Quantcast

Poland--Ashes and Diamonds | The Nation

  •  

Poland--Ashes and Diamonds

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Prices were raised sharply in Poland on January 30, by an estimated 40 percent, and hell did not break loose. Times have changed: In 1970, after a bloody battle, Polish workers won a veto over their country's pricing policy. Six years later they confirmed this power. Then, in the glorious summer of 1980, provoked once again by a price hike, they conquered the right to form independent unions. True, two years later the Poles had higher prices pushed down their throats, but that was just after Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's tanks had performed their ruthless job. Now, although the regime still rests ultimately on the tanks and on Soviet proximity, the political situation is quite different. Poland today cannot be likened to the Chile of Gen. August0 Pinochet. Indeed, judging just by the freedom of expression in the official press and not the numerous underground publications, it can still give the Russians quite a few lessons in glasnost.

About the Author

Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

Also by the Author

It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

Has General Jaruzelski, then, succeeded in his task as "normalizer"'? Very far from it. His economic reforms, of which the price increase is a part, are being introduced in the worst possible circumstances. The foreign debt has climbed to $37 billion. At the turn of the year the shelves in the shops were empty and the lines in front of them lengthened to recall the darkest days of shortages. Poland is one of the rare countries in which the dollar is eternally rising; the confidence of the population in its own zloty is so small that it now keeps 58 percent of its savings in foreign currency. To prevent price changes from leading to explosions of discontent, the government had to reduce some of the proposed rises and to increase, simultaneously, financial compensation. To keep things quiet now it is granting additional wage concessions in plants with workers threatening to strike.

The officials themselves do not expect spectacular results from the half measures imposed by the government. It's sweat and tears without the prospect of reward. As one historian put it, in an open letter addressed to both Wojciech Jaruzelski and Lech Walesa, the mood in Poland is one of "hopelessness, disenchantment and apathy, with a drunken haze allowing a flight from reality." He wrote this letter because, like so many people, he is convinced that without some sort of social contract Poland will drift, rather than plunge, into economic, ecological and political disaster.

This, of course, is a gloomy picture that needs some shading. Poland deserves a closer look for many reasons. The story of Solidarity, or more precisely of the revival in Eastern Europe of an autonomous labor movement, inter- rupted brutally, is still very far from finished. Besides, for all its peculiarities, Poland allows us to grasp better some of the issues facing the Soviet bloc, as a whole. In particular, it now illustrates dramatically the central dilemma of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika. To break the backbone of bureaucratic resistance to his reforms, the Soviet leader needs pressure from below, the backing of the workers, and he knows it. Poland had such a labor movement; its equivalent in the Soviet Union is barely taking its first steps. Yet can the system put up with an autonomous movement that genuinely represents the interests of the workers? Finally, Poland is ahead of the rest of the Soviet bloc in many respects, and is more articulate in its political discourse--which raises some questions, notably over the tensions brought about by a new privileged elite, which the Hungarians today and the Russians tomorrow must answer as well.

Divided They Drift. To understand why the lines lengthened and concessions proved of no avail, we must go back to last November, when Poland set yet another precedent for the Soviet bloc--an unsuccessful electoral test. Poles were asked to approve, in a referendum, a package of political liberalization and economic reforms, including much stiffer price increases than those finally introduced. One-third of them simply stayed at home. The surprise was that over a third OK those who bothered to vote said no. This would not have mattered if the government had not set the hurdle so high--requiring the approval of half the registered electorate. More than 42 percent was not enough. The plan was rejected and the authorities had to switch to the milder, watered-down current version.

Consumers are no fools. Faced with the prospect of inflation, whatever the version, they invaded the shops. Even shoddy goods, as one commentator put it, are better than phony money. Sugar and rice, furs and furniture, washing machines and color TV sets vanished from shops, while professional speculators reappeared in lines. Price increases were designed, in principle, to eliminate both subsidies and the resulting artificial distortions. Salary earners as well as pensioners were to be given monetary compensation to avoid a sharp drop in living standards. But the government's proposals in this field were dismissed as ridiculous by the official, state-sponsored unions with a vehemence worthy of Solidarity at its toughest. The authorities thereupon backed down, giving the unions almost all they had demanded, and experts now predict that this year Poland will have both a rapid rate of inflation and high subsidies.

