Entrevista Leszek Kolakowski
Interview with Leszek
“I don’t consider Main Currents of Marxism my opus magnum”
Zamorano, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid
(The 19th of January, 2009 I went to see Professor Kolakowski in Oxford with an
intention altogether simple, or so I thought. Last year 2008 had marked the
30th anniversary of the first publication in English of what many consider his
most influential work –Main Currents of Marxism—, and I
wanted to join in the commemoration. Above all, I wanted to acquaint the
Spanish youngest public, a public which only recently is approaching
Kolakowski´s thought in any detail, with that work’s (and related
ones´) main ideas. Having his author speaking about Main Currents,
I gathered, is the best way to go. Yet, life most often finds a way of
surprising us and, as the reader will read below, I had to somehow wrestle with
Kolakowski himself for him to finally acknowledge the originality of his
–if not “magnum”, at the least impressive— opus.)
The philosopher receives us, me and Eduardo Jiménez, who is in charge of
the recording, in his Oxford home where he lives with his wife Tamara, a
psychiatrist by profession. I am rather nervous because, besides his erudition,
Kolakowski´s straightforwardness and irony are well known. The
apprehension disappears immediately, though. The thinker is an attractive man
of almost 82 –handsomer in person than he appears in pictures on the
net— and his voice and welcome are very warm. He has pale blue eyes and a
well-built, elegant body, even if he is carrying a stick and admits not to
seeing very well anymore. I give him as a present a bottle of Rioja and
he declares to enjoy good wine very much. He offers us a coffee. And as we
settle down in his living room while he himself waits by its door for Tamara to
bring some coffee, he asks,
LK So you teach at the University, don’t you. And what do you teach?
PS Mostly political philosophy.
LK Political philosophy, yes. An what is that, political philosophy?
PS (I smile) Well, for sure you must know what Isaiah Berlin –(was he
an acquaintance or a friend of yours? I couldn’t find out on the net)—
said about it in his essay, that...
LK Yes, yes, we were friends. He was also in All Souls!!
PS ...that political philosophy –or political theory, as he preferred to
put it— can never be reduced to political science because the
former’s mode of reflection and subject matter must necessarily involve
values... By the way, it was Berlin who liked to relate a little anecdote about
you. You once said to Berlin, who asked about your current circumstances,
“Well, you see, England is an island in Europe, Oxford an island in
England, All Souls an island in Oxford, and I am an island in All Souls”.
Are you still an island?
LK Yes, I am.
Is Kolakowski joking or completely serious in this matter? I do not know. As he
is still standing by the living room door, courteously waiting for Tamara, he
hands me two books of his, in Spanish, as a gift. The first is Trece cuentos
del reino de Lailonia para pequeños y mayores (in fact fourteen
tales), written in 1963 and recently published by KRK; and the second, Las
preguntas de los grandes filósofos, a collection of conferences he
gave for Polish television which were then published in Polish in 2006-2008,
and have been published in Spanish in 2008 (Arcadia). Since I consider the gifts
excessive, two books and in their Spanish version, I propose to just accept the
Tales. But he insists.
PS Thank you so much, Professor. I like short stories very much. I understand
that literature was one of your first interests as a young man?
LK Those are fairy tales I wrote many, many years ago. I also wrote a few
Coffee comes. We are introduced to Tamara, a very charming woman who almost
immediately leaves the room. On many occasions, for instance his 1981 Preface
to Main Currents, Kolakowski has stated that his work “owes much
to her good sense and critical comments”.
PS Should we begin?
LK I would like to first know –(he chortles)— what we are going to
talk about, if you do not mind.
PS As I told you in my letters, my main intention is to help familiarize the
Spanish public with your work, especially Main Currents. I have divided
the interview into roughly, three different parts; let’s see if we have
the time. The first focuses on Main Currents of Marxism, which I
personally consider a very important book. As I see it, as time goes by, it
will come down in the history of political thought as a crucial work together
with the works of Popper, Aron, Berlin, and others. The second part is about
your work in general, especially your interest in religion. In the last part I
am interested in your opinions about some serious issues in today’s
world, like terrorism...
LK Terrorism? And what can I say about terrorism? (He laughs quietly again).
PS Well, I understand that you have written an article on it. And after all,
you are a political thinker.
LK Am I? I am not sure, really. As for Main Currents, all that was a
long time ago. I forgot about it.
PS Should we begin?
LK Let us drink the coffee first, for a moment. Señora (sic), I
understand that in Spain people have double last names...
Here ensues a completely relaxed chat about Spain, its habits and present
situation. Professor Kolakowski thinks it is a very good habit to inherit last
names from both parents. He briefly inquires about Cuadernos de Pensamiento
Político, the journal where this interview will be published, and
asks whether the president of FAES “is former prime minister Mr.
José María Aznar”. He confesses he is not much acquainted
with current politics in Spain although he declares he has “some doubts
about the present prime minister, Zapatero”. For sure, he wants me to
tell him more, he wants to listen. I inform him that I, personally, am very
concerned about some developments in our country, like the government’s
confrontation with the Catholic Church in a manner which is unprecedented in
all other liberal democratic countries...
LK A confrontation probably not needed at all.
PS Not needed at all for the Spanish Catholic Church has been very respectful
of politics, the independence of politics, during the whole Transition.
LK Yes, I guess. I understand that the Spanish Transition was an attempt to
forget about the Francoist past, to consign all that to the past, how would you
put it, “el olvido”?
PS Yes, but in the last few years, with Zapatero, the efforts have rather been
directed to disparage the Transition and dig up the past, of course in a very
partisan way. Although we have more important problems.
(I then tell Kolakowski about our peripheral nationalisms and the flaws, in
that respect, of our 1978 Constitution. I tell him that, in some Autonomies,
many Spanish families are finding it difficult for their children to learn the
Spanish language or get educated in the Spanish culture; that, completed the
Transition, there took place, in the different Autonomies, extreme processes of
linguistic and cultural “normalization”, etc.).
LK Does Catalonia aspire to a political secession from Spain, do they want a
separate state? What for?
PS Not the whole of Catalonia, a very active (and growing) minority but a
minority, nevertheless. Our Constitution, unfortunately, turned out to be too
open-ended regarding the different Autonomies´ prerogatives in numerous
fields, like the essential one of acculturation.
