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Polish politics of values

Published on October 7, 2009 by: in: Society

politics values

The breakthrough of the year 1989 did not only facilitate the creation of a democratic state of law and restoration of innate and inalienable individual rights of citizens. It also restored the correct meaning of the term “politics” and  the idea of  “state”. We can now have reservations as to directions in which Polish politics and state are headed in some areas, but there is no doubt that now, finally, politics is politics and state – whatever else we could say about it – is more of a tool in the hands of the Polish society, than it was before 1989.

Return of politics and state

Politics in times of Polish People’s Republic (PRL) encompassed the influence spheres of the communist party, all forms of realizing the interests of the Soviet Union and Polish apparatchiks, as well as the inner workings of the state-party machine, these two being inseparable.  Thus the state was not a tool in the hands of the society, which, through their representatives, via all kinds of institutions, state and local administration and an army of civil servants, realizes its goals. It was the instrument of oppression of the society. Its primary task was to control the citizens, incapacitate them and make them behave however the state machinery wanted them to. The individual became a cog in the wheel of this mechanism, which completely span out of public control; it went into the hands of people who found the source of legitimization in historic laws and Marxist scheme of historical development.

Politics after 1989 was to be redefined and indeed it has been to a large extent. The original sense of the term was to be restored, giving it back the references to common good and  action for political union. Regardless of whether we keep to the consensual understanding of the term – as an action which leads to public good through finding compromise and reaching broad political consensus – or to the coercive understanding – treating politics as a clash of different ideas of common good – the break from the communist understanding of it is undeniable. In this way politics after 1989 was supposed to become – and to a degree it did – a concern of the state as an institutional manifestation of the society or this society’s institutionalized tool. There has also been a change in the meaning of the term “state”, which ceased to be connected with a particular political power or political doctrine.

Restoring the original meanings of both these terms – or at least bringing them closer and breaking with communist delusions about them – was a crucial condition in breaking with the previous system and entering the world of democracy and freedom. Parting with the socialist utopia should be, however, consolidated with establishing an attachment to the values of this democratic and free society and state. Bringing back these traditional meanings of both these terms should therefore involve cultivating some political axiology, related to democracy, human and citizen rights, freedoms and liberties of all kinds, respect for national and state political community and directing all kinds of actions towards this community or its members. Year 1989 was to become, in this respect, a nucleus of new politics of values – values which should dominate public life and for which politics and state would build a protective shield, while being tools for their realization.

Axiologically astray

Yet Poland after 1989 – having broken from communist pseudo-axiology and turned away from, often inglorious, heritage of the past 50 years – stopped at the crossroads and – astonished, disoriented and scared – was not able to define this sphere of political axiology. All attempts to establish values constituting the new state and new politics ended in retreat, all axiological claims were either nipped in the bud or criticized as displays of blatant moralizing, catholical-national blindness or impractical fanaticism. Vulgarized and impoverished meaning of the “thick line”, which was supposed to be such a foundation in establishing dialog and cooperation, become dominant, and for this reason this New Poland completely rejected thinking about values and the axiology of citizenship and politics.

The New Poland was therefore in pieces. On the one hand, there were voices demanding a more radical break with communist pseudo-axiology through implementing a series of actions under the slogans of decomunization and vetting, which were to bring back the sense of justice, law and order and on this basis new values of the political community were to be build. On the other hand, opinions were heard, that Poland of the 90’s is a country which needs quick systemic, political and economic reforms, and so the need of a broad consensus, which would facilitate these reforms, rules out any discussion on new values. Such discussion would prohibit, or at least hinder, conducting any transformational procedures. Such axiological point of view was opposed with pragmatic attitude.

