The Remarkable Round Table

Posted June 7, 2013

Categories: Blog, Eastern Europe, Featured, Uncategorized

When I lived in Poland in the first half of 1989, the topic of constant discussion was the Round Table negotiations. Some people liked it. Some people hated it. And many people saw it as a necessary but tedious stage that the country would have to endure in order to exit Communism. Later, this multi-tiered set of discussions – and ultimately, compromises — between the Communist government and the Solidarity opposition movement came to seem almost antiquated in comparison to the rapid transformations in East Germany and Czechoslovakia.

But Poland’s Round Table was in fact one of the most important political innovations of the late 20th century, on par with the more widely cited truth and reconciliation commissions. It not only set the stage for the non-violent transformation of Polish politics. It also established a model that other countries – East Germany, Hungary – followed as well.

The efficacy of the Round Table can in part be appreciated by looking at the places that did not go that route, such as Romania and Yugoslavia. The Round Table lacked perhaps the drama of the Berlin Wall’s collapse or Vaclav Havel’s leap from prison to presidency. But it’s patient politicking also represented an alternative to the violence of Romania’s revolution and Yugoslavia’s descent into war.

Elzbieta Matynia, a sociologist and director of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies at the New School for Social Research, has spent a lot of time thinking about the Round Table as an innovative form. In her book Performative Democracy, she discusses the significance of the Round Table and likens it to the kapia, a space on a bridge where people who might not ordinarily meet one another can sit, rest, and talk on their way from one point to another.

“It’s extremely easy to forget how incredibly congenial [the Round Table] was at a time when people on the one hand were really tired of the extended stalemate, and on the other, wanted to avoid violence,” she told me in an interview last September in her office in New York. “They constructed this incredibly intricate piece of furniture: literally a huge round table, but metaphorically speaking with many little drawers and sub-tables and cubbyholes in which more specific issues could be discussed and negotiated. This was really a piece of political architecture, a metaphor, what I’ve called a ‘political idiom,’ or social imaginary.”

We talked about the enduring legacy of the Round Table format, the drawbacks of Wikileaks, the continuing political polarization in Poland, and the emergence there of new political formations that suggest, once again, that Poland might be pointing the way to a different future for the region.


The Interview


On a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most disappointed and 10 being least disappointed, how would you evaluate what has happened in the region since 1989?


When communism collapsed, it seemed as though we were more or less all in the same boat, but this was not true. Economically there were vast differences. Poland was in a terrible situation, while Hungary and Czechoslovakia and the GDR were actually doing quite well, or relatively well. When it comes to Poland, it’s 10. Poland is doing surprisingly well, taking into account the point of departure. I think economically and politically it was a difficult place in 1989 and 1990. There were a lot of problems, a lot of mess, a lot of issues. But democracy is messy. Thank God it’s neither black nor white. As Adam Michnik once said, “It’s gray.” But Poland — where this summer I spent several months —has emerged as an incredibly colorful and vibrant member of the European Community, and of the region.

When it comes to the region, since you want to quantify it, I would say 5, the reason being the prolonged wars in Yugoslavia. But of course it depends on how broadly we understand the region, that is, whether we include Russia, for example. I’m very nervous about Putinism as a modern autocratic regime that is strangely attractive to many people in Russia.


Looking at the near future, with 1 being least optimistic and 10 being most optimistic, how do you feel about the prospects for, in this case, Poland?


I’ll do 8. There are some possible issues that could cloud the future. Part of that is due to the general economic crisis in Europe, but part of it is the recently more and more visible illiberal political culture there. I don’t think Poland will end up as Hungary did. It’s a much larger pond, and it’s easier to find space for expressing and articulating, and therefore implementing, diverse options and projects. From that point of view, size matters. Poland’s political geography is a bit like America’s blue and red states. The Kaczynskis’ right-wing party, spreading the fear of a besieged country whose traditions and sacred values are endangered, was ruling the place, and yet in large metropolitan areas nobody was happy. In the end, people reacted the way they reacted: they went to the election booths and voted the party out. There is this kind of self-correcting mechanism that has to do with a widespread sense of democratic citizenship, and it’s not so easy to tell the citizens that they have to live in a country they know they do not want to live in.


