Łukasz Pawłowski · 23 March 2014

They aren’t just responsible for hail, earthquakes and whooping-cough –this is the impression one might have reading ongoing attacks unleashed a full 25 years after the Transformation against liberals and liberalism, and this from the Left as well as the Right of the political spectrum. The search for scapegoats in no way brings us closer to solving the problems facing Polish society today.

For a long time now, we’ve been hearing that it is liberals who are responsible for introducing a predatory form of capitalism to Poland, along with all other attendant forms of pathology. In reforming the ill-functioning communist economy, they threw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater. Instead of introducing gradual reforms into the economy, they kept paring right down to the bone, without paying attention to the social impact the reforms were having. As a result, they not only permanently pushed hundreds of thousands of people – for example, the workers of former collectivised farms – beyond the margins of sustainable society, they also inspired Poles to buy into a pathological form of individualism. These liberal reforms are responsible for the low levels of social trust in Poland, while people taking advantage from any sort of social benefits are now considered to be parasites eating away at the otherwise healthy fabric of society. If you aren’t making ends meet, it’s your fault – this is the reaction facing those Poles seeking any sort of social justice. Who is responsible? “This is the legacy of liberal pedagogy introduced in the early 1990s. And it is mostly your doing,” Adam Leszczyński wrote in March of 2014 in the pages of Gazeta Wyborcza, addressing representatives of the Polish liberal community.

And so we have a clearly defined problem, as well as a guilty party, but are we therefore any closer to any sort of solution? Of course not, seeing as the above diagnosis doesn’t actually match the complexity of the problem, while at the same time it looks for guilty parties where they are unlikely to be found.

First of all, it’s worth remembering – to paraphrase Stefan Kisielewski – that capitalism was not introduced into Poland by “dragging people along by the hair”. Indeed, Western institutions set Poland targets to meet and set parameters, but at the outset of the 1990s a decisive majority of elites from various political factions were keen to play along. In addition, a large part of the nation associated capitalism with the West, and the West with prosperity, while all along having a rather vague idea about all three.

As for subtleties regarding the identification of various types of capitalism – Scandinavian, American, Chinese – there was little chance of these being considered. Rich bounty awaited anyone who, back then, was able to unite a deeply fragmented opposition with Social-Democratic slogans. Those seeking a return to pre-War or Western Leftist ideals or – much like Jan Józef Lipski or Józef Pinior – suffered spectacular defeats, or else – like Jacek Kuroń – accepted compromises which they then lived to regret. Today, present-day problems are more and more often blamed, by commentators from both the Left and the Right, on imaginary liberals. Imaginary, because we must remember that in those days only one serious party existed with the word “liberal” in its name.

This was the Liberal-Democrat Congress (Kongres Liberalno-Demokratyczny), which during the first free elections in 1991 gained almost 8% of the votes, while in subsequent elections completely failed to enter parliament!

Secondly, it is hard to grasp by what miracle this small group of liberals managed to completely plough through the whole of Poland’s population, introducing free market reforms against the wishes of the majority. If in fact they managed to secure such influence, the question remains why weren’t they able to introduce liberal changes in the sphere of attitudes and relations between the Church and the state, even though – as is now acknowledged by very few – so much was written on the topic in the 1980s by Gdansk liberals, with Donald Tusk at their helm? The answer is simple: market changes were supported by the majority of Polish intellectual and political elites, along with a large segment of the populace – while customs remained unchanged.

Even now, the average Pole thinks of the state as their enemy, and that they are best off worrying about themselves. This holds true until, say, a small trader must negotiate with a giant supermarket chain, when as a result of unusually generous harvests their sales income falls, or when, cheated by a tourist bureau, they find themselves without any money while on holiday abroad. These conflicting expectations – laissez-faire and interventionism – coexist perfectly well in the heads of many Poles, having been nurtured over many generations in response to the numerous pathologies inherent in the Polish political system, beginning long before the early days of the Transformation. And we are not trying here to lay all the blame at the feet of the populace, but to acknowledge a certain fact which we should set about slowly changing.

