Democracy at the Periphery
This text is a translation of the first chapter, and portions of the third and tenth chapters, of Zdzislaw Krasnodebski's Demokracja peryferii (Gdansk: slowo/obraz terytoria (www.terytoria.com), 2003. 351 pages. Paper. In Polish. Translated by permission by the Sarmatian Review staff.
Chapter 1. The failure of a certain project
In the thirteenth year of postcommunist transformation Polish democracy is in crisis. It is not that the democratic institutions themselves are threatened, or that a possibility of replacing democracy by some other political system is being considered. Rather, the crisis has to do with the perceived significance of democratic institutions and their legitimacy, which in turn influences their functioning. While Poles can congratulate themselves on getting rid of Communism and building a democratic system, their success is only partial. The quality of Polish democracy is worsening, while the opposite was expected. The warnings come from many directions. On March 9, 2002, Janina Paradowska stated in Polityka that "since 1991, Polish politics have been deteriorating at a remarkable speed." Echoing the Sejm Speaker, she pointed out that "a village drinking bar appears to be an oasis of peace, good manners, and personal refinement by comparison with what is going on in the Parliament. The Sejm has become a place of unprecedented aggressiveness, vulgarity, intolerance, and ordinary ignorance." In his remarks on "how we lost Poland," Tadeusz Kowalik, a noted left-wing economist, remarked that "twenty years after the appearance of Solidarity and twelve years after the fall of Communism, [Poland] has produced one of the least just social systems the European continent has known in the second part of the twentieth century" (Gazeta Wyborcza, March 23-24, 2002). Rafal Ziemkiewicz, a right-wing journalist whose economic views differ significantly from Kowalik's, asked whether the Poles deserve independence. He refused to answer this question with an unequivocal "yes" and instead noted that "one can observe a pathology in virtually all areas of public life. . . . Among these pathologies the most significant seems to be the atrophy of a sense of common good. The Poles feel that they have been given independence owing to some incomprehensible collusion of the country's elites, and they are unable to value that gift sufficiently" (Rzeczpospolita, April 12-13, 2002). Cezary Michalski maintains that "thirteen years after the symbolic breakthrough on 4 June 1989, Polish politics is in demise. We are the first country in Central Europe . . . to have arrived at a one-party system"(ëycie, June 7, 2002). In Michalski's opinion, the fate of Polish democracy will be decided by the new and deepening class divisions between those who have succeeded in finding a place for themselves in the new system, and those who have not.
The commonly accepted notion of modernity, influenced by Max Weber, discounts the role of Catholicism, of the Renaissance, and of the European South.
These and other observers see different reasons for this state of affairs and they offer different solutions, but they all agree in their negative assessment both of the political elite and of society at large. Until recently, our major political commentators (all of whom belong to the circle of "Polish Liberals") considered such sweeping criticism to be "an insult to the Third Republic." Today all commentators, whether from the right or from the left, admit that the pathologies are deep and real.
Among ordinary citizens the degree of trust in elected representatives is low. There are good reasons for this. The state of affairs in the country indicates that these political representatives are not sufficiently qualified to govern, and their behavior is motivated by rules that have little to do with those obtaining in countries where the rule of law prevails. While in healthy democracies the conflict of interests and using public office for private good and self-enrichment are punishable by law, in Poland they are often regarded as a manifestation of an enterprising spirit and of remarkable political skills. Economic scandals erupt on a regular basis. While murders and banditry are not common in Polish political life so far, they do happen with increasing frequency. Many politicians are uncomfortable even with that extremely watered-down form of "lustration" of former Communists that became law in 1997; they work to water it down further. The vast number of cases where prosecution has been stopped or where criminals have not been found does not increase the public's trust in the meting out of justice. Even less encouraging is the fact that politicians and economic entrepreneurs seem to have trouble with the law only after they had "lost their political support," to use an expression recently coined in Poland. The Polish IRS remains amazingly unable to collect proper taxes. Some observers express fears that freedom of the press is being chipped away, while public television has almost reverted to being a government mouthpiece (see the report on this in Rzeczpospolita, May 13, 2002).
Poles and Germans held very different attitudes toward the Republican tradition.
All this indicates that we are not talking about accidental occurrences. Rather, it appears that we are dealing with a systemic fault of Polish democracy. Needless to say, this is contrary to the hopes we had when Communism fell. Our ambitions were just the contrary.
In this book I would like to show that to some extent, the situation indicates the failure of a certain model of Polish democracy and of the political philosophy that lies at its foundation and legitimizes it. I would name this model "Polish Liberalism." It was articulated by a vast majority of the Polish intelligentsia and it has dominated Polish intellectual life since 1989. The expression "Polish Liberalism" would certainly be accepted by the creators of this model. "Polish Liberalism" was more than a political program, because political programs are by definition numerous at any time. This was almost a political religion where political decisions and programs metamorphosed themselves into absolute moral rules. To those that subscribe to this model--and I repeat, its adherents are the majority of the Polish intelligentsia--any discussion or questioning of this model has been treated as heresy.
To articulate this model, one had to reject another "political religion": one expressed by the Solidarity labor movement in the early 1980s. The project called "Polish Liberalism" grew out of the self-destruction of the political thought of the political dissidents clustered around Solidarnosc. It is this rejection of Solidarity ideas rather than personal likes and dislikes, external circumstances and exigencies of political life that contributed to the present deep crisis.
Of course, in the meantime various political proposals and counterprojects have arisen, but they did not manage to become generally known for a variety of reasons. Over the last ten years or so, the project of "Polish Liberalism," or the Polish understanding of democracy, seemed the only one worth considering. I do not deny its apparent virtues. Nor do I question the good faith of many among those who formulated and refined it, and then defended it; I do not deny them the right to society's respect. I am deeply convinced howerer that these definers of a new "political religion" made us bypass the opportunities which we had acquired after Communism ended. The articulators of "Polish Liberalism" are now glaringly absent in the Sejm and in the central institutions of our government. These were the people in whom Poles placed their hopes in 1989. Now they are absent from the political scene. Power is in the hands of the postcommunists, and the strongest opposition is the anarchistic and populist movement Samoobrona.
