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 piquancy to his influential account of Marxism as a religious canon, with major and minor scriptures, hierarchical structures of textual authority, and heretical dissenters.
Leszek Kołakowski shared with his Oxford colleague and fellow Central European Isaiah Berlin a disabused suspicion of all dogmatic certainties and a rueful insistence upon acknowledging the price of any significant political or ethical choice:

There are good reasons why freedom of economic activity should be limited for the sake of security, and why money should not automatically produce more money. But the limitation of freedom should be called precisely that, and should not be called a higher form of freedom.4

He had little patience for those who supposed, in the teeth of twentieth-century history, that radical political improvement could be secured at little moral or human cost—or that the costs, if significant, could be discounted against future benefits. On the one hand he was consistently resistant to all simplified theorems purporting to capture timeless human verities. On the other, he regarded certain self-evident features of the human condition as too obvious to be ignored, however inconvenient:

There is nothing surprising in the fact that we strongly resist the implications of many banal truths; this happens in all fields of knowledge simply because most truisms about human life are unpleasant.5

But the above considerations need not—and for Kołakowski did not—suggest a reactionary or quietist response. Marxism might be a world-historical category error. But it did not follow that socialism had been an unmitigated disaster; nor need we conclude that we cannot or should not work to improve the condition of humanity:

Whatever has been done in Western Europe to bring about more justice, more security, more educational opportunities, more welfare and more state responsibility for the poor and helpless, could never have been achieved without the pressure of socialist ideologies and socialist movements, for all their naïveties and delusions…. Past experience speaks in part for the socialist idea and in part against it.

This carefully balanced appreciation of the complexities of social reality—the idea that “human fraternity is disastrous as a political program but indispensable as a guiding sign”—already places Kołakowski at a tangent to most intellectuals in his generation. In East and West alike, the more common tendency was to oscillate between excessive confidence in the infinite possibilities for human improvement and callow dismissal of the very notion of progress. Kołakowski sat athwart this characteristic twentieth-century chasm. Human fraternity, in his thinking, remained “a regulative, rather than a constitutive, idea.”6


The implication here is the sort of practical compromise we associate today with social democracy—or, in continental Western Europe, with its Christian Democratic confrère. Except, of course, that social democracy today—uncomfortably burdened with the connotations of “socialism” and its twentieth-century past—is all too often the love that dare not speak its name. Leszek Kołakowski was no social democrat. But he was critically active in the real political history of his time, and more than once. In the early years of the Communist state, Kołakowski (though still not yet thirty) was the leading Marxist philosopher in Poland. After 1956, he shaped and articulated dissenting thought in a region where all critical opinion was doomed sooner or later to exclusion.
As professor of the history of philosophy at Warsaw University he delivered a famous public lecture in 1966 excoriating the Communist Party for betraying the people—an act of political courage that cost him his Party card. Two years later he was duly exiled to the West. Thereafter, Kołakowski served as a reference and beacon for the youthful domestic dissenters who were to form the core of Poland’s political opposition from the mid-1970s, who provided the intellectual energy behind the Solidarity movement and who took effective power in 1989.
Leszek Kołakowski was thus an entirely engaged intellectual, notwithstanding his contempt for the pretensions and vanities of “engagement.” Intellectual engagement and “responsibility,” much debated and idolized in continental European thought in the generation following World War II, struck Kołakowski as fundamentally vacant concepts:

Why should intellectuals be specifically responsible, and differently responsible than other people, and for what?… A mere feeling of responsibility is a formal virtue that by itself does not result in a specific obligation: it is possible to feel responsible for a good cause as well as for an evil one.

This simple observation seems rarely to have occurred to a generation of French existentialists and their Anglo-American admirers. It may be that one needed to have experienced firsthand the attraction of utterly evil goals (of left and right alike) to otherwise responsible intellectuals in order to understand to the full the costs as well as the benefits of ideological commitment and moral unilateralism.

