Leszek Kolakowski, Is God Happy? Selected Essays
New York: Basic Books, 2013
The Polish philosopher/theologian Leszek Kolakowski wrote an essay entitled “How to Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist” and that’s probably a great start to getting to know him. This essay speaks to the singularity of Kolakowski and his frequent refusal to trade on ideas just for the sake of remaining true to a party or school of thought. In an age where people are becoming—or ought to be—increasingly skeptical of parties—political, social, or religious—this iconoclasm ought to be at least intriguing. That essay is not in this particular book. But it’s a great introduction and sampling of his thought.
Kolakowski is an interesting theologian if only for his background. He came to prominence in post-World War II Poland as a staunch explicator of Marxism and key ideological figure in the communist movement, having once been labeled the “high priest” of communism. A trip to Stalinist Russia in 1950 shook Kolakowski and put him on a path toward deviation from the party line. By 1966 he had been expelled from the Polish United Workers Party and in ’68 he lost his job at Warsaw University. He spent the remainder of his career at prestigious universities in England and the United States.
One expects from this sort of narrative (and geographical movement) to then read the story of a defector, a convert even. It’s true enough that he would become a supporter of democratic principles in the course of his latter career, championing the anti-communist Solidarity movement in Poland, and that he was optimistic (to the point of admitted naivete) in the virtues of democratic societies. But Kolakowski was no capitalist any more than he was a communist. He was not an anti-Marxist any more than he became an avid reader of Adam Smith. Much to the chagrin of conservative apologists who would prefer to mine him for ammunition than to actually listen and understand him, Kolakowski defies ideological affiliation.
In some respects the label “revisionist Marxist” fits (though he disavowed this title later in his career). Kolakowski does not turn a blind eye to the cruelty of totalitarian communism, but neither does he give up on the values that lie at the heart of communist thought—a world without greed, where work (and human life) is not a commodity, a society that resists the maxim of economic growth at all costs and instead creates space for human flourishing and care for the most vulnerable. Kolakowski has a lot to say about why communism in the post-WWII era was destined to fail at achieving these goals, but he does not deny the validity of these goals or claim with infinite certainty that an alternative system can fulfill them either.
“I am entirely on your side on this issue. I share without restrictions your (and Marx’s, and Shakespeare’s, and many others’) analysis to the effect that it is very deplorable that people’s minds are occupied with the endless pursuit of money, that needs have a magic power of infinite growth and that the profit motive, not the use value, rules production. Your superiority consists in that you know exactly how to get rid of all this and I do not.” (125 “My Correct Views on Everything”)
What do we make of a Marxist who criticizes Marxism? Of one not entirely at home in capitalistic systems either—fully aware that neither system has manifested in an equitable and just society that well? What do we make of a Christian theologian deeply critical of Christian theology and practice? What do we make of a leftist who defends the sentiment of the Berkeley riots in the 60’s but staunchly criticized aspects of them as well? What do we make of a conservative-liberal-socialist? We make of them what we want, or we let them disappear, not likely out of maliciousness, but more because we do not know what to do with them. We could call this exile.
Not all exile is admirable. Some of it is the result of stubbornness and pride and resentment. It is possible to be skeptical or nit-picky to the point of being a bore. Finding a flaw in something is no act of genius. Imperfection is the hallmark of existence. “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes)” writes Whitman. It is also possible to let one’s (false) sense of integrity deny one the reward of habitual commitment to a community or practice. There is no contradiction between commitment to, say a religious community, and a fiercely critical approach to one’s lived faith. It is possible, once again, to blur the lines between being an independent thinker and one who is existentially indecisive—unable to choose between two or more viable options. It is possible to live in the privilege of not having to choose a side, but to let things play out and declare allegiance once a clear winner seems to emerge. It is possible, finally, to confuse being an independent thinker and hanging on to morally bankrupt views. It is like a person claiming on the one hand to oppose racism and all other forms of inequality, but on the other hand arguing that white nationalist screed makes some compelling points. Any or all of these postures could result in becoming a kind of social or theological orphan as well, but there’s no virtue in these.
But in Kolakowski we sense something worth calling noble. He writes: “You will be called anti-communist if you do not strongly believe that the actual Soviet (or Chinese) system is the most perfect society the human mind has invented so far, or if you wrote a piece of purely scholarly work on the history of communism, without lies” (126-27). To be anti-communist in my setting is a given, but to Kolakowski communism was his world, his country, his people, his land, the mother that birthed him. It is like being called anti-American for harboring well-documented and reasoned claims against the efficacy of capitalism as it has been practiced. The point here is not to debate which system is preferable, it is that keeping a clear mind and conscientious heart requires a fundamental faithlessness in systems and communities and institutions that otherwise demand our allegiance. Everyone wants to be a prophet these days; no one wants to go without honor.
Kolakowski’s loneliness, however, is exactly why I think he’s one of the more pressing thinkers that have been largely overlooked (or co-opted) in our age. In general his essays are equal parts wit and classic philosophical reasoning and clarity. He is an “easy” read even for the layperson because he’s humorous and sarcastic, and because his rhetoric is rich and biting and insightful without being bogged down by jargon. The skill of a master is to make something complex seem simple, and that is what Kolakowski excels at.
In particular, his essays on totalitarianism and criticisms of (Stalinist) Marxism have unnerving parallels in the move of democratic institutions toward their own brand of authoritarian rule. His essays on religion and various problems in theology combine the strength of logical and informed reasoning with the passion of someone for whom these issues matter in their bones. The problem of evil is not just a tool to refute superstition or a logical proof to defend God, but becomes reframed as a rational exercise of someone wounded by the experience of evil.
But I suppose I’m veering a bit too close to propaganda here. Below I’ve provided a set of quotes that are aimed at luring people to read the essays that they come from—all of which can be found in volume advertised at the top.
