On Sunday, November 29, more than 17 million Polish citizens, among a total population of 37 million, went to the polls to vote in the second referendum ever held in Communist Poland (the first was a rigged vote of approval of the Communist provisional government in 1947). The voters were asked whether they were “in favor” of two propositions:

  1. To carry out the “full government program for radical economic recovery,” aimed at “improving living conditions,” on the understanding that this would require a “difficult” two-to-three-year period of “rapid changes.”
  2. To introduce a new “Polish model” for “democratizing political life, aimed at strengthening self-government, extending the rights of citizens and increasing their participation” in running the country.

The propositions, however obscure and however vaguely phrased, conveyed a clear message. The government, in effect, was saying, “We recognize that the national economy is not working; it may, in fact, be approaching a catastrophe.1 We are finally prepared to take steps to decentralize the economy and allow more political liberty. But these steps—especially the economic ones—will require austerity and sacrifice, including higher prices, and cannot be carried out without the cooperation of the people. We are asking for their approval.”

To the first statement, 11.6 million voters (66 percent of the ballots cast) answered “yes” and 4.8 million (27.7 percent) voted “no.” To the second, 12.1 million (69 percent) said “yes” and 4.3 million (24.6 percent) “no.”2

One might think the government won a clear victory, but by its own guidelines it did not. According to a law passed last spring, a referendum must be won by a majority of all the eligible voters, not of the votes actually cast; and on November 29 about a third of the eligible voters didn’t vote. As a result only 44 percent of the electorate voted in favor of the first proposition and 46 percent for the second. According to its own law, the government suffered an embarrassing defeat, and one unprecedented for a Communist country.

Some of Jaruzelski’s top officials had feared just this result. Józef Czyrek, the No. 2 man in the Politburo, told me in September that he was worried about the idea of the referendum, and wasn’t sure whether it would ever take place. “What is the sense,” he said, “of asking hard economic questions? Can you imagine what the response would be if we asked our citizens whether they are in favor of, say, a 20 percent price increase?” An important Party secretary, Stanislaw Ciosek, said much the same thing.

A week after the vote, the talk in Warsaw was only of the referendum. Was the result personal defeat for Jaruzelski, who had described the new law as proof of his government’s (and his own) commitment to “democratization”? The vaguely worded first question did not spell out the kind of sacrifices that would have to be made in the period of “rapid changes” (although everyone knew they would include higher prices). But why did so many voters, who have had their fill of unfulfilled promises, approve of going through yet another “difficult period”? Or did many people vote out of fear that staying home, or voting “no,” might risk harassment?

The government’s campaign before the vote was as expensive as it was crude: in a country so desperately short of paper that even rough toilet tissues are hard to find, over a million zlotys were spent on posters and articles, not to mention constant radio and TV announcements so insistent and boring they could well have put people off voting. Moreover, the voting instructions were bizarre: in order to vote “yes,” you had to put a cross in a box on the ballot marked “no,” and vice versa.

The public position of the Catholic Church may also help to account for the relatively high number of “yes” votes. The government was clearly anxious that the Church, if it did not approve the referendum, would at least be neutral. It offered the Church authorities a concession: it would withdraw from the high school a textbook whose frankness about sexual matters the Church had strongly objected to. In the days before the election, the Church kept quiet about the vote itself and Cardinal Glemp went so far as to say that “even a flawed reform is better than none.”3 (The Church’s campaign against the textbook was joined by the weekly Rzeczywistosc, which represents the views of a xenophobic and openly anti-Semitic group called the Grunwald Association, and which from time to time publishes pornographic drawings in its pages.)

As for those voting “no,” a party journalist compared the referendum to a patient who is asked to give his consent to a painful and risky operation: a lot would depend on his confidence in the surgeon, and Poles have reason to distrust theirs.


