From Solidarity to Business

Posted April 29, 2015

Categories: Blog, Eastern Europe, Featured, Uncategorized

When I met with Mariusz Ambroziak in 1993, he was secretary for the Solidarity trade union in the Mazowsze area around Warsaw. He’d been a Solidarity activist for most of his life, starting out as a young worker involved in the famous Solidarity chapter at the Ursus tractor factory in Warsaw.

But by 1993, he was having difficulties getting up in the morning and going to work. It took two alarm clocks, he confessed to me, to get him roused out of bed. The union was shrinking in membership, and it just didn’t have the resources to help people. Moreover, its reputation was taking a beating. “The union,” Ambroziak pointed out, 
”is paying today with its name because 
under the banner of Solidarity the entire 
economic reform was undertaken.”

As it turned out, Ambroziak didn’t stay much longer with Solidarity.

“I worked in Solidarity until the end of 1993,” he told me when I caught up with him in Warsaw in August 2013. “That’s when I resigned, but not for political or ideological reasons. It was simply because I was looking for some kind of new path for self-development connected above all to economic independence. Already the enthusiasm from the end of the 1980s and the beginning of 1990 had ended. I saw that other people, my friends and acquaintances, were already taking advantage of the free market. I simply went my own way, professionally.”

Today, Ambroziak is involved in a variety of businesses and charitable activities. He keeps in touch with his colleagues from the old days. But they’ve become trade union professionals working a job, no longer inspired by a mission.

“When I look at Solidarity today it’s as if time has stopped,” he told me. “Sometimes I go to the Mazowsze regional office, after five, 10, 15 years. I meet with the same people, only they’re older. It’s apparent that the organization has not been revitalized, that there’s been no internal changes. But perhaps there’s nowhere to change to? Because all the time there’s the same group of members, since there’s nowhere to get young leaders.”

Many of the workplaces where Solidarity was so strong – the shipyards, the mines – are no more. Even the Ursus tractor factory has disappeared. “We also as activists often asked the question, ‘Where are all the enterprises where we all fought together?’” Ambroziak said. “And that’s a difficult question. Of course after 1989 several million firms were created in Poland, but that one doesn’t exist any more. And it had been around in Poland for 100 years. It was a very valued firm before the war in Poland. The key mistakes in this matter were in 1990 and 1991. Maybe there would have been not 20,000 workers at a restructured Ursus but maybe 5,000 or 3,000. Still, the brand, the tradition, the history, all that potential could have continued until this day.”

He believes that unions still play an important role in Poland and will do so in the future. But he also believes that Poland needs a “business-oriented administration.”

He told me, “I have to say that I am satisfied with the way my family and friends accommodated themselves in capitalism. The overwhelming majority has their own businesses. Some of them are more successful, some of them less, but the overall result is definitely positive. That is why I believe we need a business-oriented administration that would serve as a helping hand for the business sector. The current state institutions either don’t understand the way the business is conducted nowadays or they approach it in too administrative or rigid a way. The bureaucracy is overdeveloped. Every issue is now being solved by new regulations. It’s completely different than at the beginning of the 1990s. The state administration does not see entrepreneurs as people creating value. Instead their initiatives are perceived as suspicious. This is absolutely wrong.”

We also talked about privatization, decentralization, and the meaning of active citizenship.


The Interview


At the moment, you are working in a private office. What does that mean?


I’m working now in the insurance and building industry. In the insurance industry, I’m an insurance broker, and in the building industry I help manage projects under the name IDS. That’s a rather large construction firm in Warsaw.


When we talked 22 years later, you were…


I was then the secretary of Solidarity in the Mazowsze region in Warsaw. I think we met on Alej Ujazdowskij, near the American embassy.


Yes, that’s right. And how long did you work there?


