When Poland went through its “shock therapy” years of the early 1990s, many people lost out as a result of the economic reforms. The unemployment rate went up rapidly from under one percent in January 1990 to over 16% in 1994. And even though the reformers had promised that the pain would be relatively brief, the unemployment rate didn’t fall after that. It peaked in 2003 at over 20 percent and still hovers today somewhere between 13 and 14 percent.
The unemployment rate was only one of the indicators of economic suffering. The poverty rate also increased dramatically, from 17.3 percent in 1989 of the population to 31.5 percent in 1990. The hardest hit were industrial workers at first. But as the reforms started to bite in the countryside – and later as Poland prepared to join the EU – poverty spiked among farmers.
The political party that initially benefited from these economic travails was the former Communist Party, which renamed itself the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). In 1993, it won the parliamentary elections and formed a government with the Polish People’s Party, an agrarian party that also considered itself on the Left at that time. But the SLD soon demonstrated that it too favored the same kind of economic policies of its Solidarity-linked predecessor.
There were other political parties in the 1990s that tried to organize the disappointed, such as the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), which positioned itself as a non-Communist alternative on the Left. Zuzanna Dabrowska was part of the “Democratic Revolution” faction of PPS.
“If we would have had more technical power — money, structures, people – we could have appealed to all the people who, year by year during the 1990s, were more disappointed by what was going on in Poland, who lost their health, their money, their livelihoods during the transition period,” she told me in an interview in August just outside of Warsaw. “These were people who decided not to take part, not to vote. But to find these people and unite them, you had to have much greater organizational power. These were not activists, but ordinary people.”
She recounted a meeting from 1993 or 1994. “We were as radical as possible on the political scene in those years,” she remembered. “It was an open meeting, and I noticed an older couple sitting there. I didn’t know them. I said hello, asked them where they came from. They said they’d come from a small city. ‘And what do you think?’ I asked. ‘Oh it was okay,’ they said, ‘but for us it was not radical enough!’ These were just normal people. I think this group is now lost to democracy and political participation in Poland. They will never again trust anybody.”
In 1992, when I last interviewed Zuzanna Dabrowska, we talked about the prospects for the Left, the state of the women’s movement, and the rise of the Right. Twenty years later, we discussed these same issues, along with some new topics like “grantosis” and the exodus of young people.
You’re a radio journalist.
I’m a radio and press journalist. All my life I have been working in newspapers, but for the last three years I’ve been working in public radio, Channel 1. I do reports, interviews, conversations.
You specialize in…?
Polish politics and a bit of international news.
Are you still involved in any political parties?
Not in political parties, but in political and social activity yes. But not formally. I support many activities, if we can say that there are many activities.
Can you give me an example?
For example, with the women’s movement. Every year there is a big manifestation on March 8. I also worked as a clerk in the office of the plenipotentiary for equal rights of men and women. It was my friend Izabela Jaruga-Nowacka, who died in the Smolensk crash. We have a foundation in her name that does many things, including a project called Women Citizens with meetings all over Poland. We are preparing a small book with debates that are going on in different cities in Poland on different subjects, like poverty, democratic participation, things like this.
Does PPS-RD still exist?
No. It lasted for no longer than two years. I think it was 1991 when PPS reunited once again. It’s a long story. At the moment of transition, we opposed participation in the Round Table talks. Our elder friends in PPS, who were more social democratic than the younger generation, decided to join the “citizens committees,” which were organized on the basis of Solidarity as a political movement not as a trade union. So we were split. After that, we once again reunited, and in 1993 we made the very dramatic decision to run in the elections along with the post-Communist Social Democratic Party (SLD). In our opinion it was the only possibility to survive because society as a whole didn’t want to be revolutionary any more. After the elections we had three deputies, all of them from the younger generation.
So, we were inside the SLD. But before the budget vote, our deputies decided to leave the coalition. Then we were a small parliamentary group of three or four people depending on the situation. With the next elections, we started again with SLD and once again we had the same number of deputies and once again we were disobedient and split from the coalition. The 1990s were years of internal fighting in an attempt to create a strong Left with the post-Communists or alone. None of these scenarios succeeded…
At the end of this period was President Aleksander Kwasniewski campaign to run for a second term. We decided to run a candidate in this presidential election — Piotr Ikonowicz. It was an anti-Kwasniewski effort. It was also the end of PPS as we know it because the result was absolutely low, 0.2 percent or something. We also decided not to support Kwasniewski in the second round. It was clear that it was the end of our relationship with SLD. One year later, in 2000, we tried to run in parliamentary elections as PPS but we failed to collect enough signatures.
After that, Piotr resigned. And we all resigned from PPS because it was clear that our option had failed. The older activists decided to collaborate as a part of SLD. It was practically the end of the party. And it was the end of my party activity, which had focused on creating the PPS-RD. Piotr tried to create his own party called the New Left. It was active for two or three years. During these years, I was a deputy in the Sejmik Mazowiecki [the regional assembly] – on the SLD list but not as a member of SLD. It was an interesting experience, of course.
PPS doesn’t exist any more in name?
