John Keane | The Polish Laboratory
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The Polish Laboratory

  |   Articles & Essays JK, Civil Society, Democracy in the 21st Century, History & Methods   |   No comment

New Left Review I/179, January/February 1990 pp. 103-110

Warsaw. Wednesday December 7th. The eighth anniversary of martial law approaches. Foul-smelling fog blankets the city. The battered Russian-made taxi which fetches me from the airport clatters down potholed roads. Rows of grey apartment blocks stand guard, frozen, expressionless. Trams whirr and clang through street crowds. Fur-capped shoppers skelter, wrapped in dour coats of brown, olive-green and grey. Powdered snow swirls through sullen-faced queues for bananas, pork, detergent, bread, chocolate. Trench-coated soldiers. Blue-overalled workers. Frozen silence. Winter. The Polish road to democracy.

The taxi speeds up, jumping every other red light. Its driver, goaded by fears of acute petrol shortages, is hungry for my dollars. Twenty minutes from the airport, we squeal and rattle into Iwicka Street, headquarters of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s first and most successful independent daily newspaper. The building resembles army barracks. I pick my way through its postered corridors to the office of the editor-in-chief, Adam Michnik. The famous ex-dissident, leading Polish historian, elected deputy in the Sejm and key adviser to the new Solidarity-led government spots me through his half-closed office door. Enshrouded in blue smoke, telephone in hand, he smiles impishly, slams down the telephone and strides in my direction. ‘Professor John! Bienvenue!’ Then a friendly handshake and bear hug, trimmed by polite cheek kisses.

Time is precious. Michnik is harried by a curious irony of socialism. In 1980 he was described by the Polish authorities as ‘the most sinister figure of the Polish counter-revolution’. Later today, after our meeting, he has an appointment with Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the new Prime Minister of Poland.

We fall immediately into sharp political discussion, in French. Michnik fires the opening shot. ‘Poland is today the most advanced laboratory in the Soviet bloc. Our country is feeling its way along an evolutionary road from communism to democracy. It is full of pot-holes and hairpin bends. The twentieth century taught us how to build communist regimes. The trouble is that we don’t yet know how to dismantle them.’

A Democratic Experiment

Michnik isn’t pessimistic or melancholy about the difficulty of completing the democratic experiment successfully. He makes it clear that he rejects the narcissistic view, common in the West, that the revolutions in central-eastern Europe demonstrate the ‘natural’ superiority of western liberal democracy and its guaranteed triumph over totalitarianism in the East. Although the democratic revolution in Poland is not impossible, its course is shaky and outcomes uncertain. Michnik also worries about the seductions of governmental power. He is aware that there are groups in Polish society—ecological initiatives, Christian associations, farmers’ organizations and workers’ clubs—which already criticize the new government as remote, arrogant, half-blind. They point to the continuing absence of clear, legally formalized guarantees of press and broadcasting freedom. They complain about the tendency for key political decisions to be made through informal negotiations, bargaining behind closed doors and by means of jostling among prestigious leaders. I remind Michnik of Montes-quieu’s eighteenth-century maxim: ‘Constant experience shows that every person invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry that power as far as it will go.’

Michnik twitches, half-nodding in agreement. But the recent formation of a non-communist government headed by Tadeusz Mazowiecki excites him—justifiably so, since it was originally his idea. On July 3rd, on the eve of the inaugural session of the new Polish parliament, he published a highly influential article, ‘Your President, Our Prime Minister’. It proposed the unthinkable: a Solidarity-led coalition government. The proposal was at first criticized widely by many within the democratic opposition, and not only because it conceded the presidency to General Jaruzelski, the tinted-spectacled architect of martial law. The chief argument was that Solidarity would end up as a loser in the game of cleaning up the economic mess left by successive communist governments.

Michnik’s proposal for a governmental alliance between Solidarity and the Polish United Workers’ Party quickly triumphed—despite such objections. He isn’t surprised by the breathtaking pace at which military and party rule crumbled. He explains that communists who feel at home in the nomenklatura system are notoriously bad at playing politics in the open. They are lazy and incompetent politicians, unable to see that winning the trust of citizens involves more than giving orders. Their judgement is poor, their common sense is in short supply and they quickly lose their nerve. On top of that, Michnik says, martial law was doomed from the outset because it could never solve the terminal crisis of communist regimes. The Polish events of the past decade contain a lesson for all communist generals who dream of becoming dictators. ‘Military governments cannot sit on their own bayonets.’ Michnik speaks passionately, with the wise militancy of a man who spent six years in prison for his democratic beliefs. ‘Although armed to the teeth, military governments are weak because they usually don’t have the support of civil society. For eight years Jaruzelski was paralysed by his insistence that Solidarity didn’t exist. All his actions against us resembled the tragicomical efforts of Xerxes to defeat the sea by doing battle with it.’

