The Revolution Devours Its Children

Posted December 15, 2013

Categories: Blog, Eastern Europe, Featured, Uncategorized

The great Polish playwright and intellectual Slawomir Mrozek was best known for his absurdist plays, most of them written after he’d gone into exile in 1963. I saw his play The Emigrants performed by two enterprising Polish actors in a camper van parked on a Dublin street as part of the Fringe festival there a couple years ago. Before an audience of 11, pressed together in the back of the van, the characters enacted their dark duet of hopelessness, homesick for the totalitarian world they’d left behind and ill-equipped for the free world where they’d washed up.

Mrozek wrote The Emigrants in the 1970s, but it could apply to East-Central Europe today as well. Many people in the region look back to the past as if it were a kind of old country that they set off from in 1989 and that, however impoverished, still evokes warm feelings of nostalgia. As for the new society into which they’ve been thrust, it may be the “land of opportunity,” but those opportunities often seem tantalizingly out of reach.

Mrozek died this past August in France, the day before I sat down to talk with the journalist Jacek Zakowski in the café attached to the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza in Warsaw. The Polish news media was full of tributes to the émigré playwright, and he entered our conversation as well. Zakowski pointed to a passage in Mrozek’s play Na Morze (On the Open Sea) to illustrate the dilemma facing the Solidarity government and the Polish public during the year of economic transition in 1990.

“Three people are in a lifeboat, and they are dying of hunger,” Zakowski recounts. “Two of them decide to eat the third. One says, ‘In the name of preserving the community, we will eat you!’ That’s what was going on [in the early 1990s]. Polish society had to eat a third of itself! Kuron was basically explaining to this third of society that we had to eat you. But people were still not happy.”

In 1990, when I met him for the first time, Jacek Zakowski was the spokesman for the parliamentary faction of the Citizens’ Committee, which had grown out of the Solidarity movement. His boss was the well-respected medieval historian and Solidarity intellectual Bronislaw Geremek. Even with all the political credibility and intellectual firepower of the new Solidarity politicians, it was not an easy task to push through what would ultimately become a politically unpopular economic program. Indeed, when voters went to the polls in 1993, they put the former Communist Party back into power.

“Mazowiecki paid the necessary price,” Zakowski says, referring to Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the Solidarity-backed prime minister who took office in the fall of 1989. “So did I! And Geremek. One had to be very stupid to believe that society would say, ‘This is fantastic! We lost our savings. We are four times poorer that we were before you came to power. We love you!’ No, they had to hate us. And we had to pay this price. The revolution must eat its children, and this is universal.”

It might seem as though Poland had a choice in 1990 in terms of what economic reform to pursue. But Zakowski argues that there really was no choice.

“The economic reforms were agreed to before we came to power,” he remembers. “They were agreed to by the Rakowski government in talks with the IMF and World Bank. When we came to power, there was really very little space to renegotiate these terms. That’s what Balcerowicz and Sachs did. But in fact the major decisions were forced on us by the Americans. The place for decision-making was really small. We could only say that we would do it this week or next week. There was no space for negotiations with trade unions, for example. Of course we could have said: we will not do it. But we were bankrupt. If they did not lend us more money, there would have been no oil, no food in the country. The situation was extreme. The only thing we could do was explain.”

We also talked about the current political and economic situation in Poland, beginning with his views on Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique), a new Left movement that has proven quite popular not only within Poland but in the wider region.


The Interview


The first question I have is about politics here in Poland. We’ve seen the emergence of Krytyka Polityczna without a strong, Left party. Why has that happened? Why has something that hasn’t emerged anywhere else in the region emerged here and without political representation?


One comes from the other. There is no leftist political party so that’s why we have Krytyka Polityczna. We have only a post-Communist party that claims to be Left but is really like Tony Blair. Young people who are not familiar with the tradition of democratic politics in Western countries had to establish something new, which is partly political and partly intellectual/cultural. Krytyka is not exactly a home for political activities but a home for social activities.

