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21 June 2023

Settling scores with God: Leszek Kolakowski at the End of History

How the Marxist-turned-Catholic-conservative remains the pre-eminent thinker for our age of tragedy.

By Madoc Cairns

When the Communist Party found Leszek Kolakowski he had nothing at all. His country, Poland, was a wasteland by 1945, harrowed by six years of Nazi occupation. His home, Warsaw, was in ruins. His parents were dead. Cancer had taken his mother when Kolakowski was three; the Gestapo came for his father 13 years later, in the summer of 1943. Jerzy Kolakowski was questioned, tortured, executed; his body covered with gasoline and set alight. Leszek was left penniless, homeless, alone. Decades later one of his biographers was asked what the Communist Party saw in him. They saw a man, the answer went, who had scores to settle with God.

They also saw the one thing the war didn’t take from Leszek: his mind. Born in 1927, and a prodigy from childhood, Kolakowski was a polymath from his early teens, easily holding his own against the adults around him. His intelligence would catapult him to the upper echelons of Polish communism by his early twenties, and from there to a 50-year career as one of Europe’s leading public intellectuals. His thought was famously wide-ranging – history, politics, ethics, philosophy – and notoriously mercurial. Kolakowski built a polyphonic reputation: as a fervent Stalinist and one of Stalinism’s leading critics; as an anti-clerical atheist and a conservative Catholic; as a passionate defender of Marx and his best-known detractor. In 81 years of life, from the public square to the corridors of power, Kolakowski enjoyed almost unparalleled success.

It never made him happy. Nothing ever did. A photo of himself aged two suggested he might have been happy then, Kolakowski told one interviewer, but he didn’t remember it. Growing up in the authoritarian, Catholic Poland of the 1930s, the unchurched son of a left-wing activist, Kolakowski was an outsider from the cradle up. He looked for community in books instead: reading Conrad and Baudelaire; poetry and scripture. Between the pages, he began to find himself.

The war found him first. On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and Leszek Kolakowski discovered what history looks like. The chaos of the war – the ubiquity of death, the dawn raids and death camps, the cruelty of the Nazi occupiers and of the resistance struggle his father joined – imparted a single, terrible lesson. The world of books is ordered and rational: the world outside is anything but. In life, there are no guarantees.

And no one could tell Kolakowski why. Except the Communist Party. In 1945, for young Polish intellectuals, the Soviet Union pointed the way to a better world. For Kolakowski, it held out the hope of something more. He didn’t know much about Marxism at the time, he later noted, but he knew what it meant: the scientific, rational resolution of the problems of existence. “Communism is the riddle of human history solved,” one of Kolakowski’s favourite lines of Marx runs, “and it knows itself to be this solution.”

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Kolakowski learned quickly and rose fast. By the time he completed his undergraduate studies he was a luminary of Poland’s communist intelligentsia, a devoted pusher of the party line. Marxism is, he argued, the completion of the Enlightenment, the culmination of a millennia-long journey from ignorance to knowledge. From idealism to materialism, chaos to order, capitalism to the new, planned society the Soviet Union pioneered; communism was an ascent into freedom, the triumph of reason over contingency. Marxism is the sword that cuts the veils of history: the party is the hand that wields the blade.

By 1950, the year Kolakowski was employed full-time at the party’s think-tank-cum-party-school, the 23-year-old’s reputation for theoretical orthodoxy was as ironclad as his movement’s domination of Polish public life. Only one institution still held out against the future. The Catholic Church had always opposed the Communist Party; always opposed the Enlightenment itself, suborning the light of reason to the medieval darkness of faith. Most Poles remained Catholic: outright suppression was impossible. Yet the Church’s spiritual power was a perpetual political risk. It had to be destroyed.

Fluent in Latin, well-versed in scripture, and the product of a home so secular he wasn’t even baptised, Kolakowski was well-suited to the task of deconstructing Christianity’s “inhuman morality of contempt, fear, humiliation and subjugation”. And well-motivated. The Church represented everything he despised about his homeland growing up: reactionary, anti-Semitic, “an organised form of intellectual barbarisation”. He set to work. Kolakowski learned early Christian writings by heart; read the thousands of pages of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa; carefully followed the renewal of Catholic thought spearheaded by Jacques Maritain. Kolakowski saw through it all. He quoted Marx: “Criticism of Heaven becomes criticism of Earth.” Theology, he glossed, is politics in denial. Abstract concepts – eschatology, salvation, grace – masked concrete material interests: capitalism, imperialism, class rule.

