Leszek Kolakowski: thinker for our time

Roger Scruton
29 July 2009

A few weeks ago I was at a dinner in Bucharest, hosted by a small centre-right think-tank, at which the discussion focused on the continuing dominance in western universities of certain familiar styles of intellectual subversion: postmodernism, Michel Foucault, American feminism and the occasional bureaucratised version of these things in Jürgen Habermas, Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens.  

Roger Scruton is a writer, philosopher and public commentator. Among his recent books are Gentle Regrets: Thoughts From a Life (Continuum, 2005); News from Somewhere: On Settling (Continuum, 2006); Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (Encounter Books, 2007); A Dictionary of Political Thought (Palgrave Macmillan, 3rd edition, 2007); Beauty (Oxford University Press, 2009); Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation (Continuum, 2009); and I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher's Guide to Wine (Continuum, 2009). His website is here

Roger Scruton's many articles in openDemocracy include:

"Maurice Cowling's achievement" (26 August 2005)

"Jane Jacobs (1916-2006): cities for life" (2 May 2006)

"Power inquiry, public debate" (6 March 2006)

"The great hole of history" (11 September 2006)

"England: an identity in question" (1 May 2007)

"Richard Rorty's legacy" (12 June 2007)

"Ingmar Bergman: the sense of the world" (4 August 2007)

"Islamic law in a secular world" (14 February 2008)

"Alexander Solzhenitsyn: the line within" (7 August 2008)

Most of those present had spent time in a western university, and all had been troubled by the curriculum they had encountered there. In their eyes the western curriculum seems to have no other appeal than that which comes from deconstructing the forms of authority and order which have come down to us from our Judaeo-Christian culture. And yet that appeal is enough: nothing else seems required for academic legitimacy, and even if you write the kind of constipated sociologese of a Habermas or a Giddens, you can be guaranteed a position by those who would read you only so far as to extract the subversive and postmodern message.

Someone put on the table a copy of the first volume of Main Currents of Marxism, which had that day appeared for the first time in Romanian, and invited us all to contemplate it. The question on everybody's lips was "How did he get away with it?" How did Leszek Kolakowski not only survive coming into the open with the most devastating critique of Marxism and its intellectual fellow-travellers in existence, but go on to enjoy an academic career of unparalleled success in western universities, becoming a fellow of All Souls College at Oxford University, winning the MacArthur "genius" prize, normally reserved for prominent leftists, and the million-dollar John W Kluge prize for a lifetime's achievement in the humanities? He picked up honorary degrees and awards by the score, and retired to a comfortable life in Oxford, there to write books on subjects normally held to be marginal, if not shocking, by the liberal establishment - topics such as man's religious need, the concept of the sacred, and the need for a counter-Enlightenment in defining our spiritual home.

I was not able to answer the question. For I too have always been puzzled by Kolakowski's unorthodox journey. He fled Poland in 1968, part of an intellectual exodus that later included Włodzimierz Brus - whose continued adherence to Marxism facilitated an extended career in Oxford, having nothing else to recommend him to the English intellectual establishment. While Brus achieved only a brief moment of vicarious notoriety, when the attempt was made in the late 1990s to extradite his wife to Poland to stand trial for her alleged crimes during the Stalinist period, Kolakowski went from strength to strength.

The grand survey

Main Currents of Marxism began appearing in English in 1978, and made little impact on the curriculum in London University, where I was teaching, and where philosophy students had the chance to take an option in Marxism. The official view was that this book was a piece of marginal continental baggage, left over from 19th-century ways of seeing things. Kolakowski, it was said, had failed to see the real scientific potential of the Marxist vision, and his book was far too mired in literary controversies to deserve close attention.

Elsewhere, however, the impact of Main Currents began to be felt. It was impossible to dismiss it as a mere anti-communist diatribe: Kolakowski had himself been a Marxist, had joined the Communist Party in the period of post-war reconstruction, and had for a while shared the illusion of many Poles that communism offered the only secular alternative to fascism - the only way of organising a modern society that would remove oppressive relations between people and ensure some kind of social justice overall. He had grown away from communism, like most of his countrymen, in a state of disillusion rather than contempt, and had meanwhile read widely and deeply in the Marxist literature, so that Main Currents remains the most comprehensive survey of Marxism in existence, and one that traces the intellectual roots of the Marxist idea right back to tendencies in western thinking that were already revealed in the Enneads of Plotinus.

