"The frustrating thing about tennis is that you will never be as good as a wall."
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Leszek Kolakowski, the Polish-born philosopher who died on Friday aged 81, began as an orthodox Marxist but moved towards "Marxist humanism" in the 1950s and 1960s, and was closely involved in the movement towards liberation that led, in 1956, to Poland's brief "October dawn"; later dismissed from the Communist Party, in 1968 he moved to the West, where he became a trenchant critic of Communism and its western apologists.
The relationship between freedom and political or religious beliefs, examined in many different contexts, was one of the main themes of Kolakowski's scholarship. The centre of his post-Marxist conceptual universe was the individual – a rational and freely acting subject, aware that there is a spiritual side of life, yet eschewing absolute certainty of either an empirical or transcendental sort: "I do not believe that human culture can ever reach a perfect synthesis of its diversified and incompatible components", he said. "Its very richness is supported by this very incompatibility of its ingredients. And it is the conflict of values, rather than their harmony, that keeps our culture alive."
It was therefore not the philosopher's role to deliver the truth, but to "build the spirit of truth" by questioning what appears to be obvious, always suspecting that there might be "another side" to any question. The true philosopher should approach any issue with scepticism and humility: "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", he said.
Kolakowski's primary academic interest was the history of philosophy since the 18th century, and he was the author of more than 30 books which combined history, theoretical analysis and pungent, witty writing. His most influential work was a three-volume history of Marxism – Main Currents of Marxism: Its Rise, Growth and Dissolution (1978), published after he had taken refuge in the West.
It was a prophetic work, written at a time when Marxism still provided the ideological underpinning for a system that was thought to have an indefinite life expectancy. He provided an objective description of the main ideas and diverse currents of Marxist thinking, but at the same time characterised Marxism as "the greatest fantasy of our centurye_SLps [which] began in a Promethean humanism and culminated in the monstrous tyranny of Stalin".
If anyone could speak about the political lessons of the last century with authority, it was Kolakowski. His country, Poland, probably suffered as much as any from the application of flawed political dogmas, though unlike many other critics of the system, he survived to see the proof of his own analysis.
Leszek Kolakowski was born in Radom, Poland, on October 23 1927. After the Germans invaded, his father, an economist and political writer, was killed by the Gestapo and his family expelled from Lodz and exiled to a primitive village in eastern Poland. There young Leszek found a library in the house of a minor nobleman and set about educating himself – with occasional help from teachers supplied by the Polish underground.
It was natural that he should welcome the doctrine preached by his enemies' enemies, and as the Russians drove out the Germans, he embraced Communism as an antidote to bigotry, anti-Semitism and nationalism – both that of the Nazis and, as he saw it, of the Polish Roman Catholic Church.
After the war Kolakowski joined the Polish Communist youth organisation and studied Philosophy at the University of Lodz. After taking a doctorate at Warsaw University, he returned to Lodz to teach logic, then moved again to the University of Warsaw, where he became professor of modern philosophy in 1964. He was a member of the editorial board of the weekly Nowa Kultura, and, in 1955, become a staff member of Po Prostu, another weekly run by young Communist intellectuals.
By this time, he had moved away from Soviet Marxism. A visit to Moscow in 1950 had opened his eyes to what he would later describe as "the enormity of material and spiritual desolation caused by the Stalinist system", and he became the leading ideologist of Poland's younger generation in their revolt against it.
The death of Stalin in 1953 brought demands for democratisation in the ranks of the Polish Communist Party. In June 1956 worker riots in Poznan resulted in many deaths, and in October the reformist Wladyslaw Gomulka was chosen as party leader, declaring his provisional independence from Moscow.
Kolakowski had led the way in preparing the ground for Gomulka with a satirical indictment of Stalinism, his 72 definitions of What Socialism is not, which, while officially banned, gained wide underground circulation: "Socialism is not: a society in which one man is in trouble for saying what he thinks while another is well-off because he does not say what he has on his mind; a society in which a man lives better if he doesn't have any thoughts of his own at all; a state which has more spies than nurses and more people in prison than in hospital; a state in which the philosophers and writers always say the same as the generals and ministers – but always after they've said it…"
Kolakowski was aiming his barbs at Russia, but as Gomulka led Poland steadily away from the relative freedom of the Polish October and back into the Soviet harness, they soon came to apply there too. Suddenly Kolakowski found himself the party's enemy number one. Surveillance increased and the secret police began sitting in on his lectures.
