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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

  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.

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