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The Opposition

A comprehensive map of the opposition in East Central Europe today would resemble nothing so much as one of those kaleidoscopic multicolored maps of ethnic groups in this region before the war. In both Poland and Hungary, groups or grouplets whose identities or programs arise from specific postwar realities overlap or combine with groups raising almost every flag, slogan, aspiration, or prejudice of the prewar political spectrum (except communism): populists, reform economists, radical sociologists, Smallholders, Lutherans, Catholic “base groups,” evangelical sects, democratic opposition, democratic youth, democratic academics, Solidarity, Fighting Solidarity, national democrats, liberal democrats, Christian democrats, social democrats, liberal Catholics and conservative Catholics, Christian socialists, Jews, anti-Semites, advocates of workers’ self-government, apostles of free enterprise, syndicalists and monetarists, self-styled “crazy liberals,” “neorealists,” “neopositivists”: you name it, we have it. And this is merely the surface of explicit opposition. One could produce another rich catalog of official or semiofficial projects for “reform.” Hungarian political scientists have coined the delightful term “paradigm ecstasy.”1

Here I shall merely indicate four dimensions that every cartographer of emancipation must bear in mind.2 The first might be called a popular rediscovery of the national past: a widespread and passionate interest in history,3 pre-war national traditions, forgotten authors, ethnic minorities past and present (Jews, Germans, Ukrainians, Hungarians in Transylvania and Slovakia), and regional ties (“Central Europe,” Germany, Lithuania, and the Ukraine). To subsume all this under the label “nationalism” would be crass oversimplification. Much of it is simply the quest for what is regarded in the West as a “normal” cultural continuity: an identification with national symbols, traditions, and even myths, as benign in moderation as it is dangerous in excess. The lack of “normal” access to the national past was a form of deprivation; the recovery of it is a form of emancipation. Tradition, said G.K. Chesterton, is the democracy of the dead. But does the recultivation of tradition necessarily conduce to the democracy of the living? What about the authentic, national un- or antidemocratic traditions? And cannot nationalism act—or be used—as a substitute for democracy?

This fear is particularly acute among the “democratic opposition” in Hungary. Why, they ask, did the new Party leadership, as one of its first acts, permit an independent mass demonstration against the Ceausescu regime’s persecution of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania? Partly, of course, to give vent to a burning popular concern, and gain social credit for so doing. But also, perhaps, because if you let people shout about national rights in Transylvania they may be less inclined to think about civil rights in Hungary. Certainly it was a strange affair, this torchlit demonstration on Heroes’ Square in Budapest. The speeches were an uneasy mixture of somewhat stilted liberal sentiments (universal rights, the poor Romanians suffer too) and purple patriotic rhetoric.4 My overwhelming impression was of a lonely crowd: men and women with slightly bewildered faces mouthing half-forgotten hymns, and just beginning to rediscover, for good or ill, what it means to be a nation; a spectacle at once pathetic, moving, and disturbing.

All we want is freedom and democracy for the Hungarians in Transylvania,” said a speaker at one point. Loud applause. Then, almost as an afterthought, “…and freedom for ourselves.” Still louder applause. If I was the new Hungarian Party leader, Károly Grósz, I should not be at all sure that I could separate the national from the democratic cause. It is a short step from asking why the Hungarian government is not doing more for the Hungarians in neighboring socialist states, to asking why you have the kind of Hungarian government that cannot do more. To some extent, the Jaruzelski government faces a comparable dilemma on the burning national question of the Katyn massacre, and the other “blank spaces” of Soviet-Polish relations. If you cannot make or obtain a clear statement of the truth, it may be safer to say nothing.

A second dimension is the revival of religion, not just in Poland, but also in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and even, on a very small scale, in Hungary. This, too, is exceedingly complex, whether one considers social roots, confessional forms, or political implications. Why do so many young people in Eastern Europe, often brought up in a wholly atheistic environment, at home as well as at school, turn to religion, or at least to the churches? Is it simply because nature abhors a value vacuum, such as the collapse of socialist ideology has left? Is it the search for comfort amid material decay, misery, and hopelessness?

Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou, who changest not, abide with me.

Part of the larger rediscovery of the past? The impact of the Polish Pope? Divine intervention? All of the above? Religious participation can be a channel for basically secular, social, and political aspirations: as it is in part of the Church-protected peace and human rights movement in the GDR. But it can also be a substitute for social and political activism. The surge of churchgoing in Poland after the imposition of martial law had elements of both. Like the rediscovery of national history, the religious revival cuts several ways, and it is very difficult to say which cut goes deeper.5 This is a nice analytical problem for the scholar, but a hard political dilemma for the authorities.

A third important dimension is what has come to be known as the reconstitution of “civil society” in East Central Europe. There is already a substantial literature on this subject,6 yet the concept remains woefully imprecise, partly because of the variety of earlier uses (notably by Hegel), but mainly because it is currently used to describe two different things: (A) the entire range of social associations, ties, and activities independent of the state, from glee clubs to Charter 77, from samizdat to breviaries and from private farmers to homosexuals;^7 more narrowly, and more politically, the products of that strategy of “social self-organization” which was, broadly speaking, adopted by the democratic oppositions in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia in the mid to late 1970s. For them, the reconstitution of “civil society” was both an end in itself and a means to political change, including, eventually, change in the nature of the state.

(B) is a subcategory of (A). The growth of (A) will generally be unplanned, or at least not part of an overall political strategy, yet the emergence of non-political social associations and bonds has been facilitated by, and is deliberately included in, the strategy of (B). It might just be possible to call (A) simply “society,” except that in Poland the term “society” (spoleczenstwo) has come to be used precisely for those organized or civilly active parts of society (whether workers, farmers, or intellectuals) which, since August 1980, can meaningfully be talked of in opposition to the powers that be (wladza). So while elsewhere people say “civil society” but mean society, here people say “society” but mean civil society.

In Hungary, “civil society,” even in sense (A), was almost totally destroyed by Stalinism and János Kádár’s counter-revolution after 1956, but it has been slowly, quietly reconstituted. A rudimentary measure of this is the number of independent clubs and associations: more than 13,000 in the 1930s, sinking to as few as 1,000 in the 1950s, but up again to more than 3,500 by 1981.8 However, in the last year or two, and most dramatically in recent months, we have seen a sudden flowering of “civil society” in sense (B): the more or less spontaneous combustion of debating clubs, associations, and lobbies of different social and intellectual groups, most of whose members are consciously agitating as citizens, concerned not merely with their individual or group interests, but with the state of the nation. The appeal for the demonstration in Heroes’ Square was signed by no fewer than twelve such groups, and two of these were alliances: the Hungarian Democratic Forum for “populists” or nationalists, the Network of Free Initiatives for the rest.

Probably the most notable of these new groups are the Democratic Union of Scientific Workers (i.e., academics) and the Alliance of Young Democrats (FIDESZ) (mainly students), both founded in the spring of 1988. These are the first independent unions to be launched in Eastern Europe since the banning of Solidarity. The differences between this ferment and Poland in 1980 are obvious and legion. Yet I must say that listening to a gloriously discursive meeting of the new academics’ union (only academics would try to write footnotes to a demonstration), or talking to the marvelously fresh and bright student activists of FIDESZ, I felt almost as if I was back in Poland in the autumn of 1980. How the Hungarian authorities deal with these groups will be one of the more interesting questions of the autumn of 1988.

