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Kolakowski and Judt on Marxism

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Tony Judt is wonderful here in the New York Review of Books on Kolakowski’s writings, largely on or in relation to Marxism.

For those of you who may be as ignorant as I was prior to reading this, “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… 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.”

Judt argues that “Kolakowski’s thesis, driven through 1,200 pages of exposition, is straightforward and unambiguous. Marxism… should be taken seriously: not for it 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 concurs). 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.”

Kolakowski, it appears, considers Marxism dead, writing in 1973 to E.P. Thompson, “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.”

Judt is not so sure: “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…

“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…

“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…

“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.”

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Written by Admin

October 25, 2006 at 8:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses

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  1. I’ve got the 3 volumes of Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism at home and am still working my way through them. He really does bring the topic to life.

    Jason Soon

    October 25, 2006 at 8:59 am

  2. I posted on the Judt review at philosophy.com

    The title of Judt’s review is Goodbye to all That? Kolalowski argues for that position. Judt thinks otherwise.

    He gives two reasons. Firstly, to ignore or dismiss Marxism is willfully to misinterpret the recent past. Secondly, in terms of the reappearance of a reserve army of labor— not in the back streets of European industrial towns but worldwide.

    So what does the Catallaxy community reckon about Judt’s argument.

    Gary Sauer-Thompson

    October 25, 2006 at 11:25 am

  3. I’ll have to read through the available material more carefully before I can form any view, Gary. Even so, I did enjoy this post, and now want to read Kolakowski’s books.

    So many books, so little time.

    skepticlawyer

    October 25, 2006 at 12:40 pm

  4. ” 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. ”

    I’m not sure I agree with this. I’m not sure that the brightest need to be telling everyone else how to live or that they somehow have a monopoly in having good intentions that must be acted upon. In short, I am not sure if intellectuals ever make good political leaders. In fact I would hazard the opposite…. intellectuals should never be allowed near the levers of power as they have often proved to be terrible leaders. Rather it is aptitude that has more bearing. Quite frankly the brightest professor of medicine could also be worst leader imaginable. All too often, intellectuals giving their input that turns out to be both useless and dangerous have corrupted economic policies. The great society movement in the American 60’s is a case in point. We’re still trying to rid ourselves from that dandy of an experiment.

    “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.”

    I disagree with this. I think this destiny is very much tied to what the producing class is able to come up with to make out lives better. That’s the mistake the left is always making. The world doesn’t just revolved around the poor and the unfortunate. It revolved around for all of us to enjoy. It is not my fault and neither should it be my entire focus in life. Moreover polices that are of the best intentions may also be the road that leads to hell.

    South America is the perfect example where this Romantic version of Marxism ends up. If there was ever a place or a region where the left has this romantic feel for Marx it is South America. For all intents and purposes the place is a slag heap.

    Romanticism is also bullshit anyway. It never lasts and it always has to end up back in the real world instead of fairyland.

    Do your self a favor and see Marxism for what it was. It was a vain and stupid attempt to explain human behavior modification with disastrous results. Get it out of your head, there’s nothing romantic in Marx.

    jc

    October 25, 2006 at 5:41 pm

  5. Dude forgot to mention that Marx was a COMMIE.

    Marx was an utopian eschatologist.

    You cannot get to grips with the guy without that particular Rosetta Stone.

    GMB

    October 25, 2006 at 6:15 pm

  6. Marxism surfed at least three “waves” of thought. One of the waves was the immense authority of science among educated and progressive people 150 years ago. The other was the Judao-Christian moral imperative to promote justice and especially to help the poor and the weak. A third wave was the economic illiteracy of radicals and conservatives alike.

    This meant that the positive function of free markets (especially for the able-bodied poor) was never understood by enough people to resist the manifold interventions of the state which almost invariably aggravate the problems they are supposed to ameliorate. That applies in the Third World as well, so Gary has missed the point of global free trade.

    Judt’s biggest weakness is that he misread the lesson of the industrial revolution and he persists with the idea that markets under the rule of law will result in some kind of meltdown and hence permit Marxism or something like it to rise again.

    Rafe Champion

    October 25, 2006 at 6:32 pm

  7. Rafe,
    Gary has not missed the point of free trade. I was stating Judt’s postion.

    Re the positive function of free markets: I would have thought that it was widely acknowledged that Marx understood the revolutionary nature of capitalism in creating world markets and battering pre capitalist formations (India and China) and in undermining the traditions defended by Burkean conservatives. Marx celebrates the dynamism of capitalism.

    I would not have thought that the welfare state (for all its many flaws) aggravated the problems of poverty for the working class in the Depression. That is an odd reading of Australian history. It helped ameliorated that poverty in association with the long boom in post war capitalism.

    Gary Sauer-Thompson

    October 25, 2006 at 8:38 pm

  8. “I would not have thought that the welfare state (for all its many flaws) aggravated the problems of poverty for the working class in the Depression.”

    Sure it did. We had to get wages and prices down. That was the mission. To the extent that there was anything holding wages and prices up we had a problem.

    But isn’t that funny.

    I don’t think Rafe said anything you are implying that he said?

    There wasn’t much of a welfare state around during the Depression was there?

    Hey. You know? I looked again.

    And he said nothing about the depression.

    You got some critique on something he actually DID say?

    GMB

    October 25, 2006 at 8:51 pm

  9. GMB
    I expressed myself badly.

    I should have said the welfare state was the social democratic response to the Great Depression, and that it helped to ameliorate the problems of poverty that the working and middle classes suffered in the Depression.

    It was a political solution to what was understood to be an economic problem. So liberalism in the form of social democracy blunted the Marxist critique of capitalism.

    The Australian middle and working class embraced social democracy after 1945 and rejected Marxism. Stalinism as the core of Marxism—Kolakowski’s thesis—was a secondary consideration in Australia.

    Gary Sauer-Thompson

    October 25, 2006 at 10:25 pm


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