Poland was both the most likely and the most unlikely place to expect the rebirth of the Left. The country has a rich Left tradition that predates the Communist period, and many figures of the anti-Communist opposition, like Jacek Kuron, considered themselves on the Left. At the same time, however, the Polish Left has already struck out twice – first during the 40 years of Communism and then when the post-Communist Social Democratic Party returned to power and implemented the same austerity capitalism as its more conservative predecessors.
Slawomir Sierakowski wanted to break out of this pattern. A decade ago, he created a new political movement called Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique) that offered Poles a new, energetic, and intellectually sophisticated alternative.
“It is the worst possible idea to be Left in Poland, after 60 years of Communism,” he told me in an interview last October in Cambridge where he was on a fellowship at Harvard. “There was already a strong post-Communist Social Democratic party. We did not want to be with these post-Communists. They were cynics and more right-wing than the rest of the political spectrum. They had such a large complex toward the free market. They wanted to relegitimize themselves by saying exactly the same things as the post-Solidarity politicians. When we started to build the Left, we were alone. And we continue to be alone. We’ve never supported any party, and no party has supported us. But this was good. It made us very tough. People in Krytyka can withstand anything. That’s why we never collapsed, why we have always grown and never had to step back.”
Krytyka runs a journal, a daily on-line newspaper, a publishing house, a popular speakers’ series, and a number of cultural ventures. It has chapters around Poland and outposts in Russia, Ukraine, and Germany. Sierakowski has acquired a global reputation for his role in Yael Bartana’s short film trilogy, And Europe Will Be Stunned, and more recently for his columns in The New York Times.
The one thing that Krytyka hasn’t done, however, is become a political party. “I don’t believe that the party system will revive,” Sierakowski observes. “In the contemporary social situation, the party system is not a good idea for liberal democracy. It began some time ago, and it will soon come to an end. That’s why it looks the way it looks. There was a government shutdown here in the United States. Did it have any political reason, or was it just an empty fight? Why was it an empty fight? Maybe because any other political struggle is not possible? Why do you have these cultural wars here? Because other problems cannot be articulated any more by parties.”
Sierakowski has a different vision. “I want to do something ambitious,” he says. “I can’t do that in party politics. It would just be stupid quarrels. You might say: you can be more honest, more substantial. But no, if I did that, I would lose! Put Vaclav Havel into an election today and he would lose.”
His vision is not confined to Poland. He realizes that the country’s fate is tied up with the fate of its neighbors. Although we talked before the outbreak of protests in Ukraine and the ouster of the Viktor Yanukovych, Sierakowski spoke of the importance of the country.
“The country that is crucial for Krytyka is Ukraine,” he told me. “Look at history: whenever Russia grabs Ukraine, the imperial tradition there wins and nationalist ideas dominate. When Ukraine has power to be independent and can be in Europe, then immediately more democratic ideas will have a chance to be represented in Russia. Ukraine is crucial both for democracy in Russia and for the EU to be completed as a project. This iron curtain on the eastern border of Poland should be taken down as soon as possible. That should be our common aim.”
We talked about the origins of Krytyka, his relationship with Adam Michnik, and why he doesn’t care about political labels.
I heard a story that Krytyka Polityczna began with an article you wrote for Gazeta Wyborcza when you were quite young and which was quite controversial. The former opposition activist Kinga Dunin wrote a critique of your article, also in Gazeta Wyborcza, and then you struck up a friendship…
Well, that’s not really the story of how Krytyka began. Yes, I wrote the article and yes, I met with Kinga Dunin. But Krytyka was not in the plans at that time. It was a naïve article, a teenage article about how we were unhappy with what was going on in Poland. It’s nothing I would sign today. It was criticized by Kinga, honestly, because it was naïve, and I agree with this criticism today.
A year or today after that, I had an idea to establish a magazine. But first, what you have to know is that if you want to do something in Eastern Europe, if you want to organize people, you have to start with a magazine. This is a very Eastern European tradition. In Russia, in the Jewish diaspora, in Ukraine, these “fat journals” are how you organize the intelligentsia. So, I had no choice. Also, it came as a reaction to something: to this atmosphere that the intelligentsia in Poland had come to an end. After 1989, those guys in sweaters were not needed any more because they were boring professors or former dissidents who could not find their place in the new Poland, which was just a synonym for capitalism – actually, hardcore capitalism. The Chicago School was socialist compared to what was then perceived as the free market economy in Poland, and Keynes was considered just a Communist. Of course, the whole social democratic vocabulary, such as social class, couldn’t be used if you wanted to be taken seriously. Trade unions were viewed as obstacles to modernization. So, an intellectual journal was something that we needed at the time.
