Twenty-five years later: Dzielski's contribution to liberty


By Michael Novak

Conference Honoring the 25th Anniversary of Miroslaw Dzielski’s Death

Jagiellonian University – Krakow, Poland

October 10, 2014


            The last time I saw Miroslaw Dzielski was in 1989, shortly before he died that October in Bethesda, Maryland, adjacent to Washington. He had come to visit me in my office at the American Enterprise Institute, and to fill me in on some of his adventures in launching the publication in Poland of an illegal translation [samizdat] of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. We had a very warm conversation. I could see how generous he had been in his efforts, and how risky the deed had been, although he brushed off the riskiness as normal everyday life.

            To me it was immensely touching that, ill as he was, he had made the effort to come over to my office to visit with me. We had a face-to-face glimpse of a kinship of spirit – the sort of “encounter” Gabriel Marcel writes of. It seemed to me that Miroslaw did not have long to live, as himself told me without flinching – and, indeed, the Lord took him away very quickly.

            Someday I would like to learn the whole story of how that translation came about and how Solidarnosc, as a socialist labor union in a socialist economy, could have the courage to publish a book with “capitalism” in the title. More, it was a book that not only morally approved of but even commended capitalism to the wider world, as the best method for raising the poor out of poverty (and also, in a relatively short time). And more than that, this illegal book commended the moral virtues that the practice of capitalism inculcates in whole populations – such virtues as taking initiative, facing risks, assuming responsibility, forming associations, working extra-hard, being on the alert for better products and better methods, in order to improve the lives of ordinary people.[1] Spirit celebrated a “theology of creation” rather than a so-called theology of liberation (and as history shows, “liberation theology” never did lift poor persons from poverty).

            But exactly how did Solidarnosc come to reach the risky decision to publish it? Which individuals – in which cities – argued in favor of it, and which against? Of course, the translation and publication could not have happened without Miroslaw. But who succeeded in making the case to the different branches of Solidarnosc?

            I am immensely grateful to them, whoever they are. I know that Alexander Hall played a key role. To have been able to serve the brave pioneers in liberty in this, the region of my Slovak grandparents on the Tatra border of Poland, brought me one of the greatest joys of my life. I wanted to help. I wrote the book in order to help. But in such matters, a writer must cast his book on the waters and depend entirely on Providence, which often works through the raw courage of others faraway.

            My debt to Miroslaw Dzielski is, therefore, enormous.


* * *

            Somehow, I seem to remember meeting Dzielski once before 1985, in Krakow. In the dimness of an 81-year-old’s memory, however, I cannot seem to bring the exact circumstances or even the date to mind. It might have been on my first visit to Krakow in 1978 – in those gray days, when people in the streets walked quickly, heads-down, with almost empty faces, keeping feelings hidden. I remember trying to speak to the hopelessness I felt emanating from the stones of Krakow’s streets. I talked about “the experience of nothingness” to an association of besieged Catholic intellectuals in Poland. How stupid!

            Later, I saw what a mistake that had been. My audience knew far more than I did about bleakness. Why didn’t I speak of hope, and liberty, and a coming joy? Of course, later in that same year, the amazing grace struck us like a meteor – Karol Wojtyla from this historic city was elected pope. And the next year came the “Nine Days that Changed the World,” those days when Pope John Paul II spoke in person to crowds of millions of Poles day after day. “Do not be afraid!” he said. Who can forget those days?

            Well, I am pretty sure I spoke to Dzielski at some point in those early years. I associate that visit with newspaper offices. I seem to remember his telling me about shortages of newsprint when the censors did not approve of something. I remember gaining a sense of his courage, and of his grasp of the need for a coalition between intellectuals and the people, and of another between believers and unbelievers. I remember feeling that here in Krakow I stood briefly on the front lines, rather than in warm safety in America.

            I want to tell you about one more incident linking me and Dzielski. In maybe 1983, maybe a year later, there appeared at my door a tall, very tall, and thin young man. Before he allowed himself to enter my office, he looked back over both shoulders, as if he expected to be observed. He was from Poland, and he was obviously very nervous. He explained that he had been asked to talk to me by Solidarosc about the translation of my book. They wanted to be sure to have my consent. Of course I was thrilled beyond words.

            At that time, I was on the Board of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, and was well informed on life within its wide radio range. In particular, the Polish, Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian Services came under my special responsibilities for the Board.

            I studied the young Pole in my doorway at the American Enterprise Institute – and I daresay he studied me even more closely.

