Leszek Kolakowski
Leszek Kolakowski; drawing by David Levine

In Poland during the early 1950s Leszek Kolakowski took part with the other Marxist philosophers in battles “combating the non-Marxist tradition,” as he puts it in Main Currents of Marxism. He does not, he now dryly remarks, “regard the fact as a source of pride.” In 1952 he had written that

philosophical opinions express class interests; that it is in the interest of the progressive class to strive for an objective knowledge of the world, that the proletariat is the only class which is interested in an absolutely objective knowledge of the world, without any class limitations deforming the picture of reality; that, in consequence, the ideology of the working class, precisely because of its origin, is free from all mystifications and distortions in its cognizance of the world, which arise because of class limitations, and that, in contrast to the “Atlantic philosophers,” the class character of Marxism is the source of and not a fetter on its objectivity.1

A few years later he became Poland’s most important Marxist revisionist, singled out by the regime as the “chief culprit” of the movement to challenge the Party’s ideology. He sought then to distinguish “intellectual” from “institutional” Marxism, and its “permanent” from its “transitory” aspects. The former comprised not “a doctrine that must be accepted or rejected as a whole” but a “vital philosophical inspiration affecting our whole outlook on the world, a constant stimulus to the social intelligence and the social memory of mankind,” enabling us

to look at human affairs through the prism of universal history; to see, on the one hand, how man in society is formed by the struggle against nature and, on the other hand, the simultaneous process by which man’s work humanizes nature; to consider thinking as a product of practical activity; to unmask myths of consciousness as resulting from ever recurring alienations in social existence and to trace them back to their real sources.2

Now two decades later Kolakowski dismisses altogether the revisionists’ attempt to reinterpret the Marxist tradition in ways opposed to Lenin’s and to attack official communism “within the framework of Marxism.” Marxism, he now writes, “has been the greatest fantasy of our century…a dream offering the prospect of a society of perfect unity, in which all human aspirations would be fulfilled and all values reconciled.” It gave expression to “the self-deification of mankind” and has ended by revealing itself as “the farcical aspect of human bondage.” As “an explanatory ‘system’ it is dead, nor does it offer any ‘method’ that can be effectively used to interpret modern life, to foresee the future, or cultivate utopian projections.”

One can see the three volumes of Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism as the latest works in the tradition of The God That Failed. He lays particular stress on the salvationist and mythological side of Marxism and on its religious functions and efficacy, though he also observes that it is a “caricature and a bogus form of religion, since it presents its temporal eschatology as a scientific system, which religious mythologies do not purport to be.” Undoubtedly he has written the finest study we have of these aspects of Marxism. Few have thought more deeply about this question than Kolakowski, whose important study of seventeenth-century nondenominational Christianity (published in Warsaw in 1965) traced the subtle interdependencies of orthodoxy and heresy. The fundamentalists of that period, he argued, lacked any real power to “transform the collective and hierarchical forms of religious life in line with their own ideas.” As for the Marxist heresy of his fellow revisionists, he now writes that it could only be effective while the Party took the traditional ideology seriously and the apparatus was to some degree sensitive to ideological questions. Revisionism cut the ground from under its own feet, since it “was a major cause of the fact that the Party lost its respect for official doctrine and that ideology increasingly became a sterile though indispensable ritual.”

These volumes are, however, far more than a distinguished apologia for apostasy. They are a deeply impressive examination of the entire Marxist tradition, marked by lucid and accurate exposition, sustained and high-level analysis, and a passionately committed point of view which, for the most part, distorts neither exposition nor analysis. The first volume, drafted in 1968, after Kolakowski’s dismissal from his professorship at Warsaw University, deals solely with the “Founders”—Marx, Engels, and their precursors and socialist contemporaries. It incorporates a remarkable discussion of the origins of the dialectic in doctrines, from Plotinus to Hegel, which postulate that man’s essence and his empirical being will ultimately be unified in the same identity. In a clear and scrupulous analysis of the canonical texts, in chronological order, Kolakowski gives a persuasive account of the chief differences between Marx and Engels.

