The Open Political Struggle in Poland

Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II; drawing by David Levine


Most of the reports on the new pope have had something to say about his part in the political opposition in Poland, but few have given any clear sense of who takes part in that opposition or how, over the last two years, it has become one of the most startling developments ever to take place in a communist country. Not only the Church but many people outside it have brought this opposition about. Twenty years ago it was possible to say that the regime, faced by a restive intelligentsia, a hostile peasantry and working class, and a powerful adversary—the Church—was uneasily allowing a semi-official “pluralism” to exist. The liberal Catholic coalition called ZNAK, for example, has since the mid-1950s been able, with edgy official tolerance, to send a few of its representatives to the Sejm, or parliament, and put out journals with carefully couched views critical of the regime. But during the last two years something quite new has taken place: a vigorous opposition working outside the system, criticizing official policies entirely in the open, and offering its own political programs. The regime has not been able either to crush these new opponents or to ignore them.

The most visible manifestation of the new situation is the number of samizdat, or, as they are called, “uncensored,” publications—by the latest count twenty-five in all. There has never been anything like it in communist Poland, or in any communist country. These papers carry the names and addresses of their editors, as well as of most of their contributors. Some consist of just a few pages, others of several hundred. Some are mimeographed and semi-legible, others photocopied and astonishingly professional in appearance. Some are aimed at specific audiences—e.g., Gospodarz (The Farmer) and Robotnik (The Worker). Others deal with large political and social issues, or with events in Polish history that have been officially suppressed or distorted. Some are essentially literary journals, while others provide information on opposition groups and police repression.

There is no way of knowing how widely they are read. Most members of the opposition will be the first to concede that not only the average Pole but even the average intellectual is reluctant to get involved in anything “political.” While reprisals during the last year or so have become considerably less severe than they were—forty-eight hours is the usual time spent in jail unless the authorities proceed with a criminal indictment—there is always the possibility of “non-administrative” measures: threats, lack of promotion, expulsion from the university, refusal to travel abroad. Often the security services resort to a mixture of threats and “requests for cooperation.”

Politically active people, however, have refused to be cowed by such tactics. Indeed, when I visited Warsaw last summer, the opposition people I met made it clear that one of their fundamental principles is to conduct their activities without disguise or concealment:…

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