Book Reviews

A Marxist Utopian between East and West: Karl Schmückle


A Review of Begegnungen mit Don Quijote. Ausgewählte Schriften by Karl Schmückle



Kaan Kangal

Department of Philosophy, Nanjing University, China


This is a review-essay on Werner Röhr’s 2014 edition of fourteen essays by Karl Schmückle in a volume entitled Begegnungen mit Don Quijote [Encounters with Don Quichotte]. Schmückle was one of the MEGA1 scholars who emigrated from Germany to the Soviet Union in the 1920s. Under the directorship of David Riazanov at the Marx–Engels Institute in Moscow, Schmückle worked as co-editor of Marx’s and Engels’s early works such as the pre-1844 writings,The Holy Family andThe German Ideology, until the institute was shut down by the Soviet authorities in 1931. In this essay I will introduce Schmückle’s intellectual journeys in Germany and the Soviet Union, and focus on his scholarly writings on the young Marx. Schmückle’s writings document his intellectual ambitions in and scholarly contributions to early Marxian research. He also represents the tragic end of a creative generation of German Marxists in the former Soviet Union.


Karl Schmückle – MEGA – David Riazanov – Soviet Union – utopia – historical materialism

Karl Schmückle, (2014) Begegnungen mit Don Quijote. Ausgewählte Schriften, edited by Werner Röhr, Berlin: Argument Verlag/InkriT.

The book under review, Begegnungen mit Don Quijote [Encounters with Don Quichotte], is the most comprehensive collection of essays by the philosopher, Marx scholar, and literary critic Karl Schmückle (1898–1938).[1] It contains six philosophical essays from 1923 to 1933 (Logical-Historical Elements of Utopia;A. Deborin: Lenin, the Fighting Materialist;On the History of Political Theories;The First Volume of the Marx–Engels Complete Works;On the Critique of German Historicism; andThe Young Marx and the Bourgeois Society), and eight writings on literature from 1934 to 1936 (Of Freedom and its Chimaera;Praise of the Art of the Explorer;Heroic Reality: On Anna Segher’s New Novel;‘The Way Through February’;History of the Golden Book: A Utopian Reportage;Thomas Mann Against Fascism;The Contemporary Don Quichotte; and Encounters with Don Quichotte).

          The editor, Werner Röhr, gives in his Introduction an extensive overview of previous Schmückle receptions, Schmückle’s political and intellectual biography, summaries of his essays, and the institutional history that forms the backdrop to Schmückle’s academic and literary activities. Schmückle has not enjoyed much scholarly attention besides two studies on his entire work, one by Hans Schleier[2] in his 1982 analysis of Schmückle’s critique of German historicism (first published in the Soviet journal Under the Banner of Marxism back in 1929),[3] and the other by Reinhard Müller,[4] who investigated Schmückle’s 1931‒6 period in the KGB archives in Moscow. Here Müller discovered all the trial documents related to Schmückle’s case (pp. i–ii). With respect to both Schleier and Müller, Röhr draws a broader picture of Schmückle’s intellectual career.

Schmückle in Historiographic Context

Karl Schmückle is one of the forgotten intellectual figures in Western Marxist circles whose political and philosophical formation was shaped by the First World War and the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Like many others of his generation, Schmückle was first radicalised, and then emerged as a Marxist, at the beginning of the 1920s. His biographical and geographical background has much in common with what is nowadays called ‘Western Marxism’. Biographically, he was a student of Karl Korsch in Jena, an acquaintance and, later, co-worker of Georg Lukács, and one of the first international correspondents of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research and the Marx–Engels Institute in Moscow. Over a decade younger than both Lukács and Korsch, but of the same age as Marcuse, Schmückle was, like Marcuse, drafted into the German Army in the War, and subsequently became a member of a soldiers’ council. Geographically, he was, like Adorno and Horkheimer, native to South-West Germany (Enzklösterle-Gompelscheuer, close to Karlsruhe), where Lukács and Marcuse were trained (p. iii). Berlin and Jena, where Schmückle studied, were well-known political and intellectual centres of the German Left. His doctoral dissertation on utopia, which was printed in the same year (1923) as Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness and Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy, documents Schmückle’s expertise in French socialism, Hegelian philosophy and Marx’s political economy. It was also one of the first, if notthe first, historical-materialist studies on utopia in the postwar period. Schmückle, like Lukács, participated in the preparation of the MEGA1 edition of Marx’s and Engels’s early manuscripts at the Marx–Engels Institute in Moscow, and, like Korsch and Marcuse, made extensive contributions to a modern understanding of the young Marx and Engels.

