Appropriating liberalism and other symptoms of infantile disorder of rightism

Maciej Kassner · 20 August 2013
The new book by Andrzej Walicki, an eminent historian of political thought, bears a telling title: “From the communist project to the neoliberal utopia”. It is both a diagnosis and an indictment.

Andrzej-Walicki-Od-projektu-komunistycznegoWalicki shows that in the recent history of Poland there was a transition from one ideological extreme (“the communist project”) to another (the “neoliberal utopia”). Such an unfortunate turn of events was made possible by appropriating the liberal tradition by the extreme right, which reduced liberalism to an uncritical support for the free market and private property. The appropriation of liberalism by market fundamentalists was a manifestation of a wider phenomenon, which Walicki – paraphrasing Lenin – described as an infantile disorder of rightism. The disease is expressed in recurring attempts to impose an extreme version of anti-communist ideology on the Polish public debate. But the advocates of the anti-communist crusade are unable to define clearly what is this “communism” which they so courageously combat against. As a result not only left-wing leanings of all kinds were banned but also important elements of the liberal tradition and even feminism. The book is “one of the voices of the left-wing minority in the ongoing debate about contemporary Poland” (p. IX), as well as an indictment against the elites, unable to stand their ground against patterns marked with the infantile disorder of rightism. The author addresses these accusations not only to the extreme right but also these groups – including the communities around the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and Gazeta Wyborcza – which for too long succumbed to the seductions of neoliberal economy and anti-communist propaganda. The author claims that the social liberalism of John Stuart Mill, Leonard Hobhouse and John Dewey forms an alternative for the eponymous extremes – the communist project and the neoliberal utopia. Left-wing liberalism makes it possible to successfully counteract the main threats to individual freedom in the contemporary world: market fundamentalism and collectivist moral pressure. Opting for ethical individualism, the liberals reject all forms of “tyranny of opinion”, regardless of the cause it is promoting: the nation, religion or “fighting communism”. At the same time, advocating the welfare state and social rights, social liberalism makes it possible to push back the free-market charge of the New Right. This means, Walicki suggests, that left-wing liberalism is the political philosophy best suited to the moral and political needs of contemporary Poland.

These claims and formulations will not surprising for those readers who have been following the essayistic writings of Walicki. Most of the articles and essays comprising From the Communist Project to the Neoliberal Utopia have been published before; similar views have been presented by the author also in other publications[1]. Nevertheless gathering the texts in one volume, preceding them with a foreword highlighting the connections between particular themes and adding a previously unpublished article – a more than one hundred pages long text on social liberalism – allow us to conclude that we are dealing with a coherent and distinctive work. A work which should play a major role in Polish debates on liberalism, comparable to Jerzy Szacki’s Liberalizm po komunizmie [Liberalism after communism[…] or Zdzisław Krasnodębski’s Demokracja peryferii [Democracy of the peripheries]. For Walicki’s book combines the intellectual effort to understand the liberal tradition with a clearly defined political perspective. The main idea of the book could be formulated as follows: the fact that the communist experience has not been thoroughly analysed led to distorted notions about liberalism. Using Walicki’s words, “Polish neoliberalism is in fact one of the main versions of our post-PRL «anti-communism»” (p. X); „the extremist character of the Polish version of neoliberalism” partly stems from its “still existing dependence, through negation, of the post-PRL «anti-communism»” (p. XXXIII). Implementation of the neoliberal utopia was possible in the situation of a radical shift of the language of public debate to the right, achieved by the anti-communist discourse. In the rest of my review I will attempt to present Walicki’s main claims, attempting to emphasise the connection between not thinking communism through and uncritical acceptance of the neoliberal utopia.

From the communist project to the neoliberal utopia

Andrzej Walicki is, of course, not the only contemporary Polish intellectual invoking the tradition of social liberalism. A proposal to combine elements of liberalism and socialism had been put forward earlier by Ira Katznelson in his essay Krzywe koło liberalizmu. Listy do Adama Michnika [The crooked wheel of liberalism. Letters to Adam Michnik]. The eminent left-wing economist and critic of the post-communist transition, Tadeusz Kowalik, was seeking inspiration in the tradition of left-wing liberalism. In Kultura Liberalna similar views have been presented by Andrzej Szahaj[2]. But there are two features which make Walicki’s statement stand out from the majority of earlier attempts at invoking the tradition of left-wing liberalism. First, Walicki supported his arguments with an attempt at a comprehensive description of the main assumptions of this tendency. To my knowledge the essay entitled “Is left-wing liberalism possible?” is the most extensive work on social liberalism available in Polish. Second, the author drew the contours of a coherent political narrative relating to the main political events of the 20th century from the perspective of left-wing liberalism. The story told by Walicki covers the rise and fall of the communist utopia, a description of the gradual liberalisation of the PRL system after 1956 and the critique of the political transition marked with neoliberalism and anti-communist revanchism. Against this backdrop the turn towards liberal left proposed by the author can be seen in its proper meaning. Let us take a look at the crucial points of Andrzej Walicki’s argumentation.

