Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Is God or Marx Happy? A Book Review on Leszek Kolakowski's Writings Part 1

Anticommunist essay collection of Leszek Kolakowski

First off, I would like to thank Basic Books for continuously sending me so many quality books over the past year, and, in particular, this unsolicited but quite precious and wonderful gem of a book! In fact, this publishing company knows me well enough to send me books that are both interesting and of educational value to me.

This unexpected but welcome book with its intriguing title question “Is God Happy?” immediately caught my eye and attention. It is a selection of essays written by the Polish intellectual Leszek Kolakowski who had taught and lived under the restraints of Soviet communism until his expulsion from the Communist Party.

This book is both heavy in weight and ideas and is broken up into two parts (three actually, but the third one with its undecided and unfocused title of “Modernity, Truth, The Past and some other Things” could have simply been shelved under Miscellaneous). 

The first half under the title “Socialism, Ideology and the Left” contains various essays dealing with the ideology and impact of communism, while the second part “Religion, God and the Problem of Evil” is mainly concerned with religious topics, mostly from a historical and philosophical perspective. Since this is quite a long and comprehensive book, spanning essays written over a lifetime, I decided to offer a two-part review with the second part appearing soon. So here we go with Part 1:

On the Failures and Shortcomings of Communism

From the get-go, Kolakowski does not mince his words and attacks communism and leaves no ground of criticism unturned. He claims it is impractical, cruel, bloody, manipulative, totalitarian, and ideologically bankrupt. In his lifetime, living under communist rule, he had to endure censorship and disciplinary measures on various occasions.

At the same time, Kolakowski equally attacks ex-communists, communist sympathizers, and a number of socialist thinkers. Not even Marx is spared from this critical rampage; Kolakowski claims and admits that Marx may make good reading in the same way an atheist might approach and enjoy the Bible.

Socialism may have kennels of truth, but as a political way of life, it fails. It fails because humankind is essentially born capitalist carrying the seed of greed within them, but moreover and more importantly, fraternity cannot be enforced upon others. You cannot force someone to care about others.

Certainly, Kolakowski has a point there, and he makes astute observations. His own first-hand experience of living under communist rule in Poland and later as an exile add a personal and emotionally-charged touch to his writings. At the same time, it may embitter his view.

Although I do not mean to justify communism or the communist state or any government that suppresses human rights, Kolakowski struck me as someone who is both biased and one-sided in his attacks, and, on some occasions, he may accidentally throw out the baby with the bathwater as he nixes most, if not all of Marxist writings; in fact, utopian ideals are dismissed as childish wishful thinking or even damaging. Depending on one's point of view this could be interpreted as either cynical or realistic, or both.

I found the first half of the book extremely interesting, and it filled various gaps in my knowledge on the issues discussed. In fact, Kolakowski closely and carefully analyzes the different spins, interpretations and additions Marx's teachings have been given by Lenin, Chairman Mao and others. However, he claims that each of their readings and realizations are not necessarily incompatible with Marx.

Put differently, they may not follow Marx to the letter but are faithful to his overall spirit on the matter, something that would then entail the dangerous possibility of totalitarian rule. Or, not having read the primary source Das Kapital myself I am somewhat blindly putting my trust in Kolakowski's scholarship, Marx does not unequivocally and clearly explain how such a revolution and state would look like and how they could be maintained, hence opening up a host of different speculations and interpretations, including the totalitarian apparatus and state.

Totalitarianism can come in different forms; that means it can be clothed in different ideology, though the end effect is usually the same. For instance, in one of his essays, he compares the German Nazis with Stalinism. Both ideologies subject people to slavery. In the former, they are driven by the cult of the leader towards a feeling of racial superiority, an über-national sentiment of chauvinism.

Under the rule of Stalin, they equally wanted to preserve the cult of the leader, but in this case towards a united front versus the perceived enemy, often vaguely referred to as imperialism. This was mainly achieved and fostered by feelings of fraternity, harmony and unity among all its citizens. 