I worked in Solidarity until the end of 1993. That’s when I resigned, but not for political or ideological reasons. It was simply because I was looking for some kind of new path for self-development connected above all to economic independence. Already the enthusiasm from the end of the 1980s and the beginning of 1990 had ended. I saw that other people, my friends and acquaintances, were already taking advantage of the free market. I simply went my own way, professionally. But I didn’t resign from public or social activities. I remain active until today in the civic sphere. Over the last 20 years, I’ve been connected to dozens of different associations and foundations. The majority of those foundations are active in very different spheres: social, charitable, political, civic, local. It’s my passion to help organize civic life in this way, through such associations.


How did you first become involved with Solidarity and the opposition in general?


I come from a small town about 100 kilometers outside of Warsaw. At the time, that seemed to me very far away. Today I know it really isn’t. I came here to attend middle school in Warsaw, in Ursus, where my brother was working. I was on the professional trade track at Ursus, at the tractor factory there. It was winter 1985, and I was 15 years old. I was part of a group of young people who announced a work stoppage. There were 10 or 15 of us, and we thought of ourselves as demonstrators. But it was just a mess.

That’s when an underground Solidarity activist approached me, Marek Jarosinski. I was able to watch what he was doing, and we started to cooperate. He was older than me by eight years and had already worked several years at the factory. And he asked me to cooperate, and we began actions together.

My brother already worked in the tractor factory at Ursus before 1980. He was one of the first people who introduced me to the history of the opposition when I was still a child. That’s how the first newspapers and leaflets appeared in our home. He wasn’t involved in an active manner. He’d talk about it, but it was more just a way of building awareness. Plus, of course, in many Polish homes there was Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, BBC, and so on. That was standard. But for a kid like me, who was 11 years old in 1980, it was already enough. This atmosphere remained in my head, along with a family that provided me the historical background. No more was necessary.


And during Martial Law?


At the time of Martial Law in 1981, I was still living with my family in the countryside. Of course, I remember that day very well. I remember the reaction of my parents, the reactions of the neighbors. And of course I remember what took place on the street. We were living in a place where there were basically two roads, and down both these roads came the tanks.

I remember that the first decision that my father made was to kill a pig. That came from his experience. During World War II, my father was a child. His entire family, including his grandfather, was displaced during the course of the war. They were evicted from their farms, displaced. Somewhere deep in their thinking, they believed it could happen again. This experience was something passed down from generation to generation.

Two-and-a-half years after that, I showed up in Ursus as a middle school student. I was aware that in this city, in this factory, there was a strong Solidarity chapter. It wasn’t all new to me. I had this picture in my head of something big, something great. Later it turned out that it wasn’t really such a big group of activists. Over the course of a year or two it was possible to get to know and meet all of them. It wasn’t that everyone was an activist. But it was somehow part of the atmosphere.


And you were also a member of the Independent Students Association NZS?


No, no. I was a Solidarity activist at Ursus. I was an activist later in the Mazowsze region, and in between I was an activist with Freedom and Peace (WiP).


Here in Warsaw?


In Warsaw. I began to work here with Jacek Czaputowicz, Piotr Niemczyk, Jan Maria Rokita, that circle of people. In 1987 I got called up for military service, and I wrote to them that I was refusing to serve for political reasons. Not for religious reasons or for health reasons, only for political reasons. This was in the provinces, not in Warsaw and therefore I received a postponement. And one year later came the law on alternative military service.

We started up an office at Ursus for people who’d refused military service for political reasons. Later came all the rest, the strikes in 1988. At that point, I was an 18-year-old on the strike committee at Ursus. Later came all the varieties of actions: strikes, demonstrations. Everything was connected to underground activities.


When the strikes took place in 1988…


There were two. The first was in May. That was the strike they were waiting for in Gdansk and Silesia that would push things forward in Warsaw. That was a very difficult period of time. We met a couple of days before the strike at Ursus – 10 or 12 people, including Zbigniew Janas and Zbigniew Bujak. The strike was going to begin on a Friday. We met on the Friday before and then Saturday and Sunday. We arrived on Sunday at the meeting and of the 12 people we expected there were only four. The rest had been arrested. I remained with just three other colleagues. We had a big dilemma: should we or should we not begin the strike?

