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Reconciling nationalism and democracy

The history of Poland since the return of democracy in 1990 raises a question of whether and how the positive values of the Solidarity movement could continue to shape national social and political development. With basic freedoms and constitutional safeguards under threat following elections in October 2015 [1], it is arguable that Poland has lost sight of the values for which it fought so hard. In this, Poland is an example of a broader reaction against non-transparent, only notionally accountable government by closed circles of political elites. But there is also a strong element of Polish exceptionalism, a nationalist streak which has always been central to political activism in the country and which should be better understood if the pillars of Polish democracy are to be supported.


Disappointment helps no-one

There has been a tendency among some observers in western Europe to look upon Poland with disapproval and disappointment that a country could overcome Soviet control only to elect a set of seemingly illiberal conservatives. If this sense of disapproval has come to the fore with the election of Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS, Law and Justice Party) in October 2015, it is not new. It was strongly aired when the PiS was last in power between 2005 and 2007, most especially after July 2006 when the PiS worked in coalition with the nationalist-conservative Samoobrona Rzeczpospolitej Polskiej (SRP, Self-Defence of the Republic of Poland) and the Liga Polskich Rodzin (LPR, League of Polish Families). [2] Western progressives were also confused when the leading Solidarity thinker Adam Michnik went against the liberal consensus opposed to the war in Iraq in talking of the importance of being a “reliable, loyal, predictable ally” of the United States, a turn of phrase which suggested a form of loyalty akin to that shown by Soviet satellite states to Moscow during the Cold War. [3]


In considering the measures adopted by the new PiS government – curbs on the powers of the constitutional court and tighter control over the civil service and public service broadcasters – the point is not to condone, but to understand. Those who are disappointed need to understand why the target of their disappointment has behaved in the way that it has.


Seeing Poland through western eyes

The risk with disapproval of Poland is that it misunderstands the country's history of opposition to partition and occupation by Austria, Prussia and Russia, destruction by the Nazis and Soviets and subordination to the latter during the Cold War. For at least the last 250 years, politics in Poland has been about the nation and about securing and defending it from hostile outside forces, forces that were not the invented spectres of populist demagogues, but states intent on subjugating Poles and removing Poland from the map.


This history explains the nationalist element to the policies of the PiS and other Polish parties, something evidenced, for example, in the decision to remove the European Union flag from official letterheads and in the veneration of Lech Kaczyński. [4] National symbols and identity simply matter more in Poland. They are the product of a long struggle in an extended period of repression during which nationalism was the form that legitimate activism took. The effect is that Poland sits outside a presumed trajectory of development towards an endpoint of a certain style of western liberal democracy, one in which nationalism is something to be treated with disdain even in its democratic forms.


Defending Polish democracy

Poland is hardly unique in suffering democratic growing pains. In many other states, not only in Central and Eastern Europe, liberation movements and their leaders have been tarnished by the experience of power. Cynicism has replaced commitment and political activism has been reduced to the periodic act of voting. In this, a loss of energy may well be inevitable as the 'dull' process of running a country replaces the heroic struggle against oppression. Activism under a dictatorship may be dangerous and frightening, yet at the same time, it is never as easy as when it is conducted under pressure and when it is obvious who the good and bad guys are.


Poland, for this interpretation, should recover a sense of urgency and try to replicate the energy and focus of the Solidarity years. There needs to be a renewed defence of basic democratic values and institutions as something which should stand above party politics.


There is nothing to disagree with such a diagnosis. Where there are grounds for caution is in any presumption – signalled, for example, in the framing of analysis around the question Why Poland Is Turning Away From the West [5] – that it is natural that Poland would want to embrace the West or to become like it in any simple way. This denies Poland the right to its own history and is also unreasonable in its view of liberal democracy as generally practised in western Europe, littered as it is with cases of corruption and abuse of power.


There is work to do to uphold fundamental democratic principles in Poland. But this new struggle needs to be founded upon an understanding of local political realities, flavoured as they are not only by the impact of current economic and social trends, but also by Poland's history of nation-centric political activism. Western activists socialised to a certain understanding of what democracy looks like should follow the lead of Polish civil society in helping to defend the foundational elements of a democratic society all the while accepting that the form that democracy takes in Poland may not be exactly the same as in their own countries.


[1] The pillars of Polish democracy are being destroyed, Timothy Garton Ash, The Guardian, 7 January 2016;

[2] As described in, for example, Not in society's interests to have more gay people, says Polish PM, The Guardian, 27 April 2007;

[3] Quoted in Anti-totalitarianism as a Vocation, Thomas Cushman, Dissent, Spring 2004;
[4] As President when killed in a plane crash in 2010, Kaczyński received a state funeral and a burial place among Kings and national heroes in Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, something unimaginable in western Europe: neither David Cameron nor Tony Blair will be buried in Westminster Abbey.

[5] Ivan Krastev, New York Times, 11 December 2015;

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