I’d like to ask questions based on your book, both on the experience of the roundtable negotiations as a kind of model or paradigm, and then in the last two chapters, the question of gender and where it is these days. But first on the roundtable negotiations, I loved the discussion there, because I lived through that period when I was in Poland. 


You were there? I didn’t have any idea! Because what I did in my book was a kind of reconstruction. I wasn’t there! I left in 1981 when Martial Law was declared and didn’t come back until after the Round Table negotiations.


I was brought over to work at the Polish Academy of Science in the psychology department. You might know that the head of the psychology department was Janusz Rejkowski.


Oh, yes! He had an amazing mind actually. He was an amazing negotiator on the part of the government. Indeed a negotiator, and not a “manipulator” (a term associated with the highly skilled communist apparatchiks), who introduced a tone of partnership, however impossible that sounds even today. You know, he established this famous School of Social Psychology later on in Poland.  One of the best private institutions of higher education.


Yes, I heard.


It’s doing very well. I actually have somewhere his speech at the opening of the academic year, maybe three years ago, in Warsaw. He was very respected among the opposition. And you can see this respect now. It’s probably even increased.


Is the roundtable model only useful for this transitional period, or does it have lasting implications for the region as what you call a kapia, the place on the bridge where people who are coming from different directions can sit down and talk?


Of course it was a very serviceable model at that time. It’s extremely easy to forget how incredibly congenial it was at a time when people on the one hand were really tired of the extended stalemate, and on the other, wanted to avoid violence. They constructed this incredibly intricate piece of furniture: literally a huge round table, but metaphorically speaking with many little drawers and sub-tables and cubbyholes in which more specific issues could be discussed and negotiated. This was really a piece of political architecture, a metaphor, what I’ve called a “political idiom,” or social imaginary.

If there is anything at the end of the 20th century that contributed to the betterment of the world, it was the invention of the roundtables – in Spain, in Poland, and more or less successfully in other places. Wherever it was used, the country avoided the Ceausescu scenario, where people actually could not talk, could not negotiate. The roundtables legitimized conversation and delegitimized the use of force, and for that I think they were important. Romania was the only case in Eastern Europe where blood was shed at that time, and it was also perhaps one of the most difficult places for democratic culture to take root.

Since I published that book, I have actually expanded on the idea inspired by the kapia (that extra space in the middle of the bridge on the Drina River, as envisioned by a 15th-century builder, where travelers could rest, talk, and get to know each other) in an essay called “The Promise of  Borderlands.” Soon after the book was published I had a Skype conversation with people in a Kurdish section of Iraq that was relatively peaceful. They had their own self-governance. The people I talked to understood the book because they were artists, and I write about artists. It was a group of artists who were interested in how to make a political difference through their art. We were talking over Skype and I said, “You have to see what kind of spaces your culture provides you with.” We ended up with the idea of the teahouse. In their traditional culture, the teahouse is a very important place where people come and talk and where only recently women have been invited.

The roundtable, of course, was built as a new concept from the beginning, in South Africa as in Spain. There were roundtables in Hungary and in Bulgaria. Some of the success of the Polish case was that it was really crafted with a complete understanding of the situation there and at that moment. In other words, the roundtable idea wasn’t brought to Poland in a suitcase from outside. In Poland, they went back to the talks with the government at the Gdansk shipyard, to the Gdansk Agreements and to the ideas that launched Solidarity. The government in 1980-81 came to the shipyard, negotiated those agreements, and then signed them. And then, of course, the government went back to Warsaw and in the course of the next 16 months did everything  — including demagoguery, cheating, and finally the use of force—to undo the agreements.

But this time, in April 1989, it was different. It was all public. It was broadcast. Well, most of it was broadcast. And this time the democratic opposition, the Solidarity side, the society side, made sure that the carefully constructed table contained so many safety features that it would not collapse or be so used as to break in half.

