A Dream of Power
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30

[from:] Marek A. Cichocki, Władza i pamięć, Ośrodek Myśli Politycznej, Kraków 2005.


Modernity is one of the key concepts that define the nature of the Polish intellectual discourse after 1989. At the same time it allows us to trace the tradition of a more than a hundred years old way of thinking and writing about Poland and the Poles, the way that characterizes a large part of Polish radical intelligentsia. Over the past hundred years, many representatives of Polish intelligentsia have built their ideological stance of opposition and engagement, their social ethos, and language of their arguments on the concept of modernity that in this case was always connected with a strongly critical position against the Polish national character, the Polish national self-knowledge. Modernity was reduced here only to a resultant of the previously achieved exposure of the Polish cultural and political tradition. Therefore, in the case of reflections on modernity we can easily talk about the existence of a clear continuity in thinking, the same for a large part of radical and left wing (but also national) Polish intelligentsia from the late 19th century to the 1990s.

When we talk about the existence of such a continuity (it is significant that this continuity was not disrupted at all by the events that happened after 1948: the attempts to establish the Stalinist ideology in Poland and then the cultural and political practice of the Polish People's Republic), it is not primarily about the content of the concept of modernity itself but about its form. The mere fact of intense addressing the issue of modernity did not probably distinguish the Polish intelligentsia in any particular way. To some extent, it was more like another proof that the Polish intellectual life often involves a little delayed and awkward “digesting” of the content produced by the processes of Western culture. The issues of modernity and modernization were popular throughout Europe at the turn of the century, and today they are still the subject of many interesting debates. However, it seems that the way in which the Polish intelligentsia has transformed modernity into a touchstone of its own revolutionary radicalism and hostility towards the existing cultural and social reality, that all this unprecedented load of resentment against its own forms of tradition deriving  from the assumed underlying vision of modernity as a completely objective proposal, almost a scientific obviousness, and at the same time an ethical, sometimes even metaphysical and historical task, that all this has given the issue of modernity a unique Polish specificity. Of course, from a historical point of view, starting with the French Revolution, the phenomenon of modernity in the European culture has always contained a strong element of resentment, and therefore it resulted from a deep internal disagreement with the existing reality. In this respect, the resentment of the Polish radical intelligentsia in its struggle with modernity was certainly not anything new. Yet it has not taken such a homogeneous and stable form that would define the spiritual identity of one leading social group against the components of national tradition, established in society and culture, and their significance for the chances of modernity anywhere in the Western Europe.

The evident weakness of the many proposals of modernity formulated by the Polish intelligentsia was their negativity. This meant that these concepts were rarely the product of a deliberate, creative approach towards the substance of their own tradition; they originated from the affirmation of the national historical memory inherited by the community. Unfortunately, these proposals were mostly of a very reactionary character. We will not find at their base any thought of transforming the existing reality, the need to give it a new meaning, or bringing new life into it in the changing social and political conditions. However, these concepts are full of a moralizing rhetoric about a radical change to the entire social structure, the historical bare necessity to throw off the traditional ballast, the fight against religion and backwardness. According to the ironclad scientific logic of development toward modernity, the wrong, fake, rotten reality should be completely replaced by the new reality. Thus, the proposals of modernity were rarely of a positive character. Usually, they constituted a quite generally and unrealistically formulated programme that followed a meticulous and total critique of the Polish national character. They were the direct result of rejection of everything, that in the case of the Polish nation at the turn of the 20th century meant a specific, tangible social, cultural, and religious reality. Beside its approach to its own cultural and social tradition, an important indicator of modernity for the Polish radical intelligentsia has always been its specific approach to Europe, and more specifically – towards the ideological and cultural mainstreams that were characteristic for the West at that time. It is not about the very process of comparing the Polish intellectual life with the cultural and civilizational creations of other nations in Europe that in itself is often very creative and beneficial. We rather mean the belief that is well-known from the Polish intellectual life and firmly anchored in our political thought, that culture and society are the result of a rationally targeted process of reaching a certain standard established in civilized countries (you never know exactly which countries does it involve). In this way, the process of modernization of the country was often presented by our modernists as a process of “adopting the Western culture in the form that does not exist anywhere”.[1] The radical Polish intelligentsia eagerly proclaimed this view with the same unwavering scientific certainty with which it reprimanded its fellow countrymen for their traditionalism that was hostile to modernity and indecent. A characteristic example of such approach was Stanisław Brzozowski. Although his interests were impressively broad and covered also an excellent knowledge of Russian literature and philosophy, he drew the majority of his intellectual excitement from reading popular Western authors. This led him to make a diagnosis, according to which the weakness of Polish cultural elites was their ignorance of the main directions of contemporary, modern Western thought. Today we know that about ninety percent of the intellectual fascinations of Brzozowski have not survived to our times at all.

In both cases – in the criticism of the Polish traditionalism and in the praise of the Western modernity as an objective standard – we are dealing with a negative understanding of modernity. This particular negativism in conjunction with the postulate of modernization of the country led the Polish intelligentsia to an easy assimilation of any kind of radical concept. This is where all this enchantment with Nietzschean activism, Marxism, and the idea of a socialist revolution came from but it was also the source of reformulation of modernity by the national democracy. In Polish conditions, this has led to a dramatic sharpening of antinomy, to the creation of invincible contrasts between the modern Pole and the Catholic Pole, between modernization and tradition. Our discourse about the Polish national self-awareness has got stuck in these sharp antinomies for many decades.


Certainly there is no need to remind that the attitude of Poles towards the West in a broad sense has never been – to put it mildly – clear. However, it is worth to trace one thing in a more accurate way: which particular features of the Polish traditionalism and which group of symbols and values that are constitutive for the Polish culture are put as an opposition to the West, presented as an objectified and realized modernity. We can find a colourful illustration of this problem in a letter of Zygmunt Krasiński to Adam Sołtan:

“I have written you once that they took Shchit from the Pinsk region to S. Spirito, a madhouse. Imagine a nobleman, a laird of the Kazhan-Gorodok village, the master of the whole key called 'Shchitovshchina' in Lithuania. The local parish priest had persuaded him to go to Rome to ask the Holy Father for permission to celebrate mass in the Kazhan-Gorodok court that was dependent from another parish pastor. Shchit went to both Vilnius and Navahrudak, he came here all by himself, he filed the request, he received the answer and immediately wanted to go back to Kazhan-Gorodok,  home. He was crazy. It did not bother anyone in Kazhan-Gorodok, and yes, he was regarded as a madman here because he was giving out ducats for anything, he slept in the barn with his horse, he bought two donkeys in Tivoli, he put two tatterdemalions on them and he rode ahead of them on horseback throughout Campania, looking for a village and a country house to rent because he hated cities. Now these tatterdemalions reported to the officials at the gates of di Popoli that he was a madman. They held the nobleman, they tormented him for two days, they abused him in an unimaginable way, Sodom and Gomorrah, they stolen all the gold from his purse, and then, after transforming him from a crazy to a furious person, reported him to the authorities. The authorities sent some doctors, he mocked the doctors and threatened them with a knife. The doctors announced that he was a madman, bound him, and took him to S. Spirito. I visited him there. Proud as a hidalgo, indomitable as a Lithuanian, great as a nobleman from the days when the Republic was full of depravity, suspicious as anyone who is unhappy, strange as Radziwiłł 'Panie Kochanku', full of narrow ideas and cranks, but, sir, not a madman. 'Shall I write to your relatives in Lithuania?', I asked. 'No, thank you, there is no need to do that, I am the laird, when the Holy Father finds out, he will punish these intriguers and let me free.' – 'Did they steal a lot of money from you?', I asked. 'I never count my money.' – 'Would you like me to send you some books or anything else?', I asked. 'I do not need anything, just my freedom, but anyway thank you for everything.' And he left into the dark corridors full of madmen, so calm, so himself, so prideful, as if he was walking with shooters and dogs to hunt for bears in the woods of Kazhan-Gorodok. Oh, you poor man, brave man, the perfect kind of our noblemen that got here to a madhouse […] I feel like I could be your Cervantes, cry for you with all my heart when malicious readers might have laughed at you, but not me, not me, because even though your times have passed, oh, you miserable and noble laird, you are so honest and brave that anyone who is honest and brave must feel sorry for you and love you.”[2]

