Socialist Postcolonialism


Book: Socjalistyczny postkolonializm. Rekonsolidacja pamięci [Socialist Postcolonialism. Memory Reconsolidation], Toruń: NCU Press 2018, pp. 484 [PL with ENG summary].


Padraic Kenney (Indiana University, Bloomington, the US) in "Slavic Review"  DOI:

Piotr Puchalski (Pedagogical University of Krakow, Poland) in "The Polish Review"

Kamil Piskała (University of Lodz, Poland) in "Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe" 

Anna Sosnowska (University of Warsaw, Poland) in "Acta Poloniae Historica"

Tomasz Kamusella (St Andrews University, UK) in ‘New Eastern Europe’:

Katarzyna Taczyńska (University of Warsaw, Poland) in ‘Athenaeum’:

The book Socjalistyczny postkolonializm. Rekonsolidacja pamięci (Socialist Postcolonialism: Memory Reconsolidation) is about the Polish postcolonial tradition of before 1989, which has been blanked out of memory. The year 2000, i.e., the year in which the Polish translation of Ewa Thompson’s book Imperial Knowledge. Russian Literature and Colonialism appeared, is taken as the beginning of Polish postcolonial thought. However, the general thesis of the present book is that widely understood postcolonialism functioned in Poland before 1989. The real beginning of thinking in postcolonial terms started with the World Congress of Intellectuals in Defense of Peace, held in Wrocław in 1948. The purpose of the book is to reconstruct the rubbed out history of socialist postcolonialism and to determine the reasons why this cultural phenomenon was remembered/forgotten. This first task is achieved by analyzing political, press, literary, scientific and artistic discourses referring to the so-called Third World and its relations with the semi-peripheral Second World, i.e., Poland; while the second task is treated within an original conceptual framework for writing about remembering/forgetting, using the category of re/consolidation drawn from neuroscience and psychology. The work uses the terms “socialist postcolonialism” and “postcolonialism of the Second World” alternately and refers to postcolonial studies, although conceptually it is rooted in memory studies which are also seeing intense development in Poland.The book is divided into three parts: I – Memory, II – History, and III – Literature, art, and science. Each part consists of several chapters and subsections. The narrative follows both the order of the questions and – particularly in part II and III – chronological order, which makes it possible to fill the reconstructed postcolonialism with theoretical and practical content in the form of nonfictional and fictional postcolonial narratives and illustrations as well as political postulates which refer to postcolonialism and the postcolonial as a kind of collective and individual experience. The history of Polish postcolonialism is reconstructed against the background of social and political events, both in Poland and globally. All of these aspects are combined within a conceptual framework laid out in part I and circumscribed by the ideas of consolidation and reconsolidation.


Part I Pamięć (Memory) consists of two chapters. Chapter 1. Czytanie pamięci jako zapominanie (Reading memory as forgetting) presents the general assumptions of the work, its chronological and conceptual scope, and the main inspirations for taking up research. These include Michael Rothberg’s “multidirectional memory” which extends from the First World perspective (of an American researcher, in this case) to Second-World conceptualizations and narratives; Susan Buck-Morss’s “universal history,” which despite always being locally rooted and trying to give voice to the subaltern, searches for ethical and moral frameworks for globally thinking about history and man. These two attitudes are still cognitively fertile and analytically and interpretively open, and give new meanings to postcolonial studies. Finally, they are identical with the intuitions of Polish socialist postcolonialism.

