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Published on September 8, 2011 by: in: Thought

For more than twenty years the conservative liberalism has been a dominating trend of public life in Poland.

At the beginnings of the Third Republic of Poland the internal contradiction of such combination was less striking than it is today: the political programmes of liberal-conservatists as well as conservative liberals were basically aiming at creating what is called “a normal country” – without radical ideologies in politics, but with efficient free market economy, organized administration democratic government and numerous middle class. All of the above were not elements of positive political project, but they were rather a negation of PRL (People’s Republic of Poland) with its central economy, permanent deficiencies, overgrown bureaucracy, highly ideological and lacking of social support authorities and an odd social hierarchy created artificially in dialectical clinch of technocratic ambitions and Marxist dogmas.

Even though the conservative-liberal program of leaving the communism was realized and therefore lost almost all its attractiveness– Poland has become a member of NATO and EU, which before 1989 were identified with the West – for the last five years its domination among Polish political elites has become established. No matter how great importance will be ascribed to every clash of “Prawo i Sprawiedliwość” (PIS) and “Platforma Obywatelska” (PO), the differences between those two parties concern the style rather than the program – the successive governments are invariably conservative in the filed of values and lead moderately liberal economic policy. The conservative-liberal cluster is however unavoidable. Liberalism, in its essence, has at least as much in common with left-wing thought as with conservative one and it is not impossible that, on the consistently conservative ground an opposition to the ruling right-wing will grow. It is worth mentioning that before socialist have emerged liberals were called “left-wing” in relation to the spatial definition coming from the deputies’ places in French revolutionary States-General.  The remnants of this linguistic convention are present nowadays in Denmark, where the liberal party has had a name Venstre – that is The Left – since the 19th century.

The overview of the relationship between liberalism and leftism should start from the four philosophical assumptions that are common to the liberal and leftist thought (or more precisely they are the basis of liberalism and were adapted by the Left). These include: the rationalist (hence non-religious, and referring to the experience rather than revelation) perception of the world, belief in the moral and material progress of mankind, the belief that all men are created equal and the desire to broaden the scope of individual freedom (ie, the left-wing language, to emancipation).  These assumptions are mutually related and constitute a coherent outlook, different from the conservative or Christian-democratic ones.

Scientific liberalism

The importance of the first of these assumptions is clearly visible if you pay attention to the fact that liberalism was a philosophical and political consequence of the modern breakthrough in European natural sciences. The development of astronomy and physics, which were originally treated as utilitarian science (which were supposed to facilitate navigation and exploration of non-European lands and to achieve military superiority) led to challenging the earlier notions about the world, many of which – directly or by deduction – were associated with religious beliefs. As the science developed, the truths of faith proved to be in a growing conflict with the results of experiment, which had to have an influence on the political realm, where religious dogmas were used to legitimize monarchic-feudal order. What is equally important, the Europeans quickly realized that a person can be not only the subject but also the object of scientific cognition. That is why Machiavelli and Hobbes grandsociologists occupy a prominent place in the tradition of liberal thinking about politics, despite the fact that the conclusions drawn by them are difficult to consider as a sign of liberalism today.

Also the emerging of what we now call the Left from broadly understood liberalism and various derivatives of Marxist thought had an epistemological dimension. This part of Karl Marx’s analysis, which focused on the past history of humanity has been basically in line with the liberals’ intuitions. For example, value-added concept, introduced by Marx, proved to be crucial for all subsequent economics and its practical application in the form of value added tax (VAT) became the basis for modern fiscal system. However, using “historical rights” to predict the future was speculative in nature and conclusions drawn from these political predictions, with the call to organize the supposedly imminent revolution in the first place, had nothing to do with rationality. Contrary to the declared commitment to the scientific and materialistic outlook, Marxism and its subsequent political mutations – Socialism, Communism, Leninism, Maoism and the most moderate Social-Democracy – took a form similar to that of religion, distant from liberalism.

