The various Communist parties in East-Central Europe experienced several waves of transformation – or attempted transformation – between 1945 and 1989. A “thaw” would come, and reformers took over, followed by a crackdown and the return of the hardliners. Often the Soviet Union was a prime mover behind the crackdown, either directly in the case of East Germany (1953), Hungary (1956), and Czechoslovakia (1968) or indirectly through behind-the-scenes pressure as in Poland (1981).
The declaration of Martial Law in Poland in 1981 not only brought an end (temporarily) to the official activities of the Solidarity trade union. It also dealt a heavy blow to reformers within the Party. After the major strikes in Ursus and Radom in 1976, a group within the Party had emerged with the aim of liberalizing the apparatus. The group was officially called struktury poziome – a rather bureaucratic-sounding title that means “the level of structure” – but they were informally known as poziomki or “wild strawberries.” They were red, in other words, but not your garden variety.
Hieronim Kubiak was a member of this group, which hoped to convene an extraordinary Party congress in 1980 to advance their goals. He would eventually become a member of the Politburo representing the reform wing. “As a lone man, I was not so important,” he told me in a conversation this August at a restaurant near the main square in Krakow’s Old Town. “I could do something only because there were plenty of people similar to me. We’d been working together from the time we’d been students. We were also against Martial Law. After the Congress, we wanted first of all to make such changes that people could accept the system of their own free will. Of course it was a dream. But if we were dreaming, I am not ashamed of it.”
Polish Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski, who had taken over the position in February 1981, made the final decision to declare Martial Law in December of that year. He argued that the measure was necessary to prevent a Soviet invasion. Whether the Kremlin ever had such an intention, it had been putting a great deal of pressure on Jaruzelski to suppress the opposition.
The declaration was devastating for Kubiak. “When it became obvious that Martial Law was unavoidable and later at the beginning of Martial Law when some strikers in Silesia were shot, we decided to withdraw from all of that. I wrote a letter to Jaruzelski telling him that this was not my dream, that I was not going to support it,” he recalled. “Jaruzelski said, ‘Yes, but if you will go, who will stay with me and help me to do any of these reforms?’”
Kubiak stayed on – to oversee reforms in the educational and cultural realms. “As the secretary of the Central Committee after the 9th Extraordinary Congress, I was responsible for higher education and also for culture,” he continued. “How could I tell Jaruzelski that all these things meant nothing to me, that I was leaving? But it was already after soldiers shot workers. I am from a workers’ family. I am not an aristocrat. Workers mean something very important to me, and I’m not joking. I was freed by Jaruzelski to do what I wanted to do a month later after the Sejm made the decisions.”
We talked about his experience in the Party prior to 1976 as well as the critical years between Martial Law and the Round Table negotiations in 1989. We talked about the role of nationalism in Poland as well as the impact of EU membership. But first, he told me several fascinating stories about the time he spent in the United States, thanks to Bobby Kennedy.
When did you first visit the United States?
I was not prepared to come to the United States and study. It was an accident. In 1964, Jagiellonian University here in Krakow had its 600th anniversary. It was founded in 1364. At that time I was very much involved in student life and in the student organization. It was a kind of association similar to the National Student Association (NSA) in the United States. Two weeks after the main ceremonies at our university were over, Robert Kennedy came to the university along with his wife and some of his children. It was very unusual because Bobby at that time was in the federal government in the position of procurator, attorney general. He wanted just to see normal student life. Our association was quite well known because it had the only club in the center of town – in the main market, in Jaszczury. The chancellor of our university said to Bobby, “If you want to see student life, go to Jaszczury, and we will inform the chairman that you will be coming.” I was the chairman. He came to us and stayed quite a long time.
When he was finished speaking with us – it was a very informal meeting, he just wanted to see what Polish students were thinking – he said he wanted to have a press conference. It was the first press conference of a representative of the American federal government since 1947. And it was not planned. The officers were in a very difficult position about how to inform people to come. The conference happened the next day around 11 in the morning, in the city council.
Before leaving Jaszczury, Bobby asked me, “Would you like to come to the press conference?”
And I said, “Why not.”
He said, “I will welcome you if you come.”
At the beginning of the press conference, he pointed to me and said, “You ask the first question.” It was just a few months after John had been murdered.
I said, “I’m sorry to ask publically a question like this to his brother, but if you can answer, we will listen to your reply very carefully. Who killed your brother? What is your personal point of view?”
Until that time, he had not expressed his own point of view. Because of that, it was news for the press.
The next day, on the front page of The New York Times there was a very big headline across a few columns of the first page: “25-Year-Old Communist Leader of Polish Student Union asked Bobby: Who Killed Your Brother?” His answer was not very special. He said something like, “The Warren Commission will look into this, and I am sure it will do a good job.”
At the end of the press conference, he asked me if I wanted to study in the United States.
What could be my answer? I said, “Why not, but who is going to pay?”
And he said, “Just forget about that part. We will invite you.”
I got the invitation two months later in 1964 from the National Student Association saying that they learned from Bobby Kennedy that I would like to study in the United States and they are ready to invite me. I only needed to decide which university, and every university was open to me. Because I was already familiar as a sociologist with the works of Robert K. Merton, I chose Columbia University. This was at the beginning of June. By July I’d already gotten the invitation from the United States, and by the last week in September I was already in New York.
