Commentary Magazine


Main Currents of Marxism, by Leszek Kolakowski

Socialism as a Doctrine

Main Currents of Marxism. Volume I: The Founders. Volume II: The Golden Age. Volume III: The Breakdown.
by Leszek Kolakowski.
Oxford University Press. Vol. I: 434 pp. $19.95; Vol. II: 542 pp. $19.95; Vol. III: 548 pp. $19.95.

Despite the importance of Marxism as the official ideology of the Soviet Union and its vast popularity among Western intellectuals, there has not until now been available for the lay reader a detailed, knowledgeable, clearly written, and easily accessible account of the doctrine and the ideas and contributions of its main adherents. Such a work now exists in the form of three massive volumes single-handedly written by Leszek Kolakowski, a Polish philosopher currently a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. The fact that Kolakowski received his education in a country whose rulers claim allegiance to Marxism and the fact that he himself was a fervent believer for quite a long while only add to the intrinsic interest which a publication event of this magnitude must arouse.

Leszek Kolakowski was born in 1927 in Radom, southeastern Poland. After the war, he studied philosophy at the University of Warsaw, specializing at first in the principles of orthodox Communism itself. His first published articles, from the years 1950-54, reflect, in the words of François Fejto, “an intransigent rationalist dogmatism.” (L’héritagc de Lénine, Paris, 1977; I am indebted to Fejto for the biographical information of Kolakowski’s career prior to 1968.) He seemed well set on the road of accepted conformism until the wave of unrest and rebellion following the secret “de-Stalinization” speech given by Khrushchev at the 20th party congress in February 1956. Late that year, Kolakowski wrote a stinging critique of Stalinist socialism which was circulated clandestinely in Warsaw. Socialism, he said, is not “ a state which always knows the mind of its subjects before asking them; a state in which philosophers and writers always say the same things as the generals and the ministers, and always afterward . . . a state which upholds the principle of forced labor . . . and which does not like to see its subjects read too many newspapers.” He declined to define what socialism in fact was other than “a good thing.”

This sort of satire was too much for the new Polish party boss, Wladislaw Gomulka, who had been allowed to seize power by the Russians precisely because he was not very liberal. In May 1957, Gomulka publicly accused Kolakowski of indiscipline and of propounding a form of socialism which was in fact nothing more than “a screen for a program based on bourgeois social-democratic theories.” Kolakowski accepted the reprimand and returned to his studies in the history of philosophy. Instead of studying the “classics of Marxism-Leninism,” however, he now devoted himself to the theory and practice of religious heresy, specifically in the 17th century, a subject on which he published a massive volume in French in 1969. He also made contact with anti-Stalinist Western Marxists, notably Edgar Morin and Jean Duvignaud in Paris, and contributed to their journal, Arguments. In 1966, as a consequence of these and other activities, he was expelled from the Communist party of Poland, and in 1968 his teaching privileges at the University of Warsaw were withdrawn. He took the logical consequence and left Poland, first for Canada and the United States and, in 1970, Oxford, where he has been based since.

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In his independent philosophical writings, apart from the work on religion mentioned above, Kolakowski has been concerned particularly with the issue of evil and injustice in the world (and the problems connected with the traditional Marxist answer to them), with the history and theory of rationalism, and with the continuing significance and importance of myth. His abandonment of orthodox Marxism did not come as a revelation or as an embarrassed admission of its insufficiencies; rather, it seems that after about 1956 and his political experiences of that year he simply had no further use for a doctrine which, whatever its other advantages, was so amenable to oppression and violence. Indeed, the malleability of Marxism, the fact that it can be used both to provide apparently reasonable and thorough answers to historical and social problems and to justify political terror and rigid class rule, became a crucial problem for Kolakowski and constitutes the very foundation of his major work to date, Main Currents of Marxism.