The Liberals rejected revolutionary method as not enough scientifically justified (and, above all, as too brutal), but progress, an important component of the scientific method, has not disappeared from their vision of the world. Empirical observation of the environment – especially conducted on a large scale – shows after all that the human condition is constantly changing for the better. It is obvious in the material sphere: we drive bigger and safer cars, we have access to more and more varied food and we live longer. In the moral sphere the conviction of the continuous progress is not as strong as it was before World War I (years 1914-1945 showed that in no way it is inevitable), but it has a fairly solid foundation: unlike 50 years ago the Western democracies admonish – calling them by name – Chinese dissidents, smoldering Middle East conflict, which is after all less bloody than it was in the 70s. Sensitivity to the suffering of animals has increased so much that the Polish courts have begun to impose prison terms without suspension for their abuse. For the Left, all these signs of improvement are insufficient, but both they and the liberals establish them with satisfaction, confident that they confirm the validity of their optimistic faith in humanity. Its credo comes down to the belief that aggregated happiness of mankind may continue to increase  through wise and responsible (and so – democratic) politics.

Conventional equality

As much as the adherence to the scientific method of perceiving and describing the world is firmly rooted in reality and believing in progress is the logical consequence of the empirical habit, the idea of universal human equality- another shared characteristics of liberalism and leftism – is a convention, not a statement of fact. This convention is so common in today’s world that it is usually not noticed. Its “transparency” is one of the foundations of democracy, but it remains nothing more than arbitrary moral judgment. In fact, the thesis that all men are equal and should have equal rights does not result from the empirical observation after all. It shows us that people differ in terms of age, sex, color, temperament, physical and intellectual abilities. There are – although less and less popular – opinions, according to which these differences determine inequality so fundemantal that it should be reflected in the sphere of law and policy. The visions of the good society related to them imply its hierarchical structure (as in the feudal monarchies), legitimize the enslavement of certain groups of people (as in the United States until the Civil War) or restrict their participation in public life (anywhere in the world until the introduction of universal suffrage: only 40 years have passed since the Swiss women received right to vote). Although the convention of universal equality is not openly challenged – even authoritarian regimes refer to it claiming that they exercise power in the public interest – it is clear that some political forces take it more seriously than others. According to the nationalists only members of the same nation may be equal and even this not always. Granting a metaphysical nature to the state is common for this formation and leads to elevating public office holders (some of the ministers of 2006-2007 government reportedly refused to participate in public debate, arguing that if they lose the authority of the RP will suffer, an even more blatant form of how this mechanism works can be observed in the currently created cult of Lech Kaczynski) and the belief that the nation is the most important – to challenging the rights of those who do not share this belief. Conservatives present a more open approach. They accept the Enlightenment standard according to which people are equal in the eyes of the law, but the state governed by them does not usually feel responsible for responding to any social inequalities and from the very nature of conservatism comes the reluctance to make any compensatory changes and reforms. Christian Democrats are more likely to talk about universal human dignity than the equality, which results in the practical consequences similar to conservative approach: in inspired by Catholic social teaching model of society different groups (women, youth, workers, scientists, clergy, etc.) have different and precisely defined roles.. These roles have indeed equal moral value (that is are equally worthy), but this equality does not follow the moral equality of rights. Consequently, the Christian Democrats do not see anything inappropriate in the fact that women are less likely to make a career than men, less capable children of rich parents go to university instead of going to vocational school and a number of professions are closed to people from outside the guild or corporation.

