During the early hours of December 13, the Poland of Solidarity, for sixteen months the most hopeful new star of democracy, disappeared into a black hole. A nation of thirty-six million, in the middle of Europe, was cordoned off from the world, atomized into cell-like blocks, so that each could be terrorized and repressed individually. A regime incapable of feeding its population, incapable of supplying spare parts to keep its factories running, was still able to turn an entire country into an internment camp in a single night.

For some, Solidarity had brought catastrophe on itself by overplaying its hand. For others, the union’s great gamble of partially liberalizing a totalitarian regime was contradictory from the start. Still others found this gamble conceivable only to romantic Poles, once again charging armored panzers with cavalry sabers. But General Jaruzelski’s effort to reimpose totalitarianism on such a people may be an equally desperate gamble. Can “indigestible Poland,” in Marx’s phrase, after making the greatest breach ever in a Leninist order, be routinely “normalized,” like Hungary and Czechoslovakia? Or could the effort to do so mark the beginning of a still wider crisis of the Soviet system?

The Poland of Solidarity, half free and half slave, Eastern in form but Western in content, is a world of paradox, where familiar terms take on unfamiliar meanings, and where our usual political categories have little relevance. The Poles’ aspirations are so near that we think we understand them, but their situation is so remote that in fact we often do not. And the first way to misread Solidarity’s career is to attribute its emergence and then its demise to the effects of “economic crisis.”

To be sure, there was such a crisis in the summer of 1980, and it is by now a catastrophe. Its outlines are also well known: Edward Gierek overborrowed from the West after 1970 to build an overindustrialized “second Poland.” He then failed by the end of the decade to sell enough on a depressed world market to repay his debts (some $27 billion), so he could borrow more—and could not even buy spare parts in order to maintain production. At the same time he compounded his regime’s policy of ruining private agriculture with the endemic communist failure to create a workable collectivized agriculture. In consequence, he was periodically compelled to reduce subsidies for basic necessities and to raise prices dramatically, as in 1976 and 1980, thus touching off “food riots,” as had occurred already under Gomulka in 1970.

All too true. But when is there not an economic crisis under a communist regime? The only time communist economies are a relative success, at least for their populations, is when they retreat from full socialism to the NEP of a partial market economy, as in Russia during the 1920s or in present-day Hungary. At other times the population is kept from desperation and the socialist sector functions only through an illegal but tolerated parallel economy, as under Khrushchev and much of the reign of Brezhnev. But often matters are worse. Conditions now in Romania and in much of the USSR are almost as bad as they were in Poland in the summer of 1980. In Vietnam they are far more stringent. And they were more appalling still, with millions of deaths from famine, epidemic, or deportation, under Lenin’s War Communism and Stalin’s “building of socialism” during the first Five Year Plan.

Yet in none of these cases did economic crisis produce political collapse, because in all of them the regime preserved the will and the power to coerce, while the population lacked the will and the power to resist. What happened in Poland in August 1980 is that the will and the power to act changed sides, so as to transform simply another crisis over rising prices into the detonator of a crisis of the regime itself. And this transformation was basically a political, indeed an ethical, process, not an economic one.

August 1980 was the precipitate of thirty-five years of Polish experience under communism, for by that date the regime was bankrupt not only economically but in every other sense as well. From the beginning the Polish party-state, set up on the ruins of the Warsaw insurrection of 1944 by one of the two occupying powers of 1939, lacked both social and national legitimacy. Its main chance to gain acceptance came after the Poznan revolt of 1956, when Wladyslaw Gomulka for a time championed worker and peasant grievances against the Party apparatus and national resentment against Russia. But this “national communism” soon reached the institutional limits of the party-state’s flexibility. In March 1968 intellectuals were beaten and purged in a state-instigated nationalistic and anti-Semitic campaign intended to head off any imitation of the Prague Spring; henceforth Marxism, even revisionist, was dead as an intellectual force in Poland.


In December 1970, the workers of Gdansk, Gdynia, and Szczecin were crushed in bloodshed for seeking a redress of grievances; henceforth belief that the party-state could in any measure be the expression of society was also dead. To fill the void, Gierek offered to the population a tawdry imitation of Western consumerism and a modicum of cultural liberty; to the bloated three-million-member Party he gave a chance to get rich. But this policy only spread cynicism throughout a system now lacking ideological conviction, and even self-confidence.

