In the days following Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski's death at age 81, American political commentators have worked to define his legacy and champion his 20th-century European writings within the 21st-century American political discourse. Conservatives especially, but not exclusively, have found a hero in Kolakowski, who began his philosophical career as a communist but later renounced and staunchly criticized Marxism.
The National Review's George Weigel found special inspiration in the writer's defense of religion on an increasingly secular continent: "Kolakowski's philosophical works on religion ought to give the New Atheists pause," he writes, "Kolakowski knew that European civilization was built on the foundations of biblical religion, Greek philosophy, and Roman law."
Roger Kimball, a Weekly Standard writer and former student of Kolakowski, framed his legacy as one of anti-liberalism. "He made stops at Berkeley, which gave him an opportunity to learn firsthand about and therefore despise the New Left culture of the 1960s." Kimball coyly defines him as "a critic of Marxism and its spiritual allotropes," hinting at what those might be, he references "this disease of liberalism" and quips, "I hope some charitably minded person sends a book by Kolakowski to Al Gore." He elaborates, "Marxism remains eminently worth studying, not least because its aspirations continue to percolate in the dreams of various utopian planners."
Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic, quoting a favorite passage by Kolakowski, wrote, "That is humanism, and also liberalism." Wieseltier, who describes Kolakowski as a friend, elaborates, "I wish to recall Leszek gratefully as a democrat with a metaphysical interest. There are not many liberals who prefer to discuss Ockham or Cusanus."
Timothy Garton Ash wrote in the Globe and Mail that the death of Kolakowski and two other European philosophers could be dangerous for the continent's memory of its past and thus for its future:
There goes the last cohort of Europeans who were formed by the horrors of the Second World War and its Central European aftermath. They understood in their bones why we need a Europe of liberty under law, for, as teenagers and young men, they witnessed the opposite. Now we children of luckier times have to sustain that Europe without the kind of elemental drive that comes from personal experience.
If you'd prefer to read an examination of Kolakowski's life and work outside the context of present-day American politics, look to Christopher Hitchens, whose loving if sometimes critical eulogy makes no play for greater meaning.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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