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Letter from the Gdansk Prison

Adam Michnik, one of the best-known leaders of the opposition in Poland, was sentenced on June 14 to two and a half years in prison. Two other Solidarity leaders, Bogdan Lis and Wladyslaw Frasyniuk, were sentenced along with him. The three men were arrested in February after attending a meeting of Solidarity leaders, including Lech Walesa, which was called to discuss the possibility of a fifteen-minute general strike in protest against price increases. This essay was written in prison while the author was awaiting trial.

Jerzy Urban, the government press spokesman, contends that I wanted very much to be arrested. My imprisonment would be useful to my Pentagon principals who would like to spread a false picture of Jaruzelski and his group. My American bosses fervently desire the world to believe, falsely, that Jaruzelski’s government maintains internal peace by imprisoning its political opponents. Urban’s dialectical reasoning leads one to the irrefutable conclusion that Poland is a perfectly calm place, that its government enjoys great moral authority and the support of an overwhelming majority of society. Only a few extremist groups, incited by Ronald Reagan, storm the prison gates begging to be arrested.

This incisive analysis conceals Urban’s inherent inability to understand that there are people who won’t be deterred by the threat of imprisonment from doing what they believe is right. Still, in my conversations with myself, held during long prison nights, I often wondered why Bogdan Lis, Wladyslaw Frasyniuk, and I had been arrested. I saw in this a proof that the government is afraid of rising social tensions caused by the deteriorating standard of living. I also think that our arrest was motivated by a desire to appease the frustrations of the security apparatus in connection with the Torun trial.1 Our arrest, and the show trial that is now being prepared, are an expression of boundless faith in a social order built on lies and police repression. But they also prove that repression leads the government into a blind alley, at least in today’s Poland.

Yes, it is possible to govern in this way. So long as geopolitics is favorable, this system may last for quite some time. But it cannot rid itself of the stigma of an alien, imposed garrison. Repression has lost its effectiveness. Our imprisonment does not frighten anyone, nor will anyone be enslaved by it. This has been the case for the past five years.

But it wasn’t always like this. Radicals and exiles typically delude themselves that dictatorships are based exclusively on coercion. This is not true. Long-lived dictatorships engender their own characteristic subculture and peculiar normalcy. They create a type of man unused to freedom and truth, ignorant of dignity and autonomy. Rebels are a tiny minority in such dictatorships; they are seen as a handful of desperate men who live like a band of heretics. For every dictatorship, the critical moment arrives with the reappearance of human autonomy and the emergence of social bonds that do not enjoy official sanction. As a rule, such moments are short—temporary tremors marking a crisis in the dictatorial power structure.

In the Leading Social System [i.e., the Communist system] such loss of balance never lasted longer than a few months. But in Poland the structures of independent civil society have been functioning for several years—a veritable miracle on the Vistula. So long as these structures exist side by side with totalitarian power which attempts to destroy all independent institutions, the stream of people flowing to prisons will not cease. Poles will stop going behind bars only when they succeed in their struggle for democratic reform of public life. But if they let their independent institutions be destroyed, the whole country will become a prison.

In Poland, “miracle on the Vistula” refers to an event sixty-five years ago when the young Polish army, organized in the first days of regained independence, successfully defended Poland, and European democracy with it, against an offensive by the young Bolshevik revolution.2 The present image of that battle was shaped by Soviet propaganda, which claimed that a feudal-bourgeois Poland attempted to strangle the first state of workers and peasants. One does not need an extraordinary imagination to visualize the consequences of Poland’s defeat in that battle. If Budenny’s Red Army had been able to water its horses in the Seine, not much would be left of European democracy….

Poland was led in those days by Józef Pilsudski, one of the greatest and most complex figures in its modern history. Pilsudski once wrote a memorable sentence: “In Poland prison is a constant, everyday companion of human thought. It is a part of consciousness, political culture, and everyday life.”

One must remember these thoughts of the builder of Polish independence in order to understand contemporary Poland with all its hopes, prospects, and dangers. Foreign observers, even friendly ones, often lack the knowledge and conceptual framework to comprehend the whole unconventionality of Polish fate. With few exceptions, such as Timothy Garton Ash or Martin Malia, Poland appears to them as a country of incomprehensible reactions and unfathomable conflicts. This is not surprising; after all, Polish observers understand little of the Irish or Chilean predicament. Yet I think that this lack of understanding may have costly consequences, and not only for the Poles. Hence this essay.

1.

