The Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe

Jakub Karpinski: 2001

Remembering Jakub
by Eric Chenoweth

Eric Chenoweth is co-Director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe.

I met Jakub Karpinski for the first time in August 1980, in the middle of the strikes that would give birth to Solidarity in Poland. He and his partner and, later, wife, Irena Lasota, had come to meet with the director of the League for Industrial Democracy, an organization begun by Upton Sinclair and Jack London that had for 75 years provided an intellectual defense for the American labor movement. Just as importantly, the LID and its sister organization Social Democrats USA, had gained a reputation as fierce opponents of communism and proponents of democratic change in the Soviet Bloc. It was a natural place to come, then, for two Poles in the West seeking support for the pro-democratic workers movement in communist Poland. They had earlier gotten support from the LID for the Workers Defense Committee (KOR). I, a student activist at the time, told them of my youth group’s plans to organize support for the Polish workers on college campuses. It began my relationship with Jakub that would last 23 years, until his untimely death on March 22 of this year at the age of 62.

At our first meeting, Jakub and Irena told me that they would be happy to speak on campuses about Poland. I quickly took advantage of the offer, seeing an opportunity to bring two dynamic individuals to colleges to teach a new generation of students about the struggle against communism from the new standpoint of the Polish workers movement. They spoke for me dozens of times, without ever receiving a cent in honoraria but knowing they were doing something extraordinarily valuable. Each conveyed a different charisma. Irena’s was vital, to-the-point, and emotional, Jakub’s was measured, deliberate, and quietly powerful.

Jakub’s voice was so distinctive it could never be mistaken for another and I think I will never forget it no matter how distant his physical presence. He modulated his pitch from the highest decibel to a low-mid-range octave, providing emphasis to exactly the right word and syllable. The style of his speech was complemented by a slight speech impediment, which he had clearly fought through in order to take a place in a profession requiring public speaking. One could not help but admire his total self-assuredness. He made his impediment a strength, rather than a weakness. (It was a strength I remember vividly from an evening recital of Stanislaw Baranczak’s poetry at the Public Theater, where Jakub’s performance next to well-known actors was nothing short of spectacular).

Mostly though, I remember Jakub’s mixture of deliberately styled speech with his precisely formulated ideas and thought. Jakub always delivered his speeches in an academic way: he was always teaching. But he never spoke from above: everyone was brought to his level simply by his organization of his ideas. Whatever the topic, he spoke about its most complex elements in an elemental and understandable way. For Jakub, every speech or lecture was an opportunity to make clear a new idea or formulation, not to create an opaque theory or to constantly repeat some long-ago digested epiphany. No matter how many times he had spoken on a topic, he prepared for the presentation as if it were completely new. Or, in turn, he would use it as an opportunity to hone even further an already precise line of thought. Regardless, whoever listened to Jakub give a presentation knew he was listening to an extraordinary intellect — and at least for a moment you could be on his level.

His specialities were sociology and history, a combination he used especially to examine modern Polish history, both under communism and after 1989. In his writings for Uncaptive Minds, the journal of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, Transitions, and other publications, he extended his examination to both the period of late communism and the transition from it. He developed in the early 1990s an ABCs of Democracy, a primer that was translated into nearly a dozen languages, along with many of his other texts, such as “Democracy and Conflict” and “Postcommunism.”

Jakub was both one of the most personable of men and one of the most remote. He eagerly engaged in conversation with friends and colleagues about anything, but once he was no longer needed in a conversation, he would take out one of the projects he was working on from his pack, which he could restart at any moment. On such occasions, he might be interrupted, yet always return to the task at hand. But when fully absorbed, such as in his nocturnal working hours, he could not be interrupted at all. That is when he was fully in his world.

Jakub was a founder and member of the Board of Directors of the Committee in Support of Solidarity, begun on December 13, 1981, and of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, begun in May 1985, both of which I directed. Most of his Polish colleagues knew him as an associate professor at Warsaw University, a key leader of the Warsaw University protest in 1968, a former political prisoner whose defense oration at the trial sentencing him to 3 years became a source of inspiration for future generations, as the author in the early 1970s of the petition against constitutional amendments that further enslaved Poland to the Soviet Union, as the authors Marek Tarniewski and Jan Nowicki (two of the pseudonyms he used for the underground and for the émigré Kultura publishing house, among other places).

For myself, who never knew Polish but for a spare few words, I knew Jakub differently. He was an exile from his homeland, a child of World War II who grew up under Nazism and Communism, who nevertheless felt completely at ease in New York, or London, or Paris. He was always at home in an atmosphere of freedom without ever losing his knowledge and intimate understanding of communist dictatorship. Jakub was also an important guide through the complexities of Polish and East European history, which admittedly I was learning for the first time. While many people wondered what I, a non-Pole, was doing directing a Committee in Support of Solidarity, Jakub welcomed my interest and commitment and never tired of answering my questions and recommending to me what to read. He (along with Irena, Jerzy Warman, and others involved in those early days) took part in helping me edit texts translated from Polish into English. I learned from Jakub never to use the shorthand “martial law” to describe the crackdown on Solidarity in December 1981. Only “stan wojenny,” or state of war, the constitutional provision used by Polish General Jaruzelski to destroy Solidarity, could possibly describe accurately the actions of the Jaruzelski regime in its war against the nation. As Jakub always taught, one should be precise in all descriptions.