We decided to go ahead with it. We were on site. Of course, the there was military, the security service. It was general chaos. The main leaders were not there because they’d been seized. We began the strike and continued it until 12 at night. By that time, 300 people remained in the factory. Then we began to talk with the administration in order to find some kind of exit. There were so few people to continue the strike and yet, on the other hand, there were such high expectations for us to go forward.

Our main demands at the time were the release of political prisoners, the registration of Solidarity, and a few other social matters. There were a lot of social incentives for more people to participate in the strike and for the government not to crack down on strike participants. We wrote up a paper and at night, like 1 or 2 am, we received certain general guarantees. So we gave up. The strike committee was appointed the next day, and all the demands became the subject of future talks with the administration. And we struggled for these demands for several more days. Later, Prof. Andrzej Stelmachowski, Andrzej Wielowiejski, and Piotr Lukasz Andrzejewski got in touch with us. So, we had the support of very committed experts. That was in May 1988.

The situation repeated itself again in August. Only in August it was a different atmosphere. First of all, the situation was much more intense in Silesia. The authorities were scared of the miners — that holds true even to this day – plus there were many other enterprises involved. And the people were already very serious. It was a similar situation: we held a march in front of the factory and then the militia attacked the march, and there was a confrontation. Nobody on our side did anything, except for a minor things. But the confrontation took place anyway. It was a group of 500 or 1,000 people. Several people were arrested right there on site. A number of us, including me, fled. After a few days we found each other again. Later already were the talks between Walesa and Kiszczak. And the talks between Stelmachowski and Czyrek began. That was the pre-Round Table atmosphere.


What did you think about the Round Table? Was it a good step?


At the time I was absolutely convinced that it was a good direction. The rest were participating in dozens of meetings at the enterprise level that connected to the various sub-tables, for instance the youth sub-table with Andrzej Celinski, Jan Maria Rokita, and the MZS group where we represented Solidarity youth. I was absolutely convinced that this was a good idea. Besides which, I was close to the perspective of the Church and its conception of non-violent struggle. Poland is a country where people respect the teaching of the Pope and Cardinal Wyszynski to find a compromise at all costs and avoid the spilling of blood. I understood this. For me this was really obvious.

There are a number of things that I know today that allow me to look at this more clearly and make some slight adjustments. But back then I was a big enthusiast about everything that happened. I was happy about everything even if in the end I didn’t appreciate what was going on. But certainly I was fascinated with that period. It occurred to me that once we had freedom all our problems would be solved. It was just a question of what we could do. Because once we had the freedom to act, there’d be no problems. I was 100 percent convinced of this. We know now that’s not the case. But back then we, my contemporaries and I, were convinced that freedom would in principle solve all problems.


You were an optimist at that time.


Yes, I was. And I’m an optimist to this day. However, looking at public, social, and political matters, I was absolutely convinced that this was a good direction. Of course, our knowledge of politics, economics, and international affairs was weak. But perhaps our enthusiasm also resulted from that lack of knowledge. If we’d had deep specific knowledge, then maybe most of us would have made different decisions, right? In terms of my social and civic experience, that was the most important period in life. I can say that as well today.


At that time, at Ursus in particular, the workers expected that the economic situation would be more difficult? Given the competition between….


I can tell you from my own point of view at that time. It seemed to me that most of us were absolutely convinced that with our independence and sovereignty we would have more influence on reality, that workers would begin to make more money, that firms would begin to develop better.

Of course, today I know that in order for a factory like Ursus to continue until today in the shape that it was in at that time, in that place, would have required even more radical restructuring, more radical economic transformation at the very beginning. From just the political standpoint, the process of change was stretched out over a longer period. There just wasn’t enough time for the market to save the factory. It was a Communist-era factory that was considered strategic, a key part of the economic order. It was a really energy-intensive factory. A lot of the money in that factory was wasted. Only a conscious management in cooperation with the workers could have maybe saved the factory. And that process was stretched out for, I don’t know, 10 years.

