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  • Reflections on the Collapse of Communism
  • Adam Michnik (bio)

What drives history? Individual actions or impersonal natural forces? In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville writes:

Most [historians who live in democratic ages] attribute hardly any influence to the individual over the destiny of the race, or to citizens over the fate of a people; but, on the other hand, they assign great general causes to all petty incidents. . . .

M. de Lafayette says somewhere in his Memoirs that the exaggerated system of general causes affords surprising consolations to second-rate statesmen. I will add that its effects are not less consolatory to second-rate historians; it can always furnish a few mighty reasons to extricate them from the most difficult part of their work, and it indulges the indolence or incapacity of their minds while it confers upon them the honors of deep thinking.

For myself, I am of the opinion that, at all times, one great portion of the events of the world are attributable to very general facts and another to special influences. These two kinds of cause are always in operation; only their proportion varies

(II, 85–86).

These words should be kept in mind when we investigate the most important historical event of recent times: the fall of communism.

Why did communism collapse? In Washington, no one has any doubt how this question should be answered. To Americans, communism collapsed because the United States won the Cold War. American policy proved to be effective and victorious. But which American policy? The policy of détente identified with the names of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger? Or the human rights policy associated with Jimmy Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski? Or Ronald Reagan’s policy of confronting [End Page 119] the “evil empire”? Or was it the CIA that overthrew communism, as both American and Soviet conspiracy theorists like to suggest?

In the Vatican, no one has any doubts either: It was Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Church that brought down communism. The important role played by the Catholic Church, especially in Poland, is obvious. One must remember, however, that for many years this role was not unequivocal. Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, with his wise and courageous strategy, had to deal not only with the communist authorities in Poland but also with the diplomacy of the Vatican, conducted in accordance with its own policies toward Eastern-bloc countries. The Catholic Church was the only large independent institution in Poland. For Poles, it symbolized the continuity of their national and cultural traditions; it was a sovereign state within a nonsovereign state, a place where human speech had not yet become prostituted, where everyone could hear that they need not bend their knees before anyone but God. Yet that same Church declared—through the words of Primate Józef Glemp—that martial law had ended the Solidarity episode once and for all and that the only sensible strategy was to move toward agreement with the communist authorities on their own terms.

I suppose that in Afghanistan, too, nobody has any doubts: Afghans are sure that the courageous Afghan guerrillas overthrew communism by drawing the Soviet Union into a long and hopeless war that ended in a disgraceful defeat for the Soviet state.

Can anyone be surprised, then, that in Moscow it is clear that it was the Russians who overthrew communism? After all, communism could not have been overthrown without Gorbachev’s perestroika, or without Yeltsin, who faced down the leaders of the August 1991 coup and soon afterwards banned the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

In Poland, however, we have our own version of what happened. We know perfectly well that it was in our country that communism broke down in the most crucial way. It was in Poland that communism, which had defined itself as the dictatorship of the proletariat, became delegitimized through the workers’ rebellion. It was here that the embryo of an illegal but open opposition, the Committee in Defense of the Workers (KOR), was formed in 1976. It was in our country—as a result of the massive workers’ strikes in August 1980—that the multimillion-member labor union Solidarity was created. Solidarity survived...