By Artur Banaszewski

In recent decades, few terms have transformed the historical discipline as profoundly as Eurocentrism. Critiques of Eurocentrism have challenged the old notions of progress and development and largely contributed to the global turn in history. However, this does not mean that there are no feasible ways of arguing for European exceptionalism. One such argument was formulated by the Polish philosopher and intellectual historian Leszek Kołakowski in his essay “Looking for the Barbarians The Illusions of Cultural Universalism,” originally delivered in 1980 as a lecture at the Collège de France. The essay developed an unapologetic argument in favor of Eurocentrism as an idea. As such, it was already provocative at the time of its publication. Yet surprisingly, over forty years after Kołakowski’s lecture, intellectual historians have seldom engaged with his arguments.

If one is not willing to defend Eurocentrism, then what is the value of reading “Looking for the barbarians” in 2022? In my view, that essay is of particular interest for the field of global intellectual history. Kołakowski’s essay was perhaps the last serious attempt to defend Eurocentrism from an academic point of view. For this reason, it deserves serious consideration: engaging with a seemingly discredited idea can broaden our understanding of possible methodologies and alternative paths of inquiry in historical research. However, employment of Kołakowski’s arguments nowadays without considering their embeddedness in Cold War politics would lead to dire misunderstandings.

Leszek Kołakowski at the University of Amsterdam in 1971 by Bert Verhoeff. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Kołakowski acknowledged that European culture originates from multiple ethnic, religious, and geographic roots, and as such, it is impossible to define in a precise and indisputable way. Instead, he viewed the one central feature of European culture in its spirit of self-criticism. In his opinion, a never-ending process of self-reflection and suspiciousness towards ideas promising definite answers to humanity’s problems were the defining feature of European identity. Subsequently, he stressed that thanks to its ability to question its values and doubt itself, European culture by default embraces the existence of various possible approaches, worldviews, and intellectual traditions. It is paradoxical – Kołakowski argued for Eurocentrism precisely because he believed European culture has surpassed its own ethnocentrism and is, in a way, universal.

Although Kołakowski viewed the presupposed European self-criticism as highly commendable, he insisted that it is impossible to determine its superiority over other cultures without making a certain axiological choice. As he put it, it is not possible to unequivocally determine that “freedom is better than despotism” without a value judgment. There exists no objective, ahistorical measure for cultural evaluation; such evaluation can be only done in relation to one’s own culture and beliefs. Kołakowski assumed that upholding Western concepts of freedom and liberalism was impossible without Eurocentrism of at least a certain kind.

When pondering where lies the root of Europe’s self-criticism, the Polish philosopher provided an unequivocal answer: Europe developed unique qualities because “she is Christian by birth.” In his opinion, European self-criticism stemmed from the constant tension between the spheres of sacrum and profanum in Christian thought. Kołakowski worried that the modern legacy of the Enlightenment undermines this Christian heritage – and, in consequence, the European culture as such. If there are no objective moral norms, it is no longer possible to distinguish between good and evil. Henceforth, all value judgments lose their meaningfulness – and every axiological choice can be effortlessly invalidated. The necessity for a moral absolute was a recurring theme in Kołakowski’s philosophy and was closely related to his political agenda.

Kołakowski claimed that the spirit of self-criticism is the central source of Europe’s cultural strength. Yet, he simultaneously considered this intellectual attitude as a weakness. At its extreme, self-criticism leads to what the Polish philosopher called cultural universalism: the belief that “all cultures are equal because there are no ahistorical standards by which to judge any culture.” According to Kołakowski, such a statement cannot be upheld coherently because it falls into a logical paradox. If one assumes that a culture embracing criticism is as valuable as one promoting fanaticism, then there is no logical reason to preserve the spirit of self-doubt stemming from the former. Hence, the claim that “all cultures are equal” loses its grounds. Kołakowski’s claim echoes the paradox of tolerance as sketched by Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies. Like other liberals of this time, he was concerned about the risk of self-defeating relativism involved in the critical attitude of the Enlightenment.

According to Kołakowski, cultural universalism contained yet another danger: losing the content of various cultural and intellectual traditions. He cited a paragraph from Arnold Toynbee’s Civilization on Trial from 1947, in which the British historian predicted that people in the future would be in equal measure descendants of Confucius, Socrates, Jesus, Mohammed, Gandhi, and other figures of global influence. Kołakowski refuted Toynbee’s optimistic prophecy by pointing out that it is impossible to reconcile the intellectual heritage of such distinct thinkers without losing the substance of their convictions. Doing so would effectively mean abandoning their intellectual traditions and creating what Kołakowski called “a barbarian unity based on loss.” The Polish philosopher believed that cultural universalism undermines existing intellectual traditions and creates a historical and intellectual void.

Kołakowski emphasized that his argument had far-reaching political consequences. He claimed that cultural universalism was the goal of “powerful cultural forces,” of which the most menacing was the “barbarity of totalitarianism.” If all convictions are equal and the existing intellectual traditions are invalidated, then nothing prevents the emergence of ideologies that assume their omnipotence; relativism and intellectual void create a sphere for political abuse. The logical conclusion of cultural universalism was the totalitarian idea. Therefore, the type of Eurocentrism Kołakowski endorsed aimed to resist the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. Ultimately, the stakes of his argument were not philosophical or cultural but decidedly political.

