Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 30, 2019

The Hitler-Stalin pact, Reconsidered

Filed under: Counterpunch,Poland,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 3:11 pm

Stalin and Ribbentrop shaking hands after the signing of the pact on August 23, 1939

On August 26th, an article titled “The Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 23, 1939: Myth and Reality” appeared on CounterPunch. It made many useful points about the right of the USSR to conclude a non-aggression pact with any capitalist nation in light of the invasion that nearly destroyed it in the early 1920s. While Cold War scholarship, including its most recent incarnation in a book like Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, tries to draw parallels between Stalin and Hitler as totalitarian monsters, it was in the interest of humanity to preserve what was progressive about Soviet society despite the clique that ruled from the top.

In an article titled “The USSR in War”, written just after the Hitler-Stalin pact was concluded, Leon Trotsky laid out the differences between the two rulers succinctly: “Right now Hitler is the ally and friend of Stalin; but should Hitler, with the aid of Stalin, come out victorious on the Western Front, he would on the morrow turn his guns against the USSR. Finally Chamberlain, too, in similar circumstances would act no differently from Hitler.”

Unfortunately, Pauwels’s article is an expression of the neo-Stalinist apology for the Soviet Union’s external policy and does not take into account the negative aspects of Stalin’s policy in Europe that helped Hitler and ruined the Communist movement. Also, it shows all the shortcomings of a purely geopolitical analysis of the contradictions of the international policy of capitalist-imperialist and Stalinist countries.

By Louis Proyect and Pawel Szelegieniec

(Paweł Szelegieniec is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. His research interests focus on Marxist political economy and history of workers’ and Communist movement.)

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November 13, 2018

Whither Poland?

Filed under: Poland — louisproyect @ 11:20 pm

A banner reading “Independence March — Death to the enemies of the homeland” in Warsaw on Sunday. Credit: Radek Pietruszka/EPA, via Shutterstock

On November 11th, 250,000 rightists marched in Warsaw to celebrate Independence Day, which honors the creation of a Polish republic in 1918. There were effectively two contingents, one led by President Andrzej Duda, and the other trailing behind it by a couple of hundred yards organized by a coalition of neo-Nazi groups, including the National Revival Party that featured the slogan “Fascism? We are Worse” when it ran candidates in parliamentary elections in 2007. The NY Times reported on the neo-Nazi contingent:

Last year, the neo-Nazis marched by themselves,  chanting, “Pure Poland, white Poland,” and “Refugees, get out!”. Some carried banners with the slogan “White Europe of brotherly nations.”

Duda models himself on Viktor Orban, the ultraright president of Hungary who shares his xenophobic and authoritarian tendencies, so much so that he once declared his intention to turn Warsaw into Budapest. Like Donald Trump, both men have a way of winking at groups like National Revival while insisting on their status as law-abiding if nationalist right-centrist parties. Steven D’Arcy, a Canadian Philosophy professor, wrote an article titled “Two-Track Fascism: Notes on the Collusion of Far-Right Demagogues Like Trump with Street-Level Fascists” that calls attention to the informal ties between someone like Duda, who can be described as Poland’s Donald Trump, and the more openly fascist groups like National Revival or the Proud Boys. Perhaps my only cavil with D’Arcy’s article is whether the ruling class in any country is ready to throw its weight behind neo-Nazis rather than figures like Donald Trump or Andrzej Duda. For the time being, the latter-day stormtroopers are just pawns in a chess game.

Largely because of my survey of Andrzej Wajda’s films, I got up to speed on Polish history and politics in the period leading up to and including the division of the country between Hitler and Stalin. Since it is obvious that Poland has become a breeding ground for neo-Nazi groups just like Ukraine, I became convinced to do some reading about the period between Poland’s exit from the Soviet bloc until today. In many ways, the emergence of the Law and Justice Party in Poland was just as predictable as the failure of Poland to satisfy the hopes of its citizens in the post-Communist period through neoliberalism.

Indeed, the growth of neo-Nazi parties mirrored what has happened in East Germany as angry and frustrated men and women blame liberal democracy and the EU for their diminished expectations. The Law and Justice Party owes much of its 40 percent support to the rural and small town denizens of the country’s east and south. While the benefits of integration into the EU were always dubious, that was much truer for those like Adam Kalabis, a coal miner who was interviewed in Le Monde Diplomatique two years ago.

