Jester and Priest: On Leszek Kolakowski
For Poles, October 1956 seemed a wonderful time. The Soviet Union permitted the party leadership to elect the “national communist” Wladyslaw Gomulka, who had raised hackles in 1948 for resisting Stalin’s notion that Poland should become a miniature Soviet Union. (He was arrested in 1951 by Józef Swiatlo.) Poland could now go its own way. The energies Kolakowski had devoted to demolishing Christianity he now dedicated to dismantling state socialism. They turned out to be similar tasks. Marxism, he wrote, like all modern philosophy, returned to questions originally theological, such as eschatology, the belief that all contradictions approach a final resolution, and theodicy, whether an individual’s suffering is vindicated by a universal and benign historical rationality. Like the medieval church, Marxism produced priests, or defenders of the catechism, and jesters, who “expose as doubtful what seems most unshakable.” Kolakowski reckoned himself among the latter, a skeptic “vigilant against any absolute” who valued inconsistency because it was less dangerous than certainty. His hero was Erasmus, a Catholic who often sided with Luther and whose cause was tolerance, which, as Kolakowski later wrote, was the one value not susceptible to ideological deformation.
Kolakowski discovered Erasmus through research he was doing at the time on the early Dutch mystic heretics, who stood apart from the Catholic and Protestant churches, affirming a religion of grace against the religion of law. They were ostracized for rejecting all hierarchy, dogma, formulaic creeds and religious rituals. Kolakowski began to wonder if those who really experienced God even needed a church. Inspired by the Romanian philosopher Mircea Eliade, Kolakowski came to understand mysticism as the truest form of faith, “religiosity in relatively pure form.” Later he wrote that experiences of “mystical union” with God were the “core of religious life.” Though impossible to convey fully to others, this sensation was “decisive in keeping mankind’s religious legacy alive.”
In “Jesus Christ, Prophet and Reformer,”a lecture given in Warsaw in 1965, Kolakowski argued that the religious legacy remained crucial for the “European tradition as a whole.” To recover it, he reread the Gospels shorn of all doctrine and commentary, which, he claimed, revealed what can be known about Christ’s message “for sure.” But he also cautioned his audience that because the revolutionary roots of Christianity were buried so deep in Europe’s various cultures, the Gospel messages could often seem banal. For example, Kolakowski argued, when we reject violence in human relations, or live not merely by bread, or recognize that love has a higher value than law, we are living according to the ideas of Jesus of Nazareth, whether we know it or not. If we take for granted that some values “are not reducible to physical needs and material satisfaction,” it was “thanks to him that it has become so.”
Kolakowski the freethinker was not simply reiterating the words of Christ. He had embraced a Christian teaching that was not necessarily woven into European culture: that humans were wretched creatures, inescapably touched by sinfulness and in need of redemption. Just ten years earlier, he had ridiculed this idea. He was deserting the Marxist (and humanist) faith in the ability of humans to improve themselves and their lot in life.
Kolakowski began his critique of Marxism by unmasking its hidden mythology. But in his writings on religion, rather than rejecting myth in favor of reason, he grew to appreciate its powers for ordering human relations. The price of his newfound appreciation of myth was his earlier allegiance to socialism. When was Kolakowski no longer a Marxist? (As far as I can tell, he wrote his last piece from within the Marxist tradition in 1962.)
In January 1989, the journalist Zbigniew Mentzel wanted to ask Kolakowski this question and many others, but the philosopher refused, saying he was “afraid” to address them. Eighteen years later he relented, and the two sat down for hours of open-ended conversation, on the condition that Mentzel would not ask about “who slept with whom.” More than sixty years after the fact, 1956 was still the decisive threshold for Kolakowski. He recalled visiting Budapest that fall and being disappointed that the philosopher Georg Lukács still “believed” in the possibility of “building true socialism.” Kolakowski and his friends supposedly understood that communist ideology was a “road to nowhere.” Yet they chose not to leave the party because it provided the only arena for legal political activity.
In October 1966, students at Warsaw University, including a future dissident named Adam Michnik, invited Kolakowski to give a speech commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Polish revolution against Stalinism. The philosopher told his “comrades” there was nothing to celebrate. Rather than lead Poland down a new path, Gomulka had stranded the country in a political landscape barren of hope and freedom. In retribution, the party struck Kolakowski from its rolls. Polish writers launched a campaign to have him reinstated—he also appealed the decision—but the expulsion was upheld on review. (Two years later, Kolakowski’s name would be added to Poland’s index of forbidden writers.) His friends staged a “Ball of the Hanged” in his honor: guests deposited their party cards at the door, and Kolakowski took their fingerprints. That same year, the philosopher offered a toast at an eightieth-birthday party for Professor Tatarkiewicz, and he also sought out Bronislaw Dembowski, apologizing for having read that “terrible letter” in 1950. Dembowski understood the act to be one of expiation.
By the late 1960s, the heretic had become a cult figure lecturing to packed rooms. The draw was his gift for quickly encapsulating a writer’s signature insight, but also the opportunity to be—and be seen—in the presence of the “guru” known to young dissidents as “King Leszek I.” He was ousted from his position at Warsaw University in 1968 for defending students in a campaign launched by the party against intellectuals and “Zionists.” With the political climate becoming treacherous, Kolakowski, along with the cream of the critical intelligentsia and most remaining Polish Jews, sought refuge and employment outside Poland. He landed at McGill University in Montreal before moving on to the University of California, Berkeley.
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