          If what Perry Anderson asserts is true, that Lukács and Korsch were ‘the real originators’ of ‘Western Marxism’, then Schmückle clearly belongs to the same lineage.[5] But if Schmückle truly ‘formed [a] nodal point of juncture at which “Western” and “Eastern” currents met within Marxism in the twenties’,[6] then it would be rather dubious to claim that ‘philosophical’ Marxism ‘begins with Lukács’ alone.[7] Žižek rightfully asserts that Lukács’s 1923 book is ‘one of the few authentic events in the history of Marxism’.[8] One might easily add Korsch and Gramsci’s names next to Lukács’s, as Anderson does. But what about Schmückle?

          In contrast to the familiar figures of ‘Western Marxism’, Schmückle’s case consists in the fact that he did not ‘finish on top’, ‘write the histories’ and ‘hand out the medals’. Rather, he belongs to the ‘silenced’ or ‘defeated’ side of Marxism that is reclaimed today by a ‘revisionist’ historiography.[9] Schmückle’s life and works register a constellation of motives and the fate of a politically engaged movement that did not resign the theoretical tradition but nonetheless ended with the 1930s Purges in the Soviet Union. Russell Jacoby would probably call this a ‘success of Soviet Marxism’ that coincides with ‘the defeat of other Marxisms’.[10]

          The present review-essay does not attempt to redefine the concept of ‘Western Marxism’ but gives a few reasons to reconsider the origins and legacies of Marxism, even if they are partially lost or forgotten. Of course, much of what is said for Lukács or Korsch and how they ‘enabled’ the next generations ‘to produce an extremely rich theoretical tradition’ cannot be said for someone like Schmückle, who did not have any comparable impact on the theoretical tradition.[11] So the question is whether he can promise any fruitful potential for the theory and its history today. I will leave that judgement to the reader.

Schmückle’s Pre-Moscow Period

There are two stages to be mentioned that shaped Schmückle’s early political aims. The first is when he was seriously injured in Flanders/Ypern in the First World War, and sent to Dresden. This was when Schmückle first became familiar with the communist worldview. Following his recovery, he was transferred to Ulm, which at that time was, after Potsdam, the second largest garrison city in Germany. Schmückle participated in the November Revolution in a soldiers’ council and as a member of the Red Soldiers’ League. After his discharge from the military in 1919, he went to Tübingen to study philosophy and theology. With Felix Weil, who later founded the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research in 1923, and Heinrich Süßkind, the editor-in-chief of the Rote Fahne, Schmückle co-founded the Free Union of Socialist Students. The union invited speakers such as Clara Zetkin, Willi Münzenberg, and Edwin Hoernle (p. iv). Participation in student organisations, in addition to lectures on political philosophy, made up the second crucial stage in Schmückle’s political-ideological development.

          On Clara Zetkin’s advice, Schmückle went to Berlin to study Marxist political economy, and sat in on the lectures of Social-Democratic professors such as Heinrich Cunow, Ignaz Jastrow, Paul Lensch, Emil VerHees, and Werner Sombart (p. v). Schmückle also took one seminar by Gustav Mayer, one of the first historians of German labour history, on the early works of Marx and Engels. In 1921, Schmückle switched to the University of Jena, once famously known for German Idealism, then subsequently for mathematical logic, where he attended lectures on socialism and communism by Gerhard Kesler and Karl Korsch (p. vi).[12] In 1923, Schmückle participated in the First Marxist Study Week [Erste Marxistische Arbeitswoche] financed by Felix Weil and organised by Richard Sorge. The following were also present: Bela Fogarasi, Hede and Julian Gumperz, Margarete Lissauer, Georg Lukács, Heide and Paul Massing, Friedrich Pollock, Karl August and Rose Wittfogel, Konstantin Zetkin, Hedda and Karl Korsch, Christiane Sorge, Käthe Weil, Ludwig and Gertrud Alexander, and Kuzuki Fukumoto.[13] Contemporary questions of crisis, questions of methodology, the problems concerning the organisation of Marxian research, and Karl Korsch’s then-unpublished manuscript Marxism and Philosophy were discussed (p. vii). Expectations for a second meeting of the same study group came to naught when a more ambitious alternative, the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, took its place. Under the direction of Carl Grünberg, the Institute started working closely with the Marx–Engels Institute in Moscow.

