A Systemic Helplessness
Prior to Zygmunt Bauman’s lecture, the event commemorating the 150th anniversary of German Social Democracy, described in part 1, members of the National Rebirth of Poland had summoned each other via Facebook in order to stage its disruption and formulated negative judgments concerning Zygmunt Bauman’s past. Informed about the imminent danger, Leszek Miller, former prime minister and the chairman of the Polish Social Democratic Party, sent a letter to the Minister of Interior Affairs, Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, requesting the protection of the event. The German ambassador to Poland, in an analogous move intervened at the Foreign Ministry. Consequentially, the event was secured by the police, and Bauman and his companion were assigned personal bodyguards at the University’s expense.
Shortly before the meeting, the police officer in charge of the action at the University of Wrocław said that he was obliged to stay within the limits of law and that accordingly, he could not intervene unless there was an immediate danger to life, health and property. To the
argument that people who came to the lecture with an evident and announced intention to disrupt it are about to violate academic customs and rules of scholarly debate, he responded that the law does not protect these values. One of the main sources of the audacity of the Polish xenophobic groupings is the helplessness of law and of its execution. Polish law protects all sorts of irrational beliefs and religious feelings, which incidentally are in Poland extremely easily hurt, but it does not protect the principles of free scholarly discourse.
Radicalism at the Academia
After the disruption of Bauman’s lecture, some commentators said that xenophobic graduates of the academies of hatred have now decided to enter the universities. Disruptions of the lectures of the philosophy professor Magdalena Środa and editor Adam Michnik have been invoked in support of such opinions. Attempting to restore some symmetry into the debate, Ryszard Legutko, a professor of philosophy and a current member of the European Parliament, has recalled
an event at the University of Warsaw in which he took part together with Norman Podhoretz. It was disrupted by a leftist group, and the police intervened there as well. One may also add that several years back the philosopher Peter Singer from Princeton University was prevented by Catholic activists from speaking at an ethical congress in Warsaw, because of his stance on euthanasia. Desiderio Navarro, a Cuban intellectual, publisher and translator of Polish literature into Spanish, recently fell a victim of a racist attack in Kraków; no such thing happened to him during his frequent visits to Poland over the past 35 years.
The opinion that nationalist xenophobia is only beginning to enter the universities is misleading. If any ideology is nowadays prominent at the otherwise de-politicised academies, it is
the xenophobic. In fact, it has been present at Polish universities for a very long time now, and seems to be quite at home there.
Shortly after the disruption Bauman’s lecture, a professor of the University of Wrocław, a representative of the xenophobic, spoke, symbolically, under the monument of the king of Poland, Bolesław Chrobry, Bolesław The Great, 967-1025, the first crowned king of Poland, who waged successful wars against Germany and Russia. The professor described the organizers of Bauman’s lecture as neo-Stalinists [which would include Chmielewski, J.G.] and accordingly called for the de-Stalinisation of the University. Two weeks after the disturbance, this call, eagerly seized on by the NOP, became a pretext and a slogan of a yet another of its demonstration in the public space of Wrocław. The NOP, now charged with a great momentum after its repeated “successes,” and staged it, once again, with impunity.
The call to de-Stalinise the University of Wrocław, formulated by this particular professor, was ironic. First, because he is a convert, having been a member of the Polish communist party who changed his denomination into “nationalist” and is now apparently seeking a place on an electoral list of PiS (the Law and Justice Party, and second, because there are no Stalinists at the university anymore. Most have died out, while those who somehow managed to survive, like this particular professor, changed their views radically because some time ago Stalinism ceased to be profitable. They have adopted the xenophobic outlook as nowadays it has become profitable.
Professors, like priests, are only human. No wonder, then, that some of them are doing and thinking what is expedient. Some members of the Polish professoriate, frustrated by humiliating salaries, are seeking substitute satisfactions in the sphere of historical politics, expertly served to them by PiS. Being unable to enjoy recognition for their work, they are finding a vicarious yet unfailing satisfaction in the public denunciation games against their academic comrades who happen to hold different political views.
