Michnikian Ethics

I am a Polonophobe by origin, tradition, and right. My ancestors on my mother’s side of the family, Swabians and Hungarians, come from the plains of the Neckar and the Danube, and probably looked at anything north of the latter and east of the Oder with much suspicion. My father’s side, meanwhile, was wise enough to maintain its distance from the plains of the Vistula, making home in Ireland until emigration in the face of the famines. New York forced it to discover the Pole anew in the streets of 19th-century New York City. Preferring a Reich or at the least aBund to the Poles’ shifting borders and forms of government, I found myself majoring in German by last spring; while this may have been a questionable choice, I had sense enough, when time came for this native English speaker to contemplate studying a Slavic language, Russian was the clear move. I used to wonder why Russian had to use the Cyrillic alphabet to represent its sounds, and now I know why: had they opted for anything Western, the result would have looked something like Polish with dots and lines through half of the characters. My glottal stops with umlauts.

Adam Michnik, a young 61, may seem less than eminent. He wears the same tan leather jacket to class every week with a grey cashmere sweater covering his tummy. In class, Dr. Michnik regularly announces: “Time for a smoke break!” at which point he goes outside to ruminate with cigarette in hand. Then again, I’m not sure what he would do without it: as he answers our questions in class, he rarely makes eye contact, instead rolling and unrolling his cellophane cigarette package wrapping into a tube. And because much of his experience with the English language comes from his time this spring at Princeton, he must spend much time in class waiting as Prof. Jan Gross, also from Poland and Michnik’s interpreter for much of his time at Princeton, translates Adam’s thoughts to my seminar.

Then again, I’m sure Michnik has plenty to think about. He was born one year after the Red Army ended six years of Nazi rule in Poland and has spent much of his life dealing with the consequences of that world-historical fact. Born to a Jewish father and a mother who along with her husband had Communist sympathies, Michnik’s first encounters with the reality of the People’s Republic of Poland came at age 15 in 1961, when his theater group was disbanded for producing shows critical of the government. By the summer of ’68 he had been kicked out of the University of Warsaw four years into his study of history for “hooliganism.” Following a year in prison (the first of six total throughout his life), he worked occasionally as a welder before eventually finishing his historical studies in Pozna. What is, however, perhaps most relevant about Michnik are his actions during the 1970s and 1980s: after co-founding in 1977 workers’ rights groups in the Communist state and beginning to edit the underground journal Krytyka, Michnik became an advisor to the Polish trade union Solidarity – an affiliation that would lead to his imprisonment, sometimes voluntary, in Polish prisons from 1982-1984 and 1985-1986. One could go on, but by 1989 Michnik was participating in the “Round Table Agreements,” a meeting between Solidarity leaders and Polish Communists that ultimately ushered in free elections and the downfall of Communism in Poland. Soon after, he founded the Gazeta under the masthead “Nie ma wolnoci bez Solidarnoci” (“There’s no freedom without Solidarity.”) and has edited the paper ever since.

Talking with Michnik over the course of the semester, I and seven other students have had the opportunity every Tuesday afternoon to get a view into the mind of Michnik. Included below are excerpts from transcripts of my class recordings, with Michnik’s Polish comments translated into English by Professor Jan Gross of the Princeton History Department – a sort of Michnikian Ethics.

TN: One of your most arresting experiences must have been the years you spent in Communist prisons. In your opinion, was there ever a top-down science devised to break down the prisoner, or were prison procedures an ad hoc development?

AM: This was of course a common question both in Poland in the 1980s and in Stalinist Russia. After all, people were admitting in Bolshevik prisons to crimes that they had not committed. There was always a mixture of fear and hope: fear that you would be tortured, beaten up, and killed, and hope that you would not. Was it prepared as a science? It must have been to some degree. All dictatorships have their ways of enforcing obedience. If we look at what [Polish poet and former prisoner Aleksander Wat] says on the subject, the prisoner becomes an amateur and the investigating officer a professional. My experience in jail was that with the police, with investigative officers, you should never talk at all on any subject, because they always manage to tease a word or sentence from you that they need. It’s usually only possible to realize that you should take this strategy with them after a few interrogations. The first few times, you engage them in conversation; the second time, you already know everything and try to outwit the investigating officer. Only the third time do you realize that you should shut up, and then you’re safe. It implies some degree of self-accusation, because if you don’t want to talk, it means that you’re hiding something. If you’re determined, you keep saying, “Yes! Yes! I am hiding something!” When they ask what it is you’re hiding, then you say, “I don’t feel like telling you.” … And this is the problem for the police when they have intellectuals in jail: it’s impossible for them to send an idiot to investigate you. But it’s all very simple: they’ll send an idiot whose knowledge of you is written up on two typewritten sheets of paper he carries before him. And he’ll say, “Oh, Mr. Michnik, it’s you, you’re so clever, such an eminent writer, tell me what you think about Shakespeare – how wonderfully you put it all!”

