The Intelligentsia

Poland Table of Contents

The Polish intelligentsia played a unique and vital role in several phases of Polish history. During the partition period of the nineteenth century, the intelligentsia was the chief repository ofnational consciousness. Containing the last vestiges of the landed gentry that had led the country during its heyday as an independent commonwealth, the intelligentsia was the chief means by which new and progressive ideas entered the fabric of partitioned Poland's society. As such, the class became the chief repository of a romanticized, idealistic concept of Polish nationhood. Well into the twentieth century, the roughly 50 percent of the intelligentsia that had roots in the landowning class maintained the aristocratic values of their ancestors. Although those values conferred a distinctly higher social status on the intelligentsia in everyday life, they also included the cultural heritage that all Poles recognized.

In the first part of the twentieth century, the intelligentsia was diversified and enriched as more middle- and lower-class Poles attained education and upward mobility. At this point, the intelligentsia divided philosophically into conservative idealizes of the past (whose landholdings gave them a vested interest in maintaining the status quo) and liberal reformers advocating development of capitalism. In the interwar period, Poland's social structure was further complicated by the rise of a vigorous, practical upper middle class. After the war, however, socialism drastically reduced the influence of this entrepreneurial class.

Facing a severe shortage of educated citizens, in 1945 the communists expanded opportunities for political loyalists to advance through education into the professions and the bureaucracy. Of the 300,000 college graduates produced by the education system between 1945 and 1962, over 50 percent were from worker or peasant families. The introduction of these groups sharply diversified the class basis of the postwar intelligentsia. In the late 1960s, however, the policy of preferential treatment in education ended. The percentage of working-class university admissions dropped to below 25 percent. Because the chief means of entry into the professional classes remained educational achievement, the drop in university admissions drastically slowed mobility from the working classes into the intelligentsia. In the postwar years, the intelligentsia diversified into several categories of employment: highly educated professionals, government and party officials, senior civil servants, writers and academics, and toplevel economic managers.

Especially in the 1970s, many members of the intelligentsia established careers in the ruling party or its bureaucracy, joining the cause of the socialist state with varying degrees of commitment. By 1987 all but one of the forty-nine provincial PZPR first secretaries had at least a bachelor's degree. The strong presence of the intelligentsia in the party influenced the policy of the ruling elite away from standard Soviet practice, flavoring it instead with pragmatic nationalism. Then, as that force exerted subtle influence within the establishment, other elements of the intelligentsia joined with worker and student groups to express open dissent from the system. They objected to the system as a whole and decried the increasingly stressful conditions it imposed on Polish society in the 1970s and 1980s. The most salient result of this class alliance was the Solidarity movement, nominally a workers' movement that achieved broad support in the intelligentsia and finally toppled the last communist regime.

In the 1980s, the activist elements of the intelligentsia resumed the traditional role as protectors of national ideals from outside political interference. In this role, the Polish intelligentsia retained and gradually spread the values it had inherited from its nineteenth-century predecessors: admiration for Western society, disdain for contact with and reliance on Russia and the Soviet Union, and reverence for the prepartition commonwealth of the nobility and the romantic patriotism of the partition era.

As it had after Poland regained its independence in 1918, however, the intelligentsia reverted to its naturally fragmented state once the common enemy fell. In the early 1990s, the official communist leadership elite had disappeared (although in reality that group continued to control powerful economic positions), and no comparably identifiable and organized group had taken its place. In this atmosphere, a wide variety of social and political agendas competed for attention in the government, reflecting the diverse ideas proposed by the intelligentsia, the source of most of Poland's reformist concepts in the early 1990s.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress