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Meritocracy and Community in Twenty-First-Century Poland.

On the tenth anniversary of the Polish Round Table Talks of 1989, which led to the downfall of communist party rule, 67 percent of Polish survey respondents said that the tumult and confusion of the postcommunist transition had been worth it. With a majority that large, it is easy to dismiss the 22 percent (about six million people) who felt that the changes had not been for the better. Such dismissal makes it less likely for us to notice that among those with only a primary school education, the balance of responses shifts to 48 percent "worthwhile," 34 percent "not worthwhile." (1) We might also be inclined to overlook the disaffection with present-day Poland implied by the fact that the country has the lowest voter turnout rates in Europe. (2) In all these cases, focusing on survey majorities or electoral outcomes obscures the deep cultural divisions that will shape Polish politics for the foreseeable future. There has never been a singular, homogeneous, and coherent Polish society or Polish culture, but now more than ever, we must take great care not to let the majority (much less the minority) define the whole.

There are consistent and striking patterns in virtually any survey or election in Poland. In the 2011 elections, for example, voter turnout in urban areas was 12 percent higher than in the countryside. Although Warsaw, Gdansk, Poznah, and Wroclaw saw turnout of 60 percent or more, in rural districts the figures rarely topped 40 percent. (3) Among those who did vote, there has been a stark regional cluster of support for Jaroslaw Kaczynski's authoritarian, nationalist, and xenophobic Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc, or PiS) in the southern and eastern parts of the country--the areas once labeled "Poland B," to distinguish it from the more industrial, modern, and prosperous "Poland A" west of the Vistula. Despite all of these electoral patterns, though, the cultural divide is more complicated and crosscutting than any handy categories of rich versus poor, young versus old, urban versus rural, tolerant versus chauvinist, or secular versus Catholic. There are tendencies that link these various categories, but there is a deeper clash that cuts right through them. At the root of this division is a chasm of incomprehension involving the fundamental and rival concepts of merit and community.

The disaffection of a significant minority that is alienated from contemporary Poland comes from many sources, and because it is such a complex phenomenon, it is unlikely that mere economic growth will resolve matters. Part of the problem stems, ironically, from the very same liberal consensus that until recently had seemed to be such a source of stability in Poland. In the immediate wake of the collapse of communism, no Polish political figure wanted to evoke the slogans of the old regime. To even speak of "the working class" or "exploitation" in the 1990s was to risk being labeled a retrograde apologist for communism. Alongside the legacy of authoritarianism and violence embodied by the Polish United Workers' Party (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza, or PZPR), the entire repertoire of concepts and values associated with the socialist movement were cast to the margins of acceptable public rhetoric. Because of this, those who faced unemployment, declining wages, worsening job conditions, or fewer social benefits found themselves cut adrift politically and ideologically, without a way to articulate their frustration and anger. (4) With unemployment remaining in the double digits for such a protracted period and with large swaths of the countryside seemingly abandoned by the urban focus of Poland's economic winners, there was definitely a lot of anger. And with anger came protests, but it was hard to articulate a broader message that would turn isolated and specific complaints into some sort of enduring movement. All too often, workers frustrated with low pay or job insecurity would be told, "You aren't in a communist country anymore, so take responsibility for your own future, and stop making irrational demands."

This helps explain the wild electoral swings of the 1990s, when large numbers of voters moved from one party to another in search of someone who would address--or even just sympathize with--their concerns. When people did protest in the 1990s and early 2000s, their placards and chants focused on terms such as jobs, raises, or even simply bread--all very important matters to be sure, but lacking the rhetorical power of the old rallying cries about freedom, equality, or solidarity. Meanwhile, the slogans of the employers circled around terms such as efficiency, rationality, and competitiveness, which were held together by a coherent and globally hegemonic free-market ideology. As the twentieth century moved toward its close, this ideology was increasingly presented not as one worldview among many but as the only realistic and rational worldview. Absurd claims about "the end of history" were based on the idea that so-called experiments with different political and economic forms had all failed and that liberal capitalism had survived as the only possible system. The most common slogan that workers heard was the frustrating refrain "There is no alternative." (5) But the problem goes deeper than just a few rhetorical slogans. To understand what is happening, we need to consider both the prejudices among the marginalized about the successful and the prejudices among the successful about the marginalized. Each has come to demonize the other, creating an almost impassable cultural divide. This isn't only (or even primarily) about economic accomplishments or frustrations but about an understanding of the basic foundations of social life.