Kolakowski loathed Christianity. But somehow he couldn’t let it go. Over the next five years, the apostle of the communist future drifted further and further into the Christian past. He changed his doctoral research topic to a critique of Aquinas; and then to a study of the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s concept of God. Even as Kolakowski’s public attacks on Christianity intensified, he privately started to reconsider the party’s reductionist account of religion. Underneath Kolakowski’s feet, once-solid ground was slowly beginning to crack.

On a research trip to Moscow in 1952, the cracks widened. Economically, the Soviets seemed little better off than Poles; intellectually, they seemed far worse. Just as he was trying to reinvigorate Polish Marxism Kolakowski found, in the heartland of the revolution, Marxism “sclerotic and senile”. Not long after his return, in March 1953, Stalin died. His death began the “thaw”: a loosening of censorship across the eastern bloc. In February 1956, after a new Soviet leadership privately denounced Stalin, older Polish communists began to speak openly of the interwar purges; those they endured and those they carried out. They spoke about the interrogations, the tortures, the bodies burned with gasoline. For Kolakowski, it was like the ground was crumbling away underfoot.

In the works of a now-obscure French Marxist, Lucien Goldmann, Kolakowski found somewhere to stand. Goldmann’s The Hidden God (1955) reimagined Marxism through a study of 17th-century Catholic dissidents, the Jansenists. Goldmann argued that the Enlightenment was, from a socialist perspective, a retreat as well as an advance. As the world moved from a transcendent cosmology defined by meaning to an empiricist, Cartesian world-view defined by utility, something was lost. The moral values that make human life worth living were dismissed. Socialism was the completion of the Enlightenment but also, paradoxically, its reversal: the return of the human being to the centre of the universe. It was here that Stalinism had erred: Marxism without humanism is no Marxism at all.

Caught between the transcendent character of Christianity and the empiricist world they lived within, the Jansenists – and their greatest apologist, Blaise Pascal – developed what Goldmann termed a “tragic vision”: redemptive faith in the shadow of annihilation. Apocryphally, Pascal continually saw an abyss on his left: the fear, which the Enlightenment had made inescapable, of a world without God. Pascal’s famous “wager” involved choosing uncertain good over that known evil. This presented a model, Goldmann thought, for Marxists in an era when the victory of socialism was a question of human agency, not historical necessity. A wager, he argued, had to be made.

[See also: Pathologies of a president]

By 1956, Kolakowski had made that wager. Arguing, in essays such as “The Concept of the Left” that socialism is a moral ideal, he emerged as a leader of the reform movements that were rising across the eastern bloc. His mutation from party loyalist to dissenter won him admirers across the world, among them the English historian EP Thompson, who embraced a humanist Marxism like Kolakowski’s own. But it made him enemies too. In October a new government took power in Poland. A month later, Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest. The thaw began to freeze.

The state started tapping Kolakowski’s phone, opening his correspondence, spying on his associates. It was here that Kolakowski’s unique prose style – allusive and ironising to the point it approached a dialect of its own – began to coalesce. Written to be “intelligible without being transparent”, Kolakowski’s writing was replete with false starts, absent endings, meanings doubled or tripled or abruptly inverted. His editor, Zbigniew Mentzel, once said he planned a novel: after a protest in the spring of 1968, three students were locked in the same cell. All attributed their participation to a lecture by Kolakowski. All three disagreed on what the lecture actually meant.

In politics, as in writing, Kolakowski was mastering the art of ambiguity. In 1959 “The Jester and The Priest” was published. It was an essay on solving Marx’s riddle of history. Kolakowski gave the riddle a new name that was also an old name: eschatology. Theological concepts – sin, salvation, grace – were “clumsy formulations of those eternal enigmas that confound us still”. And the conflict they give rise to between jesters and priests. The priest is a rule-maker, an insider: “the guardian of the absolute”; the jester a rule-breaking outsider, practicing “negative vigilance in the face of any absolute”. Marxism needed jesters, the essay argued: placed beyond doubt, even rational systems will decay into the “moral anaesthesia” of absolutism. In a world that isn’t finally knowable, Kolakowski argued, inconsistency is the highest of principles. It’s a philosophical stance – Kolakowski called it “radical rationalism” – but also a mea culpa. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Kolakowski hadn’t resigned from the party. He was walking a fine line, but was careful not to cross it.

