by Leszek Kolakowski
It is well known that Karl Marx did not see himself as a utopian thinker. Indeed, he reserved some of his fiercest scorn for those he viewed as utopian socialists, ridiculing their naive reliance on the power of ethical ideals. Apparently believing that once capitalism had been overthrown communism would come about of its own accord, he rejected any attempt to draw up a blueprint for a future society.
Given the subsequent history of the movement he founded this confidence may seem curious, but it was based in a view of history that was widely accepted in the 19th century. Though not a rigid historical determinist, Marx never doubted that history was on his side—History, that is, understood as a process of development that could only have one end-point. Like many of his contemporaries, Marx believed that a universal civilization was coming into being in which all of humankind would be united in a single economic and political system. Unless human progress stalled or reverted to barbarism—a possibility Marx did not exclude but to which he gave little thought—the arrival of this universal system was certain. Once it was established, oppression and exploitation, war and poverty would be no more. In his view, this was not utopianism; it was science.
Despite his vehement denials, Marx’s vision of the future was of course thoroughly utopian. The communist society he imagined lacked both markets and the state—the two main institutions whereby human activities are coordinated in modern societies—but he identified nothing that could replace them. Private property and the family would disappear. There would be no religion, and nationalism would also wither away. All these institutions and practices would cease to exist and human society would achieve a condition of harmony in which it was no longer disturbed by any major conflict—the central feature of all utopian thought. A profound transformation was necessary before this could be achieved, in which revolutionary violence would be necessary on a large scale; but once the new society had been established there would be everlasting peace.
Marx’s utopianism was clear long before the impossibility of communism was demonstrated in practice after the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia. Many notable 19th century thinkers pointed to the profound implausibility of Marx’s belief that abolishing economic classes would eradicate social inequality and dispense with any need for government. Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and Vilfredo Pareto all argued that Marxian communism was a utopian dream. Their incisive arguments did not prevent Lenin from attempting to achieve it, with the radically dystopian consequences with which we are all familiar.
It is commonly assumed that utopian thinking is a characteristic of movements of the radical Left and that, therefore, such thinking pretty much disappeared with the collapse of communism. Yet re-reading Leszek Kolakowski’s seminal Main Currents of Marxism—published between 1968 and 1976 as three separate volumes and now re-issued in a magnificent single-volume edition with a new preface and epilogue—leads one to revisit that assumption. Utopianism did not perish with communism. It seems to have found a new home—on the neoconservative Right. Like Marx, the neoconservative thinkers who rose to prominence in the late 20th century see history as a progressive movement culminating in a species-wide economic and political system. They believe a universal civilization is set to replace—or better, can be made to replace—the diverse cultures and regimes of the past. But (again like Marx) they believe that this transformation can only come about through revolutionary upheavals, likely involving large-scale violence.
To be sure, the universal system that neoconservatives believe is coming into being is not communism but an idealized version of American “democratic capitalism.” Yet like communism, such a universal system presupposes a transformation of human society that has no precedent in history. Along with Marx and his communist disciples in the 20th century, neoconservatives are wedded to a project that can be known in advance to be unachievable. The neoconservative vision of a world of universal “democratic capitalism” is an unrealizable vision that has already led to disaster in Iraq, and if pursued further could produce major disorders in the international system.
By uncovering the origins of the recurring pathology of utopianism, Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism helps us understand how the virus of utopianism that infected so many thinkers of the Left has reappeared on the neoconservative Right. Written by the greatest living intellectual historian, with an unsurpassed view of the whole development of Western thought, Main Currents examines Marxism not only as a social theory but also—and most importantly—as an episode in the history of Western religion.
Whatever else he may have been, Marx was a great thinker who synthesized elements of classical political economy and German philosophy to produce an imposing system of ideas that embodied many of the aspirations of the European Enlightenment. However, as Kolakowski demonstrates, the key sources of Marx’s thought were in theology and mysticism, not sociology or economics. Most of us are familiar with the fact that Marx’s thought was shaped by a Hegelian view of history as the progressive realization of the human essence. Less well known is Hegel’s debt to the German and European tradition of Neo-Platonic mysticism. As Kolakowski shows, Hegel’s interpretation of history derived from German mystical thinkers such as Meister Eckhart, Jakob Bohme and Angelus Silesius, while its ultimate origins are in the philosophies of the Roman Platonist Plotinus and the medieval Christian neo-Platonist John Scotus Eriugena. Marx’s view of history as the progressive self-realization of humanity is a secular rendition of the mystical theories of these Platonist philosophers, which conceive the world and time as means whereby Spirit comes to self-knowledge, mixed with selected ethical elements of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.
