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Adam Michnik receiving the 2010 Hanno R. Ellenbogen Citizenship Award for public service from Václav Havel, Prague, Czech Republic, January 2011

When Adam Michnik was still a political prisoner following the crackdown on the Solidarity trade union in his native Poland in December 1981, Czesław Miłosz wrote a foreword to a volume of Michnik’s eloquent essays and letters from prison.1 In it, Miłosz invoked the example of Mahatma Gandhi and predicted that with his steadfast advocacy of nonviolent political change, Michnik might well “bring honor to the last two decades of the twentieth century, even though,” he added, “a film on his life will not be produced soon.”

Miłosz was referring obliquely to Richard Attenborough’s 1982 bio-epic, Gandhi, yet as far as I know, no one has picked up on his gentle hint that Michnik’s life might make a terrific movie, especially now that we know how accurate the rest of his prognostication turned out to be. The movie would tell the story of a bright Jewish boy from Warsaw with an idealistic belief in communism, a love of history and literature (two of his favorite books were Lord Jim and The Plague), a wicked (Groucho) Marxian sense of humor,2 and, despite a pronounced stammer, a love of debate and controversy that, in the aftermath of student unrest in 1968, got him expelled from university and ultimately earned him his first of many jail sentences.

After his release in 1969, he took a job as a welder in the Rosa Luxemburg lightbulb factory, where some of “the most beautiful girls in Warsaw” would temporarily distract him, although he would later quip that he never lost his way “on the path leading from eroticism to politics.” In the 1970s, having finally broken with communism, he went back to university to study history, and began working out a new, abiding vision of how his country might evolve toward democracy.

After years in and out of prison as a Solidarity activist, Michnik ended up a national hero of sorts, one of the main strategists in his country’s antitotalitarian opposition, and a principal participant in the first of the several roundtable negotiations that swept Soviet-style communism off the map of Europe. And then, when Poland was on its way to becoming a parliamentary democracy, he left politics to become the editor in chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, a newspaper he had helped establish in 1989 and that is now the largest independently owned daily in the region. From this vantage point, he would continue to report on the bumpy evolution of democracy, both in his own country and across Central Europe.

The recent release of two collections of interviews, essays, and letters, most of them originally published in Gazeta Wyborcza, will give English-speaking readers a taste of this most recent phase of Adam Michnik’s colorful life. In her introduction to An Uncanny Era, Elzbieta Matynia calls Michnik “a curator of Poland’s young democracy,” though given his sharply critical and often controversial views on many of the trends in Central Europe since 1989, “caretaker” or “watchdog,” or even “gadfly” might have been more appropriate metaphors. A deep sense of unease radiates from both of these books, as though hopes for a great “moral rebirth” after the defeat of communism had been dashed by the arrival instead of greed, materialism, and a spirit of vengeance. “We do not like this world of ours today,” he writes in The Trouble with History. “We feel bad in this world of ours. Why is that?”

Why indeed? Why is Michnik’s tone so skeptical, so much more in tune with our own anxieties about the state of the world than with the glowing nostalgia of the recent celebrations to mark the implosion of Soviet-style communism a quarter of a century ago?

It’s worth remembering that the opening of the Berlin Wall was not the most extraordinary event in Europe in 1989, it was merely the most spectacular and the most symbolic. The real breakthrough happened in smoke-filled rooms around conference tables—first in Poland, then in Hungary, and finally in Czechoslovakia. The Communist parties that had wielded unchallenged authority since the late 1940s were, in effect, talked out of power by groups of dissidents and unofficial opposition leaders who, until that point, had been treated as outlaws.

These activists were, of course, emboldened by huge demonstrations in the streets and encouraged not only by the collapse of Soviet support for the regimes they were opposing, but also by the weakening of Party despotism made possible by Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost in the Soviet Union. The process was often messy and chaotic and the outcomes were sometimes maddeningly inconclusive. But whatever success the dissidents had in engineering those peaceful transitions was due, in large measure, to strategies they had evolved over long, hard decades of trial and error.


Of all the dissident movements in Central Europe, the Polish democratic opposition was by far the largest, the most sophisticated, the most inventive, the most overtly political, and the most daring. It developed slowly, starting at least as far back as 1956, and with each expression of popular unrest, with each failed attempt at reform, with each violent response by the system, with each prison term served, opposition intellectuals like Michnik and Jacek Kuroń and Jan Józef Lipski and others sharpened and refined their understanding of how Communist totalitarianism worked and how best to oppose it.

