Poland's Luckiest Generation

03/28/2015 02:56 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2015

Poland has not had a very easy history over the last couple hundred years. Divided into three parts at the end of the 18th century, it was swallowed up by three separate empires - Russian, Prussian, and Austrian. For the next 123 years, Poland didn't exist as a country. It won its independence in the chaotic aftermath of World War I, when all three of its imperial overlords collapsed. But the interwar period was one of continued conflict, economic dislocation, and political upheaval. In 1939, Nazi Germany invaded from one direction, the Soviet Union from the other, and the country was once again divided and disappeared. The end of World War II restored Poland to the map, but as a member of the Soviet bloc it never fully regained its independence.

Only in 1989 did Poland once again achieve its full sovereignty. Leszek Jazdzewski is a member of the Martial Law generation, born during the 1980s when Poland was reeling from the government crackdown in 1981 that ended the first legal incarnation of the Solidarity trade union movement. He considers himself very lucky - to have experienced just a small amount of the privations of the Communist period before growing up in a free, democratic Poland.

He is now an editor of Liberte! -- a journal devoted to liberalism in Poland and beyond. And although he is fluent in English and pessimistic about the prospects for liberalism in Poland at the moment, he has made the decision to stay in the country, even as a couple million of his fellow citizens have left for greener pastures.

"Generations of people fought in the opposition or in World War II or, before, for the independence of this Poland, and were forced to leave the country," he told me in an interview in Warsaw in August 2013. "If I would leave today, it would be almost a betrayal. My generation is the luckiest generation in the last 300 years. Of course I don't blame people who pursue an easier life, even if it's sometimes not so easy. But we are obliged, some of us at least, to try to make this county a better place, a place that people would like to return to."

The challenge is enormous. "We must get our country from the periphery, where it's been since the 16th or 17th century, and back into the core," Jazdzewski told me. "We're in the EU so we're in some sense in the core, but it may not last forever. Because of our history there should be more Europhiles among Poles. We can't afford not to be engaged in Europe. The discussion of the future of Poland separate from the future of the whole continent is pointless. We cannot afford not to transform ourselves in a way so that Poland can be become a real actor and a real part of a united Europe. But we have a lot of homework to do. Because of the state institutions that haven't changed, we live in two worlds. The modern world of private initiatives, of companies and cafes, is not much different from New York. But the law in Poland, like the basic human right of habeas corpus, is abused. For example, you can be arrested for months without having a trial. The rights of immigrants are abused here as well. There are so many things to be done here."

Above all, perhaps, Jazdzewski and Liberte! are devoted to reviving liberalism - in Poland and in the region. "We don't have a problem with democracy in the region," he concluded. "We have a problem with liberalism. Movements like Fidesz or PiS support democracy but without the liberal aspects. They seek support in democratic elections but want to dismantle the whole constitutional system of liberal democracy that was widely supported in this region in the 1990s, with the exception of Slovakia at certain moments. The support for political liberalism is declining almost everywhere. Here we are trying to call ourselves liberals without adding another adjective to it: social or conservative or neo. In Poland, conservative liberals also hijacked the concept so that you have to explain that you are not against women's rights or gay rights. That's not a good label to start with. It's better to use the terms 'freedom' or 'liberty,' which are supported by everyone."

The Interview

When did politics become important for you?

Politics was very present in my home. People from the opposition movement in the 1970s, from "Ruch," were meeting at our house back in Lodz, where I'm from. My first conscious memory of great loss and tragedy was when Lech Walesa lost to Aleksander Kwasniewski in the presidential elections in 1995. Of course I didn't love Walesa. I understood his limitations as a president. But I really feared the post-Communists coming back to power. Of course, Kwasniewski really wasn't that bad. Perhaps he was much better than Walesa. But when you are 12 or 13, the world is quite simple. My feeling was probably shared by many at the time, even by publicists who were surprised at how quickly the Solidarity revolution lost the support of the people.

And why do you think that happened?

