Those Who Fought For Our Communist Future Are Kindred Spirits-Honor 1920s German Left Communist Leader Karl Korsch-Interview with Hedda Korsch 1972-Memories of Karl Korsch
Every January, as readers of this blog are now, hopefully, familiar with the international communist movement honors the 3 Ls-Lenin, Luxemburg and Liebknecht, fallen leaders of the early 20th century communist movement who died in this month (and whose untimely deaths left a huge, irreplaceable gap in the international leadership of that time). January is thus a time for us to reflect on the roots of our movement and those who brought us along this far. In order to give a fuller measure of honor to our fallen forbears this January, and in future Januarys, this space will honor others who have contributed in some way to the struggle for our communist future. That future classless society, however, will be the true memorial to their sacrifices. This year we pay special honor to American Communist party founder and later Trotskyist leader, James P. Cannon, Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, and German Left Communist Karl Korsch.
Note on inclusion: As in other series on this site (“Labor’s Untold Story”, “Leaders Of The Bolshevik Revolution”, etc.) this year’s honorees do not exhaust the list of every possible communist worthy of the name. Nor, in fact, is the list limited to Bolshevik-style communists. There will be names included from other traditions (like anarchism, social democracy, the Diggers, Levellers, Jacobins, etc.) whose efforts contributed to the international struggle. Also, as was true of previous series this year’s efforts are no more than an introduction to these heroes of the class struggle. Future years will see more detailed information on each entry, particularly about many of the lesser known figures. Better yet, the reader can pick up the ball and run with it if he or she has more knowledge about the particular exploits of some communist militant, or to include a missing one.
Korsch, Karl (1886-1961)
Student of law, economics and philosophy at Munich, Berlin and Jena; a member of the “Free Student Movement"; studied in London 1912 - 1914, where he joined the Fabian Society and was strongly influenced by the syndicalist movement. In 1913 he married Hedda Gagliardi, with whom he collaborated in political and theoretical work throughout his life.
Korsch returned to Germany on the outbreak of war; he opposed the war but was conscripted and although he never carried a weapon, was twice decorated with the Iron Cross. He returned to lecture at Jena and in 1917 joined the Independent German Socialist Party (USPD), a left split from the social-chauvenist SPD, and when the USPD split, Korsch joined the Communist Party (KPD). Korsch participated actively in the revolutionary ferment of those years. During the height of the workers' uprising Korsch wrote hypothetical economic programs for a national economy based on workers' councils, emphasising workers' management of enterprises.
After the decline of the movement, Korsch began to emphasise the need for ideological struggle, and criticised the objectivism of the Marxism, which he saw as having been inherited uncritically from the leadership of the Second International.
At the time Korsch published his Marxism and Philosophy, Korsch was a member of the Thüringian Provincial Parliament for the KPD and became Minister for Justice, with the specific aim of facilitating a planned Communist uprising. He also held a Reichstag seat until 1928. His book came off the press almost simultaneously with Lukacs' History & Class Consciousness, by a fellow leaader of the Hungarian Communists, and sharing very similar themes.
Lukacs and Korsch were denounced as “professors" at the Fifth Congress of the Comintern, the Congress at which Stalin consolidated his power in the USSR. The “left" leadership of the German Party was replaced by Thälmann and his group under the banner of a “stabilisation." Korsch opposed this move and set up a faction publishing a magazine 'Left Resolutes', calling for a more combative line based on workers' councils. He also opposed the Soviet Union's New Economic Policy and argued that the Comintern had become an instrument of Russian foreign policy. In the crisis that followed, Korsch tried to hold a middle position between the Comintern and a move to form a new party, but he found himself isolated.
After 1928, he continued to write, and began a close friendship with Bertolt Brecht which remained until Brecht's death in 1956. He fled Germany on the night of the Reichstag fire in 1933. Korsch continued to write on Marxism including the origins of Marx's thought from Hegel. From 1936 until his death in 1961 he lived in the US, working at the Institute for Social Research and collaborating with Kurt Lewin.
Interview with Hedda Korsch 1972-Memories of Karl Korsch
Source: New Left Review, No. 76, 1972.