LK But is possible, say in Catalonia or the Basque region, that many primary
schools only teach in Catalan or Basque? How is that possible? It’s
PS In most primary schools there and in other Autonomies, children get immersed
in Spanish as though it was any other second language, just a few hours a week.
In some cases, like small towns, it might happen that Spanish is not at all
taught; the excuses on the part of the town councils are small budgets... As I
see it, it is a human rights violation that not everyone in Spain can learn
Spanish or the Spanish culture without hindrances.
You asked me before whether the Spanish Transition had endeavoured a clean
break with the past. I personally believe that the Transition was impeccable in
that respect. However, since Zapatero´s coming to power, there has been
an attempt to rewrite our recent history, to disseminate the idea that “not
all interests were then fairly represented”, that is, by the parties
which at the time played the leading role; that way of thinking about our
recent past only fuels, I think, minority and centrifugal interests, even if
those sorts of interest had developed before Zapatero. ...By the way, what is
your opinion on the Spanish Transition?
LK I do not have a separate opinion of my own because I do not know enough. Of
course, everybody was happy at the end of Franco’s dictatorship. But I
did not closely follow all that happened afterwards.
PS The Transition was an effort on the part of the principal political parties
and positions at the time to strike a new consensus on the feasibility and
worth of liberal democracy, an effort overwhelmingly backed by the Spanish
population, even if in the era of Zapatero we are back to the “old same
story”. And that despite –or precisely because of— the
findings of the so-called “new”, very often Spaniard,
“historiography”; for instance, on our Second Republic, ...which
was not an splendid era of “tolerance” nor of “liberal”
democracy wantonly undone by a bunch of “maniacs”, far from it. The
Spanish Left in general has strongly reacted against this new historiography
because the “old story” (the story of “the two
Spains”), was a better rationale, for its own and indefinite permanence
in power, of course.
LK So, the attempt at el olvido (sic) has not worked?
PS It is paradoxical, but I think that precisely because Spanish democracy
began as a success –and can still be a success, I hope, if we amend all
our errors— the reactions against it have been and still are many. LK I
see... (All this time, Kolakowski has shown a great deal of interest
and, on several occasions, astonishment. We have now finished the coffee).
Well, let’s start. Although I am not sure whether I will be able to
answer all your questions.
PS Very well, then. Professor Kolakowski, your contribution to the history of
ideas, the history of philosophy and, particularly, the philosophy of religion
is wide ranging. What do you think about being best known for your Main
Currents of Marxism? And do you mind if I begin this interview by focusing
on such work since last year 2008 was the 30th anniversary of its publication
LK I forgot about it. (He smiles, but seems to be rather serious about the
...What can I say about your question, how do I feel about being popular, or
famous, because of Main Currents? I do not think in such categories
about my work. Main Currents is not a text I consider, so to put it, my opus
magnum, if there is such a thing. If there is an “opus magnum”
of mine it is rather a short brochure under the title Horror Metaphysicus
(Metaphysical Horror), “opus magnum” not in the sense
that I regard it as the best of my works because that is not up to me;
rather in the sense that I try to explain there the questions –not really
to answer them but explain the questions— I consider the most important
PS I see. Let me, however, center now on Main Currents. I am very interested
in the writing itself of the work, its historical, Polish context and
the personal aims in it. It took you 8 years, from 1968 to 1976, to write its
almost 1300 pages. Although in 1968 you had already abandoned your country, the
conception or gestation of such an erudite and lengthy work is, I assume,
thoroughly “Polish”. What led you to write Main Currents,
what were your aspirations and hopes when you did it? Did you expect it would
help change things in the Communist bloc?
LK Yes, the conception is Polish. But no, I did not expect the work would
change things in the Bloc... I left Poland at the end of 1968 because I was
expelled from the University and I had a total interdiction of publishing or
teaching. I then took the opportunity to go to Canada, to Montreal, for a year.
At the time I expected that it would probably take more than a year –two
years perhaps— for me to be able to go back. But it is now 40 years.
I started Main Currents of Marxism, I wrote the draft of the first
volume, in Poland. I had no plan to write the entire history, especially
because I couldn’t –obviously— publish it in Poland. Only
somewhat later I decided to continue. But it was just by accident. I wrote the
second and third volumes in 1970-1976, during my Fellowship at All Souls
PS I personally think that your analysis of Marx’s philosophy is
unimpeachable. It is written in such a clear and strong way; and the same
happens with the rest of authors. In the 1981 Preface to Main Currents,
you say you want the work to be used as a handbook; and that is how I use
it in my political philosophy classes, as a handbook, particularly the chapters
dealing with Marx himself or Leninism-Stalinism.
LK As a handbook, yes; if it can serve as a handbook, then that is the best thing
I could expect. I couldn’t say it is completely neutral, of course it is
not. On certain subjects one can not be neutral. Nevertheless I tried to be as
objective as possible and include in the work all the principal facts about
Marxism if, that is, one is seeking an introduction to the subject. There are
some malicious comments in it, for instance on Lukács and others, I
PS (An introduction to the subject? My goodness!, I think to myself).
When did you become a “revisionist” Marxist? In the mid 50s as
so-called “de-Stalinization” permitted criticism of some aspects of
life, as you say in Main Currents? Or were you one all along, i.e.,
since your affiliation to the Party which, I believe, dates back to 1945? You
see, I want our readers to have information on these matters.
LK “Revisionism” is a word which was used by party officials; it is
not my self-definition. Especially because, historically, the term is connected
with Eduard Bernstein (the German socialist and critic of Marx) and, thus, associated
with a completely different situation and completely different ideological
problems. In a sense, then, I would not accept the word
“revisionist” to refer to my own position. But it has been
accepted, I mean, the party branded myself and a number of other people as a
separate current, a hostile camp.
PS Exactly. You also say in MC that in 1955-57 the so-called
“revisionists” of Poland –a series of authors who attacked
Communist dogmas while remaining Marxists or even party members— began
advocating a return to “authentic” or non-Leninist Marxism. Yet, as
they confronted the “sources” of Marxism, they became less and less
inspired by Marxist ideas or, rather, they went well beyond Marxism. So, after
all, one needs to give a name to such endeavour...
