The rule of inconsistency? Authority in the Polish political tradition
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30

[in:] Polska czyli anarchia? Polscy myśliciele o władzy politycznej, Ośrodek Myśli Politycznej, Cracow 2009.


Few issues were explored by Polish political thinkers as eagerly as the problem of political authority. Although all European nations and states addressed it at various stages of their history, it reached remarkable complexity in the case of Poland. The Poles tried to reconcile their desire for the maximum possible freedom – differently understood depending on the epoch – with a requirement for strong rule. It would be challenging enough to balance these aspirations if the matter concerned a small country distant from the strategic European territories and surrounded by peaceable neighbours, a luxury that Poland never had. It was therefore vital to develop a form of government adjusted to the nation’s needs.

If our forebears had disregarded the issue of freedom and subordinated all to the idea of strong rule that would boost the chances to win supremacy in the region, the topic would be simpler, though still featuring a few dilemmas to cope with in political theory and practice. However, Poland followed another direction as it outdistanced most other countries for long periods of its history in advancing the development of institutions and laws to restrain authority from threatening freedom and degenerating into tyranny. Nonetheless, these praiseworthy achievements were eclipsed by the fact that Poland often had to yield to pressure from its neighbours, which twice dismantled the independent Polish state, imposing their rule on the Poles for many decades.


Successful beginning, fallible continuation?


Naturally, one cannot blame solely the aversion to strong authority for our nation’s failures and misfortunes. However, the specific attitude of the Poles to authority was seen as the most characteristic feature of their political mindset by thinkers through the ages. The era of the Piast dynasty usually raised the least doubt in this respect. While the system of the First Polish Republic was now and again fiercely criticised, the reign of the Piasts was typically judged with unanimous appreciation or at least understanding towards the shortcomings of a fledgling state on its way to development in harsh reality. The first centuries of Poland’s statehood were most highly acknowledged in debates in the second half of the 19th and the early 20th centuries. Many historians and political writers participating in these discussions regarded the Piast reign as the right response to the challenges of the epoch. Their rule was seen as shaped by mechanisms typical of the then mightiest European monarchies, also when Poland entered the period of regional disintegration. Since the Piasts acted in roughly the same fashion as other contemporary rulers, their occasional errors were later justified by the laws of the time. Problems began after the union with Lithuania, when Poland took a then extraordinary path of placing more importance on legal institutions securing liberty than those ensuring strong rule. Such an outlook – presented e.g. by the members of the Cracow historical school, such as Michał Bobrzyński and Józef Szujski – met with criticism from many other debaters of Poland’s past, though they mostly disputed the opinions on the Fi­rst Polish Republic and did not negate the generally positive perception of the Piast era.[1]

The assessment of the Polish state ruled by the Jagiellonian dynasty and later elective kings was much more complex, and its criticism – expressed especially after the fall of the First Polish Republic – gathered a lot of followers. The common feature of most opinions on the political authority exercised from the 15th to 18th centuries was the variously grounded belief that something was astray with the ruling theory and practice. Many thinkers considered that a good nation was unfortunate with its leaders. Others argued that the Polish national character had expressed itself in the systemic institutions that prevented even highly talented rulers from efficient policymaking. Even upon the heyday of the First Polish Republic, the contemporary thinkers believed it to rest on shaky foundations. Piotr Skarga’s admonitions are a classic example of this view, voiced in the period when the Polish-Lithuanian state peaked in its might, which portended well for the future. The famous preacher thus symbolically concluded a series of warnings uttered by his great 16th century predecessors, such as Andrzej Frycz-Modrzewski, Łukasz Górnicki and Wawrzyniec Goślicki. They were not unanimous as to where the greatest danger lied. They saw it both in systemic solutions and political culture as well as public morality. While underscoring, like Goślicki, the assets of the freedom-based system of the Republic and noticing its more than moral advantage over absolutist solutions, they kept asking if the elites would be able to use it well. Like Górnicki, they recognised the good points of the Polish aversion to absolutism, though at the same time they emphasised that it went too far and paralysed authority. While valuing the uniqueness of the Polish Republic, they were unwilling to transform it after the fashion of other monarchies or republics, but they did not see it as a flawless and complete project.


Strong authority but of what kind?


Political thinkers who cared about the fate of Poland primarily had to consider how deeply could one reform the country for the sake of its strength and durability. They did not usually call for a radical departure from tradition. Proposals for the reinforcement of monarchical power in the First Polish Republic were normally limited to admonitions that the authority should be more respected and enforceable. The very few projects to turn it into absolute power gained little support. Their authors – such as Krzysztof Warszewicki in the 16th century – were regarded with disfavour. There was no paradox or inconsistency in such views. Polish thinkers did not present the simple alternative of either absolute power or a downfall. The king of Poland did not need the position of Louis XIV or Henry VIII to rule well. It would have sufficed – as was stated during the First Polish Republic period and in its later analyses – if the pursuit of securing the ruler amidst the democracy of the nobles had been better translated into practice. Hence, for example, the voices particularly frequent in the second half of the 18th century to ensure continuity of the executive between the Sejms. The faultiness – as we would describe it today – of the administration and management of the country was unanimously indicated as a major cause of its weakness.

