Mateusz Ciołkowski: Doctor, we met here to talk about liberalism that crystallised during the communist era on the example of Stefan Kisielewski – an extremely complex figure, outstanding publicist, author of numerous columns, and politician. How would you define his ideological roots?
Dr. Maciej Zakrzewski: Kisielewski came from an intelligentsia family, which, however, was characterised by a left-wing approach to the socio-political reality. His cousin was Hanka Sawicka, one of the icons of the Polish communist movement. A very interesting story is connected with his entry into the circles of ‘Bunt Młodych’ [The Youth Rebellion] – that is Giedroyc's pre-war periodical – and ‘Tygodnik Powszechny’ [The Catholic Weekly] after 1945, because a certain characteristic pattern can be seen here. Kisielewski said that he joined their editorial offices due to the possibility of publishing music reviews, but it never took long before he started to write about politics instead.
During his cooperation with the ‘Bunt Młodych’ magazine, Kisielewski spreads his wings and we can see that he opposes statism, that is identifying the government with society. In his famous publication entitled ‘Why don’t the Piłsudski followers drive Poland's life?’, he emphasises that Piłsudski's environment and heirs should listen more to citizens' voices and think less about the state understood as a structure of centralised bureaucracy. And so, before the Second World War, he does not yet reveal his liberal profile, because the economic system is also far from negating the right of ownership as fundamental, but he becomes known as a journalist criticising the paternalism of the political elites of that time. Lest we forget that ‘Bunt Młodych’ was perceived as a conservative magazine, although its creators did not always want to be classified in this way.
After 1945 – and after the time of underground activity as well as an episodic participation in the Warsaw Uprising – Kisielewski lives in Krakow. When discussing his biography, his accession to the Labour Party should be noted. Kisielewski mentioned that it was possible to sign up for this grouping at Franciszkańska 3, in the Metropolitan Curia, and so he did. Later, he went to the Philharmonic, where Popiel's meeting was being held; Popiel was preaching anti-sanation tirades. Kisiel was aware enough of the situation to see that continuing the pre-war games, at the time when the Red Army was stationed on the territory of Poland and the takeover of power was being prepared, could not be serious. He returned to Franciszkańska and withdrew his declaration.
Let us move on to his cooperation with the ‘Tygodnik Powszechny’ magazine.
After 1945, he begins to cooperate with the magazine. Then, a fundamental geopolitical idea, which should not be forgotten under any circumstances, appears in his works. In the light of the thoughts of other liberals of the Polish People's Republic – Bronisław Łagowski, Mirosław Dzielski – the geopolitical moment was emphasised the most. He wrote that in the assessment of the political situation, one should always take into account the conditions of the international environment in which Poland is located.
Let us remember that Kisielewski, among the figures I mentioned, was the oldest. He was mature when he experienced the collapse of the policy of Józef Beck, the pre-war Minister of Foreign Affairs, and later, the cruelty of the Second World War. Therefore, the existence of a state (rather than a form of a Soviet republic or under occupation after 1945) was still a certain value. Secondly, it can be seen that an important perspective in his thinking was the observation that Poland was located between very strong political organisms, i.e. Germany and Russia.
His geopolitical realism was also close to Ksawery Pruszyński and Aleksander Bocheński's – journalists of the ‘Bunt Młodych’ magazine. Kisiel's idea can be briefly presented in the following way: “Let's try to make an offer to the Russians: we will accept entering the Eastern Bloc and become a loyal ally, but in exchange for our attitude, communism will not be introduced in our country or they will at least try to limit its extent”. We have to admit that this was a somewhat naive idea, but who had non-utopian ideas at that time?
Let us remember that in 1947, in an operating private publishing house, Kisiel helped Aleksander Bocheński to publish ‘The History of Stupidity in Poland’ – a book that was a kind of historical pamphlet with a clearly political goal. Bocheński raised historical arguments in favour of the necessity to pursue a practical policy, pointing out that the pro-Russian option was sometimes a requirement of the Polish raison d'état. Although their paths diverged, both Kisiel and Bocheński assumed the possibility of limiting the influence of the communist ideology on society. According to Kisiel, the effects of this ideology were very dangerous due to their irrationality and far-reaching consequences for social life.
Kisielewski did not theorise and he did not leave behind any systematic interpretations of his worldview; he was mainly focused on journalism. So how can one try to reconstruct his way of thinking? What was the role of conservatism in it? You yourself note that he originated from a conservative environment.
Kisielewski is an intellectual; it is very hard to distinguish liberal and conservative components in his thinking. He certainly was an advocate of organic thinking, that is claiming that society is a certain organism, a structure that develops primarily in a spontaneous way. And the state, as an institution, is not appointed to definitively impose on it, all of the directions of its development. In his opinion, an organism will always resist such an intervention, since the primary purpose of the state is to look after the security of the community.
