Goodbye to All That?

Karl Marx ou l’esprit du monde

by Jacques Attali
Paris: Fayard, 537 pp., 23.00 (paper)

Leszek Kolakowski is a philosopher from Poland. But it does not seem quite right—or sufficient—to define him that way. Like Czeslaw Milosz and others before him, Kolakowski forged his intellectual and political career in opposition to certain deep-rooted features of traditional Polish culture: clericalism, chauvinism, anti-Semitism. Forced to leave his native land in 1968, Kolakowski could neither return home nor be published there: between 1968 and 1981 his name was on Poland’s index of forbidden authors and much of the work for which he is best known today was written and published abroad.

In exile Kolakowski lived mostly in England, where he has been a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, since 1970. But as he explained in an interview last year, Britain is an island; Oxford is an island in Britain; All Souls (a college without students) is an island in Oxford; and Dr. Leszek Kolakowski is an island within All Souls, a “quadruple island.” There was indeed once a place in British cultural life for intellectual émigrés from Russia and Central Europe—think of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Arthur Koestler, or Isaiah Berlin. But an ex-Marxist Catholic philosopher from Poland is more exotic, and despite his international renown Leszek Kolakowski is largely unknown—and curiously underappreciated—in his adoptive land.

Elsewhere, however, he is famous. Like many Central European scholars of his generation Kolakowski is multilingual—at ease in Russian, French, and German as well as Polish and his adopted English—and he has received accolades and prizes galore in Italy, Germany, and France especially. In the United States, where Kolakowski taught for many years on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, his achievements have been generously acknowledged, culminating in 2003 in the award of the first Kluge Prize from the Library of Congress—bestowed for lifetime achievement in those fields of scholarship (the humanities above all) for which there is no Nobel Prize. But Kolakowski, who has more than once declared himself most at home in Paris, is no more American than he is English. Perhaps he is properly thought of as the last illustrious citizen of the Twentieth-Century Republic of Letters.

In most of his adoptive countries, Leszek Kolakowski is best known (and in some places only known) for Main Currents of Marxism, his remarkable three-volume history of Marxism: published in Polish (in Paris) in 1976, in England by Oxford University Press two years later, and now reprinted in a single volume by Norton here in the US. No doubt this is as it should be; Main Currents is a monument of modern humanistic scholarship. But there is a certain irony in its prominence among Kolakowski’s writings, for its author is anything but a “Marxologist.” He is a philosopher, a historian of philosophy, and a Catholic thinker. He spent years studying early modern Christian sects and heresies and for most of the past quarter-century has devoted himself to the history of European religion and philosophy and to what …

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