My Correct Views on Everything: Leszek Kolakowski's correspondence with E.P. Thompson

From the Socialist Register, 1974

Dear Edward Thompson
Why I am not very happy about this public correspondence is because your letter deals as much (at least) with personal attitudes as with ideas. However I have no personal accounts to settle either with Communist ideology or with the year 1956; this was settled long ago. But if you insist, 

Let us begin and carry up this corpse 
Singing together. . . . 

In a review of the last issue of Socialist Register by Raymond Williams, I read that your letter is one of the best pieces of Left writings in the last decade, which implies directly that all or nearly all the rest was worse. He knows better and I take his word. I should be proud to having occasioned, to a certain degree, this text, even if I happen to be its target. And so, my first reaction is one of gratitude.

My second reaction is of embarras de richesses. You will excuse me if I make a fair choice of topics in my reply to your 100 pages of the Open Letter (not well segmentated, as you will admit). I will try to take up the most controversial ones. I do not think I should comment on the autobiographical pages, interesting though they are. When you say, e.g. that you do not go to Spain for holidays, that you never attend a conference of Socialists without paying a part of the costs out of your own pocket, that you do not participate in meetings funded by the Ford Foundation, that you are like Quakers of old who refused to take off their hats before authorities, etc., I do not think it advisable to reply with a virtue-list of my own; this list would probably be less impressive.

Neither am I going to exchange the story of your dismissal from the New Left Review for all the stories of my expulsions from different editorial committees of different journals; these stories would be rather trivial. My third reaction is of sadness and I mean it. Incompetent though I am in your field of studies, I know your reputation as a scholar and historian and I found it regrettable to see in your Letter so many Leftist cliches which survive in speech and print owing to three devices : first, the refusal to analyse words-and the use of verbal hybrids purposely designed to confound the issues; second, the use of moral or sentimental standards in some cases and of political and historical standards in other similar cases; third, the refusal to accept historical facts as they are. I will try to say more precisely what I mean.

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 diplomacy. 

O, 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". Everything is right on some additional assumptions. Obviously, in the world in which we live, important events in one country are usually to be credited in part to what happened in other countries. You will certainly not deny that a part of the responsibility for German Nazism lay upon the Soviet Union; I wonder how this affects your judgement on German Nazism ?

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 book was published in Russian in Frankfurt in 1973. The author, a Russian worker, was caught when he tried to cross the Soviet border to Iran. He was lucky to have done it 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 above is an extract; download the full article on these links:

Also see:  An Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski by E. P. Thompson
Dear Leszek Kolakowski, First, I must introduce myself, since this is an unusual kind of letter. You don't know me, but I know you well. This must be familiar enough to a man with an international " reputation. He must often be beset with the importunities of strangers. But my claim is more insistent and vulgar than that. I am the stranger who walks into the house, slaps you on the back, sits down at your ;able, and jests about your youthful escapades, on the pretext of a claim to distant relationship of which you know nothing. I am, in political terms, your mother's brother's stepson. I am an impossible and presumptuous guest, and an uninvited one-you may even suspect that I am an impostor-but the courtesies of kinship disallow you from throwing me from your house..

And: Why Socialism? Albert Einstein
Closing the Circle: Article on Revolution in Frontier, August 2012
Alexandre Koyré The Political Function of the Modern Lie

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