Voytek Zubek. Europe-Asia Studies. Volume 46, Issue 5. September 1994.
One of Poland’s most revered political authorities, Jerzy Giedroyc, the founder and editor of the emigre journal Kultura, advanced the view that, quite paradoxically, over the past three centuries Poland had been essentially a conservative, Catholic, ‘right-wing’ society traditionally ruled by its small leftist minority. This observation has become even more trenchant and the paradox even more compelling in the face of recent Polish developments. After all, the Polish communist system had been the most besieged by the struggle with a powerful opposition and was the first in Eastern Europe to collapse—clearly contributing to the chain of events elsewhere in the region. Moreover, in the aftermath of the collapse of the communist system, the majority of the Polish population began to perceive that system as the cause and source of society’s assorted socio-economic problems, to such an extent that the communist system was blamed not only for the problems that could clearly be attributed to it or which were exacerbated by it, but also for myriad socio-economic problems that in reality were rooted in the pre-communist history of the region.
With communism as both the real and the imaginary scapegoat, the openly post-communist political forces were effectively ostracised and seemingly shunned by the political mainstream. At the same time, during the 1989-93 period, the powerful left wing of the former Solidarity began vigorously to deny and underplay its leftism while instead claiming in fact to represent Poland’s ‘intelligentsia’, or the social forces of ‘pragmatism, professionalism and competence’ and, especially in the first post-communist years, to claim that it would establish the rule of the ‘best and brightest’ in Poland.
However, while it might have appeared that Poland’s left had been undergoing a profound transformation that would gradually lead to the complete marginalisation of this ideological option in Polish society, in reality the left had been actively regrouping, retrenching and establishing foundations for still another bid for political power and domination in society.
This article examines the ramifications of the recent and seemingly paradoxical revival of Poland’s left and its present bid for political power and domination. Since even the definition of the left has been politically controversial in contemporary Poland, the only reliable way of defining it would involve an examination of the common roots of Poland’s assorted leftist parties.
The mainstream of Poland’s left consists arguably of four basic subcomponents: two post-communist parties—the parties that emerged as a result of the transformation of the former communist PZPR (Polish United Workers Party) and its subservient ally the peasant ZSL (United Peasant Party)—the SdRP (Social-democracy of the Polish Republic) and the PSL (Polish Peasant Party); and two post-Solidarity parties—the parties that emerged from the left wing of the disintegrating Solidarity—the UD (Democratic Union) and the UP (Union of Labour). This article focuses particular attention on the SdRP and the UD because they appear to be at the cutting edge of the development of the new left in Poland.
Part I of the article searches for the common roots of the present left, and tries to answer the question of what constitutes the contemporary left; Part II discusses its recent revival.
The Meaning of the ‘Left’ in Post-Communist Poland
At the end of the 1980s, amidst the collapse and disintegration of the communist system, the meaning of the left began to change dramatically. Poland’s last communist regime decided to abandon marxian economics and boldly set out upon a capitalist transformation by helping the nomenklatura milieux to take over the most effective parts of the socialised economy and thus turn themselves into capitalists. Shortly thereafter, during the autumn 1988 Magdalenka talks between the communist regime and the political leadership of Solidarity, which at that time was thoroughly dominated by its socialistic left wing, the Solidarity political elite accepted the basic premise of the nomenklatura ‘Rakowski privatisation’ while also maintaining that entrepreneurial opportunity was supposed to be broadened beyond the strictly nomenklatura milieux.
This position represented a dramatic intellectual breakthrough, for less than a decade earlier, during the dramatic negotiations between the communist party elite and Solidarity leadership, both sides strongly defended the principles of socialism, albeit somewhat differently understood. Namely, to preserve the statist/socialist system with the state sector at its economic core, the communist elite assumed a stiff bargaining pose and eventually imposed Martial Law. At the same time, while understanding socialism differently—as democratic, decentralised and participatory—Solidarity’s left wing also viewed the future economy as socialised although under the self-management of the working class. Toward that end, in the early stages of the Solidarity movement, its left wing mounted a powerful attack against Walesa’s leadership since he was perceived as tilting the movement too much toward the right-wing, nationalistic and Christian-democratic milieux. The failed coup against Walesa that was led by the most fiery leaders of the left, including Michnik, Kuron, Modzelewski and Litynski, sought to replace him with Andrzej Gwiazda, a socialist radical and doctrinare advocate of worker self-management.
However, a mere eight years later, both leftist elites had abandoned marxian economics completely and Gwiazda, whom Solidarity’s left initially had seen as the movement’s leader and who obstinately clung to his beliefs, was shunned by the left wing and expelled to the political margin.
The dramatic transformation with regard to marxian economics was the result of four decades of attempts by Poland’s left to reform the socialist system. Thus, after decades of failed reform attempts, when the even more ambitious reforms of the 1980s failed to revive the socialist economy, Poland’s left elements seemed literally to run out of reformist ideas and, with the communist party as the vanguard, decided to abandon marxian economics entirely. Consequently, this article concentrates not only on tracing the roots of the post-communist left but also underlines the chain of events that culminated in the left’s complete abandonment of marxian economics.
With the issue of commitment to marxian economics no longer a fundamental criterion defining Poland’s left vis-a-vis other political milieux, Poland’s left came to resemble Western European social-democracy inasmuch as it basically accepted the capitalist system. Thus, as in the case of Western European social-democrats, Poland’s left had to be defined by other factors than a commitment to marxian economics.
Moreover, in the case of post-communist Poland, the issue of commitment to capitalist economics or even economic liberalism would provide a particularly confusing means of identifying the left vs. the right. Namely, while the left assumed a pro-capitalist and in some cases even free-market, almost neo-liberal position on economic issues, most of the right—and this is one of the fundamental reasons for its recent political collapse and condition of ideological chaos—began to assume a statist and often populistic socialist-like stand on economic issues. However, beyond economic issues, other aspects of the ideology of Poland’s left and right were very typical and conformed to predictable categories.
The Past Failures of Communist Reformism in Poland
The collapse of the communist system in Poland seemed to be so complete and final because it appeared that before their final demise, the Polish communists had pursued every conceivable means to reform the communist system, thus exhausting every possible option for reviving it.
Before the final collapse of Poland’s communist system, over the past 45 years, the communist elite had repeatedly witnessed the failures of its periodic attempts to reform the system. Compared with other communist systems, Poland’s stood out historically as one of the weaker. Traditionally, Poland’s civil society and its opposition to the communist system were relatively the strongest in Eastern Europe and the ruling communist elites usually appeared to be more divided and ideologically volatile than those in other communist societies. Consequently, facing a variety of internal and external pressures, the Polish communist elite showed a persistent tendency to engage in repeated ideological and systemic reformist experiments.
The successive failures of these efforts usually led to a brief period of intra-elite struggle and ideological chaos from which eventually arose a spate of new reforms, together with the requisite ideological adaptations. Thus, the history of communist Poland could be seen as a series of so-to-speak ‘Phoenix from the ashes’ scenarios. First, during the 1944-45 period, amidst the civil war and the Soviet occupation, the communist system was established with a ‘mixed economy’, the Bukharinate version. Second, this initial communist system was dumped onto ‘the rubbish heap of history’ by the imposition of full-blown Stalinism. Stalinism was soon eclipsed by the final departure of its supreme authority and, after a transitional interlude, the Polish communist system entered its reformist, ‘early Gomulkavite’ stage of the late 1950s. However, the 1960s brought another change—the return to ideological and socio-economic orthodoxy in the form of the Gomulkavite ‘little stabilisation’. In the second half of the 1960s the deterioration of the ‘little stabilisation’ pushed a major part of the late Gomulkavite elite toward an increasingly nationalistic, anti-semitic, anti-intellectual and anti-liberal authoritarianism. With the failure of this option, accelerated by the workers’ rebellions in December 1970, the pendulum swung again toward the reformist wing of the party and culminated in the most ambitious, breathtakingly bold Gierek Great Leap Forward of the 1970s.
However, the complete failure of the Gierek Great Leap Forward by the end of the 1970s, and the subsequent rapid descent from the psychological high that accompanied it to the psychological low that followed its collapse, brought about a searing socio-economic crisis only aggravated further by concomitant ideological inertia. These conditions fostered the forming of a unique massive coalition of the opposition, Solidarity, triggering the onset of a struggle for power in 1980-81.
The imposition of Martial Law in December 1981 ended Solidarity’s open challenge for power for a while and afforded the communist elite enough time to launch two separate attempts at systemic reform. First, on the basis of the military take-over and Martial Law, Poland’s so-to-speak ‘strong-arm technocrats’ tried their hand at establishing something analogous to some of the Southeast Asian reformist regimes of the 1950s, where militaristic-authoritarian regimes underwrote programmes of intensive industrialisation and modernisation.
This programme, however, collapsed amidst the Great Reform Debate of the mid 1980s, engendering in turn the Polish communist elite’s ‘swan song’ of systemic reformism the programme of gradual socio-economic liberalisation that culminated in the ‘privatisation’ of the last communist Prime Minister, Mieczyslaw Rakowski. Under the terms of the massive programme, the communist nomenklatura, apparatchiks and managers were transformed into the capitalistic owners of former state enterprises. The financial arrangements governing the change in ownership proved to be exceptionally fortuitous for the beneficiaries of the Rakowski ‘privatisation’.
Thus, when Poland’s communist system disintegrated and collapsed during 1989, it might have seemed to disprove Giedroyc’s statement. After all, Poland’s communism appeared to be a completely intellectually spent and discredited ideology and its fallen elite seemed to have exhausted all their political options.
The Communist Party’s Reformist Wing
One way of looking at the gradual evolution and transformation of Poland’s communist party is to view it through the prism of the gradual growth and political ascent of the communist party’s reformist wing. The consequence of the decades-long struggle for dominance between the party’s reformist and conservative wings was the reformist wing’s victory in the early 1970s, its growing domination during the 1970s and in the 1980s its de facto elimination of the party’s conservative wing.
