Organizing the Disappointed

Posted January 10, 2014

Categories: Blog, Eastern Europe, Featured, Uncategorized

When Poland went through its “shock therapy” years of the early 1990s, many people lost out as a result of the economic reforms. The unemployment rate went up rapidly from under one percent in January 1990 to over 16% in 1994. And even though the reformers had promised that the pain would be relatively brief, the unemployment rate didn’t fall after that. It peaked in 2003 at over 20 percent and still hovers today somewhere between 13 and 14 percent.

The unemployment rate was only one of the indicators of economic suffering. The poverty rate also increased dramatically, from 17.3 percent in 1989 of the population to 31.5 percent in 1990. The hardest hit were industrial workers at first. But as the reforms started to bite in the countryside – and later as Poland prepared to join the EU – poverty spiked among farmers.

The political party that initially benefited from these economic travails was the former Communist Party, which renamed itself the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). In 1993, it won the parliamentary elections and formed a government with the Polish People’s Party, an agrarian party that also considered itself on the Left at that time. But the SLD soon demonstrated that it too favored the same kind of economic policies of its Solidarity-linked predecessor.

There were other political parties in the 1990s that tried to organize the disappointed, such as the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), which positioned itself as a non-Communist alternative on the Left. Zuzanna Dabrowska was part of the “Democratic Revolution” faction of PPS.

“If we would have had more technical power — money, structures, people – we could have appealed to all the people who, year by year during the 1990s, were more disappointed by what was going on in Poland, who lost their health, their money, their livelihoods during the transition period,” she told me in an interview in August just outside of Warsaw. “These were people who decided not to take part, not to vote. But to find these people and unite them, you had to have much greater organizational power. These were not activists, but ordinary people.”

She recounted a meeting from 1993 or 1994. “We were as radical as possible on the political scene in those years,” she remembered. “It was an open meeting, and I noticed an older couple sitting there. I didn’t know them. I said hello, asked them where they came from. They said they’d come from a small city. ‘And what do you think?’ I asked. ‘Oh it was okay,’ they said, ‘but for us it was not radical enough!’ These were just normal people. I think this group is now lost to democracy and political participation in Poland. They will never again trust anybody.”

In 1992, when I last interviewed Zuzanna Dabrowska, we talked about the prospects for the Left, the state of the women’s movement, and the rise of the Right. Twenty years later, we discussed these same issues, along with some new topics like “grantosis” and the exodus of young people.


The Interview


You’re a radio journalist.


I’m a radio and press journalist. All my life I have been working in newspapers, but for the last three years I’ve been working in public radio, Channel 1. I do reports, interviews, conversations.


You specialize in…?


Polish politics and a bit of international news.


Are you still involved in any political parties?


Not in political parties, but in political and social activity yes. But not formally. I support many activities, if we can say that there are many activities.


Can you give me an example?


For example, with the women’s movement. Every year there is a big manifestation on March 8. I also worked as a clerk in the office of the plenipotentiary for equal rights of men and women. It was my friend Izabela Jaruga-Nowacka, who died in the Smolensk crash. We have a foundation in her name that does many things, including a project called Women Citizens with meetings all over Poland. We are preparing a small book with debates that are going on in different cities in Poland on different subjects, like poverty, democratic participation, things like this.


Does PPS-RD still exist?


No. It lasted for no longer than two years. I think it was 1991 when PPS reunited once again. It’s a long story. At the moment of transition, we opposed participation in the Round Table talks. Our elder friends in PPS, who were more social democratic than the younger generation, decided to join the “citizens committees,” which were organized on the basis of Solidarity as a political movement not as a trade union. So we were split. After that, we once again reunited, and in 1993 we made the very dramatic decision to run in the elections along with the post-Communist Social Democratic Party (SLD). In our opinion it was the only possibility to survive because society as a whole didn’t want to be revolutionary any more. After the elections we had three deputies, all of them from the younger generation.

So, we were inside the SLD. But before the budget vote, our deputies decided to leave the coalition. Then we were a small parliamentary group of three or four people depending on the situation. With the next elections, we started again with SLD and once again we had the same number of deputies and once again we were disobedient and split from the coalition. The 1990s were years of internal fighting in an attempt to create a strong Left with the post-Communists or alone. None of these scenarios succeeded…

At the end of this period was President Aleksander Kwasniewski campaign to run for a second term. We decided to run a candidate in this presidential election — Piotr Ikonowicz. It was an anti-Kwasniewski effort. It was also the end of PPS as we know it because the result was absolutely low, 0.2 percent or something. We also decided not to support Kwasniewski in the second round. It was clear that it was the end of our relationship with SLD. One year later, in 2000, we tried to run in parliamentary elections as PPS but we failed to collect enough signatures.

After that, Piotr resigned. And we all resigned from PPS because it was clear that our option had failed. The older activists decided to collaborate as a part of SLD. It was practically the end of the party. And it was the end of my party activity, which had focused on creating the PPS-RD. Piotr tried to create his own party called the New Left. It was active for two or three years. During these years, I was a deputy in the Sejmik Mazowiecki [the regional assembly] – on the SLD list but not as a member of SLD. It was an interesting experience, of course.


PPS doesn’t exist any more in name?


It exists somehow, but nobody knows about it. It’s a group of 50-60 people, mostly older people. There’s one exception. In Wroclaw, there’s a mixed group of intellectuals, workers, and students – as mixed as PPS-RD had been — and they are trying to be independent. I think they’re great. They started this year to focus on running candidates at the osiedla level, which is the level to run for elections to the city council. They have three or four representatives in these councils, including the liberal sociologist, Ewa Miszczuk. So, they are doing very well. But it’s only Wroclaw. They are autonomous. They took the banner of PPS, and they are somehow present in the national council of PPS. But they don’t follow all the conflicts.


