THE BLOG
09/17/2014 08:37 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

Rescuing Polish Liberalism

Liberalism took a beating in Poland in the 20th century. It was overwhelmed by nationalism in the 1930s, by Nazi occupation in the 1940s, and by a succession of Communist governments during the Cold War period. Finally, when the full political spectrum was restored to the country after 1989, liberalism became almost exclusively associated with its neo-liberal variant. For most Poles, "liberal" meant economic austerity and its accompanying hardships. Not surprisingly, liberalism acquired a negative connotation in the era of democracy as well.

But today in Poland, a new generation of political actors has taken up the challenge of rescuing liberalism from the misconceptions of the past. Kultura Liberalna is a weekly magazine established in 2009. It has spawned a website as well as an intellectual circle that has attracted a younger set of academics and intellectuals who are committed to restoring liberalism to its fullest meaning.

"We're convinced that liberalism had been one of the victims of the 'holy transformation,' Karolina Wigura, who heads up the political section of Kultura Liberalna, explained to me in the organization's offices in Warsaw last August. "Not in the meaning that this state is not liberal. It's of course liberal, and it has its flaws like every state. But the meaning of liberalism, which is never clear in any political culture, is rather fuzzy here."

The mission of Kultura Liberalna is, in some sense, to bring clarity to what has been a very opaque discussion in Poland. "Here, when you say 'liberal,' you think 'economics' and 'free market' and that's all," Wigura continued. "So, first we try to show that liberalism is a very rich tradition. When we think of liberalism, we think of it as complicated as Isaiah Berlin or Alexis de Tocqueville showed it to be. But on the other hand, we also think that our experience of this region is central to our understanding of European liberalism that comes from the experience of this place. This means that a region that has been touched by totalitarian systems, which are very well described in Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands or Tony Judt's Postwar, has a special idea or feeling of liberalism that is constructed of skepticism toward any radical ideologies plus a belief in personal freedom and an empathy for social problems. This does not make us Left. This makes us, as we like to think, socially empathic. So this is our kind of liberalism."

This combination of skepticism and empathy is both a political and an intellectual approach. The atmosphere of Kultura Liberalna is one of questioning, not of rebellion. It is the latest incarnation of a political-intellectual lineage, and it tries to honor that lineage rather than reject it.

"We have always been challenged by our elders," Wigura said with a smile. "They have always asked, 'Why don't you just rebel against us? Why are you so polite? What's wrong with you?' This is a generational thing. We don't oppose the former generation. Every milieu has its own approach. In Kultura Liberalna we try to understand more than to propose. Also, there is a strong conviction that if you just focus on your father you will never go forward. You just have to create your own things. Surely you're familiar with the TV series Mad Men? There is this main character that has just cut of all relations with his family. This is of course a symbol. We haven't done this. It's more just that we are interested in the future. It doesn't mean that we are closed to listening. But our passions, so to say, are about the future and not about the past."

The Interview

So, you were telling me about Kultura Liberalna.

Yes, this is a place with an interesting history. It's an Internet weekly, and I don't know if you are familiar with the site. We're going to change everything on the site, but this is what it looks like now. So, Kultura is, as you can see, an intellectual and political magazine with a very interesting stress also on books, films, and theatre. But it actually started with the dissident home seminars in the times of Communism.

We're about 40 persons now, from the age of 20 to 40, and half of us had once been students of Professor Pawel Spiewak. He had organized a whole seminar for us nearly a decade ago where we read Hannah Arendt and Tocqueville and from the other side Karl Schmidt and persons that of course you read during your university studies but you actually don't have enough time for. We sat in the evenings, and we talked as long as we wanted to. After a few years we had this idea: why don't we put up everything online, on an Internet site? We created a blog. But we had bigger ambitions, and so we started to produce a weekly. It has been produced for four-and-a-half years now. So this is already a small tradition in itself.

A few years after the home seminar of Spiewak had already finished, we learned that as students Pawel Spiewak and Marcin Krol, who is also a kind of founding father here because many of us had also attended his seminar, had proposed a home seminar to Jerzy Jedlicki. In our case it was different because we met at my parents' home and not the professor's apartment. But the Jedlicki seminar was quite different because although they read the same books, they were constantly afraid of being found out by the authorities. So here you have this tradition of the home seminar, which is a Central European tradition that started in Poland. It's what we call in Polish sztafeta pokolen...I don't know how to say it in English.

Passing the torch.

