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“I Didn’t Sit Eight and a Half Years in Jail to Build Capitalism”

Karol Modzelewski emerged in the 1960s as a leading dissident against Poland’s state socialist dictatorship — but he remained a socialist until the very end.

Karol Modzelewski at the First National Congress of Delegates of Solidarność, in Gdańsk, Poland in 1981. Wikimedia Commons

A giant of the Polish left, Karol Modzelewski died on April 28 at the age of eighty-one. He is best-known in the West as the co-author (with Jacek Kuron) of the 1964 manifesto “An Open Letter to the Party,” which denounced Poland’s bureaucratic dictatorship and called for a revolution to bring about a genuine socialism based on workers’ democracy. But in Poland he is equally renowned for his subsequent fifty-five years as a principled critic and socialist thinker, and as the most vocal and consistent opponent of capitalism since the collapse of state socialism in 1989.

For those familiar only with contemporary political choices, Modzelewski’s life might seem a contradiction. How could he be the most steadfast opponent of Communist Party rule and simultaneously the most consistent critic of the capitalist onslaught that followed? How could he work so hard to topple state socialism, maintaining his resolve despite three spells in prison, and then tell his former Solidarność comrades that he “didn’t sit eight and a half years in jail to build capitalism”?

Modzelewski saw no contradiction here at all. He was a fighter for a socialism that empowered workers and saw both bureaucratic dictatorship and liberal capitalist democracy as fundamentally hostile to working-class interests. That is the spirit that he hands down to the Polish left today.

Interesting Times

From the beginning of his life Modzelewski was immersed in transformative events. Born in Moscow in 1937 to communist parents, at the height of the Stalinist purges, he was less than three weeks old when his father was arrested by Soviet security forces. When he was just eight, his mother — the daughter of a Menshevik who had also landed in the Soviet  jails — married the Polish Communist Zygmunt Modzelewski, who himself also served two years in Soviet prisons, after being arrested and tortured as part of Stalin’s massive assault on the Polish Communist Party (PCP).

Acting under the delusion that the PCP was a “den of spies,” in 1938 Stalin had ordered the party’s dissolution. Almost every Polish communist Stalin could get his hands on was either imprisoned or shot. Ironically, the only ones to survive untouched were those already held in the far-right Polish regime’s own jails, or brave enough to be fighting against Franco in the International Brigades in Spain.

But as World War II wound down, Stalin found he needed Polish communists after all. Designated to serve in the new Polish government, Zygmunt moved with Karol and his mother to Warsaw. Karol learned Polish while his father served as Poland’s foreign minister from 1947 to 1951.

Typical of communist parents at the time, neither his mother nor father had told him anything about the Stalinist persecutions. But when they did, in 1954 while his father was dying, Poland was experiencing the first flush of post-Stalin Marxist humanism.

This new approach advanced the claim — often based on recently translated writings of the young Marx — that socialism requires full workplace democracy and is incompatible with authoritarian bureaucratic rule. All this turned Karol into a radical left revisionist, determined to rescue real socialism from the grip of a self-serving state socialist bureaucracy.

Modzelewski came of political age in 1956, during the “Polish October” that saw widespread calls for a humanist Marxism as an alternative to Poland’s post–1945 Stalinist model. Workers’ councils had sprung up in factories throughout the country in the aftermath of the bloody suppression of the Poznan metalworkers’ strike in June 1956, a last gasp of Polish Stalinism. The councils quickly became the site of democratic socialist opposition, ready to defend their autonomy against attacks from the Party and even against possible Soviet invasion, as would indeed soon occur in Hungary.

Though Modzelewski was just entering Warsaw University, with budding intellectual ambitions, his activism in 1956 was spent notably not with protesting students but with the Warsaw auto workers’ council whose leader, Lechoslaw Gozdzik, served as the de facto head of Poland’s council movement.

Polish Stalinism was toppled in October, and Modzelewski initially supported the new party leader Wladyslaw Gomulka. But when Gomulka dismantled the workers’ councils and reestablished bureaucratic dictatorship, Modzelewski and his comrade Jacek Kuron — the history student who he met at Warsaw University in 1962 — delved into all the Marxist oppositionist works they could find, and produced the pathbreaking “Open Letter.”

To say this text was an inspiration to anti-Stalinist leftists worldwide would be an understatement. In the thirty-five years since Trotsky’s deportation from the Soviet Union, no systematic radical left manifesto against Soviet-style socialism had been published, coming from within. There had been plenty of criticisms and complaints, and in 1955 Milovan Djilas made a big stir with The New Class, attacking the system for betraying true socialist principles. But instead of just lamenting the betrayal of socialism, Modzelewski and Kuron offered a Marxist, essentially Trotskyist, diagnosis, and called for a new workers’ revolution to sweep away the statist bureaucracy and introduce genuine socialism based on workers’ power and participation.

For “publishing” the Open Letter (a total of seventeen typed and carbon copies), Modzelewski, then a Warsaw University doctoral student studying medieval history, got his first prison sentence, serving two and a half years before being released just as a new generation of students, led by Adam Michnik, were preparing the grounds for a new wave of protests.

Though he was only loosely involved with the student movement of 1968, when protests did break out Modzelewski was seen as such a threat to the regime that he was quickly arrested again, this time serving nearly three years. Upon his release in 1971, a calm but grim period, due to the recent repression of the student movement in 1968 and of the massive shipworkers’ protests in 1970, Modzelewski moved to Wroclaw to pursue his studies, the only place the authorities would allow him to do so.