Interest in the theoretical work of Karl Korsch has grown as part of the wider expansion of interest in Marxist theory that has occurred in the past decade. Often assimilated to Lukács, with whom he has definite theoretical affinities, Korsch in many important ways differs from the Hungarian theorist. The most profound difference is the divergent political choice that the two made in the mid-1920s: Lukács remained in general loyal to the Comintern while Korsch broke with the Communist Party. This difference has also affected the later ‘rediscovery’ of these two theorists’ writings. Lukács continued to write and act as a prominent if controversial member of the Hungarian Party and expressed himself on a variety of theoretical and political issues until his death in 1971. Korsch’s later theoretical and political positions are less available and less direct and it is often hard to chart the course that his thinking took, especially after his emigration to the USA in 1936. This relative obscurity of his later work and his death in 1961 before the revived interest in Korsch have also meant that the intellectual and biographical background to his earlier work has been little explored.
The interview that we publish here with Dr Hedda Korsch illuminates the personal background to Korsch’s political and theoretical career, vividly evoking the German cultural context from which he came. She and Korsch were married before the First World War and joined the KPD in 1920. During the Weimar Republic she worked as a teacher in experimental schools and was employed in the Soviet Trade Mission in Berlin until the KPD leaders had her dismissed because of her relationship to Korsch. In the late 1920s and early 1930s she taught in the Karl-Marx-Schule in Berlin and left Germany in 1933 after the Nazi seizure of power. She now lives at Fort Lee, New Jersey, where the following interview was recorded in September 1972.
Karl Korsch was born in 1886 in Todstedt near Hamburg. What was his family background?
Korsch came from a medium middle-class background. His father had been through secondary school, had taken the Abitur, and possessed great intellectual ambition. He was very interested in philosophy and wrote an enormous unpublished volume on the development of Leibnitz’s theories of monads. He tried to put the whole of the cosmos into this philosophical system. It was his life’s work and purely theoretical. The family came from East Prussia, from a farming background. But he wanted something more urban and intellectual. Soon after he married Teresa Raikovsky, Korsch’s mother, they moved west to Todstedt. The father wanted to be closer to western culture, and he disliked the agricultural Junket environment in which they lived. Because although the Korsch family themselves had only a modest-sized farm, the big estates were all around them and his father had no interest in agriculture. His mother was totally unconcerned with intellectual matters and never read a thing. She was pretty and extremely temperamental: she cooked well when she was in a good humour burnt everything when she was angry. She was terribly untidy and if there is one reason why Karl was so tidy it was because of his mother. For example, during his last years at school he had a shed at the bottom of the garden where he worked. It was like a monk’s cell with no rug on the floor, just a table and a few hard chairs, and he told me that was the style of life he liked. All his pencils lay absolutely straight along the desk. This taste of his for complete order and clarity was greatly furthered by his mother’s lack of it.
The first 11 years in that small town on the Lüneburg Heath had a very strong influence on Karl. He could speak the dialect of North Germany and until the First World War he pronounced certain syllables such as the ‘s’ at the beginning of sprechen and stehen in a North German way. He got rid of these during the War because all the people in his regiment were from Meiningen and they could not understand what he was saying; in order to be understood by ordinary people — the soldiers — he changed his accent. But he was always full of stories, proverbs and expressions from that part of the world.
When he was 11 the family moved because there was no Gymnasium, no secondary school, and Karl showed such abilities that his parents thought he should have a better school. Meiningen was at that time still a Grand-Duchy and I do not know why they chose it. It may have been because it was one of the most liberal and enlightened principalities; in contrast to Prussia which was much more reactionary, Meiningen had carried out a number of reforms. It possessed a Hoftheater which was the first theatre in Germany to play realistically and not recite the classical roles in an oratorical fashion. When they moved there, Korsch’s father was employed by a bank; in the end he rose to be vice-president of it in Meiningen. The Korsch family lived in Obermassfeld, a village nearby, and Karl used to walk an hour each way when going to school. Some people have suggested that the Korsches were quite affluent, but although they were not poor there were six children (four daughters, two sons) and life was certainly extremely simple. They lived in this village because rents were cheaper than in town and they led a very parsimonious existence.
Korsch remained at school in Meiningen till he got his Abitur; most of his teachers were alcoholics, having acquired the habit of excessive drinking as students. He began to read philosophy by himself, in addition to the prescribed texts such as Schiller’s theoretical essays which were included in the German literature course. Karl’s father was working on his theory of monads and so he too encouraged Korsch to read philosophy. He told me later that it was at school that he shed all the idiocies of the typical German students of the time — endless drinking, corporate ceremonies, more beer and more Sunday excursions to the village pub. He said later that he got these out of his system in his last two years at school and never had the slightest inclination to repeat them again.
