Men who stood on such a high intellectual plane as those four—Kunicki, Bardowski, Ossowski and Pietrusinski—who met death for an idea with heads held high, and who in dying encouraged and inflamed the living, are clearly not the exclusive property of any particular party, group or sect. They belong in the pantheon of all mankind, and anyone to whom the idea of freedom is truly precious should embrace them as kindred spirits and honour their memory.

Rosa Luxemburg, 1903

How much Marxism is there in the socialist tradition of Poland?footnote A closer study of the origins of Polish Marxism may give at least a partial answer to this question, so often asked in connection with contemporary events. In fact, an appreciation of the history and the role of the first Marxist group, and of the movement which led to its formation in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, seems to me essential if one is to understand the later development of all variants of Polish socialism. That period witnessed the appearance, in embryonic form, of most of the political tendencies which later found expression in the sdkpil, the pps, the kkp of the inter-war years and even the Polish United Workers Party of today. It is not hard, for example, to find the antecedents of Luxemburgism; and the arguments of that time have been echoing in and about the Polish Socialist Party since its inception.

The first Polish Marxist party, the illegal Social-Revolutionary ‘Proletariat’, was formed in Warsaw in September 1882. In this respect the Poles were in advance of the Russians: Plekhanov’s Emancipation of Labour group was formed in exile a year later. But the advance was short-lived, as was the very existence of Proletariat. It had, one might say, been in the making since about 1876; it reached its peak in 1882–83, then declined and was finally crushed by the Tsarist police in 1885. In January 1886 four of its leaders—Stanislaw Kunicki, Piotr Bardowski, Jozef Pietrusinski and Michal Ossowski—were tried and hanged in the Warsaw Citadel, the ill-famed symbol of Russian oppression. Ludwik Warynski, the founder of the party, was sentenced to thirteen years of hard labour in the Schlüsselburg fortress, where he died three years later. After this defeat two more groups—the Second and the Third Proletariat—succeeded the First, but neither had as distinctly Marxist a character.

The activities of the first generation of Polish Marxists can be traced back to about 1876–77. Curiously enough, many of the carriers of the new radical socialism which evolved into Marxism, were Polish students returning home from the Russian universities of St Petersburg, Kiev and Odessa. Deeply affected by the intense ferment of ideas among rebellious Russian youth, they found in their own land, less than two decades after the disastrous national rising of January 1863, an uninspiring and somewhat quiescent atmosphere. The merciless suppression of the rising by the Tsarist army seemed to have pushed the country on to a new path. What followed was an unprecedented economic development of the Kingdom of Poland, an astonishingly swift growth of industry and new towns. Within ten years the industrial workforce doubled and the number of industrial enterprises increased by between thirty and forty per cent. In 1877 the Russian government began to enforce the payment of tariffs in gold, instead of valueless roubles. Thus, effective Tsarist trade barriers protected the budding Polish industry, which also benefited from the vast ‘eastern markets’ of the sprawling empire.

Feudal Poland began to advance rapidly on the capitalist road, and the Kingdom of Poland became the most industrialized province of Russia. Paradoxically, this dramatic change came about, at least in part, as an unintended result of anti-Polish policies drafted in St Petersburg. For, not without reason, Alexander II and his successor regarded the Polish gentry as the main agent of the national uprisings and unrest. The broad mass of the peasants remained largely indifferent, sometimes even hostile, to the national aspiration, seeing in the native nobles and the native szlachta their direct oppressors and exploiters. The peasants were therefore rewarded for their ‘loyalty’ with drastic reforms that curtailed the power of the landlords, abolishing all kinds of servitude and giving the peasants rights of property over their holdings. Thus the most momentous agrarian reform was imposed from above and from outside by an otherwise arch-reactionary regime that consciously deepened the gulf between the two strata of society. The whole social structure of Poland underwent a profound change.

The abolition of serfdom and servitudes released a mass of proletarianized peasants, who flocked to the towns and provided a cheap labour force. The nobility found itself in straitened circumstances, especially as the incorporation of Congress Poland into the Russian Empire in 1874 had excluded it from governmental office; the gentry, much impoverished by the reforms, now had to seek its livelihoood in the hitherto despised (and underdeveloped) occupations of trade and commerce. (See Wajda’s film The Promised Land.) In this way a new middle class came into being. To improve their career prospects, the sons of impoverished parents attended Russian universities, while their elders, after the trauma of the rising, settled down to what was called ‘organic work’ or ‘work at the foundations’—that is to say, economic development. Romanticism was superseded by a dominant positivist idelogy. Although there was a great deal of melancholy resignation in the slogan of ‘organic work’, the newly formed bourgeoisie had a vested interest in a stable modus vivendi with the government in St Petersburg. Trade became profitable, and what was good for the bourgeoisie was, as is usually the case, proclaimed to be good for the nation and presented as the national philosophy.

While order and conformism prevailed in Warsaw, the universities of Russia were seething with revolutionary ferment. Polish students there were drawn into passionate debates among the partisans of Narodnaya Volya, Zemlya i Volya, Black Partition and other illegal organizations. Ludwik Warynski, the future founder and spiritus movens of Proletariat, also received his primary socialist education in Russia. Born into a family of petty Ukrainian gentry, he had attended the Technological Institute in St Petersburg and been expelled for extra-curricular activities. He returned to Poland a convinced Narodnik, with the aim of uniting loose groups of disaffected Polish students at Warsaw University into an organization on the Narodnik model. He also took a factory job, and it is said that his contact with the Polish proletariat cured him of his Narodnik leanings. A dynamic and charismatic personality, he soon gained great popularity among the workers and notoriety among the guardians of law and order.