Long reads, Poland

Kaczyński started a war against liberal democracy


Thijs KLEINPASTE, “De Groene Amsterdammer”: In your piece after the Polish elections, you argued that the recent embrace of the far right by voters, spurred into action by the nativist rhetoric of Law and Justice (PiS), may be the ironic conclusion to Poland’s integration in the West. All over Europe, far-right parties are either doing well in the elections or polling very high. Why is that? What do you make of this?

Sławomir SIERAKOWKI: I think this is probably due to of a number of factors—the pull of the far right is getting really strong. First of all, there are long-term tendencies that play an important role. We have the disappearance of differences between parties in mainstream politics. Under Schröder, the difference between the SPD and the Christian Democrats was hard to notice. And you had similar things in Austria, which had grand coalitions for twenty years. This created fertile soil for the FPÖ. Generally, the differences in mainstream politics have been disappearing. The consequence is that people are looking for difference. Why? Because they want to choose. If you don’t have the impression that you can choose, you don’t feel like a citizen, but instead feel neglected. Look at the last European elections. One fourth of Europeans voted for the extreme right. Why? Because in mainstream politics, everything had been decided before the elections: who will be the commissioners, who will be the President, etc. So you go to the polling station, and how do you feel? You feel that the only choice is mainstream v. anti-mainstream. And this is why so many people voted for the far right.

So this is one thing, the tendency that we have seen over the last thirty to forty years. The second long-term phenomenon is the general crisis of the left. You don’t really have successful left-wing political parties in Europe. And even if you have, they are forced to realize right-wing policies. Syriza is the best example: a radical left-wing party, which carries out an extremely right-wing economic program. That is frustrating. So people see that even if they vote for parties on the left, and even if these parties win, they cannot have left-wing politics. So what then is left for them? And you cannot readily remedy these frustrations. In our globalized world, without a globalized politics, it is virtually impossible to regulate the market, to curb rating agencies or very large corporations. Even for states like the United States and China. These are maybe still somewhat sovereign economically, but everyone else really is not. So you can vote left-wing once, twice, but ultimately you are frustrated and you vote for the far right or populists. This is the second factor

The third factor is going on now: the refugee crisis. Wherever you have refugees, the result of the far right doubles. I would love to live in a country where people would be happy to welcome new people, but that is just not the case. Europe is extremely rich, but apparently, we don’t want to share. Amos Oz gives this explanation. People come into this world as essentially right wing—it is their nature. And only through socialization, only through effort, do people become left wing. To me, it sounds a little too simple, but maybe there is something to it. If you hope to have a politics that is willing to sacrifice more, you need to have a process of socialization. The experience of community changes people. The more you have this, the better.

Sławomir Sierakowski
Born in 1979, Sławomir Sierakowski is a Polish sociologist and political commentator. He is a founder and leader of Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique). More.

First about Syriza. They are still a pro-European party. Is it wise for left-wing parties to keep supporting the European Union?

Well, it is the only way. Of course the European Union is disappointing. But everything else in the contemporary world and in contemporary supranational politics is equally disappointing. And national politics even more. But the only way to regain sovereignty over the economy is on the supranational level. On the level of the nation state, social democratic politics has become simply impossible. The existence of tax havens, or the fact that you can’t increase taxes on large corporations without them moving to another country, forces us to conceive of these things on a higher level than the nation state.

I am not pessimistic: I am realistic about the current circumstances, yet optimistic when it comes to the solutions. But you could say that I am disappointed by mainstream left wing politics. I do not want to rely on that anymore, nor on party politics. On the national level, party politics are finished. You will still have them, of course, for some time, but they will vanish eventually. And party politics are not synonymous with democracy. They were invented at some point one hundred or so years ago, and can disappear and make way for something else. And if you look who negotiates about law in many a country today, the actors are mostly on the axis between NGOs and the government, not the opposition and the coalition anymore. Political parties are not the rooted organizations of yesteryear.

