Leszek Kołakowski (23 October 1927 – 17 July 2009) was a Polish philosopher and historian of ideas. He is best known for his critical analyses of Marxist thought, especially his three-volume history, Main Currents of Marxism (1976). In his later work, Kolakowski increasingly focused on religious questions.
- The destructive work of totalitarian machinery, whether or not this word is used, is usually supported by a special kind of primitive social philosophy. It proclaims not only that the common good of 'society' has priority over the interests of individuals, but that the very existence of individuals as persons is reducible to the existence of the social 'whole'; in other words, personal existence is, in a strange sense, unreal. This is a convenient foundation for any ideology of slavery.
- "Totalitarianism and the Virtue of the Lie", as quoted in Is God Happy? Selected Essays (2013), Basic Books, p. 57
- A modern philosopher who has never once suspected himself of being a charlatan must be such a shallow mind that his work is probably not worth reading.
- Metaphysical Horror (1988)
- We learn history not in order to know how to behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are.
- "The Idolatry of Politics", U.S. Jefferson Lecture speech (1986)
- ...shall we say that the difference between a vegetarian and a cannibal is just a matter of taste?
- "The Idolatry of Politics", New Republic, 1986-June-16, page 31.
- Communism was not the crazy fantasy of a few fanatics, nor the result of human stupidity and baseness; it was a real, very real part of the history of the twentieth century, and we cannot understand this history of ours without understanding communism. We cannot get rid of this specter by saying it was just “human stupidity,” or “human corruptibility.” The specter is stronger than the spells we cast on it. It might come back to life.
- Introduction to My Correct Views on Everything
- When I collect my experiences, I notice that fascist is a person who holds one of the following beliefs (by way of example): 1) That people should wash themselves, rather than go dirty; 2) that freedom of the press in America is preferable to the ownership of the whole press by one ruling party; 3) that people should not be jailed for their opinions. both communist and anti-communist - 4), that racial criteria, in favour of either whites or blacks, are inadvisable in admission to Universities; 5 ) that torture is condemnable, no matter who applies it. (Roughly speaking "fascist" was the same as "liberal".) Fascist was, by definition, a person who happened to have been in jail in a communist country. The refugees from Czechoslovakia in 1968 were sometimes met in Germany by very progressive and absolutely revolutionary leftists with placards saying "fascism will not pass".
- "My Correct Views on Everything" (1974)
- It would be silly, of course, to be either 'for' or 'against' modernity tout court, not only because it is pointless to try to stop the development of technology, science, and economic rationality, but because both modernity and antimodernity may be expressed in barbarous and antihuman terms.
- "Modernity on Endless Trial" (1986)
- I do not know what postmodern is and how it differs from the premodern, nor do I feel that I ought to know.
- "Modernity on Endless Trial" (1986)
- Culture, when it loses its sacred sense, loses all sense. With the disappearance of the sacred, which imposed limits to the perfection which could be attained by the profane, arises one of the most dangerous illusions of our civilization—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.
- "The Revenge of the Sacred in Secular Culture" (1973)
- The abolition of the market means not only that the consumers—that is all members of society—are robbed of virtually all choice of consumption and all influence over production; it also means that the information and communication are monopolized by the State, as they too need a vast material base in order to operate. The abolition of the market means, then, that both material and intellectual assets would be totally rationed. To say nothing of the inefficiency of production convincingly demonstrated in the history of communism, this economy requires an omnipotent police state. Briefly: the abolition of the market means a gulag society.
- "The Self-Poisoning of the Open Society"
- The concept of original sin gives us a penetrating insight into human destiny.
- "On the Dilemmas of the Christian Legacy"
- I, then a young and omniscient student (alas, I was soon to lose both these virtues)...
- Metaphysical Horror (1988)
- Far from secularization inexorably leading to the death of religion, it has instead given birth to the search for new forms of religious life. The imminent victory of the Kingdom of Reason has never materialized. As a whole, mankind can never get rid of the need for religious self-identification: who am I, where did I come from, where do I fit in, why am I responsible, what does my life mean, how will I face death? Religion is a paramount aspect of human culture. Religious need cannot be excommunicated from culture by rationalist incantation. Man does not live by reason alone.
