Four drunken Polish youths, four distant, misty figures, acrobatically avoid a fall, then vanish mysteriously into the fog. It was our last evening in Warsaw and the surreal image was richly symbolic. The next morning, I sat opposite a secretary of the Polish Communist Party (P.Z.P.R.) as he pondered aloud the immediate task–the inclusion of the opposition in the socialist system. Poland, ever the pioneer, was once again venturing into uncharted territory. The road, however, was full of pitfalls and characteristically Polish paradoxes.
Two recent waves of strikes, one in April and May and the other in August, awakened the opposition and altered the political climate. The movement, however, had neither the sweep nor the splendor of the famous summer of 1980, and the government was no longer compelled to yield. That it chose nevertheless to negotiate with Lech Walesa, hitherto dismissed as an irrelevant "private person," was a tacit if obvious admission of the bankruptcy of the government’s previous line. The reborn labor movement, Solidarity, could not be bypassed this time in any serious drive for economic reform and recovery.
What are the chances of a genuine "historic compromise"? A compromise in this context should be conceived not as a conversion, a match, an alliance between the government and the opposition but rather as a set of mutually acceptable rules of the game, to serve for a given historical period, a game each side would naturally play in the hope of winning. The prevailing impression at the end of a recent ten-day journey in Poland with my wife is of the closing of an era, the dwindling of an ideology, the collapse of a system–and perhaps not only in Poland. Things just can’t go on as they have, everybody proclaims. The old order is coming to an end; but a new one is not yet ready to take its place.
Pressures for Compromise. What Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski and his men need most is a degree of popular support. Nobody is giving them the slightest benefit of the doubt. Some Poles speak of their masters as fools, others as knaves. But Poland’s rulers are unanimously blamed for the mess and judged utterly incapable of extricating the country from it.
One’s first, superficial impression of Warsaw is of prosperity, at least for some. The elegant Nowy Swiat ("New World”) street had been cleaned and smartened up for the visit of Mikhail Gorbachev. The menus in the growing number of restaurants are no longer "historical documents." Rationing, to some extent, is being applied in Western fashion–by the pocketbook. My friend Krysia was deeply shocked when after an excellent dinner for four I picked up the bill for 15,000 zlotys, half her monthly salary as a hospital psychologist. (The dollar is worth just under 500 zlotys at the official rate and over four times as much on the black market –or I should say gray, since Poles are allowed to have dollar accounts. About $3.4 billion are deposited in Polish banks, and it is estimated that almost as many are to be found in Polish socks. To understand how expensive various goods are for the Poles, consider that the official average monthly salary for the first half of this year amounted to 43,800 zlotys, and that 61 percent of Poles in fact earned less than that.)
As I spoke with people here, I quickly understood that the strikes, although isolated to begin with and carried by the proles alone this time without white-collar support, had transformed the mood of the intelligentsia. At the beginning of this year, many intellectuals were ready to dismiss Solidarity as a saga of the past, a beautiful page of history that it was now time to turn. Today the whole opposition is superficially united around the principle that no deal, no collaboration with the authorities is possible without the prior recognition of Solidarity as an independent, autonomous union. The Poland of the last twenty years is the best place to study the impact that shifts in the labor movement have had on the mood and influence of the intelligentsia.
I was also given some rapid answers about the prospects for a compromise. Indeed, people supplied so many reasons that the rulers should seek one that I can only summarize them. First the domestic considerations. For any package of economic reforms to stand a chance, the government needs popular support, which an arrangement with the Catholic hierarchy alone cannot provide: A deal with authentic representatives of the labor movement is required. The strikes, though not national in scope, are likely to happen again. Without a pact, they could become a permanent feature of the system. There is also the risk that the next stoppage might lead to a real explosion. "It need not be majestic and orderly like m 1980," said one Solidarity activist. "It might be bloody like in 1970, when strikers tried to storm party headquarters. And a Walesa might prove unable to keep it in check."
International considerations are no less imperative. Poland has a debt of $36.4 billion to Western creditors alone. Rightly or wrongly, it is assumed by the authorities in Warsaw that the spectacular signing of a treaty with the opposition would lead to better terms, bigger credits, higher investments–all measures likely to insure a smoother transition to a different economic model. Finally there is the transmutation of the Russian card in the Polish game. Adam Michnik, whose flat is littered with copies of the Russian journals Ogonyok and Literaturnaya Gazeta, was the first to stick his neck out by proclaiming the importance of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. By now Michnik’s views are almost commonplace. The facts speak for themselves. A few years ago the risks of an intervention by the Soviet Union was a major concern in Polish calculations. Now it is thought that General Jaruzelski has a fairly free hand, although bloodshed in Poland would not enhance Gorbachev’s international prestige.
Most Poles, it must be said, do not yet share Michnik’s wise fascination with things Russian. While we were in Poland, Warsaw celebrated "Moscow Week.” The hotel was full of Russian actors and athletes; of sophisticated young gymnasts acting like starlets and bemedaled veterans looking like Brezhnev resurrected. Among the shows available we picked an exhibition of political posters. We were able to study the attacks on bureaucracy, pollution and war at our leisure, since we were the only visitors in the hall. It may take some years of Gorbachevism before Poles once again seek light in the East.