Now, why is there no leftist political party? It’s partly because the post-Communists are not Communists as in the Czech Republic. They are opportunists. They occupy the left side of Polish politics, and they don’t leave much space for others. They have resources. They have people. They have political stars like Aleksander Kwasniewski and Leszek Miller. They are supported by public money, which is granted to parliamentary political parties. So, they very easily prevail over any new initiatives. And, of course, they have experience. Before 1989, the ruling party used to call itself Socialist. They called the system “socialism.” When Poles hear the word “socialism,” they understand that it is against freedom. And Poles are very much devoted to freedom.

It’s very easy to practice something that Jan Vincent-Rostowski, who is now deputy prime minister and finance minister, calls “neoliberal populism.” which is very strong in Polish politics. You can get people on the Left here to support these ideas of “economic freedom.” Freedom and economic freedom just merge.


Do you think there was a possibility earlier on, perhaps around Jacek Kuron, to create an independent Left party that was not part of the post-Communist party?


It was very difficult. The post-Communist party was so strong that it was difficult even for Kuron, who was a very strong icon, to establish any kind of leftist movement in the country. One can also ask, “Why is there no leftist party in the United States?” Because the system is so well-established, it’s very difficult even after what happened in the 1960s and even if you have stars like Noam Chomsky or Immanuel Wallerstein to act against the establishment.


It seems however that there’s been a shift in intellectual culture here in Poland. Perhaps Gazeta Wyborcza is an example of that. Krytyka Polityczna is very happy that their views are now published in Gazeta Wyborcza. But others have told me that Gazeta Wyborcza has moved too far to the Left. Either way, something seems to have shifted in intellectual culture so that Gazeta Wyborcza is open to a wider spectrum of views.


It only reflects what’s going on throughout the Western world. Poland had been the one of the most neoliberal countries in Europe, perhaps competing with the small Baltic states. But a government that was originally strictly neo-liberal is now shifting toward classical liberalism. It has little sympathy for social democracy, but still, this is a problem for neoliberals. The government’s economic policies are more realistic, and these Keynesian views in economics for example are becoming more popular. I’m not saying that they are prevailing. But they are connected in some way to the establishment, which is now referring to some Keynesian ideas. Even the finance minister, who used to be a very strong neoliberal, is referring to Keynes and saying that, “Well, it happens every 70 years that Keynes is right!”

It’s not only in economics. It’s also cultural. People have started to learn that society is important, that not transactions but also relations are important, that not only institutions are important but also trust. That’s a big change for Poles, to realize that the social base for growth and living is not just a single person but a neighborhood (for the Left) or a family (for the Right).

Also, there’s a growing tension between a society that is much more progressive and the bishops who are less progressive. Right now, Polish society is much more accepting of the new Pope, but the bishops are trying not to hear what he’s saying. This is part of the Europeanization of Poland. Because of the stronger and stronger relations between Poles and Western Europe, Poland is less American and more European now than it was 20 years ago.


It’s an interesting process. Viewed from America, Europe is becoming more American in its economic perspective. The EU is much more neoliberal than 20 years ago, much more dominated by an austerity perspective that used to be what we called Anglo-American capitalism. At the same time that Poland is becoming Europeanized, Europe is shifting toward a more American-style capitalism!


Perhaps also because the United States has become less American! We are seeing a Europeanization of America. Also, if you look at Britain, it’s much less Anglo-Saxon than it used to be. This is a problem of the European central bank, which is dominated by neoliberals. In Poland, there’s a much bigger shift in discourse than in real politics. The discourse is more liberal, less neoliberal, and even in part more social democratic. But in politics the change is not that big. For example, on social policy, the government talks a lot of about equality but does nothing to achieve more equality in this society. This is also a kind of populism.

The previous government, the Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (PiS) government, the right-wing government, was a master of this game. They were very sensitive to social problems in what they were saying. But what they were doing was quite the opposite. For example, they canceled the inheritance tax, which is hard to imagine in the United States or Britain. We don’t have any inheritance tax. The only thing you have to do to avoid taxation is report the inheritance to the Treasury. This is ultra-liberal, and nobody is talking about changing it.


You mentioned the Church, which continues to have influence here in Poland. There was obviously an important alliance between Solidarity and the Church — before, during and after the Round Table negotiations. Have we seen a major divergence between Church circles and intellectual circles? And will that divergence create a new politics here in Poland?