Now the firm doesn’t exist. In general, firms like that have disappeared, as well as the entire range of things connected to those firms. We also as activists often asked the question, “Where are all the enterprises where we all fought together?” And that’s a difficult question. Of course after 1989 several million firms were created in Poland, but that one doesn’t exist any more. And it had been around in Poland for 100 years. It was a very valued firm before the war in Poland. The key mistakes in this matter were in 1990 and 1991. Maybe there would have been not 20,000 workers at a restructured Ursus but maybe 5,000 or 3,000. Still, the brand, the tradition, the history, all that potential could have continued until this day.

The brand still exists: the company is listed on the stock exchange. But it was sold. It’s still a valuable brand, but it’s no longer connected to the factory in Ursus. That was a loss.


In general, what do you think of the Balcerowicz reforms? Were they more or less good, or should there have been changes in the plan?


In general the entire plan was good. But it could have been accompanied by at least a couple more elements. I’ll tell you about two of them. The first element is a vision of development for the Polish industrial economy that would not have given up on enterprises like Ursus. There should have been a determination of which parts of the Polish economy could have been preserved and which ones subjected to total competition. Poland had several sectors of the economy with potential, which could have been nurtured and, over the years, transformed into competitive sectors, not just in Poland but in Europe and in the world.

The second element was that the process of distributing property in Poland should have been sped up. That was a good period, 1989-90, to systematically decide the matter of returning property that had been taken from Polish citizens after the war. Maybe it was the only moment to solve that problem. Several thousand national enterprises needed to be transferred to the original owners. Many of these factories had fallen apart. But that was the one moment when it was possible to conclude a systematic understanding with the people who had the right to get back property they’d lost as a result of World War II. Perhaps a large number of those firms are today still functioning. Warsaw has documented claims for a very large amount of money. More than a million undocumented claims are still in legal process. These claims would absorb the entire budget of a city, even of Warsaw, the biggest city in Poland! But there’s an obligation to resolve this specific historical matter.

All of the things that were done back then, from today’s perspective, I believe were the right things to do. But it seems to me that several radical decisions were not made.


Because that was the moment when things could have been solved.


It was a very brief moment.


Yes, very brief. And yet it was a very interesting moment too. But I think the moment in Poland was longer than in other countries. Because there was the Round Table and the process was a bit stretched out.


Yes. Also that was my experience and observation. It was clear that there was at that time major problems: inflation, the lack of a banking system, the lack of personnel, of knowledge, of experience. And some issues have still to this day not been decided, like the return of property. During the transition from the 1980s to the 1990s was the time when it was possible to include something in the various social agreements. “We can’t give you everything,” the government might have said, “because everyone is poor. But you’ll get something, maybe 20 percent.” But the problem continues today. And Poland doesn’t have a budget surplus. Poland all the time needs capital, all the time needs investment, all the time needs social stabilization. For all that, money is necessary.


I have a question about Solidarity’s strategy in 1989-90. Of course, Solidarity’s support for the government was very important, but eventually Solidarity decided to strike. Do you think that Solidarity’s strategy at this time was the best from the perspective, on the one hand, of a trade union, and on the other from the perspective of the commonwealth?


Solidarity in 1989-1990 was a national liberation movement that succeeded without violence to regain sovereignty for Poland. The expectations for this movement were that it would quickly change Polish reality in all aspects – economic, social, everything. But only a small number of people had the kind of knowledge or experience to develop a vision of national development. Otherwise it was mostly a series of trial and error: decisions, errors, decisions, errors, and then learning from errors. Solidarity leaders were not political leaders in the sense of being prepared to take power. There were very few who had lived in a free environment, who knew the world, knew how to benefit from global experience. Only a very few were consciously prepared to take over responsibility for governing. Those were either older people who still remembered the Second Republic or people who functioned somehow during the Communist period.

