Ewa Boniecka: Eleven years ago you established Krytyka Polityczna, which now holds around 1,500 events and campaigns a year. What changes do you want make in Poland?
Sławomir Sierakowski: First of all, choosing a path of activity on the left was the worst possible move on the Polish political map. After 60 years of communism, everything connected with the left had terrible connotations in Poland, as in all of Eastern Europe.
Courtesy of Krytyka Polityczna
Furthermore, the emergent post-communist party, SLD, which evolved from the former communist party, PZPR, was devoid of any ideas and totally opportunistic. So we had to start from scratch, or even from a negative level. But it was overcoming all that adversity that has made people in Krytyka Polityczna so tough.
“Reinventing the left” had to be initiated by introducing a new political vocabulary about the left into the public debate, because such phrases as “social class,” “social justice,” “redistribution” and “trade unions” were widely considered inappropriate. Even today they are still unwelcome in most mainstream political discussions.
Nevertheless, we succeeded in building a strong left-oriented network, and now that network of institutions and people is bigger than all similar right-wing institutions taken together.
If Krytyka Polityczna is such a dominant force on the left then why didn’t you decide to go into party politics?
We decided that we do not want to build a party or join party politics. We do not accept the rules of contemporary party politics, where you face a tragic choice: to be extremely cynical, or to lose to a cynical majority.
We would like to change the political rules of contemporary liberal democracies, which are in deep crisis almost everywhere. Our mission is focused on encouraging people’s involvement in the public sphere.
We do a lot of work in all fields of culture, at universities, in mass media, in towns, in high schools, by publishing books, running an online opinion daily and issuing a print magazine. We even publish free children’s books and run a kindergarten in one of our centers based in Cieszyn. This is the type of social and intellectual work that is neglected by political parties and which is too taxing for them.
We are interested in what is going on in the society more than on the political stage. As the right-wing politician Jarosław Gowin remarked, “if Krytyka Polityczna is not yet educating the masses, it is definitely already educating future ‘teachers’ who will soon educate Poles.”
What he meant by that, of course, is that we are a threat to his conservative views. We chose a long and difficult road. While we think that political parties lack substantial ideas, they are almost identical to one another and if they differ, it is not in substantial matters but on increasingly strange surrogate topics such as the supposed “Smolensk conspiracy.”
The reason is that this is the only way to audibly signal the difference between political adversaries. Polish parties are operating only through vulgar marketing methods and getting rid of any serious arguments. As a result, Polish party politics are devoid of any substance.
Sociologists’ findings show that Polish society is mostly conservative. Do you agree with that analysis?
Certainly the legal structure and the shape of the public domain in Poland rests on a conservative base. There are two reasons for that: the power of the Catholic Church in Poland, remarkably strengthened by its victory in the confrontation with communists, and the opportunism of the post-communist left party SLD, which held power in the 1990s, and of the currently ruling Civic Platform (PO).
When SLD came to power in 1993, they avoided any confrontation with the increasingly strong and aggressive Roman Catholic Church. At the same time, the SLD government eagerly ran a neo-liberal economic policy following the shock therapy of Leszek Balcerowicz, claiming that “we will do the same, only better.”
That trend was expected and supported by the post-Solidarity elites. That was how post-communists wanted to be redeemed and gain respect after 1989. The result of it all was firstly the quickly growing number of “losers” in the new Poland, and secondly the lack of a social democratic alternative for these people. So the only way to express their frustration was right-wing populism, which explains the strength of Jarosław Kaczyński in Polish politics today.
In terms of private behavior we are increasingly similar to Western societies. There are already Poles whose relationships can be described as civil unions, and this is the case for sexual minorities as well. Some of them are adopting children. People have a liberal approach to ethical matters like in vitro; women have abortions. It is obvious that in their private lives Poles want to decide how to live for themselves.
Why are these liberal attitudes not reflected in electoral results?
Nearly half of Poles do not take part in elections, while the other half vote not “for” but “against” a given party. It is very difficult to find someone who actively supports a specific party, and if you do, it is mostly because that person is afraid that another party will win.
This is reflected in the situation created by Jarosław Kaczyński, which I describe as an “arrest” of Polish politics. Mr Kaczyński created such a strong threat with his nationalistic and right-wing message that the remaining political players are defining themselves through opposition to him.
The main legitimization of Civic Platform from the beginning of its rule is the prevention of Jarosław Kaczyński’s rise to power. People voted for PO the first and second time around for that reason. This is why Civic Platform cared only about how to stop Mr Kaczyński, and has made few if any changes in Poland. In Polish politics we only have Mr Kaczyński and those against him. It is not real pluralism, and certainly not a democratic choice.
There are other parties aside from PO and PiS. Why don’t people mobilize themselves and support alternative political groups?
Politicians in any given country have their hands tied when it comes to economic policy, so they are faced with a tough choice: either disappoint their voters or organize cultural wars against their adversaries.
The corrosion of the party systems almost everywhere is the most visible symptom of this. People are voting for a certain party and then see that all parties apply the same policy. People get angry and often turn their backs on all politicians.
And as I mentioned, this is because no modern country is so economically sovereign that it can decide the shape of its economic policy independently. The rating agencies and international corporations can exert enough pressure to make ministers of finance and economy abandon their own ideas.
So when an elected politician faces the decision of whether to keep his promises and ideas which are in opposition to the financial markets and will lead to either higher debt-servicing costs or raising the budget deficit, he can resign. As such, left-wing parties in all countries face a dilemma when they come to power, as did Hollande or Obama, or Zapatero some time ago, in implementing their domestic agendas.
In the West, elites from academia and business promote a philosophy of social responsibility. Do you believe Poland is different in this respect?
Yes. After the transformation in 1989, we understood capitalism in a one-sided way as a total freedom of gaining individual profits without any social responsibility. In America, you gain respect and social status as a businessperson not when you make a fortune, but when you make a fortune and spend a significant part of it on a public good.
This is not the case in Poland or in other countries in the region. At the time when the Eastern European phenomenon of an “engaged intelligentsia” began to be regarded as outdated, emerging businesses and the middle classes were encouraged to move forward without any social principles.
Such people like the late Jacek Kuroń, an intellectual and prominent opposition activist of the communist period who later became labor minister in Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government, held the view that modernization means more than just the development of a free market, but it should also promote social values and altruistic ideas: these were seen as naive and anachronistic, however.
As a result we have built an egocentric social organism, a self-absorbed middle class and conceited business class. All this makes it difficult to create an altruistic political culture or an ethos geared towards the public good, and hampers the support – including financial support – of cultural and educational institutions. In other words, the humanization of the modernization process in Poland is practically non-existent.
How do you see the chances of SLD, Janusz Palikot’s Your Move party and the newly created center-left political forum Europe Plus for building an alternative on the politcal left in Poland?
At the beginning, when SLD and Palikot’s Movement – however questionable their left identities can be – were competing with each other to show which one is more profound, I believed that such pluralism could have a positive influence on both parties and on our political scene, and it did.
But soon a nasty personal conflict developed between the parties’ leaders, resulting in stagnation. Meanwhile Europe Plus, with its very clumsy start, did not help improve the situation.
Sławomir Sierakowski, born in 1979, is a sociologist and political commentator. He is a founder and leader of Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique), a Central European movement of liberal intellectuals, artists and activists, with branches in Ukraine and Russia. He has been awarded fellowships from Yale, Princeton and Harvard, and from the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. He contributes a monthly column to the leading Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza and to the international edition of The New York Times. He has been ranked as one of the most influential Poles by the weeklies Polityka, Wprost and Newsweek.
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