Solidarity was not just an opposition movement. With 10 million members – more than one quarter of the population of Poland in 1980 – it was an unprecedented phenomenon. The Communist governments had faced protests from individual dissidents and even from small groups like Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia. There had also been reform efforts launched from within the Party, as in Hungary in 1956. But Solidarity aspired to create an autonomous center, in essence destroying the Party’s monopoly on power.
As its name suggests, Solidarity focused not on individual rights but on the common good of society. It was very much a product of the socialist system. And in 1980, it aimed to transform that system, not destroy it. It was one of the ironies of history that the trade union eventually helped put into place a government that instituted an economic reform that hurt its core constituency – workers in shipyards, coal mines, steel plants, and other large industrial enterprises. The new economy created in the early 1990s was predicated on individual actors presumably acting rationally, not collective entities presumably acting in the spirit of solidarity.
The Solidarity trade union didn’t disappear after 1989. There was, for instance, an important railroad strike in 1990. “The strike was in defense of nurses’ demands for higher wages,” journalist Konstanty Gebert told me in a conversation we had in his apartment in Warsaw last August. “The reasoning was: nurses can’t go on strike because they can’t abandon patients. That means they’ll always get screwed. So they need someone else to strike on their behalf and on behalf of the common interest. The railroad workers went on strike and to make sure that there was no confusion: their only demand was the implementation of the nurses’ demands.”
He went on, “I was thrilled. I went down to central station to talk to the strike committee. I pretended to be a disgruntled customer. ‘Nurses, sure, whatever,’ I said. ‘But I need to be in Krakow!’ And this railroad man with a huge grin patted me on the back, and said, ‘There are more important things in life than being in Krakow on time!’”
It was an inspiring moment. But the moment passed, and so did the spirit of the times. “Nobody remembers that strike,” he continued. “It’s not just forgotten, it’s literally unthinkable now. This will stay with us for some time. There are some ideas and values that have been corrupted by the regime so thoroughly that they really need to stay in quarantine until people stop believing these things.
Gebert is a journalist and former opposition activist who has been a keen observer not only of developments in Poland but in many places around the world. He has also been a key figure in the renaissance of Jewish religion and culture in Poland. When I talked with him in 1989 and 1990, he was an invaluable guide to the twists and turns of the Polish transition (below I reproduce the comments he made in an April 1990 interview).
Today, he acknowledges the unavoidability of the economic changes that took place in the 1990s. He also points to the many benefits that Poles have enjoyed as a result of the transition. But one price paid for this transition – and there have been several – has been a much greater tolerance for social injustice.
“In Poland, social injustice is symbolic revenge for the Communist years,” he reflected. “Only some 20 percent of the Polish labor force is unionized. In many private enterprises, it’s dangerous to try to set up a union. People get fired. With unemployment at 13 percent and growing, nobody is going to take the risk of getting fired. Forget solidarity with nurses. You can’t even have solidarity with yourself or with another worker who is suffering exactly the same oppression. It’s just too dangerous.
We had a wide-ranging conversation on the issue of justice and injustice, covering the economic changes as well as the lustration process, the justice system, and the political response to rising social injustice (or the lack thereof). We also covered the role of the European Union, the debate in Poland created by the book Neighbors, and what it means to be Polish in this day and age.
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I remember seeing it on TV, so I must have been at home. My feeling was: so what? It was obvious. It was nice, and bully for the Germans. But this was the after show. In September that year I was invited to Belgium for a TV debate about the consequences of what was happening. There were a number of very prominent Belgian political scientists.
“After the reunification of Germany,” I began to say.
And they said, “What?!”
And I said, “In a couple months when this is all over, the two Germanys will reunify.”
“What do you mean? No one will allow this. Don’t be ridiculous!”
I often take criticism, people telling me that I’m saying nonsense, by stopping a moment to think. But I remember looking at them as though they were telling me that the world was flat. It was obvious that Communism was over and Germany would reunify. At that point, I didn’t know whether it was a good thing or a bad thing, but I was absolutely sure that it was a thing on the brink of happening.
It would never have occurred to me that the fall of the Berlin Wall would be seen as the moment. It was obvious to me that it was an after show, the consequence of what had been happening around here.
You mentioned in our interview 23 years ago that Poland never had its Bastille moment, its political catharsis. You said that this would have significant implications for Poland. Now, 23 years later, what do you think those implications are?
The fact that we didn’t have a Bastille provided a convenient scapegoat. Things were supposed to be right, and they aren’t. So, who’s the culprit? Well, the bad guys are still around, and they’re doing their evil work. Frankly, if somebody had been fired from a company where, before 1989, he was an underground Solidarity activist, and the present owner of the company had been the head of the secret police or the party secretary at the same company, this isn’t really a conspiracy theory. You can feel it in your bones!
Having said that, there’s always a silver lining. The silver lining is: up until the Smolensk disaster three years ago, Polish politics was not nearly as hostile as elsewhere in Central Europe. The idea was that no, it wouldn’t be to the victors go all the spoils. It was about a value that we want to uphold. This has kept Polish politics civilized. The transition between post-Communist and post-anti-Communist governments happened without a problem, and that was one of the great legacies of the Round Table. But it has been totally subverted and eliminated by post-Smolensk politics.
A footnote needs to be added to this instrumentalization. You can whip a dead horse only so many times. Even today, when there’s the prospect of Jaroslaw Kaczynski returning to power, he no longer speaks about doing lustration. This issue has been thoroughly compromised. It is not seen as restitutive justice. It’s seen as political backstabbing. I’ll give you an example. I know a minister in Tusk’s cabinet. After all the lustration blah-blah-blah, he had to admit eventually in the 1980s that he had signed a promise to cooperate with the secret police. It was one of those ridiculously convoluted Polish stories. He got busted, but the police was after his then-girlfriend. They didn’t realize that he was much more important. They caught him and told him they’d tell his wife. He was in the middle of a messy divorce, so he promised to cooperate. They considered him small fry and didn’t press the issue. But he never told anybody. The right thing to do was to have told everybody about it immediately — because above all this keeps you safe. Once you expose yourself, you’re no longer any use to the police. The worst that could have happened was that they’d deny your passport. But he didn’t do that, not even after 1989 when it was safe to do it. He’s a personal friend. I admire him a lot, both then and now. But I have a problem with that. I don’t think this is morally irrelevant. It undermines my trust in him as a public servant. But everyone just shrugged and said, “Ah, lustration, it’s just an example of bad politics, so let’s forget about it.
In this sense, it’s over. But we paid the price and allowed ourselves to be instrumentalized and manipulated. And ultimately, an issue that I consider of moral relevance has been completely discarded.
I’ll return to these questions. But first I want to ask you if there was a moment when you decided to become part of the opposition or whether it was more of a gradual process?
It wasn’t even a process. Everybody was in the opposition! On the other hand, when you poked your head outside of the extremely refined atmosphere of the psychology department of Warsaw University where I was a student in the 1970s, and its surroundings, you realized that nobody was in the opposition. But all the people I knew were doing something. It was such a natural thing. In the first months of Martial Law, I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen in two years. We traded news about husbands, wives, children. I asked her automatically, “And which underground organization are you with? Or is that a secret?”
My first job in the opposition of the 1970s was distributing underground publications. I was surprised that my problem was not the secret police. It was to get people to read the publications. It’s not that they were afraid. It’s that they thought these things were ridiculous. They said, “With a couple of pages like this, you’re going to overthrow the Soviet Union? Gimme a break! Grow up. Get a life! You guys are nice and whatever. But be serious.”
The worst thing is to be treated with derision.
Nobody told me that I was risking my freedom. They said, “You’re an asshole and you’re wasting your time.” Incidentally those people who considered us assholes have come back to haunt us after 1989.
There was never a road to Damascus moment for me. When I think back, I was a conformist. I was doing what everybody else was doing!
This was when?
The late 1970s. It starts with someone asking if they could leave something in our apartment. And then they left an entire print run of an underground publication. And it never stopped after that.
Was this with KOR?
This was completely in a different orbit: a peasant underground thing. It so happened that one of our friends was active in the peasant opposition. I started off with supporting the peasants.
It was like World War II. Whether you ended up in the Polish fascist underground of the National Armed Forces, the mainstream Home Army, or the Communist underground of the People’s Army, largely depended on chance. Everyone wanted to be in the underground, so you joined the first available thing. Had those guys been slightly better organized or more insistent, I might have ended up as an underground peasant organizer.
We did our job. We distributed the stuff. Then we moved somewhere else, and they found someone else. As for KOR, well, the splits between KOR and its right-wing critics were not even an in-house thing — it was for those initiates who bothered to pay attention. Later, it became a big issue within Solidarity. Until then, it was a very sophisticated sectarian thing.
When did you decide to become a journalist with your nom de plume Dawid Warszawski?
Purely by accident. What happened was: all the best people got interned during Martial Law. I watched my friends being loaded into the Black Marias. Someone had to fill the gap. I knew a lot of people. I started running around town collecting information and trying to cross-verify it. Once my wife and I were satisfied, we typed up an information sheet and left it at the usual places: churches, leaflets at railway station. The whole thing was ridiculous. It was our typewriter. If the police had figured it out, the whole thing would have been over.
