On the Death and Influence of Leszek Kolakowski
We learn history not in order to know how to behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are.
Leszek Kolakowski, The Idolatry of Politics, 1986
Leszek Kolakowski died last week at the age of 81. Hardly a household name. A Polish ex-Communist thinker and philosopher who was expelled by the authorities in the purges of 1968 – as Zygmunt Bauman was.
Kolakowski had enormous reach and influence as some of his obituaries recognised – Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian (1), The Times and surely much more to come. He wrote one of the devasting and nuanced critiques of Marxism – not just Leninism and Stalinism, but the whole canon. Reading it as a precocious teenager in Dundee, it is one of the many reasons why I have never been tempted to call myself a Marxist.
He played a significant role in the slow, hesitant Polish Spring which successfully rolled back the Communist tyrannies which invoked the people and instead were based on brutal repression. Kolakowski gave an intellectual grounding to Solidarity as has been recognised by some of its leading politicians/thinkers such as Adam Michnik and Bronislaw Geremek.
‘Main Currents of Marxism’, published between 1976-78 is his main work, and it is a rigorous, scholarly work, which in detail makes the case that the crimes of Leninism and Stalinism are not aberrations of Marxism. Instead, their roots can be found deep within Marxism and its idea of man, consciousness, capitalism and communist society.
He also wrote movingly on the meaning of faith, religion and truth, publishing in late life a series of beautifully moving books such as ‘Freedom, Fame, Lying and Betrayal’ and ‘Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing?’.
Kolakowski like Bauman came from a Poland which was a victim of unimagined savagery: the Nazi occupation, the most brutal of anywhere in Europe, and then the resulting Soviet ‘liberation’ and Stalinisation. Both these men attempted to become believers in this system and were ultimately to recognise its repulsive, repressive nature, and rejected and were themselves rejected by that system.
Kolakowski has in his journey contributed something moving and influential to European intellectual thought and the idea of ‘Europe’ itself as wider, more inclusive and democratic than the narrow protestations of the post-democratic European Union. And he gave something back to his native land, Poland, and its re-emergence as a modern European democracy. His death like that of Harry Patch, the last British war veteran of World War One, marks the passing of a post-war European generation.