Questions to the narrator
- 00:13What was attraction of marxism for you personally and for your generation?
- 02:37Was it because the communist party at the time embodied that aspiration for change and tell us more about the spirit of the time, the drive behind the building of a new society, of a new man, of a new town like Nowa Huta where a new man was being build?
- 05:00So, there was great enthusiasm for the idea of the new man among intellectuals but the reality was quite different for the people involved in the process?
- 06:12Was that the origin of your drift away from Marxism for you and for your friends?
- 06:53Against Stalinism?
- 07:38But at what point did you decide there was no point trying to reform the party and ideology and decided to address the society, the workers?
- 10:17So, your drift away from Marxism was really related to the crisis of the society as a whole in 1956 and 1968 and up to 1981?
- 15:26Looking back at the history of post-war communism in Eastern Europe one has the impression that 1956 there was an attempt to overthrow the party in Hungary. In 1968 there was an attempt to reform the party from within. In 1980-1981 in Poland it was an att
- 18:02You keep calling the system totalitarian, but at the same time you are describing a process of emancipation of society from totalitarianism. Isn’t there a contradiction in that? To what extend can the Polish system today still be described as totalitarian
TranscriptPlease note that this transcript is based on audio tracks and doesn't have to match exactly the video
What was attraction of marxism for you personally and for your generation?
I think that we have to see it together: the attraction of Marxism and communism. As far as Marxism is concern, first of all, everyone needs to organise world, to introduce certain order and Marxism suggests that such an order exists. Secondly, the key offered by Marxism is a relatively simple key to universe. From now on a man after reading one pamphlet can discuss any subject with sense. It is extremely attractive, especially for young people. But I think that is not the most important thing, the most important part is between Marxism and communism, Marxism versus changing the world. Again, every young person would like to develop his/her own world, does not want to get it in a given shape. It is valid always, everywhere and our generation was offered a chance to do it , to model the world of our own. From this perspective Marxism is extremely attractive as a philosophy of practise, the answer to the question “what to do”. From this point of view Marxism is an effective answer in the realm of traditional XIX century workers’ movement and wherever this traditional workers’ movement is facing the same tasks – even today Marxism is an effective answer – what to do. But from that perspective Marxism became attractive to me when I have become a revisionist. That particular feature of Marxism’s attractiveness was not visible for me when we wanted simply to build our world. But the most important point for me was the fact that it was an offer for a young man to design the world on its own. That was an offer one cannot reject, a tempting offer. Barbarian, criminal yet magnificent offer.
Was it because the communist party at the time embodied that aspiration for change and tell us more about the spirit of the time, the drive behind the building of a new society, of a new man, of a new town like Nowa Huta where a new man was being build?
Of course, I have understood it like that, my generation has. From that perspective, we believed that we were creating new world form the beginning and that new world was supposed to be a world of justice. The most characteristic feature of that time was massive, huge, social climbing of social groups and of individuals. In the XIX century thought it was a good thing, it was an independent value in itself. Only today I began to see that although social climbing is generally positive yet it was not equally obviously positive if we considered also the ways in which that effect of social climbing was achieved. At that time that social climbing happened in the context of the destruction of not just the whole social order but also the destruction of culture. So that giant progress that we had believed to be witnessing ourselves was also introducing cultural wilderness. Since culture first of all answers the question how we should live. Culture answers that question in many ways and variations, culture answers such a question. But that new culture that we were creating was not answering such questions at all, for it was capable of answering the question how to be active, how to build Nowa Huta, but not a question how should we live? So, the cultural void was created and very soon it resulted in the incredible barbarian behaviour. That was characterised by hooligans’ phenomenon and by terrible workers’ hostels full of dirt, stench, demoralisation and drunkenness. The unbearable conditions for people drawn from their local rural cultures and thrown into the gigantic melting pot.
So, there was great enthusiasm for the idea of the new man among intellectuals but the reality was quite different for the people involved in the process?
I think that also the advancing masses of social climbers were full of great enthusiasm. How that social climbing looked like? A young man left his own village. There were absolutely no prospects in the village, idle work force, poverty. He moved for example to Nowa Huta or Warsaw or to any other town and by that step he became an active subject of his life, he made a great leap, he was full of enthusiasm. Yet once he entered the industry he became a slave deprived of cultural ties and his enthusiasm. Of course, it never occurred automatically so the enthusiasm itself was mixed with terrible helplessness. I have to stress that we felt that but we could not explain that phenomenon. We said that it was the phenomenon caused by the relicts of the past order but in fact it was the new phenomenon just being born.
Was that the origin of your drift away from Marxism for you and for your friends?
