The following is a nearly context-less section from Marxist commentator Karl Korsch — rewritten from his seminal 1923 paper: On The Question Concerning Marxism and Philosophy
Korsch’s writing may be unclear at time, so if this reblog doesn’t do it for you — maybe you should just read some primary Marx.
…There are three reasons why we can speak about [Marx’s] surpassal of the philosophical standpoint.
First, Marx’s theoretical standpoint here is not just partially opposed to the consequences of all existing German philosophy, but is in total opposition to its premisses; (for both Marx and Engels this philosophy was always more than sufficiently represented by Hegel).
Second, Marx is opposed not just to philosophy, which is only the head or ideal elaboration of the existing world, bt to this world as a totality.
Third, and most importantly, this opposition is not just theoretical but is also practical and active. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, our task is to change it”, announces the last of the Theses on Feuerbach.
Nevertheless, this general surpassal of the purely philosophical standpoint still incorporates a philosophical character.
If you are brave, continue reading this whole post and you may learn something about Marx and Marxism. Though, I highly suggest actually reading Marx instead of secondary sources on MARP.
This becomes clear, once one realizes how little this new proletarian science differs from previous philosophy in its theoretical character, even though Marx substitutes it for bourgeois idealis philosophy as a system radically distinct in its orientation and aims. German idealism had constantly tended, even on the theoretical level, to be more than just a theory or philosophy.
This tendency was typical of Hegel’s predecessors — Kant, Schelling and especially Fichte. Although Hegel himself to all appearances reversed it, he too in fact allotted philosophy a task that went beyond the realm of theory and became in a certain sense practical. This task was not of course to change the world, as it was for Marx, but rather to reconcile Reason as a self-conscious Spirit with Reason as an actual Reality, by means of concepts and comprehension [See the Preface to the Philosophy of Right p. 12].
German idealism from Kant to Hegel did not cease to be philosophical when it affirmed this universal role (which is anyway what is colloquially thought to be the essence of ANY philosophy). Similarly it is incorrect to say that Marx’s materialist theory is no longer philosophical merely because it has an aim that is not simply theoretical but is also a practical and revolutionary goal.
On the contrary, the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels is by its very nature a philosophy through and through, as formulated in the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach and in other published and unpublished writings of the period [enormous footnote on Marx and Engels vs Hegel not reproduced].
[Marxism] is a revolutionary philosophy whose task is to participate in the revolutionary struggles waged in all spheres of society against the whole of the existing order, by fighting in one specific area — philosophy.
Eventually, [Marxism] aims at the concrete abolition of philosophy as part of the abolition of bourgeois social reality as a whole, of which it is an ideal component. In Marx’s words: “Philosophy cannot be abolished without being realized.”
Thus, just when Marx and Engels were progressing from Hegel’s dialectical idealism to dialectical materialism, it is clear that the abolition of philosophy did not mean for them its simple rejection.
Even when their later positions are under consideration, it is essential to take it as a constant starting point that Marx and Engels were Dialecticians before they were Materialists. The sense of their Materialism is distorted in a disastrous and irreparable manner if one forgets that Marxist materialism was dialectical from the very beginning.
It always remained a historical and dialectical materialism, in contrast to Feuerbach’s abstract-scientific materialism and all other abstract materialisms, whether earlier or later, bourgeois or vulgar-marxist.
In other words, it was a materialism whose theory comprehended the totality of society and history, and whose practice overthrew it. It was therefore possible for philosophy to become a less central component of the socio-historical process for Marx and Engels, in the course of their development of materialism, than it had seemed at the start; this did in fact occur. But no really dialectical materialist conception of history (certainly not that of Marx and Engels) should cease to regard philosophical ideology, or ideology in general, as a material component of general socio-historical reality — that is, a real part which had to be grasped in materialist theory and overthrown by materialist practice.
In his Theses on Feuerbach Marx contrast his new materialism not only to philosophical idealism, but just as forcefully to every existing materialism. Similarly, in all their later writings, Marx and Engels emphasized the contrast between their dialectical materialism and the normal, abstract and undialectical version of materialism.
They were especially conscious that this contrast was of great importance for any theoretical interpretation of so-called mental or ideological realities, and their treatment in practice. Discussing mental representations in general, and the method necessary for a concrete and critical history of religion in particular, Marx states: “It is in fact much easier to uncover the earthly kernel within nebulous religious ideas, through analysis, than it is to do the opposite, to see how these heavenly forms develop out of actual concrete relations. The latter is the only materialist and therefore scientific method [huge footnote not reproduced].”
A theoretical method which was content in good Feuerbachian fashion to reduce all ideological representations to their material and earthly kernel would be abstract and undialectical, A revolutionary practice confined to direction action against the terrestrial kernel of nebulous religious ideas, and unconcerned with overthrowing and superseding these ideologies themselves, would be no less so.
When vulgar-marxism adopts this abstract and negative attitude to the reality of ideologies, it makes exactly the same mistake as those proletarian theoreticians, past and present, who use the Marxist thesis of the economic determination of legal relations, state forms and political action, to argue that the proletariat can and should confine itself to direct economic action alone [large footnote omitted].
