Reinventing Republicanism in Poland

02/15/2015 11:17 am ET | Updated Apr 17, 2015

Poland has never been a particularly liberal country. In other words, its political culture has not focused on the individual or individual rights. Consider the great confrontation of the 1980s: between the collectivist ideology of the Communist Party and the spirit of solidarity of the opposition. Both sides were animated in part by older republican virtues -- a focus on the public good. It's telling that Communist-leaning intellectuals read the daily Rzeczpospolita while the opposition read the underground Res Publica, both titles deriving from the Latin for "public affair."

"The Polish tradition has no liberal traits. That was an intellectual import during the 1990s," Jan Filip Stanilko told me in an interview in Warsaw in August 2013. "The only heritage of original thinking in Poland, original in the sense that it has deeply rooted origins, is republicanism. It is rooted in the 15th and 16th centuries, and it lasted politically, in terms of institutions, until the end of first Polish Republic. But in Polish culture, it lasted much longer until the end of the 19th century, and it was a fundamental part of the intelligentsia's state of mind. That means that every member of the intelligentsia, even if they were a peasant or worker in origin, was somehow republican in thinking, with the notion of the common good at center."

Stanilko has worked with several think tanks in Poland, most recently at the Warsaw Institute for Economic Studies (WISE). He was instrumental in organizing the Great Poland Project, a right-wing forum for ideas. He is equally comfortable talking about the big picture and burrowing down into specific policy proposals. And he is often scathing in his critique of the trajectory of Polish politics over the last two decades.

"There was no general shaping vision of how Poland was supposed to look after 20 years," he told me. "Since 2007 we've had 500 strategic documents in Poland. That means we've had no strategy. Literally. There were 530-something sectorial strategies and no overarching strategy. Donald Tusk was the first leader to decide to have such a document. The EU wants us to have such a document. For these 20 years, we used Western intellectual tools to transform ourselves. One part of the elite -- the leftist parties -- wanted to transform into something that is Western, European, pro-choice. And the Right part of the elite wants to rediscover, which means to anchor us in some parts of our history and recreate a new spirit."

Stanilko aims his critique at both the leadership and the political machine that enacts policy. He suggests that the challenges facing Poland require the kind of "adaptive leadership" that public policy guru Ronald Heifetz has articulated for the business and non-profit world.

"Technically in business you have lots of reengineering in corporations because they must move fast," Stanilko continued. "The proper leader should help workers adapt to changes. We have in a similar way a huge transformation in Poland, but people still have not adapted to the effects of transformation. It's only been 20 years. How long did it take France to adapt to the French revolution? 100 years at least. We must as a society adapt to the effects of transformation and then adapt to the challenges of globalization at the same time. We don't need a leader who will punish everyone. We need a leader to help people to adapt, for instance to help them migrate within Poland rather than to another country."

Such a leader must somehow deploy the political machinery of his or her party to drag the Polish bureaucracy into the 21st century. But unfortunately, Stanilko pointed out, "This political machine works more and more in the interest of enlarging bureaucracy -- which is the reenactment of clientelism, the most ominous force in Polish politics since the 14th century. The bureaucracy is a mode of transforming society, as Max Weber wrote, but it's rational. Societies that are the most modern are the least clientelistic. Clientelism means funneling trust into separate social channels and redistributing public funds through these channels, as in southern Italy. We see this clash between north and south Italy, east and west Germany, and it's a clash in Poland as well with one side of society against another. But it's not Solidarity versus the Communists. It's those who work against those who are not working. We don't have a language in the public sphere to name this clash because our discourse comes from the 1990s."

We talked about his introduction to the policy world, the role of a strong state, and the political future of the standard-bearer of the Polish Right, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

The Interview

I'm interested in your take on the economic transition in 1989 until the late 1990s. You talk about liberalism as an import without roots here in Poland or Polish intellectual history. Do you see the transition as an import that was necessary or as an unfortunate stage that could have been done differently according to different principles?

This is a story for five books! First of all, the Polish state was technically bankrupt. We asked for the help and mercy of the Western institutions. It's funny in a way, since the transformation was at the behest of the so-called neoliberal movements of the West. Even though there were some signs that this model didn't work in Argentina, it was employed here in a copy/paste way, because the consultants were just taught and trained to do this. The problem was that no one here thought to invent something custom-made for Poland. The political elites thought that the transformation should somehow be intellectually and technically prepared by our Western friends.

