Goodbye to All That?

Karl Marx ou l’esprit du monde

by Jacques Attali
Paris: Fayard, 537 pp., 23.00 (paper)


Leszek Kolakowski is a philosopher from Poland. But it does not seem quite right—or sufficient—to define him that way. Like Czeslaw Milosz and others before him, Kolakowski forged his intellectual and political career in opposition to certain deep-rooted features of traditional Polish culture: clericalism, chauvinism, anti-Semitism. Forced to leave his native land in 1968, Kolakowski could neither return home nor be published there: between 1968 and 1981 his name was on Poland’s index of forbidden authors and much of the work for which he is best known today was written and published abroad.

In exile Kolakowski lived mostly in England, where he has been a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, since 1970. But as he explained in an interview last year, Britain is an island; Oxford is an island in Britain; All Souls (a college without students) is an island in Oxford; and Dr. Leszek Kolakowski is an island within All Souls, a “quadruple island.”1 There was indeed once a place in British cultural life for intellectual émigrés from Russia and Central Europe—think of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Arthur Koestler, or Isaiah Berlin. But an ex-Marxist Catholic philosopher from Poland is more exotic, and despite his international renown Leszek Kolakowski is largely unknown—and curiously underappreciated—in his adoptive land.

Elsewhere, however, he is famous. Like many Central European scholars of his generation Kolakowski is multilingual—at ease in Russian, French, and German as well as Polish and his adopted English—and he has received accolades and prizes galore in Italy, Germany, and France especially. In the United States, where Kolakowski taught for many years on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, his achievements have been generously acknowledged, culminating in 2003 in the award of the first Kluge Prize from the Library of Congress—bestowed for lifetime achievement in those fields of scholarship (the humanities above all) for which there is no Nobel Prize. But Kolakowski, who has more than once declared himself most at home in Paris, is no more American than he is English. Perhaps he is properly thought of as the last illustrious citizen of the Twentieth-Century Republic of Letters.

In most of his adoptive countries, Leszek Kolakowski is best known (and in some places only known) for Main Currents of Marxism, his remarkable three-volume history of Marxism: published in Polish (in Paris) in 1976, in England by Oxford University Press two years later, and now reprinted in a single volume by Norton here in the US.2 No doubt this is as it should be; Main Currents is a monument of modern humanistic scholarship. But there is a certain irony in its prominence among Kolakowski’s writings, for its author is anything but a “Marxologist.” He is a philosopher, a historian of philosophy, and a Catholic thinker. He spent years studying early modern Christian sects and heresies and for most of the past quarter-century has devoted himself to the history of European religion and philosophy and to what might best be described as philosophical-theological speculations.3

Kolakowski’s “Marxist” period, from his early prominence in postwar Po-land as the most sophisticated Marxist philosopher of his generation through his departure in 1968, was actually quite brief. And for most of that time he was already a dissident: as early as 1954, aged twenty-seven, he was being accused of “straying from Marxist-Leninist ideology.” In 1966 he delivered a famously critical lecture at Warsaw University on the tenth anniversary of the “Polish October” and was officially reprimanded by Party leader Wladyslaw Gomulka as the “main ideologue of the so-called revisionist movement.” When Kolakowski was duly expelled from his university chair it was for “forming the views of the youth in a manner contrary to the official tendency of the country.” By the time he arrived in the West he was no longer a Marxist (to the confusion, as we shall see, of some of his admirers); a few years later, having written the most important book on Marxism of the past half-century, Kolakowski had what another Polish scholar politely terms a “declining interest in the subject.”4

This trajectory helps explain the distinctive qualities of Main Currents of Marxism. The first volume, “The Founders,” is conventionally arranged as a history of ideas: from the Christian origins of the dialectic and the project of total salvation through German Romantic philosophy and its impact on the young Karl Marx, and on to the mature writings of Marx and his colleague Friedrich Engels. The second volume is revealingly (and not, I think, ironically) entitled “The Golden Age.” It carries the story from the Second International, founded in 1889, to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Here, too, Kolakowski is concerned above all with ideas and debates, conducted at a sophisticated level by a remarkable generation of European radical thinkers.

