The Fluid State of Contemporary Poland
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I am not quite convinced that "nation," "state," and "society" are the best notions to describe the present situation in Poland and the turmoil of our new democracy. I feel that words like "memory," "revolution" and others, that have deeper emotional connotations would suit better. Therefore I shall speak rather about the project that lies behind the present ideas and events than about the state of the matter, as the matter has not a state, it is liquid, flexible and unclear. Much today depends on the interpretation of the past, and particularly of the "transition to democracy" between 1989 and 1991. There are several different schools of thinking and although the differences seem methodological or historical, in reality they have close political bearings.
1. The transition to democracy was in reality an act of freeing the nation from oppression. It remains to be decided if it was a foreign oppression, a domestic one or mixed. This decision has important consequences because of the problem of the so- called nomenklatura. Were the members of the communist party agents of foreign power or only plain opportunists? Should they be treated as traitors or rather as banal pests? The more one stresses the fact of the oppression of the nation, the more one is nationalist, and the tougher the measures one proposes. Practically the only political capital of the nationalist right in Poland consists now of the presumed social hatred of former communists. That is the only rallying point for the nationalists; therefore the weaker they are, the louder they call for revenge.
2. The transition to democracy is an opportunity to build a strong and independent liberal state. I am aware of the fact that there is no one liberal view, but I have to simplify things. This view tends to stress the importance of institutions. What really happened was a change from bad institutions (courts, parliament, banks, etc.) to good institutions; and once institutions are good and working the transformation is completed. Of course, society has to learn how to use these good institutions, but that will happen sooner or later, it's inevitable. An efficient and strong state constitutes the precondition for everything else. The attitude of Mr. Balcerowicz and also of Prime Minister Bielecki gave a good example of this tendency. Society, with its irrational behavior and emotions is from this point of view a nuisance, although it will eventually become enlightened.
3. The transition to democracy is an enormous effort towards building a society, or as it was repeated much too often, a civil society. Poland, for the partisans of this attitude, has a much better starting point because of "Solidarity" and all other underground and dissident activities in the seventies and eighties. It is only society that can offer foundations for the new order, and because of that, society must be listened to. The mistake of the liberal government is not that of bad intentions, but that of trying to build the new order from above instead of from below. This idolatry of civil society is precious for every admirer of Alexis de Tocqueville, but also rather superficial and demagogic because of the very weakness of civil society in Poland. The funny thing is that among the partisans of the civil society interpretation we now find former communists.
Things are however not so simple. The idea of the nation is not a property of the right wing of the political spectrum, and the idea of civil society is not one of the left. As much as it is a dispute about goals, it is also a difference of approaches towards the means. And, as we know only too well from past European experiences, means are more real than values, ideals and finally ideologies.
Quite probably the simplest answer would be that all means should be combined in the effort to construct political democracy and free market economy as soon as possible. Therefore one could use the nationalistic idea of the strength of the ethnic community, the liberal belief in the power of state institutions and the leftist desire to allow the society to be its own master to enable the quickest possible evolution. Perhaps we are in a period in which the truce between ideologies and the combination of all admissible means constitutes a best solution. That is an answer that probably would have been given by the President, who likes to repeat that everybody should be allowed to work in his own way for the good of the country.
But what may be an expedient political slogan is not necessarily either the truth or the best of all possible solutions. Without any doubt nation, state and society are complementary values or goals and no existing state based on the Western tradition can totally ignore any one of them. But each state has to deal with two problems: first - what are its priorities, and second - how to react to the possible radical tendencies which can have a national, state and social character. In other words, how to defend itself against nationalism, enlightened despotism and anarchism?
The answer is to maintain a good balance. This is simple and probably sufficient for the democracies with long traditions. But it is simply and totally inadequate for the so-called new democracies. You don't start with a situation of good balance and harmony, you start with an upheaval. Therefore you cannot avoid the question of priorities. I do not hope to solve the problem, I would only like to make some remarks concerning the possible ways of looking for the best of always weak solutions.
Since Mr. Mazowiecki became the Prime Minister we have had in Poland governments with an undoubtedly liberal tendency. We also have, as sociological poles show it consistently, an overwhelmingly liberal public opinion. Therefore the danger of nationalism seems to be either exaggerated or nonexistent. The same might be said about the part of the left that has slightly anarchic inclinations. Why then such a feeling of fear and uncertainty so widely spread among the political class? Is it only a typical exaggeration of left of center intellectuals, as nationalists say, or it only a tendency to defend one's own positions as social democrats try to prove? No, the fear has a very solid basis. The liberal governments, as Mr. Bielecki repeatedly says, cannot in reality behave according to liberal opinion. It would have been marvelous if good institutions were the best and only solution because it is not so difficult to introduce good institutions. It takes some time, naturally, but finally when we have them, we are supposed to have finished the transition to democracy period and become a normal democracy. But after a year of marvelous and extremely tough policy of Mr. Balcerowicz, the liberal government has found out that it cannot just simply leave state-owned enterprises to their own fate and hope that they either adapt to market economy or collapse. Their resistance proved to be much stronger and labor problems much greater than it was foreseen.
What then can the liberal government do? Go back to the despotic principle of making all important decisions or hope that the future of free market economy is going to come but only much later that it was hoped for? Public opinion can easily approve of despotic solutions, because it remembers well the times of so-called enlightened despotism and also because it is simple to put the whole burden of responsibility on the shoulders of the government. But the government knows very well that this road leads to nowhere.