Wroclaw has an interesting political identity with Orange Alternative and Wladyslaw Frasyniuk.


In Wroclaw after the transition, because of the strong political atmosphere there, people’s hopes were bigger. Later, when the people who took power failed, the disappointment there was bigger than anywhere else, except maybe Gdansk. As an example, they spent one million zloty on a fountain in the Old Market instead of creating new jobs or kindergartens or anything for the people. That’s a symbol of what this reality looks like in Wroclaw.


What do you think of Krytyka Polityczna?


I like them. They’re nice guys. But I think they suffer from the same problem as the East Coast in the States. They are organized around their own discussions. Of course it’s very important to discuss and to know what to think and to have a strong point of view. But if you don’t do any more than that, it’s a problem, for the Left especially. When I’m doing this program on women’s citizenship, I collaborate with Krytyka with pleasure. But if I would like to make a petition or organize a demonstration about something, it’s the wrong address.

Their leader is Slawomir Sierakowski. He’s a very smart guy, but I think in the last years he has somehow gotten lost. There was a moment when he was planning a political movement to take part in the elections at the community level. But all this disappeared, and now it’s just discussion club.

They also got from the city a very good place in the center of Warsaw on Nowy Swiat. The name of the cafe was Nowy Swiat Cafe. At the beginning it was a big success. Later, it turned out that people working there were on short-term contracts. It was bigger than they were. You cannot be politically active if you have 60-70 people in Warsaw and a cafe where you can hold a concert for 200 people — you don’t have enough people to work there. So, I think it was a mistake.

Now they don’t have this place any more. They have an office and I think it’s better for them, especially for their publishing activity. They do very good books: good titles, good translations. This is the best and most successful part of Krytyka.


Do you see anything in Poland today that represents this combination of critical political thinking plus actual political engagement? You mentioned what was going on in Wroclaw. Anything else?


This is the problem with the split between social and political activity. Take, for example, Piotr Ikonowicz, my former husband (but we still collaborate and like each other). He is running the Chancellery of Social Justice. The biggest success in the last days of PPS was preventing people from being thrown out of their houses. The highest court agreed with PPS, and it banned these evictions. Many direct actions were taken. This chancellery continues to do these direct actions if the police are called in. But it also helps at those times when the residents are in discussions with the owner. It helps with the negotiations, helps people with writing letters, makes noise in the media, and things like this. They even go to court as representatives of the people. It’s very good work. I don’t know how many people they defended over the last five years, maybe 1000 around the country, but mostly in Warsaw. They have five groups in Poland. They collaborate with some anarchist groups, with some local activists.

But the dream of activists like Piotr is to be involved in politics at a higher level. In our minds, politics is a bit higher than grassroots social activity. So they decided to link up with the party of Janusz Palikot. Piotr is an advisor to their parliamentary club. But it’s so hard. They are completely different. You can never guess what a man like Palikot is thinking. But maybe one day, Piotr or one of his comrades will decide to run again in the elections, for example with Palikot. I don’t know, they don’t know. It’s maybe 5 percent of what we expected at the beginning of the 1990s that we would be doing now. But lately Piotr decided to create his own party once again. There are diseases that you never will overcome…

There was another party at the beginning of the 1990s, Unia Pracy, the Labor Union party. They took the place of PPS in the SLD coalition. Their origin was with Solidarity, but with people from PZPR as well, and they were trying to make a left-wing option. But it was marginalized the same way as PPS. It had no chance to be independent. It had no money, no structures. It only had some good names, but that’s not enough. People sometimes vote for the better man or woman. But when you run with a big party like SLD, mostly they vote for this organization. It can be a plus for this organization that you are running. But you don’t really exist for them. Many people in Polish politics believe that they are so good and so wise that when they leave the party, they will create something by themselves and the party will cry over its loss. But of course that doesn’t happen. On the left wing, on the right wing, it’s all the same. It’s not a good move to leave a big party. Of course staying can mean such deep compromises that you’re not sure if it’s a compromise or bankruptcy.


Do you think there’s any potential for SLD to transform itself into a genuine Left party?


I don’t think so.


Or does the Left require the death of the SLD before it can establish itself?


The SLD technically knows what to say to be the Left. But mentally, no, they are not the Left. They’re more like the right-wing colleagues of Tony Blair. Of course, it depends on your point of view. When the SLD is in opposition and fighting for votes, it tries to speak in a more leftwing way. And many initiatives at the parliamentary level are very good, But I don’t think that anybody can trust them. The SLD votes the way it does out of its own interests not because of their hearts and minds. Maybe that’s not bad. But if a party of technocrats doesn’t have support from intellectuals and social activists, it’s somehow dead. Sooner or later, they enter government and all will be forgotten, immediately.

The dream of Leszek Miller is to be vice premier once again. But the only way for them to achieve this is to ally with Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform). On the one hand, the SLD can do something good when it’s in opposition: their slogans and promises can be good. But if they have to choose, they’ll go into the government, and they will fail.


When you think back to the decisions made in the 1990s that caused the political splits – the decision on the Round Table, on economic reform — would you reconsider any of them now. Or do you think they were necessary steps at the time?


One thing that I don’t want to discuss, even internally with myself, is the infiltration of the police. We know about this now after some investigations made by historians, not by us because we are not interested. After so many years, even if we don’t want to know it, we have to know it. We were absolutely infiltrated.


