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Leszek Kolakowski’s Warning

Anticipating and resisting 'a totalitarianism of immediate gratification'
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One of the great discoveries I’ve made in researching my next book is the work of the late Polish intellectual Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009). He was an ex-Marxist who became one of the greatest critics of Marxism. He is also a hell of a writer. I’m now reading Is God Happy?, a collection of his selected essays, and strongly recommend it to you.

I also recommend this essay from The Nation by a scholar named John Connelly, who respects Kolakowski, but is greatly bothered by his turn from Marxism to being an ardent supporter of the “reactionary” Pope John Paul II. Connelly tries to answer the question: Did Kolakowski abandon his youthful atheism and become a believer? He never really does, but there are interesting passages, such as:

Now calling his positions conservative, Kolakowski forged a new social critique in a lecture in Geneva called “The Revenge of the Sacred in Secular Culture” (it is not included in Is God Happy?). What he abhorred about secularism was not so much its negation as its universalization of the sacred, a development that affected even the church. Liberal Catholics blessed all forms of worldly life, creating a mode of Christian belief lacking a concept of evil—that is, the understanding that evil is not the absence or subversion of virtue but an irredeemable fact—and leaving the church no reason or means to stand against the secular. The dissolution of the sacred from within and without had observable effects on the culture as a whole, contributing to a growing amorphousness and laxity in making distinctions. This was dangerous, Kolakowski argued, because the sacred gave to social structure its “forms and systems of divisions,” whether between death and life, man and woman, work and art, youth and age. He advocated no mythology in particular, and would admit only that a tension between development and structure was inherent in all human societies. Yet it was clear that certain developments troubled him deeply, and if the liberation movements unleashed in the 1960s continued, he feared the outcome would be “mass suicide.”

This is something that I’ve picked up in the Kolakowski essays I’ve read so far: a deep current of fear that without God, we are going to destroy ourselves. Here’s an insightful passage from “On Our Relative Relativism,” a 1996 essay collected in Is God Happy?:

If we are to single out a particularly powerful cultural factor that has contributed to the progressing collapse of standards, we are tempted to point to the enormous increase in mobility, both spacial and social. The virtual extinction of village life in the developed areas of the world has destroyed the spiritual organization of space as a guarantor of stability and eroded trust in tradition, which formerly provided people with a number of basic moral norms and a belief in an order of things that bestowed meaning on life. This is not a new observation. Many people have seen uprootedness as a distinct mark of our times; this widespread feeling of insecurity, of the absence of spiritual shelter, naturally found ideological or philosophical expression. We shed our archaic “irrational” habits of mind not to enter the glorious kingdom of rationality but, on the contrary, to adopt new habits which disregard the idea of rationality altogether.

Funny, but on Saturday I was talking to the Polish tech entrepreneur Krzysztof Zdanowski, who discoursed casually on how technology, especially the Internet, has dis-placed all of us today. I understand his observation more deeply having read tonight Kolakowski’s quote.

Here, from the website Monergism.com, is an excerpt from an interview Nathan Gardels did with Kolakowski not long before the old philosopher died. In it, the Pole says that religion is the only thing strong enough to keep us from destroying ourselves. Read on:

Kolakowski: As a whole, mankind can never get rid of the need for religious self-identification: who am I, where did I come from, where do I fit in, why am I responsible, what does my life mean, how will I face death? Religion is a paramount aspect of human culture. Religious need cannot be excommunicated from culture by rationalist incantation. Man does not live by reason alone.

Gardels | The cultural catastrophe being that without a set of rules that comes from religious tradition there are no moral brakes on man, particularly on the gluttony of homo consumptus?

Kolakowski | Yes, no moral brakes. When culture loses its sacred sense, it loses all sense. With the disappearance of the sacred, which imposes limits on the perfection that can be attained by secular society, one of the most dangerous illusions of our civilization arises—the illusion that there are no limits to the changes we can undergo, that society is an endlessly flexible thing subject to the arbitrary whims of our creative capacities.

In the end, as I have written in the essay “The Revenge of the Sacred in Secular Culture,” this illusion sows disastrous despair. The modern chimera, which would grant man total freedom from tradition or all pre-existing sense, far from opening before him the perspective of divine self-creation, suspends him in a darkness where all things are regarded with equal indifference.

To be totally free from religious heritage or historical tradition is to situate oneself in a void and thus to disintegrate. The utopian faith in man’s self-inventive capabilities, the utopian hope of unlimited perfection, may be the most efficient instrument of suicide human culture has ever invented.

To reject the sacred, which means also to reject sin, imperfection and evil, is to reject our own limits. To say that evil is contingent, as Sartre did, is to say that there is no evil, and therefore that we have no need of a sense given to us by tradition, fixed and imposed on us whether we will it or not.

As you put it, there are thus no moral brakes on the will to power. In the end, the ideal of total liberation is the sanctioning of greed, force and violence, and thus of despotism, the destruction of culture and the degradation of the earth.

The only way to ensure the endurance of civilization is to ensure that there are always people who think of the price paid for every step of what we call “progress.” The order of the sacred is also a sensitivity to evil—the only system of reference that allows us to contemplate that price and forces us to ask whether it is exorbitant.


Gardels | At the end of the last modern century, can secular man reintroduce the sacred? Can we base ethical values on reason instead of revolution? Must personal responsibility be rooted in transcendent beliefs?

