Poland’s seven middle classes

Poland’s seven middle classes

Jacek Kurczewski

Great Confusion

THE “middle class” has become a positive hero of public discourse in the Third Republic. A few dozen years ago, this title was pejorative. The middle classes carried the negative Marxist view that something which was neither capital nor proletariat did not necessarily have a right to exist in industrial society. The American middle class was treated as an ideological manipulation intended to mask the fundamental social division. In socialism, especially, there was to be no place for “middle” classes. Yet the reality was far from the ideal, particularly (and paradoxically) in the Soviet occupation zone, where the Mittelstand was never fully disbanded, and a certain political representation was given to the tolerated small capitalists, a privilege which became increasingly restricted as the GDR developed. In Poland, its counterpart was the Democratic Party (SD) which, in an organization defined by the then official sociologist, J.J. Wiatr, as a political pluralism with the hegemony of the Communist Party, played the role of the representative of the interests of the self-employed artisanship and the intelligentsia, alongside the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) and the United Peasants’ Party (ZSL). This morsel of private enterprise, tolerated by the government of the time, plus the individual farming sector reconstructed in traditional form in 1956 were indeed the middle classes or, so to speak, the middle strata.

Stanislaw Ossowski (1957) saw in the middle classes a link between private ownership of the means of production and the personal involvement of the owner in the production process. Afterwards, sociologists such as Jan Malanowski (1963) included this strata in the old-fashioned term “petite bourgeoisie.” The role of the petite bourgeoisie in the Polish People’s Republic became the subject of specialized sociographical works, although (like their subject) they remained on the sidelines of the major intellectual and political debates.

In New Poland, the “middle classes” are still a current topic, although very different concepts are covered by the same term. On the one hand, we have authors like Henryk Domanski (1994) or Grzegorz Matuszak (1992) following the economic-legal path, according to which the middle class is understood to be, for example, a “collectivity of private owners of production, commerce and services, working for themselves.” On the other hand, there are those who adhere to the classical reconstruction of “middle-class morality” accomplished by Maria Ossowska (1956) and who emphasize a particular ethos as the defining feature. This is how one must interpret the remarks of, for example, Krzysztof Jasiewicz (1991), who states that there will not be a middle class in Poland until there is the ethos of the self-made man who owes his position to personal enterprise. On the one hand, the legal-economic criterion; on the other, the cultural-ethical one. One can assume that, in the same society, the owners of the means of production working by themselves are one thing, and those who acknowledge the model of the self-made man and independent enterprise are another. Just how diverse is this concept, and how many different meanings does it contain? Should we start with the definition of a certain standard ethos and then proceed to look for those in society who acknowledge and practice this ethos, or should we first define a particular social category and then proceed to determine whether its members (and perhaps not only they) applaud the ethical model prepared by Ossowska from the long history of the burgher and merchant ethos?

But these are not the only definitions. Edmund Mokrzycki recalls the standard answer to the question: What is the middle class? “It is the class occupying the middle position in hierarchicalized society.” A simple definition but, as he says, one that can respond to each of the many possible theories of social stratification. And he sees the need for historical relativization: “Moreover, in practice, the concept of the middle class is a historical concept pertaining to the modern capitalist societies. One may indeed use this term in the generalized sense, and sometimes this is done successfully [here, Mokrzycki is referring to me, the author], but in such case details associated specifically with the historical concept are transferred, not always justifiably, to the generalized concept of a middle class” (Mokrzycki, 1993, p. 28).

Yet even those who speak of middle classes usually mean rather specific things, associated with a particular stratification structure in a specific society. I myself contributed to the great confusion by introducing, in 1981, the term “new middle class” to explain the “Solidarity” revolution (Kurczewski, 1981). Basically, I was looking at those who came together in the revolution of 1980. There were the professors, the taxi drivers, the engineers, the electricians, the shipyard workers, and the specialists — a remarkable combination and not predicted by the official sociology. Instead of following the official sociological parlance and speaking of the revolt of the working class in union with the working intelligentsia, it seemed more obvious to me to discuss the active anticommunist opposition as being in the same “objective” situation with respect to the closed ranks of the government and having a “subjective” feeling of commonality of interests. What more is needed to have a class? It was obviously not a revolution of the entire people, for behind the activists there remained the villages, the ordinary workers, and the office employees, to say nothing of the government apparatus itself to which some of the intelligentsia belonged. Thus, the middle classes of socialism were the qualified workers, both manual and office, who banded together in “Solidarity” and were united by a conflict with the government, which did not permit the people to realize their qualifications or the values held by them.

