Almost eleven decades ago, Stanisław Brzozowski began the notorious chapter, “Childish Poland,” of his even more notorious book The Legend of Young Poland thus:

In our country there is a category of minds that has made benevolence and forbearance the sole cultural measure. What is good and right is that which does not hurt us, does not shock us, does not offend our addictions and habits. What they are searching for in thinking is relativity, not truth, and they expect the world to be lenient with them, for, they believe, the principle of life, the goal of human existence, cannot, should not, occupy their confused selves. . . . They moan aloud, showing wounds on the body and soul of the nation, terrible stigmata, mounds of martyrs’ bones, and at the foot of this mountain of misery, this horrible rock-fall, under whose weight life struggles hard, they beg: have mercy, tell us only soft and consoling things. . . . And those who have been through all these misfortunes, and have learned nothing from them, demand over and over again that, in the name of the misery which they were preparing with others, we should treat them, everyone, ourselves, with lenience.[1]

All this suddenly seems relevant again.

The very perception and reception of Brzozowski today is actually highly telling here. If he is remembered by anyone outside antiquarian or academic niches, it is in order to castrate an original critical thought and tailor it to utterly unoriginal contemporary views.

The right has made much of the late-life “conversion” of the author of Flames, his interest in religious and metaphysical matters, which actually had nothing to do with shallow religiosity, and less still with the abandonment of criticism aimed at the alliances of “lords, sheriffs, and priests.”* Although Brzozowski, to some extent, reconciled himself with Catholicism as a doctrine and acknowledged its (potentially) positive impact on national culture, it would be hard to prove that he ever repudiated all his earlier views. Such as this assertion from The Legend of Young Poland: “Probably nowhere in the world have the relationships between Catholicism as a popular religion and Catholicism as a profound moral discipline, encompassing the whole of man’s life, between the Catholicism of the humble folk and the Catholicism of the doctors, been as terribly demoralizing as in our country.”[2]

The left, in turn, has preferred to see Brzozowski as nothing but a weapon against the right, against tradition, against native obscurantism, although in his case this had nothing to do with its vapid, intellectually futile, elitist indifference to Poland and Polishness. To the contrary, ardent concern for the country and homeland was probably the staunchest mainstay of his reflection, his concern, his intense, and virtually frenetic intellectual efforts. As Andrzej Stawar aptly wrote years ago:

In a very rational and sagacious manner, Brzozowski denounced the Polish “Occidentalists,” the demoralizing influence that reliance on Western ideological imports had on the mind of the Polish intellectual, a practice that, according to the author of Ideas, precluded mental independence, in principle releasing the Polish intellectual from the duty to think: the West will discover everything and all we need to do is sit, wait, and watch in order to eventually digest what the West has given us.[3]

I mention this because by some inexplicable power virtually every Polish thought, option, vision, idea, party, milieu, and faction, ultimately opts for the easiest way out, the slothful sybaritism lambasted by the author of Voices in the Night. Virtually everyone who has conceived of and declared Poland less “childish” ends up there too. A Poland larger in spirit, better in conscience, materially more powerful, intellectually snappier, bolder in confronting her weaknesses and historical blunders. Who remembers today that even the National Democracy party was originally a pro-modernization initiative, a party of modern patriotism, interested in developing a Western-style bourgeoisie, a party not particularly enthusiastic about conservatism and not too close to the Church? Roman Dmowski’s Thoughts of a Modern Pole heralded, not only with its title, an opposition to the various shoals of the era’s “national tradition.” Even if, from the perspective of more progressive positions, the modernity we find there is timid at best, the anti-conservative aspect of Dmowski’s manifesto was rather pronounced at the time. Yet both the National Democracy movement and, to a large extent, its chief ideologue, ended up supporting stale God-and-Homeland stereotypes, vouching for cultural conservatism, protesting the conceptions of even moderate economic reforms, and defending poor Polish shops against poor Jewish shops. All that at a time when the world was experiencing truly tectonic movements, epochal changes, and revolts of all kinds. The Sanation movement followed a similar course, from calls for a moral revolution and fundamental overhaul of the state to a grotesque cult of personality, cronyism, short-lived verbal bravado, an alliance with the capitalists, and failure to introduce so much as a land reform, let alone other institutional changes worthy of a truly modern nation-state. It was similar with the postwar communists, who did fundamentally transform Poland, but their doctrinal zeal, as boldly pro-modernist as it was criminal, eventually got bogged down in the “petty stabilization” of the Gomułka era and the witch-hunting of “domestic enemies”: in the Gierek era, with truncheon-beating by the riot police of workers that were protesting food price hikes; in the Kiszczak era, with the surveillance of homosexuals; in the endek communism of Jaruzelski and the Grunwald Organization; and in Minister Wilczek’s 19th-century-like economic reforms. The communist-era democratic opposition shared a similar fate, its leaders’ path stretching from the Open Letter to the Party, inspired by non-regime Marxism, through postulates of an ethical revolution à la Abramowski, illegal worker-defense practices, and a pioneering, mass-scale union-based social movement – to anti-social elitist patronizing and neoliberal mantras of “There Is No Alternative.” Not much different was the end of those who were so modern in their jargon that all they had to offer besides selective modernization – invariably occurring in the places that had already been modernized, the most modern and affluent anyway – was their inability to address any of the burning social issues for eight years.

