EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

The Bauman Affair: A Clear and Present Danger to Democracy and Academic Freedom in Poland

On June 22nd of this year, in the city of Wroclaw, a lecture by Zygmunt Bauman was aggressively disrupted by a group of neo-fascists. When I first read about this, I was concerned, but not overly so. The extreme right has a persistent, visible, but ultimately, marginal presence on the Polish political scene, I assured myself. As a video of the event reveals, there is the other, apparently more significant, Poland that invited and wanted to listen to the distinguished social theorist speak, and cheered when the motley crew of ultra-nationalists and soccer hooligans were escorted from the lecture hall. While xenophobia and neo-fascism are threats in Eastern and Central Europe, I was pretty confident that in Poland, they were being held at bay.

But, after a recent visit to Wroclaw, I realize that I may have been wrong. While there last month, I had the occasion to talk about the “Bauman Affair” with some friends and colleagues. A highlight was around a dinner, though not a kitchen table. I am now deeply concerned not only about the event itself, but also about the political and cultural direction of Poland.

We had a lovely dinner at Hana Cervinkova and Lotar Rasinki’s home. Among the other quests were my colleagues at The New School’s Democracy and Diversity Institute, Elzbieta Matynia, Susan Yelavich, Dick Bernstein and Carol Bernstein, and Juliet Golden, a Wroclaw resident and superb observer of the material life of the city, and her husband, a distinguished craftsman, restorer of among other things of the Jewish cemetery in Wroclaw. The Wroclaw Solidarność hero, Władysław Frasyniuk, and his wife joined us, as did Sylvie Kauffmann, the former editor of Le Monde, who reported extensively around the old Soviet bloc in the 80s and 90s, and now returns as the wife of the French ambassador. The dinner followed a public discussion between him and her. Also joining us was Adam Chmielewski, who as the Chair of the Department of Social and Political Philosophy of the University of Wrocław, was one of the co-sponsors of the Bauman lecture.

All were concerned about the Bauman affair, and understood that at issue was not only the talk of a challenging professor. Adam and I had a particularly interesting exchange. I present my side of this discussion today (with which Chmielewski told me he broadly agreed). In our next posts, I will publish his two-part in depth analysis.

My concern is rather straightforward. It has less to do with the quality of the extreme right, reprehensible as it is, more to do with its relationship with the less extremist mainstream. While extremists are indeed at the margins of Polish public opinion, they are becoming more and more effective in making themselves visible to the general public and becoming more acceptable. Politicians are coming to accept the extremists’ definition of controversies and trying to take advantage of their impact, and the media, many public intellectuals and academics are following their framing of events, or at least not forcefully opposing these frames.

Thus, Bauman’s lecture was framed as a scandalous talk by a Stalinist, rather than as a presentation by a distinguished, highly creative social theorist. The disruption was considered as a problem of the legacies of communism and not as a problem concerning the fate of academic freedom in an open society.

Should a Stalinist speak became the question. The quality of Bauman’s work, the importance of his diagnoses of the problems of our times, was put aside. The debate became how the politics of a young man, of a Jewish communist, should be judged, and whether its purported influence needed to be controlled. The fact that Bauman was hounded out of Poland in the wake of an anti-Zionist wave (in that case purported anti-Zionism was really a thin guise for anti-Semitism) was not discussed. The problem of the attempt to silence a critical opinion was not the issue. Rather, the occasion of Bauman’s lecture and its disruption was used to call for the long delayed lustration, a cleansing of communist influence from Polish public life.

There was a smell of anti-Semitism in the air. It seemed that at issue is as well to rid Polish public life of Jewish influence. But perhaps that is my paranoia.

The major opposition party, PiS (Law and Justice) seems to be supportive of the actions of the extreme right, while the ruling party, PO (Civic Platform), seems to be reluctant to too forcefully denounce the right. And intellectuals and professors, even those who privately find the attacks on academic freedom repugnant, are reluctant to speak up. PiS accepts the extremists definition of the situation. PO is reluctant to oppose it, as are many others.

Indeed, PiS seriously entertains wild conspiracy theories concerning the plane crash in Smolensk, in which Poland’s president, Lech Kaczynski, along with 94 others, including major public figures and civic leaders, were killed. The political paranoia that animates the extreme right is shared by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the PiS leader, the former president’s identical twin brother, and former prime minister, who demonizes the current government as somehow implicated in “the assassination,” purportedly orchestrated by the Russians. Kaczynski has supported the “patriotic protests,” such as the one directed against Bauman, as Chmielewski reveals in his post.

My judgment: PiS seems to me to be quite extremist, though more polite than those who violently chanted against Bauman. Perhaps, Polish fascism with a human face? Probably too strong, but not by much.

Elsewhere, there is not much active direct support of neo-fascists, I trust even among many in PiS. Yet, indirect support and the absence of strong opposition is a serious problem. Thus, Chmielewski’s critique of PO in his post is especially important. He shows how the ruling party unintentionally has supported its far right critics through an apparently benign politics of bread and circuses, and how and why it is not forcefully counterattacking.

I have a playful unprofessional theory about extremism in contemporary politics. Somewhere around 20% of the citizens of just about all contemporary democracies support extreme anti-democratic, xenophobic and racist politics. If these people had their way, democracy would be fundamentally challenged. (Close to home I think of the Tea Party or at least the birthers and the clear Obama haters) The fate of democracy lies in what is done with this margin of the population. Encourage, tolerate or collaborate with this fringe, and a decent democratic politics is undermined or even lost. This is now happening in Hungary. It may happen in Poland.

A major party is in bed with the extremists. The ruling party is not forcefully opposing them. And there does not seem to be a broad civic response against this situation. It is the silence of the centrists, of the “moderates” that I find deafening. I believe, but I may be mistaken, that those on the left are speaking up, but I am not sure that they are being heard, isolated, as they are.

To end on an oblique note of deep concern: I think I see a kind of post-communist treason of intellectuals. It is particularly disturbing, and uncharacteristic of what I have long admired in Polish cultural life. While in Poland, I heard about the calculations of academics surrounding the Bauman affair. There is ambivalence about one of the most distinguished men of Polish letters, supporting him may be dangerous: to do so might compromise one’s career or lead to a weakening institutional support.  Suffice it to say that I admire and support my Polish friends who invited, listened and critically and deliberately considered Bauman’s talk, whether or not they agree with him (as by the way, I don’t on many issues of form and substance). I am disturbed by the problems my friends and colleagues face. There is a clear and present danger, and it is not the specter of communism.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

  • Pingback: Have Europeans Learned from the 20th Century for the 21st? | Public Seminar()

  • Melvina Versant

    Stop sticking your nose in other people’s business – leave us alone. Why do you love Bauman so much? is he a relative?

  • Melvina Versant

    “Don’t tread on me” – that actually summarizes the concept quite well – you have learned to identify the flag but you do not want (even consider) following its advice.

  • Melvina Versant

    “Encourage, tolerate or collaborate with this fringe, and a decent democratic politics is undermined or even lost. This is now happening in Hungary. It may happen in Poland”
    Can you define what “a decent democratic politics” is? What’s the % of decent vs of democratic? You speak in code words but everyone understands what you mean – democracy is good so long as it produces what you want – why you – someone living in the US – should concern yourself with what happens in Poland or Hungary is curious in and of itself. Would you like to be able to vote in those countries? A kind of supervoter who resides in one state but is allowed to vote for/influence governments everywhere – Our Older and Smarter Brother.

Previous post


Next post

The Aesthetics of Civil Society