It exists somehow, but nobody knows about it. It’s a group of 50-60 people, mostly older people. There’s one exception. In Wroclaw, there’s a mixed group of intellectuals, workers, and students – as mixed as PPS-RD had been — and they are trying to be independent. I think they’re great. They started this year to focus on running candidates at the osiedla level, which is the level to run for elections to the city council. They have three or four representatives in these councils, including the liberal sociologist, Ewa Miszczuk. So, they are doing very well. But it’s only Wroclaw. They are autonomous. They took the banner of PPS, and they are somehow present in the national council of PPS. But they don’t follow all the conflicts.
Wroclaw has an interesting political identity with Orange Alternative and Wladyslaw Frasyniuk.
In Wroclaw after the transition, because of the strong political atmosphere there, people’s hopes were bigger. Later, when the people who took power failed, the disappointment there was bigger than anywhere else, except maybe Gdansk. As an example, they spent one million zloty on a fountain in the Old Market instead of creating new jobs or kindergartens or anything for the people. That’s a symbol of what this reality looks like in Wroclaw.
What do you think of Krytyka Polityczna?
I like them. They’re nice guys. But I think they suffer from the same problem as the East Coast in the States. They are organized around their own discussions. Of course it’s very important to discuss and to know what to think and to have a strong point of view. But if you don’t do any more than that, it’s a problem, for the Left especially. When I’m doing this program on women’s citizenship, I collaborate with Krytyka with pleasure. But if I would like to make a petition or organize a demonstration about something, it’s the wrong address.
Their leader is Slawomir Sierakowski. He’s a very smart guy, but I think in the last years he has somehow gotten lost. There was a moment when he was planning a political movement to take part in the elections at the community level. But all this disappeared, and now it’s just discussion club.
They also got from the city a very good place in the center of Warsaw on Nowy Swiat. The name of the cafe was Nowy Swiat Cafe. At the beginning it was a big success. Later, it turned out that people working there were on short-term contracts. It was bigger than they were. You cannot be politically active if you have 60-70 people in Warsaw and a cafe where you can hold a concert for 200 people — you don’t have enough people to work there. So, I think it was a mistake.
Now they don’t have this place any more. They have an office and I think it’s better for them, especially for their publishing activity. They do very good books: good titles, good translations. This is the best and most successful part of Krytyka.
Do you see anything in Poland today that represents this combination of critical political thinking plus actual political engagement? You mentioned what was going on in Wroclaw. Anything else?
This is the problem with the split between social and political activity. Take, for example, Piotr Ikonowicz, my former husband (but we still collaborate and like each other). He is running the Chancellery of Social Justice. The biggest success in the last days of PPS was preventing people from being thrown out of their houses. The highest court agreed with PPS, and it banned these evictions. Many direct actions were taken. This chancellery continues to do these direct actions if the police are called in. But it also helps at those times when the residents are in discussions with the owner. It helps with the negotiations, helps people with writing letters, makes noise in the media, and things like this. They even go to court as representatives of the people. It’s very good work. I don’t know how many people they defended over the last five years, maybe 1000 around the country, but mostly in Warsaw. They have five groups in Poland. They collaborate with some anarchist groups, with some local activists.
But the dream of activists like Piotr is to be involved in politics at a higher level. In our minds, politics is a bit higher than grassroots social activity. So they decided to link up with the party of Janusz Palikot. Piotr is an advisor to their parliamentary club. But it’s so hard. They are completely different. You can never guess what a man like Palikot is thinking. But maybe one day, Piotr or one of his comrades will decide to run again in the elections, for example with Palikot. I don’t know, they don’t know. It’s maybe 5 percent of what we expected at the beginning of the 1990s that we would be doing now. But lately Piotr decided to create his own party once again. There are diseases that you never will overcome…
There was another party at the beginning of the 1990s, Unia Pracy, the Labor Union party. They took the place of PPS in the SLD coalition. Their origin was with Solidarity, but with people from PZPR as well, and they were trying to make a left-wing option. But it was marginalized the same way as PPS. It had no chance to be independent. It had no money, no structures. It only had some good names, but that’s not enough. People sometimes vote for the better man or woman. But when you run with a big party like SLD, mostly they vote for this organization. It can be a plus for this organization that you are running. But you don’t really exist for them. Many people in Polish politics believe that they are so good and so wise that when they leave the party, they will create something by themselves and the party will cry over its loss. But of course that doesn’t happen. On the left wing, on the right wing, it’s all the same. It’s not a good move to leave a big party. Of course staying can mean such deep compromises that you’re not sure if it’s a compromise or bankruptcy.
Do you think there’s any potential for SLD to transform itself into a genuine Left party?
I don’t think so.
Or does the Left require the death of the SLD before it can establish itself?
The SLD technically knows what to say to be the Left. But mentally, no, they are not the Left. They’re more like the right-wing colleagues of Tony Blair. Of course, it depends on your point of view. When the SLD is in opposition and fighting for votes, it tries to speak in a more leftwing way. And many initiatives at the parliamentary level are very good, But I don’t think that anybody can trust them. The SLD votes the way it does out of its own interests not because of their hearts and minds. Maybe that’s not bad. But if a party of technocrats doesn’t have support from intellectuals and social activists, it’s somehow dead. Sooner or later, they enter government and all will be forgotten, immediately.
