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With the people

Enda O’Doherty writes: A little over ten years ago, in late September 2009, I visited Gdańsk as part of an international delegation of journalists and “civil society members” invited by the Polish government to participate in a series of events commemorating two landmarks in the nation’s history: the 1939 invasion and subsequent partition by Germany and Russia, and the coming to power of Solidarity in semi-free elections in 1989.

In the lobby of the Hotel Mercure a few dozen old soldiers, who had come to participate in the ceremonies, milled about, a surprisingly well-looking complement of men given that they must have been mostly in their late eighties. I asked one who had invited me to rest my beer at his table and take a seat beside him if he had been among those who had, after the German invasion, joined the underground Home Army (AK or Armia Krajowa). But no, he had been with the other Polish force, known as the Anders’ army after its leader, General Władysław Anders: soldiers who had been interned by the Russians but who, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, were released and allowed to join the Allied war effort, eventually fighting their way up through Italy in 1944. The following sixty-five years my friend had spent in London.

The old soldiers made a picturesque addition to a celebratory Mass held later that day in the church of St Brigid, which featured a large number of flags and standards, a busy camera crew with platforms and lights, many civic dignitaries and a brace at least of bishops. The veterans stood to attention throughout the service in the church aisle, moving only to give the Polish two-fingered military salute as the priest raised the host at the consecration, a mark of respect, it seemed, for the most superior of superior officers. As the Gdańsk tourist website says, St Brigid’s church itself is, in the various aspects of its decoration and iconography, “as close a visual confirmation as you will see of the idea that the Catholic Church and Poland are indivisible”.

Later that evening a few of our party attended a meeting on the site of the former shipyard, where the city’s mayor was due to speak. Paweł Adamowicz had been mayor of Gdańsk for more than twenty years, having been re-elected several times with very large majorities ‑ yet it seemed that not everyone liked him for when he rose to speak a group of a dozen or so men began to heckle very loudly and aggressively. Neither myself nor my companion of course knew quite what was happening but luckily we had standing beside us a friendly anglophone Pole who explained that the hecklers were “Kaczyński people”, supporters that is of the national-conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) led by twin brothers Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński, at that time in opposition to the ruling liberal-conservative Civic Platform (PO) government of Donald Tusk.

Probably the next time I heard of Paweł Adamowicz was when I read that he had been stabbed at a charity event in Gdańsk on January 13th this year. He died of his wounds the next day, aged fifty-three. His assailant was a man with a string of convictions for violent crime, recently released from prison and with a particular grievance, it seems, against the Civic Platform party, which had supported Adamowicz’s candidacy (he ran as an independent). The murder, or assassination, of course shocked Poland, with the PiS interior minister describing it as “an act of inexplicable barbarism”. Adamowicz came from a conservative and Catholic tradition – he had in fact been decorated by both Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski, a former communist, and Pope John Paul II – but he opposed the xenophobic “white Poland” policies of PiS and the far right. When Jarosław Kaczyński told Poland’s EU partners that his country had no interest in taking in a share of Syrian or any other refugees, Adamowicz said that Gdańsk was happy to accept refugees. In an official culture obsessed with pure Polishness he stressed his city’s multiple inheritances (German, Polish, Dutch, Flemish, Scottish, English) and in particular reached out to its local Kashubian minority. (The most famous modern native of Gdańsk/Danzig, the writer Günter Grass, had a German father but thought of himself principally as Kashubian.) Adamowicz supported sex education, including education about safe sex, in schools; the PiS accused him of encouraging minors to engage in sexual activity. Finally, in 2018, he accepted the offer to become patron of his city’s Gay Pride parade and marched alongside the participants. All of these positions led to him becoming a particular hate figure for PiS – and it seems that that party and its media cheerleaders have a lot of hate to spare. It may well be that Paweł Adamowicz’s killer was mentally ill, but his murder was probably not quite as “inexplicable” as the country’s interior minister suggested at the time.

Consideration of these questions of the intersection of politics and cultural, ideological or religious traditions was prompted by reading an article recently published https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/24/western-liberalism-failed-post-communist-eastern-europe in The Guardian, “How liberalism became ‘the god that failed in eastern Europe”, by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes. The article is an extract from the authors’ new book, The Light That Failed: A Reckoning, published today (October 31st) by Allen Lane. The reference, in both extract and book, is to the 1949 classic of anti-communist polemic The God That Failed, edited by the British left-wing Labour MP Richard Crossman.

Just as the contributors to the 1949 work (Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, André Gide and Stephen Spender among others) argued that communism had failed as a source of hope for the altruistic leftish intellectual of the mid-twentieth century, so Krastev and Holmes argue that liberalism, which seemed to have won a final victory over its old rival in 1989, has now itself failed, and for a much wider category of people than the intellectuals.

In the first years after 1989, liberalism was generally associated with the ideals of individual opportunity, freedom to move and to travel, unpunished dissent, access to justice and government responsiveness to public demands. By 2010, the central and eastern European versions of liberalism had been indelibly tainted by two decades of rising social inequality, pervasive corruption and the morally arbitrary redistribution of public property into the hands of a small number of people. The economic crisis of 2008 had bred a deep distrust of business elites and the casino capitalism that, writ large, almost destroyed the world financial order.
Liberalism’s reputation in the region never recovered from 2008 ...

This collapse in the reputation of liberalism, and the considerable social pain caused by policy failures, of both international and domestic origin, have opened up a large space, Krastev and Holmes argue, for illiberal national-conservative parties like PiS in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary, themselves not exactly free of corruption yet perhaps more aware than were the liberals of the need to “take care of” the less dynamic elements of the population (as well as of their own political and business cronies).

Krastev and Holmes also argue that while no single factor can explain the simultaneous emergence of a variety of “populisms” in different countries of central and eastern Europe “resentment at liberal democracy’s canonical status” and resistance to “the politics of imitation [of the West]” and the idea that there is no alternative have played a decisive role, much more so than “the gravitational pull of an authoritarian past or historically ingrained hostility to liberalism”. Perhaps.

The good news of the revolutions of 1989 was brought to English-speaking readers by a variety of journalists but perhaps by no one more tellingly than Timothy Garton Ash in a handful of widely read books reporting from the various fronts and a few score newspaper articles. (I also remember an impressive work from Misha Glenny, The Rebirth of History.) There was certainly a lot of romance in these accounts, which is not to say that they were fictional. But there were heroes, particularly for me the disciplined striking workers in Poland, led by the unmoveable Lech Wałesa, and the clever, witty and brave literary intellectuals of Prague, whose primus inter pares was the knightly Vacláv Havel.

One of the still not entirely explained mysteries of the time was why it all seemed – in the end – so easy. Certainly the withdrawal of Russian support from the various regimes was hugely significant, but the domestic armies and police were themselves armed to the teeth without the Russians. Why were they not tempted to violently repress the pro-democracy activists themselves? With the exception of Poland these were not all that numerous.

An answer we may have supplied to ourselves at the time was that the regimes actually, amazingly, had no public support whatsoever. But if we had been watching in the first post-revolutionary democratic elections in Czechoslovakia in 1990 – though no one really was – we would have seen that the (unchanged, unrepentant) communist party polled over 13 per cent of the vote; and it hasn’t gone away since. In a fascinating essay-memoir in the current issue of the Dublin Review of Books, Alena Dvořáková, a participant in the events of November 1989 in Prague, writes of the uncertainty among the activists as to what was happening and what was going to happen. Recalling that, in an atmosphere of relative shortage of consumer goods, or relative lack of variety, the man who was to become her husband, a returned expatriate Czech, remarked on the vast space given in local shops to mustard (the national condiment), even though there were only two types.

The slogans held up on banners and shouted out by the November 1989 protesters were political rather than economic ... No one demanded “More brands of mustard! We want the Dijon!” But it is arguable that if they had, they would have better captured the driving motivation of most who joined the Velvet Revolution; for the great majority were less interested in the ideals of freedom and democracy or in Havel’s “life of truth” than in the consumerist choices associated with capitalist markets and their promise of greater personal wealth.

It may be possible that Krastev and Holmes’s account (I have only read the extract, not the book) does not adequately question the usefulness of the term “liberalism”, which, like many political terms still in constant use today, means different things to different people. We can, first of all, try to distinguish political and economic liberalism, the belief that the state should interfere with or harass the population as little as possible, from the belief that there should be no, or as little as possible, regulation of economic activity. And we can distinguish moderate/pragmatic economic liberalism from the extreme or dogmatic variety: Václav Havel for example, who, believed that a market economy was the system which on the whole better “delivered the goods” for society, from Václav Klaus, who believed, like Margaret Thatcher, that market mechanisms alone, unhindered by the state, would produce optimum results for everyone, and if they didn’t ... well, too bad; they’d certainly produce good results for some.

It would seem to be the case, broadly speaking, that the Polish government under Donald Tusk implemented policies which may have “got the economy moving” but did very little for those who because of lack of education, or age, or lack of “drive”, were not going to get moving themselves. And PiS would seem to have made it a major part of its political strategy to talk to these people and to divide the fruits of economic progress more equally, both through direct and indirect transfers. If this is merely “populism” or “clientelism”, as it has been called, perhaps it is time for centre-left, liberal or centre-right politicians to consider adding a little more people-awareness to their political recipes too.

