Utopia in the Matrix

Many, many thanks to Steve Harris and Daria Bocharnikova for creating such an excellent blog and for inviting me to participate in it; likewise to Ari Sammartino, Sofia Dyak, Kim Zarecor and Łukasz Stanek for their deep and thought-provoking readings of my book.

In my response, I’ll focus on two clusters of themes that seemed to pop up across the contributions. These are questions, broadly, about the book’s title (unfinished/utopia); and about what I’ll call comparisons, contexts, and interconnections.

First, what kind of utopia was Nowa Huta, and in what sense was it “unfinished”?

The book’s title arrived late. It replaced a pretty awful working title; at the time, it seemed both to come out of nowhere and to feel absolutely familiar, right. Soon after the book was published, though, I realized that I must have been subconsciously channeling the title of an album I’d come across some years before, András Gerő and Iván Pető’s wonderful Unfinished Socialism: Pictures from the Kádár Era (CEU, 1999). So I plead guilty to a shameless lack of originality.

I don’t have the book by Gerő and Pető in front of me, but I seem to remember that the “unfinishedness” alluded to seems intentionally ambiguous. On the one hand, it’s seemingly an ironic reference to the cynical and half-baked “real socialism” of the Kádár period; on the other, it clearly expresses a poignant sense of arrested development, which itself has two possible variants: if the revolution of 1956 had been allowed to take its course, it would have a) finished socialism by turning it into something more democratic and workable; b) finished socialism, period.

With this in mind, I see why Kim Zarecor wonders whether my title contains overtones of socialism as “a good idea gone horribly wrong.” This, however, was not the message I wanted to send. (If anything, Nowa Huta seems to have been a bad idea that turned out surprisingly well.)

The title was meant, rather, to echo a quote from Zygmunt Bauman in the book’s conclusion. (Note to self: in the next book, provide clues about the title in the introduction!) Bauman argues that utopian thinking “hinges on a feeling of incompleteness; the better world it envisions must be ‘felt as still unfinished and requiring an additional effort to be brought about.’” Bauman’s wonderful writing about utopianism, like the book’s title, arrived on my doorstep late in the writing process. It captures what I wanted to articulate in my own awkward critique of Popper in the first chapter. Popper equates utopianism with the production of blueprints for the future, and insists that it can have only one outcome (a very bad one). Bauman, by contrast, is more interested in utopianism’s starting-point than where it ends up: he identifies the utopian impulse as a refusal to accept that things can’t get any better (or that they will magically do so on their own). Bauman’s utopianism is an imaginative disposition and a commitment to action that can exist in various forms, with various consequences.

Łukasz Stanek’s brilliant formulation of the two contradictory forces in Nowa Huta—as he puts it, the “calculating economy” of rational planning and the “gift economy” of enthusiasm and experience—echoes the contrast between Popper’s technocratic utopianism and Bauman’s socio-emotional one. Acting on Bauman’s utopian impulse, we could say, necessitates going beyond what we are symbolically “paid” to do under the current system—thus, Nowa Huta as one big potlatch (thanks for that metaphor!). It also answers Ari Sammartino’s question: Who were the real utopians—the planners or the people? Answer: it depends on your definition of “utopian.”

Ari Sammartino also asks, what might it mean to finish this utopia? According to Bauman, though, utopia can never be finished, just as a city can never be “finished.” Perhaps Nowa Huta’s perpetual indeterminateness only underscores the kernel of utopianism intrinsic to all cities.

The second cluster of themes revolves around comparisons, contexts, and interconnections.

Steve Harris and Daria Bocharnikova, for instance, wonder if the sense of “ownership” that Nowohucians felt about their city was unusual in the Polish context, and further, whether such a feeling of belonging was more common in the socialist world than the capitalist West. They also ask whether Nowa Huta served as a model for architects in the West or for those working in the so-called developing world. As Sofia Dyak neatly puts it, was Nowa Huta part of an “interurban matrix”?

