Far-right movements are becoming ever more popular in Europe: a controversial bill that stifles free speech regarding Poland’s role in the Holocaust has recently been signed into law by the country’s president, Andrzej Duda.
The law was introduced by Poland’s largest party in parliament, Law and Justice, a far-right nationalist party. Once the law goes into effect, it would be illegal to accuse Poland of having any responsibility in bringing about the Holocaust and would also forbid the usage of any term that implicates the country, such as “Polish Death Camps.” Poland is not the only country that has introduced a law to minimize its role in the Holocaust. Lithuania, Latvia, and Ukraine have all created legislation that influences public perception regarding these countries’ roles in collaborating with the Nazis and either rounding up or killing Jewish citizens.
The bill will be reviewed by Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal to ensure that it is in conformity with the constitution. However, it is expected that the law will come into effect before any far-reaching amendments can be made by either the tribunal or another party. This is not an isolated incident for Poland. On the celebration of its Independence Day, thousands of citizens championing white-supremacist, anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic, and nationalistic views marched through Warsaw. When compared to Poland’s entire population, this group of demonstrators is quite small; regardless, it is still rather scary that this behavior is now public.
One may not be surprised by yet another far-right movement gaining popularity in today’s world. From France’s Marine Le Pen and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders to the United Kingdom Independence Party and Alternative for Germany party, one would be hard-pressed to not find some neoreactionary movement in Europe. What is even more striking is that many of the countries that host these movements have a long and rich history of supporting and even helping found liberalism: Alexis de Tocqueville from France, Baruch Spinoza from the Netherlands, John Locke (and countless others) from the United Kingdom, and Immanuel Kant from Germany. So, what happened? Delving into the development of liberalism might provide an answer.
Going back to the twentieth century, one can find that liberalism has an especially nostalgic place in people’s’ minds as the bulwark of ‘decent’ civilization, such as not sacrificing the one for the many or repressing the minority for the benefit of the majority. To many, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union represented a disinterest towards the individual and a focus on the group; the individual is just a cog in the greater machine instead of the integral part of the state. Eastern European countries, especially Poland, were the first to witness the violent, totalitarian dispositions of the Nazis and the Soviets, so the upsurge in reactionary activity has a bitter irony to it.
Liberalism promised that everyone mattered and that one was not just a small piece in a large political puzzle. Individual rights were not just a focus; they were the cornerstone of liberal thought. This thought is best expressed in John Stuart Mill’s harm principle: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
This radical individualism was then invoked in support of democracy: every individual has a right to decide those who lead them.
However, what happens when people feel that their individual rights and culture are being threatened by entire groups of people? In countries like Poland, the solution is to hold mass nationalistic demonstrations against Islam, claiming that it has no place in Polish national life. What happens when democracies feel that they would be better led by a single powerful leader rather than a collection of weaker representatives? In countries like the Philippines, the people elect an individual who believes that the best way to solve a drug crisis is to perform mass extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers.
How should these occurrences be viewed? Are they a departure from liberalism? If so, then why did liberalism become unattractive? Are they a product of liberalism? If so, then how could this system lead to outcomes which seem so at odds with the views that liberals champion, such as multiculturalism and ‘power to the people’? It seems hard to believe that Poland, the punching bag for non-liberal movements in the Twentieth Century, has decided to adopt one that is so at odds with what the West supports.
If liberalism is not a perfect solution to political issues, is liberalism still worth championing?
Some claim that it is. Despite the resurgent right, this is probably one of the most common views. This view would claim that liberalism continues to represent the best of humanity and is still a cause worth championing. After all, the onset of liberalism in the Western Hemisphere helped bring about a commitment to industrialization, individual rights, and a promotion of democratic peace. The Allies in World War II only attacked Germany once Hitler invaded Poland. By then it was evident that negotiation and peaceful rhetoric would not suffice in stopping the German war machine. One could argue that the United Kingdom’s hesitation to go to war was because it would be unpopular with its citizens, but it is not a stretch to believe that there was some ideological underpinning to the British aversion to war. Peace and liberal values were valuable as ends to themselves and may still remain to be. The hiccups that the world has recently seen are just a healthy counter-reaction to the status quo; a reminder, if you will, that the systems and rights which we have held so dear for decades are beliefs that are still worth protecting. Liberalism defeated the Nazis and the Soviets, and it will beat whatever comes next.
A less popular but possibly more precise view would be that liberalism is worth supporting only up to a point. This is dissimilar from the reactionary movements we see today because, while liberalism has helped move civilization forward, it is erroneously viewed by many as the intellectual and cultural apex of human society. In other words, history has been a long march towards freedom and self-realization and liberalism was the achievement of this; there is no more work to be done in improving the human condition. This is not a ridiculous view. Georg Hegel a famous German philosopher, claimed that history would one day ‘end’ and that human society would reach its apex. More specifically, Hegel believed that history would end once every individual was ‘free’ and ‘fully conscious’.
To be fair, it is rather hard not to buy into the thought of liberalism as a positive, supreme end which we have achieved. Common discourse in international affairs often refers to ‘liberal’ and ‘illiberal’ countries, with illiberal being almost as much of a slur as it is a description. This is especially noticeable in America. Countries like Russia and Poland are labeled as illiberal due to being ruled by strongmen who have no respect for the rule of law and disrespecting the views of those who are different from the average citizen. The narrative supports the view that liberal countries do not invade other countries or flash Christian symbols in opposition to Muslim refugees.
But it would be a gross misstep to forget the faults of liberalism, too. Many of the most liberal countries have also been the most unforgivingly capitalist, and the colonial fervor that swept European liberals in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries is hardly viewed as a positive mark on history. A drive for more resources, more land, and more power led to subjugation of people and nations and its effects are still evident today. Many bloody wars of decolonization occurred in the past century in the effort to push out imperialist European regimes. Liberal economies have concentrated large amounts of wealth into the hands of a few. Championing individual rights has been an incredibly positive development, but at what cost? Just as the rights of the few should be protected against the will of the many, should not the rights of the many, i.e., Muslim citizens, be protected from the will of the few, i.e., individual islamophobic Polish citizens?
Getting back to Poland, it is almost pathetic that a new course should even be recommended. The actions of the Law and Justice party are nothing short of pitiful. Denying the country’s role in the Holocaust is both an insult to Jews in Poland and across the world and is a case of historical revisionism to the highest degree. It may not be the same as denying the Holocaust ever occurred but even trying to compare these two acts completely misses the point of how terrible Poland’s actions are. This lack of social responsibility cannot and should not be mitigated by pointing to worse offenses; this relativism is a dangerous road to follow.
However, it seems as if Poland’s issues are symptomatic of a much larger and darker problem in Europe and the West, to which it seems harder to offer a solution. The rights and institutions that liberalism brought to the forefront of political life should continue to be cherished. Freedom of speech has allowed for much-needed modern-day critiques of imperialism and authoritarianism, even if it is from the cushy comforts of first-world countries. However, a new exploration of social responsibility towards both fellow people and politics as a whole might be a good place to start looking for new solutions. Instead of viewing the common good as an aggregation of individual positions, perhaps moving towards an abstract view of the good as a ‘general will’ of sorts could lead to a whole new view of politics and social life. Perhaps viewing our participation in social and community life as a cherished obligation rather than a pastime to be simply enjoyed would make ourselves more accountable to each other. It would be a good day when we see protests and legislation aimed at marginalizing disenfranchised groups banished to history. Still, there is more work to be done.