Poland’s conservative Prime Minister, Jarosław Kaczyński, described Marek Jurek as “extremely well read. His opinions are the result of a truly in-depth life time of reflection upon the human condition in the modern world, as well as the condition of our nation and Church.” Marek Jurek was born in 1960. He became active in politics at the age of seventeen. In 1979, he was amongst the organizers of the anti-communist “Nascent Poland Movement”. Many of the organizers of the movement were arrested by the communist security services. Those who escaped arrest continued their work, entering into the broader Solidarity coalition in 1980. The movement was inspired by the ideals of Catholic nationalism, Christian individualism and realpolitik. In 1989, Marek Jurek was one of the founders of the Christian National Union and a member of parliament from 1989 to 1993. He returned to parliament in 2001 as a member of Poland’s largest conservative party; Law & Justice.
From October 26th 2005 to April 7th 2007, Marek Jurek was Marshal of the Polish Parliament, putting him one heartbeat away from the Presidency. Today, he is the leader of an autonomous conservative political group, The Right Wing of the Republic, allied to the Law & Justice Party, granted broad political autonomy on account of what Prime Minister Kaczyński has called the group’s intellectual contribution to Polish conservatism. In 2009, Polish President Lech Kaczyński awarded Marek Jurek with the Order of Polonia Restituta for his efforts on behalf of Polish independence. In May of 2014, Marek Jurek was elected to the European Union Parliament where he sits on the Subcommittee on Security and Defense and the Delegation for relations with the Pan-African parliament. He is highly respected in Poland and abroad for his calm demeanor, his extreme politeness to even the harshest of critics, and his unwavering attachment to principle–demonstrated time and again when he abstained from short-term advantages at the cost of his position and privilege over the course of the last twenty-five years. In the European Parliament, Marek Jurek is a tireless champion for Christians persecuted in the Middle East and Asia, and works for the restoration of Christendom as the civilizational framework of a united European continent. This fully authorized interview was conducted in Warsaw, Poland.
Peter Strzelecki Rieth: In your recollections of the dearly departed Henryk Krzeczkowski, you wrote about the idea of working on behalf of the permanent things under conditions of civilizational collapse. You wrote that Henryk Krzeczkowski “wanted to find a way to preserve traditions despite the collapse of the institutions which gave rise to those traditions” and that “the foundation for the permanent things was to be found not so much in historical elites as in the Elites of Will & Duty who would consciously take up the mantle of the historical elites and continue their work.” Given that Poland has been free now for twenty-fives years, can Poles take pride in having built institutions which serve the preservation of the best Polish and European traditions? Or, in spite of the fact that we live in times of renaissance rather than decay, are we not still wholly dependent upon Henryk Krzeczkowski’s notion of an “Elite of Will & Duty”? Has Poland constructed the institutional framework within which the permanent things can be preserved and bear fruit?
Marshal Marek Jurek (MEP): In that text, which I wrote as part of a larger memoire dedicated to Mr. Henryk Krzeczkowski—who was an extraordinary essayist and translator in his own right, and who played an important role in the history of post-war Polish conservatism—I took note of the dramatic situation of Polish society which had been smashed by totalitarianism. Poland’s institutions were destroyed; her social structure shattered. Poland was only preserved by national consciousness and by historical memory. Institutions were replaced by life within the Catholic communion and by elementary standards of behavior—moral reflexes, reflexes of solidarity with those who suffered and a reflexive understanding of human dignity. This comportment became the de facto foundation for our society’s resistance to the collaborationist communist authorities.
In the case of men like Henryk Krzeczkowski, or Paweł Hertz, their conscious work to uphold tradition and our bonds with Christian life in the West was the intellectual component that helped preserve these elementary standards of behavior within society. When Poland regained independence, all of this should have become the foundation for rebuilding our political institutions and for defining the character of our state.
However, following 1989, once Poland had regained freedom, the left-liberal opposition pivoted from anti-communism to alliance with communism. They broke with Solidarity and the Christian patriotic right and closed ranks with the communists. Thus, instead of building a strong, independent Poland—the liberals and the communists undertook “regime transformation”, understood as the democratization and reform of the communist state.
