By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Poland’s conservative thought offered some crucial contributions in the early modern period of European history. Now, as Legutko, Stawrowski, Roszkowski, and others show us, it may also offer original solutions and alternatives to the maladies that rot the old continent today.
Liberty (wolność) is the most salient and recognizable characteristic of the Polish heritage. The Polish conservative way champions freedom before other treasures of tradition: rather than license, it is freedom with responsibility that Polish conservatives espouse. Christian faith, tradition, family, patria, individualism, property, and order complement liberty in the pantheon of cherished values that have allowed the Poles to endure throughout their history.
Initially, the Polish message found its way into the European mainstream via Latin. Polish ideas of freedom reverberated directly and indirectly, including by means of poetry and theater. Think William Shakespeare’s reforming Polonius in Hamlet, for instance.
Poland’s output was once widely recognized, even if not always appropriately attributed, by the likes of Jean Bodin and Erasmus of Rotterdam to John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau. This occurred primarily at the time when Latin was the West’s lingua franca. Afterwards, though, few bothered to learn Polish, while most forgot Latin. And the Poles were remiss in translating their contributions earlier into the French language and now into English, which is presently our universal language .
There is more to the story, however. In short, this current sorry state of affairs reflects the discontinuity inflicted on Poland by the Soviet and Communist occupation between 1944 and 1989.
A longer tale involves the following: first, the realization that the enslavement of a nation means the elimination, or, at best, the distortion of its tradition—or, at least, the part most inimical to the occupiers. In the case of Poland, this was, obviously, conservative, traditionalist, and Christian nationalist thought, in its Catholic iteration in particular. Second, there was the related lack of resources to transmit and disseminate such texts in the West, which also reflected the dire material poverty of the Polish émigré community that was in no position to prioritize such intellectual endeavors. Third, there came the recognition of a constant drift—or race, if you will—of intellectual interests towards the Western Left in general, and the United States in particular. This rendered any attempts to share conservative and traditionalist messages extremely difficult at best, if not entirely futile. Fourth, aside from the growing leftist trend of American society, one must also reckon with the parochial lack of interest and resources to explore conservative alternatives for America ; in particular those outside of the Anglo-Saxon tradition.
Some of this, however, changed somewhat when Karol Wojtyła became Pope John Paul II in 1978. His was a broadly universalist appeal, rather than narrowly Polish. However, his piercing analysis of “all things visible and invisible” cannot be strictly termed as political philosophy. His thought was universal; it combined a variety of genres. He communicated his concerns not only through scholarship but also, or perhaps especially so, through his poetry and drama. Saint John Paul II thus allowed intellectuals of all shades, including conservatives, to sample and appreciate his offerings. The Pope’s love for the Romantic poet Cyprian Kamil Norwid undoubtedly influenced his thought on nationalism, which he championed as “patriotism,” making some of his reflections appealing to the traditionalists. However, to consider Karol Wojtyła strictly a political conservative greatly dilutes his legacy and does a serious disservice to this towering figure.
Over the years, a few illustrious intellectuals have made commendable efforts to share the Polish heritage in English. And heritage, in turn, tends to be conservative by definition—or at least that part of it that facilitates continuity of tradition, freedom, and love of homeland. Most Western intellectuals (and Polish émigré and other thinkers working in these vineyards) are translators and editors; but a few of them also took up the challenge of interpreting, analyzing, and popularizing Polish conservative authors in monographic form. Thus, we have some translations of indispensable primary sources, in addition to some—albeit not many—serious monographs on the Polish conservative imagination. However, there are also several collective works and individual scholarly monographs infused with the conservative spirit.
Nonetheless, comparatively speaking, the English language file on the Polish conservative thought may be lamentably thin. This is partly because much of Polish conservatism has been absorbed by the country’s Christian nationalism, chiefly Catholic. Yet, it does contain a number of notable items. Most of them are translations; others are scholarly monographs on the original authors. Some of them are out of print; but others rematerialized magically—complements of the digital miracle, which we shall touch upon chronologically, albeit quite selectively.
A whistle stop tour of these contributions follows.
To begin, alas, we must do without English translations of the works of Stanisław of Skarbimierz/Stanislaus de Scarbimiria (1360-1431), who, in his sermons, laid the foundations of “Noble Democracy.” Luckily, we have a two-volume dissertation on Paweł Włodkowic/Paulus Vladimiri (1370?-1435), a renowned international jurist and intrepid champion of national sovereignty and religious tolerance in the name of Christianity. From eminent historians, bishop Bl. Wincenty Kadlubek (c. 1150-1223) can be enjoyed in Latin and Polish, but not English. However, the works of Jan Długosz/Johannes Longinus (1415-1480) do exist in the Anglosphere, albeit in an abridged form.
Next, Harold Seagal edited and translated a rich compilation of Polish Renaissance thought, including much that is sympathetic to the conservative project. For example, we get excerpts of Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski/Andreas Fricius Modrevius (1503?-1572) but not the whole of his famous De Respublica emendada (On the Reform of the Republic) which brought him a sobriquet of “the father of Polish democracy.” One wishes to see the entire oeuvre of the most sublime poet of the era, the unsurpassable Jan Kochanowski (1530-1584), to be translated into English, but no such project has been undertaken yet. Perhaps only the works of one author of this period are available in English in their entirety: Wawrzyniec Grzymała Goślicki/Laurentius Grimaldius Goslicius (1535?-1607), who is believed to be the first to have ever written on the separation of powers: executive, legislative, and judiciary .
As for the Baroque period, we do not have the oeuvre of the thundering prophet of doom, Fr. Piotr Skarga (also known as Piotr Powęski) (1536-1612), who presciently warned about liberty degenerating into license if our faith should fail us. However, the war and peace memoir of the indominable squire Jan Chryzostom Pasek (1636?-1701) has been available in two English-language editions for some time now. This is complemented by a recently issued abridgement of the 18th-century sociological and cultural observations of the peoples of Poland by Father Jędrzej Kitowicz (1728? -1804).
When Poland became unfree, suffering under the yoke of the partitioning powers (1772-1918), the poets and writers dictated her national pulse, including her traditionalist values. Of Count Jan Potocki (1761-1815) we can indulge in a pre-post-modernist tale within a tale, wrapped up in a few more fables, now translated into English from the original French version. Chiefly, however, there is the work of the sublime Romantic Adam Mickiewicz in English, but, unfortunately, not much is available of the work of the enrapturing mystic poet Zygmunt Krasiński (1812-1859) or the delightfully reactionary writer Count Henryk Rzewuski (1791-1866). The language barrier renders them mute for English speakers. Of Aleksander Boreyko Chodźko (1804-1891), we do have an English-language translation of his peasant fairy tales.
There are numerous translations and editions of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s (1846-1916) writings—all of them Christian, patriotic, and traditionalist—from Quo Vadis and Teutonic Knights to his Trilogy. Władysław Stanisław Reymont (1867-1925) was less widely translated, but his monumental Peasants, which is a sweeping saga of the countryside, as well as his essential Promised Land, which is a sordid tale on industrialization, can be read in English. In addition, there is a recent translation of his vignette of a Catholic pilgrimage to Częstochowa.
Thus, we have a Polish conservative primer for beginners, in English.
Very little of the above, however, even when translated into English, has resonated much with the American Right. It was not until the formidable Russell Kirk discovered Adam Mickiewicz that American conservatives even acquired an inkling of the rich conservative tradition in Poland. One wishes Kirk could have enjoyed the work of Count Zygmunt Krasiński, a fellow conservative Romantic. And what would the father of the modern American ‘ conservative mind’ think of the arch-reactionary Count Henryk Rzewuski? If only we had English-language translations of the works of those giants! At any rate, today, a Polish conservative narrative has a good chance of receiving a sympathetic hearing from George Weigel, Rod Dreher, and Paul Kengor. A few conservative editors are also quite open to Polish traditionalist thought and run articles on it intrepidly, some more often than others.
