Double edged 'democracy'

Issue section: 

The people of Poland demanded democracy in 1989 - but 20 years on the economy is still controlled by a tiny elite.

Anniversaries do not always bring people the joy they expect. Last month was meant to have seen a celebration by Poland's rulers outside the shipyards in the city of Gdansk. It was to commemorate political changes in Poland and Hungary in the summer of 1989, which saw the first free elections for more than 40 years.

Gdansk was seen as the great birthplace of the opposition movement in Poland, and prime minister Donald Tusk, who claims to be the heir to that movement, naturally wanted to celebrate there. But then he moved the celebration to Krakow, at the other end of the country - out of fear, Polish radio reported, that "the anniversary might turn into a brutal battle between police and trade unionists".

This would have been politically very damaging for him, since it was the workers of Gdansk who began the process that led to the changes being celebrated. It would also have revealed something about the real significance of 1989.

The Western media have always presented the year as a breakthrough for freedom and democracy on the one hand, and as proving the economic bankruptcy of "socialism" on the other. It was the illusion shared at the time by the great majority of those leading the opposition movements, as GM Tamás, the first oppositionist to win a seat in the Hungarian parliament, argues in the current issue of International Socialism journal.

For millions of workers, students, peasants and intellectuals, the questions of freedom and democracy were important. Without them they were unable to express their own feelings through independent trade unions and lacked even the limited influence over the behaviour of rulers provided by parliamentary processes.

But the changes of 1989 only produced a circumscribed version of freedom and a very limited form of democracy. There was freedom of speech - but the means of exercising that freedom remained in the hands of a very small privileged group, as state ownership of the media gave way to millionaire ownership.

The democratic institutions established were, like those in the West, confined to political issues in the most narrowly defined sense. The mass of people could not exercise any control over the economic questions that determined much of their everyday lives - what was produced, for whom and how.

The reforms were deliberately double edged. One set gave the mass of people marginally increased control over the state. The other set ensured that this did not give them control of the economy and instead put that into private hands.

The near bankruptcy of the economic methods practised in Eastern Europe and the USSR was real enough by 1989. After rapid rates of growth in earlier decades signs of recurrent crisis were more and more visible. Poland, which had undergone a severe crisis in 1970, entered another in the late 1970s which turned into a deep slump in the early 1980s. Hungary had avoided such problems previously by borrowing vast sums from Western banks to celebrate "goulash communism", but now its economy too was in deep trouble, since what had been borrowed had to be repaid. Meanwhile the USSR was entering an economic crisis of its own.

The economic crisis caused deep splits between the rulers about how to get out of it and threatened to produce an upsurge of popular anger. This had happened in Poland in 1980. There was the rise of the greatest workers' movement in history, with the union Solidarnosc, created by delegates from occupied shipyards and factories, exercising for 16 months a counter-power nearly as powerful as the state.

That movement had been crushed by a military coup at the end of 1981. But governmental documents show that a wave of smaller strikes in Poland in 1988 created fear of a new surge of counter-power. It was then that they agreed to unprecedented "roundtable" discussions with oppositionists. Those at the top decided they had to accept reform in order to prevent revolution - that "things had to change in order to remain the same".

The negotiations were, by and large, with intellectuals - not direct representatives of the workers. The intellectuals sold the reforms to the workers by arguing that the market and democracy were twins - one promising prosperity and the other freedom.

There was always a central fault in such talk. The old regimes of Eastern Europe were not based on the democratic planning under workers' control that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had seen as the essence of socialism. Not only were they run by self-appointed rulers with enormous privileges, but they were also linked into the world capitalist system by high levels of economic and military competition with Western states. This determined their economic dynamic and increasing propensity to stagnation and crises.

The changes of 1989 could not do away with such propensities. It was not possible to deal with problems caused by the world market by increasing exposure to that market. The recessionary tendencies in Eastern Europe and the USSR turned into deep slump in the early 1990s. There were various degrees of recovery in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but only for Eastern Europe to be the region of the world where the effects of the present economic are most acute today.

People swapped one sort of capitalism for another and are discovering it was not a great bargain. Hence the sour note to the celebrations.