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An observer’s account of the transition from Stalinism to Western capitalism in Poland shows the horror at the social consequences, but lacks clarity in its analysis, argues Richard Allday

Tadeusz Kowalik, From Solidarity to Sellout: the restoration of capitalism in Poland (Monthly Review Press 2012), 270pp.

A dense, closely-packed volume of reminiscence and analysis from one of the key players in the debate on the way forward for Poland following the demise of the Stalinist empire should provide insight and clarification for the reader. Unfortunately, having struggled with this book over many weeks, I cannot say I gained either.

In fairness to the author, my frustration may be partly cultural; the book is a translation from the Polish original, is an intensely personal construction, and inevitably appears to be aimed at an audience whose intimate knowledge of contemporary economics, and recent Polish history, the author takes for granted. Whether the difficulty I experienced is partly down to the translation, or my ignorance, or my inability to transfer from my cultural referential to a Polish template, the fact remains that the book is extremely hard to read. The above apologies accepted, it remains true that the ideological, political, social and economic analysis offered by Mr. Kowalik is frustrating in its lack of clarity.

Very early on (in his introduction), the author makes absolutely clear his horror at the social consequences of Poland’s turn to free market, neo-liberal economics, and there is no doubt he detests the human cost of this. His illustrative story of the ‘kaszana’ graffiti throughout Poland’s towns stands witness to his emotional identification with the casualties of this process. Yet remarkably for one who was so closely involved with the tumultuous social upheaval that was Solidarność, he appears unable to break away from the (doubtless comforting) notion that there is a solution available that transcends class division, that rests on a rational debate among reasonable human beings.

Indeed, this seems to me to be the central problem of the book: having no clear theoretical framework from which to launch a radical critique, he continually falls back on (undoubtedly genuine) moral outrage as a substitute for analysis. Thus, his opening chapter is titled: ‘The collapse of “really existing socialism” ’, but the use of quotation marks round “really existing socialism” suggesting a degree of scepticism as to its validity as a descriptive term. However, he later provides a tighter definition, ‘the revolutionary terror of Lenin and Trotsky gave way to blind Stalinist terror, which applied the Soviet type of Marxism to legitimise the system (later, during Brezhnev’s times, called “really existing socialism”)’ (p.25).

He goes on to say that ‘many socialists, Trotskyites, and social democrats have denied that this formation had any socialist character, going so far as to say that this was distorted or degenerated socialism’. While I might object to ‘Trotskyites’ and social democrats being lumped together as sharing a common analysis, I object more strongly to the self-evident incoherence of a statement that can claim at one and the same time that someone denies a quality to anything, and then defines it precisely as a qualified version of the quality that is denied. If a social formation has no ‘socialist character’, it has no ‘socialist character’; if it is a ‘deformed’ or ‘degenerated’ form of socialism, then it has a ‘socialist character’ that is deformed or degenerated. This unfortunately is an example of the theoretical, and analytical, incoherence that runs right through this book.

If you are looking for a detailed and personal account of how one leading player perceived the immiseration of the Polish working class, there is a lot of value in this book. In many ways, it is a gold-mine. But like most gold-mines, there is an awful lot of detritus and waste to be removed before you get to the nuggets, and you will have to decide whether the size of the nuggets is worth the effort.

However, in fairness to an author who is clearly repelled by the brutal reality of modern Poland, every now and then he provides statements that sum up why he is so angry: quoting Jacek Kuron, from his vitriolic assessment of the transition to neo-liberalism, ‘Seven Years, or Who Stole Poland’, ‘… these were the beginnings of the gigantic transfer of wealth that took place literally before our eyes. Together with the slogan ‘get rich’ and its general turmoil, wild privatisation was unleashed. It will probably never be possible to count how much money was lost by various state enterprises whose bosses entered into contracts with nomenklatura companies of acquaintance [sic], bringing losses to the enterprises but immense fortunes to the companies … Fraud was evident but the law turned out to be helpless here’ (p.53).

Or, again from Kuron, commenting on the corruption attendant on the formation of the first non-communist administration: ‘The Polish middle class emerging from the first version of post-communist capitalism did not gain its position through the free market. For a great portion – or at any rate for those who acquired great fortunes - it was not the free market that turned out to be the most important, but pocket diaries. And so if this group is in fact defending anything, it is these pocket diaries - the connections, quotas, government orders, limits, customs barriers, monopolies, thanks to which it gained its current position’ (pp.53-4).

In truth, Kowalik is aware that the project he welcomed so enthusiastically two decades ago has proved more toxic than he envisaged, or would have sanctioned; and he makes no attempt to shuffle off the responsibility onto others, and to evade it himself. Talking of the mass unemployment (and consequent mass emigration) resulting from the uncritical adoption of free market economics, he comments: ‘How is it possible that any political formation – left, right, or central – can come up with the idea of projecting unemployment at such a high level, for such a long time? … And yet nobody protested? Nobody was indignant? Nobody pointed out the many pathologies that could easily be inferred from making such an idea real? In some ways, this weighs hard on everyone involved in the changes (including the author of these words)’ (p.235).

Time and again though, the author seems to recoil from accepting there may be a basic class antagonism at work here. Referring to the blokersi (a violent, nationalist, youth sub-culture in pre-fab housing schemes), he quotes approvingly a teacher who intervened in the public polemic, saying that he does not agree that ‘those who manifest this dissatisfaction are “bums and derelicts” and goes on to provide an analysis that could as easily have appeared (and been as relevant) in the public discourse in Britain after the riots of last summer. It is a wonderfully clear indictment of the failure of laissez-faire politics. And it ends with this:

‘Among the many kinds of writing on the walls of our towns there is the word “Kaszana” [blood sausage] or “kaszana forever”. One of my students … explained to me its meaning. Society is divided into two groups; for some there are elegant cars, villas, and ham; for others tramways, prefab housing and blood sausage. Kaszana. Kaszana forever’ (p.282).

It is a sad reflection of this book that the most insightful passages are those where the author cites others. Sometimes objecting to brutality is not enough. One needs to offer an alternative. I am sick of kaszana.  I want ham. But Tadeusz Kowalik seems to accept there is only so much ham to go round. Perhaps we should take the butcher’s knives into our own hands?

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