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POLAND: Skin Games and Laissez-Faire

5 minute read

Two years ago, rioting Polish workers toppled the regime of Communist Party Chief Wladyslaw Gomulka. Since then, under the more responsive leadership of Edward Gierek, Poland has begun to break away from the orthodox Marxist procedures that had led the nation into economic stalemate. To assess these changes, TIME European Correspondent David Tinnin visited Poland and sent this report:

As the play begins, a comely young woman emerges from a trysting match beneath a pile of quilts. A transparent body stocking is her only concession to modesty, and she remains blithely unclothed for the entire two acts. The play is called Witkacy—the nickname of the prewar Polish playwright on whose works it is based—and it is a bitter satire, attacking the dehumanization of helpless people by violent brutes and mindless technology. All that would not be particularly surprising except for the site of the stage on which it is being played: Warsaw’s ornate Palace of Culture and Science, a gift from the Soviet Union to the Polish people after World War II. Elsewhere in the modern 30-story building, a nightclub features a floor show in which a man and woman, to the music of Love Story, slowly strip each other down to the barest of G strings.

The skin games in the Palace of Culture are symbolic of the changing atmosphere in Poland. On the eve of the second anniversary of the December riots, the country is in the midst of a subtle and selective revolution that is changing the very nature of its society. In Eastern Europe, Poland now ranks second only to Hungary in economic innovation; and in some areas, notably freedom of travel and the liberalization of agricultural policy, it actually leads the rest of the bloc.

Gierek, a skillful pragmatist, has managed to carry out the changes without overexciting the volatile Poles or frightening the Soviet leaders, who are wary of any sudden change in Eastern Europe. The new permissiveness in public entertainment, for example, has not been matched by tolerance of serious writers and other intellectuals. The old taboos against public criticism of the regime and of the Soviet Union remain in effect. Furthermore, Poland’s economy remains so weak that it will require years to bring about lasting improvements. An average worker earns about $114 a month. Food and rent are cheap: beef and pork start at 50¢ per lb.; rent averages $20 a month. But luxury items are high: a new Fiat goes for $7,777; a color TV costs $1,136. Even so, Poles are impressed by the fact that Gierek is trying, and to a degree succeeding in bringing about a better life and freeing personal initiative from the stultifying grip of bureaucratic controls.

In a well-stocked Warsaw department store, I saw a young girl try on four coats before finally choosing one of them. “In the past we would have grabbed the first coat available,” she said. The situation is much the same in supermarkets and butcher shops. “I still have to stand in line for meat,” explained one Warsaw woman, “but only because it takes the customers longer to make up their minds about which cut they want.”

On a farm 25 miles outside Warsaw, a ruddy-faced peasant pulled the cork from a home-distilled bottle of honey liquor and talked about the impact of Gierek’s agriculture reform, in which a return to a free Western-style market has replaced central planning. One result: Polish farm income has risen 37% in the past year. Though 80% of Polish farm lands are still privately owned, the farmer during the Gomulka regime was a virtual serf to the state, which told him exactly what and how much to raise. Now a farmer is free to grow whatever sells best. Says one: “I switched from grain and vegetable farming to raising pigs, and am making more money than ever.”

Creating Wealth. To help overcome a housing shortage, Poles are now being encouraged to invest their savings in construction cooperatives or even to build their own houses. “I am a true capitalist,” said the president of a cooperative near Warsaw. “I am helping these men to create wealth.” But does not home ownership violate Marxist dogma on the accumulation of private wealth? “We solved that problem,” declared the deputy head of Poland’s Housing Authority. “We now consider housing to be personal property like books or clothing. Marx had nothing against that type of possession.”

Perhaps the greatest psychological change for Poland was the opening of the country’s borders with East Germany last January; since then more than 8,000,000 Poles have crossed the border to visit their neighbors to the West. They are distinctly impressed by East Germany’s high standard of living and by the quality of such luxury consumer goods as cameras and TV sets.

Through his reforms, Gierek has done just about all he can to improve Poland’s situation. Now he is trying to convince Poles that they must help themselves. Last week 1,700 trade union representatives gathered in Warsaw for their first congress in five years; Gierek told them that increased productivity was the only way to continue the upward trend in wages and social benefits. Because of badly organized industries, antiquated equipment and a lack of incentives, Polish workers produce only about one-third as much as their American counterparts. “The state cannot give anything to anyone,” Gierek declared. “It can only distribute the goods created by work.” If he can persuade the Poles to accept responsibility for their future rather than expect unrealistic results from the state, he may yet avoid a replay of the events of two years ago that brought his country to the edge of chaos.

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