There is an infamous story in Poland about a sign at the shipyard in Gdansk where the trade union movement Solidarity got started in 1980. Although nobody actually saw the sign, many people firmly believe that it existed. The sign read: “Women, do not disturb us. We are fighting for Poland.”
“The sign is very important to Polish feminism,” Agnieszka Graff told me in an interview outside of Bialystok in August 2013. “It puts in a nutshell the kind of arrogance but also the beauty of Polish patriarchal patriotism: ‘Don’t disturb us, ladies, we are the strong and tragic men who are fighting for Poland and we want to give it to you with a rose.’”
Graff, a specialist in American feminism, has been involved in many of the most important women’s organizing efforts of the last two decades. She was part of the protests wrapped in street theater known as Manifa. She’s been involved in the Congress of Women. And she has strengthened the feminist analysis of Krytyka Polityczna.
Her political activism began at the end of the Solidarity period when she was involved in an organization “devoted to abolishing Communism through laughter.” She was 16 years old. “I remember sewing hundreds of red hats for the dwarf march across Warsaw,” she told me. “The main dwarves were my boyfriend and two other flamboyant guys. Lenin, Marx, Trotsky, Engels, and so on were the bearded leaders, and the rest of us were the dwarves. We did a dwarf run on the Palace of Culture. The fun part was that the police were completely helpless: they didn’t know what to do. The pretense was that we admired Communism and were trying to establish a truly revolutionary red state.”
She has thought a great deal about that those early years of activism. “I won’t pretend that I was a heroine of the revolution,” Graff continued. “I was a revolutionary’s girlfriend. In 1987, I gave an interview to one of the underground newspapers, and it was titled ‘A Revolutionary’s Girlfriend.’ I was dead serious about it. I was very romantic. It took me years to revisit that part of my life from a feminist perspective and see this as an interesting adventure in a particular kind of Eastern European patriarchy.”
Revisiting that period and analyzing the impact of the sign on the shipyard door has led her to help excavate the oft-overlooked contributions that women have made to the Polish opposition. “The reason I became a feminist in Poland – though it’s an oversimplification – was because of reading Shana Penn’s article “Solidarity’s Secret,” which was about the enormous contribution of women to late-stage underground Solidarity after Martial Law and the way that they were forgotten,” Graff remembers. “I was overwhelmed by this story, it changed my view of things. I realized that the established image of Solidarity was just not true: of the underground as the place where bearded men were doing their thing, and their thing was brave and manly, and the women were at best the revolutionaries’ girlfriends. This was my story, but that’s because I was 16! The real women were brave and smart and involved in the struggle at the time. And their struggle was forgotten.”
But then it turned out that not all of these women wanted to be remembered, or at least not as proto-feminists. “They did not see women’s issues as political issues,” Graff says. “These former heroines — they didn’t want to be adored by us, they didn’t want us to express our gratitude, and they didn’t want us to identify as their daughters, which we did, very strongly. We thought of ourselves as the new dissidents. And we wanted them, naively, to be our leaders. And they said, ‘No, we’re doing business now.’”
Graff added, “A lot of these women are deeply conservative. They did what they had to do in the late 1980s and don’t see why should they identify with the progressive women’s movement now. Theirs is a different story and different analysis from ours.”
We talked about her involvement in a wide range of women’s organizations, her pivotal essay on the Polish film Seksmisja, what it has been like to rediscover her Jewish roots, and why we can’t leave the most important social questions to the “experts.”
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I was at Amherst College with my German boyfriend. I was a sophomore. We were watching it on TV, and we were furious, both of us, that we were in the States. And I distinctly remember thinking: “I will regret this for the rest of my life!”
Of course I had the same feeling with greater intensity in June 1989 when the first semi-free elections were happening in Poland. All my Polish friends were running around postering and doing the things you do when you are helping elections. And I was studying William Shakespeare.
You decided to go abroad in 1988 with the intention of not coming back.
It was assumed that nothing interesting or hopeful would happen in Poland. I was an adventurous 18-year-old. I’d done some hitchhiking around Europe. My friend and I ended up in Oxford as penniless hitchhikers. I had this vision that I would end up there sooner or later. My friend thought I was crazy, but I did end up there eventually. I went to Amherst and then I spent my junior year abroad and later did my advanced degree at Oxford.
My father had been a philosophy professor and a Fulbright professor at Amherst a few years earlier, during Martial Law. So, the idea of studying abroad was not farfetched. Of course, I lied on my passport form, pretending to just go on vacation, and then I just stayed when things changed abruptly. But it was also clear for an ambitious intellectual that Polish universities were not the thing to do if you had a chance to do something else. In retrospect, though, I’m not sure if I wouldn’t have had a better education in Poland because so much was happening.
An education on the ground, so to speak.
It was so intense in Poland in the early 1990s. A lot of people dropped out of school. A number of my intellectually promising friends from high school never finished their MA degrees. But that didn’t stop them from becoming important intellectuals and participating in the changes. Some went into politics, many became journalists. I did come back in 1995 after getting my BA at Amherst and MA at Oxford. My parents and a lot of other people thought it was a mistake, a wasted opportunity – I could have had an academic career in the States or Britain. But I’d had it. I was homesick.Not interested in staying.
I thought it was my idea to leave Poland, but it wasn’t really my idea. I was one of those kids who was supposed to get out for my parents’ sake. For my parents, it was too late, or so they thought at the time. They wanted me to have the international academic career they never could. But I decided to come back.
Around 1988, what was your connection to the opposition?
Remember, I was born in 1970. In 1988, I was18. That doesn’t leave a lot of years to fight against Communism. I’m not going to make myself look like a hero. But since 1985 or 1986, I was in love with a guy who was one of the leaders of the youth opposition, the head of a Warsaw group very much like Pomaranczowa Alternatywa (Orange Alternative). It wasn’t really the same organization, but the same kind of organization – devoted to abolishing Communism through laughter – absurdist street theater. There were some personal tensions between the Warsaw and Wroclaw branches, but we were doing similar things.
I remember sewing hundreds of red hats for the dwarf march across Warsaw. The main dwarves were my boyfriend and two other flamboyant guys. Lenin, Marx, Trotsky, Engels, and so on were the bearded leaders, and the rest of us were the dwarves. We did a dwarf run on the Palace of Culture. The fun part was that the police were completely helpless: they didn’t know what to do. The pretense was that we admired Communism and were trying to establish a truly revolutionary red state. I remember five or six such events – one was in honor of Jerzy Urban, the much hated government spokesman – but of course there were more that I didn’t participate in. There was a lot of underground work that I knew about and helped in, but as a girl, and being younger than the majority of the others, who were already university students, I was excluded from the really dangerous parts.
I won’t pretend that I was a heroine of the revolution. I was a revolutionary’s girlfriend. In 1987, I gave an interview to one of the underground newspapers, and it was titled “A Revolutionary’s Girlfriend.” I was dead serious about it. I was very romantic. It took me years to revisit that part of my life from a feminist perspective and see this as an interesting adventure in a particular kind of Eastern European patriarchy.
At the time, I was very religious. I’m one of those Polish Jews who was so well hidden that I was hidden from myself. My parents baptized me and sent me to KIK (Klub Inteligencji Katolickiej – Club of Catholic Intelligentsia), in the hopes that I would find a nice Catholic boy and have a nice Catholic family (instead, I met a nice Jewish boy many years later). Anyway, I was very deeply religious. At one point I was even speaking in tongues. There was a moment in my teenage years when I wanted to be a nun, which really freaked out my parents. That was one of the reasons why they sent me to the States. “Enough is enough,” they thought: revolutionaries, nuns! So, I went to the States and came back a Jew and a feminist, which is closer to my true identity. But who knows who I’d be today if I’d stayed? Perhaps a devout Catholic and stay-at-home mother of four?
Before you went to the States, did you know that you were Jewish?
It’s one of those things you know but you don’t know, because it’s irrelevant culturally. We celebrated Christmas and Easter. There was an emotional tension around it that you didn’t want to touch. I knew that my father was a Holocaust survivor. It’s hard to revisit my earlier state of mind. I don’t think I really grasped in the 1980s what the Holocaust was. It sounds bizarre but, because of the Catholic education, we knew what the Soviets had done to the Poles and what the Germans had done to Poland. We knew about Katyn. But the Holocaust? I remember being shocked when, in the early 1990s, I found an old book in a flea market with images — later I found out that the book was very rare and I should have bought it — and I spent an hour looking at the photographs of heaps of dead bodies at a concentration camp. It was only then that it clicked with me, that this is what happened to my grandmother.
That’s what happens to a lot of second-generation survivors. My mother is half-Jewish but won’t talk about it either. The deciding moment for my parents was 1968 when they made the conscious decision to stay in Poland. I was born in 1970. My parents’ attitude was: “We are not Jewish. We will not be told by anti-Semites who we are.” It was not: “We aren’t Jewish because we are terrified.” No, they refused to be labeled by racists. It was a psychological dynamic that I was oblivious to during my teenage years. I inherited the secret. Then I was furious when I found out. I had a moment in my mid-college years when I wanted to be truly Jewish. My second boyfriend (before the German guy) was Israeli. It turned out that his mother forbade him to see me, because from her point of view I wasn’t Jewish enough.
Now I understand how it works psychologically. As an American Studies scholar, which is what I do professionally, I spent a few years looking at various literary embodiments of racial “passing” in American culture. I embrace this psychological dynamic. But being Jewish is not the most important thing in my life. However, I’m part of the JDC, which started out as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Each year go we on a vacation for a few weeks to the seaside with a bunch of Jewish families. It’s less a cultural identification than simply a way of raising our son without being part of the Catholic Church, which is not easy in Poland.
You mentioned something when you were talking about Pomaranczowa Alternatywa…
Actually the group I was part of was called Catch 22, after Joseph Heller’s novel. Probably the guys who were part of that would not like to be grouped together with Orange Alternative. I called up the name because it was more familiar than our branch. But we were autonomous.
You mentioned that they excluded you from the more dangerous activities.
It was dangerous: getting beaten up by the police, being arrested. I was 16. And I was a girl. Girls had a very specific role to play, which we accepted. It took me many years to see that as problematic. But at the time I didn’t see it as problematic. I was just being taken care of by the chivalrous guys, some of whom I am still friends with.
You came back in 1995. You said that some people thought you were crazy because you could have had a career over there. What was your thinking when you came back in 1995?
Quite frankly, I was homesick. I’m not the emigrant type. I was not happy abroad. I realized that I was getting a wonderful education, but I felt like I was living someone else’s life – mine was going on in Poland, without me. It would have been possible psychologically to stay in Britain. But I didn’t want to do that either. I wanted to be an academic teacher. At the time I was finishing my PhD on James Joyce and I thought I’d be a literary scholar. The kids I wanted to teach and become fascinated by modernist literature were not British kids. I didn’t see myself as someone with a slightly foreign accent teaching them how to read T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. I wanted to teach modernist poetry and literary theory to Polish kids.
I was teaching for a little while back here when I met a bunch of women, mostly doctoral students, and we infected each other with feminism. If you talk to some of the others, they might tell you that I was the source. But it was a synergy in part sparked by Maria Janion, whose seminar we attended. She’s a key figure for this generation of feminists. She’s now quite old, in her late eighties. Also in part it was sparked by Ann Snitow, a New York feminist, who came to Poland and taught at the Graduate School for Social Research. Finally, it was sparked in part by our fury with what was going on with women’s reproductive rights at the time. Wanda Nowicka, leader of the pro-choice movement in Poland, was also part of that process. In the late 1990s, there was a lot of intellectual ferment in seminars at the Graduate School for Social Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences – the professors Janion, Fuszara, Titkow, and Snitow were the key influences. Then there were also feminist debates at a cultural club in the Old Town. Barbara Limanowska was one of the leaders. She’s now an important NGO figure in the Baltics. And there was Kraków – the first feminist journal called “Pełnym Głosem” (In Full Voice) and the conferences they organized – small and very intense.
In the late 1990s we were reading Western feminism and trying to figure what it meant for us. One of the crucial books was Backlash, Susan Faludi’s book about the conservative reaction against feminism in the United States. That really clicked. But there were many other books: about domestic violence, reproductive rights. There was a lot of activism before that. But for me the breakthrough moment was 1999 when I published my article “Patriarchy after Sex Mission,” which started the debate in Gazeta Wyborcza and made me realize that feminism was really my home base – it was my main identity, not just something I did after hours. The English version of the article, a poor translation unfortunately, is appended to Shana Penn’s book, Solidarity’s Secret: The Women Who Defeated Communism in Poland. The Manifa movement followed, and I was one of the organizers of the first two demonstrations. My first book, World without Women (2001) grew out of that article. For the slightly older women or those who were active before that, the breakthrough was 1993, during the struggle over the banning of abortion and the collecting of signatures for a referendum which never happened. This is when Wanda Nowicka became radicalized.
The Manifa Movement started in effect of an incident in Lubliniec, a small town where a woman was arrested during an underground abortion. It was an interesting legal situation. She wasn’t arrested as a culprit but as ‘evidence’. The media response to that, and the outrageousness of that situation, sparked a meeting that Wanda Nowicka was leading. We decided to do a street demonstration. The first one was quite tiny, but we had great posters we plastered all over Warsaw illegally. But they are still going on and attract thousands of people. It’s probably the only real, radical, grassroots women’s initiative — not a NGO — in Eastern Europe. Some people will tell you that it’s unique worldwide. It’s a lively group. I’m not really part of it anymore. I’ve drifted away. But they’re still very active. They do things. They collect money for women in need. They organize the demonstrations. We started something that has lasted.
For me, the link between my pre-1989 past and Manifa is quite evident. We thought of ourselves as the new dissidents – this time resisting the power of the Church and conservative politicians. We were using a lot of our former experience from the dissident years and also a lot of the same forms. For instance, rather than a direct expression of outrage, Manifa was a sequence of street theater events that were meant to laugh at the Catholic Church and the way that the government caters to the Church’s needs, ignoring the citizens. We were doing it through laughter and ridicule. That form is not so vivid any more. But in the early years, it was like street cabaret. We were dressing up a lot.
The first Manifa included an interview with Matka Polka played by a very large feminist psychologist who was in an apron and I was a silly journalist in a purple wig. The idea is that she came to us to tell us that she was making pierogi in patriotic heaven and just couldn’t stand it any more. Our first poster, in fact, was “I’ve had it!” — signed Matka Polka. I remember getting phone calls from people who had had run into a tree when they saw the poster. The other poster in that first Manifa, which was my favorite, was: democracy without women is half a democracy. These two posters tell you what we were about. We did the interview, which was funny. And another piece of street theater was a scene from Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. Obviously, noone knew what we were talking about! We were students of literature doing our thing, building our language of resistance. We thought the Catholic Church was turning Polish women into handmaids.
Manifa was an expression of our helpless fury at how Catholic fundamentalism was taking over Polish politics in regard to women’s rights. I still think that’s true. What has changed is that I don’t think any more that it was the most important thing happening in Poland. I think a lot of other processes were taking place that were not on our radar at the time because we did not think of ourselves as knowledgeable about economics. But it’s true that the Catholic Church has irreparably damaged Polish democracy, taking over education among other things, and now it’s too late.
What was the reaction from intellectual circles to Manifa?
At first they thought we were outrageous and that this was a great risk to us personally as future members of the elite. It took two or three Manifas for the professors to join in. I’m very close friends with these women, but I remember their fear that they would make themselves ridiculous. For some reason, I never had that fear. Another woman who was most ferocious and unafraid of being ridiculous was Katarzyna Bratkowska, who’s now a teacher in the multicultural school named after Jacek Kuron. Interestingly, she is my childhood friend from the Catholic group – KIK. She is now far to the left of me – from her point of view, I’m a rotten liberal. And there was Kazimiera Szczuka, a literary critic and still a very close friend of mine. She became a TV star, the host of the Polish version of the game show called “The Weakest Link.”Part of her fame comes from her being unafraid of obciach. That’s a very peculiar Polish word — like inteligencja or etos. “Obciach” is public embarrassment or shaming – it’s when you make yourself look silly, uncool, or undignified in a way that is humiliating and will never be repaired. We live in a very conformistsociety, so for intellectuals, this fear of obciach, this fear that you’re won’t be dignified enough, is very important. Manifa was not dignified. We were doing outrageous things, wearing wigs, holding signs and so on. Manifa is a lot like some expressions of third-wave feminism where women dress up like prostitutes as an act of resistance to patriarchal rules. They simply refuse to be shamed.
