WARSAW — Warsaw.--Marcin Zamoyski is a TV cameraman by trade. He has neither a political activist's history nor an administrator's experience.
But last year, in one of the more evident signs of Polish nostalgia for yesterday, a group of conservative Catholic intellectuals in the southeastern town of Zamosc asked him to become their mayor.
He won two thirds of the city councilors' votes, beating two veterans of the Solidarity labor movement.
"They voted for the Zamoyski name," Marcin Zamoyski commented, "a name which guaranteed honesty and justice."
Mr. Zamoyski's 16th century ancestor, Jan Zamoyski, chancellor the Kingdom of Poland, built the arcaded city. His family ruled it and vast tracts of land surrounding it until 1820, when they lost the city to the czarist partitioners of Poland.
It is true that the Zamoyski family boasts a tradition of public service dating back to the 16th century. But that the former "owners" of "15,000 families," as present clan chieftain Jan Zamoyski once put it, could be seen by 20th century eyes as the purveyors of justice shows just how nostalgic Poles are for the past -- and how apt they are to rewrite the unpalatable parts of it.
"The great Polish families were persecuted under Communism and therefore people now think of them as noble and wonderful," commented historian Andrzej Garlicki. "It is like religious faith. You can write the truth, but it has no effect."
Take the bicentennial of the Constitution of May 3, 1791, a charter which preceded France's and which Poles point to as proof of a democratic tradition.
That constitution did uphold some rights of the peasantry, squeezing the wealthy magnates and abolishing the paralyzing power of veto every nobleman had hitherto enjoyed in the Parliament. But it nevertheless restricted "all freedoms, liberties, and rights of precedence" (including voting rights) to the landed gentry -- about 15 percent of the population. It strengthened the monarchy, making the throne hereditary rather than elective. And it enshrined Roman Catholicism as the "ruling religion," renunciation of which was forbidden "on pain of the punishment for apostasy."
Despite this, post-Communist Poland, where the vast majority are descendants of the l8th century underprivileged, displays no little nostalgia for the highly conservative values and institutions of past centuries, or even decades.
Just a few of post-Communist developments:
* Poland was quick to restore its traditional president, senate and Sejm, plus a Roman Catholic primate playing, as he once did, a highly political role.
* Former magnates -- like the Zamoyskis -- are lobbying for the return of at least some of their expropriated properties.
* A group headed by Jan Zamoyski is trying to resurrect a nationalist prewar group, the National Democratic Movement, although it denies its prewar anti-Semitism. (A mythical view of the 20-year period of independence between the world wars colors the collective memory -- again a backlash against Communism. Says historian Garlicki: "No one remembers the poverty. They remember only the sovereign country.")
* The Roman Catholic church is demanding that state law reflect Catholic morality, as it did when the May 3 Constitution was drawn up. A law banning abortion and limiting contraception will probably pass Parliament next month, and regulations have made divorce more difficult.
"If the church can get the law of the state to protect the sanctity of marriage and the life of the unborn," says Father Adam Brunke, spokesman for the country's Roman Catholic bishops, "then what's wrong with that?"
Apart from its intrinsic intolerance, what's wrong with it is that it won't work. This is not the prewar republic, let alone the Golden Age of long ago. Communism educated the masses, and thereby unwittingly honed their innate antagonism toward authority.
As a result, institutional idols are toppling.
There is increasing criticism of the church, especially since it weighed in against abortion, Poland's main form of birth control. A February opinion poll by the government's polling organization showed the church's approval rating dropping by 25 percent to only 58, while disapproval rose from 10 to 30 percent.
In another poll taken at the same time, 67 percent of respondents named the church as the number one institution with too much power in Poland.
Legislators are currently drafting a new Constitution to replace the Communist document. The Catholic-dominated senate wants to begin it with the 1791 opening phrase: "In the name of God and the Holy Trinity." Slawomir Jakubczak, secretary of the Sejm's constitutional commission, doubts that it will get through that lower house. "The new constitution is to be approved after general elections," he said. "But we don't know how high anti-clericalism will be running by then. Things are changing."