Coordinated by Andreea ZAMFIRA

Intellectuals and Civil Society. The Polish Case[1]


Florin-Ciprian MITREA

University of South-East Europe Lumina



Abstract: The notion of public intellectual is, undoubtedly, a product of modernity. Nonetheless, the roots of this concept should be traced back in the late Middle Ages themselves, when intellectuals, in a quite vague sense, begin to assert themselves socially as a distinct entity. After World War II, being an intellectual acquired new connotations in accordance with the new social and political context. In Eastern European countries, intellectuals were confronted with some major decisions, the stake being their independence as regards a totalitarian regime. That being said, the present article analyses the structural transformations applied in communist Poland to the class of intellectuals. Additionally, we are going to detail the stages of the conflict between the Polish humanist intellectual elite and the ideology of the party-state, as well as the evolution of the relationship between left-wing intellectuals and the Polish Catholic Church. The main aim of this study is to enhance the role played by Polish intellectuals, after 1945, in the configuration of a civil society able to successfully oppose the totalitarian regime.


Keywords: intellectuals, communist Poland, totalitarianism, civil society.



The radical changes produced at the level of Polish society after World War II were most deeply visible in the case of intellectuals. Whereas the Catholic Church and the peasantry of Poland succeeded in passing over the post-war period by maintaining their structure and position in society relatively unchanged, intelligentsia suffered major transformations entailing even a possible redefinition of the fundamental elements of its status. At the same time, the transformations undergone by the class of Polish intellectuals served as litmus paper for the strategy adopted by the communist party in order to establish and consolidate its power. In this respect, it is extremely relevant that the notion of intellectuality came to designate, on the one hand, the category of diploma and academic degree holders, and, on the other hand, the so-called “white collars” (the category of all types of clerks).[2] In fact, this double significance characterised the notion of intellectual ever since this social category was invented.

With respect to this idea, J. Le Goff shows that medieval intellectuality was composed, on the one hand by the quasi socio-professional category of the people who “worked with words and their spirit”, who “did not earn their living from land rents and were not constrained to have physically demanding jobs”, working for instance in universities, and, on the other hand, there were also the intellectuals in a broader sense, represented by 13th and 14th century men of letters, who belonged neither to university nor to monastic environments, but who were connected to the urban milieu.[3] Still, the main tension in that epoch was less the animosity between the university staff and independent men of letters, but the conflict between faith and reason. Thus, the representative profile of 13th and 14th century intellectuals was the Averroist philosopher, compelled, on the one hand, to find a balance formula in that context, and, on the other hand, to face the anti-Aristotelian attacks launched by Albert the Great and Thomas of Aquino, as well as by Augustinianism.[4] Another significant aspect as to the model of medieval intellectual is the coagulation of a large part of the intellectuals in a university corporation that becomes progressively independent from both the ecclesiastic and the political power, asserting its own identity, and laying the basis of a specific tradition consisting of student debates, collective ceremonies and amusements.[5] Consequently, comparing the medieval Western intellectual (described by specialists in this historical epoch) and the one in post-war Poland (depicted by Michnik) we can identify as a common trait the attempt of finding an intermediary space in between the two poles of power, represented by the Church and the State. And, to a certain extent, we can also speak of a reiteration of the medieval conflict (resumed with the beginning of modernity) between faith and reason, for in the year 1945 Poland witnessed a polarisation of society: in one camp we find those who remained faithful to the Christianity inherited from their forefathers, and in the second camp we can find those who adhered, more or less formally, to the secularising precepts of communism. That is why post-war Poland can be portrayed, from this point of view, by the Gombrowiczian metaphor which compares her with “a piece of dry bread that breaks crackling into tow smaller pieces: a devout one and another lacking faith”.[6]

As far as the polysemy of the notion we are referring to is concerned, the explanations of Beonio Brocchieri Fumagalli are quite pertinent, according to whom we can speak of a restricted sense and of a broad sense of the concept of intellectual, encompassing two extremities in between which intellectual activities are carried on. Thus,


“in the restricted sense, we say that a person is an intellectual if he/she is not only engaged in an intellectual activity, but is moreover engaged in conveying its capacity of searching with the specific tools of the intellectual activity, in conveying the development pathway, and the well-defined purposes of the activity: it is only natural that he/she be above all a teacher, therefore a magister at the school of time”.[7]


As regards the broad sense of the term of intellectual, it refers, according to Fumagalli, to those “who make use of intelligence and words, but changing quite often the role and the context of the activity, in a way which frequently reveals a certain indifference concerning the aim of their work”.[8]