             “Of course,” I replied to him. “Of course, you may publish it. But I will have to charge royalties.”

            At that, the young man’s face fell and he protested. “But we cannot afford that. We were hoping –”

            I held up my hand. “I had in mind two royalties. First, you must get a copy to Pope John Paul II. Second, you must get a copy to me.”

            The young man’s face lifted with enthusiasm, and even delight. His mission had been successful after all.

            “The first,” he responded, “will be easy. The second will take longer.”

            In fact, it did take about a year before a copy of the miniature black-covered edition of Spirit reached me through the post. My proudest possession ever, I later deposited it in the Library of Congress in Washington.

            It had been clear from a few signs that the pope had received his copy long before I received mine.


2. Intellectual Ties

            In later years, my friends and I founded a Summer Institute on the Free Society, built around Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus. We also assigned certain American classics of political and social philosophy, such as The Federalist Papers (1787) and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1836). Our primary aim was to bring together about ten young American students or young professionals, and twice that many remarkable young Europeans, to study together the principles and practical workings of a free society. That is, a society free in its political system, free in its economic system, and free in its moral/cultural system. Our thesis was that all three systems must be free, if ever fully free and virtuous citizens are to emerge. The decisive battleground for newly free peoples would lie in the human soul: Would enough citizens take up the responsibilities of freedom, or not?

            Our secondary purpose was to bring together young Europeans and Americans to study common classic on liberty together. We sensed a growing split between European and American youths, which we took to be dangerous for our common future.

            Although we held the seminar for the first two years in Lichtenstein, to give the Eastern Europeans a chance to travel west, the pope soon asked us to bring it to Poland. We found a wonderful place in Krakow, with the Dominicans, and the seminar has continued here for twenty years. We graduate some forty every year, and so by now we have more than 800 young leaders on both sides of the Atlantic in contact with one another, and supporting one another. Some are in parliament, some in journalism, some professors, some in various agencies of government or in NGOs. One, Oxford Ph.D. in his hands, has even founded a new college (in Slovakia) for highly dedicated professionals.


3. Shared Principles

            There are at least four principles that our seminar shares in common with Dzielski.

            (1) One of Dzielski’s great principles was “political realism.” In an interview just months before his death in 1989, Dzielski said, “We made it a point to come up with a practical program, rather than with a theoretical one.” [2] Also: “I have always believed that one should cooperate with the regime as long as this cooperation aims at the demise of the system.”[3] And: “The ideas we cherish cannot blind us to reality.”[4]

            Our seminar’s version of that principle is “Christian realism.” For one thing, the American inheritance from “biblical humanism” – that is, from St. Augustine and Christian thinkers such as the American founders – have a much richer and more complex sense of sin than do thinkers of the Enlightenment, in France as in America. That is what led to long discussions of human weakness and sinfulness in The Federalist.[5]

            That sense of sin led directly to practical defensive measures against sin, such as the division of powers all down through the system, and checks and balances, and frequent elections to pass judgment on past performance.

            On merely secular grounds, too many thinkers nowadays still seem far too utopian. In the 20th century they have shown themselves to be too undefended against hugely destructive ideological enthusiasms. Even today, a return to Christian realism is urgently needed.

            (2) Yet another of Dzielski’s principles: Besides Christian virtues there are natural virtues, shared alike by unbelievers and believers. In the same interview, he commented: “[W]e have been trying to understand the world on our own, being bound to each other by common values and ideals. We believe these values and ideals should be referred to in our political activities.”[6] And: “To be a Christian liberal is to believe that no one should be forced to adopt religion. Liberalism believes in universal freedom in the sphere of acts and opinions as long as they do not undermine the dignity of others.”[7]

            This common approach to moral principles habits (virtues) offers unbelievers and believers much room for united action in key social arenas. Our seminar constantly tries to show that there are two roads to many basic human questions, one by way of natural reason (such as that of Aristotle’s ethics) and the other by way of Christian reasons, which Thomas Aquinas, for instance, taught us how to keep distinct and yet related.

            (3) A third principle of Dzielski: It does not suffice to think clearly about politics and economics, without thinking clearly about the moral capacities of peoples. In his words: “Capitalism does not boil down to a free market; it is much more, because it is conditioned by Christian values.”[8] Also: “To my mind in order to retain freedom society must be religious. I cannot imagine a state governed by law, and a liberal state is governed by law, without people who are moral or, on a deeper level, religious, even if one is not aware of this.”[9]

            Some cultures instruct in these virtues, others instruct in those. Practical results are not likely to be identical for each choice. So one must consider “culture,” not only politics and economics, in estimating with some realism what is likely to work, and what is not. In our seminar, we call this “the threefold system of liberty: political, economic, and cultural.” We argue that there is a “moral ecology” that is most favorable to habits of liberty in all three spheres. The task of building free societies is very largely building up that favorable moral ecology. The battle must be won morally, or it will not be won at all.

