Observing our small bore politicians bickering while America risks fiscal and moral collapse from the vantage point of a ceremony in Gdansk, Poland -- in which two political heroes are being honored -- is a bracing if dispiriting experience. Bracing because to watch Founder of Solidarity (Solidarność) and former Polish President Lech Walesa bestow the Lech Walesa Prize on former Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva and then -- as two school drop-out labor organizers with similar backgrounds -- exchange war stories about trying to guide their respective nations to prosperity and liberty without turning their backs on democracy offers two authentic profiles in courage. Dispiriting because as exemplars of true audacity, they have few imitators today either in Western Europe or America, where banks are trying to secure their profits by destroying social welfare regimes and politicians are at most anxious onlookers if not mere puppets of the banks.
September 29th was Lech Walesa's 69th birthday and I had been invited to address his annual Civic Academy for young professionals, held in Gdansk and nearby Sopot this year in conjunction with the European Forum for New Ideas. Thirty years ago at the Lenin Shipyard, Walesa had led a strike that launched Solidarity, and in time brought down communism in Poland and catalyzed the fall of the Soviet Union. Walesa's birthday (he is retired from politics after a tumultuous term as President) was the occasion for the award ceremony, a staid affair staged in the "old city" (rebuilt from scratch after World War Two), except for the candid remarks of the two legendary protagonists.
Their comments were the more remarkable because in a Europe wracked by crisis where Greece struggles to remain part of the Euro currency zone and where the leaders in powerful countries like Germany and France fear disintegration and recession with equal anxiety, Poland is doing remarkably well. It has emerged from a period of political crisis highlighted by the death of President Lech Kaczynski in an air crash several years ago, as a robust example of capitalist success in a region of crisis. The European Forum for New Ideas (where I also had been invited to speak), held concurrently in the nearby seaside resort town of Sopot bore witness to that success with over 900 business delegates from Poland joining in a well-earned festival of self congratulatory debate.
From the beginning of the post-communist era, Poland has been a model of the strength and difficulties of a rapid transition to capitalism in a time when democratic institutions are just forming. It was this historical fact (with the Arab Spring looming in the background that made the meeting between Walesa and Lula so provocative and telling). Along with the award -- a check for $100,000 -- Walesa bestowed a modicum of wisdom. Though not normally given to self-criticism, the founder of Solidarity looked Lula straight in the eye and, with a wry smile, recalled "In the early days of Solidarity when we were struggling for our freedom, you and I disagreed. I wanted to move toward capitalism and you toward socialism." Walesa and Lula were both labor organizers and had both been imprisoned for their activities, but one confronted a communist autocracy, the other a military dictatorship. So, Walesa continued, "I was a capitalist and you disagreed. And I was certain, you were wrong and I was right."
But before Lula could turn in his seat uncomfortably, Walesa hurried on. "Yet once we had capitalism and communism was gone, I noticed capitalism was not so tasty. What we needed was a third way. Like what you have achieved in Brazil. Yes, Brother Lula, it turns out you are right and I was wrong. And today we must think ahead...for tomorrow will not be today, and what we needed yesterday will not be what we need today." Here was the founder of modern, capitalist market-based Poland acknowledging that capitalism unbridled was not necessarily a whole lot better than socialism unbridled.
President Lula, although warm and outgoing (he grabs onto your shoulder when you talk with him the way Bill Clinton did), was a small man all the more remarkable for possessing no special rhetorical gifts, who seemed insufficiently large for the huge role he had played in bringing Brazil to greatness. He had walked the line between a social welfare state that served workers and yet stayed accommodating enough to big business to displace Venezuela's "Chavismo" with his own third way brand of "Lulismo."
What showed most in his gracious remarks replying to Walesa after receiving the Prize were his encompassing sympathy and acute sense of history. "No my brother Walesa," he said -- the "brother" salutation was no affectation between these two syndicalist heroes of their respective working classes -- "no, you were not wrong back then. Yours was a genuine struggle for liberty. Under communism, the market system was an appropriate goal and true symbol. Others may have seized on and exploited your struggle to boast about capitalism (many who criticized my reforms pointed to your Poland, just as those who criticized you pointed to my Brazil). But regardless of regime, we both strove for a responsible working class, for solidarity and democracy."
What was clear from the exchange was that every democratic society must seek a balance between the public and the private, between social welfare and flexible markets, between public and private liberty. Lula knew what Walesa had achieved with Solidarity. Under communism, Poland pretended to have a social state but lacked all private liberty, and to combat the inauthenticity of the state's claims and advance the cause of liberty Walesa made the case for marketization and capitalism. But under conditions of radical marketization, unbridled consumerism and irresponsible banks, Walesa recognized that it makes little sense to boast about a wild capitalism that endangers both welfare and democracy.
The current crisis as read by the banks and the states, who too often represent only the banks, is that Greece has spoiled its people with expensive social welfare services it can't afford and must be disciplined by outside lenders to submit to austerity, to pay its debts and to shrink its growth. This may be a recipe favored by the financial establishment but it is both morally and economically noxious. Morally it blames people for trying to create a just state that serves public goods, and economically it tells them to kill the growth that can alone give them sufficient prosperity and revenues to pay those debts.
Western Europe and the United States, obsessed with punishing their citizens for the fiscal misdeeds of their elites have much to learn from the countries that were once their willing tutees. Walesa inspired Poland to leave room for markets in seeking justice and freedom. Lula inspired Brazil to leave room for justice and freedom in seeking market success. Their meeting a few days ago should inspire us to recognize that capitalism succeeds best not when democracy withers but where it flourishes.