Michał Łuczewski: After the plane crash in Smolensk we saw the most primitive instincts turn up in the Polish society

Plus Minus: Just after the 10th of April 2010 it seemed that the Polish nation was united for a while. It is often mentioned that after the tragedy in Smolensk there was national mourning, silence of disputes, that conciliatory gestures appeared. Did it actually happen or is it only our wishful thinking?

Michał Łuczewski: Often the greater the union, the greater the division. Modern man has a problem understanding this kind of paradox because he assumes that there is either peace or war, but he cannot think of peace that is just another name for war. During the revolt of 1968, students turned to the radical philosopher Alexander Kojeve with a very Leninist question: what should we do? He disappointed them replying: “Learn Greek”.

And what does Greek tell us when it comes to understanding emotions in the postmodern world?

It helps much more than all the modern theoreticians. Instead of dividing and reducing this paradoxical reality, Greek gives us paradoxical words and metaphors that allow us to grasp that reality. Let’s take Paul’s notion of the katechon – “the one who holds back” the apocalypse. The katechon seems to stop the violence, but only because he is even more violent. He introduces peace through war, violently suppressing deep conflicts, and at the same time internalizing those conflicts. “Stásis” is another Greek notion which means both “peace” and “war”, “dispute” and “rebellion”. These antique notions point to a fundamental concept is increasingly difficult to understand nowadays: every order is based on chaos. After the 10th of April [1], such order has taken hold in Poland. But we did not want to remember about the chaos that preceded this order.

How did this chaos manifest?

We all felt the strength of our society, its mighty moral unity, but at the same time there was a hidden struggle in which we all were involved, that soon came to light. We remember words and gestures by Adam Michnik [2], who wept after Lech Kaczyński and said that they did not have a chance to finish some of their conversations; or declarations of Monika Olejnik [3]. Today, however, we understand that we all had this unspoken question about the responsibility for the plane crash. This atmosphere of nation-wide mourning and unity was disrupted just four days after the catastrophe by the philosopher Zdzisław Krasnodębski who in “Rzeczpospolita” [4] published a text titled “He’s not a problem anymore”.

He pointed out to those who cried the most that they were also attacked President Kaczyński most aggresively.

And he also noted that since the president “was no longer a problem”, they might have cried after him and called to maintain moral and national solidarity. Krasnodębski appealed to an ancient Greek motif that became one of the key biblical images. “Sign that is spoken against” is – in the language of the New Testament – a stone to stumble over, a rock to bring men down, a scandal – a skandalon in Greek. It is a scandal that repels and attracts at the same time. Lech Kaczyński was a scandal. For his opponents, he was the archrival and at the same time the most important source of meaning of their actions. They wanted to stop him and when he actually did they we left clueless as to what to do next.

Why was Krasnodebski so furious at their sudden transformation from enemies into mourners?

He was trying to prove that their mourning was false because the divisions in society were not solved but only covered. “I despise you,” he wrote and he provocatively called: “Make one more TV show, laugh at this death, drink your alcohol [5], invite Palikot and Niesiołowski [6], scream: moron and idiot, and former [7] President Lech Kaczyński. Laugh at him, mock him.”

Wasn’t that an attempt by Krasnodębski to sacrifice (make holy) Lech Kaczyński after his death?

I would rather say that he canonized Kaczynski, if we are to apply religious concepts to the public sphere. After the 10th of April, large-scale rituals of Polish civil religion began. Sacrification (making sacred, holy), is a process that deals not so much with the deceased person as the whole community. Its purpose is to admire oneself and to avoid a need to change. The deceased person who undergoes this process becomes a sign of the community and represents the values of that community. Such process took place among the opponents of President Kaczynski who at once began to shed a completely different light on him. This was what Krasnodębski was so outraged about. There were sentimental memories, family photos, but the guilt was completely repressed. Those who sacrificed President Kaczynski seemed to say: “fellow Poles, it is all right now. We experienced a tremendous shock, a great tragedy, but as a community and as a state we went through this trial and won. Lech Kaczyński, with whom we did not agree before his death, united us in the end. Let us pay homage to him. It is all right now.”