Of Frogs and Apparatchiks. If so many reasons prompt the authorities to negotiate, why the prevailing pessimism? The question was first answered with the hackneyed old tale about the frog that is persuaded to carry a scorpion across the river on the ground that, should it sting, they would both drown. It went ahead and stung anyway, for such is the nature of the beast. Nice as a parable, it was rather thin as an explanation.
Bronislaw Geremek, the distinguished medieval historian and perfect linguist who is one of Walesa’s chief advisers and the opposition’s de facto foreign secretary, quips that the compromise "is badly compromised." Far from denying the pressures on the government to reach an agreement, he told me over dinner that they might bear fruit in the long run, and spoke of "pragmatists" in the leadership who were apparently ready to take risks for the sake of potential success. Against this, however, he set the fear of the unknown, the power of inertia and the active resistance of large sections of the apparatus. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Walesa’s other chief adviser, had drawn my attention to a television news program in which General Jaruzelski, on a visit to Poznan, was berated by a diehard follower: "You had promised never to talk to [Walesa and Co.], and you are letting us down." One participant in preparations for a planned government-opposition roundtable, told me a story in the same vein. A party leader, asked whether the apparatchiks might not be frightened of economic reform, allegedly replied, "They’re not, because they don’t really know what reform stands for. But they do know what Solidarity stands for."
A party really determined to reach an agreement would have had to educate its followers, prepare them for concessions. But the P.Z.P.R. was doing just the opposite. Trybuna Ludu, the party paper, was publishing daily poison-pen portraits of key Solidarity figures and all sorts of statements ruling out union pluralism. Geremek gave these examples to justify his growing pessimism about the possibility for immediate change. The nomination of Mieczyslaw Rakowski as Prime Minister was taken by everyone at Geremek’s dinner table as an equally gloomy sign. Rakowski, former editor of Polityka, for years the brightest weekly in Eastern Europe, is still viewed in the West as a liberal. But in Poland he is regarded as an enemy of Solidarity. When forming his government, Rakowski offered the job of Deputy Prime Minister to a moderate oppositionist close to the Catholic Church. The man turned it down. In his vanity Rakowski failed to grasp that accepting the job at this stage–before the negotiations–would have been a betrayal of Solidarity that even a moderate could not contemplate.
The meeting between Lech Walesa and Gen. Czeslaw Kiszczak, Minister of the Interior, had been a sign, so the argument ran, that the authorities were finally resigned to reach some understanding with the labor movement–the inevitable price of a long-term solution. Rakowski’s appointment meant the rejection of this sacrifice and a renewed search for a shortcut. This new postponement might be only a final fling, but nobody can measure its real cost, one close adviser to Walesa told me. There was a wistful note here, reflecting some bitterness. The adviser knew full well what Walesa had to stake in order to bring the August strike to a halt and initiate talks without real guarantees. With the negotiations broken off, would he be able both to remobilize the mass movement and to prevent it from exploding? To find out the mood of the workers who were questioning Walesa’s leadership, one had to talk to young protesters on the spot. From dinner at Geremek’s, then, we went straight to Warsaw’s central station to catch the night tram to Gdansk.
Angry Young Proles and "Senators." There used to be a banner next to the Gdansk railway station that proclaimed, with ironic truth: "The working class–the leading force of the nation." It is no longer there. In its place is "There is no freedom without responsibility," which in Polish, both in rhythm and rhyme, is the official response to the opposition slogan, "There is no freedom without Solidarity." As we walk toward the sixteenth-century town hall, the beautiful Hanseatic city is barely stirring. We have waited until 6 before waking our hosts, a young couple house-sitting for an absent friend, whose flat serves as an auxiliary information center for the movement. Our tact was a mistake: We gave them a fright because the police now wait until 6 as well.
It’s all quickly forgotten over tea. The conversation shortly leads to the complaints of the young generation–the absence of a place of their own. Our friends are both 25, just finishing their studies in Polish literature. They will start teaching soon, each at a salary of about 30,000 zlotys a month. She lives with her-in-laws. Fortunately, his parents put him on the waiting list in a housing cooperative and started paying contributions when he was still in his teens. If all goes well, they may have a flat before they are 40. Meanwhile, in their quest for intimacy, they are putting a stove in the shed next to her parents’ vegetable plot, a few miles out of town. "And we are lucky," she says. "For our friends, who register now, unless they have an uncle in America with dollars, they will have to wait twenty-five years or more."
First on my schedule in Gdansk is Walesa, because I had seen him on each of my previous visits I don’t expect him, or even wish him, to make any revelations at this stage, before his talks with the government. I meet him in the parish building next to St. Brigid’s Church. He arrives, driving his minibus, dressed in blue, in a T-shirt, slightly heavier-set than before. In answer to my broad question about historic compromise, he waffles at first about theory and practice, finds his bearings as he talks and ends quite effectively on the vital need for greater democracy, including union pluralism. "Society is ready for it. The authorities will have to accept it sooner or later. Whether they are ready now, that is the question."
