Laurie Koloski. International Journal of Cultural Policy. Volume 12, Issue 3. 2006.
Popular narratives of modern Polish history privilege the Poles’ heroic struggle against foreign occupation and domination, and they often put intellectuals at centre stage. After all, these narratives affirm, it was philosophers who drafted the 1791 constitution that sought to rescue Poland from internal stagnation and external partition; poets who inspired insurgents to take up arms against tsarist rule; painters and novelists who stoked nationalist aspirations with their inspired renderings of victorious battles; historians who spearheaded a dissident movement that eventually helped bring down communist rule; and a Catholic publicist who became premier of the country’s first post‐communist government. There are good historical reasons for intellectuals’ pre‐eminence in such national narratives: in a country stripped of sovereignty in the late eighteenth century, and from a gentry class deprived of political and even economic influence (the partitioning powers could easily dispossess troublesome nobles), the intelligentsia had emerged to carry the banner of the stateless nation (Gella 1989, pp. 132-134, 139-144). As Jerzy Jedlicki has noted, they did so not by “awakening” a new nation, but by extolling the traditions of the old one. “It was precisely the preservation of tradition, the enrichment of the content of the symbols uniting the nation, and the imbuing of them with an almost religious significance which became the principal imperative of literature and art”, Jedlicki writes. With words and images as their tools, the intelligentsia sought to “nourish, organize and … extend to all, even to the still indifferent social classes, the feeling of nationhood and the desire for independence” (Jedlicki 1990, p. 43). Thus the intelligentsia saw itself, and has been seen retrospectively, as a decisive factor in the persistence of a Polish nation and the re‐emergence of a Polish state. Acting out of a sense of moral obligation, intellectuals earned recognition as a force of moral authority.
In recent years, however, Poland’s intellectuals have come in for something of a rhetorical and moral drubbing, not because they are no longer expected to serve as moral authorities, but because, their accusers claim, they failed to do so at a crucial historical moment. The issue here is intellectuals’ behaviour and choices during the communist years. In debates on “intellectuals and communism” that surfaced soon after communism’s collapse in 1989, critics have drawn attention to Poland’s “dishonourable” intellectuals, who embraced communism after 1945 and even assisted in its imposition on an unwilling populace. Undeniably, some Polish intellectuals were open supporters of the communist regime and worked closely with it, though others just as openly opposed it. Far more straddled a middle ground, struggling to balance the pressures of state‐imposed constraints with their own political, intellectual and moral agendas. Yet critics have cast their judgmental net widely, suggesting that except for a very few honourable exceptions, all intellectuals are guilty. As Jedlicki points out, “the debate about the intelligentsia restarts at every turn of history”, raising questions about what intellectuals are and should be, whether they are necessary, and whether they should be held to higher moral standards than other groups in society. What is really at issue, in Jedlicki’s view, is “identify[ing] the sources of moral authority in the transition period” (Jedlicki 1995, pp. 31, 35).
Debates over intellectuals’ responsibility for communism are part of a larger effort in post‐1989 Poland to assign blame for a system now widely considered misguided (at best) in theory and coercive in practice. As elsewhere in the post‐Soviet bloc, Polish legislators have passed “lustration” laws aimed at unmasking public officials who collaborated with the communist‐era regime—and as elsewhere, Poles have come up against the difficulties of assigning and assessing blame. For years, political candidates have used the lustration laws to undercut opponents, accusing them of lying about past links to the communist regime and demanding investigations. In the presidential election of 2000, both Lech Wałęsea—“Mr Solidarity” himself—and Aleksander Kwaśniewski, a former communist official, found themselves under investigation by the lustration court (both were cleared of any wrong‐doing). Since lustration laws apply only to candidates for public office, most intellectuals have not been subjected to public censure of this type. But occasionally efforts to officially sanction collaborators seep beyond the halls of political power, as in July 2005, when a secret policeman’s handwritten note listing people who had informed for him in the late 1980s was used against historian Andrzej Przewoźnik, a candidate for director of the Institute for National Memory (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, IPN; a state‐sponsored historical research centre which holds and investigates secret police archives). From the start, there had been questions about the document’s authenticity, and the lustration court eventually ruled there was no evidence to show Przewoźnik had collaborated. By then, however, parliament had approved another candidate as IPN director.
