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Seeking the Authentic: Polish Culture and the Nature of Postcolonial Theory

The notion of postcolonial theory has been floating around the Polish intellectual scene for the last ten years like a colorful balloon that nobody can ever quite capture or claim. Given the country’s experience of foreign occupation and domination throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – and an earlier quasi-colonial history of its own in present-day Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine – postcolonial theory seems at first glance to open some intriguing possibilities in Polish historical, political, sociological, cultural and literary studies. Indeed, various scholars in all these fields have advocated a turn towards it, though the discussion has generally failed to advance far beyond repeated prefatory remarks and prolegomena. Postcolonial theory in Poland increasingly resembles an unrealized possibility that has somehow already exhausted its creative potential – a stillborn theory.

Nevertheless, the slogan of “postcolonialism” continues to crop up in the Polish academy – and especially in public discourse – with increasing regularity. In many cases, the thinkers and writers applying the concepts of postcolonial theory have openly associated themselves with the Polish conservative right. This is surprising when we consider that postcolonial theory in its canonical forms owes a great deal to Marxist, postmodernist and feminist theories – none of which are especially dear to Polish conservatives. In this paper, I shall begin by examining this paradox, assessing why the theory might be so appealing to conservative intellectuals and how they have employed it. Yet postcolonial theory has also appeared in a very different ideological context in Poland – namely, in the work of Maria Janion, an eminent literary critic who belongs to the opposing side of the ideological divide in Poland’s contemporary “culture wars” between “traditionalist” and “progressive” factions. In my analysis of her work, I shall suggest that the fundamental imaginative repertoires fueling quite disparate visions of Poland’s past and future may turn out to have a great deal in common. On this basis, I shall bring the Polish case into broader discussions on the very nature of postcolonial theory, with particular reference to Vivek Chibber’s recent study, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (2013).

1. Postcolonial Theory as an Instrument of Conservative Discourse

First of all, I would like to briefly reconstruct a general outline of the Polish conservative version of postcolonial theory. Clearly there are important distinctions between diverse thinkers, but the theory tends to appear in a surprisingly consistent and homogeneous form. In my reconstruction, I shall refer primarily to the thought of four leading figures: the two literary scholars currently providing the main intellectual impetus, Ewa Thompson (Rice University) and Dariusz Skórczewski (John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin); the influential conservative magazine columnist and author, Rafał Ziemkiewicz; and the eminent poet, Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz.1

The basic shared assumption of all four thinkers is that Poland’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century history of domination, partition and conquest by foreign powers is essentially comparable with the colonization experienced by the peoples of Africa, Asia, the Americas and Australia. According to this narrative, the empires of Russia, Prussia and Austria “colonized” the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the end of the eighteenth century, dividing it into three “partitions.” A century and a half later – after two decades of renewed independent existence between the wars – the Soviet Union “colonized” the Second Polish Republic in 1944.2 These historical experiences imprinted themselves deeply in Polish thought, politics, culture, art and literature throughout these periods. Today the imprints are still evident in all these cultural spheres – and in a general Polish “mentality” – since Poland is now a classically “postcolonial” culture. From this point of departure, the authors of the narrative set about applying the highly developed apparatus of postcolonial theory to the Polish case, using its key concepts as ready-made explanatory tools, introducing certain adjustments only where the specific context necessitates them.

According to Skórczewski, the Western European powers “orientalized” Polish culture in a fashion similar to the operations first described by Edward Said in relation to the Middle East – feminizing Polish men and assigning a lower level of cultural development to the entire region.3 Poles subsequently interiorized these judgments, and now they suffer from a typically postcolonial inferiority complex. Thompson argues that Homi Bhabha’s concepts of “mimicry” and “hybridity” are also relevant to the Polish case, since an orientalized, denigrated and devalued Polish culture has sought slavishly to mimic the patterns of its colonizers, thus giving rise to a new hybrid culture characterized by a mingling of native and foreign elements.4 All four thinkers agree that this hybridity and deferential mimicry now find expression above all in the ideology of Poland’s cosmopolitan “elites,” which include members of the “liberal” ruling Civic Platform party, as well as journalists associated with Adam Michnik’s Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper and with TVN television. These “elites” supposedly deny the native soil from which they have sprung, always looking to Western Europe and the United States for cultural, political and artistic models to follow, disdaining everything naturally “Polish” as inferior. On this basis, Ziemkiewicz characterizes the primary political and cultural fault line in contemporary Poland as a division between “creoles” and “natives,” between those whose minds are captive to the postcolonial mentality and those who have freed themselves of it in a return to an original “Polishness.”5

