Jester and Priest: On Leszek Kolakowski
Before assuming a professorship in 1955, Kolakowski worked as an instructor at the Institute of Social Sciences, an elite body of the Communist Party Central Committee dedicated to training politically correct scholars. Like much of Polish socialism, which grudgingly tolerated an independent peasantry, a strong Catholic Church and relatively open borders, the ISS defied Western stereotypes of a Sovietized country. Its students read the world press with few restrictions; they debated ideas openly and even argued with the director, a self-important Soviet-trained philosopher who imagined the ISS as a college on the British model, supporting intensive tutorials and serious research. The ISS was communist Poland’s intellectual forcing house, and in the post-Stalin era some of its graduates would become dissenting thinkers who clashed with the Communist regime.
It was at the ISS, with the blessings of the Central Committee, that Kolakowski deepened his knowledge of Christianity, studying and committing to memory long passages from the writings of Jerome, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. The immediate fruits of his efforts were standard: he exposed the Catholic Church as a force backing regimes of economic and political exploitation, and described belief in God as consolation for supporting a system of repression. Christian thought, Kolakowski wrote, “objectively aided imperialism”; as for the Almighty, he was the “intellectually mediocre author of a supposed autobiography known as the Holy Bible.”
His students at Warsaw University recalled him sketching a more complex picture of Christian thought. In the classroom he was an ascetic Marxist, often dressing entirely in black; some students mistook him for a defrocked cleric, and genuine clerics envied him his knowledge of Latin and Greek. He lectured without notes, splicing differences of opinion among long-forgotten scholastics while effortlessly citing passages from Scripture and the writings of church fathers. When the borders to the West opened in 1955, Kolakowski traveled to Rome, seeking serious conversation with the French neo-Thomists Étienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain. At the same time, he mockingly lamented his limited insight into religious matters. “Faith is solely the work of God’s grace,” but Kolakowski had yet to “experience the beneficent powers of Jehovah in his own person.”
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Not long after Stalin’s death in March 1953, Col. Józef Swiatlo, a top official in the Polish ministry charged with overseeing the party, defected to West Berlin under fear of arrest. The following year, Swiatlo dissected Stalinism in reports broadcast by Radio Free Europe. His account was encyclopedic, detailing the luxurious lifestyles of the working-class avant-garde; the corruption, pettiness and power of secret police agents, even over the party; the use of torture against political prisoners and the humiliation of top Polish leaders; and countless instances of direct Soviet meddling. The revelations transfixed Poles, especially those in the party, many of whom realized they had been serving a lie.
Kolakowski’s own awakening was gradual and started in 1950, during a three-month visit to Moscow with seven other Polish Marxist scholars. The group hoped to tap wisdom at its spring by attending the special lectures of prominent Soviet social scientists and philosophers. The visitors’ immediate impression was shock. Decades later, Kolakowski recalled that the Soviets were an “assemblage of ignoramuses. They knew no foreign languages, nothing about so-called bourgeois philosophy, nothing about philosophy at all except what they read in Lenin and Stalin and sometimes Marx but more often Engels. Even though we were not specially schooled, their ignorance was stunning.” One “ignoramus” attempted to lecture on some “bourgeois philosopher named Grusel.” (He meant Husserl.) Perhaps the collapse of the Soviet bloc can be dated to these awkward encounters. How was it that not just critical thought, but thought itself, had shriveled at the heart of the new order? As word about the lectures got round, Muscovites visiting Warsaw with ex cathedra pronouncements about philosophy were received politely but taken seriously by no one.
After Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 speech to the Twentieth Party Congress about Stalin’s crimes, including the purges of the late 1930s, Kolakowski wrote a stream of bitterly critical essays that captured the growing outrage in Polish society over Soviet communism. Several essays were so indignant that censors banned them from the press, but Poles ended up reading them in samizdat. One of them, “The Death of Gods,” appears for the first time in English in Agnieszka Kolakowska’s translation, and in it Kolakowski announced a key discovery: state socialism called itself scientific but in reality was based on myth. Yet unlike other young communists standing in the shadow of the gods that failed, Kolakowski did not blame the older generation for this feat of mystification. He and his friends had “deliberately blinded” themselves to reality. Lack of courage was no excuse, nor was deception: “we are responsible for everything we do,” he insisted—an extraordinary statement from someone who had been taught to delegate responsibility to the party.
A mystery lies at the heart of the essay. Kolakowski argued that instead of eradicating inequality, state socialism had created new social classes and its own forms of privilege, as well as a system of central planning far more debilitating for social initiatives than any bourgeois democracy, and new forms of the religious mystification of social relations. Yet he also explained that the knowledge of socialism’s gross imperfections had not broken his generation’s faith in Soviet communism, even though he described those flaws more extensively than Khrushchev, who blamed Stalin alone for the perversions of communist doctrine during his rule, thereby absolving anyone else of responsibility for the crimes of Stalinism. What, then, had caused Kolakowski’s crisis of faith if not the knowledge of those deformations?
The deeper problem—and for anyone trying to make sense of Kolakowski’s life, the deeper explanation—was that faith was never supposed to have been an issue. In the early 1950s, Kolakowski must have felt supreme confidence assailing the fanciful world of religion from the bedrock of science. Yet in 1956, whether out of moral duty or intellectual honesty, he admitted that scientific socialism was another kind of faith; even worse, the hypocrisy of myth masquerading as science had made the distortions of Stalinism inevitable. The idea that nationalization of the means of production would “automatically eradicate all social inequalities” could not be grounded in reason, and required instead a dictatorship of those in command, operating through a system of illusions, coercion and lies.
What would proper socialism look like? Kolakowski could not say. “The Death of Gods” offers three sentences of prognosis—and they are vague, stating that the political work of resuscitating a workers’ movement must begin anew, and that Poles needed to “analyse contemporary society” in order to “create a new revolutionary humanism.” There are no appeals to Marx. In those heady days, Kolakowski also wrote a shorter piece entitled “What Is Socialism?”, which, like Luther, he posted publicly (at Warsaw University) and which, like Pope Pius IX, he structured as a syllabus of errors. But whereas Pius IX, in 1864, had listed eighty ways of being un-Catholic, Kolakowski enumerated eighty-one ways of being unsocialist, such as creating a society that is “very sad,” or a “state where slave labor exists,” or a “state that thinks it has always been right.” As to the question of what socialism is, he offered an answer of five words: “just a really wonderful thing.”
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