THE UNPLANNED SOCIETY - Reviews
Vol. 54, No. 1. (Spring, 1995), pp. 140-141.
THE UNPLANNED SOCIETY: Poland during and after Communism. Edited by Janine R. Wedel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992, 271 pp. $35.00
Louisa Vinton, RFE/RL Research Institute
This collection of essays of Polish sociologists, journalists and opposition activists will strike a familiar chord with anyone who has ever had to "arrange" (zalatwic in Polish) goods or services in a communist country, rather than make the straightforward purchase standard in western market economies. Though wide-ranging in subject matter and in analytic approach, the essays build on an intriguing central theme. Rather than portray a powerless society in confrontation with an oppressive state, they depict Poland under communism as a peculiar symbiosis in which informal networks of trade and social organization tunneled into official political and economic structures, undermining their repressive impact, short-circuiting the official economy and shaping a popular mind-set oriented to circumvention.
Like so many others, this study was caught off guard by the collapse of communism. Most of the material dates from 1988 and does not reflect the systemic changes that followed the communist surrender of power, although the editor and translator, the anthropologist Janine Wedel, has used introductions and notes to bring the reader up to date. The collection nonetheless holds up well under the changed circumstances of "postcommunism," as it provides much evidence to support the thesis that the informal social structures inherited from communism will shape Poland's efforts to follow western blueprints for democracy and capitalism. In fact, Wedel questions the teleological sense often imparted to the concept of "transition" in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Rather than an organized march toward clearly defined goals, Poland is likely to see its formal political and economic structures interact with inherited informal networks and behavior patterns to create a system that defies easy classification. Here, the continuities may be surprising.
This is the message of the collection's "linchpin" essay: a 1945 article by the literary critic Kazimierz Wyka from his classic study of the nazi occupation, Zycie na niby (Life as If). Rather than depict a society cowed by nazi terror, Wyka describes the Poles' mass circumvention of the occupation's constraints, through bribery, handel (illicit trade) and elaborate pretenses of employment. Wyka argues that these practices would likely harm Poland once independence was regained, as they reflected "an economy morally excluded from the life of the nation." As Wedel rightly stresses, there are parallels between Polish society after World War II and the current, postcommunist situation-although one could also argue that ambiguous traditions of subversion stretch far further back into Polish history.
The collection's case studies dig below the surface to analyze the informal networks whose persistence today helps explain some of the more puzzling paradoxes of Poland's first "transition" years. The contributors treat the środowisko (the "social circle" or "milieu") rather than parties or formal associations as the true organizing force of Polish society. The democratic opposition was just such a środowisko; dissent was not just an activity but an entire way of life. These ties, virtually familial in nature, help explain why Solidarity has fragmented into hostile cliques rather than form a viable political party. Similarly, an essay on state enterprises' hidden supply networks by Stefan Kawalec (an opposition activist who served as deputy finance minister until 1994) offers clues to the mysterious survival of seemingly bankrupt state firms in new market conditions. In a striking essay that says volumes about emerging popular hostility toward the Catholic Church, a catechism instructor describes how religious practice has become formalized to the point of meaninglessness. Such raw material offers a useful reminder of the need to probe beneath the formal surfaces of political and economic life, with the aid of anthropological and sociological tools.
The Poles raised subversive practices to an art form but similar informal networks doubtless flourished throughout the region. Wedel's collection will thus interest both historians of communist society and contemporary students of "transitional" politics and economics. Unfortunately, the collection is a stylistic hodgepodge, with contributions ranging from autobiography to academic sociology. Citations from Wyka's article are used as a unifying device but many readers will yearn for a tidier synthesis that defines-as Wyka does for the nazi occupation-the hidden structures of Polish communism. Wedel's intriguing account of their tenacity suggests that Poland's "transition" is ripe for such an analysis.