On the one side are those who have fully embraced the self-identity of a modern person, suited to a culture of individual autonomy and free will, competition, and meritocracy. Such people believe that they create themselves through the choices they make and the amount and quality of work they do. The process of creation doesn't just happen once but must be repeated constantly in order to adjust to new circumstances. When they discover in themselves some kind of inadequacy or flaw, they will turn to a self-help book, a professional-development course, a training seminar, an exercise program, or a psychologist. When confronted with obstacles, the modern person will relocate to seek a better opportunity, usually to a larger city but, if necessary, abroad. Family is important, but only conditionally. If a relative is abusive or cruel, for example, then it is seen as entirely appropriate to break ties with that person. If one's family of origin is deemed to be backward or simply unsupportive of one's ambitions, then it is OK to grow somewhat distant--friendly when together on holidays, available in case of emergency, but otherwise disengaged. Traditions (including religious traditions) are appreciated and enjoyed, but they are subjected to the same test of utility given to everything else in life. If a particular religious belief no longer seems to make sense, then it can and should be abandoned. If something holds back professional advancement, economic success, or personal development, then it must go. The term blind faith is taken to be a negative thing, a marker of an ostensibly backward worldview. Authority figures and hierarchical structures can be respected, but like everything else, they are always provisional and subjected to tests of reason and utility. Concepts such as prejudice and intolerance take on a very negative connotation, with the assumption that only those stuck in outdated or provincial mindsets would exhibit such attitudes. Poles with a so-called modern outlook feel compelled to repudiate antisemitism and all other forms of xenophobia. Until recently, they took great pride in the fact that surveys showed dwindling antipathy toward Jews, Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, and other foreigners who had once been objects of hostility in Poland. (6)

The foundational social, economic, cultural, and political concept for people of this type is merit. They tend to believe that the world should be designed to allow those with more skills, knowledge, initiative, and overall value to rise to the top. Nepotism is a serious transgression within this framework, as is any other form of corruption that allows something other than merit to determine who gets ahead. In January 2017, students from all over Poland organized a protest against the PiS government and declared (among other things), "We want to live in a country where jobs are given based on skills and abilities, not party membership." (7) The key word here is not really party but membership. The mere fact of belonging to a particular community, family, religion, class, or nation should (in the view of the meritocrats) be meaningless when determining who gets rich, who is promoted to manager, who gets their writing published, who gains political authority, who succeeds in any way. When someone gets ahead because of membership, belonging, or identity, that is not just an exception but a major scandal. The flip side of this--sometimes stated overtly and sometimes quietly assumed--is that people who do not succeed must under normal circumstances be unworthy. More brutal versions of this worldview blame such people for their own suffering, condemning the poor for laziness or incompetence. More kind-hearted versions favor private charity and/or public programs aimed at ensuring that the unfortunate poor enjoy at least a basic minimum of care. The policy reforms favored most by the generous modern person are those that ensure a level playing field so that meritocracy can flourish.

The term meritocracy was coined in 1958 by the British sociologist Michael Young in a short book called The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033. As the dates in the title imply, this wasn't a typical academic study but rather a dystopian satire of the world that Young saw emerging in his day. The overthrow of traditional elites in the post--World War II era had an unintended consequence, Young believed. Instead of creating general egalitarianism, it had produced a society that was just as hierarchical as before, but more fair. That wasn't enough, he argued. Even if all arbitrary privilege was vanquished and replaced by a system that rewarded only talent and diligence, there would still be those who failed, those who lacked the necessary measure of merit. In the old world, those at the bottom of the social structure could take pride in their class solidarity or some other community, but in the coming meritocracy, they would be clearly identified as losers deserving of their lowly fate. The more perfect and fair the meritocracy became, Young argued, the worse those who failed would feel and the angrier and more frustrated they would become. In the end, this would be the undoing of any meritocratic society, the fatal flaw that made such systems unviable. Although the term he coined grew popular, his warning about meritocracy's inherent weakness was forgotten. As he predicted, however, in the early twenty-first century the tensions generated by such a regime are being felt. We are not anywhere near the perfect meritocracy of Young's satire, but there's enough of that system in place to create the dislocation and anger that he foresaw. The great paradox is that the more the meritocrats try to perfect their system, defending it by measures of fairness and assessments of true merit, the worse the problems become.

On the other side of the great cultural divide of the early twenty-first century is a worldview that is sometimes labeled as backward or premodern, but many aspects of this perspective consolidated in reaction to the social, economic, cultural, and political transformations of the modern era. Perhaps we could call this antimodern, but only if we understand that an anti concept can only exist alongside (not prior to) the thing it opposes. In other words, this isn't a story of a progression from a premodern to a modern worldview, with the former clinging to existence like some elderly rock star insisting that he should still be allowed on stage. Rather, we see a nearly simultaneous emergence of two linked but mutually negating cultural frames. The antimoderns often call themselves conservative, but the world they want to conserve never existed. Similarly, the moderns appreciate the label progressive because it relegates their opponents to the past. But in fact, both of these cultural frameworks are mutually constitutive and not sequential. Another misleading set of labels transforms these perspectives into geographical or national categories: West and East, Germany and Poland, the First World and the Third World, or some similar configuration. Yet both modernism and antimodernism flourish everywhere. Poland is not unusual in this regard.

The dominant value among those hostile to meritocracy is community. (8) All that sustains the community (however defined) is good; all that threatens it is bad. In economic matters, this implies a rough egalitarianism--not as a universalistic principle but as a form of social glue that ensures enough economic proximity to hold the community together. No one should be allowed to fall into destitution, but neither should anyone rise beyond the community, becoming so wealthy (or so highly educated) that they become alienated from their true peers or compatriots. Calls for general equality as a principle for all humanity make little sense from this perspective, but constraining excessive deviation from the community's norms is seen as appropriate. This is the sort of egalitarianism that inspires people to jump to the aid of a neighbor whose house burns down, as well as to ostracize those who rise beyond their station or place their own selfish needs above those of the community.

