The Fate of Generation ’68:
History’s Full Circle?[i]
Washington and Lee University
When in March 1968 Polish students organized a series of non-violent rallies and sit-ins in defence of freedom of speech and other basic civil rights, little did they know that their actions would constitute a watershed event in the history of the communist regime in Poland. The protest was short-lived: the regime restored ‘order’ at Polish universities within a month. The March Events (as this modest rebellion has been commonly known ever since) happened in the shadow of another, much broader and seemingly more significant development within the Soviet bloc, the Prague Spring. Soon, in May, it was further overshadowed by the violent rebellion of French students.
Indeed, the year 1968 was so pregnant with developments of far-reaching consequence that the Polish March would, at the time, barely deserve a footnote in its chronicles. In the United States, this was the year when both Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert Kennedy died at the hands of assassins. This was the year when massive riots broke out on the streets of Chicago during the Democratic Party national convention – and when Richard Nixon was elected president. These were but the most spectacular events that happened against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War protests. In both movements, young people, in particular college students, were a leading force. And even if the best-known act of violence against protesting students, the massacre on the Kent State University campus, took place two years later (May 1970), for Americans who were then young, 1968 remains the pinnacle of their generational political experience.
Even more so in Europe. The Paris May has remained the rebellion’s most widely recognized symbol, but the turbulence stretched across Western Europe, from France to Germany to Italy. In Eastern Europe, besides the Prague Spring, there were student strikes in Yugoslavia. In fact, it was a global phenomenon, with dramatic, often tragic events taking place in Japan, India and Mexico.
In this global context, the Polish case appeared insignificant at the time and was, in fact, isolated. There was quite intense cross-pollination taking place among the leaders of student movements in the West (in particular between Germany and France). The authors of a comprehensive study, Europe’s 1968: Voices of Revolt, in their Conclusions present a list of ‘transnational encounters’ known to them (Gildea et al. 2013: 328–9) and state that the ‘Iron Curtain was not impenetrable in this period’ (ibid.: 328), but as a proof provide only contacts between Czechs and Hungarians and their Western counterparts; Poles are nowhere to be found. This, as the Polish member of the team that produced that volume, Piotr Osęka, would surely agree, is a fair reflection of the state of the matter. Leaders of the Polish movement were either imprisoned or silenced in other ways; those who went to the West did so not seeking the status of international revolutionaries, but, typically against their will, as refugees from the brutal anti-Semitic campaign launched by the regime. Only distant echoes of Polish events were heard in the West. According to Andrzej Paczkowski (1988: 3), students at the Sorbonne shouted, among other slogans, ‘Rome, Berlin, Varsovie, Paris!’ As Irena Grudzińska-Gross recalls, ‘when the student activist Daniel Cohn-Bendit was asked by a Parisian judge in May 1968 to identify himself, he replied that his name was “Kuroń-Modzelewski” (Grudzińska-Gross 2019a: 803), in reference to Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski, the then jailed leaders of Polish rebellion’.
Also, in the abundant comparative literature on 1968 – suffice it to mention, in addition to that cited above, collective volumes edited by Vladimir Tismaneanu (2011), Anna von der Goltz (2011) or Gerd-Rainer Horn and Padraic Kenney (2004) – the Polish case, while often aptly covered by contributing authors, remains marginal. Apparently, the rebellious acts that still deserve attention half a century down the road took place elsewhere, not in Poland.
Yet, in hindsight, one can clearly see the watershed character of the March Events. Along with the Prague Spring, they made it clear that communism in its Central European version had lost its utopian appeal. Before 1968, people could believe that participation in the communist movement would contribute to the creation of a more efficient economy and a better society. After 1968, such illusions were no longer possible. Furthermore, the ugly anti-Semitic campaign launched by the Polish communist leadership, which coincided with the March Events and was then used as a means to find a scapegoat for the unrest, indicated an important shift in the way that the communist authorities sought to legitimize their rule. From tying their legitimacy to the utopian promise, they moved, quite consciously, towards an emphasis on the alleged association between their rule and the long-term interests of an ethnically defined nation. Instead of class solidarity, the regime propaganda began to stress its own peculiar interpretation of Polish raison d’état as the foundation of its foreign policy. Similarly, ethnic solidarity replaced whatever had been left of class struggle as the official basis of domestic socio-economic and cultural policies. Altogether, this was populist nationalism barely dressed up in Marxist terminology.
