Leszek Kolakowski (1927–2009)

Issue Date January 2010
Volume 21
Issue 1
Page Numbers 184-188
file Print
arrow-down-thin Download from Project MUSE
external View Citation

The eminent Polish philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski, who had a major influence on the development of the Polish democratic opposition, died on 17 July 2009. A memorial symposium entitled “Democracy, Totalitarianism, and the Culture of Freedom” was held in his honor at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C., on October 15. Kolakowski had been a founding member of the Journal of Democracy‘s Editorial Board and had spoken at several major NED conferences. His thinking influenced the Endowment’s strategy in Central and Eastern Europe.

The event was introduced by NED president Carl Gershman and moderated by former U.S. national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Other speakers included NED vice-president Nadia Diuk, longtime director of NED programs in Central Europe and Eurasia; Richard Pipes, Baird Professor Emeritus of History at Harvard University; George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center; and Abbas Milani, Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University.

A second memorial symposium was held on October 24 at the University of Warsaw, organized by the Stefan Batory Foundation. Moderated by Aleksander Smolar, it featured as speakers Jerzy Szacki, professor emeritus of the University of Warsaw; philosophy professor Jan Andrzej Kłoczowski, O.P.; and Jerzy Jedlicki, professor at the Historical Institute at the Polish Academy of Sciences. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the former prime minister of Poland (1989–91), sent an audio message. At the conclusion, Carl Gershman presented NED’s Democracy Service Medal to Kolakowski’s widow, Tamara Kolakowska, and read a tribute that accompanied it.

A video of the NED symposium is available at www.vimeo.com/7104374, and an audio recording of the Warsaw symposium is available at www.batory.org.pl/debaty/Kolakowski.htm. Selected excerpts from speeches at these two events appear below:

Nadia Diuk: In an article entitled “In Stalin’s Countries: Theses on Hope and Despair,” Kolakowski dissected the operations of what he called alternately the communist social system, bureaucratic socialism, socialist despotism, or monopolistic power. Even though he was referring to the Soviet model of socialism, his analysis of the way a totalitarian regime seeks to exercise power relates to all kinds of despotisms and thus is decidedly [End Page 184] relevant today. “The natural need of despotism,” he wrote, “is to terrify individuals while depriving them of the means of organized resistance.” He elaborated further, applying his well-honed skills in dialectical reasoning: “If this concentration of power is a source of strength, it also conceals weaknesses.” This was his main thesis: the paradox that the more a regime tries to assert control over political and social life, the weaker it becomes, “deprived of plasticity and self-regulatory devices,” as he put it. He had thus turned Marxist dialectics on its head. . . .

By poking holes in the totalitarian monolith and highlighting weaknesses in the system, Kolakowski identified areas where opponents of the system could work and how society could organize in its own self-defense. These ideas were elaborated further by Jacek Kuroń, who added the idea of “self-organization” by society, and Adam Michnik, who took this analysis further in his essay “The New Evolutionism.” The notion was gradually being accepted that engaged citizens could reclaim the public space monopolized by the regime and that social and cultural activities could take place outside of the officially sanctioned realm, bypassing the “leading role” of the Communist Party and other state-controlled instruments. . . .

Even after martial law was imposed at the end of 1981, the Polish opposition continued its newly adopted strategy of building parallel structures underground, by establishing a thriving underground press, a flying university, and many publishing houses, and gaining the moral authority that had been lost by the ruling elite, all in accordance with Kolakowski’s original thesis.

Kolakowski wrote many other pieces about the Polish opposition, and also on the unique role of the Polish nation and its intellectuals, and in later years he warned, “The victory of democracy is by no means assured—there are various noncommunist forms of tyranny.” But his analysis of the weakness of totalitarianism and the obligation to build independent civil society as the foundation for democracy still guides our work at the NED here today. Especially at a time when it looks like these ideas might have a rival in the “quick fix” of the toolkit to “bring down dictators,” it is worth going back to the fundamentals to understand why and how slow and steady grassroots work based on ideas and values is, in the end, the right way.

Richard Pipes: I first met Leszek Kolakowski when he came to the United States in early 1969 . . . and what struck me at once about him was his modesty and sense of humor—qualities which are usually missing among professional philosophers. . . . He had no idea how important and influential he was. He listened to us—to me—as if he were a freshman, eager to learn. I was a few years older, but he had much greater achievements to his credit than I did, and yet he listened to every word I said. As we left the house it was raining, and there was a puddle of water in front of our house. [End Page 185] We were deep in conversation and walked up to the puddle. I avoided it, but he went right into it, standing up to his ankles in the water, and was absolutely unaware of it. That sort of struck me as so characteristic of this man, of his intense curiosity for what others have to say.

George Weigel: Leszek Kolakowski, whose memory we honor today, was one who knew the venerated laws, who was possessed of the philosopher’s ability to wonder, and whose sense of humor . . . never left him. By being all of these things, he became one of the teachers of the revolution of 1989 and indeed one of the teachers of the world. He was also a man of deep human sympathies, whose ironic sense never soured him. He knew suffering from the inside, and therefore, he could touch the suffering of others. One day in Moscow in October 1990, Leszek and I were walking near St. Basil’s at the bottom of Red Square where a tent city of Russian peasants had been set up—peasants who had come to Moscow to petition for a redress of grievances, as we might say. And the extraordinary and exquisite human delicacy with which Leszek went from tent to tent offering a word of encouragement to these poor souls was the first memory of him that came to mind when I learned of his death earlier this year.

Leszek was a genuine philosopher, a lover of wisdom, a seeker after truth in a season of philosophical decadence when a lot of philosophy, particularly in the Western world, had become thinking about thinking about thinking rather than thinking one’s way through to the truth. It was also a season of political misadventures, to put it gently, for philosophers whom the world deemed great; Heidegger’s embrace of Hitler and Sartre’s of Stalin illustrate the point at the extreme end. Leszek’s last small book, Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?, like his magisterial Main Currents of Marxism and his devastating dissection of E.P. Thompson in the wonderfully titled My Correct Views on Everything, demonstrated an adherence to Chesterton’s maxim, “An open mind, like an open mouth, should close on something.”

That “something,” he understood, was the truth that the arts of reason could teach us about human beings and their exercise of freedom. He was an eclectic thinker—not so much a man of system as a man of acute analysis—but he never lost sight of the fact that truth is there to be found. And he knew, even if he wouldn’t have put it quite this way, that the postmodernist claim that there is only your truth and my truth is a snare and a delusion for democracy. For if there is only your truth and my truth, and neither of us recognizes a transcendent horizon of truth, then when our truths come into conflict, and there is no horizon of judgment against which we can settle our differences, then either you will impose your power on me or I will impose my power on you, and the democratic project is at an end. That imposition of power, which another Middle European thinker called several years ago “The Dictatorship of Relativism,” means the eventual death of democracy. [End Page 186]

Abbas Milani: With an elegant parsimony and satire that can only come through exceptional erudition, Kolakowski argued for the wisdom of teetering insecurely on the edge of an unknown abyss rather than leaping into the absurd comfort of blind faith. This “teetering” metaphor and the inherent, contingent epistemology that seamlessly connected the disparate chapters and genres of his impressive work conjure Richard Rorty’s notion of liberal contingency. . . . What makes Kolakowski’s contingent epistemology particularly relevant to the totalitarian challenges of our day, particularly in a place like Iran, is that it organically and effortlessly coheres with his belief and philosophical argument in favor of the existential exigency of faith in our lives. In places like Iran, where for two-hundred years the clergy have lied to the people and argued that secular epistemology and secular laws or a belief in reason over revelation and popular sovereignty over divine anointment necessitates . . . heresy and faithlessness, Kolakowski’s contingent epistemology, hand-in-hand with his unfailing belief in democracy, is a powerful antidote to this totalitarian certitude.

