Leszek Kolakowski’s ideas informed the anti-totalitarian youth movement inside Poland, and he became an adviser and active supporter in exile of the Solidarity movement that challenged and began to unravel, in a non-violent way, the Soviet system in Eastern Europe. As one of the leaders of Solidarity put it, “This skeptical student of Enlightenment thought, this scholar of the highest intellectual rigor, this opponent of all illusions, played the most romantic and Promethean of roles. He was the awakener of human hopes.”
Born in 1927 in the city of Radom, south of Warsaw, Kolakowski was only 10 years old when his family was forcibly relocated by the Germans during the occupation of Poland. He did not attend school, but read books supplemented with occasional private lessons and took his final exams as an external student in the underground school system. He eventually studied philosophy in Lodz and earned his doctorate from Warsaw University in 1953, later becoming a professor and chairman of its section on the history of philosophy (1959-68). An orthodox Marxist at first, he was sent by the party in 1950 to Moscow on a course for promising communist intellectuals. It was there that he initially became aware of “the enormity of material and spiritual desolation caused by the Stalinist system.”
The death of Stalin in 1953 stirred ferment in Poland with calls for democratization and conflict in the party ranks. In June 1956 worker riots in Poznan resulted in many deaths, and in October of that year Golulka was chosen as party leader in defiance of Moscow. Kolakowski had by then become one of Poland’s leading revisionist Marxists. His publication of “What Is Socialism?” (1956)—a short, incisive critique of Stalinism—was banned in Poland, but circulated privately and was translated into English the next year. Disillusioned with the stagnation of communism, he became increasingly outspoken. He was expelled from the party in 1966, dismissed from his professorship two years later, and went into exile. But his works, appearing in underground editions, continued to shape the opinions of the Polish intellectual opposition. His essay “Theses on Hope and Hopelessness,” published in the Paris Polish-language journal Kultura in 1971, proposed an evolutionary strategy designed to weaken the system. His concept inspired the activities of the Committee for the Defense of Workers and of the “Flying University,” of which Kolakowski was a foreign member.
The relationship between freedom and belief, examined in many different contexts, has been a lifelong theme of his scholarly work and is displayed fully in a wide range of essays written in a non-technical language and accessible to a wide range of readers. In “The Death of Utopia Reconsidered” (1983), he explains his view of philosophy:
The cultural role of philosophy is not to deliver the truth but to build the spirit of truth, and this means never to let the inquisitive energy of mind go to sleep, never to stop questioning what appears to be obvious and definitive, always to defy the seemingly intact resources of common sense, always to suspect that there might be “another side” in what we take for granted, and never to allow us to forget that there are questions that lie beyond the legitimate horizon of science and are nonetheless crucially important to the survival of humanity as we know it.
After leaving Poland, Kolakowski became a visiting professor in the department of philosophy at McGill University (1968-69), the University of California, Berkeley (1969-70), and a senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford (1970). Based in Oxford since then, he spent part of 1974 at Yale, and from 1981 to 1994 he was a professor part-time in the Committee on Social Thought and the department of philosophy at the University of Chicago. He has been a fellow of scholarly societies in many countries and has received numerous academic honors and awards.
What Kolakowski exemplified and defended throughout his work is the treatment of every individual as a rational and freely acting subject, aware that there is a spiritual side of life, able to have faith, yet eschewing absolute certainty of either an empirical or transcendental sort. It is the essence of a vibrant human culture to honor the universality of human rights while welcoming conflict of values, and repeated self-questioning with what he calls “an inconsistent scepticism.” Beginning in 1958 with “The Individual and Infinity,” a lengthy book on Spinoza, Kolakowski published a series of major studies on a wide range of European philosophers: “The Philosophy of Existence, the Defeat of Existence” (1965), “Positivist Philosophy from Hume to the Vienna Circle” (1966, reprinted 2003), “Husserl and the Search for Certitude” (1975), “The Key to Heaven” (1957), “Bergson” (1985), and “Metaphysical Horror” (1988). He was dealing sympathetically with the thought of, respectively, an unorthodox Dutch Jew, French existentialists, agnostic English and Austrian empiricists, a German phenomenologist, a French believer in intuition and “the life force,” and those who seek divine answers for human concerns.
Kolakowski dealt with deep questions in a non-didactic and often ironic and gently self-mocking way in the treatises “Religion if There Is No God: On God, the Devil, Sin and Other Worries in the So-Called Philosophy of Religion” (1988). In “God Owes Us Nothing” (1985), he reflects on what he calls “Pascal’s sad religion” of belief in a “hidden God” not reachable by reason. The conversion to Christianity of the great 17th century scientist plunged Pascal, like the modern man he prefigures, into what Kolakowski describes as “a never-ending state of suspense and doubt on the one matter that was really important.”
He wrote about the problems of Western culture. His “Modernity on Endless Trial” (1990) and “Freedom, Fame, Lying and Betrayal: Essays on the Everyday” (1990) are rich in substance, yet humane and often humorous in tone. In contrast to many modern-day philosophers, Kolakowski wrote in a way that non-academics could readily understand. “We’re wrestling with fundamental issues,” he said, “and these ought to be understandable to people who are not academics and are not professionally committed to this sort of endeavor.”
Kolakowski died on July 17, 2009.
Writing from within the Soviet system, Leszek Kolakowski’s voice was influential across Europe and provided the intellectual foundation for the Solidarity movement in Poland. Kolakowski authored more than 30 books and 400 other writings in a variety of formats and in four languages: Polish, French, English, and German. His principal lines of inquiry were in the history of philosophy and the philosophy of religion. In addition to his sustained anti-dogmatic philosophical inquiries, his essays used charm, resourcefulness, and gentle self-mockery to raise questions about the sometimes mindless modernity of contemporary Europe and North America. His ideas informed the anti-totalitarian youth movement inside Poland, and he became an adviser and active supporter of the Solidarity movement that challenged and began unraveling the Soviet system in Eastern Europe.
“Very rarely can one identify a deep, reflective thinker who has had such a wide range of inquiry and demonstrable importance to major political events in his own time. Out of deep scholarship and relentless inquiry, Leszek Kolakowski made clear from within the Soviet system the intellectual bankruptcy of the Marxist ideology and the necessity of freedom, tolerance of diversity, and the search for transcendence for reestablishing individual dignity. His voice was fundamental for the fate of Poland and influential in Europe as a whole.”
—Librarian of Congress James H. Billington
The Philosopher Who Brought Down Communism
Kluge Prize Recipient 2003
1927, Radom, Poland
2009, Oxford, United Kingdom
- Professor, Warsaw University
Professor, McGill University
- Professor, University of California, Berkeley
Senior Research Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford
- Professor, Yale University
- Professor, University of Chicago
First Winner of Kluge Prize Announced
(Nov. 5, 2003)
- “Toward a Marxist Humanism: Essays on the Left Today” (1968)
- “The Socialist Idea: A Reappraisal” (1974)
- “Main Currents of Marxism: Its Rise, Growth, and Dissolution” (1978)
- “Religion if There Is No God: On God, the Devil, Sin, and Other Worries of the So-Called Philosophy of Religion” (1982)
- “The Presence of Myth” (1989)
- “Modernity on Endless Trial” (1990)
- “Leszek Kolakowski: Scholar and Activist—The Long Career of the Kluge Prize Winner” (Library of Congress Information Bulletin, Dec. 2003)
- “What the Past Is For” (Nov. 5, 2003)