Kalabis works a seven-and-a-half-hour day, five days a week for the publicly owned KW company and receives 2,900 zloty (less than $740) a month. “My wages have increased by 150 zloty [$38] in 15 years. Even so, I’m better off than some. The widow of a friend who was killed in the Halemba methane explosion [which caused 23 deaths in November 2006] got compensation for six months and then nothing. Everyone in my family has worked in the mines, for generations. But I’m the last. My wife cleans public toilets. It’s a junk contract — 800 zloty [$200] a month, full time.” (In Poland “flexible contracts” are more commonly known as “junk contracts”.)

Like most on the left, I stopped paying attention to Poland not long after it became clear that the leadership of Solidarity had no interest in “socialism with a human face” as was the case in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Lech Walesa was more or less the same kind of opportunist trade union leader as Lula and his intellectual partners in the Solidarity leadership showed a shocking tendency to betray the egalitarian impulses that drove the Gdansk shipbuilders and miners like Kalabis to struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Adam Michnik was arguably the worst of them. In an interview with Michnik conducted by Dissent’s Jo-Ann Mort, he blithely refers to the circumstances that led to Duda’s rise as if it were something like a change of weather: “I don’t know what neoliberal policies were in the Polish context, because we had a transition from a centralized to a market economy and of course, there were winners and losers. It’s a feature of a market economy.”

In 1990, Lech Walesa became Poland’s first President. Once in office, he recruited Jeffrey Sachs to push through the same “shock therapy” he would prescribe for the Russians four years later. Walesa had about the same contempt as Sachs for the workers he once led, not that they had the muscle to resist his austerity measures. Under Walesa’s watch, Solidarity went from 10 million members to just 1½. Unemployment rose to 20 percent and mostly affected older workers, many of whom were like Adam Kalabis. Once you lose a job as a miner or a shipbuilder, there is little chance that you will ever have a good-paying job again.

According to some Jeffrey Sachs fans, especially at the NY Times and the Washington Post, Sachs’s measures reached their goal and by 1992, the economy went on the upswing thus vindicating the neoliberal turn.

Obviously disgusted with shock therapy, Poles decided to “vote the bum out” in 1995. Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former Communist, ran as a Social Democrat promising “to cope with the problems of unemployment, of the poor and with the situation of Polish women.” To show that he was for Polish national unity, he resigned from the Social Democracy after taking office and then embarked on the same exact neoliberal path as Walesa, except at a somewhat slower pace. Furthermore, Poland enjoyed significant growth under Kwasniewski , even if it was limited to the metropolitan centers and in finance, high technology and other growth sectors of this period blessed by an expansion of world capitalism at the time. Finally, he was such a relief from what had preceded him that he was rewarded with a second term in 2000.

However, those in the rural east and south continued to suffer. On top of that Poland was hit by a significant economic downturn in 2004 that laid the groundwork for the Law and Justice breakthrough. The candidates in 2005 were Donald Tusk, the candidate of the Civic Platform that was similar to Christian Democratic Parties in Western Europe and perhaps the old guard Republican Party of George Bush ’41. His opponent was Lech Kaczyński who founded the Law and Justice Party and who had been active in Solidarity. As mayor of Warsaw, he also blocked the LGBT parades in 2004 and 2005. To give you an idea of the ingrown character of Polish politics, both the Civic Platform and the Law and Justice Party emerged out of the Solidarity movement (of course, long after it had become detached from an increasingly fragmented and weak trade union movement, a casualty of shock therapy.

Among the most prominent Marxist analysts of Poland’s integration into Western economic financial and national security networks is Jane Hardy, the author of “Poland’s New Capitalism”, a 2009 Pluto book. Although I have not had a chance to examine the book, I was able to consult one of her articles behind the JSTOR paywall. (Contact me for a copy). Titled “The New Competition and the New Economy: Poland in the International Division of Labour” (Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 59, No. 5, Jul., 2007), it refers to the relatively dynamic growth of Poland in the early 2000s that helped Kwasniewski be elected to two terms. It also discusses the faith that Polish economics had in the “new economy” based on high technology that would supposedly replace the shipbuilding and mining industries that were so closely linked to the trade unions and Solidarity. Supposedly Poland would ride the wave of this dynamic and all-encompassing economic revolution that was facilitated by its close integration with the West.

In reality, Poland had more or less the same relation to Germany that Mexico has to the U.S. Cars might be made in a less developed country but except for the wages paid to assembly-line workers, the real benefits accrue to the imperialist centers:

The automotive industry has invested heavily in Poland in terms of both producers, assemblers and component manufacturers. Between January and September 2005 Poland produced 76% more cars than in the same period in the previous year. The fact that 84% of passenger cars and 90% of vans were exported suggest that Poland is becoming a major export platform for car production. However, the extent to which technology has been transferred is highly variable depending on both the place of the firm in the value chain of the parent company and the particular corporate strategy of the firm. While Volkswagen now undertakes a large part of its engine production for its global industrial system in Poland, in 2002 all parts were imported from Germany and there was no local sourcing. Volvo undertakes core research and engine production in the home country, but their decision to source supplies locally transferred quality down the value chain. The point here is that spillovers cannot be automatically assumed and claims of technology transfer have to be treated cautiously. The impacts of foreign investment in the automotive sector are highly mixed, and range from examples of high level ‘knowledge-based’ production to the manufacture of simple components for global networks.

To put it bluntly, Poland was not much more than a maquila zone to Germany and other more advanced Western nations.

In comparing Trump’s Republican Party to Law and Justice, one thing is important to note. Unlike Trump’s rhetorical lip-service to workers suffering from a stagnant economy, Lech Kaczyński carried out policies that had teeth in them. Like the Workers Party in Brazil or Ortega’s quasi-Peronist remake of the FSLN, he and Duda have both followed redistributionist polices that made a real difference in working-class households. Furthermore, they have cracked down on private firms even converting some of them into state property.

For many Poles who have nostalgia for the stability and social protections of the Communist era, the Law and Justice Party is a welcome relief from the insecurities and hardships of the previous governments. To get an idea of the significant withdrawal from neoliberalism but maintaining its commitment to capitalist development, Krzysztof Jasieckil’s “The Nature of Capitalism in Poland” that appeared in the Corvinus Journal of Sociology and Social Policy Vol.8 (2017) offers some useful data.

Jasieckil refers to a 2016 book by Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris titled “Trump, Brexit, and Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash” that provocatively refers to Law and Justice, as well as Orban’s party, as “left-wing populist” on the basis of its rejection of the “neoliberal model of economic policy and its ideas about small state and free market, deregulation, low taxation and individualism.”

Jasieckil describes a policy of renationalization (what the government calls “repolonization”) that recalls the sort of policies associated with the “import substitution” strategies of progressive economists in Latin America like Raúl Prebisch and Celso Furtado, perhaps ones that can be called fall under the rubric of “Poland First”. Jasieckil writes:

For example, having taken over the private Alior Bank and PKO SA from the Italian Credit Union Group, domestic capital (controlled mainly by the government) now owns more than 52% of the banking sector. Over 60% of electricity in Poland is currently produced by the state energy sector (Blaszczyk 2016). The media context of “repolonization” has clear political connotations, as some PiS politicians argue that foreign owners, predominantly German ones, “carry deliberately unfavorable coverage of the current government in an effort to undermine it.” The president of Employers of Poland notes that the taking over of media by the state can foster to reduce freedom of expression in public debate.

In addition, Law and Justice has provided generous social benefits. After taking power, it provided a stipend of 500 zlotys, or around $148, a month for every child after the first child and for every family in the country. It also reversed a deeply unpopular decision to raise the retirement age to 67, reducing it to 60 for women and 65 for men. Finally, it has provided new housing subsidies and worked to reopen shut state factories.

In many ways, Poland has the same array of social and political forces as in the USA except that the right-wing government has a much more secure base for the simple reason that the working-class and farmers have made real gains under the nativist, homophobic and anti-democratic regime. Whether this state of affairs will last much longer is open to question. The ability to provide benefits to workers and farmers is constrained by the country’s ability to sustain economic growth. After all, Venezuela’s government became deeply unpopular after oil prices dropped. Since Poland is not a commodity-exporting nation, it remains to be seen how it will fare in the next occurrence of a global slowdown that is inevitable.

As for the left in Poland, it is not much more powerful than here in the USA. Podemos seems to have inspired a similar effort there called Razem (Together). Whether it has much staying power is open to question. Until workers begin to challenge Law and Justice, it is doubtful that a group made up primarily of college youth, professionals, etc. will have much traction (the same thing can be said about the DSA, of course.) I’d refer you to an interview with two Razem members Marcelina Zawisza and Maciej Konieczny that appeared in European Alternatives (https://euroalter.com/2016/new-left-poland-podemos). It reflects the challenge facing people on the left in confronting a state that blends deeply reactionary and racist policies with those that a Bernie Sanders or a Jeremy Corbyn would gladly endorse:

Q: Talking about social policies, the current government – led by Kaczyński’s party Law and Justice – is quite an interesting case. It is for sure an authoritarian, xenophobic, illiberal government, on a collision course with the EU. But it is, nevertheless, passing some measures that could be seen as traditionally leftist: reduction of the retirement age, maternity allowance, social housing. What do you think about it? Is this a new kind of nationalist socialism?

