Leszek Kołakowski, 1927-2009

Leszek Koakowski, the philosopher and communist dissident who spent most of his career at Oxford after leaving Poland in 1968, died this Friday afternoon in an Oxford hospital. Reuters has a brief obituary here, and here is a short account of his life I wrote for this magazine back in April 2008, when I reviewed his Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? 23 Questions from Great Philosophers:

Koakowski was born and educated in Poland. As a young philosopher he embraced doctrinaire Marxism as a hopeful alternative to the horrors of Nazi Germany. But when the Communist Party sent him to Moscow in 1950 to attend a program for promising young intellectuals, he became aware of what he called the "material and spiritual desolation" that the Stalinist system had wrought. Koakowski played a key intellectual role in the reformist "Polish October" movement of 1956, in which liberal sentiment led to a break between Polish communism and that of the Soviet Union. In 1959 he was appointed chairman of the history of philosophy section at the University of Warsaw.

Though he remained a Marxist through the 1960s, Koakowski's relationship to official Communist ideology became increasingly strained, thanks to the growing emphasis in his thought on the sovereignty of the individual and the importance of political and intellectual freedom. In 1966, following an address he gave on the tenth anniversary of the Polish October uprising, he was ejected from the Polish United Workers' Party. Two years later he was fired from his university post, accused of "forming the views of the youth in a manner contrary to the official tendency of the country." The same year, following Poland's state-sponsored campaign against "Zionism," Koakowski, his Jewish wife, and their daughter left for Canada and the United States before settling at All Souls College in Oxford, where he has been a fellow since 1970. Although Koakowski was banned in his home country for more than two decades, his writings continued to have an important effect in Poland, as elsewhere. He provided significant support to the Solidarity movement during the 1980s.

While Koakowski's most influential work is undoubtedly Main Currents of Marxism (1976), in which he traces the history and decline of Marxist thought from its origins in Christianity and German Romanticism through Marx, Engels, the Russian Revolution, and what he calls the "breakdown" in the middle of the twentieth century, he is much more than a scholar of the Left. He is first and foremost a philosopher and a historian of philosophy. He has written books on Spinoza, Husserl, Bergson, and Pascal, and dealt extensively with a range of topics in existentialism, epistemology, and the philosophy of religion. Like the rest of his corpus, the essays in Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing? reveal the workings of a great mind with a distinctively liberal, humanistic, and Catholic worldview.

The rest of that review is available here to Commonweal subscribers.

John Schwenkler is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at Florida State University.

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