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Is Poland In the Grip of a Burkean Battle?

The conservative Law and Justice party struggles against the scourge of EU utopianism.
poland crowd

In 1790 Edmund Burke published his classic polemic, Reflections on the Revolution in France. The work has served ever since as a benchmark, especially for conservatives, in judging new political phenomena. A natural question in such circumstances is: what would Burke say? It might not appear on a wristband, but it’s a worthy query nonetheless. And it’s a query that might properly be applied to recent events in Poland as that ancient and long-suffering country confronts the challenge of dealing with the European Union—even as other challenges also loom large. These include the ever-present muscular neighbor, Russia, and the threat of mass immigration from Muslim lands, fostered and encouraged by other European nations, notably Germany.

Since joining the EU in 2004, Poland has had peaceful relations with Brussels, the citadel of the EU and of its post-nationalist ideology. At the same time relations are also tense. (See my piece from November 30 on the TAC website noting the stream of “Polaphobia” emerging from the Brussels-minded Western media.) Looking at Poland through the Burkean prism, it’s fair to say that the Poles have always been conservative. And yet the Law and Justice Party, elected to power in 2015, has ramped up that conservatism even further. Poland’s brand of conservatism might confound many Americans, though, especially those who make an automatic conflation between conservatism and deregulated markets. For their part, the Poles are conservative insofar as they wish to conserve. They don’t go for the endless gale of “creative destruction” heralded by Joseph Schumpeter, which he described as “incessantly revolutioniz[ing] the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”

Thus, while Law and Justice sees itself as consistently conservative, in American terms it is both Left and Right. On economic policy it tilts Left, supporting national health insurance and big budgets for housing and social welfare, as well as government assistance to “national champion” industries. But the party tilts Right on social issues, opposing sex education, abortion, and euthanasia. Indeed, Law and Justice recently moved to phase out shopping on Sundays, an idea that’s long been favored by both the country’s Catholic Church and its labor unions—two powerful pillars of stability, resolutely opposed to Schumpeter’s creative destruction. The argument is that workers should be able spend more time at church and with their families.

Some might recall that Sunday closings were once the norm in America too, and for the same traditionalist reasons. Yet these days few U.S. companies still uphold that Christian-communitarian ideal. Indeed, looking ahead, one can only wonder what sort of Mike Pence-ish expressions of social conservatism the Poles might have on their to-do list.

So what would Burke say about contemporary Poland? Surely he would admire Poland’s defense of its old ways, even as the country allows for prudent progress. As Burke wrote in Reflections, “A state without the means of some change, is without the means of its own conservation.” Poland does, after all, hunger for economic development, including infusions of capital from the EU. Still, in the Burkean view, time-tested verities must take precedence over the newfangled and wide-open, no matter how lucrative the latter might be. As the man himself wrote in 1791: “The only liberty, I mean, is a liberty connected with order; and that not only exists with order and virtue, but cannot exist at all without them.”


We pause here to remind a present-day audience that Burke was a conservative, not a libertarian. And if many Americans today—friend and foe alike—tend to conflate the two ideologies, Burke never did, nor would he want us to do so. But, if today’s Poland passes the Burke Test, what would he make of the EU? As to that question, the two-century-old Reflections brims with relevance for today because Burke was writing about a phenomenon, the French Revolution, that hadn’t yet fully manifested itself; that is, at first the Revolution seemed benign. And yet Burke espied its lurking malignancy. Similarly, the EU of today is new and avowedly benign—but what will come next?

Indeed, it’s worth noting that Burke penned his brief against the Revolution when it was still in its infancy. Even a year after the 1789 fall of the Bastille, many good-hearted observers, including Thomas Jefferson, harbored high hopes for France’s future. After all, the revolutionaries had abolished feudalism and established a constitutional monarchy; moreover, the new regime had promulgated its Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, as pure an expression of Enlightenment thinking as a Voltaire or Rousseau could have hoped for. So in 1790, when Burke put quill to parchment, what was not to like? After all, the bloodiest events of the Revolution, including the execution of King Louis XVI and the Reign of Terror, were still several years in the future.

Yet Burke, lonely and brave in his prescience, could see the blood in the Jacobins’ eyes. In their “violent haste,” he wrote in Reflections, the revolutionaries “despise experience,” even as they “admit no temperament, and no compromise.” Indeed, Burke continued, anything less than the achievement of their full demands would be, in their minds, “so much of fraud and injustice.” In Burke’s view, the revolutionaries were elevating intoxicating new dogmas over time-honored common sense, and this could only lead to trouble. As he wrote about the newly empowered Parisian mob, they “are so taken up with their theories about the rights of man, that they have totally forgotten his nature.”

And the nature of man, Burke continued, is such that it requires careful and proper boundaries. As he explained, “The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and, therefore, no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature or to the quality of his affairs.” And this complexity, Burke continued, puts the burden on leaders to temper popular passion with deliberative judgment. “When I hear the simplicity of contrivance aimed at and boasted of in any new political constitutions,” he wrote, “I am at no loss to decide that the artificers are grossly ignorant of their trade or totally negligent of their duty.”

Indeed, Burke even compared the Jacobins to diggers of an underground mine that “will blow up at one grand explosion all examples of antiquity, all precedents, charters, and acts of parliament.” Thus, while things might have seemed fine at the time, he foresaw the coming blow-up. And subsequent events bore him out; although the revolutionaries of France had started out talking about hallowed rights and freedom, they soon enough flunked the Burke Test.

It’s important also to understand that Burke was no knee-jerk reactionary; he favored progress so long as it was orderly and measured. As he put it, the task of the statesman is to combine “a disposition to conserve and an ability to improve.” In fact, earlier in his career Burke had cast a friendly eye on the independence and autonomy movements in America and Ireland, and he even found time to pursue a corruption investigation—scourging the 18th century equivalent of crony capitalism—against the East India Company. Indeed, even in the anti-revolutionary Reflections, he was at pains to show that the English “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 was a good thing because it was about the justified vindication of ancient liberties, not the vainglorious quest for an earthly utopia.

Thus with his immortal pen, Burke drew a bright line between sensible evolution and risky revolution. Shakespeare put it well when he warned against what happens with reckless change: “Untune that string/ And, hark, what discord follows!”

Now let’s fast-forward to today. Skipping past the hideous communist experiments of the 20th century (without forgetting them, of course), we now can consider a new kind of utopianism that weighs heavily upon Poland: the European Union of the 21st century.

The EU, of course, proclaims its intentions to be entirely benign. Most likely, though, Burke wouldn’t buy it. If he was fearful of where France was headed in the grip of dogmatic visionaries—“a set of presumptuous men … the assembly of pettifoggers run mad in Paris”—then it’s easy to surmise that he would have been fearful of all of Europe in the grip of the EU bureaucracy. To Burke, it was simply not possible for anyone to develop a successful plan for centrally governing a continent, at least not quickly; as he declared, “There is not any more difficult subject for the understanding of men than to govern a Large Empire upon a plan of Liberty.” (“Empire” in those days often referred simply to a “large land area.”)

Indeed, in Burke’s day the fall of a past empire was on everyone’s mind. Like most educated Britons, Burke was fully conversant with Edward Gibbon’s magisterial The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the first volume of which had been published in 1776, with the last volume appearing in 1789. Burke himself wrote about the fall of Rome with a Gibbon-esque flourish: “Tumult, anarchy, confusion overspread the face of Europe, and an obscurity rests upon the transactions of that time, which suffers us to discover nothing but its extreme barbarity.”

Burke looked with horror upon “tumult, anarchy, confusion” of any era, but he was most conscious of those dangers in his own country. In that same discussion of the fall of the Roman Empire, he approvingly quoted the ancient historian Tacitus, who identified “discipline” as the key attribute of the Romans at their historical zenith. In Burke’s view, Britons needed that same discipline to preserve their own realm.

Thus might Burkeans of today look askance at the updated “pettifoggers running mad” in Brussels and other EU hubs, who seem to lack the capacity to conserve Europe. That is, through design or carelessness, the Eurocrats could untune the string of continental order.

The EU’s ideologically abstracted and yet definitively heavy-handed idealism is everything that Burke abhorred in his own day. Either accidentally or on purpose, everything about the EU could yet blow up, as Burke had correctly predicted about France, “in one grand explosion of all examples of antiquity, all precedents, charters, and acts of parliament.” To Burke, there could be no worse outcome. And with its dubious supranational government, Europe is once again in jeopardy. Poland is in many ways the canary in the coal mine.

Poland faces a three-pronged threat, not unlike the Europe of Burke’s day. The rise of extremist utopian ideology under the aegis of the EU is one. This corresponds to the eventual extremist utopian ideology of the French Revolution, and today it militates against Poland’s intrinsic conservative sensibilities. Another is the ongoing geopolitical threat of Russia, so large and so near. And finally there is Islam, not the Ottoman threat of Burke’s era but rather the theological zeal of today combined with waves of immigration from Muslim lands.

As we survey these threats—from the west, the east, and the south—we can see that they constitute a big pincer squeezing Poland. And so it must be little comfort to the Poles that other European countries, too, face these same threats.

The first pincer, of course, is from the EU. For the Eurocrats, the submergence of sovereignty is not a nefarious outcome but an avowed goal. And so the feuds between the nationalists in Warsaw and the internationalists in Brussels, with Polish sovereignty at stake, are legion.

One particular flashpoint has been the state of the Polish judicial system, which the current government seeks to reform. To read the Western media, the EU has been waging a valiant campaign to stop Poland’s Law and Justice conservatives from staging a putsch against an independent judiciary—indeed, against freedom itself.

Yet such Western anxiety seems to reveal more about the entitlement mentality of contemporary progressivism than about anything that’s happening in Poland. That is, the Western Left has grown so reliant on the idea that judges are reliable ratchets for leftist policies that it is outraged at any possible de-ratcheting of left-judicial power. And yet as Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, points out, the current system—an incestuous system in which top judges, for example, control the appointment of their own successors—is a holdover, literally, from the communist era. And it has led to inefficiency, nepotism, and corruption; no wonder a recent poll within Poland found 81 percent support for judicial reform.

In fact, Morawiecki’s reforms are an assertion of political input on the judiciary of the sort that all Americans are familiar with: that is, here in the United States, Republican presidents nominate conservative judges, and Democratic presidents nominate liberal judges. To be sure, any system in which conservative judges get on the bench will not be loved by the political Left, and yet it’s hard for anyone else to see such incremental conservatism as a symptom of tyranny. Still, mindful of Poland’s delicate position within the EU—ideologically at odds, but financially dependent—Morawiecki seems determined to slather the dispute over judges in the honeyed words of “dialogue.”

However, another bone of contention between Poland and the EU, immigration, seems less amenable to being “dialogued.” Poland’s neighbor, Germany, the continent’s strongest power, has wanted all the nations of the EU to share in its disastrous Willkommen policy of 2015—that is, to open their borders to the million refugees invited in by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, without thought to assimilation or serious vetting. Only too late has Merkel realized her mistake, and yet the EU bureaucracy—transcending, as always, any specific country—is still upholding the open-borders faith. Indeed, the comprehensive distribution of migrants within the EU, along with attendant virtue-signaling, is a holy cause for Euro-secularists. For example, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission—holder of one of the seemingly endless number of more-or-less unelected positions of power in the EU apparatus—has ascended to his own moral mountaintop, accusing Poland of the cardinal sin of “racism.” And of course the Western media, taking its cues from the likes of Juncker, is happy to pile on; this headline from Bloomberg News, “Poland Risks Being the EU’s Rogue State,” is typical.

The tension between Poland and the EU has led some to wonder about Poland’s future within the European grouping. Yet Poland seems to have few good geopolitical options; it is, after all, just one country sandwiched within the 28-member EU. Even if it is joined by the other conservative countries in the so-called Visegrád bloc—the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and, possibly soon, Austria—such an alliance would still be overshadowed by the EU’s potent Rhenish core—the countries, and post-nationalist ideologies, of France, Belgium, and Germany. Thus does a Polish exit from the EU seem untenable. It would be a lonely nation of just 38 million people in a continent of three-quarters of a billion people.

So if the first threat to Poland is the pincer from the West, the second threat is a pincer from the East. As we know, the Russians have been a mortal enemy of Poland many times throughout history. In 1939, Stalin’s Krasnaya armiya eagerly joined with Hitler’s Wehrmacht to carve up Poland. And, while the Nazis were by far the worst during World War II, the Russians also committed many atrocities, including the 1940 mass execution of some 22,000 Polish prisoners at Katyn, in present-day Belarus. Indeed, estimates of Polish fatalities, strictly at the hands of Stalin’s forces, run into the hundreds of thousands—and many more Poles were shipped off to Siberia or otherwise repressed.

Further, Russians of the Soviet era were suspected in the death of a Polish national political leader whose stature posed a threat to the Soviets’ aim of dominance over Poland after World War II. He was Władysław Sikorski, head of Poland’s government-in-exile during the war. Long a foe of the Russians, Sikorski died in a suspicious 1943 plane crash at Gibraltar, having just visited Free Polish troops in the Mediterranean military theater. Sikorski’s death was a huge blow to Poland’s prospects of re-emerging after the war as a sovereign country. Given that background, however long ago, it wasn’t surprising that when Polish President Lech Kaczyński, no friend of Moscow, died in a 2010 plane crash in Russia, many Poles wondered if foul play was again the cause. His twin brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, for a time Poland’s prime minister (and still the acknowledged power behind the throne), ultimately had his brother’s body exhumed as part of an investigation into the incident. Polish anxieties increased further over recent events in Ukraine, with Russia annexing Crimea and extending its military influence into Ukraine’s eastern provinces.

