Friday, November 21, 2014

Notes on Korsch on Non-Dogmatic Marxism.

Karl Korsch is an appealing figure for any number of reasons. For me, not least important is that he was perhaps the German Marxist with the most consistently positive view of Georges Sorel. A reference to Korsch’s “A Non-Dogmatic Approach to Marxism,” in which Korsch reproduces a chunk of Sorel’s writing from 1902, caught my eye earlier today. I wanted to set down a few points about it.

This is a peculiar text. It appeared in Macdonald’s Politics in 1946 (which means that the original is available here). It consists of an introduction, and four older documents. The first and fourth are by Korsch himself, dated 1931. That was the date of a previous attempt on the part of Korsch and others, he tells us, to de-dogmatize Marxism. The central move seems to me to link Marxism explicitly with activist struggle—to insist, indeed, that Marxist thought can take place only within and through struggle. Marxism, Korsch suggests, has therefore never actually been discussed in America. In any case, he states his own goal thus:

“it is here proposed to revindicate the critical, pragmatic, and activistic element...has never been entirely eliminated from the social theory of Marx and which during the few short phases of its predominance has made that theory a most efficient weapon of the proletarian class struggle” (151)

I won’t here offer comment on Korsch’s own thinking (documents one and four), or on the fragment from a young Lenin (document three). Document two, on the other hand, is labeled as a list of six theses on the Materialistic Conception of History, “Submitted to the 1902 Convention of the Societé Francaise de Philosophie.” This text, Korsch writes, was read and under consideration in 1931. For Korsch, what is valuable is Sorel’s attempt to extract principles for the scientific practice of history from historical materialism. Korsch calls Sorel “one of the most scientific and most pragmatically minded interpreters of Marxism in modern times,” which is not a description with which many people would agree. In any case, for Korsch, Sorel was attempting to make historical materialism generative.  

Why did Korsch pick this particular text? Probably those better versed in Korsch will be the ones to answer. But: this is one of relatively few bulleted lists in Sorel’s writing, and so is apparently clear. Also—and I suspect this has something to do with it—the original publication in the Bulletin de la société française de la philosophie would likely have been available in German universities. Because this is not exactly a communication to a convention, but rather an intervention—although apparently one read out loud—in something like a regular seminar. Sorel was presenting to the Société, whose meetings were not open to the public and mostly, although not exclusively, involved professional philosophers. According to the record (which is hardly a transcription, never mind of course a recording), Sorel had made a short introductory presentation, been challenged on several points by Élie Halévy, and then read several pages of a mémoire to the group, after which the discussion continued.

This particular list, in fact, is the concluding section of Sorel’s remarks in which he presents a set of guidelines that one might extract from the living philosophy of historical materialism for the use of philosophers. Indeed the opposition between philosophers and historians is a significant one for Sorel who was, together with many of his most important interlocutors, able to be now one and now the other. In any case, Sorel says that these points are not so original when cut off from the center of historical materialism as a philosophy, which is to be found in bringing together theory and practice.

Given Korsch’s tendencies, I wonder what he made not only of Halévy’s constant pressure during the discussion on Sorel to clarify the meaning of these terms—theory and practice. I wonder, further, what he made of the disagreement, first between Sorel and Halévy, and then between Halévy and Frederic Rauh, over the status of Capital is Marx’s work. Was Marx basically a man of action, who was always writing from a particular angle, always against someone, always polemicing—or, as Halévy wrote, does Marx, “by his methods of documentation, of work, of exposition...demand to be treated as a systematic philosopher much more than as a man of action” (116 Bul 1902)? More, what about Rauh’s rather wonderful capacity to find in Marxism a theory of moral action (not, perhaps, so different from his own), according to which “like science, morality is relative to a certain time, expresses a certain historical moment, the state of mind of a class” (120 Bul 1902)? These are fireworks!

In any case, it seems to me that Korsch managed to pull out among the driest and least convincingly didactic blocks of texts from what was, in fact, a quite vigorously argued dialogue. Perhaps this was a provocation?

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