Thursday, July 23, 2009

Who's the anachronism?

The death last week of the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski has drawn a number of readers to this blog, including Geoff Robinson, an Australian political historian. Robinson observes that Kolakowski was famous for his criticisms of Marx, and complains that the man's passing has prompted 'sore comments from the keepers of the Marxist flame', including yours truly.

I thank Geoff for his link to this blog, but I'm not sure he has entirely understood the post he has cited, which is called 'Tony Judt, Leszek Kolakowski, and the Stalinist school of anti-communism'. The post certainly doesn't contain any 'sore comments' on the death of Kolakowski - it was was written nearly three years ago, as part of a PhD thesis on EP Thompson which was finished last year. I was examining the debate between Thompson and Kolakowski back in the early '70s, and Tony Judt's interpretation of that debate. Judt claims that Thompson attacked Kolakowski because the Pole did not subscribe to the tenets of the most fanatical and faddish members of the New Left.

Anybody who reads Thompson's text 'An Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski', which (quite unfairly) describes the abortive 1968 revolution in France as a 'rich kid's revolutionary farce' and (more reasonably) mocks Western students who wear Mao suits and grow Che beards, ought to know that Judt's claims hold no water. Thompson, whose politics looked back to the 1930s and the Popular Front, not forward to feminism and black power and other emerging trends on the left, actually shared Kolakowski's unease with the 'generation of 1968'. He differed from Kolakowski, though, in refusing to abandon his commitment to socialist politics and Marxist ideas.

In his 'Open Letter', Thompson developed the notion of Marxism as a 'tradition' - a tradition of debate, as much as agreement. He contrasted this notion with the 'Marxism as doctrine' espoused by some of the more dogmatic intellectual gurus of the New Left. By coining the notion of 'Marxism as tradition', Thompson was attempting to engage with the New Left, without necessarily endorsing all of its ideas.

In the piece Robinson has quoted I suggest that, in retrospect, Kolakowski's understanding of Marxism seems to have many of the same qualities as the dogmatic definitions of the Maoists and other neo-Stalinists Thompson mocks in his 'Open Letter'. Both Kolakowski the anti-Marxist and his dogmatic Marxist opponents hold to the view that Marx's works form a coherent, unified whole, and both Kolakowski and his targets hold that these ideas have had a decisive impact on the development of nations like the Soviet Union and China, 'overdetermining' the interpretations produced by the people who actually run those countries.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that both the professional anti-communists of the West and the dogmatic Marxists who looked to regimes of the East for inspiration held to an interpretation of Marx and Marxist history that was legitimated by the Cold War, and not by the shape of Marx's oeuvre or the patterns of communist history. Marx's work is not unified and univocal: it is a vast collection of fragments. Even Capital, which is supposed to Marx's canonical work, is unfinished, and perhaps unfinishable. In his last decade, when he was supposed to be writing the final volumes of the work, Marx immersed himself in studies of early and pre-capitalist societies like Russia, North Africa, and Aboriginal Australia, and overturned many of his earlier assumptions about capitalist development and the likely location of anti-capitalist revolution. Anybody who reads the late 'Letter to Vera Zasulich' alongside the violently imperialist first section of The Communist Manifesto can see the change that the man's thinking underwent.

Marx's work was simplified by Engels and by members of the Second International like Kautsky, who actually suppressed troublesome texts like the letter to Zasulich. The Bolsheviks also promoted a simplified view of Marx's oeuvre, both before and after the Octber revolution. By reducing Marx's intellectual inspiration to three sources - French Utopian socialism, German idealism, and English political economy - Lenin was able to ignore vast amounts of Marx's writing, as well as much of his reading.

If a simplified Marx suited the man's political heirs, it also suited the anti-Marxists of the West. By treating Marx's ideas as coherent and self-sufficient, and treating the actions of every regime which called itself Marxist as a logical expression of these ideas, they were able to make the case against the 'God that failed' easier intellectually, as well as more significant politically.

The history of avowedly Marxist movements that took power was subjected to a similar simplification. For obvious reasons, Soviet rulers never admitted the profound differences between the policies pursued in different periods in early Bolshevik history - between War Communism and the New Economic Policy, for instance - and the incompatibility of many of these policies with texts like Lenin's State and Revolution, let alone Marx's The Civil War in France.

In recent decades some of the more neglected parts of Marx's ouevre have been published, translated, and circulated. Perhaps just as importantly, the Cold War has ended, and the freeze it seemed to impose on certain interpretations of Marx and of communist history has gone. Over the last three decades a series of scholars, including EP Thompson, have been able to reinterpret Marx as something other than a latter-day Moses, handing down a set of political commandments carved in stone. Over the last decade a succession of very innovative interpretations of communist history have appeared, including Lars Lih's monumental study of Lenin's What Is To Be Done? , which shows that the text has much in common with the Second International Marxism that Lenin would later condemn with such fury, and James D White's essays on the October revolution, which show that the event was far more chancy and involved far more Mensheviks than has previously been supposed.

Leszek Kolakowski liked to talk of Marxism and socialism as dogmatisms that had beem made obsolescent by the history of the late twentieth century. He was inclined to see anyone interested in Marx and in socialist politics as a quixotic anarchronism. In truth, though, it was Kolakowski who had become an anachronism with the end of the Cold War. Like the Stalinists he had so often condemned, he had adopted a worldview which relied upon an interpretation of Marx and Marxist history that was ballasted by the Cold War, rather than by facts. When the Cold War ended, and Marx was released from the rival simplifications of Stalinists and right-wingers, Kolakowski found himself with nothing interesting to say. Perhaps he should have listened more carefully to his old friend Thompson.


Blogger Richard said...

Marx's Das Capital = one huge fragmented and stuttering postmodern poem? An infinite poem? Pre-empting Pound?

9:26 pm  
Blogger Dave Brown said...

Oh dear Richard.
Revising Marx is a long standing fashion, but turning Capital into a poem, and a post-modern one at that beats em all.
Even Derrida didnt go that far. Marx should have stayed young and been a democrat. That's mild compared to you.
As for Maps, Marx was never an imperialist. He supported the formation of strong bourgeois states against weak, especially pre-modern ones, to speed up the course of history. He later allowed himself to indulge a fancy that primitive communes could jump over capitalism to socialism. He was wrong like the Zapatistas.

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