Resistance to Communism in Eastern Europe was carried out under the flag of unity, or, better yet (as the Poles were the first to discover), of solidarity. But once the totalitarian system fell to pieces, solidarity—as well as the Solidarity movement—began to collapse, and divisions between dissidents began to determine political life. “No surprise,” one could say. After all, politics is about divisions and how to handle them. What is remarkable, though, is the way the new battle lines that emerged in the late 1980s have become central to politics across Europe, indeed, across the West.
The Solidarity movement was a combination of liberal, conservative, and socialist elements possible only in a unique time and place, when atheists met in the churches and attended Holy Mass; when patriotism, national independence, and tradition were in the hearts of liberals and social democrats; when conservatives wanted to be liberal and nationalists called themselves European. But this moment could not last, and once the regime fell, deep political divisions reasserted themselves—not only because the enemy that made these disparate people allies disappeared, but also because restored political agency required clear delineations of ideological difference. Those on the left quickly learned again that religion is the stronghold of obscurantism and that conservatives are the stupid party. Those on the right saw that progress was once again on the march and that they would not be spared.
Two recent books represent the two sides in the emerging battle for Europe. The first, published in the Czech Republic, is a collection of essays by Polish political analysts identifying themselves or being identified by others as conservatives. The collection is entitled Pravým Okem, or A View from the Right. The Czechs and the Poles cooperated in the past in their struggle against the Communist regime, and since that time there has been a mutual interest in each other’s political and intellectual lives both on the left and on the right.
The second book bears the rather embarrassing title Byliśmy głupi, or We Were Stupid. This confession is offered by Marcin Król, professor emeritus of Warsaw University and one of those intellectuals who spoke for the democratic opposition during Communist rule, and who later supported the political establishment that emerged in Poland after 1989. The title suggests that Król intends to offer a self-critical assessment of the folly of this establishment, which has ruled Poland for twenty-odd years. But the title is misleading: The self-criticism is not genuine, and the book is a more or less ingenious display of self-righteousness.
Is there such a thing as an Eastern European conservatism? Apparently there is, though the differences between the conservatisms of various Eastern European countries are not negligible. One can read about them in the two introductions to A View from the Right—the first written by Petr Fiala, a professor of political science and leader of the ODS party, the largest opposition party in the Czech Republic, and the other by Maciej Ruczaj, the director of the Polish Institute in Prague.
Religion determines the most important differences. Poland is an overwhelmingly Catholic country; Czechia is largely agnostic; and Hungary is Catholic, but with substantial Protestant minorities. In Poland, being a conservative has always meant a close attachment to Catholic Christianity, even for those who were not men of faith. Not only conservative but also centrist parties have never questioned the importance of religion in Polish history and modern Poland. Even left-wing parties have been careful not to attack the Church and Christianity, realizing that to do so would be political suicide. All attempts to build a strongly anticlerical political movement have failed and are likely to fail in the future. There are, of course, “open Catholics” in Poland as there are everywhere, most of them intellectuals such as Marcin Król, strongly critical of the Church (with the exception of Pope Francis, whom they praise to the skies), lavishly supportive of the European Union, and hysterically opposed to the current conservative government. But so far their influence on the episcopate and the Polish flock has been minimal.
In the Czech Republic, because of its long tradition of agnosticism, Christianity and Catholicism in particular have been treated with indifference, often with distrust, or, as Fiala says, lack of understanding. Religion simply is not a political force. The ODS party that is said to represent conservatism is certainly more liberal than conservative. Its patron is the founder of the modern Czech state, Thomas Masaryk, whose attitude to religion was cold, to say the least.
Since 2010, Hungary has been ruled by the Fidesz party, whose leader, Viktor Orbán (a Protestant), has repeatedly stressed the importance of Christianity for Hungary and for Europe as a whole. Predictably, this last point provokes angry grumbles from E.U. political elites. But the new Hungarian constitution, which Orbán managed to pass through the Parliament in 2011, states this attachment to Christianity in unequivocal terms: “We are proud that our king Saint Stephen built the Hungarian State on solid ground and made our country a part of Christian Europe one thousand years ago. . . . We recognise the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood.”
In the major moral conflicts of today’s Western world—over abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.—Poland and Hungary clearly represent the conservative side, having perhaps the only governments in Europe, or across the entire West, that are consistently pro-life and pro-marriage. The defense of life from conception to natural death is enshrined in the Hungarian constitution as well, though the existing laws—dating back to previous governments—have remained unchanged and make abortion accessible under certain conditions. In Poland, abortion is permitted only in restricted cases. The Czech Republic, by contrast, has sided on this point with the rest of the Western world (or, to be more precise, with Western judicial elites).
