KRÓL: Beyond the past – beyond time. An essay

The journey into the unknown is tempting to those who are audacious enough to reject memory and tradition


And it should not be surprising that they do not fully know where they will arrive, it is good if they know what path they want to take. Examples of revolutions demonstrate that even the wisest people do not know how it will all end

Everything changes. We do not notice many of these changes. In August, every day there are fewer leaves, but we do not notice this right away. Many changes we forget instantly, some of them we forget after some time. We forget things of little significance, like how much everyday items used to cost before the redenomination – but we also forget important things, like what everyday life was like before the fall of communism. Undoubtedly, the memory of individuals’ fade, and as a result, so does the collective memory. Memory fades for many reasons, and we shall consider a few of them briefly.

First, the more that is written down, photographed, and commemorated, the less has to be remembered. In times when memory was a form of recording both history as well as the past, people had to constantly tell each other tales of how things used to be. To a large extent, we have been exempted from this duty. Almost all deeds have been recorded.

Second, this state is becoming widespread. Western societies stem from a world in which collective memory was only local and included only events of immediate significance for the local communities. When people from these communities entered into large societies, they abandoned the local memory in their former homes and stopped needing any kind of collective memory at all. Indeed, often they even rejected it because it was a pivotal part of what constituted their identity, which they were trying to abandon. This was particularly evident in the case of peasants, but – counter to appearances – this also applied to everyone else.

Thirdly, in a democracy, we are all different than in the past, and we do not need memory. Some are ashamed to remember or recollect, others consider it a superfluous occupation. If they want to know what things used to be like, they read popular history books, which often describe details of the existence which we marvel. These books amuse or absorb us while remaining deeply foreign, simply constituting a form of entertainment. Reading them is like traveling to foreign, unfamiliar countries and has nothing to do with contemporary matters.

What can be the meaning of concepts like “tradition” or “European values” in a world that is rapidly discarding collective memory and rupturing historical continuity? They have become empty phrases. And what is the supposed meaning of the commonly voiced demand for “change”? How can you change what you do not remember? Given this issue, it is thus hardly surprising that politicians who offer change have to lie, creating an imagined world, compared to that which they are allegedly attempting to change. Meanwhile, citizens, and especially the younger generations, demand change relative to either something they do not remember, or something that – in their conviction – has made the world dull, apathetic, stagnating, and stable in mediocrity. Thus, radical change is necessary. But why does it have to be radical? This is so because – it is assumed – only radical change can lead to the creation of new types of community, new emotions, and the feeling of building anew.

Now, this idea of radical change has two important intellectual consequences. First, not only must the past be forgotten, which happens anyway, but also, any historical continuity must be ruptured. This means revolution because only revolutions make attempts (and failed ones at that) at breaking historical continuity. The idea of revolution will always remain just an idea – as we know, planning a revolution is impossible. Second, the special time of revolution is always very limited. There are no doubts that revolutions have created communities – which seemed to exist beyond the confines of time. This was and remains extraordinary, but the phenomenon passes inevitably, be it as a result from the use of force, or due to natural causes. Certainly, the Solidarity movement along with the period of martial law in Poland were such a revolution, but the revolution ended, the community fell apart and the time beyond time ceased to exist. Some were so disenchanted with the end of the revolution that they left Poland after the fall of communism, which put an end to living in a time out of joint.

Moreover, we see today that the resentment towards the “normality” of the Third Polish Republic stems from the conviction that there was a continuity of heritage between the Polish People’s Republic and the time after 1989. If someone did not live in the time of revolution and did not experience being part of the revolutionary community, this state, or the fact that it was a rupture in continuity, cannot be explained or described to them. And it was a rupture radical and instantaneous. What was left was inevitably the heritage of the People’s Republic of Poland, according to the categories distinguished by Jerzy Szacki – buildings, people, trees but not the spirit.

