Administration and Politics

L'administration est tout ensemble une organization, une science, une culture et un art. Aucun domaine ne lui demeure etranger. c'est la' sa force, mais aussi un risque de faiblesse.

Janusz Letowski Le Controle de l'administration en Pologne, CNRS (Paris 1978, p. 22)

The socialist characteristics of the political system have held firm enough to preclude an analysis of local politics in the familiar Western terms. Poland is not a pluralist society, and, although the church may constitute a countervailing power nowhere so strong in other socialist states, conflicts of interest cannot properly be expressed (let alone resolved) at any level of the formal political structure. In Wislok this did not change even in 1980-1, when controls were substantially loosened and elsewhere the free trade union Solidarity flourished briefly. Where links between the rural community and the national society are overwhelmingly administrative in character, even the social anthropologist whose approach to political phenomena is not limited by the categories of Western pluralism may have difficulty in identifying such phenomena at the local level. The socialist system has always legitimized ties of vertical dependence in terms of a hierarchical theory, democratic centralism, and in Poland a series of reforms accomplished in the 1970s extended their scope down to the level of the peasant household. When horizontal contacts between households are inhibited, when each is like an atom with a common nucleus only in the administrative apparatus, then political activity in the peasant community effectively ceases. This chapter will describe how this has come about in Wislok, and will give some examples of how the administrative mechanism works and of the corruption which it engenders.

The withering of pioneer democracy

In the aftermath of the deportation of the Rus population in 1947 the new immigrants to Wislok had few doubts about the powers of the new socialist regime and its readiness to deploy them. Most of the newcomers were resettled by the administration directly: agreements were signed at District (powiat) level with regions in which rural overpopulation was particularly acute. Peasants, with appetites whetted by a concerted propaganda campaign (see the story of Jan Janicki, related in the Appendix), were then directed by officials to particular villages, sometimes even to specific farms. In the case of Wislok the police and the military maintained a presence in the village long after the threat of Ukrainian terrorism had passed, because of the proximity of the state border with Slovakia.

In spite of these factors those who can remember the early days of the new community recall an open, democratic spirit and a high degree of self-administration. This situation may not have been typical of the Polish countryside generally in the last years of Stalin, for this was a time of bitter class struggle, when the authorities were actively committed to an unpopular collectivizing strategy. The atmosphere differed in Wislok, partly because of its poor communications (which made it difficult in practice for the authorities outside the village to interfere in day-to-day affairs), and partly because its new residents all hailed from the lowest strata of society and could scarcely be accused of harboring members of the rural bourgeoisie. The immigrants could choose the leaders they wanted to represent their views to outsiders, whilst within the village they were allowed to allocate dwellings and settle disputes with minimal reference to the commune authorities in Koman'cza (10 km), let alone the district authorities at Sanok (50 km). They were granted permission to use one of the surviving Rus churches, which a priest was able to visit once a month. They were encouraged and assisted to establish secular communal facilities, which included schoolhouses and a community-center (swietlica) centrally located in the valley, where newspapers and books were available, entertainment's were mounted, and assemblies of the whole community frequently held.

The apogee of this phase was the period 1954-8, when Wislok enjoyed commune (gromada) status in its own right, i.e. it was independent of Koman'cza in the administrative hierarchy. According to the rules of democratic-centralism as then practiced (similar structures still form the framework of local government in most socialist countries) it was subordinate to the district authorities at Sanok, who were in turn subordinate to the voivodeship which had its center at Rzeszow (125 km). This was the formal structure governing the organization of both the state bureaucracy and the Communist Party: the two were intertwined at all levels.1 In Wislok the key figures in the running of the gromada were encouraged to affiliate to the ruling party, but in practice their superior organs expected little more than this formality. Contacts with the outside world were relatively few in the years before the construction of the modern road, and peasants were able to arrange their private and collective lives with little pressure applied from outside. As indicated in previous chapters, the opportunities for economic expansion were severely constrained. But there was never any attempt to take back the lands that had served as the major incentive for migration to Wislok in the first place. On the contrary immigrants were frequently reassured that they were the sovereign owners of their plots, and that the deported Rusnaks would never be permitted to reassert any claim. The political crises of 1956 left no mark on the village.

Wislok ceased to be an independent gromada in 1958. Since this time it has elected a few members of the local council in Koman'cza. Apparently it was considered too small to continue to manage its own affairs, though the population had in fact increased since 1954. This loss of control was mitigated in 1960 by the establishment of the Agricultural Circle, which, as described in Chapter Three, did give peasants some influence over the economic matters of greatest concern to them. In other spheres control was increasingly vested in outsiders. New shops were constructed under the aegis of the `Peasants' Self-Help Cooperative', also based in Koman'cza. The community-center atrophied and was no longer in use by the end of the 1960s.

