Future of Liberalism in Poland

Kristian Bjornard // CC
Kristian Bjornard // CC

What should be the future of political party representation of liberal ideas in Poland? Should there be a place reserved for an independent liberal party, or rather, for a liberal wing in a larger structure? Does being left on the mercy of coalition-driven compromises deprive liberal ideas of their potential to influence the society?

The problem lies in a lack of any kind of representation of liberalism in Poland. One look at the speeches delivered by the representatives of the Civic Platform (PO) party reveals the demise of a liberal discourse – especially in terms of perceiving liberalism as a far-reaching project for modernity focusing on freedom, the right to choose, and safeguarding equality.

The decline of this emancipation layer and shifting it towards a more “technical” political fight against the ruling right wing inevitably pushes a party with liberal roots to a position that is vague ideologically in a bid to get voter support.

Meanwhile, this lack of ideological orientation creates only an illusion of pragmatism: in the turbulent times that we live in, people need a compass as they are being constantly attacked by a clear nationalist right-wing ideas.

Only by bravely speaking out on behalf of liberalism and democracy as a set of ideas that would help liberate people from the shackles of the state of class, economic, or religious dependence may offer hope for the future – hence for winning the fight for gaining the approval of the majority.

From this point of view, the choice begins with the readiness to “joining the liberal stream” of public opinion and exerting pressure on the exiting political forces so that they would accept this version of themselves as a given ideological message. Only a failure on this front would force choosing a different option.

I cannot agree to perceiving the compromise necessary for conducting efficient political action as an obstacle and viewing the alternative “pure political circle” as a separate entity. Such an approach would lead to evoking ideological fear of maintaining ideological orientation.

Liberals would have to keep track of whether anybody in their (relatively small) midst is not about to change their mind.

Being exclusive is, after all, the opposite of “having the capacity to influence the society”. Here, the case of the Razem (Together) party may serve as a cautionary tale. The party moved away from its left-leaning party platform towards applied sectarianism, thus facing a complete fiasco in terms of its relations with the society as a whole and voters in particular.

Mark Lilla warned against this kind of liberalism – even though his diagnosis may have addressed even more leftist (from the Polish perspective) than liberal circles in the United States.

Moreover, a liberal agenda cannot employ the narrative focused solely on economy, because as a result it may lead to the kind of liberalism as practiced by Ryszard Petru, the former leader of the Nowoczesna (Modern) party – a version of liberalism appealing only to a small group of voters.

Refreshing the liberal narrative must link it to Polish freedom-oriented thought traditions, to belonging to the civilization, and the everlasting dragon of post-feudal paternalism in Poland, which often is a facade for a project aimed at depriving the people of their liberties in the name of power (like what the Law and Justice party does).

In response to the 2008 global economic crisis, economically anti-liberal narrative has strengthened its position. What would be a desirable response of liberals to such a state of affairs? Should the evolution of liberal ideas pursue the path of “softening” free-market postulates and acknowledging the expectations of the majority within the society linked to the need for social security?

In this regard, my opinion resembles that of Tony Judt and his vision of social and economic transformation in Europe.

In the post-war Europe, in a complex process of making compromises, social democrats, Christian democrats, and liberals have worked out a path of unrestricted economic freedom – a path that embraces diversity while preventing the emergence of a deep social divide. Europe became one of the pillars of global economic development and new technologies. It recognizes the middle class, which ensured the triumph of freedom, while at the same time taking care of the weakest.

The shock which accompanied the events of the year 2008 (and the consequences that followed) has accompanied us until this very day and may still power populisms in all shapes and forms, because it undermined the stability of the social base of all liberal and emancipation-oriented projects.

The fear of the threats posed by the possible fall and pauperization have since that time not subsided. Nevertheless, I believe that we now face two such threats, which lead to two extremes: libertarianism and leftist populism cultivated by the right wing.

Both wings are hostile towards liberalism and both draw strength from the same source, as was described above.

Libertarianism is nothing else but social Darwinism, in which a populist by nature promise of a community hides away authoritarianism in its sheer form. Renouncing and going against the two is not the only way out of this conundrum – there is always an option of working out a new compromise that would help meet the needs of the aspiring middle class, protecting the weakest in the name of stability, and safeguarding economic growth based on maintaining basic principles of competition.

One of the greatest burdens of liberalism is linking it with the neoclassical economic model treated as Fukuyama’s “the end of history” and viewing it as the only and the final school of economic thought.

After the year 2008, this manner of thinking can no longer be defended by liberals, because it leads to moving away from social expectations to such an extent that there can be only one consequence: permanent marginalization.

This means also the end of the age of human freedom, a wide range of choices, and private guarantees.

It is worth to mention that in the year 1954, the West defeated fascism thanks to an enormous efforts and by sacrificing many lives, and it found itself endangered by communism with its attractive offer of emancipation by means of totalitarianism. Both were defeated.

So there is no reason to doubt that also this time liberalism will be capable of safely passing by Scylla and Charybdis of libertarianism and right-leftist populism. There is only one condition: a return to the roots.

Liberalism is not a school of economic thought. It takes care of thoughtful liberty and is capable of adapting to the circumstances. This is precisely where it has drawn its strength from – one look at the philippics by Žižek from the introduction to Revolution at the Gates, in which the charge of winning over the reality appears to be the main criticism of liberalism. How on point this charge is only confirms this path.

