Thirty-three years ago two old friends and allies spent a weekend together in a beautiful eighteenth century house in the English Midlands. The connection between English historian EP Thompson and Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski went back to 1956. The dramatic events of that year - Krushchev's denunciation of Stalin, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and massive anti-Soviet protests in Poland - had brought both men to prominence as 'dissident' communists, critical of the Soviet Union and its satellite parties in Eastern and Western Europe.
In the years after 1956, both Thompson and Kolakowski had produced streams of politically engaged writing, writing that inspired the members of what is sometimes called the 'Old New Left', that amorphous but outspoken movement of youth and intellectuals determined to find a 'Third Way' - the phrase had not yet been tarnished - between Stalinist communism and Western capitalism and imperialism. Thompson and Kolakowski had devoured each other's writing, and after an exiled Kolakowski arrived in Britain in 1968 they became acquainted in person. By 1973, when Edward and Dorothy Thompson hosted Kolakowski at their home in the rolling hills outside Worcestershire, it was apparent that the ties that went back to 1956 had loosened.
After the collapse of the Old New Left in Britain and the rise of a 'New New Left' more orientated toward student politics, national liberation struggles in the Third World, and Continental Marxist theorists like Sartre and Althusser, Thompson had largely withdrawn from political activism. Despite his disappointments, though, Thompson remained a convinced socialist who identified as a Marxist and supported the working class movement confronting the Tory government of Edward Heath in the early '70s. By contrast, Kolakowski had ceased to define himself as a socialist, except in the loosest sense of the word, and had made a series of scathing attacks on the Western as well as Eastern left in right-wing publications like the CIA-funded journal Encounter
. Dorothy Thompson remembers that during the conversations of that 1973 weekend the difference in the old comrades' political trajectories became unmistakable.
EP Thompson was never a man to dodge an argument, and late in 1973 his 'Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski'
appeared in the Socialist Register
, a yearly journal edited by two other veterans of the Old New Left, John Saville and Ralph Miliband. Running to ninety-nine pages, and studded with quotes from Wordsworth and Auden as well as Marx and Alasdair MacIntyre, Thompson's epistle was a passionate appeal against an old friend's rejection of Marxism and the socialist project. Against Kolakowski's pessimism about the prospects for Marxism and the possibility of radical social change, Thompson insisted upon the existence of a 'Marxist tradition' irreducible to the crimes of Stalin and his successors.
The 1974 issue of the Socialist Register
led off with Kolakowski's cool and rather terse reply to Thompson's flood of words. Described by Saville and Miliband as 'a tragic document', 'My Correct Views on Everything' found little common ground with Thompson:[Y]ou keep believing that communism was in principle an excellent contrivance, somewhat spoilt in less than perfect application. I hope to have explained to you why, for many years, I have not expected anything from attempts to mend, to clean up or to correct the communist idea. Alas, poor idea. I knew it, Edward. This skull will never smile again.
Thompson never replied in writing to 'My Correct Views on Everything', but at the end of 1974 the two old comrades did cross swords at a seminar held at Oxford, where Kolakoswki had become a professor. In 1978, Thompson collected his 'Open Letter' in The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays
, but when that book was reprinted in 1996 the text was quietly dropped. For his part, Kolakowski never bothered to collect 'My Correct Views on Everything'. Out of the shadows
Now, after decades in the shadows, the debate between Thompson and Kolakowski has returned to print, and is enjoying at least a measure of attention. St Augustine's Press has made the reply to Thompson the title essay of a new collection of Kolakowski's writing about communism, religion, and 'various unpleasant dilemmas of our civilisation'. A couple of pages of Thompson's 'Open Letter' are included in the book, in a rather inadequate attempt to remind readers of the original context of 'My Correct Views on Everything'.
