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Polish collaboration with the conservatism

Published on March 4, 2011 by: in: Politics

Polish political stage can be – and I think it should be – seen not only in the context of post-political thinking and technocracy of politics but also, above all in the context of the collaboration with the conservatism. It can turn out that it was this process which made the young Polish liberalism empty and led to shaping such non-leftist Left.


When in 2007 the Civic Platform was winning the parliamentary elections and Polish voters were sending the activists from the Law and Justice party to the opposition then the winner de facto was the peace. The fourth Republic of brothers Kaczyński, Lepper and Giertych lost not against perfectly prepared political and economic program and plans of the social modernization proposed by the Civic Platform but against promises of peace, stabilization and quieting the battle fronts. Did then – in the autumn of 2007 – some kind of conservatism of attitude win? Did the Polish eventually turn out to be supporters and defenders of the status quo and opponents of firm and revolutionary change?

The year of revolutionists

In 2005 the Law and Justice came to power under the slogans of fight against pathologies of the political life, liquidation of the violence, numerous initiatives aiming at reducing the level of poverty in the Polish society. The most catchy and key slogan in those campaigns – presidential and parliamentary –  however was the moral revolution. This slogan was popular not only among the leaders of the Law and Justice but also people from the Civic Platform at that time – suffice to mention Jan Rokita and Paweł Śpiewak – were involved in building the idea of the Fourth Republic as the one which will draw a line over humiliating heritage of the post-communist era with all its pathologies. The leaders of the Civic Platform and the Law and Justice were calling for the moral revolution promising the voters a big coalition of the post-Solidarity parties, the only ones capable of carrying out such a moral renewal.

The coalition of the Civic Platform and the Law and Justice was based on the objections of the political elites against mechanisms revealed when so-called Rywin’s scandal and other irregularities were investigated, which came out during the government of Lech Miller and coalition of the Democratic Left Alliance, the Labor Union and the Polish People’s Party. All of them showed a grim face of Polish politics and the post-Solidarity activists were convincing that it is a face of the post-communism: political pathology of the period post Round Table – the issue which should be clearly and finally settled. In 2005 Jan Rokita was convincing in the First Radio Program that “everyone can steal but the thing is to finally permanently eliminate these robbers from the politics and in general from a public life”. Campaign from the year 2005 was one big crusade against robbers, swindlers and political liars, which were given the face of Rywin, Miller and Oleksy.

It turned out that such revolutionary-moral rhetoric with strong references to ethical and axiological issues won. Polish voters had a choice between more radical version in the shape of the Law and Justice and more moderate and balanced version embodied by the Civic Platform. Surprisingly the first version won. And it won twice – the parliamentary elections were won by the Law and Justice and presidential by Lech Kaczyński. The team of brothers Kaczyński got the voters’ legitimization for the changes they proposed: from the liquidation of the Military Information Services and introducing new lustration law to establishing Central Anticorruption Office constituting somehow the institutional hypostasis of the slogan of the moral revolution and renewal.

Part of the changes were introduced with the support of the biggest opposition club, namely the Civic Platform, part – with the help of so-called appetizers (Self-defense of Andrzej Lepper and League of Polish Families of Roman Giertych) which created the parliamentary coalition with the Law and Justice after the idea of coalition between the Law and Justice and the Civic Platform fell apart.  Kaczyński brothers opened number of political fronts where they wanted to – apart from introducing their often controversial solutions – gain the exclusive right to use the legend of the Solidarity and to make references to its heritage. The aim was to eliminate the Civic Platform from those who could make such references. The project of the new Poland – the Fourth Republic – step by step was becoming more and more exclusive project. Among those who were excluded from it already there were not only so-called post-communists, agents or secret cooperators, but also alleged troublemakers, neoliberals and eggheads. The Fourth Republic became more an axis of divisions instead of community understood in a republican sense.

Conservatism of the base

After the elections from 2005 the Civic Platform was becoming more and more distant towards what the Law and Justice was doing. On the 6th of March 2006 Jan Rokita said in ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’: ‘I share many of the Law and Justice’s diagnosis but I do not like what the Law and Justice is doing. I agree that Poland requires deep reconstruction, I even managed to agree to the Fourth Republic (…) When the ministers start implementing these plans they talk so much nonsense, they create so many enemies that they make those changes virtually impossible to. In other words, maybe the dish they make is tasty itself but the sauce in which they serve it makes it inedible’. This statement shows how the leaders of the Civic Platform gradually became more distant towards the radically reformatory or even revolutionary rhetoric of the Fourth Republic’s leaders. In the years 2005-2007 the Civic Platform was systematically marching towards the conservatism of the base, slogans of the peace, stabilization and normality.

The Civic Platform won the parliamentary elections in 2007 only because the conservative attitude won among the Polish society. Attitude which has nothing to do with the conservatism understood as a political doctrine or more ideology, but conservatism understood as rational and pragmatic attitude of respect and attachment to what is stable and known. In this sense – following the words of Michael  Oakeshott – ‘to be a conservative means preferring known rather than unknown, limited rather than unlimited, available rather than ideal, laughter today rather then utopian paradise tomorrow’. The Polish voting in 2007 escaping from the revolutions of any kind, political and moral, proved that they are not interested in parliamentary wars and that they intend to punish insecurity, incalculability of the politicians as well as the backstage games played by them.

Results of the public opinion research published by CBOS (Centre for Public Opinion Research) in March 2007 showed that merely 25% of the Polish voters supported the prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński and merely 24% supported the government which he led. In comparison to February of that year the support for Kaczyński decreased by 6% and for the government by 4% (source: www.gazetapodatnika.pl, 14.03.2007). The same research showed that 61% people were dissatisfied with Jarosław Kaczyński and 48% with his government. Such opinion pools were in line with growing popularity of the Civic Platform whose campaign more and more often was under the slogans of the objections against the form of the government, not its actions. It can be said that liberals from the Civic Platform were giving up the political dispute for the metapolitical one, were replacing debate about the projects with quarrelling about the form of implementing them, the political arguments with the arguments about politics.

The conservatism of the base should be understood as rejection of the political aggression, radical dispute, hatred and paranoid thinking and adopting moderate attitude, judgments of reason and emphasis put on the reflection and talks. It would be perfectly in line with what one of the leaders of the conservative thought, Edmund Burke, wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France: ‘Rage and insanity can destroy in half an hour more than reason, consideration and caution can build in one hundred years’. The Civic Platform in 2007 was convincing Polish society that the Law and Justice represents such ‘destructive power of rage and insanity’ and the Platform itself embodies ‘reason, consideration and caution’. The Polish believed in such a division not only because of skilful propagandistic campaign carried out by the Civic Platform. They were led more by the experiences from the last two years, during which the sufficient amount of arguments and facts confirming such a thesis was collected.

This way the Civic Platform in 2007 had to opt for the conservative attitudes, even though it officially – apart from some exceptions – rejected declaring itself as doctrinal or ideological conservatives. First side of the Polish collaboration with the conservatism boils down to adopting conservative attitudes, attitude of moderation and tranquility in preparation of the political reforms. The example of such collaboration is not only the attitude of people from the Civic Platform in 2007 but also the strategy adopted by the Democratic Left Alliance led by Leszek Miller in the campaign from the year 2001. Criticism of the reformatory government of Jerzy Buzek and calling for political stabilization became driving force of the victory of the Left in 2001. Rhetoric of this party resembled slogans from the first democratic elections in Poland when the Democratic Left Alliance used slogans ‘It can not be like this anymore’ and ‘It does not have to be like this anymore’. They always boiled down to conservative attitudes declared by the majority of Polish society.

Ideological conservatism

Conservatism in the spirit of Michael Oakeshott who wrote that „I am interested not in any faith nor doctrine, but in attitude. To be conservative means to be prone to think and behave in a particular way; to value specific behavior and conditions of life more than others, to make some kind of choices’, is a way of thinking, a base on which a number of political factions in Poland after the year 1989 shaped their political discourse and built their relations with the voters. It concerns mainly such ideological issues of modern societies – including Polish society – as abortion, euthanasia, homosexual relations or, in wider perspective, a problem of contemporary, alternative forms of a family.

Some of these issues occasionally appeared in the Polish political discourse after the year 1989 but some of them have never been a subject of political debate and they have never existed in a public sphere.  The issue of abortion belongs to the first category,  suffice to mention that we had in Poland in the middle of the 90s a heated discussion on the liberalization of the abortion law. The government of Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz took the responsibility of preparing suitable law and introduced possibility of abortion for the material-social reasons. Amendment which came into force on January 1, 1997 remained in power until December 23 of the same year when the Constitutional Tribunal proclaimed it failed to be in line the Constitution. So far this was the last – and the only one – attempt at introducing abortion as an element of a public debate. Since then neither important political environment nor any political party brought up this topic or called for rethinking the law in power – all of this in the spirit of so-called difficult compromise, which allegedly was embodied by the law concerning planning the family, protection of human embryo and conditions in which the abortion is legal from the year 1993.

