Leszek Kołakowski, 12. 11. 1987, ?

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Date 12. 11. 1987
Length 33:14

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What was attractive about communism?

In Poland or in general?

In Poland.

In Poland. Communism has never become in Poland the faith of the majority. It was something imposed from the outside of course. For well-known historical reason. There was a deep resentment against Russia in Poland. All the same it would be wrong to say that communism had no support whatever. This would be wrong. The communist party that existed before the war never became the leading force in political life, it was illegal for that matter. Nevertheless it existed and had some influence in the unions, and some cultural influence as well. So there was something like a communist milieu before the war, minoritarian of course.

What was appealing about it to people?

Well, I think that before the war, first of all, there were some utopian hopes common among the intellectuals about communism and Marxism being a perfect solution for all human predicaments, promising conflict-less and perfect society, justice, freedom, equality and so on. And these utopian hopes, they worked more or less efficiently all over too well. Nevertheless it was the appeal which mainly was limited to the intellectuals. Otherwise there was disillusionment with various sides of life in democratic countries, about inability of democracy to cope with various disasters especially after and during the years of the Great Crisis. Than coming to power of Nazis in Germany, the fear of Nazism, all those factors combined, gave communism a certain appeal. But as I say it has never become the major political force in Poland before the war and Polish Communist Party was destroyed, dissolved on Stalin’s order in 1938 and most of its leaders were murdered in the Soviet Union. After the war, however, situation was different. In spite of the fact that Poland was the first victim of the Nazi – Soviet alliance and was partitioned, was invaded by the allied Nazi and Soviet armies and partitioned between these two countries and declared non-existing. In spite of the innumerable persecutions which Polish population suffered in 1939, 1940 in Eastern parts of the country annexed by the Soviet Union. Despite of that the horrors of German occupation in Poland were such that the arrival of the Red Army in Poland was in a way a liberation. Nothing could be worse than the German Nazi occupation of Poland – it was an unending series of unspeakable horrors.

How much importance did the Polish communists actually have? After the period of liberation?

After the period of liberation the Communist Party was small and obviously it represented only a small part of the population. Nevertheless, one cannot fairly say that it was just an occupation force having no support whatever. No. It had some support among intellectuals, among intelligentsia and workers. However small – it was real. The Socialist party which was reconstituted as an independent party after the war had a much larger following and still larger was the following of the Peasant Party led by Mikołajczyk who came back from London.

I was going to ask about it. How did the Communist Party actually eliminate these other parties?

Right. There were during these first years after the war, 1945-1948, there were some elements of genuine pluralism in Poland, both in the political and in cultural life. Nevertheless form the very beginning the Communist Party had in their hands the main instruments of coercion, of violence and of repression. They had in their hands police, army, education. Well, it was enough to either destroy or absorb other parties.

How did the Communists use the organisations like the police to neutralise other parties?

Well, as I said, the Communist Party from the very beginning kept instruments of coercion, of and repression: police, army, education as well. And it was enough to implement the plan of eliminating all competing political forces. First of all they eliminated the Peasant Party which had a very large following in Poland – by all sort of pressures, by arrests and killing as well on some occasions, threats, intimidation, police infiltration and so on. They broke it up and what remained was a pseudo - Peasant Party which exists until now for that matter but that is nothing more than the instrument of the Communist Party. It was somewhat different with Socialist Party which had a very long tradition in Poland and a large following. It was destroyed under the disguise of unification again with all kinds of tricks and large infiltration of the Communist agents and so on. The ultimate act of the so-called unification took place in December 1948. It was made possible after the fraudulent election in the beginning of 1947 which ultimately sealed the fate of Poland for the coming years.

In the era of whole of Eastern Europe what was the tension between the idea of Moscow control central Communism and national Communism based on national Communist parties leaderships?