As in economic affairs, in administration too the Gierek years ushered in a new phase.2 Centralization and bureaucratization were the main implications of the changes introduced into the system of local government. The district (powiat) was abolished and the new, 2-tier structure was made up of smaller counties (Wislok currently belongs to that of Krosno, 55 km) and much larger communes, henceforth known as gminas. Koman'cza soon became the seat of a commune covering about 550 km2 and including several dozen villages. The new gmina was supposed to correspond to an economic microregion and to enable an expansion in autonomous decision-taking at the lowest levels of the administration. Accordingly, the party and state apparatus was now consolidated at gmina level. Executive power was removed from the presidium, the group which had previously managed the working of the local councils, and vested in an individual Chief Executive, the naczelnik. He was not to be elected, but was appointed by the county authorities. He did not have to reside in the gmina he administered, and the Koman'cza Chief Executive commuted to his sprawling gmina from a small town outside the mountain zone. Simultaneously, the representative institutions were modified, without being essentially transformed. The new gmina council was a very large body, though the number of members from Wislok remained at three - the village headman and two others, all of them in practice selected by the authorities. Sessions of the full council achieve nothing, in the opinion of the Wislok councilors, and the general public nowadays takes no interest in them.

The reforms were implemented in several stages in the years 1972-5, and their import was not immediately understood. It was thought by some early commentators that they would lead to an expansion of representative and democratic forces in local government, at the expense of 'centralist' tendencies.3 In the event the opposite came to pass and centralist forces extended their hold. Villages such as Wislok were now subjected to more outside interference than they had known before, largely because of the new powers vested in the Chief Executive. The disappearance of the powiat became a source of regret, for in the past it had sometimes served peasants well, enabling them to redress grievances and counteract commune-level decisions. With the new county center no more accessible than the old, citizens now felt more exposed to the vagaries of the state machine than before. The powiat had permitted more feedback within the administrative system than was possible within the new streamlined version.

In these circumstances it was predictable that the character of local government in rural areas would become a major issue when the political climate enabled contentious problems to be openly discussed in 1980-1. The apparatus was briefly forced onto the defensive and many officials lost their jobs. There was wide sympathy for Rural Solidarity's demand that the village 'open meeting' should become an instrument of authentic self-administration, and not a mere talking-shop on a par for irrelevance with the gmina council. In Wislok, as elsewhere, great attention was paid to convening such meetings in 1981, and the Chief Executive himself went out of his way to attend them. But participation was still poor compared to the early days of the new community, and hopes that open meetings might gradually upstage the elected councils and force the apparatus to respond to them were not fulfilled. Certainly in Wislok and Koman'cza nothing in the administrative structure established by Gierek was dismantled, and under martial law the old system came back into normal operation. If anything it has been operating with a vengeance since 1981 - against peasants as a whole, who are regularly accused of failing to meet their obligations to society, and more particularly, against anyone so unwise as to have raised his voice in protest against the local administration in 1981.

How the bureaucracy works - some examples

Administrative methods were most notoriously demonstrated in Koman'cza in 1961. Wislok was part of the Koman'cza commune at this time, but this matter concerned mainly the large Ukrainian population in the commune center. After the deportations of 1947 they possessed the only Greek Catholic (Uniate) church in active use in the entire mountain zone formerly inhabited by the Rusnaks. It was an exceptionally fine wooden edifice built in the early years of the nineteenth century and prominently located on a hilltop next to the village cemetery. All the property of this church was officially confiscated by the state in 1946, and the Greek Catholics have not been recognized by the authorities since this time. However, in Koman'cza, where Ukrainians survived in relatively large numbers (mainly thanks to the railway, which needed a labor force), the discreet approach of the local priest and tolerance on the part of the local authorities enabled the church to survive. After the death of this priest in 1961 the authorities in charge of religious matters at county level decided that this anomaly must be eliminated. They were prepared to let a successor hold Greek Catholic services, but only in the small chapel used by the Roman Catholics of the village. To ensure that the famous old church would no longer serve the Greek Catholic parish the keys were appropriated by a bureaucrat from Rzeszow, who obtained them from a priest by posing as a tourist. This action provoked vigorous protests from the Roman Catholic hierarchy as well as from the Ukrainians of Koman'cza, who sent their petitions to Sanok, Rzeszow and ultimately to the First Secretary of the Communist Party in Warsaw. They protested their loyalty to socialism, cited the fact that many residents of Koman'cza had fought in the Red Army and claimed that bereft of a church their community would disintegrate. It was all to no avail: Warsaw upheld the decisions taken in Rzeszow. It was asserted that there could be no legal basis for recognition of a Greek Catholic Church in People's Poland. Later the policy was modified and the old church in Koman'cza was transferred to the Orthodox Church of Poland. Yet even a state-salaried Orthodox priest, when duly installed in the village, was unable to persuade significant numbers to abandon the Greek Catholic faith, as the price for being allowed to use their former building. The situation did not change in 1980-1, although many peasants hoped that political liberalization would lead to formal recognition of the Greek Catholics, as it had in Czechoslovakia in 1968. They continue to share a small and much less distinguished chapel with the Roman Catholics and, with the protection and cooperation of the dominant church, to withstand the authorities' periodic attempts to obstruct and interfere.