This is after 1989.


In 1988. 1989. 1990. I don’t know how certain decisions would look if we were more curious. We were not afraid of the persecutions. We also weren’t afraid of the secret police. But we didn’t consider that it’s not only someone listening to you. It’s also possible that you are listening to somebody who is selling some point of view. I don’t know how much of that stopped us. It’s important, and I never think that it is. But now I think unfortunately that it was important from the beginning.

Of course if Piotr had supported Kwasniewski in the second round, we would have survived as a political party. He would have served longer as a deputy and so on. But I’m not sure if it would have been worth it. For our personal lives, for sure not. But for politics, maybe. It’s called in Polish, the “ preservation of left-wing substance.” And yes, it’s important. But it’s not sufficient as a life-long plan, is it? On the other hand, it serves as a kind of alibi for the SLD government. I’m not able to say yes or no. It could have gone either way. Of course, if we would have had more technical power — money, structures, people – we could have appealed to all the people who, year by year during the 1990s, were more disappointed by what was going on in Poland, who lost their health, their money, their livelihoods during the transition period. These were people who decided not to take part, not to vote. But to find these people and unite them, you had to have much greater organizational power. These were not activists, but ordinary people.

I remember one PPS meeting in Warsaw in 1993 or 1994. We were as radical as possible on the political scene in those years. It was an open meeting, and I noticed an older couple sitting there. I didn’t know them. I said hello, asked them where they came from. They said they’d come from a small city.

“And what do you think?” I asked.

“Oh it was okay,” they said, “but for us it was not radical enough!”

These were just normal people. I think this group is now lost to democracy and political participation in Poland. They will never again trust anybody.

Another possibility was Samoobrona – Self-Defense – which appeared as a political force in the countryside at the end of the 1990s. It was first a movement of protest that focused very concretely on the prices of meat. They blocked the highways. It was very rough. We helped them. I was writing reportage. I remember standing on the highway at the blockade, and nearby was a big man protesting. I was asking as a journalist, “Can you tell me why you are here?” I expected him to say that the prices for meat were too low.

“No, I won’t tell you,” he said. “Because you won’t believe me.”

“Try me,” I said.

“Okay,” he said. “Can you can imagine, in our school there is not even one computer for the kids!”

That was his reason to join. This party had incredible results in the 2001 elections. In their origin and rhetoric, they were really a left-wing organization formed out of the radical farmers movement. But very quickly they were compromised absolutely. Their leader Andrzej Lepper committed suicide several years ago. It’s a very sad story. But that could have been a potential place for a leftwing movement. It cannot be ideological. It has to be social, like what is happening with far-right groups in the Catholic Church connected to Radio Maria.


What are the economic priorities in terms of transforming Poland? Obviously there are restrictions set by the EU, by international financial institutions, by the global economy as well. And there are domestic challenges too. But given those restrictions, what can be done here in terms of traditional Left principles of equality, fairness, and so on?


It’s still the same question: if you will pay people more, will they spend more in the economy? If you say yes, you are on one side. If you say, no, you must freeze everything and you’re on the other side. As a country, we are now on this second side. But Donald Tusk, who is afraid of losing votes, is trying to cut the cuts. The last budget decision was to make the debt higher and not to cut pensions or social spending. But the question is still: what should be the level of social spending? In my opinion, it is so low that it’s practically impossible to cut more. Of course it would be always possible to cut more, as we know, but it could be then dangerous for politicians. Even the rightwing opposition is afraid to cut.

Of course, it’s a question of creating new sources of profit, like taxes on international financial transactions. But those ideas are not present on the table. There’s nothing new, and that’s the problem. If the opposition Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (PiS) were in power now, it would do exactly the same as the ruling party Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform) is doing. And Platforma, in opposition, would say what PiS is now saying. It’s a never-ending story.

We have no social pressure. Poles have the lowest wage pressure in Europe and the lowest wage increase in Europe. We are silent. Solidarity has a rather bright leader, Piotr Duda, and it is organizing a protest for September. But it’s more a group of radical trade unionists organizing a happening on the street than a massive demonstration of workers. Such things are not happening any more.


I’m always a little surprised at what happened with Solidarity. As a result of its political choices, the economic reform that took place went against the interests of almost everyone within the trade union, except the leadership. Is it possible for any trade union in Poland to overcome that history and become an effective force that puts pressure on wages to go up?


Solidarity is now on that path. Earlier, they were clearly linked to the right wing, to PiS. Now not so much, even though Piotr Duda was at last congress of PiS. But I wouldn’t exaggerate that. The problem is the ideological war against the trade union in public opinion. The opinions presented in the media are the same as in the middle of the 1990s: those stupid trade unions want more and more of our taxes and they are absolutely irresponsible. If these opinions won’t change, nothing will change, even if Solidarity is making good choices. They are well organized now. Their actions are good, regionally and nationally. We’ll see what happens in the week of protests in September. I think it will be a big step. But it still won’t be massive until this opinion that trade unions are irresponsible radicals no longer dominates the political and social scene. i don’t know what to do to change this.

One of the most important reasons is that the elite, the well-educated workers and intellectuals, left. They are creating trade unions in the UK or in France or in Germany. They don’t have any problems understanding their own interests. But they are not here. If you have energy and want to do something, the only way is to go out.


Out of Solidarity and out of the country, both.




I’ve talked to a number of people on women’s issues here, and I’ve gotten very different interpretations. It seems to me that compared to 23 years ago, things have gotten better in terms of the sheer number of women active in Polish life and in leadership positions. There’s also the Women’s Congress, which has attracted a lot of attention. On other hand, there’s still the issue of abortion, where the laws here don’t meet European standards. What explains this lag between the influence of women and feminists in Poland and the reality for women now in Poland?


It’s a paradox. The understanding of women’s issues is far bigger and deeper than what it was in the beginning of the 90s. There’s no doubt about that. But these are things connected to equality: jobs, politics, and economy. But all things against the Church — abortion, contraception, sex education — are absolutely the way they were. Or even worse.

Second, things that can be solved in a way other than the official law are done the unofficial way, like abortion. There’s no reason to waste time to go onto the street for demonstrations if chemical abortion if possible through the Internet. Of course, for uneducated women it’s a hell, but who cares. So, we don’t have any big demonstrations about abortion. We also won’t have a big manifestation for political rights because we have the Congress of Women. And according to broad public opinion, these are the women who are taking care of things. Of course, if you ask people on the street, 99 percent would say that these rights should be equal, 50/50. But if you ask about quotas and electoral law, of course it’s not so simple. Many women will say, “I don’t need that support. I’m okay and I can manage.”

The problem with the women’s movement is that women who were active in the 1990s are absolutely tired. How long can you be active without results? If the issue was easy to collaborate on with the EU or the UN and there are some results, it’s worth it and you can survive. But the anti-abortion law makes people feel powerless and very tired.

Another thing is grantosis. That’s the “disease” of international grants. The only way you can survive is to make a project. The only projects you do are ones to make money. If you can make some money you can hire people. If you haven’t any money you can’t hire people, so your organization dies. Many women’s organizations are more like offices for spending European money than organizations. It’s not a social activity anymore. In Poland we were not taught how to do organize fundraising. This money from the EU corrupted us.


When you think about your own positions at the end of the 1980s and beginning of 1990s on politics, on economics, on social issues, has anything changed dramatically for you over the last 23 years?


Except for divorce, no: not politically, not socially. I’m Polish middle class. I have a job. I’m trying to be involved all the time. I’m part of the 16 percent of Polish citizens who are involved — the lowest number in the EU. What I’m trying to do all my life is to keep up my private and family obligations and pleasures along with a professional and social life. The result is of course that I didn’t make a big professional or political career. But I do my job and I’m glad that I’m professional. On the other hand, I have a family life with two kids and I’m happy.


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


It’s difficult. But let’s say: 4.


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


Here it’s better: 7.5


And looking into the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects for Poland, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?


Not more than 4 because of internal politics and international circumstances. I’m not sure if it’s even 4. I hope it’s 4.


Piaseczno, August 29, 2013


1992 Article Quoting Zuzanna Dabrowska


Poland After Solidarity

by John Feffer


Peace and Democracy News

Winter 1992/93



In Solidarity’s regional office in Warsaw, Mariusz Ambroziak fielded my 
questions like a penitent wrestling with 
his conscience in the confessional.

Yes, he conceded, Poland’s famous trade 
union was in deep trouble. Its membership 
was declining precipitously, it wasn’t organizing in the new private sector, it could no 
longer pay specialists to develop alternative 
economic plans. Though only in his twenties, the Solidarity representative spoke with 
the weariness of someone three times his 

Did he have any doubts about his work, I asked almost rhetorically. Ambroziak’s 
broad, freckled face took on a pained and 
humble look. “Every day I wake up and I 
have my doubts,” he replied. “When Solidarity was registered in 1989, I didn’t use an 
alarm clock to get up and come here to the 
union headquarters at 5 a.m. Now I need two 
alarm clocks to get me up in the morning for 
work.” His voice dropped to a whisper. 
”People call here with requests. And I can’t 
give them anything. So, what am I doing 
here? These people keep calling and what 
can I do?”

With their country’s economic and political situation deteriorating daily, Poles 
can tum to few places, other than the Catholic Church, for help. The traditional structures of Polish “civil society” have simply 
collapsed. Offering little real assistance to 
its members, Solidarity has become a memorial to itself; a Warsaw street has even 
been named after the movement, a sign of 
both its historical importance and current 
irrelevance. Expected to capture second 
place in the most recent parliamentary elections, the trade union’s party managed a distant ninth, just ahead of the Polish Beer-Lovers’ Party. Solidarity’s recent threat to 
call a general strike over utility increases 
went unheeded by the government. The 
union backed down, and the rates went up. A 
mass demonstration in April similarly extracted no concessions from the government.

“The union,” Ambroziak pointed out, 
”is paying today with its name because 
under the banner of Solidarity the entire 
economic reform was undertaken.” Sup- 
porting a shock therapy that primarily hurt 
its own core supporters, Solidarity has ex- 
pended much of its once considerable moral 

Solidarity’s rural chapter, meanwhile, 
has been politically outmaneuvered by the 
former Communist-allied Peasant Party . And 
the Independent Students Association 
(NZS)-the so-called third leg of the opposition-has declined from 20,000 to 1,000 
members and spends most of its energies 
functioning as a travel agency to the West, 
once its chief criticism of the official student 
union. Having personified the Solidarity 
ethos for so many years, Lech Walesa has 
become a president more committed to decrees than to democracy, a leader whose 
pronouncements draw ridicule from the intelligentsia and increasingly command only 
indifference among the workers.

Nor have other social movements taken 
the place of the Solidarity-era groups. According to one European Community estimate, the largest social movement in Poland 
today is the volunteer fire brigade. The 
second largest is the Red Cross. Instead of 
organizing the unemployed or building political movements from the bottom up, Poles 
spend their precious free time putting out 
fires and bandaging wounds.

