It is a pleasure to watch, on both sides of the Atlantic, the professional prophets of "evil empire" now forced to perform their "agonizing reappraisals." How easy it seemed for them, and politically convenient, to describe the Soviet Union and its bloc as a permanent hell from which there can be no exit. How unkind of Mikhail Gorbachev to render that metaphysical belief and posture untenable. Some of the Western pundits have thereupon scrutinized his reforms as if they themselves were the keepers of socialist democracy. Many more have forecast the reforms’ inevitable failure. Most, though they cannot say it in public, wish hell upon the Russians so as to vindicate their own predictions. In the meantime, however, they can no longer pretend that history in the Soviet Union has come to a final stop, that the earth is standing still. The latest version of "epur si muove" has swept the smug smile off their faces. They must now invent something else to serve their political masters.

The pleasure has its counterpart. Admittedly, we were never blind to the contradictions of Soviet society and to the inevitability of reform. But as those inner pressures come to the surface, they are bound to revive a controversy that used to split the left–namely, the debate over the nature of revolution or of change in general. Should it come from above or from below? The former thesis had its heyday after the last war, when the Red Army was supposed to have brought "socialism up to the Elbe." It collapsed altogether as Eastern Europe and then the world discovered the dire consequences of a social transformation without popular support and participation. There is no question of reviving that thesis. Socialism, no gift from heaven, cannot be achieved by relying on the benevolence of rulers. Nevertheless, the left will have to develop a more sophisticated argument about the relationship between the two trends, perceive better how pressure from below leads to shifts at the top and how those, in turn, help to unleash social forces. While the Gorbachev reforms have thrust the problem of reform from above on the agenda again, two publications in Paris remind us of the other side of the same coin, the saga of Solidarity, the 500 days that shook the Soviet world at the beginning of this decade.

The first is a book by the man identified with that movement, Lech Walesa–Un chemin d’espoir: autobiographie (Fayard). Only the subtitle is a misnomer. Having often admired Walesa’s innate talent for public speaking and political improvisation, I can guarantee that chunks of this book–literary passages or learned dissertations about world diplomacy–do not bear his stamp. It is clearly a work in which many hands have been involved, probably including those of the representatives of the Catholic Church as well as of Walesa’s lay advisers. It is a collective opus in another sense: it mixes verbatim reports and transcripts of recorded sessions of vital talks with diaries and other personal recollections of Walesa’s wife, Danuta, of his secretaries and other collaborators. The result has neither the colorful spontaneity of its presumed author nor the distanced assessment of a historian. Still, its 606 pages packed with information make fascinating and timely reading.

The rise of Solidarity marked the spectacular re-entry of the labor movement as a main actor on the political stage of Eastern Europe. Walesa, a peasant turned worker, was symbolic of a working class in rapid transition. Born in the countryside, the son of a poor smallholder, he stayed on the land even after he had learned his trade as electrician. He was nearly 24 years old when he reached Gdansk. There, in the Lenin shipyards, he quickly became a spokesman for his comrades and, when it came to the test, revealed himself a born leader, with an uncanny feeling for the mood of his fellow workers and an instinctive capacity for guiding them without going too far. The strike of August 1980 came to an unbelievable climax: the regime’s acknowledgment that the Communist Party had no magic birthright to represent the workers, who were, therefore, entitled to their own autonomous organizations. True, Solidarity was ultimately driven underground, and Walesa, the world famous Nobel Prize winner, significantly went back to the shop floor in the shipyards. But the government’s attempt to dismiss him as an irrelevant "private person" is obviously ridiculous. The snag for the Polish establishment is that millions of workers had linked their hopes to Solidarity, and without their active backing, no project of economic reform has any chance of success.

Another interesting lesson from Poland concerns the relations between the strikers and the intellectuals who offered them their services. Here the historical merit belongs to Jacek Kuron and his colleagues, who back in 1976 set up KOR, Committee for the Defense of the Workers, showing that the intelligentsia can have a crucial political function provided it is linked with a genuine mass movement. (Walesa, incidentally, served his political apprenticeship on a committee for the establishment of free labor unions, sponsored by KOR.) The assistance of the intellectuals helped the strikers broaden their platform beyond their immediate demands. That led to the paradoxical spectacle of cross-carrying Gdansk workers, who hailed the Pope and followed the pious Walesa, acting as if they had come straight off the pages of Karl Marx, presenting their class interests as the "superior interests of society as a whole."

Regrettably, it did not last. The experiment was conducted in the shadow of an impending invasion. All the participants were aware of a Rubicon, an undefined and somewhat flexible line but one whose crossing would inevitably lead to military intervention. Walesa and his closest advisers, always conscious of the danger, were seeking a compromise between the categorical imperatives of geography, which dictated the rule of the Communist Party, and the pressures of a vast social movement. They finally failed. The second instructive text published in Paris, a long interview with Col. Ryszard Kuklinski in the émigré monthly Kultura, throws some light on the subject of military intervention.

