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Reviewed by:
  • The Church and the Left
  • Edward T. Oakes SJ
The Church and the Left. Adam Michnik. Edited and translated by David Ost. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Pp. xvii + 301. $24.95.

Recently Pope John Paul II gave an interview to a Polish journalist, Jas Gawronski, published in La Stampa and then later in the official Vatican paper L’Osservatore Romano. In the midst of their conversation, mostly centering on the new challenges that have arisen since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, Gawronski said in some amazement, “I cannot help thinking that you are more opposed to capitalism than to communism.” And later, citing the problems of internecine war in former Yugoslavia, drugs, and the influx of pornography in Eastern Europe, the interviewer asks, “Do you ever ask yourself if it was really worth defeating communism?”1

Something like this same ambivalence pervades Adam Michnik’s fascinating book of collected essays, but it would be instructive to compare the two men and especially the nature of their ambivalence: in the interview, the Pope is serene, as one who can survey the world scene at large and feel committed neither to capitalism nor communism. Moreover, he heads the very Church toward which Michnik’s bears almost a love-hate relationship.

The single most dominant impression one gains from reading this important document of Polish resistance is the bind felt by secular intellectuals of the liberal Left toward the Catholic Church in the bad old days of communism. On the one hand, it was the one institution against which their Enlightenment forebears had fought with such tenacity; on the other, there was simply no other viable alternative institution available at the time to offer them protection, a forum for their views and, above all, viable hope for the near future: only the Catholic Church would fit the bill.

Adam Michnik was one of the first to effect the now famous bridge that allowed for at least a marriage of convenience between labor, intellectuals, and Church that proved so cohesive in keeping resistance to communist hegemony alive after the imposition of martial law. But once that victory was won, Michnik and his allies were faced, at least in their formulation, with a situation roughly analogous to the political Left in Iran after the fall of the Shah: now that the mosque/church was in power, intellectuals were jettisioned and the distinction between the moral values that a religious institution wanted to inculcate in its faithful and those virtues enforceable by law was, if not obliterated, obscured. [End Page 263]

As Michnik will note on occasion, the analogy limps rather badly at points. No novelist has been sentenced to death, no council of clergy must officially stamp its approval on bills to become law. But that the analogy would even occur points to the essential pathology of this book. Unlike the Pope’s ambivalence to capitalism, Michnik’s is one that cannot afford the serene survey from above. One constantly gets the impression of a man bobbing and weaving, trying to maintain his balance. Or to alter the image, of a man trying to create a small plot of land for free thought, for air to breathe.

One sign of this pathos is his attempts to establish a dailogue with the more liberal segments of the Polish Church, the very attempt that is condemned as meddling in intra-Catholic matters and trying to influence the direction of the Church without caring for her mission. Another aspect of the same pathos is Michnik’s attempt to establish some sense from within Polish history for cultural pluralism, not easily done when the country is so massively Catholic and when whatever meager Jewish presence that survived the Holocaust mostly fled after a new outbreak of anti-Semitism by the Communist government of 1968.

For these reasons, The Church and the Left makes for rather gloomy reading; but I wonder if, from his point of view, his pessimism is justified. What most struck this thoroughly non-Polish reader was how completely European Poland is, how its debates all have counterparts elsewhere, and how much the same dynamics are at work. To my rather...

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