Letters from Prison and Other Essays Essay - Critical Essays

Adam Michnik

Letters from Prison and Other Essays

Although the writings of Adam Michnik are usually in the form of the essay or letter, it is not appropriate to call him an essayist any more than it is to call, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr., an essayist. Michnik has been one of the most active organizers of the KOR and Solidarity movements—this activism has taken priority over his writing, although the two activities, as with King, overlap and reinforce each other. Michnik has spent many years in a variety of prisons, where he has found that he is able to write effectively. He admits that he has been more productive as a writer inside prison than outside. The routine of prison life has not favored lengthy projects requiring research in libraries, but Michnik has adapted his genre to his circumstances, favoring the short essay. Some of the essays are in the form of letters, either to his friends and colleagues or to his jailers. One of the latter, “A Letter to General Kiszczak,” which was excerpted in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section of February 6, 1984, is a masterpiece, and it can be set beside Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” or Henry David Thoreau’s “Essay on Civil Disobedience.”

The essays vary in length from six to sixty pages. Some are brief communications giving practical advice; others are lengthy discussions of a problem presenting a full historical perspective and a variety of considerations. Occasionally they lack polish or development, revealing the constraints of prison life: the lack of information available to those in the outside world, absence of library facilities, or leisure to refine the expression of the essay. On the other hand, the essays often gain in concrete immediacy and dramatic relevance. Michnik has already written a second collection of essays in prison, (Z Dziejów Honoru w Polsce, 1985), not yet translated into English, that focuses on different aspects of the theme of honor; the length of these essays is slightly longer, the range broader, including literature and poetry in the material he considers, but the form is similar.

Paradoxically, Michnik was, to a large extent, a willing prisoner. He looked forward to a trial so that he could prove his innocence in a public forum. As he makes clear, he was jailed for obeying, not disobeying, the law. The government admitted that he had not prepared to overthrow it by force, that his sentence had been prepared long before his trial, and that the purpose of the legal proceedings was to get rid of an embarrassing political adversary. The government promised Michnik his freedom if he would emigrate. He declined. The authorities decided to grant amnesty to Michnik; with a fair trial, the regime’s lawlessness—not Michnik’s—would have been in full view.

The essays which are collected here present objective and provocative analyses of the events in Poland that led to the formation of autonomous (nongovernmental) social structures in the 1970’s, the growth of Solidarity, the struggle within the Polish Communist Party in 1980-1981, and General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s declaration of martial law on December 13, 1981. The significance of these events, however, goes far beyond the borders of Poland. Michnik describes them not only as an apologist for Solidarity but also as a historian with an extremely broad perspective. Average Americans probably sympathized with the Polish attempt to create Solidarity; when it was finally crushed by the military, many people thought, “This is unfortunate, but such are the realities of naked force—the Polish people will have to give in.” Very likely this was the impression formed by the average observer at a great distance from the actual events. Adam Michnik presents a strikingly different picture and interpretation.

In Michnik’s version, the declaration of the state of war was a political disaster for the regime. The period between August, 1980, and December, 1981, was only one phase in a longer struggle that Michnik describes as “a dramatic wrestling match between the totalitarian power and a society searching for a way to attain autonomy. . . . It ended with a setback for the independent society and a disaster for the totalitarian state. For disaster is an appropriate name for a situation in which workers are confronted by tanks instead of debates.” Michnik’s analysis of the evolution of Polish society after World War II—and especially after the revolt of 1956—is revealing. Throughout the forty-year postwar period, constant pressure was exerted by society to reform the Communist regime, resulting in different attitudes and approaches. Michnik calls the two major concepts of reform “revisionist” and “neopositivist.” The revisionists wanted to act within the framework of the Communist Party and Marxist doctrine. They wanted to transform from within both the Party and doctrine in the direction of democratic reform and common sense. Party members and adherents to Marxism, he says, were not completely people of ill will; many had democratic, progressive instincts. In this group were thinkers and writers such as Leszek Koakowski, Edward Lipiski, Kazimierz Brandys, Adam Wayk, and Wiktor Woroszylski. The neopositivists looked for structures outside the Party to provide reform or evolution, such as the Catholic Church; they took for granted Poland’s loyalty to the Soviet Union while at the same time rejecting Marxist doctrine and Socialist ideology. These two groups shared, however, the conviction that change would come from above. Both revisionists and neopositivists counted on positive evolution in the Party that would derive from the rational policies of wise leaders, not from incessant public pressure. According to Michnik, most of the oppositionist initiatives during the period from 1956 to 1968 came from these two groups—especially the revisionists—and not from the consistent anti-Communists.

Nineteen sixty-eight was the year, Michnik writes, that revisionism died. It was the year of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the enforced end of the Czech attempt to create a broadly based Communist government with...

(The entire section is 2505 words.)