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 The shop windows are full, but for most Poles the familiar, myriad shortages of goods have been replaced by one great shortage, that of money.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.

Morally and aesthetically this profitable self-privatization by former communists is deeply offensive to many people. It formed one major plank of the attack by the Center Agreement party—and by Lech Walesa—on the government of Tadeusz Mazowiecki.

Yet the responsible Center politicians now in government and the president’s office have little more idea than their predecessors how, in a country that aims to build both a market economy and the rule of law, you can legally punish a former communist for becoming a successful capitalist.

At the other end of the post-Solidarity bookshelf we find the second volume of Lech Walesa’s memoirs, ghost-written by one of his aides and covering the period from the end of 1984 (when his last volume broke off) to his election as president in December 1990; a vivid and perceptive short sketch of Walesa in action by his former press spokesman Jaroslaw Kurski; and a long and richly informative interview with Bronislaw Geremek, describing the negotiated end of communism in Poland in 1989. Here too we find a moving first volume of autobiography by Jacek Kuron, the first attempt at a comprehensive treatment of the March events of 1968, and a book of conversations with one of the secret police officers who murdered Father Jerzy Popieluszko in 1984. The persistent seeker may also unearth some of the studies, based on extensive survey material, in which Polish sociologists have attempted to chart the changing attitudes of that elusive collectivity spoleczenstwo—“the society.”

Striking—to me at least—is the relative paucity of books about Solidarity itself. Still on the shelves, to be sure, is the history of Solidarity (1980–1981) by the Polish historian Jerzy Holzer, a standard work long overdue for translation into English. Here too we may find a perceptive analysis and criticism of Solidarity’s political language and self-understanding, which could previously be published only in a miniscule Warsaw University internal edition. If we look very hard we may still find the odd volume in the Archiwum Solidarnosci (Solidarity Archive) series, a heroic enterprise of historians who, during the seven long years of Solidarity’s illegality, attempted to order, transcribe, and publish the records of its legal work. And the basic story of Solidarity’s underground life is told in a short book by Jerzy Holzer and the journalist Krzysztof Leski.

This list is obviously far from comprehensive, and no doubt there is more to come. But for a movement that played such a large and dramatic part in Poland’s, indeed in Europe’s, history over the last decade, the lack of a more substantial Polish literature on Solidarity is singular. In fact, there are probably now more scholarly works on Solidarity published in English than there are in Polish. While some of these are translations of books by Polish scholars, or the work of Polish scholars in the West, there is also a significant body of work by British, American, and French writers. (The absence of major or original treatments of Solidarity by German scholars, despite that country’s outstanding tradition of Zeitgeschichte, is noteworthy and regrettable, although partly explicable by compound historical embarrassment.) To be sure, this historiography of Solidarity is not as extensive as that of, say, the cold war. Yet it can now proudly boast—in Professors Lawrence Goodwyn and Roman Laba—its first historiographical revisionists.


Laba and Goodwyn deserve to be treated apart, yet also demand to be taken together. Each warmly acknowledges the cooperation, or, as Laba puts it, the “scholarly solidarity” of the other. Both claim to confront what Laba calls “the dominant trend of understanding of postwar Polish history and of Solidarity.” And both characterize this “dominant trend” in very similar ways. Western scholars (including this reviewer) and Polish intellectuals are charged with advancing an “elite thesis” according to which it was Polish intellectuals—more specifically “Warsaw intellectuals” and most specifically the opposition group KOR—who made the decisive contribution to raising the consciousness of Polish workers in the directions of Solidarity. “In the formula common in Polish intellectual circles at that time [1980],” writes Laba, ” ‘Solidarity is the creation of KOR and Walesa the creation of Kuron. ”

Against this “elite thesis,” Laba and Goodwyn both insist on the autonomous learning process of the Polish workers, and specifically of the workers on the Baltic coast, first in the strikes of 1970–1971, and then at the actual birth of Solidarity in 1980. What Goodwyn rather portentously calls the “long-hidden history of what needs to be understood as the self-activity of the Polish working class” has, both authors argue, been obscured not only by the difficulty of obtaining evidence on this subject in a communist police state, but also by the role of Polish intellectuals as what Laba nicely calls “cultural gatekeepers”; by Polish and Western scholars’ disinclination to take the workers seriously as a subject of history; and by certain dominant “ways of seeing,” indeed, according to Goodwyn, by “the persistence of hierarchy and elite privilege in modern life,” no less.

Like almost all historiographical revisionists they overstate, oversimplify, at times even caricature the interpretation they wish to revise. Thus, while I think I moved a little in “Polish intellectual circles” in 1980, I certainly never heard anyone—least of all Jacek Kuron himself—say that Solidarity was the creation of KOR, and Walesa of Kuron. And in the introduction to what Goodwyn describes as “the most widely read study of Solidarnosć in the West,” The Polish Revolution by T. Garton Ash, we can already read: “December 1970 is the single most important date in the prehistory of Solidarity…. At least four vital lines of causality run from here to August 1980.” But revisionism would not be revisionism without a little caricature, and it is perfectly true that the role of KOR has been strongly emphasized in most of the literature (including The Polish Revolution). Goodwyn and Laba’s shared desire to do justice to the workers’ own, particular, self-conscious contribution to what was, after all, originally a workers’ movement, commands our initial sympathy and respect.

At this point, however, we must start to distinguish between the two volumes. Roman Laba arrived in Poland as a research student two weeks before the Gdansk shipyard strikes. He stayed for almost two and a half years, and became closely involved with a Solidarity research team set up to collect material on the history of the strikes in 1970 and 1980. He managed to get a large part of this material out to the West (it is now deposited in the Houghton Library at Harvard), and under martial law he was finally arrested and expelled for his good work. Now he has written a short, lucid, closely argued book, firmly based on these unique materials but also drawing on a wide range of other Polish and Western sources. In the first part of the book he gives a detailed, narrative account of the Baltic strikes in 1970, and their legacy in the Gierek period. This is vivid, often moving, and scrupulous in paring fact from myth. He makes short work, for example, of the legend that Jaruzelski was not coresponsible for the violent repression of the workers’ protests. And it is fascinating to be reminded that the Polish soldiers moved up to the coast to repress Polish workers were told they were going to fight Germans.

