07 Sep 2006

Kolakowski on Marxism

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Tony Judt reviews Leszek Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism, My Correct Views on Everything, and Karl Marx ou l’esprit du monde in the New York Review of Books.

(Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism) ends with an essay on “Developments in Marxism Since Stalin’s Death,” in which Kolakowski passes briefly over his own “revisionist” past before going on to record in a tone of almost unremitting contempt the passing fashions of the age, from the higher foolishness of Sartre’s Critique de la raison dialectique and its “superfluous neologisms” to Mao Zedong, his “peasant Marxism,” and its irresponsible Western admirers. Readers of this section are forewarned in the original preface to the third volume of the work: while recognizing that the material addressed in the last chapter “could be expanded into a further volume,” the author concludes, “I am not convinced that the subject is intrinsically worthy of treatment at such length.” It is perhaps worth recording here that whereas the first two parts of Main Currents appeared in France in 1987, this third and final volume of Kolakowski’s masterwork has still not been published there.

It is quite impossible to convey in a short review the astonishing range of Kolakowski’s history of Marxist doctrine. It will surely not be superseded: Who will ever again know—or care—enough to go back over this ground in such detail and with such analytical sophistication? Main Currents of Marxism is not a history of socialism; its author pays only passing attention to political contexts or social organizations. It is unashamedly a narrative of ideas, a sort of bildungsroman of the rise and fall of a once-mighty family of theory and theorists, related in skeptical, disabused old age by one of its last surviving children.

Kolakowski’s thesis, driven through 1,200 pages of exposition, is straightforward and unambiguous. Marxism, in his view, should be taken seriously: not for its propositions about class struggle (which were sometimes true but never news); nor for its promise of the inevitable collapse of capitalism and a proletarian-led transition to socialism (which failed entirely as prediction); but because Marxism delivered a unique —and truly original—blend of promethean Romantic illusion and uncompromising historical determinism.

The attraction of Marxism thus understood is obvious. It offered an explanation of how the world works—the economic analysis of capitalism and of social class relations. It proposed a way in which the world ought to work—an ethics of human relations as suggested in Marx’s youthful, idealistic speculations (and in György Lukács’s interpretation of him, with which Kolakowski, for all his disdain for Lukács’s own compromised career, largely concurs). And it announced incontrovertible grounds for believing that things will work that way in the future, thanks to a set of assertions about historical necessity derived by Marx’s Russian disciples from his (and Engels’s) own writings. This combination of economic description, moral prescription, and political prediction proved intensely seductive—and serviceable. As Kolakowski has observed, Marx is still worth reading—if only to help us understand the sheer versatility of his theories when invoked by others to justify the political systems to which they gave rise…

Main Currents of Marxism is not the only first-rate account of Marxism, though it is by far the most ambitious. What distinguishes it is Kolakowski’s Polish perspective. This probably explains the emphasis in his account on Marxism as an eschatology —”a modern variant of apocalyptic expectations which have been continuous in European history.” And it licenses an uncompromisingly moral, even religious reading of twentieth-century history:

The Devil is part of our experience. Our generation has seen enough of it for the message to be taken extremely seriously. Evil, I contend, is not contingent, it is not the absence, or deformation, or the subversion of virtue (or whatever else we may think of as its opposite), but a stubborn and unredeemable fact.
No Western commentator on Marxism, however critical, ever wrote like that….

This cynical application of dialectics to the twisting of minds and the breaking of bodies was usually lost on Western scholars of Marxism, absorbed in the contemplation of past ideals or future prospects and unmoved by inconvenient news from the Soviet present, particularly when relayed by victims or witnesses. His encounters with such people doubtless explain Kolakowski’s caustic disdain for much of “Western” Marxism and its progressive acolytes:

One of the causes of the popularity of Marxism among educated people was the fact that in its simple form it was very easy; even [sic] Sartre noticed that Marxists are lazy….[Marxism was] an instrument that made it possible to master all of history and economics without actually having to study either.

Hat tip to David Larkin.

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