In his letter to Sołtan, Krasiński describes an anecdotal situation, which is not devoid of symbolic meaning that is also relevant in the context of the issue of modernity considered by us. The traditional Polish national character is so unsuited to external realities that its most typical representative, a nobleman from the Borderlands, ends up his trip to Rome in a madhouse. This imaginary “normality” determines all other behaviours as “abnormal”. A Polish nobleman who personifies the old republican virtues: the ardent religiosity and good old faith in human decency but who is also immoderate in his emotions, short-tempered, and extravagant, this Polish national type taken directly from the world described by Henryk Rzewuski, does not find any other place for himself in the modern, contemporary reality other than a madhouse. It seems that this is the conclusion contained in the description of Krasiński. For some, it was a cause for sadness and reflection, but for many radical Polish intellectuals – often in the first or second generation of descendants of such Shchits from the Pinsk region – it has become a basic argument in the discussion about modernity that began in the late 19th century. The question about the essence of modernism was the subject of the dispute that drove this discussion among young Polish intellectual elites not by mistake. The young followers of modernism wanted to entomb the old world of republican nobility  as fast as possible, forget about it, erase it from memory and reality. This is how the dispute between sons and fathers begins – the dispute between the Sonland (as defined by Gombrowicz) and the Fatherland, characteristic for the 20th century Polish culture.

In 1902, Stanisław Brzozowski wrote an article with the significant title What is modernism? In no event was it an outstanding paper, but it did well illustrate the growing conflict that was going to permanently divide the Polish intelligentsia by its view on the issue of tradition and modernity. Just one year later, the dispute turned into a fierce polemic with Sienkiewicz. According to Brzozowski, people are good by nature, they have “an instinct of universal brotherhood” deep inside them. The only sources of evil are the social, economic, and historical conditions. These are the reasons why people are evil and selfish. Brzozowski used in his paper the old argument of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, from which he has not drawn any definitive conclusions yet – the postulate of revolution and the total transformation of the Polish social structure in line with the assumptions of Marxism. It was not until the next year when the revolutionary radicalism in his papers was fully heard. For now, the conclusions of Brzozowski are mild, they go towards the spiritual, individual freedom, thanks to which the delicate, subtle, and valuable individuals will improve themselves by contemplation. The inner perfection of these “brain men, neurotics” (as the category of those subtle young men with guns in their pocket was described by Wacław Nałkowski) was, according to Brzozowski, going to lead to the spread of mutual goodwill, social sensitivity, “universal affinity”. The spiritual individualism was therefore a condition necessary to the existence of the desirable pro-social attitude. The road to self-improvement as a condition for progress led from the individual liberation from the power of traditional cultural context – to the transformation of the whole social structure according to new, this time completely “pure” principles of modernity. A young intellectual should be spiritually independent and socially engaged, since only such an attitude may guarantee the proper service to the idea of modernity.

The period of Brzozowski's fascination with Marxism is still ahead, so the postulates drafted in 1902 are still of a very general nature and do not take the form of explicit social, economic, or political proposals to solve the problem of modernization of the country and get rid of the traditionalist hump of national burdens. This gentleness was soon, however, replaced by an absolute activism and radicalism – the two main virtues of a Polish involved intellectual. After all, Brzozowski was a faithful student of his teachers – Nałkowski, Krzywicki, and Dawid. They are the ones who had worked out the ideological basis for the involvement of intelligentsia and radicalism twenty years before, combining the ethos of community activists with modernism and the scientific objectivity of scientism. Bohdan Cywiński in his book Rodowody niepokornych [The Genealogies of the Indomitable] offers an interesting analysis of works on the basis of which the so-called wise men from the Flying University and the Free Polish University] shaped a new generation of the Gombrowicz Sonland. This world view was based on scientism and, above all, the Darwinian theory of evolution, which turned out to be the best way to quickly and easily get rid of the “religious illusions”, then the positive sociology of Comte and Durkheim, humanitarian free thought and programme secularism, also the often fighting anti-clericalism, Nietzschean activism, syndicalist ideas of Sorel and political views of the first anarchists, not yet completely unscrupulous like Proudhon, and finally, the idea of the socialist workers' councils, and the Marxist anti-capitalism. The young vanguard of modernity could shoot the “reaction camp” from these well-prepared trenches – the noble gentry’s traditionalism, the Catholic Church, and the bourgeoisie which was just starting to collect its capital and was only seemingly “modern”. This syndrome of a radical moral protest, characteristic for the beginning of the formation of the ethos of the Polish left wing intelligentsia, is described by Cywiński as follows: “It is the most visible in some of the papers of Krzywicki and Nałkowski, dominated by the disgust for the materialized bourgeois morality that hypocritically dresses in curtains of great ideas which are usually Christian. […] This quite an extreme characteristic of society written by Nałkowski in 1895 seems to be a little annoying but it illustrates the inner journey of the protest against the ethical reality. The adopted assumption includes the need for ethical development of people together with the development of civilization. In light of this postulate the protest must be total [...] This totality of the protest against the prevailing social morality undoubtedly characterizes the whole radical and intellectual formation, it is often present in the journalism of the “Głos” magazine edited at that time by Dawid and similar magazines. The concept of a solid, decent person, that had grown on the basis of bourgeois morality, causes particular aversion. The patterns of decency are attacked the most strongly […] It has manifested itself the most strongly in the campaign – run primarily by Nałkowski – against moral patterns of Sienkiewicz, presented mainly in the Children of the Soil.”[3] Soon, thanks to Brzozowski, the criticism of these moral standards was not limited only to the bourgeoisie and the clergy, but it was extended to the tradition of the Polish nobility.