Given the country’s present economic 
crisis-12 percent unemployment, 38 percent annual inflation, a hard-to-cap budget 
deficit, a recession that stretches month after month-the natural political beneficiary 
should be a reinvigorated Polish left. Poland 
was the first country in Eastern Europe to 
host roundtable negotiations between the 
Communists and the opposition, the first country to hold free elections, the first to form a non-Communist government, the 
first to implement a radical shock-style economic reform. According to the pendulum-swing theory of politics, Poland should therefore witness the first authentic left-wing 

But although it has great potential, the 
Polish left remains fragmented, isolated, 
and incapable of mustering any serious political threat. Both the traditional left based 
in the trade union movement and a newer left 
organized around a cluster of issues including feminism and environmentalism are still 
marginal to Polish politics. Alert to the 
possibilities inherent in the left’s eclipse, the 
right wing has made a bid to take Poland 
back, back to a time before Communism, 
back to an imagined past when the Church 
was always right, the nation was always 
united, the men were always brave, and the 
women were always pregnant.


Confusion of Left and Right


It has become a cliché to observe that the 
categories of left and right make little political sense in Eastern Europe today. In the 
Polish context, for instance, the non-Communist left-occupying what would ordinarily be a social-democratic slot-has 
largely favored the most neo-liberal (or, if 
you prefer, neo-conservative) economic 
policy. Even the former Communists frequently vote on the Thatcher end of the 
economic spectrum. The right wing parties, meanwhile, eschew capitalism’s most disruptive features, which destroy family, 
community, and Church, in favor of a more 
gradual and anti-recessional policy. The 
groups which one would expect to have 
comprised the left have embraced the modern project and its vision of hyper-capitalism uncritically; the right has, even as it 
supports an apparently more progressive 
economic position, decided to trade the twentieth century in for an earlier model.

Given both the domestic and international emphasis on bringing Poland into the 
modern age, one might then expect the right 
wing to be fundamentally incapable of leading the country forward. So I thought back 
in 1990 when I trekked to the outskirts of 
Warsaw to meet Antonin Macierewicz, a 
prominent member of the Christian National Union (ZChN). Smoking a pipe and 
looking every inch the Polish intellectual, 
Macierewicz expounded on the principles of 
this coalition of Christian-minded movements. The Church, he said, did not have to 
be connected to the state. But state 
policy-and even education in public schools-should nevertheless be formulated 
along Christian principles. Thank God, I 
thought at the time, that ZChN only has five 
parliamentary representatives. Thank God 
they are, like Macierewicz’s apartment, on 
the outskirts of Polish life.

Two years later, Macierewicz was 
Poland’s Minister of Home Affairs, a prominent if controversial member of the recently 
removed right-of-center Olszewski government. His party today controls key posts in 
the new Suchocka administration. The 
speaker of the lower chamber of the Polish 
parliament is a ZChN member.

In 1990, I also talked with Krzysztof 
Krol, a spokesperson for the Confederation 
for Polish Independence (KPN). Founded in 
1979, KPN represented the most anti-Soviet, most militant wing of the Polish opposition. It refused to participate in the 1989 
roundtable negotiations, or field candidates in the first partially free national elections in 
June of that year. Later, when anew government was dispensing old Communist Party 
property to new organizations, KPN did not 
wait its turn but instead simply occupied the 
offices of a former official youth organization located in a splendid structure on 
Warsaw’s most fashionable street. No, I 
thought in 1990, KPN is out of temper with 
the times. Poland is on the road of compromise. The Communists have nearly exited 
the stage, and militancy no longer commands much respect throughout society.

I look back at my notes from 1990: “Krol 
predicts a renaissance of the right in Poland.” I didn’t take him seriously. He was 
too young, too undisciplined. Today, Krol is 
the head of KPN’s parliamentary faction 
which, along with ZChN, has brought a new 
variety of right-wing radicalism to the shaping of social policy.

After flirting with a right-wing coalition 
that pledged more gradual economic reform, Poland is, as of July 1992, back under 
the rule of the neo-liberals, led by the new 
prime minister Hanna Suchocka. The term “rule” can be used only loosely, however. 
After the 1991 national elections propelled 
29 parties into parliament, Polish politics 
can charitably be described as diverse or, perhaps more accurately, as incoherent. It is 
not simply the number of parties or their relatively small size that lends an air of 
~ chaos to parliamentary proceedings. These 
5 groupings can barely compromise enough to  maintain internal cohesion, much less work effectively with one another. Unable to 
fashion an effective parliamentary bloc, the 
three recent governments-Olszewski, Pawlak, Suchocka-have been forced to 
preside over a fragmented mirror of Polish 

Particularly difficult for each of these 
governments has been economic policy. For 
instance, after promising to respect the wishes 
of the Polish electorate by reversing shock 
therapy, the Olszewski government reneged 
in the spring of 1992 and proposed a budget 
consistent with the demands of the International Monetary Fund. Parliament rejected 
the plan. Caught between the IMP’s strictures and the electorate’s demands, 
Olszewski became simply the latest of the 
recession’s political victims when his government fell in June. Waldemar Pawlak of 
the post-Communist Polish Peasant’s Party 
lasted little more than a month. With rumors 
of martial law floating around Warsaw, a 
strange assortment of parties–from right- 
wing Christian to secular liberals–came 
together behind Suchocka. The result has 
been the worst of all possible worlds: the 
neo-liberals regained control of economic 
policy while the right wing snatched up the 
”soft” cultural posts in the government.


