Tadeusz Kowalik

In the English-speaking world Tadeusz Kowalik is best known as the last surviving co-author of the great Polish economist, Michal Kalecki (1899-1970), an advisor to the Polish trades union movement Solidarity during the 1980s, when it played a key part in bringing down the Communist Government in Poland, and subsequently as a fierce critic of the capitalism established in his country. In his work he challenged both the commonly accepted view of the ‘Keynesian Revolution’ and the inability of Polish communists to come to terms with their revolutionary past and find a place for themselves in the modern world.

Kowalik was born on the 19 November 1926 in the village of Kajetanówka outside the city of Lublin in Eastern Poland, traditionally the poorer, more backward part of the country. His father was a storeman. The young Kowalik was radicalised by the experience of pre-War economic backwardness under Poland’s semi-fascist Government of the time, and then by resistance to the Nazis. In 1946 he joined the Union of Fighting Youth (ZWM), the youth wing of the Polish Workers’ Party (PPR) that had been reconstituted from among surviving Polish Communists, taking care not to include the word ‘Communist’ in its title to avoid any possible association with the pre-War Communist Party. In 1948 he became a member of the PPR, shortly before it amalgamated with the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) to form the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR), whose title reflected that same desire to avoid association with the pre-War Communists.

In 1951, Kowalik completed undergraduate studies in economics at Warsaw University and went on to doctoral studies under the supervision of Oskar Lange. He completed his doctoral studies in 1958. By then, Tadeusz Kowalik had thrown himself into the struggle to reform Polish socialism. His resolve can only have been reinforced by a strange incident at the end of June 1956, when a delegation of the British economists with a sympathetic interest in socialism was invited to Poland by Lange. The delegation consisted R F Kahn, Maurice Dobb, Joan Robinson, W B Reddaway, K E Berrill, R L Cohen, and R Davies, from Cambridge; Peter Wiles, J R Sargent, and E F Jackson from Oxford; R G D Allen and Brian Hopkin from London; R L Meek from Glasgow; W Martin from Manchester; and Brinley Thomas from Cardiff. A group of them were taken to Poznan to be shown socialist factories, only to find the city gripped by a general strike, with the army ‘restoring order’ by firing on the workers. The delegation was hurriedly bussed to Kraków, where Lange met with them. Kowalik was present when Joan Robinson gave a blistering response to Lange’s attempt to find in the Poznan events elements of a socialist reform process.

In that year Kowalik took over the editorship of the weekly newspaper Zycie Gospodarcze (Economic Life) where he promoted reform of the over-centralised state economic system. He lasted only two years in this position, before being removed as the ruling party started to close down the discussion on reform. However, under the patronage of his supervisor, he kept his position as Lecturer in Political Economy at the social science university run for activists in the ruling Party. He commenced work on the obligatory second doctorate (habilitacja) that Polish academics need to get for advancement at universities. Lange asked him what topic he wanted to research. Kowalik answered ‘Rosa Luxemburg’. Lange, who had been in the PPS and had made too many compromises with the Stalinists, paused, reflected, and then said to the young Kowalik: ‘The topic is interesting. But it will do you no good at all.’ He obtained the degree in 1963, and was rewarded with a permanent position in the Economics Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences, editing the Lange Collected Works.

In October 1965, Lange died. By then Kowalik was working with Kalecki in criticising the policy failures of the government, but also with the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski and the economist Wlodzimierz Brus, who were using their party positions to protect dissidents within and outside the ruling party. With the failure of the government's economic strategy, shortages of consumer goods culminated in another ‘meat crisis’ at the end of 1967. The party authorities responded with a crack-down on Jews and ‘revisionists’. Kowalik was called before the Disciplinary Committee of the Party, headed by the wife of the Party leader Zofia Gomulka, like her husband a trades union activist before the War who had been held in solitary confinement during the Stalinist period. She leafed through Kowalik’s file and remarked, ‘what a pity; what a pity: Such a good background wasted amid the corrupt intelligentsia’.

Kowalik was expelled from the Party. But he retained his position at the Polish Academy of Sciences. He was not allowed to publish, except for those Collected Works of Lange. Much of his output for the next two decades appeared under the name of friendly associates who were not subject to the ban on publication, most notably Edward Lipinski, the oldest and most distinguished Polish economist, who had given Kalecki his first job in 1929. After Kalecki’s death, in 1970, Kowalik took on the additional responsibility of supervising the editing by Jerzy Osiatynski of the Kalecki Collected Works.

In 1972 he came to Cambridge for two years as a Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall. This was an opportunity to resume his increasingly close association with Kalecki's oldest friends at Cambridge, Maurice Dobb and Joan Robinson, as well as a new generation of Keynesians, Geoff Harcourt, Bob Rowthorn, and John Eatwell. In 1981-1983 he was a Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. In 1983, he taught for six weeks at Balliol College Oxford. In 1987-1988 he was a Visiting Professor at York University in Canada. In 1989, he taught at the New School for Social Research in New York. At the end of that year, he was finally awarded the Professorship that had eluded him for two decades, recognition that the government censorship office had not prevented him from becoming the most published economist in Poland of his generation.

The fall of Communism brought with it disillusionment not just on account of the political shift towards free market capitalism, but also because of the associated neglect of his heroes Rosa Luxemburg, Michal Kalecki and Oskar Lange. Despite his pre-eminence among Polish economists, and the state honours he now received, he remained a person of a rare personal modesty, for whom the condition of humble people and the ideas of scholars who recognised the value of those ordinary people, were far more important than his own individual achievements. When approached a couple of years ago about a festschrift in his honour he turned it down with the remark that ‘this is not my style’. He asked instead for a volume honouring Luxemburg, Lange and Kalecki. This integrity gave him a moral authority that few economists have ever had, and makes his death a loss to humanity as well as to the profession.

Tadeusz Kowalik leaves behind his widow Irena, a son Mateusz, and a daughter by his first marriage.

Janek Toporowski
School of Oriental and African Studies

From issue no. 159, October 2012, pp.20-21

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