Leszek Kolakowski’s academic field was hard to pin down. He was at once philosopher, historian, theologian, political scientist and literary critic. As a philosopher he radically changed his views several times during his life in ways that reflected the postwar political developments of his native Poland.
He began as an enthusiastic Marxist, becoming chair of Warsaw University’s philosophy department. Later, he became one of the regime’s most outspoken revisionists, advocating a democratic, humanist Marxism. But he then rejected that too, concluding that a democratic communism would be like “fried snowballs”.
His thoughts led to his expulsion from the party and, later on, his sacking from his position at the university. He was forced to flee Poland in 1968, whereupon he took up an international career, teaching on both sides of the Atlantic, at Berkeley and Oxford. By that time he had ceased to regard himself as Marxist, and his professorship at Berkeley left him highly critical of the left wing, in particular of the student New Left.
Despite having a reputation for massive erudition, he was far from being an ivory tower academic. His ideas were often prescriptive, and he formulated the concept of constructing selforganised social groups that would gradually and peacefully expand the spheres of civil society within totalitarian states. Many believe that this directly inspired the dissident movements in Poland in the 1970s that led to Solidarity and the collapse of the communist monopoly of power in 1989.
I particularly like this bit:
Kolakowski’s criticism of the Left became increasingly trenchant as his career developed in the West. In 1978 he wrote three volumes called Main Currents in Marxism. It was a comprehensive overview of the movement and examined the origins and theory of dialectical materialism and his amazement at how communism had “become the rallying point for so many different and mutually hostile forces”.
His critique ran from the Classical philosopher Plotinus, whose work Kolakowski considered foundational, right through to Maoism. At the end of the epilogue of the third volume, he concluded: “At present, Marxism neither interprets the world nor changes it: it is merely a repertoire of slogans serving to organise various interests, most of them completely remote from those with which Marxism originally identified itself.”
The third to last paragraph of the obituary is also highly recommended.