During the early hours of December 13, the Poland of Solidarity, for sixteen months the most hopeful new star of democracy, disappeared into a black hole. A nation of thirty-six million, in the middle of Europe, was cordoned off from the world, atomized into cell-like blocks, so that each could be terrorized and repressed individually. A regime incapable of feeding its population, incapable of supplying spare parts to keep its factories running, was still able to turn an entire country into an internment camp in a single night.
For some, Solidarity had brought catastrophe on itself by overplaying its hand. For others, the union’s great gamble of partially liberalizing a totalitarian regime was contradictory from the start. Still others found this gamble conceivable only to romantic Poles, once again charging armored panzers with cavalry sabers. But General Jaruzelski’s effort to reimpose totalitarianism on such a people may be an equally desperate gamble. Can “indigestible Poland,” in Marx’s phrase, after making the greatest breach ever in a Leninist order, be routinely “normalized,” like Hungary and Czechoslovakia? Or could the effort to do so mark the beginning of a still wider crisis of the Soviet system?
The Poland of Solidarity, half free and half slave, Eastern in form but Western in content, is a world of paradox, where familiar terms take on unfamiliar meanings, and where our usual political categories have little relevance. The Poles’ aspirations are so near that we think we understand them, but their situation is so remote that in fact we often do not. And the first way to misread Solidarity’s career is to attribute its emergence and then its demise to the effects of “economic crisis.”
To be sure, there was such a crisis in the summer of 1980, and it is by now a catastrophe. Its outlines are also well known: Edward Gierek overborrowed from the West after 1970 to build an overindustrialized “second Poland.” He then failed by the end of the decade to sell enough on a depressed world market to repay his debts (some $27 billion), so he could borrow more—and could not even buy spare parts in order to maintain production. At the same time he compounded his regime’s policy of ruining private agriculture with the endemic communist failure to create a workable collectivized agriculture. In consequence, he was periodically compelled to reduce subsidies for basic necessities and to raise prices dramatically, as in 1976 and 1980, thus touching off “food riots,” as had occurred already under Gomulka in 1970.
All too true. But when is there not an economic crisis under a communist regime? The only time communist economies are a relative success, at least for their populations, is when they retreat from full socialism to the NEP of a partial market economy, as in Russia during the 1920s or in present-day Hungary. At other times the population is kept from desperation and the socialist sector functions only through an illegal but tolerated parallel economy …