The temptation of anti-politics. About David Ost’s book

Jarosław Kuisz · 21 October 2014

„One of the most dangerous effects of the forty five years of communist totalitarianism is the cult of anti-politics ingrained in the Polish society”, warned a young journalist in the early years of recovered freedom. The real danger was supposed to lie in rejecting “the very principle of politics”. What could this sentence refer to in 1991?

Let us recall that the comet of Stan Tyminski had just flashed across the Polish sky – every scenario seemed possible. After all a politician from nowhere (that is from the West) defeated the doyen of the Solidarity opposition, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, in the presidential elections. To achieve that, it was enough to promise mountains of gold and brandish a black briefcase with mysterious content before the voters. Part of the elites lamented the definitive end of the ethos of the opposition era and such a view was supported by the conflicts between the activists of the former Solidarity.


When “we witness the disappearance of the space where various interests may play out and where various political forces may present competing visions of political life”, continued our young journalist, the “spectre of the street”, “dictatorship” and other nightmares of public life are spreading before us [1].

It is hard to believe that literally two years earlier the American political scientist, David Ost, completed his work which was a praise for Polish anti-politics and prudence of the Solidarity opposition.

A brief history of failure
Ost’s Solidarity and Politics of Anti-Politics was recently published in Sergiusz Kowalski’s translation by the „European Solidarity Centre” and it turns out to be extraordinarily relevant. The book, reminding us about the roots of the Polish troubles with the state, perfectly fits in the mood of the bittersweet reckonings from the last quarter-century.

Together with the author we follow the way in which the political opposition, ignoring the regime, forges the ideas of anti-politics and the peaceful process of democratising society. Along with other ideas this constitutes the intellectual ground for the self-limiting revolution of 1980-1981 and then of the round table negotiations – but at the same time the “traditional” distance of society to government institutions is preserved. The anti-politics after 1968, as reconstructed by the American political scientist, is not only the desire to awaken the sense of their own dignity in the citizens, but above all an outlook assuming that the government is not “the key to building a better, more human world“ (p. 25).

As you can see, Ost was truly delighted by what should worry the contemporary Polish reader. Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics is in fact an apology of the civil society which can do without the state. It is an expression of admiration for imperfect democratisation. What is more, the old methods of the Polish opposition were seen by the author as one of the cures for the ills afflicting Western countries. If it were not for the martial law, then who knows – Ost boldly speculated – if the ideas of social democracy and self-government would not have impacted on the development of other states, “or even influenced the economic thought of other societies“ (p. 13).
Interestingly, in the new introduction (2014) Ost essentially does not back out of his claims, although, as he himself observed many years ago, the spectacular success of anti-politics had to mean its instantaneous death. Already during the first Solidarity, which had built a nationwide structure, there was a need to rapidly and seriously tackle the problems of government, law and politics (p. 126). In this unusual situation – the threat of foreign intervention and the expansion of freedom within the country – innovations were springing up (even in such exotic areas as lawmaking [2]).
No wonder that for an outside observer communist Poland could seem to be “one of the most interesting places on earth“. Ost wrote his book genuinely fascinated by the conceptual experiments of the political opposition, but an average citizen was quite fed up with these experiments after a few months. In the middle of 1981, even in the official propaganda you could hear such charming formulations as this one: “As if it was not enough that there are so many shortcomings in every area, squanderers and troublemakers increased our burden” (“PKF” No. 29a; “Niegospodarność”).
Interminable queues for basic goods or the uncertainty of what the Soviet Union was going to do preoccupied an average citizen much more than systemic experiments. By the way, all those contributed to the fact that on the night of 12-13 December, 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski triumphed without any major glitches and the opposition could (and had to) return to the familiar regions of anti-politics.

Two vocabularies and copulation
Ost completed his book in 1989. The reader finds himself in a funny situation when following the argument he assumes the role of a person who really “does not know what will happen” after the collapse of communism. In fact, the reviewers of the US edition of Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics stressed that the author’s predictions for the course of events in Central and Eastern Europe were slightly of the mark [3]. Today, however, this “freeze-frame“ seems very interesting. The range of scenarios turns out to be almost unlimited. We tremble at what the rediscovery of the political sphere by opposition activists – accustomed to the standards of anti-politics – may bring. We are worried about the authoritarian cravings of Walesa (is he not a new Marshal Pilsudski?). We are concerned about the possible reaction of citizens to implementation of market reforms. We have no idea whether towards the end of 1989 the state is already ours or not yet… But sooner or later the book had to be handed over to the publisher. And hence its epilogue offers a unique reflection on the contemporary atmosphere of uncertainty and hope. Ost is hoping that we will be protected from the worst-case scenarios by “the help of the international community and the creative imagination which has always been Solidarity’s forte“.

Ost saw more and he saw less. On the one hand he was making the Poles realise that Western societies were by no means welcoming the “brothers” from the other side. Hardly anyone out there wants to remember that it was the „drama of Eastern Europe which contributed to the success of Western Europe thanks to the Cold War dollars pouring in” (p. 330). On the other hand, the author wrote virtually nothing about the disputes that would rage in the Polish public sphere in the 1990s. Not a word about the secret police files, about the legacy of post-communists or the meanders in introducing the division between the Church and the state.