In general, the Polish conservative postcolonial theorists simply apply Said’s and Bhabha’s most famous slogans without much discussion of their nuances or local specificities. At the same time, certain troubling inconsistencies inevitably demand theoretical solutions more precisely adapted to Polish circumstances. For instance, Russia – in both its imperial and Soviet manifestations – has been the major colonizer in the Polish case, yet it would be difficult to find examples of Polish cultural phenomena consciously mimicking Russian models, since Poles have tended to view themselves as civilizationally superior to the “barbarian Mongols” to their east. Accordingly, Russian political domination of Poland has never implied the accompanying cultural hegemony so typical of other colonial contexts. Today this fact is also evident in post-communist Poland. Indeed, none of the theorists claim that the so-called “creole” elites look to Russia for their cultural models. The most recent colonial experience is Soviet and eastern, yet the hybridized culture looks longingly to the west.

The conservative theorists develop two solutions to this problem. First, we find a certain conflation of the structures and ideology of European integration with those of the Soviet Union under the broad banner of political “leftism.” For instance, Rymkiewicz insists that “the European Union was invented precisely . . . in the period of early communism.”6 Thompson does not support such excessive claims. Instead, she devises a second solution to the problem: the notion of the “surrogate hegemon.”7 In short, since the oppressed Poles could not find a cultural hegemon in their barbaric eastern colonizers, they had to search elsewhere to satisfy their need to be subordinate. The west became the shining ideal for post-communist Polish elites, whose members were already accustomed to obediently following instructions from outside the country.

I do not wish to discuss the specific validity of this application of postcolonial theory here, though various other Polish scholars have pointed to what they regard as fundamental differences between Poland’s situation and the circumstances of the postcolonial Global South. Some have proposed the term “post-dependency” as more appropriate to the Polish situation.8 However, I am more interested in examining how the Polish conservative postcolonial theory functions in order to make some broader points about the question of “culture” in Poland and about postcolonial theory more generally. Above all, postcolonial theory is useful to Polish conservatives because in its most simplified form it fundamentally represents an ethical and political project with strongly essentializing tendencies. As Skórczewski puts it, the central issue here is “the ethical project of postcolonial redefinition of Poles’ identity.”9

The most important function of postcolonial theory in this sense is not to describe the reality of Polish cultural history – insofar as this could ever be possible – but rather to diagnose and evaluate the political and cultural order of contemporary Poland. Indeed, when the word “postcolonial” appears in Polish public discourse, it inevitably imposes a value judgment. I shall argue that this is not only the case when conservatives use it, though – by and large – conservatives have found the term most conducive to their aims of defending traditional, Catholic values and a “primordialist” understanding of nation against new multiculturalist, individualist and civic models of identity.

Here the postcolonial theory comes into play on an immediately political level. The “creoles” are the liberal political and intellectual elites, supposedly holding themselves scornfully above the backward masses, while the “natives” are the rest of the Polish nation, whose interests are represented by the socially conservative Law and Justice opposition party, the Catholic Church or various neo-nationalist groups – with whom Thompson, Rymkiewicz and Ziemkiewicz, respectively, identify.10 The division between “creoles” and “natives” is axiological. The “creoles” are self-hating Poles, internally divided, pretentious, artificial, inauthentic, smitten with the West and its alien values, incapable of thinking for themselves, “lemmings” – as the conservative press likes to call them – haunted by complexes resulting from an interiorized sense of inferiority inculcated by the western “surrogate hegemons.” The “natives” are simple, authentic, deeply committed to Christian values, proud of their own traditions, devoid of any complexes before the West. As Leszek Koczanowicz characterizes it, the basic opposition is between “the real Poland” and the “fake or inauthentic Poland.”11

Postcolonial theory lends this opposition between alleged authenticity and inauthenticity a strongly ethical dimension, as well as a sense of historical telos. The creole elite is on the wrong side of history, trapped within its own colonized mentality, while the masses of the Polish nation – perhaps lulled to sleep or partly colonized by creole propaganda – must eventually rise to reclaim their authentic identity. This is unmistakably a rhetoric of emancipation, or even of revolution – a conservative revolution. Various conservative writers, including the poet Rymkiewicz, have employed the classic metaphor from Adam Mickiewicz’s national mystery play Forefather’s Eve, Part III to describe the current historical phase. The nation is like lava, with a cold crust as its upper layer and fire deep within.12 Eventually, the revolutionary volcanic eruption will occur, and indeed many conservative commentators welcomed the surge in activism around the 2010 Smolensk catastrophe as the first rumblings of revolution.

