Leszek Kolakowski and the anatomy of totalitarianism
It’s possible that I shall make an ass of myself. But in that case one can always get out of it with a little dialectic. I have, of course, so worded my proposition as to be right either way.
—Marx to Engels, 1857
What socialism implies above all is keeping account ofeverything.
—V. I. Lenin, 1917
Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.
Born in Radom, in eastern Poland, in 1927, the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski is closing in on his eightieth year. He has come a long way. He was a boy of twelve when the Nazis stormed into Poland. “I remember the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto,” he writes in “Genocide and Ideology” (1978),“which I saw from outside; I lived among Poles who were active in helping Jews and who risked their lives every day trying to save those few who could be saved from the inferno.” In 1945, the war over, he joined the Communist Party: the Communists were anti-fascist, weren’t they? (Were they?) He studied and then taught philosophy in Warsaw, where he also edited a scholarly journal.
Maturity brought forth doubts; doubts brought forth criticism; criticism was a dangerous commodity in Soviet-controlled Poland. In 1954, Kolakowski was accused of “straying from Marxist-Leninist ideology.” (True, all too true.) In 1966, after delivering a speech commemorating the tenth anniversary of the “October thaw,” he was expelled from the Party with all the usual ceremony. The state-controlled press launched a series of attacks on the renegade. He was removed from his university chair for “forming the views of the youth in a manner contrary to the official tendency of the country.” In 1968, he went into exile. His works were promptly enrolled in the Index of forbidden authors and, until 1981, could be neither referred to nor cited officially. After leaving Poland, Kolakowski taught at several Western universities, including McGill, Yale, the University of Chicago (for more than a decade he was part of the Committee on Social Thought), and Oxford, where he now lives in semi-retirement. Throughout the 1980s, he aided and abetted the Solidarity movement, which was instrumental in ridding Poland of its Communist oppressors.
Jacques Barzun once said of Walter Bagehot that he was “‘well-known’ without being known well.” Something similar can be said of Kolakowski. No academic is more distinguished than Leszek Kolakowski. He boasts a string of glittering honors and prizes that includes—I confine myself to a few A-list American awards—a MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called “genius” award, justified for once), the Jefferson Award, and, in 2003, the first Kluge Prize for “lifetime achievement in the humanities,” a commendation that carries a purse of $1 million.
Kolakowski’s bibliography is equally long and distinguished. It includes plays, moral and theological tales, and a long shelf of books and articles on the Church Fathers, on Pascal, on Henri Bergson, on English empiricism and the tradition of positivism, on the fate of religion in a secular age and the prospects of secularism in the hands of an animal as obstinately given to religious preoccupationas homo sapiens sapiens. Above all, perhaps, Kolakowski is known as a keen anatomist of totalitarianism. His patient investigations into the origins and the murderous legacy of Marxism—culminating in his magnum opus, Main Currents of Marxism (English translation, 1978)—occupy pride of place in the precious library of philosophical and political disenchantment.