If we step back and consider history in categories of long duration, the revolutionary period does not constitute a rupture of historical continuity. This is at least what was persuasively argued by Tocqueville regarding the French Revolution. If, however, we describe change, a rupturing with the past, from a perspective within the revolution, the feeling of beginning anew proves dominant, and the change appears complete.        After all, the members of the revolutionary community are not madmen. They know that, to a large extent, the world around them will remain the same (heritage), or just end up slightly changed. But there is the feeling that everything is changing. They feel that radical change is really occurring, and this feeling lasts as long as the revolution does. The world of the revolution can be described, but the revolution cannot be relived. Memory is helpless here. We remember particular scenes, but we cannot remember the whole, because the revolution was happening beyond historical time. What is key to the pursuit of radical change we may discover in well-known examples from history as well as a few contemporary ones, like the protests of 1968, and what forms of this pursuit have been visible in the recent years?

Of that which can maybe happen, we are unable to say anything. We can however ask what it is that those who demand radical change expect. We can do so because – at least in modern times – they have always wanted the same: a better, more just world, a world in which there are no inequalities and injustices. This pursuit is fully understandable and even if skepticism or pragmatism makes us doubt the possibility of attaining this goal, it is neither excluded, nor logically impossible, that we will build a better world. Sometimes, like in Nazism or communism, this pursuit becomes substantially perverted, but the first impulse is always the same: a better world – although not always for everyone. Most often the pursuit of a better world is limited to rejecting the old world. It is limited to complaints without a clearly defined objective and wishes that things be generally different. But in what way – that is usually unknown.

This is fully understandable. The logic of public behavior is based on the rejection of what is known. The journey into the unknown is tempting to those who are audacious enough to reject memory and tradition. And it should not be surprising that they do not fully know where they will arrive; it is good if they know what path they want to take, but the examples of all revolutions demonstrate that even the wisest people do not know how this will end. Indeed, revolutions always lead to results different than intended. Sometimes, like in the case of the Solidarity movement, these results are surprisingly good and peaceful, sometimes they are terrible. When we hear that the activists of the revolution, as we describe the Solidarity movement, were able to prevent bloodshed, we are caught in disbelief. Luckily enough, they did manage to avoid bloodshed, but when the revolution had begun, nothing was certain.            Thus, the dream of a better world, of radical change, belongs to the order of modernity. Even if we understand perfectly well thinkers like Pareto or Oakeshott – that is thinkers convinced that change is always only an illusion and calm and moderation are always better than revolution – and their arguments directed against the politics of faith, against ideologies, let’s remember that they describe only a part, albeit a large part, of modernity. The pursuit of the ideal, of which Isaiah Berlin wrote, or the American idea of the “pursuit of excellence” are also strongly present in our life.

Efforts directed towards combining the dream of radical change with liberal moderation (like John Rawls’s) have failed. They were intellectually justified, but completely unsatisfactory both for the proponents and opponents of substantial change. So, they were useful for no one. Now, we know that these efforts also caused a lot of damage in the realm of thought about public life because they directed attention to intentions that were good, but impossible to carry out. This type of thinking occurred instead of dealing with the problem of ruptured historical continuity or the problem of dreaming of a better world.

Memory played a significant role here. Due to the fact that in the 20th century, dreams of radical change and a better world were dramatically compromised, many thinkers assumed that remembering these dramatic experiences instructs us to exercise prudence, moderation, and to limit our ambitions and intentions, so that – God forbid – they do not have an ideological character.

It is very clear that memory limits or restrains – not necessarily rightly – both liberal thinking and projects to further democracy. By the way, let us note that memory was not subjected to in-depth analyses, and to this day studies of fascism and Nazism remain in stages of early development. However, the consequences of the “liberalism of fear” and many similar positions have made it generally accepted in the West that relative prosperity, low unemployment, and effective social welfare and education are the maximum that can be done. You should not go one step further because you risk losing these achievements that are supposed to protect against the return of dangerous communal emotions which presently means nationalist sentiments, and later – who knows what else.

This approach was and is completely understandable, but so is the fear of radical change. For the second time in modern history, dreams, visions, and ideas are being rejected in favor of stability. For a few decades in the 19th century, the bourgeoisie felt perfectly comfortable in such a situation, which led to the feeling that the world was about to end at the turn of the 19th and 20th century, and to World War I. A similar attitude was exhibited by the large middle class in the second half of the 20th century. In both cases, economic growth and the progress of civilization replaced dreams of a significantly better world, of radical change. And now it turns out that memory does not ensure security and political pragmatism is not sufficient for citizens awaiting a better and undoubtedly also more interesting life. We might also mention that a weariness or even boredom with the shallowness of the political sphere that has no hope nor vision is often an important and underscored factor in these sentiments.