In an article for a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Tony Judt
has excavated the Kolakowski-Thompson debate, and tried to connect it with wider discussions about the nature and future of Marxist theory and left politics. Norton has recently republished Kolakowski's Main Currents of Marxism
, a long and hostile account of the development of Marxism, and Judt recommends this text as well as My Correct Views About Everything
to his readers. Judt assures us that Main Currents of Marxism
'is the most important book on Marxism of the past half-century' and 'will surely not be superseded'. He repeats Kolakowski's explanation of Marxism as an mixture of 'Romantic illusion' and 'uncompromising historical determinism', seasoned with a whiff of pseudo-Christian apocalypticism. This odd brew has a tendency to upset the mental balance of intellectuals.
Judt makes a great deal of the fact that Kolakowski undertook his intellectual apprenticeship in Poland, and suffered repression at the hands of that country's political and intellectual establishment in the decade after 1956. Kolakowski, we are assured, has first-hand experience of the consequences of Marx's malign doctrine, and is thus in a better position than privileged and protected Western intellectuals to appreciate the flaws in that doctrine. Kolakowski's exposure to 'actually existing socialism' did influence his understanding of Marxism, but not in the way that Judt imagines. Despite his political changes of heart, Kolakowski has never shaken off the habits of thought he learned from doctrinaire Stalinists in the frosty first decade of the Cold War. In his early twenties Kolakowski made a name for himself as the Communist Party's most energetic critic of Catholicism, that traditional enemy of the Polish left.
The young Kolakowski's criticisms of the Catholic tradition betray the classical intellectual method of Stalinism. In essay after essay, Kolakowski essentialises a complex body of ideas, reducing it to a few crude formulations, links these formulations to discredited political positions, and gives the ideas a teleological quality, in an effort to undercut any future attempt to revise or otherwise rehabilitate them. Under the guise of intellectual history, the young Stalinist pursues the crudest political polemic.
The same procedure can be observed in My Correct Views on Everything
and Main Currents of Marxism
. Marx wrote millions of words in an extraordinary range of genres, from political journalism to poetry to history to 'pure' economics. This immense oeuvre is filled with change and contradiction. It is the record of a political and intellectual quest, not a set of commandments. Yet Kolakowski is able to reduce Marx's life's work to a few hackneyed formulations:The idea that the whole theory of communism may be summed up by the single phrase 'abolition of private property' was not invented by Stalin...The point is that Marx really did consistently believe that human society would not be 'liberated' without achieving unity. And there is no known technique apart from despotism whereby the unity of society can be achieved...
A good example of the poverty of Kolakowski's method is his treatment of Marx's view of the likelihood and likely location of a future socialist revolution. Referencing a handful of texts, Kolakowski claims that Marx believed that socialist revolution would break out in the 'advanced' countries of the West, and that it was well-nigh inevitable. Marx's careful reassessment of the prospects for socialist revolution in the West after the destruction of the Paris Commune in 1871, and the growing interest he showed in Russia and other 'undeveloped' societies in the last decade of his life are ignored by Kolakowski, lest they disturb his smug attribution of failure to Marx's 'prophecies', and his claim that the Bolshevik revolution could never have been forseen by the author of Capital
. (Kolakowski's claim that Marx could never have anticipated the October revolution looks rather uncomfortable beside his attempt to make Marx responsible for the degeneration of that revolution and the depredations of Stalin.)
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.
Judt is oblivious to the weaknesses in Kolakowski's understanding of Marx and Marxism. Indeed, he repeats some of Kolakowski's most dubious arguments, insisting that 'neither Marx nor the theorists who followed him intended or anticipated' socialist revolution outside Western Europe, and characterising Lenin, that most voluntarist of all Marxists, as a crude fatalist who 'insisted upon the ineluctable necessity' of the triumph of Bolshevism. The Making of the 'Open Letter'
After lauding Kolakowski, Judt launches an attack on EP Thompson and the 'Open Letter'. For Judt, this 'patronising and sanctimonious' text represents Thompson at his 'priggish, Little Englander worst':In a pompous, demagogic tone, with more than half an eye to his worshipful progressive audience, Thompson shook his rhetorical finger at the exiled Kolakowski, admonishing him for apostasy...How dare you, Thompson suggested from the safety of his leafy perch in middle England, betray us by letting your inconvenient experiences in Communist Poland obstruct the view of our common Marxist ideal?