Curiously also the leftist environment – apart from the feminist organizations which do not have any bigger influence on shaping the political programs of the important political parties – remains silent in this topic.  The government of Leszek Miller, which until the Rywin’s scandal had a parliamentary majority which would let it introduce such law and additionally had the support of the Presidential Palace led by Aleksander Kwaśniewski, did not present any initiatives within this theme. Explanation that the coalition partner, namely the Polish People Party, would not support such liberal law is only a cover for the flirt with the Catholic church and the conservative environments. Left-wing governments adopted strategy – similar to the one of the Civic Platform from 2007 – whose main point was ‘peace’ and avoiding any political conflict. The Left gave up dealing with more liberal postulates concerning moral or ideological issues being afraid of losing support of more conservatively oriented voters.

For the same reasons issues such as legalization of homosexual relationships or euthanasia do not exist at all in Polish public debate and it is hardly possible to point out any political environment which wants to change it in the close future. In the year 2003 Senator Maria Szyszkowska presented a draft bill concerning registration of the partner relationships which would apply both to heterosexuals and homosexuals but both the Prime Minister Leszek Miller and the President of the Parliament Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz distanced themselves from this initiative skillfully explaining that such project would not have any chance for the positive outcome in the Parliament at that time. Regardless of the real motifs and chances for introducing such bills it has to be underlined that the attitude of the left-wing parties is nothing else than fitting in the right-wing discourse, according to which – to use the words of Marek Jurek – such a bill would be ‘the first step on the way to destroy the family’.

Absurd notion that as soon as the homosexual relationships are legalized all Polish men would leave their wives and enjoy homosexual pleasures and all women would stop giving birth to children de facto won and until now is strongly grounded, at least among the representatives of Polish political elites. Curiously already in 2005, according to the surveys carried out by CBOS, 46% of respondents supported the legalization of the gay and lesbian relationships, 44% opposed the idea (source: http://kobiety-kobietom.com, 12.12.2010). Research done by CBOS concerning the acceptance of homosexual behaviors indicate also that the notion that such behaviors have to be accepted and tolerated regardless of the fact that they are treated as deviation from the social norm systematically increases (in the year 2001 – 47% of respondents claimed that homosexuality has to be tolerated, 41% opposed the idea; in the year 2005 – 55% and 34%; in 2008 – 52% and 31%; in 2010 – 63% and 23%; the source: CBOS).  These notions are not reflected in the public debate within which majority of politicians claim that the problem of tolerance towards homosexuals does not exist and that the question of the legalization of homosexual relationships should not be a subject of political discussion at all.

Notion that the Polish society is conservative when it comes to moral and ideological issues became the foundation for the political silence concerning homosexual relationships as well as euthanasia. Some issues are simply not mentioned, regardless of the Polish society’s attitude towards them. A naive thesis stating that the political elites are the emanation of the society and that it is not their duty to educate, rise awareness or create the spirit of the tolerance towards minorities, is often adopted. Ideological conservatism of the political elites is another sign of the Polish collaboration with the conservatism as such. Such its version resembles to a certain extent French version of the paternalistic conservatism from the 19th century, blindly defending tradition and – what follows – a traditional idea of a family. Blindness of such conservative collaborators leads to the fact that they fail to notice that in the contemporary times the notion of a family itself changed, that numerous alternative forms appeared, that increasing divorce rate reflects certain social phenomena which cannot be reverted by silence and pretending that they are not visible.

Catholic-martyrdom Polishness

Collaboration with the conservatism is also visible in devotion to a very narrow vision of Polishness which is usually linked with the national martyrdom and informal alliance with the institutional Catholic church. Imprisonment in the national martyrdom and archaic thinking about Poland and the Polish results in the lack of vision of the Poland’s place within the European Union. Neither of the governments and neither of the political parties presented any concept of the place of Poland within Europe. Taking the responsibility for the Eastern policy of Europe – however reasonable and supported by the Polish historical and political experiences it may seem – reflects this myth about Poland as the link between the world of East and West, as the bulwark of the civilization and Christianity. It does not mean that Poland should give up its place where it can really be a leader and an expert but it means that Poland should be seen in a wider perspective and its future in Europe should be seen in a similarly wider way.