These developments, incremental, subtle and unimportant as they might have seemed at the time, nevertheless changed the dynamics of relationships between the party – the rulers – and the people. In particular, they affected the patterns of political recruitment into the party ranks, party apparatus and nomenklatura positions. Ideological motivations were replaced by the sheer desire to advance one’s political and professional career. Political opportunism became a social norm. On the other hand, the anti-Semitic campaign that forced the emigration of some 30,000 Poles of Jewish origin, decades later became one of the focal points in the ongoing process of re-evaluation of Polish–Jewish relationships. Many contributors to this process admit that the March Events opened their eyes to the ugly face of anti-Semitism and, more generally, of ethnic nationalism and xenophobia (see for instance Grabowska 1981: 27–44; Kofman 1988: 59–67; Krzemiński 1998: 261–83; Szlajfer 1988: 30–7; Szlajfer 2003).
Still, the question remains: What, if anything, did the Polish March have in common with the global protest movement? Or was it all just a coincidence? Some similarities are fairly obvious, if arguably superficial: it happened in 1968; the movement involved people born mostly in the 1940s, that is those who had come or were coming of age at the time of relative peace that followed the Second World War; the leaders of the movement were students and young intellectuals; so were most of its participants, although often joined by working-class youth. Also the movement’s dynamics were similar, from its sudden eruption, through an intense climax, to a fade-away towards a seemingly fruitless end (in this respect, the developments in the US, which were more complex and lasted years, are an exception). There were, however, other not so obvious similarities in the root causes of the movements, as well as some significant differences. We will return to these matters at the end. One issue, however, stands out: the generation-forming effect of 1968.
Today, the concept of Generation ’68 or ‘sixty-eighters’ is commonly used across the world. Its definitions may vary, even greatly, but they reflect a certain common emotional core: if you are a part of it, you are proud; if you are older, you are suspicious; if you are a bit younger, you are jealous; if you are much younger, you may well be oblivious … But what does it really mean? What constitutes this generation-forming experience? Is it a universal, global phenomenon? Does it cross geographical borders, or are these experiences place-specific? What do the Polish sixty-eighters have in common with their French, German, American and, for that matter, Czech and Slovak peers?
Polish participants of the March Events do not hesitate to refer to themselves as the March generation or the generation of ’68. They do so both in their scholarly publications (Grabowska 1981; Krzemiński 1998; Grudzińska-Gross 2011; Toruńczyk 2008 and 2009) and in more personal accounts (see in particular the many individuals cited in Osęka 2015; also Naszkowska 2018; Winnicka and Łazarewicz 2018). This concerns not only the leaders (like Irena Grudzińska-Gross or Barbara Toruńczyk) but also rank-and-file students, who joined sit-ins, participated in mass gatherings or were chased by riot police on the streets of Polish cities (like – full disclosure – the author of this essay).
