Martin Amis’s John Self, the antihero of Money, is staring at a character called Martin Amis: “The lips were parted, suspended, the eyes heavy and unblinking. If I stare into his face I can make out the areas of waste and fatigue, the moonspots and bone shadows you’re bound to get if you hang out in the twentieth century.” Leszek Kolakowski hung out in the twentieth century. Rather like Auden, with his deep, dry-season furrows, his face bore its own imprints of that century’s turmoil. As Christopher Hitchens puts it in a fine tribute to Poland’s recently deceased intellectual historian, Kolakowski was a “man with a forbiddingly craggy visage, austere to the point of asceticism,” and even the briefest journey through his prose goes some way in answering that thorny question of the relationship between body and mind.
One may never get around to reading Main Currents of Marxism, Kolakowski’s shelf-straining trilogy on the mad delusions of utopian political economy, but even the lesser tributaries repay reading. The plain fact is that Kolakowski thought like Mill and wrote like Nabokov, and that’s a twinning of genius that we won’t soon encounter again. See, for instance, his famous dust-up, in 1974, with E.P. Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working-Class and a lifelong communist who, like his old Eastern European comrade, became a “revisionist” Marxist after 1956 (the invasion of Hungary, Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech”), but unlike him did not take the further logical step of breaking with the movement altogether.
Thompson wrote a 100-page open letter to Kolakowski in the Socialist Register, rebuking him for abandoning their “system” of examining the world in favor of the kind of sardonic empiricism Kolakowski used to destroy same. (Thompson, it must be said, was not of the pas d'enemis a la gauche school of radicalism: he spent the better part of the late-60’s tussling with the New Left, chiefly Perry Anderson, who by some miracle of historical indeterminism, has kept his writing free from the molestation of a stubborn and outmoded politics.) One almost doesn’t need to review Thompson’s opening salvo because the return fire reveals all, right down to the way in which personality betrays first principles:
Your letter contains some personal grievances and some arguments on general questions. I will start with a minor personal grievance. Oddly enough, you seem to feel offended by not having been invited to the Reading conference and you state that if you had been invited you would have refused to attend anyway, on serious moral grounds. I presume, consequently, that if you had been invited, you would have felt offended as well and so, no way out of hurting you was open to the organizers.
This is perfect, not only in its execution but because here a refugee from a totalitarian society uses English-style common sense to embarrass a haughty and theory-drunk member of the English intelligentsia. Kolakowski is as unsparing of sinuous causality as he is of sordid morality, as when he confronts ex-communists who complain only that the victims of Stalinist purges were communists themselves: Selective and narrow outrage at how the dream began cannibalizing itself, he writes, “is a self-defeating way of defence, for it suggests that there is nothing wrong in slaughtering non-communists, and this implies that there is an authority to decide who is and who is not a communist, and this authority can be only the same rulers who keep the gun; consequently, the slaughtered are by definition non-communists and everything is all right.” It’s as if one had opened The God That Failed, written by B. Spinoza. Indeed, Kolakowski’s training as a philosopher gave him the resources to break the straightjacket of ideology.
Elsewhere in the exchange, Thompson’s slipperiness goes well noticed. He had written that it was not the duty of the historian to dwell on the here and now but to situate events in a broader continuum—the Hegelian phantasm of History: “years is too short a time in which to judge a new social system, if such a system is arising.” This neat little gloss on the gulag, the Great Terror, and myriad wars of “fraternal assistance” belongs alongside bureaucratic culinary metaphors about omelets and eggs (the best response to which was delivered by Panait Istrati when touring the Soviet Union—“Yes, I see all the broken eggs; now where’s this omelet of yours?”), and also I.F. Stone’s incautious remark that revolutions do not proceed according to Emily Post (they hardly proceed according to nebbish muckrakers, either). Kolakowski’s reply to Thompson’s wait-and-see evasiveness warrants quoting in full:
The same day as I am writing this, I happen to have read a book by Anatol Marchenko, relating his experiences in Soviet prisons and concentration camps in the early 1960s (not 1930s). The book was published in Russian in Frankfurt in 1973. The author, a Russian worker, was caught when he tried to cross the Soviet border to Iran. He was lucky to have done it in Khrushchev's time, when the regrettable errors of J. V. Stalin were over (yes, regrettable, let us face it, even if in part accounted for by the Western powers), and so, he got only six years of hard labour in a concentration camp. One of his stories is about three Lithuanian prisoners who tried to escape from the convoy in a forest. Two of them were quickly caught, then shot many times in the legs, then ordered to get up which they could not do, then kicked and trampled by guards, then bitten and torn up by police dogs (such an amusement, survival of capitalism) and only then stabbed to death with bayonets. All this with witty remarks by the officer, of the kind "Now, free Lithuania, crawl, you'll get your independence straight off !" The third prisoner was shot and, reputed to be dead, was thrown under corpses in the cart; discovered later to be alive he was not killed (de-stalinization!) but left for several days in a dark cell with his festering wound and he survived after his arm was cut off.
