A bit of spit and Polish

Freedom, Fame, Lying and Betrayal
June 11, 1999

Jonathan Ree on the Telegraphese of an exile returned home.

Leszek Kolakowski is one of the emblematic intellectuals of our time. He was born in Poland in 19, and studied philosophy and theology there during the war. In 1946, he joined the Polish Communist Party and embarked on a distinguished career as a professor of the history of philosophy, first at the University of Lodz and then in Warsaw, making a speciality of the byways of medieval theology, which he was expected to criticise in the light of historical materialism.

Soon after the crises of 1956, Kolakowski started to publish a series of essays on political theory, in which he sought to separate what was living from what was dead in the Communist tradition. In "Permanent vs Transitory Aspects of Marxism", for instance, he acknowledged the "basic accuracy" of Marx's analyses of capitalism, while warning that Marxist concepts might not be "applicable to the study of new, non-capitalist societies, where new concepts must be used to study basic social stratification".

He also liked to dwell on the similarities between the two opposing powers that held his country in their grip - orthodox Marxism and Roman Catholicism - describing them with an elephantine sarcasm that later became his rhetorical trademark. Marxism, as he put it in 1957, was just a second edition of the Christian apocalypse, but with Stalin at the top of its hierarchy instead of the Pope - "its content being in every case supplied by the decrees of the Infallible Institution which, during a certain phase, was the Greatest Philologist, the Greatest Economist, the Greatest Philosopher, and the Greatest Historian in the world".

In the 1950s and early 1960s, various members of the anti-Stalinist new left in Britain - especially E. P. Thompson - looked on Kolakowski as a harbinger of a turn towards libertarian socialism behind the Iron Curtain. Back in Poland, he found himself under attack and increasingly isolated. He was denounced as a revisionist as early as 1957, although he remained a member of the Communist Party until 1966. He lost his academic job in 1968 and quickly escaped to exile in the West. He was then embroiled in a long and repetitive comedy of misrecognition, in which radicals in Canada, California and Britain took it in turns to extend a hand of friendship to him, and were astonished and offended when their gesture was spurned. Evidently, they could not see that their bright and optimistic leftism was bound to strike Kolakowski as a replica of the Stalinism from which he had just fled.

In 1970, Kolakowski became a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and in 1978 put an end to any remaining doubts about his political allegiances by publishing Main Currents of Marxism - three ponderous volumes that made it clear he no longer saw anything in Marxism that deserved to be rescued from Stalinist lies and distortions. The steady stream of sarcasm flows on for 1,600 pages as Kolakowski repeatedly notes the parallels between Marxism and Christianity. Marxism, he concludes, is just the hysterical reprise of a messianic Christian hatred of life as we have known it, and an irrational hope for its destruction.

During the 1990s, Kolakowski has found himself in an unenviably interesting historical situation again. Following the implosion of Marxist orthodoxy in central and eastern Europe, the old dissident has been welcomed back to his own country not only as a Polish intellectual of international standing, apparently uncompromised by the old regime, but also as a pioneering anti-communist and an intermittently sympathetic commentator on Christianity. He has also been given prime-time slots on Polish television to discuss some of the grand themes of his life and work over the past 50 years. It is these talks, translated into English by Agnieszka Kolakowska, that have been packaged here as a collection of philosophical essays on freedom, fame, lying and betrayal.

The theme of betrayal must have been particularly poignant for Kolakowski. He distinguishes three kinds, depending on what is betrayed: a freely chosen commitment (to a political doctrine, for instance), an involuntary biological tie (to a nation, family or tribe), or a native bond of faith (to a church or religion into which one was born). He suggests that religious and national betrayals are generally seen as far graver than political ones. But he passes up the chance to reflect on the agonies of divided loyalty that have afflicted him, or to examine his successes or failures in maintaining a good conscience through all the hard choices that he has been forced to make.

The same self-effacement (or is it evasiveness?) is at work when Kolakowski discusses the Christian conception of God, emphasising the disparity between the meddlesome and overbearing patriarch portrayed in the Bible, and the timelessly benign law-giver conjured up by theological theory. This is interesting, but not half as interesting as the question as to whether, having spent decades attacking Marxists for sharing the thought patterns of Christians, he would now be inclined to berate Christians for sharing the thought patterns of Marxists. Kolakowski prefers not to say: he does not offer us so much as a glimpse of his own faith and uncertainties, nor any hint as to how they may have changed over his lifetime.

Kolakowski, however, is keen to put his gentlemanly collection of social and political crotchets on display. He declares his disdain for a world in which "some barely literate boxing champion" could be valued at the same rate as "a great scholar"; he denounces "our hedonistic culture" together with "mass tourism" and the "philosophies in fashion today", and he ridicules the radicals of the 1960s, especially Jean-Paul Sartre and Herbert Marcuse, who were interested only in "destroying democratic institutions and establishing their own tyranny". Indeed, their behaviour only reminds Kolakowski of all the other dreadful shortcomings of this philistine modern world, in which, as he puts it, "more and more often, and in an increasing number of countries, one hears that schoolchildren have too much freedom and not enough discipline", while at the same time "we are constantly hearing and reading about gangs of violent youths destroying or assaulting anything or anyone in their path, and explaining their behaviour by saying that they are bored".

Kolakowski's television audiences in Poland, deprived for decades of the right to read the letters pages of The Daily Telegraph , may have found his dyspeptic synopses of second-hand social conservatism novel and refreshing. But it is hard to avoid getting impatient with his habit of exaggerating every opinion he disagrees with to the point that it is so absurd that it is no longer of any interest. Socialist egalitarians may be deluded, for instance, but it is not quite accurate to say that they would be glad to see the poor grow poorer, provided everyone could end up exactly as badly off as everyone else. Libertarians may be mistaken, too, but their ideal of maximising personal freedom need not imply "the right to drive on the right or the left hand side of the road", whichever they happen to prefer. Kolakow-ski is ready to denounce exaggerations in other people but, for all his heroics in the name of moderation, he seems to be the biggest exaggerator of all.

Exquisiteness and elegance would have been out of place in a collection of testimonies from an unlucky exile who has returned home, so the very awkwardness of Kolakowski's moments of banality and extremism is perhaps a sign of guileless authenticity. His British and American publishers, however, have done him a great disservice in marketing these talks as "philosophical essays" and in failing to mention the special purposes for which they were written. The knack of a philosophical essay is, after all, to make everything turn on the presentation of an ironical authorial personality - a Montaigne, a Hume or a Kierkegaardian pseudonym, for example - as the ruefully unstable centre of a cheerfully unstable world. Kolakowski's life and thought, however, have been too ponderous to permit him to take part in such games, and his clumsiness can therefore be quite touching. He feels bound to warn us, for example, against believing in Andy Warhol's frolicsome quip about "15 minutes of fame", and he has laboriously done the sums for us. "The process of giving each one of us his 15 minutes of fame perhaps on some kind of international television channel, would take, given the current world population, something in the region of 200,000 years," he calculates.

Kolakowski's arithmetic may well be right - but if a good joke can take too long, missing the point can last for ever.

Jonathan Rée teaches philosophy at Middlesex University.

Freedom, Fame, Lying and Betrayal: Essays on Everyday Life

Author - Leszek Kolakowski
ISBN - 0 14 028044 8
Publisher - Penguin
Price - £6.99
Pages - 143

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