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.