Why are Poles so conservative? And why are Western countries like the United States, and my country of Canada, so liberal?
Although Poland claims to be Western and democratic, its government and culture are markedly different from those of Western countries such as Canada. Poland and Canada have been shaped by their pasts to evolve along separate paths.
Understanding Polish society today requires understanding its past. Poland has had a checkered history, from being a Great Power to disappearing from the map of Europe, and this has contributed to a sense of ethnic solidarity among Poles. Poland’s official history stretches back to the reception of Christianity from Rome in 966. The country since then has undergone precipitous boundary shifts.
In the early medieval period under the Piast dynasty, the country was about the shape of today’s Poland. Under the Jagiellonian dynasty, the Kingdom of Poland, then in union with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, stretched between the Baltic and Black Seas, and up to the outskirts of Moscow. After the death of the last Jagiellonian King in 1572, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth became a “Royal Republic,” or “the Republic of Nobles,” with an elective monarchy.
Poland was then a sprawling country with an ineffective central government, dominated by a large noble class that encompassed 10 percent of the population, a ratio far higher than in most European countries. This top echelon enjoyed full democratic rights, and Poland may have been among the most democratic major countries in early modern Europe—unlike France, for example, where political power was wielded by a very small fraction of the total population.
The governmental weakness of the First Republic led to Poland’s partition by its aggressive, and better organized, neighbors—Tsarist Russia, Prussia, and Imperial Austria—and by 1795 Poland disappeared from the map of Europe. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the so-called Congress Kingdom of Poland (which represented a small part of pre-partition Poland) received autonomy under Russian rule.
Later, because of failed uprisings in 1830 and 1863, that autonomy was severely curtailed. The smallest area in partitioned Poland, Galicia, received wide autonomy within the Austro-Hungarian Empire after 1867. After another abortive revolution in 1905, Polish leaders continued to hope Russia would loosen its grip. A modern Polish nation encompassing all classes finally arose in 1918, after the collapse of all three occupying empires. The boundaries of the Second Republic were narrowed in the west, but stretched in the east: to Lwów (now in Ukraine) in the south, and to Wilno (which is now in Lithuania) in the north. After several years of political unrest, Poland went over to a semi-authoritarian regime under Marshal Józef Piłsudski in 1926.
Trapped between two totalitarian regimes, Poland was invaded by Hitler’s Nazi Germany on Sept. 1, 1939, and then by Stalin’s Soviet Union on Sept. 17. The policies of both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were brutal toward the captive Poles.
The imposition of Soviet Communism on Poland after 1945, with the proclamation of the People’s Republic of Poland, coupled with the wrenching westward shift of the national boundaries, were further dislocations. In the years from 1945 forward, Polish Communists (aided by a large NKVD-Red Army apparatus), increasingly tightened their control over Polish society. The death of Stalin in 1953 resulted in the eventual “polonization” of the regime under Władysław Gomułka in 1956. This was called “the Polish October,” as Gomułka, although Communist, moved the regime away from Stalinist totalitarianism.
The disturbances that erupted between 1968 and 1970 brought to power Edward Gierek. Supported by Western loans, Gierek produced a brief period of prosperity for Poland during the 1970s. Nevertheless, the election of the Polish Pope John Paul II in 1978 galvanized domestic opposition to Communism, resulting in the Solidarity independent trade union movement, which the Communist state recognized on Aug. 31, 1980. On Dec. 13, 1981, Communist General Wojciech Jaruzelski, responding to Soviet threats of invasion, declared martial law, an act that temporarily drove Solidarity underground. The later so-called Roundtable Agreements resulted in semi-free elections, which took place on June 4, 1989. On the eve of the collapse of the Soviet empire, Poland’s population voted overwhelmingly for Solidarity candidates.
above: President Ronald Reagan meets with Pope John Paul II at the Fairbanks Airport in Alaska on May 2, 1984 (National Archives)
Since 1989 the Polish Third Republic has attempted to restore a pre-Communist national culture and has met with some success. From a contemporary American perspective, Poland looks and feels like a much more traditional society than, say Germany, Spain, or Canada.
At the same time, there is a greater pluralism of belief and authentic freedom of thought and speech in post-Communist Poland than exists in Canada. Here we are still living in the wake of a cultural and political revolution wrought by Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Liberal Prime Minister from 1968 to 1984.
Indeed, the Polish right has recovered far better in the wake of the collapse of Communism than Canada’s increasingly anemic conservatism has fared after Trudeau. There is certainly more diversity in the Polish academy and media today than in their Canadian counterparts. Canada appears intent on extirpating the last vestiges of tradition from its society, such that being a serious conservative in Canadian social, political, and cultural life may soon be impossible.
In Poland, by contrast, there are a huge number of well-known conservative and right-wing personalities, who are not only surviving, but thriving. If some Western Europeans tendentiously accuse Poland of being “a country without a left,” then a far more apt accusation against Canada is that it is “a country without a right.”