This was probably the most innovative political construction ever created in the modern history of Poland. We don’t have many new political idioms, new devices, new ways of managing things public. And it’s not a solid structure. It’s a form, a pliable one, in which people can actually reach consensus outside of existing institutions such as a Potemkin parliament. I would like for people to start thinking in terms of actual spaces that bring people together rather than divide them. But, you know, there is often a bitter follow-up, because with consensus nobody is perfectly happy. With consensus you end up with a messy situation. Only blood cleans everything, and there was no blood, right? Blood, revolutionary bloodshed, allows you to start a new chapter.


One of my Polish friends said about the Polish changes that “there was no Bastille, and every revolution needs a Bastille.”  


We know now that in 1789 there was almost nobody in the Bastille. They freed just a few people, but it doesn’t really matter.

I think it’s incredible that in that otherwise fairly murky time, people were able to build the Roundtable in Poland. It’s very interesting that they were also able to do it in South Africa. Poland’s one-party state had emerged on the basis of a predominant culture of party cadres. This culture didn’t allow for conversation, for discussion, for give and take, or for disagreement. It was about silencing, though a total silencing was impossible once Stalin died, and the news about crimes committed by the party leaked through the Iron Curtain. The trajectories in Poland and in South Africa were similar, particularly when one looks at the late 1980s when the ANC and members of the ruling nationalist party began to talk with each other.

But of course there was the use of force in South Africa, where the political violence was so acute and ubiquitous that there is no appropriate comparison.  And this can be seen now, 20 years later. But that’s not what we were talking about.

So, yes, to put together these round tables, you had to have your builders, your architects. And just as no two bridges are alike, no two roundtables are alike.


I want to ask about the flip side of the roundtable, and that was Magdalenka, the private meetings between Solidarity and the government that took place alongside the round table negotiations. When I was there in 1989, there were so many conspiracy theories. There was an entire book published called Magdalenka, which purported to disclose all the secret agreements. And because nobody knew what was going on, both sides were able to project all of their worst fears onto this Magdalenka.  




In the same sense that the roundtable has served as a model for creating a political space and stepping away from violence, has there been a similar Magdalenka trajectory that you can see since 1989, in which there is a continued perception on the part of some that an elite is still pulling strings behind the scenes?


That whole culture was brought back to Poland with the Law and Justice party run by those two twin brothers, Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski. For quite a while one was president and the other was prime minister, which was quite an extraordinary situation. They created a mindset that oozed with suspicion toward absolutely everybody but themselves and the people who were with them. As I mentioned before, this was not only a political formation but also a cultural formation.

It’s so easy to exploit any daunting experience of being continuously deceived by others, who are then deciding your future. In the Polish case it all started with the infamous partition of Poland, when three neighboring empires—nervous that Poland had a constitution and perhaps even some other seeds of democracy—decided to divide up the country amongst themselves, a vast territory that was culturally very interesting and diverse but politically and militarily very weak. Then there was the Yalta Agreement that Poles thought had really put them into the lap of the Soviet Union. Then there was the way that communism was brought into Poland, with incredible power given to the secret service, with huge number of political prisoners, executions, and life lived in fear. That’s what Magdalenka played into as a conspiracy of the elites in which anti-communist elites were just as bad as communist elites. And these were the same strings that the Kaczynski brothers were playing.

You know, unlike many of my friends, I have a problem with Wikileaks. Because in order to make those conversations happen, those public roundtables come to life, there have to be a lot of private meetings, schmoozing, efforts to establish some rapport — that is, doing things that are not necessarily for public consumption. You couldn’t prepare the launching of that roundtable in front of television and the entire nation. This is not reality TV. You have to have a sense that those on the other side of the table, though it may be hard to believe, are also people, and that from now on there are no prisoners and no prison guards anymore. And you have to assure the others that you, the prisoner, are not going to turn into a prison guard tomorrow. And this is not an easy process. It takes time and it has to be nurtured away from cameras.

The same happened with South Africa. There was no way for that process to be launched if some part of the Nationalist Party hadn’t decided to get to know these Black people in the ANC. So, there was all that private stuff around fishing together, going out with their wives together for weekend retreats, and later on, even during the negotiations, having completely secret get-togethers, usually one on one, in hotels in Johannesburg. If Wikileaks had revealed all that, we never would have had a peaceful transformation in either of those countries.