Chapter 2. Re/konsolidacja pamięci – studium historyczno-teoretyczne (Memory re/consolidation – A historical-theoretical study) provides an overview of what memory studies call forgetting and being forgotten as well as blanking out. A kind of asymmetry is pointed out between – on the one hand – the social sciences and humanities, which concentrate on memory, and – on the other hand – the medical sciences, psychology, and neuroscience, which focus on forgetting as a research subject. The author discusses attempts in the humanities and social sciences to conceptualize oblivion and forgetting, with particular emphasis on Paul Connerton’s argument from Seven Types of Forgetting (2008). However, contrary to these conceptualizations, a different understanding of forgetting, drawn from psychology and neuroscience, is suggested, using the categories of memory consolidation and reconsolidation, which demonstrates the processual character of remembering and forgetting. The starting point is the individual, biological and psychological level, characteristic of the medical sciences. This model is then transferred – using metaphors and mechanisms of remembering/forgetting – to the collective level, proper to culturally-oriented humanities and social sciences. The suggestions of Thomas J. Anastasio, Kristen Ann Ehrenberger, Patrick Watson and Wenyi Zhang enounced in Individual and Collective Memory Consolidation: Analogous Processes on Different Levels (2012) are examined and modified. It is clear that on the cultural and social level, the content of memory stabilizes only incidentally, while it is always labile in the long-term perspective. Changes concern not only output data, facts and events, but also their interpretations in the form of changing patterns of memory, narrative forms, stories, artifacts, and places of memory. The substance of memory is subjected to constant re/consolidation, reconfiguration, and is influenced by conditions such as trauma, revolution, war, generational change, new paradigms, etc. These are defined and illustrated in the chapter summary (Diagram 1, p. 69).

Part II Historia (History) starts with the chapter Wojna i pokój – historia postkolonializmu socjalistycznego (War and peace – the history of socialist postcolonialism). The most important question here concerns similarities between the condition of postwar Poland, deeply and dramatically tried during World War II (as suggestively described by M. Zeremba or A. Leder), and the condition of decolonizing states and nations all over the world, including those that can already be regarded as postcolonial. Analogies between the postwar condition of states belonging to the Second World (Eastern Bloc) in the second half of the 1940s to the postcolonial states of the Third World are recognized.

The Recovered Territories Exhibition and the World Congress of Intellectuals in Defense of Peace in 1948 played a key role in the development of the idea of uniting the Eastern Bloc and non-European territories. It was at the Congress – both in the documents prepared beforehand, the reports and party bulletins, and during the debates – that the anti-imperialist idea of relations between socialist and postcolonial nations was enounced. It was exploited by socialist propaganda, Soviet and Polish, and remained a kind of supranational ideal for leftist centers all over the world: in the West, in the Eastern Bloc, and outside of Europe. The slogan “fight for peace” used in this struggle is interesting. This oxymoron is a perfect illustration of the ambivalence characteristic of Second-World postcolonialism. Taking socialist involvement in this version of postcolonialism into account, we must not ignore the works of the Marxist-Leninist and Stalinist classics and – due to the non-explicit tone of the party documents analyzed – archival materials. What is surprising from today’s perspective is the high awareness of the global nature of social-political and economic processes and of the categories of critical philosophy and postcolonial thought among Polish intellectuals in those times. The chapter ends with a synthetic analysis of the poetry involved in building the new socialist reality of the 1940s and 1950s (authors like T. Borowski, R. Bratny, A. Mandalian, W. Szymborska and others), whose propaganda dimension is more significant than its critical element. This poetry, however, is a good reflection of the post/colonial worldview of contemporary poets. The crucial questions are included in Schemat najważniejszych tematów w polskiej poezji zaangażowanej na przełomie lat 40. i 50. (w zakresie „walki o pokój” i relacji do światów pozaeuropejskich) (Outline of the most important subjects in Polish engagé poetry of the 1940s and 50s within the framework of the “fight for peace” and the relationship to non-European worlds) (Outline 2, p. 124).