Kolakowski | It is obviously possible for individuals to keep high moral standards and be irreligious. I strongly doubt whether it is possible for civilizations. Absent religious tradition, what reason is there for a society  to respect human rights and the dignity of man? What is human dignity, scientifically speaking? A superstition?

Empirically, men are demonstrably unequal. How can we justify equality? Human rights is an unscientific idea. As Milosz says, these values are rooted in a transcendent dimension.

[Emphasis mine below — RD]

Gardels | It strikes me that totalitarianism of a different kind could emerge from the new global capitalist order—a totalitarianism of immediate gratification in which reason is conditional to self-interest.

What is to defend dignity and human rights from total commercialization?

Kolakowski | The absence of a transcendent dimension in secular society weakens this social contract in which each supposedly limits his or her freedom in order to live in peace with others. 

Such universalism of interest is another aspect of the modern illusion. There is no such thing as scientifically based human solidarity.

To be sure, I can convince myself that it is in my interest not to rob other people, not to rape and murder, because I can convince myself that the risk is too great. This is the Hobbesian model of solidarity: greed moderated by fear.

But social chaos stands in the shadows of such moral  anarchy. When a society adheres to moral norms for no other reason than prudence, it is extremely weak and its fabric tears at the slightest crisis. In such a society, there is no basis for personal responsibility, charity or compassion.

Now, with the ecological imperative, a new ethos of species self-preservation is being discussed. To some extent, it may be true that we are instinctively programmed for self-preservation of the species. But the history of this last modern century has certainly demonstrated that we can destroy members of our own species without great inhibitions. If there is species solidarity at some deep biological level, it hasn’t saved us from civil destruction.

Thus, we need instruments of human solidarity that are not based on our own instincts, self-interest or on force. The communist attempt to institutionalize solidarity ended in disaster.

Seems to me that Gardels has succinctly identified a core aspect of the new totalitarianism coming at us — and Kolakowski has articulated our only hope to resist it. By the way, there’s a version of the entire interview, translated into German. Here’s a passage I had retranslated back into English:

A Technologically Advanced Brave New World, in which humanity has forgotten its religious heritage and historical tradition – and thus no longer grounds for moralizing its own life – would mean the end of humanity. It is highly unlikely that humankind, deprived of its historical consciousness and its religious traditions because they are technologically useless, could live in peace, content with its achievements. In fact, I would assume the opposite, because it is in the human being that our desires have no limits. They can grow incessantly, in an endless spiral of greed.

During the last decades of rapid economic growth, we have become accustomed to the idea that we moderns can have everything and, indeed, earn everything. But that’s just not true. As there are natural limits on our planet – ecological and demographic limits – we will be forced to limit our desires.

But without an awareness of boundaries that can only come from history and religion, any attempt to curtail our desires will end in terrible frustration and aggression, which could be catastrophic. The degree of frustration and aggression does not depend on the degree of absolute satisfaction, but on the gap between wishes and their effective satisfaction. The religious tradition has taught us limitation. All the great religious traditions have taught us for centuries not to bind ourselves to one dimension alone – the accumulation of wealth and the exclusive concern with our present material life. Should we lose the ability to maintain this distance between our desires and needs, that would be a cultural disaster. The survival of our religious heritage is the condition for the survival of civilization.

A Polish tech entrepreneur with whom I spoke over the weekend told me about how Artificial Intelligence (AI) is going to radically alter the human experience, to the point where “natural selection” yields to “artificial selection.” He wasn’t celebrating this, mind you, just observing what’s going on. He said AI is changing so fast that it will learn to present the world to us as we desire to see it, even before we know that we desire this or that particular thing. The more integrated we are with technology, the more our interface with the real world will be mediated through technology — a technology that construes the world as we wish it to be.

George Orwell, from 1984:

“If I wished,” O’Brien had said, “I could float off this floor like a soap bubble.” Winston worked it out. “If he thinks he floats off the floor, and if I simultaneously think I see him do it, then the thing happens.” Suddenly, like a lump of submerged wreckage breaking the surface of water, the thought burst into his mind: “It doesn’t really happen. We imagine it. It is hallucination.” He pushed the thought under instantly. The fallacy was obvious. It presupposed that somewhere or other, outside oneself, there was a “real” world where “real” things happened. But how could there be such a world? What knowledge have we of anything, save through our own minds? All happenings are in the mind. Whatever happens in all minds, truly happens.

Do you get it? Without confidence in a transcendent dimension — a really real reality outside ourselves — we become our own Big Brother. Technology is getting us there very rapidly. We think of it as utopia. It will include “teledildonic suits” and the destruction of any sense of biological reality unchosen by the self. And lo, it will be paradise. I read about it in The New York Times:

Among the voices of the young, there are echoes and amplifications of Jacobs’s optimism, along with the stories of private struggle. “There are as many genders as there are people,” Emmy Johnson, a nonbinary employee at Jan Tate’s clinic, told me with earnest authority. Johnson was about to sign up for a new dating app that caters to the genderqueer. “Sex is different as a nonbinary person,” they said. “You’re free of gender roles, and the farther you can get from those scripts, the better sex is going to be.” Their tone was more triumphal: the better life is going to be. “The gender boxes are exploding,” they declared.

This is part of the “totalitarianism of immediate gratification in which reason is conditional to self-interest.” The only people left to defend reality, to defend humankind, will be the traditional religious believers — those that survive the Great Transition, that is. Read Kolakowski.