12/22/2014 11:29 am ET Updated Feb 21, 2015

Reinventing the Left in Poland

Poland was both the most likely and the most unlikely place to expect the rebirth of the Left. The country has a rich Left tradition that predates the Communist period, and many figures of the anti-Communist opposition, like Jacek Kuron, considered themselves on the Left. At the same time, however, the Polish Left has already struck out twice - first during the 40 years of Communism and then when the post-Communist Social Democratic Party returned to power and implemented the same austerity capitalism as its more conservative predecessors.

Slawomir Sierakowski wanted to break out of this pattern. A decade ago, he created a new political movement called Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique) that offered Poles a new, energetic, and intellectually sophisticated alternative.

"It is the worst possible idea to be Left in Poland, after 60 years of Communism," he told me in an interview last October in Cambridge where he was on a fellowship at Harvard. "There was already a strong post-Communist Social Democratic party. We did not want to be with these post-Communists. They were cynics and more right-wing than the rest of the political spectrum. They had such a large complex toward the free market. They wanted to relegitimize themselves by saying exactly the same things as the post-Solidarity politicians. When we started to build the Left, we were alone. And we continue to be alone. We've never supported any party, and no party has supported us. But this was good. It made us very tough. People in Krytyka can withstand anything. That's why we never collapsed, why we have always grown and never had to step back."

Krytyka runs a journal, a daily on-line newspaper, a publishing house, a popular speakers' series, and a number of cultural ventures. It has chapters around Poland and outposts in Russia, Ukraine, and Germany. Sierakowski has acquired a global reputation for his role in Yael Bartana's short film trilogy, And Europe Will Be Stunned, and more recently for his columns in The New York Times.

The one thing that Krytyka hasn't done, however, is become a political party. "I don't believe that the party system will revive," Sierakowski observes. "In the contemporary social situation, the party system is not a good idea for liberal democracy. It began some time ago, and it will soon come to an end. That's why it looks the way it looks. There was a government shutdown here in the United States. Did it have any political reason, or was it just an empty fight? Why was it an empty fight? Maybe because any other political struggle is not possible? Why do you have these cultural wars here? Because other problems cannot be articulated any more by parties."

Sierakowski has a different vision. "I want to do something ambitious," he says. "I can't do that in party politics. It would just be stupid quarrels. You might say: you can be more honest, more substantial. But no, if I did that, I would lose! Put Vaclav Havel into an election today and he would lose."

His vision is not confined to Poland. He realizes that the country's fate is tied up with the fate of its neighbors. Although we talked before the outbreak of protests in Ukraine and the ouster of the Viktor Yanukovych, Sierakowski spoke of the importance of the country.

"The country that is crucial for Krytyka is Ukraine," he told me. "Look at history: whenever Russia grabs Ukraine, the imperial tradition there wins and nationalist ideas dominate. When Ukraine has power to be independent and can be in Europe, then immediately more democratic ideas will have a chance to be represented in Russia. Ukraine is crucial both for democracy in Russia and for the EU to be completed as a project. This iron curtain on the eastern border of Poland should be taken down as soon as possible. That should be our common aim."

We talked about the origins of Krytyka, his relationship with Adam Michnik, and why he doesn't care about political labels.

The Interview

I heard a story that Krytyka Polityczna began with an article you wrote for Gazeta Wyborcza when you were quite young and which was quite controversial. The former opposition activist Kinga Dunin wrote a critique of your article, also in Gazeta Wyborcza, and then you struck up a friendship...

Well, that's not really the story of how Krytyka began. Yes, I wrote the article and yes, I met with Kinga Dunin. But Krytyka was not in the plans at that time. It was a naïve article, a teenage article about how we were unhappy with what was going on in Poland. It's nothing I would sign today. It was criticized by Kinga, honestly, because it was naïve, and I agree with this criticism today.

A year or today after that, I had an idea to establish a magazine. But first, what you have to know is that if you want to do something in Eastern Europe, if you want to organize people, you have to start with a magazine. This is a very Eastern European tradition. In Russia, in the Jewish diaspora, in Ukraine, these "fat journals" are how you organize the intelligentsia. So, I had no choice. Also, it came as a reaction to something: to this atmosphere that the intelligentsia in Poland had come to an end. After 1989, those guys in sweaters were not needed any more because they were boring professors or former dissidents who could not find their place in the new Poland, which was just a synonym for capitalism - actually, hardcore capitalism. The Chicago School was socialist compared to what was then perceived as the free market economy in Poland, and Keynes was considered just a Communist. Of course, the whole social democratic vocabulary, such as social class, couldn't be used if you wanted to be taken seriously. Trade unions were viewed as obstacles to modernization. So, an intellectual journal was something that we needed at the time.

Vaclav Havel was one of the few former dissidents who stayed suspicious of this new capitalist proposition. He had a nice description of this kind of delegitimation. He called these journalists "acid" journalists. Unfortunately in Poland, only Jacek Kuron had the same critique. The rest were all new believers. They were also our first adversaries. When we tried to continue this tradition, the former dissidents strongly criticized us as a leftist danger. I had 10 years of strong discussion with Adam Michnik, each of us arguing loudly. Now we are okay. I am getting older. We don't quarrel any more in such a harsh way. Even then, however, it was as if we were part of one family. Even though Michnik strongly criticized me, his paper Gazeta Wyborcza also published me.

I also decided that Krytyka would have not one but two magazines. One of them would be in the mass media. We would have a new voice, but we would never agree to be marginalized. We would sign our text with our names and with Krytyka Politiczna. At the end of the day, all of those single voices would add up to a new alternative voice. This very simple and very successful strategy helped us create quite a new strong voice.

At the same time, it is the worst possible idea to be Left in Poland, after 60 years of Communism. There was already a strong post-Communist Social Democratic party. We did not want to be with these post-Communists. They were cynics and more right-wing than the rest of the political spectrum. They had such a large complex toward the free market. They wanted to relegitimize themselves by saying exactly the same things as the post-Solidarity politicians. When we started to build the Left, we were alone. And we continue to be alone. We've never supported any party, and no party has supported us. But this was good. It made us very tough. People in Krytyka can withstand anything. That's why we never collapsed, why we have always grown and never had to step back.

Another reason for our strength is that Krytyka is mostly a women's organization: 80-90 percent of the organization are women. And women are much stronger than men. I'm sorry, but we men are like children. I try to be as strong as they are, but really they are good. The real success of Krytyka is because of people like Dorota Glazewska or Agnieszka Wisniewska.

The history of Krytyka Polityczna has three parts. The first part is when we said, "Let's reinvent the Left in Poland. Let's base it on the tradition of an engaged intelligentsia." This is the most beautiful and fruitful tradition in Poland. All of Polish culture comes from this, not from the right wing. The Right side of the political spectrum doesn't have any real culture, only ugly church architecture. The writer Adam Mickiewicz comes from the Left tradition, and so does Czeslaw Milosz.

Of course the idea was not only to reinvent the Left but also to implement the ideology of transition from 1989: "pluralism, democratic choice, participation." This was the mainstream Polish transition ideology. But where was the choice if there was no Left and Right but only right and wrong choices? Does this produce real choices for the people? That idea of Polish transition was that we would have several visions to choose from. But no, there was only one vision: free market and procedural democracy. Anyone who disagreed immediately became a populist. There was also this atmosphere of catching up with the West, so there was no time for discussion. You either accepted it or you were an idiot. We didn't agree with this message of transition. Immediately large inequalities started to dominate in Polish society, and there was a growing number of losers. Those people were also excluded. They had no political representation, not even by the post-Communists. We wanted to invent the Left to help democracy in Poland, so that we would have real democracy, instead of right-and-wrong politics, which is not democratic politics.

The second step was to reinvent politics. We realized that technology was ruling Polish politics - marketing, PR -- in a much more blunt and open way than in any other Western democracy. Everywhere politicians are cynical, party politics is based on constant trades, and so on. Okay, that's the bad face of politics. Usually you can find some differences between these politicians and these parties. But unfortunately I'm less and less sure of this. Democracy is in a deep crisis everywhere. So, this second step is to criticize what is going on in the public sphere, this instrumental logic of communication, and help bring substance back into politics.

And the third step is to reinvent society. We ask, "Why do people accept this? They know that what they get in politics is shit. So, why do they tolerate it? Why don't they organize a social movement like Solidarity?" I never compare what we have now to what we had before. I'm not stupid. Of course, I prefer what we have now. But why do people accept the largest inequalities in Europe in a country that had the largest social movement in the history of Europe? After some research into this, we realized that we more or less share the same problems as the West, but we have much less social capital.

When individualism came here, it came to a country with very weak social institutions. It produced a lot of anomie. Which makes us not a society but something like a modern state of nature where everyone is fighting everyone else. People are alone. The basic attitude of someone today is: in a situation that is less and less perfect, I'd rather compete with other people to adapt to this worsening situation than try to organize people around me to make the situation better. What has changed from the Solidarity period is that people don't trust each other any more. At that time, they would risk engaging with other people. They'd risk something together to get something better. Today, they'd rather fight for a diminishing number of social goods.

We decided with Krytyka to organize a network of institutions that would shape engaged attitudes, to make people stronger. We would organize people and teach them how to organize. We would start to organize them in different parts of Poland. Our ambition was not to stay in Warsaw. We immediately went outside Warsaw. We decided not to stay in Poland and not to go to the West where everything's okay, but to go East, where this work is needed. So we immediately went to Ukraine in 2007-8. I would use the metaphor of a factory. We wanted to be a factory of social groups. We created institutions like cultural centers, cultural clubs, a publishing house. We publish 50 books a year and each book is a social act. Each book is accompanied by many actions, many discussions, workshops, a public campaign.

Our aim is to change social attitudes. I'm not interested in the exact results of the next elections. Of course I'm interested, but who wins won't make that much difference. I'm more interested in struggling to push as many people as possible in this country to be ambitious enough and strong enough to fight for a larger stake than the realists will tell you is possible. The realists will tell you to vote for anyone who will be against Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc or PiS). That's the horizon of Polish politics, of mainstream media, of the general public. We are interested in a bit more ambitious goal. We understand why it's not possible in contemporary politics. But that doesn't make us any less engaged in organizing people who will be the next chapter in the history of the Polish intelligentsia. Remember: the Polish opposition of the 1970s, before Solidarity started, was never massive. It was at most 3,000 people. That's what Krytyka Polityczna is now.

You need this kind of social glue if you want this world to have social movements. The problem with Occupy and the indignados was the lack of social glue. They could organize social protests but not social movements. Because of a lack of trust, there was a lack of leadership and the lack of an agenda. To create social ties today, we no longer have any isms. In this social matrix, in the basic attitudes that people have, there would be no socialism or Christianity: God is dead, socialism is dead, Nietzsche and Foucault are dead. And all arguments are dead, in the sense of producing social ties. Instead of an argument, there are emotions, which produce social anger and social protest. I won't invent a program that will produce social attitudes and organize people. Instead, what is left is the last order of things: common experience. Only action produces togetherness. If you and me cooperate to do something, in time it will produce enough trust so that we will risk something together.

That's what we do with Krytyka. We have a very strong ethos within the organization, and that's what we export. But it's not going to be for the masses. It's going to be for a limited number of people. You have to do this kind of work one person at a time. It's very difficult, of course. But we will win, of course.

I want to make sure I understand the story about that initial article in Gazeta Wyborcza. You were a teenager when you published it?

I was 20 or 21 when I published it. I was a teenager in the sense of being naïve the way a teenager can be.

I also understand that Krytyka began more in the realm of cultural theory and then moved into an economic critique.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.