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In search of lost sense

Adam Michnik, co-founder of the Polish trade union Solidarnosc, looks back on its founding 25 years ago, and forward to today's turmoiled times.

Elections will take place in Poland on Sunday. The election campaign has been marked by conflicts over how to interpret the legacy of Solidarnosc. Conservative presidential candidate Lech Kaczynski, once a member of Solidarnosc, is demanding a moral revolution in which the Post-Communists, currently in power, should be banned from public office. Adam Michnik, a co-founder of Solidarnosc who was jailed for several years for his opposition to the communist regime, disagrees. In an essay initially published in the Gazeta Wyborcza, of which he is editor-in-chief, Michnik defends the historic compromise agreed on with the communist authorities at the Round Table talks in 1989.

Twenty-five years ago, in August 1980, Poland changed the face of the world. When I close my eyes I can see it was a beautiful time, and that the people in Poland were beautiful, too. I was 34 and had the feeling that my generation was making history. When I recall those days I have to look into the notes I wrote back then, for I can no longer trust my memory: it has become too imbued with bitterness and sadness. I'm not even sure whether it is a good idea to be writing down these bitter comments, so unsuitable for anniversary celebrations.

My friend Wladyslaw Frasyniuk – leader of the Wroclaw workers' protest in August 1980, legendary figure of the underground Solidarnosc and political prisoner under martial law – recently suggested we should be celebrating the anniversary in peace and harmony, putting our old grudges aside, "without talking about traitors". I wish I could write that way, but I can't. I don't believe in that old unity; I am unable and don't even want to celebrate together with those who draw their knowledge about the democratic opposition and the Solidarity movement from secret police archives, giving Biblical authority to denunciations. My feeling is, they are spitting on me.

That experience, historical as well as personal, can't be told in the language of denunciations. That's why we ourselves must attempt to understand what we dared to achieve. We must restore the sense of our own biographies.

Last year, Poland's main literary award, the Nike, was awarde to Wojciech Kuczok for his "Gnoj" (Muck). Written by an author in his thirties, the novel tells "the story of a family inferno" – a normal, provincial Polish family. It seems a regular Bildungsroman, but just like the works of Balzac or Flaubert, it also a portrays a country disliked by its own people, although they don't talk much about it.

It is a Poland with no great ideals, no class struggles or bright futures, no God, honour and fatherland. It is a cheerless country inhabited by dull and cheerless people; the author calls them hollow. "They have roots and branches but they are empty inside. And in those empty spaces they lock themselves away" from the outside world. That world is ruled by the whip "which caused the worst of pains" – the device of fatherly instruction. A tool for the old to beat the young, for the strong to educate the weak. Being weaker, the young can do nothing but cry: "Dad, please don't beat me".

After whippings, the young one is lectured about his generation being "spoilt by history", since, unlike the generation of the old one, it never had to live through the war. Instead of wartime experiences, the young one is taught the spitting lesson. In his school, spitting is the norm: "saliva was the most effective teacher of all". Spit in the face is to be expected "from any direction, whenever your opponent runs out of words". The spitters are everywhere; "I could feel their breath on my back", "they'd spit on my back when I passed them in the street", "they were branding me".

At home, the whip; outside, the spit. This goes on for a while, that's what a Polish home was like. And then that home begins to age in an ugly manner, uglier than people do. "Homes turn old in a deceitful way. Senility nests in their corners first, then, slipping out of control, annexes them piece by piece. The inhabitants no longer notice it, but visitors can sense that stench of staleness once they cross the threshold".

That home, drawing its last breath in a stale stench, was the home of communist Poland, also known as the People's Republic. It was a country whose foreign policies, as well as military and police forces, were steered by the Soviets, a country ruled by a communist clique, controlled by fear and hypocrisy. The whipped and spat-on man was a product of that country. Only alcohol gave him courage to express his hatred for everything and everyone. The communist system bred that suppressed anger, skilfully exploiting all that was evil or weak in every person. Cowardly pettiness, opportunism, cynicism and apathy were commonplace. The disgust for the omnipresent moral quagmire was getting weaker every day. One could, indeed, smell that staleness.

