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Forget Postcolonialism, There’s a Class War Ahead

In his inspiring book, A Singular Modernity, Frederic Jameson offers a notion of modernity that is particularly useful when it comes to paradoxes of postcolonial theory (such as those that Stanley Bill presented in his text). Jameson claims that modernity is an interplay between two distinct notions operating separately on the level of material base and of cultural superstructure: there is modernization which accounts for all that falls into the realm of material economy: highways, stock exchange, supermarkets, cellular phones, the internet, computers etc. But there is also modernism – a set of values, norms and ideals operating in the socio-cultural sphere and linked with the legacy of Enlightenment: equality, social justice, emancipation, rational organization of society etc. Modernity should not be – Jameson claims – reduced to any of these two aspects or components. It is a complex combination of both.1

This is a good starting point when talking about a reception of postcolonial theory in Poland and in the region of Central-Eastern Europe that used to fall within the sphere of domination of the Soviet Russia. Stanley Bill is quite right in exposing the paradoxes, inconsistencies and impostures associated with this process. I agree with his general diagnosis of postcolonial theory as an attitude cunningly camouflaging its inherent conservatism that gets exposed in its peripheral applications. However, I believe these phenomena should be put into a more general frame and be cast against the background of troubled and traumatic relations with modernity that Poland and the entire region has had for the last couple of centuries. The ideas and convictions expressed by the Polish conservative adherents to postcolonial theory that Bill so eloquently analyzes are just a new articulation of an attitude long established in Polish culture: the one of an alternative and indigenous modernity sharply contrasting with the content of Western modernism, to use above-mentioned Jameson’s notion.  What the Polish adherents of the postcolonial studies advocate is not a simple rejection of modernity tout court, an attitude that can nowadays be found in such places as Bhutan, but rather a perverse deviation from modernity: modernization without modernism.

The fate of postcolonial theory in Central and Eastern Europe is a kind of symptom – not an autonomous phenomenon stemming solely from this theory’s logic, but rather a complex articulation of local ideological content through the conceptual framework of an imported theory. Saying this I do not mean to question Bill’s assertions but rather to give them an additional angle. It is perfectly true that conservative urge to look for authenticity beyond any cultural influences is contradictory with history of Polish, sarmatian culture that borrowed heavily from foreign traditions. On the other hand it is also true that between the 16th and 18th century Poland developed a peculiar and singular socio-cultural regime that offered an alternative to the Western world. One could trace these differences quite a long way back in history as the Marxist historian Perry Anderson does in his seminal books Passages from Antiquity to the Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist States.2 Different proprietary relations of nobles to the land (allod in the East as opposed to fief in the West) combined with a different, much more horizontal organization of Eastern European aristocracy led in the early modern times (the 16th century) to a regime radically opposing the Western absolutism. It evolved in an autonomous way into a peculiar kind of democracy, very distant from Western parliamentary system based on representative institution. It resembled much more the ancient, Greek democracy with its emphasis on participation and direct elections of government. As in ancient times this participation was restricted to an elite group of free citizens (the nobility called szlachta), however it gave them collective powers incomparable to these of western aristocracy. From the late 16th onwards kings of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (a country covering much of Central-Eastern Europe and stretching at that time from the Baltic to the Black Sea on what is much of today’s Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus and Ukraine) were elected directly by the entire body of nobility gathering in person on election field in Wola, now a district of Warsaw. Every nobleman had a right to come there and vote for any person he regarded suitable for the job; not everybody could afford such a trip and in practice these events gathered around 50 – 70 thousand participants; still a huge number for any democratic proceedings. It was called electio viritim and should be distinguished from other forms of elections that functioned at the time in places such as The Holy Roman Empire or Italian Republics in the Western Europe. The latter was exercised by a very narrow body of top aristocrats and had little to do with a popular sovereignty of Polish szlachta. The Polish parliament – Sejm – was equally under full control of aristocrats and did not function as an institution of class compromise as it did in Western Europe. Bourgeoisie was completely excluded from any part in the government and Sejm was used as solely aristocratic instrument of exercising power in the interest of the nobility. This political regime was combined with an agrarian lifestyle of szlachta who remained utterly hostile to the city and deeply in love with their rural estates. The material base for their existence was provided by a manorial economy producing grain for the nascent capitalistic market. A form of slave labor was used for this purpose. It was called serfdom, however it functioned very much like slavery (with an important difference that individuals were not sold or bought; human trafficking took form of wholesale exchanges of entire villages with their peasant populations). Polish aristocrats believed themselves utterly superior or even racially different from the peasants. That was expressed by the myth of Sarmatian origins of the szlachta; a myth of colonial nature and I will go back to this point later on. A reader familiar with social history of the United States would probably spot a resemblance with social, cultural and economic landscape of the American South before the Civil War. It’s a legitimate and accurate analogy. In general, Polish society – with its emphasis on family life, implication of religion in the public life and eager use of the word “God” on political occasions, its agrarian ideology, blatant individualism and some other traces – resembles much more to some aspects of the US society than it does to the mainstream of European culture, especially its French, republican and secular ethos.

Traditional, Sarmatian Polish culture shaped by this kind of social relations believed itself to be not only different, but also superior to the West. Szlachta looked with a particular despise on the elements of nascent modernity and its main protagonist – capitalistic bourgeoisie. They believed it to be a degeneration and degradation, they felt proud not to be a part of this evolution and to keep their peculiar form of social organization. They particularly cherished their liberties, describing Poland, opposed to absolutist West, as the land of genuine freedom. Although this liberty was rather a class privilege than freedom in modern sense, they were surely right in one respect – their social and cultural world offered a genuine alternative to the Western culture. Poland was a part of Europe with close ties with other European countries and – what is very important – remained a part of the capitalist world-economy from its very beginning, on the other hand it was culturally exotic and it occupied a peripheral economic position structurally comparable to the place the overseas colonies. Thus Central and Eastern Europe was historically first Third World.3

I devoted so much place to the matters that seem quite far historically, because they form the Sarmatian kernel of Polish postcolonial conservative illusion that boils down to a conviction that we – Poles – do not need to look up to the West or the EU to find an inspiration or a model and we should rather go back to our glorious, Sarmatian past. The temporal distance that separates us from this epoch does not seem to matter. Polish society has got a peculiar attitude towards time and distant past is much closer for us that it is for an average citizen of the Western world. In this respect we resemble the Islamic societies, where crusades dating back to the Middle Ages may very well serve as a justification for today’s politics.

Western modernism – in the sense given to this term by Jameson – remains disgusting and repugnant to most of the Polish adherents to postcolonial theory. But not the Western modernization. Their plan, called „a conservative modernization”, can be accurately described and deconstructed with the pair of notions put forward by Jameson: highways, smartphones, ATMs, the internet, the Dreamliners – YES! Equality, emancipation, diversity, social justice, women and gay rights – NO! Again – in their embrace of capitalism they resemble much more to the American neocons than to the oldschool continental conservatives who tried to somehow curb the free market. Although they verbally defend the lower classes, their policies, while in power, did not differ from neoliberalism – two governments led by the conservative Prawo i Sprawiedliwość party between 2005 and 2007 made Zyta Gilowska, an outspoken neoliberal economist, the ministry of finance, lowered the taxes for the rich and diminished the obligatory contributions for social insurance that employers are required to pay.