The concept of generation understood as a sociological phenomenon dates back to Karl Mannheim and his 1927 essay ‘The Problem of Generations’ (Kecskemeti 1952). Mannheim observed that the usefulness of this concept in sociological analysis increases when it is not limited to a mere description of an age cohort, that is people born during a certain period of time (say, in the 1940s, or between 1988 and 1993), but refers to what these people may have in common in the sphere of cultural, social and political values. These shared value systems stem from shared experiences; in turn, they result in a sense of social bond with other individuals of similar age and manifest themselves as distinct generational identities. A succinct summary of the approach proposed by Mannheim and his followers was offered by Michiel De Vries: ‘a certain event (e.g., economic crisis, revolution or war) has a differential impact on different age groups at the time of the event. Adolescents are assumed to be especially vulnerable to such events. The theory suggests that values and opinions are shaped by events occurring during the formative years’ (De Vries 2005: 3–4). In that sense, one can speak of the Greatest Generation (Americans who grew up during the Great Depression and either fought in the Second World War or contributed to the ultimate victory in other ways), or of the Great Patriotic War (as the Second World War was known in the Soviet Union) generation in Russia and other former Soviet republics. In contrast, the age cohorts commonly known as Generation X or Millennials, for whom one could hardly speak of a common set of values or a sense of shared identity, while they carry the potential to constitute a generation, are not what Mannheim called ‘a generation as an actuality’ (Mannheim: 303).
For Mannheim, generation, on the one hand, is an ‘objective’ phenomenon. He compares membership in a generation to a class position; the latter is defined by one’s occupation, the former by the year of birth. On the other hand, Mannheim allows for diversity of generational experience within a given age cohort. In that sense, the Greatest Generation and the Great Patriotic War generation are not the same, even if their members were born at the same time. Likewise, different groups within one society can respond to particular generation-forming experiences in different ways, from zeal to trauma to apathy. What matters in the end is ‘participation in the common destiny of this historical and social unit’ (303; Mannheim’s italics).
Mannheim’s essay was quickly noticed in Poland. Przegląd Socjologiczny, the oldest Polish sociological journal, published in its 1939 volume an article by Kazimierz Wyka, a literary scholar, titled ‘Rozwój problemu pokolenia’ (The development of the generation problem), which devoted a substantial section to a presentation of Mannheim’s ideas. Later, Polish scholars, apparently independently from Mannheim, proposed a similar understanding of generation-forming mechanisms and of the concept itself. Maria Ossowska, the doyenne of Polish sociology in the 1950s and 1960s, published in Studia Socjologiczne a brief essay titled ‘Koncepcja pokolenia’ (The concept of generation). As one of the five commonly present meanings of this concept, Ossowska identifies ‘a group of people with certain common attitudes and common hierarchy of values’ that could be attributed to ‘common significant experiences’ (Ossowska 1963: 50). Jan Garewicz, a philosopher, in an essay published in the same journal 20 years later, defines generation as a ‘category of people on whose way of thinking the same joint experience had a decisive impact’ (Garewicz 1983: 77). He notes further than a generation-forming experience can occur only for an age cohort at a time of ‘a particular sensitivity to socio-political events’, that is adolescents and young adults. (A more extensive discussion on the relationship between Mannheim’s and Polish scholars’ views on the concept is included in an earlier version of this essay – Jasiewicz 2019a.) And among the self-conscious members of this generation, Barbara Toruńczyk echoes these definitions when she states ‘(T)he year 1968 has left its mark on my life and the lives of my friends and contemporaries to such an extent that to this day we recognize each other and sense the ties that bind us as members of “generation 1968”’ (Toruńczyk 2008: 210).
