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Revolution: The Springtime of Two Nations

In Poland and Hungary this has been a fantastic spring. As I travel through those countries, attending an opposition fete in Budapest, a triumphal mass in Gdansk, a Solidarity election meeting in a Silesian coal mine, I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming. Walking around Budapest’s equivalent of Oxford Circus I pass a stall openly selling samizdat publications. Casting an eye over the titles I suddenly notice my own name, on what turns out to be a slim volume of essays hastily translated from The New York Review. Next day I am signing copies for people attending the opposition fete. “Incredible” and “surreal” are the words that punctuate every conversation about politics, though not about economics, for which the leitmotifs are, rather, “disastrous” and “hopeless.”

Last year, I posed the question of political change in these two countries as one of the historic choice “reform or revolution?”1 But what is happening just now is a singular mixture of both reform and revolution: a “revorm,” if you will, or perhaps a “refolution.” There is, in both places, a strong and essential element of voluntary, deliberate reform led by an enlightened minority (but only a minority) in the still ruling Communist parties, and, in the Polish case, at the top of the military and the police. Their advance consists of an unprecedented retreat: undertaking to share power, and even—mirabile dictu—talk of giving it up altogether if they lose an election.2

Yet one is bound to ask how far the retreat is voluntary, how far involuntary, and whether it might not become a rout. For if one talks to the intelligentsia in both countries, then the comparison that comes to mind is less with 1968 than with 1848, less with the Prague Spring than with the Springtime of Nations. The greatest opposition demonstrations in Budapest have been held on the 1848 anniversary: March 15. Among other rites, symbolic tribute is traditionally paid before the statue of Józef Bem, who commanded the Hungarian insurrectionary army in 1848. Józef Bem was a Pole.

Polish-Hungarian cooperation has not got quite that far again, although a Polish opposition leader may be invited to speak at the reburial of Imre Nagy, leader of the 1956 revolution, on June 16: the next great symbolic event in Budapest, and one that the authorities fear will be highly charged. But certainly the Poles and the Hungarians, governments as well as oppositions, are now looking to each other for examples, precedents, and even direct support. For they are still alone in Eastern Europe. So far, this is the springtime of just two nations. What they are doing would be quite impossible without Gorbachev’s tolerance, his example, and the processes he has, wittingly or unwittingly, set in motion. Unlike in 1848, they can also count on benign (if ineffectual) support rather than resistance from the major powers to their west. But around them are still the frightened, hidebound, or openly repressive regimes of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and indescribable Romania: the “gang of four,” as one American specialist has nicely put it.3

In the race for freedom of speech and freedom of enterprise, the Hungarians are currently in the lead, although Poland is coming up fast. In the political stakes, Hungary leads in words but Poland in deeds.

In early May, Poland got its first independent, opposition daily paper, the Gazeta Wyborcza.4 Its editor in chief is the historian Adam Michnik, one of the sharpest of Solidarity intellectuals, and the paper is organized by Helena Luczywo, for the last seven years editor of Poland’s leading underground weekly, Tygodnik Mazowsze, and an unsung heroine of the Polish opposition. But this and the revived Solidarity weekly, Tygodnik Solidarnosć, are both subject to formal censorship. Further liberalization of censorship is promised, but samizdat publishers and editors still agonize over whether or not to “surface from underground” and legalize their publications.

In Hungary, by contrast, there is no formal censorship, and the once effective conventions of informal (self-)censorship have simply broken down.5 Independent publishers and periodicals bloom like crocuses. There is almost riotous competition to publish everything and anything—Imre Nagy, Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, the more outrageous the better. And while the Polish official press is now interesting, the Hungarian official press and, what is more, journalists on official radio and television are in the vanguard of emancipation.

In liberating private enterprise, and attracting Western capital, Hungary is also ahead, although the Rakowski government in Poland is in some ways even more shameless. Its message, symbolized by the industry minister, Mieczyslaw Wilczek, himself at once a millionaire private entrepreneur and Party member, is: “enrichissez vouz!” But the message is directed as much—or more—to members of the existing ruling class, the nomenklatura, and to Western (especially German and Austrian) investors6 as it is to the man in the street, who does not have their options or connections. In both Poland and Hungary, the process whereby members of the nomenklatura advance into private enterprise, using the power and connections that go with their official positions, proceeds apace.