Vaclav Havel was one of the few former dissidents who stayed suspicious of this new capitalist proposition. He had a nice description of this kind of delegitimation. He called these journalists “acid” journalists. Unfortunately in Poland, only Jacek Kuron had the same critique. The rest were all new believers. They were also our first adversaries. When we tried to continue this tradition, the former dissidents strongly criticized us as a leftist danger. I had 10 years of strong discussion with Adam Michnik, each of us arguing loudly. Now we are okay. I am getting older. We don’t quarrel any more in such a harsh way. Even then, however, it was as if we were part of one family. Even though Michnik strongly criticized me, his paper Gazeta Wyborcza also published me.
I also decided that Krytyka would have not one but two magazines. One of them would be in the mass media. We would have a new voice, but we would never agree to be marginalized. We would sign our text with our names and with Krytyka Politiczna. At the end of the day, all of those single voices would add up to a new alternative voice. This very simple and very successful strategy helped us create quite a new strong voice.
At the same time, it is the worst possible idea to be Left in Poland, after 60 years of Communism. There was already a strong post-Communist Social Democratic party. We did not want to be with these post-Communists. They were cynics and more right-wing than the rest of the political spectrum. They had such a large complex toward the free market. They wanted to relegitimize themselves by saying exactly the same things as the post-Solidarity politicians. When we started to build the Left, we were alone. And we continue to be alone. We’ve never supported any party, and no party has supported us. But this was good. It made us very tough. People in Krytyka can withstand anything. That’s why we never collapsed, why we have always grown and never had to step back.
Another reason for our strength is that Krytyka is mostly a women’s organization: 80-90 percent of the organization are women. And women are much stronger than men. I’m sorry, but we men are like children. I try to be as strong as they are, but really they are good. The real success of Krytyka is because of people like Dorota Glazewska or Agnieszka Wisniewska.
The history of Krytyka Polityczna has three parts. The first part is when we said, “Let’s reinvent the Left in Poland. Let’s base it on the tradition of an engaged intelligentsia.” This is the most beautiful and fruitful tradition in Poland. All of Polish culture comes from this, not from the right wing. The Right side of the political spectrum doesn’t have any real culture, only ugly church architecture. The writer Adam Mickiewicz comes from the Left tradition, and so does Czeslaw Milosz.
Of course the idea was not only to reinvent the Left but also to implement the ideology of transition from 1989: “pluralism, democratic choice, participation.” This was the mainstream Polish transition ideology. But where was the choice if there was no Left and Right but only right and wrong choices? Does this produce real choices for the people? That idea of Polish transition was that we would have several visions to choose from. But no, there was only one vision: free market and procedural democracy. Anyone who disagreed immediately became a populist. There was also this atmosphere of catching up with the West, so there was no time for discussion. You either accepted it or you were an idiot. We didn’t agree with this message of transition. Immediately large inequalities started to dominate in Polish society, and there was a growing number of losers. Those people were also excluded. They had no political representation, not even by the post-Communists. We wanted to invent the Left to help democracy in Poland, so that we would have real democracy, instead of right-and-wrong politics, which is not democratic politics.
The second step was to reinvent politics. We realized that technology was ruling Polish politics – marketing, PR — in a much more blunt and open way than in any other Western democracy. Everywhere politicians are cynical, party politics is based on constant trades, and so on. Okay, that’s the bad face of politics. Usually you can find some differences between these politicians and these parties. But unfortunately I’m less and less sure of this. Democracy is in a deep crisis everywhere. So, this second step is to criticize what is going on in the public sphere, this instrumental logic of communication, and help bring substance back into politics.
And the third step is to reinvent society. We ask, “Why do people accept this? They know that what they get in politics is shit. So, why do they tolerate it? Why don’t they organize a social movement like Solidarity?” I never compare what we have now to what we had before. I’m not stupid. Of course, I prefer what we have now. But why do people accept the largest inequalities in Europe in a country that had the largest social movement in the history of Europe? After some research into this, we realized that we more or less share the same problems as the West, but we have much less social capital.