Judt calls Kolakowski's reply to Thompson 'the most perfectly executed intellectual demolition in the history of political argument'. No one who reads it 'will ever take Thompson seriously again'. The author of The Making of the English Working Class
, veteran of the batte of Cassino, and leader of the international volunteer labour force that built a railway across the wilderness of post-war Bosnia stands exposed as a 'lazy' man 'untainted by real-world experience', who was interested in Marxism only because it 'made it possible for him to master all of history and economics without having to study either' and thus 'solve the problems of mankind in one stroke'. According to Judt, Thompson is not even interested in debating Kolakowski seriously - he is more interested in whitewashing the Soviet Union and its uncritical supporters than in dealing with the principled positions of the Polish critic of the New Left.
A short narrative of the making of the 'Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski' may help to expose the injustice of Judt's claims about the text and about its author. Both John Saville and Ralph Miliband had been keen for EP Thompson to write something for the 1973 Socialist Register
. Thompson had been instrumental in launching the journal ten years earlier, and his 1964 essay 'Peculiarites of the English' remained the most celebrated text the journal had published. Early in 1972, after prompting from the editors, Thompson announced an interest in writing a piece on 'women's lib'. By the end of May, though, he had become less keen on the idea:I must withdraw the suggestion of a piece on women's lib: I don't have either the time or the heart for this right now. I already have enough enemies on the left, without bringing down upon me the whole tribe of womankind, in addition to those particular members of it to whom I've already given offence.
Elsewhere in the same letter Thompson foreshadowed the central argument of the 'Open Letter':I have also long intended to do a piece on Marxism as Tradition...a piece distinguishing the notion of Marxism as a system from Marxism as a tradition. A trouble with this is that it is wholly out of phase with current young Marxism...
Thompson's claim that his notion of Marxism was 'out of phase' reflects his alienation from what we have called the New New Left, and the antagonism he had long felt toward many of its intellectual heroes. In 'Where Are We Now', a long internal document written during the feuding between the 'Old' and 'New' New Left at the New Left Review in 1963, Thompson had criticised the 'fashionable Third Worldism' of 'Continental Marxists' like Jean-Paul Sartre. In the 'Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski', these criticisms would be renewed and extended, as Thompson met Kolakowski's condemnation of the 'generation of 1968' halfway. One of the most memorable passages in the 'Open Letter' comes when Thompson dramatises his alienation from the new generation of Marxist intellectuals who were tuning into thinkers like Sartre and Althusser:I cannot fly. When you spread your wings and soar into the firmament where Kierkegaard and Husserl, Heidegger, Japsers and Sartre and the other great eagles soar, I remain on the ground like one of the last great bustards, awaiting the extinction of my species on the diminishing soil of an eroding idiom, craning my neck into the air, flapping my paltry wings. All around me my younger feathered cousins are managing mutations; they are turning into little eagles, and whirr! with a rush of wind they are off to Paris, to Rome, to California.
Late in 1972 Thompson considered writing a critique of Tom Nairn, a key figure in Britain's New New Left, before settling on Kolakowski as a subject. By the beginning of 1973 Thompson had been dismayed the news that his old ally was busy organising the conference that would be held in April at Reading University under the title 'The Socialist Idea: a Reappraisal'. Writing to Saville in March, Thompson described Reading's Graduate School of Contemporary European Studies, which was co-hosting the conference with the publishing house Weidenfeld and Nicholson, as 'a horrific set of people'. Robert Cecil, the head of the School, was a 'NATO professor'.
Thompson researched his 'Open Letter' with the fervour and thoroughness that might be expected from the author of The Making of the English Working Class
. 'I ransacked the Brum [Birmingham University] library yesterday for Kolakowski items', he reported gleefully to Saville on the 15th of March 1973. The great length of the 'Open Letter' was in part a consequence of Thompson's insistence on assessing Kolakowski's thinking very carefully, and formulating his own ideas carefully. Not for the first time, Thompson's assiduity threatened to drive his editors to distraction. On May Day 1973 John Saville wrote to his fellow Marxist historian Victor Kiernan, complaining that:[T]he editorial bed of nails is more probing than usual...When I tell you Edward Thompson is writing an open letter to Leszek Kolakowski of which he has only done the first 20,000 words so far...you will understand the beginnings of our problems.
When Thompson finally delivered the 'Open Letter' to Saville and Miliband in the middle of 1973, the text's hostility toward the New New Left tempered the editors' relief. Both Saville and Miliband wrote suggesting Thompson tone down his criticisms of the New New Left, and in particular of the circle surrounding Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn at the New Left Review. Miliband also suggested Thompson was exaggerating his own isolation from the British left in a somewhat self-pitying manner. Thompson shot back a closely-argued eight-page letter defending his text. He particularly wanted to make clear the connection between his critique of Kolakowski and his critique of the New New Left:I cannot argue with Kolakowski from an undefined position: but to define my position I must at the same time disassociate myself from that of NLR [New Left Review] II...
Thompson's concept of Marxism-as-tradition was intended as a way of conceding some criticisms of Stalinism and of the New New Left, without accepting the argument against Marxism itself. Thompson considered Kolakowski's arguments relevant to those who conceived of Marxism as a 'doctrine' or as a 'method', but not to the notion of Marxism-as-tradition:In choosing the term tradition I choose it with a sense of the meanings established for it within English literary criticism. You might prefer, as a philosopher, the term 'school'. But it is easier, to my mind, to think of a plurality of conflicting voices which, nevertheless, argue within a common tradition...
Thompson's 'Open Letter' thus attempted to differentiate its author's beliefs from the Marxisms of the New New Left - Marxisms Thompson understood only imperfectly - as well as the Stalinism that had been rejected in 1956 and the anti-Marxism of Kolakowski and the NATO professors who gathered at Reading in April 1973.
Thompson's criticisms of the New New Left and of trendy Continental Marxists like Sartre and Althusser did not win him many friends on the British left. Writing in the History Workshop Journal
a quarter century later, Jonathan Ree remembered the reaction of his friends and colleagues to the 'Open Letter':They regarded socialist humanism as obsolete, and EP Thompson as an obsessive individualist stuck in the past. To put it politely, the 'Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski' bored them.
Even some old allies were alienated by the 'Open Letter'. By 1976, Ralph Miliband's misgivings about the text had grown. In a letter to Saville, he decided that Thompson had been far too kind to Kolakowski and far too hard on the New New Left:Thompson's letter to Kolakowski was really an exercise in attacking the left...that should have been very clear to us...If it comes down to a choice between Edward and Perry Anderson's lot, I know who I'd choose...Explanatory or rhetorical power?
It is clear that Tony Judt is guilty of distorting the meaning of Thompson's 'Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski'. It is absurd to try to characterise the 'Open Letter' as a defence of Stalinism and the 'excesses' of left politics in the late 60s, written by a lazy and cloistered intellectual who wanted only to impress an adoring New Left audience. The 'Open Letter' is the work of a veteran Marxist and long-time critic of Stalinism who was concerned - perhaps overly concerned - to distance himself from the contemporary British left and from most contemporary Marxisms, as well as from the anti-Marxism Kolakowski had embraced by 1973. Writing for a large-circulation publication about an obscure and still mostly out of print text, Judt has failed to give his readers an accurate summary of Thompson's argument against Kolakowski, let alone an accurate account of the crcumstances surrounding the clash between the Polish philosopher and the English historian.
