The Power of Myth – On The Style of Political Thinking of The Generation of March 1968
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30
Dariusz Gawin

This text was included in the book titled Blask i gorycz wolności [Splendour and Bitterness of Freedom] , by Dariusz Gawin, Kraków 2006, published by OMP.


March 1968 was one of the key events in the post-war history of Poland. Yet, this statement should be provided with an essential reservation – its actual scale is disproportionate to the place it occupies in the national memory, since neither its range nor the number of persecuted persons distinguishes March in any particular way, compared with such events as the Poznań June, repressions and riots, which took place during the Millennium celebrations, December or Radom events, not to mention the martial law repressions, but the March events come back very frequently in accounts, memories or television programmes. What is more, they occupy a special place in the hierarchy of officially honoured dates in the Polish history. The celebration of their thirtieth anniversary in 1998 confirmed the special position they hold; today, we can say that March has become one of the founding myths of the Polish Third Republic. The Order of the White Eagle awarded to Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski by President Kwaśniewski, the wave of publications and programmes, which swept across the media, illustrate that thesis well. Thus, the question arises: why did not other, sometimes much more violent and tragic acts of opposition against the communist system, acquire such an importance? What feature of March prejudges its special legend?

The answer to those questions is hidden, first of all, in the fact that March plays a crucial role in the biography of one of the most important generations of the post-war Poland, namely the so-called “the March Generation.” It is just this generational group that particularly influenced the course of events over the last thirty years; however, which is much more important; it also affected the intellectual history of that period. Its position in shaping of the Polish thought in every dimension, i.e. political reflection, literature and the cinema, was exceptional. That is why, understanding of the sense of the March events constitutes an extremely important condition of understanding also intellectual events and processes in the quarter of the century which passed between autumn 1964, when Adam Michnik and many of his friends from the Contradictions Hunters’ Club (Klub Poszukiwaczy Sprzeczności) started to study at the Warsaw University and 1989, when the Polish Third Republic was born.

Two crucial comments need to be made at the beginning: the first one relates to the term generation. March 1968 is the name used to describe a number of events which took place at many levels of the social life. Thus, March means the case of Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve) performance and students’ manifestations. It also means writers’ protests within the Polish Writers’ Union (Związek Literatów Polskich) and repressions against those circles, climaxing with Stefan Kisielewski being beaten by “unknown attackers.” March means also an anti-Semitic campaign, as a result of which thousands of people were forced to emigrate from Poland; it also means struggling for power with the party and related “staff carousel.” Even superficial listing of the main aspects of March events shows their complexity. They clearly overlapped with one another, thus creating a complex structure of the historic process. In this sense, every attempt made to describe it and every attempt made to embrace the combination of causes and effects existing in the Polish public life in the first months of 1968, is obviously some simplification. By selecting one aspect only, I leave the others inevitably in the shadow.

The students’ movement itself had a very wide range, as it covered thousands of people throughout Poland. It developed spontaneously, beyond any control, and it did not have any organisational centre or any clearly shaped ideological awareness. However, the term of the generation does not refer in this text to all participants of the students’ movement, but it has a narrower meaning, covering only a narrow group of activists, referred to as “the Commandos” (komandosi). This group became a collective hero of the March events. What is more, in its case, they played just a formation role. It is important, since a number of members of this group have remained active until today, often playing a very important role in the political life.

A special role of the “Commandos” group in the March events is, at the same time, a kind of a paradox, since although a rally at the university was convened by that group to defend Michnik and Szlajfert, who were expelled from the university on disciplinary grounds, most of its leaders did not take part in the very events, as they were arrested still before the beginning of riots and protests. However, the position of that group is demonstrated by the fact that both the authorities and the public opinion regarded it as the core of the March generation. This is why, the “style of political thinking” of those several dozen persons is so crucial for understanding the history of the Polish political thought of the last three decades. That group, although small in terms of numbers – compared with thousands of events participants, turned out to be decisive as regards giving them the ideological sense. Its members prepared and thought through March – and therefore their physical absence during the events was not so important. In the history of the political thought, reflections frequently precede deeds and they are much more important.

It also explains the reasons why the terms “myth” and “style” were used in the title. The first of them, myth, is not an evaluative term here. That word explains well, in my opinion, the tension between facts and the course of events, on the one hand, and evaluation of the motives of action and its effects, continuously changing in time, etc. It is a constitutive element of the style of thinking – the way in which reality is perceived, unimportant things are separated from crucial ones, threats are indicated and paths to recovery are looked for. In this sense, March can be regarded as a certain myth, a certain narrative whole, the subject of which is the 1968 events, a myth connected with a certain way of thinking about history mechanisms. The picture of March changed several times in years 1968-1989, yet, the way of thinking shared by the generational group remained coherent – a certain special style, subject to the evolution process, at the same time.

The 1968 students’ movement was a perfect starting point for building a generational legend. A special fact prejudged that – it did not leave behind too many documents or statements explaining the sense of events on a current basis, showing participants’ goals and convictions. We will not find long manifests or any extensive programme texts among them – these are rather short resolutions, proclamations and leaflets. Such forms of statement could not be overloaded with contents for obvious reasons – poetics used in them is concise, which is characteristic for rally slogans. At the same time, the scarceness of sources created during the events is very disproportionate to a great number of accounts and memories.

The first explanation of such a state of affairs, coming to one’s mind naturally, is the specifics of circumstances – suddenness of events, rush, improvisation, lack of time and self-censorship resulting from the then conditions, which did not allow total expression of one’s convictions. Yet, such an explanation seems to be too easy. Here, we should rather reach out deeper into the combination of causes and effects, the centre of which became March. To understand that peculiar silence around March, one should draw their attention to the feeling of a deep shock, frequently referred to in the participants’ memories, which was, for young people, confrontation with lies and violence. Such a title: Krajobraz po szoku (Landscape After The Shock), was given to a set of memories dedicated to March events, collected by Karta Centre, and published in samizdat[1]. Reference to March as a “shock” explains well the lack of texts written during the events, a shock is a condition in which horror “makes us speechless”; a shock forces us to be silent, or to shout, to protest loudly. In the former and in the latter case, the abruptness of feelings exploding in one moment makes every reflection redundant. It comes only later, when the first emotions and feelings calm down.

At the same time, the “silence” of March, its non-discursive nature caused by shock, which for the students’ movement participants was the authorities’ repressions, created a unique possibility of making it a generational myth. Lack of documents or programme texts to explain the goals of the movement and its idea of political mechanisms created a great opportunity for ongoing explanations of the sense of those events. In this way, the March has remained an open structure in its participants’ memory, where subsequent interpretations could be somehow put. The original moral illumination, the experience of violence and lies, full of horror, gained new meanings in consecutive years. Despite changing ideological, cultural and political context of 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, it was always able to retain its central position, since the ethical core of the March experience never had to be proven rationally.

Therefore, we should ask about the reasons of such a profound shock, felt by the March generation during the events, the shock, which was to define its ideological identity forever. It is true that this shock was disproportionate to the scale of events and repressions. Yet, that circumstance does not naturally explain its special nature – imagination of a community of people is never driven by any objective measures.

The first reason that might be given as a possible explanation is of psychological nature. The power of shock felt by youth attacked by party militias in the Warsaw University yard could be explained as directly proportional to its virgin naivety – Jacek Bocheński talked about it during a symposium of TKN [Society of Scientific Courses] held in February 1981. In his analysis of March, he made a reference to three symbolic figures: a Child, a Politician and a Historian[2]. Psychological explanation, coming in a natural way, but at the same time, extremely important to understand March, assumes just the necessity to refer to special features of youth’s psyche; the participants of those events were slightly over twenty years old. Young people always tend to think that history begins with them, although theoretically they know that some catastrophes and tragedies had occurred before they were born, the first misfortune they just experience, becomes the greatest, total and the only one. Youth gathered in the Warsaw University yard knew political violence only from WW2 movies, so when they saw police using batons in front of the Vice-Chancellor’s Office, the word “Gestapo” came easily to their minds, with which they expressed their moral shock.