Yes, that sort of thing. Or Femen, the Ukrainian group that has now gone international. I don’t think we ever used nudity. But it could have gone that way. Nothing was sacred. There was one moment when we came close to censorship when someone wanted to do an event in which a priest would be raped by a gang of girls. We thought it would be too much – because of an implicit approval of violence, not because of the priest. I don’t think it happened. Though maybe it did and I missed it? At some point Manifa became multi-legged, where one thing would be happening at one end and another thing happening at another.
The notion of patriotism and the sacredness of certain places in Warsaw was a big deal. In 2003-4, I was in a discussion on TV with a progressive but serious Catholic ethos-based male journalist who told me that he was all for women’s rights but why did we use the 8th of March and the area of the university when we all knew what that meant. And I asked, “What does it mean?” And he answered, “1968, of course.” And I said, “Well, yes, I’m Jewish, and my mother was there at the demonstration in front of the university in 1968. And we are the new dissidents.”
I don’t see why women can’t be claiming these symbols for themselves in subversive ways. If you know the Machulski movie Seksmisja [Sex Mission] then you know why the Copernicus statue would be so important for us. One of the first things we did was put a sign on Copernicus: “Kopernik była meżczyzną,” which was a play on a line from Sex Mission [“Copernicus was a man” but with feminine ending to was – there is a line in the movie “Copernicus was a woman”]. We thought of ourselves as the rightful inheritors of a tradition of Polish dissident life. We thought that the new oppressor – whom everyone for some strange reason was allowing to have everything it wanted – was the Catholic Church. And we thought that women were the newly enslaved. That was our analysis, though it may sound like a bit of an overstatement.
The ban on abortion and the backlash against women’s rights was not the only thing happening in Poland at the time. But it was really an important process and one that the whole male elite decided to ignore. They made this decision for a very good political reason, which they didn’t really hide. They thought that the Church was needed for Poland to join the European Union. That was the deal. And actually Michnik said this in public much later, attacking myself and Kazia Szczuka for trying to ruin that deal by exposing it.
By 2003, Manifa had grown to several thousand people, and included university professors and the new LGBT movement. Obciach was not an issue anymore. Manifa was the first place where gays and lesbians were openly present. We welcomed them. We danced with a rainbow flag around the Cardinal Wyszyński statue. And I’m proud that we didn’t have a homophobic stage, which might have easily happened. In 2003, we issued the so-called 100 Women letter, which basically said that we the undersigned are outraged that a dirty deal is being done behind the backs of half the citizens of Poland. The deal, we said, was that the government and the Church have decided to prevent any changes in the abortion law in return for the Church’s support for Poland joining the EU.
We could say this openly at the time because one of the bishops had, a few weeks earlier, basically said the same thing openly. The official version was that the Polish people didn’t want abortion to be legal. But of course that was a lie – that much was clear from polls at the time. I’m not sure if it’s a lie anymore: because the anti-choice propaganda has been so strong, if we have a referendum today I’m not sure we would win. But at the time most people thought abortion should be legal at least on the grounds of economic need. They were not allowing this debate to take place. There was clearly censorship in the media on this issue. Later this was lifted, but at the time, you couldn’t write an article about the social effects of the abortion law. The 100 Women letter was our first public success as a movement because we got famous people like Agnieszka Holland to sign. It was also a moment of great unity and action. We were sitting at a women’s NGO, making all these telephone calls. I was one of the important callers because I was well known by then. I had published my first book, World Without Women. And I was one of the most recognizable feminists. I remember to this day who refused and who said yes.
I had a personal meeting with Helena Łuczywo at Gazeta Wyborcza who refused and explained why. “Of course you’re right and of course this deal is happening,” she said. “And of course Gazeta Wyborcza is part of the deal.” I don’t think she would have said this publicly. But it was true. The liberal elites were basically telling women that they had to wait. And the funny thing is that after 2004, when the referendum took place, and after 2005 when Poland joined the EU, abortion was still an issue that separated us from Europe. This is what my second book – Rykoszetem [Stray Bullets] is about: how limiting women’s rights, reproductive rights, became a symbol of Poland’s autonomy in the EU, even a symbol of our national pride. If I have a success as an intellectual, it is in making this idea popular among the left, almost conventional wisdom, through the articles I published in Gazeta Wyborcza and elsewhere and the speeches I gave at the Congress of Women. Not everyone will agree with me that this is outrageous, but they see that it’s true: that women’s rights and sexual minority rights were basically traded for Church support for EU accession. Homophobia and gender conservatism became synonyms of national pride.And the progressive elites allowed this to happen, the folks at Gazeta Wyborcza. Their fear was that without the Church keeping a lid on the outrageous part of nationalism, Poland would never join the EU. So they gave the Church women’s rights….
What actually happened was that the Church took more than its due and didn’t keep a lid on the nationalism. Now we are in a situation where the nationalist Right, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice Party or PiS), will probably win in the elections and there will be no more protection. I’m really afraid that Poland will tumble into a kind of neo-nationalist hell.
A kind of Hungarian scenario.
And the EU is no longer the Promised Land that it seemed to be in the 1990s. What this analysis skips, and it took me some years to understand, is the economic underpinning. This is something that I understood only after reading David Ost’s book, The Defeat of Solidarity. Krytyka is the institutional embodiment of the Ost analysis, and of the Chantal Mouffe analysis. They both show how economic deprivation becomes political, how populism really works. But I don’t think we, the progressive elites in Poland, understood at the time that the connection between democracy and capitalism, which many people still believe is synonymous, is, finally, problematic – that’s the sort of thinking that Krytyka brought into the mainstream. That’s why I identify more with the Krytyka project and see myself as a feminist within a more broadly understood Left than as a feminist who also has a leftist analysis. I shifted that way.
However, I’m one of the few women they take seriously. Krytyka, like much of the leftwing establishment, suffers from an overabundance of male ego and male brilliance. It’s not old-style patriarchal. They are not sexists, most of them. But there is an intellectual difficulty in seeing the connection between gender issues and Queer issues and economic issues. However, Krytyka is making a serious effort , like Nancy Fraser in the United States, to bridge the “cultural Left” and the “economic Left.” But it’s still a struggle. People who are radical in Poland are often immune to progressive thinking on gender. I’m thinking of the labor movement, which is very conservative culturally. You can see this when you try to bring a feminist consciousness to the struggle of the nurses. A lot of these women don’t see gender as part of their struggle. Or if they do, it’s in a very conventional way: they accuse the government of “disrespect for women.”
All this is due to our history, of course. In the 1960s, when the West was going through its revolutions, Poland was under Gomulka and then Gierek. There was no second-wave feminism in Poland, no gay rights movement. There’s a conceptual, strategic, and social problem when those women in leftist circles were raised to be quiet and in love with the leader. The change is happening now. Now there are some strong, intellectually alert, often lesbian women as it happens, in mainstream Left circles. They’re a good decade younger than I am (and I’m 43 now). In my generation, you were either a revolutionary’s girlfriend or you were a radical feminist. There was very little in between. And now there is a group of young women and girls who are both: strong leftists and feminists. I hope they will finally make it into politics, because politics in Poland is ridiculously male-dominated.
What I’m skipping in this story is the Congress of Women. That has been myfeminist and political adventure of the last five years. We are toying with the mainstream, with influencing hundreds of thousands of people and not just a couple thousands. We are also flirting with being coopted – the Congress rests on a very slippery slope. But I’m engaged in it, and I’m identified with it. I believe it’s the greatest thing for the Polish women’s movement to come along in decades.
You mentioned the development of a women’s party.
