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What Do the Poles Want?

. . . compared to us our Western friends are sheep and adolescents. They prove with their articles that they know what socialism is; we prove it with our ulcers. After reading a few books, they declare it a paradise; after a few more books, they say it is hell. They don’t know what it is when they visit party secretaries; even now, when they are interviewing dissidents, they still don’t.

George Konrád, The Loser

Once it was only rulers, statesmen, or revered champions of science who attended conferences. These days, people of more modest stations in government, social agencies, and the communications industry are entitled to sit around a table, deliver papers, and deliberate the complexity and destiny of politics, aesthetics, law. Their personal or professional caliber does not necessarily guarantee a conference’s success, let alone practical results. But the synergistic impact of the thousands and thousands of conferences, meetings, seminars, symposiums, and panels that flourish in the West cannot be underestimated.

Conferences tend to be regarded as decorative, yet they do have a formative influence. In the endless and amorphous process of shaping public opinion—our inept sovereign—they connect higher learning with the mass diffusion of information and opinion, often against the will of the mass media. The dissection of topics which may be of only secondary interest to some may appear inconsequential, but it should not be dismissed lightly: cautious thinkers believe that the idle talk of intellectual chatterboxes actually engenders history.

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The First Day

This was a roundtable conference. The subject was Poland—a country that has recently contributed more to the conference industry than any other on earth. It was held a mere eighty miles from the Polish border, in West Berlin. While we may assume that the distance was of little significance either actually or symbolically, it meant a lot to me.

From the outset, it occurred to me that I was less interested in what was going to be said here than in my own reactions to it, so that I could participate most profitably by remaining as detached as possible. Such subjectivity is not, of course, de rigueur at conferences. The observer at such events is supposed to extract faithfully the gist of all points of view presented, evaluate them fairly, convey some sense of the general atmosphere, and then and only then inject a few reflections of his own. Nothing, however, could have been further from my impulses when I took my place at the table. Even before the first speaker had finished talking, I was already formulating my rejoinders, in a display of presumption which I can only compare to a sudden outbreak of mental illness: a sort of temporary schizophrenia which afflicts the mental state of anyone who has actually lived under a totalitarian regime when faced with a group of people who deal with such regimes professionally—as diplomats, journalists, scholars. Having spent most of my life under Hitler and Stalin, I see Nazism and Communism not as abstractions but as personal enemies. I tend to anthropomorphize them in a way that appears unintelligible to those who have not shared the experience.

Although there is, I agree, a bit of phoniness in the posture of a better-informed victim, I firmly believe that the understanding of a totalitarian reality is inseparable from an organic and empirical relationship with it. My fellow Americans in particular (since I am now one of them) seem uncomprehending when I try to describe my former condition. For them freedom is like breathing, and they no more notice its presence than they notice the presence of oxygen in their air supply. Americans are not the only ones who find it hard to understand the nature of totalitarian reality. Soon after I defected, I talked in Paris to a prominent Polish editor in exile who had spent his life in the West doing battle (and quite successfully) against Communism. Our conversation took place at the time of a state visit to France by a top Polish Communist who had been directly instrumental in my Warsaw miseries and humiliations. “You understand nothing,” I told my interlocutor, “you weren’t there.” “Would that guy who’s talking in the Elysée Palace with the French President understand you any better?” sneered the editor. “Of course,” I said, with no hesitation. “The hunter and his prey are linked by an identical sense of reality; they both know something others don’t.”

My own meditations aside, the conference itself can only be called a very successful one. Convened by the prestigious Aspen Institute-Berlin, it was presided over by a moderator who combined sartorial excellence with a gift for wit and a sense of order firm enough to bring the most diverse intellections into focus. In attendance were Americans and Germans, Poles and Britons, government officials and press people, all suffused with good will, agreement, and intellectual harmony. So unified were we that a sort of Salvation Army spirit pervaded the exchanges, saturating even opposing views with the gentlest bonhomie. Why then at this veritable banquet of good intentions could I not shake the feeling of irrelevance, and the growing realization that the gap between perception and comprehension was as vast here as it is everywhere else?

