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After Solidarity: Democracy or Liberalism?

WARSAW: The shipyard of Gdansk, birthplace of Solidarity and cradle of the revolution against communism, is poised to go into bankruptcy. That a Solidarity-led government may take such a step is proof, if any is needed, that Poland has traveled far. Deep questions about the nature of our political system, however, remain to be answered.

Nearly a decade after communism’s collapse, Poland has no doubt achieved a quite liberal society. No doubt, that is, if one assumes that defense of the "negative" freedoms enjoyed by individuals and groups is the main purpose of a liberal society. Everybody is nowadays for or against something; everyday many people - often successfully - organize protests to thwart the aspirations of someone or other, or to negate some state decision. From big issues - say, the closure of the Gdansk shipyards - to small ones - say, when the peasants in my village object to a new road because the tumult may kill their pigs - the country is awash in impromptu protest politics.

Every particular protest has its understandable, even justifiable, cause, and it is obvious that people should defend their interests. But the general attitude in Poland is not, to borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr, one of "we shall overcome." It is, instead, one of "we shall not allow."

This is civil society built, not on solidarity, but on negation. Protests against the decisions of the post-communist authorities, who were ousted in elections last year, at least had the appearance of some principled political motivation: we were against them and feared an attempted restoration. Now we have "our" government, but also our own "refuseniks," and they appear even stronger and their obstructions more strident than before.