One of the greatest of modern thinkers passed away 2 years ago this month. Leszek Kolakowski was rightly known for his searing critique of Communism, embodied in his magisterial 1978 survey, the 3-volume Main Currents of Marxism. The 20th century had crushed his every favorable illusion about Communism (as it did for virtually every other Pole). He exposed the ugly philosophical reality of Marxism as thoroughly as Alexander Solzhenitsyn exposed its hideous physical reality. With Main Currents and Gulag Archipelago on a bookshelf, and only The Black Book of Communism between them, no library really needs another volume on the subject.
He was a fine prose stylist, with a vein of incisive wit. Here is his summary of the “New Left”:
“While the ideological fantasies of this movement, which reached its climax around 1968-69, were no more than a nonsensical expression of the whims of spoiled middle class children, and while the extremists among them were virtually indistinguishable from Fascist thugs, the movement did without doubt express a profound crisis of faith in the values that had inspired democratic societies for many decades. In this sense, it was a ‘genuine’ movement despite its grotesque phraseology; the same, of course, could be said of Nazism and Fascism.” (Main Currents, vol. 3, p. 490)
Kolakowski lived long enough (he was 92) to be recognized for his brilliant contribution to the debunking of Communism. The eulogies from Roger Kimball (New Criterions) and Christopher Hitchens (Slate) (among many others) make the point well.
But in his later years, LK made equally brilliant contributions to the understanding of liberal, secular modernity’s crippling of our civilization. In books like Modernity on Endless Trial (1990), he made clear the extent to which a post-religious world is incapable of sustaining moral standards. He understood the magnitude of failure that resulted from what Alasdair MacIntyre has called “the Enlightenment project of providing a rational vindication of morality” and “the secularization of morality” (After Virtue, 1981). LK realized that without religion, morality, human rights, human dignity, and therefore civilization itself were all unsustainable. They are edifices built on eroded Judeo-Christian foundations, waiting to be knocked down by the next strong wind.
Although he was able to see the dead end inherent in secular society, LK was not himself able to embrace what he knew to be the only solution: religious revival. But religion does not exist because it is effective; it exists because believers have faith in God. Faith in the power of religion is no substitute for religion. (He states this beautifully in Modernity on Endless Trial, but I don’t have my copy handy to quote it.)
And he as much as stated that he himself could not embrace faith itself; he was not a believer. So, like many of us, he must have stared into the abyss with a sense of profound sadness and pessimism.