Communism – Legitimacy – Nationalism

Nationalist Legitimization of the Communist Regime in Poland

by Marcin Zaremba (Author)
©2019 Monographs 408 Pages


This book is devoted to the issue of nationalism in the latest Polish history and presents the subject on the basis of an enormous amount of source files left by the Polish United Workers Party. The work is a substantial input into the knowledge on People’s Poland which shows with precision how the Polish communists used nationalistic arguments to legitimize and validate the system of power introduced by them. The author researches the fascinating source material with the help of a new and innovative concept.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: The Nationalist Legitimation of Political Authority
  • Chapter 2: Communism: From National Nihilism to Nationalist Legitimation
  • Chapter 3: The Communist System in Poland: Its Legitimated and Non-Legitimated Sources of Stability
  • Chapter 4: “We Are by Blood from the Blood and Bone of Pułaski’s Bone”
  • Chapter 5: “Let them attack us as Polish Communists” (1945–1947)
  • Chapter 6: “Dmowski Probably Wasn’t a Marxist” (1948–1955)
  • Chapter 7: “Every Country Should Have Full Independence and Self Determination” (1956)
  • Chapter 8: “But It Is Nonetheless a Progressive Nationalism…” (1957–1970)
  • Chapter 9: “The Party, Poland, Gierek the Party, Poland, Gierek” (1970–1980)
  • Epilogue: The Third Crusade Against Poland
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

Marcin Zaremba

Communism – Legitimacy –

Nationalist Legitimization
of the Communist Regime in Poland

About the author

Marcin Zaremba works at the Institute of History of the University of Warsaw. He is author of numerous articles devoted to the recent history of Poland, and books devoted to the latest Polish history.

About the book

This book is devoted to the issue of nationalism in the latest Polish history and presents the subject on the basis of an enormous amount of source files left by the Polish United Workers Party. The work is a substantial input into the knowledge on People’s Poland which shows with precision how the Polish communists used nationalistic arguments to legitimize and validate the system of power introduced by them. The author researches the fascinating source material with the help of a new and innovative concept.

This eBook can be cited

This edition of the eBook can be cited. To enable this we have marked the start and end of a page. In cases where a word straddles a page break, the marker is placed inside the word at exactly the same position as in the physical book. This means that occasionally a word might be bifurcated by this marker.


Issues surrounding the nation, fatherland, patriotism, nationalism, independence, national interest, and national betrayal are the foundations for the understanding of the last 200 years of Polish history. Neither can one avoid them in reflections upon the history of People’s Poland. Nationalism served as one of the most important formulas for the legitimation of the communist system of power. Because of this, there occurred redefinitions of, among other things, such concepts as patriotism, the nation, and the state.

The goal I have set for myself in this study is a) the description of the nationalist legitimation of communist power in Poland between 1944 and 1980, b) and a description of the role played in the validation of the system by the communist concept of the nation and the nationalist slogans that derived from it. The patriotic red and white nationalist costume so readily donned by the authorities was supposed to convince society about the national character of their governments and break through the barrier of externality between the authorities and society.

My research question is as follows: What historical threads, national myths, symbols, and contents of national culture were selected from the past and adjusted to the purposes of those in power and what elements were negated in an effort to make them disappear from the national tradition? I am especially interested in national symbols, national phraseology, the celebration of national holidays, anniversaries of historical events, the choice and manner of presenting national heroes, and the relationship of those in power to national culture and monuments.

Above all, the approach taken in this study was decided by two factors. The first of them came from the impoverished state of research upon nationalism and the problem of the nation in postwar Poland. Our evidential knowledge is not only incomplete but, despite the research into traditions dating to the interwar period, we still have not worked out the tools that would allow us to understand the phenomenon of nationalism. I do not think a judicious analysis of contemporary Poland is possible without a discussion of issues connected to the nation and nationalism in Poland’s recent past. I also do not think it is possible to understand the functioning of the Polish People’s Republic (PRL) without looking at issues of the “internality” and “externality” of the elites as understood by the social groups of those times. It is also important to remember the words of Amitai Etzioni, “When elites are external (or when some are internal and some external),←7 | 8→ societal guidance is less effective and the societal units are less active than when all the elites are internal.”1

The second factor connected to my approach is the attempt to discover a sociological model that will allow for a description and understanding of the essence, to use a formula of Tadeusz Łepkowski, of “planned” communist nationalism.2 The building of an ideologically-motivated vision of the Polish nation that was supposed to result in legitimation—meaning, the creation of a situation where the patriotism of the rulers would be acknowledged by the ruled as their own—seems especially interesting for a sociologist and historian.

Not everything that came into being in the symbolic discourse between the authorities and society from 1944 to 1980 flowed from pretensions of legitimation. Therefore, I would like to stress that I am solely interested in what national slogans were used with the aim of legitimating the power of the state.

The national question over the whole period of actually-existing socialism cannot be described only in categories of nationalist legitimation of the authorities or their de-legitimation. Here we are dealing with a whole complex of national questions that demand further separate research and analysis. This book is not a work about nationalism during the period of People’s Poland in general, but about a specific use of it. This is the reason why I devote very little space to, for example, politics toward national minorities unless they served as an object of pride for the authorities and constituted an argument for legitimation.

