Poland's Unlikely Hero


A Way of Hope, by Lech Walesa, New York: Henry Holt, 325 pages, $19.95

August of 1980 provided one of those dazzling moments in history when the human longing for freedom escapes the confines of abstract philosophy to ignite a mass movement. Outraged Polish workers spearheaded the most effective popular challenge yet to a well-established Communist regime, and suddenly the world discovered an unlikely hero—a rumpled, homely electrician from Gdansk with a walrus moustache, an impish sense of humor, and a gift for speaking truth to power.

Lech Walesa, with his rhetorical genius and tactical shrewdness, emerged as the charismatic central figure of the independent trade union Solidarity. He became not only the principal spokesman and chief negotiator for the bread-and-butter demands of 10 million worker-members but also the living symbol of a nation determined to snatch back its freedom from the police state that had for two generations shackled and exploited its subjects on behalf of an arrogant and incompetent oligarchy of Communist politicians.

Now Lech Walesa has given us his memoirs. Many readers of this magazine will be intrigued for at least two reasons. First, one feels a natural curiosity about the psychological make-up of a genuine hero, a desire to understand how a man can find the courage to risk everything by standing up to an apparently omnipotent and thoroughly ruthless regime. Secondly, one wants to learn how such a leader has managed to win so many followers to his cause, how he envisions the freer society toward which he is striving, and what strategy he expects to pursue in his campaign for liberation.

Unfortunately, the literary craftsmanship exhibited in this book reminds us why Walesa's Nobel Prize was not awarded in the field of literature. A Way of Hope reads as if transcribed from the tape-recorded reminiscences of a man too busy to give systematic attention to the task. The narrative rambles. The chronology of events is sometimes hopelessly scrambled. Major turning points are dismissed with one or two sentences, while trivial occurrences are recounted in detail. The ideological debates within Solidarity go largely undiscussed in favor of intensive postmortems of disputes over tactical decisions and events with which the nonspecialist foreign reader is unlikely to be familiar.

And yet the quality of the man and his movement still comes through. A picture emerges of a man driven to conduct himself according to strict moral principles (in his particular case, rooted in religious faith) that permit him neither to remain silent when the regime's injustices are directed at those around him nor to resist that injustice by irresponsible violence that could lead only to quick defeat or to a bloodbath extinguishing what remains of his country's independence. For him, the essential skill for leadership in Poland's intolerable circumstances is "being able to point to a third way when everyone else says there are only two."

Solidarity's leader does not purport to be a systematic theoretician. He finished only eight years of schooling, claims never to have read a single book all the way through, and prides himself on tackling problems with an intuitive rather than a rationalistic approach. There is no systematic vision of an ideal future here. Still, the elements of his basic thinking are clearly expressed, though the reader must piece them together.

In his own way, Walesa has come to conclusions partially paralleling Gandhi's theories of nonviolence. The way to bring about liberalization in an autocracy is not to organize a seizure of state power but to make it impossible for the politicians to govern in the old way. Mobilizing massive, but nonviolent, noncooperation (including, but not limited to, strikes) provides the only means to this end that are both effective and morally responsible under Polish conditions.

For this to work, Walesa believes two things are necessary:

First, a decisive majority of the population must develop the civic courage to withdraw their cooperation from evil structures. Although utilitarian concerns to defend material interests have a part to play, Walesa consistently stresses the central importance of moral or spiritual revival in arousing people to determined action for self-liberation. His public speeches repeatedly stress that forthright refusal to participate in evil is the unavoidable test of personal integrity.

Second, individual, spiritual renewal must be accompanied by mass organization if it is to engender political improvement. In walking the tightrope between passive submission and futile violence, the movement must possess an organizational structure unified enough to bargain effectively with the authorities for concessions, which means not only able to obstruct the regime but also able to reward it for genuine reforms with carefully measured doses of cooperation.

For Walesa, the task of Solidarity is neither to expel the Communists from power (which the Soviets would not tolerate) nor to determine which faction of Polish Communists will win the power struggle (in the end, monopolized power always corrupts), but rather to negotiate contractions in the domain of political decisionmaking. Solidarity cannot rule, but it should serve as a permanent watchdog able to cast a "social veto" to protect Poland's economy, society, religion, and culture from political encroachment. One hopes by the time Walesa gets around to a second volume of memoirs in a few years, he will have made another opportunity to try out his theory.

Paul Johnson teaches Soviet and East European politics at Florida State University.