The helpless and the resourceful, or the beginnings of Polish populisms

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Poland has two populisms: “the populism of the dispirited”, mobilising those who struggled to adjust to life in the new Poland; and a form of neo-liberal populism, embracing free market capitalism and excluding those who did not prosper. Both have deep roots in Poland’s history.

Marek Beylin
18 April 2013

In this excerpt from Polish Adventures with Democracy, the latest in Counterpoint’s ‘Europe’s Reluctant Radicals’ series, Marek Beylin explores the emergence of two distinct forms of Polish populism after the country’s transition from communism. Both have deep roots in Poland’s history, going back to the partition of Poland by Russia, Prussia and Austria in the eighteenth century, and through to the communist regime.


Two ‘peoples’

When, as the result of market activity, Poles started observing themselves closely, they noted an antagonistic division between those who were well off and those who could not find a place for themselves under capitalism.  And because both groups heard regular bulletins from fresh enthusiasts for the market, saturated with a proselytising spirit and stating that the helpless under the new system had only themselves to blame, the dividing line became stronger.  It often shifted into a separation between two ‘peoples’, who gazed at each other angrily, with a mutual lack of understanding. 

Both these ‘peoples’, the resourceful Poland and the helpless Poland, excluded each other morally: the ‘resourceful’ often viewed the ‘helpless’ as parasites and layabouts, who devoured the money the others’ effort fully earned; while the ‘helpless’ saw nothing but thieves and racketeers on the other side.  

This mutual stigmatisation is still functioning today, still fuelling politics, and mostly bearing fruit in their rival versions of populism.  In one of them, populism appears as a false substitute for absent social solidarity: it takes under its wings the helpless and the excluded. In the other version, a liberal populism stands for an ersatz idea of individual freedom and an apology for free enterprise as Social Darwinism.  The key champion of the populism of the dispirited was Andrej Leper, but the herald of this position was Stanisław Tymiński, who defeated Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first Prime Minister of democratic Poland, in the first round of the presidential elections in 1990. Tymiński drew together the anxieties and disappointments with the transformation, only to be thoroughly beaten in the second round by Lech Wałęsa.

The populism of the dispirited: Wałęsa and Lepper

Wałęsa, the legendary leader of ‘Solidarity’, is rightly considered one of the founding fathers of Polish democracy, but he is also the founding father of contemporary Polish populism. In his 1990 campaign, he attacked the elites for betraying the interests of the people, presenting himself as a saviour. He promised the disadvantaged money and a new, benign order, at the same time promising them that he would facilitate their economic activities. 


Lech Walesa.
Flickr/Slawek. Some rights reserved.

Moreover, he did not shy away from an antisemitic tone, despite not being an anti-semite. When he was President (1991-1995), he demanded extra powers for himself, to end the quarrels and divisions, and to take Poland onto a ‘straight road’. He presented himself as the only spokesman for the nation’s interests. He then saw politics as a kind of a cage full of monkeys, which he wanted to shake every now and again, to take advantage of their bickering. And he did take advantage, by setting himself in opposition to politics and politicians. 

But to be fair, I must add that his actions never took him onto the road leading to authoritarianism, from which the public would have made him turn back. He bullied democratic laws, sometimes bending them brutally, but never invalidated them.  However, he created the figure of a leader-patron who knew best how to tidy up his Polish household, without resorting to asking for others’ views, which would only bring about a mess. The figure of a leader who had privileged contact with his people. This creation of his is still a subject of envy and aspiration for many politicians, particularly Jarosław Kaczyński and, to a slightly lesser degree, Donald Tusk.

But the icon of Polish populism is Andrzej Lepper, the protagonist of a spectacular career and equally spectacular downfall, the instigator of many scandals, both rhetorical and criminal. His movement Samoobrona (Self-Defence of the Republic of Poland), was founded at the beginning of the 90s, and mainly drew in farmers who had fallen into debt because they were unable to pay off loans due to the massive importation of cheaper grain from abroad. 