There have been many suggestions as to how communism might be turned back into capitalism. But this is the simplest of all: communist bosses become capitalist bosses! The simplest, although hardly the most attractive. The Solidarity-opposition election program (formally, the Election Program of the Citizens’ Committee “Solidarity”) specifically warns against the danger of the “uwlaszczenie nomenklatury,” that is, of the nomenklatura becoming owners. But others, in both Hungary and Poland, argue that this process also has advantages: compensating some members of the nomenklatura for their loss of political power, and dividing it between those who stand to lose and those who stand to gain. One might call this the “nomenklatura buy-out” theory.

In politics, Poland takes the lead, with the hectic and sometimes hilarious drama of its first halfway genuine election in fifty years. This is, of course, only a halffree election, the product of a remarkable but risky deal made during two months of negotiations, from early February to early April, at the so-called Round Table meetings—actually many tables, and each with just two sides, authorities and Solidarity-opposition.7 The Round Table deal is a compromise, but an open-ended compromise. The Solidarity-opposition side secured the restoration of both the workers’ and the farmers’ Solidarity as fully independent organizations, and the promise of legalization for an independent students’ union. It also secured completely free elections to a newly created upper house of parliament, the Senate, and free competition for 35 percent of the seats in the existing lower house, the Sejm.

The authorities secured a guaranteed majority in the Sejm, although the Polish United Workers’ party as such has only 38 percent of seats guaranteed, with the rest going to its (until now) compliant “coalition” parties and collaborationist Catholic organizations. They also got Solidarity’s agreement to an early election (first round, June 4; second round, June 18), thus giving the opposition virtually no time to organize a campaign from less than scratch. In addition, the constitution now includes a powerful new office of president, which in the first instance can be expected to go to General Jaruzelski.

Around this basic political deal there is wound a large fabric of more detailed agreements—or agreements to disagree—on everything from the economy to censorship and from the judiciary to coal mining. At the Round Table, the opposition had to settle for rather less than half a loaf on most of these issues—but Lech Walesa’s key political adviser, Bronislaw Geremek, argues that “a dynamic process has been set in motion,” and everything is up for transformation in that process. The authorities have agreed, in black and white, that this is “the beginning of the road to parliamentary democracy.” (No qualifying adjectives, although according to a fly on the wall, the government side at one point tried to introduce a parenthesis after this sentence with words to the effect that “the government-coalition side regard parliamentary democracy as socialist democracy.” The Solidarity-opposition side then proposed a further sentence to the effect that this was “the beginning of the building of a sovereign, independent Poland.” Just the beginning! Each then abandoned its provocative formulation. So much for the word “socialism.”8 ) There are to be free elections in four years’ time. Neither side knows what will happen in those four years.

The workers’ and farmers’ Solidarity unions are slowly being rebuilt, although with none of the euphoric surge of autumn 1980. The rebuilding of the unions and the election campaign are, say most activists, complementary and mutually reinforcing. Last spring, Lech Walesa sat in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, besieged by riot police, with a thousand angry young workers chanting “there is no freedom without Solidarity.” This spring, he sits in the Lenin Shipyard, at a calm, wholly legal, meeting with the 261 Solidarity-opposition candidates for parliament. The meeting is filmed under the direction of Andrzej Wajda, himself running for the Senate. The candidates have gathered in the very same hall where it all began with the birth of Solidarity in August 1980. There are the same model ships, the same white eagle on the wall, even the same bust of Lenin.9 As Walesa walks up onto the platform he gives that Lenin a laughing glance, as if to say, “So who whom to you, old chum.”

Interestingly, this Polish deal—a calculated gamble for both sides—has been held up as a positive example by Hungarian Party officials, but as a negative example by most independent Hungarian intellectuals and the opposition. They want free elections, with no handicaps, no quotas, and no new upper house. After free elections, the one sovereign parliament should form the new government and promulgate a new constitution. “After the election,” says a senior official in the justice ministry, “the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ party will have the same position as other parties.” It is rather like one of those weary old East European jokes: the Hungarians are behaving like Poles and the Poles are behaving like Hungarians.

