Making 'em Feel Small...
Oh Brave New World, That Has Unfogged Comment Threads in It!

Main Currents of Marxism

Back in the early 1970s, Leszek Kolakowski tells English historian E.P. Thompson what he thinks of him: Your letter contains some personal grievances and some arguments on general questions. I will start with a minor personal grievance. Oddly enough, you seem to feel offended by not having been invited to the Reading conference and you state that if you had been invited you would have refused to attend anyway, on serious moral grounds. I presume, consequently, that if you had been invited, you would have felt offended as well and so, no way out of hurting you was open to the organizers.

Now, the moral ground you cite is the fact that in the organizing Committee you found the name of Robert Cecil. And what is sinister about Robert Cecil is that he once worked in the British diplomatic service. And so, your integrity does not allow you to sit at the same table with someone who used to work in British diplomacv.

0, blessed Innocence! You and I, we were both active in our respective Communist Parties in the 40s and 50s which means that, whatever our noble intentions and our charming ignorance (or refusal to get rid of ignorance) were, we supported, within our modest means, a regime based on mass slave labour and police terror of the worst kind in human history. Do you not think that there are many people who could refuse to sit at the same table with us on this?

No, you are innocent, while I do not feel, as you put it, the "sense of the politics of those years" when so many Western intellectuals were converted to Stalinism.

Your "sense of politics of those years" is obviously subtler and more differentiated than mine, I gather this from your casual comments on Stalinism. First, you say, that a part (a part, I do not omit that) of responsibility for Stalinism lies upon the Western powers. You say, second, that "to a historian, fifty years is too short a time in which to judge a new social system, if such a system is arising". Third, we know, as you say, "times when communism has shown a most human face, between 1917 and the early 1920s and again from the battle of Stalingrad to 1946"....

Your second comment is revealing, indeed. What is fifty years "to a historian"? The same day as I am writing this, I happen to have read a book by Anatol Marchenko, relating his experiences in Soviet prisons and concentration camps in the early 1960s (not 1930s).... The author, a Russian worker, was caught when he tried to cross the Soviet border to Iran... in Khrushchev's time, when the regrettable errors of J. V. Stalin were over (yes, regrettable, let us face it, even if in part accounted for by the Western powers), and so, he got only six years of hard labour in a concentration camp.

One of his stories is about three Lithuanian prisoners who tried to escape from the convoy in a forest. Two of them were quickly caught, then shot many times in the legs, then ordered to get up which they could not do, then kicked and trampled by guards, then bitten and torn up by police dogs (such an amusement, survival of capitalism) and only then stabbed to death with bayonets. All this with witty remarks by the officer, of the kind "Now, free Lithuania, crawl, you'll get your independence straight off !"

The third prisoner was shot and, reputed to be dead, was thrown under corpses in the cart; discovered later to be alive he was not killed (de-stalinization!) but left for several days in a dark cell with his festering wound and he survived after his arm was cut off.

This is one of thousand stories you can read in many now available books. Such books are rather reluctantly read by the enlightened Leftist elite, both because they are largely irrelevant, they supply us only with small details (and, after all, we agree that some errors were committed) and because many of them have not been translated (did you notice that if you meet a Westerner who learnt Russian you have at least 90% chance of meeting a bloody reactionary? Progressive people do not enjoy this painful effort of learning Russian, they know better anyway).

And so, what is fifty years to a historian? Fifty years covering the life of an obscure Russian worker Marchenko or of a still more obscure Lithuanian student who has not even written a book? Let us not hurry with judging a "new social system". Certainly I could ask you how many years you needed to assess the merits of the new military regime in Chile or in Greece, but I know your answer: no analogy, Chile and Greece remain within capitalism (factories are privately owned) while Russia started a new "alternative society" (factories are state owned and so is land and so are all its inhabitants). As genuine historians we can wait for another century and keep our slightly melancholic but cautiously optimistic historical wisdom.

Not so, of course, with "that beast", "that old bitch, consumer capitalism" (your words). Wherever we look, our blood is boiling. Here we may afford to be ardent moralists again and we can prove--as you do--that the capitalist system has a "logic" of its own that all reforms are unable to cancel. The national health service, you say, is impoverished by the existence of private practice, equality in education is spoilt because people are trained for private industry etc.... And you propose "a peaceful revolutionary transition to an alternative socialist logic". You think apparently that this makes perfectly clear what you mean; I think, on the contrary, that it is perfectly obscure unless, again, you imagine that once the total state ownership of factories is granted, there remain only minor technical problems on the road to your utopia.

But this is precisely what remains to be proved and the onus probandi lies on those who maintain that these (insignificant "to a historian") fifty years of experience may be discarded by the authors of the new blueprint for the socialist society (In Russia there were "exceptional circumstances", weren't there? But there is nothing exceptional about Western Europe).

Your way of interpreting these modest fifty years (fifty-seven now) of the new alternative society is revealed as well in your occasional remarks about the "most human face of communism" between 1917 and the early '20s and between Stalingrad and 1946. What do you mean by "human face" in the first case? The attempt to rule the entire economy by police and army, resulting in mass hunger... several hundred peasants' revolts, all drowned in blood (a total economic disaster, as Lenin would admit later, after having killed and imprisoned an indefinite number of Mensheviks and SRs for predicting precisely that)? Or do you mean the armed invasion of seven non-Russian countries which had formed their independent governments, some socialist, some not (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia; 0 God, where are all these curious tribes living?) ? Or do you mean the dispersion by soldiers of the only democratically elected Parliament in Russian history, before it could utter one single word? The suppression by violence of all political parties, including socialist ones, the abolition of the non-Bolshevik press and, above all, the replacement of law with the absolute power of the party and its police in killing, torturing and imprisoning anybody they wanted? The mass repression of the Church? The Kronstadt uprising?

And what is the most human face in 1942-46? Do you mean the deportation of eight entire nationalities of the Soviet Union with hundreds of thousands of victims (let us say seven, not eight, one was deported shortly before Stalingrad) ? Do you mean sending to concentration camps hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war handed over by the Allies? Do you mean the so-called collectivization of the Baltic countries if you have an idea about the reality of this word?

I have three possible explanations of your statement. First, that you are simply ignorant... this I find incredible, considering your profession of historian. Second, that you use the word "human face" in a very Thompsonian sense which I do not grasp. Third, that you, not unlike most of both orthodox and critical communists, believe that everything is all right in the Communist system as long as the leaders of the party are not murdered.... Did you notice that the only victims Khrushchev mentioned by name in his speech of 1956 (whose importance I am far from underestimating) were the Stalinists pur sang like himself, most of them (like Postychev) hangmen of merit with uncountable crimes committed before they became victims themselves? Did you notice, in memoirs or critical analyses written by many ex-communists... that their horror only suddenly emerged when they saw communists being slaughtered?...

Well, Thompson, I really do not attribute to you this way of thinking. Still I cannot help noticing your use of double standards of evaluation.... We must not be fervent moralists in some cases and Real-politikers or philosophers of world history in others, depending on political circumstances.... [A] Latin-American revolutionary who told me about torture in Brazil. I asked: "What is wrong with torture?" and he said: "What do you mean? Do you suggest it is all right? Are you justifying torture?" And I said: "On the contrary, I simply ask you if you think that torture is a morally inadmissible monstrosity." "Of course," he replied. "And so is torture in Cuba?", I asked. "Well, he answered, this is another thing. Cuba is a small country under the constant threat of American imperialists. They have to use all means of self-defence, however regrettable"...