Letters from Prison and Other Essays, by Adam Michnik. Berkeley: University of California Press. 354 pp. $25. Adam Michnik fights for a noble goal - a democratic alternative to communism in Poland. He fights in a noble way - by preaching nonviolence. His creative use of that strategy helped shake the world, producing the independent trade-union Solidarity, banned by the imposition of martial law five years ago this Saturday. The strategy failed when faced with armed force. In understanding both these successes and these failures, we have much to learn from Mr. Michnik's essays, recently compiled into a remarkable book, ``Letters from Prison.''
The title reflects a gloomy reality. Since the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981, the 40-year-old Michnik has spent most of his time behind bars. Released in the amnesty of 1984, he was rearrested in 1985 - and released yet again this past August. Michnik wrote the first six essays of the book in Bialoleka prison, the seventh in Gdansk prison, and smuggled them out under the noses of his Communist jailers.
Apparently, a prison cell concentrates Michnik's mind. Before being jailed, he says he had problems writing. In Bialoleka, his pen flowed red-hot. His style is straightforward, with the punch of a powerful polemicist in the best tradition of Tom Paine. The essays reek of irony, but not of anger, and even the most inflamed emotions are modulated by a keen sense of moral responsibility.
``For me, General,'' he admonishes his jailer, Polish leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, ``prison is no unusually painful punishment. On that December night [when martial law was declared], it was not I who was condemned, but freedom; it is not I who is being held prisoner today, it is Poland.''
Michnik soon moves beyond this fine-tuned emotion. He represents a rare combination, the intellectual and the man of action. He has spent most of his adult life actively engaged in political opposition.
The second section of the book contains letters and essays from 1980 to 1981. These reflect his personal experience of helping to create Solidarity and the 17 months when he helped run the trade union before it was banned.
This was a period of hope when thinkers such as Michnik forged links with workers and guided their potentially violent explosion onto a nonviolent path. ``The excellent organization of the strike made change possible without bloodshed,'' writes Michnik. ``The existence of workers' representatives spared party committee buildings all over Poland from burning.''
The last section of the book contains reflections on the Polish past. A trained historian, Michnik turns to his country's history to find reasons for its present and future.
One learns, Michnik explains, that since being partitioned at the end of the 18th century, Poland has been struggling for its independence ``in the shadow'' of two great powers, Germany and Russia. Michnik writes little about the German rape of his country in World War II and much about the Polish battles against the Russians in 1863 and again in 1920.
The reason is, he explains, a ``banal fact'' - the present Soviet supremacy. ``Poles must reockon with the restriction of their sovereignty by the national and ideological interests of the Soviet Union.''
In Michnik's view, nonviolent protest offers the only way to blunt this immense obstacle. Violence has no chance of success. ``Any attempt to overthrow Communist rule in Poland is an attempt against the Soviet Union,'' he notes with little emotion. With more emotion, he opposes violence on ethical grounds. It corrupts. It debases. It is precisely the tool of Poland's Communist rulers. ``Terrorism leads to nothing but revenge and a spiral of terror,'' he writes.
Michnik also rejects the Western distinction between left and right, conservative and liberal. ``To the vast majority of Poles,'' he states, ```right' and `left' are abstract divisions from another epoch.'' In their place, he insists on the overriding values of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Differing from socialism, which proclaims the priority of the state, Michnik asserts that the priorities of the individual must come first. This Judeo-Christian tradition is the Polish tradition, he says, and must be accommodated if a ``real compromise between the government and the governed'' is to be reached in Poland.
What type of compromise is possible? Michnik devotes many of the best sections of his book to outlining its nature. He puts little hope in Mikhail Gorbachev and Kremlin liberals. He also puts little hope in Poland's own Communists.
Instead, Michnik looks to the creation of a ``civil society.'' By this he means forms of activism outside the state - most importantly, the Roman Catholic church. With its independent Masses, schools, and publishing houses, the church already acts as a significant counterweight to the Communist authorities. Other possible counterweights include the reconstruction of an independent labor union, an independent press, and other voluntary social arrangements. For Michnik, ``our unofficial life is our authentic life.''
Whether it will be possible to sustain such an independent, civil society is unclear. Despite the banning of Solidarity, Poland remains the freest society in Eastern Europe, the only place where all questions are discussed openly. Beyond this, however, it is hard to see how Michnik and his friends can force the government to engage in a real process of power-sharing. Michnik continues to insist on the restoration of ``an independent self-governing Solidarity.'' Today, that looks impossible.
It even looks difficult for Poles to guard what they have won. Most Polish workers today seem apathetic: More than half of Solidarity's former members have joined the new government-controlled unions. Meanwhile, a new generation of political activitsts is emerging. They show little of Michnik's caution. Under the banner of freedom and peace, they question the unquestionable - Poland's military alliance with the Soviet Union.
Michnik realizes these dangers. In his historical essays, he scorns the propensity of Poles toward grand gestures that end in blood baths.
As much as he admires 19th- and early 20th-century Polish nationalists, he deplores their xenophobia and anti-Semitism. He knows from personal experience: His parents were Jewish Communists.
``It is not terrorism that Poland needs today,'' he avers in conclusion. It is pluralism, tolerance, and diversity. To Americans used to taking these values for granted, Poland and its problems may seem distant. They should not. Adam Michnik's eloquent plea for democratic values represent a lesson to us all.