The dream of Leszek Miller is to be vice premier once again. But the only way for them to achieve this is to ally with Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform). On the one hand, the SLD can do something good when it’s in opposition: their slogans and promises can be good. But if they have to choose, they’ll go into the government, and they will fail.
When you think back to the decisions made in the 1990s that caused the political splits – the decision on the Round Table, on economic reform — would you reconsider any of them now. Or do you think they were necessary steps at the time?
One thing that I don’t want to discuss, even internally with myself, is the infiltration of the police. We know about this now after some investigations made by historians, not by us because we are not interested. After so many years, even if we don’t want to know it, we have to know it. We were absolutely infiltrated.
This is after 1989.
In 1988. 1989. 1990. I don’t know how certain decisions would look if we were more curious. We were not afraid of the persecutions. We also weren’t afraid of the secret police. But we didn’t consider that it’s not only someone listening to you. It’s also possible that you are listening to somebody who is selling some point of view. I don’t know how much of that stopped us. It’s important, and I never think that it is. But now I think unfortunately that it was important from the beginning.
Of course if Piotr had supported Kwasniewski in the second round, we would have survived as a political party. He would have served longer as a deputy and so on. But I’m not sure if it would have been worth it. For our personal lives, for sure not. But for politics, maybe. It’s called in Polish, the “ preservation of left-wing substance.” And yes, it’s important. But it’s not sufficient as a life-long plan, is it? On the other hand, it serves as a kind of alibi for the SLD government. I’m not able to say yes or no. It could have gone either way. Of course, if we would have had more technical power — money, structures, people – we could have appealed to all the people who, year by year during the 1990s, were more disappointed by what was going on in Poland, who lost their health, their money, their livelihoods during the transition period. These were people who decided not to take part, not to vote. But to find these people and unite them, you had to have much greater organizational power. These were not activists, but ordinary people.
I remember one PPS meeting in Warsaw in 1993 or 1994. We were as radical as possible on the political scene in those years. It was an open meeting, and I noticed an older couple sitting there. I didn’t know them. I said hello, asked them where they came from. They said they’d come from a small city.
“And what do you think?” I asked.
“Oh it was okay,” they said, “but for us it was not radical enough!”
These were just normal people. I think this group is now lost to democracy and political participation in Poland. They will never again trust anybody.
Another possibility was Samoobrona – Self-Defense – which appeared as a political force in the countryside at the end of the 1990s. It was first a movement of protest that focused very concretely on the prices of meat. They blocked the highways. It was very rough. We helped them. I was writing reportage. I remember standing on the highway at the blockade, and nearby was a big man protesting. I was asking as a journalist, “Can you tell me why you are here?” I expected him to say that the prices for meat were too low.
“No, I won’t tell you,” he said. “Because you won’t believe me.”
“Try me,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “Can you can imagine, in our school there is not even one computer for the kids!”
That was his reason to join. This party had incredible results in the 2001 elections. In their origin and rhetoric, they were really a left-wing organization formed out of the radical farmers movement. But very quickly they were compromised absolutely. Their leader Andrzej Lepper committed suicide several years ago. It’s a very sad story. But that could have been a potential place for a leftwing movement. It cannot be ideological. It has to be social, like what is happening with far-right groups in the Catholic Church connected to Radio Maria.
What are the economic priorities in terms of transforming Poland? Obviously there are restrictions set by the EU, by international financial institutions, by the global economy as well. And there are domestic challenges too. But given those restrictions, what can be done here in terms of traditional Left principles of equality, fairness, and so on?
It’s still the same question: if you will pay people more, will they spend more in the economy? If you say yes, you are on one side. If you say, no, you must freeze everything and you’re on the other side. As a country, we are now on this second side. But Donald Tusk, who is afraid of losing votes, is trying to cut the cuts. The last budget decision was to make the debt higher and not to cut pensions or social spending. But the question is still: what should be the level of social spending? In my opinion, it is so low that it’s practically impossible to cut more. Of course it would be always possible to cut more, as we know, but it could be then dangerous for politicians. Even the rightwing opposition is afraid to cut.
Of course, it’s a question of creating new sources of profit, like taxes on international financial transactions. But those ideas are not present on the table. There’s nothing new, and that’s the problem. If the opposition Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (PiS) were in power now, it would do exactly the same as the ruling party Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform) is doing. And Platforma, in opposition, would say what PiS is now saying. It’s a never-ending story.
We have no social pressure. Poles have the lowest wage pressure in Europe and the lowest wage increase in Europe. We are silent. Solidarity has a rather bright leader, Piotr Duda, and it is organizing a protest for September. But it’s more a group of radical trade unionists organizing a happening on the street than a massive demonstration of workers. Such things are not happening any more.
I’m always a little surprised at what happened with Solidarity. As a result of its political choices, the economic reform that took place went against the interests of almost everyone within the trade union, except the leadership. Is it possible for any trade union in Poland to overcome that history and become an effective force that puts pressure on wages to go up?
Solidarity is now on that path. Earlier, they were clearly linked to the right wing, to PiS. Now not so much, even though Piotr Duda was at last congress of PiS. But I wouldn’t exaggerate that. The problem is the ideological war against the trade union in public opinion. The opinions presented in the media are the same as in the middle of the 1990s: those stupid trade unions want more and more of our taxes and they are absolutely irresponsible. If these opinions won’t change, nothing will change, even if Solidarity is making good choices. They are well organized now. Their actions are good, regionally and nationally. We’ll see what happens in the week of protests in September. I think it will be a big step. But it still won’t be massive until this opinion that trade unions are irresponsible radicals no longer dominates the political and social scene. i don’t know what to do to change this.
