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//Class struggle in the streets of Łódź// Michał Gauza

Class struggle in the streets of Łódź Michał Gauza


For the last few years the Political Critique Club from Łódź has been making efforts to raise awareness about the Revolution of 1905, to remind the public about the proletarian origins of the city and class warfare that took place here. There is plenty of room for such initiatives as Łódź is a unique example of a capitalist enclave, a city where turbulent growth in the 19
th century and dynamic development of individual fortunes meant that workers were heavily exploited. Much more than elsewhere in Europe they had to endure abysmal living conditions and lacked basic rights and welfare provisions.  Stark social and economic inequalities  led to numerous mass protests e.g. the 1892 revolt, a general strike that originated from the attempt to organize the 1st of May celebrations, or the Revolution of 1905, with its complex causes that went beyond purely economic considerations. Poverty, extreme social stratificatio that resulted from the development of Łódź as well as class conflicts are not widely known to the general public. The latter has, for many years, concentrated on successful factory owners.

This huge “disproportion in remembering”, preoccupation with a small percentage of society, is not unique to Łódź alone. It can be compared to the scarcity of works on the plight of peasants during the partitions period or in the interwar Poland: these are mostly individual articles, very rarely a book or a movie. They bring back the memory of the feudal system, challenge the ubiquitous serf mentality and deal with shame often felt by people with rural origins. And although the selection of topics in such works is rather narrow, their growing number should be encouraging. Their aim is to raise awareness of the wrongs experienced by the peasantry and compare social relations from the past to the current ones, mostly in terms of the relationship between employers and employees. The authors also focus on peasant identity but very rarely discuss any attempts at emancipation undertaken by peasants alone, without mediation of various patrons. The dominant narrative about peasantry is therefore in tune with shifts in historiography over the last decades encapsulated by Enzo Traverso in his book L’histoire comme champ de bataille[1] [History as a Battlefield, not available in English]. In this interpretation, the past “emerges as an era of cataclysms, overshadowed by the spectres of victims”, dominated by violence and injustice. The 20th century is purged of stories about progress, it becomes a century of “total wars, fascist and totalitarian regimes, genocides but also revolutions with catastrophic results and utopias which went bankrupt”. Hence any social  change there was, it was brought forcefully from the east or determined by other factors beyond the control of an average man in the street. It is the empathy towards wronged ancestors and not the resistance to the wrongs suffered – i.e. fight for progress – that peasants’ pride is being built on.

Also when it comes the revolution of 1905, it is easy to focus on injustice, abominable living and working conditions. Such an approach, however, would mean losing an opportunity to turn the engagement of the working class from the past into contemporary models of behaviour. Shifting focus from victimhood to the formation of political community and subjectification of peasantry can help to shape such models. Stories of ordinary people who fought for their dignity should be brought back as they can potentially inspire activists to build a community capable of changing the status quo. Such narratives allow people to see their own activity as a part of the larger struggle for gradual social change, they help them assume the role of successors to the progressive tradition. This kind of discourse can become a source of inspiration for the hitherto disengaged people who suffer injustices of the current socio-economic system. At the end of the day, it is easier to identify with someone who took up the fight than with a passive victim. The latter can evoke sympathy, nothing more, but his or her story will not replace the longing for a manor house, the pride from the allegedly noble ancestors. In this respect, narratives about the proletarian activity become political, they are brought back not solely to fill in the previously repressed parts of the emergent city identity.

However, making references to “the proletariat” turns out to be problematic because after the political transformation the word was erased from media discourse. It became a relic of the former regime, a term partly obsolete in the world where industry was being rapidly privatized and restructured, or, as in the case of the light industry in Łódź, subject to closures. Simultaneously, working classes were undergoing internal transformations so that it became more difficult to subsume them under one label. The only class that for years has had its fixed place in the public discourse it is the middle class, not always precisely defined. Apart from it, there are individuals, families or “interest groups” such as teachers, nurses or miners, to whom the class language is not applied. In this context, bringing back stories about the proletariat – or, more broadly, the working class and peasantry – is a difficult task.

The last quarter of a century saw deep changes not only in language but also, as mentioned before, in memory. Since the early 1990s issues such as the resettlements and difficult plight of peasants, social conflicts and emancipation have been repressed from historical consciousness. They were seen as elements of the communist propaganda, manipulated and exaggerated, out of sync with the zeitgeist. The new, capitalist reality gradually imposed a different attitude towards the past, which, in the case of Łódź, manifests itself in the uncritical narrative about the factory owners enhanced, year after year, with various commemorative events and absurd homages paid to the industrialists. A factory owner has become an epitome of a creative entrepreneur and the title of Władysław Reymont’s The Promised Land ceased to be seen as ironic.

There is no denying, however, that the narrative was able to establish itself mainly due to the fact that many years after the transformation still no one had a clear idea as to what the new identity of Łódź should be. Until quite recently, the city has been described as having no history. Stories about progress were either not created or not allowed to surface in the collective conscience. This changed when the “factory owners” brand was endorsed by those who wanted to market Łódź as the centre of creative industries. The city has now become an arena of a peculiar class struggle discernible  to the careful observer: there is a grassroots initiative to name streets in the New Centre of Łódź (currently under development) after the industrialists; for a few years now “Factory-owner Fotrace” [Bieg Fabrykanta] has been organized and the Old Trams Enthusiasts Club [Klub Miłośników Starych Tramwajów] has just named 2015  the year of Juliusz Kunitzer, the father of Łódź trams, a manufacturer notorious for exploiting his workers and bringing soldiers to disperse protesters. The representative Piotrkowska Street is now marred by Founders of Industrial Łódź monument. Nevertheless still many streets have social activists and revolutionaries as their patrons – among them are the writer Andrzej Strug, members of The Combat Organization of the Polish Socialist Party: Józef Montwiłł-Mirecki and Henryk Baron as well as Aleksy Rżewski, the first mayor of Łódź after the First World War. The city also has the 1905 Revolution Street, many commemorative plaques, tombes and the Monument of the Revolutionary Deed in Józef Piłsudski Park. Thus there is something that could become a cornerstone of an entirely different narrative. All of those elements feature regularly e.g. in special newspapers issued for the anniversary of the 1905 Revolution in June and distributed during marches. They have also been included in the guide to the Revolution of 1905[2] published by the Political Critique. The book turned out to be an important step in raising social awareness and encouraged many people, not only from Łódź, to investigate local stories and look for traces of 1905-1907 events in them.

The anniversary itself, which in 2015 will be celebrated for the third time, was never intended as a mere one-dimensional historical reconstruction like those organized to commemorate the Second World War or the cursed soldiers. Complex nature of the Revolution cannot be reduced to the simple “us and them” opposition – Poles on the barricades against Russians and Cossacks – because apart from the fight for independence, many political and economic factors came into play. Whether it was the fourth Polish insurrection or the first revolution is a moot point.

It is worth noting that the introduction of elements of economic struggle to the commemorative street reenactments – though potentially risky in the current political situation – always resonates with the  socio-economic issues of the day. An attentive viewer or participant of the march will quite easily interpret the demands of protesting workers as a commentary to the presently deteriorating work conditions and notorious disrespect of workers. Providing an opportunity to draw one’s own conclusions is far more valuable than presenting them straightforwardly, as  the latter would turn the topic of the 1905 Revolution into a simple political propaganda.

The abovementioned community-building potential of showing the working class in action, fighting for its rights, once again becomes relevant. The eight hour day, social insurance, pensions or ban on piecework are being fought through massive attendance in the commemoration, singing revolutionary songs or paying homage to the revolutionaries who perished. What becomes clear is the power of ritual. As a tool for changing social consciousness and forming communities the ritual has long been rejected by left-wing groups who deemed it too conservative. It seems that the topic of the 1905 Revolution, apart from its basic function i.e. reminding us about the proletarian identity of Łódź and social struggles that took place here, also serves another purpose. It becomes an proving ground in remembrance, it creates conditions propitious to the emergence of a community based on myth, it is an experiment in historical politics, necessary if we really want to change our socio-economic reality.

Translation: Dorota Malina 


[1] L'histoire comme champ de bataille. Interpréter les violences du XXe siècle, E. Traverso, La Découverte, Paris 2011
[2] Rewolucja 1905. Przewodnik Krytyki Politycznej, K. Pisakła, W. Marzec (eds), Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, Warsaw 2013.