The Magazine

Marxism's Main Critic

Leszek Kolakowski, 1927-2009.

Aug 3, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 43 • By ROGER KIMBALL
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Main Currents of Marxism is not of historical interest only. As Kolakowski reminded us in the preface to the 2004 edition, notwithstanding the collapse of the Soviet Union, Marxism remains eminently worth studying, not least because its aspirations continue to percolate in the dreams of various utopian planners. (You needn't go to China or even Cuba: Just look at the increasingly pink and authoritarian complexion of the European Union.) As Kolakowski put it in his introduction to My Correct Views on Everything (2005),

Communism was not the crazy fantasy of a few fanatics, nor the result of human stupidity and baseness; it was a real, very real part of the history of the twentieth century, and we cannot understand this history of ours without understanding communism. We cannot get rid of this specter by
saying it was just "human stupidity," or "human corruptibility." The specter is stronger than the spells we cast on it. It might come back to life.

Although it is at the center of his scholarly work, the murderous tradition of Marx formed only a part of Kolakowski's intellectual portfolio. He moved with commanding ease from the intricacies of Plotinus, Augustine, and the Church Fathers through Descartes, Pascal, the English empiricists, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Bergson, Husserl, and the whole congeries of issues and figures we congregate under the rubric of Modernity and its Discontents.

Part of Kolakowski's genius was his ability to enliven even the most abstruse philosophical or theological subjects. He did this by means of things missing from most academic writing these days: clarity, humor, and existential urgency. He was blessed with a formidably logical mind and, correlatively, a style of writing that put a premium on intelligibility. He was also possessed of an uncanny appreciation for irony and paradox. This gave bite to his writing which flowed from the recognition that human life is instinct with contradiction and absurdity: for example, "the awesome paradox whereby good results may flow from evil, and evil results from good. That these two can thus support each other is a shattering fact about human experience."

The humor proceeds from the same recognition at one remove. I recommend in particular "The General Theory of Not-Gardening," reprinted in Modernity on Endless Trial (1990): "Those who hate gardening need a theory. Not to garden without a theory is a shallow, unworthy way of life."

Part of what made Kolakowski's reflections on freedom and its vicissitudes so fruitful was his understanding that human freedom is inextricably tied to a recognition of limits, which in the end involves a recognition of the sacred. In an interview from 1991, he argued that "mankind can never get rid of the need for religious self-identification: who am I, where did I come from, where do I fit in, why am I responsible, what does my life mean, how will I face death? Religion is a paramount aspect of human culture. Religious need cannot be ex-communicated from culture by rationalist incantation. Man does not live by reason alone."

Kolakowski showed how the tendency to believe that all human problems have a technical solution is an unfortunate inheritance from the Enlightenment--"even," he notes, "from the best aspects of the Enlightenment: from its struggle against intolerance, self-complacency, superstitions, and uncritical worship of tradition." There is much about human life that is not susceptible to human remedy or intervention. Our allegiance to the ideal of unlimited progress is, paradoxically, a dangerous moral limitation that is closely bound up with what Kolakowski calls the loss of the sacred. "With the disappearance of the sacred," he wrote,

which imposed limits to the perfection that could be attained by the profane, 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.