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The majority of my fellow conferees, even the most insightful among them, used the plural “Poles” when speaking of Polish Communist officialdom, apparently not cognizant of the fact that in Poland, since 1945, the Communists have been considered a category apart from the rest of the nation, a subgroup without clear-cut national definition. They may call themselves Poles, but in those deep layers of collective consciousness where the sense of a commonly accepted propriety resides, a distinction is made between them and us, and they are referred to almost universally in the third person.

This distinction, sealed into the very fabric of the Polish reality, somehow escapes the recognition of Westerners. Thus, no American is able to comprehend the bitter frustration of a Pole on reading daily headlines like “Poland Takes Action Against Striking Miners.” What Poland? Why should those who slaughter miners be designated Poland just because they hold brutal sway over the nation’s territory and have stolen and falsified Polish national emblems and signs?

Like the citizens of my mutilated former homeland, I still retain a nonpolitical approach to politics. That is why I felt so apart from the other conferees, as they painstakingly scrutinized every detail of the interplay among the Communist party, the Church, and Solidarity, and drew minute distinctions among the various factions and individuals within these bodies. My table partners were perfectly ready to agree that the basic struggle in Poland is between the society as a whole and Communism. They seemed to have understood that the intangibles of personal yearning, suffering, and alienation form the very core of this fight; but somehow the crux of the matter was lost as they noted all the other aspects to be pondered, negotiated, and perhaps even resolved by the combined impact of Western economic help, political maneuvering behind the scenes, and tough but “pragmatic” dialogue with the supreme supervisor in Moscow. “No,” I constantly wanted to shout, “there is one issue only, that of Communist power, whose legitimacy the Poles have refused to accept ever since Yalta, and will never accept. The West must do something about that essential factor, and if it doesn’t, it’s the West that will be the loser.”

There was more too that I wanted to add: that the West must honestly and thoroughly reevaluate its notion of Communist power, something it has never really done, and that only then will it finally understand—for the good of the so-called “captive nations” but for its own good as well—that the main principle of Communist strategy is never really to negotiate anything with anybody, even while pretending to do so. The Hungarians and the Czechs tried unsuccessfully to tell the world about the fraudulence of Communist negotiations, but only the Poles have succeeded, though only to a limited extent, in making the issue more visible. The Poles have lost the latest round, but they will never stop knocking at the walls of the dungeon, which is, actually, not the Poles’ but the West’s problem. Yet none of this did I succeed in making clear, since my views were emotional rather than analyses of changing political realities.

Instead, I listened as a West German representative of one of the major parties involved in the formulation of Ostpolitik got up and delivered a sensible, kindhearted plea for priority aid to the Poles at any cost and through every possible channel of assistance. Here was a gentleman overwhelmed by the spirit of sharing who was perverting the idea of giving. What he said sounded both humanitarian and honorable, but for all his solicitude, it was actually an appeal for unconditional maintenance of the political status quo, whereas the whole point of the Polish effort was the positive rejection of the status quo. Following the German, there arose an Englishman of methodical cast of mind who asked the speaker whether he actually knew what the Poles really wanted, or was offering his compassion and generosity without consulting their wishes. The German theoretician ducked the question: he insisted good-naturedly on finding a solution whereby all parties would be reconciled and happy. I tried to say something myself on this sunny but dangerously naive proposition, but the sheer effort of describing the chasm between East and West made me sound in my own ears a trifle incoherent.

