Civil society in Poland. Some remarks of a historian of ideas

Author: Andrzej Waƛkiewicz

There was completely different story of civil society during the era of the resistance movement. Andrzej Waskiewicz means that it takes time for bourgeois to turn into citizens and in the meantime civil society is relying on a few enthusiasts.


I am a historian of ideas, and not a practicing sociologist or a social activist. Yet as well as being an academic teacher I also used to publish a monthly journal devoted to public affairs and teach young social and political leaders. Now I am involved in setting up a liberal arts college, so I’ve had a chance to see the idea of civil society being translated into social practice.

Paradoxically enough, for once, social practice preceded the idea; usually in Polish history, it was the other way around: imported social ideas were discussed by the Polish intelligentsia before they affected Polish society. Contrary to Marx’s theory, the consciousness of Polish elites frequently did not reflect reality, or if they did, it was the realities of other nations. The years 1980-81 were different. What the people of Poland did at that time was both spontaneous and surprisingly mature. Had martial law not suppressed their activities with brute force, they might have evolved into an active citizenry forming a dense network of NGOs. Yet this experience also showed that such activities may be in vain when they lack state protection, let alone state support. Thanks to Solidarity’s come-back in 1989, some of these ideas and practices were resumed.

After December the 13th, the social enthusiasm of 1980-81 was quickly stifled. Just a handful of Solidarity activists turned into active conspirators, while most of them turned into family men and women. The scarcity of basic necessities induced the attitude of individual adjustment to the hardships of everyday existence. People came together to form mutual assistance networks for the exchange of basic goods. Those in conspiracy lived within closed circles in an atmosphere of intimacy. The rules of clandestine work breed trust, but it is always limited to a few insiders, and accompanied by as much mistrust of (numerous) outsiders. So conspiracy by no means promotes greater civility than does private life; in fact, it can resemble it and occasionally be a substitute for it. Even if people trust one another and collaborate on a non-profit basis, there is no civility without a public sphere; this was the case in the Poland of 1982-1989. Actually, the communist authorities forbade even such forms of collaboration as building societies that allegedly posed a threat to the socialist order.

Strangely, and yet this time in line with Polish history, civil society came back as an idea. Not without a Polish intellectual contribution and based on the Polish social experience of 1980-81, this idea resurfaced in the mid 1980s. It was addressed to a society which was but a shadow of the one which had inspired the Western theorists a few years earlier. The 62-percent turnout at the first semi-free elections was not an accident. The passive attitude towards public life had not changed overnight. And the idea of civil society was demanding. Contrary to what we can find in Locke’s, Hegel’s, or even de Tocqueville’s works, it was a purely normative idea. It set such high standards of public life that very few, if any, societies could fulfill them. This is a well-known story, so it will suffice to say here that civil society was simply meant to be a substitute for the state, and so it was easy to ridicule. Since this idea became one of the principles underlying the new social and political order, the critics could say that it served the ruling class as an excuse for not doing what the state is supposed to do. Do it yourselves because we cannot do it for you. And this was a completely new idea to the Polish mentality, since the communist state had called for patience and sacrifice on such occasions.

Of course, there are a number of striking examples of how civic initiatives sorted out problems which the authorities had, for years, been unable to address. Yet those examples cannot be said to be representative; rather, they serve as a counterpart of the capitalist myth of ‘shoeshine boy to successful millionaire’. Perhaps most Poles would have been happy under the communist regime if only they had been given a little more freedom to organize themselves without being hampered by thousands of absurd regulations or simply by the lack of good will on the part of the officials. ‘They’ failed to solve many social issues, but did not allow citizens to solve problems themselves, either. However, after 1989, the state was ‘ours’. What do we have the state for? Few people become community activists out of the pure need to act in the public sphere, most do it out of a private need which can only be met by public action. No wonder that the idea of civil society in its normative form was embraced mostly by the intelligentsia: it resembled the old idea of public service, the one to which this social stratum was said to be devoted and which defined its social status. For some time in the early 1990s, a characteristic social advertisement was shown on Polish public television: a group of actors pushing a cart with a Polish national flag and calling their compatriots for help.

The weakness of civil society in post-communist countries is widely attributed to the burden of their past. However, not all social and political apathy can be explained by that, nor do the hardships of everyday life provide a better or more complete explanation. The withdrawal from the public sphere in the late 1980s and early 1990s was accompanied by focusing on family life and also on consumption, which at that time was quite limited because of the scarcity of available goods. Yet the appetites had been awakened, and they could soon be satisfied in mushrooming supermarkets. Even before Poland became a democratic state, it had turned into a would-be consumerist society. Thus the labor pains of civil society cannot be seen exclusively in the context of the struggle between the old and the new social, economic and political systems. Certainly, the remains of the old system were an obstacle to the emergence of civil society, but the new order promoted it only to a limited extent and, at the same time, created conditions that did not encourage civic initiatives.