For communitarians, hierarchies and some inequalities are fine but only if these have been normalized over time and sanctified by social respect--in other words, if they help bind the community rather than challenge it. Meritocracy, on the other hand, is troublesome because it is by definition impermanent, disruptive, and unstable. Among the communitarians, there might sometimes be a bit of resentment toward the local shop owner with a fancier house or a larger bank account, but there is a lot of resentment toward the young person from a poor family who goes away to university and becomes a professor, artist, musician, journalist, or some other member of the meritocratic establishment. The former has occupied a position within long-recognized hierarchies and norms, whereas the latter has risen through meritocratic structures whose standards and metrics are of a more ephemeral vintage.

Within this framework, family structures are extraordinarily important, and except in the most extreme cases, they are not conditional. The woman who endures an abusive husband is pitied and (usually) given emotional support, but the woman who divorces an abusive husband will face unkind gossip. (9) The son who repeatedly goes on vacation with his friends, or even with his wife and children, rather than spending time with his parents, siblings, and other extended kin is viewed as an ungrateful prodigal. A whole range of social connections are supposed to be accepted as given, even if they don't meet meritocratic standards of utility, reason, or value. Practices that challenge such relationships may be grudgingly tolerated but only if they are justified with reference to the deeper goal of sustaining the bonds of community over the longer term. It is entirely understandable within this worldview that someone might go to London to work, sending money home to support a family. It is much less acceptable to go to London because a multinational employer has offered a lucrative promotion necessitating permanent relocation to the corporate headquarters. Scientific information that would seem to challenge claims of faith can be accepted or rejected, but either way, such matters are treated as irrelevant to the loyalty one is supposed to feel toward the Church. An alcoholic priest who gives incoherent sermons will be the source of endless private complaining, and even generalized grumbling about the inadequacies of the clergy are quite common. But few communitarians would see any reason to conclude from either scientific discoveries or specific scandals that the Catholic Church and its rituals should be discarded.

Communitarians have complicated attitudes toward those deemed foreigners. It would be an unjust exaggeration to say that xenophobia is the norm. In fact, day-to-day relationships with people outside one's community can be entirely cordial. That friendliness, however, is built around a clear but unstated understanding of separation and a recognition that certain communities have higher status than others. (10) Violating expectations in relations between different communities can very rapidly provoke hostility and even violence, and it is relatively easy to stir up suspicions or even antipathy about unfamiliar groups. This is particularly true for those whose representatives are so rare as to preclude meaningful interactions, as with Muslims in today's Poland. In these cases, the mitigating force of quotidian neighborliness is missing.

People with this communitarian worldview are not necessarily nationalists as we conventionally use that term, though for the past century nationalism has been quite popular with this audience. The communities I am describing here can be delineated in many different ways: as a nation, a region, a city, a profession, a class, a caste, a religion, a club--whatever. There are many different ideological tendencies among communitarians, ranging from the old-fashioned conservatives of the nineteenth century, through the national communists in the Polish People's Republic, and all the way to the revolutionary radical right of our time. The same is true for the meritocrats: they can extend ideologically from economic liberals who favor an unconstrained market and a brutal struggle for survival all the way to social democrats who want a strong welfare state with tight business regulation. In the United States today, both meritocrats and communitarians can be found within both of the major political parties. (11) This cultural divide is pre-ideological: it is the emotional foundation upon which ideologies are built. Poland has reached a point of crisis precisely because the partisan political divide has lined up almost perfectly with the cultural split described here, leading to a situation in which compromise--even coexistence--has become extraordinarily difficult.

