The ‘Polish Question’ and the Left
The Foreign Policy of Marx and Engels
On March 23, Dmitri Medvedev, the current deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russian and the former president of Russia, posted an extraordinary diatribe on his Telegram channel entitled “On Poland.” Published directly after the visit of the Polish Prime Minister to Kyiv, it’s a bizarre concatenation of grievances and historical chimeras. First Medvedev likens the visit of Prime Minister Morawiecki and the prime ministers of Czechia, Slovakia, and Slovenia to Lenin’s return to St. Petersburg on a “sealed locomotive” which, as we’ve seen, is a matter of obsession of the Russian elite. Why does this image present itself? — Presumably because they both involved trains. Next, Medvedev calls Poland a “political community of imbeciles” and decries their “vicious, vulgar and shrill criticism of Russia”: — “the interests of the citizens of Poland have been sacrificed to the Russophobia of mediocre politicians and their puppeteers across the ocean with clear signs of senile dementia.” At one point, he oozes the same kind of disingenuous, menacing brotherliness that Putin demonstrated in his speeches on Ukraine, calling Poland “our most beloved European country.” In Medvedev’s telling, Poland has no real reason to fear Russia’s fond embraces and ought to remember everything has done for it.
It would take a very long time to enumerate Poland’s real reasons for fearing and resenting Russian advances. But it’s worth noting, like so much of the propaganda coming out of the Russian state these days, Medvedev’s presentation of Russia as the friend and benefactor of common Poles against their corrupt elite returns us to the 19th century, when, in the process of crushing one of Poland’s revolts against its tyrannical rule, Russia presented itself as the liberator of its peasants and a progressive force in Europe. This story was accepted and propagated by an influential section of the Left. Another section of the Left—lead notably by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels—fiercely disputed it and understood Polish independence to be a primary goal of the revolutionary socialist movement.
Before we get there, it’s important to give some sense of the massive role that Poland played in the political imagination of 19th century Europeans, especially those of liberal and democratic sympathies. The call for military support—outright war, even— on behalf of the Poles was often a central demand during the revolutionary tumults in Western Europe, along with support for Italian unification. On May 15th, 1848 , a massive crowd stormed the National Assembly of the newly formed French Republic. “I would have never imagined it possible for human voices, by combining to produce such terrific noise, and the sight of the crowd itself, when it invaded the Assembly, did not strike me as frightening as that first roar before it came into view,” Alexis de Tocqueville, then a deputy in the chamber, would later recall.1 And what did the crowd shout? Vive la Pologne! The first demand of this incursion by the Republican Left—before tax reform or social relief—was freedom and independence for Poland, by the “starting of a great European war if necessary.”2
Why did the cause of Poland inspire this passion on the French Left? Poland’s already had it own revolt in 1846; it had failed, so the Paris masses were not coming to the immediate aid of comrades in arms. But it was widely felt that Poland had “saved” France’s earlier revolution in 1830, when Poland’s attempted revolution absorbed the forces of Nicholas I, which were preparing to march westward to crush the stirrings in France. In 1794, Tadeusz Kosciusko, veteran of the American Revolutionary lead the remains of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, against the Prussians, Russians, and Austria, joining the Jacobin cause and tying up the armies of the old monarchies before that state was finally swallowed up by empires for 120 years. Poland also had its own “republican” past: in the era of absolutism and religious wars, its government set itself apart from other European powers by its traditions of constitutional rule and religious tolerance.
Enthusiasm for Poland was not limited to France: revolutionaries from across the border in the German lands also shared it. Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx in their journal Neue Rheinische Zeitung encouraged the newly established Frankfurt Assembly, the first German parliamentary body established during the revolution of 1848, to liberate the Polish lands under Prussian occupation and pursue a policy of war with Russia on behalf of Polish independence. They bitterly regretted it did not happen. Here is Engels recounting the debates in the NRZ:
After the indecisive German revolution, however, the courage for so resolute an action was lacking. It is all very well to make florid speeches about the liberation of Poland and to welcome passing Poles at railway stations, offering them the most ardent sympathies of the German people (to whom had these sympathies not been offered?); but to start a war with Russia, to endanger the European balance of power and, to cap all, hand over some scraps of the annexed territory – only one who does not know the Germans could expect that.