Thus, at the very beginning, different middle classes and different classes of the middle concept appeared. We find even more of them later on, but it is worthwhile making a short list here: (1) those who hold a middle position in the scheme of social stratification, (2) those who work for themselves and at the same time are the owners of the means of production, (3) those who possess qualification and education but do not rule, (4) those who own their own business and capital, (5) those who acknowledge a certain ethos associated with enterprise and independence, and (6) the intelligentsia; those with higher education.

Finally, let us return to the generalized concept of a middle class, which does not yet appear on this list. According to this concept, the middle class in a given society is the class that thanks to its resources (property, qualifications, knowledge, and so on) maintains a relative independence from government authorities. We affirm that certain sociological and historical middle classes in other societies had just such a character, and that the process of formation of civil society in Poland is dependent on the construction of the economic foundations for the stabiligy of such middle classes.

Legacy of Socialism

I have already pointed in my earlier publications (Kurczewski, 1981; 1982; 1987; 1993a; 1993b; 1994) to the emergence of a peculiar “new middle class” in communist Poland determined above all by education and skills. In theory, the communist system negated the role of private accumulation of capital, introducing instead the universal process of salaries payed by the state administration redistributing the state’s property. Those salaries have been subject to very detailed central regulation, and classes or renumeration were becoming more and more differentiated. Though at the beginning the work was the base of the classification, with time the system was modified in order to take into account job seniority and formally defined skills. At the moment when these latter factors were at least allowed as one of the criteria determining occupation and chance for promotion, they have become as well the base for liberation of employees from arbitrary supervisory decisions. Socialist heirarchy of renumeration did not place individuals automatically according to level of education but allowed for some equivalence between menial workers with lower degrees and white collar workers with higher degrees. In effect, a romboid social structure was formed in which the majority of society was made up of skilled and white collar workers. Below them, and less numerous, was the category of unskilled proletarians, workers, marginalized criminals, and the impoverished portion of the pensioned population. Above the majority was the ruling caste, Party activists and higher state officials including managers, that is, ideological, administrative, military, security, and economic bureaucracy. Historically important were the following features of this caste: it was of esoteric character, it functioned in secret, and recruitment into it was under the direct control of the rulers through completing the Party schools, inscription into the Party, and individual decisions of the ruling circle determining who personally may enter the so-called nomenclature. Indeed, entrance depended first upon the will of the person involved, but this was not a sufficient condition as the final decision was in the hands of those who personally belonged to the ruling class.

I stress this last feature of the system in order to point to the basic tension that developed within the socialist system. On the one hand, as Winicjusz Narojek (1980) termed it, it was the “society of open recruitment” as in capitalist societies where careers blossomed unexpectedly and quickly and where the system appeared to be egalitarian. On the other hand, it was a system of “controlled recruitment” much more closed than in earlier times. In the formative years, that is, until 1956, recruitment at each stage was controlled by the political machinery of the Party. Not only promotion to foreman but also entrance into this or that department of the university was decided on a case by case basis. Additional education was awarded to particular individuals on the Party’s order. After 1956, political control remained, but it took on the character of the veto. The decision to acquire skills necessary to rule the university, the factory, or the farm was one’s own, but in order to assume a relevant post, one had to be appointed by the authorities at a higher level. Consequently, there developed a division between those who were motivated to obtain promotions and who acquired skills independently of the rulers, and those individuals to whom the positions of power were assigned.

The middle classes of Polish socialism were indeed professors, teachers, clerks, engineers, foremen, skilled workers, people with high school diplomas, and people with university diplomas who were not transferred to the ruling class. Some of them were in position for promotion but soon discovered that the sole entrance into the ruling Party meant only inscription into the “power reserves.” There were several million Party families, and, in the normal course of events, only a few could count on further advancement in the social hierarchy. It is debatable whether the borders of the socialist middle class coincided with the division between Party members and non-Party members. It seems safer to assume that mere Party membership stratified the middle class into two parts: a lower, non-Party group and an upper group composed of Party members with better chances of obtaining promotion. Whatever the case, the direct passage from the lower strata of the middle classes to the ruling class was unlikely.

Three additional points must be made in order to more fully describe the Polish People’s Republic. First, after the initial attempts to include the village into the system, Communists in Poland chose to form another level. After 1956, the specific social world of the countryside was construed as consisting of a lower middle class composed of the local nomenclature who were linked with the Agragrian satellite party (ZSL today; PSL–Polish People’s Party). In addition, the private system of social hierarchy dependent on the economic status of the farms survived alongside the offical Party-State system of social heirarchy. This private hierarchy was paralleled on a smaller scale by the small, tolerated urban sector of private business and artisanship symbolically represented by the third-rank satellite Party (SD–Democratic Party). However, only in the countryside could this hierarchy support legal advancement in the otherwise increasingly prominent economic hierarchy that was steadily undermining the doctrinal purity of the communist system–total management of society.(1)