The second and third volumes, written at Oxford between 1970 and 1976, deal respectively with what Kolakowski sees as the “Golden Age” of the Second International and the “Breakdown” during the last fifty years. All the principal Marxist thinkers are given separate treatment, including the Poles Krzywicki, Kelles-Krauz, and Brzozowski. There are extensive discussions of the Revisionist debates at the turn of the century, Austro-Marxism and Neo-Kantianism, pre-Leninist Russian Marxism, Leninism, and Stalinism. The post-Stalin period Kolakowski surveys in a rather perfunctory final chapter, declaring himself “not convinced that the subject is intrinsically worthy” of more extended treatment.


Kolakowski describes his work as a “handbook” and “historical manual” intended for “anyone seeking an introduction to the subject.” His plain prose, without footnotes, should be easily understandable to nonspecialist readers, but since the analysis of Marxist texts and communist history could never be innocent and uncontroversial the book also presents an implicit interpretation addressed to those familiar with Marxist debates. Marx’s doctrine, in Kolakowski’s view, combines three principal elements. First, a Romantic critique of man’s dehumanization by capitalism which looks forward to a state of collective freedom and unity. Second, a Promethean faith that man will work his own salvation as the proletariat gains collective control over nature, physical and social. And third, a historical determinism that derives from the material burdens that have weighed upon mankind but will be thrown off by revolution, enabling men to control the conditions of their lives.

This doctrine, Kolakowski suggests, is underpinned by the epistemological view that Marxism is itself the self-knowledge of the revolutionary class as it transforms the world, uniting theory and practice and the subject and object of history, causing the process of history and the free development of consciousness to become one and the same. And Kolakowski argues that this epistemology was decisive as Marxism became institutionalized as an instrument of power under Lenin and in the subsequent development of the Soviet system under Stalin—which Kolakowski sees as “a continuation of Leninism” and as not “affected in any essential way by the changes of the post-Stalinist era.”

Kolakowski admits that the Leninist-Stalinist version of Marxism was “a possible interpretation, though certainly not the only possible one, of Marx’s doctrine.” But this admission amounts to little, since, if freedom, for Marx, is measured in the last resort by the degree of social unity, and class interests are the only source of social conflict, then despotism is a “natural solution” of the problem of establishing social unity “inasmuch as it is the only known technique for the purpose”:

perfect unity takes the form of abolishing all institutions of social mediation, including representative democracy and the rule of law as an independent instrument for settling conflicts.

According to Kolakowski, there were no real choices: Stalin “realized Marxism-Leninism in the only possible way by consolidating his dictatorship over society, destroying all social life that was not state-imposed and all classes, including the working-class itself.” Trotsky offered no alternative path: his program was the same, but for many reasons he was ill-suited to carry it out and “Stalin was Trotsky in actu.” In short, Kolakowski’s argument is that Marxism contained essential features, as opposed to accidental or secondary ones, which suited it perfectly to be the ideology of Soviet depotism; while Soviet communism has realized Marx’s ideals in the only way feasible in an industrial society.

Kolakowski writes as a historian of ideas and a philosopher. In analyzing “the strange fate of an idea which began in Promethean humanism and culminated in the monstrous tyranny of Stalin” he sees himself as placed “outside ideology” and therefore outside Marxism itself, concerned neither with who “correctly” interpreted—and who betrayed—Marxism nor with attributing historical “responsibility” or “guilt.” Rather he wants to trace the determining historical influence of a specific cluster of ideas, on the assumption that they are not completely subservient to events and have a life of their own. He concentrates on Marxism insofar as it seeks “to answer certain questions that philosophers have posed for centuries in one form or another,” such as the dilemma of utopianism versus historical fatalism, of voluntarism and determinism, of theory and practice, and of fact and value.

