Making of a Nation or a New Social Sensitivity? Edward Abramowski and the Frankfurt School

Text: Tadeusz Koczanowicz

Today, anti-state slogans, especially in the United States, are strongly associated with right-wing politics. After the 20th century, and especially the last thirty years, the idea of “non-state socialism” or “stateless socialism” might sound like a contradiction. That’s what I initially found interesting in the writings of Edward Abramowski, a Polish socialist, psychologist and intellectual from the late 19th century. His central idea goes beyond what we see today as obvious or natural in political thought—especially since it is not anarchist or regarded by historians of anarchist thought as such, but was identified by its author as socialist or Marxist. Abramowski was not one of the utopian socialists of the early 19th century who wanted to plan the entire social world. To the contrary, he was interested in practical questions concerning the change from capitalism to socialism and the forms such a change can take—in particular, on the level of individual psychology. In Abramowski’s thought, change happens gradually as a result of new attitudes.

In this regard, his thinking overlaps with some ideas of two members of the Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm, who both stayed in the US after World War II and entered into a dialogue with the counterculture movement and a society that was no longer functioning according to Marx’s industrial model.

The theoretical resemblance between these projects that bring psychology and Marxism together can only be understood after reconstructing the historical context of Abramowski’s thought. On the surface, the situation of European peripheries where the idea of the nation competed with socialism as the answer to industrialization has nothing to do with criticism of consumerist society in the most developed parts of the world. Yet on a deeper, theoretical level their intuitions strongly overlapped, leading to similar ideas. Abramowski, like Marcuse and Fromm, moved beyond analyzing class struggle as the basis of social change to look at feelings as the source of community—a thought to which I will return at the end of this essay.


The problem of the nation in Marx’s and Engels writings in relation to Poland

To understand where Abramowski’s ideas come from one has to look at his times. Polish socialism in the last decades of the 19th century was conflicted due to the lack of a clear definition of “nation” in Marx and Engels’s writings. To put it briefly, Marx and Engels thought that there were three “historic” nations in 19th century Europe that lacked states: Poland, Hungary and Ireland. Other, non-historic nations without states – according to the authors of the Communist Manifesto – were doomed to either disappear or remain as ruins and a source of manpower for the armies of Europe’s empires.

The characteristic that distinguished between “historic” and “non-historic” nations was whether the elites of a given nation spoke the language and shared the culture of the lower classes and could become the force that would introduce capitalism and progressive ideas. The concept of “historical and non-historical nations” was not very consistent and was more of a quasi-scientific justification of some sympathies that both thinkers developed in their popular writings during the “spring of peoples” or nations. Proof of this is the two thinkers’ changing attitudes towards the Czechs, for example, depending on the news from Prague during the times of the revolution[1].

Their attitude towards Poland was grounded in their calculations for the best chance of overthrowing the Prussian Kaiser’s rule over Germany. The Prussian Kaiser was tied by the Holy Alliance to the Russian Tsar and the ruler of Austria-Hungary. The document signed in Paris is 1815 by the three reactionary monarchs aimed to defend the divine rights of the Kings and defend Christian values in the public life of Europe. In practice it meant combatting revolutionary tendencies in Europe. The three monarchs also partitioned the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth twenty years before and shared a goal of keeping the Polish-speaking population under control. An example of how the alliance functioned was the Russian military intervention against the Hungarian revolt in 1848[2]. The Hungarian uprising was joined by a large number of Poles led by Józef Bem, who became the leader of the entire uprising.

This example shows how the holy alliance made it natural for the supporters of Polish independence to look for support for their cause among revolutionary movements in Europe. Marx himself learned about Polish issues from a political emigree Joachim Lelewel, one of the leaders of the 1830 uprising against Russian rule who is believed to have coined the slogan “for our and your freedom,” addressed to the Russian Decembrists. During the 1848 revolt the greatest Polish Romantic Poet Adam Mickiewicz, a former student of Lelewel’s, edited the Tribune of the Peoples – a radical international newspaper that united writers from across Europe who supported revolutionary ideas[3].

For Marx and Engels Polish calculations for independence were not irrelevant, but secondary.  The two thinkers believed that pushing Russia away from Prussia was necessary for a democratic Germany, because it would cause the Prussian authoritarian regime to lose its foreign military support and influence among other German states. They thought that reinstituting Poland would create a buffer zone between Western Europe, which was ready for revolution, and the Tsarist regime. Engels kept this point of view to his death in 1895 and it was inherited by most of the German and Russian mainstream Marxist movement. (It’s important to stress Marxist, as thinkers who were in conflict with Marx, like Proudhon or Bakunin, were strong enemies of Polish independence).