The Polish fight for independence was not just a fight for national independence. It was also a fight for the restoration of the Republic destroyed by absolute rule.
My argument here is based on the assumption that ideas have consequences, that the ways in which people think are not just the epiphenomenona of their material interests; that ideas are not merely ideologies screening the real mechanisms by means of which society functions; and that ideas can help shape reality. Not everything is "objectively predetermined," and the present state of affairs is not merely a product of the logic of history or of the layout of power and violence. In my philosophical and sociological papers I have tried to flesh these ideas out.
This failed project I am writing about has not been presented in any systematic way, of course. It can be pieced together out of the fragmentary and often transitory writings of many authors who have often rephrased their thoughts in contradictory ways. Needless to say, many people subscribed only partly to this project whose foundation is, I repeat, a certain understanding of democracy. Thus I am trying to point to an implicit project present in public discourse of the Third Republic. I am trying to articulate a certain way of thinking about democracy which, I postulate, has been erroneous. For the sake of discussion I might have presented this project as more coherent and consistent than it has been in reality. And of course, my goal is not to criticize the spokespersons for this project but rather the model itself and the way of thinking which created it.
The cornerstone ideas of this project have been moral pluralism, neutrality of the state in matters of morality, a conviction that the Polish transformation is of necessity derivative rather than self-generated, and a belief that quick modernization (including cultural transformation) should be a fundamental goal. This was accompanied by a suspicious or at best reserved attitude toward the national tradition and by an effort not to carry decommunization too far. Among the missing elements in this project were an emphasis on social solidarity, democratic participation, national unity, and the common good. The rights of the individual vis-a-vis the state and vis-a-vis the political and cultural elites have not been respected; indeed, respect toward the individual (however modest his or her intellectual capacities or accomplishments might be) has not been observed. Polish Liberalism proposed a "privatization" of ethical norms and rules; they were relegated exclusively to private conscience. At the same time, Polish Liberalism did not pay much attention to the rule of law and the rules of public conduct that should be obligatory for everyone, without any exceptions. The end result seems to be that Polish democracy fell into the hands of those whose civic consciousness has not been awakened or exists only as an archaic remnant. Nor has Polish Liberalism paid attention to the problem of forming identity and collective memory in a positive manner. It idealized relations between states in first world countries and in the European Union, and it failed to draw consequences from the peripheral (borderland) location of the Polish state. While the Polish Liberals talked about Western Liberalism, its understanding and reception have been selective and superficial. In many cases, these Liberals remained unaware of Liberalism's dilemmas or of its present day transformations.
At present Poland faces enormous challenges. Membership in the European Union will obviously not solve all the problems--in fact, it will itself create new problems. The Polish answer to the new and old challenges will ultimately decide whether Poland will manage to tear itself away from the magic circle or impotence and colonial dependency. Unfortunately, today we already know that Poland will enter the EU in a considerably weaker state than we had hoped. It is this weakness rather than the membership itself that evokes anxiety about the future liberty and sovereignty of Poland.
Chapter 3. The paradoxes of Polish Liberalism (excerpts)
Polish Liberalism was strongly influenced by the fear of "fundamentalism" which prevented Poles from articulating a theory of democratic Liberalism suitable for their country, and from initiating a public debate about other theories of state organization. There was also a fear of nationalism which gave birth to a refusal to hold any discussion about the problems of tradition, communal identity, and collective memory. The desire to integrate former Communists into the political life of the country went hand in hand with a refusal to demand an accounting from them and thus to discriminate between truth and falsehood. This lack of discrimination was taken to be a fundamental principle of democracy. Finally, the desire to limit the role of the Catholic Church in Polish politics led to assigning the Church a place outside the public square.
Polish Liberalism paid no attention to the problem of forming identity and collective memory in a positive manner. It idealized relations between states in first world countries and in the European Union.
Thus Polish political Liberalism assumed the burden of the same paradox which historian Jerzy Szacki noted with regard to economic Liberalism, and the dissonance between Polish reality and the Liberal ideas led to its simplification and radicalization. Yet Liberalism, with the exception of the Nietzschean and postmodern versions of it, does not demand that we abandon "practical reason" and prudence in public affairs; it merely restricts their scope. But the version of Liberalism that emerged in Poland in the late 1990s has been both radical and free of some of Liberalism's traditional ingredients.
For instance, the concept of justice evoked little interest among Polish Liberal theorists, even though Liberals worldwide have been debating it ever since John Rawls' A Theory of Justice (1999) appeared. Which Polish Liberal has ever asked whether Polish democracy is just, or has upheld the idea that in the long run, social and economic inequalities ought to bring advantages to the least privileged members of society? Those posing such problems would have been labeled populists or even Communists: "social justice" or "justice" in general seemed to belong to the worn-out terminology of the past. Indeed, in contemporary Polish public discourse the concept of justice belongs to the least popular and most neglected, if not outright suspect, cluster of ideas. While in the United States in particular the idea of justice is tightly woven into the understanding of the just state that takes care of its citizens, in Poland no one wants to hear about it at the time when "reform" means withdrawing the state's protection from its citizenry.
Thus political Liberalism in Poland is not modeled on either classical Liberalism (which was not founded on relativism or pluralism) or on Liberalism as articulated by Rawls where a major role is played by the ideas of equality, justice, and morality. Let us remember that according to Rawls, social consensus transcends constitutionality and legality in that it becomes a moral consensus. In contrast, Polish Liberals represent the views of some postmodern Western intellectuals. Their idea of open society is a society that is not only culturally diverse but also culturally unfocused, one that does not possess a common unifying political culture. This is an interesting position, and it is often brilliantly articulated; but it plays only a marginal role in Western European political practice. Strictly speaking, it is not a Liberal but a radically leftist position. It is a product of a marriage between Liberalism and leftist thought, a kind of postmodern Liberalism that I will discuss in Chapter 7 titled "The final disappointment."
The goals of the Bar Confederacy (1768) had something in common with the goals of the American Revolution.