In addition, the Solidarity environment contained a lot of people who had very different perspectives, particularly different economic views. Some believed that state property was sufficiently well-administered, that there was no theft or waste, that it was wisely managed. Some thought that there should only be private property. There was a variety of interests. During that period of 1989-91, it would have been possible to bring about political changes more quickly. It didn’t have to wait for parliamentary elections in October 1991. Those elections already should have taken place in 1990. If that had happened, maybe the enthusiasm could have been sustained for longer. Of course, there was talk of a distracted parliament. People complained that the Communists voted against everything that Solidarity presented. However from today’s perspective it seems that that was a political mistake.

Meanwhile, the union was then only in the public sector, for there was no private sector. That’s still the weakness of Solidarity. It’s not been able to, and this applies to trade unions in general, be attractive in Poland’s private sector. There are many reasons for that. Meanwhile, Solidarity was on the one hand withdrawing from politics, and on the other hand everyone looked to Solidarity to maintain the power that it had at the beginning when it was acting in the tradition of a national movement representing all of society. I don’t really know how Solidarity could have acted otherwise as a union. But maybe the historical leaders of the movement too quickly left the union, and a dissonance emerged between the institution of Solidarity and the Solidarity leaders who had been the symbol of Solidarity. People couldn’t understand how the Solidarity leadership de facto took a stand against them. People were saying, “Those leaders marched at the head of the demonstrations, and now they’re on the opposite side, and they’re saying that everything must change and Solidarity also must become something else.” They tried to achieve an optimal model at the time, both representing workers and taking responsibility for the state. It was also a very difficult period in the psychosocial sense, emotionally.


It was not a normal situation.


No, it was not a normal situation. Many Solidarity activists withdrew from union activities, and the authority of Solidarity in the public sphere fell very rapidly. But that was the price of freedom, the price of democracy. Solidarity no longer represented all of society. For a long period Solidarity was the political emanation of Poles. But then the institution that represented all of society became the parliament, right? If you wanted to look after your own interests then you participated in the elections. After a year or two, the changes were underway. By 1991 or 1992 already the political center had moved from Gdansk and the shipyard to the parliament.

I remember back in 1989-90 when these delegations from all over the world came to Solidarity: Chinese dissidents, Cuban dissidents, American businessmen, German industrialists. We were meeting with everyone. But that was only in the sphere of symbols, emotions, values, not the sphere of interests. The sphere of interests was the province of state structures. At the same time, there were strikes at various workplaces. In the fall of 1989 and in 1990 there were plenty of strikes – economic, social – as well as demonstrations and protests. We organized a meeting at Warsaw University in the big hall, the Auditorium Maximum. At the time there weren’t many large meeting places in Warsaw. Strikers from a thousand workplaces showed up. Strike, strike, strike. That was the autumn, the October I was talking about when the Mazowiecki government was created and there were so many expectations.

We also had a specific meeting at Warsaw University of the Factory Commission, the factory structure of Solidarity. The whole hall was full of activists and at the same time the Mazowiecki government was created. I heard “strike, strike,” and I knew that the Mazowiecki government would soon come into being. I was at the lectern saying, “Dear activists of Solidarity, Poles, we can’t strike right now because finally we’ll have our ideal government. Everything will change.” We were saying that the workers at Ursus didn’t depend on money. They depended on a free independent Poland. People didn’t depend on money? Today if someone said something like that, that workers don’t depend on money, it would be a provocation. But that was a different time.


What’s the future of Solidarity and trade unions in general? For instance, here in Poland, on the one hand, trade unions have become simply weaker. On the other hand perhaps there will be a Labor Party. I know that there was an attempt before to create such a party, but perhaps there will be a future attempt as well.


First of all, the social structure has changed here in Poland. The main Solidarity trade union organizing was in the large factories. Those large workplaces are much fewer. A huge number of people left the industrial sector for the small business sector – for the service sector or to run their own businesses. The largest trade union base is still in the largest industries like mining, the post office, that type of firm. As far as we can observe today, the unions don’t have any idea about how to function in, for instance, large-scale trade operations like hypermarkets. In fact the relations there between employers and workers are not good, and certainly trade union activities would be very necessary and useful. But the union doesn’t have any idea about how to do that.