For Western observers the Polish miracle began in August 1980 and ended [with the imposition of martial law] on December 13, 1981. I disagree. I see its beginnings earlier, and I think that the Polish experience acquired a truly universal dimension only after December 13.

It will soon be ten years since fifty-nine intellectuals signed a petition demanding that the scope of freedom in Poland be broadened. The petition also spoke of workers’ rights to independent trade union. The letter of the fifty-nine became a warning. “You cannot govern like this any longer,” was its message to Gierek.3 The authorities’ only answer was to carry out reprisals against the people who signed it. A few months later Poland was shaken by another, incomparably more dramatic signal of crisis. In June 1976 workers in Random and Ursus went on strike, demonstrating in the streets against an enormous price increase. The reaction of the government was typical: the price increase was withdrawn and participants in the protests were forced to walk through gauntlets of truncheon-swinging police (so-called paths of health). They were tried, slandered, and made targets of hate propaganda. A spontaneous movement to help these workers emerged among the intelligentsia, giving birth to the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR) and the democratic opposition movement—the first links in the long chain of the new “miracle on the Vistula.”

The ensuing events may be described as a dramatic wrestling match between the totalitarian power and the society searching for a way to attain autonomy. The period between August 1980 and December 1981 was merely a phase in this struggle. It ended with a setback for the independent society and a disaster for the totalitarian state. For disaster is an appropriate name for a situation where workers are confronted by tanks instead of debates. This is not the place for a detailed recounting of struggles that have taken place since then. Other people will take up this task; some, like Jan Józef Lipski in his book about KOR and Jerzy Holzer in Solidarnosć, have already made a beginning.4 I just want to stress two principal traits of the democratic opposition that were later adopted by Solidarity, namely the renunciation of violence and the politics of truth.

What were the sources of the power, the scope, the numbers, the patience and perseverence of this movement? Some explain them by pointing to a tradition of struggle for national independence, others detect the influence of the Catholic Church, still others praise the maturity of the Polish freedom strategy designed by the underground leaders. They are all right. But the principal reason can be found in the very essence of the totalitarian system which has long ago become a blocking factor in the development of creative forces, promoting sterility, destroying creativity and the spirit of society. The system exists only to protect the interests and the power of the ruling nomenklatura [i.e., high Party and state officials appointed by the top leadership or with its consent]. Since the Soviet Union regards the rule of the nomenklatura as a guarantee of its ideological and political stake in Poland, the Polish striving for autonomy threatens not only the power of the generals but also Soviet interests. Is it possible to change this particular definition of Soviet interests in Poland? The future of Polish independence depends on this question. The answer will also determine the nature of peaceful coexistence, because it will demonstrate whether Soviet leaders are willing to accept a new political reality.

Polish political reality is such that forty months after the imposition of martial law there exists a large opposition movement and an even more widespread front of refusal to cooperate with the generals. At the same time, Solidarity did not resort to terror, assassinations, or kidnappings. These methods belong exclusively to the repertory of the authorities. How can we explain this peculiar contradiction, which the official propagandists call “normalization”? What can we call this unusual situation where repression, provocations, and sheer exhaustion (the best ally of any dictatorship) have failed to annihilate Solidarity, the main organization of the civil-disobedience movement, or to push it into the blind alley of terrorism? How come our nation has been able to transcend the dilemma so typical of defeated societies, the hopeless choice between servility and despair?

It seems that the Polish nation does not think it has been defeated. The answer to the questions we posed can be found in Lenin’s old adage, well known to the Communists: the regime cannot rule any longer according to the old ways, but it does not know how to change them; the people do not want to live according to the old ways, and they are no longer afraid to try new ones.

What does it mean that they “do not want to live according to the old ways”? It means that people don’t want to be like objects, silently accepting their own enslavement; they reject their status as subjects, they wish to be masters of their own fate. And they are not afraid to do so.

But what does it mean “to rule according to the old ways”? It means to hope that the society is or will soon become completely terrorized and thus wholly molded by the state. Changing this sort of rule means to accept the autonomy of society not as a passing inconvenience but as an integral part of social reality. This is the road to dialogue and compromise.

Is this realistic? Is a compromise between the persecutor and his victim possible? Aren’t our “fundamentalists” correct in maintaining that no democratic evolution is possible without a prior, total destruction of the Communist system and, therefore, the only sensible program of action must reject hopes for a future compromise with the ruling group and opt instead for the integral idea of independence, i.e., full independence from the Soviet Union and complete removal of Communists from power? This is the central dilemma of the Polish opposition movement.

