Revolution in Poland

Michael Szkolny

The bizarre ideological inversions which characterise the modes of expression of contemporary East European political movements serve to render invisible to the casual observer the real social character of these movements. For this reason alone most Western analysis of the recent events in Poland has conformed broadly to one of two stereotypes. First, there is the conventional wisdom of the Right according to which the two primary forces in the present surge of revolt are nationalism and religion. Second, there is the semi-apologetic view favoured by social democrats and Eurocommunists which sees the upheaval as a struggle for the ‘democratisation of socialism’. Both analyses contain of course a germ of truth: but whereas from the first standpoint it is impossible (and perhaps undesirable) to see the real social forces which express themselves faute de mieux in the traditional language of reaction, the second standpoint begs the most fundamental question about the character of the existing regimes of Eastern Europe.

What men do, what they believe they do and what they say they do are in general all different: these distinctions are a commonplace of social analysis. Yet the tension between action and belief is far better understood than the tension between belief and doctrine. Indeed it is probable that the latter tension has become important as a political phenomenon only since the advent of the technology of mass communication. The relative neologism ‘propaganda’ has become a semantic necessity in our own era in order to eliminate the element of ambiguity inherent in older words such as ‘doctrine’ or ‘ideology’.

Where the belief and the propaganda of a ruling class differ significantly, that class becomes the victim of a cynicism which penetrates throughout society. It is generally assumed that a contradiction of this kind between belief and propaganda represents an ideological dysfunction. This opinion derives from the tacit assumption that the function of propaganda is to convince the recipient of its truth. Such an assumption is, however, a priori unjustified: if the ideology of a ruling class serves to protect the existing order, then the only necessary function of propaganda is to induce a set of beliefs in the ruled which in no way threatens that order. Propaganda does not have to be believed in order to be effective.

The rulers of Poland, as of other East European countries, do not for the most part believe in the ideals of socialism or in Marxist theory: there is no evidence that they are even aware of Marx’s methodology. Furthermore, their propaganda resembles Marxism only in its phraseology. Not only are truncated versions of once-powerful revolutionary slogans arranged in a shameless pastiche alongside chauvinist sentiments and medieval superstitions, but the very meaning of the fundamental terms has been transformed beyond recognition. Thus, for example, the Polish words for ‘socialism’, ‘socialisation’ and ‘internationalism’ today designate respectively the existing social order, state ownership, and subordination to the interests of the Soviet Union. The term ‘anti-socialist force’ is used to denote any form of political opposition, while the word ‘anarchist’ is today reserved for those oppositionists who belong to some current of the European socialist tradition. These examples form part of a general phenomenon of conceptual embezzlement which reaches deep into the vernacular. It is an Orwellian process, which fundamentally limits people’s conceptual framework, rendering inexpressible a whole range of ideas. In consequence, these ideas vanish deep into the collective subconscious, from which they struggle to appear in periods of social crisis, often in the strangest of new clothes. The original meanings of the terms listed in this paragraph cannot now be expressed in Polish without complicated circumlocutions.

The official doctrine of ‘Marxism-Leninism’ rests on two basic assumptions: first, that the ruling party incarnates the objective interests of the working class and of the whole nation, and second, that the state is part of a great international proletarian movement. Social analysts of Eastern Europe are in general agreed that the persuasive value of this ideology is almost nil. Yet there is an inherent contradiction in their further conclusion that this ideology is functionally useless. The Polish émigré philosopher Kolakowski, for example, argues that Marxism-Leninism is considered by the party apparatus to be an annoying outgrowth which cannot be eliminated since its suppression would remove the ‘basis of legitimacy of the regime’. This explanation is remarkably unconvincing: what is the value of a doctrine ‘as a basis of legitimacy’ if no one believes in it? The solution to this puzzle is crucial to an understanding of the ideology of state collectivist society.

It is no accident that the ideas which are alienated by conceptual embezzlement are the ideas of Marxism and of the entire socialist tradition. This is the primary function of ideology in state collectivist society: for by this gigantic intellectual fraud the ruling class succeeds in cutting off the entire population from the only source of ideas which represents a serious potential threat to the social order. Formal censorship of traditional socialist works is certainly widespread and censorship of contemporary radical scholarship is almost total: yet this form of censorship is rendered nearly superfluous by the qualitatively higher form of censorship which conceptual embezzlement constitutes.

There is, however, one other fundamental reason for the rejection of Marxism by the majority of East European oppositionists: the traditional Marxist assumption that a post-capitalist society necessarily has a socialist character – an axiom which is common not only to the world’s two ruling ideologies but also to many independent socialist currents. East Europeans share it and conclude that the ‘socialist’ character of their societies is the source of their oppression, which is neither more nor less surprising than the complementary belief of most Western Marxists (living at a comfortable distance) that the fundamental production relations obtaining in the Soviet Union are socialist, albeit with certain ‘deformations’.

Those few East European socialists who have succeeded in piercing the veil of conceptual embezzlement have reached conclusions of a radically different kind. Although Marx himself failed to envisage the possibility of bifurcations in the historical sequence of modes of production, such a possibility is not a priori inconsistent with a Marxist perspective. In fact, the conclusion that state collectivist societies represent a new mode of production distinct from both capitalism and socialism seems now inescapable, given the historical evidence.

The particular forms which political opposition in post-war Poland has taken have been conditioned by a complex of very specific historical circumstances. The fact that state collectivism was imposed on Poland by a foreign power inevitably gave to any opposing tendencies a nationalist hue. Indeed, Poland’s tragic history of foreign domination has produced a situation in which every political tendency has tried to justify its position by claiming that its policy would maximise Poland’s national independence. The post-war regime itself has shown great adeptness in harnessing this nationalistic sentiment.

The second factor of fundamental importance in the development of the Polish opposition has been the existence of a strong Catholic Church. Since the Church was the only institution in post-war Poland with sufficiently deep social roots to survive as an independent force in civil society, all currents of opposition tended in practice – at least until 1976 – to work within the institutional cover of either the Church or the Party. This restriction has caused enormous ideological confusion and has in general impeded the emergence of clear political programmes.

Thirdly, the complete destruction of the pre-war Left by Hitler’s and Stalin’s purges, by emigration, and by co-option into the party apparatus, entailed the complete absence of any independent socialist tradition after the war. Thus the first generation of radical opposition came principally from within the Party, the opposition of the Church having in this period a largely atavistic character. Many of the best-known young intellectuals of the period of the 1956 revolt, such as Kolakowski and the economists Brus and Lange, belonged to this ‘revisionist’ current. These intellectuals had been educated in the Stalinist school, but were seeking a democratisation of the Party, more independence from the Soviet Union, and a more liberal interpretation of official doctrine. They constituted the left ideologists of the movement which brought Gomulka to power. Even during the turbulent aftermath of October 1956, however, they could not bring themselves to challenge in a radical way the nature of the regime or the role of the Party. Some of them retained a certain diminishing influence in the Party in the years of ‘normalisation’ after 1956, but the 1968 confrontation between the intelligentsia and the regime resulted in their expulsion from the Party; many were forced into exile. Its total failure not unnaturally discredited the revisionist programme, and the year 1968 effectively marked the end of this tendency within the opposition.

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