In the second part of The Roots of Solidarity, Laba singles out several aspects of the movement for thematic treatment. He looks at the debates over the organizational structure of Solidarity, gives a sharp analysis of the particular social, professional, and cultural mix on the Baltic coast, and offers a sensitive exploration of Solidarity’s unique, evocative iconography—including the famous logo, designed by a twenty-nine-year-old Gdansk artist, and inspired by the crowd at the shipyard gates. Laba returns to his main argument in a chapter analyzing a collection of workplace strike demands from 1970, 1971, and 1980. He shows that already in 1970 and 1971 the demand for free trade unions was second only to that for a pay raise. The fact that according to his statistical analysis this demand actually fell to fourth place in 1980 makes one want to know a little more about the sample: What sort of workplaces does the evidence come from? Are we talking about similar work places in the 1970 and 1980 samples? Nor does this analysis substitute for a detailed narrative of how the particular set of demands made by their interfactory strike committee in the Lenin shipyard in August 1980, which led to the historic Gdansk agreement, came to be drafted.

His overall conclusion is judicious. Solidarity, he says,

was a broad front for all Polish citizens; it was a strategic alliance of intellectuals, white-collar workers, blue-collar workers, and farmers that rested in large part on breakthroughs achieved on the Baltic Coast by workers. There would not have been a Solidarity without the intellectuals, but the Solidarity they joined was built on the framework developed by workers.

Here, in sum, is a well-made, original book, which, despite its occasional revisionist stridency, actually does impel us to revise, or at the very least to augment, our overall picture of Solidarity.1

Lawrence Goodwyn is an historian of American social movements, author—according to the Oxford University Press book jacket—“of the definitive study of the American Populist movement, Democratic Promise, also published by Oxford.” Throughout his book he belabors previous writers on Solidarity for failing to take account of “the perspectives on social investigation developed in the past quarter-century by historians of social movements elsewhere.” He castigates what he calls the “viewing from afar,” or “theorizing from afar” by Polish as well as Western scholars. Students of Solidarnosć, he says, have “gotten lost” in an “evidential desert,” partly because the material was locked up in police files, but also because they did not know where or how to look for it. Faced with these extensive strictures we look with interest to see what evidence Professor Goodwyn has used, and how he has used it.

Inspired by the birth of Solidarity in August 1980, we learn, Professor Goodwyn “applied for and in November 1981 received research funds to go to Poland.” Unfortunately, martial law was then declared. “By the time I arrived in Europe in June 1982,” he goes on, “most of the people who had brought Solidarnosć into being were in prison or in exile.” But he did manage to interview some exiled Solidarity activists in Paris. Subsequently, he appears to have reached Poland, although to judge by his acknowledgment to nine translators and, more important, his source notes, he does not appear to have mastered Polish. In fact, apart from his own interviews, one important Polish book on the Poznan events of June 1956, and, crucially, the Baltic materials as collected, translated, and interpreted by Roman Laba, Goodwyn relies almost entirely on those previous Western and translated Polish authors whom he is most concerned to rebut—biting, as it were, the hand that feeds him.

Based on this formidable array of primary sources, and armed with such profound insights as that “social knowledge is experiential,” Professor Goodwyn devotes nearly four hundred turgid pages to demolishing the intellectual myth. “God,” says one of his epigraphs (from Mies van der Rohe), “is in the details.” So let us look at one detail. “We must know concretely what happened,” he writes in a characteristic passage,

originally and subsequently, as the persons involved moved from a routinely compliant state of social conformity to presumably higher realms of insight and subtlety.

To this end, let us shift for a moment to the present tense and take station on the Baltic coast on August 23, 1980.

The point of choosing August 23 is that this was the first day a senior representative of the authorities came to negotiate with the strikers, and that the previous evening two Warsaw intellectuals, Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Bronislaw Geremek,2 had arrived with a message of support for the strikers. “Intellectuals,” writes Goodwyn, “had not been a relevant factor in the tense period between the first surfacing of the strike on August 14 and the government’s decision eight days later to experiment with the negotiating process.”

Well, it depends what you mean by “intellectuals” and “relevant factor.” A local writer, Lech Badkowski, and an academic from Gdansk Polytechnic had joined the presidium two days before. Two KOR members from Warsaw, Konrad Bielinski and Ewa Milewicz, were already in the shipyard helping to prepare the strike bulletin, entitled “Solidarnosć.” More important, the members of the Founding Committee of Free Trade Unions on the Coast, who were instrumental in starting the strike, included not only Lech Walesa, but also such figures as Bogdan Borusewicz and Andrzej Gwiazda. Now if we take the Who’s Who of Solidarity, produced for the movement’s 1981 congress, we find Borusewicz described as “of a worker-intelligentsia family,” subsequently a student of history at the Catholic University of Lublin, and a KOR member. Gwiazda is described as “of an intelligentsia family,” and his advanced studies at Gdansk Polytechnic, long protracted because of political difficulties, are also here recorded. “Workers” both?

The insistent dichotomy of “workers” and “intellectuals” forces into a procrustean bed a reality that is much more complicated—and interesting. Several of the crucial actors in the drama of August 1980 were distinguished precisely by living and working at the intersection between working class and intelligentsia. Krzysztof Wyszkowski, the man who, as Laba records, gave the title “Solidarnosć” to the strike bulletin, and therefore may at least partly be credited with giving the new trade union its name, is described by Goodwyn himself as “a well-read carpenter who devoted part of his spare time to preparing the work of Witold Gombrowicz for samizdat publication.” Worker or intellectual? And many activists of Solidarity, the nationwide movement in 1980–1981, came precisely from the intermediate zone between pure “workers” and pure “intellectuals.”