He then went to university but studied at a number of different institutions. What kinds of activity did he engage in when a student?
After taking his Abitur he first went to the university at Jena, where he completed his studies. He also spent one term in Munich because he thought that he should know something about art and Munich was the place to see paintings and listen to good music. After that he spent some time in Switzerland; there he learnt to speak French fluently. He also got a very strong taste of the international community there among students and political exiles. He met a lot of Russians who had fled from Tsarism although no famous ones.
He studied law because his father thought it was the only thing for an intelligent young man to study, and from the start he specialized in international law and jurisprudence. He passed all his exams well. He was also a member of the Freie Studentenschaft, a group of students opposed to the existing student Bunde. Korsch played a leading role in this movement and he travelled all over Germany working for it — which is how I first met him. There was no formal membership. Historically, it emerged in opposition to the Burschenschaften and the Studentenkorps which represented reactionary anti-semitism and militarism, with a lot of rituals with ranks and drinking, and membership lists. The Freie Studenten had no lists; they had open groups — sports groups, philosophy groups, mutual help groups. Anyone who wanted could attend. They came into existence around 1900 and they were in outspoken opposition to traditional German codes of behavior. I do not think that they had any more specific political content, except that they aspired towards an individualistic freedom. They had a slight tendency towards the left of centre, but they were certainly not socialist.
You mentioned his Philosophical interests at school.. how did these relate relate to the political positions he later adopted?
Although his father was a Leibnitzian he considered himself at this time to be a Kantian. He often gave talks on a variety of subjects and you could always see he was a Kantian. He insisted that anyone whom he considered intelligent enough should read not only the Critique of Pure Reason but Kant’s other works as well, especially the Metaphysic of Morals. He was also a convinced socialist by the time of his last year in school. He looked around to see if there were any socialists among his school-mates, but he did not find any. He read a lot.. I do not know when he first read Marx but I am inclined to think it was at school, because when he was a student he was an outspoken socialist — by conviction, although not a member of any organization. He never joined the SPD, although he had friends in the SPD especially in Jena. He wanted the Freie Studenten to meet workers and socialists and he arranged discussion evenings through a friend of his, Heidemann, whose father was an SPD member of the local parliament in Mecklenburg. The evenings were arranged like a dinner where men and women sit next to each other — in this case workers and students sat alternately.
Jena was a small town dominated by the University and the Zeiss works. It was a cultural centre. Schiller had lived there. Goethe’s Weimar was just around the corner and there was a sense of tradition. The Zeiss concern was run by Zeiss and Abbé who were by their own lights social reformers. Zeiss ran the technical optical side of the operation; Abbé organized the social side. From the beginning they had a highly developed system of profit-sharing and they wanted to turn the whole thing over to the workers — but the workers did not want it. The Zeiss works also paid half the costs of the university, while the state paid the other half: Zeiss built a Volkshaus with meeting and theatre rooms. Half the population of Jena were workers and half were students; and people used to say that every night one half of the population lectured to the other. It was the only town in Germany where an experiment in labour relations of this type existed at that time; and although Korsch was not related to the Zeiss works, he was influenced by the atmosphere and used to go to meetings at the Volkshaus. After the War he became extremely involved and was one of their political leaders.
He was also drawn into the Diederichs circle, in which nationalist unpolitical people formed a youth group. Diederichs had a publishing house in Jena and he produced the magazine Die Tat. He collected around him a great number of students with whom he celebrated traditional holidays, like the summer solstice, with bonfires and singing, and dancing in the streets, and men jumping over fires with their girl friends and so on. Most of the young people wore Schauben, medieval German coats without sleeves or collars; they were opposed to the uninteresting and confining male clothes of the 19th century, None of them ever has collars or cuffs; they were loose shirts open at the neck and photographs show the large cravat that Korsch used to wear. They dressed in colourful clothes, and Diederichs in a quite imaginative and cheerful way cultivated a mixture of old customs and revolt against bourgeois society. I do not think there was much sexual licence among these young people, but it was freer than the conventional behaviour of young men and women at that time.
After completing his studies at Jena, Korsch went to England where he stayed from 1912 to 1914. His early writings show he was interested in a variety of aspects of English life — the Fabians, Galsworthy, the suffragettes, the universities. What was he doing in England?
