“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.

At this point the Western visitor, if he has any knowledge of the Soviet bloc, and even more the Eastern visitor, will be able to restrain himself no longer. “How on earth is all this possible in the fourth year of so-called normalization?” he will ask. “If Husák could silence his intellectuals why can’t Jaruzelski?” (That from the Soviet visitor.) Where is the State? Where, indeed, is the Party? Just recently, the State and the Party seem to have been asking themselves these questions as well. One obvious answer is that the Polish regime has had much more to “normalize.” Its first aim was to crush the workers’ Solidarity, and this has absorbed most of its political skills and police energies. So the pessimist could say: “It’s just the old familiar salami tactics—when they’ve finished slicing off the workers they’ll move on to the intellectuals. You wait and see.”

A second speculative answer is that in this initial phase of reestablishing a minimum of political control with on the whole (it must be said) a minimum of physical terror, the cooperation of the Catholic Church was (and is?) a tactical necessity for the Jaruzelski government. And if this greatly expanded world of spiritual, educational, and cultural activity, in which the values of solidarity with a small s (as preached by the Pope) are preserved and carried forward—if this is part of the price which Church leaders exact for their cooperation, well, the regime must pay the price, for as long as the tactical necessity exists.

Yet these two reasons together still do not quite suffice to explain why the Jaruzelski government passed such a charter of academic liberties in the first year of martial law, and why, while dissolving the writers’, artists’, actors’, and journalists’ unions in sound Husák style, they have yet been quirkily tolerant in allowing quite outspoken criticism in the official and (censored) Catholic press, and permitting the official publication of books by authors who are otherwise published in samizdat or in the West.

Some have plausibly suggested that in the first year of martial law they hoped—and may still hope—to win over parts of the intelligentsia to their side by demonstrative tolerance, following the motto of János Kádár in Hungary: “He who is not against us is with us.” It is wryly noted that if they did not publish some writers who publish unofficially, they would have no writers of repute to publish at all. There is also what I might call the prosopographical theory. Several of General Jaruzelski’s closest political advisers—Deputy Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Rakowski, for example, and government spokesman Jerzy Urban—themselves come from the Warsaw intellectual milieu. (The general himself, incidentally, must have a fairly good idea of the atmosphere at Warsaw University: his daughter is a student there.) These advisers are still, at least notionally, on first-name terms with leaders of the intellectual opposition who are their former comrades from the bygone golden days of the “Polish October” of 1956. They cannot (one perhaps sentimentally hopes) altogether enjoy the contempt of former friends. They cannot (one perhaps naively feels) entirely have abandoned that commitment to free debate which was so much a part of the Polish October. Somewhere inside them there still lurks, perhaps, the shadow of an inteligent.1

Yet the political auguries are bad. Since the autumn of 1984 the pressure on the academic community and the world of Church-protected and underground culture has increased, with threatening articles in the official press and speeches at Party meetings, police actions, the sacking of two well-known academics, and proposals for new repressive changes in the law. The emergence of this campaign roughly coincided with the Popieluszko affair and many observers at first suggested that the propaganda offensive against the Church was a tactical quid pro quo for holding the unprecedented trial of Father Popieluszko’s secret-police murderers—a quid pro quo “for Moscow.” Probably there is an element of truth in this supposition; and Mr. Gorbachev would surely be as delighted as any of his predecessors if the Polish Party were to revive itself with a good vicious campaign against the Church.

But the quid has gone on so long now as to become its own quo. The “reformist” weekly Polityka has published a direct attack on the Pope which could have come from the pages of the Russian or Slovak Pravda. A “reader’s letter” in the Warsaw evening paper suggests that, as in Polish law the instrument of a crime is confiscated, so the pulpit of Lech Walesa’s parish church in Gdansk should be confiscated too. The Ministry for Culture and Arts has collected detailed reports on Church-protected cultural activity from all the provinces. Characteristically, these confidential reports have been “leaked” to the Church, probably by Church sympathizers inside the Ministry. Another “leaked” document (the frequency of “leaks” is one small way in which Warsaw has become more like a Western capital since 1980) suggests very strongly that the sustained attack on the entire world of independent spiritual and cultural life springs quite as much from the government’s own domestic fears as from the putative concerns of its “Muscovite friends.”

This twenty-five-page document, marked “Confidential—material for pt. 2.b. of the meeting of the Council of Ministers, 1985-03-22,” is entitled “Threats in the sociopolitical sphere in 1985.” One’s doubts about its authenticity are diminished by the inimitable newspeak in which it warns, for example, against a “lack of feeling for Poland’s raison d’état among some creative artists” (translation: some artists are rude about the Russians). What is most striking about this document (if it is genuine) is the sheer range of human activities which it categorizes as “threats in the sociopolitical sphere,” and the inclusion in this category, point by point, of virtually all the independent cultural activities I have sketched above. Any political scientist who wishes to maintain that the Jaruzelski regime is by design “authoritarian” rather than “totalitarian” will have a hard task explaining the character of this report.