So what were the conclusions?

Since there was no one to be held guilty and as a nation we became stronger after this tragedy, we could return to the our everyday lives which were to be even better than before. In the eyes of his opponents Lech Kaczyński, before his death, “divided” the Poles, prevented them from being modern citizens, accepted in the Western World, full members of the European Union. After his death, however, we suddenly became the one to “unite” them. Once the demon of the community, accused of bringing division in its midst, he was transformed into a god who personified the very strength of that community.

But even Jaroslaw Kaczynski (President Kaczynski’s twin brother) gave in to this coercion and tried to silence the dispute over Smolensk in his presidential campaign.

Coercion encompassed all sides. Hence, probably, the emotional tone of Krasnodębski’s text. I think we were all surprised by the scale of this phenomenon. Polish sociology seemed helpless at explaining what was going on.

Many argue that such outbursts of community are typical of our national character.

One can say that it is very Polish, so an “average Pole” will understand it better than an “average sociologist”, because he is simply a part of this dynamic, paradoxical and surprising process. Sociologists, on the other hand, try to analyze such events from a distance, by the means of rational interests, institutions and structures. Sociologist Antoni Sułek later tried to refer to Emil Durkheim, who in turn said that a society can come to be where people are coerced to unify. Such unity has its moral aspects, but also its religious, sacred aspects. Wherever we see social unity, we interpret it through metaphysical terms.

Durkheim, in order to understand modern social phenomena, referred to primitive societies. He was a prominent sociologist because of his anthropological imagination. And it is his anthropological theory of religion, which leads us directly to the origins of human culture, that is more helpful than refined sociological theories that refer to “here and now”, or to the recent decades. Sułek claimed that we cannot predict the history and its catastrophes but that thanks to Durkheim we can explain why after a catastrophe history took that, and not some other, direction.

It sounds as though we were some kind of savage people and did not go through the development path typical of modern societies.

Although he was far from being a “typical Pole”, Mirosław Drzewiecki, one of the anti-heroes of the gambling scandal and former Minister of Sport, had a very deep intuition, saying just before Smoleńsk that Poland was a savage country. He said: “We have to die to be normal (…) I’ve been 20 years in parliament and I never thought politics was such a cruel animal that can eat people.” It’s a beautiful definition of stásis – the order that emerges from chaos; the politics that emerges from a murderous conflict. Certainly, the coercion to unify is typical of primitive cultures, in which one cannot break away from that union. But that coercion also exists in modern cultures, of which political correctness is the best example. It seems that what matters in Modernity [8] is the economic capital, that our actions are driven by the desire of profit. But I propose that we are actually a very primitive society.


Because we still want to create unity, morality and religion. Modernity is simply a new religious formation, and according to Durkheim religion does not need transcendence, miracles, gods or God, its moral unity is enough. And political correctness creates such unity. If you tell someone, who represents a progressive worldview, that abortion is an infanticide, that person will react with religious indignation. This irritation shows that metaphysics and morality continue to be very important fields of civilizational dispute, and that we are not guided solely by our instrumental interests, but by something much deeper.

Need for unity?

Yes. There are two basic ways to create it. The first is the law and the introduction of various taboos. The second is the ritual, which is about breaking taboos and leading to an ever-growing conflict, that can only be resolved by finding a shared victim, that is, by placing your offences on a scapegoat. This archaic understanding of ritual returned to Drzewiecki in the vision of politics as a cruel animal (Leviathan?) that eats people.

Primitive societies were in a constantly move between these two options. As soon as the law would cease to function, the society transitioned into the realm of ritual, doing everything that was prohibited by the law, to finally shift the responsibility and after the scapegoat had been sacrificed, to go back to law or even re-establish it. But there is also a third form of unity: Christianity. The ritual and the law consecrate the society, while Christianity – canonizes individuals persons. It both fulfills and suspends the law and the ritual. When Christianity weakens we immediately return to the antique forms of unity.

To the law and the ritual?