During the same thirty-five years society experienced the gradual rebirth of its sense of identity and of its capacity for self-organization. The origins for this lay in two benign mistakes of the postwar years: in order to ease a historically pious and patriotic nation into the new order, the party-state refrained from its usual all-out assault on the Church and the private peasantry. Thus Poland was the only country in socialist Europe to continue to possess the social bases for self-determination, a civil society independent of the regime. And Cardinal Wyszynski, for a quarter-century, expanded and strengthened this sphere of liberty by stubbornly defending the rights of the Church as an expression of the human rights of society. By this means he ensured that the traditional piety of the peasantry—and with it their patriotism—was carried over into the new industrial cities of socialism by the workers of peasant origin. He was able to do so not only because he could appeal to a thousand years of Polish tradition, but also because religious practice had become the only organized source of authentic emotion, commitment, and community in a world of compulsory pretense and atomization.

This ethical impulse assumed protopolitical form following 1970. The bloodshed on the Baltic coast welded the worker-peasants of the Gdansk conurbation into a cohesive and self-conscious community bent on justice for those who had fallen; among the foremost of their demands in 1980 would be for three monumental crosses commemorating the victims of 1970. Then, in 1976, the repression of the strikers of Ursus and Radom led to an alliance of intellectuals, disabused by 1968, with workers, disabused since 1970, in an organized movement of social defense, the KOR. The two most potent secular forces of civil society now also had an institution, however embryonic, and a strategy: the nonviolent organization of “social movements” outside the Party in order to wrest from it ever wider spheres of autonomy and legality. In the first instance this meant free trade unions; but it also meant freedom for culture, as the samizdat publications of Nowa and the courses of the “flying university” indicated after 1978.

In that same year, a “miracle” occurred: a Pole was elected pope, and the following year he returned home on a pilgrimage. For nine days the government virtually ceased to exist as the population, with great self-discipline, assembled by the millions in the streets and the fields. For the first time the entire nation could feel its unity—its solidarity—and its physical and moral strength.

In this situation any new error by the regime could only lead to an explosion. What occurred in August 1980 was less a strike in the Western sense than a national industrial mutiny, a nonviolent insurrection of civil disobedience. Nor could its aims be adequately expressed in the twenty-one trade union demands put forward by the Gdansk workers. What was really involved, in the more general terminology that immediately became current, was the emancipation of “society” from the “power.” Polish society had had enough of being “represented,” and misrepresented, by fake unions, a fake parliament, a fake “people’s democracy”; it wanted to speak and act for itself, to have a sphere that was authentically its own—the union—and the right to say “no” to the regime—to strike.

The ethical and existential aspect of the Polish August may be summed up in one phrase: refusal of the Lie.1 In Wajda’s Man of Iron (whatever its artistic merits, it is in the opinion of most Poles an accurate portrayal) Birkut says to his son, Tomczyk: “We know that we will win because the lie cannot last eternally.” Nor is this a formulation of and for intellectuals. It is genuinely popular, as expressed by the workers’ refusal to use the mendacious salutations “comrade” and “citizen” and by their votes, at the Gdansk Congress of Solidarity in the fall of 1981, to strike out the word “socialism” wherever it had been inserted into the union’s draft program by cautious intellectuals seeking to reassure the regime.

But much more than words were involved in such gestures. For acceptance of the regime’s false and “wooden” language, as the historian Adam Michnik constantly pointed out, meant obeisance to its ideology and subservience to its institutions.2 It meant legitimization of the entire fraud of “real socialism.” For it was on the blackmail of “building socialism,” and on the historical irreversibility of this “conquest,” that the totalitarian imposture of state power rested.


Thus from the beginning Solidarity was by implication revolutionary. Yet it was a revolution of a new and unique kind. Despite its refusal of the Lie, it was forced by circumstances, if not to lie itself, at least not to speak the whole truth. What was delicately referred to as “raison d’état” or “geopolitical reality”—i.e., the proximity of the Soviet Big Brother—meant that state power in Warsaw, if in the first instance an adversary, must also be treated as an accomplice, so as to preserve that civil peace and national unity necessary to keep Big Brother out. The government must be pushed hard so that the rights of society would be maintained, but not too hard so that the independence of the nation would be preserved. Thus Solidarity found itself in the anomalous position of being a revolution that dared not speak its name, and that dared not name its enemy. Both domestically and internationally it had to be, in Jacek Kuron’s phrase, a “self-limiting revolution.”

Concretely, this meant, first, that Solidarity could not challenge Warsaw’s alliance with Moscow or in any way threaten Soviet communications and military positions within Poland. And Solidarity throughout was scrupulous in adhering to this position. Secondly, Solidarity could not aspire to win domestically, for two taboos must forever remain unviolated: socialism and state power. Solidarity might demand an ever-lengthening list of specific reforms, but it could never demand the dismantling of socialism as such; it could demand some powers, but never dominant power. To violate these taboos would be to expose the Lie by showing that the course of history could, in fact, be reversed—a precedent quite as dangerous to the Soviets’ security as any threat to their military lines of communication.

