Poland After Solidarity
by John Feffer
In Solidarity’s regional office in Warsaw, Mariusz Ambroziak fielded my questions like a penitent wrestling with his conscience in the confessional.
Yes, he conceded, Poland’s famous trade union was in deep trouble. Its membership was declining precipitously, it wasn’t organizing in the new private sector, it could no longer pay specialists to develop alternative economic plans. Though only in his twenties, the Solidarity representative spoke with the weariness of someone three times his age.
Did he have any doubts about his work, I asked almost rhetorically. Ambroziak’s broad, freckled face took on a pained and humble look. “Every day I wake up and I have my doubts,” he replied. “When Solidarity was registered in 1989, I didn’t use an alarm clock to get up and come here to the union headquarters at 5 a.m. Now I need two alarm clocks to get me up in the morning for work.” His voice dropped to a whisper. ”People call here with requests. And I can’t give them anything. So, what am I doing here? These people keep calling and what can I do?”
With their country’s economic and political situation deteriorating daily, Poles can tum to few places, other than the Catholic Church, for help. The traditional structures of Polish “civil society” have simply collapsed. Offering little real assistance to its members, Solidarity has become a memorial to itself; a Warsaw street has even been named after the movement, a sign of both its historical importance and current irrelevance. Expected to capture second place in the most recent parliamentary elections, the trade union’s party managed a distant ninth, just ahead of the Polish Beer- Lovers’ Party. Solidarity’s recent threat to call a general strike over utility increases went unheeded by the government. The union backed down, and the rates went up. A mass demonstration in April similarly extracted no concessions from the government.
“The union,” Ambroziak pointed out, ”is paying today with its name because under the banner of Solidarity the entire economic reform was undertaken.” Sup- porting a shock therapy that primarily hurt its own core supporters, Solidarity has ex- pended much of its once considerable moral capital.
Solidarity’s rural chapter, meanwhile, has been politically outmaneuvered by the former Communist-allied Peasant Party . And the Independent Students Association (NZS)-the so-called third leg of the opposition-has declined from 20,000 to 1,000 members and spends most of its energies functioning as a travel agency to the West, once its chief criticism of the official student union. Having personified the Solidarity ethos for so many years, Lech Walesa has become a president more committed to decrees than to democracy, a leader whose pronouncements draw ridicule from the intelligentsia and increasingly command only indifference among the workers.
Nor have other social movements taken the place of the Solidarity-era groups. According to one European Community estimate, the largest social movement in Poland today is the volunteer fire brigade. The second largest is the Red Cross. Instead of organizing the unemployed or building political movements from the bottom up, Poles spend their precious free time putting out fires and bandaging wounds.
Given the country’s present economic crisis-12 percent unemployment, 38 percent annual inflation, a hard-to-cap budget deficit, a recession that stretches month after month-the natural political beneficiary should be a reinvigorated Polish left. Poland was the first country in Eastern Europe to host roundtable negotiations between the Communists and the opposition, the first country to hold free elections, the first to form a non-Communist government, the first to implement a radical shock-style economic reform. According to the pendulum-swing theory of politics, Poland should therefore witness the first authentic left-wing revival.
But although it has great potential, the Polish left remains fragmented, isolated, and incapable of mustering any serious political threat. Both the traditional left based in the trade union movement and a newer left organized around a cluster of issues including feminism and environmentalism are still marginal to Polish politics. Alert to the possibilities inherent in the left’s eclipse, the right wing has made a bid to take Poland back, back to a time before Communism, back to an imagined past when the Church was always right, the nation was always united, the men were always brave, and the women were always pregnant.
Confusion of Left and Right
It has become a cliché to observe that the categories of left and right make little political sense in Eastern Europe today. In the Polish context, for instance, the non-Communist left-occupying what would ordinarily be a social-democratic slot-has largely favored the most neo-liberal (or, if you prefer, neo-conservative) economic policy. Even the former Communists frequently vote on the Thatcher end of the economic spectrum. The right wing parties, meanwhile, eschew capitalism’s most disruptive features, which destroy family, community, and Church, in favor of a more gradual and anti-recessional policy. The groups which one would expect to have comprised the left have embraced the modern project and its vision of hyper-capitalism uncritically; the right has, even as it supports an apparently more progressive economic position, decided to trade the twentieth century in for an earlier model.
Given both the domestic and international emphasis on bringing Poland into the modern age, one might then expect the right wing to be fundamentally incapable of leading the country forward. So I thought back in 1990 when I trekked to the outskirts of Warsaw to meet Antonin Macierewicz, a prominent member of the Christian National Union (ZChN). Smoking a pipe and looking every inch the Polish intellectual, Macierewicz expounded on the principles of this coalition of Christian-minded movements. The Church, he said, did not have to be connected to the state. But state policy-and even education in public schools-should nevertheless be formulated along Christian principles. Thank God, I thought at the time, that ZChN only has five parliamentary representatives. Thank God they are, like Macierewicz’ s apartment, on the outskirts of Polish life.
Two years later, Macierewicz was Poland’s Minister of Home Affairs, a prominent if controversial member of the recently removed right-of-center Olszewski government His party today controls key posts in the new Suchocka administration. The speaker of the lower chamber of the Polish parliament is a ZChN member.
In 1990, I also talked with Krzysztof Krol, a spokesperson for the Confederation for Polish Independence (KPN). Founded in 1979, KPN represented the most anti-Soviet, most militant wing of the Polish opposition. It refused to participate in the 1989 roundtable negotiations, or field candidates in the first partially free national elections in June of that year. Later, when anew government was dispensing old Communist Party property to new organizations, KPN did not wait its turn but instead simply occupied the offices of a former official youth organization located in a splendid structure on Warsaw’s most fashionable street. No, I thought in 1990, KPN is out of temper with the times. Poland is on the road of compromise. The Communists have nearly exited the stage, and militancy no longer commands much respect throughout society.
I look back at my notes from 1990: “Krol predicts a renaissance of the right in Poland.” I didn’t take him seriously. He was too young, too undisciplined. Today, Krol is the head of KPN’s parliamentary faction which, along with ZChN, has brought a new variety of right-wing radicalism to the shaping of social policy.
After flirting with a right-wing coalition that pledged more gradual economic reform, Poland is, as of July 1992, back under the rule of the neo-liberals, led by the new prime minister Hanna Suchocka. The term “rule” can be used only loosely, however. After the 1991 national elections propelled 29 parties into parliament, Polish politics can charitably be described as diverse or, perhaps more accurately, as incoherent. It is not simply the number of parties or their relatively small size that lends an air of ~ chaos to parliamentary proceedings. These 5 groupings can barely compromise enough to maintain internal cohesion, much less work effectively with one another. Unable to fashion an effective parliamentary bloc, the three recent governments-Olszewski, Pawlak, Suchocka-have been forced to preside over a fragmented mirror of Polish society.
Particularly difficult for each of these governments has been economic policy. For instance, after promising to respect the wishes of the Polish electorate by reversing shock therapy, the Olszewski government reneged in the spring of 1992 and proposed a budget consistent with the demands of the International Monetary Fund. Parliament rejected the plan. Caught between the IMP’s strictures and the electorate’s demands, Olszewski became simply the latest of the recession’s political victims when his government fell in June. Waldemar Pawlak of the post-Communist Polish Peasant’s Party lasted little more than a month. With rumors of martial law floating around Warsaw, a strange assortment of parties–from right- wing Christian to secular liberals–came together behind Suchocka. The result has been the worst of all possible worlds: the neo-liberals regained control of economic policy while the right wing snatched up the ”soft” cultural posts in the government.
Theocracy in Poland?
Indeed, with its economic policy thwarted by the IMP, the right wing has found greater unity and surer success with its social project. Its natural vehicle for transforming Poland is the Catholic Church, the most powerful social institution in the country. Last year, several Polish officials broached the possibility of turning Poland into a theocracy. The response from the intelligentsia not being receptive, the proposal was quickly withdrawn. “Don’t worry about this talk of theocracy,” a Polish friend told me during my recent trip to Warsaw. “It’s the step-by-step moves, the incremental strategy that you should watch out for.”
That incremental strategy can be seen most clearly on the issue of religion in school. In 1990, the Church pressed the Ministry of Education to introduce religious instruction into public schools. The measure was neither discussed in Parliament nor presented to the public in a referendum. This year, the Church has pushed ahead with stage two: pressuring the Ministry of Education to make religion an obligatory school subject. An ethics course has been thrown in to give the appearance of choice-but the ethics in question are often simply Christian and the course frequently taught by a priest. If the Ministry and the Church have their way, priests will also playa more important role in determining general school policy.
Abortion is the second front opened up by the right wing. In 1991, the Polish parliament defeated an especially restrictive anti-abortion law. Since that time, the Polish Medical College has changed its code of ethics to protect “unborn life”; any doctor who performs abortions after May 1992 can be discharged from the profession. At the parliamentary level, the Church has, through ZChN, reintroduced legislation to penalize both women and doctors who destroy un- born life. Yet 60 percent of the population supports liberal abortion laws. Many Polish intellectuals, regardless of the depth of their religious conviction, are fond of pointing out that, with the abortion and religion-in- schools issues, the totalitarianism of the Church has begun to replace the totalitarian- ism of the state.
Economic Prosperity, Economic Shock
Warsaw gleams with a deceptive prosperity: the Mercedes-Benz dealership, the casinos, the chic new restaurants, the five- star hotels for visiting VIPs. Capitalism has sprung up like weeds between the cracks of the Stalinist concrete. A flashy sign indicates a peep show in the vestibule of an entrance to the train station where once there was only storage space. In the central post office, a video store and a trinket kiosk have been set up in the main hall. Around Stalin’s gift to Warsaw, the Palace of Culture and Science, the ramshackle collection of blankets and tables of two years ago has been transformed into the official flea market of today.
With a monthly salary of $150, the average Pole stretches out to touch these fruits of capitalism only to find, like Tantalus, that inflation and austerity measures always push the branches just beyond reach. Warsaw’s conspicuous wealth conceals the poverty of its workers’ suburbs, of the outlying patches of agricultural ruin, of the decaying industrial sprawl that embraces the textile factories of Lodz, the coal mines near Wroclaw, the chemical plants around Katowice, the shipyards of Gdansk. To judge Polish prosperity by its capital’s shiny new Euro-style cafes is like trying to get a fix on the current U.S. recession from a sushi bar in Silicon Valley.
Given the “neo-con” credentials of the economists whose advice it has solicited, it is not surprising that Poland is in fact repeating many of the same mistakes as the United States of the 1980s. Indeed, visiting Poland today is like being caught in one of those science fiction stories where the time-traveler must watch a succession of childhood mistakes without being permitted to intervene. Stop, I wanted to shout at the Poles. Don’t you realize that the foundations of this newly created wealth rest on the shifting sands of Reaganomics? Don’t you realize that ten years from now you too will be writing articles about “what went wrong?”
In 1989, talking with a then little-known Polish economist on the question of privatization, I tried to indicate some of the problems with his version of laissez-faire capitalism. Don’t privatize health care, I warned, for in the United States this has meant 35 million people without coverage. He didn’t skip a beat. “Well, 35,000 is not really a problem.” “No,” I interrupted, “35 million. Million! Roughly the population of your country!” I don’t think he believed me. He went on to serve in government and play a key role in developing the yet-to-be-implemented privatization plan.
With the help of such economists, Po- land is rapidly developing a new kind of class society. According to Andrzej Miolkowski, who oversees Huta Warszawa’ s privatization, wages at Warsaw’s steel plant have fallen to 50 percent of their 1982 value, based on what they can buy in today’ s stores. The country’s unemployment rate is expected to rise from 12 percent to 20 percent by year’s end. One of Solidarity’s former economic advisors confessed to me that his economic worst-case scenario would be 25 percent unemployed. If a mere five percent separates mainstream expectations from worst-case scenarios, Poland is indeed in trouble.
In the face of growing class conflict, the various governments consistently failed to develop a coherent social welfare policy, ignoring the recommendations of advisors to the Ministry of Labor and relying instead on the invisible hand of the market or the limited charity of the private sector. Solidarity is not doing much better, having just recently eliminated funding for Posredniak, a newspaper that for two years had been devoted to helping workers. Former editor Zuzanna Dabrowska reported that some of the recently laid-off have tried to create a union of unemployed. But many workers are reluctant to join such a group because it takes time away from their own job searches. And the organizers, in part because of their initiative, have been the first to find employment and leave the movement.
Still, if only for the crassest of political motives, one would expect a more vigorous attempt to represent these forgotten casual- ties of economic reform. In the tradition of class-based politics, several non-Communist left parties are considering a bid to form a Labor Party (a compromise name since both “socialism” and “Solidarity” have be- come pejoratives in the public mind). The social-democratic wing of the Democratic Union, Labor Solidarity, Zbigniew Bujak’s Democratic Social Movement, and perhaps the Polish Socialist Party might form the nucleus of such a party.
Even putting to one side the limited size of these groups, many problems still remain. The Democratic Union faction has a residual dependence on shock therapy, Labor Solidarity is perceived as too eggheadish, Bujak stands virtually alone in his party, and the Socialist Party has not yet recovered from the 1991 death of its most prominent leader, Jan Jozsef Lipski, a longtime oppositionist and member of the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR). Despite its strong second-place showing in the most recent parliamentary elections, the former Communists (the Democratic Left Alliance) re- main politically isolated, an unlikely partner for any new Labor Party. Some of the more talented ex-Communists, such as former high-ranking official Tomasz Nalecz, have left the Alliance and await new political opportunities.
The chief stumbling block for this left is its allergy toward what it considers populism. Parliamentary representative Ryszard Bugaj, Labor Solidarity’s leading member, told me of the need to reach out to all the Poles who didn’t vote in the last election (nearly 60 percent of those eligible). But when pressed on strategy, he could offer only Bush-like prudence: “We have to be careful not to be populist like KPN, not to promise things which we can’t deliver on. We want to be responsible and remain firmly grounded in reality.”
While Bugaj speaks of responsible politics, one Pole has set out to prove that irresponsibility is far more profitable. By poking fun at the new pieties of clericalism and nationalism, former Communist government spokesperson Jerzy Urban has be- Come unspeakably rich from his best-selling books and popular newspaper Nie (“No”). Millions of Poles crave Urban’s critical edge, so much so that they are even willing to forget how much they despised him in his earlier incarnation. The left should be able to take advantage of this sentiment as well, fashioning a truly responsible, democratic populism in order to acquire political capital where Urban has been content to accumulate the financial variety.
One group capable of appealing to popular discontent-the former Communist-controlled trade union (OPZZ}-has so far kept a relatively low profile. With a membership of four million (roughly twice that of Solidarity), OPZZ is the largest social movement in Eastern Europe, according to its economic advisor Pawel Gieorgica (apparently the EC doesn’t count the union in its tally of Polish social organizations). Despite its size and its sponsorship of several important strikes, OPZZ has not overtly challenged the authorities. Following Gieorgica’s advice, its new leader Ewa Spychalska has adopted an instrumental populism that guarantees her support among the populace, but has gravitated toward a collegial pragmatism as a post-Communist deputy in parliament. This two-edged strategy has boosted Spychalska’s popularity and placed OPZZ in an ideal position to exploit the new class politics on the inside as well.
Should the new Polish Labor Party, or whatever the left decides to call itself, fail to seize OPZZ’s standard, it will have neutralized its chief advantage. Poland’s new class conflicts can be used creatively by the left, if it is wise enough to distinguish between principled political organizing and irresponsible populism. The right wing has meanwhile shown little hesitation to rush in where the left fears to tread, whether in the form of KPN’s paramilitary-style recruitment among young people or ZChN’s assertion of religious community as an antidote to anomie.
The Struggling Women’s Movement
Malgorzata Tarasiewicz once worked for Solidarity. Told by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions to de- vote more energy to women’s issues, the Solidarity leadership hired Tarasiewicz, a young feminist and peace activist from Gdansk, to rectify the situation. During her brief tenure establishing a women’s section within the union, she set up regional chapters, ran media workshops, tried to put together a working women’s agenda. Suspicious of her feminist proclivities, the Solidarity leadership never provided Tarasiewicz sufficient resources to do her job and worse, harassed representatives of the section’s regional chapters. Frustrated, Tarasiewicz resigned in March 1991.
That June, although she had been banned from contacting members of the women’s section, Tarasiewicz nevertheless convened another meeting in Solidarity’s regional headquarters in Warsaw. “I thought it necessary to meet again to explain why 1 was forced to leave,” she says. Catching wind of the event, the union’s Warsaw leadership was determined to throw the participants out of the building. But when 140 women from 17 regions showed up, the Solidarity leader- ship was outnumbered. Thrown off guard by this show of strength, union leaders responded by threatening Tarasiewicz herself, both after the meeting and when a Helsinki Watch report came out in March describing the events in some detail. “They are using Mafia methods to suppress authentic movements within Solidarity,” she exclaims.
Solidarity’s actions indicate a movement in decline, a movement threatened by other movements. In the case of the women’s section, the battle was between the union leadership and the “new left.” Organized around some very potent questions such as women’s rights, this new left potentially has a chance of gaining a foothold in Polish politics.
For instance, one could not find a country more in need of a women’s movement than Poland. Disproportionately affected by lay-offs and cuts in social services, women are truly the “hidden victims” of recent reforms, as Helsinki Watch has written. “In Poland,” Polish Socialist Party member Zuzanna Dabrowska says of the images available to women, “there are only the two Madonnas, the one with the child, and the other one, your Madonna, the singer. There is no middle ground.” The virgin and the whore: while the Church promotes a family- style conception of a woman, sex shops and pornography have proliferated in the new Poland. Prominent women who have tried to break out of the Madonna mold are politically vulnerable. Take the case of Anna Popowicz, the Minister for Women Family and youth. “In the beginning,” feminist activist Jolanta Plakwicz says, “Popowicz was very conservative. But she was exposed to so much sexism and so many attacks in the Parliament that she became increasingly radical. For instance, she attacked the doctors’ code of ethics. So she was dismissed and the government dissolved her office.”
After achieving a measure of equality during the Communist years, many Polish women are furious at the crude Church and state attempts to impose nineteenth century definitions on them. The nascent women’s movement, which organized effectively against the previous anti-abortion bill, has received money from a German women’s foundation to create a center in Warsaw. On the 1991 International Women’s Day, Warsaw’s small but spirited feminist group showed “Thelma and Louise” to an enthusiastic crowd. Plans are in the works to translate and sell a Polish version of Our Bodies, Ourselves. Yet feminism remains a dirty word in the country, even in the minds of many fiercely independent Polish women.
Regardless of the strength of the anti-feminist forces, the optimists say consolingly, Poland s desire to be integrated into Europe will force it to conform to European standards. Indeed, at a Council of Europe meeting in Poznan on women’s issues, Council representatives sternly lectured the intolerant Poles in attendance. “No ideology, no religion can limit a person’s freedom of choice,” France’s Roland Beix told the assembled crowd. “Even if 95 percent of society opposes abortion, you must respect the will of the five percent who support it.”
But the Polish right wing has declared that it wants to enter Europe on its own terms. “Let us create a real Europe for ourselves Christian and righteous,” ZChN deputy Alojzy Szablewski declared in parliament, “and some day, Western states will want to enter it.”
The Role of Youth in the Polish Left
Critical to the success of the new left in countering such hubris are young people.
“We have to concentrate on students and on those people who didn’t vote in the recent elections,” Tarasiewicz explains. “New leaders have to appear. A new generation of politicians is needed to create an open society.” Young people were at the forefront of change in Poland in the last decade as activists in Solidarity in 1980-81, as members of the group Freedom and Peace in mid- decade, as leaders of the critical 1988 strikes as student radicals in NZS. Today, Polish youth has abandoned politics. Many have turned to entrepreneurship or have emigrated. Even students seem placid, despite execrable univ~rsity services and a meager $75 monthly stipend. “I am surprised-and you might be surprised as well-but students are not very angry,” NZS representative Marek Wecowski says. Indeed, students at Warsaw University look remarkably well-fed, well-dressed, and happy, nothing like the Russian students one reads about on the eve of revolution in 1917: starved, threadbare, intellectually volatile, willing to throw bombs and endure prison sentences. But unemployment has not yet hit home for these young people, and the attractions of the new consumer society have not yet palled. The next generation, now beginning to organize against religious classes in the secondary schools, will be simultaneously more accustomed to and more critical of capitalism.
Perhaps the largest new left movement is the Greens. Given the dismal state of the Polish environment, the popularity of ecology is understandable. Green clubs and associations are scattered throughout the country, devoted to issues as diverse as organic farming, alternative energy, deep ecology, and walks in the woods. Individual idiosyncrasies and factional infighting have prevented the several Green parties from establishing a national presence. The chief threat to the environment-and conversely, perhaps the most unifying theme for the various Green movements-is the market. In the Zoliborz section of Warsaw, for instance, residents successfully mobilized against the local government’s plan to sell a portion of their park to a private business club. Green politics has proven a refreshing tonic to privatizing fever.
Nevertheless, economic constraints have forced uneasy compromises. Janusz Radziejowski, associate director of the state- affiliated Institute of Environmental Protection, points out that with the current government budget problems, the Institute has had to look more to corporate contracts. Didn’t that strike him as a conflict of interest? ”Yes,” Radziejowski admits, “firms will not pay us to shut them down.” Still, if the government doesn’t provide the money, an institute has few options.
In 1980, Poland’s unusual political environment produced an unprecedented but, sadly, brief alliance of workers and intellectuals. Today, under the sway of market utopias, the country may give birth to a different kind of alliance between a left that organizes around class conflict and a left that addresses a range of social issues. Threatened workers and farmers may find common cause with women outraged at the lack of adequate health services, Greens dismayed at the destructiveness of corporate capitalism, and young people frustrated with the state of education. Add to this mix the progressive strands of Catholicism, which combine a healthy skepticism of hyper-rationalism with a tolerance for difference and choice.
Together, these groups can rescue the Polish left-from both its checkered past and its present lack of direction. And, in turn, the new Polish left can rescue Poland from a narrow-minded, undemocratic, and unfortunately all-too-ascendant right wing.
Peace and Democracy News, Winter 1992