Curt Sørensen (1938–2021)

Born into a blue-collar family on the eve of World War II, Curt Sørensen became Denmark's most prominent Marxist intellectual. He insisted that Marxism wasn't just a tool for academic analysis — rather, it had to be an aid to the workers' movement, learning from and feeding back into practical efforts to achieve socialism.

Curt Sørensen was a prominent and influential Danish Marxist thinker committed to socialism and the democratic cause of the workers’ movement. (Image courtesy of Esben Bøgh Sørensen)

On February 18, Danish socialist and professor emeritus Curt Sørensen passed away after a long struggle with illness. Curt was little known outside of Denmark. However, he was the most prominent Danish Marxist thinker ever to have lived, influencing generations of students as well as the country’s intellectual and political life. He combined a lifelong commitment to socialism and the workers’ movement with his vast academic output as a professor in political science.

He was born in 1938 into a working-class home in the city of Sønderborg, Southern Jutland. His father, a metal worker, was a lifelong trade unionist and member of the Social Democratic Party, though by the end of his life he voted for parties further to the left. His mother was an immigrant from Ukraine, part of the German minority driven to move across Europe in the aftermath of World War I.

Curt’s parents provided an intellectually stimulating home for him and his two younger brothers, full of lively political discussions. As he used to remember, everyone they knew were social democrats except for the communists, who lived in a district of Sønderborg called “little Moscow.” But they were all part of “the movement.” As a young man, he borrowed Karl Marx’s writings from the local library along with books on world history, and the entire family was active in different aspects of the socialist workers’ movement’s many social and cultural organizations. Born and raised in this movement, Curt Sørensen remained, throughout his life, committed to socialism and the democratic cause of the workers’ movement.

Beyond Social Democracy

Curt was among the first students joining the new department of political science at Aarhus University in 1959. Coming from a working-class family environment and the geographical periphery in Southern Jutland, it was difficult for him to find a place in his new surroundings. He found himself among upper-middle-class students who, as he used to say, “had never heard of the workers’ movement and socialism.” Despite serious doubts, he stuck to his choice and later became a professor in this same department.

The Danish Social Democratic Party was — with a few gaps — in power during the period from 1924 to 1982. Its hegemonic position within the Danish labor movement left only a little room for the small Communist Party, established in 1919. While Curt was convinced of the importance of the Social Democratic labor movement’s vast network of economic, cultural, and social organizations, he felt that the party itself had moved too far to the right in the postwar period, in practice abandoning socialism. One episode in particular was seminal for his political trajectory: In 1956, a Social Democratic government turned into law a draft proposal for a collective agreement that had been rejected by a majority of workers, leading to large-scale — although ultimately unsuccessful — strikes and demonstrations.

At the same time, Curt found the Danish Communist Party too Stalinized, and after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, he criticized the party’s failure to break with Moscow on this issue in a speech at the local union hall in Sønderborg. Curt remained a strong critic of Stalinism and authoritarian versions of socialism. Nevertheless, he kept insisting that the 1917 Russian revolution was — at least initially — a real democratic revolution driven by mobilized masses of workers.

A new socialist party was needed, he thought, and in the late 1950s, Curt was involved in attempts to construct such a party to the left of the Social Democrats. In 1959, the former Communist Party chairman Aksel Larsen broke away to form the Socialist People’s Party, drawing in both former Communists and left-social-democrats, and workers and intellectuals outside of both parties, including Curt.

In the late 1960s, he became involved in a dispute within the Socialist People’s Party. The controversy concerned the party’s relation to the Social Democratic government and the extent to which it could continue to support it. However, Curt claimed that another, perhaps greater, problem with the Socialist People’s Party was its authoritarian culture, for which he thought chairman Aksel Larsen was responsible. Curt argued that Larsen had not managed to break entirely with his Stalinist past. In late 1967, the party split. The Left Socialist party was founded immediately afterward with Curt writing and shaping the new party’s ideological profile: a “modern Marxist party,” as one of his essays read.

However, his involvement with the party was stifled for several years when he had his first two kids and went on several research trips in the early 1970s abroad: Rome, London, and Berlin. Here he experienced the most intense episodes of the political upheavals and new academic trends of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Italian Communist Party’s May Day celebrations made a strong and lasting impression on him, and so did episodes of students being attacked by the military in Rome. In London, he engaged with the New Left Review and Ralph Miliband’s lectures, and in Berlin, he encountered the “new Marx reading” — a renewed interest in Marx’s critique of political economy among German intellectuals and students inspired by Frankfurt School critical theory.

Curt Sørensen. (Image courtesy of Esben Bøgh Sørensen)

When he returned to Denmark, he found the Left Socialist party immersed in internal conflicts and incapable of developing into a larger social and political force, instead remaining a party of intellectuals and students. He remained for a time outside parties, although still involved in socialist politics. In the late 1980s, a new opportunity for finally bringing together the many small parties on the Danish socialist left presented itself. He wrote an important article in 1987, calling for the creation of a “socialist election front,” and in 1988 and 1989, he was involved in the initial conferences and meetings, founding what would become today’s Red-Green Alliance.