But in our case the ritual and the law are much less effective than in primitive societies. While those societes took care to separate the ritual from the law, in liberal societies the law becomes the ritual, and the ritual becomes the law. The law starts to protect acts of transgression and breaking the deepest cultural taboos. Nowadays almost everything is allowed. We can change gender, religious and national identities. The development of reproductive rights or gender laws may seem very modern, but from an anthropological point of view it is nothing new. Infanticide is a ritual as old as human culture, and the mixing of gender identities was always a part of the ritual in the ancient world, where for example during Bacchanalia women took masculine identities and men took feminine. The difference is that in the ancient world people were aware that this was happening but we no longer do. We mixed the ritual and the legal orders, and we are not aware that we did it. As a consequence, primitive societies were able to go beyond the ritual, which they treated as a unique period in time, when the world was put upside down and all values were re-evaluated, and we immerse ourselves in the ritual and turn it into the permanent state.

And where is religion in all this?

The ritual is being increasingly consecrated by the law. Nowadays, the law becomes the ultimate instance of morality. We do not ask anymore what is good and what is bad, but rather – what is legal and what is illegal; what complies with procedures instead of what is consistent with justice. As a consequence, those who interpret the law become sacred. It is lawyers, as an eminent philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre emphasized, became modern priests. To criticize their ruling is perceived as breaking of a divine taboo. Nowadays, rulings of courts are protected by sanctions of religious nature. Particularly interesting is the role of Constitutional Courts. The Constitution is meant to be the source of unity and in that way it becomes the source of sainthood in modern societies.

What does the confusion of law and ritual lead to?

It leads to an ever-growing imbalance and chaos. In modernity, transgressing the boundaries slowly becomes a moral imperative. Believers of progress must constantly change their set of views, because that is the only way to construct their morality. When in search of conversion we can no longer reach out to God, we must turn to the future. As a consequence, time constantly accelerates: moral fads come and go. A few years ago, modern people could still say they were for same-sex domestic partnership, but not for full marriages and not for adoption. Today such a statement would be already considered immoral. Modern rituals of transgression have no end and they must end in a search for the scapegoat; those responsible for the chaos in society.

Who will be named as the guilty party? Islam?

Islam completes modernity, it is its second face. While liberal societies are based on constant transgression and breaking the taboo, Islam represents the law that fights transgressions and defends the taboos. Where modernity blurs the distinction between genders, peoples and religions, Islam reproduces them in their radical forms. Despite fundamental differences, these two formations are united in detest of Christianity, which becomes the modern scapegoat. This is how we can understand secularism. In order to avoid persecution, we abandon the cross. God of Islam is a distant god, it is not the “God with us” of Christianity. Therefore, for them God, who became a man and was crucified, is absolutely unthinkable.

Is the enlightened liberalism similar?

This is what philosopher Zbigniew Stawrowski proposed. Thomas Hobbes argued that the distant God must be represented by a sovereign who resides on this Earth and introduces rational laws so that we don’t kill one another. In a surprising analogy he deemed this “Earthly god” as Leviathan. It is remarkable that the father of modern liberalism, in order to present a rational social order based on law and negative liberties, refers to the powerful biblical figure that represents violence and war, and which for many was the synonym of Antichrist. As we can see, the Greek motif of order emerging from chaos is also present in his idea. Although Islam and liberalism seem to be antitheses, they are united by the vision of a distant God, whose word has to be interpreted by a political sovereign and turned into law.

We were supposed to talk about crash in Smolensk and emotions that it woke up in us, but we spent half of our conversation disputing civilization and religion.

We often forget that the cross was an immensely important part of the outbreak of the political dispute after the crash in Smolensk. It is very symbolic, because the cross represents Christ, an innocent victim. When we look at the cross, we ask ourselves the question of our own guilt, and yet no one wants to think about their own guilt, we prefer to think that someone else is responsible. Today, cross truly is scandalous, because the law and the ritual do not let us to confess our own sins, and the cross invites us to do so.

So the conflict around Smolensk is actually a conflict about Christ? This is a heavy proposition.