Through one of my contacts at work, I heard that the underground publication KOS would like to see me because they liked what I wrote. I was so proud, so full of myself, that I could barely fit through a doorway! A serious newspaper! So, I was taken to a very underground meeting. And it turned out that they were all my friends. So I stayed with KOS. The pseudonym was actually bad literature. It’s “Warszawski,” meaning “of Warsaw” because I’m very much a local patriot, and it was also David vs. Goliath. The fact that it sounded Jewish was nice, but it wasn’t the primary purpose. I stuck with it because it stuck with me — as a kind of trademark.
Were you working as a therapist at the same time?
Yes. This is the one thing I’ve never forgiven. I was working as a therapist with dying patients in a general hospital. I was denied access to my patients because the military commissioner appointed by the junta at the Warsaw School of Medicine said that I was a bad political influence on them. Everything I’ve forgiven, but each time I think about this it makes me want to beat somebody bloody. Nobody talked to those people. I think medicine has since then changed somewhat. But back then when you were dying, you were becoming a traitor. The idea was that medicine fights death, so if you’re dying, which side are you on? I was at least a white coat they could scream at.
Eventually I lost my job, but that was 1983. The nice part of it was that I had really managed to convince them that I might be loony but not dangerous or important. It took them a long time to get to me.
After 1983, did you continue in therapy in any other form?
No. I couldn’t get a regular job. I didn’t want to embarrass people by asking them to find something for me because it would mean getting in trouble. Not very serious trouble, but people had a load of trouble already. We survived mainly on my doing translations and on my wife’s tiny salary from the ethnographic museum where she worked. And parcels from abroad: my sister and distant relatives in the States. But frankly it wasn’t fun. We were very poor. For all intents and purposes, it seemed that life was always going to be like this. I didn’t get interned because of a funny set of circumstances. I worked in the underground, but I really wasn’t on their radar screen.
This historian friend of mine has been trying to get me to read my file, and then he’ll write a book about me reading my file. I don’t want to read my file. I’m curious in a kind of sentimental way, like looking at old family photos. But if I read my file — and I know it’s very thick because my historian friend has already seen my file and that’s why he thinks it would be an interesting book — I would also learn who ratted on me. Twenty-five years ago, I would have punched the guy’s nose. Today I won’t. So, I’m left with a problem. If I see the guy now, what do I do? Pretend that nothing happened? Or make a show of it? I need to have this problem because someone was a bastard a quarter century ago? No, I don’t want to see the file. But my historian friend has dropped some tidbits. One thing that really got my goat was that a senior policeman said that they’d discovered who Dawid Warszawski was in February 1988.
It took them quite a long time.
I was a rank amateur. Those guys were supposed to be professionals, paid by my taxes! This is the kind of service we get?!
It’s appalling the inefficiency!
On the other hand, for some obscure reason people thought that the secret police would function better than anything else in this system?
That’s the great fallacy. Not only that but people thought their files would be trustworthy, accurate…
Exactly. When I first thought that we had a chance was in 1986 or 87. I had spent half a day trying to lose the tail that had been put on me. These particular guys were professional. After all my appointments were already screwed up, and it didn’t make sense to dump them, I called it a day and went to the best academic bookstore in Warsaw in the Palace of Culture. I was walking up the huge marble staircase and looked back to check my tail. Both gentlemen were standing there checking their watches. It was 2 pm. They turned around and walked away. Their shift was over. I suddenly realized that in comparison, we in the opposition were doing overtime. In terms of sheer motivation, we were ahead of the game.
As you were discussing your hesitation over reading your file, it occurred to me that if there were a Polish DSM-III, there would be a specific illness listed in it related to people reading their file and dealing with the fact that friends or relatives had ratted on them. Has there been any discussion of this?
Actually no. The general feel has been of collective embarrassment. I was very saddened if friends of mine read their files and realized that one of the people who had done the most informing was a poor girl that they’d taken in and helped — for completely unselfish reasons. It’s unclear why she turned into an informer. Was she planted? Was she blackmailed? No one knows. So, it’s more of a collective embarrassment. And also a violation.
Speaking of the DSM, I have contributed a psychiatric diagnosis that I diagnosed during the underground days. It’s a new psychiatric condition that I called “reverse paranoia.” The key symptom is the completely unjustified feeling of not being followed!
I want to continue on this question of lustration and its impact, particularly exemplified by Adam Michnik’s positions on this issue over the years. I believe that his latest position is that the files should be opened to everyone because of the potential for blackmail. But he has also recognized that there might be inaccurate information in the files that could lead to all sorts of unintended consequences. Have you gone through a similar process of evolution in your approach to lustration?
It is similar. It’s a feeling of helplessness. The people who wanted the files opened and available in most cases were acting with unfortunately the best possible intentions. It’s obvious that Kaczynski was fully aware of the instrumentalism. But the old historians of IPN (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej or the Institute for National Remembrance) psychologically remind me of the young Stalinists of the 1950s who believed that their path was the highway to the truth (and that the truth would set us free, of course). They were motivated by the desire to do good. My feeling at the very beginning was about the potential for evil.
This is an obscure detail. You might remember the controversy around the so-called Wildstein’s List. Bronek Wildstein stole the list from IPN and published it as an index of the names of people who had files in the archives. The list combined three groups of people: people who were agents, people who were being observed because of their political activities, and people who were observed with the prospect of maybe turning them into agents. If someone’s name was on the list, it might certify them as an active opponent of the regime, or it might certify that they were an active supporter of the regime. Or it might certify that they were neither here nor there, but the regime thought they might be useful at some point. There was no way of telling which name was what.
Bronek did this in the name of truth and openness. And that’s one person less for me to shake hands with! I was of course on the list. I’m not concerned. If anyone would use that to accuse me, I have a biography I can stand behind. I’m a public person. I can fight back. But imagine that this is not downtown Warsaw but a small town in the boondocks and there’s a worker named Kowalski whose name is on the list. There’s nothing but nothing he can do to clear his name. It’s like in the Russian joke. This cat is fleeing Russia because they are executing camels. So, what’s his problem? “Hah,” the cat says, “try to prove you’re not a camel!”
The very idea that this can be done to someone closes the discussion for me. It’s not a completely imaginary thing. You remember the “night of the long files” in 1991, when Antoni Macierewicz was the minister of interior in the Jan Olszewski government. He brought to parliament a list of MPs who were objects of interest for the ministry of interior, and again it confused agents, opponents, and so on. This was a total outrage, and people were furious. Jacek Kuron, who was giving 15 interviews at the same time, was also checking in with everybody on the list. Then suddenly, it was obvious that someone was missing: Grazyna Staniszewska, an MP who is now in the European parliament. She was a teacher in the provincial town of Bielsko Biała and became head of underground Solidarity there. It happened to many teachers, and also, in big factories, nurses. They could wander among various departments, and they were trusted since people trusted their health to a nurse. She was an accidental, if genuine hero. She also was an invalid. She was on the list. She had probably been one of just a few active opposition activists in Bielsko Biała. And suddenly Jacek realized that she wasn’t around. He looked for her and found her in a dark corner of the Sejm crying. It doesn’t matter what happened later. The point is that I’m still ashamed of this. Grazyna has a sterling reputation. She is in the lucky class. It never had any consequences. Neither of the Kaczynskis dared to bring it up. But just those few hours in the dark were totally unacceptable!
I understand that Adam’s thinking went along similar lines, that since this is too high a price to pay then files should be locked away. But we can’t do that. So, the bottom line is that of the different evil solutions, opening the files is probably less evil than the others. It still doesn’t make it a good option. I’m worried that I live in a society in which this argument about the unacceptability of inflicting this kind of suffering on innocent people is not convincing enough. If you talk honestly to people from IPN they will not deny this is possible. They’ll talk about the greater common good. No, the greater common good means that you do not do indecent things to innocent people. And this is something on which it is simply impossible to find a common position.
Your comparison to the Stalinists of the 1950s and the show trials is an apt one. The story of Jan Kavan is relevant here. His father was thrown in jail during one of the most famous Stalinist show trials in the 1950s and he had to endure his generation’s version of the show trial in the 1990s. And it wasn’t just a few hours crying in the corner but five years of trials.
And he was one of the powerful ones. So, imagine if Jan Kavan had been a bus driver in Brno. Forget it!
One of the things we talked about 23 years ago was injustice. This is one form of injustice. You made the important point that people went out on the street and joined Solidarity because of a desire for justice. After 1989, economically, they didn’t get a lot of justice. Solidarity workers had to pay the price for the transformation. You said that the desire for justice would return. 23 years later, what’s your thinking on this?