By any standard, the government did not do badly in purely electoral terms. This is not really surprising. The great expectations had collapsed. The prospects for change from below seemed blocked for the moment, while the imperative need for some sort of a new economic policy was felt by almost everybody. Solidarity actually hesitated over its line and did not campaign very actively for the boycott. On the other hand, Jaruzelski and his men were aware of the mood of the nation, because on the eve of the referendum they had carried out a vast opinion poll, whose results were plain: A large and growing majority expected things to get worse, not better, and an overwhelming number did not rule out an explosion. This may explain why the authorities yielded so fast to the unions.

A retreat by a government does not necessarily mean an advance by the opposition. The leaders of Solidarity, incidentally, at once proclaimed that the Polish people had rejected not the reforms but the would-be reformers. Yet, seven years after the military coup, Solidarity itself is in a fix. Its elder members are battle-scarred and weary. The younger ones, with a twenty-year waiting list for accommodations, are angry and impatient. Now that the collective dream has temporarily disappeared, millions of Poles wish only to emigrate, for plain economic reasons. Others are turning inward to cultivate their own garden or drown their sorrows in vodka. Solidarity, although all its leaders are now free and acting in the open, has a tremendous task. Its offers of collaboration turned down by the government, it must steer a middle course between the twin risks of resigned apathy and purposeless explosions of anger. Its unifying efforts are not helped by a new process of social differentiation that is tearing the country further apart.

'"The Poor and the Rich." This is the title of an article published in January in Polityka, the weekly representing the "liberal" wing of the establishment, which has created quite a stir: "Winter skiing in the Alps, summer on the Riviera, a B.M.W., jewels from Gucci, children in a French kindergarten and an American school, provisions from West Berlin." The opening paragraph was designed to hit the reader in the stomach, showing that the nouveau riche no longer merely enjoys the standard of living of a Western skilled worker but, at least in terms of consumption, rivals the behavior of the West's beautiful people. The two authors do mention the really poor or those living close to subsistence level--an old-age pensioner, a family unable to buy its full meat ration, an assistant university professor with two children whose spouse is not working--but only briefly and fur the sake of contrast. They are more interested in comparing the new consumers with the relatively privileged groups of the recent past-the doctors, engineers, journalists or civil servants who have a flat, the essential consumer durables, a small car, but are now shocked by the conspicuous spending of the new "millionaires." They are all the more offended since these newcomers are no longer rough mechanics or vegetable growers. They are university graduates, speaking foreign languages, dealing with computers, building small, modern enterprises, filling loopholes in international trade. They set models of behavior as well as patterns of consumption.

If nothing is done, the authors argue, there may be serious consequences. One possibility is an egalitarian backlash. (Egalitarianism, crude and primitive by definition, now seems to be the favorite target of the acquisitive intelligentsia.) The other is the political rise of the new businessmen. Tomorrow they may well have "not only their own dentists but their ideologues, their lawyers, their scientists and their artists." What's to be done to prevent it? People should be able to aspire to affluence in the public as well as the private sector. Even the downtrodden may benefit as the welfare functions of the state are improved by paying much higher salaries to the doctors, the teachers and, presumably, the scribblers. So far, other participants in the continuing debate in Polityka are equally unconcerned with the have-nots. One argues that in the West, too, intellectuals earn less than the business people and yet manage to preserve their prestige. If the Polish intelligentsia has lost its stature, it is because it has betrayed its function (by siding with Solidarity, though this is hinted at rather than spelled out). Another, more sophisticated, participant refuses to grant to the newcomers the label "cultured." Drawing an appropriate parallel with the party apparatchiks, who required years after the war to learn "good manners," this writer argues that the nouveaux riches are every bit as uncouth, only more brash and ostentatious. Oh dear! Oh dear!

The economic reform has not gone far yet. The private sector, outside of farming, is still small and foreign investment marginal. But the Western spirit, potent stuff, has already gone to the heads of the intelligentsia. Perusing Polityka, I found an article by a journalist who hoped that "market, money, profit having found acceptance, maybe 'capital' will cease to be a class-alien concept, " Admittedly, in praising the capitalist methods of raising funds, she has a rather barterish conception of debentures (you buy bonds in brickworks and are paid in bricks). Yet what matters is the spirit. The intoxicating winds have crossed the Elbe. Private is beautiful, the "invisible hand" guiding the market is wise and making money is virtuous. A growing number of "experts" throughout Eastern Europe seem to share the cynical philosophy recently summed up by the Soviet reformer Nikolai Shmelyev in Moscow News: "All that is economically ineffective is immoral and all that is effective is moral."

Less than a dozen years ago, when Polish workers were being clubbed, a small group of intellectuals offered them its services. Jacek Kuron, Adam Michnik and their colleagues from KOR thus showed that intellectuals can play a historical role by linking their fate with a real social movement. A few years later, a good portion of the Polish intelligentsia followed their example. Will the professional intelligentsia throughout Eastern Europe now forget this lesson and sell this collective gain for a mess of pottage, aligning itself in overwhelming numbers with either of the two sides, the apparatchiks or the managers, who are fighting among themselves for privileges?

A Swing to the Right? One is reluctant to use this expression, with its suggestion that what preceded was the left, that dictatorial planning from above is socialism and that the rule of the nomenklatura equals democracy. Poland, even more than other countries of the Soviet bloc, is badly in need of an entirely new economic policy. Another reason for reluctance in using the term is that the leadership of Solidarity--Lech Walesa and his advisers, Zbigniew Bujak and his fellows out of the underground--has repeated consistently, though with a diminishing echo, its demand for pluralism on the labor front and the right to set up autonomous unions. There is no denying, however, that a good portion of the intelligentsia linked with the opposition has swung rightward. Many of its members now hanker after the prewar dictator Jozef Pilsudski, the nationalist Roman Dmowski and even more reactionary figures from the past.

The government has done its best to encourage this trend. It did so through the military coup, which seemed to prove that radical change would not be tolerated within the system. It did so y its eagerness to negotiate with the Catholic leaders, thus consolidating the cultural hegemony of the church, and by its refusal to talk to the real representatives of the workers. It did so by its conduct, past and present, which discredited the very name of socialism. The point has been reached that the government is not trusted even when it makes genuinely reformist proposals, because they are not endorsed by Lech Walesa, the man who still stands, symbolically, for the hopes of yesterday.

The ideal solution would thus be for the two sides now to reach the social contract they failed to achieve in the past, a compromise that somehow reconciled the political imperatives of geography with the aspirations of the working people. For a spell, in 1981, there was even the outline of a constitutional framework for this compromise, with a second, junior chamber representing on a national scale the workers' councils that are scattered throughout the country. Solidarity would thus have had at least a consultative voice. The system foreshadowed not a radical, revolutionary break but a creeping transformation, a long road toward some form of workers' democracy. It probably remains the best possible model for a peaceful, progressive transition in Eastern Europe.

But let us not dream. Having refused such a compromise in a moment of weakness, General Jaruzelski has no intention of accepting it now that he is relatively strong. The movement will have to reconquer its power patiently from below, taking over the self-governing councils in the factories and all other grass-roots organizations. Once Solidarity gets back to its own terrain, in the plants, the vagaries of the intellectuals will become less important. You don't preach unemployment or the defense of privilege on the shop floor.

Watching the situation in Poland now is a painful exercise. There are moments of near despair. In a country that before the war had a strong lay left, the ideological domination of the Catholic Church is now overwhelming, Red is a dirty word, Reagan is a hero and Milton Friedman provides food for economic thought. But not everything is so dark. The fires of Solidarity have not all turned to ashes; not all the young are guided by the imported maxim, "Screw you, I'm all right, Jack." The opposition group getting the best response among the young is WiP (Peace and Freedom), the nearest Polish equivalent to the Greens. WiP is a small band of youthful pacifists who, enduring hunger strikes and braving jail sentences, are in the process of winning a statute for Poland's conscientious objectors.

This is my country
Because here I was born
And here I will probably die
But why should I be proud of that....

This is the refrain, repeated over and over, of a song by the. pop group called, significantly, The Deserter. In jingoist Poland, with its love of the uniform, where "Corporal" Walesa writes to "General" Jaruzelski, these are interesting symptoms of a change of mood. Shall we have to wait till this new, more internationalist generation takes a more active part in the struggle for the saga of Solidarity to be resumed? If so, they had better hurry up, because the weather forecast for perestroika in the peculiar conditions of Poland sounds rather stormy.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size