This is a clear example of how the administrative apparatus implements a centrally determined policy. Representative institutions, the local councils, were never involved. The only way in which the population could express its views was to send off petitions to the higher echelons of the administration. The unofficial tolerance of the Greek Catholic Church in Koman'cza, and of a few other parishes in former Rus areas, is extended because of the power of the Roman Catholic Church. In the absence of this countervailing power the Greek Catholic Church would have shared the fate of its counterpart in the Soviet Ukraine, where it has enjoyed only an underground existence since 1945.

In this context another example from Koman'cza is revealing. This time it was a matter which directly affected all the inhabitants of the outlying villages, including Wislok. There was a spate of public building in the commune center in the early 1970s, much of it initiated by recent immigrants who were as talented in mobilizing local resources as in deploying the energies of outsiders, notably student groups interested in tourist projects. The outstanding achievement was the construction of a well equipped, modern health center. It was organized largely by one tireless young doctor, who had further ambitious plans to exploit natural mineral waters and develop the village as a health resort. This was too much for the local authorities, who were also concerned by the doctor's regular attendance at the Roman Catholic chapel. He was eventually transferred to another area, and the fine new facilities fell into rapid decline. For some time no doctor at all could be found to work in Koman'cza, and patients who did not reside in the commune center could never be sure when they might attend a surgery. In 1981 the only doctor resident was the same man who had built the health center, but he was unable to work there. Since his popularity was undiminished, an open meeting was called to devise some way of reinstating him and also of assisting him in his schemes to develop local springs. The wishes of the population and of the doctor himself were clear enough; but administrative obstruction (which had earlier included deliberate attempts to impede the doctor's personal house building in Koman'cza) ensured that nothing issued from this meeting. The doctor is being required to continue his appointment in a sanatorium some distance away, whilst the people of his own commune remain badly served by the present organization of the health center. In the early days of the new community a nurse held a regular surgery in Wislok itself and many complaints could be dealt with on the spot. Nowadays the nurses do not travel, and it is often necessary to make several trips to the surgery in order to consult a doctor, and to travel much further afield if the case is urgent.

Within Wislok there have been no large-scale attempts to construct communal facilities by relying on voluntary `social labor', at least not since the early years of pioneer democracy in the new community. The authorities continue to keep statistics of such activities, e.g. whenever a group of neighbors combine to improve a stretch of road. But when no pressure was applied in 1981 (because it was no longer necessary, for form's sake, to maintain such statistics), it transpired that communal self-help activities ceased entirely.

In day to day business and especially concerning less sensitive matters where religion is not involved, the hallmark of local administration is familiar bureaucratic incompetence. One might note, for example, how the authorities have implemented another aspect of a centrally determined program, this time in the field of cultural policy. Since the 1950s there has been a library in Wislok. Whilst the council was locally managed, and even afterwards for as long as the community-center remained in active use, it apparently functioned quite well. When this building fell into decay the stock of about 5,000 books was transferred to the house of the local postmaster at the top end of the village. The demand for books proved to be low. When the library was again transferred, this time to the house of a popular peasant farmer in the center of the village, there was a sharp increase in the number of readers and in the frequency of borrowing. However, the routine of this household was considerably disrupted by the popularity of the library. For nominal remuneration the peasant was required to keep a room open during long hours, to provide heating in winter, and - the most serious irritation - to attend classes in librarianship in a remote town and maintain a full statistical record of library use. When the authorities would not agree to modify these conditions the library had to be transferred again. This time it went to a house at the far, lower end of the village, where it was once again inaccessible and seldom frequented (in 1980 it counted only thirteen adult readers in the whole village). In 1981 it was moved back to a more central location, but the use made of this facility seems likely to remain small so long as the books are stored in a private home.

The administration is frequently criticized for its failure to replace the community-center, which functioned well in the first decades of the new community in Wislok. As a central meeting place it has to some extent been replaced by the new post office and main shop, but the club room which forms part of the latter building has never operated as planned. It is now used on one or two occasions in the year for village open meetings. Entertainment's are extremely infrequent, though there are limited opportunities for amusement at weekends in Koman'cza and at Rzepedz', where there is even a small cinema; but there is a problem for the young persons interested in such events: the last bus back to Wislok leaves at nine o'clock.

There has never been any cafe' or restaurant in Wislok in the socialist period. Until quite recently it was possible to purchase alcoholic beverages in the village shops. Sales of vodka and beer were stopped by the cooperative which controls the shops after local women protested about the large sums squandered by their menfolk and the drunken scenes outside the shop where the liquor was consumed. Sales of a pernicious wine, allegedly produced from a mixture of fruits, continued after 1981, though drunkenness became less frequent. The shopkeeper declared that if alcohol sales ceased altogether she would give up the job, for her wages were related to turnover.

Although some responsibilities may be formally delegated by the authorities, e.g. to the gmina cooperative which runs the shop, in fact the peasants of Wislok assign responsibility for all ills to a single, monolithic administration. The Gierek reforms concentrated bureaucratic competence in the person of the Chief Executive, and so it is, naturally, to him that people complain when there is no bread in the shop. Everything that is available is there by courtesy of the higher authorities, the woman in charge does not know what she will be able to sell the next day, or even when to expect deliveries. The inefficiencies of the administrative system were especially obvious during the grave food shortages of 1981. An official from Koman'cza distributed ration tickets efficiently enough each month, and officials from Sanok made long journeys to ensure that sanitary conditions in the shop were up to standard; but the tickets could not often command goods, and on four days out of five the shopkeeper was idle and her shelves empty.

Bureaucratic discretion and corruption

The examples given above involved public institutions and items of collective consumption. Ration tickets, giving rights to goods for individual consumption, were allocated impersonally (though there was still broad discrimination between categories, e.g. between town and country residents, and this gave rise to criticism). On some local issues there is a real perception of collective discrimination; thus the inhabitants of Wislok point to the higher levels of public investment in Koman'cza, the commune center. They would like funds to be diverted to the construction of a new school, of an animal purchasing point, and of a piped water supply. The authorities would like to accomplish these same objectives by means of `social labor', and consequently a stalemate has existed for many years.

To Wislok peasants the malign hand of the outside bureaucracy is even more apparent in the selective allocation of goods and services to particular households. This problem was touched upon in Chapter Three, where it was pointed out that peasants who wished to expand their production become highly dependent upon the administration for essential inputs. Even those with no ambition to improve farming techniques are in need of winter fuel, and everybody is likely at some stage to have to face the task of renovating dilapidated Rus dwellings or constructing modern ones to replace them. In these circumstances, the peasant must turn to the outside administration. For the hire of agricultural machinery it is necessary to turn to the SKR, in Koman'cza or Szczawne. For financial help it is necessary to have recourse to the Agricultural Bank, which has a branch in Koman'cza, though the matter may well need to be referred to senior staff in Sanok. Credits are almost automatically available for larger purchases, such as that of a tractor. The difficulty lies not in raising the money but in obtaining a paper authorizing the purchase. Strict quotas are dictated by the government apparatus, with the Chief Executive able to control distribution within his gmina. Sometimes the decisions are badly received, as when one of the upstart specialists was awarded a tractor; but nobody considered complaining when a new van was offered to the Wislok headman. Let us now suppose that a potential customer from Wislok wants to buy some smaller item, one which is not allocated by committee, nor by ration tickets, nor by any other administrative regulations (e.g. coal is normally sold to peasants only when they have delivered a set quantity of commodities to the state), and that he has the money to do so. He will normally visit the main depot of the Peasants' Self-Help Cooperative, main source of building equipment, farm materials, fuel, - everything down to the kitchen sink. It is likely that an employee here will inform the peasant that the item required is unavailable, or that he may add his name to a long order list. Sometimes this information will be correct, and the would-be purchaser must either continue the search elsewhere (difficult, since many items are sold only to residents of the local commune) or try to obtain a guarantee that he will be able to purchase later, when supplies are available. But it transpires with great regularity that the goods are available all the time, or can be made so very rapidly, if certain steps are taken to wheedle them out.

The single most important step to take in this situation throughout Poland is to supply vodka. Depending on the scale of the favor or its urgency for the customer, it may be appropriate to offer a superior foreign product, such as cognac. Cash too may change hands. But the clients, at least the Wislok peasants whom I knew and whose dealings with the administration were largely restricted to their own gmina, assured me that in most cases the half litter of vodka was sufficient. They said that the practice had not become endemic until the middle of the 1970s, when the new bureaucracy took shape in Koman'cza. Some farmers despised the procedure and said they never enjoyed participating in the consumption of the spirit in the office of the bureaucrat. Some officials could not be bribed in this way. Others kept glasses hidden in the drawers of their desks and were squeamish enough to lock themselves in, while their secretaries carried on typing outside during the half an hour that it might take two men to down half a litter. Amongst would-be clients, not everyone could accustom himself to such new and unfamiliar patterns of behavior. A favor obtained from a neighbor in the village commonly elicits a gift of vodka, usually in the form of shared consumption after a service has been performed and in addition to a monetary payment if costs are incurred. Some peasants tried simply to invite officials to the public restaurant for a drink, but somehow this was not as effective as the gift of a bottle. In 1981, when vodka went up sharply in price and for long periods was virtually unobtainable, it became less usual to drink it at once in the office and the client ceased to sample his gift. However, although many other items were in equally short supply (and were used as currency in other contexts) I never heard of anything other than vodka (or similar strong spirit) being used in transactions of this kind.

