Leszek Kołakowski (1927–2009)

I heard Leszek Kołakowski lecture only once. It was at Harvard in 1987 and he was a guest at the seminar on political theory taught by the late Judith Shklar. Main Currents of Marxism had recently been published in English and Kołakowski was at the height of his renown. So many students wanted to hear him speak that the lecture had been moved to a large public auditorium and guests were permitted to attend. I happened to be in Cambridge for a meeting and went along with some friends.

The seductively suggestive title of Kołakowski’s talk was “The Devil in History.” For a while there was silence as students, faculty, and visitors listened intently. Kołakowski’s writings were well known to many of those present and his penchant for irony and close reasoning was familiar. But even so, the audience was clearly having trouble following his argument. Try as they would, they could not decode the metaphor. An air of bewildered mystification started to fall across the auditorium. And then, about a third of the way through, my neighbor—Timothy Garton Ash—leaned across. “I’ve got it,” he whispered. “He really is talking about the Devil.” And so he was.

It was a defining feature of Leszek Kołakowski’s intellectual trajectory that he took evil extremely seriously. Among Marx’s false premises, in his view, was the idea that all human shortcomings are rooted in social circumstances. Marx had “entirely overlooked the possibility that some sources of conflict and aggression may be inherent in the permanent characteristics of the species.”1 Or, as he expressed it in his Harvard lecture: “Evil…is not contingent…but a stubborn and unredeemable fact.” For Leszek Kołakowski, who lived through the Nazi occupation of Poland and the Soviet takeover that followed, “the Devil is part of our experience. Our generation has seen enough of it for the message to be taken extremely seriously.”2

Most of the obituaries that followed Kołakowski’s recent death at the age of eighty-one altogether missed this side of the man. That is hardly surprising. Despite the fact that much of the world still believes in a God and practices religion, Western intellectuals and public commentators today are ill at ease with the idea of revealed faith. Public discussion of the subject lurches uncomfortably between overconfident denial (“God” certainly does not exist, and anyway it’s all His fault) and blind allegiance. That an intellectual and scholar of Kołakowski’s caliber should have taken seriously not just religion and religious ideas but the very Devil himself is a mystery to many of his otherwise admiring readers and something they have preferred to ignore.

Kołakowski’s perspective is further complicated by the skeptical distance that he maintained from the uncritical nostrums of official religion (not least his own, Catholicism) and by his unique standing as the only internationally renowned scholar of Marxism to claim equal preeminence as a student of the history of religious thought.3 Kołakowski’s expertise in the study of Christian sects and sectarian writings adds depth and…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.