I didn’t want to come by plane. I wanted to have the same experience that immigrants from Europe had from early times. So, I came to the United States by cargo ship – the SS Romer – learning how it was to be so long at sea.
Columbia was my first university. I was there as a visiting scholar, but it was in reality post-graduate studies. The second half of the year I spent in Chicago, from January to the last days of June 1965. Here again I had an unusual experience. I was already familiar with the work of Professor James Coleman. He told me, “If you are here, you must come work with me.” So, I stayed with him. It was quite a good set of professors at Chicago, including Professors Morris Janowitz and Paul Lazarsfeld.
This was the beginning of my study of the United States. Until that point I was working on a UNESCO team studying the influence of decolonization on the consciousness of African society and changes in social attitudes. But in America, I was not prepared to study the same kind of problem in U.S. society.
But by accident I found a church: the Polish National Catholic Church of America. Are you familiar with the Polish custom of visiting cemeteries on the last day of October? My mother and father had already passed away, so I usually observed that custom and went to the cemetery every year. That was the first time I was not able to do it because I was in America. On that day, I left International House on Woodlawn Avenue and went for a walk. Suddenly I heard a melody. I was not sure if I really heard it, or it was my imagination because the melody reminded me of my mother. I went step by step following the melody and found this Polish National Catholic Church of America. I went inside. A kind of ceremony was going on inside. On the left side there was a Polish national flag, and on the right there was an American flag. But on the Polish flag, there was no political symbol in the middle. It was only white and red. They were performing a mass in Polish, but with a strange accent. The youngsters were also singing Polish songs with this same accent. But it was in Polish language, so you can imagine what kind of feeling I had.
After the ceremony was over, I asked the people in the choir, “How did you learn such beautiful Polish songs?”
They said, “We can sing but not speak Polish.”
The priest also couldn’t really make any conversation with me in Polish but preferred English. For me, as a sociologist, it was enough just to begin to study that church. This explains the change of my interest from the consciousness of African societies to the Polish National Catholic Church. And that became my Ph.D.
You also told me that when you lived in Chicago two things almost happened. You almost joined the Baptist Church, and you almost joined the Malcolm X movement.
The administration of the University of Chicago recorded my name in the wrong way. My name is Kubiak, two syllables. They put a dash between Ku and Biak. Because of that, it looked like a Japanese or Chinese name, something Asian, not Polish. I was getting invitations for meetings of students from China, Korea, and Japan. It was very interesting for me because I was the only White, the one with the long nose. They were serving a kind of supper, which was also interesting for me. After two months, I asked the administration why I was the only non-Asian at all those evenings. They informed me that they would check my family name. They did that and said, “Oh, we were just confused!”
But because of that, I got a lot of contacts with Negro Americans. At that time it was still “Negro,” not “Afro-American.” They wanted me to tell them how we lived in Poland. Because of that, I was also able to learn how they were organized, all these groups of Afro-Americans in Chicago, not just in the university. That was the beginning of my contact with Malcolm X’s organization.
When I was at Columbia University, I was looking also for some place to stay. As a sociologist I was searching for a place to stay with Americans and not at International House. I had enough international experience. I wanted to learn about Americans. I got an address from the dean of sociology at Columbia for a Mrs. Harriet Willingham. They told me, “Her husband was a professor at our department, but he passed away. She has some rooms, and she will be able to offer one to you.” And she was a Southern Baptist.
Have you ever been in Riverside Church on Riverside Drive in Manhattan? She wanted to show me the customs of the Baptists without any pressure on me, knowing that I’m an atheist. Because of that, I learned about Baptists. There was one special evening, close to Christmas time. She wanted to leave for her church, to participate in the special ceremony. She asked me if I would like to go with her.
I said, “Yes, but remember I am almost an atheist, a Catholic by origin, and attached to no religion at all.”
She said, “Yes, but are you a friend of mine?”
I said, “Yes.”
She said, “Okay, we will go, me as a member and you as a friend of mine.” Because of that I had a chance to learn a lot about the Baptists.
I learned a lot about America from meeting different people. In Chicago, I met a young guy – forgive me, I won’t give you his family name, but you’ll soon understand why. It was at the beginning of my life in the United States, and I was living at the International House at that time. There was a restaurant in the house, quite a good one. And one of the waiters really helped me out. He was a tall, handsome guy, always stopping to have a small chat with me. I invited him to have a cup of coffee with me. He agreed, and we became close friends. Before I left, I learned that he was an officer in the U.S. Army, studying administration at the University of Chicago and earning some money as a waiter.
A few months later, I was already in New York, and he was back in Chicago. I got a phone call from him. Allow me to use his first name. I got a call from Joe. “Hello Hieronim. What are you doing for Easter?” Joe asked.
“I am staying in New York,” I said.
“I told my father about you, and he wants to meet you.”
It was already the day before Christmas. “Okay, but as I remember, you are living in Texas. How do I get there?”
“My father already bought a plane ticket for you from New York to Chicago. Just go to La Guardia, and say ‘Jerome.” That’s your password.”
That’s what I did. I went back to Chicago O’Hare, and I found my friend. Joe was waiting for me in a Chevrolet with a special sign on the bumper – U.S. Army, for Official Use Only. We drove down to see his father in San Antonio. His father was a deputy general of one of the American units that had just come from Japan, from Okinawa. The reason why his father wanted to see us was that he’d been divorced a few days before, and he was alone. He wanted to demonstrate that he was a man from Texas, and a huge part of Texas is family. As an American, you know what kind of alcohol such people are usually drinking: tequila. I had no experience with tequila whatsoever. You remember how to drink tequila: with lime and salt. Soon I’d had enough tequila. We all had enough of it. And Joe’s father said, “All right, let’s go and shoot somebody!” He was joking, of course, but I was afraid. He was drunk, and so was I.
Instead of shooting somebody, he said, “Let’s go to Laredo.” That’s on the other side of the Rio Grande, part in America, part in Mexico.
I said to him, “I can’t go.”
“Because I have only a single entrance on my U.S. visa. I can’t go to Mexico.”
He said, “Who gave you such a stupid visa?”
I said, “It’s not stupid, it’s a normal visa.”
“Who is responsible for this?”
“The department of foreign affairs.”
He said to his adjutant, “Call that department, and talk to the person focused on Europe, especially Eastern Europe.”
The adjutant got this person on the phone. The conversation went like the following.
“Hello, I’m General such and such. We are drinking some alcohol, but now we have decided to go to Laredo: me, my son, who is also an officer, and a friend of my son, who is from Poland and who says he can’t go because he has a visa for only one entrance.”
Can you imagine what happened next? The officer from the foreign department said, “The Polish guy told you the truth. He can’t go with you.”
“Issue him another visa!”
There was a pause. Then came the answer from the department. “Yes, we can do it, but it will take three days.”
“We are drinking tequila,” the general said. “We can’t wait three days. It’s impossible.”
You know what he did? He asked his adjutant to measure my size, and they brought in a uniform of the U.S. army. I put it on. They put me in a car for official use only of the army, and we left the United States and went to Mexico. Without any problem. The border guards saluted us. And we went to Laredo. For what? Hm…
Because of such events with Mrs. Willingham in New York, because of such people like my friend Joe and his father, I learned a lot about America, not just from books but from real experience.
In the summer time of 1965 I had a conversation with the primate of the Polish National Catholic Church, who was responsible for the whole church. He invited me to a restaurant in Scranton, PA, which is the headquarters of the church. He asked me lots of questions: how I feel, what I learned, what I wrote. At the final point of the conversation, he asked: “Jerome, would you like to stay with us?”
“Father,” I said to him, “I am married.”
He looked at me. “Don’t you remember that we don’t require celibacy?”
I said, “Of course I do.” [The Polish National Catholic Church in the United States abolished celibacy as a requirement for the priesthood in the 1920s]
He said, “Stay with us and bring your family. My church has a special promise from the federal government to bring over a thousand people per year.” You know why? Some former Polish soldiers and some people who worked in the labor camps in Germany during the war were still in the western part of Germany when the American army came. Many of these people didn’t want to return to Poland. So they were looking for work, and the U.S. Army had work for non-Army people. The Church got permission to invite a thousand people from Germany beginning in 1946-47. This was 1964, so that permission was still valid. The bishop was giving me a chance to use that quota.
I said, “What would I do here, how would I earn my living?”
“Stay with us and you will become a priest.”
“If I became a priest, it would take a long time. And would it be enough money to take care of my wife and children?”
“After three years in our church, you can be elected as bishop.” That was a general rule in that church. Only when you were chosen in a free and fair election could you get an ordination to serve inside the Church.
I decided to return to Poland. Some American friends of mine were astonished that I was returning to Poland. I had a Social Security number because of my scholarship. I had lots of friends in America. With so many contacts and so many chances and so many good scholars as my supervisors, why was I returning to Poland? But they were proud that I was going back. I would return to America later – on a Fulbright in 1976 and much later after my books were published – but back in 1965, I was back in Poland by the beginning of October.
The question was: how would the Polish authorities treat me? Would they treat me as a normal citizen, or as someone who might have cooperated with the American secret service? I learned later why I was really considered to be someone who cooperated with secret service. Do you remember March 1968 in Poland? It was a time when anti-Jewishness was developing rapidly. I got a letter at that time with lots of marks on it. It had already been opened. Inside the envelope, I found a letter from the main headquarters of the Nation Student Association (NSA) from Philadelphia. What was in the letter? They wanted to apologize to me. For what? Because the money they gave me, the scholarship from their Young Leadership Project, had come from CIA. Earlier the council of the NSA had not known about that at all. So, why did they send the letter? They wanted to apologize and remind me that I didn’t have any obligations. That letter passed through a long line of people at the Polish intelligence service. I was not even aware of how complex it was.
In the second half of 1981, before Martial Law was introduced, I was one of the people described as a reformer from the point of view of the Polish Workers’ Party (PZPR). And some of the people who were very conservative wanted to get rid of me from political life. It was already after the 9th Extraordinary Party Congress. During that Congress, I was the chairman of the programming committee. Later, as a reformer, I also got a chance to become a member of the Politburo and the secretary of the Central Committee, with the hope that I could do something important. What did the conservatives do at that time? They wrote a kind of poster. The title was “Who is Hieronim Kubiak?” And the most important part of who I was? They said that I was a man of the CIA. What’s more, I wasn’t just any CIA man: I was responsible for a huge branch of the CIA working in Poland.
