Books: Cultural Amnesia — Leszek Kołakowski |
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Leszek Kołakowski was born in Radom, Poland, in 1927. As an unduly inquisitive professor of philosophy at the University of Warsaw he was first of all ejected from the Communist Party in 1966 and finally expelled from academic life in 1968. In exile he was variously a visiting professor at the universities of Montreal, Yale and California (Berkeley), and, in the long term, a Fellow of All Souls College in Oxford. His three-volume treatise Main Currents of Marxism is one of the most important, and luckily also one of the most readable, twentieth-century books on the theory of politics. (Students who find Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies a hard and repetitious slog will have no such difficulties with Kołakowski.) The three volumes of Main Currents progress chronologically from Marx’s own lifetime to those crucial years after Stalin’s death when the dream, somehow deprived of energy by the subtraction of its nightmare element, was already showing signs of coming to an end, in Europe at least. In its third volume, entitled The Breakdown, theory is backed up with the harsh realities of practice, because Kołakowski is talking about the period he himself lived through, and was lucky to survive. In this repect, Kołakowski’s observational scope will remind the reader of the Russsian professor of sociology Aleksandr Zinoviev, another academic who was obliged to carry with him into exile a bitter first-hand knowledge of his subject. Kołakowski’s analysis of Marxist logic is as penetrating as Raymond Aron’s in The Opium of the Intellectuals but it attains a wider resonance by extending itself to the individual personalities of those thinkers who espoused the cause and were distorted by it. Prominent among these was Georg Lukács: the potential student could start with the pages on Lukács and arrive straight away at the fulcrum of Kołakowski’s view. Like many a political analyst who was born to serve a socialist hegemony but lived to question it, Kołakowski developed and harboured an increasingly rich nostalgic regard for the lost civil order. His slim but rich Le Village introuvable (1986) puts a Burkean emphasis on the indispensibility of an inherited social fabric and insists that the so-called global village will always remain a pipe dream: a cautionary message that applies to our cybernetic future just as much as to his collectivist past. The beginning reader should not be too quick to assume, however, that an argument billed as an anti-Marxist polemic must automatically favour social conservatism: some of Kołakowski’s principles are radical enough, the most subversive of them being that the individual intellect, whatever its learned scope and range of interpretation, has no inbuilt safeguards against a hardening into sclerotic orthodoxy. He thus gives any university student not just a licence, but an imperative, to stay on the alert against authority.

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Lukács is perhaps the most striking example in the twentieth century of what may be called
the betrayal of reason by those whose profession is to use and defend it.

IF KARL POPPER had not traced the irreparable faults in the circuitry of Marxism, Leszek Kołakowski would have done it. In his Main Currents of Marxism, the third volume (the one to read first) sums up what happened to Marxism in the twentieth century, and proves it to be a case of Marxism happening to defenceless people. Georg Lukács was Hungary’s gift to the international delusion (slow to die even though Stalin didn’t like it either) that serious literary studies might serve progressive ideological ends. In the Communist world there were hundreds of thousands of intellectuals who were doomed to the status of victim, but Lukács rated even above the Soviet cultural commisar Lunacharsky (who, in the 1920s, was first of all given the job of encouraging the avant-garde artists and then, later on, the job of bringing them to heel) in the sad category of intellectuals doomed to the status of perpetrator. What made Lukács doubly pathetic was that he could never quite stop trying to talk himself into it even after he had done it: a trick of the mind which Kołakowski analyses with a fine touch. Kołakowski makes such an example of Lukács because Lukács was a true intellectual: an intellectual of real culture in a context of dogmatists without any. Bukharin counted as a thinker among the old Bolsheviks because he could make a general statement about the connection of music to economics: nobody would be able to play the piano, he pointed out, if there were no pianos. Compared with that sort of thing, Lukács was a humanist. But he was a Jesuit humanist, which was what Thomas Mann made him in The Magic Mountain, where the character called Naphta reflects Lukács’s insatiable need for a totalitarian system in which he could immerse himself by developing a theoretical justification for its hegemony. (Briefly serving as minister of culture in the Imre Nagy government of 1956, Lukács was duly deported to Romania by the Russians and had a ringside seat while almost all his colleagues were murdered. His conclusion was that Stalinism was a mere aberration in the triumphant story of socialism.) Kołakowski can assess the range of Lukács’s culture, and therefore measure the depth to which he sank.

Kołakowski’s combination of critical rigour and humane sympathy is yet another reminder of what we owe Poland. If history could begin again, Poland’s contribution and sacrifice would both be too much to ask of any nation of so small a size. (For Poland to escape its fate, geography would have to begin again: between Germany and Russia was simply the wrong place for a smallish country to be.) Poland gave us too many examples of what the twentieth century could do when all its destructive forces were unleashed at once. Some of the losses were our gains. Poland gave us a set of glittering literary exiles: Witold Gombrowicz, Czesław Miłosz and my personal favourite among all the world’s literary critics, Marcel Reich-Ranicki. But, in his best-selling autobiography Mein Leben, Reich-Ranicki reminds us about the Polish literati whom we never got to hear of even vaguely. One of them was Julian Tuwim, a poet of “incomparable many-sidedness” who, while he escaped being murdered, did not escape oblivion—the world still hasn’t heard of him. Unnamed young Polish mathematicians gave us the first clues to the Enigma machine, and thus to the Ultra secret that saved Europe from Nazi domination. Other losses were dead losses: the world gained nothing except cautionary tales. Poland gave us Bruno Schulz, perhaps the single most unbearable modern example of talent laid waste in midlife. It gave us the Katyn massacre: a whole generation of gifted young men wiped out at once, and buried without even the opportunity of rest, because one of the only two forces physically capable of such a deed spent decades befouling the air by trying to pin it on the other. (The Russians did it; the Nazis accused them of it; and for decades the Russians were exonerated because it was the Nazis who did the accusing.) But as Michael Burleigh reminds us in his essential book The Third Reich, we should not always be looking at the talented.

In Poland the whole of ordinary life was distorted: everything that had given rise to a civilization and helped to sustain it was rooted out. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, there was a general expectation in the West that there would be a sudden cultural efflorescence in the East. It was thought that Poland would produce a dozen young versions of the film director Andrezj Wajda, for example. Only gradually was it realized that things don’t work that way. A figure like Wajda was never a precursor of a free-market future: he lived in an air pocket of the liberal past which had somehow managed to hold itself together in the surrounding miasma. The films that made him famous were made in the rare periods when the grip of the regime relaxed. (By the time that I first watched Ashes and Diamonds in the late 1950s, the comparatively tolerant conditions that had allowed Wajda to make the film were already hardening again into orthodoxy.) The merit of Kołakowski is that he tells us where the miasma came from. Karl Popper, Raymond Aron and the other sociological analysts show how Marxism affected everything at the practical level. Kołakowski does an even better job than Isaiah Berlin of showing how it affected everything at the mental level. Except to the extent that a clear explanation always offers a kind of encouragement, volume 3 of Main Currents of Marxism makes depressing reading: but it can be recommended for all those of us who grew up in sheltered circumstances. It was an encouraging sign, towards the end of the twentieth century, that Kołakowski’s conclusions got into the general conversation about politics—and especially about constitutional politics, in which the effect of his sceptical view of holistic intellectual innovation was to encourage a salutary dab on the brake pedal.

“We rebelled by criminal methods against the joyfulness of the new life.”


Kołakowski is surely right to pick this confession by the Old Bolshevik Bukharin as the definitive moment of the 1938 Moscow show trials. Onlookers who fell for Bukharin’s big moment would fall for anything. There were sharp onlookers who did, however. Dorothy Parker, the once and future drama critic and lifelong analyst of bogus language, thought that the trials were authentic. More interestingly, there were sceptics who still fell some of the way. Arthur Koestler, whose Darkness at Noon was really based on the Bukharin case, thought that Bukharin could have told such a lie only out of the belief that it might benefit the cause. Koestler’s novel, nominally dedicated to discrediting the Soviet Union, thus held out a crumb of comfort to its admirers in the West: there must have been a cause to believe in. The crumb of comfort helped to sustain sympathizers for another eighteen years, until Khrushchev, at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, revealed that no such sophisticated interpretation of Bukharin’s performance had ever been necessary. The Old Bolsheviks’ ludicrous confessions had been beaten into them. (Bukharin, apparently, did not need to be tortured: a threat to the lives of his wife and little son was enough to do the trick.) After Khrushchev blew the gaff, the international left intelligentsia had no choice but to give up on the idea that the terror in the late 1930s had been at some level a necessary stage in the building of socialism. But there was still, and still is, a reluctance to believe that the Soviet Union had been like that from the beginning. Bukharin had always been well aware of the horrors that underlay the joyfulness of the new life. During one or another of the Party purges, Brecht delivered himself of the opinion that the more innocent the Party members were, the more they deserved to suffer. The charitable, and probably correct, interpretation of his remark is that he meant there was no such thing as an innocent Party member: if they had faithfully done their duty, they were necessarily guilty. (An uncharitable interpretation must follow the charitable one: if Brecht realized that the Party conspired against the people, why did he support it?) Though Bukharin’s lifeless prose style pioneered the langue de bois that Stalin would later bring to an eerie perfection, he was certainly a shining light of humanism compared with the rest of the top echelon of the Old Bolsheviks. Surviving members of the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia thought he might intervene for them or their relatives if only he could be reached. But he helped to build the nightmare, whose countless innocent victims have a far better right than he does to be spoken of in tragic terms.