Let us defer consideration of this point for the moment, noting only that our generals’ idea of normalization differs substantially from Kádár’s or Husák’s “normalizations” which, in essence, meant total destruction of all independent institutions. Forty months after the Soviet invasion Hungary resembled a political cemetery; forty months of normalization in Czechoslovakia transformed it, in Aragon’s apt phrase, into the cultural Biafra of Europe. But in Poland, even after official liquidation of independent public institutions (trade unions, artists’ associations, youth organizations, editorial boards of various journals, etc.), after forty months of repression and provocation, the independent civil society, although pushed outside the official sphere, has not been annihilated. Under the Leading System this is an unprecedented phenomenon. More than a Communist system after victorious pacification, this situation resembles a democracy after a military coup d’état. The Poles have traveled a great distance on their journey from totalitarianism to democracy.

I am writing soon after the trial of the murderers of Father Jerzy Popieluszko. For some Western observers it provided a proof of our generals’ liberal tendencies. Indeed, the trial was an unprecedented event in the history of the Leading System. Never before have the provocations of the security apparatus been revealed to such an extent, albeit inadvertently; never before has the villainy of those who are lords over the life and death of common people been laid so bare. That was without precedent. But in the last ten years everything in Poland has been without precedent. The independent information network. Solidarity. The authority and influence of the Church. The Torun trial was also unprecedented in its attack on the Church. The vile slander of the murdered priest, the charge of collaboration with the Gestapo cast against the widely respected bishop of the Przemysl diocese, Ignacy Tokarczuk, the accusations of other bishops that they destroyed marriages and embezzled money—this is the other side of the Torun trial. Its main element is blackmail: “Look, we will continue doing this unless you cease to resist!” Our generals know perfectly well that they will not break the resistance of society unless they succeed in driving the Church back to the catacombs or refashion it into a collaborationist institution on the pattern of the Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union.

The Popieluszko murder was an integral part of this scenario because Father Jerzy personified the connection between the Church and Solidarity. His “Holy Masses for the Fatherland” provided extraordinary, heartening moments of hope for the people of Warsaw. The police could never forgive the shepherd of the Zolibórz church the moments of relief he offered to the tormented, persecuted city.

The abduction of Father Jerzy Popieluszko5 was but one case in a long series of kidnappings. The kidnappers freely walk the streets of Polish cities; they need not worry about any criminal proceedings against them. Despite widespread demands, there was no resumption of any proceedings against the murderers of Grzegorz Przemyk.6 Instead, police captain Piotrowski, the murderer who organized the abduction of Popieluszko and who was later permitted to switch his role from defendant to the accuser of the Church, became an idol for his pals in the Ministry of Internal Affairs. I heard enough about this during my own detention and interrogations. Moments after saying goodbye to Lech Walesa, when I was being put into the police car, I heard them say: “We still have free space in the trunk for Mr. Michnik. Just like for Popieluszko.” A marvelous little joke…. They didn’t even try to pretend.

With the generals it’s a different matter. They do care about appearances. Evidence to the contrary, they do not want to be held responsible for this cruel killing. This is why the Torun trial had to take place, and why the defendants tried to outdo each other in declaring that there was no one “issuing orders from the top,” that the abduction and murder were merely a guerrilla action undertaken wholly on their own initiative. The only point of contention concerned whether the idea was Captain Piotrowski’s or Colonel Pietruszka’s, either of whom must have been inspired by goblins from the CIA. The Torun trial had to take place for the stigma of crime to be lifted from the generals’ epaulettes. The trial served as a useful smoke screen but it did not signify any political about-face. Efforts to destroy the autonomy of society are an essential element of the generals’ political course. So they reach for an old, discredited instrument: lawlessness in the guise of law. It is used to detain and sentence Solidarity activists on even the most absurd charges. No sooner had the charge of treason against Bogdan Lis been withdrawn than Andrzej Gwiazda was accused of hooliganism. I was promoted to membership in the Temporary Coordinating Commission of Solidarity (TKK)7—a genuine honor were it not for the fact that I had been nominated by the Gdansk secret police.

The list of political prisoners has rapidly become longer. On it are such people as Michal Luty, the organizer of educational courses for Silesian workers, and Józef Sreniowski, a sociologist from Lódz and an old friend of mine from KOR. However, if my arrest, together with those of Lis and Frasyniuk, will at least darken the liberal image which the generals have tried to cultivate, and if it illuminates the fate of other political prisoners, then our stay in prison will not be for nothing.

