OBITUARY: News Weekly
Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski dies at 81
, August 8, 2009
The renowned Polish philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski, will be buried in his native Poland after dying in his adopted country of Great Britain last month, aged 81. Professor Kolakowski became one of the world's leading philosophical adversaries of Marxism, after being a member of the Polish United Workers Party (Poland's Communist Party) for many years.
Born in October 1927, Kolakowski was the son of an economist who was also a left-wing political activist. After the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, his father was executed by the Nazis, and he and his mother were exiled to a remote village in eastern Poland where he spent the war years.
After the war, his family returned to his hometown of Lodz, where he completed school and went to university, joining the communist youth organisation. He later completed a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Warsaw, where he emerged as a leading young communist and a committed opponent of both Polish nationalism and the Catholic religion.
He was a member of the editorial board of the weekly magazine Nowa Kultura (New Culture)
, and, in 1955, become a staff member of Po Prostu
, another weekly run by young communist intellectuals.
Among young communists in Poland at the time, there was an expectation that with Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalinism in 1956 and the worker riots which occurred in Poland at about the same time, communism would evolve in a democratic direction, as Czechoslovakia did during the Prague Spring in 1968. Kolakowski was a prominent leader of this reform movement within the Polish United Workers Party.
However, the transformation did not take place, and Poland continued to be a communist dictatorship, although as a result of the extraordinary influence of the church, led by Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski and a range of other formidable leaders including Bishop Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II), it was not as repressive as other communist regimes in Eastern Europe.
Nevertheless, the stifling conformity imposed by the party alienated Kolakowski, who had risen to become a professor of modern philosophy at Warsaw University in 1964. By this time, he was well known as a prolific author on current philosophical issues.
In 1958, he published a book on the famous 17th-century Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, The Individual and Infinity
Spinoza was a leading free-thinker, whose writings espoused pantheism, deism, intellectual and political freedom, and the separation of church and state. He aroused the ire of the Jewish rabbis by his rejection of the idea of one God, and by denying that Moses was author of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. His political ideas are now regarded as laying the philosophical groundwork for the French Enlightenment and later the French Revolution.
As for Kolakowski, his own philosophical position was shown in an essay, The Priest and the Jester
, published in 1959, which contrasted religious dogmatism with scepticism. Kolakowski took the side of the jester.
In 1965 he published Religious Consciousness and the Church: studies in 17th-century non-denominational Christianity
, which discussed the writings of little-known thinkers from all over Europe who embraced Christian ideas but radically rejected affiliation with any existing church.
Kolakowski later published a series of major studies on a wide range of European philosophers.
He was expelled from the Communist Party in 1966, sacked from Warsaw University in 1968 (during the Soviet-inspired crackdown which followed the Prague Spring), and forced into exile.
He subsequently taught in the United States before moving to Great Britain, where he became a senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford.
In 1970, he published Towards a Marxist Humanism
, which put the case for a non-totalitarian Marxism. But by 1975, he had utterly rejected Marxism, saying the experience of Communism had shown that "the only universal medicine [Marxists] have for social evils - state ownership of the means of production - is not only perfectly compatible with all the disasters of the capitalist world - with exploitation, imperialism, pollution, misery, economic waste, national hatred and national oppression, but it adds to them a series of disasters of its own: inefficiency, lack of economic incentives and above all the unrestricted rule of the omnipresent bureaucracy, a concentration of power never before known in human history".
In 1978, he published his three-volume seminal history of Marxism, Main Currents of Marxism: Its Rise, Growth and Dissolution
This work contained a discussion of the intellectual and historical background to Karl Marx's writing and thought, and to different Marxist schools, including Lenin, Lukacs, Trotsky, Sartre, and Mao. He said Marxism was "the greatest fantasy of our century ... an idea that began in Promethean humanism and culminated in the monstrous tyranny of Stalinism".
Kolakowski was particularly scathing about Western apologists for Marxist regimes who suggested that economic progress in communist countries justified a lack of political freedom. This observation was made in the context of the supposed technical development of the Soviet Union, since shown to be largely illusory; but it has great practical relevance to contemporary China.
His 1971 essay, Theses on Hope and Hopelessness
, argued that even within a totalitarian state, social movements could gradually expand in a way which curbed the power of the state, and is regarded as one of the inspirations which led to the rise of Solidarity in Poland in the 1970s, and the eventual collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989.
In his later writings, Kolakowski showed an increasing fascination with religion, and its importance to people and to society. In Religion
(1982) he analysed a wide range of arguments for and against the existence of God, but without coming to a conclusion. In God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal's Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism
(1995), Kolakowski examined the philosophy of Blaise Pascal and the narrow dogmatism of the Jansenists, a heretical movement within Catholicism.
He had a profound influence on many people, including B.A. Santamaria in Australia.
Leszek Kolakowski was also a critic of secular Western liberalism, with its naïve faith in science and progress. He was one of the giants of Western intellectual thought whose ideas will influence our society for many years to come.