Capitalizing on communism

J'lem Prize-winner Leszek Kolakowski talks about his journey from the Polish Communist Party to Oxford.

kolakowski 88 298 (photo credit: )
kolakowski 88 298
(photo credit: )
The visitor to Oxford is met by colleges that are so grand and ostentatious they intimidate, and the sound of pretentious undergraduates. So the modesty of Prof. Leszek Kolakowski comes as a shock to the system. The Polish-born one-time communist, then persecuted critic of communism, is embarrassed when asked how he feels about winning the Jerusalem Prize for Literature, which will be awarded at the International Book Fair in Jerusalem on Sunday. "That's not really a question. Very nice," he says, making it clear the topic is closed. That is nothing compared to his reaction at the mention of his iconic status as an opponent of the Soviet regime, before, during and after its fall. "I'm not an icon," he insists, as if wounded by the compliment. "I was in the political and intellectual movement in the history of ideas, and in my criticism of the Soviets gained a certain notoriety, but to say icon is improper." The judges for the prize would disagree. When revealing their choice of Kolakowski, they declared that "for decades [he has been] a moral inspiration for people everywhere fighting for the freedom of the individual in society. His writings contributed to an internal critique of the repressive aspects of Soviet communism, which eventually led to delegitimizing its very ideology among many of its supporters, both in Eastern Europe and in the West." The 79-year-old explains, having very slowly crossed his living room and made his way to the sofa aided by his walking stick, that ill health means he cannot collect the $10,000 prize in person. Given his frailty now, it is difficult to believe that the same man was victim, in 1968, of a spate of expulsions from Warsaw University targeting academics responsible for student riots as well as "revisionism." But as Kolakowski points out, accusations tell you far more about the subject that dominates his writing, the "intellectual demise" under Soviet rule, than about what the offending staff members actually did. Riots were started by provocateurs, and those expelled were either critics of the regime, like him, or Jews subject to a wave of anti-Semitism. His ideas, and even his name, could no longer appear in print. For a long time previously, "my lectures were in a sense controlled. People from the secret police were there." Two years before losing his philosophy chair, he was expelled from the Communist Party. He had joined in 1945 after the nightmare of his youth under German occupation came to an end, when "I greeted the Red Army as a liberator." The only surprise to him was that it took so long. "I was treated as a traitor, and there was something justified in it," he admits. "I was not a real party member for years. I believed when I joined that Marxism offered a rational, nonsentimental way of explaining the social world. This was no longer the case." By the end of 1950, he already had his doubts. "I spent three months in Moscow with six or seven colleagues. It was a chance to hear and see all the luminaries of Soviet philosophy and social science. Even then it was a terrifying experience. I saw the sinking intellectual level and all-round degradation of culture." Kolakowski and close allies "tried to explain it to ourselves in one or another way." After Stalin's death in 1953, "we learned about the whole system of persecution... [but] we did believe that the whole system could be reformed and made humane, however inhumane it was. We hoped that socialism was a good idea and could be used to better society." In 1955 and 1956 "we realized that while this system of socialism is a good idea, as it was in the Soviet Union was perhaps not reformable." The party itself was in "disarray." The notion of communism with freedom of speech and information had become "like the idea of a piece of fried snow." Changes to the regime in 1956 brought widespread hope, but in Kolakowski's opinion they failed to make a difference. It was for publicly voicing this opinion in 1966 that he was expelled from the party. BY THIS TIME he was already working on his comprehensive history of communism, published as the three-volume Main Currents of Marxism. The timing came to define Kolakowski's reputation - as a man who lays claim to academic research and personal experience of his subject matter. Booted out of both the party and his job and stripped of the ability to work, he was effectively exiled, and left for Montreal in late 1968, where there was a visiting professorship waiting for him. He spent a year there, then a year as visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, before moving to Oxford in 1970 to become senior research fellow at All Souls College. He also held professorships at Yale University and the University of Chicago before retiring in 1995. Kolakowski has written prolifically, on communism and philosophical topics including liberalism, the philosophy of culture and the thought of Spinoza. Works include The Priest and the Jester, a collection of essays criticizing all orthodoxy and dogmatism, and Towards a Marxist Humanism, which presents freedom of thought and choice as a crucial ingredient of the human experience that cannot be eradicated or silenced. He has also authored literary works, often classed as philosophical tales, which draw on his academic interests and present them in an accessible manner. Best known are Tales from the Kingdom of Lailonia, reminiscent of ancient Persian folktales with Eastern European humor a distinguishing factor, and The Key to Heaven, moral tales featuring characters from the Bible. Another interest has been the philosophy of religion, a topic that brings on another bout of the Kolakowski modesty, by way of self-criticism. He is "very unhappy" that he chose, early in his academic career, to attack the church in strong terms. "I later studied many things in the church and other religions. I changed my attitudes, as seen in Religion: If There Is No God, where I explained why religion is an inadmissible and necessary part of human culture, why there is no reason why religion will drop off." He goes on to speak of the beauty of Jewish practice, and his disappointment that he cannot collect his prize in Jerusalem, a "holy city" in his opinion, or visit kibbutzim, which he concluded in past trips to Israel were an acceptable face of socialism. Has he returned to the faith of his childhood, Catholicism? "I'm not answering that question," he replies, making it clear, like he did on the subject of the prize, that the topic is closed. Having spoken of living through German occupation, putting his faith in communism and then becoming disillusioned, expulsions and exile, it seems fair to conclude that Kolakowski would be a difficult man to surprise. But Sunday's prize did. While he has a soft spot for Israel, it is more than 10 years since he visited. "Suddenly, I got a phone call from someone in the Israeli Embassy in London informing me about it. The award has come completely out of the blue."