Judt is a busy man: his articles for the New York Review of Books
are squeezed out when he is not performing his duties as a senior academic at New York University. A charitable person might suggest that Judt did not have time to (re)read the 'Open Letter' before writing about it. Leszek Kolakowski, though, did not have the same excuse when he wrote 'My Correct Views on Everything'. Kolakowski had been acquainted with Thompson's writing for at least a decade, and had seen the 'Open Letter' even before it was published. Despite these advantages, Kolakowski also failed to engage with the substance of Thompson's arguments. Like Judt, he ignored Thompson's painstaking efforts to work out an original and nuanced notion of Marxism, and instead launched a series of attacks on Stalinism and on a parody of the New Left. In the notes to The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays
, Thompson would justly complain that Leszek Kolakowski's text 'did not engage with me'.
The real reason for the failure of Judt and Kolakowski to deal with Thompson fairly is simple. Both men have an understanding of Marxism that is so simplistic that it cannot hope to accomodate the nuances of Thompson's thought, or the thought of most other important Marxist thinkers. Whatever other flaws it possesses, Thompson's pluralist, anti-essentialist notion of Marxism-as-tradition cannot be written off as a species of 'uncompromising historical determinism' or 'Romantic illusion'. Kolakowski and Judt must replace it with straw men, lest it undermine their own dogmatic 'explanations' of Marxism.
The last part of Judt's piece highlights the poverty of his theory of Marxism. In a twenty-first century world of 'pre-emptive' wars and savage neo-liberalism disguised as 'globalisation', Judt fears that the 'moral appeal of some refurbished version of Marxism is likely to grow'. Considering Jacques Attali's fashionable new book on Marx, Judt complains that, 'since no one else seems to have anything very convincing to offer', a 'renewed faith in Marxism' is becoming the 'common currency of international protest movements'. For Judt this twenty-first century Marxism is simply a rehash of the creed Kolakowski denounces: with its 'fantasy' of revolutionary change it is no better than the neo-conservatism doctrine in favour in Washington. Kolakowski's reply to Thompson and his history of Marxism can be 'read with much profit' by liberals who want to lance the new Marxist boil.
It seems to me that Kolakowski's reductionist and dogmatic view of Marxism has even less explanatory value today than it had thirty-three years ago. With the demise of the Soviet Union and the decline of its former satellite parties the forces calling themselves Marxist have become far more fragmented and diverse. Judt refers to the popularity of Marxism in Latin America, in the wake of the upsurge in social conflict there, but even in the Latin American countries that have moved farthest leftwards no brand of Marxism has achieved hegemony. In Venezuela and Bolivia, the most popular left ideology appears to be syncretic, blending elements of Guevaraism and Trotskyism with certain 'bourgeois nationalist' ideas and - in Bolivia at least -traditional indigenous beliefs. It would be quixotic indeed to make the 'Bolivarian socialism' espoused by Hugo Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement an epiphenomenon of What Is To Be Done?
. Whatever flaws it has, Thompson's notion of Marxism-as-tradition seems better able to accomodate the diversity of 'actually exisiting socialism' in the first decade of the twenty-first century than the caricatures drawn by Judt and Kolakowski.
Perhaps, though, some of the people who read Judt are less interested in explanatory power than rhetorical power. With its crude and fanatically held central tenets and promise of inevitable violence and tyranny, Judt's and Kolakowski's 'Marxism' can sit comfortably beside 'Islamofascism' and 'anti-globalisation Luddite' in the bestiary of imperialism's twenty-first century apologists. Kolakowski's writings may yet play a bit part in the 'war of ideas' George Bush has declared on the opponents of the 'free world' that My Correct Views on Everything
spends so much time defending.
*All of the correspondence quoted in this post comes from the Saville Papers in the archives of the Brynmor Jones library at the University of Hull.