The communist party’s reformist option manifested itself in two basic forms. The first will be labeled here the ‘quixotic-intellectual’, and in the past, although small in number, it was highly visible because it consisted of a peculiar mixture of famous dissenting marxist intellectuals and youthful radicals who attempted to so-to-speak ‘re-revolutionise’ and reinvigorate Poland’s post-stalinist socialism. The second form of the party’s reformist wing was very large in number and it was this that gradually increased its preponderance over the conservative wing. Cautious and ideologically unobtrusive in its behaviour, this milieu was more akin to water quietly undermining the very banks of the system.
While this entire milieu consisted of diverse subcomponents—divided by ideological trends such as ‘technocratism’ or nationalism and also divided by various regional tendencies—a number of ideological common denominators bound these various subcomponents into a definable, massive milieu: the communist party’s reformist wing.
Above all, the milieu was definable by its quiet but very pronounced, stubborn and fundamental rejection of the Soviet model of socialism. While, in the short run, they found themselves bound to the Soviet model because of Soviet imperial and military domination over the region, nonetheless, in the long run, they were committed to discarding this model of society by undertaking fundamental reforms. On the other hand, however, their disapproval of the Soviet model did not automatically imply unquestionable acceptance of Western European social-democracy. While this milieu expressed definite sympathy for Western European social-democracy, especially the Swedish system—just as it still viewed some aspects of the Soviet model sympathetically-it was nevertheless considered unacceptable for Poland.
Instead, the party’s reformist wing was committed to the uniquely Polish ‘road to socialism’ that from the socio-economic point of view would combine Soviet socialism and Western European social-democracy.
The Triumph and Defeat of the Party’s Reformist Wing
At the end of the 1960s the Gierek party faction of self-styled nomenklatura ‘managers and technocrats’ began to hybridise with the party’s traditional reformist/ revisionist wing and consequently managed to win the battle for succession to replace the collapsing conservative, post-stalinist Gomulkavites. Their victory over the party’s conservative/nationalistic wing prevented Poland from evolving in the Romanian direction and allowed them to advance their unique plan—Gierek’s Great Leap Forward—where the ideas of the politically ‘tough’ but economically liberal ‘technocrats’ were mediated by the political liberalism of the party ‘reformists’.
The Gierek plan was based on heavy borrowing of capital and technology from the West, on modest political liberalisation, on modest but steady increases in labour’s living standard and, fundamentally, on the cheap production of Western-quality industrial goods which, if sold profitably, would allow the repayment of the initial debt and fuel further economic advancement. Implicitly, political evolution would thus ensue. While this plan has been the subject of intensive interest from the academic community, conclusions concerning the reasons for its abysmal failure at the end of the 1970s nearly uniformly blame the very incompetence of the Polish political elite and top managerial strata.
The collapse of the programme not only eroded the regime’s social support, but also particularly deflated the spirit of the communist party. Altogether, the party found itself in a precarious situation. With the conservative wing first defeated and largely removed from power at the beginning of the 1970s and then further atrophied by the economic and political changes during the 1970s, the party elite that presided over the spectacular economic collapse at the end of that decade had no alternative to which it could turn. Although the Gierek programme had suffered abysmal collapse, the party remained ‘Gierkovite’, for there simply were no viable alternatives to this by now thoroughly dominant faction.
The blame for the collapse of the Gierek Great Leap Forward was placed on the ‘Gierkovites’ in the most narrow interpretation of this concept, i.e. reduced to the inner circle of political cronies who subsequently, one by one, were ousted from power. With the removal of Gierek himself ending this mini-purge and the party-sponsored propaganda laying the blame for the collapse of the Gierek programme squarely on the shoulders of his cronies’ personal incompetence and corruption, the post-Gierek transition of the regime was completed in essentially personal terms. However, this was merely the easiest part.
The party was cornered and trapped in all its ideological and programmatic dimensions. Throughout the 1970s the triumphalist Gierkovite propaganda had ridiculed the very premises of competing party-based ideologies—the conservative, post-stalinist Gomulkavism and the defeated trend that had gained some prominence during the 1960s, the nationalistic/conservative Moczarism. While the removal from office of the partisans of these ideologies and the officially sponsored ideological assault on them were well discussed in the literature, it should also be emphasised that the Gierek system went far beyond criticism in its struggle against these competing ideologies—it de facto obliterated their socio-economic base and destroyed the roots from which they could potentially have regenerated. Namely, one of the key aspects of the Gierek programme was the creation of opportunities for the society’s managerial-technocratic strata to attain an analogous living standard to that of their counterparts in Western societies, and much advantage was taken of such opportunity. Further, during the 1970s, the petty-entrepreneurial expansion began in earnest, despite the regime’s ambivalent attitude toward that sector, and at the same time part of the peasantry also took advantage of the rapid economic expansion. Altogether, the petty-entrepreneurial and peasant prosperity provided further economic opportunity for the state’s political/managerial strata, thanks to their control over and symbiosis with these groups. Ultimately, the decade saw the notable expansion of a peculiarly Polish ‘grey zone’ between the private and the socialist sectors of the economy.
As a result, when the collapse of the Gierek programme led some nostalgic voices to call for a return to the spartan, frugal and self-efficient Gomulkavite system, such calls were understandably ignored amidst the Gierkovite political/managerial strata. Thus, with the potential followers of a return to Gomulkavism being few and far between, this option became no more than one of many demagogical arguments that surfaced in the chaotic post-Gierkovite leadership debates. Consequently, Poland’s post-Gierek communist elites became completely trapped ideologically and stale-mated. On the one hand, despite the fact that the Gierek Programme had collapsed, substantial elements of the elite had benefited from it and could not abandon their commitment to it. Yet on the other hand, the communist elites did not consider return to the pre-Gierek system a realistic option.
The Rise of Solidarity and the Schism within the Party’s Reformist Wing
The multiple and complex reasons behind the sudden congealing of the Solidarity mass movement out of a multitude of opposition factions and assorted socio-economic and cultural milieux has been extensively discussed and analysed. For the purpose of this analysis, however, it is important to underline the state of Poland’s post-Gierek communist elite as one of the fundamental reasons for the rise of Solidarity.
Solidarity not only grew with astounding speed and mass enthusiastic popularity, it also began to undermine the very foundations of the communist party as a mass organisation. Solidarity and the party’s rank and file began to permeate each other and hybridise. With time, this hybridisation began to rise higher and higher up the party pyramid. Eventually, a number of Central Committee members and even one Politburo member became also Solidarity members.
It could hypothetically be argued that if the party had decided to procrastinate a few more years, the Polish transition might have occurred not only through a negotiated settlement such as the one reached in 1988 and 1989 and that during the 1980-81 period the Solidarity leadership had sought and some party reformers had supported, but also such a transition could have happened through a complete hybridisation between the party and Solidarity. What remained, however, was the fact that in the early 1980s the majority of the party elite did not intend to share power in any meaningful way.
Under these circumstances began the gradual rise of the Polish military—and its commander Wojciech Jaruzelski—to political power. With the progressing hybridisation and disintegration of the communist party, the system could have been saved by either a military or a police takeover. With the Polish secret police establishment being relatively too small and too weak for such a feat, this question in fact became academic. By then, the military establishment remained the only milieu both strong enough and sufficiently unaffected by Solidarity to save the communist system.
Eventually, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, an otherwise very unlikely figure, was called on to save the crumbling communist system, but only as the last resort. With the failure of Kania’s leadership, the military and Jaruzelski became the last defence for those who wanted to preserve the Polish communist system with no more than minimal changes.
However, if the communist elite had wanted to entertain real negotiations with Solidarity, it had a unique opportunity to arrive at an excellent bargain for itself. Despite its overwhelming strength and the pitiful conditions of the collapsing communist party, the political demands of Solidarity’s leadership were exceptionally modest and reasonable. Until the very last days, both Solidarity and the closely allied Catholic Church proposed the formation of a corporate state in Poland that would consist of three basic pillars: the communist party, Solidarity and the Church. While the party would still retain most of the political power, with Solidarity and the Church assured of substantial albeit much smaller input into decision making, the political system would be based on corporatist rather than democratic premises.
The communist elite had no intention whatsoever of engaging in negotiations that would lead to such an agreement. By contrast, the only acceptable option for the communist elite was the de facto self-dissolution of Solidarity, or its merger with the state’s controlled ‘official’ labour union, with Solidarity leaders being satisfied with no more than figurehead leadership positions within this new union. Anything more than that scenario was haughtily and contemptuously labeled by the communist elite as an irresponsible provocation.
The communist elite that at that time presided over a disintegrating party could afford such arrogance only because it still had a last ace up its sleeve—the military and Jaruzelski. Indeed, when the political situation reached complete stalemate, systematic preparations for the military takeover began. Jaruzelski was named the party First Secretary and began the slow, premeditated planning for the military takeover. There is overwhelming evidence of extensive preparations for the enactment of Martial Law, beginning with Jaruzelski’s ascent to the leadership. For example, the announcements with the names of ‘internees’ were printed abroad months before the actual declaration of Martial Law.
While Jaruzelski—the ultimate bureaucrat and servant of the system—plodded toward the declaration of Martial Law, with mechanical efficiency, the leaders of the Solidarity/Church alliance seemed to be confused about his role and the general political situation. Until the very eve of the imposition of Martial Law, they continued to advance new and more conciliatory proposals for a power-sharing corporatist arrangement between the party, Solidarity and the Church. The general’s reactions were invariably the same—he listened with distant, aloof politeness and basically did not react to these proposals. Actually, the general’s response was hardly surprising given the fact that nothing in his personal training and interests qualified him or even inclined him to be disposed to becoming engaged with socio-economic matters of such magnitude.
The imposition of Martial Law was well prepared and well rehearsed, relying on the massive application of force and ruthless efficiency. However, from the outset, it became vital for the communist elite to obfuscate and hide the real reasons for the imposition of military rule. Since they were the product of the Gierek decade and still basically Gierkovites, using the opportunity to impose a kind of neo-stalinist, Ceaucescu-type or hard-line, nationalistic Moczarite regime was out of the question. As argued above, at that time there were no substantial, viable political milieux capable of imposing and supporting such a system. Thus, from a systemic and especially from the economic point of view, the imposition of Martial Law was only a prelude to the economic reform and renewal that now could be the unquestionable monopoly of the communist elite.