The Church is not so influential, or, at least, it’s not so influential as it seems to be. Look at what people do. The vast majority of young people engage in premarital sex, which the Church considers a sin. Catholics widely use contraceptives here. On abortion, people usually declare that they are against it, but just in case they don’t hesitate to have one. Also look at politics. Not one party supported by the bishops has won an election in 20 years. We exaggerate the Church’s influence, and people here understand this more and more.

Many Poles have come back to the traditional position of popular Catholicism in Poland, which is, in a way, not so Catholic. What I mean is that people communicate directly with God. This is the deep influence of Judaism in Polish Catholicism. Many people consider the priest to be only the organizer of prayers. He’s not the major person in the religious gathering any more. What you more and more often hear is Catholics complaining about what the priests are saying in the church. This anti-clericalism within the Catholic Church is a very deep pre-war tradition in Poland. So, Poles are returning to positions that were prevalent before Communism when priests became the major people in local society.


Has the intelligentsia suffered a similar loss of influence in Polish society?


Sure. The phenomenon of the intelligentsia was born of two factors: what we inherited from the Second Republic in the inter-war period, which was the generation born in this period and educated in a patriotic way, and then the Communist period that engaged young people in public life. The position of this young intelligentsia was extremely high under Communism. There’s a proverb: ojczizna polszchyzna (the Polish language is my fatherland). Language means culture, and the intelligentsia was in charge of the culture. It was of a very good quality. Of course there was a big difference between the prewar intelligentsia with its family traditions and the way of the new government. And now it’s over. Slawomir Mrozek was one of the best examples of the Polish intelligentsia, and he just died. So, it’s over. Now there are professionals, artists, different kinds of people. Times change.


In terms of the current political situation, there’s a feeling that people are not voting for parties but against parties and almost everyone I talked to worries about victory by Jaroslaw Kaczynski and PiS along the Fidesz model, minus the parliamentary supermajority. No one is particularly optimistic about Poland’s political future. No one seems positive about Donald Tusk except for his communication skills. What do you think?


First of all, we are in the middle of the deepest economic crisis in almost a century. It must be reflected in politics. Outside of that, we still have economic growth, but the price is very big. We also have a young generation that is jobless or has trash jobs. They earn very poor money. They have problems with apartments and health care. We avoided the economic crisis but we paid a very high social price. In those countries where the crisis was deeper, the social price was much higher.

In my opinion, Tusk is an extremely good politician. My political identity is leftist, not liberal, not neoliberal. But I think that Tusk’s best skills are not in communications but in his pragmatic reactions to a changing situation and to the crisis. Being neo-liberal at the beginning, he adopted a Keynesian type of policy. He supported a demographic policy. He supported an educational policy. Wages for teachers – and for health sector workers like doctors — were raised dramatically. So, his policy is reactive, even rather opportunistic, but pragmatic. He’s much more pragmatic than he was 10 years ago.

So, on balance, Tusk has been very positive. Especially when you look at his party Civic Platform. If you talk to his MPs, 70 percent of them are an intellectual disaster. It’s even worse than in the U.S. House of Representatives! They usually don’t speak any foreign language, or they speak them very poorly, so they don’t read any international periodicals. They read only Polish dailies. They don’t read books. What they know about the world is just a mess. If you have this kind of party and you’re able to provide the kind of political leadership that he does, you are a master in my opinion!

As far as Kaczynski is concerned, I am also afraid. Not because of the political program he adopted. In fact, there is no political program. Some ideas are even pretty clever. No, I’m worried because of the quality of the people. PiS is really a populist party, in the negative sense of the word. The majority in his party is very poorly educated. They might be talented local leaders, at the village level. But when they try to govern the country, it will be a disaster — not because of bad ideas but because they are poor politicians.


They’re not even good technocrats.


Definitely not. Kaczynski understands that. But he has no other choice, just like Tusk. What Tusk did, when he created his government, he invited people from outside the party. The major ministerial positions – Rostowski, Michal Boni, Radek Sikorski – are filled with people who were not members of Civic Platform before they became ministers. He didn’t have good people in his party. Kaczynski is in an even worse situation.


You were in a very important position in the parliamentary caucus of the Citizens’ Committee (OKP). During the time that you worked there, what do you think were the major achievements and the major mistakes that this initial opposition formation made in the early days of Polish democracy?


