Liberty, Equality, Solidarity
Timothy Garton Ash
'This year when I talk to my students about the French Revolution', a young don at Cracow University told me in the spring, 'I feel for the first time that they really understand what I'm talking about.'
Now we have entered Year II of the Polish revolution. In Gdansk the Third Estate is holding what has turned into a Constituent Assembly. Solidarity's draft Programme, which will be fiercely debated in the next few days, covers most areas of the nation's life. 'A new Poland is being born on the banks of the Vistula,' the congress has already declared in an open letter to Poles living abroad. 'Solidarity is not only a trades union but also a social movement Of citizens who wish to work for Poland's independence.'
'Poland's what ?' you can hear Western commentators gasp, as they reach once again for their Cassandra dictionaries. 'Now the Poles really have gone too far'. But we have heard that refrain before — almost unceasingly, in fact, ever since the workers occupied the Lenin shipyard last August. When Lech Walesa was asked for the umpteenth time, if the Russians would invade, he replied 'I don't know — I haven't read the French press recently.'
It may be time to consider the possibility that the Poles are better judges than we of their own best interest. Take that other appeal, to the workers of central and eastern Europe, for example. Ah, surely the Czechs also made the fatal mistake of suggesting that their experiment should be tried elsewhere in the Soviet bloc, some of us exclaimed. But lo, here is the head of Hungary's official unions writing to 'Dear Mr Walesa', naturally denouncing the apPeal as interference in his country's internal affairs yet concluding 'we are prepared at any time to debate and discuss the role and mission of trades unions.' And here is the top-level Soviet spokesman, Mr Zamyatin, speaking in quite moderate terms about Solidarity to the West German weekly Stern. This looks like a turning point in the Soviet bloc's attitude to the movement. So the effect of Solidarity's appeal was apparently the opposite of what was generally expected.
Nonetheless it would be as foolish to suggest that this effect was calculated by the Solidarity delegates as to suppose that their neighbours' acceptance is anything more than highly conditional. In fact the movement has grown markedly more radical in its demands over the last six months — that is, since the beating of several of its activists by plain clothes men in Bydgoszcz brought the country to the verge of a general strike. It is timely to ask why this is so. Will this revolution go the way of the French Revolution? Will the Third Estate bid for state power? Who are the Jacobins?
'Here there are only sans-culottes' was the answer given me, half in jest, by Dr Karol Modzelewski, a distinguished mediaevalist and Solidarity adviser. According to Soviet propaganda, however, it is intellectuals like Dr Modzelewski who are the Polish Jacobins. When the opposition Social Self-Defence Committee, KOR, formally announced its voluntary dissolution at the congress last week the Soviet bloc media suggested this was because KOR members have wormed their way deep into the core of the union — and are goading it to ever more extreme demands. This is very far from the truth.
The truth is that leading KOR members like Jacek Kuron have, at crucial moments, done everything in their power to restrain the fury of militant workers. Kuron develops the fascinating idea of a 'selflimiting revolution'. The Polish revolution, he says, has reached the stage at which, in all previous revolutions, the revolutionaries would seize state power. Solidarity, however, cannot do this, since a Soviet intervention would follow as inevitably as the night the day. The revolution would then devour not merely its own children. This limitation is an unprecedented advantage: for it is the possession of state power which has corrupted all previous revolutions, and the establishment of absolute power which has corrupted them absolutely. Solidarity should therefore, Kuron concludes, gladly accept this limitation, not chafe against it. So he argues against the movement pressing immediately for those free elections which were promised the country by Messrs. Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt 37 years ago: elections which would surely, as Poland's gifted Deputy Prime Minister, Mieczyslaw Rakowski, admitted in a recent interview, produce an 'anti-communist front' in the sejm (parliament).
Kuron was last week instrumental in persuading the congress to accept the lastminute compromise enshrined in a new law on workers self-management passed by the sejm. This was in fact a very good compromise for Solidarity. In Polish law it is now the rule that workers will elect their own management. Solidarity should in theory be consulted by the government in drawing up the list of exceptions to this rule — for example, in the defence industry where directors will continue to be appointed by the Party from among the nornenklatura (which is, if you will, the communist Second Estate). Such a measure of workers' control is without precedent not only in the Soviet bloc. It is something Mr Tony Benn can only dream of. Moreover, as Kuron pointed out to the workers, the sejm actually rejected the government's initial proposal for the law — yet another action without precedent in the history of communist Poland.
Why, then, did the Solidarity congress come close to rejecting it? What angered many delegates, and brought down a hailstorm of criticism on Mr Walesa's head, was not the compromise itself but the way it was arrived at. For the compromise was agreed to by the union leadership without consulting the congress, let alone the membership at large. This was technically against the union's statutes. Solidarity's activists react like over-anxious parents at the first hint of danger to their one-year-old baby. If our union does not give a spotless example of democracy, they protest, how can we expect to democratise the country? Remember that no Pole under 40 had any practical experience of democratic politics before last August. And we know ourselves that politicians with 40 years' experience of democracy are still divided about the proper mix of principle and expediency.
The candidates who stood against Lech Walesa for the leadership, and received between them nearly half the votes, have been christened the 'Fundamentalists'. It is a revealing label which best fits the remarkable figure of Andrzej Gwiazda. Gwiazda is a man who believes you cannot compromise on first principles. He has the bearded, suffering face of an El Greco saint. He was born in Soviet captivity in Siberia; in the late Seventies he was a• founder-member of the first Committee for Free Trades Unions on the Baltic coast, and persecuted for his dissidence. He was like John the Baptist, crying in the wilderness. These experiences have moulded him. The first commandment of the Polish opposition was: live here as if you lived in a free country, act as if the Soviet Union did not exist. Without their unbending defiance of reality Solidarity would never have existed. Gwiazda was largely responsible for putting independent trades unions top of the historic list of 21 demands during the Gdansk strike. But it is a question if the leader of a ten million strong mass movement should really continue to behave on the principles of a dissident. If you continue to behave like a saint you are liable to end as a martyr.