Both liberals and the left-wingers have a wide range of options for cooperation in Poland. This space encompasses not only typical overlapping areas in terms of their views as regards minority rights, civil rights or cultural changes within the society, but also defending the political system of the state and the rule of law.

Meanwhile, some part of the left wing emphasizes its aversion towards liberals, blaming them for the poor state of the Third Republic of Poland or for how things have turned out after the year 2015. How are liberals to respond to such an attitude?

This, indeed, poses an issue – as it might seem that in light of the right-wing offensive in each sphere of social and political life both camps should get closer to one another.

Today, however, we’re seeing the opposite of that. Since 2015, the New Left has been determined to develop the corpse of liberalism to become the main challenger of the right wing in Poland.

Nevertheless, the argument that after destroying liberalism there will be no room left for any form of the left wing and its platform is completely unappealing to these groups and makes them even more furious.

On top of this phenomenon, there is an inter-generational conflict. For the new left the representatives of liberalism who come from the previous generation are not a good fit – partly due to the paternalistic narrative they employ.

This disconnect becomes clear when one considers the conflict over the lack of political representation of the young generation visible in street demonstrations, during which the members of the Solidarity movement generation accused the former of being indifferent towards the actions taken by the Law and Justice party, which deprive all citizens of their liberties.

The response was brutal and led to one clear stance: “In the world that you’ve created for us, we have no way of taking care of that as we fight for our own survival every single day”. This combination of hard feelings, exaggerated on both sides, only further deepens the existing divide.

As usual, the solution in such a situation will be politics as only on its foundations a compromise might be worked out or differences identified. And this requires the active participation of the left wing in Poland not solely on the fringes of the political scene – which is currently the case, as confirmed by the results of the last local elections.

As long as the left lingers on the fringes there is no partner to work with. A true change might be brought about only if Robert Biedron’s Spring party is successful and as a result it would have to clearly position itself – both politically and ideologically – on the political scene in the country in relation to other parties, so that it is much more clear what does it stand for apart from being progressive.

Only then will we be able to face real test of what are the intentions of the left wing in Poland. Until then, sadly, I honestly see no need for responding to any remarks coming from the left.

Changes in respect to religiosity in Poland are slow. Still, the involvement of the Catholic Church in the state politics keeps progressing. What stance should liberals take in regards to the role of religion in social life? What modus vivendi of the Polish state with the hierarchs of the Catholic Church is possible and desirable? There is no compromise on the matter.

The Church, against its mission and the majority of the society, supports depriving people of their liberties and limiting freedom of one’s conscience. The Church has betrayed freedom in Poland – how and why did it happen is a different story.

In my opinion, the only solution is to limit the Church’s activities in a way that would not infringe on freedom of religious practices and instead delineates the boundaries that would stop the Church from usurping any rights as regards the secular sphere.

Eventually, this would lead to withdrawing the financing of the Church, reinstating secular schools, and revising the provisions of the concordat and deciding whether or not to retain it at all. It would also mean enforcing the law that protects the victims of the Church (pedophilia) and introducing adequate solutions that would regulate this institution from the outside.

As a Christian, I must add that the Church in Poland – as made clear by some of its activities – is transforming surprisingly fast into a post-Christian organization, even a pagan one. But that’s a different story and a source of disappointment stemming from other aspects of the situation.

Many liberal European politicians are horrified when they see what is happening in Poland and Hungary, as a result advocating for pushing these two states to the side following the model of “Multi-Speed Europe”.

On the other hand, their perception may be an opportunity for a successful development of the European project in the 21st century. What should be the position of Polish liberals towards these reform proposals if their execution might weaken the position of Poland in the European Union?

Undoubtedly, they should do their utmost to move the Law and Justice party away from the center of power. The rest is, at this point, mere theorizing.

Nowadays, culture once again constitutes a key aspect in forming views of societies. What should be the role of liberals in shaping modern culture? They have always had a role in this process, even though we might have forgotten about it.

There is no such thing as “liberal culture”. Liberal culture is simply an unlimited freedom to create – with no legal or social restrictions. And it’s liberals that should safeguard this freedom.

At the same time, they should abstain from attempting to use culture for cultivating their own Kulturkampf, but continue to help it as much as they can in the spirit of treating it as the highest calling of humans, the crowning jewel of individual and civilizational capacity.

This means that, first of all, we must always have the back of authors, creators, and consumers of culture whose rights to culture are being restricted, even though the tone and message of some works of culture might be directed against us (eg. a politically engaged left-wing theater).

We should always take action when national or local authorities try to limit the freedom to create, voicing our protest and calling things by their own name.

Secondly, we must support culture, ensure its accessibility, and provide public financing. We cannot pretend that there should be an iron curtain between the state and the sector of culture and apply solely market principles to how the latter operates.

Yes, art is subject to market principles but its existence cannot be based solely on them. Otherwise its spectrum becomes narrower and, as a consequence, the freedom to create it and the outreach become limited.

The article was originally published in Polish at: https://liberte.pl/jaka-jest-przyszlosc-polskiego-liberalizmu-ankieta-liberte-bartlomiej-sienkiewicz/

Translated by Olga Łabendowicz

Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz