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Published on November 10, 2010 by: in: Society

At some point communism suffers defeat. It would seem that this defeat would be the end for our hero, but it is not. Homo sovieticus discovers his hidden depths: everything he yesterday expected from communists he  expects today from capitalists.


The notion of Homo sovieticus – a citizen shaped by the communist regime – was popularized in Polish philosophy by Józef Tishner. While it’ has been 20 years since the publication of the famous essay of the same title, recently we have celebrated the 10th anniversary its author’s death. Regardless of the lapse of time we have to admit: we are still a society influenced by a 40 year-old political system. Changing our mentality should become the most important goal of a liberal Polish president.

Based on the concept of the Soviet philosopher Aleksandr Zinovyev, the Soviet Man described by Józef Tischner in 1990 was a creature inseparably bound up with the authority that supervised him, a citizen accustomed to the communist relationship between an individual and society. However, Tischner noticed a paradox in this creation. He thought that regardless of how enslaved Homo sovieticus was before the change of system, he was a creature being satisfied with his existence. On the one hand, Poles were scorched with lack of freedom, but on the other they became used to control and today they cannot enjoy democracy. All of this leads to a banal conclusion: it is easier to fight for freedom than to benefit from it.

Homo sovieticus sees the world through the prism of his fellow citizens. He gives up his freedom and at the same time secures himself an incogitant and peaceful existence. Brought up by the Marxist ideology, he subconsciously feels that his basic task should be securing well-being for his countrymen, not for himself. The previous political system has shaped Homo sovieticus in such a way that his emotions are a result of public feeling, and therefore only when Poles will be happy, he will be happy. The Polish Homo sovieticus is a creation fathered by the enslaved mind as defined by Czesław Miłosz, and grandfathered by the young friends from Mickiewicz’s Ode to Youth.

For many years deprived of official structures and shedding blood on the barricades of freedom, the Polish nation yearned for any, even imperfect statehood. All this resulted in the fact that Poles – first the enslaved mind and later Homo sovieticus have lost their self-reliance and identity. Emile Durkheim described the concept of Homo duplex – a man in whom all of his instincts struggle with the surrounding system. In the Soviet man these instincts have been completely dominated by the system.

For over 20 years Polish democracy has been subjected to permanent verification through comparisons with the communist reality. The most important evaluation criterion is the relationship between man and the state. Despite of the change of the political system which was a rank-and-file result of social yearning, Poles still demand control from the state and want the authority to look after them. The free market – one of the most important elements of transformation – serves in the view of Poles solely for making money, whereas the risk of losing it should be eliminated by the state structure. Examples of the socialist approach to the economic sphere may be multiplied. For this reason successive governments are occupied with paying out compensations for non-insured flood victims and creating various security funds.

The symptoms of Homo sovieticus’s presence in the social sphere not only concern economy – communism has also shaped Poles view on life. Because of this, in 1989 the moral order of the society was destroyed. Previously remaining in hiding, homosexuals began to come out, people started to discuss the ethics of such phenomena as death penalty or abortion, and the Church which was previously associated with defending Poland’s independence began to show its dark hands. The Soviet man was formed not only by dictatorship in the authority’s nomenclature, but the whole reality involved with it. Religion in that reality was a flawless being, for many centuries associated with the pediment of Polish trait and all liberation movements. For this reason today each attempt at interfering in the sphere of church is associated with an attack on society’s freedom, while secularization of the education system is compared to Stalinism. After the collapse of communism, the black and white world of ethical values imposed by contemporary authority has been replaced by rainbow-colored banners of sexual minorities.

All these traits characteristic of Homo sovieticus make it impossible to introduce liberal values into contemporary political discourse. A liberal president should make an attempt to change the mentality of the Polish society and only on this foundation propose further reforms. The behavior of Poles is caused by the lack of libertarian experience and fear of loss of social standing. Józef Tischner wrote that in the communist times man was “socialized” and today is “nobody’s”. In the face of such situation the society voluntarily renounces freedom and begins to search for different sources of control. This phenomenon has also been described in Erich Fromm’s masterpiece Escape from Freedom in which the German philosopher presents the mechanism of voluntary renunciation of freedom. On the example of fascism he has proven that people feel an inner need to possess an authority. In times of democracy the role of dictators is taken over by specialists. Fromm wrote that “a unit feels helpless and lost in the chaotic flood of data and with touching forbearance awaits until the specialists will tell him what to do and how to live”. Today we may observe this phenomenon in the Polish society – omnipresent specialists not only answer our questions about complicated aspects of life such as plane crashes, but also decide what we should think about moral issues. A pilot and economist stand on par with an ethicist and philosopher. Together they decide about what the terrified and abandoned by dictatorship society should think. Journalists exploit the authority of experts for political goals – while rightist publicists cite conservative scientists as their authority, leftists quote the liberals.

Those in power in the democratic Poland have usually conformed to the needs of Homo sovieticus. However, a couple of times they proved that things may be different. Unfortunately, it usually ended with a political disaster which may be exemplified by the liberal – albeit uttered by a left-wing politician – words of Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz regarding compensations for the victims of flood in 1997. Special attention should be payed to the behavior of the Polish People’s Party which in great deal has contributed to changing anti-European feelings in Polish villages before Poland’s joining the European Union. From a long perspective it was a great political success – the majority of farmers who became satisfied with the reforms after 2004, today have more trust for the Polish People’s Party than for the euro-skeptical Self-Defense Party.

