Kolakowski, Leszek (b. 1927)

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Polish philosopher.

Leszek Kołakowski figured in a sequential pair of movements of central importance to the story of twentieth-century intellectual life: the insider attempt to save Marxism from its communist perversion, and the outsider critique of Marxism as an unsalvageable messianism inseparable from its bloody and repressive "failures." Born in 1927 in Radom, Poland, and for a long time a professor at the University of Warsaw, Kołakowski's path also led geographically, and not just intellectually, away from the communist experiment, and his life neatly divides into periods before and after his 1968 migration. A wide-ranging intellectual historian important for studies of Christian as well as Marxist doctrine at different moments in time, Kołakowski's lasting significance likely resides, however, less in his specific arguments than in an ideological itinerary at once personal and typical.

At Warsaw, he led a fundamentally important cohort of philosopher-historians—the others included Bronisław Baczko, Krzysztof Pomian, and Andrzej Wałicki—whose activities in their original home before 1968 and their various transits to and receptions in Western intellectual life after have not yet been collectively gauged. Deeply affected by Western European philosophy—he wrote influential studies of the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl and the overall movement known as positivism—Kołakowski's richest scholarly contributions were in his investigations throughout his life of early modern thought, beginning with what remains perhaps his most accomplished book, a treatment of seventeenth-century nonconformist theology. But also in the 1950s and especially after 1956, Kołakowski became one of the intellectual leaders in Poland of the "revisionist" attempt to imagine a socialism with a human face. The project intended to come to the rescue of the collectivist aspiration, redeeming the Eastern bloc whose properly emancipatory vocation had gone awry, and not simply to capitulate to Western capitalism, which was seen to have equal or worse flaws. Kołakowski's writings of this period, which earned him vilification from the Polish Communist leader Władysław Gomułka, were published in the West in the 1960s, for example in Man without Alternatives (1960) and Towards a Marxist Humanism (1968). Kołakowski remained an iconic figure in the Eastern bloc after his 1966 removal from his university position and expulsion from the party for a controversial speech. But his outlook both then and after his departure two years later differed in character from "antipolitics," the intellectual movement of dissident Eastern European thought in the 1970s. For in this period, Kołakowski became a famed apostate from the Marxist theory and practice he had once hoped to reform from within.

It was undoubtedly Kołakowski's three-volume Main Currents of Marxism, the fruit of his arrival at Oxford University after brief peregrinations elsewhere, that did most to establish his worldwide prominence and readership. Long after its publication in 1976–1978, it remains the most capacious study ever written of the history of Marxist doctrine. It is distinguished by its range and detail as well as by its positions. Though following the Hungarian philosopher Gyorgy Lukács in stressing the generally German and specifically Hegelian sources of Marx's own theory (it begins with the famous line "Karl Marx was a German philosopher"), Main Currents controversially located the "golden age" of Marxism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, normally dismissed as a period of scientistic decline for socialist philosophy. For Kołakowski, however, it was a period of fecund theoretical pluralization and enormous expansion, a process as much nipped in the bud as it was capped by Vladimir Lenin's theoretical and revolutionary accomplishment. After all, Kołakowski observed in the third and highly partisan volume of the trilogy, "The Breakdown," had not Lenin's achievement, as consummated by Joseph Stalin, finally revealed the bankruptcy of Marxism's original promise, leaving for the enlightened only the theoretically scholastic and politically juvenile alternative of "Western Marxism" as the expiring groan of a once heroic intellectual enterprise?

In the end, Kołakowski became one of the many who argued that socialism's disaster occurred because of its very "utopian" formulation, which foredoomed it to a violent outcome. His initial innovations in and final conversion away from Marxism made his emblematic trajectory a problem for those Western leftists who hoped to salvage the hope for a postcapitalist society from the wreckage of its betrayed communist incarnation. In a celebrated exchange in the Socialist Register in 1973–1974, the British Marxist historian E. P. Thompson castigated Kołakowski for abandoning his experimentation with doctrine while Kołakowski—in a response entitled "My Correct Views on Everything"—justified the remorselessness of his ultimate anti-Marxist conclusions. A figure most internationally prominent in 1970s intellectual life, Kołakowski, who in later years joined the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought, lived into the twenty-first century, publishing occasionally but slowly retreating from general consciousness, gradually leaving behind the ideological landscape whose overall mutations his personal adventure did something to cause and much more to capture in miniature.

See alsoCommunism; Eastern Bloc; Phenomenology; Poland .


Kołakowski, Leszek. Toward a Marxist Humanism: Essays on the Left Today. Translated by Jane Zielonko Peel. New York, 1968.

——. Chrétiens sans église. Translated by Anna Posner. Paris, 1969.

——. Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders, The Golden Age, The Breakdown. Translated by P.S. Falla. Oxford, U.K., 1978. Reprint, New York, 2005.

——. The Two Eyes of Spinoza and Other Essays on Philosophers. Translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska and others, edited by Zbigniew Janowski. South Bend, Ind., 2005.

Samuel Moyn