Karl Korsch (1886-1961) was a German Marxist philosopher. He was born in Tostedt, near Hamburg. Korsch’s family was of
peasant stock, although his father held a white-collar job in a bank. He attended universities in Munich, Berlin, Geneva, and Jena, where
he obtained his doctorate in 1910 for a thesis on law. For two years prior to the First World War, he lived and worked in Britain, but
returned to Germany at the outbreak of war in 1914. He opposed the war and never carried a weapon, but was nonetheless forced to
serve on the western front and was wounded and twice decorated with the Iron Cross. After the war, Korsch was an active participant in
the anarcho-syndicalist movements that flourished in the first couple of years of the Weimar Republic. His writings in this period concentrated on elaborating a hypothetical economic system of workers’ councils.
In the 1920s his writing would be forced to try to appropriate for a national economy organized around the existence of lacked the necessary belief in the possibility of a socialist economy to which he did in socio-psychological terms (arguing that the people take stock of and account for the failure of the workers’ movements, realize it). His work in this period has been compared to the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who was similarly interested in the spontaneous rise and fall of workers’ power.
Probably his best-known book Marxismus und Philosophie (1923), translated as Marxism and Philosophy (1970) was published in this period by Carl Grünberg, the inaugural director of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. Korsch became friendly with Felix Weil, who provided the funds for the Institute, and was instrumental in bringing together several of the “Frankfurt School’s founding members. In spite of that, however, he never became part of the inner core of the Frankfurt School, although he did work for the Institute again in New York from 1945 until 1950.
He tried to diagnose why theory had become detached from revolutionary practice by applying a materialist method to theory itself. His analyses were resonant with (though not identical to) those of the contemporaneously published History and Class Consciousness (1923) by fellow Marxist Georg Lukács and were met with a similarly hostile reception. He was denounced by Zinoviev and Kautsky for ultra-leftism. A member of the Communist Party, Korsch held a seat in the Weimar Reichstag, but was expelled from the Party in 1926 over differences with party leadership.
After stepping down from parliament he returned to writing and lecturing and began a close friendship with the dramatist Bertolt Brecht, who attended his lectures on Marxism. He had to flee Germany and go into exile following the Reichstag fire in February 1933, which Hitler blamed on the Communists. From 1933 until 1936 Korsch lived in Denmark, as did Brecht. He then emigrated to the US, as did Brecht a few years later. Brecht acknowledged his friend’s importance by giving him a cameo role as the characters Ko and Ka-osh in posthumously
published Me Ti: Buch der Wendungen (Book of Changes, 1965).
Korsch remained in the US until his death. Among a variety of posts, he taught sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans. It has been
said that Korsch grew disillusioned in his final years, cut off from his roots and seemingly trapped in McCarthyist USA, though at his death he was working on a biography of Bakunin.