Sunday, January 15, 2006

THES: John Gray and Leszek Kolakowski

The Times Higher (Jan 13th 2006) has a piece by John Gray (subscription required for web-version) on Leszek Kolakowski and Marxism, marking the republication of Kolakowski's Main Currents in Marxism in one volume.

Gray returns to an old theme of his: '... Marxism has ceased to matter.... Marxian socialism is a spent force.' Marxism is insignificant, but 'the utopian impulse it expressed has not disappeared.' It lives on in the grandiose schemes of the neocon right.

Gray recommends Kolakowski as the best guide to the history and philosophy of Marxism, which is also part of the history of religion. For Kolakowski Marxism is rooted in theology and mysticism (via Hegel) and is a secular eschatology, 'a doctrine of human salvation presented in pseudo-scientific terms', 'like a revealed religion'.

Quotes from Kolakowski: "the greatest fantasy of our century... an idea that began in Promothean humanism and culminated in the monstrous tyranny of Stalinism."
".. entailed some practicalconsequences that wwould bring indescribable misery and suffering to mankind."
Tyranny is the result of the attempt to put utopia into practice.

There are good things in Marxism - the analysis of capitalism, the prescient account of globalization, but those ideas can be found elsewhere: Schumpeter gets a mention.

Kolakowski goes for a quick knock-out-blow: Marx's predictions were wrong; the 'materialist conception of history' either absurd or platitudinous; labour theory of value has no use; useless on ecological questions; Eurocentric and incapable of explaining the totalitarian socialism of the 20thC - especially as it had been predicted by 19thC anarchists.

Marx is still worth reading as part of intellectual history, but utopias are both necessary and dangerous. Finally life in the capitalist world might be dominated by greed and envy, but it's better than life in a 'complusory fraternity'.

Sorry, not convinced by either of our luminaries critiques.

Eric at Drink-soaked Trotskyite Popinjays for WAR has a very good piece about 'The Dark Pessimism of John Gray'. He challenges Gray over the Iraq War, presenting a more favourable view of the war and occupation than Gray does; and also takes him to task for his deeply pessimistic view of the human condition and conservative view of the possibilities of international diplomacy that would limit international intervention. There's a link to this New Statesman article where Gray sets out his views on Iraq more fully, and to this review of Gray's Straw Dogs by Danny Postel in The Nation. There's even some serious discussion about Gray in the comments box!


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