Never Buy a Cat in a Bag
Poland, a Country that Asked for Freedom...
but Got "Democracy"

by Anna Kuros

October 18, 2004   

(Swans - October 18, 2004)   It's been fifteen years now since the overthrow of Communism in Poland. For someone who grew up basically during that transition to capitalism, it is probably hard for me to come up with a first hand analysis of the former. My scant memories, filtered through the experiences of the child I was then, probably aren't sufficient tools for looking into the mechanisms at work in that centrally planned socialist economy. One of the ways of looking at that time, putting aside the general political history, is that daily life for most people was a constant struggle. The banality of that struggle for most Poles today is probably anecdotal. I still have vivid memories of standing in line with my mother for a few hours just to get basic groceries. They all came in a very limited amount, not to mention that goods like meat, coffee, or socks were luxury items rarely seen on the market shelves. Western (imperialist) products were illegal, and could only be obtained at the black market. Food tickets (kartki) were issued together with your salary, for which you could only buy a given amount of food, and few other things. The quantities for most goods were nominal (e.g. soap) so you had to exchange it for something else, trade it with somebody, and here is where the whole art of life under communism was practiced.

The first signs that change was coming, that the bubble might burst, could be detected as early as the sixties and seventies (and workers' and students' strikes), but certainly after the election of Gorbachev everybody knew that it must now happen, that the change was coming. When the first Western goods, along with music and movies, started coming to Poland, it felt like the beginning of a new era; there was a feeling of general relief, and anticipation. A pair of blue jeans, or better quality cigarettes, or soap, were the most sought after items, and I still remember what a thrill it was for a nine-year-old Anna to be holding a bag full of French and German chocolate bars. This is only a roundabout way to show what place communism occupies in Polish consciousness, or maybe what my memory of it is. I'm not sure how it affected our national collective unconscious. To find faults with communism is not hard and there are people here who made it their life long vocation (a number of politicians who were members of the communist party, PZPR, after its dissolution switched to the right and now have thriving careers -- the notorious Platforma Obywatelska, or Citizens Platform, which is made up of, and represents, mostly the very rich in Poland, is a perfect example).

Stalin is (like Hitler) a shadow that spreads low over the Polish landscape. However, to blame him or others equally authoritarian and corrupt leaders doesn't provide for a serious analysis either. My question is how much of that failed socialist experiment can be attributed to the greed and faults of its leaders and how much to other issues. Certain themes from the border of political science/philosophy/sociology and economics still haven't been quite worked out, for instance where the line is between authoritarian and anti-authoritarian society, how to provide all citizens with a bearable existence (which entails first of all, the satisfaction of needs from the Maslovian ladder), and perhaps the early Leninist revolutionary ideal of the rule of masses became, in reality, the familiar ordeal of rule over the masses.

The generation of my parents (1950s), the first post-World War II generation, held on to only one hope, that a better world is yet to come. And when I enumerate the things most wanted during communism, it is not a coincidence that they are mostly "things," luxury (or so we thought) items.

What comes to be known now as a mass-scale sweatshop production, globalization, creation of false needs, and for few, a surplus value (profit), then denoted a promotion of social status, and was a most desired privilege. It meant so much to them, they were already perversely sold that idea: a better lifestyle is possible, luxury is possible, everything is possible. But when and how, and from where does it come? At that time, it came from the West, a mythic creature that few seemed to have seen. Even today a trip to the United States, or Western Europe, symbolizes a privilege, and lines in front of the US Embassy certainly prove it. Young Poles, in most cases students, who get to spend their vacation working in the States, usually babysitting, cleaning, or working for fast food restaurants, seem to be oblivious to the fact that all they get to do are the lowest paying jobs, but they would do anything to be able to go there. Does this mean that our government provides us with very little? Probably. Still, after they return, they continue their education at a university that is FREE in Poland, for this is one of the few things left after communism, and even this is being gradually eradicated.

