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128 years on the sidelines

Published on January 15, 2011 by: in: Thought

Around what values did liberal parties organize in Europe and historical reasons of institutionalized weaknesses of liberalism in Poland.

It seems that the political scene of  Poland has gone through two decades of which the latter is still in progress. The first phase was characterized by a major instability of political parties which were established, disappeared and were replaced with the new ones. We have experienced a greater stability after 2005 if we do not take into account the elimination of two extreme populist parties (these, however, appear also in grounded political systems as transient and short-lasting phenomena). The current system is assessed as dysfunctional because in the long run it is not able, in such composition and line-up to represent the interests and values of the Polish society. It is, therefore, unfinished and a major revolution is awaiting it, which will make our political scene similar to those of Western Europe. Especially because consolidation of today’s system is artificial and largely stems from act construction about financing political parties.

Liberal parties – lack of roots

In the current state there is no place for an independent liberal party understood as one which is both pro market in the area of economics and progressive in life matters. Such parties exist in most of the Western European countries, especially where democracy has a long history and great traditions. What is interesting, there are analogus problems with the establishment of a liberal party in Spain, Portugal, Greece, so those countries in which democratic changes are quite recent. This is where the key to understanding the problems lies.

Liberal parties refer to their long history of political movement, which was fully formed even in the 19th century. Today’s parties in other Western European countries refer to this rich legacy openly. Therefore their electorates have a permanent character, clearly defined in political and social terms. The tradition of voting for liberals is long in some social environments. Those parties have a pretty stable position on the political scene. In Poland, however, with regard to our historical experience, the phenomenon of “permanent electorate” of parties does not actually exist. There are no family political traditions transferred from generation to generation because the horizon of our democracy is still very short.

The problem of contemporary Polish liberals to establish a genuine party is historically determined.  The short existence of the Third Republic of Poland is a serious obstacle here. First of all, it is the weakness of previous liberal traditions in Poland. The cause of this state is the non-existence of the Polish state just at the time when liberalism was developing and formed a ground for political actions. Through liquidation of the Polish state from 1795 to 1918, Poland found itself on the sideline of happening at that time political processes and beyond the main stream of events. When liberalism was blossoming the main subject in Poland was regaining independence. So during the period of its greatest political force in Europe there was no liberalism in Poland.

In the meantime the premises for shaping a strong liberal movement in Poland were quite promising. Just before Poland fell prey to its neighbors there seemed to emerge a political beginning of liberal thinking about the state. We can observe a big time correlation with other countries. Before Poland was liquidated it functioned in the main streams of the logic of political philosophy revolution which took place in Europe, and as far as liberal ideas are concerned, it was even its leader.

Of course the Constitution of May, 3 is the strongest argument here. The document which introduced a modern constitutional monarchy based on classic liberal recipe had also philosophical background in the number of interesting, liberal magazines by Polish authors from the 18th century. The adoption of the constitution coincides with the American one and the first declaration of French Revolution which in contrast to Jacobin’s declaration was also a liberal text. Great Britain was of course a step ahead, as they had introduced frameworks of constitutional monarchy with a strong position of parliament almost a century earlier. Additionally, “anarchistic” tradition in Poland was strong, in the sense of open aversion towards excessive  concentration of power in the hands of a monarch.

Liberum veto, the version of gentry lawlessness, was not a liberal mechanism, but what it had in common with philosophy of classic liberalism  was the fear and objection towards monarchal absolutism.  On the grounds of such  attitude spread in Poland as well as the tendency of decentralization and self-governance, liberalism had excellent conditions to be successful if Poland existed in the 19th century. Religious tolerance had also great tradition in our country, while some European countries still waged political war of preference and privilege of “official religion”. With regard to it, there was also an optimal foundation for the development of liberalism.

National and not individual freedom

However, the liquidation of the Polish country stopped these political processes which were gaining on strength due to the adoption of the Constitution. Instead, our elites had to focus for more than a century  on various actions aimed at regaining independence. Liberalism had ready-made prescriptions for many aspects of state organization but it was  not useful for the nation that  had to yet fight for its country.

All the groundbreaking, great socio-political debates which took place in the 19th century throughout Europe and thanks to which liberalism was so politically successful had no chance to play any important role in Poland so they could not form the consciousness of the elites let alone social masses. Liberalism could not develop in such condition also because every ideology inevitably has to separate from other thought streams and define itself in opposition to them so that it introduces divisions across the country.