Logical-Historical Elements of Utopia

Schmückle finished his doctoral dissertation in 1923, and had been attending courses by Franz Gutmann, Gerhard Kessler, and Otto Koellreuther on national economy, finance, the monetary system, and political theory (p. ix). Considering the subjects Schmückle had covered in his final exams, he picked quite a radical topic for his dissertation: Logical-Historical Elements of Utopia. Schmückle investigated here two generations of utopians, one from the seventeenth century (More, Campanella, Mably, Morelly, and Meslier), the other from the nineteenth century (Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier).

          The first appearance-form of utopia, Schmückle writes, is the utopian state (p. 28). Thomas More defines the social order as a matter of organisation of things by and within the state, while Campanella personifies the idea of utopia with an enlightened prince, a wise ruler, or the ‘god of sun’.[14] For Campanella, the privileges and state monopoles naturally transform into governing organs of the utopian republic. They serve to keep the metabolic exchange between nature and man in harmonic balance (p. 29). The second appearance-form of utopia is words in action, or the practical unity of nations against tyrants and despots. ‘Infinity of miseries’, as Meslier the atheist and rebel once put it, is manifested in the paradise of the property, enjoyment, and lust of the wealthy, on the one hand, and in the trouble, pain, and worry of the poor, on the other (p. 31). Morelly, like Campanella, ascribes to society a mechanistic concept of automatism, whereby the individual substances of the social automaton function as the organs of a greater whole. The crucial point Morelly stresses is that the natural harmony is to be balanced by the social machine (p. 34). The harmony that these early social utopians had drafted was precisely the opposite of contemporary society in their times. Schmückle points out that this characteristic distinguishes them from the ‘religion of daily life’ of the late bourgeois apostles of social harmony (p. 35).

          Schmückle stresses that, in contrast to early utopians, some sort of social empiricism, holistic understanding of society, and a weaker reference to state affairs were all significant for the late utopians (p. 38). Saint-Simon recognises industrial development as the main basis for the ideal future society because it already provides the material preconditions for eliminating idleness and poverty. Labour as the basic substance of all human capacities ensures the overcoming of the present society as such. Fourier, by contrast, focuses on repressive moralities, and the contradiction between pain and happiness. The driving force of society is to be found contained, for Fourier, in human passions, affections, and natural desires. The antagonistic relations of society are, in last instance, a matter of individual antagonisms (p. 40). Fourier’s notion of ‘harmonic, natural contradiction’ embeds into a ‘real contradiction’ as a ‘mere negation of negation’ of his time (p. 48).

          The more intensely the new modes of economic production face inherited factors and relations of production, and the more they penetrate wider spaces and masses of production, the more clear becomes the bigger picture of social reality, and how it might be conceptualised otherwise (p. 32). The historical process of the relations between producers and means of production determines the material ground for all the utopian ideas concerning how to interpret and change the world. For Schmückle, it is significant for the early utopians that they represent the social disharmonies of the real world in their utopian counter-images (p. 35). Although he does not directly refer to Marx, Schmückle obviously has in mind a passage from The Class Struggles in France, where Marx differentiates utopians from doctrinaire socialists:

… utopia … subordinates the whole movement to one of its elements, … puts the cerebrations of the individual pedant in place of common, social production and, above all, wishes away the necessities of the revolutionary class struggles by petty tricks or great sentimental rhetoric …[15]

Schmückle at the Marx–Engels Institute

Schmückle’s doctoral study remained relevant for his entire career due to his later work on state and social theories from Machiavelli to Hegel, and on the early worldview of the young Marx. His essay on Hobbes’s theory of state was published by the Marx–Engels–Archive in Russian in 1930, while he was working on a project for the Frankfurt Institute about the historical development of bourgeois state theories. He wrote one of his late essays (History of the Golden Book) for the 400th birth-anniversary of Thomas More, based on an imaginary interview with More who travels to Moscow and makes observations on Soviet daily life. Schmückle’s late work on the young Marx and bourgeois society was also dedicated to uncovering Marx’s utopian roots from the perspective of the later Marx.