A: We must say we are surprised as well. We thought the social agenda mentioned during the political campaign would be forgotten once elected, as it had happened when the same party had the chance to govern previously. But now they are really doing it! They are way more nationalistic and authoritarian than the first time, but they are also way more social. For the first time we have assisted to a growth, rather than to a reduction in welfare provisions. The new maternity law will drastically reduce child poverty from 28% to 10%, an issue closely linked to large families here in Poland. And for the first time, the most of public spending will go to the poorest: 6 billion szloty to the poorest 10% of the country, only 300million to the richest 10%.

Q: So, for the first time there are redistributive policies.

A: And we will not be the ones criticising them. A social housing program was launched, not giving resources to banks or big building companies, but giving resources for controlled rents. And there is more: the taxation system is undergoing a modification that will make it more progressive, flat tax is being abandoned together with regressive taxes for the richest. But at the same time, the government is extremely authoritarian. A militia with semi-automatic weapons is about to be created, mostly made by components of far-right groups. A bill against terrorism is about to pass, creating a permanent state of emergency. Not to mention the gag that has been put on the press or all attacks to the independence of the Constitutional Court. It is quite frightening.

Additional resources:

The Promise of Prosperity | The Nation:

The Puzzle of Poland | Dissent Magazine: https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/puzzle-poland-right-wing-populism-media-pis-michnik

Jan-Werner Müller | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books: https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/02/11/kaczynski-eu-problem-with-poland/

The Polish Right Can Be Defeated | Jacobin Magazine:

Poland’s Iron Consensus | Jacobin Magazine: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/11/poland-october-elections-kaczynski-law-justice-party/

The Law and Justice Party and Poland’s turn to the right | Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal:

Populism or Capitalist De-modernization at the Semi-periphery: | nonsite.org: https://nonsite.org/article/populism-or-capitalist-de-modernization-at-the-semi-periphery

Poland’s rightwards shift, by Dariusz Zalega (Le Monde diplomatique – English edition, September 2006):

Poland’s populist revenge, by Cédric Gouverneur (Le Monde diplomatique – English edition, March 2016):


August 7, 2018

Andrzej Wajda survey

Filed under: Film,Poland — louisproyect @ 2:27 pm

1963 photograph of Andrzej Wajda

When Andrzej Wajda died two years ago at the age of 90 after having just completed “Afterimage”, he was one of the last of the great auteurs of the 60s and 70s, leaving only Jean-Luc Godard (now 86) the sole survivor. Demonstrating their appreciation of his role in this golden age of cinema, the European Film Academy presented Wajda with a lifetime achievement award, only the third director to be so honored after Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. His body of work would be a topic in itself worthy of consideration by CounterPunch readers but beyond his achievements as a filmmaker there is something else that recommends his films, namely their focus on one of the big political questions of our epoch–especially after a full century. What was the impact of the USSR on its own people and those like the Poles living under its control? Widely recognized as an anti-Communist director, he might be a polarizing figure to many who see the geopolitical divide as demanding alignment with the Kremlin—either pre or post-Communism. As such, his work demands attention however you stand on this question insofar as his reputation and influence will persist long after his death. Was Wajda an enemy of communism or was his mission to create films that transcended narrow ideological considerations?

The films under consideration below are not only some of his most highly regarded works but ones still available through Youtube, Amazon DVDs, Fandor or Filmstruck, a new streaming service that contains the TCM and Criterion library. As I have suggested in previous CounterPunch articles about Wajda, it is worth a trial subscription to Fandor or Filmstruck if you are motivated to see some film masterpieces and even a permanent membership considering how low Netflix has sunk.

  1. The Promised Land (1974)

This film is a corrosive study of the take-off of industrial capitalism in Lodz in the late 19th century that will remind you of Bertolucci’s “1900” but without that film’s clear socialist message.

Based on Nobel Prize winning Władysław Stanisław Reymont’s 1898 novel, it is a tale about three friends seeking to enter the ranks of the bourgeoisie by starting a textile factory. Around that time, Poland was becoming a powerhouse of textile manufacturing and Lodz was like Manchester with all of its degradations as described by Engels in “The Condition of the Working Class in England”. A textile mill owner himself, Engels had little in common with the three ambitious friends in “The Promised Land” who had no other interests except in enriching themselves, at the expense of friends, lovers, the working class and each other.

The film begins with Karol, the Polish son of a downwardly mobile aristocrat, Max, the German son of the owner of an antiquated handicraft textile mill, and Moritz, a wheeler-dealer Jewish investor, toasting each other with champagne in the countryside near Lodz where they plan to open their new factory. Their social origins reflect the dominant ethnic groups in Lodz at that time as well as much of Poland.

