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Death of an Academic Giant: Leszek Kolakowski

This is a guest post by Michael Ezra

I was very sad to learn of the recent death at age 81 of the Polish political scientist and philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski. Whilst he was originally a Marxist and became the chair of Warsaw University’s philosophy department, he ultimately became a critic of the system that he had previously championed. This did not go down well by the Communist rulers of his country and he was expelled from the Polish United Workers’ Party and fired from his position. The Polish “anti-Zionist” campaign in the mid 1960s did not help matters as Kolakowski’s wife was Jewish. The culmination of all these events led to him fleeing the country. Poland’s loss eventually became Britain’s gain when he took up a position at Oxford University.

Whilst he wrote on a wide range of subjects, it will no doubt be for his work on Marxism that he will most remembered. In 1978 he completed the magisterial three volume work, Main Currents of Marxism, now available as a single volume. This highly acclaimed  and prophetic work of brilliance is a delight to read. Commenting on this work in 2003, the Library of Congress said:

Main Currents of Marxism … was, and remains, the most lucid and comprehensive history of the origins, structure and posthumous development of the system of thought that had the greatest impact on the 20th century.

The extract below is from his conclusion on Trotsky (p. 958):

Trotsky, as a true doctrinaire, was insensitive to everything that was happening around him. Of course he followed events closely and commented on them, and did his best to obtain accurate information about the Soviet Union and world politics. But the essence of a doctrinaire is not that he does not read newspapers or collect facts: it consists in adhering to a system of interpretation that is impervious to empirical data, or is so nebulous that any and every fact can be used to confirm it. Trotsky had no need to fear that any event might cause him to change his mind, as his basic premises were always in the form ‘on the one hand … on the other hand’, or ‘admittedly … but nevertheless.’

On pages 961-2, Kolakowski referred to Trotsky as a “revolutionary despot,” said that all of Trotsky’s “predictions as to the future of [Soviet] society and of the world turned out to be wrong” and stated explicitly:

Trotsky did not offer any alternative form of Communism or any other doctrine different from Stalin’s. The main thrust of his attack against ‘socialism in one country’, was merely an attempt to continue a certain tactical line which had become unfeasible for reasons that had nothing to do with Stalin.

With reference to the New Left of the 1960s, he commented (p. 1,179):

While the ideological fantasies of this movement, which reached its climax around 1968-9, were no more than a nonsensical expression of the whims of spoilt middle-class children, and while the extremists among them were virtually indistinguishable from Fascist thugs, the movement did without doubt express a profound crisis of faith in the values that had inspired democratic societies for decades. In this sense it was a ‘genuine’ movement despite its grotesque phraseology; the same, of course, could be said of Nazism and Fascism.

Despite the fact that Kolakowski penned these words over thirty years ago, he could have looked at leftist parties in 2009 and written an identical sentiment.