Paradoxically, in Polish political life, the issue was not so clear. Ludwik Waryński, who was the leader of the first revolutionary party Proletariat, established in 1878, had a strong internationalist agenda and opposed Polish independence as a distraction from the socialist fight. This standpoint influenced Narodnaya Vola and Russian anarchists. (It was probably also an attempt to distance the new movement from the radical wing of the 1863-64 uprising that ended with a tragic failure). In 1881, soon after the party’s founding, Ignacy Hryniewiecki, a member of Narodaya Vola who grew up in a lower Polish gentry family in Belarus, killed Tsar Alexander II. This event inspired Waryński to conduct extensive revolutionary work around Warsaw. Waryński was soon caught and placed in a high-security prison outside of Petersburg.

At this time the Kingdom of Poland (which was almost fully incorporated into the Russian empire by the eighties) was experiencing very rapid (if uneven) industrial development and the socialists were becoming influential[4]. The anarchism and terrorism of Narodnaya Vola became less appealing when the first massive strikes took place in Łódź in 1892. A lot of Waryński’s former associates changed their ideas and together with Stanisław Mendelson (who represented the party abroad) founded a patriotic socialist party in 1892. As a reaction to this rivalry a party of Polish socialists was founded by Rosa Luxemburg a year later and joined by a group from Lithuania led by Feliks Dzierżyński. Dzierżyński and Luxemburg’s camp stood by Waryński’s internationalist attitude, believing that the economy of the Kingdom of Poland was too strongly connected to the Russian market. They also claimed that both Galicia and the Poznan region were an organic part of the two other Empires. Luxemburg thought that separating the Kingdom of Poland, where much of Russia’s industry was centered, from its markets in the empire would lead to declining economic development and therefore negatively impact the chances of revolution and interests of the workers. She also claimed that neither workers nor the bourgeois had an economic interest in political separation from the empire and that the cause of independence was supported only by representatives of the lower gentry who were losing their social status with the development of capitalism[5].

The patriotic socialists had Engels on their side, as well as the majority of leftist activists in the Kingdom of Poland and Galicia. Generally the international recognized them as Poland’s representatives. During a congress of the international in Zurich in 1893, the Polish patriotic socialists accused Rosa Luxemburg of not representing any socialist circle in Poland. Her mandate was taken away and she had to leave the congress[6].

At the same time, one of the founders of the patriotic socialist party and its most talented theoretician experienced a tragic personal event and had a nervous breakdown. He had to leave active political life due to police hunts in Warsaw for socialists, as well as a drug addiction that he developed to cope with his grief after the death of his wife. This was Edward Abramowski, who at that time fled to Switzerland. After undergoing therapy for his nervous problems, he started studying psychology himself. On the basis of his psychological research Abramowski proposed the concept of “non-state socialism,” which indirectly addressed the question of the nation.

Abramowski was still a supporter of independence but also an enemy of the state. He adopted as his motto the fight for the freedom of Poland and the freedom of a human in Poland. In other words, for him Polish independence made sense only if Poland wouldn’t become a nation-state, but rather a name for a different form of human relations and a new community—not just a replacement of the double headed eagle of Romanovs for a white eagle (as one historian summarized his idea)[7].

In the mid-1890s, Abramowski was far from any direct political activity and his old friends in the patriotic socialist party. At the same time, unlike Luxemburg and Dzierżyński, Abramowski didn’t believe in the scientific understanding of Marxism that was popular in the Second International. He didn’t think that only economic conditions institute socialism, but also refused a “Leninist” vision of conscious Party members introducing socialism “from above”. He wrote a text in 1897 entitled Ethics and Revolution in which he warned that if a group of revolutionaries would take over a state without changing the psychology of the people, it would have to use the police and the state to defend socialism. Furthermore, if it would leave the needs of the people untouched while destroying the ways in which they have been fulfilled in the capitalist society, it would need a great bureaucracy. This bureaucracy would become a new class in constant conflict with people who don’t belong to it. Such antagonism would become the core of the new society[8]. He concluded this thought by saying that “If communism in this artificial form, without the moral change of the people, could even survive, it would contradict itself and would be a social monster that none of the oppressed social classes have dreamed of, especially the proletariat which defends the right of a human and was selected by history to liberate the human”[9]. Unfortunately, his prophecy came true, and Eastern Europe saw this monster and experienced the contradiction that eventually brought down the communist state in its Leninist form.

New sensitivity

But what did Abramowski mean exactly by the psychology of the people? Moral change? In the same text, Ethics and Revolution, Abramowski elaborates on his ideas. He writes that we shouldn’t look at social and political systems as questions of law and economy, as these systems don’t exist only as legal and technical solutions but also function in an actual social world where every action is rooted in the needs and ideas that people believe in. Every institution is connected to or grounded in historical ideas of morality. Therefore, communism will need a different “brain,” by which Abramowski means a new conscience[10].

New ethics as part of revolution is a thought present in mainstream Marxism.  Yet he disagreed with Marxists on the role played by the social system in forming morality. While socialists claimed that conscience is formed by the social system, Abramowski asked what would be the backbone of communism if people’s needs and ideas stayed the same and all individuals saw their own interests and personal aspirations in accumulating property, rivalry, and exploitation. Solving the problem of poverty and utilitarian social issues, he argued, will not be enough to build a communist society[11]. The historical proof of this claim for Abramowski is that fighting poverty and establishing common prosperity have been always been inner drives of humans in all forms of societies in which ethical concepts have been very different. Even today we wouldn’t find any political organization that would claim poverty is good.

Abramowski says that the difference between a member of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is that the member of the proletariat sees the realization of these ideas in and by the community, while the member of the bourgeoisie sees only property and competition. Therefore communism is not only a “question of bureaucracy,” by which Abramowski means the system’s legal and economic dimension, but an issue of great moral change. We first have to learn how to solve problems and realize ideas as a community and only then develop legal structures.

But the question that still remains open is how such a system or new morality can develop in the conditions of a capitalist society. Abramowski placed his hopes in the cooperative movement, in which an individual joins a cooperative of their own economic interest and through cooperation can develop a new attitude towards life oriented according to the ethics of solidarity[12]. He thought that strikes, and especially solidarity strikes, are also a source for the new ethics. He was interested in the moments when capitalist ethics become dysfunctional, because for him the soul of solidarity was friendship. Another gap in the system in which friendship and solidarity can form the minds of people was art. Abramowski, unlike Tolstoy (with whom he entered in discussion), didn’t think that art should teach any precise ideas. Instead, he thought that art allows the transformation of the individual. This can be achieved by the nature of art, which allows us to enter states in which our intuition works freely. In such states we can access humanity’s forgotten ideas (such as friendship and solidarity) through the collective unconscious[13].

Throughout his life Abramowski wrote various manifestos for associations of friendship. Abramowski believed that all social institutions of the capitalist state can be replaced by associations formed around the ethics of friendship. This distinguishes him from the anarchist ideas of the time. Anarchists (like Kropotkin) envisioned more local communes or self-sufficient economics, but not self-organizing associations, which sounds more like a liberal idea of civil society. Yet, unlike the liberals, Abramowski was not interested in the rule of law or market economy and saw both as tools of class exploitation. Instead, when he referred to the feelings of friendship as the bond of society, he thought this concrete feeling for the other could shape a “new man”.

In his notes, he wrote that the main features of the “new man” are altruism, brotherhood, and individuality, deep and independent. New people will develop the life of associations and fight exploitation and violence while standing for freedom and free culture. All of this provides the basis for democracy. New people should enter the sources of solidarity, the gaps in the system. They should bring new ethics and shape the ethical face of the movement[14].

Consequently his idea of regaining Polish independence, which he presented during the 1905 revolution in the Kingdom of Poland in a brochure entitled “Common plot against the government”, called for boycotting tsarist institutions and replacing them with unofficial associations connected by a moral rule of never addressing the Russian courts or police with any issues and avoiding the taxes, military service and so on[15].

After Abramowski’s death in 1918 his ideas were mostly forgotten. He influenced a few important people who were his students, like the socialist president of Poland who was forced by Piłsudski to step down after the coupe in 1926, as well as the influential writer Maria Dąbrowska, who is mainly known for her diaries, which she started to write after Abramowski’s suggestion to note dreams. During the so-called communist times he was disliked by the Marxists for his criticism of bureaucracy and by the opposition for his criticism of organized religion and state democracy. Today anarchists and the new left are showing some interest in his thought[16].

