A Philadelphia Story: 1918 & the Politics of Polish Statehood
default, A Philadelphia Story:
1918 & the Politics of Polish Statehood, Centrefold illustration 'Uncle Sam's "crazes" past and present' by Frederick Burr Opper from Puck, 29th July 1896, including on right the 'Paderewski , center, #000000, UncleSamsCrazesPaderewski.jpg
In the summer of 1918, a group of graduate students, under the guidance of the philosopher and education theorist John Dewey, gathered in Philadelphia to embark on a study of Polish labour migrants in the city. The questions they addressed revolved around them adapting to a world of mass politics and participation in the democratic sphere.
Two years earlier, in 1916, John Dewey, the progressive thinker whose work continues to influence pedagogical approaches in grade school education in the United States today, had published his landmark text Democracy and Education – a book that champions widespread education for the development of social equity – and he was hoping to use the Philadelphia study as a way to test the real life implications of his theories. Of particular note was the issue of citizenship: what beliefs and skills would be necessary for individuals to adopt as they entered into a world of mass politics? Was everyone equally equipped to participate in the democratic sphere? In a post-emancipation world – one defined by mobility and industrial labour – how should schools educate the masses as they took on the responsibilities of citizenship?
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Dewey’s Philadelphia project certainly isn’t as recognisable as other studies of Poles in the United States, including The Polish Peasant in Europe and America by University of Chicago scholars William Thomas and Florian Znaniecki (The Polish Peasant had just been released as the team started their work, and members of the team sent telegrams to local bookstores in a futile attempt get their hands on a copy). If The Polish Peasant ended up becoming one of the foundational texts to the discipline of sociology, Dewey’s study is relatively unknown outside a few select scholarly circles. It doesn’t help that the main formal publication to come out of the study was an advisory memo to the Wilson administration. It is nonetheless telling that at that particular moment, one of America’s most revered philosophers turned his attention to the question of peasant life and specifically the ways that traditional communal life was upended by larger global forces and whether education should play a role in preparing students for political participation.
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The graduate students involved in the project would later distinguish themselves in their respective fields. Irwin Edman, who worked on community politics, would later become a renowned philosopher in his own right and a tenured professor at Columbia University; Brand Blanchard, who zeroed in on the workings of the Catholic Church, would likewise become a distinguished scholar, spending most of his career at Yale; Frances Bradshaw, who examined education in public and parochial schools, ended up a dean at Swarthmore and met future husband Blanchard that summer; Anzia Yezierska, the famous writer who documented urban Jewish life, studied women and provided translations from Polish. Dewey’s friend Albert C. Barnes, who earned his fortune in pharmaceuticals, bankrolled the project, going so far as to purchase a house in the Port Richmond District of Philadelphia that served as the project’s home base. The students dedicated most of their time to interviewing community members and completing internal memos on community relations in Port Richmond.
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The ‘Wilsonian Moment’
What was it about Polish peasants’ transition to work in the city that made their experience such an important source of inquiry for social theorists? Dewey and the team were following in a long line of scholars, including but not limited to the aforementioned Thomas and Znaniecki, who had looked to the Polish peasant to gain insight into aspects of the modern world. For example, recent historical scholarship by Andrew Zimmerman (Alabama in Africa) and Tara Zahra (The Great Departure) has highlighted Booker T. Washington’s interest in the Polish peasant, which ultimately led Washington to visit Galicia to see for himself the links between rural economic development and political participation. And on the opposite side of the Atlantic, writers like Bolesław Prus and Aleksander Swiętochowski, both members of the Warsaw positivist circle, looked to education as a way to promote economic and moral uplift of the peasant child.
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For many of the scholars in question, and certainly for Dewey, Polish peasant migrants were not interesting because of any exceptional national characteristics. Instead, they provided insight into a larger modern condition – of people uprooted and unmoored from their previous lives, who were experiencing the vagaries of industrial labour and the profound disconnect of migration.
The subject of citizenship came to the fore that summer as politicians began to discuss which countries would obtain the golden ticket of statehood. As empires came crashing down in the wake of World War I, and as borders solidified in the name of Wilsonian democracy and the concept of national self-determination, politicians began to jockey for recognition in preparation for negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference.
