The Limits of Interpretation: Umberto Eco on Poland’s 1968 Student Protests
default, Umberto Eco during a press conference, philology department of the University of Łódź at Pomorska Street, 2015, photo: Tomasz Stańczak / AG, center, umberto_eco_warszawa_portret_ag.jpg
Visiting the vibrant lively city of Warsaw for a few summer days is sure to result in some exciting stories worth sharing. But what if you ended up there during a year that did not exactly make Poland a popular tourist destination, and your likely audience was much broader than just the people you know? Thanks to Umberto Eco and his visit to Warsaw in 1968, we know the answer to this question.
A vintage year for Eco
To say that 1968 was an unforgettable year for Eco, would be an understatement – the 36-year-old scientist published The Absent Structure, one of his most important books in semiotics, and the first half of the year brought many student protests, which Eco, a left-leaning intellectual and a journalist, followed very closely. But it could be argued that what made 1968 remarkable for the Italian scholar, was a seemingly inconspicuous decision – to participate in a conference organised in August in Warsaw by what would later become the International Association of Semiotic Studies.
Prague Spring - Suppression Demonstrations and protests against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by troops of the Warsaw Pact countries| burning tank Nr. 212 in Prague - August 1968, Photo by Chotas/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Thankfully for us, Eco decided that it might be a good idea to visit Prague on his way to Poland. Incidentally, he found himself in the city right before the Warsaw Pact troops entered the country. The journalist noted down a report for L’Espresso, an Italian weekly, and, as it was impossible to leave Czechoslovakia in a regular way, he travelled to Austria with the help of the Italian embassy. From there, he contacted the weekly and was asked to write a similar piece on what Poland looked like after the student protests of March 1968 and the repressions that followed.
This resulted in a unique analysis of a country that did not really want to be analysed.
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Protests in Warsaw, March 1968, pictured: militia disperses student demonstrations at Krakowskie Przedmieście, on the right: Pałac Staszica, photo: Tadeusz Zagozdziński / Forum
Eco was an outsider at a time when no outsiders were allowed and everybody was on the lookout:
It is impossible to say that there is a climate of fear, but there certainly is one of suspicion, concealment, universal avoidance. A foreigner who visited Warsaw before and felt there at home, is now treated like a potential threat. The first question they ask, not even trying to hide their surprise, is: ‘How did you even manage to come here as a journalist?’
But Eco was not completely lost. In fact, although the circumstances were highly unusual, he knew that Western and Eastern Blocs had quite a lot in common: women in miniskirts were reading Elle (commonly found in hotels) or the special issue of Kultura magazine devoted to the Marquise de Sade. Students in long hair discussed theatre plays based on Dostoevsky or went to pop-art exhibitions. Sure, one could not buy Western political press, but so many people crowded cinemas to see Michelangelo Antonioni’s new movie that Eco not only felt almost at home, but realised how to blend in:
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I have an idea to go see Blow-Up, which just entered cinemas. This is a movie for an experienced audience, so people discuss a lot when they leave. It is easy to find the right group or just let yourself be seen. After that, you go to somebody’s home, where you dance. There you get useful phone numbers and the next day your circle of acquaintances widens. All you have to do is not to list any names, but this is something everybody asks.
Suddenly, the closed-off society and the recent hidden events became more transparent. Eco learned that everything started with a theatre play – a staging of Adam Mickiewicz’s Dziady which agitated the students with its very explicit (and purposefully exaggerated) portrayal of everything Russian culminating in an ironic phrase: ‘I know what it means to have freedom thanks to Moscow’s grace.’ The censors quickly banned the play, but it only made tensions run even higher. The students moved from placing flowers in front of the local statue of Adam Mickiewicz to marching on the streets alongside many of their professors.
The events of March ’68 are remembered in Poland mostly for the repressions that followed the protests. Many students were jailed and professors lost their jobs. The communist regime found a scapegoat in Jews (many worked in academia following World War II) and forced many to leave for Israel and give up their Polish citizenship, while making life difficult for those who wanted to stay. They also accused the protesters who were not Jewish of Zionism and revisionist views – Israel had recently won the Six Day War against its Soviet-supported neighbours, so public support of the country was accused of being anti-communist. Although Eco wrote about the repressions, he was interested in something else (perhaps he did not see their extent due to the shortness of his stay and to their gradual character): what were the students really protesting?
Socialism, but not as Eco knows it
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Influenced by his own left-wing sympathies and by what took place in Italian and French universities just a few months earlier, Eco tried to look for the reasoning behind the protest:
The problem of class at university does not exist and when I try to explain what the French or Italian students want (university for everybody), people do not understand it here. The university is already for everybody and peasant children receive additional points, added to their grades, in order to limit the cultural differences resulting from their background. There is even a joke: ‘Did you know that young farmers have started a resistance movement? They move to the mountainside to avoid compulsory university service.’ […] A socialist university has different problems than its Western counterpart. If the students revolt and protest, it is because they want freedom of speech.’
It is easy to portray the Eastern and Central European countries of the second half of the 20th century as dominated or even enslaved by the Soviet Union, but for Eco and, most importantly, for the people he interviewed, the situation was more nuanced. In these circumstances, socialism appeared to them as the only correct way going forward and the protests were not an expression of anti-socialist sentiments but of reformatory wishes within socialism. One of the students quoted by Eco put it clearly:
You see, we have socialism, but we do not have freedom. You, in Europe, have freedom, or at least a formal system of guarantees for your citizens, but do not have socialism. […] Maybe your youth blames [the parties] for concentrating too much on the issue of freedom and not enough on socialism, but it is different for us: we already have socialism and now the question is to find democracy and trust towards the party of Polish communists.