Indeed, this was a “history without history,” as one of the continuators of Brzozowski’s thought, Jan “Stoigniew” Stachniuk, put it in a stroke of aphoristic genius, in a book of the same title. “A history without history. An apparent paradox. A paradox that finds its profound meaning in the last three centuries of our history. A paradox that loses its paradoxicality in the current flow of Polish life,”[4] he wrote in the ominous year of 1939. In this, he was probably indebted to the Sanation’s ideologue, Adam Skwarczyński (an avid reader of Brzozowski too, of course), who as early as 1924, on the 10th anniversary of the birth of the Polish Legions, stated that the marching legionnaires had ushered out a “history-less period of Polish life.”[5]

It would be hard to pretend that anyone has recognized this nexus of superficial, incidental modernization and its opposite in the shape of unyielding nationalism – ethnic, conservative, exclusive, and invariably fearful – more clearly than the author of Flames. This persistent battling between the comprador elites, zealously imitating this or that global center or trend, and the counter-elites, equally blindly pursuing some imaginary native perfection that only foreign conspiracies and interests have so far prevented from blossoming. It seems indeed that although everything has already happened, it’s now happening even more. After 1989, both sides rebecame turbocharged.

At first, everything Polish was supposed to be inferior, whether “by nature” or as a legacy of the communist era. Everything Western and European was perfect. Without doubts, reflection, or moderation, without a broader perspective, without a critical scrutiny of the neophytism that had seemingly gripped the most eminent of minds. Then came a revival of the “Połaniecki Family” and decadent nationalism (let us note here, just in case, that for Brzozowski both the title and message of Sienkiewicz’s novel epitomized the worst aspects of Polishness). So, the EU now – bad, Western “fads – bad, everything that deviates so much as an inch from the exclusive, nuance-free standard of patriotism – bad. In this narrative, power and might, ancient tradition, bulwark, winged cavalry, and rising from one’s knees accompany bugaboos that only hysterics would find frightening, be they an “offense of gender ideology,” surrealistic visions of immigrant “hordes” storming the Polish borders, or anything else from a well-known repertoire of scary motifs. That all this has happened many times, or at least once, before is evidenced by the following quote from Andrzej Mencwel’s essay, dating back several decades, on Newerly’s The Living Bond: “. . . . the ridiculers and sneerers were opposed by the defenders of the ‘national’ tradition, who wanted to raise socialist society on cavalry charges, empty talk, and Sarmatian rancor.”[6] That didn’t come out of nowhere either. As another of Brzozowski’s acolytes, Julian Brun-Bronowicz, wrote in his Stefan Żeromski’s Tragedy of Errors: “Poland is the only country in Europe that hasn’t experienced a single national revolution since the adoption of Christianity. As a result, we didn’t have powerful native sources of culture and had to draw snobbery by the bucketful. That didn’t spare us reverse currents that have plagued us regularly after every major crisis.”[7]

In this perspective, one can hardly speak of a “late,” mature, Polishness as a social and cultural fact. It will, perhaps, become one when – and if – the formations that rule the hearts and minds in Poland today confront the shortcomings of Polishness. Assuming optimistically that we aren’t dealing merely with sham pretenses and cynical politicking, the present-day anti-comprador camp will need to stand face to face with the enduring “early” Polishness, which is closer to a synthesis between a tribe and a clan community than to a modern, conscious nation. It will need to grapple with immanent aspects of Polishness past and present, be it the post-serfdom social context, the post-Sarmatian love of anarchic freedom at the expense of public interest, an absurdly fearful exclusivity, or the reign of words instead of actions.