It is well known that Marx strongly attacked tendencies of this kind in his polemics against Proudhon and others. In different phases of life, wherever he came across views like this, which still survive in contemporary syndicalism, Marx always emphasized that this “transcendental underestimation” of the State and political action was completely unmaterialist. It was therefore theoretically inadequate and practically dangerous [Cf. in particular the last pages of the Poverty of Philosophy].
This dialectical conception of the relationship of economics to politics became such an unalterable part of Marxist theory that even the vulgar-marxists of the Second International were unable to deny that the problem of the revolutionary transition existed, at least in theory, although they ignored the problem in practice.
No orthodox Marxist could even in principle have claimed that a theoretical and practical concern with politics was unnecessary for Marxism. This was left to the syndicalists, some of whom invoke Marx, but none of whom have ever claimed to be orthodox Marxists. However, many good Marxists did adopt a theoretical and practical position on the reality of ideology which was identical to that of the syndicalists.
These materialists are with Marx in condemning the syndicalist refusal of political action and in declaring that the social movement must include the political movement. They often argue against anarchists that even after the victorious proletarian revolution, and in spite of all the changes undergone by the bourgeois State, politics will long continue to be a reality.
Yet these very people fall straight into the anarcho-syndicalist “transcendental underestimation” of ideology when they are told that intellectual struggle in the ideological field cannot be replaced or eliminated by the social movement of the proletariat alone, or by its social and political movements combined.
Even today most Marxist theoreticians conceive of the efficacy of so-called intellectual phenomena in a purely negative, abstract, and undialectical sense, when they should analyze this domain of social reality with the materialist and scientific method moulded by Marx and Engels.
Intellectual life should be conceived in union with social and political life, and social being and becoming (in the widest sense, as economics, politics, or law) should be studied in union with social consciousness in its many different manifestations, as a real yet also ideal (or “ideological”) component of the historical process in general.
Instead, all consciousness is approached with totally abstract and basically metaphysical dualism, and declared to be a reflection of the one really concrete and material developmental process, on which it is completely dependent (even if relativel independent, still dependent in the last instance).
Given this situation, any theoretical attempt to restore what Marx regarded as the only scientific, dialectical materialist conception and treatment of ideological realities, inevitably encounters even greater theoretical obstacles than an attempt to restore the correct Marxist theory of the State.
The distortion of Marxism by the epigones in the question of the State and Politics merely consisted in the fact that the most prominent theoreticians of the Second International never dealt concretely enough with the most vital political problems of the revolutionary transition.
However, they at least agreed in abstract, and emphasized strongly in their long struggles and anarchists and syndicalists that, for materialism, not only the economic structure of society, which underlay all other socio-historical phenomena, but also the juridical and political superstructure of Law and the State were realities.
Consequently, they could not be ignored or dismissed in an anarcho-syndicalist fashion: they had to be overthrown in reality by a political revolution.
In spite of this, many vulgar-marxists to this day have never, even in theory, admitted that intellectual life and forms of social consciousness are comparable realities.
Quoting certain statements by Marx and especially Engels they simply explain away the intellectual (ideological) structures of society as a mere pseudo-reality which only exists in the minds of ideologues — as error, imagination and illusion, devoid of a genuine object [Later in life Engels did once regrettably say of such ‘realms of ideology that float still higher in the air’ as religion of philosophy, that they contained a pre-historic element of ‘primitive stupidity’ (letter to conrad schmidt, 27 oct 1890). In Theories on Surplus Value Marx also talks specifically of philosophy in a similar, apparently, quite negative tone.]
At any rate, this is supposed to be true for all the so-called “higher” ideologies. For this conception, political and legal representatives may have an ideological and unreal character, but they are at least related to something real — the institutions of Law and the State, which comprise the superstructure of the society in question.
On the other hand, the “higher” ideological representations (men’s religions, aesthetic and philosophical conceptions) correspond to no real object. This can be formulated concisely, with only a slight caricature, by saying that for vulgar-marxism there are three degrees of reality: (1) the economy, which in the last instance is the only objective and non-ideological reality; (2) Law and the State, which are already somewhat less real because clad in ideology, and (3) pure ideology which is objectless and totally unreal (“total rubbish”).
To restore a genuine dialectially materialist conception of intellectual reality, it is first necessary to make a few mainly terminological points.
The key problem to settle here is how in general to approach the relationship of consciousness to its object. Terminologically, it must be said that it never occurred to Marx and Engels how to describe social consciousness and intellectual life merely as ideology. Ideology is only a false consciousness, in particular one that mistakenly attributes an autonomous character to a partial phenomena of social life.
Legal and political representations which conceive Law and the State to be independent forces above society are cases in point [Cf. in particular Engels’ remarks on the State in Ludwig Feuerbach].
In the passive where Marx is most precise about his terminology, he says explicitly that within the complex of material relations that Hegel called civil society, the social relations of production — the economic structure of society — forms the real foundation on which arise juridical and political superstructures and to which determinate forms of social consciousness correspond.