LK It was for a short period that I tried to find in Marx some ideas which were
completely different from Leninism’s; and of course they were different. Nevertheless,
in spite of appearances, I found out that Marx himself was not innocent, so to
say, as regards the murders of modern Communism. Of course I realized Marx was
different and, yet, he was not innocent. Leninism was a version of Marxism
PS Did you find out all this in the mid 50s, or you suspected that much from
the very beginning? I mean, since the times you were a philosophy student at
Lodz University you were declared to be a very brilliant, a privileged
intellect. I have the impression that since 1945, since your affiliation to the
party, you were already looking for something beyond orthodoxy, would that be
LK Yes. I tried to find some ideas in Marx and Marxism which could be different
from the stereotypes; but I did not believe my endeavour could be reconciled
with my political affiliation. Of course we were young, me and my friends, but
we were not completely stupid. There were many facts of our political milieu
which provoked our laughter, ...or horror; but this could not be expressed in
You see, I was especially struck by what I saw in Russia. I was there for three
months, in 1950, during the Stalinist period. Me and several colleagues were in
Moscow and Leningrad –but mainly Moscow— and, there, they prepared
for us the teaching of their best philosophers and political scientists. (Well,
that latter expression was not in fact used; they were called “social
scientists”). They were supposed to be the best minds we could listen to.
But, really, the experience was extremely unpleasant because they were
completely ignorant. Not that we were so terribly learned, no; nevertheless, by
comparison, those “luminaries” of the Soviet philosophy were
...something horrible. We still tried to explain to ourselves, ideologically,
that even if they were people with so miserable an intellectual level,
nevertheless in this (the Soviet) political struggle all over the world there
must exist a strong ideological horizon, a strong ideological framework for
thinking and so on. Never mind; all that was non sense, of course. We could
understand, though, that something was wrong.
PS In 1950 you were only 23, which means you –and your comrades—
were very brilliant minds. Was Poland, by comparison with other countries
behind the Iron Curtain, one where the intelligentsia was more advanced,
more conscious, less orthodox?
LK First of all, and despite the losses we suffered during the War at the hands
of the Germans and the Russians, Polish intelligentsia survived and was still
in existence; not that it was very active politically, but was in existence. On
the other hand, after the War, a good deal of intelligentsia, including
well-known writers and scholars, somehow accepted the new regime and worked for
it in good faith. Yet, when the “new era” came, they easily
rejected the regime and easily became different men. This
“conversion” included people who had been very strong Stalinists,
people like the Polish poet Adam Wazyk who had been a Stalinist, not only in
the sense of his beliefs, but in the sense that he had done unpleasant work for
the Party among the literary circles. He was a Communist from before the War
but, later on, Wazyk became the author of one of the best-known poems in Polish
language, a political, strongly anti-regime poem entitled A Poem for Adults.
He used to say of his Communist period, “I was crazy”; as if
he was a psychiatric case.
In any event, after Stalin’s death, more pronouncedly after
Khrushchev’s speech in 1956, things changed. Khrushchev’s speech
has not been published in Russia; but it was, already in 1956, printed in
Poland for party activists; in fact, it could actually be read, in samizdat
publications, by whoever was interested; and as far as I know, it was from
Poland that the text reached America. Everyone could listen to the text on
Radio Free Europe. That speech was important but, even earlier, the criticism
of the Communist ideology was already well-developed in Poland. After the
speech, there came the change of the party’s leadership and
Gomulka´s coming to power. More and more, after 56, fewer and fewer
people believed in the ideology even if it was obligatory and an essential part
of the apparatus.
PS You point out in MC that “revisionism” itself, especially Polish
“revisionism”, was “a major cause of the fact that the party
lost its respect for official ideology”; that it was the Eastern Communists´
criticism itself which proved to be the most active and effective in that
respect, as compared with, say, non-Communist or even Western
LK I do not remember exactly what I say there about the subject. But, yes, the
French Communist party, for instance, remained for a long time Stalinist
indeed; and I think they were right, in a sense, ...because their aim was not
to have again one or two ministers in a Socialist government; their aim was
Communism, a totalitarian regime. They knew their aim could only be achieved
through the War, by the Soviet Union’s invasion of France; if that
happened, then what mattered was not the number of members of the party but
their strong discipline. You see, there would have always been enough people to
set up concentration camps and execute enemies, but those people had to be
themselves organised. Therefore, the French Communists´ Stalinism was not
stupid, ...that ideology was properly “practical”. It was another
matter with the Italians. In Italy there has always been an undercurrent of
revisionism to some extent. It was easy for the Italian Communists to get rid
of the Stalinist ideology.PS Moving to different matters, what was this “Institut
Littéraire” in Paris which in the years 1976-78 published your
MC in Polish, making it possible for the book to be then copied by underground
publishers in Poland?
LK It was a association of émigrés in Paris, very important; a
Polish venture which worked in the Polish language. They published a monthly, Kultura,
a literary-political magazine which, of course, could not be legally imported
to Poland. Nevertheless, enough people brought it from abroad and it was very
well-known in some circles in our country. Kultura was very important in
the cultural and political development of Poland. In addition, they published
many books, also in the Polish language. “Institut Littéraire”
was just a name, an address in Maisons Laffitte, near Paris, not that there was
any “institute” there. Maisons Laffitte thus became a famous
geographical name in Poland. As I said, a small group of people made the
venture possible. The contact with them was forbidden and the secret police
tried to closely follow all the people who had had any contact with the group
or published in the journal under pseudonyms. I visited them for the first time
when I was the first time in Paris, in Autumn 1956. Later on I published in the
journal; and they published MC.
PS Let us discuss a bit Main Currents itself, its structure and
contents. I personally consider it a unique book for I do not know of any other
philosophical criticism of Marxism, from its roots in dialectics to its
collapse in the period from the 1950s to the 1970s, which combines such a
wealth of knowledge and analytical rigor.
LK (Professor Kolakowski does not say a word at this point. He cannot be less
interested in his own originality, at the least regarding the subject of
Marxism, as the reader will immediately discover).
PS I told you before that I use your book as a handbook; but only
fragmentarily. Am I wrong, is the younger generation wrong for its little
interest in many other central figures of Marxism such as Luxemburg,
Lukács or even Gramsci?
