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||Leszek Kołakowski (1927-2009)|
Polish philosopher who began as an orthodox Marxist but greatly contributed to the emergence of a Marxist humanism in the 1950s and 1960s. Leszek Kolakowski was closely involved in the movement towards liberation that led, in 1956, to the Polish spring. He was dismissed from the Communist Party and in 1968 he moved to the West, where he published works on the history of religion and philosophy.
"A modern philosopher who has never once suspected himself of being a charlatan must be such a shallow mind that his work is probably not worth reading." (from Metaphysical Horror by Leszek Kołakowski 1988, translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska, rev. ed. 2001)
Kołakowski was born in Radom, the son of Jerzy
Kołakowski , a publicist, and the former Lucyna Pietrusiewicz. During
the German occupation of Poland in World War II, Kołakowski studied in
the underground school system. In addition to the regular subjects, he
studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and philosophy. Much of his time he spent
at the family
country house, reading books from its library. His father was killed by
the Gestapo in 1943.
After the war, Kołakowski joined the Communist youth organization (ZMP). He studied philosophy at the University of Lódz, receiving his Ph.D. in 1953 from Warsaw University. Despite of his young age, Kołakowski's talent for philosophy became evident. His doctoral dissertation was on Spinoza. From 1947 to 1949 he was Assistant in Logic at University of Lodz, and from 1950 to 1959 he worked as an assistant and then a docent at University of Warsaw. In 1949 he married Tamara Dynenson, a psychiatrist; they had a one daughter.
Kołakowski joined in 1945 the Polish Workers's Party and
taught at its school in 1952-54. He was a member of the editorial board
of the weekly Nowa Kultura, and in 1955 he became a staff
member of Po Prostu, a weekly run by young Communist
intellectuals. A visit to Moscow opened his eyes to the emptiness of
system. In his essay 'Śmierć bogów'(The Death of Gods) (1956) he said
aloud what everyone else was afraid to say: the was a clear abyss
between the imaginary socialism, and the Soviet and Polish reality. "We
were well acquainted with Engels's famous phrase about socialism as the
leap to the kingdom of freedom. But we found that socialist
industrialization can develop with the aid of mass slave labour, and
that the superstructure of a state of socialized production can
degenerate into a system of total police terror, a military
dictatorship of lawlessness and fear." The essay was seized by the
censor but typescript copies circulated around the country.
After the new constitution was accepted in 1952 in Poland, Stalinist repression tightened its grip. Along with the so-called "October thaw" in 1956, Kołakowski became one of the leading voices for the democratization of life in Poland. Workers' protests were crushed, the reformist Władysław Gomulka assumed power, but the basic political system did not change, although he eased some restrictions of cultural policies. Gomulka's reign ended in 1970.
In the late 1950s poets, novelist, and playwrights undertook
innovative experiments and searched new forms of expression.
Kołakowski's essay 'The Priest and the Jester' (1959), in which he
confronted dogmaticism with skepticism and took the side of the Jester,
made him the most prominent Marxist philosopher in Poland. Jerzy Zitzman adapted his script from 1961 to an animated film, entitled Wygnanie z raju / Exile from Paradise (1966), in which Adam and Eve escape from Hotel Paradise to the freedom of a modern city.
influence of Kant and Sartre, and the thoughts of the young Marx and
his theory of alienation, Kołakowski moved towards Marxist humanism. He
criticized some basic Marxist doctrines, among them belief in
deterministic historical progress; history, according to Kołakowski,
mercilessly mocked theory. Like such thinkers of the Warsaw School (Warszawska szkoła historyków idei) as Bronisław Baczko and Jerzy Szacki, Kołakowski was
labelled as revisionist. In his collection of essays, Towards a
Marxist Humanism (1970), he affirmed the moral responsibility of
the individual and rejected determinism. Kołakowski's major work in
Marxist thought, Main Currents in Marxism (1978), published in
three volumes, traced the origins of the movement from Plotinus to the
1970s and Mao Zedong. He
argued that originally Marxism was "the greatest fantasy of the
twentieth century." The Leninist-Stalinist version of communist
just one of its possible interpretations, not the definitive one.
In the third volume he wrote: "At present Marxism
neither interprets the world nor changes it: it is merely a repertoire
of slogans serving to organize various interests..."
Kołakowski was head of the section of the history of
philosophy at the University of Warsaw from 1959 to 1968 and professor
of modern philosophy from 1964 until 1968. In 1966 he delivered a
speech at the 10th anniversary of the "Polish October" (also Polish Thaw) and was expelled
from the Polish Workers' Party. Two years later he was dismissed from
his chair at the university for "forming views of the youth in a manner
contrary to the official tendency of the country." Obecność mitu (The Presence of
was set up in type in Warsaw, then banned, and eventually
published in Polish in France in 1972 by Institute Littéraire, and in
German translation by Piper Verlag. With his Jewish wife Kołakowski
left Poland in 1968
during the extreme nationalist campaign against "Zionists". No
references to his work could be made in Poland in twenty years.