So we are very much convinced that we have been given something very important. We have been taught to think. You can get such a chance perhaps once in your life when a professor wants to spend so much time with a group of students. And then we thought, "Okay, we have to do the same thing for the younger generations." And this is what we also do here in Kultura Liberalna. Not only do we have a lot of public debates here, we also have a home seminar, which has been going on for four years before we got this office.

How did you come into these circles? You talked about encountering these texts in university and then joining these home seminar discussions, but if we step back, was there a moment when you were younger when you became interested in these issues? Was it something that was part of your family, or was there some other event in your life that transformed your understanding of the world?

As with everything in life, it's a series of chances that just happen. As for the personal experience, I chose the interdisciplinary faculty, which was meant to be extremely literary. I just started to look for interesting professors on the university, and I think I had great luck. After a few months, you knew already from the other students where you should go if you were interested in sociology and philosophy and politics. You just knew you should go to Pawel Spiewak, to Magdalena Sroda, to Marcin Krol, to Tomasz Merta, who died in the catastrophe of the Polish president's plane, to Barbara Makiewicz's political philosophy course. The older students told the younger students where to meet the most interesting persons. As for the source of the interest, I come from a family where we were told to do what is interesting to us. So I could just choose whatever I liked. And I liked this area.

If on the political spectrum there's Instytut Sobieskiego on the Right side and Krytyka Polityczna on the Left, what distinguishes Kultura Liberalna from those two, and why did you choose this to either of those?

Before I answer this question, first I will answer another one that I have in my head. I think it is impossible to understand Kultura Liberalna without Tygodnik Europa. I don't know if you have heard about it...

No.

This was a four-year phenomenon published by Axel Springer in Poland.

Was it connected to The European newspaper that appeared in English, as well?

No, Europe was never in English. Only one issue was in English. Tygodnik Europa was published by Axel Springer from 2005, I believe. It was extremely fashionable from the very beginning because it was a very high intellectual project. And it was added to the newspaper Fakt, which is the equivalent of Bild. It was a kind of fashion for students to buy Fakt on Wednesday and go to the university and show off Fakt although they actually read Europa and threw away their Fakt. But it was fun, and I wanted to work with them. It was easier than I thought to get there, and I spent three years there. A large part of the editorial board here at Kultura Liberalna also spent some time at Europa. And that's where we learned how to make intellectual journalism at a very high level. When Europa was beginning to decline, we decided to open our own weekly. Europa was very interesting because it gathered perspectives from the whole political or intellectual spectrum. Although it was an Axel Springer publication, it was neither right wing nor left wing. It was both Slavoj Zizek and Norman Podhoretz in one place.

Now, where I would put Kultura Liberalna along the spectrum? In the center because it's a liberal weekly. Now a few comments are needed here about the kind of liberalism we are creating here. We're convinced that liberalism had been one of the victims of the "holy transformation." Not in the meaning that this state is not liberal. It's of course liberal, and it has its flaws like every state. But the meaning of liberalism, which is never clear in any political culture, is rather fuzzy here.
Here, when you say "liberal," you think "economics" and "free market" and that's all. So, first we try to show that liberalism is a very rich tradition. When we think of liberalism, we think of it as complicated as Isaiah Berlin or Alexis de Tocqueville showed it to be. But on the other hand, we also think that our experience of this region is central to our understanding of European liberalism that comes from the experience of this place. This means that a region that has been touched by totalitarian systems, which are very well described in Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands or Tony Judt's Postwar, has a special idea or feeling of liberalism that is constructed of skepticism toward any radical ideologies plus a belief in personal freedom and an empathy for social problems. This does not make us Left. This makes us, as we like to think, socially empathic. So this is our kind of liberalism. This richness also includes an understanding that individuals can choose between different ways of living.

This is so important because most Polish liberals that called themselves so at the beginning of the 1990s turned conservative, as described in Jerzy Szacki's book Liberalism after Communism. As Janusz Lewandowski from the Gdansk liberal milieu says, "I am the last of the Mohicans" because all the rest have become completely anti-liberal. And he also means Donald Tusk, the current prime minister, which is interesting. The liberals from the beginning of the 1990s have narrowed their vision of liberalism only to economic questions. When they consider the family or styles of living, they have just turned conservative. This is actually what Janusz Lewandowski explains very nicely in his interview in Kultura Liberalna. So, the only liberals from the beginning of the 1990s that have stayed liberals are the ones who didn't actually go into politics: Adam Michnik, Alexander Smolar.

In my interviews I've discovered exactly what you said: that liberals have either gone off to the Right or off to the Left. Many people I've talked to say "I was a liberal in the 1990s, but I now disagree with neo-liberalism and have drifted over to the left side of the spectrum."

To read the rest of the interview, click here.