I’m part of a think tank in Potsdam called the Einstein Forum, which is a kind of luxury playpen for intellectuals. We meet every couple months and discuss things of interest. We have an ongoing series of seminars on motivations. This June we had a seminar on self-interest, with a number of very interesting presentations that debunk the notion that self-interest is the main driving force of history as the theory of rational economics insists. I spoke of Solidarity and fraternity. I gave the example of the strike of Polish railroads in the fall of 1990. The strike was in defense of nurses’ demands for higher wages. The reasoning was: nurses can’t go on strike because they can’t abandon patients. That means they’ll always get screwed. So they need someone else to strike on their behalf and on behalf of the common interest. The railroad workers went on strike and to make sure that there was no confusion: their only demand was the implementation of the nurses’ demands.
I was thrilled. I went down to central station to talk to the strike committee. I pretended to be a disgruntled customer. “Nurses, sure, whatever,” I said. “But I need to be in Krakow!” And this railroad man with a huge grin patted me on the back, and said, “There are more important things in life than being in Krakow on time!”
When I was preparing my presentation I wanted to ask people about it. But nobody remembers that strike. It’s not just forgotten, it’s literally unthinkable now. This will stay with us for some time. There are some ideas and values that have been corrupted by the regime so thoroughly that they really need to stay in quarantine until people stop believing these things. Incidentally, this also happened in post-fascist societies. If you look at Spain today, the militant anti-nationalism and anti-Catholicism of most Spaniards, I find offensive. I agree with it, but I think there’s a gratuitous, in-your face attitude among people who hold those values. I don’t hold those values, but I believe that it’s legitimate for people to hold them. I believe that a civilized society makes allowances for that. But not in Spain. Because it’s still the symbolic revenge for the Franco years.
In Poland, social injustice is symbolic revenge for the Communist years. Only some 20 percent of the Polish labor force is unionized. In many private enterprises, it’s dangerous to try to set up a union. People get fired. With unemployment at 13 percent and growing, nobody is going to take the risk of getting fired. Forget solidarity with nurses. You can’t even have solidarity with yourself or with another worker who is suffering exactly the same oppression. It’s just too dangerous.
In Gazeta Wyborcza yesterday, there was a long interview with the chairman of a private company who makes a million zlotys a month. The interviewer was trying to ask him, “Don’t you think it’s wrong? Don’t you think you should share this with others?” And he was like, “You’re out of your fucking mind! That’s socialism.”
My fear is that most of his workers would agree with him. Remember the one Senate seat in 1989 that we lost. Remember whom we lost it to?
A meat producer named Henryk Stoklosa, who earlier had managed to get expelled from the Communist Party twice for corruption. That’s seriously overdoing it! His electoral message was: if there are 300 people working in the salt mines, I’ll do everything in my power, if I get elected, to give the three of you who deserve it the chance of striking it rich. The Solidarity candidate should have beaten Stoklosa hands down. That was one of the early writings on the wall. Like the 64 percent turnout in the elections. But at that time, we disregarded it.
There’s huge social injustice, and as always, it gets very easily instrumentalized. Remember Samoobrona [the Self-Defense movement and political party]: that’s a classic example of the hijacking of social protest by translating it into something destructive but seemingly satisfactory. If you attack a train and dump imported grain, as Samoobrona’s leader Andrzej Lepper did, that’s not going to help the peasants. To help the peasants would be for the country to be slightly more law-abiding. If you break the law, you ex post facto legitimize the huge scams made on Polish grain, which were the real reason why peasants couldn’t make a living. It wasn’t imported grain. The scams were made on Polish grain. If you say breaking the law is a good thing, some people will cheer. But the egalitarian slogan that we all have the same stomachs is a) untrue and b) self-defeating. The disaster happens when it eclipses the real egalitarian slogan, which is that we all deserve the same chance. It’s not about everyone getting the same. It’s about every child getting the same kind of start.
Look at places like Lodz and the textile industry. Even in the previous boom, this was a depression area. The answer is not to have the government nationalize the industries and then subsidize Polish textiles. We can’t beat cheaper Chinese labor. The same is true with coal mining. Most of the educational system in Poland is financed by local taxes. If the factories go bankrupt, the tax base dies too. Which means that for an unemployed textile worker in Lodz, it is over. When you’re 40 years old with two children and an elementary school education and all you ever did was work in the factory, you will not re-qualify as a computer programmer. It’s horribly unfair. Yet it should be included in the general cost of transition.
The problem is that her kids go to substandard schools and get substandard health care, because the region can’t finance decent education and health services. And this means they will not get the chance they deserve. This is unacceptable. And this is where the state has an obligation to intervene and doesn’t. It doesn’t because it’s intimidated into believing that it’s wrong and that privatization works better. Sometimes it does work better if privatized. Other times it doesn’t. The state has this internalized idea that it is inherently evil, morally wrong, institutionally bankrupt, whatever. The most active segments of the population still believe Henryk Stoklosa.
So, there’s tremendous social inequality, relatively high unemployment especially among young people, and economic growth that really hasn’t trickled down. For the most part, the recognition of social injustice has not translated into political force. Why has an independent Left not emerged?
For two sets of reasons. There remains the stigma of the Left. The Left in power has been as corrupt and as stupid as everyone else. The Left in opposition has been as self-serving as any opposition. Nobody in their right mind would vote either for the so-called Social Democrats or this ridiculous Palikot movement. For 23 years, the Left has been dreaming of a quick fix. This is stunning, because one of the historical skills of the Left has been organizing — and appreciating the fact that there are no quick fixes, that it takes years to set up a structure and then years to make it credible. Then you still have to fight the structure tooth and nail at every stop, and you don’t give up. No, the Left somehow believes that all it takes is good marketing: they’ll sell themselves to the voters and then do wonderful things. Occasionally, the Left is good at marketing. But the voters have seen marketing, and they know that good marketing means it’s a scam.
At times it’s grotesque. Think of Krytyka Polityczna. They started out with extraordinary success. No one expected it was possible. Krytyka Polityczna clubs were mushrooming. Forget Warsaw — in Warsaw the Left is trendy and chic. Clubs were appearing in places in the boondocks like Konin. A normal leftwing movement would have cherished those clubs. They would have sent good organizers there to support these clubs, nurture them, feed them, for years if need be. But no, Krytyka Polityczna was looking for a quick fix. It was interested in selling more copies of their journal Krytyka. And those clubs disappeared. It breaks my heart. In the boondocks, just organizing a debate about why homophobia is bad is an act of courage. Some people could be beaten up for it. Those people in the boondocks were completely abandoned. They won’t try it again a second time. They probably realized that this is not about solidarity. It’s about supporting some stuffed shirts in Warsaw.
Meanwhile, the right wing has been very patiently organizing, which they were historically not good at. The bottom line is that Poland already had a movement that was economically and socially statist, politically conservative and anti-democratic – and it didn’t end well. Heaven forbid, I’m not saying that PiS [Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc, the party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski] is a fascist party. It’s very well within democracy. It’s a disgusting party, but it’s a democratic party. And it’s been doing its homework the way the Left hasn’t.
If you look at other countries, Hungary for instance, you can say whatever you want about Fidesz but it is extremely well organized. The same can be said about Jobbik as well. They’re out in the boondocks, not just Budapest. And it’s not just the Left in Hungary, it’s liberals in general. They were compromised by their own time in power and the corruption associated with that and their alliance with the former Communists. More than that, it’s as if they can’t conceive of any political role other than holding a seminar in a major city and having an intellectual debate. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a limited political act.
It’s not like nobody knows what to do. We’ve been there time and again. By now, we should have learned that there are no quick fixes. If we’d learned the lesson 15 years ago, today we would be a different Poland. There is a left-wing electorate out there, but it’s orphaned. Okay, so adopt an orphan! You don’t adopt an orphan by buying them a Snickers. You adopt an orphan by showing that you care. I don’t think that anyone outside of Kaczynski has shown the voters that they care. The same holds true for the media. The great success of Radio Maria is that they show that they care. The Left thinks that it is superior to all that. And we get what people get who say that they are superior.
On the Balcerowicz plan, given the political and economic and geopolitical realities of the time, do you think that anything could have been done within that context that would have made things less polarized economically or politically? Slovenia, for instance, pursued a different economic path: less shock therapy, more economic power remaining with the state. Did Poland have an option other than the Balcerowicz plan?
First of all, given the realities, the only other possibility would have been a massive fraud, Ukrainian style. And the result would have been incomparably more disastrous. These were the two options. But I would make the stronger argument. Actually I would say that the Balcerowicz option was the good option. Slovenia was rich. Riches do trickle down. I would actually disagree with you that they didn’t trickle down here. There wasn’t enough trickledown, but it did happen. If you go around provincial Poland, you’ll see a different Poland. That’s partly due to European funds. They’re not just an abstract gift. They’re a recognition of all the hard work that had been done.
True, EU funds weren’t available for provincial areas in Bulgaria, for instance.
Right, with the results that we’ve seen in Bulgaria. So, I think it was a good choice. The problem was that this was where everyone stopped thinking. If it’s cancer, you need an operation to get it out. But that doesn’t prevent you from thinking about stopping the blood flow or what antibiotics to use. We dispensed with all that. I still remember an announcer on TV in 1990 announcing the growth of unemployment with triumph: “We’re finally getting a normal economy!” This was stupidity of Himalayan proportions! At a bare minimum, to every other Balcerowicz sentence about how this was going to be painful and there was no other way, which I agreed, the government should have said that this does not free us from our obligation to protect people who will be hurt. Even if the norm had been violated, as La Rochefoucauld said, hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue. I would prefer to see a norm violated than the lack of a norm.