It is true that, en masse, the Poles, like everybody else, want peace, security, a decent living. But above all what they want is a modicum of purposeful and effective control over their own lives. For the individual, the central question of human existence in Communism is the all-pervading sense of the futility of any endeavor. It is not even political freedom that is at stake, but simply the freedom to exist on one’s own terms, that rudimentary natural right established in 18th-century Europe and America as an immutable human privilege and accepted in all democratic societies as a given. This freedom to pursue individual happiness within the framework of agreed-upon laws is what Communism abolishes the instant it is installed in power. Yet the organic human claim to it will not be obliterated. Marxism-Leninism may have relegated this claim to the dustbin of history, but the Poles have dug it out again, whisked off the dust and filth, and polished it into a shining crucifix behind which they have already marched three times and will march again—regardless of settlements made among the reigning powers.

Along with the German Ostpolitik ideologist, I heard some engaging remarks at the conference from a high-powered West German banker, deeply enmeshed in the $30-billion Polish debt to the West. He gave an honest and detailed account of past mistakes and miscalculations, as well as present options, and closed his statement with the astonishing assertion that the one thing the German bankers had not anticipated was the personal liking they had come to feel for the Polish banking officials in charge of doing business with the West. This was a moving confession, sentiment being so rarely invoked as a factor in financial catastrophes. Still, I remarked that Stimmungs-politik (mood politics) may be as unreliable as Realpolitik, and that the German bankers had found themselves in the same situation as Napoleon, who based his attitude toward the Poles on the lovableness of one Polish lady.

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The Second Day

The foreign-policy experts, diplomatic personnel, scholars, journalists, and economic activists around the table seemed preoccupied with two matters: penetrating the psychology and habits of top political leaders, and keeping abreast of all measurable data coming out of Poland. Everyone seemed amazingly well-versed in the nuances of the shifting power game wherein classic Polish imponderables play all the important roles: the Church and its acolytes, the junta and its neatly categorized lineup, the protagonists of KOR and Solidarity. Yet the word most frequently heard at the conference was “Andropov.” Had the delegates been polled, I suspect they would all have agreed that Andropov is the controlling element, the only real clue to what will happen in Poland. So often did Andropov’s name come up that in my imagination he began to assume the attributes of the Sun King: perhaps, I thought, the world should watch the First Secretary at his morning ablutions, to divine his mood correctly.

I did not share in this assessment of Andropov’s power. I tend to distrust the concept of history as a function of despots, and anyway I do not believe Andropov or anyone else is capable any longer of undoing what Solidarity has achieved in Poland. For the first time since Lenin invented it and Dzerzhinsky blueprinted it, the Communist infrastructure of power and terror has been broken—though at what great cost to themselves, only the Poles will ever really know. One who was never an object of such institutional violence will never understand its mechanism for reducing humans to animated particles. Thus, any damage done to the bedrock of Communist evil is a feat of historic dimension.

Yet it seems that in 1982, during an interview with the Voice of America, commenting on Solidarity’s apparent defeat, I outdid myself with enthusiasm for its indestructible achievement. I lauded the glory of those who had shown the world the real face of socialism, even if they had now suffered a temporary setback and were too sunk in gloom to acknowledge their historic accomplishments. Many months later, I received a letter from a bright young journalist, a fierce and dedicated Solidarity man who had been badly scarred as a prisoner in the detention camps set up by Jaruzelski after the crackdown. He wrote: “I listened to you. My memory of your words still hurts me. You made some clever phrases about what a weird people we Poles are for grieving at this moment instead of rejoicing at the historic victory we had won. It was strange listening to your voice on that December night, from far-away, unreal America. Where did you ever find reasons for such euphoria, and what was all that talk about history? In the Poland of those days history was like outer space to us. . . . How could you of all people have addressed yourself to the inevitable logic of history—you, who were also trampled with dirty boots in the name of those same immutable historical laws?”

He was right. Reading his words, I suddenly felt myself in the same company as all the well-heeled Western sympathizers with the “oppressed,” babbling about the new order from the safety of America’s shores. There is such a thing as taste in the exercise of political conscience, and I had violated it, showing myself guilty of that moral tactlessness which is the besetting sin of the liberal mentality. But how could I possibly convey any of this to the conference without blatant exhibitionism?