There is, of course, a blind spot in this nostalgic, neosarmatian discourse. It does not seem to notice, that while the old, Sarmatian regime did offer an alternative to the West, it utterly failed to withstand a confrontation with it. The timeframe and crucial moments of its existence coincide with a developing modernity in the West in a very peculiar way. Sarmatism, like Western absolutism that paved the way to modern statehood, develops from 15th century, however the very same year 1648 when the modern international order takes shape with the Peace of Westphalia at the end of Thirty Years’ War marks the first major failure of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth: the Ukrainian Revolution led by Bohdan Chmielnitsky (an uprising of Ukrainian warrior nobility – Cossacks – and peasantry against Polish colonial rule). Actually, its aftermath was the Russian conquest of Eastern Ukraine, thus the beginning of a process that we can still see developing today. What is even more pertinent is that the final end of the Sarmatian order in the second half of the 18th century closely coincides with the three major triumphs of modernity: The American, French and Industrial Revolutions. It’s not a mere coincidence. Poland disappears from the map precisely because it was not able to function within the political and social framework of modernity.4 Even Russia, regarded by the Poles as eternally backward, had developed at the time some essential traits of the modern state such as a strong central administration, efficient taxation system and powerful army all of which Poland lacked. From that moment on the relation to modernity of every traditionally and truly Polish soul – I’m not talking here of a rotten cosmopolitan intellectual like myself –is an antagonistic one: „modernity” is the name of force that eliminated our traditional way of life, destroying the most precious aspects of our social order; including its material base, peasant’s slavery, as serfdom was abolished by colonizers in the 19th century (the final reform of Polish agriculture was done, again, by the foreigners, i.e. Soviet sponsored government at the end of Second World War that liquidated large estates and distributed the land among small, individual farmers in 1944). Pragmatic, material efficiency of the Western world is difficult to deny nowadays and the conservatives are very willing to copy it, however not in order to further modernism, but precisely to fight it. So, ironically, modernization is regarded as an efficient way of resisting modernity in its full scope (i.e. modernization combined with modernism).

The conservatives, that embraced the postcolonial theory did it in a very particular way.5 What they refuse to acknowledge is that the culture that they cherish so much, Sarmatism, was in itself a deeply colonial cultural entity. Firstly in its description of the Sarmatian origins – they were supposed to be an alien tribe of warriors that came from the East (or the South in some variants of the legend) and conquered the agrarian populations of Central Eastern Europe. Thus the Polish szlachta believed there was an essential, ethnic difference between themselves, deriving from these Asian warriors, and peasant population descending from the tribes that the Sarmatians believed to have had enslaved. This aspect of „postcolonial imaginary” is, of course, skillfully omitted by contemporary Polish postcolonial „thinkers” (I put the word in quotation mark, because I doubt if a mere repetition of someone else’s concepts can be rightfully called „thinking”). Their even bigger omission is a colonial practice of the Polish mobility in the East. The so called Union of Lublin that created the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569 cut a huge chunk of land – what is a present day Ukraine – from the Great Princehood of Lithuania and put it, within the union, under a direct administrative control of the Kingdom of Poland. One does not need to be a Marxist zealot to see a material motivation for such a move – Ukraine is blessed with one of the richest soils in Europe, perfect for grain cultivation; Polish nobility needed it in order to further and extend its material base – the manorial economy. And that’s what they did. The so called Kresy (the Ends – a Polish term referring to the Eastern ends of the empire, i.e. contemporary Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine) just like the British Raj gave birth to formidable fortunes. There is no anachronism in calling Kresy “Polish colonies” as the term itself was literary used by the Polish political writers in 16th and 17th century (for example in Polska Niżna Albo Osada Polska by Piotr Grabowski dating from 1596; Paweł Palczowski in his Kolęda moskiewska published in 1609 likens Polish expansion in the East with colonial domination of European powers over the West Indies). There was also a whole discourse surrounding Kresy devoted to the proper use that Poland could and should have made of these lands. It can be easily compared to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Travail sur l’Algérie or to Edmund Burke’s discourses such as Speech on The Nabob of Arcot’s Debts or Articles of Charge of High Crimes and Misdemeanors against Warren Hastings. We’ll find all major elements of a colonial discourse in the Polish political thought of the time: a myth of terra nullius, of mission civilisatrice, of natural longing of the savages for progress, of racial and religious superiority of the colonizers and inferiority of the colonized (called, to make ironical „coincidences” even more poignant, Czerń which means „Blacks”) etc. It comes as no surprise that today’s relations between Poland and Ukrain bear a strong postcolonial traits as it can be observed in conflicting evaluation of national heroes (Bohdan Chmielnitsky, but even more Stepan Bandera – a hero for many Ukrainians and a bandit, or a terrorist, to use a more fashionable term, for the Poles), to places of memory (such as cemeteries in Lviv and other Ukrainian cities that used to have a considerable Polish community all the way until the Second World War) and in a general nostalgia that penetrates a lot of Polish discourses on Kresy, a very similar to the British nostalgia for the Raj.

