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Gary T. Marx
In discussing commentators on the secretive Black Muslims, Malcolm X observed, "those that know, don't say and those that say, don't know." Until the appearance of this well argued and documented book with its provocative thesis about the central role of the secret police in political and economic affairs, the same might have been said of many commentators on Poland's transition from a communist to a privatized state.
The social scientist seeking to understand the partially revealed iceberg of complex, impassioned social events such as the changes in Poland must go beyond the methodological purists who hold that only that which can be quantified and stated in propositional form is worthy of study. Such a student must also go beyond the distorting reductionism of the one-trick ponies, whether coming from the ideologues of glorification or denigration, or their logical equivalents in the single causal theorists.
It's a tough job but someone has to do it. Los and Zybertowicz have done it well! With intelligence, detailed scholarship, originality, honesty and humility they bring clarity and light to murky shadows. This book must be read by anyone seeking to understand recent changes in Poland and indeed in any new democracy.
At an earlier time both Los and Zybertowicz had direct experience with the Polish secret police, not as would be the case later, as interviewers, but through blacklisting, expulsion, internment and involvement in the Solidarity movement. This has no doubt heightened their interest in the topic. But it has certainly not detracted from their objectivity. It may even have strengthened it in giving them an experiential appreciation of the importance of openness, truth, fairness and due process and in order to prevent their experience as victims from casting doubt on their academic claims.
Maria Los received her Ph.D.. in sociology from the University of Warsaw and taught there until 1977. She is currently Professor of Criminology at the University of Ottawa. Her long-standing interest in hidden social processes is also reflected in her many previous studies of the second economy and economic crime in communist countries. Her powers of observation are enhanced by her emigrant status. She frequently returns to Poland for research.
Professor Andrzej Zybertowicz, Director of the Institute of Sociology at Nicholas Copernicus University, one of Europe's oldest universities, is the author of a major study on the Polish secret police. This book is a culmination of his intellectual and personal journey through the last two tumultuous decades of Polish history. It reflects a tenacious, if ever tentative belief (or perhaps better hope) that the powers of the intellect and the rule of law can improve social conditions. He has the courage to address issues in his native land which are generally ignored by academics and the mass media.
The book asks how the changes in Poland involving democratization, privatization and marketization were effected by, and effected, the party/police-state framework within which they occurred. While democracy and Soviet style secret police are inimical, the same can not be said of the economic factors and secret police. The book notes the easy congruence between the police apparatus and local and global capitalism. Los and Zybertowicz argue that the privatization of the police state cannot be understood without examining the machinations of the various police and security agencies.
Rather than being history remembered only in how-not-to-do-it text books, elements of the police state are alive and well. The book calls attention to the major role covert action and actors played not only in creating and sustaining the communist regime, but to their much less well known role in undermining it. The transformation of Polish society was not simply a reflection of social movement activity from below, nor of the power vacuum created by the collapse of Soviet support. Instead it involved a series of covertly negotiated revolutions instituted from on high, initially with the apparent support of the KGB.
Through careful strategies the opposition was both attacked and later nourished. Using familiar tactics of repression, manipulation, infiltration, division, vilification, and finally co-option, the Solidarity movement and other sources of opposition were shaped and pushed in the direction of a path compatible with the interests of the communist elite who perceived that their ship was sinking. With their extraordinary experience, resources and knowledge, the massive state security apparatus played a central role in the relatively bloodless collapse of communism. But the story hardly stops there.
Like the deep foundation of an ancient building, a police state apparatus, so entrenched in civil society that the border between the public and private is often blurred, rarely disappears. Apart from the symbolic removal of some leading figures, much of it remains in place, --old agents with new uniforms and activities. Where the contaminated tether of secret police connections saturates a society, the song may be ended, but the melody lingers on, even as new songs appear.
This book argues that the security agency's covert actions are just beneath the visible transformation processes of marketization and privatization. Los and Zybertowicz note the central role played by agencies of state security in managing the command economy, a factor surprisingly absent from social scientist's models. But what is even more surprising, they note the central role these agencies played in subordinating parts of the privatization process to the interests of the system's former political elite. This insulated the elite from accountability for misdeeds committed under communism and permitted directing lines of capital flow and accumulation. It also created massive opportunities for fraud and corruption and a new wealthy class. In a process anticipated by Max Weber, the former communist nomenklatura, with the involvement and protection of the security agencies, trade political for economic resources and then later are able to use their economic resources to regain political power.
