Air University Review, September-October 1981
Dr. Ivan Volgyes
Just as had happened in 1956 and 1970, crippling strikes have caused the replacement of the First Secretary of the Communist Party in Poland. As a result production came to near standstill in the industries of the state. Communist rule was experiencing one of its periodic crises. The cause of the crisis again this time was the inability of the system to provide even basic necessities for the normal operation of a system: food in the stores and enough money to live on in the pockets of the working people whom the regime ruled. It was precisely these workers, who had had enough, and the party, for the time being at least, had to give in.
To Western students of the operation of Communist states of Europe, the events in Poland have not been as much of a shock as they were to the leadership in Warsaw and Moscow. Not that most observers here are doomsayers, or "told-you-so" Monday morning quarterbacks; rather, viewed as dispassionately as possible from the outside, it has been clear that the crisis in Poland was inevitable.1 The modernization of Polish society—of all the societies in Eastern Europe—has been the most problematical, the most half-hearted. On the one hand, the Polish government was forced and was willing to accept a privately owned and operated small-scale agriculture that has been unable to supply the Polish population with basic foodstuff. On the other hand, the Polish leadership has opted for a large-scale state-operated centralized industrial economy that has been unable—even with the help of more than $20 billion borrowed from abroad—to put the economy on a competitive basis vis-à-vis the world economy. Politically, it has been the most "liberal’’ Eastern European regime, but it has failed to depoliticize public life and thereby threatened its own rule. Socially, the Polish government has succeeded in modernizing a backward social structure during two decades of Communist rule, but it has been forced to do everything to become status quo-oriented and stifle every attempt to induce further change into the social structure of the system during the last decade and a half.2
What has happened in Poland, needless to say, has not been unique, but other polities have decided to deal with the phenomena of modernization and development very differently. The Stalinist model, or centralized decision-making model, has been followed very closely in East Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, and Czechoslovakia since 1968; in fact, there the Slovak fascist model of earlier times has been pulled over the Communist body with remarkable alacrity. Only in Poland and Hungary—and, of course, outside the bloc in Communist Yugoslavia—have we witnessed a "liberal" systemic development.3
It seems to me, therefore, that it would be wrong merely to counterpose decay with development when examining the operation of the Polish or liberal systems; in reality our attempts to seek an explanation for the events in Poland would be best served if we recognized that these phenomena are integral parts of the daily operation of these systems.4 More specifically, it seems to me that the development of these systems has created or caused the decay or crises the region has been subject to. Contrary to the expectations and prophesies of communist theoreticians—and indeed some of our Western European and American specialists—as developments do take place, as the modernization and evolution of the region occur, these processes lead inevitably to decay, and crises soon thereafter may be noted.5
In regard to Poland, the political science literature devoted to the subject states explicitly that modernization is accompanied by increased interest group aggregation and articulation in the modernizing polity. Clearly, this phenomenon is observable in the Polish experience. As he working class, a new proletariat, appears, it begins to articulate its demands. If the system is unable to satisfy these demands, workers resort to means available to them and force the regime to come to terms.6 The success of the Polish state in modernizing and hence creating that working class has led to increasing demands being placed on the regime by the workers. In short, nothing fails like success!
But here, in the area of crisis management, the application of modern theories offers little explanation of why some states have been more successful in handling such demands than others. Why has greater success been noted in Hungary than in Poland? After all, both regimes have been rather liberal, national traditions remarkably similar, and external constraints much the same. Why, then, have the riots occurred in Poland and not in Hungary?
Two types of explanations can be advanced here: the first concentrates on the uniqueness in a country’s development, showing differences in response and leadership; the second is a theoretical approach to fundamental questions. The specific and unique explanations are somewhat simpler to identify.