It didn’t fly. They didn’t have the funds or the structures. They didn’t manage, in 2006 or 2007, to register their electoral candidates in all the different regions. If you don’t do that, you don’t get into parliament. Their result was around 1 percent, so they fell under the threshold. They still exist and claim to have tens of thousands of members. They’re bigger than anything that has feminist in their name. But the media are not interested.
The Women’s Congress has pursued a different strategy. It was not built as a political party, though occasionally there is gossip, controlled gossip by the leaders of the Congress, that we might become a party. It’s a kind of threat — but I don’t think that’s really in the future. The Women’s Congress isan institution (formally: an association) and a huge public event that happens every year in the Palace of Culture. It’s made possible by a coalition of intellectuals, businesswomen, NGO leaders, and women in politics. It’s partly sponsored by the ministry of labor, so it does get government money. But it’s mostly sponsored by big business. One of the leaders is Henryka Bochniarz, the head of Lewiatan, the Polish Confederation of Private Employers. But the brain and the celebrity behind it is Magdalena Środa. If you want the real Polish feminist who is hated by the Right, she’s the one to talk to. She is a person of great charisma and courage, unafraid of obciach. She says some pretty outrageous things. She managed to attract thousands of women.
In Warsaw in June the big room in the Palace of Culture was filled: more than 10,000 people were registered this year. It’s not just Warsaw. It happens all over Poland. I’m going to three regional conferences in the fall. Each of them has a few hundred participants . It’s not a hierarchical structure. It’s not an army. It’s more like an umbrella. The Women’s Congress is the only recognizable women’s organization from Poland in Eastern Europe. I don’t think there’s anything comparable anywhere else in the region. Some of my speeches and articles from the Congress were translated into English recently — at the request of women who want to start something similar in Hungary and the Czech Republic. We see ourselves as a forum for the integration of women activists, whether they call themselves feminists or not, who are all equality oriented. It’s a kind of think tank that thinks up strategies, ideas, but also lists of demands. We have our 10 main demands that get repeated and pumped into the media. I’m also in charge of the book series. We got the American embassy to help sponsor the publication of books like The Feminine Mystique and Backlash, both with my introductions. These books are becoming bestsellers. We plan to do The Beauty Myth and I’d like to get some African American authors. It has to be American feminism, at least for a while, because the American embassy is sponsoring it. But that’s what I do for a living: American feminism.
It’s amazing to have Betty Friedan from 1963 talking to Polish women in 2012. But in a sense, the re-traditionalization of Polish culture is similar to what happened in the United States in the 1950s. Women who were well educated and aspiring had an infrastructure for childcare in the 1980s. For all the bad things you can say about Poland, it was possible to be a fully active mother of a few kids, maybe not six, but at least three. The vast majority of Polish childcare establishments – crèches and kindergartens – were closed in the early 1990s. It was a combination of this neo-conservative Catholic thinking about stay-at-home moms and the neo-liberal idea that everyone must fend for themselves. Feminism has been a way of responding to this, in some ways belated or partial because of the failure to understand the neoliberal element early enough.
So, the Women’s Congress is the mainstream wing of Polish feminism. I have a sort of willfully naive enthusiasm for it. But I’ve always been like that – I persuade myself to trust the mainstream’s capacity to embrace change. I used to write feminist columns for Cosmopolitan and cooking magazines. I have what you call a light pen. I can write funny columns that convince women that they can be free without being hated — that’s my message. It doesn’t matter with whom you work: as long as you are helping women get their lives back. But there is a hard core of the Polish feminist movement that is extremely skeptical of our project. They tell us that we are flirting with the devil and the devil will eat us before we have any chance of using the devil to foster our aims. As I told you, I think it’s a dangerous game.
One thing I’ve made sure of is that I stand up to the neoliberal wing of the Congress on issues that are important to me. The issue that was important recently was childcare leave. This was a real controversy. The Leviatan folks are opposed to any legal guarantees for worker rights, including mothers, for the obvious reasons that they represent the employers. If I let this one go, then I would be selling my soul. I believe we made a pretty convincing case along with another leftist feminist Elżbieta Korolczuk, my former student. We wrote an article for Gazeta Wyborcza and gave a few public speeches about the ways that the state should cater to women’s rights. Women’s rights are not just about the right to be free from control. They are also about the right to support in your role as a caregiver. If you don’t support mothers’ rights, you are basically abandoning most women. There’s nothing brilliant about the analysis, but it’s a departure from the neoliberal version of the feminist agenda: women as individuals. The point is to get this analysis into the mainstream media, which I think we managed. At least the idea that there’s a debate got across to the Gazeta Wyborcza people. Some people think that since I became a mother, I became conservative. I don’t think it’s about becoming conservative. It’s about becoming something of a socialist or at least social democrat. That would have been unthinkable in the early 1990s, but I think it’s a trajectory that many former dissidents have followed.
There’s some convergence in the region. There’s been a return in Germany to some of the earlier approaches of the GDR, for instance on kindergartens. And this by a conservative government no less.
What happened objectively in the interval is the demographic crisis in Europe, what some people would call a demographic catastrophe. This plus the economic collapse make people realize that we won’t be able to afford pensions for people who will retire 20 years from now. You must have a new generation to keep the system going – and who’s having the kids? Women say they want kids, but they just do not have them. At least in Poland, I don’t know about Germany, the analysis hit home that women have kids when they have work and the ability to combine work and childcare — rather than, as it was assumed in the 1990s, when you push them out of the labor market.
It is no longer an ideological debate. If it were only an ideological debate, we would lose, because the Church always wins those. It’s now a pragmatic debate. I’ve used the statistics about birthrates almost relentlessly. You show Polish politicians the statistics of where children are being born — France and Sweden — and then show the number of kindergartens, the length of paternal leave, and how much it all costs. My main issue in the last year or two was paternal leave, which is very short (two weeks) in Poland and difficult to argue for. People reproduce when they are very poor and when they are comfortable and safe. In the middle, when they are aspiring and there are no provisions for their security, they don’t.
I’m curious about the Church. Elsewhere in the world, there are progressive movements within the Catholic Church: liberation theology, the Dorothy Day movement in the United States. Has anything like that emerged in Poland?
I am not sure that I know enough to respond to this one. There is the so-called progressive wing of the Catholic Church associated with journals like Więź and Znak and Tygodnik Powszechny and the priest who was recently banned from talking to the media, Adam Boniecki. It goes back to Jerzy Turowicz.
And Tadeusz Mazowiecki?
He’s not as progressive as we would like to think. We think highly of him for the progressive role he played in Solidarity, but he was actually one of the key architects of the concordat. We owe it to him that there is religion in public schools.
There’s also Stanislaw Obirek. He’s a fascinating figure: a former Jesuit priest and one of the most vocal progressive priests in the late 1990s. He was the only priest who would say something skeptical about the cult of John Paul II. Then he said something in an interview that went overboard and they told him to stay quiet for two years. He left the priesthood. Now he’s an anthropologist and a professor of religious studies. To me he’s one of the bravest people in Poland. But no longer a priest… there are others like him, who left: Polak, Bartoś…
The deeper analysis is that the Catholic Church is not a religious and spiritual institution. It’s a national and political institution. The local parish might be where you get help or solace and talk to god. But the Church as a national institution provides order and a sense of who you are. We are Polish therefore we are Catholic. Remember, back before the partitions, the rules of the game in the kingdom of Poland were: when there was no king, the bishops stepped in. The Church is the guarantor of national identity. It’s what defines Poland as different from other countries. This is why anti-Semitism is so strong in Poland. The religious difference was really an ethnic difference. In this region, in Podlasie, people don’t identify themselves as Polish versus Belorussian. They identify as Catholic versus Orthodox. The religious difference is really a difference of ethnicity. That’s why when my parents wanted me not to be Jewish, they signed me up for KIK. Both of them were atheists! That’s the paradox of Polish Catholicism. It’s not a religion: it’s an ethnicity. That’s why Polish Catholicism has veered so easily into ultra-nationalism, because that’s what it is at its core.