Most impressive, in my view, is the third volume of the work, in which Kolakowski directs his attention to the post-war forms of intellectual Marxism which were reshaping the western curriculum, and which were the real cause of those changes which had so appalled my Romanian friends. Kolakowski treats characters like Antonio Gramsci, György Lukács, Louis Althusser and Theodor Adorno with enough respect to make his criticisms stick, and he perceptively traces the French structuralist and post-structuralist movements of the 1960s to the way in which Marxist ways of seeing things had become institutionalised in French intellectual life.

The book does contain one huge lacuna - Michel Foucault, who is not menioned, even though it was he who was to pick up the banner that had been dropped in the gutter by Jean-Paul Sartre. My own view is that Foucault owes his appeal to perpetuating the Marxist way of seeing things beneath a non-judgmental veneer. He is giving what Marx hoped to give in The German Ideology - an account of "bourgeois"' society and its institutions that would remove the mask, and reveal the underlying workings of power. This lacuna aside, however, Kolakowski's survey of post-war Marxism provides a better explanation than any source that I know, of the decline of the humanities in western universities.

The human secret

In later life Kolakowski showed a growing attraction to the Catholic heritage in which he had been raised. It is never clear, in his later writings, precisely where he stands on the question of God's existence, Christ's resurrection and those minor details like the immaculate conception and the virgin birth. Nevertheless, he writes with enormous respect not just for those who believe in those things, but for the concepts which they use to organize their experience and to make sense of the world. In particular, he emphasised the great loss, as he saw it, which has ensued with the disappearance of the sacred from the worldview of western intellectuals. "With the disappearance of the sacred", he wrote, "arises one of the most dangerous illusions of our civilization - the illusion that there are no limits to the changes that human life can undergo, that society is ‘in principle' an endlessly flexible thing, and that to deny this flexibility and this perfectibility is to deny man's total autonomy and thus to deny man himself."

He was increasingly concerned with the need, as he saw it, to fill the god-shaped hole in the scheme of things which had been made by the Enlightenment, and which Marxism had tried to fill with an ideology of equality - an ideology that left its followers with a disenchanted vision of the social world, and an inability to find meaning in anything save political activism and the pursuit of power. He defended capitalism in the same spirit as Winston Churchill defended democracy, as the least worst system available.

"Capitalism", he wrote in 1995, "developed spontaneously and organically from the spread of commerce. Nobody planned it, and it did not need an all-embracing ideology, whereas socialism was an ideological construction. Ultimately, capitalism is human nature at work - that is, man's greed allowed to follow its course - whereas socialism is an attempt to institutionalize and enforce fraternity. It seems obvious by now that a society in which greed is the main motivation of human action, for all of its repugnant and deplorable aspects, is incomparably better than a society based on compulsory brotherhood, whether in national or international socialism."

Also in openDemocracy:

Adam Szostkiewicz, "Leszek Kolakowski, 1927-2009: a master figure" (21 July 2009)

As the quotation reveals, Kolakowski's thought was marked to the end of his life by his former Marxism. That he should see capitalism as motivated by greed alone, overlooking the beautiful constructs of contractual obligation, accountability and the rule of law, shows just how much the Marxist marginalising of such things as mere "superstructure" had left its mark on him.

Those who knew Kolakowski will remember his remarkable liveliness, achieved in defiance of long-standing physical frailty. I would encounter him, for the most part, at conferences and academic events. Nothing about him was more impressive than the humour and modesty with which he would deliver his opinions. He wore his scholarship lightly and showed a remarkable ability, until his death on 17 July 2009 at the age of 82, to respond with freshness and understandiong to the arguments of others.

And perhaps this was his secret, and the explanation of the way in which he "got away with it" - that he never entered the foreground of others' judgment as a dangerous opponent, but always as a sceptical friend. No alarm-bells sounded when he began his gentle arguments; and even if, at the end of them, nothing remained of the subversive orthodoxies, nobody felt damaged in their ego or defeated in their life's project, by arguments which from any other source would have inspired the greatest indignation.

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