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.

11 Responses to “Martin on Kolakowski and anti-semitism”

  1. Leszek Kolakowski « Poumista Says:

    […] Another from Martin here, on Kolokowski and antisemitism. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)A life in review: Obits for Kolakowski, […]

  2. letsgeteven Says:

    One memorable article by Kolakowski appeared in Encounter, now sadly defunct. In it, he described and analyzed the attitude to truth that Marx and Marxists adopt, and showed how endemic their lying was.

    He also demonstrated how Marxist mendacity lay at the root of the inevitable criminal acts that they and their allies perpetrated. He was a moral philosopher, who like his comrades in spirit of an earlier generation, who wrote “The God That Failed”, came to realize how debased the Marxist moral solution was. He was mortified that he himself had for a time supported it.

    • Mira Vogel Says:

      I’ve read some of the contributions to “The God That Failed”. I don’t remember any realisation in those authors of “how debased the Marxist moral solution was” – what they realised was how the content of Marxism was as vulnerable as any other ism, and how susceptible comrades were to committing atrocities while telling themselves that they were pursuing justice.

  3. Eve Garrard Says:

    Very interesting post, Martin – I didn’t know about this aspect of Kolakowski. Does anyone have a neat and easy answer to the question of why antisemitism is so persistent in both right and left forms of authoritarianism, or is that just part of the broader question of why antisemitism is so persistent?

  4. letsgeteven Says:

    “…and how susceptible comrades were to committing atrocities while telling themselves that they were pursuing justice…”

    In other words, the comrades were lying and debasing themselves morally.

  5. newcentrist Says:

    “Does anyone have a neat and easy answer to the question of why antisemitism is so persistent in both right and left forms of authoritarianism…”

    Antisemitism is also prevalent and persistent in both left and right libertarianism. My own experience is on the libertarian left and antisemitism has been part and parcel of that scene since Proudhon and Bakunin.

    • Brigada Flores Magon Says:

      Proudhon and Bakunin pre-date such prominent figures on the libertarian left as Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Voline [né Eichenbaum] and Rocker, a gentile who taught himself Yiddish to edit two journals aimed at the East End Jewish anarchist milieu into which he married, all of whom were Jews or philosemites. There are others but you can’t just point to two early days figures and say anti-semitism dominates that movement.

  6. Absolute Observer Says:

    I was reading Hal Draper’s excellent account of Marxism (one of the few Marx thinkers who places antisemitism in the centre of his discussion).
    In one of the volumes he quotes an pamphlet by Bakunin in which he articulates his antisemitism that begins, to the effect that,
    it is dangerous to speak out against the Jews because of the consequences and part of the reason is because of their power and their control of the media.

    It is interesting to note how so many contemporary “critics” of Israel follow the same pattern and how they frame their comments in the language of “bravery”. It is the same antisemitic slur that takes at its base point the myth of “Jewish power” – that if you make comments that “the Jews” take exception to, then the weight of their power and influence will come crushing down on you.

    It is interesting to note also that Bakunin’s racist antisemitism appeared at least one year prior to the Protocols, so, there is good reason for suspecting that racist antisemitism had its genesis on the left.

    Finally, Bakunin was also one of the first to claim that the Old Testament God and people were genocidal in nature in their quest for a land. Again, this reflects itself in the binary notion of Zionism “evil”, diaspora “good” that appears, mainly from those Jews who not only demonise Israel, but also mythologise the disapora.

  7. schalomlibertad Says:

    Dear Absolute Observer,
    Your claim that one early Bakunin quote suggests that “racist antisemitism had its genesis on the left,” is quite laughable.
    Do Bakunin’s conspiracy theories about Jews even have any racial component to them? It is my assumption that they are rather more similar to traditional Christian anti-Judaism, than to modern racial antisemitism.
    But then again, you use the term “racist antisemitism,” which is an opaque term. Do you mean racial antisemitism, or do you simply mean to equate antisemitism with racism?
    Very confusing indeed.

  8. Absolute Observer Says:


    The reference for Hal Draper is, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution (Volume 4): Critique of Other Socialisms”; Monthly Review Press, New York, 1990.

    “That this anarchist with a race-staturated mentiality became one of the first people (perhaps the first [emphasised in original] to lauch a political campaign around “blood” anti-semitism – well in advance of Stoecker and Drumont whom are better known for it”.

    Draper than produces evidence over the following pages for this finding.

    In this context I refer to antisemitism in its “scientific” aspect rather than a generic term for non-historically specific Jew-hatred.

    When you finish your laughing and rather than “assuming” things that you think your know, actually do some research on them. The relevant chapter is the Second Note B, section 6. Draper includes also several quotes from Bakhunin to illustrate his point.

    The full quote on the myth of “Jewish power”is as follows. Some may recognise it from today’s versions in the writings of Hari, Monibot, Benn, Walt and Mearsheimer, etc., etc., etc.

    “I know that in speaking out in my intimate thoughts on the Jews with such frankness I expose myself to immense dangers. May people share these thoughts, but very few dare to express them publically, for the Jewish sect which is much more formidable than that of the Catholic and Protestant Jesuits, today constitutes a veritable power in Europe. It reigns despotically in commerce and banking, and it has invaded three-quarters of German journalism and a very considerable part of the journalism of other countries. Then woe to him who makes the mistake of displeasing it!” (Etude sur les Juifs; Ouvres, 5:243ff).

    Of course, since some time in the mid-1930’s, and especially since 1945, the left has re-written its own history so as to expunge the subsumption of Jew-hatred and antisemitism that has been part and parcel of some strands of its thought since its earliest inception.

    Rather than empty mirth, It is about time that the left seriously and critically face up to this fact rather than remain to make the same mistakes again, but this time, in the form of farce.

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