In the years that followed – as friends of his were censured, then fired, then jailed, then quietly disappeared – Kolakowski’s world-view darkened. And Poland’s most famous atheist found himself writing about the Devil. Beginning in the late 1950s, Kolakowski’s articles on the topic – collected in Conversations with the Devil – posed, against the flat moral background of his rationalism, the reality of evil. Whether the Devil is a symbol, or a synecdoche, or a real, personal intelligence, was a question left with the reader. What was evident was the author’s unease with the system within which he lived; with the compromises he’d made to survive. Kolakowski was a man haunted by the absolute.

His friend Zygmunt Bauman saw it coming: Kolakowski, he suggested, was a jester in the process of becoming a priest. Drawing on the work of the Romanian historian Mircea Eliade, Kolakowski argued that the “sacred order” of myth, including religion, was an “unconditioned reality” without which reason itself would lose all coherence. “Christ cannot be removed from our culture,” Kolakowski warned in “Jesus Christ, Prophet and Reformer” (1965), “if that culture is still to exist.” Christ is a living model, continuing to reveal the “wretchedness” of our world, continuing to show us how to speak the truth, to “defend it without evasion”, and, if necessary, how to “resist to the end”. It was not an expression of religious faith, but nor was it a disavowal either. Evasive and indirect as the essay is, it was enough to turn old allies into enemies. And old enemies into friends. The archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, quoted his essay in a sermon. Ten years later, he recommended it to the Pope. In the space of a decade, Kolakowski had inverted himself. Criticism of Heaven was trumping criticism of Earth.

But this time he went too far: for the first time, his books were being refused publication. Kolakowski found himself on the precipice. In October 1966 he decided to jump, using a lecture on the anniversary of 1956 to directly attack the government. He was condemned in the press within days, expelled from the party within a week. Over the next two years he was fired from every job he had; then was forbidden to teach, then forbidden to publish.

He didn’t wait to find out what happened next. Kolakowski fled to the West in 1968, taking up positions in Canada, California and, in 1970, at All Souls College, Oxford. Personally and philosophically isolated in England, he threw himself into supporting the Polish underground from overseas. As a new crackdown began at home, Kolakowski’s political constellations shifted again. His dissenting Marxism was increasingly a dissent against Marxism, even against Marx himself, who would be the subject of his next book. In 1973 a weekend at the home of EP Thompson descended into recrimination over Kolakowski’s rightward drift. Thompson drafted an open letter calling his friend to account. In his response Kolakowski broke with Marxism for good.

Kolakowski’s book was published in 1976. It was the first installment of Main Currents of Marxism, a three-volume, 1,300-page castigation of Marx, Lenin, Goldmann, Kolakowski’s own younger self and many others. Marxism was a bad religion, Leszek wrote, a mystic faith in rationalist drag: an apocalyptic, chiliastic cocktail of positivism, Platonism and misread Darwin. In one sense Kolakowski kept faith with his own younger self: Marx really was the inheritor of the Enlightenment dream of a rational, ordered world. It was this dream of “self-deification”, Kolakowski thought, this refusal to accept contingency, this failure to accept failure, that led to the gulag. But Kolakowski left one question hanging. Why would, Ralph Miliband asked, “self-deification” so outrage a man who didn’t believe in God?

[See also: How germs shape history]

Leszek refused to answer. He never would. Every one of his transformations was like this: double-edged, paradoxical, enigmatic. He left atheism, but wouldn’t confess belief; attacked Marxism on Marxist grounds; when he was asked what political beliefs he held his answer was: all of them. I’m a liberal-conservative-socialist, he declared in a 1978 essay, loyal to absolute values from each tradition: but that loyalty was never absolute. For Kolakowski, nothing was ever quite certain. In philosophy, as in life, there were no guarantees.

