Unwise intellectuals

Intellectuals make both good and bad politicians, just like all other people. The main fault of the Polish ones who came on the political scene after 89, were that they believed that Solidarity ideals would be enough to feed people and that this enthusiasm would last forever.

Photo: CreativeCommons/Emily & Michael Dziedzic

I recently wrote a small book, a kind of pamphlet, entitled We were Stupid, to be released in late April 2015, which discusses the mistakes committed in the early transformation years. As I pondered my activities and those of my Hungarian and Slovak colleagues and friends, a divergence in viewpoints became apparent.

The articles written by Martin Simecka 1  and Janos Szeky 2  about the role of intellectuals in 89’s systemic transformation surprised me. Either Slovakia and Hungary’s transformation was completely different than the one we had in Poland, or we simply perceive the events in a totally different way.

Intellectual dilemmas, political wars

In Poland, the “intellectuals” or intelligentsia, originally headed by a common worker, Lech Wałęsa, were central players in the post 89 systemic changes and until recently were the main players in Polish politics. They played a key role in building the new political order – as well as a key role in destroying it – but an exchange of generations is now taking place, albeit slowly (too slowly in my opinion!).

Some intellectuals were politically ineffective and failed, others, such as Bronisław Geremek, 3  were political diamonds, not always sufficiently used, but very effective and very well known in the world. We often do not remember that former Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, was a young member of this group of intellectuals, and to this day is one of the most educated and literate politicians in Europe.

There does not seem to be any rule or principle here. We can however point to one problem, which shows how intellectual sensitivities can clash with a purely political and violent leadership.

One of the most interesting phenomena in Polish history after 1989 was the political conflict between the intellectual politicians and Lech Wałęsa, and because I took part in it, both directly or indirectly, I can describe this conflict and attempt to analyze it.

Clash of icons

When Tadeusz Mazowiecki 4  became the prime minister in 1989, he did not speak to Lech Wałęsa at all. We do not know why. Probably he wanted to be totally independent in his decisions. Polish Solidarity-bred political leaders committed a great mistake by thinking that Wałęsa would be satisfied being a labor union leader. They were however right in assuming that Wałęsa was excellent during times of struggle, but not necessarily in times of peace and tranquility.

In June 1990 an open break took place between the Solidarity-born intellectuals, which included major Polish politicians, and the Wałęsa’s party, who demanded the “acceleration” of reforms and a “war at the top”, or a struggle between the parties. It was not what Poland really needed, but it started anyway. Wałęsa’s views radically escalated the war, the consequences of which we can still feel today. Poland’s typical quarrelsome way of doing politics began between these two main parties in 1990.

In the autumn of 1990, when Poland was about to hold presidential elections, we insisted that Mazowiecki, a prominent politician, run against Wałęsa, and he agreed with great reluctance. We wrongly hoped that with Mazowiecki, a certain unity of the former opposition could be sustained, but Wałęsa campaigned skillfully. He is after all a man of extraordinary political talent, although he frequently exhibited a surprising inability to use it. He successfully decided to promote himself as a “boor” who fought against the constantly fluctuating and quarrelsome intellectuals.

The Polish parliament, which consisted of opponents and supporters of Mr. Wałęsa, made things worse by creating a completely idiotic model of the presidency, which by the way still exists today. The president is elected by popular vote but has very limited powers; this was definitely a result of the parliamentary compromise of that time.

By urging Mazowiecki to run in the elections we did not understand three things:  Wałęsa was the most popular man in the country; Mazowiecki had a terrible media image and was seen as an intellectual who was detached from reality; and that Poles were only slowly emerging from the communist misery, and cared little for “noble principles”. Wałęsa became the president with some difficulty and he was definitely not the best president Poland had. He fatally lost the next election to Aleksander Kwaśniewski (a former member of the communist party), again using the tactics of a “boor”, which did not appeal as much to the more educated and somewhat richer society.

The dusk of solidarity

All these events were happening along the principal dispute between the Solidarity tradition and the new world. Many of us, more or less involved in politics, understood that the Solidarity tradition would not be an ever-lasting source. We thought, however, that it would allow us to survive the time of great change and make all the appropriate political and above all, social reforms. We were wrong. That did not happen.

