The Warsaw Voice » Polish Voice » Monthly - August 2, 2010
The Polish Voice: Special Issue
You have to be logged in to use the ReadSpeaker utility and listen to a text. It's free-of-charge. Just log in to the site or register if you are not registered user yet.
A Moment of Enlightenment
Jan Lityński, one of those behind the Message to the Working People of Eastern Europe, talks to Andrzej Jonas.

How did the idea for the Message emerge?
Moments of enlightenment sometimes occur in politics, usually by accident. The resolution on the Message was one such moment, resulting from the simplest of impulses: implementation of the international idea of solidarity and a belief that we couldn’t win the battle for freedom on our own.

The man who came up with the idea was Henryk Siciński, a doctor from Ostrów Wielkopolski, one of the rank-and-file delegates at Solidarity’s First Congress. Bogusław Śliwa, an activist of the oppositionist Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR), a former prosecutor dismissed on disciplinary grounds for demanding an investigation into a murder committed by an officer of the Civic Militia [the police in communist Poland], and Antoni Pietkiewicz, an activist of the oppositionist Movement in Defense of Human and Civil Rights (ROPCiO) asked me to write the text, which I did. Someone later noticed that listing the countries whose trade unionists we were addressing, I had forgotten about Albania, so we added it.

In the history of our movement, we had lively contacts with democratic opposition activists in Czechoslovakia, led by Vaclav Havel. During the congress Havel was in prison; I had this personal awareness that I was also writing to him.

Today the Message is perceived as an appeal to working people, that’s even how it’s referred to, but I think a better title would be “A Message to the Nations of Eastern Europe,” because that’s what our appeal was in practice.

What were your thoughts as you submitted the Message to the delegates at Solidarity’s First Congress?

Frankly speaking, we didn’t have any special thoughts. We were at the congress of a 10-million labor union movement, a kind of isolated island living its own life. The procedure for approving documents at the congress was as that the first reading was held, then the draft was passed on to the committee, which added its amendments, then came the second reading and approval of the document. The draft Message, however, was accepted at once, after the first reading, in the special atmosphere of the congress.

But you must have been aware of the political consequences the Message would have?

I knew it would be a major issue. At the time, though, I wasn’t among Solidarity’s leaders, so I didn’t feel the responsibility. Actually, the union’s leaders of the time irritated the delegates at the congress, which was a very radical meeting. Every external event caused a storm, everybody was convinced we had to win. Suffice it to say that the government’s raising of cigarette prices during the congress was seen almost as a casus belli. The row continued for over two hours, people were debating what kind of countermoves to make toward the authorities.

Did the delegates expect a reaction from either domestic or foreign politicians?

Of course, we not so much expected as hoped that our Message would cause a reaction and trigger a political dispute, which would mean that our congress would get worldwide publicity. This was the delegates’ stance. The union’s leaders, however, weren’t happy. I remember that Bronisław Geremek [foreign minister in 1997-2000, later a Euro-MP, killed in a car crash in 2008] took offense at me for working on the Message, to the extent that he refused to speak to me for a few years. It wasn’t until 1988 that he told me he thought the Message had been one of the most important events of the congress.

During the congress, one can suppose—since I don’t know this officially—that Geremek hoped that as a result of his subtle policy in international relations, guests from trade union organizations in other Eastern European countries would appear in Oliwa. This would have served to legitimize Solidarity as a full-fledged partner of the communist government. But once the Message saw the light of day, that was out of the question.

The Message was undoubtedly an act of overstepping certain borders that, in hindsight, shouldn’t have been overstepped in 1981. But the thing is that the Solidarity delegates didn’t think in those terms, didn’t apply such criteria. To them, every compromise was a failure, an unjustified concession to the communist authorities. In the Solidarity rhetoric of those days, the most radical stance always won. This didn’t always translate into decisions—the union’s leader, Lech Wałęsa, always had a toning-down effect on the delegates’ hot-headedness, and usually managed to curb their radicalism.

The Message was approved on Sept. 8; the next day the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR), or the communist party, lambasted the document, and the day after that the Message was scrutinized by the Politburo of the Soviet communist party. The party’s secretary-general, Leonid Brezhnev, offered more words of crushing criticism. Did this make any impression on the delegates, did it cause them to reflect, or on the contrary, did it strengthen their anticommunist radicalism?

It caused no reflection, more like joy. Again, this was due to the atmosphere at the congress that I mentioned earlier. Even at the accompanying Festival of True Songs, a review of mostly political songs, the winner was the most radical song that called for “kicking some Red ass.”

In December 1980, we had thought that the threat of a Soviet military intervention in Poland was real; in March 1981—that a civil war was possible in Poland. By September 1981, Solidarity activists had stopped being scared; the feeling of fear was replaced with a form of fatalism, saying “if they move in, they move in,” and it was more like a joke. We thought we were too strong and massive a movement; our fears began to dissipate. The congress was a veritable festival of freedom, a place dominated by our sense of strength and the optimism that went with it.

Can we say that the European Union’s Eastern Partnership program, initiated by Poland and targeted at six former Soviet republics, is in some way a historical follow-up to the Message from 1981?

In this area, we were the children of two ideas. One was definitely internationalism, which also drew from the traditional call of Polish freedom fighters from the times when Poland was partitioned among neighboring countries—”for your freedom and ours.” The other idea, expressed many times by various Polish thinkers, held that Poland will only gain full independence and sovereignty if Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus are also liberated from Moscow’s rule. I think the policy that Poland is trying to pursue today toward its eastern neighbors is largely a consequence of that idea. In the same way, the Eastern Partnership program is also related to it.

JAN LITYŃSKI. Born in 1946. Longtime member of the democratic opposition under communism; politician; mathematician by training.

Until 1968 he studied mathematics at the University of Warsaw. He was among the organizers and participants of the historic student demonstrations of March 1968 that culminated in an anti-Semitic campaign launched by the communist authorities. Sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for taking part in the protests, he was released early and took a job as a laborer and later as a computer programmer.

In 1976 he co-founded Biuletyn Informacyjny KSS KOR, the first periodical of the democratic opposition that bypassed official censorship. In 1977 he edited an illegal oppositionist periodical entitled Robotnik, encouraging workers to establish free trade unions.

In 1980 he became an adviser to the Solidarity trade union. Interned under martial law. From 1984, he was active in the underground movement as a member of the Regional Executive Committee of Solidarity in the Mazovia region. A participant in the 1989 Round Table talks between the communist government and the democratic opposition.

In 1989-2001 he was a deputy affiliated with the Civic Committee, and then the Democratic Union and the Freedom Union. In 2005 he joined the Democratic Party.