Main Currents of Marxism

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Main Currents of Marxism: Its Origins, Growth and Dissolution
Main Currents of Marxism (Polish edition).jpg
Cover of the first edition of volume two
Author Leszek Kołakowski
Original title Główne nurty marksizmu. Powstanie, rozwój, rozkład
Translator P. S. Falla
Country France
Language Polish
Subject Karl Marx, Marxism
Media type Print (hardcover and paperback)
Pages 434 (English ed., vol. 1)
542 (English ed., vol. 2)
548 (English ed., vol. 3)
1284 (one volume edition)
ISBN 0-19-285107-1 (vol. 1)
0-19-285108-X (vol. 2)
0-19-285109-8 (vol. 3)
978-0393329438 (one volume edition)

Main Currents of Marxism: Its Origins, Growth and Dissolution (Polish: Główne nurty marksizmu. Powstanie, rozwój, rozkład) is a work about Marxism by political philosopher Leszek Kołakowski. Its three volumes in English are: 1: The Founders, II: The Golden Age, and III: The Breakdown. It was first published in Polish in Paris in 1976, with the English translation appearing in 1978. In 2005, Main Currents of Marxism was republished in a one volume edition, with a new preface and epilogue by Kołakowski.[1]

Background and publishing history[edit]

According to Kołakowski, Main Currents of Marxism was written in Polish between 1968 and 1976, at a time when it was impossible to publish the work in Poland. A Polish edition was published in France between 1976 and 1978, and then copied by underground Polish publishers. Translations in English, German, Dutch, Italian, Serbo-Croatian, and Spanish subsequently appeared. Another Polish edition was published in Great Britain in 1988 by the publishing house Aneks. The work was first published legally in Poland in 2000. Kołakowski writes that only the first two volumes appeared in French translation, and speculates that the reason for this is that "the third volume would provoke such an outrage among French Leftists that the publishers were afraid to risk it."[2]


Kołakowski provides an analysis of the origins, philosophical roots, golden age and breakdown of Marxism. He describes Marxism as "the greatest fantasy of the twentieth century", a dream of a perfect society which became a foundation for "a monstrous edifice of lies, exploitation and oppression." He argues that the Leninist and Stalinist versions of communist ideology are not a distortion or degenerate form of Marxism, but one of its possible interpretations.[3] Kołakowski writes that, despite his rejection of Marxism, his interpretation of Marx is influenced more by György Lukács than by other commentators.[4] His first volume contains a discussion of the intellectual background of Marxism, examining the contributions of such figures as Plotinus, Johannes Scotus Eriugena, Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, Jakob Böhme, Angelus Silesius, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, as well as an analysis of the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.[5]

The second volume includes a discussion of the Second International,[5] which Kołakowski considers Marxism's "Golden Age", because of the open discussion and flexibility that were possible in that period.[6] The third volume contains chapters dealing with Marxist thinkers such as Leon Trotsky, Antonio Gramsci, Lukács, Karl Korsch, Lucien Goldmann, Herbert Marcuse, and Ernst Bloch, as well as a chapter dealing with the Frankfurt School and critical theory. Kołakowski critically discusses works such as Lukács's History and Class Consciousness (1923) and Bloch's The Principle of Hope (1954). Jean-Paul Sartre is discussed within a section on "Developments in Marxism since Stalin's death"; Kołakowski describes and criticizes Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960).[7]


Marxist historian G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, writing in The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (1981), considered Main Currents of Marxism overpraised, but was influenced by it nevertheless and granted that Kołakowski accurately delineated some of the disastrous developments of Marx's thought by many of his followers.[8] Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton commended Kołakowski's work, writing that Kołakowski was justified in seeing Lukács as "an intellectual Stalinist, one for whom an opponent sacrifices, by his very opposition, the right to exist."[9] Conservative authors William F. Buckley, Jr. and Charles R. Kesler write that Kołakowski traces at length "the connection between Marxist theory and Stalinist reality", calling his book "excellent".[10] Political scientist Paul Thomas, discussing the work in The Cambridge Companion to Marx (1991), argues that Kołakowski wrongly interprets Marxism as "radical anthropocentrism, a secularization of the (real) religious absolute, a formula for human self-perfectibility, and the self-deification of humankind." Thomas sees Kołakowski's interpretation as unconscionable, and believes that its motive is to connect Marx to "his self-appointed disciples."[11]

Political scientist David McLellan praised Main Currents of Marxism in the 1995 edition of his Karl Marx: His Life and Thought for the thoroughness of Kołakowski's philosophical discussion of Marx.[12] Historian of science Roger Smith writes that Main Currents of Marxism is "written by a deeply disabused Polish ex-Marxist intellectual but is an invaluable history across an extended range."[13] Philosopher Richard Rorty writes that people in eastern and central Europe who have read Kołakowski, "suspect that the last eight pages of his Main Currents of Marxism tell you pretty much all you will ever need to know about Marx and Marxism–Leninism."[14]



  1. ^ Kołakowski 2005.
  2. ^ Kołakowski 2005. pp. vi-vii
  3. ^ Kołakowski 2012. p. vii.
  4. ^ Kołakowski 2005. p. xxiv
  5. ^ a b Kołakowski 2005. pp. ix-xiv
  6. ^ Thomas 1999. p. 34.
  7. ^ Kołakowski 2005. pp. xix-xxi, 994, 1129-1140, 1171-1172
  8. ^ Croix 1981. p. xi.
  9. ^ Scruton 1985. pp. 6, 158.
  10. ^ Buckley 1988. p. 210.
  11. ^ Thomas 1999. pp. 53-4.
  12. ^ McLellan 1995. p. 443.
  13. ^ Smith 1997. p. 954.
  14. ^ Rorty 1999. p. 210.


  • Buckley, William F.; Kesler, Charles R., eds. (1988). Keeping the Tablets: Modern American Conservative Thought. New York: Harper&Row. ISBN 0-06-055128-3. 
  • de Ste. Croix, G. E. M. (1981). The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: from the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-9597-0. 
  • Kołakowski, Leszek (2012). Is God Happy? Selected Essays. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-141-38955-4. 
  • Kołakowski, Leszek (2005). Main Currents of Marxism. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-32943-8. 
  • McLellan, David (1995). Karl Marx: A Biography. London: Papermac. ISBN 0-333-63947-2. 
  • Rorty, Richard (1999). Philosophy and Social Hope. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-026288-1. 
  • Scruton, Roger (1985). Thinkers of the New Left. Harlow: Longman Group Limited. ISBN 0-582-90273-8. 
  • Smith, Roger (1997). The Norton History of the Human Sciences. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-31733-1. 
  • Thomas, Paul (1999). Carver, Terrell, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-36694-1.