Here the Polish case sheds a particularly stark light on the general potential of postcolonial theory to essentialize and exclude. In this sense, it may make a key contribution to important debates taking place within the broader field. As early as 1993, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak backed away from her earlier concept of a “strategic use of essentialism,” lamenting that her notion “simply became the union ticket for essentialism.”13 More recently, in 2013, Vivek Chibber has advanced a more radical argument in his book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, claiming that postcolonial theories, particularly those of the so-called “subalternist school,” ultimately promote a strongly essentializing vision of culture, especially in the case of non-Western societies. Consequently, such theories have obscured the global reach or relevance of capitalism, class and the universalist Enlightenment projects of emancipation.

According to Chibber: “The lasting contribution of postcolonial theory . . . will be its revival of cultural essentialism and its acting as an endorsement of orientalism, rather than being an antidote to it.”14 To put the problem in other terms, postcolonial theory defends the specificity of local cultures, but in doing so it risks falling into a form of “culturalism,” placing illegitimate limitations on the repertoire of emancipatory action available to individuals in specific places. The emphasis on essential cultural difference obscures both the universal power of capital and the universal human needs forming the basis of any potential resistance to it: “The core thesis of postcolonial studies is that a deep structural chasm separates East and West, so much so that it undermines any framework claiming universal applicability.”15

Chibber seems particularly astonished that postcolonial discourse has become so prevalent on the left: “For two hundred years, anybody who called herself progressive embraced . . . universalism. It was simply understood that the reason workers or peasants could unite across national boundaries is because they shared certain material interests. This is now being called into question by subaltern studies, and it’s quite remarkable that so many people on the Left have accepted it.”16 The subalternist project of emancipation is fundamentally anti-leftist in its attack on the concept of common class interests across cultures and the accompanying underestimation of capital’s universalizing power. Therefore, the theory’s popularity among ostensibly “leftist” intellectuals appears to Chibber as a terrible misunderstanding: “The irony of the project is that, while it presents itself as the new face of radical critique, as the leading edge of criticism in an age of global capitalism, its arguments resurrect key pillars of conservative ideology.”17

In this context, the Polish case seems tailor-made for Chibber’s claims, effectively exposing the true nature of postcolonial theory as he understands it. There is nothing ironic or inconsistent about the Polish conservative postcolonial project. After all, its aim is quite explicitly to “resurrect key pillars of conservative ideology.” The Polish conservative theorists evince a strong positive interest in promoting cultural essentialism and anti-universalism, since they wish to propagate a particular vision of exclusive and integral “Polishness.” More important, the resulting incapacity to launch a critique of global capitalism is a perfect fit with Polish conservatism, because its critical project is not directed at capitalism, but rather at Eastern European communism and its supposed remnants as a postcolonial system.

Chibber attacks the subalternists for their poorly supported claims that “the forms of domination that obtain in postcolonial formations are not capitalist, and that they cannot therefore be analyzed through categories developed by political economy.”18 Yet in the Polish case, the postcolonial formations condemned by conservative theorists may ­genuinely not be capitalist at all. Indeed, the most recent “colonizer” in Poland was the Soviet Union, whose military power installed a government that dismantled private capital in the country and introduced a system of centralized economic planning. These colonizers were at least ostensibly communists. Accordingly, it comes as no surprise that the leader of the conservative Law and Justice party, Jarosław Kaczyńsk, would accuse the ruling elites in contemporary Poland of presiding over a system that is both “postcolonial” and “post-communist,” where these terms are almost synonymous.19 For many Polish conservatives, including Ziemkiewicz and Rymkiewicz, postcolonial emancipation partly continues to mean liberation from a dominant leftist agenda which they still perceive in the political structures of post-1989 Poland and even of the European Union. In other words, the Polish conservative postcolonial theory negatively confirms Chibber’s hypothesis by uniting fierce anti-leftism with a powerful emancipatory political project rooted in visions of authentic culture.

2. “Authentic Culture” and the Black Hole of History

The question immediately arises: if contemporary Poland is postcolonial, culturally hybridized and inauthentic, then when did the authentic Poland exist? There are various responses to this question, but Ewa Thompson’s is clearly the most prevalent. She finds the authentic Poland in the pre-partition era of Sarmatianism – the peculiar gentry culture of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that dominated from its golden age in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to its long decline over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. According to Thompson, the historical and literary documents from this period reveal a fiercely independent and self-reliant republican culture, comfortable in its own skin, justly proud of its own productions, somewhat disinterested in the outside world, unselfconsciously taking its place as an equal among other European cultures.20 Yet here the argument begins to break down, as essentializing claims about authentic culture are perhaps bound to do.