In 1903, the first critical paper of Brzozowski about Sienkiewicz was published in the “Głos” magazine, titled I smutek tego wszystkiego [And the sadness of it all]. The tone of the article is still yet conciliatory. Sienkiewicz, a representative of the civil conservatism, had already attacked the Polish modernists before, especially Stanisław Przybyszewski, and community activists, mainly in the person of Wacław Nałkowski, accusing them of promoting “heat and debauchery”. Apart from the sometimes very emotional tone of criticism of the modernists, the main objection of Sienkiewicz consisting in their nihilism and decadence was entirely logical and relevant (even Brzozowski himself, who later turned against the writers of the Young Poland period, liked to use a similar complaint). The conflict between Sienkiewicz and the Modernists by all means fell within the debate about the nihilistic roots of the modernization process, pursued in Europe throughout the 19th century between conservatives on one side and scientists and progressives on the other. However, in Poland this dispute has been subjected to unusual ideologisation and brutalisation because of the radical left wing intelligentsia. Wacław Nałkowski persuaded Brzozowski to criticise Sienkiewicz a lot more harshly and to launch a radical attack on the “reaction camp”. In the same year, another paper by Brzozowski was published in “Głos”: Henryk Sienkiewicz i jego stanowisko w literaturze współczesnej [Henryk Sienkiewicz and his position in the contemporary literature], where this time the author launched a frontal attack on the ideological basis for the Sienkiewicz's literature that in his opinion represents the most harmful form of Polishness – a noble republicanism. The discussion about the author of The Trilogy and Children of the Soil, started by Brzozowski, from the point of view of the subsequent formation of the Polish intellectual life, was of a much more serious significance than it might have seemed at first.[4] However, the awareness of the inherent conflict between the Catholic Pole and the new type of modern Pole was already present among the radical intelligentsia that was quickly assimilating Marxist dogmas of dialectical necessity of the final class conflict. That is why the editors of the “Głos” led by Dawid announced their polemics with Sienkiewicz in a firm tone: “This is not an occasional polemics, this is a fundamental dispute about the nature and content of the entire contemporary literature, our whole spiritual life. […] Settlement of accounts with Henryk Sienkiewicz is a settlement of accounts of the society with itself.”

For Brzozowski, the settlement of accounts with Sienkiewicz was only a convenient starting point to dealing with the Catholic and noble traditionalism of Poles, and constructing a clear concept of the social and spiritual modernization of the whole nation in opposition to it. This basic assumption is present throughout the whole feverish work of the author of Legenda Młodej Polski [The Legend of Young Poland].

Brzozowski considered himself a spokesman for the social movement, which in his opinion was the only real force capable of introducing a creative change to the existing reality. In this sense, the movement embodied for him the ideal of modernity. In the social meaning, this force was represented – in his opinion – by peasants and workers. “This is where, between a factory hammer and a peasant's plough, between the proletarian worker and the Polish peasant village begins, is conceived Poland. The concept in here is not made of paper and printing but of flesh and blood, here is the young Poland that already exists, trying to live next to the non-human and inter-human component.” As we know, it was not an especially ground breaking idea at that time in Europe, and on the Polish lands the enchantment with the idea of socialism that swept a large part of the Polish intelligentsia was a quite frequent phenomenon but – let us not forget about it – on the background of the whole society it was still an exclusive phenomenon. The European socialist movement in the second half of the 19th century was aimed primarily at institutional and legal forms of the state and the relationships between the economy and society. It did not differ from other earlier revolutionary social movements that always sought the destruction of the existing historical forms of reality, such as institutions, rules of law, customs, social ties, economic order. Against this background, these, let us call it practical consequences of the Polish socialist movement, PPS and SDKPiL, were not particularly impressive. This is why Brzozowski's use of the socialist idea to the cultural and civilizational criticism of the state of the Polish spirit was a special political ennoblement of the movement that was, as it seems, fateful for the Polish intelligentsia. As a result, the socialist threads became, with proper philosophical foundation (mainly due to the perception of the thought of Nietzsche and, above all, Marx), a primary content and argument in the battle of intelligentsia with the existing 19th century Polish customs and culture. In the absence of more real forms of social and political institutions, Brzozowski constructs a hostile structure under the name of “Childish Poland” not only in order to offer a critical description of reality but also in order to offer a better explanation and authentication of the new social movement, a representative of which he feels like. That belief in the inevitable conflict of the social movement as a factor of renewal and progress with the existing historical structure of institutions (of which a new, great, and eternal social structure is to be born) was and is characteristic for the intellectual thought in Poland. For instance, this is the reason why Żeromski in his novel The Charm of Life interpreted the party judgement of Brzozowski as a typical for ecclesiastic and fossilized structure heinous ostracism of the free thought. Of course, the point is not to justify the indeed heinous process prepared for Brzozowski by his comrades from the PPS. After all, it is about a certain meaningful structure of the thought of the Polish intelligentsia, which allowed identifying the conflict between the non-dogmatic free thought (e.g. the Marxist thought) and the party “concrete thought” – the conflict between sectarian Gnosticism or universal religious movement and the institution of the Church. Brzozowski himself encouraged to make such associations, he often wrote that they should protect Marxism from becoming a kind of church. In any case, somewhere in this thought there is probably that tendency to identify the Church and the party as the same institutional kind of risk, the tendency that is still alive today. “This procedure”, as commented Bohdan Cywiński in relation to The Charm of Life. “could otherwise mean the right intuition to relate this practice of getting rid of inconvenient people with institutionalization, which introduces falsehood, hypocrisy, and dishonesty towards the members, who still use the freedom of thought, into the originally honest ideological communities. Żeromski has seen manifestations of such institutionalization in the Church and he has warned the party against it.”

If we compare the tone of the today's journalism concerning the cultural, civilizational, and political state of Poland with the description “Childish Poland” in Brzozowski's Legenda..., the relevance of his diagnosis would strike us. A large part of today's journalism either repeats the arguments of Brzozowski in some subsequent another form or denies them. The relevance of this criticism is not indeed unexpected. In a sense, every person in Poland who is thinking critically carries in their experience some picture of our national infantilization, is faced with various types of national coma, stupidity, intellectual sloppiness, laziness, superficiality, annoying slovenliness, and provincialism. Anyone who denies such an experience is not honest or just lacks a critical look at the history and tradition of their own political community. However, it does not change the fact that the Brzozowski's description of the “Childish Poland” has undoubtedly been subjected to a strong mythologization, and his arguments are still used in various forms as an expression of specific intellectual contestation of the nation, the Church, and the tradition in Poland.