Theocracy in Poland?


Indeed, with its economic policy thwarted 
by the IMP, the right wing has found greater 
unity and surer success with its social project. 
Its natural vehicle for transforming Poland is 
the Catholic Church, the most powerful 
social institution in the country. Last year, 
several Polish officials broached the possibility of turning Poland into a theocracy. 
The response from the intelligentsia not 
being receptive, the proposal was quickly 
withdrawn. “Don’t worry about this talk of 
theocracy,” a Polish friend told me during 
my recent trip to Warsaw. “It’s the step-by-step moves, the incremental strategy that 
you should watch out for.”

That incremental strategy can be seen 
most clearly on the issue of religion in 
school. In 1990, the Church pressed the 
Ministry of Education to introduce religious 
instruction into public schools. The measure was neither discussed in Parliament nor 
presented to the public in a referendum. 
This year, the Church has pushed ahead with 
stage two: pressuring the Ministry of Education to make religion an obligatory school 
subject. An ethics course has been thrown in 
to give the appearance of choice-but the 
ethics in question are often simply Christian 
and the course frequently taught by a priest. 
If the Ministry and the Church have their 
way, priests will also playa more important role in determining general school policy.

Abortion is the second front opened up 
by the right wing. In 1991, the Polish 
parliament defeated an especially restrictive anti-abortion law. Since that time, the 
Polish Medical College has changed its code 
of ethics to protect “unborn life”; any doctor 
who performs abortions after May 1992 can 
be discharged from the profession. At the 
parliamentary level, the Church has, through 
ZChN, reintroduced legislation to penalize 
both women and doctors who destroy un- 
born life. Yet 60 percent of the population 
supports liberal abortion laws. Many Polish 
intellectuals, regardless of the depth of their 
religious conviction, are fond of pointing 
out that, with the abortion and religion-in- 
schools issues, the totalitarianism of the 
Church has begun to replace the totalitarian- 
ism of the state.


Economic Prosperity, Economic Shock


Warsaw gleams with a deceptive prosperity: the Mercedes-Benz dealership, the 
casinos, the chic new restaurants, the five- 
star hotels for visiting VIPs. Capitalism has 
sprung up like weeds between the cracks of 
the Stalinist concrete. A flashy sign indicates a peep show in the vestibule of an 
entrance to the train station where once there 
was only storage space. In the central post 
office, a video store and a trinket kiosk have 
been set up in the main hall. Around Stalin’s 
gift to Warsaw, the Palace of Culture and 
Science, the ramshackle collection of blankets and tables of two years ago has been 
transformed into the official flea market of 

With a monthly salary of $150, the average Pole stretches out to touch these fruits of 
capitalism only to find, like Tantalus, that 
inflation and austerity measures always push 
the branches just beyond reach. Warsaw’s 
conspicuous wealth conceals the poverty of 
its workers’ suburbs, of the outlying patches 
of agricultural ruin, of the decaying industrial sprawl that embraces the textile factories of Lodz, the coal mines near Wroclaw, 
the chemical plants around Katowice, the 
shipyards of Gdansk. To judge Polish prosperity by its capital’s shiny new Euro-style 
cafes is like trying to get a fix on the current 
U.S. recession from a sushi bar in Silicon 

Given the “neo-con” credentials of the 
economists whose advice it has solicited, it 
is not surprising that Poland is in fact repeating many of the same mistakes as the United 
States of the 1980s. Indeed, visiting Poland today is like being caught in one of those 
science fiction stories where the time-traveler must watch a succession of childhood 
mistakes without being permitted to intervene. Stop, I wanted to shout at the Poles. 
Don’t you realize that the foundations of this 
newly created wealth rest on the shifting 
sands of Reaganomics? Don’t you realize 
that ten years from now you too will be 
writing articles about “what went wrong?”

In 1989, talking with a then little-known 
Polish economist on the question of 
privatization, I tried to indicate some of the 
problems with his version of laissez-faire 
capitalism. Don’t privatize health care, I 
warned, for in the United States this has 
meant 35 million people without coverage. 
He didn’t skip a beat. “Well, 35,000 is not 
really a problem.” “No,” I interrupted, “35 
million. Million! Roughly the population of 
your country!” I don’t think he believed me. 
He went on to serve in government and play 
a key role in developing the yet-to-be-implemented privatization plan.

With the help of such economists, Poland is rapidly developing a new kind of 
class society. According to Andrzej 
Miolkowski, who oversees Huta Warszawa’ s 
privatization, wages at Warsaw’s steel plant 
have fallen to 50 percent of their 1982 value, 
based on what they can buy in today’ s stores. 
The country’s unemployment rate is expected to rise from 12 percent to 20 percent 
by year’s end. One of Solidarity’s former 
economic advisors confessed to me that his 
economic worst-case scenario would be 25 
percent unemployed. If a mere five percent 
separates mainstream expectations from 
worst-case scenarios, Poland is indeed in 

In the face of growing class conflict, the 
various governments consistently failed to 
develop a coherent social welfare policy, 
ignoring the recommendations of advisors 
to the Ministry of Labor and relying instead 
on the invisible hand of the market or the 
limited charity of the private sector. Solidarity is not doing much better, having just 
recently eliminated funding for Posredniak, 
a newspaper that for two years had been 
devoted to helping workers. Former editor 
Zuzanna Dabrowska reported that some of 
the recently laid-off have tried to create a 
union of unemployed. But many workers 
are reluctant to join such a group because it 
takes time away from their own job searches. 
And the organizers, in part because of their 
initiative, have been the first to find employment and leave the movement.

