- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 20, 2005



By Leszek Kolakowski

St. Augustine’s, $32,

284 pages

Leszek Kolakowski is not a name familiar to Americans, but it should be. No one has done more to define the evils that communism has visited on mankind than Mr. Kolakowski, a Polish philosopher who now lives in Oxford, England. Nor has any other living author written with greater depth and precision about the dangers faced by the modern world in its often welcoming embrace of nihilism and moral relativism.

In his more than 30 books and 400 essays, Mr. Kolakowski, a former communist, has developed a body of work over five decades that defends tradition and religion as essential to a life lived fully. He accuses secularism, that all-powerful force in Western civilization, of undermining or destroying much that is valuable and irreplaceable in our culture. And he writes eloquently about everyone’s need for the sacred in their lives, a basic human need Mr. Kolakowski sees the modern world doing its best to deny, even bring an end to.

Born in Radom, Poland, in 1927, Mr. Kolakowski as a teenager experienced Poland’s invasion and occupation by Hitler’s army. Along with others, he helped hide Polish Jews from Nazi roundup. He earned a doctorate in philosophy after the war and joined the Communist Party, becoming in his own words an orthodox Marxist.

But that orthodoxy did not last, nor did the Marxism. By 1953, when Stalin died, Mr. Kolakowski was chafing at the bit. Three years later, in 1956, he wrote a short, satiric attack on communism called “What Is Socialism?” which found itself immediately banned in Poland, but began to circulate underground, where that essay and other of Mr. Kolakowski’s works formed the intellectual and spiritual underpenning of the Polish anti-communist movement. They also got him kicked out of the Communist Party, cost him his teaching job and led to his immigration to the West.

The communist world’s loss was the free world’s gain. After 1968, he taught at the University of California, Berkeley, at Yale and Oxford, and other leading universities. And he published such major works as “Main Currents of Marxism,” “Modernity on Endless Trial” and “Metaphysical Horror.” In 2003, Mr. Kolakowski received the first John M. Kluge Prize for “lifetime achievement in the human sciences.” Bestowed by the Library of Congress, the prize is one million dollars.

Mr. Kolakowski’s new book, “My Correct Views On Everything,” a title that reflects the wit that pops up unexpectedly in his work, is a collection of essays and interviews covering a half-century and includes his biting “What Is Socialism” of 1956. It also encompasses pieces on three of his major themes: Why Marxism is wrong for mankind (and always will be), the place of the Catholic Church in the modern world and why spiritual life is an essential part of being human. These rich themes, however, cannot be separated, because Mr. Kolakowski’s recognition of the significance of religion rose, in great part, out of his realization of Marxism’s shortcomings and failures. And his defense of tradition (and strong sense of the need to preserve what’s valuable from the past) springs from his experience living in a Poland boasting that it was in the process of destroying the evil past and creating a new society, whatever the human cost.

As everyone now knows, that human cost was great. Mr. Kolakowski argues those costs were apparent from the very beginning. “Utopians are people who dream about ensuring for mankind the position of pensioner and who are convinced that this position is so splendid that no sacrifices… are too great to achieve it,” he writes. But the communist fantasy can be realized only through ruthlessness, and this is always so: There is no “reason to expect that it can ever come true, except in the cruel form of despotism,” he explains, adding, as somone with firsthand knowledge of communism at work, “and despotism is a desparate simulation of paradise.”

Mr. Kolakowski writes that communism (and that other form of totalitarianism, nazism) gave his generation experience with genuine evil. “Evil, I contend, is… a stubborn and unredeemable fact,” he avers. Why was communism evil? Because, he argues, its much-trumpeted goal for social justice was a lie. Ultimately, what communism wanted to do (and at times succeeded) was to destroy “civil society in all its aspects: all human bonds, all forms of communication, information, exchange, and organization that are not arbitrarily imposed by the government,” all in the name of power. “Communism was a gigantic facade,” he says, “and the reality concealed behind it was the sheer drive for power, for total power as an end in itself.” The communist lie made communism “a more heinous thing than was Hitler’s system,” Mr. Kolakowski writes, “because the Stalinist practice of nationalism, slavery, and genocide is the complete negation of the avowed aims of the Soviet system,” which were peace and social justice. The irony is that Hitler “didn’t lie very much to the world,” about what he proposed to do,” but the world thought his goals too evil to be believed, while “Stalin lied to the world and, for a very long time, the lie succeeded.”

But not for ever. “Fortunately, much in the make-up of human beings resists the pressures of totalitarian control,” Mr. Kolakowski asserts. “People need, and have always needed, to believe that the world can be not only dominated, but also understood,” he explains, “this need is surely part of what it means to be human.” And the human need to understand includes understanding things of the spirit as well as of the material world.

Indeed, Mr. Kolakowski makes it clear that he believes society cannot survive without religion. Religion — Catholic, as well as other traditions — “has taught us to limit ourselves, to place a distance between our needs and our wants,” he writes. This teaching of limits isn’t done to hem man in. Religion teaches limits to convince us that there is no wisdom in excess; that in limitlessness lie danger and ruin. “Without a consciousness of limits, which can only come from history and religion,” Mr. Kolakowski explains, “any attempt to limit our wants will result in terrible frustration and aggression that could take on catastrophic proportions.”

Religion teaches us our limitations; it also provides a moral order that cannot be ignored. “Many people still believe that they should do something simply because it is right, or forbear from doing it simply because it is wrong, not because they are terrified by the specter of the police, judges, prison, and execution,” he notes, and then asks what he calls a “naive” question: “Could mankind survive without such people?” His answer is a resounding no.

Mankind must maintain its connection to the spiritual. It must also have a sense of the sacred, Mr. Kolakowski concludes. Why? Because “When a culture loses its sacred sense, it loses all sense. With the disappearance of the sacred, which imposes limits on the perfection that can be attained by secular society, one of the most dangerous illusions of our civilization arises — the illusion that there are no limits to the challenges we can undergo; that society is an endless flexible thing subject to the arbitrary whims of our creative capacities.” And it is this illusion, he maintains, which is at the core of utopian thinking of any kind, and which makes that thinking so great a danger.

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