Adam Michnik: The Polish journalist who makes the news

Adam Michnik

Editor-in-chief of the hugely influential newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza for more than 30 years, Adam Michnik has not just reported Poland’s recent history, he has often been part of it.

Poland’s de facto ruler, the reclusive Jarosław Kaczyński, loves to hate Adam Michnik, the charismatic former anti-communist dissident and editor-in-chief of the newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza.

Michnik was a political star in the 1989 transition to democracy, Jarosław merely a bit player. It might be an exaggeration to say that Law and Justice’s (PiS) post-2015 national-populist project is a refutation of Adam Michnik, an attempt to roll back ‘1989.’ But only just.

“Since gaining power in 2015, Kaczyński has not really even bothered with the [opposition] Civic Platform (PO) and [ex-PM] Donald Tusk, but with the Freedom Union [UW, the party of Michnik and other intellectuals from the Solidarity movement],” the essayist Slawomir Sierakowski writes. “The hero for Kaczyński is always the same: Adam Michnik.”

Michnik has been editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza since 1989 and he still seems to ignore Jarek (a diminutive of Jarosław), his old colleague in the underground opposition.

“I don’t have contact with him at all. Our paths don’t cross,” says Michnik in an interview in his office at Gazeta Wyborcza in Warsaw.

But Michnik doesn’t ignore the power that Kaczyński wields.

“We still have to find a way of fighting an authoritarian power. It is very similar to the years of struggle against communism,” Michnik tells Emerging Europe.

“What we are seeing today is a gradual closing down of democracy. There is no other democracy than the liberal version. Everything else is a contradiction in terms,” he adds.

Michnik calls PiS’s politics a “reBolshevisation” of power. “They go for the museums, theatres, and are now eyeing education,” he says. But, perhaps above all, they are gunning for Poland’s independent media, led by Michnik’s newspaper.

“We must seize back the state, and return democracy,” Michnik says.

A spat with legs

Kaczyński’s beef goes back to the 1990s at least, when he spoke of the disloyalty of communists who he said had betrayed Poland. Some of the communists were of Jewish ethnic heritage and Kaczyński clearly knew what he was doing when equating Jewishness, disloyalty and communism in a Polish context.

Kaczyński has said Gazeta Wyborcza disseminates “liberalism, anti-traditionalism, anti-Catholicism” and is “against the very notion of the nation.” He has accused it of using the “pedagogics of shame,” such as mentioning Polish collaborators in the Holocaust.

Adam Michnik was born into a family of communists, his father, Ozjasz Szechter, an activist in the Communist party of Western Ukraine.

Journalist Rafał Ziemkiewicz, writing in the right-wing weekly Do Rzeczy, argues that Michnik’s “secret agenda” was to shift Poland into a secular and left-liberal space “as far as possible, as is the case in Western Europe.” It seems very similar to the accusations of “cultural Marxism” made by populists in the US, a byword for antisemitic conspiracy theories. But it’s worth noting in that context.

“Michnik’s paper was trying to do this from a cross-party, meta-political position from the start,” Ziemkiewcz adds. “Wyborcza regarded its primary task as being to reconstruct the Polish mentality, to ‘raise’ Poles so that they may become ‘modern’ Europeans. It was the voice of a group of the enlightened, standing higher morally and ethically, however, willing to accept the masses inspiring to become a part of the elite (…) But new power elites of a cunning, post-colonial nature have gradually been created. They pay little attention to any form of absolving themselves from ‘European’ fairness, because they are more impressed by posh cars than gaining the recognition of intellectuals.”

From 2015 to 2020, Gazeta Wyborcza received 55 legal threats, including civil defamation actions and alleged infringement of personal interests by a number of actors, including Kaczyński, the state television broadcaster, Telewizja Polska, and state-owned company KGHM Polska Miedź. Each threat was in relation to articles published in the newspaper or on the outlet’s website. All government offices and state-dominated firms were forbidden to advertise in the paper. Income from ads declined by 25 per cent in the first year PiS was in office. Its physical paper sales fell from about 450,000 copies in 2005 to about 91,000 in 2019, although online revenues from are doing well.

