Category Archive 'Leszek Kolakowski'

23 Jul 2009

Leszek Kolakowski, October 23, 1927 – July 17, 2009

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Polish philosopher and intellectual historian Leszek Kolakowski passed away last Friday in Oxford where he had taught for many years.

Coming of age during the Nazi Occupation, Kolakowski became an autodidact who educated himself via the library of a local nobleman in his native Poland. He was a member of the Communist Party after WWII, obtained a degree at Warsaw, and taught logic and the history of Philosophy.

Though his writings were sometimes suppressed, and despite being denounced for revisionism, he was able to work and teach in Poland until the late 1960s, finally being expelled from the party in 1966 and from his university position in 1968.

He taught at several universities in the West, including Berkeley and Yale, but his permanent home became a senior researcher chair at All Souls College, Oxford.

In the West, Kolakowski became an astute and highly effective critic of Marxism from a Humanist perspective. His Main Currents of Marxism (1978) effectively summarized the history of the bacillus as well as describing the destructive progress of the consequent disease.

After the liberation of his native Poland, Kolakowski was awarded the Order of the White Eagle, and on Monday Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski announced that Kolakowski will be buried in Poland with military honors.

Telegraph published an admiring obituary:

Kolakowski’s primary academic interest was the history of philosophy since the 18th century, and he was the author of more than 30 books which combined history, theoretical analysis and pungent, witty writing. His most influential work was a three-volume history of Marxism – Main Currents of Marxism: Its Rise, Growth and Dissolution (1978), published after he had taken refuge in the West.

It was a prophetic work, written at a time when Marxism still provided the ideological underpinning for a system that was thought to have an indefinite life expectancy. He provided an objective description of the main ideas and diverse currents of Marxist thinking, but at the same time characterised Marxism as “the greatest fantasy of our century… [which] began in a Promethean humanism and culminated in the monstrous tyranny of Stalin”. …

In an article published in 1975, he observed that the experience of Communism had shown that “the only universal medicine (Marxists) have for social evils – State ownership of the means of production – is not only perfectly compatible with all the disasters of the capitalist world – with exploitation, imperialism, pollution, misery, economic waste, national hatred and national oppression, but it adds to them a series of disasters of its own: inefficiency, lack of economic incentives and above all the unrestricted rule of the omnipresent bureaucracy, a concentration of power never before known in human history”.

Kolakowski was particularly scathing about western apologists for Marxist regimes who suggested that economic progress in communist countries somehow justified a lack of political freedom: “This lack of freedom is presented as though it were a temporary shortage. Reports along these lines give the impression of being unprejudiced. In reality they are not simply false, they are utterly misleading. Not that nothing has changed in these countries, nor that there have been no improvements in economic efficiency, but because political slavery is built into the tissue of society in the Communist countries as its absolute condition of life.” He dismissed the idea of democratic socialism as “contradictory as a fried snowball”, and modern manifestations of Marxism as “merely a repertoire of slogans serving to organise various interests”.

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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