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Neo-Pagan’ Poland

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 the new new class. They back their old new party by funding or fixing, and through the press, radio or television stations that they own. Former communists also have the habits and discipline of doing patient, boring political groundwork, which former dissidents and intellectuals generally do not.

To be sure, the business of democratic politics differs from that of communist politics. But there are people slightly lower down the communist hierarchy who very rapidly adapt to the rather different techniques of acquiring and exercising power in a modern television democracy. You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks; but the young dogs learn them in no time. After all, the younger functionaries joined the party in the 1970s or 1980s not because they believed in communism but because they were interested in making a career, and in the real politics of power rather than the intellectual and moral “anti-politics” of dissidence.

Among the voters, they have a hard core of the old faithful. Then they pick up votes from those who have suffered from the transition to a market economy: the unemployed, workers in large state-owned factories, the middle-aged and small-town dwellers who have difficulty adapting to new ways, impoverished pensioners. When people had the basic, minimal security afforded by a police welfare state they longed for freedom; now that they have freedom they yearn for the old security as well. Post-communists promise that the state will provide more housing, employment, and social security, while preserving the gains of freedom and the market.

Kwasniewski’s victory partly fits this broad pattern, but it also has unique Polish features. His Alliance of the Democratic Left (SLD) incorporates the so-called Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland—the direct successor to Poland’s ruling communist party—whose leader he became in 1990. Although not without internal tensions, the Alliance is much the largest, bestorganized, and best-funded party in Poland. Its backers are classic exemplars of the new “new class,” corrupt apparatchiks turned corrupt businessmen. During the campaign, it emerged that his own wife had a large holding of shares in one of these nomenklatura capitalist companies. Kwasniewski gave several implausible explanations of why he had not declared this holding in his parliamentary statement of member’s interests—including the suggestion that he and his wife had separated their finances.

Unlike the case in many other post-communist countries, his candidacy was not outrageously promoted by the news and current affairs programs of public television, which rather favored the incumbent President Walesa. However, Kwasniewski did enjoy the support of papers such as the bestselling satirical weekly Nie (“No“), the organ of Jerzy Urban, formerly General Jaruzelski’s spokesman during martial law.

Kwasniewski’s campaign was a masterpiece of 1990s designer electioneering, from his immaculate suits and ties to the perfect delivery of his television sound bites. A friend who commutes between Paris and Warsaw told me that it was, in this respect, quite as professional as the presidential campaigns in France. Perhaps this is not surprising, since a leading French advertising man, Jacques Séguéla, was advising him. Séguéla, who has previously advised François Mitterrand (he claims to have been behind the slogan “La Force Tranquille”) and was recommended to Kwasniewski by the Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, says he helped to invent Kwasniewski’s two main slogans—“Let’s Choose the Future” and “A Common Poland”—and to prepare him for his crucial television debates with Lech Walesa.* But Kwasniewski also toured the country assiduously, making warm but vague promises of good things like more housing (a major worry for the young), social security, and pensions—things on which, incidentally, the Polish president has little power to decide, even taking the broadest interpretation of his rather ill-defined constitutional powers.

However, the composition of his vote does not entirely bear out the standard interpretation of post-communist returns. It is true that, for example, Walesa got slightly more votes in cities and large towns—where the effects of economic growth have been more tangible—and Kwasniewski got slightly more in small towns and the countryside. But his was not simply the vote of “losers” from an economic transformation out of which his close associates are, after all, among the greatest “winners.” Voting for him people also chose a personification of success. And he benefited from a “feel-good factor” in a country which has the fastest economic growth in Europe: 6.5 percent in the first half of 1995. The liberal architects both of Poland’s market reform and of its recent growth, such as Leszek Balcerowicz, now leader of the opposition Freedom Union party, wryly observe that Kwasniewski reaps the harvest of the changes they introduced.

Moreover, Kwasniewski got significantly more votes from the young and Walesa more from the old. Here was the great role-reversal. The former communist became the man of the future, making Walesa look like a man of the past. Just forty-one years old (to Walesa’s fifty-two), sun-tanned, fit (he dieted specially for the elections), snappily dressed, better educated (although it emerged during the campaign that he had lied about having received a master’s degree from Gdansk University), smooth-talking, yuppielike, “Olek” Kwasniewski sold himself as modern, forward-looking, Western. Perhaps inspired by M. Séguéla, his supporters even called him “the Polish Kennedy.” And the whole message was “choose the future.”


Yet how could people so rapidly forget the past? In Hungary one might understand it more easily: 1956 was a very long time ago, and by the 1980s the party’s iron fist was hidden deep inside a thick velvet glove. But not in Poland, where just a few years ago the same Aleksander Kwasniewski was, as editor of a communist youth newspaper and then as minister for youth, justifying the imposition of martial law, the internment of political opponents, and the banning of Solidarity.

Well, first of all, a lot of people have not forgotten. Many voted for Lech Walesa simply in order to stop a former communist from becoming their president. Conversely, some of Kwasniewski’s party electorate voted for him precisely because he is a former communist. Indeed, for all the slimming and sun-tanning and smart suits, Kwasniewski, with his hatchet jaw and slab cheekbones, still has something of the face and posture of the Stalinist worker-hero in Andrzej Wajda’s film Man of Iron. (People are now speculating about a sequel. Man of Silicon?)

For the young, however, communism and Solidarity are already ancient history, something they are forced to learn about from boring textbooks. Here the post-Solidarity leaders are victims of their own success. So rapid have been the changes, so selfevident has freedom become in just six years, that the young can hardly remember anything else. On election day, I had lunch with a friend who was a samizdat publisher in the 1980s. “Yes,” he reminisced, “of course in those days you never used to phone beforehand, just appeared at the door.” “But why didn’t he phone?” asked his fourteen-year-old daughter. Long pause. “Oh, you mean because the phone was bugged?” With some young voters, there was an element of conscious revolt. Just because the parents identify so strongly with the post-Solidarity tradition, the children vote against it.

There remains, nonetheless, a question. In 1989, Solidarity leaders negotiated with Polish communists at the Round Table, and made a power-sharing deal summed up in a famous headline in the Solidarity paper Gazeta Wyborcza: “Your President, Our Premier.” The Warsaw Pact still existed and this seemed the most the Soviet Union would accept. In a spirit of liberal Catholic forgiveness, and having in mind the model of post-Franco Spain, the Solidarity premier Tadeusz Mazowiecki drew what he called a “thick line” under the past. No recrimination! But did that line have to be quite so thick? And was it still right a year or two later, when the Soviet constraint had largely disappeared, to continue without any systematic purges from public life of former senior communists responsible for oppressive policies or secret police collaborators (such as happened in Czechoslovakia and East Germany), without Latin American-style truth commissions, tribunals (except one specifically on the responsibility for martial law), or other symbolic steps to remind the public, and particularly the young, of what communists had done to Poland?

  1. *

    M. Séguéla told me in a telephone conversation that he likes to advise on an election campaign every year or two, as a “hobby.” Besides Mitterrand and Vranitzky, his advisees have included the Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev and the former Hungarian Prime Minister Jozsef Antall. He finds “Alexander,” as he calls him, to be young, clever, courageous, and médiatique, something between a Kennedy and a Bill Clinton—whom M. Séguéla describes as “a great president,” although adding cautiously “at least from the point of view of communications.”

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