Karol Modzelewski, 1937-2019

May 10, 2019

We mourn the passing of a great revolutionary, Karol Modzelewski, who, along with Jacek Kuron, declared that the post-war economic planning of the Polish Communist regime was a statist form of capitalism. Modzelewski‘s living legacy is that he never wavered, in theory or practice, from the principle of a freedom-filled future rooted in the self-activity of the masses of workers themselves. A leader in the rise of Solidarity, which eventually brought down the regime, he ruthlessly criticized what it had become when it took power. We met Modzelewski in Warsaw in 2001, where we shared our appreciation of his perspective, about which we wrote a few years earlier in News & Letters and reprint below. By then he was saying another generation would have to take up the effort where his left off. He asked us about the U.S. and dreaded the consequences of the 9/11 attacks on the New York Twin Towers, which occurred when we were in Poland. He probably saw hope in the new militancy of workers at Polish Amazon distribution centers. We just heard a remarkable report from Agnieszka Mroz on tour talking about European Amazon workers fighting the inhuman working conditions in today’s new form of a more globally integrated capitalist production.

–Urszula Wislanka and Ron Kelch

From News & Letters October 1995

Solidarnosc 15 years later: What happens after?

Karol Modzelewski, Dokad od Komunizmu? (What after Communism?), Polska Oficyna Wydawnicza “BGW,” Warsaw, 1993

Karol Modzelewski, a Polish national Solidarity leader during 1980-81, takes up Solidarity’s transformation into opposite in a recent book, Dokad od Komunizmu? (“What after Communism?”). It is a retrospective, self-critical discussion of why he remained in the opposition after Solidarity took power and why the Solidarity government had become such a total failure.

For Modzelewski the critical difference between 1980-81 and 1989 was mass creativity, keeping leaders like Walesa “in check.” ”The strikes of 1988 didn’t bring the generals to their knees but convinced them to negotiate …. The breakthrough wasn’t a confrontation between workers and Communist authorities in uniform, but as an understanding between elites …. The result of the process of changing rule and the fall of communism happened without the workers coming on the scene again.”

Modzelewski himself was elected to the first post-Communist parliament. He noted a view that became popular almost immediately among Solidarity leaders: “a concept of social justice is a socialist anachronism.” Solidarity of 1980-81 had the totally opposite principle: “It was a time when bus drivers struck for decent wages for nurses. The readiness to fight was for those who are wronged rather than yourself, especially protecting the weak. This principle was unambiguously first.”

He traced this transformation back to what happened to Solidarity in the wake of the December 1981 imposition of martial law. With the masses off the historic stage, the single unifying element became opposition to the regime.

Accepting state power, Solidarity’s leaders latched on to “shock therapy” from the “Chicago boys” as supposedly the Western opposite to Communism. “Shock therapy was to take six months. A few inefficient companies would go under and in a few years everything would be fine. Instead we got wholesale bankruptcy …. Nothing shook their dogmatic belief.”

Most poignant is Modzelewski‘s self-critical retrospective view of the need for revolutionary leaders to not limit their thinking about possibilities for the future: “None of us soberly thinking leaders and advisers of the great union of 1980-81 or underground from 1982-88 expected such a vast decline of Russian empire and the fall of communism. We were thinking realistically how to wrestle from under communist control areas of social independence. How to force partial reforms …. Self-limitation in political activity led to self-limiting of our thinking. The Solidarity elite, into whose hands the rule of the country fell, were unprepared.”

Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program was likewise written after the greatest moment of mass creativity in his lifetime, the Paris Commune. Though the Commune lasted only three months and was destroyed from the outside, Marx addresses precisely the question that preoccupies Modzelewski–what principles guide the new society after the conquest of power. Marx not only reaffirmed the Communards’ concept of social justice but also how that cooperative form transcended the commodity-form of appearance of objectivity.

Modzelewski was most directly relying on Marx back in 1964 when, along with Jacek Kuron, he analyzed the capitalist nature of the Polish economy in their Open Letter to the Party. That analysis was addressed to the ruling Party as the embodiment of a Marxist organization. When they were ready to break with the vanguard party as the form for speaking to the future, they broke with Marxism the way they understood it. Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program, in which Marx’s vision of the future is inseparable from organization, is a critique of precisely that type of organization.

Despite his unwavering belief that the creativity of the masses is the only way to create a truly new world, Modzelewski, himself, was left with no concept to help “the workers come on the historic scene again.” Couldn’t returning to Marxism as philosophy and not just economics help fill that void? Doesn’t mass creativity cry out, not for a blueprint which hems it in, but rather a philosophy of revolution and its new sense of objectivity in order to make the drive for new forms of genuine democracy ongoing and permanent?

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