And we see it reflected in the parties of today. There is a strong negative selection. We do not see the truly great leaders that we used to have fifty years ago. More and more, it is about the ‘cynical reason’ described by Peter Sloterdijk that is a paradoxical achievement of the Enlightment. We don’t lack any knowledge today and we still make the same mistakes. It is the Berlusconisation of party-politics. I don’t think it is going to be better.

Where does that leave parliamentary politics though? The parliamentary tradition is also intimately associated with party politics. Is that in decline as well?

I don’t mean to criticize democracy itself—I am for societies to be able to decide on matters sovereignly. And I would also be very hesitant to touch this fragile system of democracy; nothing better was ever invented, and many worse things were. So I do not criticize any parliament outright. Perhaps the solution is to look for parliamentarianism on a higher level. Imagine that the European Parliament acquires real competences, and that the President of the European Union does as well—and then, most important of all, European citizens get power: one man, one vote. That would be a revolution. Unfortunately, that seems impossible today. Nations are more concerned with re-nationalization of competencies than with erecting such a structure. We still live in a shitty culture of narcissism of small nations—including Poland.

But it is driven by electorates that vote in right wing governments.

Actually, it is driven by political parties who are offering solutions by playing up national pride—which means nothing, usually. So for now it looks like this: problems come from the inefficiencies of national states, and populist parties offer (national) solutions through appeals to national pride or to the idea of national purity: without refugees or others. Or by blaming southerners, as we see in Germany for example. Germany made a lot of money through its European policy. And now they are blaming the lazy souths. Of course it is not true that these people are lazy—but it works. It is the most popular discourse.

On the other side, Germany is the bravest country, morally, in the refugee crisis. And I hope they will maintain that position. But again, and do not forget this, they will benefit in the long run. It is rational; Germans are not stupid. The Poles and Slovaks are stupid: they do not want to take in anyone, but it will be the Germans who are going to be richer in twenty years, and they won’t.

What about the task of the left wing intellectual? You spoke of socialization—it sounds a bit like the ideals of the nineteenth-century intelligentsia: ‘going to the people’.

That is exactly what we need. Middle-class philosophies are in crisis. They just do not work anymore. What we observe is such strong individualization that it harms all classes. We live in an atomized society—so what do we need? We need social glue. How are you going to create social glue? How will you get people together again to solve problems? I am speaking of a very basic level. We need engagement. What you need is a group of people that wants to serve others and devote themselves to them—who engage them and have common experiences with the people; this is the work of the intelligentsia. And frankly, we need a new kind of dissidence.

Show me people who will lead Europe. There is no-one. I am not saying that a competent leader is everything. Such a leader is probably the last piece of the puzzle we need as long as the machine is still not working. But if you look at how politics is cynical, and how society became cynical as well—people do not believe that things can change anymore, so they behave egotistically —so what do we need? We need alternative strategies. I would love to have people like Vaclav Havel today. But in these times, he would simply also lose the election.

Can you talk about what Stanisław Brzozowski means for you personally?

Well, Brzozowski was this incredibly engaged guy. He worked his hands to the bone, as a writer, an activist, an intellectual, etc. He is completely unknown in the West—but whereas Gramsci and Lukacs became incredibly well known, it was Brzozowski who actually invented this Promethean Marxism, a kind of human-centered Marxism, yet without reading the early Marx, because those writings were only published after his death. Brzozowski was, in that sense, a prophet. He had very sharp insight. His philosophy of engagement, a very humanist philosophy—very Romantic as well—is something that triggered the most beautiful activism in modern Polish history. If you look at Polish heroes from World War II, or if you take Polish dissidents from the Communist era, beginning with Czeslaw Milosz (who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980), or Jacek Kuron. All of them were strongly, if not almost solely, influenced by Brzozowski.

He was truly a great figure, who anticipated so many ideas in the West already at the beginning of the twentieth century. And he was a strange figure as well. His output was huge, while he died very young at the age of 31 in Florence. Someone called his writings ‘Philosophical Vodka’, and another an ‘Electronic Shower’.