          After his graduation, between 1923 and 1925 Schmückle worked as editor and writer at various Communist papers, such as Freiheit,Bergische Volksstimme,Arbeiter-Zeitung,Rote Fahne andDie Internationale (p. xii). In 1925, at David Riazanov’s prompting and on the formal advice of the Frankfurt Institute, the KPD leadership agreed to send Schmückle to work at the Marx–Engels Institute in Moscow. Schmückle arrived in the Soviet Union in 1925, and became a member of the Communist Party (Bolshevik) the following year (p. xxi).[16]

          Due to his previous studies on the utopians, and Marx’s early writings, Schmückle possessed considerable expertise regarding what was of great need for the Marx–Engels Institute. Under the directorship of David Riazanov, the Institute had planned to publish Marx’s and Engels’s complete works starting from their earliest periods. Schmückle was a perfect match for this project.

          The complete works of Marx and Engels (MEGA1) were designed to be published in 42 volumes, unedited and in their original languages. Thanks to its financial resources, and Riazanov’s international contacts, the institute established a group of prominent Marx scholars such as G.E. Czóbel, A. Deborin, G. Lukács, I. Luppol, W. Rohr, I. Rubin, F. Schiller, A. Thalheimer, P. Weller and, of course, K. Schmückle.[17]

          Under Riazanov’s supervision, the institute published three volumes from the first section (volumes I/1.1 (1927), I/1.2 (1929), and I/2 (1930) on Marx’s works and writings up to the beginning of 1844, including letters and documents), and three volumes from the third section (volumes III/1 (1929), III/2 (1930), and III/3 (1930) on Marx–Engels correspondence between 1844 and 1853, 1854 and 1860, and 1861 and 1867). The institute also prepared four volumes from the first section (The German Ideology in I/5 (1932), Marx’s and Engels’s works from May 1846 until March 1848 in I/6 (1932), Engels’s works from 1844 until July 1846 (1932),The Holy Family and Marx’s writings from 1844–5 in I/3 (1932)), and one volume from the third section (Marx–Engels correspondence between 1868 and 1883 in III/4 (1931)), which were published after Riazanov’s removal from the institute, and his replacement by V. Adoratskii (pp. xx–xi). Schmückle was named editor or contributor in volumes I/1.1, I/1.2, and III/3. Although his name was not mentioned, he had also contributed to volumes I/3, I/5, and III/4. Besides his editorship in MEGA1, Schmückle translated Plekhanov’sFundamental Questions of Marxism [Osnovnye Voprosy Marksizma] (1929), and the eighteenth volume of the first German edition of Lenin’s complete works (p. 325). In addition, Schmückle wrote essays on Marx’s early philosophical understanding, and on the utopian state theories and political philosophies of More, Machiavelli, and Hobbes. 

The Young Marx and Engels in MEGA1

Volume I/1.1 contained Marx’s dissertation on early Greek philosophy, his poems from 1841, twenty-eight articles Marx had published in the Rheinische Zeitung between 1842 and 1843 (includingProceedings of the Sixth Rhine Province Assembly,The Leading Article in no. 179 of the Kölnische Zeitung, andJustification of the Correspondent from the Mosel), the letters and articles fromDeutsch–Französische Jahrbücher (includingOn the Jewish Question andContribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right), and some other materials.[18]

          Unlike Franz Mehring’s four-volume edition, MEGA1 focused on presenting everything either published or left unpublished by the young Marx and Engels, completely and accurately (p. 127). For example, the seven notebooks of Marx’s doctoral dissertation, and the preparatory manuscripts of theContribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right were published in MEGA1, while they were missing in Mehring’s edition. In his foreword in the first volume of MEGA1, Riazanov highlighted Mehring’s arbitrary selections and editorial corrections. Mehring did not include, for example, the chapter on Saint Max when he had published the materials fromThe German Ideology, because he did not find it ‘significant’. Riazanov argued that this kind of textual manipulation obscured particular moments of Marx’s and Engels’s development, from Feuerbachian humanism to scientific socialism.[19]

