Dissentniks in Poland

Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique) is a Polish magazine whose editors and writers feel close to Dissent. For a celebration of their tenth anniversary, they invited three Dissent editors, Michael Kazin, Marshall Berman, and me, to come to Poland to meet with their friends and supporters. This is a report on those meetings.

Krytyka isn?t in fact much like Dissent, though all three of us felt politically and personally sympathetic to the people we met in Poland. It is a bigger magazine, for one thing; and its editors are much younger; and it is part of a very large and bold political/cultural project. The project includes a successful publishing house and a network of clubs and cultural centers in about a dozen Polish cities?and now in Kiev (Ukraine) too. The Krytyka people run concerts and art exhibitions as well as many, many political discussions. They are meeting a large payroll–some 200 men and women, young, energetic, committed, and wonderfully intelligent. Some of them are university students or junior faculty members; many have chosen careers in Krytyka over academic careers. Each of us traveled to four or five cities, meeting Krytyka activists and talking at tenth anniversary celebrations?and each of us had the same sense: that we were with comrades.

They described themselves to us as the first non-post-Communist Left in Poland. They are indeed a new Left, secular and social democratic, but disconnected from all the existing political parties, including the Social Democrats (ex-Communists), now in radical decline. We met a few people in Poland who thought that they would eventually constitute themselves as a political party, but they say nothing about that. They have a different project, which they think comes first: to transform the political culture of their country (and of some of the neighboring countries, too).

One aspect of that transformation is evident in their choice of Dissent editors and in the way they described us (at all the meetings I attended): we were three American Jewish leftists, with roots in Poland (or parts of Belarus that were once Polish). The Krytyka people are committed to an engagement with the Holocaust and with Polish complicity in it–and also with the memory of a pluralist and ethnically diverse Poland, which no longer exists. They would like the Jews to come back. It?s not likely, but there is a struggling Jewish community in Poland, chiefly in Warsaw and Krakow, and some of its young men and women are engaged in Krytyka. Poland is a Jewish graveyard, but it was an extraordinary and exhilarating experience to meet these young Poles who are working to confront and overcome the terrible loss.

They are also engaged with very immediate political issues. I had a ?debate? (public discussion) in Warsaw with the former president of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski, whose term in office ran from 1995 to 2005. Though he was a former Communist, and then a Social Democrat, he was the president who brought Poland into NATO, sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, and agreed to the Bush administration?s ?renditions.? At the meeting, he was strongly criticized, particularly for the last of these policy decisions. The secret sites are a source of anger and shame on the Polish left, or at least on the Krytyka left–for very good reasons, which were sharply expressed. The former president was partly defensive, partly regretful. The encounter with his critics was a model of democratic argument?made possible in part by the smallness of Poland and the familiarity of political figures, but also by the lively engagement of the young people in the audience.

In other cities, I met Krytyka activists working, in opposition to the very powerful Catholic hierarchy, on issues like abortion, gay rights, and religious education in the state schools. Feminist issues are also a central concern, and we met a number of activists who have worked with Ann Snitow, another Dissent editor, well known in Poland because of the organization she created: the Network of East-West Women. We met activists in Lodz working on affordable housing and in Gdansk on (or against) the existing drug laws. Finally, I should note the politics of commemoration, a source of much controversy across Europe after the Nazi and Communist years. Here is a nice story from Gdansk: the center-right mayor there is a former dissident, sympathetic to Krytyka despite his political disagreement. Recently, he decided to restore the big sign that once stood at the entrance to the shipyards where Solidarity was born in 1980 (they are mostly, but not entirely, shut down now). The sign read: Lenin Shipyards. The proposed restoration was fiercely criticized by the Polish Right. The Krytyka people supported it. They have neither sympathy nor nostalgia for Communist rule, but they are against forgetting.

Krytyka seems to have a lot of support among young Poles, though it isn?t (yet?) a force in electoral politics. It has also aroused some fierce opposition on the far right. The Ukrainian affiliate operates in a very hostile environment, tracked and harassed by members of the neo-fascist Liberty Party. Poland is a better place, but in Lodz, where I was engaged in a ?debate? with Jürgen Habermas?s Polish translator, the meeting was interrupted by a group of rightists, who stood up, chanting slogans and waving their fists, and then walked out, tearing posters off the walls as they left. I asked, ?What were they saying?? And someone in the audience responded: ?The gist of it was, ?Fuck the Communists.?? I guess that the idea of a non-post-Communist Left isn?t so easy to grasp.

Krytyka is most different from Dissent in its engagement with culture?not only with cultural critique, which we also do sometimes, but also with cultural activity: musical performances, art exhibitions, and movie festivals, usually followed by lively discussions. Wherever they can, they run cafes and bookstores, where people can meet and talk. For them, political and cultural engagement go together; it seems natural that avant-garde poets, painters, photographers, movie directors, and musicians will also be political leftists. At a meeting in Krakow, Marshall Berman and I reminded them of Ezra Pound, Céline, and T.S. Eliot?of a whole generation of modernists who lived on the far right. But the Krytyka vision is probably accurate enough for its time and place. In the aftermath of socialist realism and Stalinist architecture (visible in many Polish cities), and in a period of resurgent Catholic conservatism, the unity of cultural and political radicalism makes a lot of sense. The Poland that the Krytyka people want to create requires more than a change in political ideology.

And maybe there is something here for American leftists to learn from our Polish friends.

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