It is not true, as some people have written, that he was studying in England. He had a job that involved his working with Sir Ernest Shuster a professor of law. Shuster, Stephen Spender’s grandfather, had written a book on English civil law and procedure and he wanted someone not only to translate it but to edit it so that it was comprehensible to a German student of law. He himself had studied at Jena and Korsch had been recommended to him by the University. Korsch and Shuster got on so well and spent so much time talking that the book proceeded very slowly and it was near completion only by the spring of 1914. 1 was with him in England: 1 had wangled a job from my professor transcribing a Middle English manuscript in the British Museum. We observed many aspects of English life at that time, and joined the Fabian Society — the first organization to which he belonged. We regularly attended meetings of the ‘Fabian Nursery’ for younger members, and used to give reports, especially on German questions.
By the time Korsch and Shuster had finally finished the manuscript it was the summer of 1914 and Karl was summoned by his regiment in Meiningen. He was called to appear for extraordinary manoeuvres. He said to me that this meant war was imminent, because he had already completed the necessary manoeuvres. We discussed at length whether to return to Germany or not, because he had no desire to fight for the ‘fatherland’, but we decided to go because he said that he had even less of a desire to be imprisoned somewhere as an enemy alien without contact with any movement. He wanted to be with the masses, and they would be in the army.
How did he react to the experience of the war and to the more general political convulsions in Europe?
Korsch was in the same regiment in which he had been trained, and many of the officers were former school — mates from Meiningen. It was the 32nd Infantry Regiment and most of the men in it were country boys. When they left for the war there was no jubilation. The music and bouquets were officially provided; the bands had to play and ladies threw flowers. But the men were moody, sullen or weeping. Korsch’s father and I saw him off at the station — his mother did not want to see it. They were sent into Belgium and Korsch always said that he thought it was a criminal breach of international law to march through a neutral country. He condemned it wholeheartedly and so in the second week of the war he was demoted from lieutenant to sergeant. But he made himself useful in Belgium because he used to exert pressure on the officers and men not to loot and requisition food. He became a kind of unofficial quartermaster, making the soldiers pay for eggs and chickens.
Because he was against the war he never carried a rifle or a sabre. He used to point out that it made no difference, since you were just as safe with or without a weapon: the point was that you were safe neither way. He personally was not going to kill people, but he considered it his mission to bring as many men from his unit home alive as he could.
That was his war aim. He used to volunteer for patrols and was decorated several times — not for any particular action, just for surviving under all that fire. What we at home could never understand was why he was not courtmartialled, but he later said that there were two probable reasons for this. One was that he was useful — he went on patrols, wrote good reports, and gave the officers ideas about how to advance and retreat. The second reason was that everyone knew him from school; and they thought that Korsch had always been crazy, but was not a bad guy. If he had been in a strange regiment he would have been put before a military tribunal straight away. In 1917 there were strikes and unrest among the soldiers as casualities increased; he was re-promoted and ended up as a captain. They used W call his company ‘the red company’ because they were all for a revolution and for ending the war by not fighting any more. Later, when soldiers’ soviets were established, he was immediately elected; and because the authorities were afraid of them they were not demobbed until after many units, not till January 1919. The demobilization took place near Berlin, but because they were from Meiningen they had no contact with revolutionaries in Berlin and took no part in the Spartakist insurrection at that time. Korsch had been in despair for the last six months of the war.
One grenade had hit his company and the first platoon had been wiped out to the last man. Later he told me that he had fallen into paroxysms of crying and then had got drunk because it was more than he could take. Nearly all the people he had started out with in 1914 were dead and he was desperate because of the massacres. But when the ‘November Revolution’ came he revived and hoped that a better Germany could be built.
The period from the end of the war until his expulsion from the Communist Party in 1926 was the most politically active phase of his life. What did he do on his return from the war
When he came back he entered the USPD, which 1 had joined earlier when 1 heard that they had sent delegates to Zimmerwald and were for ending the war. He attended the USPD conference in 1920 when the party split and the majority opted for fusion with the Communists. Korsch went with the majority although he had great reservations about the 21 points that the Comintern had laid down. But it was the same as when we discussed his going back to Germany from London: he did not want to be a member of a small sect, but thought he should be where the masses were and he believed that the German workers were going Communist. His main reservation about the 21 points concerned the centralized discipline from Moscow, the degree of dependence on the Russian Party that they implied. In everything — as he had been with the students — he was in favour of decentralization, and he was by now very much convinced by the principle of workers’ soviets.
