Warsaw. Wednesday December 7th. The eighth anniversary of martial law approaches. Foul-smelling fog blankets the city. The battered Russian-made taxi which fetches me from the airport clatters down potholed roads. Rows of grey apartment blocks stand guard, frozen, expressionless. Trams whirr and clang through street crowds. Fur-capped shoppers skelter, wrapped in dour coats of brown, olive-green and grey. Powdered snow swirls through sullen-faced queues for bananas, pork, detergent, bread, chocolate. Trench-coated soldiers. Blue-overalled workers. Frozen silence. Winter. The Polish road to democracy.

The taxi speeds up, jumping every other red light. Its driver, goaded by fears of acute petrol shortages, is hungry for my dollars. Twenty minutes from the airport, we squeal and rattle into Iwicka Street, headquarters of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s first and most successful independent daily newspaper. The building resembles army barracks. I pick my way through its postered corridors to the office of the editor-in-chief, Adam Michnik. The famous ex-dissident, leading Polish historian, elected deputy in the Sejm and key adviser to the new Solidarity-led government spots me through his half-closed office door. Enshrouded in blue smoke, telephone in hand, he smiles impishly, slams down the telephone and strides in my direction. ‘Professor John! Bienvenue!’ Then a friendly handshake and bear hug, trimmed by polite cheek kisses.

Time is precious. Michnik is harried by a curious irony of socialism. In 1980 he was described by the Polish authorities as ‘the most sinister figure of the Polish counter-revolution’. Later today, after our meeting, he has an appointment with Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the new Prime Minister of Poland.

We fall immediately into sharp political discussion, in French. Michnik fires the opening shot. ‘Poland is today the most advanced laboratory in the Soviet bloc. Our country is feeling its way along an evolutionary road from communism to democracy. It is full of pot-holes and hairpin bends. The twentieth century taught us how to build communist regimes. The trouble is that we don’t yet know how to dismantle them.’

Michnik isn’t pessimistic or melancholy about the difficulty of completing the democratic experiment successfully. He makes it clear that he rejects the narcissistic view, common in the West, that the revolutions in central-eastern Europe demonstrate the ‘natural’ superiority of western liberal democracy and its guaranteed triumph over totalitarianism in the East. Although the democratic revolution in Poland is not impossible, its course is shaky and outcomes uncertain. Michnik also worries about the seductions of governmental power. He is aware that there are groups in Polish society—ecological initiatives, Christian associations, farmers’ organizations and workers’ clubs—which already criticize the new government as remote, arrogant, half-blind. They point to the continuing absence of clear, legally formalized guarantees of press and broadcasting freedom. They complain about the tendency for key political decisions to be made through informal negotiations, bargaining behind closed doors and by means of jostling among prestigious leaders. I remind Michnik of Montes-quieu’s eighteenth-century maxim: ‘Constant experience shows that every person invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry that power as far as it will go.’

Michnik twitches, half-nodding in agreement. But the recent formation of a non-communist government headed by Tadeusz Mazowiecki excites him—justifiably so, since it was originally his idea. On July 3rd, on the eve of the inaugural session of the new Polish parliament, he published a highly influential article, ‘Your President, Our Prime Minister’. It proposed the unthinkable: a Solidarity-led coalition government. The proposal was at first criticized widely by many within the democratic opposition, and not only because it conceded the presidency to General Jaruzelski, the tinted-spectacled architect of martial law. The chief argument was that Solidarity would end up as a loser in the game of cleaning up the economic mess left by successive communist governments.

Michnik’s proposal for a governmental alliance between Solidarity and the Polish United Workers’ Party quickly triumphed—despite such objections. He isn’t surprised by the breathtaking pace at which military and party rule crumbled. He explains that communists who feel at home in the nomenklatura system are notoriously bad at playing politics in the open. They are lazy and incompetent politicians, unable to see that winning the trust of citizens involves more than giving orders. Their judgement is poor, their common sense is in short supply and they quickly lose their nerve. On top of that, Michnik says, martial law was doomed from the outset because it could never solve the terminal crisis of communist regimes. The Polish events of the past decade contain a lesson for all communist generals who dream of becoming dictators. ‘Military governments cannot sit on their own bayonets.’ Michnik speaks passionately, with the wise militancy of a man who spent six years in prison for his democratic beliefs. ‘Although armed to the teeth, military governments are weak because they usually don’t have the support of civil society. For eight years Jaruzelski was paralysed by his insistence that Solidarity didn’t exist. All his actions against us resembled the tragicomical efforts of Xerxes to defeat the sea by doing battle with it.’