As one member of Solidarnosc said to me with some bitterness in 1990, “If you socialized the Sahara, in two years people would be lining up to buy sand.” In fact, most of those associated with the early years of Solidarnosc—the great Polish liberation movement SolidarIty—had had all the collectivism, socialism, government-controlled economy, nanny state, and thugocracy they could stomach.
Since I do not read or speak Polish, I was not able to learn all the arguments by which Solidarnosc came to formulate its own first principles, or to govern its daily actions. What I do know (from a distance) is Solidarnosc as a real movement of people during our lifetime.
Solidarnosc was a lone movement that, against the expectations of a world that considered Communism a permanent structure, led the Polish people to throw off communism almost as a dead snakeskin. And then, amazingly, it held free elections almost immediately, launched a quite honorable government, and got Polish democracy off to a good start.
Naturally, Solidarnosc was comprised of socialists and social democrats. The surprise was that its leaders in the years 1989 to 1991 spoke more forcefully in favor of “democratic capitalism” than those of any neighboring country—and most western European countries, too.
Pope John Paul II’s closeness to Solidarnosc—its place in his heart, and his sense of its world-historical rupture—was never in doubt. I remember meeting him in the first group to meet with him after the attempted assassination, the Slovak World Congress. He was pale and thin, but full of good humor and wit. He immediately spotted the Solidarnosc button I was wearing on my lapel, broke into a huge grin, laid his index finger on the button, and called it to the attention of all around. (He ignored my Adam Smith tie.)
I remember, also, back in late 1992 or 1993, a young man appearing at my office door in Washington, not a little nervous at being in a place called “The American Enterprise Institute,” the very infernal pit (as it might be thought back home) of Marx-blackened “capitalism.” In a hesitant voice, he told me he represented Solidarnosc, and was here from Krakow to ask me if Solidarnosc please could publish my new book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, in Polish.
I gave him an immediate “yes.” Then I said, mischievously, “But I will have to charge you royalties.” His face fell. “In fact, two royalties." He was disconsolate. "First, you must send me one copy. Second, you must get a copy to the Pope.” The young man’s face lit up brightly. “The second,” he said,” will be easy. The first may take us a little longer.”
We shook hands. He was happy. I was exultant. It was a great, great honor to help such a God-given movement as Solidarnosc, even in so small a way. I still have two Samizdat copies. Miniatures, about as big as a hand. They are my treasures. I have donated one to the Library of Congress.
Later I was told that Vaclav Havel held a study group on this book, discussing it part by part in a mountain hideaway in the Czech territories. In 1990, shortly after the “Velvet Revolution," it was the second western book to appear in Czech translation, after Friedrich Hayek’s.
A world-shaking movement such as Solidarnosc cannot, I think, be expressed in one philosophical idiom only, let alone in some narrow ideology. It was real, it was concrete, it was human, it was moving forward from contingency to contingency. It had its own goals clearly in mind, and followed its own inner lights quite faithfully.
Five hundred years from now, the world shall still be in its debt. It brought Communism to a premature death, and saved the world from an immensely costly, seemingly endless war.
I saw the new intellectual movement associated with Solidarnosc as part of the inner energy of the economic thinking of Pope John Paul II, part of his concrete, this-worldly hope for a New Civilization of Love. I suspect that Pope Benedict XVI holds very similar views, but it is manifest that many in Rome still hanker for collectivist solutions, and are afraid of free persons acting freely.
I wish Solidarnosc had taught them a lesson they would never forget, as obviously they have. For Solidarnosc showed in the most unlikely circumstances the power of freedom in the lives of men driven by their faith and its vision (per John Paul II) of a free and open society.
Michael Novak has just retired from the George Frederick Jewett chair in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is a member of the editorial board of First Things.