Chapter 2. Postkolonializm – perspektywa socjalistyczna (Postcolonialism – a socialist perspective) reconstructs the main claims of Polish texts and translated works (mostly prefaces and commentaries), which make up the body of Polish socialist postcolonial literature. The analysis of the relevant scientific and literary discourses is based on a number of mutually complementary assumptions. The perspective is that of knowledge archaeology, discovering the postcolonial paradigm present in Poland between 1948 and 1989 and blotted out of collective memory. This is done by – on the one hand – searching for conceptions that directly appeal to the categories of “postcolonialism” and “postcoloniality” – and on the other hand by using other definitions which directly refer to the classical understanding of postcolonialism and postcoloniality in world scholarship. The problem is with using concepts like “neocolonialism,” “decolonisation,” “the time after colonialism” and others in Polish, whose semantic scope doesn’t fully correspond with the paradigmatic understanding of postcolonialism and postcoloniality. Peripheral texts like the prefaces and afterwords of Polish editions of postcolonial classics – like Aimé Césaire or Frantz Fanon – are examined in addition to the remarks on covers of Polish translations of postcolonial fiction, where these kinds of references appear. This analysis is completed by a look at encyclopedia and dictionary entries, where the terms postcolonialism and postcoloniality appeared as early as 1967. The chapter draws on the findings of the digital humanities, particularly when it comes to the frequency of citing postcolonial authors or present reception of postcolonial texts in Poland. We can clearly see a dissonance between socialist postcolonialism and Polish postcolonial studies today because the latter are mostly based on imported – for the most part Western – scholarship (“suitcase scholarship,” as Krzysztof Abriszewski calls it), but very rarely do they consider Poland’s own roots. The chapter discusses classical postcolonial works, such as Edward W. Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Homi Bhabha, Leela Gandhi, Robert J.C. Young, David Spurr, Mary Louise Pratt, Ania Loomba. Reviewing the main ideas in this trend, we are able to say that Polish socialist postcolonialism did not differ from the works seen today as classics because it used similar arguments, an identical rhetoric, and analogous political and philosophical references. However, it was also marked by different Second-World features whose introduction into global knowledge circulation today would enrich postcolonial discourse, making possible a dialogue between the Second and Third Worlds, excluding metropolises. In this sense, the counterhegemonic potential of postcolonialism is still to be realized. The present book represents the developing research tendency exemplified by the Socialism Goes Global project ( ).

Chapter 3, Ratunek, czyli w stronę lokalnej szkoły historii światowej. Interludium teoretyczne (Rescue or towards a local school of world history: A theoretical interlude) is an attempt to reconstruct the innovative theory developed by Polish historian Marian Małowist, who is regarded as a precursor of world-system theory (which I discuss in other publications). The book shows how the ideas and historical interpretations of Małowist can be read in the context of Polish socialist postcolonialism. They turn out to be analogous in many respects, both in their understanding of non-European worlds and in their attempt to bring these into league with the European (semi)peripheries. Małowist emphasized several important postcolonial issues, such as the lack of sources for pre-colonial history, the lack of analytical categories for expressing pre-colonial local histories, the hegemonic knowledge structures of the colonizers, the structural relationship between Central and Eastern Europe and non-European territories, the mechanisms of colonial oppression and domination, etc. Małowist advocated for a reversal of the knowledge order and the adoption of the local bottom-up perspective on history. His research was  interdisciplinary (he drew on the biological sciences, demography, etc.) and attempted to fill knowledge gaps where traditional historical sources were not sufficient for complete historical reconstruction. In this sense, his ideas from the 1960s and 1970s are a significant component of postcolonial thought in the Second World and  can still provide an attractive background for today’s humanities.