It wasn’t funny at the time. I found one man who defended me at that time. You know his name. It was Wojciech Jaruzelski. But it was very dangerous. The Polish intelligence service had a special file on me with a full description of what I did in the United States. That file included two of those stories – that conversation with the American general and also a copy of the NSA letter. The file also claimed that both the organizational department of the PZPR and the organizational department of the Soviet Communist Party confirmed that I could be a member of the CIA. If Jaruzelski had not defended me, I doubt we would be having this conversation today.
The United States is not just a foreign country to me. Sometimes when I am very tired, I see a lot of places in the United States where I have been. I can name to you almost every corner of Manhattan. At that time, you see, the buying power of one American dollar was 20 times more valuable in Poland than in United States. I had some money that I received as a scholarship, but it was almost nothing in the United States – about $700 a month to cover all expenses. In Poland, that was an unusual amount of money at that time. Whenever I spent these dollars in America, I always had in my eyes how much I could buy in Poland. I could walk or use public transportation to get to Columbia. But I had to pay for the subway or a bus. So, instead of paying, I walked. Because of that I learned Manhattan not from maps, not from books, but from my walks: from Battery Park all the way up to Harlem.
I met Bobby Kennedy again in the States. He gave me a ticket to see Congress. I could go any time I wanted and sit in gallery and watch. I’d never been in the Sejm, but I learned the American political system quite well.
I’d like to ask you about the struggle in the 1980s between reformers and the non-reformers. You managed to survive thanks to Jaruzelski.
I was involved very much in the students’ movement in October 1956. Later in March 1968, I was personally offended by my own country over what happened with Jews. I’m not joking. My wife was a Jew. She decided that she would leave Poland and not wait to be kicked out. It was a very dramatic moment for me because she decided to go alone.
Your wife left in 1968. Did she come back?
Only after the political transformation of 1989. She left for Italy. There was a lot of Polish political immigration. She had contact with some former friends of mine. It was very dramatic for me in 1968. Neither she nor I expected that we would divorce. But because of that, I was informed from the inside in 1968 about almost everything.
Later, in December 1970, there was a wave of strikes on the seashore in Gdańsk and Szczecin. At that time, a group from my generation decided to change a lot here in Poland and prevent any more shootings of Polish citizens by Polish soldiers. I was invited at that time by the new vice prime minister to be his advisor. It didn’t last a very long time, not more than half a year. At that time, I was asked to prepare an opening to Polish political emigrants because of my experience in the United States. Because of all these times – 1956, 1968, 1970 – I was not alone. I had a lot of friends from the Polish Students Association. Again in 1976, there were strikes at Ursus and also in Radom. Again, we tried to learn what was going on and what we could do. On the basis of that, a movement inside the Party emerged that was called poziomki, which is the name of a small red fruit, wild strawberries. The formal name was struktury poziome, which means “the level of structure.”
We decided in 1980 that we had to organize support for an extraordinary Party Congress. We wanted to change the Party. At that time, struktury poziome were organizing in all Polish universities but also in a lot of factories. On the basis of that we were able to force the Central Committee to decide to call an extraordinary congress of the Party. But we were also influencing the process of elections of delegates to that Congress. By the time the Congress began, we were able to control almost half the delegates. Because of that, I became chairman of the programming committee, and we were able to reject some very conservative people trying to be elected to the Central Committee.
I wasn’t prepared for such a course of events. It was June/July when the Congress happened. I was in contact with Wayne State University. I was prepared to go there for half a year in September 1981. My personal plans were not related at all to official state or Party duties. But when we were able to stop some conservative people from entering the leadership of the Party, Kazimierz Barcikowski said to me, “If you’ve gone this so far, you have to stay and fulfill your duties.” That was the reason I became a member of the Politburo.
Then there was the question of who should become first secretary. Stanislaw Kania was a Party member who decided to fire some conservatives inside the Party. We decided to help him a little with the structures. The delegates decided to elect the first secretary and not to accept someone already appointed. But for elections, we had to have at least two candidates. We had a conversation with Kazimierz Barcikowski, telling him that he should help us now: Kania would be one candidate, but he would be the second candidate. During World War II, Barcikowski had been a young Armia Krajowa soldier. Later he was involved in Party activities, but always as a reformer, including in Krakow when he was the first secretary for a short time. I didn’t know at the time but he was also involved in the Masons. There is a custom in the Masons that if you don’t want to inform others that you are member, they will keep it secret, but 100 days after your death they will publish an obituary saying goodbye to their brother. That’s how we found out. He was secretary of the Central Committee, a member of the Politburo, and for a short time even vice premier of Poland. He died four or five years ago, and that’s when I found out.
As a lone man, I was not so important. I could do something only because there were plenty of people similar to me. We’d been working together from the time we’d been students. We were also against Martial Law. After the Congress, we wanted first of all to make such changes that people could accept the system of their own free will. Of course it was a dream. But if we were dreaming, I am not ashamed of it. Jaruzelski was prime minister of Poland at that time, in the second half of 1981. The first secretary of the Central Committee was Kania. But under the influence of the Soviet leaders and also because of the complexity of the situation in Europe and Poland (where the threat of the civil war was very real), the conservative part of our Party decided to change the first secretary, and the man who should change it was Jaruzelski, as the prime minister. Today, it’s almost impossible to believe, but as a general, the minister of defense, and the prime minister, Jaruzelski at that point was a symbol of change. He wanted change.