The prison machine has been put in motion. It could not have been otherwise. In the face of economic breakdown (once again a severe winter surprised the rulers of my country), at a time of yet another blow against the standard of living and the rights of the working people (an eight-hour day and free Saturdays), with rising social tensions portending the next explosion, fear is the only remaining hope of our rulers. Although the abductions have ceased for the moment—this genre of political polemics is temporarily inconvenient—our lot has been to exchange our homes for prison. But no elements in the Polish equation have thereby changed. Poland continues to be what it was: a country where the nation strives for freedom and autonomy, and the authorities try to force it back into a totalitarian corset.

The immediate reason for our arrest lay in the fact that the authorities were scared of the strike set for February 28 in protest against the announced price increases. We were detained on February 13, during a meeting with Lech Walesa. On February 14 Polish cities were blanketed with leaflets calling for the strike. On February 15 we were issued a prosecutor’s arrest order. The decision to strike was made by leaders of Solidarity [in January 1985] in the belief that it was the union’s duty to stand up against increasing poverty, to say no to the policy of substituting additional bites into family budgets for a structural reform of the economy.

I am not sufficiently familiar with the events that followed our arrest, but the facts speak for themselves. Official “neounions” were told to reject all versions of the proposed price hikes while the government announced that it was going to put them in effect on a staggered schedule. This provides the best proof that Solidarity’s leadership had good judgment, correctly read the mood of the country, and chose the best moment for the protest. It was not an easy decision, however. The discussions that I witnessed illustrated two dangers facing Solidarity. On the one hand the decision to call for a brief strike was criticized for not going far enough: fifteen minutes would be too short, the authorities would not even feel a pinprick. A stronger blow was needed, even a general strike.

This is what the radicals wanted. I think that their position contained a substantial element of wishful thinking. To go for a confrontation on such a scale implied not only a willingness to risk the existence of underground institutions, it also ignored reality. And the reality was this: in January 1985, when Solidarity’s Temporary Coordinating Commission made its decision to call for a strike, people in the factories had neither the strength nor the will to go through with this confrontation. Radical thinking is peculiarly vulnerable to paper designs and to emotions that block sight of reality. It is an experience familiar to generations of conspirators and émigrés. My opposition to the radicals’ ideas did not spring from pessimism; on the contrary, my friends accused me of excess enthusiasm. Nevertheless, I tried to constrain my optimism, aware that it tends to generate hopes on which it then feeds itself.

I also noticed that the Temporary Coordinating Commission’s decision drew considerable criticism from regional activists. They stubbornly repeated: “This cannot succeed, people don’t want strikes because they are afraid of reprisals, they are tired, they don’t believe a strike will have any impact.” I understood the reasons for their view, but at the same time I also perceived a paralyzing fear of a set-back, an apprehension that factories would not follow the Temporary Coordinating Commission’s appeal. I did not share this fear. I did not think that an unsuccessful fifteen-minute strike against price increases would mean an apocalyptic defeat. At worst it would demonstrate that workers are not at present strong enough to defend their interests by striking. However, had the Temporary Coordinating Commission not called for a strike it would indeed have been a real defeat because it would indicate that Solidarity had ceased to be an independent trade union ready to fight for workers’ interests. A merely verbal protest would not be much different from the declaration by the official “neo-unions.”

The fear of defeat, I think, may often paralyze more effectively than a defeat itself. I believe that the underground society, constantly improvising, created its own mechanisms of institutional ossification, its own routine, and the concomitant aversion to change. This is as understandable as it is dangerous. The thinking of underground activists and all members of Solidarity must be geared to dealing with surprises; they must be prepared for situations when the popular mood drastically changes. This happened, for example, immediately after the abduction of Father Popieluszko. Some conservatism in attitudes or institutions is valuable because it preserves continuity. But it may become a harmful restraint, a set of blinders, if it prevents one from being in touch with a changing reality. Far be it from me to exaggerate these dangers, but one should be well aware of them. Those who say that the struggle for freedom exacts a price are indeed right, as are those who insist on carefully counting the costs in order to minimize losses. It is fortunate that Solidarity makes room for both of these predispositions.

I spent almost three years in prison. The officials in the Ministry of Internal Affairs who offered me a choice between emigrating or declaring my loyalty to the regime—the temptation of freedom for a loathsome price—always tried to convince me that Solidarity had long ago ceased to exist and that I, cut off, continued to live with illusions. Sometimes I even asked myself: “Perhaps they are right after all?”

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.

2.

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.

