The paradoxes of Polish capitalism. About Marta Bucholc’s book Konserwatywna utopia kapitalizmu

Rafał Wonicki · 8 January 2013
Living in today’s free, democratic and free-market Poland, we are still living under the shadow of transition, we still argue about its course and consequences, we debate on the superiority of capitalist economy over planned economy, we complain about the rat race, social inequalisties, corruption, fraudulent businesspeople. It is a familiar world, which we try to grasp every day.

Konserwatywna-utopia-kapitalizmu_Bucholc-418x600Marta Bucholc’s book may be of great help to us in this respect. For she reveals for the readers the forgotten Polish capitalist ethic from the interwar period, and also shows why this ethic has not been resurrected in the post-communist Poland. Artfully and with a great sociological sense she reconstructs the conservative utopia of Polish pre-war merchants. With archaeological precision she presents their ethic, which exists no more and its absence does not allow today’s businesspeople to establish themselves as a separate social group.

The ethic of the Polish pre-war merchantry, described by the author in a beautiful and precise language, allowed them to overcome two paradoxes: a theoretical and practical one. The theoretical paradox consists in the divergence between the self-image of the merchantry as a group conserving a specific lifestyle and specific values, and prevalent notions of capitalism as a system which is changeful by its nature (p. 10). And the practical paradox is contained in the attempt to reconcile two conflicting things, that is to reconcile collective purposes and common good with individual aims and egoistic interest of the merchants (p. 248).

Integrity more important than profit

So let us now briefly present the most important elements of this ethic. The first striking thing is the merchants’ need for self-definition. Their community is defined not only by the law but also by how they perceive themselves. For example, they distance themselves from industrialists (p. 99), they have their own publishing houses, they try to maintain their separateness. It is so important for them, that they are ready to stay within a constrained economic territory. It may be astonishing for us today, but trade profits are for them just a reward for playing an important social role (p. 113). Integrity and professionalism are more important than profit and they constitute the foundation of their self-identity.

What also distinguishes the merchants from other groups in their own mind is their profession, characterised by an attachment to local space. They know they way here, they know their clients, they are familiar with the business conditions, they have their place in the local community and they are able to act effectively. As for the character traits which a merchant should possess, occupying a high place in the ethic, is diligence and conscientiousness. „A diligent and conscientious merchant is a merchant who fulfils the measure of requisite assiduousness in all his actions” (p. 143). Interestingly, the merchant ethic was becoming more and more divorced from reality due to the dynamically changing reality of the 1930s. These changes included the economic crisis, heterogeneousness of the merchant class and the intensifying Polish-Jewish conflict. But did not modify their ethic in order to adapt it to reality. Instead they kept trying to convince others that in line with the ethic they believed in they were diligent and trustworthy.

This is how the author explains the mechanism: “Conservatism of the merchants is reflected in the fact that they put the past above the future and the utopian nature of their thinking can be seen in presenting a backward movement as a forward movement” (p. 225). At this juncture some of the best sociological analyses in the book begin. Bucholc expertly explains how within their ethic Polish pre-war merchants overcome the two paradoxes, theoretical and practical one. For they live under an illusion of wellbeing and glory thanks to their ethic (p. 237).

The merchant ethic allows the merchants to hold a high opinion about themselves as a group. Their notions about capitalism conflicted with reality but were in harmony with their group ethos, which eliminated the theoretical paradox. We receive a coherent ethic, a conservative capitalist utopia directed towards the past. But as the author correctly notes, such a utopia itself generates specific difficulties. One of them is that the changeful nature of the market is denied and cannot be analysed, for it does not appear among the assumptions of the conservative utopia, which characterises the market as stable, unchanging and self-regulating.

Yesterday a merchant, today a businessman

The most important fragments, deeply relevant to the situation of contemporary Poland, are to be found in Chapter 3 (”The future of a utopia in the past tense”). This very inspiring chapter should become the theme of a separate work, which could make us understand better why there is no liberal cultural ethic in the social life of contemporary Poland. The author shows why the ethic of pre-war merchants was not adopted by today’s Polish businesspeople. One of them, she claims, is a weakened sense of group belonging, another is the problem of self-definition on the part of entrepreneurs. Pre-war merchants had clear-cut criteria for deciding who belonged and who did not belong to their group. And today the term “przedsiębiorca” (entrepreneur, businessman) is much more vague and covers many groups involved in many activities within the market.

Another significant factor which made it difficult to adopt and maintain the merchant ethic was the discontinuity engineered by the communist regime, which treated merchants, businesspeople and traders almost as agents of Western imperialism. Businesspeople in today’s Poland usually represent the first generation of entrepreneurs. The ethic or ethics of good business practices is created not by them but by various experts, so the recommendations proposed are perceived by businesspeople as external and they are not internalised as their own standards of behaviour. The author writes: “The absence of a clear, homogenous business ethic – that is the absence of a coherent worldview which would unite social life, economic life, morality and ethics – produces a reality in which there is no escape from the sense of threat” (p. 259). The pre-war merchant had his group ethic and the notion of belonging to this group endowed him with a sense of stability and security. In the eyes of Polish citizens, including businesspeople, our current reality is unstable, which does not produce confidence. And capitalism is defined as rapacious, not governed by any rules apart from the Hobbesian rules of combat, where the stronger wins “devouring” the weaker. Bucholc’s analysis allows us to grasp this climate of fear.

A forgotten tradition

So the conclusions of the book are melancholy. In the transition period new businesspeople had to conquer a no-man’s-land from which the government retreated, they had to produce their own myths and their own history legitimising their activity as valuable. And they failed in that endeavour. One of the reasons for that failure was, as Bucholc says, that “forgetting who the pre-war merchant was […] we have in fact forgotten that there are many capitalisms and that we have a choice, including the choice as to how we want to understand and define entrepreneurship” (p. 34). Reaching for the interwar period as the last previous era of freedom and entrepreneurship in order to achieve an at least symbolic continuity has been unsuccessful. The return to pre-war regulations (general clauses) was a purely formal operation. The legal and everyday terms had a different content, unsuited to contemporary transitional capitalism.

Marta Bucholc’s book contains many other important observations, which cannot be presented in a brief form. Of necessity we focused on just fragment of this work. All those interested in exploring the merchant ethic, observing its changes, getting a better grip on the tensions between businesspeople and clients in the market economy as well as the deeply relevant analyses of conflicts between the market and non-market areas such as the government and the law, should read the book in its entirety. It will prove worth your while!


Marta Bucholc, Konserwatywna utopia kapitalizmu, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warszawa 2012.


* Subtitles added by the editors.