Interestingly enough, this kind of postcolonial critique is completely lacking from the Polish „postcolonial studies” that focus on rewriting Polish historical defeats (partitions in the 19th century, the second world war, the soviet period) in the language of postcolonial theory. For this reason they should  not be called „studies” in any academic or intellectual sense of the word. As it was shown by many scholars, Ewa Thompson’s conceptual frame is self-contradictory and full if blind spots. Claudia Snochowska-Gonzalez was quite right to point out that the notion of “surrogate hegemon” supposedly explaining, why Poland tries to mimic the West, while it was colonized by Russia is an unjustified and unnecessary conceptual complication and its main purpose is to maintain the ideological message and not to account for the facts. As she argues, a much more plausible explication is that, just like many other societies who do not need to look for a surrogate hegemon, we like the West, because we like the West – or at least the West the way it is perceived: as rich and full of opportunities that lack elsewhere.6 The function of the local, Polish postcolonial discourse, although formally associated with the academia is primarily socio-political: it serves as a way to manage collective traumas of Polish history and to use them for specific political aims. It’s hostility towards the cultural mainstream of the Western world and ceaseless efforts to emphasize that „we are not inferior and we have our own patterns of social and cultural development” should not be mistaken with a self-pride. It’s rather a sign of profound complex of inferiority, much larger than that of the Western style liberal modernizers who are accused of lack of dignity. With all reservations that I have against liberalism, the liberals are at least historically more sober – they realize that „our own dear patterns of social and cultural development” are, as a matter of fact, patterns of lack of development and we should not look for inspiration in our own socio-cultural tradition.

Now, a question more interesting for an international reader: how the entire process of this conservative use made of the postcolonial studies changes our perception of postcolonial theory as such and how it puts into questions its supposedly subversive or emancipatory character. First of all, the entire obsession of authenticity and essence penetrating decolonizing world had been described before postcolonial critics started to develop their insights into the souls of the colonized. Clifford Geertz was writing back in 1969 of what he called a tension between „epochalism” and „essentialism” in the new, postcolonial states.7 He found the contradiction between going with the spirit of the epoch – liberal democracy, free market, social emancipation etc. – and cherishing one’s one particular past or essence to be defining for peripheral socio-cultural debates that followed the demise of colonial empires. From this point of view the case of Poland is just another story that repeats what Greetz witnessed in Indonesia or Morocco. What lies between the contemporary postcolonial „thinkers” in the peripheries and the time when Geertz made his observation is not only „postcolonial theory”, but also and mainly postmodernism, or to be more precise poststructuralism (or whatever one wants to call the whole body of texts that many, for instance Slavoj Žižek, refer to as „French bullshit”). In this particular point I do not agree with Stanley Bill – postmodernism received in the 1990-ties and early 2000s a quite a warm welcome from the Polish conservatives. One of its first Polish proponents was Zdzisław Krasnodębski, a philosopher and leading intellectual supporting Kaczyński brothers that just got himself elected to the European Parliament. What Polish conservatives saw in postmodernism was mainly its hostility towards Enlightenment, a denial of master narrations (including any form of emancipatory politics), affirmation of the „other of reason” – religion, local customs, alternative cultural logics (all that in the good old times would just be called by one word: “superstitions”) – and, last but not least, prizing of diversity that got to be automatically interpreted in the peripheries as our right to be different from the mainstream of modernity/enlightenment. It’s not surprising that the communitarian ideas of Will Kymlicka, Alasdair Macintyre, Michael Sandel or Charles Taylor received quite an attention from Polish intellectuals in the 1990-ties. Poststructuralist roots of postcolonial studies are well known and we can see an easy passage here. How close is it to the original intent of the postcolonial studies? One can argue that it’s a false interpretation, a kind of Karamazov complex: Ivan makes a purely theoretical, philosophical comment at the family table (the center) and his semi-retarded bastard brother (the peripheries) goes on to murder their father. The one who would like to defend the postcolonial studies could easily point to the figure of Franz Fanon as an important protagonist, who was a Marxist revolutionary and could not be held accountable for conservative reaction. It would not be intellectually fair to completely deny a Marxist origins of postcolonial studies and to focus solely on postmodernism. However, besides intellectual debates there is also social and political practice. And it’s in this sphere that Marxism suffered a huge blow in the 1990ties as a result of the fall of the USSR. One could complain it’s been somehow unjust as there is a vast Marxist narration that criticized the entire Soviet experiment and it would be difficult to find any major Marx’s work that logically leads to the Bolshevism of early 20th century Russia (one letter to Vera Zasulich from 1881 cannot account for such a foundation). That is, unfortunately, an academic approach, wrongly focusing, despite an insightful advice from Wittgenstein, on the meaning and not on the use. And the use of Marxism as well as of its defeat, was such that it delegitimized any forms of its existence in the mainstream of public life all the way until the crisis of 2008.8 In the East even far more than in the West. That is, in my opinion, a crucial circumstance that tilted the balance and made postcolonialism – in compliance with its poststructuralist and despite its Marxist roots – a deeply conservative and not a progressive discourse. The need for such a discourse – at the same time conservative and fashionable enough to pose as a vanguard of intellectual life, thus conquering the position that had been monopolized by the academic left since the 1960ties – existed before it, as I tried to show and what the abovementioned analysis of Clifford Geertz also proves. It was a need to articulate resentment in an intellectually acceptable way. Postcolonialism perfectly suited this urge and hence it’s carrier in the peripheries.