What are the constituents of the image of the “Childish Poland”? We could name here at least some of them. First of all, the romantic vision of the nation as a purely spiritual product, as an only inner experience, as “plasma of love” that according to Brzozowski was being continued in an anachronistic form. According to Brzozowski, this romantic vision of the nation developed by Adam Mickiewicz and many Poles in exile had its quite legitimate raison d'être in the first half of the 19th century. Its subsequent cultivation seems, however, to be absurd for at least two main reasons. The first one is the obvious detachment from social and economic problems. The postulate to maintain nationality, the way of defining the value of the nation itself does not combine here with any postulate, ideal, and any social or economic task. This weakness allows us to consider national issues without reference to civilizational development of the nation, the level of social life or economic development. Furthermore, Brzozowski believed that the romantic vision of the nation was unequivocally opposing Polishness to the western European tradition, and in any case it certainly did create a false sense of superiority over it, mostly in the form of negligence of the “Western novelties”. “It is clear that in comparison with the modern Europe the [Bar] Confederates represented only the will of innate life: they would have failed to live at some level in an unconditional way i.e. not by accident but on the basis of knowledge of problems posed by this level. The modern world did not exist for them. This world as a harsh reality conquered by the human work did not exist at all for the Poland that Mickiewicz knew”, notes Brzozowski in his reflections on the romantic vision of the Polish nation. Thus, cultivating the romantic vision of the nation (as it soon turns out, Brzozowski means here the attempt to reformulate the republican tradition of the nobility and to link it with the romantic vision of the nation as an “inner experience”, made by Polish Romantics) must have led both to the negligence of modernity as a civilizational and national task, and to the intellectual isolation of the Poles from the rest of the world, especially the Western world, which was commonly read as a characteristic rebellious Polish individualism. At this level of our discussion it is not entirely clear whether or not in Brzozowski's opinion the modernity was synonymous with a completely external social and economic currents, trends of strong Western civilization, which imposes a determined direction of development on nations, and in that case only the means of implementation remain a matter of self-selection, so they are an expression of what Brzozowski refers to as the “innateness” of the nation. Or do these means of civilizing Poles due to their national disability and defiance must also be completely external, and therefore “non-innate”? The position of Brzozowski is not conclusive in this regard but certainly the latter possibility (hence the sense and means of modernization are  something completely external to the nation and its existing culture, which is a prerequisite for the success of the given modernity) is characteristic for the understanding of sometimes very controversial attitudes of Polish intelligentsia towards the issues of modernity and its relation to the problem of Polishness. In any case, there is no doubt that for Brzozowski, certain national forms, essential from the point of view of the Polish tradition of the 19th century, appeared as deeply and insurmountably contrary to the postulate of modernity. The more insurmountable seemed the dilemma that separated some forms of national existence from modernity, the more radical became the thought of the necessary renewal. However, it was not the Romanticism itself that constituted an obstacle to modernity for Brzozowski, and it was not the romantic thought that constituted paradoxically the essence of the romantic vision of the nation, with which he had fought so obsessively – but it was the component of the former republican tradition of nobility that the Polish Romantics tried to remake to suit their needs. The attitude of Brzozowski to Romanticism was, as we know, ambiguous: he fought with romantic epigones of the Young Poland as he believed that the Young Poland bohemianism was “made up” and detached from reality as a morbid and decadent  creation; at the same time he felt a great appreciation and admiration for the Polish Romanticism as an unprecedented effort of the creative spirit of the people towards the fact of the loss of state subjectivity by Poles. Romanticism has become a political and social reality, and as a result it was able to give the Polish nation some reality despite the lack of real structures of the state. It was hence a proof that pure emotion, spirituality in an extreme situation can transform into real social and political being. In this sense, however, Romanticism was one of a kind, unique, it was the product of an exceptional situation. What Brzozowski did not want to tolerate and what he fought with was that noble and republican component of tradition transferred to the 19th century Polish national mentality by the Romantics which in a social reality was going to manifest itself in the form of a provincial, lazy small landowner who was closed to the world, did not produce any cultural or material values, and frittered away his time and the work of others. The “Childish Poland” was personified by the 19th century outclassed and culturally declined nobility, referring to completely abstract values of the noble Republic, contained in the pages of Sienkiewicz's The Trilogy, and described by Sienkiewicz  himself in the Children of the Soil. The nobility and the associated tradition was the real obstacle on the road to modernity. “If there is anything I hate from all the strength of my soul”, confesses in a shockingly open way Brzozowski, “it is you, you Polish drowsiness, Polish optimism of duffers, sluggards, cowards. Saxon leprosy and noble scabs do not stop ruining us. The work of mankind has started not to exist for us from the 16th century. From the 17th century we have been onlookers in Europe. […] Sienkiewicz has codified, gave an aesthetic shape to that attitude. He is the classical writer of the Polish ignorance, the illiteracy of nobility.”5] For Brzozowski, in the meaning of Hegel's philosophy of history, the impoverished Polish nobility and the vales cultivated by it were a stage of history that had been overcome by the Weltgeist a long time ago; in accordance with the Marxist understanding of the progress they were some kind of a Polish equivalent of the Western bourgeoisie, a social group, which had lost its real basis for further existence within the dialectical process, which had been completed from the historical point of view, and therefore must be finally overcome. However, according to the point of view proposed by Nietzsche, it was a fossilized structure, a remnant of an extinct world that draws the justification for its further existence only from  the resentment toward the reality around it, hence it is a falsification of the real forces of life. From the point of view of all these three philosophical perspectives that were constantly present in the Brzozowski's thought, the republican noble tradition seems to be an annoying anachronism that must be quickly abandoned, so that any prerequisites for the formation of the modern Polish nation could occur at all.

Brzozowski saw the fulfilment of that dream of a different Poland, of a completely different “new type of Pole”, in the establishment of a self-organizing community of workers, manufacturers, a kind of large self-cooperative embracing the entire Polish nation. In this vision, the intelligentsia was mainly to provide some specialized engineering expertise that would raise the work of workers to an appropriate level of civilization, consistent with the economic requirements that prevail in the world. The intelligentsia could also provide appropriate spiritual content, but these should be closely linked with the realities of the working world. As you can see, the ideal of the modern Polish society turns for Brzozowski into a Marxist utopia, devoid of any features of the once overcome world of Polish tradition and culture. Brzozowski characterized this principle, essential to the Marxist understanding of revolution, in one sentence: “The modern consciousness must be creatio ex nihilo!” (from a letter to Salomea Perlmutter of April 1907). And if it is ex nihilo, it should actually be ex nihilo: just as in the construction of Marx, the dialectically overcome bourgeois class should be annihilated (in the literal physical sense) so that a leap into the realm of freedom would be possible, just as according to Brzozowski, the Polish nobility should be destroyed so that the Poles could make their historic leap into the realm of modernity. Brzozowski considers “the cultural and political collapse of the nobility” as a fundamental task. In his work Współczesna powieść polska [A contemporary Polish novel], completely dominated by the Marxist type of thinking, Brzozowski calls for complete elimination of the nobility by its forced expropriation. And only the naive Żeromski who, under the overwhelming charm of the Brzozowski's concept, dreamed of establishing a government of workers' syndicates in Poland, could think in his 1918 paper Początek świata pracy [The Beginning of the World of Work] that landowners would voluntarily give up their fortunes pro bono publico.

The accusation of nihilism made by Sienkiewicz towards the radical left wing Polish intelligentsia was not at all far from the truth. In any case, it certainly did get to the heart of the intellectual Prometheism and activism, which in the case of Brzozowski was particularly clearly exposed. In order to explain the sense of the accusation of the activist nihilism more precisely, we should refer to at least one theoretical work, free from direct links to the Polish historical context. Eric Voegelin in his work Das Volk Gottes. Sektenbewegungen und der Geist der Moderne offers a very apt description of the theological foundations of activism, so typical for Brzozowski, which allows us to understand the phenomenon, characteristic of the Polish left wing intelligentsia, a little better and from a much broader philosophical perspective. Anyway, it does not seem like the juxtaposition of the Voegelin's description with the Brzozowski's way of thinking was particularly exotic, quite the contrary. This is in fact where the Brzozowski's interest in Marxism but also his views on Catholicism, the Church, and      his fondness for the mysticism of Hoene-Wroński came from.

To describe the phenomenon of the various revolutionary social movements – in England in the days of Cromwell, in France in the days of Robespierre, or in Russia in the days of Lenin – Voegelin uses the term of a “mystic activist”. In the historical and theological perspective, a mystic activist is a follower of a religious Gnosticism, which in practice means a political Gnosticism. This means such a person would believe in the possibility of self-redemption of human beings and, in accordance with the views of Joachim of Fiore, would not so much expect the advent of the “third kingdom” and thus the fulfilment of the paradise on earth but would rather actively preach this kingdom and practice it in the historical world. The belief in self-saving and therefore in a direct relationship with the Spirit of God becomes a religious, moral, and finally a political justification of the activities of sects, and later revolutionary social movements that want to destroy a given civilization and its institutional structure in order to build an ideal world, a divinized and sinless world. As a result, the mystical activism leads, according to Voegelin, to nihilism, because it is characterized by the destruction of civilization. Any rebellion against reality in the name of the spirit always ends up with a spiritual fall. “The destructive momentum is inevitably associated with the activist faith in the imaginary world from which the human nature as we know it has disappeared. Indeed, the human nature determines the structure of our historical world, and the faith in the abolition of human nature must represent itself in the will of destruction of the structure of the historical world. The term 'nihilism', however, draws our attention to yet another aspect of the activist destruction. […] The source of activist faith and activist nihilism is the total taedium vitae, the discontentment in the historical existence, the deeply rooted spiritual inability to cope with life on the conditions it dictates, and as a consequence the desire to escape to paradise from the constraints of existence”, wrote Voegelin.

Brzozowski's ethics of action and fight and his whole concept of the intellectual attitude of rebellion and commitment bears all the hallmarks of nihilism, mentioned by Voegelin: starting with the famous statement that “human being is not a continuation of evolution, but on the contrary, a breaking off the thread, an opposition to it” to the concept of “a new type of Pole”. It seems that in the case of Brzozowski, the Voegelin's trail of nihilism is an appropriate trail for understanding his way of understanding modernity – while, I repeat, Brzozowski's path of thoughts was perhaps unique as for the Polish conditions but in the context of philosophical, literary, and historical debates of the late 19th century it makes an impression of a very typical reaction to reality. Even the thread of life as dark elements of history deprived of any rules, that have to be coped with by individuals and groups of human beings, often appearing in his Legenda…, is a thought taken directly from the 19th century historians and philosophers, from Burckhardt and Nietzsche. For our discussion it is crucial, however, to recognize one thing: that the basis of the concept of modernity and also the commitment of intelligentsia proclaimed by Brzozowski is both the “deeply rooted spiritual inability to cope with life on the conditions it dictates” and the belief that the creative power of human being can overcome the human nature that has determined our historical world so far. Both premises have fundamentally defined the understanding of modernity by Brzozowski and by many subsequent generations of the Polish left wing intelligentsia.


It is worth remembering that Brzozowski was not isolated in his views on nobility. On the contrary. With the prospect of regaining independence by Poland, the postulate of rejection of noble republican tradition and the anaemic remains of Romanticism could be heard more and more often on both the left and the right wing. From this perspective, reading of the work of Roman Dmowski, Myśli nowoczesnego Polaka [The Thoughts of a Modern Pole] in comparison with the Brzozowski's description of the “Childish Poland” is especially striking.

It would seem that the Myśli nowoczesnego Polaka by Roman Dmowski, an ideologist and leader of the national democracy, will become not only a political manifesto, but also the first serious attempt to oppose the radical revolutionary left current of the Polish intelligentsia on the field of deliberations of modernity. Unlike the works of Nałkowski or Brzozowski, Myśli… that was published in 1903 – in the very moment of intensification of the entire dispute over Sienkiewicz – was at least supposed to offer such a concept of modernity and modernization that not only would allow Poland to compete effectively with other European nations but most of all would be itself in line with the Polish national idea from the very beginning to the very end, would arise out of it and not out of any opposition to it. Modernity should therefore arise from the national community, become a kind of its natural fruit. At least this is the promise that lies in a sentence that begins Dmowski's Myśli…: “We often encounter the opinion that the modern Pole should be a Pole as little as possible.” This critical remark aptly illustrates the intellectual actions of Krzywicki, Nałkowski, and Dawid, as well as later Brzozowski and many of his spiritual successors in the contemporary Poland. Modernity was usually portrayed as a contrary to Polishness. To be modern meant to be a non-Pole, and vice versa. Polishness seemed to focus all the features that are hostile to modernity and the modern world. This is why their actions included either a very selfish attitude that ordered Poles to only care about their own interests, without any common good understood in any way, or a painfully idealistic attitude that justified the action with the goodness of humanity or a class. Dmowski was far from both of these attitudes. “I do not write this book for either of them”, he says firmly, suggesting that he would want to combine the postulate of modernity with the ideal of the nation. Does he keep his promise?

The vision of the world proposed by Dmowski may be spectacular but it is not especially complicated. It bears a clear stamp of Darwinism transferred to the level of the economy, technology and politics. The modern civilized world is like a large rat race. There are powerful economic and political imperialisms everywhere around, clashing with each other. Predatory states-Leviathans use the latest discoveries of civilization to increase their will of power and dominion. These artificial products of human ingenuity, wits, and persistent work, as once aptly stated by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, these machines – or, as you will – these mortal gods are engaged in a constant struggle with each other for a primacy in the world. This struggle includes markets and natural resources of the earth, it uses technology and economy as its means. States, as human communities, remind factories, efficiently managed by engineers, they are like giant anthills. “We need to remember”, notes Dmowski, “that the moral strength of the nation is not its vulnerability, its innocence, as we often hear today, but the desire for having a wide life, the desire to multiply the national heritage and impact, and willingness to make sacrifices for the achievement of the objectives.” This idea was extended by Dmowski a little further: “History proves more and more clearly that, for example, the energetic, ruthless policy of Prussia using the falsehood and treachery, not retreating before the most brutal violence, that this policy has given the essential power to Prussia and in spite of all has become the source of the revival of Germany […], that later Prussia used a rational and consistent policy to focus the defeated particles of the German nation around itself, that it has reconstructed the new German Empire out of these particles, a powerful state based on good laws, within which the German people have found conditions for rapid economic and civilizational progress, gradually sliding again on a leading position of the world of civilization. This testimony of history that any prey, no matter how it was achieved, could become the basis for the prosperity of a nation and its progress […], that, therefore, there is no right and wrong in the relations between nations but only strength and weakness.” Brzozowski, whose thought was only seemingly opposite to such brutal Darwinian vision of the world but who always aspired to the role of the great moraliser, scathingly commented the vision of international relations outlined by Dmowski: “History is liquid manure, and we will live in it if only we develop suitable instincts.” But ultimately it is Dmowski who better understood the spirit of his time. National states in Europe competed in civilization, technology, engineering, and scientific inventions for at least thirty years. They were the ones that were to be the most impressive monuments of national power. Subsequent world exhibitions have evolved more and more deeply into a marketplace of national vanity and megalomania. Subsequent signs of technical progress and limitless human possibilities – the Crystal Palace in London, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and Wilhelmshaven in Germany – have expressed this unity of civilizational modernity and vital, possessive national idea that Dmowski was so anxious to implant to the Poles. But there was something that did not allow him to do that, seemingly a small thing – the Polish national character.

Contrary to what Dmowski promises in the first sentence of Myśli…, his book is one of the most profound criticisms of the Polish national character, and above all the tradition of Polish nobility, with which we are dealing at the turn of the 20th century. This criticism was anyway consistent in many places with the views of Brzozowski.