However, the right of youthful naivety attributable to every generation does not explain completely the profoundness of the shock, which was March particularly to politically active members of the students’ movement, since the moral shock overlapped with a completely different shock, namely an ideological shock. In order to understand that dimension of the March lesson, we need to bear in mind that March was clearly of a leftwing nature. It has been mentioned many times; suffice it to refer to the above-mentioned address of Jacek Bocheński during of the TKN symposium in February 1981: “the March movement was characterised by elitism not only in the sense that it attracted educated people, but also because it attracted persons with a certain distinguished style of political thinking (…) Most generally, one can say that liberal and leftwing views were appreciated.”[3] Also Adam Michnik has talked about it many times, for instance, during the anniversary session held at the Warsaw University in 1981, or in his text titled Sakrament byka (Ox’s Sacrament), published in 1988 in the anniversary issue of “Krytyka,” in which he outlined the picture of his generation in the following way: “We were looking for a way to create true socialism, we studied Marks, we did not like conservatism or Church. We were singing The Internationale during students’ rallies… I do not generalise. Most of that generation was different. Yet, this is what we, the Commandos, were like – quite red.”[4]

The best evidence in this respect can be the texts of resolutions, proclamations and leaflets written by the students’ movement participants, which reflect quite well the general state of minds.[5] In their resolution of 11 March, the Warsaw University students protested, e.g. against “attempts at creating a gap between the working class and students.” The staff of the Warsaw University Philosophy Department in their call of the same date requested the University’s senate to undertake some measures to defend civil rights and declared “attachment to the greatest socialistic ideas.” The staff and students of the Political Economics Department at the Warsaw University said in their statement of 13 March that “a wide students’ movement is developing, revived by its care for socialism.” In their resolution of 13 March, Poznań students’ wrote: “We state that the complete development of socialism on the way to democracy is in the interest of students and of the whole nation.” In Wrocław, on 30 March, students of Wrocław universities condemned in their appeal “betrayal of the ideals of the Polish October, dissociation off from the then social postulates, return of the activists disgraced in the past period to the chief positions in the country, [which] led to revolutionary seething of the nation”; they also demanded “consistent achievement of socialistic principles.” They declared further: “The example of Czechoslovakia proves clearly that any reforms performed in the spirit of life democratisation within a country comply with the socialistic principles.” On 21 March, students of the Warsaw Technical University declared their patriotic feelings and faithfulness to socialist ideals, and they ended their resolution with an appeal: “Long live Poland! Long live socialism!” Students’ movement declaration published in Warsaw on 28 March had a similar ending: “Socialist and democratic Poland, free from chaos, is our common cause!” In the statement of the Warsaw University students written in March, but without an exact date, the authors claim that socialism was conducive to human rights from its very beginning: “By struggling against exploitation, ignorance and limitations, it demanded basic rights for humans – to realise its sense of justice and personal dignity.” These are only several quotations from many preserved leaflets, resolutions and proclamations, which were written during the March events.

Yet, the cause was described most concisely by Jan Walc, who mentioned during the anniversary session held in 1981 at the Warsaw University, how during one of the rallies taking place in a big room of Auditorium Maximum at the Warsaw University: “a man in a padded work jacket came through one of the windows open under the ceiling on to a window sill and said: Students, nobody authorised me to do it, but I wanted to tell you that the working class is with you. And suddenly, as if automatically, the whole room stood up and burst with The Internationale.”[6]


The first theoretical study dedicated to the March events was written by Zygmunt Bauman. In the Paris “Kultura” monthly, he published a text O frustratach i kuglarzach [On Frustrates and Wheeler-Dealers].[7] A well-known sociologist, who emigrated as a result of the March events, referred in it to this students’ movement as a movement with a clear leftwing character. However, the thesis of the leftwing nature of March has caused a lot of controversies since the very beginning. In the April 1969 issue of “Kultura,” an anonymous polemic appeared titled: Nie zgadzam się z Baumanem [I Disagree with Bauman].[8] This is how the former student described the state of minds of the youth participating in the March events one year earlier: “The sense of the youth movement was the drive for democracy,” since there was “an awareness of insufficiency of the October-type changes, demand for freedom, legal opposition, general elections, effectiveness of the economic system and political independence. Young people shouted in the streets of Warsaw: Free Poland!” The author also rejected the thesis that these were just the Commandos who played the role of informal leaders. It was a mistake of the partisan propaganda to identify the whole movement with Kuroń and Modzelewski: “The analysis would be true if Kuroń and Modzelewski and their young supporters were real spiritual youth leaders. I am not going to undermine the role played by those persons at the initial stage of the movement… However, in fact, Kuroń and Modzelewski had many more advocates in the West and they were liked much more by Cohn-Bendit than their Polish addressees.” The author rejected also all comparisons between the Polish students’ movement and the young people’s revolt in the West, where it was an “opposition movement,” which was aiming at “the total denial of the existing tradition and at building of a new ideal political system on the ruins of the bourgeois society.” In Poland, on the other hand, the essence of this movement consisted in “putting forward demands for democracy and rational reorganisation of the national life.”

Another anonymous polemic with Bauman included in the 1969 June issue of “Kultura”, titled Nie o egalitaryzm chodziło [It Was Not About Egalitarianism], was maintained in a similar spirit. We know today that its author was Jakub Karpiński, who wrote: “A direct argument, undermining Bauman’s theses, is the texts of students’ resolutions and appeals. If the word “socialism” occurs in them, it is almost always supplemented with the word: democracy. Apart from the mechanism of socialist indoctrination and transformation, by young people, of the slogans instilled to them in the very centre of the reality criticism, noticed by Bauman, another mechanism can be also seen: democratic postulates being conceived, which were not promoted top-down, but which were created as a result of the protest against the existing state of affairs. In one of the texts the notion of socialism is explained: we are in favour of social control over economic decisions. Somewhere else, socialism seems to be a very good thing, just as in the article by Leszek Kołakowski.”[9]

Is not thus the thesis about the leftwing nature of March an overstatement? In order to answer that question definitively one should look at the March events as a huge spontaneous movement, embracing young people all over Poland, people with different convictions, social origin, and different levels of political awareness. The whole movement covered, with its range, a number of colleges and universities throughout Poland; thousands of university and secondary school students participated in different forms of protest in many cities and towns. In such huge human groups, the basic way of experiencing and understanding one’s own involvement in events certainly consisted, first of all, in referring to the most common elements of collective imagination. This is why, that movement, in the opinion of most of its participants, was, first of all, of national and democratic character, becoming an inherent part of a long tradition of struggles for independence, which had begun in the previous century. For a society educated in the spirit of a romantic vision of the national past – paradoxically both home and state school working together here – it was almost a reflex, an instinctive reaction in a situation of risk. However, it does not blight the thesis about the leftwing character of March. Yet, it refers, as has been said earlier, first of all, to a group of activists from the Warsaw University. It was just this university in the capital which became the place, where the students’ movement was initiated. It also plays the central role in the legend of March – in its picture built through accounts, historic studies and memories. The scenes of dispersing the crowd in front of the University gate at Krakowskie Przedmieście Street and beating of students crowded on the stairs of the Holy Cross Church, repeated in documentaries, have already formed a collective image. Exquisite overrepresentation of the account relating to the course of the events at the Warsaw University and in the circles of the Commandos results naturally from the fact that they thought through the ideological sense of the events and built the legend. Recreation of the actual course of the events, which took place in other universities, in many cities and towns, is obviously possible, although it requires painstaking work of historians. Most likely, the image of March made as a result of such detailed archival searches would be close to the thesis put forward by Karpiński. Yet, in this case, the difference between the legend and reality is not unfavourable towards the former, since in the human memory lasts what is able to attract imagination, and what can win its place in it.

The leftwing character of March should thus be understood as the ideological nature of the centre of events – in a literal sense it is the Warsaw University, yet, in the ideological dimension it is a leftwing identity of the Commandos, a group of activists, for whom March became the starting point for building their own identity in their circles. In the centre of March, the basic slogan was the struggle for democratic socialism, and that slogan was not treated as an ornament, but as a real declaration. Yet, the farther away from the centre of events – in the literal sense of that word – and, at the same time, the farther, in the sense of organisations and contacts, from the Warsaw University and the Commandos, the less conscious leftwing ideology, the more it is an unreflectively quoted ornament (sad evidence of efficient partisan indoctrination), or a more or less consciously used costume, consent to having a peculiar dialogue with authorities in their own language. Instead of the conscious leftwing ideology, a romantic and insurrection image appeared, which was enrooted in a long tradition of struggles for independence. Through such perspective, the students’ movement was yet another piece in the chain of protests, uprisings and conspiracies, aimed at throwing off the yoke restraining the nation. Clashing of those two myths: “revolution” and “uprising,” competing with each other and, at the same time, melting, in some sense, in the participants’ awareness, into an amalgamation of different overlapping and mutually affecting ways of thinking about politics, could be seen in the very March accounts. Suffice it to refer here to the aforementioned Jan Walc, who, many years later, described his astonishment at seeing elderly people bringing bandages and medicines to the Warsaw University during the strike[10]. One of the authors of the accounts brought about in the volume titled Krajobraz po szoku writes about her astonishment, when, during some demonstration, she saw an elderly man, who upon seeing a students’ march, began shouting patriotic slogans, whereas somebody else expressed their complete astonishment, when a friend walking next to him, just when the marching people left the Technical University, shouted “Away with communism!”[11] For the representatives of the Home Army generation, every protest against the authorities meant a protest against a regime, which shattered hopes for the reconstruction of democratic Poland. The students’ protest was thus a logical element of endeavours which were of insurrection and deeply patriotic character. One needs to make a reference to a characteristic fact: in the Warsaw accounts a difference can be seen in the attitude of the Warsaw streets to two centres of the students’ movement in the capital: to the Technical University and the Warsaw University. The latter was perceived as an exclusive university, where children of the governing party and state elite studied. Yet, it is not clear, to what extent it was the result of the impact of Moczar’s propaganda, and to what extent it was the result of an instinctive recognition of the ideological, i.e. leftwing, nature of the movement at the Warsaw University. On the other hand, the attitude to the Technical University was much warmer – witnesses talk about stacks of cigarettes brought for striking students, about food delivered there by merchants from the nearby bazaar at Polna Street, about other proofs of spontaneously expressed sympathy. Perhaps, some role was played here by a more “national” and patriotic atmosphere prevailing at the Technical University, enrooted in the insurgent myth.

Such disputes returned after many years – during the TKN symposium mentioned several times before, in 1981, Marcin Król stated that the word: socialism was only a certain ornament used by the movement; it “was in harmony with the atmosphere, perhaps not my personal, but with the atmosphere of the movement and of that time. That word was used as a sign and symbol not because socialism was really so much wanted.” Professor Pomian allegedly talked Król and other authors of the students’ movement declaration into placing “socialism” there, hoping that in this way the declaration contents would find its way easier to the authorities. Yet, that statement provoked Adam Michnik’s sarcastic comments, whereas Andrzej Werner protested, saying: “this is what we were like, this is how we thought.”


However, the very statement of the leftwing nature of the March movement does not constitute a good starting point for understanding the depth and power of the shock, which were authorities’ repressions. The leftwing nature of the movement did not result from the frequent use of the magic charm of socialism; it stemmed from deeply enrooted style of thinking – the way of thinking about politics, public life mechanisms, and a certain vision of the desired social order. For the leftwing style of thinking, the revolution myth has a constitutive meaning. Thus, in order to understand the depth of the March shock, together with its consequences, one needs to present that myth and its place in the way of perceiving social reality through the March generation.

Memories and accounts of the students’ movement participants as well as leaflets and resolutions adopted during the events constitute convincing evidence of its leftwing character. Yet, they do not allow having a deeper insight into the leftwing way of thinking. In order to make such an attempt, we have to refer to a document written a few years earlier, namely to the “Letter to the members of POP PZPR [the basic organisational unit of the Polish United Workers' Party] and the members of ZMS [Union of Socialist Youth] at the Warsaw University” written by Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski.[12] They were, in fact, older than “the Commandos,” but they played the role of unquestioned authorities and informal leaders in those circles.[13] The repressions that afflicted the authors of the “Letter…” consolidated the Commandos’ circles and, at the same time, contributed to publicizing the views presented in it not only in Poland (via Western broadcasting stations), but also abroad. It turned out quite important later on, when a countercultural revolt broke out in Paris, where Kuroń and Modzelewski were mentioned among authorities motivating students’ movement activists in their struggle with the bourgeois order.

The “Letter…” made a great impression on them, it was widely distributed and discussed. For this reason, it constitutes an extremely interesting source, enabling reconstruction of the way of thinking of those circles at that time; it also obviously prevails over relations and memories, which were created in later years, already from the perspective of experiences growing up with time and the revision of the original views.

The “Letter…” expresses general criticism of the system ruling in Poland at that time, as a system based on the power of party and state bureaucracy. The state was appropriated by the “new class,” namely bureaucracy, control of which was based, according to the rules of Marxist analysis, on controlling means of production. Bureaucracy, in order to maintain its control monopoly, allowing it to exploit the working class, maintains police dictatorship (monopoly of using violence is the foundation of the monopoly of authority). The officially propagated thesis about democratic rules of the party life is a propaganda lie – the structure of power is monolithic and hierarchical. Production capacities and the social structure, supported by exploiting the working class, had only one goal: to reproduce the bureaucracy ruling system. The authors of the “Letter…” express their conditional approval for the post-war stage of building industrialisation foundations, which had to take place in the conditions of coercive measures (such measures were necessary in order to quickly modernise the backward country), but later, bureaucracy shaped during its course began to hinder development of production capacities. It led to the economic crisis.

The consequence of that analysis, conducted according to Marxist principles, was an equally Marxist practical conclusion – the oppressed working class should shake off the yoke of oppression. Kuroń and Modzelewski wrote: “Today, in the era of a general system crisis, revolution is in the interest of the working class: overthrow of bureaucracy and current production relations, taking over control over one’s own work and its product, control over production goals, meaning introduction of the economic, social and political system based on workers’ democracy.” The authors of the “Letter…” remained in line with the great leftwing tradition, enrooted in the 19th century, or even further, as far back as the French revolution. Its basic, central point was the myth of revolution, enabling bringing about in the world of practice the world order presented in the sphere of critical philosophical analysis. That is why, as they understood it, revolution was supposed to be just an introduction, a condition of joining new order creation. A positive programme included in the “Letter…” is strictly connected with its analytical part – revolution in the leftwing way of thinking constitutes, at the same time, the end and the beginning, it is a dialectic combination of discontinuities and continuities manifested in the historic process.

      Kuroń and Modzelewski outlined a positive project for the future as “workers’ democracy.” They understood it as the system of workers’ councils, headed by the Central Delegates’ Council. The councils were to be the way to maximally decentralise power structures. Owing to their organisational dispersion, it was possible to participate in ruling at the lowest level. Councils should, at the same time, combine prerogatives of economic, police (workers’ militia replacing armed forces), legislative and executive authorities. Workers’ masses were to participate in executing power in all of its bodies on a continuous basis. Thus, it was the form of direct rule, allowing overcoming all forms of alienation.

