Wałęsa Speaks at “Dialogues in Democracy”

Editor’s note: President Wałęsa speaks Polish and used a translator during his lectures. Quotes are transcribed as faithfully as possible. 

Former Polish President Lech Wałęsa visited Bridgewater State University on October 3, making him one of the most prestigious guests the campus has hosted to date. His appearance was financed by a donation from alumni Patricia and Bruce Bartlett (‘67 and ‘68 respectively).  

Wałęsa is well-known for his role in the Solidarity movement and the fall of the Communist government in Poland. Beginning as a shipyard electrician, he rose to become an influential labor leader. The strikes he organized in the shipyards of Gdańsk quickly grew into a national movement for union rights and democracy that galvanized millions of Polish citizens. In 1981, the government established martial law and Solidarity was banned, but Wałęsa continued to work underground. In 1983, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent activism. He was elected president under the new democratic government and served from 1990-1995. 

Introducing the former president, BSU President Fred Clark said that Wałęsa’s “humble beginnings,” like many BSU students, made him the perfect choice to speak. “No one better exemplifies the idea that through hard work, determination, and sacrifice, one person can change the world,” he praised. Clark also announced a new fully endowed scholarship named in Wałęsa’s honor that will go to first generation college students who have a parent employed in the skilled trades. 

During his “Dialogues in Democracy” lecture, Wałęsa spoke about his past and his vision for democracy moving forward. The Comment had the opportunity to speak with Wałęsa during a forum he conducted with students prior to the main event. When asked if he had political aspirations prior to beginning the Solidarity movement, Wałęsa responded, “I didn’t have any political desire before, but I was trying to fix all those things I didn’t like.” He said he felt satisfied with what he was able to accomplish during his career, facilitating Poland’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, its move toward democratic government, and the promotion of labor interests. 

Wałęsa also spoke about what he wanted young people to know about democratic principles. He asked the next generation to improve on the quote commonly attributed to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Wałęsa suggested we should not be satisfied with the status quo, and that instituting term limits, recall elections, and requiring greater financial transparency from elected officials will improve democracies. 

The failure of the United States to spearhead globalization was also a recurring theme in Wałęsa’s talk. “It is misfortunate that the United States doesn’t want to be a leader,” said Wałęsa. He urged Americans to take on greater responsibility in coming up with solutions to global problems, or otherwise “give Polish citizens your resources and we will do what needs to be done.”  

Wałęsa’ personability and humor underlined the conversation. When the hour-long discussion wrapped up, he joked, “We’re just starting. You’ll have to invite me a second time.” From the audience’s enthusiastic reaction, it certainly seems that he would be welcome back. 

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