Traditional historical divisions obviously produced different sensibilities and shaped various styles of political thinking. Ancient debates originating from bygone times returned. They concerned issues such as the status of the Church, the appropriate extent of secularization, etc. Nevertheless, I think that in Poland the conflict between the right and the left belongs to the past. It used to divide society torn by struggles for bourgeois freedoms, universal voting rights, land reform, secularization, the eight-hour workday, welfare, universal schooling, or the democratization of culture. A different kind of distinction dominates in the era of totalitarian dictatorships: it lies between the proponents of open society and the advocates of closed society. In the former, social order is based on self-government and collective agreements; in the latter, order is achieved through repression and discipline. In a vision of open society, the state acts as the guardian of the citizens’ safety; in the model of closed society, the state is a master and overseer who determines all modes of society’s existence.

The inadequacy of traditional taxonomies was already pointed out by Vladimir Bukovsky15 a few years ago. Shortly after the famous exchange for Corvalan, Bukovsky was asked whether he belonged to the left-wing or the right-wing camp. His answer: “We are neither from the left camp, nor from the right camp, we are from the concentration camp.” And that is the truth.

I recall Bukovsky on purpose. His book was printed by several underground publishing houses and became a great success in Poland. This shows that Bukovsky’s ethos, remarkably expressed in his memoir, closely corresponds with the spiritual outlook of the Polish resistance movement. It also shows that the people of Solidarity see the future not as a chain of explosions of tribal hatred, but as a new system of relations between the nations which will be based on principles of freedom and equality. The current inside Solidarity that works for this vision is strong and clear-cut. As evidence, one may cite numerous publications in the independent circulation, i.e., books by Czech authors (particularly by the extremely popular Vaclav Havel), Hungarians, Lithuanians, and Ukrainians. The problem of future relations with our neighbors became a subject of reflection by such political writers as Poleski, Podlaski, and Jan Józef Lipski. Of course there are also other points of view, but this current, both here and in émigré writings, is impossible to ignore.

But ethos cannot substitute for a political program. We must therefore think about the future of Polish–Russian relations. Our thinking about this key question must be open; it should consider many different possibilities. Thus we must not rule out the chance of a change in Soviet foreign policy that would bring compromise within the realm of possibility. Let us remember that compromise between the Soviet Union and Finland was preceded by a war between these two countries.

The Soviet state has a new leader; he is a symbol of transition from one generation to the next within the Soviet elite. This change may offer a chance, since Mikhail Gorbachev has not yet become a prisoner of his own decisions. No one can exclude the possibility that an impulse for reform will spring from the top of the hierarchy of power. This is exactly what happened in the time of Alexander II and, a hundred years later, under Khrushchev. Reform is always possible, even in the face of resistance by the old apparat. Leaders of the Kremlin may wish to take on the challenge of modernity, they may begin searching for a new model of relations with Soviet satellites. Polish political thought must be prepared for this contingency. Phobias and anti-Russian emotions provide no substitute.

The popularity of Bukovsky’s book demonstrates that such phobias are not inevitable—the democratic camp in Russia has numerous friends in Poland and the Russian democratic movement is a natural ally of the freedom movement in Poland. Likewise with other national liberation movements within the Soviet empire, especially our Ukrainian neighbors, the most tragic nation in Europe. But these are general statements—even a rough outline of the future of our part of the world is still unclear. While sources of tension exist, it is uncertain how they may be resolved. This indefinability requires caution, the avoidance of risk involved in definitive formulations, and a reluctance to rush things. These are the reasons for the noticeable restraint in Polish programs, contrary to the claims by some critics of Solidarity who ascribe it to nationalistic blindness.

Nor is it correct to accuse Solidarity of political clericalism. Respect for the Church never involved political subordination of the union. Proposals to build a union movement based on the Catholic Church, which appeared in the last few years, were generally of a marginal character. They were rejected by the Temporary Coordinating Commission and by Lech Walesa as well.

The role of the Catholic Church in Poland, so spectacularly demonstrated during the pope’s visit two years ago, has provoked many comments, often unfavorable, from foreign observers. These gentlemen should hear the view of a person who has never been accused of following Church instructions in his writings: the Church is not, and should not be, a political institution. The bishops are not, and should not be the representatives of the Poles’ political aspirations. But the Catholic Church is the only institution in Poland that is simultaneously legal and authentic, independent of the totalitarian power structure and fully accepted by the people. The pope is for the Poles the greatest teacher of human values and obligations. This reality has obvious implications, among them the duty of the clergy to speak out on matters of greatest importance for the moral life of the people. The issue of violations of human rights cannot be excluded from this obligation. Thus, when the bishops criticize hate campaigns, condemn murders, or plead for dialogue instead of repression, they are expressing the aspirations, including political ones, of an overwhelming majority of Poles.