I certainly don't want to do injustice to those who suffered or died when Poland was part of the Soviet Empire, when no voice of dissent was tolerated. Today I read an interview in Nowy Robotnik (New Worker), with Zygmunt Kaluzynski (a film critic and a journalist) who said that, "[T]oday censorship is actually worse than under communism because then, there actually used to be times you could almost get away with saying anything, with the exception maybe that, those in Kremlin were murderers."

What I find most curious, from the point of view of the year 2004, is that criticism of communism, at least in Poland, has always been based on the assumption that a free-market economy will significantly improve the well being of Polish people. Who came up with that idea, honestly, I don't know. And the whole dynamic between communism and capitalism here, as well in other countries of the Soviet block, has been based on the assumption of economic prosperity for a citizen in a capitalist society. The only problem with that expectation is that so far it has happened only for very few. We were given this hope in 1989 ("there will be more freedom, more money..."), and now again, in May, 2004, as Poland was entering the EU, the governmental campaign was based on the promise that there will be more jobs, more opportunities, something better is still to come.

Oddly enough, Poland has been undergoing economic restructuring (synonym for privatization) since the early 1990s and one might say that capitalism here is in full bloom. The continuous degeneration of indigenous industry has been steadily progressing. Close to where I come from (in the southeast) there were quite a few prospering truck and spare parts factories; they are all gone now and the region is ravaged by unemployment. The Silesia region (southwest), with its coal mining industry, is heading towards almost total shutdown. During a wave of strikes last year, the Polish prime minister told the miners that closing down of their mines is actually a good thing, because in the context of national economy, it will be a relief for an overstrained budget; and now after entering the EU, Brussels went even as far as to pay Polish farmers for limiting production and letting their farms go to ruin. It has to be added that we are expected to increase imports from Western EU countries (goods which we are perfectly capable of producing locally by ourselves, and which until now we have, like grains, milk, and meat). Moreover, before 1990, a huge part of Polish exports went to Russia, and other East European countries. This has been limited due to trade agreements, which impede business ties with Russia. We had a quite big (meaning self-sufficient) dairy industry, now being bought off by Nestle, who, after signing the contract, fired hundreds of people and closed local business, making employees commute (in one case 100km a day) to their corporate branch home factory; the same with Nescafé, which is closing down Polish chocolate factories (or in corporate jargon, takeovers, name changes, and new rules). I want to add that Poland had incredibly well-organized trade unions. In the past they actually had a say in defending you against an unfair ruling in your workplace. Moreover, one should remember that the Solidarity movement was started and represented by the workers of the Gdansk shipyard, with Lech Walesa, who worked there as an electrician. This in some ways proletarian revolution and the transition to "democracy" couldn't have been executed without them, although the efforts of the Polish intelligentsia were as important, and the secret, or not so secret anymore, designs of the West were what really drove it. Once again, like in the French Revolution, one class was only a tool in the hands of the other class in achieving its goals.

On top of all of it, Poland has sent a contingent of 2500 troops to Iraq (18 of them killed), because the Polish President hoped for a cut of Iraqi oil contracts and a lifting of visa restrictions for Poles wanting to go to the USA. The last promise was a cause of great excitement for Polish MPs recently, as it has been repeated by Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

Most of my friends, whenever they are asked about reasons for the Polish military presence in Iraq, have no answer. Nobody here really knows, because a political or historical context hasn't been provided. What could Polish interest be in the Middle East? The sane answer is money, but then immediately, if you follow that path, the cynical riposte is who wants to share Middle Eastern money with Poland? Iraqis...? The United States of America...? The answer, unless you believe what you read in Gazeta Wyborcza (the main mouthpiece of propaganda for the neoliberal business practices and Bush policies, whose editor, Adam Michnik was one of the former members of the Round Table Talks, and political prisoner under communism), is neither. What's most surprising is that the ruling party of the Social Democrats (SLD -- made up mostly of former communists) was mostly supportive of the war in Iraq (this coincides with the almost total disappearance of a left party of any importance on the national scene).

Right now there is no party with a remotely leftist agenda except for few of minor importance, like Nowa Lewica (New Left), whose marginalization isn't necessarily their own fault, since mainstream Polish media has no interest in them. In fact, it even treats them like lunatics; crazy socialists who dare to raise the topic of increasing the minimum wage, or to discuss the evictions of jobless tenants. The diversity on the right side of the Polish political scene (in comparison with, basically, the two-party system of Britain and America) is impressive, and you would think it should only make them weaker, but doesn't. The recent polls have Samoobrona (Self Defense) in second place (who also won the Polish elections for the EU parliament). It is represented by a semiliterate farmer, Andrzej Lepper, a populist whose sympathy among rural and working class Poles was won with tough words, a focus on unemployment, and end to corruption, but whose simplicity (and vulgarity) makes him an easy target for the more sophisticated politicians. They share their place with Prawo and Sprawiedliwosc (Law and Justice), meaning "we are tough on crime," and "criminals are the only threat to the society, so we need harsher law and longer prison sentences." Its leader, Lech Kaczynski (a President of Warsaw, whose twin brother is also a politician), doesn't seem to offer any politically coherent program. What they're really saying is a skillfully packaged combination of resentment and morality that probably appeals to repressed middle class Catholics (around 90% percent of Poles declares themselves Catholic). Right at the top, with 17% of public support, is the already mentioned Citizens Platform, (PO). They are interesting because some of their leaders are on the list of top Polish millionaires (Olechowski). Their "agitators" are always young, nicely and expensively dressed, and the party itself is thriving. One possible explanation is that they try the hardest to deliver on the capitalist dream every young Pole wants to be a fulfillment of; and they prey on their naiveté. Moreover, I don't think that most Poles realize that bigger tax cuts for the top five percent aren't going to benefit them.

The Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski (former head of SLD-Social Democrats) was a Minister of Sport in the last communist government and is finishing his second and last term in office. He embodies something essential about this transition era. In 1996, when he was campaigning against Walesa (running for his second term), I was having heated debates with my classmates who were trying to discourage me from voting for him, and warning me that he will surely want to reinstate communism. He never represented high moral and political standards, but still seemed a more optimistic choice, than what some saw was coming (more Walesa). As it turned out he certainly didn't want to return to practices from ten years before, but most people were greatly surprised how quickly he was convinced about the genius of the new direction Poland was taking. He embodies not only the contradiction of Soviet state socialism but also of capitalism, and is it because of a contradiction inherent in human nature? A man never stops when he has enough: a craving for more compels him to press for more, whether it is a communist leader or a CEO of a big corporation.

It was probably Marx who came the closest to identifying the origin and cause of human despair and misery, but he too failed to solve this one conundrum: how to create a fully social being? Social emotionally, one that won't delude itself with immortality (primarily material immortality that might be gained through brilliant achievement or material possession)... It's not about some medieval asceticism or renunciation, but somehow experience shows that almost everyone who attains a position of privilege and almost unassailable power takes advantage of it mercilessly.

What is certain is that Polish communism ended and masses of people who have been given little in life still delude themselves that good times are yet to come. The dissolution of capitalism has been predicted but it seems to cling stubbornly to life. It seems like the biggest lie of the neo-liberal system is the idea of freedom and prosperity (not for the working class, though they believe it is for them as well). The reward is always in front of you, but just out of reach, the promise remains though, you may be able to get it some day, earn that first billion or win the lottery, and your soul will be immortal.

The Judeo-Christian idea of salvation has been skillfully interwoven with our eternal dream of earthly paradise. The idea that is so well put in Ernst Bloch's Principle of Hope; our innate desire for utopia, the search for a better world, whether in chthonic depths or blazing sun, but never in ourselves, men endlessly deluding themselves with a better future, because right now is unbearable.

"Beauty is life as in all reality it ought to be, until it has to be."

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Anna Kuros, born in Kielce, Poland, some 25 years ago, is studying philosophy at Jagiellonian University. She also works as a translator and lives in Krakow.

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Published October 18, 2004
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