But in this second domain Solidarity could not be as self-limiting as in the first. For the vocation of the party-state was the total monopoly of power, and Solidarity by its very existence had created a system of “dual power.” The “Leninist mechanisms” of the regime, in consequence, could only seek to undo this intolerable situation, while Solidarity in turn could only press back against the regime, and in the process expand its claims. As Solidarity leaders often described their historical task: “What we are doing is impossible and at the same time necessary.” This was the perilous dynamic in which the self-limiting revolution unfolded over sixteen months of crisis.

To bring order into a seeming chaos of crises, these sixteen months can be divided into three phases. The first, running from September 1980 through March 1981, was the period of Solidarity’s struggle for survival. The second, which began in April 1981 and lasted until the Ninth Communist Party Congress in July, may be called the great truce or the decomposition of the Party. The final period ran from late July to early December, and produced the open clash of the two powers, when the taboos of August 1980 at last were violated and the ambiguities of the previous year were ended.

As a self-limiting revolution Solidarity had to be, in the first instance, legalistic, taking its stand on its rights as a trade union as embodied in the twenty-one points of the Gdansk agreements. These points ranged from ad hoc questions of salaries, working conditions, and free time to matters with far-reaching institutional implications—union independence, the right to strike, access to the media, and “competent” management. The Gdansk agreements, moreover, were only a series of promises made by the government to the strike committee headed by Walesa; it remained to translate them into judicial and legislative acts. This circumstance gave the regime its chance to delay and renege on its forced concessions; and no one in Solidarity was under any illusion that the government had ever intended to keep its word. The “guerrilla warfare” that ensued led to four major crises, extending over seven months.

The first crisis began in October 1980, when Solidarity presented its charter, or bylaws, to the courts in order to register as a legal organization. The government tried to amend the bylaws by inserting a phrase from the Constitution recognizing “the leading role of the Party in the state for the building of socialism.” This was no mere matter of symbolism. It was both a test of Solidarity’s will and an effort to establish a statutory basis for subordinating the new union to the command structure of the state. Solidarity, after a month of futile negotiations, answered this “provocation” with the only weapon at its disposal, a national warning strike of one hour. The regime backed down; the bylaws were registered on November 10, while reference to the Party’s role was ambiguously relegated to an appendix.

A short time later, hard-line elements in the regime attempted the first police action against Solidarity. The union’s Warsaw headquarters were raided and a minor official, Narozniak, was arrested for possession of a planted state security document discussing repressive measures against the “antisocialist extremists” of KOR. Under the slogan “Narozniak today, Walesa tomorrow,” Solidarity’s Warsaw region went on strike. The regime this time backed off quickly and released Narozniak before the new strike spread throughout Poland. Then, in January, the same process was repeated a third time over the issue of “workfree Saturdays”: endless equivocations over this point of the Gdansk agreements finally led to a new warning strike and a compromise on three instead of four free Saturdays a month.

Thus five months after Gdansk only two of the twenty-one points had been partially implemented (and, in addition, Sunday Mass was broadcast by radio, as Solidarity had also urged). In one sense the union had made enormous efforts simply not to be driven back from its starting point. In another sense, however, the balance sheet was much more positive; for the Party’s inept attempts to roll back the union had the opposite result. Solidarity’s membership had risen from three million in September to ten million by January; at the same time elected Solidarity organizations were set up in thousands of factories and offices, as well as regionally and nationally. The union had some 40,000 regular staff members, or “cadres,” adequate funds from dues, and its own newspaper and communications network. Its National Coordinating Council was elected by the regional councils, mainly from the group of leaders that had emerged during August 1980. In one of the most impressive efforts at independent democratic organization ever to take place, Polish civil society had now mobilized against the party-state.

There then occurred the gravest incident of Solidarity’s heroic period and the highest moment, after the August 1980 strike, of its entire career: the provocation in the town of Bydgoszcz. By now Solidarity’s example was being imitated by the students and the peasantry; both groups staged sit-ins to gain recognition of their own unions. Even the Party was touched by the movement toward democracy: “horizontal” organizations of the rank and file emerged, directed against the traditional hierarchical apparatus. One million Party members, mostly workers, joined Solidarity itself. The entire structure of the party-state seemed to be coming apart.

In order to stem this tide, on February 10, 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski was named prime minister, a gesture that combined the appeal to patriotism symbolized by his uniform with an implied threat of martial law if this appeal should fail. The general called for a three-month moratorium on strikes. The Solidarity leaders expressed their willingness to cooperate, provided of course the rights they had won were respected.