Beginning in 1958 with The Individual and Infinity, a lengthy book on Spinoza, Kolakowski published a series of major studies on a wide range of European philosophers: The Philosophy of Existence, the Defeat of Existence (1965),Positivist Philosophy from Hume to the Vienna Circle (1966, reprinted 2003),Husserl and the Search for Certitude (1975), and works on Bergson (1957 and 1984).
In 1965 he published a monumental study that he had been working on since 1958: Religious Consciousness and the Church: Studies in 17th Century Non-denominational Christianity. In this, he brought to life a vast array of little-known thinkers from all over Europe who embraced Christian ideas but radically rejected affiliation with any existing church.
The research for this book confirmed his distaste for institutionalised "truth" but convinced him of the validity of the continuing quest for absolute answers even though these were unobtainable in philosophy and dangerous in politics. Especially significant was his essay The Priest and the Jester (1959) in which he contrasted dogmatism and scepticism, and took the side of the jester.
Though Kolakowski had been denounced for revisionism in 1956, he somehow retained his party card until 1966, when he was expelled after making a speech attacking the government on the 10th anniversary of the October dawn. He kept his job until 1968 when, with five others, he was expelled from Warsaw University.
Kolakowski left Poland for North America later that year during the extreme nationalist campaign against "Zionists" (his wife was Jewish). From then on he became a non-person in his native land and for the next 20 years no references were made to his work in official publications. He became Professor of Philosophy at McGill University and, in 1969, taught at University of California, Berkeley. In 1970 he moved to Britain and became senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford.
In the West Kolakowski moved away from Marxist orthodoxy, and in Towards a Marxist Humanism (1970), he rejected Marxist economic determinism and affirmed the moral responsibility of the individual. It was not long before he moved away from Marxism altogether.
In an article published in 1975, he observed that 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".
Kolakowski was particularly scathing about western apologists for Marxist regimes who suggested that economic progress in communist countries somehow justified a lack of political freedom: "This lack of freedom is presented as though it were a temporary shortage. Reports along these lines give the impression of being unprejudiced. In reality they are not simply false, they are utterly misleading. Not that nothing has changed in these countries, nor that there have been no improvements in economic efficiency, but because political slavery is built into the tissue of society in the Communist countries as its absolute condition of life." He dismissed the idea of democratic socialism as "contradictory as a fried snowball", and modern manifestations of Marxism as "merely a repertoire of slogans serving to organise various interests".
Though Kolakowski was banned in his
native Poland, his works, appearing in underground editions, continued to shape the opinions of the Polish intellectual opposition. His essay Theses on Hope and Hopelessness (1971), which suggested that self-organised social groups could gradually expand the spheres of civil society in a totalitarian state, helped inspire the dissident movements of the 1970s that led to Solidarity and, eventually, to the collapse of Communism in Europe in 1989. In the 1980s Kolakowski supported Solidarity by giving interviews, writing, and fund-raising.
In his later work, Kolakowski turned increasingly to the great questions of religious belief. In Religion (1982) he analysed a wide range of arguments for and against the existence of God. In God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal's Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism (1995) he reflected on what he calls "Pascal's sad religion" of belief in a "hidden God" not reachable by reason, and drew parallels between the dogmatism of the followers of Jansen and the dogmatism of modern Marxists.
Though he turned his back on Marxism, Kolakowski could be equally scathing about the secularist, liberal certainties of the western enlightenment, an issue explored in such books as Modernity on Endless Trial (1990) and Freedom, Fame, Lying and Betrayal: Essays on the Everyday (1990). He saw western relativism as, in its way, just as dogmatic and corrosive as Marxism.
Kolakowski remained based in Oxford, but spent part of 1974 at Yale, and, from 1981 to 1994, was a part-time professor at the University of Chicago. He was a fellow of scholarly societies, including the British Academy, in many countries and received numerous academic honours and awards. In 2003 the Library of the American Congress awarded him the $1 million Kluge Prize for his lifetime contribution to the humanities.
Haggard-looking and gawky, with bright blue eyes and a shy smile, Kolakowski conveyed an air of simultaneous vigour and frailty and was often to be found nervously chain-smoking or drinking black coffee.
In 1949 Leszek Kolakowski married Tamara Dynenson, a psychiatrist, with whom he had a daughter.