Tomasz Zarycki. May the Polish “lord” and the Polish “boor” come to an agreement? The intelligentsia attempts at overcoming serfdom and its symbolic legacy in Poland

The speech will start with a discussion of a debate concerning the legacy of serfdom which recently took place in several Polish intellectual journals and newspapers. The main arguments of the discussants were supposed to be critical of the mainstream and in particular conservative variants of the Polish national historical narrative. Let me remind that they present the Polish nobility, or szlachta, as the patriotic elite of the nation. Szlachta is seen in these mainstream interpretations as an architect of the democratic culture of the “noble-republic” of the First Rzeczpospolita or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and later during the so called “partition period” (19 century) as a leading force of resistance of the Polish nation against the occupants which included Austria, Prussia and Russia. The critics pointed our that nobility, in particular its richest elite known as magnates, should not be idealized as it could be accused of imposing the so called “second serfdom” on peasants in 16th century. This process was linked to the increasing reliance on grain exports from Poland to Western Europe, a mechanism which was based on cheap enslaved labor of peasants and made Poland economically and politically dependent on the countries of the European core. As the critics point out, during the “partition period” it were the occupying empires that finally abolished serfdom on former Poland’s territories. They could be thus seen as agents of modernization, while szlachta could be seen as a conservative force and an impediment to economic, social as well as political progress. According to the above mentioned critics, that silenced side of the history of the Polish nobility may be seen as laying at the roots of the current cultural cleavage in the contemporary Polish society, one which pits “cultivated” intelligentsia relaying on aristocratic ethos to peasants who are commonly seen and refereed to as inferior “boors”. I the paper I will argue that the above mentioned cleavage is indeed a clear symbolic division in Polish society, however, overcoming it may be much more difficult than its above mentioned left-liberal critics seem to assume. This is first of all because the nature of the Polish model of citizenship which has been formed at the turn of 19th and 20th century and institutionalized with the establishment of the so called Second Polish Republic. As I will argue, new social system of Poland was since that time based on intelligentsia’s concept of civil society, defined as democratization by universalization of the noble status. At the same time, intelligentsia while taking over the leading role from the landed gentry, redefined its identity as the new elite largely in terms of the traditional noble status, including the key opposition between the nobleman and the peasants. As I would argue however, this opposition while naturalized in the normative system of the Polish civic codes, is not any longer a reflection of a really existing cleavage between well any defined social groups. Thus, while I see any attempts at overcoming it doomed to failure, at lease in a short-term perspective, I don’t share the conviction that existence of this semantic binary code may be seen as an essence of any real social problem.