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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)

Leszek 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 the Stalinist 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.

Under the 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 ideology is 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 modern 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 Myth), 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 1975 Kołakowski 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

Selected works:

  • Szkice o filozofii katolickiej, 1955
  • Światopogląd i życie codzienne, 1957
  • Klucz niebieski - albo opowieści budujące z historii świętej zebrane ku pouczeniu i przestrodze, 1957 - The Key to Heaven (translated by Nicholas Bethell, 1973) / Devil and Scripture (GB title, 1973)
  • Jednostka i nieskończoność. Wolność i antynomie wolności w filozofii Spinozy, 1958 [Individual and Infinity: Freedom and Antinomies of Freedom in the Philosophy of Spinoza]
  • Der Mensch ohne Alternative: von der Möglichkeit und Unmöglichkeit, Marxist zu sein, 1960 (translated by Wanda Bronska-Pampuch) - Ihminen ilman vaihtoehtoa (suom. Taisto Veikko, 1966)
  • Wygnanie z raju, 1961
  • Notatki o współczesnej kontreeformacji, 1962
  • 13 bajek z Królestwa Lailonii, 1963 - Tales from the Kingdom of Lailonia; and, The Key to Heaven: Edifing Tales from Holy Scripture to Serve as Teaching and Warning (translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska, Salvator Attanasio, 1972) - Kauniit kasvot (suom. Tuula Toledo, 1983)
  • Świadomość religijna i wie̜ź kościelna; studia nad chrześcijaństwem bezwyznaniowym siedemnastego wieku, 1965
  • Rozmowy z diabłem, 1965 - Conversations with the Devil (U.S. title, translated by Celina Wieniewska, 1972) / Talk of the Devil (GB title; in The Devil and Scripture, 1973)
  • Filozofia pozytywistyczna: Od Hume'a do Koła Wiedeńskiego, 1966 - The Alienation of Reason (translated by Norbert Guterman, 1968)
  • Kultura i fetysze: zbiór rozpraw, 1967 - Toward a Marxist Humanism (translated by Jane Zielonko Peel, 1968)
  • Traktat über die Sterblichkeit der Vernuft, 1967
  • Chrétiens sans église, 1968 (originally published in Polish, 1958)
  • A Leszek Kolakowski Reader, 1971
  • TriQuartely 22, 1971
  • Obecność mitu, 1972 - The Presence of Myth (translated by Adam Czerniawski, 1989)
  • The Socialist Idea, 1974 (ed., with Stuart Hampshire)
  • Husserl and the Search for Certitude, 1975
  • Główne nurty marksizmu, 1976 - Main Currents in Marxism: The Founders, The Golden Age, The Breakdown (3 vols., translated by P.S. Falla, 1978-81)
  • Czy diabeł może być zbawiony i 27 innych kazań, 1982
  • Jeśli Boga nie ma... O Bogu, Diable, Grzechu i innych zmartwieniach tak zwanej filozofii religii, 1987 - Religion: If There Is No God (tr. 1982; 2nd ed. 1993)
  • Bergson, 1985
  • Le Village introuvable, 1986
  • Horror metaphysicus, 1990 - Metaphysical Horror, 1988 (translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska, rev. ed. 2001)
  • Pochwała niekonsekwencji: Pisma rozproszone z lat 1956-1968, 1989 (edited by Zbigniew Menzel) [Praising the inconsequece. Dispersed writings from 1956-1968; contains the essay'Śmierć bogów') 
  • Cywilizacja na ławie oskarżonych, 1990 (edited by Pawel Kloczowski)
  • Bajki różne; Opowieści biblijne; Rozmowy z diabłem, 1990
  • Modernity on Endless Trial, 1990 (translated by Stefan Czerniawski, Wolfgang Freis, Agnieszka Kolakowska)
  • God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal's Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism, 1995
  • Bergson, 1997
  • Mini-wykłady o maxi-sprawach: jak o władzy, o sławie, o równości, o kłamstwie, o tolerancji, o podróżach, o cnocie, o odpowiedzialności zbiorowej, o kole fortuny, o wielkiej zdradzie i inne, 1997
  • Freedom, Fame, Lying, and Betrayal: Essays on Everyday Life, 1999 (translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska)
  • Moje słuszne poglądy na wszystko, 2000
  • Moje słuszne poglądy na wszystko, 2002
  • Two Eyes of Spinoza and Other Essays on Philosophers, 2002 (translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska and others)
  • Wśród znajomych: o różnych ludziach mądrych, zacnych, interesujących i o tym, jak czasy swoje urabiali, 2004
  • O co nas pytają wielcy filozofowie, 2004 - Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?: 23 Questions from Great Philosophers (translated by Agnieszka Kołakowska, 2007)
  • My Correct Views on Everything, 2005 (translated by Zbigniew Janowski)
  • Czy Pan Bóg jest szczęśliwy i inne pytania, 2009
  • Zanimljiva vremena, nemirna vremena, 2009- (s poljskog prevela Biserka Rajčić)
  • Świadomość religijna i więź kościelna - studia nad chrześcijaństwem bezwyznaniowym XVII wieku, 2009 [Religious Consciousness and Church Ties: Studies in the Non-Denominational Christianity of the Seventeenth Century]
  • Is God happy?: Selected Essays, 2013 (introduction by Agnieszka Kolakowska)
  • Leszek Kołakowski a filozofia, 2018 (pod redakcją Stanisława Gromadzkiego i Marcina Miłkowskiego)

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