Poland and Hungary thus occupy a unique political position in the West. Against the moral revolutions that the West has launched with a surprising degree of fanaticism, they have defended the family and the unborn and affirmed the necessity of religion. This has turned these countries into the great blackguards of the Western world, criticized and bullied by American and European politicians, journalists, academics, artists, film stars, and pop stars.
So far, these attacks have only led to the consolidation of conservative forces in Eastern Europe. The more intense the attacks, the more people are convinced that they are a part of a larger cultural conflict. The old argument that until some time ago was effective—of anachronism, marginalization, the dustbin of history—has lost its force. Once it was enough to put the East Europeans to shame, telling them they should listen to what is being professed in Paris, Berlin and New York, to those who are more enlightened, who represent progress and who lead Western civilization, or by telling them their beliefs were outdated and laughable. Eastern Europeans backed down.
A ritualistic appeal in support of homosexual causes issued by up to forty-five ambassadors every year before the Equality Parade in Warsaw did not diminish strong opposition to legalizing same-sex marriages in Poland. Nor has the country’s anti-abortion stance weakened in response to equally ritualistic criticisms that the European Parliament directs against Poland for failing to guarantee women their “reproductive rights.” The European Commission and the European Parliament suffered a humiliating defeat trying to discourage the Poles from supporting institutional reforms of the judiciary system. Outside criticism only strengthened the position of the government among the voters.
Though it has become less effective, this strategy of shaming has not died out. The basic conflict in a country such as Poland is between two groups representing two strategies—one that appeals to intellectual fashion and another that dismisses it. On one hand, there are those who are disgusted with the Polish society that they consider backward and permeated by dangerously obsolete beliefs. They want to modernize, which means giving the country a new liberal-democratic identity. They hope to achieve this aim by submitting the country to some kind of enlightened rule by local elites and European institutions, particularly the European Union. Polish society, in other words, needs mental and social re-education. Then it may join modern civilization. Ewa Thompson of Rice University, a contributor to A View from the Right, describes this attitude as an expression of a postcolonial mentality, in which the people who think themselves free unwittingly try to imitate and please the former colonial power.
On the other hand, there are those who would rely on homegrown social capital and the potential of the existing political community, not on imported social engineering. A View from the Right is representative of this type of thinking. It is interesting that although all the contributors are usually called conservatives, the arguments they raise are not only, not even predominantly, conservative. Bronisław Wildstein, for example—a well-known writer and political commentator—uses an argument from democracy. He argues that the political system that has emerged both in Poland and in Europe (and subsequently in the E.U.) after 1989 tends to resemble oligarchy. What it needs is democratization. The opinions and aspirations of many groups, even of the majority, are ignored; the ideology of the elite is being imposed on entire nations. As a matter of fact, from the very beginning of the new political system in Eastern Europe, its architects have been distrustful, even disdainful, of the people, so their democratic declarations have sounded somewhat ambivalent. Their political motto should have been “Democracy, yes, but without the demos.”
This elite aspires to monopoly. After all, whoever looks at the world only from the perspective of progress and modernization cannot grant any legitimacy to his adversaries. For a believer in modernization, anything other than acceptance of progress is an absurdity that should be eliminated, not another contestable point of view. No wonder that whenever this elite loses power through a popular vote, it reacts angrily and never really accepts the democratic results. One can see this in the E.U.’s reaction to the governments in Poland and Hungary, but also in the reaction of a large part of the Polish cultural establishment to the current conservative government. Americans are offered regular servings of this kind of thinking in Anne Applebaum’s columns for the Washington Post.
One symptom of this mentality is the reappearance of the word cham in Polish public discourse. It’s an elite term of abuse for the ruling government and its supporters. Impossible to translate into English, it goes back to the old caste-structured society, in which it denoted the lowest stratum, serfs and peasants. A “cham” is not only a person who is coarse, ill-mannered, uneducated, and unintelligent. He is also socially contemptible and deserves to be where he is, that is, at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. You did not argue with a cham; when he was disobedient, you had your servants beat him. When the elites apply the word “cham” to those who won the elections, they put themselves in the place of the old-time landowners living in fancy palaces, having refined tastes and cultivated minds, who were deposed by a bunch of brutal, illiterate peasants who deserve to be whipped until they know their place. Only then will the situation go back to normal.
It does not matter that among the supporters of the current government are many university professors, journalists, and lawyers, and that the conservative majority in the Parliament is overall much better educated than the opposition. Still, they are all chams. This is the kind of language used, among others, by Marcin Król, who has nothing but contempt for the current government and its supporters. They are “idiots,” “liars,” and even—in all seriousness—“the devil incarnate.” Before the last election, he declared that this “riffraff” (in Polish, toto) should be silenced and neutralized: “I call on the Polish government to take tough measures against them even if that would mean violating the law.” It is worth noting that the term “cham” was applied not only to Polish conservatives, but also to Donald Trump and his voters. Apparently chams the world over have forgotten their place.