Of course, we are on great terms with the intellectuals of today: Slavoj Zizek, Michael Walzer. They visit us every year; we publish their books. But we chose figures like Brzozowski as our inspiration. Firstly, because we live in Eastern Europe; we are Polish. We cannot buy abstract ideas from elsewhere. They won’t work. We need ideas that originated in Eastern Europe: Havel, Kuron; those guys. Not because we are conservative or we don’t trust Western ideas. We do, and we take whatever we can. But we know that we have to translate it into our culture, because it is different. Secondly we need to capture the spirit of Romantic engagement as they exemplified it.

Why is Poland different?

It is not solely Poland; it is Eastern Europe. You just mentioned the word ‘intelligentsia’. That is a word that was invented here, in Eastern Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. The intelligentsia itself is a symptom of backwardness. Because it is a group of people that needs to compensate the lack of strong institutions: cities, universities, institutions of the state—there was no independent Polish state, there was no Ukrainian state, there was no Jewish state. So if you wanted to have an enlightened society, and if you wanted to have institutions that helped students, workers, women etc. you needed very targeted engagement of some very strong and committed people. You couldn’t count on society as a whole.

It was in Eastern Europe that the intelligentsia was most needed to compensate for the lack of institutions and the basic infrastructure of the modern state. In Germany, the situation was different. You had institutions, a middle class, etc. And it could solve most social problems. But in Poland and Ukraine—not at all.

How do you see the near future, with the outright attack on the Polish constitutional court by the government. What should be the strategy of the left-wing parties, and of the intelligentsia in particular? What comes after these protests?

Kaczyński withdrew from the struggle between left and right and started a war against liberal democracy. He moves faster than Orban and Erdogan. The parliament works days and nights (the bill breaking the Constitutional Court was passed at 4.15 am on December 24th, which is a holiday). They already broke the constitution more than ten times. Kaczyński plays openly. He does not hide anything. The new law removes any blockades against appointing party politicians to the civil service, courts, prosecution, chiefs of the public media, intelligence, state companies and whatever is on the horizon. This way the state is going to be the internal institution of one party. Kaczyński broke and brutally humiliated both the president Duda and Prime Minister Szydło. Poles do not respect them anymore. We have to create one common front against Kaczyński. The crucial thing is to support as strongly as possible the Constitutional Court, which is still fighting to save the accord between the implemented laws and the constitution. The main field of the battle is in the mass media and on the streets, where people started to demonstrate for the first time after ’89. It is necessary to avoid conflicts inside the democratic camp (where you have neoliberals and leftists like me) and fight hand in hand in this historic moment.

Now that the government is also threatening the freedom of the press, Krytyka will become even more crucial, when other outlets may face (self)censorship. How important is Krytyka as a bulwark to a diverse and free media environment?

Our yardstick is the mass media, where we are very active every day (as well as in our own ‘Opinion Daily’ on the internet) and social media. Rightists say that we sleep there and they pray for our disappearance. Of course we invite and take part in the demonstrations. Kaczyński just took over the public media and is trying to repress private media. He will cut state funds for any NGOs and media that are not subordinated to his party, starting with Krytyka. But we always cared about having the majority of our budget coming from the West, so it will not be easy for him to harm us very strongly. I am very sad that this is happening in my country, but I feel more in place than ever fighting for my ideas.

The left is not represented anymore in the Polish parliament at this point. Arguably, the moment for a radical or engaged intelligentsia is here. What would a kind of syndicalism or localism for the twenty-first century look like?

It is not solely Poland; it is Eastern Europe. The word ‘intelligentsia’ was invented here, in Eastern Europe in the mid-nineteenth century.

We have this kind of engagement in Poland—local cooperatives, small groups on the left who work hard to organise.