And what would a war with Russia have meant? A war with Russia would have meant a complete, open and effective break with the whole of our disgraceful past, the real liberation and unification of Germany, and the establishment of democracy on the ruins of feudalism and on the wreckage of the short-lived bourgeois dream of power. War with Russia would have been the only possible way of vindicating our honour and our interests with regard to our Slav neighbours, notably the Poles.
Marx considered Russia “the counter-revolutionary power par excellence,” ready to lend its armies to the forces of reaction whenever in need.3 In this view, he was joined by Tsar Nicholas I. His antipathy took to Russia could take on a nearly paranoid cast. (Regrettably, neither Marx and Engels are entirely free from indulging in orientalist or even downright racialist rhetoric towards Russia sometimes.—This was a widespread malady of 19th century thought.) He confessed to Engels, “I have come to the same conclusion as that monomaniac Urquhart—namely that for several decades Palmerston has been in the pay of Russia.” Lord Palmerston was a Whig prime minister of England and Urquhart was a furious Tory opponent of Palmerston and Russophobe. According to Marx, among Palmerston’s perfidies was his betrayal of the Poles. (Urquhart subsequently published Marx’s Revelations of the Secret Diplomatic History of the Eighteenth Century, his rather conspiratorial account of Russian political power, in his own newspaper.)
In 1863, Poland rose in revolt against the Tsar again. Marx took this to be the advent of a new revolutionary epoch, writing to Engels: What do you think of the Polish business? This much is certain; the era of revolution has now fairly opened in Europe once more.” When Prussia came to Russia’s aid in suppressing the uprising, he enjoined his comrade to collaborate with him on a pamphlet directed at German workers encouraging them to support Polish aspirations. At one point, Marx even discussed organizing a group of German volunteers to go fight in Poland. Labor agitation on behalf of Poland lead directly to the creation of what would be called First International. As Kevin B. Anderson writes in his book Marx at the Margins:
In July 1863, an international delegation of French workers was permitted to travel to London for a joint meeting on Poland. During these same days, London trade union leaders such as George Odger, a prominent figure in the Poland meetings, decided to form closer links with workers on the European continent. The eventual result was the founding of the International Working Men’s Association, or First International, in September 1864, in which other workers and intellectuals involved in the Polish cause, among them Marx, played prominent parts.
In his November 1864 inaugural address to the International, Marx ended with a draft proposal for a “foreign policy for the working classes” with Poland as a central concern. He also mentioned the Chechen rebels against the Russian Empire as well as the the American Civil War and the part played English workers in preventing a British intervention in favor of the Confederacy:
If the emancipation of the working classes requires their fraternal concurrence, how are they to fulfill that great mission with a foreign policy in pursuit of criminal designs, playing upon national prejudices, and squandering in piratical wars the people’s blood and treasure? It was not the wisdom of the ruling classes, but the heroic resistance to their criminal folly by the working classes of England, that saved the west of Europe from plunging headlong into an infamous crusade for the perpetuation and propagation of slavery on the other side of the Atlantic. The shameless approval, mock sympathy, or idiotic indifference with which the upper classes of Europe have witnessed the mountain fortress of the Caucasus falling a prey to, and heroic Poland being assassinated by, Russia: the immense and unresisted encroachments of that barbarous power, whose head is in St. Petersburg, and whose hands are in every cabinet of Europe, have taught the working classes the duty to master themselves the mysteries of international politics; to watch the diplomatic acts of their respective governments; to counteract them, if necessary, by all means in their power; when unable to prevent, to combine in simultaneous denunciations, and to vindicate the simple laws or morals and justice, which ought to govern the relations of private individuals, as the rules paramount of the intercourse of nations.
