You Don’t Have to Endorse Something to Understand It, Research Time, 16/07/2014

When this blog first started about a year ago, I was reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, a book that is firmly rooted in Marxist traditions of political, social, and psychological analyses. At the time, I had conceived the Utopias project as more firmly rooted in Marxist ideas, though that focus has shifted considerably since then, with its positive political direction being more a style of community-centric anarchism.

When you get to be as old as Kolakowski was,
you're thankful you can still smile for the
camera, so you smile well.
One early post included a footnote where I mention that I was planning to pick up my own copy of Leszek Kolakowski’s massive work of philosophical, historical, and political analysis, Main Currents of Marxism. My friends B and P told me that, despite the comprehensive scale of Kolakowski’s 1200-page masterwork and the praise it had accumulated as a work of scholarship, it wasn’t worth going to. Kolakowski had turned against Marxism, and my friends were skeptical of his work for this reason.

I never bought the book, but a copy came into my possession anyway. When my girlfriend and I moved in together, she took from her mother’s house the remnants of her deceased father’s book collection, which included a complete hardcover edition of Kolakowski’s tome. Rudy was the type of guy who would casually buy a 1200-page critical history of Marxist philosophy. It’s a damn shame I never got to talk with this guy.

Even at 1200 pages, the book is incomplete. It never engages explicitly with anarchist theorists — Peter Kropotkin, for example, only merits only a few sentences of discussion scattered around two of its three volumes, despite his seminal place in anarchism as a philosophy and political movement. As well, having been published in 1976, the book only has very indirect lessons for the development of Marxism since then, how the philosophy has adapted to the end of the Cold War and its relegation to the work of university scholars disconnected to working people. Finally, Kolakowski’s focus is entirely on European and American Marxism, and doesn’t touch on how the political theory and movement picked up across the globe. Africa is a sad blank spot, but Asia, particularly Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Indonesian Marxism, is historically significant and passed over.

Nonetheless, I was happy for the coincidence that brought such a book into my life for free. After reading through the book of selections from Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, I thought I’d read through Kolakowski’s chapter on the Italian writer to see what he had to say. 

Reading Gramsci makes for a good critique of Badiou's
thought, even if just to show that he isn't that original.
I found the chapter a fine summary of a thinker with a large and complex corpus. Gramsci, in Kolakowski’s words, conceived of a socialist revolution as a more profound transformation of a society than a party simply seizing the reins of state power. Though Kolakowski was unable to say so in this book, Gramsci anticipates some of the ideas of Badiou on revolution, that a Communist Party taking power over the state is no revolution at all, but the failure of the revolutionary party to follow through on its own mission, instead becoming one more clique who contests for control of repressive apparatus, whether through violent or peaceful means. 

I found Kolakowski a little to quick to dismiss Gramsci’s thoughts on the ground of seeming contradictions among points, such as the Italian’s apparent historical relativism about truth being supposedly incompatible with his skepticism about necessitarian laws of social development. Perhaps this is a symptom of simply trying to encompass so much complex theory and history in such a massive and complicated project. Going through the notable theorists and ideologists of European Marxism one person at a time is going to wear on you, and person-to-person arguments in philosophy tend to be a little too quick. The Gramsci chapter is the only one I’ve read so far, but I’m glad Kolakowski is now another of the great writers in my apartment’s library.

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