The paradox of Polish Liberalism is also grounded in a lack of understanding of contemporary Liberalism in the West where cultural universalism has generally been rejected. John Rawls's popular conception of Liberalism was essentially a hypothetical and debatable reconstruction of America's political culture. This kind of Liberalism is not metaphysical (theoretical) but political (practical). In contrast, the majority of present-day Liberals in Poland maintain that in East Central Europe there has never existed a political culture conducive to and supportive of liberal attitudes. Jerzy Szacki notes that as far as East Central Europe was concerned, "[L]iberalism appeared in a place that was totally unprepared for it"(Szacki-Tusk 14). Adam Michnik expressed the same idea even more forcefully: "We entered . . . democratic culture without possessing a political culture that is foundational to a democratic order. It is as if a barbarian from the bush was suddenly placed in front of a computer" (Michnik 375). If the situation were as Michnik described it, our Polish Liberalism would of necessity be "metaphysical" and not "political." It would have to assume that Liberal rules should prevail everywhere on earth including "the bush." Such a stance is self-contradictory, for Polish Liberalism rejects any references to the laws of nature or laws of reason, proclaiming instead relativisms of all "truths."
From Michnik's opinions it also follows that if society was "unprepared" for Liberalism, it should be changed, and changed quickly. Here another contradiction emerges: the state is supposed to be neutral vis-a-vis the citizenry, yet it is somehow assumed that it should educate society and make it fit for Liberal democracy. The state is also supposed to supervise education. In other words, it is supposed to be neutral yet it cannot be neutral or minimalist, and not only because it has to transform the economic sector but also because it is supposed to "educate" the majority into being Liberals.
The society is supposed to learn how to look at itself in a certain way. In Roman Graczyk's words, "[w]e are looking for what unites all citizens who are full-fledged participants in this [democratic] order. In the epoch of religious pluralism, a particular religion cannot constitute a platform where all of us meet. What then can religion contribute to the ethos of a democratic state? In my opinion, its contribution can be positive only when it is perceived by its very adherents as a contribution to a community that is by its very nature pluralistic" (Gazeta Wyborcza, February 12-13 , 2000).
This sounds almost like John Rawls; however, Rawls makes an appeal to "the fact of pluralism" rather than declaring that we live in an epoch of religious pluralism. Gazeta Wyborcza's spokesman's task is difficult because he realizes that if truth were told, Polish society is not at present "multidenominational and pluralistic." At most, one could wish that it became so, and agree with Rawls that in conditions of institutional guarantees of lawful freedom, pluralism would eventually develop. So far, however, the majority of Poles perceive Poland not as a pluralistic and polyvalent community but as a nation state, just as most Germans, French, and Americans perceive their countries as nation states without denying minorities their political, religious, and cultural rights. It seems likely that this Polish majority may regard the attempts to transform Polish society into such a pluralistic group to be an attempt to force the will of a minority upon the majority. One can lament the convictions of the majority, but one must not deprive it of its right to legislate its opinions. In public debates, of course, one can try to disqualify one's opponents, and cast doubt on their competency and their civic ability. But to do so is neither Liberal nor democratic. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the majority against which these opinions are voiced does not look kindly on the minority's efforts to be entirely "neutral" and thus in tune with the declared "neutrality" of the state.
Of course, this pedagogical attitude of the [enlightened] minority toward the unenlightened majority is not totally new in Liberalism. Liberals have often looked at society as the source of evil. Nor have they always been "antistatist." In his book After Liberalism, Immanuel Wallerstein notes that "[f]rom the outset, liberals were caught in a fundamental contradiction. As defenders of the individual and his rights vis-a-vis the state, they were pushed in the direction of universal suffrage, the only guarantee of a democratic state. But thereupon, the state became the principal agent of all reforms intended to liberate the individual from the social constraints inherited from the past. This in turn led the liberals to the idea of putting positive law at the service of utilitarian objectives" (Wallerstein 83).
While Western European Liberalism was nurtured by a distrust toward those in power, the post-1989 Polish Liberalism shaped itself under the influence of a deep distrust of the elite toward a society deemed immature.
In extreme cases the Liberals were ready to compromise freedom and democracy to advance Liberal goals. Stefan Kisielewski was not an exception in this regard. Let us remember that John Stuart Mill emphasized that only the philosophically mature individuals are entitled to hold the view that the only excuse for diminishment of liberty of the individual is to prevent harm done to others; and that despotism is a legitimate method of ruling barbarians, under the condition that the goal is to improve their fate and that the rulers visibly advance toward that goal. Mill further suggested that only when the people are capable of reforming the state in the course of free discussion among equals can the despotic rule be removed. But who decides when and where this point has been reached?
If, as the Polish Liberals say, the most pressing problem is a lack of preparedness of Poles for the democratic state, then it has to be noted that they have not been debating the various aspects of Liberalism but the negative features of Polish society. The central question in recent Polish debates has been, is Polish society able to put Liberal values into practice? Shoved aside was the question of what kind of Liberalism should be implemented and what kind of democracy should be built in Poland. One thing was taken for granted from the beginning: participatory democracy was out of the question because it was illiberal. While Western European Liberalism was nurtured by a distrust toward those in power, the post-1989 Polish Liberalism shaped itself under the influence of a deep distrust of the elite toward a society deemed immature.
I am not saying that there have been no reasons to mistrust the society. Many outside observers have noted that Europeans from the East dwelled too insistently on matters of culture and identity, which [in Western discourse] were associated with illiberal nationalism. In my earlier writings, I too emphasized the inevitability of alienation, a possible loss of identity, the importance of pragmatism, and the importance of compromise (Krasnodebski).
It is possible that the left-liberal writers such as Adam Michnik contributed to the fact that nationalism did not take hold in Poland, that Poland did not become a confessional state, that the Communists were not lynched, that democratic freedoms were not curtailed, and that the rights of minorities were not violated. However, the cost of mistrusting society has been high. First, the left-Liberal press created an impression that the former Communist elites have been better prepared for Liberalism than the former ranking members of the Solidarity labor movement; or, to use the language of the 1980s, that it was "society" rather than "the government" that turned out to be an obstacle in the building of the Liberal order. I emphasize again that a critique of Polish society was justified to some extent; however, it led to destructive results: it disfigured Polish Liberalism both in theory and in practice. Even more importantly, it violated the balance between democracy and Liberalism.