Leszek was enormously interested in what was happening in Iran after the revolution, because he too, I think, believed that if you apply the methods that one of his favorite philosophers, Nikolai Berdyaev, applied. . . .we would find remarkable similarities between Shi’ism and communism. They are both incredibly self-righteous ideologies. Both have an eschatology that is based on a Messiah. In one case, the Messiah is an Imam Zaman, and in the other case, it is the Party. In both, they have sacred texts. In both, quotations from those sacred texts replaced reason and argumentation. They both see the individual as a tool of history. They both see reason—”undialectical reason”—as a first stage toward heresy. They both are utopian and are willing to sacrifice not only this generation but future generations for this utopia that will come. And it is precisely, in my view, because of these similarities that a book like Main Currents of Marxism has found so many readers in Iran. . . .

So I think Leszek Kolakowski was not just a nemesis of the old god, but he is also the nemesis of this new god that is threatening our age with a very dangerous kind of totalitarianism. Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are only the most dangerous examples of this threat. And Kola-kowski can be a very helpful guide in fighting this curse.

Zbigniew Brzezinski: If I had to evaluate Kolakowski’s political contribution—that is to say, political contribution to what happened in Poland—I would argue, I think, that his greatest contribution was as a revisionist of Marxism [in the 1960s], because by becoming such an eloquent, intelligent, compelling, and charismatic critic of Marxism—critic, but not yet a rejectionist of Marxism—he created a whole generation of people who joined him in articulating that revisionism, in embracing it, in becoming activists on its behalf. People like Michnik, like Kuroñ, like Modzelewski, like all [End Page 187] the members of the various publications that sprung up in the 1960s, contributed to the delegitimization of the communist dogma. And that was a direct political impact, and that’s why he was expelled from Poland—that’s why he was forced out. After that, yes, he had influence . . . but that was also part of the reality in Poland. You know, people like Mazowiecki, for example—plus Geremek, plus Wałęsa on a different social level—in a sense embracing . . . political activism. But the real political force of Kolakowski’s ideas and personality was his impact on a young generation of intellectuals who were initially, like himself, Marxists but whom he started leading away from Marxism, who then later on made the further transition to anti-Marxism. So, I would say his political role was greatest in the 1960s.

Jerzy Szacki (translated from the Polish by Marta Kalabinski): Marxism and communism became the subjects of a long critical and historical analysis by Kolakowski. . . . His break with communism became a starting point for a deeper reflection on Marxism and its fate. Kolakowski was reluctant to accept calling Main Currents of Marxism his magnum opus, but there is no doubt that this is a very important work. . . . Kolakowski deserves to be recognized on the one hand as a former Marxist and communist, and on the other, as a historian and critic of Marxism and, increasingly, a staunch foe of communism.

Carl Gershman: Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski will be remembered as the thinker who, more profoundly than any intellectual since George Orwell, explained the origins and deformities of communist totalitarianism and the threat it posed to human freedom. At the core of his thinking was an understanding of how the utopian urge to overcome “the contingency of human existence” led inevitably to communist despotism, just as the justification of this new order by both the communist regimes and their apologists around the world produced a culture of unparalleled duplicity and moral corruption. From this understanding flowed his distinctive sense of irony, as he dissected and exposed with piercing wit the foundation of lies upon which the whole system of communism ultimately rested.

But Kolakowski was more than an opponent of communism. He was a defender of human freedom as “the most precious treasure in life” and the basis on which society can progress and flourish. He was also a fighter for freedom, having paid the price of exile for his beliefs. He served from exile as the Western representative of OKNO, the underground organization that brought together the principal cultural institutions through which Polish democrats worked to establish an independent civil society. His devotion to freedom was such that, even in the spring of 1989 when freedom’s advance seemed unstoppable, he warned a NED-sponsored world conference in Washington of the need to remain vigilant, cautioning that “freedom is always vulnerable and its cause is never safe.” [End Page 188]