The Economic Transition and Its Critics

The last quarter of the century in Central Europe is one of the most spectacular examples of triumph of idea over matter. It was made possible because the elites recognized reforms as their historic mission.

The criticism of the economic transition, or rather of the “betrayal of the intellectuals” who underwrote the so-called “Balcerowicz plan,” leading Poland from socialism to capitalism, has for years been the most important weapon in the ideological arsenal of the Polish new left. It is this—formerly rather marginal—description that set the tone of the debates on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the transition. In the so-called “important texts” and “important interviews” leading Polish intellectuals were beating their breasts and castigating the reforms programme which they had supported until recently.

Two things are of note about the left-wing criticism of the transition. First, it stems from a misunderstanding. Second, the issue of the transition is just a pretext for left-wing criticism.

The democratic changes in Poland are based on the myth of a voluntary and peaceful transfer of power. But the actual process was completely different. The Communists wanted to make the opposition co-responsible. The opposition wanted political legitimacy without losing social legitimacy. The Round Table agreements were invalidated one day after the elections and most of them were immediately forgotten. But it was the Round Table, rather than the 4th July 1989 elections, that remained the symbol of the new reality; the founding myth of the Third Polish Republic.

The opposition elites made two fundamental decisions. First, they opted for building capitalism in Poland, a system which they had neither wanted nor understood earlier. Second, they decided that the new Poland should be created in cooperation, rather than in conflict, with the former regime, marginalising the so-called “independence” communities, which wanted representatives of the former regime to be brought to justice. It meant in practice that the “Solidarity” government would not build political capital on radical settling of accounts with people responsible for the crisis with which the government had to deal. It is no accident that in the eye of his critics the famous “thick line,” intended as absolving Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government from responsibility for errors and distortions of the previous system, became a symbol of his agreement with the people of the former regime.

The criticism of the changes in Poland after the fall of Communism is the result of a misunderstanding. A misunderstanding which is to a large degree deliberate. Its critics regard the Polish transition a well thought-out and organised process. Should the reforms be considered as a final result of necessity, accident and determination in rescuing the economy from bankruptcy, both the merits and the faults of the reformers would be much smaller. According to the dominant narrative there were several variants to choose from and the most radical one was selected.

This is a myth which has very little in common with reality. The opposition took power against its own will, being quite unprepared for this task. If it did not, the policy of the declining Communist system would probably have led to a dramatic crisis and it is possible that the Romanian scenario would have been realised in Poland. The fact that “Solidarity” took the most difficult decisions upon itself meant that instead of a revolutionary way we chose an evolutionary path, with all its consequences. In the social perception the authors of the reforms carried full responsibility for their shape and course. They paid for it with their political careers. Opponents of the reforms became their beneficiaries. It was the firefighters rather than the arsonists which were made responsible for the fire.

The criticism of the transition and the triumph of the left-wing discourse in Poland cannot be understood without comprehending the global context. The Left, recovering after the disaster which was the end of Marxism as an idea and Socialism as praxis, was unable to create a positive language. But it received a present in the form of the crisis. It turned out that even the Federal Reserve, the global financial giants and the US government could not break the rules governing the market without consequences. The costs were transferred on the citizens. Risky investments of some led to a debt spiral for everyone. Liberalism was unable to credibly explain the crisis. In the general awareness the crisis was regarded as a proof of capitalism’s failure rather than of universality of its principles.

Intellectual fashions often reach peripheral countries with some delay. The economic crisis led to a change of paradigm all over the world. In Poland the trial of the transition is in fact a poorly disguised divorce with “neo-liberalism.”

Neoliberalism is a concept, at least in our region, which has little to say about what it describes. This is an ideological label, an expression of intellectual disregard. A neoliberal is a shield you hang on your enemy, making him easier to hit. It means a person lacking social sensitivity, defending banks and great capital at the expense of the poor. Talking to a “neoliberal” does not make sense, for you know he has just one answer to everything: “The market.”

This stereotype, like any stereotype, is unjust. But as in every stereotype there is also a lot of truth in it. In the 1990s and later, basically up to the crisis, the Washington Consensus and the resulting consequences for the economy were something which you did not dispute. People with different views on the functioning of the economy met—at best—with disdain. Radical critique of the transition and settling accounts with “neoliberalism” is revenge, a retaliation for the period of exclusion. It is left-wing sails that get the wind today. It is in the leftist language that you can sense the triumphant spirit of history. The undecided gather under the banner of winners. A “neoliberal” replaced a “leftist” in the role of a bit ridiculous and certainly anachronistic freak.

The Polish left makes many charges against the Polish elites from the transition period. These can be largely reduced to the claim that their own interest and intellectual provincialism made them victims of a “neoliberal bite,” from which they (thankfully) have begun to recover in recent years during the economic crisis. The New Left has for years complained about the symbolic violence of the “neoliberal discourse” and today it is itself the beneficiary of an intellectual fashion which asks you to indiscriminately condemn capitalism and reforms from the 1990s.

The left turns the belief in capitalism—in the early stages of the transition proffered by the Polish elites and largely shared by the masses, which were going hungry after the years of shortages under the so-called “real socialism”—into an accusation. The question is: on what native social and cultural capital were we supposed to build liberal democracy 25 years ago? The Polish People’s Republic (PRL), the only country known to most Poles, was going bankrupt in front of our eyes. The interwar period was a very ambiguous model, the Partitions period even more so. Of all forms of statehood we were the most successful in running the underground state.

Added to that is the post-feudal social structure, shaken insufficiently by the interwar Second Republic to be then brutally (but effectively) torn by the war, Stalinism and real socialism. These processes created a kind of internal wandering of the peoples (both geographic and on the social ladder), but also severed the institutional memory. They destroyed communities and structures on which a modern state can be based.

In 1989 we had a society exhausted by the PRL, opposition elites without any experience in governing the country, discredited-but-experienced (although not in a democratic and capitalist system) party and official apparatus, and a completely ineffective economy, which functioned in a domain of fiction decreed at the planner’s desktop. Is this the cultural capital which we were supposed to build on? Was this to be the foundation for the emergent Third Polish Republic?

Besides this faith in liberal democracy and the free market, the hope that it would be better (or rather that it could not get any worse) and a huge determination, we had nothing. If we believed the new left and based our transition on our own social and cultural capital, rather than on the trends from the liberal centre, we would have found ourselves somewhere between Mečiar’s Slovakia and the Ukraine or Georgia from before the coloured revolutions. It would perhaps be a writer’s paradise for Andrzej Stasiuk and Ziemowit Szczerek, but its inhabitants would live in a black hole, a land of impossibility.

The Poles crossed the Red Sea of transition because they believed the elites, which were saying that on the other side there was some shore. A shore of stability and prosperity. We were building castles in the clouds on the faith in a capitalist and democratic future. We owed it to a favourable geopolitical situation, but to a large extent also to the democratic elites, which first refused to acknowledge that the Communist system could not be beaten, or that in Poland you could not concurrently build a functioning liberal democracy and capitalism.

The transition in Central Europe is one of the most spectacular examples of the triumph of an idea (some would say that of mind) over matter. It was possible also because the elites regarded the reforms as their historic mission.

Contrary to what the left is imputing to them, the reformers did not represent rich Poland fighting against poor Poland, but a silent Poland clashing with a Poland of loudmouths. They articulated what Polish intelligentsia had always regarded as its mission, namely caring for the good of the entire nation as they understood it rather than for particular interests of their own class. Groups of interests in our region thrived on the policy of the post-communists, who were in mortal fear of any reforms. This did not improve the situation of the most vulnerable and wasted many years of an economic boom.

The greatest failure of the transition is that it did not bring up a generation of citizens who would enforce changes after the modernising enthusiasm of the elites waned. The greatest threat is not the middle income trap, but the middling enthusiasm trap, that is the unwillingness of the rulers to take up the challenges of the future. We have a stable situation, a developing society and economy, and growing resources, but there is a shortage of people who would be able to use this all properly and prepare us for worse times. And such times will certainly come, if not for geopolitical than for demographic reasons.

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