This, however, was not to be. On March 19, after a peaceful sit-in demonstration in Bydgoszcz by peasants seeking to organize Rural Solidarity, the police forcibly broke up a meeting between peasant leaders, Solidarity officials, and government representatives in the town prefecture. Three Solidarity members, including the radical local leader Jan Rulewski, were severely beaten. At the time the leading “hard head” in the Politburo, Tadeusz Grabski (and perhaps also the media chief Stefan Olszowski), was presumed to have planned this effort to force Solidarity into a new strike at a time when Soviet maneuvers were taking place around and within the country. In any event, for the first time since August 1980 physical violence had been used against Solidarity members. The union had no choice but to react. Not to do so would be to invite more repression and, ultimately, defeat.

Solidarity mobilized all its members, staging a fully effective national warning strike of four hours and threatening an unlimited general strike for March 31 unless those guilty of the Bydgoszcz incident were brought to justice and Rural Solidarity was recognized. Factories were occupied and stocked with food and fuel; industrial supplies, such as acetylene torches, gasoline, and chemicals, were readied for possible defense (Solidarity had few real arms). Solidarity had at last been forced to resort to its absolute weapon, to which the regime’s only credible response would have been martial law. Solidarity was clearly prepared both psychologically and materially for such all-out confrontation; the regime almost certainly was not.

It was Solidarity, however, that first drew back. The vice premier, Mieczyslaw Rakowski, met with Walesa and his moderate advisers, the distinguished medieval historian Bronislaw Geremek and the liberal Catholic editor Tadeusz Masowiecki. In negotiations far more tense and secret than those of August, Rakowski put to them the patriotic argument that a national strike would lead to Soviet intervention. Whether this was really imminent remains unknown, but it probably was not. Still, Walesa decided not to take the risk and, without consulting his National Council, called off the threatened strike in return for promises that the police at Bydgoszcz would be punished and that farmers would be allowed to organize Rural Solidarity.

Later surveys indicated that the rank and file, though ready to fight, were relieved not to have to do so. The more militant cadres of the union, however, were outraged at what they felt was Walesa’s contempt for democratic procedure. Even more, they reproached him with having let slip a unique occasion for Solidarity, at the peak of its strength, to administer a resounding defeat to a decomposing, discredited, and untrustworthy regime backed only by the bluff of Soviet force. In a public gesture of protest, Karol Modzelewski of Wroclaw, another distinguished medieval historian, resigned as Solidarity’s official press spokesman. And Andrzej Gwiazda, Walesa’s colleague at Gdansk and the union’s second-in-command, was permanently estranged from his chief.

The result was an enduring tension within the union between “moderates” and “radicals,” or, more exactly, the cautious and the audacious, for they differed over tactics, not goals. Heated argument thus continued for the rest of Solidarity’s career between the advocates of active pressure from below and the advocates of patient negotiations at the top to keep the regime to its promises of August, with Bydgoszcz always the prime symbol in the debate.

Bydgoszcz was, indeed, the major turning point between August 1980 and December 1981. It revealed that Solidarity could not use its absolute weapon, the general strike, without the risk of transforming the self-limiting revolution into an open-ended revolution. Thereafter Solidarity was condemned to a tactic of slow pressure in a situation of rapidly deepening economic crisis that made such a course less and less feasible. In hindsight after December 13, it appears that Solidarity, if it had pressed harder on March 31, had little to lose but a few more months of life, and perhaps much to gain by way of immediate control over society and the economy. With the same hindsight it is clear that the regime, in the long run, profited immensely from the lesson of Bydgoszcz: for it learned that a successful state of siege against a large majority of the population could not result from reckless, improvised provocation, but only from meticulous and secret preparation of the sort that clearly went into the coup of December 13.

As of March 31, however, the regime was in no position to apply the lesson of Bydgoszcz, for the incident produced the virtual collapse of the Party. At the plenum of the Communist Party Central Committee, held during the crisis, masses of resignations poured in; the principal “hard heads,” Grabski and Olszowski, were relegated to the sidelines; and it was decided to hold an Extraordinary Congress in July, whose delegates, moreover, were to be elected by secret ballot. By spring the decomposition of the Party was such that even the Solidarity leaders began to fear that it might soon not be strong enough to serve even as a communist version of the British monarchy—a “red Queen of England”—and that without such a shield the Soviets would act. The result was a four-month labor truce, from April through July, during which there were no notable strikes as Solidarity sought to ease its “partner adversary” through its crisis.