Changing the society’s mentality is a difficult task. The political risk connected with expressing unpopular views is huge but at the same time constitutes the reason for which the president should undertake it. In Poland the president’s office has limited competence and to a great extent is restricted to symbolical behaviors (for example awarding state decorations). As the president’s office is very popular among citizens surely all debates organized by him wouldn’t be ignored. The limited political risk undertaken by the president is also significant. In contrast to the prime minister he cannot be recalled before the end of his 5 year term, and therefore exposes himself solely to the risk of not being reelected. However, the undertaken risk can end with a success. In spite of the differences in the political parties they have come from, former Polish presidents have dealt with politics of temporary remedies and protecting the status quo created after the political transformations. For this reason a liberal president – an abstract creation of these considerations – should reject temporariness in the name of potential success – both political and actual.

An attempt at change should first and foremost be based on public debate. As I have written earlier, the president’s office is held in high esteem by Poles which we could observe after the tragic death of Lech Kaczyński. The future president may take advantage of that and initiate social discussions on significant economic and world view issues. Today it’s hard to imagine any politician – not to mention the president – summoning a conference on to the privatization of Health Service or engaging in a dialogue with Polish farmers about reforming the Agricultural Social Insurance Fund. The last years have shown that social debate can change attitudes among Poles. When Poland was joining the European Union a similar method was applied by Aleksander Kwaśniewski who organized pro-European meetings, rallies and debates. Another example concerns the legalization of homosexual relationships which was at first demanded by organizers of pride marches. Back then this topic has aroused huge controversies among the society and the marches were banned by the presidents of Poznań and Warsaw. Later, public figures engaged in the debate and the issue of legalizing partner relationships became more and more popular. After a couple years the problem was mulled over by the citizens and politicians. Today, all important parties avoid making homophobic statements and the Civic Platform despite of being a strong conservative fraction wants to change the existing laws to make homosexuals life easier (this may be exemplified by recent statements made by Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska and Bronisław Komorowski).

However, the outlook on life is of secondary importance. The most important aspect of presidency should be adapting the society to the principles of free market. Otherwise Poles will always be lost in the most important aspect of social functioning – making money. One of the traits of Homo sovieticus is the inability to bear responsibility for oneself, for he believes that all of his problems should be solved by authority. Grotesque and at the same time tragic are the words of workers of the H. Cegielski manufacturing company in Poznań who said during a demonstration said that it would be the largest protest since 1956. It symbolizes the situation of many social groups which do not see any change in the political system and therefore cannot discern between communism and capitalism. This relationship between the subordinate and employer was justified in times of nationalized economy, but today the state cannot fulfill the same function. Józef Tishner wrote about this phenomena: At some point communism suffers defeat. It would seem that this defeat would be the end for our hero, but it is not. Homo sovieticus discovers his hidden depths: everything he yesterday expected from communists today he expects from capitalists. Changing the relationship between employees and the state should be a priority for liberal politicians. This situation also concerns other sectors of economy – for example insurance. Poles don’t use insurance because they are convinced about the dishonesty of insurance companies and in case of any problems they demand material security from the state. The insurance market which is becoming more and more developed and professional shows the extent to which the society doesn’t benefit from capitalism . Therefore, apart from the privatization process it is necessary to show Poles the advantages of free market economy. If nobody will help them, the liberalization of economy will take place only in several dozens of years when the last Poles accustomed to communist solutions will leave the job market. However, it may turn out then that Homo sovieticus is a genetically determined creation and that the next generations who will be born in the democratic Poland will demand more from the state than from themselves.

There exists one more threat that a president should remember about. His activities should solely be an incentive that will propel the society, he cannot force citizens to do anything. Otherwise the democratically chosen president will become another post-regime demon specialist whom Fromm wrote about. These activities would not comply with the doctrine of liberalism and they would only increase the submissiveness of Homo sovieticus and his conviction about the lack of influence on the world we live in. A good politician should be able to sense the moment in which it will be possible to translate the incentive into public feeling – just like Barack Obama who made use of the anti-war atmosphere among the American society.

The moment in which Homo sovieticus will only be a historical being will be a milestone for Polish politics. Poles will be responsible solely for themselves, they will be able to notice the good sides of life in a democratic country and will forget about the superior role of authority. They will be able to assess communism through the prism of freedom, not freedom through the prism of communism. It is a shame that this did not happen 20 years ago – perhaps we have lost this chance in 1990 when Tadeusz Mazowiecki lost the presidential election. As Józef Tishner wrote: “In contrast with man who tries to succumb his existence to free consciousness, Homo sovieticus is the one who’s consciousness is defined by existence”. A liberal president whomever he will be, should take up the challenge of changing Poles awareness so that it may begin to shape our individual existence.

TŁUMACZENIE: Katarzyna Cwynar

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About Jan Radomski

Studies Polish Philology in Poznań. Interested in relation between culture and politics, especially in 20th century, and furthermore in history of Polish democratic thought.

Fredrich Naumann Foundation For The Freedom
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