LK Not at all, you are right. There is much less interest in Marxism, not only
in Poland but in the West as well. There are still, of course, some centres of
Marxism, but nothing of importance. I believe that not many people teach
Marxism at the university anymore.
PS I do teach Marx, although in a very critical way. And I in part owe that critical
standpoint to you, to your MC or your 1977 article “The Marxist Roots of
Stalinism”. I do not think that things can be stated in a clearer way
than in those works of yours: “These are the roots –the fantasies
and mythologies— of what happened later”. Don’t you consider
your analysis of Marx unique?
LK There are many critical books on Marx; although I have not read any books on
him for many years. It is difficult for me to say exactly what is new in that
book of mine. Perhaps as a textbook it can be useful.
PS (Here I get a little impatient, in an affectionate way).
Had anybody said, Professor Kolakowski, before you that
Marx’s romantic dream of a perfect unity of humankind in the future,
dream which in turn necessitated the collectivisation of property, together
with the “mythology” of proletarian consciousness as historically
privileged, ...that those were essential roots of Leninism? Had anybody before
you said that with the same clarity and forcefulness? I do not know of
any other thinker; but forgive me, maybe I am just an ignorant.
LK No..., I do not know any books of this kind.
But, of course, criticism of Marx did exist since Marx’s own time,
especially by the anarchists. ...Really, don’t ask me about it because I
got rid of this kind of problems long ago.
PS Let us go to more general matters then. Marxist ideology fell apart a long
time ago and, yet, you have said that we would be ill-advised to consign
Marxism to oblivion, for it belongs to the intellectual and political history
of the 19th and 20th centuries –thus to the history of humanity’s
efforts and mistakes— and, more relevantly, it may again gain strength. Can
the spectre of Marxism walk again, is it walking again in the midst of our
present economic crisis and, as usual since the 1960s, as you point out,
“supported by certain intellectually miserable but loud movements”
whose only relation with Marxism are their anti-liberal, anti-capitalist,
anti-Western, etc., slogans?
LK Yes. There are of course various movements and centres which hate
capitalism, or say they intend to destroy capitalism, and such things. But
usually they do not know much about Marxism or the Marxist roots of their
ideas. Nevertheless, they are in existence. I do not think that Marxism can
resurrect in its old form. But the criticism of capitalism and utopian thinking
in general are still in existence and, obviously, all the
“negative” phenomena that we are right now witnessing may gain
force. But I do not want to make predictions ...because we never know what will
PS But we all have read the slogans and catchwords in the press nowadays, at
the least in the Spanish press: “Marx was right, Capitalism was wrong.
The crisis signals the end of Capitalism. These avaricious bankers and
entrepreneurs have brought us all to the brink of poverty...”
LK Nonsense. That is there, but it is of no great importance. The
“anti” slogans, the anti-capitalist criticisms can occasionally
invoke the name of Marx. But they do not know much –or anything—
PS Why did you start MC with “Dialectics”? I do not think I have
been able to understand you on this subject. Is Dialectics a legitimate
endeavour or a dangerous one?
LK The word “Dialectic” is somewhat risky. In some historical
period Dialectic was no more than logic, a part of logic. Then it became a
great intellectual event with Hegel; so, Dialectic as we know it we inherited
mainly from Hegel. I do not think there are any orthodox Hegelians in existence
nowadays. Yet, we inherited some things from Hegel as we inherited other things
from other great philosophers without needing to be followers in the strict
sense. Dialectic is a part of our intellectual inheritance and Marx, obviously,
was part of it.
PS Do you think there are problematic facets in Hegel’s Dialectics, in Marx’s?
The immanence, perhaps?
LK I am not really able to define, strictly speaking, what Dialectic is. What
it was in Marxism I tried to explain in the book (MC); but I do not think I
have more to add, no.
PS You never forget that Marxism brought indescribable poverty, pain and death
to a significant portion of humanity. Even if MC is primarily the history of a
doctrine and only secondarily a history of facts, what were some of the
historians on Communism you relied on while writing MC? And what do you think
of the so-called “new historiography” on the crimes of Communism,
the historiography made in part possible by the disclosing of records during
the Yeltsin period? Have you read, for instance, The Black Book of Communism,
a book which many intellectuals in the West have categorized as a piece of
“right-wing anti-Communist rhetoric”?
LK Yes, I read the book edited by Stéphane Courtois when it came out. I
found it interesting and true in essence. Not a piece of rhetoric, for sure.
PS A horrifying book, no? Did you know that the history of Communism was so
LK By then, yes; not from the very beginning. But we learned step by step what
was going on in the Soviet Union, the history of the camps. It was
Solzhenitsyn´s work, of course, which did much in that respect.
In MC I relied on Richard Pipes, Boris Souvarine, and other historians. In any
event, most of what I read on the crimes of Communism I read when I left
Poland, simply because, there, this sort of information was not available. When
I was in Poland I could read Orwell, for instance, or Koestler, or other
literary books on the subject. I also read some memoirs on communism, for
instance by Weissberg-Cybulski, a German communist who spent some years in the
Soviet Union and was there imprisoned. So, we knew some of it; enough.
As to Chinese Communism we knew little, really. It was again step by step that
the horrors of Maoism reached us. That was unspeakable horror, as we now know;
the cultural revolution and all the rest.
PS Do you have a “theory” on Totalitarianism?
LK No, I do not have a separate theory of Totalitarianism. But we all know what
happened, we all know what kind of regime is a totalitarian regime. We have
come to realize that there are various forms of it, not all of them equally
horrid. But, roughly, we have an idea of what totalitarianism is: an attempt to
reach total power, total power on everything; not only in the political
activities but also on the arts, literature, ...on ideas. And especially, of
course, it is an attempt to make the state the owner of everything, including
the human soul. Totalitarianism has never achieved completeness, perhaps,
although it was very close to completeness during the last period of Stalinism
and in Mao’s China, ...not to speak of others at work such as North
In Poland, totalitarianism got more and more limited in the mid-50s. For
instance, after the great cultural event that was the 1955 Exhibition of young
Polish artists, practically the party stopped imposing any of the old rules and
rigors on painting. Socialist realism ended both in painting and many other
PS Even if this is a delicate matter, can a consummate comparison be
established between the Nazi and the Communist totalitarianisms? The late
Francois Furet once asserted –in an exchange of letters with Ernst Nolte
titled Fascism and Communism (1994)— that there was a
“plus”, an excess of evil in Nazism vis-à-vis Communism,
even though he did not elaborate the subject further. Professor Kolakowski, you
were a youth when the Nazis turned Poland into a very real hell and you later
experienced the tyranny of Communism. What do you think of Furet´s
view?LK I would agree with Furet. The word “totalitarianism” is
well-justified as regards both regimes. We can accept that both regimes were
totalitarian. Nevertheless, I would also accept it was not the same thing. They
attracted different sorts of people, people of different kind, so to put it. And
ideologically they were different. One can label both as
“totalitarianisms”, yet, racism, the idea of the superiority of one
nation and the attempt to physically destroy other nations entirely –
entire nations, like the Jews as a race— and reduce to slavery the
so-called “inferior” races, all that was the Nazi idea. You cannot
say that Stalinism did the same or something similar; it was not similar. Of
course Stalinism was horrifying, but it was not the same.
PS As I see this matter, not only the aims in the ideologies but also the
actions taken were different. There is “something” in the actions
taken by the Nazis, I do not know what it is, which makes them the lowest
actions, the most sadistic, the most degraded. Is it just because they intend
to inflict in the victim the utmost suffering, the utmost degradation, ...or is
there something more in those actions, say, an unprecedented undertone?
LK Well, Leninist-Stalinist ideology, even though it served as an instrument of
so many horrors and so much slavery was, however, full of humanist ...slogans.
Hitler’s ideology was not. Therefore, Nazi ideology was much closer to
Nazi reality than Communist ideology to the Communist reality. Communist
ideology and Communist reality were far apart; everything was a big lie.
Nevertheless, in Nazism this distance between ideology and reality was almost
non-existent. They did say what they wanted to achieve: they wanted to
establish the rule of Germany all over the world and turn all the
“inferior races” into slaves of them. They not only murdered
thousands upon thousands of people; not only thousands upon thousands died in a
horrible torture; in addition, there were no schools, no universities, nothing
...for the Poles and the other peoples they invaded. And if they existed
–as in Poland during the occupation— their existence was illegal. Thus,
Poland felt the end of the War, the end of the invasion, as a liberation. It
was a liberation, in spite of repression, especially in the years 1948-1954,
and despite the fact that democratic institutions were not restored. The next
day we again had Polish schools, Polish universities, Polish journals, Polish
books. Of course there was censorship. But even under Stalin’s
censorship, we could translate and publish some books from the West. In any
event, all of this was nothing compared with Nazi rule in Poland.
PS Intellectuals. You do not find intellectuals´ attraction to Marxism
“excessively” problematic, in spite of Marxism’s
insensibility to facts and arguments, the failure of its predictions, its
double standards of evaluation and its moral arrogance, and so on. And yet,
that theme has occupied your attention and the attention of some other very
brilliant minds, and is still with us. Let me put it this way, why an important
proportion of intellectuals and educated people in the Western world are not
attracted –indeed, are violently opposed— to capitalist liberalism,
despite its social and economic benefits?
LK All over human history there has been a tendency to value equality above
all. The idea of equality has some Christian roots, too. And it is easy from
the idea of personal equality of people –the fact that we all are human
beings and, therefore, we are equal to each other in dignity— to go to
the idea that we should be equal in all respects. But the idea of perfect
equality in the distribution of goods is self-defeating; because perfect
equality is possible only in a totalitarian regime; and a totalitarian regime
cannot be egalitarian because some very important goods –like access to
information, participation in power, and so on— must be restricted to a
political elite. No totalitarian regime can ever be egalitarian because it
always necessitates a separate elite.
And yet, the egalitarian idea has strong roots in human history; after all, who
invented communism? the Apostles of Jesus Christ; they had everything in
common, the Gospel says.
PS Richard Pipes gives a humorous reply to that. He says that while Jesus and
the Apostles put in common what was theirs, what had been given to them in
charity, for instance, contemporary socialists and communists attempt to make
common and distribute what belongs to others... Don’t you think that the
confusion between equality of dignity and equality of every condition may be
fuelled by other sentiments –resentment, say, or envy, etc.— as
Mises and other economists of the Austrian School pointed out?
LK Yes, envy is one of them. Envy is one of the strongest emotions in human
beings. You cannot destroy it by institutional means. It is why the egalitarian
desire, the desire for a egalitarian society is strong as well, in spite of all
arguments against it.
PS I forgot to ask you before. Regarding the criticism of Marxian economics in
MC, what were some of your influences in that respect? Were you in the late
1960s already acquainted with the works of Mises, Hayek and other influential
theorists of the Austrian School?
LK I knew some of it; Hayek, for instance, as well as the authors of other
PS Let us now discuss a little the rest of your work if you find it convenient.
And the first question is about your friend Isaiah Berlin. Are there
similarities between your thought and Berlin’s? For instance, you have
said in different ways and places, that utopian thought, the vision of a
happier, more fraternal and less antagonistic world is “a
permanent and essential part of human life”, yet “utopias must
remain utopias”, that is, utopias become dangerous with their
institutionalisation or realization. What is the problem with the
implementation of a utopia, that it prioritises just one value or set of them
to the detriment of other, equally important values? That it needs to develop a
“social plan” and an apparatus of bureaucracy and coercion? Both?
LK As you know, “utopia” is a word coined in the 16th century by a
Christian writer and thinker which has become a common word since then. But
utopia means “no place”, a place that does not exist; it is a
negative word. Utopia is in More’s book an island of happiness;
people there are really equal and have everything they need, ...but that is
precisely the point: that human needs have no limits and a utopia is an attempt
to define what is a real need and what is imaginary. So, a doctrine according
to which we can –our institutions can— give people everything they
need is an absurdity in a sense, because our needs can grow indefinitely. I am
not saying that it is good or bad; it is just a fact that there are no limits
to our needs.
PS And of course to pretend to define limits gives a lot of leeway or power to
the ones so pretending.
LK Yes, naturally.
