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Poland After Solidarity

The Roots of Solidarity: A Political Sociology of Poland’s Working-Class Democratization

by Roman Laba
Princeton University Press, 247 pp., $24.95

Breaking the Barrier: The Rise of Solidarity in Poland

by Lawrence Goodwyn
Oxford University Press, 466 pp., $27.95

Rok 1989: Bronislaw Geremek Opowiada, Jacek Zakowski Pyta (The Year 1989: Bronislaw Geremek Relates, Jacek Zakowski Asks)

Plejada (Warsaw), 384 pp., 30,000 Zl ($3.50)

Droga Do Wolnosci: 1985–1990, Decydujace Lata (The Path to Freedom: 1985–1990, the Decisive Years)

by Lech Walesa
Editions Spotkania (Warsaw), 304 pp., 26,000 Zl ($2.75)

Wódz (The Chief)

by Jaroslaw Kurski
Pomost (Warsaw), 128 pp., 17,000 Zl ($1.80)


Between Sesame Street and Twin Peaks, Polish television shows President Lech Walesa making his first ceremonial appointment of an army general. The new general is—a bishop. Around the corner from Pilsudski (formerly Victory) Square, a guardsman peers longingly into the new Mercedes showroom. The Palace of Culture, the most famous symbol of Soviet domination, now contains a large shopping mall. In front of it, a huge billboard advertises POLAMER, a Polish-American travel agency. The irony is so crude as to be somehow appropriate: kitsch beats kitsch. Down Nowy Swiat, a farmer snores in his vegetable truck, just a few yards from the freshly opened Christian Dior boutique. Everywhere, but everywhere, in the country as in the city, you see signs announcing a new hurtownia for this or that. Hurtownia means a wholesale warehouse, which means you pay less taxes, so every fledgling corner store is a warehouse now.

In this crazy wholesale warehouse which is Poland, with its German cars and American films, its general-bishops and wheeler-dealers, all the old certainties have gone; no new ones have yet replaced them. The shop windows are full, but for most Poles the familiar, myriad shortages of goods have been replaced by one great shortage, that of money. Here is a country in upheaval, full of extremes and contradictions, with casinos and lines of people on the dole, a triumphant Church and tons of pornography, a few new rich and many old and new poor; a country on the move, but in what direction? West? South? Or perhaps in several directions at once?

All over Warsaw you hear “Radio Z,” a new radio station offering pop music interspersed with advertisements and a little news. American style again. Between Christian Dior and the snoring farmer, a shabby staircase leads you up to the headquarters of “Party X,” a mysterious political party founded by Stanislaw Tyminski, the Polish-Canadian-Peruvian dark horse in last autumn’s presidential election. The Warsaw headquarters of “Party X” is—or appeared to be on Monday, April 22, 1991—one room in the offices of the Grunwald Association, a notorious extreme nationalist group which in the past almost certainly had close ties to unsavory parts of the communist party-state apparatus. In this room, when I visited it, there sat several poorly dressed, puffy-faced women and a computer. After some debate, one of these women agreed to give me—as a potential member—a “Letter X” intended for “members and sympathizers of Party X.”

On its first page this bulletin prints a “Declaration,” the beginning of which seems vaguely familiar. Translated from the Polish, it reads: “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have bound them….” And after three paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence, almost word for word, the Party X Declaration concludes with a paragraph saying, roughly, that this is just about where Poland is now, folks. On the next page a headline in fluent English declares, with reference to Jeffrey Sachs, the Harvard professor who had an important part in helping to design and publicize the Balcerowicz plan for Poland’s economic transformation: “Sachs, go home and don’t come back!”

Without looking any further into the program, or nonprogram, of this ridiculous party, I will merely recall that its leader, Stan Tyminski, beat Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Poland’s first noncommunist premier, veteran Solidarity adviser, honored intellectual, the “force of calm,” as his election posters had it, into third place in the presidential elections. And the leaders of all the main contending parties with whom I spoke take very seriously indeed the threat, if not from Party X, then at least from what Jacek Kuron calls Phenomenon X. They all agree that a substantial part of the electorate is so disgruntled and disoriented that it can fall even for such rubbish.

Between Party X and Radio Z one almost feels like talking of Country Y. So much is new, unpredictable, bewildering, even to those who are supposed to be shaping this new Poland. The variables far outstrip the constants, the unknown the known.


Mrs. Danuta Walesa, pani prezydentowa, attends the signing ceremony for a new Franco-Polish macaroni factory, called Danuta in her honor. It will be built, according to the publicity handout, in a “new, post-Solidarity style.” And what, pray, is that? Of Poland’s future architecture, as of the Danuta macaroni factory, one thing alone is certain: it will be post-Solidarity.

On the road out of Warsaw a Solitary sign advertises Radio Solidarnosć. How long, how brave was Solidarity’s struggle for access to the mass media! But now everyone listens to Radio Z. The Mazowsze region of the independent self-governing trade union Solidarity has a handsome headquarters on one of Warsaw’s main streets. But life is elsewhere. The nationwide union Solidarity has a new, young chairman, Marian Krzaklewski, and a couple of million members. But most of Solidarity’s great figures have moved on, to the presidential palace, to parliament, to different political parties, and there is little solidarity among them today.

