Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Tadeusz Kowalik 1926 - 2012

The life of the renowned Polish economist, Tadeusz Kowalik, spanned 10 decades and three economic and political systems. 

Tadeusz was born in the village of Kajetanówka in the south-east Lubelskie region of Poland. He was brought up in conditions of poverty and exclusion, in a village that lacked basic facilities such as a post-office, a shop or a school. He was raised in a family that he describes as being open and tolerant and one which valued education and literature. In order to complete his basic education, Tadeusz had to travel to 3 different schools, perhaps explaining why he (along with his sisters) were the first from his village, until the 1960s, to complete a university education .

Tadeusz's childhood was cut short by the years of war and occupation. He recalls seeing the Jewish residents of his village being taken away by the Nazis, an image that was to remain with him. This resulted in the region being stripped of its artisans, and Tadeusz enrolled in an apprenticeship to become a hat maker, allowing him to avoid being sent to Germany as forced labour. 

Tadeusz's subsequent social advancement through education came about as a result of war and the building of Communism. By the end of the Second World War Poland had lost three-quarters of its pre-war intelligentsia. As part of the process of rebuilding the country out of the its war-time ruins, millions moved from the villages to  the cities. For the first time health care, education, housing and work were being made available to all. Tadeusz believed in the ideals of socialism and he entered the School of Social Science organised by the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers Party (PZPR). He studied for three years at the Law High School, before completing the fourth year of his Master studies at Warsaw University. Tadeusz was part of a rising intelligentsia, that included some of Poland's most respected and critical twentieth century intellectuals such as Leszek Kołakowski, Włodzimierz Brus, Kazimierz Łaski and Adam Schaff. 

As Tadeusz took the road from law to economics he increased his interest in 'non-communist' socialist economists under the guidance of Oskar Lange. Kowalik was being educated as an economist within one of the most creative group of left-wing economists in Europe, including Lange, Brus, Lipiński and Kalecki. They built upon the work of Rosa Luxemburg (particularly in her book The Accumulation of Capital) which showed how the developed western capitalist economies grew through incorporating non-capitalist areas to its east. These ideas had been expanded by writers such as Kalecki in the 1930s who used Marxist categories in order to develop many of the theories and concepts of Keynesian economics before Keynes himeslf. 

During the political thaw from 1956, Tadeusz participated as a member of the 'Crooked Circle Group', which brought together critical intellectuals in Warsaw. He lent his voice to those intellectuals that argued for a new system of economic management, more workers self-management (often looking to Yugoslavia for inspiration) and political reform. Under his editorship, the newspaper Życie Godspodarcze became a forum for those seeking to reform the system; and during the 1950s and 60s he helped to arrange for dozens of books by critical economists and socialists to be published in Poland. 

Although critical of 'really existing socialism', Tadeusz remained a member of the PZPR for twenty years. In 1968 he was expelled from the PZPR, as part of a general purge against opposition intellectuals in the party. From this time on, Tadeusz became part of the growing opposition movement. Firstly, he helped to organise seminars with Brus, with only non-party members invited. In 1975 he co-authored an open-letter to delegates of the VII congress of the PZPR, arguing for a reform of the system. He participated in the creation of the Workers' Defence League (KOR), an organisation that sought to create an alliance between the opposition intelligentsia and industrial working class; and from 1977 he gave lectures through its 'flying university'. 

Some of this would perhaps have been forgotten if it had not been for the tumultuous events in Gdańsk in 1980-81. He added his name to a group of intellectuals that supported the demands of the strikers in the Gdańsk shipyards and he became an expert for the inter-enterprise strike committee.

Tadeusz was to remain a member of the Solidarity trade union until 1992, participating as an adviser and member of its programmatic councils. Whilst he lectured abroad during the 1980s (in the USA, Canada and Britain) he remained a strong advocate of reforming the system in Poland through a left democratic programme that would maintain the support of the population. He was a strong supporter of the idea of the round-table talks that led to the negotiated transformation of the Communist system, although he did not participate in these due to programmatic differences that emerged during the preparatory discussions. 