Whereas exploiting current woes (by beating the drum of increasingly bombastic “historical policy” or warning against all kinds of unwelcome strangers) may be enough to hold on to power, a real and comprehensive change will require facing not only “the alien,” whether real or imaginary, and all its dire influence, but the familiar will require confronting the “childish Poland” that doesn’t want to know what is really happening, preferring to be lulled to sleep with a sweet song. To “let Poland be Poland,” as one of the bards of the incumbent regime sings, Poland will need to cease to be what it is. Modernization projects have usually failed here because they were poorly rooted in Polishness – the modernizers were capable only of ritually condemning “national vices” and offering imitative development models, all that in a sauce of elitist conceit. It is a truly historic challenge to imagine and promote a vision of Polishness that will counter not only this worn and (at least momentarily) defeated doctrine and strategy, but also the arch-Polish archaisms. What? A great, strong, and proud Poland that is afraid of gender, immigrants, and the contraceptive pill? This is not a unique situation, of course. Many years have passed since Marcin Kula wrote in his excellent, though forgotten, book, Narodowe i rewolucyjne [The National and The Revolutionary]: “It often happens thus that social situation or conflicts result in a particular national movement: one in which a compensatory reaction against other ethnic groups prevails over attitudes aimed at the formation or emancipation of one’s nation.”[8]

Yet another of Brzozowski’s intellectual heirs, one of the leaders of the left wing of the Piłsudski camp after May 1926, Kazimierz Zakrzewski, wrote in a policy brochure titled The Philosophy of a Nation that Struggles and Works (the Nationalism of Stanisław Brzozowski), quoting extensive fragments from the writings of the author of Voices in the Night, in the following way: “The ‘ideogenetic’ type until now has been that of the ‘Pole building his nest in spite of the world.’ The revolutionary breakthrough brings about a new type, that of the ‘Pole trying to conquer the world, to rule it within the bounds of his life.’ Here was the formula of a quite new Polish nationalism.”[9] In the context of contemporary Polish divisions and identifications, the term “nationalism” may sound misleading. What both authors, the master and the disciple, meant was a modern Polish people, not forgetful of the past, but not afraid of the future either, ready in the name of the latter to fully utilize its powers, but also to reject from the national tradition all that which prolongs the “childish Poland.” It is precisely such “nationalism” that is in short supply in contemporary Poland, despite – or precisely because – of all the nationalist gasconade.

Today’s resurgence of a quite different, late-endekish, nationalism has been a reaction to the superficial, clumsy, and – in socio-economic terms – highly unfair modernization of the comprador-imitative kind. This is also part of a pan-Western process. “When in fear, God is dear,” folk wisdom says, and we have indeed been witnessing a flight from the effects and dark sides of turbo-capitalism and into the embrace of – as much “natural” and “traditional” as artificial, hastily recreated or reconstructed – ethnic communities. In other countries, the same reaction to actual or imagined woes has usually assumed the form of longing for the “good old days” of the peak welfare state, when many of the present-day problems didn’t exist because the domestic and international situations were completely different. At other times it has manifested itself as a defense of allegedly modern values against the unwelcome impact of a “foreign” (implicitly: more archaic) civilization or culture. This has been a feature of the far right in the West but also, for example, in the Czech Republic, where it has often employed xenophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric, but largely under the pretense of defending “republican” or actually “secular” values against “Islamization,” “religious fanaticism,” “foreign” (meaning: backward, “barbarian”) customs and so on. As a result, the far right there has – whether honestly or through calculation – often embraced either modern, secular, republican, even liberal postulates (defending women or gay rights against “fanaticism”), or social postulates, even if in xenophobic (“immigrants steal our jobs”) or ethnocentric (“American jobs are being outsourced to China”) versions.

In Poland, however, the current nationalist-ethnocentric wave has had little in common with such a position. It is based instead on references to a distant, utterly mythologized and ideologized past, and the values that it upholds – or rather their formula – aren’t particularly concerned with defending “modernity” against “backward barbarity.” One can hardly conclude that pining for the extreme social disparities of the neo-feudal ownership structure of gentry/landowner Poland can be the only real and sensible alternative to liberal globalization and socio-economic chaos, or that a longing for a world of manor houses and magnate families, let alone the winged cavalry, of course, can be a rational point of reference in a country of job insecurity and various forms of poverty. “Islamization,” in turn, may be perceived as a competition to see who is the most “civilized,” but the truth is that conservative Islam differs little in terms of its major values and points of view from the particular synthesis of Catholicism and ultra-traditionalist conservatism that the Polish nationalists propose.