This precaution was indeed necessary, for in June the Kremlin tried to depose the first secretary, Stanislaw Kania, by a letter to the Central Committee criticizing his vacillation in handling affairs from the registration crisis through Bydgoszcz and inviting the hard-liners to take over. The purpose of this maneuver was to head off the Extraordinary Congress, which then seemed likely to resemble the genuinely liberal Czech Party Congress of 1968, the event, as everyone remembered, that had prompted Moscow’s intervention. In view of the Polish Party’s disarray, however, this wager on the Party’s hard-liners was as maladroit and premature as the Bydgoszcz provocation. Kania was therefore able to defy the Soviet Party and keep his position, an action in which he was supported by Jaruzelski and the military—with the connivance of what other forces in Moscow it is now germane to ask.

The “democratic” Ninth Party Congress then met as scheduled in July. At the time, much of Polish society and most of the Western press believed that the Party could change sufficiently to fulfill its promises of “socialist renewal.” Others in Solidarity observed that the word for “renewal,” odnowa, also meant “anew,” or more-of-the-same; and if they were old enough to remember the disappointments of 1956, they warned of the power of the Leninist mechanisms, even if hopelessly discredited, to reassert themselves when threatened with being dismantled.

The skeptics were right. And for the predictable reason that, though the Party apparatus had been significantly changed by a genuine vote, the Party as an institution had received no comparable democratic mandate from society. Thus the old hierarchical structures remained intact; indeed they emerged strengthened in their hold over the membership, because they were now endowed with an appearance of democratic legitimacy.

In fact, self-renewal as an institution of political control was all the Party achieved at its congress; it had nothing to say about what was now the most pressing problem confronting the country—the almost total collapse of the economy. One reason for the Party’s silence was its structure: “designed to rule in the absence of democratic freedoms,” as a Solidarity publication put it, “it finds itself powerless when decisions from above might be contested by society.” 3

A second reason was historical: the bankruptcy of Gierek’s policies left the Party with no room for maneuver. To take only one example: in every product in Poland, from matches to processed food to tractors, there was always one component, “the valuta portion,” that had to be paid for in hard, i.e., foreign, currency, a system developed in part to make each product “modern” and in part to spread the borrowed Western money throughout the managerial apparatus. Hence without foreign income, all domestic production wound down precipitately. And this circumstance, not the alleged losses created by the strikes, is the main cause of the current catastrophic state of the Polish economy.

The scarcity thereby created first hit the country in force in the wake of Bydgoszcz. By summer Solidarity found itself, as the union’s young Warsaw leader Zbigniew Bujak put it, like a “trade union of sailors aboard a sinking ship,” with no control over the captain and no possibility of replacing him.4 In an effort to resolve this dilemma, Solidarity after the Party Congress advocated a policy of industrial “self-management.”

A lusterless term in English, self-management acquires magic when rendered, for example, as autogestion, a word that signifies the pleasant if woolly notion of “workers’ control” of industry—a circumstance that won Solidarity added sympathy in Western Europe but at the cost of obscuring what was really taking place in Poland. Solidarity’s concept of self-management was not of the “fundamentalist,” ideological Western variety; it was eminently “pragmatic” and practical, worked out like all of Solidarity’s positions from actual experience.

At first the Solidarity members rejected the ideas of self-management and workers’ councils, having learned from the Polish events of 1956 that these could easily become means for the party-state to co-opt them into its vertical structures, to foist on them co-responsibility for policies over which they in fact had no control. The new union wished, rather, to stand frankly in an adversary relation with the regime, so as to keep its own identity and interests free from state encroachment.

The initiative to rehabilitate the idea of self-management came in the spring from the unions in sixteen major national enterprises, a group called “The Network.” It proposed to replace the appointment of managers by the Party with their election by the workers from among a slate of professionally qualified candidates. This did not mean direct management either by the workers or by the union; rather it meant managerial autonomy for the enterprise vis-à-vis the state and the substitution of technical competence for political loyalty as the criterion for exercising economic responsibility.

In this arrangement, moreover, the union would retain its external, adversary relation to management, as the defender of the workers’ specific social interests. In short, it represented an attack on the nomenklatura, the secret list of positions, not only in the economy but in all other aspects of the national life, to which the Party appointed its men according to political criteria rather than for competence, and which was the main institutional means of the party-state’s monolithic control over society.