In August 1980 Poland could finally take a deep breath of clean, fresh air. A wave of strikes swept the country. The Gdansk Shipyard strike – inspired by the democratic opposition, supported by intellectuals and the Catholic Church – led to the signing of the famous Gdansk Agreement and allowed the forming of labour unions that were independent from the communist authorities. It was not one of those occasional concessions we had already seen in the past. This time the communist regime was losing all of its legitimacy. A system which called itself a "dictatorship of the proletariat", was morally disqualified by a mass protest of the workers. If a great change preceded by a mass social movement and by a paralysis of the state apparatus can be called a "revolution", then "August Solidarity Revolution" is the proper term for what happened in those days.

Above all, however, August 1980 was a celebration of Poland's democracy. It helped restore the sense of human dignity, liberty and truth. I was spending those days in jail, arrested beforehand by the security service, along with many other members of the democratic opposition. Like all dictatorships, "they" still believed that history could be policed.

On the 31st of August, an agreement was signed and the strike ended. On September 1, we were released and found ourselves in a different country. Instead of the old stench, there was a wonderful atmosphere of freedom. I wrote a quick note, marking "the calm determination of the striking workers, their spontaneous discipline and the responsibility of their demands". The strikers, I wrote, had been demanding "a major change in the style of governing, but they never crossed the line set by the military presence of the Soviets". I also wrote: "The workers have been struggling for the rights and in the interest of the entire society; they were fighting for social rights, better standards of living, civic rights and freedom of speech, for the right to autonomy and independent labour unions, for moral standards and the release of political prisoners".

I was "impressed by the way the authorities chose negotiations rather than force". At the same time however, I was aware that Poland was trying to square the circle. The recent events, I wrote, had proven that "Polish society refused to keep living in a world of hypocrisy, repression and pauperisation. We have claimed back our rights in the most reasonable way possible, and that is something to be proud of". In fact, however, our way of living was not entirely determined by our aspirations. The Soviet dominance was still there and acknowledged by the West. That meant "the Poles' undeniable rights to freedom and autonomy had to be fulfilled in a way that would make military intervention a less attractive political perspective to the Soviets than giving it up".

In other words, I believed that some form of broad autonomy with democratic liberties was possible within the Brezhnev Doctrine. I suppose that must have been the dominant way of thinking inside the Solidarity movement at the time. Those days, those conversations… Those crowds of people we met in factories and universities, joyful and hungry for truth − it was like a beautiful dream.

For us opposition activists it was also a long-awaited moment of compensation. We had seen the student rebellions, the anti-intellectual and anti-Semitic witchhunts and the police repressions in March 1968, the massacre of workers on the coast in December 1970, and the repressions against workers in June 1976. We had been active in the Workers' Defense Committee (KOR) and other opposition initiatives. Now, after years of whipping and spitting, of viciousness, cynicism and despair, our actions turned out to have made sense, both existential and historical. Without the KOR and without the democratic opposition, the great bloodless victory of August 1980 would not have been possible. After all, the people directing the Gdansk strike had mainly come from the KOR.

It wasn't easy for us – the security apparatus was poisoning our lives with arrests, beatings, blackmailing and calumnies. We were banned from working in our own professions. Compromising materials were collected against us; we were vilified. There were provocations and intrigues to set us against each other. Many people couldn't take the pressure: some quit the movement, some broke down, some left the country. The most courageous ones were slandered constantly. The materials fabricated against Jacek Kuron and Jan Jozef Lipski would probably provide enough wallpaper for the entire Palace of Culture. Back then none of us would have thought that years later, with the security service, the Communist Party and even the Soviet Union gone, all those materials would take on a life of their own, turning the beautiful time of beautiful people into a swamp of secret police denunciations.

For the bloodless Solidarity revolution was indeed a beautiful time. It was a carnival of freedom, patriotism and truth. That movement released all the very best in people: selflessness, tolerance, magnanimity and kindness towards others. It was a movement that created, not that destroyed. It restored human dignity without fostering the thirst for revenge. Never before and never afterwards was Poland such a likeable country, with its people so free, so equal and so fraternal.

It was a time of three Polish miracles. Pope John Paul II visited Poland in June 1979. Then the August strike, Lech Walesa and Solidarity. Finally, the Nobel Prize was awarded to Czeslaw Milosz. For years we had been telling ourselves that waiting for a miracle was not enough, that it would take work for miracles to happen. In 1980 the Poles saw the results of their own work.

In June 1979, when the Pope's visit was drawing to an end, I wrote: "Something strange has happened. These people, so frustrated and aggressive in their daily routine, in queues and errand-running, have transformed into a good-natured, joyful community; they became self-respecting citizens. The militia disappeared from the streets and perfect order prevailed. After years of incapacitation, the society suddenly rediscovered the joy of self-governance".