One crucial issue, which recurs throughout the work, and clearly preoccupies its author, is the attitude of Marx and subsequent Marxists to morality. Is moral judgment, as the neo-Kantians claim, a matter of choice and decision, impossible to derive from scientific analysis and empirical knowledge? Or is it, as Engels, Kautsky, and Plekhanov thought, irrelevant, rendered obsolete by the march of science. Or is it, as Kolakowski believes Marx and Lukács thought, indistinguishable from the collective self-understanding of the proletariat as it destroys the old world to create a new? Kolakowski favors the first view of moral judgment and argues powerfully for it.


Still, Kolakowski’s mainly philosophical approach imposes real limitations, primarily omissions, on his mode of analysis and selection of topics. Coming from an author who has passed through the fire of Marxism, Kolakowski’s work has a strangely abstracted quality, presenting, as he himself says, “as briefly as possible, the basic facts showing the connection between the development of the doctrine and its function as a political ideology.” Apart from his discussion of Stalinism, one has little sense of how social and economic developments can exert pressures on doctrines, how doctrines and political movements can affect one another. Instead, Kolakowski gives us very brief sketches of the social background to the ideas he analyzes. In this respect, George Lichtheim’s Marxism, the only work I know of that is comparable to Kolakowski’s in range if not in analytical depth, gains by comparison.

Furthermore, the writings of Marxists on political economy and social, especially historical, analysis are given relatively little attention, above all in the most recent period. There is nothing, for instance, about post-Stalinist historians or economists who are Marxists or influenced by Marxism. The works of E.P. Thompson, Eugene Genovese, or Eric Hobsbawm are as neglected as are the writings of Joan Robinson and Michael Kalecki. Yet it could plausibly be argued that Marxist ideas most forcefully demonstrate their continuing explanatory power in the work of such writers.

Again, it is a pity that Lukács’s literary criticism is given such short shrift and that the ideas of Jürgen Habermas, who grapples with many of the same deep and perplexing issues as Kolakowski, are not more seriously examined. At times, moreover, the sustained and reasoned analysis gives way to impatience and polemical exaggeration, above all in the chapters on Rosa Luxemburg, Herbert Marcuse (who cannot be accused of having condoned the burning of books), and György Lukács.

The chapter on Lukács holds the key to the entire work. As will be seen from the quotation with which I began this review, the young Kolakowski, in his orthodox Marxist phase, accepted Lukács’s argument that Marxism itself could somehow be identified with the self-legitimating consciousness of the proletariat, which has a privileged access to objective truth. In his introduction to the present work he writes that “it is easy to see that my reading of Marx was influenced more by Lukács than by other commentators, though I am far from sharing his attitude to the doctrine.” Indeed he now writes of Lukács that “his dogmatism was absolute, and almost sublime in its perfection” and that he was “perhaps the most striking example in the twentieth century of what may be called the betrayal of reason by those whose profession is to use and defend it.”

In making his case against Lukács, Kolakowski is implacable. Though a “true intellectual” and “a man of immense culture,” Lukács was “one who craved intellectual security and could not endure the uncertainties of a skeptical or empirical outlook.” His claim, after the event, to have been a critic of Stalinism who toed the line for tactical reasons is untrue: for “one who objects in private but joins in the public chorus of praise is not an objector, but a eulogist pure and simple.” Indeed, the burden of Lukács’s argument is “precisely to justify such obedience,” for he accepted “the principle that the limits of discussion and of cultural freedom are fixed at any given time by the party (i.e., the party bureaucracy), which cannot be subject to any higher authority.”

Furthermore, Lukács “alone expressed the fundamental tenets of Leninism in the language of the German philosophical tradition.” By invoking a genetic criterion of truth, according to which Marxism is true, not because it is supported by ordinary scientific arguments, but because it emanates from a historically privileged and infallible class, Lukács provided the perfect intellectual warrant for Leninism, and one which escaped Lenin himself. Marx’s mythology of the proletariat is, according to Kolakowski, reduced in Lukács’s theory to “pure party dogmatism”: on this basis, “the unity of theory and practice, of facts and values turns-out to be simply the primacy of political commitment over intellectual values: an assurance given by the Communist movement to its members that they possess the truth by virtue of belonging to the movement.”