The leaders of Solidarity couldn’t agree on what to do about the referendum. First they called for a boycott of the vote and then for “ignoring” it. They failed to challenge Jaruzelski by raising the questions he was evading, such as exactly what economic reforms were to be carried out, and who would decide, and on what grounds, whether they were working or not. After the vote, Solidarity’s National Executive Commission said the results were a clear-cut defeat for the government and asserted that Solidarity’s own 1981 program for democracy and economic efficiency was the only “goal” capable of “uniting” the Polish people.4


The government for its part managed to make a show of confidence. It had little to say about what the text of the referendum actually meant and stressed that it had been ratified by a majority of those who voted. “Over two thirds of adult Poles,” the press spokesman, Jerzy Urban, said, “went to the polls, thus testifying that they…supported the radical reforms.” The actual shape of the reforms, he said, would now be determined by the Sejm, or parliament.5 On December 15, the prime minister, Zbigniew Messner, announced that average consumer prices would rise by 27 percent in 1988, and that price increases would be spread over three years, rising at a rate of 27 percent per year, rather than 40 percent as originally planned.6

Soon after the vote, I talked with three high officials—Józef Czyrek and Stanislaw Ciosek, both Party secretaries, and Vice Premier Edward Sadowski, a non-Party economist respected even by those of his colleagues critical of the reforms. Each one predictably said he was extremely satisfied with the referendum results, but when I asked Ciosek why the Sejm had passed such an odd referendum law, he sighed, “I am afraid we do everything in much too much of a hurry.” Some people, he said, may have voted “yes” out of “unjustifiable apprehension”—apprehension, presumably, that something bad would happen to them if they voted no. Nonetheless, “this was a great lesson in democracy,” which proved “above all that you cannot have economic without political reforms.” But wouldn’t the hard-liners in the Communist party now argue, in view of the equivocal vote, that such exercises in “democracy” are futile, even dangerous? Ciosek admitted that there is a sharp division of opinion within the apparat, but he said that “the reformers” like himself “are bound to win.”

A journalist and economist who has been attempting—thus far unsuccessfully—to found an “economic association” promoting private enterprise gave me a more convincing explanation of the results. “The government can claim that it has shown its commitment to ‘democracy,’ ” Jerzy Paszynski told me. “It has a ready-made alibi for the World Bank and the IMF that there isn’t enough social support for the drastic austerity measures the IMF insists are necessary if Poland is to have the payments on its $36 billion debt rescheduled and to get more loans. The reformers have been told that the reforms will go on. The hard-liners have been assured that the process will be slow. In other words, there’s something for everyone.”

On December 5, a maverick member of the Sejm, the distinguished sociologist Dr. Mikolaj Kozakiewicz, offered the shrewdest analysis of all. He had, he said, heard much talk about the high standard the government had imposed for interpreting the election—it had, after all, sought a majority of all voters, not of votes cast. Some had claimed this was evidence of a concern for “maximum democracy.” But this was nonsense, Kozakiewicz said. The real aim of the government in requiring a majority of all eligible voters was to make it difficult in the future for the public to impose any decisions on the authorities. The government, having granted the referendum to ingratiate itself with the people, wanted to make sure their influence was limited. “But,” Kozakiewicz went on, “you cannot with one hand set new mechanisms in motion, and with the other apply the old brakes.” That just leads to the “destruction of the automobile.”

The daily Zycie Warszawy (December 7, 1987) published a sizable excerpt from Kozakiewicz’s speech, but it omitted the heart of his grimly sardonic remarks (I quote from the text the author gave me):

Our situation is fraught with danger: the foes of reforms will exploit the absence of a decisive result to turn back, soft-pedal, and postpone the reforms…. Paradoxically, left “fundamentalists” [in the opposition] and right-wingers [in the apparat] have joined hands, the latter because…they are bent on protecting their convictions and personal positions, the others because…the improvement and modernization of a socialist society is not in the interests of people who are sworn to the principle “the worse the better” and are only waiting…for the “final crash.” We are faced with the single and perhaps the very last chance to emerge from [our country’s] crisis. There is no longer any room…for replacing decisive actions with half-measures, and real reforms with cosmetic subterfuges.


The controversies surrounding the referendum were revealing. They suggested that the image of Poland in the Western press is far from accurate. On the one hand, we are told, a monolithic Party leadership makes meaningless gestures of “liberalization,” while tenaciously holding on to its power and privileges. On the other a passive population is unwilling to act against the regime it hates, while remaining loyal to the principles put forward by Solidarity. There is some truth in this, but not much. The ruling elite is clearly not “monolithic.” It is split into self-interested factions, each with different ideas of what (if any) reforms should be made and how extensive they should be. (Ideological questions of “Marxism-Leninism” seem to concern no one who is close to power.)


