Three on Poland

Three on Poland

In August 1980 the Gdansk shipyard workers astonished the world by winning the right to set up a genuinely independent labor union.


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.

Ascherson allows himself little space to record the events after Gdansk; yet he interrupts his narrative for a section in which he analyzes other revolts and the role of intellectuals in general. It’s a discussion which is too short to do justice to its subject, but too long for the structure of his book. (In fairness, it must be added that Ascherson was writing during a revolutionary situation, when the course of events changed rapidly.) Though he provides a four-page postscript on the military coup, he barely brings the story to mid-1981 and the Communist Party congress that July.

It is to be hoped that Ascherson will update his book and discuss the story of Solidarity as thoroughly as he discussed its background, To do that, however, he will have to make up his mind about revolution from below, because the revisionist hopes for revolution from above have most likely been dashed forever.

Keeping up with the pace of events in Poland was, I know from experience, no sinecure. “This is what history feels like before it settles…it’s all wet and squishy and it gets into your shoes.” The words Are Ascherson’s, but they are to be found in Lawrence Weschler’s Solidarity. Weschler, the reporter always in the right place at the right time, is not only, in Christopher Isherwood’s phrase, a camera; he also has an ear for the significant piece of dialogue. (Readers might naturally wonder how the horde of foreign journalists who descended on Poland coped with a language full of tongue twisters. The headquarters of Solidarity, for instance, were in a suburb of Gdansk called Wrzeszcz. A tribute must be paid to Polish interpreters, who, cheap at the exchange rate, were eager to help visiting chroniclers.)

Although, unlike Ascherson, Weschler was new to the Polish scene, he was no innocent abroad. He grasped immediately the gap between life in his Hilton-like hotel and life in the streets, the contrast between the everyday corruption of the Communist regime and lofty Marxist principles. When the articles that form the bulk of this book were first published in The New Yorker, Weschler’s discussion of Polish Jews was singled out for attention. His book, however, contains a great deal more, including unusual information about Muzak and posters and films. How interesting to learn, for instance, that Norma Rae was shown In Warsaw to convey the evils of capitalism, but was perceived by the public as proving the need for strong labor unions!

And Weschler also goes to the heart of the matter–Solidarity. He was there through the Solidarity congress last autumn, and his book is full of revealing quotations. He gives us Karol Modzelewski explaining that “we advance across a series of compromises, each of which is unsatisfactory, but the alternative would be disaster.” We hear Jan Litynski, the dissident former editor of Robotnik (The Worker), proclaiming that “in this country to-day there are two powers and no power.”

In the end, though, Weschler’s is history through impressions. The great value of his book lies in its accounts of changing moods in a country going through an upheaval. We may not be greeting a new pundit on Eastern Europe, but we can certainly hail the birth of a brilliant reporter.

Tadeusz Konwicki’s The Polish Complex is a symbolic, surrealist and very Polish story of people standing in line in front of a Warsaw Jewelry shop on Christmas Eve, waiting for Russian gold rings which turn out to be samovars. The mood of the author narrator ranges from despondency, when he sees Poland as rotten and doomed, to euphoria, when he sees it through an inner eye as the country “where people greet each other with a smile, where a policeman lifts a rose instead of a club. where the air is made of oxygen and truth.” The book is full of prophetic signs: one man announces that “we are returning to a natural economy,” while the hero insists, “yes, you’re right, I am waiting for a miracle.” With most Poles as exasperated as those standing in Konwicki’s line and as eagerly awaiting a miracle, it was not difficult to forecast an explosion.

Unless recently freed, Konwicki is interned somewhere in Poland. But the eighteen months between the beginning of the strikes and the military coup were not a hallucination, and what appeared from outside to be a miracle had its roots in the past; in the altering social structure, in the minds of the working people. Konwicki may even find courage in his own words: “Nameless men have always won their freedom by fighting for it. The name of the heroes are preserved to give us memory and courage…but always, at every moment, good or bad, everytime the earth turns, some nameless man is biting off his handcuffs with his own teeth.”

The Polish workers’ movement is not dead; tomorrow it may spread. It is important to learn about Poland’s recent past, for it is relevant not only to the future of Eastern Europe but to our own future well.

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