Lepper started by blockading roads and spilling imported grain from trains. He quickly attracted the interest not only of the courts, but also of the media and politicians.  His rhetoric evolved quickly too:  primarily anti-free-market and directed against the ruling elites, it became enriched with nationalist, xenophobic and anti-European elements. He understood that if you wanted to be heard in Poland it wasn’t enough to present yourself as a victim of the market. You had to root your victim status in nationalist ideology.  Having styled himself as the defender of the whole nation from the designs of the elites, he entered the Sejm, the Polish Parliament, in 2001, bringing with him 50 elected members (out of 460) and some new customs.


Andrzej Lepper.
Wikimedia Commons/Błażej Pajda. Some rights reserved.

Insults and slander gushing from the Sejm platform and blocking debates - this is the contribution of Samoobrona to parliamentary culture. Other parties officially denounced Lepper, but flirted with him. Samoobrona was settling into Poland’s political life. Along with it, its political customs and manners settled in.  

Lepper owed his greatest high and greatest low to Kaczyński. After the election success in 2005, the PiS needed to go into a coalition to form a government. So it got into bed with Samoobrona and Liga Polskich Rodzin (the League of Polish Families: LPR), and promoted Lepper to the rank of Deputy Prime Minister. Actually, Kaczyński did not need Lepper, but rather the power Samoobrona was by now endowed with.

His team designed a plot to be carried out by the secret services, aiming to expose Lepper’s habit of bribe-taking and to get him arrested. The plot failed, Kaczyński excluded Lepper from the Government, the coalition fell apart; the early elections of 2007 were won by the Civic Platform (PO). Lepper’s career was brought to an end not only by this plot, but also by a criminal scandal: at a time when he was still basking in honours, it was revealed that his party officials demanded sex from young women in exchange for employment.  Lepper vanished from politics and committed suicide in 2011. His populism was taken in hand and ideologically consolidated by the PiS.

The liberal populism of Korwin-Mikke

Liberal populism does not have such striking and obvious icons; for the obvious reason that it is a minority phenomenon.  It does not use political slogans and does not appear as a clearly-stated programme. Even in Poland, where the political elites are still often recruited in an accidental and sudden way, there is a lack of eccentrics who, in their struggle for voters, will talk openly about scroungers or parasites on unemployment benefit.

A lack, that is, except for one case: Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a politician who is always in the margins, modelled on the strikingly extreme lines of the Tea Party, although capable in the 90s of seducing quite a few enterprising young people.  In this version we deal with a permanent confrontation between society and the ‘socialist’ elites, and a ‘socialist’ state sponging off the industry and hard work of individuals. According to Korwin-Mikke, the state should only support the army, the police and the borders. Everything else should be up to people’s industriousness, mediated by the market.  These convictions led Korwin-Mikke to a radical condemnation of the EU, accusing it of being - what else - a Bolshevik creation. 


Janusz Korwin-Mikke.
Wikimedia Commons/Mohylek. Some rights reserved.

But more often than not this liberal populism has softer spokesmen; in political journalism, in statements made by economists and some politicians, it appears as a tone or an implication - carrying a concrete and clear message, nonetheless - rather than as a programme. And I call such an attitude ‘populism’ because it links neoliberal rhetoric with a narrow, exclusive definition of the legitimate people: those who have made it and do not have to cling to the state to survive. They are the rightful citizens, the rest stand in the way. This is an extreme portrait of normal life, whose only regulator must be the market.

People’s Poland

Of course, Polish populisms have deeper roots. Their articulations grow out of the past, recycling at will certain old patterns of collective behaviour and ways of viewing reality.   Besides, the populisms and the past shed a light on each other. Because next to the obvious question - how do long-gone events influence populisms’ shape and effectiveness? - there appears a question about the past itself: what is there in its currents that serves as a vehicle for populism today and makes it acceptable to society? 

Mistrust of the state and its elites; the nation in its constant common struggle for survival; permanent division and at the same time permanent expectation of national unity - these are the basic tropes of history, mutually dependent, which breathe life into our populisms today.  