The political stakes of Kołakowski’s argument are further highlighted when we consider the context of his intervention. Kołakowski spoke at the Collège de France as a Polish intellectual exiled from his country by communist authorities. By defending Eurocentrism, he implied that Poland remained a part of European culture despite being a member of the Eastern Bloc. This observation also explains the philosopher’s emphasis on the Christian heritage of Europe; overwhelmingly Catholic at the time, Poles regarded their faith as one of the few remaining links with the West of the continent. Kołakowski’s argument for Eurocentrism constituted an attempt to reaffirm Polish belonging to European civilization. Hence, his essay was a political declaration.

This is not to dismiss Kołakowski’s argument as a mere by-product of the political circumstances of his time. Rather, I intend to demonstrate that his essay was underpinned by a perceptible political agenda, which ultimately subverted its declared goals. Kołakowski championed Eurocentrism because he believed it was indispensable to maintain the substance of Western liberalism. Yet he did not limit his argument there. Instead, he attempted to conceptualize Eurocentrism as a universal framework for analyzing different cultural and intellectual traditions. Considering his staunch anti-totalitarianism, it seemed reasonable – Soviet communism was a global threat, and as such, it required an equally global answer. However, his reasoning contained significant flaws that outline many of the biases and insensibilities of the type of liberalism Kołakowski promoted.

Although Kołakowski did not deny histories of European colonialism and racism, he dismissed attempts to link them with the concept of Eurocentrism as “absurdities” and did not view them as worth refuting. It is striking that a philosopher paying so much attention to the absoluteness of morality barely noticed this problem. The ethical and moral burden of European colonialism is a fact that lingers during any discussion on Eurocentrism. And yet, the Polish scholar disregarded crimes committed by Europeans in other parts of the world – while strongly condemning the crimes committed by communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Despite its purported goals, Kołakowski’s brand of Eurocentrism barely created a basis for understanding between European and non-European actors. Instead, he focused on globalizing his liberal anti-totalitarianism.

Further, it is certainly not the case that Europe has been the only culture that developed an ability to critically reflect upon itself. For instance, the ambiguity and indeterminacy of the concept of Dharma in Hinduist and Buddhist thought is a foundation of South Asian concepts of justice and righteousness. Making an association between self-criticism and the European identity inevitably raises the question of measures necessary to secure European exceptionalism. Worse, since this association refers to the European identity in a normative, ideal way, it leads to dangerous essentialism. For Kołakowski, the prime concern was to conceptualize Eurocentric universalism as a viable and convincing alternative to the false universality of communism. Yet the Polish philosopher disregarded the danger of essentialist narratives aiming to preserve the presupposed European uniqueness. Regrettably, today Kołakowski’s thought – particularly in Poland – seems to be inspiring such narratives.

Lastly, Kołakowski’s brand of Eurocentrism had two principles: to preserve European exceptionalism and create a sphere of debate respecting plurality and difference of various actors. It appears doubtful whether these two principles can be reconciled in any meaningful way. A comparison of different modes of thought cannot assume the superiority of one of these modes. Nevertheless, this apparent paradox served a purpose in Kołakowski’s argument. It allowed for delegitimization of Soviet totalitarianism on the grounds that its belief in the omnipotence of mankind was irreconcilable with the European spirit of self-doubt. Therefore, Kołakowski reserved the final say for the Cold War liberals to decide which views were permissible and which were not. Critical voices were tolerated as long as they did not hinder the global struggle against communism. Otherwise, they could be easily branded as too radical and repudiated.

At the core of the argument of “Looking for the Barbarians” lies what Samuel Moyn calls the fear of the collapse of freedom into tyranny. Kołakowski’s essay is underpinned by deep anxiety that Europeans’ incertitude about their liberal values may contribute to the victory of the totalitarian idea. Consequently, it provides an insight into a particular version of Cold War liberalism from the Eastern European perspective. The originality of Kołakowski’s thought lies in the explicit association he made between Western liberalism and Eurocentrism. Kołakowski believed that acknowledging European exceptionalism was pivotal to safeguarding the Western notions of freedom and liberty in the face of the Soviet threat. As an exiled Polish intellectual, he had an incentive to make such a controversial claim: his defense of Eurocentrism implied that Poland remained a member of European civilization despite being on the other side of the Iron Curtain. But it could be argued that Kołakowski merely vocalized what some other Cold War liberals preferred to think silently.

Does “Looking for the Barbarians” propose a sensible approach in the study of global intellectual history today? I believe that is not the case. Kołakowski’s essay is marked by distrust and insensibility towards intellectual traditions other than anti-totalitarian liberalism. Consequently, it exemplifies the limits of thinking among some Cold War liberals related to global and decolonial concerns. His argument neglects the legacies of European colonialism and imperialism. It ignores concepts of justice and freedom of non-European origin. It excludes critical and progressive voices on an arbitrary basis. The Eurocentrism Kołakowski supported hinders the critical and unbiased study of different intellectual traditions. Given the profound, long-lasting influence Cold War liberals have had on intellectual history, this point is of pivotal relevance. If intellectual historians hope to imagine political alternatives capable of addressing contemporary global challenges, they need to step beyond the fears that shaped their discipline in the 20th century. To that end, the intellectual legacy of the Polish philosopher – and Cold War liberalism – requires further reassessment.

Artur Banaszewski is a PhD researcher in History and Civilization at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

Featured Image: The Constitution Square in Warsaw, Poland in the 1950s. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.