2003 John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity

Library of Congress

Leszek Kolakowski was awarded the 2003 Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the study of humanity. Writing from within the Soviet system, Kolakowski’s voice was influential across Europe and provided the intellectual foundation for the Solidarity movement in Poland. Kolakowski authored more than 30 books and 400 other writings in a variety of formats and in four languages: Polish, French, English and German. His principal lines of inquiry were in the history of philosophy and the philosophy of religion. In addition to his sustained anti-dogmatic philosophical inquiries, his essays used charm, resourcefulness and gentle self-mockery to raise questions about the sometimes mindless modernity of contemporary Europe and North America. His ideas informed the anti-totalitarian youth movement inside Poland, and he became an adviser and active supporter of the Solidarity movement that challenged and began unraveling the Soviet system in Eastern Europe.

Speaker Biography: Born in 1927 in the city of Radom, south of Warsaw, Leszek Kolakowski was 10 years old when his family was forcibly relocated by the Germans during the occupation of Poland. He did not attend school, but read books supplemented with occasional private lessons and took his final exams as an external student in the underground school system. He eventually studied philosophy in Lodz and earned his doctorate from Warsaw University in 1953, later becoming a professor and chairman of its section on the history of philosophy (1959-68). An orthodox Marxist at first, he was sent by the party in 1950 to Moscow on a course for promising communist intellectuals. It was there that he initially became aware of “the enormity of material and spiritual desolation caused by the Stalinist system.” The death of Stalin in 1953 stirred ferment in Poland with calls for democratization and conflict in the party ranks. In June 1956 worker riots in Poznan resulted in many deaths, and in October of that year Golulka was chosen as party leader in defiance of Moscow. Kolakowski had by then become one of Poland’s leading revisionist Marxists. His publication of “What Is Socialism?” — a short, incisive critique of Stalinism — was banned in Poland, but circulated privately and was translated into English the next year. Disillusioned with the stagnation of communism, he became increasingly outspoken. He was expelled from the party in 1966, dismissed from his professorship two years later, and went into exile. But his works, appearing in underground editions, continued to shape the opinions of the Polish intellectual opposition. His essay “Theses on Hope and Hopelessness,” in the Paris Polish-language journal Kultura (1971) proposed an evolutionary strategy designed to weaken the system. His concept inspired the activities of the Committee for the Defense of Workers and of the “Flying University,” of which Kolakowski was a foreign member. After leaving Poland, Kolakowski became a visiting professor in the department of philosophy at McGill University (1968-69), the University of California, Berkeley (1969-70), and a senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford (1970). Based in Oxford since then, he spent part of 1974 at Yale, and from 1981 to 1994 was a professor part-time in the Committee on Social Thought and the department of philosophy at the University of Chicago. He has been a fellow of scholarly societies in many countries and has received numerous academic honors and awards. Kolakowski died on July 17, 2009.

For transcript and more information, visit http://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feat

For transcript and more information, visit http://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feat…

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