The Polish Middle Class

by Henryk Domański (Author)
©2015 Monographs 140 Pages


This book discusses the viability of «importing» the middle class to Poland. The 1990s were a step forward in the formation of the Polish middle class and, systematically yet barely discernible in daily life, the process was triggered by an increase in consumption and affluence. However, the changes of attitudes, life goals and value systems distinct for the Western middle class are ambiguous and rather slow in Poland. They ensue mainly from the changes in new social structures and the behavioral rationality of consumers. It appears that the middle class in Poland will not emerge as an exact copy of the original middle class – rather, it will be its contextually modified variant, affected by Polish cultural traditions.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter I: The Heartening Myth
  • What Is the Middle Class?
  • The Middle Class and Its Psychological Role
  • Negative Aspects
  • Chapter II: Consumption, Affluence, New Style and New Structures
  • Directions of Changes
  • Style
  • What Could Not Happen in the USA: Controversies around Enfranchisement
  • Chapter III: Self-Reliance: 1984–1998
  • Individualism on a Decline
  • Has Self-Reliance Become a More Important Dimension of the Social Hierarchy?
  • Sources of Dejection
  • Chapter IV: Aspirations and Value Systems
  • Tolerance
  • Restrictiveness
  • Backing for the Market Rules
  • Aspirations and Social Status: Poland’s Alignment with the Universal Trend
  • Conclusions
  • Chapter V: The Old Intelligentsia vs. the New Middle Class
  • Old Problems vis-à-vis the Political Shift
  • The Managerial Intelligentsia
  • The Civil Service
  • The Professions
  • The Intelligentsia in the Budget Sector
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter VI: The Upper Class
  • Attributes of the Upper Class: Wealth
  • Attributes of the Upper Class: Authority and Power
  • Attributes of the Upper Class: Social Origin
  • The Polish Upper Class
  • The Ruling Class
  • Conclusion: Prospects for the Middle-Class Society in Poland
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names


If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it. And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

Rudyard Kipling

In capitalist countries, the middle class is a basic component of the social structure. Why a component rather than a genuine “class” will soon be shown. Our main question is whether the middle class is to be found in Poland, as well. A handful of reflections to start with. It is September, 2002. Thirteen years ago, when the middle class and the appended themes of unemployment and exchange quotation were addressed in the Polish media and political debates, hardly anyone was likely to believe those notions would ever be pertinent to our realities, not to mention that few actually made any sense of them. The middle class became an issue in the early 1990s, when life in Poland gradually came to resemble that of Western societies in some respects. Survey research of the time revealed that, suddenly, 45% to 50% of all adult Poles started to regard themselves as belonging to the middle class.

Thinking about the processes of the middle class formation in Poland has developed along two distinct lines. On one hand, in the media discourse, insights are produced on the spot as politicians and opinion leaders demand instantaneous diagnoses. On the other, sociologists take their time to reflect and draw on systematic analytical findings in order to form judgments. This book was written as a contribution to the latter category. In its argument, I trace symptoms of the middle class formation, referring to findings of research based on national samples.

The middle class is linked with several social mechanisms which underpin capitalism – such as meritocracy which links the rewarding system to educational credentials, ability and talents. In Western democracies, the chief beneficiaries of these principles include highly-qualified specialists, who make up the most dynamically developing segment of the middle class. In Poland, many popular truths – such as, for example, that the standard of living is better now than under the previous regime – are hard to prove. One of the incontestable truths, in my opinion, is that the significance of meritocracy has increased considerably, as evidenced in the effect of education on income, which was steadily rising throughout the 1990s. Apart from meritocracy serving as a structural ← 7 | 8 → determinant of the middle class, those processes have contributed to increased inequalities in Poland and reinforced the division into the intelligentsia, entrepreneurs and “the lower classes,” i.e., workers and peasants.

Consciousness is popularly said to be a “delayed outcome” of changes in the social structure. In Poland, much like in other countries, changes in attitudes materialise at a far slower pace. Comparative research in post-communist countries carried out a few years after the political and economic breakthrough (Alwin et al. 1993) reported that while the populations of Central Europe tended to blame their failures and misfortunes on politicians, the Western populations tended to be more self-reliant and ascribed their failures to their own mistakes and faults. Sociological analyses suggest that confidence in equal opportunity has pervaded American society from the very start; members of the middle class have always been level-headed and firmly believed that the essence of life lies in practical problem-solving. Faith in unrestrained possibilities bred a drive to success and individualism, which fuelled progress, but also induced attendant insecurity, risk and stress.

Productive or detrimental, the growth of individualistic orientations makes for a useful point of reference in comparing Poland and the Western countries. Reasonably speaking, individualistic attitudes should be manifest also in Poland; however, as the research I cite below indicates, self-reliance has failed to increase despite the indubitable expansion of private entrepreneurship and discernible aspirations for making a career. With this in mind, we will examine other changes in value systems. History has shown that the sober materialism of entrepreneurial individualism may go hand in hand with tolerance and liberal opinions. The middle classes were formed in struggles for democratic values against aristocracy and monarchism while their very self-interest makes them wary of equalisation programmes and campaigns, state interventionism and welfare policies. Clearly, in Poland such attitudes are mostly cherished by the intelligentsia, who share many features with “the new middle class,” that is, highly-qualified specialists in what the Anglo-American parlance calls the professions.

In Western democracies, the second important constituent of the middle class are business people. It was in this category that “the old middle class” emerged at the verge of the market society. Let’s take a glimpse into the past, at a journal kept by Nathaniel William Wraxall, an English diplomat and merchant, who travelled across Poland in 1778. Portraying the social structure of Polish society (in feudal Poland, referred to as the Commonwealth of the gentry), he wrote: “Of the intermediate rank of citizens, merchants, artisans, and mechanics, the number is so small and inconsiderable, that they may be regarded as non-existent to ← 8 | 9 → any beneficial purpose. In a country where commerce is in a manner extinct; manufactures, except those of the first necessity, nearly unknown; industry discouraged; arts unprotected; and only the cultivation of the ground that can be considered in any degree flourishing; the middle class of men must necessarily diminish, and be of no account” (Wraxall 1800: 32–33). Wraxall’s assessment is accurate, though the critique levelled by a native of the country that was a cradle of the middle class should be put in perspective: ubiquitously, the epoch merely heralded a modernisation of the social structures with the ancien régime still firm across Europe. We thus have no reason for shame when comparing Poland with England of the day.

Historians are still analysing the pernicious influence of the nobility and other reasons for the weakness of the Polish bourgeoisie. Although I do not intend to probe into the past in this book, history will feature in it in so far as it helps understand why the middle class must form from the grassroots. In Poland, economic analyses of conditions for stabilising the market economy come along with reform recommendations. Such authors as Jeffrey Sachs believe that if the capitalist economy is to function, it needs “core institutions,” such as private property ownership, stable and convertible currency, free international trade and foreign investments, and a solid social safety net.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (May)
occupational structure income distribution value systems lifestyless
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 140 pp., 17 tables

Biographical notes

Henryk Domański (Author)

Henryk Domański is Professor of Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, Head of the Department of Social Structure and Head of the Department of Studies on Methods and Techniques of Sociological Research. His main interests are social stratification and mobility, labour market segmentation, inequality of sex and methodology of social research.


Title: The Polish Middle Class