The Triumph of the Banana Generation

Charles G. Robertson, Jr.

All over Warsaw during the summer of 1992 there were bright red posters emblazoned with a crossed hammer and banana. They advertised a rock concert called the "Warsaw-Berlin Two Step." The title itself was a comment on the Mikhail Gorbachev-Helmut Kohl negotiations of a couple of years ago that led to the reunification of Germany and were part of the dissolution of the Soviet bloc.

In this "banana transformation" of the communist banner, a bit of symbolism is involved. During the 1968 student demonstrations in Poland, the post-war generation of Polish youth which sought to reform society along (then) Marxist lines, were referred to derisively as "bananowcy" or banana people - hence the banana generation. They were so called because they came of age when Poland began importing bananas on a large scale, which was considered a somewhat exotic import. Thus the banana became the perjorative symbol of the privileges for which this generation's parents and grandparents of the World War II and pre-war generations had sacrificed in post-war Poland, and "banana generation" became the epithet hurled against their "privileged" youth.

In the U.S. this is the generation of the baby boomers, the "Pepsi generation" of the 1960s which is now forty-something. More recently they are the Yuppies, that upwardly mobile and driven segment of the boomers who have left the idealism, activism and radicalism of the '60s behind for their "piece" of the presently shrinking American economic pie.

In Poland this is the generation of Lech Walesa and Adam Michnik. If they were workers like Walesa and survived the terror and military power used against them during the strikes of 1970, they went underground and organized unions, led strikes and created what became "Solidarnosc," the Solidarity labor movement of the 1980s. If they were intellectuals like Michnik and survived the police force used against the students in 1968, they were involved in organizing the Committee to Defend the Workers (KOR) after the strikes of 1976, the Flying University and the underground press. United in Solidarity in 1981, they created an open society in the midst of a totalitarian state which survived martial law and became one of the most significant ruptures in the Iron Curtain.

With the exception of several important and symbolic figures of the older generations, the banana generation was the one who forced the Round Table discussions between Solidarity and the Jaruzelski government in 1989 which led to the parliamentary revolution and democratic transformation of Poland. They were the majority of those elected to 99 of the 100 seats allotted for Solidarity in the lower house of parliament and have filled the government as a whole in the elections since then. Defeated, beaten and imprisoned in the events of the late l960s and the twenty or so years since then, they have risen to triumph with and for Poland as a whole.

While the political aspect of the banana generation's victory may be news and striking to the western eye, it is especially this aspect of their triumph that is most tarnished today with a nearly deadlocked parliament of some dozen "major" parties. Unanimity of purpose has seemed to dissolve with the continual discovery of interests around which to form new parties or split off from "older" ones.

Yet there is another aspect of the triumph of the banana generation that is even more striking, especially in light of Poland's present difficult economic situation. That is its ability not only to adapt to the new economic circumstances, but to grasp the initiative and take advantage of the new conditions to improve their personal situation and ultimately that of Poland as a whole. The people who put themselves and their families at risk for democracy and freedom and human rights in the past twenty years and have been among those willing to take the greatest risks in the new market economy in order to help create the economic foundations of the new society for which they have strived.

There are numerous examples of the banana generation "escaping" from the security of state-owned firms - factories, financial enterprises, publishing houses, the universities, the government, even contemporary politics. They have left the stifling environment of bureaucracy, inefficiency, low pay and lack of human concern that socialism in practice came to represent and have struck out on their own. They have put together their own businesses and enterprises, organizations and institutions, trying to find or make a niche in the new social and economic situation.

New private publishing houses are joining the bonanza of underground publishers which have surfaced, become legal and survived. Desperately needed import-export firms are being created to help Poland participate in the international market. Private schools are being organized, adding an important influence in reforming the educational system and methods inherited from socialism. Private foundations are being created to suport and advance concepts and relationships that are essential to a free and open society which sees itself becoming a full partner in the community of nations.

There is an obvious self interest and personal advantage - if successful - in enterprises as well as tremendous sacrifice and risk. Often these entrepreneurs have invested all the money they have saved or can borrow (at sometimes usurious rates). Frequently it is a family affair with everyone involved in the venture. They devote long hours to developing and maintaining a successful business. Many of them complain of no longer having time to spend with friends to read or write.

Their new enterprises sometimes fall victim to the pirates operating freely in an as yet largely unregulated and transitional market situation. They constantly face the possibility of failure and bankruptcy because of forces over which they have no control. They are continually threatened with the temptation to succumb to materialism, consumerism and the possibility of selling out to the new system they are trying to create. At the same time they are determined to make their contribution to Poland as it developes a system which will accommodate and regulate the myriad constantly changing elements making up the dynamic economy necessary to undergird an open democratic society.

Beaten and harrassed, vilified and imprisoned during the last twenty-one years of the communist regime, the banana generation has risen in triumph in the overthrow of communism in Poland. Devoutly religious like Walesa in most cases, of high moral character like Michnik as a whole, they have assumed a prominent place among the leadership of their nation. And they continue to be at the forefront of the transformation of their country as they put their ideas into practice, living out their hopes and dreams for the future in the practicalities of everyday life.

Charles G. Robertson, Jr. is Pastor of the Parkland Presbyterian Church in Flint, Michigan. He spent five years in Poland from 1971-76 working for the Frontier Internship in Mission program of the Presbyterian Church. While in Poland, he worked with the Clubs of Catholic Intellectuals spearheaded by editors of Tygodnik Powszechny (The Universal Weekly) and Znak (Sign), as well as with the Evangelical Reformed Church of Poland. In 1974-76 he taught at the Silesian University in Katowice. He has published in Znak, Tygodnik Powszechny, Worldview, The Polish Review and other Polish and American periodicals.

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