Lech Wałęsa: How to deal with populism

We pass through the narrow door on the right-hand side, next to an iron gate that lives in the collective memory of so many Europeans – even those born within the last forty years. There are the Solidarity banners, the union, the portraits of John Paul II – the Polish Pope, and six flower pots fixed to the bars. In 1980, this was called ‘Lenin Shipyard’. Today it is called ‘Gdánsk Shipyard’ (Stocznia Gdanska). We entered a boulevard that no longer resembles the factory giant of yesteryear. The modern building, which evokes a large ship, has a sign at the door: “Europe starts here.”

The phrase means whatever a reader wants it to mean. Some may see the beginning of Europe as the end of an era. For some it’s good, for others it’s bad. Lech Wałęsa worked here, as an electrician, for nine years (1967-1976). Now he has more than 40 honorary doctorates and no longer has to clock-in at Gdansk Shipyard. He has an office, advisers, and receives daily visitors from all over the world. He still likes to talk in Polish that is often untranslatable into other languages. When he enters the room, with a trimmed moustache (no longer in the shape of a horseshoe), he is wearing a grey shirt with the word “constitution” written in four lines of letters (kon-sty-tuc-ja) jeans, orange glasses and a golden watch. He’s 76 years old. “Until they close my coffin, I’m always ready to argue,” he says.

August 2020 will see the fortieth anniversary of the founding of Solidarity, the trade union which transformed Poland and influenced drastic change throughout the world – the end of the Cold War, the end of the ‘two blocs.’ Wałęsa says we are now living in a “period of transition”. He calls it the “age of the word,” and uses several words to describe it, good and bad.

Juliet Ferguson
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Reflecting on the border between Poland and Germany he says, “My father died during World War II. But if I could talk to him today and describe to him the Europe we have now, where there are no borders, no soldiers guarding them… I couldn’t finish this sentence because my father would die a second time of a heart attack. But that is what we have: we can work in any country in Europe. But we lack the main thing: What are the values? What is the economic system? How do we deal with populism, demagogy and lies? What is to be done?”

We try to argue with him – Wałęsa is sitting, his legs are stretched out, he gestures a lot, he seems absolutely sure of all the ideas he puts forward – and ask him about Poland today. How does he explain the fact that 40 years after Solidarity, having “overthrown communism”, as he himself says, having been elected President of Poland, there is now a Euro-sceptic government dominating domestic politics and articulating itself with others (such as that of Hungary) in a new nationalism?

“Politicians around the world have not found solutions suited to modern times. And the result is, the demons of the past have awakened,”Wałęsa says. “People want change and they elect politicians who promise it. That’s how Donald Trump, like the Polish government, came to power. But the cure they offer, the medicine, is completely wrong. They are solving these modern problems, using solutions from the past. These populists, demagogues, liars, they know how to talk about people’s concerns.”

This is always the way he refers to the nationalists who have gained power in Poland, Hungary, Italy, the USA, Brazil: “populists, demagogues, liars”. But he does not underestimate them. They are, for him, the result of the lack of strategy and ideas from social democratic, liberal and Christian democrat politicians.

Wałęsa, Solidarity and the shipyard are the image of the radical change of the last 40 years. Outside, as we speak, a stage is being set to mark a year of the murder of Paweł Adamowicz, the opposition mayor of Gdańsk, stabbed to death at a charity concert on January 14, 2019.

Solidarity, his trade union, meanwhile allied itself with the newly dominant force of Law and Justice – the political party created by Jarosław Kaczyński, former head of Lech Wałęsa’s presidential chancellery, when Wałęsa was President, elected in 1991. Today, the trade union has less than 10% of the strength it once had when it had 10 million members in the early 1980s. All of Poland has taken a huge turn in these 40 years, but Wałęsa is not discouraged, and continues to sign Solidarity T-shirts, despite its political detachment.

“I’m a revolutionary,” he explains, using the present tense.

“My role, which I attributed to myself, was simple: to bring down the system and give the new generation the means to solve the problems of the future. And I decided to walk away. But I don’t like what I see. That’s why I want to get involved. And I hope that the youngest will find the solutions and answers to the questions they ask me. I trust in their wisdom.”

Wałęsa received the news that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, outside a house in the countryside, where he was in semi-legal limbo, shortly after communist leader Wojciech Jaruzelski had lifted the ‘martial law’ that had made Solidarity illegal. While he is filmed and asked what he thinks of the award, Wałęsa bites into a green apple, as if the news was part of the routine of those days.

At the time Poland was on a prize streak. And the prizes all played a political role. In October 1978, John Paul II was elected Pope. In June 1979, he visited Poland. It was a pivotal moment in what happened a year later, with the creation of Solidarity, the strike at the Gdansk shipyard and the rise of an electrician who now welcomes us as a former-President. In 1980, the Nobel Prize for Literature is awarded to another Polish critic of communism, Czesław Miłosz. One year later, in 1981, Andrzej Wajda received the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival for his film Człowiek z żelaza (The Iron Man), in which Lech Wałęsa plays a small role. And in 1983, the trade unionist himself received the Nobel Prize – missing the official ceremony for fear of being expelled from Poland.

“Now I’m old and my bones hurt. I curse the division of the world,” he says, theatrically, at the end of the interview.

“This world is horribly divided. People behave like rivers: when there are many inequalities, people behave like Niagara Falls. When there’s equality, there’s hardly any waves. We have to balance the levels of development. It is very bad when some benefit from something and others cannot reach it. How can we break down the divisions caused by unequal development? How do we break down religious boundaries? These are the problems of our time.”

Once again, he criticises today’s politicians for a lack of strategy. For him, problems must have an answer on another scale. If Europe has no borders, it should also have a way of deciding things in continental terms, because that is the right dimension. While other issues, such as the environmental crisis, can only be solved on a global scale.

That’s as far as Wałęsa goes when it comes to solutions. “If I had a concrete answer to your question, I would receive the second Nobel Prize,” he laughs.

It is not out of caution that Wałęsa avoids proposing a new agenda. He does not moderate his words in other areas and has been accused of homophobic hate-speech for remarks about LGBTQ people, and is also outspoken about what he perceives as the ‘threat’ of China.

Wałęsa’s political consciousness was formed by a a world divided between communists and capitalists, but now the world has changed. If it is clear that he still hates the former, he seems also to be increasingly critical of the capitalist system he always defended, taking a tough line on European policies: “When communism was falling I thought there would be a strategy to integrate the countries of the East. I was wrong. European governments wanted to do away with the Communist system, but they had no idea what the future would be like. There was no strategy.”

People who do not like to hear Walesa call him “Mr. OTUA” – the four letters on his political jersey that can be read when he puts on a jacket, and which mean ‘nothing in Polish.

Wałęsa, 40 years after Solidarity, does not seem to have much hope at present. He prefers to pass the responsibility on to his grandchildren’s generation. “The will, and the power to act, will come from either wisdom or fear about what can happen if you do nothing. ”