What can such debates (and debacles) tell us about intellectuals and cultural policy? Whether intellectuals have the right to claim moral authority today, they suggest, depends in part on how they positioned themselves within a system that sought to make them the objects of its cultural policy. From the very beginning, communist leaders had sought to reshape cultural values and endeavours and to engage intellectuals in their efforts to do so. How did intellectuals respond? Did they help to impose this system, and if so, does that disqualify them as national and moral leaders? Once they found themselves within the communist system, how did they behave? Did they fall in line or resist? Were they driven by honour or by fear? In debating intellectuals’ post‐1945 actions, critics have held them to a standard which relies on an idealized image of intellectuals as the nation’s defenders—consistently and heroically resisting that which might harm the nation—and on categorical notions of good and bad. That there could be divergent visions of what the nation needs, that heroism might imply not only resistance, or that “good” and “bad” could overlap, seem beyond the realm of possibility. Intellectuals should have known communism was evil, and should have opposed it at every turn.
In the pages that follow, I explore the debate over intellectuals’ complicity with and responsibility for communism, presenting an overview of its claims, supporters, and detractors. My emphasis here is on what I call the “urge to judge”, which permeates not only supporters’ views, but even many detractors’. I also draw on an example from my work on Poland’s early post‐World War II period to argue that such efforts to judge will almost certainly falter at the level of individual historical experience and action. Condemnatory narratives of intellectuals’ responsibility for communism are highly selective, and seek to promote specific imperatives for what intellectuals are and should be. They have far more to do with current political and moral agendas than with the complexities of the past being invoked. As we will see, there were divergent visions of the best path to take and “good” and “bad” could overlap, as some intellectuals simultaneously implemented and undermined the policies of the communist state. It may well make political or moral sense to select out certain aspects of this story for public consumption and even to promote specific policies in response to them. But it makes no historical sense at all.
National Heroes—Or Traitors? Debating Intellectuals’ Postwar Choices
When Soviet‐backed Polish communists claimed power from behind Red Army lines in the summer of 1944, among them were a handful of prominent intellectuals, primarily writers. Months before the liberation of Warsaw and other major Polish cities, these men—Julian Przyboś, Adam Ważyk, Mieczysław Jastruń, Jerzy Putrament, Jerzy Borejsza, to name but a few—began creating the institutions that would dominate postwar Poland’s cultural sphere, including the Ministry for Culture and the Arts, the writers’ union (Związek Zawodowy Literatów Polskich, ZZLP), the major cultural journal Rebirth (Odrodzenie), and the state publishing house Czytelnik (Fik 1989, pp. 12-20). Were these intellectuals the heroic restorers of Polish statehood, culture and identity? Or were they the handmaidens of Soviet leaders determined to deprive Poland of its political, cultural, and spiritual future (and past as well)? Today, more than fifteen years after the collapse of communism in east central Europe, debates continue over essentially these same questions: “Why did intellectuals support communism?” and “To what extent should we hold them responsible for helping to impose and/or perpetuate a system we now agree was coercive and corrupt?”
Even before 1989, public interest in intellectuals’ (and others’) responsibility for communism was high. Czesław Miłosz was among the first to raise the issue in his 1951 publication The Captive Mind, which sought to explain to Western readers why writers like him had embraced the “New Faith” of Soviet‐supervised state socialism. He wrote of the void intellectuals felt in the absence of an overarching explanatory system (which had been supplied by religion in the pre‐modern period); of the need to feel accepted by the masses and to play an active part in History’s (with a capital “H”) inexorable march forward; of the fears of being on the wrong side of History and of being relegated to the country’s literary sidelines; of the horrors of the occupation and the resulting collapse of moral authority; of fatalism in the face of the “East’s” geopolitical power and disappointment with the complacency and “tawdry” consumerism of the “West” (Miłosz 1990 , pp. 3-53). Though fully aware of “Russia’s” and “the Method’s” shortcomings, Miłosz, like many of his colleagues, saw no viable alternative. “I agreed to serve”, he writes in the preface to The Captive Mind, “not for material reasons, but through conviction” (Miłosz 1990 , p. ix). It didn’t take long for Miłosz, who was literally serving the Polish government as a diplomat in Washington and Paris, to realize that the costs were too high, and in early 1951, he gave up his Polish citizenship and, for all he knew at the time, his ability to reach a Polish audience with his poetry. (In fact, he was able to reach probably tens of thousands through underground publications before his work was published officially in Poland in 1981, the first time since the early 1950s.) The Captive Mind is a warning and an accusation, but Miłosz judges the system far more harshly than the individuals caught up in it. “It is not my place to judge”, he writes of the author Jerzy Andrzejewski (dubbed “Alpha” in the book). “I myself traveled the same road of seeming inevitability” (Miłosz 1990 , p. 109).