As a rule, however, Polish conservative, libertarian, anti-Communist, and Christian nationalist authors, even if their output somehow magically appears in English, tend to be neglected, lampooned, demonized, buried, and glossed over in silence. This regrettable situation is to the great detriment of America’s freedom of thought and the richness of the fount of its inspiration, in particular as far as the conservative tradition is concerned. Indeed, here in the U.S., we have much to learn from conservative Poles.
In 1962, after saving it from destruction and oblivion in Communist-occupied Poland, an émigré National Democratic activist, author, translator, and publisher, Jędrzej Giertych, released the English-language version of Professor Feliks Koneczny’s On the Plurality of Civilizations, which was first published in Poland in 1934. Arnold Toynbee himself prefaced the Polish right-wing historiographer’s brilliant introduction to the study of cultures. Among other things, Koneczny explained the impending clash of civilizations and argued that a human being “cannot be civilized in two ways,” i.e., civilizations do not mix. Thus, it is neither race nor ethnicity nor class that separate us, but culture.
Neither Ada Bozeman nor Samuel Huntington acknowledged their debt to the Kraków scholar; perhaps they had never even heard of him. And, despite Toynbee’s endorsement, neither had anyone else outside of, mainly, the charmed Polish émigré circles; right- wingers in particular. His seemingly ‘ eccentric’ views and lack of resources prevented the popularization of Koneczny’s work.
Under the Communist occupation, Koneczny’s ideas percolated in the intellectual underground in Poland, often unattributed, from the 1970s onward. Fragments of his work circulated among friends of Jędrzej Giertych, who passed it on to a younger generation. A clandestine edition of his works appeared in the early 1980s. However, the great thinker’s oeuvre only became more widely available in his home country after 1989. Marcin Dybowski and his “Antyk” Publishing House teamed up with Maciej Giertych, the son of the original translator, to release several volumes of Feliks Koneczny’s output, first in Polish, and then, primarily since the start of the 21st century, in English.
The English-language translations are not easily available for purchase in the West. However, one can sense that Koneczny has been making subterranean rounds among non-mainstream conservative American intellectuals, such as E. Michael Jones, for example. Nonetheless, no serious studies of Koneczny’s thought have yet appeared in the United States.
Nevertheless, we hear even less often about the formidable libertarian and conservative Józef Mackiewicz. Early efforts in the 1960s to publish his outspokenly anti-Communist work hit a brick wall, despite the initial interest of America’s ‘dissident publisher,’ Henry Regnery, who, alas, gave up on the project. One of Mackiewicz’s more important books, The Triumph of Provocation, finally appeared in 2009, thanks to the efforts of Yale University Press. Its rather unsatisfactory literary form reflects the efforts of multiple translators, but, overall, it is better that than nothing.
Although it is somewhat beyond the scope of our inquiry, one should mention Poland’s Christian nationalist, or National Democratic, intellectual contributions. They are pertinent here because much of Polish nationalism, although initially of a progressive pedigree, soon became assimilated into conservatism and traditionalism. Therefore, almost invariably, all American scholarship on the Polish Christian nationalists is invariably hostile, perhaps with a notable exception of that of Alvin Marcus Fountain. We also lack any serious, critical English-language editions of Christian nationalist primary sources. Essentially, from that school of thought, we only have émigré Endek stalwart Jędrzej Giertych’s In Defense of My Country. Of the children of Polish exiles, perhaps only intrepid Peter Stachura approaches this particular orientation in his Poland, 1918-1945.
On the other hand, there are conservative, Christian democrat, and traditionalist contributions available, even if largely ignored by so-called mainstream academia. Nonetheless, we can delight in a few general contributions, most of them collective works. As Canada’s political scientist and Polish émigré thinker W.J. Stankiewicz profoundly remarked about traditionalism and continuity in Polish thought:
What characterizes the viewpoint and guides the direction of the contributors to this symposium is the assumption that human behaviour—and hence human history—is best understood in the light of the norms or values that man holds; that a nation’s history can embody some ideals which ought to be preserved against awesome odds; that an event like the Warsaw uprising holds a lesson for all mankind; that it is norms or values which drive us—and should drive us. For all of us have something to live for and something to die for: this is what makes us human.
