Leszek Kolakowski

17 July 2009


Leszek Kolakowski

Leszek Kolakowski, Polish philosopher and author, died today at the age of 81. Kolakowski was best know for his work on Marxism, and this work had a personal history behind it. Like Marcuse, Kolakowski faced the dilemmas of attempting to be an orthodox Marxist in the Post-WWII era, but unlike Marcuse, who pursued his Marxism from the safe haven of the US, Kolakowski found himself living in a country that did not have a communist revolution, but had a communist government imposed upon it by the Red Army.

Kolakowski found himself at odds with Poland’s communist government when we called for more democratic forms of socialism. As his thought developed and he visited Moscow to see Soviet communism first hand, he became a revisionist Marxist and argued for a humanistic interpretation of Marxism. Eventually, dismissed from Warsaw University, he left Poland for Montreal, and then California, and finally Oxford, where he remained and where he died.

Kolakowski is best known for his study of Marxism, Main Currents of Marxism, but he wrote prolifically, and while I don’t have a copy of his seminal book on Marxism, I easily found a couple of books by Kolakowski in my library, Husserl and the Search for Certitude and The Alienation of Reason: A History of Positivist Thought.

Kolakowksi Husserl

Marxism, phenomenology, and positivism represent highly diverse threads of twentieth century thought. From the titles of the books mentioned above it is apparent that Kolakowski did not hesitate to address the big ideas of his time. Though his area of specialization was Marxism, and while Marxism could be considered a species of positivism, there is a fundamental difference in approach to philosophy between phenomenology and Marxism.

Kolakowski positivism

Kolakowski’s diverse and broad philosophical interests also distinguish him from the main stream of twentieth century Polish philosophy, which consists of philosophical technicians in the best sense of the term. Polish philosophy pioneered its own mathematical logic with an especially economical and elegant symbolism, and the application of rigorous logical methods to traditional philosophical problems created a Polish philosophy that was recognizably analytical though also recognizably distinct from Anglo-American analytical philosophy. But Kolakowski was not part of this tradition, and that he was able to formulate this own philosophical program in the midst of official Marxism and the Polish analytical tradition, is remarkable in and of itself. For this reason, if for no other, Kolakowski may without reservation be called an original thinker.

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