TST, Vol. 2, No. 5-6/1994

Book Reviews


At the end of the 1980`s Poland was challenged by an important and radical task: How to make revolutionary changes in the institutional and social systems of that country, and transform its totalitarian political and centrally planned economic systems without bloody battles with its longtime communist rulers. Until then, there was no historical example that could be taken as a guide for such transformation. Even though some analogies can be drawn with such countries as Taiwan in the 1960`s, Spain during the 1970`s or recently Mexico, those countries did not have to redirect their political and economic systems simultaneously.

The difficulties in both politics and economy inherited in 1989 by the Solidarity government from the communist past were burdensome. In addition there were insufficient specialists and professionals who knew the market-oriented system and the psychological flaws imposed on people's minds during the communist rule that perverted their attitude toward some social issues as well as work, and which apparently are felt by many people as a decay of their self-respect. And there was a social identity crisis that arose among those who for a long time identified themselves in various relations to the communist system.

And there was also a strong popular belief that the Soviet Union would not allow Poland or any other country in this region to free itself from the Soviet communist puppet domination. It was stated very stubbornly by a prominent Polish communist, Jakub Berman, during an interview in the early 1980`s, when he said that:

"Poland can't be uprooted from the Soviet block. So the objective reality is this: either America succeeds in building up enough ferment here to overthrow us, whereupon intervention will naturally ensue because the overriding interests of the Soviet Union require it, and there will be so much bloodshed that all the nation will be drained of blood, or a Third World War will break out"

Nevertheless, soon in 1989 there was in Poland the unwritten Roundtable agreement between Solidarity and the communist rulers, and the first semifree election took placeall without Soviet invasion and blood, or a Third World War. After many dark long years since the German and Soviet attack on Poland in September 1939, and the then so-called liberation by the Soviet Army and the ferocious, bloody secret police NKVD in 194445, Poland could regain its political freedom and start to become a free and independent nation once more. Only then could the transition of the Polish society from communist political and economical detriment to free market economy begin. The changes in Poland gave also a signal for the beginning of liberation of the whole of Central and Eastern Europe from the Soviet imperial oppression and domination.

Poland became, therefore, the first post-communist country to reverse its centrally planned economy into a market-oriented economy and proceed with the privatization of many of its state-owned enterprises. The new government undertook massive positive changes, and the "shock therapy" reform program was launched in January of 1990. Even though it brought huge unemployment and hence severe austerity to the poorest groups and those people who could not find their way into the new labor marketthe society as a whole in 1989, 1990 and 1991 accepted the ongoing changes and voted overwhelmingly for Solidarity candidates.

Only later after the economic crisis in 1992, during the parliamentary election in September 1993, voters were confused by the crisis, as well as by some primitive if not simply suicidally stupid politicians from the right. Some of them encouraged by false economical promises of the former communist coalition, gave the so-called Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) 20% of votes which gave it 37% of the seats in the Polish Parliament (Sejm) and the ability to form a government with a former communist satellite, the Peasant Party (PSL), with its 15% of votes and 29% of the seats. But this episode of the transition could not, of course, be included in Richard F. Staar's book published before the election took place.

Even if politically Poland has not yet perfectly defined all its democratic institutions necessary for a parliamentary democracy, the essays in this book show that it has already created a kind of balancing system that helps to stabilize some too ambitious politicians, even though some would like to feel that the present system does not satisfy everyone nor even any of the political institutions in the present power struggle. The last election made very visible a demand for more politicians able to collaborate with others with coalition-building skills and less personal ambition, but such skills will develop among politicians as the present members of the Sejm and office seekers gain more experience in performing in a democratic system. Raymond Taras in an essay in this book called "Voters, Parties, and Leaders," underscores that: "Noncooperation can also be interpreted as a rational strategy in a period of transition. Polish political fragmentation may be reviewed through the prism of the prisoners' dilemma."

The Transition to Democracy in Poland is a consequential collection of essays which explore the political and economic events of Poland from 1989 until the middle of 1993: the constitutional reforms; the political parties and their alignment, programs and leaders; the results of the elections; the interaction between the new political and economic systems; the impact of market forces on product and the labor market, as well as issues associated with national security concerns. It is a book for everybody who wants to learn about the hardships of the transition from a communist driven society into a democratic one, and in a way that no country has gone before.

Moreover, Transition to Democracy in Poland deals with many other problems that the new democratic elite plunge into on the route toward democracy in Poland. In this book a team of American scholars and experts who have done on-site research in Poland, as well as some Polish authors and experts who had firsthand experience at the university or in government agencies, analyze Poland's experiment in democratization. In this valuable volume knowledgeable scholars assess the transition process and examine the undertaken changes in Poland and the work of its newly created democratic institutions.

This insightful book illuminates, defines and helps to understand the burden of the social, political and economic problems that Poland has been facing since its last national upheaval in 1989 against the domination of the Soviets and their Polish puppets.

"It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either," Mark Twain once wrote sarcastically. In Poland under communist rule there was no freedom at all. And now it may be a wish of many Poles to create such institutions on the Polish road toward democracy that would give them all the precious things mentioned by Twain as they are understood in the Constitution of the United States.

Andrzej M. Salski

TST, Vol. 2, No. 5-6/1994

The Summit Times

Copyright 1996 by Andrzej M. Salski