Pragmatically focused

And indeed, Polish external debt in 1989 amounted to $35.5 billion, and skyrocketing inflation reached 251 per cent. Domestic product of Polish People’s Republic for this year, calculated in foreign exchange, was only $68.5 billion (at the same time, domestic product of Federal Republic of Germany (BRD) was $1,1189.1 billion, and of the US – $5,156 billion), which per capita amounted to $1800, that is just 9.4 per cent of the product per capita for a German in BRD and 8.7 per cent of the product per one American. Thus this urge to catch up and make up was natural. It seemed natural to focus on political pragmatics and realize the plan, which enabled Polish state and Polish society to develop in a decent rate, together with the family of Western European countries.

During the first years of sovereign Poland politicians tried to convince Poles, that it was paramount for the country to stay on its present modernization and transformation course. But to continue on this course, proper people were needed. That is why Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s slogan in presidential campaign in 1990 was “The man for the job”, and Liberal Democratic Congress (KLD) in 1993 wrote “Million new workplaces” on their banners. Even Polish People’s Party (PSL) in 1993 argued that “Poland needs a good host” (their second slogan was “They feed and defend, administer”), while Democratic Left Alliance argued that “it doesn’t have to be like that”. Pragmatic rhetoric was dominant – but of course it was not always agreeable with the society, as Mazowiecki’s third place in presidential run in 1990 or KLD’s defeat indicate – as well as abandoning all afterthoughts on moral aspects of the New Poland, or ethical-axiological reflexions on common good, politics or citizenship.

The crucial question would be “what was the result?”. And so, in 1993 public debt  was 88.7 percent, while in 2001 it was 38.3 percent; for a few years inflation was kept on a 2 percent level; economic conditions were stabilized, so that Poland, in 2004, could join the European Union, which was, after all – for a period of time and in some circles – a symbol of economic success, development and prosperity. It could thus be said that politics of pragmatism was successful, and today, especially during the time of global financial and economic crisis, we feel its positive consequences. Abandoning axiological reflections, however, gave rise, in Polish society and in some parts of political and intellectual elite, to a sense of emptiness and hunger for values, which ultimately verbalized during the so called  “Rywin Gate”.

Polish hunger for values

Electoral campaigns in 2005 showed explicitly that the New Poland turned out to be – maybe its too powerful a term, but probably sufficiently resounding – an axiological void.  Astonishment of the elites and the society brought about by Rywin Gate, resulted in regrouping of political ranks and changed – we will see if for good – political preferences of the conscious or simply voting part of Polish society. Political slogans of 2005 elections clearly reflect this atmosphere: Lech Kaczyński: „Strong President. Honest Poland” and „Courage and Credibility”; Donald Tusk: „Man with principles”; Marek Borowski: „Righteous man of the Left.”. In journalistic programs it became more common to ask politicians about their ethics, about their duties to the society and state, and to wonder about the moral state of the political elite as a whole, in the context of such affairs as connections of politicians with businessmen or the fight with corruption and bribery. The level of ethical reflection broke into the world of politics, permeated so far with pragmatics, and destroyed, what seemed to be cemented tranquility.

It is hard to determine whether this hunger for values first appeared in politicians, repulsed by the sequence of scandals which accompanied Leszek Miller’s administration (ironical, the administration which finalized introducing Poland into European structures), or whether it was only a cynical – and, so far, very effective – move of the post-Solidarity elites, which was aimed at stripping the post-communist elites of their power. It is also hard to determine, whether it was not simply an answer of the political elites to the hunger for values, which surfaced in the Polish society. But there is little doubt that such hunger was clearly visible. The need to define values which should be realized by the political sphere, values which main tool and guardian was supposed to be the Polish state, after almost twenty years of independence started to demanded its fulfillment.

Together with this hunger for values, issues resurfaced which seemed to have been dealt with or buried deep under the ground – vetting and decomunization, and with them the questions of historic justice and truth and human decency. 20 years after the memorable 1998 it turned out that these issues, yet unresolved and probably without any prospect of their resolution, to a great extend define Polish reflection on values. Polish political and citizen axiology , without relating to these issues, cannot define such basic notions of political communities such as common good or justice. Or maybe so it seems? Maybe such feeling is only an effect of activities undertaken by some particular political circles, which to a great extent defined the political rhetoric after the small political watershed of the year 2005? Or maybe we should again speak only of political demagogy, which inseparable element are exactly these references to moral issues, ethics and values?