One of the most important reasons is that the elite, the well-educated workers and intellectuals, left. They are creating trade unions in the UK or in France or in Germany. They don’t have any problems understanding their own interests. But they are not here. If you have energy and want to do something, the only way is to go out.
Out of Solidarity and out of the country, both.
I’ve talked to a number of people on women’s issues here, and I’ve gotten very different interpretations. It seems to me that compared to 23 years ago, things have gotten better in terms of the sheer number of women active in Polish life and in leadership positions. There’s also the Women’s Congress, which has attracted a lot of attention. On other hand, there’s still the issue of abortion, where the laws here don’t meet European standards. What explains this lag between the influence of women and feminists in Poland and the reality for women now in Poland?
It’s a paradox. The understanding of women’s issues is far bigger and deeper than what it was in the beginning of the 90s. There’s no doubt about that. But these are things connected to equality: jobs, politics, and economy. But all things against the Church — abortion, contraception, sex education — are absolutely the way they were. Or even worse.
Second, things that can be solved in a way other than the official law are done the unofficial way, like abortion. There’s no reason to waste time to go onto the street for demonstrations if chemical abortion if possible through the Internet. Of course, for uneducated women it’s a hell, but who cares. So, we don’t have any big demonstrations about abortion. We also won’t have a big manifestation for political rights because we have the Congress of Women. And according to broad public opinion, these are the women who are taking care of things. Of course, if you ask people on the street, 99 percent would say that these rights should be equal, 50/50. But if you ask about quotas and electoral law, of course it’s not so simple. Many women will say, “I don’t need that support. I’m okay and I can manage.”
The problem with the women’s movement is that women who were active in the 1990s are absolutely tired. How long can you be active without results? If the issue was easy to collaborate on with the EU or the UN and there are some results, it’s worth it and you can survive. But the anti-abortion law makes people feel powerless and very tired.
Another thing is grantosis. That’s the “disease” of international grants. The only way you can survive is to make a project. The only projects you do are ones to make money. If you can make some money you can hire people. If you haven’t any money you can’t hire people, so your organization dies. Many women’s organizations are more like offices for spending European money than organizations. It’s not a social activity anymore. In Poland we were not taught how to do organize fundraising. This money from the EU corrupted us.
When you think about your own positions at the end of the 1980s and beginning of 1990s on politics, on economics, on social issues, has anything changed dramatically for you over the last 23 years?
Except for divorce, no: not politically, not socially. I’m Polish middle class. I have a job. I’m trying to be involved all the time. I’m part of the 16 percent of Polish citizens who are involved — the lowest number in the EU. What I’m trying to do all my life is to keep up my private and family obligations and pleasures along with a professional and social life. The result is of course that I didn’t make a big professional or political career. But I do my job and I’m glad that I’m professional. On the other hand, I have a family life with two kids and I’m happy.
When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed from 1989 to today, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?
It’s difficult. But let’s say: 4.
Same time period, same scale: but your own personal life?
Here it’s better: 7.5
And looking into the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects for Poland, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
Not more than 4 because of internal politics and international circumstances. I’m not sure if it’s even 4. I hope it’s 4.
Piaseczno, August 29, 2013
1992 Article Quoting Zuzanna Dabrowska
Poland After Solidarity
by John Feffer
Peace and Democracy News
In Solidarity’s regional office in Warsaw, Mariusz Ambroziak fielded my questions like a penitent wrestling with his conscience in the confessional.
Yes, he conceded, Poland’s famous trade union was in deep trouble. Its membership was declining precipitously, it wasn’t organizing in the new private sector, it could no longer pay specialists to develop alternative economic plans. Though only in his twenties, the Solidarity representative spoke with the weariness of someone three times his age.
Did he have any doubts about his work, I asked almost rhetorically. Ambroziak’s broad, freckled face took on a pained and humble look. “Every day I wake up and I have my doubts,” he replied. “When Solidarity was registered in 1989, I didn’t use an alarm clock to get up and come here to the union headquarters at 5 a.m. Now I need two alarm clocks to get me up in the morning for work.” His voice dropped to a whisper. ”People call here with requests. And I can’t give them anything. So, what am I doing here? These people keep calling and what can I do?”
With their country’s economic and political situation deteriorating daily, Poles can tum to few places, other than the Catholic Church, for help. The traditional structures of Polish “civil society” have simply collapsed. Offering little real assistance to its members, Solidarity has become a memorial to itself; a Warsaw street has even been named after the movement, a sign of both its historical importance and current irrelevance. Expected to capture second place in the most recent parliamentary elections, the trade union’s party managed a distant ninth, just ahead of the Polish Beer-Lovers’ Party. Solidarity’s recent threat to call a general strike over utility increases went unheeded by the government. The union backed down, and the rates went up. A mass demonstration in April similarly extracted no concessions from the government.
“The union,” Ambroziak pointed out, ”is paying today with its name because under the banner of Solidarity the entire economic reform was undertaken.” Sup- porting a shock therapy that primarily hurt its own core supporters, Solidarity has ex- pended much of its once considerable moral capital.