Part III, Literatura, sztuka, nauka (Literature, art, and science), consists of four chapters. Chapter 1, Między niewyrażalnością doświadczenia a literaturyzacją wojny (Between the inexpressibility of experience and the literaturisation of war) begins with reflections on the im/possibility of comparing different experiences of war, genocide, death camps, World War II and the Holocaust. On the one hand such comparisons are an unjustifiable malpractice, and on the other hand they still function in different postwar discourses. Another problem has to do with a kind of paradox. While the experience of the Holocaust and of the concentration camps seems inexpressible and incommunicable (see Adorno, Arendt, Agamben), there is an overproduction of narratives on the subject – a process which has been defined as the literaturisation of war. At the crossroads of these questions there are there are also narratives about non-European conflicts (China, Korea and Vietnam – also discussed in other chapters) which postcolonial socialist Polish narratives compare with World War II and (rarely) with the Holocaust (which is central to Rothberg’s reflections). The chapter analyzes and interprets the following reportage texts with clear postcolonial potential, but not free of propaganda and political involvement. These are Lucjan Pracki’s Korespondent wojenny z Korei donosi… (1953), Wojciech Żukrowski’s Dom bez ścian   (1954) and his photo album Niepokonani… Wietnam Północny w fotografiach Zbigniewa Staszyszyna (1971), concerning, respectively, the wars in Korea, Indochina (with France) and Vietnam (with the USA). These books are compared with, among others, Aimé Césaire’s classical text Discourse on colonialism (broadly perceived as the foundational text of the postcolonial tradition), which appeared in Polish a few months after the original publication (1950), and the writings of Fanon. A linguistic analysis and overview of the literary terms, philosophical and political arguments, and rhetoric used evidences many common elements and builds a kind of understanding between Poland, Korea and Vietnam. The key factor is of course protest against the experience of the German occupation of Poland and the Western (imperialistic, neo/colonial) occupation of non-European territories. It is clearly seen how anti- and de-colonial discourses mix with postcolonial thought, shaping mature analytical categories, interpretations and rhetoric.

Chapter 2, Ilustracje wojenne i egzotyczne (War and exotic illustrations) presents a visual analysis of Pracki’s, Żukrowski’s and Staszyszyn’s three books. In Pracki, we have propaganda use of photographs from the Korean war, in Żukrowski – the illustrations of eminent artist Aleksander Kobzdej, and in Staszyszyn – aesthetically sophisticated black-and-white photos. It should be noted that whereas in the previous chapter we could distinctly see the critical dimension of socialist postcolonial writing (even when infected with unmistakable propaganda language), it is difficult to distinguish any unequivocal claims in the case of visual material. The text in these books often warned against “orientalizing” narratives, while the illustrations are unable to avoid this. Visual elements such as military men, partisans, but also women, children or even nature are analyzed and interpreted. The chapter concludes with two problems. First, the potential iconicity of Staszyszyn’s photographs from Vietnam, which  could not achieve popularity on a par with e.g. the photos of Nick Ut from the same war because of the semi-peripheral status of their author and publication. This has led to a situation when the Polish image of the Vietnam war is shaped by hegemonic narratives and American illustrations. Second – the chapter symbolically ends with Chris Niedenthal’s photograph from the beginning of martial law in Poland, presenting an armoured transporter in a Warsaw street in front of Moscow Cinema on which a banner advertises Apocalypse Now - an iconic representation of communist repressions against the Solidarity Movement protests of the early 1980s. Despite their ambivalence (between postcolonial criticism on the one hand and orientalizing stereotypes on the other), illustrations, likewise Polish war narratives about Korea or Vietnam, try to erect bridges between Poland and non-European worlds based on a shared experience of war, oppression, domination, violence, trauma, etc., but also of liberation, rebuilding, modernization, education, etc.

