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Thursday, February 9, 2023

Remembering Stefan Kisielewski, the Polish Hero Who Helped Break Communism

Born in Warsaw, Kisielewski was a man of many talents—including a knack for getting under the skin of Communist leaders. 

Image Credit: Panorama of Old Town in Warsaw (iStock)

Soon—on a date to be chosen by President Andrzej Duda—I will visit the Republic of Poland again to accept the highest honor the nation bestows upon a foreigner, the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit

As I anticipate the ceremonies in Warsaw and think about what I will say on that occasion, my mind is swimming in memories of my first visit to the country in 1986. Poland groaned under the dead weight of Soviet-imposed communism at the time, and I was on the scene to learn as much as I could about the vast underground resistance. The names, faces and wisdom of the courageous, unforgettable people who met with me are forever etched deep in my cranium.

One of them was Mirosław Dzielski (1941-1989), a physicist, philosopher, and activist for liberty. He taught at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, where we spoke at length on a cold November afternoon about his principled defense of freedom and free markets. He showed me his recently acquired copy of Austrian School economist Murray Rothbard’s The Mystery of Banking, a sign of how porous the Iron Curtain had become. Dzielski died three years later of cancer at the young age of 47, but not before witnessing the miracle he longed for: the free elections of June 1989 that decisively liberated the country from a one-party socialist state. His son Witold serves today as Poland’s ambassador to Canada.

Another hero from my 1986 visit was a young underground printer named Pavel. Not all the notes seized from me by communist officials were returned, and I do not recall his last name. But he and other clandestine publishers hosted a secret reception for me, where I was dazzled with voluminous samples of their good work. They were illegally printing tens of thousands of pamphlets and books promoting freedom and free markets. When I asked where they secured so much paper in a country where the government owned all the printing presses, Pavel grinned and replied, “We steal it from communists.” Many of the workers in state-owned publishing houses, he explained, were smuggling the government’s paper to the underground.

At Pavel’s request, I later arranged funding for the translation into Polish and mass distribution of Milton and Rose Friedman’s classic, Free to Choose. (You can read about that here.) 

Such vibrant, extensive resistance forced the communist leaders to hold free elections in June 1989. For them, Poland had become “ungovernable.” The regime disintegrated when Poles by the millions mustered the courage to defy it. The communists lost every contested seat in the lower house of the parliament (the Sejm). Within months, the freedom that Poland earned was also won by other Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe.

The main objective with this essay is to acquaint readers with one Stefan Kisielewski (1911-1991), a very special figure in Polish anti-communist history. Perhaps no one more effectively needled the communists with truth and humor than he did. 

 

‘Three Words That Landed Me in Jail’

Born in Warsaw, Stefan Kisielewski—affectionately nicknamed “Kisiel”—was a man of many talents. From music to literature to politics and even comedy, his contributions are well remembered by Poles more than three decades after his passing. 

He earned three diplomas from the State Conservatory of Music—in theory, in composition and in piano. As an accomplished composer, he produced works resonant of French classicism as well as of more recent genres. He authored numerous novels, articles, and commentary, often spiced with his characteristic wit.

Governments, especially one-party socialist monopolies, love to claim knowledge they couldn’t possibly possess—e.g., how they could “plan” an entire economy. Kisielewski brought his singular humor to bear on the matter when, at a writers’ conference in 1968, he denounced the regime as “a dictatorship of dunces.” The phrase won instant fame for Kisiel and for the truth it expressed, but the government retaliated. For the following three years, it ordered him not to publish anything.

In opposing all forms of totalitarianism, Kisielewski was irrepressible and unrelenting. As a result, on numerous occasions he was detained, interrogated, and jailed. When I met with him in 1986, I asked him to give me an example.

“I once uttered just three words that landed me in jail,” he told me. “All I said was ‘socialism is stupidism’ and they threw me behind bars for several days, which only proved my point.” 

Five years earlier, in 1981, Kisiel commented famously on the socialist economy’s poor performance. Officials in Warsaw blamed everything but socialism but Kisiel drove a stake through that flawed analysis when he declared, “It’s not a crisis, it’s a result.” This is the same man known for ridiculing the system’s endless, self-inflicted troubles with this line: “Socialism heroically overcomes difficulties unknown in any other system.” Millions of Poles chuckled at Kisiel’s criticisms as they quietly cheered him on.

Jacek Spendel is one of my many Polish friends. He presently serves as President of two organizations: Liberty International and the Freedom and Entrepreneurship Foundation. I recently emailed Jacek and asked him what he thought of Kisielewski. He wrote back, 

“He remains one of my favorite heroes of the Polish anti-communist opposition. There were not many of them who were both staunch anti-communist and classical liberal, truly free-market oriented, at the same time. Stefan Kisielewski and Leopold Tyrmand were such men. Kisiel’s views, reputation, manners, and sense of humor are legendary. He combined being intellectually strong with being very social, being simply liked by many. There were no sacred cows for him. Kisiel was not only a hammer against communism, but also a man with positive ideas, a voice calling for drastic reforms.” 

Words of Wisdom

Łukasz (Luke) Jasiński is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Economics of Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, Poland. He too regards Kisiel as a heroic figure, one who strode confidently into intellectual battle against socialism “armed with the system’s greatest enemies, logic and morality.” Luke’s help was of indispensable value recently when I sought more of Kisiel’s memorable remarks. Here’s a sample:

“The use of coercion comes from not believing the argument.”

“Banging your head against a wall is an activity of great cognitive importance: it makes the person who hits it aware of the strength of the wall in an extremely clear and vivid way—otherwise he would only know it by hearsay.”

“A polemic with stupidity ennobles it needlessly.”

“We must not boast of being right…It is the truth by which we have gained the advantage.”

“The end of the culture of thought is connected with the degeneration of words: where language declines,…[fiction] takes its place.”

“Changes will come for sure, but not when you wait for them.”

“Death gives meaning to life, so you must always have it with you in your mind.”

“Evil does not sleep, but good sleeps very often.”

“Morality must be a form of pleasure or else it will not win.”

“It will not help the poor to make the rich poorer.”

“A power that wants to manage everything is surprised when it is held responsible for everything.”

In 1990, the year before he died at age 80, Kisielewski collaborated with a major Polish newspaper to create the coveted Kisiel Prize. Recipients are chosen for their Kisiel-like passion for human freedom and flourishing. They include Jan Rokita (in 2003), himself an activist in the anti-communist underground during the 1980s and one who later served many years in the Sejm. It was Jan Rokita, now retired from politics, who arranged my clandestine tour of the Polish underground in 1986 and who accompanied me during my visits with its key figures, including Stefan Kisielewski.

Polish history is replete with heroic men and women who stood firm against tyranny. I am very proud to have met so many of them. Kisiel will always be one of my favorites.

For Additional Information, See:

Kisielewski’s “Danse Vive” for piano, with photos (video)

A Non-Conformist, Not a Reactionary: Comments on Kisielewski’s Autobiography by by Rafał Łatka

FEE’s President Emeritus to be Honored in Warsaw

I Was a Smuggler—And Make No Apology for It by Lawrence W. Reed


  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is lawrencewreed.com.