The largest number of critiques concerned the liberum veto institution, though there were also firm voices in its defence, convincing that it was the fullest embodiment of the idea of freedom and equality among the nobles. However, as the situation in the First Polish Republic aggravated, it became increasingly hard to defend the principle of unanimity. Similar was the case with free election. The growing experience concerning the election of kings gradually discouraged from this solution, dating back to the first interregnum after the end of the Jagiellonian line. A demand for introduction of hereditary succession to the throne became common in the 18th century political writing. It was usually put forward by the advocates of a thorough transformation of the country, such as Adam Krasiński, Hugo Kołłątaj and Stanisław Staszic. Unlike their predecessors – the 15th and 16th century promoters of reforms – they at least partially managed to deliver their vision of changes, as they were expressed in the Constitution of 3 May 1791. Nonetheless, the country had to be at the brink of disaster for the voices calling for utter transformation of the political system to be heard and for the reform camp to take up the reins of power. However, it was a short-lived turnaround, as there were still numerous advocates of adherence to the traditional laws, who vehemently defended the old ways in their publications (such as those by hetman Seweryn Rzewuski on the superiority of elective over hereditary throne) and, more importantly, who actively opposed the changes, which took the most radical form in Targowica, while still justified by the care of freedom and tradition. With the hindsight of what befell Poland, it is only natural to bridle at the anti-reformers from the First Polish Republic. However, they used completely different criteria to assess the quality of the state and the purposes it should serve. The traditional political institutions of the Republic that they guarded were not only associated with failures, but also – and perhaps most importantly – with quite a long period of prosperity and might. Additionally, personal interests were at stake, which made it harder to abandon the old habits in spite of the growing body of evidence suggesting that the change was necessary.

Only a qualified success was thence achieved by the reformers. After the over two hundred years’ efforts of subsequent generations promoting fundamental transformation, the Constitution of 3 May finally reformed the very core of authority in the Republic of Poland. Nevertheless, the country soon ceased to exist.

The mid-18th century debate on the necessity of reforms and its conclusion in the form of a constitution represent an excellent summary of Polish endeavours to handle political authority. Only when faced with a dire crisis of the state could the reformers take enough responsibility for its fate to actually fulfil their aims. Earlier they were highly valued, but their actual influence on the shape of the Republic was minor, even if they enjoyed the monarchs’ favour and had mighty protectors among the magnates. The reformers of the second half of the 18th century had their moment of glory; their work embodied in the Constitution of 3 May was referred to by the thinkers of various ideological trends as one of the greatest achievements of Polish political thought, especially that it was bloodlessly passed. This was a major merit, particularly against a backdrop of the French Revolution, as noted by e.g. Edmund Burke[2]. The effects proved to be only short-term though. One could easily put the entire blame on the foreign partitioners of Poland and their henchmen inside the country, who prevented its repair based on the new, healthier rules. However, it is equally justifiable to point out that the reform was belated.


Foreign but still authority


The problem of political authority became even more complex in the 19th century. It was obviously determined by the fact that the Poles remained – except for the brief Duchy of Warsaw episode – under the rule of the partitioners. What is worse, the nation had to face a division between the three invading powers that widely differed in terms of law and political order as well as culture and religion. Their political systems and practices were also in no way compatible with what the Poles had been accustomed to. The continuity of rule was thereby abruptly broken and the adjustment to the altered conditions exceptionally complex.

The long span of the partition period made it impossible for the Poles to remain in steadfast opposition to the imposed authority. On the other hand, collaboration with this authority was always deemed controversial. Caution was taken not to cooperate too closely to prevent unintended consolidation of the foreign rule, which would impede the prospect of regaining independence. Sometimes the partitioning powers made the Polish choices easier in this regard, either by liberalising their policies – like in Galicia in the 1860s – which encouraged even the non-conciliatory environments to seek conditional agreement with the invaders, or by openly hostile acts towards the Poles – like in the era of radical Germanisation and Russification – dismissing the notion of rapprochement. Therefore, the attitude to the partitioners’ authority in Congress Poland – which enjoyed a fair degree of autonomy before the November Uprising, though breached by Duke Constantine, and which had more attributes of a Polish state that we remember today[3] – differed from that in the post-January Uprising Vistula Land, when Russian repression reached its apogee. This attitude also varied between the territory under Austrian rule in the first half of the century, when Josephinism-related absolutist and centralist trends dominated Vienna’s policy, and the same area in the period of imperial decentralisation, which brought autonomy to Galicia. Likewise, the pre-1830 view on authority differed from the post-1863 one. The former was marked by belief, or even rational anticipation, that an uprising could restore independence, while the latter, following a crushing defeat of an insurrection that dispelled such visions, allowed only incurable optimists or political dreamers to believe that uprisings could succeed unsupported by a major international-level rearrangement.