John Paul II said "Do not fear!" – and the people stopped fearing. June 1979 was a foretaste of August 1980. That is why the workers' revolution took place under the sign of the cross and under portraits of the Pope. "Thus", Leszek Kolakowski commented, "history is making a ruthless mockery out of theory". It was the Polish pope, followed by a Polish shipyard worker, who dislodged the first bricks out of the Berlin Wall. And then there was the Nobel-winning Polish writer – Czeslaw Milosz, the exiled poet whose insightful writings unmasked the mechanisms of the "captive mind", and who spoke out loud for the Baltic nations conquered by the Soviet Union. For 30 years, his books had circulated in samizdat copies and been published either underground or abroad. He was an icon of the democratic opposition.

John Paul II became the emblem of Poland's Catholic Church at its best. The Gdansk strike and Lech Walęsa became symbols and the crowning point of the Polish workers' rebellion. Czeslaw Milosz symbolized the defiance of Poland's intelligentsia. Those three symbols marked the three trends within Solidarity. One of them stressed the movement's national and Catholic character, another followed the working class vindication line, another still concentrated on democratic and humanist values. These tendencies were neither inconsistent nor conflicting; for us they were complementary. They did, however, contain the seed of future splits – something we didn't realize at the time.

All those events changed Poland's international image. Usually perceived as a land of haughty cavalrymen charging tanks on horseback, a backward country of drunkards, yokels and anti-Semites, Poland suddenly became an important place, closely watched and respected. This time we were admired not only for our courage, patriotism and honour, but also for our restraint and sense of reality.

Poland's self-limiting revolution was not about seizing state power. The model proposed by the Solidarity movement was that of a self-governing commonwealth, working from enterprise to town to central institutions of the state. Its program was very realistic – gradual action, avoiding open conflict – but in many respects it was also self-deluding, for such a model of democracy has never functioned anywhere in the world. What mattered, though, was that the movement was open for new forms of compromise. As for the communist authorities, still subjected to brutal pressure from Moscow, they were unable to offer any sensible model of coexistence. Their position became weaker every day. In order to protect themselves – perhaps also to protect the country from Soviet intervention – they reached for the final argument. On the night between 12–13 December 1981, martial law was imposed. The Solidarity leaders were arrested; the union itself was suspended, then banned.

Forced to go underground, Solidarity survived seven long years. It survived the repressions, as well as the dramatic capitulations and emigrations of many activists. It survived thanks to its leaders, especially Lech Walesa; to the leaders of the underground movement, especially Zbigniew Bujak; and to those imprisoned activists who refused to surrender: Jacek Kuron, Karol Modzelewski, Bronislaw Geremek, Tadeusz Mazowiecki. It survived thanks to the Pope, the brave Catholic priests and those hundreds of thousands of people who never gave up their dream of a free Poland.

It also survived thanks to common sense. The Solidarity movement chose non-violent struggle and never stopped declaring its readiness for compromise. It never broke down and never turned into a fanatical sect, feeding on its own grudges and seeking revenge. Its position remained unchanged: ever since August 1980 it declared it wanted to create, not destroy.

Those seven years were filled with underground activity and repression, with daily risks and a sense of helplessness. We would tell each other a joke one of us heard from a friend in Prague: What would have to happen to make the Soviet troops leave Poland? Well, there are two options, rational and miraculous. The rational option is St. George the Dragon Slayer coming to the banks of the Vistula and chasing the Soviets away. And the miracle? That's if they leave by themselves.

From our perspective, Gorbachev's perestroika was a genuine miracle. We were suspicious at first – after all, there was no good reason to trust the declarations of a Soviet leader. Then we became hopeful. The ferment in Russia gave Poland and other countries a prospect of change.

The connection between perestroika and Solidarity was obvious to me, though I don't think it was just as obvious to Mikhail Gorbachev. From the Soviet system's point of view, the Solidarity revolution was what the Reformation had been to the Catholic Church: a total denial of all the dogmas of the institution, though not those of faith. Hence, the system replied with a kind of Counter-Reformation, assimilating the critique in order to protect the institution. Suddenly, the Soviet debate started to include themes familiar from August 1980 and from the months that followed: the request for truth about the Stalinist past and about the economic situation, the request for freedom of speech and pluralism, for reforms and the rule of law.