Although he went back to teaching in Jena immediately after the war and we lived in the building that housed the local KPD paper Die Neue Zeitung, he was also in Berlin for a time working on the Socialization Commission. The Commission was a bourgeois institution with social-democratic members. It was supposed to draw up practical plans for ‘socializing’ the German economy. The original 1919 government contained SPD and USPD members and they wanted to work out the organizational problems of a socialist economy and of the expected transition. Karl was not nearly as sceptical as so intelligent a person should have been. He was also an enthusiast and his writings on socialization reflected this for nearly a year. The Russian Revolution had a big influence on him and we all thought that it was the beginning of a new epoch.
From 1.921 onwards he was working on his major text Marxism and Philosophy. Did he at that time co-operate with Lukács whose History and Class Consciousness appeared in the same year?
He did not know about Lukács when he was working on Marxism and Philosophy. He heard about him only after the publication of his own volume. He said to me that another book had just come out which in many ways contained ideas similar to his own. Later when Korsch gave courses of lectures in Marxism in the 1920s and right up until February 1933 Lukács used to take part and attended pretty regularly. There were always discussions afterwards in the Cafe Adler on the Alexanderplatz and Lukács was there very often. In 1930 Felix Weill organized a Sommerakademie, what today would be called a workshop, when we all spent a week discussing and reading papers in a country pub in Thuringia. The fact that Lukács was in the Communist Party and Korsch had left it did not affect their relationship; they both considered themselves to be critical communists. In the new introduction to Marxism and Philosophy written in 1929 Korsch said that the points of agreement between himself and Lukács were fewer than he had originally thought. This referred to their differing positions on Russia. That disagreement, rather than any philosophical issue, was the main source of their divergences. Korsch also thought that Lukács still preserved more of his idealist philosophical background than he himself had done. But despite this they remained friendly until Lukács went to the USSR and then they just had no connection any more.
Korsch was a Minister in the United Front KPD-USPD government in Thuringia of 1923, which was crushed by the intervention of the Reichswehr. What was Korsch’s role in this experience?
From 1920 to 1923 he was teaching law at Jena, work he pursued even when he became a deputy in the Thuringia Landtag or state parliament. He gave political lectures in many places and was active in KM politics. In Thuringia, the great majority of the masses were either left social-democrats or communist, and in September 1923 a coalition government of these two parties was formed.
The KPD backed cadres with a formal education. So he became Minister of Justice and remained so for six months. He was sceptical about the possibility of a revolutionary insurrection, which the formation of the coalition government was supposed to prepare regionally, but remained active on the grounds that one should participate as long as there was any chance of success. His realistic view was that the Nazis would try to move into Thuringia after the defeat of Hitler’s putsch in Munich and that even if a workers’ revolution did not succeed in winning power, it would at least be able to prevent the Nazis from seizing the government by force. Korsch with his military experience was in charge of para-military preparations; but there was little they could do. A high-ranking Russian officer advised them; they drilled and went on long marches, and worked out which heights to occupy when the Nazis invaded.
The projected insurrection in Thuringia never took place because the Reichswehr invaded before the plans for it were ready. The federal government in Berlin announced that law and order had broken down in Thuringia, that mobs had taken over; in fact, of course, peaceful, everyday existence had not ceased and the soldiers who arrived were to be disconcerted because they couldn’t see any disorder and no one attacked them. The members of the regional government had to go underground and the press, including the foreign papers, reported that they had fled to Holland and Denmark. In fact they went as far as Leipzig, one hour by slow train from Jena. Korsch was forced into clandestinity and I was arrested, but four months later there was an amnesty, after the Thuringian government had been dissolved.
In 1924 new elections took place under emergency regulations and the Berlin regime made sure that no socialist or communist government was formed. Indeed Thuringia later acquired one of the first Nazi governments of any region in Germany which then banned Karl from lecturing at Jena university. But in 1924 he was re-elected to the Landtag, and was also elected to the Reichstag, so we moved to Berlin.
For a year he was editor of the party’s theoretical journal and at the centre of KPD politics. But at the moment of his greatest influence within the party, he was already starting to challenge its dominant line. What was his reaction to the changes in the Comintern at that time?
