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Revolution in Hungary and Poland

If someone had sat down on July 11, 1789, to write, for a fortnightly review, an analytical account of developments in France, he—and the review—would have had a problem. You can imagine the footnote, added at last proof stage: “As we go to press it appears that one of Paris’s most important prisons may have been stormed…”

Sitting down on July 11, 1989, to write an analytical account of developments in Poland and Hungary, I have a similar problem. The changes in those countries are, to be sure, not yet “revolutionary” in the sense of the storming of the Bastille. They continue to be what, in an earlier article, I called a “refolution”—half-reform, half-revolution.1 But they are sufficiently rapid and unpredictable for a genuinely analytical account to be impossible.

All the close observer can do is to describe what has happened so far, and in the process hold fast some impressions that might otherwise be lost to the historian reflecting with the benefit of hindsight. For hindsight is also a disadvantage. Perhaps the most difficult thing of all for the historian to recapture is the sense of what, at a given historical moment, people did not know about the future.


With hindsight it begins to seem obvious that Solidarity should have won a landslide victory on Sunday, June 4, in the first round of the closest thing to a free election that Poland has had for more than half a century.2 Of course they did. They must have known! But I know that they did not know. I sat with an exhausted and depressed Adam Michnik over lunch that Sunday, and he did not know. I drank with a nervously excited Jacek Kuron late that evening, but he did not know. Nobody knew.

Certainly the campaign had gone well. Despite all the starting handicaps, the lack of organization, money, offices, staff, and, most of all, fair coverage by the radio and television, the Solidarity-opposition campaign had become a kind of festival of national improvisation. Despite all the initial advantages, the organization, money, offices, staff, and, most of all, monopoly control of radio and television, the Party-coalition3 campaign had been extraordinarily feeble. Solidarity selected one candidate for each seat it was entitled to contest under the terms of the April Round Table agreement.4 The selection procedure was not democratic, but it was highly effective. The Party-coalition side wasted weeks in quasi-democratic feuding, and ended up with several candidates for most seats.

The streets were plastered with the names of the Solidarity candidates: each in a photograph with Lech Walesa, and with the simple message, “We must win.” To find out the names of the Party-government candidates often required a lengthy private investigation. Solidarity’s posters were red and white, with the unmistakeable jumbly lettering. In several places, the Party retreated into a faded conservative blue. A typical Party slogan was “With Us It’s Safer,” a slogan better suited to contraceptives than to parliamentary candidates, as one Italian observer remarked.

Certainly things looked good for Solidarity on the actual day. In mid-morning there were long queues. “You see, it’s after Mass,” was the explanation given me in almost every case: that, and the sheer complexity of the voting procedures, with separate white ballot papers for each seat in the Sejm (some reserved for the Party-coalition side, some non-Party), a white paper for the “National List” of thirty-five prominent Party-coalition candidates, and a long pink ballot paper listing all the numerous candidates for the Senate.

Some voters came directly from their children’s First Communion, trailing little girls in long white dresses. The First Communion and the first election. And not only for the children. “Yes, sir,” confided one not-so-young couple, holding hands and simpering, “it’s our first time!” Many people did not even bother to enter the curtained polling booths, but did their work quite openly at tables or on window sills. It would need a poet to describe the almost sensual satisfaction on people’s faces as they crossed out name after official name. “At last, after so many years,” exclaimed one old man near me, as he performed his civic duty. “Enough is enough.”

For all that, it was only on Monday morning that Solidarity leaders definitely knew that they had won outright, on the first round, all but a handful of the seats for which they were competing. Three things happened together. First, the Communists lost an election. Second, Solidarity won. Third, the Communists acknowledged that Solidarity won. Logicians might call that a syllogism. Yet until almost the day before anyone who had predicted these events would have been universally considered not a logician but a lunatic. Moreover, the three things, while logically related, were also separate and distinct.