The Sarmatian era in Polish culture was precisely characterized by an extraordinarily high level of hybridity and mimicry of foreign models. We need only walk the streets of Krakow – the former royal capital – to appreciate this fact. The medieval core of the city was laid out according to a German framework for urban planning and legal regulation dictated by the Magdeburg Rights. Many of the city’s distinctive structures and interiors were built in Italian styles by Italian architects. Thompson herself concedes that most Polish noblemen of the era received their educations in Western Europe. Even the greatest Polish poet of the time, Jan Kochanowki, had his university education in Prussia and Italy. His lyric poetry borrowed substantially from the model of Pierre de Ronsard, whom he met in France, while his famous drama – The Dismissal of the Grecian Envoys (1578) – was heavily indebted to the innovations of the Italian Gian Giorgio Trissino’s earlier tragedy, Sophonisba (1524).21

Thompson and Skórczewski both refer to the postcolonial concept of “necessary fictions” constructed by nations afflicted by a cultural inferiority complex – myths hailing an ancient and glorious past. Yet Thompson does not consider the necessarily fictional function of the Sarmatian myth itself, founded on the curious claim that Polish noblemen were descendants of the ancient Iranian Sarmatian tribe. This myth led to a peculiar self-orientalization, the adoption of various extravagant styles of eastern custom and dress, perhaps in an attempt to define a glorious Polish historical identity separate from the dominating influence of Western European cultural forms. Moreover, the specific content of the myth itself imposed a highly colonial interpretation of Polish history, according to which an Iranian tribe had swept into Slavic lands and conquered the native population. The ensuing divide between the ruling Sarmatian szlachta22 and the downtrodden Slavic peasantry was far more severe than any contemporary division between “creoles” and “natives.” So where is the authentic Poland?

In fact, the problem of authenticity runs much deeper than these specific observations. Clearly all cultures are hybridized and dynamic, since no human culture has developed without any contact whatsoever with other cultures. Nevertheless, in the canonical postcolonial cases, one can – at least in principle – draw a relatively clear line between “native” cultural content and the aggressive incursions of the colonizing cultural hegemon. This is especially clear in the Americas and Australia, where fully formed and developed local cultures encountered Western cultures they had never previously seen. So the line between “authentic” and “inauthentic” content in the postcolonial context of contemporary Australian Aboriginal cultures is often not difficult to locate, though even here the idea of cultural authenticity is problematic, once again throwing the essentializing tendencies of postcolonial theory into a stark light.23 Things are even more complex in the South Asian and African spheres – which had often seen varying degrees of earlier contact with European cultures – though undoubtedly certain crucial and identifiable political, religious and economic distinctions remained.

The Polish situation is nothing like these classic postcolonial cases. From its symbolic beginnings with the baptism of Mieszko I in 966, Polish culture has always been a hybridized culture developing under the influence of Western and Southern European “colonizing” influences. In fact, the symbolic beginning is above all an irruption of hybridity, the dragging of Slavic lands along the Warta and Vistula Rivers into the orbit of Western Christianity and its associated culture. The symbolic origin of Polish nationhood lies in an act of cultural colonization willingly accepted by a tribal elite for immediate political gain, as the nascent state adopted the Christian religion from Rome in order to stymy the aggressive intentions of the Germanic Holy Roman Empire. According to this theory, Mieszko I would become the first “creole,” betraying the earlier “authentic” elements of his own pagan culture.

The distinguished literary scholar Maria Janion – who is renowned as a strong critic of traditionalist versions of Polish culture – has developed her own postcolonial theory based on a similar vision of history in her book, Uncanny Slavdom (Niesamowita słowiańszczyzna, 2006). Her project unites multiple threads, yet an important part of her argument is that Polish culture is still deeply scarred by an original colonial encounter with Latin civilization via an often brutal conversion to Christianity. The Western Slavs lost their mythology, and thus their cultural identity, extinguished by the missionary zeal of the new cultural masters.24 Janion finds the traces of this deep wound in certain classic works of Polish literature, particularly from the Romantic era, where Slavic mythological motifs frequently appear, almost like the return of the repressed. From 966 onward, Poles have been alienated from themselves, feeling inferior to the colonizing West, as peripheral latecomers to Latin civilization, and superior to the Slavic East, where they have often entertained a colonial sense of civilizing mission. As the playwright Sławomir Mrożek once formulated the dilemma, Poland has been east of the West and west of the East.25 For Janion, the contemporary Polish imagination must struggle against the ghosts of this originary colonization, which express themselves in what she calls the “messianism of national megalomania.”26 Janion complains that Poland in its current form is “a shallow monolith, mostly national and Catholic.”27 In order to join Europe on truly equal terms, it must first throw off this restrictive monolithic identity, embrace diversity and its own uncanny eastern Slavicness – its “niesamowita słowiańszczyzna.” In other words, it must overcome the legacy of its original colonization by Latin Christianity.

