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||Leszek Kołakowski (1927-2009)|
Polish philosopher who began as an orthodox Marxist but greatly contributed to the emergence of a Marxist humanism in the 1950s and 1960s. Kolakowski was closely involved in the movement towards liberation that led, in 1956, to the Polish spring. He was dismissed from the Communist Party and in 1968 he moved to the West, where he published works on the history of religion and philosophy.
"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." (from Metaphysical Horror, 1988)
Leszek Kołakowski was born in Radom, the son of Jerzy Kołakowski , a publicist, and the former Lucyna Pietrusiewicz. During
the German occupation of Poland in World War II, Kołakowski studied in
the underground school system. Much of his time he spent at the family
country house, reading books from its library. His father was killed by the Gestapo.
After the war, Kołakowski joined the Communist youth organization (ZMP). He studied philosophy at the University of Lódz, receiving his Ph.D. in 1953 from Warsaw University. From 1947 to 1949 he was Assistant in Logic at University of Lodz, and from 1950 to 1959 he worked as an assistant and then a docent at University of Warsaw. In 1949 he married Tamara Dynenson, a psychiatrist; they had a one daughter.
Kołakowski joined in 1945 the Polish Workers's Party and taught at its school in 1952-54. He was a member of the editorial board of the weekly Nowa Kultura, and in 1955 he became a staff member of Po Prostu, a weekly run by young Communist intellectuals. A visit to Moscow opened his eyes to the emptiness of the Stalinist system.
After the new constitution was accepted in 1952 in Poland, Stalinist repression tightened its grip. Along with the so-called "October thaw" in 1956, Kołakowski became one of the leading voices for the democratization of life in Poland. Workers' protests were crushed, the reformist Władysław Gomulka assumed power, but the basic political system did not change, although he eased some restrictions of cultural policies. Gomulka's reign ended in 1970.
In the late 1950s poets, novelist, and playwrights undertook innovative experiments and searched new forms of expression. Kołakowski's essay 'The Priest and the Jester' (1959), in which he confronted dogmaticism with skepticism and took the side of the Jester, made him the most prominent Marxist philosopher in Poland. Under the influence of Kant and Sartre, and the thoughts of the young Marx and his theory of alienation, Kołakowski moved towards Marxist humanism. He criticized some basic Marxist doctrines, among them belief in deterministic historical progress; history, according to Kołakowski, mercilessly mocked theory. Due his views, Kołakowski was labelled as revisionist. In his collection of essays, Towards a Marxist Humanism (1970), he affirmed the moral responsibility of the individual and rejected determinism. Kołakowski's major work in Marxist thought, Main Currents in Marxism (1978), published in three volumes, traced the origins of the movement from Plotinus to the 1970s and Mao Zedong. In the third volume he wrote: "At present Marxism neither interprets the world nor changes it: it is merely a repertoire of slogans serving to organize various interests..."
Kołakowski was head of the section of the history of modern
philosophy at the University of Warsaw from 1959 to 1968 and professor
of modern philosophy from 1964 until 1968. In 1966 he delivered a
speech at the 10th anniversary of the "Polish October" and was expelled
from the Polish Workers' Party. Two years later he was dismissed from
his chair at the university for "forming views of the youth in a manner
contrary to the official tendency of the country." Obecność mitu (The Presence of Myth),
was set up in type in Warsaw, then banned, and eventually
published in Polish in France in 1972 by Institute Littéraire, and in
German translation by Piper Verlag. With his Jewish wife Kołakowski
left Poland in 1968
during the extreme nationalist campaign against "Zionists". No
references to his work could be made in Poland in twenty years.
In the 1980s Kołakowski supported Solidarity giving interviews, writing, and collecting money. His writing, which had circulated in underground publications, had contributed to the formation of dissident groups, which eventually spread and evolved into the Solidarity movement. Officially he was a persona non grata until the fall of Communism in Poland. Analyzing the situation of exiles he once said, "More often than not, modern exiles have been expatriates, rather than exiles in the strict sense; usually they were not physically deported from their countries or banished by law; they escaped from political persecution, prison, death, or simply censorship."