Proclamations were made about the “independence” and “apolitical character” of institutions such as courts of law, the military, the diplomatic corps, higher and elementary education; but really none of these institutions were ever methodically cleansed of communist influence. Their “apolitical character” did not actually entail direct, nonpartisan identification with our sovereign state, but rather came to mean a pathos of distance towards our state, as well as a hesitancy to condemn communism (condemning communism came to be seen as a partisan endeavor, rather than as obligatory for those responsible for the nation), and a cynical attitude to our national and political ideals. All of this took place parallel to an abrupt appropriation of state-owned properties by the communist nomenclature. While this appropriation did not take on such extreme forms as what was seen in Russia, it followed a similar path. All this led to a situation wherein we the people found that although we lived in a nation-state where our votes could impact the course of our political affairs, we in fact did not have the conditions necessary to participate in the public debate as equals under the law, let alone to compete in the economy as equals under the law. As to new state institutions: they simply were not built. The conservative right has been in the opposition in Poland for the vast majority of the last twenty-five years, just as it was in the opposition under communism.
Naturally, one of the great joys of our generation is the mere fact that we have regained a free and independent state and—what follows—the right to elect our governments. Still, I would not underestimate the importance of the notion of the “Elite of Will & Duty” because even though the collaborators who betrayed the nation never paid for their crimes, we have been able to build a strong political movement which is an advocate for national ideals, the common good, the moral order and which guarantees that these principles will always have a place in the political discourse. A strong right is a great value in our political order.
Mr. Rieth: In the United States of America, the American constitution is the institutional foundation meant to preserve the most noble national traditions. In general, the very idea of crafting an institutional remedy which perpetuates a just republican order is at the cornerstone of American political thought. The institutions brought into being by the American constitution were meant to supplement what classical political thought considered to be the necessity to teach and enshrine the virtues of excellent citizenship in republics. Unfortunately, America is now in radical decline because without the virtues of excellent citizenship, Americans are incapable of understanding their own constitution, let alone of preserving it. Given the decline of America, what lessons can Americans learn from Poland and from Polish political practice?
Marshal Jurek: The experience of nations which were compelled to defend their freedom under conditions of foreign occupation, particularly occupation lasting several decades, is an experience that is quite valuable for all nations. The value of such experience was highlighted in the modern, Christian teachings of Pope John Paul II; for instance during his speech at the UNESCO forum, where the Pope argued that the essence of a nation is its culture. This idea is similar to the convictions of Count de la Tour du Pin, who argued that national constitutions are something more than the mere pieces of paper which nations can and have altered throughout history. Americans are fortunate to have had one constitution throughout their history. While it has been modified, the American constitution has persevered. Other countries have national constitutional traditions serving as common denominators which link particular historical legal constitutions. For although nations are by nature meant for political life within the state—mature nations, as Poland and Ireland have demonstrated—exist not only on account of their political representatives in a state apparatus, but, as Pope John Paul II argued, mature nations exist above all through their culture.
Thus I think that even nations whose legal constitutions have persevered throughout the ages must still be guided by the spirit of their national constitution, by meta-principles, by founding ideas. This discussion is alive and well in American political thought: Is the American constitution to be understood through the principles of the founding fathers, or through the dynamics of “progress” which, “in principle” thereby constantly alter its original intent?
If we believe in the permanence of the founding principles, then virtue is imperative; the kind of virtue which, as ancient philosophy and the Catholic Church teach us, no political mechanism can ever substitute for. What is virtue? Virtue is moral responsibility and conscious human action.
Mr. Rieth: In the United States, just about one out of every two Americans is divorced or was brought up in a broken family. In Poland, although the number of divorces is growing, Poland still has the largest amount of people in Europe filing for marriage annulments in the Catholic Church. This statistic proves that Poles are heavily tied to the idea of moral order—even in the face of the tragedy of divorce. Poles desire an orderly family life and are able to govern themselves well as family units despite the crisis of marriage that has befallen us due to Western popular culture. What advice would you have for our American friends who wish to rescue the institution of the American family from further deterioration?
Marshal Jurek: That is an interesting observation you make. I never thought that one could interpret Catholic marriage annulment that way. Poland is of course a very specific country in this regard; sociologically speaking, we are the most Catholic nation in Europe. One fourth of all priests ordained in Europe on a yearly basis are Polish. But the moral challenges facing Western civilization—these challenges are common to us all.
The most important thing we can do is defend the universalism of the ethos upon which the monogamous family was built, and defend the institutions born of this ethos. Marriage ought not have any legal imitators. Either you are married or you are not married. As Napoleon once said: “since concubines do not need the law, then the law does not need concubines.” The idea of formalizing concubinages as alternative legal institutions was but a late term reflex of the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s. Let us recall that in the case of legalized concubinages, the casual nature of such relationships means that both parties to it have less rights. Today, we call such relationships “voluntary”, but when they become legal categories—they will become legal alternatives to the current institution of marriage which entails an expectation of responsibility from spouses. Making concubinages into a new legal category co-equal to traditional marriage will effectively absolve spouses from the responsibilities entailed in traditional marriage in favor of the casual nature of concubinage. Yet it is the traditional institution of marriage which preserves the equality of spouses and the dignity of spouses.
Naturally, we must continue to stand in opposition to the persistent inventions of the cultural revolution, above all to the misnamed act of “abortion”—which in fact is simply prenatal murder, as well as to pornography. Murdering the unborn is quite simply the most drastic violation of human rights—this is how this act ought to be treated. Abortion is not the act of destroying some abstract ethical norm—abortion is the act of destroying a human life. Pornography, on the other hand, is an extreme form of propaganda in favor of adultery. The legal prohibition of pornography once made the people recognize that there was a demarcation line between moral good and moral evil. Of course, law will not change mass culture, but law can defend inalienable virtues. Human dignity is, by nature, inalienable, and one cannot therefore ever violate human dignity—even if there is voluntary consent to do so.
True, the state as such ought to be neutral towards individual people, independent of their opinions. However, the state cannot accept that all ethical norms and cultural values are created equal. In Poland, I always repeat a very simple maxim: the state should guarantee equality under the law to former members of the Solidarity movement and to former members of the Communist Party; but the state cannot consider the traditions of Solidarity and the traditions of the Communist Party as equally valid alternatives. This would be like the United States of America treating the tradition of the American revolution and the traditions that gave birth to the Republic as an equally valid alternative to the Loyalist cause. The state must have its moral cornerstone. The state should tolerate different opinions of different individuals, even those individuals who do not accept the moral cornerstone of the state; but the state must never surrender its moral responsibility.
In short: we must proudly defend our Christian civilization. What’s more—we must defend our Christian civilization even if we are in the minority. More so if we are in the minority. Pope Benedict XVI, towards the end of his pontificate, said that in the modern world, the Catholic Faith is the counter-culture. The Catholic faith functions as a counter-culture in our modern world. Great ideas can take entire generations to put into effect. The Left, over the years, has successfully built an aura of being the “non-conformists” in our society; of being the non-conformists who are out to change the world. Any sober observer of political reality can see that this is a complete lie—because the Establishment in our world is a Leftist Establishment. Yet despite this fact, the aura of Leftists as “non-conformists” persists. Yet what is true non-conformism in our world? True non-conformism is persistent adherence to authentic conservatism. This situation is also an opportunity for us to demonstrate the power of our beliefs.
True non-conformism, in contradistinction to ideological extravagance, must be political. True non-conformism cannot close itself up in an ivory tower, where it is enough to write essays in comfort, click the “send” button, and mail them off to friendly editors. True non-conformism must be political: it must go out to the people, it must awaken the sentiment of responsibility dormant within thousands of people who believe in the God of the Decalogue and the Evangelists, who believe in the value of our civilization, who believe in our national and state traditions. True non-conformism must be political because it aspires to give voice to these ideas in representative institutions and then force the Establishment to listen to our voices. We take up these causes not only for our own good, but in fact, we defend these causes for the good of our opponents as well.
Mr. Rieth: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, speaking at Harvard University prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, said that “a fact which cannot be disputed is the weakening of human beings in the West while in the East they are becoming firmer and stronger—60 years for our people and 30 years for the people of Eastern Europe. During that time we have been through a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience. Life’s complexity and mortal weight have produced stronger, deeper, and more interesting characters than those generally produced by standardized Western well-being.” Will Poland, following the “spiritual training” of communism, emerge as a European power in view of the pliability of the Western soul? Will Eastern Europe become the center of a reborn European culture in the future?
Marshal Jurek: What Solzhenitsyn was right about in his Harvard address is something you did not quote: his words about the twilight of Western courage. The twilight of the courage of Western civilization, of the Western will to fight for what is true, the twilight of the Western readiness to make political decisions dictated by necessity, the twilight of the Western readiness to do the hard work of opinion leadership in order to convince Western societies to act. Statesmen who endeavor to convince people of some truth have disappeared. Over half a century ago, David Riesman wrote that the politics of “moral outrage”, which always judged political reality from the point of view of the common good, which always inspired people to change something for the better, has been replaced by the politics of “the well informed.” I am reminded of Edgar Faure’s old saying that his young friend Chirac thought a lot; mainly—Chirac would spend his time trying to figure out what it was that other people were thinking. This sort of political culture is a culture that births political wheeling and dealing, but not a serious discourse on public affairs. While Solzhenitsyn was giving his Harvard address, Poland’s Stefan Kisielewski wrote an excellent essay; “Does a struggle for the World even exist?” Kisielewski posed a question: Does the West even want to win the Cold War? He wrote that essay during the Carter administration. Then, Ronald Reagan emerged and it turned out that there are courageous people in America, that there are indeed people who “struggle for the world” and that our culture is still capable of bearing creative fruit.