When individualism came here, it came to a country with very weak social institutions. It produced a lot of anomie. Which makes us not a society but something like a modern state of nature where everyone is fighting everyone else. People are alone. The basic attitude of someone today is: in a situation that is less and less perfect, I’d rather compete with other people to adapt to this worsening situation than try to organize people around me to make the situation better. What has changed from the Solidarity period is that people don’t trust each other any more. At that time, they would risk engaging with other people. They’d risk something together to get something better. Today, they’d rather fight for a diminishing number of social goods.
We decided with Krytyka to organize a network of institutions that would shape engaged attitudes, to make people stronger. We would organize people and teach them how to organize. We would start to organize them in different parts of Poland. Our ambition was not to stay in Warsaw. We immediately went outside Warsaw. We decided not to stay in Poland and not to go to the West where everything’s okay, but to go East, where this work is needed. So we immediately went to Ukraine in 2007-8. I would use the metaphor of a factory. We wanted to be a factory of social groups. We created institutions like cultural centers, cultural clubs, a publishing house. We publish 50 books a year and each book is a social act. Each book is accompanied by many actions, many discussions, workshops, a public campaign.
Our aim is to change social attitudes. I’m not interested in the exact results of the next elections. Of course I’m interested, but who wins won’t make that much difference. I’m more interested in struggling to push as many people as possible in this country to be ambitious enough and strong enough to fight for a larger stake than the realists will tell you is possible. The realists will tell you to vote for anyone who will be against Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc or PiS). That’s the horizon of Polish politics, of mainstream media, of the general public. We are interested in a bit more ambitious goal. We understand why it’s not possible in contemporary politics. But that doesn’t make us any less engaged in organizing people who will be the next chapter in the history of the Polish intelligentsia. Remember: the Polish opposition of the 1970s, before Solidarity started, was never massive. It was at most 3,000 people. That’s what Krytyka Polityczna is now.
You need this kind of social glue if you want this world to have social movements. The problem with Occupy and the indignados was the lack of social glue. They could organize social protests but not social movements. Because of a lack of trust, there was a lack of leadership and the lack of an agenda. To create social ties today, we no longer have any isms. In this social matrix, in the basic attitudes that people have, there would be no socialism or Christianity: God is dead, socialism is dead, Nietzsche and Foucault are dead. And all arguments are dead, in the sense of producing social ties. Instead of an argument, there are emotions, which produce social anger and social protest. I won’t invent a program that will produce social attitudes and organize people. Instead, what is left is the last order of things: common experience. Only action produces togetherness. If you and me cooperate to do something, in time it will produce enough trust so that we will risk something together.
That’s what we do with Krytyka. We have a very strong ethos within the organization, and that’s what we export. But it’s not going to be for the masses. It’s going to be for a limited number of people. You have to do this kind of work one person at a time. It’s very difficult, of course. But we will win, of course.
I want to make sure I understand the story about that initial article in Gazeta Wyborcza. You were a teenager when you published it?
I was 20 or 21 when I published it. I was a teenager in the sense of being naïve the way a teenager can be.
I also understand that Krytyka began more in the realm of cultural theory and then moved into an economic critique.
It’s too easy to say that. It began when I was reading books of Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron as well as books you’ve probably not heard of, like Rodowody Niepokornych [Indomitable Pedigrees] by Bohdan Cywinski, which was the scripture of the Polish intelligentsia, published in 1971. I wanted to feel the same way. I wanted my life to also be a romantic life. But I heard that this wasn’t possible for me any more. I had something better in front of me: I would be middle class with a job and lots of money. But I don’t need a lot of money! I have my trousers, my shoes. I have enough for cigarettes and books. In a few days I will have my birthday. I can’t imagine you can buy me something that I want and I don’t have. I have a limited number of things, and I don’t need anything more.
I wanted to give something to my society. I realized what Havel and Kuron were really writing about. They created a theory of small groups. That’s what KOR and Charter 77 were: very strong, energetic, tight-knit groups with a strong ethos. So, that’s what we also wanted. We heard that it was passé, that this kind of small group was not needed. Instead we should be strong egoists. The invisible hand of the market would aggregate our egoisms and produce social welfare. This was not only false, but completely unromantic. I wouldn’t give my life for this. I wouldn’t dedicate my life to this. I’m sorry: take your millions, I don’t want them or need them.
That was the first trigger. It was not a theory.
In Krytyka Polityczna, there were four different ways people came to the organization. First, there were people like me and Agata Szczerbiak and Michal Sutowski, people who were very much in love with this romantic tradition of reading books, and getting very excited over theories. It was also an engaged lifestyle; you drink a lot of vodka and you talk a lot. There is something at stake in the discussions. It was not a stupid lifestyle. Everything is “lifestyle” these days, so it sounds bad if I say ‘lifestyle.” But this was a form of engagement.
Another group was people from academia, mostly from the sociology department at Warsaw University: people who read Laclau, Mouffe, Zizek, but also people from the Bourdieu school. These people were theoretically prepared.
The third and very important group was people from the third sector, from NGOs. Remember, a part of the transition ideology was that the private sphere is the most important thing and you should realize yourself there. If you have to work outside of the private sector, then there was the third sector for you, but it had to be apolitical work. Politics was for the big boys, the people who were responsible for you and who knew what was best for Poland. As good liberals proposed, you should keep your distance from politics. The people of the third sector were continuing this tradition. They believed they could make Poland better by using methods of the third sector. There was some truth in this, but they were also disappointed by what they could do as an NGO. A lot of them came to Krytyka and created a professional structure. This is very important. We are a very professional and very competent organization. A lot of people hate us because we are always winning. It’s because of the women of the third sector. The leader of this group, Dorota Glazewska, taught us romantic boys how to work and how, if you start something, you have to finish it.
The fourth group were artists. Very soon, we realized we had to engage culture. Culture in Poland had become very apolitical. But culture is very important. Whenever we fight for independence, artists are together with activists. Culture is very engaged. Then, after we gain independence, like in 1918 or 1989, artists immediately retreat into their closed aesthetics. They didn’t have influence any more, nor were they interested in having influence. They left politics to the politicians. But politics is too interesting to leave to politicians. And it’s too dangerous to leave Polish politics to politicians.
We said to the artists that they have to be socially responsible. They have something important to say, and some things can only be said in their artistic language. They were waiting for this invitation. They immediately started to cooperate with us. They were famous and gave us a lot of cultural capital. Together we could create a great magazine, great books and actions and exhibitions. Leading Polish artists like the painter Wilhelm Sasnal joined us. Joanna Rajkowska, Artur Zmijewski, the most important critical artists, people in theater, film, and music, the older generation of artists, they all joined Krytyka. This engaging of art as a conscious project was very successful. Part of the power of Krytyka comes from this. We can count on them; they can count on us. It’s a true partnership, and it has real added value.
We’d seen two paths of the Left – one very pragmatic, one very ideological. The first replaced politics with pragmatism; the other replaced politics by morality. The first was the Social Democratic Party. The second was this plankton of three-member groups. There were thousands of these, and they were in the same position now that they’d been in ten years ago. These small groups were haters. They really hated each other, and that was the only way to signal their existence. We did not want to replace politics with anything, either with pragmatism or morality, because neither of these changed anything. We tried to reinvest what we got into the public.
Remember: Krytyka was immediately successful. Our first magazine sold double its initial circulation. There were reviews in all the newspapers. We had a voice immediately. Of course we were not as strong as we are now. But we could immediately speak loudly, which was very important for families and other groups who were kept on the margins. We tried to reinvest this popularity into institutional capital. Each year we created a new institution. In 2006, it was our first cultural center in Warsaw, in 2007 the publishing house, in 2008 the network of clubs, in 2009 three more cultural centers in Lodz, the tri-city area, and Cieszyn. Then, of course, we created a newspaper, the institute for advance study, Ukrainian Krytyka, Russian Krytyka.
I want to ask about the open letter that brought together 200-plus intellectuals as an intervention into Polish politics on European Union issues. Why was that such a successful tactic? Also, the EU represents a paradox for the Left: it embodies many of the social democratic politics that the Left has fought for over the decades and yet at the same time it represents the same kind of anti-Romantic bourgeois focus on material wealth and bureaucracy. These two visions of Europe have collided.
