THE POLISH AUGUST: The Limiting Revolution. By Neal Ascherson. The Viking Press. 320pp. $14.95.
SOLIDARITY: Poland in the Season of its Passion. By Lawrence Weschler. Simon and Schuster. 222 pp. $16.SO.
THE POLISH COMPLEX. By Tadeusz Konwicki. Translated by Richard Loztrie. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 211 pp. $12.95.
In August 1980 the Gdansk shipyard workers astonished the world by winning the right to set up a genuinely independent labor union. In December 1981 the tanks of General Jaruzelski put an end to this chapter in the story of the Polish labor movement. In the intervening months Poland was constantly in the headlines, but that does not mean the Western public had a clear idea of the historical Importance of what was happening there. The three books under review are designed to help remedy that. Neal Ascherson, a British journalist, tries to put the Polish crisis in historical perspective. Lawrence Weschler, an American reporter, tells us how Poland looked and felt in May and September 1981. Tadeusz Konwicki, the Polish novelist, who published The Polish Complex in samizdat three years before Gdansk, gives us a symbol for Solidarity’s rise and fall: Poles standing in line and waiting not for Godot but for a miracle.
Ascherson has covered Eastern Europe for more than a quarter of a century. He has learned a lot. he writes elegantly, and he has an obvious sympathy for his subject. For a Western reader ignorant of Polish history, The Polish August has the great merit of showing that Solidarity did not come out of the blue. His discussion of pre-war Poland–Pilsudski and his colonels, the backward Catholic Church, the reactionary National Democracy of Roman Dmowski–is a useful antidote to the recent idealization of Poland’s past.
Most coverage of Poland has focused on the highlights: the Poznan riots of 1956, the student defeat of 1968, the workers’ bloody achievement of “veto power” in the winter of 1970-71, the confirmation of that victory six years later and, finally, the Gdansk climax of August 1980. Ascherson fills in the valleys between these peaks, and what the story loses in drama, it gains in precision. The snag comes when he recounts the saga of Solidarity, the “self-limiting revolution” of the subtitle. Here the author must impose a pattern on history as it happens, and he is less at ease.
One of the numerous foreigners who became fascinated by Poland in 1956, Ascherson seems somewhat puzzled by the new movement. He writes nostalgically of the period when “revisionist” intellectuals took it on themselves to express the will of the people, and rather regrets that Jacek Kuron and other members of the dissident group KOR simply put themselves at the disposal of the workers. Elsewhere he alludes to the danger of the intelligentsia climbing to power on the backs of the workers, a view which occasionally colors his presentation of the facts. Thus, in describing the negotiations In Gdansk, he claims that “the three workers from the presidium–Gwiazda, Bogdan Lis and Zdzislaw Kobylinski–decided…they would be better off without their experts and intellectuals.” The trouble with this account is that most members of the strike presidium were workers, including, of course, Lech Walesa himself. There were but a few exceptions, like the above-mentioned Andrzej Gwiazda, who is actually a graduate engineer.