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Open Letter To Władysław Gomułka and the Central Committee of the Polish Workers Party | Isaac Deutscher (1966)

Friday 22 January 2021

This open letter was released on 28 April 1966 as a protest against the sentencing of Kazimierz Badowski, Ludwik Hass, Jacek Kuroń, Karol Modzelewski and Romuald Śmiech, who had been tried and found guilty of distributing illegal literature, including Kuroń and Modzelewski’s Open Letter to the Party.

I am addressing this letter to you in order to protest against the recent secret trials and convictions of Ludwik Hass, [1] Karol Modzelewski, [2] Kazimierz Badowski, [3] Romuald Śmiech, [4] Kuroń, [5] and other members of your party. According to all available reports, these men have been deprived of liberty solely because they have voiced views critical of your policy or certain aspects of it, and because they have expressed disappointment with the bureaucratic arbitrariness and corruption which they see rampant in their country. The charge against them is that they have circulated leaflets and a pamphlet containing ‘false information detrimental to the state and its supreme authorities’ – the public prosecutor, it seems, did not accuse them of any crime or offence graver than that.

If this is the accusation, then the persecution of these men is disgraceful and scandalous. Several questions must be asked. Why, in the first instance, have the courts held their hearings in camera? Surely, no matter of state security was or could have been involved. All the defendants have been academic teachers and students, and what they have tried to do was to communicate their views to fellow students. Why have they not been given a fair and open trial? Why have your own newspapers not even summarised the indictments and the pleas of the defence? Is it because the proceedings have been so absurd and shameful that you yourselves feel that you cannot justify or excuse them; and so you prefer to cover them with silence and oblivion? As far as I know, prosecutor and judges have not impugned the defendants’ motives or cast any serious doubt on their integrity. The accused men have proclaimed themselves to be, and have behaved like, devoted non-conformist Communists, profoundly convinced of the truth and validity of revolutionary Marxism.

I know that one of them, Ludwik Hass, was, even before the Second World War, a member of the Communist, so-called Trotskyist, organisation of which I was one of the founders and mouthpiece. He then spent seventeen years in Stalin’s prisons, concentration camps and places of deportation. Released in 1957, he returned to Poland so free from all bitterness and so strongly animated by his faith in a better socialist future that he at once decided to join your party; and he was accepted as a member. No one asked him to renounce his past, and he did not deny his old ‘Trotskyist’ views even for a moment – on the contrary, he upheld them frankly and untiringly. This circumstance alone testifies to his courage and integrity. Do you, Władysław Gomułka, really believe that you have, in your ‘apparatus’ and administration, many people of comparable disinterestedness and idealism? Look around you, look at the crowds of timeservers that surround you, at all those opportunists without principle and honour who fawn on you as they fawned on Bierut, [6] and as some of them fawned even on Rydz-Śmigły [7] and Piłsudski. [8] On how many of these bureaucrats can your government, and can socialism, count in an hour of danger, as it can count on the people you have put in prison?

Recently your government claimed with a certain pride that there have been no political prisoners in Poland since 1956. This claim, if true, was indeed something to be proud of in a country the jails of which had always, under all regimes, been full of political prisoners, especially of Communist prisoners. You have not, as far as I know, jailed and put in chains any of your all too numerous and virulent anti-Communist opponents; and you deserve credit for the moderation with which you treat them. But why do you deny such treatment to your critics on the left? Hass, Modzelewski and their friends have been brought to the courtrooms handcuffed and under heavy guard. Eyewitness accounts say that they raised their chained fists in the old Communist salute and sang the Internationale. This detail speaks eloquently about their political characters and loyalties. How many of your dignitaries, Władysław Gomułka, would nowadays intone the Internationale of their own free will and accord?