There is a reason for this omission. Ost’s book reminds us how difficult it is to describe the 20th-century adventures of Eastern Europe using only the terms coined on the basis of experiences collected by Western societies. It has to be said that Ost usually coped with such lexical traps very well. Explaining the path from Marxism to liberal democracy in a way intelligible for an English-speaking reader demanded some virtuosity. But even he was unable to avoid some telling blunders. Let us give just one example.

To clarify the ideas of Leszek Kołakowski, the author used the philosophy of Herbert Marcuse (!), the theorist of „libidinal civilization”. A greater misunderstanding is difficult to conceive. In The Main Currents of Marxism Kołakowski was extremely critical of the Frankfurt School. He was familiar with the painful price of philosophical reveries, because he himself had been seduced by the vision of building a Stalinist utopia in Poland. And hence he very persistently explored the actual results of Marcuse’s ideas, ignoring the noble intentions. After an extensive analysis of such works as One-Dimensional Man”, Kołakowski was so disappointed by the lack of responsibility for the words used there that he could not restrain himself from making a biting comment:

„Marcuse apparently gives just one empirical example explaining what he means by libidinal civilisation; namely he aptly notes that it is much more pleasant to copulate on a meadow than in a car in Manhattan“ [4].
Ost 2014
Ost still remains deeply torn between the dreams of anti-politics and the hard knowledge of a political scientist. A quarter-century after writing the book he gifted the Polish edition with a new, very interesting introduction. Again, this time in the context of the 2008 crisis, he succumbs to the temptation of returning to the pure sources of politics. We read in the book: “One of the great misfortunes of our times is that the enormous creative energy of >>Solidarity<<, a veritable geyser of innovative ideas, died in 1981 never to be revived again. But the idea-creating energy from that time is a rich treasure trove – everyone who has a sense that we live in an unsatisfactory world may draw from it”.

These are quite understandable desires. Also other 21st-century authors admit of being inspired by the writings and actions of the noble dissidents from Eastern Europe. But for Ost it means the return to the pure sources of the political through alternative history (“It could have gone differently…”). He sticks to that despite his own knowledge about the “logic of events” about which he wrote in his famous Defeat of Solidarity (2005) – a fiasco consisting in the loss of social capital and far-reaching consequences of that. In his view acceptance of free-market reforms by the opposition led to the flourishing of the nationalist right.

But could it really have gone differently? Interestingly, this year the same Ost, invoking his extensive knowledge, wondered in an interview if “after 1989 the social-democratic alternative stood a chance“. And he answered himself: “well, definitely the chances were much lower than if the transition had taken place earlier, for example during the martial law. Therefore I cannot agree with the recently deceased economist Tadeusz Kowalik, who wrote that in 1989 the Poles had been free to choose what kind of capitalism they wanted to have. A space for choice existed in the 1970s. In the 1980s globalisation was already under way” [5].
This is instructive. Ost is deeply familiar with the melancholy contained in the heart of anti-politics. Because every desire for success of noble anti-politics turns out to be ambiguous. The success of anti-politics opens the way to trivial politics and “wars at the top“ among the former brothers in arms. But the temptation is intense. For it is in “pre-political times that the steadfast varieties of loyalties and utopian aspirations are born”, noted Michael Walzer. Unfortunately, “in practice anti-politics would soon generate all inequalities characteristic for civil society” [6].
These are not dilemmas of yesteryear. In 2014 the argument about a re-interpretation of the collapse of communism and the birth of the Third Polish Republic is raging on. The discussion about the validity of the so-called Balcerowicz Plan and his economic policy turns out to be interesting even for the younger generations, which in this way are asking about the policy for the next twenty five years. So it is worthwhile to reach for Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-politics, this praise of our political choices from the past. And to remember that the dilemma if it was possible to do things differently after 1989 today is put by Ost himself in a much broader perspective than the domestic one.


[1] Jacek Kurski, “Kult antypolityki”, Przegląd Polityczny 1991 nr 1.

[2] For more see: Jarosław Kuisz, Charakter prawny porozumień sierpniowych 1980-1981, Wydawnictwo Trio, Warszawa 2009.

[3] David S. Mason, “Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics: Opposition and Reform in Poland Since 1968 by David Ost [Review]”, Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 105, No. 4 (Winter, 1990-1991).

[4] Leszek Kołakowski, Główne nurty marksizmu, „Aneks”, London 1988, p. 1115.

[5] “David Ost o ćwierćwieczu wolnej Polski: Nie byliście głupi”, interviewed by Adam Leszczyński, Gazeta Wyborcza, June 27, 2014.

[6] Michael Walzer, Polityka i namiętność, transl. Hanna Jankowska, Wydawnictwo Muza, Warszawa 2006, pp. 131-132.


David Ost, Solidarność a polityka antypolityki, transl. Sergiusz Kowalski, Europejskie Centrum Solidarności, Gdańsk 2014.

*Photo on the home page: “Solidarność”, Lukas Plewnia. Source: Flickr.