The end of chapter 11.
POLAND NO JOKE
You really haven’t been a virgin for so long.|
It’s ludicrous to keep up the pretext…
You’ve slept with all the big powers
In military uniforms,
And you’ve taken the sweet life
Of all the little brown fellows…
Being one of the world’s big vampires,
Why don’t you come on out and say so
Like Japan, and England, and France,
And all the other nymphomaniacs of power.
- Langston Hughes
Lydia Sargent and I went to Poland to see Slawomir Magala at the time that South End Press published his book, Class Struggle in Classless Poland.
Ahh, you may be wondering, what’s Poland got to do with a chapter on Washington? What logic can this have? Has the non temporal approach to presentation strayed beyond any plausible motive?
The trip to Poland was eventful in many ways. I will never forget coming around a corner and seeing a shrine in the street, with some flowers, artifacts, and pictures celebrating a famous victim of a nefarious crime, a person that the local people admired and wished to honor. No, it wasn’t Lenin or Stalin. It wasn’t Marx or Trotsky. It wasn’t a polish freedom fighter from any time or any place. It was instead the main mop-top, John Lennon. The shrine was moving in its simplicity, accurate in its homage, and somehow made very real to me the interconnectedness of nations, people, and history. Globalization in the form of internationalism was getting going.
While in Poland, Lydia and I toured a few cities, attended some meetings, met some organizers, and generally got a first hand taste for the unfolding workers’ movements – remember Lech Walesa and Polish Solidarinosc – and their organizations. What I heard contoured my ensuring understanding of what will be needed to carry off a fully liberating transformation of society.
In Poland, under the heel of the Soviet Union, a group of young people probably in part due to the delayed, reflected, percolating impact of the Sixties, including John Lennon’s lyrics and much more, became politicized and deeply aroused. They decided they would try not to lead much less to dominate Polish events, but to prod them. The idea was to become a social detonator. These young people would spread out in Polish society and use street theater, café meetings, underground newspapers, wall posters, and provocative rallies and demonstrations to detonate hope and desire in the populace. They were anti Leninist and anti elitist in much the same way as our movements had been at MIT. In fact I think they were very much a Polish version of the tide of activism in the U.S. that went south and onto campuses in the earliest years of the sixties. But the Polish activists were even more aggressive and more productive than we had been, I guess, and at any rate had tremendous success.
I don’t remember the Polish name for their project, but by initials they were called KOR. And they did their job well. Polish society began to shake from their actions and the vibrations aroused a gigantic restiveness and rebellion, and, in particular, a renewed workers movement which called itself Solidarity – which was Solidarinosc in Polish. This was the outpouring of dissent and resistance that swept Poland years before the demise of the Soviet Union. It generated strikes and factory occupations all over Poland. KOR agitated for self management and for participation and the workers in turn sought both by taking over their factories and ship yards in many parts of the country, not least Gdansk, to run them outsides the strictures of the Leninist state. This was the movement Lech Walesa came from and in time led.
What Lydia and I saw in Poland was the tension between the truly sincere desires of people in KOR to not lead but to only detonate a mass movement and then merge into it with no special status, and the countervailing tendency for them to find themselves writing leaflets, giving speeches, undertaking negotiations, and otherwise playing increasingly leading roles until, in the end, the new Polish government was full of earlier KOR members who wound up enacting the will of still Soviet-style rule in the aftermath of struggles that fell short.
The councilist part of the Polish project was historically familiar. Its eventual defeat at the hands of a much more powerful enemy was familiar as well. But the specific trajectory of KOR’s members from incredibly anti-elitist activists to leading elements of a repressive regime, while it was also familiar and recalled many Bolsheviks life histories, for example, was even more striking than usual. These young KOR activists weren’t just good guys pissed off at capitalism or, in this case, at soviet style authoritarianism, but were self consciously and very explicitly guarding against precisely what finally unfolded. So how did hierarchy arise even in their own ranks and even against their will and their concerted efforts?
For Lydia and I the Polish experience was the best evidence for the view that while personal tendencies to elitism certainly play a role in the emergence of new elites, the central problem is instead structural. The workers of Poland were rebelling. Crises were unfolding. Conflict was erupting. Lives and history resonated risk. In each new exchange there was great pressure to excel. When a leaflet needed writing, who had the most stylish verbal cadence and most information? When a speech had to be given, who could string together the needed words, humor, and drama most confidently to arouse an audience? When negotiations had to be undertaken, who was most practiced at the art of legal wrangling and fact bending?
The pressure of the moment continually and repeatedly conspired to elevate the members of KOR into ever more prominent positions. Their initial advantages in skills, confidence, and knowledge was enlarged daily as they did the most skill enlarging, confidence inducing, and knowledge increasing tasks while others in the wider movement looked on in appreciation. When a report was needed, ask the KOR person. He could do it quicker. She could do it better. It would be inefficient not to use him or her.
Over time, everyone grew dependent on a relatively few KOR contributors. KOR members monopolized the slots in the movement that conveyed visibility, notoriety, and, in particular, the confidence and cadence to dominate outcomes. The monopolizers, just trying to contribute to the struggle, began to dominate the struggle, and began, as well, try as they might to not succumb to the inducements, to see themselves as more worthy and better than others. They led events. Others followed.
It wasn’t the genetic code of the new leaders at fault. Nor was it their personalities. In the case of KOR their personal inclinations were about as good as activists can have. If these people’s inner wiring or prior dispositions were the problem then there was no solution and likely wouldn’t be any solution in any future situation either. But in fact the problem was not in the members of KOR. It was in the lack of institutional dynamics able to ensure participation and self management. And if I had to condemn a problem inside people’s minds, too, then it seemed to me the problem was a confusion about what efficiency was and about what quality outcomes were.
The Polish movement, like others before and after, simply did not have a wide enough or wise enough view of itself. To produce a good leaflet or speech or even negotiation while undercutting the underlying values of the movement was not, in fact, efficient, though everyone thought it was. Efficiency should have meant attaining desired ends without wasting – or destroying – valued assets. Elevating KOR got desired short term ends accomplished, yes, but it did so at the cost of obstructing and finally obliterating not only self management and participation in that moment, which is ultimately not all that important as moments pass, but aspirations for the long run, which is all important, since the long run persists.
This was the lesson of Poland which Lydia and I learned from talking to our hosts there. It doesn’t do to win the wrong goal. It doesn’t do to lose completely, either, it is true. So the trick is, how do you stay true to the right goals but undertake worthy and effective practice that can win them without slip sliding your guiding values away. Good aspirations and commitments are necessary but not sufficient. Imagine KOR operating with a rule that regardless of losses in time or quality of output every speech had to be made by someone who had made no more than three other speeches before, often, however, accompanied and helped by a person with more experience. And likewise, imagine there having been similar rules for writing leaflets and conducting negotiations and all the rest. Perhaps this suggestion is too simplistic, but what was truly simple minded, however understandable, was to seek self management by means that failed to produce self management.
Poland is in my Washington chapter because the lessons of Poland are apt for Washington too.