Friday, 20 August 2010


The dispute surrounding the cross outside the Presidential Palace raises a broader question as to what the attitude of the left should be towards religion and the Church. As a movement born out of the Enlightenment and the ideas of modernity and progress the left has tended to be related to secularism and often atheism. The left has frequently come into conflict with religious establishments and it should be remembered that the full separation of the Church and State had already been achieved in Poland over 60 years ago after the establishment of a 'Communist' system. Nevertheless the actual relationship of the left to the Church and religion has not always been a clear cut one.

During state-socialism the Catholic Church enjoyed huge prestige and influence within society, especially after the appointment of a Polish Pope in the early 1980s. The Church came to be seen as an institution around which the opposition could unite and an independent space where people could congregate. This forced some of the secular and liberal members of the opposition to re-consider their attitudes towards the Church. This was famously formulated by Adam Michnik, who argued that the secular opposition should reassess its reflexive anticlericalism and recognise the Church as an institution that challenges the state's control of spiritual life in society and advocates human rights and liberties. Michnik argued that the Catholic Church was the only institution in Poland that was both legal and independent of the power structure and fully accepted by the people. (Michnik, Adam (1993) The Church and the Left U of Chicago P , Chicago)

This pragmatic change in emphasis by sections of the opposition coincided with a wider change of political ideology. Moving away from supporting the further democratisation and socialisation of socialism, the intelligentsia, in the final years of state-socialism, counterposed the political system and its ruling ideology with the liberal concepts of pluralism and imperfection. Michnik propagated the slogan that "grey is beautiful", which implied that in a democratic system there are no fixed concepts of "right" and "wrong" and no illusions harbored of the "utopia of a perfect society." Such thinking laid the way towards the intelligentsia's full political conversion to liberalism – both in the spheres of politics and the economy. This included wholesale support for the 'shock-therapy' economic reforms, introduced at the beginning of 1990.

While anti-politics led to neo-liberalism, the actual political sphere was formally reduced to an arena for the "conciliation" of interests, with the state maintaining a seemingly relativist stance of neutrality on issues of ideology and morality. In contrast, the Polish Catholic Church was not interested in gestures of neutrality and filled this political void, only meeting some partial resistance during the first SLD government in the mid-1990s. The social effects of the shock-therapy reforms quickly led to their political dissipation and isolation; and the later decline of the 'post-communist' left ensured that conservatism grew as the most coherent political current in Polish politics.

Right-wing conservatism in Poland fed upon the discontent of large sections of society with the economic transition and widened into a general attack on the liberal democratic system. Prominent conservative thinkers in Poland have stated that liberalism adheres to a linear model of modernisation, which is similar in essence to the Marxist notion of development. They further assert that the liberal path of development produces a democratic system that lacks a moral base. It both alienates the nation's traditional culture and excludes a real critique of communism. Polish conservatives have claimed that the separation of the Church and State excludes believers from political debate, pushing them into conflict with the liberal secular state. In response, the conservatives promote the creation of a new political hegemony in Poland based around a conservative moral framework, with the state and Church acting as its custodian against the liberal-left. (Prominent conservative intellectuals in Poland include figures such as Dariusz Gawin, Zdisław Krasnodębski and Marek Cichocki, who are brought together in the Kraków based Centre for Political Thought)

It was such thinking that intellectually underpinned the actions of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) and its government from 2005-2007. The policies of this government combined a programme of 'de-communisation' (verging on McCarthyism), anti-liberalism and creeping authoritarianism. The PiS government also brought the Catholic Church closer into the political arena and closed the gap between the Church and the state. It openly stated that it was an administration for "believers" and that one of its aims is to ensure that Catholic institutions are not 'discriminated' against. The government argued that the Church is the one institution that projects a universal system of values and raised the possibility of a form of "moral censorship" being created, meaning that certain views should be excluded from the public discourse. (Gazeta Wyborcza 7-8 Jan. 2006, 20 July 2006.) The present PO government has moved away from this more extreme version of conservatism. Nevertheless it has not challenged the influence of the Church in public life nor the conservative political framework that it supports.

In such circumstances the left has often found itself at the brunt of the attacks by the conservative right and is also virtually the sole remaining political force that coherently supports a fully secular and liberal state in Poland. I would argue however that there is a danger of over-emphasising the question of religion and the Church and making it almost the sole defining issue of the left. This has been particularly exaggerated due to the left's inability to present a coherent economic alternative to neo-liberalism (whether in its liberal or conservative political guise). There has been a tendency for sections of the left to seek an alliance with liberalism in Poland, and to compromise on socio-economic issues. It could be argued that this would be a worthwhile temporary alliance if it would help introduce real secular and liberal reform in Poland. However, secular political liberalism in Poland has virtually disappeared as an independent political force (mainly due to its association with the shock-therapy reforms and neo-liberal economics) and only exists as a minority element within the ruling Citizens' Platform (PO). Those within the left seeking to form an alliance with PO should be aware that this would further isolate the left from its natural electoral constituency and potentially further push large sections of Polish society closer to religious conservatism or political apathy. There is also no use opposing clericalism and conservatism through claims of rationality or demeening people's faith. Rather the interference of the Church in political and public life should be consistently challenged while opposing the social inequalities that have fuelled the rise of right-wing conservatism in the country.

My next blog post will consider how the relationship between religion and the left has changed internationally in recent years.

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