I have been informed that before the trial, during the interrogation, the official who conducted it alleged that Hass and other defendants had worked in contact with me. I do not know whether the prosecutor took up this charge in the courtroom. In any case, the allegation is a complete falsehood. Let me say that if the defendants had tried to get in touch with me, I would have readily responded. But the fact is that I have had no contact whatsoever with any of them. I have not even seen a single one of their leaflets or pamphlets. I judge their behaviour solely from reports reaching me by word of mouth or through Western European newspapers.

I ought perhaps to explain that since the Second World War I have not participated in Polish political life in any way, and that, not being a member of any political organisation, Trotskyist or otherwise, I am speaking only for myself. I should add, however, that on a few very rare occasions I have broken my self-imposed political abstinence. I protested when you, Władysław Gomułka, were imprisoned and slandered in the last years of the Stalin era. Knowing full well that I could not share all your views, I expressed solidarity with you. Similarly, I do not know whether I can fully approve the views and behaviour of Hass, Modzelewski and their comrades. But in their case, as in yours, I think I can recognise reactionary police terror for what it is and tell slander from truth.

Another occasion on which I allowed myself to have a say on Polish political matters was in 1957, when I explained in a special essay ‘The Tragedy of Polish Communism between the World Wars’. You may remember that your censors, Stalinists of the so-called Natolin group, [9] confiscated the essay when Polityka tried to publish it, and that then you, Władysław Gomułka, ordered the essay to be widely distributed among party members. In those far-off days, just after the ‘Polish Spring in October’, you held that Polish Communists ought to know my account of the havoc that Stalin made of their party, delivering nearly all its leaders to the firing squad. You knew that I had been one of those very few Communists who, in 1938, protested against that crime and against the disbandment and denigration of what had once been our common party. Moscow ‘rehabilitated’ the Polish party and its leaders only after seventeen or eighteen years; and then you, Władysław Gomułka, apologised for having kept silent in 1938, although you had not believed the Stalinist slanders. I do not believe that you are right now in persecuting and imprisoning members of your own party and your critics on the left; and I cannot keep silent.

May I remind you of your own words spoken at the famous Eighth Session of the Central Committee in October 1956? ‘The cult of the personality was not a matter just of Stalin’s person’, you stated then. ‘This was a system which had been transplanted from the USSR to nearly all Communist Parties... We have finished, or rather we are finishing, with that system once and for all.’ (Your italics)

But are you not to some extent re-establishing that system? Do you wish these trials to mark the tenth anniversary of your own rehabilitation and of that ‘Spring in October’, during which you raised so many hopes for the future?

In the name of those hopes and in the name of your own record, the record of a fighter and of a political prisoner under Piłsudski and Stalin, I appeal to you and to your colleagues of the Central Committee: do not allow this miscarriage of justice to last! Dispel the secrecy that surrounds the cases of Hass, Modzelewski and their comrades. If you think that they are guilty of grave offences, then publish the full report of the court proceedings and let it speak for itself. In any case, I appeal to you to order an immediate and public revision of the trial. If you refuse these demands, you will stand condemned as epigones of Stalinism, guilty of stifling your own party and compromising the future of socialism.


1. Ludwik Hass (1918-2008) was a member of a Trotskyist group within the Polish Socialist Party during the late 1930s. Arrested by the Soviet authorities in 1939, he was held in Vorkuta until 1956, when he returned to Poland. His career as an academic – his main area of study was freemasonry – was chequered, as he was sporadically harassed for his Trotskyist views. He was sentenced in 1966 to three years’ jail for editing Kuroń and Modzelewski’s Open Letter to the Party.

2. Karol Modzelewski (1937- ) joined the Polish United Workers Party in 1957, having been a member of its youth section since 1950. He and Jacek Kuroń became members of the Krzywe Koło (Crooked Circle) club in the mid-1950s, the haunt of many dissenting intellectuals, and in the mid-1960s they wrote the Open Letter to the Party. Sentenced for three years in 1966, he was released in 1967, but was jailed again in 1968. He helped form Solidarność in 1980, and was jailed during the early 1980s. He was involved with the social-democratic Unia Pracy (United Labour) from 1992, but by 1995 had returned to his academic work as an historian.

