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Jester and Priest: On Leszek Kolakowski | The Nation

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Jester and Priest: On Leszek Kolakowski

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When Kolakowski turned up in North America, his essays from the late 1950s were appearing for the first time in English, French and German translations, leaving Westerners to conclude that he was a Marxist revisionist. Yet his revisionism had since been eclipsed by skepticism, and his tenuous connection to Marxism was about to snap. His sojourn in Berkeley, where he taught as a visiting professor from 1969 to ‘70, was especially traumatic, and his contempt for campus radicals was as fierce as Governor Ronald Reagan’s. Kolakowski told Mentzel that all the people he met considered themselves Marxists, although their knowledge of Marx was often scant. Students fancied themselves the most oppressed class on earth and sought liberation “from everything.” They told him there wasn’t “the least difference between the conditions of life in a Californian university town and one of Hitler’s or Stalin’s concentration camps.” Their ideology was a self-serving “conglomerate of incoherent slogans.” Berkeley in 1970 was more debased than Moscow in 1950: never before had Kolakowski waded into such an intellectual swamp. Aggression was the only product of the revolution in Berkeley, he concluded, and he thought it apt that Herbert Marcuse, with his idea of “repressive tolerance,” was the students’ spokesman. In Main Currents of Marxism, Kolakowski would denounce Marcuse for propagating a “totalitarian utopia.” 

Is God Happy?
Selected Essays.
By Leszek Kołakowski.
Translated by Agnieszka Kołakowska.
Buy this book

Kosciol w krainie wolnosci
O Janie Pawle II, Kosciele i chrzescijanstwie.
[The Church in the Land of Freedom: On John Paul II, the Church and Christianity]
By Leszek Kołakowski.
Znak. 123 pp. zł 29.90.

Czas ciekawy, czas niespokojny
[An Interesting Time, an Unsettled Time]
Leszek Kołakowski, in conversation with Zbigniew Mentzel.
2 vols. Znak. 474 pp. zł 74.

About the Author

John Connelly
John Connelly teaches history at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is From Enemy to Brother...

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In 1941, genocide broke out in Croatia, and we still cannot explain why.

Swank Filer, where are you? (reprise); Poland in wartime; four-letter words.

Still, the break was not complete. In the fall of 1970, Kolakowski took refuge from the revolution at All Souls College at Oxford, where he was a research professor, with no requirement to teach students (though he did hold graduate seminars). Two years later he was a socialist no longer, partly because he realized that in the West he lacked genuine equals. Western Marxists knew little and cared less about the East and “really existing socialism.” The British communist and historian E.P. Thompson asked Kolakowski to clarify his stance. In an “Open Letter” published in the Socialist Register in 1973, Thompson asked if the much-esteemed Polish comrade was still engaged in the struggle to transcend capitalism, so that humans could emerge from the kingdom of need into a kingdom of freedom, where “social consciousness might begin to determine social being?” 

The answer was no. Kolakowski saw in Thompson an egregious case of Western blindness. As he explained in “My Correct Views on Everything,” for the likes of Thompson the Soviet system was tolerable as long as it did not kill its own leaders. ”I simply refuse to join people whose hearts are bleeding to death when they hear about any big or minor (and rightly condemnable) injustice in the US,” he wrote, “and suddenly become wise historiosophists or cool rationalists when told about worse horrors of the new alternative society.” Though he had abandoned the party a decade before Kolakowski, Thompson was withholding judgment on the Soviet Union, explaining how, “to a historian, fifty years is too short a time in which to judge a new social system.” Indeed, he maintained, there were times when “communism has shown a most human face, between 1917 and the early 1920s, and again from the battle of Stalingrad to 1946.” 

Kolakowski wondered what Thompson could have possibly meant. Was it “human” to attempt to “rule the entire economy by police and army, resulting in mass hunger with uncountable victims, in several hundred peasants’ revolts, all drowned in blood?” What did Thompson make of “the armed invasion of seven non-Russian countries which had formed their independent governments, some socialist, some not”? Socialism, Kolakowski explained, not only reproduced the problems of the capitalist system, such as “exploitation, imperialism, pollution, misery, economic waste, national hatred and national oppression,” but added “a series of disasters of its own: inefficiency, lack of economic incentives and, above all, the unrestricted role of the omnipotent bureaucracy, a concentration of power never known before in human history.” 

