Friday, July 04, 2008

Blister in the Sun

I’d had Leszek Kolakowski’s My Correct Views on Everything on my Wish List for a couple of years and a fortuitous overpayment of my credit card last month (feckin eejit) meant I could afford to treat myself with a rare purchase during these times of fiscal constraint. I’d enjoyed very much Kolakowski’s massive Main Currents of Marxism, so I assumed these essays would provide more in the same vein, as well as some autobiographical background to a writer well-positioned to comment on events of great historical import. As a former “High Priest” of Communism, his explanations for his lapse and his analyses of the social structure of Eastern European societies would, I assumed, produce some startling new insights not previously encountered.

I blame Amazon. Most of Kolakowski’s books on their site have that “Look Inside” feature available. This one? It doesn’t. Caveat emptor. For while the opening section of the book, Amid Moving Ruins, contains some very interesting essays, including “The Marxist Roots of Stalinism,” “The Heritage of the Left,” “The Myth of Human Self-Identity,” “Genocide and Ideology,” and the eponymous “My Correct Views on Everything,” Kolakowski’s scathing response to E. P. Thompson’s “Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski,” the second section is devoted to matters of a . . . what shall we say? . . . Catholic bent. If you need a reminder that Kolakowski is Polish, then here it is: “A Layman Pronounces on the Catechism,” “Jesus Christ—Prophet and Reformer,” “Concern with God in an Apparently Godless Era.” I’ll confess (appropriately enough) right now that I made a start on the first of these with the best of intentions given the flyleaf’s promise that Kolakowski believes that “Being critical of this or that item in the Church’s politics should not have to make one reject Jesus’s teaching,” which is logically correct, as far as it goes. But I got no more than five pages in before giving it up as an irrelevance. Let’s just say that his topic didn’t speak to me. The title of Kolakowski’s book may be ironic, but I’d be inclined to believe that, on the subject of God, my own beliefs (or even lack thereof) are more correct.

The third section of the book deals with expostulating Kolakowski’s own form of liberalism through examinations of such thorny issues as moral relativism, the role of the university, the status of academic values, and the need for a “transcendent dimension” of belief in order to establish a coherent code of ethics. All this is bollocks and serves, above all, to place Kolakowski firmly on terra firma, to locate him very much as an imperfect and fallible man of his time with the beliefs and prejudices of his society.

It’s perhaps unfair of me to have expected to find new arguments when some of the essays in this collection date back to the early 1970s. The essays on Marxism contain little that can’t be found in Main Currents of Marxism, and the majority of his points are commonplace on the antiauthoritarian left. The implicit prescriptive arguments about the dangers of utopian visions of social unity and harmony can be found explicitly in the works of Claude Lefort; the case for democracy and accountability are better made in Lefort, too.

Overall, I was left disappointed with this book, but I partly blame myself, and I blame Amazon a bit too, but I wouldn’t want this experience to put people off reading Main Currents of Marxism, which is very good indeed. What’s more, the essays in the first section of this book are worth reading, even if they’re not stunning in their insights; the argument that Stalinism is a legitimate version of Marxism will leave plenty of our readers here foaming at the mouth, I’m sure, but the case made here deserves an audience.

Should you buy this book? No. It isn’t worth the cost. Buy Main Currents instead. But if you have a masochistic streak and belong to a particularly anal school of Marxism—aren’t they all?—you can have a lend if you promise not to burn, deface, or destroy it/me/the author.

I also learned that it's much better to receive from others than it is from yourself, a rule that applies in many other spheres of existence. Though possibly not all. Here's my wish list, just in case. ;-)


Anonymous said...

I almost bought this book on the basis of the brilliant title alone a while ago. Glad I didn't! Thanks for the great review.

John said...

Hi Stuart--

You're welcome. It's a great title isn't it? But it promises so much then fails to deliver, sadly.

Anonymous said...

That's a brilliant review John. I've never read Main Currents, but after this I certainly intend to.

Reading through your wish list (cheeky so and so :) ) I notice Matheson. A great book.

John said...

Hi WBS--

I read it when I was 12 or 13 and it scared the shit out of me, but the allegorical themse and the irony of the title were right over my head at that age, so I figured I should give it another read, if someone will buy it for me. ;-)