But the problem with the transformation is also that the Soviet Union collapsed in a very specific sway. Russia collapses every time the secret services collapse, that is, when the political power over the secret service collapses. So the Soviet Union was actually as weak as we were at that time.

Yet, there was a very significant bloc of post-Russian interests, their clients and cronies, in Poland. The most serious one was General Jaruzelski. He's a Russian general of Polish origin. If you focus on his biography it's clear. Of course he's a very interesting paradoxical person. He received power over the Polish army in the 1960s as a young guy raised up by Russians. General Jaruzelski was educated in Poland before the war and after the war, but actually he was a general of a foreign state. Jaruzelski was not General Park Chung-hee. General Park was educated in Japan, but he was independent in his thinking on Korea. With Jaruzelski, the power was in his hands until the end of the People's Republic of Poland. Even at the moment of transition he was still holding a lot of power. His acolytes did a very good business during the transition using public funds and rents that they could seek being the proprietors of the Polish state and economy.

Polish elites are always looking for some foreign example. Imports were crucial because we had long period of lack of contact with the world center. Of course, this is not totally true because the politically involved scientific elites in the People's Republic of Poland got Fulbrights to study in the United States, where they learned about capitalism. The first Fulbright fellows became the first Polish capitalists. The young economists from the Communist Party were very influenced by the post-Milton Friedman way of thinking. That's where Balcerowicz came from.

Who were the guys from the opposition? They were intellectuals: moralists, editors of books and newspapers, historians. They were mainly historians. Most Polish politicians are historians: Gemerek, Tusk, Bronislaw Komorowski, all historians. Adam Michnik and Tadeusz Mazowiecki didn't have any idea about the economy. They were intellectuals, so they decided to put Balcerowicz in place. And the plan was negotiated between Soros and Gorbachev a year earlier (Stanislaw Gomulka did a big book on this). Institutional channels gave us the money. Somehow we were not sovereign. We were bankrupt. We were like Greece is today.

There was no general shaping vision of how Poland was supposed to look after 20 years. Since 2007 we've had 500 strategic documents in Poland. That means we've had no strategy. Literally. There were 530-something sectorial strategies and no overarching strategy. Donald Tusk was the first leader to decide to have such a document. The EU wants us to have such a document. For these 20 years, we used Western intellectual tools to transform ourselves. One part of the elite - the leftist parties - wanted to transform into something that is Western, European, pro-choice. And the Right part of the elite wants to rediscover, which means to anchor us in some parts of our history and recreate a new spirit.

We have a special history. We had periods that we call the First Republic and the Second Republic. These projects were very different. We know that, geographically and economically after the end of the Second Republic, Joseph Stalin was the creator of this state. Now we somehow must make ourselves into the proprietors of the processes that are going on in Poland. Being a proprietor of the process is the most difficult problem during an age of globalization. Americans strive to be proprietors of the processes of globalization by means of GE, Chevron, GM, Google. These are the instruments, the driving strategies for those who reap the value. You build enterprises on these processes, and you leave the lower part of the value chains for other countries -for those who do the work that is outsourced, like Poles. Governmental processes are the same. With the Lend Lease Act, the American Navy became the guardian of world trade. The price the world pays is that it must use the dollar for trade - that's the role of a global empire. The question here is what is the role of Poland in this changing global landscape, with the deterioration of America's geopolitical position, the rise of Asia particularly the demographic rise, and the blind alleys of European integration like the Eurozone. From an economic point of view, it's a zero-sum game.

We are at a moment when transformation myths are falling apart. The Polish stock exchange is the fourth or fifth biggest in Europe. Spaniards are coming to Poland to study. We are called the "green island" of economic growth. Even if it's not true, that's what we are called in Europe. When I go to Brussels or other Western countries, I am fascinated at the way that Poland - once the sick man of Europe, with its bumper sticker of chaos, dirt, and anti-Semitism - is treated like we are the leaders of Europe. The French and German invited us to join EADS, the biggest military enterprise in Europe. That's a fundamental change. The Russians wanted to join this EADS project, and they were politely rejected. The problem is that we've grown too big in economic terms. Our heads are too small to manage our big body. That's the reason that the current political elites are not ready to govern this big body.