The major achievement was establishing democracy in the country. We were able to change the constitution, even though we were only a minority in the parliament. This was a very sensitive game with the Communists and Russia and with Germany as well. My boss Bronislaw Geremek was patient enough to listen to what our Western partners were saying, that we should not hope to be a Western country and join Western alliances like NATO or the European Community. That’s the achievement.

If I think about mistakes, perhaps we should have tried to create more of a social state and less of a liberal state. For example, we could have put more pressure on social institutions like the public media or the educational system. We could have focused on the quality of education rather than on institutional changes. We were very much fond of a kind of institutionalism. We believed that if we changed institutions from authoritarian to democratic, people would become democrats. That’s not true, of course. We must work on culture. Culture is created intentionally. We did not understand that. What we believed is that Poles are generally good and only the system is bad. Our naive narrative prevailed.

Speaking about mistakes, we usually mention the “war at the top” between Walesa and Mazowiecki. But I believe that it was inevitable. In fact, when you look from today’s perspective, I would even say that it was necessary, not just inevitable. The price society paid for the crisis and for the change of the system was so big that support for the government had to decrease very rapidly. Walesa felt this. I’m not saying that he understood it: he felt it. In fact, he saved the changes. Otherwise, the post-Communists would have come back to power not in 1993 but in 1991. That would have meant that the change could have been stopped. I don’t think it could have been reversed. But if it stopped for a long time, it would have been very difficult for the country.

Mazowiecki paid the necessary price. So did I! And Geremek. One had to be very stupid to believe that society would say, “This is fantastic! We lost our savings. We are four times poorer that we were before you came to power. We love you!” No, they had to hate us. And we had to pay this price. The revolution must eat its children, and this is universal.


But it was a nonviolent dinner.


Yes, and this was a big success of Walesa’s. After being in OKP, I was appointed the president of the Polish Information Agency, by the government of Jan Krzysztof Bielecki. This was a government appointed by Walesa. In a small way, this was symbolic. What Walesa did was to destroy the Mazowiecki government to save its politics. He also appointed Balcerowicz as minister of finance. What happened was a kind of controlled explosion. What we usually consider a mistake was in fact a kind of political master shot.

As a spokesman for Geremek, along with the spokesman for Walesa, who was Jaroslaw Kurski, and the spokesman for Mazowiecki, Malgorzata Niezabitowska, we prepared a joint declaration for them saying that we would work together, we would be together forever, that we love each other, all this stuff for the good future of Poland and so on. We didn’t tell them about it. We gathered them in one place, and said, “We are responsible for public relations for all of you. Our strong request is that you sign this and follow this.” And they agreed.

We organized a press conference. In front of dozens of journalists, they signed the joint declaration. It was a big wow. That was a time when the “war at the top” was already on. In the evening Walesa went back to Gdansk and the next morning, after a few hours talk with Kaczynski, he declared that it was bullshit. Nothing could change that situation. Hegel is right. There are some processes that you cannot stop and you perhaps shouldn’t stop. We didn’t understand it then. Now of course it’s much easier to understand.


I talked with an economist who participated on the side of Solidarity during the Round Table. He thought that the most important mistake Solidarity made after the Round Table negotiations was not to insist on continued consultation and discussion with the government. It abdicated its responsibility on economic issues. Do you agree that this was an economic mistake and might this have helped create a more socially oriented market economy?


From an idealistic point of view, it’s absolutely right. But the economic reforms were agreed to before we came to power. They were agreed to by the Rakowski government in talks with the IMF and World Bank. When we came to power, there was really very little space to renegotiate these terms. That’s what Balcerowicz and Sachs did. But in fact the major decisions were forced on us by the Americans. The place for decision-making was really small. We could only say that we would do it this week or next week. There was no space for negotiations with trade unions, for example. Of course we could have said: we will not do it. But we were bankrupt. If they did not lend us more money, there would have been no oil, no food in the country. The situation was extreme. The only thing we could do was explain. That was what Kuron was trying to do. But it’s very difficult. There’s a famous dramatic piece by Slawomir Mrozek called Na Morze (On the Open Sea). Three people are in a lifeboat, and they are dying of hunger. Two of them decide to eat the third. One says, “In the name of preserving the community, we will eat you!” That’s what was going on. Polish society had to eat a third of itself! Kuron was basically explaining to this third of society that we had to eat you. But people were still not happy.

