Does history teach us how to live?
It does, although we are not very grateful students. We try to treat history as a drug, a dietary supplement to various endeavors. We take from it what we need. However, it is not always the case. We act a little like children. From time to time we reach for something hot and this is when we might get burnt. I believe that history truly teaches us how to live only when we try to get out of it as much as we can in order to learn about noble things, at the same time trying to internalize little things. In order to dispose in our behavior of the small things and instead to imitate what was good. I am aware of the fact that it is easier said than done. It signifies a paradox – just as the most effective in breaching the law are lawyers, historians very often go barefoot in politics. They seem to believe that historical experience is useless. On the contrary, studying history may come in handy at least when we need to realize that big dilemmas which we often face are as old as the hills and some of them have already been solved at some other occasions. I think that if we are able to avoid mistakes thanks to clever observations from the past, history can teach us how to live. This, however, only makes sense when it is a load-bearing pillar of our behavior; when it is merely an ornament, a baroque trinket, it does not fulfill its function.
We have recently celebrated the anniversary of the May Coup, the culmination of the rivalry between two opposing political camps. The leaders of these camps – Roman Dmowski and Jozef Pilsudski, even before Poland regained its independence, represented very different visions of restoring the state. Now, again two camps are fighting for their vision of Poland. Can this lesson from 1926 point us the direction which would show us how to avoid the escalation of negative discourse in public debate – which is already really visible on both sides?
Those two situations cannot be compared. Poland was very different back then, those were different times, people and society were different… The May Coup emerged as a result of the first years of struggling with own state in the face of massive problems and dangers. We live on the brink of the third decade of a democratic state. But we still may learn something – maybe not so much from the Polish scenario as from the general historical experience of Europe from the interwar period, when after a few years of being mesmerized with democracy, the continent started to turn its head away from it. Afterwards, a real bloody shower throughout the next few decades was necessary to realize that democracy poses a lot of problems but which cannot be solved by introducing a system limiting freedoms as it never brought anything constructive. We shall, however, remember that this river flowing 80, 90 or even 100 years ago cannot be crossed in the same place. And I am really surprised by people who believe that they are the next Pilsudski or Dmowski. Many people in Poland have already attempted to pose in front of the mirror in Maciejowka hat and even though they might have been pleased with themselves, they looked riddiculous in the eyes of the outside world. Like a parody.
What should be done to bury these divisions, to scale down the intensity of political strife? Back in 1926 there emerged individuals who at some point backed down and thus we avoided civic war…
This is mostly due to a great wisdom of the then President Wojciechowski. I will risk a remark that the current situation is none the less dangerous if we were to compare it in terms of the hatred and political divisions of the interwar period, because public life has been strongly reinforced from that time. In the interwar period, there were not many people actively involved in politics – maybe a few hundred thousands. The bigger the crowd, the stronger emotions. There is no good solution to this. Nevertheless, I am very impressed with the efforts of the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD). Among its four main objectives – defending the Constitution, democracy and maintaining relations with Europe – is also easing the hate speech in politics. Hatred is like a double-edged sword. It painfully wounds not only the person we aim at, but also ourselves – and possibly even much deeper.
What about the crisis of authority figures we are currently facing in Poland?
I disagree with such a diagnosis. First of all, what we call the “crisis of authority figures” in Poland was always present. Each generation wanted to rearrange the world according ot their own beliefs. I notice many individuals to whom we may aspire in public sphere, people I would call authority figures. I am over sixty years old but I still consider myslf lucky to have had a chance to cooperate closely with Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki thanks to my work with President Bronislaw Komorowski. Faced with any difficult situation, I always ask myself “what would Mazowiecki do?”. Cleared his throat, pondered over it, lit a cigarette? For me, an authority figure is also Professor Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, whom I had a chance to get to know better. We should never force a general respect for authority figures but I think that it is truly not that bad. We just need to look around and look closer, even if it is not very convenient or comfortable.
Since you believe that there is currently no such thing in Poland as the crisis of the authority figures, how would you explain such a low level of civic involvement in elections?