During the 1990s, there was a great deal of premature confidence (or dismay, depending on one's views) about the emerging hegemony of meritocracy in Poland. In economic matters, the range of debate seemed to extend from the staunchly neoliberal Leszek Balcerowicz on one side to the somewhat more Keynesian Grzegorz Kolodko on the other. The former was the author of the "shock therapy" reforms of 1989 and 1990; the latter served as finance minister from 1994 to 1997 and again from 2002 to 2003, in governments led by the Democratic Left Alliance (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, or SLD). Those two gentlemen consider their differences to be irreconcilable, but both accept the foundational components of liberal economics. Any positions outside of their debate were treated as Utopian, unserious, unrealistic, or simply uninformed. In political matters, the Polish Constitution of 1997 was designed to be a consensus document that would encompass all the legitimate ideologies and worldviews. The preamble is a truly monumental statement, not only because it includes a breathtaking 193-word sentence, but because it crams into that sentence a reference to just about every perspective imaginable:
Having regard for the existence and future of our Homeland, which
recovered, in 1989, the possibility of a sovereign and democratic
determination of its fate, We, the Polish Nation--all citizens of the
Republic, both those who believe in God as the source of truth,
justice, good and beauty, as well as those not sharing such faith but
respecting those universal values as arising from other sources, equal
in rights and obligations towards the common good--Poland, beholden to
our ancestors for their labors, their struggle for independence
achieved at great sacrifice, for our culture rooted in the Christian
heritage of the Nation and in universal human values, recalling the
best traditions of the First and the Second Republic, obliged to
bequeath to future generations all that is valuable from our heritage
of more than one thousand years, bound in community with our
compatriots dispersed throughout the world, aware of the need for
cooperation with all countries for the good of the Human Family,
mindful of the bitter experiences of the times when fundamental
freedoms and human rights were violated in our Homeland, desiring to
guarantee the rights of the citizens for all time, and to ensure
diligence and efficiency in the work of public bodies, recognizing our
responsibility before God or our own consciences, hereby establish this
Constitution of the Republic of Poland as the basic law for the State,
based on respect for freedom and justice, cooperation between the
public powers, social dialogue, and the principle of subsidiarity that
strengthens the powers of citizens and their communities. We call upon
all those who will apply this Constitution for the good of the Third
Republic to do so with respect for the inherent dignity of the person,
his or her right to freedom, the obligation of solidarity with others,
and respect for these principles as the unshakeable foundation of the
Republic of Poland. (12)

Just about everyone found something to complain about in this preamble, but most could also find something to like. It was the ultimate compromise text, the sort that doesn't fully satisfy anyone. The same is true for the constitution as a whole: everyone could point to at least a few clauses that they would have preferred to revise or amend, but for the authors of the text, this was its great virtue. They felt that the new constitution established the foundation for a state that would be broadly inclusive, with a structure of laws and institutions that would accommodate political disputes and a wide range of value systems. Outside of Poland, the text was recognized as a solid political cornerstone that would facilitate Poland's quest to join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Yet something wasn't quite right. When the constitution was put to a general referendum, it was approved with only 53 percent of the vote, with a turnout of only 42 percent.

The leader of the Solidarity trade union at the time, Marian Krzaklewski, led the campaign against the constitution. He described it as "an expression of just one political orientation," and he complained that the text had an "evolutionary vision of liberal systemic change from the PRL [Polish People's Republic] system, carried out with the participation and under the control of the communists." Speaking from his perspective as a union leader, he worried that the constitution lacked "fundamental social guarantees for workers." He was also concerned that the constitution failed to adequately recognize and protect the family as the core institution of the nation. But his most important point regarded the preamble and what he called the "axiological" heart of the project:
Does the National Assembly of 1997 want to go down in history as the
National Assembly that, after 1,030 years of Christian Poland's
existence, expelled God from the constitution?... A national compromise
will be possible when we all acknowledge that there are some facts in
Polish history that are not subject to interpretation. One of these
facts is that Poland has always been based, both in its system of
values and in its subsequent constitutional legislation, on Christian
values, even while remaining positively inclined towards people of
diverse views, convictions, denominations, and of various
nationalities. Therefore, if we agree on the continuity of values, on
historical continuity, then I am certain that on other
matters--economic, social, and political--there is a chance for a good
consensus. (13)

For Krzaklewski, the absence of agreement about these so-called historical facts precluded compromises and any hope for political stability. Tragically, he may have been correct, though his alternative constitutional draft would have led to even greater problems. Krzaklewski had exposed a painful fact: there's no way to build a system that will survive in the face of a political landscape in which party identification aligns with the meritocrat/communitarian divide. Stability depends on diluting this profound conflict within, not between, political parties.

The authors of the constitution believed that they had established a framework in which people with different values could argue with civility, on the assumption that the best policy options would thereby emerge. Baked into that conviction was the ideal of meritocracy, this time applied to politics. The Utopian goal was that every value system listed in that rambling preamble could compete, with mutual respect and deference, in what liberals revealingly call the "marketplace of ideas," with proposals assessed by measures of utility, viability, reason, etc. For those who thought this was a good approach, Krzaklewski's position seemed narrow minded, authoritarian, exclusionary, and reactionary. But seen from the opposite perspective, the proponents of the constitution appeared to be adrift in a sea of indeterminacy, where anything and anyone could be subject to constant assessment and evaluation, to be discarded if deemed unreasonable or ineffective. The meritocratic world was marked by constantly evolving ideas, constantly evolving social structures, and (above all) constantly evolving personal identities. To someone like Krzaklewski, such fluidity was incapable of sustaining a community, at least not the sort of community that he desired. In the passage quoted above, it is poignant that Krzaklewski did not defend Catholicism because it is true, though of course he believes that it is. To even argue about the validity of the faith in the Sejm (the Polish parliament) would be to concede that religion should be debated in the public agora and then evaluated according to meritocratic standards. For Krzaklewski, Catholicism's role must be "not subject to interpretation" because it is an inextricable part of Poland's "1,030 years of existence." That's all the justification it needs.

