One can theorize that our civilization grows like a spiral. The dilemmas of ancient Greeks were not much different from ours, but we have better toys than they had. Like on the spiral, we are at the same point on the perimeter, but on a higher level.
During my youth in Poland, there was a lot of talk about the conflict between generations. People who survived WWII were concerned that those carefree youngsters would never mature enough to take over. As a joke, someone published a column condemning the recklessness of adolescents. It sounded like one of many other voices in the mass media; it was a translation of Egyptian hieroglyphs more than 3,000 years old.
One may say that we reenter the same situation from time to time. More often than not, it is not our choice; history reimposes on us the old choices. That feeling of déjà vu often comes to me when I get into politics in the United States.
It is socialism all over again
The broad support for socialism in the United States is the surprise that history threw at me.
I grew up in Poland. My first memories of politics reach back to the turbulent year of 1956. I remember the scratchy voice of the newly elected leader telling us over the radio that only calm could save us; he meant from the bloody Soviet invasion, as happened in Hungary.
Contrary to the opinions of many socialists today, for example, on Medium, Poles were mostly pro-socialism. There was a firm anti-Soviet sentiment, but people understood the reality. In the years 1948-56 the Soviets tried the collectivization of Poland’s fractionalized agriculture. They failed and needed to back off. As a result, private farmers held about three-quarters of the arable land. The Soviets tried to atheize the population as well. They got the opposite; traditionally secular Poles became more religious.
I remember that during the bloody riots in Gdańsk, in December 1970, I saw a big sign carried by the shipyard workers: “Socialism YES, its distortions, NO.”
Socialism was the reality
At about 16, I realized that regardless of what I might want to do in my life, I was in a socialistic country, and I needed to find my way of living in it. I started reading major political publications and reached for books and brochures about socialism.
At 18, I made one of the smartest decisions; I signed up for the Evening University of Marxism and Leninism. For four semesters, every Wednesday, I spent six hours studying socialistic ideology, economy, sociology, and politics. I found out later that the purpose of the school was the political education of young professionals. Without that school, it was harder for them to get into managerial positions. To give credit to Party (PZPR – Polish United Workers’ Party) apparatchiks, that school had the best lecturers from the local universities.
We were at the end of the third semester when the riots of 1970 happened. Blood was almost literally on the street in front of the building where we held classes. About 200 signed up for our class, but usually only 50 attended lectures. The room was not big enough to seat everyone during the first meeting after the riots. I found out that young engineers and economists from the shipyard (the same one where “Solidarity” was born in 1980) were at least half of our class. The three crosses that stand today by the entrance to the former shipyard memorialize three shipyard workers killed a few weeks before our meeting. These young professionals were fearless in their opinions. It was an eye-opening experience.
One of the following meetings was more meaningful. A top-ranked political insider informed us about the Party’s policies after the riots. It was a small group of only about 30 attendees, allowing for more cordial and open conversation. The food shortage and rising prices had triggered the riots, so I asked about measures to increase food production. The frankness of the answer surprised me. The speaker said that small farms, the only ones legally allowed in Poland, were too small for modern agriculture, so there were limited abilities there. The government could allow and support the growth of larger, more productive farms. But then, soon, most of the land in every county would be owned by several farmers, and they would have real political power. “We will never allow this to happen; the Party will not give up its political power,” the lecturer explained. It was not about doing what they knew was the best for the nation; it was about staying in power.
Then I thought, what is wrong with political power being in the hands of people who can produce the food we need? And, what is the benefit of power held by people with noble ideas who put their lofty concepts above the welfare of the people they are supposed to serve? For the record, 18 years later they gave up power; I had my tiny contribution to that.
How can you make socialism work?
Presently Americans can freely debate what is better, capitalism or socialism. Under socialism, we did not have that freedom. Before I was born, socialism was decided to be a better choice; no further discussion was needed, ergo forbidden. When I was growing up, they did not kill or put people in prison for openly opposing socialism. But with the government controlling jobs, education, and housing, the policy was to make life miserable for their opponents. I got my share of it.
Those of us who cared used all the knowledge we gained about socialism to make it work. I write about it in my article “What did I learn from the world’s best editor?” telling the story of one of the most intellectually inspiring publications in the history of the Polish press. Apparatchiks shut it down as being too risky.
In later years, as a freelancer, I published a few articles in “POLITYKA,” then and now the most prominent Polish political publication. They tried to hire me but could not get the Party’s approval, which was necessary.
I had been writing for a student periodical where, for many years, I was one of their leading political writers. Once my colleagues got a copy of a confidential memo from the Central Committee of the Party evaluating our magazine. In the Party officials’ opinion, we formally were for socialism, but we brought facts and reasoning supporting anti-socialistic ideas. They were writing about me. I was surprised because I never thought about my writing in that way.
By the end of the 1970s, the political tension intensified, and the censors blocked some of my articles. So, I wrote a book, “Could it be better in Poland?” Using all the knowledge about socialism, I argued Poland could use some capitalistic concepts in advancing the economy without abandoning the core socialistic principles. In short, I suggested something similar to what China did soon afterward. The history of that book is worth a separate article.
I asked my uncle, the socialist, to read the manuscript. He was not an ordinary socialist, but the official lecturer of the Central Committee of the Party. It was an elite group of socialistic intellectuals in Poland whom the Party selected and trusted to promote its policies and socialism. He was my mother’s cousin and a childhood friend. By pure coincidence, we lived a three-minute walk apart. We socialized and became friends. On several occasions, that three minutes took us two hours of an evening walk back and forth discussing politics. I can say that besides a college-grade education, I received an extensive private tutorial from a wholehearted, certified socialist.
After reading the manuscript of my book, my uncle complimented my creativity but then surprised me by saying that it was the most anti-socialistic book he had ever read. At that point, I realized that there was no place for me in the socialist country. For the record, I still stayed friends with my uncle. Knowing my predicament, he made an extra effort in using his intellect and charm to convince me that all the problems we could see were the pains of growth and that socialism was the future of humankind.
Socialism eternally alive
That was the slogan on a tall building I saw for 10 years twice a day, during my commute to school and back home. I heard about eternal life in my catechism classes. The slogan implied that socialism has an immortal soul. I found it funny.
The rising popularity of socialism in the United States proves that socialism is eternally alive. To my surprise, with gray hair but the same vigor that I had half a century ago, I am reentering my dance with socialism.
Soon after joining Medium, I noticed the platform has a robust pro-socialistic leaning. Regardless of the subject, the Medium Daily Digest recommendations are skewed toward pro-socialistic views. With some effort, one can find better-written and more informative articles on Medium but with a more pro-capitalistic twist. Medium does not promote them. Some suggested I should leave Medium for that reason.
Then I thought about the story of the Baťa family. Everyone who has studied business or marketing knows it. At the beginning of the 20th century, Tomáš Baťa built the worldwide shoemaking business by using the same industrial concepts that Henry Ford used to make cars. At some point, they were selling shoes all over the world except in Africa. So, they sent two independent agents to explore market opportunities there. The first agent arrived with the bad news that there was no chance to sell any shoes because most people walked barefoot there. The second agent saw the tremendous market opportunity because most people walked barefoot, so they all needed shoes.
So I decided to stay on Medium precisely because most people here can benefit from my message. Reentering my dance with socialism, I am curious if I can find something new that I missed the first time around. I am intrigued if, in the meantime, some new ideas have developed that I might have missed. I will seek new interpretations of the known facts.
So far, I have more followers than those who blocked me. We will see how it turns out when we go at full speed.
Thank you, Medium, for this opportunity. I feel half a century younger if I do not see my gray hair in the mirror.