Colonel Kuklinski, you may recall, was the Polish officer who took part in preparations for the military coup while keeping American authorities informed about them. He tries at the beginning of the interview to plead his own case–and, by the same token, Washington’s–on the ground that had Solldarity been warned of the coup, it would have acted, thus provoking bloodshed. But clearly he has no leg to stand on. To suggest that a popular movement 10 million-strong is politically so infantile that decisions must be made for it by a colonel or a foreign government is, to put it mildly, preposterous. The whole episode simply confirms our suspiclons. Ronald Reagan and his associates may have liked Solidarity as a pain in the Soviet neck, but deep in their hearts they had no sympathy for those striking workers, who showed no respect for law and order. They loved Solidarity better dead than alive, the military coup allowing them to perpetuate the legend of a Soviet world of immutable misery, from which there is, and can be, no escape.

Can the colonel be trusted with the rest of his story? Probably so. He gives names, dates and details, and the polemical government spokesman, Jerzy Urban, who originally disclosed Kuklinski’s role in the affair to annoy Washington, has, so far, not questioned his facts. Actually, the colonel’s version sounds quite plausible. The idea of military intervention, already conceived by the authorities at the time of the Gdansk strike, began to take shape in October 1980, a couple of days before Solidarity officially registered as a free union. The threat of Soviet invasion apparently occurred twice. In November 1980, Moscow allegedly thought of using eighteen divisions–fifteen of its own, two Czechoslovak and one East German. Then, more seriously, in the spring of 1981, during the tense confrontation between the government and Solidarity following the beatings of union leaders in Bydgoszcz, the Soviet Union extended the military maneuvers of the Warsaw Pact, code-named Soyuz 81, to aggravate the threat. On both occasions, the Polish authorities promised Moscow that they themselves would intervene as soon as they were ready and conditions were propitious. By September 1981 the government was more or less prepared for the military coup that it was to carry out so efficiently later.

The colonel blames the Polish leadership, both political and military, for its reluctance to stand up to the Soviet Union. He contrasts their conduct with that of Wladyslaw Gomulka and his comrades in 1956, who opposed the Russians, gained popular support and got away with it. Had the leadership in 1981 acted in the same way, he argues, it would have increased the chances of a compromise with Solidarity and reduced the risk of Soviet intervention, Moscow being unlikely to attack a Polish Communist government backed by the army and the nation. Instead, the Polish rulers accepted the principle of military intervention from the start, pleading only that they could do it on their own, with the Russians in the background as the weapon of last resort. The colonel, by the way, is less indulgent of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski than is Walesa himself. "Corporal Walesa" has an undeniable respect for military uniform and rank–this, like his fervent Catholicism, may well be a product of his peasant background–and he gives the general’s patriotism the benefit of the doubt. Colonel Kuklinski, knowing the story from the inside, claims that the only man who argued as late as September 1981 in favor of a political solution to the conflict with Solidarity was Stanislaw Kania, then the General Secretary of the party, which is why he was replaced a month later by Jaruzelski, the general with the black spectacles.

All these details about the threat of intervention merely confirm the centrality of the Soviet Union. That does not mean progress achieved elsewhere in Eastern Europe is irrelevant. The Polish events are historical and the story is still far from finished, but no progress at the periphery will be safe and secure until the center itself is thoroughly reformed. It is in the Soviet Union, where the establishment has a stronger first line of defense but no mighty neighbor to come to the rescue, that the battle for the transformation of Eastern Europe will be fought and won. Can the Soviet Union’s radical reformers learn something from the Polish experience?

For the time being, the Soviet leader himself seems to have drawn a useful lesson about the social muscle and political significance of the working class. He is clearly aware that the managerial reforms he envisages will undermine the tacit truce between the regime and the workers, based roughly on limited exploitation in exchange for political passivity. As soon as the managers get more freedom to determine the rhythm of work and the level of employment, the workers will be driven to organize to defend their interests. To avoid potential conflicts, Gorbachev is talking of such possible compensations as the direct election of managers by the working people. Gorbachev’s ideas may be vague, but the radical intelligentsia shows a curious lack of imagination, and even of interest, on this subject.

The frontiers of Soviet freedom are being extended very quickly. Writers, artists, critics, filmmakers and playwrights are venturing into territory that only a few months ago was strictly forbidden. They are eagerly taking advantage of the new situation and even beginning to cure the nation of its collective amnesia about the Stalinist past. Yet given the precedent of the previous thaw, the question is whether this precious but limited freedom of expression for intellectuals will eventually be presented to the mass of the people as an instrument of liberation aiming at their mastery over their own fate. This raises a broader issue, which is likely to divide the fast-growing professional intelligentsia. Many intellectuals will try to use the reforms to increase their own privileges, to widen differentials, to boost the rewards for superior knowledge and skill. Others, rising above their immediate interests, will seek a common, egalitarian front with the more dynamic elements among the workers. It is such an alliance of the radical intelligentsia and part of the working class that might be the Soviet equivalent of Solidarnosc–the word is the same in the two languages–different because of the different historical and political context, yet similar because it would be a movement for the transformation of society from below.

Let us not get carried away. Indeed, we are quite far from such a revolutionary revival, and the very advance on the road to reform is likely to suffer setbacks. But no temporary retreat will convince the public that these are frozen societies. Faced with a Soviet bloc awakening from its slumber, the theologians and preachers of permanent hell must eat their words, while we must watch the whole scene with even greater care, both at the top and below the surface.