In different incarnations, this worldview has been around for a very long time, exemplified by ideologies as different as Wladyslaw Gomulka's "national communism" and Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski's "theology of the nation." (14) The former was defeated and cast into utter disrepute after 1989, but it is less commonly acknowledged that the latter was also widely discredited, at least among the intelligentsia. This is something that meritocrats find hard to understand, because they are bothered by the enormous role that Catholicism continues to play in public life. That role was even sanctified in the Concordat of 1993, which established the principles of church-state relations for the Third Polish Republic. The very existence of a concordat outraged many liberals, because it implied that a treaty with a foreign power (the Vatican) could regulate policy within Poland. But despite all this, communitarians within the church were not even close to being satisfied. They had always perceived the great sin (literally) of the modern era to be the Enlightenment's supposed shattering of the foundations of community, whether by people such as Voltaire (who posited meritocratic tests for religious ideas) or Adam Smith (who posited the "invisible hand" as the meritocratic arbiter in economic relations). From this perspective, communism and socialism were certainly bad, because they were atheistic, rationalizing, and modernizing. But from Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum to the writings of PiS supporters today, many Catholics have described liberalism as the primary enemy, with socialism as an understandable but misguided backlash. Within this worldview, 1989 appeared as a feeble attempt to crawl back up the slippery slope down which the world had been sliding since the eighteenth century. Nothing had been solved at all.

The year 1989 was therefore experienced as a defeat for both the PZPR and for a large faction within the Catholic Church--the two main institutional incarnations of the communitarians in twentieth-century Poland. By the late 1990s, those drawn to this cultural orientation were starting to coalesce behind a movement that recapitulated some of what had been popular about national communism: clear lines between "us" and "them," the promotion of fixed values rather than a marketplace of ideas, the prioritization of stability over the disruptive forces of consumerism, and the valuation of predictability and permanency in employment, even if that undermined efficiency or innovation. But no longer would these values be promoted by the atheistic PZPR, with its distasteful connections to foreign powers. Instead, a new formation would emerge--PiS--that took all these principles and linked them to the other defeated force from 1989: Catholicism.

The Kaczyhski brothers, Lech and Jaroslaw, had been engaged in politics for a long time. They had been active members of the Solidarity movement in the 1980s, and in the 1990s they were important political players, though not quite in the first tier of leadership. As the seemingly endless array of rightist parties formed, dissolved, merged, split, and then formed again, the Kaczynskis were always part of the machinations. They were among the strongest advocates for a more thorough lustration process and for a stronger presence of the Catholic Church in public life. Their core message, however, was clarified when they created PiS in 2005 and demanded that the Third Polish Republic be brought down and replaced by a fourth republic that would be truly Polish, truly Catholic, and truly free.

Many on the Left assumed that the Kaczynskis were just being hyperbolic and manipulative when they described their opponents as "Polish-speaking" but not actually Polish. The echoes of antisemitism in that phrase are too obvious to ignore, but this rhetoric is more than just a cynical attempt to wink at bigots with code words. There is an allusion in that ugly invective to a set of claims about how a state should be designed and what its relationship with the nation should be. Consider this passage from a speech that Jaroslaw Kaczyhski gave in February 2005:
We do not hide the fact that we want to base the constitution on the
system of values that is exclusively recognized, perpetuated, and
obligatory on a social scale in Poland. Its repository is above all the
Catholic Church. It is a system bound to Christianity and to the
national tradition. Of course, this does not imply an attempt to build
a denominational state. I want to underline that very strongly. This is
only a reference to the actually-existing system of values. Poland is
not the sort of country (like Holland, for example) where three
competing value systems exist side by side (Catholic, Protestant, and
secular). In building public life, it is necessary to appeal to
reality. In the system that I'm talking about, there is nothing that
would be unacceptable to an unbeliever, unless he was a personal enemy
of the Lord God. There are such people in Poland, but they are in the
minority. I don't think that it is necessary to make any sort of
far-reaching compromises with them. (15)

Opponents of Kaczyhski would react to this speech with horror but also with bafflement: how did his vision differ from the "denominational state" that he claimed to repudiate? But note that Kaczyhski, like Krzaklewski before him, is not interested in Catholicism because of its transcendent truth; he is committed to it because it is Polish. He even accepts that other countries will be different, because they have different traditions. Kaczyhski does not want to proselytize, to spread Catholicism to nonbelievers. He merely (!) wants to ensure that the Polish nation retains a set of beliefs, values, and customs that are placed beyond question, beyond the reach of the meritocratic marketplace of ideas.

PiS supporters see two dangers to national sovereignty: from above (transnational organizations such as the European Union) and from below (local autonomy, nongovernmental organizations, private initiatives). This is undeniably an authoritarian dream, but it is one that is built on a coherent ideological foundation; in other words, it isn't (at least, it isn't only) a cynical means of justifying one man's hunger for power. In fact, Kaczyhski insists that he doesn't want to be a dictator, and he seems to genuinely see himself as a defender of democracy (albeit in an anti-liberal form). He wants a dictatorship of the sovereign, a term he uses to refer to the ultimate foundation of authority and legitimacy in any state. To avoid chaos, he believes, a sovereign must be singular, lest the state become an unending brawl of ungrounded, conflicting ideals and ideas.

In a democracy, according to this view, the nation constitutes a collective sovereign, but that's only possible if the nation can speak with one voice.

Community and constancy, therefore, are necessarily linked. To maintain the latter, the former has to be a singular noun, and it must transcend any of the transient and unreliable human beings who exist within it. That is why history is so vitally important for PiS, which views it as the biography of the national community and the source of the traditions and values that hold everything together. As defined in 2016 by the Institute for National Memory (by then under PiS control),
Historical policy refers to the interpretation of facts, lives, and
events and is assessed according to the interests of the society and
the nation, as an element that has a long-range character and
constitutes the foundation of state policies. Historical policy is a
type of history that serves to shape the historical consciousness of
society, including economic and territorial consciousness, as well as
to strengthen public discourse about the past in the direction of
nurturing national bonds regardless of the momentary policies of the
state. (16)

As with religion, the issue here is not historical truth as such; instead, history is important because it is the "long-range foundation of the state." It is the set of stories that a community tells and retells in order to establish a bond between generations and to teach young people what "we" believe. It is another of those factors that must never be contested or debated. The supporters of PiS complain about historical accounts that refuse to clearly identify who is a hero and who a villain, who a victim and who a perpetrator, who a martyr and who an oppressor. When historians say (as we are inclined to do) that our scholarship should reveal the complexities, nuances, and multiple perspectives of the past, we are directly repudiating the role that PiS believes we should play. One might be puzzled to hear supporters of PiS argue that certain topics have been obscured or concealed in the Third Polish Republic--topics such as the Warsaw Uprising, the Wolyn massacre, or the courage of those Catholic Poles who risked so much to save Jews during World War II. One could provide lengthy bibliographies on all these topics, proving that there were no genuine blank spots, at least not since the 1980s. But such a retort misses the point. What was lacking was a clear, unambiguous account that was sanctified by public commemorations, evoked in lofty speeches, immortalized in inspiring films and novels, and above all taught to everyone in school. PiS wants to establish a canon of stories that everyone knows, that everyone evokes to identify the good guys and the bad guys, that everyone treats with solemnity and reverence as the unquestioned and unchanging core of their shared identity.

That is why Lech Kaczyhski, as president of Warsaw from 2002 to 2005, put so much effort into the construction of the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising and devoted so many resources to the commemoration of that event's sixtieth anniversary in 2004. The tragedy of 1944 was to become the cornerstone of PiS's historical politics because it was replete with stories of good versus evil and national martyrdom. Best of all, for PiS's purposes, the decision to launch the uprising did not adhere to the trivial dictates of (liberal) rationality. It was a perfect historical moment precisely because it had been so unlikely to succeed, precisely because it had been motivated by "national tradition" and patriotic fervor rather than a balance sheet of meritocratic calculus.

Another vitally important symbolic gesture was Lech Kaczyhski's attempts in both 2004 and 2005 to ban the Warsaw Equality Parade, a demonstration calling for equal rights for gays and lesbians. The effort to block the march was blatantly in violation of the 1997 constitution, which guaranteed freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Predictably, those opposed to PiS organized a Freedom Assembly, in which leading politicians from a wide range of centrist and leftist parties found common cause with gay-rights activists. It was a striking moment because prior to this, hardly any prominent politicians had been willing to associate themselves with the LGBTQ cause. But by then the cultural chasm of the Third Polish Republic was on stark display. On one side were those who believed that the public sphere--what they called "civil society"--depended on vigorous debate and a respect for different opinions and perspectives. On the other side were those who believed that the most important community--the nation--could only be sustained if there were a broad range of matters on which contrary views were inadmissible.

This perspective on Polish politics casts in a new light the events of April 10, 2010, when Lech Kaczyhski--then president of Poland--and ninety-five other Polish dignitaries were killed when their airplane crashed near Smolensk, Russia. The immediate reaction was an outpouring of undifferentiated grief, not only because of the human tragedy but because people from a wide variety of political parties and social circles had died. Indeed, many of the passengers had not been engaged in partisan politics at all. That shared moment of loss is easy to forget, because very quickly the episode was politicized by PiS, whose leaders inserted the crash into their overall understanding of the forces controlling modern Polish history. For them, it was inconceivable that a random event could lead to the death of so many of their leaders. History had to have meaning, so the crash had to be the result of some sort of conspiracy. It had to be depicted as an attack, not an accident, and the casualties had to be remembered as sacrificed, not merely dead.