After the first shock, what happened is what usually happens. A lot of people benefited. These were the people whose voices could be heard. Basically we heard the cheerful voices of those who succeeded, and we believed that this was all that there was to be said. But the people who lost also lost their voice because they were not in a powerful position. They lost their voice because they lost hope and motivation. Once it dawned on us how many voices were silenced, someone was already speaking in their name.
Even in hindsight, I would have supported it again. I don’t believe there was another way of doing it. The horrible mistake was believing that this was the only thing that needed to be done.
Let me ask you another big picture question. It seemed as though 1989 was the victory of market liberalism to such a degree that it famously led Fukuyama to declare that history was over. Even when people disagreed with Fukuyama by talking about resurgent nationalism, there was a consensus that this was a political-economic model that we would have in our lifetime and the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren. But in the last 20 years, there has been such disillusionment in democratic politics — declining voter participation rates, rejection of political elites of whatever parties. It’s not just this region but also in Turkey, Brazil, India. And here has been tremendous dissatisfaction with market capitalism, not just on the Left but also on the Right. Within not even a generation, we’ve seen this model decline precipitously. So, why did this happen so quickly? And what does this bode for the future? Is this temporary, a necessary almost Schumpetarian correction in attitudes? A response to specific geopolitical circumstances like a shift in U.S. power in the world?
The rejection you’re speaking of is somewhat an artificial construction. You’re conflating events that happen at the same time but mean very different things. To an extent, 1989-90 was also falsely conflated. What did happen was the end of Soviet power. But once the permafrost withdrew, very different things emerged from beneath the soil. There are reasons why Bulgaria was not able to use EU funds the way Poland did. And those reasons precede Communism. If you look at Ottoman Turkey, then you realize that whatever problems Bulgaria has today have much more in common with Iraq than the Netherlands. This is history with a vengeance and a twist. The fact that within a few years, in so many countries, we’ve had such vivid civic protests doesn’t necessarily mean something. We had Aquino’s “people power” more or less at the same time that we had Portugal’s post-revolutionary movement transition to democracy – but they don’t mean the same thing. You also had Chile and Iran happening at the same time. There’s this new book on 1979 and how everything changed that year. It’s as valid a perspective as the books that say that everything changed in 1989. You could do the same book about every year of the century proving that that year was decisive.
But something is afoot, although in a way it’s too early to tell what. Just as we discussed about Poland in the early 1990s, the people who lost their voices were so quiet because they believed that they deserved it, that historically if you’re active and contribute then you take responsibility and people listen to you. But, they think, why should people listen to the unemployed? Or why should anyone listen to a Kurd or an Indio.
Now there’s been a slow, trickle-down effect of the French revolution, which says that everyone has rights. About three years ago I spoke to this Burmese illegal migrant in Chiang Mai in Thailand. That was three years ago, after the Saffron Revolution but before the democratic transition. There are a million Burmese in Thailand who are horribly oppressed as workers and by human traffickers. A lot of NGOs are doing work with the migrants, teaching them that they don’t have to accept everything about their lot. This woman was a poor, semi-literature peasant from a village somewhere in Burma who had crossed the minefields, found a job, and taught herself some English. At a training on human rights, I spent a long time talking to her, which was difficult since I didn’t speak her language and her English was poor. Finally, she said, “Listen, lady come and tell us human right. I go home. I think. Human right? I have right!” Wow. This is the one thing you can’t achieve with texts.
This is what’s happening. A lot of disenfranchised people are now taking seriously what we have been saying all along, that everyone has rights. As for “trust us, we’ll take good care of you,” their answer now is “fuck no, we’ll take care of ourselves.” This is certainly going to be very destructive in the short run and possibly the medium run because this is as fertile as it gets for populist manipulation and fascist movements. Look at Turkish Kurdistan and the PKK. The entire nation was hijacked by a Stalinist psychopath. But these are liberation struggles. And democratic societies will have to accommodate the political power of the disenfranchised at the worst possible moment, when democracies are getting too complex for the ordinary citizen to deal with. What percent of Europeans are qualified to participate in the discussions on how to save the Euro?
How many European politicians are qualified to participate?!
That’s not the problem. You get a group of concerned citizens to sit together and discuss: should liabilities be collateralized or not and if yes, at what rate? Should you take a democratic vote on that? This is one of two disastrous solutions. Vox populi is rarely vox dei, if ever. The other solution is: let’s leave it to the experts. Both are recipes for disaster. I don’t know how we sort ourselves out in between. But the mistake is to think that the problem is the unwashed masses. The problem really is that contemporary societies are getting too sophisticated for anyone to understand, much less control.
Look at what has happened in Europe. Europe is paying a penalty for its incredible success. You remember that after the initial moves by Jean Monnet failed, he had the brilliant idea of suggesting to the French that French and German armies join together 10 years after World War II. The French national assembly voted that down. Monnet said, “Okay, Europeans are not yet ready for federal Europe, so let’s not push them into making hard decisions. Let’s build Europe through the backdoor. Europeans will see it as a good thing and will accept it.” And that happened.
But when the EU began to have problems, Europeans didn’t perceive themselves as owners of the project. The last thing they wanted to do was give more power to unelected technocrats who had done such a brilliant job of running the thing in the first place. And this happens at the very moment when Europe needs committed Europeans to make the decision of whether to continue with the federal project or give up on it. It’s clear that it can’t be muddled through. There are very reasonable arguments on both sides. But Europeans are saying, “Don’t fuck with me, I’m not interested in having this discussion.” And this will get much worse with the disenfranchised getting a voice. They’ve already discovered that they have a huge bloc of power. They can mobilize the rest of society against themselves. Remember the poll in Turkey that 54 percent people agreed that Gezi Park was an attempt at a coup sponsored by abroad? Those good citizens don’t want fags and hippies to decide the fate of the country.
Or ask Jaruzelski! The coup in 1981 was a great success. They put everybody in jail. They could drive through any policies they wanted. And then what? It’s like a chain mail fist that goes through a chunk of butter: Blam! But the butter is still there.
The experience of Martial Law was one of the most successful crackdowns on an opposition. But you could look at Tiananmen as a different model, which has been more successful because the government delivered on certain things without delivering on the entire package.
In favor of Jaruzelski, at least Deng Xiaoping didn’t have the Soviet Union to worry about. But all that did was delay and aggravate problem-solving. The real analogy would be Tito, who kept Yugoslavia together because of an egalitarian distribution of injustice. Everyone was screwed the same. My favorite example is the Croatian Spring of 1971. After that, they cracked down on the Serbs, who were behaving, right? That was the point: to show that everyone gets fucked the same. All that meant was delaying all the problems until he was dead. And then there was no way to manage. What we’re seeing is the transformation of democracy into a much more participatory democracy in a system in which participation necessitates expertise that is not available to most citizens.
We’re experimenting with certain forms that try to bridge this in the United States — deliberative democracy, for instance. We bring citizens together for a weekend to present them with information. It doesn’t make them experts, but it does give them sufficient expertise to have a meaningful discussion.
The reason you’re doing that is that newspapers aren’t fulfilling that function any longer. The demise of the newspaper is a threat to democracy that is greater than any military hardware.
In 1990, newspapers were available everywhere here, and there were kiosks on every corner. It doesn’t seem to have same kind of saturation these days.
Actually, there are more sale points because grocers and supermarkets carry newspapers. That’s not the point. The point is that people have been conned into believing that they can get information visually the way they could get it textually. TV is the main news provider, and the more intelligent search the Web. We can learn to cope with that. But we tend to believe that images are the real thing: “I know it happened because I saw it on TV.” Nobody would say, “I know it happened because I read about it in the newspapers.” We know that people use text to lie. We ourselves have done this, so we can recognize somebody else’s lies. That’s why text is such an important part of democracy, because people treat it with the mistrust it deserves. It doesn’t change. You can’t have an argument like: he said it, no he didn’t, yes he did. Well, you just check the text. The text is a reference point for civilized debate. Images fool you without warning you that they will fool you. They distract from the debate and at the same time make you believe that you are actually participating in the debate. It’s like cybersex. The idea has been explained to me many times, but I still think it misses the point. There might be a great deal of interesting things happening there, but it’s not sex! In the same way, people screaming at each other on TV is not a debate.
I believe that too. But we may be anachronisms.
We are, of course. I’ve spent a lot of time looking through 19th-century American newspapers. They’re fascinating. Most towns have local libraries where you can find bound volumes. One of the most common headlines I found was: “Interesting If True.” Followed by articles about bats flying on the moon or cows with three heads. Then the editors of the New York Herald discovered that checking if it’s true actually sells. People want verifiable information. Paper is not coming back. But the Web must find a way of vetting itself, of discarding untrustworthy stuff. It must redo itself the way newspapers redid themselves in the 19th century.
