Sociology, the Left and Disobedient Thinking. Stanisław Ossowski (1897–1963)

Profile of the one of Poland's most important sociologists

A legend has grown around the figure of Stanisław Ossowski in the world of Polish humanities that goes beyond his academic authority.

by Łukasz Bertram


Any Polish sociologist asked about the canon of the native discipline would undoubtedly include the works of Stanisław Ossowski (1897–1963) concerning the national bond, class structure and its perception, as well as the methodology of the social sciences. In fact, Ossowski was one of the most outstanding and influential founders of Polish sociology. The cornerstone of his legend is his fate in the first half of the 1950s, i.e. during the Stalinist period, when for political reasons he was deprived of the possibility of teaching and publishing. The story of Ossowski, however, is much richer and ambiguous – it is the story of an intellectual’s social commitment and responsibility, the struggle for his own independence in thinking and acting, as well as the confrontation of a man of the Polish left facing the greatest political challenge of the 20th century.

Stanisław Ossowski


The Second Polish Republic: The spaces of dissent

Ossowski, born on 22 May 1897, the son of a district doctor, graduated in philosophy from the University of Warsaw, where he obtained his doctorate in 1924. In the same year, he married his fellow student, Maria Niedźwiedzka (1896–1974), who is remembered as one of the most important Polish philosophers and sociologists of morality. For several years he worked as a secondary school teacher, until in 1936, after his habilitation, he obtained the position of assistant professor at the Chair of Sociology at the University of Warsaw. At that time, he was involved in and published academic papers on aesthetics and methodology. Just before the outbreak of the war, his book was published analyzing the ways racial myths function in social consciousness.

Parallel to supporting the development of sociological studies that were emerging in Poland, Ossowski participated actively in Polish public life, clearly identifying himself with the left.  Shortly after Poland regained independence, and while still a student, he delivered a speech in his hometown, in which he expressed the conviction that the reborn homeland would become the People’s Republic in which everyone would find their place. From the second half of the 1920s, Stanisław and Maria took part in various initiatives of the left-wing intelligentsia, wary of the Church or the right-wing and increasingly critical of the authoritarian rule of Józef Piłsudski. Thus, Ossowski was active, for example, in the Workers’ Society of the Friends of Children, the Warsaw Housing Cooperative (one of the cradles of the left-wing intelligentsia of the capital), and in the press he demanded that schools be secularized.

He was a convinced leftist, socialist, and critic of capitalism – but not a Marxist. It is particularly visible in his works published after the war, when many scholars felt obliged to use “quotations from Marx” in their texts out of opportunism. For Ossowski, dialectical or historical materialism was not the key to reality, but one of many valuable cognitive directions in science that should be taken seriously and which could be inspiring. He respected Marx as a researcher of society. As an integral democrat though, he did not accept any dictatorship: neither of the nation nor of the proletariat. For Ossowski, independence in thinking always came first, along with not being faithful to any dogma. Probably for the same reason, despite his identification with the Polish Socialist Party and voting for it in elections, he never joined, remaining nonpartisan until his death.

In the pre-war period, a testimony to the democratic and left-wing values ​​of the Ossowskis      was their opposition to the growing anti-Semitism in Polish universities in the 1930s. It was one of the basic slogans of the radical right that dominated among students, and dreamed of replacing the rule of Piłsudski and his successors with their own, totalistic order based on ethnic nationalism. Anti-Semitism, which in the last years of the Second Polish Republic also penetrated the state policies and academic authorities, took various forms at universities: the exclusion of students of Jewish origin from associations, the demands of a numerus clausus, and then a numerus nullus (i.e. restrictions and then complete prevention of admission to universities), designating separate places in lecture halls (the so-called ghetto benches), venomous language of the student press, as well as brutal physical violence on the part of Polish “colleagues”. Most of the Polish professors were indifferent or cautiously disengaged towards these practices. Meanwhile, the Ossowskis signed public protests against anti-Semitism in 1937,  along with several other representatives of the then small sociological community, such as Józef Chałasiński and Florian Znaniecki.

University of Warsaw – University Library in 1925 (photo: NAC)

War and the new reality: dilemmas and opportunities    

Due to the growing authoritarianism of the ruling Sanacja camp and the radicalization of the nationalist right, Poland in the late 1930s was not a country in which Ossowski felt at home. However, when the Republic of Poland was attacked by Nazi Germany, and then by the  Soviet Union, in 1939, Ossowski took part in the defense as a second lieutenant in the Polish Army. Then he found himself in the territories occupied after 17 September by the Red Army,  and decided to stay there despite the separation from his wife, who remained in Warsaw. He settled in Soviet-occupied Lwów, where he worked at the Ossolineum – one of the most important centers of Polish culture in the eastern territories of the Second Polish Republic, which would be absorbed by the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1940. His notes from that time are a compelling testimony to ambivalence and dilemmas. He experienced the shock of the collapse of the state, which, despite his aversion to the ruling regime and social relations, was of great value to him. However, he did not resort to martyrdom or turn to an apology for pre-war Poland. He still wanted to remember the injustices it had enacted against a large part of its citizens. He still hoped that when the tide was turned, free Poland would not return to its old ways, but a revolutionary spiritual transformation of society would occur that would liberate its true creative forces.