At the turn of the 20th century, two similar concepts of modernity were outlined: one of them assumes that the entire Polish community would move into the realm of the spirit, the other – that it would get brutalised. In both cases, the postulate of a modern, upgraded Poland would associate with the overall transformation of the social and cultural structure of the nation, which becomes the object rather than the subject of modernization operations of the intelligentsia – a task given by the avant-garde of the new era of modernization. At the core of this process there is a more or less humanized Darwinian vision of the world and people, a final and decisive struggle for civilizational, economic, and technological primacy in the world. Brozowski believes that the socialist idea is the instrument to introduce radical modernization changes, in Dmowski's opinion it is the national idea. However, in both cases we are dealing with the same fundamental inability to come to terms with the actually existing substance of the Polish tradition, with a deep and insurmountable resentment and alienation. And this is where the frantic search for a new type of Pole comes from in both concepts.

A modest attempt to break this resentment look at the problem of modernity in Poland was the 1918 short work by Henryk Elzenberg W poszukiwaniu idei polskiej [In search of the Polish idea]. The critical layer of the work is already well known and it is seemingly just little different from the criticism of Polish national character that you will find in the works of Brzozowski or Dmowski. Elzenberg agrees with the view that one can see some excessive flexibility and submissiveness in the Polish national type. In the culture of the Poles there is some innate aversion to effort and struggle, and forms of cultural possessiveness even meet in Poland with some moral condemnation in the name of preserving the virtues of peace and quiet.

“Both our religion and the sweet, idyllic Slavishness of the Piasts that runs through our history and art like a soft ribbon include some tendency toward the same non-creative chastity – but not a virtue!”, notes Elzenberg.

Therefore, the Polish weakness consists primarily in the cultural lukewarmness but also in the ignorance of the world, blissful expectation that everyone around us is guided by the same primacy of the peace of mind and lack of excessive interest. For Elzenberg, who recognized the principle of Nietzsche's dynamism in the culture, such an attitude must have been worrying. In his opinion, Poland was weak because it could not create its own spiritual greatness. Without this it could not exist surrounded by other expansive nations representing different types of culture and spirituality. He saw the world as a battlefield of occupying forces, of cultural and spiritual imperialisms. Thus, Elzenberg moves away from the reductionism of Brzozowski and Dmowski. In his opinion, the subsoil of any social or economic change must consist in an own culture that is well-rooted in the tradition, alive, and able to defend itself. A nation as a quantity cannot be reduced neither to the purely social transformation processes, nor to the economic and technical tasks. The nation as a whole is in fact in the first place a product of the culture. The vigour of this culture, its – as we would say today – clout determines the real value of the nation. This allows on the one hand to maintain national independence, stand out against the background of other national quantities despite the more and more new social and economic processes in Europe, and on the other hand – to use the instruments of civilization in the international competition in the right and effective way. As stated by Elzenberg:

“This lust for power, even this possessiveness, these are precious things after all! Indeed, you will not find a more fertile instinct, a better leaven for thoughts, a more powerful lever for actions, a more effective spring of a higher life. [...] And what is, for instance, the instinct of a selfless cognition if not a transformation of the instinct of power? Or – a little bit – the creative instinct. All the offensive, proud, conquering forces of our nature are grouped around it as it was their axis.” Poland needs to take part in this great historical game of ideas. If it does not participate in the spiritual struggle that in fact decides about the face of Europe – it would not count in practice, it would condemn itself to silent vegetation between nations that are spiritually present in the culture and determine the actual path of cultural development. Therefore, we need to work out a Polish idea in the service of which the cultural imperialism would lead the fight, because the core of every cultural possessiveness is always some kind of a higher idea (“How many conquering nations have won in the belief that their reign on earth is the fulfilment of a higher idea, that they serve the ideal by conquering. Arabs and Turks proclaimed God; the Romans were guided by the thought of a single order on the earth; and surely Virgil did not feel like an immoralist when he reminded his compatriots about the duty of governing the peoples!”).

For Elzenberg this bold task for Poland in the sphere of culture is obvious. It is the only way Poland can fulfil its dream of power. Everything else is a pathetic litigiousness and leads to cultural dwarfism of a nation: “We will not be a great power”, says Elzenberg, “in the world where iron rules, we will not do things as we want to; neither our number nor our innate abilities do indicate so; our bystanders can make as much effort as they want to but we will not be leaders in the game of this world. What is left? Is it the mere emptiness? Existence of a secondary kingdom, in the orbit of this or that foreign power, the pressure to go East or West […] Fortunately, there is something more: the world of the spirit is open […] It is the only one where we can look for the thing that justifies our existence. In the world of the spirit, we must be a force and this force must be distinct, one of its kind, capable of bringing something that nobody else would bring into the universal achievements. Within its area we need to find work to fulfil, goals of aspirations, ideas.”

The idea of the nation as a cultural whole, of a community of spirit that is realized in the dimension of culture, described by Elzenberg at the threshold of independence just gained by Poland is important for two reasons. First of all – what we have already noted – some persistent reductionism that appears in the previously described two concepts of modernization is being broken: the concept of Brzozowski – bringing the idea of modernity to the problem of social and intellectual backwardness in relation to 19th century cultural productivity of the West – and the concept of Dmowski – bringing this idea to the economic rat race in the name of magnitude and power of the nation. In contrast to both attitudes, Elzenberg offers a concept of the nation as a spiritual whole in the culture and suggests a relevant cultural imperialism. The issue is not yet about another concept that is equivalent to the other two concepts: in the latter there was a social idea or an economic competition as an emanation of a modern nation, in the former – culture as an expression of national vitality. For Elzenberg, culture is the foundation of the nation as a whole, which means that we cannot reasonably and effectively compete with other nations in the economic, social, and intellectual spheres if there is nothing strong and spontaneous in the culture to offer. This idea, expressed in 1918, is so interesting because it corresponds with the situation in which Poland found itself in 1989. The Solidarity movement in the 1980s caused a particular intellectual interest in Western Europe that among other things resulted in a fairly widespread belief that the region of Central Europe, after breaking the ideological divisions, will offer something fundamentally important from the cultural and spiritual points of view to bring to the Western Europe. Aside from the question of how justified were the political hopes for the Solidarity movement, especially after 1989, it should be noted that this movement could and should bring a particularly creative revival in culture (including political culture) in Poland and Central Europe, which, however, did not happen. The warning contained in the short work of Elzenberg was not taken into account. The cultural proposal, that could potentially lay in the Solidarity movement, was not adopted nor developed; it was considered unimportant in the today's modern world. At the same time there was a characteristic reduction of the national activity, as the result of regaining of freedom, primarily to its economic dimension. Building a free market without the support of culture is considered to be the only effective way to make Poland competitive to other modern nations.

Second of all, the idea expressed by Elzenberg is based on the assumption that is clearly missing in the works of both Brzozowski and Dmowski. This assumption consists in a deep, definite acceptance of the substance of the existing tradition, and thus – in overcoming the typical intellectuals’ resentment of their own culture and their own nation. It is impossible to resist contemporary spiritual power of the nation with a culture built on sand, we will not create it – as wanted Brzozowski – ex nihilo. Elzenberg was undoubtedly more insightful in reading of Nietzsche than Brzozowski for whom the philosophy of the author of Ecce homo was only a step to a higher Marxist education. And this very type of affirmation of culture and tradition, as a precondition for any healthy reflections on modernity and the nation's attitude to it, leads us to Gombrowicz who in the dispute about modernity and Polishness has a particular and certainly the most original role.