Elections are a priviledge. There are various reasons for absence – people may not vote due to a belief that their vote does not mater or because they simply do not want to be bothered by voting. We, the Polish people, have a certain quality or actually a shortcoming that we unite only when we are in danger and we have serious difficulty in acting as a community in normal conditions. We are task-oriented. I was shocked and overcome with joy when I saw the masses in the KOD marches. I know well the people that were formerly in power – people who lost their offices. I am also familiar with the belief that the only people who attend these marches are only those who were deprived their access to power… But this is truly Poland coming out onto the streets, Poland which defends its values and finds meaning in its actions. Free, own, sovereign, democratic state, however, kills the intelligentsia. This specific Western-European creation organizes itself only when it has a mission. This own state, taking over the task of organizing the normal life, kills it. Now, Jaroslaw Kaczynski succeeded in one thing which was not even his intention – he reignited the mission of the Polish intelligentsia. I believe that the next years will be a test. And we will eventually realize that our civicness is doing quite well.
On the other hand, historically speaking, it is not the intelligentsia or the middle class that started revolutions in the past but the working class…
Currently, we have completely different social stratification and the term “working class” is very obsolete. When we look at the rebellions in the times of the Polish People’s Republic, the years 1956, 1970 and 1976 are protests of the workers. But 1980 was such an immense threat because then the energy of the workers coincided with the energy of the intelligentsia. Although that revolution devoured its own children due to an enormous civilizational leap, it is precisely this increadible alliance of the intelligentsia and the common people that caused the emergence of the 10-million Solidarity movement. Of course, we cannot compare it with today. Now I recognize the intelligentsia and people of good will also on the side of Law and Justice – after all, one third of Poles belongs to this camp. I know many honest people who wish for a change. What is trully dangerous are emotions. What is exceptional in the KOD marches is that there are no negative emotions. There is humor, sometimes sarcasm, but there is no sense of threat. If the crowd was entered by someone with the photo of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, people may think he is crazy but no one would spit on him, push him or try to harm him.
The problem is that the discourse is becoming more hostile – some talk about dictatorship, emerging fascism, others about Targowica Confederation and punishing the traitors. KOD sees the danger hatred may cause but the thing is that it is also present in the opposition.
This is true. There is a lot of accumulated emotions and politicians often add fuel to the fire – there are many inadequate or unnecessary metaphors. Let me emphasize one thing: this is why KOD is such a great idea, because thanks to the meetings and marches it gives people an opportunity to vent negative emotions and turn it into positive ones. I truly believe that we can and should tone down the emotions.
We now observe changing the political guard. There are many new young politicians and political movements – for example the Together party (Pl. Razem) which within six months by storm gathered 3.6% of support. As a man from the left, how do you perceive the Together party and its young members?
With hope, since always, in all situations we shall seek fault in orselves and our own company. We would have never had created Law and Justice in the current form if people who were disappointed, in need of help, were not left with only one potential candidate. The left literally left those people on their own. I think that we cannot effectively fix Polish political scene without a comback of the left – but I do not have here in mind Leszek Miller or Wlodzimierz Czarzasty, as this is precisely the reason for the current misfortunes.
Law and Justice took over the electorat of the left…
Precisely. If it did not mean such a hostile historical connotation, we could say that today Law and Justice is a national socialist party. Of course, we may not use such a label, but nothing is as effective in engaging hundreds of thousands of people as the leftist platform. Will the Together party make it happen? I do not know, since they are still in the stage of “primeval emancipation”.
It’s just that they would sink in KOD thus by dissociating themselves from this movement (or rather from some politicians) they create their own identity.
They would not sink because nobody does sink in KOD. In KOD everyone can be who they are. Just take a look at how quickly it has knocked some sense to the parties which have been so far biting each other when Kaczynski triumfed. Those parties understood that if they do not join KOD – maintaining at the same time their independence – they will cease to exist, they will run aground. Even the Together party would not dissolve within KOD – but it’s just like a child who is emancipating in order to make its own way as it fears spending its entire life in the shadow of its mother.
Don’t you think that now the time for a modern left has finally come? After the demise of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) party…
I agree. I myself have long tried to build some kind of left on the rubbles of the deceased Polish United Worker’s Party (PZPR). I failed completely because nothing new can be biult on rubbles. Rubbles can be only used at most as subcrust for a new road. Now I see that the Democratic Left Alliance party, as a post-PZPR formation, has only occupied a place in the political scene, allowed for reeds to grow and led to nothing really. It will be extremely difficult to introduce a change since Law and Justice has already gained a steady electorate and will not lose it easily. I wish the Together party all the luck in the world in reaching the electoral threshold. Their youth, authenticity and selflessness are their strengths. Now we should cherish them at the same time waiting patiently for what may come.
The article was originally published in Polish at liberte.pl
Translated by Olga Łabendowicz