Hardly had the Nobel Peace Prize committee announced that Solidarity leader Lech Walesa was its 1983 laureate but President Reagan and other cold warriors began praising the choice as another victory for the free world. We asked Daniel Singer to give us a view from the European left. –The Editors
The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Lech Walesa was belated. If it had been bestowed a year earlier, it would have been seen as a clear condemnation of the military coup in Poland and a tribute to the workers’ resistance. Honoring Walesa was obviously a political act. The Swedish jurors are not in the habit of hailing labor heroes in the struggle against capitalism. When French labor leader Léon Jouhaux won the Peace Prize in 1951, it was for splitting the French labor movement.
But better late than never, and, intentionally or not, the Stockholm jury has paid a tribute to the Polish working class, whose struggle during the last thirteen years has opened up possibilities of change throughout the Soviet bloc Walesa is neither the man of marble not the man of iron; he is the man of the movement. A man of action rather than a theoretician, a leader who hears voices but keeps his eye on the main chance, he is intimately connected with the struggle of the workers. He is also more than just a symbol of Polish resistance.
In a way, he exemplifies a Polish labor movement in transition. Though he just turned 40 last month, Walesa was considered the "old man" by his fellow strikers. Many of his younger colleagues are about to cross the frontier that separates laborers from technicians, while he has only crossed the one between countryman and townsman, and he retains the peasant’s sly wit. He has participated in all phases of the workers’ battle in Poland. In the winter of 1970, when the shipyard workers won in blood the right to question publicly the government’s economic policies, Walesa was a member of the strike committee in Gdansk. Six years later he took part in the new wave of protests. I n 1978 he was one of the handful of workers who, inspired by KOR, the Workers Defense Committee, formed the provisional body that laid the groundwork for Solidarity.
His great moment came on August 14, 1980. When he climbed over the fence of the Lenin Shipyard, he entered the pages of history. After those seventeen days, that are still shaking the Soviet world, he signed the Gdansk agreement, in which the Polish Communist Party agreed to allow workers to form an Independent union. During the occupation of the shipyard, he demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for gauging the mood of the strikers, for knowing how far they would go. His reply whenever a proposal was brought to him was, "If I go to the gates [where the strikers gathered] they will applaud me or they will sweep me aside."
In the following sixteen months, he was the undoubted, though certainly not the undisputed, leader of Solidarity. It can be argued that during this period the movement, like its leader, showed more talent for riding out the storm than for mobilizing for long-term projects. But we should remember that by mid-1981 Solidarity had sketched the outline of a national program of democratic socialism based on worker councils and worker-managed factories On December 13 of that year, General Jaruzelskl’s tanks put an end to plans for social experiments.