Karol Modzelewski died on 28 April 2019. He was a well known personality on the western anticapitalist left in the 1960s, as co-author of the “Open letter to the Party”.
After the collapse of “actually existing socialism”, he was treated as a moral authority by the liberal media in the Third Polish Republic, as one of the fighters for Polish democracy.
Karol Modzelewski was born in Moscow in 1937 in a family of Communist activists. His stepfather, Zygmunt Modzelewski, became the foreign affairs minister in “People’s Poland” in 1947. In 1964, Modzelewski, who was then a lecturer at the Historical Institute of Warsaw University, and Jacek Kuroń, a functionary of the Polish Scouting Association, jointly wrote “An open letter to the Party”, where they accused the governing Polish United Workers Party of both political and economical treason of socialism. The authors claimed that a party-state bureaucracy had taken over Poland, while exploiting the working class. A real workers’ state could only be implemented as a result of a workers’ revolution. The revolution would accept a pluralism of workers’ parties.
Kuroń and Modzelewski saw the possible anti-bureaucratic revolution in Poland as a part of a world revolutionary triad: anti-bureaucratic revolutions in the Eastern Bloc, socialist revolution in the West and anti-colonial revolt in the Third World. An obvious inspiration for Kuroń and Modzelewski was Leon Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed, though later in his memoirs Modzelewski pointed at Milovan Djilas, a much less controversial figure in Poland.
Modzelewski and Kuron were both expelled from the party and sentenced to time in prison (Modzelewski for three and a half years, Kuroń for three years). Modzelewski was released some months before the student revolt in March 1968. After that he was sent to prison for anther three and half years. During the March 1968 events he was a mentor for the so called “commando” group which led the Polish student protests. It was a group of young people from nomenklatura families.
Part of that group, after their parents had lost their party office, would become an important current of the so called democratic opposition, and later an influential current in the Solidarity union leadership. Over the decades they drifted to the right of the political spectrum. In the 1990s they created the liberal Unia Wolności (Freedom Union) and Gazeta Wyborcza (Electoral Newspaper: still the most powerful daily), edited by Adam Michnik.
In the 1970s, Modzelewski continued his work as a researcher on Middle Ages, working, with the party’s permission, at the Polish Academy of Sciences. He returned to politics in 1980, when “People’s Poland” experienced its greatest political conflict. The sides in that conflict were the Party and the “Solidarity” union. In that conflict “Solidarity” is usually considered to have been the emancipating subject, and the Party, the source of oppression. In reality though the conflict was also happening across both organisations. On each sides there were followers of socialism, and of capitalism. Our tradition should therefore not be tied to either of those sides, but rather refer to the followers of non-authoritarian socialism on both sides of that barricade.
Modzelewski, who since the 1960s had evolved from Marxist to social-democrat, became a member of Solidarity’s leadership. He saw the 1980-1981 union political movement first and foremost as a school of egalitarianism and social justice: “It was the drivers on whom the public transport [of Wroclaw] strike depended, because it was they who could stop the buses. They worked extremely hard, 14 hours every day, but I had seen the [pay] slip Władek Frasyniuk [driver and Wrocław Solidarity leader], who got 16,400 złoty... I was an adjunct professor and was paid (like each adjunct) 4700 złoty. Frasyniuk made almost four times what I did and six times what a cleaning lady made. Drivers in Wrocław went on strike considering this an uneven share of salary — against themselves. They wanted their salaries to be cut for the cleaners’ and mechanics’ sake… Today there’s a mass dismissal of teachers. Nobody strikes for their sake. Not even other teachers.” (Gazeta Wyborcza, 14.9.2013).
The question of capitalist restoration in Poland was not part of the thinking of the Solidarity mass membership. As Modzelewski mentioned: “During the ‘great’ time of Solidarity there were many different demands… People drew caricatures of the Russian bear and [trade union activist Andrzej] Rozpłochowski claimed that if we were strident enough, the Kremlin bells would play the Dąbrowski Mazurek [Polish national anthem].
“At the same time there was not a single mention of re-privatisation of any property nationalised between 1945 and 1956. There was not a single mention of privatising the economy. There was no such thing. Not because that seemed impossible. The Kremlin bells seemed equally impossible. It was just not a part of the moral horizon of this movement.” (Gazeta Wyborcza, 14.9.2013).
And yet Solidarity in 1989 was in the vanguard when a very brutal version of capitalism was introduced. In 1989, it was something completely different from 1980. Its class function had changed: from progressive into regressive and pro-capitalist. As it was put by Modzelewski himself: “the mass movement was crushed [by the martial law era repressions], the underground structures were weak and no longer had roots in the mass movement, in the factories, but the myth survived. And the [new groups of] workers [striking in 1988], so that the country understood and supported them, had to call not only for pay rises, but also for the more general ‘solidarity’. The owners of that myth were Lech Wałęsa and the old Solidarity activists surrounding him. The survivors in the army uniforms [led by Wojciech Jaruzelski] had to make a truce with the remnants in the historical dress of Solidarity leaders. And that is how the Round Table [agreement between the nomenklatura and Solidarity] came to existence”. (Krytyka Polityczna, 4.09.2010).