The first question is both intriguing and hard to answer. In many Polish cities, as in Nowa Huta, a large percentage of the post-World War II population was made up of rural migrants, the country’s pre-war urban population having been decimated by war, Holocaust, or ethnic cleansing. This was true of some rural areas, too. I recently read an interesting manuscript about the Bieszczady mountains, which were repopulated after the war by Poles from the East, taking the place of the former Jewish and Ruthenian/Lemko/Ukrainian inhabitants. The author tries to understand how locals today make sense of their own personal and familial histories—often ones of unarticulated postwar loss and displacement—in light of EU-funded efforts to promote the region’s “heritage.” It seems that inhabitants really struggle to find narratives linking personal identity with the region’s past; they can’t locate themselves in the landscape.

This contrasts strikingly with Nowa Huta, where any number of available narratives allow for the seamless interweaving of biography and local history. Padraic Kenney’s work suggests the same for a city like Wrocław, and I would direct Ari there for a splendid discussion of the interrelated processes of “becoming Polish” and “becoming socialist” in the postwar Western Territories. As for other cities in Poland, while it’s tempting to think that a sense of ownership and belonging was integral to socialist urbanity, I’m less willing to go out on a limb. A taxi driver in Łódź recently assured me that my rosy view of contemporary Polish life was completely distorted, the result of spending too much time in Warsaw and Kraków. When I looked out the window at the crumbling nineteenth-century textile-workers’ barracks we were driving past, he seemed to have a point.

Yes, Nowa Huta was known and studied by Western planners and architects, although whether (or how) the lessons they drew from these studies were applied, I don’t know (I wish I did). Several of Nowa Huta’s architects went on to work in the developing world (Łukasz Stanek may be able to say more about this): Stanisław Juchnowicz worked on plans for the Nigerian city of Abua; Tadeusz Ptaszycki and a team from Miastoprojekt won a competition for the general plan of Bagdad in the 1960s; Bolesław Skrzybalski designed housing and “recreational” buildings in Iraq and Kuwait. Otherwise, over the years many of the original architects continued to work in Kraków, erecting buildings throughout the “old” city that, at least to my untrained eye, seem architecturally very much in line with their work in Nowa Huta. Ironically, these structures have become so familiar and naturalized within the urban landscape that I think few Cracovians would ever associate them with Nowa Huta.

To riff a bit on Sofia’s question, did the planners or residents feel a connection to other “socialist cities” (or even just to other socialist cities)? Interestingly, I saw no evidence of this, official paeans to Soviet sister-city Komsomolsk notwithstanding. The frames of reference, comparison, and self-identification were first local, then national: the surrounding villages (and/or one’s home village); Kraków; Warsaw. I saw no evidence of, any emergent new-town internationalism, more’s the pity, as it would be a brilliant research topic—but I may not have been looking in the right places.

Finally, some doubts were expressed about the extent to which Nowa Huta was typical of socialist cities more generally, focusing especially on Nowa Huta’s dynamic of dissent. Kim notes that Nová Ostrava remained quiescent throughout the Communist period—why bite the hand that feeds you?—and wonders whether Nowa Huta’s explosion into protest had more to do with general Polish realities in the 1980s than the city’s Stalinist past. I’d like to pose a question in return, based on my working typology of socialist cities—which I hope is not an overly simplistic one. Both East Germany and Hungary had a relatively large skilled workforce after World War II, allowing Eisenhüttenstadt and Dunaujváros, for example, to be built by one group of workers (unqualified) but subsequently inhabited by another (qualified)–a bit like Brasília (although at least the displaced construction workers didn’t end up in shanty towns). Poland, by contrast, was desperately short of skilled labor, so the same people who built the city (and their children) moved into its finished apartment buildings and went on to reap the benefits of well-paid jobs at the steelworks. As I argued in the book, this particular trajectory imprinted local subjectivities in critical ways. Did Nová Ostrava, I wonder, conform to the first model, or does it bust my typology apart?

I’ll wrap this up here, aware that I’ve left many questions unanswered. I hope I can address more in subsequent posts. This format’s openness is a great reminder, I think, of the bashful utopian impulse embedded in our own work: ultimately, it’s about conversations that remain, at best, unfinished.

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