In 1974, the great Polish intellectual Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009) published “My Correct Views on Everything, A Rejoinder to Edward Thompson’s ‘Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski'”. Kolakowski is best known for Main Currents of Marxism, his huge survey of Marxism from its neo-Platonic and Hegelian roots through Marx and his immediate followers to the post-Russian-Revolution Marxist theoreticians.
Thompson (1924–1993) was a British historian and communist activist. His long letter had been published the year before and was critical of Kolakowski’s breaking from communism and his criticisms of Marxist theory and practice. “I must and will chide you,” Thompson wrote, “for hasty despair and for bad political judgment” (p. 80).
The despair began in 1956, which was devastating to the Old Left. Khrushchev publicly acknowledged the crimes of Stalin, and the Soviets brutally suppressed dissent in Hungary. Those two major events caused many splits in what had been a relatively unified Left movement.
As for the bad political judgment, Thompson remained a true-believer and, with some revisions to communist doctrine, became a leading figure in Britain’s New Left. Kolakowski was a rare intellectual who both broke with the far Left and explicitly accepted responsibility for his errors and complicity in evil. As he put it early in his response to Thompson:
“You and I, we were both active in our respective Communist Parties in the 40s and 50s which means that, whatever our noble intentions and our charming ignorance (or refusal to get rid
of ignorance) were, we supported, within our modest means, a regime based on mass slave labour and police terror of the worst kind in human history” (p. 2).
And then at great length Kolakowski proceeded to identify a wide variety of disingenuous-to-outright-dishonest tactics Thompson and his fellow-travelers used in defending themselves and attacking their enemies.
One example: In his letter, Thompson was dismissive of the significance of the half-century of the Soviet Union’s history to date — claiming that “to a historian, fifty years is too short a time in which to judge a new social system, if such a system is arising” (p. 70).
Kolakowski called him on it, pointing out both a double standard and, more disturbingly, a lack of any concern for the actual humans who lived under the Soviets. After telling us briefly of two individuals, Marchenko and a Lithuanian student, whose lives were destroyed by the communists, Kolakowski asked:
“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” (p. 3).
The Thompson-Kolakowski conflict is an instructive example of a true-believer-apologist in conflict with an intellectually-honest thinker. While Thompson and Kolakowski were men of the Left, it’s important to note that the same psychological dichotomy runs through most intellectual movements. It’s the difference between those whose first loyalty is to a belief system and who will ignore or bend the facts to maintain their belief — and those whose first loyalty is to reality and who will alter or abandon their belief system to fit the facts.
Edward Thompson, “Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski” (1973). Socialist Register.
Leszek Kolakowski, “My Correct Views on Everything, A Rejoinder to Edward Thompson’s ‘Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski'” (1974). Socialist Register.
Thanks to Rafe Champion for sending me the Kolakowski link.
Eric Hobsbawm is dead.
Marxists and violence.
On the New Left turn to violence: “The Crisis of Socialism” [pdf], Chapter 5 of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault.