The political transition in 1989 and 1990 marked a profound break for the heretofore Soviet-style state socialist countries: the round-table discussions in the Polish spring of 1989, the peaceful revolution in the GDR in the autumn of the same year, and the so-called Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic were all events that immediately entered the history books. By contrast, the social transformation that gripped these countries had an ambiguous beginning, which had already set in unnoticed before the political transition took place; its outcome, too, remains open-ended.
Joanna Gwiazdecka works as Head of Office at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Regional Office for Czechia, Slovakia, and Hungary in Prague.
People often talk about the political transition and the subsequent social transformation as if they are the same thing, but these terms actually refer to two entirely different phenomena which are closely interrelated. The transition was a process in which increasingly powerful social movements suddenly reached a point where the spark jumped, fundamentally altering the political landscape. Transformation, by contrast, describes a juridical and economic process, dominated by politics, and in which society was entirely restructured.
This problem of nomenclature explains why the debate in the Czech Republic, for example, has become increasingly polarized in recent months, as representatives of two generations with different life experiences argue over the past. The generation that experienced and helped to shape the political transition perceives it as including the subsequent massive process of transformation, which for many of them continues to represent a sort of final liberation from the previous system. Those who participated in the democratic opposition to state socialism tend to paint their past and present experiences in black and white, leaving little room for nuance. Things appear otherwise to the younger generation, most of whom did not experience the transition first-hand, or only from the perspective of people who were just growing up; subsequently, however, they became witnesses to if not active participants in the social transformation that followed. For these younger people, both the world of the past and the contemporary world are full of ambiguity and shades of grey. They may not even find the spark of the transition particularly electrifying any more.
The people in the societies that would undergo post-socialist transformation had only vague ideas about what awaited them. Their expectations mainly derived from their experiences with the previous political system. For them, “transformation” meant that everything they had been fighting for, striking for, and arguing over for years was going to become reality at last. One might even venture the thesis that a great many people somewhat naively imagined the new social order as a form of democratic socialism, with full civil liberties, and as a veritable consumer paradise to which all would have equal access. On the basis of these hopes, reforms were enthusiastically welcomed by many and enjoyed widespread support. However, the transformation rapidly developed its own logic, partly based on democratic principles, but also oriented towards a rigid form of neoliberalism.
At the time, particular emphasis was placed on the relationship between the recently won political freedoms and the free market. The ideological drivers of the transformation never tired of repeating that democracy and the free market were complementary, mutually necessary pillars of the new order. If democracy was to prevail, free-market principles would also have to become dogma. Anyone who expressed doubt about the neoliberal approach was portrayed as an enemy of democracy and often swiftly denounced as a “communist” motivated solely by the desire to subjugate society anew.
In Poland, a frenzied whirlwind of privatization took place overnight. Buyers for the state-owned enterprises had to be found by any means necessary. In this process, capital was largely represented in the public sphere as a shy, timid beast, one picky enough to carefully consider where it was going to place its hoof next. Instead, in a prodigious process of restructuring, capital cleaned up. The fervent belief that the free market could and would regulate everything was soon shattered, and turned out to have been a political fallacy with the gravest of consequences. Many enterprises were sold and sold again before finally going bankrupt, along with their staff. The investors followed the harsh rules of the market economy and played for fast returns. The frequently saw themselves as bearing no responsibility for the social consequences of their actions, especially with regards to the employees of the enterprises they preyed upon.
Apparently unaffected by these developments, the new order’s ideologues continued to insist that the invisible hand of the market would eventually settle everything, that more economic freedom and more capital would also improve the situation of the majority of people. The beginning might be painful, so the story went, but in the end the countries undergoing reform would achieve a level of economic and social development comparable with the wealthy West. As long as the economy functioned properly and generated enough profit then everyone would eventually get their slice of the pie.
Among the chief victims of this process were the state-owned agricultural companies, ruthlessly dissolved in the course of the changes. Overnight, thousands of workers lost their jobs, with no prospects for future employment. Privatizations were connected with numerous financial scandals. The structures set up to carry this process through were a total failure in social terms.
A bizarre rhetoric accompanied the rising numbers of unemployed: the proponents of neoliberalism began to talk about “learned helplessness”. That there so many socially vulnerable people could be blamed on the previous system; egalitarian social benefits had had a demoralizing effect. “Socialist man” had grown accustomed to being given everything for free, with no expectation of reasonable reciprocity; he was now incapable of adopting the requisite entrepreneurial attitude. Figuratively speaking, such people needed to be taught to fish, rather than simply handed the catch. They needed to be educated and toughened up. According to this logic, when someone becomes unemployed, they only have themselves to blame; they have failed to make the necessary efforts to exploit the opportunities of the free market, which are democratically open to all.
Jacek Kurón, then Polish minister for labour and social affairs, opposed this rhetoric assault on the unemployed. As one of the most recognizable figures from the former democratic opposition, he enjoyed a good reputation among broad swathes of Polish society, which he used to advocate for a new social policy. The parliament passed an amendment to the law to combat the effects of unemployment, creating a system of unemployment insurance. Kurón became one of the most well-liked politicians in Poland, especially because of his efforts to publicly comment on and explain the changes and the political steps being taken by successive governments to which he belonged as a minister. He sought to initiate social dialogue about the most pressing issues. His commitment to various social projects was well known—public hot meals programmes for the unemployed and impoverished, for example. His political work gave an orientation to social policy in Poland that is still relevant today.
One of the reasons the efforts of left-wing forces in Poland have been mostly unsuccessful for so many years can also be found in the extent to which Kuroń’s legacy has been neglected. As a rule, left-oriented parties have given a wide berth to any issue that would offer their opponents the opportunity to discredit them as nostalgics and stewards of the old regime. Left-wing parties have thus often tried to seem as modern and progressive as possible—which in this case has meant going out of their way to promote the economy, privatization, capital, and rapid development. Social issues were hastily dismissed as remnants of a backward and obstructive socialism. Even the catastrophes of post-socialist transformation were time and again exclusively blamed on the previous system.
Karol Modzelewski is another figure who placed his stamp on the period of transformation. He shares with Jacek Kurón a common political history that saw both of them imprisoned in the 1960s. Modzelewski became a well-known critic of Poland’s post-socialist neoliberal direction, and ended up pointing out that he did not spend eight and a half years in prison in order to build capitalism. He criticized a phenomenon that was only given a name more recently—austerity. One of the brains behind Poland’s economic reforms, Leszek Balcerowicz, advocated a particularly hard neoliberal line. Inflation was successfully suppressed, companies privatized, property and capital given special status. Nothing was to resemble the old system. There was no talk of the costs involved, however, and nobody asked who was actually going to foot the bill.
In January 1990, official figures put unemployment in Poland at just 0.3 percent. In December 1990 it had already risen to 6.5 percent, and by the time Poland entered the European Union in May 2004 it had reached more than 20 percent. The consolation for this was supposed to be the EU internal market’s capacity to sufficiently soak up Polish labour. As Germany and Austria had just closed their internal markets for seven years (incidentally, a policy that was supported by those countries’ trade unions), Great Britain, Ireland, and Spain eventually became the preferred EU countries in which Polish people, mostly young, went to seek work. When it comes to discussions of EU solidarity today, the memory of this experience is also present. In autumn 2017, official unemployment in Poland was at 6.8 percent—that is, it had shrunk to 1990 levels. It is currently continuing to fall, although figures reflecting the impact of the coronavirus pandemic are not yet available.
The dissolution of the state-owned agricultural enterprises and companies based in the smaller cities led Poland to a situation that remains a key factor behind the tangled, complex relationship between the prosperous major cities and the rest of the country. The countryside is undoubtedly more conservative, in almost every respect. People in the rural regions are utterly sceptical towards solutions that originate in the capital and other metropolitan milieus. Although prosperity in the countryside has also grown, one experience still weighs very heavily: the prospects for local development are still sorely lacking, and as before, people are forced to emigrate or move to the big cities.
The political transition in East-Central Europe was an immense democratic insurgency. The transformation, on the contrary, was accompanied in many quarters by the naive hope that the level of the developed West could be reached in the blink of an eye, or at least within a few decades. No doubt people are wiser now. The various reactions to this knowledge are diametrically opposed. Once again left-wing forces are required. For their action to be effective, however, the transformation period needs to be worked through and processed with a critical eye. It cannot be left to bask in the seductive gleam of the political transition.