A Nonconformist, not a ‘Reactionary’. A few comments on Stefan Kisielewski’s autobiography

review of the book by Stefan Kisielewski

Stefan Kisielewski was one of the most colourful figures in the grey communist times. He was a man of many talents: a writer, publicist, composer, MP, oppositionist, and erudite. He was also a declared liberal, who never concealed his distance to the doctrine of ‘scientific socialism’, especially in its economic dimension.

by Rafał Łatka


He became famous for his brilliant press texts, in which he managed to smuggle criticism of the authorities, despite the censorship. With his to-the-point columns (he was an unrivalled master of the genre), he provoked discussion and thought. In my opinion, the key feature of his personality, which was also expressed in his public activity, was his critical attitude. This is evident in all of Kisielewski’s output, as he strove to present a possibly realistic assessment of given events or facts. An eloquent example is his attitude to the Warsaw Rising, about which he wrote critically in July 1949 as a political idea for freeing Poland from impending Soviet domination. He did so despite his awareness that the communists were mercilessly falsifying the history of the Rising, that they were decimating members of the Home Army with prison terms, despite the moral requirement for solidarity: ‘Amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas’.

An individual, capable of telling difficult truths to people even close to him, which they sometimes did not want to listen to. He criticised the editors of Tygodnik Powszechny (a Catholic periodical that was barely tolerated by the authorities, on whose editorial board he sat himself) for their uncritical admiration of the Vatican Council’s ‘modernism’, and their unnecessary criticism of Primate Stefan Wyszyński. ‘People’s consciences are […] violated every day; every day, at every meeting, at school, at work, people have to put up with Marxist lies. And Tygodnik, as if printed on a desert island, is preoccupied with a synod or a council, and with agitating the Primate,’ Kisielewski wrote. He could also be critical of himself. When he decided that his presence in the Sejm of the Polish People’s Republic as a representative of the Znak movement did not bring any serious effects, he resigned, not wanting to be a ‘perverse screen’ for the actions of the communist party.

Stefan Kisielewski (photo: PAP/Witold Rozmysłowicz)

Incidentally, as an MP, he not only intervened in dozens of minor matters, but also became closely acquainted with the functioning of power and administrative structures. This allowed him to write one of the most penetrating novels about the system of power seen ‘from the inside’ – Widziane z góry [Seen from the top], published in 1967 in exile, under the pseudonym Tomasz Staliński. He published more of these novels in the following decade. While he wrote his novels under a pseudonym (which became clearer as time went by), in the 1970s he wrote more and more frequently and boldly under his own name in publications appearing in Poland outside the censorship system.

In the mid-1970s, independent attitudes in Poland became increasingly widespread, with the emergence of outright opposition organisations, such as KOR (the Workers’ Defence Committee), ROPCiO (Movement for the Defence of Human and Civic Rights), the Young Poland Movement, and the KPN (the Confederation of Independent Poland). In the decade of Edward Gierek’s rule, ‘Kisiel’ not only issued a number of books in Polish publishing houses operating in exile (his 1979 emblematic text is worth mentioning here: Na czym polega socjalizm [What socialism is about]), but he also became heavily involved in samizdat activities in Poland. Characteristically, he published in periodicals of a very diverse ideological profile – from left-wing, through Catholic, to nationalist. At the same time, he remained faithful to his principle of radical criticism: during the sixteen-month ‘Solidarity carnival’, he was one of few people in the opposition to criticise the actions of the independent trade union if he considered them unjust, especially in economic matters. His uncompromising attitude did not diminish after 1989 either: when the editors of Tygodnik Powszechny, with whom he had collaborated for over 40 years, began interfering in his texts, he parted company with them as quickly as possible. In independent Poland, he constantly, consistently, and almost doctrinally, propagated economic liberalism.

Several generations of politically active Poles grew up on Kisielewski’s texts – and this phrase has a deeper meaning in this case. Many of his ideas or concepts gained recognition in opposition circles and, after 1989, among the political establishment. Many politicians referred to ‘Kisiel’’s articles, claiming to be his ideological disciples.

Author: Stefan Kisielewski
Title: Reakcjonista. Autobiografia intelektualna [A Reactionary: an intellectual autobiography]
Publisher: KARTA
The intellectual autobiography of his person, recently published by the ‘Karta’ Centre, is an interesting, unique and encouraging undertaking. The volume brings together Kisielewski’s statements, notes and confessions from his entire life. The variety of sources used is impressive: from articles published in the press (mainly in Tygodnik Powszechny), through letters, to his private statements reconstructed… from the denunciations of secret collaborators of the security apparatus. I would only argue with the title of the book: although ‘Kisiel’ himself, out of spite for communist propaganda slogans, eagerly declared himself a ‘Reactionary’, in my opinion he was simply a radical nonconformist.

The volume has been competently edited academically, with footnotes and an afterword by Bartosz Kaliski. His text at the end of the book synthetically describes Kisielewski’s role and achievements. If I were ready to argue with the text Stefan Kisielewski, czyli przygodody człowieka myślącego [Stefan Kisielewski, or the adventures of a thinking man], it would be where Kaliski assesses the milieu of Tygodnik Powszechny. The historian overlooks the fact that the functioning of this milieu of lay Catholics had its tangible price. This price was the legitimisation of the communist system, and its use in the battle against the Catholic Church, and against the extremely effective line of action of Cardinal Wyszyński.


Author: Rafał Łatka – Historical Research Office of the Institute of National Remembrance
Translation: Mikołaj Sekrecki