Remembering Leszek Kolakowski

Remembering Leszek Kolakowski
In this handout image provided by the White House, President George W. Bush (R) welcomes Professor Leszek Kolakowski (L) and his wife, Tamara, of Oxford, England, in the Oval Office on Nov. 5, 2003. Mr. Kolakowski is the 2003 recipient of the John W. Kluge Prize in Human Sciences. The international honor is awarded by the Library of Congress for lifetime achievement in the humanistic and social sciences. A philosopher, historian and essayist, Professor Kolakowski has written more than 30 books and hundreds of articles on the history of philosophy and the philosophy of religion. (Paul Morse/White House via Getty Images)
Roger Kimball

Is it a sign of age or general disillusionment that I think frequently these days of André Gide’s observation that “Toutes choses sont dites déjà, mais comme personne n’écoute, il faut toujours recommencer”?

“Everything has already been said, but since no one was listening, it is always necessary to start again.”

In one way, I suppose, this is a more general expression of Rudyard Kipling’s point in his great poem “The Gods of the Copybook Headings.”

That poem consists of a series of little moral truths.

Alas, they're truths that mankind repeatedly unlearns.

“When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace./They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease./But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,/And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: ‘Stick to the Devil you know.’”

Good advice!

A couple of weeks ago in this space, I wrote about the extraordinary fact that the blandishments of socialism, so regularly exposed, nonetheless continue to fascinate and seduce mankind.

The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, who died just short of his 82nd birthday, in 2009, was, among many other accomplishments, a supreme anatomist and spiller-of-cold-water on the harlot-like insinuations of socialism and its great pimp, the philosophy of Karl Marx.

For anyone inclined to despair that we live in intellectually diminished times, Kolakowski provided a glittering counterexample. He was an intellectual giant.

What's even more extraordinary, he was an intellectual giant whose accomplishments were widely celebrated. Kolakowski died full of honors as well as years.

The coveted if often risible MacArthur “genius” award: He got that.

The Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the humanities—a cool $1 million for that bijou: Kolakowski got that, too.

Honorary degrees and lesser awards, honors, lectureships, and sundry recognitions: He received, and deserved, them all.

Kolakowski lived through and thought through the varieties of the totalitarian temptation.

He was 12 when the Wehrmacht overran Poland. He witnessed the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto later in the war.

In 1945, Soviet tyranny succeeded the Nazi variety, and Kolakowski grew up witnessing what a proletarian paradise looks like.

Although he came of age as a professed Marxist, by the mid-1960s, his disillusionment was far advanced.

It was mutual, for Kolakowski found himself subject to constant police surveillance and, in 1968, was expelled from Warsaw University for “forming the views of the youth in a manner contrary to the official tendency of the country.”

No, that wasn't Merrick Garland or an American DEI officer but some Polish commie bureaucrat.

Later that year, Kolakowski left Poland and embarked on a career in the West.

He made stops at Berkeley, which gave him an opportunity to learn firsthand about and therefore despise the New Left culture of the 1960s; at Yale, where I studied with him; and the University of Chicago and Oxford, his intellectual homes for the last decades of his life.

Kolakowski is best known as a critic of Marxism and its spiritual allotropes.

His magnum opus, "Main Currents of Marxism," is a three-volume work of philosophical demolition. Sidney Hook aptly called the book "magisterial."

It's typical that Kolakowski starts not with Rousseau or Hegel but with Plotinus (fl. AD 240) to explain the “origins of dialectic.”

The middle volume offers a detailed analysis of Marx’s and Engels’s thought.

The work concludes with a survey of 20th-century variants, from the “Marxism in action” of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and Mao to the bloviating theoretical Marxism of György Lukács, Jean-Paul Sartre, and the so-called Frankfurt School (Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, et al.).

“At present,” Kolakowski observed, alluding to Marx's famous adage, “Marxism neither interprets the world nor changes it: it is merely a repertoire of slogans serving to organize various interests.”

Plus ça change ...

"Main Currents" demonstrates how Marxism, committed in Kolakowski's words to “the self-deification of mankind,” became “the greatest fantasy” of the 20th century.

It was an idea, he wrote, that “began in Promethean humanism and culminated in the monstrous tyranny of Stalinism.”

As such, Marxism provides a permanently valuable admonition about the danger of utopian schemes, what Kolakowski called “the farcical aspect of human bondage.”

There were, as Kolakowski recognized, many aspects to that farce, as his observation that “one should be as careful about believing in a green utopia as in a red one” shows.

I hope some charitably minded person sends a book by Kolakowski to Al Gore.

A corollary of Kolakowski’s criticism of Marxism was his appreciation of the virtues of capitalism and the free market as indispensable enablers of freedom.

“Capitalism,” he noted, in 1995, “developed spontaneously and organically from the spread of commerce. Nobody planned it, and it did not need an all-embracing ideology, whereas socialism was an ideological construction.”

“Ultimately,” he wrote, “capitalism is human nature at work—that is, man's greediness allowed to follow its course—whereas socialism is an attempt to institutionalize and enforce fraternity.”

“It seems obvious by now that a society in which greed is the main motivation of human action, for all of its repugnant and deplorable aspects, is incomparably better than a society based on compulsory brotherhood.”

"Main Currents of Marxism" isn't of historical interest only.

As Kolakowski reminded us in the preface to the 2004 edition, notwithstanding the collapse of the Soviet Union, Marxism remains eminently worth studying, not least because its aspirations continue to percolate in the dreams of various utopian planners.

You needn't go to China or Cuba or Venezuela: Just look at the increasingly pink and authoritarian complexion of the European Union.

As Kolakowski put it in his introduction to "My Correct Views on Everything" (2005), “Communism was not the crazy fantasy of a few fanatics, nor the result of human stupidity and baseness; it was a real, a very real part of the history of the twentieth century, and we cannot understand this history of ours without understanding communism.”

Moreover, the enormity of communism will not necessarily stay in the rearview mirror. “It might come back to life.”

Although it's at the center of his scholarly work, the murderous tradition of Marx formed only a part of Kolakowski's intellectual portfolio.

He moved with commanding ease from the intricacies of Plotinus, Augustine, and the Church Fathers through Descartes, Pascal, the English empiricists, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Bergson, Husserl, and the whole congeries of issues and figures we congregate under the rubric of Modernity and its Discontents.

Part of Kolakowski's genius was his ability to enliven even the most abstruse philosophical or theological subjects.

He did this by means of things missing from most academic writing these days: clarity, humor, and existential urgency.

He was blessed with a formidably logical mind and, correlatively, a style of writing that put a premium on intelligibility.

He was also possessed of an uncanny appreciation for irony and paradox.

This gave bite to his writing, which flowed from the recognition that human life is instinct with contradiction and absurdity: For example, he wrote of “the awesome paradox whereby good results may flow from evil, and evil results from good," "That these two can thus support each other is a shattering fact about human experience.”

The humor proceeds from the same recognition at one remove. I recommend in particular “The General Theory of Not-Gardening,” reprinted in "Modernity on Endless Trial" (1990): “Those who hate gardening need a theory. Not to garden without a theory is a shallow, unworthy way of life.”

Part of what made Kolakowski's reflections on freedom and its vicissitudes so fruitful was his understanding that human freedom is inextricably tied to a recognition of limits, which in the end involves a recognition of the sacred.

In an interview in 1991, he argued: “Mankind can never get rid of the need for religious self-identification: who am I, where did I come from, where do I fit in, why am I responsible, what does my life mean, how will I face death? Religion is a paramount aspect of human culture. Religious need cannot be ex-communicated from culture by rationalist incantation. ... Man does not live by reason alone.”

Kolakowski showed how the tendency to believe that all human problems have a technical solution is an unfortunate inheritance from the Enlightenment—“even,” he notes, “from the best aspects of the Enlightenment: from its struggle against intolerance, self-complacency, superstitions, and uncritical worship of tradition.”

There's much about human life that isn't susceptible to human remedy or intervention.

Our allegiance to the ideal of unlimited progress is, paradoxically, a dangerous moral limitation that's closely bound up with what Kolakowski calls the loss of the sacred.

“With the disappearance of the sacred,” he wrote, “which imposed limits to the perfection that could be attained by the profane, arises one of the most dangerous illusions of our civilization—the illusion that there are no limits to the changes that human life can undergo, that society is ‘in principle’ an endlessly flexible thing, and that to deny this flexibility and this perfectibility is to deny man's total autonomy and thus to deny man himself.”

These are wise words, grippingly pertinent to an age conjuring with the immense technological novelties of cloning, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and other Promethean temptations.

We pride ourselves today on our "openness" and commitment to liberal ideals, our empathy for other cultures, and our sophisticated understanding that our way of viewing the world is, after all, only our way of viewing the world.

But Kolakowski reminded us that, without a prior commitment to substantive values—to an ideal of the good and (just as important) an acknowledgment of evil—openness threatens to degenerate into vacuousness.

“The denial of ‘absolute values,’” he noted, “... threatens our ability to make a distinction between good and evil altogether.”

Evidence of that threat isn't far to seek.

The large issue is one that has bedeviled liberal societies ever since there were liberal societies: that in attempting to create the maximally tolerant society, we also give scope to those who would prefer to create the maximally intolerant society.

It's a curious phenomenon.

Liberalism implies openness to other points of view, even those points of view whose success would destroy liberalism.

Extending tolerance to those points of view is a prescription for suicide. But intolerance betrays the fundamental premise of liberalism, namely, openness.

The escape from this disease of liberalism lies in understanding that “tolerance” and “openness” must be limited by positive values if they're not to be vacuous.

Our enlightened, secular society is extraordinarily accommodating to diverse points of view.

But in order to continue to enjoy the luxury of freedom, we must say no to those movements that would exploit freedom only to abolish it.

Our society, like every society, is founded on particular positive values—the rule of law, for example, respect for the individual, religious freedom, and the separation of church and state.

Western democratic society is rooted in what Kolakowski called a “vision of the world.”

Part of that vision is a commitment to openness, but openness isn't the same thing as moral agnosticism.

“In order to defend itself,” Kolakowski wrote, “the pluralist order should voice [its fundamental] values ceaselessly and loudly. There is nothing astonishing or outrageous about the fact that within the pluralist society, the defenders and enemies of its basic principles are not treated with exactly the same indifference.”

Given the shape of our post-Soviet, technologically infatuated world, perhaps it's that admonition, even more than his heroic demolition of Marxism, for which Leszek Kolakowski will be honored in the decades to come.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Roger Kimball is the editor and publisher of The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is “Where Next? Western Civilization at the Crossroads.”
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