A debate by Krytyka Polityczna at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Photo: Wojtek Kostrzewa


Igor Stokfiszewski from Krytyka Polityczna, Photo: Jacek Taszakowski


Artur Żmijewski andJoanna Warsza during a debate, Photo: Jacek Taszakowski

Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique) in Berlin


As part of the 7th Berlin Biennale, Political Critique launches its newest Club. The Berlin branch (following Kiev and London) is another international initiative of the organization, founded in Warsaw. What can we offer to our German neighbors? Especially in a city bustling with social activists and a range of socially oriented groups? What makes Political Critique any different from them? And why should its Berlin operations take place from within the field of art?


Engaged Intelligentsia

Who are we? First and foremost, we see ourselves as heirs to the tradition of engaged intelligentsia that was forged in nineteenth-century Russia. What is an engaged intelligentsia? It is a social stratum consisting of an educated middle class, which perceives its knowledge, its symbolic capital and its ability to comprehend the world as a debt and obligation towards lower social strata. It is an obligation that leads it to make sacrifices towards improving the existence of all mankind. Regardless of the field in which it operates—be it activism, education, journalism, art, or science—it understands its practice as a service to the common good. This ethos has been at play throughout the twentieth  century, first among the pre-war left-wing groups, then, after the war, in the anti-communist dissident movement in Central-Eastern Europe.


A Strong Organization

It was the strong and engaged intelligentsia that initiated the anti-communist dissident movement under the Communist regimes in Central-Eastern Europe. Social activists, scientists, and artists mounted a challenge to communist authorities and worked towards a change of political system. How could this be achieved successfully? This question helped them develop a strong organizational model based on a wide social movement, initially in the form of the Workers’ Defence Committee (Komitet Obrony Robotników), and subsequently the Solidarity Trade Union.


Political Critique is an initiative whose practice is strongly inspired by these experiences. The lessons taught by the history of the dissident movement, the accounts of its participants, and cooperation with some of them, is that an effective transformation of the social and political realm should be based on a strong organization founded on a wide social movement. Poland is a country where a group of engaged intelligentsia chose to act towards bringing down the communist regime, and which was successfully brought to an end in the course of the two following decades. Change is possible.


What conditions should be fulfilled for an organization to initiate, or creatively stimulate, such change?


  • It should think in universal categories, comprehend reality in all its complexity, perceive the local character of global problems, and be able to translate local problems into global solutions.
  • It should be able to provide answers to questions related to both minor local problems as well as international politics and economy.
  • It should form links between various societies and fields of human activity, and encourage the social engagement of academics, artists, as well as journalists, by demonstrating that social engagement is a broad framework which should accommodate various other activities.
  • It should also form links between different societies within one field, i.e. it should connect professional politicians with anarchist activists, engaged columnists, and intellectuals with educators, etc.
  • It should have a wide impact, acting in all fields of social activity: in social practice (through direct action and cooperation with social movements); in journalism (through cooperation with mass media); in the intellectual field (through the publishing of books and magazines on social-political issues and presence at the universities); in politics (through cooperation with political parties, whenever possible), etc.
  • It should strive to become a well-organized, strong, and visible subject on the public scene.


This is the model followed by Political Critique in Poland as well as in other countries in Central-Eastern Europe. We believe that the ethos of engaged intelligentsia, as well as a strong organizational model based on a social movement which strives to establish links between various fields of activity and different societies could also prove successful in Berlin.


Sloterdijk through Kuroń

Present-day reality is shaped according to a pattern aptly described by Peter Sloterdijk. He writes that we are living in a “crystal palace” driven by the logic of “cynical reason”; we cater to our individual needs, and pragmatically act towards securing a comfortable private life. If we ever resist or unite, it is usually on a small scale and in support of a single, local cause which, as is often the case, ensures even greater comforts of our existence. Is there an alternative to reality seen from such a perspective?