Kolakowski recalled for Thompson an encounter of his with a Latin American revolutionary who complained about torture in Brazil. Kolakowski asked what was wrong with torture. “What do you mean? Do you suggest it is all right?” responded the revolutionary. No, said Kolakowski, he simply wanted an admission that torture—including its use in Cuba—was a “morally inadmissible monstrosity.” Cuba was different, replied the revolutionary: it was a “small country under the constant threat of American imperialists. They have to use all means of self-defence, however regrettable.” Such conversations repelled both sides. Kolakowski had come to understand that, far from being sought out by their Western counterparts for their direct knowledge of communism, East European émigrés in London or New York were regarded as provincials, “narrow empiricists and egoists [who] extrapolate a poor few decades of their petty personal experience (logically inadmissible as you rightly notice) and find in it pretexts to cast doubt on the radiant socialist future.” For Kolakowski, an insurmountable moral gulf separated the two camps.

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Now calling his positions conservative, Kolakowski forged a new social critique in a lecture in Geneva called “The Revenge of the Sacred in Secular Culture” (it is not included in Is God Happy?). What he abhorred about secularism was not so much its negation as its universalization of the sacred, a development that affected even the church. Liberal Catholics blessed all forms of worldly life, creating a mode of Christian belief lacking a concept of evil—that is, the understanding that evil is not the absence or subversion of virtue but an irredeemable fact—and leaving the church no reason or means to stand against the secular. The dissolution of the sacred from within and without had observable effects on the culture as a whole, contributing to a growing amorphousness and laxity in making distinctions. This was dangerous, Kolakowski argued, because the sacred gave to social structure its “forms and systems of divisions,” whether between death and life, man and woman, work and art, youth and age. He advocated no mythology in particular, and would admit only that a tension between development and structure was inherent in all human societies. Yet it was clear that certain developments troubled him deeply, and if the liberation movements unleashed in the 1960s continued, he feared the outcome would be “mass suicide.”

Kolakowski was equally apprehensive about the opening to the world that the church had inaugurated at the Second Vatican Council in 1962 to ‘65. In his Geneva lecture, he maintained that John XXIII’s agenda of aggiornamento, bringing “the church up to date,” was a contradiction in terms, combining “two ideas that are not only different, but, in some interpretations, mutually contradictory…. One [side] says that the Church must embrace as its own the cause of the poor and oppressed; the other implies that the church may not oppose the dominant forms of culture…and be on the side of the strong and the victorious.” But Kolakowski gets the options facing the church during the aggiornamento exactly wrong: the conservative bishops from Southern Europe and parts of South America opposed a church active in the world; they supported the governing order and had little concern for the oppressed. “Progressive” bishops from North America and Northern Europe stood with the poor. Kolakowski conflated his emerging Polish anti-left perspective with the position of the universal church.

Kolakowski had moved in the opposite direction from being the anticlerical scourge of Polish culture in the early 1950s. Now he supplied Catholics with arguments against urgent challenges to faith, such as why an all-loving God permits suffering and evil. “People ask: where was God in Auschwitz?” he wrote in “Anxiety About God in an Ostensibly Godless Age,” from 1981.

Why did He do nothing? But this is the wrong question. Leaving aside the fact people have done monstrous things to one another down the centuries, that genocide, bloodbaths and torture have always occurred, and that evil—the evil in us—has never ceased its work, putting the question this way smuggles in an idea of God as a being whose duty it is to protect the human race, through miracles, from the evil it does and to ensure its happiness despite its self-inflicted wounds. But this God—a God who functions as a magical power in the service of our immediate needs—was never the God of the Christian faith, nor of any other great faith, despite His frequent appearances in folk religion. 

By now, Kolakowski’s intellectual sympathies for atheism were irrelevant. He acknowledged that “God can of course be rejected as morally dangerous, denied as unacceptable to reason, cursed as the enemy of humanity,” yet he countered that without the Absolute, there was no basis for morality and law. Human reason is finite and can provide no path to such principles. He called in an unlikely witness for his bitter theism: “If we reject the principle that the end justifies the means, we can only appeal to higher, politically irrelevant moral criteria; and this, [Leon] Trotsky says, amounts to believing in God.”

Such thinking appealed to leading church authorities in Poland. Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the primate of Poland, cited Kolakowski’s long essay from 1965 about the teaching of Jesus considered from a secular point of view, and Krakow’s Archbishop Karol Wojtyla included it among the readings assigned in a spiritual retreat that he organized for Pope Paul VI. Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978, and from that day until his own death, Kolakowski—the erstwhile critic of authoritarianism—was one of the papacy’s most stalwart defenders. The Holy Ghost was somehow active during the conclave that elected Wojtyla, Kolakowski later told Zbigniew Mentzel. The German cardinals had proposed Wyszynski, “but he refused, saying he did not know enough about international affairs, and suggested Wojtyla…. This was an extraordinary event, that shook up the entire Church. Wojtyla turned out to be an excellent pope. For a quarter century! A quarter century!” 

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