However, his involvement with the party was soon pushed aside in favor of other concerns: two kids from a second marriage, his first higher doctorate awarded in 1992, and finally his appointment as professor at Aarhus’s department of political science in 1994, having previously been appointed professor in cultural sociology at Copenhagen University in 1978 — a post he soon left due to its lack of structure or academic pluralism. Curt never made much fuss about titles, and when the Danish Queen offered him the Order of the Dannebrog — a Danish order of chivalry — he respectfully declined.

Marxism and Social Order

More important were his theoretical works. Curt published his first significant work in 1976, titled Marxism and Social Order. Perhaps the high point of Danish Marxism, the two-volume book dealt with how Marxism differed from bourgeois science in its specific approach to the question of explaining and transforming the social order. In a confrontation with bourgeois social science, the book developed an original historical-materialist Marxism through a discussion of the development of theory within the Second International as well as more recent schools like the Althusser school and the German new Marx reading, also known as the “capital-logic school.”

This latter was incredibly influential in Scandinavia at the time, and in important parts of the book, Curt put forward a sympathetic critique of the school, instead promoting Marxism as a “theory of struggle.” Curt argued that the development of Marxist theory was to a large extent determined by contextual political and social struggles, and that it was not simply a theory of the existing society but also a theory of how society is transformed. Any genuine Marxism should actively incorporate experiences from the struggles of the workers’ movement. To paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg, without this engagement with the actually existing movement, Marxism would end up being a matter for university academics and small sects alone, and without Marxism, the workers’ movement would risk falling into “bourgeois reformism.”

While Curt kept engaging with new theoretical developments within Marxism and other critical theories, his later academic focus was on the social and political development in modern Europe, focusing mainly on Central and Eastern Europe. In the late 1980s, he focused his research on Austromarxism and the interwar Austrian socialist workers’ movement, writing another two-volume book called Between Dictatorship and Democracy. For this, he was awarded his first higher doctorate. The book dealt with the specifics of Austrian Marxism and socialism, and how the movement theorized and practiced democracy and socialism in a still more direct confrontation with fascism. The highly organized Austrian socialist movement and its attempt to construct a “third way” between Bolshevism and reformist social democracy remained a great inspiration.

In 2013–14 he published his magnum opus, State, Nation, Class. This was a three-volume, three-thousand-page work on the political, socioeconomic, and international development in Germany, central-eastern Europe, and Russia from the early modern period until the end of the twentieth century. The three volumes constitute the perhaps single greatest historical sociological work on the development of state- and nation-building, international relations, and socio-economic structures in Central and Eastern Europe. They draw on a boundless secondary literature of both classic and recent works, while also remaining committed to a class-oriented and Marxist approach.

Finally, in 2017, drawing on his three-volume magnus opus, he published a new single-volume book — although it was still a thousand pages long — called The European Participation Crisis. This book’s thesis held that the specific development of international relations, mass politics, and capitalism in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Europe created a series of crises, which he conceptualized as “crises of participation,” still haunting Western societies today. In 2019 he was awarded his second higher doctorate for the book.

Curt Sørensen at Vienna’s Karl-Marx-Hof. (Image courtesy of Esben Bøgh Sørensen)

Curt’s political and academic beliefs and interests were, however, always entangled, even as he strove to engage seriously with critical and opposite views from his own. He found that openly declaring one’s political and ideological standpoint was always preferable to that social and political science which claimed — unrealistically — to be value-neutral, on the model of the natural sciences.

Curt also wrote and engaged in several other political and academic discussions. Two stand out. First, he was among the first critics of the retreat from class among mainstream intellectuals and the mainstream media in the early 1990s, as well as among leftist intellectuals and the broader political left. In the triumphant days of liberalism and capitalism, he insisted on the importance of class and promoted an undogmatic Marxism. In this period, he especially found Ellen Meiksins Wood’s works a great inspiration, and he always regretted not having contacted and met her.

Second, Curt’s insistence on the importance of class and an undogmatic Marxism brought him into conflict with his political science department and even some of his former colleagues. His strong criticism of how mainstream political and social science had developed in the direction of a system-legitimizing endeavor of triumphant liberalism was not met kindly. However, with the renewed interest in Marxism and other critical theoretical traditions in the late 2010s with the new Marx conferences in Denmark (which he also took part in), his staunch stance was vindicated.

Curt’s latest book publication was a collection of political articles and essays called Democracy and Socialism. These two concepts capture his overall beliefs and interests well. Born and raised into the socialist workers’ movement, he remained committed to the importance of democratic and class-based mass organizations for achieving socialism, always critical of both the Stalinism of the communist parties and the social-democrats’ abandonment of socialism and the working class.

Unfortunately, almost all of Curt’s publications were written in Danish, as was typical for his generation of Danish academics. However, the academic world of social and political science as well as the renewed international socialist left — which Curt followed closely — would benefit enormously from his work being published in English.

Curt leaves behind a wife, four children, and seven grandchildren. He is among us no more — but the struggle continues!