Leszek Kolakowski's three-volume behemoth is a bible for both the Marxist thinker and historian. Not only it one of the few comprehensive overviews of the many streams of thought which shaped the Marxist debate over 150 years, but it's impressively lucid and concise to boot. Kolakowski summarises the biography, theory and critique of each thinker with an intellectual rigour that creates the standard for histories of ideas.
One of the key selling points of the `Main Currents of Marxism', however, is the objectivity with which Kolakowski treats his material. Once a diligent communist, he gradually became disillusioned with the philosophy which underpinned Soviet Poland and to such an extent that he actively funded dissident groups to undermine the system. He even came to believe that that the `aberrations' of Karl Marx's original works - propagated by Stalin, Pol Pot and Ceausescu, for example - were actually credible end products of the grand mage's logic.
However, Kolakowski didn't abandon his intellectual heritage altogether, and this translates into his work. He examines each thinker, each diverse form of the philosophy, carefully, and without presuppositions. His conclusions about each theory are philosophical rather than moral, singling out contradictions and paradoxes rather than the thoughts that might have provided the intellectual foundation for various atrocities.
Granted, Kolakowski can only say so much in his analyses, since his overview summarises rather than studies. But as an introduction to particular strands of Marxist thought and the problems associated with them, the `Main Currents of Marxism' is unbeatable. Kolakowski's prose is as lively as it is erudite; the content as rich as it is varied.
A true feast!