Poles apart?

Issue: 127
Posted: 25 June 10

Adam Fabry

Jane Hardy, Poland’s New Capitalism (Pluto Press, 2009), £ 13.99

Throughout the Cold War, Poland played a central role in developments within the Soviet bloc, often representing a beacon of workers’ struggle against its inherently sclerotic economy and repressive Stalinist regime. As the largest economy and most populous country in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) with more than 38 million citizens, Poland today remains a key puzzle for understanding political and economic developments not just within the ex-Stalinist states, but also in Europe as a whole.

The aim of Jane Hardy’s new book, Poland’s New Capitalism, is to assess the neoliberal policies that have guided Poland’s reintegration into the circuits of global capitalism, the way that this process has been mediated by social forces and its impact on the work and welfare of Polish people. As Hardy points out in the introduction, the dominant narrative about the trajectory of Poland, and indeed the whole world, since 1989-90 has been one of “capitalist triumphalism”. This view was most famously summed up in the utopian “end of history” thesis of the neoconservative Francis Fukuyama. According to Fukuyama, the downfall of Stalinism in CEE, and later throughout the Soviet bloc, represented an “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism”, marking not only the “triumph of West”, but also “the end of history as such”.

Fukuyama’s argument spread quickly across the world like a bush fire in summer, developing into the official credo of politicians, scholars and the mainstream media. As such, it provided policymakers—in East and West alike—with the ideological ammunition necessary to implement draconian welfare cuts in the form of so-called “shock therapy” measures, geared at reintegrating the former state capitalist economies of CEE into the global economy. Two decades on, these measures have entailed far more “shock” than “therapy” for the majority of the Polish people.

And still the acolytes of global capitalism continue unrepentantly to hail the transformation of the Polish economy since 1989 as a “success story”. Apologists for global capital point to the sight of refurbished palaces, fashionable restaurants and modern shopping centres with well-dressed consumers in the major cities of CEE, as a vindication of their faith in the positive “ripple down effects” of the market. Pointing to Poland’s “good fundamentals”—the economy grew by 6.5 percent in 2007 and has also been able to withstand the worst effects of the global economic crisis—lends further credence to the neoliberal fantasies about how the market has worked wonders in Poland.

However, as Phaedrus, the Roman fabulist proclaimed, “things are not always what they seem to be, and the first appearance deceives many.” In a similar vein, Hardy argues that any study of the transformation of Poland (or the CEE economies as a whole for that matter) cannot be fully understood without placing concepts such as class, the law of value and competition at the heart of its analysis. Following this line of reasoning, Hardy seeks to understand the transformation of CEE economies “in the context of the dynamics and development of the global economy”. Here, Leon Trotsky’s notion of uneven and combined development plays a central role in developing a “non-deterministic account” of CEE transformation and Poland’s place within this process (p37).

This leads us onto a highly interesting, yet relatively underdeveloped area of Hardy’s book. The attempt to reintroduce the idea of uneven and combined development as a central analytical tool for understanding the contradictory outcomes of economic, political and social transformations would have been strengthened by a more profound theoretical discussion of the concept in the book. Unfortunately, Hardy’s definition of the concept remains somewhat vague throughout the text, although her attempt to link uneven and combined development to David Harvey’s notion of “time-space compression” (as a result of an intensification of integration within the world economy), is highly innovative and worth further attention. A more elaborate account of the idea of combined and uneven development would nonetheless have been welcome, especially in light of the renewed interest that Marxist scholars have shown for the concept in recent years.1

Having said this, Poland’s New Capitalism is a clearly structured and well-written book that takes the reader beyond the fairytale world depicted in mainstream accounts of the transformation of CEE economies to a reality marred by contradictions and rising inequalities. The book should be lauded for the rich amount of empirical material which it presents to the reader. Apart from providing the reader with interesting information about the central agents of Poland’s transformation and its socioeconomic outcomes, it also enables Hardy to develop a cogent conclusion of this process, which emphasises that the development of Polish capitalism since 1989-90 has been both combined and uneven. Ultimately, Hardy’s book is a highly valuable contribution for everybody interested in the trajectory of not just the CEE economies (Poland in particular), but also wider developments in the global economy in the last two decades.


1: See, for example, Dunn, Bill, and Hugo Radice, eds, 2006, 100 Years of Permanent Revolution: Results and Prospects (Pluto), and Anievas, Alex (ed), 2010, Marxism and World Politics (Routledge).