Thus it isn’t surprising that Poles collectively harbor an almost instinctive wariness toward the Russian bear, be it Czarist, Communist, or Putinist. Indeed, with the Russians—as well as, of course, their own heritage—in mind, the Poles might wish to focus on two upcoming anniversaries as teachable moments: first, the 40th anniversary of the accession of Pope John Paul II to the papacy, which comes on October 22, 2018. And second, the centennial of John Paul’s birth, which will be on May 18, 2020. Both dates offer the Poles, and the rest of us, an opportunity to celebrate anti-communism and, more broadly, anti-hegemonism.

Third, we have the pincer threat from the south. Throughout the West, there is a growing awareness of the threat from Islamist terror—even if many Western leaders choose to turn a blind eye toward the risks lurking within unchecked immigration from Muslim countries. But the Poles have chosen not to turn a blind eye; in the words of former Polish prime minister Beata Szydło, “Poland is today seen in Europe as a country free of terrorism.” The other big states in the EU can hardly make that claim.


Still, Poles know there are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, more than double the number of Europeans. In addition, there are billions more non-Muslims around the world, many of whom would also be delighted to take up a subsidized lifestyle in Europe. So just the demographic math alone requires security- and heritage-conscious Europeans to be careful about opening the gate to all comers.

Further, as Pew Center polls have shown, huge swathes of Muslims throughout the world support Sharia law over the kinds of secular legal systems of the West. The share of Sharia supporters within the population of Pakistan, for instance, is 84 percent, while in Niger it’s 86 percent, and in Afghanistan 99 percent. If such illiberal beliefs travel to the West in ever greater numbers, which seems to be the policy of some European countries, what happens to the Western way of life? To the West itself? The Poles believe they know the answer to that question.

Indeed, given the gap in values between Europe and the Islamic culture, it’s little wonder that a cultural clash has emerged between the two civilizations, as the late Samuel Huntington of Harvard predicted. Contributing mightily to it has been Western military interventions in the Muslim world. Muslims predictably haven’t taken to the idea of being “liberated” at gunpoint. In the meantime, a chaotic culture chasm has severely complicated civic life in London, Paris, and Berlin. Thus do the Poles feel justified in thinking that the results would be no better in Warsaw, Gdansk, or Krakow.

For Poles, situated as they are in Central Europe, the tension between the West and Islam is nothing new. They remain conscious of events dating back to 1529, when the Ottoman Turks, having conquered the Balkans and other European lands (including the European capitals of Belgrade, Bucharest, and Budapest) laid siege to Vienna, just a few hundred miles from the Polish border. The siege by the Turks’ mighty army failed, and Europe was saved. Indeed, in a little more than a decade, on October 14, 2029, we will reach another potent anniversary—the 500th anniversary of that civilizational triumph. It will be interesting to see how—or whether—the Viennese and other Europeans celebrate or at least note the 500th anniversary of that triumph.

Of more particular interest to Poles was another Western victory over the Turks, this one in 1683. In that year, the Ottomans once again besieged Vienna, and this time the Western force that saved the Austrian capital was led by Poland’s King John III Sobieski, commanding a joint Polish-German army. After that defeat, the Turks fell back in continuous retreat, mostly to Asia—at least until recently. In the meantime, those who are handy with calendars might wish to mark down 2033 as yet another anniversary, the 350th.

These were signal Western victories over a determined foe of a rival civilization bent on conquest of the European continent. Westerners today, however, don’t seem particularly moved by them or even very conscious of them. The mass immigration policies of most European countries, though blunted somewhat by increasing popular opposition, serves as testament to the lack of a civilizational consciousness throughout much of Europe.

But not in Poland, where traditionalism and a special brand of cultural conservatism still exercise a strong tug on the national consciousness. That brave country, alive with a spirit of hard-won independence, is fated by geography to be forever the target of hostile pincers. It will have to struggle, as it has struggled throughout its history, to keep itself whole and free. Perhaps Poland will find its own new Burke, a figure of erudite and thoughtful guidance, who will rally the nation’s historical and cultural resources for the struggles ahead. In the meantime, Americans should ponder the reality that, in crucial ways, Poland’s fight is our fight as well. And perhaps we, too, will wake up and realize that we need a new Burke of our own.  

James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at TAC. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.



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