Exploring the Polish Paradox


Exploring the Polish Paradox The Polish August: The Self-Limiting Revolution By Neal Ascherson Viking 299 pp $14 95 Solidarity: Poland in the Season of its Passion By Lawrence Weschler Simon...

...Exploring the Polish Paradox The Polish August: The Self-Limiting Revolution By Neal Ascherson Viking 299 pp $14 95 Solidarity: Poland in the Season of its Passion By Lawrence Weschler Simon and Schuster 221 pp $16 00 Reviewed by Craig Mellow By the time the two-week strike in Gdansk's Lenin Shipyard ended on August 31, 1980, the underpinnings of the Polish government had been effectively destroyed Eastern European Communism depends for its survival on isolating all opposition Now some 350,000 workers in every major Polish industrial center had united to launch strikes of their own, taking up the 21 points of the Gdansk agreement as a standard By the end of October, the national free trade union, Solidarity, would issue demands and warnings in the name of eight million members In undertaking to reconstruct and examine these extraordinary events, Neal Ascherson has written a book of lasting value A British journalist, he has covered Poland on and off for the past 20 years His knowledge of the country is encyclopedic, his insights are comprehensive and astute He seems always aware of the exact position of every piece on the Polish checkerboard?Party, Army, police, workers, peasants, intellectuals, Church—and how its next move will affecl all the others His work steers us briefly through Polish postwar history, and focuses on the first six months of Solidarity A short section was added later to cover February-July 1981, and an even shorter postscript recounts the December military takeover At first glance, not everything the Polish workers wanted in August 1980 appears connected An independent union, uncensored news media and more meat at affordable prices, but also the dismissal of local Party administrators, Saturday night mass on the radio, accounts of Soviet atrocities against the Polish people in their children's schoolbooks, the right to celebrate national holidays, the conversion of a high level bureaucrats' health spa into a public hospital, an earlier retirement age, a five-day work week Solidarity was a largely spontaneous agglomeration of millions of people, each one seeking recompense for a lifetime of deception, insult and privation There was no clear separation of economic, political, religious, and nationalist grievances What the Poles were revolting against is most trenchantly described, ironically enough, in a 1979 report that the Polish Umted Workers' Party (PUWP) commissioned from a group of intellectuals who called themselves Experience and the Future "We are faced with sham planmng and the sham implementation of plans, sham accomplishments in industry, science, the arts and education, the sham declaration and fulfillment of pledges, sham debates, sham voting and elections, sham concern for social welfare and the appearance of government, sham socialism and social work, sham freedom of choice, sham morality, modernity and progress, the opening of ostensibly completed factories and social facilities with great pomp and circumstance, the sham struggle against wrongdoing and the sham contentment of all citizens, sham freedom of conviction and sham justice " After accepting sham concessions in 1956, '70 and '76, the Poles were determined not to be deceived again Unfortunately, Poland lies between the Soviet Union and Germany It is the nation that the Kremlin probably considers most important to its national security The search tor a grand impossible compromise began Following his signing of the Gdansk agreement, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa proudly proclaimed that the strike had been settled "through talking as Poles talk to Poles " Before long, this became more difficult Stamslaw Kama, who took over as First Secretary of the Party from Edward Gierek on September 5, 1980, faced the task of supporting od-nowa—the renewal—while at the same time maintaining a firm enough control to satisfy his masters in Moscow Walesa had to represent his membership's desire to tear the roof off the country without acting as a "political" leader A pattern emerged A week or three of optimistic calm, a government attempt to gam back some ground, a union threat of a general strike, a frantic last minute accord Each time, both sides came away with the feeling they had given in and would have to be tougher during the next round The only hope of breaking this calamitous cycle, Ascherson feels, was provided by the renewal movement that sprang up within the party itself By November 1980, one third of the country's Communists?50,000 strong?were also Solidarity members With other liberal elements in the Party, they brought forward unheard of proposals, including allowing an unlimited number of candidates and holding secret-ballot elections for PUWP offices Most heretically, they adopted Solidarity's model and started to organize "horizontally " The union had made a quantum leap in August by rejecting the established "vertical" negotiation pattern—that is, each trade separately—and insisting that its Inter-Factory Strike Committee speaks for all the Gdansk workers A similar movement within the PUWP would undermine orthodox Leninist principles of Party discipline, opening the possibility for initiatives from the bottom, tor undisguised differences ot opinion between one local organization and another, and e\entuall\ perhaps even for a government that was legitimate in the eves ot the people A month prior to the Ninth Part\ Congress last July however, a highly alarmed Soviet Central Committee sent a long, ominous letter to its Polish counterpart The Russians stated plainly that the "horizontals" were unacceptable, and expressed unusually explicit doubts about Poland's "viability as an independent state" should the "forces of reaction" continue to advance That communication, says As-cherson, "instantly sobered the behavior of the PUWP " The Congress was unprecedented in its wide-ranging debates and democratic procedure, yet Kama and his sham centrist line won out In Ascherson's view, when this happened any real hope for peaceful accommodation with Solidarity disappeared The Party's electing to dig in and preserve the status quo left open only the option of increasing confrontation Martial law was five months away, but it was signaled in July Lawrence Weschler's short book, Solidarity Poland in the Season of its Passion, is far less ambitious than The Polish August It consists of two dispatches Weschler wrote for the New Yorker—one in May 1981, the other in September—plus an epilogue dealing with December His strength is his ability to recreate scenes graphically, and his ear for dialogue Explaining the Poles' historic feeling of persecution, he quotes a Warsaw intellectual "This low, flat country is the cesspool of Eurasia Whenever history backs up to either side of us, the chaos and carnage spill over into Poland " His weakness, which ultimately predominates, is a tendency to be glib, to oversimplify In May, Weschler's Poland is idyllic Nobody really minds standing in line Finlandization is just around the corner He concludes radiantly "The more time you spend in Poland, the more irrelevant the Soviet Army seems After a while, the question of a Soviet invasion just seems beside the point " True, May 1981 was a peaceful month Rural Solidarity had finally won its registration battle, Kama seemed firmly in control of the Party and bent on taking a conciliatory road Still, the Soviet Army is never irrelevant in Poland Four months later Weschler tells us, "the vitality has gone out of life in this sorry autumn " A "surprising number of Poles" are actually hoping for a Russian invasion The first statement hardly squares with the author's own reporting of Solidarity's national convention at Gdansk that September An independent workers' assembly in Eastern Europe that demands to manage its own factories and then sends a letter of support "to the working people of Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, Rumania, Hungary, and all the nations of the Soviet Union" may be seized with collective insanity, it is not lacking in vitality The second assertion, I think, does not bear belaboring Today, both Solidarity and Polish Communism he in rums As for the Party's future, every Marxist knows that history cannot be undone by even the most determined forces of repression Once people have become accustomed to speaking and acting as 10 million solid, it will be no mean feat to make them distrust and spy on each other again On the other hand, Poland's geographical location...

Vol. 65 • July 1982 • No. 14

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