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What makes Poland a post-communist country?

To a western ear there is presumably nothing ambiguous about the term post-communism. It seems to be merely descriptive, referring to the realities of countries which only 20 years ago lived under the political and socio-economical system known as ‘real socialism’. In the last decades, those countries are believed to have been undergoing the process of structural social, economic and political change, usually referred to as ‘transition’. At first glance, one can see that both terms suffer from being too vast in order to provide a good ground for further investigation. They embrace very heterogeneous realities, histories and perspectives. What cognitive use can we make of a term such as post-communism, applicable both to Slovenia and Mongolia? Analogically, in what way can transition explain the dynamics of social processes in those states? But one could also argue that this kind of vagueness is (to some extent) ineluctable in the description of social realities.

Our problem here, however, is quite different. What we want to point at are the power relations that are at stake within the concept of post-communism, and in the relation towards its outside. It seems clear in the Polish case that this very concept is in a pivotal position towards a larger discourse that is organizing and legitimizing the gargantuan transformation we have witnessed. Post-communism has become a catch-all term, just as many other concepts like world terrorism, crime and disorder, security, globalization, etc. And even if such concepts fail to grasp the complexity of social realities, up to a point where it becomes hard to consider them scientific, their performative potential is non-negligible. As any concept ‘historically at work’, it does not need to describe things – it does things. This kind of notion does not have to be well-constructed – it does not even require coherence. On the contrary – the contradictions and internal tensions it carries within itself, contribute to solidifying its course and improving its overall performance.

We cannot grasp the social and political content of the discourse on post-communism, if we ignore the very specific context from which it has emerged. From the late 80s, Polish society is subjected to a revolutionary change: a radical deindustrialization results in high unemployment and a rapid decrease of living standards; old social bonds linked to the former forms of production and exchanges dissolve. Government itself calls these policies a ‘shock therapy’. Social resistance (although it is relatively strong with a large number of strikes) remains extremely dispersed and lacks a political agenda. All the workers’ struggles are qualified as merely ‘economic’ claims without any ‘political’ content. When the ancien regime implodes, the process is total and unprecedented. Political and social forces originating from the apparatus of a mono-party and other ‘communist institutions’ (like trade-unions, associations, administrations, …) seek to secure their interests but at the same they fully adhere to the new system and its political axiology.

But this lack of political opposition is a problem as much as it is an advantage. The revolutionary transformation cannot limit itself to abolishing the old system – it has to build up a new one. This task requires a permanent mobilization, affirming new values and effectively producing new institutions, a new culture and a New Man – which is radically different from his socialist predecessor usually referred to as the ‘homo sovieticus’. At the time, it is often repeated that the transition can only be fulfilled when the old generation, the one that was perverted by communism, finally perishes. In addition, transition was supposed to follow two contradictory logics: the logics of restoration coincided with the logics of radical change and novelty. These two logics became intertwined in the early 90s, but later they split into separate and antagonistic ideologies, although the frontiers between both of them are not always clear. What is to be restored is the ‘natural social order’ based on ‘natural law and values’. These values are usually identified with pre-war Poland – an idyllic and flourishing country where natural hierarchies were respected. (‘Unfortunately’), these hierarchies were erased by the communists. At the same time, transition is aimed at modernization, which implies the adjustment to the necessities of a neoliberal world market. The objective is to reach the status of a developed industrial nation, with the image of the USA in mind, rather than using Western Europe as a model (which seems obvious insofar as the USA claims to have reconciled the affirmation of tradition and ‘natural values’, with the imperative of a constant capitalist modernization). This status is seen as something that Poland (for historic reasons) deserves, and that it was of deprived when communism was imposed on it from the outside. Interestingly, both the ‘modernizers’ and ‘restorers’ (despite their harsh political antagonist positions) found the notion of post-communism handy. The first would argue that true ‘decommunisation’ is only possible through a radical and accelerated process of modernization, the latter claimed that true modernization is only possible through a radical and accelerated process of ‘decommunisation’. That is why ‘post-communism’ has a certain integrity which goes beyond simple partisanship.

No wonder that in order to achieve such an immense task, each fraction of the Polish elite needed to have an important adversary. Vast projects cannot be confronted with only technical or purely objective obstacles. Such situations undermine the splendor of power and subsequently its legitimacy. Yet, there was no enemy which stood for the preservation of the status quo, nor was there an enemy that advocated the reversal of history’s course (former communists would limit themselves to ‘justify’ their past political positions by referring to the bare geopolitical necessity at the time and their responsibility for the ‘national integrity’). The new elites found themselves in a delicate situation. After all, this very society was until now praised for its intransigent resistance to communist oppression and ideology. The society was being glorified as the one who made the communist monster fall. This discourse was generally accompanied with the (rather contradictory) discourse about the deep perversion of society by 40 years of communist domination, which made it morally disoriented and economically disabled. This society had to be protected against its own vices and structurally transformed.

The constitutive moment for the political discourse on post-communism is establishing continuity between post-communism and communism itself. This requires a subtle epistemological shift. This continuity can hardly be grasped at the level of social phenomena – even the proponents of post-communist discourse admit to this. The continuity is rooted in the metaphysical identity between communism and post-communism. This identity can manifest itself in several heterogeneous entities. No wonder that if we stay on a purely empirical level, we fail to understand the nature of both. Communism is referred to as the ’empire of evil’, according to the famous words of Ronald Reagan and put on the same level as Nazism (which seems particularly odd from a Polish perspective). Not only are the use of violence and political authoritarianism denounced (which would be perfectly understandable from a liberal-democratic perspective), this denunciation goes far beyond this with claims like: ‘Nazis wanted to enslave our bodies – the communists wanted our souls’. Consequently, all social and civilization achievements of the old regime are being dismissed as irrelevant or simply denied.

The fact that for 30 years after world war II, Poland (as most of Europe) experienced an unprecedented rise of living standards (including life expectancy, health care, education, …) cannot be seen to undermine this vision. Everything that could be considered an achievement happened in spite of, or against the regime. And all this despite the fact that the regime itself is defined as a totalitarian regime. More often though, the heritage of ‘real socialism’ is simply denied from a purely metaphysical standpoint. The socialist economy was seen to be unable to provide ‘real’ economic value as it was founded on the immoral and unaccountable principles of state property and central planning.

In what way then does post-communism manage to impose itself as the continuation of its predecessor? It undeniably has a kind of ‘vampiric’ power, leading an afterlife in various incarnations. The first one is the post-communist mentality. The post-communist mentality is the one of the homo sovieticus – a notion developed in Poland by priest and philosopher Josef Tischner. The homo sovieticus used to be a client of the past regime, and he only contested the regime if he found that his social and economic rights were not respected by the rulers. In this way, he contributed to the fall of the regime but later did not know how to deal with his own freedom. In short, he is unable to live freely in the free market economy. The post-communist mentality is the one of the working class (even if this term is carefully avoided). It is collectivistic, egalitarian, assertive in claiming its ‘privileges’, and always ready to trade freedom in exchange of security. The perseverance of the post-communist mentality is the major obstacle in building a free and self-responsible middle-class. Although the homo sovieticus cannot be held responsible for his pitiful condition and moral misery (after all, he is a victim of communism), the duty of the government and the elite is not to be indulgent towards him. The post-communist mentality results in social protests driven by self-interest – they undermine the common good and threaten the economic prospects of the whole nation.

While the post-communist mentality is mostly an affair of the masses, the post-communist plot penetrates the elites, in particular the economic elites. The fundamental assumption here is that the functionaries of the old regime (the nomenklatura and members of the secret services) orchestrated or controlled the regime change and that they managed to accumulate most of the benefits of that change. They have maintained a network of relations that guarantees their dominant position. The existence of such network cannot be verified (by virtue of its secrecy), and it can only be exemplified. Since there are no hard data to support the thesis that the former elite is overrepresented in the new Polish capitalist class – it is argued that it largely co-opted people from outside without undercutting its own very integrity. Poverty and social exclusion are due to the activity of this network, resulting in structural corruption. The denunciation of the post-communist plot is a substitute of a social critique, focusing on economic decisions and paradigms. Moreover, it often supports deregulation and other neoliberal measures, as this web of informal connections can, according to the neoliberal doxa, only persist due to the ‘muddy waters of bureaucracy’. Others (mostly nationalists), though, would rather recommend more direct ways of dealing with this conspiracy. They call for firm police action and the reinforcement of the state’s control apparatus (under the condition that this apparatus is constituted by ‘true’ patriots – preferably coming from their own ranks).

The third manifestation of post-communism is the most heterogeneous, and its relations with historical communism are the most oblique. We could call it ideological post-communism. The discourse on ideological post-communism is by large imported from American conservative and neo-conservative sets of ideas. The first group that was exposed to post-communist bashings, were lawyers and human rights activists, protesting against an upsurge in the state’s repressive policies against crime. Lawyers were a particularly good target, as they could be accused of collusion with criminals (being a ‘defense front for criminals’ – according to the future president Lech Kaczynski). They were soon to be joined by emerging feminist movements, fighting for the right to abortion (abortion was legal in Poland from 1956 to 1993), denouncing domestic violence and gradually developing claims for gender equality. Then came the gay-rights activists and eventually the pacifist, ecologist and leftist factions. How can all these various movements be identified with post-communism? Being socially conservative, Bolshevik communism would severely persecute all those kinds of petty-bourgeois deviations. Still, they are seen as rooted in the very same philosophical gesture (together with the Bolsheviks) that consists of questioning religious morals, natural hierarchies and opposing the repressive common sense. In this last version, the affinity with communism is not personal, nor is it political. Rather, it is metaphysical and spiritual.

It is obvious that although all these articulations of post-communism are connected, they do not always go together in one political narrative. In fact, the nuances and vicissitudes of the post-communist discourse are quite often at stake in Polish political debates. Post-communism is not articulated as a rigid ideology, but it is a discourse that defines the realm of what is legitimate and reasonable.


Michal Kozlowski (1974) is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Warsaw. He is the co-editor of the quarterly journal Bez Dogmatu (Without Dogma) and the Polish edition of Le Monde Diplomatique. He has published several articles on issues of power, subjectivity and contemporary capitalism. He is currently working on a book on Spinoza and politics.

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