I would also add that the most prominent right-wing intellectuals are of course nationalist, which means that they support the nationalist idea. But Professor Legutko specialized in English literature and is an Anglophile. Another one, Zdzislaw Krasnodebski, one of the most famous Polish sociologists, is a Germanophile and lives in Germany. Jadwiga Staniszkis, her father was one of the leaders of the national democrats, but she may be considered a neo-Marxist in her understanding of political economy. Another prominent intellectual, Professor Zybertowicz, has intellectual roots in studying Michael Foucault's idea of social control. So, what kind of right-wing nationalist is that?

This is the generation that allowed us, as their pupils, to make contact with the most valuable intellectual structures to rediscover our heritage. That's how I rediscovered republicanism. I read historians of republicanism at Cambridge. They taught me about republicanism all over the world. I discovered that they know nothing about Poland, but we can still learn much about Poland through their works. My generation has no difficulty in making these contacts. We no longer have to travel on a fellowship just to copy papers. Before we could read these works, but there was no money for us to go and talk with the professors. Now you can buy the work here, read it here, and go there and learn and talk to people who can explain how it works.

I was very puzzled when I met with a Royal Bank of Scotland analyst here. He said, "I cover seven countries from Estonia to Turkey."

I asked, "You know all the details of public finances for all those countries?"

"No, I just look at seven indexes."

"And you give recommendations on to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on the basis of seven indexes?"

"Frankly, yes."

That's how I discovered how the West looks at this part of Europe. Some people might have fallen in love with this country. Maybe that was your case, as part of your intellectual history. That was experience of Timothy Garton Ash, Norman Davies,Timothy Snyder (both he and his wife deal with Polish history like no Polish historian can).

I'm halfway through Bloodlands.

His earlier books are very good, the one on the reconstruction of nations and his book on Henryk Jozewski. He covers this huge landscape of Polish heritage. Bloodlands is somehow the last chapter of this history.

Right now we have a problem in Poland in the discrepancy between our private and national aspirations. Privately, Poles want to be affluent. We are the hardest workers in Europe. We work the longest hours a week - but very inefficiently. Warsaw is one of the most expensive cities in Europe. And we have very serious problems with spending huge amounts of European cash effectively- because of the structures here. The biggest national problem, also for intellectuals, is not a post-Communist problem. It's a traditional problem for Poland since the 16th century: state-society relations. The Polish gentry at the beginning of the 17th century decided not to have a central budget. The gentry forbade the king from having a central budget. That meat that after 150 years there was no Poland: no army, no academy of science. The only thing that saved us as a nation was our ministry of public education, the first one in the world. Everything else was private. It was noble of us to give the world one of the first public libraries in Europe, but this library after 30 years was robbed by Russians. It became the basis of the imperial library of Petersburg. Then some part of it came here again in the 1930s from the Soviet Union. Several years later, another private library, the biggest Renaissance library in Europe, was burned by the Germans. This is the kind of problem that we have been dealing with for 300 years. Our society has not been able to beget modern institutions in order to shield its substance and, as a consequence, must periodically import the institutions to rebuild itself from scratch.

The world crisis destroyed some transformation myths and exposed new groups in this society, like groups of Polish proprietors who did business silently for 20 years and are now internationalizing their activities. I know a guy who owns 15 factories around the world. He's the second biggest producer, after Germany's Henckel, of construction glue. These people are the core elite of Polish society, but they are not part of the establishment. The establishment here is full of people who are incompetent but had the opportunity to be in the right place during the transformation.

The next generation's role is to build meritocratic institutions that reward people not through their historical positions but through their current positions, which they earned through working. This can be done in a liberal, republican, conservative, or socialist way - we just need the frame. This is the biggest problem in relations with social elites: the state-society problem. I believe Poles don't want to have a strong state because they are afraid of it, especially in the area of justice. People know that they can do small bad things, like in southern Italy or Greece. But we won't be rich that way. If we want to be rich, we have to have strict rules and a lot of trust. The biggest problem between state and society and elites and society is the lack of trust. This is the most valuable but the most expensive capital because you cannot buy it.

You say that Poles are afraid of having a strong state. From what you've said, I've heard different things about what a strong state could do or should do, such as maintain strong defense or....

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