Chapter 10. Res publica as a common good (excerpts)
Thus the post-1989 reformers failed to harmonize necessary emendations with the Polish tradition and with the Polish collective identity. According to Shmuel Eisenstandt, the researching of ways leading to modernity should take into account the process of transformation and the formation of collective identities.
What was the Polish road to modernity like? Which factors influenced the Polish collective identity? It is virtually impossible to characterize this identity without invoking the historical narrative. Certainly a strong element--much stronger than was the case with neighboring Germany--was the tension between ethnicity and the political contract, as based on the experience of the First Republic (+1795). Although one could maintain that the idea of the state understood as ethnicity won, the victory was never complete, and the remembrance of the old Res Publica remained as an ideal and a yardstick for the present, and as a counterbalance to the modern nation state.
As a result, the state in modern Poland has been understood as a Res publica, as a final result of the self-organizing of citizens. This vision was strengthened by the partitions of Poland. Related to this understanding of the Polish state is the perception of the right to cogovern and the principle of equality as a foundation of community life.
Another characteristic of Polish political culture has been its attachment to symbols formed during the fight for independence, and a disproportionate participation of intellectuals in political life. This participation is even greater than in France where it has likewise been strong. The third ingredient of Polish political culture is Catholicism; however, unlike in Spain where it was associated with absolute rule, Polish Catholicism has had a gentry Republican (szlachecki republikanizm) tinge.
A rather minimal knowledge of Polish affairs is characteristic of Western political philosophers and historians of ideas.
At the end of the eighteenth century, a German observer and the then-happy subject of Catherine II of Russia, thus described the Polish political system considered at that time to be anarchistic and anachronistic: "It is assumed [in Poland] that members of society have concluded an alliance in order to protect individual liberty and property, and that communal consent forms the basis of that alliance. Its conditions are the laws of the country. These conditions include regulations that protect both the individual and the society, and therefore are binding upon both. The individual has to submit to them because he himself and his equals agreed to uphold them, and society can act only in agreement with them . . . . The citizens freely elect their king as a symbol of the alliance they concluded among themselves. The king is supposed to execute the will of society, or the laws of the country, and he represents the majesty of society" (Schulz 76).
This German writer considered this kind of system to be as outrageous as the frivolous customs of the Warsaw aristocracy. For him, Russia and Prussia represented real order. But from the point of view of the twenty-first century, the ideas on which order was based in the Polish Res publica do not seem absurd: to understand the state as a form of self-organization of society does not seem outrageous at all. The same could be said about other features of Polish Republicanism: the civil rights of individuals, limited as they were at that time to aristocracy and gentry; avoidance of extreme solutions; striving after compromise; and tolerance of minority religions. It goes without saying that these rules were put to practice in an imperfect manner, and some of them were abandoned altogether in the declining years of the First Republic. Later critiques centered on the nobility as the sole possessor of full political rights. But as we know from present day scholarship, the harsh fate of the peasantry was sometimes overstated in Polish and non-Polish historiography (ëaryn 295-325). It certainly was incredibly better than the fate of slaves in the United States, a country which in the opinion of many thinkers represented the ideal Republic. . . .
It therefore does not seem preposterous to say that the Polish political tradition is more in tune with modern ideas of the state than the Russian tradition of samoderzhavie or the Prussian tradition of a supervisory state (Obrigkeitsstaat). The road from Polish "anarchism" to modern democratic "polyarchy" is shorter than from Russian autocracy or from the Prussian militaristic state. Let us illustrate this by a quote from Klaus Zernack's Russia and Poland: "During the 1907 population census in Russia, Tsar Nicholas II described his occupation as ‘the master of the Russian lands'. In Poland, this kind of thinking might have been characteristic of Polish rulers a thousand years earlier, when the Polish state was in its babyhood, but in Russia it was typical until the very end of tsarist rule" (Zernack 535).
Unlike in Spain where it was associated with absolute rule, Polish Catholicism has had a Republican tinge.
Even the most severe critics of the First Republic cannot deny the extraordinary attachment to liberty of its citizens. It was exceptional in eighteenth-century Europe. Aleksander Brückner wrote: "It was a great achievement of the nation to be the only country on the [European] continent upholding the idea of liberty in a milieu of absolute monarchs. As every nobleman wielded his sword in defense of liberty, Poland surpassed every other world ‘republic', however, this love of liberty had little self-discipline and, in disregarding the needs of the state, it mutated into anarchy" (Brückner 384).
It is customary to seek the failure of Polish Republicanism in that anarchy, in the decline of the public spirit, and in corruption. Indeed, in the seventeenth century, the most important features of the "anarchistic" Res publica were "decentralization of sovereignty" and a lack of vigorous centralized state administration. However, while asking to what extent the downfall was caused by the political principles which the Polish Res publica adopted--the central government's weakness and electability of kings--one should also ask to what extent the downfall was precipitated by a decline of political culture, by social problems, and by economic marginalization of this part of Europe.
It is easy to criticize the Polish Republican model today as historians seem to agree that in Central and Eastern Europe, enlightened absolutism should have been a necessary step in the formation of the modern state. The influence of this view can be seen in Polish historiography as well. This historiography seeks the reasons for the fall of the First Republic in its inability to transform itself into an absolutist state. The reforms undertaken in the late eighteenth century are seen as an attempt to strengthen the rule of the king and to centralize the state. However, in Wojciech Kriegseisen's view, one should not see in these reforms an attempt to usher in absolute rule (Kriegseisen 42). Rather, the goal was to amend the Res publica. The Constitution of 3 May 1791 clearly preserves noble liberties and the leading role of the Catholic Church among Poland's religious denominations. The reforms were modeled on the American and British system, and not on the neighboring absolute systems which, in the eyes of the Polish representatives of the Enlightenment such as Stanislaw August Poniatowski or Thaddeus Kosciuszko, were neither modern nor in tune with the spirit of the times. The reforms undertaken were meant to activate the developmental potential of the political system of the First Republic.
