Jerry's Reviews > The passion of Poland : from Solidarity through the state of war

The passion of Poland  by Lawrence Weschler
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In Poland today, a person can be honest, or intelligent, or a member of the Communist Party—in fact, any two, just not all three at the same time.

This is a fascinating topic, and it appears that Weschler is very informed; the main problem is that every time he attempts to contrast Poland with the United States, he clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Should I succumb to Gell-Mann amnesia and trust the parts that I know nothing about?

For example, in May 1981 Weschler writes:

In some ways the most remarkable thing one finds in Poland these days is the breezy openness of political conversation. Indeed, Poland seems much more open politically today than does the United States—at least Poles are having a political conversation.

This was 1981, just after the first alternative to the growing bureaucratic state since, probably, Coolidge, had just been elected. Ending price controls? Breaking AT&T’s government-created monopoly? Tax reform? “The most formidable domestic initiative any president has driven through since the Hundred Days of Franklin Roosevelt”? Weschler may not have liked the way the conversation was headed, but it was definitely going on. US voters had turned away from a progressive politics that earlier had seemed inevitable.

Inevitable much in the same way that socialism was inevitable. Foreign policy was also a pretty big conversation in 1980-1981. In his notes, Weschler calls the Soviet Union a pitiful giant, ridiculing Reagan for calling it a “fearsome opponent”. The thing is, I just read another book from the same period, Straight Stuff: The Reporters, the White House, and the Truth, and in it James Deakin ridicules Reagan for calling the USSR a pitiful giant that will collapse soon.

Whether the Soviet Union is a pitiful giant or a fearsome opponent changes throughout the book; when they’re staging military exercises within striking distance of Poland, they’re a fearsome opponent even to Weschler, and a few paragraphs down in his notes he ridicules the entire idea of a Soviet collapse and breakaway republics.

The idea that six years after his last item, Poland would hold popular elections and Lech Walesa would be elected president, would have been an interesting one to have asked him, just to see his response.

Now, a lot of that is hindsight, and inside Wechsler’s circle few were predicting an imminent Soviet collapse. But Weschler’s analysis of events is mostly one-dimensional. For example, he called the fair tax breaks being discussed at the time in the United States galling. By cutting everyone’s taxes by the same percentage, he writes, the rich get more money back than the middle-class and the poor. The logical extension of this, though, is that taxes can only be raised, never cut; some people pay no taxes, and so any cut means that the person getting the cut, no matter how small, gets more money back than someone else.

That’s the level of analysis throughout the book. In discussing the “vicious circle” the government found itself in because the currency was worthless,

The government has tried to entice the miners back to work on Saturdays with offers of triple pay, but they tend to ignore the offer, since the money is worthless and there’s nothing to buy in the shops anyway. Thus, the vicious circle: there’s nothing to buy because, for lack of hard currency, the state can import neither consumer goods and food nor the spare parts and equipment that could help Oland to produce its own; the only way to generate the hard currency is to get the workers to work harder, but they have no incentive to work harder, because there’s nothing they could buy with any extra money they might earn.

By “hard currency”, Weschler means western money, especially United States dollars. The thing is, he’s already described the special PEWEX shops where the government sells things only for foreign currency. The government is already dealing in hard currency and things are available for hard currency. Why could the government not offer part of that triple weekend pay in the same hard currency that the coal was going to generate? The answer, probably, is that to Weschler all money is the government’s—that’s why reducing taxes is galling—so it would never occur to him to even ask this question.

But while the analysis seems to be lacking in just about every respect, the observations are amazing. The whole idea of PEWEX shops is a detail hard to imagine. (Imagine if, in all states in the United States that manage state-run liquor stores, they only accepted Canadian and Mexican currency…)

How construction would “come to a halt” every time there was any problem in the supply chain, because all construction was centralized. There was only one company; if it couldn’t get something, it had to stop everything that something depended on. There was no alternative.

Lines are a source of excitement. “…whenever I see a line… I’m excited to find a store with anything to sell.”

The economic troubles made it harder for the government to control the news: they couldn’t afford film, and so news had to be live or it had to be canceled.

Wiktor Kulerski’s idea—as far as I know not implemented—for parallel institutions, so that “the government will be in control of empty shops but not the market; employment but not the means of livelihood; the state press but not information; printing houses but not the publishing movement; telephones and post but not communication; schooling but not education.”

The few years in Poland from the rise of Solidarity to the crackdown (or the decade from the rise of Solidarity to free elections) deserve a more rigorous case study than this. But outside of its flawed analysis, what this book does provide is a fascinating collection of anecdotes, conversations, and slices of bureaucratic life.

“Oh, the Party congress was very democratic,” a Gdansk taxi-driver assured me. “It’s a party of idiots, and they elected the biggest idiots as their leaders.”

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Reading Progress

September 17, 2016 – Shelved
September 17, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
March 28, 2019 – Started Reading
April 30, 2019 – Finished Reading
May 2, 2019 – Shelved as: conviction

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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Lukasz Pruski I am not sure how I missed your review. Sorry! Spot on, but I want to add that for someone who was there at the time and had been raised there everything seemed perfectly normal and fine. In fact, many people in Poland still feel nostalgia for the "good old days" when things were black or white and when everybody knew that what is shown on TV, talked about on the radio, and printed in papers is all false.

Jerry Simpler times! And thanks for recommending the book. I only vaguely remember the news that came out of Poland then.

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