There's an easy answer, which perhaps you've heard: the transformation had its costs. People like Jeffrey Sachs thought that it was impossible to combine liberal democracy with a transition from socialism to capitalism. So, Solidarity had to pay the price. Still, Solidarity could have been in power much longer if it had not given the opportunity for the former Communists to return to power so soon. Moderate former members of the anti-Communist opposition decided to extend a hand towards the former Communists and not antagonize them. What they were afraid of was the revival of nationalism not the nomenklatura. This approach gave power to very strong anti-Communist movements. And we can see that even today with the Law and Justice Party (PiS). If Solidarity had punished Wojciech Jaruzelski and stripped the Left Alliance of everything they had from the Communist era, it would have been a popular move and it would have leveled the political playing field.

Solidarity had no real political experience. The virtues of many opposition members were useless in a world where you had to not only fight the system but attract political support. Solidarity was a real social movement only for a brief time -- just a year and a half. This lack of experience was one of the reasons why, ironically, the Communists were much better prepared to operate in a democratic system. The professionalization of the Solidarity parties only happened in the 21st century with Civic Platform (PO) and PiS. It wasn't so much in their discussion of the issues that they became more professional but in their better marketing and their ability to stay on message.

For a short time when I was 20-something, I was a member of the Democratic Party -- which had previously been the Freedom Union -- because I always supported this part of the political spectrum. I'm a liberal from very early on. I saw the great qualities of these people. I believed that you could do politics by convincing people that even though some things were bad for them they were good for the country. These politicians tried to avoid populism at all costs. It's a very old tradition here in Poland to fight for the cause of the whole nation, not to think of partisan politics and how to win against others at the cost of the common good, but there was no place for it any more in post-transformation Poland.

How would you distinguish Liberte! from other publications?

Some would say that it's an elitist or a niche publication. It's a quarterly in print, but we have quite an up-to-date portal with opinion and analysis. We also have an English version, which is mostly translations of what we think might be interesting for a wider audience. It's one of the few liberal intellectual journals. We write for major publications like Gazeta Wyborcza and Politika. We comment on current Polish politics, and we also think there is a need for a pro-European liberal voice in the mainstream public discourse. In Poland, as you know, there is no true liberal party at the moment. Liberalism attracts at least 15 percent of the population, but this group has no voice of their own.

I'm curious how you define liberalism. One of the big divisions is between American-style liberalism and European classical liberalism. Do you think there is a specifically Polish style of liberalism or a Central European liberalism?


In the general discourse, it became a negative label. It's perceived in light of all the costs of the transformation and also the crisis connected to the banking system. This label is very much different from what is liberal in the United States. Liberalism in Poland, and in the region in general, was defined in the 1990s as economic liberalism. Liberals like Bronislaw Geremek and Adam Michnik struggled to call themselves liberal, in part because they were coming out of a Left tradition. But I would also hesitate to call them social democrats. The people who are classical liberals here support the free market as well as an efficient state and socially liberal policies. But because of the very strong neo-liberal discourse in the beginning of the 1990s, people like Donald Tusk and Leszek Balcerowicz thought that the economy was so important that they didn't consider fighting for other aspects of classical liberalism. On the other hand, political liberalism has become part of the system in the whole EU. All the mainstream parties in the region in a way became liberal.

We don't have a problem with democracy in the region. We have a problem with liberalism. Movements like Fidesz or PiS support democracy but without the liberal aspects. They seek support in democratic elections but want to dismantle the whole constitutional system of liberal democracy that was widely supported in this region in the 1990s, with the exception of Slovakia at certain moments. The support for political liberalism is declining almost everywhere. Here we are trying to call ourselves liberals without adding another adjective to it: social or conservative or neo. In Poland, conservative liberals also hijacked the concept so that you have to explain that you are not against women's rights or gay rights. That's not a good label to start with. It's better to use the terms "freedom" or "liberty," which are supported by everyone.

We are also trying to diminish the influence of the Church in Poland. Poland is a very conservative country. We are definitely for secularism. And we are not for the unlimited free market deciding everything. Some things cannot be managed in a business way.

How would you distinguish yourself from the Palikot party, which has its libertarian aspects?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.