Throughout his long life, Miłosz earned praise from Western critics for his poetry and his uncompromising opposition to communist rule, but some of his exiled compatriots criticized The Captive Mind and its emphasis on communism’s ideological appeal as exculpatory. Most vociferous among them was writer and Soviet gulag survivor Gustaw Herling‐Grudziński, who insisted that intellectuals’ own “fears, stupidity, and depravity” rather than any sort of “Hegelian bite”, as Miłosz had put it, were to blame (Herling‐Grudziński 1990, p. 192; cited in Słabek 1997, p. 10). By implication, intellectuals with moral integrity were those who refused to cooperate with Poland’s communist authorities on any level, whether from exile or inside the country. Far better to make one’s living by repairing shoes, one exiled writer wrote in his journal, than to accept a part in Poland’s official cultural sphere (Lechoń 1992, p. 288; cited in Słabek 1997, p. 10).
Jacek Trznadel, one of the earliest and most cited voices in the post‐1989 debates on intellectuals and communism, echoed Herling‐Grudziński’s condemnatory tone. Trznadel published a series of interviews with writers—some former communists, some not—titled A Domestic Disgrace, which left little room for doubt about his determination to pass judgment. (Trznadel’s book had been circulating underground since 1986, but it was reissued in 1990 and quickly became a central reference point in the debates.) When speaking with his subjects, Trznadel’s tone is relatively neutral, and the interviews reveal a range of motivations, from fear to naive optimism, the lack of clear alternatives (particularly among young intellectuals), the lure of ideology and self‐deception. But in a lengthy introduction, and in an afterword published in the mid‐1990s, Trznadel shifts from interlocutor to judge. In articulating his central question—“Why did so many of Poland’s literary elite, at a particular moment, embrace an intellectual position that was false, a disgrace, and [aimed at] the annihilation of [our] literature?”—he dismisses communist ideology as not just deceptive or illusory, but worthless and wrong (Trznadel 1994, p. 7). Not surprisingly, then, he has little but contempt for those who succumbed to it. Collaborating with official institutions and state structures was often a necessity, he acknowledges, but “accepting this new ideology, believing the lies, and supporting them [the lies]” was a disgrace (Trznadel 1994, p. 27).
In Trznadel’s view, Miłosz had overemphasized communist ideology’s mobilizing power and sidestepped the necessity to “morally judge” and assign “blame” to the individuals who succumbed (Trznadel 1994, p. 293). Trznadel even includes himself, once a young man who had embraced communism as a way to “save the world”—among those to be blamed. Individuals’ discomfort, he insists, must take a back seat to “society’s historical awareness” and “our obligation to young people” (Trznadel 1994, p. 29). Uncompromising to the end, Trznadel writes that “the historian in me” (he is a literary scholar by training) “does not shrink from revealing names, and my historical philosophy is not free of strong moral judgments”. Painful though it is, he insists, societies need to “settle their accounts” with the past (Trznadel 1994, p. 29).
Many other contributors to the debate have followed Trznadel’s lead, and even efforts to present nuanced assessments have stumbled over the perceived necessity to morally condemn. One example is a 1999 edition of the Catholic monthly Znak (The Sign) subtitled “Intellectuals and Communism”, which offers a relatively recent overview of the debate. The brief editorial note that opens the volume effectively illustrates the draw, and the drawbacks, of moral condemnation:
Nearly 10 years have passed since the collapse of communism. Nonetheless, discussions of it—of what the system really was, of its sources, of where to uncover its poisonous legacies and how to defend ourselves against them—have not faded. To the contrary, it seems that only now that the emotions and pain have eased and the political situation has stabilized can rational analysis and neutral assessment prevail.
In taking up the problem of intellectuals’ responsibility for communism—or, more broadly, for totalitarianism—we do not aim to vet (lustrować) individual life histories or throw around accusations. Passing moral judgment on the intellectuals [“people of culture”] who supported communism in one period or another is an activity that belongs only to these individuals and their consciences. … But taking up the topic “intellectuals and communism” is necessary if we are to build a community of values, culture, and memory. Without this community, the moral foundation of democracy will always be in danger. In asking about intellectuals’ entanglement with totalitarianism, then, we are less concerned with the past than with the future … (Turowicz et al. 1999, p. 3)
As with so many entries in this debate, the tone here is didactic and the emphasis is on participants’ obligation to the future. In spite of insisting that they do not intend to judge, moreover, the volume’s editors suggest that this is precisely what they have asked contributors to do. That a volume on “intellectuals and communism” might focus on aspects other than intellectuals’ responsibility for engaging with (and presumably helping impose and perpetuate) communism seems out of the question. That communist Poland was totalitarian (the subject of another post‐1989 debate inside Poland) is presumed, and the implication here is that only by understanding totalitarianism’s “poison” (past or present) can Polish society move toward a secure democratic future. This amounts, of course, to passing moral judgment on the system. To insist, then, that the individuals who became “entangled” with the system are not being morally judged is disingenuous. In emphasizing both “intellectuals’ responsibility for communism”—a system now judged reprehensible in moral as well as practical terms—and their own decision not to judge, the editors seem to want to have it both ways.
