The Past Is Always a Construct

“If you compare Polish textbooks with Czech Hungarian ones, I suspect that ours are no more nationalistic than theirs,” says Adam Leszczyński in an interview with Zbigniew Rokita.

ZBIGNIEW ROKITA: Peasants made up seven or eight tenths of the population of the Polish Republic for nine tenths of its existence, as I learned from your book Ludowa historia Polski [A Lower Class History of Poland]. In spite of this, we prefer to tell our past – in textbooks, in the academic world – in the heroic vein, while the lower class theme is largely absent. Why?

ADAM LESZCZYŃSKI: It is not true that people of folk background – peasants, but also workers – did not have a heroic record. The problem is rather that we glorify our past by focusing the story mainly on the elite: the nobility, and then the intelligentsia. Reducing education to such patterns is a problem, but it is a political decision. Successive governments have been making it for many decades.

In your book you warn against an elitist approach to history, but also against a nationalist approach and the reinterpretation of economic conflict in ethnic terms.

I warn against equating national interest with the interest of a certain social group. At school we learn about the heroic attitudes of the nobility without asking ourselves what the attitudes of other groups were at the time: whether these groups were interested in gaining independence or what independence meant to them. For the peasantry, independence often meant increased burdens.

If a plebiscite had been held in 1918 in the lands of the future Second Polish Republic, asking “do you want to be a citizen of the reborn Poland”, I wonder if the majority would have answered in the affirmative.

We don’t know this, but do you think that if we held such a plebiscite today, everyone would be in favour of independence?

No – I think that in Słubice, for example, the majority would prefer to live in Germany. I talk to them and many say that national interest is one thing, but economic interest is another.

Defining national interest as a common thing is often an illusion of the elite. The elite think that the national community, largely defined by the elite, is equally important to everyone. But it need not be so at all.

And are we able to change the perspective from elitist-nationalist to lower class and teach history in schools in an honest way?

But what does it mean in an honest way? The past is always a construct, and this construct is the realization of someone’s interests. One may wonder if the construct is faithful to the sources, but the sources do not always tell us the truth about the past either.

The sources have been disproportionately produced by the elite.

When you speak of honesty, you expect the impossible, and I am not even sure if it is necessary. History at school serves the purpose of shaping the citizen, which means that things are often told that are partly true and partly made up. It has always been so, ever since history was introduced to schools. If you compare Polish textbooks with Czech or Hungarian ones, I suspect that ours are not more nationalistic; we live in a region where the nationalistic idea is still dominant. Your question betrays an idealistic belief that there is an objective truth that can be conveyed to people – and on top of that, that it can be done at school when talking to seven-year-olds.

History at school is and always has been an instrument of nationalistic politics. We can try to tell students something different, but it will still be a political instrument.

So we are doomed to spinning fairy tales in schools.

But that’s the point of school, that’s what it was invented for. History at school is and always has been an instrument of nationalistic politics. We can try to tell students something different, we can emphasize that gender equality is important, that we used to be a diverse society and I am in favor of that, but it will still be a political instrument.

To what extent did Polish historiography manage to explore the topic of lower class history in the People’s Republic of Poland?

On the one hand a lot was done, but on the other hand the publications of the time have a number of flaws. These include squeezing history into a Marxist framework, ideologizing it and presenting the peasant and working classes only as rebels or as repressed. Little space was devoted to other strategies such as cooperation. Another flaw is seeing the upper classes as mere monsters and ignoring the economic rationality of the system of oppression.

The interest in lower class history was not equally prominent throughout the communist period. Since the mid-1960s it was clearly declining. I would associate this with the effects of Edward Gierek’s policies and a preference for nationalism as traditionally understood.

And what is the most important thing we have to rework in Polish history today? There’s probably still a discussion to be had, for example, about the authoritarianism of the Second Republic and its attitude toward the minorities.

I don’t think the authoritarianism of the Second Republic needs to be reworked. It was such an obvious phenomenon that it takes a lot of effort not to notice it.

Today, the public and school version of history boils down to Catholic and noble elites leading the Polish nation through vicissitudes of history in the teeth of foreigners who wanted to do harm to this nation.

You are answering from the perspective of a historian, while I was asking about memory: Józef Pilsudski’s authoritarianism is not at all obvious to the average person.

Indeed, history and historical policy are two different things. If we talk about memory, the list is very long. Today, the public and school version of history boils down to Catholic and noble elites leading the Polish nation through vicissitudes of history in the teeth of foreigners who wanted to do harm to this nation. That is all, there is nothing more to the story.

And does the story change over time, does it become more honest?

Not at all. The story of the past is increasingly fragmented, everyone tells their own story.

When I read your peasant and working-class history and the “History of Poland” by Andrzej Nowak, a conservative historian, I don’t see many points in common. You do not mention the Baptism of Poland or the Battle of Grunwald, while for Nowak these are milestones.

It’s interesting, because we write about the same country and the same society. But the conservative-nationalist tendency in Poland definitely dominates, especially when it comes to more ancient history. Go to the historical book fair in Warsaw and you will see how many books on martyrdom, heroism, battles, uprisings, and armies are published.

At the same time, I see a growing revival of interest in the lower classes. A new perspective, for example, is the gender approach and the description of women’s history. The other thing is that trends present in the West for decades are reaching Poland with resistance and delay.

Go to the historical book fair in Warsaw and you will see how many books on martyrdom, heroism, battles, uprisings, and armies are published. At the same time, I see a growing revival of interest in the lower classes.

Is this immersion in martyrdom a Polish speciality?

I’m not familiar enough with the historiographies of the neighbouring countries, peripheral Central European states like Romania, Hungary or Serbia, with which we are in the same league. But if I were to compare our way of practising historiography with that of the United States, France, or Britain, our methods and spectrum of interests are far inferior to theirs.

You keep talking about our peripherality. Was Poland doomed to be peripheral for objective reasons – natural disasters, the river system, or the quality of the soil – or did we choose to be peripheral?

There was no escape from it. A clear economic gap between the Polish lands and the Western lands existed from the beginning of our statehood. There were objective reasons behind it. For example, Poland was a sparsely populated country, which in the pre-industrial world translated into low agricultural productivity. Poland did not get any closer to the West over time. After the wars of the seventeenth century, the Polish economy was on a par with Asian countries, like India, and we were among the poorer countries in Europe.

What I don’t understand though is why Poles feel so strongly about their own peripherality. Many people understand it to mean that someone somewhere made a mistake, and we condemned ourselves to peripherality through our own fault. I often get the question, “When did we stop being the West?” We never were, we never were part of the center, Poland was always part of the peripheral world and it had to be that way.

But some historians believe, for example, that if Casimir the Great had ruled longer in the fourteenth century and left an heir, Poland would still have remained West-facing, instead of shifting its interests eastward for hundreds of years and condemning itself to the fate of a Central European Russia.

Such speculations are a historical comic book. Had Przemysl II not been assassinated in 1296, would Poland’s fate have turned out differently? It probably would, but I believe that there is no escape from social processes, which in turn are shaped by the economy. Someone asked me if I was a Marxist.

Are you?

I am not, but I respect the doctrine very much. I believe that the economy – power relations, the structure of trade, or technology flows – is primary to other phenomena in society. It is the economy that determines reality, not whether some king lived ten years too short or too long.

You talked about the relationship between the peasant and the manor in the old centuries. Would you call that relationship slavery?

No, although comparing slavery to the situation of the Polish peasant is legitimate, and travelers coming to Poland – especially in the eighteenth century, when the peasant situation was the worst – saw the serfs as slaves. The Polish peasant was not free, but he was also not a slave in the sense that a black slave on a Caribbean plantation was: the former was not barracked, he was not bought and sold, his master had limited jurisdiction over him, and so on.

Since the fifteenth century we were an export monoculture, sending simple goods to the West and importing technology, among other things. Poland was ruled by a narrow aristocratic elite, which profited from this model and, in order to optimise it, imposed more and more burdens on the people. That process, which lasted about a century and a half – from the mid-fifteenth to the seventeenth century – involved slowly turning the screw on the people. Interestingly, the Polish state gradually withdrew from controlling the elite-peasants relationship, and after the crisis of the seventeenth century wars it practically did not participate in it.

The problem today is that the Polish peasant is idealized. Every now and then I hear that serfdom was a relationship of mutual benefit, a kind of exchange. This is not true.

Isn’t it so that while other countries – France or England – colonised overseas peoples, the Polish Republic colonised itself? Until the Partitions, the vast majority of the country’s population was not free.

This view has existed in Poland for several decades, and at first it referred mainly to the former Polish borderlands – the lands of Ukraine or the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. On the one hand, it can be said that in the past, societies all over the world lived in various forms of serfdom, so Poland was no exception. We fared worse in comparison with Western European countries, but in terms of the relations between the lower and upper classes they were the exception on a global scale. In Western Europe these relations never took such an oppressive form as in Central and Eastern Europe. In the 18th-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth these relations can rather be compared to Russia, China, Turkey or most other pre-industrial and peripheral societies of the time.