As for the population, polls taken by sociologists such as Stefan Nowak, whose findings are not contested by Solidarity, show that about 25 percent are sympathetic to the regime, and another 25 percent favor the opposition (though only 20 percent approve of such opposition activities as organizing separate unions). The rest of the Poles—i.e., most of them—say they are indifferent between the two; and many of them are willing to give the government’s proclaimed desire to improve living conditions the benefit of the doubt—a clue, it would seem, to why so many people voted “yes.”

Nor is the opposition as uniform as the conventional image would have it. The word “Solidarity” still evokes a powerful surge of emotion, as the Pope’s visit last summer demonstrated.7 But Solidarity as an organization—or movement—has markedly shrunk. Nearly all of the “initiatives” it proclaimed in September 1986—e.g., a campaign for union pluralism and the formation of groups to advance consumer interests and human rights—have slowed to a virtual halt. Its leaders have had bitter conflicts over policy.8 Working-class support has waned. Even in Wroclaw, a hotbed of labor activism, the local Solidarity leader Wladyslaw Frasyniuk told me that hardly any young workers join Solidarity, “nor does Solidarity generate any new leaders.”

The most impressive and visible achievement of the opposition has been the underground press with its hundreds of small papers, about twenty-five journals, and several publishing houses. But while continuing to be a vital force it is declining in size, mainly because relaxation of censorship during the past year or so has encouraged many to write for the open press, which has a much larger readership. Many of the journals are not affiliated with Solidarity and some are even hostile to it; conservative economic and political doctrines flourish (with Milton Friedman something of a cult figure). So does a resurrected and “sanitized” version of the teachings of Roman Dmowski, the prewar leader of the nationalistic and anti-Semitic “National Democrats.”

The scale of political opposition in Poland is now much more modest, and its center of gravity has shifted. The “Peace and Freedom” movement (WiP) consists of several hundred idealistic young men and women who promote ecological causes, pacifism, and the right not to join the military service, either on grounds of conscientious objection or because they will have to swear allegiance to the entire “socialist bloc.” Ten WiP members are now in prison, and another had his sentence suspended after agreeing to enter the “Civil Defense” corps. The government has in effect created a new group of political prisoners; although Polish law provides for alternative service, the decision to grant it is up to a local military board. As the literary historian (and chairman of the recently formed illegal “Polish Socialist party”) Jan Jozef Lipski told me, “If the board members are smart or generous, they let the man do alternative service; if not, they put him in jail. Unfortunately, most older Poles are not at all enthralled with the WiP; to refuse to serve in the Polish Army is still regarded as a dereliction of patriotic duty.” (Lech Walesa, one WiP member told me, refused a year ago to lend his moral support to the organization: “I was in the army, so was my dad, and so should every Pole be.”)

Potentially more important are radical groups with a few thousand followers such as “Fighting Solidarity.” Whatever their ideological inclinations, they all reject the idea of negotiating with the government. They proclaim that their ultimate goal is national independence, and believe that sooner or later another social upheaval is bound to erupt, for which they must be fully prepared. And they may yet prove right: if conditions in Poland continue to deteriorate at the present rate, the earnest and dedicated young people now working in the underground may become the leaders of a struggle far bloodier than any of the uprisings that rocked Communist Poland in the past.

Yet another group could be called “loyal,” “moderate,” or committed to “opposition within the system.”9 It belongs in the “positivist,” rather, than “romantic,” Polish political tradition that took shape after the failure of the uprising of 1863. During Solidarity’s legal existence between September 1980 and December 1981 the spokesmen for this tendency were the “pragmatists” in the union; from 1984 on their voices have been part of the series of intense reconsiderations of Solidarity’s tactics, which continue to appear in underground (and émigré) journals. In their views on the economy, they range from advocates of free enterprise to disciples of a “social welfare state” on the Swedish model. Many—indeed, most—of them come from the ranks of Solidarity’s activists, advisers, and sympathizers. A good number of them have paid with years of imprisonment and internment for their activities in the opposition. None of them in the least questions the enormous significance of Solidarity’s achievement: particularly freeing people from their obsessive fear of the authorities, and providing them with a sense of their own worth and their ability to challenge an oppressive regime. They maintain, rightly, that Solidarity provided the major stimulus for the current quest for greater democracy. But the moderates believe—as indeed do some people still within Solidarity—that the organization has been pursuing methods and strategies designed neither to mobilize social support nor to lead to real economic and political improvements. Their views, taken together, may at the risk of over-simplification be summarized as follows:

  1. The opposition must start from the assumption that the Polish Communist system is here for the foreseeable future, and that the task of the opposition is not to abolish but to reform it.
  2. Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost are not deceptive or cosmetic tactics but serious attempts to introduce far-reaching changes in the Soviet system; and one of their effects is to encourage similar developments in Poland.
  3. There are “moderates” or “pro-reformers” within the ruling circles with whom an understanding might eventually be reached, though this cannot be done if Solidarity is to be regarded as the sole representative of “society.”10

  4. The first task of the opposition is to rescue the country from economic catastrophe. To do this, both economic and political reforms are imperative. A new base of social support for such reforms must be created, mainly through a network of independent “associations”—associations of workers, professionals, private entrepreneurs, intellectuals. If such groups do not emerge, all the talk of “applying social pressure,” as one moderate told me, “is just an exercise in self-deception.”

  5. Solidarity has made a serious mistake in its policy of rejectionism (front odmowy—literally, “rejectionist front”), ostracizing and boycotting any institution or person in any way associated with the regime. This applies particularly to the new trade union organization (OPZZ), now seven million strong and still growing.11 The boycott was certainly justifiable when the government had little else on its mind than crushing all expression of independent or autonomous activity. But the situation has changed, and what had at one time been a necessary and honorable policy is becoming increasingly self-defeating.

On December 19, the Warsaw regional branch of Solidarity issued a statement that seems, at first glance, a dramatic shift in position: it calls for a “critical reassessment” of the organization’s policies, especially its front odmowy. Too long engaged in “purely symbolic actions in which morally pure conduct and intransigent negation counted more heavily than seizing the opportunity to recapture social support,” Solidarity must begin to participate in all open organizations, and should promote candidates in local elections. “The new strategy,” said Solidarity spokesman Janusz Onyszkiewicz, “boils down to putting a foot in every door.” So far, neither Solidarity’s National Executive Committee nor its regional councils have commented on this statement.


During my two recent visits to Poland, I asked whether “moderates” in the opposition and the “moderates” or “liberals” in the ruling elite could narrow their differences, especially since the moderates or pragmatists in both camps seem to be gaining influence. But the obstacles on both sides are formidable. The attitude of the government is perhaps best summed up by the popular Polish saying “panienka chce, ale sie boi“—the young lady is willing but scared. Even those in the apparat who favor serious reforms are apprehensive about perils to their own power—above all, the loss of control of the nomenklatura, that is, over appointments to the senior jobs in the bureaucracy. When a group of Party officials (headed by Józef Czyrek) drew up a series of “theses” spelling out projected reforms—in a document secretly published and leaked to the West in late September—they frankly acknowledged the need to “overcome fears about taking political risks.” “The Party,” one passage reads, “does not pretend to the right of owning a monopoly of rule,” nor should it shrink from “discussing the subject of a socialist opposition.” In September Jerzy Urban told me of plans to “limit the role of the Party in all areas of public life.”

But can such statements be trusted? In November, when the Party’s central committee finally got around to discussing the Politburo’s report based on the secret “theses,” few of the official speeches endorsed the most important of the new principles. They said nothing explicit about liberal proposals for a new electoral law with multiple candidates, a new law on property providing for competition among three equal sectors of the economy—state, cooperative, and private—and the revision of the harshly punitive criminal code. Many of the “theses” were diluted. Now there were only vague references to “different forms of ownership.” Making room for a “socialist opposition” now became making room only for those who “remain opposed to concrete solutions…and who are impelled by patriotic motives.”12

It is clear that even many “reformers” remain afraid of proposals for partly loosening the Party’s control over the nomenklatura—intrinsic to every ruling Communist apparatus since Lenin’s. And much else that has happened and is now taking place in Poland makes them more fearful still. At two sessions of the customarily pliant Sejm, the government faced an indignant revolt as deputies (including Party members) objected to its attempts to railroad through the 1987 budget, to appoint an “Ombudsman for Civil Rights,” and to get the Sejm to endorse the referendum. The first draft of the resolution approving the referendum was voted down—the first time anything had been voted down in the postwar history of the Sejm. Eventually this and the other two measures were passed by bare majorities.13

Another rebellion took place within the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN). Thirteen academicians and twenty-three professors—including Party members—issued a statement in which they accused the academy administration of “bureaucratic interference,” of using “exclusively political criteria” in defining research subjects. Scholarship, said the statement, has become the handmaiden of Party apparatchiki, who run the academy office (most of them connected with the anti-Semitic witch hunt of 1968). After several angry sessions with the president and secretary of PAN, two committees were charged with submitting proposals for a thorough revamping of the academy. There now seems a chance they will obtain some concessions.

Above all, the nomenklatura resists any dilution of its privileges. When lower officials lose their jobs in reorganization plans supposed to improve administrative efficiency, ways are found to relocate them or provide them with comfortable pensions. And if the government should show itself seriously willing to budge, the “moderates” in the opposition would have their own difficulties in setting up relations with the regime. They fear being hounded as “collaborators,” particularly by some of the intransigent voices within Solidarity. Several people told me that they had been “morally pressured” into signing statements issued by Solidarity over the past year.

Appeals for “compromise” and “dialogue” are often couched in language that renders them unacceptable to the other side. “They insist,” a member of the “opposition-within-the-system” group told me, referring specifically to the moderates within Solidarity, “on being considered partners on equal terms with the government, on clinging to symbols and assumptions that no longer, unfortunately, reflect the real world. In a word, they cannot accept the rules of the game.” The statement of the Warsaw Solidarity chapter is a striking case in point. Although it notes that Solidarity has made mistakes, and that “a new strategy is required,” it claims too much—for example, that Gorbachev’s perestroika is “in reality a response of the Communist system to Solidarity’s challenge.” No doubt the continuing outbursts of unrest in Poland and in other Communist bloc countries served as a cautionary lesson for Gorbachev and his allies. But as nearly all experts on the Soviet Union agree, the chief cause of the Soviet reforms is the precipitous decline of the Soviet economy, and of the country’s inability to compete with other world powers.

Solidarity, the statement goes on, has succeeded in maintaining the support of the working class; it alone “assumes the responsibility for the future of the country.” (I quote from the text read by Mr. Onyszkiewicz over the telephone to the Voice of America.) Few of the Solidarity leaders I talked to would agree with these claims14 ; and they are contradicted by public opinion surveys conducted by Solidarity itself. All of this suggests, sadly, that the statement represents a compromise with Solidarity’s own “fundamentalists,” and that it is therefore likely to fall flat. At most it may serve to increase the number of people favoring “opposition under the system.”


Everyone agrees that Poland’s most urgent problem is its sinking economy. The way to recovery, everyone also agrees, lies in radical economic reforms. With the exception of the “fundamentalists,” both the opposition and Jaruzelski’s closest advisers all say that there can be no economic reforms without political reforms. But what of the reforms themselves? What precisely has the government proposed? Despite the referendum, and despite the flood of articles, many of them scathingly critical, that have appeared in the open and underground press since last May, when the government’s “package” was published for “public discussion,” no one—including the officials I spoke to—seems to know the exact content of the reforms or how they will be carried out. The government has talked of liberalizing the laws on elections, on associations, and on censorship. Urban has talked of “limits on the party’s power in all areas of public life.” So far, no such legislation has been passed. When asked about a relatively minor matter—the restoration of the Polish PEN Club and Writers’ Association, dissolved during martial law—the Minister of Culture, Aleksander Krawczuk, replies, “I am confident that these matters will be solved satisfactorily.” But when? “Soon.”

“Give us time,” Secretary Ciosek told me, “give us time!” He and other officials talk confidently of their ability to handle the “hard-liners,” but so far they have had no evident success; nor is there any sign of a serious dialogue or a common search for solutions between the ruling elite and those who want not to “abolish the system” but to change and “improve it.”

As with political reforms, so with economic ones. When they are mentioned by officials they are discussed in nebulous language that inspires not only skepticism but mounting impatience. A “timetable” issued last October indicated the dates by which specific reforms are to be realized; but it was so vague as to be meaningless—e.g., by 1987, there would be “transformation of the central economic administration”; by 1988, “a palpable step forward in balancing the Polish economy”; by 1989, “clear progress in the expansion of foreign trade,” and so on.15 The general direction of the reforms themselves sounds promising. They call for a sizable increase in the private sector, with private firms guaranteed more capital and more supplies as well as freedom from arbitrary taxation. There are to be joint ventures with foreign companies and governments; and commercial banks would for the first time have some control over key decisions. More autonomy will be granted to state industries to run their administrative and economic affairs, with managers chosen in competitive elections. One of the most insidious practices of all “command economies” would be gradually phased out—the allocation of subsidies to favored industries, which creates an irrational and lopsided price structure, rather than one based on market demand.

Yet most of these fine-sounding propositions hardly differ from those announced in the “first stage” of the reforms, enacted in February 1982 and subsequently destroyed by the central bureaucracy, especially the “heavy industry and energy lobby.”16 And the most knowledgeable Polish economists I spoke to, in and out of the government, point out that the reforms are disturbingly similar to those that have been introduced gradually in Hungary with poor results, primarily because they preserved the essential features of a command economy. In particular, the Polish reforms, closely analyzed, still place heavy emphasis on heavy industry rather than on measures that would create a genuine consumer market. They do nothing to cut back on monstrous and inefficient projects for mines and steel plants that should be abandoned. They rely too much on sharp price increases that consumers will bitterly resent, since the increases will be imposed on food and other basic retail goods rather than on capital and luxury goods. Many of the bureaucrats responsible for designing (and then canceling) the original reforms should be in any case dismissed, instead of being allowed to hold on to their cushy jobs.

When I mentioned these criticisms to Professor Sadowski—vice premier and head of the government planning commission—he said that yes, there should be more investment in consumer industries, obsolete mines should be closed, and the miserable housing situation should be improved. But the process of reform would be so “difficult and slow,” he said, that it would take fifteen years.

“What a disastrous position,” one of the most brilliant of the independent economists told me when he heard this. It was bound to lead to spiraling inflation and rising unrest. “Sadowski is hostage to the officials in the planning commission—they have always doggedly resisted any change that will break the power of the nomenklatura.”

This brings me to the second and perhaps most important criticism—the lack of any genuine consultation with professional economists and public figures enjoying (unlike the government) a degree of public confidence. A distinguished economist who works for the Consultative Economic Council (KRG), Professor Leszek Zienkowski, told me, for instance, that Sadowski had failed to consult with the council—even though until recently he had headed it himself. The chief economist of the official union organization (OPZZ) had similar complaints. The government just ignored the union’s criticisms, for example, of the absurd and punitive system by which wages are tied to profits of state industries, which can be subject to taxes of 500 percent if they exceed the centrally planned limit on profit by 12 percent. “We want a system of collective bargaining,” Leon Podkaminer said, “but they won’t listen to us, and we’re going to battle these bureaucrats until we win.”17

“Until we win.” But will they? Or will the government go on setting up one structure after another—such as the Consultative Council or similar bodies on the regional level—with no decision-making rights whatever? Can some arrangements be made, however informal, that would allow the government and its critics to work together on new policies? 18

No doubt Poland has become more liberal over the last year. The relaxation of censorship (with newspapers allowed to bring censorship cases to court—and often winning them) has encouraged thoughtful economic and social proposals to come from scholars, economists, organizations, and journals independent of the state or Church. Liberalization leads to more and more criticism and rising expectations that something will happen to change a cumbersome system that has stifled Polish life and caused so much misery. “The habits and ingrained practices of these disastrous decades must be unlearned if we are to make any progress,” my writer friend said, “mainly the habits of the government but also those of the opposition. If this doesn’t happen, the price that the entire country will pay is too grim to contemplate.”

January 16, 1988

This Issue

February 18, 1988