License: The Prefigurative Politics of Polish Dissident Social Media Activism, 1976-1990

Thesis author: 
Piotr Wcislik
Year of enrollment: 
Thesis supervisor: 
Balázs Trencsényi
Thesis abstract: 

The emergence of dissident print culture in the People’s Democracies of Central Europe and in the Soviet Union is arguably one of the most extraordinary chapters of the postwar cultural, intellectual and political history. In Poland, for more than a decade activists, in numbers increasing from hundreds to tens of thousands, would meet, in secrecy, using codenames and passwords, to edit, print and distribute books and periodicals on every subject and catering to all tastes, building extensive networks of horizontal communication sustained by voluntary involvement and accessible technologies, the existence of which was of vital importance at critical turning points in history of the democratic opposition under late socialism.
An iconic manifestation of civic disobedience, Polish dissident media activism as a cultural, intellectual and political phenomenon should not be reduced, however, to its instrumental purpose of overcoming state surveillance of ideas and their flow. Unlicensed publishing brought together actors, their practices and ideas, with technologies and things, to form a complex web which was both a horizontal communication network that sustained the flow of dissident ideas, and the corresponding web of meanings. Within that broad web of meanings articulated around social media practices, this study explores the political instances of meaning-making, representing an approach which fuses insights from the second wave of samizdat studies, media history, and intellectual history of dissident political thought.
Proposing an alternative to narratives organized around the Cold War conceptual polarities, but without surrendering to a de-politicized cultural history perspective, this study puts in the spotlight the correspondence between a certain set of political ideas and beliefs, and a certain form of media practices. Networks of unlicensed social media gave shape and meaning to the prefigurative variant of the dissident political philosophy, resting on the conviction that organizational forms a collective action employs to achieve social and political change predetermine, or ‘prefigure,’ the kind of polity it aims at instituting. The prefigurative principle provided the framework in which the unlicensed social media activists made sense of what they were doing as a form of practicing democracy. It was a way of affirming that small collective forms of democratic agency are possible even under repressive conditions, as well as asserting their transformative effect on public life. But also conversely, for the oppositional political thinkers, the unlicensed print culture gave the prefigurative idea a strong resonance in the lived experience.
If the vision of prefigurative democracy permeated the imaginary of dissident social media activism, it was not always the guiding philosophy of action of the broader oppositional movement. Thus, while a significant purpose of this work is to examine the distinctive features of the unlicensed social media politics, another, no less important aim is to understand its place and significance in the broader intellectual history of oppositional politics in Poland. From the perspective of that entanglement, the history of underground print culture that this study narrates is the history of the rise and eclipse of the dissident prefigurative vision.