Hence, the attitude of the Poles to the invading rule (and to their compatriots that participated in it) evolved. Voices that called for abandoning national aspirations were equally rare as those of solid opposition. The fundamental principle of political philosophy that authority, of whatever kind, is indispensable to a political community must have undoubtedly played a role here. Such an assumption – providing ground for seeking agreement with the foreign rule – was usually made instinctively, on a purely practical level and without any theoretical basis. It was scarcely backed by any in-depth justification in political treatises. It drew most attention from conservatives, such as Paweł Popiel, Franciszek Kasparek, Józef Kalasanty Szaniawski and Henryk Rzewuski, who most strongly of all movements in Polish political thought stressed the importance of authority as such in the survival of a political community.

Many suggested that involvement in the work of partition government and administration – not only within autonomous, but also central institutions, the latter taking place mainly in the Habsburg empire[4] – could be a good lesson of policymaking for the Poles, who would finally understand the importance of authority and learn to exercise it, at least at a local level. Conservatives – critics of the First Polish Republic faults – indicated a chance to make up for many years of losses in this field. They considered the burden of the foreign rule a shock but still effective therapy after the anarchy of the worst First Republic times (praise for the Constitution of 3 May did not affect the overall opinion on the 18th century failings). Other movements – particularly national democrats and democratic liberals – took the less controversial stance that the skills acquired when participating in the German, Austrian or Russian machineries of authority would prove useful when the greatest Polish dream, the country’s resurrection, would come true. Considering the input of the Vienna and Galician officials in the development of post-1918 independent structures, this was arguably the most reasonable assumption formulated regarding the nation’s situation in the 19th and early 20th century.


Authority as ruling people’s hearts and minds


The problem of authority in the 19th century was not limited to the Polish attitude towards the foreign governments. The matter of national leadership turned out to be no less a challenge. The situation had been simple in the First Republic. The country had been ruled by a king – however good or bad – together with the variously rated but always unquestionably powerful nobles and the magnates, the latter considered either the Republic’s foundation or its bane. A vital role had been held by the clergy. The burghers had been of little importance, not to mention the political situation of the peasants, which had hardly concerned anyone. The roles had been clear. It was discussed – also after the state’s downfall – if they had been suitably appointed. Nonetheless, as long as the First Polish Republic existed, national leadership was quite precisely defined. There were specific figures to whom it belonged and the only open question was how they would perform the task.

All changed in the 19th century. The influential centres of Polish life often functioned beyond formal institutions and traditional hierarchies. Attempts to take over national leadership using the partitioners’ structures proved futile, as shown by the example of Franciszek Drucki-Lubecki and particularly Aleksander Wielopolski. The latter case is rather telling. The margrave focused on the use of practical tools of authority while neglecting the symbolic side of leadership. He did not strive for popularity and he even trifled with it, taking certain steps through which he antagonised the radical and even the moderate environments, like dismantling the Agricultural Society. Hence his resounding defeat, admitted even by his ideological supporters[5]. It was not enough to have institutional backup to rule the Poles in the 19th century. One needed to rule their hearts.

Without one’s own state apparatus, those who wished to rule the nation were forced to look for other ways in which to voice and exert the will of the people. This pattern expressed itself in the situation of the post-November Uprising émigré community. Ideas and concepts produced by circles settled in France, especially Paris, were for more than a decade a point of reference for what was envisaged concerning Poland’s political duties. However, it soon transpired that the remaining inhabitants were unwilling to accept that their fate was to be decided from far afield. Although journeys to Paris were organised prior to the January Uprising to seek advice amongst the growing tensions inside the country, and the emigrant Adam Czartoryski was long treated like an uncrowned king of Poland, the final decisions were made domestically. Even if the country had wished to acknowledge emigration’s superiority, which was a utopian idea, its internal diversification prevented its role as the centre of nation’s life. Signals from the Paris Hôtel Lambert were hard to reconcile with e.g. those from the London-based Polish People's Communes. The émigré community underwent the same experience as the whole country – the conditions of voicing and delivering national policies were utterly redefined due to the emergence of new environments and ideas.

In the first decades of the 19th century, the old hierarchal were still important when solving the leadership problems after the loss of independence. It particularly pertained to Congress Poland, where the Sejm could act as the voice of the nation’s political will and not be accused of usurpation. However, this old order was soon undermined. The problem with representing a nation deprived of its independent country coincided with the political and social processes that wiped out old hierarchies within a few decades and activated social groups that were hitherto excluded or marginalised from nation-focused thinking. Such was the background of the scene in which the rule over Polish hearts and minds was fought for.