Kisielewski's thinking reminds me of Chesterton's views. The British writer was a supporter of such a spontaneous and evolutionary-shaping community, and had a very sceptical attitude towards the state. In this case, the economic issue is an important element. Kisielewski began with his reflection on Marxism, which he understood well. He was aware that its essence was not at all an imperial policy that aimed to impose its own rule on other countries. Imperialism is a characteristic that ‘happens’ to many countries. On the other hand, a communist state, through the programmatic primacy of ideology over reality, struck at the foundations of social existence, that is, it cut the roots that were natural for Kisielewski. It did not so much restrict development as it eliminated all the conditions for a future rebirth. In his opinion, people learn responsibility through the existence of the institution of ownership. The ‘liberalism’ of this journalist should, therefore, be considered in the context of his attitude towards Marxist ideas. It should be remembered, however, that the free-market perspective was dominant among pre-war conservatives.
How did Kisielewski perceive the role of the Church in this context? Did he see his ally in it?
I believe that two elements are worth pointing out. First, he looked at the Church as a social institution, a certain space that preserved national tradition, independent of the influence of the socialist state. And it is despite the fact that Kisielewski was often critical of it, i.e. the national tradition itself. We must bear in mind that he was far from idealising our history. Second, to him, the Church was an institution in which people could develop their thinking and acting independently of the state authorities. For Kisielewski, a similar sphere was agriculture, which the Communists did not manage to absorb. Besides, returning to the question of his attitude to the Church, it is also worth pointing out that he appreciated the realistic policy of Primate Wyszyński who was aware of the consequences of hasty and ill-considered decisions. On the other hand, Kisielewski was sceptical about the Catholic way of thinking, which developed in ‘Tygodnik Powszechny’ and ‘Więzi’ magazines and referred to French personalism. Any internal reconstruction or dispute at the time of the ‘state of emergency’ was not necessarily an expression of political prudence, but rather a result of harmful utopianism.
You mentioned the first moment of Kisielewski's political involvement. The second one was his deputyship for the Sejm of the People's Republic of Poland on behalf of the Znak group. How did this fact influence his biography and works?
Certainly, this was a period of Kisielewski's disappointment with the ‘big politics’, which lasted for two terms of office since January 1957, when there was widespread hope that the situation in the country would be normalised, both in terms of ideology and economy. Besides, let us remember that Kisielewski appreciated the figure of Władysław Gomułka, the First Secretary of the Party in the years 1956-1970, despite the fact that in 1968, the journalist was beaten by so-called unknown perpetrators. Although Gomułka was unceremoniously attacking him in public statements for defending Janusz Szpotański and using famous phrases, such as ‘dictatorship of dunces’, Kisielewski appreciated him for defending individual agriculture. This reveals the characteristic feature of the journalist: in every rival, he was able to find positive features, and, on the other hand, he accurately criticised his closest friends and colleagues.
Coming back to his political commitment: he was a member of the Sejm, often sitting in commissions with an economic profile, so he started to deal with economic issues as a complete amateur. One of his speeches, in which he noted that the policy of the state leads to heading towards poverty instead of wealth, is significant.
And how was Kisielewski perceived by his environment?
In my opinion, the main feature of Kisielewski's character was his defiance. He often distanced himself from ideas and people with whom he agreed to a greater or lesser extent. Here, we can mention his novel ‘Sprzysiężenie’ [Conspiracy], which he wrote as a columnist for the ‘Tygodnik Powszechny’ magazine. He was suspended for its scandalous nature, and Rev. Piwowarczyk reportedly said that there is only one thing worse than pornography and it is boring pornography. However, from today's perspective, the novel cannot be regarded as extremely scandalous.
Kisielewski was respected, above all, for his talent and a knack for the written word. His economic liberalism was treated more like a quirk. Besides, in one of the columns written in the 1980s, he wrote explicitly that there are only a few people who share his views. He mentioned, among others, Mirosław Dzielski, Janusz Korwin-Mikke and Piotr Wierzbicki.
Since you mention the 1980s, I would like to ask you what was Kisielewski's attitude towards Solidarity.
It is characteristic that in these years, when the Solidarity movement was developing, Kisielewski was more annoying than in previous years. This was also the period when his own environment ceased to understand him. How did it happen that a man, often struggling to fight with the system alone, under surveillance and persecution, was not carried away by enthusiasm for the largest trade union in history? Although it should be remembered that in the initial period, he saw positive values in it; for example, the postulate of taking over control of production plants by their employees. He believed that this was a better situation than if they would stay under control of the state; in this way, a sphere of responsibility in the micro-scale would appear. It was only later that Kisielewski began to criticise the socialist nature of Solidarity. Let us remember that he did it in a mild way; he did not stand shoulder to shoulder with the party propagandists.