If in the interwar period sociologic instruments sized Polish intellectuals at 14% of the population of the country, after 1945 the percentage would increase up to 35%. Obviously, this modification is a consequence of the broadening of the very concept of intellectuality, ensuing from the strategy of the new power to enthral this important component of society. Hence, the policy of Popular Poland towards intellectuals proved to be, at least in the first stage, not one aiming to destroy the intelligentsia, but a protective policy, aiming to increase its number, but only in the sense desired by the regime.[9] The concern of the communist Polish power for the intellectuality presents many similarities with the attention paid to intellectuals in Soviet Russia, after the 20th Congress of CPSU, in February 1956, corresponding to the beginning of the relative thaw engendered by Khrushchev’s secret report on Stalin. Replacing, at least for a while, the firing squad and the deportations in the Gulag with the ideological pressure exerted on literature and art in general, Khrushchev somehow showed that, although omnipotent in society, the Party counted on the creative intelligentsia’s services. Especially meaningful is, in this respect, Solzhenitsyn’s testimony (who, on the background of these changes, had succeeded in publishing his explosive short story “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”) about a meeting between the communist leaders and the intellectuality, in December 1962. In that context, in his closing speech, Khrushchev declared the following to the intellectuals present in the hall, “People’s minds are being fought for. Your minds are very precious to us, and you yourselves are a sort of field-marshals”.[10]

Confronted, as in fact all communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe, with an acute crisis of legitimacy, the communist power of Poland grasped that, in order to strengthen itself, it did not suffice to annihilate or to neutralise political competitors, it was also necessary to win a difficult and symbolic war at the level of a society thoroughly impregnated with conservative values. That being so, it was vital for the new regime to win the sympathy of that anticlerical and socialist-oriented ore of the Polish intelligentsia, which was well represented at the level of the entire society. It is relevant to highlight the significant difference, from this point of view, between Poland and Romania (where the dominant intellectual tradition pertained to the right-wing politics, therefore the regime passed to physical annihilation and to an atrocious attempt of re-education by torture).

So, in spite of the fact that the whole Polish society was deeply imbued with conservative values, based on the preservation of national identity and Catholicism, a large part of the intellectual elite on the banks of the Vistula adopted a left-wing political culture. However, what distinguishes essentially Polish socialist tradition is the fact that it cherished particularly the idea of nation, for which reason even a part of the Polish communists would have to endure Stalinist persecutions. Paradoxically, the nationalism of left-wing Polish intelligentsia co-existed with a particularly pronounced anticlerical dimension. That is why, when communism took control over Poland, there were a big distance and tension between the Church and left-wing intellectuals. That is the reason why Adam Michnik regarded the rapprochement of these two sources of Polish energy as the key for the formation of a vigorous anti-totalitarian resistance. To identify the possible bridges between the two pillars of Polish society, Michnik had first to x-ray, as one who knew from the inside the Polish socialist tradition, the nature and the formative trajectory of left-wing intelligentsia on the banks of the Vistula.

Michnik believed the Polish secular left could be best defined and analysed, by examining the changes produced throughout the years 1936, 1946, 1956 and 1966. At the beginning, in 1936, the secular left-wing was a little bit more conspicuous through its firm options in a few clear issues. These options had in view antifascism, the pleading for planned economy, the support of the agrarian reform and the defence of the principle of the separation of Church and state. Ten years later, in 1946, the official historiography identified the left in accordance with the support offered to the “new reality” and the new regime established by the Red Army. Despite the difficult context, the Polish Socialist Party (the interwar PSP), represented by personalities such as Puzak, Zaremba or Zulawski, stood unflinchingly against the “new reality”. A similar attitude was assumed by left-wing intellectuals as Maria Dabrowska, Maria şi Stanislaw Ossowski. Nonetheless, at the same time, other leaders of the PSP, as Julian Hochfeld, Oskar Lange, Adam Rapacki, expressed their readiness in cooperating with the communists. Additionally, the ideologists of the Polish Working Party (PWP) thought they were also entitled to speak on behalf of left-wing ideals.[11]

The challenge brought on by the recently established power led to what Michnik calls a split of the left. Thus, while the editor-in-chief of the journal Kuznica talked about the progressive-minded character of the social reforms undertaken by the PWP, other left wing intellectuals, such as Maria Dabrowska and Zygmunt Zulawski, united in the group WRN (Liberty – Equality – Independence), were evincing the obscurantism and totalitarianism of the methods used to put into practice the respective reforms. In this context, the year 1956, when the famous Polish October took place, is another determining landmark for the identity of the left wing on the banks of the Vistula. From the standpoint of political struggle itself, October 1956 should be regarded as a consequence of the upheaval which started in Poznan, in June, the same year (resulting in the deaths of dozens of people), and which coincides with the moment the tough wing in the party, that pleaded for the repression by the army of the protests, was defeated (during the debates at the Central Committee ensuing with Gomulka’s appointment in the post of secretary of the Party) by the reformers supported by the revolted workers of Warsaw’s factories.[12] Taking advantage of this wave of enthusiasm produced by this victory of Polish communists against Soviet communists, the revisionist current will emerge as an expression of the “hope in the evolution of the communist system”.[13]

Additionally, the fact that distinguishes in that particular historical moment the Polish left wing current is that it assumed a double negation. On the one hand, what is at issue is the assertion of the opposition toward the Stalinist faction inside the party, and, on the other hand, it is about a critical approach of the traditional right wing and the Catholic Church. In this respect, it is worthwhile mentioning the attitude of the gazette Po Prostu, one of the sharpest spears of the revisionist movement, which was attacking with equal virulence both Stalinist and catholic dogmatists. Another relevant example as to the 1956 position of the Polish left is the case of the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski. Accused by the communist regime of being an oppositionist and a revisionist, at that time Kolakowski had adopted an explicit Marxist position, contributed to the journal Argumenty edited by the Association of Atheists and Free Thinkers and was constantly polemicising with the Church. As regards revisionism in general, it was a current formed, on the one hand, of former Stalinist who criticised the policy of the party, and, on the other hand, of anti-Stalinist left-wing intellectuals (the most important and vocal of them being Maria Dabrowska, Maria and Stanislaw Ossowski). Consequently, in 1956, the secular left wing defined itself through an oppugnant relation with both the Central Committee of the Party and the Catholic Church. In Michnik’s opinion, the main error of the secular left resided in this manner of identifying its enemies, for it made the mistake of misinterpreting reality and of making too feeble an opposition to the regime, without any visible results.[14] As a matter of fact, in all the countries which witnessed this phenomenon, revisionism, as critical attitude towards real communism and as anti-Stalinism (or at least as recantation of Stalinism), shared in making a breach in the system. Nonetheless, sooner or later it would exhibit its precariousness, as well as the limits of its vision.

Similar to the Polish case is the cogent attitude of Russian intellectuals in the post-Stalinist period toward the case of Solzhenitsyn. Thus, after having enthusiastically received his short story “One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovici”, published in the magazine Novâi Mir, on the background of the liberalisation produced in the first part of Khrushchev’s mandate, USSR’s intellectuals began to feel certain reservations as regards Solzhenitsyn’s subsequent writings which no longer limited themselves to denounce Stalinism, but aimed at the very ideological basis of Marxism. In this case, the litmus paper was the open letter addressed to the Patriarch Pimen, which was vituperating against the atheism of the communist system, along with the historic novel August, which was criticising the Revolution of 1917.[15] We can therefore identify a resemblance between Michnik and Solzhenitsyn, in the sense that both of them followed an ascending trajectory in their writings and attitudes, starting from the denouncement of the totalitarian effects of communism, without however attacking its ideological basis, and advancing toward the severe condemnation of the constitutive principles of the regime. The major difference between the two resides in the fact that, while in Michnik’s case, the change of approach corresponds to a change of his political thought, in Solzhenitsyn’s case (who, due to his camp experience, had realised the true nature of communism), it was just a matter of change of strategy in revealing the truth. As far as the merits of Polish revisionism are concerned, they consisted in the fact that they evinced the necessity “of a critical participation in the life of society” and that they disseminated on a large scale an “opposing attitude” towards the power.[16] On the other hand, this attitude was based on the erroneous faith in the “identity between the aspirations and objectives of the liberal wing of the Party and those of the revisionist intelligentsia”. Consequently, the events of March 1968 would entail the collapse of the “heroic myth of the party leader” (which had substantially nurtured the illusions of the intelligentsia), as well as the breakdown of revisionism as a way of referring to totalitarian power[17].  

The negative effects of the strategy adopted by the secular left wing on the basis of a political thought inconsistent with the reality of Polish society would be brought to light, argues Michnik, in 1966, when the conflict between the PZPR (Polish Unified Workers' Party) and the Episcopate reached its peak. After the closure, in 1957, of the gazette Po Prostu, this open conflict between the totalitarian state and the Church represented the tensest moment in Polish public life. Despite all this, the most prominent left-wing Polish intellectuals (among whom Kolakowski, Wlodzimierz Brus, Maria Ossowska, Antoni Slonimski were the most important) did not understand the real stake of the events and, consequently, did not react against the defamatory campaign led against the bishops accused of having betrayed the interest of their country. That is the reason why the sermon uttered by cardinal Wyszynski, at the end of the year 1956, which cited approvingly Kolakowski’s essay entitled “Jesus Christ, prophete et reformateur”, received no answer from the Polish philosopher, who, on the contrary, disavowed in a paper the interpretation of the clergyman. According to Michnik, this could have been the starting point of the rapprochement of the Church and intelligentsia, had the latter responded to the hand lent by the Episcopate. As a matter of fact, throughout the conflict between state and Church, Leszek Kolakowski, as leader of the revisionist current, remained silent. This silence would be broken in 1966, at the University of Warsaw, when the philosopher drew a bitter conclusion on the communist rule. After having delivered this speech, he was expelled from the party. However, not even in this courageous declaration did Kolakowski refer to the policy of the power as to the Church. Thereupon we may infer that in 1966 Poland’s left-wing intelligentsia was driven by the desire to fight for democratic liberties, yet it was still very far away from understanding the fact that the totalitarian regime could not be successfully opposed without making an alliance with the Church[18].

With respect to the fact that Poland’s communist regime tried to win Polish intellectuals on its side, unquestionably this does not imply that it took a special interest in their weal, on the contrary, it shows an astute strategy of annihilating an uncomfortable social category. Thus, the party’s efforts to form a “red bourgeoisie” (czerwona burzuazja), went hand in hand with the measures taken to ensure that the intelligentsia would be totally deprived of all political power.[19] An efficient instrument in that direction was, certainly, what Stanislaw Baranczak called “Big Brother’s red fountain pen”[20], in other words the daily censorship exerted on everything that was meant to be a public discourse, “from wedding invitations, circus posters, to obscure publications concerning Mediterranean archaeology”[21]. Moreover, the social policies of the regime endeavoured to develop a sort of middle class composed of the industrial and technocratic proletariat, a class which was to replace the emblematic figure of the old Polish intellectual with that of a professional who would be active only in a mould strictly delimited by the division of labour. Consequently, Polish intelligentsia actually ceases to exist after World War II, the last relics of this social segment being noticeable at the linguistic level, in certain customs and life style or in the domestic atmosphere.[22] Thus, one of the effects of the redefinition of the notion of intellectual in the Popular Republic of Poland consisted in the relativisation of the frontier within Polish cultural tradition, which irreconcilably separated the statute of inteligentny from that of supporter of the political power. That being so, the spread of higher education led to the apparition of a professional technical and scientific social stratum whose representatives were employed by the state and who were not engaged in political or moral conflicts as those experienced by writers, artists or teachers. The manoeuvre of moving the centre of gravity from humanist intellectuality to technical intellectuality, in portraying the emblematic figure of the representative intellectual, was a strategy used in the majority of the countries under the Soviet bloc. An important reason in this respect was the fact that by its very nature the technical domain predisposes, in general, to strict specialisation and to a lower propensity for developing a critical spirit in social and political issues. Thus it is worthwhile noting that taking into account the special attention paid by the state to the control and organisation of each and every aspect related to cultural life, the prototype of the old fashion independent intellectual had but very few chances to survive. That is why, a large part of the educated Polish, who considered themselves the elite of the Polish intelligentsia, were compelled to work in the state system and to adhere to unions sponsored by the Party.[23] The phenomenon of the apparition of a new intellectuality, as a sort of middle class, occurred in soviet Russia too (but in the more dramatic context of physical extermination of an important part of the traditional intelligentsia, during the Stalinist period). Solzhenitsyn speaks very eloquently about the quality of this new social stratum which he qualifies as a huge and “hateful class”, which includes the whole party apparatus, “which acquired a substandard culture”, a “cultivated tribe who claims the title of intellectuality”, given that “intellectuality can be but a genuine, creative, not at all numerous, and selfish from tips to toes elite”.[24]

Under the communist regime, a special category of the Polish intelligentsia was represented by catholic writers. Endeavouring to perpetuate the great tradition of Polish literature, deeply imbued with catholic themes and values, the writers who cherished the Church in post-war Poland differ however from their great predecessors pursuant to the different contexts in which they created. In the case of writers as Adam Mickiewicz or Henryk Sienkiewicz, the national ideal, catholic values and the theme of liberty combined harmoniously in a single whole, meant to inspire the Polish people with those moral resources which might help them resist and fight to gain the independence of their country. As far as the conservative writers who created in post-war Poland are concerned, the situation was much more complicated, since the totalitarian challenge was quite different from the challenge represented to the writers of the past centuries by the foreign occupation. While in the 18th and 19th centuries the writers who were faithful to the Catholic Church were the sharpest spears of the spiritual force that roused against the brutal force of the occupying powers, in the second half of the 20th century Polish writers were compelled to find a proper and creative answer for the tensions between conformism and non-conformism, between the preservation and the modification of the social, political and cultural status-quo. Thus, if for left-wing intellectuals, by virtue of their structural inclination for criticism, the source of their thinking and behavioural error was the tendency to criticise undiscriminatingly the two major expressions of the hierarchic principle in Poland’s society of that time (videlicet the Communist Party and the Catholic Church), for right-wing writers the risk of losing authenticity came from too great an expansion of the conservative principle up to the relativisation of the demarcation lines between opposite values. In other words, the great temptation of the post-war Polish intellectual was to waver between either the hypostasis of the critical and uprooted intellectual, or that of the organic intellectual, exclusively dedicated to the preservation of the stability of society (be it dominated by communism).