Thus the late eighteenth-century reforms should not be viewed as a victory of the Enlightenment over "Sarmatian" and Republican traditionalism. The 1791 Constitution preserved many elements of the latter in its moderate approach to issues. Even though the Constitution introduced hereditary monarchy, the idea of electability of kings was not entirely rejected. It should also be remembered that in Poland of that day political divisions did not necessarily run the way they did in some other European countries. While defending gentry freedoms, the gentry camp did uphold the idea of liberty as opposed to absolute rule, and the Republican enemies of reforms supported the French and American Revolutions. Seweryn Rzewuski, a participant in the Targovitsa Confederacy, was overjoyed when he heard of the fall of Bastille; he also admired the American Revolution. Casimir Pulaski, a participant in the [supposedly reactionary] Bar Confederacy, also participated in the American Revolution. Apparently the goals of the Bar Confederacy had something in common with the goals of the American Revolution. It is not an accident that the ideas of liberty were best preserved among the impecunious Polish gentry [of the nineteenth century]. It was this class of people that most effectively supported national risings against the absolute rule of foreign monarchs.
The state in modern Poland has been understood as a Res publica, as a final result of the self-organizing of citizens.
The fall of the Res publica, like the fall of the Republic of Venice, did not signify the demise of the idea of Republicanism. The United States was the most prominent country where Republican ideals flourished. Were it not for the expansionism of Poland's neighbors, these ideas would doubtless have continued to develop and would have assumed modern forms in Poland as well. German historian Michael M. Müller wrote: "In fact, it was the gentry-oriented Polish Republic, so loudly condemned in the political writings of the eighteenth century as anachronistic and ossified in its feudal backwardness, that showed in its own way that it was the most capable of constitutional modernization" (Müller 9).
The opinion of the Polish leftist intellectuals who write about the same subject is diametrically different. Andrzej Mencwel writes the following: "Res publica's declining heritage was an outrageous anachronism ready to be placed in a museum" (Mencwel 15). Janusz Majcherek concurs: "The citizen nation of the gentry Res publica achieved one thing: the loss of independence. It also effectively stopped its own civilizational development. While selfishly defending its political supremacy, it did not allow the middle classes to develop and stubbornly supported anachronistic and feudal economic relations. As a result, serfdom was abolished by foreign monarchs, and the multinational and multidenominational middle classes could develop their productivity only under the partitions" (Majcherek 42). This interpretation is shaped by Marxist terminology, yet it has been accepted by the new Polish Liberals as an uncontestable element of the intellectual and social history of Europe. While under Soviet Marxism the final chapter of this interpretation consisted in the liberation of the proletariat, in the postmodern version of Liberalism it consists of liberation of the individual from any limitations or obligations. If one looks at history this way, Poland's republican tradition becomes very black indeed.
However, recent scholarship suggests that this interpretation is erroneous. It is not at all certain that the "continental road" to the development of the modern state should be declared universally beneficial. To use Max Weber's language, the Anstaltstaat is characterized by bureaucratic and legalistic methods of solving conflicts, and thus by a strict division between state and society (Breuer 80-82). Thus it creates its own problems. In contrast, in the Anglophone areas of the world self-organization of society has been more advanced, and separation between the state and the social, religious, and economic spheres has been much less strict. The administration of such states preserved many features of the epoch when the notables and the dilettanti were in power, yet these English-speaking states are no less modern, in fact, just the opposite. In order to correctly interpret the Polish political tradition one has to compare it with this Anglophone tradition. It may then become apparent that the Polish Res publica was too "Western" for the geographical area in which it was located.
Solidarnosc was not a Liberal movement but a Liberty-oriented Republican movement possessed of some characteristically Polish features of Republicanism.
The Republican ideas originally came from Italy. They radiated, as it were, onto the European continent. Alois Riklin remarks: "There is talk about translatio imperii. There is also a certain kind of translatio of Republicanism. In the late sixteenth century the light of Republicanism went out in Italy. But it was passed on to other countries, primarily to Holland, England, Scotland and, later, to North America" (Riklin 100). The fact that the author did not mention Poland which for several centuries held up that light is the result of a rather minimal knowledge of Polish affairs that is characteristic of Western political philosophers and historians of ideas. And, as indicated earlier, in Poland the native Republican tradition is undervalued because it is usually viewed from the perspective of Liberal ideas and the sociological modernization theories. Thus Andrzej Walicki offers another negative assessment: "The Republican and democratic tradition existed in Poland but it was not grounded in capitalist economy or in an individualistic and liberal set of values. Poland was not transformed by the Puritan work ethnic, and its nation-building elites (first the nobility and later the intelligentsia) did not acquire ‘bourgeois' characteristics such as entrepreneurship and thrift; they did not learn to accept the fact that individual economic entrepreneurship is a high calling, and they did not respect its achievements" (Walicki 32).
Certainly the author is right to some extent. However, he also uncritically accepts the idea fostered by Max Weber that it was the Puritan work ethnic that precipitated capitalist modernization, and not, say, aristocratic and noble striving for luxury and conspicuous consumption, as maintained by Werner Sombart (Lehmann 94-108). The generally accepted vision of modernity, influenced by Weber, also discounts the role of Catholicism, of the Renaissance, and of the European South, and it disregards such phenomena as the "religious capitalism" of the Middle Ages. There is also a general tendency to reduce complex historical phenomena to their economic ingredients.
The moral focus
For a long time, the Polish Republican tradition served as a point of reference for Polish political discourse. The gentry Res publica and its idea of the nation as the subject of sovereign will can hardly be removed from Polish collective memory. In Poles and Germans: 100 Key Concepts, Michael G. Müller compared the decline of two republics, the Polish Rzeczpospolita and the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. He pointed out that Poles and Germans held very different attitudes toward the old Republican tradition. In contrast to Poles, Germans "did not experience the end of their republic as a catastrophe, and did not remember it in these terms" (Kobylinska and Müller 43).
The recollection of gentry Republicanism was a major reason why Poles survived the period of partitions. The Polish fight for independence was not just a fight for national independence. It was also a fight for the restoration of the Republic destroyed by absolute rule. The memory of the Polish Parliament, or Sejm, has been a key ingredient of Polish historical consciousness. Literary historian Richard Przybylski writes the following in his book on the literature of the postpartitions Classicism: "The classics had no doubts that the holy mystery of eternal Polishness resided in the parliamentary form of government. . . . The Parliament was the Polish Holy Grail. . . . Another gift which eternal Polishness offered to the nation in the years of ‘Its Royal Highness Res publica' was the set of values sustained by the old gentry culture, and especially by the literature of independent Poland" (Przybylski 388). It was this tradition of parliamentarism that made Poland different from its occupiers: "Prussia had its Great Soldier, Muscovy had its Great Harlot. We had the Great Sejm" (Przybylski 100).