In his eagerness to demolish what he calls, in a footnote, the “KOR myth,” Goodwyn seems almost to forget what the initials KOR stood for: Workers’ Defense Committee. The first point about KOR was not that it was an initiative of Warsaw intellectuals. The first point about KOR was that it was an initiative of the intelligentsia-based democratic opposition which set out specifically to support and work with workers, and subsequently with other social groups. In any case the most notable feature of Solidarity was not that it was a mass workers’ movement. The most notable feature of Solidarity was that it was a movement in which workers and intellectuals worked together, at best combining peaceful, dignified mass mobilization and skillful high-level negotiation to try to change their country. No less than half the delegates to Solidarity’s 1981 congress had completed higher education. And let us not forget that in August 1980 it was Lech Walesa who asked the intellectuals, Mazowiecki and Geremek, to stay and help the strikers in their negotiations with the authorities, and Walesa who insisted that the KOR activists must also be released from prison.

This is by no means to deny the interest of a study of worker-intellectual relations in Solidarity, and more broadly of class and class consciousness in Poland from, say, the 1950s to the 1980s. What one might describe as the three great social circles of Poland under communism, “peasants,” “workers,” and “intelligentsia,” intersected and overlapped. The “peasant-worker” was a well-recognized category while a large technical intelligentsia lay somewhere in between “pure” workers and “pure” intellectuals. At the center of each circle there was not only, indeed arguably not so much, an objective socioeconomic difference, for “workers” and “intellectuals” lived in the same block of flats, and miners earned more than university lecturers. There was, however, a quite distinctive subjective identity, status, self-consciousness, model of behavior, language, and so forth.

These distinctive class consciousnesses, of workers, peasants, and intelligentsia, were the products of a very particular national history—in which, for example, uniquely in Eastern Europe, the majority of agricultural land remained in the hands of private farmers like Walesa’s parents and grandparents, while the intelligentsia combined the traditions of impoverished gentry and nineteenth-century resistance against foreign occupiers with an ambiguously privileged status in the “socialist” state.

Each of these distinctive classes, the intelligentsia as well as the workers and the peasants, deserves and awaits its E. P. Thompson or Richard Cobb. Such an historian, steeped in Polish history and culture, would explore what united and what divided each class, always bearing in mind the large intermediate zones between them. He would however, never lose sight of the still more essential fact that in Solidarity the representatives of these three classes identified themselves as simply “the society,” spoleczenstwo, as one single “us” against “them” (oni)—the communist ruling class, the nomenklatura, the party-state perceived as alien power, wladza.3 At the same time he would not forget that on occasions even Poland’s “two nations,” the “us” and “them,” could pull together, when faced, for example, with the threat of Soviet intervention. Finally, this historian would not be afraid of giving due prominence to the elements of contingency, muddle, and hectic improvisation, and to the characters of a few remarkable individuals—both of which form the largest and most colorful part of the canvas painted in the memoirs of participants from all sides of the Polish drama.

Laba comes some way to meeting these high demands. His book might almost be subtitled, with a nod to E. P. Thompson, The Making of the Polish Working Class (or at least, The Making of the Baltic Working Class). Goodwyn is more ambitious in his theoretical promise, and most disappointing in empirical delivery. It would take a longer, nit-picking review to demonstrate this before the God of detail, but in general one has to conclude that Goodwyn simply does not know or understand enough about Poland.

“Within the intelligentsia,” he writes,

there existed three identifiable strata: a traditionally passive mainstream of several hundred thousand people who watched but did not act; a progressive intelligentsia centered in the Clubs of the Catholic Intelligentsia, but extending to small grouplets that floated in and around the party; and finally, a more activist minority that comprised the overt democratic opposition. The latter group was centered in KOR….

This is schematic to the point of parody. And I must confess to having laughed aloud when, after describing the criticism made by one opposition activist, Lech Kaczynskí, of two other opposition activists, the professor loftily observes: “This perhaps says more about criteria functioning in middle-class society in Gdansk that it does about the shop-floor capabilities of worker activists.” There were many things in Gdansk in the 1970s, but one thing there was not: middle-class society.

Today Lech Walesa says that is just what he wants: middle-class society! “Great Britain has built her prosperity on a strong middle class,” he told a distinctly upper-upper-middle-class audience at a white-tie banquet in the city of London during his recent visit to Britain. “Forty-five years of communism in Poland virtually destroyed this social class. Poland needs it badly.” On this, virtually all of Poland’s present political leaders agree. In the economic transformation that has already begun (with the privatization of small shops and some 500,000 new businesses established in 1990) all the old classes—intelligentsia, workers, and peasants—are being shaken up and drastically restructured. Even if the planned transformation goes well, this will be a traumatic process of accelerated socioeconomic modernization, doing in ten years what other European societies did in fifty or a hundred.

Zbigniew Bujak recalls that when he was an underground Solidarity leader he had the sense of living in a time warp. In Poland they were back to the nineteenth century, in the West, so it seemed to him people were going forward to the twenty-first. Here the midnight raid and the conspiratorial flysheet, there the fax and satellite disk. Now Poland is sprouting satellite disks, and in the countryside one sees the beginnings of a dramatic confrontation between a nineteenth-century world of peasant piety, and a twenty-first-century world of television consumerism; between, as it were, the Bible and Twin Peaks.4 Roman Laba at one point makes suggestive reference to Barrington Moore’s observation that (pace Marx) it is dying classes that become revolutionary. Poland’s working class in the 1970s was, he suggests, a nineteenth-century proletariat in a twentieth-century state.

One can push the conceit too far, but clearly if the transition to a modern market economy is to succeed this anachronistic working class will also have to change out of recognition—while the huge state factories that were Solidarity’s strongholds are consigned to industrial archaeology. But nor will the intelligentsia step forward into a new, modern, western Poland without fundamental changes in habits, attitudes, and patterns of intellectual employment.