When Poles vote in their democratic elections, they still have a far greater variety of electable parties with different outlooks than is the case in Canada or Germany. Poland can be seen as a “national democracy” where the historic nation and its cultural and religious identities still exercise a profound influence on politics. Canada by contrast is an emphatically late-modern “liberal democracy” where there is little left of the English or French-Canadian historic nations that once formed the country.
Indeed, our current prime minister, Justin Trudeau has proclaimed that Canada is a “post-national state,” and he has blithely extended official multiculturalism to all aspects of human life. Given continued high immigration, it seems that within little more than a hundred years, Canada’s historic populations will have mostly disappeared. That does not seem likely to occur in today’s Poland.
above: Jarosław Kaczyński speaks at the conference “Constitution of Solidarity” in the Polish Parliament on April 3, 2017. (Wikimedia Commons/Kancelaria Sejmu/Rafał Zambrzycki)
Poland’s Law and Justice Party, with its wily Chairman, Jarosław Kaczyński, has been able to consolidate its power through popular social welfare measures aimed at families with children. It has also evoked feelings of national pride and used state broadcasting agencies, including TVP (Polish Television) to evoke Polish nationalist sentiments.
The Law and Justice Party, however, has become embroiled with the Polish left over the tightening of restrictions on abortion, a situation that has drawn censures from the European Union command structure. But the Polish left may have also shot itself in the foot by embracing LGBTQ initiatives, which has not increased the popularity of leftist parties such as Civic Platform in what remains a largely conservative Poland. The latest fight with the left is over a proposed tax on advertisements, which is seen as an attack on nongovernmental media, which is mostly situated on the left.
The Law and Justice government has also proposed heavy fines on U.S. tech giants that censor or deplatform Polish citizens. These victims of censorship are expressing speech that, as the Polish government insists, is perfectly legal for Poles.
So, why are Poles so conservative? There is obviously the long-standing Catholic tradition in the country, which became more tenacious during the Communist period, as the Church in Poland stood bravely against the regime. There is also a long tradition in Poland of stressing national sovereignty, which is a result of the bitter lessons learned from the collapse of the Polish state in the late 18th century, which was a disaster for the Polish nation.
Further, Poland can point back to a heroic tradition of resistance to Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism during and after World War II. Many of Poland’s institutions attempt to instill these memories of resistance, and resent attempts to blacken the Polish nation with what are believed to be false accusations.
We may also note that even Polish Communists were sometimes nationalists and, by current standards, social conservatives. Some have argued that the result of Communist rule was that Poland became “frozen in time,” and was thus able to escape the radical social dynamics that overtook Canada, the U.S., and Western Europe in recent decades.
above: George Parkin Grant, the Canadian philosopher who once said, “The directors of General Motors and the followers of Professor Marcuse sail down the same river in different boats.” (photo courtesy University of Toronto Press)
There has emerged in most Western societies like Canada something called (by its critics) “the managerial-therapeutic regime”. This term is derived from the ideas of James Burnham, author of The Managerial Revolution (1941), and from those of Philip Rieff, author of The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966), former Chronicles columnist Samuel T. Francis, and Chronicles’ current editor, Paul Gottfried. Similar critical observations were echoed by George Parkin Grant (1918-1988), Canada’s leading traditionalist philosopher.
Canada today may be a showcase illustration of such a managerial-therapeutic regime, one that is socially radical but favorable to corporate capitalism. “The directors of General Motors and the followers of Professor Marcuse sail down the same river in different boats,” as Grant put it. There are discernible plutocratic aspects to modern-day Canada, and wide swaths of the population are unemployed or underemployed in what for many people is a worker-unfriendly environment.
The managerial-therapeutic regime is based on relatively new structures of social, political, and cultural control. Such a regime may even be seen as objectively anti-democratic, and as creating a “democratic deficit.” Such a regime can exercise, up to a point, power in a “soft” fashion. This involves, inter alia, the promotion of consumerism and pop-culture; the shaping of social and political reality by purveying news and politicized entertainment; a mass educational system; and the “judicialization” of political questions relating to political and religious speech and freedom of religion (in Canada typically through human rights commissions/tribunals).
The diffuse presence of these structures in society throws into question long-standing, classic understandings of government, politics, and democratic self-governance. The right to freedom of speech—a supposed bedrock of democracy—is no longer valued, even in theory, when it opposes the imperative of being “politically correct.”
Democracy in Western countries is no longer understood as a vehicle for choosing between differing political persuasions. It is presented as an all-encompassing system of “democratic values” that must be upheld and imposed on everyone in society. In Canada, the word “democratic” is now used with the implied meaning of being socially on the left.
These tendentious social and legal instruments are so deeply entrenched in Canada’s fabric that they can easily remove or disempower any challenge to the regime. The regime is further strengthened through a pseudo-dialectic between an official left and right, which serves to exclude any truly serious public debate. Elections may bring different parties and candidates into office, but the managerial-therapeutic regime endures.
Soft totalitarianism may in fact be arising in Western societies that ostentatiously proclaim themselves to be the freest and the most democratic. East-Central European countries like Poland and Hungary have thus far avoided this fate.