The reality of practical problems
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A mass gathering at a Warsaw ironworks in show of support for the Communist Party's anti-zionist policies following the March protests, Warsaw, March 1968, photo: Henryk Rosiak / PAP
Even the conservative and right-wing interlocutors of Eco were not really that different in their assessments. For them, socialism was just as inevitable and necessary as it was undesirable – it was a matter of political calculation on the part of a country that did not have a better choice. They thought that siding with European countries would force Poland to return the lands near the German border. The US and UK showed during the Yalta conference that they would easily ‘sell’ Poland in order to co-exist more or less peacefully with Russia. So, according to one of Eco’s right-wing interlocutors, while the Polish-Soviet alliance was bad, this way at least Poland had some leverage:
Russia is our eternal enemy, but it’s also our guarantee [that Poland will exist], at least right now. But in order to have that guarantee, we have to guarantee Russia that the Eastern Bloc will not collapse here. That is why we have to follow this road even if we do not like it. We have no choice. We are a country that has no choice.
This surprising attitude towards socialism on all sides of the political spectrum here made Eco wonder what the real issue at stake was. He heard from an illegal radio station what he described as a ‘rabid attack on Russia by the right-wing, conducted in the language of a neo-fascist rag’ that even went as far as labelling the authorities as ‘capitalist’. His attempts to debate his Polish friends, to explain the attitudes of his compatriots towards the cultural revolution in China, or towards the fact that it is social-democracy that they label as conservative, whereas social-democracy is exactly what the students protesting in Poland seem to have wanted, were met with brisk rebuttals:
For you it’s just a theory. But we have practical problems to solve.
A muddle of misunderstandings
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All this, despite initial surprise, gradually became clear. Eco realised that any differences he and his Polish friends might have had are not the result of different goals – the institution of a socialist, democratic society was, after all, a shared dream – but of:
…a linguistic misunderstanding, a confusion of political terminology, a different way of using it. […] And so concepts such as ‘revisionary’, ‘counterrevolutionary’, ‘bourgeoise’ or ‘capitalist’ are used with a lot of freedom and can have even the most ridiculous meanings.
This ‘linguistic misunderstanding’ may also be the reason why Eco’s analysis, despite being extremely insightful, completely misses the point in regards to several issues. Although calling Eco naïve would be perhaps too easy a putdown (and perhaps possible only thanks to the benefit of hindsight that he could not have had), some of what he wrote cannot be read without a straight face today. This is certainly the case with his attempts to portray Władysław Gomułka, the head of the party, (even though he claims to only report the general sentiment) as a rather ‘honest and decent man with the simple ideas of a former peasant’ who does not mind cultural novelties while openly supporting the pre-socialist classics and who, sadly, finds it difficult to deal with social upheaval so he attempts to uphold the status quo like ‘the careful conservative he always was’.
Similarly, Eco agreed with his interviewees saying it is was impossible that tanks would ever enter Polish streets. He was sceptical of the claims that this would be a disaster since people would not be able to stop themselves from throwing homemade Molotov cocktails at the machines – he disagreed, thinking that there was simply no one to take initiative, to provoke the Soviets into taking such drastic steps. This might be convincing in light of his observation that even the anti-communists saw ‘the Polish-Soviet friendship’ as the only viable option, but we all know now that what happened later was not as clear cut.
A unique snapshot, despite it all
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Umberto Eco's honoris causa ceremony at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, 1996, photo: Wojciech Druszcz / AG
However, these shortcomings did not change the fact that Eco’s report remains utterly fascinating. At a time when it was virtually impossible for any foreign journalist to enter Poland and to document what was going on during this turbulent year, Eco, visiting the country as a ‘neutral scientist’, created a snapshot of Polish consciousness that sheds some light on one of the most difficult issues in Polish history.
Although nowadays it is easy for us to dismiss what happened in Poland during the communist period due to all the shortcomings, failings and atrocities of the system – thanks to the benefit of hindsight – Eco shows us that it was not so black and white at that time and that socialism was, in some way, a response to the problems and, most importantly, the hopes of society in the aftermath of World War II. And while the Soviet influence over Poland cannot be ignored, Eco’s view can only be understood if we take his view that Polish socialism was also a conscious shared effort and an undertaking, which made some previously unimaginable goals possible: a drastic increase in general literacy and availability of higher education, large infrastructural projects (including the rebuilding of Warsaw), professional activation of women, an agrarian reform that undermined the division of property that still had some traces of the feudal times, and many others.
The Italian writer decided to end his article with a quote from a man, who as a result of the repressions of 1968 lost his right to work as a teacher and had his life ruined (the man insisted on paying for their dinner with what Eco suspects were the last of his savings). But despite that, when he heard about the socialist postulates of the protesting Western students (and all the differences of perspective) the only thing he could say was:
The fact that they exist and that they fight for what we wanted in 1945 is the only thing that still gives us hope. You might not believe, but if I again found myself in the same circumstances in which I had been 25 years ago, I would have done the same. I would have repeated everything: the resistance, the party and then the polemics, discussions and my entire current history. I just had to do what I have done.
Written by Michał Wieczorek, Dec 2018
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