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Leszek Kolakowski (1927-)

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Leszek Kolakowski was born in Radom as the son of Jerzy Kolakowski, a publicist, and the former Lucyna Pietrusiewicz. During the German occupation of Poland in World War II, Kolakowski studied in the underground school system.







Polish philosopher who began as an orthodox Marxist but greatly contributed to the emergence of a Marxist humanism in the 1950s and 1960s. Kolakowski was closely involved in the movement towards liberation that led, in 1956, to the Polish spring. He was dismissed from the Communist Party and in 1968 he moved to the West, where he has published works on the history of religion and philosophy.


"A modern philosopher who has never once suspected himself of being a charlatan must be such a shallow mind that his work is probably not worth reading." (from Metaphysical Horror, 1988)


Leszek Kolakowski was born in Radom as the son of Jerzy Kolakowski, a publicist, and the former Lucyna Pietrusiewicz. During the German occupation of Poland in World War II, Kolakowski studied in the underground school system. Much of his time he spent at the family country house, reading books from its library. After the war, Kolakowski joined the Communist youth organization (ZMP). He studied philosophy at the University of Lódz, receiving his Ph.D. in 1953 from Warsaw University. From 1947 to 1949 he was Assistant in Logic at University of Lodz, and from 1950 to 1959 he worked as an assistant and then a docent at University of Warsaw. In 1949 he married Tamara Dynenson, a psychiatrist.


Kolakowski joined in 1945 the Polish Workers's Party and taught at its school in 1952-54. He was a member of the editorial board of the weekly Nowa Kultura, and in 1955 he became a staff member of Po Prostu, a weekly run by young Communist intellectuals.


After the new constitution was accepted in 1952 in Poland, Stalinist repression tightened its grip. Along with the so-called "October thaw" in 1956, Kolakowski became one of the leading voices for the democratization of life in Poland. Workers protests were crushed, Wladyslaw Gomulka assumed power, but the basic political system did not change, although he eased some restrictions of cultural policies. Gomulka's reign ended in 1970.


In the late 1950s poets, novelist, and playwrights undertook innovative experiments and searched new forms of expression. Kolakowski's essay 'The Priest and the Jester' from 1959, in which he confronted dogmaticism with skepticism and took the side of the Jester, made him the most prominent Marxist philosopher in Poland. Under the influence of Kant and Sartre, and the thoughts of the young Marx and his theory of alienation, Kolakowski moved towards Marxist humanism. He criticized some basic Marxist doctrines, among them belief in deterministic historical progress. Due his views, Kolakowski was labelled as revisionist. In his collection of essays, Towards a Marxist Humanism (1970), he affirmed the moral responsibility of the individual and rejected determinism. Kolakowski's major work in Marxist thought, Main Currents in Marxism (1978), published in three volumes, traced the origins of the movement from Plotinus to the 1970s and Mao Zedong. In the third volume he wrote: "At present Marxism neither interprets the world nor changes it: it is merely a repertoire of slogans serving to organize various interests..."


Kolakowski was head of the section of the history of modern philosophy at the University of Warsaw from 1959 to 1968 and professor of modern philosophy from 1964 until 1968. In 1966 he delivered a speech at the 10th anniversary of the "Polish October" and was expelled from the Polish Workers' Party. Two years later he was dismissed from his chair at the university for "forming views of the youth in a manner contrary to the official tendency of the country." His book, Obecnosc mitu, was set up in type in Warsaw, then banned, and eventually published in 1972. With his Jewish wife Kolakowski left Poland in 1968 during the extreme nationalist campaign against "Zionists". No references to his work could be made in Poland in twenty years. In the 1980s Kolakowski supported Solidarity giving interviews, writing, and collecting money.


Kolakowski was Professor of philosophy at McGill University and in 1969 he taught at University of California, Berkeley. Since the 1970s he has been a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, visiting professor at Yale University, New Haven Connecticut. From 1981 to 1994 he served as Professor on the Committee of Social Thought and the Development of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. In 1983 he became Fellow of the British Academy. He is also a fellow of the Académie Universelle des Cultures, and a Foreign Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


Already in his early writing Kolakowski dealt with religion, but especially his later work is concerned with issues in ethics and metaphysics. In Religion (1982) he critically analyzed a wide range of arguments for and against the existence of God. God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal's Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism (1998) explored Christian notions of grace and sin, and asked the basic question - how can a good, omnipotent God permit evil?


Both in writings about Marxism and religion Kolakowski has showed similar deep understanding of doctrinal questions, often focusing on the conflict between heterodoxy and orthodoxy. Dialectical materialism he has looked from the perspective of Christian philosophical theology as a "modern variant of apocalyptic expectations". The Marxian dream of a perfect social system Kolakowski paralleled with the old utopian religious movements. "... there is no reason to expect that this dream can ever become true except in the cruel from of despotism," he has said. The truth of Christianity and Socialism - social justice, fight against social oppression - are both one-sided. As a response to E.P. Thompson's 'An Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski', published in The Socialist Register in 1973, Kolakowsky explained why he considered Communism a "poor idea", not worth of saving from its shortcomings.


Kolakowski doesn't believe that there is a perfect solution to all human problems, but the search for fundamental truths beyond question is a part of European culture. Marxism, Kolakowski seems to claim, sprang from the same source as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. In God Owes Us Nothing (1995) the names of Jansenius, Augustine, and Saint Paul could be easily be replaced by some names familiar from the history of Marxist philosophy (Hegel, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Lev Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg): "Jansenius's followers called themselves disciplines of Augustine, whose authority had been unshakable in Christianity. They insisted that they - and their master, Jansenius - had nothing new to say; they simply followed and repeated the most traditional teaching of the Church, which conformed to the Gospels and to the epistles of Saint Paul and was codified in Augustinian theology."


Kolakowski has received several awards, including the German Booksellers Peace Prize (1977), Erasmus Prize (1980), Veillon Foundation European Prize for the Essay (1980), Jefferson Award (1986), MacArthur Award (1982), University of Chicago Laing Award (1990), Tocqueville Prize (1994). In 2003 the Library of Congress awarded him the $1 million Kluge Prize for lifetime contribution to the humanities. Kolakowski has also published plays, stories, and fables. Tales from the Kingdom of Lailonia (1963) was build around the opposition of faith and reality. Rozmowy z diablem (1965), his second collection of tales, was published in America as Conversations with the Devil. 

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