Leszek Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism

Leszek Kolakowski’s (10/23/1927–7/17/2009) 1,284-page masterwork, Main Currents of Marxism,

Photo from the John W. Kluge Center

is challenging reading, but it is essential for any person who would wish to understand global political activity in the past two centuries, and who would wish to build a just society without falling into terrible mistakes previously committed in the name of social justice.

Main Currents of Marxism is also a startling history of ideas. Early in the book, Kolakowski avoided getting caught within the three most common rationalizations pertaining to the relationship between Marxism and Communism, as Kolakowski put it, “Whether modern Communism, in its ideology and institutions, is the legitimate heir of Marxian doctrine.” —

“The three commonest answers to this question may be expressed in simplified terms as follows:

  1. Yes, modern Communism is the perfect embodiment of Marxism, which proves that the latter is a doctrine leading to enslavement, tyranny, and crime;
  2. Yes, modern Communism is the perfect embodiment of Marxism, which therefore signifies a hope of liberation and happiness for mankind;
  3. No, Communism as we know it is a profound deformation of Marx’s gospel and a betrayal of the fundamentals of Marxian socialism.” (p. 5)

Rather, Kolakowski stated,

“The problem facing the historian of ideas, therefore, does not consist in comparing the ‘essence’ of a particular idea with its practical ‘existence’ in terms of social movements. The question is rather how, as a result of what circumstances, the original idea came to serve as a rallying-point for so many different and mutually hostile forces; or what were the ambiguities and conflicting tendencies in the idea itself which led to its developing as it did?” (p. 6)

Kolakowski then charted the course of his study around the following question:

“The present conspectus of the history of Marxism will be focused on the question which appears at all times to have occupied a central place in Marx’s independent thinking: viz., how is it possible to avoid the dilemma of utopianism versus historical fatalism? In other words, how can one articulate and defend a viewpoint which is neither the arbitrary proclamation of imagined ideals, nor resigned acceptance of the proposition that human affairs are subject to an anonymous historical process in which all participate but which no one is able to control?” (p. 9)

Reading Kolakowski’s book is in itself an education, for his insights and especially his asides reveal a profound understanding of the human condition. Someone trying to build a just society without reading Kolakowski would be flying blind. Why would anyone want to do that?

Please consider carefully Kolakowski’s following exhortation about always seeking for the truth–

“The cultural role of philosophy is not to deliver the truth but to build the spirit of truth, and this means never to let the inquisitive energy of mind go to sleep, never to stop questioning what appears to be obvious and definitive, always to defy the seemingly intact resources of common sense, always to suspect that there might be ‘another side’ in what we take for granted, and never to allow us to forget that there are questions that lie beyond the legitimate horizon of science and are nonetheless crucially important to the survival of humanity as we know it.”

From Leszek Kolakowski’s essay, “Death of Utopia Reconsidered,” in his book Modernity on Endless Trial, 1990.

What an admirable statement!

© Copyright 2010, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved


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2 Responses to “Leszek Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism”

  1. […] addition, to pursue Marxist analysis and politics without reading every page of Leszek Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism is be both intellectually lazy and politically […]

  2. […] communists in their Black Book of Communism, the relentless and thorough vivisection of Marxism by philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, and the complete moral and historic discrediting of the late New York Times journalist Walter […]

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