One of the pleasures of this Jesuit life is being a part of such a remarkably mobile international organization. In my community at Loyola Chicago, one regularly sits down to dinner next to a Bolivian, a Nigerian, a Brazilian, a German, and a Pole. And the latter two don’t even fight.
The last of these, our resident Polish priest, has been urging me for some time to take a look at a favorite Polish philosopher, whose name had too many consonants in it for me to remember. I admit, I wasn’t overly eager to dive into tomes of what I was sure would be grim and turgid prose. When I returned to the house after our Christmas break, however, I found a book by Leszek Kolakowski in my mailbox. I had been outflanked by the Polish intelligentsia!
Once I read the title, I was won over: My Correct Views on Everything. The title comes from the rejoinder Kolakowski wrote in The Socialist Register to the British Marxist E.P Thompson. Both Thompson and Kolakowski had started off as communists, and both had experienced some disillusionment after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Kolakowski’s questioning had run deeper, however, and led him to see that Marxism itself, and not just its manifestation in Stalinism, was rotten to the core.
My Correct Views on Everything is a collection of essays published over the span of Kolakowski’s long career, and one of the more interesting aspects of the book is piecing together the evolution of his thought. As a brilliant student and a Communist, Kolakowski rose to a university professorship and to become editor-in-chief of Poland’s leading philosophical journal by the time he was thirty. His mastery of the different strands of Marxist thought is apparent throughout all the volume’s essays, but even as a young scholar, Kolakowski had already begun to stray from Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. In 1966, Kolakowski was expelled from the Communist Party; shortly thereafter he lost his professorship; and after suffering malicious attacks in the press, he fled Poland in 1968. He taught at a number of universities in the United States and Canada before settling down at Oxford, where he remained until his death in 2009.
Kolakowski’s thought seems to have become progressively more Catholic as he aged. His 1965 essay “Jesus Christ – Prophet and Reformer” is rather pedestrian in its understanding of Christianity, while his review of the new Catechism shows more nuance and insight. But Kolakowski is at his best skewering Marxism and, in particular its Western apologists, for whom he has little patience. Kolakowski sees the roots of Stalinist oppression in Marx and Engels themselves, in their misplaced notion of freedom (“the more social life is submitted to a unified directing force, the freer it is”) and their faulty understanding of human nature (“all human evil is rooted in social (as distinct from biological) circumstances”). The Orwellian reduction of truth to Comrade Stalin’s will, Kolakowski argues, is entirely consistent with Marxist thought. In answer to those who saw the development of Soviet “red fascism” as an aberration, Kolakowski points out that Marx’s critics at the end of the nineteenth century correctly predicted that state slavery would be the result of following his principles.
A number of magazines and intellectuals have shown a renewed interest in Marxism over the past several years with the souring of the global economy, and a dose of Kolakowski provides a powerful caution against such flirtations. Kolakowski, to be sure, has unconventional criticisms of capitalism as well: “At one time, capitalism appeared horrifying because it produced misery; later, it turned out to be horrifying because it produces such abundance that it kills culture.”
Kolakowski’s experiences living and thinking under an authoritarian regime give him a way of understanding other flawed and failed totalitarian systems, and the comparisons and contrasts he draws between the Soviet system and Nazism are enlightening. Nazism, he suggests, was unique in more or less openly proclaiming the evil it intended to do. Perhaps what sets Kolakowski apart as a philosopher is the seriousness with which he takes evil and the force it exerts in history.
A final recommendation for Kolakowski is just how fun a read he is. Far from being stodgy and turgid, Kolakowski’s prose zings with wit and energy. His humor and fine sense of irony come across well in the translation, prepared by his daughter Agnieszka. And his wit and sharp tongue are fully backed by the moral force of a man for whom the ideological forces he critiques are not mere ideas but existential forces, matters of life and death, of freedom and slavery.