As the above suggests, Leszek Kołakowski was no conventional “continental philosopher” in the sense usually ascribed to the phrase in contemporary academic usage and with particular reference to Heidegger, Sartre, and their epigones. But then nor did he have much in common with Anglo-American thought in the form that came to dominate English-speaking universities after World War II—which no doubt accounts for his isolation and neglect during his decades in Oxford.7 The sources of Kołakowski’s particular perspective, beyond his lifelong interrogation of Catholic theology, are probably better sought in experience than in epistemology. As he himself observed in his magnum opus, “All kinds of circumstances contribute to the formation of a world-view, and…all phenomena are due to an inexhaustible multiplicity of causes.”8

In Kołakowski’s own case, the multiplicity of causes includes not just a traumatic childhood during World War II and the catastrophic history of communism in the years that followed, but the very distinctive setting of Poland as it passed through these cataclysmic decades. For while it is not always clear exactly where Kołakowski’s particular thinking is leading, it is perfectly evident that it never came from “nowhere.”

The most cosmopolitan of Europe’s modern philosophers—at home in five major languages and their accompanying cultures—and in exile for over twenty years, Kołakowski was never “rootless.” In contrast with, for example, Edward Said, he questioned whether it was even possible in good faith to disclaim all forms of communal loyalty. Neither in place nor ever completely out of place, Kołakowski was a lifelong critic of nativist sentiment; yet he was adulated in his native Poland and rightly so. A European in his bones, Kołakowski never ceased to interrogate with detached skepticism the naive illusions of pan-Europeanists, whose homogenizing aspirations reminded him of the dreary utopian dogmas of another age. Diversity, so long as it was not idolized as an objective in its own right, seemed to him a more prudent aspiration and one that could only be assured by the preservation of distinctive national identities.9
It would be easy to conclude that Leszek Kołakowski was unique. His distinctive mix of irony and moral seriousness, religious sensibility and epistemological skepticism, social engagement and political doubt was truly rare (it should also be said that he was strikingly charismatic—exercising much the same magnetism at any gathering as the late Bernard Williams, and for some of the same reasons10). But it does not seem unreasonable to recall that for just these reasons—charisma included—he also stood firmly in a very particular line of descent.
His sheer range of cultivation and reference; the allusive, disabused wit; the uncomplaining acceptance of academic provincialism in the fortunate Western lands where he found refuge; the experience and memory of Poland’s twentieth century imprinted, as it were, on his mischievously expressive features: all of these identify the late Leszek Kołakowski as a true Central European intellectual—perhaps the last. For two generations of men and women, born between 1880 and 1930, the characteristically Central European experience of the twentieth century consisted of a multilingual education in the sophisticated urban heartland of European civilization, honed, capped, and side-shadowed by the experience of dictatorship, war, occupation, devastation, and genocide in that selfsame heartland.


No sane person could want to repeat such an experience merely in order to replicate the quality of thought and thinkers that such a sentimental education produced. There is something more than a little distasteful about expressions of nostalgia for the lost intellectual world of Communist Eastern Europe, shading uncomfortably close to regret for the loss of other people’s repression. But as Leszek Kołakowski would have been the first to point out, the relationship between Central Europe’s twentieth- century history and its astonishing intellectual riches nevertheless existed; it cannot simply be dismissed.

What it produced was what Judith Shklar, in another context, once described as a “liberalism of fear”: the uncompromising defense of reason and moderation born of firsthand experience of the consequences of ideological excess; the ever-present awareness of the possibility of catastrophe, at its worst when misunderstood as opportunity or renewal, of the temptations of totalizing thought in all its protean variety. In the wake of twentieth-century history, this was the Central European lesson. If we are very fortunate, we shall not have to relearn it again for some time to come; when we do, we had better hope that there will be someone around to teach it. Until then, we would do well to reread Kołakowski.

This Issue

September 24, 2009