Jacek Kuroń is one of the most influential democratic thinkers and activists in East and Central Europe. For more than two decades, his ideas played an immense role in the development of the Polish anticommunist opposition. After 1989, he served in important political positions and continued to offer insightful analyses of both the past and the present. This essay examines the collapse of communism in Poland and explains the rationale behind the democratic opposition's readiness to engage in the roundtable negotiations that led to the end of communist dictatorship in that country.
Kuroń emphasizes the importance of gradualism and rejects the calls for a cataclysmic rebellion against the old regime. This “evolutionist” strategy helped Solidarity come to power without resorting to violence and allowed for the smooth transition from communism to democracy. As Adam Michnik points out in his contribution to this volume, some among the revolutionaries found this engagement in a negotiated transition frustrating. What Kuroń demonstrates in this article is that the roundtable negotiation between the communist rulers and an autonomous political force opposed to the existing system was in itself a revolutionary event and implicitly a denial of totalitarianism.
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Poland's historic June 1989 elections were an outgrowth of “roundtable” discussions between the opposition, united around Solidarity, and the authorities. The very fact that the authorities in a totalitarian communist country met and negotiated with an autonomous political force opposed to the existing system was of primary importance. It was a very unusual event, and in a way a denial of totalitarianism.
Totalitarianism is an attempt to command all social life. It is based on the exclusive control of the power center over the organization of all activities. This monopoly is so total that if citizens gather and discuss freely a matter as simple as roof repairs on a block of apartments, it becomes a challenge to