The leading Marxists of the age—Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Eduard Bernstein, Jean Jaurès, and V.I. Lenin—are all given their due, each accorded a chapter that summarizes with unflagging efficiency and clarity their main arguments and their place in the story. But of greater interest, because they don’t usually figure so prominently in such general accounts, are chapters on the Italian philosopher Antonio Labriola, the Poles Ludwik Krzywicki, Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz, and Stanislaw Brzozowski, together with Max Adler, Otto Bauer, and Rudolf Hilferding: the “Austro-Marxists.” The relative abundance of Poles in Kolakowski’s account of Marxism is doubtless owed in part to local perspective and some compensation for past neglect. But like the Austro-Marxists (accorded one of the longest chapters in the whole book) they represent an ever-timely reminder of the intellectual riches of Central Europe’s fin de siècle, forgotten and then expunged from a narrative long dominated by Germans and Russians.5

The third volume of Main Currents—the part that addresses what many readers will think of as “Marxism,” that is to say the history of Soviet communism and Western Marxist thought since 1917—is bluntly labeled “The Breakdown.” Rather less than half of this section is devoted to Soviet Marxism, from Stalin to Trotsky; the rest deals with assorted twentieth-century theorists in other lands. A few of these, notably Antonio Gramsci and György Lukács, are of continuing interest to students of twentieth-century thought. Some, such as Ernst Bloch and Karl Korsch (Lukács’s German contemporary), have a more antiquarian appeal. Others, notably Lucien Goldmann and Herbert Marcuse, seem even less interesting now than they did in the mid-Seventies when Kolakowski dismissed them in a few pages.

The book 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 concurs6 ). 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.7

On the link between Marxism and communism—which three generations of Western Marxists tried valiantly to minimize, “saving” Marx from his “distortion” at the hands of Stalin (and Lenin)—Kolakowski is explicit. To be sure, Karl Marx was a German writer living in mid-Victorian London.8 He can hardly be held responsible in any intelligible sense for twentieth-century Russian or Chinese history and there is thus something redundant as well as futile about the decades-long efforts of Marxist purists to establish the founders’ true intent, to ascertain what Marx and Engels would have thought about future sins committed in their name—though this reiterated emphasis on getting back to the truth of the sacred texts illustrates the sectarian dimension of Marxism to which Kolakowski pays special attention.

Nevertheless, Marxism as a doctrine cannot be separated from the history of the political movements and systems to which it led. There really is a core of determinism in the reasoning of Marx and Engels: their claim that “in the last analysis” things are as they have to be, for reasons over which men have no final control. This insistence was born of Marx’s desire to turn old Hegel “on his head” and insert incontrovertibly material causes (the class struggle, the laws of capitalist development) at the heart of historical explanation. It was against this convenient epistemological backstop that Plekhanov, Lenin, and their heirs were to lean the whole edifice of historical “necessity” and its accompanying machinery of enforcement.

Moreover, Marx’s other youthful intuition—that the proletariat has a privileged insight into the final purposes of History thanks to its special role as an exploited class whose own liberation will signal the liberation of all humankind—is intimately attached to the ultimate Communist outcome, thanks to the subordination of proletarian interests to a dictatorial party claiming to incarnate them. The strength of these logical chains binding Marxist analysis to Communist tyranny may be judged from the many observers and critics—from Mikhail Bakunin to Rosa Luxemburg—who anticipated communism’s totalitarian outcome, and warned against it, long before Lenin got anywhere near the Finland Station. Of course Marxism might have gone in other directions: it might also have gone nowhere. But “the Leninist version of Marxism, though not the only possible one, was quite plausible.”9

To be sure, neither Marx nor the theorists who followed him intended or anticipated that a doctrine which preached the overthrow of capitalism by an industrial proletariat would seize power in a backward and largely rural society. But for Kolakowski this paradox merely underscores the power of Marxism as a system of belief: if Lenin and his followers had not insisted upon (and retroactively justified in theory) the ineluctable necessity of their own success, their voluntaristic endeavors would never have succeeded. Nor would they have been so convincing a prototype to millions of outside admirers. To turn an opportunistic coup, facilitated by the German government’s transport of Lenin to Russia in a sealed train, into an “inevitable” revolution required not just tactical genius but also an extended exercise of ideological faith. Kolakowski is surely right: political Marxism was above all a secular religion.

