Is Poland Going Communist? Walesa's Time Was Past

By Fleet, Robert; Szpak, Alina | Commonweal, December 15, 1995 | Go to article overview

Is Poland Going Communist? Walesa's Time Was Past


Fleet, Robert, Szpak, Alina, Commonweal


The inconceivable occurred in Poland last month: an ex-Communist won the presidential election. Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former party official, defeated incumbent president Lech Walesa, the Nobel-prize winner, hero of the Solidarity movement, and symbol of Poland's victory over Soviet oppression. Kwasniewski, who previously led a majority coalition of farmers, socialists, and former Communists in the Polish parliament, will now preside over the government.

Predictably, conservative U.S. congressmen announced that democracy in Eastern Europe was threatened. But such pronouncements ignore a great ironic truth about the end of communism in Poland: to a remarkable extent, the Communists gave Poland its freedom, not Solidarity.

Not surprisingly, Poland's Communist governments used political freedom as a carrot or stick to reward the congenial or punish troublemakers. But Poland was never like the Soviet Union: even its Commie honchos were Poles first. Much to the Soviets' chagrin, most party members were Roman Catholics as well, including Kwasniewski. Ironically, Solidarity was considered a threat in 1980 because its workers' movement was more Marxist than the government it challenged. U.S. press reports usually ignored that complication, along with the fact, which has recently come to light, that Solidarity received funds from the CIA, Mossad, and the KGB.

Traditionally Western-oriented, Poland was never as closed off by the Iron Curtain as other East bloc countries. Certainly realpolitik dictated kowtowing to the Soviets. Still, Poland in the 1970s was strongly influenced by the U.S. policy of detente. Indeed, detente contributed to a rift within the party elite. Communist party leader Edward Gierek favored Western trade alliances. A sizable pro-East faction within the party opposed such policies. It was during this time that a "faithful Communist" (to quote the Los Angeles Times) such as Kwasniewski can be seen entering the picture.

It was commonplace in the 1970s for students destined to become Poland's future Communist party leaders to also be self-conscious reformers. At that time, the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Union's peaceful demise were inconceivable. Students who seriously wanted reform saw only one direction to take: join the party. But whether they supported the party or opposed it, most of these future leaders were friends. It was only the old Polish dilemma of choosing between idealism and pragmatism that divided them. (Polish history is full of beautiful martyrs.)

When the Solidarity movement emerged from the Gdansk shipyard strike, the anti-party intelligentsia headed by Jacek Kuron organized workers behind Lech Walesa. It was an uneasy alliance from the start, one that now seems irretrievably broken. Walesa, after all, is a man who boasts of never reading a book. Still, whatever the initial strength of Walesa and the Solidarity movement, one reason Solidarity was not crushed immediately by the government was that party reformists pushed first for an internal house cleaning. With the blessing of Solidarity's leadership, General Wojciech Jaruzelski was asked to head the government. Known for his "clean hands," Jaruzelski had protected Polish workers in an earlier, 1972 strike.

Military men make military decisions. In 1981 Jaruzelski declared martial law in reaction to a threatened Soviet "peacekeeping" invasion and the inability of Solidarity to end strikes that were grinding the economy to a halt. Soon--before Gorbachev--Jaruzelski's reformers began moving Poland toward Sweden-styled socialist democracy.

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