In the preface to his remarkable book Michal Kopeček explains why he chose the topic of revisionist Marxist intellectuals under communism – “revisionist” meaning, in the “Eastern Bloc” sense, Marxist party intellectuals who began to criticize Stalinism and Marxism-Leninism in its orthodox variant as applied at the beginning of the 1950s and were branded as “revisionist” by the authorities in place. Beside the indisputable historical interest of the topic, a crucial point is at stake here, namely the legitimacy and relevance of working out a section of post-1948 history which may not be reduced to a victimization narrative. To even dare to come out with such a topic is in itself a statement in a Czech post-communist society where the guiding values in ‘coming to terms with the communist past’ have been largely hijacked by anti-communist politicians and historians. These surroundings make the publication of Kopeček’s volume an important event on the Czech and European historical scenes.
To criticize the black-and-white vision of the past as opposing the ‘good’ people against the ‘bad’ communists is a social taboo which Czech historians find difficult to shake. Kopeček doesn’t explicitely challenge this confiscation; he prudently (and too modestly) declares that he is not interested in ‘memory’ nor will he address the question of ‘dealing with the past’, while also paying the quaint but obligatory tribute in the Czech context to the supposedly unreachable ‘objectivity’ and ‘scientificity’ of the historical science. He does however land a punchy philosophical reflection both on right-wing anti-communist fundamentalists and on the left-wing supporters of ‘drawing a thick line over the past’ (and thus forgetting about history of communism) with the words: ‘If we want to understand our own national, Central European or European past, we have to understand the [historical] defects [of nazism and communism] not as something external, un-organic, standing outside of us, but as an essential component of our own past and thus of our identity’ (p. 10). As opposed to the paradoxically often underrated intellectual history which he develops here, the so-called ‘totalitarian paradigm’ would indeed fail not only to explain but even to restitute the internal rifts and intellectual diversity within an allegedly monolithic system.
Indeed, if we can not understand the post-1989 period without knowing what happened in the pre-1989 period, how can we understand the dissident movement of the 1970s without knowing what happened in the 1950s, including during the Marxist (revisionist) debates in which personalities like Karel Kosík, Leszek Kołakowski or György Lukács took such a crucial part? Marxist humanism and communist revisionism are direct offsprings of stalinist fanaticism, as Kopeček shows by analyzing the personal development of these prominent intellectual figures – and they are also direct predecessors of dissident ethics. By a minute analysis of their writings, the author dissects their slow transformation from dogmatic marxist leninists supporting, if not creating, the party line, to reformists eager to make amends and open up the party and society. In this respect, this volume also serves as an intellectual collective biography of these thinkers.
Kopeček’s work is situated at the crossroads between a reflection of political ideologies and a history of political ideas. The first chapter retraces how Marxism-Leninism was established as a major philosophical discourse through political means and what problems it caused (for lack of tradition) when the different communist parties endeavoured to establish marxism as a proper academic discipline. The second chapter deals with legitimacy and legitimization strategies, focussing on two major fields and their mutual relations : the discourse on Marxism and the discourse on the nation. The third chapter then deals specifically with the Polish Marxist revisionist debate and intellectual development, while the fourth does the same with Hungary and the fifth is dedicated to Czechoslovakia.
The book is centred around a period (1953-1960) which was until now under-researched. Historians in the West are usually unfamiliar with the lively, esoteric debate which took place in each country at the time, since only a few works have been translated into Western languages. It is therefore more than useful that Kopeček retraces the genealogy of the post-Stalinist revisionist movement. He goes in two directions: at the level of the communist party (party intellectuals who abandon orthodox ideology) and at the individual level (party intellectuals who were emotionally strongly involved with stalinism and who go through a process of self-destalinization, trying to cope with both their personal and collective past.) It is perhaps an irony of history that young Marxist-Stalinists, who had been one of the most important tools in pseudo-critical party propaganda in order to smash pre-communist intellectuals, used - as Kopeček shows - their first-hand knowledge of so-called bourgeois thinkers to come to terms with their own development.
In this respect, we can only hope that Kopeček will continue his monumental work for the post-1960 period. By defying the orthodoxy of marxist ideology, revisionist marxists paved the way for non-marxists to establish their own position in the 1960s and to create the basis for reform and future dissidence. In this respect, it would be especially welcome to bring to the fore the continuities between the end of the 1960s and the beginning of dissent in the 1970s, which are as significant as those around 1989, although usually disregarded.
No doubt, the reader will be impressed by the amount of literature Kopeček analysed, the extent of his philosophical competence, his surely unique language abilities (reading original philosophical works in no less than Polish, Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, English, German and Russian), a quite incredible panel of qualities which allows him to lead a seemingly impossible comparative analysis. Michal Kopeček is perhaps the only intellectual historian today who can evaluate Central Europe Marxist philosophy as a whole, while adequately historicizing and restituting each national context. This comparative dimension is certainly the most demanding aspect and the major achievement of this study – along with the adaptation of John Pocock’s concept of political language to 20th century Marxism, a convincing conceptual innovation.
While some might regret that the said comparison does not really give sense to a specific Central European identity (nothing essential seems to point to a common intellectual grasping of Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia as opposed to other countries such as Yugoslavia or Ukraine), we can appreciate the critical potential of such a comparative endeavour and its ability to deconstruct national myths. For instance, the self-congratulating democratic roots supposedly inherent to the Czech nation and thought to be at the origin of the most emblematic marxist revisionist historical event to date, the Prague Spring, are strongly relativized here : Poland and Hungary did not have such a prestigious democratic past but they certainly had leading revisionist marxists, first-class intellectuals who questioned communist ideology with unequalled strength and rigour.
The only flipside of Michal Kopeček’s unique intellectual level is a language which must be at times incomprehensible for a large portion of the readers. Sentences such as “That is why it isn’t ever completely possible to solve the dilemma of the comparison versus the historical context or in other words the dilemma of the alignment of the comparative (syntagmatic) and developing (paradigmatic) axes, which is reflected in the syncretic structure of the text” (p. 17) are not exactly designed for a wider audience. Kopeček’s definition of the simple word “generation” in a “sociological-historical” understanding as a “vague but worthy noetic value” (p. 49) might also appear as needlessly complicated.
However and as a last tribute to this exceptional work, the relevance of this study nowadays is not to be underestimated. The quest for an egalitarian society and more social justice is still topical today and remains an important stage of global historical development. Efforts to implement this heritage of the French revolution (Claude Lefort) don’t take the form of revisionist Marxism anymore, but the ‘enlightened’ character of the Marxist revisionist message and the famous tension between the ‘end’ and the ‘means’ are still present. The revolution’s lost meaning is still being seeked and as Kopeček’s teaching activities show, Marxist revisionism and dissident philosophy seminars are full. The young generation seems eager to reinvent Kosík, Kołakowski or Lukács, provided they are able to read through their Marxist language – an endeavour which this volume will greatly help them achieve.