Yet some basic elements are the same. There is a government and an opposition. The government is not like any Western government: it is both stronger (with the whole extensive apparatus of the Party-police-military-nationalized industry-state) and weaker (no legitimacy, deeply divided). The opposition is not like any Western opposition. These two heterogeneous, indeed fissiparous partners are talking about how to transform their countries into what they call “normal” countries, by the end of the twentieth century. When they say “normal” they mean Western, European, liberal, democratic, with a market economy based on property rights, a freely elected parliament, and an independent judiciary. Something between Switzerland and Sweden. “Return Kraków to Europe” says a sign in the window of the students’ union on Kraków’s medieval market square, and that is the theme that recurs, again and again, in every program, speech, and conversation, official as well as unofficial: the return to something called “Europe.”

  1. 1

    See The New York Review, October 27, 1988.

  2. 2

    Both the Hungarian Party leader, Károly Grósz, and the leading Party reformist, Imre Pozsgay, have reportedly made statements to this effect, though without a deadline!

  3. 3

    See Charles Gati, “Eastern Europe on Its Own,” in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 68, No. 1, 1988/1989.

  4. 4

    The title has been translated in the Western press as “Election Gazette,” which sounds a bit archaic. Actually Gazeta just means newspaper, so a closer translation might be “The Election Paper.” After the election it is to be called simply Gazeta or just possibly Gazeta Niezalezna, that is “The Paper,” or perhaps, as we have it in England, “The Independent.”

  5. 5

    On the once effective conventions see my “The Hungarian Lesson” in The New York Review, December 5, 1985. One of the most surreal conversations I had in Budapest was with Mr. György Aczél, for thirty years the Kádár of Hungarian cultural life. I asked him if he did not think, on looking back, that censorship might have been relaxed sooner. There was no censorship, he said. The decision was up to individual publishers and editors. But surely he would not deny that he himself had exercised political control? Oh no, not control. He had merely, he said, had “a sort of influence.”

  6. 6

    For the invitation to the West see, for example, Wilczek’s interview in Der Spiegel, No. 3, 1989, under the title “Labour in Poland is Exceptionally Cheap.”

  7. 7

    The statement about two sides must be qualified in at least two respects. First, toward the end of the proceedings it was not at all clear whether the official trade unions (OPZZ) were working with the party of dialogue around Generals Jaruzelski and Kiszczak, or against them. Secondly, at the economic table the divisions ran almost as much within the two delegations as between them, with, crudely speaking, social democrats on both sides and neoliberals on both sides. Someone should write a short history of this extraordinary negotiation. Stenographic protocols of the main discussions exist, although, as usual, some crucial decisions were taken elsewhere, notably at smaller meetings between Lech Walesa, General Kiszczak, and their top advisers.

    There is a new genre of opposition anecdote in Warsaw these days, the “corridor stories.” They tell of fantastic encounters between oppositionists and their former persecutors, in the corridors of the council of ministers, during the two months of the Round Table. One (true) example: Dawid Warszawski, pseudonymous editor of a leading underground journal, KOS, conducted a video interview with the interior minister, General Kiszczak, head of the police apparatus responsible for seven years’ struggle with the underground. The general politely observed that he had much enjoyed reading Mr. Warszawski’s articles over the years. Mr. Warszawski, now using his real name, Konstanty Gebert, responded by asking the general to give an interview to KOS—an offense for which the general should then, presumably, punish himself. The general hesitates for a moment. “Do you offer a large coffee?” he says.

  8. 8

    This and the other main agreements can be found in Rzeczpospolita, April 7, 1989. See also the interesting article by Adam Krzeminski and Wieslaw Wladyka (“Revolution Step by Step”) in the official weekly Polityka, April 29, 1989. This begins by talking of “the creation of parliamentary democracy in socialism” but ends by describing the goal simply as “the metamorphosis of a Stalinist system into parliamentary democracy.” Period.

  9. 9

    See chapter one in my The Polish Revolution: Solidarity (Scribner’s, 1984; Vintage, 1985).

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