WASHINGTON — For a couple of years, it was the traditional state of affairs: Poles on each side being maximalists in politics, as in war and romance, demanding everything, offering nothing, eschewing compromise and practicing the "politics of the worst," hoping the other side would commit catastrophic errors even if the whole society suffered.
Forty years of communism had created hostilities so deep that the nation seemed doomed to suicidal stalemate.
No longer. Sunday, June 4, 1989, is the date that will live in the history of postwar communism. That was the day when the first relatively free Polish elections in 42 years were held--with Solidarity candidates demolishing what was left of the ruling Communist Party's credibility. That same day, across the globe on Tien An Men Square, Chinese army tanks and machine guns made a blood bath of the rising pro-democracy movement .
In historical perspective, those Polish and Chinese events must be seen as the dawn of a new era.
For Poland, the election results mark the end of four decades of unquestioned communist domination.
For China, the Beijing massacre represents a tragic chapter in the struggle for political freedoms, in the same sense Solidarity's brutal but not bloody 1981 suppression by the Polish army was part of the change culminating in its electoral triumph 7 1/2 years later. China is by no means a freeze-frame.
Poland attained what seemed wholly implausible even in the mid-1980s: the peaceful emergence of a pluralistic society and a full range of political liberties in a communist-controlled nation. In the Soviet Union, reform forces are strong in the new Legislature but the Communist Party itself is not yet being challenged. Poland is an unprecedented phenomenon in Marxist-Leninist annals.
Yet the evolution away from communism should not come as a total surprise, either to those who have watched the unfolding Polish situation or to those who were not wedded to the conventional Washington wisdom that gradual change toward freedom in a communist system is an impossible oxymoron.
My experiences in Poland as far back as 1987 (two years is a long time in the breathless political metamorphosis) bear out the proposition that elementary logic had to bring together the communist regime and the democratic opposition if the nation were to be saved from utter collapse, economic and social. The best brains in both camps had come, however reluctantly, to recognize this reality.
In 1987 at Gdansk, Lech Walesa, the chief of the then-illegal but enormously popular Solidarity movement, was already predicting, "Sooner or later, we shall meet with Jaruzelski on the way to reform." Though the government increasingly tolerated Solidarity's activities, I was surprised that Walesa was prepared to deal with Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Communist Party chief who tried to liquidate Solidarity and who kept Walesa virtually imprisoned for nearly two years.
Walesa, moreover, expressed no bitterness; in fact, he seemed to have considerable respect for Jaruzelski, certainly not regarding him--unlike many other Poles--as a Soviet stooge. Seeing Walesa for the first time since Solidarity's heyday in 1981, he seemed much more mature politically, more realistic and more moderate than I had expected a victim of Jaruzelski's regime to be.
He acknowledged that he had lost control of Solidarity's "radical wing" during confrontations with the government; he implied that moderation was the only way to keep Poland a viable country.
A separate conversation with historian Bronislaw Geremek, Walesa's most trusted political strategist (now Solidarity's Parliamentary leader in the Sejm, the lower house), convinced me that the Polish opposition had begun to think compromise was the bridge toward a peaceful fade-out of communist supremacy.
Next, I had a two-hour private chat in Warsaw with the general himself. I had first talked to Jaruzelski in 1982, six months after he imposed martial law in order to crush Solidarity. He began by telling me, "We have all changed and we have all learned a lot," and he had fairly kind words for what he called "the moderate opposition."
Other conversations with members of Jaruzelski's entourage further suggested that some form of cooperation among rival groups was recognized as vital, and that the young generation in the Communist Party favored it as well.
But, as usually occurs in such situations, moderates on both sides--Walesa and Geremek among the opposition, Jaruzelski and his allies in the fragile regime--had to persuade their respective constituencies that compromise was necessary.
Opposition moderates had to maneuver carefully to retain the support of confrontation-minded foes of the regime, "the children of Solidarity." Some young activists abhored any dealing with the government and even suspected the Roman Catholic Church of collaborationism.