Even a quick glance at the details of that vision enables noticing not only its really revolutionary nature in the context of the real socialist system, but also its fundamental difference from standards adopted in liberal democracies. In fact, the authors of the “Letter…” criticised directly parliamentary democracy. It is extremely important in order to understand the style of political thinking of “the Commandos” in the period preceding March events. Kuroń and Modzelewski wrote straightforwardly: “we are against the parliamentary system. Experience of both twenty-year periods (i.e. years 1918-1939 and 1944-1964 – D.G.) shows that it does not prevent dictatorship, and, at the same time, even in the most perfect form, it is not the form of democracy. In the parliamentary system, parties compete for votes in elections: once a ballot card has been put into the ballot box, election programmes can be thrown away. Members of the parliament feel connected only to the party leaders, who made them candidates. Voters are organised in districts on a purely formal basis; therefore, they are atomised, and the right to recall members of the parliament is only pretence. Citizen’s participation in the political life boils down to reading leaders’ statements in press, listening to them on the radio watching on television, and once in four or five years going to the polls to decide about representatives of which party are to control the society. Everything else happens within the scope of the citizen’s mandate, but without his participation. In addition, the parliament is only legislative power. In those conditions, the so-called executive power apparatus becomes the only real authority, controlled by those who have material power, i.e. an additional product at their disposal.” The workers’ democracy system organised based on workers’ councils was supposed to remedy all parliamentarianism drawbacks. Parliamentary democracy in that perspective had to be perceived as a democratic comedy; although apparently it meant the rule of the people, in fact it hid a monopolist rule of huge capital and technocrats at its service. In contrast to it, the system of councils made it possible to participate regularly and directly in politics understood as a basic plane for building reality of a community of people. It was just this element of the style of thinking about politics, characteristic for the Commandos, which seems to be extremely crucial from the point of view of their further ideological evolution; it is about the vision of politics as a sphere of building true bonds, enabling overcoming the falsity of existence in modern society.

From that perspective, they did not reject the order in People’s Republic of Poland and other real socialism countries in favour of parliamentary democracy in the Western style, but rather they looked for a third indirect way. Both the order of real socialism and liberal parliamentary democracy reached a deadlock, in their opinion, as both systems ossified in a technocratic order, leading to treating the human being like an object. From such recognition of the condition of industrial societies on both sides of the iron curtain, Kuroń and Modzelewski drew their conclusions about the international situation. In consequence, the “Letter…” was clearly of an internationalist nature. Kuroń and Modzelewski kept an equal distance to both forms of modern industrialism, which were degenerated in their opinion, i.e. imperialism (West) and bureaucracy (East): “Against the agreement between international bureaucracy and industrial imperialist bureaucracy, maintaining systems of anti-people dictatorship in spheres of their influence, we put forward the traditional workers’ slogan: "Proletarians of all countries, unite!” In practice, it meant an equal distance to both the United States and the Soviet Union, as hegemonies of two apparently hostile camps. The expression of such convictions was certainly an action undertaken by a group gathering around Dajczgewand, which prepared a leaflet condemning the American intervention in Vietnam.[14] For the radicals from “the Commandos” circles, refusing to help the Vietnamese nation actively in its just struggle against imperialist aggressors proved to be a betrayal of revolutionary ideals by real socialism states. Later on, it enabled building symmetry between the events in Vietnam and the intervention in Czechoslovakia, the revolt in Paris and in Warsaw, since both in the West and in the East people were struggling with the status quo, with a local variety of the “system.”


Here, we come to an essential and controversial issue of similarities between the March movement and the students’ revolt in the West. That topic, unfortunately insufficiently examined, is extremely important and interesting. In our considerations, we have to limit ourselves only to those similarities which will enable us better understanding of the issue of internal March repercussions, crucial for later ideological changes within the Polish democratic opposition.

We have got used to perceiving March as a piece of a long chain of struggles for independence and democracy. Such a way of looking at the then events has led, in a natural way, to highlighting differences between the Polish students’ movement and a student revolt in the West, particularly in France. Interpretation of March as a patriotic and liberal movement, opposes, in a natural way, the countercultural, anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois Paris revolt. It can be clearly seen from the time perspective. Yet, we cannot forget that for the events participants on both sides of the iron curtain, in 1968, similarities counted first of all; what is more, at the time, both for Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Adam Michnik those similarities were undisputed. Understanding of real differences came much later.

Both in Paris and in Warsaw, the central myth, around which leftwing thinking about politics was organised, was the myth of revolution. It was just the call for revolution articulated by Kuroń and Modzelewski which was so dangerous in the eyes of the authorities. Reaching out for police repressions, partisan bureaucracy turned out to be reactive in the original, Marxist, meaning of that word. Revolution was also the basic political spell of the Western contesters. Not only of the Western contesters anyway; to see how much the myth of revolution was enrooted in the general style of thinking at that time, it is enough to read copies of the Paris “Kultura” monthly from that period. Nobody can suspect that this monthly edited by Jerzy Giedroyć was clearly leftwing. Yet, this term often appears in its issues at the beginning of 1968. In the April edition, Gustaw Herling-Grudziński compared the political situation in Prague and Warsaw. His conclusion is as follows: “In Poland there is an undetected revolutionary situation.” He quotes Marcuse, writing that in contemporary societies the revolutionary role of industrial proletariat is weakening in favour of youth and creative intelligentsia. He adds, however, that it would be difficult to transfer that reasoning directly to the Polish soil, since isolation of intelligentsia from workers would mean here a certain disaster of “every revolutionary movement.”[15]

Publications of Juliusz Mieroszewski from that period seem to be interesting as well. In the same issue, in which the aforementioned text by Herling-Grudziński was published, Mieroszewski published a sketch titled: Druga Europa [The Second Europe]. He outlined his vision of international relations, very similar to the position of Kuroń and Modzelewski. His main concern was a threat to Prague by Soviets, in the situation when Czechs could not count on the help from the West. He explained the passiveness of Western democracies with the fact that Europe was under control of a new Holy Alliance of two, apparently hostile, camps. Each of them had its own hegemonic leader – in the West it was America, and in the East - Soviets – whose goal was to maintain the status quo in its own sphere of influence. Yet, that status quo was shaking on both sides of the iron curtain: in Bonn, Paris, Prague and in Warsaw.[16]

However, none of the texts published at that time in the Paris “Kultura” monthly demonstrated so well the spirit of the time as the short and very emotional “Apel Kultury” [Kultura’s Appeal], addressed to the readers of the monthly, constituting an introduction to the June issue, which came out soon after the Paris revolt. We can read in this unsigned text, so unusual for this magazine, which in general was quite matter-of-fact and subdued: “A revolutionary thrill went through Europe, across its length and width. There are huge and multiple differences between students’ riots in France, Western Germany or Italy, on the one hand, and in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, on the other, but they are connected with a certain undetected similarity: here and there, an act of rebellion against ossified or ossifying forms of social and political life, shared by almost all youth in the world, became evident. The crisis on both sides of the ideological division line in the world is so deep that in France it covered the governments and communists at the same time.” Editors further refer to Servan-Schreiber, a French publicist, who stated that the French communist party was “flooded by the current revolution,” to the same degree as other parts of the establishment. All communist parties have to express their position towards “the Czech revolution” – “all of them must reconsider perspectives and methods of continuing socialism, but without what they call the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