But of course the performance falls far short of the desire. In practice intellectual and cultural life is emancipated from the would-be-totalitarian ideological control of the Party to a degree unthinkable anywhere else in the Soviet bloc. Moreover, so decayed is the Polish Party that the Jaruzelski government attempts only, so to speak, in form to use the Party as the main instrument for the restoration of order. In practice, the key instruments of control are now the police and the law. While moving energetically to curb some independent actions by the secret police (like the murder of Father Popieluszko or the recent attack on a priest connected with Father Jancarz’s church in Nowa Huta), it has steadily changed the laws so that, in respect of most forms of Solidarity activity, the legal process has become the continuation of policing by other means.

It is therefore typical of the Jaruzelski regime that the sharpest threat to the academic community should come in the form of proposed “amendments” to the 1982 Higher Education Act. The first project for these amendments became known last autumn, in a (deliberate?) leak from the Ministry of Higher Education. A few quotations give the taste of this “project”:

In art. 35 sect. 1, delete “elected”

In art. 54 sect. 1, in place of “by election” read “by nomination”

In art. 97 delete “self-governing”

In art. 100 delete “students’ self-government”

You get the general idea. If implemented in full this “project” would clearly demolish the legal foundations of the universities’ autonomy and internal democracy: their senior officers would all be appointed by the education minister, not elected; academic staff would have yearly contracts rather than tenure; students could be dismissed by the minister if they “offended against the principles of social coexistence and public order,” and so on and so forth.

The response of the academic community was immediate and immense. At the main universities, the governing bodies not only protested but also organized internal staff referenda on the main points of the proposed changes. At Warsaw University the responses ranged from 74 percent against a reduction in the representation of students and younger academic staff on the governing body (not all older professors are as tolerant as the rector), to 90 percent against giving the minister the right to sack professors for “activities contrary to the interests of the Polish People’s Republic.”

The Students’ Self-Government organized its own referendum, with the results scrupulously tabulated and presented—an average of 98 percent opposed on most points—and copies were sent to the minister, the Sejm (parliament), and the Polish Press Agency. The Main Council on Higher Education (consisting of one delegate each from most higher education institutions) more cautiously told the government that it should wait another year or two, until the law had been thoroughly tried out in practice. And most surprisingly, even the government’s own favored front organization—the Patriotic Movement for National Salvation (PRON)—took up a similar position.

Faced with this united front, the government seemed for a time to recoil. But the recent plenary session of the Party Central Committee devoted to the intelligentsia called quite clearly for changes to the law, and it now seems almost certain the repressive amendments will after all be pushed through the Sejm before it is dissolved in July. Perhaps the government will soften its original proposals somewhat, to demonstrate its “liberalism” and attentiveness to public opinion. (Probably that is one reason why the original proposals were so tough.) No doubt it will accompany them with the sweetener of pay raises—academic salaries are now pitifully low. But there is no mistaking the attempted reassertion of Party-State control.

As I have suggested, the response of the intellectual community to this assault has been to follow the great principle of As If, in what might be called its qualified and its absolute forms. The qualified form consists in saying, in effect, to General Jaruzelski: “You, sir, claim to head a strong but civilized state which is governed under the rule of law. A Polish Rechtstaat. To us and to the West (although not to your own Party and to the East) you claim to derive your legitimacy not from the transvaluated values of Marxism-Leninism but from certain recognizable old European standards of law and order and sovereignty and statehood. All right, we believe you—though millions wouldn’t. Here are your proclaimed standards. Here are your own laws. Now stick to them.” This may be a pretense, but in Poland over the last few years it has been a curiously effective pretense. At times it has almost seemed as if some of those in power wanted to pretend too.

The absolute form consists simply in teaching, writing, researching, painting, acting, publishing, as far as possible and for as long as possible as if the state (to recall Vonnegut’s conceit) has withered away; as if you live in a free country. Both forms of the As If principle are finely illustrated by the case of Professor Leszek Nowak of Poznan University. Professor Nowak, a philosopher, was suspended from teaching last September, and summarily dismissed by the minister in February. This was clearly a political act “pour encourager les autres.” The response has been twofold. First, the governing body of Poznan University has protested to the minister about the way the dismissal was carried out: the present law requires a disciplinary tribunal (of academic colleagues) as a precondition for dismissal. That is qualified As If. Secondly, Professor Nowak has just carried on teaching, as a “private guest” at his own seminars, even though the minister paid a personal visit to Poznan to demand that he should be banned from the campus. When I went to see him he had to hurry off to teach a seminar on (if I understood him aright) the significance of factions in one-party systems. Instead of his professorial salary, he is being paid a roughly equivalent monthly sum by sympathetic colleagues, while he writes a book on captivity and revolution. That is absolute As If.

But how far and how long can Polish intellectuals carry on living As If? The political answer to this question depends on so many unknowns—on the unpredictable response of a barely subordinated working class to a further deterioration in living standards, for example—that speculation is rather fruitless. The only safe prediction is that, since this is Poland, all government measures—whether of repression or reform—are likely to be half-measures, honored mainly in the breach. It is more interesting to ask a less obvious question. Even if they can carry on living As If, for years, how will this affect the content and quality of the country’s intellectual life?

