Dawn in Poland

Dawn in Poland

Dual power, Lenin wrote, cannot last long. But just how long?


Dual power, Lenin wrote, cannot last long. But just how long? The question came to mind as the wistful and soft-spoken Tadeusz Mazowiecki became the first elected Eastern European Prime Minister since the 1940s who is not the nominee of the Communist Party. Dual power prevails in Poland because the party still has Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski in the presidency and retains control over the armed forces.

History, however, is picking up its pace. The nation is in transition, and the issue, crucial for the whole of Eastern Europe, is, Transition to what?

In Poland this is first of all a question for the Communist Party, which cannot go on being propped up by the organs of repression. Deprived of the power of patronage in the economy through the nomenklatura. and probably stripped of its control over the media, the party–which has been essentially a machine for carrying orders from above–will have to discover for itself a new function, a new vocation, a new legitimacy. The inner conflicts will be bitter.

For the small parties that were for years junior partners in the ruling coalition–the Peasant Party, or Z.S.L., to follow its Polish initials, and the Democratic Party, or S.D.–this is a birth rather than a resurrection. Yesterday’s ventriloquist’s dummies have suddenly discovered a voice of their own and must learn how to use it. Their transformation, inspired by fear of the voters, has altered the parliamentary equation.

Yet it is Solidarity that faces the greatest challenge. The men who are now taking the helm served their political apprenticeships underground and in jail, not in Her Majesty’s opposition (Mazowiecki has more experience than his colleagues because he did sit in Parliament, in the 1960s, as a “progressive Catholic”). And they are taking over in stormy seas. According to official figures, in the first seven months of the year, prices rose by 84 percent and incomes even faster. The outgoing regime made a bonfire of government controls, and the sky is now the limit for food prices. Workers throughout the country are trying to catch up by striking for higher wages or threatening to do so. It took the prestige of Lech Walesa and Mazowiecki to end the strikes of Silesian miners and the railway workers of Lodz. Solidarity undoubtedly has the backing of the Polish people, but the new government will quickly have to show how it intends to deal with the economic crisis.

Paradoxically, both the new government and the old, Solidarity and the C.P., favor a switch to a “full market economy” as the ultimate solution. But because the market is really effective only when it can exercise its tyranny, that is, whether they admit it or not, a euphemism for a gradual transition to capitalism. Is this what the Polish people wish? If asked in a referendum whether they would like to live like the Americans, or like the Swedes for that matter, they would overwhelmingly answer yes. But that’s not the issue. Solutions must be found to Poland’s predicament, and the answers are neither neutral nor ecumenical. They will affect different social groups in different ways. The decisions taken by the new government will have an influence on wage and income differentials, on the future of the welfare state, on forms of property; that is to say, not just upon wealth but upon power in the factory and beyond. The answers will thus suggest whether Solidarity is still a labor movement or has become a political party.

The new Prime Minister exemplifies this dilemma. In August 1980, when Poland was paralyzed by strikes, Mazowiecki, a prominent Catholic journalist, took the initiative of circulating a petition among intellectuals backing the strikers. He carried the text to Gdansk and became, together with Bronislaw Geremek and a handful of others, an “expert” helping the strikers. The intellectuals were then the assistants, offering their services to the workers, who were presenting worker interests as those of society as a whole. Today the positions seem, to some extent, reversed. The intellectuals are in office with a vague mandate to clean up the mess. Will they ask the workers to subordinate their interests to what the “experts” consider to be the national good?

The question is neither rhetorical nor irrelevant. The new government may proceed with the transition to capitalism at the risk of running into trouble with its own constituency. It could also experiment with workers’ control and self-management to discover new forms of economic democracy and demonstrate to Eastern Europe, and the world at large, that the choice is not solely between neo-Stalinism and neocapitalism. As things stand, the best chance for a fresh solution resides less in the policies advocated than in the working-class roots of Solidarity and the deep egalitarian feelings of the working people of Poland.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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