Can Europe Make It?

Jacek Kuroń - hero of the Polish anti-communist resistance

The radical political ideas of Jacek Kuroń, the Polish opposition leader of the 1960s and 70s - without whom Lech Wałęsa’s Solidarity would never have come into being - have been relegated to the archives far too soon. It's time to revive them.

Slawomir Sierakowski
28 July 2014

Jacek Kuron at a demonstration on 1 May 1989. Wikimedia/Kippelboy. Public domain.

The political ideas of Jacek Kuroń, the Polish opposition leader of the 1960s and ‘70s, without whom Lech Wałęsa’s Solidarity would never have come into being, have been relegated to the archives far too soon. For Poles in the time of transition they seemed impractical, unpragmatic, untimely, although Kuroń himself remained a beloved political figure held in the highest regard. This year we are celebrating the tenth anniversary of his death, and the 25th anniversary of the end of Communism.

The figure of Kuroń, born in Lviv and raised among Ukrainians, Jews, and Poles, has done great things both for Polish-Jewish reconciliation and for the realization of Poland’s Eastern policy, whose motto is "There will be no independent Poland without an independent Ukraine." Today Poland’s transformation is mobilizing Ukrainians, giving them a goal for their democracy and independence-oriented aspirations. 

Meanwhile the politics of liberal democracies has been reduced almost entirely to political necessities, which are used to justify widespread procrastination, opportunism, and the supplanting of political views by results from opinion polls. Perhaps the most important life choice we make is deciding which is the lesser evil: cynicism or naiveté. Kuroń preferred being naïve to being cynical. That is the first lesson we can take from Kuroń. The second is that the recognition of certain "political realities" does not mean abandoning ambitions to change the world.

Where is this actuality of Kuroń’s political program hidden? Against the background of today’s increasingly anonymized world, Kuroń is, next to Havel, the most prominent theoretician of constructing a social movement. Everyone who wonders why mass phenomena such as Indignados or Occupy Wall Street were only social protests and did not develop into social movements will readily recognize the value of Kuroń’s work and will perhaps admit that it is worth returning to his analysis of social relations in Scouting, among the so-called commandos, in KOR, in the democratic opposition, and also in Solidarity.

The importance of Kuroń’s ideas will grow in tandem with the weakening of social ties in developed societies. That development is the deepest foundation of the crisis in contemporary politics. For globalization is not a complete explanation for the regression of contemporary politics. It is claimed - not without reason - that globalization deprives individual countries of the possibility to make decisions for themselves through economic policy, which has become dependent on financial market reactions that often punish “irresponsible” economic policies.

When everyone who achieves power must do more or less the same thing economically, disputes between parties must move elsewhere, and this is how culture wars are born. Hence the mysterious popularity of various bizarre topics in the sphere of public debate. In Poland this is represented by the unending debate around the Smoleńsk tragedy, fueled by the right-wing conspiracy theory of a Russian assassination plot, or the earlier twenty-year excitement over lustration and the unmasking of former government agents, as well as its equally mysterious and sudden disappearance once Smoleńsk appeared. This explains the paradox that contemporary political conflicts are all the more ruthless the more devoid they are of content - and the more politicians are devoid of meaning. 

Since the crisis is unfolding in the face of fundamental social passivity, it is becoming clear that this crisis of democracy is a crisis of the demos. Dwindling membership in political parties, their increasing eradication from society, declining voter turnout, which is minimal among the younger generation, the growing ranks of those who have no one to vote for, and the ubiquitous aversion to politics - these are all obvious symptoms of political crisis.

The current crisis is further evidenced by outbursts of anger that fail to evolve into social movements. Kuroń originated the phrase: "Instead of burning committees, set up your own." Today those burning the committees once more find themselves incapable of setting up their own. The crisis of the demos is the result of a breakdown of trust among the public, what sociologists call the decline of social capital. Collaboration skills are disappearing, replaced everywhere by competition, even when this is detrimental to the entire community. The common horizon is disappearing. In this environment, the sense of isolation and fear is growing, and it is more difficult to identify with others. The tendency to share burdens - through paying taxes, devoting one’s personal time to the benefit of others, sacrificing for others - is decreasing.

In society, you win the most by winning together. If the shopkeeper made famous by Vaclav Havel’s “Power of the Powerless” rebels and no one else joins him, he will pay a high price. If he does nothing, he will at least be left alone. But if many people were to join him, they could all gain far more than peace of mind under communism. But that requires solidarity.

That solidarity must be preceded, however, by the solidarity of a group of rebels who take risks and gain a high level of trust, like those who founded KOR in 1976, creating the first overt organization between the Elbe and Vladivostok in which the intelligentsia undertook to defend workers persecuted by the regime. And that meant searching for activists who could organize the working class in the factories, because only the working class could delegitimize the workers’ party and overthrow communism. One of those activists was Lech Wałęsa. And so Jacek Kuroń's KOR became the leavening agent for Solidarity, the powerhouse of trust built up by oppositionists, which was then connected to Polish society. The building of trust among those pioneers who must take risks can be aided by the tradition of their predecessors - the engaged intelligentsia, the "defiant pedigrees" recorded in "bandits’ books."

