Post-communist Challenges and Emancipated Discourses

2009-06-05 14:06:21 / News read 2005 reading

By Mariusz Czepczyński and Małgorzata Tarasiewicz. "Broad spectrum of post-socialist social and political transformations includes deep changes of gender politics and practices. Despite of formal and legal communist equal rights rule, the everyday practice before 1989 proved profound gender discrimination and stratifications. Since the beginning of 1990s women have started the long lasted political and social emancipation process, especially difficult in traditional, rural, conservative and male-dominated society of Poland." 

State Communism, in some aspects, included gender, had created certain, almost ‘open-air museum-like’ situation, where practices and approaches had often been copied form the 1930s societies. The process of post-totalitarian gender emancipation has been facilitated by numerous discourses, including employment policy, abortion, gay and lesbian rights, women political activity, family planning, birth-giving, sexual harassment, gender organisations and many others.

Political and social transformations after socialism

The concept of socialism refers to a broad array of ideologies and movements which aim to improve society through collective and egalitarian action; and to a socio-economic system in which property and the distribution of wealth are subject to control by the community (Szarota 2001, Brzeziński 1960). Socialism can be seen as a kind of extreme humanism. While the main, declared goals of socialism: human development, equal rights (including gender) and equal distribution of resources seldom raise many disputes, the implementation of the most humanistic of the projects is always realised by faulty humans, and brings the bright ideas into the manoeuvres of the real, hard word. There is an important difference in understanding the phenomena of socialism, one can speak about two ‘socialist projects’: one deeply humanistic, referring to all the positive and positivistic aspects of social tradition, as it is mainly seen in the West, and the other one, connected with its practical implementation, was always based on terror, limitation of basic civil rights, and oppression. One of the expression of socialism can be called ‘admirative’, seen as a radical humanism, while the other side of it was aggressive and totalitarian, focused on elimination of class enemies, controlled civic existence in the smallest possible details and transform human individuals into a ‘parts of the collective’ (Nawratek 2005, Czepczyński 2008). The majority of the Central European societies entered state communism in feudal or post-feudal social order. Communism brought certain aspects of equality and human rights, including gender, but at the same time extremely oppressive state overtook all the whole civic system and limited personal and organisational freedoms. In the end, the positive aspects of socialism have been overshadowed by the tyrannical practices of everyday life (Czepczyński 2008).



State socialism in Central Europe was operating to some extent as an anti-socialist and conservative open-air museum. Societies behind the Iron Curtain have never fully experienced the 1968 counter-revolutions and moral transformations. The hierarchical structures of power, disconnection with Western cultures and petit bourgeois mentality of the majority of apparatchiks resulted in very limited incorporation of gender rights and policies, so typical for Western socialist or social-democratic parties. Formally declared gender rights were mostly only verbal declarations, hardly incorporated into the social and political practices. Women mostly played only marginal and ornamental role, as figurative ministries of culture or shadow wives and heroines, but never really important and decision-makers figures. Many difficult gender issues, like homosexuality, were formally non-existent, while others, like abortion were legal and fully accepted (excluding Romania), with very high level of professional activities and inadequate payments for women. Socialism ended with pretty much disoriented societies, officially fully emancipated, but in practice deeply masculinised and male dominated (see True 2003).

Post-communist societies were freed from the principles of egalitarianism and equality, which had been imposed on them by the communist regimes. These changes were a reaction to totalitarian methods of governing, but were also brought about by the general cultural tendencies occurring in the industrial world by the end of the 20th century. After 1989 societies faced vast legal, economic, social, cultural, and gender conversions. Changes have been accelerated by the explosion of free market and flow of capital, globalization of cultures, fast transfer of information, as well as appearance of new actors on the social scene, free media, local governments, very broad spectrum of politicians, as well as non-governmental organizations. Gender has been only a marginal concern in post totalitarian reform processes in Poland (Czepczyński 2008). Post-socialist resolutions of the early 1990s were characterised by a fairly spontaneous understanding of freedom on both personal and institutional levels. After more than 40 years of oppression and restrain the control mechanisms almost disappeared and resulted by many social discourses, including conservative, chauvinist, homophobic, bigot, and traditional movements. The procedure of social liberation met the governmental and civic institutions somewhat unprepared for the new challenges and responsibilities.

The conversion of powers in Central Europe had been very fast and in some way unexpected. Even Solidarity leaders did not expect to gain all the power within few months. The changes had been happening on many different levels. Transformation of post-socialist countries after 1989 can be classified in three main types:

  • Political, as a shift from authoritarian dictatorship towards parliamentarian democracy, based on coherent legal system, where society is an active participant of the governing processes and procedures. Political instability and frequent transformation of political parties left the electorate somehow lost in multiple choices. Regional policies forced de-centralization of power and recreation of local municipalities.
  • Economic, where centrally planned state economy was replaced by private and market oriented, based on free competition of entrepreneurships and liberalization of market rules. Privatization, collapse of old socialist industries and foreign investments changed local economic rules, while unemployment rose as one of the main economic and social problems in most countries of the region.
  • Social, was started by contestation of forced interpretation of the communists’ social ideas. Egalitarian imperative parity was replaced by differentiations and pluralism. Civic and gender rights together with freedom of thoughts boosted the rising aspirations. Freedom of movements caused vast migrations, especially after joining EU, reshaping many local and regional labour markets and societies (see Sorin and Tismaneanu 2000).

Political scene of Poland, the largest of the Central European post-communist countries, can be used as the best exemplification of gender policy developments and transformations of socio-political visions. The vivid gender discourse of the 1990s and the early 2000s has been additionally accelerated by the powerful and mostly conservative catholic hierarchies and the emerging women organizations (see Tarasiewicz 2001). Issues of democracy, rights and justice were both revitalized and radicalized, as social movements used the language of rights to press governments for social reforms. The national and local political and social arenas has been dominated by various archetypes of male leaders and female icons, which, interacting with each other, facilitated the national gender discourse.


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