Thus it is not just Solidarity, the unitary social and political movement, that is a thing of the past. It is also the very peculiar class structure, the unique “society” which Solidarity claimed to represent, a society divided yet understanding itself as one against the alien “power.” How this deeper transformation comes about, whether swiftly or slowly, peacefully or violently, will depend on a whole range of factors, including the reaction of different social groups to the unavoidable traumas of transition, the policies of the West, and particularly of the EC and NATO, and developments inside the Soviet Union.

So far as the domestic political process is concerned, one of the key questions must be that of the ability or inability of the heirs of Solidarity to work together in a stable system of legally regulated political conflict. The question is too recent, and too open, to permit the kind of balanced, synthetic treatment which can now be given to the history of Solidarity. But the memoir volumes by Bronislaw Geremek, the arch-intellectual of Solidarity, and by (or about) Walesa, the arch-worker of Solidarity, give us a vivid if partial insight into the nature of the problem.


Rok 1989 is a book of interviews with Bronislaw Geremek, conducted between August and November 1990 by the press spokesman of the Solidarity group in parliament, which Geremek led. The small print at the end reveals what Polish publishing is now capable of, for it records that the last interview was conducted on November 20 and the text typeset between November 25 and December 5, while the book—well-produced, and illustrated with a splendid profusion of photographs—was on the market early in 1991. To anyone who knows Polish publishing of old, these are the coordinates of a minor miracle. I read Rok 1989 with fascination and a pang of minor irritation, because such a book by Geremek is what I have long felt we most need—but almost certainly will now never have—about the first period of Solidarity, in 1980–1981.

For Geremek is a unique witness, being both one of the major actors in the drama and a trained historian—indeed, he defiantly insists, “above all an historian”—with a remarkable capacity to give a detached analysis of the events in which he participates. Given that these interviews were conducted at the height of a furiously emotional presidential contest between Lech Walesa, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, and, as it emerged, Stan Tyminski, the cool sobriety of the analysis is remarkable. Almost unsettling, in fact. Geremek remarks at one point that as an historian he has always been fascinated by structure and process, which alone give sense to events and anecdotes. While there are some fine anecdotes here, one sometimes wishes that the relentless analysis of structure and process might now and then give way to description or evocation of the scenes and emotions with which this year was, after all, packed full. But emotions mainly figure here as the “frustrations” of other people.

Nor are there many ordinary men and women in these pages. Geremek himself says that when he set out on the election trail he had no experience of speaking to crowds, although he did have considerable contact with workers in Solidarity. He was, and is, above all a man of the corridor and the salon, the small circle and the elite group—although an elite defined by talent, not birth or class. Typically, one of the very few chance encounters described here is with an old schoolmate who reminds him of his love of the order and clarity of Latin grammar. What we have here is the Latin grammar of Poland’s transition from communism, albeit a grammar laced with anecdotes.

At one point, asked why the authorities were especially hostile to him in the seven lean years when Solidarity was banned, he replies modestly, “It’s hard to say why.” In fact, it’s easy to say why. The authorities were especially hostile to him because he was the most skillful political tactician and strategist close to Walesa, and one who was able to analyze better than most what they were up to, as well as the international background and what Solidarity should do. Yet he was not just a politician. He talks several times of his “moral discomfort” at sitting down at the same table with General Jaruzelski, and, worst of all, with the appalling Mieczyslaw F. Rakowski. And in a passage which it is hard to imagine coming from any West European intellectual, he speaks of “playing my small part in the mission of the Polish intelligentsia, which has always served Poland above all, and not selfish ambition or advantage.” A romantic self-image, no doubt, but hardly an ignoble one.

The story he has to tell is that of Solidarity’s historic triumph, and the beginnings of the disintegration which followed so quickly on that triumph. While Geremek suggests that everything went as well as possible in 1989, then fell apart in 1990, his own narrative shows how the seeds of collapse were sown in the very moment of victory, with the formation of the Mazowiecki government following the election of June 4, 1989.

The story begins in late 1988, with “signals” from the authorities that they might be prepared to negotiate with Solidarity, signals decisively strengthened by two waves of strikes, with young workers chanting, “There’s No Freedom Without Solidarity!” Geremek then gives a wonderful description of a whole bevy of intellectuals trying to prepare Lech Walesa for his television debate with the head of the official trade unions, Alfred Miodowicz. The film director Andrzej Wajda lectures Walesa about camera technique. Economists, sociologists, lawyers stuff him with facts and figures about the state of the nation. A nun plies him with herbal potions for his sore throat. Then off he goes, and trounces the Party hack with a line that is pure Lech: “The West goes by car, and we’re on a bike.” Here was Solidarity at its best, and that best was superbly sustained over the next half year, through the unprecedented Round Table talks, and the election campaign.

Geremek describes these negotiations in exhaustive detail. He shows how the basic precondition for the talks was the removal by the Gorbachev leadership of the barriers of Soviet refusal and their replacement by direct and indirect encouragement for reform. (At one point, a senior Party official jokingly asked Lech Walesa to prohibit Adam Michnik from reading Soviet newspapers.) In this situation, and faced with the country’s deteriorating economic condition, the new political initiative came, as Geremek repeatedly stresses, firstly from the army and police, from General Jaruzelski and the interior minister, General Kiszczak (who had the best possible information on the level of popular discontent), and only secondly from the reformist wing of the Party. Their negotiating adversaries were representatives of what Geremek calls the three streams of Solidarity, the workers, the peasants, and the intellectuals, of diverse groups and persuasions, but all at this point carefully coordinating their public speeches at the main Round Table, their semipublic statements at its many sub-tables, and above all at the famous “Magdalenkas,” the secret summit meetings in a government guest house just outside Warsaw.

Behind this opposition elite, however, was the essential force of popular support and pressure from below. Geremek says he could almost directly correlate the willingness of the authorities to concede this or that point with the rise and fall of “social pressure.” Last, but by no means least, there were the representatives of the Church, who were the hosts to several crucial meetings, served as mediators, reminded everyone of their shared responsibility, and, as the recently published notes of General Kisczcak’s secretary record, ended the last Magdalenka with a blessing “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.”5

Here, then, was the unique Polish mixture, with ingredients found nowhere else in Eastern Europe—the workers’ movement, the intelligentsia counter-government, the private farmers, the influence of the Church, the position of the generals. At the beginning of the Round Table, Walesa and his advisers believed they would be negotiating about the political price that they would have to pay for the relegalization of Solidarity. This, they thought, would consist in offering support for painful but indispensable measures of economic reform, and in legitimating a rigged election. At the end of the negotiation, after many twists and turns, and greatly helped by the oxygen of publicity (since for the first time since 1981 Solidarity representatives were seen on television, making their self-evidently reasonable demands), it was the authorities who ended up paying a political price for the legalization of Solidarity. To be sure, the authorities had the promise of a strong presidency (for which their candidate was self-evidently Jaruzelski), and what seemed like a guaranteed 65 percent of seats in the Sejm for the Communist party (which, however, had only 38 percent for itself) and its coalition partners. But Solidarity could get 35 percent of seats and there would be a wholly free election for the revived upper house of parliament, the Senate, a proposal originally made by a Party reformist. Aleksander Kwasniewski.

Yet Solidarity’s leaders were not at all sure they could win. It was the authorities who insisted on an early election date, for they had the money, the organization, and control of virtually all the mass media. Since in retrospect the election result looks inevitable, it is salutary to be reminded just how difficult and how uncertain this campaign was,6 and how tense and fraught were the further negotiations leading to the compromise first publicly suggested by Adam Michnik in the famous formula, “Your President, Our Premier.” For no one had been here before. The Soviet reaction was still unpredictable. The Berlin Wall still stood. Husák was still in Prague Castle. Even Hungary had not come so far. Poland was the icebreaker.

Then, after the nine years of struggle, after the negotiated breakthrough, after doing what Geremek’s Party counterpart at the Round Table, Professor Janusz Reykowski, insisted had never been done before in the history of the world—that is, changing a political system completely without violence—after all this, the Solidarity camp began to fall apart. By the end of the year, the picture is one of frustrated, feuding factions, with the Solidarity group revolting against its own leadership, poor coordination between this group and “its” government, dramatically worsened relations between Gdansk and Warsaw, and, above all, between Lech Walesa and Tadeusz Mazowiecki. Between these two men there was, Geremek says, from the very formation of the Mazowiecki government a “more or less silent war.”

To make a full and fair reconstruction of this silent war we should wait for Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s memoirs, which are reportedly also on their way. But if we combine Geremek’s account with those by Walesa and his former spokesman, Jaroslaw Kurski, we get the same basic picture. It is plainly not fair to compare Walesa’s memoirs directly with Geremek’s. Walesa is not an historian, his magic is not to be found in the printed page. His memoirs, ghost-written by Arkadiusz Rybicki, a Catholic intellectual trained as an historian and with a long record in Solidarity, are actually a curious mixture of three different books. First, there is a rather stiff, portentous account of Walesa’s various political initiatives and encounters, notably with foreign dignitaries and the foreign press. Secondly, there is an account of his family, and his belief in the hearth, the Church, and the fatherland. The chapter on his wife, headed “Danka—Calm at the Foundations,” begins, “The family is the main pillar of life, the source of balance, and woman—wife, mother—is the core of the family.” Somehow one feels this language is not entirely Lech.

Thirdly, there is some genuine Lech, talking about politics. He insists that he should be seen as a practicing politician, not, he says, “an empty symbol” but rather “a clever fox.” A key word in his self-description—it recurs twice on the last page—is skuteczny, meaning “effective.” This matches precisely the description of him by close associates, quoted by Kurski, as a supremely political animal, mistrustful of everybody, calculating always, a “political machine” as Krzysztof Wyszkowski (the same of 1980) puts it.

The second point to note is that, quite remarkably for someone who is now president, this book is simply bristling with raw, naked hurt and resentment at his former Warsaw intellectual advisers who then stood against him. After just a few pages we read,

I wasn’t an inteligent [that is, member of the intelligentsia], and one must realize that in Poland, inteligenckosć [belonging to or being of the intelligentsia] is a value in itself. It matters less what a professor, doctor or famous actor who speaks in the name of the nation represents; what matters more is that he has a degree, good manners, “knowledge of what’s what,” and proper elocution.

And so it goes on. Walesa recalls his own blistering attack on the “eggheads” at the second Solidarity congress in April 1990: “Must the President really speak fluent French in order to improve the lot of the working class?”

Lest Professor Goodwyn too hastily conclude that this evidences a Baltic worker’s special feeling for democracy, Walesa goes on:

In this situation—to put in order the most important things—the country should be governed for some time by a decisive, strong hand. For you cannot “democratically” catch a thief.

But the “gentlemen from the capital,” “my antagonists (drinking coffee with cream),” did not see it this way:

After the interviews of Messrs. Michnik and Geremek—full of venom and unfulfilled political ambitions—it was somehow forgotten that I am a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and this great honor (splendor) is after all not given just for a pretty face. In the accounts of many [Western] journalists I once again became only an electrician—a limited robol [a contemptuous term for a worker] with ambitions to lead a 40 million strong nation in the heart of Europe.

How did such bitter recrimination come about after nine years of working so closely together, years that are still held fast—like the ghost of times past—in photos at the end of the memoirs showing Walesa laughing together with Geremek, Michnik, and Mazowiecki? Was Solidarity only held together by the common enemy? From the accounts by Geremek and Kurski it is very clear that the trouble began as soon as Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Walesa’s choice of premier, did not consult Walesa about the composition of his government in August and September 1989. Not the membership of the government, just the fact that Mazowiecki was determined to be his own man, seems to have offended Walesa.