Fearing government attempts to close the paper, Hungarian billionaire George Soros was invited to increase its shares in owner Agora’s shares in June 2016. Not coincidentally, PiS soon after began ratcheting up its campaign against “foreign intervention” in the Polish media market.

Michnik’s reputation had earlier been dented in 2002 during the Rywin Affair, which appeared to show his friendly relations with members of the former communist political establishment. PiS, whose defining themes have been the fight against corruption and reversing what they see as the compromise of 1989 between reform communists and leftist oppositionists, benefited from the affair. The party’s deputy Zbigniew Ziobro – now justice minister – in fact cut his teeth during the time.

Democracy remains the eternal goal

“During my six years in prison, of course I had dark days, doubts about my faith in progress, in mankind. But I never allowed myself to compromise with the eternal value of democracy. It cannot be diluted. We must listen and hear people’s views, their dissatisfactions, but democracy demands compromise, tolerance and respect for institutions. Parliamentary democracy is the only way. There is either democracy or barbarianism, Hitler and Stalin. Should we have tried to understand Hitler better, and the people who voted for him? That way is perilous and ends at Auschwitz,” Michnik says. “But understand the people who voted for him yes.”

“In 1989 there was a moment for compromise, a very specific window of opportunity. But we always reminded ourselves never to let go of our values and demands for democracy,” Michnik says.

Michnik became an opponent of Poland’s communist regime during the party’s anti-Jewish purges in 1963. He was imprisoned after the 1968 March Events, a series of student protests, and again after the imposition of martial law in 1981. He played a crucial role during the Polish Round Table Talks, as a result of which the communists agreed to call elections in 1989, which were won by Solidarity.

The Church and the opposition

“The key to the 1980-81 period was not so much the alliance of workers, Church and intellectuals, something that was missing in 1968 and 1970. That was a kind of cohabitation, a meeting of a kind of Polish left and the Church, which was a real anti-communist bastion in the 1970s and 1980s. No, the key was about striving for an open society and not a closed one, it was about a symbolic breakthrough. It was about a new way of talking and thinking,” Michnik says.

“The Church can’t find itself in the new realities. It harks back to the 1930s. There is a hardening of the church’s position, with Radio Maryja and Father Rydzyk, and Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski in Kraków. Kaczyński turns everything into a religious war, and we won’t play that game,” Michnik says.

Gazeta as a bulwark

In 1988, Michnik became an adviser of Lech Wałęsa’s Coordination Committee and took part in preliminary negotiations for the Round Table Talks in 1989, in which he also participated. After the Talks, Wałęsa asked him to organise a national daily, an ‘organ’ of the Solidarity Citizens’ Committee, before the June 1989 elections.

“The idea that Gazeta is somehow a ‘Jewish newspaper’ is of course absurd, a creation of nationalists who want to frighten people and delegitimise opposition to their views. We share an identity as Poles, whether of a Christian or Jewish or any other ancestry. It is this idea of the civic rather than the ethnic Poland that we are fighting for. This language creates an artificial division between the Józef Piłsudski and Roman Dmowski schools of Polishness. It’s all just a game played by cynical politicians. In 1968 it was also a search for enemies within, ‘the Other.’ Then it was Zionists.” Michnik says.

After he was released from prison the first time, in 1971, he worked for two years as a welder at the Róża Luxemburg Industrial Plant. When martial law was declared in December 1981, he refused to sign a “loyalty oath” and voluntarily leave the country and was jailed again for an “attempt to overthrow socialism.”