By 1976, following large strikes in Ursus and Radom, Kuroń and others founded the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR) which became the political heart of the movement. They forged alliances with workers (through underground magazines like Robotnik, aimed at men and women on the factory floor) and with the church (Michnik’s first book, The Church and the Left, from 1976, was a factor in making a rapprochement possible3). They started educational initiatives like the Flying University and created an extensive network of underground publishing ventures. This opposition came to define itself as democratic, antitotalitarian, nonviolent, and nonconspiratorial; its ultimate aim was to bring about a “self-limiting revolution,” one that would not aim to replace the existing regime, but pressure it into making substantial concessions.

This approach ultimately led, in August 1980, to the emergence of the independent trade union Solidarity, which at its peak in 1981 had about ten million members and was the first of its kind in a Communist country not controlled by the Party. It lasted sixteen months before the regime, perhaps to forestall a Soviet military intervention, declared martial law in December 1981 and jailed Solidarity’s chief instigators, Michnik included.

Solidarity activists went underground and for the next seven years, thanks in part to letters and essays by Michnik, many written from a prison cell, Solidarity remained organizationally strong and never lost sight, nor did it let the regime lose sight, of its willingness to talk. In early 1988, faced with 80 percent inflation rates and yet another huge wave of worker unrest, the Communist leaders, or rather the moderates among them, realized that they could not restore order without enormous bloodshed, and chose instead to meet with the leaders of Solidarity. After several months of wary maneuvering the two sides sat down in Warsaw in February 1989.

The Polish journalist and former Solidarity activist Konstanty Gebert, who was present at the talks as a reporter, said that Michnik was crucial to their outcome. His bargaining skills—his determination to reach a deal without giving an inch on principles—were formidable, and the regime negotiators watched him “the way a rabbit might stare at a cobra,” Gebert said. He also had an uncanny capacity, honed by his study of history, to see things from the other side’s point of view. Early on the talks threatened to break down when the regime demanded that Solidarity acknowledge that the government had been right to impose martial law; Solidarity countered with a demand that the regime admit that it had been wrong. Michnik, drawing on an prophetic observation he had made in 1976 (in an essay called “A New Evolutionism”), saved the day by getting both sides to agree that martial law had been a lesser evil, the greater one being a Soviet military intervention that would likely have set off an armed conflict.4 The talks were able to proceed. “This was Adam at his very best,” Gebert said.

The Round Table Agreement led, on June 4, 1989, to the first unrigged elections ever held in a country under Communist domination. Solidarity won all of the contested seats (35 percent of the total) in the lower house, or Sejm, and ninety-nine of the one hundred seats in the newly created Senate. And though it was overshadowed by the brutal Chinese suppression of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement on the same day, the election became an inspiration and a model for the transformations that were soon to follow in Central and Eastern Europe.

But what exactly were these transformations? Were they revolutions or merely clamorous transitions from one-party police states to rough-and-tumble democracies in the making? The question is not just semantic. The events of 1989, particularly in Czechoslovakia, created waves of euphoria that made them feel and look like revolutions. Fear vanished almost overnight, streets were renamed, statues removed, constitutions rewritten, hated institutions like the secret police shut down. With astonishing speed, people became citizens again, getting involved in local politics, setting up small businesses, founding political parties, reviving once-banned or moribund institutions. It was a momentous shift, and it wanted a momentous word to describe it.

Calling these events “revolutions,” however, bolstered expectations of swifter and more radical change that were bound to be disappointed, especially since the negotiations by which the changes were brought about left large parts of the old order intact. There were no huge purges, no show trials, and while there was a kind of “decommunization” process, it was chaotic and sometimes the wrong people were punished, while many lower-level Communist officials remained in their jobs, and some well-placed Communists profited. Those whose lives had been disrupted or ruined by the regimes were hungry for justice, and people like Michnik and Havel were left open to absurd accusations that they had “betrayed” the revolution, or even that they were somehow in cahoots with the Communists.


In a conversation in An Uncanny Era, from 1991, this issue leads to the first substantial disagreement between Havel and Michnik, who objects to calling the events of 1989 “revolutions” in the first place, let alone “unfinished” revolutions, as Havel suggested. Michnik admits that the street demonstrations that forced the regimes to capitulate were a kind of revolution, but what happened next, “what journalists called a ‘velvet revolution,’” was aimed at restoring the rule of law, not overturning it.5 “Revolution,” he tells Havel,

always means discrimination, whether against political enemies or the people of the ancien régime, but the law means equality under the law…. Either the law is equal for everybody, or there is no law…. If [Communists] committed a crime…they will be punished, like all criminals. But if not, then they cannot be discriminated against for having been…in the Communist Party.


