I do not hide my ambition to follow directly in the footsteps of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose 1772 treatment, titled Considerations On the Government of Poland, is now one of the classic works of political science. I hope that in 100 years, my essay will be considered a fitting continuation of Rousseau’s original, and that by attaching myself to his work, I should one day be looked upon as co-author of Considerations of the Government of Poland alongside Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who happens to be my favorite modern political philosopher next to Machiavelli. Rousseau’s essay on Poland is long, befitting the tradition of Plato. My essay is written in the tradition of Machiavelli and Xenophon.
The task of building constitutional government in Poland is not merely difficult: It is impossible. No better testimony to this opinion exists than the fate of Rousseau’s own paper on Polish government. Asked to submit the work by Poland’s liberal reformers—centered on a political group know as the Bar Confederation—Rousseau’s great work of political theory and constitutional thought was obsolete no sooner than he had completed it because Poland had yet again ceased to exist. Rousseau himself recognized that the ambition to reform and strengthen the Polish regime against foreign intrigue would weaken Poland further; nevertheless when asked to propose changes he did so, though fittingly, his proposals are some of the most conservative possible, for he wisely recognized the folly of liberal predispositions in a body politic dying from the vices of extreme liberty. Rousseau’s work is an act of kindness, but its failure is a reminder of the political realities that limit idealism.
The effectual truth is that Poland is not capable of legal constitutional government. One need not dwell upon Rousseau’s times to understand this. Just in the twentieth century alone, Poland had several constitutions, half of which failed due to internal factors, half due to external. The first Polish constitution to be adopted by a newly-reborn Poland was overthrown by a Polish coup, the second by German invasion. The restoration of the pre-coup constitution was the work of the Soviet Union, which likewise supervised the adoption of an altogether-new constitution for the People’s Republic. The constitution of the People’s Republic was heavily modified, and a new socialist constitution ratified, though neither was ever actually followed. The new socialist constitution was abandoned not long after and the People’s Republic abolished in favor of the current III Republic. Shortly after 1989, a new constitution was adopted, but it was discarded in 1997 for the current constitution, which is a wholly different document. Thus, already the post-Communist III Republic has had two constitutions and is now in the throes of a debilitating constitutional crisis, with many advocating the creation of a new constitution. Time will tell where present events will lead. The common thread here is the complete failure to establish longstanding constitutional norms, practices, and habits. This failure is not unique to twentieth-century Poland, but has characterized the regime for centuries past and, judging from the current constitutional crisis, will characterize the regime in the future. It is true in times of tumult and in times of peace.
Most Western observers have, like Rousseau, submitted to the hopes of Polish liberals and accepted on good faith that the systematic crisis of constitutionalism that plagues Poland is largely a result of external pressures and its tragic history in general. Like Rousseau in 1772, friends of Poland counsel conservative practice in pursuit of liberal aims. Accepting this premise, they merrily set about the task of recommending constitutional reforms. These reforms in turn always fail, because they are rooted in the liberal premise that external enemies prevent helpless Polish liberals from effecting good government. It is the Polish liberals themselves who are in fact the greatest hinderance to good government. In Rousseau’s day, the Bar Confederation that sought Rousseau’s help was actually chiefly at fault for kidnapping its own king and inciting a civil war in its own country, which destroyed Poland from within at a time when good statesmanship, not liberal reform, was necessary. The Polish magnates, who were Poland’s conservative faction, fearing for their property and freedom, allied with Russia. They are to this day considered traitors and the name of their alliance, Targowica, is a word which literally means “treason” in modern Polish politics. But this is merely the typical Polish political incompetence masquerading as heroism. The conservative magnates allied with Russia to save their estates in the face of a civil war that was the work of Poland’s liberals, who are always eager to overthrow something real in favor of something imagined and have always started from overthrowing their own king and their own state before moving on to overthrowing its eventual foreign occupier.
The failure of legal constitutional government in Poland is not a cause for concern, nor is it due to some inherent vices in the Polish people. In fact, the very attempt of recurring generations of liberal reformers to force legal constitutions on a people not made for them is the root of the problem. All political scientists recognize the existence of what Aristotle called a natural constitution, the soul of a regime understood as the deep-rooted habits and customs of the people. What Western political science and the Polish liberals who worship the West do not understand is that not all natural constitutions are fit for legal constitutionalism. Russia serves as a principle example. Russia’s constitutional soul has always submitted to the principle of monarchy and continues to do so today. The form of this monarchy has changed from Tsar to Party Secretary General to Premier or President, but the essence is always the same. No written constitution, no rational scheme of government, will ever live in the heart of Russia. Likewise Poland’s constitutional soul is Catholic and noble.