For “Kultura” editors, the March events in Poland constituted obviously an element of that big process of revolutionary transitions: “the Polish students, who demonstrated at universities in March… are the vanguard of the same general struggle for reconciliation between socialism and freedom.” Today, it is already clear that if their campaign had not expired prematurely, it would have had to finally cover also workers and, in consequence, lead to some transformations within the party. However, it came out differently, as “Moczar’s reaction won.” But it was only a temporary victory, since “in Europe, shaken by unrest and a revolutionary ferment, (…) a new reactive small stability of Moczar and Gomułka did not have any chances to stay in the long-term.” That is why, editors asked all their readers to support all forms of struggle for freedom.[17]

This appeal, full of revolutionary pathos, was accompanied in the June issue by an extensive account of the Paris events written by Konstanty Jeleński titled Notatki o Majowej rewolucji [Notes on the May Revolution].[18] Jeleński asked: what were the links between Warsaw and Paris? In his opinion, what was shared by both movements was “clear, uncompromising, refreshing anti-Stalinism.” The Movement of 22 March, headed by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, rejected decisively to use double standards with regard to the events taking place in the East and in the West. In this way, radicals of the young peoples’ movement broke up with the hypocrisy of fellow-travellers, who “for so many years, in their beautiful houses, during sophisticated dinners, explained to us how beneficial socialism is to East-European countries.” May, owing to its moral uncompromising attitude, brought back “once and for all, the original meaning to such terms as socialism or revolution.” With a great fascination, Jeleński described the process of a sudden release of revolutionary energy – during several weeks, the movement, initiated by a small group of activists at the Nanterre University, gave rise to a multi-million general strike, organised against the apparatus of the communist party.[19]

Jeleński admitted that the May programme – state replacement with a system of workers’ and students‘ councils, questioning the idea of the nation state, rejection of the consumption model of the society, transformation of universities into centres of opposition, clear condemnation of the communist party, which betrayed revolutionary ideals – was unrealistic, and yet, at the same time, he praised “affirmation of the romantic rebellion” and rehabilitated “individual negation.” That is why, when writing about similarities between the Polish and the French movements, he added: “Daniel Cohn-Bendit is a real brother of Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski. If we respect the attitude of both young Poles, we cannot disregard Cohn-Bendit’s struggle.” In his opinion, Kuroń and Modzelewski “have the same contempt, as Cohn-Bendit, for organisational frameworks, without which the contemporary society may not exist.” He also quotes one of Cohn-Bendit’s interviews, in which, when asked about his authorities, he mentioned Marx, Bakunin, Marcuse and Kołakowski, in one breath.[20]

When reading those analyses, appeals and accounts, one should always remember that they do not have to show a real sense and meaning of the events they referred to. One can see how much and how quickly the tone of political reflection changed, when reading consecutive issues of “Kultura” monthly or Polish accounts describing the first months after March. Already in August, a soviet intervention took place in Czechoslovakia, which shattered hopes for building “socialism with a human face.” The opposition movement in France failed from the political point of view. The rebellion wave in Europe retreated. Slogans of the political revolution, understood very literally, gradually faded, in their place, the 1968 generation, speaks rather about the cultural revolution. Groups of fanatic extremists, feeling beset and disappointed, reached out for absolute terror in the next decade. The events of that exceptional year become gradually covered by a legend – it is quite understandable, taking into account passing time, however, at the same time, one gets an impression that the participants of those events felt uncomfortable with the intensity of naive enthusiasm, the wave which swept throughout Europe at that time. There is no exaggeration in that sentence – the best proof of the special atmosphere which absolutely overwhelmed Paris, even the rebellion opponents, is the above-quoted fragments of texts written by recognised authors of “Kultura”, including that exceptional editors’ “Appeal.” Something which has already become forgotten, covered by time and consciously pushed to the deepest corners of memory, breaks through those texts, namely enchantment caused by the myth of revolution coming true in front of the participants and bystanders of that exceptional moment, when – as Paris’ students shouted – “power is on the streets.”[21] The faith in that myth connected Warsaw and Paris, “the Commandos” and the activists from Nanterre – with all differences dividing them. In 1968, the fundamental difference between Warsaw and Paris consisted, first of all, in the fact that while for “the Commandos,” the myth of the revolution was the source of a great, though unfulfilled hope, for Cohn-Bendit and his companions it was reality, even if it lasted only for a very short time.

The myth of the revolution played a key role in the leftwing way of thinking about politics. From 1789, from the great French revolution, through 19th century revolutions, until the Russian revolution in 1917, it was the core of contemporary leftism. To all kinds of radicals, a real important change in social relations was possible only through overthrowing of the unjust order. The logic of the historic human development was revealed through the act of will expressed by progressive social forces of workers and students. The political struggle consisted in a dialectic conflict of progressive and reactive forces. That is why, to leftwing people, revolution was a kind of epiphany of the spirit of time. The reason ruling the history was revealed through the will of the revolutionary class, overcoming contradictions hindering mankind on its way to progress. While in the leftwing style of thinking, characteristic for the 19th century and for revolutionary parties remaining under the influence of communist ideas, such force was the working class and its vanguard, i.e. a Leninist party of a new kind, in 1968 a revolutionary force turned out to be students and intellectuals. Those groups were overwhelmed with a revolutionary element, which, encountering the resistance of the ossified system, began a struggle aimed at building a true community. The myth of the revolution was not a fundamental element of only a leftwing identity – it was very high on in the contemporary way of thinking about the political sphere. The best proof of that are the texts quoted from “Kultura,” not written by authors identifying directly with the radicals, or leftist slogans of the students’ movement. Such terms as revolution or reaction occupy a natural and an obvious place in it – they are permanent and well-enrooted elements of a discourse used to describe the historic process; they are not only historic terms, but continuously applicable, capable of describing adequately reality and emotions felt by the events participants. In this sense, the Paris May constituted, in the awareness of people of that time, another piece of change which began in 1789, running through subsequent revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries, aimed at realising a utopian society based on true equality, democracy allowing general participation in the community life, life in dignity and truth. It brought the promise of a true revolution, betrayed by the Stalinist French Community Party.

For the Polish left, opposing the real socialism system, the revolution was not an abstraction, referred to in such manifests as the “Letter…” written by Kuroń and Modzelewski. Democratic left remembered the 1956 experience all the time, when the spirit of the revolution revealed its power in the lecture theatre of the Warsaw Technical University. That is why, the Commandos, running their political activity in the period preceding March, fought to defend ideas betrayed by Gomułka, i.e. October 1956, the Polish revolution, which aimed at overruling Stalinist mistakes and perversions in the name of the democratic socialism. In the letter, Kuroń and Modzelewski call October “the first anti-bureaucratic revolution.”[22] That is why, in accordance with the way of thinking about politics, typical for the left, they perceived the growing crisis in mid 1960s as an approaching revolutionary situation. The symbol of that situation is the fact that a decision about convening of a protest rally because of expelling Michnik and Szlajfer from the university was made on 3 March at Kuroń’s birthday party, during which the latter, together with Modzelewski, gave a speech about Messianism of the working class (to be exact, it should be noted here, that it was thoroughly criticised by the listeners.)[23]

