The Round Table – the meaning of the game

Karolina Wigura · 11 February 2014

Many people believe the events which took place in Poland 25 years ago should today be reviewed with sobriety, leaving aside all unnecessary emotions or nostalgic tendencies. The problem with this apprach is that the heated arguments over the Transformation which took place in 1989 are an inevitable consequence of its political success.

In order for any community to define itself it is necessary to identify the moment at which the conventional dating of political “present” starts. In the case of democracies older than Poland’s this is not too complicated a matter. Americans have their 1776. The French their perennial 1789. For Germany, “year zero” is now 1945. And Poland? Here, things are trickier. 1918 perhaps (independence regained) or 1945 (the end of WWII) or maybe 1980 (the August accords) or even 1989 (the Round Table talks, the June elections), or even… 2004 (entry into the EU)?

None of the above dates can be considered a singular, defining turning point. They do however represent events which are more and less singular in context. When thinking about a founding moment, which could be seen as setting Poland on a social, civic platform, then it could be 1980, with its Solidarity symbolism, its collective action and hope. However, if we are to select a moment which represents the Polish political scene – the one which is still with us today – then without a doubt the reference point remains the Round Table talks. Even now, they are the cause of such extreme agitation, both on the Left as well as the Right sides of the political divide, precisely because they tuned out to be a political success. Meanwhile, it was also a moment when the various powers which were fighting over Poland achieved a form of compromise, rather than absolute justice or perfect freedom. It was a moment which gave birth to all the divisions which to this very day exist in the Polish political landscape, so very deeply rooted in the events of a quarter of a century ago.

This was also a time of immense complication and lack of clarity, of uncertainty regarding all moral judgements – and hence a moment of real politics. This period continues to be evaluated in several radically simplifying ways: as treason, conspiracy, as national reconciliation, as the effect of the elites agreeing to things without the people’s say so, as the achievement of the goal of eliminating those same people from the decision-making processes.

In reality, the Round Table talks were none of these. It was neither treason nor conspiracy – the compromise achieved then was temporary, and the reality which followed more fluid than usual, and, as we have since learnt from testimonies given by historians, one which surprised even those involved directly. Interpreting the Round Table as a betrayal is also the reverse side of the myth of “national unification”, which has just as little sense to it. Even though in politics declarations of unity do in unique cases happen, politics as such does not depend on unity. Its players do not last long as each other’s allies, nor is it important for all of the players to “like one another”. Politics is a show, a clash of force, a dialogue, a contest, though never starting from zero and always playing for stakes much higher than simply the defeat of one’s opponent.

Nor were the Round Table talks an “outcome” nor “objective”, but – only and more than – a means to achieve a change of system. Let us add that this change was peaceful, which, in contrast with places such as Romania, was not all that obvious at the time. Peaceful – this is important also in the sense that it might be better at the outset of a new system to have the tricky concept of the Round Table talks, rather than the 1920 Battle of Warsaw, which reinforced the authority of a man who then went on to dismantle Polish democracy in 1926, on his way to staging a coup.

From this perspective, the debate around whether the Round Table talks, or the reforms which both preceded and followed them, or the beginnings of an independent Poland, were “proper” is senseless. They were a time of the founding of modern Polish politics, which apart from the round table model, had at its disposal (and has still) a whole range of other modes of working: civic protests and its institutionalisation, parliamentary democracy, party politics and non-governmental organisations. In a letter he wrote to a friend from Warsaw in 1990, Ralf Dahrendorf drew his attention to the fact that the Round Table should in no way be seen as an example of normal politics. That was when the “rules of the game” were being agreed, along with the essential conditions for freedom’s further development.

All this is a game of democracy. It’s important we play along, but not for the sake of fun alone. We play to make democracy better, though without a utopian belief that politics can be engaged in apolitically, that it is possible to return to some kind of abstract moment before the Round Table happened, and recreate politics from scratch, to call up a social revolution which will “cleanse” everything and only then will it be possible to once more sit down to a negotiating table. Or that it is possible to base politics on a truly Platonic distinction between “good” and “evil”.

These are fantasies dreamt up by desk-bound intellectuals, their heads buried in books, (luckily) without any conception of what real politics and real violence is about. Or else they are the cynical promises made by politicians. In this game, it is worth thinking about what sort of aspects determine the contemporary state of Poland. Simplifying somewhat, it can be defined as: just after the Transformation – the building of a capitalist economy, at what seemed like any price, and this down to the horrific state of national finances at that time; before 1999, and then prior to 2004 – including Poland in the West, through membership of NATO and EU; after 2004 – trying to match standards of living in the West through the effective distribution of EU funds.

Today, from the perspective of the last 25 years, we need to evaluate and define our aims, which will combine to define the Polish political drive in the next decade. What will this affect? First of all: the character of the Polish state. What kind of a state will it be – what needs to be defined, moving beyond the completely worn-out, and in the Polish context never all that clear, phrases such as “welfare” or “neoliberal”? Or maybe it is simply a state without any ideas, which desperately needs character and strategy? What should Polish education look like – not only in terms of middle and higher education, but also early years, pre-school and high school? How to manage the ageing population, since we know that even the most generous welfare organisations in Austria or Germany are failing to increase childbirth rates?

Secondly, foreign policies. Can and should Poland become Ukraine’s ambassador? How should it position itself in the 21st century in relation to its partners in Europe, as well as to USA, Russia and other countries? What is the actual condition – in terms of international relations – of Poland as a lawful state? How is this affected by the massive scandal caused by the building of a secret CIA prison within Polish borders and the way in which we deal with this scandal today? And finally, what sorts of conclusions do we, Poles, draw from the Edward Snowden affair?

Thirdly, civil society. How to encourage Poland’s political castes to value diversity and to truly value critical voices? How to fund civil society? How to convince Polish politicians and businesspeople that they are responsible for it too?

And last but not least, what about Polish modernity, what about women’s rights and the rights of minority groups, and what about state-church relations? This are but a few political trajectories which must be taken into consideration when trying to define the state of the Polish political environment in the next few years. It is worth giving it some thought, remembering at the same time that, a quarter of a century ago, we all won. It is up to us, and the hard work we put in, what that win will amount to.

This article is a part of Kultura Liberalna’s book “To place Poland in the centre”. See the table of contents here.