Having said that, I still think there’s a difference. When I watched the Arab Spring, visually one thing was missing. The leaflets! Where are the bloody leaflets? There was no underground literature. Everyone was happily clicking away on their keyboards, tweeting with Twitter. In the Green Revolution in Iran, you could tweet millions of people onto the street. And then those millions disappeared. Because, and I think that people have underappreciated this factor, when you get an underground newspaper, printed on paper, you get not only the information contained therein, you actually get a commitment. There’s somebody out there down the chain risking his freedom so that you can have this paper. At a bare minimum, after you read it, you pass it to someone else and become part of a movement.
It’s a set of relationships. Twitter is not a set of relationships.
Exactly. After you’ve read the newspaper, at a certain moment, you might want to do something else. Clicking on the keyboard is autistic. It does not develop the relationships of trust that you need to have for a movement. This is why the Iranian government was able to destroy the Green Revolution so quickly, because there were no structures of trust as a fallback. Yes, there was Jaruzelski’s coup. And then we went underground and built a movement around newspapers. It’s not that the structures of Solidarity survived. The structure of newspaper distribution survived and created the basis of trust without which the movement would have failed. Lenin was right: the newspaper is a great collective organizer, in more ways than one. I don’t think there’s a way to go back to paper. But I don’t think that keyboards can build these movements.
It goes back to your point about organizing, that there are no shortcuts.
Shortcuts are a recipe for wasting time.
I’d like to bring up an anecdote from Marci Shore’s book The Taste of Ashes. She tells a story about a debate you had with an Israeli woman.
It was a debate about secular Jewish identity versus religious Jewish identity. Many people in the audience said that –
I never lost a debate so badly.
What do you think about that conversation right now? If you would have the same debate right now, would you get the same response?
No, the response would be different because I got it only after the debate. What I was saying was that Jewish religious identity is the one most readily available for people who want to be seriously Jewish in Poland. What I was heard as saying was that it’s the only authentic Jewish identity. Which I don’t believe. The only reason that people heard me say that is the fear deep inside secular Jews that this might be the case. You don’t have the yidden, you don’t have the masses, you don’t the Yiddish language. You don’t have a powerful secular movement. All I need is a minyan [the quorum of 10 Jews for worship]. The seculars need more. Because they don’t have it, deep down they mistrust their secular identity — what is there to pass on to the children? I don’t think that Jewish religious identity is the only valid one. Historically that’s not been the case. I might deplore it, but I have no intention of denying it. This time around, I would not have lost the debate because I would have known how to address the unspoken fears of the audience. I was saved by an old lady who said that she knew my mother, and she was sure that I meant well.
We are in a different place. Jewish life in Poland today is much more diverse than it was a dozen years ago. While the beards like me might be the most recognizable element — and without us the other Jewish identities are in trouble — we’re no longer the most interesting. The most interesting things are happening on the weird Jewish, gay, alternative interface. It puts Judaism to some weird uses, and I’m not sure that I agree with them all. But it’s certainly dynamic and creative. And it’s very evident that what keeps young Jews Jewish is culture, not religion. They may respect or disrespect us. But we’re clearly not a selling point. It’s not nationhood. One of the reasons that our Zionism is so lukewarm at the moment is that we go to Israel and see all these things we don’t agree with. That it’s our “stuff” doesn’t make it more palatable, but less palatable. So, it’s not nationhood. It’s not community of faith. But Jewish culture: yes. This explains inter alia this incredible mushrooming of Jewish cultural activities in Poland, often performed by non-Jews for non-Jewish audiences. The demography hasn’t changed.
Like the Jewish Theater here in Warsaw, with non-Jews performing for non-Jews.
That’s not what I mean. I mean the Krakow Jewish Festival. There’s also a Warsaw Festival that starts at the end of August. To my eyes, it’s not nearly as good as the Krakow festival, but it’s getting better and better. Every town in Poland wants to have a Jewish festival, because hopefully it will bring in tourists but also because Poland is absolutely bored with itself. Always the most interesting things in Polish culture were the result of bastardization, mongrelization. Pilsudski said that Poland is a doughnut: all the good stuff is around the edges and there’s a hole in the middle. So, Poles are reclaiming Jewish culture to spice up what has become horribly homogeneous and monoethnic. If I had to choose, I’d prefer to have a Jewish culture produced by Jews. But we don’t have that option. We’re not big enough or creative enough. Either we have Jewish culture produced largely by non-Jews or we don’t have Jewish culture.
Let’s talk about the flip side of that for a moment: the Neighbors debate. That was some time ago. Are there still, even today, discussions of this and do you think that there has been an impact beyond the interlocutors on Polish society as a whole: textbooks, the way parents talk about Polish history to their children, and so on?
To an extent, it has been a wasted opportunity. The Jedwabne debate was extraordinary. It went way beyond what I thought was possible. It was a universal debate: 84 percent of Poles were aware of it. It was the second most important post-Communist debate after abortion. And it really shook up consciousness. After IPN published its report, largely confirming what Jan Gross had written, 54 percent of Poles said that they accepted the IPN report and wanted it to be taught in schools. That was 10 years ago.
And then nothing was done. I believe in doing things. I had this ridiculous idea of organizing people from all over Poland to go to Jedwabne and rebuild the barn, a big barn, for cultural events or whatever. A friend of mine said, “The minute you leave town, they’ll burn it down again.” Okay, so we’ll be back next year! You don’t change attitudes with words. You change them with actions. Poland was so surprised with how daring it was that it thought it was enough. But since then, attitudes have regressed. Today, a minority of Poles agrees with the statement that Jedwabne was a murder committed by Poles. There’s a defensive attitude so that each time the issue is raised, they say, “We eat Jewish kids for breakfast, it’s in our blood, we’re horrible anti-Semites, yes, yes, don’t talk to me about it already.” This combines with the worldview of the Kaczynskis, this horrible Germano-Russian conspiracy against poor Poland and the Jews helping both sides because they hate Poland. Kacyznski is not himself anti-Semitic. He’s instrumentalizing it the way Lech instrumentalized it 25 years ago. It became clear in the shechita debate, the debate about ritual slaughter, that this was going to get very messy.
In 2002, Poland passed a law that bans slaughter without stunning, which would have made halal and shechita impossible. The minister of agriculture published a regulation saying that this law doesn’t apply to ritual slaughter. Everyone was happy. Poland developed a new export industry — mainly to Muslim countries but 4 percent to Israel — that brought in over a million dollars annual revenue. Then someone said that the minister doesn’t have a right to amend the law by ministerial decree. The constitutional court rightly said that the decree was unconstitutional. That happened in November last year. The derogation was removed, and ritual slaughter became illegal. As of January 1, 2013, an EU directive came into force that mandated no slaughter without stunning, but that directive allows member states to apply for derogation for ritual slaughter. It’s automatic. Poland misapplied. I don’t remember what happened: the wrong form submitted or something like that. Suddenly on January 1, backed by Polish and EU law, shechita and halal slaughter were made illegal. Everyone was surprised because this affects the lives of both Polish Jews and Muslims not to mention the Polish meat industry. The Polish government decided to pass an amendment to the law that allows ritual slaughter.
And then the animal rights people launched a totally mendacious campaign against shechita arguing that it is intentionally cruel, that it is a Jewish ritual the purpose of which is to make animals suffer or else Jews can’t eat the meat. Some wild videos started circulating on the Web. I don’t know who shot them, but it wasn’t shechita. I had observed both regular industrial slaughter and shechita to understand what it is about. When we started screaming that the ban impinges on our constitutional rights, people said, “No, no, no, there’s a law on the relationship between the state and the Jewish community that allows for slaughter just for your internal purposes. The idea is that at least you bastards won’t make big bucks on torturing animals.” But the law only says that Jewish religious communities take care of religious slaughter. If it’s legal, they take care of it on Polish territory. But if it’s illegal, then obviously they can’t take care of it on Polish territory.
The amendment, which would confirm that ritual slaughter is legal, came to a vote, and it was defeated by a major defection from the prime minister’s party for two separate reasons. The animal rights people did a very good job of convincing the electorate that shechita is cruel and should be banned. 65 percent of Poles want it banned. Two years before the election you don’t vote against the electorate’s preference. Second, there’s a revolt against the government — voting against the government on an unimportant issue like this was a good way of telling Tusk that he has to get his act together.
Anti-Semitism, however, was not an element of the parliamentary debate. MPs simply disregarded the fact that it affects the constitutional rights of Polish Jews and Muslims because they said that they thought the law from 1997 covers it. It doesn’t. The MPs said, “If the Jews are so outraged, why don’t they protest in the United States where shechita is banned.” Even tweets from the American ambassador saying that it isn’t banned didn’t change their minds. Then it was all about the “big bucks.” But actually the chief rabbi doesn’t charge for kashrut certificates for slaughterhouses. Maybe it’s because he’s a vegetarian like myself, and he’s not a great enthusiast about eating animals in the first place. “Then how dare he accuse MPs of anti-Semitism,” said the deputy speaker of the Sejm. No, he didn’t do that. Then the Israeli foreign minister protested and it was: “How dare they meddle in the affairs of a sovereign state!” But two years ago when Lithuania made its amendment to a law in a way that the Polish minority found against its interest, the Polish foreign minister protested. The case is now in the constitutional court. And I rather expect that the court will find the ban unconstitutional.
