23 Jul 2009

Leszek Kolakowski, October 23, 1927 – July 17, 2009

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Polish philosopher and intellectual historian Leszek Kolakowski passed away last Friday in Oxford where he had taught for many years.

Coming of age during the Nazi Occupation, Kolakowski became an autodidact who educated himself via the library of a local nobleman in his native Poland. He was a member of the Communist Party after WWII, obtained a degree at Warsaw, and taught logic and the history of Philosophy.

Though his writings were sometimes suppressed, and despite being denounced for revisionism, he was able to work and teach in Poland until the late 1960s, finally being expelled from the party in 1966 and from his university position in 1968.

He taught at several universities in the West, including Berkeley and Yale, but his permanent home became a senior researcher chair at All Souls College, Oxford.

In the West, Kolakowski became an astute and highly effective critic of Marxism from a Humanist perspective. His Main Currents of Marxism (1978) effectively summarized the history of the bacillus as well as describing the destructive progress of the consequent disease.

After the liberation of his native Poland, Kolakowski was awarded the Order of the White Eagle, and on Monday Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski announced that Kolakowski will be buried in Poland with military honors.

Telegraph published an admiring obituary:

Kolakowski’s primary academic interest was the history of philosophy since the 18th century, and he was the author of more than 30 books which combined history, theoretical analysis and pungent, witty writing. His most influential work was a three-volume history of Marxism – Main Currents of Marxism: Its Rise, Growth and Dissolution (1978), published after he had taken refuge in the West.

It was a prophetic work, written at a time when Marxism still provided the ideological underpinning for a system that was thought to have an indefinite life expectancy. He provided an objective description of the main ideas and diverse currents of Marxist thinking, but at the same time characterised Marxism as “the greatest fantasy of our century… [which] began in a Promethean humanism and culminated in the monstrous tyranny of Stalin”. …

In an article published in 1975, he observed that the experience of Communism had shown that “the only universal medicine (Marxists) have for social evils – State ownership of the means of production – is not only perfectly compatible with all the disasters of the capitalist world – with exploitation, imperialism, pollution, misery, economic waste, national hatred and national oppression, but it adds to them a series of disasters of its own: inefficiency, lack of economic incentives and above all the unrestricted rule of the omnipresent bureaucracy, a concentration of power never before known in human history”.

Kolakowski was particularly scathing about western apologists for Marxist regimes who suggested that economic progress in communist countries somehow justified a lack of political freedom: “This lack of freedom is presented as though it were a temporary shortage. Reports along these lines give the impression of being unprejudiced. In reality they are not simply false, they are utterly misleading. Not that nothing has changed in these countries, nor that there have been no improvements in economic efficiency, but because political slavery is built into the tissue of society in the Communist countries as its absolute condition of life.” He dismissed the idea of democratic socialism as “contradictory as a fried snowball”, and modern manifestations of Marxism as “merely a repertoire of slogans serving to organise various interests”.

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