From this point, relations between them worsened very quickly, despite efforts at mediation by Geremek and the Church. Kurski chronicles the deterioration, and notes the irony that the last, vain effort at reconciliation took place in Gdansk on August 31, 1990—the tenth anniversary of the Gdansk agreement and the birth of Solidarity. Solidarnosć August 31, 1980–August 31, 1990, RIP. Seventeen days later Walesa formally announced his candidacy for the office of president. Mazowiecki stood against him, and was trounced.

Geremek is inclined to blame Walesa’s political advisers in Gdansk, and notably the twin brothers Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, for much of this poisonous estrangement. Certainly this was no simple division between “workers” in Gdansk and “intellectuals” in Warsaw. It was an argument between politicians in Gdansk and politicians in Warsaw, with workers—or former workers—on both sides. But this Gdansk group was only important because Walesa made it so. Walesa was, and is, nothing if not his own man. In this period of political “war at the top” he was often a deeply unattractive figure, showing all the weaknesses of his strengths: decisiveness became bullying, the common touch turned to coarse anti-intellectualism, the golden tongue to demagogy. A few isolated quotations serve him even less fairly than they would most politicians, for as he himself observes, enunciating what should be the first law of Lechology: “I’ve said many other things, because I’m a chatterbox and my mouth closes only with difficulty.’

Describing a meeting with the Pope in August 1990, and suggesting, rather misleadingly, that the Pope backed his candidacy, he writes, “My accumulators were once again loaded up. My doubts and complexes resolved.” And the passages quoted above show that, for all his fame, self-confidence, and sense of mission, he was (is?) still plagued by certain complexes which the politics of the last year reactivated with a vengeance.

It would, however, be quite wrong to put all the blame on the wild man from Gdansk, on his complexes and “frustrations.” Geremek himself observes that the Mazowiecki government proceeded too slowly in many matters (e.g., privatization), that its public relations were poor, that it failed to consult widely enough—and not just with Gdansk. The mounting popular dissatisfaction in the spring of 1990 was not just a figment of Walesa’s imagination, although he did conflate it with his own, very personal dissatisfaction. The way in which some of his former friends and advisers characterized Walesa after the rift was exaggerated, reflecting their own personal resentment and even complexes—which were, in some ways, almost a mirror-image of his. Walesa refers here to the characterization of him as a “coarse proletarian” trying to “cut Poland off from Europe with an axe,” and Adam Michnik’s polemical opposition of a party called “Europe” to a nationalist, racist, chauvinist darkness did scant justice to a complex reality. Recent history offers few spectacles sadder than this one of friends and comrades who had gone through so much together, with such dignity, honor, wit, and, yes, solidarity, now belaboring each other with rusty clubs and blows beneath the belt.

In April 1990, a group of Walesa’s veteran Solidarity advisors, including Geremek. Michnik, and Mazowiecki, told him that they envisaged an orderly political transition in which he would become president in the spring of 1991, together with a freely elected parliament and a new constitution, one promulgated to coincide with the two hundredth anniversary of the historic Polish constitution of May 3, 1791. It is possible that, if Walesa had accepted this offer, Poland would be in a better condition today, politically, socially, and economically. But given that Walesa would not accept it, the historian’s verdict must be that they made a mistake in not responding more swiftly to his concerns, ambitions, and, even complexes—starting in the summer of 1989. For there had to be a special place for Walesa, Geremek’s own book is one long testimonial to that. And if they would not give it to him, and fast, then Walesa would take it. He would fight dirty if need be. And he would win.

The phenomenon we are discussing here is not “workers” or “society.” It is Walesa. To be sure, an understanding of structure and process is essential to uncover the deeper roots of what happened in 1989. To be sure, class and class consciousness played a part in the end as they had in the beginning of Solidarity. But the key to this particular passage of Polish history is to be found not in sociology or economics, but in old-fashioned politics, in the clash of personalities and the competition for power. Not Marx, not Hegel, but Machiavelli and Thucydides must be at our side, when we write this last, sad chapter in the annals of Solidarity.


Where does this leave Polish politics now? In a great muddle. Neither the exaggerated hopes nor the exaggerated fears of Walesa’s presidency have yet been realized. He has not proved a great dictator. On a number of issues—price rises, a special anti-inflationary tax, the restoration of expropriated property—he has made decisive interventions, only to withdraw them, or have them blocked, a few days later. On the other hand, and by the same token, he has not delivered the “acceleration” which was his main election promise. When I asked Jaroslaw Kaczynski, now head of the president’s chancellory, what “acceleration” had actually happened, he replied that (1) a number of high (ex-) nomenklatura officials had now been sacked from the Council of Ministers office (but, he sourly observed, had found good jobs in banks); (2) the new leadership had got debt reduction from the West (although he conceded that this was partly the work of Finance Minister Leczek Balcerowicz, during the Mazowiecki government); (3) the new president had been more energetic (than Jaruzelski) in foreign policy.

It was late in the day, and Mr. Kaczynski was tired, but this list did not seem overwhelmingly impressive. However, and here one has a nice illustration of the present muddle, Mr. Kaczynski was not necessarily concerned to make it so, since Walesa had chosen a premier from the so called Gdansk “Liberals” (meaning, essentially, neoliberal in economics), rather than the candidate of Kaczynski’s Center Agreement party. As a good party politician, Kaczynski therefore performs the Genscherish trick of being both in government and critical of it.

The government of “Liberal” Prime Minister Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, which contains two Center Agreement ministers, is perhaps slightly more effective than its predecessor in some areas of economic policy. However, because of the hiatus created by the presidential election and the change of government it has taken several months to get what should be the centerpiece of its economic program—privatization of the still dominant state sector—underway, and this will now be interrupted again by the parliamentary election campaign. In financial and monetary policy, there is an overwhelming continuity in the person and policies of Leczek Balcerowicz, retained partly at the fierce insistence of the West, and particularly the United States: “Washington replacing Moscow,” say some, darkly. These policies are, however, threatened by, among other things, a large budget deficit, which partly results from the absence of the planned proceeds from privatization.