Which was why it was so important to engage on this issue and write an open letter! Ten years ago, the EU had a chance to be a bit different and have a constitution. We wouldn’t have such a strong crisis if we had an EU constitution. With a constitution would have come a united fiscal policy, and the decision-making process probably would have been much easier. We would have something more politically integrated than what we have now. What we have now can collapse because of this lack of constitution. Somehow, at that time, we felt this: not that we would have a crisis but tertium non data, that we could not stand still. Either we stepped forward or we would fall backward. We had to react. Poland unfortunately was the spoiler. It was fighting with all of Europe. At first only Spain supported us, but then not even Spain wanted to support our position. And why was Poland fighting against Europe? For two stupid reasons. The preamble to the proposed constitution contained no direct reference to Christianity, only religion in general. The second was that Germany would have more voice in a democratic decision-making process and we couldn’t support that because we were afraid of Germany.
A couple years ago Foreign Minister Sikorsi, who was our enemy at the time of the Nice Treaty battle, said that it was better for Poland if Germany were stronger not weaker. But everyone was laughing at us at the time. And when we wrote our Open Letter, nobody wanted to publish it. I sent it to the foreign press, and Le Monde, El Pais, and Suddeutsche Zeitung all published it. Only then did Gazeta Wyborcza and Rzeczpospolita publish it. Adam Michnik was upset. He told me, “You should come and drink a bottle of vodka and I’ll explain to you why you’re wrong.” Now no one remembers. We were against “Nice or death,” which was supported by all Polish parties, by Michnik, by everyone. In Le Monde, in the same issue, you will find our letter on the first page, and Michnik’s response, a text on “why we fight for Nice,” on page 14. That was our first symbolic victory over Adam Michnik.
It was a very important lesson for us. First, you can enter big politics with just a good idea, a pencil, and sheet of paper. Another was that until that time, Krytyka was a magazine that would present different voices, but rather old voices. The idea behind it was liberal: to show that dialogue is possible. It was like the Habermas idea of ideal speech. But when we did the action with the letter, we realized that it was much more productive to have your own voice and trigger a reaction to it. That creates real dialogue.
Another important thing was that when we presented our ideas to the broader public, people supported it. Before, in the public polls, 90 percent of people supported the Nice Treaty against the European constitution project. After our letter, there was a strong discussion in Poland and some very strong reactions, like when Lech Kaczynski wanted to hang me. But also Aleksander Kwasniewski wanted to meet the people who signed the letter in the presidential palace, and that was transmitted to all the media.
I was 22 or 23 at the time. I had my first suit, which I bought with my mother at a local shop. I had to speak on behalf of the biggest Polish names, like Zygmunt Bauman and others. I was really afraid at that time. It was my first meeting with Kwasniewski.
But the most important thing was that when we put our ideas in the spectrum, people could choose. They can’t choose you if you are not there. They can only support what is in the spectrum. It was 50-50 on the treaty before our letter, and then it became 90-10 in the public polls. It’s not always that you can so easily change an international situation. It wasn’t only the letter. But we were the trigger. We knew that we had to have our own voice. We didn’t need to have reservations.
So, why did Krytyka emerge in Poland and not elsewhere in the region?
It’s very Eastern European what we do. It can happen in Ukraine, or a bit differently in Russia. But it couldn’t happen in Bulgaria or Romania. People wanted us there. People like Ivan Krastev found us very early. Eight years ago, Krastev came to our first office and invited us to Bulgaria. I went there five times. I was in all of these countries. But we decided to Krytyka would work only when there is a tradition. Here we would agree with communitarians: you have to base on what is in the culture. In Poland, there are beautiful traditions. But the most surprising thing is that our first adversaries were people representing that tradition. The ones who inspired us were also the ones we had to struggle against.
I would have expected a similar organization in Prague or Budapest. But it hasn’t happened.
Well, it’s possible. A very important inspiration for us was Havel. I’m really jealous they had a leader like Havel. But there are other people there, and it could happen there. It’s happened there before. We cooperate with Advojka in the Czech Republic, which is an engaged group. We have lot of comrades there. After I finish here at Harvard, I will probably go as a visiting lecturer to Charles University, where they invited me. I don’t think that it’s an accident one of our headquarters is in Cieszyn, exactly on the border with Czech Republic. When we have problems with the Polish government, maybe we’ll push it more into the Czech Republic.
How do you look at what’s happening in the Catholic Church? I understand you have a more optimistic view…
Only because of Pope Francis. I think the Church in Poland hates him more than the feminists. My big hope is this pope. He could be a really revolutionary. He’s very brave. What I’m studying at Harvard is the New Testament. This is the most important seminar for me. I don’t think the Left or socialism or social democracy would be possible without Christianity. These are based on the matrix of Christianity. I’m a complete atheist. I don’t think I will ever believe in any god. I know that the role of religion — of Jesus Christ and St. Paul and other religious figures – has been very positive and can be very positive. But the Polish Catholic Church unfortunately hasn’t play a very positive role in the last two centuries.