Unity is at the center of every important social conflict: the law, the ritual or the cross, which symbolizes love, sacrifice for one’s friends and enemies even at the price of death. Doesn’t it strike you that many rituals, where cross is at the center of attention, keep coming back with great consistency? It sometimes feels that there is a social compulsion of some kind, that we cannot control. The “Action of Cross” led by Dominik Taras, the black protest, protests in front of Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s house, where the cross was put next to a body of a naked woman, or now the theatrical play “Curse”, where cross is being cut down on the stage. The cross forces us to confront and transcend our own nature.

What does it mean?

It introduces a new order into our world based on the law and the ritual. What constituted the breakthrough in the development of our civilization and what ended the back-and-forth between the law and the ritual, was the elevation of God above the law and the reversal of the meaning of the ritual. Of course, Christianity did not negate the 10 Commandments, but next to them it put the commandment of love – love to the end. And the ritual, which until then had only sharpened the conflict and led to the search for a common scapegoat, was changed into a liturgy that commemorates an innocent victim, Christ. The dispute around Smolensk should be interpreted as more than just the dispute about the causes of aviation tragedy. The plane crash under Smoleńsk was only the trigger. This ever-lasting dispute is about what kind of society we will become. What do we want to base our community on?

So, in 2010, on both sides of the barricade in front of the Presidential Palace, we had people from two different civilizations?

Poland is one of the few European countries that still has a very religious society, and that creates opposition. Because Christianity is so strong, the archaic and legal response to it is also very strong. Both groups on Krakowskie Przedmiescie (a street in front of the Presidential Palace) even looked different, because the cross was defended by people that often did not look aesthetic, were not photogenic, who poorly articulated their arguments. On the other side, led by Dominik Taras, were thousands of young, satisfied and well-dressed people who came forward to fight the cross using the law. They knew how to form their arguments, they knew how to express what they wanted. They yelled that Poland is a secular state and the place of the cross is in the church. But even though they set out under with the law on their flags, they immediately transitioned into the realm of ritual.

And so did at least a part of the so-called “Defenders of the cross”.

If the people under the cross were aggressive, then their opponents were even louder, and at the end they poured beer and pissed on the candles next to the cross. That was a classic ritual that consumed and absorbed those young people. It all took place in a joyful atmosphere, among jokes and laughter, but it was a repetition of motifs known from primitive societies. It was no accident that the crowd chanted “One more, one more”, “There is only one Kaczyński”, “We want Barabbas”, and finally ripped apart a stuffed duck. Aggression against the cross took very archaic forms.

Because in their eyes, the cross became the weapon that was used to fight against their world.

Some of the “defenders” (of the cross) understood the true meaning of the cross, but some attempted to change the meaning of this symbol, so that the “sign that will be opposed” would become a sign of opposition. But that is the negation of Christianity. A critic Paweł Soczyński asked in his review of the theater play “Curse”: was it the director Oliver Frljić, or maybe the Church itself, which politicized this the symbol of the cross. But there is one other possibility: maybe it was me?

[1] The 10th of April 2010, the day when the Polish plane with Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 other officials and crew members crashed in Smolensk, in Russia.

[2] Adam Michnik, the editor of then-most influential daily newspaper in Poland, “Gazeta Wyborcza”, who also fiercely criticized Lech Kaczynski and was willing to excuse demeaning comments and attacks of Kaczynski’s political opponents.

[3] Monika Olejnik, a journalist who worked with Adam Michnik and a host in a political TV host.

[4] “Rzeczpospolita” another, big, national daily newspaper in Poland

[5] Kaczynski was accused of being an alcoholic which was one of the most demeaning attacks on him authored by a politician Janusz Palikot.

[6] Janusz Palikot and Stefan Niesolowski were among the most fierce critics who knew no boundaries as to what could be said or done to take away political support away from Kaczynski.

[7] A month before Kaczynski’s death, during a political gathering, a politician Radoslaw Sikorski led his supporters in cheering “Former president Lech Kaczynski”. At that time, Kaczynski was still in the office and Sikorski’s behavior was received badly by Polish public opinion.

[8] Modernity, the historical period.

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