When it became obvious that Martial Law was unavoidable and later at the beginning of Martial Law when some strikers in Silesia were shot, we decided to withdraw from all of that. I wrote a letter to Jaruzelski telling him that this was not my dream, that I was not going to support it. That was the second time he did something for me. He said, “Yes, but if you will go, who will stay with me and help me to do any of these reforms?”
The social milieu in which I was involved – the group of still-young scholars of the social sciences – we wanted to change the law concerning Polish universities. This was before Martial Law, as part of the 9th Extraordinary Congress. Before World War II, the universities had considerable autonomy. Have you seen the chains on some streets around Jagiellonian University here in Krakow? The chains are a symbol of autonomy. You could cross the border when there were chains on the street only when the chancellor gave permission. That showed that we were autonomous. In the 1950s and 1960s, much of this autonomy was destroyed. We wanted to reestablish it in the 1980s, especially as part of the Congress program.
There was a group here in Krakow headed by the former rector, Józef Andrzej Gierowski. He was the chairman of the informal team of which I was also a member, which prepared the change of law on Polish higher education in such a way to reestablish autonomy. That meant, first of all, that we – those who work at the university – would have the right to choose the chancellor and the rector. We prepared the change of this law concerning school autonomy, in a team – as I already mentioned – headed by Gierowski, for the Polish parliament to discuss on May 3, 1982, which is a symbolic day in Poland. But that was already after the declaration of Martial Law. Jaruzelski said to me at that time, “You can leave if you like, but please remember that the law on which you have been working, and which is so important for you and colleagues, will be discussed on May 3 in the parliament. So stay until then.” Of course there’s always a price to be paid for such a decision. But I decided that it was important to stay.
The other reason to stay had to do with Polish symbolic culture. It was a time of huge inflation. The money that was coming to institutions of symbolic culture – theater, movie, music – was lower and lower because of inflation. But there was a chance to change the law so that money given by the state to institutions of culture took into account the level of inflation. It would be discussed also at beginning of May. As the secretary of the Central Committee after the 9th Extraordinary Congress, I was responsible for higher education and also for culture. How could I tell Jaruzelski that all these things meant nothing to me, that I was leaving? But it was already after soldiers shot workers. I am from a workers’ family. I am not an aristocrat. Workers mean something very important to me, and I’m not joking. I was freed by Jaruzelski to do what I wanted to do a month later after the Sejm made the decisions. The second decision concerning culture created a National Council of Culture, which was also to a large extent autonomous and included many Polish scholars and cultural figures.
But 1981 was important for us still from another point of view. There are two different ways of dealing with the disappointment of a huge part of society. One is to use force to stop the protests, which also might involve shooting. The second is to introduce changes that could remove the causes of the disappointment. The autonomy of schools and the National Council of Culture were part of what we wanted to change. But of course it was not enough. The question remained: to what extent could Polish workers organize trade unions of their own? An independent union? And this was the question of Solidarity.
I want to ask about political polarization. There’s a lot of controversy when I talk to people about Adam Michnik and particularly his article about General Kiszczak. The Round Table negotiations took place in 1989 between the two sides, and they were successful. But there is still so much political polarization focused still on 1989-90.
First of all, concerning Adam Michnik and his point of view. I was a member of the Round Table negotiations, and we were working on the same table. Adam Michnik is quite well known to me and is kind of a friend. A Round Table was our dream in 1981. But we needed 10 years to come to the conclusion that it was the only way to solve Polish problems in a peaceful way. I do believe that it was mostly because Jaruzelski, knowing the Soviet Union very well and having been in prison in Siberia, was and is a person who does not believe in anyone but himself. This is a syndrome of prisoners, of people forced to be alone. He was not sure what the Soviet Union would do. The price to be paid if he was mistaken in his prediction was so huge and bloody, that Jaruzelski decided to take responsibility on his own shoulders as much as possible. People like Michnik, and there were a lot of people similar to him, also did not believe the Soviet Union. They were not sure what the Soviet Union would do. If you know the history of Poland, we had enough uprisings, and we paid a tremendous price for all those uprisings. The new generation that emerged at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s believed that change was absolutely necessary but wanted to make it peacefully.
Because of that, I consider the Round Table an event unrepeatable in Europe. Power was won – in 1981 – not by voting but by power. And power was given back to the civil society – in 1989 – by voting. Because of that, the Round Table was so unusual. My own judgment is that Jaruzelski waited five years too long for these changes. He could have done it earlier because of Gorbachev and Gorbachev’s changes. But still, Jaruzelski was not sure if Gorbachev was the last word on changes in the Soviet Union. (For instance, do you remember Gennady Yanayev and the coup in 1991?) Jaruzelski did not believe that these changes in the Soviet Union would happen so soon and in the way that they happened.
Why are there still people who think that the price paid by Kiszczak and Jaruzelski for everything that they did was too low? Let’s come back to the problem of Erich Fromm and Escape from Freedom. The transformation was very painful for a lot of people who had to pay almost everything for the changes. And now, if you look at the degree of polarization of wealth and poverty, which is considerable, it’s a kind of pain inside the consciousness of those people who paid a lot because of the transformation while the people responsible for the political situation in Poland paid less than they did.
