The Origins of Post-dissident Liberalism in Poland: Revolution, Thermidorianism, and Regenerationism


In discussing the roots of post-dissident liberalism, the interpreters of the events of 1989 cast the leaders of the transition as moderates in the revolutionary drama, deftly fending off Jacobin populism. But what if we use other analytical categories, like those employed by the French Revolution historiography to reflect on the origins of that political identity? The moderantism of the post-dissident liberals can thus be productively reinterpreted as pre-emptive Thermidorianism. According to B. Baczko, Thermidorianism is not only an anti-Jacobin moment, but also “the key moment when the Revolution must carry the weight of its past and admit that it will not keep all its initial promises.” While anti-Jacobinism is a commonly recognized feature of dissident thinking, the aspect of revolutionary disillusion merits more attention. Abandoning Solidarity’s promise to harmonize the civic, political and social entitlements of citizenship in favour of recognition of the incompatibility between “classical” liberties and social rights, the dissident leaders came to see in the revolution not only a bad historical choice, but an imminent danger which was understood in terms of a lack of synchronization between the regime change and the regeneration of political culture—the core preoccupation of the French Revolution according to M. Ozouf. Post-dissident liberals opted for a transitional politics of exception, which justified the need to delay the democratic opening not for fear of backlash from the old regime, but increasingly also due to anxiety against uncivil effervescence. While the inability to think beyond the transitional imaginary of democracy in constant peril became a permanent feature of the liberal centre, it hijacked the political space in which moderate conservatism could have thrived. From this perspective, the emergence to its right of its nemesis, Jacobin populism, appears to be a chronicle of death foretold.