Another trait of catholic writers in communist Poland resided in the way they manifested themselves publicly. In fact, as Czeslaw Milosz puts it, the main criterion of labelling a writer as catholic writer is less the extent to which he assumes the creed and the dogma of the Church (for such an aspect is hardly measurable), but rather his collaboration with catholic publications and publishing houses. Another characteristic of these writers is their predilection for historical subjects, treated with traditional literary techniques, preferably in prose, and feeling a certain dependence on catholic literature and the model of French conservative and right-wing kind of attitude.[25] Among the most important catholic writers we find the names of Hanna Malewska, Antoni Golubiew, Teodor Parnicki, Jerzy Zawieyski, Zofia Kossak, Jan Dobraczynski, Wladyslaw Grabski, Jerzy Piechowski, Andrzej Piotrowski, Stanislaw Stomma, Jerzy Turowicz, Stefan Kisielewski, Jacek Wozniakowski.[26] The most representative publications of this category of intellectuals were Znak, Wiez and Tygodnik Powszechny. Those who published constantly in these papers accepted, implicitly, the power of the Party in society and allowed censorship to check their writings. Consequently, these writers were perceived as conformists by their peers who published underground or abroad.[27]

Actually, the attitude branded as conformist was an expression of neo-positivism which, argues Adam Michnik, “was taking into consideration the country’s geo-political parameters, as well as her Catholicism, an indispensable part and parcel of Polish public life”[28]. The most prominent representative of neo-positivism, Stanislaw Stomma, was referring to USSR, in the traditional way, naming it the great Russian power, and did not regard it as a country dominated by a regime which was propagating and promoting Marxist ideology. Stomma’s and his group’s purpose was to create the core of a political movement, able to take the power and, at a given time, govern the Polish nation. Such an opportunity could have been seized during the years 1956-1959, when the communist system had begun to show the first signs of disintegration.[29] For this strategy, Stanislaw Stomma took as model Roman Dmowski, the leader and doctrinaire of national democracy, who understood to serve the Polish nation by respecting the institutional framework of the great Russian power. In this respect, in 1906, Dmowski entered the Duma of tsarist Russia, and in 1957, he became member of the Diet. For the leader of the National Democrat Party (Endecja), World War II represented the best moment to win the independence of his country.[30] As an embodiment of the Polish nationalism of early 20th century, Dmowski exerted a strong influence on the political culture of the banks of the Vistula long after his death. Thus, the book in which he developed his political philosophy, Thoughts of a Modern Pole, would become very popular not only in the days of its author, but also in the ’80s, as an incentive text of the Solidarity, as movement which strove to regain national independence.[31] In this work, Dmowski states that “the primordial goal of the Popular National Union is the power of the Polish nation and state...”[32] To achieve this goal, it was necessary to create a “material base for the Polish force” by developing the cities, the crafts, and the country’s industries and commerce, by strengthening the middle class, the numerous and prosperous households of the peasants and the thriving working class. This material dimension of the Polish power had to be accrued by the moral force of the nation which can be the fruit but of “the education of society in a religious and national spirit, instilling in the citizens the feeling they are all equal before the law and that they all have the same responsibilities in the state”. Dmowski’s quality of conservative and catholic intellectual is made conspicuous by the fact he declared that the pillars which support national education are the Church, school, family and the authority of the state. Moreover, the leader of Endecjiei states resolutely that the nation’s moral education rests on religion, the Church paying the role of guide of moral life. That is why, Dmowski argues that “all religious beliefs should enjoy a total freedom of confession and rite in Poland”, but, as “the overwhelming majority of the Polish nation is catholic”, everybody should acknowledge the leading role of the Catholic Church.[33]

  Hence, Roman Dmowski and Stanislaw Stomma represent the central landmarks of the category of catholic Polish writers, both of them having as priority the relation with the Church and the nation’s moral, economic and political strengthening. As in the case of Polish intellectuals any approach of an issue related to national identity cannot ignore the moment this nation lost its sovereignty after the 18th century partitions, we should mention that the way Dmowski deals with this moment is one closer to the realist rather than to the romantic tradition in Polish political thought. Thus, in Dmowski’s opinion, the three partitions of Poland (in 1773, 1793 and 1795) among Russia, Prussia and Austria had as main cause not so much external, as internal factors (represented by the decay and corruption of the szlachtei, the ruling class of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). Denouncing the noble and proud experience of Poland as a “historical nation”, still bearing the seeds of her own destruction,[34] Dmowski believes that the solution to regain sovereignty lies in a domestic moral and economic strengthening of Polish energies. By building a program based on the existing realities, in tune with positivist thinkers, Dmowski considers that the defence and consolidation of the nation had to be effected with the instruments of education. But unlike the positivists (who maintained themselves at an apolitical level), Dmowski pleads that the struggle had to be extended in the political plan too, through the respect and the enforcement of the existing legal framework. For the leader of Endecjiei, the solution to the Polish issue resided largely in a rapprochement to Russia, given that Prussia’s policy of Germanisation of Polish territories had become an increasingly great threat.[35] Discarding the romantic philosophy of all or nothing, the realism promoted by Dmowski evinces the necessity to collaborate with Russia and with the other partitionist powers, with a view to obtaining political concessions leading progressively to autonomy, as a first step to a future independence. This strategy would be successfully applied also in October 1956, when, unlike the Hungarians who played the independence card, the Polish people limited themselves to fight for a leader of the Polish Communist Party chosen by themselves and not imposed by the Soviets.[36] So the Polish conservative and catholic intellectuals’ political thinking more often than not tended to realistically evaluate the political situation, to distinguish between short term and long term objectives of the country, and especially to obtain and preserve an as large an autonomy as possible which might promote educational activities (with the help of the Church, family and school) meant to fortify the nation. Naturally, such a perspective excluded romantic revolutionary philosophy and the radical fight with the system. That is the reason why the members of this intellectual current were regarded, especially after 1945, as too inclined to compromise with the regime. Similarly, the adepts of the organic work philosophy of the 19th century were accused by those who did not agree with this perspective on resistance that their political passivity stemmed from the desire to protect their economic interests.