In particular, these forms of social consciousness, which are no less real than Law and the State, include commodity fetishism, the concept of value, and other economic representations derived from them. Marx and Engels analyzed these in their critique of political economy.
What is strikingly characteristic of their treatment is that they never refer to this basic economic ideology of bourgeois society as an ideology. In their terminology only the legal, political, religious, aesthetic, or philosophical forms of consciousness are ideological. Even these need not all be so in all situations, but become so only under specific conditions which have already been stated.
The special position now allotted to forms of economic consciousness marks the new conception of philosophy which distinguishes the fully matured dialectical materialism of the later period from its undeveloped earlier version. The theoretical and practical criticisms of philosophy is henceforward relegated to the second, third, fourth, or even last but one place in the critique of society.
The “Critical Philosophy” which the Marx of the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbrücher saw as his essential task became a more radical critique of society, which went to the roots of it through a critique of political economy [This is how Marx defines the word “radical” in his Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, On Religion p. 50].
Marx once said that a critic could “start from any form of philosophical and practical consciousness and develop from the specific forms of existent reality, its true reality and final end.”
But he later became aware that no juridical relations, constitutional structures or forms of social consciousness can be understood in themselves or even in Hegelian or post-Hegelian terms of the general development of the human Spirit.
For they are rooted in the materialist conditions of life that form the “material basis and skeleton” of social organizations as a whole.
A radical critique of bourgeois society can no longer start from “any” from of theoretical or practical consciousness whatever, as Marx thought as late as 1843 [huge footnote about why this is not a completely accurate account omitted]. It must start from the particular forms of consciousness which have found their scientific expression in the political economy is theoretically and practically the first priority.
Yet even this deeper and more radical version of Marx’s revolutionary critique of society never ceases to be a critique of the whole of bourgeois society and so of all its forms of consciousness.
It may seem as if Marx and Engels were later to criticize philosophy only in an occasional and haphazard manner. in fact, har from neglecting the subject, they actually developed their critique of it in a more profound and radical direction.
For proof, it is only necessary to re-establish the full revolutionary meaning of Marx’s critique of political economy, as against certain mistaken ideas about it which are common today. This may also serve to clarify both its place in the whole system of Marx’s critique of society, and its relation to his critique of ideologies like philosophy.
It is generally accepted that the critique of political economy — the most theoretical and practical component of the Marxist theory of society — includes not only a critique of the material relations of production of the capitalist epoch but also of its specific forms of social consciousness.
Even the pure and impartial “scientific science” of vulgar-marxism acknowledges this. Hilferding admits that scientific knowledge of the economics laws of society is also a “scientific politics” in so far as it shows “the determinant factors which define the will of the classes in this society”.
Despite this relation of economics to politics, however, in the totally abstract and undialectical conception of vulgar-marxism, the “critique of political economy” has a purely theoretical role as a “science”. Its function is to criticize the errors of bourgeois economics, classical or vulgar.
By contrast, a proletarian political party uses the results of critical and scientific investigation for its practical ends — ultimately the overthrow of the real economic structure of capitalist society and of its relation of production. (On occasion, the results of this Marxism can also be used against the proletarian party itself, as by Simkhovitch or Paul Lensch).
The major weakness of vulgar socialism is that, in Marxist terms, it clings quite “unscientifically” to a naïve realism — in which both so-called common sense, which is the “worst metaphysician”, and the normal positivist science of bourgeois society, draw a sharp line of division between consciousness an its object. Neither are aware that this distinction had ceased to be completely valid even for the transcendental perspective of critical philosophy, and has been completely superseded in dialectical philosophy.
At best, they imagine that something like this might be true of Hegel’s idealist dialectic. It is precisely this, they think, that constitutes the “mystification” which the dialectic, according to Marx, “suffered at Hegel’s hands”.
It follows therefore for them that this mystification must be completely eliminated from the rational form of the dialectic: the materialist dialectic of Marx.
In fact, we shall show, Marx and Engels were very far from having any such dualistic metaphysical conception of the relationship of consciousness to reality — not only in their first (philosophical) period, but also in their second (positive-scientific) period.
It never occurred to them that tey could be misunderstood in this dangerous way. Precisely because of this they sometimes id provide considerable pretexts for such misunderstandings in certain of their formulations (although these can easily be corrected by a hundred times as many other formulations).
For the coincidence of consciousness and reality characterizes every dialectic, included Marx’s dialectical materialism. Its consequence is that the material relations of production of the capitalist epoch are only what they are in combination with the forms in which they are reflected in the pre-scientific and bourgeois-scientific consciousness of the period; and they could not subsist in reality without these forms of consciousness.
Setting aside any philosophical considerations, it is therefore clear that without this coincidence of consciousness and reality, a critique of political economy could never have become the major component of a theory of social revolution.
Those Marxist theoreticians for whom Marxism was no longer essential a theory of social revolution could see no need for this dialectical conception of the coincidence of reality and consciousness: it was bound to appear to them as theoretically false and unscientific.
Quoted from Marxism and Philosophy by Karl Korsch, translated by Fred Halliday for NLB, 1970. Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 71—158921
Retyped by Hand for the MARP, himself, and you,