Four drunken Polish youths, four distant, misty figures, acrobatically avoid a fall, then vanish mysteriously into the fog. It was our last evening in Warsaw and the surreal image was richly symbolic. The next morning, I sat opposite a secretary of the Polish Communist Party (P.Z.P.R.) as he pondered aloud the immediate task–the inclusion of the opposition in the socialist system. Poland, ever the pioneer, was once again venturing into uncharted territory. The road, however, was full of pitfalls and characteristically Polish paradoxes.
Two recent waves of strikes, one in April and May and the other in August, awakened the opposition and altered the political climate. The movement, however, had neither the sweep nor the splendor of the famous summer of 1980, and the government was no longer compelled to yield. That it chose nevertheless to negotiate with Lech Walesa, hitherto dismissed as an irrelevant "private person," was a tacit if obvious admission of the bankruptcy of the government’s previous line. The reborn labor movement, Solidarity, could not be bypassed this time in any serious drive for economic reform and recovery.
What are the chances of a genuine "historic compromise"? A compromise in this context should be conceived not as a conversion, a match, an alliance between the government and the opposition but rather as a set of mutually acceptable rules of the game, to serve for a given historical period, a game each side would naturally play in the hope of winning. The prevailing impression at the end of a recent ten-day journey in Poland with my wife is of the closing of an era, the dwindling of an ideology, the collapse of a system–and perhaps not only in Poland. Things just can’t go on as they have, everybody proclaims. The old order is coming to an end; but a new one is not yet ready to take its place.
Pressures for Compromise. What Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski and his men need most is a degree of popular support. Nobody is giving them the slightest benefit of the doubt. Some Poles speak of their masters as fools, others as knaves. But Poland’s rulers are unanimously blamed for the mess and judged utterly incapable of extricating the country from it.
One’s first, superficial impression of Warsaw is of prosperity, at least for some. The elegant Nowy Swiat ("New World”) street had been cleaned and smartened up for the visit of Mikhail Gorbachev. The menus in the growing number of restaurants are no longer "historical documents." Rationing, to some extent, is being applied in Western fashion–by the pocketbook. My friend Krysia was deeply shocked when after an excellent dinner for four I picked up the bill for 15,000 zlotys, half her monthly salary as a hospital psychologist. (The dollar is worth just under 500 zlotys at the official rate and over four times as much on the black market –or I should say gray, since Poles are allowed to have dollar accounts. About $3.4 billion are deposited in Polish banks, and it is estimated that almost as many are to be found in Polish socks. To understand how expensive various goods are for the Poles, consider that the official average monthly salary for the first half of this year amounted to 43,800 zlotys, and that 61 percent of Poles in fact earned less than that.)
As I spoke with people here, I quickly understood that the strikes, although isolated to begin with and carried by the proles alone this time without white-collar support, had transformed the mood of the intelligentsia. At the beginning of this year, many intellectuals were ready to dismiss Solidarity as a saga of the past, a beautiful page of history that it was now time to turn. Today the whole opposition is superficially united around the principle that no deal, no collaboration with the authorities is possible without the prior recognition of Solidarity as an independent, autonomous union. The Poland of the last twenty years is the best place to study the impact that shifts in the labor movement have had on the mood and influence of the intelligentsia.