As we have seen, Lukács was also, for Kolakowski, the thinker who “interpreted Marx afresh and more accurately than anyone before him,” unintentionally revealing, along with Karl Korsch and Ernst Bloch, the “mythological, prophetic, and utopian sense of Marxism which had eluded Marx’s more scientistic followers.” In short, Lukács embodies the most accurate interpretation of Marx, the best justification for Leninism, and the most abject intellectual apologia for Stalinism. These three volumes can, indeed, be seen as Kolakowski’s final settling of accounts with Lukács and the mode of thinking he represented. By contrast, Kolakowski himself stands for “intellectual, logical and empirical criteria of knowledge,” for the distinction between fact and value, for the belief that irreducible conflicts over values are unavoidable and can at best be “mitigated by compromise and partial solutions.”

There is, however, an unresolved internal problem in Kolakowski’s argument. For on the one hand he argues that there are historical links between the essential claims of Marx’s doctrine (as interpreted by Lukács) and the totalitarian disaster of Leninism and Stalinism. On the other hand, he makes it very clear that, from Engels onward, the influential Marxists of the Second and Third Internationals interpreted Marx’s thought quite differently: for Plekhanov, Kautsky, and Lenin, Marx was not, as for Kolakowski, a German philosopher, but an economist and social scientist. The interpretations of Lukács, Korsch, and Bloch, after all, have had little historical influence. Kolakowski seems at times to read into the historical record his own interpretation of the Marxist canon, although influential Marxist themselves, on his own showing, interpreted it otherwise. At the very least, this suggests that he has overestimated the baneful influence of Marx’s theory on subsequent Marxist practice.

Kolakowski’s work poses a challenge to all those who continue to see virtues in its author’s courageous revisionist position of the 1950s and all those who disagree with this wholesale rejection of the entire Marxist tradition. The task of such critics is rendered easier than it might have been by Kolakowski himself, since some of what he has written calls into question his own identification of the “essentials” of Marx’s thought with Lukács’s version, and of this version with the historical Marx who held sway over the Second and Third Internationals. Kolakowski had eloquently argued a different view from Lukács’s in 1957. He then argued that “intellectual” Marxism does not have to be accepted or rejected as a whole and

in many fields of research, particularly in political and economic history as well as in the history of various areas of culture, Marx’s theoretical achievements have played a significantly creative role, and this in spite of institutional Marxism.3

In Main Currents of Marxism one can still find support for such an interpretation. Kolakowski writes admiringly, for example, of Gramsci’s work, which he claims is “more embarrassing than useful” to orthodox Leninists and Stalinists:

Gramsci did not believe in historical determinism or in “laws of history” using the human will as their instrument, but he also rejected the Blanquist or Jacobin notion of a political coup as a purely technical operation. He believed that the human will was not governed by any historical necessity, but he naturally did not regard it as completely unfettered. Socialist revolution was for him a matter of will—but it must be the will of the masses, who aspired to organize production themselves and had no desire to transfer their rights to self-appointed “scientific” guardians.

Kolakowski also finds something to praise in the writings of the Austro-Marxists, including Rudolf Hilferding, Karl Renner, Max Adler, and Otto Bauer, who aimed to consolidate the philosophical basis of Marxism as a “scientific theory,” studying such problems as Marx’s theory of value and the relation of nationalism to the international socialist movement. The Austro-Marxists “stressed the intellectual and moral universality of Marxism,” as a humane and ethical view “appealing to all rational minds and not only those who were interested in the theory by reason of their class position.”

So one reaches the end of Kolakowski’s book by no means convinced that the Marxist tradition is intellectually exhausted. But the great eloquence and intellectual force of his work lie in its examination of the possible connections between Marxist ideas and their harnessing to the service of a system of unparalleled political and cultural repression. If this work does not explore those connections altogether convincingly, it still forces us to confront them; and it raises the discussion of them to a new level.