Notes in the Margin: Intelligent life

A couple of hundred politically engaged and enthusiastic twentysomethings pack out a lecture hall in central London. They are here for a debate by a new kind of political organisation: it is not a formal party, but is nonetheless committed to the revival of left-wing politics, through its magazine, its publishing house and a national network of cultural centres.

But the organisation isn't British; it's based in Poland and the audience, bar one or two interlopers, is made up of Polish expats. Krytyka Polityczna ("political critique") was founded as a journal in 2002. Since then it has grown in size and scope, establishing branches in Ukraine, Russia and now Britain. It is also preparing to launch an English-language version of the magazine.

The London event boasted a lecture by the eminent sociologist Zygmunt Bauman on the historic decline of the left, followed by a screening of a film in which Krytyka Polityczna's founder, Sławomir Sierakowski, makes a provocative speech calling for the return of Poland's three million Jews, who either were killed by the Nazis or have emigrated since the Second World War. Sierakowski tells me the film is about "the horrible homogeneity of Polish society, in which 99.9 per cent of the people have the same language, religion and race. It is also about the necessity of utopian thinking in democratic politics. After the atrocities of the 20th century, western societies got rid of not only ideologies but also ideas. We need to widen our imagination."

Sierakowski wants to resurrect the kind of intelligentsia that set itself in opposition to the ruling elite of eastern Europe during the 19th century. This, he says, is about more than a culture of public intellectuals: "It is also about a certain method of engagement. A good example is the Polish democratic opposition [to the communist regime] of the 1970s. It was based on co-operation among intellectuals, trade unionists, artists, writers and so on, serving the rest of society and trying to mobilise it."

Something, perhaps, that should inspire Britain's own young intellectuals.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world