The maneuvering room was very small from the very beginning, 1989-1992. Perhaps after then, a space for negotiations, for more public debate, opened up. And then Leszek Miller and the post-Communists came to power. The space was ready, but it was not for them. The West didn’t trust them. So they had to be even more neoliberal than we were. In my opinion, that was the first serious mistake. When the transition crisis was over and the space was open, and is still open in a way, they couldn’t use it. But the space wasn’t open in 1990. We could have established more social mechanisms, public media, public schools. We could have put more stress more on this social side. But we couldn’t have done much more than that.


If it had been possible for the overall framework to be different — if the IMF, World Bank, the United States — provided more money not attached to austerity, shock therapy, and said that we’ll give you more time, you don’t have to close the state-owned enterprises immediately, do you think that would have been good? Or do you think the policy of establishing very narrow parameters was ultimately the best policy? You might remember the Czech foreign minister, Jiri Dienstbier, proposed that the United States provide money to Russia to buy Eastern European goods, especially textiles, to save the factories in the Czech Republic — not to mention Lodz. And Russia needed those goods, after all. The factories here didn’t have markets in the West. But no one in the West liked Dientsbier’s proposal.


I don’t think it was a problem of money itself. It was a problem of flexibility. Balcerowicz is not a flexible personality. And the IMF and World Bank were not flexible institutions. It’s always very difficult to renegotiate anything with them. They are very much aware of that. They say that everything that they agreed to is perfect. So, flexibility was the problem.

Generally, the narrow way is good, in my opinion, but only when you can control damages during the process. For example, there was not much we could do about textile production in Lodz. It was going to be a disaster in the face of Chinese competition. But take, for example, the popiwek, which was a tax increase: when a company raised wages more than the state-mandated level, the company had to pay a very big tax. This was useful in coal mining. But it was extremely bad for more advanced factories or enterprises.

The problem with this non-flexible policy was that it destroyed the more advanced, more innovative branches of Polish economy. It was a historic change. Electronics died. Small chemical companies died. Biotechnology died. Telecommunication companies died. We were forced to produce coal and steel, not electronics. The Bielecki government understood this but couldn’t change the agreements with the international institutions. They also couldn’t change the opinion of Balcerowicz, and they couldn’t fire him. The narrow way is good but it must be flexible: narrow like a snake!


Let’s jump to the contemporary economy. People complain today of similar problems: that there is little innovation in Polish economy, that Poland is highly dependent on European stabilization funds. Or do you see something different, for instance an emerging new economy arising from initiatives from the bottom up or because of government programs? Do you see an economy that can survive after 2020 and the reduction of EU stabilization money?


Yes, for example, the software sector is growing rapidly. We never expected this. There are not only big enterprises owned by Intel and international corporations but also many startups. But looking at what’s going on in the global market, I don’t expect the WTO rules to continue to be the same as today. They will probably change. There’s a strong tendency in Europe to preserve its market against Chinese competition, among others. This is still a big opportunity for Poland because wages here will be lower for the next decades than Western Europe.


I’m not concerned about the end of European funds. Rather, I’m concerned about migration. A large part of the young generation is migrating to different countries and leaving our generation all alone. This is the problem, not the quality of the Polish economy, which is getting better and better. We have entrepreneurs and we are competitive, given the 20-30 percent lower wages than Germany. But the demography is a disaster.

For example, look at the brain drain in medicine and what the Scandinavians are doing. They hire Polish students of medicine when they are in the third or fourth year of studies and teach them Swedish or Norwegian so that they can go there immediately after completing their studies. They can earn in Norway four times more than here. That’s just at the start: the differences grow from there. So, who will care for me when I’m an old guy?


I interviewed a businessman who had been thrown in jail. He told me that there were lots of cases in which the tax authority and the prosecutor were going after entrepreneurs. I asked him why. His explanation: it was still the old guard in those positions, the people that used to be called beton, or concrete. It turns out that many people believe this. Is it true, or just a misperception?


That’s a very difficult question. I wouldn’t say that the problem is beton. The major problem of Polish transformation is a deficit of trust. This is a cultural problem. Of course, there are mistakes. The IRS in the United States can search your house, arrest you, put you in jail for nothing. So, the treasury is never nice. The problem here is temporary arrest — they can temporarily arrest you, which is a decision of the court, but it is widely used. If a prosecutor comes to the court and says that he wants to keep you under arrest for three months, most judges will agree. They generally believe that they should. This is the culture of the judiciary and of the prosecutor’s office. If the prosecutor is wrong, which of course happens since he’s a human being, you can stay in jail for half a year or a year and your business is destroyed, you are destroyed personally, and the cost is very high.

This problem of temporary arrest doesn’t come from Communism. It’s a kind of political culture inherited from the authoritarian, 19th-century European tradition. There was no evolution, as in Western Europe in the post-war era, when human rights were adopted. Human rights were never important in Poland. This problem of temporary arrest touches business people but also common people who stole a carton of cigarettes in the shop. It touches women. It touches minorities (with the exception of German and Jewish minorities who are protected). These temporary arrests are used most widely here than anywhere else in Europe.

The legal position of business is much better in Poland than in other counties like the United States or Britain, which I know pretty well. In Britain, any enforcement agency can come to a small business at any time and look at any paper in the office. The transformation of the system here was not accompanied by the transition in political culture or the culture of the state. You can see the same thing inside companies and the relationship between businesspeople and employees. It’s also a 19th-century tradition, this wild capitalism.

In Poland, we often refer to folwark, which was a kind of pre-capitalist agricultural company created on the basis of feudal relations. After the peasants were freed, Poles created these folwark. The serfs were legally free, but in fact they remained slaves, economically. If you look at social relations at different fields, this relationship continues, with the boss as the master and the employee as the slave, or the public official as the master and the citizen as the slave. This is a very big problem that’s received a lot of sociological attention. When the prosecutor takes you to the judge, they consider you a slave already.


They consider you guilty.


They don’t consider your freedom to be important, because you are a slave. It’s changing, but it’s a slow process. For example, when Treasury calls you for some explanation, they used to send you a paper: you must report to the Treasury at this day, hour, and place. Now they usually give you a call: “When would you like to come and discuss?” There is a change, but it is slow.


The other trust issue is lustration, the screening process for public officials. At this point, what could the government do on the lustration issue that could improve public trust?


I think the lustration issue is over now. Not because it’s finished, but because it became boring. It was funny for the public to take someone from the top and say he’s bad. But it’s not so funny any more.

But it’s important to work on this issue of trust. For example, there is a proposal to make incomes publicly known. That, of course, has created a lot of commotion. But I think it could be good. Now people believe that everybody is cheating. When they see information about incomes, there will be a lot of emotional reactions for half a year. And then it will be transparent. Transparency is the best answer to the lack of trust. We agree generally that the level of trust is very low and that all people are cheating. But what do we agree on as an answer? More bureaucracy. More procedures to prevent cheating. And what’s the outcome of that? More cheating and more procedures!


Better cheating and better procedures.


With so many procedures, you can’t do anything. Just follow all the procedures. So, you cheat not for personal gain but because, as a state official or businessman, you want to do something! You don’t want to spend all your time involved in these procedures. If you don’t cheat, you are paralyzed. The process is more negative than positive. For example, there are competitions for certain positions not only in government but also in enterprises. But at the very beginning of these competitions, we usually know who will win. It’s the same with university positions in the European Union. They fill these academic positions through a so-called open and global competition. Everyone can apply. But usually they already know who will fill this position in England, Germany, France.

So, the answer, and not just for lustration, is to make it transparent. If I need a professor, I just choose him. I don’t call it a competition. We usually know who is good at what. If you are in media studies, for instance, you know who is good in your field. If you open the competition just to take this guy, then you must cheat.


And it undermines the norm. People no longer believe in the process.


Right. That’s the problem. It also influences fields like lustration. What everybody believes now is that if they don’t like you, they’ll lustrate you. It really happens. That’s why people don’t care any more.


When you think back to your worldview circa 1989-90 — how you looked at political economy or the logic of transition — has anything changed in 23 years?