In fact, two categories of intellectuals asserted themselves within this current: those who, like Dmowski and Stomma, were anxious to create a basis for the nation’s resistance founded on conservative values, and others, as the writer Jerzy Andrzejewski (1909-1983) who, as Czeslaw Milosz pointed out,[37] in the context generated by the totalitarian communist regime, turned from catholic moral to the moral of social conformism. Andrzejewski is portrayed by Milosz as a representative type of moralist intellectuals deprived of that inner substance that would have been proper for the public role he assumed. Because of this spiritual inconsistency, says Milosz, the number of catholic writers is extremely small in the 20th century, which confirms the fact that “usually the so-called conversions of intellectuals pertain to a rather dubious species and do not differ from the transient conversions to surrealism, expressionism, existentialism, etc.”[38] Several times these conversions proved to be the mere effects of a cultural fashion (which had as main ingredient the interest in Thomism and J. Maritain’s philosophy). Thus, considering that “each one sought in Catholicism something else”, the assumption of its values was used by many 20th century intellectuals more like a mask ordained to cover their own nakedness.[39] This distorted relation of intellectuals with the Church, fruit of a rather political than religious conversion, is labelled by Michnik as the second treason of intellectuals.[40] The lack of authenticity as regards the relation with faith and the Church represents for the Polish critique of communism an as great, still much subtler a danger as the adherence to the communist ideology. The diagnosis made by Witold Gombrowicz to the intellectuals’ spiritual condition in post-war Poland is a relevant example in this respect. In Gombrowicz’s opinion, communism succeeds to enslave the minds not only through its persuasive force, but also through the negative fascination it exerts on certain intellectuals, in the sense they become so obsessed with the idea of fighting against the regime that they evaluate all the other aspects of life according to this landmark and not for its intrinsic value. Also in Gombrowicz’s opinion, “our mind is so chained to our situation and so enthralled by communism, that all our thoughts are directed only against it or for it – and we are avant la lettre attached to its waggon, it defeated us by binding us to it, though we enjoy an illusory liberty.” Consequently, “we are allowed today to think of Catholicism too as if it were but a force able to offer resistance, and God has become a gun with which we want to shoot Marx.”[41] Seeing things this way, Gombrowicz does not hesitate to address the harshest of words to his fellow countrymen:


“Hypocrites! If you need Catholicism, then become more serious and try to get closer to it with sincerity. Let not the common front you are going to make be just a political one! I just think that no matter what might happen in our spiritual life, let it be as profound and honest as possible. It is high time atheists sought a new understanding with the Church”.[42]


Though interested in a rapprochement between intellectuals and the Church, cardinal Wyszynski did not hesitate to stand firmly against turning faith into an instrument for social purposes. In fact, the primate of Poland was convinced that for a long period of time there was no catholic intellectuality in the purest sense of the word. The reason of this relevant absence of intellectuals, in the most critical moments, “from the battle field for the catholic ideal”, resided in the fact that “intellectual milieus remained always close to relativism in matters of thinking and morals”.[43] According to Wyszynski, the intellectuals’ major problem is that although they cherish the conviction that Poland can be saved only through the Church, they do not adhere to it. Thus, explains the primate, “the intellectual approaches the Church because he is in search of political thrills, but he does not live a life filled with grace”, although “grace is the main force of the Church”.[44]