Meanwhile, in small workplaces, people don’t feel the need for a union. Where there are 10, 20, 30 workers, they have non-stop contact with the employer. The union officials who represent them in relations with the employer are not generally effective. On the other hand, unions have pretty good organizational and financial structures.

In 1989-90 when Solidarity was officially back in the workplaces, we abhorred the post-Communist unions. They were disgusting clerks, these Communists, and they didn’t represent workers. They were just an apparat. Meanwhile, we were the authentic representatives coming directly out of the workers. But it’s been 20-some years since then. Some activists have been trade unionists for those 20 years. And the perspective of such people changes too. Someone who is a 20-year trade unionist, it’s difficult to imagine that person returning to the workplace, to production, if only because the work itself has changed. There are different tools, different technology, different habits and knowledge. Along the line these union activists have somehow lost an awareness and an understanding of the authentic needs of the workers. I know that if I said that today to a Solidarity colleague, they’d be 100 percent offended. I think that that’s also a problem.

On the one hand the union has become a profession. There are trainings, various courses. There’s dedication, greater precision. On the other hand it seems to me that in most cases there’s a lack of relations between union leaders and an authentic understanding of workers’ needs — not union needs but workers’ needs.

What’s the future? There will always be unions in some form. Solidarity still has its ideology, its historic achievements. There’s still a feeling of historical commitment. I have many colleagues that I was active with and who continue to be active today. I’ve kept all these relations and contacts. We meet. But it’s not like public activity, more like professional activity. They’re not Solidarity activists as dissidents, only activists as professional trade unionists. It’s work. It’s not a mission.

When I look at Solidarity today it’s as if time has stopped. Sometimes I go to the Mazowsze regional office, after five, 10, 15 years. I meet with the same people, only they’re older. It’s apparent that the organization has not been revitalized, that there’s been no internal changes. But perhaps there’s nowhere to change to? Because all the time there’s the same group of members, since there’s nowhere to get young leaders.

You were here in Poland in 1990. Michal Boni was the leader of the Mazowsze Region. Michal Boni, Maciej Jankowski. Do you remember those names?


I remember their names, but I didn’t meet them.


You’re familiar with Michal Boni?


I remember his name.


He’s a member of the government now. He’s the minister of digitization and administration. He’s been one of the closest co-workers of the premier for the last six years. He was also in the Bielecki government, but that’s already history. Back then when they were leaders in Solidarity, every one of them had a vision. They were people who were known not only in the union but in a public sense. They were important people in the public debate. But that’s not the case now with the leaders of Solidarity, outside of the leader of the entire union who is still an important character. Take the leader of Solidarity in Warsaw. If you conducted a research survey, maybe 5 or 10 percent would know who he is. But back then, it was 80 percent.


I’d like to ask you about self-government. I talked with Jan Litynski and he told me that this has been a success in Poland, self-government at various levels from the gmina down to the locality.


There’s a title of a book: A Country Recovered. In other words, Poland has recovered its subjectivity, its sovereignty. We can talk about that at various levels: mental, in business, at the local or regional level. Of course, the self-government reforms in the 1990s and the transmission of authority to the level of the town, the gmina, the region, launched a huge amount of activity that changed the sentiments of Poles. In 1990 there were problems in the north, the east, the west. Warsaw had the authority and that was it. This entirely changed, and now people are aware that many things depend on the distribution of authority to the base. Many cities have developed economically and socially. Certainly this development accompanied the entrance of Poland into the EU and the additional economic possibilities. Now many cities in Poland are no different from cities in Western Europe or anywhere else in the free parts of the world. There are still many things to do in the material sphere, but in many Polish cities there’s been indeed a lot of authentic development both in terms of civilization and infrastructure. People now identify with their cities, their regions, their own little homelands. In general, I consider self-government very positively. In every system there are mistakes, in every system there are pathologies, but the system in general is okay.


