Employees against owners of the state

Mateusz Fałkowski · 12 February 2013
I suspect that nobody sane would be tempted to read texts arguing with the works of Adam Schaff or Rudolf Bahro (and such passages can be found in Walka klas w bezklasowej Polsce [Class struggle in class-free Poland]). But there are several reasons which make it worthwhile to reach for the book written by Sławomir Magala, currently professor of management at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. The author wrote it thirty years ago especially for the American reader, with the purpose of…


Class struggle in classless Poland emerged in stages in the period after August 1980 and combined reflections on the philosophy of history with reporting on the events in Poland. Magala wrote in English, describing the class struggle which he observed from close up as a thirty-year-old scholar and member of the counter-culture and Solidarity movements, and he sent successive fragments to his publishers across the ocean. He published the book in the United States under the penname Stanisław Starski shortly after the Martial Law was introduced in Poland. Thanks to the European Solidarity Centre (ECS) we can now enjoy its Polish translation (ECS, Gdańsk 2012).


Solidarity from the Anglo-Saxon perspective


The book where Magala tells the story about the class of state-employed workers revolting against the class of state owners, reads very well. The colourful style is rich with brilliant comparisons but we have to be aware that they result in a slightly glorified picture of the drab world of “really existing socialism”. Moscow as a “Mecca for Marxist crusaders” and as “a Rome of the communist movement” undoubtedly make us smile at the author’s agile penmanship. Even the “owners of the state” as a description of the higher party nomenklatura somehow sound ennobling. The reporting fragments of the essay are peopled by figures straight out of texts by Kuśmierek, for example “comrade Żywica, a former functionary and now chairman of the local party organisation in the Pomet Works”.


The book is Anglo-Saxon in spirit, not just because of the language of the original (although the use of English undoubtedly entails not only stylistic implications – the circle of intellectuals connected with KOR are “specialists”!). First, it is an essay with a well articulated thesis – a genre widely represented in the United States and Great Britain but much less present in Polish social sciences. It is also a bold essay. Enough to say that one of the leading motifs is the comparison between the owner class in the People’s Republic and the politically and economically active Polish gentry in the 16th century, with its economy based on farming and serfdom. In Poland few dare to attempt such very American constructs, let alone thirty-year-olds. By the way, it is a pity that the Polish translation did not appear immediately after the original as an underground publication in the 1980s. Alongside with the essays by Tadeusz Łepkowski or Jadwiga Staniszkis, in that period Magala’s text could count on a grateful readership and more debate than today.


I think that adopting an Anglo-Saxon convention for the sake of the American reader had one more substantive, rather than stylistic, consequence. Magala explains Solidarity to Western left-liberal readers, using references familiar to them. He suggests in his book that the “Solidarity” caption embraced “all contemporary actions aimed at liberation”, that is the cultural revolution of university and high school students, struggle for women’s rights or the demands of left-leaning social movements against the establishment. Among the ideas promoted by the Solidarity movement he highlights those which can be more vividly perceived and better understood across the ocean. Solidarity is not just an umbrella term for various initiatives, organisations and structures but also something potentially easy to comprehend for American campus dwellers. Rather than an anti-communist movement invoking religious themes, it is a wide-ranging emancipation movement, with which a left-liberal reader in the US could identify: “All contemporary actions aimed at liberation – be it the cultural revolution of university and high school students, the women emancipation movement or the left-wing political struggle against self-interested establishment – they all find their expression in Solidarity and they all rightly regard the state, of which the ruling class is the owner, as the main enemy of social development and enlarging the scope of social justice, political liberty and economic democracy,” writes the author, committed to the subject of his analysis, and comments that he is proud of the fact that Poland after August 1980 belongs to the few countries making decisions about their fate through the voice of the majority.


Public sociology


The committed character of the study is underlined by the author already in the introduction. Class struggle in classless Poland is sociology, written by an activist of a movement, which should be applauded. The problem is that public sociology [in English in the original] can easily become an crude weapon. The American publishers of Magala’s book treated it rather instrumentally and used it, for example, to draw an analogy between Reagan and Brezhnev.


But all these reservations notwithstanding, it is the personal and at least partly American perspective and point of reference which make this book interesting. Analogies between youthful protests in the People’s Republic and the United States, showing that cold war rhetoric is no longer attractive either in the States or in the countries of the communist block, as well as the remarks on the role of 1968 and the generational sense of group identity, are inspiring.


Equally inspiring is the peculiar way of looking at the role of religion, the Catholic Church and the Papal visit in Poland. Magala writes that the sense of autonomy in organising and coordinating various undertakings independent of the state was far more important than the spiritual and community-building aspect of John Paul’s visit. And the story of the democratic opposition in the 1970s is told from a specific, personal perspective and set against the background of the experience of the post-March-1968 generation. The reader should keep these simplifications at the back of his mind but they allowed the author to maintain a coherent narrative and drive his arguments home more efficiently.


Challenges for a historian


The book describes August 1980 in the form of a journalistic report/diary showing the story of the strike and negotiations with the government day by day. The cultural, economic and social consequences of August 1980 are analysed in the heat of the moment rather than processed after the fact; the notes are an interesting document of the moment and a testimony to the way of thinking of a person involved in Solidarity. So for historians the book may now be an interesting aid in ordering and interpreting archive materials.


Even after so many years Magala’s essay shows a number of interesting uncharted research areas, for example the hardly analysed process of the emergence of the ruling class after 1944, acquiring numerous privileges by that class and the mechanisms governing it. The essay also helps to ask the question about the role of generation – however we define it – in a revolt against the owners of the state or about the relation between the Solidarity movement and the mechanisms of direct democracy and the creation of local associations and initiatives. These associations and initiatives were often only loosely connected organisationally with Solidarity but without it they would have never emerged.


So it is good that Sławomir Magala’s book was brought back from relative oblivion and presented to the Polish reader after thirty years. Its paradoxical (for invoking the language of class struggle) and well articulated thesis, the Anglo-Saxon form of the essay as well as the witty style make it worth reading despite the fact that many books have been published analysing the social and political changes in the communist Poland more extensively or more profoundly. We should read it also in order to understand the current social conflicts better.




Sławomir Magala, Walka klas w bezklasowej Polsce, European Solidarity Centre, Gdańsk 2012.