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How to disenchant the word “Liberalism” in Poland? Liberals versus libertarians

Published on March 2, 2012 by: in: Thought

The term “Liberalism” has many meanings. The term “liberal ideas” was used for the very first time in the proclamation by Napoleon in 1799 (Jacek Bartyzel). Liberalism, in its classical form, has appeared at the end of the 18th century, as an attempt to oppose absolutism. In the 19th century liberal ideas were dominating in the social and economic philosophy of the West. The essence of Liberalism is, in its classical form, the demand of an individual for the rights to: life, liberty and property.

Liberalism in Poland

In Poland, Liberalism has never gained much significance, due to couple of reasons: 1) Poland was never an absolute monarchy, so an opposition to absolutism seemed pointless; 2) in Polish society a third estate – the natural ally of liberal ideas – has never developed 3) the main political power in Poland was nobility, which by inclination, had unfavorable attitude towards Liberalism; the dream of the 19th century noble descendant was to hold office and cultivate landowning traditions under the protection of a sovereign, and not to participate in the free market competitions; 4) due to historical reasons, issues concerning Poland’s sovereignty in the 19th and 20th century were of greater interest than the issue of universal, personal freedoms; 5) In the years 1945-1989 Liberalism was officially condemned; 6) in 1989 in Poland some “liberal” reforms were conducted but they did not enjoy much popularity.

Classical Liberalism, in contemporary Poland, owes its lack of popularity to the scarce knowledge of the word “liberal” itself and the historical conditions that had weakened the citizens’ motivation to engage in liberal reforms. Intelligentsia, which stems mainly from former nobility, has a natural frailty to a protecting state, which guarantees employment “in the office”, meaning overgrown bureaucratic apparatus (cf. Adam Heydel). The poor reception of liberal ideas in Poland may be connected with the ambiguity of the word “Liberalism” and its phonetic similarity to “libertinism”. Moreover, the strong Catholic-Independence tradition makes that Liberalism is being perceived as foreign and hostile, anti-clerical ideology. From here, there is only a short step from treating Liberalism as a collection of all dishonest and antisocial ideas, which should be stigmatized and eradicated. The ideas of solidarism and government paternalism are closer to Polish mentality, which however, clash with the spirit of Liberalism.

The lack of Liberalism’s popularity in Poland does not result solely from regional circumstances. It had started to lose its meaning in the second half of the 19th century in the whole Western world.  Liberals had sinned excessive optimism, when they believed that the logic of their postulates was irrefutable, which must eventually lead to their acceptance.  But at the same time, liberal ideas had been taken over by utilitarians and Marxists, which caused the distortion of the “Liberalism” word meaning (cf. Murray Rothbard, For a new liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto). It is worth noticing that in the present-day America, “liberals” are called politicians, who are in fact propagating Social Democratic ideas.  In Poland, statists often pass for liberals, but they have barely anything in common with classical Liberalism.  On the other hand, consistent liberals (e.g. J. Korwin-Mikke) are perceived as eccentrics. Even if it is difficult to blame consistency, one may reflect if message coherence is a necessary condition to find it communicative.


Libertarianism, a more radical variety of liberal ideas, arouse, to some extent, as an answer to the distortion and downfall of liberal values at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. It postulates limiting the role of the state and in some varieties replacement its all functions with business entities services.

In Poland libertarianism is not commonly known and as such it cannot negatively influence the reception of Liberalism. What is really harmful for Liberalism is associating it with such terms as libertinism, permissivism, anti-clericalism, egotism and the trade liberalization, which has been conducted in the ’90s, as a result of so-called Balcerowicz’s reform.

Balcerowicz’s reforms, although useful and purposeful, were of partial success, which led to the majority of people feel aggravated by them.  They were based on the assumption that in order to restore healthy ownership conditions, the money capital import was necessary (as home capital was, at most, too modest). One may hypothesize that this assumption was wrong as it did not include capital, which could arise as a result of effective reprivatization and radical abolishment of barriers that prevented new business entities (average but enterprising people) from entering the market.


photo: pineapple9995

photo: pineapple9995

Ludwig von Mises claimed that liberals should not resign from referring to their ideas as “liberal”, even if this adjective has been appropriated by statists, in particular socialists. It should be remembered though, that the book “Liberalism”, in which he included his view, was written in neoclassical tradition and published in 1927. Since then, the liberals’ efforts to popularize the ideas of liberty of the individual and economic freedom have not been any successful. Conversely: new groupings, which used this word in a variance with its original connotation, appeared.  The powers of anti-liberal propaganda, which had the backing of governments and used modern means of mass media and sophisticated social engineering methods, had increased.

Facing such turn of events in the present-day Poland, the disenchantment of the word “Liberalism” may turn out to be a hopeless task to do. Maybe it is worth to look for other terms, better fitting in the modern time and allowing for semantic sensitivity of today’s user.  It is not out of the question that slogans such as “free market”, “responsible entrepreneurship”, “society of contract” (Henry S. Maine), “equality, freedom and prosperity) would prove to be more catchy than old-fashioned and burdened with chaotic interpretations “Liberalism”.

But if we would like to give “Liberalism” a positive repercussion (disenchant this word) on the Polish ground, we should probably start with the popularization of “Liberal Christianity” (cf.  Bartyzel, op. cit.) and point out that Liberalism is compliant with Catholicism and the Gospel.  It could be underlined that Catholics have contributed to the development of liberal ideas by referring to such examples as: Saint Thomas, the school in Salamanca, lord Acton, priest Robert Sirico, prof. Thomas Woods, prof. Hans-Hermann Hoppe, father Jacek Gniadek (polish missionary, the author of the book about Mises and Wojtyla “Two men from Galicia”.

The future of Liberalism

Regardless of what future awaits the word “Liberalism” in Poland, it is worth to mention the predictions by prof. Witold Kwasnicki, who foresees that there is going to be an increase in the importance of liberal ideas and the regression of statism in the 21st century (History of Liberal Thought) Such hypothesis is related to the observations of the long-term cycles in the global economy.

Translation: Piotr Gmitrowicz

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About Witold Falkowski

President of Mises Institute, translator.

Fredrich Naumann Foundation For The Freedom
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