Leszek Kolakowski the Polish philosopher died a few days ago. He began a zealous young Marxist in postwar Poland, was then a leading intellectual reform Communist in the 1950s and early 1960s who sought to revive an allegedly pure Leninist Communism shed of Stalinist corruptions and then finally renounced Marxism altogether. His major work on Marxism is the highly critical Main Currents of Marxism. Despite inevitable flaws it is an impressive peice of work. It is a philosopher’s history, on economic theory it is inferior to Howard & King’s History of Marxian Economics and on the failure of socialist economics Brus & Laski’s From Marx to the Market. His personal experience of the debacle of reform Communism is one hand valuable in parts of the third volume which take on an autobiographical tinge on the other hand his experience denies him empathy with those such as Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky who sought to uphold the Marxist revolutionary tradition. For a critical evaluation of Leninism Andrzej Walicki’s Marxism and the Leap to the Kingdom of Freedom is better. However Kolakowski correctly highlights the Utopian elements in Marxism which have inspired its disciples and which in practice legitimated vast cruelties. For myself whose preferred Marxism is that of the Second International this is a useful lesson. Thus his death has attracted sore comments from the contemporary keepers of the Marxist flame. One complains that:
Worse than Kolakowski’s misuse of Marx’s ouevre is his misunderstanding of Marx’s method. Kolakowski treats Marx as a curious cross between a second-rate bourgeois social scientist and a wild-eyed prophet. Marx’s use of the dialectic is treated either as a rhetorical affectation or as evidence of an appetitie for feverish pseudo-Hegelian speculation about ‘destiny’. Determined to ridicule his subject as a dogmatic false prophet, Kolakowski is incapable of appreciating the way that the dialectical method informed all of Marx’s thinking, making his concepts nuanced and contextual and open to continual refinement. Marx had no time for the static categories of bourgeois economics, just as he had no time for the dogmatism inherent in all prophecy. All of Marx’s concepts, even concepts as fundamental as ‘proletariat’ or ‘capital’, were dialectical abstractions, slices of an infinitely complex and continually changing reality. Kolakowski, though, insists on freezing the concepts of Marx and his followers, and treating them like the definitions of a dour analytic philosopher or number-crunching sociologist.
Unfortunately these categories have a way of taking a static reality in the hands of revolutionaries in power. Listening to two avowed Trotskyists at the 2009 Labour History conference I was confirmed in my belief that probably the best thing that happened to ‘Trotskyism’ was Trotsky’s death. In Australia Kolakowski’s short essay ‘How to be a conservative-liberal-socialist’ stands up fairly well, and in Australia was cited by Martin Krygier.