Tadeusz Kowalik, From Solidarity to Sellout: The Restoration of Capitalism in Poland (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012)

Professor Tadeusz Kowalik (1926-2012) was one of the few Polish economists who consistently criticized Poland’s transformation to a market economy for failing to satisfy the material and social needs of the majority of the population. From Solidarity to Sellout presents a compilation of Kowalik’s writings on the subject over the past twenty years. As one of the leading intellectuals who supported the Polish working-class movement since the ‘70s (especially during the Solidarity period), the author has an extensive knowledge of both the economic debate and the political meandering that took place in Poland after 1989. In his book he focuses in particular on the so-called Balcerowicz Plan and the ensuing transformation of ownership. (Leszek Balcerowicz, a leading Polish economist and Minister of Finance in the government of Tadeusz Mazowiecki (1989-90), is widely considered the architect of the Polish “jump into the market” strategy.)

The author’s professional condemnation of the social injustice resulting from “shock therapy” is closely related to his personal grief over lost opportunities and the part Polish intellectuals played in bringing negative changes. In his opinion, Solidarity, as “the largest worker movement that twentieth-century Europe experienced” (13), provided Poland with an unprecedented and unrealized chance to create a modern and just society. This assessment of Solidarity determines the scope of the author’s analysis, although his focus is more on micro-political events and debates than on macro social and economic processes or global strategies.

Post-1989 Poland appears as a land open to any economic experiments, except, of course, the communist model. The key positions of power were taken by humanitarian intellectuals, later in alliance with the new technocratic-managerial elites (290). Those intellectuals had good intentions, but lacked knowledge and experience in political and business matters. Their good intentions are compared to those of Margaret Thatcher, who “saw no possibility of guiding Great Britain onto the path of more rapid growth without breaking the resistance of the miners” (278). Even if we assume that rapid growth of the national economy was indeed the main goal of both Thatcher and Poland’s first post-1989 government, she did not come to power as a former coal miner union organizer. The tragedy of many Solidarity intellectuals (Jacek Kuron being probably the best example here) stems from the fact that for a variety of reasons, consciously or not, they participated in the destruction of a social movement that they helped to create and which brought them to power. They watched as the workers who had fought in coal mines and shipyards to bring down the nomenklatura of “real socialism,” fell from the position of the most privileged part of the Polish working class to that of the unemployed and destitute.

In the ongoing debate over what determined the specific character of transformation in various post-communist countries, it is difficult to ignore that Poland, with its strategic position and population of 38 million, was faced with very different options than Slovenia, or even Hungary. That’s why certain comments of the author about his former colleagues – “Mazowiecki did not anticipate”; “Kuron was enchanted with Sachs” and even “Sachs didn’t realize” or Kwasniewski “was no wiser earlier” – can be ascribed only to his faith in human nature. Certainly, many of the new leaders were not economists and therefore did not fully understand the pitfalls of the “shock therapy” they set in motion. Others considered its tragic social consequences a necessary evil and the inevitable price for economic transformation. It is also true that every sweeping systemic change brings unpredictable and often chaotic phenomena that are difficult to control. However, more than twenty years later it is easy to see that the Polish transformation, while disastrous for some social groups, was quite profitable for other players (both local and foreign).

Some of the Polish reviewers of Kowalik’s work (like Ryszard Bugaj) objected to the way he overestimates the real influence of the central government and underestimates the spontaneous mechanisms occurring during the transformation process. However, a case can be made that Kowalik underestimates as well the deeper socio-economic and political changes that were taking place in the Soviet bloc prior to its disintegration, as well as the fact that they did not occur in a geopolitical vacuum. His approach limits his analysis of the “enfranchisement of the nomenklatura” and of “corruption-clientelism” in Poland. Even talking about the Soviet Union, Kowalik states that it was Gorbachev’s glasnost that “aroused the hostility of the corrupt apparatchiks who were scared to death of the criticism and in consequence launched an uncontrolled process that ultimately led to the disintegration of the USSR and the breakdown of the system” (29). In reference to Poland, he talks about “wild” or “uncontrolled” privatization, while at the same time delineating a quite “tame” and “controlled” sell-out of state assets, with the best enterprises bought by foreign capital (243).