Although the discussion in parliament was stupid and crassly indifferent to the rights of minorities, it was not animated by anti-Semitism. The public debate was. People said, “Well, you know about ritual murder. Now they can no longer get away with it because civilized states will not allow them, so they ritually kill animals. In Palestine, they ritually kill Palestinian kids, why should they treat animals any better than kids” and so on. This was a very powerful current, and nobody saw any problem in it, including animal rights defenders who didn’t say, “It’s not true, and we don’t want your support.”
On the one hand, there have been tons of extremely positive developments in Polish-Jewish relations. For instance, the Jewish museum here in Warsaw will be ready next year. The building is stunning. The 70th anniversary of the Ghetto uprising was a huge event with church bells tolling. That never happened before. Literally thousands of people in Warsaw participated and pinned yellow flowers in the lapels as symbols of solidarity. This goes way beyond institutional good will. And the same is true of all the Jewish cultural festivals. And we don’t run into acts of anti-Semitism outside of football stadiums. I run around the country in a kippah, and I very infrequently hear nasty comments. I’ve learned not to respond because someone else will respond in my stead. I can rely on this in Warsaw in a way I can’t, for instance, in Paris. It happened to me that I was physically harassed thrice in Paris. It was explicitly anti-Semitic with people turning the other way and pretending not to see. When I told some friends they said, “Oh, these were the kids from the suburbs,” which is the PC term for young Arabs. To which I answered, I’m not racist enough to tell the difference between a young man from the suburbs and a young man from Marseilles. But the people who turned the other way were certainly French.
On the other hand, you have a groundswell of anti-Semitism on the Web that makes any debate impossible. If someone says, “It’s all the fault of the kikes, and it’s a pity that Adolph didn’t gas them all at Auschwitz,” he gets dozens of approvals. It’s no longer genteel polite kind of stuff: it’s the genuine McCoy. It hasn’t coalesced into a political movement, and I don’t think it will. But it’s here, and it’s dangerous. Most people just shrug it off. We’re privileged in a way. If you want to experience racism in Poland, be black. In Bialystok there’s been a series of physical attacks and arsons against apartments inhabited by mixed couples. Against the Jews what they do is destroy the flowers in the Jewish cemetery.
But I think a great opportunity was wasted in the wake of the Jedwabne debate, with Poland feeling good about itself. The previous ten years, when all those good things were happening and the Polish economy was skyrocketing, the country could afford to take a critical look. Now it’s not so easy.
When you look back at your positions from 1989/90 — the way you looked at the world, your political philosophy — have there been any major changes, or do you pretty much look at the world the same way today as you did back then?
By and large I do. There were a few surprises. My biggest fear was that once we regained independence, we would start raising Cain with the neighbors again — Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Germans, Slovaks, Czechs. I would never have expected that Poland would be the one country in central Europe with the best relations with its neighbors. Polish revisionism and nationalism, somewhat more justified than the German version, are a fringe phenomenon. German revisionism, meanwhile, was an issue until a few years ago.
What did change: I genuinely thought that the 64 percent turnout in the 1989 election was a fluke and that I would live to see a civil society. This is not a civil society. My pet hypothesis: we’re an ethnic society that masquerades as a civil society and gets away with it, because those who don’t ethnically belong are so few. It’s the famous expression that Walesa used after his talks with government negotiator Mieczyslaw Jagielski during the great strike in 1980: “We spoke as Pole to Pole.” Poles don’t have a special gene for understanding each other. Had he said, “we spoke as citizen to citizen,” we could have talked about a very different social boundary. But the social boundary is still largely ethnic. The fact that it excludes me or the Roma is an aggravation. But the point is that it excludes all those Poles who want in their public life to be citizens and believe that they have as much a right to define Polishness as the primate of Poland (although His Holiness would probably disagree).
I had better expectations internally and worse expectations externally. The bottom line is very simple. Somebody who has witnessed 1989 relinquishes his moral right to be a pessimist. This should never have worked. It’s one of the most insane things to have happened in human history. Seriously! You overthrow a totalitarian power without one drop of blood? The regime just says sorry and walks away?
There’s a lot of work for people facing their own transitions. I don’t think experiences are transferable. But what is transferable is that it’s doable. If we could do it, anybody can, be it Egypt, Burma, Kazakhstan. It takes time. But it’s doable.
Warsaw, August 9, 2013
Actually, it is more of a code name than an actual question. Privatization isn’t really a big question because there isn’t much privatization going on nor is there likely to be for the very simple reason that there is not much private capital that is interested. Privatization then stands as a code name for a general revamping of the economy. Essentially, it stands for free enterprise and its social and political consequences. Those are, naturally, unemployment, increasing social differences and social injustice, the issue of worker self-management if any and the politically very sensitive issue of foreign capital. When people talk about privatization this is usually what they mean by it.
First of all, if privatization continues to be just in abstract terms then the Balcerowicz program goes down the drain. The plan was premised almost entirely on the idea that privatization would just automatically happen. We especially counted on foreign capital, German capital, and this isn’t happening. It isn’t happening for a number of reasons. The basic reason is the political storm in Central Europe. We never expected other erstwhile satellite countries to move forward that fast. But, well, now Poland has to compete on the investment market with the GDR, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. The GDR means that West German capital as the major source of capital is out. And this is hardly surprising. But it also means that foreign capital essentially has the choice of Bialystok (Poland), Budapest or Brno (Czechoslovakia). And it is more than obvious where it will prefer to invest. The Czech and Hungarian economies, although far from glittering, are not broke. The technical infrastructures there are much better: transportation, communication, whatever. And also, the myth that Poland is a country run by a trade union–which is 100 percent false because Solidarity is the great loser right after the Communist Party–makes this a classic country not to invest in. I’ve just returned from Japan a couple weeks ago. And here was another great Polish myth shattered–wealthy Japan having all this extra capital. We really thought that Japan would be interested in investing in Poland. Well, they’re not. First of all, because Poland seems to be the archetypal example of an un-Japanese way to run an economy and therefore a sure loss. And second, seen from Europe, the USSR seems to be more or less on the sidelines. Seen from Japan, it is either the U.S. or the USSR. You go through Europe, by way of USSR. The Japanese are still wary of treading on what remains of the bear’s tail.
However, we did get substantial amount of Western aid–much less than we hoped for but almost as much as we could realistically expect. But this isn’t solving anything. With the exception of two crucial areas–medical relief and environmental relief–Poland doesn’t need aid. It doesn’t even need food aid. OK, the situation in the food market isn’t great but we’re surviving. We don’t need money thrown at the problem–with these two exceptions where the situation is critical and without immediate relief, the situation will be terrible. We need technology transfer, investment, decent terms of trade and the like–not immediate aid. And paradoxically immediate aid is slightly more forthcoming than direct investment. A case in point is the Gdansk shipyard story with Pilsudska-Johnson. From what little I have seen in the Western press, the breakdown in negotiations was covered rather unfairly. Essentially, they reported that Solidarity was opposed to streamlining the operation, opposed to layoffs and that’s why the negotiations broke down. This isn’t the case. Solidarity was willing to accept big employment cuts and big transformations if they meant longterm investment. But what Ms. Johnson was after was cutting the company by half, laying off at least 50 percent of the labor force, and using what was salvaged as the base for long-term short series investment. Which means that the shipyard would have its throat cut.
Now this kind of investment–people coming into Poland wanting to make a quick profit–is relatively abundant. These offers do come in and these are the kind that we don’t want. We want serious investments by companies that are willing to make losses for the next couple years because they understand that in the long term the company that establishes itself today on the Polish market will in five years time not only have a very good position on the Polish internal market (and there is a Polish internal market: our economy is not sufficient to launch capital investment but is sufficient to launch a consumer boom when consumer goods are available). But second, Poland is an excellent launching pad for investments in the Soviet Union. But it needs a company that will take time to do this. And those companies are not coming to Poland.
So, privatization is a code word for, number one, unemployment. The situation for the time being is paradoxical. Data on unemployment published daily are presented by the national media almost as victory communiques from the front. When the number of unemployed grows it means that finally this time, we are doing the right thing. We are really responding to the economy. And most of the unemployed seem to be taking it in the same spirit. Unemployment is two things. First, you lose a job. Second, you can’t find another one. Already the first element is rather exotic by Polish standards. The country had full employment for several generations. The second seems next to incredible. People haven’t really realized that not only do you lose a job, but you don’t get another one. Unemployment has been with us for only three months now. So it’s not a long enough period for this knowledge to seep in. The amount of unemployed is slightly over a quarter of a million. Which is 1.6 percent of the entire labor force (more if you calculate the labor force employed in industry). But still, that is an excellent result by any market economy standard. What’s more, a substantial number of people registered for unemployment today are people who have never worked and are now lining up for the unemployment dole. This unemployment is not coming from where in theory it was supposed to come. That is, the big debit making industries. Essentially, it has been the service sector. Many small private service enterprises are closing down, crushed by taxes and by recession. Although, in absolute numbers, for each private service enterprise that closes down, ten pop up. But the difference is that the type that are closing down are those that are already established, employ 2 or 3 people and the kind that are opening are the kind that can be run out of a suitcase—window-washing, housecleaning, one person jobs.