Perhaps the most lasting and important contribution made by Tadeusz was following the transition from Communism and the creation of capitalism in Poland. From the beginning he opposed the so-called 'Balcerowciz Plan' that introduced the package of shock-therapy reforms that sought a rapid jump to a capitalist system. 

The criticisms of the shock-therapy reforms, made by Tadeusz, followed  two major themes: 

The first of thees concerned the social costs of the reforms, which Tadeusz instinctively and vehemently opposed. The shock-therapy reforms plunged large swathes of the population into poverty, created wide social inequalities and led to the formation of huge structural unemployment and a deactivation of labour, which has been a characteristic of Polish capitalism ever since. These were not just viewed by Tadeusz as a moral or social failing, but also as being economically irrational. 

Secondly, Tadeusz stood against the tide of propaganda that claimed that the neo-liberal path of shock-therapy reform was the only available route out of the previous system. In his last book (published in English this month under the title From Solidarity to Sellouthe goes into great detail to show how neo-liberal economics was a minority trend within the Solidarity movement and at how the support given to it by the Solidarity leadership was a betrayal of its ideals and history. He also took up this fight  intellectually, opposing the neo-classical economists, who came to dominate the economic departments in Poland's universities. They were attempting to present their form of economics as a positivist science, from which human agency was removed. 

Therefore, Tadeusz sought to promote pluralism within economics and the public debate over economic policy. Ironically he was primarily opposing liberals, many of whom he had previously cooperated with, who were formulating a new dogmatic ideology.  He opposed those who put forward the thesis that globalisation meant there were no alternatives to the neo-liberal project, instead arguing that there was a variety of capitalisms in the world and that Poland should follow the social democratic path taken by countries such as Sweden. 

Tadeusz held the belief in the 1980s that Poland had the best prospects out of all the Eastern Bloc countries to build a social democratic alternative (due to the existence of the Solidarity movement and a strong reform wing within the PZPR). At the beginning of the transition he participated with people such as Ryszard Bugaj in creating the Labour Union, an attempt to create a social democratic party out of the Solidarity movement. Despite these good intentions, there proved to be no space for such a social democratic party in Poland and no basis for building a social democratic alternative in a country being submerged into the global capitalist system. 

As someone brought up in the 1930s and educated in the school of Kaleckian economics, the global economic crisis from 2008 came as no surprise. A free-market capitalist system, that had  freed itself from the shackles of the state and acquiescenced the trade union movement, would soon reveal its irrationalities and tendencies towards crisis. From its onset, Tadeusz had opposed the move towards a single currency in Europe, particularly one built upon the tight monetarist regulations of the Growth and Stability Pact. He believed that the crisis showed how only an economy that was built upon a strong national state could resist the forces of the international markets. He therefore argued that a break up of the eurozone would be the best outcome to the present crisis as this would allow governments to take more control of their economies and protect their populations. In a discussion with him I argued that the left should seek to unify Europe around a common programme of investment and welfare. He responded with a sceptical and wry smile. 

The last time I saw Tadeusz was in March at the International Women's Day demonstration in Warsaw. He had already been ill for some time, although he was hopeful that he would soon make a full recovery. He talked enthusiastically about the march and how it was pleasing to see so many young people attending. Unlike many of his generation he understood how issues such as womens' rights are an integral part of the left movement and should be supported. He was someone who managed to reach across political boundaries and perhaps like no other figure on the left in Poland was welcomed and invited by groups and parties from different traditions. 

Tadeusz Kowalik will be missed. However, the body of work he has left, the example he has set and the tradition from which he has come is one that should inspire the present generation. 


  1. Great piece. By the way, do you know what role Jerzy Osiatyński has had following the end of communism in Poland? I enjoyed his book on Kalecki's work in socialist economics. Did Osiatyński follow a path similar to Kowalik's?

  2. HI John,

    Sorry for not responding earlier. I have been away from the blog over the summer break and I am now getting back on top of things. I am afraid that I do not know much about Osiatynski apart from he was an MP in the 1990s connected to the liberal parties and is now an advisor to the President


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