DEMOCRACY & NATURE: The International Journal of INCLUSIVE DEMOCRACY, vol.5, no.2 (July 1999)

In Search of an Alternative Path:

Report from Poland


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Abstract:  The Solidarity Labour Union sought to free Poles from communist exploitation and seek a third way that is based neither on the state or in the marketplace. Ten years after the historic free elections, the country stands on the brink of expropriating land from thousands, perhaps millions, of peasants. Polish farmers are known for their ability to resist oppression; however, they currently are under intense pressure from western financial interests to increase GDP. Farmers have recently responded with mass demonstrations, evoking the memory of the Solidarity protests of more than a decade ago. Poland has clearly reached another critical juncture in its history, the question is will it be allowed to remain loyal to the principles of Solidarity?



Over the past ten years the countries of Central Europe have been led down the road of free market reform. An army of advisors were dispatched to the former Eastern Bloc, wielding assistance programs designed to help increase GDP per capita. While some improvements have been realized, the countries of Central Europe and Russia have either approached the brink of disaster or are in a more precarious state than before reforms began.

The experience of Poland offers a vivid illustration of the damaging effects of zealous market reform. The first cruel step began almost immediately after the Solidarity government took power in 1989. The now infamous “economic shock treatment,” designed by the minister of Finance Leszek Balcerowicz and Harvard economist David Sachs, removed price controls with one stroke while simultaneously reducing public expenditures. As inflation skyrocketed to 300 percent and unemployment reached double digits, Poles saw their standard of living evaporate.

Although Solidarity had espoused free market reforms prior to the election, the austere measures implemented after its victory were a departure from the demands put forward at the 1989 Gdansk Round Table discussions, where the union had embraced such pro-labour policies as wage indexing. The abrupt change in direction on the part of Solidarity leaders resulted from pressure by the IMF, who was concerned that Poles were inclined towards populist policies, and thought that these tendencies would grow as the country gained more democratic experience.[1] It knew that Poles were not likely to tolerate the hardships and inequities that would come with free-market reform. Consequently, action needed to be swift and the IMF thus pressured the newly elected government to betray its constituency and turn away from its former labour-friendly platform.  The subsequent victory of the Polish Left in both the 1993 parliamentary and 1995 presidential elections is partly due to this bait-and-switch tactic. Only one party descended from Solidarity, the left-leaning Union of Labour, retained seats in the 1993 parliament.

However, the Polish Left, while promising a more socially responsible form of capitalism, carried on the same policies as the ousted government. Privatization continued to be pursued and budget deficits remained within the IMF-mandated 5 percent of GDP.

In 1997, the government changed hands again.  This time Solidarity ―which had transformed into a coalition called the Solidarity Election Action, composed of former trade union members and 25 other right-leaning parties― regained its former parliamentary majority with 34 percent of the vote. The victory was a surprise to most, with polls predicting a repeat win for the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). Why the AWS took the majority is still subject to debate. Although it has been characterized as right-wing, the AWS’s platform was decidedly labour friendly, promising dramatic improvements in education, wage increases for teachers, increased spending for the health sector, and commitment to protecting Poland’s family farmers. The latter tenet may have accounted for the party’s surprising success in small villages across the country, where more than a third of the populace lives. Indeed, the AWS is believed to have taken crucial votes away from the Polish Peasant’s Party ―a party that had represented a majority of farmers in previous elections and who was coalition partner that, together with the SLD, carried the 1993 election.

Although the SLD did not take the most votes, it did place a close second with 27 percent of the vote. Running third was the Freedom Union (UW), a “centrist” party led by former finance minister Leszek Balcerowitz who had recently completed a temporary post at the World Bank. The UW was widely regarded among Poles for the drop in the standard of living and unemployment. It was also considered by some right-wing leaders to have been responsible for the previous election victories of the Left, and was thus shunned by these leaders.[2] Nevertheless, the UW managed 13 percent of the vote (2 percent less than what they won in the 1993 election) and subsequently became a coalition partner with the AWS.  Balcerowitz managed to swing an appointment to the post of deputy prime minister in charge of finance; however, whether he is able to continue to hold on to the position is doubtful, given his growing unpopularity stemming, in part, from his severe criticisms of the AWS and labor unions in general. He recently disparaged the idea of having a trade union influence state policy, a remark not highly regarded by many Poles and particularly not by those in the AWS. Although the UW came in third, its percentage of the votes at approximately 10 percent, was lower than it had been in the previous parliamentary election. Some analysts were surprised that it had done as well as it did.