No, I do not think it was the origin for that for my friends either. In fact we were drifting away from Marxism through Marxism itself. I mean we have tried to perceive life in its reality through Marxism – we have used Marxism to unmask communism, yet we still have not been aware what we have done for we kept thinking that we wanted to improve communism. I was thinking like that and the others were thinking like that too, all of us –the whole revisionism in Poland developed from the blooming days of Marxism, from the development of Marxist thought.
For the start – yes of course finally it was all against Stalinism, in effect also against communism and finally all of us at some point departed from Marxism. I departed relatively later, first I have written Open Letter (List Otwarty), a book that I see as the final word of Marxism in the analyses of that system. The last word in a sense that everything what was possible to express was there and it presents all the perfection of Marxism as a tool and also all the weakness of Marxism is visible there.
But at what point did you decide there was no point trying to reform the party and ideology and decided to address the society, the workers?
I have come to that conclusion together with Karol Modzelewski - that there is no point in reforming the party – we have concluded so as Marxists at the time. We have decided to support political pluralism. Marxism led us to such a choice. It was our conclusion from our Open Letter. But my drifting away from Marxism was a pure intellectual adventure, pure adventure. I was expecting to spend in prison 15 years because such a sentence for March 1968 was expected for me, no less than 12 years. The whole country demanded punishment for the leaders and there were just two leaders, Modzelewski and I, so the sentence had to be severe. I expected to spend such a long time in prison. I had been imprisoned before so I knew what to expect and how to plan. To serve your term in prison you have to work, you have to set a great goal. I had a plan to write a text on the seventh thesis of Marx on Ludwig Feuerbach that explains the essence of man as a full spectrum of social relations. My wife Gaja said that all authors interpret a man using that thesis while it might prove useful to interpret a man starting from the society. So I decided to work on that. I did it and I found out that after completing that task I found myself in a different position. I found out that Marxism as a method is failing, it is not confirmed. I have started my work in 1968 and I remember that in the beginning of December 1970 I discovered that and the massacre of 1970 occurred. And I said “when I was a Marxist – the system did not work and now when I ceased to be a Marxist – that system worked”. Bad luck as usual. For our fight against totalitarian system the most important fact is that Marxism prevents us from realising what totalitarian system is. We can only interpret it as a system based on the class exploitation. Marxism makes it impossible to see that the most important anti-totalitarian force is national identity. But Marxism does not allow us to see new quality in the social process but instead it sends us back towards XIX century capitalism. That is why Marxism is useless here although to some extent its basic directions might be useful once workers’ movement wins its fundamental rights.
So, your drift away from Marxism was really related to the crisis of the society as a whole in 1956 and 1968 and up to 1981?
The question concerns rather the moments of movement than the moments of crisis. What you called the moments of crisis were rather the peaks of social movement expansion. Social movement brings experiences that are beyond imagination, no philosopher would be able to conceive them. I think that the movement learns on the basis of the social movement’s experiences, that is a very important point. What have we learned? We have emerged from the experience of 1956 with a big load of practical knowledge. First of all, the problem of the independence of the movement, organisational independence from the party and state leadership – that is the key issue. We did not reject communism but we were sure that social movement had to be independent from party and state leadership – that is the first step. The second step and a very painful for us was to acknowledge political pluralism. We have to accept it all (after 1956) that there is no democracy without political pluralism. I think that these are the two most important points. In 1968 our movement was an independent movement, independent from party leadership and from state leaders, a self-reliant movement that preached pluralism in politics. It seemed so banal but the most important on the social mind was the necessary unity of workers’ movement with intellectuals’ movement. It was important in 1968 and in 1970. In 1968 it was clear to the intellectuals that they had to be united with the workers. And the most subtle spirits suddenly realised what we knew from the beginning that we had to be united with the workers. In 1970 the workers realised that without intellectuals they could not cope on their own.
The next great experience belonged to the Workers’ Defence Committee (KOR) experience. The experience of KOR was important for society’s self-reliance, self-determination and independence in creating movements that culminated so beautifully in 1980. It is too early to discuss the experience of 1980. It is too early for the situation is a new quality. In my opinion Solidarity achieved a full success because it changed social reality. Social reality in which we live now is a result of Solidarity – social reality in Poland and abroad alike. Solidarity movement was so great that although they destroyed it, forced Solidarity to go underground – it did not change the existence of political pluralism and freedom of speech. We created freedom of speech that lived and functioned also in the official press. It was most important – they had a choice of publishing press and books for no audience at all or to start publishing the truth and that broke the foundation of totalitarian system. So, our underground, clandestine press are relatively weaker, less important. Yet they played most important role because thanks to them the state-controlled media, press, radio, TV– they all had to publish the truth. This the first point. And the second point is that by the very fact that there is an independent trade union (although it is a clandestine one) and independent, underground social movements - the officially organised movements could no longer be just dummies, they have to become active and real. The most important part: we have started to break the entire model of centralised economy control, the foundation of communist totalitarian system. That model was broken in the eyes of social opinion, in the eyes of communist authorities and we have forced the authorities to start economic reforms and they have no alternative path, they have to continue economic reforms. So, it will take time some time to understand and sum up these experiences. It all depends what will happen next and how it will be continued.