Some people who are widely thought to have close connections with the Episcopate have on occasion expressed the view that Solidarity does not really exist any more. This provoked understandable protests from Solidarity activists. Let us overlook arguments about the propriety or clumsiness of such statements, although they often seemed to me ill-timed and out of place. Let us note, however, that from a Catholic bishop’s point of view it is quite rational not to tie the long-term interests of the Church to the fate of even the noblest trade union or social movement. The Catholic Church existed in feudal monarchies and bourgeois republics, under foreign occupation and totalitarian dictatorships. In each situation it searched for a suitable modus vivendi with the surrounding reality. It seems that at present we are also witnessing such a quest.

If the above hypothesis is correct—and it seems to be confirmed by the concentrated attacks launched by the official propaganda machine against the Church—then one may surmise that the model of the Church’s role that was created by Cardinal Wyszynski must still guide the bishops. It is a model that brought Polish Catholicism to a spectacular triumph. Let us note that the essential element in this model—which is built on the dialectic between diplomacy and bearing witness, between compromise and resistance—has been the full identification of the Shepherd with his flock. The latter used to be conceived of as God’s people, and not as a subject of public life, both in reference to relations within the Church and to relations between the people and the Communist authorities. This was a correct premise in the Stalinist period because the reign of terror left no cracks for independent activity. Today, in the Solidarity era, this premise is completely false. Perhaps the origin of various rash comments about Solidarity, which ascribed para-Communist attitudes to some of its activists, should be sought in the imprecision of their authors’ diagnoses of the present situation.

But nothing can change the fact that the Catholic Church is a great asset for the Poles. And not only because churches serve as headquarters for various committees aiding victims of repression, or because chaplains speak up on behalf of the wronged and the persecuted; and not only because church buildings ring with the free words of Polish literature and the sounds of Polish music, and their walls are adorned with the works of Polish painters; not only because the Church has become an asylum for independent Polish culture. The Church is the most important institution in Poland because it teaches all of us that we may bow only before God.

3.

What will happen next?

Even though it is a necessary question, I can only provide a partial answer. I maintain that the Poles do not expect any help from outside. They do not count on Reagan, or on Pershing missiles; they have no hopes hanging on the outcome of negotiations in Geneva. Although they are happy to receive every gesture of solidarity that comes in from the outside world, they are perfectly aware (and willing to say this to others) that they must, and will, count only on themselves. They know that no one can help them through their present ordeal.

No one can be a prophet in his own house. Rationally, it is only possible to say that no source of tensions has yet been eliminated, and that none of the critical problems has been solved. “Normalization,” in the sense of reaching an understanding, turned out to be an illusion. “Normalization” as pacification became an unmitigated disaster. So what can happen?

The “fundamentalists” say: no compromises. Talking about compromise, dialogue, or understanding demobilizes public opinion, pulls the wool over the public’s eyes, spreads illusions. Walesa’s declarations about readiness for dialogue were often severely criticized from this point of view.

I do not share the fundamentalist point of view. It is true that a compromise cannot be achieved by begging and that it is futile to explain to the Communists why a compromise would be a sensible solution. This is why the appeals by “neorealists” are so pitiful and empty; their authors should carefully watch out for the thin line dividing political speculation from collaboration. When Walesa declares the need for compromise he unmasks the intentions of the authorities; when the same is being said by a “neorealist” who avoids mentioning the word “Solidarity” like the plague, he is signaling to the authorities his own readiness to take part in murdering our union.

Still, the logic of “fundamentalism” precludes any attempt to find a compromise, even in the future. It harbors not only the belief that Communists are ineducable, but also a certainly that they are unable to behave rationally, even in critical situations, that, in other words, they are condemned to suicidal obstinacy.

This is not so obvious to me. Historical experience shows that Communists were sometimes forced by circumstances to behave rationally and to agree to compromises. Thus the strategy of understanding must not be cast aside. We should not assume that a bloody confrontation is inevitable and, consequently, rule out the possibility of evolutionary, bloodless change. All the more so since democracy is rarely born from bloody upheavals. Our minds should be clear about this: the continuing conflict may transform itself into a dialogue or an explosion. The Temporary Coordinating Commission and Walesa are doing everything in their power to make dialogue possible. The chances of their strategy will be greater if the level of self-organization within independent Polish society increases. For street lynchings, angry crowds are enough; compromise demands an organized society. In our activities we must also carefully watch the political map of the world. Poland’s fate, unfortunately, is entwined in the superpower conflict; we have already fallen victim to it on several occasions in the past.