TN: Does there then exist the professional prisoner?

AM: This is a rare breed, but if it does exist, then I am probably an example of him. After all, you can learn anything, but your schooling in prison isn’t very useful later on in life. I developed a great skill in smuggling statements from prison to freedom, but for better or for worse, there’s not much of a market for that skill any more.

TN: Certainly a big question, but what in your mind are the intellectual processes that drive one to submit to totalitarian systems of thought? What was the motivation for the intellectual Polish communists you saw around you?

AM: For a traditional liberal intellectual, Bolshevism was incomprehensible. Such members of the intelligentsia tried to describe and pin down Bolshevism with categories that were familiar. But because Bolshevism was something completely new – one used the Polish concept of perekova – a restructuring, something that sculpts and molds your brain in a new way. There is a famous Socialist novel How The Steel Was Tempered using this verb – that kind of idea. And this Bolshevism was all-powerful, one cannot resist it: it took Russia, China, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia. One had the impression that the future belonged to Bolshevism. The defensive mechanism of the Polish nation was this kind of masked Catholicism: an obscurantist, provincial, Polish Catholicism. This was probably the most dramatic choice of elites living under Communist dictatorship: modernization along the lines of Bolshevism, or sticking with this provincial religion.

TN: Could not a sort of anti-Asiatic racism also been a defense mechanism against Communism?

AM: Well, yes, you have to remember that in 1939 it was not the students of Confucius or Buddha who were walking into Poland. In 1939, Poland was divided by Hitler and Stalin; what walked into Poland was Soviet barbarism. These were two civilizations, and an important city in the area, Lwów, had been a wonderful city. But when Soviet functionaries moved into the normal apartments, they kept not only dogs but also pigs – it was a total shock to the manners of the people in the town. And in some sense I think the Hungarian author Sandor Marái had it right: that it was not the Asiatic but rather the Russian character of Bolshevism that was the problem. To be more precise, the real barbarian was the Slav. What did Marái have to say of the Russians, and hence the character of Bolshevism? After reading Chekhov, he wrote, “Chekhov describes the world and presents to his readers personalities of a very well-constructed type whose pattern of thinking is completely incomprehensible: an investigative judge who commits a murder and then later kills a prisoner to eliminate any suspicion of the murder. Everyone is constantly drunk, falls in water, rolls in mud, or lies on the floor. The great majority of heroes belongs to the intelligentsia, and so they are constantly speaking and making all kinds of confessions in order to go insane. They wore European clothes, but there is no European whose actions could be comparable in such situations. This incomprehensible Russian is dangerous to his surroundings in the same way he is to the world. Only now are we beginning to understand Russian literature.”

TN: How much did anti-Fascism play a role in the intellectual decision to become a Communist?

AM: One short story of the Polish author, Tadeuez Borowski, may be illustrative. One of his stories is about a German soldier who returns from several years of captivity in the Soviet Union in 1948-49. This German soldier, released from captivity, describes in his story how he was taken to Siberia and taken to a bath in the camp there. “I was looking at the showerheads,” the soldier said, “and knew what my fate would be: I knew that this was Zyklon B.” And suddenly water came from the showerheads of the Siberian gulag. And in a metaphoric sense, this is an explanation of how one could choose the world of concentration camps whose showers dispense water instead of gas. […] In some sense, however, Nazism was a form of National Bolshevism. The human being is owned by the state, and that is the very essence of Bolshevism. The difference is that Bolshevism argues for internationalism and there the ideological element of it is the international community of workers. While, on the other hand, Nazism is committed to the idea of Aryan supermen. Indeed, one could say that the Nazis and Bolsheviks agreed in all areas but for one, the agrarian question. The Nazis wanted to put the Bolsheviks into the ground, while the Bolsheviks wanted to put the Nazis into the ground.