PS To somewhat continue the question, do you share Berlin’s idea that the
final, absolute values that human beings have aspired to are hardly ever
compatible and can oftentimes be incommensurable? And do you share
Berlin’s vision of politics –as a reformist, fallibilist, mostly
“experimental” endeavour— and his indirect defence of
LK I share all those ideas and I wrote about it. Berlin was quite right that
the most important values we humans share, which are real values, are
incompatible if taken to the highest level. One cannot put them to the highest
level together. We value equality and we value freedom, but they limit each
other. Absolute freedom is anarchy, absolute equality entails totalitarianism.
Because they limit each other, our thinking about society, even more our acting
in society, are always attempts to reconcile what can not be completely
PS Are we not witnessing today new attempts to erect absolute values? Ecological
radicalism or pacifism at any cost, no matter what...
LK Of course. If we hold a value, which is real, but want to extend it above
everything else, at any possible cost, then we end with dangerous absurdities,
...as many ecological movements or animal rights movements can go to the point
of absurdity. Our (human and social) life is a never ending compromise between
As to negative freedom, there is no other freedom in society. Negative freedom
is the area in which we are not restricted by law, by the state or by others;
and, yes, as Berlin said, the area in which we individually are allowed to make
mistakes in our attempts to reconcile personal values.
PS Kant is an important figure in your work, among other things because of his
“regulative ideas” or his view that the distinction between good
and evil is independent from people’s behaviour and historical processes.
Why are those views vital to the survival of our civilization? And speaking
more philosophically, how can the distinction between good and evil be
independent from, even prior to, human behaviour and human history?
LK Well, that is an arbitrary and in fact religious view, that we are not
inventors of what is good and evil but that we find the distinction in reality.
This reality is not, for Kant, the empirical reality of the distinction between
the red and the yellow colours, it is not empirical. However, we tend to
believe –and I do believe this as well— that the distinction is not
a human invention which can easily be changed, for example, depending on our
whims or ideological fancies. No; it is something we find ready-made, so to
PS Do you then agree with contemporary attempts to somehow preserve what was
correct in the ius naturale way of thinking? Hayek, for instance,
insisted in the value of (legal) precedent vis-à-vis mere legislation,
in the –to put it some way— critical history of humanity therein.
LK I do believe that the distinction between good and evil is not our arbitrary
decision, that we find it ready-made. It is in human nature yes, but more than
that, it is something that we can not change because it is imposed on us by... (Kolakowski
meditates a long while).PS By the Universe?
LK By the Universe, or God, or any other way of putting the same thought.
PS Hayek says we do not know so much what justice is as we know what is
unjust: “you must not kill”, “you must not steal”...
LK But that is enough, because if we know what is unjust then we know what
justice is. On the other hand, whether the negative way of putting it is
logically first, we do not know. It is perhaps an educational matter to start
in the negative way; we often do that educating our children,
“Don’t do that, don’t do that, my child”.
PS You have written important works on Positivism, Phenomenology or
Existentialism but your interest in religion, especially Judeo-Christian
religion, has been lifelong. Already in the 1970s you wrote, for example, that
“religious consciousness is an irreplaceable part of human culture and
human beings´ fuller attempt at self-identification”. Are you a
“catholic” thinker –as you are called in the web— in
any sense of the word?
LK No. I am not a Catholic because I do not take part in the sacraments. One
cannot be a Catholic that way. I do not take part in the sacraments but I do
feel, if one may say so, friendly towards Christianity and the Christian
tradition. It is not a denomination.
PS The admiration comprises Judaism. For instance, sometimes you have said that
Judeo-Christianity is more amiable regarding human life, the importance of
human life, than Buddhism.
LK Judeo-Christianity has been an immense contribution to the history of
humankind, and our culture is fundamentally Christian and I accept it as such. But
I am also a great admirer of Buddhism; I love Buddhism, really. Nevertheless
our culture is not Buddhist, it is Christian.
Buddhism is a religion that shows us the misery of life. As you might remember,
in the first biography of Buddha we are told that he was educated and lived in
luxury, among all sort of pleasures, and he knew nothing of human misery. But
the Gods one day decided to enlighten him. First he saw a man who was very old,
almost completely disabled and unable to walk or do anything. Then he saw a man
who was gravely sick, an incurable invalid on the verge of death. Then he saw a
corpse being carried to its cremation. And he understood that that is our
destiny in this world: to be sick, to be old, to die. And it was only then that
he started looking for a way of liberation, that is to say nirvana.
Buddhism is thus a way of thinking and feeling, an attitude to the world that
apprehends nothing more in it than misery and suffering. Of course we should be
always aware of misery and suffering, and compassionate. Nevertheless, we
should not say that there is nothing more than that because this makes our life
barren; we are unable, by so saying, to be creative. So, as much as I admire
Buddha himself and Buddhism, I realise Buddhism was not able to produce the
kind of civilisation that the Christian West produced.
PS Perhaps, then, your interest in religions is due to the fact that religions
do answer fundamental questions of human beings which other endeavours
–philosophy, even art— do not?
LK Of course. As much as there are points of contact between religion and
philosophy and between religion and the arts, nevertheless, if we want to have
real answers to the fundamental worries of human beings, then, we find them in
religion. We need to believe that human life has a sense. But we do not
find a sense elsewhere but in religious traditions.
PS Who is the Devil in Kolakowski´s thought? Why does He need to be
saved? Can He be defeated in the absence of a God? And more relevant, perhaps,
to your philosophy, can God remove the consequences of His deeds?
LK I was interested in the Devil all my life. I published a book, Conversations
with the Devil, long time ago.
Well, that is the question of evil, what is the origin of evil
...assuming that there is a God, a Creator who is not only omnipotent but
perfectly good? That is a very traditional question, of course; many people
have asked how it is possible that a perfectly good God created a world so full
of evil and suffering. And, obviously, the whole of Christian philosophy is
full of attempts to answer this question. We cannot get rid of it.
PS What do you think of Kant’s doctrine of radical evil? Why do we need
to remember that evil is an inerradicable part of reality?
