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Washington Diarist


Sometimes nothing is more enchanting than disenchantment. I had the good fortune to have been born late in the intellectual wars about Marxism, and far away from the Marxist tyrannies, and I never was a Marxist; but when I was a student I suffered for a while from the suspicion that the Marxist tradition contained important truths, and that only it contained them. Marxism, after all, explained everything; and I was not yet smart enough to hold this against it. The intellectual sophistication of the tradition seemed incontrovertible; and I was not yet familiar with the stylistic cunning of apologetics and polemics, modern or medieval, which can spin into existence a vast and intoxicating literature without ever examining its own foundations. I was a liberal, but an infirm one--infirm liberalism being the liberalism that fails to engage its enemies on the left as ferociously as its enemies on the right. It is hard for a young man to walk away from the satisfactions of radicalism, in the way that it is hard for a young man, say, to understand Middlemarch. So I read widely in the Marxist tradition, despite my belief in the inadequacy of a materialist view of life and the absurdity of the idea that justice may be established by means of a dictatorship. I half-wanted to fall under its spell, to find a small place in its saga; and I wondered also whether it might go with my Jewishness. (Enter Borochov!) And I record all this with embarrassment, so as to praise the memory of the great man who embarrassed me. He died last week.

In 1975, at All Soul's, in Oxford, I participated in Leszek Kolakowski's seminar on Pascal. It fell to me to report on Lucien Goldmann and his celebrated interpretation of Pascal, and more generally of Jansenism, as the expression of the perplexity of a particular social class in seventeenth- century France, the noblesse de robe, which responded to its increasing isolation from the king, in the years of the emergence of monarchical absolutism and its powerful bureaucracy, with the tragic mystery of the deus absconditus, the hidden God. Here, I supposed, was a scholarly and unpolitical and humanistic Marxism; and I was encouraged to learn that Goldmann was never a Stalinist, or even a member of the Communist Party. At Blackwell I sprung for the hardcover of Goldmann's book, and threw myself into it. There was no way I could have known that Kolakowski was at the time revising his own view of Goldmann's work. In a Polish journal, in 1957, he had given it a mixed review, but he was no longer so clemently inclined. His new, and devastating, analysis of Goldmann appeared a few years later, in the third volume of Main Currents of Marxism. So when I turned up with my own mixed review, the stage for my education was set. Kolakowski heard me out, and congratulated me on some of my comments about Goldmann's affinities with Lukacs, and then proceeded to his own account of the text and the theory. He swiftly demonstrated the crudity of Goldmann's assumption of a "one-to-one correspondence" between the social position of a class and its cultural expressions; and then he went further. He launched into a lecture--I will never forget it--about the distinction between "actual class-consciousness" and "possible class-consciousness," and the damage that it did to humanistic understanding. The notion of possible class- consciousness, or zugerechnetes Bewusstsein, was Lukacs's innovation. It taught- -these are Kolakowski's words in Main Currents of Marxism--that "by relating the empirical consciousness of a social class to the 'totality' of the historical process we can discover not only what that class actually thinks, feels, and desires, but also what it would think, feel, and desire, if it had a clear, unmystified understanding of its position and interests." The Marxist historian, in other words, knows not only what was, but also what should have been; and it is on the basis of what should have been that he knows what was. About this pseudo-omniscience Kolakowski was withering. So even the "humanism" of Goldmann was another engine of necessity, and hermeneutically coercive, and indifferent to actuality. As Kolakowski said--I am quoting again from his Goldmann chapter, but I can hear him saying it--"we know that in practice all kinds of circumstances contribute to the formation of a worldview, and that all phenomena are due to an inexhaustible multiplicity of clauses." That is humanism, and also liberalism. My Bewusstsein was never quite the same.

We became friends. And the disenchanter became the re-enchanter, because what most stimulated Leszek was the ancient but unantiquated search for truth that used to be described affectionately as metaphysics. He came to Goldmann because of Pascal, not to Pascal because of Goldmann. Or more precisely, Goldmann came to him, cruelly, with the caprices of history, in the poisoned air of Marxism-Leninism in Poland; but when Goldmann died for him, Pascal still lived. Leszek exposed the theological character of Marxism because he was a student of theology--he referred to Lafargue as "one of the principal scriptores minores of the Marxist canon," and Main Currents of Marxism might be described as a critical study of socialist patristics. He could tell a doctrine with integrity from a doctrine without it. Nobody contributed more than him to the systematic philosophical demolition of Marxism--he mastered what he hated as brilliantly as what he loved; and others will laud him for this. I wish to recall Leszek gratefully as a democrat with a metaphysical interest. There are not many liberals who prefer to discuss Ockham or Cusanus. He made reason soulful. I found in him an uncommon example of the spirituality of philosophy. His sympathy for religion was owed not to a settled faith--the elusiveness of certainty was one of his lifelong themes--but to a conviction that religion was another home for philosophy, a sanctuary for its questions and (some of) its answers in a culture that was indifferent to it and an academy that had professionalized it. There was an almost taunting quality to his essays about the conceptual richness of religious thinkers. And yet Leszek was a perfect stranger to piety, with his weathered ironies and his worldly cigarettes. In 1966, he delivered a legendary "revisionist" speech, which resulted in his expulsion from the Party and the loss of his position at the university in Warsaw, and published an essay on "the epistemology of striptease." A dissent, and a dissent. Before the uncompromised defense of justice and pleasure, tyrannies may tremble, and even fall.