Kolakowski’s Ghost

Well then. I suppose it would be pointless to apologize for the long periods of silence that have characterized this blog for the last several months. One can only note, by way of explanation, that both of your humble hosts have been busy relocating themselves to far-flung corners of the country and embarking on new new endeavors, both professional and scholastic.

In any case, I, for one (and, given the fact that most of our readers have probably long since deserted us, I may be the only one), have not (yet) forgotten about the blog and, as I settle in to my new environs and routine, intend to start posting more. Unfortunately, I am for the time being largely deprived of Internet access, save through a 3g connection on my iPad, whose browser seems somewhat less than fully compatible with WordPress’s interface. So I’ll keep this brief.

I’ve just finished reading David Priestland’s The Red Flag: A History of Communism. The book started out promisingly enough, as a history of Communism as an idea and as an ideology. By the end, alas, it had transformed itself into a fairly standard narrative of the political histories of the Soviet Bloc, China, and, to a much lesser extent, Communist states in Africa and Latin America. The book was explicitly framed around the idea that, in the wake of 9/11 and the 2008 financial collapse, Marxist ideas are beginning to enjoy a sort of rennaisance. “Whilst nobody is calling for the return of the rigid Soviet economic model,” Priestland writes,

Marx’s critique of the inequality and instability brought by unfettered global capital has seemed prescient; sales of Capital, his masterwork, have soured in his German homeland.

“The history of Communism,” he goes on to write, “therefore seems to be more relevant to today’s concerns than it was in the early 1990s.”

Well, perhaps.

Having read his book, however, one cannot help but recall that nagging retort that one is inevitably confronted with when discussing the crimes of Communism with those who still hew to one brand of Marxism or another: “Well, that’s not real Marxism!” This old hobby horse comes packaged in a number of different forms, from the “Stalin corrupted everything” line to the argument that “Marx himself would never have called himself a Marxist.”

As Priestland notes in the conclusion to his book:

Everyday repression… highlighted the link between Marxism and inhumanity. This sparked an ongoing debate about Marx’s own responsibility for the apparently inherent tendency to violence his ideas provoked. Some of Marx’s ideas — especially his rejection of liberal rights and his assumption of complete popular consensus in the future — were used to justify projects of total state control and mobilization, even if that was not what he envisaged. Marx’s and Engels’ praise of revolutionary tactics at times in their careers was also used to legitimize violence. Even so, as his defenders argued, Marx himself opposed the elitist politics pursued by Marxist-Leninist parties, and would not have approved of the regimes that Communism created.

By happy circumstance, I chanced upon a book at the local used bookstore entitled Stalinism: Essays in Historical Interpretation, published in 1977. One of the contributors is the famous Leszek Kolakowski, who died two years ago yesterday. Kolakowski’s contribution is entitled “Marxist Roots of Stalinism,” and, as one can probably glean from the title, it seeks to highlight the very real connections between a supposedly “pure” Marxism and its corrupted cousin, “Stalinism.”

I won’t try to reproduce the whole of his argument, which is, perhaps, nicely distilled by Kolakowski himself, when he writes that “the dry skeleton of Marxism, deprived of its complexity, was taken up by Soviet ideology as a strongly simplified, yet not falsified, guide to building a new society”; I simply wish to leave you with the following quote, which, I think, serves as a fair retort to the “false Marxism” argument that I have been thinking about over the last couple of days:

An example of a question that is both unanswerable and pointless is “What would Marx say had he survied and seen his ideas embodied in the Soviet system?” If he had survived, he would have inevitably changed. If by miracle he was resurrected now, his opinion about which is the best practical interpretation of his philosophy would be just an opinion among others and could be easily shrugged off on the assumption that a philosopher is not necessarily infallible in seeing the implication of his own ideas.

In short, what Kolakowski is saying, is that what Marx “would have thought” is almost wholly irrelevant. In terms of evaluating the historical legacy of Marxism, all we have to go by are the numerous example of “real existing socialism,” to steal a phrase, and the promises of those who carry on Marx’s tradition (they’re relatively easy to identify, since they tend to fancy the label “critical”) that next time really will be better.

In any case, if all of this seems a bit out of the blue, I suppose it is, prompted as it was only by my finishing Priestland’s book, the discovery of Kolakowski’s essay, and the realization that we’ve just marked the anniversary of his death.

Still, at least there’s some new content on the blog. Also, apologies for any weird formatting issues here. As I said, the iPad isn’t really the ideal platform for using Wordpad’s web interface. Maybe there’s an app for that…

* I find it interesting, at a time when scholars are busily investigating the deleterious effects of capital on African societies, that we hear little of the attempts, beginning in the 1960s, of various African leaders, specifically drawing on a rather modernist version of Marx, to forcibly industrialize and urbanize their countries. The radical social transformations wrought by Marxian leaders in Africa seems to go rather unremarked upon, at least in comparison to the deluge of scholarship treating the question of neo-liberalism and its effects in Africa.


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