Still, if only for the crassest of political motives, one would expect a more vigorous 
attempt to represent these forgotten casual- 
ties of economic reform. In the tradition of 
class-based politics, several non-Communist left parties are considering a bid to form 
a Labor Party (a compromise name since 
both “socialism” and “Solidarity” have be- 
come pejoratives in the public mind). The 
social-democratic wing of the Democratic 
Union, Labor Solidarity, Zbigniew Bujak’s 
Democratic Social Movement, and perhaps 
the Polish Socialist Party might form the 
nucleus of such a party.

Even putting to one side the limited size 
of these groups, many problems still remain. 
The Democratic Union faction has a residual dependence on shock therapy, Labor 
Solidarity is perceived as too eggheadish, Bujak stands virtually alone in his party, and 
the Socialist Party has not yet recovered 
from the 1991 death of its most prominent 
leader, Jan Jozsef Lipski, a longtime oppositionist and member of the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR). Despite its strong 
second-place showing in the most recent 
parliamentary elections, the former Communists (the Democratic Left Alliance) re- 
main politically isolated, an unlikely partner 
for any new Labor Party. Some of the more 
talented ex-Communists, such as former 
high-ranking official Tomasz Nalecz, have 
left the Alliance and await new political 

The chief stumbling block for this left is 
its allergy toward what it considers populism. Parliamentary representative Ryszard 
Bugaj, Labor Solidarity’s leading member, 
told me of the need to reach out to all the 
Poles who didn’t vote in the last election 
(nearly 60 percent of those eligible). But 
when pressed on strategy, he could offer 
only Bush-like prudence: “We have to be 
careful not to be populist like KPN, not to 
promise things which we can’t deliver on. 
We want to be responsible and remain firmly 
grounded in reality.”

While Bugaj speaks of responsible politics, one Pole has set out to prove that 
irresponsibility is far more profitable. By 
poking fun at the new pieties of clericalism 
and nationalism, former Communist government spokesperson Jerzy Urban has be- 
Come unspeakably rich from his best-selling 
books and popular newspaper Nie (“No”). 
Millions of Poles crave Urban’s critical 
edge, so much so that they are even willing 
to forget how much they despised him in his earlier incarnation. The left should be able 
to take advantage of this sentiment as well, 
fashioning a truly responsible, democratic populism in order to acquire political capital 
where Urban has been content to accumulate the financial variety.

One group capable of appealing to popular discontent-the former Communist-controlled trade union (OPZZ}-has so far kept 
a relatively low profile. With a membership 
of four million (roughly twice that of Solidarity), OPZZ is the largest social movement in Eastern Europe, according to its 
economic advisor Pawel Gieorgica (apparently the EC doesn’t count the union in its 
tally of Polish social organizations). Despite its size and its sponsorship of several 
important strikes, OPZZ has not overtly 
challenged the authorities. Following 
Gieorgica’s advice, its new leader Ewa Spychalska has adopted an instrumental 
populism that guarantees her support among 
the populace, but has gravitated toward a 
collegial pragmatism as a post-Communist 
deputy in parliament. This two-edged strategy has boosted Spychalska’s popularity 
and placed OPZZ in an ideal position to 
exploit the new class politics on the inside as 

Should the new Polish Labor Party, or 
whatever the left decides to call itself, fail to 
seize OPZZ’s standard, it will have neutralized its chief advantage. Poland’s new class 
conflicts can be used creatively by the left, 
if it is wise enough to distinguish between 
principled political organizing and irresponsible populism. The right wing has meanwhile shown little hesitation to rush in where 
the left fears to tread, whether in the form of 
KPN’s paramilitary-style recruitment among 
young people or ZChN’s assertion of religious community as an antidote to anomie.


The Struggling Women’s Movement


Malgorzata Tarasiewicz once worked 
for Solidarity. Told by the International 
Confederation of Free Trade Unions to de- 
vote more energy to women’s issues, the 
Solidarity leadership hired Tarasiewicz, a 
young feminist and peace activist from 
Gdansk, to rectify the situation. During her 
brief tenure establishing a women’s section 
within the union, she set up regional chapters, ran media workshops, tried to put together a working women’s agenda. Suspicious of her feminist proclivities, the Solidarity leadership never provided Tarasiewicz 
sufficient resources to do her job and worse, 
harassed representatives of the section’s regional chapters. Frustrated, Tarasiewicz 
resigned in March 1991.

That June, although she had been banned from contacting members of the women’s 
section, Tarasiewicz nevertheless convened 
another meeting in Solidarity’s regional 
headquarters in Warsaw. “I thought it necessary to meet again to explain why 1 was 
forced to leave,” she says. Catching wind of 
the event, the union’s Warsaw leadership 
was determined to throw the participants out 
of the building. But when 140 women from 
17 regions showed up, the Solidarity leader- 
ship was outnumbered. Thrown off guard by 
this show of strength, union leaders responded by threatening Tarasiewicz herself, 
both after the meeting and when a Helsinki 
Watch report came out in March describing 
the events in some detail. “They are using 
Mafia methods to suppress authentic movements within Solidarity,” she exclaims.

