Fighting Words

A Sense of Historical Irony

Leszek Kolakowski, 1927-2009.

Leszek Kolakowski

WROCLAW, Poland It was distinctly eerie to learn of the death of professor Leszek Kolakowski just 15 minutes before entering a room in which I was to give a short lecture on his influence. But it was also rather inspiring to be in a country that made the passing of a public intellectual into the front-page headline of every national daily paper the following day.

The photographs of Kolakowski almost invariably portray a man with a forbiddingly craggy visage, austere to the point of asceticism. Yet he was one of the most engagingly witty people it was possible to meet. And his wit was deployed to puncture every kind of intellectual fraud or imposture. I remember his comment when he heard that Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukacs had said that even the worst socialism was preferable to the best capitalism: “Ah yes, the advantages of Albania over Sweden are self-evident.”

He had earned the right to make such pronouncements. An ardent Communist in prewar and wartime Poland (and a sworn foe of the clerical, chauvinist, and anti-Semitic Polish right wing to the end of his days), Kolakowski was shorn of his Stalinism by exposure to its Moscow form on a visit to Russia, and he emerged as the leading “revisionist” Marxist philosopher of the Polish spring of 1956. At that stage, he advocated a form of democratic socialism approximately based on a reading of young—as opposed to late—Karl Marx. But repeated encounters with the obdurate and repressive Communist regime convinced him that the system was essentially beyond reform. A second Polish spring in March 1968 was put down with the use of the most crude police tactics and the employment by the Communist Party of anti-Semitism as a weapon against dissent. Forced to leave his homeland, he roosted for a while as an exile professor in Berkeley, Calif., where his experience of the student movement more or less completed his break with the New Left. (Years later he would recall with contempt a pamphlet that described the libraries of the university as being stuffed with “useless ‘white’ knowledge.”) In 1970 he moved to Oxford University and remained there until his death last week.

Shortly after his arrival in England, he published a long essay titled “Hope and Hopelessness” in Survey magazine. It was a review of the strengths and weaknesses of the 1968 movement and an appeal for the patient building of the independent sphere. The absurdity of the ruling system could be counted on; what was necessary in the meanwhile was the refusal of the lie and the willingness to display civic courage. Many Poles of my acquaintance think of this essay as part of the germination of what became the Workers’ Defense Committee of 1976 and ultimately the Solidarity movement that led to the emergence of something like dual power and a parallel authority in the Poland of the 1980s.

Meanwhile, Kolakowski was at work on his three-volume Main Currents of Marxism, which appeared at the end of the 1970s and constitutes one of the most searching investigations of the worldview that had dominated his youth. To state the thesis very briefly, Kolakowski’s argument was that Stalinism was not, after all, an aberration of Marxism. It was, rather, its logical culmination. It is not necessary to agree completely with this thesis in order to admire the relentless logic of its presentation. If there has ever been a detailed rebuttal written by any Marxist scholar, I have not seen it.

Kolakowski’s essential difference with Marxism was what one might call teleological: He rejected the idea that contradictions could be overcome, or anything “ultimate” achieved, either in the material world or in the world of ideas. This, however, did not prevent him from insisting that one had a duty to keep striving. Philosophy could not establish truth, but it could define the terms in which truth could be sought. Meanwhile, as he phrased it sardonically in an interview with Danny Postel in Daedalus, it turned out that there were better reasons to value freedom and democracy than the fact that Marx and Engels had not been so strongly opposed to them as some people had first thought.

His mordant style and air of almost sublime disillusionment could sometimes give the impression of cynicism. I remember giving an excited talk to the seminar he ran with Steven Lukes at Oxford’s All Souls College about the work of East German oppositionist Rudolf Bahro. In his book The Alternative, Bahro had anatomized the wasteful and exploitative character of the Communist system of production and had also written with great prescience about the way in which its contradictions would eventually bring it low. But at heart Bahro remained a “reform Communist,” analyzing the conflict between the forces and the relations of production and dealing in concepts such as “surplus consciousness.” For Kolakowski, this meant that he was doomed to waste his time. He rather scorned my presentation and said in effect that he had seen this movie before and knew how it would end.

In the short run, Kolakowski was perhaps slightly mistaken in that the nations of Eastern Europe were able to produce a generation of critics and activists who succeeded in making themselves heard. But in the longer run, he was proved right, in the sense that though the system could in fact “reform” itself, it could do so only by reforming itself out of existence. And he was at last able to fulfill his boyhood dream by becoming the esteemed intellectual ally of a working-class movement that actually succeeded in taking power. The realization that this movement was the gravedigger of communism was well-attuned to Kolakowski’s very highly developed sense of historical irony.