Nobody knows what the limits of unemployment will be. The government speaks of 400,000 people. Well, this isn’t based on any long-term social or economic predictions but rather on the amount of money available for the unemployment dole. The World Bank estimates a million unemployed before the end of the year, which seems more realistic. However, neither side takes into consideration rural unemployment which will hit the country next year as 1/4 of Poland’s farms go broke. Small farms under 10 hectacres essentially on a subsistance level economy will not participate in the market and will not be able to face the competition that now appears.
And this will not only compound the problem economically but politically as well. Since the novel element in Polish politics this year has been that the peasants have become aware of their force like the workers did in 1980-81. That part of Solidarity–which essentially was a joke–is now emerging as the country’s possibly second most powerful political force. They are badly split by personal rivalries but they all share the same economic program and this will enforce unity. But the program itself, although it makes very good sense from the local peasants’ viewpoint is completely destructive in terms of the Balcerowicz long term program. It essentially means the death of the family farm. This is what happened to France in the 1950s. And, which very nearly broke the neck of the French economy then. If it hadn’t been for the Gaullist upheaval of the late 50s caused by other factors, France might have bogged down. Incidentally, thirty years on, Europe still suffers from that, with the EEC policy [cf: info on EEC ag. subsidies in first report].
Even assuming that the employment dole will work, that it will be equitably distributed–Polish social services are notorious for breaking down but let’s assume that it happens–then unemployment is not just an economic, but a social and psychological condition. The guy who is unemployed is robbed not only of his income but also of his dignity. We can’t overlook where Solidarity started. It started not as a national or even political movement. It started as a social movement against social injustice. And this is what made it a 10 million strong movement. These are very unfashionable terms these days. We do not speak of social justice too much. But this is–or at least was, and I think still is–the main driving force behind Solidarity. Now when it became apparent that social justice could not be achieved unless certain political goals were met, then of course, it became subordinate and secondary–everybody agreed with that. But now that the main enemy has been overthrown, I expect that in the near future, social elements will again reclaim the millions.
We will see this happening at the Solidarity Congress. There is already a very powerful backlash within the Solidarity movement against the victory of which Solidarity is the loser. Please note, two and a quarter million members, 1/4 the strength of 1981, supporting an economic policy that no trade union can support. Regardless of the objective viability of such a program–I tend to support the Balcerowicz program but that is beside the point–a trade union cannot support the Balcerowicz plan. The Communist trade union–OPZZ, at least twice as strong as Solidarity–has taken an extremely sensible stance. They are lying low, they are criticizing this or that aspect of the Balcerowicz program but are taking great pains not to seem to be wrecking the nation’s revolution. And they are gradually taking over the trade union ground. In many factories, OPZZ is the only trade there is because most of the Solidarity cadre is sucked upward into the political realm. Last year, there were only several hundred jobs in Parliament to be taken. This year, there are 100,000 councilors [to be elected in the May territorial elections]. This leaves Solidarity the trade union completely without qualified personnel. The only exception being the big factories but they are the ones that should be closed in the first place.
There is a pervasive feeling that Solidarity has lost. It could be seen in the non-events in preparation of the Congress. There was absolutely no debate over the draft resolution of the Congress platform which was published beforehand. I mean that literally. I did not see one single article–and I do read most of the Polish press–discussing the program. Some delegates did not get elected because of lack of quorum. Solidarity members didn’t bother to go and vote for their delegates! Which seems to signify that everybody thinks that Solidarity is a thing of the past. I don’t think so. I think that Solidarity is completely out of the picture now. But, as a political force with that history, that mythology and finally, that victory–even if it’s losing now–last year’s victory will not just disappear from public view. There could be a populistic backlash. And the spectacular about-face of Walesa has made–from creator of the government to one of its most vehement critics–indicates that he is trying to put wind in his sails. And with the very obvious prospect of his becoming President within months, this could turn the political tables completely.
Already there is a great deal of anxiety about the issue of foreign investment. You must realize that there is a great deal of gross misunderstanding about the political concept of what has happened here in the last couple years. OK, the conventional wisdom says that Thatcher and Reagan have won and that this is a victory for parliamentary democracy and the free market. I don’t think so. Parliamentary democracy and the free market is what the right stands for today. But the right that we have in Central Europe has been in a deep freeze for fifty years. Poland’s right–the National Democrats–are very much opposed to foreign capital coming in–especially German capital. They say that politics should have precedence over the economy, that we cannot risk a take-over of the country by German companies. And it is the left–or what is left of the left (which refuses to call itself left) and the Solidarity government is definitely left-wing by current Polish standards–which massively advocates free enterprise and foreign capital, not because as the Thatcherites and Reaganites say, that it is a good thing as such. But because they see it as the only way of taking a shortcut to a modern economy with the hope that this can be developed into a kind of welfare state. So we have the left supporting the free market and the right taking a kind of Latin American leftwing view of foreign investment.
The same applies to parliamentary democracy. For the last half century, Communists were the greatest adversary of parliamentary democracy. But today, for most Poles–and because most Poles are Catholic–parliamentary democracy should produce a Catholic Poland. They do not see the contradiction. The only guys pursuing democracy today in Poland again are the left. So there is a great deal of conceptual confusion over the political context. The Hungarian elections were a case in point. What you had in the Hungarian elections was a conflict between the old-fashioned center right against a modern body politic. The Alliance of Free Democrats was not left-wing or right-wing in a Western European sense. It was a party of modernity against a party of national tradition. And incidentally, to use the Third World sociology’s categories of modernity and industrialization, you go a long way to explaining what is happening in Poland today.
This was the Solidarity battle cry of 1981. Most of Solidarity’s economic program were built around the idea of workers’ self-management. This is gone, dead, disappeared completely. Essentially because anything which smacks, or seems to smack, of socialism, left-wing or whatever, is a dead political proposal. This does not mean that the social needs addressed by the program of worker self-management have disappeared. They lack a language with which to be expressed. They lack organized political courage, but they are still there. The government’s privatization program does foresee that 20 percent of stock in newly privatized companies will be sold to the employees themselves in preferential ways and they are of course free to buy up as much as they like, but 20 percent will be sold on preferential terms, perhaps distributed free. There isn’t a great deal of interest in that. But this, essentially, is because there doesn’t seem to be much perspective in buying or holding shares in deficit-making companies until private capital is opened. However, the ideas are still in the air.
I’d say that we will see in the foreseeable future a social movement emerging that will claim the ideals of worker self-management and the like, but this time with an ideology that does not make reference to socialist terms but to the social teachings of the Church. There is a very strong anti-capitalist streak running in the teachings of John Paul II. And it is just a matter of time before someone rediscovers that and makes use of it. Anybody interested in charting the future of social movements in Poland would do well to reread the sermons of John Paul the II during his pilgrimage to Poland in 1985, especially those delivered in Gdynia to the workers of the Gdansk shipyards. That was a socialist speech. A socialist speech that no socialist would dare to put forward not only in Poland but anywhere in Europe. It was premised on the idea of dignity of labor, on the laborer as the producer of wealth in the community–not the businessman mind you but the laborer–and therefore has a right to say where the community goes and what it does. This is 19th century ethical socialism! And I’m pretty sure that these ideas will be making a comeback.
I think that social justice is in for a comeback essentially because there is a great deal of gross social injustice going on. One of the reasons why the Communist government was overthrown was because it was a regime of gross social injustice. However the “refolution,” as Garton Ash would say, has not expropriated the expropriators, has not corrected the social evils of Communism–and it promises to bring the social evils of capitalism. They say that in the medium run, all of this will level out. Well perhaps. But right now we see people leading pretty desperate lives, what with the cost of living going sky high and meanwhile seeing their erstwhile masters living quite nicely. There has been a rush of Communist privatization in the last years within several companies. Essentially, the criminal privatization of state property is flourishing. The point is there isn’t much a law-abiding government can do about it because it is very rare when criminal proceedings can be brought against the perpetrators of these acts. Because they were within the then law–it was constructed for this reason. And here we have a legal dilemma. The law was patently unjust; however we cannot start building a law-abiding state on the principle that lex retro agit. OK, it’s the revolutionary paradox once over again. The only thing the government could do would be to engage in a series of very costly and time-consuming lawsuits against all these companies in the hope that some irregularity or other will be discovered and then pounce. Most would drag on and on. And the gross social effect would be one of amplifying not reducing the feeling that the oppressors still have the upper hand. So what Walesa says and this is the gist of his program: “Well, I understand the legal niceties of those learned gentlemen in Warsaw. But I’m a simple working man”–and I’m quoting him–“and I say that the time has come to rule by decree and institute special tribunals.” And the country applauds.