Several contemporary thinkers have reemphasized the role of Rome and Italy (especially during the Renaissance) in shaping modern culture and politics, and have demonstrated the erroneousness of the idea that Republicanism dates back to the Reformation and to Enlightenment Liberalism.
Unlike their German counterparts, the Polish Romantics considered the parliamentary spirit to be a crucial part of Polish identity. Jaroslaw Marek Rymkiewicz speaks of Adam Mickiewicz's political stance as Republican in the full sense of the word: "In Master Thaddeus, Mickiewicz showed himself as a resplendent heir to the spiritual legacy of the First Republic. Facing the danger from the Empire that was built on the enslavement of peoples, one whose entire history was a story of the enslavement of souls and bodies of men, Mickiewicz took the stance of a citizen of the First Republic" (Rymkiewicz and Poprawa 15-16).
The Polish Romantics saw the Polish conflict with Russia in terms of a fight for the soul of the Slavic world; they saw it as a conflict of two contradictory political visions, Polish Republicanism on the one hand and Russian autocracy on the other. . . . Mickiewicz saw the history of Poland as a history of various gatherings whose moral center, like the center of the Poland, was the Supreme Parliament, or Sejm (Mickiewicz X:307). He emphasized that Europe did not understand the Polish political system and considered it orderless and anarchistic; but Europe was taking a wrong path, the path of materialism, pedantic scholarship, formalism and anti-realism--in other words, the path of modernity (Mickiewicz X:312). Mickiewicz believed deeply that the future European order should take a good look at the Polish Sejm. The Sejm, the arché of the Polish laws and traditions, was eventually to become a pan-European institution. It is hard not to notice here the germ of the future Strassburg Parliament. Mickiewicz also thought that Polish parliamentarism was superior to the American variety because it combined liberty and faith: "The Poles should remember that American Republicanism is not sufficiently rooted, and that we are waiting for European Republicanism, an all-embracing Republicanism based on the Christian moral ideals" (Mickiewicz VI:206).
The Republican element has remained a vital part of Polish self-perception in spite of the ethnicization which occurred as a result of partitions and to some extent as a result of the deliberate policies of the occupying nations. And the tradition of gentry Republicanism eventually broke away from the idea that only one estate was entitled to identify with the Res publica. Professor Rett Ludwikowski rightly noted that "Polish democracy before the November uprising of 1830 was a ‘democracy of the gentry' only in the sense that most of the leaders of the movement were of noble birth and that, temporarily, they were ready to admit that the nobility's leadership was necessary. The assumption that democracy cared only about the gentry's interests and did not recognize problems of other social groups ridicules the very thesis of the emergence of a democratic movement in this period. . . . [T]he democratic movement did not jeopardize the interests of the nobility or gentry, but neither did it try to protect these social groups" (Ludwikowski 103, 104).
In Poland the gentry culture became a common national good, somewhat like the bourgeois culture in Germany, and it cannot therefore be declared to be the property of only one estate (Tenbruck). It became the representative Polish culture, just as the bourgeois culture became the representative German culture (excluding Austria of course). In certain regions of the country the gentry preserved until the Second World War such characteristics of the old Republican culture as attachment to tradition, love of the land, religiosity, and a set of social norms (Krawczak). Later the gentry-affiliated intelligentsia became the carrier of Polish culture. Until 1939, the intelligentsia culture combined the milieus of petty bourgeoisie and landowning nobility, thus broadening the cultural base. Especially after 1926, the intelligentsia culture became a synonym of the national culture (Ihnatowicz 654). . . . It is significant that one-third of Polish writers during the interwar period claimed family relationship with the landowning class, while in reality that class constituted only one percent of the Polish population (Tazbir 108). Thus cultural continuity was preserved. In Czeslaw Milosz's words, "the entire. . . . culture of [pre-war] Wilno as a social milieu was a consecutive effort of the same social class whose sons founded the Philomat Society and attended Philaret and Promienisci picnics under the oaks of the Ponary Mountains: the petty and middle gentry of the Grand Duchy" (Milosz 210).
As is well known, such critics of the intelligentsia and its culture as Professor Józef Chalasinski accused it of elitism, social isolationism, and leaning toward a caste society (Chalasinski). While this criticism has its merits and continues to be relevant, it bypasses the social value of this intelligentsia culture. According to Janusz Tazbir, the old Polish gentry traditions "are the strongest elements of our political culture, and they form the historical basis of all antitotalitarian strivings and actions [in Poland]" (Tazbir, Kultura szlachecka 234). Tazbir points out that the features of the Polish national character that evoked criticism in the eighteenth century turned out to be virtues in the twentieth: "In the radically changed historical conditions the shortcomings of the gentry sometimes became its strong points. . . often conservatism became an attachment to the past and to national traditions, and the old opposition to centralized rule and dislike of absolutism manifested themselves in the antitsarist and antiimperial attitude (Tazbir, Kultura szlachecka 75). The opposite was also the case: humanism and progressivism mutated into servility and collaboration.
Solidarnosc and the Republican tradition
The political ideals of the Solidarity labor movement are in many ways a continuation of this Republican tradition. It is not by accident that Lech Walesa said: "In the [Gdansk] Shipyards, we existed without a State, we lived in a free republic where order was created by ourselves" (Walesa-Solidarnosc w ruchu 194).
Solidarnosc was not a Liberal movement but a Liberty-oriented Republican movement possessing some characteristically Polish features of Republicanism. Its point of contact with Liberalism was the central question of freedom of the individual--therefore, Solidarnosc was in no way collectivist--but its understanding of that freedom was specifically Polish: Solidarnosc members understood that individuals in Poland cannot be free while they as citizens of Poland are dependent on the Communist political power. This perception remained crucial even though at that time the Communists were almost transforming themselves into Liberals, they were modernizing the country, and were ready to allow the individual society members to become rich.
