Politics

Liberalism, the Right and the Left – points of contention

Liberal Culture · 3 September 2014

EVALUATING POLAND’S POLITICAL TRANSFORMATION

Both the Left and the Right wings of Poland’s political divide see the post-1989 Transformation in a singularly negative light.

For the Right, the Round Table agreements between the opposition and representatives of the ruling party, and the June 1989 elections which followed them, were a betrayal of the ideals of Solidarity. They insist that it was wrong for the opposition to engage with representatives of the communist regime, because towards the end of the 1980’s the Soviet Bloc was clearly on its last legs. It was deemed enough to wait for power to be relinquished and handed over to the opposition. According to those on the Right, only a radical – and even brutal – severing of relations with the previous regime could have allowed the founding the mythical Third Polish Republic (III RP).

The Left, on the other hand, considered the elections of the 4th of June as directly responsible for the radical economic reforms introduced by the then finance minister Leszek Balcerowicz. These reforms were not even discussed by politicians, with parliament giving their direct approval following semi-free elections. This is therefore perceived as a change designed by the ruling elite, without wider public support. Both the Left and Right sides of the debate consider the process of the Transformation of the time to have been contrary to democratic ideals. According to liberal fields of thought, the logic behind these changes was not properly planned, but was instead developed as they were taking place. The results of the elections of June 1989 were a shock to all concerned, and in spite of the success of the Solidarity camp, no one at the time had any idea who would become prime minister, much less finance minister. The postponing and delaying of discussions with the ruling party was also not good strategy – in spite of some indicators which did suggest the Soviet Bloc was weakening towards the end of the ’80s, few suspected that the Cold War geopolitical order would collapse so quickly. Both the Right and the Left analyse the events of those years from the perspective of what is known today, ignoring the lack of information at the time.

 

ECONOMIC REFORMS

In their critical analyses, representatives of the Polish Left and Right are also in surprising agreement when it comes to both economic and social consequences of those reforms. The economic aspects include features such as high unemployment and inflation, while social impacts include social alienation, the destruction of community capital and pathological individualism.

Liberal critics note social costs which were the result of changes being introduced, while at the same time emphasising the dire economic circumstances the nation found itself in, radically limiting the range of available alternatives. National debt and the lack of free spending power did not allow Poland to borrow more. Economic reforms – in spite of frequently controversial outcomes – calmed things somewhat, while the Polish economy began to grow as one of the first in the former Soviet Bloc.

Along with political decisions, economic choices made at the time are often arbitrarily judged from the perspective of today, while critics refuse to take on board the lack of information available in the 1990s, or the wider circumstances affecting said choices.

 

THE ROLE OF PRIVATE ENTERPRISE

The freedom to run one’s own private business is, for liberal thinkers, one of the more important aspects defining individual dignity. Spiting both the Left and the Right, liberals continue to emphasise that capitalism in Poland was established not by large corporations, but mostly by small traders and entrepreneurs.

These same liberals also respond with caution to statements made by representatives of the Left, who claim that private enterprise has led to the erosion of social capital and interpersonal relationships. The Left continue to imply that towards the end of the 1980’s the sense of community and egalitarian ideals were incredibly highly developed, an unfounded romanticising of Polish civic realities of the time.

 

FREEDOM AFTER 1989

The Left continues to concentrate on the aspects of reality in which freedom has been substantially reduced, or those which suggest that it is at an unacceptably low level. It hints, among other things, at the lack of respect for women’s reproductive rights, the excessive influence of the Catholic Church on political processes, or intolerance towards the LGBT community. The solutions they put forth involve the importation of legal and institutional frameworks from Western states, ignoring at the same time local contexts in which these happen to operate within. The Right, on the other hand, keeps drawing attention to the supposed erosion of traditional culture and traditions, making reference to some highly-idealised vision of Polish society, unfounded on historical facts. Liberals tend to place the right to choose first, as applying to each individual. The solutions they tend to favour involve an increase in this sphere of personal freedoms, while at the same time respecting the duties each individual has towards one other. They attempt to create a sense of social solidarity without resorting to religious arguments, so common to the Right, or calls for increased equality, a strategy favoured by the Left. Liberals continue to champion the idea of individual freedoms along with respect for the “other” to choose their own way in life. These fundamental values of “liberal patriotism” should also find support among representatives of traditional Polish liberalism.

This article is a part of Kultura Liberalna’s book “To place Poland in the centre”. See the table of contents here.