          In a review-essay on the first volume of MEGA1 written for theRote Fahne in 1927, as well as in the articleThe Young Marx and the Bourgeois Society published byInternationale Literatur in 1933, Schmückle pointed out that the accuracy of the MEGA1 material served not only to provide a better understanding of Marx’s and Engels’s transition towards scientific materialism, but also countered the distortions and falsifications of contemporary anti-Marxist criticism coming from the bourgeois front (p. 150). For Schmückle, the MEGA1 project had stymied all attempts to exploit the early Hegelianism and Feuerbachian humanism of the young Marx and Engels for bourgeois anti-Communist purposes. As a matter of fact, the first volumes of MEGA1 were dedicated to documenting the scientific development of Marx and Engels. Hence, the question as to how their shift to a more mature position had taken place did require further scholarly studies. This was what Schmückle tried to clarify in his article on the young Marx and bourgeois society.

The Young Marx and the Bourgeois Society

In Schmückle’s understanding, there are two ways to look at the early Marx: we can either detect the main problems that concerned Marx’s early studies on philosophy and economics, and try to comprehend how the young Marx conceptualised society, revolution, and political worldviews, or we can read the early Marx backwards, namely from the point of view of the later Marx. The first reading concentrates on Marx’s transition from idealist dialectics to dialectical materialism, from his critique of religion to the critique of the bourgeois state and society, and from democratic-revolutionary emancipation to radical proletarian-communist revolution (p. 163). The second reading tracks the path that leads back from Marx’s later theory of economics to his early sources. Schmückle believed that these two readings do not alternate but rather supplement each other. Marx’s theory of fetishism in Capital, for example, is a product of his late economic studies that go back to his early views on bourgeois society under the influence of the Young Hegelians and French utopian socialists (p. 155).

          Marx states in his dissertation notebooks that every philosophical system is to be expounded from the point of view of its historical existence. All the objective determinations need to be distinguished from the ‘phenomenological consciousness of the subject’ in order to grasp the true unity of the subject and object.[20] According to Schmückle, the Ancient Greek concept of atomism officiated as the most abstract concept at encompassing all the objective determinations of the world, from which Marx had deduced his principle of subjectivity. Substances are, for the early Marx, social forces that build up the ideal or spiritual reality, and the state is the central organ that organises all the social agents surrounding it (p. 167). The crucial point Marx highlights, according to Schmückle, is not simply that a philosophical system is objectively related to the historical world, but that it is about ‘the modality of the relation of philosophy, as subjective consciousness, towards reality’.[21]

          Marx’s early attempt at an inversion of Hegelian dialectics gained a political character in his articles in the Rheinische Zeitung. Marx was defending in this period a radical-democratic view of people as substances and active subjects of the state that must fight for the right form of the state, make the law become ‘the conscious expression of the people’s will’, and transform the people from an object of suppression of the feudal-absolutist state into an emancipated subject of social history (p. 173). Schmückle points out that, for the early Marx, the questions regarding the concrete subject of this transformation, and the internal mechanisms of the alleged antagonisms and struggles in the present society, remained unclear (p. 179). Later on in his Paris period in 1844, Marx was would ultimately conclude that the political economy of bourgeois society provides the key to understanding the historical development of human societies, and that its reflection forms in ideological superstructures such as politics, law, and philosophy (p. 192). This was when Marx’s theory had obtained its first insights concerning the fundamental character of the economic structure that preconditions all the existential and motional laws, and the superstructures of bourgeois society (p. 151).  

          For Schmückle, the critical potential and the systematic approach of Marx’s political economy gained their mature content in Capital for several reasons. Marx consciously expressed the main subject-matter, and the ultimate goal of his critique of political economy inCapital: bourgeois society and its concrete forms of appearance. The purpose of the Marxist critique of political economy is, accordingly, to demystify the economic laws of motion of bourgeois society. To discover the rational kernel of the fundamental laws of capitalist society, and to separate it from the mystical shells of ideological distortions, Marx had to investigate all the structures, interconnections, reciprocal relations, and causal chains in the economic life of capitalist society (pp. 161–2).