Main Currents of Marxism is not the only first-rate account of Marxism, though it is by far the most ambitious.10 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.11

No Western commentator on Marxism, however critical, ever wrote like that.

But then Kolakowski writes as someone who has lived not just inside Marxism but under communism. He was witness to Marxism’s transformation from an intellectual theorem to a political way of life. Thus observed and experienced from within, Marxism becomes difficult to distinguish from communism—which was, after all, not only its most important practical outcome but its only one. And the daily deployment of Marxist categories for the vulgar purpose of suppressing freedom—which was their primary use value to Communists in power—detracts over time from the charms of the theorem itself.

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.12 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.13

It was just one such encounter which gave rise to the sardonic title essay in the newly published collection of Kolakowski’s writings. In 1973, in The Socialist Register, the English historian E.P. Thompson published “An Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski” in which he took the erstwhile Marxist to task for having let down his Western admirers by abjuring the revisionist communism of his youth. The “Open Letter” was Thompson at his priggish, Little-Englander worst: garrulous (the letter runs to one hundred pages of printed text), patronizing, and sanctimonious. In a pompous, demagogic tone, with more than half an eye to his worshipful progressive audience, Thompson shook his rhetorical finger at the exiled Kolakowski, admonishing him for apostasy:

We were both voices of the Communist revisionism of 1956…. We both passed from a frontal critique of Stalinism to a stance of Marxist revisionism…. There was a time when you, and the causes for which you stood, were present in our innermost thoughts.

How dare you, Thompson suggested from the safety of his leafy perch in middle England, betray us by letting your inconvenient experiences in Communist Poland obstruct the view of our common Marxist ideal?

Kolakowski’s response, “My Correct Views on Everything,” may be the most perfectly executed intellectual demolition in the history of political argument: no one who reads it will ever take E.P. Thompson seriously again. The essay explicates (and symptomatically illustrates) the huge moral gulf that was opened up between “Eastern” and “Western” intellectuals by the history and experience of communism, and which remains with us today. Kolakowski mercilessly dissects Thompson’s strenuous, self-serving efforts to save socialism from the shortcomings of Marxism, to save Marxism from the failures of communism, and to save communism from its own crimes: all in the name of an ideal ostensibly grounded in “materialist” reality—but whose credibility depended on remaining untainted by real-world experience or human shortcomings. “You say,” Kolakowski writes to Thompson, “that to think in terms of a ‘system’ yields excellent results. I am quite sure it does, not only excellent, but miraculous; it simply solves all the problems of mankind in one stroke.”

Solving the problems of mankind in one stroke; seeking out an all-embracing theory that can simultaneously explain the present and guarantee the future; resorting to the crutch of intellectual or historical “systems” to navigate the irritating complexity and contradictions of real experience; saving the “pure” seed of an idea or an ideal from its rotten fruit: such shortcuts have a timeless allure and are certainly not the monopoly of Marxists (or indeed the left). But it is understandably tempting to dismiss at least the Marxist variant of such human follies: between the disabused insights of former Communists like Kolakowski and the self-righteous provincialism of “Western” Marxists like Thompson, not to speak of the verdict of history itself, the subject would appear to have self-destructed.