The existence of the Kadar leadership in Hungary, starting in the mid-1960s, resulted from Soviet military intervention that left more than 10,000 people dead on the streets of Budapest and literally decimated a generation. The "never-again-so-many-dead" mentality created cognition of the limits of change on the part of the population and gave an intellectual tool to the leadership that was able to wink at the people and point to the possibility of intervention by the U.S.S.R. or a return to Stalinism in outlining the limits of change as perceived by the elite. In turn, this fear has lead to real reforms within clearly implied parameters. The political and economic liberalization in Hungary, unlike in Poland, has proceeded from the desire to depoliticize and privatize* an entire polity.7 On the one hand the "Greyhound effect" (the leave-the-driving-to-us mentality) enabled the party to initiate major changes without jeopardizing its leadership or allowing the articulation of independent interests while maintaining complete control over the political processes. Privatization the other hand, allowed the people to make as much money as they could and enabled the leadership to transfer blame for economic hardships and failures to the individuals themselves to middle-level managers, and to external constraints without jeopardizing their leadership.8 Coupled with these processes, the lumpen-proletarianization** of the working and class co-option of the intellectuals assured that there would be no coalescence between the proletariat and the intelligentsia, and the stable party leadership was able to keep the demands the workers from becoming political demands; they also kept the demands of the intelligentsia--- especially the miniscule "rebellious" intelligentsia—from acquiring a major economic base located with a developed proletariat.9
* "To alter the status of (as a business or industry) from public to private control or ownership." Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.
** The creation of a non-class-conscious proletariat whose basic interests are only their own (ends) and who are not willing to sacrifice their personal goals for those of the state.
While the localized explanation provides us with an understanding of the success of the Kadar regime and contrasts favorably with the failures of the Gierek regime in Poland, perhaps a theoretical explanation more appropriate to advance our understanding of the phenomena of crisis development and crisis management in liberal socialist polities. In my opinion no framework is better suited to examine these problems than the one provided some time ago by David Easton in his Systems Analysis of Political Life.10 Even though today many political scientists would claim that Easton’s framework is outmoded, this framework, when applied dynamically, is well suited to explain the existence of conflicts within Communist states and provides an explanation for the success and failure of Communist regimes.
According to Easton’s model, the political system consists of three areas, functions, or processes: output, input, and feedback. Communist polities are characterized by a near total control over these processes by a determined Communist party. Hence all decisions are made and carried out by the party or its representatives. The decisions are made on the bases of opinions and ideas advanced by the party or through party-controlled channels, and the population hysterically and happily supports all these decisions. As one heads away from totalitarian models, the party grudgingly allows a tiny bit of input from groups other than the party but still jealously guards its prerogatives in all three areas.
In Hungary a genuine and deliberate process had been instituted by the party in the mid-1960s to depoliticize public life: any issue discussed could be regarded as nonpolitical in nature, and hence even such issues as economic reforms, the growing trade with the West, or cultural-social developments could be argued publicly and differing solutions advanced in a nonpolitical context.11 The process of depoliticization thus allowed the party to open up the input process and the feedback loop to the widest strata of society; only the sociologist opponents who attempted to repoliticize the system were crushed by the regime and made to "abide" by the new ground rules. The party retained its absolute control over the output, the decision-making process; therefore, it could never be said that the Hungarian Communists violated the cardinal tenet of Leninism: democratic centralism, unquestioned party rule.12
The same cannot be said of Poland. There no depoliticization has occurred. In fact, since the 1960s there has been a heightened sense that every issue is regarded as a political issue.13 Although there had been and remains to date a great deal of liberalization of public life and the input and feedback processes had been opened up to selected and broader groups, the party expected to retain control over the output processes throughout the last two decades. In a politicized polity, however, that could not have remained intact; indeed, as the events of the last decade—1970, 1976, 1980-1981— conclusively proved, the party had to hack down. When faced with workers’ demands—and these demands, as expected, have grown from decisions relating to prices to the establishment of free trade unions and the right to strike—the regime could not enforce its decisions. One may argue, of course, that in 1980, as well, the government could have used the secret police or well-armed militia to crack down on the workers; the regime’s unwillingness to use them, however, was well justified in recognition that the Polish army would oppose and possibly fight such involvement.14 In the end, whether it had to or was willing to—and let us be charitable and accept the idea that Edward Gierek and Stanislaw Kania refused to use force out of humanitarian considerations—give in to the workers' demands. The party, at least partially, had to surrender the central core of Leninism: the control over the output function, especially insofar as the workers’ demands were concerned.