          The ‘enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world’, as it had once been described and criticised by the late utopian socialists, in which ‘Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre do their ghost-walking as social characters’, was recognised by the late Marx as an inverted camera obscura image of the real world that needed to be placed back on its feet.[22]Capital was dedicated to unravelling the ideological distortions and uncritical reflections of economic relations of production, commodity fetishism, developing subject–object inversions, and reification genetically from the very logic of the capitalist production and accumulation processes (p. 106).

The Marx–Engels Institute in 1931, and Afterwards

In February 1931, the Joint State Political Directorate [OGPU] raided the Marx–Engels Institute. It shut down the institute for over a week, searched all the rooms, archives, libraries, manuscripts, and print materials, and interrogated institute co-workers. OGPU officials were looking for a collection of documents on Mensheviks handed to David Riazanov by one of the institute members, a well-known Marx scholar, and former Jewish Bund supporter and Menshevik, Isaak Iljič Rubin. In December 1930, Rubin was accused of being a member of a Menshevik counter-revolutionary organisation, and sent to prison in March 1931.[23] Under interrogation, Rubin had implicated Riazanov in the Menshevik conspiracy. With the splitting of the institute, Riazanov was dismissed from the directorship, and deported to Saratov.[24] Riazanov denied all the allegations, and stated at his trial that he had not committed any crime, whatsoever.[25]

          After Riazanov’s replacement by Adoratskii in February 1931, the Party Central Committee organised a commission to reform the institute (p. xxxix). The members of the commission were assigned to evaluate and write reports on the previous 243 members of the institute and voted for the disposal of 109 non-Party, and 22 Party members. In one of these reports, Schmückle had been described as ‘useful, provided that there is strong leadership at the institute’. Georg Lukács, to give another example, had been characterised as an ‘honest and loyal co-worker’. Based on his ‘philosophical views, [Lukács] is not a Marxist’. Schmückle’s wife, Anne Bernfeld-Schmückle, was not considered as reliable. Since almost all of the prominent scholars were removed in the purge, one commission member was asked to prepare a new list for scholar candidates (pp. xl–xli). The institute as well as the MEGA1 project did survive, until a second wave of purges in the late 1930s associated with the famous Moscow Trials.

          Immediately after his removal from the institute in 1931, Schmückle started working for different political and literary papers, including the daily Deutsche Zentral-Zeitung between 1931 and 1934, and the bimonthlyInternationale Literatur between 1934 and 1938 (p. xlv). Schmückle’s essay on the early Marx and bourgeois society was published by Internationale Literatur for the fiftieth death-anniversary of Karl Marx. Schmückle also became a member of the German division of the International Union of Revolutionary Writers [IVRS] in 1932, participated as editor in joint projects between the IVRS and Moscow-based publishing houses, and published works of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Clara Zetkin (p. xlviii).

          Internationale Literatur published two remarkable essays by Schmückle on Cervantes’s Don Quichotte in 1936. Schmückle had been familiar with the novel for a long time, but Cervantes became politically important especially after Don Quichotte was attacked by the Spanish fascist poet Ernesto Jiménez Caballero in 1932. Caballero had claimed that Cervantes’s novel contains elements closely tied to the ideas of the early Enlightenment and Bolshevism. After Franco’s coup in 1936, an immense campaign to defame Cervantes had arisen. Schmückle considered Don Quichotte important, not simply because it reflected the historical and literal background of the contemporary class antagonisms in Spain, or because it was used by fascists against Bolshevism, but also because Schmückle had found therein hidden ties between the humorous dialectic of fantasy and reality, and the inversions of bourgeois society that were criticised by the social utopians, and Marx (p. 281).

The Party Tribunal against Schmückle in 1936

The so-called ‘Trotskyist-Zinovievist Counterrevolutionary Bloc’ that was accused of planning to assassinate Stalin, and other Soviet leaders, including Kirov back in 1934, was alleged to have been an active threat to the Soviet leadership since the beginning of 1930s. The pretrial depositions and confessions of Zinoviev and Kamenev portrayed an inner-Party opposition that had been ongoing since 1932.[26] The bulk of the arrests that were allegedly linked to the Trotskyist conspiracy were of leading cadres. Since the military conspiracy of Tukhachevskii had been uncovered in 1937, the Party leadership acted swiftly against anything that involved the Trotskyist bloc, and the interrelationship among the anti-Soviet conspiracies. The previously-convicted former members of the Marx–Engels Institute had been interrogated, and their identities, personal and professional relationships, and ideological views were investigated. Karl Schmückle was one of them.