Liberals take the convention of universal equality more seriously, which to a large extent results from the fact that they perceive society as a collection of individuals (which in turn is connected with scientific rationalism discussed above and the fact that the existence of individuals is empirically evident, as opposed to the existence of the nation endowed with specific characteristics  or, for example, notaries as a group with a common role to play). Assumption of a unit of subjectivity leads to a broader understanding of equality than the one presented by the conservatives or the Christian Democrats: liberals are committed to the idea of ​​ensuring equal opportunities to implement individual projects in life for individuals. In practice it means a strong determination to create “an equal playing field”, ie. the conditions for fair competition, for example through supporting programs designed to ensure universal access to education at a decent level. However, having aligned the field and given rules of the game, the liberals do not intend to interfere with its course or affect the outcome. That is why they are declared supporters of the free market (which does have an important moral dimension, because it rewards the most hard-working, ingenious and reliable) and accept the fact that someone has to lose the competition and accept a social position that is below their own ambitions. This is what differentiates them from the Left. While liberals are aware of the conventional nature of the assumption that all men are equal, many leftists tend to take it literally. This leads them to a conclusion that, in the face of the inherent equality of individuals, equal opportunities should lead to equality of conditions. Thus in an ideal society not only class differences, but even professional specialization should disappear. The “rule of cooks” prophesied by the Bolsheviks is more than a promise of radical social upheaval. The full significance of the slogan can be understood through a fragment of the “German Ideology” by Marx, in which real freedom is presented as an opportunity to hunt in the morning, go fishing in the afternoon, graze cattle in the evening and devote to reflections after eating. This means that, in the communist utopia, all people will develop their capabilities so far that even a cook will be able to rule the state. The true equality of opportunities, as the Marxists claim, has to mean an equal position – and if it does not, it is certain sign that equality was a sham, a sly evasion of bourgeoisie who want to maintain their position by co-opting scanty proletarians. (By the way, the most striking is the range of possible activities made ​​by Marx – all are typical for primitive societies, suggesting that the regression of mankind from the path of civilization to the level of the noble Rousseau’s savage could be subconsciously accepted price for achieving the communism. Following the interpretation even deeper, this seemingly idyllic vision predicts the murderous inclinations of the Marxists – the extensive nature of economy based on hunting, fishing and cattle grazing means that communism would not be able to feed all).

However, if you ignore these ominous – but by no means clear – glimpses, this vision of a world in which people can freely choose and change occupation, and the boundary between work and self-serving pleasure is blurred, is not yet unattractive for liberals. Maximizing individual freedom is a major, even if seldom expressed explicitly, objective of liberalism.  Areligious and rationalistic orientation of both liberals and leftists leads them to similar axiological conclusions – since human being is the only certain being and a point of reference is, providing the best possible conditions to achieve self-defined happiness should be the overriding imperative of political action. The left-wing emancipation and liberal desire to ensure individual freedom are basically the same thing. The ways of achieving the goal have been the only differences so far.

Antiliberal revolution

Slow but consistent increase and protection of individual rights was the liberals’ method. At the beginning, strong post feudal state as well as the remnants of feudalism, in the form of privileges of state and religious dogmas, was opponents in this confrontation. The scope of individual freedom has grown along with the scope of democracy and decreased in countries that did not withstand the pressure of modernization (Russia, Italy, Germany and Spain). Slow and evolutionary nature of this process has made it almost imperceptible in the short time perspective.

The fact that the Left believed in the inevitability (and rightness) of the revolution has led it to adoption of such mode of action, which turned out to be the exact opposite of the liberal method. Having overthrown the existing structures of the state by the means of violence – or, since Bernsteinian “revision”, having won democratic elections – leftists used the political power to promote “freedom” actively, even among people who did not want it . The peculiar Marxist notion of “false consciousness” perfectly justified the need for forced emancipation and various projects such as creating a “new society” and the “new man”.  The most illiberal of these projects were, of course, totalitarian leftism varieties such as Bolshevism and Maoism, which assumed complete subordination of the individual to the state, which was an extreme contradiction of the ideal of individual (and individually defined) freedom. (Being in opposition to Soviet communism also called “real socialism” in its final stage, connected Polish liberals of the late twentieth century with the conservatives.) The conflict between liberals and socialists, who at least formally agreed with them on issues of political freedom, focused on economic issues: the free market was bad in its nature for socialists, while central planning was good.  The Social Democrats had the most common matters with the Liberals, but still for most of the twentieth century they ended up  on the opposite sides of the political scene, arguing with them, not so much about big ideas, but about practical issues: the scope of social assistance and free services provided by the state (and inevitably tax amount), the degree of regulation of the labor market and finally the shape of the educational system. The last twenty five years have brought a clear answer to a question which – liberal or leftist –  method of promoting the emancipation of the individual is more effective. With the exception of the former Soviet Union, where the Communists, who were forming the power apparatus suddenly became nationalists, discrediting left-wing (enforced emancipation) pushed its former supporters to fundamentally liberal positions. The transformation could be of a unitary character (and then the change in the formal self-determination was also more likely), but there are examples, where it concerned large formations. Bronislaw Geremek, who in the last years of his life was one of the leading figures of European liberalism, began his political activity in the communist Polish United Workers’ Party. Chinese Communists, after three decades of disastrous extravagances like Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward decided to return to the tried and tested way of organic growth and bottom-up emancipation, slowly dispensing civil liberties to their citizens. At the other end of the world, Tony Blair has made ​​a minor adjustment to Thatcher’s revolution instead of dismantling it. In Poland, the post-communist Leszek Miller’s government lowered the income taxes for entrepreneurs, while the Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats in Germany were occupied with consolidating the budget and increasing the competitiveness of the economy  A decade later the socialists in Greece faced the same task – and it has been performed with commendable consistency so far.

