Leszek Kolakowski was to the study of Marxism what Gibbon was to the study of the Roman Empire, what Darwin was to the study of evolutionary biology, and what Einstein was to the study of general relativity. Main Currents of Marxism is a brilliant, dazzling, monumental work, which shows how Marxism came about, from what philosophical schools it was spawned, the nature and impact of concomitant theories of socialism and socialist philosophy, and how Marxism and socialism fared when put into action as government policy in the former Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact states, and China.
If the book were merely a philosophical survey of the works of Marx and Engels, along with a discussion of the sociopolitical impact of Marxism and its attendant philosophies, dayenu. But it is so much more. Not only are Marx’s and Engels’s works explained in great detail, but so are the works of a number of other Marxian/socialist/communist philosophers and political theorists, including, of course, Lenin. Kolakowski’s absolute command of his subject matter, his astonishingly delightful erudition, and his capacity for the understated, but devastatingly wry critique of his subjects is wondrous to behold. Main Currents of Marxism was produced by a writer and thinker who was at the peak of his powers, and who generously shared his gifts to augment scholarship, philosophical studies, and historical analysis. In writing his magnum opus, Kolakowski also helped readers, thinkers, and policymakers figure out how so much of the human race fell prey to Marxism, Marxian thought, and socialist beliefs. We can avoid the mistakes made in the past if we heed Kolakowski’s words.
The book is valuable insofar as it teaches us who is not a Marxist, or a socialist, and however much one may disagree with the policies of the Obama Administration, reading Kolakowski shows why it is silly to call the Administration’s policies “Marxist” or “socialist”; the President and most of the members of his Administration are contemporary American liberals with whom it is possible to have sincere disagreement without confusing them for the subjects of Kolakowski’s work. While it may be rhetorically effective to call the Administration a bunch of Marxists or socialists, intellectually speaking, the practice is misguided and the appellations are utterly inaccurate.
By contrast, the various philosophers and political leaders who get skewered by Kolakowski–in the non-histrionic, but utterly powerful manner in which he skewered them–deserved and deserve the excoriations they got at his hands. Marx and Engels may have been more democratic than the various Marxists/communists/socialists that followed them–Marx and Engels were not, after all, Blanquists–but as Kolakowski wrote, they should have foreseen the possibility that someone like Lenin would come along and put a terrifyingly totalitarian face on their utopian visions for a different and better world. People like Ernst Bloch, and Herbert Marcuse deserve to have been mocked and ridiculed. The naïveté of people like Charles Fourier and Pierre Joseph Proudhon should have been exposed for all to see and to laugh at, and to cause wonderment amongst readers that they and their kind could have ever been taken seriously; at least Marx was a formidable thinker, even if his sociopolitical, economic, and philosophical theories ended up turning out crankish and horrifying consequences. And the likes of Stalin and Mao deserve to have been condemned in Kolakowski’s pages; not just for the sickening brutality that characterized their regimes–though again, dayenu–but also for the poverty of thought and intellectual rigor that characterized their respective runs of despotism (Kolakowski rightly points out that philosophy utterly atrophied in the Soviet Union thanks to Stalin’s intolerance for any ideas other than his own second-rate musings, and reminds readers of Mao’s utterly bizarre anti-intellectualism; among other things, Mao told his followers that they must take care to not read too many books, not even Marxist/communist books. The mind reels).
Equally laudable is Kolakowski’s condemnation of systems and organizations. He points out the fallacy behind Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin; denouncing Stalin was good as far as it went, but it was daft to think that the problems of the Stalinist era were attributable only to the tyranny of one man, and that but for that man, the Soviet system would have worked perfectly and to everyone’s satisfaction. If the system were as good and as effective as its boosters claimed, it would have been beyond Stalin’s power to have wreaked so much havoc on the Soviet Union. Of his native Poland, and its struggles, Kolakowski writes eloquently, and his descriptions of the tragicomic existence of the Warsaw Pact countries and China under communism are must-reads.
I try to refrain from exaggeration, but this is one of the best books I have ever read. It is sweeping in its mastery of the history and ideas behind Marxism, Marxian thought, and socialist/communist beliefs, withering in the accuracy and power of its critiques, and unerringly moral in the thesis it advances. Marxism brought about human depredation on a vast and almost unimaginable scale. Fortunately, Leszek Kolakowski brought his light against Marxism’s darkness.