Poles forget that all of our biggest nationalist writers were on the Catholic index: Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Slowacki, everybody. The popes excommunicated all the leaders of the Polish uprisings in the 19th century. The Church was a supporter of the status quo. Poles don’t know that. They only think that Church played the role of opposition, which is also only part of the story. Yes, the Church played a positive role during the struggle against the Communists. Sometimes, though, it played an opportunistic role. Still, the Polish Church can be better. I have, I am, and I will support the young Catholic generation in the Church, because I hope it will help my country do better. I never support automatic thinking that something must be bad forever. I don’t think that’s leftist.
I want to come back to your relationship with Adam Michnik. Your trajectory has some similarities to Michnik’s – what you read, the tradition you come out of, the positions you take now compared to his early positions, what he wrote on the Church. It’s an interesting push-pull relationship. Have you reflected on this relationship?
It’s a complicated story, of course. Michnik was the first to recognize Krytyka. When the first issue came out, the next day Adam called me and invited me over. You know how Adam can seduce you. But I knew that if I want to be ambitious, if I want to realize my mission, I can’t be just a yes man and say, “Adam, you’re great.” That’s not my role. And I wouldn’t find respect in his eyes. What was disappointing was that he unfortunately would have respected me more if I’d been a yes man. I thought he was tougher, that he would be more okay with criticism. That was the case when he was criticized by the Right – and it’s easy to be criticized by the Right. But it’s not easy to be criticized from a position based on same ethos.
People will tell you, “Hey come on, of course they respect each other, they are only talking like that.” But I am disappointed because I suspect that Adam cannot accept partners. You must be either Czeslaw Milosz or soldiers in his army. And I didn’t want to be a soldier. Of course Adam respects me, that’s what I always hear. We have spent so many hours in discussion, also in public discussions. I was more optimistic.
My message has been: if you want democracy in Poland, you need a Left, not a hardcore Left, not an extreme Left, but just a boring European social democratic Left. I had same discussion with George Soros. I told him from the beginning, “Mr. Soros, I have to be honest with you. I’m a critic of the concept of open society. I don’t know who will vote for a closed society. Therefore, it’s not a democratic proposition. People will use the open society costume to delegitimize their adversaries and at the same time hide their own position. They will say, “I disagree with you because you are closed and I am open.” This is dishonest. They used this in my region. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you divide people into correct and wrong, it’s just a question of time before wrong will win. Viktor Orban, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Vladimir Meciar: we have all these right-wing backlashes because we already described them before they even took over. People vote for them because they feel disrespected. Soros respected me for that. He said, “I partly agree with this criticism.” Probably it was not the first time he heard this. But Adam would not respect this kind of message.
I told Adam, “Don’t tell them they are fascists, because you will make them into fascists.” And he said, “But I know them. I remember them from 1968. I know those people. They will never change. In Poland, there will always be a large number of nationalists. All the discussions about it are just a waste of time and energy.” I thought this argument was too simple. But maybe it is this simple. If you look at the nationalists now, I’m afraid that Adam might be right. I hope that he would partly agree with me and I would partly agree with him. He has also changed his mind a bit, and he’s not so conservative as he was before.
Everyone talked about the Brave New World café when I was in Warsaw as if it represented a golden age of culture. Was that something you imagined before it started?
It’s great that it’s so mythologized, and maybe I shouldn’t criticize it. The cafe was a condition of the city authorities. We were not about doing coffee, that wasn’t our sport, so to speak. But we had to do it. If we were going to have a cultural center in a place where there was always a famous Polish restaurant, we had to make it into a cafe. And we did it, quite successfully. But it was also horrible for us. It was a hard business, and it created many problems. A lot of us were very happy when it was finished.
Now we have an even larger headquarters. More people come to us. Before we had the largest restaurant in Warsaw. There were thousands of people every day, every week, every month. Not most of them, but a lot of came just to have drink and go. Now we also have thousands of people, and you have big events every day in four different halls. We have 20 offices, five public halls, and there’s something happening all the time. So, there’s no problem in terms of how many people are coming. The golden era is not dead. The golden era is ahead! We had a great location before, but we have a good location now also.