Poland is not an anarchic regime, as may be inferred from those who observe Polish failure to adopt legal constitutionalism. Poland is a regime ordered on the principles of the Catholic communion. It has always been so and will always be. Polish customs and habits never treat the laws of men very seriously and always revere the laws of God. The Polish people are thus constituted, and it is nonsense to hope to fashion Poland in any other manner than what it is. For the Pole, a constitution is either an intellectual curiosity to be debated but not followed, or it is an instrument of foreign oppression. All who have attempted to enshrine a constitution in Poland from without and all who believed that it would be possible for Poles to do it from within were and are sleep-walkers and men of little understanding.
It takes a mind trained in political philosophy to smile rather than feign shock at recent events, namely the claims emanating from Poland’s new government that the decisions of her Constitutional Court are “merely opinions and not verdicts.” In point of fact, the constitution itself is really an opinion and not a constitution. The document, ratified in 1997, is an exercise in futility. Every single one of its provisions establishing rules for the functioning of government is followed by provisions stipulating that these iron-clad rules may be curtailed by simple acts of the legislative branch. Already, the constitution has led directly to the death of the Polish President in Smolensk as well as dozens of other statesmen and soldiers because the document ridiculously stipulates that both the Prime Minister and the President are the executive branch and that both craft foreign policy. This dual executive has of course resulted in the state having two foreign policies, often in direct conflict with one another when the President and Prime Minister were at odds. The constitution merely stipulates that the two ought to cooperate, and while the Constitutional Court did in fact rule that cooperation means that the Prime Minister has precedence, the court itself is now being overruled by the President and the Prime Minister over a different matter, which will naturally invite future Presidents and Prime Ministers to overrule it in other matters. Even the Venice Commission, invited to Poland by the current government to act as an arbiter in the present constitutional crisis, concluded that while the present government did violate the constitution, so did the previous government.
What began as a minor variation of the United States Supreme Court case Marbury v. Madison, when the new Polish President refused to swear in judges to the Constitutional Court ratified by the outgoing parliament just prior to an election, has now morphed into a full-scale farce wherein the nation now has two legal regimes. Presently, the legislature has passed a law, declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court, which curtails the power of the court. The government claims that the court is in violation of the Constitution, which obliged the court to follow the law, while the Court insists that it alone can determine the constitutionality of the law. To read the Polish constitution is to discover that both sides are right. This may explain why initial Western worries fast receded, since a call to follow the Polish constitution is in practice a call to be confused. The Polish Attorney General now threatens the Chief Justice with jail for violating the law while the Chief Justice stands by verdicts declaring the government in violation of the constitution.
Yet, Polish society remains the most orderly, charitable, and noble of European societies, with a high culture and self-government and initiative at every level. The constitutional crisis is not a crisis affecting social order because Poles are long accustomed to ignoring the written law while at the same time being attached to the Divine Law. The true threat to Polish liberty and social order are the liberal defenders of alien legal constitutionalism who, like the Bar Confederation of Rousseau’s day, threaten to drag the country into a civil war in pursuit of a legal constitutionalism that is absolutely foreign to the people at large and dear only to that portion of Polish society that has always occurred in each generation: the liberal dreamers who see no good in Poland’s Catholic culture and wish to implement Western modes and orders in an Eastern culture. There is no danger to Poland stemming from this crisis. The only sensible solution is to restore a monarchy, but even in this Poles have poor experience. They invited a Swede to rule them, hoping for protection against Russia, and the Swede looted them. At present, the mood of the public would no doubt favor inviting Senator John McCain to rule as king. The only practical solution is to let events play themselves out between the Polish gentlemen who now squabble and hope for the best.
Of course, the ideal—the unattainable ideal—would be for Polish Christian liberty to merge with Russian Christian order. Historically, the Pole has always moderated Russian order, preventing it from slipping into the vice of tyranny, while the Russian has always moderated Polish liberty from slipping into the vice of anarchy. Poland and Russia together would be the foundation for the greatest exemplary of Christian-ordered liberty on Earth. No doubt this fact stands behind efforts to hinder a Polish-Russian alliance.
Yet while we hope, we might consider that the reason the constitutional crisis in Poland is taking no visible toll on the people is because the nation’s true constitution has been and will forever be the dogma of the Catholic Church. While Poland currently lacks religious leaders of the stature of Cardinal Wyszyński and St. John Paul, Poland’s attachment to her ecclesiastic statesmen supersedes their deaths, particularly if they happen to be saints. As Poland’s conservative thinker Stanisław “Cat” Mackiewicz once put it “if you explain things rationally to a Pole, he will turn against your idea as soon as he has understood it, but, if you reveal something to a Pole as a matter of Divine Right, he will forever remain unquestioningly loyal to it.” This is the real constitution of Poland and will be forever.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.