Another symptom of this intellectual category is, according to Milosz, the abuse of words, in the sense that the respective writers are not deeply convinced of the reality of the conflicts they create in their works. What characterises mainly the Alpha type of intellectual is the passage, according to the political context, from catholic ethics (fashionable during the inter-war period) to the ethics of loyalty, as a prolongation of Christian ethics, but opposed to social ethics (a theme widely spread in the political underground literature during the war) and then to the ethics of the New Creed (enacted by socialist realism).[45] According to Milosz, the sole remedy for this sort of intellectual and moral stumbling is the passion for truth. Frequently this passion for truth finds its expression through “that inner voice which prevents us from uttering too many things”. We have in mind that restraint which should govern a writer when he feels he cannot say all the truth, but only a part of it.[46] It is precisely in favour of this complete harmony between the author and his text that Witold Gombrowicz militates when confessing that: “I believe that all the things I endorse have a value inasmuch as an idea severed from a particular man does not fully exist. There are no other ideas but the embodied ones. There is no word which is not also a body”.[47] We find this idea, differently formulated and in another context, in Adam Michnik’s work, where he plainly pointed out that “the motherland of intellectuals is the Truth” and that their duty is to say the Truth.[48] The specific nuances which individualise the two Polish intellectuals reside in the fact that Milosz stresses artistic truth (in other words that the writer must not deal with the themes and concepts he works with as if they were some toys, he must treat them as realities which have to be experienced), and Michnik understands by the duty of telling the truth especially the protection of the civil rights of the members of the national community. Let us add to all these standpoints also Leszek Kolakowski’s, according to whom the most important responsibility of intellectuals is the “correct and as less as possible guileful utilisation of the word”.[49] For Kolakowski,


“it is less the truth than the spirit of the truth which matters, since no one can swear never to be mistaken; but the spirit of the truth can be preserved, which means never to relinquish a vigilant suspicion related to one’s own words and identifications, and to know how to recant one’s own errors and be able to amend them alone.”[50]


In conclusion, the pivotal challenge which any attempt to x-ray a model of the engaged Polish intellectual must assume has in view the possibility of identifying a category of intellectuals situated in between or outside the two poles of power. In this respect, the question that rises refers to the ways in which this sort of intellectual might preserve his independent statute, while keeping his statute of engaged intellectual too. The answer given to this query by the Polish pattern of anti-totalitarian resistance rested, it seems, in unceasingly fostering and assuming the fundamental tension between what Adam Michnik called the model of the priest, represented by cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, and the model of the buffoon, embodied by the rebel writer Witold Gombrowicz. The profile of Polish civil society, even in its current hypostasis, cannot be depicted in all its complexity without taking into account these two historical paradigms of the Polish intellectual, as well as the specificity of their dialogue.



BARANCZAK, Stanislaw, Breathing Under Water And Other East European Essays, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, 1992.

BLEJWAS, Stanislaus A., Realism in Polish Politics: Warsaw Positivism and National Survival in Nineteenth Century Poland, Yale Concilium on International and Area Studies, New Haven, 1984.

BOETIUS (of Dacia), Despre viaţa filosofului, Polirom, Iaşi, 2005;

DAVIES, Norman, Heart of Europe. The Past in Poland’s Present, Oxford University Press, New York, 2001.

De LIBERA, Alain Gândirea Evului Mediu, trans. Mihaela and Ion Zgărdău, Amarcord, Timişoara, 2000.

GOMBROWICZ, Witold, Jurnal, selection, translation and notes by Olga Zaicik, Univers, București, 1998.

KOLAKOWSKI, Lezek, Modernitatea sub un neobosit colimator, trans. Mihnea Gafiţa, Curtea Veche, București, 2007.

LE BRETON, Jean-Marie, Europa Centrală şi Orientală între 1917 şi 1990, trans. Micaela Slăvescu, Cavallioti, 1996.

MICHNIK, Adam, L’Eglise et la gauche. Le dialogue polonais, trans. Agnes Slonimski, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1979.

MICHNIK, Adam, Scrisori din închisoare şi alte eseuri, Polirom, Iaşi, 1997.

MILOSZ, Czeslaw Gândirea captivă. Eseu despre logocraţiile populare, trans. Constantin Geambaşu, Humanitas, București, 1999.

SOLJENIŢÂN, Aleksandr, Viţelul şi stejarul. Însemnări din viaţa literară, vol. I, trans. Maria and Ion Nastasia, Humanitas, București, 2002.

SUGAR, Peter F., Naţionalismul est-european în secolul al-XX-lea, trans. Radu Paraschivescu, Curtea Veche, București, 2002.

TIGHE, Carl, The Politics of Literature. Poland 1945-1989, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1999.


[1] Acknowledgment: This paper was financed by POSDRU/89/1.5/S / 62259 contract, for the strategic project “Socio-human and political applied sciences. Postdoctoral training program and postdoctoral research fellowships in socio-human and political sciences”, co-financed by the European Social Fund through the Sectoral Operational Programme Human Resources Development 2007-2013.

[2] Carl TIGHE, The Politics of Literature. Poland 1945-1989, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1999, p. 34.

[3] Jacques LE GOFF, Les Intellectuels au Moyen Age, apud Alain DE LIBERA, Gândirea Evului Mediu, trans. Mihaela and Ion ZGĂRDĂU, Amarcord, Timişoara, 2000, pp. 5-6.

[4] Mihai MAGA, Redescoperirea experienţei intelectuale în idealul moral al filosofului averroist, commentary on Boetius of Dacia - Despre viaţa filosofului, Polirom, Iaşi, 2005, p. 115.

