Low Marx

Main Currents of Marxism: Its Rise, Growth and Dissolution

by Leszek Kolakowski, translated by P.S. Falla
Oxford University Press, Volume III: The Breakdown, 548 pp., $19.95

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…

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