The latest book by Mirosław Pęczak is an overview of subcultures in the People's Republic of Poland. It came out in the same year as a study of the punk subculture in People's Poland and neighboring countries in the 1980s by Remigiusz Kasprzycki (Libron: Dekada buntu) as well as a related book on the subject of mainly British punk in the 1970s, England's Dreaming (Warsaw: Axis Mundi, March 2013). Pęczak's book is different from both. It is a monograph tackling seven subcultures and a host of related formations of late People's Poland. It is slightly surprising that in comparison with Kasprzycki's monumental 420 pages and Savage's 600, Pęczak's work spans about 180. The structure of Subkultury w PRL is as unique as its subject matter. The book is divided into chapters on all the major subcultures, ordered chronologically: from chuligani to punk, followed by one about the decline of People's Poland in the 1980s and the practices of the subculture-related phenomena, like Pomarańczowa Alternatywa. It is a good way to present these subcultures, because it underlines continuity, including their attitudes toward the regime and the different resources they each had in their symbolic or actual struggles against the system, whose attitude toward non-conformist cultural phenomena also evolved over time.
However, the problem with this structure is that it also groups the subcultures into two distinct and supposedly impermeable categories: gang-like (i.e. “tough," closed structure) and bohemian (“soft," based on the principle of freedom. See page 11 for Pęczak's explanation of this division). The first group was originated by the oldest Polish subculture, chuligani, and includes git ludzie, szalikowcy and skinheads, while the other's roots are in chuligani's contemporaries, bikiniarze, and encompasses hippies and punks. This division is quite artificial, especially when it comes to punk, which Pęczak describes as a unique subculture, bordering on a social movement, however he still places it firmly on the bohemian side of his continuum.
According to oral history and ethnographic sources, which Dr. Pęczak almost completely ignores, punk is a subculture that falls on either side of this imagined fence, or rather sits somewhat uncomfortably on it. Both in the 1980s and the 1990s, large cohorts of punks – especially those who did not engage directly in the production of music, unabashedly admitted to the practice of hooliganism (“uliczna chuliganka"/ “street hooliganism") as a defining trait of their engagement in punk. Chuliganka has occupied a significant place among punk practices, alongside vagrancy and the consumption of alcoholic beverages outdoors. Cider-punk and street punk are fixtures of Polish punk and are perhaps more indigenous than the first wave musicians' style that Pęczak emphasizes.
Dr. Pęczak observes (i.e. on p. 134) that in many cases the nature of one's membership in a subculture was unstable and subject to either growth or estrangement. In this sole instance when he explains this fluctuating nature of engagement in punk, he consults his own memories of encountering a kid who looked like a punk in 1987. There is no further information about this particular “punk," nor does the author refer to his relations or conversations with any other punks. Therefore it is inaccurate that the author's “excellent first-hand familiarity" with subcultures as “a participant" (p. 193, and 194) is a trait in any way enhancing his work. While he may have observed subcultural phenomena while participating in events like the Monar meeting where he heard the comments quoted on p. 134, he has not used his ethnographic findings at all in the other chapters.
And yet this book is valuable despite its forgoing of the area of fieldwork research, so important in studying subcultures. Any information on the Polish subcultures that came before hippies is so hard to come by that dr. Pęczak's book automatically becomes an asset. He makes the transnational connections, e.g. with the Soviet and American equivalents, that place the Polish chuligani in a proper context. He provides ethnographic detail from a study of Warsaw hooligans published in 1960 (e.g. p. 27). On the basis of that, he theorizes about the proximity of chuligani and bikiniarze (thus questioning the supposedly sharp divide between these subcultures; p. 28).
The following section on git ludzie is more extensive. It is a little known subculture despite being quite a common phenomenon in its time. Pęczak has published on the subject before (notably in his Pocket Dictionary of Youth Subcultures; Semper: 1992). In this expanded take on git ludzie, he discusses their concept of otherness versus local character and how it related to gitowcy's practices and attitudes toward the outside world. He also elaborates on sex and sexual taboos within this subculture, which depended on its associations with the prison and criminal underground. This analysis is based primarily on the findings of a team of researchers from Warsaw University working in the years 1974-1976 (see p. 40).
