Poland’s Luckiest Generation

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

 

You might be too young, but do you remember the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

Oh yes, of course I do. What I remember the best from those times are the quarrels at home about who to support in the presidential elections in 1990: Tadeusz Mazowiecki or Lech Walesa. The whole period starting from the Round Table and then finishing with the fall of the Wall is memorable. When I was seven, I felt that something important was happening. You could tell by how the elders behaved. My family was very anti-Communist. We were all quite anxious and happy about the changes. I remember the political campaigns of that period and trying to make up my mind about whom to support.

But if you ask about the Berlin Wall, I don’t remember if I saw it fall, but we’ve seen those films many times since then. Even as a seven-year-old, I could see that some historical change was happening. From my perspective, what was even more visible were advertisements, toys, even the dollar that you got at the time. The value of the dollar was peaking, and I thought “Ah, now I can buy something for myself with a dollar.” This was the perspective of a kid. The whole world around me was changing. Politics was very far away but still very present.

 

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?

 

Some of the aspects of Palikot might not be understand by someone not following it closely. I’ve had this discussion with my liberal friends all over Europe because especially people in the European parliament believed that Palikot could become a new liberal party in Poland even though he hesitates to call himself liberal.

But the problem with Palikot is not whether he is a true liberal or not liberal enough. The problem is that he is very cynical in the choices he makes. He is liberal if he sees public support for liberal ideas. Or sometimes he tries to be more leftist than the Left Alliance. He has a very business-like approach to politics. He sees a niche for a certain kind of discourse and he goes there. Of course when it comes to the legalization of marijuana or opposition to the Church influence, we are on the same page.

Also the methods that he uses to fight are very often unacceptable, even for convinced liberals.

 

For example?

 

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether he is serious or not. He managed, with these methods, to get media attention when he was in PO. He once brought a pig’s head to the television studio in order to prove something, I don’t even remember what. He’s not a serious guy.

He managed to get 10 percent in the last elections. But this seems to be a one-time-only event. It’s the only party in the history of the Polish parliament that would be better off outside parliament than inside. They are so isolated inside parliament because of the marketing tools they use and the way they are perceived as an anti-establishment movement. That’s not something we would support.

If you look at Polish politics, it hasn’t changed as much as Warsaw has changed over the 25 years. It’s the same people from 1980 or even before: the prime minister, the president, the main opposition leaders, all the same guys. These people are already in their sixties. A big question for Poland is the generational change that will take place in a couple years. This will be a huge change for our public debate and politics.

 

What would the next generation bring to politics that would be different?

 

In theory, I should be very much for generational change in politics, for obvious reasons. However, most of the 1989 generation who were in their twenties when the change happened didn’t really get engaged in politics. Some of them were in the media. Most of them went into business, the most talented ones at least. A lot of my colleagues are not in politics but in NGOs, think tanks, and publications. A lot of young people are doing an amazing job in the NGO sector.

The ones in politics, however, are shadows of their elder colleagues. They were carrying their suitcases, as we say. That’s not the way to create real leaders. My generation, which is too young to take over any time soon, would be quite different from our decade-older colleagues. We, the children born during Martial Law, were the generation of the demographic peak. We are a generation of limited expectations.

So, if we consider the people present in politics now, a generational change would be a change for the worse. At least now you can distinguish between the leaders of the main powers. You can tell the difference between Leszek Miller, Donald Tusk, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski. If you see who is behind them, the ones in their forties, you can move them around from one party to another. They are very technocratic, very much oriented toward getting the message across to the media, not very substantive. I don’t really see these guys as leaders. If they are the leaders, our limited interest in politics as a nation will become even smaller. It could be for the worse or the better. It could mean some new movements. It could mean some kind of nationalist organization like Jobbik in Hungary. Or it could be a movement representing the interests of the excluded, of the younger generation that doesn’t feel engaged in public debate at the moment.