Arguably the most extensive analysis of generation as a sociological phenomenon was offered by Hanna Świda-Ziemba in her 2010 book on the youth in the People’s Republic of Poland. Her full definition of the concept, in Piotr Osęka’s translation (Osęka 2019: 862), goes as follows:
I understand the term ‘generation’ as a collection of young people who develop a system of terminology categories through which they perceive reality, determine their own identity, make life choices and define current events as they are subject to similar socialization processes within a specific historical period. The said system of categories can be described as ‘an ideological community’ or ‘a collective worldview’ which constitutes the foundation of the generation’s communication independent of all individual differences. What characterizes this definition is that a generation is distinguished by a system of meanings which makes up the language of natural discourse within the generation. (Świda-Ziemba 2010: 9–10)
This definition shifts the focus of attention from abstractly understood value systems towards the process of communication, a shared interpretation of universal symbols or the creation of new, generation-specific ones. In her subsequent analyses, Świda-Ziemba exposes two more features of a generation as a sociological category: its temporality and the presence, at least potentially, of agency. She distinguishes six generations that emerged during the period covered in her book, that is from 1944 to 1980; the March generation is chronologically the fifth. In her view, the brutal actions of police forces against peaceful student demonstrations were the first step leading to a generation-forming experience. Up to this point, young people were generally apolitical. There were but a few young scholars and students engaged in criticism of the practice of socialism in Poland; criticism, it should be emphasized, expressed from leftist ideological positions. It was the regime itself that, by its vicious (over)reaction, politicized the youth. But it was the acts of the young people (the 30 January manifestation following the last performance of The Forefathers’ Eve at the National Theatre in Warsaw; the 8 March rally at Warsaw University; and the subsequent rallies and sit-ins on campuses across the country) that elevated this chain of events into a true generation-forming phenomenon. She sees the lasting legacy of the March generation in a positivist programme of social self-organization against the structures of an oppressive state. This programme bore fruit a decade later in the form of independent oppositional groups (like the Workers’ Defence Committee, known by its Polish acronym KOR), an entire samizdat industry, and, eventually, the Solidarity movement. Świda-Ziemba admits, however, that this was the experience of a minority of this age cohort. Others either reconciled with the regime, displaying their opportunism or even cynicism, or retreated back to political indifference. Still others, one should add, failed to join in at the time and remained oblivious to this experience in the years to come.
Barbara Toruńczyk, in the cited essay, parallels Świda-Ziemba’s analysis from an insider perspective, noting the generation-forming role of brutal repressions (Toruńczyk 2008: 223–4), the leftist system of values motivating protesters (or at least their leaders), the impact of the March generation on the subsequent political developments in Poland (Toruńczyk 2009: 301), but also the temporality of generational bonds and fluidity of the group’s composition over the years (Toruńczyk 2009: 287).
In her general conclusions, Świda-Ziemba points out that in non-democratic (she uses the term ‘totalitarian’) systems, generations – understood as ‘an ideological community’ – tend to emerge suddenly, in response to shocks within the political regime and its policies. In democratic systems, in contrast, generational change happens incrementally, as the values that once defined the collective worldview of the parents are slowly transformed into those that dominate among the children.
On the latter matter, Ronald Inglehart’s analyses of the ‘silent revolution’ contradict Świda-Ziemba’s conclusions. In his many articles and books (some co-authored with other scholars) published since the early 1970s (Inglehart 1971), in particular in the book Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society (1990), Inglehart presents strong empirical evidence that the developments taking place in the West, from the US to the UK, France, (West) Germany, Italy and other nations of what was in the 1960s known as the European Economic Community, had a generation-forming effect on people who were then in their late teens or early twenties.
Inglehart’s analyses and arguments can be briefly summarized this way:
The formative years of the generation born during the First World War and soon after coincided with the Great Depression and the Second World War. As a result of the individual and collective experiences associated with these historical events, often traumatic and in constant flux, the members of this generation subscribed to a value system in which priority was given to satisfaction of basic physiological needs through protection of physical (on both a personal and national level) and economic security (law and order, strong armed forces, economic growth and stability). Inglehart originally called this category of values acquisitive (Inglehart 1971), but eventually settled on materialist (Inglehart 1990: 134). In contrast, the cohort born in the 1940s and early 1950s spent its early formative years in a politically and socially stable environment and in the relative affluence generated by the rapid economic growth of the post-war years. For them, materialist values lost priority in favour of values expressing social and self-actualization needs in the intellectual and aesthetic spheres and in social relations (free speech, less impersonal society, political participation; Inglehart 1990: 134). Inglehart initially called such values post-bourgeois and then post-materialist. The change, at first incremental (hence the silent revolution), accelerated in the mid-1960s in both the political sphere (protests, in the US and in Europe, against domestic social injustice and ‘imperialism’ in foreign policy) and the cultural one (the hippie movement, new aesthetics in music and fine arts, etc.). The events associated with culture were perhaps less spectacular in Europe than in the US (where the year 1968 was sandwiched between the two emblematic music festivals, Monterey Pop of 1967 and Woodstock of 1969), but the political sphere erupted in 1968 as a genuine revolution on both sides of the Atlantic.
It should be noted that Inglehart’s analyses are based on cross-national surveys of attitudes and as such account for the context of the 1968 events, the broad processes that created an environment conducive to protest and rebellion. One should not seek a deterministic explanation here: the generation-forming effect was, after all, a result of human agency. Świda-Ziemba might have overestimated the stability of democratic polities, but her understanding of a generation as an ‘ideological community’ can be applied with no reservation to the droves of activists that made the year 1968 so hot in the West.
Can the same be said of those who rebelled on the other side of the Iron Curtain? For Poland, there is a vast literature making exactly this claim. While some in-depth analyses appeared early (see Zygmunt Bauman’s Introduction to a collection of documents, Wydarzenia Marcowe 1968, published in Paris in 1969), a systematic scholarly study of the generation-forming aspects of the March Events has emerged, perhaps unsurprisingly, relatively late. In addition to Świda-Ziemba and Garewicz, who both make this claim, one should mention here the works by historians Jerzy Eisler (1991) and Piotr Osęka (2008, 2015), as well as by literary scholar Lidia Burska (2012). These may be characterized as views from the outside, since the former two were older than the sixty-eighters, while the latter three belong to the generations that followed. Burska in her book Awangarda i inne złudzenia. O pokoleniu 1968 w Polsce (The Avant-garde and other illusions. On the ’68 generation in Poland) convincingly argues that the presence of Generation ’68 not just in Polish poetry and literature, but in the humanities and intellectual life in general, is an unquestionable fact. The same point in relation to politics is made by David Ost (Ost 2019), who is a double outsider, being both an American and a few years younger than the sixty-eighters.
In fact, the perception by outsiders of Polish sixty-eighters as a distinct generation is shared by virtually all authors writing on the subject. Marci Shore, like Ost an American but a generation (or two) younger, draws a line separating the March protesters from their predecessors. For her, they were ‘a generation of critique and a search for alternative values’ (Shore 2015: 612). This was in contrast to the preceding generation of intellectuals, who first were deceived by promises of the new order (and, in individual cases, articulated these promises forcefully) and then had to cope with the overwhelming sense of guilt (or, we may add, chose to manage their cognitive dissonance by sticking to the true believer attitude). Inside Poland, members of other generations, in particular those born too late to remember March, recognize the impact of that generation by offering a critique of its legacies, like Sławomir Sierakowski in his polemic with Toruńczyk in Krytyka Polityczna (Sierakowski 2009). The personal experiences of this author – born in 1949, a first-year student at Warsaw University in 1968 – point to the fine line separating sixty-eighters from their chronological successors. Throughout his life he has maintained a sense of generational companionship with those who are five or even eight years older (hence who were there) rather than with those only two or three years younger (who were too young). This sentiment has been reciprocated by both the older and the younger group (see Zakrzewski 1988).