Pęczak's next target was the still thriving and much alive subculture of szalikowcy – Polish football hooligans. I am surprised by his choice of sources for this section, especially one that quoted at length, which he labels a zine, but which appears to be but a short-lived blog, written in 2008-2009 (see p. 52-53). This blog is only partially devoted to Polish football and contains references to nationalist sentiment and organizations, including Narodowe Odrodzenie Polski – who Polish punks would call “naziole" (nazis), which the author does not address. A lengthy section of the historical background of Polish szalikowcy is based on this blog and no discussion of the links between neo-nazi organizations and football hooligans is offered. I am not implying that such links exist, but there appear to, if this particular source is to be trusted. There is, however, a lot of useful statistical data in this section, and a valuable comparison of hooligans in People's Poland with their Western European counterparts.
The final of the “tough" subcultures discussed by Pęczak is skinheads. The significance of thorough and honest academic research on this subculture cannot be overestimated, therefore Pęczak's literature overview that explains their origins in England should be applauded (p. 57). On p. 58, Pęczak begins to address the ideology of Polish skinheads, including their relationship to punks, nationalism, and football hooligans. I only wish he had cited the sources of his musings, since the subject is so obscure even today, due to decades of misunderstanding and distrust between skinheads and the rest of society. The mere three pages devoted to skinheads, as opposed to the six on szalikowcy, and significantly more on the other subcultures, leaves the reader wanting more. This section can be considered an important first step for Polish scholars to undertake a serious study of this subculture, which is also very much alive today and presents a complex and fascinating object of inquiry for the fields of social and cultural history and sociology.
Pęczak's discussion of “soft" subcultures: bikiniarze, hippies and punks, is more extensive than that of the “toughs." Bikiniarze are introduced mainly with two sources: a 2005 academic treatment of the subculture (by Maciej Chłopek), and the popular press from the 1950s, as well as references to the Polish writer Tyrmand. Transnational links with American, Soviet and French predecessors are again accurately pointed out. The author admits that the composition of this subculture was more complex than the “soft" designation may suggest, and included a group that he labels bikiniarze-chuligani (p.66).
The 31-page chapter on the Polish hippies is primarily based on the memoirs of Kamil Sipowicz, entitled: Hipisi w PRL-u. Its argument is that Polish hippies were different from their American counterparts because they did not have access to similar resources and they were not rebelling against capitalism and consumerism. Considering my insufficient familiarity with the subject, I am not able to critique this argument: I can however offer the commentary that conducting even a limited oral history study in order to provide a foundation for these statements would not have been outside of the author's possibilities, especially if he has the contacts in the subcultural world that he is believed to have (see Afterword, p. 193). One example of a direction in which such a project could go is an inquiry into the few actual Polish hippie bands, which “did not break through to the bloodstream of Polish music." (p.89) Surely some memories of these bands must survive among ex-hippies or maybe the musicians themselves can be reached? This may be an important chapter of Polish music history just waiting to be committed to paper.
Other sources on hippies that Dr. Pęczak consulted are the documents of investigations held by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and opinion articles in the popular press. Here we encounter an important dimension of studying subcultures in totalitarian regimes: the perspective of the people assigned to observe and suppress subcultural activity. Remigiusz Kasprzycki has investigated this in Dekada buntu, with the added comparative transnational dimension that is useful in capturing the intricacies of life under varied degrees of rigidity of the people's republics' regimes. Again, in this respect I'd like to underline the need to undertake an oral history of these participants' side of the story. Not quite another “Conversation with an executioner," but the stories and the attitude, then versus now, may be a worthwhile direction for future research.
When it comes to punk, a phenomenon “on the borderline between a subculture and a social movement," (p. 106), Pęczak presents a thorough, although slightly scattered picture. He outlines the history of Polish punk, quoting from Bartosz Kurowski and Mikołaj Lizut and scholarly work from the 1980s, as well as recently published memoirs of prominent musicians. The author then discusses the political aspects of punk, tracing in documents its links with such organizations as RSA and Międzymiastówka Anarchistyczna (p. 115-116), and underlines the distrust of ideology that some leading punk musicians shared in the beginning, which he illustrates by quoting from Rozwadowski's memoir. On page 124, he incorrectly identifies the song "Babilon upadł" as a Kryzys song, when it fact it was performed by Brygada Kryzys, whose subcultural status was qualitatively different than that of Kryzys.