Among the figures who provide continual inspiration for the actions of Political Critique, Jacek Kuroń holds an exceptional position. Educator, social activist, journalist, author, and thinker, Kuroń was one of the first anticommunist dissidents. He campaigned against the Polish United Workers’ Party (of which he was an active member), and later worked towards establishing groups and organizations which shaped the institutional landscape of Polish democratic opposition. He was a co-founder of the Workers’ Defence Committee, and was among the closest associates of Lech Wałęsa in the founding period of the Solidarity movement. His biography is that of a man driven by the ethos of social service and working towards political change that would enable individual freedom as well as reinforce individual and group empowerment. The “crystal palace” can only be brought down if we follow this model: by sacrificing individual comfort for the sake of a practice that secures collective freedom, and by devoting our lives to self-organization and the building of strong institutions working for the collective good.


A Bridge Between East and West

We come to Berlin as emissaries of a new political geography. We are an organization operating beyond the eastern boundary of the European Union. We have partners in Russia and Ukraine. We are trying to cooperate with activists from as many countries of the former Eastern Bloc as possible. Post-communist nations have a lot in common, including a similar social structure, and stages of economic and political transformation. But another similarity lies in a historical experience of the possibility of changing the system and a still active model of engagement, self-organization, and action towards that change. We believe that similar, though perhaps latent, qualities can be found in Germany due to the history of its eastern states. We would like to draw them out, actualize, and activate them.


We Are Coming to Berlin to Learn and to Offer Solutions

We are also coming to Berlin to learn. We come from countries where social activity is scarce. The wide array of activist groups in Berlin, along with their practices, methods, and models of action, are a field we are eager to explore. How to reconcile the multiplicity of various activisms with the will to establish a strong organization that operates as universally as possible—within various fields and addressing various issues? This is what we would like to learn.


We also bring with us an offer—a model of institutional action that can enrich the existing practices of social movements in Berlin. Berlin faces a number of problems that are widely discussed. There is also a range of initiatives focused on preventing the socially destructive effects of these problems on a local scale. Yet perhaps the situation calls for developing and implementing more universal solutions. Political Critique has experience in translating theoretical ideas into practical solutions and in converting local problems into the language of universal solutions. It also has experience in building strong, well-organized institutions, which have a stronger impact on the course of social actions than the more numerous but less sizeable engaged groups.


We are coming to Berlin to learn about solutions for problems in social policy, law, and other domains of collective life where Germans can unquestionably be seen as a model example of striving for individual empowerment, social egalitarianism, and justice. We envy the Germans for their faith in their own subjectivity and courage in criticizing the existing situation. However, we would like to bring to the table a sense of responsibility—a reaction which, when confronted with one’s own success, encourages people to immediately share it with other. Perhaps the model of social service, born out of the engaged intelligentsia, which urges one to sacrifice individual comfort for the sake of common good, will prove to be a valuable supplement to the German ability of improving quality of life.


The Art of Change

Why do we choose to act within the field of art in Berlin, as part of the 7th Berlin Biennale? Not only does the Berlin Biennale curator, Artur Żmijewski, serve as the artistic director of the Political Critique magazine, but there are also a number of our activists among the Biennale’s collaborators and advisers. The launch of the Political Critique Club in Berlin as part of the Berlin Biennale seemed a natural step to its curator. For Żmijewski transferring the practice of Political Critique to Berlin is one of the elements of transferring his artistic and curatorial practice in general.


However, a more definitive answer to why we operate as part of the Berlin Biennale can perhaps be found in the answer to another question: why do artists such as Artur Żmijewski, Yael Bartana, Joanna Rajkowska, Wilhelm Sasnal, and many others choose to become activists, collaborators, or supporters of Political Critique? They do so because we sincerely trust in art, its power to change reality, and chances to provide tools that can improve the efficacy of this change—tools which can be successfully applied to other fields of social practice, including politics. We are observing art attentively; we appreciate its ability to work with the senses, corporality, and human relations. We see its imagination as a prototype of political imagination. For us, art is politics in a different state of matter, a state capable of generating extremely valuable tools and practices useful in bringing about fundamental social change.


by Katarzyna Fidos and Igor Stokfiszewski


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