Jefferson lecturer speaks candidly about global politics
``The Idolatry of Politics'' was the topic of Prof. Leszek Kolakowski's address for this year's prestigious Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. But even as the slender, pensive philosopher prepared to deliver his lecture scheduled for last night, real-life politics in the form of a radioactive cloud underscored his theme. Professor Kolakowski, who was expelled for political reasons from his post as a professor of modern philosophy at the University of Warsaw in 1968, spoke candidly in a Monitor interview about the reasons for Moscow's suppressing of information on the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
``They think entirely in terms of power. There's nothing else but power and control in their system. So universal mendacity is at the service of their system, a natural complement of the system.''
The Soviet system itself is an example of the ``idolatry of politics,'' Kolakowski says.
``It's an example in the sense that the main founders of the Soviet system did not at all try to hide, to conceal their belief . . . that there is no such thing as morality apart from political struggle. There are no universally valid rules which might prevent you from doing something if you believe that is good in terms of your power.''
In announcing Kolakowsi as the 15th Jefferson lecturer (which carries a $10,000 stipend), the National Endowment for the Humanities noted that his ``life and work have exemplified the Jeffersonian ideal of tolerance and enduring commitment to the betterment of Society.'' Previous choices for the Jefferson lecture include critic Lionel Trilling, psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren, diva Beverly Sills, and author Saul Bellow.
Professor Kolakowski is senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford and professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, where his lecture will be given again on May 15. He has written 30 books on modern philosophy, culture, and religion, including a definitive three-volume ``Main Currents of Marxism.''
Before this interview, Kolakowski spoke at a press conference. He is a slight man with steel-gray hair; heavy-lidded, pale blue eyes; and a thoughtful face.
Kolakowski, who has written that at times the philosopher must be a jester to make certain points, responded to reporters' questions about the solution to the roots of terrorism with a deeply ironic reply. The roots, he believes, lie in Palestinian and other Arab grievances against Israel, and in their wanting to destroy the state of Israel.
``They won't be satisfied with anything else. Therefore the state of Israel should be destroyed,'' he facetiously suggested. But, since the Israelis don't like the idea of living under the rule of Yasser Arafat, he continued with grim irony, ``The only way is to slaughter all Israelis. Therefore my suggestion is that we should rebuild Auschwitz, Treblinka, etc.''
When some of the reporters present asked if he was serious about this, he looked startled and said no, of course not. He pointed out that he was ``playing the role of Jonathan Swift,'' the satirist, making his point that there is no solution to those roots, with a tragic irony.
In 1968, Kolakowski, who had been blacklisted by the Polish government, was not allowed to publish because he was considered, he says, ``a dangerous, subversive element.'' In March of that year, the government began a strongly anti-Semitic campaign that also focused on writers, students, intellectuals. Kolakowski, among others, was accused of being ``morally responsive'' to the student movement, and, although not Jewish himself, he strongly disavowed anti-Semitism. During this campaign he was expelled from the university.
Faced with a life in which he could neither teach nor publish in Poland, he accepted an invitation to be visiting professor at McGill University in Montreal. He became an expatriate, teaching at the University of California at Berkeley and at Yale before taking his present posts at Oxford and the University of Chicago. He says he still misses his friends, his milieu, and Polish Christmases.