance of Marxism Today The future of the Bolivarian Revolution after Hugo Chavez Enter the video embed code here. Remember to change the size to 310 x 250 in the embed code.