From 1982 until 1989 the leading underground weekly, Tygodnik Masowsze, carried on its masthead the following words: “Solidarity will not be divided or destroyed—Lech Walesa.” And indeed, General Jaruzelski did not succeed in dividing or destroying Solidarity. Lech Walesa did. What he, more than anyone, had kept together through the whole decade of the 1980s, he, not alone of course, but more than any other single person, pulled apart at the beginning of the 1990s. More generally, liberation and democracy succeeded where dictatorship and repression failed. Nie ma wolnosci bez solidarnosci, proclaimed the masthead of Poland’s first genuinely independent opposition daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, echoing the strikers of 1988 who had set Solidarity back on the path to legality via the Round Table negotiations of early 1989: “There’s no liberty without Solidarity.” When Lech Walesa subsequently asked the editors of Gazeta Wyborcza to remove from their masthead the word “Solidarity” (printed, of course in the characteristic red jumbly lettering, and now a registered trademark of the union), someone suggested that they should leave a truncated motto: “There’s no liberty….” But a more accurate revised version might have read: “There’s no Solidarity in liberty.” And that could apply not only to Solidarity with a large S, and not only to Poland.

Of course there is a danger of retrospective, sentimental idealization. Even with the intense, uniting pressure of a common enemy, Solidarity was full of internal conflicts and divisions. Tensions between different groups, tendencies, and regions, between peasant, workers, and intellectuals (and several subclasses in between), between conservative Catholics, liberal Catholics, agnostics, and atheists, between left liberals, right liberals, and antiliberals, and just between individual personalities, were constantly surfacing. One might say that only the combined efforts of Walesa—intentionally—and Jaruzelski—unintentionally—kept it together. Jacek Kuron once joked that Walesa deserved another Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to reconcile Solidarity’s warring factions.

It is, moreover, a dangerous over-simplification to suggest that the society from which Solidarity sprang and in which it operated, and European societies under communism more generally, were characterized by a solidarity (with a small s) not found in the West. To be sure, there were forms of solidarity not found in the West. These ranged from the quotidian mutual dependence of consumers in a shortage economy to the less quotidian support of the directly oppressed and the exhilarating unity of the crowd at a papal rally. But there were also forms of unsolidarity little known in the contemporary West: collaboration, denunciation, bribery as the sine qua non for medical care.

When all this is said, the fact remains that there existed, in Poland in the 1980s, an extraordinary thing called Solidarity, and that for many individual men and women it offered an extraordinary experience—of solidarity. This was, it seemed, something more than just the comradeship of men and women at war with an alien “power.” Yet today, it seems, even less remains than usually does of wartime comradeship when the war is over. A few veterans squabble over the remnants of the flag, while the rest of the country slopes off to the hurtownia, to Radio Z, or even Party X.

Solidarity is a thing of the past. But just because it is suddenly past, perhaps we may see it more clearly for what it was. In such a moment of radical, historical discontinuity, in the heat and dust of systemic transformation, the immediate future is uncommonly obscure, but the recent past comes into uncommonly sharp focus—both because we have information that we do not usually have so soon after the event, and simply because we know what we do not usually know: how the story ends.


A short stroll through Warsaw’s bookshops reveals a plethora of interesting publications about the recent past. These bookshops, incidentally, are themselves a small symptom of the country’s present turmoil. Where once you had to wait in line for a little plastic basket in order to view a stale array of books from state publishing houses (and the most interesting of those were sold out in a few days, or kept “under the counter” for acquaintances), you can now browse at will amid a colorful if haphazard display of books from state publishing houses, former samizdat publishers, ecclesiastical publishers, émigré publishers, new commercial publishers, all together for the first time. Best-selling translations of Robert Ludlum lie next to Adam Michnik’s From the History of Honor in Poland, Mills and Boon romances rub shoulders with earnest sociological texts, pornography lies on top of martyrology.

If something you want in the bookshops is sold out, you may get it, perhaps in a pirate edition, and certainly at a higher price, from the bookstalls on the street outside. Grzegorz Boguta, former head of one the most dynamic underground publishers, Nowa, is trying to organize a new publishers’ and booksellers’ association, to bring some rudimentary order into this chaos. A lively new newspaper supplement, ex libris, attempts to review new books promptly and sharply—an essential part of publishing “normality.” Meanwhile, the market gyrates between the old East of state publishing and the new (Wild) West of commercial publishing.

Among the best sellers, up there with the Ludlums, are the memoirs or “revelations” of the former communist leaders: two volumes from the Party leader of the 1970s, Edward Gierek, a third from the former premier and last ever leader of the Polish United Workers’ Party, Mieczyslaw F. Rakowski, and, apparently most successful of all, the scurrilous Alfabet of the former government spokesman Jerzy Urban. (Jaruzelski’s memoirs are on their way.) These volumes—the kiss-and-tell of Polish communism—are interesting not only for what they tell us about the people who ruled (for one could hardly say governed) Poland for the last twenty years, but also as a phenomenon of the present.

Although there are occasional flurries about the alleged collaboration of this or that politician with the secret police, the contents of the secret police files are not at present the sort of political issue in Poland that they are in Czechoslovakia, let alone in East Germany. What is a major issue, however, is the way in which former communists have got rich by smartly turning themselves into capitalists. And these books are a prime example of just that. In one of Poland’s most successful measures of privatization to date, the country’s former (soi-disant) communists are not so much, to recall Harold Macmillan’s famous jibe at Mrs. Thatcher’s privatization program, “selling off the family silver” as rather selling off the family secrets. (The word family may here also be understood in its Sicilian sense.) The publisher of most of the books, a firm called simply “BGW,” is reputedly one of the most commercially successful book publishers in Poland today—and surely a most fitting potential partner for Mr. Robert Maxwell. Meanwhile, from the columns of his weekly Nie (“No”), a skillful mixture of soft porn and political guttersniping, Jerzy Urban sneers and jeers at the post-Solidarity politicians who have taken power from him.

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