Behind the Scenes of the Greater Poland Uprising

Organic work as a path to the 1918-1919 Greater Poland Uprising and to the independence of Poland

Witold Molik

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Researchers of the 19th century have for a long time been arguing about the historical significance of the organic work in Poland. Was it one of the paths leading to the independence of Poland, or merely to the survival of the Polish spirit during the occupation? In The History of Poland, Michał Bobrzyński wrote in 1929: “The Polish nation pursued its independence in two ways: by armed uprisings and by organic work.”. This belief was consistently rejected by Witold Jakóbczyk, the most distinguished researcher of organic work. In the first volume of Studies on the History of Greater Poland in the 19th Century, published in 1951, he concluded that the organic work policy was “[…] a rather defensive programme and did not lead to independence […]. It merely made it easier to retain nationality and to transform the Polish feudal society into a capitalist one […]”. In his last works (published in the 1980s) he also emphasised that the organic work in Greater Poland largely contributed to the survival of Polish identity. He claimed not to be exaggerating its historical significance. Stefan Kieniewicz, who, in his publications from the 1950s and 1960s shared this opinion, later changed his standpoint. In an article entitled The Loss of Statehood and the Way To Regain It he wrote that in the 19th century, different paths supposedly leading to independence were taken into account. In his further considerations, he distinguished eight of the most typical concepts and ways of action, including organic work.

A definitive settlement of the said dispute with reference to the entire period of national imprisonment seems unnecessary and unfounded. It should be emphasised, however, that some of the Organicists were driven by far-fetched goals. When they decided to take the various initiatives, they assumed that they would modernise and gradually prepare Polish society for its fight for independence when the time came. Evidence of this is a confidential letter written in 1851 by Gustaw Potworowski, a leading representative of the Organicist movement in the region of Poznań, to landowner Wojciech Lipski, which says: “Whatever events occur and whatever reasons for our actions arise, it is essential to make sure that the anticipated moment finds us prepared, and not surprised or materially or morally numb. I shall repeat it once again, when our moment of liberation comes […], everyone, regardless of their past sympathies, will go where the banner of our liberation will be waving, with their eyes kept on Poland, with their hearts beating for Poland and with their weapons fighting for Poland.”

The term “organic work” was used for the first time by Jan Koźmian in 1848. In an article published in “Przegląd Poznański”, concerning the Revolutions of 1848 in the Poznań region, he wrote: “[…] it is up to the Poles if their Homeland will be reborn sooner or later; the path of all virtues, the love for everything that is Polish, the path of fair methods, commonality, sacrifice and organic work [underlined by - W.M.] activity and perseverance leads to Poland”. Slightly later, Marceli Motty in his memoir of Karol Marcinkowski wrote that the doctor from Poznań “[…] showed us the need to unite individual, weak forces into one mighty force, and to carry out continuous organic work [underlined by – W.M.] to carry the weight of our nationality, the need to find a common measure to unite the dispersed fragments of national life.”. Thus, it may be said that the term “organic work” was widely used in publications released in Poznań in the era of the Revolutions of 1848. However, it was soon forgotten. It appeared again in the Poznań press after the failure of the January Uprising, in propaganda materials encouraging people to promote different forms of national self-assistance, expand networks of industrial associations, savings & loan associations, peasants’ agricultural circles, parish libraries, singing societies, etc. An anonymous correspondent wrote in 1868 in “Dziennik Poznański” daily: “Today, when the existence of our element is threatened, when we are at risk of losing the people representing our nation, we are in need of an institution, in need of organic work, and of a broad moral and national infrastructure that would, provided its permanent nature, replace the missing people, and whose triple task [is – added by W.M.] to extract elements that are scarce in the higher classes of the nation from the lower classes, to promote national education [...] and to multiply national welfare.” In magazines published in Poznań in the next two decades, the term “organic work” was in common use not only in editorials or articles devoted to specific problems, but also in letters and other correspondence sent in by the readers.

Since Poland regained its independence in 1918, researchers have been using the term “organic work” rather freely, not to mention the publicists and politicians who consider themselves authorised to take a stand on it. Stefan Kieniewicz offered quite a broad definition of the term. He considered it a “convenient and capacious bag”, into which all forms of individual and collective non-political activity, “beneficial to the country in one way or another”, may be thrown. Such forms included “the improvement of agriculture, the establishing of enterprises, banks and joint-stock companies, agricultural circles, co-operatives, amateur choirs, sports clubs, the popularisation of education (legal, half-legal and illegal) and scientific and cultural organisations”. For quite a long time now, most researchers have come to the agreement as to the fact that organic work covers the modernisation of the economy and all forms of promoting education. “Shouldn’t we – as Marek Czapliński aptly states – perceive the so-called organic work as an inseparable part of the activities, which, by the way, have remained largely unchanged in the course of history, aimed at the true Europeanisation (not in the sense of cosmopolitanism and loss of national identity!) and modernisation of Poland?” 

The strategy of the Organicists – as aptly concluded by Przemysław Matusik – “did not result from any sophisticated ideologies or social theories. Its rules were drawn up in various places and at various points in the history of post-partition Poland; from Stanisław Staszic and the authors of the Warsaw Society of Friends of Arts and Sciences, to the positivists in the second half of the 19th century.”. In the history of Greater Poland, however, organic work played its greatest role, especially during the Prussian occupation era, when it significantly contributed to developing a separate ethos, so characteristic of the Greater Poland residents. According to Stanisław Filipowicz, the programme of the Poznań-rooted Organicists was an offensive, not defensive, programme of combat and expansion, founded on its faith in the motivating force of the Polish spirit. With this force, Polish society was supposed to gradually modernise and become a modern society, based on the iron discipline of national goals, able to achieve independence in favourable circumstances. Organicists have frequently been opposed to Romanticists and insurgents. In the historical reality of the Prussian Partition, both attitudes, Romantic-insurrectionist and Organicist, were not contrary to each other and with every change of situation, they occurred simultaneously. Many Organicists in their youth, willing to release their enthusiasm or responding to addresses made by respected leaders, got actively involved in uprisings and underground movements (such as secret organisations of students).

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