The Western intellectual who visits his colleagues in Poland feels admiration, excitement, and, yes, envy. Here is a place where people care, passionately, about ideas. Here is a place where intellectuals matter. Here, in a figure like Adam Michnik, is the Intellectual as Hero. Here historians make history. The Western intellectual tourist enjoys the thrill of being in the front line—in the safe certainty that he will not be shot at.2 War without tears. And often he returns to view with weary disdain our workaday world of Western culture, with its hypermarket profusion of ideas, for none of which anyone risks anything; a world in which intellectuals don’t matter.

But if you stay a little longer and look a little deeper, doubts and questions multiply. In Poznan, I spent an hour talking to an extraordinarily impressive and mature Student Self-Government leader—also a historian. How long would one have to search to find such a student in Oxford, I wondered. Then, just before we parted, I asked what he was going to do with his degree. “I think I’ll become a carpenter,” he said. With his university record, he explained, the security services would stop him getting a good job in a state enterprise. Working privately as a carpenter, the police couldn’t get at him; and he’d earn more than he ever would as a historian. He would go on reading and writing in his spare time. In Warsaw I heard many similar stories—the most able and independent-minded students going to work as taxi drivers, postmen, or market vendors. Now of course it is possible that these students will sustain their intellectual and cultural engagement: one thinks of the extraordinary catacomb intellectual life of Prague, with its philosophers working as window cleaners, priests as milkmen, historians as gardeners. But how many and for how long?

Beyond this question about the future of individuals there is the larger question about the collective future. How can a country prosper when the best part of its educated class refuses, or feels unable, to collaborate in running it? (Unable, that is, on the terms offered by this state.) The fact that this question is constantly posed by the regime’s intellectual apologists does not make it a nonquestion. Indeed, the question is also posed, increasingly, by deeply anticommunist, Catholic, and nationalist intellectuals; and this line of questioning is clearly encouraged by the primate. When Poland is finally free, so the argument goes, it will need a solid “infrastructure” of good roads and factories and technical schools; it will need experienced managers, lawyers, civil servants—and this must mean working, here and now, to some extent with the state. Historians will immediately recognize the argument for “organic work” from the great debate after the crushing of the January Rising of 1863–1864.

There is also a real question about the effect on the country’s political culture of this divorce from the state. There is, for instance, something faintly adolescent about the current proliferation of political grouplets with grand titles—the Liberal Democratic party (three students and a dog)—and grander programs (“Our Policy toward the Ukrainians”), a phenomenon that surely grows in direct proportion to the reduction in possibilities of real political action. (This is not, of course, an argument for collaboration with a state which does not afford such real possibilities.)

Finally, there is what I might call the question of Poland’s European future. In the offices of Poland’s best weekly paper, the independent Catholic Tygodnik Powszechny, someone has pinned up a cartoon which shows an elderly intellectual (he seemed to me to bear a faint resemblance to the paper’s venerable editor, Jerzy Turowicz) toiling across a desolate, half-ruined landscape—an unfinished Soviet-style housing development, smashed windows, broken water mains, fallen telegraph wires—with the water soaking through his shoes. He is repeating, through gritted teeth, “We belong to Europe.” The sense of hanging on at the edge of Europe is as acute as the European patriotism is fierce. For the uses of adversity are also sour. Scientists desperately bemoan the lack of modern equipment, which puts their research years behind that of their Western colleagues. Scholars feel acutely the shortage of foreign books and periodicals—partly the result of the state’s shortage of foreign currency. Many are the doctoral students quite demoralized by the lack of the basic literature in their fields. Private and Church support can hardly being to fill the well of needs.

We may sometimes grow tired in the West of the ways of the literary free market—the ceaseless hype, the sheer superabundance of publications and reviews—but if there is one thing worse than a literary market it is the lack of a literary market. The political division of culture can also distort judgment: second-rate work may be lauded just because it is officially criticized, first-rate work ignored because it is officially lauded. Yes, it is wonderful to find three thousand young people turning up at a poetry reading. But what questions do they ask the poet? Should we demonstrate on May 1? How should we treat someone who joins the Party? What should we think about the local elections? How should we live? The poet wants to be a poet, not a confessor, political leader, economist, or citizens’ advice bureau. He has, so to speak, an abnormal importance. And it is no surprise to find that so many of Poland’s best intellectuals, faced with these pressures, limitations, handicaps, and demands, have come West, away from the front line, for a breath (long or short) of, so to speak, European normality (a notion that certainly includes New York and Chicago). Yes, intellectuals in Poland matter—perhaps more than intellectuals ever should.

“Unhappy the land that has no heroes,” cries Galileo’s angry pupil. But Brecht’s Galileo replies: “Unhappy the land that has need of heroes.”

This Issue

June 27, 1985