I have endless conversation with my friends who are progressive Catholics. They are noble, smart people, but they don’t seem to understand what Polish Catholicism is about. It has its moments when it’s about religion and spirituality. I was in KIK at its most spiritual, even its most charismatic, moments. But that was an episode in a history that’s really about nationalism. John Paul II is a very complex element of that story. He was never a nationalist in the hardcore sense. But he was Polish before he was universal. That’s why he never understood liberation theology, why he never embraced anything vaguely leftist in the Church. He was thinking in those narrowly Eastern European terms in which the Church is the bulwark against Communism. The Church becoming part of a progressive, radical, social movement for justice was for him a heresy.
That’s why it’s so interesting to consider what will come of this new Pope Frantisek. He’s from a completely different mold. The authorities of the Polish Church are desperately trying to translate what are for them his weird statements about respect for gays and the need for poverty. The Church in Poland is about power and money and sexual moralism. I don’t mean this in a bad way. It’s expected to have the earthly power that will make it more stable whatever the political winds. The Church is the place where you hide from the Russians, the Prussians, the Communists, so it has to be solid and have money in the bank. It’s not about giving money away to the poor.
Comparing the Church in Poland to the Church in Latin America brings no insights. It’s a completely different situation. In Latin America, the Church was a revolutionary institution. In Poland, it is a nationalist, conservative institution set against colonial powers. The only country where the Church played a similar role is Ireland.
I’m always intrigued by the differences between Poland and Ireland because the similarities are so great. The one thing that puzzles me is that the Church in Ireland was shocked so deeply by the pedophile scandals. The two societies are similar in their love of children and family culture. But in Poland nothing similar happened. At least not yet. I don’t know why. There’s not a larger or smaller number of such scandals in Poland than anywhere else. It’s talked about in a hush-hush sort of way, but it never comes out. Now it’s starting to come out very slowly. There’s an association of victims of priests being set up. They had the courage to do it thanks to a Dutch journalist who wrote a book about Polish pedophile scandals.
I am pretty child-oriented these days, being an adoptive mother and having seen many horrible things in my search for a child to adopt. So I I’m sorry to saythat the love of authority in small-town Poland is stronger than the love of children. This saddens me. Year ago I wasn’t going to emigrate because of the Communists. But people letting children be molested and just sweeping it under the carpet? That makes my Polish patriotism dwindle. Why would I want to do anything for these people if they’re willing to sacrifice their kids’ wellbeing so that the priest can be the authority that he’s always been? That’s unforgivable.
However, some individual Church officials in specific places are discovered to have taken property that was not rightfully theirs. When money is involved, Polish people get angry. But it doesn’t last long. And they do not get angry enough about children and young women getting abused. I don’t think there will be our version of the Magdalene scandals.
It seems as though you’re leaning in the direction of reining in the power of the Church.
That and generational change. At least in the big cities there’s a growing population of people who won’t send their kids to religion classes when they themselves are not believers and who won’t succumb to the power of conformity, which is what it is all about. My last book is called The Quagmire Effect (the title essay is available on the Heinrich Boll Foundation website). It concerns the power of the Catholic Church in Poland to keep people in check, particularly women. That’s the odd thing: the people who suffer the most from the Church’s power are women, and the people who are most committed to serving it are women. I try to figure out why, using a psychological and feminist analysis.
There is a growing generation of young people who are not afraid, who are not so easily shamed and made to feel guilty. Guilt-tripping is the real power of the Catholic Church, and that’s disappearing in part because people have access to Western popular culture, to the Internet, to travel. Remember, the largest segment of the Polish population living abroad is in England and Ireland. It’s something like 2-3 million people who have been in England for more than a few months. That is a huge group. Interestingly, the fertility rates are much higher for Polish women in UK than in Poland. It’s not like they’re becoming radical feminist lesbian types who are seeking their freedom. They’re doing what they always wanted to do: have families in an environment that respects their right to work. Then they come back home and expect the same thing here. They impact their friends and families. This must have an impact. In another 10 years, this will be different society.
I’m seeing this here in the village. There are some people here with dreadlocks living on a farm nearby. They don’t go to church, they go to reggae concerts, which are huge in Podlasie. Another family of New Age types, who areecologists and vegetarians. They read all sorts of weird books. They think of the Church as a generational thing — for people over 40. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I think that’s our chance, not negotiating with the top. Because people at the top are conformist — they’re over 40, always. They are the ones still paying back the Church debt, that eternal debt for what it did to win us freedom.
I’ve been told that Gazeta Wybocza has become far less influential these days.
Yes, and less powerful. Especially after the Lew Rywin scandal, Gazeta Wyborcza has lost its moral authority. There are a number of reasons for its loss of influence. There were alternatives, some of which subsequently died, like Dziennik. The print runs for Gazeta Wybocza are so much smaller – it’s like a tenth of what it was. It’s also more pluralistic. Certainly more things are allowed to be said about the Church. I publish mostly in Gazeta Wyborcza when I write journalistic stuff. You could say that I’m one of those testing the limits. I was the first to write serious pro-choice essays for Gazeta Wyborcza. I know when they first started allowing such essays because when I first started writing them, they’d reject them.
Also, this article I wrote in 1999 was so important because I made a link between women’s activity in the opposition and women’s rights in the post-1989 Poland. They were outraged. Helena Luczywo thought it was fascinating but outrageous: “How dare you tell us, women who did so much for Poland’s freedom, that we should be fighting now for women’s rights! What’s the connection?” We thought it was obvious, we the new feminists. Gazeta Wyborcza published a number of polemics including one from Joanna Szczesna, a former dissident who used to work in Tygodnik Mazowsze, the underground solidarity journal and who was one of the key figures in Shana Penn’s book. She wrote in response to my article about the re-traditionalization of Poland after 1989 and how it was a replaying of the film Sex Mission. Her response was: why do you expect us, the women who were involved in the opposition movement before 1989, to be activists for women’s rights today? We see no connection. You might as well ask me to be a fireman. I have no intention of being a fireman. I did my job. And now I’m doing other things.
It was a fascinating moment, and it’s now being revisited by younger women who are doing a documentary about that particular debate. Shana was instrumental because I was using her research, using names that came out of her book, and asking these women to join us. They did not see women’s issues as political issues. These former heroines — they didn’t want to be adored by us, they didn’t want us to express our gratitude, and they didn’t want us to identify as their daughters, which we did, very strongly. We thought of ourselves as the new dissidents. And we wanted them, naively, to be our leaders. And they said, “No, we’re doing business now.”
At one level, that can be very liberating.
The motherless feminist!
It’s nice to be connected to tradition, but it also doesn’t limit you to the positions they held at the time.
Sure, but it wasn’t about specific women. It was about a continuity of women’s involvement in Polish history. The reason I became a feminist in Poland – though it’s an oversimplification – was because of reading Shana Penn’s article “Solidarity’s Secret,” which was about the enormous contribution of women to late-stage underground Solidarity after Martial Law and the way that they were forgotten. I was overwhelmed by this story, it changed my view of things. I realized that the established image of Solidarity was just not true: of the underground as the place where bearded men were doing their thing, and their thing was brave and manly, and the women were at best the revolutionaries’ girlfriends. This was my story, but that’s because I was 16! The real women were brave and smart and involved in the struggle at the time. And their struggle was forgotten. And it’s the realization that such forgetting has taken place – not once, but twice — that was the spark for feminism in Poland.
I’m sure a lot of women felt that way. If you ask a lot of women, they’ll tell you it was the referendum experience when the Church refused to allow the referenda to happen – that’s Wanda Nowicka’s story. But the forgetting of the role of women in opposition time was hugely important. This arrogant forgetting of women’s participation also sparked the Women’s Congress. It was born in 2009, the 20th anniversary of 1989. There were all sorts of commemorative events, publications, articles: and it was all men, men, men! Men interviewing men! Photographs of men! Photographs of the Round Table and you couldn’t help but notice that there were no women at the Round Table. There was an exhibition at the National Museum with photos of the Gdansk shipyard, and again: men, men, men. I am told there was this one famous photograph of a woman sweeping the conference room in the Gdansk shipyard. It was a huge photo: as if to show that this was the role of women in Polish history!
