Poland--The Taste of Ashes | The Nation


Poland--The Taste of Ashes

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

It's `Them' Again

The transfer of property has obvious political as well as economic purposes. The parties throughout Eastern Europe speak, in a sense, for classes in the process of formation, and this is why they often speak with strange voices. The Parliament's lower house, or Sejm, with its twenty parties (of which none captured more than 14 percent of the vote in last year's elections), provides a good example of such a dissonant chorus. But one of its most prominent members, the historian Bronislaw Geremek, gave me another explanation of the political confusion. The main conflict in Eastern Europe, he argued, is between the reformers who want to lead their societies toward the Western model and the opponents of change. The snag is that the Western consensus politics is based on the existence of a large middle class, absent in Poland. Some, therefore, wish to reshape society by authoritarian means. He maintains that big changes, notably in property relations, can only be carried out with popular consent.

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.

Geremek's interpretation was the only possible one to justify the coexistence in one government of his party, the vaguely secular and leftish Democratic Union, with the jingoist and clerical Christian National Party. The "reformist" link between the coalition partners is the acceptance of the Balcerowicz line and of the pattern prescribed by international finance. The price paid for the shock therapy, however, is a heavy one: the divorce of the former Solidarity leadership from a people who barely three years ago had swept it triumphantly into power.

The fatal flaw of the "communist" regimes throughout the area was their alienation, the fact that the population thought in terms of "us" and "them." In Poland today most ordinary people talk once again about "them"--the crafty ones, the profiteers--lumping together Lech Walesa, the government and the parliamentarians into this category. This is no rehabilitation of the old regime. It is a condemnation of the new one.

The current governmental coalition was brought together last July, partly by the fear of a McCarthyite purge prepared by a crazy interior minister. The present Prime Minister, Hanna Suchocka, was picked because she was sufficiently unknown not to offend prominent rivals and sufficiently Catholic to have the blessing of the church. Most deputies fear an election and thus don't want to challenge Suchocka, but her government could collapse in a conflict with President Walesa. Yet more worrying than the prospects for the government is the almost immediate loss of legitimacy of the new system.

In Warsaw, as in other eastern capitals, those loosely called democrats warn that, if their road to capitalism fails, the alternative is more likely to be semifascist than socialist. They forget to add that their policy feeds dangerous forms of populism. Discontent in Poland strengthens not only the converted ex-Communists, who are still too discredited to become the main alternative, but also parties like the jingoist Confederation of Polish Independence, which nonetheless appears proletarian compared with the Democratic Union, born of Solidarity. More valid is the claim that the so-called democrats, while no longer leftist in economic matters, are better than their rivals on such issues as nationalism and the rule of law. Even this, however, must be qualified because of a Polish peculiarity--the political power of the church.

The Black Web

"The antiabortion law will be passed," Basia Labuda tells me upon emerging from a parliamentary commission meeting. The bill she refers to will forbid abortion even in the case of rape and will sentence doctors and women involved to two years in jail. Basia, whom I have known as a leftie, has long been converted to capitalism. But she has remained a radical fighter for women's rights against the clerical invasion and was recently attacked by Jozef Cardinal Glemp himself. She says the law will pass partly because of the conduct of her colleagues (she, too, belongs to the Democratic Union): They will bravely vanish on the day of the vote or abstain; even those who will vote against do not have the courage to stand up to the church publicly.

From Basia and many women activists I hear the same story of a Catholic Church spreading its web over society. The church emerged under the new regime in an exceptionally strong position, which it is now trying to institutionalize. It first obtained a decree that religious instruction should be given during school hours, then insisted that it should count as a subject. Now it demands that a church teacher be put on every school council. The abortion ban will be particularly harmful in a country where sex education and birth control lag behind the West (many women are still using the rhythm method, known here as "Vatican roulette"). Once the bill is passed, the clergy is expected to switch to a frontal attack on contraception. Will divorce be next? The church is trying to impose its "values" everywhere, including radio and television.

Occasionally, it goes too far. For example, it claimed a university building in Warsaw seized by the Czar after the insurrection of 1863. The Constitutional Tribunal had to remind the church it can only reclaim property seized after World War II. Indeed, some optimists stress that the tide is turning, that the church is losing popularity. The clergy refuses categorically a referendum on abortion, knowing it would be defeated. There are other developments antagonizing the people: the greed with which the church seizes clinics or grabs land destined for children's playgrounds; the ostentatious wealth of the prelates in poor parishes. The church's struggle is ultimately a losing one against the modern age; if it continues making mistakes, it will soon lose the moral authority it gained in opposing the Communist regime. Poland will cease to be peculiar. Should one look hopefully to such a normal future or worry about the dark ages in between?

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size