Relation with Marcuse and Fromm

I think that there is a strong bond between the ideas that inspired the new left in the west and Edward Abramowski. His relation to Erich Fromm was analyzed by Anna Dziedzic, who wrote a book about Abramowski’s Philosophical Anthropology. She presents Fromm as the main figure of modern humanist Marxism, or Marxist thought that ignores the materialist understanding of the doctrine and concentrates on the question of alienation and the separation of the human from the “whole human being” in the early Max. Fromm’s writings focus on overcoming alienation, which will lead to the solidarity of mankind, achieved through a set of individual choices. Dziedzic refers to the ideas that allowed Fromm to place Marx alongside other teachers of humanity, like Buddha and Jesus.[17]

If Fromm’s ideas were centered around a very optimistic vision of human nature, another psychoanalytic Marxist who is also worth mentioning is Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse’s criticism of the radical commodification of the nature of modern humans and the bureaucratization of the socialist movement made the working class a part of the capitalist system. He saw hope for change among radical activists and groups of society that were excluded and lacked the chance for inclusion. According to him a change would be possible in a non-repressive civilization that is impossible under modern capitalism, with its commodification of all relations. The form of this capitalism prevents us from building a non-repressive civilisation “based on a fundamentally different experience of being, a fundamentally different relation between man and nature, and fundamentally different existential relations”[18].

One could argue that these similarities to Abramowski’s thought come from Rousseau or more humanistic readings of Marx. But I think that there is an interesting parallel between the questions that Marxism brought to the peripheries of Western capitalism and the times of transformation from an industrial society to a postindustrial society. In other words, the question of how to be a Marxist without the working class was similar in 19th-century Warsaw and 1960s California. Marcuse even saw a chance for underdeveloped societies to avoid falling into modern civilization’s overwhelming subjugation of man[19].

Similarities among the three thinkers could be attributed to the early writings of Marx, but these were not known when Abramowski was developing his concepts. Furthermore, Abramowski resisted all of the main ideas that formed the basis of Soviet Marxism (historical necessity, materialism, critique of individualism, and belief in the party’s leading role in the socialist movement). All of these ideas would also be criticized by the new left. For Abramowski, Marcuse and Fromm the main battleground is individual experience and decisions, to the extent that Leszek Kołakowski even wrote in Main Currents of Marxism that Marcuse could not be called a Marxist, but a “prophet of semi-romantic anarchism in its most irrational form”[20]. Yet I think that the conscious concentration on individuals as products of their historical times and economic systems who are nevertheless able to make decisions makes this trend of Marxism much more appealing and relevant today than a brilliant but outdated analysis of capitalism and industrial society focused on the struggle of the working class.

[1] Charles C. Herod, The Nation In The History of Marxian Thought (Hague: Martinus Nijhof, 1976), 1 – 33.
[2] Feliks Tych, “The Historical Controversy on the Polish Question in the Revolutionary Movment from Marx to Lenin” in Ideology and System Change in the USSR and East Europe ed. Michael E.Urban (New York: St. Martins Press, 1992), 143 – 145
[3]  Stefan Kieniewicz, „Historia „Trybuny Ludów” Adama Mickiewicza” Przegląd Historyczny 50 no. 3 (1959).
[4] Lucjan Blit, The Origins of Polish Socialism, (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1971)
[5] Maciej Rózga (Rosa Luxemburg under a nickname), Niepodległa Polska a Sprawa Robotnicza, (Unknown place: Wydawnie Sprawy Robotniczej, 1895).
[6] J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg. The biography (London – New York: Verso, 2019), 41 -112.
[7] Adam Michnik, Rozmowa w Cytadeli, (Kraków: Biblioteka Wolnej Myśli, 1983), 29.
[8] Edward Abramowski „Etyka i Rewolucja” in: Edward Abramowski, Pisma, volume I (Warszawa: Związek Polskich Stowarzyszeń Spożywców),272.
[9] Ibid., 272.
[10] Ibid., 287.
[11] Ibid., 292.
[12] Oskar Lange, Socjologia i Idee Społeczne Edwarda Abramowskiego, (Kraków: Krakowska Spółka Wydawnicza 1928).
[13] Edward Abramowski, „Co to jest Sztuka? ( Z powodu rozprawy L. Tołstoja „Czto takoje iskustwo?)” in Edward Abramowski, Pisma v. III (Warszawa: Związek Spółdzielni Spożywców 1927), 1 – 34.
[14] Edward Abramowski, „Związki Przyjaźni” in Edward Abramowski, Pisma v. 1, 388.
[15] Edward Abramowski, „Zmowa Powszechna przeciwko rządowi” in: Edward Abramowski, Pisma v. I, 327.
[16] Giełżyński
[17] Anna Dziedzic, Antropologia Filozoficzna Edwarda Abramowskiego, (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego 2010), 250 – 254.
[18] Herbert Marcuse, Eros and civilization. Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston: Beacon Press 1955, 5.
[19] Ibid.,, XI – XXVIII.
[20] Leszek Kołakowski, Main Currents of Marxism v. III, (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1978), 415.