The Moral Revolution in East-Central Europe

05/10/2015 03:34 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2016

Some of the most powerful critiques of the Communist governments in East-Central Europe were moral. Vaclav Havel, for instance, argued that the regimes, with their propaganda and inequalities and corruption, were built on a foundation of lies. He proposed the alternative of "living in truth," which in its rejection of collaborating with a system of lies was at its essence a moral act. It wasn't, in other words, a question of whether the system worked, in terms of delivering the economic goods or keeping the streets safe and clean. The question was whether the system allowed people to live with integrity. Havel and other dissidents tried to do so and were thrown into jail for their efforts.

Those who collaborated with the system may once have done so out of political commitment. But by the 1970s and 1980s, collaboration was more a function of opportunism. Party membership came with certain benefits. And those who didn't agree with the system but also didn't speak out against it were preserving whatever privileges they enjoyed, even if it was only the privilege of not being in jail. This was the moral critique of dissidents like Havel.

When I interviewed the Polish philosopher Zbigniew Szawarski in 1990, he was not happy about the new order developing in the country. He felt that a new totalitarianism, created by the Solidarity opposition in cooperation with the Catholic Church, was replacing Communist totalitarianism. He elaborated on his discomfort 23 years later when I met with him and his daughter Dorota at a café in Warsaw. Indeed, he had seen an opportunistic tendency developing within the Solidarity opposition even before it came to power in 1989.

"There was no selection of the people on the basis of intellectual or especially moral qualities," he told me. "Everyone was welcome. So you could see quite unpleasant people joining the movement. Probably that happens everywhere. But there were so many people attracted with opportunistic attitudes -- supporting the movement because they hate the Communists but can also to get their own position in the movement sooner or later."

Still, he had high expectations when the Berlin Wall fell, and the region began to move closer to the West. "When we destroyed the Wall, I thought we would bring in Western culture, Western manners, and the Western way of life, but I was wrong," he continued. "What we brought was mostly goodies, economic goodies. You could buy anything you want in Poland: Jaguar, Mercedes, the most recent model of laptop. But that's the not a way of thinking, of behaving, of choosing your leaders in a democratic society. Democratic culture didn't follow material goodies. We still import a lot of things, but we use them in the Polish way."

But perhaps the greatest disappointment has been in the moral sphere. The new system of lustration - screening people for their connections to the previous regime - was supposed to redress the moral failures of the past. But lustration too had its moral defects.

"The former system was based on distrust: everyone was a potential enemy of the people," Szawarski noted. "And now everyone is a potential criminal or enemy who has to be controlled by the system, by the government. We have all these gizmos used for surveillance just like in the United States. We use that technology not for liberation but more and more to suppress people's freedoms and rights."

His daughter Dorota, a social anthropologist, agreed. "In terms of persecution, what we also have here is the National Heritage Institute, which is supposed to be like a peace and reconciliation institute. But it's basically a witch-hunting institute," she said. "Three years ago, there was a big lustration program that was supposed to eliminate from the public sphere anyone who had anything to do with the old regime. Even cleaning ladies had to sign a paper if they worked in a summer camp where the children of the political elite went. Sometimes certain documents were doctored in order to make life difficult for certain people."

She felt that this kind of process has undermined Polish society. "Poland already has a low level of trust in society whether it's trust between people or trust in public institutions or government," she concluded. "But this kind of institution undermines that even further. The other thing is: instead of using this institution for something useful or positive, it's used in a very negative way. It also gave the illusion that something was being done. They try to use this problem to cover up other problems like massive social problems, inequalities, problems accessing health care, massive emigration. Instead of trying to solve the problems of today and tomorrow, they concentrate on the past."

Her father nodded vigorously. "You can't drive a car looking in the rearview mirror," he pointed out.

The Interview

The description of Poland in the West is quite favorable. Tusk is presented as a sensible politician who is not corrupt. Poland has had economic growth, even during the economic crisis. If you compare it to Hungary or Bulgaria, there's no crazy far-right wing political force. There's PiS but not Jobbik. So, in comparison, Poland seems like a winner.

Dorota: So, why are people emigrating?

That's a question. Why?

Zbigniew: People aren't asking why the best people are emigrating.

I want to know why. Tell me why!


Dorota: There is no security here in Poland. For example, employers totally don't respect employment law. And we have a fairly unfriendly employment law. We have different kinds of contracts. There are three basic types, and only one gives you any social security such as health insurance or retirement. Of the other two, one doesn't give you anything except money, and the other one gives you health insurance and takes out some money for the national pension. But these two that don't give you full insurance are called rubbish contracts. You have no right to holiday or maternity leave. You can lose your job overnight. With a full employment contract, depending on how long you've been employed, you always get two or three months notice and also, depending on how you long you work, some severance. But only a lucky few have those contracts, and usually not young people, not even people in their thirties. So, those who have full contracts, at least in my generation, are afraid to lose their jobs.

Zbigniew: They don't take any political risks.

Dorota: And you can't even take the risk of buying property, because you don't have access to credit if you don't have a proper employment contract. So you stay with your parents or you rent a place in Warsaw, which is very expensive. There's a sense of insecurity. The threat of unemployment is one thing. It's growing, and it takes a long time to find a job. But this feeling of insecurity and the abuses suffered by workers are driving people out. You might be working extra hours and you don't get paid for that. If you don't like it, there are 10 other people waiting in line.

Zbigniew: And the law isn't on your side.

Dorota: Even if you have rights, you don't have a way of protecting them. There are institutions that are supposed to be working for you, but they don't work. For example, people are working very long hours, like in Korea. But again, if you ask why people are leaving, they migrate for jobs and more money, but they also emigrate for lifestyle. They want to work, but they want to have time to live, be with their family, to travel, to pursue their hobbies, all of which they don't have time for here.

It's interesting that you stress security since ordinarily the life of immigrants is insecure.

Dorota: But people feel more secure there! Two million people have left, and they're not coming back. The other indicator is birth rate. Poland has one of the lowest birthrates in Poland, but Polish migrants in the UK have one of the highest among immigrants, higher than people from South Asia. That's an indication of how you secure you feel. If you feel under threat, you don't have children.

Zbigniew: The old system fulfilled these basic needs. We had to wait for our flat for 11 years, but we got it in the end. But here a young person graduating from university has to work 60 years to save money to buy a flat. No bank will offer credit unless they have a good job. It's a vicious circle.
Dorota: Job security is one thing. But we also have first-rate employees and second-rate. We didn't have that in the past.

There's been a rise in what we call "flexible" employment.

Dorota: They have a flexible structure in Denmark, but they also have excellent social structures.

So, why would you stay here?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.