Spectres from the past: a reflection on the pre-history of the Polish Kulturkampf

Screen Shot 2015-01-21 at 05.34.34Piotr Wciślik

On August 24, 1989 Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first non-communist prime minister of what was still formally People’s Republic of Poland, announced in his exposé: “The government I shall lead cannot be held accountable for the mortgage it inherits. It does have, however, influence on the circumstances in which we are bound to act. We draw a thick line under the past. We will be responsible for what we will have done to deliver Poland from the present state of collapse.”

The process that would eventually lead to Mazowiecki’s speech began with the constitution of the Citizens’ Committee formed by eminent dissidents and Solidarity activists and headed by Lech Wałęsa. The Committee assumed the political representation of the society in the negotiations with the government officials concerning economic and political reform of the state. Faced by a severe economic crisis, lack of popular legitimacy and a change in the international framework (especially Gorbachov’s newly proclaimed “Sinatra Doctrine”, which allowed the Eastern Bloc countries to “do it their way”), the reformist fraction of the Communist Party had shown the willingness to share the burden of responsibility for the radical economic decisions with the opposition, even if it had to be in return for some political concessions. The discussions regarding the form of the possible negotiations began in August 1988; in February of 1989, the so-called Round Table Talks between the party and the opposition began. Not all dissident tendencies were represented in the committee: most notably, radical youth groups were left out, as were some Solidarity leaders in conflict with Wałęsa. Some of those groups rejected the negotiation as an act of treason, which enabled the Solidarity representatives to present themselves as ‘moderates’ which was a useful argument to be played against the instrumentalization of the liberals/hardliners division by the party representatives. The Accord signed on April 5, 1989 comprised joint ‘positions’ on the issues of economic reform, trade-union pluralism and political reform. Most important was the last one, which included the establishment of the office of president with great prerogatives in the sphere of internal and external security and announcement of the ‘non-confrontational’ elections, in which 35 percent of the seats in the Sejm and all seats in the newly established Senate would be filled on the basis of free vote. The date of the elections was set on June 4. An all-Solidarity list was formed to run for the elections, while the groups which did not participate in the Round Table run independently. The campaign was promoted by Solidarity’s own daily Gazeta Wyborcza (Election Paper) with Adam Michnik as editor-in-chief. The result was a landslide victory of Solidarity, which won all but one seats in Sejm (161) and all but eight seats in Senate (92). The vacant seats were filled in the second round, the democratic oppositions taking remaining share. In the light of Communist Party’s total defeat, it took both some time to find a way out which would neither provoke the Communist ‘base’ nor ignore the society’s verdict in which case calls to overthrow the regime ‘from below’ could be expected to gain popularity. Thanks to Wałęsa unexpected call for alliance with the former satellite parties, the variant originally expressed by Adam Michnik in his article ‘Your President, Our Prime Minister’ was passed. On August 24, the first non-Communist prime minister had its inaugural speech.

The phrase ‘We draw a thick line under the past’ made history, quite independently of Mazowiecki’s intentions. It came to symbolize the clarion call for revision of the narratives about the country’s recent past from the vantage point of an uncertain present and a future more unknown than ever. The times were changing, the present became indeterminate, but so did the past. The communist power had been successfully challenged, but the way that happened, opened a space for contestation of the representation of the past deeply embedded in the collective memory of opposition against the party and the state. Before it could be avoided (if it ever was avoidable) the ‘thick line’ became the main line of friction within the emergent intellectual field of post-Communist Poland. In a way, politics of memory was unavoidable because of the very nature of the transition.