There is another problem – nationalism. It’s a very serious problem. For Poland to survive during the time of partition, nationalism was the only possibility for preserving consciousness and national pride. But this was a traumatic experience that left marks on body and consciousness. All that happened from 1989, from the Round Table onward, was oriented toward peace, not toward war. But there are still some people who feel that Poland is not independent yet, that Germany and Russia are playing their own game with Poland and that those who came to power because of the changes are the agents of Germany or Russia. Because of that, you can see some similarities between nationalism in Poland and in Hungary, in Austria, in France, to some extent in the UK. When you don’t have a way of solving problems in a peaceful way, you still feel that you must have some big idea to divide people into enemies and friends and that you must orient yourself against the enemies.
Look at Jarosław Kaczyński and his PiS party. You have here something that is almost unexplainable. According to public opinion polls, they are much stronger now than the party of Donald Tusk – by about 10 points. It’s unbelievable, unless you fail to take into account that there are people in dying cities – like, for instance, Łódź – in many parts of Poland, especially the southeast and the north where there were former state agricultural cooperatives. These people are helpless. What is the easiest way to solve your problems when you are helpless? To use power, and this is Kaczyński. Look at the Smolensk incident. There is still a huge group of adults who believe it was Russian sabotage. It’s almost unbelievable! Even if you are against Russia – and it’s normal that so many people are – you still have to ask, “Are they so stupid to decide to kill someone on their own territory in a way that would be so obvious to the enemies of Russia that Russians did it?” There were plenty of other chances to do that.
Also, look at the discussions in the Polish parliament. Antoni Macierewicz is simply sick, psychologically sick, there is no other explanation. One man can be sick. But why do so many people believe him? It’s again a question of helplessness. Adolf Hitler came to power through elections. Why did so many educated Germans so soon accept what Hitler was doing? There was the question of huge reparations. The former military industry provided lots of employment and that sector immediately after WW I declined tremendously. There was the feeling of bruised national pride because of being beaten. Hitler promised to German society that there would be chicken in the kitchen, women in the bedroom, and Volkswagens behind the shop window. If you can’t solve your own problems, you have to find an enemy – and these were the Jews. Knowing what we know now about Germans, is it possible that they could do the Holocaust? How can conditions produce such leaders? No rationality is needed. Just a simplistic understanding.
Look at your own history and attitudes toward Negro labor in the South and in the West. How long was needed for the South to forget that kind of feeling? In 1964, my friend Joe, the U.S. Army officer, decided to show me Louisiana. We went there to a historic Victorian house. I decided to ask the owner how he felt about Afro-Americans. “Oh, I have no problems with them,” he said. “What kind of problem would I have with my own horses and cows?” You may say that I am pro-Afro-American. Yes. I am. I have lots of friends who are Afro-American. I understand them. Maybe because of my own experience in Poland.
Under what conditions do such attitudes cause political and social disaster? If I don’t like the consequences, I have to remove the causes. That also applies to the question of poverty. When I am sharing bread with someone, someone who sees this will say I am almost a saint. But if I say, “Why should I have more bread than the person who doesn’t have any?” I get labeled a Communist. How to remove, in a rational way, the causes of social disaster? It’s a touchy problem, and I don’t know.
Some people I’ve talked to have said that they didn’t like what happened after the Balcerowicz shock therapy economic reforms, but it was necessary. And people in Solidarity will add that most of the people who suffered were Solidarity members. Could anything have been done differently?
Workers were the first to make changes – along with, of course, the intelligentsia. In the Polish case, the main force behind the successive crises was different. In 1956, it was first of all workers, almost without any intellectual advisors, and also a group of leaders on the Communist side, including Władysław Gomułka, and a group of leaders from church, including Cardinal Wyszyński. In 1968, the political apparatus tried to make change, and they believed they could use anti-Semitism to get support. Even today, I suspect that there is still anti-Semitism in some nationalist movements. Then, in 1970 in Gdańsk, it was again workers but a few intellectuals. By 1976, in Ursus and Radom, you already had the intelligentsia involved, such as Jacek Kuroń and the people around him. In 1980, it was workers but also a huge number of intellectuals working as experts with the workers.
Still, change was happening. Some more drastic changes were necessary. Who was going to pay? Workers. That’s terrible, but it’s absolutely true. Some intellectuals paid the price too. Some people without whom the changes in 1989 would have been almost impossible, like Kuroń and Michnik, still have enemies. Was it possible to have found a different way of making profound changes in Poland? The only person among current scholars who could answer that question is Anthony Giddens, with his concept of the “third way”: the free market plus the rational state as an social actor. I don’t think there is another way. I doubt there’s a chance to remove conflicts forever. It’s just a question of scope. For diminishing the scope for conflict, the EU is extremely important.
If you look at the amount of help that Poland has received throughout its history, it doesn’t compare to the huge amount that Poland is receiving now from the EU.
Compared to other members of the EU, Poland is the fifth poorest in terms of per capita GDP. All that we did here in terms of investment is due to EU money, no doubt of it. We are still receiving much more than we pay. But you have to remember that for 123 years the country was not independent. And the countries that occupied Poland were also unequal in terms of their economic development: Germany in west and north, Russia in the east, and the Austro-Hungarians in the south and southeast. You can still see the remains of this inequality. The biggest EU program now being discussed and which I hope will be pursued is European money for the eastern part Poland.
Still, in terms of the amount of money you can earn in Poland – if you work for the state and not in private industry – it’s almost two times less than in Germany. There’s a huge number of people, especially young people, who are working outside the labor law, in the so-called grey zone. There was always a hope that if we educated young people, they’d find a job. A good job.
They did find a job…in the UK!
You remember the case of the U.S. doctors. The British paid for the education of doctors in England, and then they went to work in the United States. It’s the same story here.
Democracy is impossible without a high level of political culture in the main part of society. That’s not something you learn in school. You learn it only by participating. Remember that Poland gained independence in 1918 and but still was not able to wipe out illiteracy. That didn’t happen until 1962. If there is a good word to say about the PZPR and Polish People Republic, it is for wiping out illiteracy.
By the way, a beautiful book written by several scholars for the 90th birthday of Jaruzelski was just published a month ago. It is interesting what people wrote for this festschrift. I wrote on illiteracy. If you look at the process of higher education, the numbers were rising up until only three or four years ago. Now it’s again going down – because of the number of unemployed and also because of the demographic process. The number of educated working women who are deciding to have children is low. For the first time last year, the total population of Poland went down. Since 1989 the number of people in higher education was increasing year by year because they saw studying as a way to improve their life position. So, the number of schools of higher learning dramatically increased. Here in Krakow, until 1989 we had 11-12 good state schools of higher learning. During the last decades, the number of schools doubled from beginning of 1990s. But the last three or four years, it went down dramatically.
Also, we don’t have the exact figures, but about two million people have emigrated over the last decade. One interesting change is the direction of emigration. It always used to be to the United States but not any longer. A lot of immigrants are working in the gray zone in the United States and not earning very much money. At present young educated people are migrating to the UK, Ireland, Germany: they are determined to work hard, and they are better workers than Africans, Asians, and so on because of their education. And the birthrate among recent Polish emigrants in the UK is higher than the rate for people of the same age in Poland – because of the social services that remain of the welfare state there. There is no other choice but to combine the rational free market with the rational social policy of the state. Isn’t Obama doing the same thing in the United States?
When you think back to the way you looked at the world in 1989-90, have you changed your positions in any major way?
I would say no. I was a dreamer, and I still am a dreamer. I still believe that we were born equal, and we should have the same chance for fulfilling our destiny. You remember what this is? The beginning of the American Declaration of Independence.
When we talked 23 years ago, you ended by talking about the future of a Left party in Poland. What do you think the future of Left is today in Poland?
For a Left party rooted in the reality of today, we have to wait for a new generation. People like Leszek Miller, whom I know personally, have no chance here. The majority of the members of the Social Democratic Left are of Miller’s type: people educated in the past, whose vision of reality is deeply rooted in the past, and with no real vision of future. Because of that, Krytyka Polityczna – the magazine and the political movement – is from my point of view the most interesting Left organization here.
But we have another problem here. It’s the problem of the social structure of Polish society. Do we have a worker class in Poland? You might ask the same about the United States. My answer is that you don’t have one, and we don’t have one either. Not a working class in the sense used at the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th century. We have, as a matter of fact, several Left parties, not only the party of Leszek Miller. For instance, there’s Marek Borowski and what is left of an orthodox kind of proletariat party. And we have – in statu nascendi – a new class. Guy Standing named it the precariat – young, educated, but unemployed people.
The real question is what the middle class will look like in the near future. Right now the middle class is in the process of disappearing. From my point of view, democracy without a huge middle class is impossible. It can’t be orthodox, in the Left understanding, and it can’t be just built in opposition to the Right. It’s still the question of combining rational state policy and social policy with the free market. I don’t know how this will develop now because of globalization: the export of capital and technology from rich countries to quite poor country where labor is much cheaper.
Look at Poland from this point of view. Educated young Poles are going to Ireland, Britain, Germany. And immigrants are coming to Poland for the same kind of jobs that Poles go to the UK. Why are Poles emigrating? Because of wages, because of earning possibilities, because of the social policies of those countries. Who is coming to us? Ukrainians: they are washing dishes in restaurants, working as servants, the majority of them illegally. They are not earning very much, much less than Poles. It’s like a chain reaction. Immigrants from Vietnam, some Koreans, some Russians are all coming to Poland. It’s not Lithuanians, Latvians, or Estonians – because they have the same chances for migration to the so-called West as we have since they are also members of the EU.
Islamic immigration is an open problem for Europe. Look at Switzerland. They were not opposing those immigrants. They even allowed them to build mosques. But without minarets. The moment they started to build minarets, public opinion turned against them – because of the noise. The number of mosques in the UK right now is in the thousands, over 2,000. But that’s a special case because of the function the UK played in colonialism.
Ronald Inglehart saw a dramatic realignment in the late 1980s because some new parties were emerging like the Green Party and political affiliations to parties was declining. Still, political parties remain influential within the political elite.
