A book prematurely born
A review of the book Our Man in Warszawa: How the West Misread Poland. By: Jo Harper. Publisher: Central European University Press, Budapest-New York, 2021.
Witty, irritating, and refreshingly irreverent, Jo Harper’s recent book stands out among the admittedly modest collection of books about contemporary Polish politics. Its copious quotations are well documented: a rare phenomenon in journalistic writings about Poland, the writings that usually turn around a few terms that unequivocally condemn before documenting, analysing, or asking for a second opinion. Harper tries to analyse and occasionally drops such names as Gérard Bouchard and Pierre Bourdieu, to show that his attempts to explain PiS and its enemies are not based solely on the work of stringers.
The book covers the post-communist period of Polish history, with emphasis on the last few years of political infighting and the remarkable economic growth under PiS. It surveys contemporary Polish politics as presented by the left-leaning political scientists and historians in Poland and Britain, including the 2019 and 2020 elections. The last part consists of quotations and assessments of Polish politics by British journalists. The author notes that the desire to write his book originated in irritation at the banalities within which the British press has tried to encapsulate Polish affairs. Perhaps the author has bitten more than he can chew: a short book can handle either a comparison between Poland and Britain or an analysis of Polish politics, but not both. While reading it, I often felt that the book was prematurely born.
Harper’s credo includes an awareness that we live in an epoch of “post-truth”. He does however believe that facts still exist. Good. Many British and Polish writers Harper refers to do not let facts get in their way. This fundamental ability allows him to deconstruct the largely superficial commentary on Poland in the Guardian, Financial Times, The Economist, The Times, or The New Statesman. He is less good at identifying the faults of the major media in Poland. He obviously failed to establish contact with PiS intellectuals, academics and journalists, and his sources are invariably the largely foreign-owned media in Poland. Thus his story is, in spite of his efforts to make it objective, one-sided. There is no room in this review to take issue with all the problems which one-sidedness brings; I will only mention a few as examples.
Harper describes the split in the Solidarity movement and the Round Table agreements that followed it. Dubbed “the thick line” (gruba kreska) by the first post-communist Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, these agreements privileged the former communists who had the organisational resources and experience that members of Solidarity lacked. The agreements naïvely (or cleverly?) assumed that the communists and their foreign sponsors would withdraw and cease meddling in Poland’s politics. Or perhaps it was worded in such a way as to ensure precisely the outcome all too visible today? Harper does not explore ambivalence of the Round Table accords or differences between them and the “change of guard” in Britain, where the discovery of the “Cambridge Five” and Anthony Blunt’s confession became the infamy of the century. A country from which the Soviet military forces reluctantly withdrew as late as 1991, remained honeycombed with individuals and institutions set up to make it fail. Mazowiecki’s gruba kreska was thus naïve at best, and treacherous at worst. Neither the British press nor its critic Jo Harper perceive the implications of this situation. Furthermore, Polish tolerance of a variety of points of view has nothing to do with Karl Popper’s open society and a great deal to do with the tradition of Polish republicanism, not to speak of the Catholic social teaching. One perceives in this book an excessive reliance on periodicals such as East European Politics and Societies and Polityka in forming the author’s view of Poland.
Another example can be seen in the author’s take on the phenomenon of Solidarity. Harper treats it as if it were a joint worker-intellectual enterprise where workers provided the muscle and intellectuals created the programme. This is also a standard interpretation in the English-speaking countries and in circles associated with the Polish left. This interpretation was invalidated by, among others, Lawrence Goodwyn’s Breaking the Barrier: The Rise of Solidarity in Poland (Oxford 1991). Goodwyn conclusively demonstrated that Warsaw intellectuals had little to do with the conception and development of Solidarity. Scholars and students in Poland associated with the publishing house Teologia Polityczna are now trying to return to the roots of Solidarity and reconstruct its true image and inspiration. But neither Goodwyn nor Teologia Polityczna weigh in in Harper’s narrative. Instead, Harper’s authorities are the American political scientist David Ost, the notoriously ideologised Brian Porter-Szücs, and other left-leaning sources. Harper’s subsequent narrative is therefore grounded in an erroneous interpretations proposed by his sources. The uniqueness of the Solidarity is shuffled aside, and second-hand information provided by post-communist Warsaw intellectuals and American academics becomes the foundational narrative.