First, and above all, the Communists lost. They did not lose power. They still had the army, the police, the Party apparatus, and the nomenklatura. But they lost the vote. While virtually all the Solidarity candidates got through on the first round, most of the Party-government candidates had to go through to a run-off in the second round on June 18. Most humiliating of all, only two of the thirty-five candidates on the National List got the requisite 50 percent of valid votes on an uncontested ballot. In other words, more than half of those who turned out to vote took the trouble to cross out, name by name or with one big cross, the prime minister, the interior minister, and the defense minister, as well as other less prominent establishment figures.5

Secondly, Solidarity won. Solidarity won not only against the Party, but also against many quite well known, even distinguished, non-Party candidates: successful managers, television personalities, representatives of more radical opposition groups, and, most formidably, Christian Democrats enjoying the explicit support of senior churchmen—indeed, of the most senior. For on the very eve of the election the Primate, Cardinal Józef Glemp, demonstratively received at his residence the Christian Democrats standing against Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron—both official Solidarity-opposition candidates, but both very much from what Michnik once called the “lay left.” Yet despite that extraordinary intervention, the Solidarity men still won hands down. “The Primate should submit his resignation,” murmured the wits.6

You might think that Solidarity need not have worried about its popularity. But worry it did. Most opinion polls suggested a fragmentation of the non- or anti-Communist vote. And whatever Solidarity’s historical legitimacy from 1980–1981; whatever the spiritual legitimacy that came from the blessing of the Pope (one up on the Primate); whatever the cultural legitimacy that came from the Nobel prize winners and film stars; whatever the trade union legitimacy that came from last year’s strikes—there is nothing, but nothing, to match the legitimacy that comes from the barrel of the ballot box.

There was only one opponent that Solidarity did not defeat. He might be called, by analogy with General Winter, General Abstention. All sides in the campaign had agreed on one thing: that everyone should turn out to vote. Yet the final turnout was very modest: just over 62 percent, which according to the (unreliable) official figures is actually less than the turnout for the referendum in 1987. Perhaps a few people followed radical opposition appeals to boycott even these elections, because they were not wholly free. Perhaps some tepid Party faithful felt so disgusted that they stayed at home. But my own straw polls suggest that the main reason was a deep tiredness and disbelief in the capacity of any political force—red, white, or blue—to reverse the country’s desperate material decline.

The third thing that happened was, in its way, almost as remarkable. The Party told the truth. On the Monday evening, when the first partial results were known, the spokesman for the Central Committee, Jan Bisztyga, appeared on the television evening news, sitting side by side with Solidarity’s veteran spokesman, Janusz Onyzszkiewicz. Mr. Bisztyga said: “The elections had a plebiscitary character and Solidarity won a clear majority.” He said other things too. For example: “If triumphalism and adventurism anarchize the situation in Poland, democracy and social peace will be seriously threatened.” (Why, one might almost mistake that for a threat.) But as the first reaction of a party that has monopolized power for more than forty years, and fought Solidarity tooth and nail for more than seven, this was remarkable. Two days later General Jaruzelski said simply: “It was the first time that voters could choose freely. That freedom was used for the crossing-off of those who were in power till now.”7 At the same time he reaffirmed his commitment to the path of “dialogue and compromise.”

Sunday, June 4, 1989, was a landmark not only in the postwar history of Poland, not merely in the history of Eastern Europe, but in the history of the Communist world. Yet as the Solidarity leaders plunged into fevered discussions, tortuous negotiations, and late-night cabals, their reaction was a curious mixture of exaltation, incredulity, and alarm. Alarm at the new responsibilities that now faced them—the problems of success—but also a sneaking fear that things could not continue to go so well. That fear was heightened by the news from China. It was an uncanny experience to watch, with a group of Polish opposition journalists, on the very afternoon of the election, the television pictures from Beijing. Martial law. The tanks. The tear gas. Corpses carried shoulder high. We had been here before.