In his preface to this work, Kolakowski states succinctly its purpose and scope: “The present work is intended to serve as a handbook . . . it is not a history of socialist ideas, nor of the parties or political movements that have adopted one or another version of the doctrine as their own ideology.” In other words, he is not providing a general “history of socialism,” much less a wide-ranging intellectual and political history of modern times. Throughout, Kolakowski follows the same taut plan: each contributor to Marxism, from Marx and Engels themselves, via minor figures like Paul Lafargue or some of the fascinating Polish thinkers like Stanislaw Brzozowski, to Georg Lukács and Ernst Bloch, receives a brief sketch of his “life and works,” followed by a more or less lengthy account of his views and doctrines. In the case of Marx himself, this account takes up several chapters, each dealing with a specific aspect of his thought: for instance, the nature of exploitation, or the motive forces of the historical process. The doctrinal account is not related by Kolakowski to the political or social developments surrounding the particular individual whose doctrine is being discussed, but he is hardly unaware of the connection; as he puts it, he wants rather to show the “connection between the development of the doctrine and its function as a political ideology.” This means, in particular, that the thought of Lenin is described in such a way that its function as the legitimation of the Soviet state and of the rule of the Bolshevik minority is clearly described.

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Kolakowski’s philosophical training and outlook have in large part determined his perspective—a fact which will no doubt render his work wholly unacceptable to Marxists. The introduction opens with the sentence, “Karl Marx was a German philosopher,” and the work itself begins with a lucidly written account of the philosophical problem which has dominated Western thought, namely, the apparent contradiction between man’s knowledge of Absolute Being and his awareness of his own finitude. The search for an end to this contradiction preoccupied Plato and determined the fundamental reflections of all major thinkers until Kant and Fichte. Starting from the idea that “man is not the same in his empirical being as he is in reality or in essence,” philosophers tried to find man’s true being either outside himself, outside humanity, or within the very process by which man develops in history. It was this latter perspective, held by Hegel, which led to the conception of Marx that humanity was “self-present as an Absolute in its own finitude,” and to the “rejection of all solutions that involve man realizing himself by the actualization, or at the command, of an antecedent absolute being” (emphasis added).

Clearly this philosophical perspective excludes any claim that Marx merely discovered objective truths about society, which is what Marxists claim. Yet Kolakowski’s approach is probably the only one which is not polemical one way or the other. He has not only avoided having to state or deny his personal belief in Marxism, he has also avoided the currently fashionable debate concerning Communism and Communist society: is it a continuation of true Marxism (which means that Marxism is either true and wonderful or wrong and hateful, depending on one’s view of the Soviet Union), or is it a perversion? One aim of Main Currents is to show precisely how the doctrine propounded by Marx was taken up and interpreted by Lenin and Stalin, and how this interpretation came to fit the system they created. The question of whether this is “true” or “false” Marxism is an uninteresting one; what is important is that both Lenin and Stalin believed their views followed logically from those of Marx and were able to establish a powerful and violent state on that basis.

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In the latter half of Volume II, The Golden Age (referring to the generation of the Second International, 1889-1914), and in Volume III, The Breakdown, Kolakowski cannot help at times becoming more polemical, or at least more involved with his subject. This is not because he abandons either his method of presentation (a brief biography of each thinker, followed by an account of his ideas) or his method of philosophical evaluation, but because his very observations at times become judgments. Of course, it is also the case that he himself was closely involved with some of the people, such as Georg Lukács and Ernst Bloch, whom he discusses (although he fails to mention himself, perhaps wrongly). Finally, he gives contemporary neo-Marxism very short shrift indeed: “Setting aside the difficulties already mentioned, I am not convinced that the subject is intrinsically worthy of treatment at such length.”

When his observations become judgments it is usually because, being a trained student of philosophy and a firm believer in reason, he does not suffer fools gladly. In this, of course, he resembles Marx himself. I for one find nothing wrong with his evaluation of Herbert Marcuse (arrived at, let it be said, after 24 pages of exhaustive analysis): “There is probably no other philosopher in our day who deserves as completely as Marcuse to be called the ideologist of obscurantism.” His reasons for this judgment are concise: everyone admits that there are problems related to modern society and the spiritual impoverishment connected with certain aspects of technology. But to deal with these problems the human race “must foster and establish values that make life more endurable and facilitate the rational consideration of social reforms, namely, the values of tolerance, democracy, and free speech. Marcuse’s program is the exact opposite: to destroy democratic institutions and tolerance in the name of a totalitarian myth, subjecting science and technology . . . to a nebulous ‘essential’ intuition which is the exclusive property of philosophers hostile to empiricism and positivism.”