Thirdly, in critiquing the Polish transformation, let us not forget that its initial years were not those of mass advances from foreign corporations trying to work with our industry. Even in the early 1990s, during the “battle at the top”, Henry Kissinger, following a visit to Poland, advised American investors against putting money into it, concluding that its situation was too unstable. Back then, Polish streets were not lined with modern skyscrapers and luxury limos, but with hundreds of thousands of traders doing business out of hastily erected “tinjaw” stalls. Today, the youthful fever of those days seems ridiculous, and yet we must keep in mind that many political analysts and sociologists – Jerzy Szacki among them – saw these early entrepreneurs as the force which drove changes within Polish society forward.

In addition, the beginnings of free market economics were in a way a formative and even positive experience for many of these street traders. Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, a co-owner of a transportation firm in the 1980s, describes the change which took place in his colleague after they had set up a company together: “Once everything was his, rather than property of the state, he became a completely different human being” – ownership allowed people to recover their dignity, giving them the sense of capability and control over their own futures. Once again, we can snigger, but the experience of a whole raft of the Polish population cannot be ignored.

Fourthly, critics of Poland’s liberals should also note the changes taking place in their opponents. We have often used the pages of Liberal Culture to publish discussions with various liberals and every such exchange confirms the need to build a strong and transparent state, seeing as this appears to be the only guarantee of freedom. “In my world view, I take up a very simple position, which holds that liberalism works in places where the state itself holds firm”, Paweł Śpiewak stated in one of our interviews (issue 124). “To say that reduced government control means more liberalism is not actually true – the construction of an alternative between these two concepts is to be false. We can go about reducing the role of the state only once its fundamental workings make it strong, stable and capable of maintaining universally held standards of co-existence”.

Even liberals such as Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, who still consider Margaret Thatcher to be the icon of liberalist thinking, in place of her famous quote about the non-existence of society prefer today to quote a different line, which refers to the need for a “respected judge”, without whom market exchange cannot work effectively. This judge is none other than an effectively functioning state in itself. Mr Bielecki, in an interview with Liberal Culture (issue 127), admitted that those radical liberals who proclaim that capital has no nationality – hence any attempts at protecting local interests are spurious – are very much in the wrong. The free market is doing very well, but only in theory – after the 2008 financial crisis, no one can be in any doubt about this. Economic life in the 21st century is always happening in some kind of institutional and legal context, meanwhile both the institutions and the legal frameworks must be designed, approved and implemented by someone. The forms they eventually end up taking depend on never-ending political disputes, public opinion, as well as the efforts of lobbyists who, not without cause, retain representatives based in the most important capital cities around the globe.

And, eventually, we come to the fifth point – critics of Polish liberals accuse them of narrowing their whole way of thinking down to economics. And rightly so. We have often drawn attention to this problem, in our conversations with Andrzej Szahaj (issue 140), Andrzej Walicki (issue 254) and Marcin Król (issue 260). Liberalism is much more than unchecked economics. But criticising the practice of limiting liberalism to the economic dimension, Polish Left and Right wing thinkers are both making the same mistakes. Meanwhile, Poland needs a more developed framework of liberal thought, which concerns itself not with freedom understood as a total lack of restrictions, but the ability of the individual to achieve their full potential. Sometimes, state help is needed to achieve this – such as for those who, thanks to their place of birth or income levels, have a harder start than others. In other cases – for example, in choosing how we structure our family lives – the state should leave people to make their own free choices.

Tradition of this sort of complex liberalism has never been strong in Poland, while many of us still equate the idea of freedom with being allowed to do “whatever we like”. Hence, instead of beating each others’ breasts and arguing over who is more responsible for the mistakes made at the time of the Polish Transformation, it is vital that we go about building such a liberal state instead, together.

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