Leszek Kolakowski, 1927–2009

Published July 24, 2009

National Review Online

Cracow, Poland — Leszek Kolakowski, who died at 82 on July 17, will be remembered by the world of letters as one of the leading philosophers of the late 20th century, a man whose magisterial Main Currents of Marxism will be read centuries from now by anyone interested in getting at the intellectual roots of one of modernity’s most consequential — and lethal — bodies of thought. His native Poland will remember Kolakowski as one of a small group of intellectuals who, in the aftermath of Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968, turned their backs on theoretical Marxism as well as on the Communist Party, wrecking their own academic careers but laying some of the paving stones that would eventually lead to the Solidarity movement, the nonviolent collapse of European Communism, and the triumph of freedom in much of Central and Eastern Europe.

Those memories will be true to the man and his accomplishment. But when I think of Leszek Kolakowski, the first thing that comes to mind is perhaps the worst dive I’ve ever been in: the hard-currency bar in the basement of a five-star (sic) Moscow hotel in October 1990.

I was in the Soviet capital with a group of political thinkers and writers, most of them American, meeting for a week with men and women who thought of themselves as the democratic opposition to Mikhail Gorbachev — whom none of them imagined to be much of a democrat. It was a week of bad food, intense conversation about the legal and cultural building blocks of democracy, irritating surveillance by the KGB, and the exhilaration of fomenting a democratic revolution in the belly of the beast. When we first got to our hotel rooms, it was obvious even to amateurs that they were bugged. So my colleagues and I agreed that we would meet occasionally in the hotel’s hard-currency bar, admission to which required either U.S. dollars or Deutschmarks, for debriefing and planning. We figured that the excruciatingly loud rock music — and not very good rock at that — would forestall eavesdropping on our conversations about that day’s happenings and the next day’s plans, by any ferrets who happened to be lurking about.

It was an awful dump, with German prostitutes standing all along the perimeter, the air impossibly thick with smoke. The sight of Leszek Kolakowski in that dive, sitting on a shabby divan and dispensing wisdom while sipping cherry brandies and politely batting away the frauleins who tried to plop themselves into his lap, was one I shall never forget.

Just as unforgettable, though, was the walk I took with Leszek the next day. A kind of tent city had been set up at one end of Red Square, full of poor people from the countryside who had come to Moscow to ask for redress of their various grievances, many of which were displayed on crudely fashioned homemade posters. The exquisite sensitivity with which the great philosophical pathologist of Marxism engaged one after another of these sad souls — listening carefully, offering words of encouragement — bespoke a decency and a capacity for human solidarity that was nothing short of inspiring. Indeed, one of the few other men in whom I sensed similar attributes was another Polish philosopher: Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II.

Were it the only thing he had ever written, Main Currents of Marxism, Kolakowski’s three-volume masterwork, would have made him a worthy first recipient of the Library of Congress’s Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the humanities and social sciences. Main Currents, however, was only one part of Kolakowski’s extensive oeuvre, which combined the kind of rigorous logic for which pre–World War II Polish philosophy was noted with wit and literary grace. Kolakowski’s small book Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? 23 Questions from Great Philosophers is a gem that ought to be required reading for every college freshman — for Kolakowski was a brilliant teacher as well as a gifted writer, a man who forced you to think even when you disagreed. Then there is My Correct Views on Everything, in which he explains his break with Marxism (while eviscerating the British Marxist E. P. Thompson, who wrote a notorious “Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski”) and then goes on to explore Christianity and classical liberalism in a brace of finely honed essays. Kolakowski’s philosophical works on religion ought to give the New Atheists pause; they, and others, might begin with Religion: If There Is No God . . . On God, the Devil, Sin, and Other Worries of the So-Called Philosophy of Religion (Leszek did have a way with titles).

But in trying to summarize the achievement of a brilliant and original thinker who endured both political exile and a lot of physical suffering, I still return to those days in Moscow in October 1990 — albeit to a scene from which Leszek was absent. Another colleague and I decided to spend a few free hours exploring the Kremlin, and we enlisted as guide and translator a bright young Russian who had been hanging around the hotel lobby, obviously looking to practice his English. He took us to one of the newly restored cathedrals inside the Kremlin walls, where we soon found ourselves standing before a brilliant fresco of the Last Supper. There was no doubt that it was the Last Supper; it couldn’t have been anything else. Yet this obviously intelligent young Russian looked at us and said, “Please tell me: who are those men and what are they doing?”

That was what 70 years of Marxism had done to a generation: it had lobotomized them culturally. Leszek Kolakowski’s philosophical project was a long, rigorous, deeply humane protest against that kind of spiritual vandalism. Kolakowski knew that European civilization was built on the foundations of biblical religion, Greek philosophy, and Roman law. It was built, that is, on the conviction that life is not just one damn thing after another; a robust confidence in the human capacity to get to the truth of things; and a settled determination to order societies by means other than sheer coercion. Leszek Kolakowski’s defense of the civilization of the West against the barbarism he was convinced was inherent in the Marxist enterprise was an impressive intellectual accomplishment. It was also the accomplishment of a noble soul.

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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