However, the imposition of Martial Law was tantamount to the ultimate betrayal of the pivotal Solidarity left wing that was tacitly allied with elements of the party’s reformist wing. In general, together with the traditionally moderating and conciliatory role of the Catholic church, this sector within the party’s reformist wing aimed at a power-sharing compromise between the party and Solidarity. Clearly, their proposals for power sharing directed at the party elite were very modest and would have allowed the party to continue its dominant role within society.
Thus, the imposition of Martial Law came as a shock to this part of the party’s reformist wing and as a result it split into two parts: the communist left and the Solidarity left. The schism between these two milieux became exceptionally bitter in fact in the mid-1980s it began to approximate a fratricidal struggle. Indeed, resentment of Solidarity’s left wing toward the communist left began to verge on irrationality. For example, in the mid-1980s Kuron vehemently argued from his jail cell for armed insurrection and anti-communist guerilla warfare. Also, at the same time, Michnik fired off his most vicious critiques of the regime. All in all, Solidarity’s left, the milieu that during the Solidarity period of 1980-81 was the most inclined to integrate with the communist party and to arrive at a power-sharing agreement that would be very generous to the communist elite, was so shocked by the imposition of Martial Law that in the mid-1980s it became, for the time being, one of the most irreconcilably anti-communist milieux in Poland. It seemed that the issue of Martial Law had irreversibly split the party’s reformist wing into two adversarial factions: the communist reformist left that by the mid-1980s began completely to dominate the communist party (PZPR) and the Solidarity left wing.
The Communist Party and the Schism
During the first few years after the imposition of Martial Law, the communist elite seemed in the grip of both giddiness and arrogance. The ‘strong-arm’, ‘law and order’ system was supposed to be a healing factor for the Polish economy—some of the communist elite of the Martial Law society dreamt of establishing in Poland some system akin to the early stages of the South Korean or Taiwanese transformation. While appearing to be sure of the success of the Martial Law experiment, the communist elite was openly disdainful of the suppressed Solidarity.
Thus, during that time, the communist elite’s justifications for the imposition of Martial Law were particularly crude and simplistic and in fact, in the view of virtually all serious students of the problem, were not much more than propaganda excesses. The official explanation held that Solidarity was absolutely unwilling to negotiate ‘seriously and responsibly’ with the communist elite and had pressed to destroy unilaterally the socialist system. Further, although the authorities were extremely patient waiting for Solidarity’s leadership to assume a more ‘responsible’ attitude, this patience eventually ran out for two basic reasons. First, society was slipping into socio-economic chaos. Second, the alleged ‘radical wing’ of Solidarity was supposed to be gaining dominance within the movement and was preparing for armed insurrection against the socialist system; altogether, society was supposed to be on the verge of a bloody civil war. Consequently, only the imposition of Martial Law could have prevented the unfolding of these cataclysmic events.
After a few years, however, the socio-economic failure of the Martial Law system had become apparent. In the mid-1980s, through the vehicle of the Great Reform Debate and other more subtle means, the communist elite began to move step-by-step to prepare itself for an eventual renewal of a dialogue with Solidarity that would lead to some kind of compromise to break the Polish stalemate.
Consequently, although, the communist elite never actually denounced its original justification of Martial Law, and continued to repeat the official rationale with mechanical monotony, the focus of the regime’s propaganda effort began gradually to take a new direction. The new propaganda initiative asserted that the imposition of Martial Law was in fact an act of ultimate patriotic responsibility on the part of the Polish military. Specifically, the Soviet Union was alleged to have threatened a military invasion together with Poland’s other hard-line neighhours, Czechoslovakia and the GDR.
The regime’s propaganda implied not so subtly that such an invasion would have meant ultimate disaster for Poland. Solidarity leaders would have been either executed on the spot or taken to Siberia; military terror would have been imposed on the population; those elements of the Polish military and of the opposition milieux that would have engaged in active resistance against the occupation would have been slaughtered. However, this would have been only a bloody prelude to a full-scale national disaster. The Martial Law apologists and propagandists clearly implied that such an invasion would have been tantamount to a new partition of Poland: the GDR would have used the opportunity to regain a great deal of former German territories; the Czechs would have gained parts of lower Silesia; and it was also supposed to have been likely that other neighbours would claim the Polish territories that their nationalists coveted. All in all, such an invasion would have reduced Poland to a bloodied, terrorised, occupied rump with a quisling neo-stalinist regime presiding over its pathetic remnants. By contrast, the imposition of Martial Law was supposed in fact to have been an act of true patriotism or the painful but nevertheless consummately responsible choice of a lesser evil over an evil of monstrous dimensions.
The strongest selling point for this official apologia justifying the imposition of Martial Law was its apparent plausibility. After all, it seemed to be well based in the very recent historical experience of the region where invasions, partitions, massive border shifts, genocide, etc, had repeatedly occurred within the living memory of the population. Moreover, the Soviet Union had indeed engaged in a number of military interventions in Eastern Europe and had threatened the region on other occasions. Furthermore, during the 1980-81 period, some milieux within the USSR and other East European satellites had either threatened the Polish communist elite with armed intervention or demanded that the Poles themselves impose some kind of forceful solution to the political crisis.
In addition, this justification was particularly congruent with the Polish nationalistic imagery concerning the imperial Russia/Soviet Union. Finally, this justification found popular support in the West, especially in many circles in the USA. After all, these were the times of the robust advent of Reaganism and the views of traditional American ‘stone-jawed conservatives’, fundamentalist prophets from American provincial backwaters, together with lobbyists for the military-industrial complex, had begun to dominate the mainstream of American politics. Altogether, throughout most of the 1980s, this justification for the imposition of Martial Law was particularly difficult to disprove and found popular acceptance both in Poland and abroad.
State Socialism’s Swansong and the Final Compromise
With the post-Martial Law renewal falling to materialise and the economy in a state of continuing structural decline, the communist elite decided on an ideologically and intellectually dramatic move and launched the so-called Great Reform Debate in the state media. With this initiative actually somewhat preceding the unravelling of Gorbachev’s glasnost’, these events were presumably merely coincidental. During the 1984-86 period the pro-system, mainstream politicians, intellectuals, academics and journalists engaged in a vigorous and extensive debate over the very foundations of the socio-economic system. The particular effort was directed at proposals for reform of the socialist/statist economy, while political reform was discussed merely as a consequence of economic reform.
During that debate, these mainstream and pro-system forces managed to dissect and then reject virtually every pillar of what until then had been understood as the core of the socialist/statist economy. All in all, this critique led to what became the generally accepted conclusion that the Polish system should be expeditiously reformed in the direction of a market-oriented, ‘mixed’ economy where the private and state sectors would harmoniously coexist, framed by a context of marketisation and decentralisation. Thus the new Polish economic system that was intellectually carved out by the Great Reform Debate would be remarkably similar to those of the West European social-democracies. The debate focused less on and was more vague about prospects for future political reform, although hinting at the likelihood of greater liberalisation and democratisation.
From the mid- 1980s on, the developments in Poland paralleled the ongoing Soviet transformation. Undoubtedly, the echos of the Soviet transformation greatly influenced the actions of Poland’s communist leaders and there is also not much doubt that the Polish transformation exerted a great influence—albeit of a more subtle nature—on Soviet developments. Before the onset of glasnost’, Poland’s communists had hoped to find an inspiration for their own socio-economic reform by instigating a broad social debate. Gorbachev’s reforms could only embolden their own commitment.
Consequently, Poland’s communist elite put forward its last profound attempt at systemic reform, Rakowski’s ‘privatisation’—communist Poland’s systemic swan song. Because the Rakowski ‘privatisation’ unfolded as the political transition that led to the Solidarity takeover and the final collapse of the communist system in Poland was taking place, it was overshadowed by the events that succeeded it. Nevertheless, it became one of the key ideological undercurrents of post-communist Poland.
Even when reduced to its most fundamental elements, the Rakowski ‘privatisation’ was an initiative comparable in its breadth and scope to Gierek’s Great Leap Forward. In a number of bold strokes, the Rakowski regime, inspired by the Great Reform Debate of the mid-1980s, decided to unshackle legally and unleash Poland’s by then very substantial milieu of urban petty entrepreneurs and the massive milieu of the independent peasantry. After four decades of more or less veiled systemic attempts to vanquish these thorns in the side of the socialist economy, Rakowski apologised to them for their past mistreatment and invited them to grow and develop in the new context of true market conditions that his regime was about to enact. Moreover, the doors for foreign petty-entrepreneurial investment—especially by Polish emigres and in joint ventures—were thrown open.
What remained then were the large urban industrial enterprises and various centrally owned services employing roughly 50% of Poland’s labour force. To revive this sector, Rakowski chose to implement an unprecedented strategy. Poland’s nomenklatura, that motley assortment of post-Gierkovites, would be transformed into capitalists. For nominal, give-away prices, many industrial enterprises or their component parts would be sold to groups of their previous nomenklatura managers or spolka. Three basic sectors—the petty entrepreneurs, the peasants and the nomenklatura capitalists would now have to operate in purely market conditions. The dramatically shrunken state sector would retain some enterprises of strategic importance to the state or that were too precariously situated financially to be easily privatised or liquidated, and these would probably have been supported by various subsidies.
The political implications of Rakowski’s ‘privatisation’ were obvious. Generally speaking, Poland’s communist elite envisioned a transition that would parallel the later Salinista reforms in Mexico or the South Korean model of economic free enterprise and political authoritarianism. The particular Polish objectives hinged on the emergence of vast social milieux such as the peasantry, the petty entrepreneurs and the nomenklatura capitalists that on the one hand would be fully satisfied with the economic conditions the Rakowski government created for them and, on the other hand, would find the only somewhat liberalised political system at least tolerable.
It was further imagined that after a few years of Rakowski’s transformation the pro-system forces would do to Solidarity what it had almost done to the communist system in the early 1980s. If the reforms succeeded and labour were profitably employed, the stores well supplied and the peasanatry, the petty entrepreneurs and the nomenklatura capitalists expanding, the Solidarity movement would probably have been limited to malcontent intellectuals and political extremists. Its other vital sub-components would somehow have been assimilated into Rakowski’s new reality. Under such conditions, the communist elite would have had the means to transform the political system toward either the Mexican or the South Korean model.