As Walesa himself ruefully observed in a recent interview, “It is difficult to transfer what is said at a rally to the process of governing.” He has built up a large presidential office, with a wide circle of advisers from the intelligentsia. Jaroslaw Kaczynski told me that whereas for Jaruzelski the presidential secretaries of state had been substitute secretaries of the Central Committee, now they were needed “on account of the educational level of the president”—hardly a complex-soothing observation. In one of the most important areas of presidential responsibility, foreign policy, cooperation between the presidency and the government has thus far been excellent, partly because the foreign minister and the president’s foreign policy adviser are old colleagues from Poznan University. Here, if nowhere else, impressive consistency has been achieved. The Polish presidential palace, the Belweder, is clearly a significant center of power, although, to keep this in perspective, it probably still has less effective power than Václav Havel’s presidential palace, the Hrad. Both Havel and Walesa are currently still using the formal presidential powers defined with deliberate vagueness for their communist predecessors, together with informal powers derived from their leading role in the struggle against their communist predecessors.

Despite Bronislaw Geremek’s best efforts, it has not proved possible for the politicians to agree on a new constitution defining a new separation of powers. The celebrations of the two hundredth anniversary of the constitution of May 3, 1791, the first democratic constitution in Europe, were therefore not all that they might have been. Debate continues between, say, the “French model” and the “German model” of the relations between president, prime minister, and parliament. This debate cannot, however, be resolved by the rigged parliament resulting from the Round Table agreement. At best, this parliament will pass on a draft constitution to its democratically elected successor. Meanwhile, the country winds up for an election this fall whose rules have actually been set, after long wrangling, by this rigged parliament.

Major contestants in the election will include: the Democratic Union, formally led by Tadeusz Mazowiecki, with Jacek Kuron as campaign chairman, and thus far deriving its support mainly from the intelligentsia; the Center Agreement, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski; Zbigniew Bujak’s social democratic grouping, appealing specifically to workers; Prime Minister Bielecki’s Liberals, a more or less fissiparous peasant party, or coalition of parties; the ex-Communists, who call themselves Social Democrats; and, of course, Stan Tyminski’s Party X. But in a situation where the divisions between these parties are so unclear, in an economic situation which is still so difficult, in a society in such turmoil and widespread disorientation, it would be foolish to make any predictions about the campaign or its outcome.

I will, however, make just one guess. It does seem to me that the result which is most desirable is also the one which is least probable. This is a result comparable to that of the first, free parliamentary elections in Spain after Franco, which produced a lower house of two large, strong parties, plus a number of smaller ones. The point about this result—applied to Poland—is not the ideological character of the two large parties. The point is simply that there should be large parties, capable of forming a strong parliamentary government and a strong parliamentary opposition, while at the same time having to cooperate in making fundamental change, whether in constitution-making or—a necessity which sharply distinguishes the Polish from the Spanish case—in transforming the economy.

That is what I fear Poland will not get. The more probable result seems to me (and I should be delighted to be proved wrong) a fragmented parliament of weak parties forming weak, fissiparous coalitions. This would be trouble enough in itself. Yet the fragmented parliament would be only one element in a larger fragmentation; with power divided, unclearly, uneasily, unstably, between parliament, government, and presidency. And if that were all…but in this situation a great deal of effective power would not lie in any of these constitutional institutions, but rather on the street, in the farmyard, and in local or commercial (including ex-nomenklatura) mafias.

Even today, Polish politics run the risk of reinforcing certain cliché images of Poland, images of endless discord and noble anarchy. Although the external environment, to East and West, is currently more favorable than it has been for a very long time—arguably, for two hundred years—these things can change, and Poland is not an island.

One version of this alarmist analysis would go on to predict, irrespective of possible external threats, the emergence of calls for a “strongman.” Enter Lech Walesa, with an axe. Cut to a photograph of Marshal Pilsudski. But, as Kurski rightly observes, post-communist (and post-Solidarity) Poland is not Poland after the First World War, and Walesa is not Pilsudski. (Apart from anything else, as Kurski wryly comments, Pilsudski was loyal to his colonels.) Here, too, one could obviously be proved wrong, but for all his bragging and bullying I still cannot see Lech Walesa using soldiers or police to put his political opponents into camps. Even if he wanted to, this is not a Poland, or indeed a Europe, which would easily let him. But beyond this I also think that, despite his autocratic style and alarming rhetoric, Lech Walesa does actually have some sort of a vision of a normal, democratic Poland.

What is this vision? Walesa is very careful not to be pinned down on anything, and certainly not on his own “politics” in the usual sense of that word (i.e., “left or right”). As Kurski reports, he has been heard to say “Walesa is for, and even against.” But this does not mean he has no politics. At one of the “Magdalenka” meetings he produced, according to the notes by General Kisczak’s secretary, the following remark: “I propose my socialism. There are three bakers in town: one private, one cooperative, and one state-owned. The one which produces the cheapest rolls does best.” This is socialism with a Thatcherite face. And horrifying though this thought may be to many readers of this journal, I think his politics may be described—for all the obvious differences—as those of a Polish Thatcherite.

On his visit to Britain he made a special point of receiving Mrs. Thatcher, something protocol by no means necessarily demanded. In his memoirs he makes very favorable mention of her visit to Gdansk in 1988, adding, “I have long been a fan of her vision of an entrepreneurial society, rewarding every initiative.” This is one of his own leitmotifs. Like Mrs. Thatcher, he sees the key to change in individual enterprise. Despite the occasional populist sop thrown to workers at the hustings, he is in favor of radical, rapid privatization:

I have already said a thousand times that I see two Polands. The first—that is the huge, post-Communist enterprises. The second—a private Poland, which we are just beginning to build. We need to reconstruct two thirds of Poland, to catch up with the Europe that is running away from us….

