Why Kolakowski Matters

Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and author most recently of "The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century" (University of California Press, 2012).


leszek_kolakowskiLeszek Kolakowski (1927-2009) embodied the  power of reason in times of utmost irrationality.  He started his intellectual  itinerary as a young and enthusiastic Stalinist thinker in devastated post-World War II Poland. He wrote his dissertation on Spinoza and became quite early convinced that there was something deeply rotten at the heart of the communist system. After Stalin’s demise, Kolakowski spearheaded the critical Marxist awakening from what could be called, with a Kantian phrase, the dogmatic sleep. Kolakowski articulated, more persuasively than anyone else, the revisionist rebellion, the search for an alternative Marxism, rooted in the abandoned emancipatory impetus of the “Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts.”

The revisionists opposed what they perceived as the libertarian young Marx to the old authoritarian one, and even more emphatically to the Leninist interpretation of Marx. They exposed the atrocities of Stalinism and decried the rise of a bureaucratic Leviathan shamelessly claiming to represent an increasingly exploited proletariat. Many espoused existentialist ideas and tried to reconcile the Marxian legacy with humanist individualism. Intensely moral, committed to the defense of honor and dignity, Kolakowski was one of the noblest apostates in the history of ideas. He wrote immortal pages about Middle Age heresies and identified his own quest for truth with the dangerous choices of those who had rejected theological absolutisms of any sort.

The great Italian novelist Ignazio Silone, who was a communist in the 1920s and broke with the Party quite early, was considered a Christian without a Church and a socialist without a party. In a way, this was Kolakowski’s path as well. In 1956 he championed a vision of socialism radically opposed to the stultified Leninist tenets. He reclaimed the honor of socialist values against ideological masquerades and police terror. He defended the individual, the real human being, against the new forms of slavery. The communist party, headed by Wladyslaw Gomulka, failed to muzzle the indomitable trouble-maker. A celebrated essay by Kolakowski captured this irreconcilable tension between the party hacks, whom he called the priests, and the truth-tellers, referred to as jesters. He denounced the communist party’s betrayal of the liberating promises of 1956. Expelled from the party in 1966, Kolakowski lost his teaching position at the University of Warsaw in March 1968 when he took the side of students who revolted against the rabidly anti-Semitic communist apparatus. He was forced into exile, taught in England and the US, and wrote immensely illuminating books on leftist traditions, human freedom, myth and religion, and on great philosophers. A genuine fox, as Isaiah Berlin would have put it, he rejected any reductionist attempt to pigeonhole him in Procrustean intellectual formula and proudly enjoyed a theoretical eclecticism encapsulated in the title of one of his most influential essays: “How To Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist.”

The first sentence of Lezsek Kolakowski’s unsurpassable trilogy on the main currents of Marxism reads memorably: “Karl Marx was a German philosopher.” In the same way, one might preface any discussion of Kolakowski’s ideas with the words: “Leszek Kolakowski was a Polish philosopher.” When he passed away in 2009, he was universally acclaimed as the philosopher of “Solidarity,” the thinker, who, together with John Paul II and the Polish dissidents, articulated the ideas that were to lead to the rise of a non-violent anti-totalitarian social movement — a working-class revolution if ever there was one — that toppled the communist regime in Poland and unleashed the upheaval of 1989.

A masterful writer and most engaging thinker, Kolakowski embodied what Thomas Mann once defined as the nobility of spirit. Historian Tony Judt was right to call him “the last illustrious citizen of the Twentieth-Century Republic of Letters.” What makes Kolakowski’s thinking so appealing is its inner vibrant  life, its uniquely original way of establishing intellectual associations, and the permanent presence of a moral perspective. He refused any monistic interpretation of history, yet he remained unflinchingly attached to the idea that truth exists and cannot be divided into competing fragments. At a time when radicalism seems to be raising its head again, when liberalism’s values are coming under attack from the proponents of the “communist hypothesis” (e.g. French Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou or Slovene Hegelian-Lacanian neo-Jacobin thinker Slavoj Zizek), Kolakowski’s writings are a sobering reminder that ideas matter and wrong ideas are conduce to cataclysmic effects. To the question that serves as the title of a wonderful recent volume (“Is God Happy? Selected Essays,” Modern Classics, Penguin, 2012), Kolakowski responded in his wry manner:

Happiness is something we can imagine but not experience. If we imagine that hell and purgatory are no longer in operation and that all human beings, every single one without exception, have been saved by God and are now enjoying celestial bliss, lacking nothing, perfectly satisfied, without pain or death, then we can imagine that their happiness is real and that the sorrows and suffering of the past have been forgotten. Such a condition can be imagines, but is has never been seen. It has never been seen [p. 214-215].