This is where the reasons of the March shock have their origin. They did not consist in mere disappointment, they were not caused simply by the defeat of the revolution, suppressed by repressions. To understand the reasons of the shock, we should go back to the “Letter…” written by Kuroń and Modzelewski. They are hidden in the picture of the right wing, drawn by the authors. In the final part of the text, the authors repel any potential criticism of their position. They mention three basic accusations: that the revolution may lead to the triumph of anti-socialist forces, that revolutionary hopes are false, since the working class in its mass is reactive and that the revolution will lose, since “bourgeois elements” are too strong in the society. Kuroń and Modzelewski reject those arguments totally. First of all, reaction forces are weak and dispersed: “Elements of traditional social rightwing have no economic base in the decisive economy sectors, namely industry, constructions, transport and banks. Elements of small bourgeoisie – private initiatives in towns and the so-called kulak households in villages are marginal in the economy and the social structure.” The situation was different when it came to the political representation of rightwing forces, “headed by the Church, manifesting their character by reference to the old, reactive ideological symbolism.”[24] The authors saw the power of the rightwing in masses dislike towards the bureaucratic system. Since they identify the hated system with socialism, they turn towards the right in the absence of the authentic leftwing alternative. That is why, a logical conclusion stemming from this analysis is the following statement: “the only efficient way of struggling against the traditional rightwing is not… defending bureaucratic dictatorship, but struggling against it consistently and exposing from the left positions.” It should be noted that it is an implied polemic with the position of such party intellectuals as Kroński or Schaff, described by Miłosz in Rodzinna Europa [Family Europe] (the figure of “Tiger,” under which the author of Rozważań wokół Hegla [Considerations On Hegel] is hidden), and by Walicki in Spotkania z Miłoszem [Meetings with Miłosz]. They supported the power of partisan bureaucracy, since it constituted a barrier against national democratic-type of authoritarianism and xenophobia, which unavoidably would make themselves heard in the event that Poland regained its sovereignty.[25]

The authors of the “Letter…” in one short sentence brushed off such reasoning: “We do not intend to discuss the thesis that the working class is a reactive force, since it does not express anything but anti-workers’ class consciousness.”[26] Within the frameworks of the leftwing style of thinking about politics, such statement is simply absurd and contradictory. Intrinsically, the working class is always progressive, and thus no reactive form of it may exist. Yet, the clash between the theory and reality was extremely painful. It not only turned out that masses, believed in so much, were, in the best case, kindly neutral, workers did not want any revolution (students unsuccessfully sent delegations with requests to obtain support for their struggle to large enterprises, known for their attitude in October 1956) – first of all, a lot of ordinary people were manipulated by anti-intelligentsia and anti-Semitic slogans. The perfidy of the authorities consisted, at the same time, in sending apparently workers’ hit squads to beat students. It was just the worst to the idealistic leftwing people – the so-far system criticism, although harsh, was the voice coming from the inside – even the very titled of the “Letter…” by Kuroń and Modzelewski proves that, as it was addressed to members of the party and a youth organisation. March was as if the worst nightmare to them – the party revealed its nationalist and fascist face. As expressed by Adam Michnik during the anniversary session at the Warsaw University in 1981: March was the end of October 56 illusions regarding possibilities of building democratic socialism.[27] Earlier, at the TKN symposium in February of that year, he stated straightforwardly that the March movement was the last bastard of the October movement, since it assumed action within the system.[28] However, in fact, it was rather a system which suddenly rejected the leftwing defiance, which although having a critical attitude, the whole time saw its place within its frameworks (the goal of the Commandos was not “bourgeois” democracy, but the reform of PRL [People’s Republic of Poland] in the spirit of democratic socialism). Breaking umbilical cords occurred later, when the March generation shook off the shock and drew some conclusions from the events.

The essence of the ideological shock which was March to the Commandos, consisted in the fall of faith in the revolution. Taking into account the role of the myth of revolution, constitutive for the leftwing identity, the consequence of March was breakdown of the left in its classical, traditional shape. The drama of the situation did not simply consist in the fact that the revolution failed, but that the very idea of the revolution turned out to be impossible and inadequate to reality. Growing of the revolutionary situation did not lead to any breakthrough. In the place of the revolution, bureaucracy allowed anti-Semitic, xenophobic, authoritarian, narrow-minded and anti-intelligentsia elements – and thus par excellence reactive forces – breaking out. The warning expressed by Miłosz, who had written that “the Party is the successor of ONR [National Radical Camp] a dozen years before,” became totally right.” Naked violence and lies of the propaganda amalgamated fear of the right and reluctance to bureaucracy in one whole – Hitler-based communism. Only then could the left become liberated from the sense of – conditional and incomplete but still – loyalty towards PRL as a handicapped state, but despite that, fulfilling, at least partially, the socialistic ideals.

Today, from the thirty years’ perspective, it can be seen clearly that 1968 – both in Paris and in Warsaw – was the last year, when people believed in a revolution as a special decisive moment in history. The last time in the history of the continent that word was referred to with the same hope and fascination as at many moments before: in 1789, 1830, 1848, 1905 and 1917. Suddenly, after 1968, it disappeared from the discourse used for describing the political sphere. Something worth noticing – gradually a new language was shaped, used to describe the struggle and the social political conflict. Revolution meant abrupt abandoning of contradictions hindering the logic of the historic process. It was a special moment of struggle and overcoming the resistance of forces standing in the way of progress and freedom (in that sense, it could be also included in the insurrection and national language – the November Uprising was a “revolution” to people living in those times). Nowadays, new terms are being coined and new words describing the sphere of struggle and conflict. The term “revolution” was unambiguous, the same as the notion of an uprising. Conscious rejection of violence as a tool used to realise changes led to popularisation of a number of euphemisms trying to fill out an empty space left in the discourse by a revolution thrown away outside that space. Such terms as “crisis,” “confrontation,” “Polish months,” “developments” and “events” entered the Polish leftwing language after March. Language uncertainty and unsteadiness reflected deep changes taking place in the style of thinking about politics. Together with them, the sense of March also underwent transformation, together with the place of its legend in the ideological identity of the Polish left.


Years 1968-1976 brought weakening of organised activity in the circles of the Commandos and of other leftwing groups involved in the March movement. However, that time was not lost – it was then when the ideological identity of the whole formation was reconstructed. In that process, a key role was played by the March experience. For obvious reasons, that topic has to be presented briefly in this sketch. Yet, we cannot forget those issues – the myth of March, as its framework was created in the proper meaning of that word just in that period.

A basic question faced by the March generation at that time could be briefly summarised as follows: if not the right and not the left, what in their place? The traditional left turned out impossible; the right, for obvious reasons, could not be a point of reference in that search for the Commandos. It was thus necessary to go beyond the magic circle of a dialectic conflict between the reactive forces and progress. Intellectual work was running along the trail marked out by such books and articles as Rodowody niepokornych by Bohdan Cywiński, Nowy ewolucjonizm i Kościół, lewica, dialog by Adam Michnik and sketches by Jacek Kuroń. It resulted in the creation of a new model of political action, new role models and a new style of thinking about politics.

The rightism was associated with anti-Semitic witch-hunting and nationalism; in turn, the party successfully compromised communist ideals and the faith in revolution. Combination of narrow-mindedness and bureaucratic arrogance resulted eventually in brutal repressions addressed to the leftwing advocates, intellectuals, and to some Catholic circles headed by ZNAK association. It was an especially important element – in the accounts of numerous Commandos a tone of astonishment with which Catholics’ protests were perceived appears.[29] It was yet another factor allowing rejection of a traditional division into the leftwing and the rightwing – both advocates of real socialism and nationalist and anti-Semitic part of Catholics were in favour of the authorities; on the other side of the barricade met both Catholics with clearly leftwing roots and those open to the world and opposing both nationalism and authorities. Both groups were rebellious – according to excellent Cywiński’s book.

Bridging the gap between the traditionally understood leftwing and rightwing meant establishing a new division: into totalitarianism and democracy (democratic opposition). On the part of totalitarianism, one could place the real socialism system, on the one hand, and nationalism, narrow-mindedness and anti-Semitism, on the other. That collective name was used to name all bad elements existing both in the left and in the right, since regardless of apparent differences they inclined towards “truncheon” methods of the political struggle. On the other side, i.e. on the side of democratic opposition, was everything which was good both on the right and on the left side of old divisions. It was a true and deep breakthrough both in thinking about politics and forms of political activities – Adam Michnik, when talking during the March session in 1981 about the meaning of March for shaping of the opposition, noticed that a mental gap with the world of official structures made dissidents defenceless. Although they were fighting against Stalinists within the party, they regarded that institution as close to them. Now, after “breaking umbilical cords” in March, they had to create a new “spiritual” and “intellectual” home for themselves. Developing this thought, one can say that the said home became KOR [Workers' Defence Committee] (that situation concerned also, to some extent, liberal Catholics, who lost their political representation). An intellectual expression of that breakthrough was development of a new form of utopia. The myth of the revolution was replaced with a new kind of myth organising political thinking and activity – the myth of the civil society.