In Polish conditions people craved for the unity for realization of the common national aims. Therefore in the times of annexation due to a series of failed uprisings generating martyrdom just the nationalistic and independent idea had the grounds for full development. The political history of the Second Republic of Poland shows how it dominated in the political consciousness of the nation which, eventually, freed itself from occupation. Next to it, there was only the idea of peasant movement and socialist idea having in its Polish version strong national character which were the form of protection of financial interests of social strata.  Other ideas, including liberalism, after 1918 could only be instilled from outside as a foreign factor. It happened because this genuine Polish liberalism did not stand a chance of development. And it still pays for it.

During annexation Poles fought for independence. What system it was to adopt was a minor concern. Because of that the idea of classic liberalism which fired up people’s emotions across Europe, calling for replacing absolute monarchy with the arbitrary power of people, constitutional monarchy with the rule of law did not arouse significant interest in Poland. The question which system would the Polish country adopt if it was established again in 1831 still remains unanswered.

The creation of liberal parties in Europe

Political problems which became the reason for engaging significant social group into liberal movement in the Western countries remained meaningless in Poland. In Great Britain, where constitutional monarchy existed, the Liberal Party was established as a coalition of a few groups of interests which combined objection towards the arbitrary interference of the state into the freedom of citizens. The first political club in the liberal coalition were of course people who continued the long tradition of aristocratic Wigs, who defined their political aim in the categories of classic liberalism as a protection of traditional, English citizen freedoms against the threat from the arbitrary actions of the royal authorities.

This aristocratic part of coalition was completed by a number of liberal Tories who decided to break up with their first party due to numerous conflicts inside it in the twenties of the 19th century which mainly touched upon the subjects of religious freedom limitation. Wigs were in favor for a process of gradual, slow system, political and social changes and they favored keeping by aristocracy the control over the country. The second element of the liberal coalition with a major meaning to its ideological clarity, were radicals making up the most progressive wing of the Liberal Party.

They were mostly focused on the critics of the conservative approach to socio-political reality and put their Wig partners under constant pressure to conduct deeper reforms, concerning  the vote or social politics and education, also after taking over by the Wigs responsibility for their governance. Radicals were in favor of limiting the expenditure of the budget and it is their group that gave rise to a  movement for the free trade and duty free corn and Manchester school of economics.

The group which joined Wigs with radicals were religious nonconformists, who were activists demanding religious freedom and equality for the great range of Protestant beliefs and churches in the country where Anglicanism was a religion preferred by the crown and Tories. The fourth and the most loosely connected with others power in liberal coalition was the Irish liberation movement aiming at abolishing the union between Great Britain and Ireland and also fighting with some other religious discrimination that aimed at Catholics. In the end, as a result of schism caused by the conflict around duty free corn the coalition was joined by the fifth group called “Peel Tories”,  in favor of protectionism in foreign trade and constituting the conservative wing.

The liberal movement was really powerful in Germany due to building of the united, national German state which was to adopt a liberal system of constitutional monarchy. For decades the liberal movement was synonymous with the national unity movement because many people became proponents of it. German liberals were successful in joining the matter or unity, i.e. national and patriotic response with classic ideas of liberalism, i.e. freedom response. Theoretically such an attempt could have been made in Poland as well.

The key difference, however, was that in German conditions the fight for a new statehood was against the resistance of the conservative citizens and proponents of fragmentation – liberalism could reach for a patriotic argument to define itself in one nation as one party. Whereas in Poland, the fight for statehood was against the strangers, so the national division was the most important here.

In Italy, the liberal movement managed to unite the country – this fact decided about liberal domination on the political scene until the First World War. There were favorable circumstances for the liberals. Because the main opponent of Italy was the Papal State and anticlerical movement that raised as a result enabled the liberals to realize the program of building the Laic state despite a great Italian attachment  to the traditional place of the Church in the public life. Other dominant subjects of Italian debates helped a few fractions of the liberal movement to take over the whole political scene for several years.

In France through the whole 19th century there was a debate about the form of the system of the country which guaranteed liberals a strong political position. Their first success which was the construction of the constitutional monarchy (1830-1848) was marked by a simultaneous objection of the liberals against three regimes, none of which fulfilled citizens’ aspirations; neither egalitarian and quasi-socialistic, based on terror, regime of revolutionary Jacobins, nor plebiscite-populist and nationalistic Napoleon dictatorship, nor conservative and clerical Bourbon restoration.