Ernest Gellner said (and Benedict Anderson saw the matter similarly in his reflections on “imagined” communities) – a fashionable concept at one time – that, contrary to what is commonly believed, it is not the body politic that “creates” nationalism and nationalists, but rather the nationalists who use a rather arbitrary mixture of “national heritage” elements to voice an ethos around which a national community is organized. In its literal, quite radical version, the thesis was highly debatable, for its author focused on the outcomes of long-term processes, paying little attention to their roots and deep foundations. It is hard not to notice, though, that the current renaissance of ethnocentrism based on selected threads of history and culture resembles the constructionism described by the author of Nations and Nationalism. In Poland, this appears to be particularly evident due to the aforementioned formula of such positions, referring to events and realities very distant in time, utterly mythologized, and having little relevance for contemporary challenges and social ailments. In other countries, the nationalist right has no choice: it has to embrace modern forms of rhetoric and address – even if deceptively – present-day issues lest it remain a political curiosity, if not an object of ridicule that it would surely become if it were to focus, as it does in Poland, on events and personalities from 80 or 350 years ago as its key points of reference. Yet in Poland this part of the political spectrum has actually upheld the “archaic” character of its message, referents, role models, and symbols as a point of honor.

It is paradoxical that political forces that advocate tradition, natural hierarchy, and order, and criticize “postmodern chaos,” have themselves resort to blatant constructionism, the top-down and ideologized formation of models, and to a virtually postmodern “merging” of arbitrarily selected aspects of national history. This can be partly explained as a reaction to the communist era, perceived by such groups as a disturbance of Poland’s seemingly natural development path, which they now seek to guide in the right direction. In fact, however, this is the “leftist” constructionism that they so dislike, the making indeed of the “new man.” One may actually say that this is pure social engineering, based on intense propaganda and manipulation. Only this time it is “ours,” so it is good, presented as a “return to normalcy.” But there is no naturalness here whatsoever.

This wouldn’t be a problem, for, as Gellner has demonstrated, this kind of constructionism is part and parcel of the formation of national identity, its image, dominant themes and so on. What is a problem is the fact that what is the loudest, most blusterous, arch-Polish in the Polishness of today is also utterly archaic, veiled by the vapors of centuries long past. It is virtually a re-enactment of all that has been a drag, a burden, a ballast in Poland’s history, all that has held us in the shallows of anti-development. That which touts itself as arch-Polish is actually anti-Polish, if by national interest we mean something more than a living fossil, if we want to break away from the “Połaniecki Family,” if we want a historically mature Poland. The problem is not that the future draws from the past. Reflecting on combinations of the national and the revolutionary, of nationalist and freedom-fighting positions – which are not always present in directly occupied countries/regions – Marcin Kula notes that “in many colonial situations we see people emphasizing their own traditions and the historical antecedents of their struggle, rediscovering their history, intently sticking to old customs”;[10] and cites the examples of the Irish people, the Algerian people, the Pan-Africanist movement of Marcus Garvey, and so on. The problem is that the Polish pro-independence, anti-comprador strivings are informed by models not so much outdated as archaic, and often treated not as a symbol, an inspiration, but as patterns to be directly imitated. “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce,” as Marx wrote in the second edition of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.

The imitative-comprador thought and the ideological-political circles behind it seem to have suffered an at least temporary defeat. The coming decades are likely to be dominated by an identity/patriotic narrative. The question is: what formula will it take? To put it simply: what kind of Poland? Today it falls close to the one associated with the novels of Henryk Sienkiewicz from over a century ago. If, however, the administration decides to deliver on its pledges of development towards sovereign “greatness,” it will inevitably clash not only with external barriers, but also with many components of that which is considered to be the “national tradition,” and which is rather an archaic, tumorous growth on Polishness: a growth that has prevented the Polish national community and the Polish state from matching the achievements of many other national communities and states. It will have to embrace Brzozowski’s legacy, a marriage of patriotism and a “cult” of Polishness with dynamism, modernity, criticism of the “old ways” in the field of (a lack of) intellectual effort.