The story told by Walicki begins with quoting the author’s views on the communist ideology presented in the work Marksizm i skok do królestwa wolności [Marxism and the leap to the kingdom of liberty]. Let us recall that according to Walicki the essential element of communism was a concept of freedom promising the replacement of the “anarchy of the market” with a deliberate social control over human fate. Making the leap to the kingdom of freedom required the abolition of the commodity and money economy and replacing it with a planned economy, where the society as a whole would be managed like a huge factory. The effort of building communism demanded centralisation of power, ideological mobilisation and bringing all spheres of social life under the control of the state. In Walicki’s opinion the communist project ran against obstacles since the very beginning, the first manifestation of which was the relinquishment of anti-market dogmas under the New Economic Policy launched by Lenin in 1921. But the turning point was 1956, which meant not only breaking with Stalinism but also the beginnings of the erosion of the communist ideology and detotalitarisation of the regime. Speaking in most general terms, the change consisted in lessening the ideological pressure and political control in such areas as science, art, culture and private life. This transformation produced a significant area of freedom left to the individuals to make use of. The author illustrates his claim with examples from his own biography. In the Stalinist period Walicki, as a son of the Home Army member and a person with suspect class origins, could not freely choose his subject of university studies and find employment as a scholar. Moreover, the young Walicki was subjected to moral pressure by his superiors and peers active in various communist organisations. His liking for individual rather than group research was interpreted as an ideologically suspect “keeping apart from the collective” (p. 91). During “production meetings” Walicki was often forced to make self-castigating statements. This kind of pressure led the young man on the brink of nervous breakdown. Both the collectivist pressure and the bureaucratic obstacles for academic career vanished after the October 1956 breakthrough and Walicki made good use of this opportunity. Since then he perceived the systemic evolution of the People’s Republic as a slow but sure extending of the areas of social life free from ideological and political control. From the conclusion that after 1956 PRL was not a totalitarian regime the author draws important political implications. One of them is giving their due to the reformist group within the Communist Party and opposition acting from inside the system. Another implication is the rejection of right-wing revanchism and radical anti-communism, strongly present in Polish public life of the post-communist Third Republic.

One of the most provocative claims put forward by Walicki is that aggressive anti-communism after 1989 is an extremely anti-liberal ideology. According to Walicki contemporary anti-communist discourse is a form of social tyranny, “more terrible than many kinds of political oppression”, for it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself”, as John Stuart Mill says in On Liberty (quoted in Walicki, p. 308). The tyrannising impact of the anti-communist ideology on public debate is essentially manifested in two ways, first, advocates of anti-communist reckonings aim at creating such a state of social awareness which in the Newspeak of the previous system was defined as a ”moral and political unity of the nation”. As a result the social experiences which do not suit the anti-communist patterns are sidelined. For example, the story of social advancement of large segments of the population in the communist Poland is forgotten. But the attempt at imposing a homogenous historical memory was not successful, as witnessed, for example, by the high social support for the decision to introduce Martial Law. So in Walicki’s judgement the reckoning discourse is an attempt at a moral dictate by a minority. Second, the concept of “communism” proved very capacious in the rhetoric of right-wing radicals. The communist label was used quite frivolously, as it was attached to people who never had been (or long ceased to be) convinced communists as well as to ideas completely unconnected with communism. Negative associations related to the term “communism” were extended not only to left-wing leanings of all kinds but also to a large part of the liberal tradition, ecology, feminism, modest forms of state interventionism or even elementary decency expressed in the solidarity with groups most harmed by the free-market transformations. Walicki stresses that this peculiar “anti-communism without communists” was not an innocent phenomenon. Under the fight against the “communist mentality” or “demanding attitudes stemming from the previous epoch” many serious semantic abuses were perpetrated, distorting the sense not only of “communism” but also of many other political concepts, such as liberalism and welfare state.

