Martin on Kolakowski and anti-semitism

This is a guest post by Martin who blogs at Martin In The Margins.

Tributes to the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, who died last week, have tended to focus, perhaps inevitably, on his increasingly critical analysis of Marxism. Less attention has been paid to the important part played in the Polish philosopher’s political and intellectual progress by his deep revulsion against anti-Semitism.

As Christopher Hitchens says, Kolakowski was a ‘sworn foe of the clerical, chauvinist, and anti-Semitic Polish right wing to the end of his days’. According to the Telegraph obituary, Kolakowski ‘embraced Communism as an antidote to bigotry, anti-Semitism and nationalism’.

But ironically it was left-wing anti-Semitism that may have provided the key turning-point in his disillusionment with Communism. His departure from Poland for the US in 1968 was the culmination of a long process, but the final straw was an extreme nationalist campaign against ‘Zionists’ waged that year (Kolakowski’s wife, Tamara Dynenson, was Jewish).

Kolakowski first visited Israel in 1969, shortly after his departure from Poland, as Shlomo Avineri recalls:

I was his host at Hebrew University, and immediately after his
arrival, he asked me to take him to Mea She’arim. When I asked
why, he explained that in his birthplace, the central Poland city of
Radom, there had been a large Jewish community, and the sight
of pious Jews with earlocks, black cloaks and fur hats was part of
the scenery of his youth that no longer existed in Poland. In
Jerusalem, he said, something was preserved that he, “the goy,”
as he called himself, wanted to keep.

Kolakowski’s story is a reminder that anti-semitism is a curiously persistent feature in authoritarianisms of both right and left.