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Another view of Kolakowski

This is a guest post by Dave Osler, which also appears at Dave’s Part.

Leszek Kolakowski – the noted Polish-born political philosopher, who has died aged 81 – probably deserves the designation of the embittered former leftist’s embittered former leftist of choice.

His principle work, ‘Main Currents of Marxism’, was widely touted in my undergraduate years as the definitive refutation of Marxism as a doctrine. The book runs to over 1,000 pages in the recently republished three-volumes-in-one omnibus edition, so it is verifiably magisterial in scope.

But wade through the telephone directory, and the content is utterly predictable; don’t try Marxism at home kids, it only leads to the Gulag Archipelago. Many others have said as much, with both somewhat greater cogency and somewhat greater brevity.

Naturally, the tributes from the usual suspects – Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen, Oliver Kamm, Harry’s Place – have been fulsome. And sure, any man who can pen an essay by the title ‘My Correct Views on Everything’ is perhaps worthy of grudging admiration on that ground alone.

Yet all of these pieces seem to take for granted Kolakowski’s chief contention, namely that Marxism as a philosophy was the direct cause of the ugly totalitarianisms that prevailed in so many countries that proclaimed themselves Marxist.

Standing from where we now stand in history, of course, the charge sheet looks bad. The Great Purge, anybody? The Great Leap Forward, peut être? I see your Hungary 1956, and raise you Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

It has rightly been said that it would be better for the contemporary far left to be more scarred by the experience of the twentieth century than it seemingly is, because those would be useful scars to have.

Surely Marxists should have learned not to defend out-and-out repressive theocracies like Iran, even if they do constitute ‘regional bulwarks against imperialism’. Nor does the US embargo excuse Cuba’s lack of multiparty democracy and trade union rights.

But these errors flow from the stupidity and reductionism of the leaderships of such far left formations as embrace these positions, rather than being in any way intrinsic to Marxism per se.

Marx, remember, was a German public intellectual living in exile in Victorian London. That specific class-divided social formations are riven with internal tensions, which subsequently exploded with ugly results, cannot meaningful be attributed to him, or to any other individual.

Suppose Marx’s ideas had not attracted followers in any large number, and had remained a charming period piece upheld by a handful of cultists, in much the manner of Madame Blavatsky’s theosophy.

Does that mean that Russia and China – to use the most important examples – would, by the middle of the last century, have developed into prosperous liberal democracies? Here we reach the realm of counterfactuals, but I cannot see any good reason to think so.

Historians debate what would have happened to Russia if Stolypin and the westernisers had prevailed. But there were clearly forces within Russia that would have been likely to succeed in derailing that scenario.

Airbrush Lenin and Trotsky out of the picture, and it is entirely possible that deeply reactionary and effectively fascist anti-semitism could have taken power. It is not difficult to imagine Kornilov blazing the trail for Mussolini and Hitler.

Without Mao, Japanese imperialism might have vanquished China, giving Japan access to raw materials and conceivably even manpower that would have made it harder to beat in world war two. Indeed, what if a Kornilovite fascist Russia had signed up to the axis?

As a Pole, Kolakowski had every reason to hate the social system Stalinism imposed on the country. But as history shows us, there are many historical circumstances in which the rulers of Russia seek to dominate Poland.

To him to suggest that Marx – an outspoken proponent of Polish independence – is somehow responsible for this unfortunate propensity is a travesty. Hitchens, Kamm, Cohen and HP really should know better.

David T adds:

Also see Norm.