History as written by emigrants

I’m reading Tony Judt’s “Postwar”, a history of Europe since 1945 until the 1990s. It’s an excellent book, impressive in its breadth of scope and attention to detail, encyclopaedic at times, yet still very readable. I’m finding it more than worth my time and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in understanding Europe’s history and politics.

I’m also finding that Judt’s analysis of Western Europe is much better than that of the Eastern Bloc. “Postwar” is fascinating in its account of the larger political, social and economic processes that constrained the main actors in the West: why a remilitarized West Germany was inevitable, for example, or how the loss of overseas colonies affected the European balance of power. The Eastern European history is, by comparison, more superficial.

Given the sheer number of names, dates and facts in the volume, Judt can be forgiven for the occasional inaccuracies. (The Polish leader that Gomulka replaced in October 1956 was Ochab, not Bierut who had died in March 1956; Ilia Rips is a man, not a woman; and so on.) What matters more is that, while Judt tries to avoid the “few great men” version of Western European history, he succumbs to it somewhat in writing about the East. Eastern Europe is seen disproportionately through the prism of Western headlines and secondary sources (the show trials, the major uprisings), with less attention paid to social analysis and the reality of life on the ground.

Judt, of course, has very good excuses. It would take a large team of experts, not a single author, to access and interpret primary sources in all of the languages involved. Moreover, there’s only so much that can be done within the constraints of a single encyclopaedic volume of much wider scope, meant to be accessible to an audience with little prior familiarity with the subject. In a limited “teaching time”, it’s a perfectly valid strategy to focus on those parts that can be explained effectively with less effort. I’ve done it myself on occasion, both in my math teaching and here on this blog.

Still, there’s a lot missing. Take the economy, for starters. Judt speaks of the economic failure of socialism, but never really explains how a Soviet-style planned economy was organized, how it was different from Western European social and economic planning (the subject of many misconceptions in the West), or why it did not and could not work. This is important because, without that information, most readers will just assume that Eastern European central planning was much like in Western Europe, only more rigid and dysfunctional. It was not. Its origins, philosophy, mechanism and execution were all very different from anything known in the Western world. To give one example, all prices (including food and consumer articles) were dictated by the government, and I really mean dictated, not just regulated or subsidized. (Francis Spufford’s “Red Plenty” is excellent on that, and I’d also recommend Anne Applebaum’s “The Iron Curtain” on the early postwar years in Eastern Europe.)

Judt’s Western chapters are so good in part because of how he writes on large and small scales simultaneously, humanizing politics and, at the same time, distilling general trends from a mass of individual events. To wit:

Street scenes in post-war Britain would have been familiar to citizens in the Soviet bloc – in the words of one British housewife, recalling these years, `It was queues for everything, you know, even if you didn’t know what you were queuing for… you joined it because you knew there was something at the end of it.’

No Eastern European housewives were similarly interviewed, at least in the part of the book I’ve read so far. If they had been, they could have talked about how queues formed first thing in the morning and waited for hours before anyone even knew whether anything would be delivered that day. This went on into the 1970s and 80s, not just the early post-war years. They could have talked of the power and water outages that could happen any time, the decrepit 1950s buildings with communal kitchens and bathrooms, or carrying a baby stroller up to the 5th floor of a walk-up apartment building while pregnant with their next child. Likewise, factory workers (both male and female) could have spoken of the long hours, insane schedules, ever-increasing norms, inhuman and unsafe work conditions. It would have explained the desperation behind the strikes, protests and riots.

I started writing this post in response to the chapter on the events of 1968 in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Judt talks first about the attempts, post-Stalin, to separate the Stalinist crimes from the Marxist blueprint, the search for a “third way”, or “Socialism with a human face”. Then the “Prague spring” is crushed by the invasion of Warsaw Pact troops. In Judt’s narrative, this marks the death of the “Communist dream” in Eastern Europe:

But never again – and this was the true lesson of 1968, first for the Czechs but in due course for everyone else – never again would it be possible to maintain that Communism rested on popular consent, or the legitimacy of a reformed Party, or even the lessons of History. […]

The illusion that Communism was reformable, that Stalinism had been a wrong turning, a mistake that could still be corrected, that the core ideals of democratic pluralism might somehow still be compatible with the structures of Marxist collectivism; that illusion was crushed under the tanks on August 21st 1968 and it never recovered. Alexander Dubcek and his Action Program were not a beginning but an end. Never again would radicals or reformers look to the ruling Party to carry their aspirations or adopt their projects. Communism in Eastern Europe staggered on, sustained by an unlikely alliance of foreign loans and Russian bayonets: the rotting carcass was finally carried away only in 1989. But the soul of Communism had died twenty years before: in Prague, in August 1968.

I think that this misrepresents the process. Attempts to reform Communism in the satellite countries were in no way contingent on anyone believing in its soul or having any other grand illusions about it. They were the result of doing realpolitik while stuck between a rock and a hard place. There was no possibility of simply opting out of socialism. The Soviet-led invasion of Hungary in 1956 made that clear enough. Any political or economic reforms would have to be contained within the system. At the same time, one reason why nobody can agree on the exact meaning of “socialism” or “communism” is that it was, in fact, reformable to some extent. Poland was clearly not America, but then it was never Albania or North Korea, either. (Better yet, consider the evolution of China from the days of cultural revolution to today’s economic boom.)

