Commentary Magazine

Mad Dreams, Saving Graces, by Michael.T. Kaufman

The Rise of Solidarity

Mad Dreams, Saving Graces: Poland: A Nation in Conspiracy.
by Michael T. Kaufman.
Random House. 267 pp. $19.95

Michael T. Kaufman was Warsaw correspondent for the New York Times for three-and-a-half years during the mid-1980’s, a period which, by Kaufman’s account, was devoid of big news events. This was, nevertheless, a crucial time in modern Polish history. For it was during these years that a broad opposition movement became firmly, even irreversibly, implanted, an astonishing development given the country’s recent experience with martial law. At the same time, Poland’s Communist party, which had ruled in typical monolithic fashion since the end of World War II, grew progressively weaker, to the point where it was no longer capable of controlling its independent-minded society. Although Kaufman was reassigned several years before the party’s recent, abject collapse, he has written an intelligent account of the events, personalities, and forces which have combined to bring about the replacement of Communist rule by a broad coalition dominated by the Solidarity movement, the first such Communist setback in postwar Eastern Europe.

Kaufman arrived in Poland during the winding down of martial law, which had been imposed in December 1981 allegedly at the insistence of the Soviet Union. Martial law, or, in the literal Polish translation, “state of war,” was widely seen in the West as having dealt Solidarity a mortal blow. Yet even though the regime had seized and interned some 10,000 opposition figures, including Lech Walesa, it failed even then to eliminate Solidarity from Polish political life. Several of the more important leaders of the free trade union had evaded the initial dragnet; safely hidden from the authorities, these men quickly organized a resistance movement dedicated to subverting the martial-law regime.

By the time Kaufman came on the scene, what began as a loosely coordinated resistance had coalesced into a broad underground society, complete with its own economy, educational system, and, most importantly, communications media in the form of literally hundreds of newspapers and bulletins. A culture of resistance penetrated throughout Polish society, influencing everything from children’s games (Solidarity-versus-ZOMO-riot-police instead of cops and-robbers) to the party’s ritual May Day parades, often interrupted by banner-waving Solidarity partisans. Those Solidarity figures who managed to elude the security forces, like Zbigniew Bujak, became legends to the Polish public, perceived as symbols of national resistance to oppressive, foreign-dominated rule much like the fighters of the Warsaw uprising in an earlier era.

Poland, in other words, could no longer be described as a totalitarian society. True, the regime of General Wojciech Jaruzelski remained in firm command of the instruments of control and coercion. Police presence, moreover, was highly visible, and the huge police-security apparatus, which by some reckoning constituted as much as one-seventh of the Communist-party membership, loomed in the background as a potential independent political force driven by a visceral hatred of Solidarity, intellectuals, and reform. But the combination of martial law (during which military rule partially supplanted party rule), economic deterioration, and the unremitting anti-Communism of the Polish people had weakened the party to the point where it could no longer control people’s actions or thoughts through the subtle, nonviolent manipulation of rewards and sanctions preferred by post-Stalinist regimes. Telling evidence of the party’s disintegration was the fact that fewer than 1 percent of its members were under twenty-four years of age, while fully 36 percent were over fifty. At the same time, the proportion of workers and peasants had dwindled dramatically, replaced by a large influx of officials and bureaucrats. Far from standing as the militant representative of the masses, the Polish Communist party had degenerated into an instrument of and for the functionaries of the party-state.

Yet unlike Hungary’s Communist leadership, which has responded with shrewdness and flexibility in its dealings with the democratic opposition, Poland’s Communists offered the most grudging concessions only under conditions of extreme duress. When Kaufman made a brief return visit after a renewed wave of strikes in 1988, a high party official allowed that the authorities were “condemned to negotiate” with Solidarity, a choice of words which says a great deal about the party’s attitude to the rest of society. In another episode illuminating the regime’s efforts to defame and subvert the opposition, Kaufman tells of being summoned for an interview by Wieslaw Gornicki, a spokesman for General Jaruzelski. The purpose of the meeting was to inform Kaufman, a Jew, of the disgraceful behavior of Wojciech Lamentowicz, a sociologist with oppositionist views, during the anti-Semitic campaign of 1968, when the majority of Poland’s already small Jewish community was purged and hounded from the country. On checking with Lamentowicz and others, Kaufman concluded that the story was an outright fabrication; Lamentowicz had in fact acted decently during what stands as one of the shabbiest incidents in modern Polish history.

This was not to be the only occasion when Kaufman witnessed an attempt by the regime to manipulate the Jewish issue. He quotes an old Polish proverb, “In hard times, go to the Jew,” referring to the periodic practice of Polish nobles and kings to turn to Jewish moneylenders for rescue. In a contemporary twist, the Communist leadership initiated a campaign to establish friendly relations with prominent Jews, especially American Jews, in order to enhance its image and win favors from governments that cared about the treatment of Jews. This strategy failed to impress Kaufman, who was particularly put off by the regime’s eager efforts to depict Solidarity as a haven for anti-Semites. As Kaufman points out, the occasional anti-Semitic remark uttered by a Solidarity figure would bring immediate, unequivocal admonition from Lech Walesa and other union leaders. The Communist party, by contrast, never chastised those implicated in the 1968 anti-Jewish campaign and tolerated the existence of the Grunewald society, a transparently anti-Semitic forum, within its own ranks. Nor had the party ever apologized to or compensated those who had been the victims of 1968, among whom were a number of key Solidarity intellectuals.

Kaufman spends considerable time wrestling with the question of Polish anti-Semitism, and he acknowledges the deep and personal feelings of Jews in the West who believe that Poles are “uniquely and perpetually anti-Semitic.” Ultimately, Kaufman reaches a more optimistic conclusion about Polish attitudes, largely due to his admiration for those within the democratic opposition who have forced Polish society to undertake a frank assessment of its anti-Semitic past. Nor does Kaufman have much sympathy for Western Jewish organizations which judge Poland exclusively on Jewish issues, a stance, he says, which can easily invite manipulation by the party.



Kaufman is not especially optimistic about Poland’s future. He sees a stalemate between a party determined to protect its privileges and a society which is just as resolved to resist Communist rule. As in other Communist countries, the combination of an egalitarian ideology and the ruling elite’s corruption has instilled an apathy toward work and a resistance to changes in the social structure of the kind that would be engendered by free-market reforms. Poles have developed an almost philosophical objection to hard work, not uncommon in societies which regard themselves as under foreign occupation. Meanwhile, polls conducted by the official public-opinion institute give evidence of a new and troubling attitude among the young: a willingness to consider violence against the authorities, something which the militantly nonviolent Solidarity has insistently counseled against. The frustrations afflicting the younger generation are summed up by a worker who related to Kaufman that for five years he had lived in a barracks-like hostel with five men, including a chronic alcoholic, sharing two rooms. Thanks to Communism, he seemed to be saying, even marriage had become an impossibility.

The question now facing Poland is whether the country’s political impasse can be broken by the formation of a non-Communist government. As Kaufman makes clear, the obstacles remain daunting, particularly given the party’s unremitting hostility to Solidarity and its inherent dishonesty in dealing with the Polish people. Nonetheless, a few promising signs can be discerned. Although the security presence remains formidable, and the Ministry of the Interior continues to be headed by a Communist, that minister, General Czeslaw Kiszczak, is also responsible for having weeded out the more thuggish police elements and has recently pledged to depoliticize the police. More crucial is whether the Polish people can overcome the psychological legacy of four decades of Communist rule, especially as reflected in the contradictory attitude of hating Communism while clinging to the hope that the state will resolve the problems of material life. Here too there is a glimmer of hope. Unlike the Communists, Solidarity has earned a measure of popular trust and has produced a group of leaders who not only want change but have realistic ideas about how change can be accomplished. By Kaufman’s altogether credible account, Polish political life is today dominated by men and women of intelligence, courage, and high standards of personal integrity. This is no small achievement for a nation entering a period fraught with uncertainty and danger.



About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

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