That moral judgment is the goal here is bolstered by the volume’s lead article, in which philosopher Ryszard Legutko sets a sharp tone. It was intellectuals’ faith in humanism’s power to topple the status quo combined with their fascination (and need) for radical change and revolution, Legutko writes, which led to “a certain kind of blindness” and “allowed them to ignore the evils of the new system” (Legutko 1999, pp. 6-10). Though they cannot be blamed for not opposing communism and not being heroes—that accusation could be levelled against all members of society—they can and should be blamed for their “public and long‐standing approbation”. Intellectuals “should have been able to see more clearly and accurately than others”, he writes, and “there’s something puzzling in the fact” that they so easily “surrendered to such compromising illusions” (Legutko 1999, p. 5). That intellectuals believed they were building a genuinely humanist system is no excuse, Legutko insists, because in the process they convinced so many others to follow their lead. Official propaganda was much easier to ignore than that linked to a well known artist, writer or academic (Legutko 1999, pp. 17, 18).
Of the eight Znak contributors who follow Legutko, four concur with his approach and moral judgments, adding their own views on the “why intellectuals supported communism” question. One focuses on intellectuals’ desire for prestige and their “infatuation with communism as a ‘prime mover’” (Roszkowski 1999); others consider the metaphysical aspects of communist ideology and their attraction (Bieńkowska 1999), intellectuals’ perceptions of the socio‐economic and cultural limitations of liberal capitalism (Prokop 1999), and the potent mixture of “radicalized Enlightenment” and anti‐rightist views (Gawin 1999). A fifth author (Życiński 1999) criticizes what he sees as efforts to avoid passing judgment, particularly academics’ efforts to “banalize evil”. In their insistence that Poland’s communist past is too complex to distinguish the “sheep” from the “goats” and that different “levels of responsibility” must be applied, he writes, these scholars seek to “neutralize uncomfortable ethical questions and present a ‘sheep‐goat’ hybrid as the greatest zoological achievement of the communist period” (Życiński 1999, pp. 91, 92). Two‐thirds of the entries in the Znak volume, then, echo Trznadel’s early calls for condemnation.
There have been dissenting voices, among them Henryk Słabek, who insists that intellectuals should be judged favourably rather than condemned. In a 1997 book titled Intellectuals in Their Own Words, Słabek drew on journals, memoirs and letters to remind his audience that many intellectuals had good reasons for doing what they did after 1945, at least in their own minds (Słabek 1997). He cites their frustrations with rightist governments and nationalists in the interwar period, agonized reactions to the Warsaw uprising of August 1944, and optimism at the war’s end. He also lists by name the dozens of writers who supported socialist parties and agendas before the war, as well as those who returned to Poland from exile in London, and he includes several passages in which writers muse on the extent to which social justice is fundamental to both communism and Catholicism (Słabek 1997, p. 61). Surely these intellectuals, he suggests, cannot be categorized as communist stooges and moral cowards.
Though Słabek is clearly criticizing the Trznadel “school” of moral condemnation, he is just as eager to judge his subjects. Writers, he insists, and “especially eminent ones, have an inalienable right to carry out their profession as they see fit”, and they should be judged not just according to their political relations with the state or authorities, but on the cultural merits of their work ((Słabek 1997, p. 98). At the very end of the book, Słabek draws a parallel between the intellectuals he discusses and late nineteenth‐century intellectuals in Russian Poland, who eschewed armed insurrection in favour of “organic work” and cooperation with the Russian authorities. “What are we to do with our home‐grown ‘collaborators’ and ‘lice’ [a reference to a 1979 underground publication critical of cooperative intellectuals]”, he asks? “Perhaps we should simply recognize them as positive ‘organic’ activists (pozytywnych organiczników)? After all, did they betray the noble ethos of the intelligentsia? They struggled to make it reality, helping in the process to develop the country between 1945 and 1989” (Słabek 1997, p. 209). Rather than dismissing intellectuals as cowards, Słabek is arguing, Poles should add them to their pantheon of national heroes. Perhaps because Słabek stands so far to the “anti‐condemnatory” end of the spectrum, or perhaps because his book can be read as unapologetically “pro‐communist”, it is rarely invoked in the debates.
There have also been proponents of a middle ground approach to the intellectuals‐and‐communism debate. Hanna Świda‐Ziemba’s (1989) “Stalinism and Polish Society” is perhaps the best early example. Like Trznadel’s work, Świda‐Ziemba’s appeared before communism’s collapse, but it quickly became a reference point in the debates about intellectuals and communism (though her analysis concerns Polish society as a whole rather than just intellectuals). Her emphasis is on the complex pressures that pushed Poles toward accepting communism (fear, destruction of social ties, war fatigue, early postwar optimism, the struggle for material well‐being), as well as the mechanisms that enabled them to survive it with their “identity and dignity” intact (demarcating limits on conformism, focusing inward on family and friends, establishing links with those who were “party members but decent people” (partyjni ale porządni). Though lumping intellectuals with opportunists, prewar leftist radicals, and those looking for social advancement as the system’s “creators”, she nonetheless attempts to dispel the “myth” that all intellectuals supported Stalinism, insisting that “primarily writers and a portion of young intellectuals” were at fault (Świda‐Ziemba 1989, pp. 24, 26). Before we can condemn, Świda‐Ziemba is arguing, we need to know exactly who supported communism, why they did so and whether they remained “decent” in the process.
This is not to suggest Świda‐Ziemba does not want to judge. “I am not letting go of the category of responsibility”, she writes; “Every creator of the system, including those at the rank‐and‐file level, is at fault and is deeply responsible to society” (Świda‐Ziemba 1989, p. 93). Yet she qualifies this accusation, reserving her harshest judgment for those who “accepted an ideology that sanctions violence against society” and believed they had the right to impose it. Toward the “party members but decent people”, she is even ready to show “a certain tolerance”. Given their “false consciousness”, she explains, these individuals “accepted the ideology of force as a ‘historical necessity’”, but “in their actions, they treated it as an evil that needed to be moderated (łagodzić)” (Świda‐Ziemba 1989, pp. 94, 95). Not all of communism’s “creators”, Świda‐Ziemba concludes, can be treated, or judged, equally.
More recently, a small handful of scholars have looked beyond the complexities of judging intellectuals’ past engagement with communism to question the very act of judging and the selective narratives it produces. Most vocal among them has been historian and sociologist Jerzy Szacki, who, in a gesture tinged with weariness and dismissal, titled his contribution to the 1999 Znak volume “It’s Those Horrible Intellectuals Again” (Szacki 1999). What, he wonders in this piece, are critics like Legutko and Trznadel really after? Is the goal to delineate the societal and ethical parameters within which all intellectuals should work, insisting that they rise above the “dirty” realms of ideology and politics? Or is it to chastise intellectuals for making the wrong political choice? “In condemning them”, he asks, “are we saying that there are certain things intellectuals should never do, or are we simply saying that it’s a mistake to have anything to do with communism?” (Szacki 1999, p. 24). Szacki questions not just debate participants’ motives, but also the extent to which their judgments are historically tenable, and here he shares the concerns of historian Marcin Kula and the well known theologian, philosopher, and priest Józef Tischner (Kula 1999; Tischner 1999).
Collectively, these scholars point to the difficulties of generalizing, the limitations of anachronistic approaches, and a misplaced emphasis on where individuals have gone wrong rather than on what they have accomplished. Communism was just one of three major ideologies in play in 1945, Tischner writes, alongside nationalist‐independence and Catholic‐religious ones. Divisions between and among proponents of these ideologies posed genuine dilemmas at the time, as one group’s (or faction’s) hero became another’s villain. “What was more heroic”, Tischner asks: “to believe in war and take to the forests to prepare for victory”, as did part of the armed nationalist underground, or to follow the lead of others in the movement and “believe in the ‘bolsheviks’’ democratic intentions, working with the new government to rebuild the country?” (Tischner 1999, p. 43). Both were bona fide choices for individuals at the time, Tischner argues, and to anachronistically insist that only a single position was the “correct” one makes little sense. Tischner also stresses, along with Szacki, that intellectuals’ accomplishments as well as mistakes must be acknowledged. In coming to terms with communism, he writes, we must recognize individuals’ “gradual maturation” toward “freedom from communism”:
It’s really not interesting that someone who has barely reached adulthood has written a poem about Stalin. What’s interesting is that this individual never wrote another poem like it. How did it happen that after an initial period of enslavement, freedom took hold? Today’s anti‐communist, who demands that we fix our gaze on various “domestic disgraces”, is not so different from the communist who in precisely the same manner demanded we focus on the “reactionary deviations” of [authors like] Zygmunt Krasiński, Stefan Żeromski, or Henryk Sienkiewicz. (Tischner 1999, p. 51; see also Szacki 1999, p. 29)
As Tischner and Szacki see it, some critics’ urge to judge intellectuals’ worst has led them not only to ignore the past’s multilayered reality, but to fall into the trap of dogmatism—much as they accuse intellectuals of doing.