The Spectres of Collective Memory

Collective memory and its politics is not a peripheral problem. It cannot be simply reduced to a sort of compensatory discourse of traditionalist intellectuals and politicians which accompanies the underdeveloped societies – Central European or other – on the road to modernization, its ‘cost’ that has to be ‘overcome’. Neither is it typical to the periphery, nor (in the other sense of the word) a marginal problem of the modern Western culture. On the contrary, many analyses of the ‘memory boom’ – the sudden prominence that the gaze turned backwards has gained in private and public life worldwide and increasingly since 1980s – suggest its centrality to the historical transformation of the structures of temporal experience. “Human memory – Andreas Huyssen aptly remarks – may well be an anthropological given, but closely tied as it is to the ways a culture constructs and lives its temporality, the forms memory will take are invariably contingent and subject to change” (Twilight Memories). Hence, memory itself has a history, and the historistoricization of collective memory implies not only an examination of the changing representations of the past, but also of the ways people experience the relations between the present, the past and the future. It is both about what and how we remember, about the different pasts people believe in and about the regimes of temporality within which the mnemonic practices take place and which shape its form. Intensification of mnemonic practices occurs when historically and socially specific regime of temporality becomes destabilized. Since the political can be defined precisely as the dimension of the ontological indeterminacy and openness of everything social, I suggest that politics of memory should be understood with reference to the contingent space that opens between the moments of contestation and the stabilization of a temporal regime.

Thus, it is in the very nature of the transition to open the space of the political. The type of social change implied in the concept of ‘transition’ is understood most commonly as a change between a set of political and economic institutions (from state socialism to capitalism and democracy), as well as a change of sphere of cultural influences – movement from East to West. However, a ‘transition’ is also a regime of temporality within which the difference between the past, present and future becomes blurred.

Before the transition, the present accommodated with ease the present pasts as well as the future anticipations. A non-transitional temporal regime has the form of a trajectory. During a transition, however, the presence of the past becomes problematic, and so does the future. It is problematic not only because of the simple fact of coexistence of the new and the old realities, and its paradoxical outcomes, within the same temporal realm. It is also because the past of the transition is almost always a ‘history of bad times’ (as the Hungarian historian István Rév suggests in his book Retroactive Justice: Prehistory of post-Communism, 2005). In most of the cases, transition is a modality of a historical change which is about leaving the bad times behind is as important as the future ahead. The Communist party has lost its power, its instutional structures have been dismantled, its banner withdrawn from the parliament; and yet the paint on the new social-democratic sign-board is too fresh, the informal networks are believed to persist beneath the formal appearances. The institutions of liberal democracy has been installed, but there are reasons to fear that the dissident hunger for unlimited public expression, repressed for so long, will devour the fragile order before it takes root. The once oppositional trade-union, despite the interests of the workers its ought to represent, operates as a shield of the neo-liberal economic reform, whose most active beneficiaries are the formerly socialist entrepreneurs, and yet the danger of a backlash of the legacies of once existing socialism persistent in peoples mentalities and habits, appears to be inevitable.

Kot je že na robu Komunističnega manifesta pronicljivo opazil Jacques Derrida, temelji logika “spektralnosti” na ukinitvi razlikovanja med prisotnostjo – dejansko in efektivno realnostjo – ter odsotnostjo ali mankom dejanskosti in aktualnosti.


Hence, the very gesture that attempts at leaving the past behind conjures up a spectre. As Jacques Derrida brilliantly remarked on the margins of the Communist Manifesto, if there is something as ‘spectrality’, it logics consists in undoing the distinction between, on the one hand, the present – the actual and effective reality – and, on the other hand, absence, lack of effectivity and actuality, the time of the dead that no longer have a hold on the living (J. Derrida, “Spectres of Marx”, New Left Review, 1994). Literary deconstruction apart, I strongly contend that there are historical moments – and that a transition is precisely such a conjuncture – when it is difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between, in Derrida’s words, ‘the future-to-come and the coming-back of a spectre’. The transitional past takes a form of a spectre – an unwanted presence that has to be conjured away and ever threatens to come back in the future. To ‘draw a line under the past’ is at the same time to ‘under-line’ its unwanted presence. Undeniably, one does not witness a spectre unless one is prepared, in fact, unless one desires to see it. And the specters themselves are quite ambivalent creatures. Threatening as they may be, they are also – not unlike Casper, the protagonist of the cartoon series – ‘friendly ghosts’. They allow people living under transition to realign they pasts, presents and futures in a new way, bridging the gap between the desire of temporal stability – a clear-cut diving line between the unwanted past and the potentially radiant future – and the confusing perceptions. It is threatened, therefore it exists. In this sense, the transitional politics of memory can be understood as practice and process of restoring the temporal order which produces its own specters.

