Squabbles and saintliness. The Left and the Right and their problems with the Round Table

Tomasz Sawczuk · 11 February 2014

Disputes over the Round Table are also disputes over our present-day democracy. Tomasz Sawczuk presents his commentary on the debate which took place in the Presidential Palace as part of the celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the Round Table talks.

On the 6th of February 2014, Poland’s Presidential Palace hosted a debate centred around the 25th anniversary of the historical Round Table talks of 1989. Several influential young thinkers took part, including Maciej Gdula from Political Critique, Michał Łuczewski from 44 and Karolina Wigura from Liberal Culture. They presented very different opinions regarding the events of that time, many of which are worth commenting upon, and not only those relating to historical questions. It would seem that disputes over the Round Table are also ongoing disputes over today’s democratic processes.



The Round Table talks can be criticised from a number of often surprising perspectives. Hence, Maciej Gdula stated that perhaps we all overestimate the importance of discussion as a political method. Why should this be the privileged method? Perhaps it is better to sometimes get into a good fight, and only then debate? Gdula simultaneously considers the Round Table talks as an unhelpful political model, it being an example of elitist compromise, while democratic politics should take into consideration, as much as possible, the wishes of all. Besides, the agreements settled upon in 1989 chose a radically free market model of systematic transformation, which increased inequality and worsened the life chances of a large number of Polish citizens.

Gdula’s opinion is ahistorical. First of all, the majority of Poles wanted a changed system, which undermines his theory about elitist compromises being agreed without popular agreement. Besides, the representatives of the communist party would never have agreed to talk to the opposition, if said talks did not have the respect and support of at least some of the people. Secondly, during the times of the round Table talks, no one knew that Leszek Balcerowicz will become the minister of finance, or even that Tadeusz Mazowiecki will become prime minister! Even before the negotiations started, certain free market reforms had already been introduced, with the intention – according to some historians – of rescuing the communist party in the eyes of the nation. In this context, a more convincing thesis might be that put forward by Robert Krasowski in his book “In the afternoon. The fall of Solidarity elites after they came into power” (“Po południu. Upadek elit solidarnościowych po zdobyciu władzy”), that the form the Transformation ended up taking was forced upon Poland by Western and international institutions, and hence external influences.

Gdula, however, dismisses the importance of historical factors. He seems to forget that the transition between the 1980s and 90s was a time of fascination with free markets and the United States, with Ronald Reagan at the helm. The West was triumphant, and the US model of capitalism was widely seen as synonymous with freedom, prosperity and progress. There was not even a chance of considering a search for a “third way” or other, modern forms of social democracy. Leftist ideals were associated, by most in Poland, with their communist past, hence they were widely discredited. The marketisation of the economy was also a way to try and fix the problems ailing the Polish state back then. Today, we are more and more aware of the social ills caused by the transformation – twenty five years ago, this was difficult to forecast. And ignoring the state of affairs back then would be a mistake. A mistake all the more surprising that the Left seems to have no problems at all with historical understanding and justification of ideological fascinations with various types of Marxism – which could help explain the attitudes of at least part of the Polish intelligentsia community. At this time, the historical context plays a key role. In 1989, by a strange coincidence it stops having such a role. It is also very doubtful whether the model of transformation implemented in Poland was indeed radically “free market” in its thinking. Both the privatisation and the reduction in benefit handouts, along with other profound changes, are not that shocking when compared to similar forms of regulation in other Western states.

Furthermore, both viewpoints presented by Gdula – that sometimes a scuffle is better than a debate, and that politics should be more democratic (than it was around the Round Table) – conceal within them contradictory objectives. Gdula is the author of the introduction to the book “On the political” (“Polityczność”), in which the Belgian philosopher follows in the thinking of Carl Schmitt that politics in its most profound sense depends on conflict. In practice, politics depends on a battle between competing worldview projects motivated by collective passions.

How to reconcile such an approach with the idea of a radically democratic politics, in which all citizens must be engaged in the political process? After all, listening to all competing points of view demands above all openness and agreement, not only the fuelling of conflict. How then to promote ideas dependent on respect for discussions, and at the same time to enthusiastically encourage that such discussions be preceded by, in the words of Maciej Gdula, a “proper scuffle”?

Protests, strikes and demonstrations are legitimate political tools, fitting within democratic boundaries. However, any decision arrived at by force is nothing to do with democratic politics and separate from the idea of public will. Such a politic is more reminiscent of the tormenting of the temporarily defeated by the temporarily victorious, and its celebration is nothing more than a dangerous glorification of barbarianism.



The ideological Right has a similar problem with democracy. Michał Łuczewski stated in the Presidential Palace that the Round Table talks were the beginning of modernity in Poland. As a consequence of the talks being held, between the ruling party and the opposition, the bad stopped being the bad, meanwhile the good lost their nobility. Since then, the split between good and bad has not been so clear cut. Politics lost its moral dimension. The overall aim of history was replaced by endless political wrangling, leading to nothing of real substance.

Łuczewski is right. Looking back, it is clear the Round Table talks opened a new epoch in Polish politics, the era of a democratic culture, which replaced the authoritarian political model, and which imposes the acceptance of new political and moral standards. Hence, the terminology applied by Łuczewski seems rather inadequate. In a democracy, questions of absolute evil and absolute goodness appear to be of secondary importance. Democratic politics overtakes morality, attempting to achieve understanding between competing sides. Is this democratic culture then bereft of value? Not at all! In as much as authoritarian logic can result in the bad governing the good, or the good the bad – or at least those who claim to be good over those who are stigmatised in various ways – democratic culture brings to the life of the collective firm standards and values.

The term “democratic culture” is here representative of liberal democracy, a liberalism closely allied with democracy. Non-liberal democracy must still advance along the lines of authoritarian logic.


So what are these standards and values? During the Presidential Palace debate, this topic was take up by Karolina Wigura, who dealt with such fundamental issues as respect for individual rights, rule of law or the workings of institutions relating to procedural justice. These can partly be delivered in an authoritarian model of rule. Yet, the defining standard which separates democratic culture from authoritarian politics is the self-restraint of the sides involved in a dispute. The eventual triumph of either side, accompanied by a complete belittling of the opponent, is a disaster for any democratic system. A democratic culture always places discussion above violence, reforms over revolutions and humility over humiliation.

Such politics may appear to be dull and fail to capture popular imaginations, as they do not propose any great moral aims. This is a real problem, resulting in liberal democracy being threatened by populism. But it doesn’t have to be this way. It will not be so, if we notice that the everyday dismantling of conflicts and prejudices, and that cooperation for the good of a shared future, are not aims which are trivial or uninteresting. In fact, this is something far more profound! In rare moments, when such cooperation takes on symbolic forms – such as in the case of the Round Table talks – we are not dealing with opportunism, the machinations of the elites or with treason, but with ordinary poetry of justice in a dignified format. In spite of the points of view put forward by both the Polish Left and Right, current political practice does not need any further sanctification – not with blood, nor gallant gestures, nothing of the sort.

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