What strikes me most here is that Janion essentially uses the “postcolonial” moniker for the same distinctly political purposes as the conservative theorists – namely, to draw a fundamental line between authentic and inauthentic identity. While Thompson draws the line at the close of the Sarmatian era, Janion simply goes further back in time to the tenth-century

Christianization and the beginnings of the Polish nation within the Latin Christian political system, where an alien new religion and mythology imposed themselves on an authentic pre-Christian Slavic proto-Poland. Accordingly, those who would support the model of a national and Catholic Poland today – that is, the opposition Law and Justice Party, the conservative media and the more radical nationalist political options – stand for an inauthentic Poland, an alienated and complex-ridden Poland, a postcolonial Poland. Once again, the argument is primarily political rather than historical, and its aim is to exclude. History appears only as a useful tool in an ongoing ideological struggle over the political and cultural shape of contemporary Poland.

Postcolonial theory in its diverse Polish forms inevitably returns to the contemporary political question of authenticity:  what or who is the real Poland? With her account of the Latin colonization of the Western Slavs, Janion unwittingly reproduces the narrative of Polish martyrdom and exceptionalism she is so keen to oppose, since she does not acknowledge that this history – in diverse forms – is common to all European nations, all of which have their own pre-Christian repressed. After all, Europe as a whole is essentially the product of the encounter between southern Latin Christianity, with its classical civilizational foundations, and various northern and western pagan cultures. Admittedly, Poland came into existence relatively late on the geographical periphery of this European scene, and it has historically tended to be a net consumer rather than producer of influential cultural models. Therefore, as Ryszard Nycz observes, we can only come to appreciate the originality and uniqueness of Polish cultural productions after a full recognition of this peripheral status.28

Postcolonial theory is of little use in this context. Both the putative colonization and peripherality of Polish culture are inscribed into its very origin, which ultimately cannot be separated from the symbolic moment of 966, since everything before this moment is practically inaccessible to historiographical reflection – a black hole or cultural unconscious that betrays its existence only in traces. We shall never uncover the “authentic” Poland, so we are left with a peripheral, hybridized and dynamic Poland whose political existence has been fragile and whose participation in European culture has often been characterized by what we might alternatively describe as “belatedness.” Yet scholars and public intellectuals on both sides of the Polish culture wars continue their search for “the authentic.”

3. Postcolonial Theory and the Problem of Culturalism

Liberal critiques of the essentializing “right-wing” version of postcolonial theory in Poland are equally susceptible to the trap of fetishizing certain “authentic” visions of Polishness to the exclusion of others. In this sense, when Maria Janion argues for the shaping of a “new Polish imaginary” in the face of what she calls a “crisis in Polish identity,” she seems to be saying that a new “Polish identity” can be imagined that would somehow be more coherent with the “authentic” nature of its Slavic origins.29 Instead of orientalizing Russia by insisting on its inferiority to a European Poland, Poles should embrace their own non-“European,” “Slavic” identity. Only in this way will Poland be able to take its independent place – unfettered by complexes or narrow parochialism – at the political and cultural table of a redefined and united Europe. Janion wishes to point to an “alternative way of thinking about [Poland’s] place in Europe.”30 In her solution, we find echoes of Witold Gombrowicz’s arguments from half a century earlier in the first volume of his Diary: “We will not be a truly European people until we separate ourselves from Europe because being European does not mean fusing with Europe, but being one of its integral parts, a very distinct, integral part.”31

What is most surprising here is that Janion – famous as a sworn enemy of integral nationalist visions of culture – turn out to be a “nationalist” herself, at least in the ethno-symbolist understanding of this term outlined by Anthony D. Smith: “The nationalist’s overall aim is to ground the nation on firm and ‘authentic’ foundations  . . . to unite the community, restore its autonomy and self-expression and, in this way, to prepare it to take its rightful place in the concert of nations.”32 According to Smith, ethnicity provides the most typical foundation for such narratives – and this would certainly appear to be the case in Janion’s theory of “uncanny Slavicness.”