LK That is the question of the eternity of Hell. If there is an eternal Hell,
then evil cannot be destroyed completely. But there are Christian writers who
deny the reality of eternal evil. For instance, there is this interesting
Polish theologian, Waclaw Hryniewicz, who wrote a number of books trying to
prove that punishment in the other life cannot be eternal. He tries to
elucidate the New Testament’s fragments addressing the eternity of Hell
by making it clear that some Greek expressions lose their complete meanings in
their Latin translations. I cannot discuss this question here; nevertheless,
his aim is clear: he denies very strongly the eternity of evil and, therefore,
the eternity of Hell. I do not know how it is in reality, though, I don’t
PS Kant’s question was, What happens to the consequences of evil
choices and actions? And I ask myself, if I cause enormous suffering,
suffering to a large number of people, if I am a criminal tyrant, can that
suffering inflicted on others ...ever be abolished? Must God not be, in
the other life, not only loving and forgiving but also just?
LK That I do not know, really. There is the question Can the devil be saved?
Papini wrote a book about it in which he affirmed that, yes, the Devil can be
saved eventually. Because if the Devil can never be saved, then evil cannot be
eradicated. But some people who, like Swedenborg, claimed to have visited the
other world during their lifetime, did not believe that evil can be
PS Philosophy. You have said many important things about philosophy. In
“The Death of Utopia Reconsidered”, for example, you say that the
role of philosophy is not to deliver truth but to build the spirit of truth. But
you add that there are other, equally important, roles for it. Must philosophy
then also concern itself with the preservation of some human ends and ideals,
and in what way? Can philosophy for example, and as Hayek wanted in the
1970´s, “help restore the enthusiasm for individual freedom which
seems to have disappeared from the realm of public ideas in much of the Western
LK Yes, philosophy can help there. Philosophy can help in many different ways. But
nobody can predict the results of those different philosophical efforts;
because we can still argue and quarrel about whether some philosophers
–with the best of intentions— did ultimately contribute to the good
or the evil of our world. Probably most philosophers want to contribute somehow
to the good, but do they? Even after centuries we cannot be certain that
their work contributed to the good. It is a matter of the character of our
life: we do not know what really remains after we leave this world, if what
remains is good or not.
PS Is it true what Richard Rorty used to say, that when we philosophers concern
ourselves with human ends and values we do not really do “anything
special”; that our “instruments” may be different but the
philosopher is, in the political realm, just another citizen?
LK Well, Rorty did not believe that we can achieve truth in the sense we
traditionally meant “truth”. He was a pragmatist, essentially: our
ideas, our words, our language, really, ...are instruments. He construed them
in such a way that they just are for practical purposes: they are good insofar
as they contribute to our well-being and happiness. But what is happiness? We
can never define what happiness is. The utilitarian concept of truth I find
therefore dangerous. Simply, we cannot get rid of the desire for truth in the
traditional sense. Truth is truth. I understand the reasons why many people
accept the pragmatist concept of truth, but I think it is very risky.
PS Professor Kolakowski, are you a “conservative liberal socialist”
in political matters? Is a general position of yours that social and political
life has to be approached in that manner?
LK Yes, we must keep in mind that we can never reach ultimate goals, like
perfect fraternity or solidarity. On the other hand, I think that all those
words, “conservative”, “liberal”,
“socialist”, have lost their old meanings. Today we do not really
know what they mean unless we come up with some arbitrary definitions. Thus, I
cannot define myself with the help of such words; I don’t need them,
really; I don’t need to say that because I think this, and that, and so
on, are correct, I am a “conservative”, a “liberal”, a
“socialist”. There was a time one could say what, for instance,
“socialism” meant; that was before the First World War, in the 19th
century; then “socialism” was a pretty well-definable concept, but
later on lost its meaning. And so it happened with other concepts, like
“liberalism”. In America, liberalism is something completely
different than in Europe. So, to me all those concepts seem obsolete.
PS In “What is Left of Socialism?”, though, you criticize
Hayek´s “caricature” of the expression “social
justice”. But why preserve the expression “social justice”,
does it not entail more dangers than benefits, is it not terribly vitiated?
LK Hayek did not accept for himself the expression “social
justice”. I remember him saying that for 50 years he had heard people
repeating the expression “social justice” but nobody ever explained
to him what it was. But one can of course use the expression if one is able to
say what it means.
PS Hayek wanted to distinguish “justice as background”
–basically the rule of law; for him, the only genuine justice— and
“justice as concrete results” ...which is what many people mean
when they vindicate social justice, even if it subverts the rule of law,
impartiality.LK Yet, one thing is justice in the legal sense and another thing
can be social justice. If we go back to Aristotle, we learn that justice is to
give to everybody what is his, what belongs to him; but how do we know what
belongs to me, and to you, and so on?
It is true that “social justice” has a strong ideological force and
was used as the ideological tool of totalitarian socialism; it is true that one
cannot infer from the expression any useful answer to real economic problems
(like the system of taxation, or the social benefits, or the aid, that are
justified); it is true that more often than not the expression is employed by
individuals or entire societies who refuse to be responsible. Nevertheless, the
concept might still be useful as an intermediary between charity and
distributive justice, important as those are. For it suggests to us the morality
of that other concept, the concept of “humanity”.
(The interview has practically finished. We have been with Professor Kolakowski
for almost two hours, which was the time we had agreed on. So, we start
preparing to leave. Kolakowski´s opinions on today’s world
—terrorism, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the foreseeable future of
Liberalism and, particularly, Europe— will have to be read elsewhere).
PS You said at the beginning of this interview that your main concerns are in Metaphysical
Horror, is that correct?
LK Yes; the book was originally written in English; unfortunately I do not have
extra copies with me... It was later translated into Polish and other languages
and, yes, it addresses, in my opinion, some fundamental questions of
Philosophy. The questions, not the answers.
PS I will read it. Would you like to read the interview before it is published?
LK I would prefer to revise it, if you do not mind. But preferably in English
and not in Spanish. Spanish I do not know except that, when I have been in
Spain, I have understood enough to determine what was the main topic of a
newspaper’s article, roughly. French is my best foreign tongue.