The consequences of these actions are expected to be far-reaching. It is most unusual for the party to surrender to such an extent its role; when that has happened in the past, the "fraternal assistance" provided by the U.S.S.R. and its allies has always been near, available, and well utilized, to prevent such surrenders of the party’s leading position from happening.
In Poland, however, such assistance cannot be employed with the same ease or assurance as in Czechoslovakia. The Polish army is well armed, and it is willing and able to fight. In fact, it is the best armed army in Eastern Europe today, with top-flight training, and against any invasion from the U.S.S.R., Czechoslovakia, or East Germany, at least its lower-rank officers (NCOs) and its conscripts would defend the nation even against orders given by the Polish government.15 In such a conflict, of course, Romania is not likely to participate, and top Warsaw Pact planners should plan on about 15 to 20 percent probable desertion rate from the Hungarian army. (Not that the latter matters greatly compared to East Germany’s and Czechoslovakia’s traditional willingness to partition Poland). Nonetheless, the U.S.S.R. realizes that it would be a protracted and bloody light to subdue Poland. This recognition, in my view, is largely responsible for the Soviets’ anxiousness in not being drawn into the conflict and explains their hope that the Polish leadership can and will settle the crisis alone.
Two additional areas of concern remain: the question of the decay of socialism and the question of options available to the leaders of the East European states. Decay, of course, is a value-loaded term implying a regression, a turning away from something pure and "good," certainly a regression. While there is indeed evidence that economic, social, and moral decay exists in each of these states, the caveat must be entered here that the polities under our examination, certainly have not been models of purity in the status quo ante; rather, in their "uncorruptible" ideal type, these regimes exhibited a number of characteristics that were as abominable and atrocious as can be found today. What has happened, clearly, is that a previously relatively Western cultural area had been taken over by a Communist culture, or rather the worst aspects of a Communist culture that largely stemmed from its Balkan nature. Bearing in mind Nestroy’s comment that "The Balkans begin at Schwechat," the Balkans, the bakshish economy, the second economy, official and semiofficial, sanctioned or merely accepted practices of corruption indeed, have penetrated the systems of rule that exist in the Communist states complementing the economic devolution or status quo of the area. Like terror, corruption no longer exists outside the system: in all instances it has been nationalized.16
But here my analysis begins to diverge from those of my colleagues. I do not view the phenomenon of corruption as unwelcome; indeed its existence in a weird way humanizes a theoretically uncorruptible system. Things do not work according to plan; therefore, corruption is utilized to make things work. What really has happened is that the ingenuity of the people of the region managed to privatize a system based on societal rule. They humanized where possible to serve their own ends and have been relatively successful in tearing down the mindless nightmare that passes for "planned" society.
What options are available, then, to the leaders of Eastern Europe? In a sense, it could be argued that the crisis in Poland was indirectly initiated by the West. It was the bankers and lenders of the West who insisted on austerity and economic tightening, abolition of price supports, and greater work efficiency, thereby triggering those measures the Polish leaders wanted to implement and those measures that triggered the strikes in Poland. The leaders of these regimes must tread a very narrow path between economic reform and constant crisis management; spiraling energy costs, spiraling debt service, and economies that in most areas cannot compete with the West offer very little room for the leaders to maneuver. In looking at the problem of the region, one must do more than posit one’s preference, such as Gierek or Kania versus Olszowski or Barcikowski. Rather, the problem must be approached from systemic perspective; given the external an internal constraints, is there really a workable alternative?17
The sad reality, it seems to me, is that these questions are not asked in most of the states where leaders attempt to muddle through, passing insoluble problems on to leaders who will come after them, clinging to the power with an après moi le déluge attitude. After more than three decades in power, the leadership seems to have run out of ideas of political and social renewal, economic management and dynamic change. And hence we are, indeed, going to witness both the phenomenon of development and the phenomenon of decay in the crises of a system that promised paradise but got stuck on the way out of purgatory.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
1. Walter D. Connor, "Social Change and Stability in Eastern Europe," Problems of Communism, November-December 1977, pp. 16-32.
2. Andrzej Korbonski, "Prospects for Change in Eastern Europe," Slavid Review, June 1974, pp. 219-39.
3. Melvin Croan, "Some Constraints on Change in Eastern Europe," Slavic Review, June 1974, pp. 240-45.
5. Andrzej Korbonski, "The ‘Change to Change’ in Eastern Europe," in Jan F. Triska and Paul M. Cocks, editors, Political Development in Eastern Europe (New York, 1977), pp. 3-29.
6. Andrzej Korbonski, "Leadership Succession and Political Change in Eastern Europe," Studies in Comparative Communism, Spring-Summer 1976, pp. 3-22.
7. Ivan Volgyes, "The Kadar Years: Nothing Fails Like Success," Current History, April 1981, pp. 159-64; "Hungary: From Mobilization to Depoliticization," Po1itical Socialization in Eastern Europe (New York, 1975), pp. 92-131; "The Impact of Modernization on Political Development" in Charles Gati, editor, The Politics of Modernization in Eastern Europe (New York, 1974), pp. 328-37.
8. Ivan Volgyes, "Social Change in Post-Revolutionary Hungary, 1956-1976," Canadian-American Review of Hungarian Studies, Spring 1978, pp. 29-39.
9. Ivan Volgyes, "The Lumpenproletarianization of the Working Class," in Charles Gati and Jan F. Triska, editors. The Working Class in Eastern Europe (London and New York: George Allen and Unwin, 1981) forthcoming.
10. David Easton, Systems Analysis of Political Life (New York, 1965).
11. Ivan Volgyes, "The Hungarian Tightrope," East Europe, May 1972, pp. 2-4.
12. Ivan Volgyes, "The Limits of Political Liberalization in Eastern Europe," Current History, March 1976, pp. 107-11.
13. George Kolankiewicz, "Poland: Socialism for Everyman?" in Archie Brown and Jack Gray, editors, Political Culture and Political Change in Communist States (London, 1977).
14. Ivan Volgyes, "The Military as an Agent of Political Socialization: The Case of Hungary," in Dale R. Herspring and Ivan Volgyes, editors, Civil-Military Relations in Communist Systems (Boulder, Colorado, 1978), pp. 145-64; Ivan Volgyes, "Modernization, Stratification and Elite Development," Social Forces, December 1978, pp. 500-21; Ivan Volgyes, "The New Phase of Reform in Hungary," Current History, May 1973, pp. 216-20, 32; Ivan Volgyes, "The Political Reliability of the Armed Forces of Eastern Europe," with Dale R. Herspring, Armed Forces and Society, Winter 1980, pp. 270-96; Ivan Volgyes and Dale R. Herspring, "The Military as an Agent of Political Socialization: Toward a Conceptual Framework," Armed Forces and Society, Winter 1977, pp. 249-70.
15. A. Ross Johnson et al., East European Military Establishments: The Warsaw Pact Northern Tier (Santa Monica, California: Rand, 1980).
16. Ivan Volgyes, "Politics, Ideology and Culture: The STP’s of Life in Communist Eastern Europe," The Social Science Journal, October 1976, pp. 93-102.
17. Adam Michnik, "The New Evolutionism," Survey, Summer/Autumn 1976, pp. 267-77; Peter Osnos, "The Polish Road to Communism," Foreign Affairs, October 1977, p. 209.
Ivan Volgyes(B.A., M.A., Ph.D., The American University) is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Eastern European Studies Program at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Dr. Volgyes has published numerous books and articles relating to Eastern Europe.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
Air & Space Power Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor