Jester and Priest: On Leszek Kolakowski
Almost a quarter-century after the collapse of communism, and four years after his own death at the age of 81, the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski remains a prisoner of the Cold War. He has been lionized in the West for Main Currents of Marxism, the indispensable three-volume history of Marxist ideas first published in Paris (in Polish) in 1976, and also for the essays he wrote a decade earlier that inspired advocates of “socialism with a human face.” Yet travel across the old Iron Curtain to Warsaw or Wroclaw, and one will encounter a different Kolakowski: not the Marxologist or dissident socialist, but the religious thinker and elusive cultural critic who found wisdom and solace in the works of Spinoza, Erasmus, the Dutch heretics and the Catholic skeptic Blaise Pascal. Highly esteemed in Polish Catholic circles, Kolakowski was a frequent guest of John Paul II’s at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence. But even in Poland, opinion about this other Kolakowski is mixed. Marek Edelman, a leader of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, was among the mourners at his graveside in July 2009, and upon hearing the blessings being spoken as the casket was lowered into the pit, he whispered audibly, “Why are you making a Catholic out of him, that man was a decent atheist!”
Was Kolakowski a socialist, a Catholic, an atheist or something else entirely? In the early 1950s, he was the communist state’s most prominent critic of Christianity; in 1956, along with most of Poland’s intellectual elite, he broke with Stalinism and began floating ideas for reform. By the 1970s, his certainty about God’s nonexistence had waned, and he took to calling himself an “inconsistent atheist.” Late in life, he playfully labeled himself a “conservative-liberal-socialist.” To the question of whether he believed in God, he answered that only God knew.
Yet Poles, whatever their politics and opinions about religion, do not want to disown Kolakowski. Looking past his complexities and caginess, they are proud of a countryman who was born in the humble provincial town of Radom in 1927 and became world famous. As a professor at Warsaw University for more than a decade and at Oxford for nearly four, Kolakowski garnered countless awards and honorary doctorates, but the near-universal esteem he enjoys in his homeland is perhaps his greatest laurel.
With Is God Happy?, Kolakowski’s daughter Agnieszka has collected (and partly translated) twenty-seven of her father’s essays that together span half a century. (Ten of them are appearing in English for the first time.) The book is a valuable introduction to Kolakowski’s extraordinary intellectual versatility: here are his reflections on the heritage of socialism, Erasmus, the “death of God,” relativism, the “future of truth” and much else. Still, Is God Happy? gives a partial view of the philosopher. Kolakowska has omitted from it the body of work that Kolakowski wrote before 1956, so this collection alone cannot help us answer an essential question: How did a communist devoted to demystifying religion in Poland become a vocal apostle of a reactionary Polish pope?
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There was nothing mysterious about the young Kolakowski joining the Polish Communist Party in 1945. Many of the best and the brightest young Poles—the most idealistic and self-sacrificing—streamed into the party because it promised an end to years of impoverishment, exploitation, fascism and genocide. Yet many Poles knew that Stalin had betrayed them during the war. In 1940, the NKVD massacred some 15,000 Polish officers in the Katyn Forest, and in 1944 the Red Army stood by while the Nazis crushed the Warsaw uprising; Soviet forces then hunted down and arrested the Polish soldiers who had survived the onslaught. When pressed on such matters six decades later, Kolakowski claimed not to have known any victims of the Soviet secret police. The Russians he recalled meeting in 1945 were liberators.
Kolakowski’s upbringing left him sympathetic to Soviet messages of internationalism. His father was an educator, born in fin de siècle St. Petersburg, who had traveled in the marginal, leftist free-thinking circles of interwar Poland. A critic of Polish nationalism and intensely anticlerical, he refused to have his son baptized, effectively separating the boy from some 95 percent of ethnic Poles. When the family moved to Lódz in 1935, 8-year-old Leszek scandalized a teacher with the news that he belonged to no church. “Even the Jews have religion,” the teacher exclaimed, “yet this young philosopher claims he has no confession!”
In 1939, Polish children suddenly had very little in the way of education. The Nazis, intent on turning Poland into a nation of half-literates, prohibited school past grade six. Kolakowski escaped that fate by spending the early years of the occupation in the country house of distant relatives, a home well-stocked with books. He read “an immense amount,” including fiction and drama, but also texts on psychiatry, psychology, philosophy and political economy. Later, in Warsaw, his father secured for him access to a closed socialist lending library. The young autodidact pored over volumes on sociology and the religions of India, and learned ancient Greek through careful study of the New Testament. Aside from having time to read, Kolakowski was also relieved to have escaped a “standard Polish education,” with its rote learning and chauvinistic version of history. At war’s end, Kolakowski did what he could to bury the old regime and its philistine ways by joining the party; he also fell in with a radical youth group known as the Dzierzynskiites, named after the first head of the Soviet secret police.
During the war, communist partisans had rebuffed Kolakowski’s efforts to join their ranks, arguing that intellectuals must survive to help build socialism; in the immediate postwar period, the party did all it could to promote its young star, and he soon advanced to graduate work in Warsaw. His studies weren’t limited to books and lectures; they also involved class struggle. In March 1950, Kolakowski was chosen by his party cell to stand up in class and read a letter informing Warsaw’s eminent “bourgeois” philosopher, Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz, that it condemned his toleration of statements “hostile to socialist Poland.” The cell denounced as ”reactionary” one of Tatarkiewicz’s students—Bronislaw Dembowski, later a bishop—and praised the principle of freedom of speech in communist Poland; without it, Dembowski would likely have landed in prison. That same year, perhaps in connection with this criticism, Tatarkiewicz was forced into retirement, his freedom of speech effectively curtailed.