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  • Leszek Kolakowski (1927–2009)
  • Nadia Diuk, Richard Pipes, George Weigel, Abbas Milani, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jerzy Szacki, and Carl Gershman

The eminent Polish philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski, who had a major influence on the development of the Polish democratic opposition, died on 17 July 2009. A memorial symposium entitled "Democracy, Totalitarianism, and the Culture of Freedom" was held in his honor at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C., on October 15. Kolakowski had been a founding member of the Journal of Democracy's Editorial Board and had spoken at several major NED conferences. His thinking influenced the Endowment's strategy in Central and Eastern Europe.

The event was introduced by NED president Carl Gershman and moderated by former U.S. national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Other speakers included NED vice-president Nadia Diuk, longtime director of NED programs in Central Europe and Eurasia; Richard Pipes, Baird Professor Emeritus of History at Harvard University; George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center; and Abbas Milani, Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University.

A second memorial symposium was held on October 24 at the University of Warsaw, organized by the Stefan Batory Foundation. Moderated by Aleksander Smolar, it featured as speakers Jerzy Szacki, professor emeritus of the University of Warsaw; philosophy professor Jan Andrzej Kłoczowski, O.P.; and Jerzy Jedlicki, professor at the Historical Institute at the Polish Academy of Sciences. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the former prime minister of Poland (1989–91), sent an audio message. At the conclusion, Carl Gershman presented NED's Democracy Service Medal to Kolakowski's widow, Tamara Kolakowska, and read a tribute that accompanied it.

A video of the NED symposium is available at, and an audio recording of the Warsaw symposium is available at Selected excerpts from speeches at these two events appear below:

Nadia Diuk: In an article entitled "In Stalin's Countries: Theses on Hope and Despair," Kolakowski dissected the operations of what he called alternately the communist social system, bureaucratic socialism, socialist despotism, or monopolistic power. Even though he was referring to the Soviet model of socialism, his analysis of the way a totalitarian regime seeks to exercise power relates to all kinds of despotisms and thus is decidedly [End Page 184] relevant today. "The natural need of despotism," he wrote, "is to terrify individuals while depriving them of the means of organized resistance." He elaborated further, applying his well-honed skills in dialectical reasoning: "If this concentration of power is a source of strength, it also conceals weaknesses." This was his main thesis: the paradox that the more a regime tries to assert control over political and social life, the weaker it becomes, "deprived of plasticity and self-regulatory devices," as he put it. He had thus turned Marxist dialectics on its head. . . .

By poking holes in the totalitarian monolith and highlighting weaknesses in the system, Kolakowski identified areas where opponents of the system could work and how society could organize in its own self-defense. These ideas were elaborated further by Jacek Kuroń, who added the idea of "self-organization" by society, and Adam Michnik, who took this analysis further in his essay "The New Evolutionism." The notion was gradually being accepted that engaged citizens could reclaim the public space monopolized by the regime and that social and cultural activities could take place outside of the officially sanctioned realm, bypassing the "leading role" of the Communist Party and other state-controlled instruments. . . .

Even after martial law was imposed at the end of 1981, the Polish opposition continued its newly adopted strategy of building parallel structures underground, by establishing a thriving underground press, a flying university, and many publishing houses, and gaining the moral authority that had been lost by the ruling elite, all in accordance with Kolakowski's original thesis.

Kolakowski wrote many other pieces about the Polish opposition, and also on the unique role of the Polish nation and its intellectuals, and in later years he warned, "The victory of democracy is by no means assured—there are various noncommunist forms of tyranny." But his analysis of the...


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