“Still there exists a possibility to talk, there are [lay Catholic publications] Tygodnik Powszechny, Więź and Znak. We at Gazeta created a space to talk about all Poles in a tolerant, open-minded way. We are Solidarity people at heart, so we are close to the people. There was no split between intellectuals and workers. We must keep talking. But we must give no ground on these fundamental principles, of tolerance, rights and acceptance of difference. LGBT rights are central and fundamental. The Church propagates a message of heteronormativity, marriage between a man and a woman. When gay people come out we must herald and defend them and their rights to do so. As journalists it is our duty to defend and support these rights,” Michnik says.

The ruling coalition

“All these apparent divisions within the ruling coalition are meaningless, they are just details. The PiS-centered project is just a cynical game. It may be that when this group on the right disappears, a new, even harder, bloc, or hard man will arise. And we will have to fight them too. On the terrain of democracy and democratic values. We see this all over the western world, and in recent days we saw it in Poland and Hungary’s prime ministers, Mateusz Morawiecki and Viktor Orbán’s meeting in Budapest with Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s Lega party. I discuss this often with Timothy Garton-Ash and Norman Davies, my British friends, and they see similarities with Brexit in the UK. How could this happen, they simply couldn’t believe it,” Michnik says.

“Ludwik Dorn [a Polish-Jewish conservative politician, and former deputy prime minister] talked about Kaczyński’s ‘redistribution of dignity.’ There have been massive changes in the way people work, for example, and in the economy which have made life difficult for many people, we understand that. No wonder the miners fight to save their mines,” Michnik says. “But we can make fine careers talking about socialism and nothing changes. In the end, not everyone can get everything. Choices are needed. I am more a fan of Clement Attlee than Jeremy Corbyn, for example.”

Polish complexes

“Kaczyński is a deeply frustrated and angry man who understands these Polish complexes very well. That is why Smolensk plays such a major role in his mythological universe. It ties him via his deceased brother to a national tragedy.”

On April 10, 2010, a Tupolev Tu-154 aircraft of the Polish Air Force crashed near the Russian city of Smolensk, killing all 96 people on board, one of them was Lech Kaczyński, brother of Jarosław and then Poland’s president.

“It is thus intrinsic to himself as a person and he identifies himself with Poland. His brother, Lech, was in fact closer to Wałęsa in Gdańsk and might have been a restraining influence had he lived. But I don’t understand why Smolensk still holds so much magical power. It was an accident, there is no proof of Russian involvement. It is one of many visions Jarek has. But if one has visions one should go to a psychiatrist. I do not have contact with the man. Our paths simply don’t cross,” Michnik says.

When PiS was in opposition, Kaczyński – together with Antoni Macierewicz – made the Smolensk crash one of the most important tools for building the identity of the PiS electorate. After more than five years of PiS rule, it has not managed to prove any conspiracy theory, bring back the wreckage or bring charges against the politicians of the previous ruling team.

A poor opposition

“Before PiS, yes, there were problems, this was an imperfect situation and today PO is far from perfect. Tusk perhaps spoke too much to and with the middle class that emerged in the 1990s. It was not enough. Tusk perhaps could not really empathise with those less fortunate than himself,” Michnik says.

“As for the left, what is it today? The left started when [Oliver] Cromwell chopped off the king’s head and ended with the Russian Revolution. Was Stalin of the left? Of course not,” Michnik says.

“I am what I like to call an extreme right social-democrat,” Michnik says.

Ideally, a return of Freedom Union (UW) or Democratic Union (UD) seem to be what Michnik would prefer to fight the current regime.

“The left’s ideas are hard to understand today. Do they want more state, but a state to protect individual rights? Do we want less market but also more freedom? Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, for example, was a political cretin, a disaster. But in some ways he was a victim of the post-war success of the welfare state, the social democratic state that was built after the war by the Labour party mainly. You can’t fight for what you already have. Otherwise it’s just a defensive position and may ultimately end up just reactionary,” Michnik says.

“But in the end, I am just a journalist, not a fortune teller. I am not a political player, I can advise and comment, but I am not a megalomaniac,” Michnik says.

Photo: Adrian Grycuk via Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-4.0.

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