A few months after the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, Ossowski managed to get to Warsaw. Together with his wife, he engaged in secret teaching, as well as helping Jews hiding on the “Aryan” side. They also collaborated with the underground Architectural and Urban Planning Studio, an association of socialists and communists who conducted studies on the post-war reconstruction of the capital. At the end of the occupation, the Ossowskis went into hiding outside Warsaw when they heard that their names were on the proscription lists prepared by underground radical right-wing circles, which suspected them of pro-communist sympathies.

Between the summer of 1944 and the spring of 1945, after the Germans had been forced out by the Red Army, a new Communist government was set up in Poland with Soviet support that relied on violence and terror as it lacked  broad social legitimacy. The Polish intelligentsia – but not only them – faced the question: what to do? To what extent should one participate in official public life? For Ossowski and many other Polish scholars, regardless of their political beliefs, the matter was clear: it was necessary to rebuild science in Poland as it had been so badly affected by the war and the German occupation. Ossowski wrote in his letters that the sight of Warsaw’s ruins motivated him to work hard and that he dreamt of his own scientific workshop. Already in August 1945, only three months after the end of hostilities, he had organized the first student research trip to the Opole region, newly attached to Poland. He took the chair at the University of Łódź, and then at the University of Warsaw (along with the professorship). At that time, a close circle of students and collaborators began to form around Ossowski, which included many of the leading Polish sociologists of the following decades. For Ossowski, finding himself in the new reality was probably all the easier as he personally knew many of those who had taken high political or administrative positions. He also identified himself with the reforms that promised great social advancement and the improvement of the unprivileged class.

However, it is impossible to call Ossowski a convinced supporter of the new order. In his diary, he wrote down his doubts: such as when he was persuaded to publicly support the list of communists and their allies in the January 1947 elections (which were then forged). He was ready to vote for them, but he did not want his consent to vote to be mistaken for approval of the communist’s methods (and implicit violence). His brilliant polemics with Marxists, published in scientific periodicals, also resonated loudly. He mainly pointed out that Marxism lacked a clear distinction between its scientific function and its ideological or even religious one.

This kind of dialogue was possible because until 1948 as communists in Poland refrained from any ideological and personnel revolution in Polish culture, realizing that they could not allow themselves to be confronted on all fronts. Under these conditions, a window was also opened for sociology, whose representatives received research material in the form of a society undergoing an unprecedented transformation.

Stanisław Ossowski (photo: UW)

Stalinism: a forbidden sociology

This situation began to change with Poland’s turn to Stalinization in 1948. Stalinism in science meant striving for an “ideological breakthrough”, that is ensuring the monopoly of Marxism-Leninism, identifying scientific disputes with political struggle, in which non-Marxists were perceived as enemies serving imperialism, submitting all scientific activity under central planning, cutting oneself off from the West and transplanting Soviet models onto Polish soil, as well as removing the “reactionary professors” and replacing them with cadres shaped in the spirit of official ideology and loyal to the party.

Fortunately, most of these plans remained mainly intentional, as Stalinism was short-lived in Poland, the Communist policy was not always consistent, and scholars used various strategies to soften it. However, in 1949–1954, there was a particularly intense and radical political pressure on science, and sociology – one of the main fields and victims of this struggle. Rooted in empirical research and using various cognitive orientations, it was not only a serious competitor to historical materialism in the analysis of social relations, but also a political threat. Research on social consciousness was attacked particularly severely in scientific journals because they were inconsistent with the axiom that it was the party that recognized the interests and needs of the popular classes rather than its representatives themselves. For several years in Poland, teaching and practicing sociology in a systematic manner and in accordance with the standards of scientific independence did not exist, and the word “sociology” was removed from the labels of university departments. Instead, attempts were made to develop, for example, Marxist field research, explicitly admitting that their aim was to confirm the validity of the policies implemented by the ruling Polish United Workers’ Party – although for some sociologists it was probably an attempt to save what could be obtained from sociological methodology.