This economic hierarchy needs its own historians. Yet, until the end of the rule of Gomulka, throughout the 1960s, the view that power is a good per se which may be supplemented by fringe benefits but not with direct economic rewards was dominant. The old system of several free benefits for members of the ruling class found irritating by the subject population persisted. The assumption of Party-State power by Gierek in 1970 was a decisive break with this tradition. One could even risk saying that the change in power was the result of a hidden coup planned by the Party apparatchiks dissatisfied with ever renewed attempts by Gierek’s predecessor to clean up the Party and to hold to the principle of economic disinterestedness. Though this practice was not the principle of textbook socialist economics, the abuse of nationalized property was tolerated by the mass population in exchange for the appearances of political loyalty and a level of productivity determined by a level of hidden employment. The alternative United States dollar economy emerged which was open to everybody (notwithstanding privileged position), allowing private entrepeneurship based on illegal but tolerated black market exchange and import of foreign currency to Poland by migrant part-time workers and pedlars.(2)

Even before Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” program, the socialist system was undermined: first, because it became obvious that the power itself did not provide rewards such as economic transactions; second, because substantial capital was accumulated at the local level which was independent of one’s place in the political hierarchy though this was at the price of political loyalty. Paradoxically, in those days, a manager of a socialist enterprise could earn more and more easily through illegal transactions in foreign currency than through increasing the productivity of his firm. This alternative economy functioning at the margins of official regulations led to the rise of the ascending class whose monetary power became the point of attraction and reference for all other classes, including the ruling class, even if it was not officially recognized within the legitimate model of socialist social relations. Its very existence was defined officially as pathological and decadent, and as if exercises in verbal magic would work, Party sociologists tried in vain to enclose this class within the conceptual cage of the so-called vestiges of petty bourgeoisie.

There was also another class, the intelligentsia, which would be difficult to describe as emergent if one takes into account its permanantly important role in modern Polish history. The Polish intelligentsia, into which the small Polish gentry transformed itself with dignity after its loss of independence and the emancipation of peasants, had a high opinion of its own social standing and role. This established group was shocked when, after 1945, because of the shortage of educated people in a country devastated by the war, the communists began the mass production of a new intelligentsia without physically eliminating the survivors from the past. The old intelligentsia, accustomed to thinking about its service to the nation, was inclined to collaborate with the new regime, while the new intelligentsia was naturally inclined to loyalty towards its promoters. But, in the long run, this worked against the system. While developing educated reserves, the new ruling class stressed the role of education and, in this way, supported the social position of the intelligentsia against the Marxist doctrine that would provide no place for such a social entity at all. Contrary to the other opinions, it would be difficult to say that the intelligentsia was dominant in the new system, since although some were invited into the ruling class, others were deliberately excluded.

Part of the intelligentsia provided an alternative social structure for upward mobility based on culture, literature, and science through its high social prestige, while another part of the intelligentsia, consisting of engineers or teachers, was becoming progressively more distant and bureaucratically organized, forming units which were in fact supervised corporations such the Union of Polish Teachers, the Supreme Organization of Technicians, or the Polish Academy of Sciences outside of which free performance in the profession was practically, and sometimes even formally, impossible. Despite its defiance toward the regime, the Polish Sociological Association created after 1956 was a rebellious element in the same general scheme of organized professional corporations supervised and financed by the Party-State.

Before 1980, Polish society was still caught in the trap of the past preserved by the official sociology: the Holy Marxist Trinity of workers, peasants, and working intelligentsia as reproduced with the help of the official questionnaires in answer to which all citizens had to officially declar their class identity or that of their parents. As late as 1980, the various groups composing the socialist middle class began to cooperate in resisting the system. This was the bases out of which “Solidarity” emerged in 1980, uniting various chapters of the new middle class composed of working-class as well as white-collar workers and members of the intelligentsia. This marked the end of the process of formation of the middle classes in communist Poland.

Class Structure in Social Consciousness

From these contradictions, disappointments, and misunder-standings, however, a certain picture emerges. I will diagnose it by inquiring into the social divisions in present day Poland. Incidentally, I have been inquiring about this for years, and it may be worthwhile following the changes over time to get a feel for one’s proper place in the social hierarchy, even if there is some risk of inaccuracy in comparing studies.

If we assume a division of society into the upper class, middle class,

and lower class, to which of these would you belong?

1988 1990 1992 1993

Upper Class 3 3 3 3

Middle Class 76 77 72 52

Lower Class 21 20 25 43

100% 926 898 1319 1111

Nationwide representative sample surveys performed by OBOP

There are two ways of interpreting such a dramatic decline in the percentage of those numbering themselves in the middle class. First, in contrast with the earlier studies, in 1993 we asked in particular about various social differences, tensions, and conflicts, which might have inclined the respondent to a more definite answer on the side of the wronged. People rank themselves in the upper, lower, or middle class primarily from the standpoint of their material conditions, and that is what we mainly asked in the survey. However, it would be safer, at least for peace of mind, to interpret the results differently. In Poland, a transformation of the criteria of self-judgment and judgment of others is taking place. In the new setting, wealth and income are becoming the dominant criterion. Differences in consumption are increasingly more pronounced in view of the constantly increasing possibilities of choice. As long as it was only possible to get one kind of automobile or one kind of cheese, the differences in wealth had no expression; but when one person is driving the latest Mercedes and another a Polonez, when one buys French cheese, the other domestic cheese, differences in the standards of consumption become evident. In this situation, a process of public, or obvious, social differentiation occurs. One might even say that while in the past almost everyone counted themselves in the middle class, because almost everyone felt their situation to be “middle,” that is, average, today a process of social differentiation is taking place in which differences are appearing between those whose lot is fairly good, regardless of whether or not they complain, and those who really feel alienated and left without any opportunity to remedy their situation.

Incidentally, the survey leads us to yet another understanding of the concept of middle class traditionally neglected by sociologists. According to this, they are the middle class who consider themselves as belonging to that class. Ossowski, in The Class Structure in Social Consciousness, describes this concept in the context of an analysis of gradation schemes. I think that such an understanding of the middle class makes sense, if a gradation scheme has indeed taken shape in social consciousness. In this regard, the American middle class is not an economic but a cultural category. An American with no particular problems might describe himself as belonging to the upper-middle or lower-middle class on the same basis that, until recently, Poles were able to say that they were intellectual workers or manual laborers. Definite external indicators existed that made it possible to define one’s place on the social ladder. The question of the existence of a middle class in Poland signifies, in this context, the question of whether or not the concept of a social ladder, on which the middle class occupies the middle position, has been accepted in Poland.

In order to answer this question, one must return to the 1993 survey. I asked there, among other things, how the social conditions are perceived in the country. Forty-two percent of those questioned saw a conflict in Poland between the social classes; a smaller portion (30 percent) saw no such conflict, and a fair number (28 percent) could not answer the question. As we can see, opinions on the subject of a possible class conflict are very divided. Those who see a conflict perceive it primarily in three different dimensions: contrasting the rich with the poor, employers with employees, and the governing with the governed. In the social awareness, dichotomies into those who have and those who do not have one of the three perpetually important things, money, property, and power, accompany what Ossowski termed the social gradation; for example, there is a ladder of wealth on which a person occupies the lowest, the middle, or the highest social position.

This is readily seen in the answers to the question about which social class the respondents would place themselves in without being prompted by a ready-made scheme. The gradation scheme (upper, middle, lower class) is then chosen by 32 percent of public opinion (14 percent rank themselves in the lower class, 17 percent in the middle, and 1 percent in the upper). In 42 percent of respondents, this self-definition is accompanied by the old categories of the socialist Holy Trinity, constructed of the worker (21 percent), the peasant or farmer (9 percent), and the intellectual worker (10 percent), supplemented by 2 percent of private initiative. In the social consciousness, the functional division outweighs the gradation division, yet the latter also has a social function, and one may assume that it will gain in popularity. The theoretical purity of these distinctions is, of course, subject to a shift in social perception. A person defining himself as a member of the lower class may think of himself as being separated from the middle classes by an impenetrable abyss, while one who counts himself among the latter may feel an unbridgeable remoteness from the elite.

Business Big and Small

Thanks to the pioneering survey of Grzegorz Matuszak (1992), we already know the characteristics of the average Polish business, which as a whole is quite far from the Business Centre Club and other elite associations of Polish capitalists. Sociologically, the most important conclusion from these studies is the heterogeneous nature of this category. The term “business” covers such diametrically different situations as the educated owner of a company with billions of international interests and a soap and jam shop now owned by the saleswoman previously paid by the state. Most were businesses of slight value, and more than half of the new business people were poor and laid emphasis on their earnings, not on the development of the company. Thus, business is as diversified as all of society, and no single legal-economic criterion can be found to differentiate social attitudes and behavior.

The middle class in Poland is also money, and big money at that. Very often, when one speaks colloquially about the middle class, they have in mind business as such, and then quite naturally its biggest economical representatives, the “grand bourgeoisie,” pass as the representatives of the new middle class. The “middle class” in the sense allowing such a usage is then not related so much to the American middle class as the French “third estate,” about which Abbe Sieyes wrote as being an internally differentiated estate. To the sociologist, whose profession requires a close time connection with actuality, the former gradational associations are obviously closer than experiences from the eighteenth/nineteenth century. Yet the diagnosis of the problem field of “middle classes” requires inclusion of the point of view by which top Polish capitalists like Zbigniew Niemczycki and Danuta Piontek are representatives of the middle class. If only because, even if the “new middle class” that they are supposed to represent is (as many would like) only a myth, at least in their eyes, as in the eyes of public opinion, the myth is a fact, and they are bringing it to life.

As for who the upper strata of business are, their names are easy to find from the lists published by Wprost and other periodicals. Investigation of the money elite is quite easy, since, nolens volens, their members are quickly becoming known to both tax collectors and the public at large. On the road toward capitalism, the press, radio, and television are vying for popularization of personal models of success in entrepreneurship. Moreover, big money, the reason the media, politicians, and other circles in need flirt with big business, flies into self-organizing activity to mold opinion and create a social image favorable to business by the very democratic nature of events.

One can learn who belongs to the money elite from the Dictionary of Polish Business put out by Gazeta Wyborcza. Malgorzata Fuszara (1994) has subjected the first 150 names to an analysis and points out that the clear majority of persons listed in the dictionary have obtained higher education (68 percent). This especially concerns the women, among whom 17 out of 20 have such an education. If we compare this with data concerning the education of the entire Polish population, of which only 7 percent have obtained higher education, it becomes obvious that the listed group of people has special traits; it is in fact the group that we normally call the “intelligentsia.” This group generally includes no one with only a basic education, while in the Polish population over 15 years of age, those with basic or without even basic education is a constant 45 percent. Among the people presented in the dictionary, persons with a trade school education (4 people) are also uncommon, and those who belong to this group are masters in their craft. Thus, the businessmen presented in the dictionary almost entirely belong to the upper group (31 percent) of Polish society in terms of their education.

It emerges from published material that the company and work are not the only interest for the majority; these concerns do not fill up their lives. They have decidedly nonprofessional interests, and many of them stress the importance of “being with” and devoting time and attention to the family. Surely, things are better for them now than before — many of them have either moved into their own house, or say that although they are living in an apartment, they are just finishing a house near town (a house with a pool) or are planning to have one built. The information contained in the dictionary indicates that despite all this, their tastes have not really changed — many of them pursue the same athletic activity, and even though they go abroad, or can afford to do so, they still like to go to their favorite Zakopany or the Mazurs resorts. Few became businessmen solely for commercial reasons or were forced to assume this role because of privatization, for example. On the top, most are persons who have always dreamed of such an opportunity, thirsted for it, and exploited the chance. They are also people who have carefully prepared for the role.

The Money Elite and the Intelligentsia of the Elite

Analysis of the leading businessmen has led to the conclusion that we are essentially dealing with a heavy concentration of people with a high level of education. Malgorzata Fuszara clearly suggests a connection between the “new middle class” and the “old class” of the intelligentsia. “This group of people may be called the ‘old-new’ middle class. For they are the intelligentsia who have decided to become businessmen. Most of them are linked to the traditional middle class by the type of work — they are producers or people working in commerce. With the new middle class, they are linked by higher education.”(3)

Rather than dwelling on the remarkable link between education and entrepreneurship, one may suggest that, yet again, we are witnessing the Polish intelligentsia filling in a new social stratum. It seems no accident that the attitudes of Polish businessmen with respect to the company resemble the attitude of the gentry with respect to his estate. Property is the basis of activity, but the gentry’s ethos is not the same as that of management. A home, a social life, cultural consumption — these are life’s pleasures, of which one may be proud. The automobile here plays the same role as formerly did a steed. The company, the same role as the estate. One might detect in the origin of the new classes a certain continuity of cultural model from the nobility to the intelligentsia and to business.

Another view is that of Edmund Mokrzycki (1993), who sees in this “gentrification” of the Polish intelligentsia its downfall: the intelligentsia will perish either because of the anachronistic conception of the middle class as the class of money, or it will reshape itself into a modern class of knowledge, becoming a genuinely new middle class of modern capitalism. Matuszak (1992), who uses data with regard to business in general independent of its size, also notes a high proportion of people with higher education (32 percent). Rather than speak of declarations, however, I would propose speaking of changes in the social elite, which is recruiting itself from somewhere, predominantly (as usual) from among the intelligentsia.

After all, the business elite is not the same as the social elite in general. Although financial success will help you get a seat at the Olympics, we more often find people of a different category in the social elite. The rankings done by newspapers, which are indispensable in this respect, as well as the findings of our opinion polls from 1993 demonstrate this fact. Pani from January 1994 presented a description of the elite on its finer side. On the annual list of top 100 women, we find the arts most often represented (37), followed by the culture of the body (beauty and sports, 14) and academia (7). Also, we find here publicly active women (21), either professional politicians (6) or those active on the local level in the women’s movements or other fields of social activity, especially charity. Next comes media (8), while business is in last place with 4 women. This is rounded out by the special star of the transformation, the surprised author of unemployment memoirs. For the top of society, at least, the sources of success are varied — the more democratic ones, such as money, and the more exclusive ones, such as intelligence or beauty, seem to form a balanced whole.

Ethos of the Middle Classes

Let us return to the starting point. One of the bitter laments of politicians and publicists is the lack of a suitable ethos, an ethos necessary to Polish capitalism. To be sure, the traits emphasized remain the same as those espoused by the functionaries of the former system — diligence, persistence, activism — but it appears that the success of the transformation toward a market economy is entrusted to the private entrepreneur. At the same time, it is assumed that the particular ethos which the entrepreneur should express in the purest form is also accessible to the broad ranks of society, including those who do not have the funds to become capitalists. In this framework, an appropriate state of normalcy would be at least the necessary, if not sufficient condition for the modernization of Poland. The ethos of the middle class — most often the burgher ethos in the reconstruction of Maria Ossowska (1956) comes to mind here — might significantly define a society, regardless of the bearers of this ethos.

Such an ethical conception of the middle class is particularly important in times of electronic means of communication. Already in the times of the printed book, certain models were popular in society that had no material prerequisites for their creation or practices. Don Quijote of La Mancha is an excellent example of a person who, trusting in the cultural reality of the chivalrous romance, tries to practice the ethos propounded therein, with the familiar outcome. But the chivalrous literature was accessible to a chosen few, and in the end Don Quijote was ruined by it. In contemporary society, a television subscription ensures a much more democratic participation in culture. The postcommunist societies from Vladivostok to Warsaw tune in every evening to a culture that is the culture of modern capitalist societies, regardless of their strata or variants. To more than one person in the countryside, the heroes of “Dynasty” are closer than the heroes of the Warsaw cultural or political scene.

In our research, it turned out that those with less education are more likely to choose the heroes of the American television serial as personal models, rather than contemporary living Poles. One can imagine the extreme situation in which there is still not a single private entrepreneur, yet the overwhelming majority of society applauds, as their personal model, an entrepreneur or businesswoman from a serial. When asked to choose from a preselected list “the persons who, in your opinion, are a model to us,” heart surgeon and charity activist Zbigniew Religa received 32 percent of the votes. In second place was none other than Blake Carrington (20 percent) in front of Tadeusz Zielinski (16 percent), Ronald Reagan (9 percent), Kevin Costner (7 percent), Zbigniew Niemczycki (a Polish capitalist billionaire, 5 percent), and Arnold Schwarzenegger (4 percent). Although the link between social activity and professional success is foremost (at the time of the survey, Professor Religa was not yet engaged in politics), when the votes are added that were cast for the two representatives of business, this forms the reference point for one out of four respondents.

As for female models, the situation is somewhat different: after the first Polish Ombudswoman Professor Ewa Letowska (33 percent), Krystle Carrington (21 percent) slightly leads Mrs. Thatcher (20 percent), while pure business women like Alexis Colby (8 percent) and Danuta Piontek (a businesswoman elected to Parliament in 1993, 2 percent) together have barely 10 percent. Krystle, however, is a combination of a traditional housewife and a woman of the world, achieved in fact through the business world. If we add to this the figure of Barbara Piasecka-Johnson (7 percent), it would appear that the business world — and one cannot fully exclude the case of Madonna (1 percent) either — also gives rise to attractive female models. One thing is certain, there are considerably more fans of Blake, Alexis, and Krystle than of authentic entrepreneurs or their wives listed in the nationwide Polish random sample of this survey.

If there are any doubts as to the importance of professional traits instead of personal attributes of the body or mind in these selections, they will be dissipated in considering that 58 percent of those asked about the most desirable career for their son selected the owner of a “small company, but his own,” leaving in second place the manager of a large company belonging to someone else. In the selection of a career for one’s daughter, as well, a small private company appears most often (39 percent). These are models of surprising modernity after the decades of socialism, yet are somehow old-fashioned. The modern capitalism of big corporations is not the point of reference here, perhaps because of the suddenly questioned career of socialist managers of the state’s enterprises.

Civil Society

The concept of a new middle class also has a definite political meaning. Aristotle, discussing the optimal organization of society, wrote in The Politics: Those states may possess a good organization in which there exists a numerous middle class, absolutely stronger than the other two, but if not, then at least stronger than one of them…. For it is the greatest good fortune when the citizens of a certain state have a medium, yet adequate property, for when certain men possess very much, and others do not, both of these extremes subsequently come to power, either extreme democracy, or extreme oligarchy, or even tyranny. For tyranny comes into being either from unchecked democracy or from oligarchy, yet it is much less common where the middle class rules and people are closer to each other socially (Aristotle, 1953).