The new First International was however by no means unanimous on the “Polish Question.” In particular, the Continental followers of the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon demanded a different line. Proudhon was a theoretical and political foil of Marx’s since the 1840s. After the Frenchman’s death in 1865, Marx again attacked Proudhon, writing:
His work on the Coup d’état, in which he flirts with Louis Bonaparte and, in fact, strives to make him palatable to the French workers, and his last work, written against Poland, in which for the greater glory of the tsar he expresses moronic cynicism, must be described as works not merely bad but base, a baseness, however, which corresponds to the petty-bourgeois point of view.
What was the content of this “moronic cynicism” of Proudhon’s? It was a case for coming to terms with Russian rule over Poland. First, that since “Poland had disturbed the balance of power in Europe, so ispo facto, its partitions were provoked by the Poles themselves and merely put an end to the Polish anomaly.”4 Proudhon did not believe the stories of Russian atrocities attested to by the Poles. He presented Russia, which had recently emancipated her serfs and was propagating the fiction that it was intervening in Poland on behalf of that nation’s peasantry, as the more progressive force in the world. And he believed that the restoration of Poland would be followed by the “triumph of industrial feudalism, the rule of the Jews, the first cause and foundation of modern pauperism.”5 Proudhon judged of Poland’s demise, “Neither in the history of the ancient world nor in that of the medieval or modern times is there an example of an execution so justified.”6
In part, Proudhon’s thought reflected the influence of the Pan-Slavists and Slavophile socialists coming out of the East, who believed that the idealized peasant commune in Russia would form the nucleus of a new communist society, rather than the triumph of the industrial working class. Marx considered this utopian vision to be reactionary heresy of the modernizing and liberating mission of the socialist movement. Another aspect of his position was the anarchist opposition to “Jacobinism” and purely political questions in general, preferring as they did direct alterations of the economy instead of interventions through political institutions.
To combat the Proudhonist position in the International, Marx instructed Engels to write “What Have the Working Classes to Do With Poland,” insisting on the fidelity of the working class to the Poles and their hawkishness on the matter:
Is the case even now; with one exception the working men of Europe unanimously proclaim the restoration of Poland as a part and parcel of their political programme, as the most comprehensive expression of their foreign policy. The middle class, too, have had, and have still, ‘sympathies’ with the Poles; which sympathies have not prevented them from leaving the Poles in the lurch in 1831, in 1846, in 1863, nay, have not even prevented them from leaving the worst enemies of Poland, such as Lord Palmerston, to manage matters so as to actually assist Russia while they talked in favour of Poland. But with the working classes it is different. They mean intervention, not non-intervention; they mean war with Russia while Russia meddles with Poland; and they have proved it every time the Poles rose against their oppressors. And recently, the International Working Men’s Association has given a fuller expression to this universal instinctive feeling of the body it claims to represent, by inscribing on its banner, ‘Resistance to Russian encroachments upon Europe – Restoration of Poland’.
Marx never substantially altered his views and feelings about Poland. “His support for the Polish cause was one of the great political passions of his life. Support for Poland, like opposition to Russia, was for Marx—and much of his generation—a litmus test demarcating the democratic and revolutionary cause from its conservative opponents,” Anderson writes. But, as we’ve seen there was quite a bit of dissent within the Left about the issue of Russia and Poland. The “Polish Question” would continue to vex the Left, but few figures met it with such whole-hearted enthusiasm as Marx, an enthusiasm he also demonstrated on the issues of anti-slavery in the United States and Irish liberation. Polish independence was not just a matter of moral principle for Marx, but it had an actual practical function for the cause of revolution: it would be a blow against Europe’s most reactionary regime and form a shield against that state’s future efforts to encroach on democratic Europe. And, perhaps one day, lead to a revolution in that land as well.
Alexis De Tocqueville, Recollections of the French Revolution of 1848, J.P Mayer & A.P. Kerr eds, pg. 115
Jonathan Sperber, The European Revolutions of 1848-1851, pg. 211
Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies, pg. 43
Adam Ciolkosz, “Karl Marx and the Polish Insurrection of 1863” in The Polish Review, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Autumn, 1965), pg. 39
Ibid., pg. 39
Ibid., pg. 39