Solidarity burst upon the Polish scene in August, 1980. It and Lech Walesa, the spritely, mustached electrician who was to become its head and symbol, managed to prove that the rules of the game in communist societies were not what they had once seemed to be.
Strikes were held and concessions made. An independent trade union was organized in the face of Communist Party claims to be the "vanguard of the proletariat." An entire society began to change. Even after the flood of change was dammed up by a siege of the Polish military against its own people in the declaration of "martial law," Solidarity and Walesa continued to be forces the regime had to contend with, concede to, and face down.
Scholars and citizens alike, in West and East, watched the men and events of the Solidarity era with fascination. For this was truly a movement of the common people--who proved they were not so common. No person better personifies this than the man who was to be the prime leader of Solidarity, Lech Walesa. After all, electricians seldom come from nowhere to lead a movement of more than 10 million workers, forging new tactics and forcing concessions not with the threat of violence but by the aroused will of the society.
"A Way of Hope" is purportedly the autobiography of that man--the archetypical Pole, the peasant turned worker, the child of the communist era in Poland, the union leader, the compelling speaker, the undefeatable hero, and the Nobel Prize winner. In fact, however "A Way of Hope" is less an autobiography than a report about Everyman in the Poland of the Solidarity era. Walesa claims for himself, in this book, a kind of omnipresence at every event and on every podium that no mortal could have had. For those who wish to look objectively at the dynamics that made the Solidarity era and martial law the phenomena they were, this is extremely frustrating. But for those who want to be swept into the turmoil of those 15 months in Poland and their prelude and aftermath, Walesa's poetic license makes the story all the more compelling and understandable.
Walesa's account of Solidarity and its battles puts him at the center of every event and every decision. He was, from the picture he paints, the only real leader: "Nothing was easy, but I really felt, however arrogant it may sound, that if anything was to be achieved, it was up to me to achieve it." Walesa was the one with the answers. Walesa did not make mistakes, others did when they did not listen to him. All wisdom sprang from him. It was he, after all, who was "able to point to a third way in those situations where everybody says there are only two."
Like Walesa, those he quotes see him as Poland's hero. One Solidarity activist who traveled with Walesa reminisces, "When Lech made his speeches it was as if he was riding the crest of a wave rolling in from the crowd and was riding it like a surfer. He was able to express what each one of us felt deep inside." What the others who risked and fought to make this wave roll forward did or thought thus pales into insignificance.
There is no denying that Walesa was a hero and that he was the symbol of Solidarity for all the world. He acknowledged this to the crowd gathered below his apartment window the day he received the Novel Peace Prize: "I see this as a prize for us all, as a reward to each of us who wished to attain the truth by following the course of nonviolence and common understanding."
But, tragically, by simplifying and personalizing the story of the birth and struggles of the first independent trade union in the communist bloc into a story that revolves around him, Walesa loses much of the reality and vibrance of the events. Solidarity was never a simple union. It was, most often, a happening of people from all walks of life seeking, in every way they could, the dignity of power over their own lives. Walesa was far from their only or unquestioned leader.
No one idea or person could or did rule. On virtually no issue could Solidarity claim to be solid. Instead, until its last days above ground and even underground, Solidarity's victory was the independence of its members not only from their communist rulers but from any one telling them how to act or think. Lech Walesa had to struggle for his leadership. He defied his own governing board when he met with Roman Catholic Primate Jozef Glemp and Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski to try to come to an agreement that could "save Poland." All other accounts of the politics of Solidarity in those last days before the declaration of martial law paint a picture different from Walesa's self-portrait: The governing board did not trust Walesa to negotiate as an individual. They would agree only to go as a body of 40 equals to talk with the general and the primate.