Lech Peron? Polish Politics Today

Against the Current, No. 32, May/June 1991 Samuel Farber

ERNIE HABERKERN’S “What Happened to Solidarity?” (ATC 30) did a good job at unmasking the Mazowiecki government and its foremost intellectual spokesman Adam Michnik, a man enjoying near saintly status in certain liberal circles such as the editors and many readers of the New York Review of Books. Polish voters have also expressed their “Criticism” of Mazowiecki’s group by humiliating them at the polls. Mazowiecki came in third behind Walesa and even the right-wing mystic Stanislaw TyminskI, a man without any record of support or participation in the democratic struggle against Stalinism.

Ernie’s article outlined many of the reasons why Mazowiecki’s group deserved its fate. Yet the article was one-sided in that it did not do as good a job in exposing Walesa. Ernie stated that “Walesa and the others who attempt to articulate the anger of the Solidarity rank and file have no policy of their own” and further referred to Walesa’s “mostly nonexistent program.” This is odd because Walesa did and does have a program. In fact, his program is, in regard to the single most important question, identical to Mazowiecki’s; namely, the privatization of state enterprises and development of capitalism in Poland, but at an even greater speed than it was contemplated by the outgoing government!

Walesa has made this very clear both inside Poland and abroad as when he addressed the U.S. Congress. This also explains why Walesa has spoken very highly of Finance Minister Balcerowicz, probably the foremost practitioner and ideologist of capitalism in Poland. It is in this context that we have to understand Walesa’s hostility to the nomenklatura, a hostility which was of course shared and welcomed by most of the Polish working class and population at large.

The split between Walesa and Mazowiecki/Michnik was in part a product of the inevitable political differentiation of Solidarnosc and shows a certain degree of similarity to the Hungarian split between the Democratic Forum and the Free Democrats. Both of these Hungarian parties are committed to capitalism, but the supporters of Forum, like Walesa, are more populist and more open to anti-Semitism and other forms of authoritarianism. Like Michnik, the Free Democrats are strong supporters of the “free marker and capitalism, but are more ideologically committed than the Forum to political democracy and to a secular approach to social questions (e.g. separation of Church and state).

However, there are two major differences between Hungary and Poland. First, the absence of a recent militant working-class tradition in the land of the Magyars, and second, that it is the Hungarian equivalents of Michnik rather than those of Walesa that, for a variety of historical reasons, have been more hostile to the nomenklatura.

The fact that Walesa obtained the electoral support of the workers (as did in part mystic Tyminski in the first electoral round!) does not mean that those who are in favor of the political independence of the working class in Poland should have oriented to, let alone supported, Walesa’s political camp as opposed to Mazowiecki’s. Moreover, Walesa is especially dangerous because his political credentials and personality make him better able to obtain working-class acquiescence to capitalist transformation and the accompanying austerity.

Does this mean, however, that our Polish comrades who oppose Walesa, such as Josef Pinior and his associates in Wroclaw, were mistaken in not supporting Mazowiecki as the “lesser evil”? No, the Mazowiecki government and its anti-working-class policies bear a major part of the responsibility for the substantial decline of Solldarnosc as a democratic trade union movement. This in turn played into the hands of Walesa’s personalism and helped Poland regress to a new period of populist politics.

What is most likely to happen is that Walesa will become the new populist leader of Poland with the passive support of a politically weakened working class that is unable to offer to the country an independent political alternative of its own. Certain democratic institutional forms (e.g. periodic elections) will probably be preserved but these forms will acquire a plebiscitarian content within an increasingly authoritarian context While Walesa has certainly not been an errand boy for the Roman Catholic hierarchy he will find it in his interest to accommodate to the increasing political power of the Church on such concrete issues as the right to abortion and the growing role of Catholicism in the public schools.

In the unlikely event of a significant improvement of the economy Walesa’s rule could take a form similar to that of Juan Peron in Argentina. The nationalist dictator came into power riding the post-World War II economic boom in that country. Peron built an extensive welfare state and thus created the basis for a strong working class base, although his support did not rest exclusively on the working class. He also fought the traditional landed oligarchy and its imperialist partners while supporting the industrializing sectors of the bourgeoisie. However, given the deteriorating economic situation in Poland, the rule of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia offers a more useful comparison to Walesa’s. Milosevic just won a popular election with working class support on the basis of an intensive campaign of nationalist xenophobia and in spite of a seriously deteriorating economy.

While post-World War II Poland is much more ethnically homogeneous than Yugoslavia, it is still possible to build popular support by attacking imaginary (Mazowiecki, Kuron) or people with real Jewish backgrounds (Michnik, Geremek).

Nevertheless, a more realistic nationalist target in Poland will be the almost inevitable hegemony of German capital and politics in Eastern Europe. Moreover, Germany will also provide ammunition for Polish resentment because Polish emigration to Germany will probably increase enormously, resulting in xenophobic and racist attacks against Polish migrant workers.

In the absence of an independent working class economic and political upsurge, Poland under Walesa will also continue its slow and far from smooth march towards capitalism in fits and starts, and without much economic development One major obstacle tocapital1st development in Poland is that since the Polish working class has not been entirely crushed, it will be able to resist further encroachments of its power.

Consequently, for a considerable period of time, Poland’s economy will be in many ways similar to the “half-way house” social formations common in the Third World of the ’50s,’6Os and even ’70s (e.g., Nasser’s Egypt, the FLN’s Algeria and the Mexico shaped by the Cardenista social pact). That is, countries with very powerful state economic sectors and important but not yet predominant private capitalist bourgeoisies.

Yes, it is true that the nomenklatura still controls the economy but Jaruzelski and the Communist ministers of Defense and Interior lost political power without putting up the slightest resistance, and, what is most crucial, the Polish Communist Party no longer exists In other words, we find in Poland an economic ruling class that owes its existence to a withdrawing imperialist power and to a defunct political party. That class has thus become not merely an orphan (a matter of purely genetic and historical interest) but has, much more importantly, lost its economic and political organizer and coordinating leadership. Consequently, the nomenklatura will no longer be able to rule on the old basis.

The ruling personnel may to a considerable degree remain the same but the nature of class relations in Poland will inevitably and irreversibly change. This is also why the most alert and best positioned sections of the nomenklatura have rushed to convert themselves into private owners of the very enterprises they previously administered in the name of the state. In this effort they are unavoidably coalescing with foreign capitalists (through the crucially important economic mechanism of joint ventures) and with those elements of the former anti-Stalinist opposition who are joining the capitalist bandwagon themselves.

A new ruling class benefiting from new capitalist surplus extraction relations will eventually be formed, its personnel recruited from both old and new elements, and this without the benefit of a social revolution. This is not unprecedented as witnessed the German Junkers’ self-transformation from feudal serf lords to capitalist landlords, and subsequent cooperation with the industrial capitalists in ruling Germany, i.e., the “marriage of iron and rye.”

I couldn’t bring these comments to an end without objecting to Ernie’s treatment of the history of KOR (Workers’ Defense Committee). In the first place, while it is true to say that the KOR founded in the mid-seventies was reformist in the sense that it did not advocate revolution, it was not, in a parallel fashion to most reformers of capitalism, committed to the preservation of the Stalinist system. Furthermore, the comparison with Isaac Deutscher is most unfortunate. Deutscher stood for a soft-headed reformism based on the notion that the Stalinist bureaucracy was in some way progressive, an approach quite alien to the politics of KOR.

The term reformist is also uninformative and perhaps even misleading because KOR possessed a potential and radicalizing dynamic notwithstanding its strategic-tactical reformism and professed liberal human rights ideology. To speak of KOR as simply having been reformist would be similar to saying that Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of the late ‘SOs and early ’60s, or the CO of the late 1930s, were reformist and leaving it at that Thus Ernie seems to be reading back into the KOR of the mid-seventies what many (by no means all!) of its leaders stand for in the 1990s.

Moreover, Ernie greatly overstates the influence of Communist Party “revisionism” in the ideology and practice of KOR. By the time KOR was established in the second half of the seventies, revisionism had disappeared from the political scene. Polish revisionism died in 1968 under the combined effects of the total discredit of the Communist Party resulting from a major anti-Semitic purge inside its ranks and the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Besides, it is simply not the case that the KOR leadership was dominated by former Communist Party revisionists. To give a few key examples, Jan Josef Lipaki, the Treasurer of KOR, was never a revisionist and came out of the PPS (Polish Socialist Party) tradition. Jacek Kuron had been a leader of the Communist boy scouts and then a revolutionary socialist without having gone through revisionism. Adam Michnik was a disciple of Kuron and was in any case too young to have participated in the politics of revisionism at their high point in the mid- and late ’50s.

Ernie also distorts the historical record when he seems to suggest that the main concern of the KOR leadership in the 1970s was to prevent “working class discontent from exploding into a confrontation with the authorities which would destroy the Polish state” and that in order to prevent this “they [KOR] had to win the confidence of the working class and its leaders.” Leaving aside the possible suggestion of cynical and/or manipulative motivation, there is no doubt that there was a strong pacifist strain in the ideology of KOR (see chapter 4 “The Ethos of the Workers’ Defence Committee” of Jan Josef Lipski’s KOR. Workers’ Defense Committee in Poland. 1976-1981, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965).

But by far the main concern of KOR, and for that matter of most other oppositionists in Poland, was the possibility of a Russian invasion as had taken place in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and not the violence of a working-class upsurge as such In fact, this was a critical factor in the evolution of Jacek Kuron from revolutionary socialist to social democratic reformist Thus, Kuron’s advocacy of “Findlandization” in the 1970s was his own way of conceptualizing the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 as signifying the end of revolutionary possibilities.

One last word on the Catholic opposition to Stalinism. It wasn’t only “the more sophisticated representatives of Catholic conservativism” that had by 1976 developed political differences with the narrow-minded and reactionary hierarchy. This was no less true for Catholic liberalism, a not insignificant force in the Polish intellectual and political life of the time. Moreover, it was this real diversity of Catholic opinion (that cannot be explained away as a plot or ploy by the hierarchy) that in its turn contributed to the development of significant ideological diversity within the political opposition.

The liberal and social democratic political inclinations of KOR did not go unchallenged in the 1970s. KOR was confronted with considerable competition from the more conservative Movement in Defense of Civil and Human Rights as well as with aright-wine in its own ranks led by Antoni Macierewicz.