These women — like Barbara Labuda who was hugely important in the late 1980s and Henryka Bochniarz who was the one of the architects of the economic transition, for better or worse — they just got angry! Where is our story in all this? For me, it was a combination of seeing that these women were forgotten and then being amazed that they didn’t want to be remembered! What the hell is going on here? I remember reading Joanna Szczesna’s article six or seven times — I just couldn’t understand it. It wasn’t just her. It was a whole cohort of women who did not want to be remembered by feminists. They refused to be remembered as women. And all we were saying was just: be our heroines!
Have any of them reconsidered?
Oh yes. I suspect what irritated the initially was that we were so ideological, which I didn’t see at the time. I see it now that I’m older. We wanted to frame them in a very specific type of story, the feminist consciousness story. Later Ewa Kondratowicz got them to talk on their own terms. She was one of the students of the gender studies program where I teach – but she was less orthodox than we were at the time,. She did oral histories with those women, like what you’re doing with me now. I don’t know if you’re a feminist or not, but you’re listening to me. And that’s what she did with them. She published a book that I thought was less interesting than Shana Penn’s. But the truth is that they opened up to her. They gave a lot of details to a person who just wanted to listen to their stories.
And now, Marta Dzido and Piotr Śliwowski are doing a documentary film about women of Solidarity, sort of following in the footsteps of Shana Penn. They are tracing the roots of one of the most powerful myths of Polish feminism. The myth is this: there was a sign on the Gdansk shipyard in 1980 that said: “Women, do not disturb us. We are fighting for Poland.” We all believe in the existence of this sign, though no one actually saw it. I’m not going to tell you what Marta and Piotr discovered – this is a secret that they won’t reveal to anyone. The point, however, is that it’s a kind of urban myth with lots of twists and turns. The sign is very important to Polish feminism. It puts in a nutshell the kind of arrogance but also the beauty of Polish patriarchal patriotism: “Don’t disturb us, ladies, we are the strong and tragic men who are fighting for Poland and we want to give it to you with a rose.”
Marta Dzido is now interviewing women from Solidarity movement in all parts of Poland. Like me, she is a feminist, and like me she hoped to come up with some radical women, rediscover them for history. But what she tells me, quite simply, is that a lot of these women are deeply conservative. They did what they had to do in the late 1980s and don’t see why should they identify with the progressive women’s movement now. Theirs is a different story and different analysis from ours. Another thing she is discovering is that a lot of lives were broken in personal terms during dissident times. People were sleeping with other people, not their spouses, and women paid the price: both in terms of reputation and pregnancies. A lot of people disappeared politically because of those episodes. It’s a complicated story. You can’t underestimate the human factor.
How does the story of Anna Walentynowicz fit into this?
She’s an iconic figure. It started with her. And then she was forgotten. The feminist story of her as an iconic figure gets into trouble when you realize who she was politically. She was in the circle of Andrzej Gwiazda. She was very revered and respected, but she was also in conflict with a lot of people. I don’t know the details, but she was as far as possible from any kind of feminist position.
I think we flirted with the idea of getting Danuta Walesa to come to the Women’s Congress because her book came out at the same time as Betty Friedan’s book. Hers was a huge bestseller, 300,000 sold. She tells her version of Polish history, the story of a woman left at home with six or seven kids while her husband was off at the revolution. I’ve got one kid. I would be really angry if my husband decided to become a revolutionary and left me with the housework and childcare. Anyway, it’s a wonderful book. It’s tedious and boring in a way that books about domestic life tend to be. But it has some incredibly moving moments. And it spoke to hundreds of thousands of women who have the sense of being dead tired, mostly abandoned, and excluded from history. I don’t think she ever came to any Congress events. But in a sense she started her own Congress of Women. The women who flock to her promotional events — and these keep happening though the book came out two years ago — want to be told that their efforts matter. She’s more in our story than Anna Walentynowicz was.
A woman from the old times who did join in the feminist efforts and was actually present at several Congresses is Henryka Krzywonos-Strycharska, the woman who famously stopped the tram in August 1980. She’s a truly charismatic figure who was a heroine, a tram driver, a working woman. She joined the feminist effort, then she left it. But she was with us and we made her into the Woman of the Year at the Second Congress. So we had our moment of patriotic, working woman glory. She left the movement: she runs a home orphanage with nine kids and didn’t have time for activism.
Here is the paradox: You can’t do feminism in Poland without confronting the Catholic Church. And you can’t be a traditional Polish woman without the Catholic Church. The truth is that feminism in Poland will remain marginal as long as there is no progressive ferment within the Catholic Church. This has been the tragedy of Polish feminism. You can either be a feminist or a Catholic. People have left both to join the other. There are very few who keep one leg in both.
How did you get involved in Krytyka Polityczna?
It was a circle of a friends before it was an institution. My husband and I happened to be friends with one of the guys who was there at the very beginning. I was in the living room with stacks of the first issue of Krytyka. It’s hard to remember when exactly I got involved. But I remember thinking that they were way to the left of me. I drifted to the Left thanks to Krytyka, on economic issues. Reading their stuff, I was educated by them. I was and still am close friends with Kinga Dunin, who is a very significant figure for your story. She was in KOR. In the 1990s she was one of the most visible feminists in Poland. And then at Krytyka she was a szara eminencja, a gray eminence. She had an enormous influence on Slawek Sierakowski in his early years. He will admit to her being an inspiration. I don’t think he would tell you how much work went into educating him.
He’s much younger than me; there is a decade difference in age. When he was in his early 20s, he wrote an article for Gazeta Wyborcza with another guy — the typical neo-liberal, good-boy article that basically said that the economy is the most important thing, we have to cut taxes, and we have to acquire entrepreneurial skills and forget all the silly cultural stuff like Gay rights and women’s rights. I remember thinking: this was one of the most ridiculous articles ever written! I called Kinga who then had a column in Wysokie Obcasy, the women’s supplement for Gazeta Wyborcza. We chatted about it. She wrote a column that made fun of him. I have the nice pen: I say nice things that people want to hear, but in between the lines they hear that they should get a life or not let their husbands beat them, or that abortion should be legal. She has the sarcastic pen. I don’t remember what she wrote. He called her. They started meeting. Krytyka Polityczna, the leftishness, the idea that you have to combine the cultural left with the economic left and neoliberalism is not the freshest cake in our national bakery: that came from the feminist analysis of Kinga. Of course, this is my version of her version of his story.
That’s a lovely story: that Krytyka itself comes out of a critique: a critique of a critique of a critique.
This is not to diminish Sławek’s brilliance. Here’s a young smart very sexy boy — he’s your ultimate alpha male. He’s been reeducated by feminists, but he’s still an alpha male. He doesn’t really talk to women: he condescends to them. But he talked to Kinga. He respected her. They were on the phone for hours evening after evening. She edited his early articles. She is still a very important person in Krytyka, though as a free spirit she always refused to be an employee. But she has a regular column. It’s very subtle, very smart, unrelenting. She was the co-author of a book published in 1991, Cudze Problemy, the first leftist analysis of transition. There is a sentence in that book that is the ultimate prophecy: that power in Poland would be divided equally between the Church and the market. And the only thing we have to see is which will be stronger. That’s been the story of the last 20 years.
So, I got involved in Krytyka through friendship with these people. It took me quite a while before I wrote my first article for Krytyka. In part I didn’t write for them because they had a circulation of 5,000. At that time I was publishing in Gazeta Wyborcza. I believed in reaching people who were not converted to the cause. And, quite frankly, they weren’t paying, and I was on a university salary. Then it became a place to go to for meetings and so on. I published my third book, The Quagmire Effect, with them. I became involved by going to events. Then they invited me to join the Board of Krytyka. But I very rarely publish with them. I taught a class last year, which apparently was the best-attended course at the Institute for Advanced Study, inspired by Nancy Fraser’s work on feminism and capitalism — called “What Ever Happened to the Second Wave.” It looked at various trajectories in Europe, in Poland, and of course in the United States, which is my reference point: what happened to the radicalism of 1960s/70 feminism? It was quite an illuminating experience for a lot of participants including myself. It was meant to be a discussion group led by me, not a lecture.