The very persistence of the ideal of an independent State (despite long periods of lack of independence), as well as of a number of ‘idealized’ values considered in this symposium is a phenomenon which defies the assumptions made in the relativist mood prevalent in our time. This mood accounts for a good deal of the misunderstanding of these ideals and their decline in the West. In an age of security at any price, what is courage but a quixotic anachronism? In a crassly commercial society, what is honour but an archaic pose? To the ‘liberationists’ of various persuasions, what is chivalry but a quaint medieval notion? Such interpretations are deplored by a non-relativist. He believes that tolerance, as exercised today, is all too often but an abdication to a threat of violence from emerging power-seeking groups. What is freedom, he asks, when not restrained by public interest, but a licence for democracy’s self-destruction?
This should serve as the leitmotif of all conservative endeavors in the Polish tradition. Some scholarly contributions in the same spirit appeared around the millennium of Poland’s Baptism of 966. Their authors invariably underlined the indivisibility of Latin Christian heritage and Polish nationhood. Volumes edited separately by Jerzy Braun and Ignatius Olszewski express this sentiment in the strongest possible way, while the collection assembled by Damian Wandycz presents an understated version of the same. Everywhere, the intellectual influence of the unmatched Oskar Halecki and his conceptualization of Poland and its neighborhood as the “Borderlands of the West,” is inexorably palpable. Halecki is the closest to the American academic mainstream that a Polish Catholic conservative ever came.
Of general histories of the Polish land and peoples, where conservative sentiments and interpretations predominate, the volume edited by Bernadotte E. Schmitt stands out likewise favorably. The contributors were invariably either emigres or scholars sympathetic to the cause of Poland’s freedom and, thus, wary of communism. In a similar broadminded vain, Adam Zamoyski, a child of emigres, wrote The Polish Way decades later, stressing the conservative element. John Radzilowski makes Polish history accessible without compromising on the ‘First Things’ that make Poland, Poland. Last but not least, émigré Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski’s Poland: An Illustrated History is a popularizing textbook by a traditionalist, who nonetheless shared much with the Christian nationalists.
After 1989 (or even before) there have been hardly any serious efforts to synthesize Poland’s conservative thought for English-speaking audiences. As an exception, Rett R. Ludwikowski undertook a rather lonely endeavor to shed some light on Polish conservatism in the 19th and 20th centuries, along with Kenneth W. Thompson, to place Polish constitutionalism in a comparativist international perspective. Jacek Jędruch stands out in his study of the Polish intellectual legal and institutional framework of freedom from the 15th century to the present. More narrowly, Anna Grześkowiak-Krwawicz has focused on “Queen Liberty” in early modern Polish thought. There are also biographical morsels pleasing to conservatives. For example, Adam Zamoyski wrote about Poland’s last, doomed monarch, while W. H. Zawadzki told us a compelling story of Prince Adam Czartoryski (1770-1861), the “uncrowned King of Poland,” active both at home and in exile. Having been released by reputable Western academic publishing houses, those monographs have demurely been making the rounds in the scholarly community.
That is not so in other cases, however. For example, Wojciech Roszkowski prepared an incisive legal study on communist crimes, but it has failed to register in the West since, although written in English, it was printed by a Polish publisher who lacks international distribution. There have been a few other publications likewise submerged in obscurity. Who has heard about the champion of prudence, moderation, and Christianity, Zbigniew Stawrowski, though this magnificent thinker does, in fact, publish in English?
Even the internet has not exactly proven to be a bountiful medium for Poles interested in sharing their conservative insights on various topics with their foreign counterparts. The lack of academic exposure in the West; lack of prestigious institutions willing to sponsor, publish, and promote such books; and the dearth of proper marketing lie at the heart of the failure to generate interest and recognition for such works. Yet, even a tiny drop facilitates the erosion of the leftist rock.
In this context, Ryszard Legutko is a notable exception. His first monograph on the pathologies of post modernity within the context of the European Union has made quite a splash, even in the U.S. His second monograph promises to deliver even more; namely, a remedy. Let us hope that it not only will put this individual Polish thinker permanently on the intellectual map of America, but that his arguments will also prompt readers to scrutinize the sources of his thought.