Leszek Kołakowski

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Leszek Kołakowski
Kołakowski in 1971
Born(1927-10-23)23 October 1927
Died17 July 2009(2009-07-17) (aged 81)
Oxford, England
EducationUniversity of Łódź
University of Warsaw (PhD, 1953)
Notable workMain Currents of Marxism (1976)
AwardsPeace Prize of the German Book Trade (1977)
MacArthur Fellowship (1983)
Erasmus Prize (1983)
Kluge Prize (2003)
Jerusalem Prize (2007)
Era20th-/21st-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
InstitutionsUniversity of Warsaw
Doctoral students
Main interests
Notable ideas
Humanist interpretation of Marx
Criticism of Marxism

Leszek Kołakowski (/ˌkɒləˈkɒfski/; Polish: [ˈlɛʂɛk kɔwaˈkɔfskʲi]; 23 October 1927 – 17 July 2009) was a Polish philosopher and historian of ideas. He is best known for his critical analyses of Marxist thought, such as in his three-volume history of Marxist philosophy Main Currents of Marxism (1976). In his later work, Kołakowski increasingly focused on religious questions. In his 1986 Jefferson Lecture, he asserted that "we learn history not in order to know how to behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are".[1]

Due to his criticism of Marxism and of the Communist state system, Kołakowski was effectively exiled from Poland in 1968. He spent most of the remainder of his career at All Souls College, Oxford. Despite being in exile, Kołakowski was a major inspiration for the Solidarity movement that flourished in Poland in the 1980s[2] and helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union, leading to his being described by Bronisław Geremek as the "awakener of human hopes".[3][full citation needed][4] He was awarded both the MacArthur Fellowship and Erasmus Prize in 1983, the 2003 Kluge Prize, and the 2007 Jerusalem Prize.

Life and career[edit]

Early life and education[edit]

Kołakowski was born in Radom, Poland. He could not obtain formal schooling during the German occupation of Poland (1939–1945) in World War II, but he read books and took occasional private lessons, passing his school-leaving examinations as an external student in the underground school system. After the war, he studied philosophy at both University of Łódź and University of Warsaw, the latter of which he completed a doctorate at in 1953, focusing on Spinoza from a Marxist viewpoint.[5] He served as a professor and chair of Warsaw University's department of History of Philosophy from 1959 to 1968.[6]

In his youth, Kołakowski became a communist. He signed a denunciation against Władysław Tatarkiewicz.[7] In 1945, he joined the Association of Fighting Youth.[8] From 1947 to 1966, he was a member of the Polish United Workers' Party. His intellectual promise earned him a trip to Moscow in 1950.[9] He broke with Stalinism, becoming a revisionist Marxist advocating a humanist interpretation of Karl Marx. One year after the 1956 Polish October, Kołakowski published a four-part critique of Soviet Marxist dogmas, including historical determinism, in the Polish periodical Nowa Kultura. [pl][10] His public lecture at Warsaw University on the tenth anniversary of Polish October led to his expulsion from the Polish United Workers' Party. In the course of the 1968 Polish political crisis, he lost his job at Warsaw University and was prevented from obtaining any other academic post.[11]

He came to the conclusion that the totalitarian cruelty of Stalinism was not an aberration but a logical end-product of Marxism, whose genealogy he examined in his monumental Main Currents of Marxism, his major work, published in 1976 to 1978.[12]

Kołakowski, ANeFo


Kołakowski became increasingly fascinated by the contribution that theological assumptions make to Western culture and, in particular, modern thought. For example, he began his Main Currents of Marxism with an analysis of the contribution that various forms of ancient and medieval Platonism made, centuries later, to the Hegelian view of history. In the work, he criticized the laws of dialectical materialism for being fundamentally flawed and found some of them being "truisms with no specific Marxist content", others "philosophical dogmas that cannot be proved by scientific means" but others being just "nonsense".[13]

Kołakowski defended the role which freedom of will plays in the human quest for the transcendent. His Law of the Infinite Cornucopia asserted a doctrine of status quaestionis: for any given doctrine that one wants to believe, there is never a shortage of arguments by which one can support it.[14] Nevertheless, although human fallibility implies that we ought to treat claims to infallibility with scepticism, our pursuit of the higher (such as truth and goodness) is ennobling.