Everything! We knew – and I knew – so little about democracy and the market economy. Before 1989, I spent half a year in the United States and perhaps a bit more in West European countries. So my knowledge was really minimal. We were extremely optimistic about the efficiency of the market. I underestimated the importance of social relations — in democracy and in the market. I believed very strongly in institutions. I still believe in institutions, but I know that culture matters as well.

I once asked Geremek, “Why do we work so hard for so many nights on the Polish constitution? Shouldn’t we just adopt the German or the American constitution? Those constitutions work well.”

He smoked his pipe. And then he said, “Well, every culture is different. We must prepare our own constitution coming out of our own tradition.”

I didn’t believe him. Now I know that it’s crucial: not only in political terms but also in economic terms. But how could we know how it was when we’d never seen it before? We learned by making mistakes. I learned by making mistakes.

Fortunately, and also unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones to migrate from one system to another. Western countries as well migrated from liberal capitalism to neoliberal capitalism, which is substantially different. We are not really in a very different position from our friends from Western Europe. We must learn an entirely new world, all of us. Perhaps for us it is even easier to change our opinions, because they are not so much rooted in our experience but are pretty new.

For example, we in Poland never considered demographic processes as important as we see them now. Also, in 1989 and right after, I believed economic was a science and that Leszek Balcerowicz was the guy who could teach us. Now we know that economics is just knowledge like political science. We started to understand this because of the crisis. We also believed that governing the country was a job for technocrats. We didn’t understand that social processes are part of economic sciences. But that was not only a Polish problem.


You said that there has been a migration from liberal capitalism to neoliberal capitalism. We’re in a crisis of neoliberal capitalism now. What will come next? A return to liberal capitalism, which Obama is trying to do in the United States, or something substantially different?


I wrote a piece for Polityka perhaps three years ago saying that we are in a period of neo-realism in all political sciences including economics. I think this is something new. The end of ideology is coming. We are adopting, in Poland, a more pragmatic approach to politics. It’s not a return to classical liberalism or to Keynesianism — because of globalization. It’s very difficult to adopt a classical Keynesian approach in a globalized world. But we are forced to be more sensitive to reality and not only to books (because books appear three years after the fact).

Also, the importance of factors like intuition is bigger. We know our knowledge is too weak to explain what is going on properly. This is a kind of end of politics determined by technocrats. There will be more politicization, more public decisions, and more populism coming after that. There will be more direct democracy and more influence of public opinion polls and non-elected representatives and different lobbies. I consider this a big shift. Politics becomes much more important. A new reality is appearing.

But that leaves a major question: what about the WTO? This is the only non-flexible part of reality.


From 1989 to today, how would you evaluate everything that has changed or not changed in Poland on a scale from 1 to 10 with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?




Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?




When you look two or three years into the future, how would you evaluate the future prospects for Poland on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?




Warsaw, August 16, 2013



The Interview (1990)


Like most spokespeople from Solidarity, Zakowski spent a good deal of time talking about how pluralistic the various Solidarity organizations were. I did not expect anything different from a spokesman from OKP, the Solidarity parliamentary caucus. But Zakowski was also rather honest about the differences between the trade union and political wings of Solidarity. The substance of his comments was not as surprising as the fact that he even made the comments in the first place. Solidarity the trade union is, he pointed out, composed in the main of workers and represents a populist, rather common denominator point of view. The Solidarity political organs–the Citizens’ Committees, the OKP and the Mazowiecki government–is composed of those who are by nature professional politicians, who are interested in the future of the state and the global balance of power. The trade union asks questions such as: what do people want, what is most popular, how can we make the union stronger. Sometimes, when it comes to what to do with the previous officials of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the popular answer is: throw them in jail. OKP, meanwhile, thinks along different lines. It recognizes that the government can not simply act rashly. And this, then, is the crucial difference as he sees it: the difference in responsibility. The trade union can make irresponsible demands; the government must act responsibly. OKP, meanwhile, falls somewhere in the middle. On the Lithuanian question, for instance, Geremek and a group of Solidarity parliamentarians visited Vilnius. But the Mazowiecki government could not responsibly recognize the independent Lithuanian republic officially.

I asked about the general perception that the OKP was center left, despite all of the various tendencies intermixed therein. Zakowski thought that although most Poles couldn’t stomach the word “socialism,” that Polish society was in fact quite left, left of the U.S. Democratic Party for instance. He cited the poll on privatization. In this context, OKP was actually less left than the society. “If we lose in the elections, it won’t be because we are too left, but because people want reforms to go much quicker.”

The chief problem in society, he thought, was trust. Poles simply didn’t trust their governments, and hadn’t done so since 1926 (when Pilsudski engineered a coup). Whatever the government said–about privatization or foreign policy– Poles simply believe that the government is lying.

I asked whether there could be an agreement between the two halves of Solidarity–the union and the government–mirroring such agreements in Sweden and West Germany. He thought that this was quite likely. He pointed to the Spanish agreement between unions and government over wage hikes. It was simply an agreement borne of necessity. For this reason, Solidarity was accepting the Balcerowicz plan. And support came as well from the government: 34 of 36 commissioners approved of Balcerowicz’s plan. As a parliamentary caucus, OKP must sometimes ask Balcerowicz to make things a little easier. But that, it appeared, was the extent of the criticism.

What was the future of OKP? It would stay together until the next national elections. There would be some withdrawals: the National Democrats for instance. But they would not lose more than 10 members from both the Senate and Sejm. The biggest problem was not members leaving for other parties, but simply OKP politicians leaving party life in general. Many Solidarity politicians say now that they don’t want to compete in the next elections. They simply do not want to become party people. They have served because they are patriots and now they want to make room for other civil servants [I have heard from others that politicians are simply underpaid, overworked and over-criticized and that, given their experience, they could make a lot more money in other fields]. Therefore, it is rather difficult to build an effective party organization. The consensus among many influential thinkers–e.g. Jacek Wozniakowski in an article in the Krakow Times–was to vote for people, not parties.

We then talked a little about a citizens’ movement, which at first Zakowski seemed to be supporting. He mentioned the importance of reproducing the opinions of the society, of increasing the percentage of voter turnout. When I probed him on this question, however, it turned out his conception of a citizens’ movement was rather limited. “People are not so much interested in day by day participation in politics. What Poles want to do is elect a good parliament, president and local government and then be free of politics. And live in a happy country. I think Poles are tired of politics and are rather looking for a quiet life.” When they vote, they are looking for professional politicians, pragmatic government. [I think what he meant by a citizens’ movement is simply an informed electorate, capable of voting responsibly once or twice a year].

Finally, what would be the relationship between OKP and the local governments? Eventually close cooperation, Zakowski replied. But the people coming into local office “would at first be as unprepared as we were when we came into power.”




  1. (Quote from text):
    “In Poland, we often refer to folwark, which was a kind of pre-capitalist agricultural company created on the basis of feudal relations. After the peasants were freed, Poles created these folwark. The serfs were legally free, but in fact they remained slaves, economically. If you look at social relations at different fields, this relationship continues, with the boss as the master and the employee as the slave, or the public official as the master and the citizen as the slave. This is a very big problem that’s received a lot of sociological attention. When the prosecutor takes you to the judge, they consider you a slave already.”

    This is essentially what austerity economics is about in reverse engineering. Poland was subjected to ‘shock therapy’ in its ‘recovery’ stages of reforming its economy towards market capitalism. Shock therapy itself can be traced back to economic warfare that the West utilized against the Communist threat. Economic warfare (as a tactic) collapsed the original Marshall Plan which was designed to create a Middle class globally and dismantle incentives that made communism attractive to abject subjectivity to poverty. Irving Kristol and Milton Friedman (1956 & 1957 Yale Review) helped design new policies under NSC-68 strategic planning that simply attacked communism directly and collapsed economic foreign aid to essentially inflict ‘creative destruction’ on populations; while rewarding a reactionary group of crony capitalists that corrosively & coercively maintained enforced order. When crony capitalism took over in the Eastern Block, the process of supply side economics from the Harvard and Chicago economists guided the process through neo-liberal reorganiztion under the umbrella of reform necessity.
    The results of Shock Therapy world wide is explained by Naomi Klein in her widely influential book SHOCK Doctrine. In Eastern Europe, however, a less well known work tracked the same process in Janine R. Wedel’s (1998)COLLISION AND COLLUSION: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe: 1989 – 1998. St. Martin’s Press, NY.

    1. I also discuss the way it came to Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe in my book Shock Waves (South End, 1992).

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