But when workers in Gdansk went on strike in 1980 to form the Solidarność trade union, Modzelewski helped build the union in Wroclaw, and soon became its official national spokesman — leading to his third prison term when the communist authorities imposed martial law and delegalized Solidarność. Modzelewski was arrested the day martial law was declared in December 1981, and served three more years in jail before his release in 1984.

For Democratic Socialism

Modzelewski had changed a great deal since the “Open Letter.” He abandoned his call for revolution soon after 1968, seeing it as both impractical and even undesirable, given how revolutions always seemed to reject democratic participation from below in the interests of preserving the “true” democracy embodied by the revolutionaries themselves. He sided with the 1970s Polish New Left’s rejection of vanguardism in favor of independent social and political activism.

But his New Left embrace of widespread civic participation remained rooted in an old left conception of the primacy of the working class, and nowhere was this more evident than in his work in Solidarność. Too often wrongly identified as an anti-socialist movement based on what happened after its leaders took power in 1989, the Solidarność that Modzelewski worked in and worked for in 1980–81 was based on powerful workplace unions that were to be the foundations of a revived democratic society.

He fought within Solidarność for a peaceful transformation of the system, where strong workers’ organizations and widespread civic participation would lead to a democratic socialism, based either on continued state ownership or extensive social democratic-type economic intervention. (There were plenty of hothead activists in the movement, Modzelewski later recalled, “but nobody called for the privatization of the economy, or reprivatization of property confiscated by the state in 1945. Nobody.”)

His enduring connection to the old left was evident in his most famous words as a Solidarność  activist when, a week before the imposition of martial law, he threatened that if the party were to move against Solidarność, “it will be their final conflict,” using the exact words from the last stanza of the Polish version of the Internationale.

Modzelewski did not take part in the Round Table negotiations that brought state socialism to an end in 1989, though he did agree to run for senator in the ensuing elections. But when his former Solidarność comrades now in government, including Jacek Kuron, pushed rapidly to build a neoliberal capitalist economy, trying specifically to marginalize workers since they now saw proletarian anger as the biggest danger to “democracy,” Modzelewski broke with them decisively. Along with other former dissident leftists, he helped start a new social-democratic party. When that project failed, he retired from formal politics and returned to his work as a history professor, supplemented by frequent essays offering sharp critique of the economic system his old comrades had created.

The End of Solidarity?

Despite the new leaders’ promises, wages and work declined dramatically in the 1990s, and all societal solidarity disappeared as everyone was encouraged to think only of themselves. By the beginning of the new millennium, as neoliberal capitalism increasingly appeared as the true problem to fight, and a new generation without experiences of state socialism began to emerge, people began rediscovering Modzelewski, appreciating his consistent socialism and sense of solidarity. And when the far-right Law and Justice Party won the elections in 2015, even liberals started thinking that maybe having capitalism run roughshod over Polish society was not the best way to build a stable democratic society.

As it happened, Modzelewski had anticipated the rise of the Right, too. In a 2002 piece co-written with Jacek Kuron (who now regretted his service as labor minister in 1990 and returned to his prior convictions), the former radicals of the “Open Letter” spoke of the need for a new left party to prevent economic discontent from being successfully mobilized by the Right: “It’s not conservatives or liberals who will be the alternative” to a weak or nonexistent left, “but populists outside today’s political divide. Let’s have no illusions: they will be the ones to capture the loyalties of those abandoned by the Left.”

Modzelewski is a fascinating and important figure for the Left worldwide, whose political writings richly deserve to be translated and discussed more widely in this time of fascist revivalism, as we confront a global political crisis with potential revolutionary ramifications. Modzelewski leaves a leftist legacy that is rich precisely because it was not so straightforward. While a consistent socialist all his life, he offered different answers on how socialism could actually be built.

He broke with the ruling Polish Communist Party early, but on the grounds that it was hostile to workers’ democracy, not to liberal democracy. In fact, although he was in jail in 1971 when Edward Gierek came to power following Gomulka’s bloody repression of the shipworkers’ strike, Modzelewski was elated by Gierek’s personal visits to the sites of the protests and his direct appeal to workers to build a new type of socialism together.

While younger oppositionists like Adam Michnik considered this no more than a sham, Modzelewski was momentarily hopeful that some kind of real workers’ democracy might yet emerge from the existing system. Even in the 1980s, when other oppositionists either rejected the party altogether or saw fit to work with liberal reformers only in order to build capitalist democracy, Modzelewski sometimes maintained hope that pro-worker policies might yet emerge from within party circles.

In recent years, he grappled with the same dilemmas that plague much of today’s global left. He came to believe in the importance of liberal democratic institutions, and completely rejected Poland’s current right-wing Law and Justice Party for its attacks on them. Yet he did not think today’s radical right can be defeated by a return to a liberalism that did not address the problem of the marginalization of working-class interest.

Still, new questions arise. What did workers’ democracy mean in a time of flexible labor and easy capital flight? Should workers control their workplaces, or just be guaranteed higher wages and benefits? Should unions, which represent far fewer workers than at any time in the last two generations, have veto power, or should socialism today empower a wide variety of civic groups?

In other words, to the end, Modzelewski was left grappling with the big questions that face all socialists in the post-1989 period, in Poland and elsewhere.