Walesa's moderation mobilized Poland - and earned a peace prize
From start to embittered end, Lech Walesa, an uneducated man with an almost Joan of Arc religious sense of mission and belief in himself, stood for moderation.
When the Gdansk shipyard workers reached an agreement with the Polish government to allow free trade unions and the right to strike three years ago, he called it a victory for ''common sense,'' represented on the government side ''by some rather sensible people.''
The Aug. 31, 1980 agreement which gave birth to Solidarity was not the beginning of Walesa's struggle for Polish freedom. But it allowed this virtually unknown worker to suddenly jump into the limelight - not only in his native land , but globally - as one of the most extraordinary figures of the postwar years.
It was Poland's tragedy that neither rapport nor common sense survived as the country moved into fateful 1981.
Frequently, when Solidarity's radical wing wanted direct action against the government, Walesa boldly took the moderate argument to the millions of the union rank and file. He often acted, almost unilaterally, in their name, convinced he knew what they wanted.
After all, he was one of them. ''We eat the same bread,'' he said. To the government, he always appealed for talking ''Poles to Poles.'' Then agreement would be possible, he believed.
This populist touch pointed up by his earthy, sharp, and nimble wit was often too much for his rivals and opponents in the national commission. But those were the tools he had, and he used them to rally the first and largest union to be organized in a communist country.
Walesa was born in a clay cottage in the remote, bleak countryside of Popowo on Sept. 29, 1943. He had five brothers and one sister, and he was three when his father died in 1946 in a Nazi concentration camp. His schooling was limited to rural primary classes and a few years of vocational school which made him an apprentice electrician before he was 16.
In the '70s he was three times fired by the authorities over his efforts to organize free unions on the Baltic coast.
And when his efforts finally resulted in Solidarity, he insisted from the start the union should be, as he told this writer in November 1980, ''a simple labor movement.'' He was against its growing into the mass political movement it became under pressure from the radicals.
''Maybe,'' he said, ''the present division into regions is the only solution just now. But for the future we must organize by profession and trade, with a central trade-union congress and each industrial branch forming its independent union.''
On paper, that is the purported intention of the union law passed late last year, which allows for government-initiated unions. But the authorities decline to talk to Walesa about the law.
From the ugly incident of police brutality at Bydgoszcz in March 1981, Walesa began to slowly lose the battle against politicizing the union. The radicals dubbed him ''soft'' with an intransigent regime and charged him with running a ''feudal monarchy'' within the union.
They wanted to ''take on'' the government on one lesser issue after another. Walesa knew better. He was aware how futile it was to challenge Poland's external political limits.
''There should be less sword rattling, '' he warned. ''I don't want to see 'renewal' (the government term for reform) collapse. But some of these guys want a blitzkrieg.'' Increasingly, however, he was edged into positions not of his own choice because of government inaction. Bydgoszcz was but the first of the government's failures to meet trouble - and the union - halfway.
At Solidarity's congress in the fall of 1981, his leadership was challenged by three radical rivals. He held a bare 55 percent of the vote, compared with the near unanimity he would have commanded six month earlier.
The final showdown came Dec. 12, 1981. At a last meeting in Gdansk, the radicals voted for an obviously inconceivable referendum on Poland's communist system and review of the alliance with the Soviet Union. A despairing Walesa told them: ''Now you have gotten what you have been looking for.''
So many of his utterances during the year had proved prophetic. This time, within hours, the government had declared martial law.
What now for this man who challenged a communist regime on its own professed working-class ground, and who, in the process, threw a daring challenge to the Soviet Union itself?
Walesa has only a diffused national following behind him. But try as they may , even by accusing Walesa of tax offenses over funds sent for Solidarity, the authorities still cannot write him off as a ''nonperson.''
Walesa remains defiant, without fear, believing in the justice of his cause and deeply imbued with religious and national feeling common to Poles.
The religious belief runs deep. Almost daily he attends mass. Always he wears on his lapel a medaillon of the Madonna of Czestochowa. When I asked him once where he found the boundless energy with which he approached his union work, his hand flew straight to the lapel. ''From here, from my faith,'' he said simply.
Critics say he was often too much the consummate actor and showman. Maybe. But there was nothing contrived or showy about that gesture. Should Walesa receive a peace prize? Or should it be a prize for a ''fighter,'' seeking to sustain people in their faith in themselves and encourage them to perservere?
Whichever, he deserves it. And the authorities - unless they try to relieve themselves of this ''troublemaker'' - may still need Walesa to help them out of their stalemate with the people.