Poland After Solidarity

Posted December 31, 1992

Categories: Articles, Russia and Eastern Europe

Poland After Solidarity

by John Feffer


Winter 1992/93



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 

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 

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 

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 

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 

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 

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 

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 

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 

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 

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 


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




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