Let’s have a look at them. We have become used to the idea that mistrust of the state, of authority, of political careers and of politics in general comes from our experience of communism. True, People’s Poland (PRL) reinforced such attitudes, at the time of both Stalin’s totalitarianism and post-Stalin dictatorship, because the majority in society - although they adapted to life under that system - did not consider it their own. That empty space was filled by the Catholic Church, which offered - regardless of one’s faith - that which was not given by the state: a sense of national identity and belonging, continuity of tradition, falsified and destroyed by the regime, as well as spiritual and institutional authority.

In this sense the Church provided the substitute traits of the state within the frame of the dictatorship. The Church peaked in that role during John Paul II’s visit to Poland in 1979. The millions attending the masses celebrated by the Pope - and a dozen million who watched them on TV - both the believers and non-believers, saw where the symbolic and persuasive power was located. Right there inside the Church. Hence the frequent examples, particularly in the 1980s, of people who did not believe in God but practised religious rituals.

The emergence of nationalism

But the division into nation and state - powerfully and efficiently built and maintained - has not grown just out of People’s Poland. Its sources are older. They go back to the partition of Poland, which was achieved at the end of the eighteenth century by the three great powers of the day: Russia, Prussia and Austria. More precisely, it was in the nineteenth century, particularly under Russian rule - the most autocratic and culturally alien - that the framework of ideas and attitudes was formed.

It was necessary at the time for the survival of the nation and for its acts of resistance; today it fuels populist demagogues.  Primarily the division into a nation that demands its sovereignty versus the oppressive state - that is, into ‘us’ and ‘them’ - established a barrier preventing the community from dissolving within these hostile structures. Respect for this division was the proof of patriotism; breaking that faith was treated as a social anathema. The division was further strengthened by the fact that the Polish community, devoid of its own political and social representation within the system, built alternative representations of its own. The moral authorities - writers, veterans of the Polish cause, conspirators, social activists, émigrés - made for a substitute parliament that shaped the opinion and norms of conduct.  In the second half of the nineteenth century the substitute parliament was joined by the Church; this was an important source of its subsequent powers.

The steady separation between the nation and the state was linked with the call for national unity, which was rich in rhetoric and symbolism. That call obviously reflected the weakness of a dispirited nation looking for ways to change its lot for the better.  The demand for unity and collective heroic sacrifice for the fatherland, in uprisings or conspiracies, made for a substitute form of politics shaping the notions and norms of the community, which in other places was formed mainly by parliamentarianism. In fact it was a politics that both called for action and gave comfort by offering the community a messianic vision of the nation as the saviour of the world.  

The bid for unity and the quest for remedies for dependence made it possible for modern nationalism to take easy root in Poland. At the end of the nineteenth century, nationalism became one of the era’s basic points of reference, alongside left-democratic ideologies. This nationalism - embracing xenophobia and antisemitism within a joint doctrine; making unity and national discipline an absolute, while at the same time disregarding the rights of the individual - together with its later fascistic mutations in the 1930s, constitutes the foundations of a contemporary language of hatred which is typical of authoritarian populisms. 

This was reinforced and enriched in People’s Poland by propagandist patterns for dealing with opponents. This does not mean that all populists are antisemites or racists - Jarosław Kaczyński, for one, is free from such prejudice - but it does mean that they are prepared to exploit prejudice in their struggle for power. And, still more important, one of Poland’s central traditions offers them patterns of authoritarian politics.    

The Communist regime and the ‘Catholic Pole’

Certainly, to a large extent the nationalist tradition owes its strength to the Communist regime. Since the nineteenth century (and still in the 1930s) the nationalists, supported by the Church, had been locked in a great battle for society with the socialists.  Communism not only compromised left-wing traditions, it also amputated them by censoring their anti-totalitarian tendencies. Therefore the main carrier of tradition - besides people’s personal memory - became no-one else but the Church.

It was the Church that upheld the patterns of Polishness and patriotism, so it’s no wonder that the formula of the Catholic Pole, established in the nineteenth century,  gained greater momentum than ever before in People’s Poland. It meant, in spite of the facts of course, the unity of national identity and religious belief.  But as we know, facts often give way to social convictions.  The Catholic Pole, blending the elements of nationalism, resentment towards the ‘others’, and religious tradition, is one of the icons of the populist right, and is also strongly present in Kaczyński’s party.