- It seems to us that the past is our property. Well, on the contrary — we are its property, because we are not able to make changes in it, while it fills the whole of our existence.
- Original: "Otóż przeciwnie – to my jesteśmy jej własnością, ponieważ nie jesteśmy w stanie dokonać w niej zmian, ona natomiast wypełnia całość naszego istnienia."
- Klucz niebieski albo opowieści biblijne zebrane ku pouczeniu i przestrodze
- We sometimes imagine, under the influence of Spenglerian philosophy or some other kind of "historical morphology," that we live in a similar age [to the Romans], the last witnesses of a condemned civilization. But condemned by whom? Not by God, but by some supposed "historical laws." For although we do not know any historical laws, we are in fact able of inventing them quite freely, and such laws, once invented, can then be realized in the form of self-fulfilling prophecies.
- "Looking for the Barbarians"
- But the philosophy that killed off truth proclaims unlimited tolerance for the "language games" (i.e., opinions, beliefs and doctrines) that people find useful. The outcome is expressed in the words of Karl Kraus: "Alles ist wahr und auch das Gegenteil." "Everything is true, and also its opposite."
- "Our Merry Apocalypse" (1997), as quoted in Is God Happy? Selected Essays (Basic Books, 2013), p. 318
Main Currents Of Marxism (1978)
- Translation by P. S. Falla, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London, 2005, ISBN 978-0-393-32943-8
- Marxism was a philosophical or semi-philosophical doctrine and a political ideology which was used by the communist state as the main source of legitimacy and the obligatory faith.
- New Preface, p. v
- The history of utopias is no less fascinating than the history of metallurgy or of chemical engineering.
- New Preface, p. vi
- The social conditions that nourished and made use of this ideology can still revive; perhaps - who knows? - the virus is dormant, waiting for the next opportunity. Dreams about the perfect society belong to the enduring stock of civilization.
- New Preface, p. vi
- Marxism has been the greatest fantasy of our century. It was a dream offering the prospect of a society of perfect unity, in which all human aspirations would be fulfilled and all values reconciled.
- Epilogue, p. 1206
- In this sense Marxism performs the function of a religion, and its efficacy is of a religious character. But it is a caricature and a bogus form of religion, since it presents its temporal eschatology as a scientific system, which religious mythologies do not purport to be.
- Epilogue, p. 1208
- But we may safely predict that Marx himself will become more and more what he already is: a chapter from a textbook of the history of ideas, a figure that no longer evokes any emotions, simply the author of one the 'great books' of the nineteenth century - one of those books that very few bother to read but whose titles are known to the educated public.
- New Epilogue, p. 1214 (See also: Karl Marx - History - Statistics...)
Three Volume edition
Volume I, The Founders
- Karl Marx was born at Trier on 5 May 1818, the child of Jewish parents with a long rabbinical tradition on both sides. His grandfathers were rabbis; his father, a well-to-do lawyer, changed his first name from Herschel to Heinrich and adopted Protestantism, which in Prussia was a necessary condition of professional and cultural emancipation. (pg. 96)
- Marx sees Epicurus as a destroyer of the Greek myths and as a philosopher bringing to light the break-up of a tribal community. His system destroyed the visible heaven of the ancients as a keystone of political and religious life. Marx allies himself, so to speak, with Epicurean atheism, which he regards at this stage as a challenge by the intellectual élite to the cohorts of common sense. ‘As long as a single drop of blood pulses in her world-conquering and totally free heart, philosophy will continually shout at her opponents the cry of Epicurus: “Impiety does not consist in destroying the gods of the crowd but rather in ascribing to the gods the ideas of the crowd.”’ (pp. 102-3)
- From the point of view of the development of Marx’s theories, his early journalistic writings are important for two main reasons. In his sharp attacks on the censorship law he spoke out unequivocally for the freedom of the Press, against the levelling effect of government restriction (‘You don’t expect a rose to smell like a violet; why then should the human spirit, the richest thing we have, exist only in a single form?’), and also expressed views concerning the whole nature of the state and the essence of freedom. Pointing out that the vagueness and ambiguity of the Press law placed arbitrary power in the hands of officials, Marx went on to argue that censorship was contrary not only to the purposes of the Press, but to tbe nature of the state as such. (pp. 120-1)