So, what do we do with the legacy of the postcolonial thought, now that its conservative intend has been proved beyond any reasonable doubt? Theoretically, there is a place for it. As I argued before, a sincere and systematic exploration of the colonial nature of the Polish relation to Ukraine (and Belarus) would be very needed. Especially know, that the fatal triangle Russia-Poland-Ukraine that haunted the history of the region for many centuries seems to be coming back to life. It’s a matter of tactical assessment whether maintaining the postcolonial studies, with their strongly conservative undertone, for such purposes is worth it or not (and whether we need postcolonial theory to do it – maybe classical history of culture could do?). Even a person not as convinced of the uselessness of the postcolonial thought as Vivek Chibber has to admit, that this branch of thought has not produced any major literature that would make quarreled nations reconcile over their troubled past. What’s worse and far more important in the contemporary world, it is even more obvious that no one has become materially better off thanks to the postcolonial theory. It just puts too much stress on recognition and not enough – if any – on redistribution. The major problem of poor postcolonial states is not to have the injustices done to them recognized, but to stop being poor. Unfortunately, a class issue comes into play here – postcolonial recognition is mainly the question for a given nation’s elites that do not need to care about how to make the ends meet. In this respect the postcolonial discourse, despite its apparently anti-establishment stand it has got in Poland, is as elitist as any other academic fashion. The main problem that Polish state should face is not how to stop pleasing to the Western world, but how to start pleasing to its own citizens, that clearly do not show postcolonial admiration with Polish traditions: in the first decade of our membership in the EU (2004-2014) almost 3 million people used the opportunities of the open European job market and escaped the country; that’s surely one of the biggest waves of emigration Poland has ever known in its troubled history, if not the biggest one. The last hype of Polish conservative thought, meant to address this problem, is something called „economical patriotism” that should be more rightly called „national capitalism” and regarded as an unfortunate variation of „national socialism” – a conviction that Poland could be better off if we had some Polish capital (and not only „capital in Poland”, as they say).9 One could think it’s a progress, because at least they realized that capitalism is not a system that benefits everyone, but mainly those who own capital. One could also see, how it goes hand in hand with the revindications of postcolonial theory, so we should not be surprised it includes imperialist claims and advocates for „a global expansion of Polish capital”. Would it somehow benefit people, who live in Poland? It’s doubtful as we can see huge groups of Western societies that have never benefited from the expansion of Western capital. If they ever got any crumbs, it’s only thanks to the struggle they have maintained – on the street and in the factories. Would this expansion benefit anyone outside Poland? Surely not. Even the contrary. Polish garment company LPP was among those that located their production in the infamous Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh that collapsed last year killing around 1300 people. LPP behaved much worse than major international companies and declined to pay any compensation to the workers. They argued that international brands, like Primark, are well established and rich, so are able to pay, while LPP is a rising company from a poorer country and cannot afford such compensations.10 As one would expect – the capital remains the capital and follows the logic that it finds the most profitable for itself.