 

Much of the discussion about Poland outside Poland focuses on its success. It has gone from very difficult times in the early 1990s to relatively consistent economic growth. It has political leadership which is, if not visionary, at least better than Viktor Orban. It’s a relatively decentralized country where not everything happens in Warsaw. There’s another story, though: two million people leaving the country, many of them your age. So, if it’s such a success story, why are so many people leaving the country?

 

The picture is of course more complicated than the “success story.” It’s a success story in part because people can travel freely and make money in Britain and send it back it home. When you’re living in eastern Poland, it doesn’t seem like a success story. There are many Polands, certainly more than two. Some parts of Poland look very much like they did 50 years ago. Of course things are changing rapidly because of EU funds going to roads and communication.

The Polish success story is something our politicians boast about: the “green island” of growth. But this is a success story of people. At the individual level, you see many success stories. There’s the education boom. Of course you can question the quality of this education. Having a master’s degree gives you a chance to get a better job, but it doesn’t provide you with enough opportunities.

I would be surprised if, given the free movement throughout the EU, people would stay here in Warsaw when, after they pay for rent, they don’t have enough money left for a meal in a restaurant. When I lived in the UK for some time on the Erasmus exchange, I worked three days a week. I had to pay for rent, but I had money left over to buy books, CDs, and so on. You could make a decent living abroad even working for minimum wage. It’s impossible here. If you’re a waiter outside Warsaw or if you’re starting your career in public administration in your local city council, it’s almost impossible to make a living without living with your parents. More and more people in their thirties are living with their parents because they simply can’t afford to live separately. Or they got a 30-40 year loan to buy a flat. People here in Poland want to own their own apartments. That’s something we inherited from Communist times when you waited 20 years to get your 40-square-meter flat.

Of course this is a success story compared to what it was 20 years ago. At the same time, our appetites grew because our generation travelled freely around the world. You can also tell by the success stories of the individuals who left how life is so much easier outside Poland. Here you still have to struggle to set up a business what with the bureaucracy and the infrastructure. If you can master the language of the country where you are living, life is so much easier somewhere else.

On the other hand, Poland is a success story because of the appetites people had. They wanted more. They were ready to work harder for the same salary, to save for their children. It was much like the story of 19th-century capitalism in the United States or Great Britain. In the welfare states of Western Europe, people have quite comfortable lives. They wouldn’t accept the conditions that we put up with here. This is why we could grow relatively faster. But of course there is a limitation to this growth. We’ve grown because of EU funds, and we’ll see the end of this funding by the end of this decade. There are also demographic limits. But our ambition is our best virtue, and this comes in part from the privation we experienced. The new generation might be different, expecting more and not working as hard. They want a better quality of life more than a higher standard of living.

 

You spent some time in the UK. You’re fluent in English. You’re relatively pessimistic about the long-term prospects of economic growth. And there’s no liberal party here. So, why haven’t you left for the UK?

 

A month ago I had very much the same discussion with a journalist from a Danish newspaper called Information. She was doing a special report about people in the region who have decided to stay here despite the opportunities to leave the country and work abroad. Of course, I think it might be easier to work abroad, whether in the United States or UK or somewhere else. But I’m a publicist, a commentator. All my adult life I have been involved as a civic activist or a publicist in what’s happening here. My mission is here, however funny this might sound. Living here is more challenging, more interesting, and there are more things to be done here.

We must get our country from the periphery, where it’s been since the 16th or 17th century, and back into the core. 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.

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. 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.

 

When you think about the future of liberalism here in Poland, what do you think it would be like and how could it again become a political force?

 

In most general terms, Poland is becoming more and more liberal everyday by simple demographics. The older generation is passing away, and the younger generation is much more liberal in terms of being more tolerant, more open, less conservative, less religious. The discussion about civic partnerships would have been impossible even during the time the Left Alliance was in power nine years ago. The debate is changing in Europe as a whole, for example the legalization of gay rights in France. I’m using this example because it’s a good way to see the mental changes that are taking place. It’s only a matter of time, as happened with anti-Semitism. Of course a huge part of the nation for different reasons is prejudiced against Jews or racist against minorities (though we don’t have that many minorities any more). But these prejudices are not acceptable in public discourse any more. It’s just a matter of time before such prejudices against sexual minorities will become similarly unacceptable.

