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Photo by Sijmen Hendriks
Leszek Kolakowski
1928-2009
One of Europe's great philosophers, winner of the first annual Kluge Prize, a Marxist in his youth who wrote the definitive de-construction of Marxism, the intellectual godfather of the democratic opposition in Poland.



Leszek Kolakowski philosopher, historian, theologian, political scientist, literary critic, playwright, storyteller, jester...


Leszek Kolakowski, born in Radom, Poland, in 1927, has had a profound influence not only on contemporary philosophy but on the recent history of Poland in particular and of Europe as a whole.

Kolakowski was a philosopher who has always put greater stock in the questions asked than in the answers. He was a major public intellectual whose exceptional intellectual and moral integrity has allowed him to change his views, as demonstrated by the trajectory of his own life and thought, much of which was closely tied to political developments in post-war Poland. He began as a young philosopher enthusiastic about the promise of Marxism, became chair of Warsaw University's Philosophy Department but also the regime's harshest revisionist critic, and eventually concluded after hard experience that a democratic communism would be like 'fried snowballs'. In fact it was Kolakowski, expelled from the Party and the University but welcomed by Oxford, who formulated the idea of self-organized social groups that could gradually and peacefully expand the spheres of civil society within a totalitarian state. This idea directly inspired Poland's dissident movements of the 1970s that led to Solidarity and the eventual collapse in 1989 of the communists' monopoly on power.


Kolakowski's more than 30 books range from the monumental Main Currents of Marxism to his playfully wide-ranging Mini Lectures on Maxi Matters. Czeslaw Milosz has described Kolakowski as "a good example of the return to the mores of the Enlightenment, when a philosopher did not withdraw into an ivory tower but waged war on the creeds of his contemporaries", which, adds Milosz, he does with 'Voltairian irony'. Comparisons to Voltaire may be warranted not only in his philosophy but perhaps even in his physiognomy.


A Senior Research Fellow in philosophy at All Souls College, Oxford, until his retirement in 1995, Leszek Kolakowski was renowned worldwide for the depth and breadth of his interests, which include the thought of the Enlightenment, his critical examination of Marxism, and his explorations in religion and myth. He was also known for his remarkable ability to convey complex philosophical questions with clarity - and humor - to the general public.


Winner of 2003 Library of Congress' First John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Humanities and Social Sciences, called the humanities Nobel Prize.


Kolakowski died in Oxford, where he lived, on July 17, 2009


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