Ewelina PODGAJNA: The political thought of Wincenty Witos

Ewelina PODGAJNA: The political thought of Wincenty Witos

’Wincenty Witos was one of the most important persons in the great process of transforming a peasant attached to the partitioning monarchs into a Pole and a conscious citizen. Without this process, the 'miracle of rebirth’ would have been much more modest and flawed,’ writes Professor Ewelina PODGAJNA.

Wincenty Witos was born on 21 January 1874 in a hamlet known since serf times as Dwudniaki in the village of Wierzchosławice. He was the first-born son of Katarzyna and Wojciech. He had two brothers, one of whom died in his childhood. Wincenty grew up in difficult circumstances. He was sent to school, which awakened his hunger for knowledge, at the age of ten. However, he could not continue his education due to poverty. He was self-taught and owed his development and political career to his own work and persistence. He experienced first-hand the need for science and the role it played in educating and shaping the consciousness of young generations of Poles.

Witos exerted an influence on the process of raising awareness among the rural population that is difficult to overestimate, as a peasant leader, a statesman who combined political activity with insight into the most important matters for the Polish state. He lived to the age of 71. During his life, he was an observer and participant in groundbreaking events in the history of Poland: the times of the Partitions, the two World Wars, the rebuilding of the state after more than a century of captivity, and the creation of new political principles. He rose from a local, Galician activist to the top. He was a member of the Galician National Sejm and the Vienna Council of State, co-founder of the Polish People’s Party 'Piast’ at the turn of 1913-1914, co-creating its tactical and organisational line and political thought, and Chairman of the Polish Liquidation Commission in the autumn of 1918. He held the helm of state three times, serving as Prime Minister in the years 1920-1921, 1923 and 1926. He was also a co-founder of the Centrolew, a prisoner of Brest, Chairman of the Supreme Council of the People’s Party in 1931, and a political exile in Czechoslovakia in the years 1933-1939. During Witos’s first cabinet, the political foundations of reborn Poland were established – the March Constitution of 1921, the Agricultural Reform Act (1920), and the eastern border was demarcated – after the victorious war with Bolshevik Russia – by the Treaty of Riga of 18 March 1921. Power, however, was not an end for him, but a means to realise the ideas he professed. The village from which he originated held a special place in his political thought and activity. He strove for the peasants to be made citizens and freed from the yoke of their serfdom past and to take their place with dignity in society and the state. Through their own efforts, the peasants were to elevate themselves to the role of citizens and co-managers of a state responsible for their welfare and security.

He farmed all his life, never neglecting his work even when he held important state posts. This brought him closer to the peasants, made him credible in the ideas he preached, but also often appeared to ridicule by political opponents. He raised the social, economic and political awareness of the rural population and fought against ignorance and exploitation. In his social, self-governing and political work, he taught and educated the people and linked their thoughts, desires, duties and needs with the life of the state. Stefan Józef Pastuszka rightly said of him that he was the one 'who brought the peasants back to Poland’.

Wincenty Witos was an accomplished politician, an excellent publicist, a born speaker and a passionate farmer. During his lifetime, his contemporaries evaluated him in various ways. It was not uncommon for assessments to be conditioned by ideological and political considerations. The differences were sometimes extreme, depending on the political position or interests represented. Witos pointed this out when writing down his memoirs during his stay in political exile in 1930s Czechoslovakia. In his memoirs, he noted: 'There were times when for some I was an aristocratic peasant, while for others I was at the same time an ordinary Sanguszko woodcutter. While some wanted to see me as a brigand – Szela, who wanted to devour the nobility and even the priests alive – at the same time, others solemnly proclaimed me a traitor to the peasants, the priest’s farmhand and the lord’s valet. While some attributed to me abilities, which were not at all exceptional, a great deal of political sophistication and uncommon wits, others presented me as a commonplace buffoon, who occasionally acquires the perfidy and fox-like cunning characteristic of people in this sphere. I know that there is still a large number of people in Poland who want to see me as the embodiment of all virtues, reason and ability, who believe that, through my work, efforts and conduct, I have spared the country from severe and, for a young organism, dangerous upheavals, and perhaps even from upheaval. I am also aware that there is no shortage of those who seek to undermine me by all means, to undermine my seriousness, to suggest my worst intentions, and to treat me with insults, slanders and libels.’

