Fidelis on Zysiak and Śmiechowski and Piskała and Marzec and Kaźmierska and Burski, 'From Cotton and Smoke: Łódź - Industrial City and Discourses of Asynchronous Modernity, 1897-1994'

Agata Zysiak, Kamil Śmiechowski, Kamil Piskała, Wiktor Marzec, Kaja Kaźmierska, Jacek Burski. From Cotton and Smoke: Łódź - Industrial City and Discourses of Asynchronous Modernity, 1897-1994. Krakow: Jagiellonian University Press, 2019. 308 pp. $60.00 (paper), ISBN 978-83-233-4488-9

Reviewed by Malgorzata Fidelis (University of Illinois at Chicago)
Published on H-Urban (August, 2020)
Commissioned by Alexander Vari (Marywood University)

Printable Version:

Historians have debated the meaning of modernity both as a process and as part of the “very grammar of history.”[1] Yet modernity is not only a contested paradigm but also a way for people in every corner of the globe to make sense of their identities and their surroundings in the last two hundred years or so. The authors of From Cotton and Smoke: Łódź – Industrial City and Discourses of Asynchronous Modernity, 1897-1994 study the multiple understandings of modernity as they unfolded in the city of Łódź currently located in central Poland, less than a hundred miles southwest of Warsaw. The book illuminates how different visions of modernity, conditioned by global political and economic shifts and their localized expressions, manifested themselves in one place at different points in time.

The book’s power owes much to the positionality of the authors, who all have a connection to Łódź, and especially Łódź University as its graduates and/or faculty. The six authors, Agata Zysiak, Kamil Śmiechowski, Kamil Piskała, Wiktor Marzec, Kaja Kaźmierska, and Jacek Burski, mainly specialize in sociology and history. The result is a compelling combination of scholarly rigor with the detailed knowledge and passion of insiders.

Like other industrial cities, Łódź was a hub of modernity not only because it facilitated industrial production but also because it served as a repository of ideas, hopes, and fears about the future. A major center of textile production since the mid-nineteenth century, Łódź epitomized modernity in the multinational Russian Empire, acquiring the name of “Promised Land” from the powerful novel penned by Władysław Reymont in 1898. For the authors of From Cotton and Smoke, Łódź exemplifies “the rise and fall of industrial modernity in Eastern Europe” (p. 17). But from reading the book, one could argue that Łódź stands as much for east European modernity as for the global one: the ongoing, contradictory, and unfulfilled pursuit to provide betterment for humanity.

The book is divided into four chapters (in addition to the introduction and conclusion) that correspond to the four different visions of urban modernity between the 1890s and the 1990s. The story starts with Łódź as part of “rapid industrial growth in the framework of the tsarist borderlands.” After the cataclysm of the Great War, the vision of modernity changed in response to the new political frame of the independent nation-state that Poland became in 1918. That vision was not to last long as post-1918 modernity was destroyed by another world war. Between 1945 and 1948, Łódź became the epitome of post-World War II modernity that promised to eradicate the evils of capitalism under a hopeful socialist project. The book closes with the collapse of communism and “turbulent ‘Westernization’ after 1989” (p. 18). The obvious chronological gap here is the communist period between 1948 and 1989 when Łódź became an important expression of postwar “socialist” modernity not limited to industrial production but also encompassing the project of gender equality (the majority of Łódź’s factory workers were female), consumption, fashion, and the film industry.

The four moments on which the authors chose to focus are viewed from the perspective of the local Polish press. Accordingly, the authors stress the importance of language and public discourse as a “localized attempt” to “make sense of urban experience” and “actively transform it” (p. 18). The source material privileges the voices of Polish elites. In that sense, the book initiates an important discussion on how “situated modernity projects” were imagined in Łódź, opening avenues for further research, which should include factory workers and diverse ethnic groups that made the city (p. 27).

Łódź started as a vibrant multicultural city situated on the border between the Russian Empire and the West. Centered on cotton production, Łódź acquired significance after the collapse of the January Uprising in 1864 and the subsequent unification of the Polish lands with the Russian Empire. Between 1860 and 1913, the population of Łódź increased from 32,500 to nearly half a million. The cultural, ethnic, and confessional mosaic of Łódź, however, posed challenges to those who conceived of modernity as a nation-centered project. Poles comprised approximately 50 percent of the city’s inhabitants. The percentage of Jews and Germans stood at 36.4 and 11.5 percent respectively (p. 41). Like other textile industry centers at the time, Łódź factories relied heavily on the employment of women and children. These groups made up approximately 55 to 60 percent of the labor force and were paid from 30 to 70 percent of male wages (p. 42).  

