Tony Judt om Leszek Kolakowski

I det senaste numret av The New York Review of Books finns bland annat en runa över den politiska filosofen Leszek Kolakowski (1927–2009). Jag har bara läst ett par kortare texter av honom, men att döma av Tony Judts omdöme borde jag ta tag i Kolakowski på allvar. Extra intressant är att Judt som slutkläm gör en koppling till Judith Shklar.

It was a defining feature of Leszek Kołakowski’s intellectual trajectory that he took evil extremely seriously. Among Marx’s false premises, in his view, was the idea that all human shortcomings are rooted in social circumstances. Marx had ”entirely overlooked the possibility that some sources of conflict and aggression may be inherent in the permanent characteristics of the species.” Or, as he expressed it in his Harvard lecture: ”Evil…is not contingent…but a stubborn and unredeemable fact.” For Leszek Kołakowski, who lived through the Nazi occupation of Poland and the Soviet takeover that followed, ”the Devil is part of our experience. Our generation has seen enough of it for the message to be taken extremely seriously.”


Leszek Kołakowski shared with his Oxford colleague and fellow Central European Isaiah Berlin a disabused suspicion of all dogmatic certainties and a rueful insistence upon acknowledging the price of any significant political or ethical choice: ”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.”


This carefully balanced appreciation of the complexities of social reality—the idea that ”human fraternity is disastrous as a political program but indispensable as a guiding sign”—already places Kołakowski at a tangent to most intellectuals in his generation. In East and West alike, the more common tendency was to oscillate between excessive confidence in the infinite possibilities for human improvement and callow dismissal of the very notion of progress. Kołakowski sat athwart this characteristic twentieth-century chasm. Human fraternity, in his thinking, remained ”a regulative, rather than a constitutive, idea.”


The most cosmopolitan of Europe’s modern philosophers—at home in five major languages and their accompanying cultures—and in exile for over twenty years, Kołakowski was never ”rootless.” In contrast with, for example, Edward Said, he questioned whether it was even possible in good faith to disclaim all forms of communal loyalty. Neither in place nor ever completely out of place, Kołakowski was a lifelong critic of nativist sentiment; yet he was adulated in his native Poland and rightly so. A European in his bones, Kołakowski never ceased to interrogate with detached skepticism the naive illusions of pan-Europeanists, whose homogenizing aspirations reminded him of the dreary utopian dogmas of another age. Diversity, so long as it was not idolized as an objective in its own right, seemed to him a more prudent aspiration and one that could only be assured by the preservation of distinctive national identities.

(Stycket ovan verkar skilja honom från Shklar, som är mer nojjig när det gäller gemenskap och nationella identiteter.)


His sheer range of cultivation and reference; the allusive, disabused wit; the uncomplaining acceptance of academic provincialism in the fortunate Western lands where he found refuge; the experience and memory of Poland’s twentieth century imprinted, as it were, on his mischievously expressive features: all of these identify the late Leszek Kołakowski as a true Central European intellectual—perhaps the last. For two generations of men and women, born between 1880 and 1930, the characteristically Central European experience of the twentieth century consisted of a multilingual education in the sophisticated urban heartland of European civilization, honed, capped, and side-shadowed by the experience of dictatorship, war, occupation, devastation, and genocide in that selfsame heartland.


What [this historical experience] produced was what Judith Shklar, in another context, once described as a ”liberalism of fear”: the uncompromising defense of reason and moderation born of firsthand experience of the consequences of ideological excess; the ever-present awareness of the possibility of catastrophe, at its worst when misunderstood as opportunity or renewal, of the temptations of totalizing thought in all its protean variety. In the wake of twentieth-century history, this was the Central European lesson. If we are very fortunate, we shall not have to relearn it again for some time to come; when we do, we had better hope that there will be someone around to teach it. Until then, we would do well to reread Kołakowski.

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