Book Of A lifetime: Main Currents Of Marxism, By Leszek Kolakowski

I was standing on a beach in Siberia when this book was recommended to me. The wavelets of a small artificial ocean made by damming the river Ob were splashing on the sand, and I was wondering out loud about the roots of the Soviet passion for making grand modifications to nature. "You need to read Kolakowski," said the person I was with. "He's got a great chapter about what he calls 'the Promethean motif' in Marxism – the idea that it's the destiny of humanity to steal fire from the gods and make the world whatever we want it to be."

She was right. I did need to read Kolakowski. His 'Main Currents of Marxism' (translated by PS Falla) is not only a monumental intellectual history of Marxist thought; it is also one of the world's grandest, most thoroughgoing intellectual demolition jobs. For nearly 1300 pages, the author clambers over the edifice of his subject like an indefatigable spider, laying his charges. By the time he has scrambled up all of Marxism's columns and around all of its cornices, from the sources of the dialectic in the classical philosophy of Plotinus to the pathetic "thought" of Brezhnev, Kim Il-Sung and Elena Ceausescu, nothing is left except rubble.

But he is not unsympathetic to Marxism. He himself began as a leading light of the last Eastern European generation to try to reclaim Marxism as a source of humane idealism. He was the philosophical superstar of the University of Warsaw in the early 1960s, gradually thinking himself into opposition, and compiling 'Main Currents' chiefly from the materials which Communist Poland was obliged to make available for the sake of its own ideological legitimacy. It wasn't published until he was exiled in the 1970s, and living in the safe Isaiah Berlin-ish setting of All Souls, Oxford. To read it is to witness a lone man with a pencil taking on an orthodoxy as big as a continent, in its own terms. Its own best possible terms, always.

Kolakowski always makes the best and most sophisticated case for what he describes. Partly this is a matter of intellectual honour; partly it is him following Hazlitt's rule that you should attack an enemy where they are strongest. More than either, it is because his own self-emancipation requires him to grapple with the strongest attractions of Marxism as a philosophical system. He wants to feel he has found the flaws in the most morally persuasive version of it, not that he has given a kicking to a weak cartoon. The result is to make 'Main Currents' one of the few polemics that can be used as a reliable guide to the thing it opposes.

Kolakowski does have his weak points. He is dismissive about the Frankfurt School, and the Western Marxism of his own time. This does not take away from the scrupulous horror of his demonstration that the Stalinised East represented a plausible embodiment of Marx's own logic. "And thus," he writes at the end of the first volume, "Prometheus awakens from his dream of power, as ignominiously as Gregor Samsa in Kafka's 'Metamorphosis'."

Francis Spufford's 'Red Plenty' is published by Faber & Faber

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

    My George!

    Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world