Undoubtedly, Janion offers a broader and more inclusive model of Polishness than the primordial nationalists of the right wing. However, she still reveals an essentializing sense of a singular cultural history that can and perhaps should dictate how people imagining themselves as “Poles” – and this remains a largely unproblematic category – are to define themselves in contemporary times. Consequently, the present situation of young Polish citizens emigrating, or saying “farewell to Poland,” for a more liberated European identity appears to Janion as a cultural crisis in need of creative cultural solutions. Poles must rediscover or perhaps even recreate the authentic dimensions of their own natural culture. Throughout Janion’s narrative, authentic “Polish culture” seems to exist above all for those who can imaginatively trace their identity – and their identity troubles – back to the time of the pagan Slavic tribes before the crucial moment of Christianization.

One way or another, such arguments exhibit a species of culturalism, or what Leszek Koczanowicz describes as the “culturological illusion,” assuming “a continuity of culture and its tropes . . . that goes beyond any economic, political or social changes.”33 In the very different context of the culturally pluralist United States of America, Walter Benn Michaels argues that “the question of which culture we belong to is relevant only if culture is anchored in race.”34 His point is that any sense that particular people have a right or responsibility to attach themselves to particular cultures is ultimately grounded on the assumption of essential racial distinctions. Therefore, the supposedly progressive ethos of cultural pluralism is at heart a racialist doctrine, since it is “the appeal to race that makes culture an object of affect and that gives notions like losing our culture, preserving it, stealing someone else’s culture, restoring people’s culture to them, and so on, their pathos.”35 At the same time, this focus on race obscures the operation of economic inequality across racial boundaries.

Can we discern a similarly racialized doctrine in the distinctly non-multicultural Polish case? Clearly the conservative “postcolonial” theorists assume that “Polishness” is the right culture for “Poles.” But do they understand the word “Pole” in an ethnic, political, religious or geopolitical context? Would Jewish Poles have the same right to this culture? Apparently not, since Thompson concedes that her Sarmatian myth would be “hard to imagine without Catholicism in its background,”36 while Skórczewski advocates a current of thought that would find “the core of national self-identification in Christianity.”37 Janion undoubtedly offers broader possibilities, arguing that young Poles would not feel so inclined to renounce their Polishness in favor of a liberating European identity if Polish culture were more “diverse” and “colorful.” In this way, she follows other more liberal scholars in seeking to forge “broader communities that would offer a secular plane for people to come together.”38 Yet this still suggests a cultural solution to a cultural problem, while crucial questions remain as to which specific characteristics would then define the borders of this broader culture and for whom it would exist.

Perhaps “Polish culture” would denote a purely linguistic territory, so that Polishness would reduce itself to a certain rootedness in the Polish language and its products. But then what about culturally self-identifying “Poles” who do not speak Polish, like so many Polish Americans or the descendants of people deported from Poland’s former eastern territories to Soviet Central Asia? And what of Polish-speaking people in Israel who feel irrevocably cut off from “Polish culture”? Janion speaks of “Poles” as if this term in itself constituted a perfectly natural classification. The challenge for her is to create a more modern and inclusive “Polish culture” to replace the outmoded patriarchal, national and Catholic model. The new culture would find space for women, non-Catholics, sexual minorities and its own “Slavic” roots. Yet the very notion of “Poles” still remains a strongly essentialized category in this schema, perhaps despite Janion’s intentions, and the new culture would predominantly exist for them.

Although Janion never says so explicitly, it is difficult not to conclude from her argument that the unspoken foundations of “Polishness,” especially with its “Slavic” provenance restored, are ultimately ethnic. For instance, Janion speaks of the mixed emotions of superiority and inferiority that have haunted the attitudes of “Poles towards Jews.”39 Such a statement makes little sense if we assume – as the multicultural narrative of Polish identity theoretically does – that a person may be both Polish and Jewish at the same time. Perhaps we might define the tension as a clash between  Jewish Poles and Catholic Poles, or between cultural Poles and ethnic Poles. Either way, Polish culture would appear as a choice, or at best a single element within a hybridized identity, for members of the merely cultural group, while it would seem naturally destined for or rooted in the very nature of those belonging to the ethnic category.

