Reflections on Poland and America

A View from Warsaw

Jacek Koronacki

In November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Two years later, a postmodern-style socialist was elected President of the United States. The two events marked a giant step toward full implementation of the all-too-easily-forgotten theory of convergence. The theory amounted to saying that the civilizing influence of western democracies and market economy on the Soviet Union would bear fruit in that country's conversion to a more humane and free market-oriented style of government. At the same time, western democracies were supposed to embrace socialist-like social policies such as, for instance, universal health service. The West and the East were to meet half-way.

The first who tried to implant socialist policies in the United States was of course President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As befitted the most freedom loving people in the world, Americans resisted the trend for decades. But the silent majority of the nation was becoming more and more silent and alienated, while the liberal political and media elite were taking over the lead, with the consent of corporate America and apparent passivity of the Republican establishment. As a result, the fundamental values upon which America was built are now being questioned. At the same time however, despite the current confusion, it is still hardly believable that America can be lured into the socialistic camp for good.

Unlike in America, in western Europe socialism has been advancing without much hindrance for decades already. Under the American nuclear umbrella, more public money could be poured into demoralizing people by welfare whose essence is a massive redistribution of responsibility from the individual to the institution. Of course, western European socialist policies are of a postmodern brand - with a strong private sector, some state-owned big companies and with high taxes (thus allowing state intervention on a large scale and, in effect, corrupting big business). One should note that the average government share of GNP in the four largest economies of Europe - Britain, France, Germany and Italy - comes to slightly less than 50 per cent (the U.S. government share of GNP stands at 38 per cent, but the value-added tax, which now averages 17 per cent in Europe, may soon go up in the United States as well, thus bringing the total government share of the GNP up to European levels.

The Soviets and their communist vassals, well aware of the imminent bankruptcy of the communist states as well as the demoralization and dechristianization of the West, did not risk much in gradually yielding power to the democratic opposition in east central Europe. Indeed, President Reagan was the last warrior, courageous enough to speak in plain terms, and call the Soviet Union the evil empire. But he was crippled by Irangate in 1986 and, soon, the media elite hail Mikhail Gorbachev as the guiding spirit of democratic reforms in the Soviet sphere of influence. The role of Solidarity in the process of accelerating the Soviet demise, let alone the role of President Reagan, were promptly forgotten. Individuals who played virtually no role in organizing effective opposition to communism were proclaimed to be in the forefront of the democratic struggle, whereas those individuals who actually did risk life and limb became nobodies in the mass media, of the United States in particular. The western media and western political establishment did not support making the communists accountable for the decades of unnatural living inflicted on hundreds of millions of human beings. Forty-four years after east central Europe was handed over to the Soviets, duplicity again prevailed in the West's dealings with the ideas and structures created by the socialist ideologues.

The former communists' preparations for political changes in east central Europe started in the mid-eighties. In Poland, they amounted mostly to building a ground for a future share in controlling the banking system and in participating in the privatization of the most promising companies - two issues on the agenda that were to be implemented after the establishment of a democratic government. At the final stage of these preparations, the communist party was refurbished and proclaimed to be social-democratic. The newly enlightened leadership of the party consists of the self-proclaimed technocrats eager and now well-positioned to control an important part of the Polish economy and politics. The economy now abounds in communists turned entrepreneurs, managers, bankers, etc.,who hold a large portion of the state's wealth. Both the ex-communist Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej (SLD) and Unia Demokratyczna (UD) of Tadeusz Mazowiecki (as well as the now-expiring Kongres Liberalno-Demokratyczny) have vested interests in preserving the economic and social order as it now exists. Bound, however, by the party constituency and the party rank and file (who are the former communist apparatchiks), the SLD leadership has to sound, and act, inconsistently. The rank-and-file in Poland, living in poverty, are obviously uncomfortable with the lack of change in the political elite. So the elite have to make gestures favoring them, while in fact implementing policies that benefit the elite rather than the rank-and-file.

To be sure, in 1989, after forty-four years of state socialism, many in Polish society favored the welfare state and took for granted the state's obligation to provide employment for the citizenry. Nevertheless, the society at large had staunchly opposed communism. Characteristically, the last huge street demonstration of the labor union Solidarity in February 1993, having to do with the state's inability to provide a living wage to workers, turned into a fervent anticommunist and patriotic rally.

After the semi-free elections in June 1989, there was a chance to mobilize the society to sacrifices unimaginable in the West. But that would have required making the communists accountable for what they had done to the country and for the hardships which would necessarily follow. All that was needed was holding the new parliamentary elections in 1990 after the PUWP [Polish United Workers' Party] dissolved itself, and banning the high-ranking former communists from running for office. But the victory of 1989 was played down by the leftist intellectuals who had usurped the spokesmanship for the Solidarity movement and led the Round Table negotiations. Communists were granted a pardon by Tadeusz Mazowiecki who announced the rule of law as if the Soviet-imposed laws in Poland had full legitimacy. This alienated many people, the more so as soon the center-left (most notably, Adam Michnik's Gazeta Wyborcza) and the left-left began dangling yet another red herring before the public: the alleged threat to democracy in the form of rising clericalism. Thanks to a skillful financial management, Gazeta Wyborcza has acquired mass readership in Poland, and thus also a disproportionate share of opportunities to influence public opinion.

In other words, it appears that the convergence theory is being implemented in Poland, the United States and elsewhere without mentioning the name "convergence." "Globalism" which has recently become fashionable to invoke, may mean different things to different people. The leftist elite everywhere seem to use this term as a synonym for "convergence."

Poles are a peaceful people; according to Norman Davies, perhaps too peaceful. They are fundamentally religious and loyal to Roman Catholicism. They see themselves as citizens of Christian Europe. But there is no Christian Europe, while the real Europe finds no reason to welcome them. Taking the needs into account, western help is symbolic and rather costly. It amounts to sending western advisors who consume a lion's share of western "help," thus increasing Poland's debt. The Poles have a term for these advisors, "the Marriott brigades," since many of them stay in the elegant Marriott Hotel in Warsaw where rooms are rented for several hundred dollars per night.

Poland has also been hit by western European protectionism and unfair trade practices of the European Common Market. Poland is paying a huge debt incurred by the Soviet-imposed government, a debt whose beneficiary was unquestionably the Soviet Union. The postmodern world elites who seem to strive for convergence make sure that Poland is not only unwelcome economically, but also politically in the European Union. With its gaze fixed on the West, Polish foreign politics has been marked with indecision about what to do with the western humbug such as, to take the most transparent example, the so-called Partnership for Peace.

Denying Poland any specific prospects for joining NATO because of Russian reservations came as a shock to the society at large. Polish society is not unaware of the unequivocal commitment of the present American administration to help Russia regain its great power posture. Given that situation, it is not excluded that Polish politics will take an unexpected turn in the near future. Poland can always adopt the posture of a hedgehog, regardless of whether the bear comes from the east or from the west. While the hedgehog cannot prevail over the bear, it can make the bear's life mightly uncomfortable.

Poles will undoubtedly learn to rely on themselves only, aware that the odds are against them in the West. At the same time, the West has no right to seek an alibi in the fact that the partly ex-communist Left is now in power in Poland. After all, the head of the ex-communist SLD, Mr. Kwasniewski, is no more leftist than President Clinton. And nobody in the Polish ex-communist establishment can match the deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott as a Russian and, earlier, Soviet apologist.

Jacek Koronacki is Chairman of the Department of Statistics at the Polish Academy of Science in Warsaw and a freelance journalist publishing in Zycie Warszawy, Najwyzszy Czas, and other Polish periodicals.

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