If the outsiders see Generation ’68 as a Mannheimian actuality, the veterans of the March Events, as already noted, make this claim even more forcefully. How legitimate is their position? Do they really belong to the global community of sixty-eighters? This may seem unlikely, as the Polish events were much more limited in both time (a single month) and physical and social space (campuses of major Polish universities) than, say, developments in the Unites States. However, student protests in France did not last much longer than in Poland (also one month, May), and were similarly limited in space, yet their generation-forming character is well documented by Inglehart and others. But furthermore, the Polish case lacks a well-defined cultural dimension, as the changes taking place in this field, while obviously present, were more diffused in time and chiefly limited to emulation of the British and American patterns. (Incidentally, this changed radically in the 1980s, when rock music became an important channel of expression of popular discontent, but that is the story of another generation.) And even in the political sphere, there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate that the value system of the age cohort from which Generation ’68 allegedly emerged was in any significant way different from those of its predecessors and successors, chronologically speaking (this matter is discussed more broadly in an earlier version of this essay: Jasiewicz 2019a). It is quite conceivable, then, that the generation-forming experience touched upon only a limited number of members of this age cohort and hence the identity of Polish sixty-eighters is a phenomenon specific to, broadly speaking, Polish intelligentsia, or even more narrowly to the Warsaw intelligentsia milieu, as Toruńczyk seems to suggest (2008: 217). In contrast, however, Grudzińska-Gross (2019b: 835) reminds us of the broad involvement of working-class youth in the March protests, which might have contributed later to the active role of workers of this generation in the Solidarity movement. Ireneusz Krzemiński (1997: 139–40) attributes the dynamics of the Warsaw branch of Solidarity to an alliance of the sixty-eighters with the generation of young workers who were persecuted for their participation in the 1976 strikes.
Here we encounter another problem. Involvement in Solidarity can hardly be used as a tool to analyse intergenerational differences, as this was a movement encompassing all generations and all social strata. The relationship between age and various measures of political attitudes is usually non-linear and prompts the question as to whether any differences in attitudes and opinions should be attributed to generational change or to the life-cycle effect. This problem has been addressed by, among others, Robert E. Lane (1972), who examined the patterns of intergenerational transmission of values (conformity and emulation versus rebellion and rejection), demonstrating that, at least in Western societies (USA and Germany), both patterns coexist and their relative strength changes little over time. A popular bon mot attributed to various statesmen, ‘He who was not a socialist as a young man has no heart; he who is not a conservative as an old man has no brains’, may indeed reflect (as Świda-Ziemba believed) changes in political attitudes in a stable polity, where one’s political views slowly mature (or degenerate, if you will) over time, influenced more by one’s life-cycle than by History with a capital ‘H’. However, as already demonstrated, ‘political time’ seldom flows in a continuous way: societies undergo wars, revolutions, rebellions, periods of economic decline, other crises (epidemics!), etc., and these events acquire generation-forming qualities. March 1968, limited in time and space as it was, still makes for a good example here.
At the beginning, we pointed out certain obvious similarities between the 1968 rebellions: students and young intellectuals as the driving force, coincidence in time and the similar dynamics of the movements. There is, however, a more important, fundamental similarity. In the Polish and Czechoslovak cases, as much as in the French, German or American ones, young people were expressing their discontent with the unfulfilled promises of the leaders of previous generations. In the West, this was Inglehart’s silent revolution that in 1968 suddenly became so loud. The commitment of the older generations to the materialist values of personal and collective safety and security, in both economic and political terms, failed to facilitate social equality and international peace. But it did lay foundations for the post-materialist values of the young generation: relatively free of materialist considerations, they could liberally express, often in the language of the radical left (‘Marx–Mao–Marcuse’), the desire for their voice to be heard.
In the East, the members of the older generation, who in their lifetime arguably experienced more hardships than their Western counterparts, had even more reasons for preoccupation with matters of security and safety. Their children, born during the Second World War or soon after, were educated to believe that the system in which they happened to live would offer them social justice, economic prosperity, everlasting peace and – yes – full freedom of expression. By 1968, the fact that the regime was failing to deliver on such promises was obvious to anyone who wanted to see. This is how leaders and participants of the March Events now explain their rebellious stand in 1968 (see Grudzińska-Gross 2019b, Smolar 2008, Toruńczyk 2008 and 2009, among others). And, without hesitation, they extend the sense of generational affinity to their Western counterparts. This affinity has been strong from its onset, regardless of a communication-blocking (as Aleksander Smolar observed; 2008: 3) difference in the language used then to express their grievances: condemnation of capitalism and imperialism by affluent Westerners, criticism (and the eventual rejection) of the all-too-well-known alternative of ‘really existing socialism’ by the Easterners.
