Obituary - Kazimierz Laski

Kazimierz Laski, one of the most distinguished members of Michal Kalecki’s circle in the 1950s and 1960s, died in Vienna on the 20 October 2015. A man of rare modesty in a profession given to rare conceits, he divided his career into three periods, before Kalecki, his collaboration with Kalecki, and his work after Kalecki. However, his scholarly and personal achievements indicate a personality that may have been influenced by Kalecki, but was by no means in his shadow. His early doctoral studies, at the Communist Party’s School of the Social Sciences, and post-doctoral work, at the Main School of Planning and Statistics (Szkola Glówna Planowania i Statystyki) was on the relationship of investment to consumption in a socialist economy. This used a two sector model that pointed to the stresses in the consumption goods markets that may be caused by excessive investment, a common problem in Poland at the height of Stalinist industrial hubris. The research gave rise to his first book Zarys Teorii Reprodukcji Socjalistycznej (An outline of the theory of socialist reproduction), published in 1965. By then the analysis was already formalised in Kalecki’s theory of growth in a socialist economy. The relationship between current investment and consumption formed the basis of Kalecki’s and Laski’s criticism of imbalanced production in Poland in the 1960s that led to shortages of consumer goods and the eventual downfall of the Communist leadership of Wladyslaw Gomulka.

After Gomulka, Communist Poland succumbed to investment boom and debt crisis, Kazimierz Laski, by then in exile in Austria, continued his work, arguing for an alternative policy framework in the socialist economies. The result of this stage of his work was his book written with Wlodzimierz Brus From Marx to the Market (Oxford University Press 1989) that put forward a model of decentralised market socialism. Its publication coincided with the fall of communism in Poland and a transition to free market capitalism. Laski was bitterly critical of the liberalisation shock delivered to Poland by its Finance Minister Lezszek Balcerowicz, on the advice of Jeffrey Sachs, that plunged the country into mass unemployment and hyperinflation. An alternative strategy of liberalisation submitted by Laski to the then Minister of Planning, Jerzy Osiatynski, was circulated but was officially ignored. As Director of the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies from 1991 to 1996, Laski was condemned to observe the decline in his home country and its neighbours. Recovery only came in the new century with entry into the European Union and fiscal support from Brussels.

In his final years Laski continued to write and discuss virtually up to the summer of 2015 when he went into hospital with lung cancer. His central preoccupation in those most recent years was the waste of unemployment and the need for aggregate demand management using more active fiscal policies. He was naturally very taken with recent developments in Post-Keynesian economics, and had just completed revising a set of lectures in macroeconomics that provide an unusually systematic approach to a subject whose textbooks tend to provide theories for topics, rather than incorporating topics into any consistent approach to macroeconomics. His last professional appearance was in June 2015, at the age of 93 in Buenos Aires, at the ‘Money and Banking Conference’ commemorating the 80th Anniversary of the Central Bank of Argentina, where he argued the case for returning fiscal policy to the role of regulating the business cycle.

Kazimierz Laski’s scholarship gives little hint of the dramatic crises that he survived and that gave him an unusual humanity and compassion. He came into the world as Hendel Cygler, to Szmul Cygler and Sura Rywa Cygler in the southern Polish city of Czestochowa. Szmul was a shopkeeper and prosperous enough to have a Catholic maid, and to send his sons to the local lyceum school where, as he later recalled, he acquired the literary Polish, without trace of a Jewish accent. That fluency, together with his blue eyes, was to save his life. When the Germany army arrived in 1939, he fled to Zelechów in what is now Eastern Poland to be with his girlfriend Irena Wolfowicz. Along with her parents he was incarcerated in the Zelechów ghetto, until it was liquidated in September 1942. He managed to escape from the slave labour camp to which he was sent, in Wilga, and returned to Czestochowa to try to find his parents in the small ghetto that had been established there. He was too late. They had already been deported and gassed in Treblinka. Kazimierz Laski’s older brother, Majer Godel Cygler, who had fled East to the Soviet zone of occupied Poland, was killed in Krzemieniec by the Germans when they invaded the Soviet Union. Irena, who had found refuge in Warsaw, found him in Czestochowa and got false papers for him. Hendel Cygler became Kazimierz Laski. They moved together to Warsaw, where he joined the underground Armia Ludowa (People’s Army). Laski took part in the Warsaw Uprising and was wounded in the final days of the fighting at the start of October 1944.

At the end of the War Kazimierz Laski married Irena Wolfowicz and started studying economics. He joined the ruling Communist party, the Polish United Workers’ Party. By the 1950s he was teaching at the Main School of Planning and Statistics, by then the elite economics university in Poland. At one point he was even responsible for allocating teaching to Michal Kalecki, a task that was not made easy by Kalecki’s notoriously diffident lecturing. With Kalecki he presided over lively research and policy seminars. But their criticism of economic policy brought retribution in 1968 when a politically weakened Gomulka unleashed an anti-semitic purge. Laski was expelled from the Party and forced to leave the country. He stopped in Vienna on his way to Canada, only to find that the Canadian government deemed him to be a danger to Canadian security. With assistance from Kalecki he obtained a position at the University of Linz and was soon working with the Vienna Institute for Comparative Economic Studies.

Exile in Austria was made more congenial after Kalecki’s death in 1970 by the friendship of Kurt Rothschild and Josef Steindl, both of whom had worked with Kalecki in Oxford during the Second World War. The death of Irena in 2005 and a stroke that deprived his son of consciousness but not life, were the final losses that lay behind Laski’s serene composure and witty charm.

On his last visit to London in 2013, he asked me to accompany him to Oxford to place a stone on the grave of his friend Wlodzimierz Brus. The grave commemorates not only Brus and his wife, but also their family that perished in Treblinka. But tragedy is not necessary in the making of humane economists, and Laski certainly preferred his economics with a rich vein of humour.

Janek Toporowski
School of Oriental and African Studies

From issue no. 172, January 2016, pp.22-23

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