In the unusual atmosphere which prevailed in 1981 officials had to exercise greater caution. Yet, because of the severe shortages, the scope for bureaucratic discretion was greater than ever before. Journalists were not slow to expose the more colorful examples of corruption, for instance when the directors of a State Farm near Jasliska (15 km) were accused of having accepted bribes to sell produce to farms across the state border in Slovakia. At the highest level the abuses committed by the First Secretary, the Prime Minister, and other cronies, became widely known. Rampant corruption at lower levels of the administration is popularly perceived as the specific product of the socialist period. It is the direct consequence of the genuine material advances that have been made in this period, which have brought isolated rural communities into intimate contact with the national economy and the national bureaucracy. The aspirations of most peasant households have increased, and particularist demands intensified in Wislok after the first families began to mechanize farm production in the 1970s. However, supplies of the goods desired, whether for productive purposes or for consumption, were never sufficient. To the extent that the distribution problem was resolved by market instruments, prices were so extremely high that many peasants gave up their aspirations as unrealistic. To the extent that the problem was resolved by the monopolistic bureaucracy, it led inevitably to corruption. If the lower reaches of the bureaucracy became more degenerate in Poland than in other socialist states (a very uncertain proposition), this could be associated with the failure to extend the domain of socialist ownership in agriculture; for had peasants not been clamoring for the materials to maintain and expand their farms, the demands upon the bureaucracy would have been greatly reduced. Again, the point is not that collectivization works well, but that in the given socialist framework, with the economy not producing sufficient of the goods which agriculture ideally needs, the pressures placed upon local officials are great enough, without the additional burden of distributing basic production inputs.

In Poland in the early 1980s the market principle was in some respects more completely subordinate to the administrative principle than it had been in Stalin's time. In addition to native Polish terms a new set of internationally derived words was in use in the villages to describe aspects of korupcja. Thus, a peasant is sometimes said to enjoy the protekcja of an official when he is able to approach him informally, not necessarily deferentially, make the usual gift and obtain the favor required. This relationship can develop into a bureaucratic variant of the tie between patrons and clients. The patron is an official who derives his power from his position in a well-defined bureaucratic hierarchy. Relationships may be less durable than patron-client ties elsewhere, for the bureaucrat is ultimately concerned more with his administrative superiors and in his work he does not need the allegiance or support of any client. The latter may well try to reinforce links once they are established (e.g. by pressing further gifts, such as farm produce, to which the official perhaps has no easy access) but he cannot be sure of succeeding. Comparisons with other socialist countries reveal striking common features, though there is much variation in the extent to which broadly similar systems of administration have allowed local officials to function as 'patrons'.5

The Polish system must be one of the more villainous of all the corrupt bureaucracies known to history, if only because all its wheels are lubricated by vodka or even neat spirit. It has a decisive impact on the local economy, distributing resources independently not only of market forces, but also of socialist or any other humane criteria (such as need). The responsibilities of the administration are all-embracing in every socialist country - this is indeed the hallmark of socialist government. But the new, local elite in the Polish countryside grew too quickly in the 1970s. It did not grasp the notion of social responsibility, but exaggerated the hierarchical essence of the previously established system. With bureaucratic controls extending over a very wide range of goods and services, each peasant household, in order to survive in a worsening economic conjuncture, sought to become separately enmeshed in corrupt links of vertical dependency.


Another word of Latin origin to enter the Polish language recently is an ugly verb - kombinowac'. This refers to the whole undignified, frequently underhand and devious, maneuvers persons must make to accomplish anything, e.g. to assure their supplies of a particular product.6 A peasant does not combine, either formally or informally, with other peasants to achieve his goals, though the goals of the others might be identical, and an observer could point out that the needs of each individual might be better satisfied if some collective pressure were applied. In practice there is very little cooperation in the economic field, outside a narrow circle of kin. The employees of the State Farm, the only substantial group with a common workplace, do not exhibit much group solidarity. This may be because several of them are also active as peasant farmers. Other public sector workers tend to be very dependent upon their employers, who also control their accommodation. For peasant farmers, who do not enjoy a number of public sector 'perks', such as fuel provision, the only choice is whether or not to beseech bureaucrats, to participate in the vertical scrambling process. In the circumstances it is perhaps not surprising that some households have kept their demands to a minimum, even though their farms have suffered in consequence.

Without `horizontally' recruited interest groups of any kind to complicate matters, village politics in Wislok exemplify the absence of pluralist possibilities in the national political process. Apart from the council structure, mass meetings are convened annually or, at most, bi-annually. These provide an opportunity for grievances to be aired, but no guarantee that the gmina officials in attendance will do anything about them. The candidates in local government elections have always been chosen and vetted by the apparatus, and past practice was formalized in 1975 when the right of nomination was restricted exclusively to a committee directly controlled by the apparatus. No upsets have occurred to date. Elections were due to take place in 1982, and it might be suggested that the possibility of an organized opposition emerging at the local level was one factor precipitating the decision to introduce martial law at the end of 1981, and in particular to clamp down hard on the activities of Rural Solidarity 5. The organization which might appear to have exercised more real influence than any other in recent years is that of the women, the Circle of Rural Housewives. Meetings are rare and seldom well attended, but the efforts of a determined few have been instrumental in curtailing use of the club-room and sales of alcohol from the shop next door. Their views may not reflect the views of the majority of women, but their vigor has brought them success because it accorded with the views of the apparatus in Koman'cza.