(We are still sitting in the living room. Professor Kolakowski is kind to the
LK I should tell you, I have a special admiration for Spanish culture in spite
of my ignorance of the tongue. It is the passion which is in the Spanish
culture that I admire, apart from ideas. I admire, for example, both
Zurbarán and Goya, even if ideologically they are completely apart; or
say, Buñuel and Miguel de Unamuno (sic). I admire all of them. And when
I was asked by the Times Literary Supplement to name the “Book of
the Millennium”, without any hesitation –without any
hesitation— I wrote, “Don Quijote”. I feel there is an
ineradicable passion in the Spanish culture other than elsewhere which is
–completely apart from ideas— what I admire.
PS We are not good at ideas then? (He laughs at the pun). I know you know our
country because of what you retorted to Thompson in the 1970´s: you
visited Spain then, Franco was alive...
LK I was there several times, and I traveled a little bit. I have been in
Madrid, Barcelona, Gerona; I gave some lectures in Gerona. I have even been in
El Toboso. There was at the time a severe drought in the whole of Spain. I
wanted to visit the town of Dulcinea; but I only found a few peasants playing
cards in the shade...
(The three of us laugh with a good heart).
PS We appreciate so much, Professor, that you received us.
LK It was a pleasure to see you.
...Is it cold outside? Are you going to walk to the hotel?
Brief biographical note
Born in Radom, Poland, in 1927, Leszek Kolakowski is a distinguished
philosopher and historian of ideas well known worldwide for his criticisms of
Marxian and Marxist thought and, particularly, his monumental work Main
Currents of Marxism. The work was first published in Paris, in Polish, in
1976-1978 (Polish Literary Institute) and London, in English, in
1978 (Oxford University Press). In Spain, it was published, in its complete
version, in 1980-83 (Alianza). In France, the first 2 volumes of Main
Currents were published in 1987 by Fayard. The 3rd volume has never
been published in that country, “for reasons never explained to the
As a youth and due to the Nazi occupation, Kolakowski was educated in his
country’s underground school system. After World War II, he studied
philosophy at the University of Lodz and joined the Communist party. In 1953 he
received a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Warsaw with a thesis on
Spinoza. From 1947 to 1949 he worked as an Assistant at Lodz University, and
from 1950 to 1968 he was an Assistant and later a Professor at Warsaw
Sent to Moscow by the party, in 1950, to take a course for young and gifted
Communist intellectuals, he found the experience unsettling. With the 1956
“Polish October” or “Polish revolution” and
Gomulka´s accession to power, Kolakowski became one of the principal
voices for the democratisation of Polish life and one of the most prominent
“revisionist” Marxists in his country. As a
“revisionist” Marxist he wrote “What Is Socialism?” (1956),
“The Priest and the Jester” (1959), “Responsibility and
History” (1960), and the collection of essays Towards a Marxist
Humanism (which appeared in 1967 and was titled in the UK as Marxism and
Beyond), all of them increasingly critical with dogmatism and dogmatic
belief in deterministic historical progress.
He became more and more outspoken against the basics of Marxist doctrine even
as he was made, in 1959, Chair of the section of the history of philosophy at
the University of Warsaw. In 1966, after a Conference he delivered at the 10th
anniversary of the 1956 Polish revolution –“revolution” which
in fact, and according to his own words, “ushered in a gradual extinction
of the social, economic and cultural liberation that had taken place since Stalin’s
death” —, he was expelled from the party. In 1968 he was dismissed
from his Chair at the University for “forming the views of the youth in a
manner contrary to the official tendency of the country”, and left Poland
with his wife, Tamara, as governmental anti-Semitism and students protests
against the government broke out.
No official references to his works were made in Poland in twenty years
although, in underground editions, they were known in the country. Thus,
Kolakowski´s writings shaped the views of the Polish intellectual
opposition to Communism, inspired the activities of the Committee for the
Defence of Workers (KOR), of which he was a foreign member, and those of
the Flying University, an underground educational venture. As an active
supporter, from abroad, of Solidarity, he stimulated the movement that
challenged and ultimately began dismantling the Soviet system in Eastern
In 1968, Kolakowski became a visiting professor of philosophy at McGill
University, Montreal and, in 1969, at the University of California at Berkeley.
From 1970 until his retirement in 1995 he was a Research Fellow at All Souls
College, Oxford. From 1981 to 1994 he also served on the Committee of
Social Thought and as a professor in the department of philosophy at the
University of Chicago.
Around the time of his exile, Kolakowski stopped considering himself a Marxist,
even a “revisionist” one (for, as he once said, “there are
better arguments in favour of democracy and freedom than the fact that Marx is
not quite so hostile to them as he at first appears”). Well-known became
his 1974 “Rejoinder” –“My Correct Views on
Everything”— to an “Open Letter” in the journal The
Socialist Register addressed to him by the British Marxist historian Edward
Kolakowski is a Fellow of the British Academy, the Polish Academy of Sciences,
the Académie Universelle des Cultures, and the American Academy of Arts
and Sciences. His numerous prizes include the Peace Prize of the German
Booksellers’ Association, the Erasmus Prize, the Vellion Foundation
European Prize for the Essay, the Jefferson Award, the MacArthur Prize, the
Jerusalem Prize, the University of Chicago Laing Award, the Tocqueville Prize,
the Jurzykowski Prize, and the Kluge Prize of the US Library of Congress.
The author of more than thirty books and about four hundred essays, he is one
of the few contemporary philosophers who is thoroughly familiar with both the
analytical and the continental varieties of Western philosophy. We can here
highlight the following works, with the dates of their first publication, most
often in Polish:
The Individual and Infinity (1958), on Spinoza;
Tales from the Kingdom of Lailonia (1963)
Religious Consciousness and Church Allegiance: Studies in 17th Century
Non-denominational Christianity (1965);
Positivist Philosophy from Hume to the Vienna Circle (1966);
Towards a Marxist Humanism (1967);
The Socialist Idea: A Reappraisal (1974; edited with Stuart Hampshire);
Husserl and the Search for Certitude (1975),
Main Currents of Marxism (1976-1978);
Religion: If There Is No God (1982);
Metaphysical Horror (1988);
Modernity on Endless Trial (1990);
God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal’s Religion and the
Spirit of Jansenism (1995);
The Two Eyes of Spinoza and Other Essays on Philosophers (2002)
My Correct Views on Everything (2005)
The Questions of the Great Philosophers (2007)