Solidarity’s rural chapter, meanwhile, has been politically outmaneuvered by the former Communist-allied Peasant Party . And the Independent Students Association (NZS)-the so-called third leg of the opposition-has declined from 20,000 to 1,000 members and spends most of its energies functioning as a travel agency to the West, once its chief criticism of the official student union. Having personified the Solidarity ethos for so many years, Lech Walesa has become a president more committed to decrees than to democracy, a leader whose pronouncements draw ridicule from the intelligentsia and increasingly command only indifference among the workers.
Nor have other social movements taken the place of the Solidarity-era groups. According to one European Community estimate, the largest social movement in Poland today is the volunteer fire brigade. The second largest is the Red Cross. Instead of organizing the unemployed or building political movements from the bottom up, Poles spend their precious free time putting out fires and bandaging wounds.
Given the country’s present economic crisis-12 percent unemployment, 38 percent annual inflation, a hard-to-cap budget deficit, a recession that stretches month after month-the natural political beneficiary should be a reinvigorated Polish left. Poland was the first country in Eastern Europe to host roundtable negotiations between the Communists and the opposition, the first country to hold free elections, the first to form a non-Communist government, the first to implement a radical shock-style economic reform. According to the pendulum-swing theory of politics, Poland should therefore witness the first authentic left-wing revival.
But although it has great potential, the Polish left remains fragmented, isolated, and incapable of mustering any serious political threat. Both the traditional left based in the trade union movement and a newer left organized around a cluster of issues including feminism and environmentalism are still marginal to Polish politics. Alert to the possibilities inherent in the left’s eclipse, the right wing has made a bid to take Poland back, back to a time before Communism, back to an imagined past when the Church was always right, the nation was always united, the men were always brave, and the women were always pregnant.
Confusion of Left and Right
It has become a cliché to observe that the categories of left and right make little political sense in Eastern Europe today. In the Polish context, for instance, the non-Communist left-occupying what would ordinarily be a social-democratic slot-has largely favored the most neo-liberal (or, if you prefer, neo-conservative) economic policy. Even the former Communists frequently vote on the Thatcher end of the economic spectrum. The right wing parties, meanwhile, eschew capitalism’s most disruptive features, which destroy family, community, and Church, in favor of a more gradual and anti-recessional policy. The groups which one would expect to have comprised the left have embraced the modern project and its vision of hyper-capitalism uncritically; the right has, even as it supports an apparently more progressive economic position, decided to trade the twentieth century in for an earlier model.
Given both the domestic and international emphasis on bringing Poland into the modern age, one might then expect the right wing to be fundamentally incapable of leading the country forward. So I thought back in 1990 when I trekked to the outskirts of Warsaw to meet Antonin Macierewicz, a prominent member of the Christian National Union (ZChN). Smoking a pipe and looking every inch the Polish intellectual, Macierewicz expounded on the principles of this coalition of Christian-minded movements. The Church, he said, did not have to be connected to the state. But state policy-and even education in public schools-should nevertheless be formulated along Christian principles. Thank God, I thought at the time, that ZChN only has five parliamentary representatives. Thank God they are, like Macierewicz’s apartment, on the outskirts of Polish life.
Two years later, Macierewicz was Poland’s Minister of Home Affairs, a prominent if controversial member of the recently removed right-of-center Olszewski government. His party today controls key posts in the new Suchocka administration. The speaker of the lower chamber of the Polish parliament is a ZChN member.
In 1990, I also talked with Krzysztof Krol, a spokesperson for the Confederation for Polish Independence (KPN). Founded in 1979, KPN represented the most anti-Soviet, most militant wing of the Polish opposition. It refused to participate in the 1989 roundtable negotiations, or field candidates in the first partially free national elections in June of that year. Later, when anew government was dispensing old Communist Party property to new organizations, KPN did not wait its turn but instead simply occupied the offices of a former official youth organization located in a splendid structure on Warsaw’s most fashionable street. No, I thought in 1990, KPN is out of temper with the times. Poland is on the road of compromise. The Communists have nearly exited the stage, and militancy no longer commands much respect throughout society.
I look back at my notes from 1990: “Krol predicts a renaissance of the right in Poland.” I didn’t take him seriously. He was too young, too undisciplined. Today, Krol is the head of KPN’s parliamentary faction which, along with ZChN, has brought a new variety of right-wing radicalism to the shaping of social policy.
After flirting with a right-wing coalition that pledged more gradual economic reform, Poland is, as of July 1992, back under the rule of the neo-liberals, led by the new prime minister Hanna Suchocka. The term “rule” can be used only loosely, however. After the 1991 national elections propelled 29 parties into parliament, Polish politics can charitably be described as diverse or, perhaps more accurately, as incoherent. It is not simply the number of parties or their relatively small size that lends an air of ~ chaos to parliamentary proceedings. These 5 groupings can barely compromise enough to maintain internal cohesion, much less work effectively with one another. Unable to fashion an effective parliamentary bloc, the three recent governments-Olszewski, Pawlak, Suchocka-have been forced to preside over a fragmented mirror of Polish society.