I also edited Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas for Krytyka. I occasionally write blurbs for their books. When I have to go on the radio or TV to discuss something that I’m not very well versed in, I always call Sutowski, who I think is a whiz, and Ostolsky, who’s kind of an invisible man there. He’s small, and he’s hard to notice in a crowd, but he has the smartest mind. I’m disappointed by the women of Krytyka. They’re organizers. They do what women usually do at institutions: the behind-the-stage work. There’s just Kinga and me and maybe one or two others, like Hanna Gill Piątek and Kaja Malanowska who write smart stuff.
Feminist intellectuals are more likely to work in feminist organizations?
Yes. But I was hoping that Krytyka would give women intellectuals an opportunity to become public figures. It has done that for men. Boys like Sutowski became public figures, but I’m sad to see that this hasn’t happened with the girls. They see themselves more as editors of other people’s ideas.
Why do you think Krytyka appeared here in Poland as opposed to other countries in the region that have a strong intellectual tradition like Hungary or the Czech Republic? Or countries that have born the brunt of neoliberalism more deeply and not done as well economically like Romania or Bulgaria?
I don’t know the other countries well enough to know why not there. I can tell you that it’s a combination of factors: the personal charisma and intellectual greatness of Slawek Sierakowski. I’m disappointed that he hasn’t published a book yet. But I still think of him as a brilliant individual in the way that Michnik was brilliant in his youth. This maybe a naive way of looking at history, but individuals contribute and he’s an exceptional individual. There were also the inspirations of liberalism: the seminars of Paweł Śpiewak and Marcin Król. Rebelling against them as influences was a very useful experience intellectually. A lot of them also went through Magda Środa’s seminar, who in addition to being a prominent feminist is also a brilliant philosophy professor. A lof of them also studied with Agata Bielik Robson. And Kinga Dunin, of course.
I think Poland has a tradition of journals becoming sites of debate, like Po Prostu and Krzywe Kolo. I don’t know if Slawek would tell you this, but he’s someone who wants to become Adam Michnik when he grows up. This envy/admiration/anger at Michnik has been a fertilizing force — both on the left and on the right. A lot of the people on the right, the rightwing intellectuals called pampersi (after the brand of diapers). There was a period in the decade after 2000 when a lot of young, ambitious, intellectually active men were forming their identities in reference to Adam Michnik. Some of them concocted a theory that Adam Michnik destroyed Poland and we have to save Poland from him. They started the right-wing journal scene — Dziennik and so on. A very interesting person on that side of the intellectual sphere is Cezary Michalski. He was a Pampers guy. Then he came to Krytyka. But resenting Michnik is still an important part of his identity, first from the Right, then from the Left. There was this alpha male figure who inspired so many figures and were in love with him in a weird love-hate sort of way.
Sławek Sierakowski is a reference point. I’m a little too old to have been blown off my feet, but many people are fascinated by him. There’s an erotic element in there. The way these kids worked, 16 hours a day without pay, it had to do with his charisma. Getting a word of praise from Slawek was worth collapse. I know a survivor, one of the key figures of Krytyka who left from exhaustion. Her life had been boxed into Krytyka for 10 years, and now she has to figure out who she is. It’s his charisma and their incredible effort. Since Slawek went abroad, it’s become a little bit more sane, maybe not 16 hours a day any longer but only 10 or 12. But they still work like mad. My few run-ins with Krytyka made me very wary of getting into any kind of employer-employee relationship with them. It’s tempting. They’re the smartest people in Warsaw, why wouldn’t I want to work with them? Because I have a life to live! I like to sleep. I like to get paid for my work. It’s a bit like a convent, or it was for many years.
There’s a play called Sierakowski by an alternative theater group called Komuna Otwock. They’re in Praga. It takes a lot of charisma to be the hero of a play at 30, don’t you think? And then he catapulted himself off to the United States. And these kids who grew under his influence were suddenly left to their own devices. I think they were terrified at first. But it worked. The reason it worked is that there are some very sane people there, who got over their infatuations and found their own romantic connections.
He left at the beginning of the Nowy Wspanialy Swiat period, this wonderful place where everyone was coming to have their bad soup and good conversation. It was magical. I was there almost every day. If I needed to see a student to discuss their work, or just see a friend, I’d go to the cafe. That was the place to be. You felt like there was good stuff going on there. I did a series of lectures there on gender and film history. I was so furious when the city took away the place. It was one of the most destructive things that happened to culture in Poland. They achieved great stuff.
An analysis based on Sierakowski’s charisma doesn’t take into account all the hard work, all the grant writing, the accounting, the book publication, the editing. There’s a guy there who translates like 100 pages a day. I don’t know how he does it. Dorota Głażewska is the woman in charge of the logistics, the money, the grants — she’s a brilliant organizer. If she went into business, she’d be a CEO of something really big. These people never sleep.
You might be asking the wrong question, if you’re asking why did Poland get a group that was critical of the economics of transition and you’re assuming that this group is Krytyka. Krytyka was originally not critical of neoliberalism. If you look at the early issues of Krytyka, they were interested in high theory — Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze. They came across Chantal Mouffe at a certain point and that made them aware that they should be studying economics. They published Tadeusz Kowalik – a left-wing economist, critical of Balcerowicz. But they didn’t write their own texts on economic issues. They were philosophers. The reason I thought they were too far Left, and I was reading feminist novels of the 1970s at the time, was: too much high theory. Too much Żiżek! Let’s talk about human life here. But at the time neither they nor I had an economic analysis. I think Chantal Mouffe’s theory of how politics get kidnapped by nationalists and populists if the elites stay neoliberal, that was basically what clicked for Krytyka. In my case the same effect was caused by reading David Ost. I think his book clicked with a lot of people: he was retelling our story in the same way that Shana Penn was so important to Polish feminism.
This problem persists. I cannot think of anyone in the Krytyka circle who’s an economist by education. These are philosophers and sociologists learning their economics. They’re working hard. And I’m trying to catch up occasionally. But I’m still a literary scholar with an interest in politics. They are sociologists awakened to the fact that economics if the real game in town. Now they’re publishing books like 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha Joon Chang. The journalist Jacek Żakowski is also an inspiration to them. He keeps popularizing economic views that undermine neoliberalism, interviewing left-wing economists like Stieglitz. But that’s not where the folks of Krytyka were coming from. The question may not be why Krytyka emerged but why Krytyka stopped doing high theory and decided to do a Left analysis of economics.
Maybe the answer is: we owe it to Leszek Balcerowicz and his astounding arrogance. Why does Poland have a strong feminist movement, stronger than anywhere else in the region? Thanks to the Pope. No one has a Catholic Church as strong and as conservative as we do. .
Well, in terms of arrogant economists, the Czechs have Vaclav Klaus.
Does he come close to that professorial, “I saved your ass and you would be Belorussians today if not me” kind of attitude?
Oh yes. Klaus is in some ways worse than Balcerowicz. After all, Klaus combines a certain nationalism with his neoliberalism.
Well, you should ask Sutowski, even more so than Sierakowski, who is more interested in Milosz than economics. Remember, Sierakowski wants to be Michnik, who also was not much concerned about economics and left it to Balcerowicz. I am joking, of course. But the point is that the interest in economics in Krytyka is not Sierakowski’s doing, its some of the other guys.
There’s considerable dissatisfaction with political elites at the moment — here in Poland and in the region. I’ve encountered tremendous dissatisfaction with the economic situation as well in the other countries I’ve visited.
In Poland I think people are perhaps more satisfied for various reasons. In an interview with one of the Left intellectuals that Żakowski is promoting, he said that the reason that we were the “green island” is that we didn’t go for the euro. But for whatever reasons, Poland was not hurt by the hardest edge of the crisis. Economically, we’re not doing as badly as people believe that we are, the people who are voting for Kaczynski. But what matters are feelings and not statistics.
The feelings reflect inequality in Polish society, unemployment rates among young people, the emigration.