Two legitimisations


Who was to decide if an uprising should be started and when? Was it advisable to follow the conspirators or shun them, or even confront them in order to protect the Polish nation from the disastrous consequences of this political error? These were the truly dramatic choices, particularly before those who did not believe in the success of insurrection, but did not wish to fail in their patriotic duties either. An uprising was provoked in 1830 in defiance of the majority of elites, though it was supported and recognised as national by the Sejm, considering the opportunity it created. Likewise, the moderate circles joined the insurrection in 1863. Decisions concerning the national fate were in both cases made primarily by rather unknown patriots responsible for the preparation of uprisings. Their position was not associated with prior achievements or performed offices. They owed their leading role to determination, devotion and activeness, though their support among the nation was spurred by the idea they represented: a desire to revive the homeland[6].

This dual legitimisation – arising from social hierarchies and embedded in ages-old traditions on the one hand, and linked to a sanctified freedom-fight-related cause giving the right to decide on the nation’s future on the other – posed threat of division that would be fatal for the political community. This danger was averted, particularly thanks to the idea of independence. Although it generated dissents – some wanted the uprisings while others did not – it also relieved tensions, causing the ideologically divergent parties to unite over their desire to regain national freedom, which was best exemplified by the January Uprising. It was launched much to the dislike of the conservatives, who after all decided to back it. As explained by one of the foremost thinkers of this movement – Paweł Popiel – it was hard to remain neutral towards the motto of independence and watch the insurrection from a distance. Practical concerns were also quite important. An unwanted uprising could be redirected in order to improve its chances for success, as it was imagined in the first months of the November fights, or to minimise losses, which was the major aim of the conservatives in January 1863. However, moderate politicians, not only the conservatives, above all wanted to prevent radicals from seizing power over the nation’s cause. The combat to win rule over people’s hearts and minds was more than just freedom-fight; it was a clash of visions concerning the society and the principles it should adopt.

The 19th century brought the democratisation of Europe’s political and social life, which was crucial to the continent’s future. Even though most countries finished the process in the subsequent century, the 19th gave it the dynamics to metamorphose old relationships and include ever-wider circles into national-level decision-making. The Polish case was specific as the democratisation of life took place in the absence of statehood. The partitioner governments attempted to benefit from this situation and tried to win favour with rural folk by pointing out how they limited or ended exploitation by the nobles, alongside granting the peasants with previously unimaginable political rights[7]. The members of various political movements realised how dangerous it was. Especially national democrats, socialists and peasant activists made efforts to ensure that the political identity of farmers and working classes would develop in a national spirit. To rule people’s hearts and minds this time meant to try and retain the Polish character of large societal masses. The pursuit of freedom that had often been discordant with the idea of strong authority in the First Polish Republic was now in line with the efforts of the Poles to govern themselves. Allowing greater societal masses to participate in politics, even if it was only raising their elementary national awareness, widened the domain of individual freedom and made it significantly less an elite attribute than in the era when Polish freedom was praised in political treatises[8]. This would later evolve into the attitude of masses towards political authority in reborn Poland. One could venture that the lack of their own state helped the Poles handle democratisation, while it provoked major disturbances in many other countries. Regardless of the inconveniently patchy distribution of national identity among the Poles, they were still more united over the idea of independence than torn by conflicts inherent in the transition to a new social system[9]. Authority was imagined as a goal to achieve rather than an obstacle to overcome on one’s way to carry out the ideas promoted by the late 19th century political mass movements.


Independent but divided


Regaining independence entailed another major shift in the view on the issue of political authority. More problems were thereby added to the previous pool than solutions provided for the existing dilemmas, except for the crucial one: the government was finally Polish. Once again to the fore came the intrinsic tension, dating back to the First Polish Republic, between the geographically justified need for strong and efficient rule and the desire to give citizens the greatest possible freedom. Concerning the former, little had changed regarding the geopolitical milieu that should dictate the state’s foreign policy and evaluation criteria. Like in the First Republic’s declining years, the location between Germany and Russia was troublesome, especially in the context of their possible anti-Polish alliance. Conditions concerning the latter, freedom-related issue had altered over recent centuries. Although social and political hierarchies were of high importance in the Second Polish Republic, the understanding of freedom was quite different from the pre-20th century outlook, given universal suffrage and a large role of groups representing mass social interests. Additionally, conflicts arose from the multinational character of the Polish state as national identity evolved.