- The same ‘practical’ viewpoint is dominant in Marx’s conception of the cognitive functions of the mind and its role in the historical process; ‘practical’ is always regarded as implying ‘social’, and ‘social life is practical by its very essence’. So is the task of philosophy as defined in the eleventh Thesis, in what are perhaps Marx’s most-quoted words: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.’ It would be a caricature of Marx’s thought to read this as meaning that it was not important to observe or analyse society and that only direct revolutionary action mattered. The whole context shows that it is a formula expressing in a nutshell the viewpoint of ‘practical philosophy’ as opposed to the ‘contemplative’ attitude of Hegel or Feuerbach – the viewpoint which Hess, and through him Cieszkowski, suggested to Marx and which became the philosophical nucleus of Marxism. To understand the world does not mean considering it from outside, judging it morally or explaining it scientifically; it means society understanding itself, an act in which the subject changes the object by the very fact of understanding it. (pp. 143-4)
- The year 1844 saw the beginning of Marx’s friendship and collaboration with Friedrich Engels, whom he had already met briefly in Cologne. Engels had been through a similar spiritual evolution to Marx, though their early education was different. Born on 28 November 1820, Engels was the son of a manufacturer at Barmen (Wuppertal, near Düsseldorf). He grew up in a stifling atmosphere of narrow-minded pietism, but soon escaped from its influence, leaving school before his final year to work in his father’s factory; in 1838 he was sent to Bremen to gain business experience. As a result of practical contact with trade and industry he soon became interested in social questions. (pg. 144)
- … Marx and Bakunin were engaged in a conflict in which it is hard to distinguish political from personal animosities. Marx did his best to persuade everybody that Bakunin was only using the International for his private ends, and in March 1870 he circulated a confidential letter to this effect. He also saw the hand of Bakunin (whom he never met after 1864) on every occasion when his own policies were opposed in the International. Bakunin, for his part, not only combated Marx’s political programme but, as he often wrote, regarded Marx as a disloyal, revengeful man, obsessed with power and determined to impose his own despotic authority on the whole revolutionary movement. Marx, he said, had all the merits and defects of the Jewish character; he was highly intelligent and deeply read, but an inveterate doctrinaire and fantastically vain, an intriguer and morbidly envious of all who, like Lassalle, had cut a more important figure than himself in public life. (pp. 247-8)
Volume II, The Golden Age
- Thus, as [Karl] Kautsky wrote in 1919, there was growing up amid despotic conditions a new class of bureaucratic German exploiters, no better than the Tsarist chinovniks; and the workers’ future struggle against tyranny would be even more desperate than under traditional capitalism, when they could exploit divergences of interest between capital and the state bureaucracy, whereas in Bolshevik Russia these two had coalesced into one. This kind of regimented socialism could only maintain itself by denying its own principles, which it was most likely to do, given the Bolsheviks’ notorious opportunism and the ease with which they changed their tune from one day to the next. The most probable result would be a kind of Thermidor reaction which the Russian workers would welcome as a liberation, like the French in 1794. The original sin of Bolshevism lay in the suppression of democracy, abolition of elections, and denial of the freedom of speech and assembly, and in the belief that socialism could be based on a minority despotism imposed by force, which by its own logic was bound to intensify the rule of terror. If the Leninists were able to keep their “Tartar socialism” going long enough, it would infallibly result in the bureaucratization and militarization of society and finally in the autocratic rule of a single individual. (pg. 51)
- Rosa Luxemburg is an outstanding example of a type of mind that is often met with in the history of Marxism and appears to be specially attracted by the Marxist outlook. It is characterized by slavish submission to authority, together with a belief that in that submission the values of scientific thought can be preserved. No doctrine was so well suited as Marxism to satisfy both these attitudes, or to provide a mystification combining extreme dogmatism with the cult of “scientific” thinking, in which the disciple could find mental and spiritual peace. Marxism thus played the part of a religion for the intelligentsia, which did not prevent some of them, like Rosa Luxemburg herself, from trying to improve the deposit of faith by reverting to first principles, thus strengthening their own belief that they were independent of dogma. (pp. 94-5)
- In 1903 there appeared Problems of Idealism, a collection of essays many of whose authors had recently been Marxists, but which condemned Marxism and materialism for their moral nihilism, contempt of personality, determinism, and fanatical pursuit of social values regardless of the individuals who made up society; they also attacked Marxism for its uncritical worship of progress and sacrifice of the present to the future. (pp. 420-1)