One can only wish that the author had had more time to write on this subject, as well as to elaborate on some of his more alarming statements. He writes about falling wages, growing unemployment and the breakdown of social services: “Poland has created one of the most unjust social and economic systems of the second half of the XX century” (290). As true as this statement may be if one bases the analysis on selected official statistical data, any astute observer of Poland during the most austere years before and after 1989 can attest that this evaluation is only a small part of the story about a society that through centuries of mistrusting successive governments (be they native or foreign) developed a very sophisticated alternative system: the unofficial economy, mutual help and self-reliance.

There is no denying the gravity of the social problems in today’s Poland, and Kowalik’s presentation of the dramatic fate of state-farm employees (226-32) is one of the most disturbing parts of his book. Again one wishes he had had time for a more in-depth analysis of the history of a social group that has been marginalized in Poland for generations (before WWII as farm hands on huge estates, and in socialist Poland as state laborers among private farmers). No wonder this was a group destined to be marginalized also in the new market economy, where it became an army of permanently unemployed. It is interesting that the author, who himself was born in a small village, pays relatively little attention to the problems of Polish agriculture. The peasants formed 60% of the Polish population after WWII, and although now the number is smaller, the population of the countryside (both peasant and non-peasant) is growing: from 38% in 2000 to 39.3% in 2011, according to recent statistics. It is difficult to talk about the social costs of the overall Polish transformation while ignoring the stabilizing role of agriculture based predominantly on small farms and often ingeniously self-reliant. Communal solidarity in the midst of a free market economy provides a protective cushion in an economy plagued by unemployment and the breakdown of social services.

One also wishes that the author were still with us to further develop his ideas on the future of the European Union and globalization (ch. 14). The recent financial crisis only amplifies his call for a diversity of solutions. How can we avoid totalitarian globalization, promote small enterprises, and preserve traditional cultural values? Kovalik suggests that we need more analysis of the distribution of property rights and the transformation of “employee companies,” in particular, the experience of the Polish cooperative movement (which had to fight the state in the past and privatization in the present).

The last, more theoretical part of the book may prove to be the most accessible and interesting to readers who are not students of the Polish economy. Kowalik argues against the terror of generalized notions, such as market, state or globalization, which he calls “prisons of thought.” He is a strong proponent of systemic diversity, both among the members of the European Union and in terms of solutions applied in individual states, especially as to various coexisting forms of ownership. Considering social justice the ultimate goal of a successful economic transformation, Kowalik reiterates the values he deems the most important: cooperation, participation and solidarity.

For experts, the book provides a detailed record of economic debates after 1989, which often seem to have been written for specialized Polish publications, and is therefore so peppered with names and references obscure to non-Polish readers, that one wishes for more editorial input. A stronger editorial hand would also have helped to eliminate the occasional lapses in what is, overall, a decent translation.1 Some more blatant editorial mishaps stem from the fact that the book is based on numerous previous publications, resulting in unavoidable repetitions. And so, the same quote from L. Beskid refers in one place to Poland implementing “one of the most elitist models of income divisions” (268) and in another place (287) to its imposing “the most elitist model of income distribution.” The second version is more faithful to the original. Unfortunately this is not always easy to check, as in the case of a whole paragraph that appears first on pp. 249-50, and then pp. 320-21. The latter is also the concluding paragraph of the book, where Kowalik presents Scandinavian countries as a possible model to follow. One would like to know if he refers to them as the “most modern dynamic economies” (249) or as the “most dynamic modern economies” (321).

A very helpful chronology on pp. 323-25 could have been more detailed for non-expert readers, especially considering the complexity of the book’s content. Still, Kowalik’s work provides a rich source of research material for all interested in the nuances of the Polish transformation, as seen by an economist with a social conscience (which in these days has become almost an oxymoron). It is also invaluable to those readers, including this reviewer, who are interested in the evolution of the consciousness of the Polish intelligentsia, a social group whose members so often have to deal with being both the perpetrators and the victims of historical events.

Reviewed by Ludmila Melchior-Yahil
Stony Brook, New York
Ludmila.Yahil@gmail.com

Note

1. For example, it’s not clear what the author has in mind when, referring to his high ranking by a business newspaper on the most-quoted list, he says, “And in the commentary to this ranking, described as the only socialist among well-known Polish economists, which is stated as a matter of fact and without putting any blame on me for this” (8). Or, discussing problems of Polish agriculture, when he says, “For a long time among agricultural specialists there had also existed the tradition of family farms” (228). Or what David Ost thinks about being described in these words, “…although he has left-wing views, he decided, in a way, to set them aside and look at the systemic changes in the post-communist countries…”

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