The questions to answer were: whom should the authority in Poland serve in the first place and how its goals should therefore be defined? Two visions of Poland clashed that were too different to merge them into one political design. They could not work in a complementary fashion either, for it was difficult to reconcile the programme of a First Republic-inspired, multi-ethnic Poland with the idea to turn it into a nation-state. Both concepts involved entirely different models of internal (especially towards ethnic minorities) and external policies. The political authorities made concessions to one vision or the other alternately throughout the interwar period, none of them being consistently delivered. This weakened the government’s position and hindered ruling. Even worse damage was caused by the fragmentation of the political scene. The division into the supporters and opponents of Marshal Józef Piłsudski – the major point of contention – was more than an ordinary party conflict. Building a strong government in such conditions was all but easy.


Clarity in theory, chaos in practice


Many thinkers argued in the Second Polish Republic that one could not properly rule a country if half measures were taken when dealing with authority. The democracy of that time seemed to be a streak of fuss and chaos that resembled the worst years of the First Republic’s anarchy in the opinion of some critics. On the other hand, the rule of Józef Piłsudski – and particularly his Sanation-movement continuators – was not a consistent dictatorship focused on efficiently modernising the state and achieved using the opportunity to break resistance against the necessary and deep reforms.

The demands on systemic reforms expressed in the political literature of that era were considerably more far-reaching than in the First Polish Republic, including more frequent references to radical attitudes. Even the boldest First Republic reformers had fixed their change-making ideas in the existing reality, focusing rather on the single defective elements to repair in the system than calling for a total turnabout. In contrast, the interwar advocates of systemic reconstruction preferred it to be started from the very foundations. A spirit of constructivism – hardly noticeable in previous centuries except in radical leftist environments – pervaded Second Polish Republic’s political thought, attracting many a rightist author. Motivations were typically righteous and rational. If the state badly functioned and was threatened by its neighbours, it was a problem to be somehow tackled. It was easiest to assume that a major transformation would follow a changeover of government – it could be a merely personal replacement of one grouping with another, but this did not guarantee an adequately radical change. Therefore, a systemic revolution was called for. If we compare the March and April Constitutions of Poland, it is clear that they presented entirely different models of a state, i.e. of authority. Although one was written to counter Piłsudski and the other to favour him, this as is merely an additional circumstance. Serious reflection lay behind each vision of the country expressed in these constitutions that cannot be explained by the sole atmosphere of those days or particularistic interests of their advocates, though these factors left their imprint too. The revolutionism of that era was not intellectually vacuous – quite the opposite – never before or since in Polish history had the systemic side of authority been described with such insight.[10]

Notwithstanding the explicitness of political thought in the Second Polish Republic, the authorities in 1918-1939 were torn between despotic tendencies and excessive self-limitation. Poland could not be ruled by the lash, as put down by Stanisław Estreicher, nor was it possible to rule it fully democratically. Perhaps it was again the problem of time running out. If the Second Republic had experienced decades of peacetime development or victorious wars, it would have been able to adopt a more stable and uniform governmental model. The hastily built country frantically manoeuvred between strong and the freedom-granting authority, which made it hard to seek optimal solutions. Although it is debatable, all evidence suggests that such solutions were not found.


Wartime – authority under extreme conditions


The years of World War II again revealed the strengths and weaknesses of the Poles when faced with the issue of political authority. On the one hand, they succeeded in organising the underground state of a scale unrivalled in the history of Europe. Imposing was not only the courage of its creators but also the intricacy of its organisation. On the other hand, the regular, sometimes unseemly political fight continued, moving the pre-September 1939 conflicts into wartime. The downfall of the Sanation-led state was a natural opportunity for taking to task the politicians responsible for it. At times, however, the willingness to take revenge for the years of suppression of democracy, and the persecution of opposition, eclipsed the issue of the strength of national authority. This authority was in an extremely difficult position and thus needed at least partial calming of internal disputes.

Even more dramatic was the problem of authority’s responsibility for the nation’s fate. It reached its apogee in the decision on launching the Warsaw Uprising. Its critics did not consider it only in categories of an error that stemmed from the wrong assessment of situation. Equally essential to them was the question of how far could one go in pursuit of independence. They often believed that the decision on the outbreak of the uprising crossed the limit of acceptable impact that political authority can exert upon individuals. No idea, even as noble as independence of the homeland, could justify the wasteful squandering of lives of the political community members. It had been already stressed by critics of the 19th-century uprisings, and the discussion of this topic was even more legitimate with regard to the Warsaw Uprising, except that it did not – or perhaps could not – reach a conclusion acceptable to both sides of the argument, entangled in the typically Polish discord between authority and individual freedom.


The Polish People’s Republic – a disaster of authority


Unfortunately the end of war did not herald an era when the Poles would finally have authority they would unanimously consider tailored to their aspirations. In other words, they were still unable to prove to sceptics that they could create a government both strong and responsive to the citizens’ freedom-related needs. One must admit the truthfulness of the thesis that the quality of authority in a given political community normally corresponds to the skills and character of this community.[11] Judged by these criteria, or any other for that matter, the authority in the Polish People’s Republic would have to be considered an utter failure.

The rules of the First and Second Polish Republics had some drawbacks, but there is no exaggeration in praising their numerous advantages. One cannot say the same about the reality of the Polish People’s Republic. The communist rule was first of all imposed on a nation whose pre-war outlook was in major part firmly anti-communist. Moreover, this rule turned out to be extremely inefficient. The picture would be less grim if the only problem had lied in the ideology and foreign domination. The blame for the disastrous post-1945 authority among the Poles could then be put squarely on the Soviets and their supporters. However, this would be too simple an explanation. One can rightly emphasise the importance of mass riots against the system. It is also praiseworthy that the Poles managed to cover their essential day-to-day needs in a largely very harsh reality. Nonetheless, the state functioned badly even though not all institutions were staffed by avowed communists. Some say that many careers made during that period were driven by daily pragmatism rather than ideological devotion to Marx and Lenin. If this is true, one could expect a much better quality of governance from these pragmatist – especially in the administrative positions where the interference from above was limited to general guidelines and the quality determined by personal attributes of individual staff members.

The necessity of finding certain forms of participation in the structures of the Polish People’s w Republic was not usually negated in political writings from that period, both domestic and produced by émigrés. It was no longer possible to ignore the state – it penetrated too many domains of life. Like in the 19th century, total opposition was rarely called for. The question was raised again of how far one could go in their cooperation or at least agreement with the authorities, though it was largely realised that this had to be tested in practice rather than political literature. Uncompromisingly anti-communist stances were represented mainly by émigré authors – most notably Józef Mackiewicz, who believed that all kinds of obedience to communists strengthened them, sometimes unintentionally. The Poles most often poorly rated the communist authorities but learned to live with them, or rather aside from them.

The situation concerning national leadership in the Polish People’s Republic was much brighter. As in the partition times, this leadership could not concentrate in state institutions. In the era of communist indoctrination it was particularly important for the Poles to find a haven that would provide spiritual support and directions for political choices. They found it in the Church, represented notably by Stefan Wyszyński and Karol Wojtyła. Although single decisions that these figures made while interacting with the communist authorities can be questioned, there is no coincidence in the fact that the majority of Poles entrusted themselves to their guidance in these difficult times. A pivotal role was also naturally played by Solidarity. The internal divisions among its leading ranks were incomprehensible to the general public whereas its mass character enabled it to defy the oppressing state apparatus. Contrary to what the communist propaganda tried to show, the powerful social movement did not generate anarchical chaos that could make matters go out of control. The Poles lived up to the task when a real opportunity appeared to first severely weaken and then overthrow the communist rule. The factors that motivated people for mass riots must have been various. Some found the system culturally alien and others were simply disappointed with the quality of life that it offered. However, the scale of anti-authority protests in the Polish People’s Republic was undoubtedly a response to the this authority’s incompetence and brutality. This was the first case in our history when the utter ineptitude of a wholly Polish – though Soviet-dependent – government was a fortunate fact for it accelerated its downfall.


The Third Polish Republic – authority still working its way up


It seemed that after the fall of communism finally came the moment to handle the theory and practice of authority, drawing on the abundance of national traditions and avoiding old mistakes. Whoever believed it turned out to be an incurable optimist. Most of the traditional Polish flaws reasserted themselves, only rewrapped.

The Constitution – the result of a compromise between the supporters of the strong executive, the of eulogists democracy in its parliamentary model, and pragmatists who wish to benefit from authority in whatever form – fuels jurisdictional conflicts, and the need for its change has long been discussed. Governing does not stem from a far-reaching vision, usually being reduced to management and crisis response. It is often exercised by random persons of little repute. A party-member life has a lot in common with the proverbial, Old Polish anarchy and it weakens authority. However, the task of authority is differently defined than in bygone centuries. First and foremost, it is no longer so closely linked to the presence of a political community (at least until we face tangible external threats again). Moreover, the issue of individual freedom emerges in considerably less dramatic contexts that in the past. At the same time, the authorities regulate so many aspects of reality and administrate so many spheres of our lives that their shortcomings are a far from trivial matter. The Poles are invariably in need of a strong government – traditionally non-intervening in personal lives, but providing them with a stable living framework – and they still cannot get one.

Looking through the authority-related coverage of the last two decades, one can discover that the commentators who are pleased with the quality of ruling form a very small circle. Likewise, opinion polls usually reveal low ratings of the government, the parliament and other state institutions that comprise authority in a modern democratic country. Although the majority admits an undoubted improvement compared with the communist era, a more spectacular change was anticipated. As it was done in the past, it sometimes happens that a bad government is juxtaposed with a good society. Such a viewpoint makes politicians seem a particularly incompetent group with poor ethics, who apparently come from nowhere as they are so distant in their ratings from the rest of the society. Meanwhile, the co-responsibility of citizens for the quality of government is evident in a system of democratic appointment of political leaders. Maybe their faults simply reflect the best we can muster these days.

Perhaps the mentioned faults of authority – and these are only examples – would be easier to eradicate but for the turbulent social and cultural processes that are underway. Modern-day politics is increasingly governed by the rules of media democracy. The tasks of authority keep shifting along with the progress in political integration in Europe and globalisation. The ongoing commercialisation of many aspects of life also redefines authority while the rapid technological revolution transforms the milieu in which authority functions. Culture-related modernisation continues at an unprecedented rate. For all these reasons we fall behind in adjusting authority to the swiftly changing reality.

One major impediment to serious reflection on the political authority facing present-day challenges is the growing unwillingness to learn from the experience of the past. Somebody could say that in such a dynamic situation as we have today, no lesson from history could be applicable. Contrary to appearances, there are still plenty of analogies. It is thus worthwhile learning and pondering the history of Polish struggle with the problem of political authority. The conclusions may prove surprisingly topical and useful.


Clear-cut concepts, difficult choices


Attempting the risky task to sum up several hundred years of struggles by the Polish with the issue of political authority, one might rightly assume that it is equally unjustified to eulogize their achievements as to condemn every last of them for failures. Such an assumption seems obvious but when analysing political writings, it seems to be often displaced by extreme opinions which either presented the Poles as anarchically inclined and unable to develop, implement and respect the principles of good and efficient governance, or glorified Polish political solutions which – according to their apologists – failed only due to non-culpable external conditions. It is specific to Polish tradition that practical solutions usually involved seeking the “golden mean” between different concepts. At times, the circumstances suggested more firm measures. Nevertheless, avoiding the extremes should not be utterly condemned, even though it sometimes resulted in quite ineffective policymaking.

         The statements by political thinkers of various epochs contained much less of such moderation. Their criticisms or defences of the Polish political reality were much more one-sided that the reality itself. At the same time a great number of these statements displayed a high class of thinking. A paradox? Not at all: the complication in the history of Poland to which we obviously contributed as a nation, resulted in political thinkers suggesting – in good faith and based on competent analyses – quite opposing guidelines as to what should be done. What should have been done in 1830, when Congress Poland had great autonomy and was developing well politically and economically but an uprising offered far from illusory chances for success? What advice should have been given to Polish leaders in summer 1944, when they had to take into account a hundred thousand civilians trapped in Warsaw but also faced the perspective of seizing the capital by the Soviets who wanted to deprive us of independence? What Józef Piłsudski should have done in 1926, when he saw the instability of Polish democracy and the growing weakness of the state situated in such a place in Europe where weakness – provided that the state wanted to keep its statehood – could not be afforded? After all, what his opponents should have done when they believed the Poles had the right to decide about their political fate via democratic means and that the policy of the Republic of Poland should be jointly decided by the representatives of various options? What advice should have been offered to the elites of the First Polish Republic at the time of its greatest glory, when its political institutions, evolutionally developed, without bloody struggles so often breaking out in other European countries, seemed to operate properly and protect citizens against absolutism which was against Polish tradition?

         Practically each serious political dilemma in Polish history involved such difficult choices. Even with hindsight, the roads which should have been followed are not at all obvious. The political thinkers can try to provide precise answers – that is their role. In its complexity, the life of a political community, however, usually escapes the most refined analyses. This also applies to the concept of authority that was addressed during several hundred years of Polish tradition.



The presented anthology includes fragments of books and articles written during five centuries. These constitute only a small fraction of what Polish thinkers had to say on the topic of political authority. The selection of texts is always debatable and cannot be credibly justified but only by admitting that it derives from the author’s subjective verdicts on picking up certain items and leaving off others. Nevertheless, several main criteria deserve mentioning as the most important in the process of creating this volume.

Firstly, the author of the anthology intended to show the many contexts in which Polish thinkers produced their opinions on the issue of political authority. In their analyses they considered both the long-term needs of the country and the current political situation. They eagerly focused on the purely theoretical aspect of the problem but the practical side was addressed even more often. They weaved in cultural, social and religious themes, seeking the expression of the most elementary features of the national character in the attitude to authority. In brief, the multifaceted character of this coverage proves the vitality and wealth of Polish political thought, which makes it equal to the most interestingly presented approaches to political authority known from the works by the thinkers of other nations.

