Leszek Kołakowski’s Is God Happy?

I ended the year reading a collection of essays by the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, whose life spanned not only the two great catastrophes to befall 20th century Poland – the Nazi and Soviet invasions – but the collapse of the Soviet empire and the construction of the post-war world order that now seems to be so massively threatened. Kołakowski’s main claim to our attention comes from his intimate knowledge of Marxism, which he has critiqued, to devastating effect, better than any writer I know, but only about half of the essays in this volume deal with that topic (they typically end with the postscript This essay was seized by the censor …); the rest tackle the subject of god, the teachings of Christ, the diminishing role of history in the life of modern man, and the nature of truth.

Reading Kołakowski provokes in me a profound discomfort because, officially, communism is a dead ideology, buried beneath the rubble of the Berlin Wall, and even the Communist Party of China, we are told, has made private concessions to this fact – and yet all around me I witness signs of its ongoing vitality, the very symptoms Kołakowski so skillfully explicates. This, I believe, is because communism is not reducible to its economic theories; in fact, these may even be secondary to its true magnetic draw, which is the power of its narrative: the division of the world into oppressor and oppressed, and the conviction that the one is destined to overthrow the other. “From the very beginning,” Kołakowski tells us in the essay “Communism as a Cultural Force,” “ideologically as well as tactically, communism was a parasite. It efficiently exploited all social ills, attaching itself to causes that were not only important but also worthy, and supported by much of an intelligentsia nurtured on the ideals of enlightenment and humanism.” Thus, in Russia in the late 19th century, it allied itself “in a non-doctrinaire fashion” with “all potential sources of opposition to czarist autocracy.” In the 21st century, a quick glance through the academic literature of the “studies” departments reveals an almost unending list of social ills, from sexism to “fat phobia,” that have been usurped by the dichotomous “oppressor-oppressed” narrative. A necessary corollary of this worldview is that everything having to do with the “oppressed” is axiomatically good, or at least beyond criticism, and everything having to do with the “oppressor” is axiomatically bad or indefensible.

Communism proved extraordinarily successful in instilling in intellectuals the belief in the necessity of global and indivisible choices: either you opt for socialism and justice, in which case you must support the Soviet Union unconditionally, or you take the side of capitalist exploiters and oppressors. Today it seems incredible that this primitive and mendacious view of the world could have been so easily swallowed by so many people who took pride in their sophisticated philosophical education, and had indeed been educated at the École Normale or the Sorbonne.

But the primary attraction of such a worldview is, of course, not intellectual but psychological: the glowing conviction that you stand for all that is good and against all that is bad. Now consider, for a moment, how America’s intelligentsia has come to speak of their own nation: as a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, infected, from the beginning, with the desire to oppress. The jargon of this ideology, once confined to obscure humanities departments, has burst into the wider world, and can be heard spoken not only by aspiring presidential candidates but by journalists and celebrities, all likewise eager to appear virtuous. In “Totalitarianism and the Virtue of the Lie,” one of this collection’s most enlightening essays, Kołakowski describes the fundamental role that dishonesty plays in upholding an otherwise illegitimate rulership, and once again I had that eerie premonition that what was being described to me was my own society:

The cognitive aspect of this machinery consists in effacing the very distinction between truth and political ‘correctness.’ Its psychological function is important in that, by training people in this confusion and injecting them with the belief that nothing is true in itself and that anything can be made true by the decree of authority, it produces a new ‘socialist man,’ devoid of will and of moral resistance, stripped of social or historical identity. The art of forgetting history is crucial: people must learn that the past can be changed – from truth to truth – overnight. In this manner they are cut off from what would have been a source of strength: the possibility of identifying and asserting themselves by recalling their collective past.

In my youth, mere decades ago, it was fashionable for American popular culture to refer to the “unfulfilled promise” of the American founding: slavery, as a moral evil, was not denied, but neither was the originality of the American experiment in self-government. Our generation, we were told, was blessed with the opportunity to make good on that promise “for all Americans.” Today’s youth are being reared on a different message: gone is any appreciation for the radical experiment in democracy or for the revolt against monarchy – both are to be replaced with greater levels of vitriol at the prejudice of the founding and the “systemic” injustices it reified. In other words, the “collective past” from which, historically, Americans drew so much pride and strength, is denied, dissolved, forgotten, ultimately even rewritten. “People whose memory – personal or collective – has been nationalized,” Kołakowski tells us, “become state-owned and perfectly malleable, totally controllable, are entirely at the mercy of their rulers; they have been deprived of their identity; they are helpless and incapable of questioning anything they are told to believe.” Malleable people, stripped of an identity and a heritage, cannot rule themselves; they can only be ruled.

The essays dealing with Christianity are perhaps even more prescient, even more applicable to our modern age, and as such they caused me even greater discomfort. The formerly Christian West has undergone a radical transformation in its belief system, welcoming new religions and undermining its own, and the most honest thing that can be said about this experiment is that no one alive can take the full measure of those changes, or predict where they will lead us. Nonetheless, some consequences of our growing secularization seem to me more defensible than others, and the first among these is the collapse of a sense of meaning or purpose, most evident among the younger generations. In a world without god, the finite takes on greater and greater importance, until the only compass we use to navigate through the world points away from discomfort and towards pleasure. Conspicuous consumption, mass entertainment, drugs and alcohol – all flourish as (temporarily effective) measures against the uncomfortable questions of meaning and purpose that continue to plague us. And though we may banish God from the discourse of meaning, we cannot abolish all of the aspects of life that provoke us to search for the transcendent: our suffering and mortality, or our need for a sense of purpose.

God can of course be rejected as morally dangerous, denied as unacceptable to reason, cursed as the enemy of humanity or excommunicated as a source of bondage. But the Absolute could be replaced by something finite and non-absolute only if it were really forgotten. And if this were possible, there would no longer be any need to replace it. So the object could be attained only once there was no need for it. But the Absolute can never be forgotten. And the fact that we cannot forget about God means that He is present even in our rejection of Him.

He will go on to excoriate those “primitive enough to imagine that crude atheism not only suffices as a view of the world, but can also justify trimming the cultural tradition as one sees fit, according to one’s own doctrinal fancies, hacking away an essential part of it and depriving it of its most vital source.”

I can speak now as one such formerly primitive thinker; it once seemed to me no great task to separate what I cherished from our heritage from what I deplored. Now I am ashamed by my former pride, and humbled by the magnitude of the task before my generation: the regeneration of our convictions and the restoration of our badly broken culture. Kołakowski, I have no doubt, will prove an indispensable ally in that fight.