There will always be suspicions, but they have to be dealt with quickly. And the side conversations at Magdalenka did provoke a reemergence of those suspicions. As for the other countries in the fall of 1989, they didn’t have to dirty their hands through dialogue and compromise. In Prague, they just went and announced through the windows, “Here we are, we have a democracy!” Well, then later on it turned out that they had problems. But the swift collapse of Communism in Prague didn’t help in Poland, because suddenly instead of being avant-garde, they were an arrière-garde: because they had to agree to something that others didn’t have to agree to, such as having former general Wojciech Jaruzelski become president and so on. That suspicion, and the sense that we did not deal with all those Communists as they deserved, remained an historically rooted strand within the political populist culture in Poland, which created things — not unlike the Tea Party — such as Radio Maryja.


I don’t know if you heard the episode of the radio program This American Life devoted to Poland. It was very unusual, because This American Life usually is just stories about America. It focused on the division of Polish society after the plane crash in Smolensk, particularly around the conflict over the cross, the tug-of-war between the people who wanted to commemorate the crash that killed the Polish president among others and those who didn’t want a cross in a public space.


This incident showed how incredibly difficult the situation in Poland is for some people, for people from rural areas, for marginalized people. These people, who had never had causes before, suddenly found their own cause. Liberal democracy, after all, is a cold project, a project in which you depend on yourself. There are structures that allow you to vote and to do many things, but in fact you are on your own. There was something cozy about communism, particularly that post-Stalinist communism. No matter the big differences between people, they felt together. That togetherness is gone, and that sense of community is gone, except for some things that unite people briefly for a reason.

There is a strange nostalgia that feeds on this memory of simply being together: of gathering during Martial Law in Plac Teatralny, the square in front of the grand theatre, around this incredible cross made out of flowers and candles. The next day, the police destroyed the cross, but then people would bring it again, and this gave sense to a life that otherwise was not filled with a lot of meaning. And I think there is something similar here, although maybe the reasons are different. It has to do with the liberal requirements of an individual tending to himself or herself. It has to do with the disappearance of the warmth provided by all these highly emotional collective events. It’s not based on reason. It’s based on feelings, and Poles have always been very susceptible to that. They cultivated a Romantic sense of suffering nurtured during the time of the partitions, and the mission related to that suffering. It still works, particularly in the older generation, but it’s also passed on in those families from generation to generation.

So, on the one hand, you have these “Smolensk communities” devoted to the Smolensk disaster, which are on the Right. But at the same time there is another phenomenon that is fabulously interesting in Poland, and perhaps much lesser known, and it has to do with the younger generation. It has to do with the recent elections for parliament in which this strange Palikot party, with feminists, gays and transgender candidates, actually won seats. No matter what happens to this party – and it is a party in transition – it is a new kind of party…

And there is this incredible loosely organized “post-movement movement” of young people engaged in thinking and discussing and debating very critically. I’m talking here about the whole milieu of Krytyka Polityczna. It’s extraordinary what they are doing and how they are doing it. I know them as some of them end up studying at the New School! It’s a very different way of thinking. They’re smart, educated, not looking at the political parties. They are working in club-like settings, and they have branches all over Poland. It’s differently organized: into reading communities. Young politicians from all around the world are coming to talk with those people, and to study them as well.

This is not just a reaction to the strengthening of a certain kind of populist Right. It’s also an exhaustion with the design of the political order, which was inherited from 19th century parliamentarian culture. It’s trying to look for something else, for a third, or fourth way perhaps. But they still build institutions: they have a publishing house. They have a journal. They are invited to television discussions. They launch various new things. It does remind me a little bit of the late 1970s, early 1980s. But they are a very different group of people with a very different set of objectives, which entails scrutinizing the way things are going. What’s interesting is that they are not just negative, and of course they are clearly not looking into the past—like the Smolensk community and the Magdalenka critics. They are looking to the future, beyond what is already known, with great imagination. They are the young intelligentsia — artisans, writers, students.

Every year, I run something from the New School called the Democracy & Diversity Graduate Summer Institute in Poland, initially in Krakow and now in Wroclaw. Formerly Breslau, this is a borderland city in western Poland and seems much more independent than other cities from the center in Warsaw, the capital. Wroclaw’s links with Brussels or Berlin are as strong as its links with Warsaw. We get a lot of people at our Institute from Europe, from Russia, from the region. And they are all incredibly fascinated with Krytyka Polityczna. They all know about it. And they establish their own branches in their own countries. I didn’t have any idea that it would have such an impact.


Do you feel that this gulf between the Smolensk community looking backward and Krytyka Polityczna looking forward needs to be bridged?


One can say that it is bridged. There is a political center that can serve as a bridge, with the people around Donald Tusk and Civic Platform who get criticized from all sides There is the Peasants’ Party. There is also the Social Democratic Party, which is a post-communist party and has some interesting people with great ideas. But Krytyka has outdone them in some ways, bringing not only a fresh message but also new forms of action. They are much more interesting in their thinking in terms of a new-new Left. So anyway, there is a middle.

And then there’s Palikot: the Palikot Party and Janusz Palikot himself. Nobody knows what he will do next. And there are fantastic women. You should meet Wanda Nowicka. She was a major feminist in Poland. She still is. She was elected to Parliament and has been one of the biggest organizers against the anti-abortion law. Initially, she was invited by the Social Democratic Party to run on their ticket to the parliament. But when they put her in such a position on the list that she would never make it into parliament, she switched. She was invited by Palikot, and she probably helped Palikot a lot. Now, she is a deputy speaker of the Senate. She came to our summer institute and gave such an extraordinary presentation. People, including Americans, were listening to her and saying, “We don’t have people like that in our parliament!”

Other things are happening there, like this extraordinary Woodstock festival called Przystanek Woodstock (Woodstock Station). I think it has already happened 15 times. Hundreds of thousands of people get together in one place, and they’re all young people. It’s organized by a new kind of philanthropic institution in Poland. It lasts for five days. Nobody steals from anybody. There are workshops. People clean up after themselves. Parents were initially nervous, but now everyone wants to go. It’s kind of a holy moment that has nothing to do with the Church. It’s run by somebody who was once closely connected to Solidarity. And it has become so important that this year the president of Poland and president of Germany were both there. Is this a new kind of kapia? I don’t know.


The last couple of chapters of your book include a strong critique of nationalism and how patriarchy is so much connected to the nation, to blood and soil. Now we have in Poland today this movement against women.


It’s a fear that the Church as a political actor could easily overthrow every government. The Church has such a powerful voice in Poland, and it’s mostly because historically it was such a powerful protector of peoples’ dignity and respect. And it was really a huge player in making the Roundtable Talks happen. Nobody wants to remember it, but it was the Church that brought them all together.


That’s an interesting point. Sometimes we think of these truth and reconciliation commissions, or these roundtables, as simply being two irreconcilable sides that somehow find reconciliation. But we ignore the things that in fact unite them underneath, whether cultural factors or religious factors.


Yes, these factors cannot easily be disregarded. The anti-abortion law was introduced during the last years of communism, in 1988. This was a way for the Communists to make friends with the Church. During the communist period, abortions in Poland were not only on demand, but they were the only contraception available for the masses. Today, there is a larger percentage of women in the Polish parliament than in the American parliament. There are extraordinary events every year that bring women from all around Poland together, like the Congress of Women. Initially just one in Warsaw, it is now a congress movement with a Congress of Women in various towns throughout Poland. Women are extraordinary leaders in medium-sized businesses. And there is this remarkable indigenous Polish feminism. Patriarchy has a very particular Polish face, but I don’t think there is any one movement against women. There is a women’s movement on the one hand, and there are the platforms of various political parties and the powerful position of the Church on the other. When the Social Democrats were eloquent in their opposition to the anti-abortion law and promised that they would do something about it, even they didn’t manage to do it. And they lost the elections.


New York, September 13, 2012


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