His chosen prime minister, Bielecki, is a “liberal” in precisely the sense that Mrs. Thatcher is. Like her, Walesa looks for short, sharp presentations, and work, work, work. Like her, he combines philistinism with a deep respect and liking for clever men of ideas. (Bronislaw Geremek was, so to speak, his Keith Joseph.) Coming, like her, not from the old, established “upper” classes of his country (i.e., in Poland, the intelligentsia), he looks for a society in which the less well-off have an equal chance to climb the ladder to wealth and power, by their own initiative and hard work. He combines this, like Mrs. Thatcher, with a strong, simple, even simplistic attachment to the traditional values of family, Church, and country. “Victorian values” à la Polonaise. If Mrs. Thatcher had a vision of democratic capitalism, with the emphasis slightly more on capitalism than on democracy, then so does he.

Clearly, this comparison can be taken too far. Walesa is also capable of saying, as he did in a radio phone-in program shortly after he became president, “let all share Poland’s poverty equally.” There is, moreover, the obvious objection that he is perhaps the world’s most famous trade union leader, whereas Mrs. Thatcher is one of the world’s best-known union bashers. Yet Solidarity was from the very outset much more than a trade union, and even as Solidarity chairman Walesa never spent much time on bread-and-butter labor issues. As this article goes to press, Solidarity’s new chairman has announced a protest action (due to start May 22) against the economic and social policies of the government. Unemployment reached 1.37 million (7.3 percent of the work force) at the end of March and this is before the large state enterprises have been privatized or shut down. It will be fascinating to see how Walesa now reacts to growing unemployment and labor militancy. But whatever he says—and when reading reports, always bear in mind the first law of Lechology—my guess is that when it comes to real policy choices he will put the needs of business before the demands of labor.

A Thatcherite Poland, then, as the final outcome of Solidarity? Carefully avoiding the word “irony,” one should say that there are also worse possible outcomes for a country emerging from fifty, and, in a deeper sense, from two hundred, years of dependency and unfreedom. These include the outcome in which Poland goes from the abnormal extreme of Solidarity to an abnormal extreme of un-Solidarity: a dissipation of political energies which would hinder the building of both capitalism and democracy.


When asked what he thought were the consequences of the French Revolution, Chairman Mao replied that it was a little too early to say. There is almost wisdom in that reply. Our judgment of historical events never ceases to change, as the onward movement of history places them in ever new perspectives. The year 1989 does change our understanding of 1789, as François Furet has shown.

So also with Solidarity. On December 13, 1981, when martial law was declared, Solidarity could be seen as just the latest in a series of failed East Central European risings against Soviet-imposed communism (’53, ’56, ’68, ’80–81…). In 1989 that judgment was proved wrong, or at least, radically incomplete. In 1991 we can see Solidarity a little more clearly for what it was: a pioneering Polish form of social self-organization, with the general objective of achieving, by means of peaceful, popular pressure combined with elite negotiation, the end of communism. In this, it succeeded.

Geremek quotes, with understandable pride, Lev Timofeyev’s remark (in Paris, in December 1988) that “without Poland’s Solidarnosć there would be no Gorbachev, nor Sakharov in Paris.” Historians of the Soviet Union must tell us how much truth there is in this remark. But certainly, demonstrably, Solidarity was a pathbreaking movement in East Central Europe. Nowhere else, to be sure, was there the mass workers’ movement. But elements of the new politics developed by Solidarity in Poland—the forms of peaceful protest and civic resistance, the negotiations symbolized by the Round Table—spread directly to its neighbors. Poland was first. If the division of Europe which we call in shorthand “Yalta” began in Poland in 1945, then there is an important sense in which the end of “Yalta” also began in Poland. No country did more for the cause of liberty in Europe in the 1980s, and no country paid a higher price.

And how will Solidarity look in another ten years, in 2001? To imagine answers to this question, we must imagine Polish futures. If things go very badly indeed, if what misleadingly present themselves as the “realities” or “laws” of geopolitics once again intervene in Poland’s internal affairs, then the answer will be simple. Solidarity will be seen as just the latest in the long line of legendary insurrections. As Jacek Kuron in prison found strength from a book about the January Rising of 1863–1864,7 so now people will draw inspiration and courage from the history of 1980. As in the days of Solidarity’s underground struggle young men read books about the wartime Home Army, and old men came forward with their forger’s stamps from the days of the Nazi occupation,8 so now the experience of Solidarity will be passed on:

For Freedom’s battle once begun,
Bequeath’d by bleeding sire to
Though baffled oft is ever won.

Wildly improbable though this seems today, no one who knows even a little Polish history can believe it impossible.

At the other extreme there is the future in which, by 2001, Poland has become a normal country, in the sense that Spain, Portugal, and Greece are today normal countries. Still relatively poor, messy, divided, no doubt, but nonetheless having the essential sinews of democracy, the rule of law, and a market economy, reinforced by membership of an enlarged European Community and militarily protected by membership in NATO. This Poland may have no Walesas, but it will also have no need of Walesas. In this normal, perhaps even boring Poland, there will be a new generation of politicians who want to be just that, politicians, neither more nor less.

In this Poland, with its strong middle class, the identities (and complexes) of those three great classes, intelligentsia, workers, and peasants—each and all of them “abnormal” in late twentieth-century Europe—will have been intermingled and transformed. In this Poland, history, and the historians, will be found in the university, the academy, and the schools, where to the younger pupils Solidarity will seem almost as remote as the January Rising.

Into this Poland there will then come a new generation of post-revisionist historians, fresh-faced young men from Oxford and Kraków, eager young women from Maryland and Lódz. They will swiftly dispose of all these Labas, Goodwyns, Garton Ashes; gut the archives; grill the survivors; put the Geremeks and Walesas in their place. And they will tell us how it really was.

May 16, 1991

This Issue

June 13, 1991