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Leszek Kołakowski Warsaw (Poland), October 23, 2007
Leszek Kołakowski, and Władysław Bartoszewski (right), Warsaw (Poland), October 23, 2007

Leszek Kołakowski (October 23, 1927 – July 17, 2009) was a Polish philosopher and historian of ideas. He was best known for his critical analyses of Marxist thought, especially his acclaimed three-volume history, Main Currents of Marxism, which is "considered by some[1] to be one of the most important books on political theory of the 20th century."[2]



Kolakowski was born in Radom, Poland. Owing to the German occupation of Poland in World War II, he did not attend school but read books and took occasional private lessons, passing his final examinations as an external student in the underground school system. After the war, he studied philosophy at Łódź University and in 1953 earned a doctorate from Warsaw University, with a thesis on Spinoza. He was a professor and chairman of Warsaw University's section on the history of philosophy from 1959 to 1968.

In his youth, Kołakowski was a precocious intellect and became a devout communist. In the period 1947-1966, he was a member of Polish United Workers' Party. His intellectual promise earned him a trip to Moscow, where he observed the future and found it repulsive. He broke with Stalinism, becoming a "revisionist Marxist" and advocating a humanist interpretation of Marx. This led to his losing his job at Warsaw University, and his expulsion from the Polish United Workers' Party.

One year after the 1956 Polish October, Kołakowski published a four-part critique of Soviet-Marxist dogmas, including historical determinism, in the Polish periodical Nowa Kultura[3].

Eventually, Kołakowski came to believe that the totalitarian cruelty of Stalinism was not an aberration, but instead the logical end product of Marxism, whose genealogy he examined in his monumental Main Currents of Marxism, his major work published in 1976-1978, which won him international renown.[4]

He became increasingly fascinated by the contribution that Christianity makes to Western, and, in particular, modern thought, and sought to defend the role that freedom plays in our pursuit of the transcendent. He asserted that while human fallibility implies that we ought to treat claims to infallibility with scepticism, our pursuit of the higher (such as truth and goodness) is ennobling.

In 1968, Kołakowski became a visiting professor in the department of philosophy at McGill University in Montreal and in 1969 he moved to the University of California, Berkeley. In 1970, he became a senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He remained at Oxford, although he spent part of 1974 at Yale University, and from 1981 to 1994 was a part-time professor at the Committee on Social Thought and in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago.

Although his works were officially banned in Poland, underground copies of them influenced the opinions of the Polish intellectual opposition. His 1971 essay Theses on Hope and Hopelessness, which suggested that self-organized social groups could gradually expand the spheres of civil society in a totalitarian state, helped inspire the dissident movements of the 1970s that led to Solidarity and, eventually, to the collapse of Communism in Europe in 1989. In the 1980s, Kolakowski supported Solidarity by giving interviews, writing and fund-raising.

In Poland, Kołakowski is not only revered as a philosopher and historian of ideas, but also as an icon for opponents of communism. Adam Michnik has called Kołakowski "one of the most prominent creators of contemporary Polish culture".[5][6]

Kolakowski died in July 2009, aged 81, in Oxford, England.


In 1986, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Kołakowski for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. Kołakowski's lecture, "The Idolatry of Politics",[7] includes Kołakowski's much quoted aphorism, "We learn history not in order to know how to behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are".[8]

In 2003, the Library of Congress named Kołakowski the first winner of the John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Humanities.[9][10]

Other awards: the German Booksellers Peace Prize, 1977; Erasmus Prize, 1980; Veillon Foundation European Prize for the Essay, 1980; MacArthur Award, 1982; University of Chicago Laing Award, 1990; Tocqueville Prize, 1994.


  • Klucz niebieski, albo opowieści budujące z historii świętej zebrane ku pouczeniu i przestrodze (The Key to Heaven), 1957
  • 13 bajek z królestwa Lailonii dla dużych i małych (Tales from the Kingdom of Lailonia and the Key to Heaven), 1963
  • Rozmowy z diablem (US title: Conversations with the Devil / UK title: Talk of the Devil), 1965
  • Świadomość religijna i więź kościelna, 1965
  • Od Hume'a do Koła Wiedeńskiego (the 1st edition:The Alienation of Reason, translated by Norbert Guterman, 1966/ later as Positivist Philosophy from Hume to the Vienna Circle),
  • Kultura i fetysze (Toward a Marxist Humanism, translated by Jane Zielonko Peel, and Marxism and Beyond), 1967
  • A Leszek Kołakowski Reader, 1971
  • Positivist Philosophy, 1971
  • TriQuartely 22, 1971
  • Obecność mitu (The Presence of Myth), 1972
  • ed. The Socialist Idea, 1974 (with Stuart Hampshire)
  • Husserl and the Search for Certitude, 1975
  • Główne nurty marksizmu (Main Currents of Marxism), 1976 (3 vols.)
  • Czy diabeł może być zbawiony i 27 innych kazań, 1982
  • Religion: If There Is No God, 1982
  • Bergson, 1985
  • Le Village introuvable, 1986
  • Metaphysical Horror, 1988 (revised edition, 2001)
  • Pochwała niekonsekwencji, 1989 (ed. by Zbigniew Menzel)
  • Cywilizacja na ławie oskarżonych, 1990 (ed. by Paweł Kłoczowski)
  • Modernity on Endless Trial (University of Chicago Press), 1990
  • God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal's Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism, 1995
  • Freedom, Fame, Lying, and Betrayal: Essays on Everyday Life, 1999
  • The Two Eyes of Spinoza and Other Essays on Philosophers, 2004
  • My Correct Views on Everything, 2005
  • Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?, 2007


See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ "Polish anti-Marxist thinker dies", Adam Easton, BBC News, 17 July 2009
  3. ^ Foreign News: VOICE OF DISSENT, TIME Magazine, October 14, 1957
  4. ^ Polish philosopher and author Kolakowski dead at 81, Gareth Jones, Reuters, Jul 17, 2009
  5. ^ Adam Michnik, "Letter from the Gdansk Prison," New York Review of Books, July 18, 1985.
  6. ^ Norman Davies, "True to Himself and His Homeland," New York Times, October 5, 1986.
  7. ^ Jefferson Lecturers at NEH Website (retrieved January 22, 2009).
  8. ^ Leszek Kołakowski, "The Idolatry of Politics," reprinted in Modernity on Endless Trial (University of Chicago Press, 1990, paperback edition 1997), ISBN 0226450457, ISBN 0226450465, ISBN 9780226450469, p. 158.
  9. ^ "Library of Congress Announces Winner of First John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Humanities and Social Sciences"
  10. ^ Leszek Kołakowski, "What the Past is For" (speech given on November 5, 2003, on the occasion of the awarding of the Kluge Prize to Kołakowski).

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