The primary material used in this work is composed of public appearances of party leaders, their declarations of a programmatic and ideological character. Some other especially important source-types were intra-party notes, scripts for celebrations of anniversaries and national holidays as well as transcripts and protocols of meetings of various party bodies and authorities.

These documents frequently talk directly about intentions that directed the preparation of some propaganda campaign. Since I had such materials at my disposal I took less recourse to the press. As the plentitude of press information is practically limitless I treated my forays into them as something like probes. I took them up systematically to the best of my ability. I, therefore, believe that this method did not compromise my conclusions.

The selection of, and intensity of, nationalist legitimating arguments was connected to the actual conditions of the ruling system and with the social-economic←8 | 9→ situation of the country. This is why this work has a chronological structure, which permits one to follow the changes in officially sanctioned nationalism.

The pronounced rise in interest in the problems of legitimation undoubtedly dates back to the start of the 1970’s. In the discussion of the time the point of reference was constituted by, above all, Max Weber’s concept of legitimation—and, especially, around Jürgen Habermas among contemporary thinkers. The main object of those discussions, other than the topic of the legitimation crisis of the Western democracies of the time, was the issue of political systems patterned after the Soviet model. Likewise in Poland, especially during the 1980’s, there appeared many articles and studies taking up this very problem, especially in the perspective of Polish experiences.3 Today we are going through a renaissance of interest in questions of legitimation of the communist system. This is the result of a widely-expressed conviction that without an answer to the question of the legitimation of the communist regime it is impossible to fully evaluate the recently passed period.

The following observation from Jacek Tarkowski still seems relevant even though we know much more about the communist period than we did only a couple of years ago: most of the articles devoted to the legitimation of the communist system have the character of general theoretical considerations not based upon systematic empirical research.4

The present work is an attempt to combine theory with historical empirical knowledge. As a result, it is divided into two parts. The first part consists of three chapters and is devoted to theoretical considerations of the topics of legitimation, nationalism, and the evolution of approaches to national questions from the side of the Marxists, including the Polish Communist Party. The third chapter, which seemingly strays from the rest, treats other, extra-nationalist, sources of legitimation and stabilization of the system of power. The second part, divided into six chapters, is concerned with the nationalistic legitimation of power in People’s Poland. It describes the period from the roots of the PRL until 1980. The selection of this breakoff point comes from my conviction that it was precisely then that the mechanism of the PRL communist system broke down. In the succeeding years, despite appearances, nothing was the same as before. However, since some end-stage phenomena say a lot about the baseline period under consideration, in the epilogue I will suggest taking a look at certain aspects from the period between 1980 and 1989.←9 | 10→

In conclusion, I would like to stress that the object of my interest is exclusively the means of attaining legitimacy, rather than the considerations to what degree if at all, the Polish society legitimized the authorities, the system, or its political elites. All the observations about this last topic have merely the character of more or less grounded hypotheses.←10 | 11→

1 Amitai Etzioni, The Active Society (New York: Free Press, 1968), 114.

2 Tadeusz Łepkowski, Uparte trwanie polskości (Warsaw: Aneks, 1989), 49–50.

3 Legitymacja. Klasyczne teorie i polskie doświadczenia, eds. Andrzej Rychard and Antonij Sułek (Warsaw: PTS UW, 1988).

4 Jacek Tarkowski, Socjologia świata polityki. Władza i społeczeństwo w systemie autorytarnym (Warsaw: ISP PAN, 1994), 43.

Chapter 1

The Nationalist Legitimation of Political Authority

Part I
Legitimation: The Theoretical Context

In the contemporary world, the nationalist legitimation of political authority is one of the main ways of validating authority. Emphasizing the national character of governments, demonstrative celebration of national and state holidays by the political elites, projecting oneself as one of the defenders of national values, creating a sense of threat of foreign goods flooding the country, are only some of the many different phenomena that constitute the substantial element of today’s political culture.5 The cause of this state of things should be sought, on the one hand, through relying upon the sociology of politics in its discussions of the shaping of modern nation-states and of the crisis of the previous sources of legitimating state authority. On the other hand, explanations must be sought from the perspective of sociology, social anthropology, and finally psychology—in the universal and fundamental need of humans to interpret the social world through the categories of internality and externality.

The legitimating function of nationalism, frequently mentioned in studies dedicated to nationalism, up to this day, has not been thoroughly described by scholars. On the theoretical level, the problem of the relation between legitimation and nationalism has not been probed to this day at all. It is significant that in studies chiefly devoted to questions of legitimacy, but also nationalism, the concept of “nationalist legitimation” appears infrequently. This imposes a certain logic upon my deliberations. In order to undertake an attempt at defining “nationalist legitimation,” one must zoom-in upon the understanding of the two units that make up the concept: “legitimation” and “nationalism.” The history of research, for example, on nationalism, is characterized by many controversies and polemics. The number of concepts, and not infrequently contradictory definitions, is dif←11 | 12→ficult to grasp. It is more or less the same thing when it comes to legitimacy. Out of necessity the comments devoted to clearing up the concepts of “legitimation” and “nationalism” must be limited.