The Znak volume’s “dissenters” also highlight the difficulties of judging intellectuals who were simultaneously “good” and “bad”. Most people, as Szacki puts it, cannot be tagged with a “single, ready‐made label” (Szacki 1991, p. 404). Kula also notes that while it is always possible to find “out‐and‐out bastards”, it is much harder to judge those who “straddled both sides, lighting candles for the good Lord and cigarette butts for the devil”. Like it or not, Kula claims, these people were “us”: “I didn’t like them—but a huge proportion of society (which means all of us) acted more or less in this fashion for years. And moreover, regardless of whether I liked them or not, thanks to them—to the conscious among them who worked inside the system’s orbit—Poland ended up in better shape than, say, Bulgaria.” Reminding readers that the generation which led to the events of 1989 was educated by such “straddlers”, Kula concludes that “the results of their [straddlers’] actions were not the worst, in the end” (Kula 1999, p. 83).
Concerns like these have hardly put an end to the debate on Poland’s intellectuals and communism, and it is unlikely that they will, given continuing efforts to politicize and morally judge the past. Debates will continue, and the questions “why did they do it?” and “how do we judge them?” will no doubt remain central. But as these scholars point out, perhaps there are two other questions every participant should have to answer as well: “why do we judge as we do?” and “can we judge at all?”
Beyond Moral Dichotomies: The Good-Bad Intellectual
My own work on visual artists in early postwar Kraków raises these same questions, and highlights the retrospective quandary of assessing intellectuals who were simultaneously “good” and “bad”. I would like to share a case study that reveals the fine and often‐crossed line between collaborating with the communist regime and resisting it. It concerns the painter Jonasz Stern (1904-1988), an avant‐garde artist who believed passionately that a communist political and social system and abstractionism in art were good for postwar Poland. When it became clear in the late 1940s that the two could not easily coexist, his convictions did not change. What did change was the tension between his priorities as an engaged communist and those of a committed artist. As we will see, he fought to articulate and protect both.
Stern’s story raises two important questions that cannot be considered here in depth but that nonetheless deserve mention. The first of these is the division between “political” and “cultural” intellectuals (a distinction Słabek raises in his discussion of writers). As described by Jerzy Szacki, the political intellectual is embodied by the “professor, writer or artist, who signs appeals, protests and manifestos, speaks his mind in public on every more or less important occasion, participates in congresses, expresses his concern for the fate of humanity, goes on ‘political pilgrimage’, etc.” (1990, p. 232). By contrast, the cultural intellectual need not play a public political role. Instead, “[t]he quality of being an intellectual is ascribed … because of what he does as a writer, philosopher, scholar or artist. If any question of leadership is involved, his right to it is based on this ‘normal’ activity and not public acts of another kind” (Szacki 1990, p. 243). A critical factor here, as Szacki explains, is the different assumptions about the intellectual’s responsibility:
In the one case responsibility is essentially identical with political involvement, with coming out of “laboratories and libraries”, and in the second it consists primarily in absolutely loyalty to oneself and to values that determine the identity of literature, science, art, philosophy, etc. The political intellectual feels responsible for the entire world; the cultural intellectual feels responsible for his own field, dealing with other fields only in so far as they have direct consequences in the sphere of culture values. (Szacki 1990, 235)
Szacki focuses his attention on the increasing politicization of culture in the twentieth century, noting that totalitarian regimes in particular have deprived intellectuals of their ability to refrain from political engagement: “Either one accepts the imposed ideological norms and, under pressure of circumstances, adopts the career of political intellectual”—losing one’s intellectual autonomy in the process—“or one sticks heroically to one’s opinions and thereby moves into some form of political opposition in spite of oneself” (Szacki 1990, p. 244). Stern never shied from his role as a political intellectual. At the same time, however, he defended his own aesthetic agenda and the intellectual autonomy of artists, much as a “cultural” intellectual would. His story highlights the growing politicization of art—but also the limits to which such politicization could go.
