By Fr Tomás Walsh
Philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski, (1927-2009), who witnessed unimaginable Nazi, and then Soviet terror, was one of Poland’s leading intellectuals of the 20th Century. Originally, a leading Marxist philosopher, Kolakowski was expelled from the Communist Party in 1966, fired from his academic post at Warsaw University and then exiled after he began questioning the excesses of Communism under Stalin, and its debasement of the human person. He would come to describe Marxism as twentieth-century man’s greatest fantasy: “It promised utopia – a classless society without greed. What it brought about instead was the most oppressive political system ever known, based on total state ownership of all its citizens.”
Kolakowski came to doubt that communism even in its purest form – or any other human initiative, however noble the endeavour, had the capacity to deliver the utopia that humankind yearned for due to the fact that Satan and evil were an existential reality that thwarted humankind’s best efforts. His witness of utter evil and the corruption of ideas left him in no doubt that at work in history was a supernatural agent that non-religious man was totally ill-equipped to fight against.
Kolakowski was a sceptic about many things, but not about the reality of evil or the nature of the devil. He talked about Satan often – even at public events – and not as a metaphor or figment of neurotic imagination but as a living malevolent actor in history. He wrote: “Evil… is not contingent… but a stubborn and unredeemable fact… the Devil is part of our experience… Our generation has seen enough of it for the message to be taken extremely seriously.” Each set-back for humanity was for Leszek further proof that a supernatural agent whom we call Satan was active in history and in the struggle of every human soul – and still continues to play a significant and decisive role in world affairs. He wrote: “I can understand people who do not believe in God, but the fact that there are people who do not believe in the devil is beyond my comprehension.”
Kolakowski believed that it is not possible to understand culture/civilization or any of recorded history until one takes the existence of the devil seriously. In his Essay, entitled, ‘Politics and the Devil’, Kolakowski looks at the Christian doctrine of existence “as a positive good, with evil being wholly negative or privative in nature. The devil cannot create either ‘ex nihilo’ or ‘de novo’ his own world-order, but must instead corrupt, debauch, deflect, or commandeer institutions or tendencies which have already legitimate purposes, moral and otherwise.”
Kolakowski’s thoughts concurred with Pope Paul VI who wrote in 1972 that “Evil is not merely an absence of something but an active force, a living, spiritual being that is perverted and that perverts others. It is a terrible reality, mysterious and frightening… He is the malign, clever seducer who knows how to make his way into us through the senses, the imagination and the libido, through utopian logic, or through disordered social contacts in the give and take of our activities, so that he can bring about in us deviations that are all the more harmful because they seem to conform to our physical or mental makeup, or to our profound, instinctive aspirations.”
Kolakowski’s life work as a philosopher was about highlighting the reality of evil; passionately defending the dignity of the human person; making us aware of the dangers of embracing ideology as it usually leads to slavery – and insisting in the existence of objective truth which all human actions must correspond for there to be any truly human flourishing.
When he passed away in 2009, he was universally acclaimed as “the philosopher of ‘Solidarity,’ the thinker, who, together with John Paul II and the Polish dissidents, articulated the ideas that were to lead to the rise of a non-violent anti-totalitarian social movement – a working-class revolution if ever there was one – that toppled the communist regime in Poland and unleashed the upheaval of 1989.”