Most Poles are a little apathetic around national politics. They prefer to focus on private matters. But self-government is something else: it seems to be an exception to this rule. Poles want to participate in local politics, which suggests that self-government is more or less strong. It seems like a paradox. In other countries, local activity is quite weak, in the Czech Republic or Hungary, for instance, because Budapest and Prague are huge and powerful compared to other cities in those countries. But here in Poland it’s something else entirely. There’s Wroclaw, Krakow, Gdansk –


Poznań. And other large cities like Białystok and Częstochowa.


That’s a big different between Poland and other countries.


Yes, that’s a good observation. But Poles are still not engaged enough in the local communities. It’s probably the result of the Communist policy of the forced obedience of all citizens. When Communism collapsed, people started to act in the very opposite manner, which resulted in a growing number of initiatives of self-organization. People went from state coercion to the conscious need to do something with other people. Of course this is mostly visible in urban areas, rarely in rural areas. However, Polish people need some more time and knowledge to be more active within their own community. Also, it’s a matter of different social needs. At first people are mostly focused on satisfying basic economic and family-related needs. Only later do they go outside and try to engage in the public sphere. This pattern is changing rather slowly.

This is of course my subjective opinion. But as I mentioned to you before I established around 20 different organizations over the last 20 years, so I have some experience. Most of these organizations either focused on children aid or on the local community. In my hometown I founded an association that for the past 13 years has been working on dozens of different projects (cultural, social, charitable, grassroots). Although only a thousand people live in my hometown it took us three years to establish this organization. I am not involved in the activity of the association anymore, since fortunately a couple of other citizens agreed to devote part of their time to the local community and the work of the organization. By the way, your assistant managed to find me through this association’s website. We also publish books through the association. We don’t use public money from either the local or state budget. We use only private funds: we organize, write and publish by ourselves. We also do fundraising and thus we decide how we spend the collected money. This is an example of active citizenship.


What has changed in your perspective or point of view since you started to work in the Solidarity movement? Do you see the world differently?


In the world of politics? We have a political vacuum in our country. The positions of the statesmen are still not filled. From the procedural point of view everything looks fine. The biggest problem is the fact that people don’t want to be engaged in politics. On the other hand I hope that these well-educated people who now are gaining experience in local governments and businesses will later feel the need to become more engaged in politics. Maybe one day they will bring their practical experience to the world of politics and will not be only focused on pursuing their careers within their parties.

Let’s now turn to the economy. On one hand I have to say that I am satisfied with the way my family and friends accommodated themselves in capitalism. The overwhelming majority has their own businesses. Some of them are more successful, some of them less, but the overall result is definitely positive. That is why I believe we need a business-oriented administration that would serve as a helping hand for the business sector. The current state institutions either don’t understand the way the business is conducted nowadays or they approach it in too administrative or rigid a way. The bureaucracy is overdeveloped. Every issue is now being solved by new regulations. It’s completely different than at the beginning of the 1990s. The state administration does not see entrepreneurs as people creating value. Instead their initiatives are perceived as suspicious. This is absolutely wrong.

I will give you an example. One month ago I received an official letter from the Inland Revenue Office. This important letter from the Criminal Department of Inland Revenue Office asked me to appear before the office and explain why I was late with my tax returns. The letter was signed by a female commissioner, and I was supposed to show up in the office within two weeks. I called the commissioner and explained that during 22 years of having my own business I was late with tax returns only once (a one-day delay), and I paid a very small penalty. Therefore I asked her what this case was about. It affected my family: my wife got really upset.

The commissioner asked me to wait. After she returned she said that the letter was generated by the system by mistake and that she apologized for any inconvenience. I could not believe what I heard, so I asked, “Why was the system mistaken and why did you sign this letter, which clearly meant that you knew what the letter was about?” I got really upset. I said that I expected to receive a letter of apology within the next three days because this was not a joking matter for me. Some older people, after receiving this kind of letter, would not have been able to handle it very well. I didn’t really understand how the system made the mistake. The lady commissioner wrote and signed a letter addressed to me that said that if I did not show up at the office on the particular date, the police would act accordingly.

