The Magazine

Marxism's Main Critic

Leszek Kolakowski, 1927-2009.

Aug 3, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 43 • By ROGER KIMBALL
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The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski was just a few months shy of his 82nd birthday when he died at his home in Oxford on July 17, after what his daughter Agnieszka described as "a brief and very sudden illness." For anyone inclined to despair that we live in intellectually diminished times, Kolakowski provided a glittering counterexample. He was an intellectual giant. What is even more extraordinary, he was an intellectual giant whose accomplishments were widely celebrated. Kolakowski died full of honors as well as years. The coveted if often risible MacArthur "genius" award: He got that. The Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the humanities--a cool $1 million for that bijou: Kolakowski got that, too. Honorary degrees and lesser awards, honors, lectureships, and sundry recognitions: He received, and deserved, them all.

Kolakowski lived through and thought through the varieties of the totalitarian temptation. He was 12 when the Wehrmacht overran Poland. He witnessed the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto later in the war. In 1945, Soviet tyranny succeeded the Nazi variety, and Kolakowski grew up witnessing what a proletarian paradise looks like. Although he came of age as a professed Marxist, by the mid-1960s his disillusionment was far advanced. It was mutual, for Kolakowski found himself subject to constant police surveillance and, in 1968, was expelled from Warsaw University for "forming the opinions of young people in a direction glaringly contradictory to the dominant tendency of the development of the country."

Later that year, Kolakowski left Poland and embarked on a career in the West. He made stops at Berkeley, which gave him an opportunity to learn firsthand about and therefore despise the New Left culture of the 1960s; at Yale, where I studied with him; and the University of Chicago and Oxford, his intellectual homes for the last decades of his life.

Kolakowski is best known as a critic of Marxism and its spiritual allotropes. His magnum opus, Main Currents of Marxism, is a three-volume work of philosophical demolition. Sidney Hook aptly called the book "magisterial." It is typical that Kolakowski starts not with Rousseau or Hegel but with Plotinus (fl. A.D. 240) to explain the "origins of dialectic." The middle volume offers a detailed anatomy of Marx's thought, and the work concludes with a survey of 20th-century varieties, from the "Marxism in action" of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and Mao to the bloviating theoretical Marxism of Lukács, Sartre, and the so-called Frankfurt School (Adorno, Marcuse, et al.). "At present," Kolakowski observed, alluding to Marx's famous adage, "Marxism neither interprets the world nor changes it: it is merely a repertoire of slogans serving to organize various interests."

Main Currents demonstrates how Marxism, committed in Kolakowski's words to "the self-deification of mankind," became "the greatest fantasy of our century." It was an idea, he wrote, that "began in Promethean humanism and culminated in the monstrous tyranny of Stalinism." As such Marxism provides a permanently valuable admonition about the danger of utopian schemes, what Kolakowski called "the farcical aspect of human bondage." There were, as Kolakowski recognized, many aspects to that farce, as his observation that "one should be as careful about believing in a green utopia as in a red one" shows. I hope some charitably minded person sends a book by Kolakowski to Al Gore.

A corollary of Kolakowski's criticism of Marxism was his appreciation of the virtues of capitalism and the free market as indispensable enablers of freedom. "Capitalism," he noted, 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.