Maybe so. But before consigning the curious story of the rise and fall of Marxism to a fast-receding and no- longer-relevant past, we would do well to recall the remarkable strength of Marxism’s grip upon the twentieth-century imagination. Karl Marx may have been a failed prophet and his most successful disciples a clique of tyrants, but Marxist thought and the socialist project exercised an unparalleled hold on some of the best minds of the last century. Even in those countries that were to fall victim to Communist rule, the intellectual and cultural history of the age is inseparable from the magnetic attraction of Marxist ideas and their revolutionary promise. At one time or another many of the twentieth century’s most interesting thinkers would unhesitatingly have endorsed Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s encomium:

Marxism is not a philosophy of history, it is the philosophy of history and to renounce it is to dig the grave of Reason in history. After that there can be no more dreams or adventures.14

Marxism is thus inextricably intertwined with the intellectual history of the modern world. To ignore or dismiss it is willfully to misinterpret the recent past. Ex-Communists and former Marxists—François Furet, Sidney Hook, Arthur Koestler, Leszek Kolakowski, Wolfgang Leonhardt, Jorge Semprun, Victor Serge, Ignazio Silone, Boris Souvarine, Manès Sperber, Alexander Wat, and dozens of others—have written some of the best accounts of twentieth-century intellectual and political life. Even a lifelong anti-Communist like Raymond Aron was not embarrassed to acknowledge his undiminished interest in the “secular religion” of Marxism (to the point of recognizing that his obsession with combating it amounted to a sort of transposed anticlericalism). And it is indicative that a liberal like Aron took particular pride in being far better read in Marx and Marxism than many of his self-styled “Marxist” contemporaries.15

As the example of the fiercely independent Aron suggests, the attraction of Marxism goes well beyond the familiar story, from ancient Rome to contemporary Washington, of scribblers and flatterers drawn to despots. There are three reasons why Marxism lasted so long and exerted such magnetism upon the best and the brightest. In the first place, Marxism is a very big idea. Its sheer epistemological cheek—its Promethean commitment to understanding and explaining everything—appeals to those who deal in ideas, just as it appealed for that reason to Marx himself. Moreover, once you substitute for the proletariat a party that promises to think in its name, then you have created a collective organic intellectual (in the sense coined by Gramsci) which aspires not just to speak for the revolutionary class but to replace the old ruling class as well. In such a universe, ideas are not merely instrumental: they exercise a kind of institutional control. They are deployed for the purpose of rescripting reality on approved lines. Ideas, in Kolakowski’s words, are communism’s “respiratory system” (which, incidentally, is what distinguishes it from otherwise similar tyrannies of fascist origin which have no comparable need of intelligent-sounding dogmatic fictions). In such circumstances, intellectuals—Communist intellectuals—are no longer confined to speaking truth to power. They have power—or at least, in the words of one Hungarian account of this process, they are on the road to power. This is an intoxicating notion.16

The second source of Marxism’s appeal is that Marx and his Communist progeny were not a historical aberration, Clio’s genetic error. The Marxist project, like the older socialist dream which it displaced and absorbed, was one strand in the great progressive narrative of our time: it shares with classical liberalism, its antithetical historical twin, that narrative’s optimistic, rationalistic account of modern society and its possibilities. Marxism’s distinctive twist—the assertion that the good society to come would be a classless, post-capitalist product of economic processes and social upheaval—was already hard to credit by 1920. But social movements deriving from the initial Marxian analytical impulse continued for many decades to talk and behave as though they still believed in the transformative project.

Thus, to take an example: the German Social Democratic Party effectively abandoned “revolution” well before the First World War; but only in 1959, at the Congress of Bad Godesberg, did it officially lift the mortgage of Marxist theory that lay upon its language and official goals. In the intervening years, and indeed for some time afterward, German Social Democrats—like British Labourites, Italian Socialists, and many others—continued to speak and write of class conflict, the struggle against capitalism, and so forth: as though, notwithstanding their mild and reformist daily practice, they were still living out the grand Romantic narrative of Marxism. As recently as May 1981, following François Mitterrand’s election to the presidency, eminently respectable French Socialist politicians—who would not have described themselves as “Marxist,” much less “Communist”—talked excitedly of a revolutionary “grand soir” and the coming transition to socialism, as though they were back in 1936, or even 1848.