            (4) A fourth principle: Even though Dzielski is often described as a Hayekian, or as a libertarian, often as “the Polish Hayek,” there is no doubt that Dzielski’s thought goes far beyond economics, and takes very seriously moral and spiritual realities. Thus his full philosophy generates a very rich and broad form of liberty. His liberty is not merely political or economic, but in its fundamental basis moral and spiritual. Take, for example, this statement from his Revival of Spirit: Formation of Freedom:

The freedom of a lively social cosmos, its plenteous activity, is the opposite of totalitarianism. . . . The foundation of this life consists of a human’s spiritual life, his creativity. This activity is aimed at the concrete human being, and not – as it is in case of activity guided by ideology – at an abstract human. Spiritual existence must be strong, if other forms of being are to be solid and flourishing. Therefore, to this existence we need to turn, using all the will power we possess.

            This may be good place to note also the considerable confusion, in America as well as in Poland, in the use of the terms libertarian and liberal, and following these, classical liberals and social democratic liberals. For instance, the Democratic Party in the United States calls itself liberal (sometimes “progressive”) but bitterly opposes “libertarians” who insist on limited government and balanced budgets (for example, the “Tea Party,” who actually represent some of the “classical liberals” of today). American “classical liberals” tend to take as their models the American Founders, and they praise both the moral habits and the fundamental principles or “truths” promoted by those who believe strongly in limiting government and expanding personal creativity.

            In this more precise sense, Ronald Reagan aimed at being (he did not always succeed) in the classical liberal camp of the Founders. Thence came his resonance with the popular consciousness of earlier generations. His views were anathema to progressives, who in his view were clinging to the vast empowerment of the administrative state post-1945, now a retrograde, self-serving party and not in fundamental things progressive in fact, only in slogan.

            It may further be useful to point out that many libertarians in the U.S. today distinguish among political libertarians (the limited state), economic libertarians (lower taxes, less meddling of government in economic initiative), and moral libertarians (focused chiefly on an individual’s solitary will, minimizing duties to others). Others, like the followers of Lord Acton, argue that “the free and virtuous society” is the more worthy human aim, and they work hard to raise up the poor worldwide, and to stress the virtues required to maintain liberty – virtues that are a crucial component of the common good. This is another point on which Dzielski’s philosophy and, say, that of the Acton Institute in the USA[10] have much in common.


4. Poland’s Successes

            One of the brilliant conceptualizers of the intellectual background of this event, Andrzej Walicki, describes the arc of Dzielski’s step-by-step thinking (and influence) of twenty-five years ago, months before the fall of the Berlin Wall:

The elections of June 1989 were perceived . . . as a sweeping victory of the non-Communist left, that is to say, as a setback to the liberal right, as represented by [Dzielski]. Indeed, all independent liberal candidates (except one, a private entrepreneur who had financed his own electoral campaign for the Senate) were swept away by candidates backed by Solidarity. Soon afterwards, however, it turned out that despite electoral defeat liberalism proved victorious as an intellectual force and as a program for radical economic change. The new, Solidarity-led government gave the key economic ministries to convinced liberals (including Dzielski’s disciple, Syryjczyk) and embarked on a very radical plan of economic reform. In this manner Dzielski’s liberalism entered the third stage in its changing relationship to Solidarity.

The first stage (before the proclamation of Martial Law in December 1981) was its existence within Solidarity, with Dzielski as one of Solidarity’s experts, as well as its press spokesman in the Cracow region. The second . . . was its crystallization as a separate force, concentrating on constructive “organic work,” aiming to promote a deep change in national consciousness, and somewhat skeptical about direct political struggle. The third stage began with the victory of a pro-liberal, market-oriented tendency within Solidarity. This deep transformation of Solidarity – from a populist, egalitarian movement of the masses to a conscious political force, determined to direct Poland towards democratic capitalism even at the cost of drastic belt-tightening, an increase of inequality and the appearance of previously unknown unemployment—can be seen, to a certain extent, as the most important success of Polish liberalism. And Polish liberalism as a movement in which Miroslaw Dzielski will always occupy a well-deserved place of honor.[11]