Fictional literature is also characterized by attempts at mutual understanding and ambivalence, particular to World War II postcolonialism, and is analyzed in detail in chapter 3 Literaturyzacja wojny i rewolucji – proza fikcjonalna (Literaturization of war and revolution: fictional prose). Three Polish novels qualified as postcolonial are analyzed and interpreted. The first, Mirosław Żuławski’s Rzeka Czerwona (The Red River) (1953), is probably the first novel concerning the war in Indochina, constructing a multidirectional memory stretched between the First and Third Worlds, but also including the unique perspective of the Second World. The novel is not free from simplifications typical of involved literature, but it is far from being one-dimensional like the nonfictional works discussed above. The second novel is Igor Newerly’s Leśne Morze (The Wood Sea). The book is different from the others not only because it is geographically set in the North, in Manchuria, but also on account of its historical context – World War II. Like in the other novels, its multidirectional knot was tied by the author in an intriguing way, indicating connections between the First, Second and Third worlds, and even more distinctly – demonstrating the relativity of these kinds of definitions, the contingency of our identities, the ambiguity of political interests, and the changeability of individual and community fates. The third novel, Wojciech Żukrowski’s Kamienne tablice (Stone Tablets) from 1966 is a perfect illustration of this understanding of postcolonial literature. Describing the complicated story of Hungarian diplomats in India in the crucial year of 1956, it not only takes a multidirectional perspective, but also – as in Żuławski and Newerly – adopts the nonobvious and critical thinking still present in postcolonial studies. All of these books emphasize gender, natural and political aspects, they make an attempt to break out of the orientalizing model and to create postcolonial literature in socialist Poland. Although not free from various ideological and orientalizing defects, the books can serve as examples of successful postcolonial novels. I argue for the exceptionality of looking at the Third World from the Second World perspective, without any need for First-World intermediation, although with the full awareness of its neo/colonial aspirations (a completely different issue – to some extent complementary with regard to the present book – would be a history of Soviet neo/colonialism, as currently practiced in Polish and Central European postcolonial studies referring to the Eastern Bloc, but also to non-European territories; however, it would be an entirely separate project).

Chapter 4. Postkolonialna historia autoreferencyjna (Postcolonial self-referential history) turns the reader’s attention to the 1980s, i.e., the time when communism collapsed in Poland, the time preceding political transformation and the emergence of mature postcolonialism imported from the West. It was also a time when Poland’s postcolonial legacy was gradually forgotten. Martial law and subsequent repressions significantly contributed to the removal of that tradition of memory. We can look at Polish thought of the 1980s from a double perspective. Firstly – the potential interpretation of the Poles’ own condition of having been colonized by external conquerors (the Soviets) and by comprador-style political elites subservient to them. This kind of reading appears in various academic analyses, e.g., those of Jadwiga Staniszkis (Poland’s Self-Limiting Revolution, 1984), and in oral creations, occasionally responding to the crisis of the 1980s. Referring to the last case, the reception of Alex Haley’s novel Roots and of a television series based on it is analyzed (the story of Kunta Kinte, who was kidnapped in Africa and sent to America as a slave, which was very popular in Poland in the 1980s). It sheds light on the possibility of resistance, characteristic of postcolonial thought, but also – as I demonstrate – on the fact that due to the earlier involvement of Second-World postcolonialism in the socialist propaganda apparatus, the said opposition potential was not realized. This fact had a significant impact on the history of postcolonialism in Poland, which as late as a decade after the collapse of communism had started to develop its own position within the Academy and political discourse, in an original, local form, without Marxist and socialist connotations. The chapter ends with a theoretical coda – a reconstruction of Jerzy Wiatr’s postcolonial theory. Wiatr, a Polish sociologist, deeply involved in the communist system, developed his own postcolonial theory from the 1960s onwards, drawing directly on authors from the postcolonial circle, world-system theory and related terminology. He combined global postcolonial thought with a revolutionary and socialist background, but also – and this is an original aspect of his conception – with national and emancipatory elements. On the one hand, this was a derivative of the Polish or Central European attitude towards the problem of decolonisation, and on the other hand, an attempt to situate global processes in a compact conceptual frame. However, this political potential was not used, and due to Wiatr’s political involvement, his writings were forgotten and his ideas are not at present a background for Polish postcolonialism.

The book is completed by a summary, Model i historia (Model and history). I return once more to the question of reconsolidating the memory of postcolonialism, outlining the advantages of reconceptualizing memory studies (i.e., the transition from forgetting, by removing remembrance, to memory reconsolidation), where forgetting is treated from the viewpoint of a continuum of recollection, constant memory work, labile composition, in which some elements, although seemingly constant (such as books, illustrations, monuments, museums, etc.), are constantly subjected to historical and accidental changes. The summary also includes a brief statement on the history of Polish socialist postcolonialism from the perspective of memory work – the process of continuous re/consolidation. I indicate key geo/political events which influenced the evolution of postcolonial traditions in Poland, with different accents in the decades that followed and the ultimate reasons why the trend faded after 1989.