The economic and especially the financial reforms conducted by Leszek Balcerowicz had nothing to do with a vision of a fair solidarity state. This author of the reforms was an icon of firmness, but a man of little sensitivity to social issues. Balcerowicz never liked the idea of social solidarity, and certainly could not imagine the “solidarity” economy. He managed to fascinate the intellectuals with his neoliberal concepts and ideas.  His radical free-market attitude influenced many less talented than him ministers and even a socially oriented man like Jacek Kuroń. 5

We did not realize it, but at the time “new people” began to dominate in the economic world. They were simple, but clever. Some acquired the capital thanks to their old partisan relations; the vast majority by their own talents. They were typical nouveaux riches, who were not welcome with sympathy or interest by the intellectuals. It is worth noting however that due to the Solidarity ethos, Poland did not face corrupt oligarchs and massive thievery in politics. However, the newcomers were completely alien to the Solidarity tradition and as equally ruthless as the budding capitalists of the 19th century.

Finally, the political phenomenon of Jarosław Kaczyński, who hailed from leftist intellectual circles, appeared in the winter of 1989. He had a lot of ambition and political skills, but only used them for destruction. He never had his own political program and the only thing he knew well was how to destroy, sometimes very effectively and on a large scale; and the effects can still be felt today.

Great ideals, tough reality

So from today’s point of view if we look at the role intellectuals played in Poland at the beginning of the transition, we see both good and bad.

It is obvious, however, that the intellectuals committed two cardinal mistakes. Despite their significant social sensitivity, they were from Warsaw and several other large cities and so they were not acquainted with the people from the provinces and villages. They had no idea how rampant poverty was in the countryside and how disinterested these people were with politics at all. No one analyzed the fact that in the first free elections of June 4, 1989 the turnout was only 62%, and it was even lower in subsequent elections. The indifference of great masses of people was wrongly explained by a spiritual Sovietization – some sort of prolonging, discouraging lack of a spirit, but we forgot about common material poverty. Everyone talked about “solidarity”, while we did nothing to build it after 1989.

Another mistake of the intellectuals was the neglect of radical changes in their own backyard. The years following 1989 are when we should have built a decent public television, carried out a fundamental reform of universities and the whole education system and built a new system of production and distribution of books. However all this was left to its own course, and everywhere the dominant force proved to be money. This is probably the principle of our civilization, but some areas could be saved from the omnipotence of money. It did not work in Poland, because we did not think about it. The only duty of intellectuals is thinking and writing from independent points of view, but the post-89 intellectuals did not fulfill this duty; they instead followed one political party or another, and were unable to apply their political philosophies to an unpleasant reality.





  1.  Martin Šimečka, “Intellectuals did not take the responsibility, So somebody else had to,” V4 Revue, 23 November, 2014, 
  2.   János Széky, “Intellectuals stayed on the scene too long,” V4 Revue, 5 January, 2015, 
  3.   Bronisław Geremek (1932-2008), Polish politician and historian, one of the leading figures of the anti-communist opposition, adviser to Solidarity movement. After 1989 he hold several positions in a parliament and a government. In 2004 he become a member of the European Parliament.
  4.   Tadeusz Mazowiecki (1927-2013), Polish politican , writer and journalist, one of the closest advisers to Lech Wałęsa and the Solidarity movement. After the fall of communism the first  Polish prime minister.
  5.   Jacek Kuroń (1934-2004) – Polish politican, educator  and historian, one of the main leaders of anti-communist opposition. After the fall of communism he became Minister of Labor and Social Policy. In the last years of his life he critisized the social effects of the economic transformation.
Marcin Król

Marcin Król

is a philosopher and historian, university lecturer, author of many books and publications, founder and long time editor-in-chief of Res Publica Nowa, columnist of Tygodnik Powszechny. Under communism he was a member of the opposition, and was imprisoned for taking part in the events of March 1968. He was also a member of the Lech Wałęsa's Civic Committee in 1989 and participant in the Round Table talks between the communist government and the opposition. During the presidential election in 1990 he was a member of the electoral committee of Tadeusz Mazowiecki.