The starting point for this study is the observation of a basic fact needed for further deliberations: in general, those who rule strive toward achieving legitimation. The above thesis should sound more categorical if we were to limit it exclusively to communist governments, because these governments, for ideological reasons that we will invoke later, had especially pronounced legitimating pretentions. In history there were political systems—frequently created by way of invasion—where the rulers did not feel the need to gain legitimation. Precisely because they did not have legitimation their governments did not last very long, even though they required immense resources from the army and police in order to ensure, through the use of power, the stability and continuation of the system. Legitimation is not the result of an acceptance based upon fear of force. Violence was and still is, the most popular means for making the seizure and subsequent maintenance of power possible. It constitutes the necessary condition for maintaining social order, therefore also the legitimation of the state, but it is not a self-sufficient condition. Without terror or the constant threat of its use, it would be impossible to establish and then maintain the communist system in the Soviet Union and the remaining countries of the Eastern Bloc. However, it usually became apparent that violence lacking legitimation is not enough. Those who led their governments thanks to violence, after a certain period, strove to both legitimate the violence and their hold on power. The history of People’s Poland gives many examples of the authorities becoming aware of the meaning of legitimation. Those who came to power in 1944 thanks to Soviet tanks became aware of it. Władysław Gomułka noticed this in October 1956 when he said at the meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Polish United Worker’s Party (KC PZPR): “It is possible to rule the nation with bayonets when you have lost its trust, but whoever positions himself toward such an eventuality, positions himself toward losing everything.”6 This principle is also attested to by the actions undertaken on institutional and propaganda levels by Wojciech Jaruzelski’s team, still under Martial Law, with the aim of rebuilding social trust, which was highly strained by the crisis of the 1980’s.←12 | 13→

Legitimation is also not the result of acceptance based upon material interests. It is possible to pay someone in order to gain their obedience. However, this does not mean that they will remain obedient to the same degree when the resources for such a transaction run out. Seymour Martin Lipset introduced the distinction between legitimation and effectiveness into scholarly circulation. He called the following effectiveness: actual achievements, the degree to which a system fulfills basic functions of governing in the opinion of the greater part of the populace.7 This distinction is important from an analytical and heuristic standpoint, however, in reality, both concepts are clearly mutually intertwined.8 One of the fundamental demands made by citizens of contemporary states is the satisfaction of their material needs. The Economic crisis is almost totally identified these days with a crisis of state authority. It is much easier to overcome such a crisis by maintaining social order when those who stand at the head of the state have social legitimation. During the 1970’s Edward Gierek’s team in Poland was convinced of this, when it treated its apparent economic effectiveness as practically the sole argument that bore witness to their right to rule and of the legitimacy of the system. Therefore, the natural consequence of a deep economic crisis was an almost immediate outburst of social discontent, which the authorities, deprived of wider legitimating foundations, were unable to manage.

However much one can say that most of the researchers of this issue (though not all) agree upon the great degree of relevance attached to legitimation in the relationship between the rulers and the ruled,9 it is equally difficult to square such an agreement with any one definition.10 While keeping in mind the need for←13 | 14→ further deliberation, let us, for now, accept that we are dealing with the legitimation of political authority when it is positively appraised in moral categories as being just, appropriate, and deserving of recognition.11 In other words, when the authorities are recognized as internal thanks to the system of values represented by them. On the other hand, legitimation is the process of gaining or granting legitimation.12 De-legitimation is the name given to the reverse process, that is, the erosion of legitimation. However, a deficit of legitimation is not identical with the lack of legitimation.

Here it makes sense to return to the question posed at the start: Why do rulers strive to achieve legitimation? What advantages do those in power gain from being legitimated? Above all, the achievement of a state of legitimation can be significant for the rulers because of their internal situation. It assures the maintenance of internal cohesion to the ruling elite itself, giving it a sense of the meaningfulness of the actions undertaken by it. Legitimation is also significant to the rulers in their relations with society. When those in power are legitimated the laws imposed by them are followed without any major resistance. In critical moments such rulers, thanks to the social support, will have a much greater ability to resolve crisis situations, without the necessity of applying compulsion. Legitimation is a necessary element for mobilizing society. Among other factors, this is the reason why the achievement of legitimation was so important for the rulers of mono-centric systems patterned upon the Soviet model, which have been alternatively described as being based upon a mobilizing ethos.13 Finally, legitimation is signifi←14 | 15→cant for society itself for its internal cohesion.14 In summary, it would be difficult to disagree with Jacek Tarkowski who wrote that, for the majority of political systems, legitimation became one of the fundamental problems they must solve, and sometimes a matter of life and death.15


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (March)
Communism Political authority Propaganda Social processes Socialism People’s Poland
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien. 2019. 408 pp.

Biographical notes

Marcin Zaremba (Author)

Marcin Zaremba works at the Institute of History of the University of Warsaw. He is author of numerous articles devoted to the recent history of Poland, and books devoted to the latest Polish history.


Title: Communism – Legitimacy – Nationalism
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