President Roosevelt once called Poland the conscience and the inspiration of the world, but this statement had no effect on American decisions at Yalta. Today no special significance should be attached to merely verbal declarations. But if we nevertheless see some importance in such pronouncements it is because they seem to portend an important change in the direction of US policies. Communist propaganda accuses President Reagan of ideologizing foreign policy. Indeed. It looks as if the United States, beginning with President Carter, took up this ideological challenge. It was an expression of a belief that the outcome of conflict will be determined not only by the principle of force, but also by the force of principles. This is the reason for the American rejection of the Soviet interpretation of détente, which can be reduced to a simple philosophy: “When you are in power, I demand freedom for myself on the basis of your own principles; when I am in power, I take freedom away from you because such are my principles.”

What is taking place in Poland provides a classic illustration of the Communist philosophy of peaceful coexistence. In a way, ever since Yalta, Poland has been a testing ground, a precise litmus paper of Soviet foreign-policy intentions. Would you like to know what the Kremlin’s goals are? Do you want to decipher the meaning of its calls for peace? Look at Poland. Our generals speak as frequently about national accord and dialogue with society as their Soviet comrades do about détente and arms-limitation talks. The language of Communists has a certain peculiarity—its words are written one way and read quite another. In this language one writes “agreement” and reads “military coup d’état.” These truths, banal to the Poles, are slowly becoming obvious to Western Sovietologists as well. At any rate, it seems that this reasoning has been accepted by President Reagan and his staff. If this is correct, then our analysis, at bottom, is not based on faith in the conscience of Western politicians but on their wisdom and ability to analyze facts coolly and correctly. If they ignore Polish aspirations for autonomy they will commit not only a moral mistake, but a political one as well. This is my understanding of American policy toward Poland.

It is a policy that insists on linking economic ties with respect for human rights. This is what brings Communist propagandists to white-hot fury. They constantly repeat that no American moves can have any impact on their policy of imprisoning political opponents. They lie. Even Joseph Stalin was once forced to open the gates of his camps and release Polish prisoners. This is something worth reminding Jaruzelski, who would like to gain approval for his policy of repression in order to more easily break internal resistance. He wants to unfreeze relations with the West, but on his own terms. If he succeeds it will provide encouragement for the entire Communist bloc, for it would send this message: repression of freedom won’t cost you a penny. Vae victis!16

Jaruzelski is currently fighting to impose his version of normalization on the Poles, and to have it accepted by the Western governments. To the Poles he says: “You have no chance, we will break you with repression. Better accept my interpretation of conciliation. It means that every one of you, even Lech Walesa, will be free to adore and praise me.” To the West he says: “If you accept me as I am, maybe I will again declare amnesty.”

One should not be misled by appearances, however. Internal peace depends on political moves, not police repression. Periodic arrests and trials of Solidarity activists and Catholic priests, followed by amnesties, do not herald internal peace and dialogue. They are signs that citizens are treated as hostages in the continuing “civil cold war.” Nevertheless, the fight for amnesty is most easily explainable and, on a humane level, most understandable. Therefore it must continue.

Last July [when an amnesty for political prisoners was declared] our generals lost the amnesty battle. And they lost the civil cold war too. This doesn’t mean that they will stop warring against us, that they will no longer kidnap, beat, and kill us, that they won’t send us to prisons and sentence us as hooligans or subversives. I do not in the least exclude the possibility that General Jaruzelski with his touching military modesty and General Kiszczak in his charming simplicity won’t rob us of another few years of life. They have acquired a certain proficiency in this trade, and I don’t think that the image of people behind bars keeps them awake at night (well, with the possible exception of Colonel Pietruszka and Captain Piotrowski [i.e., the two men convicted in the Popieluszko murder trial]). To the contrary: each successive arrest warrant confirms their sense of duty well done. Every confiscated copy of a book by Milosz, Herbert, Kolakowski, Gombrowicz, Brandys, and Konwicki improves their appetite. Every person broken by prison is a leaf in their laurel wreaths. And they think that this can continue forever.

I would like to assure them that they are mistaken. They are much too confident. They forget that the sociology of surprise is hidden in the nature of the Leading System. Here, on a spring morning, one may wake up in a totally changed country. Here, and not once, Party buildings burned while the commissars escaped clad only in their underwear. Edward Gierek, so beloved by Brezhnev and Helmut Schmidt, so respected by Giscard d’Estaing and Carter, within a week traveled from the heights of power into oblivion. Sic transit gloria mundi….