At the closing of the nineteenth century, as Marzec, Śmiechowski, and Zysiak (the authors of chapter 1) show, dealing with the city’s social and ethnic diversity was an important preoccupation of the Polish elites. Given the large representation of Germans and Jews, and the position of many of them as owners of local factories and businesses, the Polish press struggled to define Łódź as a Polish city. What did Polishness mean exactly in the context of the multicultural population and staggering social inequalities? There was no one answer to this question. Progressive circles in Łódź promoted social reform and a “trans-ethnic citizenship” centered on commitment to the well-being of the city. As the authors explain, progressive elites understood Polishness politically, “as a conviction and readiness to work for the common local good of the city” (p. 87). These models of ethnic coexistence, however, came under attack from the growing Polish nationalist movement.  

The authors trace the growth of a specific strand of Polish nationalist discourse that aimed at “ethnicizing the economy” (p. 88). In this vision, economic and national identities became intertwined. The nationalist press increasingly pointed to capitalism as alien to the Polish national identity. “Correspondingly, if Poles became capitalist,” the authors note, “they would lose their Polishness, and if capitalism was sufficiently polonized to be actually Polish, it would cease to be capitalism” (p. 89). In other words, the exclusion of foreigners was critical to building specifically Polish industrial modernity, which was understood as morally superior. Such views, increasingly combined with antisemitism, became prevalent in public discourse after the Revolution of 1905.

Conflicting ideas of modernity raged in Łódź after World War I, when Poland became an independent nation-state. In contrast to multinational empires, ethnic diversity in an aspiring nation-state was seen not as something to be managed but as something to be eliminated in favor of the majority national group.  

As the author of chapter 2, Piskała, shows, competing visions of modernity followed the political trajectory of local elections. The Polish Socialist Party (PPS) dominated the city council in the first years after the war. The socialist program started with great hopes and ambitious projects to change the city from a hub of capitalism, greed, and immorality to a well-functioning urban organism of working people, services, and infrastructure. Nationalists countered these efforts with their own program of “national capitalism,” which entailed organizing social and economic life according to “a solidaristic vision of capitalism” in which the propertied cooperated with workers as members of a unified national community. As the author explains, “‘national instinct’ was to correct the imperfections of the market mechanism allowing the reconciliation of both seemingly contradictory pursuits and the diverse expectations of various social groups” (p. 132). Obstacles to national capitalism were usually found in alien ethnic groups, and especially in the Jewish community.

The chapter rightly foregrounds the social dimension of the modernity project. When studying a multicultural place like Łódź, it is tempting to be fixated on national and religious identities. But social categories mattered a great deal. Both socialists and nationalists competed over the allegiance of the working class. While nationalists sought to incorporate workers into their vision of “national capitalism,” socialist leaders distanced themselves from national categories by promoting a “proletarian modernity” as an antidote to the exploitative “bourgeois modernity” (p. 125). As this chapter shows, the conflict between the two visions of modernity intensified in the late 1930s and was in tandem with the European trends at the time. “It would be no exaggeration,” Piskała writes, “to say that Łódź was at that time one of the most fervent arenas of the ‘civil war’ sweeping through Europe” (p. 158).

An opportunity to implement a socialist vision of modernity came after World War II, but under different political conditions and in conjunction with the actual national homogenization of Poland. Although the authors do not explore the ethnic shifts during and after the war in depth, it is important to underscore that post-World War II modernity entailed the fulfillment of the nationalist desire of ethnic uniformity. The Jewish community perished in the Holocaust while Germans either fled or were deported after the war. Between 1945 and 1948, as Zysiak (the author of chapter 3) demonstrates, Łódź was elevated to the unequivocal symbol of positive modernity.  

Zysiak is at her best when she discusses the vibrancy of cultural and intellectual life in postwar Łódź. The modern character of the city, which suffered relatively little destruction during the war, was enhanced by a significant influx of intellectuals and professionals from Warsaw. At the time, Łódź expanded well beyond its industrial function. “Now it possessed an administrative apparatus of nationwide importance,” the author writes, “and outposts of culture and scientific hubs emerged—for the first three years after the war it was the most important city in the country” (p. 168). A new university was opened as were new publishing houses, cultural institutions, and cafés.