This volume, mostly translated by the thinker’s daughter, Agnieszka Kolakowska, who also writes a perceptive introduction, is an illuminating, truly engrossing collection of the philosopher’s seminal contributions to understanding the nature and the values of the Left (radical and democratic) in the 20th century and the search for truth in an age of uncertainty and growing relativism. Kolakowski started his philosophical itinerary in the aftermath of World War II, in a Poland devastated by Nazi atrocities and dominated by Soviet imperialism.

As mentioned, after a short-lived romance with Stalinism, he became the main voice of East European Marxist revisionism, as corrosive an intellectual dynamo (and dynamite) as one can imagine. The revisionist ideas subverted the self-serving communist mythology and celebrated the rebirth of critical reason. The volume includes some of the most exhilarating pieces written (and banned by communist censorship) in protest of bureaucratic constraints on the free spirit and the perpetuation of despicable lies about the origins and consequences of Stalinism. Reading some of these essays, one is struck by the intense, contagious freshness of Kolakowski’s thought. It is easy to understand why the communist hacks resented his hypotheses on socialism, with their emphasis on the centrality of individual rights and rejection of the state’s claim to epistemic infallibility. No one has the right to monopolize truth, this was the thrust of Kolakowski’s interventions. He argued against the new forms of political alienation and protested the suppression of human imagination in the stultified universe of Sovietism.

During the first stage of his intellectual rebellion, Kolakowski relied on Karl Marx’s early philosophical writings. Later, he moved away from Marxism altogether. He saw Marxism as a sophisticated rationalization of social and political resentment, a gigantic, cosmic fantasy of redemption bound to beget new forms of slavery. One of the most impressive essays included in the anthology deals with the Marxist roots of Stalinism. Many on the Left were (and still are) ready to accept the Leninist heredity of Stalinism, yet they found unacceptable connecting the advent of the Bolshevik dystopia to the ideas of Karl Marx. Kolakowski was suspicious of any mechanical determinism, not only in political history, but also in the history of ideas. He did not claim that Marxism did inevitably bequeath totalitarian hubris. But he found in the Marxist dream of complete unity, in the repudiation of pluralism, the premise for the authoritarian experiments that followed. Leninist neo-Jacobin absolutism was rooted, in Kolakowski’s interpretation, in the absolute rejection of the rule of law and the demonization of private property.

The volume includes one of the most important texts belonging to the history of leftist debates in the 20th century: Kolakowski’s response to historian E. P. Thompson’s attempt to disassociate Western radical thought and practices form the atrocious experiences in the Soviet Bloc, not to mention China and other Asian communist experiments. Fundamentally, Kolakowski insisted, such visions are expressions of disingenuousness. Thompson was wrong to say that decades of totalitarian rule of Marxist inspiration in the East were irrelevant for the Western battles in the name of the same utopia.

The essay ends with a melancholy caveat, a warning against the never ceasing endeavors to resume the Promethean utopian project:

Absolute equality can be established only within a despotic system of rule, which implies privileges, i.e., destroys equality; total freedom means anarchy and anarchy results in the domination of the physically strongest, i.e., total freedom turns into its opposite; efficiency as a supreme value calls again for despotism and despotism is economically inefficient above a certain level of technology. If I repeat these old truisms, it is because they still seem to go unnoticed in utopian thinking; and this is why nothing in the world is easier than writing utopias [p. 139].

In his whole work, a testimony to the endless search for dignity in a century when barbarism was resurrected and totalitarian regimes murdered millions in the name of fetishized ideological lies, Leszek Kolakowski defended heroically such non-negotiable values as freedom, civility, and responsibility.

