Leszek Kolakowski, 1927-2009: a master figure

Adam Szostkiewicz
21 July 2009

Poland, and Europe, are losing our best. A year ago it was Bronislaw Geremek, now it is Leszek Kolakowski. This great philosopher and public intellectual spent years after 1956 in brave and critical opposition to the communist orthodoxy that ruled Poland, before moving to the west in 1968. He chose to believe what he saw with his own eyes and could judge with his own mind, not what the party preached. When the gap became intolerable, he dared publicly to speak in defence of his core values: reason, truth and decency.   Adam Szostkiewicz is a writer and journalist with the weekly magazine Polityka in Warsaw

Also by Adam Szostkiewicz in openDemocracy:

"The Polish lifeboat" (22 September 2005)

"The Polish autumn" (26 October 2005)

"Poland's past and future pope" (13 April 2006)

"Poland marches: the people sound the alarm" (12 October 2006)

"Bronislaw Geremek: Polish and European liberal" (15 July 2008)

As a young man Kolakowski was himself a communist activist in post-1945 Poland, but soon turned into a socialist critic of the abuses of "really existing socialism"; this earned him the enmity of the establishment, which in 1968 forced him from his post as a philosophy professor at Warsaw University. His journey continued as he became a renowned champion of human rights and democracy, supporting peaceful struggles for change in Poland in a way that made him a hugely influential figure during the Solidarity era.

A ban on his ability to work or publish could not stop him inspiring Poland's independent-minded scholars and students, a deep influence that continued during his long years in the west. His prolific output included many articles, essays and books; most substantially, a three-volume intellectual history of the rise and fall of Marxism, which won him renown in Europe and the United States. In official Poland, he continued to be persona non grata until the transformations of 1989 and after.  

But Kolakowski's work filtered through via unofficial channels: copies of his Main Currents of Marxism trilogy were smuggled into Poland, and widely (if secretly) read by students and intellectuals - as well as high-ranking party and government functionaries. He acutely identified the loss of belief in official doctrines: "This ideology was supposed to mould the thinking of people. But it became so weak and ridiculous that nobody believed in it, neither the ruled nor the rulers."

The world and Poland too

When the democratic opposition movement became stronger in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the gestation of the Solidarity movement, underground printers took the risk of jail by reprinting Leszek Kolakowski's writings. 

Among the most popular of these were Kolakowski's "manifesto of hope against hopelessness" and his short presentation on "how to be a liberal-conservative-socialist". When I read those clandestine (an added thrill!) musings I was overwhelmed: that's the way, I thought, that's the path I want to pursue. In reacting this way I was only one of the many who found in Kolakowski an inspiration to think and act for myself in my then captive country. The Solidarity generation to which I belonged found Leszek Kolakowski to be one of its incarnations of courage, intellectual and political. 

What fascinated us was Kolakowski's evolution from a radical leftwing and anti-clerical dogmatism to an open-minded, self-critical, sometimes even self-mocking, liberalism. It was a liberalism that allowed a serious and unbiased analysis of religion. He considered the Christian gospels a foundation of European culture, but he also took a great interest in Buddhism. (I remember vigorously discussing the Buddha with Kolakowski in the home of his Polish friends in London). 

We were at the time - the early 1980s, the years of martial law after the crackdown on Solidarity - a pluralist crowd: a mix of socialists, anarchists, nationalists, Catholics. We argued about his ideas, but seldom denied his importance. What mattered was that he had changed his mind about the system, and continued to think for himself. 

He saw through the deceits of the socialism that had been built in Poland, and  identified the contradiction between its proclaimed social and democratic ideals and the harsh realities of the project to create a "new socialist man" -  to be implemented under the dictatorship of the party.        

In one of Kolakowsk's late and recently published interviews with Anna Bikont, he described his private library in Oxford, where he lived and worked as a fellow at All Souls College for many years until his death on 17 July 2009. There were all sorts of books, on almost every subject: he was one of the curious kind. This was a philosopher who loved poetry, which he read in Polish, German, French (Baudelaire was a favourite), and Russian. There were the great European novels, books on art, the Jewish and other religions, on the Bible, on witches and the devil - everything under the sun.

The cultural Leszek Kolakowski was as important as the political one. He was an incarnation of what seems to me the very best in the 20th-century Polish and European intelligentsia. Never a guru, always a master. 

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