Poland: The Uses of Adversity

I think it very encouraging that it’s here that Marx’s dream is being fulfilled,” Kurt Vonnegut told the leading underground weekly Tygodnik Mazowsze on his recent visit to Poland. He meant Marx’s “dream of the withering, or rather ignored, state.” Vonnegut’s nice conceit captures the extraordinary quality of Polish intellectual life today. For here is a communist state in which the best writers are published by underground publishers, the best journalists write for underground papers, the best teachers work out of school; in which banned theater companies just carry on performing, in monasteries, while sacked professors carry on lecturing as “private guests” at their own seminars; in which churches are also schools, concert halls, and art galleries. An entire world of learning and culture exists quite independent of the state that claims to control it—a real world of consciousness floating high and free, like Mohammed’s coffin, above the false world of being.

Of course every Polish schoolboy knows that since the time of the partitions the inteligencja has had a mission to uphold the spirit and culture of the nation against the political powers that be. This romantic version of noblesse oblige is at the heart of the traditional Polish definition of what it is to be an intellectual or, more broadly, a member of the educated class—an inteligent. It is a subjective, idealistic self-definition in which the Idea takes absolute precedence over reality, and consciousness determines being. In the condition of unfreedom it proclaims the principle of As If. Try to live as if you live in a free country, it says, though today your study is a prison cell. Or, as the contemporary Polish poet Ryszard Krynicki puts it, in a poem dedicated to Adam Michnik:

living here and now
you must pretend
that you live elsewhere and in other times
and, at best, fight with the dead
through the iron curtain of clouds.

But when Krynicki wrote these lines, in the mid 1970s, the number of intellectuals who actually tried to live by the principle of As If was still tiny. Indeed the typical student or academic of the Gierek years was cynical about all ideas and ideals, almost unthinkingly paying lip service to the ruling ideology, inasmuch as this served life’s real purpose: the serious pursuit of material betterment and private happiness.

What transformed the “dissident” minority into a “dissident” majority was the Solidarity revolution of 1980 and 1981. The Solidarity revolution was a revolution of consciousness. What it changed, lastingly, was not institutions or property relations or material circumstances, but people’s minds and attitudes. “Solidarity,” said the Kraków theologian Józef Tischner, “is a huge forest planted by awakened consciences.” Behind the front line of confrontation between Solidarity’s national leadership and the communist authorities, millions of people across the country—in factories, offices, universities, schools—suddenly found that they no longer needed to live the double life, that they could say in public what they thought …

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