The problem today is that the Polish peasant is idealized. Every now and then I hear that serfdom was a relationship of mutual benefit, a kind of exchange. This is not true.

You write in the “Lower Class History of Poland” that the 19th-century partitioners – Berlin, Vienna, but also St. Petersburg – also modernized Poland in various ways, and it was the local elites who opposed changes such as the abolition of serfdom. Can it be said that among the Polish elites the ideals of equality, brotherhood and freedom were accepted later and with more resistance than in Western Europe?

They were certainly accepted later, but I don’t know if they were accepted with more resistance. Let me remind you that the French Revolution was not a pleasant event but a bloody spectacle. The popularity of 19th-century egalitarian ideas in Poland stemmed from the conviction of the elite that only through cooperation with the peasants could Poland regain independence. One can ask what the supreme value for the elite at that time was: equality itself or independence, for which a price had to be paid to the peasants.

You devote a lot of space to the attempts of the elite to make settlement with the peasants. Is the twentieth century three great betrayals of the lower class ideals and a story of unfulfilled promises: Piłsudski’s Polish Socialist Party after 1918, the PZPR after 1944, and Solidarity after 1980?

In the book I formulate a model of contemporary Polish politics that is still based on the elite’s competition for the support of the lower classes to secure power. This model has functioned for a long time and I would not call the years 1918, 1944 or 1980 betrayals – it is rather a normal part of politics.

Especially if we define the state as you do – as an instrument of redistribution of resources and violence.

Because that’s what the state is – let’s just add: redistribution of resources upwards and of violence downwards.

You say that Poland has been changing much less over the years than we think. What does that mean?

It’s about the permanence of power structures in Poland and the permanence of the discourse of domination.

And more simply put?

We have a proclivity to privatization of power, to patriarchalism, we use the same stereotypes about the upper and lower classes.

For example?

A study was conducted in which Polish businessmen were asked who provides the best protection for their employees – the labor law or themselves. Businessmen most often answered that they themselves would take better care of their employees than the labor law, that they were fathers to them.

They said what a noble man would say about a serf peasant?

Exactly the same thing.

Law and Justice launched the program 500 zloty per child, and its critics often claim that the beneficiaries will spend everything on vodka. Are these also echoes of those stereotypes about the lower classes?

Yes, this is a very class-based discussion. Its roots go back at least to the nineteenth century and the enfranchisement of peasants, i.e. giving them ownership of the land they farmed. At that time the elites warned that peasants should not be given land as property because they would immediately drink it away, neglect it, and so on. Now the same is said about Poles receiving 500 zloty per child.

The image of the lower classes as less entrepreneurial, lazy, and unorganized is very persistent. This is not only a Polish speciality. When in Great Britain at the turn of the nineteenth century there was a debate whether to ban children – seven or ten years old – from working in factories, many argued that the lower classes were idle and depraved, so the children there should be accustomed to work from an early age. I gave this example because I wouldn’t want anyone to get the impression that we are special in this respect. On the contrary, we are similar to others.

Yes, but we see ourselves differently. You are the author of the book “Poland, what a Dump!” about why Poles hate themselves.

The Polish self-image is strongly negative, it was formed at the turn of the nineteenth century. Two hundred years ago, people travelled to the West and saw that the people there did not overwork themselves, lived prosperous lives, had clean houses, and so on. Later, they would return and take a critical look at their own country.

However, this self-image has clearly improved recently. I think that without its improvement, the triumph of Law and Justice would not be possible.

Adam Leszczyński

Adam Leszczyński is a columnist, reporter and historian; assistant professor at the Institute for Political Studies of Polish Academy of Sciences and a journalist with Gazeta Wyborcza. He has authored two history monographs on the Polish People’s Republic, as well as two books devoted to Africa. In 2012 his new book was published entitled “Dziękujemy za palenie. Dlaczego Afryka nie może sobie poradzić z przemocą, głodem, wyzyskiem i AIDS” (“Thank You for Smoking, or why Africa Cannot Handle Violence, Famine, Exploitation and AIDS”).

Zbigniew Rokita

Zbigniew Rokita is a Polish reporter. He specializes in the issues of Central and Eastern Europe and Upper Silesia. In 2021, he was awarded the Nike Literary Award for the book Kajś. Tales about Upper Silesia (2020).

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