Farewell to a rebel
Professor Karol Modzelewski ’s oration at the funeral of Jacek Kuroń
June 26, 2004
Excessive optimism associated with Poland’s accession to the European Union overshadows a sober assessment of the social costs of transformation. Jacek Kuroń is one of the most underrated and marginalized Polish politicians. He is a legendary leader of the democratic opposition in PRL . In free Poland, he was twice a minister of labour and social policy. His death has made people pause and reflect on the question: are we really all successful?
Perhaps I will start by saying that Lechosław Goździk is seriously ill. For Jacek, and for me, he was probably the first genuine workers’ leader we had encountered in our lives. He is a legend of October ‘56. And he asked me to say goodbye to Jacek also on his behalf.
It is a great honour for me to be able to pass on his words.
But I would like to express a reservation. Some things are certainly not appropriate at a cemetery. But at the funeral of Jacek Kuroń different rules apply. And also some things are not appropriate – it is inappropriate to stick to the rules of so-called political correctness. Probably I won’t. But, of course, not on behalf of Leszek Goździk. Every word I will say is mine and I am responsible for them.
Let us not deceive ourselves. With Jacek’s passing, Poland will be weaker. Weaker and poorer. It will be harder for us to face various dangers. And I realize that not everyone shares this view.
For many people, Jacek was a trouble. In Poland, there is no shortage of people who think they know for sure how to introduce the proper social order with a firm hand, and how to ensure respect for tough market rules with a firm hand. If I may borrow a phrase from Wojciech Młynarski, these are “strong-arm liberals”.
For these people, Jacek was certainly trouble. For he was a rebel, an eternal rebel, and an extremely troublesome rebel at that. During his varied and rich life, he was twice a member of a political party. And he did not fit in either of them. He actively participated in the construction of two different political systems and rebelled against both of them. He categorically rebelled against the communist system, but in his thinking he also rebelled against the system that he was building together with his friends, in his mature life.
And as he was one of the founding fathers of free Poland, his rebellious ideas were troublesome. Because if someone was called Jacek Kuroń and he criticised the social outcomes of the Polish political transformation, or the war in Iraq and our participation in it, you could not stick a populist label to him; and that was a problem.
He has died. We won’t have that “problem” any more. We can put up a monument to him, we can celebrate his achievements, we can pay tribute to him. And all will be quiet, no one with such authority will raise doubts, no one will fuel uncertainty, no one will incite people to rebel any more. And this is precisely the danger that threatens Poland. Silencing rebellious ideas will make Poland weaker and less resistant to the various dangers we must face.
What induced Jacek to rebel? Not any ideology, but something much more durable and much more fundamental than any ideology. He was incited by values. It can be most succinctly described with the words adopted by the Grand “Solidarity” in 1980-1981: he was guided by the fundamental principle of defending the vulnerable.
This means defending workers who – at the time of the Workers’ Defence Committee3 – were treated badly, kicked out of work, beaten, arrested, oppressed. This means defending workers today, defending all those who are on the lowest rungs of the social ladder. Those who are weak, who live in poverty, who are not quite able to live a life of dignity.
Jacek did not regard himself to be a knight, or a defender of the oppressed. On the contrary, he believed that the oppressed had to defend themselves. This means that one should act with them, one should help them to organise themselves to be able to defend themselves, to assert their rights, to protect their interests in a dialogue with representatives of other interests and other ideas. And to reach an agreement. That is why he could so effectively mediate in the conflict during the privatization of the Warsaw Steel Works4; and the trade unionists from the Lucchini Warsaw Steel Works are here with us today, not without reason. That is why the trade unionists from the Gdynia Shipyard are also here, because Jacek stood up for them firmly and categorically, when there were attempts to suppress human reaction of solidarity by the usual means: kicking people out of work, the threat of being put in a position of not being able to maintain a family, various forms of harassment – and that is why they are also with us at his funeral.
Because at a time when the ethics of solidarity are being replaced by the rule of competition – or, even more often, by competition without any rules – Jacek always stood up to defend the ethics of solidarity, to defend reactions of solidarity between people, because he realized that social cooperation and human solidarity are the basic forms of social bonds.
When social bonds disappear, when they are broken, the nation dies. And that is why Jacek thought that a rescue operation was needed in such cases. And he hurried to the rescue.
It is often said that he tried to do something impossible. In other words, that he tried to reconcile the requirements of a rational economy with social conscience. There is something in that. However, words extracted from propaganda slogans about “the only way” make it difficult to reach the truth. We can say that they make “language lie to thoughts”. Because it is not true to say that there is only one economic rationale. And Jacek was aware of that. In the economy – as in any social activity – there are different values, different interests, and various ideas that clash with one another. Today, the dominant approach is that workers are a cost in the economic process. A cost which should be reduced as far as possible. Maybe to zero. And the more we can reduce this cost, the greater is our economic success.
Jacek represented the opposite view. He believed that the economic modernization that brings half of Poland down, that leaves half of Poland overboard – is not a success, it is a disaster.
Because economic success should be measured by the fruits it brings to ordinary people.
This does not mean that he tried to impose his ideas on others. Jacek remembered well the experience of communism, in which he took part himself, and he knew that an idea which would eliminate others, which would dominate the field and push all other ideas off – even if it was his own idea – would turn into the worst evil. That is why Jacek was such a peculiar revolutionary: he did not aim to destroy his opponent, but rather aimed for compromise.
In a political debate, he always looked for his opponent’s good reasons.
He looked for common values – values shared with those who had different beliefs and interests. He tried to put himself in his opponent’s position, he tried to understand their reasons, and tried to reconcile conflicting reasons. One might say that from this point of view his most important project for new Poland was the Pact on Enterprises
It was supposed to be a set of rules, a sort of guideline for social and economic life based on social contracts.
It might be regarded as mere fantasy. But I think it is not fantasy; it was and it is a real idea on how to protect democracy and the market economy against severe shocks, how to protect Poland against a deep rift by a large social conflict.
And if we lose this heritage of Jacek – a great revolutionary and a man of compromise – then we will certainly be weaker, we will certainly be poorer, and it would be more difficult for us to face danger.
But the voices that rose after his death, the stir of hearts and minds, allow us to hope that we can step into the breach.
That we all can do it. We will try, in any case. And we owe it – not to him. We owe it to ourselves.
Thank you very much.