It is fair to say that among Communist leaders there were different people. Some were simply Soviet agents and nothing more. Others however probably believed in the beginning that they could build a Socialist country in alliance of course with Soviet Union and using the example of Soviet Union but nevertheless being largely independent. If they had such illusions they were dispersed very quickly. During the worst period which is between 1949 and 1954 there were a very strong pressure to fashion Poland as well as other People’s Democracies according to the Soviet model in all areas. Of course that process has never been completed but the pressure was very strong. So in this period those differences could never really come to the surface of life. But later on with the fragile relaxation and growing pressure from below those differences among Communists again became visible.

How common was nationalism?

Well, yes, I think that among the old Communists there was a carefully concealed but real resentment against Stalin who destroyed Polish Communist Party and murdered most of its leaders.

In the worst term of Stalin high tide how did Stalin actually exercise his power over the national leaderships in Communist Europe?

Well, I do not think that he needed… Let us go back. There were many Soviet people in direct command in Poland. After all the commander in chief of the Polish Army was general Rokossowski, the Soviet officer, of Polish origin of course, but who spend most of his life in the Soviet Union, including imprisonment, and he was a Soviet officer. There were many Soviet officers in the highest echelons of Polish Army, there were so-called Soviet advisers in the security police who were responsible for the worst atrocities committed in this period. They controlled more or less directly almost all the areas of life. But otherwise they did not need to fear the disloyalty of leaders. Polish leaders were rather obedient to Stalin. The story of Gomułka’s fall and imprisonment is not, as you know, exceptional by the standard of Polish, of the East European countries in this period. Gomułka certainly did not want to be disloyal to the Soviet Union, nevertheless he probably was thinking about Polish Communism being less dependent on Moscow than Stalin might have wished it.

I was going to ask you that. To what extent was it Stalin’s idea these countries got too independent very quickly? I mean: what was the purpose behind Stalin’s engineered show trails, the arrests of Communist Party leaders and so on?

You see, for some short period Stalin had to pay lip service to Yalta agreement which included the multiparty system in all these countries and democratic elections and so on. Some provisions being made however for the fact that in Yalta Agreement it was said that only democratic parties should take part in the electoral process. Which practically - it amounted to the fact that President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill appointed Stalin an expert on deciding which party is democratic and which one is not. And inevitably it turned out soon that there is only one democratic party which is Communist Party. This liquidation of all independent forces took some time. It couldn’t be done overnight. Nevertheless it was clear from the very beginning where the whole process was heading to. The destruction of Socialist Party occurred first in Eastern Germany in 1946 and other countries: Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary soon followed. There is no doubt about it that it was from the very beginning - it was a plan to eliminate all non-Communist parties and all the elements of pluralism in political and cultural life.

When it was done, why did then Stalin take the next step of breaking up some of the Communist Parties leaderships?

Stalin was extremely suspicious of everybody, including his closest collaborators. His entire rule all over this quarter of century consisted, among other things, in periodic purges and massacres in order to eliminate not the actual opposition but the potential opposition. He wanted to keep all his instruments of power in the constant flux and uncertainty. So nobody was really safe under Stalin. But what was the major cause of his suspicion after 1949 was of course Tito’s affair and the effective getting out of Yugoslavia from the Soviet Block. So all people who might be even slightly suspected of sharing so called Titoist idea which means of thinking about their country less dependent on Moscow had to be eliminated. I do not think that all people who were murdered in the show trials in Czechoslovakia, or Hungary or Bulgaria were in fact Titoists. Or that they in fact did want full sovereignty for their countries – this would have been anyway impossible. But some of them might have thought about being a little bit more independent and some others were simply appointed as criminals or Titoists according to unknown criteria by Stalin and his police. In Poland there were no show trials of this kind, as you know.

To what extent did the establishment of Communist rule also establish a new class?

I think that is quite plausible to speak about a new class of rulers and exploiters in all Communist countries. It was of course a process which lasted some time. But we can speak of a new class, a new privileged class, I have no doubt. It is in fact the class oppression is much worse than it has ever been in any capitalist societies because it is a class that concentrates the economic, political and ideological power in their hands. Such a concentration of power is unknown in history and it is certain that those people were very well aware of their privileged position and interested in indefinite duration of that oppressive regime.

How has the idea and practice of the leading role of the party changed and evolved since the Stalinist period till present day?

Ideologically it did not change at all. “Leading role of the party” is a euphemism which means total control of the party over all areas of life. Now, it turned out that this total control is in fact impossible and in some areas – counterproductive. So after Stalin’s death some concessions have been made but in very limited area. For instance: under Stalin even natural sciences had to be ideologically ruled. But it led to such absurdities and turned out to be so counterproductive that this kind of control practically… As you might know, the control was so grotesquely detailed that it was an ideological problem whether narrower or larger trousers should be worn. Clothing, fashions was ideologically controlled as well. Now, this was largely given up in the meantime. Apart from that there are many areas of life where control is practically impossible, private relationships between people and so on. Even so in this area pressures was strong in some countries, not in Poland. For instance in China there was an extremely strong pressure on the destruction of family, much stronger than in the Soviet Union, let alone, say, in Poland. The essence of Communism consists precisely on that: total control, total ownership of people by the state.

What is left of that control?

Well, this control was abandoned in some areas, nevertheless the idea of total control has never been given up in the ideological term. It is still the principle that the party should exert as large control as possible. If under duress it had to give up some, very limited areas of life, it does not mean that it gave up crucial instrument of power: economic, political, military and police control of the society. In this sense, Stalin’s ideology is still in force, even so its implementation is much less efficient than it used to be.

If, as many people in Communist Europe say, the ideology of Marxism-Leninism is dead, no one believes in Marxism-Leninism anymore, why is the ideology still efficient today, what’s its function now?

This ideology is dead in the sense that neither the ruled nor the rulers take it seriously any longer. Nevertheless it is still necessary because it is the only principle, the only instrument of the legitimacy of power. No system can survive without a principle of legitimacy. Short of free elections or, say, the inheritance of monarchic charisma, the only way of legitimising the power is ideology.

But how does ideology legitimate communist power?

Because it say that the ruling party embodies the aspirations and the will of the entire nation or the entire population, even if this population because of its backwardness is not aware of its own aspirations and as such, being avant-garde of the society which has the right to rule that society. Well, grotesque as that may appear, you have to keep up the appearances of this ideology, no matter whether anybody believes in it, in order to keep the ideology principle alive.

What is left of Stalinism in Eastern Europe today?

Stalinism is alive and well. And of course many things have changed since Stalin’s death and obviously some of these changes are of great importance for the life of the population. Of course we have no mass terror. Terror is selective, all over those countries, including the Soviet Union. Of course cultural life is under less pressure than it used to be even in the Soviet Union, let alone in Poland. Of course some rationalisation was introduced into economy but only to a small extent. But principle of Stalinist rule itself has not been abolished, the principle that it is the party which has the right of total control, which has to decide about everything and party is in principle an ideological organism.

How far can communist systems go down the route towards democracy?

The expression “democratic communism” has as much sense as “dry water”. If democracy means anything it involves of course the competition of different, independent forces in social and political life. Democratic communism would simply mean no communism any longer. It is as simple as that.  There is not even a slight beginning of the road towards democracy in communist countries including the celebrated reforms by Gorbachev.  What he wants to do is of course to take out the country of the road towards economic decline, to improve efficiency without paying political price for those. Therefore I think those reforms are very unlikely to succeed. Whatever his intentions might be. In the Soviet Union they might have given some more room for cultural expression or lift some prohibitions in cultural life but it does not mean that they abandoned the idea of total control. They decide what is allowed, what is permissive and what is not permissive in cultural life and there is no signs whatever that they would be ready to tolerate independent forces either in cultural or in political life. In Poland the situation is different to the extent that very strong social pressure has extorted from the ruling apparatus the concessions. Even though we are now almost six years after the imposition of the so-called martial law (or lawlessness), military dictatorship in Poland in December 1981. In spite of the martial law, of the dissolution (in legal terms) of “Solidarity” and many other independent associations, Poland is now - by communist standard - by far the most tolerant country in the Soviet empire. Nevertheless it is the result of the fact that the party simply has no means to exert all-embracing control, that it cannot dominate the society. It has to tolerate however grudgingly what it cannot destroy.

What do you think Gorbachev will mean for the countries in Eastern Europe?

The same as all his predecessors meant, which means the control as it used to be. There are no signs whatsoever that the Soviets would be willing or ready to relax their political or military control of other, formally independent East European countries.

What does Gorbachev’s rule at the Soviet Union mean for the future of Eastern Europe?

I do not think that Gorbachev’s intentions concerning East European formally independent countries differ in any sense from that of his predecessors. I do not think that there are any signs whatsoever that the new Soviet equipe would be willing or ready to relax their grip of those countries or give them more room for independence. After all the imperial idea is very much alive as it used to be.

In the past people thought that a certain measure of liberation for the people of Communist Europe could come through their gradual prosperity in these countries. Now the economic advances have been forging it. Do you think that the liberation of people can it come from decay?

I do not think there is an automatic transition from economic decay or from economic advancement toward a… “liberation” is a wrong word... toward a more humane regime. I think that historically we cannot make such claims. After all both backward and advanced countries might, as we know from history, fall prey of a totalitarianism. Whether economic improvement, very unlikely in the present conditions or economic decay will actually result in new development toward a better social form – it depends entirely on whether or not it would be translated into social forces and political forces operating independently in those countries. And this is something that depends on very many factors and not only on economic prosperity or otherwise.

Do you see that some of the circle of countercultures in Eastern Europe such as the Catholic church in Poland, such as groups of writers, such as people taking part in private economic activity, do you see these countercultures as growing in strength and perhaps challenge and change the nature of communist group?

It is very strange to call a Catholic Church a counterculture – that is the culture of the entire population, so what is its counter-culture could be perhaps only the official culture which is nothing more than an anti-culture. Otherwise whatever interesting appears not only in Poland but all over the Communist world, whatever interesting appears in the culture is invariably against the regime or at least indifferent to the regime.

Do you think these cultures become strong enough to actually change the nature of communism rule?

You see, there is a difference between the Soviet Union and Soviet dominated countries of eastern Europe. In Poland, in spite of the fact that there is a class interested in infinite extension of this regime, Communism would collapse overnight. The same in Czechoslovakia or Hungary. However, in the Soviet Union it is kept in force by internal forces alone – it is a different situation. And this was a country that for seven decades by now have been under such a strong pressure, in such brutal conditions that it’s very difficult for people to get out form these conditions, so to say. Nevertheless, we know that there is an unofficial culture in the Soviet Union, in all spheres of life, in the literature, in painting, to some extent in film as well, and above all in the general mood of the population. I am not competent enough to say what are the chances of the Soviet people to get rid entirely of this Stalinist dirt. Among people who are much more competent than myself there are very different opinions about it. Nevertheless, the fact is, communism has at least one point to its favour in the Soviet Union which is its imperial glory.

Leszek Kołakowski (1927–2009)

Leszek Kołakowski

Leszek Kołakowski (23 October 1927 – 17 July 2009) was a very prominent Polish philosopher and historian of ideas, writer, prominent scholar at Warsaw University and Oxford, oppositionist to the totalitarian Communist regime, political emigrant after 1968, official representative of Workers Defence Committee abroad (1968-1980), member of Lech Walesa Citizens’ Committee (1989). Kołakowski’s thought was a major inspiration for the Workers’ Defence Committee (KOR), Flying University and Solidarity trade union. He collaborated with Polish Independence Alliance (PPN).  Philosopher, theoretician and later critic of Communism whose books translated into many languages entered European culture code and played important role in the rejection of Communist ideology, not only in Poland. He was awarded Erasmus Prize, Kluge Prize, Jerusalem Prize and many other honours.