Immediately after the incident the Rector of the University of Wrocław was asked the question whether he intends to take any action defending academic integrity of the institution, leading to: (i) bringing to justice the perpetrators of the disruption which violated scholarly discourse and academic customs; (ii) investigation of the behavior of academics of the University who formulated abusive opinions about the invited guest and the organizers of the lecture; (iii) protection of freedom of scholarly investigations and openness of academic discourse through the prevention of similar disruptions taking place in the future; (iv) salvaging the image of the University of Wrocław as a place of scientific work, open toward differing views; and (v) the protection of academic workers undertaking to organize extra-curricular scholarly events. Such steps would seem to be necessary for very practical as well as principled reasons. For, one may now expect that as a result of such incidents, scholars and public figures, as well as student of diverse backgrounds, may in the future decline invitations to take part in events organised by the University of Wrocław, or to enroll in it.
The Rector’s response has been a demonstration of helplessness. He has no legal means at his disposal to do any of these things. Shortly after this exchange, an assembly of rectors of the higher education institutions in Wrocław adopted a resolution against xenophobia, which was both an expression of their determination and of their powerlessness.
On the day of the incident at the University of Wrocław, the Minister of Higher Education, Barbara Kudrycka, called the organizers asking for a private address of Bauman in order to send him a letter of apology. Sending such a letter is certainly a proper thing to do. The question remains whether Minister Kudrycka, before she leaves her office, will take any other action regarding the problem at hand. And if so, what kind of action? Will she bother herself to respond to the same questions, which have been addressed to the Rector of the University of Wrocław?
The present and the future minister of higher education will have to respond to a more general question as well. Suppose anyone within the academia attempts to invite an eminent scholar who, apart from being a recognized professional, happens also to be a Jew, Arab, German, Russian, feminist, gay, lesbian, Muslim, Protestant, Pentecostal, atheist, of a different colour, a social democrat, or a cosmopolitan. Will such a person have to take into account a possible threat from local xenophobes who may happen to perceive the invited guest as persona non grata? Will it be necessary from now on to ask for the police protection of any academic event, of which local racists happen to disapprove? Will the Minister of the Interior place his troops at the rectors’ disposal? Given the present circumstances, will the Ministry be ready to pick up the tab of the increased security costs of deliberations in the humanities and social sciences?
The politics of the present regime towards higher education, which has generated an attitude of extreme asceticism while imposing a demand of innovation, in this context a rather absurd one, suggesting that it will not be willing to cover the increased costs of scholarly research and higher education. This means that the space of free academic discourse, much reduced already by inadequate funding of research and academies, will rapidly shrink even further.
On the other hand, one is justified in suspecting that the present regime will be more willing to cover the cost of police protection of the universities rather than that of their adequate funding. Yet if the regime decides to protect the academies by police, itself heavily under-subsidized, it will have to acquiesce to the fact that scientific deliberations conducted in the shadow of police sticks and their smoothbore rifles may not be able to bring forth particularly bold or innovative results. Democracy and academic freedom are challenged, not only from the ultra-nationalists, but also from the politicians who tolerate and encourage them, and the educational officials with no apparent means for effective response.
During deafening nationalist protests against Bauman, some demonstrators raised their hands in the Nazi salute. For the Germans present this unashamed public emulation of the Nazi symbolism by the Polish extremists was a shock; the Consul General sat in the first row of the audience with his face ashen from fear.
The spirit of Nazism has not been irrevocably buried in Germany. Symbols of the political culture concocted by Hitler’s spin-doctors turn out to be more lively than anyone expected. With their own neo-Nazism reborn, Germans must now feel as if the package, sent by their grandparents, has been again delivered with several decades delay. Most of them dump this package into the trash bin; some of them bury it, ashamed, in a cellar; some store its contents with nostalgia. But some of them, among them the youngest, open the package with curiosity and set free the noxious elements contained in it. But this Nazi package, against the intention of its sender, is now being received also by descendants of a nation which particularly suffered from Nazis cruelties. In this way the Polish-German reconciliation, usually perceived through the gestures of political correctness, turns out to possess an another surprising dimension, an “incorrect” one, and, as a rule, hidden from the public view.
Bauman is a sharp critic of the present economic and social order. He believes that the present social and economic regime in Poland and in the world is deeply unjust, leads to exclusions, and grows within itself seeds of its own demise. In the lecture, he said that political parties which now pretend to represent the ideals of the Left, like
the German SPD and the Polish SLD, should be held accountable for the emergence of this order, for they have betrayed the leftist values and became instead societies of mutual admiration with business bosses. He meant especially what Gerhard Schröder, known as Genosse der Bosse [Comrade of the Bosses], had done to the SPD, of which he was a leader. Bauman expressed this judgement in the same University room in which, precisely ten years earlier, Chancellor Schröder represented Germany during a meeting of the so-called Weimar Triangle, a consultation forum for political leaders of France, Germany and Poland.
The Poles are entitled to expect that Germans, especially from the present SPD, should take a clear stance concerning what is going on in their own country. They should also be aware that the Polish brand of Nazism is today not only an internal problem of Poland; it is also a problem of Germany, as well as of Europe as a whole, a sad outcome of the neo-liberal European political-economic order with Germany at its helm.
Party of Order and the status quo
When I insisted that the authorities of the University of Wrocław summon the police in order to protect an academic event, and then insisted that the commander of the police troops remove the troublemakers, I suddenly remembered Arthur Schopenhauer who pointed out to the police the most convenient place for them to shoot at the revolutionary masses during the Spring of Peoples in 1848. I also remembered Karl Marx’s ironic remarks from his 18th Brumaire: yes, I acted as a representative of the Party of Order who called the police to protect the status quo.
The point is, however, that I am not really convinced that the present political and economic order in Poland deserves to be protected. Bauman ingeniously and critically diagnoses the system whose products and symptoms are precisely those people who came to vilify him. And he seeks for ways to reform it. That is why he was invited to speak.
It may appear that extremist groupings in Poland also demand a change of the social order, as Bauman does; and that the difference between them lies only in the methods advocated. But this is not so. The present Polish radicalism is nationalistic, patriotic, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-feminist, anti-communist, anti-Semitic, anti-German, anti-European, anti-intellectual, etc. In a word, it stands for everything that is officially suppressed by the liberal and tolerant elites, striving to impose upon society their own version of constraints of decency. In this sense the Polish radicalism, in its exhibitionism and pornographic obscenity, may be perceived as a symptom of social revolt.
The question of a more just distribution of wealth is not addressed by its members. In this sense, Polish radicalism is thoroughly conservative. It does not strive towards a change of the political system, because it draws from it all its strength, and moves within it unperturbed. The whole raison d’être of the Polish radical movements is to excite disorders during which their members can demonstrate their own strength, and subsequently to use it as a bargaining argument, and a political commodity. This is the whole point of politics understood as a spectacle within which to be is to be perceived. The present system is needed by them as a venue or a scene upon which to perform their rituals of brutality and hatred. They will not find any better one. For this reason precisely they need the cosmopolitans, Jews, Arabs, Blacks, agents, communist, Stalinists, Germans, Russians, Europeans and egg-heads in order to stage their rituals of hate. They are employing their inconsistent ideological conglomerate because it guarantees to them an inexhaustible supply of objects for their hatred. Should the objects, per impossible, become in short supply, they would create them without much effort. For the time being their strength is basically the strength of a spectacle; for this reason it is only an appearance of strength. They will become really dangerous when they understand this. And they are just one step from it. One has only to wait to see whether they will summon the courage to make this step.
It has become nowadays a commonplace of political criticism that the contemporary political system has been transformed into a pathetic caricature of democracy. The slogan of democratic participation is only a smokescreen for the growing oligarchisation of societies and despotisation of politics at all its levels. In sphere of the economy,
the Civic Platform excels in cultivating this art and elevated it to new levels of sophistication through managing the assets of the country in order to create further inequalities and without bothering about their social costs. The situation of a deep imbalance of social structure thus created cannot be remedied overnight; it has gone way too far. For this reason, the Finance Minister Vincent Rostowski will now have to find a place for a new rubric on the expenditure side of his budget: “the costs of social peace.” The longer he delays this, the more hefty sums he will have to put in this rubric in the future. Such a rubric will have to be filled also by the Minister of Finance in any Law and Justice government.
The six post-war decades in Poland have brought disenchantment with the leftist utopia. The past two decades of the transformation have brought disenchantment with conservative liberalism. Radicalism in Poland destroys politics and dispels the hope for social peace. It overwhelms the churches and universities, the last enclaves of relative decency. What, then, has the future in store for us? Bertrand Russell compared civilized life to a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava, which at any moment may break and let the unwary sink into its fiery depths. John Gray has argued that the best that flawed and potentially wicked human creatures can hope for is a commitment to civilized constraints that will prevent the very worst from happening: a politics of the least worst.
The problem is that in Poland the crust of constraints of decency turned out to be very thin, and has cracked again. The lava flowing from below refuses to cool down by itself. Nor will it cool off any time soon, or easily.