Traditional utopias have always had a political character – they aimed at gaining power, which was treated as a necessary condition for carrying out social changes. Power was perceived as the most important tool of influencing the contemporary society. Lay leftwing circles – as Adam Michnik called advocates of the 1968 democratic socialism in 1976 in his book titled Kościół, lewica, dialog [Church, Leftism, Dialogue][30] – did not want to gain power, but to build an authentic civil community, they wanted to “live in truth and dignity.” A special emphasis put on ethical issues, resulting straightforwardly from the power of the moral shock caused by March, led to creating a new way of understanding politics. After Vaclav Havel, it is commonly referred to as “anti-political politics.”[31] This activity was not political in a narrow traditional meaning of that word; first of all, it was not connected with the faith in the necessity of founding own political institutions. The conviction about the necessity to act within the institutional frameworks determined, in Michnik’s opinion, the defeat of both revisionists and independent Catholics in 1968 – both groups were unable to imagine public activity outside the party or parliamentary institutions, even if these were phoney institutions. People of the March left, the Commandos, did not want to build any institutions after 1976 – they wanted to create an independent “movement,” a “network” of independent “initiatives,” which did not aim at gaining power in a certain unspecified future, but at building freedom enclaves, enabling living in truth here and now, within the real socialism system.

Such a programme, however, did not mean being clearly in favour of the parliamentary democracy model in the Western liberal style. The authentic community of citizens living in truth allowed opposing brutal violence and hypocrisy of real socialism and fleeing from dangers threatening with a technocratic, consumerist Western society. This is why, the new style of political thinking of the democratic opposition and leftist circles of dissidents turned out to be so attractive to the West-European leftwing, looking the whole time after 1968 for the “third way” between real socialism and capitalism.[32]

The leftwing identity built on the basis of the myth of the civil society and not of the revolution meant a change in the way of understanding politics. It stopped to be a dynamic struggle, in which violence was not excluded in order to do away with exploitation and overcome reaction, but rather it consisted in making internal spiritual transformation, enabling giving testimony in the face of a threat from the regime based on lies and violence. The new ethical left was thus non-revolutionary; its goal was not workers’ democracy, but a brotherly community of citizens.

In such situation, the ideological sense of March had to change. Since it was the end of not only October 56 utopia, but, in general, the end of traditional leftism, perceiving the main moment in history in the revolution, its leftist nature became gradually blurred. Just as in case of any significant breakthrough in history, the element of discontinuity had to give way to continuity of meanings and symbols being uncovered with time. Being the end, March turned out, at the same time, the beginning of a new tradition, its founding myth. A moral shock obscured, in the generation’s memory, an ideological shock; now March appeared as a brutal attack on the aspiration to freedom, dignity and real community – on everything which constituted anticipation of the idea of the civil society. Its ideological sense became more and more filled with liberal, democratic, and – which is extremely crucial – national and patriotic elements. Breaking the continuity of the revolutionary leftism tradition did not mean, in fact, that one could not very easily place March in another tradition, allowing maintenance of the collective memory continuity and group identity of the Commandos. In an obvious way, it fitted the tradition of Poles’ insurrectionist uprisings – the best argument was the fact the March events started with the Dziady case. This is how the myth of the revolution coincided with the insurrectionist myth and with political romanticism.

In 1981, Adam Michnik noticed that despite the triumph of authoritarianism, populism and xenophobia, March brought some positive results as well, namely it oriented the Polish reflection – the reflection of Polish leftism, in default, – regarding some issues skipped for many years. It was about the continuity of the Polish historic tradition, the attitude to Russia and Germany. The works of Kijowski, Brandys or Janion opened a new dimension of the generational identity. On the other hand, the books written by Pawełczyńska, Werner, Morawska and Mazowiecki, dedicated, in fact, to Nazism and its effects, enabled deepening a reflection over the nature of totalitarianism, including also the communistic totalitarianism. In Michnik’s opinion, it led to the most precious March result, namely, to crossing “chalk wheels dividing a Polish radical from a Polish Catholic.”[33]

In this way, the sense of the March legend evolution boiled down to shifting to the symbolic centre of events – delineated by the state of the Commandos’ awareness – the version of the events, which functioned on the verges of the students’ movement in 1968. After years, the canonical version of explaining the sense of March fully agreed with the above-quoted polemic between Karpiński and Bauman, yet with one difference, that in the new version of the March myth Michnik and Kuroń were the leaders of March as an insurrectionist movement and not as a revolutionary movement. “Periphery” understanding of the then events assumed their insurrectionist character, with concurrent marginalisation of the Commandos. Now the legend of March, presented by the Commandos, and its insurrectionist and independence version merged into one whole – however, at the expense of pushing away the leftist nature of the students’ movement from the collective memory.

Therefore, when Professor Stelmachowski said, when opening the anniversary session, held in 1981 at the Warsaw University, that “March 68 was a blow in the Polish culture, a blow in the Polish national feelings and suppression of the noblest reasons of the students’ movement being created,” he only expressed in the briefest form the already then binding way of thinking about those events.[34] The revolution was replaced by the civil society, the working class was replaced with the nation, whereas the reaction and the right were replaced by totalitarianism.


Solidarity of 1980-1981 and a period of the martial law fulfilled the utopia of the civil society on a scale unprecedented in no other Central European country. In stormy years 1988-1989, it led finally to the collapse of the communist system and building a democratic and free market liberal system in Poland – intellectual work preparing yet another transformation of the ideological identity of March leftwing circles was performed in 1980s, when, partially on the tide of liberal thought recovery caused by the rule of Mrs. Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the classical political and economic liberalism as well as parliamentary system in its Western version were rehabilitated. In consequence, another change of the sense of the 1968 events took place as well; this time, it turned out that they formed the beginning of building liberal democracy. They no longer constituted a chain in the struggle for democratic socialism and leftwing ideals, but rather they were a piece in the chain of struggles for freedom and independence. It was fully logical, since the then left-leaning dissidents became members of liberal establishment of an independent state after 1989, they had to transform the ideological sense of their initiation into politics from leftwing into liberal. Thus, March 1968 became one of the key founding myths of the Third Polish Republic.

However, we must mention certain ambiguities relating to giving just such a function to the March legend – the way of thinking shared by the March generation stemming from the 1968 experience became, after 1989, the reason of certain difficulties in building of the Polish democracy (obviously not the only one). Firstly, cancellation of the division into the right and left, resulting from the moral and ideological shock, which was March, harmed a public debate after regaining independence to a high extent. Reduction of politics down to the sphere of basic values, life in dignity and truth, was an extremely radical and heroic move in Gierek’s era – however, in ordinary conditions, it reduced the participation of the March generation in the public debate down to moralising, hiding political interests.