There is an old controversy over whether capitalism and democracy are mutual friends, as most mainstream social scientists assume nowadays, or bitter enemies, as some leftist ones have traditionally claimed. The case of Poland cannot be said to serve as an example for the proponents of either approach. The said consumption was not the product of mature capitalism but of corrupt socialism. If we say that it drives the people’s attention towards the private instead of the public sphere, we should rather follow Machiavelli’s bitter remarks that wealth makes them indifferent to the public good. In Poland, the concern for wealth has found a noble justification: the needs of the family. The family is the central institution for most Poles; all the surveys show that happy family life makes them personally happy even if they are disappointed with politics, the Catholic Church and other public institutions. And yet, happy people may be unhappy citizens. As unhappy citizens they tend to blame the state and its agenda for all the miseries of public life, and this explains why they are in favor of a strong state, whatever that means.

The black legend of civil society is based on the assumption that its institutions undermine the state. In fact, this is one of many half-truths. As shown by Robert Putnam’s classic study, citizens’ associations make local government more effective in northern Italy, where they flourish, than in southern Italy, where they are far less numerous. The authorities are stronger if they are not responsible for every aspect of social life. Yet all this will sound unconvincing if we simply change the vocabulary and associations become “connections”, foundations: “foreign money”, fund-risers: “swindlers”, etc. Such people and organizations stand in the way of government policy. One could attribute these thoughts to populists, but such mistrust towards social institutions is also characteristic of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, often mistaken for one of the founding fathers of modern democracy. There is no social sphere in his republic that is a sphere between the individual and the political. For Rousseau, all kinds of social institutions bring inequality into political life and corrupt the state which works at the service of the wealthy and the mighty. In his view, such organizations are nothing more than agents of particular private interests multiplied by the number of their members.

As we know, the whole truth is that civil society comprises a plethora of social institutions. There are associations of medical doctors and associations of people wronged by them, corporations of lawyers and clubs for their wives. Some of them bring together people with a concern for the public good, while others are watchdogs of group interests. The former are hailed and don’t need any justification and the latter often become targets of populist campaigns. True, not all of them have been set up to serve the public interest, and yet, as de Tocqueville teaches, they all do, in a sense, when they protect individuals, many or just a few, against the almighty central government. The examples are numerous. They do it in their own self-interest and society as whole benefits from that. But it can be the other way round, and evidence for that is also abundant. All in all, even though they may not be professed advocates of democratic government, by limiting it they serve it better than the ‘true believers’

Thus, we needn’t love them for that, nor do we have to particularly worry about them. They are based on vested interests, and interests make them self-sustained. In fact, the reputation of civil society rests upon these bodies, as they can easily spoil it. The exclusivist policies of many vocational organizations make them ideal targets of government actions and provide an excuse for limiting their autonomy. And they could, with very little effort, do something more than improve decent conduct. They could support public benefit organizations which have won public sympathy for NGOs by their disinterested activities and devotion to public causes. They could offer their know-how: legal assistance, accounting services, help in fund-rising, PR, etc. to those small organizations that cannot afford it within their own limited means.

Small organizations have often lots of enthusiasm which cannot be properly turned to public benefit because they are rather “clumsy” in the bureaucratic context; no wonder many of them are losing heart when faced with the “rules and regulations”. And this is a great loss, because the strength of such organizations lies in interpersonal relations. Their members are often friends in the old sense of the word that is they are supporters of a public cause, just like the Friends of the Constitution of the 3rd May. Or they are just friends, a small, tight-knit group of people, for many of whom acting together, whatever their cause, is one of their formative experiences. Bigger groups, which have crossed the organizational threshold, cannot work properly without any institutional culture. And the very notion of “institutional culture” sounds abhorrent to people afraid of routine. And yet routine is not the equivalent of callousness, an organization is not a rigid hierarchy, and pursuing a career does not necessarily mean betraying one’s calling. In short, the point is to combine enthusiasm with efficiency.

Polish sociologists notice that communal activity has been diminishing in recent years. The romantic phase of the development of civil society seems to be over. The group-profile of the Polish intelligentsia is changing; its young generation much more closely resembles the professional elites of other states. In the long run, for civil society to survive, its idea and practices have to be spread to other social strata. Most importantly, to the middle class which is not yet very numerous in Poland and tends to keep itself to itself in the popular gated communities. In fact, most of the new housing estates in big cities are closed to non-residents. In the spirit of Rousseau we would say that it will take time for the bourgeois to turn into citizens or, being more realistic, one would hope for the next generation to discover enlightened self-interest and civility. Before they do so and develop “the habits of their hearts”, just like Alexis de Tocqueville found them in 19th century in America, we will have to beat a rhythm to the heartbeats of enthusiasts: the most spectacular civil society success in Poland is the Great Christmas Charity Orchestra, a striking example of how enthusiasm and professionalism can go hand in hand.

This paper is published as a contribution to the discussion of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE Trust) Civil Society Forum. The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the CEE Trust or its funders. Copyright © 2008 CEE Trust. All rights reserved.




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