Notes on Kolakowski’s “My Correct Views on Everything”

I love the intellectual life in L’viv.

I recently went to a coffee shop to hear L’viv author, historian, and university professor Iaroslav Hrytsak discuss a new collection of Kolakowski. I read a translation of one of Kolakowski’s essays which was discussed at the coffee shop. Here are some notes:

My Correct Views on Everything is a correspondence by Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski.

Wikipedia: “He came to believe that the totalitarian cruelty of Stalinism was not an aberration, but instead a logical end product of Marxism, whose genealogy he examined in his monumental Main Currents of Marxism, his major work published in 1976-1978.”

1) Kolakowski has a wonderful sense of humor, and offers a devastating demonstration of the hypocrisy and stupidity of Marxists using empirical evidence. I enjoyed reading it, though I feel like I missed a lot without first knowing Mr. Thomspon’s essays. This essay is 1/2 of a conversation.

2) If you want a deep philosophical analysis, start with the fact that Kolakowski is an empiricist. There is an ancient debate among philosophers over where knowledge comes from. Empiricism vs Rationalism. For the lay person, this is a boring debate, but it has huge implications, especially in the field of economics.

Some background on the debate:

Hoppe spends the first 30-minutes of this lecture making the case for rationalism in economics and discussing the history of the debate. If you watch this video, know that “Positivists” are Empiricists.

Here’s an essay about Hoppe’s essay about Rationalism:

The first (and most difficult) part of Mises’ most famous book, Human Action, establishes the argument that economics is a rational science, not an empirical one. Here’s a free copy of the gigantic book:

Here’s the simplest way to make the argument that I can think of: Humans learn. Therefore, every human event is unique and un-repeatable. Therefore, the study of human action is unsuitable for empiricism.

Okay, back to Kolakowski.

Most of his essay offers evidence of the brutality of socialism. “X happened, therefore socialism doesn’t work.” He always stops short of making absolute statements about the nature of human action. Empiricists fall into the trap that every situation is unique and requires experiment. If Utopian socialism doesn’t work, we can try Marxist-Leninist socialism. If that fails, we combine Rousseau and Marx and try to create an agrarian based communist society (as Cambodia attempted).

I think Kolakowski’s rejection of socialism is so strong and visceral, he would reject most forms of socialism, but his empiricism prevents him from making absolute statements.

You can do a search for “empiric” to see how often Kolakowski uses the term. Here are a few examples:

“These narrow empiricists and egoists [from Eastern Europe] extrapolate a poor few decades of their petty personal experience. . . .
and find in it pretexts to cast doubts on the radiant socialist future elaborated on the best Marxist-Leninist grounds by ideologists of the New Left for the Western countries.”

I think in this one he admits he is an empiricist:

“Only in such a loose sense that the same statement would be equally true when I substitute for “Marxist” or “Christian”, “sceptical”, “empiricist”. . . . I do not deny my debt to Marxism, to Christianity, to sceptical philosophy, to empiricist thought and to a
few other traditions ”

3) Kolakowski believes in the existence of a state (as 99.9% of people do). He criticizes a lack of a sort of “national liberty” just as much as he criticizes a lack of real liberty which is individual liberty.

“in that all key sectors of our life, including the army, foreign policy, foreign trade, important industries and ideology, are under tight control of a foreign empire which exerts its power with a considerable meticulousness (e.g. preventing specific books from being published or specific information from being divulged, not to speak of more serious matters). Still, we appreciate immensely our margins of freedom when we compare our position with that of entirely liberated countries like the Ukraine or Lithuania which, as far as their right to self-government is concerned, are in a much worse situation than the old colonies of the British empire were.”

He slips into Mr. Thompson’s paradign of socialist “systems” vs non-socialist “systems”. I would instead point out that these are not crimes of capitalism, but crimes of governments which have somewhat capitalistic economies:

“all negative facts to be found in the nonsocialist world-apartheid in South Africa, torture in Brazil, hunger in Nigeria or inadequate health service in Britain-are to be imputed to the “system”, while similar facts occurring within the socialist world have to be accounted for by the “system” as well, yet not socialist, but the same capitalist system (survival of old society; impact of encirclement etc.)”

4) He remains suspicious of capitalism:

[see above quote]

“consumer captialism has a logic of its own.”

“total freedom means anarchy and anarchy results in the domination of the physically strongest, i.e. total freedom turns into its opposite; efficiency as a supreme value calls again for despotism and despotism is economically inefficient above a certain level of technology.”

“I share without restrictions your (and Marx’s, and Shakespeare’s, and many others’) analysis to the effect that it is very deplorable that people’s minds are occupied with the endless pursuit of money, that needs have a magic power of infinite growth, and that the profit motive, instead of use-value, is ruling production. Your superiority consists in that you know exactly how to get rid of all this and I do not.”

5) The criticism which is most logical, and, in my opinion, best, is here:

“the “new alternative society” have shown very convincingly that the only universal medicine these people have for social evils-state ownership of the means of production-is not only perfectly compatible with all disasters of the capitalist world, with exploitation, imperialism, pollution, misery, economic waste, national hatred and national oppression, but that it adds to them a series of disasters of its own: inefficiency, lack of economic incentives and, above all, the unrestricted role of the omnipotent bureaucracy, a concentration of power never known before in human history. . . . We want a society with a large autonomy of small communities, do we not? And we want central planning in the economy. Let us try to think now how both work together. We want technical progress and we want perfect security for people; let us look closer how both could be combined.”

also here:

“And socialism is defined within this “system-thinking” as total or nearly total state ownership of the means of production; you obviously cannot define socialism in terms of the abolition of hired labour, since you know that if empirical socialism differs in this respect from capitalism, this is only in restoring direct slave labour for prisoners, half-slave labour for workers (abolition of the freedom to change one’s place of work) and the mediaeval glebae adrcriptio for peasants.”

He also approaches it here, though stops himself:

“Still, I think that many important tenets of Marx’s doctrine are either false or meaningless or else true only in a very restricted sense. I think that the labour theory of value is a normative device without any explanatory power whatsoever; that none of the well known general formulae of the historical materialism to be found in Marx’s writings is admissible and that this doctrine is valid only in a strongly qualified sense; that his theory of class consciousness is false and that most of his predictions proved to be erroneous (this is admittedly a general description of what I feel, I am not trying to justify here my conclusions).”

6) Side note: “Fascist” as slander.

On pages 10-11, he jokes about how the accusation of “fascism” was used as propaganda against anyone who opposed socialism. I think we Western Ukrainians can relate to that.

7) I’m really curious how Marx influenced Kolakowski, and which aspects of Marx Kolakowski accepts. He writes:

“If I admit nevertheless to keep thinking, in historical (yet not in philosophical) matters, in terms inherited in part from the Marxian legacy, do I accept an allegiance to the Marxist tradition? Only in such a loose sense that the same statement would be equally true when I substitute for “Marxist” or “Christian”, “sceptical”, “empiricist”. Without belonging to any political party or sect, to any Church, to any philosophical school, I do not deny my debt to Marxism, to Christianity, to sceptical philosophy, to empiricist thought and to a few other traditions ”

“I readily admit that without Marx our thinking about history would be different and in many respects worse than it is”

I hope he is speaking of Marx’s idea that history properly told is the history of class struggle. The first Hoppe essay I ever read was “Marxist and Austrian Class Analysis”. Hoppe details the surprising overlap between Marxism and the Austrian School. Basically, he arguing that Marxists interpret history correctly, but mis-identify the exploiters. The exploiters are not the businessmen, but those you use violence to seize wealth (criminals and politicians).