Krytyka is somewhat different. We are a large organization with a large budget, and draw support from strong Western institutions as well. We’re not a niche institution, and never really have been. We were mainstream from the beginning—you could even say that we are part of the establishment, and I would not disagree. The whole distinction doesn’t really work under consumer capitalism anyway. Consumer capitalism just includes everything, regardless whether it is in the opposition or on the side of the government.

In Poland, the left is in trouble because it was based on post-communism. It was really just a re-incarnation of the old thing—more democratic, and generally better, of course, than the communist party, but it still was not really a left-wing movement. Who would join the communist party in the 70s and 80s? These were not people from the left. Their motivation was different; power, influence; but not leftist ideals. The new Polish left looks to the West—Syriza for example. They are a modern movement, influenced by ideas about basic income and redistribution of wealth. I don’t know what their attitude is towards the intelligentsia-discourse, which is attached to Krytyka. But I am sure that the rank and file of the party at least in part models itself on the ideal. The only problem is that they decided to detach from other parties and social organizations and organize their own social protest against Kaczyński’s blitzkrieg, so they are not to be found there where everything is happening now. Krytyka decided to take part in the mainstream protest, so we are more present in the public sphere than ever.

If we follow the analysis about the defunctness of present-day parliamentarian politics—what does this mean? There are movements, throughout Europe that organise outside of politics. Take Jobbik in Hungary for example, or Golden Dawn in Greece.

There are plenty of examples, far worse than Jobbik. You have Hezbollah, and to some extent ISIS as well. They have structures with a very big welfare state. They run hospitals, schools, institutions that help people. This is why they are so popular—and of course pretty right wing.

But then what differentiates a left-wing political movement from these? What makes left-wing organizations different? What is the mission for the left-wing intelligentsia?

The mission is multi-dimensional. First of all, you give an opportunity to experience common action and common engagement. If you work with people for years (especially in the provinces, because in the larger cities it is easier), you have to be engaged. It takes a lot of effort. If you go to the people to work with them and organise them once, it doesn’t work. But if you do it for an extended period, if you are in it for the long term, you will be successful, because you create common experiences that they can share again with other people. People can now organise and create pressure on the local level: to change the local budget, or to change social policies. Shaping strong, civic and engaged attitudes is the first mission.

The second thing is to shape public discourse. When there was a post-communist party that did not create any new ideas, but was only reproducing the old, mainstream blabla, so to say, it was Krytyka among other players—feminists, artists—who injected new ideas and a new vocabulary into the public debate: new ideas and ways of thinking about freedom, the state, etc.

Poland, like most countries in the former Soviet bloc, was extremely un-liberal, because of the communist legacy. After communism, we felt the need to become the most free-market country out there. At the same time, there was much conservatism. Communism functioned like some kind of refrigerator. People woke up in 1989 without any influence of feminism or the LGTB-movement. So even people who were left-wing dissidents were socially still rather conservative. So in order to implement new ideas you need to make a strong effort, and not give up after one year. After the first year, they laugh at you. After the second, they laugh at you. After the third, they are still laughing at you. But then, if you survive and you are still standing (and you have recruited some influential people that cannot be neglected, like big-name philosophers and writers from other countries; or you organise large events; or you publish books that become popular), after a certain while you do change people. And then, you have created a consciousness that is capable of changing society. So now, even right-wing parties feel the need to recruit women—that is the result of feminism.

So: attitudes. Because everything is about interactions between people. Discourse comes first. The superstructure can truly reshape the base. Marx was partly right, and many later Marxists were right in identifying public discourse as a crucial element in changing society.

The third thing is culture. Because there is a broader area of culture outside of politics or academia. When you integrate these worlds, you can really change a lot. People don’t get involved with political parties easily. But they do go to the theatre or listen to writers. They really appreciate that. If you are an activist, half of your audience loves you, the other half hates you. If you are a writer, everybody loves you. You don’t have real enemies. So if you engage writers, artists and musicians, you are able to exercise a great influence.

There was a musician involved in politics in Poland in the last election, but he belonged to the right fringe.