There is not a single soul depicted in Wajda’s film that has managed to escape the oppressive social relations that make Lodz look like a fetid, money-hungry swamp. One of the successful capitalists, a German ethnically, has built a mansion that is filled with furniture that makes Donald Trump’s penthouse in NY look like an Amish household by comparison. However, he does not live there. He only built it to show it off to people like Karol, who he takes on a tour.

The film speaks to a criticism of Wajda’s work that I have even heard from a Polish Marxist friend on Facebook. The anti-capitalism is not based on a belief that a new social system can take its place but on a rejection of modernity tout suite. Like the feudal socialists decried in chapter three of The Communist Manifesto, “The Promised Land” looked backwards to an idealized vision of pre-capitalist society. Marx writes:

In this way arose feudal Socialism: half lamentation, half lampoon; half an echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times, by its bitter, witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart’s core; but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history.

Accustomed to Stalinist censorship, Wajda ran into new obstacles when the film was pending release in the USA. Since the Jewish businessmen in “The Promised Land” were uniformly venal, Wajda was accused of promoting anti-Semitism and the film faced considerable problems being released in the 70s. It did not ever enter the mind of its censors that every ethnic group in the film was depicted negatively.

When released, the film was hailed as an anti-capitalist masterpiece by the Polish bureaucracy and especially for its graphic depiction of the misery of factory workers. When making his own case for the film, Wajda told a French film journal:

It is this ethnic diversity that gave the society of days gone by its colorfulness, its incommensurable riches, its beauty. All these Poles, Jews, Russians, and Germans who were living together, they were creating something—ah!  This really attracts me! I found this mix of several traditions and religions fascinating, including what each of them brings in terms of nobleness and pettiness, beauty and ugliness. This is, in my opinion, what gave rise to the spiritual and economical power of a city like Lodz in 1900.

Like a Rorschach test, “The Promised Land” offers different interpretations of its intent. However you judge the inkblot, you will likely be left with the impression that it compares favorably to Bertolucci’s “1900”.

(Available on Fandor)

  1. Man of Marble (1977)

I consider this to be Wajda’s masterpiece. It tells the story of a Stakhanovite worker named Mateusz who worked as a bricklayer in Nowa Huta, which means the new steel mill, in the early years of Polish Communism. The original Stakhanov was a Soviet factory worker of the 1930s whose ability to meet breakneck speed-up conditions during the rapid industrialization of the USSR turned him into an official hero even if his fellow workers resented him for forcing them to live up to his impossible standards.

Mateusz was the subject of a documentary made by a Stalinist filmmaker on the occasion of his attempt to break a record for laying bricks in Nowa Huta. At the very end of his John Henry like feat, he picked up a final brick to put on the top level of a new building under construction only to find that it left a terrible burn on both of his hands. It was likely the result of a resentful fellow worker heating it up beforehand to punish a Polish Stakhanovite.

The long-forgotten documentary was dredged up by a young woman named Agnieszka, who was attempting to satisfy her requirements for graduating film school. Her goal was to uncover the real story of the “man of marble”, a reference to the ghastly socialist realism statues made in his honor.

That story includes Mateusz’s fall from grace. After his hands failed to recover fully from the burns, he was fortunate enough to land a job as a travelling spokesman for the Communist Party’s labor union, which unlike unions in capitalist countries was designed to enforce labor discipline. Not long after he begins going out on tour, he discovers that the secret police have arrested his best friend who worked on the bricklaying documentary alongside him. They have made him a scapegoat for the Mateusz’s burns, charging him with being a Western spy even though he fought in Spain against Franco. When Mateusz attempts to defend his friend before an audience of trade unionists, he is shouted down.

Of genuine interest is how this film was ever capable of being made in Poland. As it happens, the script for the film was written in 1962 and it only got the stamp of approval 15 years later. In 1977, Edward Gierek was the President of Poland in 1977 who had introduced liberalization “reforms” that initially led to an economic uptick but before long led to rising prices and stagnant wages that sparked Solidarity. Gierek, however, was not nearly so dictatorial as the regime of the post-WWII period that adopted repressive measures against artists as depicted in “Afterimage”. Indeed, Gierek styled himself as an intermediary between the Kremlin and the Western Eurocommunists. As we shall see in the next film review, when the Kremlin directed its supporters in Poland to crack down on Solidarity, Gierek had no other recourse except to support the USSR.