Dominique Nabokov

Adam Michnik, Kraków, Poland, 1996

Havel’s response is more sanguine. Whether you call it a revolution or not, certain remedies—even something as banal as ensuring that people excluded from decent employment under communism now get decent pensions—have to be put in place before you can say the job is done. “This doesn’t have anything to do with some kind of Jacobinism or permanent revolution. It is about completing a work begun to remedy public matters.”

An Uncanny Era is meant, in part, to illuminate a historically important friendship between Havel and Michnik, one that began during a series of secret meetings between the two men and their colleagues from Charter 77 and KOR near the top of a mountain on the Czechoslovak–Polish border in 1978. But while the rapport between them is remarkable, their differences are often more enlightening, and hint at larger differences in the movements they led.

Both men, for example, see morality as central to political change, but whereas Havel believes that political change begins with an “existential revolution” within each person, Michnik’s concern seems directed outward, to the social and political consequences of acts of “moral courage.” For Michnik, the problem in the post-Communist world of “real politics” is finding the proper balance between conscience and common sense, between “the ethic of conviction and the ethic of responsibility.”

In any case, their differences are complementary rather than contradictory. Havel’s much-mocked slogan “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred” is almost a mirror image of Michnik’s equally controversial hope that reconciliation rather than revenge will be the hallmark of the new democracies.

The five essays by Michnik in The Trouble with History do more than just complement the Michnik–Havel conversations; they give us a more coherent and consistent account of Michnik’s concerns. (In fact, these two books are so complementary that I found myself wondering why Yale University Press didn’t simply bring out a single anthology of Michnik’s recent dispatches from the world of post-communism.) At the same time, they discuss in depth his credo, as someone who has made, as well as studied, history: for instance, that history is “a teacher of life”; that it is “always a conversation with the Other, the one who thinks differently, who is differently situated,…differently shaped by his or her social position”; that “the truth of history is often polyphonic”; that “historical wounds can only heal in a climate of free debate, in which everyone can cry out about one’s own wrongs, pains, and sufferings”; and the core of his beliefs, that history is not just about the past because it is constantly recurring, and not as farce, as Marx had it, but as itself:

The world is full of inquisitors and heretics, liars and those lied to, terrorists and the terrorized. There is still someone dying at Thermopylae, someone drinking a glass of hemlock, someone crossing the Rubicon, someone drawing up a proscription list.

We see this belief most clearly explained in each of his three essays on the French Revolution, where it is sometimes hard to tell whether Michnik is talking about nineteenth-century France or twenty-first-century Poland. Whatever the case, the fact is that Michnik reads history three-dimensionally, with one eye on the past and the other on the present.

It’s a pleasure to watch him at work. In the first essay, “Morality in Politics: Willy Brandt’s Two Visits to Poland,” he attempts to get inside the mind of the former West German chancellor who worked hard to bring about a rapprochement between East and West while virtually ignoring the dissidents. “I try to understand Brandt,” Michnik writes, “a moral politician in the world of real politics. How to combine these two elements—moral values and political pragmatism? It was a dance on a thin rope.”

In the title essay of The Trouble with History, Michnik examines in more detail something he discussed with Havel, a phenomenon he calls “the virus of anti-communism with a Bolshevik face.” By this he means the resurgence of a hard-line political and moral authoritarianism that uses intimidation to stop public debate and draws on the old secret police archives to smear its enemies. It’s a clear reference to the policies of the Law and Justice party, led by Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński, which dominated Polish politics in the mid-2000s. (Unfortunately the book provides no specific background and no dates for any of these essays, a serious oversight.) But in an article called “The Polish Witch Hunt” that appeared in the June 28, 2007, issue of this magazine, Michnik leveled specific criticism at the new lustration law meant to expose secret police informants. Parts of that law were struck down by the Polish Constitutional Court, but Michnik wrote that it “was only one act among many in a systematic effort by the ruling Law and Justice party and its supporters to undermine the country’s democratic institutions.”

It may seem odd that someone who opposed communism for most of his adult life would find anticommunism a threat. Yet even after he had broken with communism completely, Michnik never thought of himself, or called himself, an “anti-Communist.” He preferred the term “antitotalitarian,” and it’s an important distinction. In the 1970s, he faulted Polish anti-Communists for their decision to turn away from oppositional activity because they thought change of any kind was impossible. Their hatred of the system was so intense it had paralyzed them. For Michnik, that kind of embittered passivity led nowhere.

Michnik sees post-Communist anticommunism as a right-wing phenomenon that is cropping up everywhere, in Western Europe, in Russia, and among all three major religions. It has characteristics that remind him of totalitarianism. This virus, he explains,

could also be called…the virus of fundamentalism, spreading the belief that by using the techniques of intimidating public opinion one can build a world without sin; and that this can only happen if the state is governed by sinless individuals who are equipped with the doctrine of the one and only correct project for organizing human relations.