The understanding of liberalism dominating in Polish public debate was shaped in the period when anti-communist emotions were at their most intense. But, as Walicki writes, “the anti-communist allergy is not a good springboard for understanding liberal culture” (p. 327). Only the strong impact of the anti-communist allergy made it possible to reduce the whole liberal tradition to one of its tendencies, quite marginal at that –  neoliberalism. Walicki begins his attempt at correcting the false notions of liberalism with destroying neoliberal myths. The author questions the view that neoliberalism is identical with the liberalism from the classic tradition. Walicki points at non-economic sources of the liberal tradition, originating in condemnations of religious wars and efforts at guaranteeing personal liberty, including freedom of conscience and religion. These matters had little to do with the free market as understood today. More importantly, according to Walicki the neoliberal doctrine is in conflict with the basic ethical intuitions of liberalism. For the author neoliberalism is a collectivist ideology positing an unconditional subordination of the individual to the laws of the market, that is demands imposed by a certain supra-individual economic structure. Such an understanding of the role of the individual is a stark negation of the ethical individualism promoted by John Stuart Mill, as a leading ideologue of neoliberalism, Friedrich von Hayek, was well aware[3]. Moreover, free-market ideology in its extreme version is incompatible with pluralism of values. Walicki invokes here the opinion of Isaiah Berlin, who regarded the free-meeting concept of society as a “monist utopia” (p. 394), rejecting values incompatible with free-market economics. These reflections lead Walicki to a rejection of neoliberalism and a search for alternatives within the liberal tradition.

Walicki points at the current of left-wing liberalism started by John Stuart Mill. The author quotes texts representative for this tradition, analyses texts of the main members of this current, such as Thomas Hill Green, Leonard Hobhouse or John Rawls, presents the basic concepts and arguments and shows successful attempts at implementing social-liberal solutions. Walicki begins with a description of the left-wing aspects of John Stuart Mill’s thought, pointing at the ideas contained in the essay “On the Probable Futurity of the Labouring Classes added to the third English edition of Principles of Political Economy. In this text Mill proposed an economic system which would combine free competition with a preference for workers’ participation in the management of the company. Much impressed by the cooperative movement, Mill perceived it as an opportunity to reconcile the principles of socialism and liberalism. A large contribution to the development of social liberalism was also made by Thomas Hill Green, who in his famous essay entitled Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract formulated a positive concept of freedom as a maximisation of human potential. This idea opened the door for an active role of the government in economic and social policy. For among its tasks the government would now have guaranteeing the social conditions necessary for comprehensive self-fulfilment of individuals. At the turn of the 20th century left-wing liberalism was already a well developed philosophy, which found its classic expression in the works of such authors as Leonard Hobhouse, John Atkinson Hobson or John Dewey. The development of social liberalism (at least in its British version) was crowned by the concept of social citizenship formulated by the British sociologist T. H. Marshall. In his essay called Citizenship and the Social Class Marshall distinguished three kinds of rights comprising the ideas of citizenship. The first to be recognised were civil rights, such as religious freedom, freedom of thought or freedom of expression. In the 19th century this catalogue was expanded with political rights stemming from the progress of democracy. Finally, in the 20th century, citizenship was enriched with the welfare aspect, guaranteeing the individual a material minimum necessary for a life in dignity. In Marshall’s concept inequalities arsing from the functioning of the free market were assuaged by the existence of an extended sphere of collective consumption, including a social security system, health care, education and in some degree access to recreation and culture. In Marshall’s perspective access to free education or social security was a right as inalienable as habeas corpus. Marshall’s concept of social citizenship, legitimising the policy of the welfare state, also formed a brief theoretical summary of the evolution of the main current of liberal thought.

The ideological evolution of liberalism towards the recognition of welfare rights coincided with a parallel process of liberalisation of social democracy. This narrowing the gap between the two positions consisted in the rejection of Marxist ideas incompatible with the liberal tradition by the mainstream of European socialism. The first step in this direction was recognising the system of parliamentary democracy and civil liberties as a necessary element of the socialist system, as suggested by E. Bernstein in  his revisionist programme. The victory of this view led to the condemnation of the Bolshevik Revolution by the leaders of German social democracy. Gradually the socialists were also forced to abandon the Marxist ideal of a non-market socialism. As a result of these parallel ideological evolutions liberals and social democrats could find a common ground, that is recognising the achievements of the welfare state. In post-war Europe, Walicki argues, an “almost complete ideological consensus” formed around the welfare state (p. 387). The author advocates a return to this policy. In one of the final paragraphs Andrzej Walicki formulates his political creed: “Contemporary left, both liberal and social democratic, is faced with two problems: (1) the social problem, that is the necessary putting a stop to the erosion of security and the inequality race and (2) the moral problem, that is defending the growing need for personal freedom from the pressure of artificially resurrected traditionalism. Contrary to what might seem, these matters are closely related to each other, for they both justify the postulate to return to the idea of a liberal welfare state. For only statehood, anti-authoritarian and actively promoting social justice, can become independent from the pressure both of the neoliberal «markets», and the traditionalist Church, safeguarding both a reasonable minimum of social security and a reasonable maximum of individual liberty” (p. 423).