Jakub was a constant source of support whose important projects could always be interrupted to take on some new task — including stuffing envelopes if that was necessary. He remained over 23 years a partner with me and Irena in all of our endeavors. (Although they divorced in 1997, Jakub and Irena maintained a close personal and organizational relationship and Irena was a constant source of support for Jakub throughout his illness and until his death.)

In the last ten years, he was a guiding spirit and intellectual force for the Centers for Pluralism program of IDEE, which gathers democrats from more than twenty postcommunist countries in a democratic and civic alliance. This was a natural alliance and partnership for Jakub, who believed that the struggle for democracy and against communism was not national or even regional but international. As an analyst, he understood also that democracy was not a natural emanation out of communism but a system that needed to be instituted and, more importantly, a set of ideas that needed to be understood and taught in society. His analysis of postcommunism  — as a new political system resulting from communism that could lead to various political outcomes — was elaborated at CfP Meetings, in articles for Uncaptive Minds and for the Network of Independent Journalists, for which he was a frequent contributor, and briefly as an analyst for OMRI.

In addition to his texts being translated into more than a dozen languages, he lectured in nearly all of the 20 countries represented in the Centers for Pluralism, always responding to requests from new members in the network with great pleasure as an opportunity to visit a new country, region, or city —  or to visit again, since places, things, history, and ideas always carried with them interest and meanings. Mostly though, Jakub enjoyed helping colleagues in promoting the cause of democracy, whether it was Miljenko Dereta and Dubravka Velat in Serbia, Smaranda Enache and Luminita Petrescu in Romania, or Vahid Gazi and Novella Jafarova-Applebaum in Azerbaijan.

For me, Jakub was a friend, a teacher, and a model of a true intellectual in the highest sense of the term. Devoted to his joint disciplines, he was also a man of worldly interests and wide knowledge who had an abiding commitment to use his intellectual skills in the rational pursuit of freedom and democracy. Until I met Jakub and Irena, my world had been rather closed. It always struck me how excited Jakub was about many disparate things and ideas, having a coherency of interests without being constrained (like many of my friends on the left) by an ideological straightjacket. I will always be grateful for having been introduced to Jakub’s encyclopedia of knowledge, his clarity of mind, and his steadfast friendship.

I, and all of us associated with the Committee in Support of Solidarity, IDEE, and the Centers for Pluralism, will miss him dearly.

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Jakub Karpinski (1940-2003)

Jakub Karpinski, a professor of Warsaw University and resident of Washington, DC, who played a significant role in Poland’s regaining of freedom and nationhood and whose works on democracy and communism were translated into more than a dozen languages, died in Warsaw on Saturday morning (March 22) at the age of 62 as a result of pancreatic cancer.

Mr Karpinski was a versatile author of more than twenty books and over two hundred articles on sociology, methodology of social sciences, the politics of communism and post-communism, democracy and transition, and the modern history of Poland. His books in English include Countdown: The Polish Upheavals (Karz-Cohl:1982), Poland Since 1944: A Portrait of Years (Westview Press: 1995), and Causality in Sociological Research (Kluwer Academic Publishers: 2002).

Born in Warsaw in 1940, Jakub Karpinski studied philosophy and sociology under the well known professors Stanislaw Ossowski and Kazimierz Ajdukiewicz, among others. While assistant professor of sociology in 1968, he was one of the main organizers of the Warsaw University revolt against the communist regime, which sparked a new generation of opposition to communism based on the struggle for human rights and democracy. Fired from the university he was arrested for several months first in 1968 and re-arrested in 1969 and sentenced to three years of prison for clandestinly smuggling to the West texts on the regime’s repression that he wrote and edited. His speech to the court, which showed the logical absurdity of the communist constitution, became one of the most well-known opposition texts in Poland.

Between 1971 and 1978, he lived in Poland continuing to write and sign protest letters and writing uncensored books and publishing them under several pen-names in the emigre publishing house “Kultura” in Paris. At that time, he also defended his PhD dissertation.

From 1978 to 1997, he lived and taught in Great Britain, the United States, and France, publishing three books in English and several dozen articles, mostly in Uncaptive Minds and Transition. His books and articles on the modern history of Poland and transition to democracy were also re-published in the Solidarity underground  period in Poland and were also published in Azeri, Bulgarian, Russian, Serbo-Chroatian, Ukrainian, and Romanian languages. Many of his texts were also translated into Spanish and clandestinly distributed in Cuba by the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, which he co-founded in New York City in 1985 and served as a Member of the Board. He also co-founded and was an active member of the Committee in Support of Solidarity in December 1981 after the imposition of a ‘state of war’ in Poland against the Solidarity movement, and which documented human rights abuses and raised funds for the Solidarity underground.

In 1997, he returned to Poland to resume teaching at Warsaw University in the same Institute of Sociology from which he was fired  twenty-nine years before. All of his old books were re-published in Polish, including significant texts in the methodology of sociology, and, despite illness, he wrote several new ones. Mr. Karpinski became a permanent U.S. resident in 1994 and maintained a residence in Washington, DC. He is survived in the U.S. by his former wife, Irena Lasota, with whom he collaborated for more than thirty years on many political and scholarly initiatives, and who remained with him at the time of his death. He is survived in Poland by his mother, Stanislawa, and two brothes, Wojciech and Marek.

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Co-Directors: Irena Lasota and Eric Chenoweth