Poland Chooses–What’s at Stake

Poland Chooses–What’s at Stake

There seem to be a large measure of agreement between Walesa and Mazowiecki over fundamental economic policy.


On November 25 Poland will try, for the first time in its history, to elect a president through universal suffrage. Although there are six candidates, the main battle is a fratricidal duel between two leaders of Solidarity: 47-year-old Lech Walesa and 63-year-old Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Poland’s Prime Minister for more than a year. Much more is at stake, however, than two contrasting personalities. To help us understand the hues behind the vote, we turned to Daniel Singer, The Nation‘s Europe correspondent and author of The Road to Gdansk, and Lawrence Goodwyn, a professor of history at Duke University and author of two standard works on U.S. agrarian populism and of the forthcoming Breaking the Barriers: The Rise of Solidarity in Poland.    –The Editors

There seem to be a large measure of agreement between Walesa and Mazowiecki over fundamental economic policy. That being the case, can you say what you think the contest on November 25 is really about? Is it useful, for example, to use words such as “liberal” versus “populist” to characterize the two sides?


Rumor has it that Walesa, if elected president, would appoint as prime minister Leszek Balcerowicz, his rival’s Finance Minister and author of his austerity program. This confirms your crucial point: that the two protagonists agree on the essential thing, namely, the quick road to capitalism. But if you need to attack, you may invent differences. Walesa began by accusing the Mazowiecki government of acting too slowly, yet who wants to move faster in the direction of lower living standards and higher unemployment? With his knack for feeling the mood of the people, he corrected the line: too slow in getting rid of the nomenklatura. This was and is popular because, despite the change of regime, Poles see that the same people remain in charge of their factories and offices. It is popular but purely cant–since, having forgotten the pledges of self-management and workers’ control, Walesa the privatizer has no intention of giving working people any mastery over their labor.

Agreeing on economic policy, can’t they have fundamental differences on social and political issues? Here the answer is more complex. The two camps have a different attraction: Walesa and his associates appeal to the nationalist, the ethnic, to “true Catholic Poles”; Mazowiecki and his colleagues refer to the principles of Western bourgeois democracy, with their basis in the rule of law. It is no accident that the leaders of the reborn endecja, the prewar jingoist and anti-Semitic party, should now be favoring Walesa. It would be wrong, however, to present the battle as one between left and right. The so-called lay left that Mazowiecki is supposed to represent is a figment of his opponents’ imagination. Neither side, as we have seen, is progressive in economic matters (they can at best be described as “radicals” in Thatcherite terms). And the followers of Mazowiecki do not have the courage to be lay. The men who braved the prisons of the former regime do not dare to defy the Catholic Church, the ideological master of the day. Suffice it to say that religious instruction has been reintroduced into schools by the Mazowiecki government. In short, you have a phony battle and potentially a real conflict.


It is not useful to use words like “liberal” and “populist.” As political description, they effectively conceal the social reality they are presumed to be describing. As generally employed, “populism” is a term of condescension applied indiscriminately to passing political figures rather than to self-organized constituencies. Solidarnosc emerged in Poland as a self-generated social formation, and all of its local and national representatives and advisers, including Walesa, have necessarily endured a relationship to the popular base that has ranged in tension from manageable to shaky.

Greater clarity may be achieved if the question is refocused on constituencies rather than on two passing spokespersons. But to do so brings to the forefront prior attitudes in the mind of the observer. Here we encounter the aforementioned widespread tendency of intellectual elites to condescend to non-elite groups, a cultural blinder that has made Polish politics since 1980 difficult for Western intellectuals to comprehend.

As a practicing historian, I must say I have found this cultural habit, widespread as it is, to have had a crippling impact on both historical research and political discourse. As a populist specialist, the historian Norman Pollack once tellingly summarized this conventional and sanctioned approach: “The critics of Populism exhibit the very traits of authoritarianism they impute to others. Not willing to admit the existence of authoritarian currents in ourselves and in our society, we project them onto others–the outgroup, the Populists, indeed the reform tradition in America. Thus Populism becomes for the historian and the larger society what the Jew is for the anti-Semite. Both historian and anti-Semite require a scapegoat, and the character of that scapegoat is incidental.”

The interplay between two distinct groups–the intellectuals and the organized working class–has shaped the course of the Polish movement over the past ten years (if we start with the Gdansk strike of August 1980) or fourteen years (if we go back to the foundation in 1976 of KOR, the Workers’ Defense Committee). Their rivalry surfaced with great clarity in 1989 with the formation of a round table whose popular side was composed predominantly of intellectuals. Does this in some way account for the splits that have developed in the past year?


Historians will use the recent Polish example to show that the intelligentsia can play all sorts of roles. When a handful of intellectuals founded KOR, they suggested that the intelligentsia could play a historic role if it was linked with a genuine social movement. This was fully confirmed in the glorious summer of 1980, when the striking workers of Gdansk expressed the superior interests of society and the Warsaw intellectuals acted as their advisers (already then, Walesa was the head of the strikers and Mazowiecki of the “experts”). When Solidarity, the union born of this joint victory, talked the following year of self-management from the shop floor to the top, this was, in my view, the last possible chance for a peaceful transition in Eastern Europe that did not necessarily lead in a capitalist direction.

Rather than seek a difficult deal with the labor movement, the Polish Communist Party decided to smash it. The military coup of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski drove Solidarity underground and at that point the center of gravity moved gradually away from the factories. Thus, when it came to talks and then elections, in 1989, this time the intellectuals claimed to be expressing the superior interests of society and used the workers as electoral fodder. And this shift had a radical impact on policy: Self-management was at once abandoned for the sake of the capitalist gospel in its monetarist version.

All this has an influence on but cannot explain the split between Walesa and Mazowiecki. The conversion to capitalism involves the whole leadership of Solidarity and cannot, therefore, be attributed to the social origins of its members. Within the main organization backing Mazowiecki, ROAD (the Polish acronym for Civic Movement-Democratic Action), you find such well-known labor leaders as Zbigniew Bujak and Wladyslaw Frasyniuk. Besides, the Mazowiecki government had no chance of applying its austerity program without at least the acquiescence of the labor movement. True, the workers were bewildered. The very idea of socialism had been discredited together with its “really existing” version. They were even ready for some sacrifice. But sacrifices without any compensation being offered in terms of decision-making power, either in the factory or in the nation at large? Had they only conquered the right to greater exploitation? They needed one of their own to tell them that there was no alternative, and who was better fitted for this task than Walesa? He thus has more responsibility than his rival for the distortion of class struggle in Poland.


To the very few who looked, the “split” has been quite apparent all along–during the initial organizing crisis of August 1980, during the fifteen months of legal Solidarnosc, during the years of martial law, as well as in the new era of post-party politics. Intellectuals played no consequential role in the organizational construction of Solidarnosc or in the tense crisis of August except to offer ill-considered strategic advice, which the worker leaders wisely ignored. The widespread failure to recognize this reality has disfigured most of the interpretations of Polish politics that have appeared since the shipyard workers in Gdansk laid down their tools on August 14, 1980. The structure that emerged was centrally influenced by those who created it–broadly speaking by industrial workers but more specifically by social formations fashioned by workers in the maritime provinces of the Baltic coast. The sense of prerogative that this historical experience (1945-80) gave to Solidarnosc’s legions goes far to explain the worker dominance of the 1980-81 period and Walesa’s personal ascendancy as its spokesperson.

Attempts by Warsaw intellectuals generally and particularly of the most organized sector, KOR, to take over the movement began at the moment of working-class victory–literally in the first week following the original Gdansk agreement–and persisted through the aftermath of the Bydgoszcz crisis* in the spring of 1981. These efforts were renewed in the early years of martial law, its more overt forms ceasing only in 1985 with the acknowledgment by intellectuals that Walesa could most effectively be dealt with by being surrounded rather than dislodged.

Two elements bear here. The depth and subtlety of the internal struggle for influence over Solidarnosc have drawn almost no attention. This vacuum has had the effect of lending great credence to rather facile interpretations of Polish politics offered since 1980 by Polish intellectuals to visiting journalists and scholars.

It is probably prudent at this point to characterize these interpretations, the most eloquent of which have emanated from the pen of the writer-activist Adam Michnik. First, they reflect the views of one of the two contending factions–that is, the views presented by intellectuals, which are routinely partisan and self-serving. Second, they are class-based, experientially grounded and therefore quite natural. But they present a gross, even grotesque, exaggeration of the role of KOR (and secular and religious intellectuals generally) as causative agents in the creation of Solidarnosc.

The depth of contrast in the opposing views is obscured by two highly visible political conclusions both groups possessed at the outset or have come to share over a decade of political struggle. First, in the period 1980-88, the structural strain within Solidarnosc was largely concealed beneath the deep enmity toward the one-party state that the Polish intelligentsia and the working class shared.

The second area of affinity turns on a cultural development that is only now becoming clear to Western observers–namely, the extent to which the agonizing decades of Leninist rule have discredited socialism as an inclusive, discernible and dynamic political idea. This is not to say that a number of components associated with one or another socialisms have been historically desanctioned but rather that plain events have revealed the extent to which central features of the dream have always been left in a dreamlike state. I refer to the absence of coherent guides to short-term and long-term democratic conduct. The changes in Eastern Europe are a step in the right direction, but contemporary criteria of democratic evaluation are so warped that we have resisted the meaning of these early evolutions, including the deep contradictions they embody.

This a working class that a decade ago spoke of self-management and now speaks of an accelerated transition to a market economy. At the same time, its rank-and-file membership has declined sharply. What kind of union movement, and more especially what kind of union Leadership, are we dealing with in Poland today?


Lech Walesa is both “national savior” and labor leader, and therein lies his dilemma. Solidarity is no longer the power it once was. To be more accurate, the people are still grateful to Solidarity for helping them to get rid of the previous regime, and that is why the presidential poll is a contest between two of its representatives. But the workers no longer trust it as the defender of their interests. It now has a smaller membership than the “official” unions did under the old regime: It claims 2 million members, a mere fifth of its size in 1981. The price paid for its strategy is a heavy one, and it will continue to be so, since the economic reform, as it unfolds, should hurt the strongholds of Solidarity: such concentrations of labor as the shipyards, the steel mills and the mines.

Walesa owes his original rise to his uncanny sensitivity to the mood of his fellow workers. His attack on Mazowiecki was not only due to resentment and ambition. It also reflected the undoubted discontent of the rank and file. As we saw, the target–the survival of the nomenklatura–was well chosen. Yet this campaign reveals both the contradictions and the bluff in Walesa’s position. Opting for commercial privatization, as he does, one has in Poland three potential customers: foreign investors, who display no great enthusiasm and in any case can’t buy everything; successful speculators and other black marketeers; and finally, the industrial nomenklatura, people who were promoted to important managerial jobs but who at least know how the enterprises function. The prerogatives of that last group could be curbed by giving more power to the workers. But you cannot have self-management and the blessing of the International Monetary Fund.

Naturally, you can kick out a few of the nomenklatura and get some jobs for the boys. You may also carry out a purge more easily in education or in the media. However, in a country that a year ago had 2 million Communist Party members, if your purge is not limited to proven criminals, if people are removed from their jobs not because of incompetence but because of their party card, this would result in a massive witch hunt that would rapidly put an end to Poland’s budding democracy.

Solidarity is now partly an electoral machine. It is mainly a transmission belt, though an inefficient one because the leadership is divided and the membership bewildered. Solidarity will recover its historic significance only when, under its own name or otherwise, it resumes its original function as the autonomous representation of the Polish working class.


The highly appropriate reference to self-management helps bring an underlying problem of cultural and ideological confusion (a kind of intellectual poverty) into sharp focus. The sustained movement toward self-management within Solidarnosc–emanating from what was colloquially known as “the Network” of shopfloor self-management committees throughout Poland–represented a significant moment of theoretical and practical effort in the long struggle for democratic forms in human societies. Here was no tiny vanguard of visionaries hovering around some remote kitchen table– say on the fringes of the Paris Commune in 1871 or in isolated Bakuninist circles in Spain in 1938. Here was no solitary theorist speculating, like Jefferson or Marx, about the necessity for self-organized “elementary republics” or “the free association of free individuals” as vigorous popular formations to protect new democratic forms from erosion at the hands of self-interested elites.

On the contrary. the Network’s steps toward self-management took place at the very heart of a vast popular movement with genuine social presence and with serious and conceivably attainable ambitions to influence social policy in an immediate and practical way. Grounded in the “social enterprise” and conceptualized as a functioning network of self-managed factories in a self-managed economy presided over by social structures harmonious with a self-managing republic, the Network’s efforts, both its sustained internal dialogue and its structural tensions, would seem to have been of intense interest to residents of a hierarchically organized and weary world.

But it is not so. The socialist Neal Ascherson, for example, passed over the subject in one sentence in his book-length analysis. The liberal Timothy Garton Ash also exhibited an amiable disdain for what he regarded as a transparently utopian tangent. Sociologists and historians, both in Poland and in the West, have treated the entire subject abstractly–that is, in a manner that did not bring to the self-management movement enough sustained seriousness to penetrate to, or evaluate, its interior dynamics or promise. Visible here are the debilitating limitations pervading contemporary politics, an experientially narrowed perception concealed beneath a mask of literary sophistication. It is not fashionably urbane to take the idea of popular democracy seriously anymore: The historical record of the past 200 years seems to make the idea sound fanciful. We have not really pondered the prerequisites with sustained intensity because, at bottom, most political and intellectual elites do not trust “the people.” In due course we have unwittingly developed categories of political description that obscure this pervasive and crippling resignation.

The extreme social and economic crisis of the autumn of 1981 overwhelmed the self-management movement because the very survivability of Solidarnosc itself became the all-encompassing question. The numbing years of martial law that followed further obliterated the immediate relevance of self-management, so the politics of 1989-90 have fixated on state policy at the top rather than upon the necessarily evolutionary formulas for self-management from below. With the people effectively pushed off the political stage, we can return to much more familiar terrain–talking about the upcoming election.

The current political debate in Poland is less about an accelerated transition to a market economy than it is about the strategic capacities of the party apparat–the 60,000-strong nomenklatura–to distort the dismantling of the command economy. Nonparty engineers, artisans and technicians remain the functioning brains of an economic system controlled for two generations by shallow opportunists. But as Gorbachev has learned, the marginalization of the nomenklatura is a tortuous and debilitating process.

Mazowiecki made a critical error in deciding to keep the horde of party apparatchiks in place. To millions of Poles of ail classes, the daily spectacle of watching these well-dressed functionaries, these despised agents of an authoritarian bureaucracy, function in apparently undisturbed remoteness has been maddening.

The civic insecurity and frustration that daily add numbers of Russians to the Yeltsin camp fuel the same phenomenon in Poland. Campaign debate in Poland is not, at root, about the market economy. The social consequences of prolonged Leninist rule have decisively narrowed, at least for the present, the range of debate over the basic economic trajectory of post-Leninist societies.

More centrally, this election is not a debate about popular democratic forms. That subject has been lost–by Mazowiecki, by Walesa and by observers in the West. The focus is on politics at the top, not on the suffocation of democratic politics at the base. State politics has taken over again and, assisted by the preoccupations that shape our own lenses, remains at the center of our gaze.

Poland’s politics are particularly distinctive in that a number of social and cultural factors carry enormous weight–including, among others, disputes over church and state, feelings about abortion, nationalist nostalgia, anti-Semitism, an intelligentsia that yearns for political relevance. How important a role do you think these have played in the current presidential election?


In shorthand: The Jewish question, alas, will never again be a major question in Poland for the tragic reason that there are only a few thousand remnants of a population once 3.5 million strong. Anti-Semitism without Jews–the search for scapegoats and other irrational solutions–is thus a symptom of a deeper disease. Walesa is neither philo- nor anti-Semitic. He is determined to get to the top. If some members of his Centrum, or Center Alliance (which is a misnomer), or allies even further to the right begin to ask questions about the real or imaginary Jewish origins of the “Warsaw set” backing Mazowiecki, he will do nothing to lose the votes this may bring him.

The Catholic Church has not expressed a preference between the two men, It wants to get as much as possible out of whichever of them is elected, and it has quite an appetite. It has already obtained religious instruction in schools and should soon get the criminalization of abortion. Divorce may come next. The church wants money, political influence and cultural domination. It knows that the moment is particularly propitious and wants to institutionalize its advantages. Now that the “leading role” of the party has been eclipsed, will we have that of the church?

Walesa, who accepts the equation that a Pole equals a Catholic, is undisturbed by this offensive. The liberal Catholics close to Mazowiecki are perturbed. But because the Pope stands behind the Primate, Józef Cardinal Glemp, on such issues as abortion, they will not do much. Individually, some deputies will vote against the abortion bill, as some senators did, but as a group ROAD will not take a stand against the intrusion of the church in secular affairs.

In this growing darkness there is one ray of hope. The church may be overplaying its hand. Before the war it was weaker. The Communist regime bestowed upon it a second virginity by eliminating its awkward allies (landowners and capitalists) and representing it as the pillar of resistance against injustice and oppression. Now this is over and the aggressive politics of the church are beginning to antagonize people. Perhaps in a not too distant future politics will be conducted in Poland in a normal and not a theocratic framework.

LG: This is a central question, since cultural “weight” is enormous in all modern societies. But it is a subject that is clearly too formless and dynamic to be dealt with through static terms of description. Polish workers deeply resent the patronizing proclivities of the intelligentsia and the decade-long carping about Walesa’s idiosyncratic speech habits. They also distrust the strategic consequences of such a world view. As one worker summarily put it, “Intellectuals blink at decisive moments and cover their tracks with a lot of words. They remind everyone of high-level party officials.” It would be a primitive error to read such remarks simply as code words for anti-Semitism. The latter does exist in Poland–among the Szlachta intelligentsia,** among the entourage of Cardinal Glemp and in certain sectors of the working class. It is less evident than it was in prewar Poland, but, in attenuated form, it is there. Yet it is not helpful to click off our minds in its presence. Both Walesa and Mazowiecki will get votes from anti-Semites. But this election turns on deeper rhythms, namely, pervasive antiparty drives refracted through deep-seated class and cultural memories-above all, diverse understandings as to which sectors of Polish society created Solidarnosc and different understandings of the dream it embodies.

It is inviting to employ terms like “nationalist nostalgia” as interpretive tools to create a usable focus, but the invitation must be declined. First, nationalist sentiments in a country with Poland’s history of outside oppression obviously carry a distinctly different meaning than in, let’s say, western Germany. Writing from a part of the United States in which Jesse Helms recently has rather desperately invoked a particular kind of tribal nationalism in an unexpectedly close campaign against an engaging and effective black opponent, I am reminded once again that Poles do not have a monopoly on nationalism, nostalgic 0r otherwise. As for the Catholic Church, its presence in Poland continues to be, as it historically has been, ubiquitous.

Let’s assume for a moment that a Walesa victory is the outcome of the vote on November 25. Can one predict, in general term, how he might exercise his new presidential powers?


Walesa belongs to that rare breed of politicians who hear voices and have an eye for the main chance. The choice, in Michnik’s vivid words, is between the rule of law and that of the sheriff. Yet even the latter’s exercise of power depends on many factors. It depends on whether Walesa, to switch metaphors, wins in the first round by a knockout, or in the second on points. With 80 percent of the vote you are a plebiscitary monarch, with 55 percent you are merely a president. It depends even more on the patience of the population. If the people remain resigned to the candidates’ common economic policy, there will be a difference in men rather than in manner between the old government and the new. It is only when discontent reaches a breaking point, particularly among the workers, that Walesa may try to divert it through a search for scapegoats, through McCarthyite witch hunts or other undemocratic outlets. If a populist is one who sees real popular grievances but gives them distorted, irrational solutions, Walesa may prove himself such a leader.

But what about rational solutions, what about the hopes once entertained that Poland might invent something that follows neither the Stalinist nor the capitalist model? Such hopes now lie shattered. Here, like everywhere else in Eastern Europe, the final bankruptcy of Stalinism has left the very idea of socialism discredited, however unfairly, and it is not the Polish Communist Party, dressed up in social democratic clothing, that will render it attractive once again. For such a revival one must look to a resurrection of the alliance that was glimpsed ten years ago between workers rediscovering their power and large sections of the intelligentsia joining them in a common search for mastery over society and their own lives. To speak candidly, this prospect looms distant on the horizon. But then the Poles are now being given a crash course in the meaning of capitalism.


Poland has what my colleague Roman Laba calls a “dinosaur economy,” a gift from Stalinist obsessions with economies of scale. Not only is the base of the industrial structure grievously oversized, outmoded and uncompetitive, there is a vastly neglected and undeveloped infrastructure. The next president of Poland will preside over a rusty economic sieve. Unemployment will mire him in a social and political swamp. Hope, patience and a Polish capacity for endurance will delay the inevitable political crisis, but it will consume the president in due course. Because of his tactical skill and his credibility with workers, Walesa might delay the crisis a bit longer than Mazowiecki, but the differences could prove significant only if the West cared enough to provide serious assistance. As matters stand, prospects are not good, not good at all.


* The public beating by security police of a number of Solidarnosc activists at Bydgoszcz threatened the legitimacy of the movement. The tortuous compromise that ensued shook the morale of both the party and Solidarnosc.   Return to text

**The term refers to the old petty nobility and to the “noble ethos” still discernible within the pattern of social attitudes common among the contemporary intelligentsia.   Return to text

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