Let me give you an example how it should have been done. Since I used to be a deputy in parliament and a member of the Solidarity movement, and I’m a socially conscious citizen, I believe it would be enough to call me and ask me to come and explain the issue. I would just ask what time she was available and then I’d come and set the record straight. I understand that paying taxes is my duty. I use public healthcare, I am not a freeloader, and I think I do the best I can for my country in every field. However, the example of the letter shows that there is something wrong with our administration. The politicians who could influence it are either too weak or shaped by system, not the other way around. This is what you say about the Obama administration too, isn’t that right? Even the biggest authority cannot change the “system.” This is also a big problem in Poland. We are trying to facilitate the system by introducing changes in the voting system, we are trying to support entrepreneurs – but that is not the point. The main thing is that we should pay attention not to meddle in the economic sphere.

Other spheres also require changes. We don’t really talk much about the international position of our country because it seems to be secure nowadays. However we have to be very careful. From the perspective of recent years our membership in the EU and NATO makes our position on the international scene very beneficial and secure. But we have to remember that international politics tend to change rapidly. Yugoslavia had a similarly secure position, and no one really expected the outbreak of war in Europe on the scale of the 1990s. International conflicts tend to shift rapidly like the weather in the mountains.

As a Polish citizen I care mostly about economic and political position in international relations. The country’s potential is also important since the bigger capabilities the better position on the international scene. However taking into consideration our history and experience I tend to be skeptical. We all know that history has been harsh to our country. We currently have good relations with our neighbors, but we still have a lot to do. It is not ideal. We don’t have a solution for Ukraine, and Belarus has not defined its directions yet. Russia prioritizes strategic and economic goals without really taking care of its citizens. However, this is a topic for a different discussion.

Warsaw, August 27, 2013

Translated by John Feffer


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.


  1. After considerable thought on this open discussion of dismantling histories, the paradox of Poles in Politics becomes something of an internal ‘infliction’ more than an external conflict of interests.
    To adopt a phrase there is Post Traumatic Stress Fragments of Factions meandering through a mud pool of consent. It may be of some interest to note that the term “traditional” appears only once in reference to any benchmark, and that is to a standard not a cultural heritage of baseline confidence in ‘know-how’ or craftsmanship (let alone draftsmanship for a future authored by Polish Politically independent competency from the bottom up- or the top down. Elite theory might as well be called D-elete Theory. On the other hand, Solidarity abandoned ship and with it a generation of activism lost op-positional identity as soon as communism surrendered power. Current articles speak of abandoneing social capitalism or democratic economies in a bankrupt sense of trained incapacity and conditioned helplessness.

    I suppose the alternative ideas from the West like profit sharing and employee owned joint stock corporations should be politically inoperable for a society that lived under a false liberation ideology. That certainly explains the soft/hard conservative political party cohesion. But collective engagement and localized community embeddedness should permit a bottom up aggregate calitalism that is shared risk and shared profit. If Poland acts as it has acted in deep history, it will surprise the world and reinvent a sustainable, socially resilient and reliable capital systemic; and permit variable systems of enterprise operate as long as the distributed foundation is the primary target for reinvestment. Poland will follow others if debt and outside capital runs the show, and if the infrastructure growth does not pay the interest progressively and completely from external support. Independent Poland must unify debt free and with an integrated pathway for its entire baseline demographic.

    1. I might add that a new generation of “co-op:positional” coordination might well establish a “fair” market to compete with any preconceived notions of “free” (whatever that term conjures up from historic sub-conscious sublimation)…free markets or open market promises.
      In the end the politics will follow the money one way or the other and it will call itself whatever Brand that gets votes. On the other hand the world awaits a new revived version of solidarity:
      Polish Style!.

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