Marxism, in short, was the deep “structure” of much progressive politics. Marxist language, or a language parasitic upon Marxist categories, gave form and an implicit coherence to many kinds of modern political protest: from social democracy to radical feminism. In this sense Merleau-Ponty was correct: the loss of Marxism as a way of relating critically to the present really has left an empty space. With Marxism have gone not just dysfunctional Communist regimes and their deluded foreign apologists but also the whole schema of assumptions, categories, and explanations created over the past 150 years that we had come to think of as “the left.” Anyone who has observed the confusion of the political left in North America or Europe over the past twenty years and asked themselves “But what does it stand for? What does it want?” will appreciate the point.

But there was a third reason why Marxism had appeal, and those who in recent years have been quick to pounce upon its corpse and proclaim the “end of History,” or the final victory of peace, democracy, and the free market, might be wise to reflect upon it. If generations of intelligent men and women of good faith were willing to throw in their lot with the Communist project, it was not just because they were lulled into an ideological stupor by a seductive tale of revolution and redemption. It was because they were irresistibly drawn to the underlying ethical message: to the power of an idea and a movement uncompromisingly attached to representing and defending the interests of the wretched of the earth. From first to last, Marxism’s strongest suit was what one of Marx’s biographers calls “the moral seriousness of Marx’s conviction that the destiny of our world as a whole is tied up with the condition of its poorest and most disadvantaged members.”17

Marxism, as the Polish historian Andrzej Walicki—one of its more acerbic critics—openly acknowledges, was the most influential “reaction to the multiple shortcomings of capitalist societies and the liberal tradition.” If Marxism fell from favor in the last third of the twentieth century it was in large measure because the worst shortcomings of capitalism appeared at last to have been overcome. The liberal tradition—thanks to its unexpected success in adapting to the challenge of depression and war and bestowing upon Western democracies the stabilizing institutions of the New Deal and the welfare state—had palpably triumphed over its antidemocratic critics of left and right alike. A political doctrine that had been perfectly positioned to explain and exploit the crises and injustices of another age now appeared beside the point.

Today, however, things are changing once again. What Marx’s nineteenth-century contemporaries called the “Social Question”—how to address and overcome huge disparities of wealth and poverty, and shameful inequalities of health, education, and opportunity—may have been answered in the West (though the gulf between poor and rich, which seemed once to be steadily closing, has for some years been opening again, in Britain and above all in the US). But the Social Question is back on the international agenda with a vengeance. What appears to its prosperous beneficiaries as worldwide economic growth and the opening of national and international markets to investment and trade is increasingly perceived and resented by millions of others as the redistribution of global wealth for the benefit of a handful of corporations and holders of capital.

In recent years respectable critics have been dusting off nineteenth-century radical language and applying it with disturbing success to twenty-first-century social relations. One hardly needs to be a Marxist to recognize that what Marx and others called a “reserve army of labor” is now resurfacing, not in the back streets of European industrial towns but worldwide. By holding down the cost of labor—thanks to the threat of outsourcing, factory relocation, or disinvestment18—this global pool of cheap workers helps maintain profits and promote growth: just as it did in nineteenth-century industrial Europe, at least until organized trade unions and mass labor parties were powerful enough to bring about improved wages, redistributive taxation, and a decisive twentieth-century shift in the balance of political power—thereby confounding the revolutionary predictions of their own leaders.

In short, the world appears to be entering upon a new cycle, one with which our nineteenth-century forebears were familiar but of which we in the West have no recent experience. In the coming years, as visible disparities of wealth increase and struggles over the terms of trade, the location of employment, and the control of scarce natural resources all become more acute, we are likely to hear more, not less, about inequality, injustice, unfairness, and exploitation—at home but especially abroad. And thus, as we lose sight of communism (already in Eastern Europe you have to be thirty-five years old to have any adult memory of a Communist regime), the moral appeal of some refurbished version of Marxism is likely to grow.

