Revolution, Democracy, and Restoration Revisited


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July 11, 2018

Revolution, Democracy, and Restoration Revisited

In Poland and beyond

By Elzbieta Matynia

  • Communism
  • Democracy
  • History
  • Poland
  • Politics

In opposition to the threat to democracy in Poland today, Lech Walesa is calling for a united front against the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), reviving a citizens committee he led 30 years ago in the democratic struggle against Communist dictatorship. Here the second of two pieces considers the broader significance of the formation of the new committee – Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, Public Seminar Publisher

To be sure, the time is out of joint, and we feel as lost as Hamlet does when he bursts out: Oh, that ever I was born to set it right! Indeed, things appear not as they ought to, and one wonders how to set them rightAlthough this is a view from afar, painted in broad strokes, it is an attempt to address the sense of helplessness so many of us feel in the current situation, no matter where we are. Familiar terms that framed various historical realities and guided our thinking about the present have lost their illuminating power. Revolution is not the revolution we know from Marx or even Arendt; ancien regime does not necessarily reflect the bloody rule of French kings or Russian czars; but now — it seems to me — counterrevolution and restoration no longer have to be about the return of a previous, despotic power.

The ominous-sounding phrase ancien regime might just refer — after all — to the achievements of a democratic revolution in which a popularly-elected sovereign replaced one dictator and is now being challenged by yet another one. In such a situation restoration acquires a non-reactionary, enlightened connotation. And so — after centuries of associating restoration with tyranny — can we not start thinking of restoration in positive, progressive, even radical terms, as an urgent process that aims at reinstating a full-fledged, active democracy? Isn’t this something we ought to consider — and fast?!

Here is an invitation from the seasoned leader of a famous workers’ uprising, speaking only recently at the European Solidarity Center erected at the site of the legendary Gdansk shipyard:

We cannot take it easy now — we have to go into serious battle once again. I do not have to convince anybody in this group that this is a matter of the utmost urgency. What we fought so hard for, and wo — as you know — is being destroyed from inside, on the national level, as well as from the outside. We have to summon all our strength in order to recover everything that we have been losing through [[our own]] inattention and negligence. [i]

The Un-revolution Revolution

So there was that revolution. Not a mere rebellion, but a revolution — a fundamental change of the political order. It was 29 years ago, in 1989, that a new kind of revolutionary imaginary emerged, one that promised a new beginning, and demonstrated the possibility of comprehensive systemic change without bloodshed. Velvet” or otherwise seen as un-radical — this kind of revolution has become a site of tangible hope, a site in which words have power, where people regain their dignity, and realize their agency through instruments other than weapons. Negotiated revolution sounds like an oxymoron, but that was an extraordinary event, since dictatorships are presumed by definition to oppose any spirit of dialogue and compromise.

Yet, 29 years ago, under the enormous pressure exerted by society, the authoritarian regime agreed to talk with its subjects. To prepare for the talks, the shipyard electrician who had become the workers’ leader — and was now already a Nobel Peace Prize laureate — organized a Citizens’ Committee made up of 135 highly respected members of the public: trade unionists, workers, scholars, artists. Six weeks of citizens’ negotiations with the ruling party, known as the Roundtable talks, conducted in the spring of 1989, had all of Poland watching with suspended breath. In the context of a still-dictatorial power that, even if no longer robust, still seemed clearly irreversible, the citizens’ stance was — strikingly — both radical and moderate at the same time. In the broader context of a state that lacked any democratic institutions and processes, this was a remarkable event in which the promise of freedom was already squarely inherent in the revolutionary action called “the talks.” The speech-based performative capacities employed at the Roundtable by the citizens’ side moved the negotiations towards a non-violent, radical break with its own soon-to-be ancien regime.

In the end, the Communist government agreed to hold elections, the first real — though only partially free — elections in Poland in nearly half a century. The voting participation was massive, and the citizens’ side won all of the available seats in Parliament. The Communist Party clearly had not expected such a smashing defeat, and it was not clear what the reaction of party hardliners, the police, and the army would be. Uncannily, perhaps because the regime was certain it could not lose the elections, the intricate process of the Roundtable negotiations appears — at least in retrospect — to illustrate one of the key democratic principles: a minimum of coercion and a maximum of consent.

This revolution created the first opening in the entrenched system of Soviet power in the region, and gave encouragement to Poland’s neighbors, so that soon thereafter the “Fall of the Nations” began throughout the region. No agreements, no settlements seemed needed there. Communism in the region appeared to just collapse on its own. The Berlin Wall went down. A radical break with the past was accomplished.

The counterrevolutionary narrative launched

To be sure, democracy is an agonistic space, a site for tensions and disagreements, where dogmas are confronted, prejudices challenged, and consensus is not a given. The always present agon fosters robust democracy. What’s concealed, unrepresented, and unseen is there to undermine it.

A counterrevolutionary narrative was set in motion almost as soon as the Roundtable talks were over. Injurious rumors (Robespierre wants to be King, Walesa was a secret-police informer) are designed to undermine the integrity of the revolution and the sincerity of the new beginning. The Polish negotiated revolution of 1989 was quickly declared incomplete, the Roundtable was deemed a plot of the two elites, and since it was a betrayal, all foundational work that followed was crooked: the revolutionary change was not radical enough as there cannot be a real revolution without real revenge. Those who sought consensus through dialogue were despised as an unsavory residue after Communism. In this narrative, the ancien regime was no longer the one overturned by the Citizens’ Committee at the Roundtable talks, but the one that had launched the beginnings of democracy at that very table.