We cannot foresee the outbreak of revolution. However, we know the circumstances and conditions in which a rupturing of historical continuity may occur, in which a special world is created, in which attempts of fulfilling hopes for a completely different and truly good public life are undertaken.

The first such circumstance is a rejection of the past and a widespread perception that things are being built anew. But before this new creation, the past must be erased, removed from memory, and completely disavowed. Then, only fairytales of the past – anecdotes and stories that function beyond continuity – are allowed. This occurrence happened during both great revolutions: the French and Russian. The creation of new calendars and the naming of the year when the revolution began as year zero is evident proof of this. To a smaller degree and with less consequence, it was also like this during 1848 or during the Commune of Paris. Continuity ceases to be a guarantor of security and becomes a burden which must be done away with. There are no figures of authority, except for new, revolutionary ones. There is no respect for past efforts, even those that could theoretically be evaluated as in line with the intentions of the potential revolutionaries. Building the new world cannot have anything to do with the old world. During the French revolution, Enlightenment thinkers were forgotten or were present only as names, like Rousseau, but never as their views. The most intellectually radical thinker of the French Enlightenment, Condorcet, was simply guillotined, despite the fact that he was also in favor of rejecting the past and building a new world.

But these are things that occur already during the revolution. Before it happens, a half-world must come into meaning. Post-politics or post-truth, to give just a few examples, are new words today, but the ideas have been known for a long time. Post-politics occurs when reality ceases to have elements in common with the principles that are being advocated. Reality proves completely different than it is described. There is no relationship between our perception and reality as such. In this sense, post-politics was practiced by Machiavelli, another revolutionary, whose ideas were only taken into consideration 250 years after the publication of his works, that is in the deliberations and actions of American federalists.

The second phenomenon, which must be taken into account when we consider a rupture of historical continuity, is the eternal human hope that something extraordinary will happen. We know it very well from Christian dogmatism, but also from other, often almost bizarre forms of religiosity. But this hope is also characteristic of completely different forms of thinking, for instance scientism and its illegitimate child, racism. For almost a century it has been replaced by civilizational and technological achievements, or the accessibility of the virtual and real world. However, this brave new world is becoming increasingly obvious and – for example – genetic discoveries cannot replace the vision of salvation or an all-encompassing miracle. And if in the past, people would time and again wait for a few thousand years for such a miracle, completely convinced it would happen, why would they cease waiting now?

The dissimilarity of forms of thought and imagination is not important. We can easily notice that hope for Parousia intensifies in times that are difficult or terrible. This hope takes on the form of the end of history in a positive sense or the end of history as a final crisis of the world as we know it. The crisis of Western civilization, of Europe, of certain forms of life, the disintegration of human relationships, savagery, failures in clashes with barbarians, or simply an end – although we can imagine that end only as a physical annihilation of human kind. For us, it does not matter if the vision of the new world is a positive or negative utopia. Hope for a complete end of history is characterized by the fact that this end is to come from the outside. It is not a punishment or reward, but an intervention of forces we do not comprehend. Such visions have been abundant continuously, but sometimes they take on more intensive forms. Imagined revolution is one of the best examples. We should point to the common feature of these visions, that is – a gerund of historical continuity and existence beyond time. Continuity, the past, and, even more so, tradition do not exist. And people enjoy breaking out of continuity, just like they enjoy the careless (in theory) carnival, free of any burdens.

And finally, the third circumstance, one that is fundamental, and – for reasons unknown – still misunderstood. The human is an affective creature. Of course, he is sometimes also rational in his actions, but emotions play an important role in public life. Positive emotions can be stirred, but, as is very well known, negative emotions are easier to awaken. We already know that revolution has its charm. Revolutionary committees, which assemble a group of equals who care for the shape of public life, are part of a vision of interpersonal relations, and this vision or hope for many is extraordinary and captivating, a common life without alienation. Selflessness – such hopes attracted many secondary or utopian thinkers, but these hopes were also familiar to great thinkers, like Hannah Arendt. For her, the revolution had two faces, and one of them was that of transforming common emotions into emotions salutary for public life: truly republican emotions. Even Machiavelli had hopes for this new type of relations in the public sphere.

Politicians have learned to manipulate emotions, but they have only some technical and pragmatic knowledge. They use almost exclusively negative emotions or refer to the feeling of security and stability. Emotions related with radical change are completely different in nature. They are, above all, positive, and as such reject the wretched, depraved, boring world of political pragmatism. One may deplore this, but one must also be aware of it. Anticipation of hot democracy, the pursuit of it, is not always conscious, but returns, and it has recently been so intensive in form – and will continue to be such in the nearest future – because we are so disappointed with what we see. The above constitutes an important observation because the desire for emotional upheaval in the public world – meaning for some the desire for more intense spirituality, and for others the desire for more intensive forms of cooperation between people – a desire that is sometimes anarchical, and sometimes revolutionary, will only grow, and if anyone thinks pragmatic or populist manipulation will suffice, they are mistaken.

However, the rule of emotions also means rejecting the burden of the past. Emotions do not result from considering the past (unless in symbolic understanding) and are not nourished by continuity. Quite the contrary, and this is the fourth circumstance to be considered, pre-revolutionary emotions have always been connected with perceiving the world as unjust – full of inequalities and unwilling to seek means for achievement of justice, equality, or brotherhood. We should underline that we are talking about the perception of the world, and not the actual state of inequalities. Undoubtedly, inequalities are much larger in the United States than in Poland, but their role in recent political events in the two countries was similar. There are similar sociological factors like the weakening of the middle class or the lack of it. The middle class was always a stabilizing element of public life and had a strong sense of continuity. It also presented the idea that gaining commodities was a kind of responsibility towards future generations. In Poland, in the first decade of the 21st century, politicians thought that the newly formed middle class was still young, but perceived the world as the middle class always does. It did not matter if this layer of society had disappeared, what mattered was that others began to have grievances due to its domination of the transformation process.

The appearance of the middle class never was and never will be a positive phenomenon. In many countries of the West, the bourgeoisie or middle class shaped – once in the 19th century and again more recently – such a strong feeling that procedural democracy was the best possible solution, that the conviction that time had stopped and there was no hope for change became dominant. Moreover, as we have been taught by Burckhardt, and Nietzsche, Cioran, and Słowacki, bourgeois stabilization inevitably entails a “laziness of spirit”.

In the past, in 1789 and to a certain extent in 1848, it was the bourgeoisie who fought to eliminate inequalities. Now, they have become the defenders of these inequalities. But with the disappearance of the middle class, the situation is changing. It is the distances and not the differences between those who own and those that do not which are more strongly felt, even though they all live beyond common memory and are, most often unknowingly, specimens of this rupture in historical continuity. Thus, in theory, all of the more important circumstances favoring revolution have already appeared. But this has had no consequences regarding revolution. The revolution may occur, war may occur, but it is also very probable that the present state, the state of laziness and political decay will continue and will evolutionally, after many years, transform into a new positivity. We do not know the future and we are unable to foresee it based on the present situation. The lack of distinctness makes us hopeless also intellectually, or rather – we have a feeling of hopelessness.

However, we are not hopeless. It is wisest to do what saved humanity in difficult times in the past. Having read the catastrophic forecasts of Tocqueville or Ortega y Gasset, we know that culture will not be appreciated in democracy. Despite this, we must win a place for ourselves; a place in which continuity is not ruptured, or at least that we consider it not to be so, as well as a territory in which we can cultivate culture. Unless a physical end of the world occurs, high culture will outlast everything, because it is resistant and will always find recipients (perhaps very few for the moment). Evelyn Waugh wrote that the new beginning of Christianity would start with twelve ragged people coming out from underneath the rubble to preach the word. It will be identical with culture, which will return to great, non-pragmatic questions, to romantic or classicist momentum, even though almost no one will read books, admire paintings, or listen to music.

Marcin Król (1944) – professor of humanities, historian, historian of ideas, philosopher, academic teacher, political writer. He is the author and editor of several books, including the series Demokracja. Filozofia i praktyka [Democracy. Philosophy and praxis].

The article was first published in “Res Publica Nowa” nr 3/2017 and translated into English with support from the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education’s research dissemination funds (contract no. 692/P-DUN/217).

Translated by Aleksandra Małecka

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