Particularly difficult for each of these governments has been economic policy. For instance, after promising to respect the wishes of the Polish electorate by reversing shock therapy, the Olszewski government reneged in the spring of 1992 and proposed a budget consistent with the demands of the International Monetary Fund. Parliament rejected the plan. Caught between the IMP’s strictures and the electorate’s demands, Olszewski became simply the latest of the recession’s political victims when his government fell in June. Waldemar Pawlak of the post-Communist Polish Peasant’s Party lasted little more than a month. With rumors of martial law floating around Warsaw, a strange assortment of parties–from right- wing Christian to secular liberals–came together behind Suchocka. The result has been the worst of all possible worlds: the neo-liberals regained control of economic policy while the right wing snatched up the ”soft” cultural posts in the government.
Theocracy in Poland?
Indeed, with its economic policy thwarted by the IMP, the right wing has found greater unity and surer success with its social project. Its natural vehicle for transforming Poland is the Catholic Church, the most powerful social institution in the country. Last year, several Polish officials broached the possibility of turning Poland into a theocracy. The response from the intelligentsia not being receptive, the proposal was quickly withdrawn. “Don’t worry about this talk of theocracy,” a Polish friend told me during my recent trip to Warsaw. “It’s the step-by-step moves, the incremental strategy that you should watch out for.”
That incremental strategy can be seen most clearly on the issue of religion in school. In 1990, the Church pressed the Ministry of Education to introduce religious instruction into public schools. The measure was neither discussed in Parliament nor presented to the public in a referendum. This year, the Church has pushed ahead with stage two: pressuring the Ministry of Education to make religion an obligatory school subject. An ethics course has been thrown in to give the appearance of choice-but the ethics in question are often simply Christian and the course frequently taught by a priest. If the Ministry and the Church have their way, priests will also playa more important role in determining general school policy.
Abortion is the second front opened up by the right wing. In 1991, the Polish parliament defeated an especially restrictive anti-abortion law. Since that time, the Polish Medical College has changed its code of ethics to protect “unborn life”; any doctor who performs abortions after May 1992 can be discharged from the profession. At the parliamentary level, the Church has, through ZChN, reintroduced legislation to penalize both women and doctors who destroy un- born life. Yet 60 percent of the population supports liberal abortion laws. Many Polish intellectuals, regardless of the depth of their religious conviction, are fond of pointing out that, with the abortion and religion-in- schools issues, the totalitarianism of the Church has begun to replace the totalitarian- ism of the state.
Economic Prosperity, Economic Shock
Warsaw gleams with a deceptive prosperity: the Mercedes-Benz dealership, the casinos, the chic new restaurants, the five- star hotels for visiting VIPs. Capitalism has sprung up like weeds between the cracks of the Stalinist concrete. A flashy sign indicates a peep show in the vestibule of an entrance to the train station where once there was only storage space. In the central post office, a video store and a trinket kiosk have been set up in the main hall. Around Stalin’s gift to Warsaw, the Palace of Culture and Science, the ramshackle collection of blankets and tables of two years ago has been transformed into the official flea market of today.
With a monthly salary of $150, the average Pole stretches out to touch these fruits of capitalism only to find, like Tantalus, that inflation and austerity measures always push the branches just beyond reach. Warsaw’s conspicuous wealth conceals the poverty of its workers’ suburbs, of the outlying patches of agricultural ruin, of the decaying industrial sprawl that embraces the textile factories of Lodz, the coal mines near Wroclaw, the chemical plants around Katowice, the shipyards of Gdansk. To judge Polish prosperity by its capital’s shiny new Euro-style cafes is like trying to get a fix on the current U.S. recession from a sushi bar in Silicon Valley.
Given the “neo-con” credentials of the economists whose advice it has solicited, it is not surprising that Poland is in fact repeating many of the same mistakes as the United States of the 1980s. Indeed, visiting Poland today is like being caught in one of those science fiction stories where the time-traveler must watch a succession of childhood mistakes without being permitted to intervene. Stop, I wanted to shout at the Poles. Don’t you realize that the foundations of this newly created wealth rest on the shifting sands of Reaganomics? Don’t you realize that ten years from now you too will be writing articles about “what went wrong?”
In 1989, talking with a then little-known Polish economist on the question of privatization, I tried to indicate some of the problems with his version of laissez-faire capitalism. Don’t privatize health care, I warned, for in the United States this has meant 35 million people without coverage. He didn’t skip a beat. “Well, 35,000 is not really a problem.” “No,” I interrupted, “35 million. Million! Roughly the population of your country!” I don’t think he believed me. He went on to serve in government and play a key role in developing the yet-to-be-implemented privatization plan.
With the help of such economists, Poland is rapidly developing a new kind of class society. According to Andrzej Miolkowski, who oversees Huta Warszawa’ s privatization, wages at Warsaw’s steel plant have fallen to 50 percent of their 1982 value, based on what they can buy in today’ s stores. The country’s unemployment rate is expected to rise from 12 percent to 20 percent by year’s end. One of Solidarity’s former economic advisors confessed to me that his economic worst-case scenario would be 25 percent unemployed. If a mere five percent separates mainstream expectations from worst-case scenarios, Poland is indeed in trouble.
In the face of growing class conflict, the various governments consistently failed to develop a coherent social welfare policy, ignoring the recommendations of advisors to the Ministry of Labor and relying instead on the invisible hand of the market or the limited charity of the private sector. Solidarity is not doing much better, having just recently eliminated funding for Posredniak, a newspaper that for two years had been devoted to helping workers. Former editor Zuzanna Dabrowska reported that some of the recently laid-off have tried to create a union of unemployed. But many workers are reluctant to join such a group because it takes time away from their own job searches. And the organizers, in part because of their initiative, have been the first to find employment and leave the movement.
Still, if only for the crassest of political motives, one would expect a more vigorous attempt to represent these forgotten casual- ties of economic reform. In the tradition of class-based politics, several non-Communist left parties are considering a bid to form a Labor Party (a compromise name since both “socialism” and “Solidarity” have be- come pejoratives in the public mind). The social-democratic wing of the Democratic Union, Labor Solidarity, Zbigniew Bujak’s Democratic Social Movement, and perhaps the Polish Socialist Party might form the nucleus of such a party.
Even putting to one side the limited size of these groups, many problems still remain. The Democratic Union faction has a residual dependence on shock therapy, Labor Solidarity is perceived as too eggheadish, Bujak stands virtually alone in his party, and the Socialist Party has not yet recovered from the 1991 death of its most prominent leader, Jan Jozsef Lipski, a longtime oppositionist and member of the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR). Despite its strong second-place showing in the most recent parliamentary elections, the former Communists (the Democratic Left Alliance) re- main politically isolated, an unlikely partner for any new Labor Party. Some of the more talented ex-Communists, such as former high-ranking official Tomasz Nalecz, have left the Alliance and await new political opportunities.
The chief stumbling block for this left is its allergy toward what it considers populism. Parliamentary representative Ryszard Bugaj, Labor Solidarity’s leading member, told me of the need to reach out to all the Poles who didn’t vote in the last election (nearly 60 percent of those eligible). But when pressed on strategy, he could offer only Bush-like prudence: “We have to be careful not to be populist like KPN, not to promise things which we can’t deliver on. We want to be responsible and remain firmly grounded in reality.”
While Bugaj speaks of responsible politics, one Pole has set out to prove that irresponsibility is far more profitable. By poking fun at the new pieties of clericalism and nationalism, former Communist government spokesperson Jerzy Urban has be- Come unspeakably rich from his best-selling books and popular newspaper Nie (“No”). Millions of Poles crave Urban’s critical edge, so much so that they are even willing to forget how much they despised him in his earlier incarnation. The left should be able to take advantage of this sentiment as well, fashioning a truly responsible, democratic populism in order to acquire political capital where Urban has been content to accumulate the financial variety.
One group capable of appealing to popular discontent-the former Communist-controlled trade union (OPZZ}-has so far kept a relatively low profile. With a membership of four million (roughly twice that of Solidarity), OPZZ is the largest social movement in Eastern Europe, according to its economic advisor Pawel Gieorgica (apparently the EC doesn’t count the union in its tally of Polish social organizations). Despite its size and its sponsorship of several important strikes, OPZZ has not overtly challenged the authorities. Following Gieorgica’s advice, its new leader Ewa Spychalska has adopted an instrumental populism that guarantees her support among the populace, but has gravitated toward a collegial pragmatism as a post-Communist deputy in parliament. This two-edged strategy has boosted Spychalska’s popularity and placed OPZZ in an ideal position to exploit the new class politics on the inside as well.
Should the new Polish Labor Party, or whatever the left decides to call itself, fail to seize OPZZ’s standard, it will have neutralized its chief advantage. Poland’s new class conflicts can be used creatively by the left, if it is wise enough to distinguish between principled political organizing and irresponsible populism. The right wing has meanwhile shown little hesitation to rush in where the left fears to tread, whether in the form of KPN’s paramilitary-style recruitment among young people or ZChN’s assertion of religious community as an antidote to anomie.
The Struggling Women’s Movement
Malgorzata Tarasiewicz once worked for Solidarity. Told by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions to de- vote more energy to women’s issues, the Solidarity leadership hired Tarasiewicz, a young feminist and peace activist from Gdansk, to rectify the situation. During her brief tenure establishing a women’s section within the union, she set up regional chapters, ran media workshops, tried to put together a working women’s agenda. Suspicious of her feminist proclivities, the Solidarity leadership never provided Tarasiewicz sufficient resources to do her job and worse, harassed representatives of the section’s regional chapters. Frustrated, Tarasiewicz resigned in March 1991.
That June, although she had been banned from contacting members of the women’s section, Tarasiewicz nevertheless convened another meeting in Solidarity’s regional headquarters in Warsaw. “I thought it necessary to meet again to explain why 1 was forced to leave,” she says. Catching wind of the event, the union’s Warsaw leadership was determined to throw the participants out of the building. But when 140 women from 17 regions showed up, the Solidarity leader- ship was outnumbered. Thrown off guard by this show of strength, union leaders responded by threatening Tarasiewicz herself, both after the meeting and when a Helsinki Watch report came out in March describing the events in some detail. “They are using Mafia methods to suppress authentic movements within Solidarity,” she exclaims.
Solidarity’s actions indicate a movement in decline, a movement threatened by other movements. In the case of the women’s section, the battle was between the union leadership and the “new left.” Organized around some very potent questions such as women’s rights, this new left potentially has a chance of gaining a foothold in Polish politics.
For instance, one could not find a country more in need of a women’s movement than Poland. Disproportionately affected by lay-offs and cuts in social services, women are truly the “hidden victims” of recent reforms, as Helsinki Watch has written. “In Poland,” Polish Socialist Party member Zuzanna Dabrowska says of the images available to women, “there are only the two Madonnas, the one with the child, and the other one, your Madonna, the singer. There is no middle ground.” The virgin and the whore: while the Church promotes a family- style conception of a woman, sex shops and pornography have proliferated in the new Poland. Prominent women who have tried to break out of the Madonna mold are politically vulnerable. Take the case of Anna Popowicz, the Minister for Women Family and youth. “In the beginning,” feminist activist Jolanta Plakwicz says, “Popowicz was very conservative. But she was exposed to so much sexism and so many attacks in the Parliament that she became increasingly radical. For instance, she attacked the doctors’ code of ethics. So she was dismissed and the government dissolved her office.”
After achieving a measure of equality during the Communist years, many Polish women are furious at the crude Church and state attempts to impose nineteenth century definitions on them. The nascent women’s movement, which organized effectively against the previous anti-abortion bill, has received money from a German women’s foundation to create a center in Warsaw. On the 1991 International Women’s Day, Warsaw’s small but spirited feminist group showed “Thelma and Louise” to an enthusiastic crowd. Plans are in the works to translate and sell a Polish version of Our Bodies, Ourselves. Yet feminism remains a dirty word in the country, even in the minds of many fiercely independent Polish women.
Regardless of the strength of the anti-feminist forces, the optimists say consolingly, Poland s desire to be integrated into Europe will force it to conform to European standards. Indeed, at a Council of Europe meeting in Poznan on women’s issues, Council representatives sternly lectured the intolerant Poles in attendance. “No ideology, no religion can limit a person’s freedom of choice,” France’s Roland Beix told the assembled crowd. “Even if 95 percent of society opposes abortion, you must respect the will of the five percent who support it.”
But the Polish right wing has declared that it wants to enter Europe on its own terms. “Let us create a real Europe for ourselves Christian and righteous,” ZChN deputy Alojzy Szablewski declared in parliament, “and some day, Western states will want to enter it.”
The Role of Youth in the Polish Left
Critical to the success of the new left in countering such hubris are young people.
“We have to concentrate on students and on those people who didn’t vote in the recent elections,” Tarasiewicz explains. “New leaders have to appear. A new generation of politicians is needed to create an open society.” Young people were at the forefront of change in Poland in the last decade as activists in Solidarity in 1980-81, as members of the group Freedom and Peace in mid- decade, as leaders of the critical 1988 strikes as student radicals in NZS. Today, Polish youth has abandoned politics. Many have turned to entrepreneurship or have emigrated. Even students seem placid, despite execrable university services and a meager $75 monthly stipend. “I am surprised-and you might be surprised as well-but students are not very angry,” NZS representative Marek Wecowski says. Indeed, students at Warsaw University look remarkably well-fed, well-dressed, and happy, nothing like the Russian students one reads about on the eve of revolution in 1917: starved, threadbare, intellectually volatile, willing to throw bombs and endure prison sentences. But unemployment has not yet hit home for these young people, and the attractions of the new consumer society have not yet palled. The next generation, now beginning to organize against religious classes in the secondary schools, will be simultaneously more accustomed to and more critical of capitalism.
Perhaps the largest new left movement is the Greens. Given the dismal state of the Polish environment, the popularity of ecology is understandable. Green clubs and associations are scattered throughout the country, devoted to issues as diverse as organic farming, alternative energy, deep ecology, and walks in the woods. Individual idiosyncrasies and factional infighting have prevented the several Green parties from establishing a national presence. The chief threat to the environment-and conversely, perhaps the most unifying theme for the various Green movements-is the market. In the Zoliborz section of Warsaw, for instance, residents successfully mobilized against the local government’s plan to sell a portion of their park to a private business club. Green politics has proven a refreshing tonic to privatizing fever.
Nevertheless, economic constraints have forced uneasy compromises. Janusz Radziejowski, associate director of the state- affiliated Institute of Environmental Protection, points out that with the current government budget problems, the Institute has had to look more to corporate contracts. Didn’t that strike him as a conflict of interest? ”Yes,” Radziejowski admits, “firms will not pay us to shut them down.” Still, if the government doesn’t provide the money, an institute has few options.
In 1980, Poland’s unusual political environment produced an unprecedented but, sadly, brief alliance of workers and intellectuals. Today, under the sway of market utopias, the country may give birth to a different kind of alliance between a left that organizes around class conflict and a left that addresses a range of social issues. Threatened workers and farmers may find common cause with women outraged at the lack of adequate health services, Greens dismayed at the destructiveness of corporate capitalism, and young people frustrated with the state of education. Add to this mix the progressive strands of Catholicism, which combine a healthy skepticism of hyper-rationalism with a tolerance for difference and choice.
Together, these groups can rescue the Polish left-from both its checkered past and its present lack of direction. And, in turn, the new Polish left can rescue Poland from a narrow-minded, undemocratic, and unfortunately all-too-ascendant right wing.