Illiberal Poland the ‘gravest challenge’ to European democracy – and Kolakowski’s vision



Poland represents the gravest illiberal challenge to European democracy, says the Economist:

Since taking office in 2015 the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party has stacked the courts, skewed public media and stuffed the bureaucracy with supporters (see article). Its judicial reforms flagrantly violate EU treaties. That matters not only for Polish democracy: EU countries have to trust each other’s courts to uphold the law that underpins the single market. So last year the European Commission invoked Article 7, an untested instrument that obliges governments to assess whether one of them is systematically undermining the rule of law.

Three elements seem to have played a decisive role in Poland’s exclusionary agenda, argues Adam J Chmielewski, professor of philosophy in the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Wrocław: voluntary servitude, the Polish brand of inferiority complex, and a deep-seated anti-Semitism, he writes for Open Democracy.

While Polish citizens largely reject autocratic rule (see above), the ruling Law and Justice party is doing lasting damage to Poland’s democratic institutions and culture, the Economist adds.

The ‘flawed democracy’ of contemporary Poland seems a long way from the vision of Leszek Kołakowski (right), the country’s foremost twentieth century philosopher. Fifty years ago, he left communist Poland, to confront Marxism from abroad in a series of magisterial works, Eurozine adds. Historian Andrzej Friszke, in conversation with ‘Res Publica Nowa’s’ Tadeusz Koczanowicz, traces Kołakowski’s intellectual and spiritual journey.

The foundations for hope and a democracy-oriented strategy for post-Communist Central Europe were laid out in the 1970s in three key essays, notes Elzbieta Matynia of the New School for Social Research: Kolakowski’s Hope and HopelessnessThe New Evolutionism, by Adam Michnik, a young unemployed historian from Warsaw; and The Power of the Powerless, by Vaclav Havel. They asked people not to expect miracles, help from outside, or some automatic self-correction of the authoritarian system. Instead they made a case for small, incremental changes.

Hope and Hopelessness proposed an evolutionary strategy designed to weaken the Communist system and inspired the activities of the Committee for the Defense of Workers and of the “Flying University,” of which he was a foreign member, said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, awarding Kolakowski the 2003 Kluge Prize:

What Kolakowski exemplifies and defends is the treatment of every individual as a rational and freely acting subject, aware that there is a spiritual side of life, able to have faith, yet eschewing absolute certainty of either an empirical or transcendental sort. It is the essence of a vibrant human culture to honor the universality of human rights while welcoming conflict of values, and repeated self- questioning, with what he calls “an inconsistent scepticism.” 

His chief insight — and, coming from him, it was devastating for Marxist sympathizers in the West — was that Stalinism was not an aberration, but the logical consequence of Marxism as applied by a nation-state, adds Radek Sikorski.

Even before 1989, Kolakowski observed that even crushing defeats, as in Hungary in 1956 or Poland in 1981, “represent the stored experience of a nation’s struggle for freedom, which is a foundation upon which future struggles can be waged,” said Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Res Publica Nowa and Eurozine are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.

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