By Edward Lucas
When you hear that since the collapse of Communism, there have been only 18 months without the ex-Communists being in power in Poland (either in government or the presidency), it helps explain why the current, strongly anti-Communist government is rather prickly about the past.
But one of the nice things about being an Economist journalist is that we have a team of fact-checkers (a species otherwise unknown in British journalism), who delight in catching us out. Sophie, the stellar fact-checker responsible for my survey of Poland (published this week) scoured reference books for details of every government and president since 1989 - and couldn't justify the 18-month claim. The real answer, she insisted, was 33 months.
I was puzzled by this, until a wise friend put me right. This 18-month claim is arguably true - if "ex-Communists being in power" also means any government in which former Communist party members have held office. By that count, for example, Leszek Balcerowicz, seen by many as the hero of the capitalist counter-revolution, counts as an "ex-Communist". That's a clever smear, because Balcerowicz, now the governor of the national bank, is just the kind of arrogant free-market liberal that the current government dislikes. The feeling's mutual: many members of the Warsaw economic and cultural elite feel that their country is being run by hicks and bigots.
This is not just a squabble about the arithmetic of political history. It goes to the heart of a big philosophical and moral debate in all post-Communist countries. What level of collaboration with the Communist regimes of the past is acceptable?
There is no simple answer. It is hard to find anybody, in politics or outside, who grew up under Communism and is wholly pure, and competent, and alive. You can have any two, but not all three. In particular, governments composed solely of ex-dissidents, however heroic, have a pretty disappointing record: squabbling, unfocused and even corrupt. Yet admitting that sleazy ex-commies are the only people efficient enough to run things smacks of defeatism.
Even for non-believers, religion is helpful in making sense of this. First: don't confuse saints and priests. Ex-dissidents are saints; good politicians are priests. Many saints would be disastrous pastors; equally, some of the best clergy I have known have had chaotic, even scandalous, personal lives. Their unworthiness doesn't necessarily impair their ministry - and can even help it.
Second, be ready to make moral judgments. These are rather unfashionable in an era when people like to talk of "inappropriate behaviour" rather than wrongdoing. But there's no way out. Everyone who lived under communism made some sort of moral choice. To honour those who chose bravely, some disapproval of those who were cowardly and vicious is vital. Collaboration with the Communist system is like a criminal record: it may (or may not) have been minor and a long time ago, but it is there and it is wrong, and there is no way round it.
But third, accept the possibility of redemption. There are ex-Communists who readily accept that they were wrong-headed pawns (or worse) in a monstrous, murderous, conspiracy. Many rejoiced in the collapse of the evil empire; many now are determined to help repair the damage. Such uncaptive minds are quite different from nostalgic ninnies who mourn the semblance of full employment and social welfare they remember liking in the old days. And still more different (and far, far worse) are the unrepentant, with their cold eyes and steel-clad consciences, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ex-KGB cronies.