The selected fragments are from Choroba wieku (“The Disease of the Age”), reprinted from Pisma Pawła Popiela, Cracow 1893, vol. I, published by the family, pp. 229-245.
We are tempted to examine the symptoms – the interesting ones at close quarters, the terrible ones from a distance – of the movement or disease known sometimes as socialism, and sometimes as nihilism. When it sprung up in the West, we were saying several years ago that Polish society was immune to this disease, that it had neither the ingredients, nor the proper soil for it to take root and flourish. Indeed, the constitution of our society, which is mostly tied to land, has no industry, and hardly any proletariat, while it does have a strangely harmonious distribution of property and still retains strong religious beliefs, offers a particularly unpropitious ground for these dangerous theories. However, it would be an enormous and harmful error to maintain boastfully that socialism cannot take root in Poland and that both the authorities and society can watch the tenacious clandestine activities of fanatical youth undisturbed. Polish society, like any other, can succumb to the temptations of this doctrine, for it appeals to passions generally found in human nature, namely to greed and resentment, and furthermore, it is attractive to superficial minds by virtue of its alleged simplicity. A fever for prosperity and material possession, an arrogance believing itself to have discovered the panacea for all human ills and the key to the world’s fundamental problems, these are the reasons for socialism’s success. Socialism is dangerous because it exudes an air of good intentions and facile generosity, which appeals to the imagination, and often arouses in its followers a fanaticism and a spirit of sacrifice that grows in proportion to the loftiness and vagueness of the goals advanced.
Socialism and nihilism are not accidental symptoms: they were not brought about by Proudhon, Owen, Lassalle, or Marx. As it usually is the case with all vast human phenomena, it involves the highest philosophical questions; its origins and causes must be sought in the spiritual sphere. The atomistic outlook on the world and on the constitution of mankind, regarding social man as a product of will and society as a contractual artifact, contained within itself all of the practical errors which for the last hundred years have been thrust upon the world. Not all of its logical consequences were immediately drawn, but humanity is implacably consistent and therefore, once it falls in love with a fallacy, it must adopt it and endure all its effects. It rejected the organism compatible with human nature, issued from the hand of the Creator, and nurtured by Christianity. Furthermore, being intoxicated with the arrogance of equality, humanity, in the most practical nation of the world and in the space of just a few years, underwent a whole range of political changes, from a pseudo-constitutional monarchy to a republic and Babeuvism, which was the predecessor of our reforming errors. We are familiar with the result of these attempts in France. We also know how this peculiar nation re-embarked on the course of political experiments, which, however, do not carry the threat of ultimate disintegration, since civil legislation and age-old Christian teaching have preserved individualism, which in the sphere of property and liberty is not easy to eradicate. Hence we can also remark incidentally that in France the workers’ issue, the real social issue, does exist, but in spite of appearances it does not pose a threat.
Matters are different in Germany. The philosophers of the turn of the century, weaving the thread of Averroism and Spinoza’s teachings, already called into question the personal character of God and of man. There appeared a man who was able to combine all of these brilliant and vague fallacies into one cogent system and who built a monument that for a long time to come will point the way towards the abyss. From the heights of speculation, from the university chair, the fallacy stepped down into political life and the modern state came into being, based on the model of Prussia. A doctrine usually finds its embodiment in institutions and in a man: Germany came into being and Prince Bismarck appeared. But pantheism – and Hegelianism is essentially nothing more than this – has two edges and one can equally consistently build two forms of a social system on it. First, once one denies the personal character of God and of man, a concept of the state which absorbs individuals like a Leviathan becomes perfectly legitimate. As the highest expression of reason, this state takes charge of all governing, thinking, teaching, believing, it adopts a monarchical, or at least centralist, despotic form of government. Equally legitimate, however, is a communal, self-governing union, without family, property, freedom, and faith. In both of these forms personal liberty is lost, and without family even a rudimentary social organism is impossible; a bestial equality will prevail, just as they want to find a bestial origin of the spirituality of man. In accordance with these premises, German socialism developed a distinct character. It slowly pervades the masses, especially in those places where non-Christian industry produced human material ready to adopt such a fallacy.
We must reflect separately on the nature of Russian nihilism, which also attempts to infuse our thinking. Byzantinism, which arrived in Russia so early, already in Photius and Cerularius acquired many Eastern features: it elevated the appeal of Tsardom, and while bringing with it the faith in Jesus Christ, it offered man neither freedom, nor dignity, as it could not give what it did not possess. When the ground so prepared was visited by the Tartar invasion, and the wind of Buddhism blowing from Tibet and India swept the country, little wonder that in this community everything took a different path than in the West, in the direction of an all-powerful state that absorbs the individual. Only the Tsar himself was free, only the Tsar was an owner, the Tsar’s religion was everybody’s religion, and hence a social condition arose which had no equivalent in Europe. In political practice it was a most thoroughgoing, most terrible pantheism, with deeply ingrained habits of subservience. The Tsars, who adopted all Western inventions, with Eastern ease ruled over the population which had an almost vegetable life; they acquired a great influence outside, in the West, but were unable to create any social organism.