Yet Gwiazda's radicalism is not just a matter of fundamental principles. 'The authorities only concede under pressure,' he said in his election address, 'and until now we have obtained nothing without pressure'. That is, sadly, the unvarnished truth. In retrospect a historic opportunity was lost last September. Had the authorities then set out to fulfil the letter and the spirit of the Gdansk agreement they might still have recaptured the goodwill of the workers. They would have had to concede far less than they have ended up conceding under pressure. Instead they have fought the union right down the line. In a real sense the intransigeance of the Second Estate has made the Third Estate radical.
Perhaps politicians like Mr Rakowski have all along been quite sincere in crying 'wolf', with obvious reference to the danger of Soviet intervention. Perhaps they were just terrified themselves. If so, as one of Marshal Pilsudski's few surviving aides, General Boruta-Spiechowicz, remarked during his extraordinary guest appearance before the Solidarity congress, fear has proved a bad counsellor. For the wolf has not come. And some Solidarity activists have ceased to believe in it.
Mr Jan Rulewski, for instance, another candidate for the union leadership, roundly advised the delegates to forget about the Soviet menace. Mr Rulewski, it may be recalled, is the man who was badly beaten up in Bydgoszcz in March. He has since become an extreme militant, the Marat of Solidarity. There can be few better examples of the counter-productivity of strong-arm tactics. Especially since the government no longer has a strong arm. They cannot even rely on the police anymore. Since June a provisional independent policemen's trades union has been struggling for legalisation. One of its representatives spoke to the congress. 'We demand', he said, 'that the police are not used to crush workers' protests.'
There remains, of course, the army. Many observers consider that the most likely next move on the government side of the barricades is, at some stage in what is certain to be a terribly hard winter, a de facto military takeover. There are already four generals in the government, including the prime minister. A recent public opinion showed that the army is still popular, coming third only behind Solidarity and the church. But the consequences of using the army to police the nation would be wholly unforeseeable.
The weakness of the government is therefore both a tremendous advantage and a danger to Solidarity. 'The government can no longer govern,' says Kuron, 'because it practically no longer exists'. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Increasingly Solidarity is being, as it were, sucked into power, whether they want it or not. A few days ago there were indications, from no less weighty a figure than Mr Stefan Olszowski, that the authorities might yet be prepared to share some of the responsibilities (though not the trappings) of power with Solidarity and the Church. But the sudden announcement of the doubling of tobacco prices (in one of the heaviest smoking countries in the world) on Saturday night sugested once again that the government is still trying to behave as it did before August.
Solidarity was infuriated: again not so much by what was done as by how it was done. They are perfectly well aware of the need for drastic price rises to start the healing of Poland's crippled economy. But that these should be decided on unilaterally by the authorities without any consultation with the union leadership, and announced without warning on the evening television news in the middle of the congress, this they regard as a provocation. Indeed nothing could be better calculated to strengthen the hand of the movement's radicals.
It is the state of the economy, finally, which ever more fuels the fires of radicalism. 'Men do not live by bread alone,' the German philosopher Ernst Bloch once remarked, 'especially when they have none'. Hunger, like fear, is a bad counsellor. The causes of the appalling shortages of fuel and food are not primarily strikes. It is estimated that only one workday per worker has been lost because of the strikes since August 1980. Many Poles still believe that the shortages have been, at least in part, deliberately created by hardliners in the Party apparatus (the Second Estate) or even in Moscow, with some idea of starving the people into submission. If this were true, then those reponsible should be warned that the effect of these (as of the strongarm) tactics would be the exact opposite of that intended. But Poland's chaotic system of agricultural production, distribution and marketing would most probably have collasped anyway under the weight of its own contradictions.
So if you talk to ordinary Poles they will not mention an improvement in their material standard of living as the change which has been wrought in their lives by a year of Solidarity. Yet there is still a deep, deep reservoir of (often irrational) faith in Solidarity, which hunger does not necessarily drain. This is a country of paradoxes. Entering Year II of the revolution we find that everything is much worse and everything is much better. 'Its hard to describe exactly,' said the Cracow don. 'It sounds silly, but people are just feeling better.' A waiter was more decided: 'Its like before the War' he confided. He was 30 at most. When I asked workers in a Poznan factory what was the most important change in their lives since last August they pointed to the cross on the wall. 'That' they said in unison. One of them went on to explain that until August they were afraid to speak their minds in the factory. If sacked they could scarcely hope to find another job, since the employer was everywhere one and the same: the state. Now they were not afraid to speak the truth. No longer were they compelled, like most citizens of totalitarian states, to lead double lives, with two languages, two opinions, the public and the private.
If you grasp this you may begin to understand why an outstanding Cracovv theologian, Professor Jozef Tischner, in his sermon to the congress, compared the spread of Solidarity in Poland to the progress of Christianisation, no less. And the spiritual power of Poland's First Estate is the best hope that the country has of coming through this critical winter without bloodshed.
No doubt Solidarity will continue to live dangerously. The appetite for freedom grows with what it feeds on. And in few places is that appetite more voracious than in Poland. When a small group of schoolchildren (yes, schoolchildren) in Gdansk founded an underground opposition newspaper, The Polish Pupil, in June 1979, the month of the Pope's election, they gave it this motto: 'Dangerous freedom is dearer to me than safe bondage'. There's many a Western school teacher could take a lesson from those Polish pupils.