Poland – even though it entered the 21st century by joining the NATO and the European Union, rising the level of life and decreasing the unemployment rate, increasing the number of people with higher education – still looks back to its history with a sentiment, it recalls especially those moments when it faced spectacular defeats.  It was the celebrations of the Warsaw Uprising which became the annual national celebration, lasting for over a month, while the successful Uprising in Wielkopolska is remembered mainly locally and surely not adequately to a size of a success. Round Table did not become a founding myth of democratic and free Poland, rather of post-communist and not sovereign Poland. We got used to right-wing environments, especially the national-Catholic ones, seeing Polishness like this – crushed, humiliated and defeated. Adopting such a vision has to coexist with the phobia against Russia and Germany. Anti-German and anti-Russian elements which appeared in the political advertisements of the Law and Justice in 2005 were not harshly criticized by the media, even though they can be seen as promoting hatred and strengthening national stereotypes.

Current policy also proves that this narrow and anachronistic vision of Polishness is adopted by some of the leaders of the political elites. The investigation of Smolensk’ catastrophe revealed fully how the leaders of the Law and Justice perceive Polishness: always innocent and hurt, destroyed by the neighbors, not sovereign and submissive. The saddest thing is that alternative vision either does not appear at all or does not find its place in the public sphere. In the spirit of such understood Polishness Smoleńsk becomes the second Katyń, plane crash becomes an attack, suggestions concerning pilots’ mistakes are interpreted as questioning the credibility of the Polish army and talks between the Polish and Russian Prime Ministers prove only that Poland is nothing else but a ‘Russian-German condominium’. This vision of Poland and Polishness is the only one which makes its way to the public sphere. Nobody is brave enough to formulate a different vision, to decisively opt for modernization and looking to the future, to break with the historical  policy and to make history the historians’, not the prime ministers’ or political leaders’ domain.

Collaboration with such a narrow-minded understanding of Polishness is reflected for example in passiveness and lack of engagement into building a vision of new Poland, Poland of the future, which has to appear on the ruins of history and tradition. Such collaboration represents also a fear of institutional Catholic church which is one of the actors of the public sphere who supports and makes stronger such a vision. Long years of silence concerning activities of so-called treasury commission or avoiding topics in contradiction with the Catholic church’ doctrine were supposed to ensure the neutrality of church officials towards the leftist or liberal governments. Conservative collaborators are not interested in the fact that a high school pupil has the twice as many lessons of religion as of biology, chemistry, physics or geography, three times as many as the basics of enterprise, social science or computer science and six times as many as of the knowledge about culture. Being scared of the priests saying in the church not to vote for the Civic Platform or the Democratic Left Alliance is more powerful than rational management of state property or designing the system of public education.

Collaborators of all the parties – unite!

After the year 1989 the majority of political environment opted for the collaboration with the conservatism in different shapes: conservatism of the base – resistant to any radical changes and using the rhetoric of bring back the normality and stabilization; morally-ideological conservatism – opposing liberalization of the right to abortion, intolerant towards the sexual minorities and blind to the changes happening in the shape of contemporary family; national-catholic conservatism and its vision of Polishness – based on the martyrdom, anachronistic vision of Polish nation and the place of Poland in Europe as well as blind attachment to the Catholic church. From the Right to the Left – all the parties and all the important political environments – opted for one of the above forms of collaboration, even though they might have done it for different reasons and motifs.

For the right-wing or conservative sensu stricte environments it was not any form of collaboration – it came from the internal conviction about necessity of realizing the political postulates this and not any different way and devotion to basic priorities and values of the conservatism understood as a political doctrine. Only liberals as the representatives of political centre of the Left could be collaborators then. They decided to collaborate with the conservatism usually for the pragmatic reasons, such as fear of the social influence of the Catholic church or notion of the society’s reluctance towards more liberal solutions. Political parties forgot that they are not only an emanation of the society and a form of realizing the collective interests, their tasks include also shaping the public opinion and ensuring the appropriate level of the public debate. It was forgotten that sometimes the political elites are obliged to defend the minority against the determined majority. The surveys and opinion polls were believed blindly – they became the main factors influencing the activities of the political parties.

Polish collaboration with the conservatism led to deaxiologization of  Polish liberalism and only emerging Social Democracy. Some explain it with the developing process of changing the contemporary politics into post politics and creating more and more often the technocratic governments which consciously give up any political projects. The Polish political stage can be – and I think it should be – seen not only in the context of post political thinking and technocracy of politics but also, above all in the context of the collaboration with the conservatism. It can turn out that it was this process which made the young Polish liberalism empty and led to shaping such non-leftist Left.

Translation: Martyna Bojarska

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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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