The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski was just a few months shy of his 82nd birthday when he died at his home in Oxford on July 17, after what his daughter Agnieszka described as "a brief and very sudden illness." For anyone inclined to despair that we live in intellectually diminished times, Kolakowski provided a glittering counterexample. He was an intellectual giant. What is 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 opinions of young people in a direction glaringly contradictory to the dominant tendency of the development of the country."
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 is typical that Kolakowski starts not with Rousseau or Hegel but with Plotinus (fl. A.D. 240) to explain the "origins of dialectic." The middle volume offers a detailed anatomy of Marx's thought, and the work concludes with a survey of 20th-century varieties, from the "Marxism in action" of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and Mao to the bloviating theoretical Marxism of Lukács, Sartre, and the so-called Frankfurt School (Adorno, 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."
Main Currents demonstrates how Marxism, committed in Kolakowski's words to "the self-deification of mankind," became "the greatest fantasy of our 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, capitalism is human nature at work--that is, man's greed 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, whether in national or international socialism.
Main Currents of Marxism is not 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 even Cuba: 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, very real part of the history of the twentieth century, and we cannot understand this history of ours without understanding communism. We cannot get rid of this
specter by saying it was just "human stupidity," or "human corruptibility." The specter is stronger than the spells we cast on it. It might come back to life.
Although it is 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, "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 from 1991, he argued that "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 is much about human life that is not susceptible to human remedy or intervention. Our allegiance to the ideal of unlimited progress is, paradoxically, a dangerous moral limitation that is 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, 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. As Kolakowski argued, "The denial of 'absolute values' for the sake of both rationalist principles and the general spirit of openness threatens our ability to make a distinction between good and evil altogether."
Evidence of that threat is not 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 is 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 are 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, 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 is not 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 is that admonition, even more than his heroic demolition of Marxism, for which Leszek Kolakowski will be honored in the decades to come.