This book usefully situates its story within the broader transformations involving postindustrial, post-national and postmodern transformations, showing how former secret service operatives and structures were uniquely positioned to become intermediaries between the new Polish and the global economy. In doing this they offer fresh insights into the globalization of organized crime, the marketing of spying, cross border social control, and changes in the nature of capital. The perhaps necessity, and certainly the irony, in protecting a fledgling democracy through the use of secret police tactics is not lost upon the authors. They also note how the bridging and protective actions of the secret police reduced resistance to change on the part of those formally in power and their networks.
This is not only a story of immoral opportunism; more charitably, it can also be seen as one of amoral survivalism, likely reflecting a sensibility honed out of centuries of experience with repressive rulers, whether external or internal. A non-ideological cynicism and need to cover all possible bases, coexists just beneath the surface with public obeisance to an all encompassing ideology. When the handwriting on the wall changes, the flexible ideologue shifts beliefs. The constant awareness of threat and easy shifting of impression management gears appears to be more characteristic of Europe in general, and Eastern Europe in particular, than North America.
In apparently uncovering the veiled truths of secret police and intelligence agents, we must forever be on guard. Has the observer fallen into a carefully fabricated web of lies? Do documents really mean what they appear to? What of orders that were never written down, of "no file" or destroyed documents? What of verbal communications that were understood and not literally stated? What of interviewees who lie? Is observed behavior merely a means to some other hidden end? Was a secret meant to be discovered as part of a strategy? The never-ending caution and skepticism of the scientist apply with particular force here. Yet things sometimes are what they appear to be.
Los and Zybertowicz thoughtfully and creatively probe beneath the veneer of reality constructed by those who were (and some who remain) masters of deception.
This study is a model of what scholarship on secrecy enshrouded topics should be. Its empirical findings suggest a loosely directional perspective. They walk a thin line between the silliness and dogmatism of most conspiracy theories, and the intellectual anarchy of the view that history is fully open ended and reflects nothing more than random events. To note a broad direction need not imply "a comprehensive conspiratorial mechanism that co-ordinates and permeates all relevant actions," nor is it to deny a degree of simple convergence on the part of loosely related groups with some common interests.
One can almost feel the wheels of the author's minds turning as they fit various pieces of evidence into their argument and then reflexively stand back and wonder if they have been taken in and if there is a better interpretation. Fortunately in the end, as Sir Thomas More counseled, they doubt their doubts and leave us with a compelling book, strengthening the groundwork for a neglected area of inquiry.
Their perspective has ample room for other causes. They acknowledge the cross currents, variation, dynamic emergence and elements of indeterminacy found in the myriad events we for convenience abstractly lump together as the fall of communism.. However they also make clear that any comprehensive understanding must give significant attention to covert police activities. They offer a sensitizing perspective which tells us one place to look, offer useful concepts such as the post-totalitarian police state, and the privatized state, and guide us in ordering and interpreting facts.
The study makes clear the fruitful possibilities for comparative research on the role of the secret services in other democratic transitions such as in Spain, Portugal, South Africa, parts of Latin America and in the Axis countries after WWII. Studying the role of the military and secret police in a changing China would also be of great interest. Can justice be served while democratic stability is maintained? Can fire effectively be fought by means other than fire? Can the inherently risky and dangerous tactics of covert coercion, manipulation, surveillance and deception be adequately reigned in by the rule of law and official oversight? Must those who sanction the use of fire invariably be burned? The study also alerts us to the importance of studying how the end of the Cold War has effected security agencies in the traditional democracies, as they too confront post-industrialism and globalization and the blurring of conventional lines between the public and the private and the national and the international.
Given the persuasiveness of their general argument it is an interesting sociology of knowledge question as to why such a view does not have greater currency. Beyond scholarly concepts rooted in 19th century views, one explanation is yet another conspiracy, this time one of silence and of averting the eyes. From a standpoint of societal legitimacy, there may be certain things that it is best to forget or not to know (this goes beyond the formidable self-protective powers of the security agencies and their heirs). Emerging societies in particular may need myths --if not of divine creation, at least of heroic anti-communist creation in resistance to the hated ancien regime. A message that the old apparatchiks helped to create the new regime and may simply be wearing new hats can hardly be welcomed.
Social scientists have rarely researched such themes because to do so requires reversing their preferred sequence of starting with a favored theory and seeking places to test it, or starting with a sophisticated method and looking for topics that meet its requirements such as a representative sample or a control group. In contrast, here the authors start with an intellectual puzzle and ask what methods are best for approaching it. While rigor and quantification are admirable, they should never come at a cost of excluding major areas of inquiry. As this study admirably demonstrates, we must capture our methods not be captured by them. We must study what is significant, not what best fits conventional methodologies. It is good to see Polish sociology go beyond its classical concerns with theory and method and enlarge its tent to include studies of dirty data. What is sacrificed in purity is surely gained in knowledge and wisdom.
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