Walesa reveals his skill when a woman from Le Figaro, who has joined us, asks him candidly what his line will be in the talks. "I don’t believe in scenarios. My stepfather, before any important meeting, used to mime the whole thing in advance, and I would tease him: What if they bring a cup of coffee at that stage?" The twinkle in his eye has a clear meaning: "You didn’t really expect me, my dear lady, to answer your question and walk naked into the negotiation chamber?" The born leader, the instinctive improviser, still has his wits about him. He will need them more than ever now that his leadership is seriously contested. Yet before I see his young critics I must have a word with another old-timer, Bogdan Borusewicz.
Bogdan, a student who became a full-time activist a dozen years ago, was one of the models for Andrzej Wajda’s film Man of Iron. He now lives in a one-room flat with Alinka Pienkowska, a nurse who was prominent in the 1980 strike. I had not seen Bogdan since 1981. He has spent most of the past seven years underground or in jail. What was the worst thing? I asked him. "The lack of air. They had put a sheet of plexiglass over the window. One evening, when everybody was busy watching the World Cup soccer championship, the quarterfinal between France and Brazil, I smashed it with my stool. Next day the plexiglass was back and my stool was fixed to the floor."
He shrugs. Rather than waste time on personal details, he proceeds with a thoughtful and thorough analysis of this year’s strikes in Gdansk. Yes, it was very tough in May and the strikers felt isolated to begin with. Things improved in August. Yes, the young were particularly prominent; they always are when things get tough. Yes, they were driven by their own preoccupations, but the interesting thing is that they could not be bribed by promises of higher wages. Indeed, the only thing they asked for was their own independent union. Solidarity was reaping the reward for its underground activity, for the maintenance of a skeleton structure, and must now take advantage of the situation to strengthen organization in the factories.
I probably gained something in the eyes of the three angry young men I met next by bringing some pictures of demonstrations that Bogdan had given me. Clearly he was one of the few among their elders not to be dismissed contemptuously as a "senator"– that is, a windbag and sellout. Each of these young activists is from the Lenin shipyards. All three were elected delegates of their shops. I have been told that they were particularly active in starting the May strike and then were always present wherever danger threatened. They are in their mid-20s; they look tough and talk mean. "History," said one, "does not happen, It has to be made." They think Walesa was splendid in May and then betrayed them at the end of August. Next time they will have to take things into their own hands, they say. The emphasis is on the rank and file: The proles are the foundation of the movement and leaders are–or rather should be–mere delegates, bound by the wishes of those who elected them. This democratic spirit, however, is coupled with a heavy dose of wishful thinking. It seems to them enough to stick together and fight when necessary for the "Reds" to yield and a new era to begin.
The discussion ends in song. Zbyszek is the composer and plays the guitar. He is the tallest of the three, covered with tattoos. One song is a bitter complaint addressed to the zomos, the special police squad: "Because a prole dares to fight for something, you have to belabor his kidneys " But you can’t frighten those "splendid men," the shipyard workers: "We shall not give in to the cops easily, because our heart is yearning for a fight." It’s a rather lively mixture of agitprop and American western.
The radicalism of these activists is not the only mood in Gdansk. The leader of the strike committee at the Gdansk repair yards, who Joins us an hour later, is quite different. He meticulously recounts the story of the strike, his efforts to cheer up the workers when they were surrounded by troops. He, too, ended the strike with iron in his soul when Walesa returned empty-handed, but his attitude toward the Solidarity leadership is incomparably more friendly.
Finally, we get a sample of a third component of the young generation. Malgorzata, who still looks like a student, is a representative of WiP, the Polish acronym for Freedom and Peace. This small youth movement has achieved what everyone wagered was impossible through hunger strikes, stubbornness and imagination, It forced General Jaruzelski to grant legal status to conscientious objectors. Frail in her black dress, Malgorzata is not carried away: The new law can be invoked only on moral or religious grounds, not political ones, and the commissions that rule on these cases are packed with people close to the regime. The first decisions have been bad, but WiP has lodged appeals. This is just the beginning of the movement.
WIP is a loose association, she explains, whose only binding decisions are those reached democratically by national assembly. Anyone can join, and the temper of the organization varies from region to region, influenced more by ideas of independence in one place, by anarchism in another. She agrees that WiP is the nearest thing in Poland to the Greens and the Western antinuclear movements, with which it has contacts. But its main activity is still assistance to conscientious objectors Ecology is the next concern. Poland has not yet reached the stage of a critique of productivism (except, say the wits, in practice), and, though women are very active both in the economy and the opposition, feminism still has to make tremendous strides.
How seriously should one take the views of the three young Lenin shipyard rebels? A local lawyer, who knows the group and has no sympathy for its brand of radicalism, says that, while not representative, they are symptomatic. Many young workers at the yards come from outside Gdansk, often from the countryside. They live in hostels, do not have the best jobs and lack the contacts that would allow them to make money on the side. Add to that the frustrations of the young couple whose life together will only begin at 40, and one can understand why the risk of an explosion has to be taken into account in any assessment of Poland’s future.