Socialist Worker

Poland 1989: Promises that weren’t kept

by Andy Zebrowski
Issue No. 2176

Two big promises were made in 1989. First, that Poland would be a democratic society. And second that living standards for the mass of people would match those in the West.

People have been massively disillusioned on both counts.

Importantly, democratic rights were won. But the promise was of much greater democracy. Local councils were supposed to represent rule by local people. Parliament was supposed to mean the end of impersonal, unaccountable government.

There is cynicism towards politicians, which is why many people abstain from voting in elections.

At the last elections in 2007 less than 54 percent voted – which was high compared to the 41 percent who voted in 2005.


As for living standards, they are getting worse. Unemployment is back up to 11 percent and rising. At the turn of the year 5,200 people were being sacked every day. Swingeing health cuts are in the pipeline and wages are falling behind inflation.

Recently people gave their verdict on Poland before and after 1989 in an opinion poll. Some 44 percent “positively assessed” the pre-1989 system. Some 1 percent less thought the opposite.

The reality of Western-style capitalism is different to the absurd promises that were made in 1989.

The highest point of democracy in Poland was achieved in 1980-81 – the time of the mass workers’ fightback of the ten million strong Solidarity movement.

People forced out unpopular bosses and, during the highest points of the struggle, workers coordinated their activities across industries, organised food distribution and local transport.

The weakening of the left internationally at the time meant that in 1989 many former socialists and Marxists supported neoliberal politics.

This was part of a general feeling that democracy and Western-style capitalism went hand in hand.

The magic of the West now looks like an embarrassingly clumsy con-trick.

Many people have gone abroad to look for work and been forced to come home by growing joblessness internationally – only to find unemployment here. The popularity of the US as “the good superpower” is also waning.

Up to 81 percent want the 2,000 Polish troops in Afghanistan pulled out.

At recent celebrations of the 20th anniversary of 1989, prime minister Donald Tusk described it as ushering in a system where people could “bring up their children in peace and security – including material security”.

He spoke as if there were no poverty, no unemployment and no crisis.

If he had said those words 20 years ago there might have been a crowd of thousands cheering him on.

But Tusk was speaking to a small audience of politicians in a castle in Krakow protected by hundreds of cops – while thousands of trade unionists demonstrated in Katowice against the government.

It is becoming easier to argue that the fight for real democracy is the fight against capitalism.

Small groups of people are starting to build the beginnings of a new left. With the onset of mass struggle we can really take off.

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.