The leaders of Poland's Communist Party were closely following the Soviet newspapers. They must have been puzzled and disturbed by the new language. At the same time, they realized their own field of manoeuvre was broadening. The two waves of strikes in 1988 were the last alarm call and the authorities came up with the offer of round table talks. As a result of those negotiations, Solidarity became legalized and free. Elections were held, albeit not fully democratic ones, which brought the triumph of Solidarity. The communists handed over power – it took no barricades, no shooting and not a single casualty. It was a revival of the August 1980 spirit – that quest for freedom without violence, fanaticism or hatred.

The Solidarity revolution was over; a time of transformation began. A few years later, the historian and essayist Jerzy Jedlicki wrote: "The historic achievement of the anti-Communist opposition in the 70s and 80s was its ability to contain its goals within particular phases of its civic struggle, and to make tactical compromises. Some credit for this must go to the other side as well, because such a method would have brought no result had the authorities been more ruthless. Today, when anyone can vilify the Round Table talks, I'm glad to say they were of politics and ethics, and that it set an example that may have spared Eastern Europe a good deal of heroic bloodshed".

I agree with Jedlicki. Still, the vilifiers these days are legion. Foreigners often ask me why. It is, indeed, something difficult to grasp.

Consider: the 1st of August, 1944 the Warsaw Uprising began. It ended after 63 days of heroic struggle, with surrender and total defeat. The best of the young generation were annihilated; tens of thousand of civilians died; the capital of Poland was completely destroyed, and the political benefits were nil. Nevertheless, this costly and politically fruitless act of Polish patriotism is publicly worshipped, honoured and put on a pedestal.

On the other hand, the success of the Round Table, which opened a peaceful road to freedom for the Poles and other nations, is often presented as a vile act of conspiracy and treason. Why is it, foreigners ask, that the Poles aren't proud of the wonderful, courageous and wise things they've done? Can they only pay homage to those who were defeated or killed? Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, "Although we should be accustomed to the instability of human character, we may still be astonished to see so great a change in the moral dispositions of a people; so great a sacrifice replaced by such selfishness, or so much contempt towards something that was once so badly desired and so costly".

I often remembered those words of the great Frenchman as I watched the meanders of Poland's history in the last 15 years, when the freedom fight was over, the first splits appeared and the power struggle began. It was a time of demagogical promises and ugly accusations of treason, corruption scandals, intrigues and clientelism, contempt for truth and mud slinging at people of greatest merit. All the same, it has been the best fifteen years in the last three centuries of our country's history. After all, what is the balance of the Polish transformation?

The workers who demanded civic rights in August 1980 do have those rights now, although their living conditions are often dramatic and the private entrepreneurs' actions often personify capitalism at its most savage. The workers, however, can now organize their own unions, independent of the state authorities. Whether they know how to use their rights effectively, give up the old dreams of power and the old forms of protest from the times when they were fighting tyranny, is another question. Back then, every strike, every demonstration or blockade were a way of weakening the dictatorship. Now, in a democratic country, we need other ways of executing our rights. Can labour unions resist the temptation of populist rhetoric, the unrealistic demands and bizarre political alliances with xenophobic parties and enemies of the European Union? We must leave these questions open. All these phenomena, of course, are not limited to Poland. Labour unions are looking for a new formula all over united Europe.

Farmers, too, have all the rights; but the fear of foreign competition and inevitable structural changes in rural Poland prevails among them. The intellectuals and artists are no longer restricted by any ruling ideology or censorship. They can write and publish whatever they want, but they are outraged to see public spending on science and culture shrink. Their voices, so important in the days of tyranny, are now lost in the cacophony of mass culture.

The Catholic Church enjoys all the rights plus some privileges it had been demanding under the dictatorship. However, the shepherds worry their sheep aren't following the Church's instructions. The voice of the Church is no longer decisive in political matters, either: during elections, the faithful vote according to their own interests and sympathies, paying no heed to what their bishops and rectors say.

In other words, everyone has got the rights they were fighting for in August 1980, but no one is happy with free Poland. In Kuczok's novel, the old K. says: "Just look what times we're living in, all those thieves swindling you in the bright light of day, no shame whatsoever […] if I was in charge, I'd wipe out these bastards, exterminate every single one…"

Every new round of parliamentary elections reflects another wave of social discontent. Actually it proves that the democratic system is working: society has won and is using the right to change governments in a peaceful way. The trouble is that with each of these changes a major miracle is expected, when in fact the time of miracles has passed. The first miracle was supposed to come with the fall of Tadeusz Mazowiecki's government and Lech Walesa's victory in the presidential elections. Then the return of the post-communists was thought to fulfil the nostalgia for the full-employment-and-social-security days of the People's Republic.