Useless non-Left

The above examples are of course enumerated by left-wing commentators as evidence of leaders’ treachery and the need to return to the traditional ideals. (In the simplest and increasingly common approach these ideals amount to “protecting and supporting the weak”). Yet, there are no concrete ideas. In the face of the recent financial crisis, which quite seriously raised the question of the ability of capitalism to survive, the Left has not proposed any solutions that would not suit the liberal canon of better regulation of the free market mechanisms. Even the utopian and thus the leftist flagship idea of ​​universal “civic rent” (i.e. fixed monthly stipend paid by the state to all citizens) is in fact a liberal solution: if everyone, not just the “needy”, is supposed to get it it can be considered to be an instrument of creating equal opportunities and its introduction in place of the existing benefits can be seen as improving the system of redistribution. The Left is in serious trouble in the moral sphere when it comes to the creation of a program that is coherent and distinct from the liberal at the same time. Slogans of ensuring genuine equality between women and men (eg. on the labor market) and equality of sexual minorities are left-wing and liberal to the same extent. Step further-reaching ideas of “positive discrimination” of ethnic minorities (in developed countries it usually concerns immigrants) or affirmation of multiculturalism apparently realizing leftist demand of “supporting the weak”, in fact often lead to the legitimatization of oppression of vulnerable individuals within those groups.  President Sarkozy’s recent proposals of depriving people performing the circumcision of girls of the French citizenship (the traditional practice of many African and Middle Eastern communities deprives victims of sexual pleasure) met with condemnation of the Left as a racist one, which is hardly an attitude compatible with the ideal of emancipation.

Nevertheless, social democratic and socialist parties and are an important institutional element of policy in Western Europe and they can still play the natural role of the opposition for decades and if one of them will sometimes rise to power, their policy will be quite close to liberal proposals. The situation in Poland is a little more complicated. The public support for the existing Left is much lower than in the West. Unlike in France, Spain or Britain, where at least a part of the leftist emancipatory program has always been taken seriously, the credibility of the SLD was destroyed both in economic (Miller’s income tax) and moral dimensions (Kwasniewski’s ride in papa mobile). Intellectual impotence in creating the economic program and ostentatious caution in raising the issue of church-state relations (even the August appeal in defense of the Constitution referred to the positive role played by the church in Polish history!) are not beneficial for  rebuilding their credibility. But even if the credibility wa restored, convincing the young left-wing that economically disadvantaged groups are natural political backing for the moral emancipation indicates wishful thinking. In the presidential election, well-educated feminists and unskilled workers together could have voted against lordly and patriarchal Komorowski and stiffly lower-middle class Kaczynski (and thus for Napieralski), but the coalition does not have to last in the parliamentary elections. It will not last especially if SLD will promote “social justice” which comes down to increasing taxes for top earners and therefore, to cut the long story short, urban supporters of moral modernization. Moreover, SLD’s relationships with various interest groups – from the teachers to the railway men – discredit them as a reformist party that would be able to finance increased social spending, rationalizing the way of spending public money.

These weaknesses of the Polish left-wing show that there is space for development of a new, consistently liberal group on the right from SLD and on the left from PO. Such group would demand increasing the scope of individual freedom, both in the economic sphere (mainly by simplifying administrative procedures) and in moral sense (mainly by reducing the normative influence of Catholic ideology). It would stand up against unjust privileges of farmers, miners, police, military and church, whose defense has become and aim for the existing parties, as well as against defying common sense expressing martyr beliefs without respect to others.

Translation Jakub Kossowski (

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About Krzysztof Iszkowski

Sociologist of politics. Graduate of the University of Warsaw (sociology) and Warsaw School of Economics (international relations), PhD (2008) in the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Science. A member of the Research Center on Democracy, author of Liberte!.

Fredrich Naumann Foundation For The Freedom
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