The Polish Roundtable talks took place in Warsaw between February 6th and April 5th 1989. The talks brought together the Communist government of Poland and the then underground opposition movement Solidarność (Solidarity). As the talks began there was widespread fear that social tensions, allied to growing economic problems, could result in open conflict, even civil war. However the talks resulted in an agreement that transformed the Polish state, that paved the way to peaceful and democratic elections in which Solidarity took power. Arguably, the impact of the Roundtable went far beyond Poland and was critical to the peaceful collapse of Communism across all of Eastern Europe.
So how was this possible? The impact of the roundtable raises many questions which are core to social and political psychology. How could an apparently intractable conflict be overcome? What made the shift from contentious collective action to negotiation possible? What was it about the negotiations which made them so effective? What was the role of leadership and how did those inside the Roundtable talks manage to bring their constituencies along with them in accepting the agreement? Does the Roundtable provide a wider model for effective democratic participation? Moreover, was the harmonious outcome of the Roundtable an unmitigated good or did it (as some argue) simply maintain inequalities in a new form and allow perpetrators to avoid responsibility for their actions.
In sum, the significance of the Roundtable is reason enough to study it and the lessons it has for psychology and for society. This is accentuated by the crisis of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism not only in a number of eastern European countries, but in the European periphery (e.g. Turkey) in Western Europe and in the United States. This year (2016) has been critical in this regard. With elections in `France and Germany, 2017 is likely to be equally critical. In sum, a meeting which brings together scholars from various different research traditions and various different countries to discuss the lessons of the Roundtable is both important and timely. Yet there is another reason – a reason both unique and compelling – for organizing such a meeting and organizing it now.
Two social/political psychologists, Janusz Reykowski and Janusz Grzelak, were key figures in the Roundtable discussions. Reykowski was one of the chief negotiators for the government side. As a Co-Chair of the Political sub-table, he negotiated the new shape of the future political system and the rules of transition (with professor Bronisław Geremek, the Solidarity negotiator). Grzelak was a Solidarity negotiator, Co-Chair of the Education and Science sub-table, and subsequently deputy minister responsible for Higher Education in the first post-communist government. Our aim is to take advantage of the fact that these two eminent Polish social psychologists (Janusz Reykowski and Janusz Grzelak) were at the very core of a world-changing event. We want to take advantage of this in order to ask (a) what can these events tell us about relevant social psychological processes, (b) to what extent can social psychology help us understand these events? During the meeting we will analyze the experience of the Polish Roundtable as a test bed in which we can interrogate the adequacy of our social psychological models and think about how they might need to be elaborated or changed in order to be of use.
Also, we want to take your attention to the fact that this is not a standard meeting in which participants give their standard talk. It is the opportunity for a dialogue, a reflection, a conversation in which we honestly take stock of our discipline and learn from each other as to how we move forward.