Let me conclude this article, which I would love to turn into a most necessary book, with the end of Kolakowski’s essay “Is There a Future for Truth?”:

Theologians used to speak of  ‘gaudium de veritate‘ — joy from truth. They meant by this mainly the joy that we — or some of us — will feel once we have crossed from our perishable world to a new life where illumination will descend upon us and the truth of the divine will be revealed. I believe there is gaudium de veritate in this perishable, profane world as well. We simply like knowing things, quite apart from any practical benefits to be derived from knowledge, we like truth for no better reason that it is truth. Without the joy of truth we could no longer be rational creatures [p. 297].

Uninhibitedly and unabashedly anti-totalitarian, Kolakowski’s ideas captured and enhanced the democratic Zeitgeist. His critique of the Left did not mean a rejection of the ideal of social justice. His main objection to any socialist utopia was based on his suspicion about any attempts to use governmental institutions and powers to create social unity and cohesion.  For him, utopias are inherently conducive to human debasement.  Marxism, the ultimate redemptive fantasy, culminated in the opposite of freedom. As Kolakowski put it memorably in the last sentence of his masterpiece: “The self-deification of mankind, to which Marxism gave philosophical expression, has ended in the same way as all such attempts, whether individual or collective: it has revealed itself as the farcical aspect of human bondage” (“Main Currents of Marxism,” Norton, 2005, p. 1212).

In 2003 he was the first recipient of the highly prestigious Kluge award offered by the Library of Congress for lifetime achievements in the humanities. In 1987, I translated an essay by Kolakowski into Romanian (from English) in the dissident (tamizdat) journal “Agora,” published in the US with National Endowment for Democracy support and distributed into Romania, especially with the help of Polish friends (including, inasmuch as I know, Kolakowski’s daughter, Agnieszka). It was the first Kolakowski piece published in Romanian. I sent it to him and I got a very kind letter saying that, although he did not read Romanian, with his French and Latin he could understand it pretty well (of course, as the author, he knew the content perfectly). In recent years, I coordinated the publication of the trilogy on the main currents of Marxism in Romanian translation and wrote introductions to each volume.

Leszek Kolakowski was rightly called the philosopher of “Solidarity,” the independent and self-governed workers’ movement that toppled communism in Poland and made possible the end of the Soviet Bloc, the USSR and the Cold War. In fact, Kolakowski shared his vision of truth with another Pole, without whom the annus mirabilis 1989 may not have happened: a philosopher himself, Karol Wojtyla authored, as Pope John Paul II, one of the most important documents in the history of Christianity and the annals of human freedom. The title of that text — Veritatis Splendor – signifies both his and Kolakowski’s search for making the world a place where human beings could and should live within the truth.

Vadimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and author, most recently, of  “The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century” (University of California Press), a book dedicated to the memory of Leszek Kolakowski, Tony Judt, and Robert C. Tucker. More on this book in the dialogue with Jamie Glazov.   

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  • Chez

    Interesting piece, Vlad. I’ll have to pursue some of Kolakowski’s later works in order to get an even better feel for the man.

    I remember as a teen reading Sakharov’s early work (‘Peace, Progress and Co-existence’ I believe it was called) and being very moved by the scientific motif surrounding his political expressions. I was just young enough and idealistic enough to buy into his premise of “convergence” (the fusing of a democratized East with a socialized West)

    ‘My Country and My World’ began Andre’s gradual repudiation of convergence and other misconceptions. He openly admitted that he had been naive about the prospects of reforming communist societies. His enlightenment helped facilitate my own.

    Dissidents like Kolakowski, Sakharov, and Djlias had – because of the intense indoctrination endured during their earlier incarnations – further to travel in order to break the spell of the ideology de jour. It’s a testament to their respective intellects and ethical visions that they were able to finally break free.

  • Steeloak

    I had never heard of Kolakowski before, your article intrigued me enough to add him to my reading list. Thank you!

  • tagalog

    Main Currents Of Marxism is a great book.

    • JDinSTL

      Thank you Vladimir. I always wondered how a Polish Pope and an American President could be ideological brethren.

  • donqpublic

    I was not aware of that biographical history. I have a marked up dog eared anthology of his essays published in the early seventies I’ll have to dig out, if the paperback survived.

  • http://www.clarespark.com/ Clare Spark

    Cable entertainment continues the communist line that pits “the people” against “fascism.” See http://clarespark.com/2012/07/09/hbo-does-gellhorn-in-red/. This was the red line about the Spanish Civil War, and it is continued ad nauseum on HBO and Showtime.