THE UNPLANNED SOCIETY - Reviews
Midsouth Political Sciences Journal,
Vol. 13, Autumn 1992, pp. 413-115.
THE UNPLANNED SOCIETY: Poland during and after Communism. Edited by Janine R. Wedel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992, 271 pp. $35.00
Robert H. Cox, University of Oklahoma
Specialists on Eastern Europe have always decried the tendency of nonspecialists to refer to this region as the East Bloc. Though they were paid little heed, their main point was that the Stalinist model failed to provide an accurate description of these countries at all save on a superficial level, and that the indigenous political and social systems in Eastern Europe persisted despite communist rule. Now with the demise of the communist systems, scholars within those countries have the opportunity to offer the world their own observations on postwar history. Janine Wedel has collected a number of essays written by Polish scholars, meticulously translated them, and offers them as what may be the first comprehensive glimpse of how the Poles look at themselves. The insights these authors share should help dispel the notion that the countries of Eastern Europe were mini-clones of the Soviet Union.
The essays represent a diversity of approaches and backgrounds. All are written by members of the intellectual elite. Many are academics. As a result of this diversity, the essays range in tone from dispassionate analyses of social arrangements, to personal accounts of life in the opposition, to polemics on the future directions of Polish democracy. Moreover, the essays cover a long time span, written between 1945 and the present.
Editor Wedel has organized the wide ranging essays into roughly three categories: discussions of economic arrangements, individual responses to life under communism, and social institutions and movements. Together they serve to confirm common knowledge as well as offer new concepts worthy of consideration in comparative perspective. As a confirmation of common knowledge, most western assumptions about life under communism appear to have been fairly accurate. Central economic planning was a catastrophe, most public officials really did not believe the official lines their positions demanded they reiterate, and despite the apparent continual shortage of goods, people got along by resorting to many informal and unofficial forms of exchange. Graft, corruption, and an intricate form of barter were the oils that lubricated this squeaky machine.
Though none of this is new, the scholars who describe these arrangements do so with a fresh insight and with a use of terminology that is worth considering. The informal mechanisms of barter and trade in Polish society, called handel by Ełbieta Firlit and Jerzy Chopecki, were a necessary yet unsavory element of life in Poland. The term refers to "private exchanges unregulated by law, but by well-recognized rules, and tinged with cunning and legerdemain" (p. 95). While in the West this basic principle of free market exchange brings praise upon those who excel at it, in Poland the practice is viewed with disdain. Indeed, the Jewish/German word used to refer to it associates handel with the strong anti-semitic currents in Polish society.
Since handelin Poland was a central but unacknowledged fact of life, it required intimate relations of trust among members of a tightly-knit group. Called a rodowisko (pl. rodowiska), this peculiar form of social group served as a clandestine substitute for the voluntary associations thai would comprise civil society in a less authoritarian country. In fact, it is difficult to make comparisons between rodowiska and the types of groups that arise in democratic societies. Two characteristics of the rodowisko are usually absent in pluralist interest organizations. One is the level of intimacy and trust necessary to inspire confidence among members of the group. The other is the degree of reciprocal obligation that membership imposes. Western sociologists interested in the comparative study of authoritarianism would find the exposition of these concepts in the book extremely useful.
The concepts are also crucial for understanding the political economy of Polish socialism. When all incidents of handel are clandestine, each constitutes a political act. Indeed knowledge of these two concepts is crucial to understanding the political significance of larger social institutions such as the Catholic Church and the Solidarity movement. Essays in the final part of the book assert that a secularizing spillover from the West accounts for the demise of the Catholic Church and that Solidarity crumbled when it appeared to be an elitist movement which lacked any identity except as an opposition. Despite these themes, however, the essays are organized in such a way as to lead the reader to conclude that these larger social forms are less important than the rodowiska.
That is precisely the conclusion Editor Wedel wishes the reader to reach. In addition to providing exceptional translations of all the essays, Wedel wrote introductory annotations for each. The theme she subtly weaves through the volume is that this structure (rodowiska) and process (handle) of Polish social exchange predates the communists and will endure after them. The case for the preexistence of the notions is derived from an essay written in 1945 by Kazimierz Wyka, which analyzes life under the occupation. Wedel uses different quotes from that essay to introduce each of the successive pieces, and to drive home the continuity in Polish society under both Nazi occupation and communism. That these are enduring features ofPolish society in the post-communist era is an assertion she offers as advice to those concerned with the current Polish democratic experiment.
The major criticism that can be made of the volume is that its theme could be construed as simply an anthropologist's disciplinary defense of turf. We are left to conclude that present day micro-level social arrangements are the most important feature of Polish society; not a surprising conclusion for an anthropologist to reach, but one that will not satisfy those with macro or comparative concerns. Moreover, Wedel's theme seems to be unduly deterministic and ahistorical. It identifies the origin of Polish social organization in the Nazi era. This seems to suggest too much similarity between the occupation and communist systems, and makes the skeptical reader question whether this peculiar form of social organization is as enduring as Wedel would have us believe. A longer historical perspective would make that assertion more persuasive.
These arc minor points and do not detract from the volume's significance as an important piece of historiography, and as a glimpse into the issues that confront Polish academics and social commentators. It will be useful particularly for anyone interested in Poland, or in studying Poland in comparative perspective.