If that sounds crazy, remember this: the attraction of one or another version of Marxism to intellectuals and radical politicians in Latin America, for example, or in the Middle East, never really faded; as a plausible account of local experience Marxism in such places retains much of its appeal, just as it does to contemporary anti-globalizers everywhere. The latter see in the tensions and shortcomings of today’s international capitalist economy precisely the same injustices and opportunities that led observers of the first economic “globalization” of the 1890s to apply Marx’s critique of capitalism to new theories of “imperialism.”

And since no one else seems to have anything very convincing to offer by way of a strategy for rectifying the inequities of modern capitalism, the field is once again left to those with the tidiest story to tell and the angriest prescription to offer. Recall Heine’s prophetic observations about Marx and his friends at the midpoint of the nineteenth century, in the high years of Victorian growth and prosperity: “These revolutionary doctors and their pitilessly determined disciples are the only men in Germany who have any life; and it is to them, I fear, that the future belongs.”19

I don’t know whether the future of radical politics belongs to a new generation of Marxists, unmoved by (and perhaps unaware of) the crimes and failures of their Communist predecessors. I hope not, but I wouldn’t bet against it. Jacques Attali, one-time political adviser to President Mitterrand, last year published a large, hastily penned book on Karl Marx. In it he argues that the fall of the Soviet Union has liberated Marx from his heirs and freed us to see in him the insightful prophet of capitalism who anticipated contemporary dilemmas, notably the global inequalities generated by unrestrained competition. Attali’s book has sold well. His thesis has been widely discussed: in France, but also in Britain (where in a 2005 BBC Radio poll listeners voted Karl Marx “the greatest philosopher of all time”20 ).

Of course one could respond to Attali as Kolakowski responded to Thompson’s analogous claim that the good ideas of communism might be saved from its embarrassing actuality:

For many years I have not expected anything from attempts to mend, to renovate, to clean up or to correct the Communist idea. Alas, poor idea. I knew it, Edward. This skull will never smile again.

But Jacques Attali, unlike Edward Thompson and the recently resurfaced Antonio Negri, is a man with sharp political antennae, finely tuned to changes in the mood of the hour. If he thinks that the skull might smile again, that moribund, system-building explanations of the left may indeed be due for revival—if only as a counterpoint to the irritating overconfidence of contemporary free-marketeers of the right—then he is probably not wholly mistaken. He is certainly not alone.

In the early years of this new century we thus find ourselves facing two opposite and yet curiously similar fantasies. The first fantasy, most familiar to Americans but on offer in every advanced country, is the smug, irenic insistence by commentators, politicians, and experts that today’s policy consensus—lacking any clear alternative—is the condition of every well-managed modern democracy and will last indefinitely; that those who oppose it are either misinformed or else malevolent and in either case doomed to irrelevance. The second fantasy is the belief that Marxism has an intellectual and political future: not merely in spite of communism’s collapse but because of it. Hitherto found only at the international “periphery” and in the margins of academia, this renewed faith in Marxism—at least as an analytical tool if not a political prognostication—is now once again, largely for want of competition, the common currency of international protest movements.

The similarity, of course, consists in a common failure to learn from the past—and a symbiotic interdependence, since it is the myopia of the first that lends spurious credibility to the arguments of the second. Those who cheer the triumph of the market and the retreat of the state, who would have us celebrate the unregulated scope for economic initiative in today’s “flat” world, have forgotten what happened the last time we passed this way. They are in for a rude shock (though, if the past is a reliable guide, probably at someone else’s expense). As for those who dream of rerunning the Marxist tape, digitally remastered and free of irritating Communist scratches, they would be well-advised to ask sooner rather than later just what it is about all-embracing “systems” of thought that leads inexorably to all-embracing “systems” of rule. On this, as we have seen, Leszek Kolakowski can be read with much profit. But history records that there is nothing so powerful as a fantasy whose time has come.


The Case of E.P. Thompson February 15, 2007

  1. 1

    On Exile, Philosophy & Tottering Insecurely on the Edge of an Unknown Abyss,” dialogue between Leszek Kola- kowski and Danny Postel, Daedalus, Summer 2005, p. 82.

  2. 2

    Glowne Nurty Marksizmu (Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1976); Main Currents of Marxism (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1978).

