Poland--The Taste of Ashes
Blues in the Night
It is our last night in the capital. We have come back from a visit with Zbyszek Bujak, the underground leader of Solidarity in the days of military rule. He has now joined the Union of Labor, a budding social democratic party whose main spokesman is the economist Ryszard Bugaj and that can rely on the prestige of another veteran in the struggle against the old regime, the historian Karol Modzelewski. Bujak, who started as a workers' leader at the Ursus tractor factory, could help them on the shop floor. It is not easy, he argues; people are tired and, disappointed by collective action, are only out for themselves.
We go to the Palace of Culture. Yes, it now boasts a gaming house called Queen's Casino, with lackeys in tails--"penguins," my wife calls them. It is incongruously situated between socialist realist statues carved in the wall, representing a mighty workman and an intellectual carrying Marx's works. What a sad mixture of symbolic associations: the palace itself, Stalin's gift, standing for revolution betrayed and exported; Marx's aspirations distorted in Zhdanovite fashion and then, poison breeding poison, the greatest workers' movement in the postwar period producing a gambling den.
Am I too harsh? As I was walking earlier in the week along the memory trail to Umschlagplatz, from where thousands and thousands of Jews were sent to their death in Treblinka, I was probably already saying goodbye to the town of my early childhood, to the country I returned to in 1980, full of vague hopes that the workers of Gdansk had opened entirely new vistas. It was a historic beginning, even if it did not fulfill all its promises.
It didn't take me three years to find this out. Yet something did snap as I was having lunch in the Sejm with a man for whom I had great sympathy, a student gone to live with the workers--these students were called "colonizers"--somebody who played a key role in setting up the independent labor unions, in organizing the strikes, in the underground political struggle, and who even today is unspoiled by money. Asked, maybe too bluntly, how the capital of Solidarity was squandered so quickly, he replies, "It wasn't. It was invested--invested in the future of our country." Christ almighty! Unbribed and untwisted, but already talking in the wooden tongue of an apparatchik! Is that the fate of all successful revolutions?
But it was not a revolution. In 1980-81 the openings were many. In 1989, deciding there was no alternative, the leadership of Solidarity reduced them to the Thatcherite road to capitalism. This resulted in the Polish paradoxes: In a semirural country, peasants eagerly awaiting capitalism are going to be swallowed by it; the leadership of Solidarity, brought to power by the workers, chiefly by the proletariat from the big plants, accepts as its task the destruction of that movement. Not a pretty sight.
No wonder that Modzelewski, maybe the brightest among these leaders and one of the few who, while changing, remained true to himself, pondered publicly whether the many years he had spent in jail were worthwhile. No outsider can answer such a question. One may, however, suggest that his struggle was not in vain and that the great battles fought by the Polish workers will not vanish without a trace. One of these days the Palace of Culture will be part of the Warsaw landscape as the Sacré Coeur is in Paris; old cleavages will be replaced by new ones and socialism will cease to be a dirty word. This, judging by the ugly face of capitalism in Eastern Europe, may happen sooner than we think. I was repeating this to myself, not just for consolation, as I was leaving Poland, for a long time, with a bitter taste in my mouth.