Modernity on Endless Trial.
by Leszek Kolakowski.
University of Chicago Press. 304 pp. $24.95.
Polish-born, in the West since the late 60’s, Leszek Kolakowski now divides his time between the universities of Oxford and Chicago. His stature as a philosopher and as an astute commentator on our time is well-established. Aside from his magisterial three-volume history of Marxist thought, he has offered keen insight into the struggle between totalitarianism and liberty, and on the possibilities of religion under modern conditions.
The present volume of essays written in the 1970’s and 80’s begins with reflections on the role of intellectuals in modernity and concludes with thoughts on the nature of theories and ideologies. But the bulk of the essays deal with religion and politics, respectively subsumed under the headings “On the Dilemmas of the Christian Legacy” and “On Liberals, Revolutionaries, and Utopians.” As always with essay collections, the sequence is intended to suggest a unitary argument and only partially succeeds. But what comes through is the voice of the author. It is a rather quiet voice, more thoughtful than insistent, almost always troubled.
Virtually every one of these essays is worth reading, but a few should be singled out. “Looking for the Barbarians: The Illusions of Cultural Universalism” ringingly affirms the unique capacity of the Western mind to see things from the perspective of other cultures, while just as emphatically rejecting the proposition that all cultures are equal; orginally published in French in 1980, the essay is highly relevant to today’s discussions of multiculturalism. “The Revenge of the Sacred in Secular Culture” is a devastating critique of attempts to make religion more palatable by adapting it to modern secularity. “The Self-Poisoning of the Open Society” offers a description of the antinomies of liberation, and is important enough in itself to justify the publication of this volume. For humorous relief, the last section contains two delightful satires on contemporary intellectual fads, “The General Theory of Not-Gardening” (“The alternative to not-gardening without a theory is to garden. However, it is much easier to have a theory than to garden”) and “The Emperor Kennedy Legend: A New Anthropological Debate” (a report on efforts to theorize about President Kennedy on the basis of a few books and periodicals which have survived a natural catastrophe).
This, then, is a very good book by an author who merits both intellectual and moral respect. But Kolakowski’s reflections on religion, and to a somewhat lesser extent on politics, also raise some critical questions. These arise from a certain ambiguity Kolakowski hints at in his foreword when he says that the essays are not aimed at edifying but “are rather appeals for moderation in consistency. . . .” The phrase can have two meanings, and Kolakowski makes it clear that he intends both: as a thinker he is consistently moderate, and moderately consistent. These are, presumably, admirable qualities in a philosopher who very clearly does not suffer from delusions of omniscience. Thus, in a discussion of Karl Jaspers, Kolakowski muses that “perhaps it is the call of philosophers to reveal crises instead of curing them.” The non-philosopher, however, is justified in asking for at least the suggestion of a cure, and perhaps also for a bit more consistency even at the expense of moderation.
Kolakowski argues very cogently, for instance, that religious faith is possible only on the basis of a conviction of truth, not on the basis of the insight that religion satisifies certain needs, either collective or individual. A Durkheimian sociologist might conclude that religion is wanted for social order, a Jungian psychologist that religion springs from profound needs of the soul, but neither of these propositions can lead to an affirmation beginning with the words, “I believe.” Having said this, Kolakowski then proceeds to show how a sense of the sacred is a powerful foundation for an understanding of limits—limits to any profane order, limits to the human power to change reality, limits especially to the lunacies of utopianism, including those forms of utopianism which have created such havoc and misery in our century.
“To reject the sacred,” Kolakowski writes, “is to reject our own limits. It is also to reject the idea of evil, for the sacred reveals itself through sin, imperfection, and evil; and evil, in turn, can be identified only through the sacred.” This is certainly a correct proposition. But what if one is honestly not capable of gaining, or regaining, a sense of the sacred? Surely one cannot regain such a sense simply because one needs it as a defense against utopians. Is not Kolakowski repeating, here, precisely the error he repudiated earlier, the error of proposing the necessity or the functionality of faith without making an affirmation of faith?
The notion that evil becomes meaningless without a religious view of the world is further developed in the essay, “Can the Devil Be Saved?” Here Kolakowski suggests in effect that if the devil did not exist he would have to be invented. Without God, as Dostoevsky warned, everything is permitted, and the modern age with its murderous utopianisms has proved Dostoevsky right. Kolakowski writes that an appropriate metaphor for this age would be “the biblical legend of Nebuchadnezzar, who was degraded to the condition of a beast when he tried to exalt himself to the dignity of God.” Ergo: “There are reasons why we need Christianity, [although] not just any kind of Christianity.”
In the final passage of this essay, in discussing which religious and political creeds we should or should not espouse, Kolakowski uses the word “need” eight times and the words “not need” three times. Broadly speaking, his is a creed of moderation, imbued (again) with a sober knowledge of limits. But do this God, this devil, and this Christianity that we allegedly need—“a Christianity that is not gold, or purple, or red, but gray”—carry with them the warrant of binding truth, or are they too to be understood as “biblical legends” on which we, somehow, depend? In short, when it comes to religion one wants to know more unambiguously, more consistently, just where Kolakowski stands.
If a certain inconsistency flaws Kolakowski’s intermittently brilliant observations on religion, when he gets to politics it is the moderation that irritates. In the passage I have just referred to, Kolakowski tells us that in addition to a “gray” Christianity, we also need “the living tradition of socialist thought.” His is, to be sure, an anti-utopian, anti-totalitarian socialism, but it is socialism all the same. Yet why, after all we know about socialism, do we have this particular “need”?
Kolakowski cannot be accused of harboring any illusions about the “real existing socialism” from which he escaped to the West. Nor is he at all impressed with Western varieties of socialist utopianism; the third volume of his history of Marxism contains a devastating critique of these creeds. Nor is he anti-capitalist, at least if one understands capitalism as being synonymous with a market economy; he writes that “the abolition of the market means a gulag society.” What, then, is the “socialist tradition” that we allegedly need? In a short piece entitled “How to Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist,” Kolakowski tells us: to be a “socialist” is to believe that there should be limits to the pursuit of profit, that not all forms of inequality are inevitable, and that in a democracy, social controls over the economy are “to be encouraged” even if the cost may be a certain increase in bureaucracy.
If that is socialism, then everyone other then the most pious follower of Ayn Rand is a socialist. Surely Kolakowski must know this. So why is he intent on claiming the label? Residual utopian nostalgia? That hardly seems possible. Affection for the genuine moral impulses of many who have called themselves socialists? Perhaps. A desire not to offend too deeply the sensibilities of the conventionally Left milieu of Western academia? Whatever the motive, these passages are grating.
Kolakowksi is indeed a moderate, philosophically as well as politically. He embraces more than he repels. In religion, one wishes that he would embrace a little more, in politics a little less.