Leszek Kolakowski, RIP

Leszek Kolakowski
Leszek Kolakowski


The philosopher Leszek Kolakowski is dead. His dates are 1927-2009, meaning he lived through the most violent and tumultous period of Polish history: the Nazi conquest, the post-war liberation followed by Stalinism, the rise of the New Left and its crushing defeat in the 1960s (which sent him into exile), the triumph of Solidarity and the overthrow of communism.

I was not, on the whole, a fan. Of course his opposition to Stalinism was heroic and wholy admirable. But his approach to the history of ideas seemed to me too schematic and ahistorical. But I did like some of the wry, puckish essays in Modernity On Endless Trial, in particular “How to be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist”.

In his honour, I’ve pasted the essay below:

how to be a conservative-liberal-socialist

by leszek kolakowski.

motto: “please step forward to the rear!” this is an approximate
translation of a request i once heard on a tram-car in warsaw. i
propose it as a slogan for the mighty international that will never

a conservative believes:

1. that in human life there never have been and never will be
improvements that are not paid for with deteriorations and evils;
thus, in considering each project of reform and amelioration, its
price has to be assessed. put another way, innumerable evils are
compatible (i.e. we can suffer them comprehensively and
simultaneously); but many goods limit or cancel each other, and
therefore we will never enjoy them fully at the same time. a society
in which there is no equality and no liberty of any kind is perfectly
possible, yet a social order combining total equality and freedom is
not. the same applies to the compatibility of planning and the
principle of autonomy, to security and technical progress. put yet
another way, there is no happy ending in human history.

2. that we do not know the extent to which various traditional forms
of social life–families, rituals, nations, religious communities–are
indispensable if life in a society is to be tolerable or even
possible. there are no grounds for believing that when we destroy
these forms, or brand them as irrational, we increase the chance of
happiness, peace, security, or freedom. we have no certain knowledge
of what might occur if, for example, the monogamous family was
abrogated, or if the time-honored custom of burying the dead were to
give way to the rational recycling of corpses for industrial purposes.
but we would do well to expect the worst.

3. that the idee fixe of the enlightenment–that envy, vanity, greed,
and aggression are all caused by the deficiencies of social
institutions and that they will be swept away once these institutions
are reformed– is not only utterly incredible and contrary to all
experience, but is highly dangerous. how on earth did all these
institutions arise if they were so contrary to the true nature of man?
to hope that we can institutionalize brotherhood, love, and altruism
is already to have a reliable blueprint for despotism.

a liberal believes:

1. that the ancient idea that the purpose of the state is security
still remains valid. it remains valid even if the notion of “security”
is expanded to include not only the protection of persons and property
by means of the law, but also various provisions of insurance: that
people should not starve if they are jobless; that the poor should not
be condemned to die through lack of medical help; that children should
have free access to education–all these are also part of security.
yet security should never be confused with liberty. the state does not
guarantee freedom by action and by regulating various areas of life,
but by doing nothing. in fact security can be expanded only at the
expense of liberty. in any event, to make people happy is not the
function of the state.

2. that human communities are threatened not only by stagnation but
also by degradation when they are so organized that there is no longer
room for individual initiative and inventiveness. the collective
suicide of mankind is conceivable, but a permanent human ant-heap is
not, for the simple reason that we are not ants.

3. that it is highly improbable that a society in which all forms of
competitiveness have been done away with would continue to have the
necessary stimuli for creativity and progress. more equaliity is not
an end in itself, but only a means. in other words, there is no point
to the struggle for more equality if it results only in the leveling
down off those who are better off, and not in the raising up of the
underprivileged. perfect equality is a self-defeating ideal.

a socialist believes:

1. that societies in which the pursuit of profit is the sole regulator
of the productive system are threatened with as grievous–perhaps more
grievous–catastrophes as are societies in which the profit motive has
been entirely eliminated from the production-regulating forces. there
are good reasons why freedom of economic activity should be limited
for the sake of security, and why money should not automatically
produce more money. but the limitation of freedom should be called
precisely that, and should not be called a higher form of freedom.

2. that it is absurd and hypocritical to conclude that, simply because
a perfect, conflictless society is impossible, every existing form of
inequality is inevitable and all ways of profit-making justified. the
kind of conservative anthropological pessimism which led to the
astonishing belief that a progressive income tax was an inhuman
abomination is just as suspect as the kind of historical optimism on
which the gulag archipelago was based.

3. that the tendency to subject the economy to important social
controls should be encouraged, even though the price to be paid is an
increase in bureaucracy. such controls, however, must be exercised
within representative democracy. thus it is essential to plan
institutions that counteract the menace to freedom which is produced
by the growth of these very controls.

so far as i can see, this set of regulative ideas is not self-
contradictory. and therefore it is possible to be a conservative-
liberal-socialist. this is equivalent to saying that those three
particular designations are no longer mutually exclusive options.

as for the great and powerful international which i mentioned at the
outset–it will never exist, because it cannot promise people that
they will be happy.

3 thoughts on “Leszek Kolakowski, RIP

  1. Jeet,

    What did you mean when you wrote that Kolakowski’s approach to the history of ideas seemed too schematic and ahistorical to you?

    I know you link to another site on that point, but I was wondering what you had in mind.

  2. Well, Kolakowski’s approach to a body of ideas (say Marxism or Jansenism) was to try and reduce it to a set of axioms, with little attention to how they changed or evolved over time. But any complex body of though will feel the tug of history, will be an unstable and changing. I don’t think Kolakowski was as sensitive to change as he could be. The link I provided discusses this at length.

  3. Heya just wanted to give you a brief heads up and let you know
    a few of the images aren’t loading correctly. I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue.

    I’ve tried it in two different browsers and both show the same results.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s