The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski has a Law of the Infinite Cornucopia. This states that there is never a shortage of arguments to support whatever doctrine you want to believe in for whatever reasons. The historian’s version of this law is that causes can invariably be found for any event or phenomenon, however extraordinary or unexpected. Whatever happens will be explained.
The election of Aleksander Kwasniewski as president of Poland, on November 19, 1995, perfectly illustrates this law. Numerous articles have immediately explained, with clarity, vivid supporting detail, and persuasive arguments, why “Poland chose” a former communist apparatchik in preference to the former Solidarity leader, Nobel Prize-winner, and incumbent president, Lech Walesa. Never mind that if just 2 percent of the votes had gone the other way we would have read numerous articles explaining, with equal clarity and persuasiveness, why Poland had reelected Walesa. Thus is history written.
Yet this was an astonishing result. Six years after the end of communism, the country which had the strongest anti-communist opposition and the weakest communist party in the Soviet bloc has both a government led by former communists and a president who is one. Anyone who had predicted this in the autumn of 1989 would have been laughed out of the room. But then, so would anyone who had predicted in the autumn of 1983 that within six years Poland would have a Catholic prime minister. Or, for that matter, anyone who had suggested in 1977, when the twenty-two-year-old Aleksander Kwasniewski joined the ruling communist party, that the party—state would soon be engulfed by a ten-million—strong national movement called Solidarity. The kaleidoscope keeps turning. Each turn is a surprise. And each turn changes our view of the past as well as the present.
Now for those explanations. First, there is a regional pattern. Much of Central and Eastern Europe today is under post-communist rule, by which I mean the elected rule (alone or in coalition) of parties that directly succeeded the pre-1989 ruling communist parties or of people who were members of those parties until the end of communism. In Central Europe, the Czech Republic is the only clear exception. There are major differences between, for example, the countries, like Poland and Hungary, which had intervening periods of transformation under liberal or conservative governments, and those like Romania which went straight from the communist frying pan into the post-communist fire. Polish and Hungarian communists in the 1980s were, in important ways, already less communist than their Czech comrades—let alone their Russian ones. And so on.
Nonetheless, there is a pattern. Post-communist parties inherit nationwide organizations, offices, personnel, and funds, which are usually enhanced, at the end of communism, by appropriating the property of the party-state. The “privatization of the nomenklatura”—itself one of the reasons communists gave up their monopoly of political power so relatively quietly—produces a new class of communists-turned-capitalists. Actually, Milovan Djilas famously described the nomenklatura itself as “the new class,” so this must be …