People who consider themselves liberal, many of who are in their forties and younger, will soon become dominant. According to some polls, they number about 15-20 percent already. Economic liberals here don’t really trust the state. Those who have been successful were successful despite the state not because of the state. They believe they are responsible for their own fate. On the other hand, this generation we’re talking about is not very political. It’s very anti-political. Many people in this generation are in a way unconsciously liberal. They would support liberal ideas in politics. But there aren’t many politicians who represent them, who speak their language. On the other hand, I think there will be more and more space for the kind of liberalism we are talking about, a liberalism in which people try to change public institutions to serve them in the way they want. We definitely need better administration. There’s a lot of redundancy among public institutions.

Our current political stage is divided between PiS and PO. The only important political issue today is not the economy or the EU or foreign policy. It is whether you are for or against PiS and Jaroslaw Kaczynski. If you are against, you are naturally for PO. So the PO’s only obligation is to save Poland from Kaczynski taking power, and the only aim of Kaczynski is to take that power and punish everyone who supports the Communists and the crypto-communists who chose Donald Tusk and the awful liberals from PO. It’s impossible to create a new movement in this kind of situation as long as one of these parties doesn’t disintegrate or one of these leaders doesn’t quit. Liberals would have to support PO whether or not the party meets their expectations.

It’s simply a matter of time. One party can’t rule here for 20 years. Our current political scene might have its last gasp in 2015. And the next elections in six years will have different parties, different alliances, and perhaps even a different generation in power.

 

You talked about Poland’s historic push to become part of Europe’s core through EU membership and active engagement. The EU, however, is a changing institution. Economically, its philosophy has changed from a social democratic to a more neo-liberal emphasis, which is also part of a global trend. There’s also a continuing democratic deficit, with the EU passing Lisbon-like treaties and pushing them down the throats of countries even if they don’t want them. How would you like to see Poland transform the EU?

 

That’s a very practical question. We are currently preparing our first issue in English about the interests and the future of the EU. You will find many books by Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert Kagan, and Francis Fukuyama about the role and interests of the United States in the world. You don’t find books, not even many articles, about the EU as a whole as a political entity

The EU is a new kind of institution that we can’t classify as an international organization or a federation or confederation. We need a new language to describe what it is. The EU today is democratic but indirectly democratic, because the leaders of the governments are democratically elected but the European Commission is only indirectly democratic. Some argue that it is not the deficit of democracy that is important, but the efficiency or inefficiency of governance that is more important to people.

What I find more troubling is not that European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso is not elected directly by the people of Europe. I would support a direct election for Commission president as well as a stronger role for the European parliament. But more importantly, the parliament elections should be less national-focused. The parties should participate in the elections under the same name all around Europe. The way that the U.S. federation is designed would be in principle a good system for Europe. Also the smaller states would have a role in it. Directly electing the leader of the commission will be possible in the future, and the EU council could become like a second chamber, a senate.

Coming back to what’s troubling me, it’s not only the matter of the EU. It’s the more general trend. Power is less and less connected to politics. Those who decide the economic policy of the particular country are not necessarily its leaders: it’s the head of Germany or the head of the European Central Bank or the head of the Commission. Even if Greece has democratic governance, the people don’t have much say because it’s the rating agency that decides the policies the country has to pursue. It’s very much the same here in Poland. Power is in the hands of those who are not democratically elected.

In the EU, it’s not a traditional hierarchy that is important. Even Germany can’t tell one country to behave one way or another. Poland’s relative power is smaller because we are the recipients of EU funds, not a net contributor. That will be changing over time. What’s interesting with the EU, it’s not who is controlling the game, it’s what kind of game are we playing: the German game, the French game, the southern game, the northern game? Establishing the right rules means that the whole body will be more or less successful but that some countries will be more successful than others. This is a new kind of political discourse, not the 19th-century discourse of the Westphalian peace we are accustomed to.