This new position did not mean that Solidarity now aspired to dismantle the whole of the nomenklatura. It wished to end it only in heavy industry, and even there enterprises connected with defense would be exempted; moreover, in all cases the Party would retain the right to veto an elected candidate or to choose among a number of candidates. Nonetheless, the Party apparatus became deeply alarmed: industrial self-management looked to them like the first slice of the salami in a process that would inevitably extend to administrative and political functions. Moreover, Party officials alleged that the campaign for self-management went beyond Solidarity’s charter, the Gdansk accords—though, in fact, the question had been raised obliquely by point 13 of that document. But national events had gone beyond them too. There was no good reason the country should be held eternally to the ad hoc demands thrown up in the turmoil of August 1980.

At all events, by August 1981 the ante had been raised in the great game of Polish poker. The contest was no longer over Solidarity’s right to coexist with the official power; the contest was now over the much more threatening issue, for the regime, of actively cutting back the Leninist apparatus. This issue would dominate the third phase, and the final four months, of Solidarity’s career. The regime now firmly dug in its heels, and this produced the open clash of the two forces.

Following the Party Congress of July, negotiations resumed between Solidarity and the government, and Rakowski immediately assumed a hard, provocative line, thereby indicating both to Moscow and to Solidarity that the Party was again a power. A law loosening censorship—the first piece of legislation implementing the Gdansk agreement—was passed in August. But otherwise the campaign of intimidation and destabilization continued right up to the meeting of Solidarity’s National Congress at Gdansk in September. Apprehension had existed that the Soviets would not permit a Communist Party Congress of “renewal” to convene. Apprehension was still stronger that they would not permit the even greater abomination of a non-Party congress for authentic national reform; and Soviet naval maneuvers began in the Gulf of Gdansk. Yet neither Warsaw nor Moscow decided to act; and Solidarity’s congress proceeded in a veritable “storm of democracy.”

That such a parallel parliament could meet at all was utterly without precedent under a Leninist regime, an event that ipso facto challenged the legitimacy of the official parliament and the Party apparatus. Even more, it was both psychologically and politically impossible for such a body to meet and not act according to its real nature as a national representative institution. Solidarity could no longer pretend it was only a trade union. The self-limiting revolution shed a few more limits, the taboos of the previous months began to fall, most notably in the sensational but not very significant resolution calling on the workers of other socialist countries to form independent unions.

The central issue facing the congress was self-management. In the continuing negotiations the government had proposed only that the workers would be consulted about the appointment of managers, while Solidarity held out for genuine elections. In a resolution proposed by Karol Modzelewski and voted overwhelmingly by the congress, Solidarity defied the Diet, the official parliament, to put the matter to a national referendum. If the Diet refused, as it surely would, the resolution said that Solidarity would organize the referendum itself. The ante had again been upped: from now on Solidarity’s ultimate weapon in any negotiation or conflict with the state was no longer the dangerous instrument of a general strike, but the threat of recourse to the verdict of democracy.

In late September, during the break between the two sessions of the congress, Walesa headed off what he felt was a premature resort to the threat of a referendum by accepting another compromise with the regime. A revolt of non-Party deputies in the Diet had forced the government to retreat from its original draft on self-management and to allow workers a limited degree of choice among various nominees. Walesa agreed to this compromise—and the second, and last, law was passed by the Diet to carry out part of the Gdansk accords.

A few days later, however, the reconvened Solidarity congress considered this achievement of Walesa’s moderate tactic to be in fact a capitulation. Walesa nearly lost the election for president of Solidarity, for he had in effect defied a resolution of the first session of the congress. The result was a new effort by the delegates to compel the government to accept power-sharing. They proposed that a “council of economic control” be recruited from society, not from the Party apparatus, to oversee the now watered-down self-management law and all other aspects of economic reform. The congress closed by voting a warning strike to enforce this demand, and the threat of a referendum was clearly held in reserve.

The rest of Solidarity’s story is largely epilogue, for it is now clear that after the congress the regime was only playing cat and mouse with its “partner.” On the one hand, Solidarity, having in effect lost the battle of self-management, pressed for its council of economic control as a part of a “national entente” with the government and the Church. On the other hand, the regime proposed a new “national front” with Solidarity and the Church. On November 4, two weeks after Jaruzelski had become first secretary of the Party, he, Walesa, and the Catholic primate, Glemp, met in a spectacular summit to harmonize the two proposals.

It soon became clear that Walesa and the primate had fallen into a trap, for all the regime had to offer was a classic Leninist front in which Solidarity and the Church would be powerless adjuncts, merely lending their moral authority to the regime’s predetermined policies. This was the end of Solidarity’s strategy of caution—which is just what the regime intended. For Solidarity now had no choice but to move to a more radical position when its national council met at Radom on December 6 and to assert once again the threat of a strike or elections.

