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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 in private. They began to discover the true facts about their country, its history, its economy, the privileges of its governing class, its relations with the Soviet Union; and they experienced, for the first time, free speech, free assembly, democratic elections, and the taste of self-government. For a few months it really was as if they lived in a free country. As a rule, the younger you were the more intense was the experience—students and schoolchildren were among the most active and radical of all. At the same time, in a collapsing economy the state had fewer and fewer material goods with which to lure the young generation back to outward conformity.

After General Jaruzelski’s declaration of the “state of war” in December 1981, this transformed and galvanized young intelligentsia threw itself, passionately, into the business of resistance—conspiratorial and open, passive and active. Many saw themselves as the (nonviolent) heirs of the wartime Home Army (AK), in which the young intelligentsia also predominated. Some went into hiding, “underground,” reading books about the AK for practical advice on the organization of conspiracy. Others began to live in “semiconspiracy,” slipping away of an evening (check behind you for the telltale white Fiat used by the secret police) to service a carefully hidden offset machine and run off a few hundred copies of the latest unofficial journal—or book about the AK. More still, thousands more, helped to distribute and avidly consumed this unofficial literature. Nobody knows how much of it has been produced: in Warsaw I was given an estimate of 1,600 periodical titles, with the important caveat that many titles only lasted for an issue or two.

Today this world of independent culture—culture understood in the broadest sense—is, indeed, probably the most extensive field of opposition in Poland. For the workers’ Solidarity, which originally created the space for this cultural revolution, has itself been ground down and fragmented. Of course the national leadership still exists, underground and above ground; its statements still have great symbolic importance; but it no longer has the capacity to organize effective nationwide industrial action. For one thing, the government has again been jailing Solidarity leaders. After the amnesty last July there were probably fewer than forty political prisoners left in Poland’s jails; now there are at least 160, and the regime is pushing ahead with the trial of Adam Michnik, Bogdan Lis, and Wladyslaw Frasyniuk in Gdansk. Solidarity’s basic units, the factory committees, where they exist, cannot operate on a day-to-day basis as trade unions, representing the real interests of the work force—which is, after all, their raison d’être. (This is not to suggest that the workers are satisfied, or that another round of meat price rises this summer will not provoke strikes and protests. Far from it. But the strikes are likely to be sporadic, spontaneous, and uncontrolled—more like pre-Solidarity forms of industrial action—and one thing this state certainly can do is to break strikes.)

It would obviously be wrong to draw too clear a line between workers and intelligentsia. One of the hallmarks of Solidarity in 1980–1981 was the close links it established between intellectuals and workers, and many of these links have been preserved. They are symbolized at the highest level by the relationship between Walesa and his advisers. Moreover, most people involved in producing this independent culture are at pains to make it available to workers as well.

In the steel town of Nowa Huta near Kraków, for example, there is a “Christian University of the Workers” based at the huge new church in Mistrzejowice, which the Pope dedicated on his last visit. Here Father Jancarz, who is to the Nowa Huta steelworkers what Father Popieluszko was to the steelworkers of Huta Warszawa, has organized regular lecture courses, films, concerts, a permanent exhibition of photographs, and what he grandly calls an “independent television service”—meaning videocassette recordings, mostly of interviews with famous Poles. At the regular weekly “Mass for the Fatherland” (a tradition begun in Warsaw by Father Popieluszko), on the evening I attended, the Kraków Philharmonic orchestra and choir sang the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah, and a buxom prima donna sang arias from the organ loft. But Mistrzejowice is exceptional. As a rule the people who benefit most from the world of independent culture are, inevitably, those whose trade is thinking and whose tools are words.

Take a first-year university student from Warsaw, Kraków, Wroclaw, Poznan, or Gdansk. (Things may be somewhat different in the smaller towns.) If he is lucky, his schoolteacher will have taught him using syllabuses largely agreed on during the Solidarity period. In addition, he may already have used one or another of the National Education booklets (known by their Polish acronym as ZEN), giving, for example, a true account of Poland’s part in the Second World War. The ZENs are produced by the Committee for Independent Education—one of three linked unofficial committees (the other two are called the Social Committee for Scholarship and the Committee for Independent Culture) whose anonymous members are, besides the Church, responsible for coordinating much of Poland’s independent cultural life.

Arriving at the university, he will find almost complete freedom of speech in the classroom. One of his first-term seminars may be on “critics of totalitarianism”—Arendt, Orwell, Hayek. The basic texts—1984, The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Constitution of Liberty, and so forth—are published underground, naturally, and can be purchased from vendors among his fellow students. Indeed, I was told by one lecturer that her students can more easily obtain books produced unofficially than those from state publishers. In addition, he will have on his shelves at home a random selection of underground papers: for hard news, the two closely printed sheets of Tygodnik Mazowsze (the Newsweek of the underground); for opinions, one of the many “irregular monthlies” (a distinct category)—perhaps the Orwell number of the Kraków-based Arka, including Norman Podhoretz’s piece in Harper’s, or Bez Dekretu, with a contentious essay about Central America reprinted from The New York Review, or the organ of the Catholic nationalist Young Poland movement, Polityka Polska, with articles about Poland’s need for a new rightwing. In the Catholic chaplaincy attached to the university, and in the city’s Club of Catholic Intelligentsia, he will be able to hear leading independent intellectuals—former Solidarity advisers like Tadeusz Mazowiecki, for example, or the historian of Solidarity, Jerzy Holzer—giving talks on a very catholic range of topics. If he is lucky, he may get tickets for a play about Osip Mandelstam performed (beautifully) by the Poznan-based Theater of the Eighth Day. The Theater of the Eighth Day has been officially banned—so this performance will take place in a Dominican monastery.

Back on the campus our first-year student will also find a very active “Students’ Self-Government” committee (its identity proclaimed in the unmistakable jumbly Solidarnosć lettering, red on white), which represents the students’ interests and distributes all the funds for social activities—student clubs, sports, excursions, and so forth. Indeed, one of the most remarkable features of contemporary Polish university life is a degree of internal democracy that at moments recalls the more moderate demands of 1968 in the Sorbonne or even Berkeley. Student representatives are elected (by secret ballot, supervised by the Students’ Self-Government committee) onto the university governing bodies. In some faculties at Warsaw University the students not only have a say in their plan of studies but also mark their professors’ performance. “I got 4.7,” the newly elected rector, Professor Bialkowski, told me with a satisfied smile. (In Poland, marks go from 2.0—disgraceful—to 5.0—excellent.) “One of my colleagues got 3.1 last year,” Rector Bialkowski added. This year his colleague had prepared his lectures better—and jumped to 4.5.

Both the elected rector and the elected students’ representatives are warm in praise of each other—“I have learned a lot from them,” Bialkowski says—and there seems to be excellent cooperation between them. “You see, many of us were interned together in 1982,” one student activist explained. “Sharing a prison cell does help to bridge the gap between student and professor.” And both sides underline what is perhaps the most remarkable fact of all: that the autonomy and internal democracy of the universities is based on the letter of the universities is based on the letter of the Higher Education Act which was passed during the “state of war“—in May 1982—a law which, although it did not go quite as far as the draft worked out when Solidarity was still a legal organization, is nonetheless the most liberal the communist Poland has seen.

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