One factor that should not be ignored is campaign spending. The 1997 campaign was by far the most expensive on record in Poland, with the increase largely due to increased television ads. Not surprisingly, the amount spent by each party had a direct bearing on the election results. The AWS was the leader, spending 11 million zl, while the SLD and the UW spent 9.3 million zl and 7.6 million, respectively. In contrast, the Peasant’s Party, which won 7.3 percent of the vote, spent 3.5 million zl.[3]

Trouble in the Fields

After less than a year in office, the new right-centrist government realized a significant loss of support. Among the more vocal critics of the administration was the agricultural sector. But the farmers critical of the government were not the managers of huge state-run collectives, who feared the loss of their jobs as a result of privatization. Instead, the chief critics were small private farmers, whose plots, on average, amounted to less than nine hectares each.    

In March of 1998, the farmers launched a public demonstration in front of the president’s and prime minister’s residences. They criticized the country’s bid to join the European Union, displaying banners that read “Don’t join the EU by stepping on the backs of farmers.” EU officials had recommended that Poland’s farmers compete with EU farmers during ten-year transition period, while denying Polish farmers the subsidies provided to the Western European farmers. To understand the magnitude of the disadvantage, if the same compensatory payments were to be given to farmers in Central Europe as are given to those in the West, farmers in Poland and other countries would be eligible to receive up to $7.5 billion.

Polish farmers would also be required to meet the technical requirements of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. The draconian standards of the CAP fly in the face of traditional Polish farming practices. For example, Polish farmers commonly feed their cattle on sugar beet leaves, which are cheap, plentiful, and resource efficient. However, under the CAP, farmers would have to cease this practice (because of alleged impacts on taste) forcing them to resort to more expensive feed inputs.[4]

A second, more aggressive farmer protest occurred in July of 1998. This time farmers stormed the streets of Warsaw, stopping traffic, and engaging in scuffles with police who bore down on them with tear gas, water cannons, and nightsticks. The protest was organized by the a coalition of farmer trade unions, notably the Farmer’s Self-Defense Union and Rural Solidarity (two organizations which helped fight for farmers’ interests during the heyday of Solidarity), and the National Union of Farmers’ Organizations. More than 10,000 protestors participated in the rally, which this time focused on the government allowing subsidized food imports to enter the country. The sheer size of the demonstration, and the government’s use of weapons against protestors, evoked memories of Solidarity’s martial law skirmishes as well as the earlier resistance to collectivization.

The Warsaw protest was followed by a several weeks of blockades of highway and rail border crossings. At the Slovakian border, farmers destroyed 20 train cars carrying imported grain. In response, the government purchased the farmers’ domestic grain, ensured payment guarantees for farmers, and instituted a customs surcharge on imported grain, despite claims that the surcharge would violate World Trade Organization rules. Nevertheless, farmers were not pleased with the proffered price and threatened to renew the protests if their demands were not met.