Poland has never really had an “affair” with communism; it was always an arranged marriage enforced by Soviet troops. Armed anti-communist insurgency continued until 1947, well after the war, even as others went about rebuilding their lives as best they could. To the extent that any early illusions about communism existed, their crushing must be dated back to at least June 1956, when the “people’s government”, on behalf of the ruling working class, directed the military to open fire on the same working class as they demanded more bread. Yet, liberalization and substantial reforms followed right afterwards as Gomulka took power in October 1956. While some of the gains of the Polish October were rolled back in the following years, many were not. (According to Raymond Pearson, Poland’s status changed from Soviet “colony” to “dominion.”) Gomulka’s popularity at the time was genuine. So were, however, the protests and riots that continued throughout the rest of 1956, then flared up again periodically in the 1950s and 60s.

Thus started a seesaw process of demands and concessions, rollbacks and protests, that continued all the way until 1989. Where Imre Nagy’s more extreme reforms in Hungary were crushed by a Soviet invasion, the Polish October was a qualified success; the reformers (both within the communist party and those opposed to it) took note of that and proceeded accordingly. It was almost a mantra on both sides to attack the “deviations from socialism” and not socialism itself, even as the notion of socialism was constantly being stretched to accommodate reality. On one hand, critics of the system were all too happy to point out that they were only holding the authorities up to their own rhetoric of equality, people’s empowerment and social justice. On the other hand, these ideals really did take root in the society, not as Marxist theory (honestly, hardly anyone even cared) but as concrete demands from the workers seeking to improve their lives, much as happens in the labour movement in the West. It was not a coincidence that Solidarity was first formed as a trade union.

1968, in Poland, was not a decisive date but only one event in a long sequence. Just two years later, workers’ strikes and demonstrations in major port cities were suppressed violently by the military. Much as in 1956, the widespread popular discontent forced a change in party leadership; again, the new regime enjoyed some degree of support, even as the strikes and unrest continued with the economic demands unmet. (It should be known better than it is that in 1971, the striking women of the textile factories of Lodz achieved the concessions on prices of food that the Gdansk shipyard workers had failed to win in 1970.) Reforms followed; things got better before they got worse again. The cycle would repeat itself a few more times before 1989. This might all seem like going around in circles, except that both sides were learning from it. In each major crisis, the workers and their supporters were better organized, their goals better defined, the political landscape altered. It was a result of this long and tortuous process of trying to “reform socialism” that the opposition forces were capable and competent in their takeover of power in 1989, and that the authorities not only allowed such takeover but indeed cooperated with it.

I’m posting this on the anniversary of the introduction of martial law in Poland in 1981. (Poland has a lot of anniversaries, in case you’re wondering.) I didn’t plan it that way, in fact I’m saving the 1980s for a second post, because those last few sentences need to be elaborated on and also because this is the part I can actually speak of from experience.

But let’s go back to Judt’s chapter on 1968. The specific reason why I started writing this post is that Judt takes several pages to discuss the Polish political crisis in 1968 in great detail, but then dismisses the 1970 crisis in one short paragraph, as if it were merely an insignificant postscriptum to 1968. In Poland, however, the impact of 1970 was arguably greater than that of 1968, if only because 1970 resulted in a regime change as well as actual significant changes in policy.

Why, then, would 1968 appear so much more important than 1970 to a Western historian? I’ll attribute this to the nature of the events. First of all, the 1968 crisis involved mostly the intelligentsia: professors, students, writers. These were people who were able to speak eloquently to their cause, write about it at length, talk with foreign journalists. The 1970 protests, on the other hand, were about uneducated workers who did not write long essays and could not speak English or French. Polish sources, of course, would acknowledge the importance of 1970 and other workers’ protests, but secondary sources – which Judt appears to have relied on – might not.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the Polish 1968 culminated in an anti-Semitic campaign led by the communist party. Again, Judt oversimplifies the picture here. While anti-Semitism was and remains a problem in Poland, Poles have never been as uniformly anti-Semitic as they are sometimes portrayed in the West. (See also here for a primer on the complicated relations between Poles, Jews and communists, the three groups being not at all mutually disjoint.) Rather, it has been a subject of conflicts and disagreements. In 1967-68 specifically, the anti-Semitic popular sentiments among Poles may well have been at a historic low, as most Poles had sided with the Western-backed Israel and cheered its victory over the Soviet-backed Arab states in the 1967 war. Nonetheless, the communists used the March 1968 crisis as a pretext for anti-Semitic purges. Many Poles of Jewish origin and their families (the estimated total is about 15K) were forced to emigrate and forfeit their Polish citizenship in the process.

Now, for most Poles, 1968 was only one of the many political crises they lived through, and probably not the most significant one, either. For those who emigrated, however, it was decisive enough. It was when their illusions were crushed in an irreversible way – and who can blame them? So, after 1968, there were thousands of emigrants in the West, many of them well educated and articulate (writers, professors, etc. – see above), eager to write about their experience and draw conclusions, available to talk to journalists and historians about how they were made to leave the country. Judt, in fact, mentions this specifically in the same chapter. Why would they care about 1970? It no longer made much difference to them, in any case.

I’m not going to end this with any grand moral or conclusion. There’s none really. But I’ll try to write a follow-up post about the 1980s when I have time.

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