The young generation in the East had not been freed of materialist considerations. Their demands for the right to free speech stemmed not from a shift towards post-materialist values; rather, they were seeking the means to fight for the fulfilment of these empty promises. Such was the case of young Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Yugoslavs. If they were not then joined by young Hungarians, Romanians or East Germans, this was due to various idiosyncratic circumstances that are worth separate investigation.
That the Polish March Events and the French May protests happened in 1968 was not mere coincidence. Of course, it could have been 1967 or 1969; the point is that it happened when a new generation that was raised under circumstances different from those experienced by the parents was coming of age.
Once we agree that the March generation is, first, a real social phenomenon and, secondly, that, regardless of differences, it shares its deep roots with parallel movements across the world, we have to wrestle with perhaps the most difficult question. Western veterans of the 1968 revolution have often been accused of betrayal. Many prominent leaders of protests in Germany, France and the US have joined the establishment against which they once protested, from business to politics to culture. Maybe the most spectacular example is that of Joschka Fischer, in 1968 a student activist (but never a student), who 30 years later became vice-chancellor and foreign affairs minister of Germany (albeit by way of the Green Party).
Their Polish equivalents, forced to emigrate or pushed to the margins of public life in Poland, could hardly be accused of such betrayal. They were excluded, seemingly once and forever, from politics. In the People’s Republic of Poland, there was no business to join (or even to speak of). Admittedly, they compensated in the realm of broadly understood culture. More than compensate, they, in fact, became important contributors to (if not the outright core members of) the creative elite of Polish cultural life, at home and abroad. One can find ample evidence in support of this claim in Burska’s book (2012) and Toruńczyk’s long essay (2008 and 2009).
No accusations of betrayal – until communism’s collapse. Or, more precisely, until the process of recovery from the years of communist mismanagement of the Polish economy was well on its way. It was either led or enthusiastically endorsed by prominent members of this generation. Leszek Balcerowicz, the architect of the Shock Therapy, while not known as an activist in 1968, nevertheless belongs to this generation, as do the former dissidents, from Jacek Kuroń to Adam Michnik to Aleksander Smolar, who threw their support behind the restitution of a free market/free enterprise economy in Poland. A most spectacular exception was that of Karol Modzelewski, who voiced his reservations early and often (see the interview with him by Andrzej Tymowski, 1993 [Tymowski 2019]).
A well-articulated criticism of the March generation post-1989 politics comes from David Ost. Born and educated in the United States, over the years he has become one of the top American experts on Polish politics and society. A couple of his books, translated into Polish, stirred hot debates on Solidarity and its legacies. As noted above, he is an outsider in relation to the Polish Generation ’68 in two ways: as a foreigner and as a person a bit too young to claim membership (born in 1955, he missed the Vietnam War-era draft in the US, albeit just by a couple of years). Hence, he could claim here the vantage point of what Mannheim called ‘unattached hommes de lettres’ (Mannheim: 317), that is literati or intellectuals who, not engaged in temporal partisanship, are best equipped to capture the Zeitgeist. As evident from his essay in East European Politics and Societies (Ost 2019), he sees the Polish sixty-eighters as a group not only sharing a common system of values, but also undergoing together an evolution of this system. What in 1968 was a protest against the bureaucratic and authoritarian deformation of socialism voiced from definitely leftist ideological positions, over the years (by 1989) became an affirmation of the free-market economic order, although coupled with a persistent commitment to liberal values (freedom of speech, tolerance, participatory democracy) in the cultural and political domains. In Ost’s view, the key difference between the Polish and the Western experience of 1968 is that the latter led instantly to a lasting political, social and cultural change (Inglehart would point out that 1968 was instead an expression of the silent change that had accumulated over the years), while the impact of the former came to fruition only in 1989. The leftist origins of the March Generation make impossible its embrace by the right-wingers who dominate Polish politics today, but also by the ‘new’ young left, who see in the neoliberal economic policies promoted by sixty-eighters after 1989 a betrayal of the leftist ethos.
This matter is at the core of the polemic between Toruńczyk and Sierakowski in Krytyka Polityczna. Whether the post-1989 attitudes of the March generation deserve harsh criticism (even if expressed in a most civil form, as done by Ost and Sierakowski) or praise (which sixty-eighters seem to expect from their successors) is a value judgement. And indeed, the politics of the March generation, then and later on, are firmly rooted in its value system. The evolution of this system, described by Ost and other authors cited here, allowed them to preserve its consistency. In 1968, they rebelled not against socialism as an idea, but against the state that curtailed their (and all citizens’) freedoms: of speech, of assembly, of conscience, but also freedom from the state’s overarching control of all aspects of public life and its encroachment in the private lives of citizens. This defence of freedom, at the time articulated in arguably naïve ways, over time matured to embrace the many liberties that have proved their utility and functionality in the modern world: participatory democracy in politics, pluralism of ideas and organizational forms in civil society (incidentally, Polish and other Central European sixty-eighters are often credited with giving the spark to the revitalization of this concept in social sciences and philosophy), freedom of expression in the arts, acceptance of the Other. The embrace of freedom in the realm of economy came – once it became possible and feasible – as a natural element of this choice of Liberty with a capital ‘L’ as the guiding principle of public order. Unlike their Western counterparts, they had experienced life under a totalitarian – or post-totalitarian, to use Linz and Stepan’s (1996) distinction – regime and understood that its rejection and search for an alternative cannot be done in a piecemeal manner but must be total. Participatory democracy and pluralist civil society cannot flourish without a free market (and, in the long run, vice versa).
The New Left’s criticism of the March generation’s ideological evolution has a sharp political edge. The support leaders of the generation gave to market reforms led allegedly to their abandonment of leftist sensitivity to human suffering and their engagement in the cause of underprivileged within society. This, in turn, allowed the Polish populist-nationalist right to step in as the defenders of common folk and paved the way for the Law and Justice Party (PiS) and the United Right to electoral victories and political power. To counter this argument with the words and deeds of the late Jacek Kuroń is, of course, not enough. Instead, one should point out that today in Poland all social groups and strata are better off than at the end of the old regime or the beginning of the transition. Better off objectively (the GDP per capita has risen constantly in both absolute numbers and as a fraction of the EU average) and subjectively (in CBOS polls the percentage of respondents claiming that they are satisfied with the quality of their living conditions has risen from lower teens in 1992 to almost 70 in 2020; the faction of those unsatisfied has dropped from almost 40 to 4 per cent – CBOS 2020). To claim that this development could have been achieved through means other than market reforms is intellectual dishonesty.
The people of the March generation were arguably better equipped than anyone else to understand the need to embrace Liberty in her totality. They achieved a deep understanding of the pitfalls of populist nationalism in the version applied by Polish communists in 1968 and later on. They have spent their lives first creating conditions for and then implementing liberal solutions in politics, civil society and the economy. It is a bitter historical irony that now, over 50 years later, they see in the policies of the Polish government and in public discourse the designs and the language they faced from their communist oppressors in 1968. The political cleavage dividing Poland today is a reflection of the conflict between those who desire Liberty – and liberties – and those who reject her and prefer their version of escape from freedom. But this is the subject of another essay – one this author submitted to the 2019 edition of the Almanac (Jasiewicz 2019b).
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The 1968 generation is stepping down from the stage. Such is our human fate. New generations emerge. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that COVID-19 has a generation-forming potential on a global scale. But how the foundations of the current adolescents and young adults’ ‘collective worldview’ will be set and how the nuances of their communication in the world of social media will develop remains an open question. They (as we) are just too busy getting their lives together now.
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[i] This essay is a revised version of my introduction to ‘Generation ’68 in Poland (with a Czechoslovak Comparative Perspective)’, a special section of the journal East European Politics and Societies, 33 (4), November 2019, of which I am co-Editor (alongside Wendy Bracewell of University College London).