The Gift of Labor in Stalinist Nowa Huta

Katherine Lebow’s book starts with a reference to Andrzej Wajda’s movie Man of Iron (1981), which depicts one of the leaders of the Solidarność protests in the Lenin Shipyards in Gdańsk in 1980. This movie was a sequel to Wajda’s Man of Marble (1976) which shows the story of Mateusz Birkut, a leading worker-activist in Nowa Huta who became disillusioned with the party and rebellious: a story repeated, more successfully, by Birkut’s son in Man of Iron.

Czlowiek z marmuru 1-F-155-18 Still from Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble, 1976, Photo- Renata Pajchel Studio Filmowe Zebra Filmoteka Narodowa

That the sons (and daughters) learned from their fathers’ (and mothers’) struggle is the guiding line of Lebow’s book. Unfinished Utopia argues that it was a selective memory of Stalinism that provided the inhabitants of Nowa Huta, the “first socialist city in Poland” and one of the centers of Solidarność in the 1980s, a usable set of tools for struggle and dissent. The lessons learned from the new town’s past were, so the author argues, not so much specific forms of political organization but more the experience and exercise of collective subjectivities forged during the first, Stalinist, phase of Nowa Huta’s growth (1949-56), and inscribed in the geography of the city. While the discourse of Nowa Huta as a “laboratory” was central to the socialist regime, with numerous sociological studies since the 1960s analyzing the transformation of peasants into urban dwellers, Lebow describes this transformation as oriented not only towards citadins but also towards citoyens. “Stalinist rhetoric and mobilizing practices […] helped to shape new ways of talking, thinking, and acting about work and citizenship by Poland’s new working class as it came into being after World War II” (76-7).

The encounter with Stalinism is to be seen as a formative experience. What distinguishes Stalinism for Lebow is its ideology, understood as a mode of subjectivization which, in Nowa Huta, meant specifically the process of “becoming” an inhabitant of the new town. The normalization of rural migrants within the categories of “workers”, “women”, “Roma”, or “youth” opened to them modes of agency that were mobilized for the construction of Nowa Huta, but which could be also appropriated in ways never fully controlled nor contained by the party apparatus. These categories could serve not only as vessels of individual emancipation but also as media of visibility, making populations “visible” to be regime so that they could be governed; but also allowing collective demands to be articulated in such a way that they were “visible” to the bureaucracy.

Subjectivisation as the condition of both governability and dissent is illustrated in the book by the examples of winners of labor competitions in Nowa Huta who challenged the party bureaucrats on their own terms; female workers who called the party to back up its demand of the economic emancipation of women by providing public services such as childcare; and some of the most productive workers who were also the most notorious “hooligans,” consumers of an autonomous subculture flourishing outside of formalized cultural life. The meticulous description of these processes in chapters 3-5 of Unfinished Utopia is the book’s highlight, substantiated by documents from Polish archives, both public and private, as well as newspapers and interviews. (Only Chapter 1, focused on the planning of Nowa Huta, may leave the reader yearning for more: not only because it is based mainly on secondary sources, some of which would require a critical contextualization within the politicized discourse on Nowa Huta in post-‘89 Poland, but also because the subtle analysis of subjectivization processes in the following chapters seems to be overshadowed in the first chapter by an antithetical discourse of the city’s architects, who present themselves as “carving out a space of maneuver” against “Warsaw” [41]).

The central category for the processes of subjectivization in Nowa Huta was that of labor, qualified by gender and ethnicity, and theorized in Unfinished Utopia together with its dialectical counterpart in the socialist everyday: leisure. Labor in Nowa Huta is presented by Lebow as the opportunity to transform one’s own life, and that of the community, opening up the passage from backwardness to modernity, dependency to adulthood, isolation to fellowship, and disenfranchisement to citizenship (80). Such labor, requiring individual discipline, often self-sacrifice and determination, tied personal transformation to the production of collectives, which could be mobilized according to the party line, or raise against it.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the book is focused on the Stakhanovite “labor competitions” in Nowa Huta and its heroes, exemplified in Wajda’s Man of Marble by its protagonist, Mateusz Birkut. While these competitions gave the young and unskilled the opportunity to accelerate their careers, they often ended up in disillusionment resulting from uneven entrance conditions, favoritism, and the unfair treatment of participants. Labor competitions acutely posited the question of social justice and housing distribution. The criterion of distribution was the principle of adequate compensation, “to each according to his work,” which, as a report of the party district committee explained, results “from the deep sense of the just distribution of material goods in proportion to the size of an individual’s share and contribution in building a system of social justice” (92). However, as Lebow points out, it was unclear how “‘an individual’s share and contribution’ should be measured: according to a worker’s abstract economic value on a bureaucrat’s ledger sheet, or according to his or her dedication and efforts on Nowa Huta’s behalf?” (92) For Lebow, such a question led to the division between “us” and “them”: that is to say, as Nowa Huta residents reflected upon in a 1990s interview with a Polish sociologist, between workers who worked with enthusiasm, who came to build the city and “did not ask how much they’d be paid”, and party officials and activists who were “do-nothings” (93). In this way, while labor competitions heightened such particularization at the site of production, as well as the particularization of workers (with the young, women and ethnic minorities being underprivileged), they also contributed to the emergence, so Lebow argues, of new forms of worker solidarity and a “moral community of labor” from which the party and its ideological allies could increasingly be excluded (76-7).

Adding to this argument, I would claim that the archival documents, interviews, and newspaper clippings meticulously gathered by Lebow reveal two competing economies operating in state socialism: a calculating economy, that of rational planning and universal equivalent; and a gift economy, that of enthusiasm, lived experience, and potlatch, among others that of the rich soil on which Nowa Huta was built, transformed into the “mud” of the building site. Labor in Nowa Huta was never fully contained by a single one of these economies: while the first one was reflected in the relatively high salaries of workers in Nowa Huta, the second required a counter-gift for their “gift of labor.” Since the value of the gift cannot be objectively calculated, it was always deferred and ambiguous; ultimately, the counter-gift that was promised to the builders of Nowa Huta was the city itself, of which their claimed “ownership” was the product of their labor.

Yet when their “gift of labor” was not returned, when gratification was deferred too long, and when the builders of the city were left without acknowledgement and accommodation, it created a rupture in the community, the division between “us” and “them” and, inevitably, violence. This violence was not “anti-socialist” since, as Lebow perceptively notices, the 1960 protests in Nowa Huta, and some that followed, did not articulate a dichotomous opposition between Catholicism (or Polishness) and communism; or between socialism and civil rights (168). In this way, labor competitions, which combined the logic of the lived engagement with the discourse on rationalization and innovation, can be seen as attempts at an (impossible) synthesis of these two economies. And maybe the city itself—which is a combination of the careful planning norms of social services distributed per capita and the apparently wasteful architecture of socialist realism, adorning the city with baroque typologies and ornaments taken from Kraków’s Renaissance—suggests a desire for such synthesis as well.

While the socialist realism in Nowa Huta was soon abandoned for the sake of “real existing modernism” in Poland and elsewhere in the region, the gift economy constituted part and parcel of the socialist system until the end of the Cold War, reappearing, for example, in the “technical assistance” to the “Third World” and in the work of architects, planners, and engineers abroad. This excellent book by Katherine Lebow shows how this economy, persistent in post-war Poland and in state socialism in general, was produced, articulated, and lived individually and collectively in Stalinist Nowa Huta.


Łukasz Stanek is Lecturer at the Manchester Architecture Research Centre, The University of Manchester. Stanek authored Henri Lefebvre on Space: Architecture, Urban Research, and the Production of Theory (Minnesota, 2011) and edited Lefebvre’s unpublished book about architecture, Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment (Minnesota, 2014). Stanek’s second field of research is the architecture of socialist countries during the Cold War in a global perspective, and he recently edited the book Team 10 East. Revisionist Architecture in Real Existing Modernism (Warsaw MoMA/ Chicago, 2014). In particular, Stanek studies the transfer of architecture from socialist countries to Africa and the Middle East. On this topic he published “Miastoprojekt Goes Abroad. Transfer of Architectural Labor from Socialist Poland to Iraq (1958—1989)” in a themed issue of The Journal of Architecture (17:3, 2012) which he edited, as well as the book Postmodernism Is Almost All Right. Polish Architecture After Socialist Globalization (Bec Zmiana, 2012). Stanek taught at the ETH Zurich and Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

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