The Seizure of Power

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

From August, 1980, to December, 1981, Poland captured the imagination of progressive intellectuals in the West. The meteoric rise to power of Solidarity and the charismatic leadership of Lech Walesa riveted attention on Warsaw and Gdansk, as the political stability of the Gierek regime tottered and the state of the Polish economy floundered. For many, this looked like a virtual replay of that distant “Prague Spring” in 1968, and certainly the uncanny similarities between the two events were multiplied on December 13, 1981, when General Jaruzelski, filling in for the Russians in this case, seized power in a military coup, imposed martial law, and banned Solidarity. It was at this point that Poland became charged with a quite different political valence, for ever since the Jaruzelski coup, Poland has been a stone for the Right-wing politicians in control in Great Britain and the United States to cast at the Soviets. It is against this background that both the recent fame of Czeslaw Milosz and the republication of his early novel Zdobycie wladzy (1953; The Seizure of Power, 1955) must be understood.

Milosz’s Zniewolony umysi (1953; The Captive Mind, 1953) has for thirty years been among the canonical texts for Western critics of the Socialist countries. With Arthur Koestler (and, more recently, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn), Milosz has continually fulfilled the role in the West of an unimpeachable witness to the dangers of totalitarianism, a George Orwell with firsthand knowledge of what it means for a Communist regime to come to power. It is virtually impossible, then, not to see in his Nobel Prize and in the reissue of The Seizure of Power the most recent act in the long drama of Western intellectuals’ crusade against Communism. An overtly political novel, The Seizure of Power is situated in an intellectual politics epitomized in Susan Sontag’s recent jeremiad against Communism—simply “fascism with a human face,” she glibly concluded.

The Seizure of Power seems to confirm Sontag’s judgment, particularly in the second half of the novel when, after the moving depiction of the doomed Warsaw rising which occupies most of the first half, the reader is presented with an account of the last months of the war and the struggle for sovereignty in Poland between the forces of Polish nationalism and the Communists with their Soviet allies. The figures of Baruga and Wolin (characteristically deprived of surnames, and thus of the individuality which distinguishes the more sympathetic characters) embody the very type of the Communist militant in the Western intellectual imagination: cunning, ruthless, efficient, and capable of whatever prevarications and stratagems are necessary to grasp and maintain power. There is an obvious pleasure for author and reader alike when it is reported in the penultimate paragraph of the novel that “Comrade” Baruga’s death merits only a brief mention in the press, a clear sign of his fall from favor and power. Milosz’s depiction of the details of interrogations, his portrait of the increasing isolation and despair of Professor Gil, and above all his imputing of utter cynicism to the Communists—all of these aspects of the novel are the familiar fare of the Cold-War view of Socialist societies popularized by Orwell, Koestler, and a legion of lesser talents. At this level, the novel contains no surprises, and thus it is hardly surprising that it should be reprinted now nor that it enjoyed a great success in the middle and late 1950’s.

Simply to regard this text as one more weapon in the West’s continuing Cold War against the Soviet Union and the Socialist states of Eastern Europe, however, falls short on two counts. First, and most obvious, the novel is less about history or politics per se than about the relationship of individual conduct to the impersonal (not to say irrational or incomprehensible) determinations of historical and political circumstance. The center of the novel (a term that must be employed circumspectly when talking about the text’s structure, as will soon become clear) is the story of Peter Kwinto. Arrested by the Soviets in 1939 and transported beyond the Urals, he returns to Poland as a political education officer with the First Polish Division, an effective instrument of the...

(The entire section is 1776 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Bell, Daniel. Review in The New Republic. CXXXII (May 16, 1955), pp. 41-43.

Christian Science Monitor. September 10, 1982, p. B1.

Czarnecka, Ewa, and Aleksander Fiut. Conversations with Czesaw Miosz, 1987.

Guerard, Alfred. Review in Books Abroad. XXVIII (Autumn, 1954), pp. 436-437.

Harrington, Michael. Review in Commonweal. LXII (July 8, 1955), p. 356.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 22, 1982, p. 1.

Miller, Jim. Review in Newsweek. C (October 4, 1982), p. 72.

New Statesman. CIV, December 17, 1982, p. 44.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXI, October 4, 1982, p. 72.

Times Literary Supplement. December 24, 1982, p. 1426.

World Literature Today. CII (Summer, 1978). Special Miosz issue.