All over the West, an effort has already gotten under way to purge the Polish experiment of its anti-Marxian and anti-socialist substance. The energies of one important sector of the non-Communist Left have been harnessed to demonstrate through periodicals, books, and other channels that what Solidarity represented was a heroic attempt to salvage the Holy Grail of Marxian socialism from the paws of Communist brutes. The point is to convince the world that the Polish worker rejects Communism but still retains the socialist creed and hopes for a better life under the sun of a collectivized, bureaucratic system of governance and values. Many of the clichés of leftist melodrama have been taken out of storage for this purpose, turning the Polish shipyard worker into a proletarian hero out of Bertolt Brecht or Pete Seeger—all this on the shaky theory that Polish Catholicism is politically radical and Polish trade unionism is organically anti-capitalist.

When I keep proposing that what the Polish worker wants is capitalism, pure and simple, I routinely confront the most acrimonious disbelief. Small wonder, for to say such things is to spoil the reveries of the many nice people who spent some time in Solidarity’s Poland and came back full of certainties about the new socialist dawn. Which Poles did they talk to, I wonder? Not the seamstresses who conduct semilegal business on the economic fringes of big cities, or the workers in small factories that produce marmalade or plumbing accessories, or the laundry operators, vegetable sellers, and street vendors of belt buckles and umbrellas. Nor, I imagine, did they ever go to the dingy bars where the Poles who try to work at three jobs during twenty-four hours drink their vodka, or sit with them on Sundays at their soccer matches in provincial towns. Had they done so, they would know that what those people want is the freedom to make a living, exactly as in America or West Germany; that capitalism is associated in their minds with a purposeful and effective life, while the very word “socialism,” over recent decades, has acquired a connotation of utter hostility toward the most commonplace human needs and unlimited power to destroy lives.

The ordinary people of Poland have experienced the injustices and indignities that for forty years have been coterminous with the word socialism, and they know that these plagues are infinitely worse than anything capitalism could ever inflict upon them. Just give them a truly free election, and see what happens.

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During the entire Solidarity saga, the Polish Church was treated with veneration by the Western Left, a puzzling attitude when one considers that some crassly reactionary elements are still alive and well within the Church and are still propounding their view that the Freemasons are conspiring with the Communists to erect a kingdom of godlessness on this planet. Indeed, until not so long ago it was this portion of the clergy which determined the Polish Church’s direction. It fell to one man, Cardinal Adam Sapieha, Archbishop of Cracow before and during World War II, to achieve a qualitative change in the chemistry of Polish Catholicism and a redirection of its spiritual assets and energies.

This does not mean that notions of the rebirth of Catholic doctrines of social commitment had not already been floating around in the Polish Church: yet those ideas were usually parochial and reductive, tinged with the modish anti-Semitism of the 1930′s, and confined to quasi-totalitarian visions of a homogeneous, autocratic, corporate society. Western observers of today’s Poland are thus mistaken to think that the Church has always been the central repository of Polish national identity and ethos. During the war years the Church would not have been visible at all as a moral force had it not been for Cardinal Sapieha, who defied the Nazis by saving Jewish children, and Father Maximilian Kolbe, a prewar semi-fascist whose heroic behavior at Auschwitz was a desperately needed gesture of moral grandeur. In the postwar period, too, the influence of the Church on Polish life would probably have been modest had it not been, ironically enough, for Communism which, after 1945, forced it into the spiritual mobilization whose effect we see today.

Cardinal Sapieha grasped the unique chance that had come his way: he made his pact with the best Polish minds of the time, both religious and secular, and turned the spiritual call to arms into an intellectual challenge—quite a novelty in the history of religion in Poland. Under his aegis, a group of Catholic lay progressives began in 1945 to publish Tygodnik Powszechny (“Universal Weekly”), a sophisticated intellectual weekly which served as a platform for every prominent anti-Communist intellectual in Poland, from neo-Thomist philosophers to Jesuit dialecticians to rationalist-liberal men of letters. Protected over the years by the Cracow archbishopric (which the Communists were not too eager to take on), this publication developed a moral tone and a level of sociocultural, polemical commentary without which neither the practical heroism of Cardinal Wyszynski, nor the fighting integrity of Cardinal Wojtyla (now Pope John Paul II), nor the political acumen of Solidarity’s highbrow theoreticians would have been possible. If 1980 Poland represents perhaps the last authentic outburst of passion in the service of Western ideas of freedom and democracy, this possibility was tirelessly worked out over several decades in the editorial offices of this journal.

Thanks to Cardinal Sapieha, the meaning of Christian democracy as a political proposition was transformed. A concept which, before the war, had been redolent of petit-bourgeois obscurantism became, under Communism, the last refuge of the Polish intelligentsia. This was a magnificent victory for the Church, the more so since the intelligentsia had established itself as Poland’s ruling class so securely in the last two centuries that without its support even the Communists could not rule Poland.

Progeny of the impoverished gentry, the Polish intelligentsia crystallized during the I9th century as a class, or caste, of professional patriots. Its leaders were scholars and poets, and its political ideas derived from the abortive Constitution of May 3, 1791, perhaps Europe’s most advanced sociopolitical covenant at that time, which set forth such principles as universal suffrage, natural law, human rights, and parliamentary legitimacy. On these ideals Poland’s intellectuals were nourished for generations.

Always reluctant to give the Church much say in matters of politics and culture, the Polish intelligentsia nevertheless maintained reverential ties with Catholicism as a system of weighty values. If the American press has a problem categorizing the current Pope—is he progressive or reactionary?—it is because he is in some ways more a product of the Polish intelligentsia than of the Church itself. Indeed, he is a telling example of the symbiosis between these two worlds.

The West has never really understood the make-up of the Polish intelligentsia as a coherent class or pursued any real attempt to win it over as an ally, despite the fact that this group, obsessed with independence and dignity, is anti-Communist to its core. To be sure, every Western journalist has done his share of marveling over how, in Poland, novelists, poets, and critics enjoy so much respect and social influence. But the underpinnings of this phenomenon have never been investigated.

During the 50′s, some perceptive American diplomats detected the discrepancy between the stereotype of the Polish intelligentsia (romantic-religious-nationalist) and its nonconformist tendency to subvert Communism through offbeat behavior and manners (as by adopting Western clothes and music). This should have served notice of a serious demand for social and political influence, yet the opportunity was squandered when the United States turned its attention instead to a group of “revisionist” Communist functionaries who had embarked upon a mission impossible to reform Communism and give it a human face. Grants and fellowships were showered on these people, trips abroad were facilitated by the American embassy, to expose them to civilized democratic existence and, in turn, make them amenable to political compromise. In fact, some of them actually defected to America. Most, however, returned to the party fold in brand new Brooks Brothers blazers and with Zenith stereos, smilingly assuring the Americans (who were footing the bills) of their good intentions, and then going on to expedite any vile assignment handed down by Gomulka or his successor, Gierek. Two decades later, most of Poland’s eccentric intellectuals ended up among Solidarity’s strategists and theoreticians, while the prime representative of the revisionists, Vice Premier Rakowski—whom the State Department had wined and dined and brought together with President Kennedy for a friendly chat—became Solidarity’s hangman.

All these things I did not say at the conference, somehow sensing that no one was really interested. My fellow conferees were inclined to think that the image of millions of Poles kneeling before their Pope provided all there was to say about what the Church means in Poland.

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I listen and listen, and the phrase, “Read your Gramsci,” keeps coming back to me. Today, the answers are not in Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, or even Marcuse, all of whom made a study of methods of coercion. Gramsci knew more. He knew that Communism is best imposed not through physical coercion but subtly and insidiously by playing upon the impulse to social compassion that dwells in most of us.

The conference program posed the question: “Does the West, particularly America, have a clear-cut policy toward Poland?” My answer was prompt: certainly not. But this is just part of the problem; the rest is that we have never had a soundly worked-out policy toward Communism itself, our implacable, historical enemy. When a young American diplomat at the table ingenuously asked why we continually referred to Poland’s interests but never to our own, my instinctive response was: “Brother, we don’t even know what our interests are anymore.” When the Poles make trouble for their Soviet overlords this would seem to be good for us, but the Gramscian moles in our society are already busily at work destabilizing this and all other such certainties. In plain terms, our paramount interest is to get rid of Communism just as we have (nearly) gotten rid of the bubonic plague, but we cannot do it by violence, and we will not do it by other means for complex reasons that go far back into the past.

The crux of Communism’s superiority over us is that it has both a scenario for how to do us in and the faith that it can be done. Why bother to wage war if we can be brought to our knees by a combination of hard-core strategic harassment and subtle self-doubt implanted into the very fabric of our civilization and culture? No one in the West has given serious thought to destroying Communism since 1918, while the Communists, ever since the October Revolution, have been thinking both methodically and strenuously about how to liquidate democratic capitalism. After World War II, when the Communist expansion hit like the outbreak of a dangerous disease, the West had no choice but to resist Communism by force; yet even this decision was soon negated in Cuba, Vietnam, and Angola, and we are now witnessing its negation in Central America as well. Here again Gramsci offers a clue to the way our own liberal sentiments have induced in us a kind of ideological daze, so that the mere wish to destroy Communism is decried as a horrendous one, not just perhaps unfeasible, but abjectly improper, something no decent man ought even to think. Communism after all is an idea, a dream, a promise; it may be flawed, it may indeed have killed 60 million people, but is it not contemptible to think of killing an idea, of murdering a dream?

The Communists are free from this sort of philosophical agonizing. They picture capitalism quite straightforwardly as an obscene, fat slob with a repulsive cigar, which makes it quite easy to visualize killing him. Our own cartoonists, by contrast, have been forcibly restrained—by some invisible hand—from conceiving a graphic metaphor for Communism as evil. The best they can do is caricature its leaders and spies—rather benignly for the most part.

This is why we have never had a relevant policy toward Communism, Soviet Russia, or the satellite arrangement, and why all efforts toward such a policy seem, at least for the moment, futile. Many maintain that there is no need to worry since the Soviet Union needs our existence more than it needs our destruction. Perhaps they are right. In any case, nothing our enemies may do to us could equal what we have done to ourselves.

Soon after my arrival in America, a woman of great wealth and venerable genealogy (statesmen, Senators, corporate chieftains) asked me about Communism. “Communism is hell,” I answered. “So is America,” said she. Said I: “Perhaps, but Communism is a worse hell, and if you Americans tinker too much with your own hell, you’ll end up in the Communist one, and then you’ll cry your eyes out for the American one you lost.” Said she: “You have a lot of nerve to tell us what to do with our country that we created out of wilderness and endowed with a civilization that turned into garbage, oppression, and a broken promise.”

This dialogue had a curious sequel at another dinner table not long after, where the same woman served as hostess to one of my fellow émigrés, a radical scholar known for having rendered base service to the Communists in Poland. He held forth: “America stinks. The Constitution stinks. You Americans had a chance to materialize utopia and botched it. You founded a kingdom of greed, racism, and exploitation. Not until you tear everything down and start from scratch is there hope for America.” Said the woman: “We need people like you. America is blessed by your presence. We can be proud that we are still a haven for minds so penetrating and noble as yours.”

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That is why, with the memory of those two conversations, as well as my knowledge of Gramsci, I tend to behave nicely at conferences which are concerned with the plight of nations under Communism. If only Americans knew how desperately Eastern Europeans crave what they have, we all could look to the future with confidence. But apparently that knowledge is

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