What has a chance to replace parties? My understanding is that this would be NGOs. Not NGOs in the traditional sense, but new types of NGOs. Of course, there are also new ways of communication. We still don’t understand the Internet. We are on the verge of a new kind of society that we really don’t quite understand. If a majority of people are well-prepared for social life, organizing social life becomes much easier. As I said it before, it’s never possible to do this without conflict. But the question is how to resolve or diminish that conflict. For uneducated people, it’s a matter of strikes, uprisings, or changes like the Balcerowicz plan – because nothing else can be done. But if society has a lot of social or human capital, the chances of choosing in a free and fair election is much higher because the knowledge and ability to persuade and be persuaded is more sophisticated.
Perhaps we will see in the political process the same development that took place in the Church. At first, it was only the priests that mediated between the person and God. Then the Protestants challenged that by offering a more direct relationship with God. And there has been further segmentation after that. Perhaps there will be a similar political Reformation with regard to political parties.
Yes: the reformation of society from anonymous individuals to responsible individuals. From that point of view, I’m looking to America. One thing I would like to be alive to see is a president of the United States who is not only Afro-American but also a woman.
Krakow, August 22, 2013
I met Hieronym Kubiak in Warsaw when, deep in the midst of a strep infection, I was at the Peace Coalition center bowing out of another commitment. He gave me an hour, at his office in the Jagiellonian University office of Polonistic affairs located in the Old City.
I had only two questions: the present role of the Peace coalition and Kubiak’s own political path to the Politburo. We started with the coalition.
In April 1989, the Peace Committee transformed itself into the Peace Coalition in order to “create conditions within which peace movements could be more spontaneous and less dependent on state structures.” This process, according to Kubiak, began in the 1980s with the emergence of groups such as WiP (Freedom and Peace) and professional organizations such as the international lawyers for peace. During the 1980s, the Committee was different from committees in other parts of the socialist bloc because it received its money from Parliament and not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (a distinction that might be lost on some). The new Coalition, meanwhile, depends on money from a peace foundation which encourages money-making enterprises. “This is of course easier said than done,” Kubiak admitted, “I’m not the type of person who knows how to make money.” As a coalition, the new peace organization permits its members to be autonomous and yet associate with international organizations such as Pax Christi or CND.
The Coalition operates on three levels: human personality (inner peace); political culture in society (living with difference); international level. For Kubiak, this second level is very important, because it is the only way to construct a pluralistic society. Poles should learn not only to accept difference, but in fact to enjoy it. This is the only way that a 95 percent homogenous society (in terms of ethnicity, language and religion) can participate in the new Europe. This acceptance of compromise is reflected in the choice of Coalition leaders: Walesa as honorary president, Kubiak as president. In terms of the international issue of peace, he noted that “Polish society is not paying much attention to peace movements these days.” Nor do Poles display much interest in coalitions; even the political sphere is characterized by fragmentation. For him, however, there is one obvious path: peace movements are leaving the streets and going into less visible and more intellectual work, looking for alternative models of international relationships. The World Peace Council and CND are organizations of the ancien regime, the old political order. He doesn’t see much future for them.
Kubiak then described his own political odyssey. He was born to a proletarian family and was the first to get a university degree. He had been raised a Catholic and from early on tried to unite the traditions of the old European left with traditional Polish values of sovereignty and national independence. He began his university work in philology and then switched to sociology, when the discipline was just beginning to reappear in the mid-1950s (it had been outlawed as “bourgeouis” in the late 1940s). Polish de-Stalinization and the first hints of reform in 1956 comprised his political awakening. He was involved in the student movement at Jagiellonian University and was usually described as a social democrat by his peers. He had decided at this time that the best way of reforming Polish society was through the Party and he held to this decision through the 1980s. He pointed out that many people these days describe themselves as “reformers”, that it is a very popular and often misused appelation. But, he added, “I really was a reformer.”
In the 1960s, Kubiak was in the U.S., studying at University of Chicago and Columbia. He said that in Chicago he lived for three months with a Black family on the Southside and nearly joined both the Baptist church and Malcolm X’s movement. He received his scholarship from the National Student Association, which became a problem later on.
As a reformer within the Party, Kubiak had two opportunities to effect change in Poland. The first came at the end of the 1960s when worker protests began to break out on the coast. In February 1971 (this was after the events in Gdansk in 1970), he was appointed an advisor to Gierek on a commission working on changing the relationship between the state and the Church and the state and the intelligentsia. This activity lasted only 8 months. He was needed in a crisis but only then. He returned to university teaching. In 1980, he was once again in an influential position. In charge of the organizing committee for the Party Congress, he helped write many of the party’s resolutions. He made the choice in 1980 not to work with Solidarity and instead to work within the Party. It was a personal choice, he said.
Then, to his astonishment, in July 1981, he was elevated to the Politburo, which came at a rather inconvenient time since he was about to go to the U.S. on a scholarship. He was appointed that Fall to head a commission investigating the causes of crisis in Polish life. Then came Martial Law and he said that the Party didn’t really know what to do with him. The commission was debanded and he was removed from his position as secretary of the Central Committee. But because of his role in the 1980 Party Congress, he remained an unpaid member of the Politburo. He was, however, accused by elements in the Party of being a CIA agent and the proof given was his NSA grant from the 1960s (the NSA had been infiltrated by government informers).
Now, he is still a left-winger but not a member of any party. It is easy, he said, to prepare an economic program in which a minority will dance and all others will simply set up the ballroom. He is interested in establishing a system in which all can dance. He thinks by the time of the next parliamentary elections, a new left will have emerged, one firmly in the social democratic tradition.