Reading Marxism through Kolakowski

In the New York Review of Books, Tony Judt takes another look at Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism (which Cosma Shalizi will tell you is the magesterial piece on the topic) and the history and future of the movement.

Main Currents of Marxism is not the only first-rate account of Marxism, though it is by far the most ambitious. What distinguishes it is Kolakowski’s Polish perspective. This probably explains the emphasis in his account on Marxism as an eschatology —”a modern variant of apocalyptic expectations which have been continuous in European history.” And it licenses an uncompromisingly moral, even religious reading of twentieth-century history:

The Devil is part of our experience. Our generation has seen enough of it for the message to be taken extremely seriously. Evil, I contend, is not contingent, it is not the absence, or deformation, or the subversion of virtue (or whatever else we may think of as its opposite), but a stubborn and unredeemable fact.

No Western commentator on Marxism, however critical, ever wrote like that.

But then Kolakowski writes as someone who has lived not just inside Marxism but under communism. He was witness to Marxism’s transformation from an intellectual theorem to a political way of life. Thus observed and experienced from within, Marxism becomes difficult to distinguish from communism—which was, after all, not only its most important practical outcome but its only one. And the daily deployment of Marxist categories for the vulgar purpose of suppressing freedom—which was their primary use value to Communists in power—detracts over time from the charms of the theorem itself.