Leszek Kolakowski, 1927–2009
Philosopher Leszek Kolakowski died in Oxford on July 17 at the age of 81. Kolakowski earned his doctorate at Warsaw University and taught there until 1968. Early on Kolakowski embraced Marxism and joined the Polish communist party, but a trip to Moscow in 1950—sponsored by the party for promising young intellectuals—instead convinced him of “the enormity of material and spiritual desolation caused by the Stalinist system.”
After Stalin’s death Poland (as elswehere) bubbled with conflict. By that time Kolakowski was a leading revisionist and an inspiration to those calling for more democracy. He was expelled from the party in 1966 and dismissed from his professorship two years later. He went into exile, but his writings, circulating underground in Poland, continued to shape the Polish intellectual opposition.
His greatest work, Main Currents of Marxism: Its Rise, Growth and Dissolution, appeared in the late 1970s, a three-volume history, analysis, and critique of the system he famously called “the greatest fantasy of our century.” Kolakowski was, above all, a critic of dogmatism and prevailing opinion, who delivered his critiques with incisive intelligence, erudition, and humor.
Kolakowski taught at a number of universities in the West and was most-closely associated with Oxford University. From 1981 to 1994 he was professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the department of philosophy at the University of Chicago. The Press’s association with Kolakowski began during those years and we are proud to have published five of his many books:
- God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal’s Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism
- Metaphysical Horror
- Modernity on Endless Trial
- The Presence of Myth
- Tales from the Kingdom of Lailonia and The Key to Heaven
The illustration in this posting is from the cover of the too-little-known Tales from the Kingdom of Lailonia—Kolakowski at his most whimsical, spinning satirical stories of human imperfection and foolishness.