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Letter from the Gdansk Prison

What I saw after my release8 exceeded not just my expectations but even my dreams. I found that the people of Solidarity were wise, determined, ready for a long struggle. They possessed clear vision. Solidarity, its organizations, the wide scope of Polish autonomy that existed outside the official realm, dozens of excellent journals and fantastic books, the seriousness of purpose coupled with the willingness to take risks—all of these comprise the Polish miracle on the Vistula. I attended seminars for workers and students, I read new high-quality journals published in various cities and circulating in various circles. I saw uncensored books printed by the underground publishing houses, books by Popper, Kundera, Besançon, Aron, Orwell, Shestov, Solzhenitsyn, Havel, not to mention Polish writers. I saw uncensored paintings and photographs, as well as new films shown on uncensored videocassettes. I saw churches that served as oases of spiritual independence and provided home for centers of aid to the victims of repression.

Granted, not everything I saw was a source of comfort. I also saw sadness, exhaustion, ugly shrewdness, and revolting mendacity, crafty operators pretending to be heroes and Judases in the cloak of political realists. These are normal things in any movement or society. Only Solidarity did not follow the norm, contradicting commonplace expectations.

I wish to avoid the sin of idealizing my friends. They have faults and shortcomings, like all normal human beings. Yet, every time I think of them I am full of admiration. I didn’t know how to convey this feeling to them and now I regret my reticence. So, at least in this letter, I would like to express my respect and send greetings to Janek, Konrad, Zbyszek, Bogdan, Tadeusz, Wiktor, and Patryk.


Why did Solidarity renounce violence? This question returned time and again in my conversations with foreign observers. I would like to answer it now. People who claim that the use of force in the struggle for freedom is necessary must first prove that, in a given situation, it will be effective, and that force, when it is used, will not transform the idea of liberty into its opposite.

No one in Poland is able to prove today that violence will help us to dislodge Soviet troops from Poland and to remove Communists from power. The USSR has such enormous military power that confrontation is simply unthinkable. In other words: we have no guns. Napoleon, upon hearing a similar reply, gave up on pursuing further questions. However, Napoleon was above all interested in military victories, and not in building democratic, pluralistic societies. We, by contrast, cannot leave it at that.

In our reasoning pragmatism is inseparably intertwined with idealism. Taught by history, we suspect that by using force to storm the Bastilles of old we shall unwittingly build new ones. It is true that social change is almost always accompanied by force. But it is not true to say that social change is merely an effect of the violent collision of various forces. Social changes follow above all from a confrontation of different moralities and visions of social order. Before the violence of rulers clashes with the violence of their subjects, values and systems of ethics clash inside human minds. Only when the old ideas of the rulers lose this moral duel will the subjects reach for force—sometimes. This is what happened in the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution—two examples cited in every debate as proof that revolutionary violence is preceded by a moral breakdown of the old regime. But both examples lose their meaning when they are reduced to such compact notions pairing the Encyclopedists with the destruction of the Bastille and the success of radical ideologies in Russia with the storming of the Winter Palace. An authentic event is reduced to a sterile scheme.

In order to understand the significance of these revolutions one must remember Jacobin and Bolshevik terror, the guillotines of the sans-culottes and the guns of the commissars. Without reflection on the mechanisms in victorious revolutions that gave birth to terror it is impossible to even pose the fundamental dilemma facing contemporary freedom movements. Historical awareness of the possible consequences of revolutionary violence must be etched into any program of struggle for freedom. The experience of being corrupted by terror must be imprinted upon the consciousness of everyone who belongs to a freedom movement. Otherwise, as Simone Weil wrote, freedom will again become a refugee from the camp of the victors.

It is worthwhile to look at freedom movements in the Leading System from this standpoint. In The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn described a revolt of prisoners in a Soviet concentration camp, painting a vivid picture of the mechanism of oppression imposed by the new leaders on their erstwhile comrades. Solzhenitsyn’s story has the power of great allegory; it is a warning to all of us, the mutinous prisoners of the Leading System. All accounts of the Hungarian revolution mention the cruelty of rebellious mobs lynching the hated functionaries of the security police. Crowd behavior may be understandable in such situations, but it also makes us reflect on this twisting bystreet along the road to freedom.

In October 1956, Poland was an almost direct opposite of Hungary. Nevertheless, that episode in our history revealed, above all, the techniques used by Communists to overcome social crisis. It was a lesson of defeat, not of a democratic freedom strategy. Czechoslovakia provided a different example: it avoided both revolutionary terror and a washout like the Polish October. But the Prague Spring remains confined to the great myth of national concord broken by Soviet invasion. The revolutionary process in Czechoslovakia never reached the level of internal polarization at which the very question of the power of the Communist party becomes a point of contention.

Only Poland has now become a battle-ground for the conscious struggle to set limits on the power of the Communist nomenklatura and to create a de facto pluralism under conditions imposed by the Brezhnev doctrine. This consciousness has been a determining factor in making revolutionary terror an alien concept for Solidarity.

Solidarity’s strategy bore full fruit after the imposition of martial law on December 13, when a brutal attack by the army and the police was met with unconventional forms of resistance, aptly labeled by Maciej Poleski9 as a “silence of the sea.” Not only did this reaction minimize losses and save the structures of independent society, it also assured a peculiar “victory in defeat.” For, even if an unfavorable international situation perpetuates the political enslavement of Poland, no one will be able to tear out from consciousness all the books read, newspapers printed, discussions held. Thanks to this strategy the present generation of Poles will never again succumb to the poisoning disease of self-enslavement.