          As a by-product of the massive media campaigns against the anti-Soviet conspiracies, the Literaturnaia Gazeta on 27 August 1936, and then, two days later, theDeutsche Zentral-Zeitung, had denounced Schmückle as a Trotskyist betrayer. Under the chairmanship of the Hungarian writer Alexander Barta, eighteen writers and three Party officials (including Hans Günther, Hugo Huppert, Alfred Kurella and Georg Lukács)[27] were asked to participate in a closed Party session (4‒9 September 1936) to investigate the inner-Party enemies, Trotskyists, and deviationists within Soviet scientific, philosophical and literary circles (p. lxxi).

          Some complained that they felt threatened and challenged by Schmückle. Others praised him, and his valuable work. Georg Lukács, on the other hand, claimed that Schmückle was a ‘party enemy’ and a ‘counter-revolutionary’, who had hid himself behind the ‘mask of a man loyal to the Party’. Lukács voted for Schmückle’s liquidation, and suggested investigating his personal contacts. According to Günther, Schmückle was an opportunist and a hidden enemy, and a close friend of Heinrich Süßkind, who had recently (9 August 1936) been arrested by the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs [NKVD]. Lastly, Huppert made allegations concerning Schmückle’s hostility towards the Party (pp. lxxiii–lxxv). Schmückle was included in the so-called German operation of the NKVD, arrested in 30 November 1937 for espionage, and was executed on 14 March 1938 (p. lxxii).

The Legacy of Karl Schmückle

Karl Schmückle, like many others, was rehabilitated in the late 1950s by the Moscow Military Tribunal. He was one of the victims of the Soviet purges in 1930s, and he shared the same fate as that of many creative intellectuals in the former Soviet Union. Schmückle’s essay collection documents not only Schmückle’s work, but it also represents the early international collaboration in Marxian scholarship between Germany and the Soviet Union, and provides a very useful source for and highly valuable contribution to our contemporary understanding of the history of Marxism.

          Schmückle’s greatest contribution was, perhaps, his original conception of the utopia phenomenon. The Marxist tradition in the twentieth century had been for the most part strongly antipathetic to utopianism, as Ruth Levitas remarks. Utopia was usually associated with a ‘construction of blueprints of a future society that are incapable of realisation’.[28] But the same utopianism was attached to Marxism by its opponents, as well. Certainly, there were notable exceptions such as Alexandr A. Bogdanov, Walter Benjamin or Ernst Bloch. However, only a minority view shared the idea that utopian conceptions can be valuable for Marxist thinking. Schmückle did not aim to deploy the concept of utopia to justify anything that crudely rejects bourgeois society, or merely to speculate about a future society. He rather found a critical and fruitful potential in the utopian narrative.

          Utopias are valuable not because they stand apart from concrete time and place, or historical facts and the real subjects of society, but because they express symptoms of social disintegration, represent anticipatory structures of the past, and signal transformative impulses within present-day society. Schmückle does not – like Caballero – fear, but rather embraces what Cervantes’s Don Quichotte makes us experience, namely, an intelligent mockery of our own incapacity to dominate social contradictions between now and then, real and imaginary, or essential and illusionary. Utopia suspends for a while what something is, and in so doing, it enables us, at least intuitively, to sense how it might be otherwise. I shall leave the last word to the young Marx to articulate the function of utopia:

… nothing prevents us from making criticisms of politics, participation in politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our criticism, and from identifying our criticism with them. In that case we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. … We merely show the world what it has really been fighting for, and consciousness is something that ithas to acquire, even if it does not want to. The reform of consciousness consistsonly in making the world aware of its own consciousness, in awakening it out of its dream about itself, inexplaining to it the meaning of its own actions. … It will then become evident that the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality.[29]


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Burkhard, Bud 1985, ‘D.B. Rjazanov and the Marx–Engels Institute: Notes toward Further Research’, Studies in Soviet Thought, 30, 1: 39–54.