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That is about as much of Kolakowski’s personal position as we ever get in Main Currents, and rightly so: the work is not a speculative treatise but, as he says, a handbook in the development of certain political and social theories. It can, therefore, be said that the author has succeeded in his purpose, which is to make available to the modern reader a straightforward account of the main representatives of Marxism and of their thought. Any genuine criticism of Kolakowski’s impressive achievement must therefore address his presentation or his (few) judgments.

And there are problems, especially in Kolakowski’s treatment of some 20th-century Marxists. In his short review of this work in the (London) Sunday Times, George Steiner, himself a highly perceptive and original student of modern society, writes that Kolakowski’s own personal fate gives a “particular bitterness to the judgments he passes on his immediate predecessors and contemporaries.” Steiner takes particular exception to Kolakowski’s final judgment of Lukács, the Frankfurt School members, and Ernst Bloch. According to Steiner, Kolakowski failed to appreciate “the messianic hunger for justice, the prophetic obsession with a kingdom of equity on earth, which is central to Judaism,” and, by extension, to those Jewish intellectuals who embraced Marxism such as Lukács, Horkheimer, Adorno, and Bloch.

The belief in ultimate justice on earth is certainly both a traditional Jewish hope and also an integral part of a certain kind of Marxism. This is not, however, ignored by Kolakowski; indeed, his whole approach to Marx himself in the early pages of The Founders shows that he is acutely aware of the metaphysical and even mystical components of Marx’s thought—components, incidentally, which have only really been known since the publication of Marx’s early works. Furthermore, Kolakowski acknowledges in the preface to the whole work his partial indebtedness to Lukács—the only inspirational source cited by name, as far as I can tell, in the entire work. Finally, Steiner’s criticism is directed against Kolakowski’s incidental evaluation of Lukács’s literary theory, which is not the subject of the 53-page chapter. Nor does Steiner quote Kolakowski’s final judgment of Lukács’s political career, which is far more significant: “Lukács is perhaps the most striking example in the 20th century of what may be called the betrayal of reason by those whose profession is to use and defend it.”

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Steiner argues that one should not condemn Lukács because he chose “internal exile.” But Kolakowski does not do so. He does condemn Lukács for having supported and defended Stalinism long after it became possible to avoid doing so, and for never recanting a word of the praise he conferred on the regime of Rákosi in Hungary or of Stalin in the USSR. He likewise condemns Ernst Bloch (though in a milder vein) for continuing, even after his move to West Germany, to praise the East German and Soviet regimes, and even Stalin himself. Aptly, he compares Bloch to Martin Heidegger, although even in the (brief) days of his Nazi party membership Heidegger did not feel obliged to moralize on behalf of the regime in the same way. “Both men used their own characteristic concepts to buttress their loyalty to a totalitarian dictatorship, but the concepts themselves did not point in one direction more than another. The identification might equally have been the other way around: Bloch’s category of ‘hope’ might have been used to glorify Nazism, and Heidegger’s ‘authenticity’ (Eigentlichkeit) might have served the cause of Communist propaganda.” Indeed so.

“Internal exile” need not—in fact, does not—imply that one must actively support the regime. Internal exile supposedly means distancing oneself from it, as was the case with the great historian Friedrich Meinecke during the Nazi period. No writing of his from the years 1933-45 betokens the least sympathy for Hitler; in 1945, when over eighty years old and in the midst of ruin and destruction, he was able to provide an analysis of the origins of Nazism more ruthlessly honest than most that have since appeared, in Germany or abroad. The case of Bloch or of Lukács is different. Not only did they not distance themselves from the regime at any time, they actively supported it and allowed themselves to be used by it. For such behavior, a single sentence of condemnation (following many pages of exhaustive analysis) is only fitting.

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I have emphasized the issue raised by Steiner—namely, that Kolakowski does not recognize the millenarian aspect of Judaism as it influenced many important Marxist intellectuals—because it is an important issue and because it shows rightly that we still lack extensive, sympathetic analyses of the intellectual and political history of the 20th century and the impact of events on sensitive, vulnerable individuals. But writing such history was not Kolakowski’s purpose. He set out to write a handbook, and has succeeded admirably. It is to be hoped, in the interest of understanding and increased awareness, that it will find many readers.

About the Author




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