He was growing increasingly concerned about developments in Russia and especially so after the death of Lenin. He had always had doubts, of course. But in Thuringia the KPD was strong and large, and the local comrades were very good people, willing to sacrifice personal comfort, money, time, jobs, for the class struggle. There were lots of meetings and commissions and all that. Then directives began to come more and more from Moscow, saying what was to be discussed at meetings and what resolutions were to be put to them. Whereas during the early 1920s, the rank-and-file felt that they themselves forged their actions, the international leadership now began to interfere and direct everything. But Karl still thought that the KPD was the only party that still tried to fight in any way. There was no question of the Social-Democrats doing that. So he stayed in the party although he realized quite early on that he would be expelled. He went to the Fifth Congress of the Comintern in Moscow in 19 24 and there he had a feeling that he was in danger. Some comrades warned him that he might be intercepted because he was under strong suspicion for deviations and seditious talk against the Soviet leadership. He left before he was scheduled to depart and formed no real impressions of the Soviet Union while he was there; he was completely wrapped up in the conference itself.
He had contacts with other opposition groups. He met Amadeo Bordiga, the Italian leader in Moscow. Then he met Sapronov, of the Russian Workers’ Opposition, when the latter came to Berlin on what was probably a clandestine trip some time after 1925. They talked a lot and understood each other very well and agreed to co-operate in opposition work. Sapronov and Korsch thought that by proposing measures and motions for greater decentralization and liberties for various groups they could do something worthwhile. They stupidly agreed on a code in which they would correspond with each other, and this code contributed to Sapronov’s destruction when it was later found out in Russia. To get a coded letter from Germany was a dangerous thing, and it was not a difficult correspondence to decode because Karl taught me how to do it. So far as I know he had no contact with Trotsky. He thought Trotsky was right about many things and he was in favour of the idea of permanent revolution; but he thought that Trotsky too would have played a power game with alliances in a nationalist way, of which Korsch disapproved. Trotsky also wrote and said things which clearly show that he had a different way of approaching the class struggle: Trotsky laid less emphasis than Korsch on the need for consciousness among workers and laid more emphasis on the question of party leadership.
In 1925 he was dismissed from the editorship of Die Internationale and in 1926 was expelled from the KPD: What were his subsequent political activities, prior to the Nazi seizure of power? What was the character of his relationship with Brecht?
When he was expelled from the KPD he produced the magazine Kommunistische Politik for two years, paying for it out of his salary as a Reichstag deputy, while we lived off his salary from Jena and my earnings from teaching. The magazine was in a newspaper format and was nearly self-supporting. In that whole period up to 1933, Korsch developed his understanding of several key subjects and continued to lecture on Marxism. He studied geopolitics’ world history’ and mathematics. He worked very thoroughly through modern mathematical thought with a Professor at Berlin university who later died at the hands of the Nazis. He was a member of the Gesellschaft für empirische Philosophie. He also went deeply into the problems of what today would be called the Third World. He studied the development of the various colonial countries because he thought that the liberation of the colonies was perhaps imminent and could change world politics completely. In that period we were closely involved with the whole group around the Malik Verlag, including Felix Weill, the son of a millionaire who had endowed the Verlag as well as the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. He was an important friend, who gave us the down payment on our house. One day in August 1928 he invited us to see the premiere of the Threepenny Opera and we went together; afterwards we went to see Brecht with some of these other leftist artists. George Grosz was also there that night and we were all very excited: it seemed to us really new and worthwhile. From then on Korsch and Brecht met quite a bit and when Karl gave a course of lectures in Berlin, Brecht used to attend. But he and Brecht soon found this inadequate and began to meet at specially arranged gatherings to which each of them would bring four or five comrades. They continued to meet until things were too unsafe for 10 or 12 people to assemble together.
Korsch’s lectures were given at the Karl-Marx-Schule, a school at which 1 taught. It was a very radical experimental school, which comprised. everything from Kindergarten through the training of high school teachers to Ph.Ds. We said that it took students ‘from the cradle to the grave’. It was most exciting. The principal was a social democrat and there were a number of older teachers who tried to sabotage the whole thing. But there were a lot of communists among the parents because the school was in Neukölln, a proletarian suburb of Berlin. There were four streams, and three of them started at the normal high school age of 10. One was for humanistic studies and ancient languages; one for mathematics and science; one for humanistic studies with a stress on philosophy, literature and history. The fourth was for gifted children. We could not all at once revolutionize the German educational system, but we were able to take children out of the public school at the age of 13-14 and take them through to the Abitur level. The school was called the Karl-Marx-Schule not because the teachers or the schoolchildren had decided so, but because it was a completely KPD municipality. We used to give rooms to outsiders to lecture provided they lectured in the spirit of Karl Marx, and that is where Karl used to speak.