Secondly, the texts collected in the anthology are to present the specificity of the Polish struggle with the issue of authority. Naturally, it chiefly pertains to the partition-time experience but the deliberations conceived in the First and the Second Polish Republics brought about many original views that remind of a fundamental rule of political thinking: that it has to be set in the reality to which it belongs. This obviousness deserves certain emphasis when considering how readily some solutions are now being sought for Poland, based on other realities, which cannot be mechanically transplanted onto our ground.

Thirdly, the objective of this anthology is to show the level of complexity challenging the thinkers who attempt to indicate a desirable model of authority for a given political community, as well as those who want to put their concepts into action. The outcomes of many projects promoted by even outstanding authors demonstrate that the rift between theory and practice is sometimes so great, and the results of applying some ideas – so unexpected if not harmful, that great caution should be exercised when endorsing models and schools of thought. This caution seems to be abandoned by all those who think that contemporary democracy will self-heal its problems.

The major limit adopted in the selection of texts was the time-related dividing line. The book does not cover works published after 1945. It was not determined in any way by the author’s belief that the quality of the Polish political thinking had deteriorated after World War II for various reasons which should not be discussed here. It was decided by fairly prosaic reasons: little space in the volume, and the attempt to present, even if still fragmentarily, the classics of the Polish political thought who are less and less known while invariably worthy of reading.

[1] Apologists for the Piast reign also included some national democrats of the Second Polish Republic. In their case, political and propaganda motives were superior to the historical approach. To praise the merits and accomplishments of the Piasts while stigmatising the weaknesses of the Jagiellonian republic in the time when it was debated whether Poland should rather become a nation-state or follow the multi-national tradition of the First Polish Republic was a clear exploitation of historical analysis to serve current purposes. The communist propaganda of the Polish People’s Republic also praised the Piast monarchy. This time it was used for scaremongering against German revisionism (naturally only from the FRG) and for the self-aggrandisement of the communist leaders as those who brought the borders of Poland back to the Lusatian Neisse and Oder as well as consolidated its Baltic seaside position, as poor a reason as it was to rekindle the memory of the Polish state founders.

[2] One of the most distinguished conservative thinkers rated the Constitutuion of 3 May highly, praising the First Polish Republic reformers for their attempt to heal the country without resorting to revolutionary violence. In turn, one of the key patrons of leftist radicalism – Jean Jacques Rousseau – tried to convince the Poles not to change a thing in their system as the Polish liberty was a value superior to all the ensuing inconveniences. This provides a good illustration of the dilemmas of that era.

[3] These include the Sejm and an army that was actually Polish though subordinate to the tsarist policy.

[4] It even had two Polish Prime Ministers. These two figures so little known now are worth mentioning: Alfred Potocki (led the government in 1870-1871), and Kazimierz Badeni (leading the cabinet in 1895-1897) – though it must be admitted that neither of them went down in history as an eminent statesman nor that their rule brought about any radical improvement in the fate of the Poles in Galicia. The situation of the Galicians judged against the other partition territories was not that bad – at least in the political sphere – because the proverbial “Galician poverty” was not a propaganda invention of the opponents of the Habsburg monarchy and its Polish officials.

[5] A remark ascribed to Wielopolski that for the Poles one could do everything, and with the Poles – nothing, is a catchy though controversially exaggerated wording of a problem that emerges from analysing the Polish attitude to authority.

[6] The phenomenon of National Government during the January Uprising is one of the most intriguing developments in Polish political history. The organisation that was neither formally established nor elected, and shared no continuity with any First Republic or Congress institution, actually usurped– successfully! – the right to rule. The loyalty of the Poles to such an organisation is noteworthy in the context of a stereotypic image of this nation as crypto-anarchistic and unwilling to accept authority unless coerced.

[7] There is no coincidence in the fact that Francis Joseph, rather than one of independence-fighters, was a positive figure in the eyes of many Galician peasants upon the wave of national aspirations. The “cold welcome” of the First Cadre Company in Congress Poland is also a famous event.

[8] It befits to mention that the First Polish Republic was actually far from failing our expectations of how widespread the benefits of a freedom-centred mindset should be. Compared with most other countries, it was a pioneer in the field and should be rightly regarded as such. However, one can speculate what would have happened if it had followed this direction further on.

[9] If native authority had been there to tackle the 19th century processes, its foundations could have been shaken in a clash of old hierarchies with new aspirations, a difficult challenge for every government.

[10] Authors writing about it included such prominent thinkers as Władysław Leopold Jaworski, Ignacy Czuma, Antoni Szymański, Stanisław Estreicher, Wacław Makowski, Michał Starzewski, Antoni Peretiatkowicz, Adam Doboszyński, Adolf Bocheński, Wacław Komarnicki, Wiktor Sukiennicki, and many others.

[11] This naturally concerns an outcome of multiple concepts, ideas, inclinations, flaws and assets, as no political community is internally uniform enough to withstand such generalisation without presenting a series of reservations and exceptions.

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