He was the leader of a great social movement, a great political party, an independent man, who did not care about his own material gains, but set the interests of his country and its people as his goal. S. Pigoń wrote of him: 'Witos is a peasant to all intents and purposes, so the people can easily find their way around him. What is decisive here is not only birth and a long life together. Of greater importance is the mental shape here and there, the same structure of the psyche, the same ultimate attitude to the world and life. This kinship is clearly emphasised by the individual traits of Witos’s personality, which raise his authority: by his high sense of dignity, by his courage, inflexibility, in short, by his character. (…) His strength as a leader of the people lies in the fact that he is a great type of Polish peasant, raised to a higher power.’ He was a politician who always emphasised his peasant roots – in his speech, manner, gesture and dress.

Wincenty Witos was one of the most important persons in the great process of transforming a peasant attached to the partitioning monarchs into a Pole and a conscious citizen. Without this process, this 'miracle of rebirth’ would have been much more modest and flawed. It was Witos who, together with the peasant movement, won the peasants over to the idea of Polishness and their own state. It was no accident, therefore, that he head the government in 1920. The whole of society had to be mobilised to fight the Bolsheviks, and 2/3 of that society were peasants. A person like Witos in the prime minister’s chair showed them that they were fighting for their own. The essence of Witos’s political views was captured by the fact that he was a democrat and a patriot. He placed Poland and Polishness at the forefront of the values he espoused.

He presented a vision of a future reformed state – a People’s Poland – which had to be pursued gradually, using legal forms of struggle. He rejected revolution as a path to political and systemic change for fear that it was a form of violence, leading to upheaval and inevitably to dictatorship, of which he, like all agrarians, opposed. He was a supporter of the parliamentary cabinet system, which was the result of his experience with the Galician National Sejm and the Viennese Parliament. He played a prominent role in the building on Wiejska Street. In the early 1920s, he fought for a strong position for the Sejm in the system of government. However, realising the weaknesses of Polish parliamentarism due to the lack of control mechanisms over the legislative body, he became a supporter of bicameralism after a short period of hesitation, not without the influence of compromise arrangements. He formulated a programme of changes aimed at strengthening the executive at the expense of the legislature. After Piłsudski was ousted from power in a coup in 1926, he drew up a programme to correct the mistakes of Polish parliamentarism and defended it against attacks from Sanacja, which followed the principle of 'strong government’ in both doctrine and practice. After May 1926, he became an ardent defender of the institution of the Sejm, its principles and ideas, stressing that the destruction of the Sejm would make it impossible for the popular classes to have a say in state affairs and would consequently push them to the margins of the state. Witos went down in the political history of the inter-war period as the undisputed and most consistent defender of parliamentary democracy, regardless of the perceived and clearly articulated public weaknesses and shortcomings of that system.

Respect for the law played an important role in Witos’s views. His vision of the state was to be based on the principles of the rule of law, i.e. the law as the guarantor of a just social system. He proclaimed the equality of citizens before the law, regardless of nationality or religion, but he placed the duty to respect the law on the pedestal of political principles. The rule of law was to be upheld by a judiciary that was accessible to all citizens, professional, free or as cheap as possible. The courts were to be apolitical and judgments were to be swift and impartial. The most telling example of a violation of the independence of the judiciary in the Second Republic was the Brest trial before the Regional Court in Warsaw from 26 October 1931 to 13 January 1932. The trial was conducted against Centrolew activists. Eleven people were put on the stand and accused of preparing a coup to overthrow the government. The real reason was not the acts they were accused of, but the fact that they had exposed themselves to the ruling camp. Witos was among those arrested and charged. Those who carried out the coup d’état and used terror to seize power were trying those who called for the restoration of the rule of law. The Brest trial was proof that the rule of law had been violated, the opposition intimidated and broken, and society as a whole. Witos appeared twice during the trial. He vehemently denied that the Centrolew activists were preparing a coup d’état, insisting that their aim was to defend the law and freedom, and pointing out that it was the ruling camp that had repeatedly violated the constitution in force since 1926: 'Your Honour, I was the president of the government that was overthrown in the May coup. I did not carry out the coup, but I was a victim of the coup along with the government. And that government was not a usurper government, it was a constitutional government appointed by the President of the Republic. So who else perpetrated the assassination and the conspiracy, and I am sitting in the dock. The real assassins in Poland must be put in the dock. But I always believe that there is one law in Poland, and that it is the same law for everyone (…). Therefore, as I sit in the dock today, (…) I expect that changes will finally take place in Poland, that law and justice will prevail, and that those who not only prepared the attack but also planned and carried it out, will sit in the dock.

In his defence, Witos outlined his vision of a democratic state based on civil society and stressed that he had always abided by the law: 'Everything I did was in the spirit of the law and, moreover, was my civic duty’. The court sentenced the former three-time Prime Minister and Knight of the Order of the White Eagle to one and a half years’ imprisonment and deprivation of rights, stating that it had given him such a light sentence ‘because he had served his country well’. This was undoubtedly another piece of evidence that Witos recognised as a violation of the rule of law in the state. Despite the verdict and his bitterness, Witos did not stop defending the greatest values he had cherished throughout his life – Poland’s independence and the rule of law. Finally, on 5 October 1933, the Supreme Court decided to uphold the sentences. By this time Witos was no longer in Poland. He decided to emigrate and left for Czechoslovakia at the end of September. After 90 years, in May 2023, at the request of the Ombudsman, the Supreme Court overturned the pre-war court verdicts in this case on the grounds that they had been passed in gross violation of the law. All those convicted were acquitted and rehabilitated.

Witos was a practitioner, a realistic tactician, an astute observer of reality, a pragmatist. Throughout his career he made agreements, alliances and compromises with various groups, from the parliamentary left to the extreme right. He formulated his thoughts and drew his conclusions from his practical activities and observations of reality. Some of the postulates described and outlined by Witos in their general aspects are still valid today, and therefore the solutions he proposed are still worth considering. These include, without a doubt, the democratisation of power structures, efficient state administration, which he combined with highly qualified administrative staff, respect for civil rights and freedoms, the propagation of patriotic ideas and education in the spirit of love for the homeland.

Wincenty Witos is undoubtedly one of the most outstanding leaders of the Polish peasantry. He exerted a great influence on the political thought of the peasant movement through his negation of the existing reality and his formulated concepts of its reconstruction based on the canons of freedom and equality, social justice and democracy. Witos’s political thought enriched and developed the agrarian vision of the Polish state. It was a concept of a 'third way’ of social development, aimed at creating a state system between capitalism and socialism.

The leader of the PSL 'Piast’, known as the 'People’s Tribune’, was one of the most influential figures in political life in the first half of the 20th century. He is one of the most recognisable figures in recent Polish history as a symbol and patron of the peasant movement. Witos made a huge contribution to the establishment of independence and national sovereignty, was in the forefront of the fight for freedom and the country’s borders, enriched Polish political thought and became a permanent feature of recent Polish history. Today, this unquestionable patriotism of the Witos and the people, who put national goals before class and party particularism, and sought to build a just Poland for all citizens, is worthy of presentation. He went down in the political history of the Second Republic of Poland as one of the most consistent defenders of parliamentary democracy, regardless of the weaknesses and shortcomings of the system, which were perceived and clearly articulated by the public. Throughout the 1930s, he repeatedly expressed his belief in its superiority to all forms of authoritarian rule – including home-grown, sanctioned ones – and to totalitarianism – fascism and communism. The reality of the post-war world proved him unquestionably right.

Ewelina Podgajna – Doctor of Social Sciences in the field of political science, Professor at the Maria Curie-Sklodowska University. Her research interests include contemporary Polish history, Polish political thought of the 19th and 20th centuries (with an emphasis on the thought of the People’s Movement), contemporary Polish political thought, biographical studies, political communication, intercultural communication and public diplomacy.

 Source: dlapolonii.pl