Lech Walęsa speaks on the state of current politics


Sam Summers

Former president of Poland Lech Wałęsa speaks about his life and career at the Varner Vitality Lecture on Friday, Nov. 15.

Former president of Poland and Nobel Prize winner Lech Wałęsa spoke about the state of politics at Oakland University on Nov. 15 as part of the Varner Vitality lecture series. 

“Oakland University is just thrilled to welcome to campus one of the most influential people of the 20th century,” President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz said. “A person whose leadership of Solidarity not only confronted the Soviet empire during the cold war, but a person who remains a lasting symbol of courage and lasting deficance in the face of totalitarianism.”

This lecture marks the second time Wałęsa has been to OU. Back in 2001, the former president spoke at the Meadow Brook Theater about globalization and how he imagined it would shape the coming decade.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Wałęsa started his political career as a union organizer in the 1980s, leading the Polish union Solidarity as an underground organization from 1983 to 1988 and as the first post-communism president of Poland from 1990 to 1995.

Since 1995, Wałęsa has run the Lech Wałęsa Institute, a think tank that promotes democracy and supports local governments in Poland. He left Solidarity in 2006 over its support of the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS).

“I have always been a revolutionary,” Wałęsa said through an interpreter. “I have always struggled, all my life, against obstacles. And now, being 77, I continue fighting.”

One sign of his continued fighting was the T-shirt Wałęsa wore under his suit jacket. Reading “constitution” in English, the shirt serves as a protest of what the former president thinks modern governments are failing to live up to. 

“In Poland, [the shirt] says, ‘You are violating [the] constitution, you are violating democratic principles, and this is not what I fought for.

“But there is a message for [the U.S.] too with my constitution T-shirt,” Wałęsa continued. “This message says ‘Look at Poland.’ They struggled so beautifully and won such beautiful victories in the past. But at one point the Poles underestimated democracy and they gave power to the populists and demagogues. And they are doing really strange things, and we can hardly oppose whatever they are doing.”

To say that Wałęsa is critical of modern Poland is an understatement. When asked about the ongoing elections in Poland, he had few positive words to share.

“We are in a time of great debate,” he said in response to a question from Detroit Free Press columnist and “Michigan Matters” host Carol Cain. “We have not come up with solutions for this new world, and the U.S. is not whispering solutions. This is a time when demons of the past awaken.”

The theme of the U.S. not being as much of a leader in a troubled world was a subject Wałęsa spoke at length on.

“In the old era you, the U.S. — the superpower — used to be the good empire and you played a beautiful role to the rest of the world,” he said. “Wherever there was trouble, people would hope that the U.S. would come to the rescue, and for many countries the U.S. was the ultimate refuge.”

But times have changed, and Wałęsa asks the U.S. to take back the wheel.

“If we do not have a leader, this is a very dangerous situation in the history of mankind,” he said. “We have to do everything we can for the U.S. to regain its leadership position.”

To be a leader in the post-Soviet world, Wałęsa said that the U.S. should work as a beacon for free discussion between nations, generations and be the model that other nations look to become.

“Do not give the world the money, do not give the world dollars, do not solve all the problems for the rest of the world,” he said. “Give us ideas. Organize us, encourage us to search for different solutions.”

Despite his critique of the U.S.’s role in the world, Wałęsa did not cast Donald Trump in as negative a light as some may expect. The former Ronald Regan ally gave the controversial commander-in-chief a rating that was, at best, lukewarm support.

“I think Donald Trump has a very good diagnosis of almost everything he claims,” he said. “But I disagree with the treatment he wants to apply. I guess he needs to be assisted to come up with a good treatment.”

Regarding the 2020 U.S. elections, Wałęsa said whoever follows the constitution and “promotes values” will have the right solutions for the future.