Let us consider what happens when the [totalitarian] ideal has been effectively achieved. People remember only what they are taught to remember today and the content of their memory changes overnight, if needed. . . . In effect they are no longer human beings. Consciousness is memory, as Bergson would have put it. Creatures whose memory is effectively manipulated, programmed, and controlled from outside are no longer persons in any recognizable sense and therefore no longer human. . . . This is what totalitarian regimes unceasingly try to achieve. People whose memory—personal or collective—has been nationalized, become state-owned and perfectly malleable, totally controllable, are entirely at the mercy of their rulers. . . . There is no applicable criterion of truth except for what is proclaimed as true at any given moment. And so the lie really becomes the truth, or at least the distinction between true and false in their usual meaning has disappeared. This is the great cognitive triumph of totalitarianism: it can no longer be accused of lying, because it has succeeded in abrogating the very idea of truth. (55-56 “Totalitarianism and the Virtue of the Lie”)
This is a banal but important point which I hope is clear to you. I simply refuse to join people whose hearts are bleeding to death when they hear about any, major or minor (and rightly condemnable), injustice in the US and suddenly become wise historiosophists or cool rationalists when told about worse horrors of the new alternative society. (121 “My Correct Views on Everything”)
You are proud of not going to Spain for political reasons. Unprincipled that I am, I was there twice. (123 “My Correct Views on Everything”)
I am entirely on your side on this issue. I share without restrictions your (and Marx’s, and Shakespeare’s, and many others’) analysis to the effect that it is very deplorable that people’s minds are occupied with the endless pursuit of money, that needs have a magic power of infinite growth and that the profit motive, not the use value, rules production. Your superiority consists in that you know exactly how to get rid of all this and I do not. (125 “My Correct Views on Everything”)
All those who, in the age of religious wars and confessional disputes, sought a return to the mythical simplicity of the Gospels and wanted to free Christianity from creeds and catechisms, leaving just its moral content, constantly went back to Erasmus and drew on this thought. (180 “Erasmus and his God”)
Ever since Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God a hundred years ago, there have been no more happy atheists. . . . Compare the godless world of Diderot, Helvetius, and Feuerbach with the godless world of Kafka, Camus, and Sartre. The collapse of Christianity so eagerly awaited and so joyfully greeted by the Enlightenment turned out—to the extent that it really occurred—to be almost simultaneous with the collapse of the Enlightenment. (184-85 “Anxiety about God in an Ostensibly Godless Age”)
Christianity can engage in politics and social conflicts, but if it is to escape self-destruction, it must perceive all temporal goods as relative. Since one cannot, in today’s world, be entirely apolitical in good faith, the Church, too, insofar as it is part of culture, should assume its political responsibilities; but this does not mean that it should identify itself with any existing political organization or movement, or treat political values and goals as ends in themselves. The Church’s past links with ossified social orders which harked back to the previous century are no less dangerous for the cause of Christianity than new attempts to link Christian ideas to the political ideologies of revolutionary messianism. Neither of these tendencies encourages the hope of a resurgent vitality of the Christian message; in both, one can sense the temptation to subordinate this message to temporal ends—to transform God into a tool, a potential object of human manipulation. The theocratic tendency—that vain and disastrous hope, enfeebled but still breathing, that humanity can be dragged to redemption by force—and the ostensibly opposing tendency—the attempt to embed Christian values in the framework of this or that revolutionary ideology—share one fundamental feature: both transform God into an instrument for attaining ends from which a Christian perspective, whether or not they are justified, should never be seen as ultimate ends. Both run the risk of transforming the Christian community into a political party. Thus both are symptoms of the inner corrosion of Christianity. As so often throughout history, the greatest danger today comes from the enemy within the gates. (189-90 “Anxiety about God in an Ostensibly Godless Age”)
Perhaps—and this is of course only speculation—dechristianization, insofar as it accompanied the decline of the temporal power of the Church, will prove beneficial, or indeed salutary, to the cause of Christianity. (191 “Anxiety about God in an Ostensibly Godless Age”)
But there is a mass phenomenon today which really does seem to deserve the name, and it plays a significant role in people’s lives. It is the worship of celebrities: rock stars, actresses, sportsmen. This is more than merely collective worship: it draws in huge numbers of people who through participating in it are able to experience a strange feeling of collective identity. The spectacle is indeed a strange one for those observing it from the outside, for what kind of identity can be attained through the worship of a football player? What values are created through the hysterical euphoria of a crowd of young people at a concert? How are great goddesses of the screen produced, like Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo? Quite recently we were able to witness an extraordinary event in the history of idolatry, namely the funeral of Princess Diana. Here was a woman of no education, who devoted her brief life mostly to building her ‘image’, to (extraordinarily successful) self-publicity and the creation of her own cult, and who at the moment of her own death became a genuine source of identity for countless millions of people. Millions thought of this young woman, who probably never in her life wore the same dress twice and traveled only by private jet or, more modestly, first class, as ‘one of us’. Instead of envy and resentment she provoked a sort of dream-feeling of identity. Television created her, but television creates many famous people and few of them become genuine idols. Manifestations of pseudo-religious worship are omnipresent in our culture, and their ubiquity naturally prompts questions about their source. (207-08 “Why a Calf? Idolatry and the Death of God”)
But what if there are people who expect punctuality without legitimate grounds, thoughtlessly, for no good reason whatsoever? . . . . If there are such people, then unpunctuality becomes even more beneficial, indeed virtuous, for it will be just punishment for their intellectual sluggishness, lack of logic and groundless expectations. It would be our duty to flaunt our unpunctuality before such people as often as possible, on a grand scale, enthusiastically and without restraint. (223 “In Praise of Unpunctuality”)