But the Communists, longing for social legitimisation, also reached for the patterns of the past. And they often went for the worst: nationalism and antisemitism. The peak of  national-Bolshevism was reached in 1968, when the Communist apparatus wished - by means of repression and antisemitic cleansing - not only to carry out an internal revolution, entailing the wholesale suppression of a rebellious intelligentsia, but also to identify themselves with society at its most prejudiced.  The regime did not gain legitimacy this way in the eyes of the Poles, but it managed to awaken repressed prejudices.  Today’s acts of xenophobia and antisemitism are not only a direct legacy of the nationalist thought carried forward by the Church but also, and to a significant extent, an inheritance from the Communist dictatorship.

A history of mistrust

More than that, People’s Poland not only brought nationalism and antisemitism into our times, but also authoritarian patterns of politics which also added to the popularity of populist formations like the PiS. People’s Poland - let’s say it again - also strengthened the traditional mistrust of the state. That regime stands accused of the permanent destruction of the stock of social trust. Under the system of organised fear - in many ways ineffective and leaky after the thaw in 1956 - people mainly trusted their family and friends. This is partly true, but not quite.  Because if you take the banal assumption that social trust depends on the cohesion of  society - on whether people think of themselves as a community connected by common practice, patterns and institutions - then in this respect Poland’s history is a history of consolidated mistrust.

What still remains the pride of the Polish past - i.e., the noble republic, which gave every nobleman equal civil rights, restricted the central power of the King, and for several hundred years maintained tolerance towards religious minorities, not to say religious indifference - has also another, darker aspect. Because even though the nobility, amounting to about 7% of the population, enjoyed their freedom, other  classes, including town-dwellers and peasants, were without any basic political rights in that republic and - in the case of peasants - were without basic human freedom.  

Under Russian rule, serfdom in Poland was not abolished until the second half of the nineteenth century; before this people were their masters’ slaves. In fact, the nobility, who in accord with the fashion of the times sought out ancient genealogies, traced their origin back to the Sarmatians, an ancient people who settled on the land of the Poles to rule over them. The myth of the noble nation was at the same time the myth of an identity genealogically different from that of the peasants and town dwellers. The sense of difference, even of foreignness, was still present in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so society lacked the social resources and cultural patterns that would allow for building up the stock of social trust. 

This was particularly true in a society of mainly peasant origins. So People’s Poland did nothing but reinforce the phenomenon, coupling it with a kind of egalitarianism that, rather than using the notion of the common good, treated with suspicion all those who departed from the accepted social norms or the norms of wealth.  I would call it a ‘barracks egalitarianism’ rather than community egalitarianism. It left the lingering sense of a different status and the deficit of social trust that creates a vacuum which becomes filled  even more easily with the populist mirages of unity and solidarity.

There remains the question of why the different traditional themes - like the heroic history of resistance against the oppressors; or the collective consciousness of enslavement; the hope for a victory that used to support the survival of the nation - today often support the survival of populist leaders.

We could give a superficial answer that it’s just a simple instrumentalisation of the past. But it would be a very optimistic statement. Because instrumentalisations reveal what allows them to exist: the collectivist vision of society in which the rights and aspirations of individuals take second place after the demands of the community. 

In the nineteenth century, Poland did not go through a liberal revolution; until 1989 - with brief intervals like the interwar period, and to varying degrees - Poles had been told that the nation demanded, and the fatherland expected, an effort or a risk or the sacrifice of life.  

People listened to the challenges or, most often, avoided them; but everybody was shaped by such collective expectations, in accordance with which the life of an individual makes sense if one makes a sacrifice of oneself for the sake of national unity. So when after 1989 a liberal democracy came in, when the rights of the individual and the minority became the basis of the system, the protest against the new reality was soon dressed up in the old robes. The nation is against licentious individuals, minorities and faithless elites - in this central populist trope, the past rings out loud and clear.

This article is part of an editorial partnership with Counterpoint, which was launched in November 2012. See the other excerpts from the Reluctant Radicals partnership.


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