Professor Król

There are many professors, there are also quite a number of editors-in-chief, and a handful of university deans. Holding all those public posts, and then some, Marcin Król was just a historian of ideas to many. Like no other though, he used to open, make available and redefine entire areas of intellectual legacy, unknown, banned or forgotten before.


Jealous people, always in abundance, must have snorted: he came from a good family (his father was a lecturer at the University of Technology, his godfather the legendary Józef Rybicki, a classic philologist, one of commanders of the Home Army’s Directorate of Diversion and a political prisoner for nine years in Stalinism times); he was a graduate of the Reytan comprehensive, one of Warsaw’s best secondary schools, and in addition tall, handsome and spirited. Great, but his double MA received at the age of 22 (in Sociology and Philosophy; in case of the latter the subject of his reflection being ‘The Epistemological Absolute and Intersubjective Communication in Works of Descartes and Husserl’) must have been his own accomplishment.

His public debut in the rigid and stuffy Poland of the final years of Władysław Gomułka’s rule could not have been better. First, in January 1968, he participated in a medialised street protest against the official ban of the theatrical play Dziady [Forefathers’ Eve] by Adam Mickiewicz, a classic of Polish literature considered too anti-Russian by the communist party. Less than two months later, the PhD student Król took part in a demonstration in the court of the University of Warsaw in defence of fellow students expelled for their convictions and was selected a member of the student delegation seeking to hold talks with the University’s rector. A month later, on 10 April, he was detained, and 48 hours later arrested for three months. This is how one becomes part of his/her generation. Yet this is usually clear 20 years later.

For now, he was released and fortunately retained by the University: in 1971, he defended his doctoral dissertation about the ‘historical awareness in the ideology of the Jacobins’ and became an employee of the Polish Academy of Sciences. As a bursary holder, he was even allowed to go to Yale University and the University of Texas, yet at the same time a more important thing happened: he began cooperation with the Catholic, intelligentsia-oriented Tygodnik Powszechny weekly doing a balancing act between being in the opposition (officially impossible) and keeping the authorities at arm’s length. Together with his long-standing friend Wojciech Karpiński, he published there a series of intellectual portraits of the key Polish political thinkers of the 19th and the early 20th centuries, collectively titled Od Mochnackiego do Piłsudskiego: sylwetki polityczne XIX wieku [From Mochnacki to Piłsudski. 19th-century Political Figures].

Mochnacki could have been forgiven, but Piłsudski? That testified to the relative liberalisation of the 1970s, when Edward Gierek took power in the Polish People’s Republic. Yet whatever the censors could accept in the low-circulation ‘show’ Catholic weekly a book publisher would not. The series was finally published under the stripped-down title meaning ‘19th-century Political Figures’ (1974) and enjoyed much success. More precisely, it became an important constituent part of the significant mental process of the 1970s: the Poles’ great retrieval of the past, denied or censored before. It is oftentimes remembered how that retrieval of the past was supported by a painting and photography exhibition titled ‘The Poles’ Self Portrait’ of 1979, Andrzej Wajda’s films of the same decade or Pope John Paul II’s first visit to his home country (also 1979). Political Figures… was also an important building block, though. For those who began their university education in History or Polish Studies in the 1980s the level of the knowledge of its content marked the student’s reputation.

In the middle of the decade, Marcin Król received university habilitation, signed several protest letters as well as became engaged in the creation of the Society of Academic Courses, Poland’s first educational institution entirely independent from the state (and formally illegal if tolerated by the authorities) since 1944. At the same time (1978), he launched, again together with Wojciech Karpiński, the Res Publica monthly. That was already a time when independent publications were printed in Poland – from The Information Bulletin of the Workers’ Defence Committee informing the reader of cases of beating and detention to Zapis offering creative output of young poets – yet no other title was set up to publish thoughts on Tocqueville! Yet that was Król’s intention: to establish a forum for liberal-conservative and at the same time rational thinking and debating about politics. That was also the purpose of his émigré monograph (published by Libella, Paris, 1979) of the milieu of ‘neoconservatives’ in Poland of the 1930s, gathered around two press titles (Bunt Młodych [Youth Rebellion] and Polityka [Politics]), although aspiring to enter great politics and modernise the country.