Solidarity’s actions indicate a movement in decline, a movement threatened by 
other movements. In the case of the women’s 
section, the battle was between the union 
leadership and the “new left.” Organized 
around some very potent questions such as 
women’s rights, this new left potentially has 
a chance of gaining a foothold in Polish 

For instance, one could not find a country more in need of a women’s movement 
than Poland. Disproportionately affected by 
lay-offs and cuts in social services, women 
are truly the “hidden victims” of recent 
reforms, as Helsinki Watch has written. “In 
Poland,” Polish Socialist Party member 
Zuzanna Dabrowska says of the images 
available to women, “there are only the two Madonnas, the one with the child, and the other one, your Madonna, the singer. There is no middle ground.” The virgin and the 
whore: while the Church promotes a family- 
style conception of a woman, sex shops and 
pornography have proliferated in the new 
Poland. Prominent women who have tried 
to break out of the Madonna mold are politically vulnerable. Take the case of Anna 
Popowicz, the Minister for Women Family 
and youth. “In the beginning,” feminist 
activist Jolanta Plakwicz says, “Popowicz 
was very conservative. But she was exposed 
to so much sexism and so many attacks in the 
Parliament that she became increasingly 
radical. For instance, she attacked the doctors’ code of ethics. So she was dismissed 
and the government dissolved her office.”

After achieving a measure of equality during the Communist years, many Polish 
women are furious at the crude Church and 
state attempts to impose nineteenth century 
definitions on them. The nascent women’s 
movement, which organized effectively 
against the previous anti-abortion bill, has received money from a German women’s 
foundation to create a center in Warsaw. On 
the 1991 International Women’s Day, 
Warsaw’s small but spirited feminist group 
showed “Thelma and Louise” to an enthusiastic crowd. Plans are in the works to 
translate and sell a Polish version of Our 
Bodies, Ourselves. Yet feminism remains a 
dirty word in the country, even in the minds 
of many fiercely independent Polish women.

Regardless of the strength of the anti-feminist forces, the optimists say consolingly, 
Poland s desire to be integrated into Europe 
will force it to conform to European standards. Indeed, at a Council of Europe meeting in Poznan on women’s issues, Council 
representatives sternly lectured the intolerant Poles in attendance. “No ideology, no 
religion can limit a person’s freedom of 
choice,” France’s Roland Beix told the assembled crowd. “Even if 95 percent of 
society opposes abortion, you must respect 
the will of the five percent who support it.”

But the Polish right wing has declared that it 
wants to enter Europe on its own terms. “Let 
us create a real Europe for ourselves Christian and righteous,” ZChN deputy Alojzy
Szablewski declared in parliament, “and 
some day, Western states will want to enter 


The Role of Youth in the Polish Left


Critical to the success of the new left in 
countering such hubris are young people.

“We have to concentrate on students and on 
those people who didn’t vote in the recent 
elections,” Tarasiewicz explains. “New leaders have to appear. A new generation of 
politicians is needed to create an open society.” Young people were at the forefront of 
change in Poland in the last decade as 
activists in Solidarity in 1980-81, as members of the group Freedom and Peace in mid- 
decade, as leaders of the critical 1988 strikes 
as student radicals in NZS. Today, Polish 
youth has abandoned politics. Many have 
turned to entrepreneurship or have emigrated. Even students seem placid, despite 
execrable university services and a meager 
$75 monthly stipend. “I am surprised-and 
you might be surprised as well-but students are not very angry,” NZS representative Marek Wecowski says. Indeed, students at Warsaw University look remarkably well-fed, well-dressed, and happy, nothing like the Russian students one reads about 
on the eve of revolution in 1917: starved, 
threadbare, intellectually volatile, willing to throw bombs and endure prison sentences. 
But unemployment has not yet hit home for 
these young people, and the attractions of 
the new consumer society have not yet palled. 
The next generation, now beginning to organize against religious classes in the secondary schools, will be simultaneously more 
accustomed to and more critical of capitalism.

Perhaps the largest new left movement is the Greens. Given the dismal state of the 
Polish environment, the popularity of ecology is understandable. Green clubs and 
associations are scattered throughout the 
country, devoted to issues as diverse as 
organic farming, alternative energy, deep 
ecology, and walks in the woods. Individual idiosyncrasies and factional infighting have 
prevented the several Green parties from 
establishing a national presence. The chief 
threat to the environment-and conversely, 
perhaps the most unifying theme for the 
various Green movements-is the market. 
In the Zoliborz section of Warsaw, for instance, residents successfully mobilized 
against the local government’s plan to sell a 
portion of their park to a private business 
club. Green politics has proven a refreshing 
tonic to privatizing fever.

Nevertheless, economic constraints have 
forced uneasy compromises. Janusz 
Radziejowski, associate director of the state- 
affiliated Institute of Environmental Protection, points out that with the current government budget problems, the Institute has had 
to look more to corporate contracts. Didn’t 
that strike him as a conflict of interest? 
”Yes,” Radziejowski admits, “firms will not 
pay us to shut them down.” Still, if the 
government doesn’t provide the money, an 
institute has few options.

In 1980, Poland’s unusual political environment produced an unprecedented but, 
sadly, brief alliance of workers and intellectuals. Today, under the sway of market 
utopias, the country may give birth to a 
different kind of alliance between a left that 
organizes around class conflict and a left 
that addresses a range of social issues. 
Threatened workers and farmers may find 
common cause with women outraged at the 
lack of adequate health services, Greens 
dismayed at the destructiveness of corporate 
capitalism, and young people frustrated with 
the state of education. Add to this mix the 
progressive strands of Catholicism, which 
combine a healthy skepticism of hyper-rationalism with a tolerance for difference 
and choice.

Together, these groups can rescue the 
Polish left-from both its checkered past and 
its present lack of direction. And, in turn, the 
new Polish left can rescue Poland from a 
narrow-minded, undemocratic, and unfortunately all-too-ascendant right wing.





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