The persuasive power of Janion’s argument lies in the outraged sense that patriarchal, Latin Christian, “anti-Slavic,” racist and homophobic distortions have robbed “Poles” of their “authentic culture.” Admittedly, this authenticity appears in her writings more as a provisional and imaginary construct than as a lost historical reality. Yet ethnicity emerges very clearly as the essential measure of cultural identity, as Janion focuses her central thesis on the powerful claims supposedly flowing from the cultural unconscious of “uncanny Slavicness,” the hidden call of ethnic origin, which returns like a collective repressed in literature and art.

Janion’s postcolonial project, like those of the conservative theorists, consistently ignores the potential significance of other social structures, including class, in favor of an emancipatory project that emphasizes cultural specificity, authenticity and continuity. By focusing on culture and ethnicity, Janion’s argument falls into the “subalternist” pattern outlined by Vivek Chibber in Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. The forces of international capitalism occasionally appear in the background of her discussion, but their significance remains strangely indeterminate. For instance, she mentions in passing that young Poles first began to emigrate “after the opening of the European job markets,” and yet she focuses almost exclusively on cultural rather than economic explanations of this phenomenon.40 In Chibber’s terms, “the most powerful social and structural force in the world becomes a wisp of smoke, something so ghostly that one becomes not quite sure it exists.”41

Jan Sowa has provided a partial explanation for the general paucity of reflections on class, capitalism and political economy in the Polish humanities and social sciences by pointing to an “historically determined aversion” to Marxist thought.42 Initially, as Sowa observes, this inhibited the development of postcolonial theory in Poland. However, I would argue that various conservative intellectuals have eventually made the same discovery as Vivek Chibber – namely, that postcolonial theory is at odds with leftist intellectual traditions of universalism and the defense of class interests across cultural boundaries. Within Chibber’s framework, Maria Janion simply falls into the same contradictions as the “subalternists,” defending cultural specificity at the unintended expense of universal interests. Yet the right-wing Polish thinkers produce a much more ideologically consistent argument – whatever its logical flaws. Postcolonial theory offers a ready-made instrument for pursuing the explicitly conservative objective of defending exclusionary and essentialist visions of authentic culture against universalist claims, including those based on Marxist understandings of capitalism or class. The peculiarities of the Polish case make this patently clear.

In post-communist Poland, it has thus far proven extraordinarily difficult to forge a vision of culture and society independent of ethnicity, where the essence of ethnicity lies in imagined ties of ancestry and kinship stretching back into the mists of history. Even the most inclusive models imply that Polish culture – though it should seek to welcome members of other ethnic groups – is above all the natural inheritance of ethnic Poles, the imagined descendants of the West Slavic tribes that moved into the area between the Oder and Vistula rivers during the first millennium. As Poland grows wealthier and begins to attract greater numbers of immigrants from other parts of the world, two crucial questions will increasingly arise. Will the new arrivals on the diversifying labor market become “Poles”? And will “Poles” embrace hybridity and abandon the claims of “authentic” culture?


1. Here it is worth pointing out that Jarosław Kaczyński – the leader of the main conservative opposition party, Law and Justice (PiS) –  has also referred to the concept of “postcolonialism” on numerous occasions.
2. In July 1944 – as the Red Army steadily drove the Wehrmacht back to Berlin – the Soviets established a provisional government in Lublin to oppose the London-based Polish government in exile. The communist successors of this government were effectively to rule Poland under Soviet auspices until 1989.
3. See: Dariusz Skórczewski, “Polska skolonizowana, polska zorientalizowana: Teoria postkolonialna wobec “Innej Europy,” Porównania 6 (2009): 96-105.
4. See: Ewa Thompson, “Sarmatyzm i postkolonializm: o naturze polskich resentymentów,” Dziennik (11 May 2007); “A jednak kolonializm: Uwagi epistemologiczne,” Teksty Drugie 6 (2011): 303-314.
5. See: Rafał Ziemkiewicz, “W Polsce, jak w krajach postkolonialnych, funkcjonuje podział na ‘kreoli’ i ‘tubylców’,” Polska Times (10 July 2011).
6. Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz, “Elity nie potrzebują Polski – wywiad z Jarosławem Markiem Rymkiewiczem.” Bibuła: Pismo niezależne (11 December 2010).
7. Ewa Thompson, “Postkolonialne refleksje: Na marginesie pracy zbiorowej ‘From Sovietology to Postcoloniality: Poland and Ukraine from a Postcolonial Perspective’ pod redakcją Janusza Korka,” Porównania 5 (2008), p. 117.
8. See: Dorota Kołodziejczyk, “Postkolonialny transfer na Europę Środkowo-Wschodnią,” Teksty Drugie 5 (2010): 22-39; Grażyna Borkowska, “Perspektywa postkolonialna na gruncie polskim: Pytania sceptyka,” Teksty Drugie 5 (2010): 40-52.
9. Dariusz Skórczewski, “Towards a Better Understanding of the Self: Polish Literature in the Light of Postcolonial Theory,” The Task of Interpretation: Hermeneutics, Psychoanalysis and Literary Studies, eds. Dariusz Skórczewski, Andrzej Wierciński and Edward Fiała (Lublin: The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, 2009), p. 194.
10. Thompson and Rymkiewicz have expressed sympathies with the Law and Justice party, while Ziemkiewicz has associated himself with a reactivation of the interwar nationalist tradition.
11. Leszek Koczanowicz, “Post-postkomunizm a kulturowe wojny,” Teksty Drugie 5 (2010), p. 11.
12. See Joanna Lichocka’s interview with Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz, “Czy to już koniec Jarosława Kaczyńskiego? Rymkiewicz woli wierzyć w niepodległości,” Newsweek (22 November 2010).
13. See: Sara Danius, Stefan Jonsson and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “An Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak,” boundary 2 2.20 (Summer 1993), p. 35. Spivak described this strategy in her essay “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography” as follows: “I would read [the work of Subaltern Studies] as a strategic use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest.” See: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (New York: Methuen, 1987), p. 205.
14. Vivek Chibber, “How Does the Subaltern Speak?” Jacobin (April 2013).
15. Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (London: Verso, 2013), p. 284.
16. Chibber, “How Does the Subaltern Speak?”
17. Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. p. 286.
18. Ibid. Chibber supplies considerable evidence throughout his book in support of this critique, claiming that postcolonial theorists have generally misunderstood the role of the bourgeoisie within capitalist systems and failed to appreciate the general capacity of capital to subordinate diverse cultural systems without necessarily changing every aspect of them.
19. See: “Kaczyński: PO jest główną formacją postkomunistyczną,” (22 October 2013). Ewa Thompson has strongly supported Kaczyński as an opponent of both postcolonial and post-communist formations in Poland: “For the first time in the postcommunist reality, somebody in Poland has shown some political common sense and built a party without people associated with Polish or international ‘fellow travelers” of communism.” See: Ewa Thompson, “W kolejce po aprobatę,” (11 May 2007).
20. Ewa Thompson, “Sarmatyzm i postkolonializm: o naturze polskich resentymentów,” Dziennik (11 May 2007).
21. Reul K. Wilson, “Kochanowski and Ronsard: Contemporaries and Kindred Spirits,” Polish Review 22.1 (1977), p. 20.
22. Of course, this word – which refers to the noble class – is also clearly of foreign origin, probably from Old High German, though the precise etymology is disputed.
23. Apart from the great diversity of distinct Aboriginal cultures inhabiting the Australian continent at the time of the European arrival, scholars have pointed to likely cultural influence in the north from the nearby islands of present-day Indonesia and Melanesia. For instance, see: Tony Swain, A Place for Strangers: Towards a History of Australian Aboriginal Being (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
24. Maria Janion, Niesamowita słowiańszczyzna: Fantazmaty literatury (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2006 ), p. 17.
25. Ibid., p. 11.
26. Ibid., p. 329.
27. Ibid., p. 330.
28. See: Ryszard Nycz, “Możliwa historia literatury,” Teksty Drugie 5 (2010), p. 178. Nycz is speaking specifically of Polish literature here.
29. Janion, Niesamowita słowiańszczyzna, p. 329.
30. Ibid., p. 179. 
31. Witold Gombrowicz, Diary: Volume One, trans. Lillian Vallee (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988), p. 121.
32. Anthony D. Smith, Ethno-Symbolism and Nationalism: A Cultural Approach (London: Routledge, 2009), p. 66.
33. Koczanowicz, “Postkomunizm a kulturowe wojny,” p. 20.
34. Walter Benn Michaels, “Race into Culture: A Critical Genealogy of Cultural Identity,” Critical Inquiry 18.4 (Summer 1992), p. 684.
35. Ibid., p. 685.
36. Ewa Thompson, “Stefan Żeromski’s Ashes as a Postcolonial Narrative,” Historyka: Studia Metodologiczne T. XLII (2012), p. 83.
37. Skórczewski, “Trudności z tożsamością,” p. 142.
38. Janion, Niesamowita słowiańszczyzna, p. 330.
39. Ibid., p. 328.
40. Janion, Niesamowita słowiańszczyzna, p. 330.
41. Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, p. 288.