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  • The Crumbling of the Soviet BlocOvercoming Totalitarianism
  • Jacek Kuroń (bio)

Poland's historic June 1989 elections were an outgrowth of "roundtable" discussions between the opposition, united around Solidarity, and the authorities. The very fact that the authorities in a totalitarian communist country met and negotiated with an autonomous political force opposed to the existing system was of primary importance. It was a very unusual event, and in a way a denial of totalitarianism.

Totalitarianism is an attempt to command all social life. It is based on the exclusive control of the power center over the organization of all activities. This monopoly is so total that if citizens gather and discuss freely a matter as simple as roof repairs on a block of apartments, it becomes a challenge to the central authority. Accompanying this monopoly of organization is a monopoly of information, meaning that every printed word-not to mention the electronic media-is controlled by the central authority. And these monopolies in turn lead to a monopoly of decision making by the central authority. Obviously, this totalitarian ideal cannot be fully implemented, but even the attempt to implement it destroys a nation's economic and political life.

The holding of negotiations between an organized opposition and the authorities, negotiations which were transmitted uncensored by television [End Page 72] and relayed to every household, signaled that totalitarianism had been broken, inasmuch as all three of these monopolies were infringed. But of course, the roundtable talks were by no means the first step toward undoing the totalitarian monopoly of power. The real breakthrough took place in 1980, when a massive wave of strikes led to the founding of Solidarity, an independent trade union that the central government was forced to recognize. This was truly the moment when the totalitarian system in Poland was broken.

At that time I wrote an essay entitled "What Next?" in which I compared the political situation in Poland with the movement of trains. A railroad schedule in which every tenth train was allowed to operate independently, governed by an accord between the conductor and the passengers, would either compel a change in the principle on which the whole railroad was based or lead to a series of catastrophes.

That was the situation in Poland in 1980-81, when an independent mass movement encompassing over half the population was created within a totalitarian system. Since the nomenklatura, the apparatus of power, did not want to make the necessary structural changes, catastrophe was inevitable. It came on 13 December 1981 with the imposition of martial law. The tanks rolled into the streets. All laws were suspended. The population was terrorized and forced to submit to a military and police dictatorship.

One might conclude that if totalitarianism had been broken in Poland in 1980 by the emergence of a mass opposition movement, then the suppression of that movement by martial law would have restored totalitarianism. But I believe this conclusion would be wrong, for certain social processes are indeed irreversible.

The explosion that gave birth to Solidarity was a denial of totalitarianism, but martial law was also a denial of totalitarianism. Because a totalitarian system is based on the three monopolies of organization, information, and decision making, the more perfect the system, the better camouflaged it is. It becomes nearly invisible. In Poland before 1980, there existed a parliament and a nominal multiparty system, and a number of newspapers were available. One could have the illusion that this was a normal parliamentary democracy.

In August 1980 this illusion was undermined by the peaceful popular uprising. But whatever remained of the illusion was shattered by the authorities themselves when they declared martial law and made it clear that they would use naked force to suppress Polish society. The fact that in a totalitarian system every person, every member of society, is in some measure involved, creates a certain social compact. We in the opposition denounced this compact in August 1980. But the authorities destroyed this compact in December 1981.

A dictatorship based solely on force was created. The authorities then had two options. One was to maintain this dictatorship of naked force-a [End Page 73] dictatorship that even more...