- It seems never to have occurred to Lenin that the root of these troubles lay in the fact that the whole system was based, as he constantly emphasized, on force and not on law. He demanded that people be imprisoned right and left for inefficiency, and then wondered why they were afraid to take decisions and referred them higher up whenever they could. He demanded vigilant supervision and exhaustive records, and yet was astonished at the amount of “pen-pushing”. His statement that “socialism equals Soviet power plus electrification” is often quoted; less often his statement, just after the Revolution, that “what socialism implies above all is keeping account of everything” (Meeting of the Central Executive Committee, 17 November 1917; Works, vol. 26, p. 288). He created a system in which, depending on the whim of a local party or police authority, any criticism might be regarded as counter-revolutionary and expose its author to imprisonment or death, and at the same time he urged the working people to be fearless in their criticism of the state apparatus. (pp. 489-90)
- The proletariat thus shared its dictatorship with nobody. As to the question of the “majority”, this never troubled Lenin much. In an article “Constitutional Illusions” (Aug. 1917; Works, vol. 25, p. 201) he wrote: “in time of revolution it is not enough to ascertain the ‘will of the majority’ – you must prove to be stronger at the decisive moment and at the decisive place; you must win … We have seen innumerable examples of the better organized, more politically conscious and better armed minority forcing its will upon the majority and defeating it.” (pg. 503) Trotsky, however, answers questions [in The Defence of Terrorism] that Lenin evaded or ignored. “Where is your guarantee, certain wise men ask us, that it is just your party that expresses the interests of historical development? Destroying or driving underground the other parties, you have thereby prevented their political competition with you, and consequently you have deprived yourselves of the possibility of testing your line of action.” Trotsky replies: “This idea is dictated by a purely liberal conception of the course of the revolution. In a period in which all antagonisms assume an open character; and the political struggle swiftly passes into a civil war, the ruling party has sufficient material standard by which to test its line of action, without the possible circulation of Menshevik papers. Noske crushes the Communists, but they grow. We have suppressed the Mensheviks and the S.R.s [Socialist Republics] … and they have disappeared. This criterion is sufficient for us” (p. 101). This is one of the most enlightening theoretical formulations of Bolshevism, from which it appears that the “rightness” of a historical movement or a state is to be judged by whether its use of violence is successful. Noske did not succeed in crushing the German Communists, but Hitler did; it would thus follow from Trotsky’s rule that Hitler “expressed the interests of historical development”. Stalin liquidated the Trotskyists in Russia, and they disappeared – so evidently Stalin, and not Trotsky, stood for historical progress. (pg. 510)
- To sum up [Trotsky wrote], “the road to Socialism lies through a period of the highest possible intensification of the principle of the Slate … The State, before disappearing, assumes the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e. the most ruthless form of State, which embraces the life of the citizens authoritatively in every direction” ([The Defence of Terrorism] p. 157). It would be difficult indeed to put the matter more plainly. The state of the proletarian dictatorship is depicted by Trotsky as a huge permanent concentration camp in which the government exercises absolute power over every aspect of the citizens’ lives and in particular decides how much work they shall do, of what kind and in what places. Individuals are nothing but labour units. Compulsion is universal, and any organization that is not part of the state must be its enemy, thus the enemy of the proletariat. All this, of course, is in the name of an ideal realm of freedom, the advent of which is expected after an indefinite lapse of historical time. (pg. 512)
- Lenin’s article of 1905, “Party Organization and Party Literature”, was used for decades, and is still used, to justify ideologically the enslavement of the written word in Russia. It has been argued that it refers only to political literature, but this is not so: it relates to every kind of writing. It contains the words: “Down with non-partisan writers! Down with literary supermen! Literature must become part of the common cause of the proletariat, ‘a cog and a screw’ of one single great Social Democratic mechanism set in motion by the entire politically conscious vanguard of the entire working class” (Works, vol. 10, p. 45). For the benefit of “hysterical intellectuals” who deplore this seemingly bureaucratic attitude, Lenin explains that there can be no mechanical levelling in the field of literature; there must be room for personal initiative, imagination, etc.; none the less, literary work must be part of the party’s work and controlled by the party. This, of course, was written during the fight for “hourgeois democracy”, on the assumption that Russia would in due course enjoy freedom of speech but that literary members of the party would have to display party-mindedness in their writings; as in other cases, the obligation would become general when the party controlled the apparatus of state coercion. (pg. 515)