Several months later, in January of this year, nearly 6,000 farmers again took to the streets, this time blocking 120 roads in 12 provinces and 3 major border crossings. They were again protesting foreign-subsidized food imports and demanding guaranteed prices for pork, milk, and butter products. Polish farmers had been unable to export some of these products as they had in the past to Russia, because of a flood of EU and America exports on the Russian market. These subsidized foreign products caused a glut in the domestic market. The Polish government, which had been buying the excess meat and dairy products, claimed that it did not have the resources to handle the domestic glut that occurred as a result of the export reduction.[5]

Unlike the Solidarity protests more than a decade ago, news of the farmers’ demonstration received little press in the West. Those who did mention the strikes generally cast Polish agriculture as backward, inefficient, and in desperate need of reform. The hubris endemic to such characterizations was exemplified in one story that acknowledged the pivotal role Polish farmers played in bringing about democracy. At the same time, the same reporter ominously concludes that farmers must go as they have outlasted their usefulness. “During the long winter of communism, Polish peasants saved the seed corn, the grains of tradition and faith which only now can bloom and prosper. As their moment passes, they are due a word of thanks from all of us who reap the benefits.”[6]

Resisting Collectivization

Although Polish farmers were largely eclipsed in the press by the workers’ Solidarity union, it is a fact that they played a key role in undermining communism, which led to Poland’s first free democratic elections. From the very start, they resisted the government’s efforts to consolidate land holdings. Guided by both orthodox Marxism and Western modernization theory, the Communist parties of Central Europe introduced scientific management to the countryside soon after World War II. This involved rationalizing farm practices and raising economies of scale, while, in turn, freeing up labor for industrial expansion. As Boguslaw Galeski indicates, "agriculture was thought of in the same way as industry: gigantic state farms directed by bureaucracy and subordinated to central steering"[7]. With the exception of Yugoslavia and Poland, agriculture was reorganized into Soviet-style industrial farms throughout the Eastern Bloc, with private holdings consolidated into large-scale production units. In Bulgaria, for example, nearly all of the agricultural land was transformed into enormous farms averaging nearly 24,000 hectares each.[8]

In Poland, however, barely 10 percent of the agricultural land was collectivized.  Passive resistance to the program along with active rebellion, such as burning grain and destroying crops, helped induce severe food shortages, which in turn led to rioting and chaos. Although tensions mounted between Warsaw and Moscow at the time, Poland’s leaders managed to convince the Kremlin of the "many roads to socialism" and of Poland’s need to develop a "national brand of communism" consistent with its traditions.[9] In response, the Kremlin consented to the end of forced collectivization in Poland. Almost immediately, some 8,000 of the 10,000 collectives spontaneously dissolved. Those that remained were primarily in areas where peasant communities were not well established, such as in the western territories annexed from Germany.

But the defeat of collectivization did not mark the end of oppressive policies. The Polish government continued to discriminate against peasant cultivators, by granting subsidies and investments to state farms only. Although peasants no longer had to deliver produce to the state, they were obliged to buy a certain amount of fertilizer, irrespective of their needs, a practice farmers regarded not as a form of subsidy but of taxation. They were also required to exchange grain for “first quality seed” which was often of poorer quality than what farmers produced for themselves.[10]

Even so, peasant farmers were more efficient and productive than the subsidized state farms, which relied on chemical pesticides and fertilizers and mechanization. Consequently, throughout the communist period, low-input peasant farms continued to maintain a hold on approximately 70 percent of the land and accounted for 80 percent of total agricultural yields[11]. The ability of Polish peasants to meet domestic food needs thus gave rise to a policy of “repressive tolerance.”[12] The domination of the countryside by peasant farmers is what is considered to have crippled communism, insofar as farmers’ independence from “the system” frustrated the government’s ability to manage the economy.[13]

Today, farm size in Poland averages under 8 hectares, and approximately 90 percent of farms are under 15 hectares. There are still some 2 million farms in Poland, providing a livelihood for nearly a quarter of the population.

The Silent Invasion

While Polish farmers were able to resist the communists, it is less certain whether they can survive the western integration, which has become the buzz word used to describe the purpose of current “reforms.” Advocates of reform cite Poland’s farmers contribution to GDP, at approximately 6 percent, as being too low. The problem, they claim, is that farmers suffer from inadequate economies of scale, lack of specialization, low synthetic input (fertilizer and pesticide), and inadequate mechanization, the same criticisms leveled at farmers throughout the communist years. It is true that most of Poland’s small farms are not specialized and grow a mixture of different crops while also raising stock, while pesticide use averages less than a quarter kilogram per acre.

However, the critics never acknowledge the benefits of these practices. Only environmental organizations have recognized the singular opportunity presented by Poland’s small scale and ecologically friendly agriculture. One such organization, named Ekoland and led by a host of agricultural and soil scientists from Warsaw, is working to secure sustainable farming in Poland. Today, Ekoland is certifying Polish farms meeting international organic farming standards and is currently striving to register 200,000 farms. Nevertheless, whether organizations such as Ekoland can facilitate further movement towards ecological agriculture is doubtful; external pressures to expand farm size is immense.

In a recent issue of Forbes, U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger remarked on the need to restructure Polish agriculture. In his editorial, entitled “Poland: A Strong Friend We Must Not Lose,” Forbes notes that Poland’s small farms are “basically inefficient.”  Why is a former U.S. defense secretary concerned about the efficiency of Polish farms? The answer lies with Poland’s NATO membership. The military technology and other infrastructure improvements needed to join NATO will require Poland to come up with nearly $8 billion.[13(a)] Poland will have to dramatically increase its GDP to pay for this expansion, albeit at the cost of its peasant farmers.

Foreign multinationals are currently at work in transforming the Polish countryside into new industrial farms. The U.S. Agribusiness Council ―a consortium of U.S. businesses which established a similar organization in Poland in 1995― has been attempting to resocialize Polish farmers to western-style farming through "professional training" and credits. Similarly, in anticipation of the transformation, Ciba-Geigy has constructing a pesticide warehouse in Warsaw capable of distributing four to eight thousand tons of pesticides each year, while Monsanto has been offering free genetically-altered seed to any farmers who would have it. The idea behind such “gifts”, of course, is to get Polish farmers hooked on Western inputs. Land o’ Lakes representative Martha Cashman admits that dependency is the goal. “By helping them develop their economy,” she reports, “we’re helping them move toward the time when they can purchase commodities and products, not just depend on commodities donated by the US and other countries. We’re developing international markets for the future by creating a demand for our products and services.”[14]

Poles have not been blind to the deceptive and self-serving nature of many foreign aid programs. Polish environmentalists have expressed outrage over the amount of environmental aid that has been used to pay foreign consultants performing "feasibility studies." Most of the funds, they claim, have been used to pay for hotels and restaurants patronized by consultants during field visits and are not helping the environment[15]. Similarly, in an article appearing in the Solidarity magazine Tygodnik Solidarnosc, commentator Teresa Kuczynska notes that expensive loans being made to Poland have simply been full-employment programs for foreign consultants. Citing the World Bank’s loan for $100 million to the Ministry of Labor for creating new jobs, Kuczynska indicates that 99 percent of the loan funds were repatriated, having, “trickled back to the West in the form of exorbitant fees of western experts...and in payments for imported hardware the experts recommend for employment offices’ computerization programs”.[16] 

In addition to making foreign consultants richer, the World Bank has also actively been guiding the planning for usurping Poland’s farmers. In its 1990 Agricultural Strategy for Poland, the Bank recommends a measure incongruous with the principles of free-market reform: increased taxation for Polish farmers. The Bank writes that "agricultural land and tax policy must be directed to action which leads to amalgamation of holdings, consolidation of plots, effective custom operation and other measures which provide economies of scale in farming"[17]. The tax policy would serve as a structural lever, facilitating the transfer and disposal of land by creating new cash liabilities. Realizing the value of land through sales is only attractive if the opportunity value significantly exceeds the emotional risks involved in selling and leasing, continues the report. If however, unused or unprofitable land is a cash liability, then farmers will take steps to reduce that liability.  A land tax would apply just such a pressure.”[18].

The World Bank recognizes that the transition will be difficult,  acknowledging the strength of the peasantry and their profound sense of independence. "Private farmers are emotionally tied to the land, which allows them to remain independent and in charge of their own farms" notes the report[19]. Nevertheless, the Bank’s recommendations are being put in action. Recently, a land tax, similar to what the World Bank had proposed, was introduced in a bill in the Polish legislature.