In 1965, Kołakowski, Maria Ossowska and Tadeusz Kotarbiński drew up a report on the meaning of the concept of message, which was used by the defence in the trial of Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski who were charged by the communist authorities with "propagating false information" in their Open Letter to the Party.[15]

In 1968, Kołakowski became a visiting professor in the Department of Philosophy at McGill University in Montreal and in 1969 he moved to the University of California, Berkeley.[16] In 1970, he became a senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He remained mostly at Oxford, but he spent part of 1974 at Yale University, and from 1981 to 1994, he was a part-time professor at the Committee on Social Thought and in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago.[17]

Although the Polish Communist authorities officially banned his works in Poland, underground copies of them influenced the opinions of the Polish intellectual opposition.[18] His 1971 essay Theses on Hope and Hopelessness (full title: In Stalin's Countries: Theses on Hope and Despair),[19][20] which suggested that self-organized social groups could gradually expand the spheres of civil society in a totalitarian state, helped to inspire the dissident movements of the 1970s that led to Solidarity and eventually to the collapse of Communist rule in Eastern Europe in 1989.[21] In 1975, he was one of the signatories of the Letter of 59, an open letter signed by Polish intellectuals who protested against the changes of the Constitution of the People's Republic of Poland that were made by the communist party of Poland in 1975.[22] In the 1980s, Kołakowski supported Solidarity by giving interviews, writing and fundraising.[3]

Kołakowski maintained throughout his life and career a view of Marxism that was distinct from that of existing political regimes, and he relentlessly disputed these differences and defended his own interpretation of Marxism. In a famous article entitled "What is Left of Socialism", he wrote

The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had nothing to do with Marxian prophesies. Its driving force was not a conflict between the industrial working class and capital, but rather was carried out under slogans that had no socialist, let alone Marxist, content: Peace and land for peasants. There is no need to mention that these slogans were to be subsequently turned into their opposite. What in the twentieth century perhaps comes closest to the working class revolution were the events in Poland of 1980-81: the revolutionary movement of industrial workers (very strongly supported by the intelligentsia) against the exploiters, that is to say, the state. And this solitary example of a working class revolution (if even this may be counted) was directed against a socialist state, and carried out under the sign of the cross, with the blessing of the Pope.[23]

Kolakowski's grave

Reception in Poland[edit]

In Poland, Kołakowski is regarded as a philosopher and historian of ideas but also as an icon for anti-communism and opponents of communism. Adam Michnik has called Kołakowski "one of the most prominent creators of contemporary Polish culture".[24][25] He authored more than 30 books in a career spanning more than five decades.[26] He is also regarded as a great populariser of philosophy. His writings, lectures and TV appearances encouraged people to ask questions, even the most banal ones, and praised the figure of a jester in philosophy – somebody who is "not afraid to challenge even our strongest assumptions and maintains a healthy distance towards everything."[27]


Kołakowski died from multiple organ failure on 17 July 2009, aged 81, at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, England.[28][29] In an obituary, philosopher Roger Scruton wrote that Kołakowski was a "thinker for our time" and that, regarding Kołakowski's debates with intellectual opponents, "even if ... nothing remained of the subversive orthodoxies, nobody felt damaged in their ego or defeated in their life's project, by arguments which from any other source would have inspired the greatest indignation".[30]


Kołakowski in 2007

In 1986, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Kołakowski for the Jefferson Lecture. Kołakowski's lecture "The Idolatry of Politics",[31] was reprinted in his collection of essays Modernity on Endless Trial.[32]

In 2003, the Library of Congress named Kołakowski the first winner of the $1 million John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Humanities.[33][34][26] When announcing the inaugural laureate of the prize, James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, emphasized not only Kolakowski’s scholarship but also his "demonstrable importance to major political events in his own time," adding that “his voice was fundamental for the fate of Poland, and influential in Europe as a whole."[26]

His other awards include the following:


  • Klucz niebieski, albo opowieści budujące z historii świętej zebrane ku pouczeniu i przestrodze (The Key to Heaven), 1957
  • Jednostka i nieskończoność. Wolność i antynomie wolności w filozofii Spinozy (The Individual and the Infinite: Freedom and Antinomies of Freedom in Spinoza's Philosophy), 1958
  • 13 bajek z królestwa Lailonii dla dużych i małych (Tales from the Kingdom of Lailonia and the Key to Heaven), 1963. English edition: Hardcover: University of Chicago Press (October 1989). ISBN 978-0-226-45039-1.
  • Rozmowy z diabłem (US title: Conversations with the Devil / UK title: Talk of the Devil; reissued with The Key to Heaven under the title The Devil and Scripture, 1973), 1965
  • Świadomość religijna i więź kościelna, 1965
  • Od Hume'a do Koła Wiedeńskiego (the 1st edition:The Alienation of Reason, translated by Norbert Guterman, 1966/ later as Positivist Philosophy from Hume to the Vienna Circle),
  • Kultura i fetysze (Toward a Marxist Humanism, translated by Jane Zielonko Peel, and Marxism and Beyond), 1967
  • A Leszek Kołakowski Reader, 1971
  • Positivist Philosophy, 1971
  • TriQuartely 22, 1971
  • Obecność mitu (The Presence of Myth), 1972. English edition: Paperback: University of Chicago Press (January 1989). ISBN 978-0-226-45041-4.
  • ed. The Socialist Idea: A Reappraisal, 1974 (with Stuart Hampshire)
  • Husserl and the Search for Certitude, 1975
  • Główne nurty marksizmu. First published in Polish (3 volumes) as "Główne nurty marksizmu" (Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1976) and in English (3 volumes) as "Main Currents of Marxism" (London: Oxford University Press, 1978). Current editions: Paperback (1 volume): W. W. Norton & Company (17 January 2008). ISBN 978-0393329438. Hardcover (1 volume): W. W. Norton & Company; First edition (7 November 2005). ISBN 978-0393060546.
  • Czy diabeł może być zbawiony i 27 innych kazań, 1982
  • Religion: If There Is No God, 1982
  • Bergson, 1985
  • Le Village introuvable, 1986
  • Metaphysical Horror, 1988. Revised edition: Paperback: University of Chicago Press (July 2001). ISBN 978-0-226-45055-1.
  • Pochwała niekonsekwencji, 1989 (ed. by Zbigniew Menzel)
  • Cywilizacja na ławie oskarżonych, 1990 (ed. by Paweł Kłoczowski)
  • Modernity on Endless Trial, 1990. Paperback: University of Chicago Press (June 1997). ISBN 978-0-226-45046-9. Hardcover: University of Chicago Press (March 1991). ISBN 978-0-226-45045-2.
  • God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal's Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism, 1995. Paperback: University of Chicago Press (May 1998). ISBN 978-0-226-45053-7. Hardcover: University of Chicago Press (November 1995). ISBN 978-0-226-45051-3.
  • Freedom, Fame, Lying, and Betrayal: Essays on Everyday Life, 1999
  • The Two Eyes of Spinoza and Other Essays on Philosophers, 2004
  • My Correct Views on Everything, 2005
  • Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?, 2007
  • Is God Happy?: Selected Essays, 2012
  • Jezus ośmieszony. Esej apologetyczny i sceptyczny, 2014

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Leszek Kołakowski, "The Idolatry of Politics," reprinted in Modernity on Endless Trial (University of Chicago Press, 1990, paperback edition 1997), ISBN 0-226-45045-7, ISBN 0-226-45046-5, ISBN 978-0-226-45046-9, p. 158.
  2. ^ Roger Kimball, Leszek Kołakowski and the Anatomy of Totalitarianism. The New Criterion, June 2005
  3. ^ a b Jason Steinhauer (2015). "'The Awakener of Human Hopes': Leszek Kolakowski", John W. Kluge Center at Library of Congress, September 18, 2015; accessed 01 December 2017
  4. ^ "Philosopher Awarded Library's New Kluge Prize". Washington Post. 11 May 2003.
  5. ^ "Leszek Kolakowski: Polish-born philosopher and writer who produced". Independent.co.uk. 29 July 2009. Archived from the original on 14 June 2022. Retrieved 3 February 2018.
  6. ^ George Gömöri (29 July 2009). "Leszek Kolakowski: Polish-born philosopher and writer who produced seminal critical analyses on Marxism and religion". independent.co.uk. Archived from the original on 14 April 2016. Retrieved 22 May 2023.
  7. ^ "Pięć lat temu zmarł Leszek Kołakowski". 21 July 2009.
  8. ^ Andrzej Friszke and Tadeusz Koczanowicz (23 April 2018). "Leszek Kołakowski's political path". eurozine.com. Retrieved 22 May 2023.
  9. ^ "Leszek Kolakowski". Telegraph.co.uk. 20 July 2009. Retrieved 3 February 2018.
  10. ^ Foreign News: VOICE OF DISSENT, TIME Magazine, 14 October 1957
  11. ^ Clive James (2007) Cultural Amnesia, p. 353
  12. ^ Gareth Jones (17 July 2009) "Polish philosopher and author Kołakowski dead at 81". Reuters
  13. ^ Kołakowski, Leszek (2005). Main Currents of Marxism. New York: W. W. Norton and Company. p. 909. ISBN 9780393329438.
  14. ^ Kołakowski, Leszek (1982). Religion. New York: Oxford University Press. ASIN B01JXSH3HM., p.16
  15. ^ Roman Graczyk (19 April 2018). ""List otwarty do Partii" Kuronia i Modzelewskiego". interia.pl (in Polish). Retrieved 22 May 2023.
  16. ^ "Leszek Kołakowski (1927-2009)" (in Polish). 15 February 2021. Retrieved 22 May 2023.
  17. ^ "Leszek Kołakowski". press.uchicago.edu. Retrieved 22 May 2023.
  18. ^ Leszek Kolakowski: Scholar and Activist The Long Career of the Kluge Prize Winner, Library of Congress Information Bulletin, December 2003.
  19. ^ Leszek Kołakowski (1971): Hope and Hopelessness. In: Survey, vol. 17, no. 3 (80)
  20. ^ Kołakowski : In Stalin's Countries: Theses on Hope and Despair (1971). osaarchivum.org
  21. ^ "Leszek Kolakowski, renowned philosopher, 1927-2009". news.uchicago.edu. 21 July 2009. Retrieved 22 May 2023.
  22. ^ Lipiński, Edward (2006). "The Letter of 59 Intellectuals to the Speaker of the Diet of the Polish People's Republic". The Polish Review. 51 (1). The Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America: 95–97. JSTOR 25779595. Retrieved 22 May 2023.
  23. ^ "What Is Left of Socialism by Leszek Kolakowski | Articles | First Things". October 2002.
  24. ^ Adam Michnik (18 July 1985) "Letter from the Gdansk Prison," New York Review of Books.
  25. ^ Norman Davies (5 October 1986) "True to Himself and His Homeland," New York Times.
  26. ^ a b c Nicholas Kulish (20 July 2009). "Leszek Kolakowski, Polish Philosopher, Dies at 81". The New York Times. Retrieved 23 May 2023.
  27. ^ Michał Wieczorek (1 February 2019). "10 Polish Philosophers Who Changed the Way We Think". culture.pl. Retrieved 22 May 2023.
  28. ^ Lukes, Steven (2013). "Kolakowski, Leszek (1927–2009), philosopher and historian of ideas". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/101919. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  29. ^ "Leszek Kolakowski". Encyclopædia Britannica. 19 October 2023.
  30. ^ Scruton, Roger. "Leszek Kolakowski: thinker for our time". opendemocracy.net. Open Democracy. Retrieved 27 February 2015.
  31. ^ Jefferson Lecturers. neh.gov
  32. ^ Leszek Kołakowski (1990) "The Idolatry of Politics," p. 158 in Modernity on Endless Trial. University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-45045-7.
  33. ^ "Library of Congress Announces Winner of First John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Humanities and Social Sciences". Loc.gov. Retrieved 3 February 2018.
  34. ^ Leszek Kołakowski, "What the Past is For" (speech given on 5 November 2003, on the occasion of the awarding of the Kluge Prize to Kołakowski).
  35. ^ "Leszek Kołakowski". sppwarszawa.pl (in Polish). Retrieved 22 May 2023.
  36. ^ "Leszek Kołakowski". sppwarszawa.pl (in Polish). Retrieved 22 May 2023.
  37. ^ "Doktorzy Honorowi Uniwersytetu Gdańskiego". Retrieved 7 August 2019.
  38. ^ "M.P. 1998 nr 6 poz. 109". isap.sejm.gov.pl (in Polish). Retrieved 22 May 2023.
  39. ^ "Leszek Kołakowski. Portret z nosorożcem". teatrkubus.pl (in Polish). Retrieved 22 May 2023.
  40. ^ "John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity (The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress)". Loc.gov. Retrieved 15 February 2017.
  41. ^ "Leszek Kołakowski". polinst.hu. Archived from the original on 12 February 2018. Retrieved 22 May 2023.
  42. ^ Simon Williams (23 January 2007). "Polish writer on individual freedom to be awarded Jerusalem Prize". jpost.com. Retrieved 22 May 2023.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]