In Michnik’s view martial law—‘totalitarianism with broken teeth’—was further paralysed by mounting economic corruption and decay. The architects of martial law failed to see that democracy is a vital precondition of economic reform and prosperity. The formula is straightforward: No free elections and legally guaranteed civil society, no democracy; no democracy, no bread or butter or decent vegetables or meat in the shops. The grim consequence of this rule is that shortages of basic commodities are now rampant in Poland. Each month inflation approaches 100 per cent. Speculation and black market pro-fiteering are widespread. The level of foreign debt (US$38 billion) is frightening. The standard of living is plummeting dangerously. Environmental damage is massive. And this winter widespread pauperization could scar the face of Poland’s young democratic government.

Michnik likens the Polish laboratory to the peaceful transition to democracy in Spain. I shuffle restlessly through my notes, looking puzzled. I suggest to him that the Spanish economy thrived at the end of the Franco dictatorship. By contrast, the Polish economy is utterly ruined. Doesn’t Poland today better resemble Chile after Salvador Allende’s election victory? Like Mazowiecki, Allende didn’t control the army, the security police, the communications system or the economy. And the population of Chile, like that of Poland, was starved of simple daily necessities. Militaries cannot sit on their own bayonets. But can democratic governments sit on their hungry citizens? ‘I know only one thing’, says Michnik sharply. ‘We must do absolutely everything to halt the slide in the standard of living. Unless a tiny silver lining appears in the dark economic skies very soon, the whole system may quickly go bust. That is why we are going to defend the interests of the working class. At the same time we are taking steps to change political and legislative practices so that people will be inspired to work harder. And we are sending off signals to the world to encourage it to assist Poland. Walesa’s recent initiatives in the United States, Canada and Britain are an effort to move in this direction.’

It is true that Poland is already attracting new foreign investment. Recent examples include major extensions to Warsaw airport, to be carried out by the West German construction firm, Hochtiefbau, financed by loans from the US Citibank and guaranteed by Hermes, the West German state credit guarantee concern; and the joint venture of Trust House Forte and Orbis, the Polish state-owned tourist company, to renovate and operate the Bristol Hotel in Warsaw. Poland is also targeted by various foreign aid and loan programmes. eec officials have recently confirmed further contributions to a ‘currency stabilization fund’ for Poland, aimed at bolstering confidence among bankers and foreign investors. Its provision is to be coordinated with the International Monetary Fund, which itself agreed a loan deal with the Mazowiecki government in early January 1990. The imf agreement compels the government to pursue an incomes policy and tight monetary policy in exchange for a US$725 million bridging loan supplied by the United States and the Basle-based Bank for International Settlements. A further US$1.67 billion worth of loans has been pencilled in by the World Bank for disbursement over the next eighteen months. And the eec, aiming to stimulate an economic boom in central-eastern Europe, is planning to set up a European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and is expected this year to approve a further grant in food aid to Poland.

The New Entrepreneurs

As Michnik speaks my thoughts wander. I am struck by the enormity of the structural economic problems facing the fledgling Polish democracy. Michnik doesn’t mention the emergence of the new private economic monopolies. Large privatized firms such as Dolnel in Wroclaw are not only likely to use their monopoly power to hinder technical innovation and the formation of competitive market structures. Their power freely to determine working conditions, employment levels, prices and the quality of goods and services is also likely to frustrate Solidarity’s hopes for a just, democratic and economically productive Poland. The current privatization programme is opening the way for Party and state bureaucrats to swap their former nomen-klatura role for private positions of managerial and entrepreneurial power. Communist bosses are becoming private entrepreneurs! Booty capitalism is replacing communist corruption! A well-known example is Mieczyslaw Wilczek, a figure who could have stepped out of a Balzac novel. He first occupied senior managerial posts in state industry. Later, he founded a highly profitable fur company through a private Polish–Canadian joint venture. Today he is a member of the Party, its treasurer and a millionaire. Solidarity’s election programme warned against figures like him. But nothing is being done to counter-act their rise to power.

Then there is a serious—barely recognized—long-term dilemma facing the Solidarity-led government. Stalinism begat industrialization in Poland. Its unwanted child was Solidarity—the first ever modern social movement of workers opposed to state despotism. Yet Solidarity has inherited an industrial system which is historically obsolete. Its Taylorist production and distribution methods are inefficient, decrepit and wasteful of energy. How therefore can a Solidarity-led government modernize this system—by stimulating the adoption of new information technologies and flexible production methods, for example—without destroying its very basis of support among industrial workers and their households and communities?

My daydream snaps. Michnik’s expressed support for Polish workers prompts me to ask him whether their loyalty can be maintained even in the short run. How can a Solidarity-led government defend the interests of Polish workers while imposing a tough austerity programme on them? The ‘economic rescue programme’, outlined by Finance Minister Balcerowicz in early October, involves wage restrictions and massive cuts in state spending. It scraps food subsidies (which has had the curious effect of fuelling inflation, slackening demand for food as real wages fall, and reducing the income of many farmers). The programme also urges state enterprises to make a profit. Bankruptcy is considered an essential ingredient in the fight against politically distorted investment and pricing. Unemployment will naturally result. During 1990 it is expected officially to rise to 20 per cent.

Michnik denies that Solidarity’s rescue programme has anything to do with the ‘restoration of capitalism’. The old language of ‘capitalism versus socialism’ is exhausted. ‘Coming out of the Stalinist era, we have brought with us a whole bag of labels and stereotypes, one of which is the great perennial conflict between capitalism and socialism. As if there have been no long-lasting feuds and bloody conflicts between socialist countries! We are trying to make our economy effective, and I think no one today has a recipe that can help protect any economy against the detrimental effect of totalitarian methods of management. In the absence of such a programme, dogmas will impede our economic development. I am convinced that all the great ideologies of the past should be abandoned to the past.’

Michnik does admit that the rescue programme puts pressure on the old idea of Solidarity as the defender of civil society against the totalitarian state. In effect, it requires Polish workers to look beyond their noses, to distinguish between their short-term and long-term interests. A trade union role for Solidarity is not enough. Michnik doubts that Solidarity can or should become a political party in the western sense. ‘The multiparty system of Western countries is the child of bourgeois revolutions. But we have an entirely different situation, where building exclusively on other countries’ experience will not bring about the desired result. Among the political trends in this country you will certainly find Constitutional Democrats, Social Democrats and even Christian Democrats. But distinguishing among them today is difficult, even impossible, since the process of social renewal and polarization is taking place against a different social background and stems from a mass psychology without precedent in history.’ Michnik nevertheless emphasizes that the strategy of Solidarity under martial law is no longer viable. It must recognize that citizens have problems distinct from those of workers or consumers, and that the task of democratizing the state and civil society cannot be resolved into the struggle for economic democracy. It is now faced with a new dilemma. ‘Solidarity needs to be both a trade union and a citizens’ movement. A trade union which has to decide everything cannot remain a trade union for long. Political questions can only be expressed through a citizens’ movement.’

Michnik detects confirmation of this point in the citizens’ committees which mushroomed prior to the June elections. He believes Polish society has a genuine capacity for dignified self-sacrifice, for solidarity in conditions of extreme austerity. The image of Poles as impassive, tired-looking people who get no fun out of life is mistaken. The Polish spring a decade ago was a watershed. It cut the thread of helplessness in Polish society. ‘The 1980–81 events were a revolution for dignity, a celebration of the rights of the vertebrae, a permanent victory for the straightened spine’, says Michnik. ‘Whatever happens from hereon, one fact cannot be erased from the memory of the Polish nation: The events of 1917 signalled the rise of communism. The meeting of Gdansk workers in August 1980 signalled its destruction. The down-fall of the totalitarian communist order began here in Poland.’

A Springtime of Nations

Michnik’s description is correct. The Poles’ love of democracy has been infectious. The national ‘revolutions’ against communism have spread. Democratic ideals are winning an epochal victory against totalitarian regimes. He is jubilant about the current springtime of nations in central-eastern Europe, and has worked hard to give it a democratic twist. In November 1989 he helped organize a Polish–Czechoslovak jamboree in Wroclaw, attended by more than 6,000 people. For a long time he was convinced that Poland’s and Hungary’s striving for democracy could be successful only if the dismal wedge of conservative Czechoslovakia wasn’t driven between them. With me he is contemptuously funny about the deposed Jakeš leadership. ‘Do you know why the Jakeš group consistently lived up to their self-image?’ He smiles, his eyes twinkling with the Marx Brothers. ‘Because they looked stupid, acted stupidly and were stupid.’ Inevitably, we discuss the two Germanies. Michnik brushes aside talk of the possible emergence of a Fourth Reich with statues of Hitler in every German town. He denies the claim that the recent destruction of the Berlin Wall is dangerous because it is the harbinger of a unified Bismarckian German state in the heart of Europe. In his view an increasingly united, federated Germany—a democratic Germany which acknowledges the existing borders of Poland—could be the magnet which attracted a larger, more democratic Europe. ‘The citizens of both Germanies are entitled to exercise their right to determine their own destiny.’ Emphasizing the grave dangers of redrawing national boundaries—‘anyone who speaks of altering national boundaries is either a fool or a troublemaker’—he extends the same principle of democratic self-determination to the nations of the Soviet Union itself. In September 1989, Michnik visited the Ukraine with a Solidarity delegation. He told the first congress of the Popular Front, to wild applause, that Solidarity was watching with joy the rebirth of the Ukraine, concluding: ‘Long live an independent and democratic Ukraine!’

In Poland Michnik’s speech was hotly contested. What business do Poles have in Soviet affairs, some asked? Could the Soviet Union survive a day without the Ukraine? And doesn’t the nineteenth-century belief that national interests are essentially incompatible still apply? What is good for Ukrainians is bad for the Poles, isn’t it? Michnik replies: ‘The right of a nation to freedom and a sovereign state is a precondition of democracy within its borders.’ A persuasive point. The striving for democracy does demand recognition of at least some rights of self-determination of a nation. And it is true that a shared sense of nationhood—in Poland as much as in the Baltic countries and Armenia—can infuse citizens with a sense of confidence and dignity.

But I ask Michnik whether a strong sense of nationhood is exposed to the well-known dangers of nationalism—especially in middle Europe, where it was the original mass political ideology of the region, and where (as the Polish historian Jan Josef Lipski has pointed out) the cultural vacuum left by the communist attempt to root out other traditions has actually stimulated its growth. Isn’t the crucial trait of a nation—a large collection of people who identify primarily with the amorphous collectivity and not with its subgroups—potentially a menace to democracy? Isn’t the striving for nationhood sometimes the soil which sprouts nationalism and hence, insularity, xenophobia and the love of knives and guns and state power? Michnik erupts. ‘Categorically no! Chauvinism is the greatest enemy of democracy. But there’s no necessary link between the striving for national sovereignty and nationalist attempts to exploit the mythology of xenophobia. On the contrary—as the Pamyat movement in Russia shows—nationalism thrives within nations which have been degraded.’ He pauses. ‘Whenever there is a thaw in the countries of central-eastern Europe democratic attitudes and ideals normally flourish. This occurred in 1956 in Hungary, in 1968 in Czechoslovakia, and in 1980 in Poland. It is also evident in my country, in Hungary, the ddr, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic Republics, and in Russia itself.’

Russia. Talk of this country and its Empire normally makes Poles’ flesh creep. Not so with Michnik, who sees an inverse relationship between democracy and militarism. ‘The Russia we have always feared, and which we fear even now, is a country whose autocratic political system is doomed to expansionism. A democratic Russia can establish entirely different relations with Poland.’ He is sure that a democratic Russia could coexist peacefully with democratically established states in central Europe. But he is less certain whether the Gorbachev group has in fact swapped the Brezhnev doctrine for the Sinatra doctrine. Can it help build a new and more equal compromise among the nationalities of the Soviet Union? Will it permit Hungary to break the Warsaw Treaty? Czechoslovakia to abandon comecon? Turn a blind eye to the integration of the two Germanies? Allow Poland—in Churchill’s words—to become ‘mistress in her own house and captain of her own soul’?

It is too early to tell, says Michnik. He is certain of only one thing. The Soviet Union is the last great empire on the face of the earth. It is crumbling. It contains many countries and national minorities who are the natural foes of totalitarianism. If there is to be (in Gorbachev’s words) ‘an end to strife between nationalities’ then there must be a brand new political compromise, says Michnik. Military solutions and Schmittian talk of revenge, friends and enemies must be avoided. The road to democracy is through give and take. ‘Gorbachev is confronted by a fundamental choice. Either he acknowledges that there are irremovable conflicts within Soviet society and, accordingly, works to build a social order based on compromise—among Tatars, Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians, Georgians and other minorities—or he attempts to resolve these conflicts by using the police and the army. There is no other choice: either there will be compromise or Stalinism. I urge him to find agreement with the genuine leaders of the national minorities. He must try to build a new Soviet commonwealth of nations. Andrei Sakharov was right: freedom in Russia is possible only if it no longer oppresses other nations.’

Five o’clock approaches. Michnik becomes visibly nervous, torn among his roles as intellectual critic of power, editor-in-chief, adviser and tenant in the house of political power. A taxi appears in Iwicka Street. Michnik issues a barrage of staccato instructions to the staff of Gazeta Wyborcza. I grab my equipment and we climb noisily into the taxi. Shrouded in fog, it roars and rattles the short journey to the Prime Minister’s offices. I can’t resist a string of parting questions. How long will this new government of Mazowiecki last? Can it retain public trust beyond the June local elections (as Walesa and others have asked)? Is it fated to be replaced by a dictatorship, perhaps led by a new Pilsudski figure such as General Jaruzelski? Or do such questions reinforce a doomsday scenario which actually produces doomsday? Michnik’s parting shot is predictably guarded. ‘Democracy is an awful way of running things. It is a costly and time-consuming kind of government. But nobody has yet come forward with a better idea. So I fight for more of it. Salut Professor John! À bientôt.’