The only formally constituted political group is the village cell of the Polish United Workers Party (the Communist Party). This had six members, including two teachers, one of whom resigned after the imposition of martial law. Meetings are rare and the party has never seriously attempted to represent the interests of the village, either at higher levels of the party or in connection with the local government apparatus. A few farmers have joined when it was put to them that it might be in their personal interest to do so. Only one such member had materialist convictions (he was the only one not seen regularly in church), and he too resigned at the end of 1981. Over most of the preceding decade the secretary of the village cell was the local headmaster. When he was transferred to Koman'cza in 1979 (though he continued to live in Wislok), a peasant was persuaded to take over as secretary. This man ceased to collect Party dues. In 1981 none of the nominal members was active in any political field, and nobody else took the slightest interest in the local Party. The situation was a little different in the commune center, for wherever a large white-collar apparatus is employed the organization cannot become so completely moribund. At gmina level there was much talk of how to rejuvenate the Party around the time of the Ninth Party Congress (July, 1981). No substantial changes took place in the Party in the gmina of Koman'cza, either during the period of so-called `renewal', or during the period of martial law which followed. There were, however, several resignations at the point when martial law was introduced.

The persons who enjoy above-average prestige and esteem in the village, apart from the teachers, are those who have demonstrated their competence as farmers. Normally, these will be the persons invited by the gmina officials to stand for the council, and one of them is likely to be vested with the powers of village headman. They are invariably male - no woman has yet played any significant role, except within the circle of Housewives - and the policy is to persuade them all to join some formal organization. The most likely one, in the case of a peasant who attends church regularly, and is either apathetic or downright contemptuous of politicians generally, is the United Peasants Party. Though this played no role in village affairs in Wislok, if it were able to develop an active organization at village level it might in principle attract more members - certainly more than the Communist Party. It can be argued that the potential for an authentic populist party must remain so long as there remain peasants, and the Koman'cza based committee was a little more active than usual in 1981. Grass roots dissatisfaction throughout the countryside with the policies pursued by national leaders, especially towards Rural Solidarity, resulted in sweeping changes at the top, but did not restore political credibility. Most peasants continue to feel that this party will never have much influence over the communist-controlled apparatus at any level.10

Peasants seldom try to obtain favors or to redress grievances through their elected councilors. If the latter are nevertheless frequently consulted, this is because of their general standing in the community. They are seldom able to intervene effectively with the administration for they are in no sense themselves `patrons' with an autonomous power base. If they do succeed on occasion as political brokers, this will owe little or nothing to their elected office. For most tasks, the more promising strategy is directly to approach the local apparatus of government employees, and if this is not successful, to follow this up by further individual approaches to higher levels of the hierarchy. The articulate and the literate, if they should be unlucky at gmina level, are well advised to take the matter to county level. A Party member able to write to the county level of the Party apparatus is in a particularly strong position, and it is even possible nowadays for some kinds of business to be resolved speedily over the telephone (thus, a call to the appropriate office in Krosno can release supplies for a Wislok farmer from stocks kept in Koman'cza). Although collective petitions have been very rare in Wislok, persistent letter writing has also paid off for a dozen or so households in the upper hamlet, who were regularly cut off from the world by atrocious road conditions. When Krosno failed to give satisfaction they appealed to Warsaw and sought the attention of the national media. The gmina was eventually forced to act, but only when what should have been a routine piece of local business threatened to become a national scandal. The case, involving a degree of cooperation between households and pressure being applied on the authorities via the threat of media exposure, was highly exceptional.

In general it would appear that political activities in Wislok have been greatly inhibited by the functioning of the state administration ever since the formation of the new community, and that the dominance of an apparatus based outside the village has become gradually more complete as more complex ties have developed between the village and the national society. In many parts of Poland in 1980-1 the emergence of Rural Solidarity democratized the character of the local political process and gave peasants the opportunity not only to make known their views but also to influence decisions. Sometimes this happened through mass meetings, sometimes initiatives were taken up by galvanized Communist Party cells or by a purged local apparatus. Within Rural Solidarity populist and syndicalist currents were strong. Many urged the dissolution of the new bureaucracies, and sought to place effective power in the hands of the open village meeting. One had the impression nevertheless that most was achieved where the new union evolved an active and militant bureaucracy of its own, that only such an organization could force the apparatus to alter its policies, e.g. in allocating land or equipment to the private sector. The progress made by the new union in 1981 was very uneven across the country. In Koman'cza the cause was taken up by persons whose general standing in the community was the opposite of the peasants appointed to the councils in the 1970s by intelligent bureaucrats. Thus, the union mustered little support locally, and none at all in Wislok, although a few farmers were profoundly sympathetic to Solidarity as a national movement.