The chapter highlights the city’s leftist orientation and anti-capitalist postwar politics. The once “unlucky product of predatory capitalism” now had a chance to become a radiant socialist city of workers (p. 178). Resources were put into constructing a “functionalist city,” which entailed building attractive residential areas with apartment complexes, schools, stores, nurseries, and libraries. But how can we reconcile this left-wing vision with the destruction of Łódź’s multicultural history?

The author could have engaged in a more interpretative discussion of the contradictions embedded in postwar modernity. Zysiak points to the “rhetoric of appeasement” in the local press, which silenced the discussions about the Holocaust and the city’s multicultural past. In contrast to previous visions of modernity, “no image of an opponent was constructed” (p. 180). According to the author, “The Jewish population of the city and its fate were ignored partly because of the clichéd anti-communist antisemitic views of the readers and not the antisemitism of the journalists” (p. 182). The two dominant parties, the PPS and the Polish Workers’ Party (PPR) were careful not to be associated with the stereotype of “Judeo-Communism” popular before the war. But what does this say about the “harmonious modernity” that postwar political elites attempted to build?

From “the heyday of the modernist dream” in the late 1940s, the book then fast forwards to 1989 (p. 209). The strongest parts of this chapter, authored by Śmiechowski and Burski, deal with the micro-historical analysis of Łódź’s transition to liberal democracy. This analysis not only includes the press reactions to de-industrialization but also offers glimpses into everyday life and the fate of the workers. The chapter features interesting photographs of street food and street trading that helped Łódź residents survive the harsh economic reality of the transition. By the early 1990s, the history of Łódź made a full circle, from the early capitalism of the tsarist borderlands to the neoliberal market economy of the post-communist era. In the process, the industrial modernity that Łódź epitomized was no longer subject to hopeful improvement. Rather, it became subject to painful and deliberate destruction.    

The book is rich and meticulously researched. Yet I wish the conceptual framework of modernity was more fleshed out. The book starts and ends with a critical approach to modernity, the recognition of its multiplicity and its nonlinear quality. But this approach is not always followed through in the body of the analysis. The authors seem to go back and forth between distancing themselves from “modernity” and using a modernist vocabulary. Such terms and phrases as “backwardness” (for example, pp. 37, 172, 217), “the collective consciousness of the West,” or “the Polish cultural substance” echo outdated modernization theory (p. 257). One also wonders about such offhand statements as “the city’s imperfect modernity” (p. 259) or “the failure of modernization” (usually with regard to the communist period as on page 217). How are modernity and modernization defined in these cases? And what is the standard for modernity’s success or failure? One cannot resist but note that some idealized Western norm operates here.

Likewise, the relationship between the “core” and “periphery” could have been problematized in a more systematic way by engaging with works of such scholars as Larry Wolff, Frederick Cooper, Ann Laura Stoler, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and others. On the one hand, the authors situate Łódź in the theoretical frame of multiple modernities. On the other hand, they often point to the “peripheral” status of Łódź that exacerbated the ills of industrialization, such as widespread poverty, low wages, and rampant disease. Descriptions of poverty in Łódź in the nineteenth century, however, are strikingly similar to what we find in accounts produced by middle-class observers in many other parts of the world. Moreover, tsarist repression and the readiness of Cossacks to put labor unrest down “with guns and sabers” do not seem distinct either (the heavily armed police in American cities, for example, served a similar function) (p. 42). Rather, they represent a broader pattern of violence that went into the making of the Industrial Revolution, as recently shown by historian Priya Satya.[2] In that sense, Łódź emerges as an integral part of global industrial modernity rather than a distinct “peripheral” case of modernity in caricature as the authors seem to suggest.

That this book inspires such important questions about the history and nature of modernity is a testimony to the significance and complexity of the arguments the authors tackle. Above all, From Cotton and Smoke is an original, ambitious, and thought-provoking work. It should open fruitful debates about Polish modernity and its place on the global map of industrial and post-industrial developments.


[1]. Introduction to “AHR Roundtable: Historians and the Question of ‘Modernity,’” American Historical Review 116, no. 2 (June 2011): 631.

[2]. Priya Satya, Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018).

Citation: Malgorzata Fidelis. Review of Zysiak, Agata; Śmiechowski, Kamil; Piskała, Kamil; Marzec, Wiktor; Kaźmierska, Kaja; Burski, Jacek, From Cotton and Smoke: Łódź - Industrial City and Discourses of Asynchronous Modernity, 1897-1994. H-Urban, H-Net Reviews. August, 2020.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.