Solidarity’s program and ethos are inextricably tied to this strategy. Revolutionary terror has always been justified by a vision of ideal society. In its name Jacobin guillotines and Bolshevik execution squads never ceased their gruesome work. The road to God’s Kingdom on Earth led across rivers of blood.

Solidarity never had a vision of an ideal society. It wants to live and let live. Its ideals are closer to the American Revolution than to the French. Its thinking about goals is similar to that of the resistance against Franco in Spain or against the “black colonels” in Greece; it is unlike the thinking of those who strive to attain doctrinal goals. The ethics of Solidarity, with its consistent rejection of the use of force, has a lot in common with the idea of nonviolence as espoused by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. But it is not an ethic representative of pacifist movements.

Pacifism as a mass movement aims to avoid suffering; pacifists often say that no cause is worth suffering or dying for. The ethos of Solidarity is based on an opposite premise—that there are causes worth suffering and dying for. Gandhi and King died for the same cause as the “Wujek” miners10 who rejected the belief that it is better to remain a willing slave than to become a victim of murder. In this belief Solidarity activists consciously reject doctrinal consistency at any price. Following the teachings of the Polish pope, like him hating war, they will nevertheless admit the possibility of armed defense of freedom against aggressive despotism. It was no accident that one of the most prominent creators of contemporary Polish culture [Leszek Kolakowski] wrote an essay entitled “In Praise of Inconsistency.”

Having said this I should add that Solidarity has not been free of totalitarian temptations. Organized as a social movement struggling against the totalitarian state, composed of people who grew up in the Leading System and were shaped by its totalitarian structures, Solidarity has always been torn between trying to exert influence on administrative decisions and attempting to restrict the omnipotence of the state. In fact, this was the seed of a dramatic dilemma that faced the movement: whether it should become an alternative to the authorities, or renounce such aspirations and concentrate instead on a struggle to limit the scope of their power. Solidarity, and every other freedom movement in the Communist world, will have to confront this dilemma in the future. The future of post-Communist societies will depend on how it is resolved. The struggle for state power must lead to the use of force; in the struggle for a Self-Governing Republic, according to the resolution passed at the memorable Solidarity Congress in Gdansk.11 the use of force must be renounced.

For me, Solidarity was never an instrument in the struggle for power. But this was by no means an uncontroversial issue. Acute tensions give birth to strong temptations. Deep humiliation may spawn proposals for extremely radical solutions. Lack of easy answers and clear prospects is conducive to demagogic bidding contests. Sudden politicization of hundreds of thousands of people who used to be passive and thus were not familiar with politics produced a combination of populism and nationalism richly decorated with religious symbols. We all saw this explosive mixture during the last three months of 1981. Even though it was still a marginal tendency, witnessing its successive manifestations wasn’t funny and provoked some sad thoughts. In Konspira12 Bogdan Borusewicz discussed this issue wisely and honestly. The anarchization of life, consciously incited by the authorities preparing a military coup, made people susceptible to believing even in the worst nonsense—they were golden times for certain suspect characters out to make a career. I had no difficulty imagining the future Dzierzynskis13 among these people. Therefore I believe that the leading idea of Solidarity is to achieve a Self-Governing Republic, and not to seize power; it is this idea that offers us the chance of avoiding, down the road, guillotines or execution squads eliminating future “enemies of the people.”

When I remember those weeks [before the military coup in 1981] when everything was heading for the worst, when I try to reconstruct the atmosphere of illusions and the conflicts within Solidarity, I think that the crucial problem did not concern the division between the “radicals” and the “moderates,” or the dispute between Walesa and Gwiazda,14 or the polemics about the proper assessment of the role played by KOR. In the most important conflict, the original idea of Solidarity was set against the populist-totalitarian tendency, whose screaming adherents drowned out every new proposal on strategy. The tendency sprang from poverty, hysteria, and demagogy; its followers spouted slogans about “true Poles.” Did this division recall the traditional contest between the right and the left? I believed so then. Today I think otherwise.

  1. 8

    Michnik was released on August 4, 1984, as a consequence of the Amnesty Act of July 21, 1984.

  2. 9

    Maciej Poleski is the pen name of Czeslaw Bielecki, an architect, political journalist, and a founder of CDN (“To Be Continued”), an underground publishing house. On April 13, 1985, he was arrested in Warsaw by the security police and severely beaten. He is reported to have been charged with being an “agent of foreign centers hostile to the interests of the Polish People’s Republic.”

  3. 10

    On December 16, 1981, at least six miners were killed by the ZOMO riot police storming the gates of the striking “Wujek” coal mine in Upper Silesia.

  4. 11

    In September 1981.

  5. 12

    A book of interviews with underground leaders Maciej Lopinski, Marcin Moskit, and Mariusz Wilk. Originally published in the underground in Poland; reprinted by Editions Spotkania (Paris), 1984. Borusewicz was a member of KOR and one of the organizers of free trade unions on the Baltic coast in 1978 and 1979.

  6. 13

    Feliks Dzierzynski (1877–1926), Polish revolutionary and Bolshevik leader, was a founder and chairman of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission (Cheka), the first Soviet secret police. Responsible for the Red Terror, he died a strong supporter of Stalin.

  7. 14

    As the situation became more and more tense, the conflicts inside Solidarity grew. Three weeks before the military coup, Andrzej Gwiazda and fourteen other members of the Gdansk Solidarity Commission resigned in protest against what they believed to be Walesa’s overly conciliatory position toward the authorities.

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