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.

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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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.

* * *

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.” 

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.

* * *

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!” 

* * *

John Paul II was charismatic, if not messianic, in his very personal approach to promoting spirituality, more so than any Catholic leader in memory. He seemed to enjoy a “mystical union” with God in the terms Kolakowski celebrated as foundational in his studies of mythology. Even atheists who heard him praying said he seemed to be talking to God. In trips that crisscrossed the globe, the Polish pope took messages of courage and faith to millions, especially his fellow Poles. Without his 1979 pilgrimage to his homeland, the trade union Solidarity would not have emerged the following summer, and without Solidarity, it’s hard to imagine the sequence of events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall nine years later.

Yet John Paul II’s “management” style was authoritarian. The Second Vatican Council had enshrined a stronger role for the laity—the “people of God”—as well as “collegiality” for bishops, but ideas from below never rose to John Paul II. For twenty-five years, he used his powers of appointment to pack the ranks of the episcopate with men who never wavered in supporting his own positions on controversial issues like birth control (sinful), celibacy in the clergy (essential) and ordaining women (impossible). His “reconsolidation” of authority also had the effect of placing child abusers and their protectors beyond scrutiny. The religious orders he disciplined were ones that harbored dissent: particularly painful was his imposing an interim head of the Jesuit order in 1981, in defiance of its constitution. Sniffing Marxism, he silenced the advocates of liberation theology in Latin America. Advocates of social justice found themselves, in John Allen’s words, consumed by “self-censorship in order to ward off a new round of scrutiny.” In 1995, the pope even prohibited the clergy from speaking about the theological possibility of women’s priesthood. This was fatuous because, as theologians have argued, the question of female clergy is a matter not of Catholic theology but of church tradition. 

Kolakowski the faithful Marxist would have found much to satirize in John Paul II’s repressive intolerance, but instead the reluctant fundamentalist mocked the pope’s Western critics, claiming they would never be satisfied until the pope said “there is no God, there is no salvation, abortion is fine, as is homosexual marriage, and the Church is a leftwing political party.” Readers of Polish can take the full measure of Kolakowski’s thoughts on Catholicism in Kosciol w krainie wolnosci (The Church in the Land of Freedom), a thin hardcover adorned in papal white; some may hear in his conservative defense of a reactionary posture strong echoes of the “good advice” offered by Western leftists to those trapped behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. Like Kolakowski the non-Catholic, such outsiders did not have to endure the regimes they extolled. Did Kolakowski ever have to explain to young girls why the church condemned them to second-class status for life? Or comfort divorced people denied the sacraments? Or explain to people in AIDS-ravaged Africa why the use of condoms is immoral?

As a scholar, Kolakowski overreached in his writings about the contemporary church. His defense of the pope’s moral intransigence was as theologically threadbare as it was heartless. He justified the ban on women priests by saying that to lift it would mean departing from “the injunction by St. Paul [in 1 Corinthians]: let the women be silent in church.” Yet leading theologians agree that these words are not Paul’s, but were inserted by a later author, perhaps a transcriber. They directly contradict Paul’s words earlier in this letter, according to which women should publicly pray and prophesy. Paul believed in the equality of men and women, and in a striking departure from the practices of his day, insisted that women be admitted to worship and not be segregated from men. As Garry Wills writes, Paul “gives every kind of honor to women he works with—as emissaries, as prophets, as attendants (diakonoi).” Even scholars who do believe the words of the injunction are Paul’s say that they apply to the situation in Corinth, and were not meant to be a general rule for the church.

Kolakowski’s defense of the church’s prohibition on birth control is no less obtuse. He writes that “one may not define the meanings of sexuality purely in terms of pleasure.” But critics in the church do not claim sex involves only pleasure; and even the Vatican (after Vatican II) has not said that sex should serve procreation alone. Rather, for the church, human sexuality has the dual purpose of expressing love between partners in marriage and fostering procreation. Theologians differ on whether every single act must be open to procreation; the overwhelming majority say it does not.

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John Paul II, without whom the Cold War would not have ended, led a cold war against modernity into the heart of the church, reviving reactionary currents and leaving Catholics so deeply divided that, just as they did before 1989, Poles still conjure “the West” as a different political and cultural world. In his critical Marxist phase, Kolakowski might have noticed the parallels between the Polish pope’s Vatican and the Polish communist bureaucracy. But in the calm of All Souls, Kolakowski managed to overlook the malaise gripping Catholics across Europe, the intensity of which can be traced to John Paul II and his stubborn disregard of critical voices.

For all his youthful anticlericalism and criticism of Polish chauvinism, it seems that Kolakowski could never escape the gravitational hold of traditional Polish culture. When John Paul II visited Poland, his appearances could have been mistaken for a stadium show of the Second Coming: the charismatic man in white, adored by millions, some screaming in ecstasy, on a stage with dozens of flags, Polish and papal, with his homeland blanketed by posters, books, videos, shrines and altar decorations. Not surprisingly, criticism of this “son of the Polish nation” is socially unacceptable, and iconoclasts are quickly ostracized. Before a late papal visit, the Jesuit Stanislaw Obirek made the obvious point that the pope had become a “golden calf.” For this, he was silenced by his order and later denied all contact with students. (He is now a lay scholar.) Other critics eke out an existence on the tiny anticlerical margins that call themselves—as Kolakowski’s father once did—freethinking. Even Poland’s leading secular newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, edited by Poland’s leading secular intellectual, Adam Michnik, features a website devoted to the Polish pope, including the latest news on his canonization and updates on the arrival of various papal relics, such as a vial of John Paul II’s blood recently secured by a church in Krakow. News of the vial was met with a gale of sarcasm. One disaffected reader, noting that Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz had ordered placing the relics of St. Stanislaw on a church tower to stanch the floods threatening Krakow, recommended lending the Polish pope’s relics to Australia to prevent flooding there.

Yet there was more to Kolakowski’s unordained priesthood than defending a deified countryman from liberal critics. If his words resonate differently in East and West, they also differ according to whether or not one adheres to the strictures of religious belief. Kolakowski strove to impress upon readers the desperation of existence without God, yet instead of praising the believer, he ridiculed the skeptic: as Michnik has noted, Poles may not fault their clergy, but they can fault God.

In a remarkable essay written toward the end of his life, Kolakowski wondered whether God could be happy. Because humans can experience the sacred and the profane, he dared to judge God in human terms. To be human is to participate in the pain and joy of others, to “feel compassion.” Only those ignorant of suffering, such as small children with “no experience of great pain or death among those close to them,” can therefore know true happiness, if only for a time. The same must apply to God: “If He is not indifferent, but subject to emotion like us, He must live in a constant state of sorrow when He witnesses human suffering.” Jesus Christ—for Christians, the son of God—“was not happy in any recognizable sense. He was embodied and suffered pain, he shared the suffering of his fellow men, and he died on the cross.”

The religious may accuse Kolakowski of impiety, of presuming to know the designs of God, but the issue is more complicated. For decades, Kolakowski had been writing that all human lives end in failure or tragedy.  When he looked to the Poles of his generation, he saw many with gifts like his own whose lives had been cut short. The cream of the Polish intelligentsia died in Warsaw in 1943 and ‘44, and if Kolakowski had been spared this fate, it was due to the good advice of communist partisans. One always enjoys fortune (szczescie) adumbrated by others’ misfortune (nieszczescie). To the extent that we are fully human, our sense of fortune is always partial, compromised, unsatisfying—everything true happiness, however fleeting, is not supposed to be. Thus he wonders: If God is at all like us (we are created in His image), can He be happy? Kolakowski’s answer, again perhaps impiously, is yes—but only if the universe is one in which everybody is saved, and hell and purgatory do not exist, and there is bliss for all. We can imagine such a situation, but “it has never been seen. It has never been seen.” 

Such bleak theism is hardly the opiate that Kolakowski once equated with religion. But the idea of a world abandoned by God, one where History is simply “history,” a series of accidents whose meaning cannot be ascertained, was even more unsettling than a meager faith to Kolakowski, who once helped to build utopia, and witnessed genocide and totalitarianism firsthand. We have put the “cosy world of Enlightenment atheism” far behind us, he writes, and have seen modern thinkers and politicians who acted as “unconstrained legislators on questions of good and evil” transform the world into a “place of endless anxiety and suffering.” For Kolakowski, the failures of the dictatorship of idealism he once served proved that no political or intellectual system could explain or soften the bitter complexity and contradictions of human experience. In such a world, the problems of the modern papacy faded into insignificance for the old jester, and the church remained above all a bulwark against nihilistic viciousness. And yet we remain haunted by ultimate questions, Kolakowski insists, “intensely aware of God’s absence.” The “Absolute can never be forgotten,” for God is “present even in our rejection of Him.” If anything is certain about Kolakowski, it is that the life he devoted to critically examining elementary truths turned his thought into just the sort of unnerving intellectual paradox that he could accept on faith, but never bring himself to explain.