Omission, waste and blindness

It seems that Third Rzeczpospolita and its architects made one crucial mistake in creation and realization of their project. This one error was the omission of any reflection on the level of values in the first years after regaining full sovereignty and turning away from the issues of moral reckoning of the previous system. Implementing even rudimentary vetting and decomunizaton, explicitly implicating, however, that cooperation with communist regime was – especially secret cooperation and motivated by financial or professional reasons, and cooperation as a result of which damage could be done to another person – something evil, could give incentive for a positive definition of key values of Polish society and state. Because of this omission, vetting and decomunization under various guises such as infamous “de-ubekization” redounds and comes back in public debate like a boomerang.

However vetting and decomunization are not the only determinants of Polish political and citizen axiology, and anyone who thinks so, should be named ignorant or even blind. The foundation of New Poland could not possibly be just judgments and conclusions deduced through reflections on Polish People’s Republic, which was, after all, somewhat a country of emergency state, and its citizens where under occupation of a foreign power and a particular ideological clique. Furtheremore, the notions of state and politics were understood differently in PRL. Attitudes taken and exercised by the political elites of Polish People’s Republic were nothing like the duties of the political elites in democratic state of law. And thus, the axiology of New Poland must have been build not only as an opposition to PRL, because then Third Rzeczpospolita would have only been a negative project, and its “looking backwards” would make us slaves to inglorious past.  It would have been better to relate to the tradition of previous Republics, I and II Rzepospolita, and reach for particular role models from, sometimes highly glorious, Polish history. We should also have taken what was valuable in Western, mature democracies, taken of course not as blatant, mindless westernization.. However, the chance for creating such axiological New Poland, was wasted.

Unfortunately, New Poland turns out to be a proof for Alexis de Tocqueville’s fears – which we can read in a fragment of his writings published in this issue – that the blindness caused by liberties and freedoms, by the drive to prosperity and excessive concern with quick and fullest satisfaction of most egoistic consumption needs, could result in citizens turning away from their state, their community, politics and common values. Soon, however, it was the political elites who turned away from values and abandoned building the axiological project, while the society turned away from political elites. Politicians haven’t found a way – actually they didn’t even look for it – to convince Poles that the values fundamental to this new society must be achieved together. They even argued that freedoms are only a tool for prosperity, that politics is only a tool for modernization, and that the state is only servant to the forces of progress.

It must be then said, paraphrasing Szymon Gutkowski, that Poland is not only a sum of unfinished projects, but it is simply an unfinished project itself. New Poland – that which achieved full political independence in 1989, that is only 20 years ago – is a house built without a stable foundation (not to say: a house on sand). Such a foundation should be provided by ,  the brought up here many times, polish political and citizen axiology, which should be understood as a number of defined and established values, guarded by the new state, important for the whole political community, and which protection should be unconditional and obvious. Yet the New Poland established a stable and developing economy, coherent institutions and effective, to some extent, state administration, but still, in a more teleological perspective, linked to a question “What values should this state and this economy serve?”, there is void, silence, stillness and a grimace of not even disappointment, but surprise.


Figures taken from:

Economic Survey of Europe in 1991-1992, United Nations, New York 1992. National Development Plan for the years 2004-2006.

Translation: Jadwiga Bogucka

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About Slawomir Drelich

Born in Inowrocław in 1981, graduate of political science and philosophy on Mikołaj Kopernik University in Toruń, PhD student in the Department of Axiology and Social Ethics in the Department of Philosophy on MKU. Co-founder and editor of „Political Dialogs” magazine published by the Humanities Department on MKU, teacher, tourist guide in Toruń. His field of interests encompasses the ethics of media and politics, political marketing, history of ideas, populism and conspiracy theories of history.

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