Fracchia, Joseph 2013, ‘The Philosophical Leninism and Eastern “Western Marxism” of Georg Lukács’, Historical Materialism, 21, 1: 69–93.

Getty, J. Arch 1987, Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933–1938, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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[1] I would like to thank to Chris O’Kane for his proof-reading, and the anonymous referee for encouraging remarks and suggestions on a previous version of this paper.

[2] Schleier 1982.

[3] Schmückle 1929; Shmyukle 1929.

[4] Müller 1991, pp. 76–9; Müller 2005. See also Litvin 1999, p. 217.

[5] Anderson 1989, p. 29.

[6] Anderson 1989, p. 32.

[7] Anderson 1989, p. 29. Schmückle’s social origins, political orientation, the reason for his geographical displacement, and the reason for his death were also different from those of other ‘Western Marxists’. Unlike Lukács et al., his father was lumberjack. At the beginning of 1920s he became an active KPD member and emigrated to the Soviet Union. There he became a Bolshevik Party member and remained loyal to his parties until he was accused of being a spy. Ironically, one of the names that reinforced the claim that Schmückle was a ‘hidden enemy’ of the Soviet people was Lukács himself. In contrast to Schmückle, Lukács did not face any death sentence, and could return to his native country after the Second World War. Considering many Western Marxists escaped from fascist danger to the Soviet Union, Schmückle’s case is far from being ‘unique’ or a mere ‘exception’.

[8]Žižek 2000, p. 151.

[9] Jacoby 2001, p. 2.

[10] Jacoby 2001, p. 4.

[11] Fracchia 2013, p. 89.

[12] Perry Andersons claim that the first generation of so-called Western Marxismhad never been integrated into the university system is simply wrong. When Schmückle was attending Korschs lectures in Jena, Korsch was already a lecturer at the department of law, and became a full professor in 1923. See Anderson 1989, p. 49.

[13] Here Röhr’s mention of the Japanese scholar might be a typo. However, Fukumoto Kazuo (1894–1983), the famous theoretician of the Japanese Communist Party, who went to Germany to study, joined the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and then left for Japan in 1924, seems the person more likely to have participated in the meeting. Beside this wild guess, it is worth mentioning that Martin Jay’s list does not include Fukumoto at all. See Jay 1973, p. 5. Jan Hoff, on the contrary, assures us that the name of this scholar was Fukumoto Kazuo. See Hoff 2009, pp. 19, 78, 97, 98.

[14] In their compendium of utopia, Frank and Fritzie Manuel mention that Maksim Gorkii had read Campanella’s The City of the Sun when he was in Italy, had talked about it to Lunacharksii and Lenin, and that Campanella’s depiction of science became an inspiration for the official discourse of Socialist Realism. See Manuel and Manuel 1997, p. 272.

[15] Marx 1978, pp. 126–7; Marx 1960, p. 89.

[16] The claim, as asserted by Röhr, that Schmückle became a member of CPSU, is erroneous. When Schmückle arrived in the Soviet Union, the name of the Party was the ‘All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks ‒ VKP(B)’. The party changed its name to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (KPSS) only in 1952.

[17] Hecker 1994, p. 150.

[18] Zhao 2014, p. 19; also see Mehring 1923, pp. vii–ix; Langkau 1983, p. 120.

[19] See Rjasanow 2007, pp. 1100–1.

[20] Marx 1975b, p. 506; Marx 1968, p. 246.

[21] Marx 1975b, p. 492; Marx 1968, p. 218.

[22] Marx 1998, p. 817; Marx 2004, p. 804.

[23] Vasina 1994, p. 149.

[24] Burkhard 1985, p. 46.

[25] Riazanov 1995. 

[26] Getty 1987, p. 122.

[27] Lukács’s involvement in Schmückles case disproves Perry Andersons claim that [f]rom 1929 onwards, Lukács ceased to be a political militant, confining himself to literary criticism and philosophy in his intellectual work. See Anderson 1989, p. 31.

[28] Levitas 2010, p. 41.

[29] Marx 1975a, p. 144; Marx 1982, p. 488.