For meritocrats, history consists of events with causal connections that can be studied and evaluated using the tools of reason and empirical verification. For the communitarians, history is the primary source for collective identity, so they seek out analogies and parallels that can be interpreted within an existing national mythology. Such stories must not be judged as either true or false, because they exist in a realm beyond such terrestrial and quotidian distinctions. Just as the standard Catholic exegesis of the Bible casts the story of the ancient Jewish people as a foreshadowing of events in the life of Jesus, so does this kind of history provide auguries for the present. Since Katyh had been the site of a mass murder central to the national martyrology, the deaths of President Kaczyhski and so many others near that site had to be part of that same lachrymose narrative. Opponents of PiS were bewildered and angered by the sudden proliferation of implausible conspiracy theories, by the insistence that President Kaczyhski be buried in the crypts of the kings at Wawel Cathedral in Krakow (rather than alongside the other Polish presidents under Saint John's Archcathedral in Warsaw), and by the insistence that the passengers "were killed" (rather than "died"). Demands for evidence about the supposed plot were always pointless, because the meaning of the deaths depended on something much deeper than the trivialities of empirical documentation. The "prooP'' that the PiS supporters did offer would never be persuasive to anyone who didn't already believe in the mythology, much as non-Christians are rarely converted by carefully articulated Christian apologetics.

For PiS loyalists, the underlying meaning of the Smolensk mythology was not only that Lech Kaczyhski had been assassinated in a plot coordinated by Donald Tusk, Vladimir Putin, and perhaps Angela Merkel. Even more important was the way this fable was linked to a broader story about the history of the Third Polish Republic. The events of April 10, 2010, were a continuation of the martyrological epic whose most recent chapter began with the Nazi invasion of 1939, continued through the Soviet takeover in 1944-48, and the landmarks of anticommunist protest in 1956, 1970, and 1980-81. This story did not end in 1989, when (PiS supporters believe) a potential liberation was manipulated by unseen forces to ensure that the drama of national "captivity" would continue. The supposed accomplishments of the round table were false, because afterward the state continued to undermine and challenge the primacy of the national community. Precisely because Lech Kaczyhski represented a counterforce to this atomizing, liberalizing, rationalizing force of communal disruption, he had to be a martyr, not a mere casualty.

Following the high drama of 2010, PiS continued to lose elections, leading many to assume that the Smolensk myth was the final supernova of a dying ideological star. The broader forces of the global economy, European cultural integration, expanding education, and continued prosperity would mean that more and more people would embrace the modern world of liberal, capitalist meritocracy. The fantasies of the "Smolensk religion" (as critics of PiS called if) seemed out of touch with the whole array of cultural forces that were dominating everyday life in early twenty-first-century Poland. Yet even as the norms of liberal meritocracy spread to a majority, it remained deeply unattractive to a sizeable minority. Since PiS was the only ideological force trying to articulate the values of the communitarians, it would continue indefinitely to be a powerful factor in Polish political life.

Because of Poland's amazing economic growth in the early twenty-first century, there are lots of opportunities for talented young people. Those who master foreign languages, computer skills, creative thinking, and time management; those who are physically attractive and socially charismatic; those who work hard and devote long hours to their jobs--these people have lots of opportunities. They might have to move to Warsaw or go abroad, and they might have to accept low-paying freelance jobs for an extended period, but in general terms this world has been designed for them. But what about the young people who lack those abilities or personal characteristics? They are adrift, culturally marginalized, and increasingly angry. They aren't members of a conventional working class, so the old social-democratic parties of Europe don't have a recipe for dealing with their problems (even if leaders such as Aleksander Kwasniewski, Tony Blair, and Bill Clinton hadn't steered their parties away from class politics in the 1990s). So they look elsewhere for politicians who seem to notice them and care about them--to movements such as PiS.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski and the communitarians he has mobilized do not define Poland any more than the liberal meritocrats in power before 2015 did. We must never forget that PiS came to power with only 38 percent of the vote. More than 2.5 million votes were "wasted" in that election on parties that failed to pass the 5 percent minimum needed to enter the Sejm--the highest such figure since the tumultuous elections of 1993, when the current electoral system was first introduced. Since most of those wasted votes went to various leftist parties, the current parliament does not represent the Polish electorate. In other words, we must not conclude that Poland is characterized by the communitarian worldview that I have described here. Yet we should be equally wary of equating Poland with the meritocrats. Today, Poland is a deeply divided country, marked by irreducible diversity. To be sure, the old measures of diversity--language, religion, ethnicity, nationality--are absent. But that hardly makes the country homogeneous, despite routine cliches to the contrary. The gap between "Poland A" and "Poland B" has always been there, and it is no less important just because it no longer has an ethnolinguistic overlay. Nearly everyone is notionally Catholic, but the cultural divide between those who are merely baptized and those who are religiously devout has become profound--perhaps even more profound than the gaps between Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox Christians from the time when almost everyone was religiously engaged. The huge growth of Poland's cities has also created a relatively new source of diversity along urban/rural lines. I suspect that a Ukrainian-speaking peasant and a Polish-speaking peasant had more in common at the start of the twentieth century than did a Polish-speaking small farmer from the Lublin region and a Polish-speaking investment banker from Warsaw did at the start of the twenty-first century. The concept of homogeneity is always an illusion, and the tendency to use the term Poland (or Polish culture, Polish society, etc.) as a singular subject will always be a misleading overgeneralization.


(1.) Pankowski, "Czy warto bylo," 2.

(2.) See Czesnik, Partycypacja wyborcza Polakow; and the Pahstwowa Komisja Wyborcza (National Electoral Commission) website at

(3.) Pahstwowa Komisja Wyborcza,

(4.) On the role of anger in Polish politics, see Ost, Defeat of Solidarity.