We have to rent it privately. Every capital city in the West would take us. We produce 1,500 events a year. We organize a budget by ourselves. We spend a lot of money in taxes. But in Poland, we have to rent privately. There are people in Berlin who would like to transport all of Krytyka there. Of course we would not do that.
And the former location of the Brave New World café stands empty.
Why did they close it?
I don’t know. I never assume that someone has bad intentions. It’s naive to assume that half the nation has good intention and half has bad intentions.
You do get people to come in by accident at a cafe.
Maybe. But we have so many possibilities to attract people and catch them. We still do it very efficiently. Perhaps even more efficiently.
The play by Kommuna about you, did you end up seeing it?
They made two of them. I only agreed to see the last show.
How was it?
It’s not for me to assess it.
Were you surprised that they did it?
Well, yes, of course. But remember: I was also in a film trilogy by Yael Bartana called And Europe Will Be Stunned, which represented Poland at the Venice Biennale. For this film, I wrote the script and played the main role in the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland. It’s the most famous thing about Krytyka. It played at the Tate Modern, in all the important museums in the world. It was described in The New York Times. Ten books have been written about it. My monument, five feet high, is still standing in one of the squares in Warsaw. I hope it’s no longer there, but someone told me about it. It was part of the screenplay.
Was that your first acting experience?
Yes, and I hope it will be my last. I had to drink so much vodka. I had to give a speech to the empty bleachers at the Polish national stadium. It was the last event at the national stadium before it was destroyed.
I talked with the sociologist Maciej Gdula who argued that the key question for Poland is which way the middle class will lean – in solidarity with the working class or in league with the wealthy class. What’s your opinion?
Yes, he’s one of the key academics who has joined KP. For me, it is a bit complicated. I don’t really agree that we can have such an easy division between the middle class and other classes. I don’t think the borders of the middle class yet exist. It was a dream of Poland’s founding fathers to have a middle class. But the problem with the middle class is that the idea of freedom has been privatized. People were supposed to keep their problems with abortion and sexual minorities in the private sphere. They have no habit of supporting it in the public. Gays would consistently vote for Civic Platform even though Civic Platform never supported their ideas — because Gays were not thinking politically about freedom.
Another interesting idea about the middle class comes from Andrzej Leder, one of the lecturers in our institute. We had a strange social revolution in Poland in that we’re not conscious that it was made by Germans, Soviets, and also Poles. We lost our eastern part, where we had our identity. Adam Mickiewicz was never in Krakow or Warsaw. Tadeusz Konwicki, Czeslaw Milosz, not to mention Slowacki, all the big names are from this eastern part. The most beautiful Polish cities are Lwow and Vilno. They are not in Poland and will never be again. This killed our noble tradition. And it created a new tradition of middle class, though this was made by foreign hands with some help from Poles. Also there was the Holocaust: the first generation of Polish middle class was based in part on what Jews formerly owned. Even if Poles won’t immediately admit, we are co-responsible for the situation of Jews.
As you pointed out, in Poland, there is a post-Communist party, a libertarian party, but no independent Left party. Krytyka made a conscious decision not to create a political party. As you said, it’s a mistake to assume that what is now will always be. But what are the conditions in which a Left party could emerge?
I don’t believe that the party system will revive. In the contemporary social situation, the party system is not a good idea for liberal democracy. It began some time ago, and it will soon come to an end. That’s why it looks the way it looks. There was a government shutdown here in the United States. Did it have any political reason, or was it just an empty fight? Why was it an empty fight? Maybe because any other political struggle is not possible? Why do you have these cultural wars here? Because other problems cannot be articulated any more by parties.
Why have Zapatero, Hollande, and Obama been such a disappointment? Well, Obama and America are a different story because you can still choose your economic story. But other countries can’t choose. If you as a leftist politician gets power and tries to realize a social democratic policy — if you just read Keynes and want to have larger deficit, raise taxes, and have better public services in order to trigger economic growth – it just won’t happen. Capital will go to another country because of the higher taxes. The credit rating agency will immediately lower your rating. You will pay more for your debts. You will be immediately destroyed. Either you accept the very small room for maneuver that you have, which doesn’t give you much choice, or you lose. You can change politicians, but you can’t change policies. It makes the party system empty. The ghost is not there anymore. I don’t think the party system can be sustained in this position.