We can clearly see the main problem behind the postcolonial discourse: again it all comes down to identity and recognition. If we believe, like many critics of postcolonial thought, including myself, that the main challenge for contemporary progressive politics is to develop a universal emancipatory narration that could conquer people’s imagination the way Marxism did a century ago, than postcolonial theory, despite the legacy of Franz Fanon often quoted in postcolonial text,11 is not a useful tool, but rather an obstacle. There are people, who like Peter Hallward, believe that there is a room for universalism within postcolonial theory.12 Maybe, theoretically, there is. But, again: don’t look at meaning, look at use. Given the entire conservative bias in the way postcolonial theory has been used, it would require a formidable effort to turn the tables. And if we succeeded, would it be a very useful tool? Even the wars between nations are not won by successfully convincing the public of one’s moral superiority and unjust suffering. There is no reason to believe that the class war ever will.


1.Frederic Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present, Verso, London 2002.
2.See Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to the Feudalism, New Left Books, London 1974 and Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist States, Verso, London 1979.
3.More on this point see the first volume of Immanuel Wallerstein’s The Modern World-System (University of California Press, Oakland 2011). The issue is also analyzed in detail in Fernand’s Braudel Civilisation matérielle, économie et capitalisme, XVe-XVIIIe siècle, vol. 2: Les jeux de l’échange (Armand Colin, Paris 1979).
4.I realize it’s an assertion that requires an elaborate proof – the one I developed elsewhere and I cannot repeat in detail here as it requires an extensive historical analysis (see Jan Sowa, Fantomowe ciało króla. Peryferyjne zmagania z nowoczesną formą, Universitas, Kraków 2011).
5.I skip enumerating their names and summarizing their point of view as that was skillfully done by Stanley Bill, so I’d have to refer to the same names and texts.
6.Claudia Snochowska-Gonzalez, Czy jesteśmy postkolonialni. O pewnym wrogim przejęciu, in: Joanna Tokarska Bakir (ed.), PL: Tożsaność wyborażona, Czarna Owca, Warszawa 2013. It’s an extended version of the text On an Unavoidable Misuse published in „East European Politics & Societies (vol. 26, no 4, pp. 708-723).
7.Clifford Geertz, After the Revolution: The Fate of Nationalism in the New States, in: Clifford Geertz, The Interpretaition of Cultures, Basic Books, New York 1973.
8.I wrote extensively on this issue on a different occasion. See my text An Unexpected Twist of Ideology. Neoliberalism and the Collapse of the Soviet Bloc, “Praktyka Teoretyczna”, 5/2012. Avaible on-line:
9.A classic example here is Jan Szomburg, a neoliberal intellectual from Gdańsk, Head of the Instytut Badań nad Gospodarką Rynkową.
10.They only changed their minds when an activist campaign by Clean Clothes Poland ashamed them so much that Café Kulturalna, a major youth night-club in Warsaw refused to host a concert sponsored by LPP, citing the company’s attitude towards the disaster at Rana Plaza as the reason.
11.References to Black Skin, White Masks outnumber by far references to The Wretched of The Earth, which is in itself a good illustration of the tilt that postcolonial theory has got itself into.
12.See Peter Hallward, Absolutely Postcolonial: Writing Between the Singular and the Specific, Menchester University Press, Menchester 2001.