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My Vote Against Walesa

The following was written before the Polish election in December. It first appeared in the Warsaw daily paper Gazeta Wyborcza, of which Adam Michnik is editor-in-chief.

This is a strictly personal reflection.

I feel obliged to publish it for the sake of all those who do not understand what has happened, and whose message of anxiety and solidarity has been reaching me over the last few months.

[Michnik refers here to the demand last spring by Lech Walesa, that Gazeta Wyborcza no longer use the Solidarnosc logo,


This demand was made after Gazeta Wyborcza failed to give full support to Walesa. Michnik and his fellow editors acceded to the demand after it was endorsed by the Solidarity National Committee in September.]

My primary feeling is one of embarrassment. The divorce within Solidarity was an ugly event. Instead of an open discussion of ideas, we got opaque insinuations and arguments about symbols.

The conflict over the Solidarnosc logo epitomized a more general disagreement concerning the shape of Polish public life, the kind of political culture we should adopt, and the future of our country. Principles, rather than details, were the issue, and the split within Solidarity became unavoidable. The process, which had started with the annexation of the right to use the Solidarnosc logo, ended with the transformation of union structures into vehicles for Lech Walesa’s election. One can hardly help feeling bitter about this.

The Solidarnosc logo is of great emotional value to people who were faithful to Solidarity for the last ten years, and who now find it difficult to part with it. These people printed the logo in underground pamphlets, scrawled it on city walls, and chanted the word in street demonstrations. Many Solidarnosc badges have been torn out of lapels and sweaters by the ZOMO riot police and the secret police, but people who wore them remained faithful to those familiar letters, despite persecution and prison sentences. For them, it meant the logo of hope and trust in a better, democratic, independent, and just Poland.

This logo has now been transformed by the majority of the Solidarity Trade Union’s leadership into an instrument of blackmail and a censor’s stamp. From now on, editors of all newspapers that display the logo in their masthead will know what articles they should avoid. When I realized this, I was relieved at my colleague’s decision to remove the slogan “There is no freedom without Solidarity” from Gazeta Wyborcza‘s masthead. I feel no solidarity whatsoever with those who will turn a symbol of freedom and hope into a sign of opportunism and a tool for silencing people.

What was the charge against us? The resolution of Solidarity’s National Committee defined it all too clearly, we criticized Lech Walesa.

I may not have met all those who voted in favor of the resolution, but I pity them all. Impoverishment of the mind and spirit will always surface, sooner or later. I also congratulate Lech Walesa on such allies in his struggle for the Belvedere Palace [the president’s office]. He is getting what he asked for.

Campaigning at the Warsaw Steel-works, Walesa answered a question concerning the future of the newspapers that criticize him today: “Let them make these newspapers flourish,” he said, “and then you will come in and take them over.” The statement was later interpreted by Walesa’s press spokesman to mean: “Yes, democracy will take them over. New political forces will emerge from the election, and they will need their own press and media, which leaves them with one option: either they set up new ones, or take over the existing ones from those who have been politically defeated.”

I never expected Walesa and his spokesman to utter such a compact definition of the Bolshevik line of reasoning.

I have always openly admired Walesa’s political acumen. I truly respected his strategy during the difficult martial-law period. And I supported that strategy of persistence and common sense by being one of Walesa’s collaborators. His policy was both cautious and courageous. And, above all else, it was effective, and enriched by a remarkable instinct.

Our roads have since parted. We now represent diverse points of view. But I would still like to believe that an argument about ideas, rather than an exchange of insinuations, is possible between us. It would be very bad if what was once a friendship turned into venomous hatred.

Lech Walesa, my political opponent of today, is an outstanding politician. I believe that if you cannot pay due respect to your opponent, you will never be able to win respect for yourself.

I like many things about Walesa. I like his sense of humor, I admire his intuition and political savvy, and I admit that he played an outstanding role in our war with the Communist order. Therefore, it saddens me to see the chairman of the Solidarity Trade Union and Nobel Prize laureate waste the unique Polish opportunity, destroy his own good image and that of our country in the eyes of the world. It is painful for me to observe Walesa’s evolution from the symbol of Polish democracy to its present grotesque caricature. The decision to deprive Gazeta Wyborcza of the Solidarnosc logo for criticizing Walesa was the first shibboleth of what will happen to Polish democracy when these people reach for state power. It also summarized Walesa’s own concept of democracy.

Walesa wants to be president, and I do not blame him for this ambition. It worries me, however, that he wants to be an “axe-wielding” president who rules by decree and who likens democracy to a driver’s control over a car. “Now that we are changing the system, we need a president with an axe: a firm, shrewd, and simple man, who does not beat around the bush.” These are Walesa’s words. What worries me more than his words, however, is that he treats Solidarity as an instrument for the fulfillment of his own personal ambitions. It is also the confidence with which he announces that he will win at least 80 percent of the votes in the compulsory, open election that he demands. And his threats of a street revolt. It also worries me that he always speaks about himself, and never mentions his program. In conclusion: it worries me that Walesa will use any means to get into the Belvedere Palace.

As Solidarity chairman, he has proposed no program for the trade union in periods of austerity. During the last year, we have not heard a single word from Walesa on the union’s role or activity in the process of transition to a market economy, on methods for defending the interests of the working class, or on ways to deal with unemployment.

Instead, we have repeatedly been told that Solidarity had to split. Eventually, Walesa came and split it. He got rid of all those capable of opposing him and barring his way. In order to remove them, he considered it useful to describe them publicly as “eggheads” and “Jews.”

I can understand Lech Walesa’s motivation. His ambitions have not been fulfilled. Twice, he refused to compete for high political posts; he would not run for either house of the Parliament; nor did he attempt to become prime minister. In my opinion, he has always been driven by one motive: a certain vision of himself in public life. Walesa’s political ideal is that of a special place: ultimate power without responsibility. His concept of the presidency is to rule, and to defer all responsibility to the prime minister, the cabinet, and all the other government elite.

This concept is far from surprising: Walesa has always been a charismatic leader who would not respect a statute or a program, acting as if he did not understand the rules of democratic procedures. In August 1980, his ignorance was justified. Later, during martial law, Walesa decided that he did not need any understanding of those procedures. It may have been this decision, and his charisma, that made Walesa such a good leader during that period.

What is the nature of charismatic power? Charisma is the ability to control people’s emotions. Emotional subordination and the acknowledgment of a leader’s special abilities and talents create a special relationship between the leader and the ordinary man. The ordinary man’s blind trust in his leader makes him obedient. In the ordinary man’s opinion, the leader knows best what to do in any situation. The leader’s power is subject to no restrictions or regulations. His qualifications and competence become unimportant. So does the law. What becomes important are the random decisions of the charismatic leader.

This leader emerges from the void of a destroyed political stage, marked by the lack of, or the sudden surge of, hope; he is the result of a collective dream and of the desire for a new myth. He may be a prophet, a popular leader, or a street demagogue. He epitomizes the myth of the just, invincible leader. He evokes admiration and awe.

Charismatic authority is inherent in the most revolutionary historical processes: it helps to overcome fear and apathy, to destroy traditional order, and to overthrow old governments, whether monarchies or foreign occupations. Once victorious, this authority becomes domineering and antidemocratic; it towers above the people. Born out of collective hope for a free, dignified life, it leads toward a new dictatorship. The faith in the charismatic leader’s infallibility becomes the subject’s duty. The leader and his team demand that the faith be completed with voluntary acts of submission. A refusal to perform them is subsequently treated as a felony, a crime, and as high treason.

This is when a charismatic authority begins to wane. Such a leader, endowed with “divine grace,” proves unable to work wonders. But it is too late for the people to change anything: the leader has lost his charisma, but has kept the police. His team, chosen according to the principle of obedience rather than for professional qualifications, will not hesitate to use force to defend its power. The history of revolutions confirms this pattern, from Cromwell, through Lenin, down to Khomeini.

The myth of a charismatic leader collapses as soon as people lose faith in his supernatural power and denounce their own blind obedience. This history of revolutions teaches that the sooner the light dawns, the greater a nation’s chance to save its freedom and stability of order.

A victorious charismatic leader becomes pathologically jealous of his power and popularity. He also becomes suspicious, sensing enemies and plots all around him. In order to get rid of rivals, that is, of ordinary democratic mechanisms, he will promise anything to one and all, and he will not discuss political programs: he himself becomes his own program. He always talks about himself, his merits and congenial achievements, describing his plans in the most scant and general terms. He promises accelerations: fast improvement for everyone.

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