Król sees himself and his class as possessing all the virtues the chams sorely lack. “Wise,” “decent,” “noble,” “virtuous,” “learned,” “intelligent,” “well-mannered”—these are but a few of the adjectives Marcin Król attributes to himself and his political friends. He is one of the best and the brightest. Those who disagree with him are stupid, narrow-minded, poorly educated, and mean. Of course, self-flattery and abuse of one’s opponents are hardly the marks of a gentleman, but brutal language and boorish behavior are characteristic of our liberal elites. It is amazing how this soi-disant cultural aristocracy is so insistently foul-mouthed and how it manages to degrade the public discourse.
But there are alternatives, as detailed in A View from the Right. There is no doubt that the postcolonial mentality was well-suited to what one might call an integrationist strategy, that is, an explicitly stated plan to dilute Eastern Europe in the institutional and cultural framework of a united Europe. It soon became clear that this could not work—the united Europe belongs to the realm of historical eschatology rather than to the real world—so the governments chose a strategy of mild realism (to use an expression of Marek Cichocki, another contributor to the volume), which in practical terms meant accommodating to the existing political reality that was shaped and controlled by the big European players. But things have changed, and in Eastern Europe there is more talk about sovereignty, particularly in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland.
Sovereignty is said in many ways, but it should be stressed that in Eastern Europe, the rhetoric of sovereignty does not involve leaving the European Union. Rather, what it means is putting a stop to creeping and wild integration, which has been going on for some time, and which has been used as a vehicle for the European bureaucracy and European big players to take control of major decisions. Paradoxically, as it were, talking about sovereignty in Eastern Europe has a pro-European coloring, as its aim is to save the E.U. from pathologies that Euro-enthusiasts have been fomenting through arrogant and reckless policies. What we see, in other words, is some kind of reawakening of Eastern Europe, which now aspires to be an equal partner in the European system. At the same time, conservatives warn that a process of continued integration will unavoidably increase these pathologies and might thwart the entire enterprise. In short, Eastern European conservatives try to defend the E.U. from itself.
But there is more to it than that. Saving the E.U. from its own diseases has a more profound meaning in Poland, Hungary, and other countries of the region. This has much to do with the role of religion, but also with a long historical memory about which Maciej Ruczaj writes in his preface to A View from the Right, and which seems to be characteristic of Eastern European societies, more so than Western European ones.
There are many reasons for this long memory, one of them being the fact that the Iron Curtain blocked information coming from Western Europe and thus prevented Eastern Europeans from following closely the changes that since World War II have dramatically restructured Western civilization. The picture the Poles had of this civilization was from before all these changes, when Christianity was relatively strong and classical metaphysics and epistemology were still very much not only in the air, but in the educational curricula. This picture presupposed a continuity—not easy to describe, but taken for granted—between antiquity and Christianity, on one hand, and modern times on the other. Nobility of soul, moral virtue, sainthood, and salvation were seen as continuous with ideals of mobility, liberty, and democratic republicanism. Even the Enlightenment and Romanticism were included as dissenting voices within a civilization that remained classical and Christian. For Eastern Europeans, it was unimaginable that Western civilization could dissociate from all this as if from some burdensome impedimenta, just like Communism did, to the despair of those who lived under its rule.
When, much later, the Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, and their neighbors started participating in the process of European integration, conservatives returned to the question “What is Europe?” The answer that had already been given to it and generally accepted in the western part of the continent they found most disconcerting. “Europe,” went the answer, “is the European Union and everything it stands for.” What had seemed inconceivable a few decades before was happening. As Zdzisław Krasnodębski, professor of sociology at University of Bremen and a Polish Member of European Parliament, writes in his essay in A View from the Right, the European Union and its elites have been trying to construct a new European identity, turning European peoples into a post-historical, post-national, post-metaphysical, post-Christian, even post-religious society held together by a universalist ideology of “Europeism.”
The long historical memory of Eastern Europeans helps them to see our political battle lines more clearly. And considering the fact that they look at Europe from a broader perspective, both historically and philosophically, they are certainly more European than those who identify Europe with the European Union. Would it, then, be fair to say that the European Union is becoming less and less European in the genuine sense of the term, and that the truest defenders of European identity are now to be found in Eastern Europe among the chams rather than among the best and the brightest? My answer is: Yes, it would.
Ryszard Legutko is professor of philosophy at Jagiellonian University in Kraków.