Remembering Leszek Kolakowski, 1927-2009

Paul Hollander

Many members of NAS are likely to be familiar with some of the writings of Leszek Kolakowski and in all probability are among the admirers of his contributions to Western social, political and moral philosophy and to an honest and enlightened view of the modern world. He passed away in July this year in Oxford, England.

Kolakowski's distinguished academic career began in communist Poland and continued in Canada, England and the United States. It is an important fact of his life that it was divided almost equally between Communist Poland where he grew up and lived until 1968, and the rest of his years spent in the Western world. He obtained his doctorate in philosophy in 1953 at Warsaw University and was subsequently professor of the history of philosophy at the same institution until 1968 when he left to take up a professorship at McGill University in Montreal. Between 1970 and his retirement in 1995 he was senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford and concurrently professor on the Committee of Social Thought at the University of Chicago between 1981 and 1994. Probably best known for his history of and critique of Marxism he has also written extensively about religion, modernity and philosophers such as Spinoza, Husserl and Bergson.

In his youth Kolakowski was a Marxist and member of the Polish Communist Party between 1947 and 1966. In 1954 he was attacked for "straying from Marxist-Leninist ideology" and in 1966 was expelled from the party. His early critiques of the communist systems in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were based on what he saw as their abandonment of the ideals of Marxism replaced by the pursuit of and attachment to power. Subsequently he came to the conclusion that Marxist beliefs and theories did motivate communist leaders and were in fact responsible for much that was wrong with these systems, and especially for the combination of political repression and economic malfunctioning.

Kolakowski's intellectual accomplishments were numerous and distinctive. He believed in and reaffirmed the importance of ideas in social and political conflicts and came to reject various types of determinism; he was also acutely aware of the unanticipated consequences of the application of abstract ideas to human affairs, that is to say, of social engineering. 

 Secondly, he was cognizant of the incompatibility of many human values and desires - an awareness that was a foundation of his anti-utopian disposition. Thirdly, he provided what is probably the most thorough and learned criticism of Marxism ever written (in his three volume Main Currents of Marxism first published in 1978 reprinted in a one volume edition in 2005). In the latter, as well as in other writings he shed new light on the strength and weaknesses of Marxism and its relationship to political systems and movements which claimed to have been inspired by it and sought to implement its propositions. He fully understood that Marxism performed the functions of a secular religion and notwithstanding its scientific claims was infused with romantic notions of and longings for human and institutional perfectibility. He memorably wrote: "Marx seems to have imagined that once capitalists were done away with, the whole world would become a kind of Athenian agora: one had only to forbid private ownership of machines or land, and as if by magic, human beings would cease to be selfish and their interests would combine in perfect harmony."

His experiences in Communist Poland predisposed him to grasp the difficulties and unintended consequences of trying to create a utopian social-political system and enabled him to better understand the complicated relationship between Marxist theory and communist practice. The divergence between theory and practice did not mean that communist leaders abandoned Marxist ideas and propositions, but rather that the attempted application of theory to practice failed to yield the anticipated results and especially the benefits. There was indeed a huge gap between the promises and expectations the theory fostered and the consequences of their attempted realization but not between the theory and the policies which were devised to unify theory and practice. Kolakowski observed that "no political or religious movement is a perfect expression of that movement's "essence" as laid down in its sacred writings; on the other hand these writings...exercise an influence of their own on the course of the movements." Elements or aspects of these ideas lent themselves to misuse or distortion and to the institutionalization of ruthlessness in the service of the great goals pursued, in particular that of human liberation by achieving unity and wholeness. But, as he also pointed out "there is no known technique apart from despotism whereby the unity of society can be achieved: no way of suppressing the tension between civil and political society; no means of eliminating the conflicts between individuals and the whole... Fraternity under compulsion is the most malignant idea devised in modern times..." 

Kolakowski's life, divided as it was between communist Poland and the West helped him to avoid the peculiar blend of moral relativism and moral absolutism that characterizes the attitudes of many Western intellectuals. He once wrote: "We must not be fervent moralists in some cases and Real-politikers or philosophers of world history in others, depending on political circumstances." 

Kolakowski had first hand knowledge of the timeless conflict between human aspirations and the limitations imposed on their realization by human nature. He was also well aware that "secularization hasn't eradicated religious needs" which political ideologies and movements in our times will continue to try to satisfy. His work will remain important and enlightening as long as ideas and their unintended consequences have an impact on history and human behavior. Western academic intellectuals could and should learn a great deal from him.

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Paul Hollander is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and associate of the Davis Center of Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. He is the author or editor of fourteen books.

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