Special Reports / The end of the world of democracy is near

The end of the world of democracy is near

Marcin Król in conversation with Łukasz Pawłowski and Tomasz Sawczuk · 12 May 2015
“Donald Tusk, a really intelligent man, led us on with that line about ‘warm water on tap’, saying it was better than other alternatives”.

Łukasz Pawłowski: In 2013, you said “The aims of our politicians and economists are limited to economic growth jumping from 1.5% to 4% or 5%. What does this change?”. This was in an earlier conversation with Liberal Culture. What is it you are expecting now?

Marcin Król: Economic growth is always good, or at least it is when you have more money. But this has little to do with politics. I expect some imagination from politicians, some vision. President Komorowski said once that if someone has vision, then they should be sent to a psychiatrist. That is a bad answer. Politics is not ideology, nor clear-cut opinions about what is the right direction to take. In other words – what our community should bond around. Meanwhile, year after year, I am losing the sense that I am part of any sort of community.

Tomasz Sawczuk: You have just published a book titled “We were stupid” – the same title as that of a very widely read interview you gave last year. Its fragments can, however, surprise many readers. The interview I mentioned had been received as a manifesto for a protest against free market capitalism in its Polish variety, as introduced after 1989. Meanwhile, in your book you state: “Wastrels or people without talent for business, and then politicians who were supported by them, lay all the blame at the feet of Balcerowicz and his reform”. And yet you think that “he protected all our money”. What then is your opinion about Leszek Balcerowicz?

The year 1989 was an exceptional event, unbelievable, and Balcerowicz achieved something out of the ordinary, something I admire him for. Overall, it was an incredibly risky political act. Mazowiecki was afraid of such radical changes, but if the reforms had been spread out across, say, three years, they would have never been completed. There is a story that’s told about Balcerowicz asking Mazowiecki to sign a contract for a loan from the National Currency Fund. Mazowiecki replies: “I don’t understand this, it’s in English” and Balcerowicz counters “You don’t need to understand, just sign”. Mazowiecki was furious and eventually the contract was translated into Polish, but that was how Balcerowicz worked. The switching of the economy over to a new set of tracks had to be done quickly.

ŁP: This anecdote is a good illustration of one of the main accusations against the so-called Balcerowicz Plan – it is said that reforms were undemocratic, imposed upon the nation. It wasn’t just prime minister Mazowiecki, but also the majority of ministers who knew nothing about the changes, about what they were voting for. It is now being said that if this programme had been opened to public debate, it would never have been allowed to be actioned.

The question remains, what is meant by “democratically”? Was there to be a referendum about this?

ŁP: Not necessarily, but at the time even elected politicians didn’t know what they were meant to be making decisions about, because they didn’t have time to really learn the proposed new laws.

And now they do? I doubt it

ŁP: But they don’t have to vote for a complete change of system every day…

I don’t have any complaints about their methods of working. I believe that at the beginning of any process one sets the tone which is then hard to change afterwards. One would have to do many things, just as brutal and undemocratic as those done by Balcerowicz. But he was the only one brave enough to push on through. And so, it wasn’t about a conversation to be had with the electorate, which was at the time dazed and barely scraping by in post-communist poverty. One had to make changes quickly, at the same time make decisions about which way to turn and how to make use of the traditions of Solidarity, such as how to turn Civil Committees into a new democratic arrangement. Back then, we all thought that it would all work out fine, if only Poland simply became a Western-style democracy, without acknowledging that those same democracies were not doing so well. Why try to draw fresh water from a well which is drying out? What we should have done was to dig our own. We showed zero political innovation. Poland was ready for it back then too, people would have accepted a lot of new ideas, the same way they accepted Balcerowicz’s plan, though no one knew what it meant.

TS: What exactly do you mean when you say that “we were stupid”? Who are the “we”?

We, meaning people such as I – from the Civic Committee, from the underground, taking part in the creation of a new state. We did three moronic things. Firstly, we decided that we could create a system much like the ones in Germany, France, England – out of thin air – without traditions to back up a sudden establishing of a pretty little democracy. Secondly, we assumed that it would be appropriate to dismantle Civic Committees and part from that whole sphere, which we then called civil society. Thirdly, we instantly jumped at each other’s throats in trying to dominate Polish politics.

ŁP: A large part of your book is devoted to the meetings of the Civic Committee, where you quote heated exchanges from the final debates. Do you really think that the conflict between Lech Wałęsa and Jerzy Turowicz or that between Henryk Wyjec and Zdzisław Najder from 25 years ago have any sort of relevance, especially for the younger generation?

They do, because if those conflicts had turned instead into cooperation and the building of a new kind of democracy, Poland would have had a different start in its life. Freedom is not just there for freedom’s sake. Freedom makes sense only as freedom utilised, but in order to utilise it one has to have some idea as to how to do that. Leszek Balcerowicz thinks today the same way he thought back then: give people freedom, and they will instantly start to effectively manage their economic and public spheres. This isn’t how it works. Freedom is all about trying to attain higher things, but then someone has to propose what these might be. I don’t know if that would have worked. But the thing is, there were no real proposals put forth – from the time of the Round Table Talks to this very day Poland has not come up with a single notion of how to organise its political community.

TS: A quarter of a century later, a report from that meeting has become pure history, even if not all that pretty. You, however, write it up as if that very starting point was responsible for us now being in a cul-de-sac. This is a form of fatalism.

No, it’s not fatalism. But today there is no hope of opening Poland to change which could deliver that which, to me, is most important – realistic politics. Back then, definitions were set and later no further change was possible.

TS: Your version of events is totally different to those told by others from that time. On the whole, it is presented as a time of idealists, pure souls who wanted to introduce a politics of values, but who didn’t know how to convert these into practice. It wasn’t until Jarosław Kaczynski and Donald Tusk that we saw post-Solidarity politicians who were able to part with this idealist tendency in the name of effective governance. Do you think it is possible to have both – to be an effective politician and an idealist?

The likes of Jerzy Turowicz and Jerzy Giedroyc were people of the highest quality, people who wanted to build Poland not on the basis of solidarity, but on a deliverable notion of decency. That was when something terrible happened, something which persists until now: decency transformed into unbelievable political rivalry. Do you think that there are two factions at odds with one another today? 25 years ago, the conflict was ten times more intense. But, what is worse, nobody knew what that conflict was about.

In a moment I am going to start sounding like a saint, but I hope this won’t last long. I resigned from the public sphere after the Round Table Talks for one reason only: I saw how easy I find it to lie in the name of political conflict. I started to lie and saw how those sitting beside me, Jacek Kuroń and Bronisław Geremek, also lied during discussions in order to achieve their political aims. This aim was laudable, a war against a terrible enemy. But things were happening too easily, too quickly.

TS: Was your resignation not a form of escape from responsibility?

No… Then again, you may be right.

(after a long pause) But that was not the essence of my dilemma. Not everyone is able to do everything by themselves. My fault was that I failed to encourage others – and myself first of all – to try to describe what we were thinking. I could sense it. There was a reason why I refused to become a minister, which some – Adam Michnik among them – were aggrieved about. But I no longer wanted to be in that crowd of self-adoring individuals. I believed that we had to allow people from the outside into the world of politics. This didn’t happen, but that was how Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Aleksander Hall also thought. Mazowiecki wasn’t a minister either, it was only later that he agreed to accept the mantle of prime minister. He felt the same as I did – a sense of distaste.

I should have tried to define and describe it all back then, to try to sketch a vision of a democratic, liberal, new Poland, based on religious and national traditions. Not on the religious tradition of the Church, of course, but on a certain version of Polish romanticism. I didn’t do this and hence I feel guilty, not because I declined to accept any sort of political responsibility.

ŁP: In your book, you stress that this was a time when a certain collective had been dismantled, that the legacy of Solidarity had been lost. This is a similar opinion to the one expressed by Jan Sowa in his book “A different Commonwealth is possible!”, which wants to build a new Poland on the basis of traditions aligned with that first Solidarity movement. Are not both cases examples of a myth of a golden age?

There is always the tendency to idealise, so we have to simplify instead, if we are to build anything. But I am not talking about the same thing as Sowa, not about the period of the original Solidarity. I had the pleasure of being close to people from Tygodnik Powszechny magazine – Stanisław Stomma, Jerzy Turowicz, Stefan Kisielewski and Krzysztof Kozłowski. Whenever I got the chance to spend a little time outside of Poland, I would meet abroad with Jerzy Giedroyc, Konstanty Jeleński, Gustaw Herling-Grudziński. That was my Poland, a Poland which is now gone. A key moment for me is the death of Czesław Miłosz. That was the end point. Did anyone after Miłosz have anything interesting to say? No. The last Polishness was created by Giedroyc, Mieroszewski and Czapski and when they departed, they took everything with them.

TS: Professor, the world you are describing is a closed, intellectual environment.

No, because it is a world of the highest possible culture, which is the only world.

TS: Are you not ascribing legendary status to something which was experienced by a very small group of people?

Agreed, but this has always been a select few, the elite. Later, gradually, its opinions filter down to the rest of society. A certain world is created, which can then be referred to. If it lacks form, then there is nothing there to talk about.

TS: There are no revolutions without revolutionary elites?

That’s not the point. A community is only a community of culture, in this case political. If high standards are not set, there are no expectations. A community doesn’t live by positivistic practice, or through economic collectives, but through a community of spirit. And spirit has gone out of Poland.

TS: How can you on the one hand call for a return to communal ideals, for greater equality, and at the same time support elitist thinking?