Nor, I think, can we entirely discount what Krastev and Holmes refer to as “the gravitational pull of an authoritarian past or historically ingrained hostility to liberalism” (I would not choose those exact words). In his wonderful memoir Native Realm, the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz writes of the two main tribes of 1920s and ’30s Poland, the political family of Marshal Józef Piłsudski (nominally a socialist one though inclining towards authoritarian rule), which tended towards an inclusive definition of Polishness – he is Polish who thinks himself Polish – and that of his political rival Roman Dmowski, leader of the National Democrat or Endecja movement, which believed that ethnic Poles – Roman Catholic ethnic Poles ‑ must dominate, subordinate and exclude from power all other groups. And in the interwar period that was a very substantial group of people or peoples, ethnic Germans, Jews, (Orthodox) Ukrainians, Lithuanians, (Orthodox) Byelorussians.

The idea that the Catholic Church and Poland are indivisible may be a pretty one to put on a tourist website to explain church iconography, but it is one from which can be derived some quite alarming logical consequences. If to be Catholic (in Poland) is to be truly and deeply national, then to be less than Catholic, or not Catholic at all, is surely to be less than national, and less than fit to represent the nation politically, even perhaps to be one of the nation’s natural enemies (of which it has many).

A lot of analysis of populism, particularly left-wing analysis, seems to see it as a political freak or monster, a transgression of the normal (left vs right) rules which has happened only because of some unusual dérive of capitalism or the failures or betrayals of social democrats. Very few of the analysts seem to me to attribute sufficient importance to the agency of the populists themselves, who, in several countries ‑ and not just in central and eastern Europe – are clever, and largely unscrupulous, opportunists who employ teams of skilled analysts and publicists – and have many others operating as megaphones in the mainstream media ‑ in their bid to take and retain power.

Populist success (which is relative taking into consideration Europe as a whole) has certainly been made easier by the social costs of neoliberalism but there are culturally inherited and perhaps even merely human elements on which populism can feed in any economic circumstances, and increasingly knows how to as the playbook becomes international: our feelings that our nation and our ways are best; our fear of being “swamped” by people who do not speak our language and whose ways are different; our belief that things certainly used to be better; our desire that someone should pay for the mess we’re in; our sense that if things are going wrong that is most likely because of a betrayal and that that betrayal has most likely been secretly planned for and is being implemented by people who stand to gain themselves and who are in league with shadowy faraway groups who have no concern for you or me.

These or similar elements – in 1880s France the favoured enemies were Jews, Protestants, freemasons and bankers – have been around as useful elements for the extreme right since almost the dawn of mass democracy. Perhaps the fears and resentments on which they feed are part of our DNA. It seems to me that the way to counter populism is not by a plan of action dictated after a period of study leading to what the Marxists call “correct analysis”. Society is not a machine in which one moving part can be taken out and replaced with another, after which we should expect normal working to resume. If we are to tackle right-wing populism we must be prepare to tirelessly, but not arrogantly, combat its propositions, to point out its hypocrisies, absurdities and the spiritual poverty of its vision of society. This would no doubt involve recourse to some old-fashioned concepts like the common good and require a determined and imaginative attempt to harness the idealism of the young and others.

In the short term there is no indication that the present regimes in either Poland or Hungary are likely to be budged. But we may take consolation perhaps from the idea that the future is a place where things we did not expect tend to happen.

Jarosław Kaczyński sees Poland as a country with a unique history and tradition, identified with its faithfulness to a thousand-year heritage of Roman Catholicism which has resisted Protestantism, Enlightenment and godless communism and is now resisting the decadence, or absence of values, of multiculturalist, value-relativist Western Europe. Viktor Orbán, like Kaczyński, believes in keeping Europe, or at least his part of it, white and monocultural. (It is not entirely a matter of Catholic in Hungary, where there is a sizeable Calvinist minority.) The Magyar tribes arrived in the late ninth century in the Carpathian basin, he tells us, and settled there. It is their land and will always be their land. Some of the most optimistic and naive of liberals apparently believed that history had ended in 1989; for Orbán it was 895. And he wants us to share his vision of unchanging, always white, fortress Europe.

Originally a liberal himself, he has said: “Twenty-seven years ago here in Central Europe, we believed that Europe was our future; today we feel that we are the future of Europe.” Well, let us hope not.

31/10/2019