Main Currents lost Kolakowski friends. And made his name. He debated on live TV, and was quoted by presidents and prime ministers; in 1978 he was invited to meet the Pope. Kolakowski thanked the newly installed pontiff for making the time to see him. “After all,” he said, “the Pope carries the weight of the world on his shoulders.” Karol Wojtyla replied: “We all carry the weight of the world on our shoulders, Leszek.”

The two men had much in common. When Kolakowski was a Marxist obsessed with Christianity, Wojtyla had been a Christian intrigued by Marxism. Both men were formed in the war and occupation; both lost their parents young. And they had shared enemies. Communism in the east and secularisation in the west posed, the men agreed, existential threats. “The absence of God,” Kolakowski wrote in Religion (1982), “spells the ruin of man.” For the next 18 years, Kolakowski made regular visits to the Pope’s summer residence outside Rome, Castel Gandolfo. It was there, some critics of Kolakowski suggest, that his story ends: a Marxist apologist to a conservative one, from priest to jester and back again.

The truth is more ambiguous. John Paul II was in many ways conservative. But in others was a novelty: a pope who not only accepted the Enlightenment but defended it. In his embrace of democracy, human rights, religious pluralism – and in his transparent personal happiness – John Paul fascinated Kolakowski. In his belief that faith and reason could be reconciled, the Pope disturbed him. This was, Kolakowski thought, another “utopia”, a heretical, “semi-Pelagian” (which preaches the compatibility of faith and reason) belief in human goodness. Christianity was a “beautiful adventure”, the Pope said, the “building of a civilisation of love”. Kolakowski took a darker view. The “Christian life may be summed up thus,” he wrote: “We live in exile and we must never forget it.”

In 1988 Kolakowski published Metaphysical Horror, the book he considered his masterpiece. After the Enlightenment no meaning is self-created, Kolakowski wrote; all values are imputed values. But imputed by what? This radical uncertainty – this “metaphysical horror” – threatened the eclipse of meaning entirely. Kolakowski, like Pascal, saw an abyss on the edge of his sight. But where Pascal chose transcendent faith, Kolakowski chose something more ambivalent. “It is perhaps better for us to totter insecurely on the edge of an unknown abyss” he said in an interview, “than simply to close our eyes and deny its existence.”

In other respects, Pascal was right, Kolakowski suggested in God Owes Us Nothing (1995). The gulf that opened between faith and reason in the Enlightenment was unbridgeable. Science gives us evidence, not proof; religion makes promises, not guarantees. It’s a bleak world-view to have, Kolakowski granted: Pascal’s “was a religion for unhappy people designed to make them more unhappy”. But Pascal’s “semi-Pelagian” opponents won the debate at the highest possible cost. To universalise the sacred is to abolish it; to sanctify reason undermines the faith upon which even reason depends. Modernity isn’t a step forwards or back, Kolakowski had realised: it’s a wound in the fabric of the world.

Even after the fall of communism, the wound wouldn’t heal. Secularisation emptied the churches. Consumerism warped personalities. Industrialism strained at the planet’s ecological limits. In one comment much-quoted and little understood, Kolakowski noted that capitalism was a system that conformed to human nature. It’s only an endorsement of capitalism if you think that human nature is good. And the belief in humanity’s natural goodness was just another remnant of the Enlightenment Kolakowski had outgrown.

In one 1988 lecture, the “Politics and the Devil”, he took aim at another. History isn’t a riddle, Kolakowski told his audience: it’s a game being played by powers we can’t comprehend, still less control. And when God and his adversary meet in conflict, he added, it’s not a pretty sight. When Kolakowski looked back across the 20th century, he saw the Devil staring back.

What did he see when he looked forwards? Nothing good. The Enlightenment was a “catastrophe”, he wrote, but an irreversible one. Our last hope of avoiding “civilisational suicide”, one late essay said, is to “run very fast to stay in the same place”. Later, it seemed, even that hope was lost. In one of his final interviews Kolakowski reiterated Metaphysical Horror’s argument: our need for meaning persists, but our ability to comprehend it slips away. Everything will be lost and there’s nothing we can do. “We’re living in a world,” Kolakowski explained, “ruled by hostile gods.” The abyss wasn’t at his left hand anymore, it was everywhere: a darkness on the horizon getting closer every day. Leszek Kolakowski could see the future coming. It looked, he thought, like nothing at all.

[See also: We are still living with the wreckage of liberal globalisation]

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