Since the martial law Solidarity had ceased to be a mass egalitarian movement. Democratic mechanisms and grassroots control stopped working within it. It became dependent on the Catholic Church, and – as Modzelewski failed to mention – the Central Intelligence Agency. The American CIA gave Solidarity sums amounting to $20m (today’s equivalent of $40m).
That was recently described by American researcher Seth G. Jones in his book A Covert Action: Reagan, the CIA, and the Cold War Struggle in Poland. This subject is a great taboo of the Polish political class. We know when the CIA started the collaboration with some Solidarity activists, but we still don’t know when it came to an end... In result, the restoration of capitalism in Poland was a joint work of the main current within the nomenklatura and the main current of the Solidarity leadership, with the blessing of western imperialism and the Polish pope blessing. Trotsky’s prediction from the 1930s:
“The political prognosis has an alternative character: either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers’ state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back to capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism” (Transitional Programme, 1938), had been fulfilled, but in a negative sense. Without Trotsky we cannot understand the history of Poland after 1989.
For example, one attempt of resistance by the Polish society against the outcomes of capitalist transition was without doubt the passing of power to the post-Communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) in 1993 and of the presidency into the hands of Aleksander Kwaśniewski in 1995. Yet, to the surprise of the disoriented SLD voters, the party turned out to be even more in favour of privatisation, coy towards the Catholic Church, and servile towards the USA and NATO than various right wing groups. It is hard to understand that without the analysis of the bureaucracy by Trotsky expressed in his Revolution Betrayed from 1936.
Modzelewski was a co-author of capitalist restoration in Poland and at the same time a critic of the high social costs of the transition. In his memoirs he even claimed: “I have never fought for capitalism. I did eight and half years in prison, but I would have not done a day for capitalism.” (We will drive the horse of history to death, 2013).
But in practice as an MP he helped introduce capitalism in 1989-1991, simply not agreeing to its most anti-social model. The costs of the transition were shocking. Poland after 1989 was a country which has shown what Poles haven’t seen for several decades. Poland experienced an enormous regression in the realm of social rights. Poles experienced mass unemployment, evictions with no replacement housing, homelessness, state economy robbery, economic penetration by the foreign capital, deindustrialisation, mass clergy privileges, regression of women’s rights, such as a ban on abortion, etc.
Fourteen years after capitalist restoration, in 2003, 59% of the society lived below the social minimum, and that resulted, among other things, in mass emigration by Poles after Poland’s accession to the EU. The political milieu with whom Modzelewski collaborated most closely (leaders such as Adam Michnik or Jacek Kuron) in the 1990s turned into liberals.
And very peculiar at that: the Freedom Union accepted the ban on abortion, the introduction of compulsory Catholic religion lessons in state schools, and the mass cult of John Paul II. Modzelewski himself withdrew from political activity in 1990s, despite remaining the honorary leader of the weak Labour Union, a social democratic party whose peak success was 7.5% of vote in the parliamentary elections in 1993. He focused on academic work about the Middle Ages. But he remained a commentator on Polish political life.
In his critique of the capitalist transition we find no criticism of capitalism as such, but only an appeal for a greater concern about workers. In the year 2000, with Jacek Kuron, he wrote: “The arrogant, aristocratic treatment of workers will bring no good to anyone. Nothing can be built upon that. This is the main weakness of capitalist system when it is left without any leftist counterweight. Without such thing we will forever remain a developing country.
“Development is a result of the balance between socialism and liberalism. ‘People’s Poland’ disrupted it by killing the market – today we are hitting yet another wall. We are convinced that defence of those ones employed in the small and medium companies, who find themselves in growingly difficult material situations, equals defence of modernity and is our modernity’s only chance”. (Krytyka Polityczna, Issue 2, 2002).
In the conclusions of his memoir, addressed to the younger generation, Modzelewski wrote: “I no longer have the strength or health for the barricades. What’s more, I realise too much. I know revolution is either impossible or too costly, In any case, its conclusion is not what we were wishing for. The revolutionary could not know this. His knowledge empowers him and lets him accomplish the impossible, which changes the world.
“Afterwards, he will be disappointed or at least unsatisfied with the change he helped bringing, but this is another story.” (We will drive the horse of history to death, 2013).
An erstwhile revolutionary died as a renegade, somebody who was ashamed of the piece of writing which made him famous among the western anticapitalist left. He might not be the worst one of that sort, but he was still a renegade.
•August Grabski is a Polish Marxist and an academic at Warsaw University