The Magazine

Marxism's Main Critic

Leszek Kolakowski, 1927-2009.

Aug 3, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 43 • By ROGER KIMBALL
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These are wise words, grippingly pertinent to an age conjuring with the immense technological novelties of cloning, genetic engineering, and other Promethean temptations. We pride ourselves today on our "openness" and commitment to liberal -ideals, our empathy for other cultures, and our sophisticated understanding that our way of viewing the world is, after all, only our way of viewing the world. But Kolakowski reminded us that, without a prior commitment to substantive values--to an ideal of the good and (just as important) an acknowledgment of evil--openness threatens to degenerate into vacuousness. As Kolakowski argued, "The denial of 'absolute values' for the sake of both rationalist principles and the general spirit of openness threatens our ability to make a distinction between good and evil altogether."

Evidence of that threat is not far to seek. The large issue is one that has bedeviled liberal societies ever since there were liberal societies: that in attempting to create the maximally tolerant society, we also give scope to those who would prefer to create the maximally intolerant society. It is a curious phenomenon. Liberalism implies openness to other points of view, even those points of view whose success would destroy liberalism. Extending tolerance to those points of view is a prescription for suicide. But intolerance betrays the fundamental premise of liberalism, namely, openness.

The escape from this disease of liberalism lies in understanding that "tolerance" and "openness" must be limited by positive values if they are not to be vacuous. Our enlightened, secular society is extraordinarily accommodating to diverse points of view. But in order to continue to enjoy the luxury of freedom, we must say No to those movements that would exploit freedom only to abolish it. Our society, like every society, is founded on particular positive values--the rule of law, for example, respect for the individual, religious freedom, the separation of church and state.

Western democratic society is rooted in what Kolakowski called a "vision of the world." Part of that vision is a commitment to openness, but openness is not the same thing as moral agnosticism. "In order to defend itself," Kolakowski wrote, "the pluralist order should voice [its fundamental] values ceaselessly and loudly. There is nothing astonishing or outrageous about the fact that within the pluralist society, the defenders and enemies of its basic principles are not treated with exactly the same indifference." Given the shape of our post-Soviet, technologically infatuated world, perhaps it is that admonition, even more than his heroic demolition of Marxism, for which Leszek Kolakowski will be honored in the decades to come.

Roger Kimball is coeditor and publisher of the New Criterion and the publisher of Encounter Books.