Scholar Interviews


Vladimir Tismaneanu: How do you teach Adam Michnik's book in the classroom?


I start, with all due respect to those who know a lot, I keep telling them from the beginning, “Don’t get bored. Bear with me. We need to know the basics.” Where are these countries located? What is Eastern Europe? What is Central Europe? Why do we make a distinction between Eastern Europe and Central Europe? What are cultural traditions? What meant democracy, if there was democracy in these countries? What countries were more democratic? What countries were less democratic? Always emphasize the role of Czechoslovakia as being the only country where you had that legal Communist Party, where you had pluralism, where you had no dictatorship basically, for the interwar period.

So I think my point is to let them understand and to make myself re-understand how it was possible that something that had been predicted to come to an end in a very violent form, in taking the shape of a bloodshed, everybody expected the end of communism to happen with a big bang. Nobody thought that this would happen in the smooth—with the exception obviously of the Romanian Revolution—non-bloody way it did take place.

The other paradigm that Michnik challenges is what he calls the neo-positivist paradigm, which is the one of cooperating basically with the powers that be. It has been promoted by some Catholic thinkers, expecting that one day when the empowered come to an end, our time would come. So this would be a form of prolonged cooperation. He said neither the expectation of the godsend from above nor the prolonged cooperation in the hope that the system would collapse work anymore, so something else has to be devised, and he calls this new something else the new evolutionism.

I quote, it’s on page 144, “New evolutionism is based on faith in the power of the working class,” correct. The working class may—this is written again ‘76, so this is what? 13—no, four years before Solidarity was born, and 13 years before the collapse of communism in Poland and in Eastern Europe. “It’s based on faith in the power of the working class, which with a steady and unyielding stand has on several occasions forced the government to make spectacular concessions. It is difficult to foresee developments in the working class, but there is no question that the power elite fears this social group most. Pressure from the working class is a necessary condition for the evolution of public life towards democracy. This evolution is not easy to chart. It requires that fear be constantly overcome and that a new political consciousness be developed. Factors that retard this process include the absence of authentic workers’ institutions”—four years later Solidarity was born, so they created those institutions—“and models and traditions for political resistance. The day the first independent organization for workers’ self-defense was founded, when the strike committees in the shipyards of Szeczin and Gdansk were formed, a new stage in worker consciousness began. It is hard to tell when and how other more permanent institutions representing the interest of workers will be created and what form they will have. Will they be workers’ committees following the Spanish model or independent labor unions or mutual aid societies? Nobody knows. But when such institutions emerge, the vision of a new evolutionist will become more than just a creation of a mind in search of hope.”

This is written in times of hopelessness. In ’76, the Soviet Union appeared to be eternal. In 1975 the Helsinki agreements were signed; which had a dual consequence. On the one hand, it clearly, the agreements of the Helsinki Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe, attended by the heads of states of all European countries, minus Albania, and the United States and Canada. They signed the agreements and the agreements included cooperation; economic cooperation, political cooperation and human rights. Basket 3 was human rights. For the Communist leaders, the agreement, the Helsinki agreements, meant that they were recognized as the leaders of their nations and their states. They thought that they received international legitimation.

They made, however, a big mistake. They all agreed to publish in the official government monitor, the paper. Whatever published was the imprint of the government, the agreements. And Basket 3 or Part 3 of the agreements included human rights. This was an extraordinary stimulation for, an incentive for human rights groups in Eastern Central Europe to coalesce, emerge, and start their fight. So this was a time of, as I said it’s the time of hopelessness because it’s after 1968. On the other hand it’s the beginning of a new hope.

And in 1979 basically we have, okay, ’78 John Paul II elected Pope, ‘79 John Paul II visits Poland, 1980, and speaks in his famous mass address, speaks about our hope is named Solidarity. And Solidarity emerges as I mentioned before, and I always emphasize to my students because it’s very important how they define themselves, independent, self-governing union Solidarity. These two words are key for understanding what civil society is about. “Independent” means non-controlled by any government, and “self-governing” is a recognition of a tradition that goes way back to the anti-totalitarian left, the tradition of self-management, self-governance, refusal to bestow upon any other institutional authority what is fundamentally and political entitlement, which is simply put, the sovereignty of the people.

How to Cite

Vladimir Tismaneanu, interview, "How do you teach Adam Michnik's book in the classroom?." Making the History of 1989, Item #616 (accessed May 23 2018, 1:07 pm)