(Amazon DVD, $15.99)

  1. Man of Iron (1981)

Like “Man of Marble”, a media figure plays a key role. The film takes place against the backdrop of the rise of Solidarity, which Wajda embraced enthusiastically.

A radio journalist named Winkiel has been instructed by party bosses to prepare a damaging report on MaciekTomczyk, the son of the “man of marble” who is a leader of the shipyard workers in Gdansk (Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, who also played the father in “Man of Marble”). Maciek has married Agnieszka, who he met in the final moments of “Man of Marble” when she was collecting information on his father. Both Maciek and Agnieszka have become targets of the secret police but remain unwilling to sacrifice their beliefs in freedom and economic rights for working people.

The film has a documentary-like quality with footage of Solidarity protests and Lech Walesa speaking to large crowds of workers. When the Polish government cracked down on Solidarity in 1981, the film was banned. Nominated for best foreign film that year in the Academy Awards, it was much more openly propagandistic than any other film ever made by Wajda. The Polish bureaucrats are depicted as sadistic bullies who will stop at nothing to achieve their aims, even forcing Winkiel to produce a radio show that violates his own journalistic standards. If he refuses to follow their orders, they will release a report on how his drunk-driving killed a pedestrian. Throughout the film, Winkiel is shown as a hopeless alcoholic until he begins to identify with the workers struggle.

A Polish critic named Pawel Jedrzejewski wrote, “In Man of Iron reality is cold and autumnal. Security agents are dressed in leather jackets or have their hats pulled down over their eyes. The so-called decision makers and VIPs are repulsive and unrecognizable from one hundred meters away. The world is unequivocal. The appearance of normalcy, so characteristic of earlier Wajda’s films, were missing.”

Although I agree with this assessment, I encourage readers to see “Man of Iron” to get a flavor of the spirit of rebellion that pulsed through Poland in 1980. Like the Arab Spring, it was a moment of great hope that was never realized for reasons I will try to explain in a subsequent article.

(Amazon DVD, $15.99)

  1. Danton (1983)

Frequently regarded as a commentary on the Polish bureaucracy with the cold and repressive Robespierre pitted against the effusive and charismatic Danton (Gérard Depardieu in the typecasting vein?), the film had Polish actors playing Robespierre and his supporters while French actors were used for the Danton camp. Clearly, Robespierre symbolized General Jaruzelski and Danton was a stand-in for Walesa.

The main parallel was with the hardships faced by Polish workers in the late 70s as Poland’s mixture of neoliberalism and a command economy began to crash and burn. When Danton returns to Paris to confront an every-increasingly despotic Robespierre, he is embraced by crowds of workers who have been standing on a bread line.

The film is based on a 1929 play by Stanisława Przybyszewska who wrote obsessively about the French Revolution. Unlike Wajda, she was a Communist and looked upon Robespierre favorably, considering him an early opponent of capitalism.

As head of the Committee for Public Safety, Wajda’s Robespierre was determined to silence Danton and his supporters for the sake of the revolution. Fully understanding Danton’s commitment to the original goals of the revolution but seeing the need for order, Robespierre agonized over the decision to have him sent to the guillotine.

Robespierre was played by Wojciech Pszoniak, a veteran actor who also played the Jew Moritz in “The Promised Land”. His performance is outstanding. In the repression against Solidarity, Pszoniak was forced to flee Poland and take political asylum in France.

In the trial of Danton that is dramatized in the film, the prosecution refers briefly to his corruption that in the eyes of French historians, particularly of the left, might have been regarded as a kid gloves treatment. When Mitterand attended the film, he walked out apparently outraged over the representation of Robespierre. In an interview with Wajda, Marcel Ophuls seems to have understood Wajda what was driving at by asking, “Admittedly, both (heroes of the French Revolution) had a great deal of blood on their hands. But should the virtuous, the incorruptible side of Robespierre be considered as nothing more than an infirmity, a psychoanalytic quirk, to be held up to ridicule?”

In posing this question, Ophuls reflected the mainstream leftist take on Robespierre that prompted Mitterand to walk out on the film but he was also wise enough to put Wajda’s revisionism into context:

For some reason, most of us expect artists and intellectuals from Eastern Europe, who have made their reputations behind what used to be known as the iron curtain, to remain sympathetic to the ideals of revolution, no matter how disenchanted and disillusioned they might have become with revolutions in their own time and their own countries… If after thirty years of Stalinist oppression, Nomenklatura corruption, broken promises and Pravda “truths,” a man like Wajda decides to make Robespierre and Saint-Just into what some of us might consider to be caricatures, that’s his privilege.

(“Danton” is available on FilmStruck”.)

  1. Katyn (2007)

As mentioned in my previous article on Polish history, Andrzej Wajda’s father was murdered by Soviet troops in the Katyn forest in 1940. His crime was serving as an officer in the Polish cavalry, an act in and of itself considered counter-revolutionary by Stalin and worthy of a death sentence.

The film depicts a cross-section of Polish society that is affected by Soviet colonization of eastern Poland after 1939. A young Polish captain named Andrzej keeps a detailed diary of his captivity and through whose eyes we see the senselessness and brutality of the treatment of Polish officers up until their execution in the USSR that is depicted most graphically by Wajda.

Like “Man of Iron”, the film makes extensive use of footage from the period including both Soviet and Nazi spokesmen accusing each other of the mass murder. Among all the films under review here, this one is the most easily accessible on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2ZYdiEE20Y) and one that would be a challenge to any leftist in the West who instinctively condemns Poles, Ukrainians or citizens of any other country in the former Soviet bloc as counter-revolutionaries for resisting Soviet domination.

While it is undeniable that ultraright and fascist elements supported by the West gained a foothold at different times and different places, the soil for such growth was fertilized by the Stalinist rulers of the USSR who would condemn more than 20,000 Polish officers to be killed for the offense of being Polish officers or who would cause the death of more than two million Ukrainians in an ill-conceived forced collectivization.

The fact that such cruelty was carried out in the name of communism or socialism does not excuse it. Indeed, it condemns it. Unless the left begins to support a universal standard of human rights irrespective of geopolitical considerations, it will not be capable of providing the leadership for a new world order based on the abolition of class society and its replacement by one that respects each human being as having inviolable rights including the right to live securely and in dignity. Whatever Andrzej Wadja’s ideological flaws, his films are a cri de coeur for the rights of the Polish people. Viewed as untermenschen by the Nazis and the butt of racist “Polish jokes” in the 1960s, Wajda’s films are a necessary corrective as well as some of the greatest filmmaking of the past half-century.

June 1, 2018

The Last Witness

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Poland — louisproyect @ 1:35 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, June 1, 2018

Now rentable on iTunes, Amazon and other VOD platforms for $5.99, “The Last Witness” is a narrative film about the Katyn massacre of 1940. This joint Polish-British production is well worth seeing both for its dramatic power and for its probing examination of how England served Stalin’s Great Russian chauvinism by covering up the massacre that left 22,000 elite members of the military, academy, church and legal professions secretly buried in the forest near Smolensk, even after the Cold War had begun.

This is now the second film about Katyn I have reviewed for CounterPunch, the first being Andrzej Wajda’s 2007 “Katyn”. Like Wajda, the director and screenwriters of “The Last Witness”—Piotr Szkopiak and Paul Szambowski—are Polish nationalists. For the Poles, the 1940 occupation and mass murder of the country’s elite has cast a shadow over their history just as the 1932-33 famine does for Ukrainians.

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July 14, 2017

Andrzej Wadja’s Search for Freedom

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Poland — louisproyect @ 12:26 pm

When Andrzej Wajda died last year at the age of 90 after having just completed “Afterimage”, he was one of the last of the great auteurs of the 60s and 70s, leaving only Jean-Luc Godard (now 86) the sole survivor. Demonstrating their appreciation of his role in this golden age of cinema, the European Film Academy presented Wajda with a lifetime achievement award, only the third director to be so honored after Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. His body of work would be a topic in itself worthy of consideration by CounterPunch readers but beyond his achievements as a filmmaker there is something else that recommends his films, namely their focus on one of the big political questions of our epoch–especially after a full century. What was the impact of the USSR on its own people and those like the Poles living under its control? Widely recognized as an anti-Communist director, he might be a polarizing figure to many who see the geopolitical divide as demanding alignment with the Kremlin—either pre or post-Communism. As such, his work demands attention, however you stand on this question insofar as his reputation and influence will persist long after his death. Was Wajda an enemy of communism or was his mission to create films that transcended narrow ideological considerations?

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July 7, 2017

Battlefield Poland

Filed under: Counterpunch,Poland — louisproyect @ 12:59 pm

Stalin and Ribbentrop

In a speech given by Andrzej Wajda to a conference on his work at the University of Lodz in 2001, he spoke about the importance of a national cinema. Given the near-hegemony of Hollywood, one might say that national cinema has seen its day. In the post-WWII period, a number of directors emerged who, paraphrasing Shelly, became the unacknowledged legislators of their nation. Satyajit Ray in India, the Italian neo-realists, Akira Kurosawa in Japan, Ingmar Bergman in Sweden and the French auteurs, all were shaped by their experiences of WWII and their hopes that cinema could help to form a new identity out of the ashes of bombed cities and the mountains of skeletons left behind by the fighting.