That Marx was a militantly secular thinker whose theses were presented in pseudo-scientific terms has obscured the fact that his view of history is a secular soteriology—a theory of human salvation derived from an admixture of Platonism and Christianity. Marx added much to our understanding of history and the sociology of knowledge, and he illuminated aspects of the workings of capitalism; but it is not as an historian or an economist that he influenced history. Marx turned the mystical speculations of Platonism into a utopian project of universal emancipation, and it is his vision of human salvation through politics that gave Marx’s thought such wide—and enormously destructive—appeal. In the new preface to Main Currents, Kolakowski writes that Marx’s philosophy
entailed some practical consequences which would bring indescribable suffering and misery to mankind: private property and the market were to be abolished and replaced by universal and all-embracing planning-an utterly impossible project. It was noticed towards the end of the 19th century, mainly by anarchists, that so conceived, the Marxist doctrine was a good blueprint for converting human society into a giant concentration camp: to be sure, this was not Marx’s intention, but it was an inevitable effect of the glorious and final benevolent utopia he devised.
Here Kolakowski restates a formula presented in the introduction to the first volume of the original trilogy, where he describes Marxism as “an idea that began in Promethean humanism and culminated in the monstrous tyranny of Stalin.” In Kolakowski’s view as in mine, 20th—century communism was not a distortion of Marx’s vision but a serious attempt to embody it, and its dystopian features were the result of flaws in Marxian theory, not errors in its application. The result of any consistent effort to realize a utopian project is often the reverse of what was envisioned. This was true of Marx’s conception of communism as the regime of universal freedom, which in practice resulted in totalitarian dictatorship. A parallel process is at work in the neoconservative project of universal democracy, which in the Middle East is resulting in the rise of a type of elective theocracy. What could account for this curious development?
In the preface to the original edition, Kolakowski writes modestly that it is “intended as a handbook”, and it fulfills that function brilliantly. Nearly every thinker and movement of any importance in the history of Marxism is clearly expounded and his or her place in its intellectual tradition critically assessed. Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxembourg, Georges Sorel and Ernst Bloch, Plekhanov and pre-Bolshevik Russian Marxism, Lenin and Trotsky, Marcuse and the Frankfurt School, various Polish and Austrian Marxists and a host of non-Marxist thinkers such as Proudhon and Stirner are summarized in a vast synoptic survey that makes this book indispensable to anyone who seeks to know the history of this now seemingly extinct intellectual and political tradition. The first of the three collected volumes examines the origins of Marx’s thought, his early writings about human alienation and the ideas about capitalism and history he developed in his mature thought. The second volume deals with what Kolakowski describes as the Golden Age of Marxism—the period from the orthodox Marxism of Karl Kautsky in Germany to the development of Leninism in Russia. The last volume analyzes the breakdown and dissolution of Marxism as an intellectual system, which Kolakowski sees as occurring from the emergence of Stalinism onwards. The key feature of his account is that, while recognizing that Stalinism involved some departures from Marx’s thought and from that of Lenin as well, he insists—rightly, in my view—that the totalitarian consequences of Marx’s thought in practice were implicit in it from the start.
As an encyclopedia, Main Currents of Marxism is invaluable, but it is far more than that: It is a devastating critique of Marxism and its intellectual offshoots as utopian projects aiming at unlimited freedom that instead produced unprecedented oppression. Kolakowski notes that anarchist thinkers such as Bakunin understood the totalitarian logic of Marx’s conception of communism, but many others also perceived it. As well as the founders of European social theory, clear-sighted liberals grasped that the result of Marx’s project in practice would be to replicate the French Terror on a grander scale. Bertrand Russell argued this in 1920 when, in his remarkable and neglected book Theory and Practice of Bolshevism (which resulted in his being ostracized for a time by the progressive European intelligentsia), he forecast that the result of Lenin applying Marx’s theories in Russia would be war, famine and dictatorship. The reason was not Russian backwardness, as later generations of Left-leaning scholars argued at enormous length, but the radically utopian character of Marx’s vision of communism. Russell’s prescient analysis was vindicated by subsequent developments in Russia and by the record of communist regimes in many other parts of the world. When countries as different as Hungary and Cuba, Eritrea and the former Czechoslovakia, Poland and Korea have been subjected to communist rule the results have been remarkably similar. Economic chaos and environmental devastation, political repression and intellectual stagnation have followed communism wherever it has been established.
