Leszek Kolakowski devoted a lifetime to explaining why so many of his fellow intellectuals fell for murderous ideologies.
Kolakowski, who died in 2009, was an intellectual in the best sense of that word: a scholar of vast learning, a writer with a gift for the clear and felicitous expression of complex ideas, and a man who didn’t overestimate his own importance. While he is usually labeled a philosopher, there is no philosophical system one could call “Kolakowskianism.” He was more a historian of ideas than a philosopher in his own right; his greatest work, the three-volume “Main Currents of Marxism” (1978), is a demolition of a sham philosophy rather than the expression of a real one.
“Is God Happy?,” a collection of essays selected by the author’s daughter, Agnieszka Kolakowska, from his 60-year writing career, is an excellent introduction to Kolakowski’s writing. It is a treasure for Kolakowski’s admirers, too, with 10 of the essays appearing in English for the first time.
The collection begins with a grouping of nine essays examining the Western responses to Soviet communism. One of these, “What Is Socialism?” (1956), enjoyed a long notoriety within the Polish underground. It is a satirical enumeration of things that socialism wasn’t supposed to be: “a state whose neighbors curse geography”; “a state that produces superb jet planes and lousy shoes”; “a state whose philosophers and writers always say the same things as the generals and ministers, but always after the latter have said them.” The essay was posted for a brief time on a bulletin board at Warsaw University, where Kolakowski taught, before being taken down by government minders. Twelve years later its author was pushed out of Polish academic life altogether, freed to take positions in England and North America.
To those younger than 35, communism must seem like some ridiculous hoax. How could so many Western intellectuals have defended an ideology—and defended it into the late 1980s—that had never produced anything but economic devastation, cultural perversion and mass murder? And yet they did. In “Genocide and Ideology,” from 1977, Kolakowski asked why Soviet communism attracted so many artists and intellectuals and Nazism so few. He pointed out that Nazism at least stated its aims straightforwardly: Nazis promoted Teutonic racial superiority and the conquest of Europe. Communism, on the other hand, “never preached conquest, only liberation from oppression; it never extolled the state as a value in itself, only stressed the necessity of reinforcing the state as an indispensable lever to destroy the enemies of freedom.” All it took to gain the loyalty of influential writers and thinkers, in other words, was some heavy-handed rhetorical legerdemain.
The essays on communism and the left brim with arresting insights. In the 1983 essay “Totalitarianism and the Virtue of the Lie,” for instance, Kolakowski explained why a society can’t survive by basing itself on disinformation. “Even in the best of conditions the massive process of forgery cannot be completed: it requires a large number of forgers who must understand the distinction between what is genuine and what is faked.” A simple example is “an officer in a military office of cartography, who must have unfalsified maps at his disposal in order to falsify the maps. . . . The power of words over reality cannot be unlimited since, fortunately, reality imposes its own unalterable conditions.” Kolakowski also recalled hearing a guide at the Hermitage in Leningrad dismiss the art of Matisse and Cézanne as bourgeois degeneracy in 1950. In 1957, he heard the same guide praise them as masters. The party’s needs had changed, but the guide wasn’t stupid—he knew the truth.
Kolakowski’s reflections, though dazzling, don’t inspire great optimism about humanity. From the beginning he seems to have rejected the idea of human perfectibility, and it isn’t surprising to learn that, even as a communist in the 1950s, Kolakowski had a deep interest in religious questions. The middle third of “Is God Happy?” consists of seven essays covering theological subjects, including the problem of evil and the impossibility of separating the historical Jesus from Western culture and history.
“Erasmus and his God,” published in Polish in 1965, captures the essence of Erasmus’s doctrine far better than more specialized explanations. Erasmus, Kolakowski thought, tried to combine the “faith alone” approach of Luther and Calvin with Roman Catholicism’s emphasis on works and moral virtue. But the strength of this approach is misleading, “for it tells Christians to behave as if everything depended on their own efforts while at the same time telling them that nothing does.” Kolakowski saw this as “a particular instance of the difficulty inherent in any doctrine which views genuine human effort as the unique source of moral value while at the same time refusing to acknowledge any human contribution to the results of that effort.”
Just as the theological essays avoid predictable lamentations over the West’s abandonment of God (at one point Kolakowski almost welcomed secularization on the ground that it might free the church to be what it is rather than what it thinks the world wants it to be), so in the book’s final section, a diverse collection of 11 essays, Kolakowski’s writing constantly upends expectations. In one of the best of these, “Crime and Punishment,” from 1991, he rejected the idea that punishment must always serve utilitarian purposes (rehabilitation, deterrence) and defended, on moral grounds, the concept of retribution.
I was puzzled at first why Ms. Kolakowska chose the short and curious essay “Is God Happy?” as the title of the book. In it, her father concluded that the concept of happiness can’t apply to God and that, as long as pain and death are in the world, it can’t apply to humans either. But on reflection the title makes sense. As a boy, Leszek Kolakowski saw Jews rounded up in Nazi-occupied Poland; as an adult he witnessed the dominance of a brutal and fraudulent ideology; and in middle age he saw many of his fellow intellectuals defend that ideology at every opportunity. In such a world, where is there room for happiness?
Mr. Barton Swaim is the author of “Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere, 1802-1834.”