As Kolakowski remarks, fraternity that is imposed by force lacks any merit and is, in fact, dysfunctional. Also, he claims that while the Nazis were upfront and “honest” (!) about their plans, intentions and philosophy, communism under Stalin and others resorted to and freely used lies, deception, and manipulation to control their people.

As the term itself implies, totalitarianism includes total and complete control over the political and social lives of its citizens. The best example would be Orwell's dystopian book 1984 in which individuality was seen as suspect, subversive and even harmful to the collective identity and was hence subjected to approval and control by the ominous Big Brother.

As in 1984, in such a government the truth becomes a relative matter, namely what the leader considers as true at a given moment. There is no such thing as absolute truth, only what the leader deems as acceptable and appropriate; hence truth becomes a fluid, malleable and interchangeable matter.

Totalitarianism also has its fair share of paranoia. It is paranoia both within and without its borders. The Cold War, incidentally on both sides of the spectrum, meant fortifying oneself against the negative influences from the other. Totalitarianism hence needs a closed-border policy to protect itself from the outside threat.

But the threat can also be internal, emanating from its own citizens. They too can be “infected” by the ideas of the enemy, hence the necessity to create a state police and a flexible law system to imprison and execute anyone who stepped out of line with the leader's teachings and pronouncements. Censorship becomes just a matter of fact, an essential and necessary tool for such a closed system, while people become distrustful of each other and are encouraged to spy on others and to report suspicious persons to the police.

All of this is clearly unacceptable under democratic and human-rights-oriented principles. The communist state then becomes a life of servitude where the hired labor of capitalism may have been eliminated only to be replaced by “forced” labor. Citizens in a communist state then lose their fundamental rights and freedoms and become puppets, or worse, slaves in a system in which they have no say.

What it is like to live under communist rule, I do not know but listening to most people's accounts, I would rather pass. I cannot criticize Kolakowski's ideas for what they are worth since I lack the necessary background experience. It is similar to people who give me their fair share of knowledge on parenting without ever having had children themselves. 

To those I would reply that although their intentions may be good, they simply do not know what it is like to be a parent. Studying something and experiencing it may complement each other, but they certainly are not one and the same. For instance, French writer and intellectual André Gide was a supporter of communism until he actually visited the then-Soviet Union with its horrifying conditions and misery.

I often wonder why communism, which is based on humanitarian ideals of equality should be so ignorant and dismissive of human rights. Again the term of communism is an umbrella term including many factions and styles; yet what may happen is that those who control the state will fall prey to their own ambitions, a necessary and unavoidable human by-product. The same way, there are few, if any, “good” dictators as power does corrupt.

In the Western world, communism has had a bad rap. Anybody who spoke of support for the poor or any remotely socialist idea was often seen as a threat to the status quo. Even though the Soviet Union has been soundly laid to rest, there are still fragments of the paranoia within the Western soul. We need to make sure that we also put to sleep the McCarthy area and do not accuse our neighbors of communism, although this has been mostly replaced by the new fear of terror. The paranoia may be similar but they are two completely different entities and ideologies.

It is also interesting how there are often polarized views and opinions on one person. Although most people would clearly condemn the actions and behavior of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, the case of Hugo Chavez was altogether different. Chavez also did not mince his words, but there was some truth in them, and he had sympathizers and followers all around the world.

It seems to be a complex and difficult, but I think not impossible, task to implement socialist ideals in a state that essentially guarantees freedom and respect of human rights. Europe has had more success with it on some grounds than North America, especially when it comes to welfare and education.

The United States, the self-declared land of the free, is often referred to as a champion of human rights, especially if we exclude the Second Amendment and Guantanamo from its current record, and the horrible stain of slavery from its own dark ages. 

However, there are currents of idealism and democracy that have served as a model for the rest of the world. Yet the reality is also that the gap between the rich and the poor has probably never been as wide as it is nowadays. For better or worse, capitalism favors those who have capital to begin with, while communism, as we know it, is not an adequate antidote to this problem.

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