Rakowski’s ‘privatisation’ shared one vital characteristic with the Gierek Great Leap Forward—while on paper it seemed to be plausible, in fact it was completely unrealistic under the existing social conditions. With the Soviet transition rapidly and dramatically changing inter-state relations within the Soviet block, with the economic failure of Martial Law further sapping the strength from the communist party and the Solidarity movement expanding its various activities in the legal ‘underground’, the Polish domestic situation had become particularly explosive. Beyond the moderating influence of the negotiation and compromise-minded traditional leadership of Solidarity, new spontaneous and very radical labour and political movements had begun to proliferate rapidly.
A substantial decrease in labour’s living standard was the unavoidable initial consequence of the ongoing privatisation. If such a privatisation had been sanctioned by an agreement between the communist elite, Solidarity and the Church, a concerted effort might have been marshalled to enlist social support for the programme, giving it some chance for success. However, both Solidarity and the Church assumed the pose of hostile critical indifference toward the Rakowski ‘privatisation’. That, together with the vehement labour protests directed at these reforms, began to create conditions that suggested that another Martial Law might have to be imposed and that the ‘privatisation’ itself seemed to be doomed.
The failure of Rakowski’s reforms was particularly paradoxical. As one observer sarcastically pointed out, if the communist elite had proposed the Rakowski ‘privatisation’ in the early 1980s the grateful society would have built them monuments. After all, the negotiating demands of the Solidarity leadership then were more modest than the Rakowski ‘privatisation’. In the late 1980s, however, Solidarity and the Church contemptuously shunned Rakowski’s earnest overtures of compromise and limited power sharing and those few naive and ambitious opposition leaders—such as the famous lawyer Sila-Nowicki—who individually flirted with the Rakowski regime were ostracised by Solidarity.
With the communist system lacking the strength to reimpose another Martial Law and with the socio-economic situation deteriorating and becoming more explosive, the communist elite moved in what it saw as the only realistic direction available—to negotiations with the Solidarity/Church camp. The late summer and autumn 1988 Magdalenka talks between the selective representatives of the contending elites, and later the formal Round Table negotiations in the winter of 1988/89, saw the creation of the foundations for a rapid political transition towards pluralist democracy. The threshold of this transition was supposed to be marked by the June 1989 ‘limited’ parliamentary elections that in fact proved to be less limited than they initially seemed. Indeed, the disastrous electoral performance of the communist coalition led to the rapid takeover of government by Solidarity and the final disintegration of the communist party in autumn 1989.
Although overshadowed by the political and cultural developments of 1989, the economic arrangement reached between the two sides was also very important and would have long-lasting consequences for post-communist Poland. In essence, the communists received assurances in the Magdalenka process and later in the Round Table agreements that the central direction of the Rakowski ‘privatisation’ would be maintained in the new political conditions. Put most plainly, not only would the nomenklatura spolka be allowed to keep their newly acquired properties but, in fact, the process of transformation of the nomenklatura into a capitalist class through cut-rate acquisitions of former state property would be allowed to continue.
The mechanics of this process were quite remarkable. In the still non-market economy, the nomenklatura establishment that controlled every aspect of the state sector of the economy simply conjured up very affordable prices and other friendly conditions for the transfer either of entire state enterprises or more often of their viable divisions and ‘sold’ them in secret insider deals to other nomenklatura members. It was by such repugnant means then that a wholly new and unique capitalist class had begun to emerge in Poland and would continue to grow.
The ‘Lefts’ Abandon Marxian Economics
Another paradox of Poland’s lefts’ politics was not only their relatively early and complete abandonment of marxian economics but also the fact that the reformist economists who had remained associated with the communist party throughout the 1980s were actually more eager and often moved more rapidly to reject marxian economics and to embrace the model of market-based capitalism than did the economists associated with Solidarity during that time.
Generally speaking, until the collapse of Gierek’s Great Leap Forward at the end of the 1970s, the economists who were associated with the party’s reformist wing were the spiritus movens of Poland’s assorted attempts at socio-economic reform. From a purely abstract point of view, their efforts went either in a direction similar to the Hungarian NEM or, by contrast, toward a peculiar ‘technocratism’ that sought to reinvigorate the statist, planned economy with an infusion of modern Western methods of management, computerisation and automation. In fact, beside its vaunted gambit of massive capital borrowing, the Gierek programme consisted of a mixture of these two economic approaches.
After the systemic chaos and indecision of the initial Solidarity period of 1980-81, the imposition of Martial Law brought the demise of Polish marxian economic thought. Part of the communist elite and a few pro-system economists believed that the statist, planned economy could be made viable by the infusion of militaristic discipline. However, after the partially elite-sponsored Great Reform Debate of the mid-1980s had undermined the very foundation of Poland’s Soviet-style socialism, in rapid sequence virtually all pro-system and party-affiliated economists completely abandoned marxian economics. The superiority of market capitalism as an economic system began to be openly pronounced and, as a result, the question became not whether the last communist elite would transform the economy according to market principles but rather how fast the task would be accomplished. Had the Rakowski programme been stabilised, it would undoubtedly have found warm support in the IMF, given its short and direct road to market capitalism.
Paradoxically, the economists associated with Solidarity did not exhibit any greater degree of boldness than those associated with the party’s reformist wing. By contrast, Solidarity economists tended to be more cautious in advocating the dismantling of the state socialist economy and the rapid transformation to market capitalism.
What tended to hamstring many of the economists associated with Solidarity was the movement’s eclectic character. Thus, among many ideological trends that surfaced in the massive Solidarity coalition, rather nostalgic feelings for models based on populistic worker self-management precepts were quite influential. In the aftermath of the glaring failure of Yugoslav self-management, the model had virtually no advocates among Poland’s economists. Nonetheless, among the masses of workers there were spontaneous yearnings for some kind of ‘just’ system in which the workers would manage their own enterprises.
Thus, the party-affiliated economists operated in an environment that was ostentatiously indifferent to popular yearnings while also being painfully aware of previous failures to reform the socialist economy. They concluded therefore that the system could be saved by a quick transformation to market capitalism—the only system they by now viewed as effective. However, for the party-affiliated economists this dramatic transformation was to take place as Poland’s last ‘white revolution’, i.e. led by the communist elite and imposed in the context of the elite’s systemic domination. Only in such a setting could the pro-system economists exhibit such bluntness and single-mindedness of thought.
By contrast, the Solidarity economists operated within the context of a grand political coalition of diverse and often conflicting socio-economic milieux. As a result, they were obliged to be more mindful of the political ramifications of their views and to minimise the extent to which affected interests were antagonised.
However, while the economists affiliated with Solidarity paid some attention to worker self-management and other socialistic economic concepts, this hardly amounted to much more than politically motivated lip-service. In reality, they never seriously advanced or operationalised such approaches and predictably, on Solidarity’s ascent to political power, these economists abandoned such ideological tendencies altogether.
By the same token, the rapid steps toward market capitalism that were taken by the last communist elite elicited ambiguous reactions from the Solidarity economists. While in principle they approved of the general direction of economic reforms taken by the Rakowski government, they were disturbed by the social consequences of this ‘cold turkey’ approach and the moral consequences of the Rakowski privatisation. Thus they vaguely suggested that somehow the social costs of the transformation could have been minimised by the development of more careful and more socially conscious policies.
All in all, the consensus of virtually all observers had it that during the Round Table negotiations the party economic representatives were more radically pro-re-form—in terms of the transformation to market capitalism—than were the economic representatives of Solidarity, who were effectively constrained by the assorted political concerns of the grand political coalition that they represented.
However, with the disintegration of communism and Solidarity’s ascent to power, these two milieux of economists were the first to converge and reunite. As a result, under the name of the ‘Balcerowicz plan’, the rapid economic transformation to market capitalism continued under the first Solidarity-based government with, at the time, unquestioning support from the economists.
After several years of such rapid transformation, the social consequence—in terms of rapidly growing unemployment, recession and an average 30% decrease in labour’s living standard—became so painful that many economists of both the left and the right began again to call for a slower, more cushioned and more prudent dismantling of the state sector of the economy. However, even the most prominent self-pro-claimed socialist among them, Ryszard Bugaj, called merely for a more selective and slower dismantling of the state sector to protect against excessive unemployment and too rapid de-industrialisation. Otherwise, he and other proponents of a slower approach to the transformation clearly indicated that market capitalism was a superior model to the centrally planned economy and viewed achieving it as the ultimate but more distant goal of the Polish transformation.
Despite its turn away from marxian economics, Poland’s left remained wedded to its traditional statism. The left’s newly found support of market capitalism notwithstanding, its support for market and entrepreneurial liberalism was seriously compromised by its statist Weltanschauung. Thus, while after the repeated failures to reform the system of ‘real socialism’ both the post-communist and the post-Solidarity lefts were forced to accept capitalism as an economic solution, they still yearned to find a way to mediate the capitalist system with their statist values or again to attempt to invent Poland’s ‘third way’.
The Left’s Failed Bids for Power
In many ways, Polish communism’s swansong, the ‘Rakowski privatisation’ of the late 1980s, could be viewed as the party’s reformist wing’s bid to retain its rapidly weakening grasp of political power. While the very economic logic of Rakowski’s reforms was accepted and in fact continued by the subsequent Solidarity governments, these reforms by themselves could not alter the political fate of Poland’s last communist elite. Separated from and weakened by adversarial relations with its fraternal milieu in the Solidarity left, the party’s reformist wing was too weak to shepherd the Rakowski privatisation through the stormy waters of Polish politics.
Initially, after the collapse of the communist system, these two groups seemed to fare very differently. Solidarity’s left wing ascended to power and for a year it gained political preponderance within the government and legislature. At the same time, the communist party disintegrated and, while shedding all its non-reformist milieux, transformed itself into a social-democratic party (SdRP).
During the year 1989-90, when Solidarity’s left wing enjoyed political dominance and made a bid to turn Solidarity into a political machine and Poland into a one-party dominant system somewhat akin to Salinas’ Mexico, the SdRP or the post-communist left seemed to be faring much more poorly. Outside its considerable representation in the ‘contract’ parliament—elected in the partially prearranged election of June 1989—the SdRP performed very poorly in the May 1990 local elections and otherwise seemed to be shunned by almost all other political parties and appeared to be on the verge of splitting into smaller entities and on its way out of the political mainstream.
However, a series of political events began to reverse and subsequently equalise the fortunes of these two leftist parties. On the one hand, the Solidarity left’s ambitious bid for political dominance proved to be very short-lived and to have very shallow roots. In 1990, under the pretext of the presidential campaign, the centre-right forces rallied behind Walesa’s bid for the presidency and crushed Solidarity’s left wing at the ballot. In the following year the party of the post-Solidarity left, the UD, saw its vote shrink to only 12.5% of the total—basically the same number as that won by the party of the post-communist left, the SdRP.
On the other hand, while the power of the post-Solidarity left had been reduced, the SdRP managed gradually to regroup instead of disintegrating and skilfully rallied two basic pillars of political support: first, the former nomenklatura ‘privatised’ by the Rakowski programme and second, the forces of political nostalgia—namely, various retired groups and others who fared reasonably well under the communist system and who seemed psychologically and often materially lost in the ongoing transition. Consequently, after the departure of the UD right wing, which eventually opted to form its own party, the Polish Convention (KP), the post-communist SdRP became the largest party in the fragmented parliament.
However, its relative size notwithstanding, the SdRP became a party virtually shunned in parliament; the official stand of all other parties—including the UD—was that they would neither cooperate with nor allow the SdRP to participate in government coalitions.
In response, the SdRP began to develop a very interesting policy for achieving what came to be labelled by other parties ‘respectability’. Namely, while parliament became the forum where the post-Solidarity left and fight clashed, the SdRP assumed the position of the quiet, seemingly uninvited but nonetheless steady and dependable supporter of the post-Solidarity left. In fact, the support of the SdRP explains the recent importance of the UD, which otherwise would be only another relatively small party in Poland’s fragmented political system.
The question remains why these two leftist parties, which entered a de facto alliance, did not attempt to legalise their union and form at least an official coalition. Beside their common roots in the late communist party’s reformist wing discussed above, their ideological platforms seemed to be mirror images of one another. In particular, their economic policies were virtually identical in their support for the Polish transition premised upon the Rakowski ‘privatisation’. Indeed, even at the Round Table negotiations during winter and spring 1989 the communist party’s economic team had assumed a stand virtually indistinguishable from that taken by the Solidarity economic team, which was dominated by the left wing.
Later, after the communists’ disastrous collapse in the June 1989 elections and following their inability to form a government, the Solidarity left wing—at that time the movement’s politically dominant milieu—attempted to form a so-to-speak ‘grand coalition’ government with the communist party’s reformist wing. However, the decisive action on the part of the Walesa circle and the remaining Solidarity milieux prevented this development and pushed for the peculiar coalitional government with the communist party’s formerly subservient parties—the ZSL and the SD. Nevertheless, Solidarity’s left wing soon came to dominate the Mazowiecki government and subsequently made its failed bid to transform itself into the dominant party and Poland into a dominant-party system. With the failure of this attempt, the post-Solidarity left’s co-operation and convergence with the post-communist left began in earnest albeit sub rosa.
Overcoming the Obstacles On the Way Toward Reunification
The similarity of the cultural and social platforms of the SdRP and the UD equals the similarity of the economic programmes. Consequently, the only real obstacle on the path towards reuniting these two parties remained the issue of the responsibility for the turn of events in the 1980s in general, and the responsibility for the imposition of Martial Law in particular.
Thus, as long as the actual struggle against the communist system in the 1980s was not concluded, the Solidarity left wing remained adversarial toward the communist party and tended unequivocally to blame it for the decade-long obstruction of the Polish transformation and for Martial Law. However, with the collapse of the communist system and the subsequent disintegration of Solidarity’s grand political coalition, the post-Solidarity left and right engaged in a bitter political straggle for power. During that struggle, both the post-communist SdRP and, generally speaking, the post-communist and post-nomenklatura systemic establishment allied themselves more or less openly with the post-Solidarity left. Eventually, it was this support that became one of the vital pillars of UD power and influence that went beyond its actual electoral performance, amounting to merely 12% of the vote.
Thus, the only real obstacle that impeded the full convergence of these two left forces remained the issue of the communists’ and post-communists’ responsibility for the 1980s. However, as argued above, any careful and objective scrutiny would reveal the communists’ responsibility both for delaying economic reform in the 1980s and for the imposition of Martial Law. Consequently, the only avenue of escape from this conundrum was to obfuscate these events or, even better, to create fictional or mythical explanations for them.
Consequently, taking advantage of the post-communist and post-Solidarity left’s domination of the mass media, the leadership of the post-Solidarity left in particular engaged in an increasingly intensive propaganda campaign which began to create a new mythology concerning the events of the 1980s. Jaruzelski, for example, began to be represented as a de facto tragic romantic hero—someone akin to the mythical Konrad Wallenrod—who under the disguise of betraying the nation, saved it. Adam Michnik’s Gazeta Wyborcza, new Poland’s largest dally, in particular played a leading role in revamping the general’s image and its editor excelled in frequent mawkish extolling of the general’s alleged virtues and his patriotic exploits.
Together with the reinvention of the general’s image, the image of the entire communist leadership from the 1980s was also refurbished. Now, just as was the case with the general, the post-Solidarity left began to represent the former communist authorities as the tragic heroes of Polish nationalism and as true patriots (sic!). Allegedly, given the impossible conditions of unyielding Soviet imperialism and interventionism, the general and the communist elite simply chose the lesser evil and crushed Solidarity by imposing Martial Law. However, all the while, their only alleged objective—given the circumstances—was to save the nation from Soviet intervention and democratise and liberalise it as much as possible.
The post-Solidarity left showed no hesitation in throwing its entire weight behind the defence of this very convenient ideological fable. Rather than pursuing the impossible task of trying to marshall evidence to support the fable, the post-Solidarity left aimed its efforts at personally discrediting and ridiculing the critics of the fable and other types of ad hominem attacks. Even the very inconvenient information undermining the fable that began to stream from disclosures by former Soviet decision makers, who openly dismissed the ‘myth of intervention’, was also rejected with haughty irony and derision. Finally, when during his official presidential visit, El’tsin, with apparent naivete, brought to Poland the Soviet Politburo’s transcripts from autumn 1981, which clearly indicated that invasion was not on the agenda and that the Soviet leaders wanted the Poles to solve their problems, the revelations were largely ignored by the leftist elite, and its key opinion makers—including Gazeta Wyborcza, Tygodnik Powszechny and Polityka—simply ridiculed them and dismissed them out of hand.
However, such a defence of the leftist mythology concerning the events of the 1980s could only succeed in the context of the ideological collapse of Poland’s right. Ideologically, the right entered a period of profound chaos and many of its leaders began to engage in paranoid schemes and exaggerated attacks on the left.
Consequently, in the recent ideological debate between Poland’s right and left, the proverbial baby was thrown out with the bathwater. Instead of addressing the legitimate components of the right’s ideological attacks—for example, those concerning the issue of responsibility for the events of the 1980s, the responsibility for the numerous crimes, both political and otherwise, of the stalinist and the post-stalinist periods, of the fairness of the Rakowski ‘privatisation’, and of the issue of the growing post-communist systemic corruption—instead, the left focused on the exaggerated and paranoid aspects of the right’s attacks and dismissed them altogether. Thus, the left avoided discussing inconvenient topics entirely and offered a new ideological mythology as a substitute.
While the left’s mythical account of the events of the 1980s served as an avenue for the further advance of the ongoing convergence between the post-communist and the post-Solidarity lefts, the ultimate purpose of that convergence was not only its eventual unification, but to afford the left another bid for political power. However, if a left-dominated regime were to emerge in Poland, the new mythology concerning the events of the 1980s would not suffice as an ideological platform.
The New Weltanschauung
Together with the creation of the specific ideological mythology concerning the events of the 1980s, Poland’s left began to develop a broader ideological Weltanschauung that would be able to serve as the foundation for its future role. One of the key issues to be addressed was the assignment of responsibility for the 40-year-long experiment of socialist transformation and for its failure.
Again, in the absence of a coherent and balanced position on this issue on the part of Poland’s right, the left began to develop a largely escapist approach to dealing with this topic that in fact paralleled the way in which many contemporary Germans address the issue of Hitlerism. According to Polish leftists, the responsibility for 40 years of communism rested chiefly on the shoulders of a small group within the highest communist leadership. The rest of society, and especially the broad milieux of the reformist/revisionist left, had little in common with active promotion of the socialist experiment. Thus the left, together with the rest of society, were simply hard-working, decent, patriotic Poles who did their best under difficult and often impossible circumstances. Moreover, while many leftists had belonged in the past to a group of important communist decision makers, their participation had been motivated purely by idealism and had actually nothing in common with the cynical excesses of the statist system.
All in all, just as after World War II, when many Germans began to claim that only a tiny clique was responsible for Hitlerism and that the rest of German society had basically nothing in common with it, Poland’s contemporary left similarly concluded that it bore no responsibility for the 40 years of the socialist experiment.
Again, just as in the case of the responsibility for the events of the 1980s, the Soviet Union was assigned the role of general scapegoat. With this in mind, insofar as the Polish leftists had participated in the active construction of the socialist system, according to their reasoning, they actually had engaged in promoting the lesser evil—all the while protecting the nation’s sovereignty and its liberal/democratic traditions as much as possible under the circumstances. Had they behaved otherwise, the Soviet Union would either have occupied the country outright or imposed a different regime on Polish society.
Further, as the Soviet Union allegedly bore almost total responsibility for the 40 years of socialism in Poland, the left could position itself as the implicit bearer of Polish progressive culture and traditions, a thesis that was to become a cornerstone of the left’s new ideological stand. Thus, according to this argument, the Polish reformist left had stood as an outpost of Western European social-democratic political culture and had defended these values against the onslaught of Soviet—(using Poles’ most favourite concept)—’Asiatic’ totalitarian communism.
Finally, the core of Poland’s left’s ideology, its very foundation, is its perception of the nature of the Western society of whose values the Polish left is supposed to be the carrier. Accordingly, Western European culture is seen as quintessentially social-democratic and such phenomena as neoconservatism, Reaganism or Thatcherism are viewed as no more than marginal aberrations from an otherwise clearly social-democratic path.
Thus, after Poland’s left had done the appropriate ideological groundwork, the process of convergence between the post-Solidarity and the post-communist left could proceed.
The Multifaceted ‘Catch 22’ of the Left’s Bid for Power
The actual gauging of the post-Solidarity left’s electoral support presented one of the greatest controversies of Poland’s post-communist politics. On the one hand, some small factions split from Solidarity’s left wing early in 1989 and 1990 and established a few small socialist/social-democratic parties. However, in the parliamentary elections of 1991 they performed very poorly and hence were left with only very limited parliamentary representation. Eventually, these post-Solidarity openly leftist parties pooled their modest resources together and united into a consolidated party, the Union of Labour (UP). While the UP was indeed led by some very prominent leaders of the post-Solidarity left, such as Zbigniew Bujak and the renowned economist Ryszard Bugaj, its potential for significant electoral expansion seemed to be in doubt. In fact, the early campaign polls suggested that the greatest potential success for UP would have been to cross the 5% threshold in the coming parliamentary election and hence to win some parliamentary representation. The 7.3% of the vote that it finally received has to be considered as a great success. Thus the political prospects for the openly declared post-Solidarity left were at best very modest, with only a chance of playing a marginal role in the new parliament, or at worst, of disappearing from the parliamentary scene entirely.
However, the real political strength of the post-Solidarity left lies with that element that does not openly brandish its leftism. When Solidarity’s grand coalition collapsed shortly after the communist system disintegrated, the majority of its left wing joined not the small, openly socialist/social-democratic parties that some Solidarity leftists were forming but instead formed a self-styled centre-left party, the UD, that sternly professed to have no ideology. The UD replaced a commitment to a definite ideology with an idiosyncratic collection of beliefs.
First, the UD professed to be the sole embodiment and trustee of what was the best in Solidarity, i.e. the ethos that united its grand political coalition and brought down the communist system. Second, the UD portrayed itself as the representative of the intelligentsia. Although the social category of ‘intelligentsia’ finds no direct analogy in Western society, it plays a vital role in Polish culture and tradition as the overwhelming majority of educated or semi-educated Poles consider themselves members of the intelligentsia and are responsive, even if only partially, to those whom they consider the leaders of the intelligentsia milieu. Third, the leaders of UD openly promoted themselves not only as the leaders of the intelligentsia but as Poland’s sui generis ‘best and brightest’, representing themselves as in fact the only leadership milieu capable of advancing the Polish transition to capitalist democracy and the only purveyor of Western values. By contrast, the UD openly considered other ideological stands illegitimate and other political leaders unsuited to hold political power.
Although, in the popular forum, the policy of the UD was to deny vehemently that it was a leftist party—to the point of issuing angry public disclaimers, in the more selective forum of intellectual debates the leaders of the UD assumed a different pose. Here, by contrast, their espousal of leftist, social-democratic ideology was sternly defended. Moreover, while the core of the UD is its ‘social-democratic faction’, its former (now departed) conservative faction, its present Christian-democratic faction and even its alliance with the neoconservative KL-D have to be seen as ideological ‘fig leaves’ whose main role—apart from helping the UD to lead coalition governments—was to cover the party’s true ideological character.
The explanation for this kind of behaviour on the part of the majority of the post-Solidarity left was a combination of two factors. On the one hand, the peculiar ideological stand of the UD was a basis for its bid for political power as the means to turn itself into Poland’s dominant political party. Thus, it cast its ideological net as widely as possible, hoping to attract voters from well outside the left. It was also true that at that time voter support for openly leftist parties seemed to be weak and polls indicated little potential for attracting new voters. As a result, in their bid for political domination, the leaders of the UD had to create an alternative ideology.
Consequently, if both of Poland’s main leftist parties, the post-communist SdRP and the post-Solidarity UD, decided finally to end their decade-long schism, to return to their former communist party reformist wing roots and to form an open coalition, it would probably have had very detrimental consequences for the UD. Already, despite deeply rooted personal friendships and associations, its right faction had split off in opposition to its de facto leftist course and formed the right-wing party, the ‘Polish Convention’ (KP) under the leadership of Aleksander Hall. Hence, if the UD had openly moved to the left at this time, then it was most likely that its ‘centre’ or ‘Christian-democratic’ faction—associated with such leaders as Hanna Suchocka—would also inevitably have split off. Moreover, many voters who had voted for the party believing in its ‘intelligentsia’ and ‘best and brightest’ ideology might well have abandoned it too. Altogether, such prospects seemed unacceptable.
The Triumphant Bid for Power
With Poland’s right weaker and more fractured than during the 1991 parliamentary campaign, polls conducted in spring 1993 began to indicate steadily growing support for the left parties—SdRP, PSL, UP and UD—while the centre and right parties—especially those involved in the post-Solidarity government coalition led by Suchocka and the UD—began to lose popularity. Consequently, Poland’s fractured political scene formed distinctive groups.
The first group comprised all the coalition members and supporters of the Suchocka government except the UD. This motley collection of small centre, right and Christian-democratic parties seemed to be held responsible by the voters for the assorted socio-economic pains of Poland’s transition and consequently their popularity began to diminish. The prospect of facing the 1993 election with a possible qualifying threshold threatened most of these parties with removal from the parliamentary scene entirely. Moreover, these parties showed distinct organisational weakness—lack of material resources, small membership and very weak territorial networks. Consequently, their parliamentary and government participation tended to be their chief material asset and the parliamentary and government resources that were controlled by their members were what enabled these parties to function. Thus the possibility of electoral defeat threatened most of them with oblivion and hence they decided to rally in support of the Suchocka government and the existing parliament.
The situation of the UD was more complex. The spring polls seemed to indicate that it enjoyed growing support, reaching 18% to 20% of the electorate. Thus the 1993 election would apparently allow it do better than the 12% garnered in the previous election. However, these potential short-term gains would be offset by the defeat of its coalition partners and the inevitable realignment of the political scene. Under the new conditions, the UD could not play the role of dominant party and senior coalition partner. Moreover, with its material assets and organisational network as weak as those of most other post-Solidarity parties, the government and parliamentary assets of its members provided the material basis of the party’s activity. The likely outcome of the 1993 election would certainly be detrimental to these material assets. Consequently, the UD also became a staunch defender of the Suchocka government and the existing parliament.
On the other hand, despite polls indicating their weakening voter support, the assorted parties of the right pressed strongly for a vote of no-confidence against the Suchocka government and for a new election. This behaviour was clearly irrational and a reflection of the right’s intellectual confusion and its growing fractiousness. Virtually obsessed with their hatred of both the left and Walesa and engaged in increasingly brutal mutual competition, the assorted parties of the right hoped, despite all available evidence, that they would be able somehow to pull off a victory in the parliamentary election that would be inevitable with the collapse of the Suchocka government.
The most ambivalent was the position of Walesa and his presidential faction, popularly labelled after his presidential office, ‘the Belvedere’. On the one hand, Walesa was rather content with the relatively weak Suchocka government, over which he held influence and which enabled him to strengthen his presidential powers. On the other hand, the survival of the parliament that was being used by the right to launch the most vicious personal attacks against Walesa—especially those accusing him of being a former and present secret agent of the communist forces—embarrassed him and weakened his position. Consequently, while a new parliamentary election was likely to result in the formation of a government less amenable to Walesa’s influence, on the other hand, it would also be likely to pull the parliamentary rug out from under the feet of his most virulent opponents. As a result, Walesa did not engage in as decisive a defence of the Suchocka government as his considerable resources and talents would have allowed.
Finally, Poland’s ‘hard left’, the SdRP, PSL and UP, caught the new wind coming from favourable polls and decided on a rapid political turn around. For nearly two years the quiet support of these parties had been one of the pillars of the government. Now however, sensing an opportunity for a dramatic realignment, they turned rapidly against the Suchocka government.
At the end of May of 1993 a paradoxical alliance of Poland’s hard right and hard left brought down the Suchocka government with a vote of no confidence and parliament passed a new electoral law that instituted a 5% threshold for individual parties and 8% for coalitions. With the greatest speed President Walesa dissolved parliament and called a new election in September. Thus Poland’s post-communist transition led by the post-Solidarity forces entered its last phase.
In dramatic fashion, Walesa attempted to reverse the inevitable chain of events by forming an eclectic political coalition of his allies in the organisational guise of the BBWR (non-party block to support reforms). Walesa’s gambit was based on the hope of luring into a coalition with his BBWR all the members of the coalition behind the Suchocka government and hence to reinvigorate the coalition of the post-Solidarity forces that dominated Poland’s politics after the collapse of communism. The key to the success of Walesa’s plans was the cooperation of the largest post-Solidarity party, the UD.
The UD rejection of Walesa’s offer, however, was followed by its rejection by most members of the former coalition behind the Suchocka government. Consequently, like lemmings to the sea, despite the rapidly changing social atmosphere, the post-Solidarity forces entered the campaign without a new political platform, virtually without new ideas and unable even to form a significant electoral coalition. Even if the UD seemed to be an exception to this march toward political oblivion, nevertheless, without potential coalition partners, its future role was likely to diminish dramatically.
While the immense political importance of the UD for Poland’s post-communist transition must be acknowledged, at the same time, the party clearly exhibited a proclivity towards irrational behaviour. First, in 1989, Solidarity’s left-wing milieux, which later formed the UD, gained political domination within the Solidarity grand coalition and over the post-communist political landscape. Yet instead of using its resources to form a powerful social-democratic party that would also absorb the post-communist reformists who later formed the SdRP but then were ripe to be absorbed by Solidarity’s left wing, they chose to pursue a chimera of total political domination and attempted to establish a de facto one-party system dominated by Solidarity’s left wing. This policy ended in an electoral disaster when its presidential candidate, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, gained only 18% of the popular vote, losing not only to Walesa but also to Tyminski. Continuing its attempts to become Poland’s dominant party, the UD slipped even further in the 1991 parliamentary election, gaining only 12.5% of the vote. In 1993 it rejected Walesa’s offer, proved unable to form a coalition with the post-Solidarity parties and hence allowed its allies to be excluded from the parliamentary scene while seeing its own support shrink to only 10% of the vote.
While the UD leaders and ideologues acknowledged that coalition with the BBWR might be the last opportunity to reverse the chain of events, nevertheless they rejected it. The UD leaders rejected Walesa’s offer in their traditional style—full of petulance over their defeat in 1990, haughtiness and self-righteous pretension. Unable to form a large coalition, the pro-Walesa forces ended up campaigning as a mini-coalition BBWR and barely managed to limp over the 5% threshold.
With the right fractured, the UD determined not to reinvent itself, and Walesa’s BBWR gambit fizzling out, the ball was in the hands of Poland’s post-communist left, the SdRP and PSL. In contrast to virtually all other parties, which were conspicuously weak organisationally, financially and in terms of membership, both the SdRP and PSL were organisational and financial superpowers on the political scene. Their card-carrying membership was also much larger, more disciplined and better organised. The forces of political nostalgia that filled the ranks of these parties were intertwined with the forces of Poland’s apparent economic future—the nomenklatura capitalists.
Hence, paradoxically, the two parties of the post-communist left enjoyed the largest and most widespread support from Poland’s new capitalist class and the financial and organisational resources that were associated with this kind of support. Moreover, the financial shape of these two parties was even further improved by their own network of party-owned, profitable enterprises that were skillfully organised during the 1988-89 transition years.
While, from its birth out of the rubble of the disintegrating PZRP until spring 1993 the SdRP ideologically assumed a pose of proud and dignified defiance, from a strategic point of view it basically supported the ongoing socio-economic reform—albeit implying that its ‘proven professional cadres’ would somehow manage to lead the reforms with lesser social costs. From a tactical point of view, it pursued a de facto alliance with and parliamentary backing of the UD-dominated governments. During the summer 1993 parliamentary campaign, however, it dramatically changed its stand. Sensing the possibility of a major political realignment, the SdRP decided to go for the jugular.
On the one hand, during the summer 1993 campaign, the SdRP still maintained the moderate behaviour that characterised its three-year pursuit of ‘political responsibility’ and that had assured it a relatively stable base of electoral support. On the other hand, at the same time, the SdRP decided to go after the ‘Tyminski electorate’ (named after the 1990 maverick presidential candidate who, by making the wildest socioeconomic promises, managed to attract 23% of the vote, largely consisting of those who were the most frightened and frustrated by the rapid socio-economic transition). Thus the SdRP began to make the most far-fetched and improbable promises—albeit in a tone much milder than Tyminski—that, if able to form a government, it would both continue the ongoing economic reform and at the same time preserve the ‘historical socio-economic gains of People’s Poland’, i.e. full employment, free health service, free education and the rest of the extensive network of the state welfare system. In the short run, the SdRP promised to restore all the budgetary cuts and savings that the previous regime had instituted to prevent inflation from escalating uncontrollably. However, the SdRP clearly stated that it could do all of that without letting inflation run out of control and without endangering the ongoing programme Of reforms … In the political atmosphere of the 1993 campaign, the SdRP was able to shrug off the sarcastic comments of its competitors and was actually never forced to offer specific explanations as to how all these promises could possibly be fulfilled. As a result, the SdRP increased its share of the vote from 12.5% to almost 21%.
The other post-communist party, the peasant PSL, focused its efforts on its primary constituency, the peasantry that encompasses about one-third of Poland’s population. Besides asserting a very similar socio-economic programme to that of the SdRP, the PSL rode hard the hobby horse of its electorate—the need to raise tariff barriers against imported agricultural products, the availability of ‘cheap’—implicitly subsidised—credits for farmers, and state guarantees of minimal prices for agricultural products. Moreover, taking advantage of the collapse of Poland’s right, the PSL attempted to sell itself—at least up to a point—as a Christian-democratic party. All in all, it managed to increase its vote from 10% in 1991 to 15.5% in 1993.
The 36% of the vote—with 52% of the population voting—was a handsome increase over the 23%—with an even lower turn-out—that these two parties achieved in 1991. However, with the institution of the 5% qualifying threshold for individual parties and 8% for coalitions of parties, the rules of the game changed dramatically. While the fractured parties of the right gained altogether slightly more than 20% of the vote they did not win even one parliamentary seat. This was also the case with the equally divided centrist and Christian-democratic parties. By contrast, the 36% of the vote gained by the post-communist left, the SdRP and the PSL, gave it an overwhelming two-thirds (303) of the 460 parliamentary seats.
Thus the scope of the post-communist left’s victory goes well beyond merely gaining the ability to form a stable government on the basis of a limited coalition—a feat that could not be achieved by any other post-communist government. Now, as some euphoric voices on the left began to point out, these two parties in fact could undertake legally any constitutional changes they might wish—for example, reversing the socio-economic legislation of the post-communist parliaments, changing the foundations of the political system, or shortening Walesa’s presidential tenure and transforming the presidency into a symbolic office.
The Alleged Trap
The first sour grapes voiced from the defeated camps attempted to find some consolation in alleging that the post-communist left had found itself in a trap as a consequence of its victory. Namely, either it would try to fulfil the promises that it made during the campaign and would thus unleash galloping inflation, plunging the economy into chaos, or it would basically continue the socio-economic transition, discrediting itself but also enabling the Solidarity labour union to revive and smash it with strikes. All in all, in a year or so, Walesa would dissolve this parliament and the new election would bring a defeat for the post-communist left.
However, it does not seem that the post-communist left is likely to fulfil any of these scenarios. By contrast, following the initial euphoria of the first few days after the stupendous victory, the post-communist left began to engage in a series of cautious and prudent moves that seemed to initiate a major political realignment in Poland. Thus, it was apparent that the objectives of the post-communist left went well beyond the desire to recreate the basic political coalition that had ruled Poland in the period since World War II.
First, the opinion makers of the SdRP milieux began openly to disavow the possibility that the government of the post-communist left would seriously attempt to implement its campaign promises. The socio-economic changes to be brought in by the new regime would tend more toward the symbolic, leaving the core of the ‘Balcerowicz reforms’ untouched. This was hardly surprising as Poland’s reformist economists and Balcerowicz himself were deeply rooted within this milieu and the very foundations of the ‘Balcerowicz reforms’ were established under the last communist regime. Furthermore, the SdRP had actively supported the post-communist transformation.
Second, while now the post-communist left would have to take the brunt of responsibility for the socio-economic hardships caused by the ongoing transformation, its domination of parliament, government, the state apparatus and the mass media would enable it to contain social discontent more effectively than was the case with the relatively weak post-Solidarity governments that were backed by broad yet shallow parliamentary coalitions. Moreover, such strong governments would be able to keep the maverick Walesa faction in check, something that had defeated its predecessors.
Third, the victorious post-communist left, which in practical terms required no additional parliamentary support to form a stable government, engaged in intensive courting of the post-Solidarity left with the key objective of luring the UD, or at least the UP, into the government coalition. Both parties’ proud refusal to join hardly discouraged their suitor. According to the openly expressed opinions of the leaders of the post-communist left, Poland’s political future would depend on the ability of both lefts to form some kind of a grand alliance. Illustrative of this view was the SdRP leader Aleksander Kwasniewski’s statement that ‘… the differences between the UD and the SdRP have to a large extent an historical character’, echoing what is one of key arguments of this article.
The loyalty of the post-Solidarity left to the new regime could be hardly in doubt. In fact, immediately after the post-communist victory, the key UD spokesmen and supporters—the milieu around Tygodnik Powszechny and Gazeta Wyborcza—in dramatic fashion encouraged UD supporters to become the loyal opposition to the new regime. Seemingly, the ultimate goal of the post-communist left would he eventually—after the feelings of hurt pride on the part of the post-Solidarity left forces had subsided—to form a grand alliance that would dominate the new Poland.
Conclusion: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
On the one hand, the revival of Poland’s left and the success of its ongoing bid for political power and domination might be viewed as quite predictable and in fact even well deserved. It was predictable because Poland’s incipient right was deeply fractured and intellectually and ideologically in a state of chaos. The right’s premature ascent to power from January to June 1992 proved that a right-wing coalition was not capable of forming and sustaining an effective government and its government collapsed in embarrassing circumstances.
However, the misadventures of the Olszewski government were only the tip of the iceberg of the structural weakness of Poland’s right. To begin with, the right was not only unable to develop strong ties to the entrepreneurial community, but was also unable to develop a coherent economic platform. Consequently, the left’s appropriation of the capitalist economy was never properly challenged by the right. By contrast, while socially and culturally espousing a right-wing ideology, on economic matters Poland’s right exhibits a paradoxical allegiance to statist and post-socialistic ideology. Often, the right-wing parties look for their primary constituencies not among the budding entrepreneurial milieux but among the disenchanted workers of the collapsing state sector. Consequently, Poland’s right persistently attempts to slow down the ongoing transformation towards market capitalism and tends to opt for preserving the state sector of the economy as much as possible. Finally, the right failed to make even a dent in the left’s control over the mass media and the still formidable state apparatus. Thus, the weakness of the right made it only a rather modest obstacle on the left’s path to political power.
The left’s success in its ongoing bid for political power and domination is impressive given the ideological state of Polish society at large and the obstacle it constitutes for the left. Sociological studies have supported Giedroyc’s claim that Poland is a fundamentally conservative society. However, while operating in an environment that was only marginally susceptible to ideologies of the left, Poland’s left exhibited a great deal of flexibility along with relentless persistence.
Although in the two open contests with Poland’s right during the presidential election of 1990 and the parliamentary election of 1991 the left was defeated each time and the right was able to capitalise on the basically conservative nature of society at large, in the political straggle outside these two elections the left managed to outmuscle and outmanoeuvre the right. The quiet but very effective ‘wise’ parliamentary alliance between the post-Solidarity and the post-communist lefts provided the anchor for the precarious minority government coalitions that the post-Solidarity left formed. Finally, the left’s victory in the 1993 parliamentary elections will complete this process with an open leftist coalition positioned to gain domination over Poland’s politics.
The left’s interpretation of this process holds that Poland is undergoing an analogous political transition to that which formed permanent leftist ruling coalitions in Spain and Sweden. Thus, according to this view, the ongoing political transformation is another indicator of the Westernisation of Poland by the milieu that historically viewed itself as the chief agent and avenue of Western culture—Poland’s leftist intelligentsia.
On the other hand, the question remains whether Poland’s leftist elites are indeed capable of leading Poland’s transformation in the direction of the Swedish or Spanish model, whether they are really the agent and conduit of Western social-democratic culture in Poland. An alternative view might suggest that the rift between East European socialism and West European social-democracy is as large as the historical rift that existed between the levels of socio-economic development in Eastern and Western Europe.
For many students of the subject, West European marxism and social-democracy on the one hand, and East European leninism, stalinism and the subsequent post-stalinist/neo-stalinist systems on the other, are two fundamentally different systems of thought. Their apparent similarity was merely superficial and, despite their use of the same concepts, these concepts carried entirely different meanings. By the same token, Poland’s leftist ‘intelligentsia’ arguably represents a different political culture and tradition than that of West European social-democrats and any similarities are again only superficial and mainly semantic. Consequently, while Poland’s left professes to lead the transformation toward the Swedish or Spanish model, in fact it is taking Polish society in an entirely different direction.
A litmus test of the difference between West European social-democracy and East European socialism could be provided by one fundamental aspect of political culture—political tolerance or the acceptance of political pluralism.
In West European democracies an array of interests from the social-democrats to the centre-right Christian-democrats to the entrepreneurial right—relentlessly compete for political domination and control of government, while at the same time the victorious side as a rule accepts the continued existence of the defeated quarters and does not use governmental assets to annihilate and eliminate their opponents from the political stage. As a result, even after a prolonged period of domination by one particular ideological option—such as the German Christian-democrats, the Swedish social-democrats or the French gaullists—other ideological options were allowed to persevere in the opposition and eventually to have their own chance to form a government.
By contrast, in the ‘hard core’ East European societies such as those that emerged from the collapse of the USSR, or Poland or Romania, the 20th century failed to see the development of political elites that accepted the presence of meaningful political opposition. Only during times of systemic transition, usually caused by major cataclysms such as war or economic collapse and which are so aptly labelled by the Russians as ‘times of trouble’, did these societies witness the spontaneous rise of alternative political elites. What such periods of change gave rise to, however, was the political domination of one particular elite and the subsequent elimination of its opponents.
Thus it could be argued that Poland witnessed the rise of political pluralism only during its recent ‘time of troubles’. The collapse of the Gierek Great Leap Forward brought the emergence of Solidarity but after a year and a half the communist elite reasserted itself and, no matter how conciliatory Solidarity was, martial law was nonetheless imposed and Solidarity crushed as the legal opposition. Again, the communist system had to suffer near complete economic disintegration by the end of the 1980s before the opposition could re-emerge and another ‘time of troubles’ in Poland begin.
Even during the first few years after the collapse of communism, when Poland’s left was attempting to regroup and suffered two major electoral defeats—presidential in 1990 and parliamentary in 1991, its attitude toward the right was far from conciliatory and tolerant. In fact, the modest advances that Poland’s right made during that period were answered by the left with hysterical and relentlessly aggressive campaigns. On balance, Poland’s left apparently considered Poland’s right barbaric and unacceptable. The left consistently exaggerated certain anti-semitic, xenophobic, religious and nationalistic tendencies of the right and dismissed the entire right perspective as if it represented nothing else but such extremist tendencies.
While the debacle of the Olszewski government further weakened and fragmented Poland’s right, the left used this opportunity to mount a massive anti-right campaign. The right began to reel under this assault and become further separated from what potentially was its native constituency—Poland’s entrepreneurs. Moreover, under this assault the handful of emerging right-wing publications suffered major setbacks and started to atrophy. All in all, Poland’s right—although still representing about half of the electorate—gradually began to be pushed out of the political and ideological mainstream.
Equally revealing of the left’s designs for the future of Poland’s political system is its recent anti-Church campaign. With the collapse of the communist system, the fortunes of one of its main adversaries, the Catholic church dramatically improved. During the 1970s and 1980s and during the first two years after summer 1989, the Church was courted not only by its politically native constituency, the right, but by the left as well. The left-dominated political coalitions behind the Mazowiecki (1989-90) and Bielecki (1990-91) governments courted the Church because the price of its support was reasonably modest in comparison with the systemic benefits it offered. Above all, during the stormy years of the transition in the 1980s and the early 1990s, the Church’s influence helped to prevent the outbreak of a social crisis—the Church was one of the key guarantors of Poland’s social stability during that period. For the same reason, the communist governments of the 1980s had also courted and in fact governed in partial co-operation with the Church. Subsequently, in the first years of the post-communist period the Church’s position strengthened even further.
The price that the post-communist governments paid for the Church’s support was indeed modest. This is the case because although the Church’s establishment in this basically homogeneously Catholic society is massive and extensive, its appearance of unity is merely superficial. In reality, the Church’s establishment is divided by ideological divisions similar to those that rend society at large. As a result, the Church’s social agenda is quite modest and rather cautiously expressed, even in comparison with its social agenda in Western and comparably Catholic societies. The Church has used its triumphant post-communist position to secure an elective hour of religious instruction in schools (non-Catholics can opt for an hour of ethics instead) and has used its political muscle to severely diminish the right to abortion. The rest of the Church’s increased visibility can largely be attributed to increased popular demand in what is after all a Catholic society.
Thus, if one compares the activities of the Polish church with the historical role of the Catholic church in some West European Catholic societies such as Italy, Spain or Ireland, one would have to conclude that they are hardly more pronounced. Moreover, while in these societies the Church was one of the contributing factors ensuring their transformation after World War II, the Polish elite can only dream at present of achieving the same level of socio-economic development as Italy, Spain or even Ireland.
The first post-communist elite appeared clearly to accept that the Polish church would play a similar role in the Polish transformation as the Churches in Italy and Spain had played in their respective transitions. However, the recent reassertion of Poland’s left and its new bid for power and domination have been accompanied by an extensive and vigorous anti-Church campaign. While in West European Catholic societies and in the early post-communist period in Poland one of the natural and expected functions of the left was to counterbalance and mediate the actions of the Church, the Polish left’s recent anti-Church campaign seemed to reach well beyond that limit. The left’s vociferous campaign appears to be designed to push the Church entirely out of the political arena. Towards that end, the left has called for another ’round-table negotiation’, this time between the Church and the ‘intelligentsia’, that would lead to an agreement that would curb and limit the Church’s political activities. The clearly expressed desire by many politicians on the left is to forbid church participation in the electoral process entirely. Since it was only a few years ago that Poland’s left was perfectly content to cooperate with the Church in the political process, and in view of the fact that the Church’s participation seems to be needed because political stability is maintained only with difficulty, then the real reasons for the left’s neo-enlightenment zeleaotry appear to lie elsewhere.
Thus, while Poland’s right is currently weakened, fragmented and, generally speaking, on the retreat, Polish society nonetheless remains essentially conservative. Hence it is conceivable that the right might eventually rebound. The Church would most probably be a key factor in developing a future Polish Christian-democratic coalition—similar to that of Germany or Italy. Therefore, if the left were to succeed in removing the Church from the political scene, it would also have managed to achieve, a ‘final solution’ in its struggle with the right—at least for the foreseeable future.
The developing relationship between the left and the budding entrepreneurial class has itself begun to take on a peculiar character. On the one hand, Poland’s left, which—in contrast to most other East European countries—experimented with every conceivable reform of the economy, ultimately turned to the only effective economic system that it knew—capitalism. On the other hand, however, the question remains as to how the capitalist system envisioned by Poland’s left compares with the capitalism of Western Europe.
The governments controlled by the post-Solidarity left opted to continue the economic reforms initiated by the Rakowski ‘privatisation’. Under the terms of that ‘privatisation’ most of Poland’s economy is either in the hands of the former nomenklatura or has become a state-private ‘joint venture’. The rest of the state sector of the economy—especially banking—remains under the control of the former nomenklatura.
While the governments dominated by Poland’s left have maintained excellent relations with this kind of capitalist sector—one that is dependent on the state their relations with the emerging independent private capital sector are not as harmonious. This sector persistently complains about the lack of governmental support, and especially about the uncooperative attitude of the banking system, which refuses to make credit available and generally prefers the post-communist capitalists with whom it is connected by old ties.
Consequently, finding itself unable to rely on the left and with the right too weak and erratic to represent the interests of independent business properly, Poland’s emerging capitalist class has been attempting to develop its own independent political representation and a parliamentary lobby. The left’s reaction to such attempts is hostile. Not only does the left disapprove of the business-based political parties, moreover, it sternly objects to business attempts to develop a lobby through financial contributions to political parties and politicians. The leaders of the left openly call for the freeing of the political process from business influence and toward that end a proposal has been floated to offer government financing for political parties to free them from the burden of self-financing.
All in all, while Poland’s left portrays itself as the carrier of the values of Western social-democracy, philosophically, Poland’s left is rooted in leninism, stalinism and post-stalinism, while West European social-democracy is based on its own unique interpretation of Marx. While West European society was built by a combination of social-democratic, Christian-democratic and entrepreneurial influences, the vision of the future Polish society that is espoused by the left does not include fundamental contributions from Poland’s right, its Church or the entrepreneurial milieux, nor does it fully accept the idea of the market. Ryszard Legutko, one among Poland’s most distinguished political philosophers, has argued that the left in post-communist Poland is basically as intolerant as the old communist left. Thus, it appears to be the case that Poland’s left is not a carrier of or an avenue for West European social-democratic values, but rather the purveyor of traditional values of the Polish elite in general and the Polish and East European leftist elite in particular.
Consequently, Poland’s left would lead the Polish transformation not in the direction of the Swedish or Spanish model but toward a traditional Latin American statist model that has held the Church at bay, regarded the sector of private initiative as largely suspect and warranting subjugation and/or cooptation, and has substantially resisted the full development of authentic political pluralism. While the pecuniary motive of these elites may be distinctive, and in Latin America has often taken the ‘democradura’ line, the fundamental resistance to pluralism and suspicion of independent private initiative find remarkable parallels not to late Western European or Southern European development but rather to peripheral domains.