We crucially need a change in our focus and where we see areas of conflict. Only in this way can we break free from the vicious circle of current politics, dominated by the ghosts from our past.

Young people, brought up after 1989, can be islands of fresh perspectives and ideas in society. But now these islands have been wrapped up in a smog of outdated concepts relating to the past.

The archipelago of civil society, which is made up of 134 thousand foundations and associations as well as hundreds of thousands of non-formalised activities are also not smog-free. That is why it is worth asking the question: can the generation of independence, of people born after 1989, lead us to a renewal of civil society?

“The young” versus “the old”

At the end of last year, on the main forum of civil society, ngo.pl, a discussion on generational change ensued. The starting point was the conflict between “the old” and “the young” over participation in social protests.

“The young”, like Kaja Puto, sensed paternalism or even contempt in the statements of people like Theo Nawrocki, Piotr Pacewicz or Dorota Wellman. In addition, there was a sense of entitlement perceived by the younger participants who felt many of the older discussants were playing “the veteran card” − the experience of fighting communism, belonging to Solidarity and facing the great dragon.

Nowadays, this rhetoric is of little importance and it can cause irritation. Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, but let us no longer treat this rhetoric as an argument in the debate, especially for those who were lucky (or, as you can see, unlucky) enough not to live during this “starry time”, to use Jacek Kuroń’s term.

Jacek Kuroń

At the end of the book on the left-wing anti-communist opposition, Dariusz Gawin notes that what used to be a strength during non-democratic times − the Polish version of non-political politics, a certain utopia of civil society − is a great weakness in democratic times, and we are struggling with this still today.

A moral mace instead of politics

In ordinary political conflicts, parties compete for the support of the citizenship through their programmes, rhetoric and image. In Poland, these same arguments have been abducted by the language of subjective morality, where we are the good ones and our opponents are radically evil.

This is a legacy held over from the previous system, which the older generation still cultivates. Yet, it doesn’t end with these misguided narrations, new expectations of fulfilling moral obligations keep on appearing. In this way, words are being transformed into action − political activities submit to this moral duty.

While this strategy is effective in the fight against totalitarianism − it encourages many people to act − in democracy it destroys the public sphere and leaves no room for agreement. This also harms civil society.

This situation resembles the dilemma described by Stefan Żeromski in “The Coming Spring”, during a conversation between Cezary Baryka and Szymon Gajowiec. They discuss whether the experience of the partitions generation − their attitude and methods of social activity based on the struggle against foreign authorities − is still needed in the now independent country. Gajowiec claims that this experience is only there to remind the young that they do not have to be like the previous generation, and they certainly should not acquire all of their ideas because those were the answers for a different time with its own, unique challenges.

The axes of the disputes lay elsewhere

This reflection is also applicable to our time. Therefore, such organisations as the Jagiellonian Club, Krytyka Polityczna, Res Publica, Nowa Konfederacja, Liberté or Kontakt are trying to come up with new solutions. They have been created mainly by the new generation, although the date of birth is not necessarily the deciding criterion. They want to escape the grip of current politics and solve the most current and pressing issues.

This does not mean that there is a utopian agreement among this generation. The aforementioned civil society organisations represent a broad spectrum of worldviews and multiple social sensitivities. However, the differences between their perspectives lie somewhere else completely as a variety of stimuli can affect our hearts and minds, and today we are in desperate need of changes to the previous axes of conflict. Only in this way can we escape the vicious circle that the current politics has been dominated by the ever-reoccurring ghosts of the past which are now even catching up with civil society.

This applies to those organisations and socially engaged people who represent the values and ideas that are not represented in an adequate way by political parties. Often this means the new generation.

The youth are also more sensitive to the international dimension of contemporary challenges − this is caused by the experience acquired during such programmes as Erasmus, international schools of young leaders or even ordinary tourist trips. As a result, many of them have acquired the familiarity that is necessary to manoeuvre the contemporary public space.

All of this speaks in favour of the young generation’s ability to lead us to a new starry time although this one will not resemble that which is fondly remembered by our parents and grandparents.

Let some air in

In this intergenerational discussion, whether focused on the political or civil society spheres, the issue of the difference between the priorities of the young people and their parents and grandparents keeps returning.

The youth place greater emphasis on social rights, ecology and minority issues, thus translating abstract ideas – like individual freedoms or theories related to the free market – into concrete action. It could be said that they are less idealistic and more pragmatic, less concerned about fighting with challenges from the past and more willing to solve real problems.

Although the differences between the generations’ attitudes are visible, the idea of civil society remains unchanged − to create and maintain a shared environment in such a way that those within it feel good about and safe inside it. Therefore, if more members of the young generation enter the public sphere and the dominant elders recognise them as fully-fledged partners, the greater the chance that things will go in the right direction.

Adam Andruszkiewicz

In order to achieve this, young people should not only be a part of their generation metrically but also mentally. They shouldn’t – like the new deputy minister of digitalisation in Poland Adam Andruszkiewicz, who is only 28 – dress up in anachronistic robes and perform their roles as if in a kindergarten recital while playing with matches (he was the leader of an ultra-nationalist youth organization All-Polish Youth that refers to a nationalist polish party during the interwar period – note by editor). If, however, liberal environments − both political and social − will not aerate their ranks, we could be living with a great deal of ideological smog in the future.

The red light is on

If there was an app that would measure the state of political threats to civil society after the last parliamentary elections, a red light would be flashing.

In 2015, according to the Ipsos survey, 26.6% of Poles aged 18-29 voted for PiS (ruling right-wing party), Kukiz’15 (a right-wing party, which provided a few nationalists to the parliament) – 20.6%, KORWiN (a right-wing, neoliberal party) – 16.8%, Civic Platform (liberal party, EPP in EP) – 14.4%, Nowoczesna (liberal party, ALDE in EP) – 7.8%, Razem (far-left party) – 5.2%, PSL (peasant party) – 3.7%, and the United Left (socialdemocrats coalitions) – 3.2%.

Such results do not only show the dominance of groups rehashing ideas from the past century, they can also translate into difficulties for organisations dealing with human rights, tolerance, transparency of public life and democratic values. For these reasons, it is important to watch and understand this year’s elections from this perspective as well.

Until then, an intergenerational evidence-based policy can be prepared concerning issues important for the new generation and within the context of its involvement with civil society. However, is anyone currently interested in such an affair during these times of dramatic polarisation? Many people from my generation − those already involved with numerous non-governmental organisations − surely are!


This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight. It was originally published in Polish by Polityka and can be found here.

Managing editor of Res Publica Nowa magazine (Poland), historian of ideas, author and political commentator

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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