The liberal movement in France was divided into several fractions: liberal legitimists, Orlean doctrinaires, left centre, republicans and smaller groups such as dynastic left or Tiers party. Lack of compromise between them led to the collapse of the July monarchy and quick defeat of the following republic.

Yet, the experience of anti-liberal governance of the Second Empire led to the success of the system vision in the form of the Third Republic. Actions in the social sphere provided sympathies and support for the liberals. The fight against the clerical influence were also a driving force of liberalism in Belgium and Spain.

During last years of the 19th century liberal parties transformed themselves into parties with massive membership. Beside the program of social reforms on secularization of education and supporting it on purely scientific base, or the elimination of signs of actual inequality being the remains of the feudal society, such postulates of liberal politicians like free trade and abolishing duties (very often responsible for hunger), the regulation of the relationship of land property and improving housing conditions, fundamental peace approach to international politics, and first of all reforms connected with the appearance of the democratic trend in liberalism (the reform of the vote, enabling lower strata people to take official positions) and social trend (regulations on work time, minimal wages, work security, trade unions, security for the old age and availability of the healthcare) were supported.

Liberal backwardness

It is important to enumerate those problems because it will enable us to understand what was the source of the success of liberalism and how far from Polish political elites troubles during annexation were those problems. When Poland regained independence subjects dominating in the world politics changed. The interwar times were the period of the deepest crisis of liberalism. It was not the time when authentic Polish liberalism could develop. When this idea started to regain strength after the World War II Poland was again moved outside the major evolutionary trend of normal politics.

We entered the phase of real socialism without our own liberalism or at best with rickety liberalism, opposition to people’s governance very rarely reached for pure liberal ideas, however, they were perfect to criticize and resist communism as they were completely contradictory  to Communism. Only in the 80’s liberal ideas were injected into the Polish ground from abroad.

It was a reaction to a worsening state of the Polish economy in the  People’s Republic of Poland. But as a work of just a few fiends it did not have any support in authentic mass movement because it lacked tradition and premises. Moreover, they reached only for economic liberalism completely ignoring or passing over other elements of this ideology. The reason for this state of matters was the great importance of the catholic church in the antisocialist resistance of the late People’s Republic of Poland which has always treated the elements of this liberal credo with hostility. After the next regaining of independence in 1989 an authentic liberal party had no chance of being formed in the Polish reality. Several parties reached for liberalism only fragmentarily, inconsequently, often quietly and with shame. Former attempts to form a Polish liberal party of the 21st century such as the Freedom Union under the leadership of Władysław Frasyniuk between 2002 and 2005 were unsuccessful. The next few years are yet to show what will the fate of Paweł Piskorski’s Democratic Party if it at all try to represent a genuine liberal program.

This article is an attempt to diagnose historical causes of liberal tradition weakness in Poland. As usual we put blame on our backwardness even if in this case it is difficult to blame us for this state of matters. We were deprived of our own country several times in the modern history. So Polish elites must not be blamed that in such circumstances they focused on the most important fact – independence. Not having our own country we were deprived of the possibility to develop normally, both as individuals and as a national unity of fate in many aspects. It heavily and negatively influenced the development of the liberal idea in our country.

There is one conclusion. It is rather impossible to copy a Western European model of a liberal party and transferring it onto the Polish grounds. We, as Polish liberals today, in favorable conditions of liberal democracy, rationalization and globalization of the 21st century should do what Western liberals did in the 19th century – find political debate which will genuinely concern Polish matters today and tomorrow just to present a liberal prescription for problems connected with it. We should build our own, domestic liberal program from scratch relying on the international intellectual achievements. Only in this way will we be able to build a stable structure and a stable support, deeply rooted in our Polish social reality.

Translation: Małgorzata Mrożewska;

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About Piotr Beniuszys

Piotr Beniuszys holds Master’s degree in sociology and political science; his views are to the right in economic issues, to the left in ethical and moral issues – i.e. liberal in both cases; the final chairman of Unia Wolności in Gdańsk, a former member of Democratic Party –

Fredrich Naumann Foundation For The Freedom
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