The great Leszek Kolakowski and the great Anastasio Mouratides

In a post this morning, Rod Dreher draws our attention to an essay by Leszek Kolakowski, the Polish philosopher and historian who is best know for his critical analysis of Marxism.

Dreher writes (emphases are mine):

A Kolakowskian Conservative

A reader sends in this excerpt from an essay by the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski [1], titled “How To Be A Conservative-Liberal-Socialist.” Kolakowski says this about what conservatives believe:

1. That in human life there never have been and never will be improvements that are not paid for with deteriorations and evils; thus, in considering each project of reform and amelioration, its price has to be assessed. Put another way, innumerable evils are compatible (i.e. we can suffer them comprehensively and simultaneously); but many goods limit or cancel each other, and therefore we will never enjoy them fully at the same time. A society in which there is no equality and no liberty of any kind is perfectly possible, yet a social order combining total equality and freedom is not. The same applies to the compatibility of planning and the principle of autonomy, to security and technical progress. Put yet another way, there is no happy ending in human history.

2. That we do not know the extent to which various traditional forms of social life–families, rituals, nations, religious communities–are indispensable if life in a society is to be tolerable or even possible. There are no grounds for believing that when we destroy these forms, or brand them as irrational, we increase the chance of happiness, peace, security, or freedom. We have no certain knowledge of what might occur if, for example, the monogamous family was abrogated, or if the time-honored custom of burying the dead were to give way to the rational recycling of corpses for industrial purposes. But we would do well to expect the worst.

3. That the idee fixe of the Enlightenment–that envy, vanity, greed, and aggression are all caused by the deficiencies of social institutions and that they will be swept away once these institutions are reformed– is not only utterly incredible and contrary to all experience, but is highly dangerous. How on earth did all these institutions arise if they were so contrary to the true nature of man? To hope that we can institutionalize brotherhood, love, and altruism is already to have a reliable blueprint for despotism.”

Read Kolakowski’s short essay here: http://www.mrbauld.com/conlibsoc.html

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I was very fortunate to have been exposed to the thought and writing of Leszek Kolakowski. In the late 1980s, before the fall of the USSR and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, many university professors and public intellectuals were keen defenders of Marxism and Communism. The Soviet Union and other communist countries were to be admired and emulated. They criticized Western foreign policy and loathed Reagan, Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. I was in graduate school at the time, attempting to complete a Master’s Degree in History. The university had just hired a crop of new history professors who were all Marxist – or New Left, as they would say. These were respected scholars. But boy were they dumb. I am not exaggerating. We were told that Western civilization was decadent, capitalism and democracy were evil and communism was a utopia. One prof consistently used Albania as a model society to be emulated for its equality and income distribution. Of course, all this happened at a time when in reality the Soviet Union and communism were on the verge of collapse. In class we learned one thing but on television we watched news of the Solidarity movement in Poland and breadlines in Moscow. We thought of ourselves as good socialists, “standing up to the man”, but something didn’t seem right.

I remember asking one professor in early 1989 whether or not he thought the Soviet Union may collapse and the Berlin Wall come down. He said the Wall would never come down because the US (that’s right, the US) had an interest in keeping it up!! I never, ever took anything he said seriously after that, and of course the Wall came down in November 1989.

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Anyway, a group of grad students including me started to ask the tough questions. We felt we were being forced to think a certain way despite the realities of Marxism and communism we were witnessing. Naturally we rebelled. And we had a sympathetic professor on our side, an older scholar of Greece and Byzantium, who agreed to teach a grad course in Marxism. Of course, some of the younger profs said we were being foolish and undermining our education.

The great Dr. Anastasios Mouratides agreed to teach the class and, as I recall, about five of us dared to enroll. And our textbook was Kolakowski’s masterpiece of analysis titled Main Currents in Marxism. The younger profs did not take Kolakowski seriously.

His magnum opus was the three-volume “Main Currents of Marxism: Its Rise, Growth and Dissolution”, published in the 1970s. It calmly and expertly demolished the pillars of Marxist thought: the labour theory of value, the idea of class struggle, historical materialism and the like. He also pointed out, again without unnecessary polemics, the practical shortcomings of communist systems. Stalinism was not an aberration, he argued, but the inevitable consequence of pursuing a communist utopia. For that, powerful left-wing voices such as the historian E.P. Thompson berated him as a traitor to the noble socialist ideals that he once espoused. (The Economist, July 30, 2009)

Honestly, I don’t remember too much of the course –  there was lots of debate inside and outside the classroom which spilled over to our other courses, and my major essay was a study of Marx’s concept of nature.

Anyway, what I do remember is that my outlook on life changed during that course and I never again flirted with socialism. And I am forever grateful to Professor Anastasio Mouratides.

Read more about Leszek Kolakowski here:

http://www.economist.com/node/14120114

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leszek_Ko%C5%82akowski

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