Demonstration organised by NZS (Independent Students Union) in defence of political prisoners, 1981

A real world of consciousness

Communism in Poland was brought down by an underground network of learning, journalism and culture that flourished in defiance of state control

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Professor Andrzej Nowak had just wrapped up a conference on the work of Solzhenitsyn, in December 1981, when martial law was declared. Overnight, Poland changed. A photograph captured a tank stationed outside a cinema. The film being advertised? Apocalypse Now.

Communism was established in Poland, soon after the end of the Second World War, with tremendous savagery. War heroes liable to resist the dictatorial state — such as Witold Pilecki, who had volunteered to enter Auschwitz to gather information — were imprisoned, tortured, and executed. A thriving cultural scene was strangled in its cot. President Bolesław Bierut was a shameless bootlicker of Joseph Stalin. 

The regime softened in the middle of the 1950s under Władysław Gomułka, until a stagnant economy and political unrest inspired an anti-Semitic purge and the shooting of striking workers in Gdynia and Gdańsk. Edward Gierek, replacing Gomułka, sought economic progress with massive borrowing. It led to problems down the road when the debts had to be paid, but it encouraged Poles to think a better world was possible.

As a young man, Bronisław Wildstein recognised that communism was “a system of lies”. His education was plainly restricted. “I knew the criticisms of democracy,” he told me, “but I didn’t know the classics of democracy.” Petty corruption — of the kind that Poles affectionately call “kombinować” — was ubiquitous. “If you didn’t steal from the state,” Wildstein told me, explaining the attitude of the time, “you stole from your family.”

Poland was corrupt and oppressive enough to encourage unrest and liberal enough to allow it to spread. Protest, such as the massive strikes and demonstrations that followed price increases in 1976, became more common. The accession of Karol Wojtyła, a Pole, to the papacy would also provide inspiration. 

In May 1977, a student named Stanisław Pyjas was found dead in the stairwell of his Kraków apartment building. Pyjas had been a member of the Workers’ Defence Committee, which supported political prisoners, and had organised protests with his friends, Wildstein and Leszek Maleszka. 

Suspicions grew that Pyjas had been murdered by the state. An enormous demonstration filled the Kraków streets. Wildstein, Maleszka and others — still young men in their mid-twenties — formed the Student Committee of Solidarity. “They spat in my face,” said Wildstein when I asked him what motivated them, “so I had to react.”

The Student Solidarity Committee tried to spread the knowledge that communism could be opposed

Solidarity was an important concept. “Separate men are absolutely powerless,” says Wildstein. In his essay “Theses on Hope and Despair”, the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski wrote: “Monopolistic power demands a continued effort for the atomisation of society and the destruction of all forms of social life not prescribed by the ruling apparat.” Yet the rigidity of the system, Kołakowski wrote, “depends in part on the degree to which men who live within that system can be convinced of its rigidity”. Authorities, concluded Kołakowski, “remain powerful for as long as people believe in the power”.

As well as producing underground literature, organising protests, and disseminating information related to state crimes, the Student Solidarity Committee tried to spread the knowledge that communism could be opposed. Wildstein told me most people had assumed “if something is happening it means that the authorities agree”. Breaking through this cynicism was essential.

The young activists resisted constant threats of imprisonment and infiltration. Wildstein used to hitchhike around Poland because if he had taken the train he would have been arrested.

More chapters were set up. Then, in 1980, the firing of Anna Walentynowicz from a Gdańsk shipyard for working with an illegal trade union prompted the formation of Solidarity. Led by Lech Wałęsa, the trade union attracted an astonishing ten million members within a year. Wojciech Jaruszelski, First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, imposed martial law ostensibly to prevent Soviet intervention but also to crush Solidarity. A curfew was imposed. Troops patrolled the streets. Dissidents were arrested. Wildstein left the country to work with the anti-communist diaspora.

As a young academic, Andrzej Nowak had enjoyed relative freedom. But new career steps had had to be approved by party officials and he had not been able to lecture on topics which portrayed Russian and Polish relations in a negative light. Still, he lectured on opposition writers and had even been allowed to visit England, where he’d been excited to watch The Deer Hunter (banned in Poland for its portrayal of the Vietnam War). Now he woke up to a new authoritarian reality. Dozens of his colleagues had been imprisoned. One could choose to obey or choose to resist. Nowak, among others, chose resistance.

Underground education was a response to the challenges of the time

For some time, brave anti-communist students and academics had been organising underground lectures in private apartments. Taking inspiration from the “flying universities” which had kept Polish culture alive under partitioning in the 1800s, they discussed unmentionable subjects like the economic failings of communism and the state crimes of the Soviet Union. Officially, for example, the Katyn Massacre of 1940 had been perpetrated by the Nazis, but at such seminars one could hear the truth: it had been the carried out by the NKVD.

“We have no possibility of becoming an alternative to a full university education,” Tadeusz Mazowiecki, later to became prime minister, told the New York Times. “But what we will do is fill in the gaps, correct interpretations, channel intellectual energies.” Such seminars had been grudgingly tolerated by the authorities, though some were broken up with tear gas, beatings and arrests.

Now the danger was heightened, but so was the need. Professor Nowak and his colleagues organised the Free Jagiellonian University, where such topics could continue to be discussed. Nowak, for example, lectured on the Gulag.

“I experienced a lot of these private meetings,” Professor Nowak tells me, “With students and non-students — workers.” He also lectured to the Catholic Union of Workers, organised by the priest Kazimierz Jankowski in Nowa Huta, Kraków. It is ironic that communism had brought such a level of equality to its opponents. Can you imagine academics lecturing to manual labourers today?

Professor Andrzej Nowak, 2010

Nowak prefers the term solidarity. “We were in solidarity with everyone who did not belong to the system of oppression,” he told me. Nowak and his colleagues were not afraid to get their hands dirty, scrapping with members of the state militia who tried to break up protests. “It was fun,” he smiles. In fact, the sense of purpose and belonging meant that in many ways it was “an extremely happy time”.

Western liberal and conservative intellectuals were invited to speak at these seminars. The late Roger Scruton was a frequent visitor. Remembering his underground lectures in Warsaw, Lublin and elsewhere, Scruton commented that “in bleak high-rise estates on the edge of crumbling cities, on streets guarded by the faceless [militia]” he found “people who lived in what Václav Benda later was to call the ‘parallel polis’, the imaginary world of the nation”. 

Scruton was moved to establish the Jagiellonian Trust, which not only provided Poland’s samizdat press with materials and finance, but facilitated interaction and conferences between Polish and Western academics and thinkers as a means of making the fight for intellectual freedom a collective effort.

Timothy Garton Ash was another visitor. Writing for the New York Review of Books, the British historian noted that Poland was a nation 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 essence, “an entire world of learning and culture exists quite independent of the state that claims to control it,” he marvelled, “A real world of consciousness floating high and free.”

Communism limped on to 1989, with fewer and fewer people believing in its power. In the parliamentary elections that year, Solidarity and Lech Wałęsa won all but one of the seats in the Senate and all the freely contested seats in the Sejm (the lower house of the Polish parliament). Never has an electorate delivered such a resounding middle finger.

Some feel communism was insufficiently held to account. It was not until the 2000s that Bronisław Wildstein learned that his friend and fellow activist Leszek Maleszka had been an energetic informant for the security services. For Wildstein, accountability is personal. “Wouldn’t you want to know who betrayed you and who was loyal?” 

Professor Nowak, meanwhile, regrets that so much of the solidarity that he had witnessed among people who opposed the communists was lost. “When a kind of Thatcherite policy was introduced in Poland,” he says, “it was a sudden and fateful blow to Solidarity because these workers who were the core of the solidarity movement were rejected.” He is not anti-capitalist. But tension remains.

Of course, underground education in Poland was a response to the unique challenges of the time. Nonetheless, it can still be a source of inspiration. Across Europe and America, unfashionable research and opinions can be met with professional ostracism and physical danger. As well as that, the bureaucratisation and professionalisation of academia can exclude thought that is difficult to pigeonhole. The philosopher Zena Hitz writes in her book Lost In Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of Intellectual Life that the “grinding competition and relentless banality” of higher education can leave little time and energy for thinking.

The excluded and marginalised need not wait for mainstream institutions to accommodate them but should have the courage and energy to build their own. Sometimes intellectual activity must go to ground. The ground, as any horticulturalist could tell you, teems with life.

The Bobkowski Fellowship Program, run by the Zamoyski Institute, supported the research for this article

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