The ‘thick line’ was not so much about separating oneself from the past, as about producing temporal difference, reconnecting the past and the present in a meaningful way. The dilemma posed by the transition cannot be understood in terms of ‘amnesia against remembrance’, as some intellectuals argued at the time. On the contrary, it was the proliferation of possible versions of collective memory, that contributed to the predicament. It became evident that in the emerging public sphere there was no shared understanding of what exactly the historical conjuncture triggered in 1989 joints and disjoints. In this sense, the ‘thick line’ should be conceived not only in temporal terms, but also in spatial terms – as an ideological divide within the emerging intellectual field. Those two aspects – the strategies of making a temporal difference and the strategies of political and intellectual distinction – overlap and cannot be discussed separately. Indeed, I find no good criteria to settle the question of whether the drive for the political distinction determined the position-takings in the memory struggles, or was it the other way around.


The Hauntology of the former dissidents

Following the Roundtable Accords, the ‘non-confrontational’ elections and the constitution of the first non-Communist government in 1989, two rival versions of collective memory began to crystallize, each of them with distinctive – and increasingly polarized – narratives concerning the meaning of dissent, the character of the transition, and the spectres haunting the process. Their discursive articulation was involved in the logic of the political and ideological confrontation principally between the heirs to the legacy of democratic opposition, representing different orientations within re-legalized Solidarity. Apart from the former dissidents, a number of independent voices became engaged in the controversies, with relative lack of partisanship of what remained of the party ideologues.

For the intellectuals who participated in the Roundtable discussions and became members or intellectual supporters of the first non-communist government, the agreement reached in the Roundtable talks and validated in the semi-free elections was the founding moment of the newly regained freedom, a pivotal event which radiated both towards the future and back into the past, overdetermining their meaning. At the same time, however, it was a non-event, a transitory period which lacked a clear cut dividing line between the old and the new. That the economic and political structures have been only partially dismantled was not the biggest worry – what the architects of the ‘historical compromise’ feared the most, was the totalitarian legacy persistent in the habits and inclinations of the society, a part of which belonged to the logic of the system, the other alien to it but ‘conserved’ by forty years of Communist rule.

The main treads of this narrative of transition appear in different forms in the efforts of prominent figures supporting the Mazowiecki’s government path to transformation. Father Tischner, the chaplain of Solidarity back in 1980, coined the term ‘homo sovieticus’ to refer to the residues of the totalitarian past persisting in people’s minds and habits. From the perspective of the Church, says its intellectual representative, Communism did not amount to the totalitarian power structure nor to an economy based on false premises. Communism constituted a mirror image of the church, a new form of neo-paganism, with a rival ‘conception of man’. The distinction between material and immaterial loci of the old regime is all the more important since the former can be ‘defeated’, that is, dismantled, while the latter has to be ‘overcome’. ‘Defeat consists in the material destruction of the enemy, while overcoming entails an inner metamorphosis – a substitution of his faith by one’s own’ (J. Tischner, “Dokąd prowadzi ta droga?”, Tygodnik Powszechny, November 1989). What was the ‘conception of man’ embodied in homo sovieticus? He was essentially a ‘one-dimensional man’ deprived of the ‘vertical dimension of existence’, his existence understood as the satisfaction of needs alone.

The totalitarian society, for Tischner, was a ‘monological society’, based on the premise that there is only one vantage point from which the truth and meaning of human existence can be grasped – the vantage point of power. Overcoming totalitarianism means here the transition to ‘dialogical society’ in which every citizen is equally a ‘carrier of truth’ and in which there are no privileged vantage points. In the dialogical society ‘the definitive truth about social life does not fall from the skies, like rain drops on the earth, but grows from the bottom, from the depths of individual experience and common understanding of people’.

Tischner concludes it would not be prudent to asses that homo sovieticus is gone for good. ‘The past habits weight over the present and refrain the development of the dialogical society’. On the side of the power, there is nomenklatura, understood not in the narrow sense of the functionaries of the old regime docile to its every commandment, but in the broad sense of hosts of those who truly believed in the ‘principle of socialization’ and really ‘socialized themselves’, for whom ‘the necessity of an internal metamorphosis strikes at their very heart’ and who are willing to ‘defend their heart with their very lifes’. On the side of society, there are those who, in relation to power, still act as if they were communist subjects. This residue of homo sovieticus consists both in the demand for somebody who would define how ‘things really are’ and in the demand that ‘those on the top’ should identify themselves with the particular point of view of ‘those at the bottom’. Lastly, among the ‘fruits’ of living under totalitarianism is the inclination towards ‘moralism’, which consists in substituting economic, political and meritoratic criteria of legitimacy with the ethical criterion of ‘clean hands’, a criterion ‘in principle correct, but dangerous in its consequences’.

The discourse on totalitarian possession, in its different modalities, became one of the most pronounced themes in the emerging post-Communist public sphere. Elżbieta Wolicka, for instance, wrote about the residues of ‘post-totalitarian mentality’ which haunt the ‘collective sub-conscious’ of the post-communist societies and menace the emergent Popperian-style ‘open society’. While in Tischner’s and Wolicka’s version of the narrative of transition the issue of nationalism was hardly present, many other intellectuals who wrote from the positions supportive of the Citizens’ Committee saw in the national megalomania and xenophobia the greatest hazard to the transition process. And just as in the case of homo sovieticus, the threat took the form of the return of the spectre. The writer Jan Józef Szczepański was not alone when, answering a survey about the prospects of ‘survival of the fall of Communism’, he warned, that “the ideas of independence and sovereignty which we so cherish are not as unambiguous as you might suppose … these lofty ideas do not exclude terror, aggression and genocide. I belief that ultimately Poland will evade it, but there exist intermediary levels of intolerance, xenophobia and parochial dogmatism. These are sufficient to hamper the democratic aspirations. /…/ We can see even today, that once corset of totalitarian discipline has cracked, the daemons of the past reemerge.”


Michnik’s daemons

In the first years of the transition, the daemons of the past constituted the single most important issue of involvement in the public sphere for Adam Michnik, formerly one of key Polish oppositionists, who in 1989 was appointed by Wałęsa editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, soon to become the most widely read Polish daily. In his article about the ‘Trappings of Nationalism’ (February 1990), Michnik spoke of two counter-hegemonic projects that struggled against the totalitarian state. First of those was the idea of civil society, resurrected by Central European dissidents and embraced by Western intellectuals Right and Left, albeit for different purposes. As this contradictory reception suggested, the idea of the civil society went far beyond the traditional political divides between left and right, or – correspondingly – between prospective and retrospective utopias, to create a genuine anti-totalitarian political identity, not reducible to the particular political subcultures it integrated. However, Michnik argues, there was another way to be against totalitarianism. Communism in Poland had been rejected also in the name of the ‘Catholic State of the Polish Nation’ the nationalist doctrine with its roots in the repertoire of the interwar Right, where the ‘national feeling’ is understood in terms of struggle for survival and Lebensraum. The former project was ‘humanist and European’, the latter ‘nationalist and particularist’.

According to Michnik, the ethnic conflict in Yugoslavia as well as the phenomena of radical nationalism after the fall of Communism, reveal that ‘totalitarianism in the terminal phase leaves the legacy of aggressive nationalism and tribal hatred’. In this sense, the fall of Communism does not necessary entail the triumph of the civil society. Its enemy’s enemy does not become civil society’s ally once Communism is over. Instead, if the political project of civil society is defined mainly through the prism of its anti-totalitarian identity, than in Michnik’s argument there is a suggestion of complicity between xenophobic nationalism and its former oppressor, despite, as it were, its fierce anti-Communist edge.

Michnik further developed his idea in his article on ‘Three fundamentalisms’, which opens with poses the problem of the historical consciousness. The representations of the past, Michnik argues, have always shaped Polish attitudes and political ideas. The more it is important to unravel historical myths and stereotypes, especially with respect to the Second Republic from interwar period, which was both denigrated by the Communist propaganda and idealized by the anti-Communist opposition. It is all the more vital, since, he writes, “without such a reassessment, we are doomed to idealize our past, we are doomed to a sense of history burdened with myths rather than sober judgments, and we are doomed to be defenseless against what might be called the revenge of memory, a memory that was for years relegated to our subconscious”. More specifically, Michnik pleadges for reassessment of the ‘anti-democratic evolution’ in interwar Poland, its mounting anti-Semitism and extreme nationalism.

To the extent that the Poles are unable to ‘overcome’ their past by reassessing the legitimacy of the political legacies, they are vulnerable against the present dangers. What endangers the present, Michnik clearly implies, is not so much the immediate legacy of Communism, but vicious heritage rooted deeper in the collective memory. ‘If I had to define the new phenomena that are now appearing, with greater or lesser force, on or below the surface of current political debate, I would point to the reemerging danger of fundamentalism’. Fundamentalism – the utopia of the flawless, harmonic community, delivered from all the conflicts other than the conflict between good and evil – is a new phenomenon in so far as it has been released in the aftermath of Communism’s collapse, but at the same time it is reemerging from the depths of the collective memory where it was hidden from the critical insight of the community.

According to Michnik, the future-to-come can turn into the coming-back of three fundamentalisms. First of all, he speaks of national fundamentalism, which understands the interest of the community in terms of ‘my country right-or-wrong’, compels to justify the wrongdoings of the members of national community, and perceives every instance of critique as an attempt to vilify the nation. The other local predicament that should be contextualized in pan-European terms is the religious fundamentalism – a magical solution which retrospectively attempts at obliterating the boundary between the profane and the sacred and reconstitute the society on the basis of an uniform set of (Christian) values. Just as there is a difference between (critical) patriotism and (fundamentalist) nationalism, there are two Churches: the religion modernized by Vatican II, open to values alien to its credo, and the religion that whishes to ‘return to Europe’ that no longer exists.

The third trapping of fundamentalism has a genuine Central European, and, specifically, dissident, origin. Underground activity, Michnik argues self-reflexively, engendered a ‘moralist mentality’ which, not unlike religious fundamentalism, does not serve well to discriminate between the moral norm and the political rules of the game, the distinction which in liberal democracies is crucial. Although every political discourse should be founded upon values, the anti-politics of the anti-Communist underground transposed in to the democratic game can transform into fanatism.


The side of the past, the excluded side

If the ‘thick line’ Mazowiecki referred to in his speech in 1989 was meant to express a break with respect to the past, then this divide was never symbolically drawn. Instead, for the intellectual supporters of the first non-Communist prime minister the transitional temporality took a form of a very thin line, constantly endangered by the spectres. Where their fears real? Where they a minority ahead of their time, whereas the vast majority remained locked in the pre-democratic past, prone to all the vices typical for authoritarian societies? Were the Communists so successful in transforming people into ‘soviet men’, creatures devoid of spirituality and sense of freedom, their reason reduced to the satisfaction of needs? Was the ‘revenge of memory’ a plausible future-to-come? Did Polish ‘historical consciousness’ hide an uncanny secret of the contamination of the inter-war political languages with ‘fundamentalism’? Well, are spectres real?

One way to tackle the question of spectral ontology is to say that the ghosts of the past are not real in the sense of being a part of the collective imaginary which may be traced to its underling social conditions. For example, much of psycho-social post-effects implied in the notion of ‘homo sovieticus’ can be understood in terms of what Pierre Bourdieu calls ‘histeresis of habitus’, the concept that refers to a situation when a social actor, endowed with psychological dispositions that have been shaped by and adjusted to operate in a specific social milieu (habitus), looses this social sense of orientation once she has found herself, more or less permanently, in a circumstance that requires a different set of dispositions (Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction). Without any doubt, this sort of difficulties in readjustment did exist in the course of a radical transition from plan to market and from power-monopoly to democracy. But from the quite founded expectation that that many social trajectories would be broken along this difficult path does not automatically follow what kind of political articulation, if any, would be given to the sense of social disorientation. Even though the formation of collective identities can be traced back to some social conditions of possibility, these conditions are only necessary, but never sufficient. Between the identities and their conditions there is always an autonomous space of the political, within which different discursive modalities of collective articulation of individual experiences are negotiated.


In this sense, homo sovieticus captures a lot more than an acute observation. It contains a surplus of meaning which transforms a social process into a quasi-reified mental residue, just as the imagination transforms uncanny silhouettes and strange sounds into phantoms. And just as some spectres are ‘real in their circumstances’, so is a performative act of classifying a person as ‘possessed’ by its past habits. A person that is unable to properly handle its past cannot be granted a legitimate voice in the debates about the common future. Now, if in the process of the negotiation of collective identity of the possible disadvantaged, the disadvantaged are to choose between a subject-position that calls for a temporal self-exclusion (homo sovieticus should privatize its sense of injustice as a shameful past habit) and the other that provides an outlet to their exasperation through of wholesale contestation of social and political order, the disadvantaged are likely to confirm the most disturbing prophecies. The same might be argued about the ‘revenge of memory’. From an identification with a certain political tradition does not immediately follow that the act of identification will bring about the same consequences it had brought about in the past. The collective identities neither preexist on some natural grounds of ‘relations of production’ or ‘national essence’, but are shaped in the political process. To argue that an act of identification with the political legacy of the interwar Polish state will lead, in the present, to the same nightmarish outcomes of their clash in the past, is to grant them an essential ‘nature’. Not only is it ‘not altogether consistent’ with the critique of essentialist thinking implied in the notion of   ‘fundamentalism’ – the erasure of the political in the name of an a-historical ethnic or religious substance or the ‘iron laws’ of historical process – but also it actually contributes to reinforcing the demarcation line between the spokespersons of the tradition and the spokespersons of the ‘open society’.

If I insist that ‘spectre’ is useful notion in describing the politics of collective memory, despite its perhaps doubtful citizenship in the republic of human sciences, it is precisely because it underwrites this performative logic of transitional memory-work. The spectre, unwanted presence of the past, is something conjured up in the very same moment that it is conjured away. Its mode of presence is something in between the famous Santayana’s dictum that ‘those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ and a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, a clear distinction between a spectre kept at bay and a usable, but demonized past is not always easy to draw. Where history is a ‘history of bad times’, that is, in Central Europe and in Poland in particular, the politics of collective memory – drawing thick lines under the past – serves to delimit the boundaries of the public sphere. To find oneself on the side of the past often means to be on the excluded side.


The breakdown of Solidarity: Hauntology vs. Sly populism

Solidarity felt in to pieces like a house of cards. It happened before the puzzle comprised of a plethora of institutions could be arranged in a way satisfying for different groups of the victorious dissident counterculture. In the end, the conflict broke out between the dissident groups representing divergent political identities: the post-KOR dissidents dominant in the Citizens’ Committee and in the government, and the right wing dissidents who, in the belief that revealing the differences within the victorious camp and institutionalizing it in the form of rival political parties would empower their position, triggered the internal strife that led to the dissolution of Solidarity. Since there was no formal procedure to regulate the balance of forces in the case of conflict, when the conflict appeared, it was transformed into a clash of symbolic authority.

The politics of memory constituted the discursive framework for their political projects. Both parties employed narratives of transition in which the definition of the temporal difference – moving from totalitarianism to capitalism and democracy – overlapped with political taxonomies. The narratives were both embedded in the collective memory of their respective dissident subcultures and served to justify the respective visions of the power relations in the transitional present.

Hauntology situated the locus of totalitarian past in the habits of the homo sovieticus prone to become a victim of populists and nationalists and their authoritarian will-to-power. Against this discursive background, the post-totalitarian divide was defined as the ‘dominant principle of domination’. The post-totalitarian divide justified rallying the supporters of democracy, open society and the ‘return to Europe’ around the Solidarity’s Citizens Committee, pitting the ‘ethos of Solidarity’ against its ‘totalitarian’ contestants.

The narrative of ‘acceleration’, on the other hand, represented the transition as the latest chapter of the national uprising, in which the moral community of the nation – founded on the principles anti-Communism, Catholic ethics and pro-capitalism – was struggling against the Soviet occupier for independence, parliamentary democracy and capitalism. The narrative of ‘acceleration’ defined the locus of ‘totalitarian past’ as the persistent presence of the Communists in the administrative structures of the state, political scene and economy. Against this backdrop the left/right divide served to counterpoise the spokespersons of the national aspirations against the agents of the totalitarian past who strove to block the nation’s development towards the better future.

It was the rival narratives of transition and the political taxonomies they implied that made the split, in the end, so virulent. In both cases the antagonism was articulated in terms of moral exclusion rather than in terms of political difference between equally legitimate adversaries. The dominant fraction of the intellectuals defined the we/they relation opposing the forces of consensus – achieved through a dialogical synthesis of rival ethical and political credos supporting a version of modernization acceptable to every rational citizen – to the enemies of modernization, irrational representatives of the past that everybody wants to leave behind.

Those who found themselves on the side of the past, the excluded side, responded in a way that I call ‘sly populism’. The rightist intellectuals presented themselves as defenders of the European political traditions, bringing back the ‘civilized’ conventions of democratic politics as against what they dubbed as the ‘post-Communist hybrid’. But at the same time, the discourse of ‘acceleration’ defined a we/they relation in which the right was genuine in terms of the ‘sincerity’ of intentions and the ‘organically’ bound to the national sense of justice and morality, while the ‘left’ was fake – it pretended to be something different than it really was – and alienated from the moral community. What made the left fake and morally excluded, in the narrative of the right, was the residual past of its members, whose moral gravity was stronger than the professed convictions.

The rightist subculture constructed its political identity vis-à-vis the other party by distinguishing their anti-Communism as uncompromised by any revisionist record, and hence more ‘pure’. The fact that they found themselves marginalized from the political process in which the Communist lost their power, only exasperated the political will-to-distinction and resulted in contestation of the Round Table Accords and the political arrangement which emerged in the aftermath of the June elections.

Taken together, the narratives of transition, the political taxonomies which they implied, and their embeddedness in the collective memories of both subcultures, were the decisive factors which explain why the emerging field of dissident politics was shaped not according to the ‘adversarial logic’ in which political actors recognize themselves as legitimate opponents, but saw the polarization of positions according to the logic of political antagonism oriented at moral exclusion of the adversary. In other words, why the political imagery of post-Communist Poland became structured according to the logic of the Kulturkampf.


This article was originally published in Slovenian translation in Razpotja magazine issue 12 within the topic “Culture wars”.

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