In Harper’s defence it should be said that the narrative he unwittingly perpetuates has been widely approved by academic interpreters in Poland and abroad, from scholarly works to Wikipedia. The attribution to intellectuals of both tactics and strategy of Solidarity and bypassing the crucial role of Catholic social teaching and of Christianity generally (remember those confessionals magically springing up in the Gdańsk shipyard?) are standard practice. Harper aims at impartiality, but he falls victim to those whose position of ideological power allows them to create narratives that adhere to their theories rather than to the facts.
For similar reasons Harper misinterprets the issue of the “five hundred zloty monthly for each child”. He calls it “redistribution” and a “handout,” ignoring the fact that 80 per cent of Polish society live in what by American standards is deep poverty caused not only by low wages and zero inheritance for generations, but also by the absence of infrastructure that Western Europeans and Americans take for granted. It is enough to compare the quality and number of square meters of habitable space in Western Europe and in the formerly Soviet-occupied nations to see that unless one’s goal is Poland’s demographic and cultural shrinkage, some kind of dramatic help was overdue at the time PiS announced the five-hundred-zloty “handout.”
Terms like “populist” and “authoritarian” are used throughout without offering empirical evidence. As a recent tweet (by Marcus Kranz) has suggested, the last authoritarian ruler of Poland was General Jaruzelski. Not a single representative of the conservative ruling party (PiS) is given coverage in this book without being filtered through the ideology of PiS’s opponents. Harper quotes Sławomir Sierakowski but not Zdzisław Krasnodębski; Ireneusz Krzemiński but not Andrzej Zybertowicz. Tygodnik Powszechny is mentioned several times, but not Arcana or Sieci. One feels that the author has never met the conservative intellectuals of Poland and has never read the periodicals in which they publish. Ryszard Legutko’s Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies (Encounter 2016) plays no role in interpreting the attitudes of Polish and American academics to Polish realities. Andrzej Nowak’s numerous articles in scholarly journals and in the media are totally ignored. The same can be said about professors Andrzej Waśko, Krzysztof Koehler, Aleksander Nalaskowski; politicians Konrad Szymański and Jacek Saryusz-Wolski; political thinkers Bronisław Wildstein and the brothers Karnowski; journalists Cezary Gmyz, Jakub Maciejewski, Stanislaw Janecki, Aleksandra Rybińska, Marcin Wikło, Aleksander Majewski, Marzena Paczuska, Marek Pyza and others. Finally, Harper seems unaware that Poland modernised and developed economically under PiS while it stagnated under the previous Civic Platform (PO). In February 2021 Poland had the lowest unemployment in Europe. The IMF raised the expectation of Polish growth in 2021 to 3.5 per cent from 3.2 percent. On March 27th 2021, Der Tagesspiegel wrote about the “Polish economic miracle”. Surely such facts should be taken into account when assessing the current government.
I do not blame Harper for these omissions and mistakes. The postcommunist reality is such that a foreign national arriving in Poland as a student, scholar, or journalist, will most likely be embraced by the strongly leftist and proactive intellectual milieu, rather than by the somewhat reticent conservative one. This is particularly true of universities and the media. But, to use François Thom’s words, these intellectual centres increasingly “defend ideology against the unwelcome attacks of reality”.
In spite of the shortcomings outlined above, I welcome this book as one of the few foreign-authored books on Poland that does not patronise or adopt a Besserwissenschaft attitude. Its critique of the British press writing about Poland is right on target.
Ewa Thompson is a research professor of Slavic Studies and the former chairperson of the Department of German and Slavic Studies at Rice University.