USIA, Addendum, No. 61, March, 1987

Private Poland -- A Split-Level Existence

Robert Sharlet, professor of political science at Union College in Schenectady, New York, is an authority on human rights in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

The existence in contemporary Poland of an alternate society, or what I have termed elsewhere a "contra-system, It has its roots in the Polish past. The precedent for the "flying university," the unofficial, independent educational system within the alternative society, first appeared in the late 19th Century in tsarist Russian-dominated Poland. Later, the long German occupation of Poland in World War II brought forth a fully articulated underground state, complete with political and judicial institutions and even its own army. More recently, in the mid-1970s, the rise of KOR (Workers' Defense Committee), an unauthorized intellectual-worker group, served as the catalyst for the creation of an array of dissident groups by the late 1970s.

These unauthorized but organized dissident groups as well as the antecedent workers' 'protests of 1956, 1970-71, and 1976, were precursors for the rise of the Solidarity trade-union movement and the new or renovated sociocultural activities which clustered around it in 1980-81. In the new atmosphere, underground political activity was thought by the dissidents themselves to be no longer needed. In fact, many of the dissident intellectuals became paid consultants to the various branches of Solidarity which, in the fall of 1980, became a legal entity. Symbolic of this changed perspective, the founders of KOR announced the dissolution of the group in the fall of 1981. Intellectual dissidents as well as workers had found their champion and representative in Walesa's Solidarity. All of this came to an end in early December, 1981.

In same respects, the imposition of martial law in late 1981 was a Pyrrhic victory for the Polish authorities. Indeed, it brought to an abrupt end the Solidarity union's public challenges to the Party-state. The army and the police recaptured the streets, decapitated the union by severing its leadership from the rank and file, and deprived Solidarity of its legal status.

However, in driving the remnants of the independent union underground, the Jaruzelski regime inadvertently created the nucleus for a lower-profile and less confrontationist, but more broadly-based societal opposition. The Polish contra-system which has arisen from the ashes of the Solidarity period is today the most developed alternative to official power in the European communist region, including the highly sophisticated contra-reality in Hungary, and the extensive sub-rosa world within Soviet society. By all comparative measures -- institutional diversity, social cohesion, and the extent of popular involvement, Private Poland, as the social anthropologist Janine Wedel calls in her fascinating first-hand account (NY: Facts on File Publication, 1986), may well be the paradigm for further contra-development in neighboring communist systems.

To be sure, unusual factors are a t work in the Polish experience. These include the historical precedents of foreign occupation, an exceptionally high degree of ethnic and religious homogeneity, a more philosophically 'pluralistic intelligentsia than elsewhere in the region, and, of course, the unique position of the Church in a communist system. Nonetheless, these factors alone cannot account for the exceptionally well-meshed political, socioeconomic and cultural realms flourishing in the underground and semi-underground beneath, and even in some instances, alongside corresponding official structures.

On the basis of several years of participant-observation fieldwork in Poland, Dr. Wedel locates the wellspring of the Polish contra-experience in the family. This is no doubt the cynosure of contra-activity in other communist systems as well, but, aside from Vladimir Shlapentokh's study of love, marriage and friendship in the USSR, no Western study affords so full and nuanced a view of the family at the interface of the public and private worlds as does Wedel's.

The example of Barbara, a young woman friend of the author's, reflects how Poles draw on their near and extended families as resources in the constant struggle to resolve conflicts between private wishes and public constraints. Barbara invited the author to a party. Fearing there might not be enough men at the party, Barbara arranged for her cousin, an army recruit at a nearby base, to escort the author. At the appointed hour, the young man failed to appear. Apparently, all passes had been cancelled for the evening after a soldier had been caught with a counterfeit pass.

Barbara was upset that she was letting her visiting American friend down and implored her mother, who happened to be a cleaning lady at the local army officer's club, to help. Bridging the private-public gap in this instance, her mother telephoned an officer she knew from the club. Profusely apologetic, excusing herself several times for having disturbed him, she explained that her nephew had had a pass to leave the compound. His ailing 85-year-old grandfather from "another corner of Poland" had cane to visit and was leaving the next day. "This will likely be the last time he can see his grandson," she insisted. The ruse worked -- the officer, glad to be helpful, arranged a special pass, the cousin arrived, and the party went off successfully.

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In conditions of acute scarcity, Poles have developed "finagling," or the acquisition of public goods or services through private means into an art. In the absence of a personal connection through a family member or friend, Poles try to achieve their individual ends by at least attempting to privatize or soften the formal "edges" of a public relationship. Sometimes it works as with the prominent writer who resolved a passport snafu with a personal approach to an anonymous bureaucrat at the other end of a telephone. "'My name is Wlodek,' he said to the woman who answered. ‘I’m not good looking, but I'm very intelligent. Are we going to get down to basics and talk to each other as ty (a personal form of address)?’ "Soon after, he received his passport and was off on a literary trip abroad.

The writer's maneuver was bold and somewhat unusual. More often then not however, solutions are arrived at through the family or the informal social networks radiating out from it into the public-private spheres. Middle class families, for instance, often urge their children to enter professions which will help maximize the family's assets in the invisible market of the off-the-books second economy. As an example, although medical salaries are relatively low, a physician in the family provides considerable bargaining power in informal exchange relationships for scarce goods and services to which his or her patients have access. This is based on the premise, as Wedel puts it, that "almost everyone (in Poland) can get something" to exchange or sell. A Polish economist has estimated that Poles spend 20-30 percent of their income on such commodities flowing through illegal channels.

There is apparently "class" stratification within the Polish second economy. For the average participant in illicit trade, frequently coveted items may be modest by Western standards, but significantly invested with symbolic value or status-by-possession in Polish eyes -- such as Marlboro cigarettes or copies of Paris Match. At the upper end of the alternate class structure are the "millionaires" (anyone earning at least the equivalent of 35,000 dollars yearly). Such immense incomes, by Polish standards, are derived from four sources: legal, small-scale private enterprise; the underground economy; access to hard currency reserves; or hard currency earning-power abroad. Whatever the source, higher incomes permit the recipients to live a truly privileged lifestyle in terms of luxury apartments, country houses, foreign cars, expensive wardrobe s, and hard-to-get electronic gadgets - all amidst the acute shortages of everyday life in Poland.

The extensive and pervasive second economy even extends into higher-minded activities such as underground dissent and culture, both of which flourish in post-martial law Poland. The key to the regular propagation of political dissent and the wide dissemination of the fruit s of the parallel high culture is the contra-system's elaborate alternate information system. This network of underground media -- primarily several publishing houses and hundreds of unofficial newspapers and journals of all descriptions and various persuasions -- had its origins in the comparatively modest output of the first dissident groups in the latter half of 1970s.

By comparison, today's huge network of uncensored media which has effectively subverted the Party's putative monopoly on communication by competing daily with its official output in the marketplace of facts, opinions, and ideas -- requires several thousand people to man its production and distribution facilities alone.

Enter the acquisitive culture of the second economy. Many people participate in underground operations for pecuniary reasons rather than out of ideological motivation. The author aptly quotes an underground spokesman to the effect that even if the underground leaders and scores of activists were arrested, " 'the show would go on -- you'll always find people who want to earn money. Idealism need not contradict materialism -- that is the biggest invention of the Polish opposition.' "

The unbridled materialism of "private Poland" is not without its costs to the individual who must practice what I would characterize as "bilegality" to accomplish his/her ends. Bilegality requires its practitioner to straddle two conflicting sets of norms -- one the public rules, the other the unwritten code of the second economy. Most Poles are, and think of themselves, as law-abiding citizens in the conventional sense of the term -- i.e., meaning that most do not commit crimes against persons or property, in particular privately-owned property. Yet, simultaneously, these same people routinely violate the law (especially on economic crimes) as producers and/or consumers in the vast illegal stretches of the second economy.

For the average person, this ambivalent behavior helps fulfill material needs which the hapless state cannot fulfill, but it does so at a psychic cost. Anthropologist Wedel reports that some Poles are embarrassed by the demeaning manner in which they have to make ends meet, many are ashamed of the private deals they have to resort to, while nearly all find this ceaseless struggle for a minimal quality of life "tension-producing and stressful."

However, given the disastrous state of the Polish consumer economy, few Poles have any real choice but to accommodate to this duality. To live in Poland, one must adapt to a split-level existence for "Both the rituals of public life and the transactions of private 1ife are requisite for survival."

Wedel's study offers a rare perspective on the myriad collisions and collusions of the private and public worlds which comprise contemporary Poland.

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