In Poland, the situation is both worse and better. When, in the mid 1970s, the democratic opposition first embarked on the strategy of “social self-organization” and “change from below,” they never imagined a mass movement like Solidarity. They did, on the other hand, imagine that they might find some partners, albeit reluctant ones, within the system, and that the result might even be some new, explicit or implicit, “social contract.” In the late 1980s, civil or self-organized society exists in Poland on a scale no one then dreamed of. There is a fantastic landscape of independent clubs, associations, periodicals, publishers, and the like, and this, together with the existence of something called “the opposition,” is accepted by more realistic members of the nomenklatura, and even of the secret police, as a lasting feature of Polish life. In a long memorandum written last year, Mieczyslaw F. Rakowski—a Politburo member sometimes feted in the West as a “liberal”—noted that “in practice we have recognized the opposition as a lasting element on the country’s political map.”9

Earlier this year, the authorities felt themselves compelled by the depth of the economic crisis and popular discontent to start talking privately with this opposition again, very gingerly exploring the notion of an “anti-crisis pact.” In recent weeks, they have been compelled by a wave of strikes to start talking directly and publicly with the man whom they have so often said was no longer a “partner” for them: Lech Walesa. But, as I write, in mid September there is still nothing remotely resembling a “partnership” between the authorities and the “society” represented by Solidarity. There is no “historic compromise” or “social contract.”

This seven-year-old historic stalemate has had many demoralizing effects. Not the least important is that it has confined “civil society” largely to the realm of words. Written words—in samizdat journals too numerous to list, legal independent Catholic journals like Tygodnik Powszechny, Znak, or Wiez, internal university publications, samizdat books from publishers like Krag, Nowa, or cdn, political programs, long and short, moderate and extreme; spoken words—in sermons, hymns, lectures, legal and illegal seminars, worker education groups, theaters, cabaret, unofficial cassettes; audiovisual words—wonderfully funny tapes from the satirist Jacek Fedorowicz, wonderfully serious tapes about Friedrich von Hayek, passed around on the country’s now numerous videocassette recorders; words, words, words.

For many, this is still exhilarating—for writers, in particular. But most people are not writers. Although it is wrong and patronizing to assume that workers or peasants are not interested in words, ideas, free debate, worship or drama, these give no immediate answers to their most pressing concerns: wages, housing, health care, pollution. Even a student or academic may tire eventually of words, if they are wholly disconnected from any visible results. The defensive message of much of the underground press is summed up in the title of a journal I noticed the other day: Jestesmy, which means simply “We Are.” The contemporary Polish version of Descartes is “I print, therefore I am.”

What is more, the virtual abandonment of ideology by the authorities, combined with the relative freedom of speech, even in censored publications, has resulted in a curious devaluation of language. Solzhenitsyn’s “one word of truth” really mattered when it was spoken amid a forest of lies, and when those in power seriously sought to compel public endorsement of the lies: but when you can say anything you like, and those in power will even publicly agree with you (but then do nothing about it), words, however true or noble, lose some of their value.

Partly in response to this impasse, many bright young people have turned their attention to the most recent and dynamic form of social emancipation: the fourth dimension. This is private enterprise. Of course most classical definitions of “civil society” assume an economic foundation, with private ownership, property rights guaranteed by due process of law, free exchange, and so forth. In a sense, therefore, the pursuit of private enterprise is the logical complement of the pursuit of “civil society.” But in practice, the engagement in private enterprise has so far been seen rather as an alternative to the pursuit of “civil society” in the narrower, more political sense indicated above.

I suspect that few people in the West (and perhaps also in the East) have really woken up to the sheer scale of private economic activity in Poland and Hungary. In his excellent book of 1985, Private Enterprise in Eastern Europe, Anders Aslund suggested that the economic activity of the legal private sector in Eastern Europe was likely to continue to fluctuate around a very low level, as it had done ever since the 1950s. But in a recent paper, the Anglo-Polish economist Jacek Rostowski argues convincingly that “Aslund’s Law” no longer holds for Poland; and the same is clearly true for Hungary.