  3. 3

    See e.g. his Chrétiens sans église: la conscience réligieuse et le lien confessional au XVIIe siècle (Paris: Gallimard, 1969); God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal’s Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism (University of Chicago Press, 1995); and the essays collected in My Correct Views on Everything, notably “The Devil in History” and “Concern with God in an Apparently Godless Era.”

  4. 4

    Andrzej Walicki, Marxism and the Leap to the Kingdom of Freedom: The Rise and Fall of the Communist Utopia (Stanford University Press, 1995), p. vii. Of his own journey from confident orthodoxy to skeptical opposition, Kolakowski has just this to say: “True, I was almost omniscient (yet not entirely) when I was twenty years old, but, as you know, people grow stupid when they grow older. I was much less omniscient when I was twenty-eight, and still less now.” See “My Correct Views on Everything: A Rejoinder to E.P. Thompson,” originally publishedin The Socialist Register, 1974; reprinted in My Correct Views on Everything, p. 19.

  5. 5

    Kelles-Krauz, at least, has been retrieved from neglect by Timothy Snyder, whose Nationalism, Marxism and Modern Central Europe: A Biography of Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz, 1872–1905was published by Harvard University Press in 1997.

  6. 6

    Elsewhere Kolakowski writes of Lukács—who served briefly as cultural commissar in Béla Kun’s Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919 and later at Stalin’s behest abjured every interesting word he ever penned—that he was a great talent who “put his intellect at the service of a tyrant.” As a result, “his books inspire no interesting thought and are considered ‘things of the past’ even in Hungary, his native country.” See “Communism as a Cultural Formation,” Survey, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Summer 1985); reprinted in My Correct Views on Everything as “Communism as a Cultural Force,” p. 81.

  7. 7

    See “What Is Left of Socialism,” first published as “Po co nam pojecie sprawiedliwosci spolecznej?” in Gazeta Wyborcza, May 6–8, 1995; republished in My Correct Views on Everything.

  8. 8

    In Main Currents Marx is firmly placed in the German philosophical world that dominated his mental landscape. Marx the social theorist receives short shrift. As for Marx’s contributions to economics—whether the labor theory of value or the predicted fall in the rate of profit under advanced capitalism—these get little sustained attention. Considering that Marx himself was unhappy with the outcome of his economic investigations (one reason why Das Kapital remained unfinished), this should perhaps be thought a mercy: the predictive powers of Marxian economics have long been discounted even by the left, at least since Joseph A. Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (Harper and Brothers, 1942). Twenty years later Paul Samuelson condescended to allow that Karl Marx was at best “a minor post-Ricardian.”

    Even for some of his own disciples, Marxist economics were rendered moot by history within a few years of their first appearance. In Evolutionary Socialism(first published in 1899), Engels’s friend Eduard Bernstein decisively dismantled the prediction that the contradictions of capitalist competition must lead to worsening conditions for workers and a crisis that could only be resolved by revolution. The best English-language discussion of this subject is still Carl E. Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905–1917: The Development of the Great Schism(Harvard University Press, 1955).

  9. 9

    Kolakowski, “The Devil in History,” Encounter, January 1981; reprinted in My Correct Views on Everything, p. 125.

  10. 10

    The best single-volume study of Marxism, brilliantly compressed but embracing politics and social history as well as men and ideas, remains George Lichtheim’s Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study, first published in London in 1961. Of Marx himself two very different biographies from the Seventies, by David McLellan (Karl Marx: His Life and Thought, Harper and Row, 1974) and Jerrold Seigel (Marx’s Fate: The Shape of a Life, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978), remain the best modern accounts, but should be supplemented with Isaiah Berlin’s remarkable essay Karl Marx: His Life and Environment, which first appeared in 1939.

  11. 11

    The Devil in History,” in My Correct Views, p. 133. A little later in the same interview Kolakowski emphasizes again the eschatological structure of political messianism: descent into hell, absolute break with past sins, the arrival of a New Time. But in the absence of God, such undertakings are condemned to incoherence; faith pretending to be knowledge doesn’t work. See pp. 136–137.