This is one of thousand stories you can read in many now available books. Such books are rather reluctantly read by the enlightened Leftist elite, both because they are largely irrelevant, they supply us only with small details (and, after all, we agree that some errors were committed) and because many of them have not been translated (did you notice that if you meet a Westerner who learnt Russian you have at least 90% chance of meeting a bloody reactionary? Progressive people do not enjoy this painful effort of learning Russian, they know better anyway).
And so, what is fifty years to a historian? Fifty years covering the life of an obscure Russian worker Marchenko or of a still more obscure Lithuanian student who has not even written a book? Let us not hurry with judging a "new social system". Certainly I could ask you how many years you needed to assess the merits of the new military regime in Chile or in Greece, but I know your answer: no analogy, Chile and Greece remain within capitalism (factories are privately owned) while Russia started a new "alternative society" (factories are state owned and so is land and so are all its inhabitants). As genuine historians we can wait for another century and keep our slightly melancholic but cautiously optimistic historical wisdom.
As it happens, the same day I am writing this, I am also re-reading Lionel Trilling’s great essay on George Orwell and the "Politics of Truth." What made the author of Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Homage to Catalonia so brilliant—though he was no genius, Trilling reassures us—was his core understanding that
The characteristic error of the middle-class intellectual of modern times is his tendency to abstractness and absoluteness, his reluctance to connect idea with fact, especially with personal fact. I cannot recall that Orwell ever related his criticism of the intelligentsia to the implications of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, but he might have done so, for the prototypical act of the modern intellectual is his abstracting himself from the life of the family. It is an act that has something about it of ritual thaumaturgy—at the beginning of our intellectual careers we are like nothing so much as those young members of Indian tribes who have had a vision or a dream which gives them power on condition that they withdraw from the ordinary life of the tribe. By intellectuality we are freed from the thralldom to the familial commonplace, from the materiality and concreteness by which it exists, the hardness of the cash and the hardness of getting it, the inelegance and intractability of family things. It gives us power over intangibles and imponderables, such as Beauty and Justice, and it permits us to escape the cosmic ridicule which in our youth we suppose is inevitably directed at those who take seriously the small concerns of the material quotidian world, which we know to be inadequate and doomed by the very fact that it is so absurdly conditioned—by things, habits, local and temporary customs, and the foolish errors and solemn absurdities of the men of the past.
The true Marxian materialist is the catchpenny bourgeois who cares more about what the wife and children get up to than what an industrial proletariat may accomplish half a world away, but only if a neighboring peasantry pitches in, on a leap year, with favorable rainfall. Is this parody of the intellectual’s tendency to abstractness and absoluteness? What Thompson wanted out that bitch History was for:
…money values [to] give way before the “life values” or (as Blake would have it) “corporeal” will give way to the “mental” war. With sources of power easily available, some men and women might choose to live in unified committees, sited, like Cistercian monasteries, in centres of great natural beauty, where agricultural, industrial and intellectual pursuits might be combined.
Kolakowski knew this was nice work if you can get it, which may be why Poland’s working-class took him more seriously than it did its self-appointed vanguard and, as Hitchens phrases it, the "realization that this movement was the gravedigger of communism was well-attuned to Kolakowski's very highly developed sense of historical irony."