The university students of Poland have done a remarkable thing. Most of the news stories about their recent exploits have stressed the fact that they wanted an organization of their own. But more important is that they insisted on the right to get an education without having their time cluttered up with political studies.
Ever since the Russians imposed a Moscow-trained, communist government on post- war Poland the university students there have been forced to take courses both in the Russian language and in Marxist theory. The main thrust of student agitation in Poland over the past year has been liberation from the compulsion to study Russian and Marxism.
In other words, to the students of Poland today Marxism is a sheer, useless, unmitigated bore. They have lived for 25 years under a government which takes its doctrines from Karl Marx. It practices the kind of economics and politics which have grown up in the Soviet Union in the name of Marxism. Poland's students are fed up with it. They have rejected Marxism. They know all they need to know about it. Their desire is to get on with a real education.
Forming a union is a means to an end. In this case forming a student organization, which they have achieved, is to gain control over the curriculum -- just as their student predecessors did in the early days of universities in Europe.
In the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries students literally took control of the universities in much of Europe. Curiously, it went the other way in France and England where "the masters" were in charge. But in Italy, Spain, and parts of the Empire the students picked the lecturers, gave them contracts by the year, made them put up a deposit from which fines were paid if a lecturer was tardy, or missed class, or in any way failed to perform what he was expected to perform. He was dropped entirely if he failed to attract at least five students to his lectures.
Those early university students wanted an education. They knew what courses they wanted to take. They hired the person they thought most qualified in the subject. And they monitored his performance.
For further details on student activities in some of Europe's earliest universities see an article entitled "Student Power in the Middle Ages" by Alan B. Cobban in the February issue of the magazine History Today.
Polish students have one thing very much in common with those medieval students who dominated their own universities. They need a good education to get ahead in life. The medieval students were men heading for careers in government, the church, or the law courts. A university degree in much of Europe today means the difference between life on a factory lathe or life in management, either in or out of government.
The obvious fact is that to get ahead in Poland today the Russian language is not necessary, except for those few having to deal with the country's Russian managers. And Marxism has become a waste of good student time.
People in the West who have never brushed up against communism on the hoof are still sometimes afraid of it. But one of the more important facts about the world we live in today is that people who have lived under communism or near it have rejected it. The only thing that keeps it going is the military power of the Soviet state. Without that foundation communism as a political theory would largely recede into the political past.
It is not entirely dead yet. It does have its uses for a new dictatorship in an economically undeveloped country. People are apparently more willing to endure a tyrannical government, at least for a while, if the tyranny is exercised in the name of "the people" than if it is just exercised for the satisfaction of the new rulers. Communism purports to be for the benefit of "the people."
That rationale for communism has, however, outlived its usefulness in Eastern Europe. At the moment Poland is the most visible case where it has become obvious that communism serves the interests of the Soviet state, not of the people of Poland, which is precisely why almost the entire population of Poland has insisted on purging the system of some of its wor st features. The two worst are incompetence and corruption.