The Polish March: students, workers, and 1968

Neal Ascherson
6 March 2008

The first student uprising in 1968, year of millennial hopes and young insurrections, took place in Warsaw. But the west's media commemorations of 1968 - selective, supercilious about such idealism, and yet faintly nervous in case a new generation feels tempted into imitation - overlook Poland entirely.

Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer. He was for many years a foreign correspondent for the (London) Observer.

Among his books are The King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the CongoThe Struggles for Poland (Random House, 1988), Black Sea (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996; reprinted 2007), and Stone Voices: the Search for Scotland (Granta, 2003)

Also by Neal Ascherson on openDemocracy:

"From multiculturalism to where?" (19 August 2004)

"Pope John Paul II and democracy" (1 April 2005)

"Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road" (15 July 2005)

"The victory and defeat of Solidarność" (6 September 2005)

"Poland's interregnum" (30 September 2005)

"Victory's lost sister - the wreck of the Implacable" (21 October 2005)

"A carnival of stupidity" (6 February 2006)

"Good Night, and Good Luck" (17 February 2006)

"Torture: from regress to redress" (1 March 2006)

"The case for pre-emption: Alan M Dershowitz reviewed" (18 May 2006)

"Scotophobia" (28 June 2006

"Catholic Poland's anguish" (11 January 2007)

"Ryszard Kapuscinski: from Poland to the world" (25 January 2007)

"Scotland's democratic shame"( 9 May 2007)

"Who needs a constitution?" (22 May 2007)

"Poland after PiS: handle with care" (26 October 2007For TV's history programmes and newspapers' Sunday supplements, it all happened in Paris, in Berkeley and (for the British media) in a few Vietnam demos in Grosvenor Square. And yet in Warsaw, that March, thousands of university students were battered down by police clubs and arrested, their teachers purged and exiled, in a battle for intellectual liberty against hopeless odds.

Like many great European stories, it began with a theatre performance. Just forty years ago, on 30 January 1968, the Teatr Narodowy (National Theatre) opened its final performance of the classic verse drama Forefathers' Eve, by the national poet Adam Mickiewicz. The director, Kazimierz Dejmek, had been told by the Communist Party culture bosses that the production must close, whatever the demand for tickets. Behind those bosses, pretty certainly, was the Soviet ambassador.

The revolt

The story begins back in late 1967. The National Theatre was instructed to lay on a special, splendid production to honour the fiftieth anniversary of the October revolution. Dejmek was a touchy genius with no fondness for Russian or Polish Bolsheviks. As one of his actors remembered in the approach to the anniversary, Dejmek took a stiff drink and said to a colleague: "I've had a party order (he used the Russian word prikaz) to do a big number for the October anniversary. OK, we'll do them fucking Forefathers' Eve!"

The point is that Forefathers' Eve is a mighty Romantic drama about spiritual transformation, human liberty, the struggle for independence and the martyrdom of the nation under Russian occupation. Written in the 1830s, it has been beloved by generations of Poles as an accurate account of their own suffering and humiliation under war, foreign domination and domestic tyrannies. It is devastating about Russians, about police states and about censorship. How Dejmek thought he could get away with it is a mystery. But he did, with Polish audiences frantically cheering the anti-Russian lines, until the authorities - and the ambassador - woke up.

At first, the number of performances was cut. Then it was announced that the production would be pulled on 30 January. Vast crowds poured in to the last performance, many of them students without tickets, until the theatre was bursting. The great actor Gustaw Holoubek gave the performance of his life. Awed, he remembered: "It was like a bomb went off!" The audience stormed out of the theatre as the curtain fell and marched through the streets to the monument of Adam Mickiewicz, where they raised banners demanding that the play should go on and censorship be abolished. The police arrived and waded into them with batons.

That was the beginning. All over Warsaw, petitions were signed and distributed complaining of censorship against Forefathers' Eve and protesting at police brutality. In Warsaw University, rallies on the campus held in defence of the students arrested on 30 January at the monument were attacked by security police. More arrests followed. As the demonstrations grew larger, and began to spread to other universities across Poland, the authorities brought in lorry-loads of workers from the paramilitary "factory defence" units, armed with clubs, who beat up and scattered the demonstrators.