- Lenin’s often-quoted speech to the Komsomol Congress on 2 October 1920 deals with ethical questions on similar lines, “We say that our morality is entirely subordinated to the interests of the proletariat’s class struggle. Morality is what serves to destroy the old exploiting society and to unite all the working people around the proletariat, which is building up a new, a communist society … To a Communist all morality lies in this united discipline and conscious mass struggle against the exploiters. We do not believe in an eternal morality, and we expose the falseness of all the fables about morality” (Works, vol. 31, pp. 291-4). It would be hard to interpret these words in any other sense than that everything which serves or injures the party’s aims is morally good or bad respectively, and nothing else is morally good or bad. After the seizure of power, the maintenance and strengthening of Soviet rule becomes the sole criterion of morality as well as of all cultural values. No criteria can avail against any action that may seem conducive to the maintenance of power, and no values can be recognized on any other basis. All cultural questions thus become technical questions and must be judged by the one unvarying standard; the “good of society” becomes completely alienated from the good of its individual members. It is bourgeois sentimentalism, for instance, to condemn aggression and annexation if it can be shown that they help to maintain Soviet power; it is illogical and hypocritical to condemn torture if it serves the ends of the power which, by definition, is devoted to the “liberation of the working masses”. Utilitarian morality and utilitarian judgements of social and cultural phenomena transform the original basis of socialism into its opposite. All phenomena that arouse moral indignation if they occur in bourgeois society are turned to gold, as if by a Midas touch, if they serve the interests of the new power: the armed invasion of a foreign state is liberation, aggression is defence, tortures represent the people’s noble rage against the exploiters. There is absolutely nothing in the worst excesses of the worst years of Stalinism that cannot be justified on Leninist principles, if only it can be shown that Soviet power was increased thereby. (pp. 515-6)
Volume III: The Breakdown
- As Commissar for the Armed Forces and a member of the Politburo he [Trotsky] still appeared powerful, but by 1923 he was isolated and helpless. All his former tergiversations were turned against him. When he came to realize his situation he attacked the bureaucratization of the party and the stifling of intra-party democracy: like all overthrown Communist leaders he became a democrat as soon as he was ousted from power. However, it was easy for Stalin and Zinovyev to show not only that Trotsky’s democratic sentiments and indignation at party bureaucracy were of recent date, but that he himself, when in power, had been a more extreme autocrat than anyone else: he had supported or initiated every move to protect party “unity”, had wanted – contrary to Lenin’s policy – to place the trade unions under state control and to subject the whole economy to the coercive power of the police, and so on. In later years Trotsky claimed that the policy, which he had supported, of prohibiting “fractions” was envisaged as an exceptional measure and not a permanent principle. But there is no proof that this was so, and nothing in the policy itself suggests that it was meant to be temporary. It may be noted that Zinovyev showed more zeal than Stalin in condemning Trotsky – at one stage he was in favour of arresting him – and thus supplied Stalin with useful ammunition when the two ousted leaders tried, belatedly and hopelessly, to join forces against their triumphant rival. (pg. 21)
- Bukharin, like Lenin, regarded the system of basing economic life on mass terror not as a transient necessity but as a permanent principle of socialist organization. He did not shrink from justifying all means of coercion and held, like Trotsky at the same period, that the new system called essentially for the militarization of labour – i.e. the use of police and military force to compel the whole population to work in such places and conditions as the state might arbitrarily decree. Indeed, once the market is abolished there is no longer any free sale of labour or competition between workers, and police coercion is therefore the only means of allocating “human resources”. If hired labour is eliminated, only compulsory labour remains. In other words, socialism – as conceived by both Trotsky and Bukharin at this time – is a permanent, nation-wide labour camp. (pg. 28-9)