The frustration caused by the unemployment and social insecurity is accompanied by another kind of frustration: the hunger for justice has not been satisfied. Many former activists of the democratic opposition and Solidarity, often people of great merit, are outraged by the dazzling financial careers made by people of the old regime. They see a wave of organized crime and raging corruption; they see the smugness and cynicism of the old regime's sycophants − and they want to know who is to blame for all this. It is these people who often say that the Solidarity revolution has been betrayed or left unfinished, and who believe in searching police archives and tracking down security service agents. They keep saying the scores aren't settled and that justice has not been administered.

To a large extent they are right. The scores have not been settled, most of the crimes remain unpunished and most of the good deeds unrewarded. Worse still, the very core idea of the Solidarity revolution − that of a self-governing commonwealth, working from enterprise to town to central institutions of the state − has been replaced by parliamentary democracy and private-property-based market economy. The days of selfless heroism are gone, and the spirit of enterprise and competition has superseded the solidarity ethos. The social activists' altruism, courage and sense of honour are rare goods in the Polish market these days, and they are not valued very highly. Shrewdness and brutality, ruthlessness and impertinence are a lot more effective and a lot more popular. Intrigue will often dress up as moral cause; fanaticism can be presented as a defence of principles. No wonder people who have given the best years of their lives to fight for Poland's freedom are now feeling frustrated.

The problem is, every great revolutionary change awakens hopes and expectations that can never be fulfilled. In this sense, all revolutions are unfinished or betrayed. None of them can punish all the villains and reward all the virtuous. In fact, I hope good spirits will always protect us from a revolution that is finished and settles all old scores. For the finishing job is performed by guillotines and firing squads. Avenging old wrongs always brings new ones, often more severe. Just look at the revolutions of the last two centuries… Those who seek perfect justice should remember that only executions are perfect.

Early this year the public opinion in Poland was stirred by the disclosure of a long list of names: security service functionaries, agents, as well as people whom the security service wanted or tried unsuccessfully to recruit. The names were mixed and there was no way of telling on what premises they had been put together. Tens of thousands of people had their good names slandered, but that was only the beginning. The press and television revealed more names of alleged agents, quoting police archives as their source.

Deeply shocked, the unquestioned hero of the Solidarity revolution, Wladyslaw Frasyniuk wrote: "I cannot stay silent when Lech Walesa is being accused of collaborating with the security service; when several politicians, including the President, the current and former prime minister, having passed all the lustration procedures, are now falling prey to a wild lustration; when Zbigniew Bujak is said to have been the secret police's 'underground connection'".

Around the end of Wojciech Kuczok's novel, we hear a telling exclamation: "Oh how I wish a thunder would come and burn all this fucking mess!" But instead of a thunder, Kuczok goes on, "it was muck they got that day. The house began to stink all the way up to the attic, they noticed it and felt uneasy. They asked each other where the stench could be coming from, as if they thought it might be their rotting consciences. […] They went downstairs, opened the door and the water mixed with shit spurted all over the neighbour who was standing closest. The stench doubled and the women faintly moaned: 'Good Lord, the cesspool's overflowed…'"

Some find smearing the Solidarity revolution and its heroes by means of police archives heroic. Others think it is more like throwing a hand grenade into a cesspool: some get killed, some injured, everybody is left soiled and smelly. And this is how we are going to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the August revolution: bruised, smeared and frustrated.

One can only hope Poland's organism will reject this poison of feigned history and this degenerated axiology of our public life. Perhaps once this cascade of mud has swept over, we can still find the lost sense and speak sensibly about the things we have had the courage to achieve. The communist dictatorship peacefully dismantled, sovereignty restored, the building of parliamentary democracy and market economy, economic growth, NATO and EU membership, stable borders, good relations with neighbouring countries and national minorities − it doesn't sound too bad, does it?

So 25 years after August 1980, I tell myself what the unforgettable Antoni Slonimski once taught me: Poland is a land of the miraculous and unpredictable; it is a melting pot with an angel and a devil taking turns at stirring. In Poland, everything is possible – even changes for the better.


An abridged version of the article was published in German in Die Zeit on September 1, 2005

Adam Michnik is one of the co-founders of the Solidarnosc independent trade union in Poland. He is now editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza.

Translation: Lukasz Sommer.

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