We in Poland knew, in any event, that there were people struggling for the world. During the entire post-war era, the Catholic Church fought against communism. The great voices of Pope Pius XII or Saint John Paul II fought against communism. Nations which were enslaved or threatened with enslavement like Poland, Hungary, Vietnam, Korea and—of course—the United States: They fought against communism. Unfortunately, with the exception of Great Britain, Western Europe did not fight against communism for the most part. Solzhenitsyn and Kisielewski were absolutely right about Western Europe. This twilight of courage inspired Soviet policy. For the Soviet Union, the political goal was to “Finlandize” Western Europe; to loosen the bonds of Atlantic solidarity, to eliminate Europe as a power in the struggle for the world. Unfortunately, Western Europe has always had a tendency to agree to this sort of status. Whenever Western Europe stood up for itself, it did so only out of fear that the Soviet Union might one day go a step further. Today, when the West (by which I mean the United States of America) has won the Cold War, and when it is necessary to continue the struggle in order to secure the changes which took place in the East following the disintegration of the Soviet Union—Western Europe does not have the will to confront Russia. Western Europe remains willfully blind to Russia’s aggressive policies and to its post-communist character. Western Europe is only interested in buying cheap gas and exporting its products to Russia.
Solzhenitsyn was absolutely right when he talked about the twilight of courage in the West, but—as to the fragment of his speech that you quoted—I think we can see very clearly that Solzhenitsyn underestimated the extent of spiritual destruction that communism caused. I do not mean the destruction of the structures of civil society by communism. I mean the destruction of individual moral responsibility and of the vibrancy of national cultural life. Communism did not only destroy them by prohibiting the publication of classical literature (after all, even in Russia they had to publish Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky). Communism destroyed individual moral responsibility and the vibrancy of cultural life through the poison of a perverse class interpretation of culture. The communists would indoctrinate people with this idea that all of culture is always and everywhere a great lie; that culture is merely a façade masking materialist egoism. This type of indoctrination is also common in American universities, where Marxism and Freudism have also had a strong impact on the American mind. However, in America—what is a voluntary process of self-indoctrination by a segment of the intellectuals was, in Russia and in the nations Russia had conquered, a process of compulsory indoctrination. Entire generations were thus indoctrinated on a mass scale. If you step back and look at the effect of this indoctrination at the scale of the entire society: Its effect was the perpetuation of slavery. A liberated slave is, of course, legally free, but legal freedom does not mean that a man becomes free in the spiritual sense. Solzhenitsyn was right that resistance to this slavery was indeed a form of spiritual exercises—I would say spiritual exercises which were Carmelite in essence. Spiritual exercises which cleansed a man of all temptations to pursue a career, from all temptations to secure his material lot in life; these spiritual exercises did indeed make it possible to—as it were—touch our very ideals as such. However, this educational process was the fate of a few extraordinary individuals of great spiritual power; it was not the fate of entire societies. Culture must ultimately find itself enshrined and perpetuated through institutions.
We do, however, find a hidden clue within Solzhenitsyn’s thesis which might lead us to a different truth. A truth which does not directly concern Russia, but which is very important for Poland. Political slavery effectively lead to a situation where the fundamental center of strength for all opposition was Christianity. This made people understand what the true source of human freedom is. We in Poland understood that freedom is not born from personal self-interest, nor even from ambition. Personal self-interest and ambition, under communism, led its practitioners to pursue careers as collaborators with the Communist state. So personal self-interest and ambition cannot be the source of freedom. We in Poland rediscovered that the source of freedom is actually the human conscience—because it is within the human conscience that men can hear the voice of God.* It is within the human conscience that the sentiment of justice and the imperative to action is born. Christianity is the fountainhead of our culture—if Christian life dries out—our entire culture will collapse. Yet even then, even when culture collapses—Christianity holds out the eternal prospect of its resurrection.
*Translator’s Note: This is actually Catholic Teaching. See Gaudium et Spes, in which Pope Paul VI argues that “in the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of the conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.” For an excellent look at how this idea manifested itself in Poland under communism, see Father Józef Tischner’s Ethics of Solidarity & Homo Sovieticus.
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