Ignazio Silone, the novelist and contributor to The God That Failed (1949), a hugely influential collection of essays by ex-Communist intellectuals, prophesied that the political future would be fought out between Communists and former Communists, since the latter alone could genuinely understand the Communist threat. Arthur Koestler, another novelist and contributor to The God That Failed, said something similar. They and many other ex-Communists—Whittaker Chambers was the most extreme example—took an apocalyptic view: the Cold War was a struggle to the death between two antithetical ideas, two historical and civilizational principles.

In the event, Communism went out not with a bang but a whimper; replacing it, capitalism came in with a bang but has since elicited much whimpering among its unfortunate beneficiaries in Russia, China, and Eastern Europe. It looks, in retrospect, as though Communism was simply forced industrialization by a nationalist bureaucratic elite rather than by foreign investors and their local clients, and that the Soviet Empire was largely a way of preventing yet another near-catastrophic invasion of Russia across the flat expanse of Central and Eastern Europe. What did any of that have to do with socialism? In a famous remark, Lenin defined Communism as “soviets plus electricity.” That was shortly before he abolished the soviets. It would perhaps be equally accurate to define Stalinism as “Tsarism plus electricity.” A drunken Leonid Brezhnev, when asked in 1968 whether the invasion of Czechoslovakia was really compatible with socialist morality, blurted out: “Don’t talk to me about socialism. What we have, we keep.” In vino veritas.

But of course the Communists talked endlessly about socialism to their imprisoned populations. How else could they pretend to justify a harsh one-party dictatorship and an inefficient centrally controlled economy? Most pre–World War I socialists, from Marx and Engels to William Morris, Jean Jaurès, and George Bernard Shaw, said nothing about the revolutionary seizure of power by a self-appointed vanguard. On the contrary, they all preached evolutionary social transformation, mass working-class parties and unions competing for power through elections, strikes, boycotts, and other nonviolent means, and the gradual diffusion of enlightenment and solidarity. If the ruling class used fraud and violence to thwart a democratic transition to socialism—as it undoubtedly will, if that prospect ever threatens—then they might legitimately be resisted and suppressed. (This is the meaning of that perennial bogeyman, the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”) But “democratic socialism” would have seemed a tautology to the classical socialists and “authoritarian socialism” a solecism. To them, “socialism” simply meant democratic control of a society’s core productive activities.

Still, what a word means in any epoch is an empirical question. If all Communists and the great majority of anti-Communists have agreed for nearly a hundred years to call bureaucratic, one-party dictatorships in underdeveloped countries “socialism,” then that is, alas, what the word now means. On the one hand, many Communists were eager to borrow the prestige of a widely cherished ideal; on the other, many anti-Communists were eager to besmirch that ideal by blaming it for the undeniable horrors perpetrated by the Communists. Many others on both sides were no doubt sincerely ignorant of the word’s original meaning. I always thought that the scrupulous (and sporting) thing for my fellow anti-Communists to call the sad and malignant entity behind the Iron Curtain would have been “pseudo-socialism.” But it never caught on.

Some of Communism’s fiercest critics did indeed insist that it was a betrayal of socialism. Orwell emphatically reaffirmed after publishing 1984 that he was a socialist. Silone and Victor Serge were among the better-known ex-Communists who continued to espouse traditional, non-Bolshevik socialism. (Some of the lesser-known ones were Karl Korsch, Paul Mattick, and Anton Pannekoek.) Most ex-Communist intellectuals, however, regarded Communism as a logical development of socialism rather than a hijacking or perversion of it. Whether one agrees with them or thinks they should have known better, it is at any rate easy to understand why they might have preferred to see themselves as victims of a grand tragedy rather than a wretched travesty.

AMONG THOSE WHO have sought to trace twentieth-century totalitarianism back to nineteenth-century socialism and beyond, Leszek Kolakowski is one of the most eminent. He was born in Poland in 1927 and came of age in that epicenter of the mid-twentieth-century European cyclone. After the war he joined the Polish Communist Party and, because of his superior intelligence, was sent to Moscow for ideological grooming. The experience sowed grave doubts in the young Kolakowski’s mind. He entered on a career as an academic philosopher but frequently—especially after the Hungarian uprising of 1956, also crushed by the USSR—wrote sharp-edged essays critical of Marxism and pseudo-socialism that attracted the authorities’ increasing displeasure, as well as the admiration of many in the West. He was expelled from the Party in 1966 and from Warsaw University in 1968, whereupon he went into exile. He had a distinguished academic career in Berlin, Berkeley, Chicago, and Oxford, received many prizes (including the Erasmus and Jerusalem Prizes and a MacArthur Fellowship), and died in 2009.

The sort of thing that got up the nose of the Polish authorities was “What Is Socialism?” (1956, reprinted in Is God Happy?), a satirical broadside that appeared on—and just as quickly disappeared from—bulletin boards around Warsaw University after the student journal that published it was shut down. The essay starts out by asking, innocently, what socialism is not. It never finishes answering. One feature after another of really-existing pseudo-socialism is pitilessly catalogued: “a society in which someone who has committed no crime sits at home waiting for the police”; “a society in which some people are unhappy because they say what they think and others are unhappy because they do not”; “a society in which some people are better off because they do not think at all…”; and so on and on, with grim humor, through many pages. Finally, socialism is defined: “Socialism is just a really wonderful thing.” It is, in my view, the best thing Kolakowski ever wrote, at any rate about politics.

The rest of Kolakowski’s extensive political writings can be summed up in not very many words. Utopias are dangerous folly. Perfect harmony is unattainable. “Socialism” simply means that the state controls the economy—never mind who controls the state—and invariably results in less freedom and efficiency than capitalism. Marx was a clever man, but Marxism is a tissue of sophistries, from surplus-value to historical materialism. Talk of Progress or Necessity is merely a way for ideologues to justify brutality and tyranny. Intellectuals, at least radical ones, should be distrusted. It is a familiar message: Cold War liberalism, ably formulated, with erudition and wit. If the spirit of Marxism-Leninism ever again burns bright, Kolakowski’s writings will no doubt serve as a valuable corrective.

Do they, however, have anything to say to twenty-first-century America? Not much, I think. Marxism-Leninism struck no sparks in the United States or Britain, few in Western Europe or South America (and then only among a minority of intellectuals for a few decades), none in Japan. For at least twenty years, it has been deader than Arianism or Albigensianism everywhere in the world. Anti-Communism and worship of the “free” market has been America’s civic religion for nearly a hundred years. The word “utopia” has scarcely been pronounced (except derisively) in the public square in all that time, and the only fantasies of perfect harmony that have had any effect on public policy are those of neoclassical economists. Since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the United States has seen the rampant financialization of the economy, the pulverizing of organized labor, a drastic increase in economic inequality, the capture by business of the regulatory system, and the growth of the national-security state. Internationally, after decades of violent U.S. intervention in Indochina, the Middle East, and Latin America, a corrupt and predatory investor class easily dominates an impoverished, insecure workforce. Global capitalism has, to paraphrase Tacitus, created a wasteland for hundreds of millions of the displaced and exploited—though it has done quite well by millions of the enterprising or well-connected—and called it freedom.

No doubt Kolakowski would have more vigorously deplored all this—he did mention it once or twice—if he had not been forced to spend his formative years bravely and eloquently combating pseudo-socialist totalitarianism. (Surely it did not help that he spent his first few years of exile in Berlin and Berkeley in the late 1960s and early ’70s, witnessing the worst excesses of the expiring New Left.) It is not easy in mid-life to change gears, alter emphases, play a new tune, especially when one suddenly finds oneself a celebrity. In a famous exchange, the historian E. P. Thompson tried, with enormous tact and discrimination, to suggest to Kolakowski that he might, in his changed circumstances, occasionally turn his attention to a different set of problems, the ones that marginal and beleaguered anti-capitalist and anti-Stalinist Western leftists like Thompson found most urgent. But Kolakowski simply assumed that his previous arguments had not been absorbed, and repeated them. A missed opportunity.

KOLAKOWSKI WAS NOT, in any case, solely or even primarily a political critic; he was a philosopher and a historian of philosophy. He wrote books on seventeenth-century philosophy, Bergson, Husserl, and positivism, among many others, including several on the philosophy of religion, such as The Presence of Myth, God Owes Us Nothing, Religion: If There Is No God…, and the middle section of Is God Happy?

The Enlightenment plays the same role in Kolakowski’s philosophical writings as Marxism does in his political writings. It’s where modernity went astray, where virtue took a wrong turn. Marxism distorted the quest for equality and social justice into utopian dogmatism; the Enlightenment distorted the promise of science and the rejection of superstition into relativistic rationalism. And just as Kolakowski’s positive political beliefs were hard to pin down (the closest he came was in an essay called “How To Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist”), so were his positive religious beliefs. For a long time he styled himself an “inconsistent atheist,” but near the end of his life he resolved the inconsistency by returning to the Catholic Church.

Perhaps the philosophical equivalent of “conservative-liberal-socialist” is “skeptical traditionalist.” At any rate, that’s a good description of Kolakowski’s religious/philosophical stance until his (re-) conversion. He was not (at least in his writing) a God-haunted man so much as a scourge of secularism; not so much avid to penetrate the mysteries as keen to debunk their debunkers. He does not have much comfort for afflicted believers, but he rejoices in afflicting comfortable unbelievers.

One tradition of Christian apologetics, from Pascal to Benedict XVI, emphasized the social and psychological indispensability of belief. It is summed up in a sentence of Dostoevsky’s: “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” (Significantly, Kolakowski chose this sentence as the subtitle of his book Religion.) Unless God exists, there is no certainty of ultimate justice, no reliable criterion of good and evil, no firm ground of truth, no transcendent meaning of life. This was Kolakowski’s approach, more or less. He writes:

Human dignity is not to be validated within a naturalistic concept of man. The absence of God spells the ruin of man in the sense that it demolishes or robs of meaning everything we think of as the essence of being human: the quest for truth, the distinction of good and evil, the claim to dignity, the claim to creating something that withstands the indifferent destructiveness of time.

But, as Kolakowski recognizes, even if this is true, it proves nothing. Perhaps human dignity cannot be validated, only affirmed; and perhaps the essence of being human must be reconceived, or the notion of “essence” redefined. Kolakowski appeals to the “ontic condition of humanity” and the “moral constitution of Being” to vindicate natural law. Do these resonant phrases amount to anything more than “That’s just the way things are”? I’m not sure they do.

Kolakowski was an admirable spokesman for the philosophia perennis, the common sense of (European) humankind since, roughly speaking, Homer. We feel free and responsible. Evil and conflict are in the nature of things, including ourselves. We sense mysteries in the deeps. Some of our intuitions are so strong that they must be eternal truths. He was baptized into an ideology that aggressively denied all these things. Skeptic that he was, he worked himself free of that ideology and also helped free a great many others. But as he continually reminded rationalists, the skeptical impulse can’t be sustained indefinitely or directed toward everything simultaneously. We need traditions too. Kolakowski struck his own distinctive balance, illuminating the ultimate questions even for those of us he could not persuade.

George Scialabba is a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His selected essays, Only a Voice, will be published in 2023 by Verso.

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