An additional question raised by Stern’s story is the extent to which the vocation of the intellectual, and debates about intellectuals’ responsibilities, include visual artists. There can be no doubt that artists served alongside writers as national standard bearers in the nineteenth century: the painter Jan Matejko (alluded to in the first paragraph), who used his enormous historical canvases to fan Polish nationalist fires far beyond the confines of gallery walls, is but one example. Nor can there be any question that Stern felt the same sense of mission that writers did in the twentieth century, or that he sought to act on it. As a group, writers were the first and most eager to embrace communist rule after 1945, and it was writers like Miłosz and Herling‐Grudziński who were quickest to condemn them. Post‐1989 debates have also focused on, and been charted by, writers. Yet these facts say more about artistic media (after all, writers live to write and to disseminate their words as widely as possible) and the audiences for them (it is much easier to read an article than parse abstract paintings in a gallery) than about the nature or endeavours of the archetypal “intellectual”. Stern certainly saw himself as an engaged intellectual, and so did his contemporaries. We should see him the same way.
Visual artists in postwar Poland had more room for manoeuvre than writers, given the less “literal” nature of the language they employed, and particularly in the realm of the visual arts, a “communist” agenda for art emerged slowly and haltingly. Nonetheless, by the late 1940s, it was increasingly difficult for Polish artists to side‐step politics or the policies enacted by state officials. For years before 1949, some artists had publicly debated the merits, or lack thereof, of “tangible” and “engaged” realism, but from June 1949, the debate was cut short. That month, state officials arrived at the artist union’s annual conference with a list of socialist realist guidelines. Art now had to be
first: realistic—offering a typical view of reality. Second: comprehensible—presenting reality which is compatible with common sense and the laws of physics. Third: creative—presenting a complete picture of life in keeping with the artist’s creative vision, a vision which is based on society’s labors; it thus cannot be [merely] a lifeless photograph of reality. Fourth: social—serving society, mobilizing its consciousness [with regard] to the struggle and to work. (cited in Fijałkowska 1985, p. 113)
As envisioned and implemented by Polish state and communist party officials, of course, socialist realism was both an exhortation (to harness one’s skills and ambitions to the “socialization” of art) and a warning (of what would happen to those who did not fall in line). It was art‐as‐mandate, a programme in which artists were to serve actively the building of socialism and a socialist society.
State officials’ socialist realist expectations could not easily penetrate the private world of artists’ studios, but they had a lock on public art life—at least in theory. Yet as the story which follows reveals, theory and practice were quite different things. Artists had no choice but to follow policy guidelines, and some—including Stern—even helped implement these policies. At the same time, they found surprising ways to manoeuvre and even resist aesthetic norms such policies demanded. Their experiences on both sides of the collaboration-resistance spectrum confirm that categorical efforts to judge are doomed, if not to failure, then to inaccuracy.
When Stern came to Kraków in 1928 to study art from his home in an east Galician shtetl, he brought his sympathies for communism with him. He helped create the interwar Grupa Krakowska, an avant‐garde artistic group, and participated actively in the city’s left‐leaning political life until the outbreak of World War II. Narrowly escaping death at Nazi hands in Lwów in 1943, he found temporary refuge in Hungary, and returned to Kraków in 1945. In the artistic realm, Stern soon joined the ranks of Kraków’s postwar avant‐garde, as one of only two members of the Grupa Młodych (Group of Young [Artists]) old enough to have exhibited before the war. Drawing on the rich traditions of interwar avant‐garde movements in Poland and abroad, these artists devoted the early postwar years to ridiculing prominent post‐impressionists’ “sterile academicism” and formulating an abstraction‐based vision of what art and artists should be. As Grupa Młodych artists saw it, art was not about celebrating beauty or even enjoying recognition, but about struggling for what was right and teaching viewers to see and to appreciate all that was most “modern”.
For Stern, this aesthetic vision melded perfectly with his commitment to political activism. He had been a member of the Polish Communist Party (Polska Partia Robotnicza, PPR) in the interwar period, but after 1945 he redoubled his efforts. He helped form a PPR‐sponsored local “artists’ circle” in late 1945, and was also a member of an “Artists’ Subcommittee” affiliated with the party’s Central Committee in Warsaw. In the local circle, he and other members challenged union rules on the distribution of relief packages and countryside retreats, wrote exhibit reviews for local newspapers (and demanded byline credit for the PPR group in exchange), volunteered to serve on election commissions, helped plan a national gathering of leftist artists, and agreed to act as an intermediary and arrange a meeting between local union officials and premier Edward Osóbka‐Morawski in an effort to increase state subsidies for artists.
