Nationalities Papers, Volume 24, No. 2, 1996
Gabriele Simoncini, The Communist Party of Poland 1918-1929. A Study in Political Ideology.
New York: Mellen Press, 1993.
Scholarly literature on prewar Polish Communism is surprisingly scarce. On the one hand, Marxist - mostly celebratory - books in Polish have not yet been followed by more recent studies and, on the other hand, English language studies dating back to the Cold War were produced with little reliance on archival sources. Exceptionally, Simoncini’s book traverses the conceptual and factual flaws of existing literature in this field. Not only is it the first non-ideological work on the subject, but it is also based on as yet little consulted primary sources and thorough archival research. It is a very sound work by a Western scholar who possesses a rare knowledge of Polish and of Poland’s archives, in which he spent some years conducting research.
In this study of the ideological development of the Communist Party of Poland, its history is analyzed with meticulous accuracy, immediately differentiating it from other Polish and English works. The intricate and most often arcane Party ideological debates are not only supported by archival evidence, but are presented and explained with admirable precision and clarity. The author shows expertise in international communist affairs as well as in interwar Polish history which is skillfully integrated into the background. Apart from being an indispensable source for those interested in communist affairs, the book also offers an interesting and unusual perspective of interwar Polish politics to the reader interested in ethnic issues, social movements and Jewish affairs. However, because this is definitely a specialist’s book, the monograph demands from the reader some familiarity with both communist matters and interwar Polish history.
The narrative propels the reader into a progressively deeper analysis of the intricate ideological struggle within the Party. However, because the focus of the account is political ideology, and since few real persons occupy the central stage, the language of the text is somewhat dry. For example, names of the Central Committee members are confined to the footnotes. Although major protagonists of the theoretical debates are carefully highlighted, not much attention is paid to their personalities.
The introduction and the bibliography introduce one to most of the existing sources and literature on the subject. These two sections of the book are in fact a summary of Simoncini’s huge bibliographic work: Revolutionary Organizations and Revolutionaries in Interbellum Poland. A Bibliographical Biographical Study (New York: Mellen Press, 1992). The creation of the Party and its structure are chronologically and comprehensively presented. Subsequently, the author presents the Party’s genesis and organization revealing the multinational (Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian, Belorussian, etc.) texture of a small, but complex and representative, party that functioned as an umbrella organization and an ideological core for the entire revolutionary movement in Poland. The author introduces the reader to issues such as the national question, the agrarian question, the Jewish question, and the notion of òydokomuna (Jewish Communist Conspiracy), a crucial concept of interwar Polish politics denoting the alleged threat of a fusion of anti-Polish Communist and Jewish subversiveness. The analysis of the Party’s theoretical and practical search for a viable and a comprehensive revolution and the activist steps of the non-revolutionary trade unions completes a sound opening section, suggesting that the early Polish communists were neither ideologically monolithic nor did their strategy blindly emulate the model of the 1917 October Revolution.
Subsequently, the study covers the development of the strategy and the ideological consolidation that culminated with the 1923 Second Congress under the leadership of the so-called “Three W’s” (Warski, Walecki, Wera Kostrzewa). The Congress is thoroughly analyzed and properly located as the central part of the book. Before entering the ideological sterility of the 1930s, the Second Congress constituted the zenith of the Party’s ideological development and fertility in its first decade of existence.
The fourth chapter deals with the Party’s effort to elaborate and implement a more realistic strategy. In 1925, by changing its name from the “Communist Workers’ Party of Poland” to “Communist Party of Poland,” an attempt was made to reduce the emphasis of its strictly proletarian character. The newly enacted policy reflected growing sensitivity toward the agrarian question and a willingness to consider establishing wider alliances with other segments of society. Nevertheless, these and other more realistic political attitudes, were surmounted by growing pressure on the party from the ultra-leftist wing and the Comintern in Moscow. The Party’s support of Pi»sudski’s May 1926 coup d’état was crowned by the so-called “May error.” Under the new Polish authoritarian regime, the Party suffered increasing repression, remaining an outlawed underground organization throughout its existence. The “May error” ignited internal disputes which crystallized two opposing factions, the moderate “Majority” and the pro-Soviet “Minority.”
The last part of the book elucidates the labyrinth of factional confrontations ignited by the “May error.” An escalating, ferocious internal debate complicated by the Comintern’s interference, brought the Party rapidly to its end as an autonomous entity. The debate incrementally lost any genuine ideological content and increasingly became entwined with Soviet and Comintern (non-Polish) concerns. In 1929, the party came under the direct domination of the ultra-leftist “Minority” which foretold its end. Only ten years later, the Communist Party of Poland, one of the very first communist parties to be formed after World War I, was the first to disappear at the hands of (Soviet) communists.
Hopefully, Simoncini’s study is just the first of many to seize the advantage of the post-communism era to analyze objectively the Party’s evolution, practice and ideology. The disciplined monolithic Leninist Party, conventionally portrayed by pro- and anti-communist scholars, seems less to belong to surrealism than to the abstract presentation of actuality. Although here we are dealing not with art but with history, the difference in style or inspiration cannot be waived as a mere matter of taste. As Simoncini’s work demonstrates, sober historical inquires about seemingly exhausted subject are still needed, especially for post-postcommunist countries which frequently tend to gaze back nostalgically in order to see a rosier future.
City University of New York