The same happened in 1989, when the paths of Kisielewski and Tygodnik Powszechny have diverged for good. At that time, he wrote a column, in which he criticised the way of filling seats on civic lists to the parliament. He argued that the people included in these lists didn’t always offer any manifesto at all. Therefore, he encouraged others to vote for independent candidates or even those affiliated by the Patriotic Movement of National Revival. The editors of ‘Tygodnik’ reacted radically to such an extent that a section of his column was cut out without any consultation and without marking the interference of third persons. Kisielewski could not accept that. This accident can be considered as the beginning of the end of his cooperation with the magazine. Besides, it is still unclear who was responsible for this censorship. Roman Graczyk, the then secretary of the editorial office, wrote at least two articles, in which he claimed that it was not him and that such a decision must have been made somewhere higher in the hierarchy.
You also mentioned another person associated with liberalism in Poland, that is Mirosław Dzielski. A person with a completely different intellectual biography, with a background in physics and philosophy, and with broad interests – from the concept of time to economic issues. He was also a promoter of meetings of intellectuals with practitioners of economic life. How would you describe the differences and similarities between Kisielewski and Dzielski?
Dzielski's way of thinking was different. It was characterised by academic fierceness and supported – as you mentioned – by a comprehensive education. Kisielewski was a musician, composer and publicist, and he has seen a lot in his life. They were united, however, by the belief that the main opponent was Marxist ideology and its influence on social life. While in the case of Kisielewski, we may wonder whether he was more conservative or liberal, we can easily describe Dzielski as a liberal. He emphasised his autonomy in relation to conservatism, and his liberalism was rooted in the Western intellectual tradition, primarily, in the philosophy of Kant and Hayek. An additional element of his thinking was, of course, the Christian heritage. For Dzielski, being rooted in the Absolute was the foundation of human freedom. For this reason, he appreciated the role of the Catholic Church in Poland as a certain element that would allow freedom to be rooted in metaphysics, thus distinguishing the category of arbitrariness from the concept of freedom.
And what was Dzielski's attitude towards Solidarity?
Dzielski was much more involved in this social movement – or trade union – but, similarly to Kisielewski, he was sceptical about its postulates, although it only became apparent after some time. Let us remind ourselves that Dzielski was associated with the workers' committee of the Lenin Steelworks. He was also a participant of the First Solidarity Congress in Gdańsk, where he ran for the office of its spokesperson. It is noteworthy that during the elections, he received merely a dozen or so votes, while his opponent, Janusz Onyszkiewicz, received several hundred of them. This shows that his arguments were not understood.
According to Dzielski, Solidarity could have been a certain revolution of dignity; the moral aspect of its programme was very appealing to him. Over time, however, he came to the conclusion that it changed its nature, which can be briefly described as a transition from a spiritual revolution to a revolution par excellence. In this he saw the reasons for its failure; he believed that it competed for power with the communist party too openly, instead of focusing on slow transformation of reality.
It is worth noting that despite his theoretical disposition. Dzielski was able to think in an extremely pragmatic and realistic way. In the public sphere, he was perfectly able to diagnose the areas of interest of particular groups.
Could you give us an example of such pragmatic thinking?
One can refer to this matter in a provocative way and say that Dzielski was the author of the concept of the so-called Magdalenka and the Round Table as early as in 1980, i.e. 8-9 years before the political transformation. At that time, he wrote the text entitled ‘How to maintain power in the People's Republic of Poland? New Year's wishes for Lieutenant Borewicz’ published in the pages of ‘Merkuriusz Krakowski’. Borewicz is, of course, the famous Polish ‘Agent 007’. In the case of Dzielski, he is a representative of the security service departments, and, to put it precisely, a representative of the most cynical and pragmatic faction among them.
In his opinion, the communist camp is divided into ideologists and pragmatists. The opposition may try to come to terms with the latter and endure the unbearable and ineffective regime that seems to be bankrupting for an increasing number of people. The time when this text was written is significant, because the representatives of the left wing were aware that the People's Republic of Poland simply did not work. Dzielski concluded: let us divide power by retaining the influence of these ‘Borewiczs’ in the political and economic spheres.
In turn, at the end of the 1980s, he wrote that another scenario was possible (which links him to Kisielewski to a certain extent): that is a combination of authoritarian power and free market. In this area, he referred to two examples: Spain under Franco's rule and Chile under Pinochet's rule. This was, in his opinion, a realistic postulate that could have been achieved.