(5.) An excellent critique of arguments based on claims that "there is no alternative" can be found in Ther, Europe since 1989, 77-111.

(6.) Omyla-Rudzka, "Stosunek do innych narodow," 3-4.

(7.) As quoted in Szulc, "Strajk studentow w Polsce."

(8.) The worldview I'm describing here is not quite the same as the Anglo-American philosophical approach known as communitarianism, represented in Maclntyre, After Virtue; Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, or Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice. The difference, however, is mainly one of register: the philosophy of communitarianism is an attempt to formulate a sophisticated articulation of a more deeply embedded emotional and cultural pattern.

(9.) This is an important part of the background for the conservative opposition in Poland to the Council of Europe's Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. It wasn't that conservatives were in favor of violence but rather that they resisted the idea that family relations could be identified as a site for state regulation and monitoring, because that implied that family bonds were conditional, not absolute.

(10.) This is the argument of Agnieszka Pasieka pathbreaking research in Hierarchy and Pluralism.

(11.) In the United States, the Democratic Party coalition consists of communitarians from a variety of ethnoracial communities and left-liberal, social-welfare-state meritocrats. Meanwhile, the Republican Party coalition consists of communitarians among those defined as white, alongside laissezfaire, libertarian meritocrats.

(12.) Konstytucja Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej, 2 kwietnia 1997, preambula, An English translation (with a few minor differences from mine) is available at Constitution of the Republic of Poland, April 2, 1997, preamble,

(13.) Krzaklewski, "Sprawozdanie Komisji Konstytucyjnej" (my translation).

(14.) On national communism, see Tyszka, Nacjonalizm w komunizmie; and Zaremba, Komunizm, legitymizacja, nacjonalizm. On the theology of the nation, see Porter-Szucs, Faith and Fatherland.

(15.) Kaczyhski, "O naprawie Rzeczypospolitej" (my translation).

(16.) Instytut Pamieci Narodowej, "Polityka historyczna" (my translation).


Czesnik, Mikolaj. Partycypacja wyborcza Polako'w. Warsaw: Instytut Spraw Publicznych, 2009.

Instytut Pamieci Narodowej, "Polityka historyczna."

Kaczynski, Jaroslaw. "O naprawie Rzeczypospolitej." Lecture at the Stefan Batory Foundation, February 14, 2005.

Krzaklewski, Marian. "Wypowiedzi na posiedzeniach Sejmu: Sprawozdanie Komisji Konstytucyjnej Zgromadzenia Narodowego o projekcie Konstytucji Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej - drugie czytanie." Sejm Rzeczypospolitej

Polskiej, February 25, 1997.

Maclntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981. Omyla-Rudzka, Malgorzata. "Stosunek do innych narodow." Komunikat z badan 37, Centrum Badania Opinii Spolecznej, Warsaw, March 2018.

Ost, David. The Defeat of Solidarity: Anger and Politics in Postcommunist Europe. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005.

Pankowski, Krzysztof. "Czy warto bylo zmieniac ustroj: Opinie Czechow, Wegrow i Polakow." Komunikat z badan 168, Centrum Badania Opinii Spolecznej, Warsaw, November 1999.

Pasieka, Agnieszka. Hierarchy and Pluralism: Living Religious Difference in Catholic Poland. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Porter-Szucs, Brian. Faith and Fatherland: Catholicism, Modernity, and Poland. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Szulc, Anna. "Strajk studentow w Polsce." Newsweek Polska, January 23, 2017.\,artykuly,404010,l.html.

Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Ther, Philipp. Europe since 1989: A History. Translated by Charlotte Hughes-Kreutzmuller. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Tyszka, Krzysztof. Nacjonalizm w komunizmie: Ideologia narodowa w Zwiazku Radzeckim i Polsce Eudowej. Warsaw: Wydawnictwo IFiS PAN, 2004.

Walzer, Michael. Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

Young, Michael. The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033. London: Thames and Hudson, 1958.

Zaremba, Marcin. Komunizm, legitymizacja, nacjonalizm: Nacjonalistyczna legitymizacja wtadzy komunistycznej w Poisce. Warsaw: TRIO, 2001.


Brian Porter-Szucs is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of History at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he has taught since 1994. He is the author of Poland and the Modern World: Beyond Martyrdom (Wiley Blackwell, 2014), Faith and Fatherland: Catholicism, Modernity, and Poland (Oxford University Press, 2010), and When Nationalism Began to Hate: Imagining Modern Politics in Nineteenth-Century Poland (Oxford University Press, 2000), which was translated into Polish as Gdy nacjonalizm zaczat nienawdzic: Wyobrazenia nowoczesnej polityki w dziewietnastowiecznej Polsce (Pogranicze, 2011). Together with Bruce Berglund, he coedited Christianity and Modernity in East-Central Europe (Central European University Press, 2010). In early 2019, his book Calkiem zwyczajny kraj: Historia Polski bez martyrologii will appear from WAB Publishers in Warsaw.
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