That is one of the reasons why we won’t go there. Parties don’t work, socially or intellectually. Krytyka does a lot of things. We don’t want to exchange that for a stupid TV series. If you unplug the three major TV stations in Poland, you won’t have any politics any more. I want to do something ambitious. I can’t do that in party politics. It would just be stupid quarrels. You might say: you can be more honest, more substantial. But no, if I did that, I would lose! Put Vaclav Havel into an election today and he would lose.
We’ve changed many things in Poland. For instance, we changed the laws on narcotics. We had a very conservative law in Poland that automatically put people in prison if anything was found on them. It was the criminalization of the young generation. Then, when they were released from prison, they were real bandits. Now the law is different. Did any political party change this? No! It was a coalition of NGOs that changed it. What did the ruing party change over the last five years? All the major changes were pushed by NGOs. Politics takes place today between NGOs and the ministries, not between the ruling and opposition parties. So, why should I go there?
Krytyka has a foothold in Ukraine and Russia. Do you see a kind of common cause emerge in the region of Eastern Europe, including the former Soviet states, for a number of reasons: economic position relative to the rest of Europe, common background and experience in the 20th century, similar history of the intelligentsia and a Left movement prior to 1945. Do you see a common interest emerging from that?
Perhaps for my generation. I hope that my generation is as well plugged into the East European network as was the generation of the former dissidents. It gave an added value that Adam Michnik and Vaclav Havel were together. They supported one another. All those people were really concerned about the situation outside their countries. Czeslaw Milosz cared about Baltics, Michnik cared about Middle Europe.
The country that is crucial for Krytyka is Ukraine. Ukraine should also be crucial for the West, but it has been neglected (though I hope it’s changing now). Polish foreign policy is based on an important doctrine created by Jerzy Giedroyc, the Polish prince of the émigrés, the founder of Kultura in Paris. He said that there will be no independent Poland without independent Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania. We should have the best possible relations with Russia but not at the price of those countries. I would add: we will never have a democratic Russia without a Europeanized Ukraine. The place of Ukraine is in Western Europe. I worked there. And I worked in Russia. I love both those people. Russia is organized differently, but Ukrainians are exactly the same as us. They have the same cultural capital. I don’t see any real reasons why Ukrainians can’t be in the same room as Germans, French, Spaniards, and Poles. That should be the main aim for Poland – and for Europe, too, if Europe wants to be strong.
Look at history: whenever Russia grabs Ukraine, the imperial tradition there wins and nationalist ideas dominate. When Ukraine has power to be independent and can be in Europe, then immediately more democratic ideas will have a chance to be represented in Russia. Ukraine is crucial both for democracy in Russia and for the EU to be completed as a project. This iron curtain on the eastern border of Poland should be taken down as soon as possible. That should be our common aim.
Have you changed your mind significantly about anything over the last couple decades?
Yes, I have second thoughts about everything. I am more modest about everything, and I think that’s okay.
I know that the terms “Left” and “Right” can be only a shorthand, a symbol, nothing more. I don’t want to be held hostage to these words. They can mean so many different things. I don’t see much sense in quarreling about this.
Today someone asked me on Twitter why I’m identified at The New York Times as a liberal. I said because, in the United States, Left is liberal. I also said, “Don’t be a hostage to words.” I want the Left to be engaged, ambitious, based on an ethic of altruism, community, togetherness, trust. If that is the Left, then I am a leftist. If it’s not, I don’t give a fuck: you can take away the word “Left” and I don’t care. You can call me Right, green, orange, whatever. People spend too much energy on such stupid struggles.
Also, I would say that I am more and more principled. The more bad experiences I have, the more attacked we are, the more I want us to be honest. I am trying to keep us out of any hating. Sometimes I quarrel with my friends. They say, “Do you want us to be Jesuses?” Yes! I know it’s painful to be strongly attacked so often. That’s why I don’t want us to inflict the same experience onto others. We are not interested in fighting for fighting’s sake. We’re not interesting in killing, in destruction. I don’t want to destroy anybody. I will never tell you that I want to destroy my adversaries because they are such horrible people. I can criticize and discuss. But I don’t want anyone to feel pain because of me. I am now stricter about this. I can pay the price of being inefficient. If I will lose in politics because of it, I’m okay with this. I can lose. That’s something I’m much more certain of now than ever before.
Cambridge, October 17, 2013