Thursday 17 August 2017

Restoring the Reputation of the Polish Anarchist Movement

The Polish anarchist movement suffers from a uniquely distorted history. Although it honourably defended the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto - two Anarchist Federation of Poland (AFP) militants being later hailed as "Righteous Among Nations" for such work - and took up arms against the Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, it has often been mischaracterised by historians as tainted by either nationalism or Bolshevism. The roots of the problem lie in the bizarre fact that in 1930, the regime of military strongman Józef Piłsudski united several unions into what was intended as a yellow government-friendly union centre: nationalists, independents, socialists including a small faction of the Polish Socialist Party and a workers’ faction that had broken with the Second International, and the 40,000-strong anarcho-syndicalist General Worker's Federation (GFP, formed four years earlier at the same time as the AFP) were merged to form the Union of Trade Unions (ZZZ).

The ZZZ's programme, according to historian Rafał Chwedoruk, “was a compromise between radical syndicalism and reformism, even solidarity,” the latter presumably meaning solidarity with the regime. Nevertheless, Chwedoruk noted that "the syndicalists became more and more socially radical in the era’s economic crisis. They supported and organised many strikes. The syndicalist wing dominated the ZZZ… It was a large centre (170,000 members) and had influence within certain industries (esp. in Schliesen in central Poland) – in construction, metal industry, military undertakings etc. The ZZZ declared for the class war… [yet] had a small parliamentary group..." Chwedoruk argues, unconvincingly, that Polish syndicalism was a strange hybrid, a “unique political doctrine” straddling “the border of national-Bolshevism and anarcho-syndicalism,” and “a weird mixture of nationalism, syndicalism and anarchism”. It is not clear whether this is because he appears to take the ZZZ as an undifferentiated whole, or whether it is because of the common error of counting as "syndicalist" those like the Zet youths under the sway of non-syndicalist radicals such as the proto-fascist Georges Sorel.

The ZZZ was clearly a mixed organisation including conservatives clustered around Stanislaw Cat-Mackiewicz, editor of the journal Slowo (Word), but it also embraced a significant anarcho-syndicalist current centred on the likes of tobacco worker Ignacy “Morus” Głuchowski (1892-1944), AFP militant teacher Władysław Głuchowski (1911-1941), former prisoner of the Russian Okhrana secret police Stefan “Szwed” Szwedowski (1891-1973), and agronomic draughtsman Tomasz “Janson” Alfons Pilarski (1902-1977). Many would come to play leading roles in the anti-Nazi resistance: Pilarski, a member of the anarcho-syndicalist Free Workers' Union of Germany (FAUD) in Silesia from 1919-1933, had even helped form the anti-Nazi anarchist Black Ranks militia in 1929 before being forced to flee Germany in 1933 under threat of execution for high treason. From 1931 to 1939, the ZZZ established itself as a powerful force on the labour front, and expressing an interest in joining the anarcho-syndicalist international, the IWA: the anarcho-syndicalist current within it was represented at the 1938 congress of the IWA in Paris in 1938 by Pilarski. The conservative unions - including the military munitions factories - later split off the ZZZ, putting it more firmly under anarcho-syndicalist control. 

After the Nazi invasion in 1939, some 4,000 ZZZ members formed the clandestine Polish Syndicalist Union (ZSP) which built an armed wing, the 104 Company, which by some accounts rose to 600 insurgents, while AFP militants formed the Syndicalist Organisation "Freedom" (SOW) which had its own armed wing, the Syndicalist Brigade. Both units liaised with the Committee to Protect Jews and the mainstream Home Army (AK), ran supplies into the Warsaw Ghetto and smuggled Jews out, and fought the Nazis before and during the Warsaw Uprising. The anarchists and syndicalists even continue fighting for four days after the AK surrendered to the Nazis on 2 September 1944 - and their remnants went on to fight in other formations, helping to drive the brown plague from Poland. It is time that the Polish movement be restored to its proper, honourable place in history as a solidly anarchist, anti-fascist fighting force; I trust the sections on Poland in my forthcoming book Wildfire will serve to do just that!