The big mistake of this refolution was that it decided not to take any Bastilles. There has been not one symbolic event. Day zero, year zero: it simply hasn’t happened. All has been accomplished gently, with kid gloves: very good from the point of view of political theory, much worse from the viewpoint of insuring public support. All Poles have seen Berliners dancing when the Wall came down, the people of Prague tossing back bottles of champagne, the Romanian revolution. So next time somebody comes around and says, “Let’s take the Bastille” and especially if its the electrician from Gdansk, he will have great success. But then the Bastille will be taken not only against what is left of the ancien regime but against its putative supporters in the nouveau regime. And then we will start having the vicious circle that we have desperately been trying to avoid. This does not necessarily have to happen. But it is a serious possibility. And regardless of all the terrible problems that the government is facing, I do not intend to underestimate it. It’s appalling to see how quickly my friends in the government have forgotten where they are coming from: and see only the problem side, not the issue side. The kind of public discourse which floods TV, government, press has been about responsibility. And I say, Polish people have been admirably responsible. But it is a discourse that does not address the issues of justice, of reconciliation, rehabilitation, and symbolic revenge. This simply is not happening. And this worries me.
Politics: the break up of Solidarity
The basic issue is the institutional future of the country. Solidarity, to start off with, was 10 million people. 10 million is not a trade union. It is not any organization we know. 10 million is a nation, period, the nation organized. And this essentially was what Solidarity was 1980-81. It was, in fact if not by intention, a counter-state. In a way, its comeback is an attempt to return to those sources, to create a counter-state. Therefore we have Solidarity the trade union, Solidarity the citizens’ movement which wins the elections, Solidarity the popular basis of all government, Solidarity the think tank of the future, Solidarity the everything. And there are very valid reasons for all that. It is not a plot. The fact is, that the only viable political forces in Poland, the only forces that are trying to chart the future of the country are within Solidarity. And from here, two possible developments can occur. One is that these different forces within Solidarity will differentiate and fight it out between themselves as to what kind of Poland we want to build both on the macro scale and in the details. This would seem the logical way and is after all the way multi-party democracies develop.
But there seems to be precious little interest among people in political parties. We have some little parties–most of them are 3 students and a dog. And people simply are not interested. People tend to see political parties not as the natural outgrowth of Solidarity but as an alternative to Solidarity. And this of course makes it very difficult for parties to develop and for anything resembling a multi-party democracy to develop. To change the situation, we would have to have Solidarity taking an active role in promoting plural party democracy. But that would essentially mean Solidarity giving up its monopoly of power. Solidarity should not present an alternative to parties but encourage parties. This of course is something that Solidarity very badly doesn’t want. I’m not talking about Solidarity the trade union, but rather Solidarity the civic committee. And there are two reasons why Solidarity doesn’t want to do it. The first is obvious and general: hell, nobody gives up power just like that. But there is a more precise technical reason. Solidarity, the civic committee, was essentially dominated by the center-left who refuses that label–but by my book Geremek, Michnik, Balcerowicz, Kuron and the like are center-left. In absolute numbers, the center-left are in the minority within Solidarity parliamentary club. It wields authority by virtue of experience, practical bargaining power, very good behind-the-scenes politicking. This is a very broad camp. It includes Mazowiecki who would be considered in Europe a left-wing Christian Democrat.
The bogeyman of this camp is the Polish nationalistic right. The center-left fears that, in free elections, the nationalistic right would win–not an absolute majority but a substantial majority which would be good enough for making them the decisive force in the country. In order to avoid this, the center-left blocks both the development of multi-party democracy which would for example imply the immediate breakdown of the Solidarity Parliamentary Club into various organization and they also block the more general contingency of Solidarity relinquishing power. They think that as long as Solidarity controls the situation and they are influential within Solidarity, they can keep the country more or less on the right track. And from this we find some very peculiar political developments. Like Geremek saying that perhaps plural party democracy is not the only democracy available, that Solidarity combines the virtues of direct democracy and representative democracy, that this country has to return to a democratic tradition on its terms, etc. A language which much more reminds me of a Peron than a Jefferson.
What has happened however is that Geremek has been out-Geremeked. That is, Senator Kaczynski, who is Walesa’s right hand man and a very intelligent politico without any political backing of his own–has very skillfully taken Walesa’s Civic Committee and is very actively transforming the Civic Committee into something which Geremek was accused of wanting to do–a Civic Committee as one political party. Except that it will be a center-right political party, not center-left as Geremek wanted. Kaczynski for the time being denies any allegations that he wants to make a political party but consider the changes that he has made–including the imposition of Najder as president. Najder is a very respected person–he is an emigre, he actually received the death sentence from the Polish military court in 1982. Before that he was involved in Poland’s first underground movement in the mid-1970s. And he has a socialistic past behind him. But he’s been out of the country for ten years and has absolutely no political backing. Essentially, the Civic Committee is being taken over by Walesa. By Walesa who is not and never was a democrat. Well, the Polish democratic opposition sold Walesa to the world as a democrat because that greatly enhanced our status and god knows we would have been in dire straits without Walesa. But the man is not a democrat; he doesn’t pretend to be.
The master plan is to get Jaruzelski to resign in Autumn, not difficult. Jaruzelski already wants out. There is a certain integrity to the man which I never suspected there to be. He actually tends to treat the presidency not only as an extension of the personality of Jaruzelski but as a value in itself that should be safeguarded and preserved. And for this reason, he can be cowed into submission by attempts to disrupt the presidency as such. If the presidency were to be ridiculized and that is more than easy in Poland today, I think that would make Jaruzelski resign. So, Jaruszelski resigns, the National Assembly meets in joint session and elects Walesa president regardless of counter candidates if any. After a few months, Walesa dissolves the Assembly and calls for new elections. In the meantime, the Civic Committee is taken over by Kaczinski and the center-right formation wins the elections easily. If it doesn’t have absolute majority, it forms an alliance with the Peasant Party or a peasant party. And this produces a stable government coalition on the center right.
Now, the casualty of all this is not Polish democracy. Whereas I don’t like Senator Kaczynski and I take a dim view of the great man from Gdansk, they are not the extreme right. They are on the right to be sure. The risks in electing Walesa are personal not political and have to do with the fact that the man is an autocrat by character and not by ideological conviction. Which is all the more difficult, because an ideologist can be convinced. Polish democracy will survive. But the Balcerowicz plan will not. One thing that everyone agrees upon is, everybody in this camp broadly speaking around Walesa, is that Balcerowicz has gone too fast, too far, that the economic program is socially unjust and that not enough care has been taken to correct the wrongs of the past. Add to all that–revenge for the past, slow-down of privatization, a language of social justice without the money to support it–again we could think of the program of General Peron. This does not mean that they will overthrow Polish democracy. I don’t think this is feasible. There is such an overwhelming support of democracy now that historically was never there. I think that democracy is safe. But what it is not safe from is bogging down, running in circles. And this is what we are faced with in the case of a victory of the center-right coalition.
Now, you will notice that already one attempt has been made to create a counterforce to the so-called left-wing dominance in Solidarity. That was Primate Glemp’s party, the Christian-National Union, launched on November 11, Armistice Day and the day of Polish independence. It was a double defeat for the Primate. First of all, the very fact that he had to launch his own party meant that he had given up his hope of controlling Solidarity. Second is that this party hardly proved to be a success. It has two Senators out of Solidarity’s 99 and three MPs out of Solidarity’s 161. Hardly a success. The basic reason was that its program was too far on the right, too clerical, too nationalistic, and essentially too anti-free enterprise to be attractive to the new political elite. Kaczynski is to the left of this party: he is center right, he is not the wild right. And this is why he would be a better outcome. Another good element of what Kaczynski is doing is that this policy can create a stable government majority. Now I think that democracy’s first task is to create a stable government majority. The second is to create a viable opposition. And only the third is to give across-the-board representation to all political tendencies. I would be very sorry to see Poland bogged down in an Israeli-style or even Italian-style permanent political crisis. So, although I don’t like Kaczynski’s politics, I could see worse developments for Poland than this kind of coalition.
Future political alignments
I see three big groups forming, each neatly split down the middle to its left and right and each organized around a negative and positive program. The first is the outright modernizers. That is the Balcerowicz group and most of the current Solidarity establishment. It also includes all the overt free marketeers. This would be a formula similar to the Alliance of Free Democrats in Hungary. The second would include the anti-modernizers and there you would have Bugaj joining hands with the Christian-National Union. With both opposing an excessive trend toward modernization because of preservation of social values or national/religious values. But they still fit in the democratic consensus. The third alliance would be between left and right demagoguery. Between say Miodowicz’s trade union and the national democratic extreme right. We already have seen an example of this in the Opole by-elections in February where the OPZZ candidate advanced the most outrageous clerical nationalistic program and did get 15 percent of the vote. Now, this isn’t very much, you might say. But then the Solidarity candidate only got 32 percent of the vote.
So it’s very hard to say what concrete political structure will emerge from these alliances. But I’d say that the basic issue for Poland in the future wil be what pace modernization and the content of modernization will be secondary to the issue of pace. And you will have “do it as quickly as possibly”, “do it slowly” and “don’t do it at all.”