The taste for arbitrary rule and dogmatic leadership has a stronger tradition in the region than the one based on the power of argument. Two decades later, the experience of the Roundtable, effectively tarnished by the counterrevolutionary storyline, is gone. It was abandoned by the liberal leadership, which did not take enough time to listen to what hurts, nor to talk about shared problems, or even about its considerable successes. So, in 2005, counterrevolutionaries, respectably named the Law and Justice party (PiS), [ii] along with some smaller right-wing parties, won their first elections, though clashes within their coalition government led eventually to its collapse. It took another decade for PiS to win an outright majority in 2015, but this time they immediately launched a slow-motion coup. Declaring the advent of strong, compassionate leadership, and drawing its capacities from the freedoms and institutions granted by democracy, they proceeded to incapacitate it, and then to undo it step by step.

It began with silencing almost completely — though not without resistance — the parliamentary opposition in full view of television broadcasting while a large part of the public watched in disbelief. In the course of the first post-election parliamentary session, the rules of political conduct were rewritten, signaling a new un-democratic beginning. It happened at the same time that Mitch McConnell was refusing to bring Obama’s Supreme Court nominee to a vote. People were stunned. Incredulity was present; effective action was not.

It soon became clear that the agenda of the new ruling party was to be advanced by circumventing the constraints of the democratic order after dismantling its watchdogs. They moved to purge the independent judiciary, took steps to disempower civil society and to sideline the free press, while creating a climate in which Law and Justice, that isPIS, now reigns supreme. [iii] Despite many impressive marches in defense of democracy that have taken place across the country, the actual public square that was born with Solidarity and the Roundtable has been shrinking. With Parliament rubber-stamping all laws proposed by the executive branch, and with a president who is a mere servant of the party, the dissolution of the independent judiciary is likely to be fully completed before the next elections.

The Task of Restoration

That long-retired electrician from the shipyard, and first democratically-elected president of the country, Lech Walesa, never humble but often demeaned, yet with remarkable political instincts, is again summoning to the shipyard the moral authorities of the land. Since here the ancien regime is now the democratic regime that is being slowly driven out, the battle this time is not about destroying it, but restoring it. Like “Negotiated Revolution,” “Democratic Restoration” is not an oxymoron. Of course, historically, the political ideas and actions of restoration were reactionary, as they aimed at resisting the rise of democracy. But the times are out of joint.

Here comes Walesa again:

I am turning to authorities from the world of law, science, culture and media, to my comrades from the times of democratic opposition in the 1970s and 1980s, in the hope that we can take on the vital challenge of defending and further developing democracy in Poland. I’d like us to think together how to increase participation in the elections, how to ensure the honesty of the electoral act, how to monitor the preparations and the actual voting process.

This is not the first initiative to rescue democracy, [iv] but it is perhaps the most strategic one.

Walesa’s call for a second Citizens’ Committee — like the one he launched three decades ago in 1988 to prepare for the Roundtable negotiations — is focused and specific: its task is to mobilize people to guard the principle of free elections before it is too late. More precisely, it is to make sure that a whole succession of upcoming elections — from this fall’s vital elections to local self-government, through next spring’s elections to the EU Parliament, and then those in November 2019 to the Polish parliament — are all conducted in a scrupulous and fair manner, with no interference, manipulation, or coercion of any kind. A forward-looking new logo — on display when Walesa announced the new committee — reads www, which stands for woluntariusze wolnych wyborow (Volunteers for Free Elections), but echoes in its visual design the Solidarity logo.

Of course, elections alone do not make a modern democracy, but we need them to make sure we are all represented. A related challenge—not only in places that are relatively new to democracy — is the post-electoral craving for revenge. Opposition, dissent and competition are important features of democracy, yet one has to be concerned — as James Madison was — with the violence of factionalism, and what we experience today as a toxic, unbridgeable divisiveness that we absolutely must figure out how to address.

Freedom — and this is the legacy of Abbe Sieyes, architect of the 1789 French National Assembly — derives from the rights of ALL citizens. If we win the elections and find ourselves in the majority, we still have to remember that the minority has guarantees and rights inscribed in the constitution, rights that are not to be tinkered with, no matter who is in the majority.

Shall we perhaps start from scratch then, and put together a world-wide All-citizens Committee for a discussion on majority rule and minority rights, on tyranny of the majority, on uncivility in speech and conduct that has no place in a democracy? And, perhaps in the process, shall we also consider the disappearing principles of equality and solidarity? After all, we want to live in a democracy, and not in some hollow imitation of it, meekly called “illiberal.”

WWW. Citizens of the world unite! Starting, perhaps, in our towns and villages….

Elzbieta Matynia is a Professor of Sociology and Director of Transregional Center for Democratic Studies at the New School for Social Research.


[i] Lech Walesa announcing the establishment of the Citizen’s Committee with Lech Walesa, Gdansk, June 23, 2018

[ii] Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc ( PiS), in English Law and Justice, is the name of the currently ruling right-wing party in Poland

[iv] A major and massive protest movement, the Committee in Defense of Democracy was launched soon after the first attacks on the Constitutional Tribunal in late 2015.


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