Michnik, Adam (b. 1946)

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MICHNIK, ADAM (b. 1946)


Polish historian, writer, and political thinker.

Adam Michnik became a leader of the March 1968 student movement for free speech in Warsaw—the beginning, as he put it, of his generation's road to freedom. Expelled from Warsaw University and sentenced to three years in prison, he was released after a year and a half as the result of an amnesty. Banned from the university, he worked for two years as a welder in the Rosa Luxemburg Bulb Factory before becoming a personal secretary to the distinguished writer Antoni Slonimski. In response to a massive government imprisonment of protesting workers from Ursus and Radom in 1976, Michnik co-founded the Committee for the Defense of Workers (KOR), the first successful attempt to institutionalize an initiative of the dissident initiative intelligentsia to assist imprisoned workers and their families. Michnik and the KOR benefited from fortuitous timing: the organization was established one year after the communist countries had signed the Helsinki Agreements on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which included a key chapter on rights and fundamental freedoms.

The language of rights empowered the thinking and activities of the democratic opposition (Michnik argued that people should behave as though they lived in a free country) and encouraged initiatives aimed at breaking the state monopoly on information, education, and the dissemination of prohibited literature. His classic 1976 essay, The New Evolutionism, articulates the strategies for creating and winning the spaces of freedom. The initial KOR activities led to the emergence of a clandestine system of printing and circulating independent periodicals and books. Michnik was an editor of and a frequent contributor to some of the most popular publications (Biuletyn Informacyjny, Krytyka, Zapis). One of the organizers of the Flying University, another clandestine structure independent of the state, he taught courses in private apartments on silenced aspects of Polish history. His 1977 book The Church, the Left, and Dialogue laid the groundwork for an alliance between the secular intelligentsia and the only autonomous institution in communist Poland, the Catholic Church. In 1980 Michnik became one of the key advisors to the trade union Solidarity, which emerged as a result of an agreement between the striking Gdansk shipyard workers and the communist authorities. Solidarity—with its principles of democratic self-governance, institutional pluralism, respect for the dignity of the individual, and citizens' agency—aimed at challenging the state's alleged monopoly on truth and was the ultimate expression of society's capacity for self-organization under communism. Solidarity was the alternative society that Michnik had called for and a model example of what was eventually labeled civil society.

The need for dialogue, negotiations, and—within limits—compromise, is a key theme in Michnik's writings, re-emerging with particular force after the imposition of martial law and the de-legalization of Solidarity in December 1981. Although hardly a pacifist, while imprisoned under martial law (altogether he spent over six years in communist prisons) he argued for a self-limiting revolution, renouncing revolutionary violence. His program, formed in response to the experience of totalitarianism, is that of a liberal, whose primary commitment is to freedom, to reducing coercion by an omnipotent state, to restoring individual initiatives on behalf of the public good, to creating conditions for the exercise of human rights, and to encouraging and cultivating pluralism.

His idea of achieving change through dialogue, through "replacing the logic of revolution by the logic of negotiation," turned into reality in April 1989, when the historic roundtable talks between the government (still holding dictatorial, although weakening, power), and Solidarity (still illegal but widely supported) were successfully completed. Michnik, one of the key actors in the negotiations, subsequently co-founded and became editor in chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, the largest daily in East and Central Europe, which he designed as a forum for major debates on the democratic transformation and a key site for general education about democracy. He introduced to the larger public his mentors: Hannah Arendt, Leszek Kolakowski, Czeslaw Milosz, and Jacek Kuron, as well as such thinkers as Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, and Jacques Derrida. His ardent writings—which sometimes divided his own admirers—have focused on the perils of de-communization, the dangers of nationalism, and the fundamentalist and populist temptations within new democracies. A passionate advocate of the region's accession to NATO and the European Union, he exposed Poland's major corruption scandal, known as Rywingate, involving an attempt to bribe Gazeta Wyborcza and a possible governmental cover-up, leading to parliamentary investigations that became a political watershed in post-1989 democratic Poland.

See alsoArendt, Hannah; Dissidence; Intelligentsia; Liberalism; Milosz, Czeslaw; Poland; Solidarity.


Primary Sources

Michnik, Adam. Letters from Prison and Other Essays.

Translated by Maya Latynski. Berkeley, Calif., 1985.

——. Z dziejów honoru w Polsce: Wypisy wiezienne. Paris, 1985.

——. The Church and the Left. Translated by David Ost. Chicago, 1993.

——. Letters from Freedom: Post-Cold War Realities and

Perspectives. Translated by Jane Cave. Berkeley, Calif., 1998.

Michnik, Adam, Józef Tischner, and Jacek Zakowski.

Miedzy Panem a Plebanem. Warsaw, 1995.

Secondary Sources

Katznelson, Ira. Liberalism's Crooked Circle: Letters to Adam Michnik. Princeton, N.J., 1998.

Schell, Jonathan. The Unconquerable World: Power,

Nonviolence, and the Will of the People. New York, 2003.

Tismaneanu, Vladimir. Reinventing Politics: Eastern Europe from Stalin to Havel. New York, 1992.

Elzbieta Matynia

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Michnik, Adam (b. 1946)

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