  12. 12

    The unreliability of such witnesses was a longstanding theme of Western progressive apologetics for Stalinism. In much the same way, American Sovietologists used to discount evidence or testimony from Soviet bloc exiles or émigrés—too much personal experience, it was widely agreed, can distort a person’s perspective and inhibit objective analysis.

  13. 13

    Kolakowski’s scorn for bien-pensant Western progressives was widely shared by fellow Poles and other “Easterners.” In 1976 the poet Antoni Slonimski recalled Jean-Paul Sartre’s encouragement to Soviet bloc writers twenty years earlier not to abandon Socialist Realism lest this weaken the “Socialist Camp” vis-à-vis the Americans: “Freedom for him, every limitation for us!” See “L’Ordre règne à Varsovie,” Kultura 3 (1976), pp. 26– 27, quoted in Marci Shore, Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism, 1918–1968 (Yale University Press, 2006), p. 362.

  14. 14

    See Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Humanisme et terreur: essai sur le problème communiste (Paris: Gallimard, 1947). The quotation is from the 1969 American edition, Humanism and Terror (Beacon), p. 153. For an exemplary account of the founding generation of Polish Communist intellectuals (a startlingly gifted group of artists and writers born around 1900, the last to be educated in the old polyglot empires and the first to come of age in independent Poland), see Marci Shore’s recently published Caviar and Ashes,a scholarly elegy to a lost world.

  15. 15

    Raymond Aron, “Un philosophe libéral dans l’histoire” (1973), in Essais sur la condition juive contemporaine(Paris: Éditions de la Fallois, 1989), p. 222. See also Aron, D’une sainte famille à l’autre: essais sur les marxismes imaginaires(Paris: Gallimard, 1969), p. 11: “Like the friends of my youth I never separated philosophy from politics, nor thought from commitment; but I devoted rather more time than them to the study of economics and social mechanisms. In this sense I believe I was more faithful to Marx than they were.” A full quarter- century after his death, Aron’s lectures on Marx at the Collège de France were reconstituted and published by his former students and colleagues under the revealing title Le Marxisme de Marx (Paris: Éditions de Fallois, 2002).

  16. 16

    György Konrád and Ivan Szelényi, The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979). Waclaw Machajski, an early-twentieth-century Polish anarchist, anticipated just this aspect of Marxism in his criticism of the implicit privileges that Marxist social democracy would accord the intelligentsia. See Marshal Shatz, Jan Waclaw Machajski: A Radical Critic of the Russian Intelligentsia and Socialism(University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989). Kolakowski discusses Machajski briefly in Main Currents(pages 493, 917) and in “The Myth of Human Self-Identity,” in The Socialist Idea: A Reappraisal, edited by Leszek Kolakowski and Stuart Hampshire (Basic Books, 1974), reprinted in My Correct Views on Everything.

  17. 17

    Seigel, Marx’s Fate, p. x.

  18. 18

    Intelligent proponents of globalization, like Jagdish Bhagwati, insist that free trade and international competition have not directly reduced the real wages of workers in advanced countries. But it is the threat of outsourcing, job loss, or factory relocation that restrains pressure for higher wages, not the fact of competition per se—and it applies with equal effect in unionized, “Rhineland” economies like Germany and more competitive societies like the US. But even Bhagwati concedes that there has been a steady depression of real wages in advanced countries, though in his optimistic account globalization has at least helped slow the process somewhat. See Jagdish Bhagwati, In Defense of Globalization (Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 123–124. See also the remarks by Paul Donovan, an economist at UBS, quoted in the Financial Times, June 5, 2006, p. 1: “The US labour market may be tightening but there is still an ample support of workers worldwide, and this may be capping what domestic workers can demand.”

  19. 19

    Quoted in S.S. Prawer’s Karl Marx and World Literature (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1976), p. 151.

  20. 20

    Marx received 28 percent of the votes cast, more than Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kant combined. David Hume came second with 13 percent.