Wednesday 22 July 2009

Kolakowski collection

There's a terrific guest post by Andrew Murphy over at Harry's Place, about Leszek Kolakowski, who died last Friday. Andrew links to Christopher Hitchens' thoughts on the great Polish thinker, which you can find here. I also recommend this post by The New Centrist, who in turn links to this fascinating conversation between Kolakowski and Danny Postel (whose work I recommended here).

I didn't know much about Kolakowski before this week, but reading about him has made me want to track down his magnum opus, Main Currents of Marxism, which in Hitchens' words 'constitutes one of the most searching investigations of the worldview that had dominated his youth' (i.e. Communism) and which Andrew Murphy claims 'did more to kick in the doors of the wretched Soviet Union than given credit for.'

These tributes to Kolakowski appeared around the same time that I was reading Slavoj Žižek's article in the London Review of Books, which I quoted in this post yesterday. Unfortunately, the remainder of the piece doesn't live up to the promise of that excerpt, consisting as it does of a tedious analysis of the current global situation from a pessimistic (not to say Manichean) Marxist perspective. In Žižek's view, any apparently positive characteristics (democracy, liberty) in present-day western societies are simply a sham, an illusion concealing an unreformable capitalist monolith. Reading Žižek (and about Kolakowski) brought home to me that I am no longer (if I ever really was) a Marxist - or at least not that kind of Marxist.


Bob said...

I didn't know enough about Kolakowski before, although I read Main Currents a long time ago.

On your final sentence, I still believe in the possibility of a Marxism that also honours democracy. That's the Marxism of Marx himself, and of Marxists like EP Thompson and CLR James. Robert Fine's recentish book on Marx, Hegal and Arendt is good on this issue.

I also read the longer Zizek piece in the LRB this week (usually I let them pile up: I'm on April now) but I had to open it when I saw Zizek and Iran on the cover. The longer version adds nothing to the short piece which has been circulating on the web. In fact, the drawing out of the tendentious Berlusconi analogy undermines it quite a lot. Zizek, to my mind, is a philosopher of surfaces: he illuminates superficial relationships between things that you hadn't noticed before and by doing so persuades you he has identfied the deep underlying relation. Only when you mull it over afterwards does it start to sink in how badly you've been conned. Marx was nothing like that.

TNC said...

Thanks for the link and I'll definitely add some of your links to my post!

Martin said...

Thanks for the comments.

Bob - My position on Marx and Marxism is probably more nuanced and conflicted than stated in the post. I suppose I was being provocative in the hope of someone putting the other side of the argument - as you have done.

I'm a long-time E P Thompson fan, though he had his share of political mis-steps. I've never read any C L R James, I'm shamed to say - perhaps I should.

The Robert Fine book sounds interesting - I had a brief look on Amazon - is it the one about Democracy and the Rule of Law? Do you have more details?

Totally agree about Zizek's intellectual dilettantism.

bob said...

Robert Fine: I was thinking of Political Investigations: Hegel, Marx, Arendt (2001). [It's a bit academic, but that's obviously not a problem for you!] However, looking at his publication list, this is clearly a vein he has been mining since. Further Publications

CLR James: In many ways, he is very close to EP Thompson. Peter Linebaugh, who was a disciple of Thompson, wrote a nice piece in a book about James called The Artist as Revolutionary which imagines James and Thompson being introduced to each other by Olaudah Equiano in the Drury Lane tavern where the London Corresponding Society was formed. Linebaugh also suggests that in James' Black Jacobins you can hear the background noise of the Stalinist betrayal of the Spanish revolution, in exactly the same way that in The Making of the English Working Class you can hear the sound of the Soviet tanks rolling into Budapest.

Martin said...

Thanks, Bob. Just found the Fine book at Amazon - his other stuff looks interesting too - especially the new book on cosmopolitanism.

The Peter Linebaugh book sounds fascinating - I haven't been able to track it down yet, but his other books look just as interesting. My own fascination with the history and politics of the late 18th and early 19th centuries stemmed from reading Thompson's classic in my twenties (my copy is now falling apart, I've re-read it so often) - compounded more recently by exploring my family's history and finding that some of my London ancestors were probably on the fringes of the movements that Thompson (and Linebaugh) write about.

TNC said...

Another one you and Bob may be interested in reading (Bob, you may have read it already):

"C.L.R. James: His Intellectual Legacies" by Selwyn Reginald Cudjoe and William E. Cain

bob said...

Thanks TNC