Anyone who has considered the social conditions fostering the development of democracy under the rule of law in modern society has had to confront the same problem mentioned by Aristotle. Generally speaking, conditions require a counterweight to the apparatus of the government. This counterweight to the absolute authority that is modernizing society and its governing apparatus, which owes the government its life or at least its personal and family career, is nothing less than the scorned bourgeoisie, or rather the middle class, having an economic basis for their position that is independent of the government. They are not the exceptional captains of industry. Business sharks were active as far back as the Middle Ages without significantly influencing the general nature of social relations. The important thing is the spread of a certain measure of property and ownership among the broad masses of society in order to create a fundamental force, ultimately independent of the government, so that it demands a rule of law, rather than a personal rule. In the developed democratic societies of today, it is not the financial sharks but rather citizens possessing more than the minimum and having a feeling of material security who use the ballot box to control the freedom of movement of the “political class,” which wages desperate struggles for power in the public forum. In 1983, I completed my remarks on this subject by stating: “Although Aristotle’s program of the golden mean and proportion might seem too moderate to many, I would feel fortunate to witness its implementation” (Kurczewski, 1991, p. 117). In 1988, I added a note of pessimism, writing: It is hard to imagine a program of construction of the Polish lower-middle class as a prospect for the coming decades, and in keeping with historical experience, one should expect the formation of genuinely strong foundations of economic independence of the broad masses of society toward the end of the XXI century. It cannot be ruled out that foreign capital will be allowed into Poland, in a gesture worthy of Lenin, but no really strong middle class will form around foreign capital. There is yet a third possibility, involving industrial self-management, but this is functioning in neglected plants and increasingly plays the part of a public jobs center instead of a focal point driving the economic life of the country. The still-unclear reform program [these words were written during the communist government of M.F. Rakowski, long before the reform of Leszek Balcerowicz] does not offer a glimpse of the future form of the economic life of the country, while at the same time it does not preclude one in which decentralized industrial corporations and local government bodies shall dominate society in a mutually parasitic collaboration with a thin stratum of private venture capital (Kurczewski, 1991, p. 118).

How do I see things today, in early 1994, after four years of democratic and reform government? First, the new political regime elected in September 1993 might bring into being that dismal vision. A third way between capitalism and communism might even involve renewed state control of the economy. Studies of public opinion, as well as public manifestations of this opinion, reveal how strong the tie to the government is as a mechanism regulating economic affairs in the country. Private farmers expect intervention from the central government, guaranteeing full purchase of their products at constant prices that are higher than the competition. The work forces of large state enterprises want such intervention, fearing the loss of their jobs and fierce competition for employment, in return for more efficient work. The ranks of workers of the so-called budget sphere — soldiers, teachers, doctors, nurses, academicians, policemen, and office workers — want secure and well-paying jobs. The political class is interested in a government role, since influence on the government gives it influence on society and indirectly provides the material basis of power and personal benefits. Small business and national big money, threatened by the big ones of the world, want government guarantees and aid. Thus, it is not surprising that the realization of a civil society is threatened by the citizens themselves, whose immediate interest is the maintenance and strengthening of the government role.

At least in the area of the election platforms, the ruling parties, just like their left-wing, wavering ally Union of Labor or the nationalist-socialist opponent KPN, express the same social interest. Regardless of the pro-democratic statements, the implementation of this interest would harm the very foundations of democracy in Poland.

Second, with respect to a strong and independent middle class as the essential structural condition of democracy, I failed to appreciate the significance of my own earlier observations on the subject of the role of new middle classes in the uprising of “Solidarity” and the overthrow of the communist system in Poland (Kurczewski, 1981; 1984; 1991). Edmund Mokrzycki writes that if the middle class is really performing this part, if it is really the core of a modern society, deciding on the dynamics and direction of its growth, then this is occurring not so much because of the shop owners and hotel-keepers, as the enormous mass of increasingly better paid, increasingly better educated, and increasingly more productive scientific workers, specialists of various kinds, and other hired workers of highest qualification, the ranks of which are continually growing at unusual speed (Mokrzycki, 1993, p. 28).

Mokrzycki blames the neo-liberals for the anachronism of looking for the main force of the transformations in the property-owners, while in capitalism today they are actually occurring as a result of the knowledge class into which the intelligentsia can transform itself. The differences between us consist in the fact that while Mokrzycki writes about the special modernizing role of the Polish intelligentsia, I pay attention to the class that is undervalued by Polish intellectuals, namely, the educated and qualified workers, without whom the revolution of the eighties would not have occurred. In the conditions of the workers’ and peasants’ society of actual socialism, a special class of skills took shape, a category of educated workers that felt this modernizing calling just as strongly as the engineers and professors of the highest ranks. I even think that this new middle class played the decisive role in the events of 1970, and especially 1980, and together with the intelligentsia brought about the creation of “Solidarity” with all its consequences. The problem here is to establish the foundations of independence of the middle class.

A second difference lies in the fact that — as historical experience testifies — the knowledgeable people are not capable of creating a society independent of government, for this requires the functioning of an economic system that is independent of the state, namely, a private economy. Furthermore, independence means not only economic selfactivity but also independence from economic subjects other than the state. It is not necessary to be the owner of the means of production in the narrow sense to be independent of the government. Qualification and knowledge are also means of production which, once acquired, the state can no longer take away. Political freedom does not require that almost everyone work for themselves, but that there is no monopoly of employment. Thus, the freedom of the class of knowledge and the class of skills and the possibility of the two achieving their interests requires the existence of an independent class of money.

Third, it turned out indeed that changes can occur faster than we thought. In 1989-1992, the share of the private sector in global employment grew from 12 percent to 56.6 percent, that in global production from 7.4 percent to 45.3 percent. By mid-1992, more than one and a half million private work establishments were registered in Poland. While the Communists justified the revolutionary nature of the changes taking place after their assumption of power, pointing to the pace and nature of changes in property ownership, it is certainly appropriate to call revolutionary the changes accompanying the introduction of the democratic regime, even though (and perhaps especially because) the majority of the changes did not involve the liquidation of previous property ownership, as was the case after 1945, but the creation of new property. These changes–as we know–did not meet with unanimous support from society. And here we come to the fundamental point. All these theories and concepts of the middle class would make no sense unless they were connected with the essence of the collective experience of the nineties–major revolution introducing a market economy and democratic political system in Poland. The 1993 election results seem to suggest a waning of interest in these changes, and the politicians of the victorious parties and some of the opposition suggest as much. Edmund Mokrzycki sounds the alarm for the loss of status of the intelligentsia, while Krzysztof Wolicki reminds me of the destruction of the new middle class of educated workers. What is the reality?

In the survey of 1993, the breakdown of public opinion votes on the subject of these changes was comfortably in balance. In response to the question, “If you could bring to life socialism as it was in the last 10-12 years of the People’s Republic of Poland or live in the Poland of today, which would you choose?” 36 percent chose “life in socialism as it was” and 41 percent “life in Poland of today” (with 23 percent undecided). Let us re-examine that table for a moment:

Attitude to the Changes in Poland, Depending on Social Class (%)


People’s Republic 48 53 39 19 26 20 27

Present Poland 34 28 39 47 46 51 63

Undecided 18 19 23 32 27 30 4

100% 180 106 334 57 186 81 41

A: farmers with basic education

B: nonqualified workers with basic education

C: qualified workers with basic education

D: qualified workers with secondary school education

E: office employees with secondary school but no higher education

F: office employees with higher education

O: working for themselves, except farming, with secondary education

Whereas among farmers and workers with basic education the preponderance of admirers of the People’s Republic is obvious, the proportion diminishes with increasing education. Yet, there is no doubt that there are relatively more admirers of change among the three middle classes, whether old or new: class of skills, class of knowledge, and class of money. The future must be built on this result.

In Poland today, society is under the complicated processes of structural transformation that undercut the position in life of some while providing others with new opportunities. Attachment to the old social arrangement that had generated the status quo ante contradicts the hope for a better situation possible in the new structural formation. In culture, it manifests itself in the open competition over the priority of money or education as the criterion for social advancement; in politics, it is seen in the conflict between the attempt to minimize the public sector–until 1993 the project of the post-Solidarity governments–and the attempt to modernize the country while preserving the role of national budget expenditures, including salaries for various branches and sectors of public employees. This conflict is moderated by the transformation that in fact occurs within the old middle class of socialism. At the top of business, the former intelligentsia prevails, while it obviously dominates the salaried social pyramid; skilled educated workers also have the choice between self-employment and employment in the public sector or by a private employer. This may explain why nostalgia after socialism is predominantly concentrated in the lower social classes of unskilled, less educated, and socially marganalized. In the middle classes, among people of all ages, the orientation toward further change and reform dominates, infusing Polish society with the spirit of entrepeneurship, personal initiative, and risk.


(1)Cf. Gorlach, 1991.

(2)Cf. Wedel, 1986.

(3)This information is contained in an unpublished paper by Fuszara (1994).


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