For Wajda, the challenge was not just speaking for the hopes of the Polish people but in helping to form a national identity that had been suppressed since the early 1800s. In a subsequent CounterPunch article, I will provide a guide to Wajda’s most important films that are relatively easy to access as Video on Demand (VOD) but in order to make sense of his work, it is essential to preface it with a brief overview of Polish history in order for a left audience to properly grasp the mission Wajda set for himself as a director.

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December 16, 2013

Two Lessons

Filed under: Argentina,Film,Poland,Russia — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

Now that I have fulfilled my obligations to New York Film Critics Online by watching just enough Hollywood crapola to allow me to fill out a ballot for our December 8th awards meeting, I can return to the kind of film that really matters to me and presumably my readers. As the first post-NYFCO awards film reviewed by me, “Two Lessons” is the perfect example of why I would prefer a low-budget Polish language documentary that cost perhaps $50,000 to make over something like “Gravity”.

Opening today at the Maysles Theater in Harlem, “Two Lessons” is an exquisitely beautiful and spiritually elevated study of rural poverty in Siberia and Argentina pivoting around director Wojciech Staron’s wife Malgosia, who was sent by the Polish government to give Polish language lessons to émigré communities after 1989 when nationalism took the place of Communism. Although it is a documentary, the filmmaker whose work it bears the closest resemblance to is that of French Catholic New Wave narrative film director Robert Bresson, especially his “Diary of a Country Priest”.

One of my favorite Bresson quotes is “Don’t run after poetry. It penetrates unaided through the cracks”, words that describe “Two Lessons” to a tee. Like the young priest in Bresson’s classic who arrives in a country village on a mission to save souls, Malgosia Staron (she was the director’s girlfriend at the time) comes to Usolie-Siberskoe in 1998 in order to preserve culture. What she and Wojciech rapidly discover is that the citizenry is also in need of material salvation, facing one hardship or another in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR. This is a people who never benefited from the “free market” revolution led by Yeltsin and Putin. Malgosia arrives in the middle of a teacher’s strike. After not having been paid in months, they are ready to confront the new rulers whose contempt for working people is well understood by the teachers who carry a portrait of Lenin at a rally.

That being said, this is not a social protest film even though the director’s sympathy is with those at the bottom. Instead it is a beautiful and moving portrait of people living in a forbidding realm who manage to make the best of their lives despite all sorts of challenges. While the primary inspiration seems to be Bresson, the film also evokes Werner Herzog’s “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga”, a riveting portrait of hunters and trappers in Siberia. When not focused on Malgosia’s lessons to her students, her boyfriend’s camera is trained on a number of local “personalities”, including a Pole who is determined to translate the bible from Polish into Russia just as an exercise. There are scenes of ice-fishing, local dances, church gatherings, and many landscapes that appear inspired by the Bressonian stricture: “Don’t run after poetry. It penetrates unaided through the cracks”.

If there was ever a reason to go slow on the digital revolution, it is this film which was made with a 16-millimeter camera—probably a necessity given the year when it was made. It is a reminder that film can capture images in a way that digital cameras never can unless they are prohibitively expensive. It would appear that director Wojciech Staron made part one of “Two Lessons” with a one-man crew, namely himself. This is a miracle of filmmaking and an inspiration to anybody working in the field including a patzer like myself.

Part two of “Two Lessons” was made possible by Malgosia’s assignment to work in Azara, Argentina but the film is much more about the struggle of an 11-year-old Polish girl named Marcia to eke out a living with the Staron’s 8-year-old son Janek in tow.

Marcia’s parents have fallen on hard times and she is forced to make bricks, pick yerba mate leaves, or sell ice from a roadside stand to help her mother make ends meet. Her father has separated from the mother out of a combination of financial difficulties and personal strife, no doubt aggravated by the failing economy. (The film was made in 2011, supposedly after Argentina’s economic recovery, which like Russia’s never seemed to have filtered down to the rural backwaters.)

As is the case with part one, the focus is on human relationships and the solace of natural beauty rather than the class struggle. In one of more captivating scenes, the young Staron teaches the older and much more assertive Marcia how to swim.

At the risk of sounding like a hack reviewer hyping something like “Gravity” or “Inside Llewyn Davis”, I would describe this film as breathtakingly beautiful and a reminder of Polish filmmaking when people like Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda were in their heyday. That the underfunded Wojciech Staron can be mentioned in the same breath as such masters should be recommendation enough.

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