But social capital cannot be produced on a mass scale from above, through some new "-ism." Trust arises between people, not among a crowd, not by correspondence, not between party legitimations, pictures, viewers, interfaces, avatars, profiles or sparrows (although actual sparrows are in fact quite adept at coordinating their activities, so my apologies to the sparrows). Trust is built slowly; it arises only through joint action, of which Kuroń, much like Havel, was an outstanding theoretician and an effective practitioner.

Unfortunately trust has a class-determined character, much like nonconformism - it is something none of us are born with. Rather we assimilate it first at home, and then within our social class. Kuron understood this, bravely presenting this problem in his writings on Adam Michnik’s "commandos," noting the elitist and privileged character of this group of Communist dignitaries’ children calling for a university strike in March 1968, having earlier become famous and earning their name by posing difficult questions during open debates with Party intellectuals.

Kuroń acknowledged an element of truth to Communist propaganda, which denounced the "commando" youth for their privileged backgrounds. He understood that idealism and nonconformism are privileges stemming from one’s family home, and that they characterized pre-War Communists, who sacrificed themselves and served prison sentences, something well represented by Aleksander Wat’s My Century or the more recent book by Marci Shore, Caviar and Ashes.

Nonconformism, then, is hardly what Zbigniew Herbert termed a "matter of taste," as many people imagine it to be. Not everyone has the same opportunities to be decent. Popular imagination on the subject is naïve and harmful because it does not inspire efforts to reform the educational system and culture so that they teach not only adaptation to the labor market, but foster critical thinking and teach civic disobedience when it becomes necessary. Honor is class-based and not everyone has the opportunity to live in accordance with its rules, even though law and custom evaluate and reckon everyone the same way.

Kuron knew what this meant, and that is why he demanded more of those who, having learned critical thinking and respect for individual and collective independence at a young age, had a better chance of acting decently in threatening situations. He demanded less of those whom poverty or provincialism had taught only pragmatic survivalism, for whom values above the materialistic had to be relegated beyond the mental horizon.

Considering the question of trust within a group, Kuron relies on the traditional division of social groups into instrumental and expressive. The former are all around us, comprising simply organizations of individuals characterized by an orientation toward a specific cause. Relations within them are of a formal character, actions are procedural, and the group’s goal is clearly defined.

Expressive groups are based on strong emotional ties, they engage privacy, indeed, they depend on the exchange or entanglement of each individual’s privacy. That is why expressive groups must be more closed off and fortified by a high threshold for entry, something that can sometimes engender hostility, as some people might feel spurned. Generally, the stronger the internal tie, the greater the sense of isolation and distance from others. Such groups do indeed isolate their members from society. They consume them almost entirely.

The most serious advantage of an expressive group is its strong motivation, determination, and tendency towards self-sacrifice, which greatly increases the effectiveness of its actions and allows it to undertake risks that less interconnected groups usually shy away from.

In expressive groups, at least initially, everyone does everything, they work in bursts, they work 24 hours a day and completely give up their personal lives. Consequently, they can achieve great developmental leaps that would be impossible for an instrumental group.

Ultimately, though, they reach the point where further development requires professionalization, and therefore bureaucratization and an increasingly complicated division of labor. This is usually a serious blow to the group, whose members find it difficult to “disentangle” the individual privacies they had devoted to common action, to stop working in bursts, to learn to divide their time into the personal (with which they don’t know what to do) and the public, and to subordinate themselves to division of labor, and usually also to hierarchy.

Before, everyone did everything and everyone was equal, and so no one supervised anyone else, no one gave orders, they all mobilized themselves. And they did so to a much greater extent than people in NGOs, political parties, or business. Money and power cannot mobilize the way an ethos can.

If nonconformism is class-determined, can anyone be a nonconformist if he knows when to say no and get to work? This is how we come to Jacek Kuron’s other great passion, next to politics - education. His last book, entitled Action, posits an "educational revolution," a significant element of which would comprise nurturing and teaching cooperation and joint action. That is, everything that is currently being removed from European schools and universities, which are adapting to the labor market through the quantification, standardization, and instrumentalization of education.

That which should have a holistic character and should be formed through disinterested conversation has been reduced to the transfer of a set of tools for immediate application to the market. Education is increasingly rarely used to supplement socialization with the elements necessary to equalize opportunities, to teach empathy and critical thinking. And so the need for self-organization by expressive groups is once again growing. Kuron dreamed of education taking place in such groups—the leavening agent for a self-organizing society. Even if this project is a utopian one, it sets a course that we cannot forget.

Translated by Maria Blackwood.

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