Do you know the debates over umowy śmieciowe – the “trash contracts”? That was an important debate that awakened people to the realities of neoliberalism: that neoliberalism is a problem, not a solution. Poland has the highest rate in Europe of people who have job contracts that are short term and have no provisions — no welfare, health insurance, pension, paid vacation. Short-term contracts are legal. They’re illegal when they are in a series — for 2 weeks, for 2 weeks, and suddenly it’s three years and you’ve not had any insurance or any money put away for your retirement. This is the other side of youth unemployment. I’ve become increasingly aware that nobody around me has any provisions for their retirement in Poland. It’s a taboo issue — something you don’t talk about. The house you see here is a response to that question – it will be our retirement. Both my husband and I have permanent jobs. We are among a small minority of our friends who do. I work for the Polish state (the university) and Bernard works for the French state (the AFP). This is very unusual. This instability is a huge factor. The other thing regulating the lives of the middle class and shaping them as human beings is credit, mortgages in particular.
Monika Strzępka and Paweł Demirski are a duet of theater-makers. They are brilliant — great poetry, great shows. They did a few theater pieces on neoliberalism. One of the most interesting ones was about Jakub Szela. He was a leader of an uprising of peasants in the 19th century in Galicja. This was an uprising that is taught a kind of shameful episode in Polish history because they were not patriotic. They were peasants. They were just killing the masters. It was an economic uprising. The play brings back that history, without the judgment. And it links it to the present. It’s a psychedelic show in which people who have mortgages with the banks start an uprising. It sounds crazy but there were hundreds of people waiting in line to get tickets. This was the artistic event of the last 20 years — In the Name of Jakub S. In the show, one of the actors even steals the purse of one of the ladies sitting in the audience.
This play tells you something about the new ferment among the young intelligentsia. The people who are not just passive, the ones who are saying “all those politicians are just thieves,” these people are beginning to connect the dots. Their analysis of politics is not ideological. It’s not about Marx. It’s about what the economy is doing to our soul. Maybe that insight, as a collective insight connected to the thinking of the new Pope, will do something.
I’m a little afraid of what will always be dominant: Polish resourcefulness, which is always individual. In the end, in this country, people fend for themselves. Women were not massively involved in the struggle for abortion, but they were involved when they needed abortions for themselves or friends. It’s the same thing with this economic collapse. People are not massively involved in building a left-wing political movement. They are massively involved in building some kind of safety network for themselves. Despite this cult of Solidarity, Poland is a society of people who are really family-oriented, egotistical, and resourceful in that bad sort of way. Cwaniactwo. Cwaniakis someone who always survives, no matter what, achieving success at a small scale. People here have their ways of fending for themselves. This does not necessarily include fending for their neighbors. This is how we survived Communism. This is how we might survive the economic collapse. And those who don’t survive will be called the “necessary victims.” We’ve been through that too.
You’re afraid that Kaczynski will return in the next elections and impose a Fidesz-like solution?
And then next time you talk to me, I might be unemployed. One of the things they’re doing is kicking progressive people out of institutions of culture. Polish universities have been the niche for unconventional folks. But Polish universities are increasingly under the neoliberal regime. It’s become easier to get rid of people from the university. They’ve turned universities into factories for producing diplomas. It’s easy to stamp out something like Krytyka. They’re not dependent on funding from the government, which they like to emphasize. But they are dependent on the government allowing them to have a place to be and distribute things. The young generation takes freedom for granted in a way that I’m a little skeptical of.
A libertarian strain has emerged here in Poland – like Palikot. That might prove to be the barrier against Kaczynski.
What makes you think that Kaczynski will clamp down on free enterprise?
Oh, I don’t think he’ll do that.
But that’s where this libertarianism is coming from — people who own their own businesses. Kaczynski won’t disturb them. People voting for him think that he will. But he is a believer in his heart in neoliberalism. He’ll stamp down on the cultural Left, and he will continue to pay lip service to the economic Left. But the Krytyka analysis is right. We have neoliberals on the left and on the right. What disappoints me is that Krytyka has not turned into or breathed life into a political force that could go against it. But we’ve been moaning about this for over a decade: why is there no left-wing political party in Polish politics. Maybe we should stop asking that question and just assume that there isn’t one.
And won’t there be one?
That’s something you should be asking Ryszard Bugaj. He’s the one who tried to start one and failed miserably. Or ask Palikot – he claims to be founding one. The beauty of Krytyka is that they manage to have a brilliant analysis and still keep in touch with reality. A lot of the marginal leftist groups never did that. But Krytyka is not a political party and never will be. Krytyka is to the independent Left what the Congress of Women is to the feminist movement. There may be people with purer ideology than the Congress. But we have the masses, and we have the structure.
But there are no business people involved in Krytyka. If that were to happen…
Our hope – I mean feminists associated with the Women’s Congress – is that the businesswomen will fund us without corrupting us. Krytyka is actually doing quite well getting funding elsewhere.
The last question: when you look back to some of the positions you held in the 1990s, what has changed? What second thoughts have you had?
Fundamentally I came to question the assumption that democracy and free market are the same thing or that the free-market economy has an inbuilt justice element. This is just blatantly untrue. In my case, the awakening was slow. It had to do with the word “experts.” We came to believe during the transition era that economics is something best left to experts educated in economics, that this was a math thing that we girls don’t do but also humanities people don’t do. We also believed that humanities people should stay away from politics and build a “civil society.” We believed that politicians is a kind of caste of people out there and that there’s this thing known as economics better left to experts. If you leave politics to politicians and you maintain this kind of idealistic dream of civil society, what you’re building is a machinery for conserving the status quo and doing the dirty work that neoliberalism refuses to do.
I wrote an article three or four years ago called The Civil Society Trap, which was a Polish version of the NGO-ization critique. It was the second time I managed to spark a huge debate in Gazeta Wyborcza. There were 30 articles in response that said I was crazy or I was right.I was anathemized by sociologists studying NGOs. But I got hundreds of emails from people in NGOs who said, “Yes, this is what is going on with us. We have invested into something that was supposed to be a civil society but turned into a cottage industry of little institutions that are doing the dirty work that government should be doing. Moreover, we are wasting our lives because the career paths within the NGO circuit are so closed.”
What happened somewhere around the late 1990s is that we missed the moment when politicians took over politics and economists took over the economy. We, the people with ethos, who think of ourselves as devoted to justice, we got involved in reading poetry or helping children. It’s not that I don’t like to help children. I’ve done my share of that, visiting an orphanage, setting up a stipend fund. But if you think of yourself as someone who needs to work for justice, don’t abandon politics to politicians and don’t abandon economics to economists. We are guilty. We thought we were doing the noble work that needs to be done in a democracy. And meantime, we were massaging our egos and allowing real power to be taken over by cynical people or those who were completely pragmatic and devoid of any commitment to justice. In the end, that’s what neoliberalism is all about. It’s about believing that justice is bad for the economy — the more greed, as Gordon Gecko says in Wall Street, the better. That’s what they brainwashed us into thinking. I thought I was safe from greed because the university was paying me peanuts. But that’s not the issue. The issue was that we allowed Balcerowicz and his cronies to take over the economy.
I had an existential crisis around the time when I wrote this NGO-ization article: I thought that I’d wasted my life writing books, teaching kids about novels. I come out of literature. I was doing the cultural critique and believing that this is where the action is. It’s not. We have to retool. If we believe that societies can be reformed, that justice is something you achieve not just dream about, then we need to take over and not leave things to “experts.”
I witnessed the development of a technocratic elite in 1990-91, with so many people from the oppositions stepping away from politics.
Yes. They were like: “Don’t tell me what to do! I don’t want to be a fireman.”
Exactly. And politics also had a connotation of being dirty.
The key word in Poland for this stepping back was “aesthetics.” Somehow Communism is not “our aesthetic.” Capitalism is not either, but we grin and bear it because we leave it to Balcerowicz who is our expert. Instead, we’re going to do aesthetics. It’s similar to the cultural Left in the way Nancy Fraser or Richard Rorty talk about it. Rorty’s Achieving Our Country had a big impact on me. I wish he’d come to Poland and do the same analysis for us, because we’re in a similar situation. People at Krytyka have been analyzing this shift. They believe that art must be political, that we should not stay away from politics. They’re brave that way.
When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed from 1989 until today, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?
Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?
Looking into the near future, the next two or three years, how would you evaluate the prospects for Poland, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
With the elections coming up in a year and a half: 4.5. I am pretty scared of those right-wing people, particularly the march of the brown-clad people.
Czarna Białostocka, August 11, 2013