Contrary to what it might seem, this isn’t impossible. One should note here a certain Polish specificity that has often escaped observers. The criticism of imitative growth has usually assumed a right-wing form here not only because of the aforementioned social processes (“when in fear, God is dear”) or the fact that the comprador-modernization camp identified itself as non-rightist (even if by “Western standards” we would call it the center-right, for the idea of Donald Tusk or Gazeta Wyborcza as “leftists” or an advance guard of progress is laughable). Also because of historical reasons. While in South America, in countries exploited by the US and ruled by rightist juntas or oligarchies, popular protest manifested itself usually in leftist, often radically so, ideological-political initiatives, so in Poland the decades of communism, post-communism, and liberal modernization have caused many people to embrace identity/rightist forms of rhetoric and symbolism. As a result, the revolution has an archaic face, but one mustn’t forget that it is nevertheless a revolution. With anti-comprador intuitions, identity/historical paraphernalia are not an exception but rather a rule. Nationalism may be the dominant ideology of an aggressive state enslaving people and peoples; it may also be a doctrine of the weak and oppressed against the powerful. Those who don’t understand it, succumb to a passive and marginal vision of history. For this reason, beating the drum of “identity” doesn’t mean, or perhaps doesn’t have to mean, that such persons and constituencies will forever remain mired in the miasmas of the “good old days” à la Sienkiewicz. One may in fact venture to say that the policy of condemning and patronizing such constituencies, finding fault with their “(non-)adherence to standards” and labeling them as “redneck-y,” practiced for the last dozen or so years by the “pro-European”/”pro-Western” camp, is perfectly counter-productive and has the effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy. People and groups accused of being “backward” and “fascist” begin to identify precisely with far-right views and references, with a narrative where Polishness and patriotism should closely follow the prescriptions of late Dmowski. Yet if they seriously mean to change Poland, they will soon encounter obstacles not only “anti-Polish,” as they like to call them, but also arch-Polish, fully immersed in the Poland of Sienkiewicz’s idylls.

What next? At this moment, the process of “decommunization” has been applied, for example, to streets bearing the name of Julian Brun-Bronowicz. And yet this “national Bolshevik,” as the guardians of ideological orthodoxy within the communist party called him, should be remembered precisely as a glorifier of a strong, modern, and progressive Poland, should be on the banners of dynamic and fearless patriotism. True, Brun was a communist, but above all he was a supporter of the modern Polish cause. As a critic of the Polish “history without history,” he was probably even more radical than Brzozowski. “The Prussians brutally taught us modern administration, law enforcement, taxes, and credit. Napoleon gave us the bourgeois legal code before we were ready for it. Serfdom had to be abolished by the partitioning powers. So again the struggle of living social forces – a necessary incentive of vital (drawing on life and life-transforming) creativity – was missing,”[11] he wrote in his Tragedy of Errors almost 100 years ago.

Let us, therefore, finally build a Poland that will be neither a peripheral blind imitation of the West nor an arch-Polish museum.

Remigiusz Okraska

Translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak


Remigiusz Okraska is chief editor of the “Nowy Obywatel” [New Citizen] quarterly, founder of the website, author of over 500 magazine essays, editor, initiator, and author of various afterwords for re-editions of classic Polish political-philosophy texts, e.g., by Edward Abramowski, Romuald Mielczarski, Ludwik Krzywicki, Maria Dąbrowska, Andrzej Strug, Jan Wolski, Jan Gwalbert Pawlikowski, Franciszek Stefczyk.

[1] Stanisław Brzozowski, Legenda Młodej Polski: studja o strukturze duszy kulturalnej [The legend of Young Poland: essays on the structure of the cultural soul] (Lwów: Księgarnia Polska B. Połonieckiego; Warszawa: E. Wende; Kraków: Drukarnia Narodowa, 1910), p. 50.

* An allusion to Mikołaj Rej’s Krótka rozprawa między trzema osobami, Panem, Wójtem a Plebanem (1543) [Translator’s note].

[2] Ibid, p. 65.

[3] Andrzej Stawar, “O Brzozowskim,” in: idem, O Brzozowskim i inne pisma (Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1961), pp. 38–39.

[4] Jan Stachniuk, Dzieje bez dziejów: teoria rozwoju wewnętrznego Polski [History without history: a theory of Poland’s domestic development] (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Toporzeł, 1990), p. 5.

[5] Adam Skwarczyński, “Historia posłuszna woli ludzkiej,” in: idem, Myśli o nowej Polsce (Biblioteka „Drogi”, no place, no date).

[6] Andrzej Mencwel, “Żywe wiązanie,” in: idem, Spoiwa. Refleksje krytyczne (Warszawa: Czytelnik, 1983), p. 216.

[7] Julian Brun, Stefana Żeromskiego tragedia pomyłek (Warszawa: Książka i Wiedza, 1958), pp. 113–114.

[8] Marcin Kula, Narodowe i rewolucyjne, (London and Warszawa: Aneks & Biblioteka „Więzi”, 1991), p. 257.

[9] Kazimierz Zakrzewski, Filozofia narodu, który walczy i pracuje (nacjonalizm Stanisława Brzozowskiego), (Lwów: Nakładem Biblioteki „Zespołu Stu”, 1929), pp. 38– 39.

[10] Kula, Narodowe i rewolucyjne, op. cit., p. 162.

[11] Brun, Stefana Żeromskiego…, op. cit., p. 114.

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