Jul 30th 2009
From The Economist print edition
Leszek Kolakowski, a Polish-born Oxford philosopher, died on July 17th, aged 81
HIS life was learning—about history, about his times, about himself. Like some other erstwhile true believers, he became one of most cogent critics of his former faith. Having spent his youthful years as an ardent communist and atheist, Leszek Kolakowski, one of the great minds of the modern era, turned into Marxism’s most perceptive opponent, and one with a profound respect for religion.
His intellectual life started in the misery of Nazi-occupied Poland—he had to study in secret, mostly alone—and finished in one of the nicest places imaginable: Oxford’s All Souls College. In a university tailor-made for gifted misfits, Mr Kolakowski was happy: he was left alone to read, write, and, less often, talk. All Souls provided a glorious academic retreat: the only obligation is to dine there regularly. His distinctive hat, craggy features, idiosyncratic English and perspex walking stick established him as a landmark even in a city studded with oddities and treasures.
“Philosopher” was his usual label, but not a wholly accurate one: historian of ideas would be better. Mr Kolakowski showed little interest in the Oxford tradition of analytical philosophy; like his great Oxonian philosophical contemporary, Isaiah Berlin, he formulated no grand scheme of ideas. His forte was to explain the development, attractiveness and shortcomings of political ideas and systems, particularly the communism invented by Karl Marx and practised across the Soviet empire.
His magnum opus was the three-volume “Main Currents of Marxism: Its Rise, Growth and Dissolution”, published in the 1970s. It calmly and expertly demolished the pillars of Marxist thought: the labour theory of value, the idea of class struggle, historical materialism and the like. He also pointed out, again without unnecessary polemics, the practical shortcomings of communist systems. Stalinism was not an aberration, he argued, but the inevitable consequence of pursuing a communist utopia. For that, powerful left-wing voices such as the historian E.P. Thompson berated him as a traitor to the noble socialist ideals that he once espoused.
Against the devil
Both his experience and beliefs made such criticism seem patronising. Mr Kolakowski had lived under two kinds of totalitarianism, Nazism and communism; his ideas had been censored even in the supposedly more liberal communist Poland of the late 1950s and 1960s. What finally drove him, and his Jewish wife Tamara, to emigrate was the communist-inspired anti-Semitic campaign of 1968. Few if any of his leftist critics had such experiences. In a spirited rejoinder to Thompson, Mr Kolakowski wrote: “The only medicine communism has invented—the centralised, beyond social control, state ownership of the national wealth and one-party rule—is worse than the illness it is supposed to cure; it is less efficient economically and it makes the bureaucratic character of social relations an absolute principle.”
His opponents in that argument seem to have landed on the dustheap of history. But Mr Kolakowski’s distaste for communism did not make him an evangelist for free-market liberalism: he was too inquisitive, sceptical and irreverent to support any particular doctrine strongly. He was particularly critical of those who relied solely on science for answers to the big questions about life. He criticised too the emptiness of secular materialism. Increasingly, he became convinced that religion, in some form or other, was a necessary part of human existence. He was no churchgoer, but asked what his next target would be after communism, he replied, only half-jokingly, “the devil”.
For those involved in the struggle against communism, on both sides of the iron curtain, he became a guru, ranking along with Czeslaw Milosz, the émigré Polish poet whose book “The Captive Mind”, published in 1953, unpicked the mind-mangling effects of communist thought.
In those early days, of course, Mr Kolakowski was still a loyal, if critical, party member. Some of his fans preferred to forget that. They also overlooked his youthful tirades against Poland’s Catholic church. As a zealous party member when the remnants of wartime anti-communism were still strong, he used to carry a pistol for fear of assassination. Remembering his father’s murder during the Nazi occupation, the young Kolakowski accepted communism as an alternative both to Nazi militarism and to the failures of Poland’s pre-war system of semi-authoritarian capitalism. Indeed his country’s post-war communist rulers saw the brainy, determined youngster as a prize prospect and rewarded him with a trip to Moscow in 1950 to experience the delights of Soviet rule.
That backfired. He wrote later of the “material and spiritual desolation” he saw there, though it took two decades for his faith in Poland’s socialist system to erode entirely. In the late 1960s, he made his way to America but found the radical campus leftism “pathetic and disgusting”; no place to bring up his daughter, he felt. He visited America regularly, though, and it was in his Jefferson lecture, the highest honour the federal government gives for intellectual achievement, that he coined his best-known aphorism: “We learn history not in order to know how to behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are.”