All figures are extremely speculative, but Rostowski estimates that private economic activity (legal and not so legal) now accounts for somewhere between 38 and 45 percent of personal money incomes in Poland. Total private sector employment accounts for nearly one third of the labor force. Two fifths of new housing construction can be classified as private. In 1986 and 1987, hard currency remitted from abroad by individual Poles was almost equal to the hard currency trade surplus earned by the whole socialized sector.10 For Hungary, private economic activity is estimated to generate at least 30 percent of household incomes. Although the share of the labor force is much smaller (no private farmers), it is growing, and estimates of the private share of housing construction go as high as 85 percent. In both countries, the role of the private sector is already visible, both in the city centers and the countryside: here a bar, boutique, or software firm, there a smart new villa or farmhouse.

In many ways, the dramatic growth of private enterprise in the 1980s is a classic example of emancipation in decay, or “Ottomanization” at the social level.11 Private enterprise is stepping in to fill the holes left by the decaying state-provider: literally so, in the case of private dentists. It flourishes by providing what the public sector cannot, whether housing, services, consumer goods, or medical care. The variety of people who have turned to private enterprise is at least as wide as that of those who have turned to religion. So is the variety of motives. With religion it is not always the pure love of God; with private enterprise it is not always the pure love of money. Those involved range from people using private enterprise as a means to support opposition publications, to secret policemen, who keep an official eye on private firms but also an unofficial hand in the till. There is good evidence, both from Poland and Hungary, of major participation in private firms by senior members of the nomenklatura, their relatives or placemen.

For many people, private economic activity clearly is an alternative to public political activity. A Hungarian professor tells me that there are two quite distinct types among his students: those who wish to go into private enterprise and those who wish to go into oppositional activity: the party of interests, as it were, and the party of values. The sociologist Robert Manchin has found from his research that Hungarians with private sources of income are on balance less likely to express discontent with the present political system or to articulate conceptions of political change. “If part-time self-employment is a value-generating strategy at all,” he writes cautiously, “individual freedom is certainly not one of its core values.”12 In Poland I have been told repeatedly by university teachers that private business is now the consuming interest of many of the brightest students. The official politics of “the reds” (as the Communist authorities are politely called by the disaffected young) are beneath discussion. But the unofficial politics of the opposition also seem to offer few perspectives. What they want is to travel to the West for a year, earn some hard currency, maybe learn some capitalist skills, and then return to set up a small private firm in Poland, whether dealing in videocassettes, carpentry, decorating, trinkets, toys, or computer software.13

There are, however, individuals and groups who connect their advocacy (and practice) of private enterprise with a larger vision of social and political change. If the strategy of the democratic opposition in the 1970s could be described as “change from below,” as opposed to the earlier revisionist hope of change from above, this 1980s vision might crudely be characterized as one of “change from the side.” In Poland, most advocates of this path would probably be happy with the label “liberals”—and many use it themselves. In American terms, some might rather be described as neoliberal or even neoconservative, but there are significant differences of style and philosophy between them. To confuse the Warsaw Towarzystwo Gospodarcze (Economic Association) with the Kraków Towarzystwo Przemyslowe (Manufacturing Association) is a sin almost as mortal as that of confusing The New Republic with Commentary. The movement has many intellectual peers,14 but these two associations, bringing together theorists and practitioners of private enterprise, are probably its most important expressions to date.

The Kraków association began, in true Galician style, as a dining club. Intellectuals and entrepreneurs met for an excellent meal at a private house, in the course of which the intellectuals would explain the theory (out of Hayek by way of Michael Novak) and the entrepreneurs would explain the practice (out of the backyard by way of baksheesh), both sides being suitably fortified with vodka. Not wholly unfrivolous reports of these proceedings were published in the group’s underground journal, 13. Having obtained, as Miroslaw Dzielski, an academic and leading figure in the association, explains, the support of “the two most powerful institutions in Kraków”—the university and the Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny—they proceeded to draw up the statutes of their association, for “propagating citizens’ economic activity and the principles of market economy”15 in the Kraków voivodship, and applied to the authorities in all form for legal registration. This they somewhat surprisingly received at the end of last year, and launched a public lecture course entitled “How to begin [in business].” A large turnout confirmed the impression that there is a great reservoir of public interest in this area, particularly among students, young professionals, and younger skilled workers.