Yes, but that’s a different case. I was speaking of serious art and serious culture. This figure was a celebrity, not an engaged artist.

There is also a kind of criticism—made by an artist, Dostoevsky—that says: ‘What if the people don’t want that what you hope for them?’ What if, after you’ve gone to the people and they laugh at you one, two, three times, they just keep laughing.

Communism functioned like some kind of refrigerator. People woke up in 1989 without any influence of feminism or the LGTB-movement.

You can never force people. For me, I treat Dostoevsky as the most important challenge to left-wing politics anywhere. If you want to be a leftist, you need to confront your ideas with Dostoevsky. He is a test to your leftism. Look at Notes from the Underground, and look at the entire discussion that this book is a part of, between Chernyshevsky, Dostoevsky and Turgenev. Their novels of the same period, What is to be done?, Notes from the Underground and Fathers and Sons create a debate around the central question and they answer each other.

Dostoevsky answered What is to be done? with his story about the Man from the Underground. It demonstrates that a rational utopia probably will not give you freedom. But the lesson for me is that you need to, ultimately, believe. You cannot, in the end, base your ideas on some scientific proof or verification. Nothing guarantees if you are right, and you will never know. You can just suggest it, but you have to be suspicious about yourself as well.

Ultimately, what you need is patience. My organization has been operating for thirteen years, and I can say that we are experienced. We went through a lot of problems and we have survived them. I do not know many left-wing organizations in my region that survived for that long. We only grew.

Brzozowski said: ‘What is not biography, is not at all.’ And that is the idea that ideals are realized by living them. By patience, by mistakes, by determination, by repetition. It is the notion that you cannot trust abstract ideas and that you always need to remain suspicious. If you want to implement abstract ideas without an eye on reality—whatever they are: socialism, equality, etc.—it will inevitably cause problems and even atrocities.

Between Chernyshevsky and Turgenev, where would you position yourself?

Well, Chernyshevsky was pretty naive about his rational utopia. It was a radicalized Enlightenment idea that turned out not to be really true.

But Turgenev was one of the superfluous men.

Yes, and that is actually how the intelligentsia feels. We are these kind of superfluous people. The aim of the intelligentsia is to commit successful suicide. That means to make yourself not needed anymore in a society that eventually solved its main social problems. We are not businessmen, we aren’t a part of the entire mechanism. We are outside of it and we try to reshape it. This does not mean we are the underground—in a real sense we are inside as well, participating. But we don’t work to the plans the establishment has for Poland. We don’t accumulate capital or help implement the Polish transition, etc.

However, as social entrepreneurs, we do create things. If we would disappear, we would leave a lot behind. We motivated and engaged many people, published books, we organized thousands of events.

The aim of the intelligentsia is to commit successful suicide. That means to make yourself not needed anymore in a society that eventually solved its main social problems.

If I wanted to ‘go to the people’—what could I do?

I am hesitant to advise people from Western countries, because you have your own shape of democracy and generally our traditions and contexts are very different. I try to be modest. People like George Soros wanted us to move to Germany and work together with institutions in the West. But there remains a distance. But if I have to say something: remember that it is not about knowledge, but about sharing and transferring experiences. Don’t trust that rational argument or appeal to emotion will automatically change people. Only common experiences do that. If you want to save politics, fight with social atomization. To fight with social atomization means to create social bonds among the people. Only the common experience of activism can forge that. And that is the most important antidote to mistrust and cynicism—and as we know, those two things are the biggest obstacle to regaining democracy.


The interview was originally published in the Dutch newspaper “De Groene Amsterdammer“.






Krytyka Polityczna
Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique) is the largest Eastern European liberal network of institutions and activists. It consists of the online daily Dziennik Opinii, a quarterly magazine, publishing house, cultural centres in Warsaw, Łódź, Gdańsk and Cieszyn, activist clubs in a dozen cities in Poland (and also in Kiev and Berlin), as well as a research centre: the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw.

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