In the late 1940s, the artistic and political possibilities for artist‐activists like Stern seemed endless, and he found time for both, producing cubist and abstract works as well as “metaphorical” drawings that suggest movement and an almost musical cacophony of lines and forms. When a new member of the local PPR artists’ circle wondered aloud whether his party activities might not interfere with his art, Stern reassured him that “working ‘for ourselves’ artistically, we are also working for the party … one can perfectly well reconcile, and even connect, political work within the [PPR] circle with one’s own artistic work” (cited in Świca 1991). Stern’s political convictions and his commitment to public involvement in artists’ institutions remained firm even after socialist realist dictates in mid‐1949. From early 1951, he served on the artists’ union board, as secretary of the “basic party organization”. In addition, he became the manager of the union’s “artistic club” in August 1951, played a central role in the union’s “ideological training” programme, and from September 1952 lectured at the art academy in the set design division (he took on the position of assistant rector [prorektor] in September 1954).
Perhaps surprisingly, given Stern’s unwavering commitment to official political life after 1949, he refused to embrace or support the aesthetic requirements of the period. Indeed, he virtually disappeared from public artistic life between 1949 and 1956. He participated only at the third of the four all‐Poland exhibits (December 1952-February 1953), where he exhibited two monotypes titled “The Construction Site” (budowa). The first of these offers a relatively standard view of a building site, with a pile of logs in the foreground opening to reveal a view of a cityscape‐in‐process. In the distance but at the centre of the canvas, a huge crane towers over the still‐incomplete buildings. There are people at work in this image—in the foreground, a small man off to one side pushes several upright logs (suspended by a crane which we cannot see) into place, and tiny figures move about in the middle plane as well—but they are nearly stick‐like in their simplicity and come into view only slowly, after the viewer has digested the more complexly rendered logs, buildings and crane.
If this seems a relatively standard rendition of a construction site, the second of Stern’s all‐Poland prints is anything but. Here, the logs have become a staircase that leads up to a platform, on which a tall, totem‐like form stands. The context and long‐distance perspective of the first image are gone, and except for wood grain on some of the surrounding supports and the upper portion of a ladder in the background, this could be an up‐close rendering of a temple rather than a construction site. The tall form at the centre of the image echoes the vertical logs of the previous image, caught by a crescent‐moon shaped hook and in the process of being hoisted by the invisible crane, but this shared construction site iconography only further highlights the differences between the prints. Without the first image as a point of reference, the centrepiece of the second one is virtually unrecognizable.
Rather than a hook, pulleys and cables, the viewer sees a geometric abstraction which draws the eyes up toward an ethereal sky and seems to promise an experience more mystical than concrete.
Stern’s second image echoes the atmosphere and even some of the shapes of a “metaphorical” work he had produced two years earlier, this one combining his earlier upswing of movement with what look like the metal booms of a crane. But even if both images contain (disembodied) parts from industrial equipment, neither comes close to canonical socialist realism. That Stern’s first construction site print seems to be the only “realistic” image he displayed during these years suggests both that he had chosen to resist socialist realist aesthetics and that he had largely succeeded in doing so. Did this make him a persona non grata? Apparently not, as in May 1953, he won “state recognition” (odznaczenie panstwowe) for his work, and a month later he received a state prize from the Ministry of Culture and the Arts. The ministry’s award recognized both Stern’s “artistic” and “social” activities, which in light of his “outsider” status as an artist at the time seems rather odd. Given Stern’s political activities and sacrifices on behalf of the communist cause, however, it was perhaps fairly easy to gloss over potential problems. Though supporting documents note that Stern had helped create the prewar Grupa Krakowska, they say nothing about the kind of art this group produced. As for Stern’s artistic activities after 1945, the documents say only that “since 1945, he has taken part in exhibits, and at the Third All‐Poland Exhibit received an honorable mention”. Stern’s decision to publicly display two works titled “The Construction Site”—even if one looked nothing like it was supposed to—was perhaps the best party officials could hope for.
From the post‐1989 vantage point, compromise—“straddling both sides”—can easily seem the equivalent of selling out. Stern, however, seems to have viewed compromise as a way to avoid selling out and to retain at least part of what mattered most. His story illuminates the extent to which even intellectuals who took clear positions at one end of the political spectrum could end up at the opposite end of the cultural one, as well as the complexities and fluid boundaries of intellectuals’ everyday life during the Stalinist years.
Stern worked closely with state and party officials, helping to implement the political and cultural policies they decreed. At the same time, he stretched the boundaries of and even defied those policies, in an effort to protect his aesthetic and intellectual autonomy. Did he “collaborate” with the communist system? Clearly yes. Did he “resist” it? Just as clearly, yes. What does this mean in terms of the “urge to judge”? Are we to condemn artists like Stern because they helped impose coercive policies or praise them for their efforts to oppose them? And where are we left if the answer to both questions is “yes”?