Resisting the arrogance of intellect

Our generation, mercifully, has little sense of what it means to philosophise as if the very existence of civilisation depended on it. But for thinkers writing under the shadow of two totalitarian catastrophes, both of which had intellectual support, the activity of thought had high stakes. One needed to dig deep into reservoirs of truth to mobilise resistance to the homicidal illusions of Stalinism. Nazism was morally abhorrent and begged for psychological and historical explanation. But at least at an intellectual level it posed less of a challenge. It had no pretensions to justice or high thought. Communism was more difficult. It was an emancipatory ideology, in some ways the culmination of the highest hopes for humanity. Yet it seemed to turn into its very opposite: sanctioning the worst forms of oppression in the name of emancipation. But it also posed a deeper puzzle. How could so many of the finest minds of the age be seduced by an illusion? How could a doctrine that was supposedly based on a stark realism, a critique of metaphysical flights of fancy, lead so many to lose their grip on reality?

These concerns produced an astonishing burst of theorising. But one towering figure, who in many ways powerfully embodied the existential angst posed by these questions, was Leszek Kolakowski, who passed away last week. A former communist who became a leading Polish intellectual dissident in the sixties, Kolakowski was perhaps as influential in demolishing the hypocritical allures of Marxism as any. He is best known for his magisterial three volume Main Currents of Marxism. Unlike other great dissectors of communism, Kolakowski's path seemed at first more obscure because it was located, not in the realm of history or smart literary and political observation, as for example was the case with Arendt and Aron. He came to his critique squarely from within philosophy, trying to examine intellectually how Marxism went from a promethean humanism to monstrous Stalinism. The book was a philosophical and rhetorical tour de force. It's very first sentence, "Karl Marx was a German philosopher," was a sly cutting down to size of the claims made on behalf of Marx. The account of Marx himself was not unsympathetic and acknowledged his greatness. The political importance of the book lay largely in the third volume, where his contemporary Marxists were pilloried. Marxists often found his arguments unfair, but in doing so often missed his central point. This was a point that he insistently raised, most powerfully in his decimation of the greatest Marxist intellectual of the time: Lukacs. He had describe Lukacs as "the most striking example in the twentieth century of what may be called the betrayal of reason by those whose profession is to use and defend it." But this accusation was aimed at a much larger phenomenon: intellectuals who chose, to deny the reality of atrocity, in the face of their own romantic delusions. Even in more easy going times such as ours, this question has not become entirely irrelevant. But Kolakowski's greatness lay in showing that this flight from reality was not a contingent aberration, but could arise from the brilliance of thought itself.

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