The Warsaw association has not, at the time of writing, received permission for legal registration. Led by, among others, Aleksander Paszynski, a former Polityka journalist who resigned from the paper at the time of martial law, and went on to build up a highly successful private housing consultancy firm, the Towarzystwo Gospodarcze has been somewhat more direct and more ambitious in its proclaimed goals: for example, it wants the right to work throughout the country. It is potentially a formidable economic force, since the combined capital of its member firms would probably be counted in the hundreds of millions of zlotys, or, which is more important, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. When I asked a senior government official why the authorities had not given the go-ahead for registration he said simply “for fear of a camouflaged opposition.”

In fact, the mainstream opposition was initially critical of these initiatives, partly because some of their proponents explicitly presented them as an alternative to the Solidarity struggle. The advocacy of private enterprise was treated as a new version of the nineteenth-century post-insurrectionary strategy of “organic work.” Miroslaw Dzielski himself said that he was interested in those who “in a socialist state want to make arrangements besides socialism and in spite of socialism.”16 Their theoretical position is: we are not for the government or against the government; let it give us the tools, and we will get on with the job. Yet when you begin to look in detail at the conditions for a long-term, stable environment for a substantial private sector, you soon appreciate that the demand is, in fact, very radical indeed. The Kraków association’s commentary on the government program for the “second stage of economic reform” begins by saying that it “greets with satisfaction” the government’s proposals. It ends by suggesting a program of sound money, “deregulation,” “privatization,”17 and tax reform which Margaret Thatcher could sign without a moment’s hesitation.

The long-term message of the neoliberals is ultimately little different from that of a conversation I overheard between two lads in a crowded Warsaw tram at the time of last year’s referendum on economic reform. After laughing about a friend who had gone to vote because he was afraid that otherwise the authorities (“oni“) wouldn’t let him go abroad, one lad said: “but I suppose we should try and reform this economy somehow.” “Come off it,” said the other, “this reform hasn’t a chance. The only thing is to do it like in America.”18 An entirely rational position, though hardly one the authorities are likely to adopt. In the short-term, however, there are good selfish reasons for the authorities to permit an expansion of the private sector.

In Hungary, the politico-philosophical theory is not so highly elaborated, but the entrepreneurial practice is much more so. Here, too, there are embryonic associations of entrepreneurs, with which the government is treating. But the main organ of entrepreneurial and free-market discussion is not a samizdat journal but an entirely official weekly, HVG, which might very loosely be described as the Hungarian Economist. Thick with advertisements from private and cooperative firms, it brings excellent reports of economic and political developments in Hungary and elsewhere, and prints the most radical reform proposals this side of samizdat. Sooner or later, an analysis of this fourth dimension of social emancipation inevitably becomes also a discussion of official proposals for economic and political reform. To these, therefore, I shall turn in a third article.

September 15, 1988

This is the second of three articles.

  1. 1

    For “paradigm ecstasy” see Rudolf L. Tökes, “The Science of Politics in Hungary in the 1980s,” in Südosteuropa, Vol. 37 (1/1988), p. 15 and passim.

  2. 2

    In my article in the September 29 issue, “The Empire in Decay,” I suggested that the decay of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe brings with it the possibility of “an unplanned, piecemeal, and discontinuous emancipation, both of the constituent states from the imperial center and of societies from states.” In this article I look at forms of social emancipation, taking most of my examples from Poland and Hungary.

  3. 3

    The observation about the interest in history is repeatedly made in a regular series of reports about Polish samizdat in the leading underground weekly, Tygodnik Mazowsze.

  4. 4

    See my article in The Spectator, July 2, 1988. One should note that the Romanian refugees in Hungary were also represented at the demonstration.

  5. 5

    Even in the most political churches, there is an extraordinary jumbling of national, social, and religious issues. At the last “Mass for the Fatherland” I attended at Father Popieluszko’s church in Warsaw, the preacher ended up exhorting the faithful to fight the good fight against alcoholism, robbery, abortion, and communism—in that order.

  6. 6

    See, for example, John Keane, Democracy and Civil Society (Verso, 1988) and John Keane, ed., Civil Society and the State (Verso, 1988), especially the essay by Z.A. Pelczynski.

  7. 8

    Excluding sports clubs. Quoted in a paper by Elemér Hankiss for the Woodrow Wilson Center European Alumni Association conference on “The European Question” in May 1988. (The papers from this conference are due to be published in book form.) The number of private foundations also rose from nil in 1977 to 380 by 1986.

  8. 9

    The leaked document is entitled “Reflections on some aspects of the political and economic situation in the Polish People’s Republic in the second half of the 1980s.” The sixty-page typescript is signed and dated “Warsaw. 8.6.–10.10. 1987.” Rakowski has privately confirmed that it is genuine. It is interesting that he connects this recognition of the opposition specifically with Western official visitors’ now regular practice of meeting with opposition leaders.

  9. 10

    Jacek Rostowski, “The Decay of Socialism and the Growth of Private Enterprise in Poland,” typescript.

  10. 11

    Ottomanization” as a metaphor for the decay of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, by very loose analogy with the decline of the Ottoman Empire, is explained in my previous article (“The Empire in Decay,” The New York Review, September 29).

  11. 12

    Robert Manchin, “Individual Economic Strategies and Social Consciousness,” in the Central and East European special issue of Social Research, Vol. 55, Nos. 1–2 (Spring/Summer 1988), pp. 77–96, this quotation on p. 93.

  12. 13

    Some 30 percent of entrepreneurs are under thirty-five, according to Rostowski, quoting J. Baczynski in Polityka, No. 37, 1987. “Almost 90 percent of the high-school students surveyed in 1987 said they wanted to leave Poland for an extended time in order to earn hard currency” (RFE/RL Soviet East European Report, Vol. V, No. 32, August 10, 1988). One other attraction of capitalism was nicely illustrated by an observation made during General Jaruzelski’s televised “meeting with youth” last November. “My Professor,” observed Wojciech Nowakowski, “used to say that socialism is a beautiful idea but very poor, because it has no economics. And our classes in economics seemed to confirm this, because when we had to learn the principles of capitalist economics these were clear and very easy to remember. But to remember the principles of our economics we really had to sweat” (Sztander Mlodych, November 28–29, 1987).

  13. 14

    Among them one should certainly mention the veteran publicist Stefan Kisielewski, a founder of the “Party of Crazy Liberals”; the economist Stefan Kurowski, who was already urging some of these ideas upon Solidarity in 1981, and is now on the board of the Towarzystwo Gospodarcze; and the economist-publicists Janusz Korwin-Mikke and Piotr Wierzbicki.

  14. 15

    Statut Krakowskiego Towarzystwa Przemyslowego,” paragraph 7 (typescript).

  15. 16

    See Kurs, No. 27 (1987).

  16. 17

    Privatization should consist in the gradual sale into private hands of all industries belonging to the state”! Quoted from “Opinia Krakowskiego Towarzystwa Przemyslowego na temat Programu Realizacyjnego Drugiego Etapu Reformy Gospodarczej,” typescript (Kraków, October 1987), p. 15 and passim.

  17. 18

    But has not the Pope criticized American capitalism? There does seem to be a certain tension between the Pope’s social teaching and the neoliberals’ talk of “imparting a moral ethos to capitalism” (Miroslaw Dzielski in Kurs, No. 27, 1987). However, his latest encyclical, “Solicitudo Rei Socialis,” has a significant passage about the evils that flow from the suppression of individual economic initiative “in the name of an alleged ‘equality,’ ” which “provokes a sense of frustration or desperation and predisposes people to opt out of national life, impelling them to emigrate,” etc. The communiqué of the Polish Episcopate immediately after the publication of this encyclical declared roundly that “in the light of Catholic social teaching, it is essential to extend considerably the role of the private sector in the national economy” (February 26, 1988).

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