In the 1980s Kołakowski supported Solidarity giving interviews, writing, and collecting money. His writing, which had circulated in underground publications, had contributed to the formation of dissident groups, which eventually spread and evolved into the Solidarity movement. Officially he was a persona non grata until the fall of Communism in Poland. Analyzing the situation of exiles he once said, "More often than not, modern exiles have been expatriates, rather than exiles in the strict sense; usually they were not physically deported from their countries or banished by law; they escaped from political persecution, prison, death, or simply censorship."
Kołakowski was Professor of philosophy at McGill University and in 1969 he taught at University of California, Berkeley. Since the 1970s was a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, visiting professor at Yale University, New Haven Connecticut. From 1981 to 1994 he served as Professor on the Committee of Social Thought and the Development of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. In 1983 he became Fellow of the British Academy. He was also a fellow of the Académie Universelle des Cultures, and a Foreign Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Already in his early writing Kołakowski dealt with religion, but especially his later work was concerned with issues in ethics and metaphysics. In Religion (1982) he critically analyzed a wide range of arguments for and against the existence of God. God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal's Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism (1998) explored Christian notions of grace and sin, and asked the basic question - how can a good, omnipotent God permit evil? Kołakowski also published plays, stories, and fables. Tales from the Kingdom of Lailonia (1963) was build around the opposition of faith and reality. Rozmowy z diablem (1965), his second collection of tales, was published in America as Conversations with the Devil.
Both in writings about Marxism and religion Kołakowski showed
similar deep understanding of doctrinal questions, often focusing on
the conflict between heterodoxy and orthodoxy. Dialectical materialism
he looked from the perspective of Christian philosophical theology as a
"modern variant of apocalyptic expectations". The Marxian dream of a
perfect social system Kolakowski paralleled with the old utopian
religious movements. "... there is no reason to expect that this dream
can ever become true except in the cruel from of despotism," he has
said. The truth of Christianity and Socialism -
social justice, fight against social oppression -
are both one-sided.
As a response to E.P. Thompson's 'An Open Letter to
Leszek Kołakowski,' published in The Socialist Register in
1973, Kołakowski explained
why he considered Communism a "poor idea",
not worth of saving from its shortcomings. However, a year later he
stated that socialist societies do not need a return to capitalism. In
signed the 'Letter of the Fifty-nine,' protesting projected
amendments to the Polish constitution that would have formalized the
leading rle of the Party.
Kołakowski did not believe that there is a perfect solution to all human problems, but the search for fundamental truths beyond question is a part of European culture. Marxism, Kołakowski seemed to claim, sprang from the same source as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. In God Owes Us Nothing (1995) the names of Jansenius, Augustine, and Saint Paul could be easily be replaced by some names familiar from the history of Marxist philosophy (Hegel, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Lev Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg): "Jansenius's followers called themselves disciplines of Augustine, whose authority had been unshakable in Christianity. They insisted that they – and their master, Jansenius – had nothing new to say; they simply followed and repeated the most traditional teaching of the Church, which conformed to the Gospels and to the epistles of Saint Paul and was codified in Augustinian theology."
Kołakowski received several awards, including the German Booksellers Peace Prize (1977), Erasmus Prize (1980), Veillon Foundation European Prize for the Essay (1980), Jefferson Award (1986), MacArthur Award (1982), University of Chicago Laing Award (1990), Tocqueville Prize (1994), the Premio Nonino (1997), and the Jerusalem Prize (2007). He also received the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honor. In 2003 the Library of Congress awarded him the $1 million Kluge Prize for lifetime contribution to the humanities. Kołakowski died in July 2009, in Oxford, England, at the age of 81.
For further reading: A Conversation With Leszek Kolakowski by Mihajlo Mihajlov (2014); Leszek Kołakowski: kronika życia i dzieła by Wiesław Chudoba (2014); Leszek Kołakowski in Memoriam, edited by Jacek Migasiński (2012); 'Goodbye to all that?: Leszek Kołakowski and the Marxist legacy,' in Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century by Tony Judt (2008); Leszek Kołakowski: zwischen Skepsis und Mystik by Christian Heidrich (1995); Festschrift: Obecnosc (1993); Lire Kolakowski. La question de l'homme, de la religion et de l'Église by Bogdan Piwowarczyk (1986); 'Religion: If There Is No God' by Charles Davis and John C. Robertson, Jr., in Religious Studies Review 2 (1985); 'Leszek Kołakowski: A Portrait' by Wojciech Karpinski, in European Liberty: Four Essays on the Occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the Erasmus Prize Foundation (1983); Gesprache mit Manes Sperger und Leszek Kolakowski by Siegfried Lenz (1982); 'Leszek Kołakowski's misinterpretation of Marxism' by Waclaw Mejbaum and Aleksandra Zukrowska, in Dialectical Humanism 7 (1980); TriQuarterly 22 (1971); Leszek Kolakowski: Eine marxistische Philosopine der Freiheit nach Marx by Gesine Schwan (1971); European Philosophy Today by G.L. Kline (1965) - For further information: Leszek Kołakowski: Modernity on Endless Trial (1990) by Robert Royal