In the period 1980–1981 (the ‘carnival’), he was one of Solidarity’s advisers although one could assume that he did not always share the spontaneity and enthusiasm of a huge trade union. He was still into serious academic reflection on 20th-century Poland’s conservative thought, and more precisely – the traditions and the ‘format’ of that thought. That is evidenced by his works on the Stańczycy [Court Jesters] grouping (1982) and studies on 19th-century Polish conservative thought  published in 1985, yet Król was far from resurrecting conservative movements by means of a simple ‘reconstruction’. His comment on such ideas was a burst of laughter and a puff of smoke from his favourite gauloise. He supported ‘realism’, which was neither easy nor popular in romantic Poland feverishly contesting the introduction of Martial Law. That realism led him to discussing, in the format of the Dziekania Political Thought Club, the framework conditions of a political accord with communism, to be concluded in the name of rescuing the economy  and society. In 1987, he went a step further: he conducted interviews with communists as a result of which Jaruzelski’s regime agreed to the legal publication of the Res Publica monthly.

On the starved publishing market, the new title was in high demand due to its legendary reputation, texts and graphics. It was compared to Paris-published monthlies or The Atlantic, while Król was bitterly castigated for making a compromise with the hated communists. The anger passed and the black-and-white covers of Res Publica, published on rough worn-out cardboard easily absorbing dust, have remained. A year later, the compromise with the hated, yet – given the economic slowdown – increasingly capitulating – communists was everybody was talking about, including his yesterday’s critics. And Król was ‘against’ yet again, speaking against the unification of the opposition and subjugating it to Lech Wałęsa. At the same time, he was engaged in the Round Table talks on the Solidarity side writing a couple of essays about the framework conditions of the agreement.

In newly independent Poland, he continued to publish Res Publica (since 2003, the Res Publica Nowa quarterly), headed the Faculty of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Warsaw (2002–2012), and created the Chair of Studies on Tradition and Social Change. He did get directly involved politically on an occasion or two (by offering his support to two presidential candidates), yet on a daily basis he was much more interested in grassroots activities: he chaired the board of Poland’s largest liberal (and probably largest as such) non-governmental think-tank, that is the Batory Foundation. And all the while, regardless of his academic’s, publisher’s and organiser’s duties – he would engage in talks, at seminars and beyond. Over the last days of November, the media became full of memories about him, written by PhD students, now usually PhD holders. Not necessarily liberal: often conservatives, more Catholic than ‘secular’, writing about going separate ways with Król, yet consistently emphasising his honesty, openness and mastery. ‘The unshakeable gratitude for our guides is one of the foundations of the righteous souls, even if we have long treaded our own path and oftentimes not the way our guide of old would wish,’ Paweł Milcarek, another conservative thinker, summed up those farewells.

As for Król himself, over time he was probably further from conservatism, at least its uncritical version. Already in Podróż romantyczna [A Romantic Journey] published in the 1980s, possibly his most essayist book, he discussed thoughts of Daniel Bell, Alain Besançon, Witold Gombrowicz or Emmanuel Mounier – all of them far removed from the conservatives orthodoxy. He was always comme il faut in his behaviour (‘He was an elegant and always punctual lecturer. When he began to speak, he would remove his watch, put it on the table and look at it discreetly from time to time. He used to finish his lectures on time, sometimes indulging in digressions or anecdotes, yet invariably serving his way of reasoning,’ his female audience members have written on Facebook), and would sometimes allow himself to show his classist passion in his texts. It was sad to read his comments about people with whom he disagreed in politics, who according to him missed ‘a tip to Brittany and tasting oysters downed with Chablis wine’. Yet those were the least important texts of his.

A 2014 interview with him (which he extended a year later to a book format) under the much medialised title Byliśmy Głupi [We Were Stupid] showed that he was always an independent thinker. That was no charm offensive as in the generation after the 1989 transformation Marcin Król criticised his milieu of liberal intellectuals for having focused in the 1980s on political or intellectual freedom, giving up on social solidarity and acting with the real needs of most Poles in mind. ‘We were removed from people’s real problems. After all, from our point of view that entire revolution was about freedom. For instance, problems with censorship in communist-ruled Poland. Who experienced them? For 97 per cent of the Poles that was no trouble at all. And for us, conversely, that was the basic problem, that they deleted stuff or prohibited printing what one had painstakingly produced. Freedom was of the highest importance for us, absolutely. It was sufficient. And the questions of social solidarity, poverty in rural areas, former state-owned farms, inequalities… We did not have enough imagination,’ he recalled.

He has left behind over 20 books, five anthologies, most probably the most important journal evoking the liberal tradition, dozens of students, and a model of mastery. For years, he has been considered a member of a small group of ‘young conservatives’ proclaiming a rather private and elitist cult of another very independent Polish intellectual and publisher Paweł Hertz. Most probably, we are going to put these two names next to each other.

Dr Wojciech Stanisławski

2020-12-02