A WAY OF HOPE By Lech Walesa Henry Holt. 325 pp. $19.95
I'M MORE interested in facing a new day than looking backwards," writes Lech Walesa in A Way of Hope. A reluctance to "look backwards" is understandable, even praiseworthy, in a revolutionary leader whose strength lies in his ability to seize the moment. It does not, unfortunately, make for a particularly revealing autobiography.
As a former correspondent in Poland, I had hoped that this book would offer some fresh insights into the most exciting story of my journalistic career. After reading this somewhat chaotic jumble of notes and reminiscences by Walesa and others, I must report with regret that I learnt little I did not already know. Part of the reason lies in the nature of Solidarity: an exuberantly democratic movement whose triumphs and failures were played out on an open stage for everyone to see. But part of the reason has to do with Walesa's complex personality. The Solidarity leader is a self-described "loner" who combined an extraordinary empathy with crowds and intuitive sense of history with an ability to keep his innermost feelings to himself.
Even six years after the brutal suppression of Solidarity by Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, Walesa remains very much a politician. At one point in A Way of Hope, he tells us he will not name the communist officials responsible for a "disgusting propaganda" campaign against him because "the people involved still occupy positions of great responsibility." The implication is that he hopes to deal with them again.
Walesa's great moment came in August 1980. A worker himself, he had a gut feeling for how his fellow workers would react in any situation. As he notes in this book, "a strike is a crowd reacting in its own changeable and unpredictable ways. I was aware of that crowd: in the midst of a crowd, before it became a mob, I know instinctively what most people want. It's a question of experience: you have to have been through it often to understand what is happening."
The most interesting passages in A Way of Hope are those dealing with the pre-Solidarity period. The story of how Walesa became a rebel is symbolic of the disillusionment of an entire generation of Polish workers with communism. When his protests against "humiliating" working conditions and atrocious safety standards were rebuffed, he started questioning the system itself. At the same time, he was the product of that system. He recalls that, during the Gdansk food riots of December 1970, the strikers sang "the Internationale because there weren't any other songs capable of expressing the anger of a workers' insurrection in contemporary eastern Europe. All our models came from the East."
The 1970 riots, which ended with the "workers' state" opening fire on its own proletariat, were a turning point in Walesa's life. In A Way of Hope, Walesa describes his role in those events and his unsuccessful attempts to channel the workers' anger in a constructive direction. The astonishing maturity that he and other strike leaders displayed in August 1980, and the nonviolent tactics they adopted, were a direct result of the bitter lessons learnt a decade earlier. It is a pity he does not go on to tell us what lessons he draws from the suppression of Solidarity in December 1981.
The process of change in communist countries, as Walesa points out, depends on both the rulers and the ruled. "Poland's crises," he notes, "seem to be characterized by the simultaneous realization, on the part of both society and government, that things have got to change. The problem is that each side wants different changes, and they don't share the same aspirations for long: just long enough, in fact, to complete the usual power shuffle."
The Solidarity period provided us with an enormous amount of material about one half of this historical equation: society's hopes and aspirations. We still know relatively little about the internal power struggles that were taking place among the communist elite and the pressures placed on the Polish leadership by Moscow. Solidarity made a conscious decision not to get involved in the factional in-fighting. "Party politics did not really interest us," writes Walesa.
This indifference to communist party intrigue was Solidarity's strength -- but also its fatal flaw. While Solidarity leaders were holding noisy debates about how to change society, Jaruzelski and other party leaders were secretly plotting how to strangle the movement at birth. Walesa, of course, cannot be blamed for failing to shed light on the internal party discussions that sealed Solidarity's fate. But the fact remains, until we know what went on behind the scenes, the history of the Solidarity period will remain incomplete.
Michael Dobbs, The Washington Post's correspondent in Poland from 1980 to 1982, is co-author of "Poland, Solidarity, Walesa."