They Learned from the Workers

Polish Students Learned First-Hand Why Socialism Doesn't Work

I have a confession to make: there has always been something attractive to me about the Maoist idea of sending the intellectuals out into the countryside and into the factories to “learn from the peasants and proletarians.” When I listen to the endless stream of leftist pronouncements that comes from academia these days I really would like to send these folks out into the world of real work.

Wouldn’t it be great if someone proposed that in the interest of solidarity with the working poor every academic and Hollywood insider, as a condition of keeping his cushy position, be required to spend summers at a real job somewhere? I worked as a garbage man during my undergrad years and moved up to sewage treatment plant worker on the relief shift in grad school. I often had to come to class directly from work or go to work directly from class, and so I was in class in my blue-collar uniform quite a lot. I used to love the discomfort that caused my Marxist-Leninist professor.

Here in Poland we have an example of an intellectual class that learned from the workers. Communism did not abolish the class barriers, quite the opposite in fact. A former student of mine was the owner of a law firm. (Under communism he defended kids caught sticking dissident stickers on walls–an offense that could get you seven years hard.) One day in class, for some reason, I had cause to explain “affirmative action” to him. He laughed in my face. “That’s what was tried in the communist times! The universities had to take so many students from the proletarians and so many from the peasants. It not only didn’t abolish the class distinctions, it deepened them.”

What did bring the young intellectuals in close contact with the workers was the student disturbances of 1968. That year, of course, saw student demonstrations and riots all over the United States and France but also in Eastern Europe. In Warsaw the proximate cause was the closing, by government order, of the play Dziady by Adam Mickiewicz, the nineteenth-century Lithuanian writer who is the national poet of Poland and Lithuania.

The play was deemed to be anti-Russian, which it is, but anti-Czarist. There is a story that when some of the student demonstrators were hauled before a magistrate, he sternly asked them, “What are you young hooligans doing here?” They replied, “We are protesting the closing of Mickiewicz’s play.” The magistrate is said to have buried his face in his hands and cried, “Mickiewicz? Oh no, it can’t be true!”

The upshot of it was that the authorities decided that the students were privileged and spoiled, which they probably were, and that they should be sent into the factories to learn from the workers. There wasn’t much of an opportunity to learn from the peasants since agriculture in Poland had never been collectivized except for a few showcase collective farms. (Poland had resisted Stalin’s demands to immediately collectivize agriculture in the early ’50s, and this delay was tacitly allowed to stand when it became obvious that Poland was, to a large extent, feeding Russia.)

What’s the Job?

What happened then was related to me by a fellow English teacher, a Pole who had immigrated to America and worked as a language teacher in the Foreign Service Academy for a while. In 1968-69 he was one of the young intellectuals sent to learn from the workers in a radio factory.

The first thing he tried to learn on the first day of his new job was: exactly what was his job? He asked the foreman who told him to hide somewhere until quitting time. He asked, “But what am I going to do all day?” “Well here,” he said, “take all the parts you need and build yourself a radio.” In his career as a workingman he saw that there were always at least three men doing one man’s job (“full employment” I believe it was called by Western intellectuals such as John Kenneth Galbraith) and that a huge percentage of the materials went home in workers’ lunch pails. Probably just as well considering the inefficiency of the distribution system.

This was the experience of a whole generation of university students. While students in America were learning the socialist dogma that they carried into public life in the Clinton generation, students in Poland were given a first-hand look at why the system didn’t work. Many of these students became part of the intellectual wing of the resistance in the ’80s who could actually understand and talk to the workers of Solidarity. Some also became Party members who joined for the usual reason of self-advancement but had no real belief in classical Marxist-Leninist theory and were thus willing to reach an accommodation with the resistance as soon as it became obvious that the Soviet Union was no longer willing or able to project force into Poland.

They learned from the workers all right!

Stephen Browne is an English teacher, freelance writer, and editor based in Warsaw. He has lived and worked in Eastern Europe and the Middle East since 1991 and is the founder of the English for Liberty summer camp held annually in Lithuania.

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