Kołakowski was Professor of philosophy at McGill University and in 1969 he taught at University of California, Berkeley. Since the 1970s was a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, visiting professor at Yale University, New Haven Connecticut. From 1981 to 1994 he served as Professor on the Committee of Social Thought and the Development of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. In 1983 he became Fellow of the British Academy. He was also a fellow of the Académie Universelle des Cultures, and a Foreign Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Already in his early writing Kołakowski dealt with religion, but especially his later work was concerned with issues in ethics and metaphysics. In Religion (1982) he critically analyzed a wide range of arguments for and against the existence of God. God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal's Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism (1998) explored Christian notions of grace and sin, and asked the basic question - how can a good, omnipotent God permit evil? Kołakowski also published plays, stories, and fables. Tales from the Kingdom of Lailonia (1963) was build around the opposition of faith and reality. Rozmowy z diablem (1965), his second collection of tales, was published in America as Conversations with the Devil.
Both in writings about Marxism and religion Kołakowski showed
similar deep understanding of doctrinal questions, often focusing on
the conflict between heterodoxy and orthodoxy. Dialectical materialism
he looked from the perspective of Christian philosophical theology as a
"modern variant of apocalyptic expectations". The Marxian dream of a
perfect social system Kolakowski paralleled with the old utopian
religious movements. "... there is no reason to expect that this dream
can ever become true except in the cruel from of despotism," he has
said. The truth of Christianity and Socialism -
social justice, fight against social oppression -
are both one-sided.
As a response to E.P. Thompson's 'An Open Letter to
Leszek Kołakowski', published in The Socialist Register in
1973, Kołakowski explained
why he considered Communism a "poor idea",
not worth of saving from its shortcomings. However, a year later he
stated that socialist societies do not need a return to capitalism. In
signed the 'Letter of the Fifty-nine,' protesting projected
amendments to the Polish constitution that would have formalized the
leading rle of the Party.
Kołakowski did not believe that there is a perfect solution to all human problems, but the search for fundamental truths beyond question is a part of European culture. Marxism, Kołakowski seemed to claim, sprang from the same source as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. In God Owes Us Nothing (1995) the names of Jansenius, Augustine, and Saint Paul could be easily be replaced by some names familiar from the history of Marxist philosophy (Hegel, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Lev Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg): "Jansenius's followers called themselves disciplines of Augustine, whose authority had been unshakable in Christianity. They insisted that they – and their master, Jansenius – had nothing new to say; they simply followed and repeated the most traditional teaching of the Church, which conformed to the Gospels and to the epistles of Saint Paul and was codified in Augustinian theology."
Kołakowski received several awards, including the German Booksellers Peace Prize (1977), Erasmus Prize (1980), Veillon Foundation European Prize for the Essay (1980), Jefferson Award (1986), MacArthur Award (1982), University of Chicago Laing Award (1990), Tocqueville Prize (1994). He also received the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honor. In 2003 the Library of Congress awarded him the $1 million Kluge Prize for lifetime contribution to the humanities. Kołakowski died in July 2009, in Oxford, England, at the age of 81.
For further reading: Leszek Kołakowski: zwischen Skepsis und Mystik by Christian Heidrich (1995); Festschrift: Obecnosc (1993); Lire Kolakowski. La question de l'homme, de la religion et de l'Église by Bogdan Piwowarczyk (1986); 'Religion: If There Is No God' by Charles Davis and John C. Robertson, Jr., in Religious Studies Review 2 (1985); 'Leszek Kołakowski: A Portrait' by Wojciech Karpinski, in European Liberty: Four Essays on the Occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the Erasmus Prize Foundation (1983); Gesprache mit Manes Sperger und Leszek Kolakowski by Siegfried Lenz (1982); 'Leszek Kołakowski's misinterpretation of Marxism' by Waclaw Mejbaum and Aleksandra Zukrowska, in Dialectical Humanism 7 (1980); World Authors 1970-75, ed. by John Wakeman (1980); TriQuarterly 22 (1971); Leszek Kolakowski: Eine marxistische Philosopine der Freiheit nach Marx by Gesine Schwan (1971); European Philosophy Today by G.L. Kline (1965) - For further information: Notebooks: Leszek Kołakowski in Cosma's Home Page - Leszek Kołakowski: Modernity on Endless Trial (1990) by Robert Royal