There are good reasons why Rural Solidarity did not achieve the well nigh universal backing which the workers' movement proper gained in its industrial constituency. There were organizational deficiencies, personal clashes within the national leadership and factional disputes over policy, all of which were readily exploited by the authorities in their efforts to discredit the new union.11 In the case of Wislok relative isolation from urban and industrial influences also contributed to the union's unpopularity - though it may be pointed out that militancy was high in other, equally isolated parts of the Bieszczady region, where the existence of an extravagant government hunting reserve was the touchstone. It has to be acknowledged that increased difficulties in obtaining supplies for the farm and consumer goods, combined with the anti-Solidarity propaganda of the media, turned many peasants against the new movement in the later months of its existence. The propaganda was not so easily countered in the countryside as it could be in the towns and factories. The Solidarity weekly newspaper devoted little attention to agriculture, and in any case did not attract any peasant subscriptions in Wislok. The whole episode would seem to conform very well with the image of conservative passivity so often associated with peasantry. Yet the history of peasant political parties in Poland in the pre-socialist generations goes rather against this stereotype. Populist parties were extremely powerful, and some of them had a strong socialist orientation. Perhaps, therefore, we should explain the failure of Rural Solidarity not in terms of the generic handicaps of peasant movements,12 but rather in terms of the consequences of several decades of debilitating socialist administration. Some farmers were deeply suspicious of Solidarity when it first emerged as a workers' movement, they were determined to have no truck with those setting themselves up as a political opposition to the authorities. Such fears were fully justified, both in view of the tragedies to which peasant activism had led in the past, and in view of what martial law was to bring to some activists in the 1980s.

To summarize: Rural Solidarity might well be seen as a continuation of the Polish peasantry's notable populist tradition, a gallant successor to the old peasant parties which had been irrevocably compromised under socialism. The threat to the dominance of the socialist administrative system was brief. In Wislok and Komancza the most respected peasants, who might have been its spearhead, had been neutralized by their partial recruitment to the administrative system. They held council positions which gave them little power, but compromised them sufficiently to remove their will to oppose. The apparatus was not everywhere so efficient in this respect, and of course eventually it needed to declare a `state of war' to ensure the defeat of this populist revival.

Social control becomes bureaucratic control

Analysis of the political systems of even complex, modern societies can often be illuminated by inquiries into methods of dispute settlement and the maintenance of law and order. The local, informal sanctions of the rural community have everywhere declined with the expansion of the state, and been replaced by formalized legal institutions, intended to make standard codes of behavior effective throughout a given territory. In countries where these institutions do not develop concomitant with the penetration of a market economy and the state remains weak, alternative linkages may appear in the form of clientelist political relations. The socialist political system, though a strong state system par excellence, permits the emergence of a special kind of clientelism, as indicated above, in which the individual farmer who wishes to expand his farm becomes dependent upon local bureaucrats. Increasing bureaucratization of the machinery of local government is not the best way to aid the adoption of `universalistic' legal norms. At the same time it has had some effect in the field of social control: the procedures commonly activated today are an adaptation to depoliticization, and one further aspect of administrative hegemony.

Traditionally, in Wislok as in other villages, especially those located so far into the mountains, local and informal sanctions were of decisive importance. We noted how, through several centuries, the nominal political rulers were unable to control the activities of bandits who enjoyed the support of the community. The power of the external authorities became stronger under Austrian rule, but it was not until Galicia returned to Poland in the inter-war period that a specialized institution for the maintenance of law and order was set up in the village a police station manned by Poles. Its presence still had little effect on routine processes of dispute settlement, which continued to depend upon local sanctions and would seldom require a higher level of arbitration than that of the elected headman, a man of immense prestige in the village.

In the early post-war years when Wislok was resettled by Polish immigrants, informal procedures were still of major importance. In the 1970s the village headman (in office continuously since 1948) insisted that he was always willing to mediate in disputes, to preserve harmony and goodwill between neighbors. In reality he enjoyed little prestige and his interventions were extremely rare. He was simply not consulted, and quarrels were taken at once to the commune center, to the police station there (if an offense was alleged) or to the person of the Chief Executive in the case of more nebulous complaints. Within the gminas established in the 1970s there is a disciplinary institution known as the kolegium, a tribunal dominated by local bureaucrats which is empowered to adjudicate a wide range of minor offenses and impose penalties (usually fines). In the last few years residents of every neighborhood in Wislok have entered formal accusations against their immediate neighbors and had their complaints upheld at the ensuing kolegium. The commonest offense was minor assault whilst under the influence of alcohol, and the usual punishment meted out to the offender is a fine (related to his means), sometimes supplemented by a specified number of hours of `social work'. The latter punishment is not strictly enforced. An exceptional case witnessed in 1981 arose out of a long-standing dispute between peasant neighbors in the upper hamlet, which crystallized during the distribution of small plots of State Farm land, claimed by both families. Each attempted to graze his animals on the land, the tension mounted over a few weeks and eventually boiled over in the presence of witnesses favorable to one of the two parties. The other was accused of disturbing the peace and using obscene language in the presence of children, and fined 1,100 zloty. The land dispute itself was resolved when the Chief Executive came out in person and formed an ad hoc komisja, with the participation of neutral local residents as well as other members of the administration. This led to a compromise acceptable to all. The system, including the kolegium, is thought to work well by the local administrators, who say that by resolving minor disputes and dealing with petty crime at the gmina level it spares everyone the necessity of litigation at higher levels. However, it may also lead to the exaggeration of minor misdemeanors, and have a negative impact on neighborhood relations. There is nowadays a tendency in the heat of an argument to rush to Koman'cza to institute formal proceedings, when previously another neighbor or the headman might have been called in and a compromise reached without recourse to the administration.13