3. Kazimierz Badowski (1906-1990) joined the Polish Communist Party in the mid-1920s. He joined the Trotskyist movement whilst living in Belgium, and helped build a Trotskyist group in Poland upon his return. He was arrested in 1946 after having set about rebuilding a Trotskyist group in Poland, and imprisoned for four years. He was sentenced in 1966 to three years’ jail. He maintained his political beliefs until his death.

4. Romuald Śmiech (1940- ) is an historian. Although describing himself as a left-wing socialist rather than a Trotskyist, he started work with Hass and Badowski in 1957. Sentenced to three years’ jail in 1966, he was soon released and dropped out of political activities, continuing with his work as an historian.

5. Jacek Jan Kuroń (1934-2004) joined the Polish United Workers Party in 1952. He and Karol Modzelewski became members of the Krzywe Koło (Crooked Circle) club in the mid-1950s, and in the mid-1960s they wrote the Open Letter to the Party. Sentenced for three years in 1966, he was released in 1967, but was jailed again in 1968. In 1976, he helped establish the Komitet Obrony Robotników (Workers Defence Committee). He was briefly imprisoned during the strike wave of 1980, and was instrumental in the establishment of Solidarność later that year. He was Minister of Labour and Social Policy in two post-Stalinist governments, but subsequently became critical of the neo-liberal policies enacted by post-1989 governments.

6. Bolesław Bierut (real name Bolesław Rutkowski, 1892-1956) joined the Polish Socialist Party Lewicka in 1912 and the Polish Communist Party in 1918. He worked for the Comintern in Moscow during 1924-30, and joined the Soviet military intelligence service in 1933. He was jailed in Poland during 1933-38 and thus missed Stalin’s purge of the party. He headed the postwar Polish state as President and then Prime Minister, and was General Secretary of the Polish United Workers Party from December 1948 to March 1956. He was a hard-line Stalinist and he oversaw the purging of political opponents in the late 1940s. He died in rather mysterious circumstances in the Soviet Union.

7. Edward Rydz-Śmigły (1886-1941) was an officer in the Polish Legions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the First World War, and became Poland’s Minister of War in October 1918. He supported Piłsudski’s coup in 1926 and after his death in 1935 was appointed Inspector-General (that is, head) of Poland’s Armed Forces, and he became Marshal of Poland in 1936, in which post he played an increasingly dictatorial role whilst enjoying a considerable personality cult.

8. Józef Klemens Piłsudski (1867-1935) was born into a Polish noble family in Lithuania, and became involved in the Russian Narodnik movement whilst a medical student in Kharkov. He was arrested and exiled to Siberia. He joined the PPS in 1893, shortly after his release, and joined its leadership in 1895. He advocated a combination of socialist and Polish nationalist ideas, and in 1904 formed a paramilitary organisation, which was involved in Polish nationalist activities during the 1905 Revolution. His insistence upon armed nationalist struggle led to a split in the PPS in 1906, and he subsequently led the PPS Revolutionary Fraction. In the First World War, he led the Polish Legions against Russia, entering into an uneasy relationship with the Central Powers, which ended with his being arrested and then in November 1918 being sent in a sealed train to Warsaw. He became the Head of State of independent Poland, having dissociated himself from any vestigial links with the PPS and left-wing politics, and adopted an expansionist foreign policy, which eventually led to the abortive Soviet invasion of Poland in 1920. He resumed the formally military post of Chief of the General Staff in late 1922, staged a coup in May 1926, and was informally head of state until his death, ruling in an increasingly authoritarian manner.

9. The Natolin group was formed after the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956 by members of the PUWP who rejected the reforms being instituted within the Communist parties. It was named after a suburb of Warsaw where its members met.

Source: Marxism in Our Time, The Ramparts Press, Berkeley, 1971

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