Karl Korsch was born on 15 August 1886 in Todstedt, near Hamburg.1 His father was a bank official who came originally from an East Prussian family of small farmers. After some time in T odstedt, the family moved to Meiningen, in Thuringia, where Korsch attended the local secondary school. Later he attended the universities of Munich, Berlin, Geneva and Jena.
He studied law, economics and philosophy and was also a member of a ‘Free Student Movement’ which was opposed to the reactionary and nationalist student fraternities (Verhindungen) and aimed to establish contacts between the academic world and the socialist movement. In 1910 he acquired his doctorate at Jena, with a thesis on the onus of proof in admissions of guilt. It was published a year later in Berlin.
Between 1912 and 1914 Korsch continued his studies in London. He joined the Fabian Society, and was strongly influenced by the syndicalist movement. In his early years, he believed that these emphasized the positive content and actively democratic aspects of socialism, by contrast with the orthodox Marxism of the Second International which he thought defined itself merely negatively as the abolition of the capitalist mode of production. At the same time, he wrote articles for German periodicals on aspects of English life, including English law, the suffragettes, farm policy, Galsworthy and the state of English universities.2 In 1913 he married Hedda Gagliardi, by whom he had two daughters. They remained together throughout hi life and frequently cooperated in theoretical work.
On the outbreak of the First World War, in August 1914, Korsch returned to Germany. Because he opposed the war he was demoted from the rank of a reserve lieutenant to a corporal; but although he never carried a weapon, he was wounded and twice decorated with the Iron Cross. After the war, in 1919, he became a lecturer at Jena University.
The war marked the beginning of his active political life and of his most intense period of theoretical production. In 1917 he joined the Independent German Socialist Party (USPD) which had split from the official German Social Democratic Party (SPD) to the left. When the USPD itself split in 192.0, Korsch went with the majority faction into the German Communist Party (the KPD) although he had reservations about the Twenty-one Points which formed the Leninist conditions for membership of the Communist International. In this period, after the November 1918 overthrow of the Kaiser and the declaration of the Weimar Republic, much of Europe, and particularly Germany, was in a state of revolutionary ferment. The Spartacist rising in Berlin (January 1919) and the Munich Soviet Republic (April 1919) were both bloodily suppressed. But for two years there was an active and widespread movement for workers’ councils inspired by a varied set of Marxist and anarcho-syndicalist ideas.’ Korsch participated actively in this movement which he believed to be realizing many of the ideas he had developed in pre-war London. He was a member of the Berlin Socialization Committee and contributed to the revolutionary magazine Arheiterrat.