With his keen eye for historical analogy, Michnik refers to the appearance in a Polish weekly (again, date, author, and publication are unnamed) of a series of articles in praise of McCarthyism and the Red Scare from the late 1940s and 1950s in the United States. This “admiration for the work of McCarthy and his followers,” Michnik writes, “illustrates well the traps that await the new democracies of the post-communist period.”

To appreciate more fully what Michnik is saying, it’s worth remembering what the long-term consequences of American anticommunism have been. McCarthyism didn’t just destroy reputations and careers; it also branded liberal and progressive ideas as “Red Fascism,” stigmatizing them to such an extent that they lost much of their legitimacy in political discourse. That stigmatization continues to this day, to the great detriment of political pluralism in the United States.6

In “The Ultras of Moral Revolution,” the first of three essays on the French Revolution, Michnik finds alarming parallels with modern Poland in the violent upheavals of the Jacobin period and the Bourbon restoration after the death of Napoleon. Both periods, though apparently tending in opposite directions, began in moderation and optimism and ended in extremism and despair. It is not an original idea, but Michnik draws from it a message tinged with a lifetime’s experience of both tyranny and its defeat:

The history of the Jacobins…, Red or White, teaches us that there is a need for ethical knowledge, that there are no honest values that would justify reaching for…dishonest means and methods. This is why one cannot put people down in the name of lifting them up; this is why one cannot spread the poison of fear in the name of virtue and moral revolution; this is why one cannot push the drug of suspicion in the name of truth and cleansing.

In the final three chapters, by evoking writers like Stendhal and Chateaubriand, Michnik delves more deeply into the psychic world of the French Revolution and its aftermath, again as a way of grasping why his own world has become “so trivial, hard, and cowardly”:

I felt the desire to enter that world, now long-gone, and meet those people, to see their sadness and their angry faces, to listen to their complaints about living in their own times. I grew to like those walks with Stendhal and Chateaubriand, with Julien Sorel and Lucien Leuwen, and I became interested in their observations and anxieties. How did they perceive that transformation from grandeur into littleness, or that of bravery into intrigue and servility?

In the end, there is something very English, almost Burkean, about Michnik’s disenchantment with the idea of revolution and his fidelity to the idea of discourse and the rule of law. Toward the end of “The Ultras of Moral Revolution,” He invokes a “different revolution,” one that is often forgotten: the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England. It’s an interesting choice, because whenever one hears the words “revolution” and “English” in the same sentence, one thinks first of Oliver Cromwell and regicide. But Michnik is right: 1688 was a different kind of revolution. In that year, James II was forced off the throne because he wished to restore Catholicism as the official religion. Military matters were largely taken care of by the Dutch, who invaded more or less by invitation, and the English accepted William and Mary as the new monarchs. There was a minimum of bloodshed, and above all, it produced the Toleration Act of 1689—under which, as British historian G.M. Treveylan wrote, “England has lived at peace with herself ever since.”

I try to understand Michnik’s attraction to this event. Does he see something of his own experience here? When he quotes Trevelyan on the men who worked out the Toleration Act, it’s hard to imagine he’s not thinking about 1989:

The men of 1689 [Trevelyan wrote] were not heroes. Few of them were even honest men. But they were very clever men, and, taught by bitter experience, they behaved at this supreme crisis as very clever men do not always behave, with sense and moderation.

Michnik knows that the Toleration Act was not perfect. Some saw it as giving them the right to live according to their conscience. Others, he says, quoting Trevelyan, saw it as “a necessary compromise with error.” But it was a compromise that brought an end to “mass sufferings, hatreds and wrongs.”

Trevelyan’s conclusion, quoted by Michnik, has a particular poignancy these days:

After a thousand years, religion was at length released from the obligation to practice cruelty on principle, by the admission that it is the incorrigible nature of man to hold different opinions on speculative subjects.

And Michnik’s conclusion is equally poignant:

We the malcontents dream of just such a patchwork of compromise and good sense. We the malcontents do not want further revolutions in a country that has not yet recovered from the last several of them.

Michnik’s best hopes for Poland are rooted in his dream from the underground days of Solidarity, when he saw his struggle not as a “fight for a perfect society that’s free of conflicts, but for a conflictual society in which conflicts can be resolved within the rules of the democratic game.” In this sense, I see Michnik as an almost Miltonic figure, who understands that the greatness of a country—“a noble and a puissant nation,” in Milton’s words—lies not in its military might, but in its capacity, even in a time of war and grave external threats, to engage in fearless, unfettered public debate about the great ideas of the day.