Leszek Kolakowski

Roger Kimball finds it strange that the author of the most pertinent works on Marxism is so little known

It may seem odd to describe the Polish-born philosopher Leszek Ko?akowski as “underrated.” After all, he has been the beneficiary of several plum academic appointments, including posts at Yale, the University of Chicago and All Souls, Oxford. Ko?akowski (who is now in his early eighties and lives in Oxford) has also been the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and high-profile prizes, including a MacArthur “genius” award (for once the MacArthur Foundation got it right) and, just a few years back, the Kluge Prize for “lifetime achievement in the humanities,” which carries a purse of $1 million (about £590,000).

Not bad for a refugee from Soviet-controlled Poland. But there is an important sense in which Ko?akowski, though handsomely recognised, is still seriously underrated. I do not mean only that he lacks the dubious celebrity enjoyed by Jacques Derrida, say, or Jürgen Habermas, Michel Foucault or even – travelling further down the intellectual food chain – Richard Rorty. I also mean that Ko?akowski’s central ideas – ideas that should form an enabling resource for our culture’s self-understanding – do not enjoy the sort of public existential traction they deserve.

What are those ideas? First, there is Ko?akowski’s devastating anatomy of Marxism, exhaustively put forward in his magnum opus, the three-volume Main Currents of Marxism. It is one of the most troubling signs of the times that Ko?akowski’s work on Marxism, even at this late date, should be as pertinent now as it was when it was first published more than 25 years ago. His book drove a stake through the intellectual heart of Marxism. It turns out, though, that he had scotched the snake, not killed it. The opinion columns are even now full of dire prognostications about the death of free-market economics and the revival of Marx’s economic fantasies.

Readers of Ko?akowski know better. They understand that what we have seen is not a failure of the free market, but a failure to abide by the rules that allow the free market to operate freely. One of those rules concerns the accurate pricing and assessment of risk, something that was ostentatiously abandoned by socialistically-inclined politicians who forced banks to lend money to people who were poor credit risks.

It may seem a long way from Wall Street to Das Kapital, but Ko?akowski’s criticism of Marxism has great pertinence to our current economic and cultural situation. Marxism is a version of utopian thinking. Committed to what Ko?akowski calls “the self-deification of mankind”, Marxism became “the greatest fantasy of our century”. It provides a permanently valuable admonition about the danger of utopian schemes, what Ko?akowski describes as “the farcical aspect of human bondage”. The farce is enacted not only in the brutal precincts of Stalinism, but also, and perhaps more insidiously, in the various “soft totalitarianisms” burgeoning throughout the Western world.

Ko?akowski’s criticism of Marxism and its allotropes is only part of his intellectual portfolio. He moves with commanding ease from the intricacies of Plotinus, Augustine and the Church fathers through Descartes, Pascal, the English empiricists, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Bergson, Husserl and the whole congeries of issues and figures we congregate under the rubric of modernity and its discontents.

In his book Modernity on Endless Trial, Ko?-akowski shows how the tendency to believe that all human problems have a technical solution is an unfortunate inheritance from the Enlightenment – “even,” he notes, “from the best aspects of the Enlightenment: from its struggle against intolerance, self-complacency, superstitions, and uncritical worship of tradition”. There is much about human life that is not susceptible to human remedy. Our allegiance to the ideal of unlimited progress is, paradoxically, a dangerous moral limitation that is closely bound up with what Ko?akowski calls the loss of the sacred. “With the disappearance of the sacred,” he writes, “which imposed limits to the perfection that could be attained by the profane, arises one of the most dangerous illusions of our civilisation – the illusion that there are no limits to the changes that human life can undergo, that society is ‘in principle’ an endlessly flexible thing, and that to deny this flexibility and this perfectibility is to deny man’s total autonomy and thus to deny man himself.”

These are wise words, grippingly pertinent to an age conjuring with the immense technological novelties of cloning, genetic engineering and other Promethean temptations.

We pride ourselves today on our “openness” and commitment to liberal ideals, our empathy for other cultures, and our sophisticated understanding that our way of viewing the world is, after all, only our way of viewing the world. But Ko?akowski reminds us that, without a prior commitment to substantive values – to an ideal of the good and (just as important) an acknowledgement of evil – openness threatens to degenerate into vacuousness. “The denial of ‘absolute values’ for the sake of both rationalist principles and the general spirit of openness threatens our ability to make a distinction between good and evil altogether.” Given the shape of our post-Soviet world, perhaps it is that admonition, even more than his heroic demolition of Marxism, for which Ko?akowski will be honoured in the coming decades.

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