This is logical, both go hand in hand. Elitism is essential in certain disciplines, such as culture and education. If we want to build a new commonwealth, we need grand templates. I don’t want to test you, but are you familiar with the contents of Mickiewicz’s “The Great Improvisation”? Did an ordinary 19th century Pole know what that was about? The vast majority certainly did not. But even so, without Mickiewicz there would be no Poland. The same as now – without Miłosz, Jeleński, Czapski, Giedroyc, Turowicz, nothing will remain. Unless you, the young ones, grow into into such roles.

And when it comes to culture, I am a conservative. I know times have changed, but authority figures are a treasure. Social issues are a whole other topic – here, I am more of a socialist.

ŁP: A socialist in the economic sphere? The two recent candidates for president from the so-called Left scored a joint 5% backing from the electorate. The vast majority presented free market proposals and called for a limit on state powers. You yourself admit in your book that under Communism you knew nothing about Poland outside of an intellectual bubble. Neither did you know what most of Polish society lived on, post-Solidarity. Are your diagnoses then and now not somehow at odds with civic moods?

Do you think that electoral candidates represent society?

ŁP: They get signatures, gaining a much bigger backing than candidates from the Left.

Agreed, but the truth is I can’t see any civic political activity around. The political community is asleep and is right to be so, because why the hell not? If it has nothing interesting to do, then it goes to sleep. I think that we have arrived at a moment when the level of tolerance for injustice has reached a degree of helplessness. In other words, helplessness has come to dominate everything. I don’t want to be a revolutionary about it, but may even the Left be like that! The Leftist movement has vanished, the same as all the others, including nationalism. That which we are seeing today is just a show, a poor copy. Nothing there.

ŁP: What do you mean? In one of the most recent issues of Gazeta Wyborcza, you warn against allowing people such as Grzegorz Braun into the public discourse, because they represent a serious threat, one that can explode the system from within.

Grzegorz Braun is not a Right-winger, but an anti-semite. His kind should not be allowed in our salons. Antisemitism be gone! There can be no other reaction to this phenomena.

TS: On the one hand you want people to awaken, but on the other you say this is impossible without elites being involved. And on top of all that, in your book you relate, in a positive fashion, experiences from the days of Solidarity. And yet that movement was grass-roots, not elite led. I have the impression that nothing coherent emerges.

I disagree. Solidarity was elitist, because an elite does not have to mean ten people out of a group of ten million. Elitist can mean five out of thirty million. Solidarity was based on elitist structures, which engaged hundreds of extremely active individuals. These were living entities that Lech Wałęsa helped to shut down.

TS: What was Solidarity’s great civic capital based on then, and how could we make use of it today?

Today, that would be difficult. Democracy is over and we need to start a new way of building connections between people, new communities, which will be very different to those we have known for the past 200 years. Every system has its early period, then its adult stage, then old age at the end. Modern democracies are at that final stage. When a human being grows old, all they want is peace – and Europe is old. It is time to think about something new, time to make babies.

ŁP: But who with? What should we base this new system on?

The critical section in Sowa’s book is excellent, and I am in agreement with him overall, except… positivistic projects. What I mean is that we need to once again make the decision that we really intend to create a democracy. Why? In order to reclaim power. This contains the meaning of life. That life, that energy is against stability. Every form of stability means death. There is no other way for us to envision democracy.

I don’t know what sorts of institutions will be formed in this new system. Direct democracy, drawing lots or something else. People will be making those decisions, so trying to imagine how it will turn out is pointless.

TS: Does this mean that you consider liberal democracies as doomed to failure?

Without a doubt. It is over, it’s gone. We currently have a certain kind of institution which services the process of voting, but there is no democracy in it. When have you ever seen democracy out on the street?

ŁP: A prime example is local activism – urban movements, collectives.

Of course, they’re great, but they change nothing. Although I am in no way a Marxist, but I think that today “we have to move the earth away from earthly toil”. A new reality has arrived. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about two worlds – that of the aristocracy and democracy. Not regimes, but worlds. Democracy was, for him, not a regime. He wasn’t interested in who the president was or how Congress works. He knew that the aristocracy is on its last legs, something he felt a little sad about, which is why he wanted to take something from it into a new world. Now, we’re seeing the same thing. A certain world is coming to an end, one we called a world of democracy. We have to start building something different.

ŁP: But people want stability…

I know people want it, but they have been forced into it. Donald Tusk, a really intelligent man, led us on with that line about ‘warm water on tap’, saying it was better than other alternatives. True, it’s always better to get a pass than a fail, but why not pass with flying colours? Living is pointless if we go about it half-heartedly.

*The above interview is a shortened version of a transcribed conversation which took place during a seminar, as part of a series of discussions entitled “#YOLO. The lost future of Polish freedom?” organised by The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and Liberal Culture.


Translated by Marek Kazmierski