With Zbigniew Bujak, Bogdan Lis, Adam Michnik and their comrades out of jail, there is reason to rejoice. With the Polish government stubbornly refusing to tolerate even a shadow of Solidarity, there is reason to worry. Compared with the exhilarating mood of six years ago, when Poland seemed to chart a road to worker democracy, the prospect is now gloomy. But the events should be seen in a historical perspective and this month of October is one for commemoration. Thirty years ago the joyful Polish “Spring in October” led straight to its bloody counterpoint, the Hungarian insurrection.
Nineteen fifty-six was a momentous year. Nikita Khrushchev’s secret indictment of Stalin, delivered in February at the 20th Party Congress in Moscow, shook the Communist world. Its first reverberations proved strongest in Eastern Europe. The Poles had the good fortune of possessing in. Wladyslaw Gomulka a fallen leader whose rehabilitation was not posthumous: the party reformers decided to put him back in office; As the plenary session of the Central Committee opened on October 19, a mighty Soviet delegation, headed by Khrushchev himself, landed in Warsaw to proclaim its veto. After forty-eight hours of explosive tension throughout the country, the Russians yielded.
The election of Gomulka sketched how far Moscow would tolerate reform within its bloc. The Hungarian events wrote those limits in blood. The two were linked. On October 23, Hungarian students took to the streets to celebrate the Polish success, and the celebration turned into an uprising. Prompted by spreading insurrection, the newly formed government of Imre Nagy was changing course. Here again the Russians hesitated. Then, aided and abetted by the Anglo-French Suez expedition, they struck. On November 4 Soviet troops entered Budapest.
Strangely, this tragedy did not at once kill the revisionist illusion prevailing at the time that the transition from Stalinism would somehow be gradually carried out from above by the leaders, with the help of steady economic progress. It took another tragic invasion, of Czechoslovakia in 1968, as well as the lengthy reign of Leonid Brezhnev, with its absence of both reform and economic progress, to destroy this myth and simultaneously to shatter the once-monolithic international Communist movement. But while hopes for Fabian reform from above dwindled, Poland revealed the scope of pressure from below, foreshadowing the resurrection of an independent labor movement in Eastern Europe and proving that dissident intellectuals may play a role if they manage to join forces with such a movement.
But have not the great expectations been disappointed in Poland as well? Undoubtedly. Yet to say that a movement was defeated is not necessarily to suggest that it was useless or insignificant. From the day Soviet tanks entered Prague it was clear that no reform in Eastern Europe would be safe until the Russian people carry out their own transformation. The crucial position of Russia meanwhile imposes limitations on the movement in Eastern Europe. The revolution, if one may say so, must be a creeping one and self-restrained. But this does not mean that all action is in vain. If the idea of a Fabian solution bestowed on the people was an illusion, the now fashionable propaganda concept of Eastern Europe as permanent hell is a total absurdity.
Today a visitor to Budapest or Warsaw is struck in both cases by the road those very different towns have traveled. Hungary, with its obvious concessions to a market economy, and Poland, with its freedom of speech, mass samizdat and the defiance of dissidents, provide a striking contrast to the Stalinist period. It takes the hypocritical blindness of a Jeane Kirkpatrick to describe the Soviet empire as frozen forever, unchanged and unchanging. History did not come to a stop in Eastern Europe.
The questions on the agenda given this historic perspective concern a changing society. As the Soviet Union is driven to economic reform, postponed in the Brezhnev era, what impact will it have on the political situation? In particular, can the conflict between apparatchiks and managers within the party give scope to the revival of a labor movement there? Will political changes, in Moscow once again precipitate events at the periphery? Can the dissidents outline projects and offer prospects so as to influence those events? Will the rulers have the courage and imagination to change enough to avoid explosions? (It is in this context that the recent events in Poland inspire both hope and worry.) Our problem in the West is how best to contribute, with our very modest means, so that when the movement of reform in Eastern Europe quickens pace–partly through pressure from below, partly through concessions from above–it will head in a progressive direction.