In the chapter on the last decade of PRL, Pęczak discusses rituals, attitudes, organization and communication practices, including song lyrics, of the various subcultures, and their relation to mainstream cultural practices, as well as the actions, attitudes and achievements of the political opposition (e.g. p. 137, quoting from an interview with Krzysztof Grabowski, or 142). Some of these practices, or encounters with the mainstream and law enforcement are barely mentioned, however, without pointing to sources, which is a pity because it would be interesting to find out more about them. This section is overall very useful, however. It is here that the author explains the reasons behind the relative ease of development of subcultural and related groups in the last decade of PRL. The issue of the risks connected with editing zines (p. 131) merits more attention, however, on account of the differences between the monitoring of zines by SB in small towns versus big cities. The most powerful part of this chapter is the discussion of Pomarańczowa Alternatywa's actions, origins, and goals (p.139, 143-152). What lacks here is a linking of Alternatywa's origins not only with the Dutch provos, but also with situationism (146). This minor shortcoming is superseded by Pęczak's interesting speculations on the role of the Polish street in Alternatywa's events. (150-151)
When it comes to theories of communication, the author makes good points about the differences between second and third circulation (158). This analysis would have been strengthened by examples of the rituals and slang terms that Pęczak mentions on page 159, connected with running second circulation presses. These differences are also brought to light by the comments of Tomasz Lipiński, quoted on p. 161, in which he discerns two distinct periods of Solidarity's activism in the 1980s. It would be interesting to confront these comments with more oral histories of punks who became involved with the subculture at different points in the decade. For example, my oral histories seem to confirm the perception of two different Solidarities in the eyes of punks.
The final section of the last chapter is devoted to the development of the language of Polish rock music, and here are found numerous useful observations, e.g. about the status of punk rock versus previous rock styles (p. 170). In his discussion of specific lyrics, Pęczak mixes up well known punk bands like Dezerter or Abaddon, and rock bands like Püdelsi, with bands whose provenance or style, and therefore the relation to his analysis, is unclear. This section would have benefited from a discussion of the differences in the communication practices and subcultural statuses of these bands.
In the conclusion, Pęczak introduces an interesting concept of Margaret Mead's, “emigrants in time," in relation to those left out after the transformation of 1989, and his overview of the early nineties' frictions at Jarocin festival illustrates this concept. Nevertheless, simply relying on militia's records to establish whether or not the regime indeed favored one subculture over another (as in the case of the belief that skinheads were encouraged to freely attack punks, see p. 185) is insufficient and begs for more insight.
Overall, the book is a great introduction to and a general overview of the state of Polish subculture studies to date. What it lacks is an innovative approach to the studying of subcultures in terms of methodology. In the year 2014, when we are on average forty or more years removed from the time when the subcultures discussed by Pęczak either first appeared or exhausted their lifespan, it would seem that nothing is more urgent, second only to recording the memories of the fighters and survivors of World War Two, than collecting these experiences from all over Poland. That is why I embarked on a project of a transnational and trans-regional oral history and ethnography of Polish and American punk for my doctoral dissertation – because I believe that no amount of theorizing and speculation based on archival and secondary sources can replace the rich ethnographic detail of actual people's experiences – both those who were in the spotlight due to their production of music, but also those who simply stuck with their subculture of choice for years and can share stories of shows, fights, football matches, hitchhiking across the country, battling the law enforcement, etc. These stories cannot be extracted from the militia's reports or the published memoirs of the punk rockers on stage. Pęczak himself seems to agree with my position in principle, since he criticizes Dick Hebdige for “ignoring the opinions of the participants in the subculture." Our author says the whole approach of the Birmingham School was “unnecessarily speculative and typical of 'concepts created while sitting at a desk.'" (p. 108) Does he realize, however, that he is guilty of the same crime?
Notwithstanding that shortcoming, I recommend Subkultury w PRL as a thorough and eye-opening volume, especially for those new to subculture studies or those, like myself, who are only familiar with select subcultures and would like to know where to start inquiries into the more obscure ones and those further removed in time, which, like bikiniarze or git-ludzie, may seem no more than ghosts today, especially from the perspective of those born too late to remember life before 1989. That is why it is a very worthwhile undertaking and I am glad that Narodowe Centrum Kultury took it upon themselves to publish this book.
 Remigiusz Kasprzycki, Dekada buntu: punk w Polsce i krajach sąsiednich w latach 1977-1989 (Kraków: Libron, 2013), Chapter 6, “Pod czujnym okiem władzy."
 E.g. on page 138 – the comment about the militia forcing arrested punks to rip out the studs from their leather jackets with their teeth. No source of this happening is quoted – I wonder if this is a record of some informal interviews Dr Pęczak conducted himself.
 Marta Marciniak, “A Transnational History of Punk Communities in Poland and the U.S." Forthcoming. Lexington Books, 2014.