Not just welfare state

I am convinced that Andrzej Walicki is right when he writes that the Polish reception of liberalism after 1989 was distorted by the impact of anti-communist resentments. The convincing presentation of this process is for me one of the main virtues of his book. I also agree with Walicki’s view that the communist system in Poland after 1956 was undergoing the processes of liberalisation and detotalitarisation, which ultimately led to the downfall of the system, although we probably might argue endlessly about interpretative nuances and variously apportion faults and merits between the opposition and the party reformers. I share the author’s opinion that anti-communism in the post-communist Poland in most of its versions is a collectivist ideology and a threat to liberal culture. And finally, like Walicki, I attach great hopes to social liberalism and the alliance of left-wing thinking with the liberal tradition. In would like to devote some critical remarks to the latter issue.

I believe that in Walicki’s works on liberalism there is a perceivable tension between the project of retrieving the liberal tradition in all its complexity for the Polish public debate and the current political needs, especially the need to formulate an alternative to neoliberalism. As a historian of ideas Walicki attempts to reconstruct the tradition of left-wing liberalism with all the nuances and differences of opinion between particular thinkers, while when assuming the role of a political commentator he is interested in those aspect of left-wing liberalism which find a direct political use. As we have seen, Walicki is an advocate of the welfare state and rightly points to its liberal pedigree. This perhaps explains why the author writes most extensively on British new liberalism, probably the most successful in institutionalising the ideas it promotes. But the author is aware that left-wing liberals have never reached a consensus as to the best formula of socialising liberalism. In an article published in Przegląd Walicki admits that welfare state “was just the first step in the direction suggested by the most farsighted liberal thinkers, from J. S. Mill to J. Rawls”.[4] But we must emphasise that in the tradition of left-wing liberalism we can find much more than a justification for welfare state policies. Bold attempts at combining the liberal understanding of freedom with proposals akin to anarchism can be found in the works – forgotten today – of Bertrand Russell from the interwar period, such as Principles of social reconstruction (1916) or Roads to Freedom (1918). On the opposite pole we see the concepts of Karl Mannheim, who promoted the ideal of “planning for freedom” from liberal positions. Also after World War II there were various attempts at reconciling liberalism and socialism. In this context it is also worth to point at the tradition of liberal socialism, its eminent representatives in the USA being intellectuals connected with the magazine Dissent, such as Michael Walzer or Irwing Howe. Another expression of this tendency were the essays by Norberto Bobbio, a representative of the Italian tradition of social liberalism founded by Carl Rosseli, collected in the anthology Which Socialism?[4]. The picture will be further complicated if we realise that besides liberalism and socialism there is also the uncharted territory of non-Marxist political radicalism of various colourings. In this category we may also include, for example, Karl Polanyi, a thinker akin to left-wing liberals, whose principal work – Great Transformation – is celebrated today as one of the mist incisive critiques of the free-market utopia. Such examples could be multiplied but I think that the main intent of the above list is clear. Although the thinkers I mentioned differed in their views and temperaments, in their reflections they all tried to transcend the framework imposed by new liberalism and the ideological consensus around the welfare state. When considering the relations between the left and liberalism, it is worth to take these attempts into account.

My point is not to make a ridiculous accusation that in his brief essay on left-wing liberalism Andrzej Walicki did not present all the tendencies, concepts and thinkers. But I believe that the best use of reading Walicki’s works would not be to replace one ideological cliché (liberalism equals the free market) with another ideological cliché (liberalism equals welfare state) but to opening the liberal tradition to a plurality of interpretations, including readings indulging in bolder flirtations with left-wing radicalism. For in the most important matter Andrzej Walicki is right: Poland needs left-wing radicalism.


[1] See especially two most recent works published in the Biblioteka Kuźnicy series: A. Walicki, O inteligencji, liberalizmach i Rosji [About the intelligentsia, liberalisms and Russia], Universitas, Kraków 2007, and A. Walicki, P. Kozłowski, Z Polski i o Polsce. Correspondencea z lat 2004–2006 [From Poland and about Poland. Correspondence from 2004-2006], Universitas, Kraków 2007.
[2] See T. Kowalik, www Polska, Muza, Warszawa 2009.
[3] Walicki invokes the views presented by Hayek in his treatise “Individualism: True and False”, published in the collection Indywidualizm i porządek ekonomiczny, Znak, Kraków, 1998.

[4] A. Walicki, „Czy możliwy jest liberalizm lewicowy?” [Is left-wing liberalism possible?], Przegląd 23/2012.

[5] See N. Bobbio, Which Socialism? Marxism, Socialism and Democracy, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1987.


Andrzej Walicki Od projektu komunistycznego do neoliberalnej utopii [From the communist project to the neoliberal utopia], Universitas, Polish Academy of Sciences, Kraków 2013.