Iam pleased to have been given the chance to reply to Maurice Glasman’s article in nlr 205. Glasman raised certain fundamental issues about which debate is urgently necessary. However, his article also contained a number of factual errors which, if not cleared up, may hinder genuine debate.
I agree entirely with Glasman’s basic thesis that in 1989 Poland had other options besides a leap in the dark towards an uncontrolled market economy. For example, Poland could have opted for a system along the lines of the West German social market. But this opportunity was lost. Unfortunately, in other respects Glasman’s focus is a little too narrow and sometimes he misses the truth altogether.
Glasman takes the view that the opportunity represented by 1989 has been lost. This is why he leaves us to satisfy ourselves with the prospect of a ‘British road’—a long-runing fight to civilize capitalism. At least, this would seem to be the message of his final appeal to discard both utopian constructivist and utopian free-market fantasies and to follow the examples of early social movements such as the Owenites, the Chartists, the Cooperative movement and the Labour Party. All these movements may have been defeated, he says, but they all left behind a substantial heritage. In Poland, Glasman argues, the effects of such movements would be to slow the rate of change, enlarge the sphere of freedom, restore societal institutions and thus ‘ameliorate the excesses of market utopianism’. Thus, he argues, instead of the great opportunity Poland had in 1989 to shape an economic system similar to West Germany’s social market system, we now face the more limited perspective of decades of fighting for limited amendments to capitalism.
For myself, I think this view is too pessimistic. It is based on the false premiss that the Polish market system is now so firmly entrenched that all that can remain is a battle for adjustments. I do not agree. Regarding the current changes in Poland, we are still at the early stages of leaving Communism behind. Fundamental choices about the kind of new social order we want still lie ahead. Nor am I alone in thinking this. An ever wider range of views of this kind are being expressed in various kinds of publication. Three recent books on this theme, for example, are Dokad od Komunizmu? [Where to from Communism?] by Karol Modzelewski, Losy
An awareness of the need to return to basic issues has even reached governing circles. Recently Jacek Kuron published a manifesto demanding a fundamental revision in political thinking. Kuron is a leading figure of the Polish opposition which grew out of Solidarnosc. He has twice been minister of labour and in 1989 was a leading supporter of the economic programme put forward by Jeffrey Sachs and Leszek Balcerowicz. (I will return to this subject later.)
Before getting to the nub of the matter, I would like to say a few words about Karl Polanyi in whose work Glasman seeks the key to understanding the present situation in the post-Communist part of Europe. I am also a keen admirer of Polanyi’s The Great Transformation and it is natural that this should be referred to when considering the current changes in Eastern Europe. However, it is my belief that Glasman draws erroneous conclusions from Polanyi’s theory of evolutionary transformation. Admittedly, he follows Polanyi in proposing a ‘British road’ for the civilizing of capitalism, but Glasman’s description of the emergence of capitalism in Poland takes a constructivist point of view—agreeing as it does that the great leap was in fact successful in neo-liberal terms.
Leaving aside the actual terminology used by Polanyi, it is clear he considered that, while it is a simple matter to change laws and regulations, the emergence of new institutions—and particularly of new institutional systems—is a great deal more complex. These develop and grow in the context of long historical processes. Conscious effort by the state can only speed up these processes—if the direction of development is correctly recognized—or slow them down. At least, this is how I interpret one of the basic theses of The Great Transformation: ‘A market economy can only exist in a market society.’ In taking this view, Polanyi agrees with Hayek. Both these thinkers shared an intransigent anti-constructivism, though, of course, their ethical assessments of capitalism and its developent were diametrically opposed.