His position is a radical opposite of the thoughts of Brzozowski. The author of Legenda… wanted to expose the “Childish Poland” and to ultimately overcome it, which was only supposed to open the prospect of true modernity in cultural, economic, and political terms. Gombrowicz warned against such a collective self-exposure, seeing in the Polish senility a truly creative power thanks to which the Poles will be able to find their place both in the modernity and in the outside world.

Some superficial resemblance of a derisive approach to the God-and-Homeland and epigone-and-romantic Polish traditionalism may lead to seeking ideological similarities between Brzozowski and Gombrowicz. In fact, the relationship between these writers is a relationship of a symmetrical opposite”, noted Andrzej Walicki in Stanisław Brzozowski – drogi myśli [Stanisław Brzozowski – the paths of thoughts]. In the 1980s and early 1990s in Poland Gombrowicz was quite often being read in the context of the Polish national customs, traditional Catholicism, and the criticism of the noble republicanism, characteristic of the radical Polish intelligentsia. After all, his play The Marriage provided further, perfectly formulated arguments against this tradition. We may however venture to say that Gombrowicz was utterly consumed for these purposes of exposure of national tradition by his later interpreters in Poland. The scope of understanding of his work was often narrowed primarily to fascination with a farmhand and the Sonland. But Gombrowicz was not such a ruthless whistleblower of Polishness as Brzozowski. Gombrowicz rather wanted to thoroughly “chew” the Polishness. For him the mystical activism of the radical Polish intelligentsia, its enthusiasm in tracking all traces of the Polish traditionalism, the faith in moving the whole nation into the realm of the spirit in the name of some imaginary idea of modernity were part of the terrible loop of the Polish thought, a blind alley leading to imitative, reproductive, and slavery actions, certainly not spontaneous against the European culture. In his Diary 1955-1956, Gombrowicz warns us: “Do not waste your precious time on the chase of Europe – you will never catch up […] You should rather try to get to the European art, be the ones who expose; instead of pulling up to a maturity of someone else, you should rather try to reveal the immaturity of Europe. Try to arrange your true feeling so that it could achieve an objective existence in the world, find a theory consistent with your practice, create a criticism of art from your point of view, create your own image of the world, human being, and culture that would be compatible with you.”

This fundamental difference of looking at modernity is even more clearly reflected in the example of the Gombrowicz's assessment of Brzozowski. Here you can see a longer excerpt from the Diary 1961-1969, showing the discrepancy in interpreting Brzozowski as compared with Miłosz, who was fascinated with the author of Legenda… at that time, the result of which was his 1962 essay Człowiek wśród skorpionów [Man among scorpions]: “The main sin of the Polish intelligentsia in the opinion of Brzozowski – says Miłosz – is replacing the thought with sociability. They were not serious in their interest in the achievements of thought of the West. […] I will bring out the brightness of contrast between Brzozowski and me when I say that in this case, I am on the side of the father, not the son. Yes, I am! I support the old noble mistrust and the fact that theories are impractical, and everything in all that does not allow the thought to live too much. […] Miłosz is on the side of Brzozowski, Miłosz wants the Polish intelligentsia to catch up with the West. He is here an exponent of the post-war Polish spurt towards Europeanism and modernity. And me, a nobleman and a buckwheat sower, o holy Lord, an old school man, I stretch out my hand and say: Wait a moment! This is not the way! What the hell do you need it for? Firstly, you will not catch up when the forms of thought and its style are only slowly developing. Secondly, it is not worth it, as it means too much hassle than anything else. Thirdly, it would be great if you took into consideration the following thing: today the advantages are on your side; your thought slowly begins to climb on top; what was previously your shame may be introduced in Europe as a starting point for a salutary revision.

Today, in my opinion, the Polish lukewarmness has a chance and should not be ashamed. I would be glad to hear in Europe the Polish voice stating about the intellect: this enough, I do not understand it, I cannot, I do not want it.”

In view of the Brzozowski's attack on the Polish national character as the main obstacle on the way to Europeanise and modernize Poland, Gombrowicz takes the side of the father, and against the son. This quite clear declaration is, of course, made in the context of the above-described radical proposals for the modernization of the Polish intelligentsia and certainly cannot be understood as an absolute support for all forms of noble and patriotic or Catholic tradition in Poland. However, in the outlined dispute about the meaning and content of modernity in Poland, Gombrowicz – of course a little bit posturing, teasingly, and provocatively – stands on the side that is opposite to Brzozowski and his intellectual heirs. It is therefore worth to remind that the attitude of Gombrowicz towards the proposal of modernity, radical social and cultural changes in Poland, rejection of tradition in the name of the social or national idea has never been clear, based on simple antinomies which had to be overcome. In his play The Marriage, Henry destroys his father and the majesty of power, authority, tradition associated with him – he frees himself from the past that once absorbed him but as a consequence he uses this freedom to create a crazy dictatorship. Violence becomes a natural result of the decisive rejection of all traditions. In Trans-Atlantyk Gombrowicz creates an even more expressive relationship between a son and a father. Ignaś, convinced by Gonzalo – an eccentric rich man and a homosexual – is persuaded to kill his old father Tomasz. A test of strength that is taking place in this triangle perfectly captures the Polish dilemmas and perplexities of the last one hundred years. Ignaś symbolizes this sometimes thoughtless, sometimes extremely brutal desire to be free from all cultural and social traditional ties of their environment (“To hell with the Father and the Fatherland! Son, son, this is what is important, this is what I understand! What do you need the Fatherland for? Isn't the Sonland better? Replace the Fatherland with the Sonland and you'll see!”). The son on his own, the Sonland that embodies this purity and innocence of modernity, the activity that is elevated to the status of a cult, free from the burden of the past, the new, which, however, can be realized only by violence, by the ritual killing of the father, hence by methods that are far from innocent. Tomasz represents traditional values, he is a typical Catholic Pole, a patriot who is disarming by his naivety, is so to speak a personified Fatherland. Who is Gonzalo the tempter? We may speculate about it, given that in the Polish relationship between a son and a father the presence of a third outer European component has always played an important role, especially when it comes to different techniques of persuasion to the release towards modernity. However, the conflict that was growing in the Trans-Atlantyk has not been resolved in favour of neither party. The moment of liberation is of a completely different, surprising character. At the moment when Ignaś is almost to kill his father, he bursts into uncontrollable laughter that infects all the gathered characters from the novel. The cleansing, freeing laughter is the only true liberation from the mortal dilemma: Sonland or Fatherland.

Gombrowicz can be critical and hard-hitting toward the Polish cultural tradition and history as much as he wants but it does not prevent him from taking Poland as it is. We have no other contents constituting our tradition than the ones that Brzozowski wanted to throw away as the “Childish Poland”. And this is why these contents will constantly be present in our reflection of national self-consciousness of Poles. We may describe the components of our tradition, overcome them, break them down into small screws and subject them to meticulous critical analysis but we will not replace them with any other imaginary components of modernity and Europeanism. We cannot escape from ourselves and we should not undertake such escapes at all. We will not find any understanding of ourselves anywhere else than in our own culture and traditions. One may get the impression that this is the motto that guided Gombrowicz while he was reading Sienkiewicz.

