Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Barack and Leszek

This blog has made a belated and rather oblique entry into the discourse surrounding the US Democratic Party primaries, thanks to Canadian academic and political commentator Will Roberts, who is querying the ability of conservative pundit John Derbyshire to call Barack Obama close-minded. Derbyshire recently made Obama an offer he can probably afford to refuse:

Modern American conservatism is a huge and various body of thought, with many mansions. Has Obama explored it? I'll lend him my Nash if he wants to make a start. Heck, I have read Kolakowski all the way through, all three volumes; has Obama read Hayek? Buckley? Kirk?

But is Derbyshire such a good sport? Was he really wading masochistically through a foul swamp of lefty agitprop when he read Leszek Kolakowski's three-volume Main Currents of Marxism? Roberts rightly rubbishes the claim that the Polish philosopher is some kind of lefty:

Kolakowski was an ideological anti-Marxist, and Main Currents is a faux-intellectual hatchet-job. An anti-Marxist who reads Kolakowski will find all of their prejudices bolstered, and that's about of the fundamental and unquestioned premises of Kolakowski's whole approach is that there is an essential Marxism underlying everything in the Marxist tradition, and that the main currents of Marxism are all corrupted indifferently by this essential character. This thesis is not demonstrated, but presupposed. To say that such a presupposition "refutes" anything is to mistake a catechism for an argument.

Kolakowski doesn't read the texts of the Marxist tradition; he uses them as screens onto which he projects his catechism. There is nothing honest about Main Currents except the author's open avowal of his antipathy to Marxism.

Roberts supports his case by quoting a post I made back in 2006 on Kolakowski's dust-up with his sometime buddy EP Thompson.

That post was based on some of my PhD research, and I don't feel any need to modify the very negative view it took of Kolakowski. I don't think there's much point in studying any thinker if you're not prepared to make an effort to enjoy them, and in the course of my PhD research I've fallen in and out of love with some rather unlikely characters. Kolakowski, though, has completely failed to move me, and not only because he's easily the ugliest philosopher since Socrates. I think Will is on the money when he describes Kolakowski as a deeply dogmatic philosopher less interested in exploring ideas than enacting catechisms.

I'm not only whingeing at old Leszek for the way he's treated the Marxist tradition(s) in his academic writing over the past thirty years. Back in the '50s, when he was a keen young Stalinist in his native Poland, he used to inveigh against the Catholic intellectual tradition using exactly the same method. In his early and later writings, Kolakowski's method is simultaneously scholastic and vulgarly reductive. I can't think of a less fruitful approach to intellectual history.

Kolakowski's thinking is scholastic, because he understands the history of ideas, and complex intellectual traditions like Marxism, as nothing more than the history of texts, rather than as a something with a sociological, real-world dimension. The complex process by which even the most highfalutin' ideas are interpreted, amended, and distorted in the grimy world of politics is lost on Kolakowski, who seems to think that the practice of Stalin or Mao was a simple enactment of orders Marx wrote a century earlier.

And Kolakowski's approach is reductionist, because he does not consult texts in a fair-minded and systematic manner. Instead of ploughing through the voluminous writings of Marx or Gramsci or Luxembourg, Kolakowski seizes on a handful of phrases, often taken out of context, and diagnoses his subject on the basis of a cursory inspection of these specimens.

It is interesting to compare Kolakowski to Louis Althusser, another scholar who often succumbed to scholasticism. Like Kolakowski, Althusser tended to see the Marxist tradition as a succession of yellowing texts. Unlike Kolakowski, though, Althusser was an obsessive reader, who became obsessed with the complexity and disunity of the ideas of Marx and the other great thinkers whose Collected Works he trawled. Althusser may have ended up going mad, but his recognition of the complexity and contradiction which must lie at the heart of any robust intellectual tradition makes him a saner guide to the Marxist tradition than comrade Kolakowski. Of course, you could always ignore them both and employ me as your cut-price guide instead.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent piece, Maps. For me his reputation has always preceded him so have never found the time to waste to peruse his Main Currents. Now I can see it was time well spent doing other things.

4:55 am  
Blogger Will Roberts said...

I just wandered back through old posts and caught your comment and link. Thanks.

Your point of contrast with Althusser is spot-on, I think: Althusser is at his best when he's emphasizing the disunity of the Marxist corpus, and insisting upon the need to intervene in it, pick a side, and help to reconstruct it. And that's why Althusser was an anti-Stalinist within the PCF, while Kolakowski remained a Stalinist even after becoming an anti-Marxist!

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