At this meeting Walesa himself confessed to sixteen months of illusions and delusions. “Confrontation is inevitable, and it will take place. I wanted to arrive at it in the natural way, when all social groups would have been with us. But I was mistaken in my calculations, because I thought that the Diet, its legislative commissions, would fall to us of themselves. It turns out that we are getting nowhere with this technique…. Since 1970 I have believed in no one who collaborates with that system. They simply want to take us into camp. They realize that…if we create self-management committees everywhere, we will decompose their system.” The truth at last was out and the enemy given his real name. But even this defeatist candor was made to serve the regime’s purposes: the tape of Walesa’s speech was broadcast on television to demonstrate that Solidarity, not the regime, had always been playing a double game.

It was not, of course, the sudden discovery of these “machinations” that drove the regime to the coup de force of December 13. Nor did the Solidarity leaders at all intend “to seize power,” even when, at their final meeting in Gdansk on December 12, they at last fell back on the radical demand for democratic elections. Rather they had been driven to exert maximum pressure to obtain a redistribution of power between Solidarity and the party-state. After the regime had sabotaged the tripartite “entente,” if Solidarity had not pressed forward, it would automatically have been forced to fall back.

The real question about December 13 is not whether Solidarity overplayed its hand, but when, under what circumstances, and with what aim, did the regime decide on its coup de force? A police operation of such magnitude requires lengthy preparations. It also requires great secrecy, with only a handful of leaders in the know and the lower commanders informed only at the zero hour when they open their sealed instructions. Finally, in the Polish situation, it required the full knowledge and cooperation of the Soviet government.

To assert this it is not necessary to produce piles of physical evidence, such as undated martial law posters printed in the Soviet Union, although that is where the posters were printed. It is enough to know that the Polish army is almost entirely dependent on the Soviets for its logistics, munitions, communications, and its system of command. Such an army cannot be used in a large-scale operation without the consent and cooperation of the Soviets. And no Polish general becomes defense minister without being approved, indeed nominated, by the Soviets, especially since Poland is Moscow’s vital corridor to the West.

General Jaruzelski was defense minister since 1968; and his entire career since World War II has been that of Soviet-sponsored political officer, not a field commander, and Comecon ambassador. Tales about his pious Polish Catholic boyhood, the wartime deportation of his family, and his assiduous reading of Marshal Pilsudski—for which he is the only source—are most plausibly interpreted as part of a deliberate effort to soften up Walesa, the primate, and the population. And indeed, until December 13, Jaruzelski enjoyed a measure of genuine popularity, or at least was considered an “enigma” who might conceivably turn out to be more patriot than communist, a uniformed Gomulka or a Polish Tito. It should now be clear that he is chiefly a Soviet surrogate in national costume, and that he had been so from the beginning.

But why did Moscow and its man take so long to act? Although the action, when it came, was brutally decisive, the overall record of both the Polish and the Soviet regimes was one, for them, of unprecedented confusion, hesitation, and ineptitude. The reason was that neither Warsaw nor Moscow knew what to do about Solidarity’s challenge, and, despite appearances, they still do not know what to do. In August 1980 the Polish regime was simply too overwhelmed by the magnitude of the mutiny to act effectively against it. Moscow then expected Warsaw to take back its August concessions by degrees, and this too failed in the controversies over registration and Narozniak. Next Moscow, exasperated, mobilized troops around Poland in early December 1980, as if it were ready to invade, and then did not do so—whether because of warnings from Washington, or inadequate preparedness, or fear of the cost of Polish resistance, or fear of an international storm only a year after Afghanistan and thus the end of détente, we still do not know.

By February, with the appointment of Jaruzelski as prime minister, Moscow seems to have chosen an internal solution to the crisis, at least in appearance, and a long slow approach. An émigré Polish general and former intimate of Jaruzelski maintains that when he was appointed, Jaruzelski had vowed to “crush Solidarity.”5 Quite plausible; but if so, neither Jaruzelski nor Moscow as yet had a real plan, as the incoherence of the police attack on the Bydgoszcz prefecture in March 1981 indicates. And for the next four months, despite renewed military maneuvers, Moscow and Warsaw had all they could do simply to keep the Polish Party afloat, or worse still from going off the deep end into a Czech-style self-liquidation.

It was thus only after the Party Congress, in July 1981, that it was possible to begin the long-term planning for a counterattack. And it was precisely in August that the Party’s negotiating position hardened, and its actions and words seemed designed to provoke Solidarity to raise its demands and take a more radical stand. The latest plausible date for the beginning of the coup preparations is late September, when Solidarity’s congress, by the simple fact that it met, showed the regime’s inability to govern.