A short paper by Gombrowicz about Sienkiewicz published in the appendix to the first volume of the Diary is a perfect example of how one may critically, sometimes even harshly write about The Trilogy and the republican and noble national myth of Poles contained in it without sounding hysterically or accusatory like Brzozowski. Gombrowicz, who saw Sienkiewicz as a mirror at which the Polish nation – that is fond of itself, well, almost hopelessly in love with its own beauty and needs some confirmation of this self-love from other nations – can look without worrying, cleverly avoids the risk of constructing some vision of a different, modern Poland that is liberated from the shackles of tradition in the opposition of the Sienkiewicz's world. He understood the lessons from the experience of 19th century philosophy, which he had stubbornly studied, to well to fall into the trap of such a hopeless, uncreative antinomy. This is why he ends his reflections on Sienkiewicz with a warning: “But we should not underestimate Sienkiewicz. It depends on us whether he will become a tool of truth or falsehood, and his work, so embarrassing, can lead us to self-exposure to a greater extent than any other. [...] If we stop to see him as a teacher and master, if we understand that he is our confidential dreamer, a shy dream teller, then his book will grow for us to become a spontaneous art, the analysis of which will put us in the darkness of our personality. [...] He introduces us to these recesses of our souls where the Polish evasion of life, the Polish avoidance of truth is realized, like no one else before. Our superficiality, our lightness, our basically irresponsible, childish attitude to life and culture, our belief in the full reality of existence [...] reveals itself here the more violently, the more he is ashamed of it. If the modern Polish thought does not gain the courage to have the proper perspicacity, then, horrified by this discovery, and wishing to be like the West (or East) at all costs, it will begin to combat these flaws in us and modify our nature, which will lead to another grotesque. If, however, we are not wise enough to simply draw the consequences from ourselves, we will find ourselves in probably unforeseen and not exploited possibilities, and we will be able to stock up on beauty that is quite different from the previous ones.”


The Manichean activism, intellectual ethos of radicalism towards our own culture and nation as a subject of modernization, best expressed in the works and attitude of Brzozowski, has permanently identified the way of understanding the imperative of modernity and the attitude towards tradition of a large part of the Polish intelligentsia in the 20th century. Brzozowski became the patron of activists from the Legions of Piłsudski, he also fascinated the right wing national democratic youth in the interwar period and during the war. In the Polish People's Republic his works experienced a revival together with an attempt of “nationalization” of socialism and restoration of humanistic roots to the left wing ethos after 1956. This revival was made possible thanks to such big names as Kołakowski, Baczko, Walicki, and Miłosz in exile. The position of Brzozowski underwent then various forms of ideologisation and mutated in different directions. Some people were looking for intellectual, “subtle” Catholicism, or for an activist conception of the nation in the Brzozowski's work, others – for an answer to nagging dilemmas associated with the “intellectual situation of the contemporary Marxism.”

However, it seems that the thing that gave the Brzozowski's ideas such vitality in the 20th century Polish culture was not at all primarily associated with the “new” contents propagated by him (the socialist idea and the intellectual Catholicism). Catholicism was an individual late fascination of Brzozowski, and socialism might have been just a handy, historically conditioned instrument of action. The thing that survived most of all from the Brzozowski's work is the structure of thinking, the superiority and contempt for their own people and their traditions as a mere object of history that are characteristic of the intelligentsia. This structure of thinking found its full expression in the titanic monument of a secondary bard of the Polish ignorance and virtues of the Catholic Pole, erected for Sienkiewicz. The intention of this monument was also the eternal memorial of the Polish backwardness and non-modernity.

This attitude, so important for understanding the Polish problems with modernity, was still full of heat and strength of conviction in the case of Brzozowski. In the 1930s, it got completely intellectually annihilated in the person of Tadeusz Kroński. The moralizing tone of Brzozowski, full of pathos and historiosophical convulsions, turns into snorts, mimicry, mocking grimaces, strange faces in the case of Kroński. Kroński brings the attitude of Brzozowski to its extreme form – to the very nihilism itself: everything is a joke, you can make fun of everything, you can ignore everything. And Miłosz, perhaps a little unconsciously, gives an evocative portrait of this attitude of the Kroński's nihilism in his book Native Realm. But this is not the end. The activist mysticism of the attitude of intelligentsia becomes a nihilism of mockery, and finally gets bogged down for good in the doctrinaire obstinate Stalinism in a convenient historical configuration. The modernization proposals of Brzozowski are there ultimately reformulated in line with the thesis of terror in the service of humanity that was fashionable at that time.[6] We may therefore consider Kroński as a warning against a too literal admiration for Brzozowski. Although it seems that according to Brzozowski, the means of modernization should always be spontaneous products of the nation, so that if he lived a little longer he might prove to be immunized to the “charms” of Stalinism, it is difficult not to see some arbitrary but nevertheless distinct expansions of thoughts of the author of Legenda… in the attitude of Kroński.

The ideas of Brzozowski have always been becoming more and more appealing in the so-called turning points of history. They have also undergone another interesting mutation after 1989, when the socialist idea could no longer embody modernity for obvious reasons. The arguments developed by Brzozowski were widely used in the fight with the “ignorance and superstition” of a Catholic Pole, but this time in the name of a completely non-socialist, at least when it comes to economics, idea of progress and modernity.

Thus, although the instruments of modernizing the Poles evidently changed since the days of Brzozowski, the same way of thinking about modernity and the same dilemma, in which our public discourse got stuck for good, are still present today. Andrzej Mencwel provocatively titled one of his books Przedwiośnie czy potop [The Coming Spring or The Deluge], confirming our belief about the indispensable necessity for making such choice in the discussion about modernity. This dilemma is, however, not true. The attitude of Brzozowski that hides many traps, mistakes, or simply completely crazy thoughts is at most just as constitutive for the Polish culture and our contemporary national self-knowledge as the myth of a noble republicanism.



[1]  See: Zdzisław Krasnodębski, Złudzenia dawne i nowe, “Znak” 7/99, especially part 7 “Wierni uczniowie”.

[2]  Zygmunt Krasiński, Listy do Adama Sołtana, ed. Z. Sudolski, Warsaw 1970, pp. 376–377. For more information, see: Andrzej Waśko, Romantyczny sarmatyzm, Wyd. Arcana, Kraków 1995.

[3]  Bohdan Cywiński, Rodowody niepokornych, Editions Spotkania 1985, pp. 65–67.

[4]  The most reliable work on this subject is still the following paper: Stanisław Brzozowski – drogi myśli Andrzeja Walickiego, Warszawa 1977. See also: Agata Bielik-Robson, Klerk i intelektualista – o pokusie pogardy w myśleniu, “Res Publika Nowa” 5–6/99.

[5] Stanisław Brzozowski, Współczesna powieść i krytyka literacka, as cited in: Andrzej Walicki, op. cit., p. 419.

[6] See the already widely commented letter of Tadeusz Kroński to Czesław Miłosz of December 7, 1948, [in:] Czesław Miłosz, Zaraz po wojnie, Kraków 1998.

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