published on October 5, 2020

Landscape after the battle?

Why studying the post-socialist transformation still matters.

by Agnieszka Pasieka and Piotr Filipkowski


A few weeks after the last Polish presidential elections, on a warm summer night, we were sitting with a group of friends on a park bench in Kraków, in the vicinity of a fashionable bio ice cream parlor. Located in a quiet park, the ice cream place is surrounded by a dozen sun loungers. Due to the late hour, the parlor was closed but the loungers were left around untidily. Looking from a distance, we found the sight of them rather surprising:

"Can you imagine this place in the 1990s?", Aga said, "The loungers would have been linked with a huge chain, if the owners had even dared to leave them outside."

"Or someone would have taken the loungers and used them as a market stand to sell socks!," a friend of ours added.

We began laughing, recalling our favorite scenes from the crazy post-1989 times: new 'entrepreneurs' who tried to trade anything they could on mushrooming small-scale markets (those selling pairs of white socks became an emblematic representation of the early 1990s); customers of the first McDonald's who came to the restaurant with a jar to get ketchup from the dispenser (no wonder it is now served in individual packages); and us kids, standing with our noses glued to the windows of the newly opened expensive shops.

To numerous observers of the Polish socio-political landscape, and to numerous Polish citizens, these kinds of memories are merely an element of a sort of 'post-socialist folklore,' humorous and at times even absurd stories which one can laugh at simply because they were safely closed in the box labelled "the Past." Precisely because the postsocialist developments are often considered a thing of the past, numerous scholars and commentators of the present-day socio-political situation have argued in favor of abandoning the focus on postsocialism and highlighting other factors at play. However, when trying to understand the results of the recent parliamentary (2019) and presidential (2020) elections and, more broadly, Poland "thirty years later," one cannot but realize the profound impact of the "transformation period." This is true with respect to both the agenda of political parties and the attitudes and choices of voters.

Referencing these events became an important part of the political discourse surrounding the parliamentary and presidential elections, and not only due to the thirtieth anniversary of the Round Table Agreements (1989) and the fortieth anniversary of the mass protests which led to the establishment and legalization of the "Solidarity" (Solidarność) trade union (1980). Oftentimes, these were not just references but passionate memory wars in which two major parties were fighting for a proper (re)interpretation of the events from thirty to forty years ago and, consequently, of the transformation period. In promoting a black-and-white view of Polish history, the winner of the parliamentary elections, the Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) re-wrote the history of the Solidarity movement, foregrounding the role of their own people and at best ignoring - and at worst representing as evil - those former opposition leaders who do not accept their party line. In response, the Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) presented itself as the "true" and "rightful" defender of the Solidarity heritage. While PiS describes its own politics as "democratization," "correction of the transformation errors" and "repairing the state," PO sees it as destroying the achievements of the last thirty years. Importantly, even new political actors who have tried to distance themselves from both camps have in the long run not really been able to break this symmetric division. In the parliamentary elections of 2019, such an alternative narrative was mainly represented by the (new) left, and in the presidential elections by the new center (Szymon Hołownia and his Poland 2050 movement/party). Despite all their efforts to focus on the future, neither of them has been able to escape from strong judgments about the post-communist transformation in general - and its "old elites" in particular.

Consequently, the presidential elections meant once again a battle between PO and PiS. Each of them received over ten million votes, and the winner, Andrzej Duda, about four hundred thousand more than his opponent, Rafał Trzaskowski. The small difference and the magic of the round figure of ten million people made both candidates celebrate the "victory of democracy" in Poland on election night. Evidently, each of them had something different in mind. The winner was proud of the largest number of votes that any Polish president has ever received. Indeed, the voter turnout was 68 per cent, the highest since 1989, making Duda's 51 per cent support in the second round much stronger in terms of the absolute number of votes than that of any other candidate in any presidential election in Poland so far. The loser, by the same token, was proud of the huge support he had received (for him personally, this must have been a great success, as he had entered the election battle just a few weeks earlier).

Yet, none of them was merely juggling with numbers and percentages. Democratic legitimation for Duda means, rhetorically at least, that he is supported by "ordinary people," "ordinary families," "ordinary Poles." The polysemic word "ordinary" tends to connote "normal," "most-common," "average," "nonelite," "typical" or "traditional," and sometimes "authentic" or even "true." All these phrases actually belong to the handy linguistic repertoire of President Duda and the ruling party. They want to be, and due to the results of the 2019 elections also are, representatives of this Polish ordinariness, and they promise to give "ordinary people" the pride and dignity grabbed by the "others." Those "others" are particularly the post-communist and liberal elites who allegedly betrayed the values (if not the contract) of Solidarność. One can call it a Polish version of the conservative populism that we observe elsewhere, too.

But Trzaskowski, with his ten million votes, celebrated the triumph of democracy as well. "Democracy" in this regard means, first of all, the opposition against the new authoritarianism, which destroys the rule of law and endangers basic civil rights, and is thus said to have much in common with the communist dictatorship. Those who oppose this new authoritarianism are, instead, equated with the old Solidarność members (the "real" ones). Though Trzaskowski is one of the main leaders of PO (formally he is its deputy chairman), he has announced a new social movement called Nowa Solidarność (New Solidarity). Its profile and structure are so far unclear, but this emotional-political gesture is clear enough: we, democrats, are unified and strong enough to defeat the dictatorial enemy once again.

Still, another ten million Poles are missing from these calculations and from the political battles between the advocates of "ordinary people's" democracy and those of liberal democracy. With the exception of just a few insightful analysts, no one seriously confronted the evident and simple fact that one third of eligible voters simply stayed at home on election day (or went for a Sunday picnic). How would the political scene in Poland look like if these people had voted? Mobilizing these people is a dream of all the political powers in Poland. Political newcomers especially believe that they are able to recognize the problems and needs of this silent group and get their support. Yet, so far, nothing like that seems to have happened. Perhaps there is simply no such "group" in any sociologically valid sense? Or maybe the symbolic and discursive matrix of Polish politics, exploiting the conflicted legacies of Solidarity and constantly reinterpreting (hi)stories of transformation, is inadequate to capture the experiences, fears and hopes of these ten million people? Nobody knows the answers to these questions, and actually very few even try to ask them.

Among the hundreds of political commentaries published after the presidential elections, we would like to take a closer look at the two that we find particularly insightful. Robert Krasowski and Rafal Matyja, both political scientists, describe the incapacity of both liberal-centrist and left-wing politicians to reach PiS voters. Krasowski summarizes the attitudes of many of these voters as an attempt to "annoy" the Besserwisser, arrogant, political opponents who lament their co-citizens' backwardness. This attitude comes down to the notion that "We suffered in the 1990s and you told us 'This is the cost of the transformation', so you can suffer now." In a similar vein, Matyja emphasizes the impenetrable language used by many left-wing politicians, who in theory speak in the name of the working-class and people marginalized in one way or another, but in practice simply cannot speak the language of these groups.

To be clear, these "sufferings" and "misunderstandings" ought not to be simplistically related to one's socio-economic situation. Although the success of PiS is often explained by the party's generous spending and more equitable wealth distribution in comparison to its predecessors, like PO, this explanation does not seem to go to the heart of the matter. Both of us have conducted research on the effects of the transformation, Aga with villagers in the Polish countryside and Piotr with shipyard workers from Gdynia. What turned out to be particularly important to the people whom we interviewed was not the question of living standards or economic struggles, but the question of dignity and respect. Aga's villagers condemned the "mindless" destruction of the former "PGRs", or state-owned farms, not because they were particularly attached to them or because they found them profitable, but because they respected the work that was put into their creation and criticized the ideological aspect of their destruction as "symbols of communism." They opposed even more so what they were hearing about themselves on radio and television, like the laments about Polish farmers' "inability" to adapt to changes and about them being unmodern. Piotr's interviewees did identify with their shipyard and were often proud of the ships they had been building there for several decades. When the shipyard went bankrupt, despite waiting production orders, no one really tried to explain to them the complexity of global factors behind this collapse. They were left with frustrations that populist simplifiers easily targeted, also politically - and also with reference to the experience of the "true" Solidarność - which many of its activists from Gdynia perceived as much "truer" than the one in Gdańsk.

Our interviewees would likely join us in providing some humorous, nostalgic stories on "surviving transformation," but to many of them that era was literally about survival, not only economically but also in terms of social identities and life-worlds. Today, numerous people also feel that their ideas are being derided and that their own trajectories are being presented as "unexemplary."

We are well aware that the picture is, as we social scientists love to say, "way more complex." PiS is a party which does not necessarily translate into practice all its generous promises (the post-COVID era is likely to demonstrate this even more). While making some people feel "heard" and "included," PiS uses even more brutal and at times primitive means of exclusion, attacking minorities, the media, and anyone who stands in its way to power. We are also aware that this is far from being a specifically Polish scenario. Numerous inhabitants of the US "red states" or Italian post-industrial towns could likely find common language with some of the Polish "sufferers" of the transformation. The problem is that the agenda and propaganda of PiS is so transparent that it hardly needs interpretation. What we need is a more thorough, more critical analysis of those actors or those policies which we would not suspect of performing exclusion - but which do so. For, as we could see, both political camps end up playing with the same historical symbols and myths, using the same terms ("democracy", "real people") and throwing similar invectives at their opponents.

Having got up from our bench and having passed by the ice cream parlor loungers, we noticed that we were wrong: they were protected from stealing by a nearly invisible, transparent cable. We leave it to the readers to choose how they want to interpret this: as an ironic commentary on how much has changed in the last thirty years, or as a call for trying to identify less visible traces of the transformation era.


Agnieszka Pasieka is a research fellow at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Vienna. She is the author of "Hierarchy and Pluralism: Living Religious Difference in Catholic Poland" (Palgrave Macmillan 2015). Currently she is working on a monograph on transnational youth far-right activism.

Piotr Filipkowski is a sociologist, oral historian, and assistant professor (adiunkt) at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, currently working at the Center for Historical Research in Berlin. He is the author of "Oral History and the War. The Nazi Concentration Camp Experience in a Biographical-Narrative Perspective" (Peter Lang 2019, first published in Polish in 2010), based on interviews with Polish survivors of Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp system. He is also a researcher in the RECET-based project "Transformations from Below. Shipyards and Labor Relations in the Uljanik (Croatia) and Gdynia (Poland) Shipyards since the 1980s".