Here in Poland we are not ready to follow this path. But we should understand that it’s not whether we are simply pro-European or anti-European, either for or against Germany. It’s much more complex than that. We must also find a language to define what’s important for us, but which is also part of European discourse. Usually we talk about “blackmailing Europe,” or we say that “this is bad for Poland so we should stop it.” But sometimes, for the sake of the whole system, we need to sometimes accept that not everything will be according to our taste.

The EU is obviously in crisis. It’s not just the financial crisis, which only revealed some weaknesses that were there before. The whole system of making decisions is in crisis. Do we need to dismantle the Eurozone or become a fiscal union as well? The crisis of the EU is also a crisis of solidarity. Western Europeans found themselves less at home in such a big EU. You can find that in the reaction to the European constitution, which happened before the crisis and which concerned the problem of accepting the EU in its new form. This enlargement fatigue is still here, even though it has been ten years. We here in Poland should understand this and not just say that it’s not our problem. It is our problem. I am happy that we are not behaving as some expected. We’re not trying to veto everything. We’re demonstrating more and more understanding of the whole discourse happening in the EU. But we are at the beginning of this process, not the end.

 

When you think back to your early twenties, have you had any major changes in your worldview, your political perspective, your perspective on social issues?

 

We are not that original in our choices as we would like be. In a way, at the beginning of the 21st century, I was much more supportive of America’s active policy in the world. We were very much supportive here of the war in Iraq. Because of our past we wanted America actively fighting for democracy. Being liberal often meant being neo-conservative in foreign policy, actively fighting against injustice. Intellectuals on the Left side also supported this neocon U.S. policy.

I didn’t really understand the extent to which the whole system prevents people from pursuing equal opportunities. Leveling the playing field is sometimes not enough for everyone. On the other hand, I don’t like the fact that everyone has become a vocal critic of capitalism when it’s so easy to do so now. I don’t believe in easy answers. I’ve seen too many times, at conferences or with politicians that I’ve met, that the ideas you present are simply a function of your own wellbeing and who is supporting you financially. It makes me more prone to accept some conspiracy theories.

 

Did you have any specific theories in mind?

 

I see how people with money influence politicians, the way decision-making is influenced by big lobby groups. I used to be much more enthusiastic about the democratic process. Of course not everything is decided by people with money and power at the top. But today I see how easily public opinion and the media can be manipulated. As a media person I see how weak the media is against big money, how publications can’t criticize those who provide the advertising dollars. Also, big think tanks and organizations around the world sponsor conferences that draw all the obvious conclusions. It makes you more and more prone to skepticism and less trusting that people represent the ideas they believe in.

It’s sad: some institutions get stronger financially and many other institutions get weaker. I’m not a big fan of trade unions. But you see how big the inequality is between the worker and the employer. Inequality is growing and there’s not enough discussion about it. Here we don’t see it because we don’t want to see it — because we believe that socialism is something awful. And it’s not so easy to be a liberal and also be skeptical of global companies. But of course it’s understandable. Capitalism became global but we don’t have a global state. The national state, even the United States, can’t be a counterforce to the trillions of dollars of global capital.

I remember reading the great essay of Leszek Kolakowski on the problems with consistency. You shouldn’t think too hard about whether you are being a liberal or not a liberal. Sometimes inconsistency is a virtue.

 

As Kolakowski said, you can be a liberal conservative socialist. The last questions are quantitative. When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed from then until now, or hasn’t, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?

 

Around 7.

 

Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?

 

8.

 

When you look into the near future, the next two or three years, how do you evaluate the prospects for Poland, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?

 

7. I’m relatively optimistic in the short term.

 

Warsaw, August 8, 2013

 


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