Mr. Walesa understands very well the public's mood and threatens sometimes to take matters into his hands, but he also knows very well that the times of the command economy are over. But the liberal illusion of a self-governing society and a free-market economy has recently produced disasters and chaos, which may very well lead to real despotism. Therefore Poles with their liberal government are in a strange situation. Nearly everybody believes in the priority of the state, and nearly nobody believes in the efficiency of state institutions. The anarchic escape to the efficiency of mafia-like informal organizations may easily be the next step.
Here we come to the interesting problem of the ways of creating civil society. Basically there are two approaches: associations or corporations. I am (and it would seem to be obvious) for the associations in the Tocquevillian tradition. But is it really the best solution for the new democracy in Poland? How much can we reasonably expect of the so-called normal citizen who has spent most of his life in a political system that constantly discouraged individual activity? How often can we repeat slogans about the common good and how much can we trust the Christian spirit of the community? Not very much, I am afraid. Therefore the mafia-like corporate organizations consisting of family, colleagues, and colleagues of colleagues, may be a quite a sensible solution to the problem of human involvement in the public realm. It seems that pure and egoistic interest constitutes the best starting point for the gradual development of the understanding of public good. Because, contrary to the statement often pronounced in Poland, "nothing is normal," and contrary to the most sympathetic illusions of thinkers like Hannah Arendt, people are not naturally interested in politics. But then what about a civil society that would be like an immense mafia corporate structure with the government playing the function of capo di tutti capi? Is it a dream of the nationalists, is it a generally speaking leftist or rightist project? Is the nation a corporate dream? I would not be so sure. We know how easily corporate structures become open in a free society and gradually change into at least half-associations; we know also that the Catholic Church is one of the greatest corporate institutions and nevertheless has a positive influence. We should remember that the Church is not a liberal institution and that many other institutions in a country like Poland can exist only if they, at least for a time being, would not have liberal inclinations. Does it mean that Poland is bound to become an illiberal country? Not at all. Everything depends on the brand of corporate arrangements.
The struggles that will go on during the next decade can be observed already now, although the language of the dispute is still muddled and same people often take different sides depending on the present mood. Soon all of this will be more clear and we shall see society opposed to the nation. In other words, we shall see individuals fighting against collective structures. Not yet a "normal" individual, but a man that becomes more and more conscious of his or her private interests and only later of the broader interests of the community-interests like schools, roads, etc., which are easily understood because nearly everybody has children and nearly everybody commutes.
But such a minimalist vision of narrowly corporate interests gradually evolving into more general and at the same time more anonymous associations has in the eyes of a nationalist too much to do with the individual and his basic interests and not enough with so-called ideals. People, we are told, have to have broader points of reference, have to cherish such values as tradition, nation, the history of the struggle for independence, etc. I very strongly agree with such a statement, although I am afraid such wishful thinking may easily change into the demand for coercion. People do not want to take interest in patriotic feasts and singing, therefore we have to make them take interest. Children do not want to listen to the old tales about unending Polish insurrections, so we have to make them learn. We shall have soon a very patriotic and highly motivated society.
This is of course ridiculous. No one in history has ever made anybody idealistic and patriotic. I feel very disturbed by the nearly total disappearance of the traditional patriotic attitude, but I feel as well that nothing can be done about that. We cannot win the struggle for democracy if we try to impose the priority of the nation over that of society. Perhaps it is not civil society that Polish and other East European dissidents fought for, but it is a free society, and that should be enough.
As to the problem of the nation, I tend to agree with those who try to find a quiet way of accepting it as a fact and try to avoid its unpleasant and unnecessary consequences. We have a lot to learn from the experiences of the Western European community. There is a fair chance that we shall repeat its worst ideas. Since the presidential elections in Poland in the autumn of 1990, there is widespread opinion that some politicians are Europeans and some are not, that to show patriotic feelings or to be more interested in local problems than in universal ones may lead to xenophobia, chauvinism, anti-semitism, and everything else. I am fully convinced that such a way of dividing society, speaking about "two Polands," one enlightened and the second barbarian, is not only untrue, but also stupid and dangerous.
Polish intellectuals have often betrayed their society. They have committed serious crimes in the Stalinist period but they would have committed another serious crime if they forget that it is precisely their task to offer to a troubled society new propositions and new language, rather than to be its critic and judge. Society is neither bad nor good, it is much better educated than one would have thought and much more enterprising, but at the same time it has little to be proud of. We have to remember that the Polish Pope and Polish Nobel Prize Winners are important because they bring us much needed pride. We can feel a certain uneasiness when we move among people who have forgotten their past and who do not know their future, but-to repeat once more-we move among free people.
Recently it became fashionable in Poland to criticize the Polish Church. I agree that Church representatives have committed in the last years more mistakes than before, and that there is an important problem of the Church in a changing society, but I disagree with those who suddenly started to think that Church is just a relic of the past. And similarly I agree that Polish society is not yet a modern democratic society, that a lot has to be done, that it shows sometimes rather childish sentimentality, but I do not like it when people who recently admired the society that had created "Solidarity," now think about it as if it were a relic.
Finally, we have to admit that since nothing is clear in the Polish situation, the most important thing is to give help to the free individual on his or her way to become a free citizen.
Dr. Marcin Król is Professor of History at the University of Warsaw Institute of Applied Sciences. He is author of several books and is the editor-in-chief of "Res Publica," an independent intellectual monthly. Dr. Król has lectured extensively on the history of Polish Europe and last visited the University of Michigan campus in 1991. He gave this lecture during his visit in February 1994.