- To prevent the starving peasants from fleeing to the towns an internal passport system was introduced and unauthorized change of residence was made punishable with imprisonment. Peasants were not allowed passports at all, and were therefore tied to the soil as in the worst days of feudal serfdom: this state of things was not altered until the 1970s. The concentration camps filled with new hordes of prisoners sentenced to hard labour. The object of destroying the peasants’ independence and herding them into collective farms was to create a population of slaves, the benefit of whose labour would accrue to industry. The immediate effect was to reduce Soviet agriculture to a state of decline from which it has not yet recovered, despite innumerable measures of reorganization and reform. At the time of Stalin’s death, almost a quarter of a century after mass collectivization was initiated, the output of grain per head of population was still below the 1913 level; yet throughout this period, despite misery and starvation, large quantities of farm produce were exported all over the world for the sake of Soviet industry. The terror and oppression of those years cannot be expressed merely by the figures for loss of human life, enormous as these are; perhaps the most vivid picture of what collectivization meant is in Vasily Grossman’s posthumous novel Forever Flowing. (pg. 39)
- As for one-party rule, it was questioned neither by the Left Opposition nor by the Right [wing of the Communist party]. All were prisoners of their own doctrine and their own past: all had worked with a will to create the apparatus of violence that crushed them. Bukharin’s hopeless attempt to form a league with Kamenev was no more than a pitiful epilogue to his career. In November 1929 the deviationists performed a public act of penance, but even this did not save them. Stalin’s victory was complete; the collapse of the Bukharinite opposition meant the triumph of autocracy in the party and in the country. In December 1929 Stalin’s fiftieth birthday was celebrated as a major historical event, and from this point we may date the “cult of personality”. Trotsky’s prophecy of 1903 had come true: party rule had become Central Committee rule, and this in turn had becorne the personal tyranny of a dictator. (pp. 42-3)
- The cultural atmosphere of Russia in those years had an adolescent quality, common to all periods of revolution: the belief that life is just beginning, that the future is unlimited, and that mankind is no longer bound by the shackles of history. (pg. 47)
- Of the radical and iconoclastic ideals preached in the early years of the revolution, all were discarded except those which helped the state to exert absolute control over the individual. Hence the idea of collective education and reduction of parental authority to the minimum continued to hold sway, but an end was put to “progressive” educational methods designed to promote initiative and independence. Strict discipline became once more the rule, and in this respect Soviet schools differed from Tsarist ones only in the immensely increased emphasis on indoctrination. In due course, puritanical sexual ethics were restored to favour. (pg. 53)
- If the gist of the controversy were to be expressed in a single sentence, one might say that the mechanists represented the opposition of the natural sciences to philosophic interference, while the dialecticians stood for the supremacy of philosophy over the sciences and thus reflected the characteristic tendency of Soviet ideological development. The mechanists’ outlook might be called negative, while the dialecticians ascribed immense importance to philosophy and regarded themselves as specialists. The mechanists, however, had a much better idea of what science was about. The dialecticians were ignoramuses in this sphere and confined themselves to general formulas about the philosophical need to “generalize” and unify the sciences; on the other hand, they knew more than the mechanists about the history of philosophy. (Eventually the party condemned both camps, and created a dialectical synthesis of both forms of ignorance.) (pg. 64)
Quotes about Kołakowski
- As for those who dream of rerunning the Marxist tape, digitally remastered and free of irritating Communist scratches, they would be well-advised to ask sooner rather than later just what it is about all-embracing “systems” of thought that leads inexorably to all-embracing “systems” of rule. On this, as we have seen, Leszek Kołakowski can be read with much profit.
- Tony Judt. "Goodbye to All That?" LRB Sept 21, 2006
- Kolakowski has long been a favorite of conservatives being one of the few prominent humanistic intellectuals on the "right" (in some suitably loose sense of "right"). His best-known work, the 3-volume Main Currents of Marxism, is a useful reference work, but that's all: it is comprehensive, detailed, and relentlessly superficial philosophically. His other works of philosophy--books on Hume, on Husserl, etc.--are largely irrelevant to philosophical scholarship, rarely discussed, barely known.
- The plain fact is that Kolakowski thought like Mill and wrote like Nabokov, and that’s a twinning of genius that we won’t soon encounter again.
- Michael Weiss, "Kolakowski vs. Thompson", The New Criterion, June 2005