As Solidarity leaders began to engage in real politics, with all its evasions, compromises, and half-truths, many had mixed feelings. There was more than a touch of nostalgia for the simple truths and moral clarities of the martial law period. One may passionately wish Poland to have “normal” politics. But it is quite another thing to watch your own friends starting to behave like normal politicians. Yet what is the alternative? Comes the answer: “Tiananmen Square.”8

Following its election triumph, Solidarity faced three major, closely connected problems: the internal structure of the opposition movement; the nature, timing, and terms of its participation in government; and its response to the deepening economic crisis. What is Solidarity today, in July 1989? It is at least four things. First, it is Lech Walesa, whose personal popularity and authority have reached extraordinary heights, reinforced, of course, by every meeting with a Western leader, whether President Mitterrand or President Bush. Secondly, it is the parliamentary group—161 (out of 460) members of the Sejm, 99 out of 1009 members of the Senate. These new parliamentarians personally represent very different tendencies and traditions, but on that Glorious Fourth of June they were all—social democrat or conservative, Christian or Jew, bright or dull—elected because they were the candidates of Lech Walesa and Solidarity. Defeated Communist candidates remarked bitterly that if a monkey had stood as an official Solidarity-opposition candidate he would have been elected; and there is probably some truth in that. One might add that if Saint Paul had stood as a candidate for the Polish United Workers’ Party, he would probably have been defeated.

  1. 1

    See “Refolution: The Springtime of Two Nations,” The New York Review (June 15).

  2. 2

    The election of 1947 was plainly rigged by force and fraud. One therefore has to reach back to the election of 1938, which, though very far from our contemporary notion of a free and fair election, was nonetheless more free than any election in Poland between 1939 and 1989. For a fully free election one has to go back sixty years, to 1928, or arguably even to the short period between the recovery of independence and Józef Pilsudski’s May 1926 coup. For details on the interwar elections see Antony Polonsky, Politics in Independent Poland: 1921–1939 (Oxford University Press, 1972).

  3. 3

    The formula agreed at the Round Table, and used since by both sides, was “government-coalition side.” But this is a deliberate misnomer, for while the government of Mieczyslaw F. Rakowski has gone out of its way to demonstrate its distinctness from the Party, the main competitor in this election contest was, without question, the Party. Hence my label. The “coalition” includes two previously subservient front parties, the Democratic party (SD) and the United Peasants’ party (ZSL), and three collaborationist Christian groupings. One should add that the real power holders in Poland in recent years are as much the generals of army and police as the Party leaders.

  4. 4

    See the article referred to in Note 1 above. Solidarity could compete for 161 out of 460 seats in the Sejm and all 100 seats in the Senate.

  5. 5

    Ironically, it was the Party-coalition side that insisted, during the Round Table negotiations, that voting should be by deleting the candidates not wanted rather than by marking those wanted.

  6. 6

    Michnik, who, however, had the support of the local church in Silesia, got 70 percent; the candidate backed by Primate Glemp got only 8 percent. Kuron got 66 percent; the Primate’s candidate, Wladyslaw Sila-Nowicki, a distinguished lawyer, got 21 percent. Curiously enough, the Primate’s own brother, who spells his name Glemb, was standing in Bydgoszcz as a Party candidate for the Senate. The main point made in the Party campaign on his behalf was that he was the Primate’s brother. But he still lost, albeit only in the second round, to the official Solidarity candidate, Aleksander Paszynski.

  7. 7

    In an interview with The Independent (June 8).

  8. 8

    This comment was made to me repeatedly in the days immediately after the election. The same point was made by Lech Walesa during President Bush’s visit to Gdansk. The Independent of July 13 quotes the Hungarian opposition leader, Viktor Orbán, as saying “Tiananmen Square has shown us that reforms in a Communist country can always be reversed.” Chinese shadows are long.

  9. 9

    The one non-Solidarity senator is a multimillionaire private entrepreneur, Henryk Stoklosa. He reportedly used his millions to great effect during his campaign. Note, however, that one Solidarity senator, the former rector of Warsaw University, Grzegorz Bialkowski, died on June 29. His seat must presumably be filled in a by-election.

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