It was distinctly eerie to learn of the death of professor Leszek Kolakowski just 15 minutes before entering a room in which I was to give a short lecture on his influence. But it was also rather inspiring to be in a country that made the passing of a public intellectual into the front-page headline of every national daily paper the following day. The photographs of Kolakowski almost invariably portray a man with a forbiddingly craggy visage, austere to the point of asceticism. Yet he was one of the most engagingly witty people it was possible to meet. And his wit was deployed to puncture every kind of intellectual fraud or imposture. I remember his comment when he heard that Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukacs had said that even the worst socialism was preferable to the best capitalism: “Ah yes, the advantages of Albania over Sweden are self-evident.” He had earned the right to make such pronouncements. An ardent Communist in prewar and wartime Poland (and a sworn foe of the clerical, chauvinist, and anti-Semitic Polish right wing to the end of his days), Kolakowski was shorn of his Stalinism by exposure to its Moscow form on a visit to Russia, and he emerged as the leading “revisionist” Marxist philosopher of the Polish spring of 1956. At that stage, he advocated a form of democratic socialism approximately based on a reading of young—as opposed to late—Karl Marx. But repeated encounters with the obdurate and repressive Communist regime convinced him that the system was essentially beyond reform.
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