[5] Ibidem, p. 115.

[6] Witold GOMBROWICZ, Jurnal, selection, translation and notes by Olga ZAICIK, Univers, București, 1998, p. 48.

[7] Beonio Brocchieri FUMAGALLI, “L’intellectuel”, in Jacques LE GOFF (coord.), L’Homme médieval , apud Alain De Libera, Gândirea Evului Mediu…cit., p. 281.

[8] Ibidem.

[9] Carl TIGHE, The Politics of Literature. Poland 1945-1989, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1999, pp. 34-35.

[10] Aleksandr SOLZHENITSYN, Viţelul şi stejarul. Însemnări din viaţa literară, vol. I, trans. Maria and Ion Nastasia, Humanitas, București, 2002, p. 87.

[11] Adam MICHNIK, L’Eglise et la gauche. Le dialogue polonais, trans. Agnes Slonimski, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1979, p. 7.

[12] Jean-Marie LE BRETON, Europa Centrală şi Orientală între 1917 şi 1990, trans. Micaela Slăvescu, Cavallioti, 1996, p. 195.

[13] Adam MICHNIK, Scrisori din închisoare şi alte eseuri, Polirom, Iaşi, 1997, p. 127.

[14] Idem, L’Eglise et la gauche…cit., p. 8.

[15] Aleksadr SOLZHENITSYN, Viţelul şi stejarul…cit., p. 409.

[16] Adam MICHNIK , Scrisori din închisoare…cit., p. 129.

[17] Ibidem, pp. 129-130.

[18] Idem, L’Eglise et la gauche…cit., p. 9.

[19] Carl TIGHE, The Politics of Literature…cit., p. 35.

[20] Stanislaw BARANCZAK, Breathing under Water and Other East European Essays, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, 1992, p. 61.

[21] Ibidem, pp. 61-62.

[22] Maria HIRSZOWICZ, “The Bureaucratic Leviathan“, apud Carl TIGHE, The Politics of Literature…cit., p. 35.

[23] Norman DAVIES, Heart of Europe. The Past in Poland’s Present, Oxford University Press, New York, 2001, p. 347.

[24] Aleksandr SOLZHENITSYN, Viţelul şi stejarul…cit., Vol. I, p. 305.

[25] Czeslaw MILOSZ, “History of Polish Literature”, Berkeley, 1983, apud Carl TIGHE, The Politics of Literature…cit., p. 48.

[26] Carl TIGHE, The Politics of Literature…cit., pp. 48-49.

[27] Ibidem, pp. 47-48.

[28] Adam MICHNIK, Scrisori din închisoare…cit., p. 128.

[29] Ibidem, p. 128.

[30] Ibidem, p. 128.

[31] Peter F. SUGAR, Naţionalismul est-european în secolul al- XX- lea, trans. Radu Paraschivescu, Curtea Veche, București, 2002, pp. 221-222.

[32] Roman DMOWSKI, “Mysli Novoczesnego Polaka” (Gândurile unui polonez modern), Sklad Glowny Gazeta Warszawska, Warszawa, 1933, apud Peter F. Sugar, op. cit., p. 205.

[33] Ibidem, p. 207.

[34] Ibidem, p. 219.

[35] Stanislaus A. BLEJWAS, Realism in Polish Politics: Warsaw Positivism and National Survival in Nineteenth Century Poland, Yale Concilium on International and Area Studies, New Haven, 1984, pp. 195-197.  

[36] Ibidem, p. 199.

[37] It is about the character Alfa through whom Czeslaw Milosz presents, in fact, not only a singular case, but a whole category of intellectuals attracted, in the beginning, by the values of Catholicism, but who did not take deep roots in this perspective, and yielded, later on, to the pressures and temptations of the totalitarian regime. Cf. chapter „Alfa or the moralist” in Czeslaw MILOSZ, Gândirea captivă. Eseu despre logocraţiile populare, trans. Constantin Geambaşu, Humanitas, București, 1999, pp. 90-115.

[38] Ibidem, p. 92.

[39] Ibidem, p. 94.

[40] Adam MICHNIK, Scrisori din închisoare…cit., p. 196.

[41] Witold GOMBROWICZ, Jurnal…cit., p. 49.

[42] Ibidem, p. 49.

[43] Adam MICHNIK, Scrisori din închisoare…cit., p. 195.

[44] Ibidem, p. 195.

[45] Czeslaw MILOSZ, Gândirea captivă…cit., pp. 95-111.

[46] Ibidem, p. 115.

[47] Witold GOMBROWICZ, Jurnal…cit., p. 118.

[48] Adam MICHNIK, Scrisori din închisoare…cit., p. 259.

[49] Lezek KOLAKOWSKI, Modernitatea sub un neobosit colimator, translated by Mihnea Gafiţa, ed. Curtea Veche, București, 2007, p. 62.

[50] Ibidem.