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This ‘Wilsonian Moment’, to use the term coined by Harvard historian Erez Manela, involved not only high politics, though those were certainly at play, but also new political imaginaries. This was true even in the case of Poland, whose independence was famously enshrined in President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech. What statehood would look like was up for debate, and Dewey’s study quickly devolved over the summer from its focus on putting theory into practice. Instead, team members quickly turned their attention to the Polish political scene to consider what participatory politics might entail in the post-war context – one that could potentially spark return migration. they didn’t anticipate a positive result.
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In his report to the Wilson administration, Dewey warned of the rise of right-wing politics in a newly constituted Poland. He would write, in reference to National Democratic leader Roman Dmowski, that he suspected Dmowski would attempt to use parish priests in the United States to spread his influence and gain international recognition, in an autocratic power grab. But Dewey saved most of his vitriol for Ignacy Jan Paderewski – the famous concert pianist and future Prime Minister of Poland – who at the time was heavily involved in war relief fundraising efforts. Dewey concluded accordingly:
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Mr. and Mrs. Paderewski constantly use their hold on Americans to discourage and suppress criticism among the Poles and then, on the other hand, employ their supposedly universal popularity among the Poles to function more prominently among Americans.
'Conditions Among the Poles in the United States', John Dewey, 1918, p. 78
The issue then wasn’t so much the offensiveness of the politics of the right, with Dmowski and the Endecja embracing anti-Semitism and promoting violence against Poland’s Jewish minority, but rather Dewey’s suspicion that Polish labour migrants in the United States did not have the appropriate educational background and modern sensibilities to be responsible political actors and would instead rely heavily on the word of their parish priests.
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An association of equals
The issues then weren’t the dangers of the right but rather the lack of political selfhood among peasant migrants. For Dewey, politicians and priests manipulated the masses by relying, as he put it in an article in The New Republic, on a ‘whimsical expression of the feeling that an attempt is made to impose external habits upon the immigrant’, thereby denying the sort of internal development that would allow individuals to envision themselves as part of ‘an association of equals and between equals’ He viewed the politics of Paderewski as vacuous and Paderewski himself as a celebrity huckster who was more style than substance.
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The result of this lack of correct political sensibility, Dewey argued, was that peasant migrants would fall prey to the whims of authority figures in their community who championed figures like Paderewski and Dmowski:
The mass of the Poles are unorganized and have no articulate means of expression […] Since the mass of the Poles are good Catholics, it is comparatively easy for the priestly party to profess to speak for them and to manage matters.
There are long-lasting legacies of the Philadelphia study. While Dewey and Barnes moved on quickly to other ventures, including the establishment of The New School for Social Research in New York City, Dewey’s collaboration with Barnes would continue for years. Indeed, many Philadelphians will be familiar with Dewey’s work from another context. In the years following the Philadelphia study, Dewey would provide guidance and friendship to Barnes as he entered the world of fine art.
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Albert C. Barnes with the Steeple Cock (Coq de clocher), circa 1946, photo: Angelo Pinto / Collection of the Barnes Foundation Archives / https://www.barnesfoundation.org/
Today, the Barnes Foundation holds one of the finest modern art collections in the world, attracting approximately 250,000 visitors per year to its Center City location. But at its core are the same ideas on education that Dewey sought to promote on the eve of Polish independence: education of the individual in order to shape active citizenship.
In the end the Wilson administration didn’t follow Dewey’s advice, and Paderewski proved an influential figure in the establishment of modern Polish statehood, and Polish politics continued to shift to the right during the Interwar period. But as prescient as Dewey’s warnings were about the dangers of the Endecja, his approach to the study of populism should give us pause. As Larry Wolff reminds us in his recent study of Wilsonian politics Woodrow Wilson and the Reimagining of Eastern Europe, our understanding of the politics of statehood in the Wilsonian Moment and more broadly of 1918 are inexorably intertwined with the myths we hold about the region – in this case, of backwardness and anti-Democratic tendencies. Dewey’s conclusions certainly relied on such myths, which led him to downplay the ability of peasant migrants to act as political agents in their own right. So perhaps the strongest lesson of the Dewey study is a warning: the need to think expansively and critically about the workings of populism and doing so means we should move outside the realm of high politics if we’re to understand the allure of autocracy.
ignacy jan paderewski
fourteen points speech
polish culture in america
Written by Kathleen Wroblewski, June 2020
Sources: John Dewey, ‘Autocracy Under Cover’, New Republic, August 24, 1918; Conditions Among the Poles in the United States'