This social and political order could persist as long as the charm of autocracy enjoyed a monopoly, while Western notions, principles and doctrines had not yet arrived in Russia. When, as a result of the impact of eighteenth century thought, of the French wars, and of those tendencies which sometimes unintentionally unite communities, the sleeping giant awoke, a vague sentiment began to arise, and the dogma of Tsardom was undermined. Russia, having no hierarchical organism, because the monarchy had ground some of its elements into dust and did not allow others to grow, began to look blindly for some solution, for the fulfillment of aspirations which it not comprehend and which the revolutionary party had always and everywhere sought to take advantage of. The Decembrists embarked on an active struggle in 1825, but it was too soon, and what is more, they were dealing with a man of formidable energy, though narrow-minded. Repressed ambitions retreated inward, and waited for a more propitious opportunity, while seeking greater influence through working on the mind of society; eventually they found highly-placed persons ready to put into practice the theories for which the groundwork had been laid. The Milyutyn brothers, prince Cherkavsky, the Solovyovs, and so on, brought the ruin of the former Russian constitution to its completion, convinced that they could insert into this edifice new components from the West, borrowed or imitated. These persons, talented and ruthless as all Russians are, overestimating the masses, having no moral principles whatsoever, were able to topple and reject what had existed. However, they were confronted with a more consistent, initially only intellectual party, which drew all the conclusions inherent both in the new principles, and in the old instincts of Asiatic Russia. Their aim is no longer political liberty or so-called constitutional government, but the ruin of the present order and a thoroughgoing remaking of society into some not yet defined and formulated organization, without any certainty that humanity would be able to live and grow under it. […] Russian nihilists, intoxicated with national pride, believe Russia to be a chosen country, called forth to realize on the earth an ideal which they think would be paradise, while in fact it would be hell for humankind. This notion is so horrible that many people in good or bad faith maintain that the nihilists, murderers of officials, regicides, bank robbers, and arsonists, are only an instrument in the hand of advocates of constitutional government, wanting to exert pressure upon the Tsar to make concessions. They are mistaken; only fanaticism inspired by some purportedly great idea explains such insanity, although it will never be able to absolve it. Nihilism, then, is not a means, but an end; and if it assumes a more monstrous form than Western socialism, this finds its explanation in the innate qualities of the Russian people, principally the ruthlessness of the Russian character. The expressive name it adopted, whether it was meant to express aimlessness, or the destruction of all that exists, or a denial of every political or religious dogma, terrifies with its relentlessness and gives a warning to wholesome consciences, like the rattling of a venomous snake in the jungle.
Much is said, and even written, heard, and read about socialists and socialism, but few understand the causes, the nature, and the consequences of this phenomenon, naively believing it to be a dream of exalted youth, inspired by a humanitarian ideal and brought about by the present social conditions. People believe it to be a more or less practical theory, but in any case a lofty and noble one. It is not so. Socialism, ever since it was translated from books and vague aspirations into action, ever since it came up with a comprehensive doctrine and an organization which terrifies with its might, ever since it adopted the goal of radically transforming social relations, became not only menacing, or even dangerous, but it took a hostile stand against humanity, as it has historically developed according to its nature, and hence according to its twofold substance, physical and moral. One special feature of socialism I should note at the outset is that it completely ignores the spiritual side of man and humanity, considering his moral sense as vulgar, and, as we shall see, his intellectual faculties little developed. It conveniently disregards the highest spiritual problems, as if they have been solved once and for all. This is no exaggeration; we find ample testimony for this in writings, debates, and programs that consistently deny the personal character of God and of man, which attempt to supplant the natural organism with an imposed, artificial one, and which consequently have to reject the idea of family and nationality. It is an ordinary matter – rather unfortunate, but innocuous – that someone concoct a monstrous system, that a narrow mind be satisfied with such an arbitrary, and therefore coherent system, that loose minds, aspiring to grand things, but unable to achieve them through individual work and through the power of their own reason, be caught in the cobweb of such a system. Yet it is a different thing when impudent ignorance, playing on the most violent passions, tries to put these concoctions into practice, incites the bestial instincts of the masses, and systematically prepares the material forces and moral dispositions necessary for the task of overthrowing the social conditions created by nature and sanctioned by history. Here, when the defense of the moral, political and intellectual treasures of mankind is at stake, society should stand up in their defense and it surely will. But as we shall see, the point is that it should use adequate means and weapons, that it should recognize what is true and hence legitimate in this rather general movement. Such phenomena, since they assume such force and scale, surely have some root cause that must be identified and removed.
