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 & FaberReuse content