      The postulate of life in dignity as a political programme – so radical in communism, turned out to be too basic – “non-political” – in ordinary democracy. It allowed stigmatising easily its own opponents as people with bad will, a lust for retaliation, etc. – disregarding their arguments. Cancellation of the division into the left and the right, unwillingness towards traditional forms of institutionalisation of politics did harm also to the process of forming the Polish party system (these were indirect consequences of earlier faith in a possibility of building an authentic community, which would exist without any mediation of ossified institutions, leading to alienation of individuals). The former Commandos and media connected with them protested against the split of Solidarity into ordinary political parties, acceleration of free parliamentary elections and free presidential elections. One could risk a thesis that the factor affecting their reasoning was the fear of an uncontrolled political struggle, in which all forces revealed in such a repulsive way in 1968, had to make themselves felt unavoidably. The ethical and ideological shock occurring as a result of a clash with narrow-mindedness, xenophobia and nationalism turned into in a kind of complex, a deeply enrooted fear of masses. Working masses of 1980 fulfilled hopes being a part of the myth of the civil society. A period of 1980s was, however, a process of slow, but stable, revival of traditional divisions into the right and the left – first within the democratic opposition, later also in a bigger and bigger scope within the society. It made the Commandos, remembering the March lesson, be excessively fearful and exaggerate the scale of threats. When a fundamental conflict occurred in the camp of the former opposition, called “a war at the top”, the March left, the circles of the former Commandos reacted according to the distinctions developed in order to overcome the effects of the March shock. Since their fundamental assumption was to invalidate the division into the right and the left and to replace it with a division into the totalitarianism and the civil society, the March leftwing circles treated their recent companions from the underground, who declared a political war, as a new embodiment of a quasi-totalitarian threat. Thus, the vision of truncheon-type politics, as a possible real threat to the Polish democracy, led in a simple way, to frequently hysteric reactions to behaviours not diverging, in their essence, from democratic standards. The transfer of standards typical for the anti-political politics in the conditions of democratic, party-cabinet politics resulted in almost Manichean behaviours – since if the only distinctive feature distinguishing own camp from the camp of the ideological opponents was the ethical attitude, it was easy to make from normal institutional politics a sphere of conflict between the forces of light (the camp of the democratic opposition) and the forces of darkness (the camp of the reputedly authoritarian rightwing).

* * *

Over the last thirty years we have had to do with three myths of March, with three ideological versions of those events. In 1968, March was perceived as an element of the Polish leftwing history – as an unsuccessful revolution; ten years later, as the beginning of the civil society, and after 1989, as the starting point of the process of building demo-liberal order of the Third Polish Republic. The whole period constituted, at the same time, the time of a meandering evolution of the democratic leftwing, which started its adventure with history and politics with the “Letter…” written by Kuroń and Modzelewski, with dreams about a revolution and democratic socialism, and crowned with a complete and total support for a neoliberal economic and political order; to the theory which introduced the free market economy and parliamentary “bourgeois” democracy in Poland. This process remains one of the most interesting and, at the same time, intriguing phenomena of the most recent history of Poland – both to a historian of ideas and to an average observer of the Polish political scene.


[1]  Krajobraz po szoku. Tematy Karty, ed. E. Zylińska, Warsaw 1989.

[2]  Marzec 1968. Towarzystwo Kursów Naukowych. Zeszyty Naukowe. Seria Kolokwia, Warsaw 1981, p. 6.

[3]  ibid.

[4]  A. Michnik, Sakrament byka, [in:] March 68, “Krytyka”, nr 28-29 (“Materials from the session held on the twentieth anniversary of March 1968 at the Warsaw University” – brochure), p. 26.

[5]  Quoted parts of leaflets, appeals and resolutions of the students’ movement come from the collection titled: Opozycja wobec rządów komunistycznych w Polsce 1956-1976 Wybór dokumentów [Opposition Towards Communist Government in Poland in years 1956-1976, Selection of Documents], ed. Z. Hemmerling, M. Nadolski, Warsaw 1991, pp. 300-334.

[6]  Marzec’68. A session at the Warsaw University 1981, Warszawa 1981, vol. 2, “Ruszam z posad bryłę świata”, p. 9.

[7]  “Kultura”, no. 12, 1968, pp. 6-21.

[8]  “Kultura”, no. 4, 1969, p. 66.

[9]  “Kultura”, no. 6, 1969, p. 119.

[10]       Marzec’68. A session…, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 9.

[11]       Krajobraz po szoku, op. cit., B. Dąbrowska, Musiałam to wybrać, p. 67.

[12]       Opozycja wobec rządów komunistycznych…, op. cit., pp. 157-245.

[13]       In his account included in Krajobraz po szoku, Jan Lityński said after many years that the “Letter…” was for his circles a “great discovery and experience” – Krajobraz po szoku, op. cit., p. 47; in O frustracji i o kuglarzach Zygmunt Bauman wrote: “the ideologists of young people’s rebellion were Kuroń and Modzelewski, the authors of the manifest egalitarians against privileges of those in power and the rule of the privileged”, “Kultura”, no. 12, 1968, p. 7.

[14]       About the ideological concepts of the group gathered around Dajczgewand – see: the account of Józef Dajczgewand, in Krajobraz po…, op. cit., pp. 96-103; the issue of the leaflet was presented by A. Siwek in his work titled: Uniwersytet Warszawski w marcu’68, Warszawa 1989, p. 23 et seq.

[15]       G. Herling-Grudziński, Praga i Warszawa, “Kultura”, no. 4, 1968, p. 81.

[16]       J. Mieroszewski, Druga Europa, “Kultura”, no. 6-7, p. 10 et seq.

[17]       “Apel Kultury”, “Kultura”, no. 6-7, 1968, p. 1 et seq.

[18]       K. A. Jeleński, Notatki o majowej rewolucji, “Kultura”, no. 6-7, pp. 17-33.

[19]       ibid, p. 20.

[20]       ibid, p. 22.

[21]       On the place of the notion of revolution in contemporary though see: H. Arendt, O rewolucji, Warsaw 1989; also F. Furet, Prawdziwy koniec rewolucji francuskiej, Warsaw, Kraków 1992, and by the same author: Przeszłość pewnego złudzenia. Esej o idei komunistycznej w XX w., Warsaw 1996.

[22]       See: Chapter VII of “Open Letter…”, titled “Pierwsza rewolucja antybiurokratyczna 1956-1957”, [in:] Opozycja wobec rządów komunistycznych…, op. cit., pp. 206-210.

[23]       On the meeting see: A. Siwek, op. cit., Warsaw 1989, p. 35n.

[24]       Opozycja wobec rządów komunistycznych…, op. cit., p. 240.

[25]       C. Miłosz, Rodzinna Europa, Warszawa 1990, pp. 274-316; In his Spotkania z Miłoszem Walicki quotes a fragment of his notes from 1968, but the opinions expressed in it were, as he writes, representative for the style of thinking of party intellectuals of the Jewish origin: “They reasoned like Schaff, who said in Oxford that only communism protects Poles against fascism, or like Kroński, who said straight out that democracy opens the way to anti-Semitic mob and that, that is why, one should favour Hegel’s ideal of a bureaucratic and police state.” A. Walicki, Spotkania z Miłoszem, London 1985, p. 142.

[26]       Opozycja wobec rządów komunistycznych…, op. cit., p. 241.

[27]       Marzec’68. A session at the Warsaw University, op. cit., zeszyt 2, p. 32.

[28]       Marzec 1968. TKN…, op. cit., p. 11.

[29]       See: e.g. A. Michnik, Kościół, lewica, dialog, Warszawa 1998, p. 103 et seq.

[30]       ibid, pp. 13-16.

[31]       See: J. Szacki, Liberalizm po komunizmie, Warszawa 1994, a chapter titled “Antypolityczna polityka”, pp. 95-101.

[32]       It is interesting that in his already classical text, as it is classified by Jean L. Cohen and Andrew Arato in his fundamental work about the revival of the idea of the civil society Civil Society and Political Theory, Cambridge Mass. 1992, Michnik did not use that term even once. Only later, under the influence of Western theorists, it entered the dictionary of Central European dissidents.

[33]       Marzec’68. Session at the Warsaw University, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 34.

[34]       ibid, p. 2.

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