The Passing of Greatness

Chaos and civilisation are never far apart. For this reason, we need to confront the forces of chaos wherever and in whatever form they appear. In practice, though, it is a rare individual who dares to look the adversary in the eye and risk ridicule or worse. In the past few months, the West has lost two such individuals: Leszek Kolakowski and Irving Kristol. In their very different situations, both fought for freedom and truth.

Though Kristol is primarily seen as the progenitor of neoconservatism, he actually had a hand in many other intellectual currents. “If you have an idea, start a magazine,” he used to say, and he was instrumental in founding several of the most influential journals of the last century. Kristol was the quintessential intellectual entrepreneur, championing countless causes, but all with one common denominator: the defence of the American way of life against what he saw as the nihilism that threatened to overwhelm it from without and undermine it from within. His Jewish background gradually moved into the foreground and as the anti-communist liberalism that he had espoused at the height of the Cold War was marginalised by the 1960s, Kristol began the task of reinvigorating the real counter-culture of conservatism. Along with Norman Podhoretz, Bill Buckley and other intellectuals, Kristol became one of the founding fathers of the Reagan revolution. “What is wrong with liberalism is liberalism — a metaphysics and a mythology that is woefully blind to human and political reality,” he wrote in 1993. He relished a new culture war, against the “ruthless corruption” wrought by a liberal ethos “that aims simultaneously at political and social collectivism on the one hand, and moral anarchy on the other.” For Kristol, the Cold War against the global communist threat was much less intellectually and spiritually interesting than the new Cold War against liberalism. 

If Kristol was one kind of intellectual, the man of letters, Kolakowski  was another, the scholar and philosopher. To adapt Sir Isaiah Berlin’s distinction, based on the aphorism of Archilochus, Kristol was a fox and Kolakowski was a hedgehog. Exiled from communist Poland, the Marxist-turned-dissident found himself subjected to another ordeal by ideology when he taught at Berkeley, California, in the late 1960s. He found that there, where socialism was still idealised as a theory, his devastating experience of its practice counted for nothing. So he set himself the task of demolishing brick by brick the great ziggurat of Marxism, including its more esoteric heresies. Among these ruins, Kolakowski resurrected the corpus of Western philosophy, particularly emphasising its debt to Judaeo-Christian theology — a life’s work all the more remarkable for the fact that, despite his friendship with his fellow philosopher and Pole, Pope John Paul II, he remained outside the Catholic Church.

In Main Currents of Marxism (1978) he skewers his subject with a dry allusion to Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach: “At present, Marxism neither interprets the world nor changes it: it is merely a repertoire of slogans serving to organise various interests…” Concluding his magnum opus, Kolakowski subtly contrasted Marxist pretensions with the reality in the language of his beloved Spinoza: “The self-deification of mankind, to which Marxism gave philosophical expression, has ended in the same way as all such attempts, whether individual or collective: it has revealed itself as the farcical aspect of human bondage.”

Towards the end of their lives, both Kristol and Kolakowski were given due recognition: Kristol received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award, while Kolakowski won the Kluge Prize for the humanities in America and was highly honoured in his native Poland. (Britain, the country in which Kolakowski spent half his life, gave him nothing.) What have these two very different thinkers bequeathed to civilisation, apart from their exceptionally gifted intellectual progeny? They exemplify two qualities. The first is the courage to recognise that changing your mind is not the same as sacrificing your integrity. The second is the refusal to jettison Judaeo-Christian morality: the knowledge of good and evil and the duty to act upon that knowledge. If chaos is to be kept at bay, we need intellectual leaders with open minds and clear consciences.

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