            Two well-known American observers, one a highly respected former U.S. Senator, Phil Gramm, and the other a respected veteran of U.S. policy and politics, Michael Solon, note the superior results of this third turn, viewed from 2014. Their words will present nothing new to Polish intellectuals, but they bear repeating for Western thinkers:

By employing free-market principles and unleashing the genius of its people, Poland has triggered an economic triumph as per capita GDP, in U.S. dollar equivalence, soared to more than $13,432 by 2013 from $1,683 in 1990. Today Poland is the fastest-growing economy in Europe. Its economic success and democratic reforms have earned it European Union membership, and Poland’s once fleeting sovereignty is now anchored in NATO.

The man largely responsible for Poland’s transformation is Leszek Balcerowicz, the former finance minister who was later governor of Poland’s Central Bank. In transforming a nation from a state-based collectivist economy to a market-oriented economy, Mr. Balcerowicz in 1989 had no manual to read or modern example to follow.

He faced two choices: act boldly using what he called “shock therapy” or act slowly and incrementally. Bold action had little chance of success but incrementalism had no chance of success. As Mr. Balcerowicz put it, “a very risky option is always better than a hopeless option.”

The concept of free markets was foreign to the Polish people, but Mr. Balcerowicz understood that economic freedom was a necessary condition for prosperity and, ultimately, for the preservation of political freedom and national independence. The Balcerowicz Plan was built around permitting state firms to go bankrupt, banning deficit financing, and maintaining a sound currency. It ended artificially low interest rate loans for state firms, opened up international trade and instituted currency convertibility.

His plan was signed into law on December 31, 1989 and within days, inflation – which had reached an annual rate of 17,000% – started to plummet. Poland pegged the value of the zloty to the dollar, permitting redenomination of the zloty five years later by crossing out four zeros. Once the reforms were in place, goods started showing up first in the trunks of cars, then in street stands, in small shops and ultimately in large stores. A miracle transition was under way and the rest is history.

By crowning its great political victory in achieving independence with economic triumph, Poland has established itself as a Western nation. Whereas the people of Ukraine are divided by language and heritage, in Poland people are united by prosperity and a shared hope for the future. By using its political victory to remake its economy, Poland created the prosperity that has strengthened and solidified its freedom and independence.[12]

            I do not agree with Senator Gramm and his colleague that the people of Poland are “united by prosperity.” Primary was their brave faith and clear practical ideas; prosperity came later, after much sacrifice and stubborn work. When they were still under the depressing gray sky of Communist poverty, the Polish people were united in their faith, their cultural traditions, and their determination to regain the freedoms inherent in their faith, literature, and customs.

            To the millions of Polish citizens listening fervently to Pope John Paul II in June of 1979, often with tears in their eyes, a startling revelation became clear in all the great open squares of the nation: There are more of us than there are of them. We need not be afraid. They should be afraid. And within a few short years the Communist government fell, fell loudly, and was replaced by a free, independent government. A government led by a worker’s party – by Solidarnosc! Poetically, it was workers who overturned the Communist paradise. To their own joy and the whole world’s good.

            It was Dzielski in his quiet heroism who had made the practical program of Leszek Balcerowicz recognizable to hundreds of Poland’s leaders.

            All the world, and especially all of long-suffering Central Europe, is immensely indebted to Miroslaw Dzielski’s moral grit, unselfish intellect, multiple practical skills – and also his will power.

            All honor to Miroslaw Dzielski, one of the bravest lights of this ancient and internationally celebrated University! Today, after twenty-five years, we toast him in the cultural capital of the brave and highly successful country he guided theoretically in its earliest practical steps.

[1] An inquisitive reader might find a list of just such virtues in St. John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus, 31.

[2] “Credo,” in Widziec Madrosc w Wolnosci, 173. Originally published in Polish in Mloda Polska (June 22, 1989).

[3] Ibid., 178.

[4] Ibid., 179.

[5] See The Federalist, no. 6, for example, and passim.

[6] “Credo,” 174.

[7] Ibid., 174-75.

[8] Ibid., 174.

[9] Ibid., 176.

[10] For more information on the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, see its website:

[11] Andrzej Walicki, “Miroslaw Dzielski, 1941-1989,” Critical Review 4, no. 1/2 (Winter/Spring 1990): 296.

[12] Phil Gramm and Michael Solon, “A Lesson for America in Poland’s Rise and Ukraine’s Fall,” Wall Street Journal (August 29, 2014).

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