Those were also difficult years for Stanisław and Maria Ossowski. For as long as they could, they had participated in official public life, but as much as possible, they were doing it on their own terms. During the sessions preparing the Congress of Polish Science in 1951, which was to define the framework of future scientific policy, Ossowski argued for freedom of discussion as a value in itself and criticized Marxists for indiscriminately yielding to the authority of the classics. He was skillful and ironic, and he could  not so easily be considered a “reactionary.” He did not intend to subscribe to the praises of the Stalinist revolution, but as it soon turned out, the authorities did not try to convince him or force him to do so.

In 1952, the Ossowskis were simply forbidden to teach, in order to prevent them from exerting a “bad influence” on young people. They were also deprived of the possibility of publishing. It was a severe and humiliating repression, but fortunately it was the apogee of the Stalinist harassment of the Ossowskis. They retained their academic positions, and were also allowed to take part in developing a publishing series of philosophy classics. This series was led by Adam Schaff, a leading Marxist and one of the main organizers and heralds of the Stalinist “ideological breakthrough”, who, it seems, was trying to some extent to spread a protective umbrella over the scientific community and was committed to recognition on its part.

For the Ossowskis one way to overcome the isolation to which they were condemned was to organize semi-conspiratorial sociological home seminars for a group of their closest students and associates. In this group, it was possible to conduct a scientific discussion free of the ruling ideology, but also – which is equally important – to feel safe. Thus, the Ossowski-community (ossowszczycy), a circle of individuals united by similar values ​​and not fitting in with the official order of Polish Stalinism, was cemented. Therefore, the Ossowski seminar was an attempt to build a space of freedom in the midst of political oppression.

No sources have survived to indicate whether the Ossowskis were the object of systematic surveillance by the secret police. For some time, the name of Stanisław appeared on the occasion of the investigation of a group of younger academics forming an informal discussion circle, which in the eyes of the security services was already subversive. This was a potential starting point for further repression of the sociologist – which, however, did not come about.

Prof. Maria Ossowska in 1966 (photo: PAP/Jan Morek)

The Thaw: a Regained Voice    

After Stalin’s death in March 1953, initially timidly, and then with increasing momentum from 1954/1955, the political “thaw” gained strength. At meetings and in articles, criticism of the current order in virtually every field began to be louder and louder. Many people who identified with Marxism and communism, who already understood that an ideological monopoly and political coercion could not contribute to the building of socialism in Poland, also joined this trend.

Under these changing conditions, those who had also been pushed out of the public sphere, including Stanisław Ossowski, returned. In the spring of 1956, he published a famous article, “Tactics and Culture.” It was a peculiar credo, invoked to this day as a model of the right attitude of the scientist towards political entanglements. In this text, Ossowski denounced the politicization of science in Stalinism, emphasizing how much it was based on forced obedience to political authorities. Meanwhile, the duty of a scholar should precisely be  disobedient thinking  because compromises with the truth were not only intellectually sterilizing, but also morally corrupt.

With the crisis of October 1956, after which the recidivism of Stalinism was no longer possible in Poland, sociology was revived. Students could again enroll in sociology, some journals were resumed and new ones were published. The following years brought a dynamic development of research and reflection conducted by various circles – both from the Ossowski-community, and young communists, who were looking for ways to reconcile Marxist theory with an empirical view of social reality.

At the end of 1956 and at the beginning of 1957, the Ossowskis regained their right to teach, and a year later Stanisław was elected chairman of the newly established Polish Sociological Society, a position he kept until his death on 7 November 1963. In his reflections at that time, he searched for a concept of an alternative social order to both socialist centralization and capitalist marketization. He wanted an order based on the reconciliation of the good of the individual and community through the genuine socialization of public life. In the reality of the Polish People’s Republic, he struggled with censorship of his texts, and responded to politically motivated attacks on the methods of sociologists and the conclusions of their research,  as the party authorities did not intend to give up control over science. Their ambitions and possibilities though were much more limited, so scientists never faced such pressure as during the Stalinist period.

Main Gate of the University of Warsaw in 1963 (photo: NAC)

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Scientists themselves could also adopt different attitudes in relations with the political authorities of the People’s Republic of Poland and their representatives in the academic world, still all of them had to make some compromises with politics  in order to practice science. For some, this became second nature, for others – it was a pragmatic game. And although the tone of the memories of Ossowski is sometimes even hagiographic, it cannot be denied that they belonged to those who, in terms of both pre-war Polish nationalism and Stalinism in the 1950s, did everything to maintain an attitude of intellectual independence and moral decency. Both Stanisław and Maria Ossowski are emblematic figures of this current of the Polish left, for which progressiveness, emancipation and social reforms were inextricably linked with the rejection of ideological dogmatism and the principle that the end justifies all means.

Author: Łukasz Bertram – doctor of social sciences, historian at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Member of the editorial board of “Kultura Liberalna” weekly.
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin