Academic journal article Humanities Research

The Contribution of the Polish Intelligentsia to the Breakthrough of 1989

Academic journal article Humanities Research

The Contribution of the Polish Intelligentsia to the Breakthrough of 1989

Article excerpt

In his recollections of the events of June 1979, the former Solidarity advisor Adam Michnik has described this moment in history as a time of three Polish miracles. First, John Paul II returns triumphantly to Poland as the Pope, making a mockery of Stalin's jibe about the Pope having no divisions; then the second miracle occurs a little more than a year later in August 1980, when Lech Walçsa leads the shipyard strike and the first non-communist trade union is formed within the Soviet Bloc. The third miracle occurred some two months later when the exiled poet Czeslaw Milosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Michnik wrote:

John Paul II became the emblem of Poland's Catholic Church at its best. The Gdansk strike and Lech Walçsa became symbols and the crowning point of the Polish workers' rebellion and Czeslaw Milosz symbolized the defiance of Poland's intelligentsia. Those three symbols marked the three trends within Solidarity. One of them stressed the movement's national and Catholic character, another followed the working class vindication line, another still concentrated on democratic and humanist values. These tendencies were neither inconsistent nor conflicting; for us they were complementary.1

This chapter will focus on the humanist values of the Polish intelligentsia, which were not only significant for the third miracle of 1980 but greatly contributed to the final breakthrough of the summer of 1989. For a whole decade, they offered sustained intellectual critiques of existing Marxism and reflections on the alternatives available in Western political thought. Included within this body of work were the contributions of Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), who was both a Polish intellectual and a powerful world figure.

While members of the Polish intelligentsia were offering critiques of various forms of totalitarian government from the 1930s onwards, the work of anticommunist scholars and writers became more organised in the 1970s with the formation of the Workers' Defence Committee (Komitet Obrony Robotników), known by its initials KOR. KOR was distinctive in that it was an initiative of intellectuals to assist workers and their families, particularly those prisoners detained after labour strikes in 1976. It raised money through the sale of its underground publications, through fundraising groups in Paris and London, and grants from Western institutions. KOR sent open letters of protest to the communist government as well as organising legal and financial support for the families of detainees. The group also smuggled in printing machines to produce its underground publications such as Robotnik, a biweekly that had a circulation of about 20 000 by 1978, and to publish books under the banner of its own publishing house called NOWA.2 The latter were often Polish translations of works published in Western countries that were regarded as politically dangerous by the communist authorities. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its esoteric critique of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and Günter Grass's The Tin Drum were prominent in this category. Jan Józef Lipski concluded that the achievement of NOWA was 'truly impressive', with more than 100 publications including political and economic works, which were 'indispensable to an understanding of intellectual and political culture'.3

In 1977, KOR leaders collaborated with intellectuals in the Warsaw community to establish the 'Flying University' (Uniwersytet Latajqcy), a series of lectures organised by unofficial student groups to discuss political topics that could not be debated in public. The concept was revived from a similar organisation that had operated between 1885 and 1905 in the context of Imperial Russian domination of the Polish capital.4 As a consequence of their collaboration with the organisers of the Flying University, KOR members were harassed by the secret police, beaten up and in some cases jailed. KOR, however, became an inspiration for the nation when the Polish government declared amnesty for jailed workers in the spring of 1977. …

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