In the epilogue to the first edition, Kolakowski wrote: “Marxism has been the greatest fantasy of our century. It was a dream offering the prospect of a society of perfect unity, in which all human aspirations would be fulfilled and all values reconciled.” It might seem that the collapse of communism would have killed off that fantasy, but not so. In the new epilogue to the present edition, Kolakowski notes that aspects of Marx’s critique of capitalism have resurfaced in anti-globalization movements. That there are such echoes cannot be doubted, but it seems to me that the most important 21st century embodiment of the utopian impulse expressed in Marx’s thought is not the ragbag of anti-capitalist movements, which are capable of disrupting meetings and sometimes altering policy but not of changing the course of global politics. The most important contemporary expression of the utopian impulse in politics is, to repeat, the neoconservative project of deploying American military power to export liberal democracy to other parts of the world. It is here, if anywhere, that Marx’s influence continues to be felt.
A political project need not be inherently impossible to be utopian. Liberal democracy is not itself an unrealizable fantasy—after all, it exists in different forms in many countries. Swiss democracy is very different from British democracy, British democracy is quite different in its functioning from American or French democracy; but these and many other examples are all recognizable variants of liberal democracy. It is not spreading democracy as such that is a utopian project. It is the attempt to impose liberal democracy from without in conditions where it is manifestly unworkable and is liable to mutate quickly into something else (such as the Islamist popular theocracy emerging in much of Iraq).
The fact is that democracy is not universally practicable, and it may never be. It is not even on balance everywhere desirable; in terms of human freedom and the avoidance of war, it can come at too high a price even where it is not wholly impractical. Indeed, attempts to impose democracy can trigger large-scale upheavals that result in a greater repression of freedom than had been the case in the authoritarian regimes that preceded it. When democracy of any kind spreads into countries hitherto governed by dictatorial regimes it often triggers the fragmentation of the state, as well. Variants of democracy have spread widely throughout the post-communist world, often peacefully but sometimes only after war and ethnic cleansing such as in the Balkans.
If democracy spreads in the Middle East the process is likely to resemble that in the Balkans, but with a crucial difference. The democracies that come into being after protracted sectarian strife and civil war will not in most cases be variants of liberal democracy, however imperfect. They will be illiberal democracies of a kind Rousseau envisioned—highly authoritarian regimes based on popular will, re-created in contexts where the dominant political forces are those of radical Islam.
Like Marx and his followers, neoconservatives today subscribe to a teleological interpretation of history in which its endpoint is convergence on a single type of regime. During the last century that vision suffered the mockery of history, and communism ended in collapse. The fall of communism was not the end of history but only the resumption of the classical ethnic, religious and geopolitical conflicts that had shaped history in the past. In his New York Times Magazine article “After Neoconservatism”, Francis Fukuyama effectively criticized the Leninist aspects of neoconservative foreign policy, which seek to accelerate what he still believes to be a long-term trend toward democracy in most countries. I question the reality of any such trend, but even if it existed it would not ensure the spread of liberal democracy on a Western model. Rather, such a push at worldwide democracy would spawn many kinds of regimes, illiberal as well as liberal, as it interacted with widely divergent cultures in many different historical conditions. In much of the Middle East, to be sure, the real choice is between Islamist democracy and secular authoritarianism.
Alas, Kolakowski is as relevant as ever, but in a way neither he nor his readers expected back in 1976. The dangers of utopianism he illuminates so vividly do not apply only to totalitarian regimes such as those that existed in the communist bloc during the 20th century. Today the world’s greatest liberal state is pursuing a similarly utopian project, whose ruinous effects will be felt for generations. Who of Kolakowski’s admirers thirty years ago can reread him now with other dangers in mind?