Sitting in their comfortable offices, walking down the bureaucratic corridors, listening to denunciatory reports of their lackeys, the generals don’t know what the common people are thinking. But we, although prisoners, know very well. That’s why, from my perspective, I wish, for them, that the conflict in Poland is ultimately transformed into dialogue. If it transforms itself into explosion they will be reduced to looking for Lis or Frasyniuk to protect them from the reach of the flames.

I am not going to write about my own case. At the trial I hope to bare the whole structure of the police provocation prepared, bunglingly, by Captain Piotrowski’s chums in Gdansk. I would like, however, to conclude with some personal remarks.

For six months I couldn’t write a single word. My friends joked that I should be put back in prison. Jokingly, I conceded that they were right. And now it has happened: I was locked up, and I have written a political essay. It would be small-minded of me if I did not credit the man who inspired me, the general who ordered my arrest. I am in such good company, with Wladyslaw Frasyniuk and Bogdan Lis. Therefore, dear general, I owe you gratitude for your thoughtful watch over my steps and for providing proper direction for my meditations. I don’t know what I would do without your suggestions and fatherly support. So much for thanks.

What more can I say? We live in truly interesting times. We witness the barren twilight of the old world of totalitarian dictatorship. We, the people of Solidarity, have been put to a difficult trial. But even if it becomes an ordeal by fire, fire cleans and purifies what it cannot consume. I am not afraid of the generals’ fire. There is no greatness about them: lies and force are their weapons, their strength stems from their ability to release the darkest and basest instincts in ourselves. I am sure that we shall win. Sooner or later, but I think sooner, we shall leave the prisons and come out of the underground onto the bright square of freedom. But what will we be like then?

I am afraid not of what they will do to us, but of what they can make us into. For people who were outlaws for a long time feed on their own traumas and emotions which, in turn, strangle their reason and ability to recognize reality. Even the best people can be demoralized by years of persecution and the shock of regaining their lost stature. I pray that we do not return like ghosts who hate the world, cannot understand it, and are unable to live in it. I pray that we do not change from prisoners into prison guards.

We know that today we need efforts of many kinds. We need underground structures and we must strive for open activity. Our actions must be consistent and informed with patience. One cannot repeat this humble word too often—it is a declaration of ambitious and persistent people, a declaration of unbending hope.

We live in a strange state of suspension. Nothing has been sealed yet. The grand fate of the nation and the small fates of the people still hang in the balance. We are trapped by the humiliating feeling of helplessness and impotence. Is this right?

In 1942 Czeslaw Milosz wrote: “In an historical moment when nothing depends on man, everything depends on him—this paradoxical truth is revealed today with particular force.”

And also today….

translated by Jerzy B. Warman

  1. 1

    The trial of four policemen convicted in the murder case of Father Jerzy Popieluszko. (All footnotes and comments in brackets have been supplied by the translator.)

  2. 2

    This is a reference to the Polish victory in the battle of Warsaw in August 1920, during the Polish–Russian war.

  3. 3

    Edward Gierek was first secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party from December 1970 to September 1980.

  4. 4

    See Jan Józef Lipski, KOR: A History of the Workers’ Defense Committee in Poland, 1975–1981 (to be published by the University of California Press in November); and Jerzy Holzer, Solidarnosć (Paris: Kultura, 1984).

  5. 5

    On October 18, 1984.

  6. 6

    Nineteen-year-old Warsaw student Grzegorz Przemyk died on May 14, 1983, from injuries suffered during his detention by the police. In the trial the emergency ambulance staff was convicted and the policemen acquitted of all charges.

  7. 7

    TKK [Tymczasowa Komisja Koordynacyjna NSZZ “Solidarnosć”] is the leadership group of underground Solidarity. Established in the spring of 1982, it includes representatives from the main regional centers of the underground. Its best-known figure is Zbigniew Bujak from the Ursus tractor factory in Warsaw who escaped the police dragnet on December 13, 1981, and has been in hiding ever since.

  8. 8

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

  9. 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.”

  10. 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.

  11. 11

    In September 1981.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 15

    Vladimir Bukovsky, the scientist and author who spent many years in Soviet prisons and psychiatric institutions, was exchanged in 1976 for the imprisoned Chilean Communist party leader Luis Corvalan.

  16. 16

    Woe to the vanquished!”

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