Roger Scruton’s funeral takes place in London today, and he’ll be in the thoughts and prayers of his admirers worldwide – many of them in Poland. We Poles owe him an unusual debt, one he mentioned in his Spectator diary last month when he wrote about his journey to Warsaw. Andrzej Duda, the Polish president, presented him with the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit in recognition of his ‘extraordinary efforts in supporting the democratic transformation in Poland and for developing Polish-British academic and scientific exchange’. In his Spectator diary, he wrote about how he also met men that day who had been imprisoned for 20 and 30 years under communism. Their testimonies left him “in a shocked and sober frame of mind,” he wrote, “knowing how little all of this means to young British people today, as the knowledge of the history and culture of Europe slips from their grasp.”
His role in that history might not be familiar to his English-language readers. Some of his writings circulated in samizdat publications long before the first Polish translation of his work was published in 1988. But it is important to note that Sir Roger will always be remembered not only as a philosopher but also as a social activist. One of his greatest achievements was facilitating the transfer of ideas between the East and the West, often at great personal risk. He had a direct impact on the democratic transformation of the East and he supported anti-communist dissidents, especially academics and other intellectuals, in Poland, Hungary and the-then Czechoslovakia.
He first came to Poland in 1979 on the suggestion of Oxford professor Kathy Wilkes. In one of his interviews he described the first trip as ‘frightening’ as it gave him the reality of a communist regime ‘like a slap in the face’.
Yet this first trip inspired him to do more. He founded an educational charity, the Jagiellonian Trust. And he worked together with a number of great minds, including Timothy Garton Ash, Dennis O’Keefe, David Levy, Baroness Caroline Cox, Marek Matraszek, Agnieszka Kołakowska and Jessica Douglas-Home on supporting academic networks by organising underground discussion groups, seminars and conferences as well as by providing books and precious materials for underground press across the country.
Thanks to these, academics and students had access to information which was banned by the communist regime. He also gave public lectures and ran discussion groups on Kant, Hegel and Wittgenstein in Lublin, Gdańsk, Kraków, Poznań, Przemyśl, Warsaw and Wrocław. Transcripts of these lectures would circulate amongst students in a form of samizdat publications. And many of those young students who joined the discussion groups and seminars became political leaders as well as journalists, publishers and academics.
Following the democratic transformation in 1989, Poland at last enjoyed freedom of speech. Many of Scruton’s books were soon translated into Polish, something which added even more to his great popularity in Poland. Scruton’s intellectual contribution to an independent Poland’s political thought proved invaluable.
On one hand, Scruton acknowledged the enormous contribution of the Solidarity movement. He highlighted their revolt against the communist government in the early 1980s, which he called ‘the first genuine working-class revolution in history’. It was a revolution ‘against socialism, against planned economy, against atheism, propaganda and party government; a revolution in favour of patriotism, of a redeemed tradition and a rediscovered history, in favour of private property, autonomous institutions, religious principle, judicial independence and a rule of law.’
Undoubtedly, Scruton’s tremendous legacy, such as lecture recordings, articles and books, will continue to inspire and nourish our thoughts and conversations. We will be forever grateful – I am sure many of my countrymen will agree – that it has been our privilege as a nation to have had such a great man accompany us on our journey towards freedom.
Arkady Rzegocki is Polish ambassador to the United Kingdom