Before I go any further, I should justify the claim made above that the socialist doctrine is capable of seducing and satisfying only feeble minds and narrow heads. Apart from some antithetical passions, which find such an easy access to the corrupt human heart, there is nothing so appealing to the followers of socialism as the alleged cogency and simplicity of the entire system. It is very easy to form a system intended to organize humanity and make it happy, if one abstracts from human nature, as it issued from God’s hand and has been revealed in history. Where data are arbitrary, coherence is easy. This is why socialism seems so philosophical; this is why it is so attractive to young and untrained minds, to feminine dispositions. Everything will fit together and spuriously satisfy the mind, where numbers are arbitrarily chosen to achieve the predetermined result: this mathematical logic will satisfy minds that do not notice errors in the assumptions. The entire edifice, apparently so symmetrical, must collapse. One needs a different intellectual faculty to assess the forces and tendencies of the real world, to comprehend the influence exercised by the energy of the flesh and the might of the spirit, to understand that human relations are perfected very slowly, but naturally and without ceasing, while they are informed and remade by God’s truth, to understand that this road is always indeterminate, and to understand how and when legitimate changes occur, be it in the constitution or in the balance of social classes. A thorough knowledge of man and a detailed knowledge of history are necessary. One needs an exceptional power of putting facts together to realize that behind the apparent chaos in the world there is a fundamental harmony, which does not preclude unpleasant discords, but does not break the strings of the harp whose music accompanies the epic of history. […]
History does not know of a phenomenon that would equal socialism, nihilism, in its monstrosity. Neither the slaves’ uprising, nor the Albigensians, nor the peasant uprising constituted such a menace, since they did not assault in such an outright manner the foundations of social existence. Society is based on family, property, and law. Without these three preconditions society must plunge into barbarism, and these preconditions may only arise through revelation. Thus society, such as it is presented by history, such as we have arrived at through centuries of work, in itself is the witness of God and His Providence, and whoever wages war against it, whoever questions its legitimacy, he must deny the Lord Almighty. And this is what we see in the writings, programs, proclamations of the socialists: a personal God is unknown to them; they are ignorant of the laws which He prescribed for humanity, and which are so mush in concert with human nature that science has labeled them as natural law. It is perhaps the first time that human arrogance has risen to such a horrible and wicked power. Because they are unable, or rather do not know how to solve and explain some difficulties and contradictions in the present organism, they deny its entire legitimacy and value. From the free state, which is nothing other than a mutual struggle of social forces, they throw man into a most horrible bondage from which there is no way out, they condemn him to losing all spiritual delights which the Creator afforded him and to losing the goods which he acquired through many millennia of toil. It is easy to wax sentimental about fanaticism while pursuing an arrogant ideal, it is a thing for juveniles and women corrupted with a little learning, but one must subject these ideals to closer scrutiny. The constitution of a socialist state, as a realization of the pantheist spirit, is the most monstrous despotism conceivable. A human being ceases to be himself, he is divested of freedom and becomes an unknowing member of a state or commune deprived of free agency. He cannot own property, because it has been abolished; he cannot truly love, because there is no marriage. He cannot sacrifice his being for an external end, because there is no fatherhood and fatherland. Robbed of all these things which invest life with value, what is he to receive? Daily bread and the sense of equality in destitution. Thus humanity, following in the footsteps of Esau, is to sell its birthright for a dish of lentil soup: dignity, freedom, love, and the delight of fighting and winning are exchanged for hypothetical prosperity. One can enrapture the feeble-minded by showing them, as in the magical lantern, at one time equality, at another time the handing out of land; one can enflame the passions of possession and resentment; one can deceive even oneself, as it often happens. But effecting and sustaining such a utopia is impossible, and the socialist state, on whose gates one could inscribe the horrible words of Dante: it shall not be. However, what could be, and quite imminently so, are the painful consequences necessarily entailed by such attempts. Either the community, republican or autocratic, acting in self-defense, will try to suppress this monstrous child of an overripe or immature civilization, as can be seen in Prussia and Russia, and then passport restrictions and exclusive rights, from which Europe liberated itself only thirty years ago, will return, and such will be the benefits brought by socialism; or the present organism, nurtured by Christianity and the Church, will be overturned, and the civilization which we look at with such pride, will drown in rivers of tears, blood, and mire.