TN: How is it that an intellectual, someone known for their critical thinking, bends themselves to such acritical thinking?

AM: I have tried to figure that one out many times. And reading the texts of Communist intellectuals, I had to ask myself: “Where did they get this language?” You have cases of these former eminent poets and philosophers who start speaking with a language so primitive that one wonders where a person of such intellectual caliber could have learned to speak that way. But Communism is a flight from emptiness, a kind of pseudo-religion. So one reaches Communism through some sort of rational reflection. But once you get into Communism, the sort of rational, critical thinking is dead, and all that remains is a sort of mysticism – a kind of mystical view that you finally got access and comprehended the world and the mechanism that governs History. And then you reject all rational categories that emerge in your mind, for they are only products of a world that you just learned to dismiss. Hence there is this Communist myth of a kind of dual way of seeing things. Slavery or the labor of a slave is something that is by definition terrible: it results from a capitalist or feudal arrangement of social relations. But in Soviet labor camps, slave work is not really slave labor, but rather the re-education of a person growing up to be free. Torture, by definition, is something bad because it results from relationships in the world of capitalist relations. But in the Soviet system, tortures are not torturous but rather a method to save the world from imperialism. And this is the Stalinist dialectic.

TN: But in many of the accounts one reads of Bolshevism in Russia, one figure that has always eluded me has been the peasant who totally buys it. What is his stake – of the peasant who smashes the toaster he finds in his house? Does he buy that it is a “bourgeois contraption?”

AM: There are three explanations for this. The first is the historical: he saw something in that toaster that eluded him in how it worked. Even today, for example, I still get nervous when I see a cell phone, because I have no idea how it works. When I got my first cell phone, I put it in a cupboard so that it wouldn’t get lost or fall down, and left it alone. If I were a Russian peasant, I would smash it. The second explanation is the psychological: perhaps the Russian peasant sees that the toaster before him is made in the West and he reacts in a Pavlovian sense – perhaps he thinks that the toaster has arrived to poison him. And the third explanation is the dialectical: that it’s a mix of the first two explanations. You’re on to smashing toasters – unless they’re Bolshevik toasters.

TN: On a different theme: over the course of the semester, we have talked about the controversy, particular that inspired by Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. What makes for an intellectual controversy, and have you been able to predict them as editor of a newspaper?

AM: I always think that I can predict the controversies, but I’m always wrong. Recently, we published an article by a Russian author. He told me that one of the right-wing papers in Poland had asked him to write an article called, “Is Poland Sexy?” So he wrote it, but when he showed it to them, the editors there became scared. So I said he should give it to me, and I’d publish it. He said, “No, no, you’ll be afraid.” But I insist and he sends the thing to me, and it’s an article more or less phrased in the following way: “When a woman comes to me and asks me, ‘Am I sexy?’ I say yes, because that’s how I was brought up. The problem is, the woman always is one of three types: either first it’s a sixteen-year-old who put on make up for the first time, second it’s a prostitute who wants to rob me of my money, or third, it’s a 60-year-old woman who is sad that she’s getting old. So: when Poland asks me, ‘Am I sexy?’ I have to ask myself which of those three situations it really corresponds to.” Anyway, I sent this article to the offices and insisted that it be printed. And when it was? No reaction at all. Sometimes there’s one sentence and there’s a tremendous debate. It’s not enough for the text to be controversial, and it’s not enough for the place where it’s published to be controversial; you also have to have a controversial person involved, and Hannah Arendt was certainly a controversial person, someone outside of those boundaries of speech.

TN: What in Arendt’s case made her unique?

AM: I think that Hannah Arendt stepped on the foot of every intellectual mafia of her time. She made the leftist mafia angry because she was an anti-Stalinist, while people on the right didn’t like her because they saw her as a leftist. She ran afoul of the anti-Semitic mafia for describing anti-Semitism, and afoul of the Jewish mafia because she wrote about the Jews in a way that was unique, that no one had done before. She did this especially in America because by writing what she did, she demonstrated courage in a unique way; she ran afoul of the Israeli mafia. For me, the fate she experienced is very typical of an independent intellectual, who, by virtue of being an intellectual, has to come into conflict with everybody. The only taboo that she never pierced was the truth.

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