Adam Michnik at the University of Washington

By Arista Cirtautas

Visiting Lecturer at the UW Jackson School of International Studies

Adam Michnik began his talk on “Revolution’s Aftermath: Twenty Years of
Polish Democracy,” (April 30, Kane Hall, University of Washington) with
the simple but striking pronouncement that “Poland is a success; finally
a success.” The seemingly hopeless aspirations of the past, that
censorship be abolished, that free elections be held, that the
communists lose power, that the Soviet army leaves Poland and that the
Soviet Union collapses, have all been miraculously attained: “Good God
listened to us and granted us all of our prayers.” In this context, the
October 2007 parliamentary elections represented a victory for those
Poles most happy with the dramatic changes of the last 18 years; the
electoral results were a validation that Poland has been heading in the
right direction since communism’s collapse. Why then, Michnik asked,
are many Poles so angry, so frustrated and disappointed with the
developments since 1989? In reply to this question, Michnik addressed
the problems of postcommunist transformation on three different levels:
consciousness, socio-economic change and political mobilization. On the
level of consciousness, Michnik noted that Poles had been “given a
difficult gift of freedom. No one can decide for us, we have to decide
for ourselves.” The tensions inherent in this newly won autonomy are
best captured by the “paradox of the prisoner” who dreams of freedom
while imprisoned and then, the miracle happens and he is free; free
finally to enjoy the “green grass, the sun shining and the pretty
girls,” but at the same time he doesn’t know what he will be eating,
where he will be sleeping – all of the primary needs of daily life had
been granted by the director of the prison. The former prisoner is now
dirty, free and profoundly unhappy, imbued with “a nostalgic longing for
a predictable world,” as Michnik elaborated in a 2001 lecture.1 On the
level of socioeconomic change, the difficulties of the transformation
from central planning to the free market have been especially acute in
the case of Poland given the experience of Solidarity. Of Poland’s
three transformations, from Soviet satellite to free sovereign nation
state and member of NATO and the EU, from dictatorship to democracy and
citizenship rights, from central planning to free market, only the first
two follow directly from the ethos of Solidarity. According to Michnik,
this ethos can be summarized as “emancipation from Soviet domination,
emancipation from the dictatorship of the party, and emancipation from
economic control.” Emancipation from economic control via free market
mechanisms has, however, made victims of the very workers who had been
striking for freedom under the banner of Solidarity; they have become
“victims of their own victory.” This problematic outcome has led to
questions whether another form of economic reform, one more consistent
with Solidarity’s aspirations and the interests of the working class,
might have been possible instead of the road chosen under the
Balcerowicz plan. Yet, for Michnik, as for Balcerowicz, such “third
way” alternatives would only have resulted in “third world” outcomes for
Poland: “I don’t love capitalism, but it is the only thing that works.”

There was, thus, no conspiracy to impoverish the working class;
instead the “inbuilt mechanism of social change that had been started
peacefully, resulted in radical change.” Unfortunately, while the
negative consequences of this radical socioeconomic change, this
“unwanted social revolution” as Andrzej Tymowski has called it, may have
been unintended, they are no less painful for those affected. 2 The
disillusionment is all the greater for those who once participated in
Solidarity, a “great popular coalition” to restore human dignity in
which, “for the first time, workers could speak with their own voice, in
their own factories.” On the level of political mobilization, Michnik
identified four troublesome tendencies that have contributed to social
anxieties and frustrations often by manipulating them for political
gain. While the first two tendencies, associated with the evolution of
Solidarity and the Catholic Church, are more specific to Poland, the
latter two, demagogic leadership and populist-nationalist political
discourse, are prevalent across the postcommunist region. Not
surprisingly, when faced with the challenges of market economy reforms,
the Solidarity coalition, once a movement for change and for reform,
broke apart, leaving a conservative, anti reform, anti communist group
to appropriate the Solidarity legacy. Seemingly imprisoned by the past,
this group speaks with the same language of the communist era (“us
versus them”), suggesting that all of the ills of the present can be
cured by ever harsher lustration regimes. Consequently, in a pluralist
setting Michnik pointed out that we “must question if every
anti-communism is good. Is Hitler good just because he is
anti-communist?” The Polish Catholic Church, as well, has evolved from
an open, tolerant institution under the leadership of Pope John Paul II
into an institution pursuing integral nationalist, anti-democratic
political objectives: “the Church ceased being a meta-political moral
authority and started becoming part of the political game.” Whereas the
Pope conveyed crucial messages of dignity and tolerance that once
inspired Solidarity’s struggles against communism (to bow only before
God, to be not afraid, and to remember that we are fighting for
something not against someone), today Father Rydzyk, the founder of
Radio Maryja, with his fundamentalist sectarian agenda of hatred and
intolerance, is the most influential figure in the Polish Church. Given
the importance of the Church in Poland, this change of attitude on the
part of the Polish Church toward pluralism, from supportive to
antagonistic, is “a foundational change.” In more general terms, Michnik
observed that all postcommunist countries have been plagued by
charismatic leaders, often self-styled “heroes of the people,” whose
political ambitions and abilities are ill-suited to parliamentary
politics. As Michnik noted in regard to Poland’s former national hero,
Lech Walesa, “number 10 Downing Street is not the place for Robin Hood.”
Problems emerge, however, when “Robin Hoods” insist on their right to
public office not by virtue of their programmatic political positions,
but by virtue of their ‘special’ relationship to the people and the
nation. Finally, all countries have seen the rise of
populist-nationalist political mobilization promoting illiberal agendas
that equate democracy with the dissolution of core national values, with
“empty talk and corruption” and with the continuation of ex-communists
in power. But, as Michnik emphasized, it is not the return of communism
that threatens democracy, instead it is “anti-communism with a Bolshevik
face.” Hence, the political struggle is now between those who want to
establish an open society dedicated to democratization and modernization
and those who want to close society, to protect society against
perceived pernicious external and internal influences, by authoritarian
means if necessary. While the closure of society to dissenting voices,
to pluralism and difference, is most evident in countries like Russia,
Belarus and Serbia, even successful democracies like Poland face a
continuous challenge to keep society open to genuine political debate,
to the rights of the political opposition and the press, to the rights
of minorities, to modern forms of patriotism and national identity
consistent with European Union membership, to constructive relations
between the state and non-governmental organizations, and even to the
right of emigration. When asked about the debate on emigration in
Poland and the potential loss of too many qualified young people to
western labor markets, Michnik replied, “I have fought all my life so
that people can live where they like. It is not for me to decide where
they should live.” With that statement Michnik demonstrated that, in
spite of the multiple, contested legacies of Solidarity, there is still
a vital and valuable continuity between the ethos of Solidarity and the
spirit of modern democracy in Poland.


1. Adam Michnik, “Confessions of a Converted Dissident: Essay
for the Erasmus Prize 2001,” available at

2. Andrzej Tymowski, “The Unwanted Social Revolution: Poland in 1989,” in East
European Politics and Societies, vol. 7, no. 2 (Spring 1993).