Looking back at the history of post-war communism in Eastern Europe one has the impression that 1956 there was an attempt to overthrow the party in Hungary. In 1968 there was an attempt to reform the party from within. In 1980-1981 in Poland it was an attempt to find a new modus vivendi with a party. In other words, everything has been tried. There is also a feeling that everything has failed. Or hasn’t it?
I think exactly the opposite. I think that it all worked. I believe that such a way of thinking about history “we have totally succeeded” or “we have totally failed” is characteristic for radical thought and for very young people. And it is very dangerous because social reality is changing slowly, gradually under the pressure of social forces but never precisely according to human dreams. We always reach a lower step, we reach balance on the much lower step. For me, in my narration, the huge social movements lead step by step towards the disintegration of totalitarian system, to the great change and to the creation of broader democracy and self-organising society. From my perspective we are succeeding, undoubtedly succeeding. What I have already mentioned that Solidarity succeeded in transforming society – it was also Solidarity’s failure. Solidarity could not adapt to that new situation because Solidarity thought in the categories ”we” against ”them”. Solidarity as we know it today has emerged from the martial law period so it has formed in the underground in the conditions of an occupied country. The basic principle was “we conquered you” or ”you conquered us”. Today we have to change that attitude and that movement cannot accept it. So, I believe that there is time for initiative of people who are representing the middle. Also, the authorities and official organisations will present more and more initiatives that change reality. The road from totalitarian system to democracy is an obvious choice and we have already moved a long way in that direction. If we compare our current condition, the real social order we are living in, our talk on that balcony to the times when you could be imprisoned for one word, for a joke – one could see easily that we are now living in a different country and in a different social order.
You keep calling the system totalitarian, but at the same time you are describing a process of emancipation of society from totalitarianism. Isn’t there a contradiction in that? To what extend can the Polish system today still be described as totalitarian?
I just say that totalitarian system is just a model. A fully totalitarian system never existed and could not exist for a totalitarian system is an attempt to central control of all aspects of social life. It is impossible, but an attempt to do that led to constant social resistance. Social life itself is a force of resistance. We are doing it in Poland on a more massive scale and in a more organised way. It is our own way of fight against the totalitarian system. I described that in my text Thoughts on Action Programme („Myśli o programie działania”). The society in the process of self-organisation is limiting totalitarian system, is continuing liquidation of the system, even today. We can never really describe a society as either totalitarian or not totalitarian. We have to show where are we on our road to freedom, from totalitarian system to democracy. On that road, we reached an advanced step. I dare say, that the most crucial point is that the central party and state leadership does not aspire to control the entire social life. They are looking for new solutions – what Gorbachev is doing? That is fascinating. Adam Michnik called it counter-reformation, in a sense that Leszek Kołakowski adopted, claiming that it is not a restauration, it is not a counter-revolution but an attempt to adopt the thought of reform movement in order to save the party structures. Gorbachev acts first of all on the basis of Solidarity experience, as the most mature mass movement, but also on the basis of all the social resistance movements in other countries and because of the basic difficulties in getting out from superpowers arms race. He would like to adopt all that critical anti-totalitarian thought to reconstruct totalitarian system so it could function efficiently. Grobachev would like to adopt critical approach without fundamental change, leaving the essential part of the system intact – in my opinion it is impossible, but it is not important. I have already said that people never achieve what they try to achieve. Gorbachev simply put into action various social forces that would disintegrate the system. Whether he likes it or not we are all moving together towards democracy.
Jacek Jan Kuroń (1934–2004)
Jacek Jan Kuroń (3 March 1934 – 17 June 2004) - Polish politician, educator and historian, in People’s Republic of Poland period activist of so-called “Red Scouting,” one of the leading figures in the Polish opposition against the totalitarian communist power, co-founder of the Workers’ Defence Committee (KOR), and a political prisoner. Co-founder of the Flying University and TKN. Initiator of the students protests in March 1968, expert and adviser of Solidarity Trade Union (1980-1990), in free Poland Member of Polish Parliament, twice served as a Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, in 1995 he was a candidate for President of Poland. He received many prizes, honours and awards from all over Europe.