In vain, students appealed to the workers to join them, on the grounds that they were defending workers' interests by standing up for Article 83 of Poland's constitution, guaranteeing the rights of free expression and assembly. But the workers, who had been told that the students were privileged brats in the pay of West German intelligence agents, were not impressed.

By March, the situation was out of control. The university demonstrations and the police violence used against them were escalating. Hundreds of students were arrested, and many were expelled or deprived of their bursaries. Among them were names later to be well-known, like those of Adam Michnik, a future hero of underground resistance, Solidarity leader and today Poland's best-known political commentator; Janek Litynski; Karol Modzelewski; and the much-loved and much-persecuted rebel Jacek Kuron. Many in the teaching staff, at Warsaw and elsewhere, now declared their support for their students; most were expelled from the Communist Party and lost their jobs. Among these was the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski (who eventually found refuge in Oxford) and the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman.

A year later, looking back from western exile on all that had happened in 1968, Bauman (who was to resume his own academic career in Leeds) wrote that the Polish upheaval was "to a significant extent a movement, of students but not really a student movement in the sense that it certainly was not motivated by students' interests as a social category ..."

The insurgent movements in West Berlin, West Germany and Paris all originated as radical protests against authoritarian and "reactionary" structures and methods in the universities. The intellectuals of these "revolutions" interpreted the college revolts as the start of a "long march through the institutions" which would eventually bring down the bourgeois state itself.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Polish politics and governance:

Adam Szostkiewicz, "The Polish lifeboat" (22 September 2005)

Karolina Gniewowska, "The Polish minefield" (23 September 2005)

Marek Kohn, "Poland's beacon for Europe" (25 October 2005)

Krzysztof Bobinski"Poland's populist caravan" (14 July 2006)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The Polish confusion" (22 June 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "The Polish dictionary" (22 August 2007)

Ivan Krastev, "Sleepless in Szczecin: what's the matter with Poland?" (19 October 2007)

The Polish students, in contrast, had no such agenda. They wanted democracy for the whole nation, and at once - a socialist democracy, but one based on essentially constitutional values of free speech, the end of censorship, the rule of law, the right of assembly. Across the hills in Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubcek had launched his "socialism with a human face" reforms in January. The Warsaw students chanted: "Poland is waiting for its Dubcek!"

The descent

The Polish "March events" took place against the background of a grotesque, often hysterical struggle for power within the ruling party, which had been raging for over a year. Wladyslaw Gomulka, who had faced down Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 and forced him to reduce Soviet interference in Polish affairs, was now being challenged by the "ultra-patriot" Mieczyslaw Moczar, minister of the interior. Moczar's pitch was repellently crude. There were two sorts of Communist, he said. There were the "partisans", true Poles like himself who had stayed on to fight in the underground against the Nazi occupation. Then there were the "Muscovites" - mostly Jews - who had fled to the Soviet Union and returned as Stalin's lackeys to undermine Poland's independence and staff the UB, the hated security police of the 1950s. Moczar had the gall to accuse Gomulka - who had a Jewish wife, but who had survived in Poland during the war - of supporting these "Muscovites".

When the student revolt began, both sides in this vendetta tried to exploit it. Gomulka disgraced himself with a speech denouncing the student activists as "Zionist" agents. Moczar and his henchmen launched an anti-Semitic campaign which infected the whole Polish bureaucracy, including schools, universities and the worlds of film, theatre and the media. By the end of the year, two-thirds of Poland's Jews - the remnant which had survived the Holocaust - had been driven into emigration. It was a scandal from which Poland's international reputation has never entirely recovered.

Poland descended into chaos. For some months, nobody seemed to be in charge or to control events. But the Soviet Union, disturbed, finally intervened to support Gomulka. Polish troops took part in the infamous invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, and Gomulka was confirmed as party leader at a congress that November. The student leaders of March remained in prison, or fled abroad.

What relevance did the "March events" have to the rebellions of the young elsewhere that year? In those days (how long ago they seem!) revolutionaries spoke intensely of the need for a fighting alliance between industrial workers and students. This alliance would be irresistible. Communists certainly thought so, which is why the post-1945 Communist regimes in Europe put so much ingenuity into keeping workers and intellectuals estranged from one another.

In Warsaw in 1968, the estrangement worked: the loyal proletarians beat the daylights out of the protesting intellectuals. In West Germany, the well-paid working class ("integrated") showed no inclination to join the students chanting for socialism in the street. In France, for a brief interval, organised labour did throw its weight behind the intellectual barricade-defenders of the "Paris May" and for that moment - before the French Communist Party lost its nerve and turned it all into a wage-round - the victory of a classic social revolution seemed possible.

The aftermath in Poland was astonishing. Two years later, in 1970, a huge working-class insurrection broke out in the Baltic ports: Elblag, Gdansk, Gdynia and Szczecin. It was suppressed at the cost of hundreds of lives. The workers begged the students to help them, but the students stayed at home. The boot was on the other foot, and it was not until 1976 that a tiny group of intellectuals - some of them veterans of the March events - went to help another worker revolt in the city of Radom and set up the "Committee for the Defence of Workers" (KOR). This was to be the seed of the joint conspiracy of industrial workers and seditious intellectuals which was to break surface in 1980 in the shape of Solidarity, the "independent, self-managing trade union". The old revolutionaries were proved right at last. That cross-class alliance swept all before it.

The flame

The most difficult question is - why 1968? At first sight, the causes of the March events in Poland seem quite unlike the backgrounds to the Paris May, the anti-war movements in the United States, the campus occupations in West Germany, Britain or Italy. The same question hangs over the "Prague spring" the same year, whose energy came largely from student movements - especially when reform turned to resistance after the Soviet-led invasion on 21 August. Was there any connection, or was there simply "something in the air"?

At the time and for years afterwards, rightwing commentators in the west insisted that there was no connection. They argued that, on the contrary, the "red" students of Paris and Berlin were trying to establish exactly the same Marxist tyranny which the young Czechs, Slovaks and Poles had been fighting to overthrow.

But that was a hopelessly simple view. In the first place, the last thing revolutionaries like Rudi Dutschke in Berlin or Daniel Cohn-Bendit in Paris wanted was to imitate the Communist systems of east-central Europe, which they scorned as brutal dictatorships based on a Stalinist distortion of Marxism. Secondly, contacts between student movements across the cold-war lines did exist.

I was the witness to several of these. In the early summer of 1968, a delegation from the West Berlin movement led by Dutschke came to Prague and worked out a framework agreement with radical students at the Charles University. Both sides recognised that their political contexts were very different, but both agreed on their ultimate goal: an egalitarian socialist republic based on direct workers' control of production.

The student revolt, as a coherent programme of action run by the "Socialist Students' League", had begun in West Berlin more than a year before, in early 1967. And the underground movement of Polish students in Warsaw University - the so-called Kommandos - had also formed at least a year before Forefathers' Eve was closed down. I made contact with them in late 1967, and found a group of courageous heretic Marxists, under intense police harassment. Their campaigns were protests against censorship and illegal repression, and against the anti-Semitic propaganda already being spread by the regime. They were well aware of the new ideas current in West Berlin, and very interested in them - although their own fight was hardly against "repressive tolerance". Once again, the vision of a free society based on workers' self-management appealed strongly to them. Would conflict have broken out even if no play had been closed down? Almost certainly, but in the form of a proletarian insurrection for food, wages and justice like that which took place in the Baltic cities two years later.

So there were convergences between east and west. They could be summed up as a common sense of impotence, projected by intellectuals onto working-class masses supposed to be imprisoned in a state of "false consciousness". The Utopia of all their futures was a revolution in which external authority was torn down and people took direct control of their own working lives. And the shared, reckless impatience of the young finds voice in the words of a character in Forefathers' Eve:

" ... Our nation is like lava,

On the surface cold and hard, sordid and dry,

Yet the buried fire still burns after a hundred years -

Let's spit on that crust, and plunge through into the depths !"

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