But Solidarnosc neither wanted nor was able to take over political power. To regain liberty meant first of all to demonstrate that society had a will of its own that was at odds with the will of the Communists. The crucial point was not that political power was to be agreed upon by means of negotiations, but that workers' strikes forced that Communist power to include in the new rules the possibility of contestation of arbitrary decisions of that power. The now-criticized features of Polish democracy--numerous conflicts, quarrels, protests, and demonstrations--can also be seen as manifestations of the vitality of Republicanism (of course not in its extreme and populistic forms). What is characteristic of Republicanism is not just consensus but contestation, or the freedom to register one's disagreements with laws and rules.
In Hannah Arendt's opinion, under the influence of absolutism which preceded it, the French Revolution absolutized the concept of the nation as a new sovereign that stood above the law.
The members of Solidarnosc were aware that freedom of the individual is possible only when all citizens are free, and that freedom is not only, or not primarily, an ability to pursue one's own private desires within the framework of a state that is fully neutral in matters of social and moral choices. Freedom was understood as freedom from the arbitrary will of the Communists, as a possibility to contest and control the dealings of the Communists even if their political power could not be entirely eliminated.
Polish scholars have noted that "Solidarnosc possibly had more in common with gentry Republicanism than with the modern majority rule. Its mechanism of reaching decisions reminds one of the Polish sejmiks [local parliaments] of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Item: a factory would elect representatives who would then join a circle of representatives of the entire region. Then the region selected its own representatives to represent it in the Central Council. This was similar to the way the MPs were selected in Old Poland. Each delegate came to the Council with instructions received at regional meetings (just as in the old Polish sejmiki). Democratic voting was valued, but unanimity even more so. Fierce local patriotism was typical of the labor milieu at that time; for its part, the Central Council was careful not to impinge on local identity and local interests. The country ("Solidarnosc ") thus could function only as a federation of regions. Democracy could function only if all participants supported it" (Solidarnosc w ruchu 145-147).
Similarity between the Solidarity labor movement and the old gentry sejmiks was noted also by foreign observers and scholars such as Norman Davies, Timothy Garton Ash, and Martin Malia. However, the authors of the above-quoted work consider the ways of Solidarity to be examples of civilizational backwardness. They are joined by Andrzej Walicki who asked, "did not Solidarity represent an unconscious acceptance of the traditional Polish and now-archaic conception of the nation, that is to say, seeing the nation as a gigantic community with almost familiar features; as possessed of not only political but also moral characteristics, and thus capable of near-unanimity and directness in making decisions about its own fate? In spite of its clearly different objectives, the socialist ideal of the ‘moral and political unity of society' strengthened this conception of the nation. Its roots are in the old gentry ideas of the nature of the national community" (Walicki 36).
Thus Walicki lumps together socialist theory and the idea of the Republican political community as expressed in the Solidarity Movement. He also is convinced that the understanding of liberty manifest in Solidarnosc was an expression of civilizational backwardness. Such opinions result from adopting an unnecessarily contracted point of view stipulated by dogmatic Liberalism, one reduced to the views of Benjamin Constant and Isaiah Berlin. If one adopts such a view, everything that is not "negative freedom" or everything that is not "modern liberalism" amounts to collectivism.
A revival of the Republican idea
In the twenty-first century socialism ceased to be capitalism's serious rival, and consequently the ways of thinking about society also underwent a change. In this situation one observes a revival of the Republican idea and of the Republican model of democracy. While it once seemed that it was archaic and as such to be definitively rejected during the formation of the new liberal concept of freedom, the historians of political ideas have demonstrated that its influence has been stronger than previously assumed (Skinner 114). Without understanding the role played by Republican thought it is impossible to understand either the genesis or the functioning of present-day democracy. Republican thought remains a part of the Western tradition even though it has been neglected and overshadowed by Liberalism in recent times. Its "underground" presence remains strong.
The United States was built on Republicanism. The idea of a free Republic with Roman and Italian roots lay at the very foundation of the country (Pocock). In John Pocock's opinion, the American Revolution was not so much a manifestation of revolutionary Enlightenment as an achievement of the Renaissance. Only recently did the idea of Liberalism and the welfare state replace the idea of the Republic (Sandel). Furthermore, the United States continues to perceive itself as a democratic Republic rather than simply as a democracy. In contrast, in Poland Liberalism has been perceived as standing in opposition to the welfare state, that is to say, of the new and liberal (in the contemporary meaning of the word) understanding of the common good in a mass democracy. This central idea of [a welfare state-oriented] contemporary Liberalism has never been of interest to the Polish Liberals, either those market-oriented or those with leftist leanings who care "about the soul." These Polish Liberals surrounded the religious and ethnic minorities with their care, but not the poor or those who have not been able to adapt to the postcommunist economic system. They have treated this last category of "losers" as if they were superfluous people who deserve extinction (Majcherek 249-252 and 267-270).
In the West one hears with increasing frequency the opinion that Liberalism's domination has led to a disintegration of the public sphere. The negative results of the neutralizing influence of Liberalism have evoked various attempts to revive the Republican tradition (Sandel). Among the participators in this project there are thinkers such as Quentin Skinner who reconstructed a neo-Roman theory, or John Pocock who analyzed civic humanism--he called it "classical Republicanism"--and its continuation in the Anglo-Saxon tradition as represented by [Austin] Harrington; or Philip Petitt who outlined a contemporary model of Republicanism on the basis of historical studies. While these writers interpret the Republican tradition in diverse ways, they have reemphasized the role of Rome and Italy (especially during the Renaissance) in shaping modern culture and politics, and they have demonstrated the erroneousness of the idea that Republicanism dates back to the Reformation and the Enlightenment. In contrast [the very influential] Max Weber refused to assign to the Italian Republics a significant role in the historical development of Europe and instead exclusively credited the northern European cities.
Almost forgotten before 1989, Hannah Arendt, who is considered today to be a conservative critic of Liberalism, enjoys an increase in popularity. Arendt maintained that the Founders of the United States were true heirs of the ancient tradition of Republicanism. She contrasted democracy and Republicanism, and she expressed her distaste for mass democracy where citizens are replaced by private individuals and where political principles became social "values." In a democracy the collegiate spirit withers away and is replaced by public opinion; reason becomes subservient to passions, and the will of the people does not go through the sieve of a system of representation. In Hannah Arendt's opinion, the French Revolution is an example of the prevalence of the democratic spirit over the Republican one, whereas the American Revolution demonstrates just the opposite. Under the influence of absolutism which preceded it, the French Revolution absolutized the concept of the nation as a new sovereign that stood above the law. In contrast, in America there existed a political tradition of a self-limiting democracy: the people were formed by organizations and institutions, and were accustomed to self-rule within the limits of and according to the precepts of the law. In obvious ignorance of the Polish tradition of Republicanism, Arendt maintained that before the American Revolution the European parliaments exercised only advisory and not legislative powers.
Jürgen Habermas also returns to the idea of the Republic. He maintains that there exist two competing normative models of democracy, Liberal and Republican. The latter's advantage is that it holds on to the "radically democratic" idea of a society's political self-organization by the debating citizens, and it does not reduce common goals to a compromise of the conflicting private interests. But in Habermas's opinion, this is an excessively optimistic option because it makes the democratic process depend on the citizens' virtue (Habermas 283). Habermas offers another model, one based on his theory of discourse. This model is supposed to combine ancient freedom with the modern one, private autonomy with public autonomy, negative freedom with political freedom. [In Habermas's opinion] this is possible because of their mutual dependence. One might say that this model of democracy introduces elements of Republicanism into contemporary Liberalism, but instead of treating the citizens as a collective subject that finds its center in the state (as was the case in classical Republicanism), it treats society as a centerless network of all kinds of institutionalized discourses. The "subject" of this self-organizing legal community disappears in the manifestations of subjectless communication (Habermas 291).
Zygmunt Bauman likewise postulates that the proper answer to the crisis of liberal democracy and of politics in general is the idea of Republicanism. Like Hannah Arendt he pits the idea of the Republic against the idea of the nation, but unlike Arendt he maintains that both the Republican idea and the idea of the nation were born in the French Revolution so highly criticized by Arendt. They remain related even though in fact they stand in opposition to each other. The Republic stands for a break with the past and a new beginning; it signifies the common good. In contrast, the nation represents particularism, ties to the past, the bonds of tradition. The nation allows one to "exit" freedom, whereas the Republic represents a road to freedom. In contemporary liberal democracy nationalism and the Republican idea compete with each other and develop their own separate ways (Bauman). The Republic "exits" the nation state as it were, it liberates itself and assumes a pure form. However, Bauman does not make clear how this can be reconciled with his general thesis that we live in times of ambivalence.
The Polish answer to the new and old challenges will ultimately decide whether Poland will manage to tear itself away from the magic circle or impotence and colonial dependency.
From the above it appears clear that the idea of the Republic enjoys popularity [among thinkers] on the left side of the political spectrum. This does not mean that Republicanism is a leftist idea. In its leftist version Republicanism becomes associated with subjecting everything to political negotiations; politics becomes voluntary, and prepolitical ties are rejected. But the old version of Republicanism did not proclaim the idea of such an autonomy. Republican virtue was assumed to develop in the context of tradition thanks to which, as Alasdair MacIntyre has shown, it is possible to have substantive rather than purely formalistic ethics. This kind of Republicanism is based on a belief in the natural order of the world that is not man's doing. In the old Republics the political order was also a moral order that maintained its relationship to the eternal order. It is not by accident that the contemporary leftist Republicans reject the very concept of virtue.
They also, and wrongly, promote antagonism between the nation and the Republic. Originally the nation was only a new designation of Republicanism. This can be seen in the Polish example which has played a significant role in the reflections on Republicanism and nationalism, mainly thanks to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's writings. His Considérations sur le gouvernement de la Pologne (1771) is often dismissed by contemporary Polish political analysts as nonsensical musings, but this work has recently been rediscovered in the West. The relationship between the Republic and the nation has attracted particular attention. David Miller, one of the few contemporary intellectuals who perceives the positive aspects of nationhood and the nation state, has observed that some commentators see in Rousseau's treatise a turning point between the Republicanism of Du Contrat social (1762) and the later nationalistic doctrine. Miller declares himself in favor of the view that nationhood served to at least partly replace patriotic loyalty toward the city state as a basis of Republican citizenship (Miller 87).
In the Republican sense, the concept of demos does not entail a contradiction between democratic citizenship and identification with a specific historical nation (Przylebski-Rusconi 91-98). Yet when constitutional patriotism becomes a subject of discussion, it is often forgotten that demos, or the political nation, is not simply a group of voters or inhabitants of a constitutional state. Demos is held together by something more than the common political framework; it is a political entity not in the narrow sense but in the sense that it constitutes a political nation.
Nor is Republicanism necessarily an enemy of religion. Certainly Polish Republicanism was not like John Pocock's "citizen's humanism"; it did not break away from a Christian vision of the world. During the Renaissance the Polish nobleman was not only a homo politicus but remained a homo credens. His Catholicism did not clash with his idea of the Republic. It was a peculiarity of Polish Catholicism, and one forgotten in European historiography, that it was not joined at the hip with absolutism (as was the case in Spain, Germany, or France) but rather with the freedom-oriented ideology of the Polish nobility (Schramm). The same could be said about the period of Catholic Reformation that used to be called Counterreformation.
One should also mention that treating Catholicism and the Enlightenment as absolute opposites invites many questions. By and large the Polish representatives of the Enlightenment were not freethinkers (Kriegseisen 37-38). Those who make the claim that they were should remember the first article of the 3 May 1791 Constitution which made Catholicism the dominant religion in the Polish Res publica. Furthermore, among the leading reformers of the Polish state there were many Jesuits and graduates of Jesuit colleges. These facts can serve as a confirmation of Helmuth Plessner's statement that the Enlightenment and Catholicism might have showed hostility to each other but they met on common ground because the Enlightenment was a secularized version of Catholicism (Plessner 76). In Catholic countries a strict division between the internal and external spheres, or between the individual and the state, has not occurred. According to Plessner, it was this division that caused the atrophy of the public sphere and was one of the causes of the "German catastrophe."
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