I remember the last lecture he gave, on the night of 28 February 1933. We were all in the cafe afterwards when the news came that the Reichstag was burning. Quite a few of the participants did not go home that night. Others went home and were arrested. The law on political reliability of civil servants was passed in April, and Korsch and I were thereby deprived of our salaries. I was dismissed on 1 May and our bank account was confiscated. So we were without a penny and I went to Sweden to work. At first he remained in Berlin, not sleeping at home and trying to organise underground anti-Hitler activities. So many people still thought that it could not last and in the spring he and a former student of mine organized quite a large meeting in a forest outside Berlin attended by representatives of very different groups including Christians, trades unions, Communists, Social Democrats, and other scattered groups like the Gesellschaft für Aesthetische Kultur. They held a large conference, one of the largest that was ever organized without detection under Hitler. They tried to evolve ways of fighting from within Germany, but most of them were soon caught and imprisoned or killed. Korsch was not caught and he remained until late autumn of 1933 when it became impossible to sleep even in the sheds of workers’ allotments. He was by then a liability on his friends. Brecht had invited him to Denmark, so he went and stayed with him.
He lived in the USA from 1936 until his death in 19 61, although after the war he visited Europe. His writings appear to take on a more pessimistic tone in this later period and at times seem to abandon Marxism altogether. What were his political and theoretical activities in these years?
He went to Denmark first, and then to England where he still had contacts. Shuster was dead, but his wife was still alive; and he knew quite a few young English people like Spender and Isherwood who had come to Germany during the Weimar Republic because it seemed a focus of liberty and experimentation and who had visited us in Berlin. Karl tried to find work in England but it was extremely difficult because the local communists kept denouncing him to the Home Office. They said that he was a suspicious character who was probably a Nazi agent because since he was not a Jew, he had no reason to behave strangely and leave Germany in the way he had. One positive result of his stay in England was that he was asked to write his book on Karl Marx, which was commissioned by the London School of Economics. He did not think of his Karl Marx as a development of Marxist research or as a political action on his part; but he gave his own interpretation of Marx’s thought and he wrote it as a textbook and an honest work.
In 1936 he went to America, and when he first arrived he kept an open mind about possible developments here. But that did not last long because he soon saw the direction in which things were going. On the other hand he saw that the forces moving within us capitalism were so different and so strong that one could not predict their direction with great exactitude. Upheavals might happen here, he thought, but the situation was so bad that the only way in which things would change would be for them to get worse. He did not engage in any major political activity in the us, although he was occasionally invited to lecture to small political groups and used to speak at military schools during the war. His chief activity in the USA was writing.
In his last years he was pessimistic about the fate of the world revolutionary movement and completely so about the Soviet Union. He had no hope, even after the death of Stalin. He did not live long enough in good health (i.e. up to 1957) to form much of an opinion about the Chinese revolution, although he was very interested in what was happening in China and had been an old foe of Chiang Kai-shek long ago in Germany. On his last trip to Europe he visited Yugoslavia and was favourably impressed; but he thought the country was extremely primitive and wondered how far it could go and how it might change in the process. His main hope lay with the colonial nations — he thought they would become more and more important and Europe would become less so.
His 1950 lecture, entitled 10 Theses on Marxism, is easy to misunderstand and is not a rejection of Marxism. The Theses were not meant for publication although I later allowed them to be printed. The centre of his interest to the very end was Marxism. But he tried to adapt Marxism as he understood it to new developments, particularly in two ways. One was, as I have mentioned, by studies of the colonial world: he thought that early Marxism had for good reason been concentrated on Europe, but that one now had to look further and this concern tied into his interest in the world historians. In his 1946 article on the Philippines he saw pretty clearly the nature of nominal colonial independence. His other major concern at this time was the widening of Marxism to cope with the advances of other sciences. He thought that as capitalist society had developed since Marx’s time, Marxism too should be developed to understand it. His uncompleted text, the ‘Manuscript of Abolitions’. is an attempt to develop a Marxist theory of historical development in terms of the future abolition of the divisions that constitute our society — such as the divisions between different classes, between town and country, between mental and physical labour.