Sunday, 28 April 2013


Verso, 2012, 456 pages, $29.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

When the Solidarity protest movement kicked off in the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk in 1979 against the neo-Stalinist Polish government, Ryszard Kapusinski faced a difficult choice – would the “world’s most famous Polish reporter”, writes Artur Domoslawski, “side with the mutinous people or his pals on the Central Committee”.

Kapusinski, the Polish United Workers’ Party member of thirty years, tried his decades-old balancing act between writing about genuine revolutions outside Poland and his loyalty to a domestic party claiming but dishonouring revolution.  General Jaruzelski eventually decided the issue – when he declared martial law, Kapusinksi resigned from his ‘communist’ party.

Born in 1932 in provincial Poland, where the fury of war and the grind of poverty dominated the landscape, the young and zealous idealist set out to ‘build socialism’ through the Moscow-supported post-war government.  With the 1956 exposure of Stalin’s crimes, however, and the repression of local dissidents by Moscow’s surrogate party in Poland, Kapusinski supported the de-Stalinisation movement to ‘mend socialism’.

This reforming movement, however, was too cautious and controlled to satisfy Kapusinski’s revolutionary leanings which eventually found their outlet as a foreign correspondent for the Polish Press Agency (PAP).  ‘The revolution at home was over, and he went in pursuit of it elsewhere’, said a PAP colleague.  Kapusinski was fortunate that, for their “own economic and geo-strategic” reasons during the Cold War, the European neo-Stalinist states generally supported the anti-colonial movements of Africa and Latin America thus enabling Kapusinski to safely celebrate revolution at a distance.

He was politically agile enough, however, to offer, through his reportage, a “universal allegory of the mechanisms of power and revolution” which applied just as much to Poland as to countries in revolutionary ferment overseas.  Whether in a half-starved, colonial hell-hole, or in a “well-fed and well-entertained” country like Poland, Kapusinski diagnosed how and when an oppressed people stops being afraid of the regime’s gendarmes, ceases to obey and challenges for power.

His writing style also had wide appeal.  Its sensual tone and poetic rhythm gave the lived experience of the people at the bottom of the power structure a literary force.  Kapusinski lived their life, was “bitten by the same insects, fell ill with the same diseases, ate the same food” and saw their struggle and political radicalisation through their eyes.

A side-effect of this emotional identification, however, was a tendency for Kapusinski to romanticise the new wave of Third World revolutions and to be somewhat uncritical of certain revolutionary tactics and heroes, although he was perceptive about the potential for post-independence degeneration which derived too often from the anti-colonial slogan being ‘liberty not equality’.

Kapusinski could also invent and embellish to create an image of himself as a “fearless war reporter” who narrowly escaped death by firing squad and who personally knew socialist icons like Che Guevara and Salvador Allende.  These experiences may have been inventions but the global and class inequalities, and the power structures which kept them in place, were no invention by Kapusinski.

What threatened to more seriously damage Kapusinski’s credibility were the allegations by Poland’s rightwing anti-communists who suggested his success had been owed to his friends in high party places and his cooperation with the regime’s intelligence services.  Could this devalue Kapusinski’s entire work?

No, replies Domoslawski.  Kapusinski did not spy on Poland’s domestic opposition and Polish journalists’ intelligence reporting from Third World countries “did not usually have great significance, nor was great weight attached to it”.  Kapusinski regarded his overseas political assessments, including reports on CIA operations, as “a morally good deed” – a case not without merit, given where the CIA has stood on global human rights and democracy.

Kapusinski’s last decades before his death in 2007 were marked by his rejection of a neo-liberal market “shock therapy” future for the former neo-Stalinist states and an expanded capitalist world of mindless consumption and entertainment which masked poverty, hunger and imperialist war.

Domoslawski’s biography is discursive and exploratory, honest and questioning.  It’s greatest merit is as an appetiser to the journalism of Kapusinski which, despite its occasional political and ethical glitches, stands head and shoulders above that of capitalism’s contemporary reporters.  Their sins of propaganda and style, though masked by ‘impartiality’ and being ‘realistic’, accept, and reinforce, the narrow boundaries of what is possible under capitalism, something that Kapusinski, as a committed socialist, had always challenged.

No comments:

Post a Comment