Shaving Poland’s Backbone

But this grow-or-die mandate is not limited to farmers. Small business is also receiving pressure to increase its contribution to GDP. Unlike farmers, small business owners have been lauded by Western analysts for their entrepreneurial ability, and have frequently been referred to as the backbone of the so-called “Polish miracle.” This is because registered and unregistered small businesses together have grown to account for 75 percent of the country’s GDP, and employ 60 percent of all workers.[20] The retail sector has experienced particularly dynamic growth, expanding from 152,000 shops in 1989 to 400,000 in 1994. These are primarily small family owned and operated “mom and pop” shops. There are so many of these shops, as many as 11 stores per 1,000 inhabitants, that Poland leads Europe in sheer numbers of retail outlets.[21]

But Western analysts have deemed that the situation must change. As the title of a recent business journal article commenting on the Polish situation ominously claims: “The Path to Wealth is Paved with Entrepreneurs”[22]. Western governments and corporations have taken a decisive role in ensuring that this outcome occurs. Giant chains, such as Germany’s Hit stores, have been decimating Polish retail entrepreneurs.  Yet Poles, rather than bow to such events, and accept the “inevitable,” as the situation is often characterized, have been organizing resistance at the grass roots. Small Polish shopkeepers have begun to collectively block local planning permits for the new mega-stores.

In light of these events, it is not surprising that Poles have become increasingly cynical and resentful regarding their so-called integration with the West. The cynicism has also been reflected in surveys regarding attitudes among the general population regarding EU and NATO membership. Survey results show that Polish support for NATO has dropped to 60 percent, down from 80 percent one year ago.[23] Enthusiasm for EU membership has sunk so low in Polandless than two-thirds of all Poles support the idea that the government has recently launched an aggressive information campaign to improve public perception of the EU. President Aleksander Kwasniewski believes that while the campaign will be costly, “the value of the outcome will many times exceed the funds invested.” Unfortunately Kwasniewski fails to take note of the fact that Poles recognize that, while some may indeed profit from membership, many will lose. He attitude also reflects a subservience towards the EU that is distasteful. “Whether walking or crawling to the EU,” he states, “all the changes we face are inevitable.”[24] The implied surrender in this statement is antithetical to the Polish penchant for resistance both recently and throughout most of its history.

Seeking a Third Road?

David Ost indicates that Poland’s Solidarity movement was unique in its search for an alternative to the capitalist/communist dichotomy, an elusive search for a ideological “third road.”  “Their goal was a political system centered on neither the state nor the market, but on the public sphere of a strong, pluralist, and independent civil society,” writes Ost. “Statist and market principles both appear as a constraint on public freedom. And so, the idea of a "third road" a civil society based neither in the state nor in the marketplace, but in a vibrant political public sphere itself....And this is what makes the Solidarity experience so fascinating: its difficult, dramatic, painful, and yet exhilarating search for that elusive "third road".”[25]

Indeed, Solidarity’s foundational statement of purpose suggests such an intention. The statement indicates that the very name Solidarity was chosen because it reflected, “the idea of a working people’s brotherhood as a common front against exploitation, no matter what mottos are used to disguise such exploitation.”[26]  The grass roots resistance to free-market reform suggests that Poles have not abandoned their search for this third road. At a minimum, they have refused to accept the concentration of power and property in their country at the hands of transnational corporations or through organizations such as the European Union and World Bank.

In conclusion, the situation in Poland can be summed up by reference to a commercial for Marlboro cigarettes that was shown in movie theaters in Poland. The commercial begins with a cowboy riding his horse at full speed down a narrow canyon, somewhere in the American West, in hot pursuit of a stampeding herd of horses. Eventually, the canyon opens to a wide plain and, as the cowboy stops to light a cigarette, the herd runs off into the sunset. Just before the Marlboro logo flashes across the screen, a disembodied voice says, "Sometimes you need to show the way to freedom."

While the commercial was specifically intended to help generate support for privatizing the state-owned cigarette factories, it typifies the larger message being broadcast in post-Soviet countries regarding the new world order. In a dramatic yet subtle manner, the newly independent peoples and nations are told that they, like horses (or more rightly cattle), must follow the lead of their benevolent Western guide. In short, they must acquiesce or, as it is more frequently expressed, “adjust” to what the market demands. The problem with this approach is that it blatantly rejects the self-determination of the former Eastern Bloc. It ignores the fact that nations of the former Soviet Union are in a unique position and have begun to pioneer a new path to freedom. For some, it is not a stampede but a slow and deliberate quest for a way that will be equitable and free of exploitation.


[1] James Bjork, “The Uses of Conditionality: Poland and the IMF,” East European Quarterly (March 1995), pp. 96-97.

[2] “A House Still Divided,” Warsaw Voice (July 21, 1996).

[3] Tomasz Oljasz, “Unmasking th Benefactors,” Warsaw Voice (January 11, 1998).

[4] Matthew Day, “Cold Comforts on the Farm,” Warsaw Voice (October 11, 1998).

[5] Patricia Koza, “One Rule for the Rich...,” Warsaw Voice (March 7, 1999).

Tomasz Oljasz. “Gridlock on Reform,” Warsaw Voice (February 7, 1999).

[6] Tim Snyder “Poland’s Return to Europe is a Plunge Into Modernity,” Christian Science Monitor (May 21, 1998).

[7] Boguslaw Galeski, “Solving the Agrarian Question in Poland.” Sociologia Ruralis 22:2 (1982), p. 150.

[8] Mark Redman, “Grey Fields, Green Future?” Ecologist (January/February 1996), p. 16.

[9] Norman Davies, Heart of Europe- A Short History of Poland. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 10.

[10] Galeski, “Solving the Agrarian Question in Poland.” p. 158.

[11] Galeski, “Solving the Agrarian Question in Poland.” p. 162.

[12] Krzystof Gorlach, “On Repressive Tolerance.” Sociologia Ruralis. 29:1 (1989), p. 26.

[13] Gorlach, “On Repressive Tolerance.”, p. 23.

[13(a)] Internet: “Estimated Cost of NATO Enlargement: A Contribution to the Debate: State Defense System: Equipment and Modernization” Embassy of the Republic of Poland, Washington, D.C.

[14] Patricia Miller, “LOL Has Perestroika Plans of Its Own to Establish International Markets,” Farmer Cooperatives (July 1990).

[15] Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe. Strategic Environmental Issues in Central and Eastern Europe, Regional Report, Volume I (REC, Budapest, August 1994).

[16] Teresa Kuczynska, “Foreign Loans Investigated,” Tygodnik Solidarnosc (11 March 1994). [translation in Polish News Bulletin. 29:95 (13 February 1995). British and American Embassies.]

[17] World Bank, An Agricultural Strategy for Poland: Report of the Polish European Community (Washington, D.C. 1990), p. 261.

[18] World Bank, An Agricultural Strategy for Poland: Report of the Polish European Community,  p. 252.

[19] World Bank, An Agricultural Strategy for Poland: Report of the Polish European Community, p. 56.

[20] Daniel Michaels, “Poland Lets Small Business Go Begging,” Central European Economic Review (Autumn 1994), p. 12.

[21] Lidia Sosnowska-Smogorzewska, “Waving Goodbye to Mom and Pop.” Warsaw Voice (May 28, 1995).

[22] “The Path to Wealth is Paved with Entrepreneurs.” Warsaw Business Journal, Vol. 2, No. 18 (April 29 - May 5, 1996), p.10.

[23] “Support for NATO Membership Drops in Poland and Hungary,” Central Europe Online (March 10, 1999).

[24] quoted in Tomasz Oljasz, “Europe Bound,” Warsaw Voice (November 8, 1998).

[25] David Ost, Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), p. 14-15, 30.

[26] quoted in  Janine Wedel, The Private Poland, (New York: Facts on File Publications, 1986).