Solidarity, indeed, knew this, and expected a test of strength. Rumors of martial law were rife;6 and Jaruzelski openly called for a vote of emergency powers from the Diet. But Solidarity incorrectly supposed that the regime, given its weakness, would move only under the legal cover of such a vote; that it would therefore act only later in the winter; and that it would proceed openly and on a scale that could be met by a general strike. The leaders were wholly unprepared for the stealth and the magnitude of what hit them on December 13. If Solidarity had misplayed its hand, it was because, like the West, it was too innocent to imagine the ingenuity that Moscow had displayed in intervening without appearing to do so, thereby safeguarding its antinuclear peace campaign, its Siberian gas deal, and its foreign credits.

This, however, does not mean that Moscow’s troubles are over and that Poland is on the way to being “normalized.” To be sure, General Jaruzelski has taken the first steps toward such a normalization: the “verification,” or purge, of Solidarity activists and Party unreliables; the beginning of a program of economic austerity and price increases any opposition to which, this time around, martial law is sure to quell; and some efforts toward forced requisition of agricultural produce.

But these measures have so far clearly failed to achieve the indispensable pre-requisite for a successful normalization: the recognition by the population that it has been definitively beaten, that all hope is lost. On the contrary, so few have come forward to collaborate with the regime that the nation must be governed for an indefinite future as an occupied country. After two months a curfew remains in force in all cities, and telephone lines are still cut between them. Gasoline is rationed to restrict movement, and permanent control points have been built on highways. Nonetheless during February major street demonstrations were organized in Gdansk and Poznan; and in the middle of the month the regime resorted to a new wave of mass arrests. At the same time on factory walls a new slogan appeared, addressed to the general: “The winter is yours, the spring will be ours.”

To break this mood in the population, far more force would be required than Jaruzelski so far has shown any willingness to use, force involving many more thousands of arrests, large-scale expulsions, and at least some exemplary executions, in the Hungarian manner of 1956. Moreover, it would be necessary to undo not just the sixteen months of Solidarity, but all that has made Poland unique in Eastern Europe since 1956, particularly the independence of its peasantry and the autonomy of its Church. But to collectivize the peasantry and to crush the Church would be to invite fierce and widespread resistance and chaos.

Nor could this be done discreetly, as with the current campaign of verification. It would become an international scandal, amplified and dignified by the Vatican. And Polish forces alone might well be insufficient to carry out repression on this scale. So far, the army conscripts have been used mainly to control the circulation of people and traffic; the work of direct repression has been done by the relatively limited forces of the special security police called the ZOMOs. To use the conscript army to cordon off neighborhoods is one thing; to employ it actively against clergy and peasant freeholders is quite another. The international restraints on the recourse to Soviet force that applied during Solidarity’s existence would apply even more strongly in such an operation. For then the Western governments, in particular the US, might at last feel compelled to act on their warnings, reiterated since Afghanistan, that “the next time” they will actually do something, such as organize a grain embargo and abrogate the gas deal.

Still another restraint works against turning the present minor normalization into a major one. Hungary after 1956 and Czechoslovakia after 1968 were not economically prostrate, and the world economy was expanding. It was thus possible to normalize by combining repression with rewards, especially in Hungary where the regime could feed on Western credits and markets. Now, however, the world economy is in recession, and the socialist economies, as a result of détente, are enmeshed in Western economies. They are all, including that of the Soviet Union, in grave and deepening difficulty, a situation aggravated by their dependence on the West for foodstuffs, technology, and credits; the total debt of the Soviet bloc to the West is now $90 billion. This circumstance makes it singularly difficult for the Soviet Union to push forward to full normalization, for to do so would be to risk international economic isolation and the spread of the Polish malady to other parts of the socialist bloc.

The more likely outcome, therefore, is a continuing stalemate in which the regime will be forced to run Poland like an occupied country. Poland will continue to be an enormous burden on the Soviet system, both as an economy and as a society in a deep if passive state of dissidence. Yet in this appalling situation, for Poland and for all the peoples of Eastern Europe, there may be something hopeful. For if the Soviet leaders cannot handle Poland any more decisively than they have done since August 1980, it is unlikely that they will be able to handle with their old Stalinist decisiveness any widening of the crisis to other parts of the empire. And like the Polish regime after August 1980, they, too, may be driven to concessions, to allow some degree of economic and political flexibility in order to preserve what is essential to them—their power.

The crisis within Soviet socialism will come in any event, whatever the West hopes or fears. For in the Soviet world as a whole, no less than in Poland, “the lie cannot last eternally.”

February 18

This Issue

March 18, 1982