As the news spread around the world about the discovery of new documents, concerning Lech Wałęsa’s alleged collaboration with the Communist authorities, the man himself was addressing the new right-wing parliament in Venezuela. This former trade union leader and avowed champion of democracy and human rights, was supporting the return of the right-wing in Venezuela. He then flew to Miami, to meet Cuban oppositionists and was once again received as a hero. Wałęsa was in his element – the heir of Reagan; the great anti-Communist who had helped to bring down the Soviet Union. Yet at home he was once again being accused of being a Communist agent and the betrayer of the Solidarity movement. Still others defended him as a hero of the nation who had brought freedom and sovereignty to the country. These conflicting narratives have little to do with the actual truth of Wałęsa’s past, but reflect the ongoing conflicts within the Polish elites and the present state of Polish capitalism.
Capitalism has always emerged out of destruction, swindle and usually violence. The Highland clearances; the destruction of indigenous populations; the expropriation of the peasants’ land. In order for capitalism to grow, it not only needs an initial accumulation of capital but also the creation of a particular social relation. Labourers must be separated from their own means of production and subsistence, whether this be their land or their workshop. Once achieved two groups of commodity holders then come into direct contact with one another. Firstly, are the owners of money, the means of production and subsistence, who are eager to increase the sum of values they possess by buying other people’s labour power. Secondly, are the class of labourers themselves, who must survive primarily by selling their labour on the market. And once achieved, the whole sophisticated machinery of capitalism is set in motion, as it expands into ever wider circles of economic and social life, bringing greater sections of society into this commodity relation.
As capitalism emerged from the womb of ‘really existing socialism’, so a new process of capital accumulation had to occur. This time capital confronted an industrialised economy, with its class of organised labourers. Unlike during the transition from Feudalism, work was already socialised and organised in large factories or offices. However, labour did not exist as a commodity that was freely exchanged on the market. The state’s monopoly control over production and the policy of full-employment, meant that the vast majority of work and economic life was organised outside of market relations.
And in order for the new to flourish, the old had to be destroyed. Throughout Eastern Europe a programme of rapid privatisation and liberalisation was undertaken, producing an economic collapse of unprecedented proportions and a simultaneous increase in poverty and social destitution for millions of people. Simultaneously, private capital began to circulate and expand, creating new found wealth and riches. Often oligarchs grabbed the spoils that were made available, particularly in the countries of the ex-USSR, where the economic collapse was most severe. There was nothing fair or honest in all of this. Corruption, political connections and sometimes brute strength determined who were the winners in this competitive game of expropriation.
Poland did not escape this course of events, although it was less severe than in most other Eastern European countries. The economic collapse was the shortest in the region (the economy ‘only’ shrank by around a quarter between 1989 and 1992) and double digit unemployment, high poverty and inequalities were seen as an inevitable stage of a painful transformation. Poland’s own creative destruction involved a deep deindustrialisation, with at least two-thirds of the country’s medium and large industrial enterprises collapsing, leading to around 2 million people losing their jobs. This provided the room for international capital to move in and quickly monopolise large areas of the economy. Although this was not an oligarchical capitalism similar to that further east, a new group of the rich and wealthy consolidated itself in the country. And once again there was nothing fair in this. It was often those with the strongest political connections, both within the former Communist and Solidarity elites, that prospered the most.
The advantage for the economic elite in the developed capitalist world is that its theft has long ago been hidden and forgotten. Its original accumulation of wealth submerged in the fog of time as it has passed through the generations. In the ‘post-Communist’ world it is laid bare and continues to be contested. It is this contestation, within the elite, that underlies the latest wranglings over the historical legacy of the former Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa. Was this the leader of a trade union who led the strikes in that Gdańsk shipyards, that evolved into a social movement of 10 million people and then negotiated the peaceful fall of Communism in Poland, leading to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union itself? Or rather was he a Communist agent, who took money from the authorities and collaborated with the government in order to sustain the system long enough so that a section of its leaders (in collaboration with the Solidarity elite) could line their pockets once the green shoots of capitalism began to emerge?
Both of these versions of history are accumulated myths, and of the most primitive kind.
The first is now perpetuated by a liberal elite, connected to international capital, who see their privileged position as being under threat. They forget the fact that at its height Solidarity was a trade union movement, which demanded a real socialisation and democratisation of ‘really existing socialism’ and for the creation of a Self-Managed Republic. They close their eyes to the betrayal of this movement by the Solidarity elite and at how the intelligentsia forgot about its alliance with the working class. They ignore how the first Solidarity government and its President Lech Wałęsa, ushered in the first set of neo-liberal reforms in Eastern Europe, against the agreements of the Round Table negotiations that paved the way for the transition of power. Furthermore, they put out of their minds how they themselves spent much of the 1990s disparaging Lech Wałesa. He was a good opposition leader and someone who could lead a strike they said; but ultimately an uncultured man and a simple electrician who failed to even master decent Polish (Nie chcem ale muszem).
The second version of history is now gathering pace, under the government of the Law and Justice Party. Wałęsa: the agent and collaborator. The person who worked for the secret services in the 1970s, delivering them information in return for cash. The Solidarity leader who betrayed his movement by forming an alliance with the former Communist leaders to construct a new corrupt elite. The President who opposed a process of lustration against the Communist elite. This version of history is repeated most loudly by those who fell out with Wałęsa in the early 1990s, many of which are prominent members of the present government. They blame all the ills of capitalism in Poland on what they see as this unfair usurping of power by a corrupt elite. It assumes that if this elite were to be removed, so capitalism could press the reset button. A new fairer and normal capitalist economy would then at last be able to develop.
This is a struggle between two sections of the elite, each accusing the other of the same thing. For the liberal elite, the PiS government is a throwback to the past; a party that replicates the centralised and undemocratic practices of the previous system; that offers populist solutions whilst undermining the market economy. Meanwhile, the conservative right claim they want to redress the injustices of the past, and complete the ‘Solidarity Revolution’, through a fresh process of lustration and ‘decommunisation’. Both of these groups continue to compete for the historical legacy of Solidarity and claim the mantle of the real anti-Communists.
The course of growth through destroying the productive elements of the previous economic system has now exhausted itself. Whilst the liberal intellectuals have spoken of a period of unprecedented growth and prosperity, around 2 million people have chosen to chance their luck abroad. This liberal elite's former foes within the Solidarity movement are now seizing the day, and capitalising on social dissatisfaction to carry out its own purge at the top, that seeps down to the bottom. And as Poland sits in the middle of a disintegrating Europe, in a global economic system possibly facing a new financial crisis, in a world ridden with wars and uncertainty; so the government averts its population’s eyes to these new show trials in the media. Collaborators, files, agents, code names….