The kolegium is now widely accepted as an impartial regulator of inter-household disputes. But, as in the case of other administrative decisions, it is possible to appeal against a verdict. Here, too, the writing of letters (initially to the county center, later possibly to Warsaw) has paid off for at least one Party member in recent years.

Disputes within the socialist enterprises operating in Wislok are infrequent. One case at the State Farm in 1981 showed that the employee has little hope of succeeding with a complaint against the management. It involved an illiterate night watchman, who alleged pilfering by the Director. The accusation was taken to court at county level, where the plaintiff claimed he was not given even the semblance of a fair hearing. He received no compensation when he was dismissed from his job soon afterwards. Whatever the merits of his allegation, it was interesting that fellow workmen were critical of his pressing a formal complaint. They suggested that it was useless, even dangerous, to challenge the authority of the Director. It would seem that the formal methods of dispute settlement are appropriate to the resolution of conflicts with one's neighbors and equals, but are not recommended if one is in conflict with a socialist institution.

There is no `law and order' problem. in the contemporary village. For some time after Wislok was resettled there was a resident policeman, but he was stationed here because of the village's proximity to the border and not in order to interfere in the affairs of the embryonic community. There was a higher level of violence in these years, mainly because of rivalry between youth gangs, formed according to regions of origin. Such patterns were very typical of the Polish countryside, and they still surface occasionally when the young men of Wislok attend entertainment's in other villages.14 Within the villages no such groups have functioned in recent years, doubtless because few young men remain on the farms. Within certain families there is still a disconcerting incidence of violent behavior when vodka is consumed; but the nearest regular policeman (as distinct from the prison warders and the frontier patrols which are quite frequently in evidence) is nowadays in Koman'cza, and there is really no call for one in villages without a public bar.

* * * *

`Administration' is the term used loosely in this chapter to characterize the external organs and officials of the state and Party apparatus who have power in Wislok. The political process itself has become an administrative process, one which keeps each constituent household in relations of vertical dependence. It has not been conducive to the formation of alliances or pressure groups within the village, nor to any expression of village unity within the present system of large communes. Administration did not impinge thus on the Rus community, and `local self-government' was a socialist ideal which had some reality in the first decade of resettlement in Wislok. Lately, however, especially since the reforms introduced by the Gierek team in the 1970s, there has been an enormous expansion in the size and functions of an apparatus now entirely located outside the village. The power which it wields at local level has not been subject to effective legal controls: the formal introduction of martial law at the end of 1981 actually made hardly any difference to this peasantry.

There are risks in subverting local democracy so completely, as the quotation from Letowski at the head of this chapter reminds us. When hierarchical dependence is so great and basic features of the economy are not working properly, as they certainly were not in the early 1980s, it is the administration which will be held directly to blame. As Letowski puts it, thirty years ago it was still possible to blame the bakers whenever supplies of bread were deficient. Today everybody blames the appropriate administrative organ, and rightly so in an advanced socialist society. When the whole economy breaks down the official response, at least in the short term, is to intensify administrative controls and introduce rationing. The attitude of the population is one of cynical indignation towards all the representatives of the state, which may not remain passive if some novel organization can mobilize the protests. Such a risk may exist potentially in other socialist countries, though none has yet devised such a lethal combination of economic incompetence and inflation of the bureaucracy. But the Polish case has further peculiarities. This variant of bureaucratic socialism does not in fact have anything like the total control to which it aspires. The countervailing power of the Roman Catholic Church cannot be expressed in political opposition; but it hardly needs this kind of demonstration, which might indeed conflict with its cultural and spiritual functions for the population. In the following chapters the strengths of contemporary Polish Catholicism will be compared and contrasted with those of secular culture and socialist ideology; we shall then be in a position to examine, in Chapter Eight, the full consequences for the social structure of the administrative mechanisms described here.

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© LV Productions  Originally Composed: April 8th, 1996
Date last modified: May 30th, 1999.