MARXISM has been the greatest fantasy of our century," suggests Professor Leszek Kolakowski. Fantastic it has been.Much of the ideological history he describes now seems like an unbelievably perverse nightmare. Kolakowski, who was professor of history and philosophy at the University of Warsaw until 1968 and is now a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, himself experienced the total corruption of Communist ideology in People's Poland.

The three volumes of this series comprise a course in the general history of the origins and forms of Marxist doctrine. They represent a phenomenal synthesis rather than yet another revisionist interpretation.In Vol. I, Kolakowski first seeks to trace the roots of Marx's philosophical heritage in Hegel and the Enlightenment. Marx believed that he had overcome the Kantian dualism between what is and what ought to be. His solution was to insist that the mind must look to the "rationality" of the world for its own emancipation.

"Marx's epistemology is part of his social utopia," writes Kolakowski. "Communism does away with false consciousness not by substituting a correct image of the wrold for an incorrect one, but by dispelling the illusion that thought is or can be anything other than the expression of the state of life;"

Marx envisioned that the perfect identity between the collective and the individual interests was historically imminent. The Communist revolution would abolish all the divisions between classes, races, and even nations. It would transcend alienation and would do away with the need for political authority and governments. A noble dream!

Kolakowski plods through the highly unscientific and unsystematic nature of Marx's groundwork. The master was a visionary, an idealist, a highly original researcher, but his writings were not the stuff out of which one could hope to build a state. Alas, writes Kolakowski, "The influence that Marxism has achieved, far from being the result or proof of its scientific charcter, is almost entirely due to its prophetic, fantastic, or irrational elements."

Marx's lack of precision meant that his followers almost had a free hand in interpreting such questions as historical determinism, the theory of classes and even Marx's theory of revolution. Engels was the first to revise Marx. However, Engels' dialectic was formulated under the influence of Darwin's discoveries, and Engels' naturalism was incompatible with the philosophical bases of Marxism. Engels believed in infinite progression, Marx in the revolutionary break.

Kolakowski termed the period of the Second International (1889 to 1914) the "Golden Age of Marxism." He shows in Vol. II that the doctrine had been clearly enough defined to constitute a recognizable school of thought, but not yet so rigidly codified as to rule out discussion on theoretical or tactical problems. The movement found such redoubtable defenders as Kautsky, Luxemburg, Plekhanov, Eduard Bernstein, Lenin, Jaures, and Max Adler, all of whom advocated rival solutions to the ideological gaps left by Marx. Not surprisingly, the Second International broke up over the question whether socialism was a continuation of human history or if it represented a break with all that had gone before.

Ultimately it was Lenin's dogmatism which wrecked the possibilities of any further positive development of Marxist thought. For purposes of convenience, Marxism became identical with the "self knowledge" of the working class. For Lenin only the conquest of political power by the proletariat gave any meaning to his actions. Lenin's Bolshevist victory in Russia proved a defeat for the Marxist revolution and for communist ideas. As Kolakowski writes, "The revolutionary dreams have survived only in the form of phraseological remnants decorating the regime's totalitarian imperialism."

If Kolakowski kept his intellectual distance in Volumes I and II, in Volume III, "The Breakdown," he takes the plunge. As he notes, "I am writing about events and issues in which I myself took part, so that I appear in the invidious role of judge in my own cause." When it comes to Stalinism, which he sees as the logical continuation or sequence to Leninism, his denunciation is total. He traces the process by which Stalin formulated the equation: truth [*] the proletariat view [*] Marxism [*] the party view [*] Stalin's view. Soviet philosophy under Stalin became synonymous with universal mendacity.

If Stalin settled all the problems of history, philosophy and the social sciences once and for all in his Short Course, Trotsky, according to Kolakowski, was not much better. He categorizes Trotsky, perhaps somewhat harshly, as a doctrinaire impervious to empirical data. To Trotsky the "rightness" of a historical movement was to be judged by whether its use of violence was successful. By that reckoning (accepted by the Communists) Stalin's liquidation of the Trotskyists proved the correctness of his views.

As for the rest of the enormous cast of Marxist characters, Kolakowski is hardly more generous: The Hungarian philosopher Gyorgy Lukacs he depicts as "perhaps the most striking example in the 20th century of what may be called the betrayal of reason by those whose profession it is to use it and defend it." And Herbert Marcuse, who became the idol of the radical students in the '60s, is caricatured as the greatest Marxist obscurantist, a philosopher who aimed at destroying our civilization for the sake of an apocalyptic new world of happiness he could not describe.

By the late '60s, world Marxism was in total disarray. There were as many hybrid forms of Marxism as there were nations. The humanists, ranging from Erich Fromm to Antonin Dubcek in Czechoslovakia, claimed the young, liberal Marx as their own. French auto workers, PLO terrorists, Tanzanian farmers, and Chinese Maoists all staked their Marxist claims. Marx had offered an imprecise dream of a society of perfect unity, in which all human aspirations would be fulfilled and all values reconciled, and men had turned his philosophy into a shambles.

So what went wrong? Kolakowski, without saying so directly in 1,500 pages, implies that the answer was Marx himself. He had simply failed to bequeath a sufficiently coherent, precise, or thoroughgoing philosophy to stand the test of practice. Not one of the galaxy of theorists, politicians, revolutionaries, or propagandists had the slightest idea of what Marx had really meant by building a socialist society. Perversely, the vagueness of this scientifically couched utopianism accounts for his popularity. Marx's formulations sufficed to overthrow the past, but not to establish the groundwork for the future.

Kolakowski's monumental exposition is not without its shortcomings: He fails to provide the necessary psychological insights so essential for the understanding of Marx's writings, for example. Kolakowski's Kolakowskit" exposition of the evolution and decay of a philosophical school is a much better course offering than I ever had as a Harvard undergraduate. For $59.85 this evening class seems like a bargain.